Chapter 02

From the look and smell, he had left hours ago, so it wasn’t that he had gotten impatient with the coming night. Kiol snatched up the knife and followed the blood trail. Even without it he could have easily tracked him based on scent and the disturbed forest surroundings. The boy had gotten a lot farther than Kiol would have expected with a bleeding wound and torn hamstring. The further he walked the more concerned he grew until he finally stumbled upon a body strewn in the dirt, gray-blue robes turned brown with blood-soaked mud.

He crouched down and checked the boy over. He was alive, but that could change soon. He picked him up and it was even worse this time with such a limp weight and the packages in his vest making everything more cumbersome. He walked until he found a stream and lay him down again. Then he paused. It was not like he hadn’t seen all manner of bodies in all manner of positions and undress, but for some reason the thought of lifting the boy’s robes brought a tremor to his hands. He busied himself taking the cloth off the food box and getting out the medicines, but it couldn’t be avoided forever.

He looked down at the boy sprawled in the short, wispy flora that covered the stream banks. His face had already looked pale in contrast to the vivid black of his hair, but now it was frighteningly white. Kiol had seen many, many people die, but none had ever looked so peaceful.

He tilted the boy over, took a deep breath, swore under his breath, and lifted the robe skirts. That made him pause again, when he really shouldn’t have been taking so long.

But the pale slender legs were covered in scars. Slashing scars, from a blade that could not have been small but was very sharp. And they were deliberately done, across a long length of time. The brutal look of it in contrast to the boy’s otherwise refined and delicate appearance was unsettling.

Kiol grit his teeth, shook the astonishment away, and set to work. He cleaned the wound out well and stuffed it with the proper herbs, then smeared the other mixture onto the cloth and wrapped the leg tight. Then he shifted the boy around so he lay the opposite way and dunked his head into the water.

It took not a second before he convulsed, then flailed, and Kiol drew him up again. He held him steady with one arm under the boy's chest and smacked his back a few times to help him cough out the water he inhaled. Then the boy looked up at him and Kiol’s breath caught.

With soaked hair plastered to his dripping face, and long, darkly wet eyelashes framing dark eyes, it was like looking at one of the masterful paintings in ancient temples. His eyes weren’t entirely dark, either, Kiol saw, but speckled with minuscule bursts of gold even in the moonlight.

He looked away, up at the treetops, and flipped the boy over to rest him carefully onto the ground off his bad leg. “Have to eat,” he muttered. He fumbled for the stacked food boxes and thrust it towards him. “I’ll find somewhere you can rest the night.” He left him to hopefully do as he instructed, and went in search of a cave. There were ruins all over the forest but they were routinely inspected by soldiers now, after they had proven to be rebels’ favored meeting place, so it wasn’t as if he could hide there.

It took a bit of searching but he found a good enough cave, a bit on the small side, but so was the boy, so what did it matter? He created a bed with a thick layer of dry leaves then hurried back, hoping the boy hadn’t died or wandered off again. But no, he sat by the stream where Kiol had left him, his good leg bent up with his torso draped over it. He had eaten the vegetables and onion cakes, but not the meat.

“Eat,” Kiol said, gesturing to the dish. “You lost much blood. Need meat.”

“I don’t eat meat,” the boy signed.

Kiol blinked and struggled between several different questions, but decided the reason for such a strange eating restriction was the least important at the moment.

“What's your name?”

“Nirin,” the boy spelled out. Then he signed in turn, “What is yours?”

Kiol didn’t want to answer that. His name was fairly well-known and if this kid found out who he was it could change everything. But perhaps he already knew. Kiol had to speak because the boy was barely looking at him and wouldn’t see any sign-speak, but he answered Kiol without hesitation and thus must not have been deaf. But why did he sign to begin with? Had he known Kiol was deaf? Was it that obvious from his voice, or had Nirin known who he was from the start? Was that what he’d meant by knowing him? But then why ask for his name? And why wasn’t he scared of him? Kiol’s head spun with the unknowns but only one question was needed to answer them all.

“You said you know me. How?”

“So you said too,” Nirin signed. “How do you know me?”

Kiol set his jaw and sat down. So maybe one question couldn’t answer them all, and now he was presented with another he didn’t want to explain. Couldn’t, even if he wanted to. Instead he said, “I can read lips. You don’t have to sign.”

Nirin tilted his head without lifting it from his knee and gave Kiol a silent look. Kiol couldn’t read anything in it, it was completely unassuming, unaffected, as though Nirin wasn’t reacting to his words at all and had only decided on his own whim to examine him. It wasn’t the same kind of stone-emotion as Ruadhan, nor his own aloof indifference. Because it wasn’t exactly emotionless; it was soft and natural and knowing. Kiol cleared his throat and shifted his weight.

“But we can,” he signed when he couldn’t stand the stare any more. “If you want.” Nirin didn’t respond, but he did look away and Kiol could breathe in peace again. After another prolonged silence Kiol said, “I found a place. Good for the night. I’ll carry you there.”

“And then what?” Kiol looked between the boy’s hands and side of his face. Nirin’s chin rested on his knee, staring at the stream turned glistening black in the night.

“Then I will come in the morning with more things. More food, clothes maybe.”

“It’s not sustainable," Nirin signed. Kiol opened his mouth, then closed it. “How long will my leg take to heal?” So he asked, but he did not wait for a response. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll take care of myself.”

“Can you?” Kiol asked, and it was a genuine curious inquiry. Nevermind the boy’s thigh, even with a healthy body he didn’t exactly seem like the type able to fend for themselves in the wilderness. Then again he had moved without difficulty through the woods when Kiol chased him, betraying familiarity with the terrain, and the rebels didn’t know who he was meaning he had just been in the middle of the woods for unknown reasons. But his appearance and disposition really did not make sense for some forest hobo.

“In a way,” he signed.

“Are you…” Kiol began, but faltered. He did not want to ask. He didn’t want to know. He sighed. “I’ll take you to the cave first.” He cleaned up the food, quickly finishing off the meat since Nirin insisted he didn’t want it and that bowl of noodles had not been nearly enough food for him. He untied the water flask from his belt and made Nirin drink its entirety, then refilled it, reattached it, and scooped the boy up again. Once again those slender hands gripped his vest, almost like a reflex, and his mussed hair pressed close under Kiol’s chin. He held his head high away from it as he carried him.

Almost the same instant he was settled back on the ground, Nirin signed, “What happened to those people you took away?”

Kiol busied himself untying the flask again and setting it out and pretending to check the small rock cave for any dangers, though he had done that when he first found it.

“Safe here,” he said when he returned to the boy’s side. “I have to go now.”

“What happened to those people?” he signed again. It seemed unlike the other questions, he was not letting this one go unanswered.

Kiol sighed into his teeth. “In prison. Interrogated,” he signed.

“Tortured?” Nirin asked. Kiol said nothing. “Killed?” He said nothing. Nirin blinked down at his lap, but only for a second before signing, “Can you free them? If they are not already dead.”

“They’re rebels,” Kiol signed, to him all that was necessary as a response. But from Nirin’s look, it was not good enough.

“You can save them,” he signed. “Try.”

Kiol frowned at him. The only one he took orders from was Ruadhan. “No,” he said simply. Nirin frowned back, the closest to upset Kiol had yet seen, and for some reason the strange little pout sprouted a seed of guilt in his chest. Guilt? Guilt! Kiol couldn’t believe it— he hadn’t felt guilt since he was a young scolded child.

“Are they your people?” he asked, and his heart sped up, because he could very well get the answer he hadn’t wanted. But Nirin shook his head, and his anxiety faded away to annoyance. “Then why do you care?” he scoffed.

“Because they are people,” Nirin signed. Still looking at him. Still perceiving him with those big eyes. Kiol looked away.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he signed. “If you get cold, use leaves to cover you, don’t use the fronds outside, they will make you itch. Drink water. Don’t die.” And he left before the boy could say anything else.

He stopped in the armory when he got back to the martial temple. Every other time he was there it had been to request a specific weapon. So when he asked for a water flask the teller was genuinely surprised. “You lost yours?” he asked. Kiol never lost anything. It was almost a physical impossibility for him.

“Mm,” was all he replied. The teller blinked at him a few more times before retrieving one of the many spare flasks. Kiol took it and tied it to his belt immediately. If Ruadhan saw him he would notice anything else amiss, and Kiol really couldn’t explain two different missing items in one day.

He slept fitfully, and hungry. In the morning he changed into his training gear. He tried not to take too much extra food but he couldn’t help grab a few more sausages, knowing he wouldn’t eat another full meal until dinner. He scarfed down his breakfast and went to the morning training. It was a formality at this point; everyone knew he needed no more training, and even if he did, none of the soldiers there could offer enough of a challenge to learn anything. But the instructor liked to use him as both example and punishment for the newcomers, pitting him against any egos with an inflated sense of their competence. So he went on most days he didn’t have an assignment, since the instructor herself, as the instructor, was not allowed to unleash her full talent on the pupils. But as another pupil, Kiol could. Not that he unleashed any where near his full abilities. That would be murder.

Mid-day, he packed his meal into the boxes and again ate in his room, this time only eating the meat. Then he packed the rest, took two extra cloths, and returned to the armory, this time for a more usual request. A bow and arrows. Not only was the training grounds not equipped for archery, giving a perfect reason to slip outside the city to the makeshift archery range in the fields, Kiol himself was not well practiced in shooting and it was known. It was not strange at all for him to decide to remedy that. He was an expert in nearly every other form of combat.

He moved more carefully through the woods now. Nirin had been spot on, of course— this wasn’t sustainable in the least. He could not deprive himself of food and run away into the forest every single day for the next six-odd weeks. But hiding the boy there was just a temporary solution until Kiol thought of something else. He had to tell Nirin that. Should have told him that already so he wasn’t dreading living in a damp cave until late autumn. Of course, Kiol didn’t know how much of a comfort it was without an actual “something else” planned.

He sensed something was wrong within paces of the cave, even though he couldn’t see inside. He sprinted to the opening and sure enough, the boy was gone. Again.

He didn’t know quite what instinct had told him of this, but looking around he figured it out. The trail. From the disturbed earth and crushed foliage, Kiol saw two trails. Both from the same person. Meaning Nirin did not leave, someone else arrived. And when they left, their weight was significantly heavier.

Kiol investigated around the cave with much less precision than he was known for. His ‘much less’ was still greater than any normal perception anyway. Nirin had not been injured (more than he already was), and there was no sign of a struggle. That did not mean much though, Kiol thought, considering how Nirin had allowed himself to be moved around by him, a complete stranger who had attacked him, without a single complaint. What kind of idiot let anyone do to them as they pleased? But he wasn’t. Kiol knew that for certain. Nirin was no imbecile.

His water flask was no where to be found, which set Kiol’s heart thrumming with a different panic. If a soldier had found Nirin, and found the flask, and saw the treated wound, they would know a fellow soldier helped him. And the clues from there led swiftly and directly to him.

He tracked the exit trail for too long. It was not returning to the city, but going deeper into the woods. But it was already old and a little stale; if Kiol did not find the end of it today, he had no hope of continuing tomorrow. He followed it deeper into the forest until the sun slanted the shadows almost ninety degrees. It would be evening by the time he got back to the city gates, and he had to return before they were closed.

He gripped the bow so hard as he ran back that once in the farm fields it snapped in half. Great. The arms-keeper would not be happy. He was one of the few at the temple who did not care who Kiol was and would chew him out and punish him to an entire day of sharpening and polishing the weapons. More than that, though, in a pit that sunk deeper and deeper into his stomach the more he tried not to think of it, he hoped Nirin was alive. Was safe. By the direction of the trail it was not a soldier who had taken him, but Kiol couldn’t be sure. And anyways, the conclusion that a stranger with unknown intent had taken an attractive boy that he had left crippled and defenseless was not in any sense of the word reassuring.

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