Runaan wakes to birdsong, and the sounds of quiet tinkering in the workshop down the corridor from their bedroom. The corner of his lips lifts in a slow, lopsided smile. He keeps his eyes shut for a moment longer, wanting to savour this feeling. It’s not peace — that’s in short supply these days — but it comes awfully close.
Under the covers it is warm and comforting, and as he stretches languidly, he feels the pleasant ache of muscles sore from yesterday’s intensive training. And, well, other exertions.
Now, though, the other side of the bed is cold. His brow furrows. He opens his eyes.
Wordlessly, Runaan gets out of bed and takes his robe from the back of a chair, pulling it on as he pads along toward the workshop. The silky material rustles faintly against his bare skin.
Runaan leans in the doorway. “You’re up early,” he murmurs, his voice low and gravelly from sleep. “Earlier than usual, that is.”
He almost regrets having to speak and shatter the silence. He wants, absurdly, to just stand and observe the other elf for a while. Watch his graceful hands at work. Memorise the way the dawn light is playing over the sinews in his arms.
“Actually, I’m up late.” As Runaan watches, those hands falter in their fluid movements. “I couldn’t go to sleep.”
Runaan hums sympathetically. He stops leaning and takes a couple steps into the room. “You should have woken me, I would have kept you company.”
Before Runaan finishes speaking, he’s already shaking his head. “It was the full moon last night,” he says, and bites his lip. “You know what that means.”
Without answering for a second, Runaan moves closer still, close enough that he can almost reach out and fold him into his arms. Yet he’s oddly cautious, as though he were approaching a hurt, wild thing and trying not to startle it.
Because of course, of course he knows.
“We don’t have to talk about it,” Runaan starts to say, but is hushed immediately.
“Last night was the last full moon before you leave for Katolis.” His voice is whisper-soft, feather-soft, like he’s afraid the enormity of the statement will take up all the air in the room if he doesn’t restrain it. “Rayla too. And don’t pretend you won’t bring her because she hasn’t taken before. You and I both know she needs this.”
He meets Runaan’s gaze for a second to add, “And it’s your sworn duty. Sacred.”
His face is so lined with helplessness just then that Runaan wants desperately to touch him, assure him, anything to stop his eyes looking like that. But there’s distance in them, too, and that stops him from rushing forward.
As Runaan watches, he picks up the Moonstone pendant he has been working on for some time now, when he thinks Runaan is too preoccupied with his own preparations to notice. He holds it out to Runaan, who cups his hands to receive it.
“It’s the only protection I can give to you and Rayla. Will you — will you wear it for me?”
The purple stone glints faintly, encased in fine silver-work. The pendant’s identical copy lies on the table, and Runaan stares at them for a long moment. He’s heard of these twinned Moonstones, cut from the same source then painstakingly polished: one clockwise, the other anticlockwise, the binding enchantment imbued through the repetitive, mirrored motions. Using one alerts the other wearer, no matter how much distance lies between the two.
Magic from the moon is only ever an illusion, but sometimes, the right illusion is all that’s needed. When crushed, even in daylight a Moonstone yields enough magic to cast a powerful concealment spell.
Warily, Runaan holds the pendant aloft. “You can’t know what you’re asking.”
“I do. You two are my whole world. My family.” His voice is shaky with emotion, but certain. “So if it comes down to that, use this. Whatever else happens, I’m asking you to come home. Just — just come home.”
Runaan holds his gaze. “Are you sure?” he asks solemnly, searching his face for an answer.
“You would really have us do this?” He rubs the Moonstone with his thumb, imagining he can feel the latent buzz of power in it. “Even if we came back branded as cowards?”
Like her parents, is the unspoken comparison. Her biological ones, at least.
He uncrosses his arms. “Even then,” he says softly.
As they put the pendants on for each other, the weight of the promise seems to settle deep within his ribcage.
Runaan wakes to pain and stiffness: the twinging in his back muscles, the bite of the chains against his inner wrists, the crushing pressure of the binding ever-tightening around his arm. He winces, but keeps his mouth shut. If the human mages are listening in somehow, he won’t give them the satisfaction.
Time goes by — crawling or hurtling, he can’t tell which, through the haze. The little illumination from the crack under the door comes from torches, not daylight. This world of cold stones and artificial lights seems impossibly removed from what he’s grown accustomed to, as he and the other assassins travelled from Xadia into the human kingdoms. The soft grass under his skin, the sparkling morning dew.
Here, now, every time he shifts to try and relieve the stiffness in his muscles, he aggravates the numerous injuries he has sustained.
Even though there is no escaping this prison, even though it is apparent that he will not be fighting his way out of here, his years of training kick in, and he begins taking stock of his physical state.
His left horn is gone. His hands are chained, but Runaan doesn’t need to touch the stump that remains, to notice the difference. It was lopped off by a swing of a sword mid-battle — he ducked, but too slowly by a fraction of a second. The subtle difference in weight is enough to throw him off balance, and Runaan feels his head listing toward one side ever so slightly.
A swelling wave of anger and grief at the loss throbs up from deep inside him, but even alone in the dark, Runaan pushes it down, keeping his face impassive. Of course the humans would not know what elf horns mean to them. And as history has shown only too well, humans could often be callous and cruel in their ignorance. It is simply in their nature.
To prevent the injury from impacting his fighting, he will need to train his neck and shoulder muscles to compensate, Runaan thinks — but then he catches himself. There will not be time for that. He will not remain useful to his captors for that long.
And then there are the bruises, which start on his face and run all down his torso, possibly hiding a broken rib or two. Breathing is a little impaired, he notes distantly. Hard to tell if that is the result of being chained up in this way, or if anything more sinister is happening underneath the skin.
By the time dawn has broken on the day following the assassination attempt — in the absence of natural light in his cell, he estimates time by the moon’s fading call — he has his answer in the fever he develops. Runaan sits in a cold sweat, radiating heat and turning down the food they bring him. He suspects an infection of some sort, but given the litany of possible sources, it’s hard to pinpoint one.
Not that it matters. Not since the moment when he crushed the Moonstone in the palm of his hand, and with it his and Rayla’s last resort, their most desperate way home.
I am already dead, he thinks. I am already lost.
Soft hands cradle his face, lifting his chin. Calloused thumb-pads, oh, he recognises the feel of those. He squints, but the light is too dim and one of his eyes rather swollen. Nevertheless, he knows. He just knows.
“How are you here?” he manages, slurring more than he would like. At least the door is shut, and no human is around to witness this momentary lapse in the unaffected front he’s been putting on. “How…?”
That light touch runs down his neck next, warm and familiar. Fine, long fingers going pitter patter like the gentlest rain. The way rain sometimes fell in Xadia. He remembers that. So much more primal, and beautiful, than any drizzle in the human kingdoms. You could always smell the storm coming. The air grew sweet then, but with a whiff of something wickedly sharp in it too. Like roses with thorns.
“You’re burning up,” the voice says worriedly, from somewhere close by in the darkness.
Elves, and all creatures really except humans, are born with some connection to a Primal Source of magic. Runaan has always been more of a practical fighter. His magic is passable, but not the strongest, nowhere near the level of their sages. Still, he has heard stories of even the least gifted elves achieving some sort of colloquy with their magical selves under duress. During their last hours, for instance.
And so, even though the odds are terrible, after a moment’s pause he lets himself believe that the figure he thinks is crouched by him, is truly here. That by the grace of the already-waning moon, Runaan has managed to establish a telepathic connection of some sort. (What was that old elvish song about lovers and the moon? The lyrics and melody seem to fall out of his head as he chases them. Like fish darting beneath the lily pads when one’s shadow falls over them. Like the fish in their pond back home…)
He longs to reach out, to touch, to confirm, but when he tries, he can feel the rusty metal scrape against his already tender skin.
“Don’t,” comes the word of caution, accompanied by a sympathetic hiss. Then, as if in compromise, Runaan feels him shift closer, and touch his horn.
Even now, after all the time they’ve been together, the gesture is impossibly intimate. Runaan stills under his hand, resisting the shiver that runs through his body from the point of contact.
But that hand is shaking with righteous fury, and is quickly withdrawn. “How dare they? I swear, I’ll—”
“You will do nothing,” Runaan interrupts. His voice, initially firm, begins wavering as he continues, “You will remain in Xadia. You must. Please.”
Don’t swear an oath that will go against your nature and put you in mortal danger. Be safe. I can bear anything as long as you are safe.
It takes a long moment, but the vengefulness collapses finally into resignation. Runaan can feel the change in the air as it does. The ghost of a sigh breaks across his cheek.
“What have they done to you, my love?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Runaan hedges, bowing his head. “But — Rayla. Rayla, she…” All the pain of the last few hours is contained in the way he utters her name, compounded with all the affection he still has for her. His protégé. His pride.
He hears a sharp intake of breath. “Our girl. They haven’t… they haven’t captured her, too?”
“No. She… escaped, with the human princes and the egg of the dragon prince. It wasn’t destroyed after all.”
“What? But then — your mission. You can’t kill the crown prince if the dragon prince lives.”
Runaan feels more than hears him leaning in to peer at where one binding remains, tied high up on his bicep.
“Never mind my arm. Rayla, she seems to be guarding them.”
A long beat passes as this information, too, sinks in. Then he hears, in a surprisingly wistful tone: “She was always better at protecting than avenging, you know. I always told you.”
Runaan remembers himself standing in the woods with Rayla as he ordered her to stay behind while the others completed their mission. There’s an instinct. A moment of truth. And in that moment, you hesitate. At the time, he put it down to her being a child still, with a heart too soft to do whatever it takes. He really meant that she was the child of her parents after all. The child of Dragon Guard warriors, capable of being lethal in defence far more willingly than in offence.
Protecting is in her blood, no matter that he was the one to train her and give her the skills to do it.
He’s been quiet for too long, thinking. He feels, or seems to feel, a hand in his hair gently brushing the locks back from his face and then, after a pause, touching the assassin’s binding.
“Your arm might still be spared. The way is treacherous…”
“Then they would hunt her all the more relentlessly. And—” Runaan chokes on the lump he can feel in his throat.
He does not need to finish his sentence anyway. The unspoken words are already hovering in the air.
“It’s unthinkable,” he says instead.
“So don’t think. Rest now, while you can,” Runaan hears him murmur.
He presses their foreheads together for a moment, and the feeling of comfort spreads as if it were trying to heal him.
“You okay over there?” Gren calls from his side of the dungeon.
He hasn’t been able to make out all the words — most of it is just a vague rumble to him — but from the accent and the Xadian fruit that Viren brings him, he figures that the other prisoner must be an elf. And while he’s always been taught about the elves’ brutality in driving the humans out of Xadia, while he’s been trained to counter their ferociousness in a fight, Gren can’t quite reconcile that image with the delirious, tortured tones and at one point low keening that issues from the far cell.
If this elf was one of King Harrow’s assassins, he would have expected him to sound... bitter, about his capture? Or even smug, at his Pyrrhic victory? Instead, he just sounds sad.
Only when Viren has left, though. The elf pulls himself together in front of him.
Perhaps the guilt is driving him mad. Perhaps it should, perhaps that’s what king-killers deserve. Amaya would know for certain, he thinks. He misses being able to look to her, literally and figuratively, for direction.
At least he wasn’t the one to crack first from the solitude. Gren sighs heavily and switches his weight to his other leg, tugging almost amiably at the chains binding him to the wall, as if asking: Well, how do you feel about letting me go now? Still no? ... Very good.
“You know, we might be mortal enemies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” he calls out.
“Sorry, that was dumb. I’m a good talker, I promise. It’s kind of my job. What’s your job like? Apart from, um... the obvious?”
Gren pulls a face at his rambling and listens hard, but no response is forthcoming.
“Or we could just have our own, separate one-sided conversations. That’s cool too.”
The elf has been silent for some time, actually. Maybe he has escaped into sleep. Maybe that’s best.
“I train assassins,” Runaan says, “not run a daycare.”
But then they bring him outside, and he sees Rayla hanging upside down from a high tree branch while twirling and jabbing at the air with a twig. Her imaginary opponent is having a hard time of it, what with all her nimble blocks and rapid parries. Yet her body language is completely at ease, and when she hears them approaching, she tilts her head and gives him a little smile. Before he realises what he’s doing, Runaan finds himself waving at her, and smiling back rather dorkily.
Once she’s back on solid ground, he finds that Rayla only comes up to his knees, and then only by the very tips of her horns. Yet nothing seems to scare the tiny elf girl. Not her parents leaving, though she must know they will be gone for a long time. Not the wicked-looking swords that his other assassins are sparring with or sharpening all around the compound.
(But then, of course, comes bath-time.)
Runaan startles, but it is only the wind whistling through other parts of the castle, sneaking in through tiny cracks in between the stones. Not the high-pitched squeals of a little elf girl afraid of the water. (“You can’t run on it,” Rayla complained often as she was growing up. Not for lack of trying, on a couple occasions.)
Astounding how the memory can still make him smile, even here, even now.
“I miss her,” Runaan hears, from out of the darkness.
“You’re back.” So suddenly, too.
“And you’re still feverish,” he says, pressing the back of his hand against Runaan’s forehead. “Can’t they at least have someone attend to you?”
“I killed their king, I hardly think they’re about to lay out the feather pillows,” Runaan remarks wryly. “Besides… you’re here with me.”
“In a sense.” He clears his throat. “Anyway. It’s inhumane.”
“Humanity is a virtue more often alluded to in the breach than the exemplification. It’s why they invented the word.”
Runaan hears an exasperated chuckle coming from somewhere to his left, like he’s sitting right by him, leaning against the wall. For a moment the cold cell seems almost companionable.
“You and your tirades about humankind. I wonder how Rayla turned out the way she has.”
It’s not the best change of subject. The nostalgia of Rayla’s childhood dissipates, replaced by Runaan’s recollection of her more recent actions. “A traitor, you mean?”
“You know that’s reductive.”
“Is it?” Runaan doesn’t bother to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
“She’s become a traitor to do something heroic.”
“She’s choosing sides.” The hard edge encroaches further on his tone.
“No, she’s mediating. Peacekeeping. Or — peace-restoring.”
Runaan doesn’t respond for a moment.
“Admit it. Yes, you feel betrayed. But you’re also a little proud of her.”
Runaan can’t be coaxed into levity so easily, though. “None of this would have happened if she had only killed that scout. If she hadn’t shown mercy. If she hadn’t shown humanity,” he amends, acknowledging the irony by rolling his eyes. So maybe he does approve of what she’s doing, despite himself.
He hears the shushing of scarf against skin next to him, and a soft huff. “Wow. You really must be feverish, if you’re agreeing with me.”
Runaan laughs at that, but it makes his sides hurt, so he stops pretty soon and tries to keep still.
As the pain ebbs away, he says quietly, “I think she gets it from you.”
A beat. “What?”
“Compassion. Empathy.” Because that’s all her hesitation is, really.
“Not pacifism?” he teases. “I seem to recall that you thought me quite the fence-sitter when we first—”
But then the door opens, cutting him off. The human mage has returned.
The oblong of light that falls across Runaan leaves shadows on either side of him. But when he checks out of the corner of his eye, they are as empty as ever.
Gren hears Viren deliver an ultimatum to the elf, threatening him with some kind of magic probably. When the man comes back to the spiral staircase leading out of the dungeon, his expression is resolute and dark.
“Why, Commander,” Viren drawls, when he notices Gren staring. “You look as if you have more feedback for the occasion.”
His voice just then reminds Gren of a snake’s coils.
Gren makes his decision all at once.
“I do, actually,” he says, straightening to his full height. “I’d like it known that I don’t enjoy being in the same, otherwise acceptable dungeon as — as a monster.”
Viren narrows his eyes at him, and his nostrils flare. For a heartstopping moment Gren thinks he’s about to strike.
Then he’s leaving, and Gren slumps back against the wall. It’s a lot harder to channel his Amaya-voice without her here. He wishes he could channel a little Amaya-bravery too.
After allowing himself a moment of relief, Gren looks back in the direction of the elf’s cell. Part of him wants not to overhear whatever he says next. But to bear witness seems the least — and also the most — that he can do for him.
When the human mage leaves him to brood over his threat, Runaan replays the instant when the archangel lunaris landed on his arrow, over and over again in his head. He relives his heart-sinking realisation that they had lost the element of surprise.
That was the decisive moment, the point of no return. Ever since then, he has only been waiting for the end.
It now looks like he’s going to meet a different end than expected.
Runaan waits until the clink of the mage’s staff against the ground grows distant. He has left the door open this time, and light floods into the cell, leaving no room for shadows, nor for all the benevolent illusions or delusions they might contain.
And so, slowly and deliberately, Runaan closes his eyes, and waits.
“Thought I might find you here,” he says after a moment. Almost conversationally.
“I… I’m afraid, of what’s going to happen to me,” he confesses. A muscle jumps in his throat with the effort of holding back tears. “I can admit that, when it’s just you. With you here, I can be afraid and still face what’s coming.”
He takes a deep breath. “Even when it’s not… not really you.”
Runaan seems to feel a hand take hold of his.
“But I’m going to keep my promise. Just you wait.”
Impulsively, now, Runaan leans forward, until his chin finds the crook of his collarbone and nestles there, until he can whisper his lover’s name in his ear, repeating it until it runs together, until his despair paralyses his lungs and it becomes a soundless incantation. Until it leaves its taste on his lips. Of sun-ripened grapes ready to pop on the palate. The fine coating of salt and sand left on one’s skin, drying off from a dip in the briny waves. Those trumpet-like flowers that bloom at the break of dawn. All full of magic and home, home, home.
He can hear the staff clinking closer again, and someone shouting, “Stop! What are you doing to him?!” All close by and yet so distant.
“Stay with me?” Runaan asks. Not desperately, but with an apocalyptic calm. His voice ventures out into the dark, searching for an answer.
It echoes: Always. Always.