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Shadowed Dreams

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The day is warm, the midsummer sun shining from a nearly cloudless sky and it warms Hugh’s shoulders and back through the fabric of his tunic as he exits the deep, cool forest and begin to cross the meadow to the road. The day is so warm he’s removed his cloak and it hangs folded over his shoulder bag. 

At his side Shadow, a large mix of wolfhound and pure wolf, stirs, her ears picking up. 

“What is it girl?” 

Her head is pointed in the direction of where the road curves back into the wood in the distance. 

“You heard something? Or someone?” he asks in a low voice, letting a hand ruffle the stiff fur on the back of her neck. 

Out here, days travel from the nearest village, a chance meetings always have the potential for danger. Most travelers are peaceful, merchants, wandering tradesmen and the like, but brigands roams lose in the area as well, and the there's the more unnatural dangers that is the legacy of Sirine's tumultuous past. 

In his usual mindset of always better safe than sorry Hugh slips his bow from its casing, stringing it and loosening the tie on his quiver, hoping that what Shadow responded to was a mundane threat. 

A man on horseback rounds the corner. Shadow remains alert but remains otherwise passive, so while Hugh keeps his weapon to hand, he doesn’t knock an arrow, trusting his companion's sharper senses and keenness to guide him true. Instead, seeing that the man appears to be alone, he slowly walks closer to the road. 

As the rider approaches, he gets a better look at him. Dressing in simple, yet well-made travel clothes, he has neither the appearance of a merchant, nor of a tradesman, nor any kind of the usual travelers one would find on a road like this. But neither does he look like a brigand, though that is always a more uncertain guess. 

Once they draw near enough to each other to be in speaking distance, the rider holds up his horse. Hugh can tell the mount is nervous, probably Shadow’s presence, but the rider looks unconcerned by both Hugh and his large furred companion. 

“Good day, ser,” the man says. He speaks in the local trade tongue, but with very precise diction and a clear Imperial lilt to his voice. 

Imperial. Hugh tries not to roll his eyes, he’d have preferred brigands, at least they tended to be local. 

But this makes it all the more imperative that he discovers the nature of the man’s intentions. 

“Greetings,” he says, approaching further, Shadow sticking close to his side. 

The horse is getting skittish and the rider struggles to control his mount.  

“Easy there, easy. You're quite safe, I promise you,” Hugh hears the man mutter, one hand maintaining a firm grip on the reins while he, not entirely successfully, tries to stoke the horse's neck with the other. 

“Far be it for me,” the rider goes on, now addressing Hugh. “To tell you what to do on a public road, but I would request that your dog perhaps keeps a distance. I don’t think Bella is entirely comfortable with the situation.” 

Bella? He named his horse? Imperial rarely cares enough for their beast to do so in Hugh's experience. 

With a move of his hand he signals Shadow to stay where she is as he continues to walk towards the rider. 

“She’s not a dog, she’s half wolf. But you needn’t worry, she only bites if provoked.” 

The man nails him with a piercing stare, a flicker a mirth in them as he gets Bella under better control. 

“Like you?” he asks lightly. 

Hugh laughs. 

“No, I sometimes bite without provocation.” 

The man smiles. Now Hugh is near enough that he can take in the men in detail, with his short fair hair and fair skin he would have looked like he was leeched of all color is not for the cool, startlingly blue eyes. 

A handsome man, a pity he's Imperial. 

“Duly noted,” the man says and pats his horse’s neck gently. “Taking the chance of being bitten then, could you tell me if this road would in any way lead me to Cavhill?” 

Hugh is now right next to horse and man, and stops, scrutinizing him closely. 

There’s little enough at Cavhill unless you’re a merchant looking for ore, lumber or certain types of pelts and this man doesn’t look at all like he’s that. What’s more, now that Hugh is this close, he can sense the magic roiling around the rider, it’s tightly controlled, disciplined, but very much there. 

Not just Imperial then, a wizard and that combination means College trained. The last thing Hugh, or any member of the druid conclave would need, an Imperial wizard poking around at Cavhill. There can come nothing but danger and disaster from that, and the fact that one has the sheer arrogance to waltz into Sirens and try to is disturbing in itself and Hugh can feel his hackles rise in spite of the man's gentle smile. 

“What do you want there?” he asks. 

“It’s a simple enough question,” the wizard says, clearly hedging. “Yes or no.” 

“And you’re the stranger here, asking questions. You’ll find little in the way of answers if you are so little forthcoming,” Hugh says herself. 

“Because I’m an Imperial you mean.” 

“Yes. You can imagine why your kind would be less than welcome.” 

Hugh expects huffy explanations about how the invasion were ages ago, as if it hadn’t been less than a century, that the Empire and Sirine was on good terms now and that past should be forgotten. But the rider surprises him. 

“You’re right. Still I would like an answer. If for no other reason that Bella is getting tired and I think I might be going in circles. I’d rather find somewhere to give her a rest.” 

“You should,” Hugh says. “She has a loose shoe on her left hind leg. Much further and she’ll throw it.” 

The man’s eyes goes wide and he quickly slides off the back of the horse, checking the hoof. 

Hugh’s skill in the Imperial tongue is more than rusty, but he knows swearing when he hears it. 

“I’m sorry girl,” the man says when he straightens up again. “I should have noticed that.” 

He rubs his hand across the horse’s neck then turns again to Hugh. 

“Do you think it’d be best to remove it or leave it?” 

Hugh looks at him, slightly worried, irrational though it is, that the man has some idea who and what he is, if he can sense Hugh the way Hugh can sense him, and if so where that will lead them. 

“Why do you think I would know that?” 

“I don’t. But you look like a forester or trapper so there’s a chance you might and at the very worst it would put me no further than I am now, because neither do I.” 

Hugh nods slowly, slightly taken aback by the forthright response.

“I do in fact know,” he says. “And yes it would. If not she’ll have a good chance of going lame and you'd likely have to put her down if you were still on the road.” 

Hugh pulls out the knife in his belt and watches in surprise as the man takes one step forward, halfway putting himself between Hugh and the horse. It takes Hugh a moment to realize that he thinks Hugh is going to harm it. 

Puzzled he looks at him. Which Imperial wizard would risk his life over a horse? 

“I only intend to remove the shoe,” he says. “A knife isn’t the ideal instrument for it, but it’s all I have.” 

“Ah.” The man steps back. “Please proceed.” 

The first thing Hugh does is step up to Bella and, gently taking one rein, raise her head and breath into her nostrils, running a hand slowly down her muzzle. 

“Easy girl. I know you don’t know me, but I’m here to help,” he says. Had the man not felt so strongly of magic Hugh would have used his own abilities to calm her but as things stand, he doesn’t want to take the risk of exposing himself, so mundane means will have to do. 

Bella twitches her ears at him and Hugh laughs. 

“Here.” The man holds out a small lump of sugar to Hugh. “I know they’re not the best for her, but she’s partial to them.” 

“Thank you.” He gives Bella the treat. “There you go girl.” 

Primly she takes the lump. 

“You need to hold her,” Hugh tells her rider. “And this might take a while.” 

The shoe is half loose already, but still taking it off with a less than ideal tool without further damaging the hoof, takes a great deal of time and the sun has begun to sink towards the top of the forest’s trees by the time he’s done. Long before that Hugh has sent Shadow off with a quick glance and a nod of his head, no reason for her to starve tonight because he has his hands full and if the wizard proves himself dangerous there’s little enough she’d be able to do anyway. 

“There,” he says at long last when the shoe comes off. “Do you have some cloth or something I can bind her hoof with so she doesn’t crack it any further until you can have it looked at?” 

A piece of cloth that looks like a scarf and some twine is produced from one of the saddlebags and Hugh warps it protectively around the shoeless hoof. 

“There.” 

“Thank you. It seems I owe you a favor I don’t know quite how to repay.” 

“You could tell me your name.” 

The man looks shocked and dismayed. 

“I really did forget to introduce myself, didn’t I? I apologize, it seems I left my manners at home. Paul Stamets, Imperial wizard at your service. Though I’m not sure you want that.” 

“Hugh Culber, local forester,” Hugh says after a moment’s hesitation. He might as well go with Stamet’s preconception of him. “And I’m surprised you’d admit to that.” 

Stamets shrugs. 

“I'm a lousy liar, I know better than to even try.” Stamets' voice is dry as he speaks. 

Hugh finds himself studying him again, the short blond hair and cool blue eyes, sparkling with something that isn’t pure mirth, but close. A handsome man indeed, an intelligent one judging by his vocation and a surprisingly kindhearted one as well. He can’t figure him out, there’s nothing that adds up to Hugh’s idea or knowledge of Imperial wizards. Yet this one is looking for Cavhill which should speak ill of him, but for all he tries he can sense no malice or malevolence in him. Either he’s a much better liar than he claims to be, or there’s more to all of this than meets the eye. 

Perhaps it would be best if he kept an eye on the situation and on Stamets. 

“To answer your question, yes this road would eventually take you to Cavhill if you continued and took the right fork at every chance. But it would be days before you got there. Even longer now you won’t be able to ride.” 

“Are you simply pointing out the obvious or are you going to provide a solution?” 

Hugh let’s the sudden prickliness slide. 

“The latter. I can take you through the forest and you can be at Bamor, a small village, in about two days. There's a farrier there that can reshoe your horse, and the path to Cavhill is easier from there.” 

“Well, lead on then.” 

“Just like that?” 

“It will get dark soon enough, so unless we make camp here, we might as well make as much headway as we can. And I’ll trust you to know the better campsites in the area.” 

The ease with which the man was persuaded makes Hugh feel suspicious yet again. 

“And you have no apprehensions heading into the unknown with a stranger?” 

Stamets laughs. 

“My colleagues always say I have no sense of self preservation. They may be right. And you know what they say.” 

“What do ‘they’ say?” 

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” 

Hugh nods and gestures for Stamets go follow, after all he's right they may ax well get going, but is distracted by a sudden frown on Stamets face. 

“What happened to that wolf, dog, of yours?” he asks. 

“Shadow? She’s off on her own, she’ll find us again when she wants to. Shall we?” he finishes, nodding towards the forest again. 

 

oOoOo

 

Paul follows the man, Culber, in silence. On his own he’d long since have lost his way among the trees and thick undergrowth in the deepening darkness, but Culber appears to have no problem finding paths that Paul cannot even begin to see among the trees. 

Studying his back as he leads Bella by the reins Paul contemplates him. A muscular, broad shouldered man, who moves with a physical certainty that speaks of a complete awareness of his surroundings. He’s seen celebrated acrobats in the great circuses of the Imperial capital that moved with less grace and poise than this man.  

And he carries his bow and that long bladed knife of his with the air of someone who knows to use them for more than hunting and skinning deer. 

Yet he claimed to be merely a forester. 

And then there was that huge half wolf of his. 

To the residents of the Empire the people of Sirine was seen as backwards rustics, quaint at best, benighted hicks most of the time, but from even the short time he’d traveled here Paul had not observed having dangerous half-feral canines as companions being the norm. 

All of which makes Paul wonder exactly who and what this man is. 

He’s also far sharper tongued than commoners tend to be with highborn, even in Sirine. Though people here are far more outspoken than in his homeland, a trait Paul is increasingly becoming appreciative of. Not having to wade through the incessant murk of courtesy and decorum feels like a blessing. 

“There’s a clearing not far ahead, we can camp down there,” Culber says breaking Paul’s musings. 

“Good.” 

As they settle camp, he can feel Culber’s eyes lingering on him time and time again: when he checks Bella’s leg – luckily the loss of the shoe does not seem to have affected her negatively – when he helps settle their bedding while Culber starts a fire. 

In the end it becomes irritating. 

“What?” he asks. 

“Pardon?” 

“You keep looking at me. I assure you I have no intention of assaulting you. Nor do Imperial wizards secretly have two heads or whatever nonsense you’ve heard.” 

“You have no idea what I’ve heard.” 

“No, but it’s most likely all wrong.” 

Culber snorts derisively. 

“I have more experience with your kind than I want to and enough to know that if anything, the stories are an understatement.” 

That makes Paul frown, happy that his back is turned towards the man at the moment. What kind of forester would have had any kind of experience with wizards, much less Imperial ones? 

But Culber says nothing more. Possibly he regrets saying as much as he has, because he remains singularly uncommunicative the remainder of the evening and most of the next day, and Paul simply follows him in silence, distracted by his own thoughts. 

He has been blessedly free of any dreams in the last few days, perhaps because he’s nearing his goal, but still he lies down every night dreading to close his eyes.  

It’s been months, almost a year, since he first dreamt of the broken ruins in the darkened caves, a symbol burning with unearthly light on its walls.  

At first, he thought it merely an annoying nightmare, but as the dream gradually increased in frequency and their content remained remarkably consistent, he began to wonder if it was more. Only after weeks of extensive research – digging through tomes and scrolls so old that some threatened to fall apart merely at a touch, and weaving divination magic of great complexity – had he found that the place he saw in his dreams was not a creation of his imagination, but a real place. A place in Sirine named the Caverns of Lansa. Supposedly it had been the residence of a powerful mage in ancient times, one who had lived so long ago that not any of his research had been able to turn up so much as a name on the wizard, or much of anything except an approximate location, the town of Cavhill. 

Chapter Text

The next day their journey continue in silence, Hugh doing his best to not even look it Stamet’s direction, berating himself for already endangering his goal. If there is to be a confrontation between them, he prefers to hold all the advantages he can and he came near enough to arousing Stamets’ suspicion the previous night. 

Though he would prefer to postpone any battle between them until he learns exactly what the wizard is doing here and why. Nothing good of that he is sure, but is he merely a power-hungry mage, only here for his own ambition and glory, or are there others behind him? Has the Empire once set its sights on Sirine? 

There has been no indication of it, but the Conclave’s knowledge of Imperial doings is limited. 

And there have been other wizards who had come here in the recent past, intent on Sepulcher, the most dangerous ruin left from the Eldritch War, located not far from Cavhill. Two in the fifteen years he has been Keeper of this area. Neither was Imperial and he had at the time not even considered any larger scheme, but now he regrets not taking the chance back then to learn of their motives, though both of them had left him with no other option but violence. It would not be the first time the Empire had moved through pawns, if pawns they had been. 

A battle now, even if he is victorious, would give him no answers. For now, subterfuge is the best strategy. That and buying time. 

But Bamor is a day away and there is no certainty that he will be able to stay in Stamets’ company after arriving. Sending them both on a detour would appear a prudent course. With more time comes a greater chance of learning something. In fact, there is a place not far from where they are that could aid him in that. 

There are risks in it, both in creating the excuse he will need to turn them around, but also in the place he intends to take them. But as Stamets had so aptly put it, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. 

 As they walk, he allows himself to open to the world, feel the vibrancy of it rush through him. And as always it momentarily leaves him breathless.  

He follows the energy of the path ahead until he finds something suitable for his purpose: two trees, tall and ancient, standing close together. One has been attacked by rot and the other has had its roots assailed by parasites. To make both fall takes little shaping, though he regrets the need to have them do so before their time. He feels the sharp pang when the first tree snaps, taking the other with it, the reverberation of it singing through him. 

The sound of the cracking as the two trees break is deafening and he can feel the tremors in the ground when they hit. He hears Stamets give out a short cry and Bella a sharp neigh. 

“What was that?” Stamets asks. 

“A tree must have fallen. Sounded like it was up ahead,” Hugh says as casually as he can. 

“It sounded like the world falling down.” 

“Never heard a tree fall before?” 

“No, I don’t walk in the forest much.” 

“Now you have.” 

They reach the point of the fallen trees. 

“We have a problem,” Hugh states. 

Stamets looks at him. 

“What?” 

“They’re blocking our path. There no way around them here, not one that wouldn’t mean cutting through thick undergrowth or going near a mire that I’d rather not try and traverse.” 

“So what do we do?” 

“If we backtrack a mile or so there’s a path leading north, north west. It will take us near the town on Galeah when we exit the forest.” 

“If there are no other fallen trees.” 

“Assuming that, yes. It will mean a few days more travel.” 

Stamets shrugs. 

“As long as her hoof is protected Bella should be fine?” 

Hugh nods. 

“I’ve walked this far,”  Stamets says. “I can make this too.” 

 

It takes them the better part of three days before they near the goal that Hugh intended them to reach, a small glade, deep in the Anfyn forest. So deep that few humans venture here, in among the ancient tree, though it is bustling with birds and beasts. 

But other and far more dangerous beings than badgers and bears live this deep, which is why the druids long ago concealed the glade from all eyes but their own, its magic could too easily be misused. Its enchantment one of revelation, that brought out the truth of all who stepped inside its circle and could reveal a being’s true worth and potential. None could truly hide what and who they were inside of it. It is a place where truth rules and lies are impossible. 

Hugh knows that his druid training, the discipline that is necessary to walk that path, will make him more able to resist the clearing’s magic, but he also knows that even he will not be able to fully resist it. He can only hope it is worth the risk to learn the truth about Stamets. 

During their journey they have said little enough to each other. Though Stamets looks tired he doesn’t complain about the pace Hugh is setting or the primitive accommodations of camping in the open. 

Every night during their travels Hugh has refrained from sleeping, instead entering a light trace state all druids learn, to restore himself without letting go of conscious awareness. It is used when there is a need to be vigilant but rest is required, but it cannot be used indefinitely without consequences. A few nights of it to keep an eye on the wizard would do him no harm. Hopefully he’s has his answers before he needs to weigh his well-being against that of Sirine. 

The first two had passed incidents, but the last two he has slept restlessly, waking in the middle of the night and lying awake until dawn. In the morning he would be sullen and reticent, his silence remaining through the day. The few attempts Hugh makes at initiating conversation are met with short, almost brusque replies and more silence. He can only hope that the magic of the glade makes him more loquacious. 

 

oOoOo  

 

Paul feels thoroughly lost among the towering, ancient trees as they walk. Had he stopped to think perhaps he would have worried how deep in the forest he was and how reliant he is on his guide to get him out again. But his mind is occupied by other things. 

The respite from his nightmare has been brief and in the last two nights it has returned in full force, mercilessly tearing him out of his sleep, leaving him exhausted during the day.  

Not that going with little or no sleep was anything new to Paul. His dedication to his research and studies had throughout his life meant many nights spent in his garden, or laboratory, or the College’s library, with little or no sleep as a result. Part of him thinks that perhaps all those years spent dedicated to his research, denying himself, now carries an unexpected boon that allows him to carry on in spite of his exhaustion. But the dream always feels like it drains him in more ways than simple lack of sleep would and he too often feels like he is viewing the world through a veil of fatigue. 

Expending so much energy simply to remain on his feet leaves him with little left to worry, and what he has goes towards pondering his dream, pointless though that may be. 

“There is a clearing not far from here, I know it is still early in the afternoon but we won't find a better camping spot. I suggest we make a halt there,” Culber says and it takes several long moments for the meaning to penetrate Paul's exhausted mind. 

Paul simply nods. A rest sounds good to him about now. 

Tugging gently at Bella’s reins he continues after Culber. 

The clearing feels like a revelation when they enter.  

One moment they are in the dim murk among the ancient trees, the next they stand in what might be the most beautiful place Paul had ever seen. The open space between the trees is filled with lush, dark green grass that is speckled with tiny white and blue flowers. A wide stream run along the far side edge, trees overhanging the running water and groups of rushes grow abundantly along its banks. A small but sturdy looking shelter has been built near one of the fruit trees. 

Paul stops and takes it all in. Though the day is slightly overcast the clearing looks bright and welcoming. 

Culber stops and turns to him when he doesn't immediately follow, head tilted to one side in question. Paul gives him a half-apologetic smile. 

“I've never seen a place quite like this,” he says. 

Neither the gardens of the Emperor's palace or even his own research garden could quite measure up to the simple vibrancy of this place. 

“It is bit special,” Culber answers before leading them across the clearing to the shelter. 

“It will be nice though to sleep with a roof over my head,” Paul says. 

Culber looks from Paul to the shelter giving a wry smile. 

“Not sure that qualifies as a roof by most standards.” 

“Will it keep us dry if it rains?” 

“It should.” 

“Then it is enough of a roof by any definition for me.” 

Culber inclines his head in silent acknowledgment.  

Paul removes Bella’s tack and saddle, tethering her next to the shelter. 

“There's nice grass here you should be happy with,” he says, patting her neck. 

Culber has put his bag inside the shelter and unrolls his bedding.  

Tossing his own saddlebags inside the shelter Paul decides to go over to the stream to study the plants, the local rushes looks unfamiliar to him and have caught his attention. 

Hunkering down next the streams bank, beside a clump of the rushes Paul systematically observes the plants, noticing their darker than usual leaves, the edges of their leaves looking knife sharp and the stem having an unfamiliar purple tint to it. 

He is so absorbed that he doesn't hear Culber walk over to the and the sudden sound of his voice makes him jump. 

“Found something that catches you interest in there, Stamets?” 

As has been the man’s style since they met there are no honorific attached, something Paul can’t decide is done out of ignorance of common Imperial address or meant as deliberate irreverence. If it is the latter and Culber hopes to goad him, he’s out of luck, the mores and strictures of proper Imperial conduct had always felt suffocating to Paul. 

“I have never seen rushes of this kind before,” Paul answers, slowly getting to his feet, still looking at the plants. “It must be a subspecies that doesn't grow in the Empire.” 

“Know a lot about plants do you?” Culber asks laughing. Paul had half expected it to contain the tone of mockery he is usually met with when first revealing his interest in plant life, but instead Culber sounds merely surprised. 

“You could say that?” Paul answers. “They form the backbone of my research.” 

He turns from the rushes to face Culber, abruptly coming face to face with the man's completely naked form.  

Blood rushing into his face, Paul struggles to find somewhere to look that isn't the man's broad chest, clearly defined abdominal muscles, long shapely legs or muscular arms. Unfortunately, aside from his impressive physique one thing draws Paul's gaze, the elaborate and colorful tattoo that covers not only Culber's left shoulder, but a good deal of his left chest and upper arm and appears ro continue down his back as well. 

“What?”, Culber asks him, sounding amused, his eyes twinkling. 

“What are you doing?” Paul asks, painful aware of the sudden rise in the pitch of his voice. 

“I'm going to take the opportunity to wash the dust of the road off,” Culber says, nodding towards the stream. 

Paul turns away, cheeks blushing furiously, striding back to the shelter almost able to feel Culber's eyes on his back as he goes. He fully expects derisive laughter to follow but the man remains curiously silent, with only the sound of splashing water filling the air. 

Perhaps the casual nudity should not have surprised him. One thing he had noticed since his arrival in Sirine is the informality with which people will touch each other. Casual touches would be exchanged regularly between both men and women, as well as between two men or two women, with a naturalness and familiarity that would both shock and scandalize any proper Imperial citizen. But while Paul had never been very proper it still felt awkward for him to witness it. But in a land with such a nonchalant attitude to physical intimacy, a similar attitude towards nudity would make sense. 

And Culber hardly has anything to be ashamed at, did he? His physique would leave any Imperial soldier green with envy. Yet the lightness and fluidity to his movements would make him a target among them. But such behavior did not carry the same penalties here as far as Paul had observed. Along with the man's utter lack of deference Paul barely knows what to make of him. 

The soft sound of approaching steps sends him into a flurry of activity, searching through his saddlebags for nothing at all.  

There's a soft rustle of clothes close behind him and he tries very hard not to imagine the sight of Culber pulling a tunic over his head. 

“I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I apologize for any discomfort I caused,” Culber says softly. 

Paul hesitantly turns around. Culber is dressed in a verdant tunic that reach past mid-thigh, his face looking quietly solemn. 

Paul makes a “think nothing of it” gesture, not knowing how else to respond to the completely unexpected apology. 

“You should take the chance to bathe as well,” Culber goes on in the same quiet tone. “It will be a while before you get another chance. I promise not to look.” 

“Is this your way of telling me you think I'm smelly?” 

A spark of mirth leaps into Culber's eyes and his lips forms a wry smile. 

“Yes, Stamets. It is.” 

Paul's heart skips a beat. Feeling oddly flustered he still manages to dig out his bathing supplies from his bags and heads back to the stream, while Culber sits down on the edge of the shelter and begins to clean his boots. The man has a point, a bath wouldn’t be amiss right now. 

Stripping down, Paul begins to wash himself, scooping up the low water letting it run over his chest. The water is cool, but not so cold as to be unpleasant, but still he finishes as fast as he can. 

Dried off and dressing, Paul's attention is caught by a glimmer of vibrant red between the rushes on the other side of the stream. He lets the tunic he was pulling over his head drop down and steps closer, the water lapping at his toes, to get a better look. 

Though he can't be certain from this distance the tiny Plant looks familiar, though it is far brighter in color than he has seen it before. 

Quickly folding up the legs of his trousers he wades across the shallow stream, stepping in between the rushes and hunkers down, a triumphant smile on his lips. 

It is an example of fair eaporil. But in the most unusual shade he’s ever seen. He lets his fingertips run lightly over the scarlet flower petals, still smiling to himself. 

“Hello there, lovelies,” he tells them softly. 

“You really are fascinated by plants, aren’t you?” 

Distractedly he registers Culber’s question. 

“Mmmmm. I’ve never seen fair eaporil this vibrantly colored before. Even the ones in my garden aren’t as brightly red as these. I wonder if it’s a property in the soil or maybe something to do with the plants around them? Or possibly-” 

“Or possibly some things simply don’t like growing in captivity,” Culber snaps. “They might be able to live with it, but they’ll never thrive.” 

Paul blanches at the vehemence in his tone, his gaze darting up to look at him. Culber’s eyes filled with an unvoiced accusation. 

“I don’t know if an Imperial could understand that,” Culber says more quietly. 

Paul’s looks down at the flowers again, feeling a sudden kindship with them. 

“Actually, I do,” he says softly, getting to his feet. “Even a golden cage is still a cage.” He meets Culber’s eyes calmly as he speaks. “Still, I’m glad they’re able to thrive somewhere,” he finishes before he wades back across the stream, picks up his clothes and bathing supplies, and walks back to the shelter. Dumping his things inside, next to his saddlebags, he grabs Bella’s grooming tools and begins to brush the tangles out of her mane and tail. 

“They’re called rusalka’s blood here,” Hugh says a short while later. His voice is low and when Paul looks up at him from where he's working on Bella's tail, he sees him sitting on the edge of the shelter, returned to cleaning his boots, a rueful look on his face. 

“The flowers you were looking at,” he clarifies when Paul says nothing. 

“Oh,” Paul says, mostly to give some sort of response. “With a name like that it sounds like there's a story attached.” 

Culber grins. 

“There is. Care to hear it?” 

Paul nods and continues to brush Bella's tail as Culber talks as he continues to work on his boot. 

“It takes place during the Eldritch War. At the height of the conflict a rusalka found her river homeland invaded by some of Imdran’s abomination. Like all natural spirits she would not allow such twisted creatures to corrupt her home, so though she knew she had little chance of winning she stood against them.” 

Being done with one boot Culber puts it down, picks up the other and goes on. 

“The battle waged for more than a day and in spite of all odds the rusalka emerged victorious. But her victory cost her her life. Yet where her blood had fallen on the riverbank during the struggle sprung up bright red flowers, a memorial of her courage and sacrifice, and a legacy that would protect all such water realms from the corrupted magic wielded by Imdran and his ilk.” 

Continuing his brushing Paul frowns, losing himself in thought. 

“I wonder,” he muses softly, speaking to himself. “How much of that story is true.” 

“You assume it's just a legend?” Culber asks. 

“On the contrary,” Paul answers, his thoughts returning to the present. “I think there might be a good deal of truth to it, possibly wrapped up in drama for storytelling purposes. Fair eaporil, or rusalka's blood, has some unique properties in resisting and cleansing away magic though some of its closest cousins shows no properties at all and they really should. Not to mention that the northern strain appears to be alone in showing these properties.” 

“So you think the story might be true?” 

“Allowing for some poetic license, yes.” 

Culber nods very slowly before asking, “So you're studying the magical properties of plants?” 

“No really, those findings are somewhat incidental. I study magic itself.” 

“And that relates to plants how?” Culber asks with a frown. 

An odd line of inquiry for a forester, but as ever Paul cannot resist talking about his studies. With an enthusiastic smile he drops Bella’s tail before asking, “What is magic? Where does it come from?” 

The frown on Culber's face deepens. 

“You… think it comes from plants?” 

“In a way. I believe there is an implicit tie between the natural world and what we call magic.” 

There is a flash of something in Culber's eyes, too quick for Paul to identify but it breaks Paul's enthusiasm and makes him realizes how much he's babbling to a complete stranger. 

“You seems awfully interested in magical theory.” 

There is a minute pause before Culber answers. 

“I've never known any wizard to hold much interest in the natural world before.” 

“Known a lot have you?” 

“I've come across a few. Most were seeking legacies of the Eldritch War they thought they could find in Sirine.” 

Paul snorts derisively. 

“What?” Culber asks. 

“Shows that not all wizards are intelligent, rumor to the contrary.” 

“Why would you say that?” 

“Because while reliable records or facts of that ancient war is scarce, if even a fraction of the myths are partially true it is not something anyone should go search for.” 

“And yet you do?” Culber says pointedly. 

“What do you mean?” 

Culber appears to struggle with himself before speaking. 

“Cavhill,” is all the response he gives, before putting the boot he was working on down and walking off to the edge of the clearing. 

Puzzled Paul looks after him. 

What could Cavhill possibly have to do with-  

Oh.  

Of course.  

Mentally Paul kicks himself for his blindness. He should have realized this long ago. Not just the very setting of the dream, the difficulty finding any information on those ruins. 

Why hadn’t he seen it until someone pointed it out to him? And what now?  

The last thing he wants to do is go around poking into that mess, he might be reckless but he is not suicidal. Yet the dream won’t let him alone. 

Cursing under his breath he returns to grooming Bella. Unfortunately, that only takes so long and by the time he’s done he’s no closer to a solution.  

What he needs is information, information he doesn’t have. But Culber might. He’s local and he seems... knowledgeable about many things that Paul would not expect a forester to be. 

Patting Bella softly once, Paul returns the grooming tools to his bag. Culber in the meantime have returned to the shelter, lit fire in the firepit and are in the process of wrapping several roots in leaves. 

“I assume there are some ruins near Cavhill?” Paul asks cautiously, sitting down on the grass next to the fire. 

“Why would you think that?” Culber returns in a pithy tone, not looking up from his task. 

“Because of what you just said and-” Paul breaks off. The whole thing sounds too ridiculous when said out loud, even Straal had laughed at first. 

“And?” Culber prompts when Paul doesn’t continue, looking up at him, his hands stilling their work. 

“And I had a vision. A dream.” He hesitates for a moment. “Nightmare,” he finally concludes. 

Culber tilts his head and looks at Paul questioningly. 

“You had a nightmare about an ancient ruin and you... decided to go chasing it?” 

“If it had been just once I’d have ignored it,” Paul says snidely. “But it keeps happening over and over again.” 

“How long?” 

“About a year. It is... relentless. I just want some answers how to make it stop!” he snaps. 

Bella neighs anxiously and Paul immediately gets to his feet and goes to her, puts a hand on her neck, stroking it soothingly. 

“Shhh, girl. Shhh. I’m sorry.” 

He starts when a hand is places his shoulder, Culber suddenly next to him, a concerned look in his eyes. 

“And it never occurred to you what those ruins might be?” he asks softly. 

Paul can feel himself blush but it feels impossible to dodge Culber’s discerning eyes. He shakes his head. 

“Until now? Foolishly enough, no.” 

Culber’s hand simply rest on Paul’s shoulder, but the warmth of the palm seeps through the fabric of his tunic, feeling like it is burning his skin. Moving away as casually as he can, Paul goes to fetch a treat for Bella. 

“Here you go, girl. Sorry I startled you.” 

Culber quietly stands there, studying him, and Paul can feel another blush creep into his cheeks at the close scrutiny. 

“And now that it has occurred to you, then what?” 

“A very good question, one I was hoping you could help me answer.” 

“In what way?” A note of sharpness has crept into Culber’s voice. 

“Simply barging in does at this point seem very misguided. I am hoping you could provide me with some information about the area and their nature.” 

“You ask me? Then let me tell you. The ruins from that war that still exists are shielded and warded for good reasons. And do they lay undefended. You will not be allowed to simply walk into one.” 

Paul pulls a face. 

“You  still  intend to go?” Culber asks. 

“If I could think of another solution than to seek the ruins out and discover what it is that is... calling to me, I would take it. But everything I have found to try have been in vain. I have searched through every tome and scroll in the college’s library, every magister’s archive. Nothing.” 

“And of course, the Empire is the source of all knowledge. There couldn’t possibly an answer found outside of it.” 

There’s an intense fire in Culber’s eyes as he speaks. 

Paul takes a deep breath to prevent his temper from running away with him, shaking his head. 

“That’s why I’m asking you,” he says, biting off every word as he says it. 

“And I’m telling you, you will not set foot near that ruin.” 

“Do you intended to stop me?” 

There is a beat of silence. 

“There are those in this land that can.” 

Culber brushes by him as he speaks, walking back to the fire. 

“What do you suggest instead? If going there isn’t an option, then what?” 

“Perhaps you should ask the druids,” Culber suggests, not sounding like he’s joking. 

‘They’re charlatans.’  The words are on Paul’s tongue but saying them is hardly politic, so he bites them back. 

“And where would I find one?” he asks instead. 

“You could ask around.” 

“I’ll take it under advisement,” is all the answer Paul can think of. 

This is clearly going nowhere. Nevertheless, when they reach that town, he it might be a good thing to start asking questions other than asking for directions. 

Culber has begun wrapping the roots in leaves again. 

“What are those?” Paul asks, idly curious as he returns to the fire. 

“River white-root,” Culber replies, his voice having lost its terseness again. They’re edible and tasty when cooked. Not easy to find unless you know what to look for, but I do. Thought they’d make a good addition to our rations.” 

“But why the leaves?” 

“Protection for cooking them. The leaves of the yellow bark bush are quite heat resistant. They can't tolerate direct flame, but if you wrap something in them and leave it in the hot ground beneath a fire, you can cook the content quite well.” 

Paul studies his movements carefully as Culber takes the next root and leaf. He rolls the leaf around the root once, folds in the top in an intricate way, rolls the rest of the leaf around before locking it all with a twig splinter. 

“This interests you?” Culber asks seeing Paul's close scrutiny. 

Paul nods. 

“It looks to be a useful skill to know.” 

“Care to try?” Culber holds out a root and leaf to him. 

Paul takes them. It is much harder than it looked. The first roll around is easy enough, but he can't get the folding down on the top right no matter how hard he tries. 

“There's a trick to it,” Culber says kindly when Paul fails for the fifth time. “Here, let me show you.” 

He shifts closer to Paul, so he's sitting next to him, puts one arms around his back, laying his hands on top of Paul's. The touch is casual, not even intimate and yet it sends Paul's heart racing and makes him supremely aware of the points where their bodies touch. Culber's hands are warm and callused, but surprisingly gentle as he guides Paul's fingers. 

“You fold the near side down first, then left, right and finally back, before continuing. See.” 

“Ah. Thank you.” 

Culber lets go and Paul finds himself feeling dazed from the sudden loss of contact. 

“Now you try it.” 

It proves much easier the second time. While the final result is a little wobbly and nowhere near as neat as Culber's but succeeding completing one still leaves Paul feeling victorious. 

Picking up the final root and leaf Paul tries again, succeeding without help this time. All the while Culber is using The end of a short, thick branch to push aside the burning wood and dig indents in the cleared ground. When the last root is wrapped he drops them in the holes and covers them with earth before dragging the wood back over them. Paul studies the whole process in silence, but intently. 

“I am a little surprised you cared to learn,” Culber says. 

“Why? Because it's a practical skill and wizards are notoriously impractical?” 

Culber shrugs. 

“It might turn out useful later on,” Paul points out. “But I also have this incurable case of wanting to understand everything.” 

A laugh escapes Culber. 

”Everything? That should only take you several lifetimes.” 

“Maybe not everything then. But as much as I can manage in one.” 

“No desire for immortality?” 

Now it is Paul's turn to laugh. 

“None.” 

No, to live a single lifetime feels like quite enough for him. 

They both fall quiet after this and the glade is filled only with the evening song of birds, the hum of still active insects and the soft noises of the animals in the surrounding forest. Paul is pleasantly surprised by Culber's comfort with silence, in his experience people are far too eager to fill any lull with more words, but his companion doesn't seem to possess that need. So their evening meal proceeds in quiet as does their preparations for bed. 

But before they turn in Paul sees Culber goes to the edge of the clearing again and stare off into the forest. It isn't the first night he does this. Puzzled Paul goes to join him. 

“Do you see anything?” he asks. 

Culber turns his head to look at him. 

“Your wolf?” Paul goes on. “I haven't seen her since we met, is she okay?” 

“She's fine and around. But I thought your horse would appreciate not having her too near.” 

“She's tame then? You can command her?” 

Culber chuckles warmly and suddenly Paul is very aware of how close the two of them are standing. 

“She's about as tame and commandable as I am.” Then he gives a grin that is all teeth. “But of you know how to pet her right, she can be very amicable.” 

Paul blinks and flushes, thankful that Culber has turned away and is heading back to the shelter. 

“Well on Bella's behalf as well as my own, I thank you for your thoughtfulness,” Paul babbles. 

“You're bothered by her?” 

“She's a little… big.” 

“Wolves are.” 

“Wolves also do not tend to be pets.” 

“She's not a pet.” 

“Then what is she?” 

“A friend.” 

“Oh.” 

Paul can think of nothing to add and Culber lies himself down on his bedding inside the shelter, pulling his blanket up cover himself, freeing him from thinking of one. Instead he turns in himself, closing his eyes in the now near total darkness, hoping that the general relaxation of the day will carry on into the night and stop him from dreaming. 

Instead the dream that night is worse than ever. 

Chapter Text

The open cave mouth looms before him. Heart pounding in his chest, he feels himself dragged inside by a force he can neither see nor counter.

The cave swallows him. It should be dark inside, there is no visible source of light, yet he can see perfectly. Though he increasingly wishes he didn't.

The walls and ceiling surrounding him are covered by tiles colored in a sickly green shade, the floor smooth, polished dark grey rock.

He struggles vainly against the pull, digs his heels into the slick stone but finds no purchase. Helplessly he gets pulled deeper and deeper inside.

All around, at the periphery of his vision, hovers creatures shaped like no natural being he has ever seen. Some of the shapes should not even be able to live with the form they have and yet they are all animate, limbs reaching for him as he is pulled along, the spectacle adding queasiness to his already growing sense of dread.  

‘There is nothing here to shy from.’ 

A cold and sibilant voice fills the world, fills him, making him cringe.  

‘When have you feared seeking knowledge? Seeking answers?’ it asks him.  

‘Never.’ The word forms in his mind but he refuses to speak, still he senses the approval of the voice's presence as if it has read his thought. The sensation makes his skin crawl.  

‘Come, and I will show you all that you seek. All that you desire to know.’  

‘What I desire?’ he bursts out, in spite of his intention of keeping silent. ‘What I desire is to be let go !’ 

‘No?’ the voice asks with false softness. ‘You do not want to see what lies ahead? You do not want to find the answers to the questions you have pursued your whole life? Do you not what to know ? What lies in the heart of magic? What could be done with it?’  

‘There is nothing in this place that exhibit any similarity with what I seek,’ he says, but his voice falters, his eyes darting around to the form that line the corridors. What are they? Are they truly as monstrous as they appear or is it merely him fearing what he does not yet understand?  

A set of double doors appear straight ahead of him. Upon them is emblazoned the sigil he always sees in his dream, the resonance of its power pushing against him as he is pulled towards it and the doors.  

He squirms in the merciless grip of the unseen force, futilely trying to pull away, the pulsating force quickly becoming unbearable against his dream form. But just as he can’t stand the pressure any longer the doors glide open. The shattered seal sends a concussive pulse of icy energy washing over him, breaking his momentum for an instant before he is pulled through the doors and into the room beyond.  

The room is immense, the walls and ceiling not even visible in the not-light. Far inside the room a dais rises imposingly from the floor, at its top a grandiose throne made of an unfamiliar metal and carved with vaguely familiar symbols rests. At the top of the throne’s back is embedded a glittering jewel and from it multicolored filaments travels down the stone stairs, reaching for him.  

Reaching. Reaching. Reaching.  

 

oOoOo  

 

Weary in a way he hasn’t been since he passed his final trials as a druid, Hugh struggles to stay awake as he lies under his blanket and waits for Stamets to fall asleep. It feels as if all abilities he has to refresh himself has been stripped from him. Or maybe not, perhaps more that his mind and body see no real reason for such artifices, would prefer normal sleep instead, and the magic of the glade pushing him towards it, away from using his magic to keep awake and alert. 

Veering his head, he sits up, shifting so he sits with his back against the side of the shelter, and looks at Stamets.  

The man hasn't stirred at the sound of Hugh rising. He lies curled up on his side breathing softly and evenly and Hugh has to fight an impulse to reach out and smooth down his blond hair that has been made unruly by sleep. 

He is very little like what Hugh expected of an Imperial wizard. Surprisingly kind, even gentle, and though inquisitive seemingly devoid of the power hunger that otherwise dominate that kind. And oddly... not quite innocent, but devoid of artifice and strangely credulous. How else could he not have realized the nature of what he was seeking? His shock and dismay what Hugh had pointed it out had rung true, so clearly, he hadn’t. 

But it presents Hugh with a much bigger problem. If Stamets isn’t seeking the ruins of Sepulcher to enhance his own power, if he is seeking them because of a recurring dream, then there is likely something far more sinister at work than simply a power-hungry wizard. And that is worrying indeed. 

Since the end of the Eldritch Was the druids had done all in their power to keep places such as Sepulcher in check and make sure that the destructive and malicious powers of that time did not come back. If something or someone were compelling Stamets to travel to those ruins, then it was his duty to stop them and him, by whatever means necessary. And if it fell beyond his abilities to do so then inform the Assembly so fuller measures could be taken. 

The most troubling thought was that something inside Sepulcher, something that had somehow lain there since the end of the Eldritch War, had awoken. It is a thought he tries hard not to think. Something that ancient, with enough power to compel Stamets, is a terrifying idea indeed. Though the thought of a living, breathing person, with the same ability and motive that could only be sinister, is scantly more comforting to him.  

But why Stamets? Living or dead, why reach so far away for a wizard? Surely to go so far afield, to try to compel someone who would be trained to resist such an attempt to impel him, there had to be some very specific reason. Though Hugh can’t begin to think of what that could be. 

Without meaning to, even though his thoughts are troubled, Hugh begins to nod off only to be brought wide awake by a sudden chill washing over him, making him shiver. Drowsily he sits up, eyes darting about, trying to locate what disturbed him. 

The sky is perfectly clear, the waxing crescent of the moon illuminating the clearing with its cool light, around him are all the usual soft sounds of a nighttime summer forest, yet in spite of this the air feels colder than on a deep winter’s night. 

A slight shift of something, a move that is no move of anything physical, draws his attention back to Stamets.  

The wizard lies rigid on his back, muscles tense, his breathing harsh and ragged.  

Now wide awake, Hugh can feel a malicious immaterial fog enveloping him. The hostility that emanates from the unreal shroud makes him act on pure instinct, opening himself to the energy around him though he knows that doing so in this glade will leave him even more susceptible to its enchantments. 

Perhaps the miasma senses him when he lets the strength of the world suffuse him, perhaps it has achieved what it was it came for, in either case no more has Hugh reached out into the world before the haziness retreats, too rapidly for him to sense more than that it was there and now it is gone.  

The moment it is gone Stamets starts awake. He sits up so fast he nearly bangs his head against the shelter’s low roofing the practically leaps out of the shelter itself, freezing in place the moment his feet touches the grass, poised like a deer about to flee. The quiet night air is filled with the sound of his rasping breath. 

Fearing that Stamets might indeed run if he is startled Hugh sits frozen un place as well, watching as Stamets forcibly calms himself, relaxing by a clear effort of will. Exhaling slowly Stamets shakes himself, pulls himself upright and makes his way across the clearing, over to the stream, Hugh following him silently with his eyes. Once Stamets the stream he begins to wade across it. 

Wondering what Stamets is up to, if he intends to walk out of the clearing, if he might be sleepwalking, Hugh quietly slips out of the shelter and trails behind him. But Stamets stops once he gets to the other side and sits down next to the rusalka's blood. In the dim light Hugh cannot make out exactly what he doing, only that he sits there, shoulders hunch over and knees pulled up to his chest. Uncertain Hugh draws closer until he can see him more clearly,  his arms are wrapped around his shins, his face are pressed against his knees and Hugh can now hear choked gasps escaping him. 

Unthinkingly Hugh wades across the stream as well, the water cool around his legs. The splashes as he walks through the water makes Stamets raise his hand and look at him. In the low light Hugh can see the glitter of wetness on his cheeks. Quickly Stamets brushes it away and takes a deep breath. 

“Did I wake you?” Stamets asks.

‘I was watching you.’  The words are on the tip of Hugh's tongue but he bites them back. 

“I'm a light sleeper,” he says instead, which is true enough in itself. 

“I apologize, I didn't mean to disturb your rest.” 

Hugh sits down next to him, the grass cool beneath him. 

“Nightmare?” he asks. 

For a moment or two Stamets sits quite still and Hugh begins to wonder if he has heard the question at all, but then he nods slowly. 

“That one?” 

Pulling a face Stamets lets out a bark of harsh laughter. 

“It seems to be the only one I can manage these days,” he bites out. 

His hands are resting on his knees, clenched into fists, the knuckles shining pale in the moonlight and his shoulders are shaking lightly. 

Instinctively Hugh reaches out and puts a hand on his shoulder, rubbing it gently. Stamets’ head snaps up towards him at the touch, a look of utter surprise on his face. 

“It... looked like it was really bad,” Hugh offers feeling how Stamets relaxes under his touch a little by a little. 

“It's never been this bad,” Stamets says grimacing, his voice strained. “Every time I dream, I get pulled further and further into those ruins. I don't want to be there, but in the dream I'm powerless to stop it. Tonight-” His voice breaks, his eyes screws shut and Hugh feels his trembling increase under his hand. 

Tentatively Hugh puts his arm around Stamets’ shoulders. Stamets’ eyes fly open and he looks wideeyed at Hugh, but does nothing to pull away and Hugh lets his hand soothingly rub his arm. 

“What happened tonight that was different from the other times?” he asks once Stamets is shaking less badly. 

“It nearly… got me.” Stamets lets out a shaky breath and presses minutely back against Hugh’s arm. “I don't want to know what happens when it does, but I'm so tired of fighting. I'm not sure how much longer I can hold this off.” 

With that he almost collapses in against Hugh, leaning heavily against his side and Hugh pulls him into a hug, patting him softly on the back. Stamets’ tremors are back, his fingers are clutching at the back of Hugh’s tunic and he can feel how the fabric at the shoulder grows damp where Stamets’ face is pressed against it. 

“I'll help you find answers. If I at all can,” Hugh promises because he cannot say nothing, cannot sit in silence and do nothing faced with this.  

There are things at work here he did not expect. He had expected a mundane threat, a single power-hungry wizard or possibly the frontrunner of a larger group that had their eyes set on digging into what should be left alone. Either was possible with Imperial wizards. But clearly there are other forces at work here, forces he had not foreseen. 

Even if he had no compassion for Stamets’ plight, the tale he gave of his dream is disturbing and even more so the implications of it. Combined with the chill he felt just before Stamets woke up hints of magic sent from one of those ancient places. And that is worrying indeed, if something in Sepulcher is calling to Stamets, trying to compel him to come to it, then there is a danger far greater than anything the Empire could muster here. 

But he cannot look at a person that is so clearly distressed and at the end of all endurance, and remain passive. A small smile creases his lips. Thal’eshka, Little Healer, was a nickname his druid teachers had given him when he was young, when faced with those who were hurt his first impulse had always been to help no matter who it was. 

Stamets gives no indication of whether or not he has heard him, only remains sitting with his face buried at Hugh’s shoulder, his breathing slowly evening out and his body growing heavier against his until Hugh realizes that the man has fallen asleep in his arms. 

Surprised Hugh looks down. Stamets’ head have turned slightly and is slightly tucked down so all Hugh can see is unruly blond hair and the tip of his nose. 

Had the dream and the fear it had brought night after night truly exhausted him this much that he’d simply doze off again? Or did the clearing and its magic play a role? 

The last thought leave Hugh uneasy. The magic of the clearing would certainly have left Stamets far more vulnerable to any magical sending or compulsion, unwittingly Hugh might have played straight into the hands of whatever, whoever, was behind that magic, offering Stamets up as an easier target than he would otherwise have been. 

But why hadn’t he sensed the sending the other nights when Stamets had dreamt? Could the one who was behind it have been so subtle, or cast the magic so focused only on Stamets that he had missed it until it too was subjected to the magic of the glade? 

Whatever the reason he now knew that there was magic of some sort at play and that the most dangerous part of all of this was not a single wizard. All of this giving him all the more reason to act. 

Hugh swears silently. Whatever is happening there is much more to it than he had could ever have imagined. 

However, all of this is a problem for tomorrow, there is nothing that he can do about any of it at this time. But he does have another more immediate issue. Stamets is fast asleep, his hands still holding on to Hugh’s tunic. If he gets up it is likely that the man will wake up and, as exhausted as he clearly is, Hugh prefers to let him sleep. Yet sitting here for the rest of the night isn’t appealing, they will both be cramping head to foot tomorrow if he does. 

But if neither getting up, nor remaining as he is, is an option, perhaps lying down is. While the grass and earth are cool, the night air is warm, they shouldn’t freeze and Hugh has slept on harder surfaces in his life than thick, soft grass. 

Moving slowly, one arm wrapped around the wizard's body to support him, Hugh lies back down on the grass, positioning Stamets so his head is resting on Hugh's shoulder. The man still stubbornly refuses to let go of him, so this is the most comfortable position he can put both of them in. 

The coolness of the ground seeps through his tunic, but the warmth from Stamets’ body more than makes up for it. He could make a suitable heater. And as he lies there, arms wrapped around the softly snoring Stamets Hugh slips, unnoticed to himself, into a deep sleep. 

 

He is woken by the sunlight jabbing his eyes. Blinking he sits up, blanket sliding down his torso and pools in his lap, his mind foggy and filled with confusion as to why he’s lying on the grass, berating himself for falling asleep at all, before he calls the events of the night. 

Baffled he looks down at the blanket. It hadn’t been there last night, he hadn’t been able to get up and get one, yet now it is here. Looking up again he sees Stamets sitting by the shelter eating slowly, staring blindly ahead into nothing. The blanket has to be his doing, unless it somehow magically appeared on its own. Maybe he had thought Hugh would get cold lying on the ground on his own? 

Hugh gets to his feet and picking up the blanket. The movement catches Stamets’ eye and he studies Hugh silently as he approaches. 

“Thank you,” Hugh says, holding the blanket up.  

Stamets waves his hand dismissively his gaze flickering away. 

Shrugging Hugh folds up the blanket, returns it to his bedding and dig out one of the wrapped rations. Biting into it, tasting the sweet mix of dried fruit, nuts baked together with honey, he finds himself studying Stamets again. 

The man is clearly lost in thought and seemingly unaware of the world around him, including Hugh's scrutiny. Or possibly not.  

Abruptly he turns his head and meets Hugh’s eyes in a very direct manner. 

“I apologize for last night,” he says. “I did not intend to get that… familiar with you. I regret any discomfort I may have caused.” 

Hugh frowns. Of all that Stamets could possibly have said, this was the least expected. 

“What gave you the idea I was uncomfortable?” 

Stamets lips pinches tightly together. 

“Surely men breaking down crying on your shoulder is not a normal phenomenon,” he says sounding incredulous. 

For a moment all Hugh can do is stare at him. 

When he was young, just after he had passed his final trials as a druid, Hugh had traveled the lands that lay just on the other side of the Sunspire Mountains. Though the Empire had pulled all presences except a token number of troops out of those areas after their failed invasion of Sirine the druids still kept an eye on them so they would be able to forestall events should the Empire wish to invade again. But if the Empire was barely physically present in the area their mindset still very much dominated local sentiment in every way, among them the very odd ideas about what was and wasn’t proper behavior for men and women alike. 

That had been the main reason why his own stay there had been brief, it was not a task he was suited for, the kind of dissembling necessary for him to stay out of trouble was very much beyond him.  

He doesn’t know why he hadn’t expected this kind of view from Stamets, perhaps because it was so alien to himself that he had all but forgotten Imperial views on the matter. He finds he’s no more comfortable with the idea now than he was back then. 

“I will never understand the belief that someone shouldn’t cry when in pain or distress,” he says. “That is a perfectly natural response. Just as offering comfort to someone in distress is. What else would you have had me do?” 

Stamets doesn't seem to have an answer to that, he simply looks at Hugh a look of utter bafflement on his face before nervously looking away. 

“I just didn't want to impose myself on you. Or take advantage of your kindness,” he says softly, not looking up. 

“You didn't.” 

Stamets nods, still not meeting Hugh's eyes, his fingers flexing softly as they lie in his lap. 

Hugh never takes his eyes off him, still struggling to comprehend him, and though Stamets doesn’t even look in his direction he seems to sense Hugh’s scrutiny, fidgeting beneath it. 

“There was something else as well,” Stamets says after a long, uncomfortable pause. 

“Yes?” 

“I've been considering your promise last night and though I very much do appreciate the offer, I can't drag you into this. It's far too dangerous.” 

The cool primness of Stamets’ tone rubs against something already sore inside Hugh and igniting his ire. 

“I know those dangers,” he snaps. “Far better than you do. That's part of why I made that promise. I know those ruins Stamets, I’ve been deep inside others of the same kind. I've seen what is still left from that war with my own eyes. I’ve fought it. And if whatever it is that is calling to you gets loose? Then Sirine will be its first field of battle. My land, my people, will be the first to suffer. And I don’t know if an Imperial can understand this, but there is nothing, nothing, I wouldn't do or sacrifice to stop that from happening.” 

The ferocity in his voice makes Stamets look up at him, finally, freezing in place when he meets Hugh's gaze. 

Before he can say anything else, something that may give away even more than he already has, Hugh turns away and ducks into the shelter and begins to pack his things together, anger and outrage simmering just beneath his skin. After a moment Stamets joins him, stiffly gathering his belonging together as well. 

Hugh finishes as quickly as he can and ducks back out, fiddling with the buckle on his bag as he tries his best to distract himself from the infuriating man. Out of the corner of his eye Hugh sees Stamets duck out too and look at him for a moment before politely clearing his throat. 

A sharp remark forms on Hugh's tongue which he immediately bites back. 

“I think I may have sounded dismissive or condescending before,” Stamets says courteously. “That was not my intention and I apologize. It is just that this will likely be a very dangerous endeavor and I hate the thought of someone else getting hurt or killed on my account. I wanted to give you a chance to back out while it is still possible.” 

“It was too late long before we met,” Hugh says, thinking wryly of what he knows and suspects about the situation. If he is even partially right then it was indeed much too late for him to avoid this danger. 

“What do you mean?” 

The truth coalesce on Hugh's tongue but he swallows it back, merely shaking his head. 

“Saddle your horse and lets get going,” is all he says. 

As they leave the clearing, Hugh walking beside Stamets who is once more leading Bella by the reins, Stamets stops and looks back at the clearing, an odd expression on his face. 

“Did you forget something?” Hugh asks. 

"No, I-” Stamets pulls himself upright and veers his head. “Never mind, it’s nothing.” 

With that he turns away from the clearing again and follows Hugh’s lead. 

Chapter Text

Paul once again finds himself distracted as they continue their journey, but now it is not his nightmare or its disturbing content that occupies his mind. Though one might have thought so considering yesterday’s and the nights disturbing revelations.  

Rather it is Culber. And perhaps it is the more mundane nature of this problem that appeals as a distraction against something he barely knows how to fight. Of course, the more personal nature of this concern holds its own kind of terrors. 

He has never met a man like Culber before. Any man Paul can think of would have been uncomfortable with lasts night’s events, most would simply have left him be until he got himself back together again. He can’t recall the last time he cried, much less had a compassionate audience for it. It all makes him wonder how Culber would have reacted to the knowledge that Paul had woken up practically on top of him. He had certainly seemed genuinely upset that Paul had tried to apologize for getting so familiar with him. 

Paul still recalls the feeling of waking up pressed against a warm body, a solid pair of arms wrapped around him. How safe he had felt in that brief instance before remembering where he was and how he'd ended up there. 

He vehemently pushes the memory away. He promised himself years ago that he wouldn’t go there, never again. 

But it seems impossible not to think about it with Culber so close. Perhaps it is simply that the path is wider now, with further between the trees and less undergrowth, but rather than walking ahead as he has for the last few days Culber is now walking next to him instead. His proximity is discomforting. And distracting, Paul constantly finds his gaze wandering sideways to the man. 

He believes Culber either doesn’t notice, or pays his looks no heed as the man makes no comment on it but the silence only lasts until they stop for their midday rest. 

Paul is sitting with his back up against a tree, lightly holding on the Bella’s reins as she grasses beside him and looking up through the trees’ leafy crowns at the overcast sky above, trying his damnedest not to look at Culber who’s sitting a few feet away, cross-legged on the forest floor, hands resting on his knees. 

“If you have something to say, perhaps you should,” Culber says, interrupting the silence that has otherwise reigned since morning. 

Paul lowers his gaze and is met with a very direct one from Culber. 

“No, I- What do you mean?” 

“You’ve kept glancing at me as if you want something.” 

“I- No- No, no- I-” 

Paul casts about for a topic, any topic, other than what is on his mind to ask about. 

“The ruins,” he says as that is the only other thing he can think of in that moment. “You said you know them.” 

“I know some things,” Culber says slowly. 

“Tell me about them.” 

“What is there to tell? They’re are remnants from the Eldritch War that still exists because they cannot be destroyed.” Culber stops, looking off in the trees before continuing. “Most are cleansed now of the twisted magic Imran and his fellows used, they're nothing more than stone and bricks like any other building. Though for some reason the descendants of the creature the sorcerers back then created are still drawn to them, there's always a greater chance of running into one of those creatures there than anywhere else in Sirine.” 

“’Most are’. So there are some that aren't?” 

“Yes. A few have resisted any attempt to cleanse them. Like Sepulcher.” 

“And these are the ones who are protected?” 

Culber gives him a speculative look. 

“The druids keep a close eye on both, but only the ruins still tainted are warded.” 

This time Paul can't contain an incredulous noise at the mention of druids. If they are the ones guarding them he should have no problem getting close. 

Culber raises an eyebrow at the sound. 

“You find this amusing?” 

“No I, um…” 

He looks away busying himself with fiddling with Bella's bridle, much to her irritation.  

“What?” Culber presses. Doesn't look like he's going to let it slide. 

“It's just…” 

“Just what?” 

“From what I've heard they are perhaps not… the most reliable group.” 

“And what exactly have you heard? What do they say about druids in the Empire?” 

“Well…” Culber remains silent, studying Paul carefully and Paul can feel himself blush. “That they're charlatans.” 

Culber stares at him for several long moments and Paul begins to wonder if he's angered him when Culber bursts out laughing. 

“I see,” Culber says amicably when his laughter finally subsides and Paul exhales a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. “Though I would offer you a piece of advice if I may?” 

“Certainly.” 

“Don't go calling the druids that here. In Sirine they're very well respected and people might take your words the wrong way.” 

“I shall certainly remember that. Do you share the general respect for the druids?”  

The question ears him another bout of laughter. 

“Yes I do indeed have the highest respect for the druids,” he eventually says between chuckles. 

Culber strikes him as an astute and intelligent man not easy misled, but it seems that the druids may have ingrained themselves deeply in Sirinese society and looking beyond societal biases can be most difficult Paul knows. Still he should be glad that his opinion haven't angered his guide. 

“Yet you find the idea amusing?” Paul can't resist asking. 

“Very,” Culber replies as he gets to his feet and brush dirt and leaves off his breeches, gesturing ofr Paul to do the same. It appears it is time to go again. 

Yet Paul finds himself unable to fully let it slide. 

“Why?” 

“I have my reasons.” 

With that cryptic reply, Culber begins walking. 

 

oOoOo  

 

Hugh struggles to contain his mirth as they continue, but can't quite keep his lips from twitching? 

So that is what the Empire tells itself about the druids then? It does make certain things fall in to place for him. During his travels on the other side of the mountain border he had not heard mentions of druids once, nor about any magic used during the invasion other than that of the employed by their own wizards. He had not thought of it at the time, his concerns had been on other matters, but if the Empire truly believes the druids to be shams then it made sense. As did the tales he faintly recalls about the major natural disasters that had struck the area at the end of the war. Even to people on the Imperial side of the mountains who lived there the involvement of the druids had been erased so much that they believed it was simply nature who had changed the landscape, rather than magic. 

His amusement fades as he thinks about it further. 

It made little sense to him that the history of events would have been rewritten that much, but that appeared to be what had happened. 

Though perhaps it would be best to leave things as they were then. He had not yet revealed what he was to Stamets and perhaps not doing so at all would be the wiser choice? Not only would he most likely run into some difficulties in convincing the man of what he was, though that would not be insurmountable, but if the Empire genuinely had forgotten about the druids and what they were capable off, then would it not be the best course to keep it that way? 

Though the Empire was quite for the moment, it was quite possible that it would at some point in the future turn its attention north and east again to Sirine and in that case them not knowing the full capabilities that Sirine could muster would be an advantage. If the Empire and its College trained battle wizards did not know about the druids, they could not prepare from them any more than they could last time. And however much he might feel empathy for Stamets, whatever doubts and disputes the man may seem to have with his past and his people, he was still an Imperial wizard and still of the College. 

No, silence was surely the best option. 

But choosing to say nothing leaves him with another problem. How exactly to help and more specifically how to find out anything about the entity that was pursuing the wizard and the magic he had sensed last night. If a sending or some sort of compelling spell that was, he would need to find out more to counter it, not to mention try and uncover information of who or what was behind it. By choosing silence he will have to operate surreptitiously so Stamets remained unaware of his abilities. 

Though perhaps that is less of a problem than he initially thought. If last night was any indication Stamets would remain asleep through a good portion of the dream and therefore while the spell was active. That would give Hugh time to act. With a bit of luck, if he acted quickly before the spell and therefore the dream took hold, Stamets might sleep through all of it leaving him none the wiser. And with a full night’s sleep. 

The best way to go about it would be to lay a form of trap. Lay in wait until the sending arrived, then study it as long as he could before detected. Hugh knows that form of scrutiny would not go undetected by the sender forever and that once he was discovered he might have to fight. But that too could yield information he needed. Or the sender might choose to retreat as it had last night. 

Either way he would know more than he did now, then he would have a fuller idea of what was happening and more information on which to make decisions. 

 

Just like all the other nights Hugh feigns going to sleep, not stirring from his bedding until Stamets' slow, even breath indicates that he is fast asleep. Only then does Hugh slowly and silently sit up. 

Time to set his trap. 

Sitting cross-legged on the bedding, hands resting on his knees, he focuses on his breathing, falling into that specific rhythmic pattern he needs to remain as a passive part of the world as he opens himself up to it. That way he will be much harder to discover even if the one who is behind the sending should search for him. 

Bit by bit he becomes aware of the world around him in a wholly different way, as the energies of ada'ori flows through and around him. He senses the grass and plants beneath and around him, the trees and bushes of the forest,  the nighttime wildlife moving about and the day dwellers who now quietly rests. As always the vibrancy of life itself, the sense of the endless, complex cycle awes and exhilarats him, but he makes certain not to let himself be carried away by the rushing flow pf impressions, impulses and intoxication, that way lies destruction. It is as always a delicate balance of moving with the flow and directing it into the desired path. 

He brings his attention back to himself, the clearing and to Stamets. 

Stamets feels cold compared to the warm life surrounding them, cold and clear, like sunlight trapped in an icicle, just before it is broken into all the color of the rainbow. Focused, contained somehow. And very, very beautiful. 

Chastising himself silently Hugh pulls his attention away from Stamets. As captivating as Stamets might be to observe he can afford neither the distraction fro his task, nor the risk that his scrutiny wakes him. It would easily lead to questions he does not wish to answer. 

Letting his mind rest in itself, his attention passively observing his immediate surroundings, Hugh lets the night pass as he waits for his prey to make its move. The moon glides across the black, cloudless sky and begins to dip beneath the treetops, sinking the clearing into deeper darkness. 

Perhaps nothing will come this night? By Stamets' words he is not visited every night. Well in that case there is always tomorrow night and the one after that. There should be a good chance of a visit from the sending before they reach Galeah. 

Yet just as Hugh has begun to accept that this night's vigil has been in vain he perceives a change in the world around him. A chill of a kind that Hugh has never sensed outside any of the old ruins, undulates through the clearing toward the place where Stamets lies sleeping. It stops, hovers for an instant before cautiously proceeding again, only to repeat the process a few heartbeats later. 

The chill feels so wrong is makes his skin crawl and everything in him scream to move  now , to be rid of it. But that would leave him no wiser than he is now so he fights back the impulse and remains impassive, letting the sending approach them both. 

As it closes on Stamets Hugh can feel its focus change, narrow in on the wizard. Only then does he dare study it closer. 

It pulsates with the same kind of twisted strength that he recalls feeling in the ruins and in some of the beasts that are part of Sirine’s legacy from the Eldritch War, but he feels in it a depth and power unlike anything he has ever encountered. Yet casual, distant study will only give him so much, and much less than he needs. So though he knows that there might be dangers Hugh decides to move closer, maybe try to interact with the sending, though doing that may end in a battle. 

Still he moves slowly and cautiously. Every moment he remains undetected is one more where he may learn something without risk and without alerting his opponent. 

Just as the sending reaches Stamets does Hugh touch it, his self brushing against the magic, feeling it, feeling the one behind it. The sense of ancient stones, carved into harsh shapes almost overwhelms him, along with a rush of fury and dismay. 

Then it is gone, dissolved into the night like it was never there. Hugh leaps to his feet, casting about with his senses both mundane and magical, but no trace of the sending is left. 

 

oOoOo  

 

Paul tumbles out of his dream, his heart beating fast in his chest and his breath coming in short, sharp pants, as if he had been running. But this time it isn't fear that fills his body and mind as he wakes. Instead his memories of the already fading dream are filled with the feeling of a strong arm wrapped around him, a bearded cheek press against his own and warm breath gusting over his lips, all the while a strong, sweet scent enveloped him. The hazy memory of those sensations is leaving a low, simmering heat underneath his skin. 

He lies perfectly still on his bedding, blinking and tries to find out what woke him as it is barely dawn and his usual nightly visitation have not happened. 

Still there is something in the air that his half sleeping mind struggles to grasp, a thrumming of power, unlike any he has ever felt in his life. Almost like a rapidly coursing river washing over him, or a howling gale. It might have made him worried had he been more awake, or if he was sensing any hostility from it. But all he senses is an incredible intensity. 

Regaining his bearings, he notices Culber standing in the middle of the clearing, awake and alert, his body silhouetted clearly against the night’s sky, visible among the trees, back towards where Paul lies. The power feels like it is emanating from him. No, not emanating, focusing it, Culber isn’t the origin of this, but where it gathers and gains momentum. 

As he watches in silences Culber relaxes and the thrumming feeling fades away, leaving their camp as it had always been. 

Paul frowns, lying still trying to make sense of it all and when Culber turns around he quickly closes his eyes, feigning sleep. Whatever just happened he wants to think it through before confronting his guide with what he just experienced. 

As he lies there, he hears Culber return to his sleeping spot and settle down, sighing heavily. Paul can hear his breathing remaining quick and Culber constantly shifts as if he cannot find rest. 

For himself Paul also believes he may remain awake, his mind filled with a thousand questions. What was it that just happened? What kind of power was it that Culber could wield? Was any of it even real, or just strange figment of a half waking mind already filled with images of the man? Yet in spite of the barrage of questions that fills his thoughts and the niggling concerns of why he dreamt of his guide, Paul drifts off to sleep once more. 

 

oOoOo  

 

Hugh remains awake for the rest of night, sitting cross-legged on his bedding, eyes on Stamets’ sleeping form, unable and unwilling to let go of the questions that fills his mind. The little knowledge he had gained had only bred more questions and no solutions. 

What had sent that magic? The feeling of something age old was disturbing, but lend credence to worries that had already begun to form in the back of his mind, worries he was not yet ready to put into words.  

But why had it fled from him? Alone he was no match for the being behind it, he knew that and yet it had run like a freighted deer. It made no sense to him. It had been willing to tangle with a wizard of Stamets’ caliber, but not with him? 

The silent night yields no answers. 

 

oOoOo  

 

When Paul wakes again he is groggy and feels not quite himself, so Culber’s silent almost taciturn behavior is welcome as it lets him mind his own thoughts in peace. 

His mind keeps turning over the events of the night, the vague impressions from his dream that still lingers in his mind, until he feels even more exhausted from it than his usual nightmare leaves him. The irony of that is not entirely lost on him. 

Again and again he finds his gaze wandering to Culber. He looks so normal, no different from what Paul would expect a hunter to, with his practical clothes and well-worn weapons, even the short-trimmed beard getting ever so slightly wild and the short braids that his hair is kept in fits that image. But what he sensed last night, if sense it he did, does not. Even an arch mage would be hard pressed to handle such powers and Culber looks and acts nothing like one. 

Perhaps he should simply ask, though the thought of Culber possibly laughing again does not sit well with him. 

So occupied is he that he doesn’t notice the gradual changing in their surroundings. How the trees begin to stand further apart and there are less and less undergrowth. Nor does he notice how Culber’s posture changes, from idle to alert. Only Culber’s sudden cry, “Stamets, defend yourself!”, pulls him from his reverie just as an arrow whistles through the space between him and Culber. 

Chapter Text

His mind filled with the events of the night before Hugh doesn’t realize the danger he and Stamets are in until their assailants are upon them. But there is no time to berate himself for the inattention, barely an instant to warn his companion as an arrow shoot past them. 

He steps away from Stamets, facing two oncoming assailants.  

He’s never seen the men coming towards him before, but he recognizes the adornments of the Tirgan on their armor and blades, the stylize images that references their worship of the Imran and his cohort and all that had to do with the world before the Eldritch War. 

Measuring his two opponents Hugh draws his knife from its sheath. Had he been anyone but who and what he is, a knife against sword would have left him dead and quickly, but his ability to touch Ada’Ori more than evens those odds.  

Reaching out and letting the world flow through him, the surroundings steps into clearer focus. He senses the swirling energy of all the living things around him, Stamets, Bella, their attackers and thus he senses the man trying to creep up behind him, attempting an ambush. 

Spinning on his feet Hugh ambushes the ambusher, catching him by surprise, and drives his knife into the gap in his armor, beneath his arm, cutting one of the major arteries. 

A loud, sharp neigh from Bella draws his attention to where Stamets is struggling to keep her under control. He’s bravely hanging on to her reigns, trying to calm her as she keeps rearing back up, her hooves flailing in the air. Around the pair two more Tirgan are circling, vainly trying to get close but unable to get past her. A third attacker is lying on the ground, the injury to his head indicating that Bella have already claimed one kill. 

The brief distraction almost proves fatal for Hugh and if not for his enhanced awareness he would never have been able to dodge the blade headed for his chest. As it is, he only evades it by the narrowest of margins. 

He staggers and barely succeeds in regaining his balance to counter an attack from the other Tirgan, blocking that blade with his own. 

Both his opponents grins at him, one of them waving his sword, trying to goad him into action, distract him again, or both. 

But now Hugh is wary. He backs away from the two others slowly, waiting for that split instance of an opening where he can strike. Vaguely he’s aware of Stamets’ struggles with his horse and the two other Tirgan but he can spare none of his attention for it if he wants to survive this. He knows that. Whatever else the Tirgan might be their raiding bands are capable warriors. 

In the back of his mind he has a sense of Shadow, distant but closing, fearful that her “pack mate” is in danger and she perhaps too far off to help him. 

The Tirgan on his left swings at him, forcing him back one more step, while the second leaps forward hoping to slip beneath his guard. Hugh barely dodges both moves and finds himself further separated from Stamets. Out of the corner of his eye he can see the wizard still trying to keep hold of his horse, Bella's hoofs his only protection. 

Why doesn't he use his magic to fight them?  

The stray thought is pushed aside as his two opponents makes another assault. He has to end this and end this now. Much as he's always loathed to use his abilities directly to harm or kill, they are his only advantage and one he has to press if he wants himself and Stamets to live, that much is clear. 

Never removing his attention from the two men Hugh stretches out in Ada'ori, feel its flow through both of them, the way it shapes their moves and are shaped by their moves. He pushes at it, disrupts its course, sending them off balance. They stagger and Hugh strikes like a viper, his knife finding the throat of the one to his left. The other almost manages to regain his balance, but Hugh kicks out his feet from under him. The Tirgan drops to his knees and Hugh’s knife severs his jugular vein. 

Hugh spins on his feet towards Stamets, finding the man in deep predicament. There’s no sign of Bella, she must finally have torn loose and bolted. Only one of the Trigan can be seen, closing rapidly, cudgel raised, on Stamets who’s leaning heavily against a tree, white faced and his left arm hanging limply at his side, staring frozen at his oncoming attacker. 

Dammit, why doesn’t the man do anything?  

With his bow unstrung and his knife unbalanced and not meant for throwing, it is impossible for Hugh to physically stop the Tirgan. And as Stamets appears incapacitated in his own way, if his life is to be saved Hugh knows he must act. 

With neither time to think, strategize or for any kind of subtly Hugh uses his sense of Ada’ori, feels it flow through the forest floor, the earth, the grass and the roots of the few surrounding trees. He pushes at the flow in the roots, encourages their growth, so that what would normally take a decade takes but a heartbeat, and persuades them to grow up out of the ground. 

They rip open the surface of the earth, snakes around the legs of the Tirgan, one errant root with a will of its own jabbing through the man’s chest like a wooden pike. 

And with that, it is over. Five bodies on the ground, with no sign of their sixth attacker. He must have run off. 

That worries Hugh. If these Tirgan were part of a larger raiding party, he may have run for reinforcements. They would do well to be away as quickly as possible.  

But a quick look at Stamets determines that there are things that needs tending too before they can leave. 

Hugh quickly wipes the blood off the blade of his knife before sheathing it as he walks towards Stamets. The man is even paler than usual, his skin having a slight greenish cast to it as he stands still leaning against the tree, staring hypnotized at the Tirgan impaled on the tree roots. 

“Stamets. Stamets!” 

Jumping, wincing at the sudden move, Stamets tears his gaze away from the dead Tirgan to Hugh. 

“I think my arm is broken,” he says nonsensically. 

“Let me see,” Hugh says, gently taking hold of his arm but in spite of the delicacy of his touch Stamets still lets out a hiss and his breath shudders as Hugh examines it. 

“It’s definitely broken,” he confirms, even without resorting to his powers he can feel the break in bone in the upper arm. “I’ll have to set it and then we have to leave.” If they had more time, any time at all, he could heal it, but not her, not now. 

“But-“ 

“But what?” 

“What about Bella? We can’t just leave her to run around on her own.” 

Hugh studies Stamets carefully. Pale faced and clearly in pain, but the worry in his eyes are equally clear. While he had experienced Stamets’ concern for his mount first hand, he had not thought it would remain when his own life and health was at risk.  

‘Would he give another human, someone who wasn’t an Imperial, the same consideration?’ Hugh briefly wonders. 

“We have no time to look for her, nor the opportunity. The Tirgan might come back and we should try to be far away from here, headed somewhere safe, if they do return.” 

“Tirgan?” 

For a moment Hugh had forgotten that Stamets would likely be unfamiliar with the people and the name. 

“The group that attacked us. They're called Tirgan.” 

“Why-“ 

“I'll answer as many of your questions as I can later. Right now, I have to set this and then we have to be away,” he cuts Stamets off. The man has the look of someone who’d raise a thousand objection if allowed. Another time Hugh would have accommodated him, but the situation does not permit him. 

The soft noise of paws rapidly beating against the ground, rustling leaves, dry grass and twigs, interrupts them as Shadow comes charging, skidding to a halt near Hugh, looking expectantly at him. 

*Bad Smell Ones? * He senses her words, that are not quite words, in his mind. 

Communicating with a wolf, or any animal, is nothing like talking to a human or an elf. Every concept is so different, relies or prioritizes different sense, different ideas. Wolves, like so many predators, think of the world in scents rather than imagines or sounds and to Shadow, Tirgans were Bad Smell Ones. 

Hugh hesitates.  

He can only really communicate with her through Ada'ori and so far he has tried to be conspicuous, to avoid arousing too much suspicion from Stamets.  

But it is only for a moment before he realizes how absurd his caution is now. There is no way Stamets could have missed his powers in the battle that just happened, not if he's any kind of wizard. And even if he didn't sense the magic itself, the dead Tirgan, wrapped in tree roots next to them, speak its own clear language. No, whatever his past plans were, the possibility of hiding and subterfuge have vanished. 

Deciding quickly he lets go of Stamets' arm and kneels down in front of her and takes her head in his hands. 

*Dead. One run off ,* he tells her. 

*Hunt?

He can sense he her being vibrating with excitement as the prospect. 

*No! * he tells her firmly, wanting to discourage any idea of her going after the Tirgan. They are as cruel to animals as they are to humans and he doesn't want her caught by them. Besides there is another thing he needs from her, something that would solve Stamets’ concern regarding his horse. 

*Horse. Bella ,* he tells her, conjuring up the best image of Stamets' steed that he can that she would understand. *Find her. Bring her to me .* 

*Find? Find horse? * Her own idea of horse is different than his, but he feel her understanding of what he means. *Not hunt. Bring ,” she finishes. 

*Yes. Bring, * Hugh confirms. *Avoid Bad Smell Ones. Now go.

Without further ado Shadow twice circles the spot where Bella struggled before speeding off into the forest. Hugh watches her rush off with a smile. For all that wolves have some very elaborate social rituals; they are never ones for small talk. 

He gets to his feet, meeting Stamets’ curious stare. 

“What was that? I felt... something,” Stamets says. 

“I told her to go after Bella. She can find her quicker and better than we can, all the while avoiding the Tirgan.”  

Stamets goes a little wide eyed, looking in the direction Shadow ran off in. 

“Um- She’s... a wolf.” 

“Yes. But she knows friends from prey, she won’t harm your horse. Now let me tend your arm.” 

He’ll need something hard and straight to support the broken bone and something to tie that to it with. He pulls out four arrows from his quiver, deftly snaps the head off each in turn, tugging those into his bag as he pulls out a couple of bandages. They’ll do for tying with. 

“I’ll try not to faint,” Stamets says. 

Hugh looks at him frowning. 

“I broke my other arm when I was a child,” Stamets answers his unasked question. “I remember how much it hurt to get it set.” 

“I think I can do something about the pain, if you’re willing,” Hugh says. It hadn’t occurred to him to try this without at least trying to numb the pain, but of course Stamets couldn’t know that, wouldn’t know the extent of Hugh’s abilities. Though there might be complications, so a word of caution is prudent. “Though I do not know if your abilities will interfere with mine.” 

“Let’s try it, I’m not really looking forward to this otherwise. I’m not looking forward to it at all, but if you can do something to lessen the pain perhaps you won’t have to pick me up off the ground,” Stamets says in a frosty tone. 

Hugh lets it slide. People are never their best when injured and in pain. Instead he nods and puts a hand on Stamet’s shoulder. 

“Try not to resist me,” he says gently. 

Once again he opens himself to Ada’ori. He can feel the throbbing pain in Stamets’ arm, where the body protest the injury and how it is trying to numb the pain, though on its own it cannot do enough to deaden the feeling of such a grave injury. But with a bit of help it is possible. Gently Hugh encourages the process, letting the body’s own flow drown out the pain and he hears Stamets draw a deep, shuddering breath. 

“It helped?” Hugh asks. 

“Yes, quite a bit. Thank you.” 

“Good. Still you will feel this, it cannot erase the pain entirely. Hold these,” he finishes, handing Stamets the headless arrow shafts, draping the bandages over his own shoulder. 

Taking hold of Stamets’ arm above and below the break, still feeling the injury through Ada’ori, he moves the broken bone together again. Stamets gives a quiet gasp and a convulsive swallow. 

Bone set, Hugh takes the arrows again, putting two on each side of the arm, tying them in place. With the last bandage he creates a sling to support the arm. 

“There. That is as much as I can do for now. I’ll take a look at it again once we have the time to rest. Now we really have to go.” 

“What about...” Stamets nods in the direction which Shadow disappeared in. 

“Shadow can find us. Or rather, me. She can sense me no matter where I am.” 

“Convenient.” 

“Sometimes. At others- Let's say there are times where it’s been  very  inconvenient.” 

Stamets looks at him with curiosity, but Hugh decides to says nothing more on the topic. It’s not something he wants to discuss with a stranger. 

 

oOoOo  

 

As they walk whatever it was that Culber did to numb the pain begins to fade, along with the remaining trees, giving way to a landscape of grass covered, rolling hills, dotted with flowers and thriving bushes. But with the resurgence of the pain Paul barely notices the change, even the heat of the day, from the sun now high in the sky above them, goes unnoticed by him. The only things on his mind except the next step and the one after that as he walks behind Culber is the nagging worry about Bella and a constant irritation at his own ineptness that landed him, and her, in this predicament. If he had been any use in battle this wouldn’t have happened. Even the mystery of how Culber did what he did, with the roots, to numb the pain, can distract him from his thoughts going around and round on these two topics. 

“How far can you walk?” Culber asks out of nowhere, interrupting Paul’s whirling thoughts and general misery. 

“However far you need me to,” he says determined. He’ll be a liability no longer. 

Culber eyes him doubtfully. 

“Don't overestimate your abilities out of some misguided form of pride. I need to be sure how far you can travel.” 

Paul squares him with a look, digging in his heels. 

“I repeat, as far as you need me to. It won't be fast and I won't enjoy it, but I can do it.” He can. He knows he can. No matter what he will do it. 

Culber nods, accepting Paul’s words without further protest. 

“Good. There is a place I thought to head. It is some way from here and it is not as defensible or secure as I would like, but it's within reasonable distance. Still it will take us most of today to get there at the current pace.” 

“Lead on.” Paul gestures with his healthy arm for him to get going.  

They have gone a little while when he continues, “You really are worried about those, what was it you called them? Tirgan? Coming back?” 

“Their behavior is atypical. They never come this far into Sirine, not in groups, not to raid. I don't know what they were doing here or why. That worries me, I have no idea what they will or won't do right now. So I prefer that we're as far away from them as possible.” 

Before Paul can ask any more the sound of rapidly approaching hoof beats can be heard from behind. He turns to see Bella running at break neck pace down one hill towards them. 

“Bella!” 

He steps forward but Culber puts a hand on his shoulder, holding him back. 

“Let me grab her. She’s spooked and you shouldn’t jostle your arm.” 

He steps ahead of Paul, into Bella’s path. Paul thinks his horse may veer off rather than run into person, perhaps start and rush off in a different direction and they'll have to chase her, but then he feels that same pull he did earlier during the battle when the roots shot out of the ground. But this is softer. And Bella continues her run, right up to Culber, and stops right in front of him though she is still shaking as he takes her reins. 

“Easy there, easy. It’s okay now,” Culber says, tenderly placing a hand on her neck, letting it glide slowly down to her shoulder and Paul feels a continued sense of the world around him vibrating. “Easy. You’re safe. See who’s here?” 

He waves at Paul who slowly steps forward, into her sight and stands beside Culber. She's already much calmer, far calmer than he’d have thought she could get in such a short timespan. 

Resting a hand lightly on her flank he mutters, “There girl, there. It’s been a Saints’ bedamned day haven’t it? You deserve a treat after all of that.” 

Going to dig into the saddlebag for her treat bag, he sees Shadow sitting on top of the nearest hill, looking down at them. 

“Um, thank you,” Paul calls out to her. 

Tongue lolling out of her mouth, she grins at him. 

“We need to get going again,” Culber says. “How is your-“ 

“My arm is fine!” Paul snaps, suddenly irritated at the everything, just wanting to get to wherever they're camping tonight and have this thrice damned day end. 

Taking Bella's reins from Culber's hands, he looks directly at him. 

“Which way?” he asks tersely, half hoping that Culber will say something more that’ll let him let his temper flare. 

But Culber says nothing but turns and begins to walk again, letting Paul make his way behind him. When Paul looks back over his shoulder he sees Shadow making up the rear, trotting along on top of the hills. 

 

oOoOo  

 

When they finally make it to their destination Paul is so tired and his arm hurting so much he's barely capable of taking in their surroundings, only vaguely noticing the small lean-to placed against the steep side of a hill, seeing neither the crate of firewood next to it, the small box of supplies stashed in the back or any of the other amenities. And when Culber gently takes Bella's reins from him, he's too drained to do anything but let him. 

With a loud groan Paul drops down to sit on the edge of the lean-tos floor, his groan turning to a whimper when the impact jars his arm. Sitting there he watches numbly while unsaddles Bella, patting her neck when he's done. 

“Remember to tether her,” Paul says wearily, though from where he finds the energy to speak, he'll has no idea. 

Culber walks to the shelter and sits down beside Paul, shaking his head. 

“It's better for her if she can just run off if anything bad happens. And she won't go anywhere unless we're attacked. Will you darling?” 

Bella looks up from where she's grassing, neighing softly as if in reply. 

Too tired to even try to wrap his mind around whether or not his horse just replied to a question, Paul simply shakes his head watching as Bella stares off to the side at Shadow who is trotting down hill to them, stopping at the far side of the shelter, before going back to grassing. 

“That's odd,” he comments to no one in particular, but still Culber responds. 

“What is?” 

“Bella. She certainly hasn't been keen on wolves, or dogs. Yet she doesn't seem to mind yours. Now.” 

“Shadow isn't mine, she's her own. And Bella and I had a… talk. She'll accept Shadow here as long as she doesn't get too close. I don't want Shadow to stray alone tonight, and she's good at keeping watch, we can use another set of eyes and ears tonight.” 

“You really are worried.” 

“There's too much going on I don't understand right now. But that can wait. I'll have a look at your arm shortly, but try to eat something first,” Culber says, handing Paul a ration package. 

“I'm not very hungry right now,” Paul replies, swallowing against the sudden wave of nausea washing over him.  

He’s hot, tired, in pain and feeling slightly parched in spite of Culber’s insistence of them taking breaks to drink and rest while walking, despite his clear urgency in them moving. Paul had never been good with heat or bright, sunny weather and the sun had been beating down mercilessly since they left the forest. 

“Here,” Culber says, handing him one of the water skins, rubbing Paul’s shoulder gently. “Finish that off slowly and then try to eat something. There’s a spring on the other side of the hill, I’ll go fil up the others then look at your arm when I get back. You’re going to need all your energy if I’m to heal the break. I'll take Bella with me and water her while I'm there.” 

Then he’s gone, before Paul can gather himself enough to think to ask any questions. 

Alone, Paul struggles with the water skin, but slowly downs part of its content before breaking off a piece from one ration bar chewing it sluggishly, thoughts lethargically ambling through his mind. 

Heal his arm? How would that work?  

According to all magical theory that should be impossible. In fact a spell's matrix could not be deployed on living tissue without causing damage, yet Culber had made the statement with self-evidence. 

A soft whine next to him shatters his contemplations. 

He finds Shadow sitting right next to him, looking up at him with large, dark eyes. Paul jumps a little with the large predator so near him. He’s forgotten how large wolves are, up close and she is very close. 

“Hey there,” he says, trying to sound as affable as he can. 

Shadow gazes longingly at the waterskin. 

“Thirsty?” She blinks. “You could go with your friend, you know.”  

She thumps him once on his leg with her nose, jarring his arm, making him hiss in pain. Apologetically she licks his hand. 

“You’re a good girl, aren’t you? And a big one. Okay, let’s see what I can do for you.” 

He manages to pour out a bit of water in the cup of one hand. Carefully Shadow laps at it until it’s gone after which Paul pours out a bit more and Shadow drinks again. They repeat the process several times, Shadow seemingly conscious of Paul’s bad arm. 

“I meant  you  should drink.” 

Paul looks up to see Culber having come around the hill, Bella trotting behind him, ambling off to some grass a little distance away. 

“She was thirsty too,” Paul protests. 

Culber smiles. 

“And she didn’t want to disturb Bella.” Paul feels an odd certainty in his words as he says them. 

“You think so?” Culber asks casually. 

Paul just shrugs, then winces at the move. 

“Well, since you're fed and watered let me look at your arm.” 

Culber sits down next to him on the shelter’s edge. 

“What do you intend to do?” Paul asks. 

Culber frowns. 

“What do you mean? I intend to heal it. Unless you want to keep the arm broken for some reason and have it heal the natural way? Which will take much longer and we have several days’ worth of travel yet to do before we reach Galeah.” 

“No. No of course I don’t want to keep my arm broken. I just don’t understand how you’ll do what you say you will.” 

Culber shakes his head, his frown deepening. 

“The same way I made the roots in the forest grow?” he says. “Your arm would heal in time, just as those roots would grow. What I intend to do is to make it do that, only faster.” 

“But you can’t just command magic to work that way. Trying to force a spell matrix onto human flesh would only wreak havoc,” Paul says vehemently. 

Culber’s expression grows blank. 

“Stamets, you’re talking nonsense.” 

“You know magic, don’t you? Of course you do, I saw that during the battle.” 

“I have skills in something that I suppose you would label magic. Let's go with that for the sake of convenience.” 

“Then you should know magical theory.” 

“I know nothing of wizardry if that’s what you’re trying to get at.” 

“But, but- The rules of magic are universal!” 

“Clearly not.” Culber pinches his lips together. He appears to be about to say something else but then merely shakes his head. “As fascinating as this discussion might be, is here and now really when you want to have it?” 

“I suppose it could wait,” Paul says still trying to rally his foggy mind from the idea just presented to him. 

“You suppose?” Culber says acerbically. 

A sudden wave of bone crushing fatigue washes over Paul. 

“Do what you want,” he says, feeling very weary. 

Culber hesitates, his hands lying folded in his lap. 

“I will not do something to you that you object to, but I don’t understand why you’re suddenly so recalcitrant. Does it truly bother you that much that there are ways the world works that you do not understand or know of?” 

“Yes. No.” Paul sighs deeply. “It’s not- it's not that.” 

“Then what is it?” 

Paul huffs, not knowing how to put into words the embarrassment, chagrin and shame he’s feeling, or how to convey to a man who so clearly knows how to defend himself his own sense of uselessness. 

“I shouldn’t have been hurt in the first place.” 

Culber frowns again. 

“Injuries happens in battle,” he offers tentatively. 

“Oh come on, you saw me,” Paul snaps. “I was useless. I can’t even kill a chicken much less harm a person. I abhor bloodshed. I just stood there, frozen like a damn-” He breaks off his words with a discontented grunt. 

Culber puts a hand on his back. 

“You act like your inability to kill is a bad thing?” he says softly. 

“You didn’t seem to have any difficulties.” 

“You think it is something to be proud of? That I’m proud of?” Culber counters, sounding outraged. 

“What are you proud of?” 

“That I can heal,” Culber says with passion. 

Paul sits in stunned silence not knowing what to say to that. 

In the silence between them Paul can hear the soft sounds of evening insects buzzing and creaking, the raising of the wind as the heat of the day begins to wear off as the sun slowly glides toward the horizon. 

It is Culber who breaks the silence between them. 

“Will you let me handle your arm? I promise you nothing I do will harm you though you’ll feel very tired after.” 

Paul nods. Culber puts one hand on the top of his shoulder and the other he lets places on Paul’s elbow. 

“Relax,” Culber says. “Breathe deeply and let me work.” 

“I am relaxed.” 

“I beg to differ, I can sense you primed for a fight.” 

“I just- What you did in the clearing was-” 

“Was what?” 

“Terrifying.” 

“I’m sorry, I never meant to frighten you. My skills can be used to cause harm yes, but that is not how I prefer to use them. And it’s not how I intend to use them now, on you.” 

Paul nods slowly. 

He can do this; he can control himself. He can’t tell himself that Culber can't be lethal, but if the man meant him harm he had had so many chances to do so. To wait until now when his abilities were revealed and Paul might be on his guard, hardly made sense. 

His thoughts are so occupied he does not at first sense the rise of power. It is unlike the wild, rushing wave he sensed in the forest as the roots shot from the ground. This is more tightly focused and somehow softer, though once his attention is drawn to it he can sense the enormity of the strength that underlies it. 

It rushes through his flesh and bone, creating an odd, not entirely comfortable heat and it makes his arm feel itching. A restlessness he can’t understand where comes from makes the impulse to shift near irresistible, but worried it might disturb Culber’s work, he succeeds in curbing the impulse. Instead he turns his attention back to the odd magic, studying it attentively. 

There is no matrix he can sense, no pattern or grid to hold it in place. Instead it flows free through him from Culber, as if Culber is not even its origin but a conduit. And beyond Culber he senses something so vast his mind cannot comprehend its magnitude. 

And then it ends, as abruptly as it began. 

Opening his eyes Paul finds himself looking straight into Culber’s, their soft, warm brown curiously questioning him, the man smiling softly to himself. 

“How are you feeling,” Culber asks him. 

Paul blinks. 

“Your arm?” Culber clarifies as he undoes the splinter around it. 

“It- Um.” Paul looks down, flexing his fingers. Feeling no pain or discomfort he tries to bend his elbow and roll his shoulder. 

“Fine,” he answers. “It feels- It feels normal. Like it always does.” 

He stares at his arm, trying to wrap his mind around the impossibility he just experienced. 

“No pain or discomfort?” Culber asks. 

“I thought you knew what you were doing?” 

“I do. But that doesn’t mean that nothing ever goes wrong, that something doesn’t grow together like it shouldn’t. It felt alright for me, but it’s not my arm so I can’t rightly tell if it is quite like it should be.” 

“Well, it does. I do feel a little weary though,” Paul adds, abruptly feeling very, very tired indeed, even having difficulties sitting upright. 

Culber’s hands are there, holding Paul's shoulder, helping him lie down, as something as simple as that suddenly feels beyond him. His legs are shifted, so he lies comfortably in the shelter, something soft under his head. The last thing he senses is a blanket being draped over his body. 

 

oOoOo  

 

Hugh settles down as the last rays of the sun colors the sky a deep purple.  

He cannot stop feeling discontent with their location. Though he can sense nothing but birds and beasts in the vicinity his worry that the Tirgan may pursue them.  

If only he had some idea what they were doing down here. 

He looks at Stamets' sleeping form, barely discernible in the deepening dusk. 

Was he the cause? Were the Tirgan for some reason trying to kill him? But if so he could not be a random target, they would have to know something about him specifically. 

The idea made no sense though. They worship everything to do with the Eldritch War and the era that led up to it. If Stamets was being compelled by a being from Sepulcher, a being that almost certainly harkened back from that era, the Tirgan would not be hindering him, much less harming him, would they? 

Culber lets out a huff a frustration and Shadow raises her head to look at him, ears peaking up in alert. Silently he signals her to lie back down, that there is no danger. 

Looks like his own tension is bleeding through, putting her on edge as well. 

He runs a hand across his face.  

It would probably help him to sleep, perhaps with a night’s rest he could make sense of it all, but he doesn’t dare to. The Tirgan is only one worry, if the entity that haunts Stamets returns he wants to be ready. So far it has only tried to affect the wizard through his dreams but who knows what else it might be capable of and though it has fled Hugh once who knows if it would do so again if it caught him unprepared. And in a few days they’ll be in Galeah, then he can rest. 

Though Stamets’ increasing prickliness may be the death of both of them first, his irritability is beginning to get to Hugh. Who knows what will come of that? 

What had it been with him today? With Imperial sentiment being what it was his annoyance at his lack of combat ability was understandable, but it felt to Hugh as if there were more layers to it. 

He rises silently to stretch his legs, moving to try and make his fatigue fade. But moving removes neither that nor the many questions in his mind and dawn finds him bleary eyed and pacing, his mind still whirling with questions without answer. 

Chapter Text

Paul had woken to a pacing Culber, who gruffly asked if he minded them eating as they walked as he wanted to get them going as quick as possible. Feeling more rested than he could remember being in a very long time and eager to get moving, he had agreed. 

After he had quickly saddled Bella, they had headed off, Shadow once more picking up the rear alternately lagging behind then catching up to them again. 

The silence between them as they walk has been a common thing over the days they have traveled together, yet Paul notices a change in Culber’s quiet. There is a tension to his body, the lines on his face are deeper than Paul recalls seeing them and though he moves with his usual confidence his eyes constantly dart back and forth. So though Paul’s mind is filled with a myriad of questions spawned by the previous day’s events, he is hesitant to ask. 

Suddenly Culber stumbles and though he catches himself before he falls it draws Paul’s attention. Not once in all the days they’ve travelled together has Culber been anything but graceful and sure on his feet, this sudden clumsiness worries Paul. 

“Are you alright?” he asks as they continue. “I don’t think I’ve seen you stumble before.” 

“It happens to everyone now and again,” Culber answers tersely. 

“Yes, but...” 

“But what?” 

“I was wondering, have you had trouble sleeping too? You look a bit, well, worn and now this.” There is an odd silence and something in Paul’s mind clicks. “Have you been getting any sleep at all?” 

A long, pregnant pause passes before Culber answers, “No.” 

“Were you truly that worried about the, um, Tirgan?” 

“They are not our only problem. Or have you forgotten the specter that haunts you?” 

“No, but what can you-” Paul stops, his thoughts stumbling over one another in their urgency to get to the forefront of his mind. “ Can  you do something about that?” he amends the question he meant to ask. 

There is more silence but now Culber stops, his back to Paul. The pause is so long that Paul begins to wonder if he’ll answer at all. 

“Perhaps,” Culber finally say keeping his back turned. “The night before last. No, let me start before that. The night in the clearing, you didn’t wake me like I told you you did, I was already awake. I was- That doesn’t matter. What matter is that I... sensed something, a chill, a power, just before you woke from your dream. It carried the taint of the Eldritch War, so I decided to investigate it.” He turns around and Paul can see a strange, guarded expression on his face. “And so the night before last I stayed awake, I wanted a look at this thing, whatever it was. But the moment it sensed me, it fled. Last night, it didn’t come back. Whether it sensed me from a distance before I could sense it and retreated or if it never came at all, I don’t know.” 

“You... guarded my sleep?” Paul asks, taken aback. 

Culber shrugs at the question. 

“Thank you,” Paul says. 

“You needed rest if your body were to cope with the healing. And there was the possibility of the Tirgan arriving even if the entity left you alone. A guard was needed,” Culber says, sounding almost apologetic. 

“Surely you could have set wards up for that? Alarms? Something,” Paul asks incredulously. 

Culber shakes his head. 

“That's not how my abilities work.” 

“How do you magic work?” 

“For one thing I don’t call it magic.” 

“Very well, what do you call it?” 

Culber gives him an odd look. 

“You’re just a font of questions, aren’t you?” 

“You said yesterday you’d answer any questions I had.” 

“Hmmm. Tell me Stamets, if I were to ask you about the teachings and secrets of the Imperial College, how much would you tell me?” 

Paul shrugs. 

“Depends, I guess. What do you want to know?” 

An exchange of knowledge is fair, perhaps Culber is as curious about his magic as Paul is about his. 

“What’s a spell matrix?” Culber asks. 

The question takes Paul so completely aback that he stops and gawks at Culber. 

“How can- That- Are you serious?  How  can you not know this?” 

Culber tilts his head and simply looks at him. 

“I told you last night. Your rules are not universal.” 

“But, but- How do you keep control of your spell?” 

A small smile creep on to Culber’s lips. 

“Answer my questions and I’ll answer yours.” 

Baffled Paul shakes his head, trying to recall how his own teachers explained it back in his youth, he himself have never been much of a teacher. 

“Very well. A matrix is the pattern that determines the function of the spell. Simple matrixes such as one for creating light are taught even to apprentices, while the more complex patterns are left to fully trained wizards. You... well you form the matrix, using the major and minor Rules of Patterns, to construct a shape that will give you the result you desire. Then when you are certain that the pattern is solid you let magic flow into it, fueling the spell, creating the desired effect.” 

Culber is frowning. 

“That sounds very...” He pulls a face, words trailing off. 

“Very what?” 

Culber shrugs. 

“How does it even work?” 

“You haven’t ever experienced a wizard at work?” 

Wouldn’t Culber have been able to understand what was happening by observation? 

“Not at a time where I had a chance to stop and analyze it, no.” 

Do they have no wizards here? Perhaps that’s the explanation. But surely whatever it is he does it cannot be that different? Maybe if there was a chance to compare. 

“Perhaps if I demonstrated?” Paul offers. 

“Demonstrates?” 

Paul casts about for an idea. 

“A simple light spell,” he suggests. “It’s so simple and rudimentary that anyone who completes their first year have mastered this.” 

Culber waves a ‘do as you please’ gesture, at him. 

The structure is so simple that Paul doesn’t even have to think, he might even be able to do this one in his sleep. An instant later the air above his palm glows, though the radiance is hard to see in the bright light of the day. 

What is noticeable is Culber’s small shudder. 

“Is something wrong?” Paul asks as he carefully dismantles the matrix, allowing the spell to evaporate safely. 

“No. It’s just-” Culber shakes his head. “Nothing.” 

“Okay then, back to my question. How do your... that which you do not call magic, work?” 

“Not like that.” 

“Yes I had gathered that much. Come on, I answered your question and you did promise.” 

Culber sighs. 

“For one thing I do not force the world to comply with my every whim,” Culber growls.” 

Now it is Paul’s turn to frown. 

“What do you mean?” 

“That.” Culber waves his hand vaguely in Paul’s direction. “The Light. It feels like making a plaything out of something too powerful to be played with. Like a child playing with a sword, never comprehending the danger. Or flint and steel, unaware that they may start an inferno.” 

“That’s exaggerating,” Paul says with affront. “Our training is exacting and demanding precisely to prevent our magic to have unexpected consequences. We are drilled in forms and patterns until we get them right, before ever being allowed to try to make a real spell out of something.” 

“So nothing ever goes wrong?” Culber says acerbically. 

“Of course accidents happen. And you will find irresponsible practitioners, that is unfortunately the way of the world. Is your way so much safer or responsible then? How can it be, since you don’t have even the most basic precautions according to your own words?” 

“I never really knew how wizardry worked until now,” Culber says slowly. “And you really do have no idea what you’re playing with, do you?” 

“According to you, no. So maybe you would do me the kindness of explaining?” 

There is a moment where Paul thinks that Culber may simply turn on his heel and walk away, but instead he steps forward and takes hold of Paul’s hand. He squats down, pulling Paul down with him and presses Paul’s hand flat against the ground, palm down, his own hand on top of it. 

“What do you feel?” Culber asks him. 

“Grass? Pebbles? The ground? You have to be a bit more specific.” 

Culber sighs. 

“When you do... magic, what does it feel like to you? What does the world around feel like to you?” 

“I don’t know? Like the world?” 

Culber lets out an exasperated noise. 

“But doesn’t the... magic feel like something?” 

“Like magic I guess. Power? I’m sorry, I really don’t know what you’re getting at.” 

Culber lets go of him, sighing again. 

“Then I’m not sure I can explain it to you. Our “magic” isn’t magic the way you understand it. It's the world itself, it is us and everything in it.” 

“I don’t understand.” 

“I didn’t think you would. But it’s the only way I can explain it. And we don’t force the world into a shape that we wishes. We bend with it, we can direct its flow but 0we do not try to break it.” 

“But I felt such a power from you when you did that... thing in the clearing. And when you healed my arm. Beyond anything I've ever sensed.” 

Culber gets to his feet. 

“Then you know what I mean. You've felt it. Even if you do not understand what it is.” 

“But that was magic!” Paul protests, leaping to his feet to follow Culber who have begun to walk away. 

“No, that was the world.” 

His words make no sense to Paul. 

“And who are ‘we’?” he asks. 

There is a heart beat’s pause before Culber answers, “The druids,” as he keeps walking. 

 

oOoOo  

 

At his answer Stamets is suddenly silent. Hugh takes pleasure in that, knowing it will not last. As it is, it last even shorter than he expected. 

“Oh, very funny,” Stamets says drily. “Good joke. Really now, who are ‘we’?” 

Hugh can feel a smile tuck at his lips, amusement warring with annoyance. He could have told a lie of course, but considering that his abilities had been revealed his idea of hiding in plain sight and observing was clearly not going to happen, so he might as well be truthful about it. Though he hadn’t expected Stamets to believe him, not right away, not only at his word. The conflict between what the man thought he knew about the world, about Sirine, and reality was too big for that. What happens once that conflict is reconciled, how Stamets will reconcile it, time alone can tell. 

So all that Hugh says in return is, “I’m not joking.” 

Stamets looks at him incredulously. 

“You expect me to believe... that?”  

“What you believe or do not believe doesn’t change what is true.” 

“So what? Imperial history is completely wrong? They'd just... miss a group as powerful as yours? Or are you particularly strong for a druid?” 

“We do not measure out abilities in strong or weak as you do. All abilities to listen, to perceive are valued, no matter how the express themselves or how keen they are. But if you’re asking me if I’m particularly skilled for a druid, then the answer is no. There are those far more skilled than I. As for missing us? Perhaps it is more of an oversight. A willful one.” 

“Why would we wish to ‘overlook’ you?” 

Hugh stops and turns to face him. 

“You lost and lost badly to a bunch of... what was it, ‘charlatans’? Do you think that is something your precious College would want to remember? That the Empire wishes kept in its annals? That there’s a group out there that can stop you dead in your tracks. Or would it be more comfortable to forget it all? Forget us? Dismiss us as.... ‘charlatans.” 

Finishing his denunciation Hugh begins to walk again, not looking back to see if Stamets follows. Moments later he catches glance of him out the corner of his eye, looking thoughtful as he keeps stride with Hugh. 

It is Stamets who breaks their silence. 

“That... makes a surprising amount of sense on consideration.” 

The fact that Stamets so easily accepts the idea certainly surprises Hugh. 

“You accept the idea?” 

Stamets sends him a slight smile. 

“I won’t bore you with the intricacies of Imperial politics, suffice to say that the College’s reputation took a beating by the loss of the war. So did the Emperor’s. The fact that it could happen again would sit well with neither.” 

Hugh almost corrects that to ‘invasion’, but decides to let it slide this time in the interest of hearing what more Stamets has to say. 

“They would not have wanted it spread around that they lost due to a stronger enemy and not... weather condition.” 

“Weather conditions?” 

“That’s the usual explanation given for why the war was unsuccessful. Bouts of unlucky storms striking and freezing temperatures that hampered and injured the troops.” 

“I see.” 

If someone was to explain what happened without mentioning the druids that wasn’t a bad way to go, Hugh had to grant them that. The druids had turned the weather and climate, along with the topography in the mountains, against the invading armies. 

They continue for a while in silence. 

“Another question if I may?” Stamets says. “The men who attacked us yesterday? What was it you called them, Tirgan? Who are they?” 

“A leap in topic indeed,” Hugh comments. 

“I was hoping to steer the conversation in a less, contentious direction? I’ve been told that is the diplomatic thing to do when encountering topic of conflict, to find a less disagreeable one. At least I hope that’s a less disagreeable topic. I have no idea who they are and I confess I’m curious. I would like to know who was trying to kill me for one thing.” 

“You may find that is considered diplomatic in the Empire and what is here are two very different things,” Hugh says. Stamets has shown no inclination towards being diplomatic so far and this odd turn puzzles him. “But to answer your question, you could consider them another relic of the Eldritch War and the era that preceded it. They live in old purged ruins, in the mountains to the north and east of Sirine, clinging to what they see as the ‘glories of the past’. They worship Imran and his Council; they wish to bring back their rule. Or at least the times as they were back then. We pay them little mind but leave them in their ruins, but sometimes they come out of the mountains to raid. Then we remind them why they shouldn’t do that.” 

“And that’s been going on for what, all these three thousand years? Why not simply destroy them?” 

For a moment all Hugh can do is stare at him. 

“Because that’s not who we are! We will protect ourselves when we must, but we do not invade and destroy,” he says when he regains his ability to speak. 

“But if they keep attacking you?” 

Hugh shakes his head, not sure how to make Stamets understand or if it’s even possible. 

“There’s a certain irony in it, don’t you think?” Stamets muses after another while of silence. 

“In what?” 

“That these people whom you say worship the Eldritch War tried to kill us, me? I wonder if I had told them about my nightly visitations if it’d have made a difference? Surely, they could not have known? Could they?” 

Hugh shakes his head. 

“I don’t see how. For all that they worship the ancient wizards they have little in the way of... magical abilities or knowledge. A small mercy. They would be a true menace if they had. But it’s a mystery what drew them so far into Sirine. Another reason we should make it to Galeah as quickly as we can, people need to be warned that there are raiders on the loose. It should take us two, three days to get there.” 

“And then what happens?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“The two of us? I have a suspicion that you won’t just let me walk away.” 

There is a cautious note in Stamets’ voice. 

“It would be unwise of us to part company.” 

“Unwise?” 

“Yes. Whatever haunts you-” Hugh stops and he can see Stamets study him closely as he considers what to say next. “What haunts you seem... afraid of me as I told you before. If we part company, you’d be vulnerable again.” 

“You can’t guard my sleep every night. You will need sleep too.” 

“I know a few skills to keep myself going without sleep.” 

“For how long will that keep you going?” 

Hugh grimaces. 

“Not much longer.” 

“And then what?” 

“I should be able to manage until we reach Galeah. The town has defenses of its own, defenses I’d be surprised if the entity can breach. Or would wish to be near since it seems so intent on avoiding me.” 

He can reveal this much to Stamets without getting into details about the protections that the druids in the past laid down to protect the inhabitant of Sirine. 

“I could remain in Galeah then? And you could continue to... where it was you were going when we met? 

“Remain there indefinitely? In what capacity? Stamets, the moment you left the town the protection would cease?” 

“So I'd be a prisoner?” 

“Only by your own making.” 

“So what do you suggest we do?” 

“We make our way to Galeah and then we discuss further? That was always my plan.” 

“Did your plan include telling me who and what you are?” 

Hugh shrugs. 

“I wasn't sure. For one thing I wasn't sure you would believe me. I’m not sure you even believe me now. And even if you would… there were other concerns.” 

“Such as?” 

“The entity that stalks you is a threat to Sirine that is true, but both the Empire and the Imperial College have known to be hostile to us too. Can you blame we for wanting to protect my people from all possible threats?” 

“And you think I might be one?” 

“I don't know, Stamets. Are you?” 

With those words Hugh turns on his heel and continues to walk. 

Chapter Text

Paul has no idea how to answer that. He doesn’t see himself a threat, but he can’t dispute Culber’s point, the Empire and the College did do harm to Sirine during the war and the war itself was majorly pushed by the College itself. Culber has good reason to be suspicious of him and his motives. 

Still the words hurt. The thought that Culber thinks he might do him harm, damage the world Culber so clearly loves, cuts deeper than Paul thought it would. But there’s nothing he can say to, any protest would ring false, so Paul remains silent as the continue. 

The sun is slowly sliding towards the horizon when Culber breaks it. 

“We should start looking for a place to camp for the night.” 

“What if we don’t?” Paul asks, considering how to phrase something he’s been thinking about as they walked. “Camp for the night that is?” 

“What do you mean?” 

Paul nervously clear his throat. 

“Do you plan on getting any sleep tonight?” 

A moment of hesitance is followed by a shake of Culber’s head. 

“I didn’t think so. While I may not possess the skills you do but I have on occassions kept awake an entire night for one reason or another. I can manage one or two while travelling if it’s for good reason. You said that we should reach Galeah in two to three days, well wouldn’t it be quicker if we walked through the night as well? The sooner we get there the sooner I can stop being a burden to you this way and you can get some rest.” 

Culber gives him an uncertain look. 

“We would have to rest at times during the night. Neither Bella nor Shadow can walk uninterrupted.” 

“But still? Certainly it would be faster.” 

Culber nods slowly. 

“If you are certain?” he says. 

Paul nods, “I am.” 

“Then we should still find a place to settle down before nightfall, to rest a while and eat before we move on. Then we can continue once the sun has set and our eyes have adapted to the darkness.” 

“Let us find that place to settle down then,” Paul concludes. 

 


 

Hugh would have preferred it if he could have found a stream or brook before nightfall so they could have refilled their waterskins, but there was no such luck. Here at the height of summer most of smaller waterways have dried to a trickle from which humans wouldn't be able to safely drink. Though if he remembers correctly there should be few still viable springs between here and Galeah, hopefully they won’t miss them in the dark. 

Stamets has been quiet ever since their conversation earlier that day when Hugh challenged him about his loyalties and motives. He had half expected Stamets to make some sort of protests and the lack of them is a faint surprise and Hugh isn’t quite sure how he feels about that. If Stamets said something he’d have some idea what was going on inside the wizard’s head, but since his suggestion they forge on through the night he has said nothing. And on the occassions that Hugh as thrown a glance in his direction he has found Stamets wearing a distant and pensive expression, following in Hugh’s wake without truly paying attention to where he was going. 

That state of affairs continues as they move on again after nightfall, Stamets stumbling more than once over a large tuft of grass. The moon is almost full and gives plenty of light but still the light of night cast odd shadows, especially for those not used to travelling by its light. After one such stumble Hugh grabs his elbow, pulling him close to get his attention. 

“Watch where you’re going Stamets. You cannot afford to be distracted when travelling in the dark. You’ll break an ankle or worse. Either pay attention or we have to halt.” 

“Of course, I’m sorry. My mind was wandering.” 

“Then do something to make it stop wander,” Hugh says before beginning to walk again. 

A few moments of silence pass as they move on, then Stamets says, “Can I ask you a question?” 

“You can ask, though how or if I’ll answers I can’t promise.” 

“What was it like between the Empire and Sirine before the war?” 

“Invasion.” This time Hugh doesn’t hold himself back from correcting. 

“What do you mean?” 

“You, the Empire, invaded us. There was no ‘war’, only your invasion and our self-defense. We sought no quarrel with you. We are not like you, we don’t seek to expand our territory, to rule over others.” Hugh can’t keep from letting his testiness show in his words. 

“Yet Sirinese soldiers were scouting into Imperial territory,” Stamets protests, sounding indignant. 

“What soldiers? We don’t have an army?” Hugh laughs, a caustic note in his voice. 

Hugh could have bitten his tongue off, it was one of the things he meant to not tell Stamets about. From his own experience this is not common knowledge in the Empire though he supposed it was possible that the College knew. Still if Stamets didn’t know Hugh had seen no reason to enlighten him. It isn’t like him to get so carried away in an argument, certainly not so quickly, but somehow Stamets’s ignorance and disregard rubs him all the wrong ways and the words had slipped out.  

He brushes the self-recriminations aside, done is done and spoken words cannot be unsaid. And as he has said this much, he may as well continue his argument. 

“There were traders and merchants certainly. Though there is still trade between Sirine and the Imperial Border regions there was far more in the days before the Invasion. Hunters and trappers following their prey may have wandered over the mountains and onto land that the Empire considers belonging to it. The casual traveler. But there never was any army or any soldiers.” 

Stamets’s expression is vacant, devoid of any indication of what he feels or thinks as far as Hugh can tell in the moonlight and the man is quiet for a while. 

“How can you have no army?” Stamets bursts out when he does speak. 

“I told you, we’re not like you,” Hugh answers calmly. 

“Yes but-” 

“But what?” 

“I don’t understand.” 

“That much is clear,” Hugh snaps. 

“I want to,” Stamets says softly. 

Hugh sighs. 

“I’m not sure I can explain.” 

“Try? Please?” 

“I would have to go back three thousand years, back to the end of the Eldritch War.” 

“Well, we have quite a bit to go before we reach Galeah and I’m not going anywhere,” Stamets counter, a light note in his voice. 

Hugh snorts. 

“As you wish.” 

Maybe if he can somehow get Stamets to see Sirine the way it is, if he can get him to truly understand, then perhaps he’ll be able to trust him even a little. 

“The land you see around you, everything we’ve travelled though, the grassy hills, the forest, the rivers that lie ahead, none of that was here back then, three thousand years ago,” Hugh begins his story as they continue to walk. 

“At that time, Imran, his Council and their followers were destroying this land, the magic of Imran and the other Wizard Lords were slowly consuming and corrupting it and the people who lived here. That was what made those who would later name themselves the Druids and those who fought at their side, rise up against them.” 

Hugh holds back a sigh, wishing that Michael or any Lore Singer was here. They know how to tell the story the way it should be. Or anyone with greater skills in storytelling that he has. 

“The war itself wrought even more devastation,” he continues, trying his best to convey the gravity of the situation. “And when it was done, when Imran and his Council were dead and those who had supported them either dead as well or driven off to distant lands, the survivors of the early Assembly and their allies were faced with a damaged, broken land that they realized might never recover.” 

Shadow stops, her ears picking up before she runs off into the night. Hugh stops too, for a moment fearing that enemies have found them again unawares but the he hears the frightened yelp of a rabbit and sees Shadow chase a small, agile form through the darkness. With a bit of luck, she’ll have found a nighttime snack. 

“False alarm,” he says softly, motioning for them to move on again before continuing with the story. 

“Some left, weary and only wishing for a place to prosper in peace. But the druids stayed to help the land heal and there were those who stayed with them. Some because they had nowhere else to go, some were too tired and weary from the war to consider finding a new place to start over, some had lost everything and here was as good a place to them as any, some because they wished to help heal what was broken though they may not be druids.” 

As he speaks, he realizes how riveted Stamets seems by the story, ill delivered as it might be and Hugh begins to get carried away by his own words. 

“Everyone who stayed had their own reasons for doing so, but stay they did. Stayed and began a different struggle, one that slowly, very slowly healed the land. It took time, decades, centuries but through it the people who stayed learn to live not just on the land, but  with  it. All living things affect their surroundings, that is the way of things. Ada’ori , the living world and ada’iqar -” he pauses, not sure how to explain this concept to an outsider. 

Ada’iqar ?” Stamets prompts. 

“I don’t know how to put this? It is... the world, ada , but affected by living things. Affected with intention, rather than by chance or accident. Deliberately creating changes to the world to adapt it to suit that living being’s needs. All living beings do this. Birds build nests to protect their young and shelter them as they grow. Flowers will attract certain insects to make sure they’re pollinated, make it impossible for other plants to grow near them. Intent have many forms. Perhaps that is the best word, intent. The world affected by intent,” Hugh concludes. 

“Thank you for explaining, but I don’t think your story is quite done is it?” 

“You’re right, it isn’t. Time passed and part of helping the land heal was learning to balance ada’ori and ada’iqar, the needs of the world to heal and grow, and the need for adaption for survival and comfort. In learning this, we learned to connect with the world around us. We are rooted here. The druids more so than others perhaps, but we all are connected to where we live. And the world in connected to us. The land, the world, is a place we live on and am part of. It’s not something we can own the way Imperials believe you can. We are its keepers, its caretakers. The idea to conquer land... before I set foot in the Empire as a very young man, I had never encountered the idea and I still do not understand it. Nor do I want to.” 

He draws a deep breath and steadies himself. 

“This is why we have no soldiers, what would we need them for? We want to live; we do not wish to fight. We will defend ourselves but what would we want with more land than what we already have, which is more than enough for us to live on?” 

When Hugh falls silent the only other sound in the moonlit darkness is the faint noises of the wind and various nighttime wildlife. Stamets is silent. 

Hugh cannot help but feeling disappointed at that. He had hoped the story would elicit some response, some level of understanding from Stamets. By appearances a vain hope, perhaps the gap between them is simply too large to span. 

 


 

After Culber finished his story they had continue their journey through the night. Paul had wanted to say something in response to Culber's tale but he didn't know what. The story filled his minds with thoughts and questions he struggled to make head and tail of. 

Everything in the story conflicted with Imperial views and knowledge. From how the civilization in Sirine, such as it was, had come to be, assumed to be the descendants of an Empire that had collapsed in on itself due to degeneracy and inertia, to the strange ideas of living on the land Culber had presented him with. 

Like all citizens in the Empire he had been raise with the belief that the Divines had ordained humans to be the lords and keepers of all of their creation. The clergy taught that all men followed the Divines even if they were not aware of it, but that the Empire was blessed especially by knowing their precise edicts through the Saints and their words, keeping them on the Path of Truth. 

Of course, there were the elves but they were never mentioned in scripture and were believed by clergy to be soulless. That once their long lives ended they simply ceased to exist because the Divines had not created them. Where they had come from was a matter of dispute but as there in more recent times were so little interaction between the Empire and the elves that matter was considered academic by many. 

What Culber had presented him with was a totally foreign mindset and together with the knowledge that druids did exist and in power rivalled that of an arch mage has shaken Paul’s world in its foundations. 

His thoughts are still churning when they settle down for a brief rest just before dawn. Sitting on the top of one hill rise Paul is barely cognizant of the beautiful sunrise. 

“But what about the Divines?” he asks, needing an answer. 

“Hmmm?” Hugh looks at him, taking his eyes off the brightening morning sky. 

“The gods?” Paul clarifies. Perhaps Culber knows them under a different name. 

“Which gods?” Culber asks, with dismissive casualness. 

“The ones that made and rule the world,” Paul bursts out with complete incredulity. 

Culber laughs at his words. 

“The First Mother made the world, but she doesn’t rule.” 

“The first mother?” Paul asks, feeling baffled. “Like Kíe, sister of K’in? Who watches over the plants and animals that serves humans?” 

“No, I mean the First Mother. She doesn’t have a name, she existed before names did, nor does she have siblings. There are no other gods, but she has children aplenty.” 

“But-” 

“That’s the only god I know and the only one I need. I’ve heard of your strange Divines Stamets, but they have nothing to do with us and never will.” 

Paul feels utterly taken aback by Culber’s frank admission that he knows nothing of the gods or the Divine Order. There is a calm in Culber’s eyes, now visible in the ever-growing daylight, that brook no argument from Paul. Not that he would have known what to say had he felt like putting one up. 

Chapter Text

They set off again once the sun is fully in the sky.  

Stamets had thankfully fallen silent after their brief exchange earlier, he had half feared the man would start preaching to him. Perhaps he should have said nothing, like he had kept his silence on the matter back when he travelled in Imperial lands, but Stamets and his strange views was simply too aggravating for him to keep his mouth shut. 

As they walk Hugh keeps them on the top of the hills as much as possible. It makes for a harder journey but he needs to get his bearings to find Galeah, it is all too easy to get lost among the hills even for a druid. They’re far enough from the forest that had the Tirgan followed he should have spotted them by now, or Shadow would have. 

Hugh is grateful that Stamets have decided to remain silent, in his current exhausted state he knows he’d snap at him again, his patience more than thin. A night’s sleep would help but that is something he doesn’t dare, not with the unknown entity haunting Stamets. Galeah will offer safety and Stamets was right that getting there quicker would be to their benefit, but that does nothing for Hugh’s temper or self-control. 

So when Stamets softly clears his throat Hugh can feel his irritation preemptively spike. 

“If I sounded dismissive earlier, I apologize,” Stamets says softly. “The world you described, your world, is very different from the one I grew up believing.” 

“And nothing ever challenges Imperial hegemony or dominance,” Hugh snaps. 

“Rarely.” The word could have been said with arrogance, Hugh half expected it to, instead it sounds subdued. “The thing is,” Stamets continues, “I don’t know what to think.” 

“You can think what you wish, I don’t care either way.” 

“I know, I just-” 

“Stamets, I truly do not care.” 

“There isn’t any pleasing you is there?” Stamets says, his voice suddenly testy. “Guess you all here aren’t so different from Imperials after all.” 

Stamets picks up his step, getting ahead of Hugh. Hugh lets him, he’s headed in the right direction and it gives him the opportunity to study him without being observed. For all that Stamets’s words had been angry his posture speaks of hurt and defense. Though tired and irritable Hugh cannot help but wonder is something in his own words of tone had brushed against an old wound in Stamets. 

Hugh decides that the best course would be to remain silent and lag behind for both their sakes, unless Stamets begins to veer off their course. Though he knows this state can’t continue indefinitely he plans to let things be until they have to stop for a break, but Stamets preempts him. 

The sun has not moved long in the sky when Stamets stops so abruptly that he stumbles when Bella pulls the rein in his hand. 

“Culber I, I apologize,” Stamets says, turning around. “Truly. My anger was not at you but-” he veers his head. “That’s a long story and not the point. I beg your pardon for biting at you.” 

An odd and very Imperial way of putting it but Hugh will take the apology, forcibly pushing his own irritability aside. They can’t keep biting at each other this way, it would make them too easy prey for enemies should any find them out here. They have to find a way to keep peace between them until the reach Galeah and safety. 

“Granted,” is all he trusts himself to say though. 

They begin to walk again. 

“Will you let me explain?” Stamets asks in subdued fashion. 

“If you think you can do it without biting at me?” Culber does his best to keep his tone neutral, though the impulse to snipe is strong. 

Stamets do not respond as expected with another outburst, instead Hugh sees how Stamets’s lips make a small grimace, akin to a smile. 

“I’ll try,” Stamets says. 

“Go on then.” 

“There is- The world you speak of is indeed very different from what I’ve learned in my life and it challenges everything I have been taught to believe. I don’t know what to think. If you don’t believe in the Divines what happens to you when you die?” 

“Does it matter to you?” 

“It does.” 

Stamets sounds as surprised at that answer as Hugh feels at hearing it. 

“We return to the land, just as we came from it. One day we may walk the land again in a physical form, as we have before. Until then, our spirits remain here as they have always been.” 

He sees Stamets blink. 

“Doesn’t fit very well with Imperial beliefs does it?” Hugh says. 

“No, it doesn’t. I never thought myself very religious-” 

“But now you fear for your soul? Thinking I will lead you astray?” 

“I...” Stamets shrugs, looking bewildered and lost. 

“Stamets, neither I nor anyone else here cares what you believe. Continue with your Divines and your Saints, but leave us to our own.” 

“It’s just-” Stamets’s voice flounders and dies. 

“Just?” 

“I’m not certain. And I'm not used to being uncertain.” 

Hugh puts a hand on his shoulder. He knows how uncertainty can prey on mind and heart, and this on a man who is already haunted by something unknown. Both of them being as tired as they are would not be helping either. 

“I have no words to offer you that can put your mind to rest I fear. My world is at it is. Perhaps it would be better or both of us if neither of us said anything until we reach Galeah and have time to rest?” 

Stamets considers his words for a few moments before nodding. 

“Yes, that might be best,” he says, then he chuckles. “Let us see if I can prove my colleagues in the wrong and keep my mouth shut.” 

Hugh offers him a tired smile. 

“I’ll take us off the hill tops once I’m certain of my bearings. That should make for lighter travel.” 

“My legs will thank you for that. I don’t think I’ve walked this much in my entire life as I have these past weeks.” 

 


 

Paul keeps his promise and remains quiet through the rest of the day’s travel and through the night. Culber also keeps his to take them into the low parts between the hills. Something for which Paul is truly grateful, he can feel how the back of his calves' ache with the strain of having had to walk so much up and down the hillsides. 

On the second day the land around them begins to grow less hilly though it takes a while for Paul to notice. He has only caught a brief nap here and there as they have stopped to rest and the lack of sleep is beginning to affect him, even at the worst of his nightmares he got more rest in a day than this and less physical exercise as well. But eventually he realizes that the hills around them are flattening and he can almost see across the hills. In the end the land is almost flat. 

In the distance he can see a river cutting through the landscape and some very tall, oddly shaped hills at its edge straight ahead of them. There seems to be animal pens built outside of the hills in their direction, though why there he can’t fathom and on the far side he can discern a couple of boats, though their shape is mostly hidden by the hills. 

He hears Culber sigh in relief and he looks at him questioningly. 

“Galeah,” Culber says, nodding towards the strange hills. 

“The village in on the other side of those hills?” 

Culber looks at him and laughs. 

“No. The village is ‘those hills’. The ‘hills’ are the houses.” When he sees the confused look on Paul’s face he continues. “Remember what I told you about  ada’ori  and  ada’iqar ? About the balance between the two?” 

“Yes.” 

“Those houses are an expression of that. Housing is necessary for humans to live comfortably, shaping them like that does the least impact on the world here. They are shaped to suit the land and the weather.” Culber frowns. “You had travel for a time in Sirine before we met, surely you’ve come through other settlements?” 

“One, as I travelled through the forest. Seley I believe its name was. Though I wasn’t paying much attention I admit. I was tired and my mind was... on other things.” 

Culber nods. 

“But you did notice how it was built?” When Paul nods Culber goes on. “What did you notice? What did you think of it?” 

“I found it quite impressive that the houses had been made not just between the trees, but as part of them. Ingenious piece of architecture. It must have taken quite a bit of effort.” 

“Mostly it took time, testing and skill. But that is what I mean. Seley is in the middle of a big forest, so how it was build adapted to that. Galeah is lies at a river, as part of a land of hills, grass and low shrubs-” 

“So the houses are built as hills to accommodate that.” 

“Precisely.” 

“Creative.” 

“And necessary.” 

They set off again. 

“One thing,” Culber says as they close on Galeah. “Don’t tell people here you’re a wizard. An Imperial won't raise alarm on his own. This place is known for its fabrics and even Imperial traders come here at times. But the College isn’t well loved. You'd be wise to keep that to yourself until people have come to know you better. Due to the trade enough of the locals know the trade tongue that you shouldn’t have many issues communicating though." 

“I don’t plan on staying long enough to make close friends so I don’t see who I should tell, but I’ll keep your advice in mind.” 

“You were frank with me quickly as I recall.” 

“Hmm, I may have learned better since.” 

He misses the frown on Culber’s brow his attention drawn by the penned animals that has begun to stir in the early dawn. Paul can see only one or two people around, but short, stocky woolen forms, with long, upright ears and peculiar spiraled horns protruding from their foreheads, mill about in the enclosures. 

“What are those?” Paul asks. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like them.” 

“The  octelas ?”  Culber  nods towards the penned creatures. “They’re part of this places  legacy  of the Eldritch War. Many animals were changed by the powers  unleashed during the war and before it , some of them inte n tionally, some not. We don’t know what the  octelas  originally were and if we ever knew if they were changed by intention or accident we’ve long forgotten. But they’re friendly, they have a wool coat that makes for good fabric ,   their hides make good leather  and they’re excellent at surviving on the sparse vegetation around here. Not many edible things grow here on their own, only the long  elhin  grass and a few bushes. And they taste good,” Culber finishes with a grin. 

“One good thing from that conflict that you kept?” Paul says. It had sounded like the druids had dedicated themselves to wiping out everything from the Eldritch War so he’s surprised that something from that time has been allowed to not just survive, but been cultivated. 

“Yes. They usually wander the hills with their herders in spring and summer but...” Culber’s voice trails off into silence. 

“But what?” Paul asks. 

“They return around midsummer for Âdrena” 

“Âdrena?” Paul asks. 

“It's a… a festival, a celebration. I just, hadn't realized that we were this close. I-“ 

Culber shakes his head. 

“Never mind. Let us get over there.” 

When they approach the  octelas  begin to make a sound that sounds like a cross between a sheep's bhaaing and a donkey's braying to Paul's ears. A young girl of maybe eleven or twelve years of age, that had until then been hidden from view, crouched down among the woolly bodies, pops up between them. Her long, dark hair is pulled back in a braid and her dark eyes studies them calmly as they approach.  

Once they are within earshot she calls out to them in a tongue Paul doesn’t understand but have heard spoken among the Sirinese, so he assumes it is the local tongue. Culber replies in the same language. The girl gives him a quick grin and Paul a short look before replying. Culber smiles in turn and waves her off before leading them into the village proper, motioning for Paul to follow. 

“What was that about?” 

“That was Efrin Esón, she asked me why I was late.” 

“Late for what?” 

“Her great grandmother Idet Esón is one of Galeah’s... leaders, she also has the gift of sight. She’d told Efrin that I would arrive in time for Âdrena, which begins tonight so told me, so they have been expecting me days ago.” 

“Oh, that’s-” 

“That’s what?” 

“I was going to say unusual, for a woman gifted with the sight to have children. Or it would be in the Empire.” 

“Why?” 

“Because every woman that the Saint’s grace with the gift of Sight is trained as a priestess and lives in celibacy.” 

“All of them? Having the Sight is not that rare, though the truly strongly gifted are indeed rarer.” 

Paul shrugs. 

“Many displays false sight. It is believed that such deceitful visions are sent by twisted spirits of Et’hol, to torment and mislead humans, to make us lose the truth paths of the Saints.” 

“Hmmm,” is all Culber says, but his frown is unmistakable. 

They walk among the hills, houses, hill houses, now and Paul becomes distracted from their conversation how it's built. 

Each house is shaped like a large quarter crescent, four placed to form a circular shape, the space between their pointed “corners” allowing for passage between them. Their curved inner side creates a large space between the buildings which are put to use for growing plants or creating space where people can sit and talk.  Above the central space, built between the houses, forming a dome above it, is a form of palisade. On them grows creeping vines, filled Paul notices as they pass close by one, with tiny berries. The outsides of the houses are covered in a short-stemmed grass, akin to the one in the landscape they’d been travelling through these past days. No wonder he had thought them hills from a distance. 

The pathways between the hill houses are not made of stone or dirt as he is used to, but by slender logs bound together. 

“We’re here.” His observations are interrupted by Culber. 

“Where here?” 

“Galeah’s guest house. This is where we will be staying.” 

“Oh.” 

The buildings surrounding them are larger than most they’ve passed, forming an elongated oval rather than a more circular shape like the others. A young boy, perhaps ten, his long dark hair pulled back into a pony tail, approach them and Culber calls out to him. The boy steps over and holds out his hand towards Paul. 

“This is Heern, son of the woman who is in charge of this guest house. He’ll take care of Bella and make sure she has her hoof seen to,” Culber says. 

“Ah, good.” Paul hands the reins to the boy. “Just a moment, let me get my saddlebags,” he adds. 

He quickly undoes the saddle bags, picking the shoe that Culber removed from Bella’s hoof out of one bag and hands it to the boy. 

“Um, I need my horse reshod.” 

“Okay. I’ll tell the smiths.” 

The boy’s terse, matter of fact answer takes Paul so aback that he dumbly lets Heern take the reins from his hands and lead Bella away. Baffled and casting a glance back over his shoulder in the direction Heern let his horse off in, Paul follows Culber into the guest house. 

Chapter Text

The ceiling of the guest house is low as Hugh knows is the case of all houses in Galeah. A result of how they are built. Though they curve upwards toward the center of the construction. 

So he takes care not to bang his head against the hanging lamps, though they are well positioned off to the sides to minimize any chance of accidents. None of them is lit. Though Galeahn houses have no windows that provides the inhabitants with a view of the outside they have long since invented a system of ventilation shafts, dug through the exterior, that also helps provide lighting via a setup of angled mirrors inside the shafts. Though at night or when closed off because of the weather they provided no light, therefore all buildings also had lamps. 

Just inside is a largeish open room. In winter and during bad weather it is used as one of the village’s gathering place, but in high summer such as now gatherings will mostly take place outside. In the sides doors leads off to rooms that traders and other people without other residence in Galeah uses to stay in when they’re here.  

Most travelers will have family or friends in a place that they can stay with. Or if they’re crafters passing through then professional relations might take them in. But not all have such and for those guest houses such as this one is built in most Sirinese villages and towns. Galeah being a center of trade for its wool, leather and fabrics is in particular need of one and its guest house is much bigger than the village’s small size might otherwise warrant, taking up a full four buildings for both rooms and storage possibilities. And of course its large common room. 

Near the door and to his right as Hugh steps into the rooms, sits an elderly woman on a chair, looking straight at him. A woman he knows well, Idet Esón, Efrin’s great grandmother. 

“You’re late,” she says in Sirinese as she sees him, a glimmer in her eyes. 

“So your great granddaughter already told me.” 

Getting to her feet with surprising grace for a woman who is well into her 90s, she crosses the short distance between them. 

Medran* ,” he greets her, bowing his head in respect. 

“You were always unfailingly polite, druach * .” 

“Some of my teachers of my youth may disagree with you there.” 

Her gaze shifts to Stamets who’s standing beside him, eyeing him with curiosity. 

“This is Paul Stamets, an Imperial I’m an escorting through Sirine,” Hugh introduces him, switching back to the trade tongue, not missing how Idet’s eyes narrows when he tells her Stamets is from the Empire. 

He fervently hopes Stamets can mind his manners and tongue, medran Esón is old enough that she recalls the havoc that the Empire’s invasion left in its wake and she does not take kindly to any bad manners from Imperials. 

“Sera,” Stamets greets her. 

“Imperial manners? Hmph,” medran Esón says in the trade tongue before turning back to Hugh and continuing in Sirinese, “Has he caused you trouble? You look tired?” 

“No, not as such.” No need to relate the details of his travails with Stamets to her. “But we were attacked by a group of Tirgan some days walk south of here. One of them got away and we have been on the move since. I was worried they might follow us.” 

“Tirgan? This far inside Sirine? They would dare do that?” medran Esón says sharply. 

“It was a surprise to me as well. I don’t know why they were there or what they wanted, except by all looks, our deaths. But warn the others in the village. Have all the herders come back yet?” 

“Yes. None are missing and no one has reported seeing anything. Of course none of them were looking. I’ll see your warning passed on to the others and passed on by the traders and river folk who are here for Âdrena too. The Tirgan may have dared intrude so far, but now they’ll find many eyes searching for them now. They won’t find their way back as easy.” 

“Thank you, medran .” 

“But now I think you and your... companion are in need of beds, you’re both swaying on your feet.” 

Hugh merely nods. Now that he knows that he and Stamets are have reached safe haven and his warning has been passed on, Hugh suddenly feels intensely weary, the many days without sleep crashing down on him in full force. To his side he can see Stamets looking worn out and practically asleep on his feet as well. 

Medran Esón steps around them and back outside into the courtyard while she speaks. 

“You will have the use of one of the rooms over here. We are all but full since so many a staying over for Âdrena and then to buy wool after. Thankfully the river people sleep on their boats or we would be above capacity. I hope your Imperial doesn’t mind sharing.” 

Hugh decides not to argue that Stamets isn’t “his” Imperial, he knows how sharp medran Esón’s tongue can be and he is not up to tangling with it in his current state. 

“I doubt either of us would object to anything that has beds, walls and a roof right now,” Hugh says. 

She leads them inside the building opposite the main guest house and into a room in the back. It is small and in spite of the ventilation it feels overly hot, but Hugh has reached a point of not caring. The room has two beds and a solid door and that’s all he wants or needs right now. 

Medran Esón puts a hand on his arm, holding him back as Stamets enters the room. 

“We need to talk,” she says. “There are things you should know. But later. Find me when you’ve rested. Or if you wake late then tomorrow. With Adrena beginning tonight you will have other engagements.” 

Hugh nods tiredly and medran Esón releases him. Nodding to her in parting he steps into the room and closes the door. 

“Do you have any particular preference?” Stamets asks, indicating the beds. 

“None,” Hugh says dropping his pack next to the nearest bed. “I just want to sleep.” 

Shadow, who had silently been following them, her paws dragging with exhaustion, curls up at the foot of it with a relieved sigh. Hugh himself begins to quickly divest himself of his clothes. Boots are dropped on the floor near his pack. He pulls off his tunic and breeches, tossing them over the back end of the bed and falls backwards onto the bed. 

“Stamets if you wake before I do, don’t disturb me. I want to sleep until I wake on my own.” 

Whatever Stamets’ answer Hugh doesn’t hear it, already pulled under by his own exhaustion. 

 

When Hugh wakes, he feels groggy and bleary eyed, and unable to tell how much time has passed. 

Rolling onto his back he lies in silence and stares up into the curved ceiling, trying to regain he bearings, his sense of place and time. The room is lit by bright sunlight coming through the ventilation, so it is clearly day. The fact that he has lost touch with the passing seasons, enough to not realize that it was almost Âdrena. No druid should lose so much track of the passage of the year. 

And yet he had. 

Maybe he should not have put off doing sadren,  the druidic ritual of rebonding with the world and the land, as long as he had. After he and Neal, his former partner had broken up the year before, not long before Âdrena, he had felt too heartsore and vulnerable to go through the oft intense ritual. Though he and Neal had not been bonded, their relationship had lasted almost a decade, even when not formalized such long-lasting relation is not easily unraveled. 

And now it had been well over a year since he last went through it, though most druids will go through sadren once or twice a year. But with this unnerving loss of the passage of the year he can’t justify putting it off any longer. When he swore the druids’ oath, the commitment he took on was to the land before all else, if he is losing his connection to it then it must be reestablished. Urgently. 

A frown forms on his brow and he pulls a grimace. He’ll need time and solitude for it, that means leaving Stamets here to his own devices for a day or two. He should be okay in the village for the short time Hugh would have to leave, but that’s assuming he’d stay there. Stamets is nothing if not head strong and with the knowledge he now has Hugh isn’t sure how much the man trusts him, or anyone in Sirine. 

Rolling over on his side Hugh studies Stamets who is lying curled up on the bed opposite. His back is turned towards Hugh and he has kicked off the thin blanket that lies crumpled on the floor. The thin shift he’s wearing have ridden up almost to his hip, revealing the full shape of his legs, and his blond hair is unruly from sleep. 

Lying like that he looks almost fragile, nothing like the stubborn, willful man he is when he’s awake. Not to mention aggravating, bound as he is by that blindered mindset that is ubiquitous among Imperials. Though Hugh would grant him that he had more curiosity about Sirine and its ways than most Imperials. Even the traders who came here often merely looked down their noses at a people they considered backwards and quaint. Few Imperials ever stayed in Sirine for long. 

Shadow stirs at the foot of the bed, stretching and yawning, and Hugh sits up and swings his legs off the bed with a quiet sigh. 

“Slept well girl?” he asks softly, not to wake Stamets. His question is greeted with a muted wuffle. “How about we get out of here? I certainly need a bath.” 

He’d need to clean up if he was to be presentable for Âdrena and getting away from Stamets for a little while might be a good idea too. 

“Did I hear someone say bath?” Stamets says, rolling over to face Hugh. 

“I didn’t mean to wake you. I’m sorry,” Hugh says, feeling torn between regret and contentment that he won’t be escaping Stamets. 

Stamets lets out a short laugh, sitting up. 

“You didn’t. I was already awake; I just didn’t want to wake you. You clearly needed sleep. And its been a while since I had a chance to nap.” 

Hugh feels heat creep into his cheeks at the knowledge that Stamets had been awake as he was studying him.  

“Bath?” Stamets prompts. “Please. I could do with one too.” 

“Ah, yes. If you want to join me gather your things.” 

 


 

Judging by the position of the sun Paul determines it must be late afternoon. The village is far busier now than when they had arrived, people milling through the streets, some carrying baskets of food, others intent on what Paul assumes is a for of decorating, hanging up colored bonds and bundles of flowers, berries and grasses. 

In spite of the busier streets Paul can’t say it feels crowded. Not to him used as he is to the Imperial capital and its tens of thousands of people. 

Shadow trots off happily, casting one backwards glace towards Culber who waves at her, before she disappears among the buildings. He considers asking Culber if having a half wolf running loose among people, but Culber has already begun walking off in the other direction and no one seems to mind so Paul lets it go. 

The bath house is on the edge of the village, placed by the river bank, upstream from what appears to Paul to be a wharf as there are several small ships tied up along its edge. Where all the other hill structures they have passed on their way have been made up by several buildings laid out in circular formation, the bath house is a single, solid construct with a lone entrance carved into its exterior. 

Just inside is a small room with four doors. Culber leads them through the left into another only slightly larger room, filled with empty benches and shelves. 

“We can undress in here,” Culber says. “There are indoor bathing facilities here but they’re mostly used in the cold season and when the weather is bad, on a day like today I certainly prefer the outdoors,” Culber says. 

Out of doors bathing sounds somewhat primitive to Paul, but he’s beyond caring at that moment. He just wants to feel clean again, finally realizing how grimy he is after so many days of walking. 

“As long as it has water to bathe in I don’t much care,” he responds. 

They both quickly strip down. While doing so Paul surreptitiously looks around the room. It is brightly lit but just like their room at the guest house, he can’t tell where the light is coming from. There are lanterns placed on the walls but none of them are lit so that is not the source. Nor are there any windows. A true mystery. 

When they’re both undressed Culber heads out the door to the right of the one they entered by and Paul hurries after him. The mystery of the light will have to wait. 

The outdoor bath is nothing like Paul had imagined it. It consists of a large, open, circular space, not unlike the spaces between the hill buildings in the rest of the village, only this one is completely surrounded by the walls of the building. Above is the same kind of palisade structure as Paul had seen between the hill houses, but there are no berry carrying vines here or any other kind of plants, though it looks like something like a thin rope have been twisted around the wood. But what purpose such a rope might have Paul can’t begin to guess. In the middle there’s a large, open basin and along one quarter of the circumflex a ledge is placed above head level. From it, water cascades unto the tiled floor where a deep groove leads it away. 

They are not along in the open court. In the basin, furthest away from them, sits two young women engaged in deep discussion with one another. They briefly look up and Culber offers a short nod in greeting which they return, before returning to their conversation. 

Paul blinks once before forcing his gaze away from them. Communal baths are common in the Empire but not once have Paul heard of them being mixed, the very idea inconceivable. But here it appears to not even warrant a raised eyebrow to have naked men and women together. 

Culber has stepped under the cascading water, his face upturned against the stream as he begins to wash. The water makes his skin look golden in the sunlight and the tattoo appears to sparkle. Paul quickly lowers his eyes, feeling his cheeks heat, and puts his own bathing supplies on a narrow shelf on the wall, next to the spray before stepping under it as well. 

The water is surprisingly warm, for some reason he had expected it to be frigid. 

Paul tries to wash up as quickly as possible, being naked out in the open with an audience of two women is more uncomfortable than he had imagined it would be. Culber on the other hand appears oblivious to their audience and takes his time in slowly washing down, letting the water pour over him. Up this close it looks even more like the water makes his tattoo sparkle and glitter, the effect and the vibrant colors drawing Paul’s gaze, distracting him from his discomfort. 

The foam on Culber’s body is washed away by the streaming water, trailing over his skin and Paul can’t help himself but follow it with his gaze as the slides down the muscular back, ass and legs. Realizing he is staring, feeling his face heat up, Paul panicked tears his eyes away, turning around to face away from him and looks out across the room. 

The two women are still in deep conversation, seemingly as oblivious to him and Culber as Culber is to them. There must be a ledge or seat beneath water level Paul decides because it distinctly looks like they’re sitting down and the basin is too deep for it to be on the floor. 

One of the young women laughs at something the other says, a soft, intimate laugh and the other reaches out and tugs a lock of stray, wet hair back behind her companion’s ear before leaning forward and kissing her on the mouth in a way that by no measure could be seen as platonic. 

Paul’s eyes go slightly wide and he can feel his mouth drop open, a chill creeping over him. He jumps as a hand grabs his jaw and turns his face away from the women.  

Culber keeps hold of his chin, looking Paul square in the eye for a moment before letting go, his eyes cold and distant. 

“Stamets, you were staring,” Culber says, his voice chilly. “Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a woman without clothes on before?” 

A wild impulse to tell Culber that he’s spent a good deal of his life avoiding any situation that would have him in the same room as a naked woman strikes Paul, but he quickly suppresses it. It could lead to all sorts of other and even more uncomfortable conversations with Culber, conversations he wants to have with him even less than this one. 

Instead he sputters an, “Of course not. That’s- It-” 

Oh how can he get out of this without embarrassing or endangering himself?  

“It’s not that,” he finishes, keeping his voice as neutral as he can. 

He had thought Culber’s eyes could not get any colder, yet they do. 

“I see,” Culber says, his tone clipped and sharp. “A word of advice, Stamets. I’m perfectly aware of the ‘Imperial view’ on relationships of two of the same gender, but keep those to yourself while you’re here. Here we see such relationships differently and your opinions won’t be welcome.” 

With that Culbers turns, grabs his items off the shelf and strides past Paul before Paul can say anything. 

Blinking Paul stares after him, baffled at Culber’s reaction. 

Wait.‘Imperial views’? Did Culber think that he-? Maybe that was for the best, but... ‘ Here we see such relationships differently ’. Did that mean-? Could it-?  

Quickly grabbing his own things Paul hurries after Culber, his thoughts a jumble, wanting to talk to him but not knowing what it is he wants to say. 

Before he enters the changing room Paul casts a glance back over his shoulder at the two young women. If they had noticed the altercation between him and Culber they give no sign of it. They’re still sitting, quietly talking, their hands now lying on the edge of the basin their fingers tangled together. 

‘Here we see such relationships differently. 

Suddenly determined Paul turns and walks into the changing room. He needs to talk to Culber about this. Somehow. 

But inside he is met with the sight of Culber already dressed in pants and boots, picking up the last of his things from the bench he had put them on, his back turned towards Paul. 

“Culber I-” Paul begins to say, but Culber cuts him off. 

“Leave it lie, Stamets. You have nothing to say that I want to hear. I have preparations to make for tonight’s celebration.” 

With that Culber strides out the room, leaving Paul to stare despondent after him. 

Chapter Text

The sun has sunken so low in the sky that it no longer burns. Instead its rays are soft and warm against Hugh’s naked back and shoulders as he walks along the short wharf and on along the river, taking a different route back to the guest house, hoping that Stamets if he follows immediately will take the same path they came by.  

Though Galeah isn’t large even by Sirinese standards few would stray from a path travelled even once over the unfamiliar if left to their own in Hugh’s experience. He hopes it holds true this time, the last thing he wants right now is to see or talk to Stamets. 

He doesn’t quite understand why the look on Stamets’ face when he saw Laera and Rethi kissing stung so much. He should have expected it, he knew how Imperials viewed such a relationship. But sting it does. 

Maybe it’s because he had so completely misread the man. Hugh is usually good at reading people, but it seems this time he was off. 

Shaking his head at his own distress at something that shouldn’t matter to him at all, because why should Stamets’ opinion, on anything, matter to him, Hugh stops and looks back along the river at the River People’s colorful boats that are tied to the wharf. The sight of them cheers him as it always does.  

When he was a child he had wanted to join them when he got older, back before his abilities to connect with the world grew so strong that the druid’s had to take him under their wings until he learned not to get lost in his bond to the world. By the time he had learned he had learned the needed skills he was older and one set of dreams had been exchanged for another, the wish to sail the river and lakes of Sirine turned into a desire to walk the path of a druid. 

Not that his idea of being a druid had been any better formed than his wish to join the River People. He had still very much been a child with a child’s half-formed ideas of the world and no real notion of the consequences of either path. As he has grown older his desire to walk the druids’ path had grown stronger and stronger, though there were times when he had almost reconsidered, it was not a path that was easy to traverse and at times the cost was high. But unlike his dream of joining the River People the desire to be a druid never faded and in the end it was the path he chose for himself. 

Still seeing their boats always makes Hugh happy. Where the druids could be said to bind the land together and the lore singers Sirine’s history, the River People were the bond of everyday things. Fishers and traders, they travel the rivers that cuts through Sirine and connects many of its villages, sailing goods, news and stories from one place to another. An invaluable connection in a land that sometimes too easily fragmented. 

With a sigh Hugh turns away and begins to walk again. As a druid his first duty, his bond, is to the land itself and as such he cannot take sides in conflicts between Sirine’s people unless it threatens the land itself. He cannot have favorites. But that doesn’t mean he does not sometimes worry for all the people here.  

If a conflict was coming, if whatever haunts Stamets turned its attention to Sirine, what fractures couldn’t it use to turn the people here against one another? If necessary would it be possible to get everyone to join a common fight? 

A century before it had been difficult enough even with the very present and real invasion by the Empire, but what about a threat that even the druids or seers had not been able to perceive? 

“Hugh?” 

The joyous exclamation of his name interrupts his dark thoughts, calling him back to the present. He turns to face the speaker only to find himself entangled in an enthusiastic hug.  

“Michael!” he exclaims. Balancing his things in one arm he hugs back with the other. 

“What are you doing here?” he asks when she lets up her strangle hold a little, giving her a quick look. As always when she’s not travelling Michael is wearing a dress, its loose, blue skirt reaching almost down to her ankles, her arms covered by the sleeves of an unadorned, light grey shirt. 

She tilts her head. 

“I’m a lore singer, it’s Âdrena. Where else would I be but a village?” 

“I know. I meant here, in Galeah. You could be a thousand places.” 

“Any reason I shouldn’t be here, in this village?” she asks with a frown. 

“No, I guess not. I suppose I just didn’t expect to see you here, that’s all.” 

Her gaze turns measured and her eyes roam across his face. 

“What is it? I know you too well Hugh, there’s something.” 

“It’s nothing. A minor irritation,” he says.  

Being a lore singer, one of the caretakers of Sirine’s history and tradition, of its spirit the way druids are the keepers of the land, it is possible that Michael could shed some light on Stamets’ issue, but none of it is something to be discussed in the middle of a village. 

“I’m staying at the guest house,” he continues. “And as pleasant as it is seeing you, logging these around,” he holds up his bundle of clothes and bathing gear, “are cumbersome.” 

“Good, I’m staying there too,” Michael says as she hooks her arm through his. Together they begin to walk back to the guest house. 

“But what are you doing here?” she asks him. “I thought you said you’d be heading further south and east into your territory this year when you left Selaro this spring?” 

“I did, but I ran into... something.” 

“Something?” Michael asks, cocking her head. 

“I’ll tell you about it later. We’re both going to be busy tonight and this will take some explaining.” 

“You have me intrigued, but you’re right it’s probably best. I have something to tell you as well, but that should also wait.” 

Hugh frowns. Medran Esón wants to tell him something, but wait until there’s more time for it and now Michael too. Could either thing be related to his own story? Or have Michael and medran  Esón spoken and it’s the same thing? 

“Does this have anything to do with what medran Esón wanted to talk to me about?” 

“She wants to talk to you too? Whatever about?” 

“No idea. She wanted to wait till later too.” 

Michael shakes her head. 

“I’ve barely had time to say hello to her. I only arrived yesterday, and she and the whole Esón clan have been busy with all the people gathered from Âdrena not to mention the sheering afterwards. The River People will definitely want to wait to get their hands on some of that wool. And there are a few other traders and travelers too this year.” 

“She said they were full up so I and Stamets had to share a room.” 

Michael immediately pounces on the mention of an unfamiliar name. 

“Stamets?”Would that be the ‘something’ you ran into?” she asks. 

Hugh chuckles. Even as a child Michael didn’t miss much and she had only grown more perceptive as she got older. It was one of the things that made her so ideal as a lore singer, part of their task being to travel and gather the stories and history of Sirine.  

Nodding Hugh says, “Yes, he is. But there’s a little more to it. Part of ‘I’ll tell you later’.” 

He can feel Michael’s eyes searching his face. 

“Would it be the name of that ‘minor irritant’ too?” she prompts. 

Hugh laughs and wraps his free arm around her shoulders. 

“Tell you what little sister, I’ll introduce him to you. Then he can irritate you as well.” 

“Is he really that bad?” 

“He’s Imperial.” 

“Hmmm. I see.” 

Hugh sighs. As much as Stamets’ attitude irked him he doesn’t want to color Michael’s perception. He wants her to view him with as clear thoughts as possible for another opinion on... all of this. 

“Perhaps I’m a bit unfair. He’s nicer than most I’ve met, even the traders that come here but-” 

“He irritated you.” 

“Yes.” 

They walk through the gap between two of the buildings that makes up the guest house, but as they come around the point of the building to the right Hugh sees Stamets come towards them from the other side. While unsurprising that he had returned what does surprise Hugh is not only that it had taken him this much time, but that he walks flanked by Laera and Rethi on either side of him. Neither woman looks annoyed or cross and Hugh knows that Laera for one will not hold her tongue when provoked. In fact the three of them appears to be chatting peacefully. 

Stamets spots him and Michael in turn and halts, the mellow look on his face morphing into uncertainty. Rethi laughs and says something that Hugh cannot make out before taking Laera’s hand, pulling her along with a nod first to Stamets, then to Hugh and Michael before she and her girlfriend disappears back around the building they came from. 

Cautiously Stamets approaches Hugh and Michael, his gaze flickering between the two of them. Nearing enough to be heard he bows elegantly to Michael. 

“Sera,” he says while bowing. 

Out of the corner of his eye Hugh can see Michael struggle not to laugh, but she cannot keep her lips from twitching. 

“Michael, this is Paul Stamets, the Imperial I told you about,” Hugh introduces him, remembering to use the trade tongue so Stamets can follow the conversation. 

“He certainly is,” she says also using the trade tongue. 

Her words make Paul frown, but before he can ask what she means Hugh goes on. 

“Stamets, this is Michael Burnham, one of our lore singers.” 

“It is a pleasure meeting you,” Stamets says in a formal tone. 

Hugh sees a sparkle of mischief in Michael’s eyes. 

Ori e d’iqar ne qyrei ,” she replies, matching Stamets’ formality not only in tone but in choice of words. 

Now it is Hugh’s turn to struggle not to laugh at her choice of an almost archaic greeting as counter to Stamets’. 

Turning to Hugh Michael continues, switching from the old Sirinese dialect to the trade tongue, “I promised to help set up the festival canopies outside the octelas’ enclosure, so I’ll take my leave of you both.” 

The sparkle in her eyes makes Hugh wonder if she won’t first take a detour to a quiet place to have a good laugh. 

What he says is, “You should talk to medran Esón first. She and the other meidern may have changed the plans,” Hugh says. 

“Why?” Michael asks. 

“Stamets and I ran into a band of Tirgan coming here. One escaped. I told medran Esón when we saw her, there might be more out there. So there may have been a change of plans.” 

Michael’s eyes widen in shock. 

“So near? How would they even- Do you think they’d dare attack something as big Galeah?” 

Hugh shrugs. 

“Had you asked me a week or two ago I would have said never. But then I wouldn’t have thought they’d dare venture this far into Sirine back then either.” 

“I’ll find one of the Idet and talk to her,” Michael says. She raises up on her toes and kisses his cheek. “Don’t let the Imperial get to you. And I’ll see you at sunset, whatever the plan is. It’s been a while since we celebrated Âdrena together.”  

She turns and leaves. Hugh smiles as he watches her go. 

“That was a rather rude young woman,” Stamets says the moment Michael is out of sight immediately reigniting Hugh’s anger and bad mood. 

“By your standards perhaps,” he snaps. “Lore singers are highly regarded here and their words valued. So I suggest you speak with greater care in the future or you might well find yourself the one considered rude.” 

Snapping around on his heel he goes inside the guest house building they’re staying in. He hears Stamets follow close on his heels and quietly wishes the man would just vanish, take the hint and make himself scarce for a while. 

No such luck. No more have the door close behind them in their room than Stamets begins to speak. 

“Culber I-” 

Hugh sighs as he drops his things on his bed. 

“What?” he says, turning to face Stamets. Since the man insists on a confrontation they might as well get it over with. 

“My comment was crude and unnecessary, I apologize.” 

Stamets looked subdued and contrite. 

Hugh shrugs, he wasn’t the affected party here and Michael hadn’t heard it.  

“As was my staring earlier, I shouldn’t have done that,” Stamets goes on. 

Hugh only barely keeps from rolling his eyes. Perhaps it is time to explain a thing or two to Stamets. 

“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to for that,” he points out to him. 

“I know and another apology have already been addressed to the young ladies in question. I just wanted you to know it to.” 

Hugh shrugs again, feeling there isn’t anything he can say to this though he supposes this is something from an Imperial, perhaps they can get to the bottom of what’s happening to Stamets without Hugh ending up taking his head off. 

“I was... surprised,” Stamets continues. 

“Leave it lie Stamets,” Hugh says. There’s no point in dragging this on, only the likelihood that Stamets will make him angry again. 

“No,” Stamets says, quietly but firmly. “With the greatest respect I do need you to hear what I have to tell you.” 

With yet another sigh Hugh scrubs a hand across his face, before folding his arms across his chest. 

“Go on then,” he says. 

Stamets nods sharply, licking his lips and sits down on the edge of his bed. 

“I should not have stared that is true, but the display of affection... took me by surprise. Something like that is- It’s not accepted in the Empire. To do that would... well it would be dangerous. No one would ever consider such behavior in such a public place. Even in private, unless full privacy could be assured. So I was shocked and... and afraid.” 

Stamets’s gaze darts away from Hugh and he nervously begins to toy with the edge of the blanket, lying on the bed. 

“For them and, and for myself. I-” He stops and takes a deep breath, still not looking up at Hugh who has unfolded his arms, standing with his head tilted to one side. 

“This is even harder than I thought it would be,” Stamets says, sounding like he’s talking to himself. 

“You see,” he proceeds. “My whole life I’ve been hiding this, from everyone, terrified of what might happen if I ever got caught. Wizards of the Imperial College may have a certain prestige but even we are not immune to-” 

Stamets’ voice breaks and he hug himself. 

Hugh steps forward, reaches out and puts a hand on his shoulder. Stamets jumps under his touch and Hugh considers if he should stop, but Stamets doesn’t pull away or shake him off so he keeps it there, feeling how tremors too minute to be seen is running through Stamets’ body. 

“To what?” Hugh prompts after a longer silence. 

“To repercussions.” Stamets lets out a shaky laugh. “I don’t think I’ve ever been frank to anyone about the fact that, that I’m attracted to men before. But the two young ladies and I had a chat after I apologized to them and they- well they told me about you and I needed you to know why I was staring. That I wasn’t condemning them, or you.” 

The words come out of Stamets mouth so rushed Hugh almost can’t tell what he’s saying. 

Stamets finally looks back up at Hugh and Hugh sees a swirl of emotions there. Most of all he sees hope but it is overlain with fear. He wonders what it would be like, to live like that all your life. In his own brief visits to Imperial territories it had been a source of irritation more than anything having to hide that part of himself, but to grow up knowing that you were at risk, knowing you could never publicly display affection the way you wanted or you’d risk your own safety and that of your partner... he can’t imagine that. 

“Stamets,” he says slowly, sitting down next to him. “You have nothing to fear here for that.” 

“So I’m coming to realize,” Stamets replies, his voice shaking with emotions. 

Tentatively Hugh puts his arm around Stamets’ shoulder, holding out the other to offer a hug. Stamets gives him a surprised glance before leaning into the embrace and awkwardly returns it. 

“I owe you an apology,” Hugh says once they let go or each other, though Hugh keeps one arm around Stamets’ shoulder. 

Stamets shakes his head but Hugh goes on. 

“I was unnecessarily harsh in my choice of words, for that I am sorry. I assumed wrongly about the reason for your actions.” 

“But it was a very natural assumption. Leave it lie. I merely wanted to clear things up between us.” 

“If that is your wish.” 

“Please. You have been a very patient teacher to me thus far, in spite of everything. Everything is so very different here. The way you think, the way you act. It’s all so different and I have much to learn about you.” 

Stamets gracelessly pats Hugh on the arm. 

“Now I believe you have a ritual and celebration to get ready for,” he says, waving him off with a self-conscious look. 

“You don’t want to participate?” Hugh asks. 

Stamets looks a little baffled at that. 

“I- I guess I assumed that, that outsiders would not be welcome.” 

“Why wouldn’t you?” 

“As a non-believer...” 

Hugh breaks into laughter. 

“This isn’t an Imperial celebration; you don’t have to believe in anything. Âdrena is a celebration of bonds, to each other, to the world, to life and death. You said you had much to learn about us, this would be a good place to begin to understand us.” 

“I do want to know you.” 

Hugh holds out his hand. 

“Then try to put your Imperial mindset aside for a night and join us.” 

Stamets takes it. 

“I will. But not before some grooming,” he says, running his free hand across his stubbled jaw. “I must look a mess with this.” 

“Maybe you should keep it and grow a proper beard? I think the look would suit you.” 

A soft blush reddens the tips of Stamets’ ears as he shakes his head. 

“I think I’ll leave the beard to you,” he replies rising to his feet and he begins to rummage through his saddlebags. 

Hugh runs a hand along his own jawline. Maybe his own beard could do with a trim too, it had been a while. 

Chapter Text

Paul runs a hand over his now clean-shaven jaw. Getting rid of the stubble makes him feel better, more like himself. The anxious jitters from his conversation with Culber are slowly fading leaving him feeling tired and wanting most of all to curl up on the bed or a nap, but he doesn’t want to pass up the chance that Culber offered him. It looks as he may be staying in Sirine for some time and understating the ways and traditions of this place would be beneficial and privately he can admit to more than a little curiosity on the subject though he was never a religious man himself. 

He looks himself over in his mirror one last time to check that he is indeed presentable before putting his grooming kit away again. Rummaging in the other saddlebag he finds a clean shirt. It wouldn’t be acceptable as festive wear in the Empire for a man of his station, far too plain and unadorned, but he hopes it will work here. He hadn’t thought to bring clothes suitable for holy days or festivities. 

Fortunately he has a person right next to him that can answer that question. 

“Culber do you-” he begins to ask as he turns to his roommate, his voice fading as he’s met with the sight of the man shirtless, pulling a vibrantly red, sleeveless tunic over his head. It has bright yellow and green embroidery at the arm gaps and the open V-neck. A braided cord in those same colors are laced through the V used to tie it close, but it doesn’t look like Culber intends to do that. Dragging his eyes upwards Paul notices that Culber has trimmed his beard neatly and now he looks less like a forester and more like a noble man. 

“Yes?” Culber queries softly. 

“Um, I-”  

Paul can feel his face flush and judging by the small smile spreading on Culber’s lips, he can tell as well. 

“Do you think this will hold up to standards for festival wear here?” Paul asks, the words rushing out of him in a jumble, holding up his shirt. “It isn’t near as fancy as yours.” 

It’s a plain, dark grey shirt that goes well with anything and doesn’t look dirty easily. He usually favor lighter shades and more colors in his clothing, but he had opted for practicality over appearances when packing or his journey. 

“I think it’ll work,” Culber answers. “Tonight isn’t formal, not in dress.” 

“Thank you. I’ll just eh-” The thought of undressing and dressing with Culber staring at him makes him blush deeper, hesitating. 

“I’ll wait outside while you change,” Culber says as if reading his mind. 

“You don’t have to wait for me,” Paul hurries to say. It doesn’t feel polite to make Culber wait for him to get finished. 

“I thought you might like me to explain tonight and take you out to the ritual ground so you wouldn’t have to find your way alone. But you look like you want to get changed without me here.” 

“Yes I- Thank you. That is much appreciated.” 

With a smile and a nod Culber exits the room, leaving Paul to his own company and thoughts. 

When the door has closed behind Culber Paul lets out a long, slow breath and he sinks down to sit on the bed. He probably shouldn’t take too long so that Culber doesn’t start to worry or get impatient, but he needs a moment. Today has been a lot in the short time he has been awake. 

The thought makes him chuckle softly to himself. Has he had any different kind of days lately? Certainly since he had met Culber everything seemed to have become far more... complicated. As if his life had not been complicated enough already. 

This place, this strange land and this man. He’s isn’t sure what to make of any of it.  

To tell Culber the truth about himself, a truth he had kept buried in the depths of his heart for so many years, had been terrifying but after having spoken with the two young ladies at the bath house and heard them tell about Culber, Paul had felt he could do no different. He couldn’t live with the thought that Culber might think he thought him... unnatural and against the Divine Order when nothing could be further from the truth. 

Of course the Divine Order doesn’t seem to exist here, but surely they had something like it. Though whatever that would be it viewed men like him and Culber, and women like the two at the bath house, in a different light and by gentler beliefs. 

Well tonight is his chance to learn more, but for that he needs to get dressed first. 

Pushing to his feet Paul pulls his shirt he was still holding in his hands over his head, proceeding to do just that. 

 

Once he is changed, he quickly tidies up the few things he has had out. He had always preferred his rooms neat. Looking over his half of the room satisfied with its state he turns and leaves. 

Outside he finds Culber waiting as promised, sitting on one of the benches in the open area between the buildings. He’s looking up at the berry carrying vines, his gaze distant. 

Perhaps Culber catches sight of movement out of the corner of his eye as Paul steps closer, perhaps he senses him somehow, but when Paul steps near him he turns his head and looks straight at him, and Paul feels a jolt when their eyes meet. 

"They’re pretty,” Paul says pointing to the vines with their colorful berries, most of all to say something. 

“The tasa?” Culber asks, rising to his feet. “They are. They’re also part of Âdrena.” 

He holds out his hand and when Paul steps close, he puts it on his shoulder. It feels warm and firm through Paul’s shirt. 

"Really?” Paul asks, feeling how his heart picks up its rate. 

“Yes. But I think it will all be easier to explain it all out on the Tasdrin .” 

Tasdrin?” 

“Where Âdrena begins. Come, let me show you,” Culber says. 

The sun has sunk low in the sky and hands just above the horizon, its rays bathing the village in a reddish, golden light. Outside of the village proper domed, tent-like structures have been raised. To Paul’s eyes they appear made of braided grass their roofs woven, long strings of colorful beads trailing from one pavilion to the next. Food is being carried out from the village and placed on low tables inside them, by both men and women of all ages, while children play in the open space between the tents and behind the river runs like a bond of shimmering bronze. 

“So?” Paul asks. 

“Come down to the river’s edge.” 

Culber guides them down to the water and Paul realizes that his hand hasn’t left his shoulder while they have walked. 

A couple of feet from the river's edge a large mat has been place on the ground. On top of it lies an animal skin, possibly from an octela, resting on a high, flat rock, and next to the skin stands a bowl filled with what looks to Paul as large colored beads. 

People keep following them with their gaze. Discomforted Paul steps out of Culber's touch and gives him a questioning look. 

“So what happens?” 

“These are tasa pits, seeds of the berries of the vines you saw in the village. They grow in most of Sirine near bodies of water or wetlands. They’re vines that usually grow along the ground, filtering into each other, creating an almost unbreakable web of vines. The pavilions,” Culber points to the structures behind them. “Are made of vines stems, taken when the  tasa  vines were dying but before they’re fully withered. They’re durable and flexible.” 

“Mmmm, but what about those pits?” 

“Yes, the seeds. A tasa vine alone would soon die, torn up from the ground by animals and eaten or overgrown and overshadowed by other plants, by bonding together they survive and become strong. Like people. Alone we wither and die, together there’s not just survival but thriving. Âdrena is a celebration of the bonds, both those we have formed and of those we wish to form.” 

Culber take up a pit from the bowl. 

“Âdrena begin with a ceremony where each person here in turns take a pit and place it on the octela skin. Together they form a pattern. Our web of vines if you will.” 

“But how do you know where to put it?” Paul asks. 

“We don’t.” 

Paul frowns, not understanding. 

“We choose where we put it down depending on the other pits. On who we’re close to. Who we wish to get closer to.” 

“Sounds complicated.” 

“It isn’t. All in life is a choice, all connections. Forming them, nurturing them.” Culber’s face grows a little distant. “Severing them. They’re all things we choose to do.” 

“But I have no connections here,” Paul protests. “And I’m not staying long enough to form any, so I guess I’ll have to skip this part.” 

“None? You’ve talked to people; you’ll talk to more tonight. Maybe they aren’t strong connections, but they’re still connections. Besides,” Culber places the pit in his hand back in the bowl. “Âdrena runs for several days, at any time can a person chose to move their pit to another place should they wish.” 

“And once Âdrena is done?” 

“Then the pits are taken around the village. Old vines that are dying are cut down and will be used for buildings or other things. Where they grew the new pits will be planted, spouting new plants, creating a new web.” 

“I meant what if you chose to get closer to someone during Âdrena that you find you don’t like at all?” 

“All choices have consequences but most can be undone. To some degree. A bond once formed can be severed, though the past of it will always remain.” 

“I... see,” Paul answers though he doesn’t really. “Um, then what happens? I assume there’s more.” 

Culber smiles.  

“Yes. Once everyone has placed themselves as they wish, we join in…” Culber's voice breaks off and his brows draw together in a frown. “This is so much easier to explain in Sirinese,” he mutters. 

“Join in?” Paul prompts. 

"Adre feran eqitel. It's a, it's a song. I think that’s the best description. Normally two of the village leaders would lead it, but as I and Michael are here, we will.” 

Paul nods. This feels more familiar and comfortable ground. Religious hymns are a part of every religious celebration in the Empire too. He isn't quite certain what position a lore singer is, but he can imagine it might be something like a priest or layman with knowledge of the rites and the gods. Druids obviously holds a position of influence, perhaps they are considered a form of clergy in spite of their magical powers.  

‘Not-magical powers’ he corrects himself, remembering what Culber had told him about how the Sirinese sees… not-magic. 

“And then?” he asks, mentally shaking himself, trying not to get lost in his own thoughts. 

“Then we get to the truly important part,” Culber replies with a twinkle in his eyes. 

“Oh, what?” 

“The food, drink and dancing.” Culber chuckles softly and Paul barely restrains himself from rolling his eyes but can't help a smile. Village celebrations are the same everywhere it seems, no matter what the food, drink and revelry after are more interesting to the locals than solemn devotion. 

Not that Paul are about to argue with it. His own religious feelings have been non-existent for decades, though he has always made a point of showing up for worship to avoid trouble. Though he had always made his escape as quickly as he could once everyone was sufficiently drunk not to notice his absence, but tonight he thinks he’ll stick around. 

Before he can ask anything else Culber’s gaze slips to some point behind Paul’s shoulder. His smile grows wider and he raises one hand and calls out. Turning his head Paul sees the young woman he saw Culber with earlier. coming towards them. 

Frowning Paul searches his brain for her name. Oh yes, Burnham. 

She’s wearing a tunic with the same cut as Culber’s though hers is deep blue, with yellow and white embroidery and tied shut at the neck. Beneath she wears a pair oflong, light breeches and sandals that are laced up her calves. 

Paul swears silently to himself as she comes closer. He had meant to ask Culber what a proper greeting was in these parts since the one he gave her apparently was considered wrong, but between his own confession and everything else he had forgotten about it again. 

Burnham solves the issue for him. 

“Hello again,” she says. “Hugh I expected, you I didn’t.” 

Her frank openness and the directness with which she addresses him takes him aback as it had earlier. Judging by Culber’s words she’s a woman of some standing here but she neither dress nor act the way he’s used to a woman of high social rank doing. It leaves him uneasy and uncertain how to act. 

“Culber was kind enough to invite me, it would have been discourteous to refuse,” he says curtly. 

“So you are here out of courtesy?” 

“He was interested,” Culber interrupts them. 

“Hmmm.” She says something to Culber in Sirinese who smiles gently and shakes his head, giving her a brief reply. Burnham shrugs at his words but before the exchange can go any further an increase in the commotion around the three of them draws their attention.  

People begin to gather around them and Culber gently takes hold of his elbow and steers him to the edge of the group, Burnham silently following them. 

“Are we beginning?” Paul whispers to Culber. 

“Yes. Shhh.” 

Paul falls silent and looks on as the ceremony begins to unfold. 

An elderly woman who Paul recognizes as the one Culber talked to in the guest house when they arrived steps up next to the octela skin and begins to speak. As she speaks in Sirinese Paul doesn't understand a word and the deep, solemn silence of not just Culber and Burnham but the entire gathering makes it clear that this is not the time to ask for a translation. 

The sun’s disk has touched the horizon and everyone and everything is lit in deep red and orange, the shadows long and dark, making a stark and dramatic setting. The old woman ends her speech and turns to the seed bowl. Picking a pit from it she puts it on the skin then steps aside for the next person, a man around the same age as she. He too takes a seed and places it on the skin. 

One person follows another after that, though what order there is to the arrangement Paul cannot tell. Age appears no factor, the young, old and middle-aged mixing together. Perhaps it relates to social standing, but Paul realizes he can’t tell the affluent and influential from everyone else. Everyone is dressed nicely, but there are no ostentatious displays of wealth. 

The rhythm of the ritual fluctuates. Some quickly pit a seed and place it, others take time to consider one part or both. Some approach the skin alone, others in pairs or small groups. 

Lost in thoughts and trying to figure out the order, Paul doesn’t notice that the gathered village has fallen silent and that no one is moving towards the octela skin until Culber elbows him gently and nods towards it. Paul shoots him a surprised glance. He’d never thought that they had meant for him to participate in this way, but he realizes that everyone is staring at him, waiting, so he hesitantly steps past the gathered people and up to the skin. 

It is all but dark now but the area is lit by lanterns. The bowl is still half filled with seeds, which shows off their colors brightly in the low light. 

His first impulse is to simply grab a seed and put it down somewhere to get away from all the attention, but that feels disrespectful so he stops and studies the skin and all the seeds placed there. They make for a colorful, intricate, swirling pattern. 

Bonds. Choosing bonds.  

He looks into the bowl again, choosing a pale purple seed, more elongated than the rest then studies the patter once more before slowly putting his seed off to the side of all the rest. It’s looks jarring, disruptive, as it lies there, but isn’t that where he stands? Apart from everyone else here, with no place? 

Decision made Paul hurriedly turns away and rejoins Culber and Burnham.  

Culber goes next, then Burnham.  

Maybe the order is going by simple physical proximity?   Paul thinks. 

The last few of the locals goes and adds their seeds to the pattern, then everyone falls even more quiet again. During the seed placing the crowd had not been loud but now the silence almost takes on a sound of its own. Culber briefly grabs Paul’s arm, giving it a slight squeeze and offering Paul a smile before both he and Burnham move to the forefront of the group, near the octela skin. 

Burnham begins to speak and the villagers begin to move away from the center of their group, forming a very rough circle with an empty space in the middle which she and Culber steps into. Paul finds himself standing at the very edge of the crowd between two unknown villagers, a young man on his left a child, a girl of maybe seven years, on his right. Both are wearing a very attentive look on their face, the girl even looks excited. 

Then Burnham begins to sing. 

At first she sings alone and unaccompanied by any instrument. Her voice is not the clearest Paul has heard, but while he usually sits bored on a pew during hymns, trying hard not to fidget or show impatience, he finds himself drawn in by her voice and song though he don’t understand the words. Then Culber joins in, his voice softer and more somber than hers and the world around seems to fall away. 

The unfamiliar words call to him and he sees a world spreads out before him. A broken world, one that looks almost dead. But vibrant pricks and pins dot the landscape, small pockets of life, plants, animals, people, that slowly starts to spread, binding the broken earth together with blood and tears and their very lives. It makes his heart ache. 

The feeling unbalances him and he shakes his head, trying to dispel it, to regain his self-control. It brings him back to himself and the vision fades away and he finds himself back among the villagers, looking at Burnham and Culber as they sing. As everyone sing, realizing that he himself had been humming along. 

But he instantly forgets the oddity of him humming when he feels the power flowing through the gathering, buffeting him, with a strength that robs him of his breath. It feels like the flow of power he has felt from Culber in the past, but he doesn’t seem to be the point of origin. On closer inspection Paul can’t find one, it is as if it’s everywhere and nowhere. An impossibility yet he cannot deny the reality of this power, or its strength, like a raging river threatening to pull him of his feet as he struggles against it. 

Backing away Paul casts about to see if he can find aid anywhere, but everyone is caught up in the song. The depth of power being conjured is dangerous, but to try and disrupt it even more so.  

Uncertain and undecided as to what to do, he stands mutely apart from the crowd as the song raises into a crescendo before slowly spiraling into a decrescendo in a repeated chorus. As it does the power too feels to fade away along with the lyrics, leaving only an echo of itself behind. 

The song ended he hears Burnham speak and then the villagers begin to break up, talking and laughing, as they make their way to the pavilions. 

Paul can still feel the energy, potent but no longer feeling like a rushing river. He shakes his head trying to make sense of what he just saw and felt. His heart pounding in his chest he steps away from the gathering, walking up along the river’s edge into the dark night.