The first time they’d had to pretend Jonas was dead, the solution had been simple: kill him.
But this time there was no Ajnai tree nearby to bring him back without killing a swathe of flora, fauna and, potentially, people. Even if there was, Llew wasn’t carrying his child; she could no longer bring him back with a mere touch. If she could, he would have been up walking beside her, not dragging along the road with her fingertips dug in his armpits. Actually, he would have been fighting beside her. They would have had to fight their way out of Duffirk.
Instead of being a one-man army, Jonas was topless in the tail-end of winter so his foes could easily recognise the huge, sweeping gryphon tattoo that dominated his flesh; he carried injuries from the exhibit fight in which he’d been used; and, apparently, a micro— micro-organism was ravaging his body, destroying whatever it was that had made him so powerful.
Despite the cold and pain he must have been in, he was playing dead. And all Llew could do was play along. And hope.
“Stay dead this time!”A gob of spit landed on Jonas’s rib. It oozed across the black lines of the tattoo, leaving a shiny trail of filth.
Jonas didn’t flinch.
“Looks dead to me.” Another voice from the gathered crowd.
“He’s dead,” Llew muttered through teeth gritted at the strain firing through her arms, shoulders and back.
“Yeah, but he was meant to be dead months ago.” The spitter.
“Just a rumour, though, wasn’t it? I mean, we saw the fight and here’s his body. It’s gotta be real this time, eh?” A booted toe jabbed Jonas’s side.
Llew clamped her lips. Unlike Jonas, she looked local. All she had to do was act like it.
“Good riddance to him, I say. Filthy Quaven.”
“Where you taking him?” Spitty, again.
Illusions held best when you let people decide for themselves what it was they saw. Llew had lived most of her life across the seas in Aghacia. To her, these people had an accent. To them, so would she.
Llew kept her mouth shut.
“Oi!” Spitty shoved her.
Llew lost her grip with one hand and Jonas lolled, convincing in his performance of death yet to rigour. Llew lurched, reaching for his shoulder before he hit the ground, but her other arm trembled in her efforts, threatening to fail, and she settled for easing his descent only. Liberated of his weight, she straightened and glared at the gathering crowd while she caught her breath.
Llew turned her fury on the man.
“ …taking him?” Spitty’s voice trailed off.
Llew blinked and swept her gaze across every member of her audience. Some took a self-conscious step back. Some looked vexed. Most looked confused.
She stretched one arm behind her, then the other, loosening her muscles some. She rolled her shoulders, shook them out. Then she bent, slipped her fingers under Jonas’s shoulders, curled them into his armpits, took a brief moment to prepare her already fatigued muscles and hoisted him up. His head fell back. It had to hurt—she couldn’t imagine how it couldn’t—but still his body hung limp. He didn’t tense, uttered no sound. He didn’t even open his eyes, even though she would likely be the only one who would see. Don’t be dead.
Surrounded as they were, she couldn’t afford to lift his head or make any attempt at improving his comfort. And so, she simply took one back step at a time, his hair dragging on the ground, his head swinging. Don’t you dare abandon me now, you bastard.
Not a bastard. Unless you’re dead. So don’t be.
The small crowd lingered, watching her go. Spitty looked from one of his supporters to another before stepping forward, following Llew. At first he paced himself so he was always a couple of lengths behind, but after a while he lengthened his gait, closing the gap.
“I asked where you were taking him. ’S’fair question.”
As much as she didn’t want to, Llew had to agree with him. Jonas’s death had been rumoured once before. And these people had either just seen or heard about a fight involving Jonas, the Immortal Aris, and Braph with his magical device. Llew counted herself lucky enough not to have witnessed it, but she had seen Jonas and Braph fight before, and Jonas and Aris had faced each other at her tree. It must have looked so mystical and magical to these folk who had probably never seen the like. If she wanted them off her back, she would have to tell them something. And so she spoke, concentrating on the slight lilt they had. They would hate to hear it, but to Llew they sounded little different to Quavens, only having a greater tendency to pronounce their G’s. She also forced her voice down in pitch. She’d passed as a boy for years and always found it simpler.
“Kadesh— Ah, I mean, the president—” Thank you, Braph. First-name basis with the elite never hurt anyone. “—wants you all to have plenty of time to celebrate the Syakaran’s death. But he’ll stink up the place in a couple of days if he’s not embalmed first.” And she could thank the late Cassidy for teaching her about that one. “So I’m taking him to the embalmer. And he doesn’t want to have to work with a body covered in your filth.”
Several of the rabble had the decency to look sheepish.
Spitty held his ground a few more moments, but sensing the others no longer backing him up, he relented.
Llew looked like them. That helped her lie hold.
Well, she shared their pale skin tone, anyway.
She was lankier, longer in the torso and, thanks to her lack of discernible breasts or hips, looked like a young lad of about fifteen: the kind of person that might find themselves with the task of dragging a body to its final resting place. Her shirt and trousers enforced the illusion. They were prisoner’s garb, but few would have seen a prisoner from Turhmos’s Aenuk camps.
Llew was counting on it.
“Now, my arms and back are already killing me, and I’ve got miles more to go.”
She stepped back, stepped back, stepped back. No one followed.
If she could find some clothes, then hopefully she and Jonas would be able to move through Turhmos anonymously. Braph had sent Jonas out into the stadium shirtless, of course. All the better to prove to the Turhmos audience who they were watching their countrymen fight, and defeat. None of those men—fighters or audience—would have known Jonas was weakened by a bug ravaging his blood, rendering him powerless; no stronger or quicker than they.
Her gaze lingered on his huge tattoo. Such a comfort to her at times, right now it was likely to get them both killed. Everyone knew Jonas had it. Everyone knew only Jonas had it. If she could find some clothes, then hopefully she and Jonas would be able to move through Turhmos anonymously.
Of course it would matter none if he was already dead.
She wished she could ask some sign of him, but it was too great a risk while he was so clearly him and they were still in the heart of Duffirk. Their only saving grace for now was that most of the city’s population seemed far more interested in Braph. That left Llew and Jonas largely unmolested.
Despite her own opinion of the man, Llew found herself thanking Braph again. Never again.
Back and back and back she trudged, Jonas’s boots scraping across the ground, her body aching. The farther they left the fight behind, the fewer people there were in the streets.
A shudder jolted through Jonas. After all this, had he died? But the muscles beneath her grip tensed and released, and he grimaced. Not dead, then. Just cold.
A few stray Duffirk locals forced the pair to continue their charade well into the outer suburbs, where strings of damp laundry offered promise of disguise. Outside an isolated house on the outskirts of the city, Llew dragged Jonas up to a low fence. “Sit,” she commanded as she eased him back. Now somewhat safe, his eyes opened and he took the weight of his own head. He also shivered.
She checked the narrow lane in both directions, looked across the field over the road. All clear. She stepped over the fence, keeping the hanging clothes between her and the house. Peering around a sheet, she made sure the yard was empty and she wouldn’t be seen from the house. All clear. Small mercies.
Llew commandeered a damp, loose green and white striped shirt and a long black coat and returned to Jonas.
“Are you still with me?”
He nodded, although he looked like he was about to pass out. She pulled him forward and slid the shirt across his shoulders.
“You’re going to have to walk. Can you walk?” She pulled one arm and then the other into the sleeves, fighting all the way, the damp material clinging to Jonas’s skin at every opportunity.
He nodded again, tried to speak, cleared his throat. “Don’t know if I can run, though.”
Despite his pain, he quirked his lips at his joke. Llew wasn’t in the mood for laughing.
“Hopefully we won’t have to.” She passed the coat behind him. “But we’ve got to put some distance between us and Duffirk before Kadesh realises I’m gone. All this with Braph and Aris will give us a start, but I’d hate to have to count on it.”
Gripping his arm, she hauled him to his feet.
Jonas took a tentative step and it was clear his right leg could barely take his weight. Llew slipped her arm behind him, hefting his across her shoulders. She still ached all over, but she would be using a new posture and set of muscles now. Let the mercies continue.
* * *
Braph leaned over his workbench, flicking the tip of this new right index finger with that of his left. The metal pivoted on its joint easily. Too easily, really, as it folded nearly ninety degrees both forward and back. But that would change as his work continued. The three segments of the finger were attached to a longer metal tube that extended to a partial cuff. Beginnings. That’s all he had. One finger, five metacarpals, and an inelegant germination of a wrist of sorts. Yes, it was a start.
And, really, what better way for a father to cement his relationship with his eight year old son than to work on a project with him. Orin brought the pair of hands where Braph brought the ingenuity. Working alone was more Braph’s style, but Orin was a good boy, a sensible boy, an obedient boy. And the power flowing through his blood …
Beside him on the bench sat a newly pressed crystal, so deeply brownish-red it looked black. When the light hit it right, purple glints fired off its surface, reminding him of the crystals he’d made from Llew when she had been carrying Jonas’s offspring. But he had no use for her toy jewellery, now. The power in the crystals he was getting from Orin well and truly eclipsed hers, though he would only know by how much once he drew it into his own bloodstream.
Braph breathed deeply—but denied himself an audible sigh with this son sat to close—at the mere thought of that power flowing through his own veins. Braph understood other people enough to know that sort of thing was considered taboo.
He’d already removed the device Jonas had helped him build and attach to his stump. That bracelet was designed for raw blood, not crystals, and it had been thrown together out on the road. The new device would be superior in every way, made in his own workshop with materials from suppliers he trusted. He’d removed it in order to remove the temptation to draw on Orin’s blood. The tubes of raw blood emptied quickly, the torrent of power so fleeting it was nothing more than a distraction from what he wanted to achieve.
He spied over his shoulder to where Orin sat at his own branch of the workbench, riveting phalanges together. The boy looked up, smiled. Braph smiled back, doing the proud father thing. That was what the kids were after, wasn’t it? It was a relationship that worked. Orin wanted paternal approval, Braph wanted the power in the boy’s blood. And Orin was willing to give it. Unlike the Aenuks, Immortals didn’t need to drain life from outside sources to heal. They needed to eat. And eat. And Orin liked to eat: fruits, meats, breads, and cheese. Oh, yes, he liked his cheese. There was no need to restrain the boy. He simply got himself comfortable and inserted the needle, and ate. Braph had already amassed a small collection of his son’s crystals. So close, but so far. His new device couldn’t be finished soon enough.
The boy’s smile dropped into a thoughtful consideration, then he asked, “Does it really matter that you’re Karan and not Syakaran?”
The question caught Braph off guard. And touched a nerve. He managed something of a smile while he schooled himself not to take offence. Being the half-brother of Quaver’s revered Syakaran hero would always be a sore point. He’d dulled it by moving to Turhmos—where Kara were loathed rather than revered; especially Jonas—and further by developing his inventions and, by extension, his mind. He was better than Jonas. He knew it. His brother knew it. The rest of the world was still in the dark. But that would change, and soon.
“What that man said,” Orin continued, “that I was the son of a ‘mere Karan’. Does that mean I would be a better Immortal if you were Syakaran?”
The boy certainly was perceptive. More so than Braph might have expected from an eight year old. Then again, Braph would be the first to admit he knew little of children.
“But you’re not just the son of a Karan and a Syaenuk. You’re the Immortal boy who absorbed the power from another Immortal. You contain more power than any human has since Aris himself lots his powers the first time. And this time he’s dead, so he won’t be getting them back. There is no better Immortal,” Braph said. “You have more power than any other boy on the planet. You only need to grow into them. And by using those powers on your behalf, I can ensure you do exactly that.”
A smile showing some relief played on Orin’s lips and he turned back to his work.
Braph watched him awhile. He had often wondered how much to share with his son. The boy was only young, after all, and Braph had spent far too little time with him to know him all that well. But in these few days they’d spent together in his workshop, Orin had proved himself a keen listener and learner, and now a true partner. In his son’s eyes burned the same fire, the same desire for greatness. Not necessarily to lord over others; mostly, Braph wanted recognition. Just what he’d always deserved though never received when standing beside Jonas. But Jonas could no longer overshadow him.
Braph placed the partial hand on the bench near his son, who snatched it up to attach the remaining fingers.
“You will be a god among men, and your mother and I your heralds,” Braph said. “We will show the world the gifts great power can bring to those who follow, and I see no reason why we couldn’t end the rift between Turhmos and Quaver once and for all.”
“Like heroes.” Two words and the glint of an eye reminded Braph he was talking to a child. How fleeting these moments of true camaraderie could be.
* * *
They left the roads as soon as bush and forest cover became available, walked the banks of a river against the flow. Jonas’s steps became shorter and he leaned on Llew more often, though each time he became aware he was doing it, the weight across her shoulders lightened again. So much of Llew’s own body ached, but she didn’t complain as she supported Jonas. They had to keep moving.
“Have you ever been this far into Turhmos before?” Llew asked. “Anything look familiar to you?”
Jonas flinched at some pain before he answered. “No. We mostly protected the border. Furthest I came was lookin’ for you.”
As Llew recalled, it had taken around two weeks to get from Braph’s to Brurun. And she’d had Syakaran speed to call on. And then a horse.
She’d also had the ability to heal Jonas with a touch.
She glanced at him, admiring his profile even under the grime of fight and flight. She would do anything to save his life, but it would probably be nicer if they could stop to freshen up. At least they knew where to find water, but they didn’t know if they could afford to stop, yet.
“How long before they come after us, do you think?”
Jonas glanced up. The sun was still up, but the shadows growing long. “They might wait for mornin’.”
Llew grimaced. “Not long enough, is it? They might have horses. At the least they can walk. Properly, I mean.”
“You can walk.” Jonas halted them, turned full-on to her. “You could run.”
Llew slanted him a dismissive smirk. “I didn’t drag you from that stadium only to leave you behind now. Besides—” She continued before he could argue for his own demise any further. “—there’s a gaol, or barracks, full of Aenuks back there I can’t walk away from, and I don’t have what it takes to free them. You do. Or you will. Again.”
Jonas looked back the way they’d come, a kind of longing haunting his eyes. Oh, right. Part of the lure for Jonas to enter Turhmos in the first place had been Braph’s promise he would be reunited with his lost son. Llew didn’t want to be jealous of the child, but years of her father’s longing for her long lost mother when Llew was right there needing his love and protection came rushing back. Seemed she was destined to come second, always.
“Did you get to see him? Your son.”
Jonas turned back to her, a light in his eyes she hadn’t seen since she and he had snuck off together at Merrid and Ard’s. “Yeah, I did.” He smiled, a weight lifting. “I got to hold him.” He smiled, his thoughts turned to memory.
Llew wanted to feel happy for him, but her heart ached. Why couldn’t she be a better person?
She glanced around them, all motivation to keep walking falling away. A few steps on was a natural alcove, flanked by dense bush and the river.
“Those look edible.” She waved at their surroundings, encompassing clumps of large leafed vegetation and up into the bushes. “At least I hope so. They look like plants I used to nibble in Aghacia.” She hooked her shoulder under Jonas and helped manoeuvre him to sit, then she set about inspecting, sniffing, and nibbling tips of some of the plants around them, gathering a couple of handfuls of those she deemed edible. She sat beside Jonas, placed the wild salad between them and selected a leaf to munch.
She needed Jonas’s help to save the other Aenuks. She thought she might’ve loved him, too, but it hurt too much to love and think about losing that love. He’d already died once. She’d finally found out her father loved her and had tried to protect her and what did she do? Turn around and kill him in her sleep. Her father, Kynas, and Jonas. Every time she let her guard down, she got hurt, or hurt those she loved. She had to stop it.
Braph had said she could beat the bug that was draining Jonas of his powers, but she would have to risk killing him to do it. She needed to harden herself, protect herself, as she had living on the streets of Cheer. She was Llew. She stood alone. An island. That was how she survived. Didn’t stop the ache—the want to matter to someone—in her heart, though.
“So, why him?”
Jonas looked at her like she she’d spoken a foreign tongue.
Llew continued. “When you’ve got— Well, when did Aris start studding you out?”
Jonas’s expression softened some. He didn’t often like talking about his past, and Llew appreciated that he would do so for her. “Since I was eighteen.” Four years. And he wasn’t limited by a monthly cycle or lengthy pregnancy. “But—” Jonas placed a hand on her knee. “Not everyone gets pregnant their first time.” His smirk was self-deprecating. Their children, Aris had killed. Yet again, Llew had opened herself to love and lost it.
“Still, you have all those children …” And Llew’s would’ve just been two more. Why was his child to his wife so special? Because she was special.
“They’ve all got mothers, and Quaver, to back them up. Joelin’s got nobody.”
Llew felt shit for pushing the matter. Of course Joelin was special. Just because Llew wanted to be as well didn’t change the fact the child deserved Jonas’s love. Elbows on knees, Llew covered her face with her hands, and cried. “I’ve got nobody,” she whispered to herself, expecting her palms to muffle the words. She didn’t need anybody. She had to hold to that.
Jonas laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Llew.” Her name rolled out on a stifled, pained laugh. “You had me from the start.”
Llew blinked behind her fingers. Had she heard right?
“I didn’t feel you lift my knife. Only knew it was gone when I shifted my weight. Not just anyone can do that. Not to me. Well, not when I was …” Jonas’s tone darkened.
Llew dropped her hands between her knees and looked at him, dumbfounded. “But … You wanted to leave me behind.”
“’Cause I could see what a pain in the butt you’d be.” Jonas’s humour returned. “And I wasn’t wrong. Even before I knew what you were I knew Aris wouldn’t have a bar of you. You weren’t … obedient. Besides, Alvaro would’ve been a right ass about it.”
“So, you let him think he was in with a chance?”
“That weren’t my call to make.”
“You punched me.”
“I could’ve punched you harder. Much harder. But, if it makes you feel better, I was sorry about that almost the second I did it. I can’t excuse it, but you were already spinning my head. I didn’t know what to do with it. And I couldn’t let you go after you took my knife. I regretted it as soon as it was done.”
Llew studied Jonas and remembered all the men in her life. She thought her dad had let her down, but he hadn’t. But the rest … Cheer had been full of men who were there to take what they wanted, what they thought they deserved, whether right or wrong, and no matter who got hurt. Kynas had sent her to the gallows. But even before that, he’d hardly given her good reason to trust him deeply. And here sat Jonas.
“But weren’t you still sore about your wife? About Kierra? You— You cried on my shoulder.”
Jonas cleared his throat. “That’s just it. I worked hard to make it work with her. She deserved better than I could give her, better than me and Aris’s plans. She was a good woman, full of light and love. And I believe I loved her, we could’ve grown together. But then you came and— I’d been more loyal to her the year since her passin’ than before and I was tryin’ to atone for all I’d got wrong before, and then there was you …”
Llew sat a moment looking back at Jonas, processing what she was hearing.
She shuffled to the water’s edge, scooped up water in her cupped hands and sucked it down. She could’ve gulped down gallons more, she was so thirsty, but she filled her hands again and returned to Jonas, offering him the water. He lifted his own hands, accepting her gift.
“Damn you,” Llew murmured and Jonas paused, looking up at her. “Every time I convince myself I can walk away, you go and say something like that.” She returned to the water’s edge, scooped up more and came back to refill Jonas’s hands.
Accepting her watery load, Jonas hooked a smug smile and Llew’s whole body reacted; a chill from head to toes, her gut nauseas. She stood and turned away, closed her eyes, breathed. This was Jonas, not Braph. Jonas was safe; they’d established that.
“I can’t tell you not to smile just in case you remind me of him,” Llew spoke over her shoulder. “I want you to smile. Especially now, when everything feels so hopeless. I just—” She massaged her temples, trying to rid herself of the images and sensations of Braph’s skin against hers. “Will we ever be free of him?” Llew needed to be. If every moment of joy with Jonas was overshadowed with revolting memories of Braph … Then, even if Jonas was safe—never let her down like every other man in her life—Braph would take even that from her. Like he’d taken her mother and her father from her. She shuddered at the thought of her mother still in Braph’s clutches, but there was little point stewing on the fact. Braph had already spoilt one moment for Llew. She sighed and returned to loading Jonas up with the water he needed before quenching her own thirst. Then she sat beside him again, watching the water flow by. She wished she had a fishing line, and Jonas’s talent for catching bait.
“It’s a lot like home,” she said. Big River, near Cheer, was where she was thinking of. In truth, she had no idea where ‘home’ was anymore. “But better with you.”
She glanced at Jonas, who replied with nothing more than a grunt, and took a moment to admire his profile. He, too, was lost in the motion of the water, although the occasional grimace suggested his peace was frequently broken by pain.
“Where do you hurt? And what can I do for you?” Llew knew nothing of conventional healing. Not once in her life had she needed a bandage.
“Everywhere, and nothin’. Not out here.”
Llew wanted to cry, but there was nothing to be gained in doing so, so she just sighed. Some healer.
“It’s all right, Llew,” Jonas said. “Just some bumps and bruises, and a few burns. Some new scars to replace the ones you wiped away.”
“Burns? Shouldn’t we put water on them, or something?”
Jonas shrugged. “It’s already been most of a day, too late to do much about them, now. Besides, it’s cold. Too cold to be gettin’ wet.”
With only themselves and a vague hope of freedom, Llew could do little but help him find comfort to sleep. So she wrapped herself around him as best she could, and they did just that.