Of Snow and Thorns

Of Snow and Thorns.
By Mischa Laurent

Notes

Editor\'s PickDisclaimer: All items contained on these pages are non-profit amateur fiction. The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire and all characters named in those books are the copyright of Storm Constantine and her publishers. No infringement on the copyrights are intended. These stories are for personal enjoyment only and should be reproduced, electronically or otherwise, only for this purpose and never for profit of any sort. Portions of this story are paraphrased from the Wraeththu novels, and are the work of the original author, borrowed for the purposes of this tale.

Spoilers: None.

Characters: Ashmael, Arahal, Original Character.

Rating: Strong adult themes in latter sections. Disturbing content.

Of Snow and Thorns

In Ferelithia, it seemed, everything was expensive except the weather. Ashmael gave a sigh and paid the extravagant asking price for the mug of ale, then returned to his seat on the pavement outside the cafe, the better to enjoy the free weather. At least that was glorious. The red tiles of the rooftops made a startling contrast against the brilliant blue of the sky and the fluffy white clouds that scudded along, driven by the light sea breeze, were having better luck than he at escaping the confines of the town.

If only Arahal would put in an appearance, Ashmael could persuade him that it was time to be heading back to Immanion. But, of course, Arahal knew he wished to leave and that was precisely why Ash had not seen hide nor hair of him since last night.
Their business with the town guardians’ accomplished, Ash wanted to go home.

Normally Ashmael would be the first to hit the town, eager to drink and flirt, to enjoy the prospect of some rare time for himself. The business and political affairs of the Gelaming took up most of his days and nights, leaving little spare for private concerns. Immanion might be a different place since the Ascension, but still it was difficult to relax when there were so many eyes upon you, judging your actions and hoarding each tiny piece of gossip.

But of late, his capacity for joy seemed to have dried up. His dreams were haunted by visions of the past and the irrational feeling that he should have done things differently. It was irrational and he knew it. This endless revisiting past mistakes, past errors of judgement, had no solution and he awoke each morning, wrapped naked in sweat-stained sheets with only a mounting melancholy to accompany him through his waking hours.

Taking another sip of the sweet ale Ash ignored the interested glances from the hara sitting at the next table while he contemplated his next move. It would be churlish of him to deny Arahal his recreation. One more night in Ferelithia wouldn’t hurt. He could retire early, catch up on some much needed sleep and the two of them could be back in Immanion by noon, mission accomplished.

They were staying at an inn. The consul’s townhouse was without facilities for horses and, where possible, the Gelaming preferred to tend to their mounts themselves. When Ashmael returned to their room, he lay on the bed and waited patiently for Arahal to show himself.

Arahal put in an appearance right before lunch. Clutching various parcels, which he threw on the bed, he stopped in the centre of the room to look down at Ashmael challengingly.

‘Have fun?’ Ashmael asked, glancing disinterestedly at the colourful packages.

‘Yes. I did. Marvellous place, Ferelithia. I bought some silks you won’t believe. Better than anything you can get at home.’ Arahal threw himself down on the bed, forcing Ashmael to shift position lest he be crushed.

Arahal cupped his hands behind his head, and swung his long legs over the side of the bed. He stared at the ceiling. After a while, he asked, ‘Well, aren’t you going to berate me for my frivolity?’

‘Not at all,’ Ashmael countered in smooth tones. ‘In fact, I was going to suggest we spend another night here and leave tomorrow morning.’

Ash was gratified by look on Arahal’s face. He knew Arahal had been expecting a lecture on timing and responsibility and was surprised by Ashmael’s abrupt about-face.

‘I see.’ Arahal said. ‘Changed our mind about having a little fun, have we?’

‘No. But you want amusement and I can’t say I blame you. Things have been kind of hectic lately. If you want to go out and make a little merry, then I’m not going to stop you. I’ll stay here and catch up on some sleep while you go party.’

Arahal propped himself up on one elbow to look down at him, eyebrows raised in disbelief. ‘This is a change,’ he said. ‘Why the sudden role reversal? It’s usually me who’s trying to rein you in, not the other way around.’

He was, of course, quite right. Arahal was not famous for his excesses. Ashmael was. If anything, Arahal was usually the quiet spiritual type, content to leave all the hell-raising fame to his more gregarious partner. But even the quiet, spiritual types needed to let their hair down every now and then.

Ashmael shrugged, pretending to a casualness he didn’t feel. ‘I haven’t been sleeping well, lately. I could use the rest.’

‘I noticed,’ Arahal’s face was serious. ‘Anything in particular? I’ve heard you cry out in your sleep, but I didn’t want to say anything.’

Ashmael ran his fingers down Arahal’s bare arm, caressing the soft flesh on the inside of his elbow. ‘Thanks,’ he said quietly. ‘But, no. It’s just… I don’t know. Dissatisfaction, I guess. Something I must work through on my own, at any rate.’

Arahal smiled at him and, in an uncharacteristic gesture, leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on his temple.

Ashmael was grateful for both his reticence and the brief contact.

‘Well then,’ Arahal said in a brighter tone, leaping from the bed and hustling the parcels onto the chair out of the way, ‘I’ll leave you to it. I’ve met some very nice folk and they’ve offered to show me around after lunch. Meet me for dinner?’

‘Sure. Downstairs?’

Arahal nodded and began to bustle about, getting ready for his expedition.

Ashmael watched him from his comfortable place on the bed, eyes slowly closing. By the time Arahal sneaked out the door to meet his new friends for lunch, Ashmael was fast asleep.

*Fine, white silk, curled in the gutter, with gold at ears and throat, branded and striped with weals. Rotting corpses with blind, ruined eyes that stare into mine with the agony of eternity on their dead minds. Oil-smoke demons writhe and dance over the bodies of the frozen and the dead. And everywhere that cry, ‘There is no way. No right or wrong; not here.*

Ashmael found himself awake and sitting upright on the bed as if about to leap from it. His entire frame shook with reaction. The scenes he relived each night in dreams of late, while disturbing, had never troubled him before. He’d seen much horror. Why had Fulminir chosen to haunt him after all this time?

What could I have done? he thought, in agonized reflection. We were not ready. Could not have saved them all.

But logic seemed to give no ease to these nightmares.

It took an effort to lever himself off the bed. He felt ancient, as if his bones were creaking with the weight of his flesh. The cool water from the ewer on the nightstand went some way toward refreshing him and he used a cloth to wash the sweat from his chest and arms.
He was pulling on a clean shirt when Arahal returned.

‘Sleep well?’ Arahal asked, his back turned, oblivious to Ashmael’s brittle state.

Ashmael took the time this afforded him to sweep away the last of the nightmare and compose his face into an amiable mask. ‘Not too badly, why?’

‘Because you’re late coming downstairs. We’ve been waiting for you, and I decided to come up and fetch you out in case you’d decided to renege on me. But I see now that I misjudged you.’ Arahal turned and grinned at him.

‘As always,’ Ashmael retorted. ‘Is it so late already?’ He glanced out of the window. The sun was indeed setting over the harbour and its dying rays shone through the window directly onto his face. Ash winced and looked away.

‘Yes, My Captain.’ Arahal came over and helped him with his jacket. ‘You have been abed too long. Still, that should leave you nice and fresh for the night’s activities.’

Ashmael glanced suspiciously at him. “What activities?” Arahal locked the door of their room and guided Ash toward the stairs.

‘We’re going to a club.’ Arahal replied, smiling. ‘You should enjoy it. It’s quite famous.’

Ashmael stopped halfway down the stairs, his hands on his hips. ‘I never said I’d come on the prowl with you, Arahal. The idea was that you get to go out and I get to rest, remember?’

‘Oh, come on, Ash,’ Arahal, turned back and joined Ashmael on the middle step. ‘You’ll never sleep again now. Come out and have some fun. It’ll do you good.’

Sighing, Ashmael relented. There was nothing he felt less like doing than spending his evening in some smoky, noisy club, but if it would get Arahal off his back, he’d do it. He could always sneak away after a couple of drinks.


***

Arahal’s new friends were indeed pleasant and lively company. It was difficult to catch their names over the noise of the busy inn and Ashmael didn’t try too hard. He introduced himself, leaving out his surname. He wasn’t in the mood to indulge his own fame tonight and anonymity was a welcome change.

Dinner was almost over when they were joined by another har whom everyone seemed to know and treated with a respect that bordered on mild worship. He certainly was splendid to look at. A haughty beauty fully conscious of his own attractiveness as evinced by the amount of cosmetics he wore and the abundance of jewellery that sparkled in his lilac hair. He took the one empty seat, which was next to Ashmael and proceeded to hold court.

Suspicious for a moment that Arahal might be setting him up, Ashmael gave his friend a hard look. But Arahal just shrugged and pulled a face to indicate that he hadn’t met this har before and that he also found him a little too high and mighty.

Several of Arahal’s friends left the table to freshen up before they moved on. The newcomer remained, turning his attention to Ashmael and taking in his appearance in a calculated glance. He must have liked what he was seeing because he held out his hand in introduction, ‘Karn.’

‘Pleased to meet you.’ Ashmael took the proffered hand and bestowed upon it the gallant’s kiss it seemed to demand.

Karn appeared suitably flattered and turned further around in the chair, giving Ashmael his full attention. ‘Are you coming with us, then?’ Karn almost, but not quite, preened.

‘Where are we going?’ Ash leaned back in his chair, booted feet crossed at the ankles, his arms folded across his chest. He tried to look grateful for being noticed. It was an effort, he found. His heart was not really in it.

‘Temple Radiant. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.’ Karn smiled conspiratorially, as if sharing a secret.

Ashmael found himself without patience for this ridiculous creature and his pretensions. He had a vague recollection of the name, but couldn’t place it and wasn’t bothered enough to try. His reply was terse. ‘Can’t say I have.’ He buried his nose in his drink, wishing the conversation would end here. This look-at-me attitude was grating on Ash’s already stretched nerves.

The peacock missed the subtle dismissal. Either that or he chose to ignore it, ploughing on regardless. ‘Why, it’s practically a monument,’ he gushed. ‘The owners haven’t changed a thing since those days. Same decor, same furniture. Not a thing has been touched, not even upstairs.’

Ashmael just stared at him, without even the energy to pick up on the cue Karn had so obviously left for him.

Shrugging, determined to finish, Karn moved on. ‘It’s where the Tigron first met the Tigrina, you silly. Pellaz and Caeru of course, not Calanthe. He’s never been here.’ Karn sounded almost wistful. Then, with a sly sidelong glance, he added, ‘He’s the only one I’ve not met.’

Lucky for you, Ashmael thought sourly. Cal would have you sorted out in an instant. This time he took his cue as bidden, barely able to contain his sarcasm as he said, ‘You’ve met them, have you?’

‘Oh, yes.’ Karn said, laying one delicate hand on Ash’s knee. ‘I was a part of their coming together, you know. Caeru and I, (although we all called him Rue in those days), we were in a band together. The band that was playing the night they met, you know. I was there when they were introduced.’

‘Ahhh.’ Ashmael could think of nothing to say that didn’t involve expletives. He moved his leg to dislodge the clinging hand, and sat up. ‘I must come, then. Can’t miss that.’

Again, Karn missed the sarcastic tone. Instead, he laughed in what he obviously thought was a tinkling tone, but which, to Ash’s ears sounded more like fingers down a blackboard. I am getting old and cynical, he thought.

‘Of course you must.’ Karn batted his eyelashes. ‘I didn’t catch your name, sweetie?’

Leaning close, Ash batted his eyelashes right back at him. ‘Ashmael. Ashmael Aldebaran.’

Temple Radiant was indeed a monument, though whether to love or to bad taste, Ashmael could not decide. It was dark, hot and noisy. The poisonous green and purple lights that passed for illumination shed a sickly glow over the faces of the hara milling about. Some of them were indeed the tourists that Karn had implied they would find there. They wandered about the tiny rooms gawking and peering up the stairs inquisitively. Ash could hear Pell’s and Caeru’s names being bandied about in reverent whispers. He’d been pleased to retreat the back room, ironically named Gehenna, to escape them.

That peace had lasted until the band began to play and his ears ceased to function altogether. Now, two hours later, the noise had finally died down. The stage was empty but for a few workers, human by the look of them, removing the paraphernalia of the last act and replacing it with the instruments and powerboards for the next.

Karn and his friends were sitting as far away from Ashmael as they could get, considering that they were all sharing a table. The only joy he’d had so far this evening had been to witness the various expressions that had passed over Karn’s shocked face when he’d revealed his full name. That such a dark-skinned har could turn so pale and yet have such a high colour on his cheekbones was a revelation, one that had given him no small measure of amusement for a while.

Now, Ash just wanted to leave. Surely he’d done his social duty by Arahal? Of his errant friend there was no sign. He’d vanished onto the dance floor with one of their companions and neither of them had returned. Ash had the feeling that they’d probably left the building. Sneaking off somewhere to be alone.

He dropped his empty glass onto the table, almost shattering it. Karn turned at the noise and eyed him uneasily. The Angel of Immanion, it seemed, had a reputation for being unpredictable that Karn clearly expected him to live up to at any second.

Grinning evilly at Karn’s frightened look, Ashmael rose from his seat and wended his way toward the door, offering Karn a cursory ‘good night’ as he passed. The strangled reply was incomprehensible, not that Ash cared.

Halfway across the dance floor, the lights went out. Ashmael cursed as the small space he’d made for himself with his elbow filled with excited hara, who all stared expectantly at the stage. There was a rush of noise and the tiny stage exploded into life. Brilliant yellow spotlights came on overhead, momentarily blinding him, and music began to thump from the speakers in the corner of the room, giving his already sore head a new reason to throb. He was caught in the press of moving bodies. Seeking a way out, he turned toward the stage, but ended up being jostled and pushed right to the front of the podium. Here, he found himself at eye level with the longest pair of legs he’d ever encountered. Following this enticing sight upward to its obvious conclusion, he froze.

The har on the stage in front of him was surely the most arrestingly beautiful creature in Almagabra. Even Pellaz in all his divine glory would have some tough competition from this one, Ash thought with irreverent humour. The har’s lean hips swayed in time to the frenetic beat: those wonderfully endless legs. A curtain of hair, inky black and shot through with red streaks, swung enticingly to and fro, obscuring half his face. Ashmael was given a frustrating glimpse of a curve of cheek and full lips that would drive the most chaste of Niz into a frenzy.

Shoving aside two or three patrons who got in his way, Ash moved around for a better view. Suddenly, he went cold all over, his legs began to tremble. That face! Where had he seen that face before?

The song had changed to something more harmonious and quiet, and the hara surrounding Ash swayed in time to the music. The singer turned his face up, his eyes closed. He sang of tragedy and sorrow, of loss and memories that lingered.

I know him, Ash thought bemusedly. I don’t recognise him, but I’ve seen him before. But where? His memory remained stubborn, refusing to give up the information.

Ash remained fixed in place, unable to move as the song ended and another began. The cold and the chills he felt when he looked at this strange har did not abate. A sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, somehow related to the face before him was his only clue, but the memory still would not come. When the third song ended, the band began playing a dance tune and the atmosphere lightened once more.

Ash tried to follow the singer, who was leaving the stage, but the crowd around him began to move to the new beat, compressing his route and he was forced to use his elbows and feet in order to make a path for himself. The compulsion to follow, to speak to the singer, overwhelmed him. Ashmael kept one eye on his disappearing quarry, while he shouldered his way out of the press. Free at last, he caught a glimpse of black and red vanishing down a corridor and set off in pursuit.

The har was a few feet in front of him when he reached the passageway, walking away quickly as he tied back his hair into a braid. Ash called out and the strange har turned with a resigned expression on his face, no doubt expecting to see a fan wishing to congratulate or proposition him. Brilliant blue eyes raked up and down as he looked Ash over, taking in the black leather of pants and boots, the silver decoration on shirt and vest; all unmistakable signs of Gelaming.

‘I know you.’ Ash just blurted it out, propelled by the cold feeling in his gut that saw the niceties of polite introduction fall by the wayside.

‘I know no Gelaming.’ The har responded, already turning to go.

‘But I do know you. I swear it.’ Ash couldn’t believe his own behaviour, even as he spoke the pleading words. What the hell was wrong with him? Behaving this way was all very well for an inexperienced harling , but he was far from that. He commanded armies, for crying out loud, and here he was, frozen in place and practically tonguetied!

The har turned once more. Ashmael could almost hear the mental sigh. He gave Ash another look over, then shrugged. ‘I don’t recall you,’ he said. ‘Where did we meet?’

‘I’m… I’m not sure.’

The har gave him a exasperated look.

‘I mean I can’t remember.’ Ashmael explained. ‘Tell me your name. Maybe that will help.’

This time the look he got was suspicious. He probably thinks I’m making it up just to meet him.

This har was cold, even frostier in attitude than Vaysh, whom Ashmael had always considered to be the Master of Ice. Thinking of Vaysh let him see certain similarities between the two. There was no physical comparison, but the aloof way this har carried himself, the arctic gaze that froze the warmth out of those incredible eyes, brought Vaysh to mind. The forbidding tone that discouraged friendly advance, so at odds with the ripe inviting beauty, made Ash think that perhaps this har too, had known suffering and pain. It was there, if you looked hard, hidden in those bright eyes.

‘My name is Txaran,’ the har said.

Ash found himself able to move again, no longer frozen by that gripping, irrational fear. The name meant nothing. Perhaps it was all a mistake. He went closer, even invading Txaran’s personal space, but the har did not flinch or step back.

‘No. I don’t recognise it.’ Ash looked more closely, searching his memory, while offhandedly admiring the unblemished porcelain skin, unmarred by cosmetic touch. Perfectly arched dark eyebrows framed the azure eyes and tolerated his inspection with a cynical lift. No memory stirred. ‘I must have been mistaken. My apologies.’

Nodding his acceptance, Txaran turned to go. Ashmael felt somewhat foolish for his behaviour, but he’d recovered nicely. This har was no one he knew. Beautiful, certainly, but cold. Ash was in no mood to begin a pursuit. He’d go back to the inn and get some sleep and then round up Arahal in the morning, in plenty of time to make an early start back to Immanion.

But as Txaran stepped away, the long braid of his hair swung around and passed over Ashmael’s hand, brushing briefly against the soft flesh of his inner wrist. The contact made by the feel of that silken braid opened a psychic floodgate and Ash felt himself begin to fall. Out of the reality of the bare corridor he spun, his stomach clenched tight by the force of the vision as sight rippled and twisted. He found himself moved back in time, to the place of his nightmares. Sweat poured from his brow as the vision rekindled sights and sounds in a hell his battle-hardened soul had fought to forget.

*‘In another place, there were found beautiful hara tied up with their own hair, their bodies naked and bruised. Varrish torturers stood grinning like stone around them. Arahal took a knife from his belt and sawed at the shining hair. Three bodies fell, slipped silently to the ground and twitched there feebly’*

‘I do know you.’ Ash whispered in a hoarse voice. ‘I remember.’

‘You remember what?’ Txaran had turned again, bored now, his eyes icy with distain.

Ashmael raised eyes that brimmed with agonised memory, brought forth against his will. ‘Fulminir,’ he said.

For a moment it seemed that Txaran had turned into the ice sculpture he pretended to be. His eyes went blank. Ashmael felt sure that, were he to breathe on him, Txaran would shatter into a million perfect crystals.

Then the moment passed and Txaran said in an even, if unfriendly, tone, ‘Never heard of him.’

Ash was so surprised, certain that he’d been correct, that he did nothing when Txaran turned on his heel and walked away. Within seconds Txaran had disappeared into the labyrinthine corridors that ran beneath the club.

The air left Ash’s lungs in a whoosh. He leaned against the wall, one hand pressed to his side, where a residual pain brought on by the violent vision still stabbed at him.

Well, that had been a royal dismissal to rival anything Pell, or Cal at his most obnoxious, could conjure up! For someone used to dealing with the foibles and temperament of the high and mighty, Ash thought he’d done very poorly. Face it, he chided himself, you crashed and burned here. No wonder you’ve got a pain in the gut!

He straightened up and left the corridor, exiting through one of the side passages onto the street.

Outside it was easier to throw off the effects of his… What the hell had that been, anyway? He’d thought it a vision, but judging from the blank reaction he’d received it had been no such thing. A waking nightmare, visiting itself upon him at a most inopportune moment? Perhaps.

Maybe I’m cracking up finally.

The idea gave him no joy. He’d always thought of himself as stronger than most, but even the toughest rock can break if enough pressure is applied. He’d had more than his fair share in this lifetime; that was for sure.

Megalithica had been a nightmare all its own. The effects of that could still be seen in many of the hara who had served there during the war against the Varrs. Where was it written that he couldn’t be a casualty too?

***

Ash wandered aimlessly through Ferelithia’s dark streets. When finally he came to a halt, he realised that he was lost. To his right was the sea, the vast, dark ocean washing gently against the pylons of the jetty on which he stood. He looked around to try and get his bearings. The moon, hanging heavily in the sky, pregnant and yellow, shone benevolently down on the cobble-stoned street and illuminated the open doorway of a building across the road.

Crossing the empty avenue, Ash sat on the steps, his head in his hands as he tried to think.

Clear your mind, he told himself. Think rationally about this. Insanity is rare amongst hara: even more rare is an insanity that announces its arrival in so spectacular a fashion. He concentrated on his breathing and let the pain in his belly finally fade away. He felt better the moment he allowed his taut muscles to relax.

Exhaling slowly, he looked around and uttered a short laugh. A temple. He was sitting on the steps of Ferelithia’s temple to the Aghama. Might as well avail himself of the opportunity, he decided, a wry twist to his lips. Ash rose and went inside.

Within the temple proper it was dark and quiet. The simple lines and lack of clutter were conducive to soothing nerves shattered by tension. Ashmael made his way to the altar and knelt before it. The bare table with its bowl of slow burning incense was low enough for him to rest his elbows upon its polished surface. Again he bent his head to his hands and breathed in the rose scent coming from the copper bowl.

Almost immediately, his mind entered trance state and he rose in spirit through the upper spheres. He passed through the soft layers where the spirits of those of lower caste wandered in communion, finally breaking the barrier that only Hara whose caste was one of the three tiers of Nahir-Nuri could penetrate. The spectre of the pyramids of Shekh glowed in the all-encompassing light and, for the first time in weeks, Ashmael felt at peace.

Why this torment of nightmares? The mistaken visions. How was the har from the club involved? Or was he? He asked this of no one in particular, but it was Thiede who came.

Ash felt him, all around and within. The warmth of love, understanding, even the wry humour that characterised the first of all Wraeththu filled his being and immediately eased the ache in his soul. He opened his eyes and found himself confronted by the avatar of his old mentor. Thiede looked the same, his form identical to the one Ashmael remembered. Or maybe Ash’s mind was just projecting him that way. The voice was in his head, but the tone was Thiede’s.

– It comes time to heal – It said in answer to his unspoken questions. – Together you must strive for understanding.-

-Oh, great, Thiede, thanks. That’s very enlightening.- Ash couldn’t help himself. He’d always hated it when Thiede spoke in riddles.

The avatar merely grinned at him.

-Common pain and common past cannot be denied- The Thiede-form replied.

– Together? Ash thought. – Me, of course. Txaran? No. I was wrong about him.-

– Were you?– Head tilted in enquiry, Thiede waited.

Now that he was calm and focused, Ash wasn’t so sure. When Txaran had frozen in place at the mention of the citadel, he’d been sure he’d been correct. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that he it had indeed been Txaran in Fulminir, one of the bound hara Arahal had freed. Why then, would he deny it?

Deny it? Of course! What had Thiede said? ‘The past cannot be denied.’ There was his clue. He opened his eyes, but Thiede was gone.

Yellow grasses waved in the breeze but the plains were empty. The audience was over, it was obvious. With a sigh, Ashmael allowed his consciousness to slowly sink back down through the layers. The pyramids vanished and Ash was back in the temple.

That was Thiede all right. Short, sweet and unfailingly obscure. Ash got up from the floor with a grin on his face. Still, it was at least part of an answer. Txaran was, in all likelihood, another part. Perhaps Arahal had some of the answers. He’d been there in Fulminir as well, he might be able to shed some light on Txaran’s past.

Ash decided he’d go back to the Temple Radiant, to confront Txaran with the truth and see what he had to say. He wouldn’t let the beautiful har turn on his heel and walk away a second time.

He came down the steps of the temple in time to see the dawn break over the sea. Too late now for another visit to the club. Ash wandered back to the inn through a town coming awake, deftly avoiding being run down by carts of produce and cadres of human and hara who scurried about setting up their stalls and preparing their businesses for another day of trade.

He found Arahal in their room at the inn, preparing for bed, but he was of little help. While he remembered freeing the hara from their bonds, he was unable to recall what had become of them.

‘I’m sorry, Ash, I just don’t remember. I must have passed their care onto the healers but what became of them after that? I’m afraid I don’t have a clue. Why do you want to know anyway? What is it to you after all this time?’

Ashmael was reluctant to explain. The nightmares were not something he wished to share. Even though Arahal knew he’d been having them, he’d not revealed their exact contents.

Ash was impatient for the day to end so he could return to the club and have all this over and done with. I’m not the spiritual sort, he thought crossly. Why did Thiede choose to inflict this on me, why not Arahal instead?

His friend was still perched on the side of the bed, looking at him in expectation of an answer.

‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ He waved one hand in a gesture of dismissal. ‘Someone I saw last night looked familiar, that’s all. Don’t worry about it. Why don’t I let you get some sleep? You look as if you could use it.’

Arahal grimaced and stretched. ‘I certainly could. Loka may look unassuming, but he’s a bit of a tiger.’

‘Bites, does he?’ Ash grinned. ‘Serves you right. Listen, I was thinking perhaps we could spend another day here. It wouldn’t matter. There’s nothing urgent that needs to be done at home and I’ve started to enjoy myself. How about we stay one more night?’

Arahal looked at him with suspicion. ‘You’re very accommodating all of a sudden. Nothing to do with this mysterious har you thought you knew, is it? Has the great General’s libido undergone an revival?’

‘Oh, shut up.’ Ashmael took a friendly swipe at Arahal’s head.

Arahal ducked and lost his balance, falling heavily onto the bed and letting forth a mock groan of pain.

‘Nothing at all to do with him. It was just an idle thought. I’m thinking now of your welfare. But, if you want to leave…’

‘No. No,’ came the muffled voice from the bed. ‘Let’s stay by all means. I’m not quite all chewed up yet.’

Laughing, Ashmael left his companion to his rest and wandered downstairs for some breakfast. What he’d do to pass the time for the rest of the day, he didn’t know. The hours couldn’t go fast enough. Whatever it was that Thiede wanted him to do, it had best be quickly dealt with. Ash knew he wasn’t the most tolerant har in Wraeththudom and spiritual responsibility was, to him, an irksome burden to carry and one he had little patience for.

***

Feeling much more light of spirit after a morning tending and exercising his horse and an afternoon spent napping without a single nightmare, Ash was more than content to wait his chance in the club. It would be better to confront Txaran after he’d finished for the night.

Arriving at the club early, Ash had a most enlightening chat with the har who tended the door, discussing the history of the Temple Radiant. More than forthcoming after the judicious application of a purse full of fillarets, his informant had revealed that Txaran lived in one of the upstairs rooms.

The owners of the club, it turned out, had purchased the adjoining building when it fell vacant and had turned the empty space into a nice little boutique hotel for travellers. They retained the apartment that covered the entire top floor for their own use while the floor below that was reserved for the exclusive use of out-of-town entertainers, such as Txaran. This explained the warren of corridors Ash had found himself in last night and now presented an opportunity for the privacy he felt sure he’d need in order to properly convey his wishes for a discussion to the standoffish, recalcitrant har. Ash would be forceful if he had to.

Somehow he didn’t think Txaran would be all that enthusiastic about the idea of further discussion, based on his performance of the previous evening. Fulminir was no one’s favourite subject and Ash couldn’t blame him for his reluctance. Still, he wanted this over and done as speedily as was possible and Txaran was not going to be given a chance to dig his heels in.

I’m definitely not the best choice for this job, Thiede.- Ash focused the spear of thought and sent it upward through the planes. -You’d have done much better by choosing Arahal, you know. He was there too.-

There was, as he expected, no answer forthcoming.

So be it.

As before, he followed Txaran down the corridor. This time he let him get much further into the depths of the building before calling out, ‘Tiahaar Txaran. Wait.’

The har turned, a long-suffering expression washing over his mobile features when he recognised his visitor. He folded his arms, his foot idly tapped the ground as Ash approached.

Txaran looked especially wonderful tonight, Ash thought absently, quickly covering the ground between them. Simple black pants were tucked into boots of the same colour, while his torso was covered by a shirt of sinuous material, billowing diaphanous stuff that shimmied with each subtle movement of the flesh beneath. The only colour Txaran had allowed himself was in the belt threaded through the loopholes of the trousers. A rich dark red leather, studded with silver stars and a reflective surface to catch the stagelights as he danced. The fall of ebony hair had come loose from its confinement during the final song of the evening and now hung, in shining waves and curled sensuously around his slender waist.

The expression on his face and the way he stood, seemingly relaxed, but, to a trained eye, fully tensed as if ready for flight, belied his confident stance. ‘What can I do for you, Tiahaar?’ he asked in polite, bored tones.

Ash came to a halt well within the limits of Txaran’s personal space. He almost shifted; Ash saw the involuntary retreat, quickly halted and hid a satisfied grin. Keep him off-balance. He thought to himself. ‘I need to talk to you again, Txaran. In private.’

‘I thought we had established that we were strangers, tiahaar.’ Txaran raised an eyebrow. ‘What possible reason could there be for further conversation?’

Ash took a small step forward. ‘You lied to me.’

Now, Txaran did retreat. Just one tiny step back, to alleviate the threat. ‘So?’ He recovered quickly. ‘Admitting to spending time in Fulminir is not high on the agenda of most hara. It is not a time or a place I would wish to revisit, even if I did find that we knew each other.’

Ash shot out his hand and grasped Txaran firmly by the elbow. ‘We will talk. Lead me to your rooms, tiahaar. Now.’

“Are you insane? Get your fucking hands off me!” Txaran pulled away and Ash released him.

Txaran made a show of straightening the offended material, shaking off Ash’s touch.

“I don’t know who you think you are…” he began and Ash cut in before he could finish.

“Aldebaran. General Aldebaran.”

Txaran turned pale.

“And we will have that private chat, tiahaar. Lead the way.”

Txaran did as he was bidden, striding quickly through a series of corridors and up several flights of crooked stairs. Ash was almost dizzy with confusion and wondered how he would manage to ever find his way out. This was probably not the way that Thiede would have him do things. But the results were pleasing and the expediency made it worthwhile.

The halls they travelled were silent and empty and when they finally arrived at Txaran’s door there was no sound at all from the apartment opposite. Ashmael’s senses told him that they had the entire floor to themselves.

Once through the door, Txaran pulled his arm free of Ash’s grip and walked to the windows, his straight back and tight shoulders the very picture of outraged suffering.

Closing the door behind him, Ash surveyed his surroundings. Very nice. The club owners obviously thought very highly of their star performer. The floors were highly polished wood, covered in area-defining rugs of deep green and burgundy with silk curtains that billowed in the breeze from the full length windows. A pair of plush burgundy couches faced each other, separated by a low metal table and sculptures shone in the down lights from recesses in the walls. The other rooms were hidden from sight behind a carved wooden door; a beautiful setting for such a jewel.

The jewel was still standing at the window with his back firmly turned.

Ashmael wandered over to the couches and made himself comfortable. ‘Won’t you join me?’ He asked casually, as if he were the host. ‘This will go much faster if you co-operate.’

Txaran spun around, his expression one of thwarted fury. “What is it you want from me, General?” Icy politeness and cold anger permeated each syllable.

‘Come. Sit.’ Ash patted the couch encouragingly. ‘I apologise for my rudeness. Allow me to explain.’ He gave Txaran what he hoped was a mollifying look.

The suspicious, outraged expression did not fade, but Txaran came closer. He sat, straight and taut, perched on the very edge of the cushions, only a small spark of what might have been distress in the shadowed eyes belied the polite, listening posture.

Now, Ash faced the daunting task of trying to explain his presence without sounding like a complete lunatic. If the mere mention of the citadel of Fulminir could bring on this strong a reaction in his host, then the request he was about to make would surely send him screaming from the room. But he could think of no alternative. Leaving without trying to complete his task was pointless; Thiede would simply find a way to drive him right back here. Then, he’d find it difficult to get another chance at Txaran. After his behaviour of the past two nights, the slightest glimpse of him would be enough to send Txaran running. He took a deep breath and voiced his request. ‘You will tell me about your time in Fulminir.’

‘The hell I will!’

‘Sit down!’ Ashamel barked.

Txaran dropped abruptly back into the seat he had just sprung from, obedient to the commanding tone. ‘Why?’ Txaran’s tone was defensive. “What possible reason could there be for dragging up the past? I know nothing about any of the crimes committed in Fulminir.”

Ash sighed. Curse you, Thiede. This is beyond me. I am a soldier not a healer. I don’t know where to start.

-Common pain and common past.-

Whether he was remembering the words or whether Thiede was reminding him afresh, Ash could not have said. But he had to start somewhere. ‘This is not about a crime. It’s more… personal than that. I was in Fulminir… ‘

‘So you said,’ Txaran interrupted. ‘What does this personal matter have to do with me?’
The sarcasm was growing afresh as Txaran seemed to gain confidence from Ash’s admission.

‘Let me finish,’ he ordered. ‘I led the Gelaming force that liberated the citadel. I believe now that you were one of the har we freed that day. From the citadel proper, in the square?’

The only answer he received was a slight nod of affirmation.

‘After you… dismissed me last evening, I went for a walk. There’s a temple to the Aghama down by the quay. You know the place?’

Txaran nodded.

‘I went inside to pray. For a little peace. There was a voice…’

‘You hear voices?’ Txaran could not contain himself. The perfect brow arched in silent mockery.

‘The Aghama.’ Ash said pointedly.

‘Oh well, that’s all right then. If it’s the Aghama himself talking to you…’

‘Will you shut up! I’m trying my best here. Your sarcasm is not helping.’

‘Sorry. I’ll be quiet.’ Txaran muttered. His voice faded to a sibilant whisper. ‘Wouldn’t want to interrupt you. You might miss a message.’

‘Shut. Up!’ Ash roared.

Txaran flinched.

Ash was instantly sorry and, reaching out, grasped Txaran’s hand in apology. ‘Look, Txaran. I’m sorry. This is… hard. I’m not good with words. Can we start again?’ Ashmael took special care not to sound like he was addressing troops and was rewarded for his effort.

Txaran bit his lip, then nodded. ‘Go on.’

‘Right. Listen. Let’s go back to the beginning. I am not a lunatic.’ Ash sounded out each syllable slowly. ‘I knew him, okay? I knew the Aghama when he was manifest. When he was Thiede. Therefore, he does sometimes talk to me. Are we straight now?’

Txaran looked at him thoughtfully, considering his words and weighing them up against his bizarre behaviour, no doubt. Finally he shrugged, his body losing some of its tautness. ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’

‘I should have mentioned it.’ Ash apologised. ‘I didn’t think.’

Txaran tugged on his trapped hand and Ash released it.

Txaran sat back in the seat, smoothing down his wrinkled shirt. ‘Go on then. I’m listening. No more sarcasm, I promise.’

Warily, Ash subsided into the comfort of the cushion. He raked his hands through his hair, seeking a better way of explaining his request.

‘Thiede said I should come back here. That it is, and I quote, ‘a time for healing.’ So, here I am. But I’m damned if I know what I’m supposed to do next.’

The room fell silent as they both fell prey to their own thoughts. The ticking of a mantel clock, of human design, Ash decided when his gaze sought out the source of the sound, was the only noise to shatter the quiet. Txaran shifted back into a more comfortable position. Drawing one long leg up beneath him, he turned to face Ash. His voice was softer, less harsh. ‘How am I supposed to help you? Why do you need me to tell you about my time in Fulminir?’

Ash could see that Txaran’s attitude had mellowed somewhat. In relaxing his guard and allowing a little of the emotion this situation had wrung from him to come through, it seemed Ash had managed to reach through Txaran’s formidable defences. The wariness remained, almost invisible under half-closed eyes, but the haughty expression he affected for his own protection was missing, replaced by a more natural one. Txaran had been beautiful before; he was truly stunning now. If Ash hadn’t been so wrapped in this conundrum he would have been unable to concentrate at all.

‘I think perhaps we are supposed to heal each other.’ Ash answered, sad to see Txaran’s expression close up once more.

‘Assuming I need healing, that is. Which I don’t.’ Txaran emphasised. ‘I had forgotten all about Fulminir. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t need any… healing.’

‘Don’t you?’ Ash said as gently as he could, remembering Txaran’s initial reaction to the mention of the citadel. ‘Is there ever a time when it is completely gone from your thoughts?’

‘Of course there is!’ Txaran blustered. But uncertainty had crept into his voice. ‘It’s the past, General. The long dead past.’

‘Then, there should be no problem with discussing it, should there?’ Ash pointed out. ‘And, if that is the case, why are you shaking?’

Txaran looked down at his hands. Ash could clearly see the nervous tremors, which Txaran now tried belatedly to conceal, clasping his fingers together tightly. ‘You frightened me with your yelling, that’s all.’

‘No.’ Ashmael shook his head. ‘It’s what I want that frightens you.’

Txaran was also shaking his head, denying the veracity of Ash’s assertion.

In a softer voice, Ash went on, ‘The thought of talking about Fulminir has scared you, hasn’t it?’

Ash shifted on the couch, mirroring Txaran’s position. He captured the shaking har’s hands in his own and held them. Leaning as close as he dared, he added, ‘I’ll go first. If you go with me.’

Txaran’s eyes came up level. Perhaps he saw compassion in Ash’s gaze, perhaps empathy. Whatever it was, he slowly nodded his agreement.

Ash wondered where to begin. While he was an expert at warfare, at entering the mind of an enemy or a political rival, he was no adept when it came to self-examination. Reading another’s motives was far easier than searching his own heart for the truth.

-Help me, Thiede- He pleaded silently. -I don’t know where to begin.-

There was no immediate answer, but the visions of his nightmares came back to mind. Perhaps that was a place to start. ‘I saw things in Fulminir that I had never witnessed before. Not even in the battles of the beginning,’ he said. ‘Barrels of harish blood leaking onto the stone floors. Bodies and severed limbs, evidence of cannibalism. Atrocities I had never thought possible. We were wading in it. We’d known it was bad, our shaman had seen. But this was beyond measure. The citadel stank of evil. But it didn’t bother me.’ He shook his head. ‘I’d seen so much, but nothing on this scale. It should have sickened me.’

Ash had considered himself hardened to suffering. But Fulminir had been exceptional. Others of his company had vomited at some of the things they’d seen there.

‘We were the good guys, you know. The Gelaming armies coming to liberate the oppressed.’ A wry smile crossed his face. ‘Could I have been that immune to suffering? But, after it was done, I dismissed it from my thoughts. I haven’t thought of Fulminir and what I witnessed there in a very long time. Why now? Why am I badgering you, a stranger? Busting into your room in the dead of night and plying you with demands?”

Ash breathed deep. To extend, to reach out and trust, was difficult. Txaran was a stranger, an unknown quantity and the last thing Ashmael and, by implication, the Hegemony, needed was rumours surfacing about his sanity. But he had to allow a little of it out, else he’d accomplish nothing more.

“I’ve been having nightmares.” Ash confessed. “Somehow these dreams are related to you and to the vision of Thiede I had in the temple. I really do need to hear your story. It’s the only way I think I’ll be able to work out just what the connection is. Will you tell me, Txaran? Please.”

Silence fell while Txaran considered. Ash could almost see the gears in his head whirring as he worked out the pros and cons of the situation. He still seemed a little unsettled by the thought of discussing Fulminir but, as Ash watched, Txaran composed himself and then nodded in the affirmative, completely in control of himself once again.

‘Very well.’ Txaran began. ‘I still fail to see any connection between us tiahaar Aldebaran, but I will do what I can to aid you.’

Ash sat back, waiting.

He began to tell his story in a matter-of-fact voice. Ashmael suspected that Txaran was keeping tight rein on any feelings he might be having, so emotionless was his dialogue, but did not feel he knew Txaran well enough to challenge him on it.

‘I am a Varr,’ he began. ‘I was incepted against my will, as many were in those days. My companions and I were not members of the tribe, however, we were prisoners. I witnessed atrocious acts, tiahaar. I saw, as you did, the barrels containing the blood of my fellow slaves. I saw how they obtained them. Beyond that,’ he shrugged ‘ I cannot see how I could possibly help you.’

Ashmael decided to push, just a little. ‘You admit to being one of the hara in the square. Tell me why you were there.’

‘The grissecon of course.’ Txaran’s answer came easily, as if he had anticipated it. ‘Part of the magic used to raise the force needed to repel the Gelaming.’

‘And this is why you were tortured?’

‘I don’t know how it worked, General, only that it did. The dark magic was the secret of the adepts, not the victims.’

Glib. Facile and unemotional. Not that Ash suspected Txaran of any complicity. Far from it. But the ease of his disclosure spoke volumes about what he was not saying and even perhaps, why.

‘Do you remember the Gelaming arriving in the square?’ Ash asked suddenly, hoping to provoke a more natural, unrehearsed reaction.

‘No. I’m sorry. My memory of that day is too hazy.’

‘Hmm. Well, that’s not much to go on.’

Txaran looked affronted.

‘I apologise. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I am grateful for your co-operation, of course. It’s just that I was hoping for something more. Some more obvious clue, I suppose.’ Ash gave a wry smile, confessing. ‘I am much more at home with battle plans and strategy meetings, tiahaar. This situation is entirely alien to me.’

Txaran thawed just a little. ‘These nightmares. They plague you, yes?’

‘They do,’ Ash admitted with a sigh. ‘I’m not used to being haunted by an unchangeable past. It frustrates me, an enemy that I cannot strike back at.’ Suddenly conscious that he might be revealing too much, Ash rose from his seat. ‘I think perhaps its time I went. It’s late.’

Txaran got up and walked with him to the door.

‘Thank you for your time, Ash said, with genuine gratitude, ‘and for your patience with me, tiahaar. I am sorry for the abrupt way I entered your life. I assure you, if Thiede allows it, I’ll not trouble you again.’

Txaran looked at him, a thoughtful expression on his face. ‘Do you think the nightmares will ease now that we have spoken?’

‘I don’t know. I can only hope that they will. Thiede is a hard taskmaster.’ Ash smiled.

‘Then…’ Txaran sounded a little uncertain, but then he pressed on. ‘If… If there is anything more that I can do….?’ The words trailed off. Txaran looked a little surprised to find himself making the offer, but did not try and retract it.

‘I appreciate it.’ Ashmael gave him the benefit of his most brilliant smile and was gratified when Txaran blushed. Not so prickly after all, he thought. Shame I’m going home tomorrow. He really is perfectly beautiful.

‘Goodnight, tiahaar.’ Ash said.

‘Night.’ Txaran almost slammed the door in Ash’s face in his hurry to disappear.

He embarassed himself, Ash thought with amusement. Fancy a Varr fancying a Gelaming. The idiotic sentence kept the grin on his face all the way back to the inn.

***

Ash did not awaken until late in the afternoon. Beside his pillow, he found a note from Arahal;

Assume we’re staying… again. Gone to visit vineyard. Back late. Do I get to meet him? Arahal.

Arahal had not been gone long. There was a hot drink waiting for him on the bedside table, a wilting flower stuck in a dirty cup. Propping himself up on the pillows, Ash took a sip of the drink and found it laden with sweetener, just the way he liked it. He felt refreshed, if not more relaxed. Last night had been tense, his muscles protesting from the abuse he’d subjected them too. Ash had not realised that keeping one’s emotions under such tight control could be so draining, but a good night’s sleep had done wonders for the ache.

Not so relaxed were his thoughts. He raked his fingers through his short blond locks, frustrated at his lack of success where Txaran was concerned. Telling Txaran that it would be all right and believing it himself were two different things. The old proverb, a favourite of his mother’s, came back to him. ‘Sleep on it.’ Well, he had done that, but the questions had only multiplied.

There had to be a connection between he and Txaran. There had to be! Thiede would not have set him this challenge otherwise. Fond of being obscure, to be sure, but there was always a purpose behind everything the Aghama did, whether he could see it right now or not.

The key had to be in his short time in Fulminir. He was there. Txaran was there. The nightmares were set there. If only Txaran could have remembered that day in the square. Ash was sure everything hinged on it. There was no escaping the fact that he was going to have to go back and intrude on Txaran again. He finished the drink and began to think about getting dressed. One more time, that was all.

-This is your last chance, Thiede.-

He sent the thought, not expecting a reply and was not disappointed. Txaran would have to tolerate one more intrusion, one more invasion of his memories. Ash stretched and gave a sigh. He’d rather be fighting a nice little war somewhere, out routing evildoers. Hell, even fencing with the Hegemony over budget cuts would be better than this!

***

There was a mirror on the wall in the hallway outside Txaran’s room. Ashmael took the opportunity it offered to check his appearance. There was nothing he could do about his hair. It defied any attempt at subjugation by comb or lotion, sticking up in spikes and spears no matter how diligently he attended to it. Ash had long ago given up any hope of taming it. But the rest of him looked good. The soft and supple black leather vest with its silver adornment was a favourite, a comfortable and handsome gift from Pell that he enjoyed wearing. Pants and boots were clean and shiny, no scuff marks or dirt marred the surface, he’d made sure of that before leaving the inn. He took one last look in the mirror before knocking on Txaran’s door. You peacock! He said to himself. What does it matter how you look? This is nothing to do with pleasure. You’re behaving like a fool.

The door opened a crack, Txaran’s pale face peeked around the corner. He looked terrible. Wan and worn. When he saw who his visitor was, Ashmael expected him to be angry, or at the very least distantly polite but the only way to describe the expression on Txaran’s face when he saw Ash standing there was as a look of relief, tempered with uncertainty.

Txaran pushed the door open. “I thought it might be you,” he said in a weary tone. “You’d better come in.”

Ashmael walked through a door already abandoned by its owner. Txaran had moved into the centre of the room, his back turned. Ash closed the door behind him asking, “How did you know it was me?”

“Oh, please,” Txaran drawled sarcastically. “Don’t pretend you don’t know.” He turned then and Ash was faintly shocked by his appearance. Dark shadows circled his eyes, throwing the brilliant blue into stark relief. He looked exhausted, still in his robe, the shiny black fall of hair mussed and tangled as if he’d spent the night tossing and turning.

“I’m afraid I truly don’t. What seems to be the problem?”

“You really don’t?” Txaran raised an eyebrow, giving Ash a hard look. Then he seemed to decide that he believed, at least for the moment and invited Ash to sit with a wave of his hand.

“Your friend…” he hiked his thumb upward in a vaguely rude gesture, “…has spent a fruitful evening tormenting me.”

“Thiede?”

“Yes, Thiede. The Aghama. Whatever you want to call him.” Txaran flopped down onto the couch next to Ash, running his fingers through his hair in distracted fashion. “Nightmares,” he said. “Big, nasty nightmares.” He looked at Ash from under his eyebrows. “I blame you for this.”

“What about?” Ash asked, confused by Txaran’s attitude. This was very unlike the har he had met on the other two occasions. Txaran had struck him as very self contained and in control. Now he seemed resigned, defeated even.

“Fulminir, of course.” Txaran sighed.

Of course. Ashmael was sure Txaran was deeply regretting last night’s offer to help. “Then I don’t see any way around it, do you? You’re going to have to tell me, Txaran. No more fudging. No more, ‘I don’t remember’.”

Txaran just looked at him.

“I thought we’d managed to achieve a certain amount of trust between us last night,” Ash continued. “We’re both going to have to let go. Build on that. We both need to tell each other the truth, Txaran. I can do it, I think. Can you?”

“I don’t think I have a choice.” Txaran curled up on the couch next to Ash, drawing his long legs up under him and wedging himself into the corner. The robe slid away at the movement, exposing a goodly portion of thigh and Txaran blushed, quickly covering himself. “The dreams…all night.” He shook his head, hair shifting across his shoulders. Impatiently, he pushed it back. “That was bad enough. But all day today, I keep seeing it, even with my eyes open. Like visions. Like you had. I shall go mad if it doesn’t stop.” There was an almost pleading tone in his voice as he spoke. “I lied.” It was almost a whisper. “I do remember.”

“You remember me?”

Txaran nodded.

Ash took a chance by reaching over and taking one of Txaran’s hands in his own. He held it carefully, gently, as if it were fragile, his grip light. Txaran looked down at it, but did not pull away. “Tell me.”

WARNING: Disturbing Content.

‘I was human. We were human.’

Ash sat back, being as quiet and as still as he could manage.

Txaran stared off into space, his eyes looking inward as he related the story in a matter-of-fact voice. It was as if he were forcing himself to be dispassionate; to tell the tale as if it belonged to someone else. The only signs of internal turmoil was the quaver in his voice and the convulsive way he twirled and pulled at the lock of hair he had twisted around his finger. ‘We fled north to escape the Varrs. They had been raiding, burning villages to the south of us and the elders decided to move away before we became the next targets. I was only young. Little more than a child. I remember it being cold.

‘Hunger and cold. And fear, of course. We caught that from the adults. From hushed whispers and orders to be quiet when we passed close to another village. But we made it and were safe for a time.

‘It might have been a couple of years later that the Varrs again came raiding. They’d moved north as well. We didn’t know that we’d have been better going south. Besides, to move in that direction, we’d have had to pass through their territory. They were driving us before them like cattle, we just didn’t realise it. The numbers of Varrs in the area increased, so the town elders ordered fortifications be built.

‘We had come upon an abandoned town and stayed. It was near the foothills of a mountain range and we could go no further north. Naturally, once they had the numbers, the raids increased in strength until there was a full army ranged against us. The fortifications began to fail and the decision was made to abandon the town. We split up into smaller groups and escaped through the tunnels under the walls, into the forest. We were hard to find.

‘The Varrs took over the town and rebuilt the walls. As you’ve probably guessed by now, the town was Fulminir.’

Ash nodded and gestured for Txaran to go on.

‘They were hard pressed to root us out of the woods. The trees hampered their horses, so we always had time to flee. We had places to regroup, stores hidden away in secret caches, that kind of thing. They tried, but couldn’t catch us.’

Txaran came to another stop. He ran his fingers through his hair, raking it back in a nervous grip and took a couple of deep, steadying breaths before continuing.

‘They caught us in the open,’ he said, ‘harvesting the winter’s corn from a meadow. It was all over in seconds. There was nowhere to flee and those that tried to fight back were slaughtered. They rounded us up; surrounded us with the horses and pushed us into a circle. It was like… It was like a sport. Like a days’ hunting for them. They were laughing, drinking from flasks at their hips. Discussing us like we were animals.’ He shook his head in mute confusion.

‘We were divided into two groups. The women, the elderly and those they considered too young, were slaughtered right in front of us. Some of the hunters dismounted and went amongst them, grabbing women and children by the hair and slitting their throats. Some they gutted. A couple on horseback forced a woman to run and then rode her down. I saw three Varrs take a woman aside and…. We called it rape. They raped her and then, when she began to scream as her insides burned, they slit her open to watch. She was still alive…’ He broke off, shuddering.

Ash felt his gorge rise. ‘You can stop…’

But Txaran waved a hand and silenced him. ‘No, I want to finish. If I stop, I won’t be able to go on.

‘When they were done, they turned their attentions to the second group. Again we were divided. Myself and four others were herded off to one side, the rest were killed. Too old, not attractive enough? I don’t know. The Varrs dismounted, lounging around on the grass, eating and drinking like it were a picnic. The blood from the dead stained the grass they sat on. They didn’t care. Eventually, it ended. We were brought before a group of Varrs, four of them. One was Ponclast though I didn’t know it at the time. He ordered us stripped and they looked us over. He just… nodded and we were taken away again. Thrown over the packhorses and tied down to be transported back to Fulminir.

‘Once there, we were thrown into a cage in the basement and forgotten about for the longest time. The guards fed and watered us, but I think Ponclast had forgotten our existence. It must have been weeks, maybe even months. Someone reminded him or he remembered on his own and, one night, we were brought up to the dining hall.

‘I remember it so clearly… the smells, the way their voices echoed from the high ceilings, how… primitive and brutish they seemed with their leathers and furs. The room was lit only with braziers and rushlights on the walls, like something out of a medieval book I once saw. Dinner was over and we were the entertainment. A har, Terzian it was, took one of the others and raped him, there on the dining table in front of where Ponclast sat. When he began to scream and die, Terzian slit his wrists and the two of them filled their cups with blood to drink. I couldn’t stand it. I think I went mad. I know I was not fettered or chained. Humans were no threat. I was simply naked and without a weapon, but crazed enough not to care. I went for Ponclast with my fists and my teeth. He laughed. I leapt up onto that dining table and grabbed for him and he laughed as I beat at him.’

Ashmael watched Txaran carefully as he recited this litany of horror. The pupils of his eyes had dilated and his breath came more and more rapidly; his fists clenched. Ash considered bringing a halt to it, even raised his hand to stop him, but Txaran was talking rapidly as if vomiting the words, so Ash subsided, to allow the har the chance to vent the poison from his system.

‘He tired of the game, of course, and grabbed my arms, holding me so easily. He said, “You think so little of your friend, then?” and grinned at me. I looked down and saw that I was on the body of the other boy. His stomach had split from the venom Terzian had orgasmed into him and I was on my knees in his gut. I must have screamed; I could hear someone screaming and it could only have been me.

‘Ponclast pulled me over the table, onto his lap and I was pinned there, clawing at him with hands that could not reach. Then… Then he… kissed me and took my head between his hands. He looked to Terzian, who grinned and laughed behind me and said, “Incept him.”

‘I didn’t know the word.’

‘I understood about being dragged to one of the pillars and tied. I knew when they slit my arm open. I thought they meant to bleed me to death, but then….’

His voice trailed off and he shuddered. Tears started in his eyes and he rubbed them away. ‘I remained roped to the column until after the change. But I was still a slave, even then. I was not a Varr. Not one of them. I was Ponclast’s toy. A thing for pleasure and when it suited him, for pain.

‘Chained to the wall in his quarters for, I don’t know how long. I never saw daylight or the sky. Nothing. That was, maybe, a year before you came.’ Txaran looked up at Ash for the first time since beginning. ‘And that,’ he said. ‘ is all there is.’

Ash wanted to reach out, to hold and to comfort. This was too raw and real. But Txaran was curled on the couch, his knees drawn up beneath him, his hands wrapped around his own waist, in defensive posture. With his inky hair spilling across his face and down over his bare legs he looked naked and vulnerable, like a child.

Ash drew in a breath and found it was a sob. Txaran looked up at the sound. His eyes refocused on his surroundings, wild and frightened.

Ash calmed himself by taking deep breaths. He needed his strength if he were to draw Txaran back from the place he had led him. To move him past that awful time and into more hopeful days, he asked, ‘Tell me about the courtyard?’ The words didn’t matter. Talking Txaran out of Fulminir and into the present day was uppermost on his mind.

Txaran stared at Ash as if he’d never seen him before, tilting his head to one side as if to aid in identification. ‘Magic,’ he said. ‘They used our pain, our screams to help raise the darkness. Four. One for each corner…’ He went silent for a moment. ‘Sorry I’m not making much sense, am I?’

Ash could almost see Txaran give himself a mental shake and reconnect with the here and now. Ash was just grateful to have him back. ‘It’s all right. I’m following you,’ he said gently. ‘Go on.’

“There isn’t any more. It all fades…..”

Ash knew he couldn’t leave it there. Not only for his own sake, for the knowledge he needed, but for Txaran. He squeezed the hand he still held, drawing Txaran’s attention. When he looked up, Ash trapped him with his eyes. Exerting all the mental force he could muster and reviving the training he’d received to become Cleatha, he pushed;

Remember…

‘The light. The Gelaming essence, raining down, golden and so warm. Eyes begin to close and I think… I am free. Death has finally come to liberate me. But… My eyes open again… Gods in black leather with golden hair and untainted eyes. Prancing horses in the silence. The tyrants are frozen, like in a fairytale. Death is silent. Can this be death? Then why do the golden ones move? Touch me. Cut my hair free. Can the dead fall? Breathe and feel pain? I am taken again. Another hell, a new torment. The torment of the living, the remembering. No. I won’t remember. I won’t!

He pointed a finger at Ash. ‘I was free and you brought me back. I opened my eyes and I was back in Hell.’ His voice had risen as he spoke, until he was almost yelling. Now it reverted to the whisper. ‘I hated you.”

Then.. “What did you just do?”

“I’m sorry, Txaran. You needed to remember. Do you see?”

Sadly, Txaran nodded.

“You hated me? Do you still?’

Txaran shook his head, his hair swaying gently from side to side. ‘No. I did, though. I hated the saviours for saving me. You were the first I one saw, all golden and… alive. Your face is burned in my memory. Buried inside. I had wanted so much to die. But now? No. It was an abstract hatred. Just one more amidst so many.’ The smile he gave was tinged with slight bitterness.

‘I should finish this tale, I think. The healers came and took us to a place where there were tents for the wounded. They healed our physical hurts, gave us clothes, bread, and left us. I didn’t know. Didn’t understand any difference between one conqueror and the next. I thought; I am Ponclast’s whore, who will I be to them? It was easy to slip away. The walls were down. No one watched us, guarded us. That should have told me something, I suppose, but I was not listening. I went back to the forest.’

‘And then?’

Txaran shrugged. ‘I went on. One town, then another. I learned what it is to be har. Now I sing and dance. A different kind of whoring. But it doesn’t matter…’

The echo of those sad words rang around the silent room and faded away.

Ash moved in his seat, leaned back and released Txaran’s cold hand to rake his fingers through his hair. Txaran looked blankly at him, his own eyes dark with remembered pain.

This was proving to be one of the most difficult nights of Ash’s entire existence. Txaran’s story was so… real. Never before had Ash considered the personal aspect of the campaigns he’d fought. The cost in terms of life and limb, yes. But the other costs, those of broken lives and murdered dreams, these were a new perspective and one which he didn’t entirely understand. But it was a beginning. And, it was a gift. One that it had cost Txaran dearly to share. The har was trembling, his face white and his bottom lip bleeding where he had bitten into it with distress. Ash knew that he owed Txaran a debt. But even knowing the price that needed paying did not make it any easier for him to overcome his innate reserve and share his own thoughts. There were other considerations as well, both political and social, of his unburdening himself into unsafe ears. But he knew the risk was negligible and that he needed to trust, in Thiede, if not in Txaran himself, that baring his own soul for self-examination would do no harm that would echo beyond this room.

“I think I see.” Ash’s first words were halting, tumbled off his tongue as if reluctant to give voice to his thoughts. “I think… What it is. We both needed… Argh.” Ash thumped his fist into his open palm, frustrated at his inability to speak what he was thinking, so quickly did the flow come. “Does it feel any better? Having said it out loud. Told it. Does it feel any better?”

Txaran bit his lip again, considering. “Yes. I think it does.” He did look better, as if a weight had been lifted. “And… If it helped you at all, that makes it doubly worthwhile.” The last sentence was hesitant, as if he was unsure of the wisdom of saying it and he blushed a little when he was done.

“It has.” Ash gave him a quick smile of gratitude. Txaran’s blush deepened and he looked away for a second. Deciding to ignore this strange behaviour for the moment, Ash said, “My nightmares… The focus is different. It’s like… Like I keep wishing I could change it. As if the past were mutable and I should be able to do… something. Which is ridiculous.” He shook his head. “But your vision, your version of what it was like being in Fulminir, it seems to give me…clarity? Like I can now see two sides, where before there was only one.”

He fell silent for a moment as something Txaran had said came back to him, connecting with other thoughts. He tried to put them together into a cohesive whole. “It was different then, to what it is now. I tend to forget that. Before the Ascension, everything was drawn behind lines. Firm lines of what was right and what was wrong. Lightness and darkness, distinctly separate. There was no true balance. I think maybe that this is what I keep ignoring with my ‘if onlys’ and ‘maybes’. ” He scratched his head and gave a sigh. Txaran sat quietly in his corner of the couch watching him.

“Now I’m the one not making any sense.” Ash grinned.

Txaran gave a hesitant smile in return. “No rule that says you have to,” he said. “Besides, I’m following you. I think.” A small joke, but a promising sign.

“Maybe I was just seeing it in terms of black and white. They were all bad. The Gelaming were all good. No balance, see? But that’s not real. Not anymore. And that’s why I keep having nightmares, because my view was all unbalanced. Maybe my light was so strong that it blinded me to the dark. Maybe… Maybe, in order to see the truth I have to look for the shadows where there were none.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There should have been shadows.” Ash said, his voice rising as the truth of what he was saying impacted on him. “There weren’t, because the Ascension hadn’t happened then like it should have. I should have been able to see that there was some good in that place, some evil and something… in between.”

Txaran shook his head emphatically. “There was no good in Fulminir. Ponclast was pure evil. Terzian too. All of them!”

“But not all of the Varrs were evil, Txaran. You are a Varr. There had to be others there that weren’t so bad. Even Terzian had his moments. He loved his son.”

Txaran disagreed. “He might well have loved his son. But that does not excuse his actions.”

“True. Nothing excuses them. I’m not trying to find excuses or reasons. Terzian loved Swift, he loved Cobweb, his consort. He was evil, he chose to be evil. But he did know how to love. That’s a shadow. Do you see?”

“I suppose. What about Ponclast?”

Ashmael shook his head. “I don’t think Ponclast had any redeeming qualities. I heard what he did to his son. No, Ponclast was black right through. But if Terzian could love, then so could other Varrs. The truth is that there is good and bad in all of us. Gelaming and Varr. If I continue to look at Fulminir through the veil of the past, I’ll never see it clearly and the nightmares will go on. Cal repaired the balance with the Ascension; he brought shadows to Phaonica and light to the dark places like Fulminir. But I didn’t let the shadows into my own mind. That’s where I failed, not in Fulminir.”

“I think I understand. You need to allow hindsight to colour your memories. Because… The memories were tainted in the first place by the unbalanced nature of our world?”

“Txaran, you’re a genius!” Impulsively, Ashmael leaned over and gave Txaran a quick kiss.

Txaran recoiled, blushing again.

Ash laughed. “All that blathering of mine and you nail it in two sentences! Now I know why Thiede sent me to you.”

“Yes, well….”

Txaran rose hurriedly, sweeping the edges of his robe around to cover himself. Ash stayed where he was, the lightening of his spirit abated, leaving a comforting weariness. He knew he’d sleep well this night, without dreams.

‘It’s late.’ He said and stretched to loosen tight muscle. Looking out the window toward the bay, he added, ‘No. It’s early. Almost dawn.’

Txaran was turning and looked at the window. ‘I need to sleep. You are welcome to the couch for what remains of the night.’ As he spoke, he was already moving toward the closed door.

‘Thank you, I will.’ Ash plumped the cushions behind his head and lay back.

Txaran dimmed the lights once more. ‘Goodnight.’

‘’Night.’ Ash replied.

They slept.

End of Warning.

Ashmael. Ash. ASHMAEL!

The silent voice woke Ash from a sound sleep and his eyes flew open. Brilliant sunshine flowed in through the windows to tell him that it was mid-morning. The light was too bright. He shut his eyes against it, wincing.

-What?- He growled back at Arahal.

-Ah. There you are. I was beginning to worry.-

Arahal did sound relieved and Ashmael was vaguely sorry for being so abrupt. -I apologise. I would have let you know, but I seem to have overslept.-

-Snuggled against a comfortable warm flank, I trust?-

-Nope. A comfortable warm couch. Listen, Arahal. I’m going to be a while yet. You can go if you want.-

Ash heard a sound from across the room. The soft pad of bare feet on the wooden floor told him Txaran had risen, but Ash didn’t open his eyes because of the glare.

-I’ll wait for you. I haven’t heard a thing from home, so they can’t be missing us.-

-Good. All right, then. I will see you when I see you.-

-Hmmm. I hope he’s worth all this effort, Ash. A couch is no substitute, no matter how comfortable.-

Ashmael cut off the contact with a laugh. His throat, evidence of the high emotion last night had wrought, was tight and dry. There was a soft creaking noise and the worst of the brightness against his lids vanished. Ash opened his eyes and saw that Txaran had pulled across a woodslat door, effectively cutting of the sun’s glare without sacrificing illumination.

Txaran padded over and stood before the couch, one hand clutching his robe about him, the other covering his mouth as he stifled a yawn. The bathrobe covered all but his bare ankles. Rich but faded satin in tinted floral tones, it was drawn tight about his slender waist and his long dark hair spilled free around his shoulders in dishevelled splendor. He had the kind of early morning beauty that made Ash’s fingers itch to muss him up some more.

‘What were you doing?’ Txaran asked him, his voice throaty and rough with sleep.

‘What? Oh. Talking to Arahal.’

Ash sat up, pulling the rug he’d covered himself with the night before closer about his naked waist.

‘You can do that?’

‘Well, yes. Of course. Can’t you?’

Txaran shrugged without replying and wandered over toward the curtains at the back wall. Shifting them aside he revealed a tiny kitchen, the type of which Ash had not seen for years. He rose from the couch and followed, trailing the fringe of the rug behind him as he tried to rake his hair into some kind of order with his one free hand.

Txaran put a small kettle on a burner and lit it. Picking up a mug, he asked, ‘Tea?’

Ash nodded, ‘Please.’ He watched silently as Txaran busied himself making the tea, admiring the graceful movements he managed in the tiny space. Drink made, Txaran handed him his mug and he took a quick sip of the hot liquid.

‘What is your caste, Txaran?’ He asked curiously.

‘I don’t have one.’ The answer was short but without the rancour that had coloured his every word the previous night.

‘No caste training at all?’ Ashmael was surprised. He would not have expected Txaran to receive any kind of instruction in Fulminir of course, but in the years since, surely he had?

‘No.’

Txaran wandered past him again, making for the couches and Ash followed him. At least the atmosphere was more relaxed, which was encouraging. Txaran had lost the tension that had been such a formidable addition to his arsenal. Ash made himself comfortable with difficulty. Seemed no matter what he did the rug would not co-operate. It slipped and slithered and left him in danger of exposure in a hundred different places. Normally, this would not have concerned him. Normally, he would not have bothered with the wrapping at all, but he was getting the impression that Txaran did not appreciate his nakedness.

Even with the rug secured, Txaran was eyeing his bare chest and arms with a strange expression on his beautiful face.

‘I’m sorry,’ Ash said. ‘Do the scars bother you?’ Looking down, at the trinity of scars that crossed his chest, belly and shoulder, he could see that they might be distasteful to someone so intimately acquainted with pain.

Txaran’s laugh was short and surprisingly, was one of genuine amusement. ‘No. You think those impressive, do you? I have seen worse.’

‘Oh, really!’ Ash scoffed, entering into the spirit of the moment. ‘Do tell.’

In answer, Txaran stood and turned, dropping the robe he wore from one shoulder, revealing his back.

Ashmael hissed in shock. The small amount of skin visible was liberally covered with an assortment of scars, silver with age. Some were obvious; from whipping and from knife cuts. Others, smaller and round, looked like burns. ‘I’m so sorry,’ Ash said quietly. ‘I shouldn’t have joked about it. Forgive me.’

Txaran pulled the robe up again and resumed his seat. ‘Forget it. I started it.’

Ash was puzzled. ‘Why did you? I thought… the way you were staring. You looked so… bothered.’

‘Not the scars, I assure you. I am just not used to waking with someone here, that’s all.’

‘Nudity offends you?’ This was more shocking to Ash than Txaran’s apparent neglect of his caste progression. No one was offended by nudity. That was a human trait, long discarded.

‘I’m just not used to it, as I said.’ Txaran was offhand, unconcerned about Ash’s obvious astonishment. He picked up his tea and took a drink, unruffled by Ash’s open-mouthed consternation.

‘But…surely when…?’ The question died in Ash’s throat as another thought intruded, one he was unwilling to believe, but which the evidence suggested very strongly. ‘Txaran,’ he said carefully, ‘when was the last time you took aruna with someone?’

This time the bitterness was back in Txaran’s laughter. ‘I never have,’ he said simply. ‘Not unless you count Fulminir. That’s pelki, isn’t it?’

This was far more complicated than Ash had originally thought. No caste progression, not even knowing for sure what pelki meant. Where had Txaran been living, he thought sourly, in a tent in the desert? Even as he silently voiced the unworthy thought, he knew the answer. It was easy to close one’s ears when one found the words painful. Txaran had been living, existing, on the edges of Wraeththu civilisation for years. Even as he’d moved among them as one of their own, he’d been apart. Sneaking away from Fulminir before the healers could complete their work by healing mind as well as body had set in motion a chain of events that had frozen him in time. The initial healing must have been enough to save his sanity, but not enough to enable him move forward, to learn, to grow. Without cleansing, he was paralysed.

‘Pelki is rape, yes. But Txaran, we cannot exist without aruna. And aruna is not pelki, is nothing like it. We need that communion in order to grow.’ Ash considered mentioning the aborted cleansing, but decided against it. There was no point to telling Txaran that it could all have been different if only he hadn’t run away. That would merely add to his burden.

‘I’ve done all right without it.’ With every breath he took, Txaran was reverting to the frosty har of their first encounter.

Ash frantically grappled for a way to halt it before he moved beyond reaching. ‘So I see,’ he offered in conciliation. He leaned back in his seat, aware of the tension that had once again taken control of his muscles. He strove to appear relaxed, conversational. ‘Haven’t you ever been curious, though? Wondered what it was that everyone was raving about?’ He grinned as if making a light-hearted joke.

Txaran seemed to take his clue from Ash’s relaxed demeanour and some of the frost left his voice. ‘No, not really.’

‘What about sharing breath, then? Surely you’ve wondered about that?’

‘I suppose.’ Txaran sounded a little unsure. ‘I’ve heard that it is like tasting someone’s soul.’

‘It is. Can’t think of a better way to get to know someone, can you?’

Txaran gave him a hard stare, ‘I know what you’re getting at and the answer is ‘no’!’

Now what? Ashmael thought. I have to lead him in the right direction. But I could go in circles all day and get nowhere. There must be a reason why Thiede decided I was the one for this task.

I’m not a theologian, I’m a warrior….

Be the leader. That had to be it. It felt honest. Last night he had led with words. Now it was time to take charge with actions. Ash dropped his empty mug onto the table and stood, forgetting all about the rug as it slipped to the ground. Txaran’s eyes widened in shocked surprise as Ash moved, pulling him to his feet and into his arms in one smooth movement.

Holding him tightly despite his struggles, Ash slid one strong hand into Txaran’s neck and pressed his lips against Txaran’s open mouth. He refused to allow Txaran to close his lips against the invasion, breathing his essence into the combative har. At first, he was only giving. Txaran held his own breath in, refusing to submit to Ash’s pull. Ashmael could only taste himself, echoing in the empty hollows of Txaran’s soul. Finally though, he succumbed. Whether to the need to breathe or in response to whatever he discerned from Ash’s taste, there was no telling. He tasted of smoke, of blood and pain. Ashmael imagined he could smell roses, full-blown and glorious, their sharp thorns a warning of beauty’s peril. Txaran’s essence mingled with his own and Ash exalted when he felt Txaran melt against him, hands coming about his waist in reluctant desire, lithe body shifting slightly against Ash’s own taut frame.

Breaking apart seemed a small tragedy. Neither of them wanted to end it. Ash kept him close against his side, refusing to allow the contact to end completely. Txaran’s eyes were mirrors of the confusion he felt, wild and willing but aware that this was not the place. ‘Get dressed.’ Ash spoke into Txaran’s hair. ‘Come with me.’

The streets of Ferelithia were crowded. Hara and humans moved amongst the shops and outdoor stalls that proliferated on every street. Pushing through the throng was difficult and Ashmael kept a firm hand about Txaran’s waist.

He did not want to lose the physical contact. Touch was a powerful weapon and even now, out here in public, Txaran could not help but mould himself against Ash’s side. It felt good, very good, to have Txaran tucked firmly in his grip and to feel himself the recipient of many an envious look from passers-by.

Rounding a corner, grateful for the lessening of the press of people, Ash came to an abrupt halt as he almost cannoned into someone coming the other way.

‘Well, well, well.’ A voice ripe with good humour greeted them. ‘If it isn’t Ashmael Aldebaran. Fancy seeing you here.’

Ash gave him a patient, long-suffering look. ‘Good morning, Arahal. Loka.’ He nodded a greeting.

Arahal gave Txaran the once-over, his eyes appreciative. When he had finished his appraisal, leaving Txaran to blush, he returned his attentions to his partner. ‘So, this is what’s been keeping you. So much for the couch, eh?’

Ashmael shifted from foot to foot impatiently, ‘It’s not what you think.’ he hissed in low tones.

Not yet, anyway.

Aloud, he said, ‘We have to go.’

Arahal raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t done yet. ‘Such haste on a beautiful summer’s morning. What can be so important?’

Ash could feel Txaran begin to stiffen and move away. Drawing him back into the curve of his arm, he pointed behind Arahal, who turned his head to see. ‘We’re going to the temple.’ He said shortly. Silently, he added, -Go away!-

‘Ah, well. Far be it for me to keep you from your devotions. See you later.’ Arahal grinned.

With that, he moved aside, allowing Ash and Txaran to pass. -You can explain this strange religious mission later, I trust?-

Ash ignored the silent request and moved quickly away, letting Arahal and Loka disappear into the crowd behind them.

‘What was that about a couch?’ Txaran wanted to know.

‘Never mind. It wasn’t important. Arahal has a bizarre sense of humour at times. It’s best just to ignore it.’

Txaran’s mouth opened as if he were about to add something and Ash quickly manoeuvred him through the temple door to forestall whatever it was he had been about to say.

Inside, the street noise faded and Ash felt the immediate peace and tranquillity of the place wash over him.

Still tucked against him, Txaran looked about him with wide eyes. Obvious that he’d never been inside a temple before from the way his eyes darted about, taking it all in.

Ash felt him relax slightly against him as he moved deeper into the building, the soothing qualities of the temple having its effect on Txaran’s nerves.

Releasing him, only to take his hand and pull him along behind, Ash went searching for what he required.

For himself, the central altar would have sufficed, but Txaran needed at least a modicum of privacy for what Ash intended. There were other hara in the hall, seated in meditation or wandering idly about in contemplation.

Ash ignored them in his search, breathing a faint sigh of relief when he found what he was looking for.

He drew Txaran into the alcove behind him. It wasn’t completely private, nowhere in the temple was, but the shallow walls on three sides that would hide them from casual observation was the best he could do.

He was fortunate to even find those; most temples didn’t bother.

Ash pulled his shirt over his head, indicating that Txaran should follow suit. Warily, Txaran did so.

When Ash removed the remainder of his clothing, however, Txaran balked. ‘No!’

‘Take them off, Txaran. It’s necessary.’

“I will not.”

It was a war of wills; a match Ashmael knew how to win. Too quickly for Txaran to avoid, Ash reached out and pulled the recalcitrant har into the circle of his arms. Txaran tensed as his hands came in contact with naked flesh and he pulled them away. Ash was determined. Secure in the knowledge that this was the right thing to do, he pressed his case. Twining Txaran’s hair in his fingers, he trapped Txaran’s face between his hands and brought his mouth down. To temper the force of his assault, the kiss was gentle and soft, waiting for response rather than forcing one.

Once again, the futile struggle eased as Txaran was caught up in the magic of shared breath. In slow haste, his arms came up about Ash’s shoulders and he returned the pressure, his lips parting easily when Ash’ s tongue sought entrance. The fire that had driven them apart in the privacy of Txaran’s rooms, drew them together now, oblivious to the presence of other worshippers. Ash brought his hands down to Txaran’s waist and slipped them beneath the shirt he wore, caressing the bare skin of his sides before moving around to the scarred flesh on his back. Txaran tensed for a moment, relaxing when Ash’s hands only stroked gently, lifting the weight of Txaran’s long hair to fit his hands underneath and dance them along his spine.

‘Trust me,’ he said softly, tangling his fingers in Txaran’s hair and pushing it back over his shoulders. Txaran exhaled softly and then nodded once, his eyes brimming with unshed tears, a combination of fear and feeling. Gently, slowly so as not to startle or bring old memories to life, Ash helped Txaran remove the rest of his clothing. He knelt, bringing Txaran down with him, their bodies touching. Txaran shied at the full length contact. Ash brought his hand up under Txaran’s chin and forced his eyes up.

‘Why are you doing this?’ The words were the quietest wail Ash had ever heard.

“Because it’s right. This is life, Txaran. You have to live it. All of it, good and bad, remember? We need this. Aruna is the essence of life.” He raised his arms, palms facing Txaran and nodded his approval when Txaran mirrored his action, placing his palms against Ash’s.

‘Now,’ Ash said, ‘remember what we felt before?’

Txaran nodded.

Ashmael brought his mouth down on the waiting lips below. ‘Do that again,’ he whispered as he captured them once more.

They shared breath, Ashmael taking command. He wasn’t much of a healer, but he knew enough to imbue his essence with healing balm. Txaran shuddered against him as he felt the warmth of love and compassion infuse his system. Ashmael sought to lead him up, wanting him to see at least the first of the upper planes. But, as he did so, a force took over them both, sweeping them up at incredible speed until they burst through into the golden light, the pyramids clearly visible shimmering in the haze beyond.

Ashmael broke off, astonished by this mystical hijacking and by Txaran’s presence, casteless, on the highest plane. Txaran’s etheric form opened its eyes and looked about him with wonder.

Before either of them could speak, the force returned, stronger than before. Ash smiled in recognition, the knowledge of what was happening sweeping over him with the warmth of Thiede’s approval. He drew Txaran back to him, kissing his throat, his cheek, his eyelids. The force became a breeze, then a wind, swirling around and through their twined bodies. Txaran’s eyes fluttered shut, his expression one of sheer rapture.

It was not a voice, nor was it a clear thought, but the command was easily heard nonetheless; -Soume- It said and Txaran’s body obeyed. -As it is above, so let it be below.- and Ash felt his physical body respond, blossoming as he sat back against the columns of the temple and guided Txaran to sit across his lap.

-Heal.-

Ashmael heard and his hands began to move, not of their own volition at first, across the planes and curves of Txaran’s body. They smoothed across the ruined back, his belly and limbs and, everywhere they passed, the flesh knitted and healed. Scars faded and then disappeared; the healing love cleansed them both, wiping away the physical as it mended the ethereal.

-Go home.-

And their souls returned to their bodies, eyes flying open, the connection between the mundane and the upper planes circling their bodies as a golden light. The hara in the temple ceased their activity and watched with awe the light that came from everywhere and nowhere, surrounding the flesh. Txaran looked down to where Ashmael flowered beneath him, trepidation warring with the new courage. He lowered himself, his face a mask of pleasure as Ashmael slipped inside and rocked him. His song of pleasure and hope rose between and above them, flowing back along the connection. The golden fields waved in the breeze of light; a dance of benediction.

Healing comes in many forms. In dreams and in the flesh. And whomsoever it touches is forever changed as it pushes back the shadows and banishes the darkness that tastes of snow and thorns.

The End

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