Hadrian sighed blissfully
as his hand traced idle circles on Caled's chest. Once more he and his
lover had brought each other the same delicious pleasure they always
knew in this place. This time they had been in bed, in the cabin that
was somehow a part of this mysterious spot. He had questioned Caled
about the structure's existence. But as usual Caled had been dismissive
of his curiosity, simply urging him to accept what was without question.
He had been happy to do so,
to lose himself in Caled's hard, greedy hands, his demanding lips and
the passion that surged forth for him alone. That bronzed skin with
its corded muscles had moved over him, within him, until they'd both
exploded into passion.
At moments like this, Hadrian
thought he would die. He thought he could die and be completely
uncaring of the fact. Afterwards, he'd lain in Caled's arms, watching
the flames from the fireplace dancing in his lover's blue eyes. He wondered
that one person in the entire world could call forth so much joy and
excitement from him. How could one being fill him with so much love?
"Caledon?" he whispered.
Only here in this place would the other man let his former name be used.
"Hmmm? What is it, love?"
Again, only here would he hear the word "love" come from those
lips. Lips that smiled tenderly at him without the sneer of the daylight
"I wish I could stay
here forever. The waking life I have is so hateful to me," Hadrian
breathed, snuggling deeper into Caled's tanned arms.
Caled raised his head to
look down on the smaller man nestled in his embrace. "Don't say
that. The world needs you. I need you."
Hadrian ducked his head so
the dark strands fell across his eyes. He didn't want his lover to see
the sorrow there. "You-that other you-needs me for nothing. He
is sufficient unto himself and could survive well enough without me."
Caled reached down to brush
away the concealing hair. He ran a calloused finger down Hadrian's pale
cheek. "Survival isn't the same as living. Trust me, love. You
are the other half of myself. We are bound to each other-like it or
Hadrian glanced up, his look
fierce and despairing. "He won't believe that. He doesn't care
about me. I destroyed his friends, his home. I betrayed him. He hates
me for that and wants me de-"
Those lips came down to claim
his once more and Hadrian clung to him, devouring him with his mouth.
He was not usually so aggressive; he let that role be played by the
strong mercenary. But somehow he sensed that soon everything would change
and he wanted to bask in the other man's love before being ripped from
When Caled released him again,
he whispered, "Hadrian, I love you. I may never say it when you
wake. But it is there in every word, every glance, every touch I give
"Every sneer, every
scowl, every blow, you mean," Hadrian said, his features twisting
with unhappiness. A hard lump rose in his throat at the thought of the
rough treatment he endured at the hands of the mercenary who claimed
to despise him and wished him gone from the world.
Caled sighed, exasperated
with his ebony-haired lover's refusal to understand. "I love you,
no matter what I may profess to the contrary. Why else can I not leave
you alone? Yes, I have reason to hate you. But love and hate aren't
opposites; they are different sides of the same coin. They share twin
passions, twin obsessions and equal targets. I don't hate you when we
are awake so much as I hate myself for being unable to resist you as
Hadrian didn't answer, only
clasped him tighter, burrowing into Caled's chest as if he wanted to
crawl inside him and linger in that warmth. During the daylight, when
he was awake, he often felt colder and colder. It was as if Life itself
were drawing away, the air and sun refusing to lend him their warmth.
He was used to physical cold
from his life on Shard's Point Isle. But this was a different frost.
At times it felt as if the heat were leeching away from his very insides.
He was beginning to hate Life for its rejection of him as much as Life
Caled's voice drew him from
his dark thoughts. "Hadrian, when you fight against your father,
remember that I will be waiting for you-no matter what the outcome."
A bright hopeful light flared
in the sorcerer's eyes. "You mean, even if I die, you and I can
still be together here? I would love that! I had feared death because
it might tear me from you. But if we can be together still-"
Caled pressed a finger in
warning against those moist lips. "Don't misunderstand me, Hadrian.
I don't mean you get to be with me as a reward. I mean a part of my
heart, my spirit, will travel with you wherever you go." He grasped
those slender fingers and pressed Hadrian's hand against his heart.
"We are bound together. Not even death will separate us."
Hadrian's gray eyes clouded.
"I hope so. Life is meaningless to me now without you."
Caled frowned at the dejection
in the other's voice. "Don't go into the fight prepared to die.
You must be prepared to live."
"Why? Life hates me
just as the waking Caled does. I betrayed them both. They both want
me erased from the world."
"Don't you understand
yet? It doesn't matter what Life wants or what I think I want when I'm
out of my senses with sick rage. You should embrace the joy of Life
just as you embrace me. You love me still, don't you?" Caled tipped
up Hadrian's chin so gray eyes met searching blue ones. "Don't
"I do. You know I do,"
Hadrian whispered, tears flowing across his vision. "That's why
your coldness is so bitter to me."
"Then that is your answer.
No matter how Life responds to you, love it all the same. Cherish it,
respect it and enfold it to yourself. The moment you turn against Life,
you turn against me."
Caled bent his head to claim
his lips again, shifting so his body rested above Hadrian's. Pale thighs
spread themselves and Caled pressed between them. Hadrian's breath caught
in his throat as his lover made the first firm thrust.
Soon their bodies were arching
together, skin like rare porcelain rising up against the tanned, muscular
chest. Hadrian's voice rose higher as his lover thrust himself harder
and quicker between those smooth, pale legs.
want you so much," Caled gasped. Strong fingers gripped at Hadrian's
shoulders, drawing the sorcerer up to him whenever he pushed himself
deeper. He sucked in a breath and rocked harder. "Hadrian. Hades.
Love you. Move like that
"Love you, Caled
Hadrian chanted. The dark-haired man beneath rolled up his hips to meld
himself against the taut body seeking to bury itself inside him. Caled
plunged home and a cry wrenched itself from Hadrian's core. Lust blazed
across his skin, hotter than the fire, brighter than the sun. His ass
tightened, desperate to keep that warmth inside him, and he moaned as
Caled pulled back from him.
There was a sharp flare of
pain across his face, a pain he sought to ignore, willing himself not
to wake into another nightmare. Caled reached between their bodies,
knowing fingers grasping and jerking off his straining cock. The pain
returned like the crack of a whip and he was brought tumbling from the
heights of ecstasy.
He opened his eyes blearily,
shading them away from the familiar glaring countenance of his former
lover. The man's hand was drawn back, poised for another slap. "Get
up, you worthless ass. I've never met anyone so lazy in all my days.
You barely make yourself useful during the day and you tumble into sleep
at the first opportunity. Why the hell the god of all things saw fit
to make sorcerers and mages is beyond me. Common criminals bring more
to the world than you do."
"That's not fair!"
Syellen cried. She glared at Caled. "Don't judge us all by Hadrian's
measure. A great many people use magic and not always for evil. Just
because you decided to become a murderer for pay doesn't make you a
judge of what is useful and right in the world."
Hadrian dragged himself up
from the ground and closed his ears to the sound of their bickering.
Let them tear into each other. It was better than when they teamed up
to turn on him.
Syellen was jealous of what
she perceived as Manix's amorous interest in Hadrian even though there
was nothing between them beyond Manix's glancing concern for Hadrian's
use of magic. The ageless mage had no sexual interest in Hadrian and
Hadrian had none in anybody except Caled. Then again, he wouldn't say
no at this point to carnal delights with others.
At moments like this, he
wished he'd taken Lio up on his offer. The thief had wanted him and
the following morning Caled had hinted of something of Lio's prowess
in bed. It would have been Hadrian's last experience with the tenderness
of another, even if it had been fleeting. And Lio would have made it
good for him; he was certain of it.
He tended to his horse, resisting
the urge to scrub at his face. It still stung from the vicious slaps
Caled had given to awaken him but he wouldn't give the man the satisfaction
of knowing Hadrian was hurt. The brunette sorcerer drew in air with
caution, his breath hitching slightly. His ribs still ached from the
time Caled had roused him from a particularly lust-filled dream with
hard kicks to his side. His whole body was becoming a mass of small
aches and pains. It was just as well this would be over soon. At the
rate of Caled's petty tortures, he would be moving like a broken old
man if the abuse continued for much longer.
The silver-haired mage Manix
pulled him aside from the other two. He indicated they should walk a
distance away so the redheaded mage-in-training and the mercenary couldn't
hear them. "Hadrian, we must talk."
"What is it, Manix?
Be quick. If my horse isn't saddled soon, Caled will doubtless kick
me to spur me on." Hadrian kept his tone neutral. The mage wouldn't
let Syellen or Caled hurt him too much; he insisted that Hadrian be
left unharmed and relatively untroubled to keep his strength for the
coming battle. But other than that he had no real fondness for Hadrian,
and the pale-skinned sorcerer knew it. Who in the world truly cared
about the Scourge of Rhiad?
"Keep your voice down."
Manix flicked his eyes in the direction of the other two, watching them
quarrel. He lowered his voice. "Caled may not have told you this.
But a geas has been laid on your lives. If you die before stopping your
father, Caled will die."
"What?" In spite
of Manix's admonition, his voice rose and the other man gave him a warning
frown. "You can't do that!"
"I can and I have. Caled
is aware of this."
"He is?" So that's
why Caled hadn't killed him yet. Caled had been named Gavedon's Bane
and Gavedon feared the mercenary as the one who would finally kill him.
That's why he had forced Hadrian to destroy all the mercenaries in Rhiad
in the first place. But Caled had escaped from the destruction of Rhiad,
vowing to kill the treacherous son and his murderous father.
If anybody could kill Gavedon,
it was a practiced and cunning assassin like Caled. So Hadrian had wondered
why Caled continually spared his life while threatening to kill him
on a daily basis. Now he had his answer.
"Why are you telling
me this, then? I thought you didn't want me distracted when I went up
against my father," Hadrian pointed out.
Manix shrugged. "That's
why I have kept silent up until now. I didn't want the worry of this
looming over you until it was absolutely necessary."
Hadrian's mouth went very
dry. "And-why is it necessary now?"
The ageless seer bent a measuring gaze on him. "Your father has been sighted."
Hadrian stood opposite the
hooded figure. There was nothing wrong with his father's appearance.
He still bore the arrogant beauty of his middle years, magic and luck
combining to make him a handsome man. The hooded cape hid nothing disfigured
or ugly; it was simply for dramatic effect. It made him look menacing
not as much as the lightning sparkling from his fingers.
Hadrian had good reason to
dread this encounter. To defeat a mage of his father's caliber, he would
have to open himself to Life itself and all Life hated him, the Scourge
of Rhiad, the Taker of Life. But what choice did he have? Either he
defeated his father or Caled would die. And if Caled died, then Hadrian
might as well die with him.
He dodged his father's eldritch
blasts and frantically ripped away his protective gloves. Dropping to
his knees, he dug his hands into the soil.
Immediately, the power of
nature, of the swelling earth, rose through his hands and slammed into
his body. Hadrian shuddered with the impact and nearly laughed out loud.
This was power incarnate, the very lushness of the earth itself running
through him and causing his whole body to tingle with its strength.
He heard shouting. It could
have been himself or his father. He didn't know nor care. He bounced
to his feet, the energy crackling through him, and sent it in a vicious
arc towards the hooded man. Gavedon erected a shield of mystical light
and the ray bounced harmlessly off it.
Well, perhaps not completely
harmlessly. Hadrian could have sworn his father staggered just a
little. Hadrian ni Leynanon smiled to himself and it was not a nice
smile. He had the magic at his command and he would raze the world with
The next moment Life recognized
him, as it always did. The magic twisted and seemed to snarl its very
fury at the Scourge of Rhiad. The caressing light turned to burning
fire and Hadrian gasped and then shrieked with the agony. The energy
buzzing in Hadrian dug in with eagle claws, clutching and ripping at
his heart, at his very being.
The man swayed and fought
not to fall to his knees. But Life knew him, knew the monster trying
to twist it to his will. The pain intensified and Hadrian struggled
to regain a measure of control. He needed to grab hold of Life and force
it to his bidding, not let it spiral out of check.
His father had rallied and
was on the attack. Hadrian recognized the spell being cast and rolled
out of the way just in time. The bolt fell where he had been standing
and the earth bubbled and melted like a pat of butter on a griddle.
He reached deep inside himself
as he tried to wrestle the hostile energy into some form of obedience.
But it refused, howling and hissing. It bucked and the grip on his heart
intensified. Weakness began to spread inside. Was this what death was?
Life was grabbing him and leaving death in its place. The contradiction
would have amused him if he had had the vigor to laugh.
He couldn't control Life.
No one could. His father had deceived his followers if he actually thought
the immensity of the living world was something he could bend into submission.
Life mocked his efforts and Hadrian collapsed to the ground. It was
over before it had barely begun. His father would win
No! That couldn't happen!
Hadrian tried to summon the strength of will to dominate the energy
whipping through him. But what could he do? Life was unmanageable, without
restraint and ultimately unknowable. How could he grasp such a thing?
And why would he want to when it hated him so much?
Unbidden, the words from
Caled, his dream lover, rose up in his mind. "No matter how
Life responds to you, love it all the same. Cherish it, respect it and
enfold it to yourself. The moment you turn against Life, you turn against
This was the secret. Life
was Caled and Caled was Life. Without either, his existence was pointless.
The secret to loving Caled had never been about wresting the man to
his bidding. He loved Caled without reservation, the good and the bad
of him: his impatience, friendliness, fiery temper, viciousness, courage,
unexpected tenderness, sly good humor and prowess in bed. He'd been
wooed and won by all these things. This was what it meant to know and
love Caled. This was what it meant to love Life.
He was on his feet again,
although he didn't know how. He was weakening by the second but pushed
the knowledge of it from his mind. This supernatural force was not his
to control and now he knew it. It hated him but that didn't matter.
He loved Life and his father sought to subjugate it. That was the difference
between them. That was where the old man would fail.
Hadrian lifted his arms and
allowed the Life to flow from him. He whispered to it that there was
a more worthwhile target nearby, someone that actually sought its power.
At first it resisted, determined to destroy the Taker of Life. But then
it became attracted to the more powerful sorcerer and turned to follow
the other strands of magic beckoning in the air.
Gavedon grinned maliciously
beneath his hood. His son was a fool! He was giving up power and actually
allowing his father to take it. He laughed as the power flowed towards
him. Soon he would have so much at his beck and call no one could stop
him, not even that petty mercenary he had feared so much.
The power coursed through
him and he rose in the air, wafted as lightly as a feather. Gavedon
laughed, a giddy sound at odds with the ferocity of his expression.
Life was taking him to its bosom and there was nothing he couldn't-
There was a howling in the
wind and Life squeezed him in a vise. Suddenly, he couldn't breathe
nor speak as power raged through his body, thundering like a storm.
His veins throbbed on his skin and his eyes bulged. He began to swell
as impossible energy expanded from the inside of his frail human body.
Gavedon flailed. Caught in
the grip of Life energy, his own had nowhere to go but to turn inward
on itself. The mage hung for a moment longer in the tense air. Then
he exploded into ash.
Hadrian looked on dully as
the man he'd loved and feared so much died, his mortal remains raining
down on the earth like dirty snow. Later, he would feel grief as he
thought of the death of the last member of his family. Now he had weightier
matters on his mind.
He turned to see Syellen
and Manix staring at him, the former with real fear on her face and
the latter with a probing expression. "The geas," he croaked
hoarsely. "Remove it."
Manix bowed his head. "It
is already done."
A beatific smile and gray eyes the color of clouds before rain beamed on him. "Thank you," Hadrian whispered. Then he collapsed to the ground as if his tendons had been cut.
Caled lifted up the mug,
gulping thirstily at its contents. It was a relief to drink alone, without
sensing Hadrian's probing silence. Even if he did glance up whenever
the door opened, he wasn't looking for the sorcerer. It was merely the
practiced instincts of a trained assassin checking the potential danger
he might be in from others.
He thought of his last meeting
with Hadrian. The memory caused him to pause fractionally in lifting
the tankard to his lips. Two days ago that cursed mage Manix had told
him in no uncertain terms that it was time for him to leave. He'd flatly
refused. He hadn't come all this way to destroy the ni Leyanon line
just to be booted out like an unwanted cur. It would take more than
one gray-haired mage to oust him.
Manix had been unimpressed
by his anger. "That geas I laid on you also works as a compulsion.
I can make you leave if I choose."
The mercenary had glared
at him with poisonous dislike. "Sorcerers," he spat. "There's
no worse race on the face of the world."
"Some might feel the
same way about paid killers," Manix returned mildly. "Nevertheless,
I feel your presence to Hadrian would be a distraction he doesn't need.
He will face his father very soon. The battle will be an epic one, with
dark and fell magicks brought to bear. The tiniest slip in Hadrian's
concentration would be fatal to him-and to you as well. It is time you
left us. There is nothing further you can do here."
A muscle jumped in Caled's
jaw. "And the geas? What of that?"
"As promised, it shall
be removed as soon as Gavedon is found. There will be no need for it.
You have my word."
A glob of saliva spat upon
the ground told Manix what Caled thought of his word. "That's not
much comfort if Hadrian gets killed. If he fails, the world will be
in danger from that beastly father of his, won't it?"
"Hadrian will not fail.
There is too much at stake for him even to consider failure," Manix
intoned. His eyes glittered when he spoke and Caled wondered what he
meant by that.
"Mind if I say goodbye
Not so much as a flicker
of surprise crossed Manix's face. "Of course."
Caled didn't approach Hadrian
at first. He merely crossed to his horse and began saddling him. He
was certain this would draw the sorcerer to him. But he was disappointed.
Glancing across the small clearing where all four travelers were resting,
he spotted Hadrian seated upon the ground staring sightlessly into space.
Caled clucked his tongue
in irritation and walked over to him, making no attempt to disguise
his footsteps. Honestly, someone needed to teach that stupid magic wielder
to be more aware of his surroundings. Anybody would be able to sneak
up behind him and plant a dagger neatly between the sorcerer's shoulderblades.
As usual, Caled clamped down
on the impulse to do just that and settled for slapping Hadrian hard
on the back. "Well, it seems as if I have to be hitting the road.
Tormenting you has been fun but I've got more important things on my
Hadrian glanced up and Caled
frowned to see to vacancy in his eyes. More and more, it was as if Hadrian
were slipping way. He no longer bothered to rise to Caled's taunts.
Instead he would gaze into the distance as if focused on something only
he could see and hear.
Was he thinking about magic?
But no, he got a certain look on his face when he was thinking of enchantments
and this wasn't it. Caled didn't know how to describe it actually. It
was a combination of longing and gladness that drew him powerfully.
Hadrian became hauntingly beautiful when he thought of wielding power
and Caled hated being caught in his sway for he thought he understood
why the sorcerer craved magic.
Deep inside Hadrian was a
lust for power; Caled was convinced of that just as he was convinced
all sorcerers and mages shared that same greed. If Hadrian ever turned
the full measure of his power against Caled, the mercenary wouldn't
survive it. So it was stupid to love Hadrian for that beauty when he
knew what lay behind it.
But Hadrian never sent so
much as a flicker of light his way. He had fought against Caled physically,
pushing him away, elbowing him in the ribs or running from him when
things got too intense. But never once did he use magic to defend himself.
In spite of Caled's physical brutality towards him, Hadrian never responded
in kind. Caled hadn't thought to wonder about that-until now.
Now the blank, unseeing look
had disappeared. Instead Hadrian was gazing at him with a hunger Caled
also recognized. Soft gray eyes bent their gaze on his lips and Caled
was swept with the desire to kiss him, to plunder that soft yielding
mouth until Hadrian moaned and begged to be taken.
He ruthlessly pushed the
feeling aside and leapt to his feet. "It's too bad I won't be here
to see your father kill you. But I'll be back to finish him off if you
fumble in your task, you can bet. In the meantime, you'll simply have
to settle for Syellen for company." He smiled viciously. "Too
bad she thinks you're worse than horseshit. Guess you'll be stuck with
that grating voice. I don't envy you."
He turned to go only to be
halted by the sorcerer's hand resting on his elbow. "Caled, wait."
The blonde mercenary slitted
his eyes at him. "Get your hand off me, Hades."
Hadrian obeyed although the
menace in Caled's voice didn't cow him. "Caled, I know you hate
me. But I wanted you to know I don't hate you. I can't and I'll take
all your advice with me into battle-even if you don't remember it."
Caled's expression was one
of disbelief and irritation. "Even if I don't remember-what are
you babbling about now? Has your mind been addled? I hope not. There's
too much at stake here for you to be wandering in your wits. If you've
become crazy, then I'm staying. I don't care what Manix says."
"Manix? You're leaving
because of him?"
"He seems to think I'll
be a distraction to you." Caled swept Hadrian's body with a suggestive
leer tugging at his lips. "I wonder why? It's been ages since you
and I have had that kind of fun. Frankly, I'd rather fuck a weasel than
have you touch me again." That wasn't true. Every night Caled yearned
to take Hadrian in his arms and ravish him, feeling that alabaster skin
next to his own and bury his hot cock in that willing body. He wanted
to hear Hadrian give those soft cries of love and respond in kind.
But he'd kept himself from
him by sheer force of will, contenting himself with harsh words and
unexpected blows. He'd used the cover of every punch as an excuse to
touch Hadrian, to feel his skin even as he hurt inside to see ugly bruises
mar that face or watch the man limp from some injury Caled had given
"Perhaps that wasn't
the distraction he feared," Hadrian murmured. Hadrian didn't blush
as he usually did at Caled's sexual innuendoes and that was almost as
disturbing as his continuing abstraction. It was as if he'd convinced
himself that Caled's attentions didn't matter and that irked the mercenary
no end. Hadrian was truly pulling away from him and he sought to re-capture
the sorcerer's wandering attentions.
"Did you have anything
of importance to say to me? Because there's a pub down the road and
one of my favorite barmaids just waiting to give me some of her personal
attention," the mercenary drawled.
That clear-eyed gaze rested
on him again. "Nothing. Only this." He lunged towards Caled
and gripped his neck with his arms. Before Caled could react, Hadrian
was kissing him.
The kiss was searing, the
sorcerer's lips sucking at his own as if to draw the very breath from
his body. The small frame was pressed against his from lean chest to
supple thighs and Caled could feel the heart of his former lover beating
frantically against his own. There was desperation, longing, love and
farewell in that kiss and for a moment Caled allowed himself to indulge
in it. Burly arms wound around that smaller body, molding the sorcerer
tightly to his heart.
The next moment he recalled
himself and shoved Hadrian hard, watching with a cruel smile as the
man went sprawling to land on his backside. "Well, that was something
to remember you by. Not as good as the barmaid but still one of your
Hadrian didn't move only
gazed at him from the ground. Caled spun on his heel and marched to
his horse. He swung on to the animal's back and slapped the reins on
its neck. The animal broke into a brisk canter and he rode away, willing
himself not to look back.
That had been two days ago
and he'd managed to put some distance between himself and his former
lover. In spite of his own determination to forget Hadrian, thoughts
of the sorcerer had haunted him ever since.
He recalled his first sight
of the young man: his dark hair spinning over his shoulders, his gray
eyes wide with shock when Caled had first kissed him. Hadrian's surprising
delicacy and innocence, the silken feel of Hadrian's flesh, the satiny
tendrils of ebony hair knotting in Caled's fist, the laughing, rosy
face staring up at him in the hayloft where Caled and he had tasted
pleasure in each other's bodies-a thousand memories crowded in on him
whenever his attention wandered. Even when he'd plowed the barmaid,
images of the sorcerer would flash into his mind, branded behind his
eyelids whenever he closed them.
Caled slapped the tankard
down on the table. This was insane. Hadrian would be dead soon, if not
by his father's hand then by Caled's own. The blonde killer for hire
needed to purge himself of these thoughts if he was to kill Hadrian
The pain struck out of nowhere,
knocking him from his stool and doubling him up in agony. "Shard's
teeth!" he gasped, grinding his teeth against the sensation. It
tore harder inside of him as if he'd swallowed strips of metal with
What was happening to him?
Dimly he was aware that other drinkers nearby were shifting away from
him. There were some cries of alarm and mutters about him being mage-struck.
Mages had a way of killing people from a distance. At least that's what
many rumors told: another reason they were feared in many quarters of
Caled gripped his money and
his knife. He wouldn't put it past someone to rob him while he was apparently
helpless and he wanted to be ready. But no one came near him and, after
a moment, the pain ceased as suddenly as it had begun. All that was
left was a vague dull ache in his chest.
Caled shook his head to rid
himself of the aftermath and looked up to see the barmaid staring down
at him. "Get up!" she hissed. "You're frightening the
other customers! What the devil has gotten into you?"
"You're all heart, you
are. It's probably just something in your beer."
She hmmmphed at that and
spun around, calling out brightly that some people just didn't know
how to handle their liquor. He slapped down money for the drink on the
table and retired for the evening.
Changing his mind about staying
in the pub room, Caled decided it might be best not to sleep in an enclosed
space. When he undressed that night, he was continuing a debate in his
head that had raged ever since that phantom pain had struck him down.
It had something to do with Hadrian. It was magical in nature and that
meant the sorcerer had to be involved. Was it the result of the geas?
Had Hadrian been wounded or killed and the pain a signal that Caled
would be next? But he was still alive and that meant Hadrian was alive.
Should he go back to where
he'd left the others and investigate? Was Gavedon even now coming to
finish off Caled? He didn't know and the uncertainty was frustrating.
He would leave as soon as it was daybreak.
When he opened his eyes,
he was no longer in the loft. Caled sat upright and then jumped to his
feet. He stood in a meadow filled with shining green grass that reached
up to his knees. An errant breeze blew against his cheek and he drew
in a breath filled with the tang of growing things. It was broad daylight
and he squinted against the sun beaming down from overhead.
He was in Juxtan still, that
much he could tell. But the world around him had changed subtly with
the colors brighter and scents sharper than he could ever remember them.
stiffened and spun around to see Hadrian running towards him. The sorcerer's
chest was bare, the whiteness of his skin in stark contrast to the black
breeches and boots he still wore and the verdant green all around him.
He had a lush garland of flowers wreathed around his brow and held another
in his hands. The flowers he wore should have made him appear womanish
and idiotic. But the joy gleaming in his eyes and the unconscious grace
with which he wore them made them seem perfectly natural. He carried
the blooms in his hair as easily as a king bore his crown.
He bounded up to Caled and
placed the other ring of flowers over the blonde hair. "There you
are. I've been waiting to see you. Where have you been? I expected you
here before now."
Caled pulled the offending
wreath from his head and threw it into the surrounding grasses. "Where
have I been? Where am I now? What is this place? Have you magicked
me in some way, Hades?"
Hadrian pulled back, his
brow creasing in confusion. "Magicked you? I asked you what was
happening the first time I came here and you told me simply to accept
it." He reached out and caressed Caled's cheek. "Are you having
second thoughts? It's too late for that now," he murmured slyly.
Caled stepped away from him
and then his eyes widened. He stared at the sorcerer. "Hadrian.
Your hands-they're bare."
Hadrian glanced down at his
fingers and then up at Caled again. "Yes. They always are here.
Isn't it wonderful? I never can get quite used to it." He bent
and plucked a blade of grass, lifting it to his nostrils and inhaling
deeply of its scent.
"But-I thought you couldn't
touch things of nature. Life hates you. Remember?" Caled growled
out. So familiar was he with seeing Hadrian's gloved hands since he
caught up to the sorcerer after Rhiad's destruction that it seemed completely
wrong to see his bare limbs now.
"Life doesn't hate me
here. You know that, Caledon. That's why I love coming here. That and
you." The voice lowered and became suggestive. Hadrian edged closer
to him and ran one uncovered hand up Caled's near arm to brush his fingertips
across his neck. Since when was the shy Hadrian so bold, so daring?
What was this world and what had it done to the sorcerer to change him?
Caled shivered, both from
the pressure of those bare fingers and the naked want in Hadrian's gray
eyes. He'd seen those eyes in every change of Hadrian's moods-blazing
and sleet-gray in anger, cloudy in grief or blank with the bleakness
of stones. Now they were darkened almost to charcoal, the smoldering
passion in them threatening to ignite his own senses.
Again, the mercenary pulled
away from that caress. He hardened his heart, something he'd done so
often it was practically a reflex. Even the temporary mourning that
followed whenever he denied himself Hadrian's touch was swiftly stifled.
"I'm asking you again. What is happening? Is this some mage-induced
hallucination? Take care. Even if this is a nightmare, I can kill you
here just as easily as the waking world. It wouldn't be the first time
I've killed you in my dreams."
Yes, he'd dreamed of killing
Hadrian-and woken shaking with terror and drenched in sweat after. The
thought of his lover dead at his hands or lifeless in his arms created
a wound in him that he wouldn't have admitted to even under torture.
He wondered how he'd had the strength to run off and leave Hadrian to
his fate at the hands of Gavedon.
The sorcerer stood staring
at him again, bewilderment drawing across his features. "Caledon
"Caled. It's Caled now,
as you know full well, Hades." Caled put as much disgust
into that nickname as he could and was gratified to see the other man
"I-I don't understand.
Why are you like this? You never speak to me this way here."
"Oh, so this is your
dream I'm caught in? Sorry to have disturbed it for you. Wait. I'm not."
Caled fixed his face in a taunting sneer as he glanced around the luxuriant
meadow. "I see it now. This is some pleasant fantasy you've induced
for yourself. A world where nature doesn't shrink from your touch and
where your lover is tender, kind and gentle with you. Is that it?"
Without warning, one hand
shot out and punched Hadrian full in the face. Caught unaware, the dark-haired
man's head snapped back and he fell to the ground. Before he could recover,
the mercenary had thrown himself over him.
Hard fists closed over the
sorcerer's flailing hands and pinned him to the ground. He shifted so
one hand enclosed both slender wrists and the other reached down into
Hadrian's breeches. He found the length of pliant flesh he'd been seeking
and jerked at it harshly. In spite of his indelicate touch, it hardened
and soon began to swell in his hands.
He bent his head and sneered
into the straining face beneath him, seeing the gray eyes fill with
tears of confusion and distress. "This is how it's become between
us, Hades. You've been deluding yourself if you've expected anything
"Oh gods," Hadrian
whispered. "You lied to me. All those other dreams-they were all
Other dreams? Hadrian had
been having night visions about him? Was that what was responsible for
that odd, dreamy distance the sorcerer had been displaying while awake?
And what did he and Caled do in those dreams? Caled pushed his curiosity
aside and continued to make verbal jabs at the prone magician. "You
were always too trusting, Hadrian. The pitfalls of a sheltered life."
Caled bent his head, nipping hard at the Hadrian's exposed nipples,
sinking his teeth into the sensitive flesh.
Hadrian didn't respond to
him. "Then the sacrifice was all for nothing. My life, my death
Caled lifted his head. Hadrian's
face was turned from him, the blankness he'd noticed in the man's waking
hours stamped on his face like a brand. He was no longer twisting underneath
the mercenary and his erection had faded. It was as if life had been
stripped away in an instant and Caled hated it. He wanted a fight from
Hadrian, not limp, empty submission. He grabbed at the man's chin and
forced the other to meet his gaze. "Death? What are you talking
about? I warn you, Hades, I'm not to be tricked in this way."
"They talk when they
think I can't hear."
"They? Who are they?"
"Manix and Syellen.
I thought they would abandon me after the battle. But they're taking
my body somewhere. I don't know where. There's no village, no town that
would consent to have the Scourge of Rhiad buried in it and Shard's
Point Isle is nothing but ash. Maybe they'll bury me on the island and
leave it as a symbol of a wretched, wasted life. Or maybe they'll just
hang my carcass from a tree to be gawked at by the masses. I don't know."
The sorcerer's voice was indifferent as if the disposal of his body
were of no more concern to him than the tossing of a dead rat.
Caled's confusion was replaced
by a mounting sense of dread. "Dead? You're not dead. I would have
kn-" He stopped, recalling the pain that had sliced into him. Was
that what he had felt? Had the geas bound them so tightly that he could
sense the sorcerer's death throes?
"No, I'm not dead. Not
yet. But Manix and Syellen say it won't be long. My body is weak. I
breathe poorly, when I breathe at all. When I wake I eat little and
I can't keep anything down when I do. My conscious moments are few and
far between. I'm slipping from the waking world. I'd thought I'd find
my new home in this one."
Those gray eyes turned towards
him again. "But I did deceive myself. You were telling me
the truth when you said I wouldn't get you as a reward. I'm dying and
there's nothing left. Life has killed me and there's no Life waiting
for me anywhere else. There's nothing left except a death-dealer like
yourself waiting to punish me and kill me as you've threatened so often
in the waking world."
His head fell back and he laughed until the waiting tears flowed down his cheeks. Caled twisted his fingers in the raven mane and thumped Hadrian's head on the ground until the laughter was choked off with a gulping sob.
"Hades, listen to me.
You will not die so easily. I won't let you."
"But I thought this
was what you wanted? You wanted me dead."
"I wanted to kill you
myself," Caled growled. He didn't believe this, not now.
"And you have your wish,"
was the calm reply.
"Me? What did I have
to do with this? I didn't even get to see the battle!"
Hadrian gazed at him blankly.
"Don't you remember? You told me to embrace Life because to reject
it meant rejecting you. It wasn't until I was fighting my father that
I understood. I needed to take Life to me not control it or tame it.
I had to love Life. Thus I thought of loving you and all that it meant.
You are Life to me, Caled. Without you, there is no Life for me. So
when Life reached in and killed me, it was as if you were doing it.
I couldn't fight Life's decree. And, since I love you, I can't fight
He let his head fall back
again, exposing his throat. "If you want to finish what you've
started, then go ahead. My life is yours."
An errant breeze blew over
them and it stirred the black hair of the man prone beneath him. The
colorless throat, as delicate and slender as a woman's, lay bare in
the sun and beckoned him to fasten his fingers about it and squeeze.
He did so, his fingers tightening reflexively around the fair column.
His other hand joined it, clenching harder, and he saw Hadrian's eyes
fly open. For a moment there were panic in that look and tenseness in
the body under him. Then both ebbed away and Hadrian lay unresisting
within his hands.
The sorcerer meant to let
him have his way. Caled could kill him now and he would make no struggle
against him. All at once the mercenary was sickened by it. He removed
his hands and yanked Hadrian up by his hair. The other hand smacked
at his face, back and forth, until the lips were bloody and bruises
rose on that pale countenance.
"You bastard! You think
it's this easy? That I'll kill you just to put you out of your misery?
Think again, Hades! I told you once that you'd know true torture from
me and this is the moment."
He dragged Hades up, still
maintaining a death grip on that hair. He kneed the man in the crotch
and heard the breath surge out of him. Caled spent the next few minutes
pummeling that body with every ounce of strength he could bring to bear.
Yet, still he refrained from a killing blow.
Finally, Hadrian lay at his
feet. His pants had been ripped and torn during the vicious attack and
there were black-and-blue marks everywhere on him. He raised his head
to speak through swollen lips. "I'll tell you the truth now though
it hardly matters. My father tricked me into destroying those mercenaries
and the fire raged out of control, destroying Rhiad." He drew in
a sobbing breath. "It was never my wish to kill anyone
of all you."
Caled clenched his fists
and cold menace entered his voice. "Are you saying you're guiltless?
Because I know better. Lie and I'll continue what I started."
"I'm guilty of magic
but not of wanting to kill you. How could I wish that?"
Hadrian rolled with painful
slowness to his knees. His head was bent down so the black hair swept
the earth and Caled had to strain to make out the mumbled words. "I
love you. I will always love you. Nothing you do can change that. You
see, I remember that lesson, too. It doesn't matter if you hate me.
It doesn't matter if you crave my death. I love you with everything
I am. So I accept Life's judgment-and yours."
He lifted his head and Caled
saw new resolution gleaming in those slate-gray eyes. "Let death
come then. Caled wills it so." His right hand came into view and
there was a dagger gleaming in it. One of Caled's daggers.
"No!" Caled lunged
for him even as the blade slashed downwards and found its place in Hadrian's
The sorcerer gave a queer,
choking gasp and then fell backwards to the ground. Sightless eyes gazed
at the sky and Caled knelt beside him. To his shock, he saw the black
hair turn pale until it was the color of shining silver. The eyes sank
into the skull, the lips peeled back from the teeth and the bones jutted
out as the flesh shrank against vanishing muscle. In mere moments, Hadrian
was a skeletal cadaver.
As Caled reached out shaking
fingers to touch him, the wind rushed across the body and it blew away
in a puff of dust.
Caled bolted upright from his resting place in the loft. The barn was
unlit and disorienting in its darkness and he could hear the uneasy
stirring of animals. For a moment, he couldn't remember where he was.
He fell back on the heap
of straw, scrubbing fiercely at his eyes with the heels of his hands.
"It was a dream, that's all," he muttered. "Just a foolish
nightmare. I'm not a stupid boy to be terrified by nonsense." Yet
something whispered inside him that this wasn't nonsense or mere mage-induced
magic. When he dreamed of killing Hadrian, there was always a cold satisfaction
in those fantasies as if the sorcerer were only another anonymous target.
The misery only followed when he awoke. This had been starkly different,
full of rage and love and colored by despair.
Caled looked outside. It
was still some hours to dawn. He couldn't travel like this, blindly
in the dark. That was asking for trouble. But the hours were flying
by and he knew Hadrian's life was flying with them.
He tried going back to bed but sleep proved as elusive as gold. He couldn't rest now. With nothing better to do, he pulled on his clothes and waited impatiently for dawn.
Syellen gave a hostile look
to the small crowd following them. Since the battle against Gavedon,
no one would leave them be. News of the fight and rumors about its outcome
had flown far and wide although she had thought there were no witnesses
to the actual confrontation itself. Most people with any sense had fled
when they realized two powerful sorcerers were engaged in a struggle
to the death. No one had wanted to stay to be flamed by a stray bolt.
But now it was as if everybody
knew that Gavedon was dead. When they asked about the limp, apparently
lifeless form in the wagon they'd managed to procure, both the redheaded
girl and the silver-maned mage told them Hadrian was dead as well.
Yes, that was news indeed.
The filthy Scourge of Rhiad was dead and many came to see and rejoice.
Most went back to their homes when it became clear the two magic casters
weren't stopping. But some paced along for many yards just to question
and look at the still body.
Some had wanted to touch
him just to be certain he was well and truly dead. Others wanted to
take a piece of clothing or lock of hair as proof to their friends and
family of the magician's demise. But Manix sternly forbade it. He'd
claimed that dark magic still clung to the dead sorcerer and might blast
any non-magical person foolish enough to get too near. So far the lie
had worked to fend off all but the most greedy and curious.
Syellen edged closer to Manix.
"How much farther should we travel with him? I say we should just
find an inn and hole up with him there until-well, you know. Then we
can bury him in some anonymous spot in the woods."
"I think it's best that
Hadrian be buried on Shard's Point Isle."
Syellen shuddered. The last
thing she wanted was to set foot on that blasted island again. "That
wasteland? Nothing lives there. No one goes there. Everything's dead."
"And that's why that
cursed isle is the most suitable place for his remains. It was once
his home and no one will disturb his body there out of superstitious
dread." His return look seemed to burn through Syellen. "I
know of your true feelings about Hadrian. Believe me, they are misplaced.
The people of Juxtan have honest reason enough to hate him. You do not.
He has atoned and paid for his error with his life. Let him be buried
where his body can rest undisturbed, Syellen."
She shrugged uncomfortably.
"Truly, it doesn't matter to me where he's finally buried. I just
wish we could get rid of our loyal followers. As long as we have Hadrian
in tow, they continue to trail after us." She cast another irritated
glance over her shoulder at the tagalongs.
Manix smiled mysteriously.
"Perhaps they can be dispensed with."
While she stared at him in
curiosity, he reined the horses to a standstill and stood in his seat.
The accompanying crowd stopped and stared while he waved his arm in
a commanding gesture and muttered some words under his breath. Suddenly
the wind picked up and blew hard through the surrounding trees. The
breeze grew stronger and Manix glared at the gawkers and pointed his
finger at them. Shouting in alarm, they turned and scattered like leaves.
Manix smiled in satisfaction and resumed his seat.
"What was that? I didn't
know you could command the winds," Syellen exclaimed.
"I can't," he replied.
"I merely noted the clouds and scented the wind. Then I made some
impressive gestures and said a few nonsense words. That's usually enough
to impress the masses."
Syellen gaped at him. "I
had no idea you were so devious."
"I have my moments." He lifted his head and sniffed. "We should hurry into shelter. There's a storm approaching from the north."
Caled spurred his horse heedlessly
through the countryside. He had no idea where he was going at this point.
He only knew something was pulling him onwards. The only thing he could
think to do was follow his path backwards until he encountered the wandering
trio of magic wielders.
When he came close to the place where he'd left the others, he reined in his horse. There were a few people milling about, pointing to the ground and talking in hushed whispers. He sniffed, wrinkling his nose. A foul stench hung in the air, holding the all-too-familiar smell of charred flesh. Images of Rhiad rose before him and he could feel his stomach roiling. Biting back the urge to vomit, he snapped at the nearest bystander. "What's happened here?"
The woman, eager to gossip
with someone who hadn't heard the news, blurted out, "Haven't you
heard? The terrible Gavedon ni Leyanon is dead."
A middle-aged man, the smell
of him betraying a fish seller by trade, added, "Some say it was
in contest against another sorcerer."
"His own son, that dark-haired
what was his name?" the woman finished with puckered
lips as she tried to recall.
said as indifferently as he could. "Was he killed, too?" he
asked and braced himself for the answer.
"Yes," the man
"No," the woman
said. They stopped and glared at each other and began arguing.
"He was dragged out
of here by those three others with him," the man pointed out. "Limp
as a landed fish, he was. Think I don't know dead when I see it?"
"Three? There were only
two and the way I heard it, they helped to cart him off because he was
injured in the fight. Injured, not dead," the woman emphasized.
Others nearby began jumping
in, each with their own version of the events recently transpired. Some
mentioned that Gavedon's Bane (Caled's grim title after the destruction
of Rhiad) had been present. Others claimed he'd never been nowhere near
Finally the mercenary's patience
was at an end. He blew sharply between two fingers to silence the bickering
crowd. "I take it only one thing is certain. Gavedon is dead?"
The people glanced at each
other and many nodded. A few merely pointed at the ground and they parted
to let his horse through.
There were charred spots
on the ground and every instinct screamed at him to flee before he was
engulfed in flames. The acrid burning stench he'd noted was stronger
here and, along with the blackened patches of earth, he could see scatterings
of whitish ash. "What is that?" he asked, pointing at the
There were various looks
of confusion exchanged. "No one quite knows. But Gavedon's dead.
That we know for sure. He hasn't been seen since he tangled with that
other sorcerer and his followers are fleeing throughout the countryside,
trying to escape the same fate, no doubt."
Another man, part of a group
of rough and ready types, soldiers for hire by the looks of them, added,
"We were going to the town the next way over and celebrate. Want
to join us?"
"I've already been,"
Caled muttered. He straightened and directed his mount out from among
the crowd. Thanks to all the various people milling about the site,
any signs of Syellen and Manix had been completely obliterated.
He sat back on the horse,
trying to think where they would go next. If Hadrian were merely injured,
they might have taken him to other mages to be healed. He wasn't dead
yet; Caled refused to believe that. But Hadrian had said his life was
slipping away. If the dream figure was to be believed, then Syellen
and Manix had given up hope as well. So where would they take him?
Shard's Point Isle. Caled wasn't certain how he knew this. But it made sense. Then they would be headed for the port to find a boat. He wheeled his horse and galloped off in that direction. Perhaps he could find the trio before the worst happened.
The son of Gavedon was laid
on his own dark cloak. His ashen skin and now silver hair were in vivid
relief to the inky color, making him look like snow on ebony wood. He
remained unmoving, his eyelids shut and his lips barely parted.
Syellen asked as Manix rested an ear on Hadrian's chest.
Manix lifted his head. "Only
just. His heart beats but very slowly."
Syellen sighed wearily as
she stirred the soup in the pot hanging over the fire. "I wish
it were over." Catching Manix's look, she hastily amended, "I'm
not wishing for his death from spiteful reasons. It just seems wrong
for any man to linger so. The Life should have taken him quickly not
prolonged his suffering."
"We don't know that
he is suffering, Syellen," he chided. "He is peaceful
and has no signs of hurt on him that I can find other than a few fading
"Oh, no?" she said
in sharp tones. "What about last night? He was weeping in his sleep."
"Yes. He was also crying
out for Caledon. So I believe his suffering is mainly in his mind not
"All the more reason
for him to die quickly. Injuries of the body may heal. Wounds in the
mind don't, do they?"
Syellen let out a small shriek
of surprise and scrambled up from the ground. Manix as cool as ever
didn't bother turning his head. "Ah, Caled. I was wondering when
you'd find us."
"You didn't make it
hard. With the trail you left behind, a blind beggar could have found
you. A few days away from me and you become as careless as children."
Caled stepped from behind a tree and strode over to the prone figure
of the downed sorcerer.
"Well, we needed you
to protect us from those who would kill the sorcerer. That's hardly
a concern now," Syellen snapped, shame at being frightened replaced
by anger at his scornful criticism.
"There's a considerable
bounty on his head dead or alive, you stupid cow," he shot
was known for his even temper. But now his voice cracked through the
still air and the others stared at him as he rested one hand lightly
on Hadrian's forehead. "I believe even though he seems dead to
the world, Hadrian may have some awareness of what is happening around
him. Let us not disturb his final moments with childish bickering, shall
"He started it,"
Syellen muttered sullenly. She was aware that wasn't the most mature
attitude to take. But Caled had always annoyed her and she made no attempt
to hide it.
Caled didn't bother to answer
her. All his attention was bent on the silent figure carefully stretched
on the forest floor. "How long has he been like this?"
Manix walked to the other
side of the fire. "He collapsed after the fray with his father.
He awoke less than an hour later and complained of thirst. Since then
he has drifted in and out of consciousness. But the moments of his waking
get shorter and shorter." When Syellen didn't add anything, he
continued. "Last night we heard him sobbing in his sleep. He seemed
to be arguing with someone."
"Could you make out
words?" Caled asked as casually as he could manage. He prided himself
on speaking without a tremor. But Manix bent one of his searching looks
on him nonetheless.
"Nothing coherent. All
we could understand was your name. Then he let out a harsh cry. Since
then his sleep has taken on a kind of stupor. His hair became as you
see it and there is little movement in his chest. I believe-he has given
up the fight."
"We've tried to wake
him," Syellen added in an effort to defend herself against his
earlier charge of cold-heartedness. "When gentle means like shaking
and speaking to him didn't work, we scrubbed his body with rushes and
bathed his hands with hot and cold water. We applied hot stones to the
soles of his feet and astringent to his skin. We burnt twigs of pungent
herbs and waved them under his nose. Nothing will rouse him." She
noticed a flash of pain across Caled's face and decided to needle him.
"What do you care anyway? You've made no secret you wanted him
"Not like this,"
She shrugged. "Death
is death. How does it matter how it comes?"
word was gently spoken but a thread of ire lay under it.
Syellen flushed. She practically
worshipped Manix and felt ashamed of having angered him. She bit her
lip and then mumbled contritely, "I'm sorry, Caled. W-we don't
think there's anything more to be done than to keep him comfortable."
"Then why is he lying
here on the ground instead of in the wagon?" Caled asked, barely
in control of his temper.
Caled crouched next to Hadrian
and pressed his hand to the sorcerer's brow. It took all his will not
to cry out from the shock. More than a mere chill lay upon Hadrian's
skin. He was as cold as the snows that lay on Fieran's Peak. He hadn't
thought any being's flesh could be so icy and still live. But he pressed
his other hand to Hadrian's chest and felt the faint tremor of the heart.
Was it true what the gray-haired
mage had said-that Hadrian might be aware of the world around him? The
words from his dream seemed to bear it out. So it had been more than
a nightmare then; Hadrian's life was failing and he'd come to Caled
in his sleep to tell him so. Then it was possible the ashen figure on
the ground might know Caled had returned to him.
"Hadrian? Can you hear
me? It's Caled. I've come back to you," he whispered. He stretched
out alongside the motionless body. His own breath washed over the alabaster
skin, now paler than he'd ever seen it. Blue veins stood out in stark
relief to all the surrounding pallor. Hadrian had always been fair in
color. But now his skin was translucent as if no flesh lay between it
and the shining soul inside waiting impatiently to be set free.
The frosted hair was startling,
an unwelcome change from the raven tresses he'd seen only days before.
What had Manix told him once? That when he had died, his hair turned
silver because of it?
The closed eyelids looked
sunken in the flickering light from the fire, the cheeks fallen in like
those of a famine victim or one wasted from fever. All the signs of
encroaching death were here. With a shudder, Caled recalled the whited
skeleton of his nightmare and felt his heart throb faster with fear.
Without thinking what he was doing, he cupped the back of Hadrian's
head and tilted it towards his own. He slid his lips over the aqua-tinged
mouth and kissed his former lover.
Syellen gaped at the spectacle
in front of her. "What are you-?" Manix held out a hand, silencing
her. He didn't speak only gestured for her to sit still and watch.
The cold lips remained slack.
The breath didn't quicken nor did the skin warm under Caled's pulling
lips. But when he drew back from the unresponsive mouth, he was unsurprised
to see the eyelids had lifted a little. The eyes were a muddy gray,
the color of weatherbeaten stones. But they were definitely fixed on
The sound hardly seemed to issue from a human throat. It was more like
a whisper of the wind in the trees. But it was music to his ears nonetheless
and Caled grinned in giddy relief at hearing it.
"Well, well, Hades.
The mage and his silly apprentice have been bandying about stories of
your nearing death. And here you are looking as lively as I've ever
seen you." He lifted his hand to the withered cheek only to see
the other flinch away and a look of terror start into the dull eyes.
He knew what had prompted
that look and Caled was swept with a white-hot sense of shame. "No,
Hadrian. Don't shrink from me. I won't hurt you. I swear it." He
lifted one of the sorcerer's gloved hands and pressed a soft kiss on
dream?" The gray eyes, huge in the sunken face, gazed
at him with renewed love and wonder.
"No dream. I'm as real
as you are," Caled replied gently. "Now, if that girl has
made something we can actually eat, maybe we can get you to take a little
eyelids drooped shut again and Caled spoke quickly to forestall another
"Don't do that! You've
been spending too much time sleeping since before you got to meet your
dear old father again, you great slug-a-bed. It's about time you came
back into the waking world." The remembrance of hearing these words
from that other Hadrian rang in his head. He'd mistreated Hadrian in
that dream place when he might have shown kindness. If part of the young
man's dying stemmed from that, then he was to blame.
But Caled was here now and
he would save Hadrian if he could. He eased him upright as tenderly
as possible, appalled at the ease with which he manipulated him. The
body in his arms had no more heaviness to it than a newborn infant.
Hadrian had always been on the slight side but he'd never been so-insubstantial
to the touch. It was as if he'd lost weight as well as color and warmth.
How could such a drastic change have occurred in only a few days?
The blonde mercenary gestured
impatiently for Syellen to bring a bowl of soup. Carefully balancing
the bowl on his lap, he blew on a spoonful to cool it and then tried
bringing it to the sorcerer's lips. The liquid pooled in the slack mouth
and ran down the corners of his lips and over his chin.
Caled clucked his tongue
in mock remonstrance. "Look at you. You're too old to be drooling
like a mere babe. Let's try this again."
"Try rubbing his throat.
It might encourage him to swallow," Manix urged softly.
So Syellen rubbed at his
neck while Caled spoon-fed Hadrian like a child. Between the two of
them, they got Hadrian to swallow perhaps five or six spoonfuls of the
liquid before he averted his head. "No
His skin was no less pale
or any warmer than before. But the worrisome blue shadows around his
eyes had faded a little and the sorcerer's voice was a trifle stronger.
"Well, maybe that's enough for now. When you're rested and you've regained your strength, I'll take you to one of the villages." Caled didn't notice the grim, knowing looks the other two exchanged. Manix gestured silently to
Syellen to stand up and follow
him back to the wagon. Neither of the two men noticed them go.
"We'll find a place
to settle down. Now that your hair has
changed, maybe that will
be enough to disguise you. There are rumors that you've died; we'll
let people think it. We can even tell them you're Manix's long-lost
grandson," he joked. "Hell, they'll believe anything at this
"I'll teach you to fight.
You need to find a way to defend yourself without spells and enchantment.
In fact, it's best if you stay away from magic altogether at least for
"And you must get more
sun. It's not right for anyone to be so pale. With food and lots of
care, I'm sure there'll be a healthy glow on that pasty skin of yours
before you know it." Caled didn't mean that, of course. He loved
Hadrian's natural pallor, how it contrasted with his own sun burnt skin.
It seemed a visible sign of the emotional contrast that lay between
Hadrian's head sagged against
The blond's temper flared
at that acquiescent tone. "Dammit, Hades, don't talk in that feeble
way! Don't just fall in with everything I say as if it doesn't-"
"Matter? That's because
doesn't. Let this moment
forever. I don't
future. I am
content. I am
happy." Hadrian's voice was
very calm. But that serenity was horrible to Caled. He'd seen dying
men with that same look of tranquility on their faces and aged women
with the same quiet acceptance in their voices when they met their end.
Peaceful deaths weren't something
that he encountered often in his life, given what he did for a living.
But he'd seen it enough to know what it looked like and it was here
in Hadrian's voice, in the fragile body that didn't stir within the
circle of his arms and in the unrelenting chill that wouldn't leave
his skin in spite of the roaring fire only a few feet away.
"Hades, listen to me.
I know my actions towards you have been harsh and unforgiving. I hated
you but not enough. I-I love you and I couldn't stand feeling that way.
I wondered what was wrong with me that I should love someone who had
committed the atrocities you had, who had destroyed an entire city.
But I do love you and I'm not letting you give up!" he hissed.
that I am," was the feeble reply.
The memory of those words
struck Caled to the heart. "Then fight this. Don't just die! Please!"
Tears gathered in Caled's eyes and he blinked them away furiously. He
pressed kiss after kiss on Hadrian's icy brow. Hadrian's flesh was growing
colder against his and he could feel the other man shivering. Caled
wrapped Hadrian tightly in his cloak to stave off the approaching demise
he could sense searching for the man in his embrace.
That voice, delicate as a
caress, rose to draw his attention again. "Cal
ed. Do me
"Yes? What is it, Hades?
Tell me what you want. Anything. I'll do it."
"Your gloves? But why?"
Even as he spoke, Caled glanced at the offending cloth covering his
lover's hands. It had been an absurd relief to see them in their customary
places. At least that hadn't changed. But now Hadrian wanted them removed
and he balked at the request.
tired." Hadrian panted
a little as if the effort of speaking was becoming too great.
Caled bit his lip. Removing
the gloves meant Hadrian wanted to touch something live, something of
nature. But that was too dangerous, given his current weakness, and
he said so.
Caled. Grant me
"Not a last request.
There'll be many more, foolish sorcerer." Privately, Caled vowed
to spend the rest of his life fulfilling Hadrian's every waking desire.
Nevertheless, he reached for the gloves and pulled them off gingerly.
He managed not to touch the skin inside and watched as they began to
Hadrian's breath hitched
and he clenched his teeth in a show of visible strain as he lifted one
shaking hand from his lap. Finally, he simply let it drop on to the
earth beside him and he drew in a sigh of delight.
His fingers clutched at the soil. "It doesn't
burn. I can
it. I can touch LIFE."
"You can? You can!"
Caled reached out to cup the other man's hand and watched the dirt crumble
through both their fingers. "But
how? What does it mean?"
The joyous wonder in those huge gray eyes warmed Caled like the sun. "I've been forgiven. I held close to Life and it's come back to me. Just as you have." Hadrian wound his arms around Caled, bony fingers sliding through the blonde hair. He clutched him with surprising strength and pulled the mercenary's lips down to meet his.
Hadrian was leaving dirt
in his hair and on his skin but Caled couldn't bring himself to care.
Hadrian's tongue came out to stroke his lips and Caled moaned into his
mouth. There was the old ardor in their embrace, the same yearning they
once knew in vanished Rhiad. The kiss grew ever more passionate until
Caled felt Hadrian tremble with something more than want. He sensed
his lover's dire need to draw in air and pulled back minutely.
Eyes the color of silver
gleamed at him. "So warm now. Want to feel your skin against me,"
Hadrian gasped. A shaking hand pushed its way inside his tunic and Caled
shivered as those fingers slid across his skin. Hadrian's touch was
warmer as if the fire of their passion had brought heat back to his
body. Caled craved to feel that flesh molded to his own with an ache
so fierce he thought he would collapse from the weight of it. Yet he
forced aside his own frustrated desire and contented himself with merely
kissing those white lips once more.
Hadrian wasn't strong enough
for what they both burned for, not yet, but he would be soon. Already
strength and warmth had returned to him. Hadrian would recover. He would
be well again. They would go away together and forget the ugliness of
the recent past.
The sorcerer's head fell away from his and he sighed into the air, "Love Life you Caled." Then he ceased to breathe.
Manix and Syellen heard a terrible cry rend the air and the red-haired girl scrambled from the wagon with the mage moving more slowly after her. They found Caled bent over Hadrian's motionless form. The mercenary's hands were pushing at his chest, pounding to rouse a heart that no longer beat.
The storm that Manix had sensed broke later that afternoon. Syellen stood shivering in the rain as Manix said a few words. They had found a large rock formation and Manix had managed, with her help, to create a large hollow in it, one that lay at its base. Caled had fitted Hadrian's body gently into it, making sure the sorcerer's body rested on the ground.
Syellen had wondered why he wouldn't wait for a proper coffin to be built. But Caled had told her how Hadrian had been able to experience the joy of touching Life just before his passage. He wouldn't keep it from him now and he placed clods of earth in the sorcerer's bare hands before commanding Manix to close the stone over Hadrian's remains.
They didn't speak to the
mercenary after that. Neither the ageless spell caster nor his apprentice
could think of a single thing to say that wouldn't sound trivial or
painful beyond belief. The rain lashed them all and Syellen glanced
once at Caled's set, empty face before looking away and leaping into
The water poured down the
mercenary's face as he turned his horse from them. No one looking at
him would have noticed if there were tears.