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You stare into the fire long enough, you can see the whole world pass by

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When Leon came to, his body felt heavy as if he had been sleeping with quite a few sacks of grain stacked over his chest.

His eyes couldn't really focus, and his head felt fuzzy and sluggish, but if he really tried he could at least make out the ceiling of the room he was laying in.

That got him quite confused. He was pretty sure his home did not have a window so close to his bed.

Now that he paid closer attention to it, he found out that he was not even lying in a bed. He was, instead, sitting on a makeshift stretcher, pushed in a corner of a room and covered with a blanket that, yes, looked vaguely familiar, but…

Just what was going on?

As he tried to sit up, a twinge from his chest stopped him in his tracks. Instinctively he put a hand against it, gritting his teeth against the pain-

And a voice boomed in his head.

 

If you would face me

Take up arms, newly Arisen,

For my kind do not heed the toothless.

 

-and everything that had happened came rushing back to him.

A dragon had attacked Cassardis. The soldiers that were supposed to defend the village -the very reason Adaro had accepted to give up their independence to the Duke in the first place!-, had ran away like cowards at the sight of the beast, leaving their charges to be mauled and their homes to be destroyed, oaths and honour be damned.

Leon remembered the white-hot rage that had burned in his chest. He had left his sister to take care of those that she could gather, and had run up to the beast instead, wielding a discarded sword firm in his hands: a stupid attempt to at least buy his people some time. For goodness’ sake, the morning crew had been working on the same pier the dragon had landed straight on. Someone had to do something to draw it away from them, and if no one would rise up to the task, then he would be the one to take it.

Adaro had always said that he had a problem, with his way of running headfirst into trouble without nary a thought.

As he should have expected, the beast had swatted him away as if he was nothing but a pesky fly when he had tried to pierce its tough scales with that flimsy toothpick. By the force of that blow alone, he should have been dead instantly- he had felt his ribs crumble with a sickening crunch, blood rushing into his mouth, choking on it-

But he was still alive. And the dragon did not quite stop at just that.

He had been stripped of his clothing, he noticed. It must have been ruined beyond repair –something that did not surprise him. He remembered a lot of blood.

Feeling daring, he undid the bandages around his chest.

There was no gruesome gape left of the plunge that the dragon's massive claw had taken into his chest. He was prepared to see a yawning hole, or a similar manner of a horrible injury carved between his ribs; but the bandages were clean of any trace of blood. On his skin he could only see a gnarly, raised scar, pale against his dark body, shaped a bit like a star.

He dared to put his fingers against it once again. It felt rough, and it was just as unsightly.

But the voice did not make itself heard again. Only silence met his ears: both from the dragon, and from his own heart.

So, what he had seen had not been a hallucination.

Leon felt like choking. The beast… It had truly taken it away, had it not? The dragon had stolen his heart, and swallowed it whole.

How was he even alive?

Why?

 

---

 

He stumbled down the steps, away from his father's house. Quina had been relentless in her begging for him to "just lay down again, only for a little while": terrified to even let him away from her sight for a moment, for sure, despite valiantly trying to hide her distress.

Despite his affection for her, Leon had found himself unable to comply to her request. The air in that room had felt stuffy and unbearable after his discovery. He needed space. Somewhere to just be, for a moment, on his own -away from his sister's well-meaning hovering and his father's gaze, disbelieving as if the old man could still not wrap his head around the fact that his son was somehow alive, and fearful as if some part of him believed still he was going to possibly croak and die on him at any minute.

He tried the cove, but in its isolation he started to feel paranoid: as if every crack in the stones and every whisper of the wind was hiding the beast, coming back to finish the job.

He tried the village, but he could not stand the stares, at least from those who were still alive and well enough to be able to do so.

Leon did not have to ask the whereabouts of those he couldn't find. If they weren't screaming in pain, then they were most likely already at the chapel, waiting on their turn to be laid down into the earth.

He fled to his familiar, quiet little nook, hidden in the hayloft above the barn. Lulled by the smell and the noise of the village cows resting below him, he laid down for a while, body still but mind unable to stop reeling.

It had been already afternoon when he had left his father's house: by the time he emerged from the barn, the sun had dipped away from the horizon, leaving the sky awash in a warm glow that was, however, dulling into darkness very fast.

He was not feeling any better.

He could not physically feel the absence of his heart - could not feel the rustling of air behind his ribs, howling in the empty socket it left - but he also could not find other words that could properly describe what he was experiencing other than just sheer emptiness. His mind echoed frenzied thoughts back at him like a barren room, multiplying their voices and disorienting him even in the supposedly familiar confines of his own brain; and yet, despite being distantly aware of the fact that such things should feel at least moderately distressing, he could not bring himself to acknowledge such distress. It was as if he had been locked out of the domain of his own mind, and he could only spectate the mess that was going wild in it, throwing him from a loop without his consent or even his participation.

He supposed that, had he still been in possession of one, his heart should have been thumping in his throat at such tumult. But his chest remained quiet, and his thoughts raged on.

The village was equally as silent, save from the moans of the wounded and the howling of the wind coming down from the mountain.

Feeling utterly exposed, and unable to stand it, he ducked into his own house. He had half of a mind to hide under his blankets –just for a little while. Maybe that would have finally granted him some respite, maybe even some sleep-

When he cracked upon his door, he found Valmiro standing in his foyer, a broom in his hands, eyes wide as if he was still a minnow just caught with his hands in the cookie jar.

They stared at each other for a few moments, both equally startled and uncomprehending.

-Wha…-, started Leon.

Valmiro spoke over him. –Quina said you were up-, he said, talking fast and growing red. –I thought –dust flew everywhere, and there was not any good food in your pantry, as usual…-.

-What do you mean, as usual?-

-What do I…-, parroted back the other man, passing from flustered to frustrated in the span of a heartbeat. –That is what you stick with? What were you even thinking?!-, he said, raising his voice. –I did something nice! You were the one that ran right up to a bloody dragon just asking to be mauled!-.

-It is not like I was planning on it...!-

-You should not even stand, by the way. I said Quina said you were up, not that she was happy about it-, he kept chiding, ignoring Leon’s feeble protests. –You all say that I am naught but a blabbering chatterbox, and I admit that sometimes I let myself get carried away, but have you ever had to suffer one of that girl’s worried tirades? I thought she was going to ke… cos, your feet.-.

Leon instinctively looked down at the horror that suddenly crept in his voice. To be fair, when he left his father’s house that afternoon, he had to do so barefoot, for he had grown well past Adaro’s size to be able to borrow a pair of his sandals; but the thought of fetching a pair from his own house, of somewhere else in the village, hadn’t even crossed his mind. As a result of his wanderings, the skin up to his ankles had been bleached by the dust and sand it had picked up; and, as if that wasn't enough, his soles were encrusted with dried up dirt.

-Oh dear-, he muttered, his own horror growing. –I had not realized… Oh, no, Valmiro, did you actally sweep? I am so sorry… let me fetch a towel, or something...-. Wanting to at least try and clean them a bit with his own hands, he attempted to bend down. His breath, however, was punched out of his lungs when another spasm exploded in his chest; he grunted a choked sound of pain, and he had not even realized he had been teetering to the side when he felt Valmiro’s hands coming to steady him into staying upright.

-Careful, cos-, he murmured, fire gone from his voice. –Seems like Quina was not wrong. Come, let me help you.-.

And Leon just could not deal anymore.

-I am fine, Valmiro-, he tried to state, tugging one of his arms free from his hold. –I can manage it on my own. It is naught but a little soreness, nothing to worry about it.-.

But the other man did not let himself be peeled off quite so easily. He shook his head and held fast. –Please, Leon.-.

He did not know what he saw exactly into his friend’s eyes, just then: but the fight obediently left Leon’s body at his plea, and he quieted down. He nodded, and let himself be shepherded into his fireplace's room, making quite the odd image given his handful of inches of advantage over his friend’s height. But Leon did not mention it.

Valmiro sat him on his bed, hands light and careful around his middle so that it would not hurt when he lowered himself on it; then, he fetched a bucket from the foyer –full, noticed Leon, and that must have been a bitch to haul all the way there from the only open well that Cassardis had: but again, he kept his mouth shut, and watched him set it down next to his dirty feet.

He dipped a towel into the clean water and wringed it quietly; then, with careful, practiced moves, he took hold of his right foot and started to gently clean it, massaging the dust and the dirt away from the skin and soothing aches he had not even been aware of until they were chased away by his touch.

Leon was not sure what exactly was going on in his friend’s mind, at the moment, but he also felt that if he were to question him, something would definitely break. He kept silent and watched, enraptured, following his hands’ motions with his eyes and feeling goosebumps chasing right after them. The tension that he had been not even aware he had still in his body slowly bled out of him, and his breathing evened out. As the water grew duskier, his mind fell blessedly silent.

When Valmiro finished drying him with a clean towel, Leon dared to steal a look at his face and spotted him eyeing his chest. He was wearing a spare garb that Adaro had dug up from the village stores, and while it sort of fit, it closed awkwardly at his neck, leaving the folds of his shirt to hang open if he bent slightly. Valmiro was quick to avert his eyes when he saw himself caught, but Leon did not let him flee so easily.

-She told you-, he said, not even asking it as a question.

The other man hesitated, but eventually nodded.

-Do you believe her?-.

Valmiro kept staring at the bucket. -… ‘tis hard to say, cos-, he answered after a long silence, uneasiness in his voice. –She says it is indeed silent –but you are here. Right before me, alive and warm and whole, except for that scar-, he murmured. –I do not know what I should think.-.

Leon reached down at that, gently grabbing his hand and guiding it to his scar.

He did not know what he was expecting to feel when he felt his damp skin coming into contact with his own. The scar did not dull any sensation, as he guided his palm to lay flat on it; and, while intense, the feeling was not unwelcome, enough that he could not suppress a shiver at the touch. He held it there for a while, searching Valmiro’s face for the moment when he would have realized that the expected thrum from within would be missing.

When it happened, he found that he could not quite read what went on behind his friend’s eyes; and that he was not sure if that was a good thing.

Valmiro freed himself with a quick but not unkind gesture, and got to his feet. –I should leave you to rest-, he mumbled, not meeting his eye. –I… I brought you some stew from Iola. It’s nice and hearty. I left it on the embers, to keep warm- he added, gesturing to the fireplace, looking a bit helpless. He ducked under his bangs, and whispered: -Forgive me-, before fleeing from his house.

Leon remained sitting there for a long while, until the fireplace was the only source of light left in the room. In the wake of Valmiro’s absence his mind had started to roar again, and it spoke with the deep rumble of a dragon.