They rode through the night, and into the next morning. Finally, around midday, they came across an empty farm. It had clearly been abandoned with some haste, although there were no human corpses, Yusuf was relieved to see. They left their horses in the stables, and found the farmhouse. It had been looted, and the door kicked in, and there was no food, but there were walls and a roof.
The man looked around as if he wasn’t entirely sure what to do.
“Do you want me to take off your mask?” Yusuf asked.
The man’s head jerked backwards in surprise. But then he sat down on the floor, leaning his head forward to give Yusuf access.
Yusuf found a knife that had been left behind. He knelt besides the man, carefully cupping his hand behind the blade as he slipped it under one of the leather straps. He paused, half-expecting the man to attack him, but he didn’t move. With one quick slice, he cut through the strap, then severed the lower one too.
The man gasped when he pulled off the mask. The skin under the harsh metal was pallid and wrinkled, and clearly had not seen the sun in some time. He worked his jaw carefully, and Yusuf realized that the mask included a mouth piece that held his tongue down. It looked extremely painful.
Under the mask, there was no question that this man was human. His eyes were wide and staring, the color slow to return to his face, but he was human. And Yusuf recognized him.
“We’ve met before,” he said. The man turned his head to look at him, frowning. “Outside Jerusalem. We killed each other there- it was the first time, was it not? I have never forgotten your face.”
If the man understood him, he didn’t answer.
“What should I call you?” he asked.
The man wasn’t looking at him, was working his jaw still, but after a long moment, staring at the floor, he whispered “Nicolò.”
“Nicolò,” Yusuf said. The man shivered, as if the name had a physical impact on him.
“Please,” Nicolò said. He held up his arms, where they melted into blades. He didn’t have to say anything else.
Yusuf hesitated. “I don’t know how to do that without hurting you,” he said. We could wait until we get to the next town, I could buy some… opium, perhaps, something that would dull the pain.”
Nicolò shook his head, and gestured with his arms again.
“I don’t know if that would allow your hands to regrow,” Yusuf said. “I’ve never had an injury so severe. I don’t know that you would heal.”
“Please,” Nicolò repeated, and Yusuf’s resolve broke.
He didn’t like to think about the struggle to get the blades out from where the skin and bone had fused to them. He certainly couldn’t forget the noises Nicolò made. But later, after the bleeding stopped, when Nicolò lay down in the middle of the floor, not bothering to find a bed, exhausted from his ordeal, Yusuf quietly stepped out through the broken door and vomited.
He managed to get himself together and explore the rest of the farmhouse while Nicolò napped. There was a metal tub in one of the back rooms, and a well that still had water in it. One bag of grain was still in the cupboard, but it was rotten, and Yusuf threw it out. Maybe tomorrow he could build some traps and try to catch some dinner for them, but right now, the idea of food seemed spectacularly unappetizing.
By the time Nicolò woke up, his hands were mostly regrown. He had long fingers, and he flexed them like he didn’t quite remember how to use them.
“How long did they keep you like that?” Yusuf asked. Nicolò looked away and didn’t answer.
He was still clumsy and unsure, needing Yusuf’s help to take off his armor. He stank underneath it, and his flesh was softer then it should be. Yusuf was about to help him take off his shirt when he realized what he was doing. Nicolò didn’t try to stop him, but looked up when he backed away.
“There’s a tub in there,” he said, indicating the room. “I’ll get some water from the well, and you can use it to clean yourself off.”
Nicolò nodded obediently and went into the next room. He waited there, watching Yusuf with those pale eyes, as Yusuf brought the bucket to him. He didn’t say anything when Yusuf left, closing the door behind him, but Yusuf suspected he might not have said anything either way.
Yusuf found a trunk that was mostly empty, and put Nicolò’s armor and swords away. He would worry about washing them later. He found them clean clothes, which would be too tight on him and too short on Nicolò, but at least didn’t smell of blood and imprisonment.
Nicolò came out of the wash room slowly, eyes darting around the farmhouse looking for a threat. Yusuf instinctually raised his hands in a placating gesture.
“I left your armor and weapons in that trunk,” he said. “I found us some clothes.”
“Thank you.” It was hard to tell whether Nicolò’s voice was soft from disuse, or whether it was always like that, or whether he was still whispering. Still, he shed his bloody rags, not bothering to move them from where they dropped at his feet, and dressed in the clothes that Yusuf had found. As predicted, the trousers were far too short for him, making him look impossibly young, but there was a decent coat that he was able to wrap himself in.
He looked up. “You- will you not be cold?” He gestured at the coat.
Yusuf shrugged. “It’s warm enough here until nightfall, and I found some blankets. You looked like you might need it more than me, anyway.”
His companion seemed to consider it, but didn’t resist. Instead, after a moment, he asked “will you cut my hair?”
In all honesty, Yusuf had been eyeing it since they had arrived. Nicolò’s hair was long and impossibly matted, and it could not be comfortable, especially when it had been trapped under that mask for so long. He found a knife in one of the drawers, and gestured for Nicolò to sit down. He knelt behind him, taking the hair in his hands, and cut, letting it fall to the ground between them. It was almost meditative, and he could see the way that Nicolò relaxed a little more with every tangle that he cut through.
“After Jerusalem,” he said, combing his fingers through Nicolò’s hair, “I went back to my hometown. I didn’t know why I was still alive, how I had come back after I had been killed. I stayed with my mother for a while. She was the most amazing woman. She wrote poems that were talked about from towns over. My father was a more practical man, he was a merchant. He taught me math, although I never had the knack for it that he did.”
He kept talking while he worked through the rest of Nicolò’s hair. He told the other man about his family, about his brother, his memories of his hometown. He had just reached the part of the story where he left his home when he finished.
“All done,” he said. Without thinking, he ruffled Nicolò’s shorter hair.
Nicolò turned around and looked at him with wide eyes. Yusuf cleared his throat and stood up.
They didn’t stay for long at the farm. Both of them were looking over their shoulders for someone to come and drag them back. They traveled for months. If you had asked Yusuf, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you where they were going or why he was still traveling with the Frank, the man who should be his enemy. Nicolò did not ask.
When they encountered the women they had been dreaming about, it was an accident, and Yusuf almost missed it. He only noticed the woman in the market because she was so tall, almost as tall as Nicolò. It wasn’t until nearly an hour later that he realized he had seen that face in his dreams. He stopped.
The woman was gone.
When he stopped searching and returned to their camp, he heard voices. The two women turned to him without him giving any signal that he had arrived.
The shorter one broke out in a wide smile. “Brother,” she said, and she stepped forward and embraced him.
Yusuf returned the gesture, confused. “Who are you?” he asked, once she pulled away. “I’ve seen you in my dreams, how can that be?”
“We are like you,” said the tall woman. She was standing close to Nicolò, but his companion wasn’t flinching away from her like he did strangers.
They talked for hours, though the night until Yusuf was ready to collapse from exhaustion. They learned the names of the two women, Andromache and Quỳnh, and where they had come from. They had been in this state for centuries, undying, immortal. They knew the answers to every question Yusuf could think of and more.
The next morning, Nicolò shyly asked if they knew how long it would take his arms to heal.
Yusuf frowned. “Have they not healed?” he asked. He knew Nicolò well enough by now not to reach for him unannounced, but tried to inspect the other man’s forearms from where he was sitting.
Nicolò shrugged, not looking at any of them. “They still hurt from time to time,” he said quietly. “I can bear it.”
“You shouldn’t have to,” said Yusuf. “You should have told me. I do not like to see you suffer, my friend.”
“What was done to you?” asked Andromache.
Yusuf looked at Nicolò. Their eyes met, and Nicolò nodded. “He was taken by the Franks to be used as a weapon,” Yusuf said. “They removed his hands and replaced them with swords so that he could not escape, and could never put down his blades. After we met, we removed them, and his hands grew back, Alhamdulillah. He did not tell me they still pained him.”
The two women looked at each other.
“I have seen this before,” said Quỳnh. “In a sense. Those who have lost a limb sometimes still feel it, still feel the pain. It is as if their minds remember the way their bodies used to be, and feel the same sensations even if the physical form is gone. But none of us have ever had such an injury last long enough for that to be a problem.”
“None of us?” Yusuf asked. “There are more than just the two of you?”
Quỳnh looked away. Andromache answered for them both. “There used to be,” she said. “We had a third companion, Lykon. But he was killed in battle, many years ago, and did not wake.”
“I thought we could not die.”
“All things die,” Andromache said. “We never know which death might be the last. What would kill an ant would not kill a human, and what would kill a human would not kill us, until one day it does.”
Nicolò looked up. “Are we not human?” he asked. “What are we then?”
If the women noticed his anxiety, neither commented on it.
“This has been a long debate between Andromache and I,” Quỳnh said. “Long ago, she was worshiped as a goddess. And she has never quite forgotten it.”
“Not true,” interjected Andromache, but she was smiling.
“For myself,” said Quỳnh, “I believe we are human. Different, yes, but human.”
Nicolò didn’t respond. Yusuf wanted to reach out, to take those too-pale hands in his and to give this strange, wild, aching man some comfort. He wanted it with an intensity that startled even himself.
He left him be.