In an attempt to help me keep on track, I am looking for feedback on my early draft via Royal Road.
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.
Llew kept her mouth shut.
Illusions held best when you let people decide for themselves what it was they saw. Despite her obvious Turhmosian heritage, Llew had lived most of her life across the seas in Aghacia. To Jonas and no doubt Llew alike, these people had an accent. To them, so would she.
“Oi!” Spitty shoved her.
Llew stumbled and the horse took a sidestep, nearly pulling Jonas from its back. Jonas tensed his core, trying to hold his position without looking like he was holding on. Llew recovered and gripped Jonas’s trousers, maneuvering his leg over the animal’s neck, then yanking his head around to rest over the loin.
Llew turned her fury on the man.
“…taking him?” Spitty’s voice trailed off.
Llew remained silent. Despite a strong desire to watch her work, Jonas kept his eyes closed, though he heard a few shuffling feet. Then the whisper of clothing as Llew took a moment to stretch her arms and roll her shoulders.
“I asked where you were taking him. “S’fair question.”
It was. Jonas’s death had been rumored once before. And that time it had been true. All he could do now, was try to be just as convincing, despite the pain radiating through his body, and put his faith in Llew to get them out of here.
“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.
That seemed to placate the people enough Llew was able to urge the horse forward, with one hand resting on Jonas’s thigh.
Luckily for Llew, she lacked Jonas’s notoriety. And the very idea of an Aenuk walking free in Turhmos was unfathomable. For now, her ruse held, and the people eventually backed off and followed them no more.
Somewhere near the edge of town, Llew raided a washing line for a damp, loose green and white striped shirt, which she draped over Jonas until they were clear of Duffirk’s outer reaches, when he could slip from the horse’s back and into the shirt. They 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 just 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 was 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 badly 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 Aris had hurled him across the arena. The pain was dulling now, his legs desensitized to all but the sharpest pangs. And his foot… His foot, after almost constant aching, now felt like it belonged to someone else.
At least 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 a good ways across Turhmos already.
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.
“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 boy 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?
And Braph’s son was 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. And you don’t just get to die after I dragged your arse from that arena. 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 that shot 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 just above his ankle bone, his suspicions were confirmed. He pulled his sock lower.
“Gods. That’s whiter than I am,” Llew said. “What is it?”
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 that 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.
“I’m a walkin’ dead man, Llew.” He laughed again, hollow, his gaze flat. Then he looked away, wrapped his blanket about him, rested his elbow on the chair arm, chin in his palm, and chuckled to himself. “Should’ve left me back there.”
Llew gave him a flat look right back.
“It’s dying, Llew. And it’ll spread until it kills 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?”
“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 white 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…”
“Who’s goin’ to give us one? We don’t have time to get to Brurun, Llew.”
“Merrid and Ard live in Turhmos. There must be others like them. The people of Turhmos can’t all be bad.” Her hand trailed a little lower, daring to touch the dying flesh. Even if she could heal Jonas, they were running out of time for her to 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.”
“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. It was simply too far. “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.”
“You’d have to hurt someone pretty bad or leave a sign-post to wherever we were hiding out.” Yes, he had been thinking about these things as he’d hobbled by her side. “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 held a hand out for Jonas to grasp. “Buck up, soldier. You ain’t dyin’ today.” She quirked a smile and her eyes sparkled with a fierce determination to ignore the chances things light not work out as she had planned.