England is a miserable, swampy, rain riddled, piss-poor, excuse for a country.
Yusuf had avoided it in his life as a merchant. It was much too far away, far removed from the long, dry, sun-kissed cliffs of the Maghreb, and though he may have been a master sailor, traversing those waters was not something he wanted to try. He stuck to the Mediterranean and its many ports of wealth: the rocky olive-rich hills of Greece, the enormous wealth of the Byzantine, Damascus one if it’s many jewels, complete with domed golden mosques, and the interconnected papal states of the Italian peninsula, stitched together by the freshly fallen roads of Rome. It was in these places, and their prospering cities, that he made his money.
England was an afterthought, far from home, far from his mind.
So, in Yusuf’s life after Jerusalem, a life where Italy was now so much more to him than money, he and Nicolo tend to stay away from England. There was never a time they were there that it wasn’t pouring rain, freezing. They’d spend days holed up in some disease-ridden hut while Andromache mapped out the murder of some crooked London noble with a cock the size of a pinky finger.
Yusuf hated it. He hated the cold, he hated the people. Even when he was cuddled up to Nicolo while the English thunderstorms rained outside he was miserable. No, Yusuf would rather be with him in their Maltese cottage on the sea. Warm and happy, sketching the long lean lines of Nicolo’s body in bed while the surf roared through the window.
So when Andromache and Quynh make some noise about heading over to the British Isles sometime around the mid-seventeenth century on the whisperings of a few hundred witch burnings, they decline their offer to join them.
A year or without them, they start dreaming in drownings and deep water. They wake up with the weight of the ocean in their lungs, choking from the nightmare. But it’s not a nightmare. It is not a nightmare.
They go to England.
Witch hunts have existed for far longer than Yusuf has been alive. It’s not exactly a surprise to hear about them. But England seems to have taken a particular shine to it in the past couple centuries.
Andromache and Quynh are smart women. They’ve been around a long time, and they know exactly what they’re doing and what particular strings to pull to get work done. But they, like many women in the world, are so very outnumbered, and as a result, unlucky.
They’ve been in binds before, but they’ve worked themselves out of them. Yusuf was not worried for them when they left, but instead hopeful for what they might achieve, and ready for the day they’d cross paths again.
He did not expect to be the one hunting them down. No, hunting her down. Andromache.
They find her in Edinburgh, a year after she escapes from the clutches of the clergy.
He and Nicolo had spent that year running foolish circles around the scum ridden streets of London, chasing any whisper of a witch drowned, and how her companion raised hell in the wake of it. They follow the murmurs of a mass murder to Bristol, where a freshly fingerless sailor points a shaky stubbed hand north to York. There, Yusuf holds down a preacher in the hallowed halls of one of the city’s many gargoyled cathedrals, as Nicolo takes a knife to the man’s skin and is rewarded with Scotland.
Scotland is somehow worse yet somehow better than its conqueror. Here the mist hangs low, even in the capital city. There is not a part of Yusuf that is not damp, and Nicolo develops a nervous tick, picking at the sleeves of his shirt that’s stuck to his arms with perspiration. But unlike England, the land is more untouched. If he stands on the city’s walls Yusuf can see the countryside unimpeded. Broad strokes of forever green, dotted with the flocks of shepherds and long-haired dappled horses ridden by grinning red-headed boys.
It’s both idyllic and constraining. Tempting as those rolling hills may be, they instead end up in the cellar of a printer’s shop, where Andromache has tied up the priest that locked Quynh in an iron coffin and dropped her in the sea, to haunt all their dreams for the next thousand years.
Yusuf thought that Andromache might have secured the building before she began her work, but he and Nicolo walked into the printer’s shop unimpeded. The door is unlocked, and there is not a soul to be seen.
He knows to go to the cellar—it’s where he would take anyone he’d interrogate. But he certainly would have cleaned up beforehand. On the way down, he tries to take careful steps in the spots on the floor unmarked by blood. Eventually, he gives up. The wood is soaked in it. He and Nicolo will have to scrap their shoes when they leave.
In the stairwell they find what must have been the printer. Slumped up against the brown cobblestone, missing an arm, and when Nicolo examines the body further, it seems a tongue as well.
He wasn’t talking it seems. Yusuf hopes this priest is more forthcoming.
There’s no outpour of tortured pleading for them to follow. The cellar is strangely silent, dark. Yusuf realizes that the printer had been making more money on the side storing liquor and other goods for smuggling, which he kept down here. The stones themselves stank of alcohol, and there were crates upon crates of what Yusuf guessed was house-brewed sherry, barrels of ale, and of course scotch. He has to be careful not to step on the many glass shatterings decorating the floor.
Then there was a voice. Low, accented. It was not Andromache. It sounded like someone was praying. No, not praying. Damning.
The priest then.
There is but the smallest flicker of light coming from one of the rooms at the end of the corridor. A single dying candle. Nicolo goes before him, and Yusuf creeps after him until, quiet as they can, they reach the carved out hole of a doorway where in the dim glow of a melting candle they catch the face of a priest and his hand, which has been staked to the wall.
Yusuf cannot see Andromache, but from the way Nicolo’s lips are drawn tight from where he’s crouched down below, low to the floor, his eyes fixed far to the left Yusuf guesses she must be standing flush with the wall left of the doorway.
She is not speaking but the priest has plenty to say.
“You pox-riddled heathen, I have friends. People who will realize I’m gone. I have the power of the good Lord behind me. He is merciful. He is powerful. He will forgive me for all my sins. But you, oh not—” He pauses groans, and tugs at where his hand is pinned to the wall. More blood trickles out from the center of his palm where the stake is nestled. He cries out when his movements do nothing more than further tear apart his hand. His arm is slick with the fresh blood.
“You will suffer witch, they’ll find a way to dump you down with her. They’ll find me. They’ll find you.”
“No one’s coming for you.” Finally, Andromache speaks. Her voice is gravely, like she doesn’t use it often anymore. There’s a shifting sound, and Nicolo tenses from where he can see her. “You’ve hid yourself away Father. A Protestant among these Scottish barbarians as your clergy would say. They would not dare step foot on Catholic-bred soil. You’re so quick to judge those who live differently than you and your God.”
She’s moved into Yusuf’s line of sight. She’s wearing men’s trousers, boots, and worn leather armor. Her hair, much longer than it was when Yusuf last saw her, is a tangled ruined mess running in a bramble down her back. When she turns Yusuf catches the side of her face and he sees she is filthy too. There are black smudges of soot, dirt, blood, whatever it may be that she fought through on her cheek. She has not bothered to keep herself collected or clean.
In her hand is the axe she’s wielded for millennia, hanging from her fingertips like a reckoning.
In a flash she moves and the priest screams and falls. Where a moment ago she held her axe, it’s now made a partner with the mortar of the wall, where Andromache has cut off the man’s hand, still dripping, still stuck with the stake but now severed from the body of its owner.
He’s had enough, and Nicolo has too. They stride into the chamber together, with their weapons held outright. Nicolo with a crossbow, he with a sword. Andromache must hear them because the priest does, even amid his screaming. As he cradles the gushing stump that is his arm, his eyes flicker up to them and widen, fearful, but Andromache says nothing to acknowledge their presence.
She crouches to the priest and grabs him just below the severation.
“Tell me Father, who is coming for you?” she says over his moaning. “I doubt anyone is. I doubt any word from those murderous lips of yours has been the truth. Ever. You spill such lies.”
She’s angered him. Yusuf supposes he’s keeping conscious out of spite, considering the amount of blood he’s losing.
The priest rears his head back to cackle. “I am a man of truth, it is no fault of mine that you should not care to hear it.” He spares a grin for Nicolo and Yusuf who remain poised above the two, waiting for the slight movement, like the leopards that prowled the twilights of the African savannahs. Intentful and patient.
“Your friends, no doubt they too make the devil’s work. Do they make a mockery of God’s bed as well? Or was that just you and your whore?” he sneers then spits in her eye, and it sets Andromache off.
She screams. She sounds like an animal, and suddenly she’s on him like one too. She pins the priest down with her knees and howls obscenities in his face, tearing up whatever pieces of bare skin she can find with her nails. It’s something feral, it’s carnage.
Nicolo moves to Andromache, Yusuf to the priest. He’s not hard to pin down, after all he’s exhausted and torn apart from however long Andromache’s had a hold on him. All Yusuf can do is do his best to keep him away from Andromache who Nicolo can barely hold onto.
She’s still screaming, and it’s so damn raw. Nicolo gets just a bit more of a grip on her arms when she shoots her head back into his nose. He grunts, falls back onto the floor and it’s just enough of a distraction that she gets away charging forward to the dying priest. But Yusuf is waiting for her.
“Andy, Andy, stop.” He has one of her arms crooked and held behind her back, his other hand pressing down on her neck lest she try headbutting him as well. “He’s dying. He’s dying, he can’t give you anything. It’s alright now.”
She thrashes and thrashes calls him a thousand different bastardly things in the thousand different languages she knows, until he falls to the ground with her, squeezing tight as he can to keep her still until finally, blessedly, she stills.
A hand touches his shoulder and Nicolo crouches down to their side. His nose is in the midst of healing—Andromache has broken it— and his lips are stained with the blood it bore. In his face Yusuf can see offered assistance. Yusuf shakes his head. He can feel the fight leaving her body and soon Andromache is all but slumped in his arms, the back of her head resting against the hollow of his throat. Her breathing raspy and wet.
“He knew more,” is the first thing she says.
“Yes,” Yusuf says. “But he would not have given it to you.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes we do,” Nicolo says. “You put a stake in the man’s hand, a man of the cloth, and still he gave you nothing. He was done with you. Be done with him.”
It’s harsh for Nicolo. He’s usually the one to reassure, always the kinder man, but Nicolo’s face is pale beneath all that nosebleed. He eyes the body of the priest, who in their altercation has finally bled out.
That was Nicolo once, before this life. A priest of Genova. It’s strange for Yusuf to think about with the body of this man before them. How different the man is from his Nicolo. Yusuf has lived through the Crusades, and is no stranger to the acts of violence committed in God’s name. Dead priests do not bother him. But death, though common to Yusuf, still sometimes does.
This priest deserved worse than what he got. But what’s left of him is still hard to look at.
Andromache has gauged crescent moons, open tears in his skin with her nails. Her hands ripped him open. His holy robes are stained beyond belief, and though Yusuf was never Christian and has long parted from being a godly man… It is a sight that makes him swallow hard around a knot in his throat.
“We should hide the body,” Nicolo says.
“No. Leave him.” Yusuf unlocks his arms from his leader, she does no more than slump to the floor, her palms stretched outward onto the stone to hold herself up. “I cannot stomach touching him. Let him rot.”
“Can you walk?” Yusuf asks Andromache.
She doesn’t answer. After a moment she rises from the ground, swaying like a drunkard. She kicks the body of the priest, kicks it again, then stumbles into Yusuf’s torso shaking like a leaf. He wraps an arm around her midsection and with a nod from Nicolo they leave the cellar, and up aboveground.
It’s far past midnight when they surface, and it's raining. The last remnants of what must have been a good hard rainstorm that passed through while they were down below.
The raindrops wash away some of the mess on Andromache’s face and Nicolo wipes his own blood away on his sleeve. Together they trudge through the mud until Nicolo spots an inn. It’s a cheaper one, tucked away on the edge of an alley, the sign on the front old and weathered. It’s just hidden enough for them to hole up in, if only for a night.
Luckily, it’s a busy night for the inn. Every table is filled, mostly with men halfway into their cups, clanging together their mugs, spilling ale onto the already sticky floors with a holler. So the three of them are paid little attention to.
Nicolo makes a beeline for the innkeeper behind the bar and what looks like his maybe twenty-year-old daughter washing out cups of ale.
Nicolo bats his eyes at her, for some added cover while Yusuf shoves a stumbling, muddy, Andromache upstairs to where their room is. It’s a distraction, and a good one. The innkeeper is too focused on the handsome man who’s bewitched his daughter to pay them any mind.
Yusuf has no qualms about it. There’s no room in his heart for jealousy when it’s already so unequivocally owned. If he was bothered by all the people in the world who found the love of his life attractive, then he'd never have a moment’s peace.
Nicolo points to the left when they reach the landing. Yusuf shoves Andromache into the first room there.
The room they’ve rented is fairly big for an inn of this size, which Yusuf suspects is on the good graces of the bewitched young thing Nicolo is still distracting downstairs. It’s a little grimy, the small window on the far wall is more muck than it is glass, but there are two small single beds and an old but warm-looking carpet. There’s even a wooden bathtub in the far corner by the fireplace. He’ll have to go back down later to pay the innkeep for water.
Andromache stumbles forward, almost falls, but snaps at Yusuf when he tries to catch her. She somehow makes it to the edge of the bed where she sits almost torturously on the edge of the straw mattress.
She makes no move to speak or scream or do anything as she did before. It’s as if she’s finally been drained. All the violence that culminated with that final anguished punch to Nicolo’s nose shook her, and took her back to reality. Here, she is a woman again. Here it is harder to breathe.
“We will keep looking,” Yusuf tells her.
She keeps her eyes on the floor and the wet sinewed mess of her boots. “Do you think I have given up, Yusuf?”
“No.” And it’s the truth. Andromache is stronger than any of them have been or ever will be. He is not exaggerating—it is a fact. “But I think… you have lost perspective.”
Her head snaps up, and it’s like she’s twisting the stake again in the hand of the priest. Only its in her eyes, and directed at his face where it burns holes in his skin. Yusuf has to fight not to look away.
“There is no perspective,” she hisses. “I see clearer than I ever have before. Clearer than you would if you stood where I am. What exactly would you be doing if it was Nicolo in that coffin?”
There is no good way to answer. Andromache already knows what Yusuf will say. They are similar in the way that they love. They make spectacles of it. Declarations in murder and in diction.
I would burn down the world for him. Just as we did Jerusalem. I would gladly raze it all to the ground if only I could pick him up out of the ashes. And then we’d be kings. Answering to no one but each other, and for the first time in our eternity be left to love in peace.
“I would be beyond what you are now,” he says. “I am not so sure I would even be human anymore. Or whatever it is that we are.”
Yusuf sighs. He drops his swords onto the floor, suddenly heavy, suddenly more tired than he has been in centuries. He pulls the chipped stubby stool forward so that he can sit, then rubs his face in his hands.
“All I’m saying is that your vengeance has taken precedence over your cunning. Sticking stakes into the hands of corrupt priests won’t give you anything you’re looking for.”
Andromache’s eyes are all iron. So is her voice. “So what’s your suggestion then.”
“For now, sleep.” He raises a hand when she growls at him. “Ah ah, I’m serious. We may not be able to die but sleep withdrawal does no good for anyone.”
She clenches her jaw, looks to the grime riddled window, dirty even as the rain platters against the glass. Then, softly, like she’s ashamed she confesses, “I don’t think I can.”
“Try,” he asks. “If anything… the dreams may help us locate her.”
It takes a moment but she nods and for the first time in hours moves with a purpose, rather than pure anguish fueled adrenaline. She asks him quietly to request a bath from downstairs and though he is hesitant to leave her alone, lest she escape through the window to go man-hunting again, he trusts her just enough to leave. And Andromache is not stupid. She will not get far in Edinburgh looking like she does, a red demon fresh out of hell, and hungry.
Just as he closes the door Nicolo comes up the stairs, the crooked bend on his nose courtesy of Andromache finally healed. He looks brand new, but exhausted, concerned.
“She’s fine. Well, not fine. But better,” Yusuf says at the skeptical look on Nicolo’s face. “She wants a bath.”
Nicolo smiles. “Already done. And for free too.”
Yusuf draws him close in the shadowed seclusion of the hallway.
“Oh really? And how did you manage that? Put your handsome face in that girl’s direction huh?”
“I’m insulted,” Nicolo says but his voice is bright, teasing. The very inflection of it makes Yusuf’s heart lighter. “There is more to me than my looks. She gifted it to me out of the kindness of her heart. Though she may have tripped trying to eye my ass when I walked up the stairs.”
“I don’t blame her.”
Nicolo hums and draws their foreheads together. They let themselves just be for a moment. The last few hours, the last year has caught up with them. For Yusuf, he is still reckoning with the image of their leader and her agony. Firebright in the dankness of that cellar and the broken open mess she made of the priest in her rage. It unsettles him not because he disagrees with it, but because he understands the temptation. Cheek to cheek with Nicolo he thinks that he too would tear apart a man tendon by tendon should Nicolo befall the same fate as Quynh. He thinks he could do so much worse.
“Let’s give her some space Yusuf,” Nicolo says. “Some maids will bring up the bath. I need some air.”
Yusuf hums in agreement and together they slip out the backdoor of the inn to the back of the building where there’s a makeshift corral blocked off against a wall, where a couple of travelers' horses are tied up.
They make themselves a home against one of the fences, watching the swish of the horses' tails, studying the different colors of their coats and when they’re bored of that take an eye to the sky, blocked out by clouds and the remnants of the rainstorm.
Everything is dripping still, but Nicolo pulls out his tobacco tin anyway. He’s taken to smoking it more frequently now that they’re on the Isles where the Britains consume it so eagerly, and it’s easy to find. Yusuf would chastise him for it as he might have years ago, the men who smoked those things soon found themselves unable to part with it, but it didn’t matter for them anyway and truthfully he needed a distraction tonight as well.
He holds out a hand for the pipe Nicolo has stuffed and lit. And besides a raised eyebrow Nicolo does not comment on his partaking.
When the smoke hits his throat he coughs as he always does—he is not as practiced in this as Nicolo is—but quickly after comes the balm, the daze and sharp tang of the tobacco that’s captured the coin of so many desperate men. It’s an addiction he understands. He feels calmer, but more melancholy.
Nicolo is watching him. He’s almost glowing in the rain light. Despite the clouds and the dreariness of a weathered and worn Edinburgh, the lanterns and the filtered moonlight of the city have cast him in a soft brilliance.
He is so beautiful. So beautiful, Yusuf’s chest is tight with it. The sight of his face, his nose, every freckle and ridge God graced him with.
He aches with the fact that Andromache has most definitely thought the same of Quynh. That she is now denied the pleasure of basking in her lover’s grace and beauty. Might never do so again.
There is just so much ocean for them to sift through.
There is no part of Yusuf that can regret swinging his sword through the desert at the red cross on Nicolo’s chest all those years ago, but he thinks that to love in this way can be an immortal’s curse just as it is a blessing. Few people can endure the depth this love requires. Chasing the ever-rising ever falling civilizations of the world together and remaining content in all that time spent together. It is not a simple man’s task. But he has done it, and been beyond grateful. Still, Yusuf would be lying if he said there is always the creeping thought in his mind that it is too good to be true, and he is reminded of that when they meet the many angry men who would gladly have them nailed to a cross bared to God for their many sins. Andromache and Quynh. How easily they could have been in their place. What was it that saved them but luck?
“Yusuf.” It’s Nicolo’s voice. Nicolo’s hands cradled gently to his neck, rubbing soothing circles there with the softness of his thumbs. “Yusuf please.”
Yusuf is crying, he realizes. Slow but streaming tears that have no sounds. No indication. He is too tired to sob but too heartsick to hold it in.
“I feel it too,” Nicolo says. “You think I wouldn’t fall apart without you?” He leans in and presses a kiss to the hinge of Yusuf’s jaw. Yusuf cannot help but draw him in. He takes Nicolo’s arms and grasps him tight until they're just a mess of an embrace in a dark corner, where they let their grief pour over and out away from the prying eyes of the Scottish.
“This is a gift Yusuf,” Nicolo says into the warm safety of his neck where he’s made a home for himself. “And I would give it up for nothing. I would find a way for us to die, somehow I would, before I let Quynh’s fate fall upon either of us.”
Yusuf presses a kiss to the damp hair on his head, at a loss, the tears still going.
“She is stronger than us,” Yusuf says. “I would not last a year.” Yusuf doesn’t think he’d last a minute right now.
“I know.” Nicolo pulls away, though they keep their hands twined together, held out between their bodies like a bridge. Yusuf does not want to be separated yet, maybe ever.
They stand there together in the dark with the horses until the inky blackness of the sky lightens with dawn. Only then do they separate, and when they go back into the inn to Andromache and what will become the stoniness of her grief, they are brushing shoulders as they walk, parallel, almost as if they were one man.