by Kaerutobi Ike (蛙跳び池)
Sean watched with fascination as Tom poured more water over his head. It ran down his naked flesh in pink rivulets, getting closer and closer to crimson as it uncovered the wounds hidden under the crust of dried blood. The gouges that appeared were deep, their edges red and swollen, a violent contrast to Tom’s paleness that was as much due to blood loss as the cold that was making him shiver and turned his lips purple. Though he was almost blood-free now, Sean couldn’t erase from his mind the sight of his lover covered in gore. This time had been way too close.
The mercenaries of the Falkon’s Talon, to which they both belonged, had been hired to kill a wyvern. Doable, but their employer had not judged relevant to warn them that the beast was wounded already and mad from pain. Things went abysmally badly. It was partly overconfidence on their part; they hadn’t even scouted the area before entering the lair. If they had but circled the valley, they would have noticed the wreckage the wyvern had made in his rage. They would have smelled the stench of sickness and noticed the wastes too close to the beast’s lair. They would have recognized the signs of a wounded wyvern reluctant to leave its nest.
Despite his exhaustion, Sean was still angry. Angry against the Baron, who had minimized the danger to lower their wages; angry against Thane, their captain, who should have known better than to trust so easily; and most of all angry against himself, because he hadn’t been any better than the rest.
He was distracted when Thane appeared out of the trees. The captain looked around, spotted Sean and limped purposely in his direction.
“How are the others?” asked Sean as soon as the man got close enough to talk without shouting.
Thane looked tired, as they all did. His hands were once again covered in blood, not wyvern’s blood this time but that of his men whom he had had to sew back together. From the way Thane avoided his eyes, he felt just as guilty as Sean did. “John is still under. Jean says he saw him hit his head on a rock when he fell, but the only cut we found was small. We hope he’s just fainted from blood-loss. Marion’s eye is definitively lost. I did what I could for the side of his face. It’s not going to be pretty but it’ll heal. I’m more worried for that wound on his arm. We’ll have to keep an eye on it for signs of infection. Jean is not too bad; his hand is broken, and he’s got a few cuts. He’ll be back to his old self in no time.”
Sean nodded toward Thane’s leg. “What about you?”
“I’ll live. You?”
“A few bruises. I still can’t believe how lucky I was.” Sean’s relief in this matter was laced with guilt, though he had fought in the same conditions as the others and had almost been mauled himself. Almost, because Tom had pushed him out of the way and taken those injuries for him. Hence the guilt.
Was it because of that knowledge? Thane was carefully neutral when he pointed at Tom and asked, “And him? Aren’t you going to offer your help?” Whatever the reason, a warning bell rang in Sean’s mind.
“I did offer.” Sean had offered, begged, threatened, ordered, nothing had worked. “Sometimes I wish he weren’t so … so…. ” Sean gestured toward Tom. He knew Thane would catch his meaning. It was written all over Tom’s pinched lips, his creased brow, his stiff posture while he tended wounds any other man would have left in the care of a someone else. One more example of his stupid stubbornness, the same one that made him refuse to ever acknowledge the pain, the fatigue or any need for help, as if he had to prove to the world that he could do it on his own.
“He wouldn’t be Tom if he constantly asked to be coddled,” Thane eventually murmured. “Admit it, you wouldn’t like him so much if he wasn’t such a stubborn pain in your ass.”
Sean tensed. He wondered, not for the first time, if Thane knew he and Tom were lovers. The captain was a clever man. He had a god eye for people. Lying to him was almost impossible. That Baron, he must have been one talented liar to trick him. Sean wasn’t. Tom was a bit better, he had certainly mastered the art of the impassive face, but Sean could tell when he was outright lying. If he could then Thane could too. Though that wasn’t a problem until someone asked them whether they were sleeping together or not. “I suppose you’re right. But still, I wish he would let me be a friend and help sometimes.”
Thane made a noncommittal sound. Sean was relieved when the captain limped away, down to the edge of the stream. The captain washed his hands and exchanged a few words with Tom, too low for Sean to understand them. Tom argued for a second, Thane didn’t look moved. Reluctantly, Tom gave him the bandage he had been about to wrap around his shoulder. Sean left his observation post. Tom was in good hands. It was time to go help set camp.
“Tom! Stop that and go lie down!”
The frustration in Thane’s voice would have made any other man obey instantly. Tom rolled his eyes and limped further away to get another piece of wood from the ground.
Thane’s attention shifted to Sean. “Get his stubborn ass on a bedroll,” he ordered curtly, “make sure he doesn’t get up again.”
With a sigh, Sean abandoned the stew he was stirring. Tom was gathering more wood and getting further away from camp. Sean had to run to catch up with him.
A hand on Tom’s good shoulder slowed him, but the man was still looking around for more sticks. When Sean tried to take the logs from him, the stubborn idiot resisted. He jerked and pulled and generally ignored his wounds in a way that had Sean worry he would reopen them.
“Come on Tom, you’re still wounded
“Yes, wounded, not invalid!”
“That might change if you don’t take it easy.” The branches were moving closer and closer to Sean, Tom’s resistance getting weaker and weaker. Sean stopped pulling when he felt Tom was just about to let go. “Come on,” he tried to reason, “we’re not saying you can’t do it, we just want you to heal properly. What use will you be if you make your injuries worse? What if you cripple yourself? We’re not taking it easy on you, we’re actually being selfish.”
Tom snorted, “Yes right.”
“Yes, selfish, how are we supposed to use you as bait for monsters and shield for my poor self anymore if you’re crippled? Unless you’re really looking for an excuse to leave all the work to us. Very clever of you. Evil, but clever.”
Tom’s expression was still one of anger, but there was a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
Sean leered. “Or, did you want to get me alone in the forest? I can work with that too.”
That had the right effect. Tom rolled his eyes and suddenly Sean found himself with an armload of sticks he had to catch quickly to not drop on his feet. Tom made a step in the direction of the camp, paused, looked with amusement over his shoulder and said “Since my ploy was discovered, I guess all that is left to do is go back to camp. You coming or not?”
Tom was leaning a little on Sean when they reached the fire. Thane had taken Sean’s place and was stirring dinner. Sean dropped the branches at his feet to free his arms. Tom grumbled a little in protested when Sean passed an arm around his shoulder but allowed him to help him the rest of the way and even let himself be tucked into bed, something which Sean enjoyed immensely all the while knowing it was a sign that things were not right. Tom’s hair was sticking to his forehead with sweat and Sean gently pushed the brown strands away before he could remember that everyone could see. His hand stilled against Tom’s forehead. The skin was clammy and too hot. In the other bedrolls Marion and John were both lost to Morpheus’ embrace; Jean was nowhere to be seen and neither was their bucket. Gone to get water then. That left Thane. When Sean looked behind him, the captain was stoking the fire, his whole concentration on the log he was trying to add and the pan in which their meal was bubbling. Had he seen? Sean couldn’t help but wonder. Did he know?
Sean and Thane were sitting next to each other in silence when Jean came back without any water. “Captain, there is something you should see.”
Jean guided them to the stream. The forest wasn’t as thick in these part. It was also closer to the main road. Jean pointed to something in the distance and asked, “Are those lights?”
It was hard to tell between the trees, but something was indeed glowing in the distance. The three of them exchanged worried looks.
Sean was the first to talk. “What do you think? Travellers?”
“I doubt merchants travel so far away from the main roads.” Thane remarked grimly.
“Villagers maybe? No merchants means no thieves. Whoever lit that light doesn’t have to be hostile.”
“Unless they are in these parts to hide.”
Jean was cradling his hand close to his chest and looking in the direction where the light was coming with a calculating frown. Sean knew he was thinking of going and make sure.
“I’ll go have a look,” he volunteered before any of the other two could convince themselves to go despite their injuries. Jean looked relieved, Thane like he would object. “You two go back to camp, eat and then pack as much as you can.” Thane still looked hesitant but he followed Jean to camp. Sean made sure his knife was at his belt and could be drawn out easily. Then he made his way as stealthily as he could toward the light.
As he approached, Sean realized that the light was coming from a fire, according to their voices, the campers were all men.
“…Can’t be too far. We’ll catch up with them tomorrow.”
“After fighting that beast they shouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“I’m surprised we didn’t find any body other than the dragon’s.”
“No body doesn’t mean no dead. They could have buried them in the woods or taken the corpses with them.”
“If they were transporting bodies we’d have caught up with them by now.”
Sean didn’t like what he was hearing; it sounded too much like someone was looking for the company. When he found a position that gave him a good view of the campfire he was even more worried to see height men wearing a uniform. The crest was that of their former employer the Baron.
“As long as the brown-haired one is still alive. Our Lord isn’t forgiving of messengers bearing bad news.”
“Did he say he had to be alive?”
“Yes, he said alive and well. Insisted on that.”
“That’s strange, do you know why?”
“He said he wanted a chat with the guy, but you know what a chat looks like with the Baron.”
“Wait, Marie said she’d heard him mumble something about a dead royal. Is that why he wants that Thumb guy?”
Sean had been growing increasingly nervous with each word but at that last line he froze. They were after Tom.
“Who cares, our orders are to bring back the mercenaries. Our Lord can worry about what they have or haven’t done.”
Sean promised himself he would take time and analyse all of this later. In the meantime, he would do his best to keep those men away from Tom. He hurried back to camp. Jean and Thane were trying to convince Marion to eat something while Tom put spoonful after spoonful in his mouth without any enthusiasm. John, Sean noted with sadness, was still laying unconscious on his bedroll.
Upon Sean’s arrival in the clearing, Thane abandoned Marion to Jean and come straight to him. “So?”
“Bad news,” Sean explained in a rushed whisper. “They aren’t friendly and they seem to know we are around.”
Thane frowned. “Do you know who they are?”
Sean hesitated, he wanted to talk with Tom but didn’t want Thane to suspect anything. He couldn’t look Tom’s way or the captain would suspect something, he was sure. “A bunch of thugs. We should keep moving tonight.”
Jean had been listening in on them. “What about John?” he asked. “It is going to kill him if we keep shaking him on that horse.”
All eyes turned to the unconscious man. “We have to hope he can take it a while longer.” Thane looked grim as he said this. The captain went to get a map he had taken out of his bag earlier and brought it close to the fire where he gestured for Sean to join him. “I found something that could be useful.” He pointed to a sign on the map that didn’t look like it was part of the original design. It looked like a house. “If we go north through the woods instead of following the road we should be able to find shelter here.”
“What is it?”
“It’s an abandoned manor. According to the guy who sold me that map it’s a downright creepy place but it’s still standing strong enough to keep the rain and the wind out; better yet, it’s completely forgotten. We should be safe there for a time.”
Sean liked this plan. “How long from here?”
“I’d say four, maybe five hours; we’d have to go slow,” Thane gave a subtle nod of his head toward Tom and Marion, “because of the night, but once we’re there we can stay for days, weeks even if we can get someone to the village for supplies.”
Sean really liked this plan. “I say we do that. Jean?”
Jean didn’t look too sure; his gaze wandered from their tired horses to the figure of John. In the end he gave an hesitant nod. “I guess that we don’t have the choice.”
Thane clapped the man’s back in a reassuring gesture. “Don’t worry. He’ll be okay.” He turned to face Marion and Tom. “Do you also agree?”
Marion grunted. Tom stubbornly swallowed the last mouthful of his food and said, “Yes”. Sean took the plate from him.
“I’ll pack your things. You get some more rest.”
He could see Tom wanted to protest, but the fatigue and the pain must have caught up with him, because he didn’t.
As Thane had promised, there was a house. It was now half-hidden by ivies, trees and – unexpectedly – a few rosebushes, but they could see glimpses of a two-story construction that couldn’t make up its mind between summerhouse and small castle. Whoever had designed it had tried to make up for the wood’s shadows by making the windows into giant panels of glass. Many of those were broken, looking in the dim light of dawn like cracks opening into solid darkness. Creepy indeed.
There was no distinct stop between the forest floor and that of the house. Leaves and dirt had been pushed forward until bushes and fern started growing inside the entrance hall. Sean felt like he had stepped into a fairy-tale and any minute now animals would come out of the shadows dressed like lords and ladies and welcome them inside. Nothing of the sort happened. Leaves rustled and a sound like rain hitting the inside of the walls sounded but that was only the resident critters fleeing the scene. This room couldn’t be used for camping but the horses were quite happy to make a meal out of the ferns and the door could easily be blocked to restrain access to the biggest inhabitants of the forest. While Marion and Tom stayed to keep watch on John, Thane, Sean and Jean went in search of a suitable place to establish camp.
The forest had stopped its progress at the first room. The first door they went through brought them in an empty room where a giant fireplace created a draught cold enough to freeze someone in their sleep. Two doors exited the ballroom or whatever room it had once been. Seeing as the first door opened on yet another door situated on the front of the house and thus possessing giant broken windows, the group opted for the second door that lead further in the house. Soon it became clear that the house was big enough to lose one’s way in, so Thane advised stopping at the first sign of a decent room. They found it in the form of a room devoid of any window but furnished with a rusted stove. It was big enough to accommodate them all yet small enough to be easily warmed. As a bonus, it wasn’t too far from the entrance room where the horses were.
Thane, whose limp had grown more and more pronounced as time passed, leaned on the nearest wall and looked the stove over appreciatively. “If that thing works I’m not walking another step.”
Sean joined Thane in his assessment of the stove’s state. “Looks promising, I can’t see any hole at least.”
“Hm. Only way to know for sure is to try it out. Jean, get some wood. Sean, you get John and the other two. I’m sorry but I need a rest or my leg is going to give out. Anyway someone better stay here and make noise so that you two can find the room again.”
Their exhaustion was too strong for laughter, but Sean exchanged a smile with his companions before leaving to carry out his task.
Thane let out a tired cry of triumph when the stove proved that it was working. Aside from that everyone settled down in silence. Soon, Sean was the only one still awake. He was worried about Tom. While Jean had been taking care of John, and Thane and Marion taking care of themselves, Sean had realized that Tom wasn’t as well as he wanted them to believe. The younger man had become feverish and more or less passed out from exhaustion as soon as it became obvious they wouldn’t be moving anymore. One moment he looked tired but fine, the next it was if his strength had run out, something that Sean had never thought possible before now. As if he weren’t worried enough, Sean’s mind kept bringing up how dark the hallway behind the door was and how easily someone could be watching them without anyone’s being the wiser. Trying to rationalize the ghosts his mind conjured for him didn’t make falling asleep any easier.
John awoke by midday, very confused and dizzy. Nevertheless, it lifted a weight the mercenaries hadn’t known they were carrying, to know no one was going to die. On the other hand Tom’s fever had gotten worse. He didn’t even try to leave his bed, not even to eat. He drank the tea Sean brought him and nibbled on a biscuit before rolling over with the obvious intention to sleep some more.
Worried, Sean interrupted Thane’s meal and brought him to his lover’s side. There was no protest from Tom when Thane touched his forehead and asked to check his injuries. He starred vacantly at them for a second before sluggishly removing his clothes and slumping back down, the brief effort enough to exhaust him. And then Thane’s inspection only made his frown worse, which had Sean going from worried to frightened.
“What’s wrong with him?” he asked.
“Could be infection.”
Sean felt his heart sink. “Will he be okay?”
Thane worried at his lip while he thought about his answer. “He isn’t in immediate danger, but if the fever hasn’t abated by tomorrow I’m not promising anything.”
Sean considered the diagnosis and wondered if he should insist they bring Tom to a healer. Then he remembered the men in the forest. One more day wasn’t that long, he tried to convince himself. He’d still have plenty of time to go get someone if Tom wasn’t better then.
“Okay. What… is there anything I can do?”
Thane shrugged. “The usual: make sure he drinks a lot of water. If you can make him eat, it’d be a good thing.”
“Okay, anything else?”
Thane started getting up. “Yes. You can get wood and.…” Thane gasped as his bad leg took his weight. He lost his balance, but Sean stood quickly and helped him keep his balance. Frustration flickered on Thane’s face but it was replaced with resignation as he gave the rest of his instructions.
Basically, Sean was sent to do all the chores. It was understandable since all the others were maimed in some way. Maybe Jean could have given a hand – the one not broken, at least – but Sean hadn’t had the courage to take him away from John. Though as soon as everyone was better those two would get all the shit Sean could come up with. Oh, he’d make it tasteful, if only because he had his own thing with Tom and the others were bound to find out one day. In the meantime, maybe it wasn’t so bad to have things to do. It would keep his mind away from his worry for Tom and John, and from over-thinking the reasons why a man like the Baron could want to have a chat with Tom. He couldn’t think of any scenario where it was a good thing.
Taking care of the horses, gathering wood, setting traps in the nearby trails. Regularly he went back to check on Tom, made him sit up long enough to swallow a cup of water, tucked him back into the bedroll. It was frustrating mainly. Seeing Tom this miserable awakened all kind of urges Sean couldn’t give in to. Combing Tom’s hair with his fingers, massaging his hands, simply touching him with any kind of tenderness. But the others were in the room, keeping an eye on their ill friend, making any of this impossible.
After setting the last snare, he dusted his knees and walked back to the manor. As light diminished and the shadows surrounding the house became longer and darker he had felt a sort of growing repugnance to go back. The same unease that had plagued him the night before was present. His mind was once again whispering about enemies in the shadows, monsters behind half-opened doors, and couldn’t that sound just now be coming from something behind him? Sean forced himself to not look. It was the best way to not scare himself even more.
Sean scrambled out of his bed. Someone was screaming. Movements on each of his sides, Jean’s voice coming from further away. He struggled to make sense of his surroundings, of a feeling of impeding doom that was fading the more awake he became. Looking down he saw Tom’s eyes, open wide in panic. Tom had a fever, he remembered, and John was awake, he looked to his left, awake and screaming. Jean was at his side, soothing and shushing and trying to hold John’s flailing arms with his good hand. Thane appeared suddenly on John’s other side and pushed the man down firmly. “All is well,” he said in a firm but gentle voice, “it was merely a nightmare, all is well.”
Sean’s wrist hurt. Looking down, Sean realized that Tom had said wrist in a bone-crushing grip, stronger than anything he could have managed the previous day. Sean couldn’t help make his other hand from touching his lover’s forehead, lightly warm instead of cold as death boiling hot.
“Sean?” Tom frowned at the imprint his grip had left on Sean’s skin. “Sorry,” he murmured.
Sean jerked away, startled out of… of whatever that had been. Rubbing his wrist absently he said “it’s okay. How are you feeling?”
John had just had a nightmare; Tom’s fever was gone. Why, then, didn’t he feel better?
He had woken no more rested than when he had gone to sleep and a nervous energy that he knew was born from worry, though worry of what he couldn’t have said. In the hope that it would calm his nerves, he had gone to explore the house. It seemed odd, that none of them had felt the urge to do so before. Sean was considering this as he made his way through the rooms that were on the front side of the house. Those rooms were large, high of ceiling and full of sculpted moulding and remains of tapestries that spoke of wealth. Whoever had built the manor was filthy rich, there were many of these rooms.
Sean compared this to his own childhood home, which had been too small to house his family comfortably. He and his brothers used to go sleep in the barn all through spring, summer and autumn. Only the cold of winter could chase them back to the house where they shared one single bed between all of them. A deadly trap of pointy knees and elbows more than a bed, really. Well, one thing was sure, the people of this house had never been woken in the middle of the night because they were choking on their little sister’s greasy hair.
At the end of the wing was a gigantic sleeping room. What was left of the decoration pointed to a woman’s room. But here, too, it was merely remains. A chair whose legs were broken, empty shelves against the wall, broken windows that let in the wind and the rain that had started falling in the morning. The grey light coming through just rendered the scene more miserable.
Suddenly, movement caught his eyes. Sean turned in that direction, heart beating madly in his chest. He couldn’t see it again but he was sure to have seen…. Against the wall he caught sight of movement again. But now he could also see a broken mirror. What had frightened him so was his reflection in what few pieces were still stuck in the frame.
Laughing nervously at his own jumpiness, he got closer. The mirror had been big enough for the lady of the house to watch herself from head to toe. The frame was engraved with flowers, leaves, and birds. Now it was rotting and half the engraving was impossible to recognize.
Sean had another fright when a board folded under his weight, creaking loudly as it did and threatened to break. He jumped back and looked down. The board had moved with him and revealed a hole in the floor. Intrigued, Sean knelt next to it and pushed the board aside. There was something in that hole. He put his hand in it, his fingers touched cracked leather. He managed to get a grip and retrieved the object. Sean was disappointed to notice it was a book. The cover was a brownish colour; it was held closed by a ribbon that had seen better days and wouldn’t hold for much longer. A little curious, Sean opened the ribbon, which immediately crumbled under his fingers. Thane had taught Sean to read when he had joined. He did quite well, according to the captain. It still took him a fair bit of squinting and guessing to make sense of the handwriting. And some of the words didn’t make sense at all.
So much fuss for such a beautiful place. And such a gentle man. Despite Anne’s worries he was nothing less than perfectly polite and welcoming. His house is now my house and my fears to feel in it like a tolerated guest proven untrue. I am as much master of this house as my own master, yet no servant has ever been treated so well. Everyday I am courted anew, compliments and flowers of the most charming kinds and gifts worthy of royalty. My wardrobe alone would make a princess green with envy. How I regret now the slurs and the sharp words that I thought so good and true yesterday. Never again will I judge a book on its cover.
Sentimental babble, Sean guessed. Maybe the journal of the lady of the room. Sean skimmed over a few pages.
Anne was very surprised to learn that I was so happy. I could see in the way she greeted me that she was expecting me to have come for comfort and shelter. I was all the more proud to tell her about my good fortune and to shower praises on my husband. I made sure to let her know all that my master has done for me and to paint for her a truer portrait of the man. His appearance might be that of a beast but his soul is more worthy of God’s eternal garden than that of many a man I know. All I can wish for Anne, and she agrees with me now, is to find for herself such a good match as the one God sent me.
And on and on it went. Dresses, flowers, jewels, parties, in never-ending and boring details. Once, she mentioned a fight and the beginning of a duel, but even that was so filled with comments on the witnesses’ clothing and petty gossip that it became boring. Sean stopped reading at yet another retelling of a party that sounded to him exactly the same as all the ones described before.
Sean threw the book, where it lay open on yet more uninteresting gibberish. Sean decided that if he was feeling tired he should go back and take a nap. There was simply nothing better to do.
Sean entered the stables and stopped dead in his tracks. Tom was already there, tending to his horse. Thane had caved in the face of Tom’s constant nagging and assigned him a few easy tasks. Right now, Tom was rubbing his horse down one-handed with a big happy grin on his face. There was genuine happiness there and it softened Tom’s oh-so-serious features into a cuter version of himself. A far younger-looking version of himself, reminding Sean that, for all his toughness, Tom was still young.
Tom absentmindedly ran a hand through his horse’s mane, and Sean followed the motion in a daze. Tom had nice hands. They were softer than Sean’s, the fingers thinner. Tom had the calluses of a sword-wielder, but the rest of his hands were smooth, the skin unblemished. It was true for most of his body. He had recent marks, which led Sean to believe the younger man hadn’t been traveling for that long, but they were still few and far between. He had plenty of knowledge about sleeping in the woods, yet his body wasn’t that of a seasoned traveller, which was nice. Sean certainly couldn’t say he would ever tire of all that soft skin. He could see it in his mind now, smooth, pale skin stretched over lean muscles. The way it flushed when Tom got excited or embarrassed. Despite his dark hair, the boy had a fair complexion and was prone to blushing.
Sean’s body warmed as he remembered nights spent teasing Tom until he was red all over. The young man was so very sensitive, both in body and mind. His naivety made it easy to tease him. It also proved that, under all the bravado, the coyness, there was real shyness, a sort of innocence Sean found endearing, even more so because Tom was ferociously courageous, eager to learn and eager to please.
Sean remembered, as if he were still on the bed, the surprise that had coursed through him as a playful Tom kissed his hip. The lazy suggestion the young man take it lower, the way Tom hadn’t protested, merely joked about one one-track minds. Then he had kissed Sean’s hip again, leading Sean to believe the suggestion was discarded. Only, the kiss on his hip had led to kisses on his belly, near his navel, down along the trail of hair there and to the head of his cock. Tom had tentatively licked it, his expression caught between wonder and a grimace. Sean had bitten his lips to keep in a plea for more.
There were many things Sean didn’t dare instigate where Tom was concerned. A small part of himself, small enough he might not even have been aware of it, kept expecting a rebuttal, or even flat-out rejection. So it was always a pleasant surprise to find out that Tom wasn’t disgusted by things like someone else’s stubble scratching his cheek, the feel of a man’s hands on his cock, or the taste of come. Always a pleasant surprise to find out that, not only was Tom okay with Sean’s attention, he was glad to give it back kiss for kiss and caress for caress.
When Tom’s lips had wrapped around Sean’s shaft, it had felt a little like a dream. Maybe not really like a dream, Tom was inexperienced and his first tentative to get Sean’s cock in his mouth had led to chocking, which in turn led to laughing, which, strangely enough led to tickling. When Sean had finally managed to gasp out “Give! I give!” Tom had flattened him back to the bed, climbed on his legs and wrapped his lips back around Sean’s length, using his hand to set a limit for his mouth this time.
Looking down to see Tom licking eagerly, not disgusted by the act, he locked his eyes on Sean’s face to gauge from his reactions what felt best, Sean had felt just as much pleasure as awe. It wasn’t a great blowjob, but it was special. One could certainly wish such a moment would last forever.
Or maybe not forever. Sean had been too close to orgasm to wish something that stupid. He hadn’t even thought to warn Tom. The poor guy had found out the hard way that breathing and swallowing at the same time didn’t quite work out.
To make amends, Sean had returned the favour. Tom had liked that a lot. Sean hadn’t seen his lover loose control this fast since the first time they had shared a bed. But the reaction of the virgin he had been then hadn’t been nearly as flattering as that of the more experienced Tom. The way he now reflexively leaned into Sean’s touch and trustingly offered himself for more certainly made him more endearing. Sean also liked the way Tom pronounced his name when he came.
“Sean?” A hand on his arm made Sean jump in surprise. While he was getting himself worked up over memories, Tom had left his horse’s side to get close. He smiled, a genuinely carefree smile and bent closer to Sean’s ear. “What are you thinking?”
Sean felt his lips mirror that smile. “That I am jealous.”
Tom looked surprised and maybe even pleased. “Of whom?”
“Of your horse. I don’t remember you touching me with quite so much affection before.”
Tom didn’t answer. He didn’t need to, his cheeks had become deliciously pink.
“You know, when you get better, you’ll have to thank me properly for spending so much time at your sickbed.”
The pink darkened and Tom’s pupils dilated. “What do you have in mind?”
“Many things. Maybe one of these days I’ll tell you.”
“I would like that.”
The best part was, in Sean’s opinion, that it was true.
Sean came upon the door by accident. He took a wrong turn somewhere and, by the time he realized he wasn’t where he thought, he was in a part of the house that he hadn’t seen before. The door attracted his attention because it was three steps below floor-level. Those three steps, and the narrow landing necessary to access the door, looked so incongruous that Sean stopped to stare. The door, he noticed, would have not been that easy to spot when the house was still in one piece. Part of the ground had caved in and taken down a wall that hid the door from sight of the main hall. Sean made a hesitant step toward the recess in the wall. What kind of room was behind that door? This part of the house was quite less grand than the master wing where they had installed camp. The halls were narrower, there were no fancy mouldings, and yet, it wasn’t quite the narrowness of the servant’s quarters. The door was small, made out of wood darkened by age but still untouched by rot or worms. The hinges were shaped into delicate swirls, the door handle was engraved under the rust. It was certainly sturdier than the other doors in this hall, which were hanging miserably from their frames.
The handle was cold to the touch. It went down easily when Sean pushed, but the door didn’t want to open. Locked, most certainly. It was… strange. All the other doors in the castle were open, or had clearly been rammed down. Could it be that this one had escaped attention? It was certainly well hidden.
Since there wasn’t much else he could do, Sean memorized the door’s surrounding and tried to go back the way he had come.
The door occupied his thoughts for the following day. It was a welcome distraction because his other occupation was jumping at shadows, something which the others were catching on to. There was one particular instance where Thane had put a hand on his shoulder from behind, causing Sean to scream in surprise.
Everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at him. Thane’s eyes were wide, his hand frozen at shoulder-height. He looked even more surprised than Sean had been, making Sean feel even more like a freak. Thane eventually regained his composure and apologized.
“It’s nothing,” Sean answered quietly, “What did you want?”
“May I have a word with you?”
Sean was all too happy to get away from the room.
Thane led him far enough that they wouldn’t be heard. Far enough, actually, that they could shout at each other and not be heard. Thane’s ‘word’ involved some upsetting topic apparently. There weren’t that many of those unfortunately. There was Sean’s behaviour, though what Thane could want to say about that was a mystery, then there were their current predicament and Sean relationship with Tom.
“I couldn’t help but notice you and Tom spend a lot of time together.” Last one then.
He and Tom had had that conversation already. Sean was confidant that the rest of the company wouldn’t have a problem with them, oh they would be teased to death, but that was what friends were for wasn’t it? Tom had expressed some reservations on the matter. He truly felt uncomfortable with people knowing, so they had agreed to hide, unless someone asked outright if they were screwing. Tom had also been insistent that no one be told outside of their companions. His vehemence had convince Sean of two things. One, Tom would take it as a major breach in trust if anyone were to learn anything. Two, someone knew, or suspected, that Tom liked men and had not reacted positively.
Since Thane hadn’t asked outright, Sean decided to play dumb. If anything, it would push Thane to ask straight out. Then Sean could come clean.
“Yes, he’s funny when he allows the stick out of his ass. Why?”
He wasn’t trying very hard, because lying to Thane was a moot point anyway. So he was surprised when Thane didn’t call him on it. Instead, the captain asked him an entirely unrelated question.
“Do you think Tom makes for a good mercenary?”
Sean was taken aback and struggled for an answer. “Er, he’s good in fights and…”
“Just answer the question,” Thane said curtly.
“Yes. Yes he is.” What was the point of those questions?
“Do you feel he does his share of the work? Just say yes or no.”
“Do you trust him?”
“Yes.” Of course he did!
“Is he good with a sword?”
“Are you sure.”
“Are you two friends?”
“Are you two fucking.”
Thane smirked. Sean thought about what he had just said, and realized he had been played. “Fuck!”
Thane’s smirk turned into a teasing grin. “Tom, yes, I know.”
Sean huffed. “You could have just asked, I would have told you the truth,” he protested.
Thane shrugged. “Maybe. The result is the same.” In Sean’s opinion it wasn’t.
“So, what now?”
Thane became serious again. “Now, I warn you to be careful.”
Something shifted in Thane’s posture and, suddenly, the well-meaning captain was gone, replaced with the haughty character Thane used when he wasn’t sure of himself, or wanted very badly to convince he should be taken seriously. “Because this company doesn’t need that kind of reputation and you two don’t either.”
That was just mean; until a few seconds ago Sean would have sworn Thane didn’t do mean.
“Do you really think we’re that dense?” Sean hated a lot of things, but being considered an idiot was at the top of his list. Maybe his anger was disproportionate, but what right had Thane to be talking to him like this?
Thane was still talking. “I’m telling you,” he stressed, turning Sean’s anger into fury “I doubt Tom would share that kind of detail since he is…”
“I know what he is!”
Thane’s mouth snapped shut. There was disbelief in his eyes until he regained his composure. “Do you?”
“No peasant speaks the way he does, no soldier I know of either, aside from you. I would be an idiot if I didn’t recognize nobility when I see it.” Now that he had allowed it to get away from him, Sean’s anger was losing its fire. He didn’t regret the words exactly, but he wished he had done made this admission differently. Not like an accusation, but like an invitation to maybe talk about it. He could only blame the lack of sleep and his frayed nerves. “Don’t worry,” he added softly, “contrarily to what you seem to believe I can take care of myself.”
Thane’s mouth split in a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Good to know. Since my advice is not needed surely you will allow me take leave.” Thane walked away without another word. Sean felt much like he had as a child, when the adults indulged his stupidity because he couldn’t be expected to know better. He felt also that there was something missing, that, maybe, Thane’s warning contained more to it than what had been said.
The solution about the door came to him eventually. Sean chuckled, very pleased with himself. If he had been told before how eager he would be to read a book, he would have never believed it. Yet, here he was, riffling eagerly through the pages of the lady’s journal again. Where had… ah! here it was.
My husband called me today in his rooms. He told me that he would soon leave for a journey of several days and wanted to show me the keys to the rooms, wardrobes, and strongboxes. They were all neatly aligned on a small rack, in a recess of the wall. I wonder why he keeps them hidden in his room instead of his pockets. There was also a key that opens a door under the stairs. My husband said he would tell me more about this one at a later date.
Sean had gone through the master bedroom during his visit of the house. He remembered well enough that, just like everywhere else in the house, anything of value had long been taken from the room. He went back in it with little hope of finding the key. And was surprised to find, alone on the broken rack, exactly like in the description, was a small key. It was brown from rust, chiseled in a similar design as that of the lock on the small door.
The key fit in the lock of the small door perfectly. The door turned on its hinges soundlessly. His first impression of the room was a whiff of over-sweet air that assaulted his nostrils and made him gag. The second was of darkness so thick it looked solid. Sean had to postpone his exploration long enough to get a lantern. He had a second to wonder whether or not he should close the door. His mind was once again at work, trying to convince him that monsters crept in the dark. If they did, what better darkness could they find than the shadows in that room? Disgusted with himself, Sean let the door open. When he got back, he obstinately ignored the little voice at the back of his head that suggested the door was maybe open wider than when he had left.
With light to repel the dark, the room was quite large. It was made out of stone, with heavy rings of iron sealed into the walls. The smell was coming from a thick layer of brown slime on the ground and walls that sometimes reached all the way up to the metal-rings. Sean did his best to not step in it. He felt an instinctive disgust towards it and couldn’t imagine touching in it without his gag reflex acting up. What the room had been intended for was hard to tell. It was certainly cold enough to have been a cellar; Sean could see his breath come out of his mouth like white smoke, shivers were running down his spine and his arms were covered in goose-bumps. Maybe a meat cupboard of some sort? It would explain the smell as well.
Now that he was in the room, Sean couldn’t imagine why he had wanted the room open in the first place. Every second he spent in it made his throat tighter. His skin felt like tiny feet were crawling on it. He forced himself to circle the room once, just to reassure him that there was nothing in it to warrant such a reaction, but the truth was that he wanted out very badly and sighed in relief once the cold, stinking air was replaced with the warmth and clean smell of the hallway.
This time, Sean didn’t fight the urge to lock the door behind him when he left. He took the key back from the lock with the intention of putting it back where he had found it. The key felt slimy in his clenched fist. He tried to not think about it on his way to the master-bedroom. When he opened his hand to place the key back on its hook, the key was sticking to his palm a bit, his palm was streaked with brownish lines that looked like dried blood.
Sean couldn’t shake the bad feeling away. It followed him like a bad smell all through what remained of the day, cut his appetite during their meal and kept him awake for most of the night. At the first sign of dawn, he gave up on the idea of sleep and got up. His feet brought him back to the pink room. The window was letting in barely enough light to see by. Without thinking, he took the book and, eyes straining in the poor light, started reading again.
My dear husband is so kind to me. Any other man in his stead would have taken the keys with him and forbidden his wife to see the world while he was away. But the dear heart not only entrusted those keys to me, he also encouraged me to make use of his house and of his wealth. Instead of being forbidden the world, I am encouraged to bring the world to me. This party promises to be the talk of society for the rest of the season. The only shadow on my pleasure tonight is that little key. I promised to never use it, yet I cannot help but wonder what is in that room whose entrance I was forbidden.
Women. You really couldn’t trust them. The next line was a description of yet another party. After that, the handwriting got suddenly messy.
He is a monster! That room, I wish I had never opened that room!
The blood, it does not want to go away. What magic is that? I wash and scrub and wash again, yet I can still see the red. What am I going to do?
Sean’s heart tightened in his chest.
He asked for the key. I cannot give him the key or he will know. I cannot keep the key from him or he will become suspicious. I do not want to end like the others. I do not want to go back to the room.
No more time. I hoped… Oh please Anne, please say the words. Please, let them arrive soon.
He turned the page but the next one was blank. Sean didn’t think it was because the woman hadn’t felt like writing again.
What was that? What did it mean? With rising nausea, Sean put the book down and got back to the master room. The key was still where he had left it. He forced himself to take it back in hand. The metal was unnaturally cold.
The way to the small door seemed longer yet not long enough. He was ready this time, when the stink assaulted him. The chill was even more pronounced than the day before. It made the dark feel as if it had weight, as if frosted hands were holding his lungs, ready to squeeze the air out of them. Just like the first time, he set a foot in only to wish he were back outside.
He got closer to the walls this time, trying to ignore the sickening noise the brown slush made as he stepped in it. Something caught his eye against the wall, right under one of the metal rings. Something yellowish against the dirt. Its shape wasn’t entirely foreign to Sean. As he grew nearer, he had no trouble to recognize it.
Bones. The slush was thicker there. There looked to be a step down, which he had missed because of the dark. In that space, covered by slime, there were bones.
Sean had to fight with himself to not step back all the way to the door, lock it and never come in again. Now that he ha found the bones, the bad feeling in the pit of his stomach had become a heavy weight in his chest. Slowly, he made himself walk along the wall, in a much wider circle than he had done the previous day. There were more piles of bones, seven of those morbid heaps in total. What had happened here?
The warmth of the hallway wasn’t enough to comfort him this time. He could still smell the stench, rendered more horrible with the knowledge of what had created it. Decaying bodies. A thick droplet of blood fell from the key when he took it out of the lock. He could bear neither the thought of touching that liquid nor the idea that it would get anywhere on his clothes. The key fell to the ground. Sean left without looking back.
He wanted a bath. He wanted to find Tom. Maybe his lover’s presence would chase the bad feelings away. As he walked, his boot made a squelching noise reminding him that they would need to be cleaned too.
Looking down to assess the damage, Sean saw the footprint.
Horror unlike anything he had ever felt coursed through him. The mark was brown, not entirely dry – maybe a day old – and a brownish colour Sean would forever associate with the room he had just left. But that wasn’t the worst. What Sean couldn’t wrap his mind around was the shape of the print. The small form of a woman’s naked foot.
The tracks were going in the same direction Sean had been about to take. Though there were countless possibilities for a destination from this point, Sean’s guts were telling him the tracks wouldn’t lead him outside of the house. Heart heavy with worry, he followed them.
The footprints lead him to the wing where they had set camp, but disappeared before he could make out what the precise destination of their maker had been. Sean continued toward the room he and his companions were sharing. He needed to make sure everybody was alright. John and Jean were talking together and ignored his entrance. Marion looked up from the boot he was scrubbing, caught sight of Sean and frowned. “What’s wrong?” Something in his voice had Jean look up from his conversation.
Sean took a deep breath and prayed his voice wouldn’t shake. “Nothing much. Do you know where Thane and Tom are?” despite his efforts that last part had sounded like a plea.
John and Jean shared a look, Marion’s frown deepened. “Thane is with the horses,” he said, “Tom said he wanted to explore a little.”
Sean didn’t run. He did walk at a fast pace. Tom and Thane could take care of themselves, in normal circumstances, he wouldn’t think twice about it. These weren’t normal circumstance though. He didn’t know what was walking in that house, he wasn’t even sure something was, but he didn’t want anywhere close to his friend or his lover.
He turned the corner and almost walked into Tom. Relief flooded him, so much so that he felt his knee shake. “Tom, I’m glad to see you, have you seen Thane?”
Tom shook his head no. “Wasn’t he going to check on the horses? Why?”
It was easier to smile than it had been in the camping room. “Just need to talk to him. Are you going back to the room?” Tom nodded. “Great, can you wait for me there? I need to… talk to you.” Sean knew the excuse was a feeble one but Tom didn’t call him on it, though he certainly looked like he wanted to. Maybe he was tired. Sean felt his eyes follow him as he made his way to the entrance hall.
It all seemed too good, Sean could feel it deep down, now was the time for something to go horribly wrong. It wouldn’t be long either. The dread he had felt since they had found the house had been a warning. He should have listened to it. He was the only one in one piece out of all of them, it was his role to take care of the others.
He entered the ‘stables’ convinced that he wouldn’t see Thane. And he didn’t. The horses were up though and stepping from side to side nervously.
“Thane?” He didn’t know why he was calling, something must have happened to the captain, it was certain. “Thane, where are you?”
“Here.” Sean turned around so fast his head spin. Here was Thane, the captain was sitting on a fallen stone and watching Sean with worry. “Sean, are you okay?” Concern was filling his voice. Sean didn’t answer. What could he say? Yes, I’m okay now that I know you weren’t attacked by something horrible that I can’t describe but to tell you it has women’s feet? He doubted that would have gone over well.
“I… er, I was going back and I thought we might walk together.”
One of Thane’s blond eyebrow rose in surprise. “Walk together,” he repeated with a neutral tone that spoke loudly of how little he was buying that excuse.
Sean shrugged. “Yes, walk together.”
“Is there anything you wish to talk to me about, Sean?”
Sean shook his head. “No I… well, I wanted to know how long we were staying in this place.”
“Ah.” Thane nodded in understanding. “Yes, though I’m glad we are out of the rain, this place is… not very restful.”
Sean smiled weakly. “Mhm, not very restful. That’s it.”
Walking back with Thane calmed Sean. It only lasted until they reached the others. One step in their room and all of Sean’s anxiety came rushing back. “Where is Tom?”
“Tell us what is going on.”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I thought…” Tom was not in the room. Sean’s mind couldn’t get past that fact. Why wasn’t he here? He had said he was coming straight back. There was nowhere else to go in this part of the house. Tom had never shown any interest in exploring it before. He should be here.
“Sean! Look at me! What is going on?”
His nerves snapped. “I DON’T KNOW!” He took a deep breath; anger wouldn’t help and he had a feeling they didn’t have much time. “I just know that we need to find Tom. Fast.” As he said this he looked at Thane pleadingly.
The captain didn’t hesitate. “Jean, we go with him. Marion you stay here with John. Try to find a way to block the door. If you need help shout as loudly as you can. Sean, you lead the way. And you better start explaining or I’ll make you do the chores for a year.”
There wasn’t much to tell, really. Sean told them about the door and the footprint. Jean reacted exactly as he had feared. Thane didn’t make any comment and merely recommended to keep an eye out for any presence other than their own.
They searched all the room between their own and the small door. When they reached it though, it became obvious they wouldn’t need to look further. The key was in the lock, the door was ajar.
Sean didn’t think and rushed inside where he was greeted by the usual cold, darkness and stink. “Tom?” he called loudly, heedless of the monster he was now sure roamed the place. “Tom, are you all right?”
A moan of pain answered him. Sean couldn’t see but it had come from further in the room. Maybe from one of the walls.
Thane and Jean entered the room at that moment with a lamp Sean had grabbed on their way out of camp and abandoned outside in his hurry. The light shone past Sean and to the furthest wall. Tom was there, standing in the brown sludge, arms raised above his head, wrists tied to one of the metal ring. Standing just in front of him was a creature of a nightmares.
It was human shaped. One hand was holding the knife that should have been tied to Tom’s belt, the other, covered in that same brown substance that was on the floor, was caressing Tom’s face in a parody of affection and leaving brown smears behind its touch. The thing, Sean couldn’t think of it as a woman, was cooing in a inhumanly distorted voice.
“…Cannot be trusted, no. You are a liar just like all the rest. Breaking trust is a crime that should meet death. I will help. The pain makes it all go away, you’ll see. There will be no more lie. I promise, no more lie.”
The thing was oblivious to the other men’s presence. Its eyes were completely for Tom. Thane and Jean were standing motionless a few paces behind Sean, who felt like his legs would give up if he tried to take one off the ground.
The thing brought the knife closer to Tom’s chest.
“You can keep me company if you wish. It is nice and dark here.” The voice was definitively female at its core, yet it didn’t sound human at all.
Tom wasn’t listening to her. His eyes, teary from pain and unfocused, had met Sean’s. His mouth opened, his lips moved to shape a word that Sean would recognize without needing any sound. “Sean?”
The thing froze. It followed Tom’s eyes and looked backward. Two empty holes that reminded Sean of his first impression of the windows starred right at him. A mouth that merely looked like a third hole in the inhuman face opened, twisted, and shaped into a crazy smile. “Anne, sister Anne,” it said, “dost thou not see anyone coming?” Did the horror get too much? Sean felt his feet leave the ground, a scream poured from deep in his chest, a sound of despair and fright. He ran to the monster.
His blade met Tom’s knife as the being moved incredibly fast to counter him. There was no skill with a blade there, but strength and speed Sean pained to outdo. His next attack was blocked, the monster then simply reached for Sean’s blade with its hand and jerked it free of Sean’s hold. He could only watch as it bounced against the wall and landed in a puddle of slime on the other side of the room. Then the monster punched him and Sean was airborne. He fell painfully on his back. His head hit the ground and all the air left his lunges in one gasp. His limbs flayed, his fingers touched leather just as his eyes landed on Thane’s boot and, higher up, on the lantern he was still holding.
The monster next threw herself at Thane and Jean, but neither of them made any movement to leave. Both were stuck to the ground, their faces pale and their eyes widened by terror.
Without thinking, too preoccupied with keeping the monster as far away as possible, Sean grabbed the lantern and hurled it forward. It was awkward, he was certain to have missed, yet he was rewarded with an ear-piercing shrill. Fire caught on the slime that covered the creature. At once, it spread to the rest of the monster’s body, illuminating the room and blinding its occupants. While it consumed the monster and spread further, Sean ran to Tom, freed him as fast as he could without cutting his writs open and, finally, dragged him toward the door, through which Thane and Jean, who had finally regained control of their bodies, had already disappeared. Suddenly, Sean felt a hand grab his hair, felt a warmth so intense it felt cold at the back of his head, dripping on his shoulders, trickling down his back, bringing white-hot agony with it. Sean jerked away from the grip, felt hair and skin being pulled from his skull. Half mad with pain and still half blind, he managed to push Tom through the door, to get out himself and then to close the door and lock it before fabric was thrown over his head and things became too hectic to make proper sense of. He was brought back to the camp room, half-drowned in cold water, bandaged, treated with a foul smelling salve, not necessarily in that order.
His next clear memory was of a sharp pain behind his head and finding, when he brought up a hand to feel for its cause, that his hair was gone. The rest more or less came back to him at that point. His first thought was for Tom. Was he alright?
He tried to get up. A heavy weight fell on his back – he was laying on his stomach – and kept him down. Before he could try and struggle, a voice that sounded like Tom’s whispered hushed words in his ear. “Stop it,” it said “you’ll make yourself sick. It’s fine, it’s all done, you can go back to sleep.”
Sean let his muscles go slack and his weight rest once again on his mattress. They were still in the house. For once, he didn’t feel anything but bone-deep tired. His head ached, his hair was gone, other parts of his body were slowly awakening with yet more pain for him to acknowledge. He felt that sleeping was, indeed, the best thing he could do.
They didn’t leave for three days. It was the time it took Sean’s burns to bear the weight of his clothes. Tom had showed him the damage with the help of two pieces of mirror he had found, Sean hadn’t asked where. There would be an ugly scar on Sean’s back and neck. The hair there wouldn’t grow back. After he saw this, Sean had watched Tom carefully for any sign that he was disgusted. There was no disgust. Tom merely advised him to not worry about it and get better as soon as possible. “You’ll have to thank me properly for spending so much time at your sickbed,” he added with a playful smile.
Sean felt his heart melt. He decided then that he would enjoy whatever Tom agreed to give him and not worry about the rest. Whatever that reason was, that made Thane feel he should be giving warning or the Barons want to send men after Tom, it was of no importance. Tom was a good man. Having secrets didn’t make him any less trustworthy.
Author’s note: Sean, Tom and the other characters appear in another SSBB story which you can find here.