The last time they’d had to pretend Jonas was dead, the answer had been simple: kill him.
But this time, the means to bring him back wasn’t just around the corner. And so, beaten, bruised, and in agony from a severely battered, possibly fractured thigh, Jonas let his limbs, head and body hang limp, his magically regrown hair scuffing the dirt, while Llew dragged him through the streets of Duffirk, right under the noses of those who hated him most. Duffirk’s people had taken great pleasure—and aim with their spittle—at the supposed corpse of their greatest enemy as Llew dragged him from their city.
Shirtless, Jonas had drawn many an eye, and trails of hawked spit. With his dark complexion and that massive gryphon tattoo, there had been no denying who he was: Jonas, the Great and Powerful Syakaran, hero of Quaver, enemy of Turhmos. Dead, by all appearances, after a display fight against several of Turhmos’s best, and one Immortal.
In the confusion following the fight—which was meant to have buoyed the Turhmos people as their fighters fought and won against Jonas, but instead ended with the death of the Immortal Aris, and a frightening display of power by the Magician Braph—Llew plonked Jonas in the dirt while she subdued a horse running free. She slid off its saddle and set about heaving Jonas onto its back. With the few locals who insisted on tailing them, though, Jonas was unable to offer any detectable help.
“Stay dead this time!”A gob of spit landed on Jonas’s back. It oozed around his ribs, tickling as it approached his chest.
Jonas didn’t flinch.
“Looks dead to me.” Another voice from the gathered crowd.
“He’s dead,” Llew growled through her efforts to lift him. “Don’t you dare be dead,” she muttered before grappling his thighs and hoisting him up and over the horse’s back. Thankfully, the animal was patient.
“Yeah, but he was meant to be dead months ago.” The spitter.
“Just a rumour, though, weren’t it? I mean, we saw the fight and here’s his body. It’s gotta be real this time, eh? Good riddance to him, I say. Filthy Quaven.”
“Where you taking him?” Spitty, again.
“The president wants you all to have plenty of time to celebrate the Syakaran’s death, so I’m taking him to the embalmer before he stinks up the place.” Oh, she was good.
Luckily for Llew, she lacked Jonas’s notoriety. And the very idea of an Aenuk walking free in Turhmos was unfathomable. Her ruse held and the people eventually backed off and followed them no more.
Once clear of Duffirk’s outer reaches, they’d let the horse go, as they lacked the resources to fend for it as well as themselves. Jonas had stopped playing dead, only to find he needed Llew’s support to limp along. They’d eventually reached cover beneath a forest, and even got so lucky as to find a secluded stretch of river.
“Will we ever feel warm, or clean again?” Llew asked, splashing water over her face as she crouched on the stones, water lapping at the toes of her boots.
Jonas answered with a smile that was meant to show her he saw the funny side, the irony, as he sat beside her, in too much pain to hold a crouch, scraping filth from his skin. Truth was, he was wondering the same. Turhmos’s winter was slowly tailing off, and if they didn’t pick up the pace soon, their chance of seeing a real spring day again grew slim. If Turhmos’s troops caught up to them, Llew would be caged again, and… well. Jonas didn’t fancy his chances of being held captive now he was no longer a curiosity.
Llew’s teeth chattered so bad Jonas could hear them over the river. He barely felt the cold anymore; so much of him was numb.
While his whole body ached—he was cut and bruised, and sported a collection of new burns, some hand-shaped, some smears—his thigh throbbed worst of all from striking the wooden post when the Immortal Aris had hurled him across the arena. The pain had dulled now, his legs desensitised to all but the sharpest pangs. And his foot… His foot, after almost constant aching, now felt like it belonged to someone else.
They’d found a low bush to huddle together, keep each other warm that first night. His stolen clothes, still damp from a washing line, and her in a light shirt at the end of a lingering Turhmos winter didn’t make for much of a good night’s sleep. But Llew had tolerated his spit-coated body for the sake of sharing heat to survive the night. Together they’d survived. And, while they still needed to hide, there was no longer a need to pretend.
Jonas wasn’t dead. Not in the ceased-to-breathe-or-pound-heart kind of way. Not yet.
His Syakaran power was dead, though, and whether that would be enough to satisfy his enemies, it was enough to dissatisfy himself.
His super-human strength and speed had gone, along with his higher body temperature.
On a brighter note, so had his need for extra rations.
And his confidence.
If Llew hadn’t come for him… he didn’t want to think what would have become of him. More than likely, he would be truly dead now.
And Llew could have been halfway out of Turhmos.
It had taken them three largely silent days, and three freezing nights, to hobble here. And they were still barely clear of Duffirk’s outer limits.
Snatching up a handful of river silt, he scrubbed at his skin, as if he could clean away the self-loathing along with the filthy hatred covering him.
“Was my ma happy?” Llew asked. There was an idleness to her tone as she splashed handfuls of cold water onto her cheeks, but she must have been planning to ask it for days. Braph had swapped Llew into Turhmos’s custody in exchange for Llew’s mother’s freedom. Relative freedom. Heavily pregnant with the next generation Aenuk for the Turhmos army, she had little choice but to go with him. I learnt to love him once before, she’d said when Jonas enquired after her feelings for his half-brother. Learning to love. Was that happy? He’d once done the same with his deceased wife. Learnt. He would like to think they succeeded.
“She looked happy,” he said, remembering the lingering kiss between Orinia and Braph. She had watched him leave the room like a woman well-versed in love. A woman whose hero had come for her. What choice do I have? Orinia had responded when Jonas first asked the question, echoing Llew’s words in regard to her own relationship with Jonas. What choice did these Syaenuk women—wanted dead or captured by nations—have but to tie themselves to men with super strength and speed who loved them?
Super strength and speed Jonas no longer had.
“Looked happy.” Llew’s voice was thick with the disgust she reserved for Braph. “I wouldn’t believe it. Would you? I mean… Braph? The man is a monster. He might think he loves her, but I don’t believe it for a moment. Looked happy. But she wouldn’t be, would she, held captive by him? Once we regroup, get your strength back, we’ll have to return for her. Though the gods know Braph makes my skin crawl.”
Jonas was too engrossed in his own thoughts to really listen or put together an answer as he scrubbed harder. Choices. His own choices had cleared the path to where they were now.
“Hey.” Llew gripped his wrist. “You’ll rub yourself raw.” When he didn’t release the silt, she shook it out. “Talk to me.”
He gave her a wry look. “Like you said. Feels like I’ll never be clean again.”
She eased her grip on his arm and watched him, her expression flat. He couldn’t hide his self-disgust from her.
“I ain’t a hero no more, Llew.” It stunk to admit it, but in the heart of Turhmos, he needed to be real with her.
She looked confused for a moment, like she’d forgotten his weakness. Then she turned to face him, kneeling in the silt, water creeping up her trouser leg.
“You are to me,” she said. She rested a hand on his shoulder, her index finger playing over a thick scab that promised to scar. Years as a soldier had left Jonas plenty scarred, until that first time Llew had brought him back to life with the help of her Ajnai tree. Knife cuts and Aenuk burns from the spectacle fight his own brother had arranged promised to scar him up plenty again. “It seems to me there’s more than one way to save a person, and you’ve been saving me from the day we met,” Llew continued. “For the past few months I have lived. Good or bad I have lived. If we died tomorrow… ” She floundered for a moment. “I don’t want to die. I still have dreams. But they’re no longer all about me. I’m connected to this world now. I’m connected to you, Anya, Quaver. I’m connected to those Aenuks still caged. Your son, my ma. Our children.” She pressed her lips together and closed her eyes as they shared a may-they-rest-in-peace moment of silence. Jonas scowled at the ground before his eyes could burn too bad. He’d wanted a family with Llew.
Eventually, she continued, “I don’t want to die. There’s still so much left to do. But if I died tomorrow, I could go in the knowledge that I tried, and it wasn’t all about me. A few months ago I might not have cared, but I do now. You did that.”
Jonas was still stuck on their lost family. He didn’t need to be a hero to be a father, and he’d been so close to sharing that with Llew. But he still was a father. His son. Joelin.
His son who lived with his half-brother, Braph. Braph, who had no use for the child now Jonas was no longer worth baiting. What would he do with the child now?
A man didn’t need to be a hero to be a father, but Jonas couldn’t help thinking Joelin needed a hero now. But how could he get his son back if he wasn’t Syakaran anymore?
“Damn Braph,” Llew muttered, almost having Jonas believing she knew his thoughts, but she had her own reasons for loathing the magician, not least of all their current predicament.
Damned Braph, indeed.
Braph’s son was also Immortal. No doubt Braph had a plan to use that power, just as Braph had had a plan for his son to absorb Aris’s Immortal powers. An Immortal imbued with the power of another. They couldn’t fight that.
They couldn’t have fought it when Jonas was Syakaran. They sure as two hells couldn’t fight it now.
“Say something.” Llew rocked back, settling her ass on her heels. “Please say something. You of all people know I don’t make speeches like that.”
She was right. He owed her a response.
“I think I might be dyin’, Llew.”
Her open mouth curved up on one side, like she was holding back a laugh, and dropped.
She shook her head. “No. You don’t get to say something like that after what I just said.”
She waited for him to say something else. But he had nothing.
“What do you mean you think you’re dying? We’re in far too much trouble for thinking maybe you might be dying. You don’t get to die after I dragged your arse from that arena. Braph doesn’t get to win like that. What do you mean you think you’re dying?”
Using the toe of his left boot, he hooked the heal off his right. Pain burned through his foot, but he continued to slide the boot free. Fighting the cool stiffness throughout his body, and biting down on the pain shooting from his bruised thigh, he brought his foot within arm’s reach. He peeled back his sock, hoping his skin wouldn’t go with it. Numbness was spreading, from his toes to his ankle, and he hadn’t taken his boots off in days. He didn’t know what he was about to reveal, but he’d seen enough soldiers succumb to gangrene to know his chances. It wasn’t just his foot, either. An imaginary line up his calf muscle could go from numb to excruciating pain in moments. He could walk, if stiff and unstable, so he was almost certain he hadn’t broken a bone. But there was more than one way to break a body.
Bringing his sock rim to above his ankle bone, his suspicions were both confirmed and eclipsed. He’d thought his toes might be blackened. Had dismissed fears it could be more as simply that. Fear. It consumed him now.
He pulled his sock lower, revealing splotches of brown and purple, dry, wrinkly skin.
As expected, Llew gasped. “What? What is that?” She looked up. “How is that you? It’s…” She waved a hand, words failing her.
Jonas huffed out a single laugh, felt a sneer curl his lip. Of course. The Aenuk who could heal magically simply by touching another living thing had never dealt with gangrene. The Aenuk, who could heal herself, or anyone who wasn’t Karan… who couldn’t heal Jonas.
He looked at her flatly as he tried to turn off that thinking. Wasn’t her fault she could heal anyone but him. Wasn’t her fault he was in this mess. It was what it was.
He whipped the sock off the rest of his foot, revealing the black flesh clinging to his bones over the wasting muscle of his foot. At least it didn’t seem to smell like some of the cases of gangrene he’d seen on the front lines. He didn’t know how long that would last.
Llew couldn’t take her eyes off his foot.
“It’s dead or it's dyin', Llew. All of it. And there’s a real risk it’ll get infected and kill me if I don’t cut it off. And for the first time in my life, I ain’t got a fuckin’ knife.”
“You’d do it yourself?” She ripped her gaze from the foot to look at him, wide-eyed.
“I’d do what I had to to live.” Free of his boot and sock, the urge to flex his foot was powerful. But so was the flash of pain that went through it, for little more than a toe tremor. “Or what I had to for you to live. And not in cages, Llew. You gotta get out of Turhmos.”
Llew did what she would always do: stopped thinking and reached for his leg. She touched his healthy flesh, just above where the black started. Of course nothing happened, but Jonas just watched her, waiting for her to go through whatever thought processes were necessary to accept reality.
“We need one of those things. Braph’s syringes.” She sounded breathless, holding back panic. “Then you can use my blood to heal yourself… Damned Braph,” she finished in a whisper. “He did this. And isn’t jolly well here to help when we need him to be on our side.”
“Who’s goin’ to give us one? We don’t have time to get to Brurun, Llew. If I’m lucky, it’ll fall off on its own.”
“Merrid and Ard live in Turhmos. There has to be others like them. The people of Turhmos can’t all be bad.” Her hand trailed a little lower, daring to touch the dead flesh. Even if she could heal Jonas, she couldn’t heal that. But, if she could heal Jonas, it wouldn’t have gone this far. Every time they had touched in the last few days, she would have healed his damage. She rocked back, letting her hand slide from him, her eyes fixed on his dying foot. But she didn’t look on it with pity. Her face was set, calculating, thinking.
“But they all think we are. Or, I am.” Jonas had already been thinking for the better part of a day and night. He hadn’t known the extent, but he had felt the signs, and he had turned over every chance he could think of that he might have had.
“Well, we have to do something. We can’t just let you die.”
“You can, Llew.” Her face went hard, but there was no way out of Turhmos for him now. “There are more pleasant ways to go than others. If you drained me gently—”
“No.” Her resolve was solid; he already knew he couldn’t break it. “Weren’t you listening? There are good and kind people here. Some of them might be doctors.”
“Surgeon. They would have to be a surgeon. I gotta lose my foot.”
“Not if we can pump my blood into you.”
“It’s already been dead too long, I think.” Jonas didn’t know the exact time-limit for a Syaenuk to return life, but his toes, at least, had been largely dead for more than a day. “Besides, you’d have to hurt someone pretty bad, or leave a sign-post of our passin’.” Yes, he had been mulling over these things for a while, now. “I gotta lose my foot. And even then I might still die, depending on the skill of the surgeon. And whether or not they want to take the chance to off me.”
Llew nibbled her lip briefly then jumped to her feet. “Then we find someone we can trust. Or threaten. You can lose your foot. I am not losing you.” She reached a hand out for Jonas to grasp. “Buck up, soldier. You ain’t dyin’ today.” She quirked a smile at her imitation of him, her eyes sparkling with a fierce determination to ignore the chances things might not work out as she had planned. “Damned Braph.”