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Markings and Symbols
Following a bit after 'A Flame in the Wind' .....
"I really appreciate this, Nat." Jydan gestured around him to the fortress itself, where Nat's men were still putting away horses and restocking supplies in the late evening light.
Nat waved Jydan's thanks away with a hand. "My pleasure to help you, Jydan, as always. Granted I wasn't expecting to see you quite so soon again. And especially not with a huge group of freed almost-slaves."
Jydan chuckled tiredly. "Yeah, I know. Sorry about that. It's been a long couple of weeks, rather intense at times."
The other man was quiet a moment, then said softly, "I heard through some rumors that Rik got a hold of Blaen."
Nodding sharply, Jydan ground his teeth a moment. "He did. In the middle of the day at the Xiomaga Market in Gurodel."
Nat shook his head. "Arrogant of him. And rather idiotic. Did you kill him?"
After a few moments, Jydan answered, staring up at the sky. "No. I didn't."
"Why not? I thought you had a grudge to settle with him."
"I do. But I've been told that killing Rik was not for me to do."
Nat raised an eyebrow. "And just who told you that wonderful piece of information?"
"And how would he know?"
Jydan hesitated a moment, then turned to the dark-skinned man, one of the few good friends he had aside of Blaen. "I told you before that Blaen had some special talents that Rik wanted. Well, Blaen's special talent is that he is a dironan."
Nat's eyes went wide. "A dironan! No wonder Rik wanted him. They're very rare. How strong is he?"
"He's told me he is second-level."
Nat whistled appreciatively as they strode through the low archway leading to the inner hallways of the fortress. "Very strong then. And very young to be so strong. Definitely a prime catch for Rik. I think I understand more now."
Jydan bristled, pulling away a bit from Nat to glare at him. "Blaen is not some prize to bartered off to the highest bidder, Natanael. He is my friend. Not some kind of 'prime catch'."
"Hey, just calm down. I didn't say I approved of Rik's doings, just that I understand now more why he wanted Blaen. And why Blaen should be kept from him. If Rik ever managed to keep hold of Blaen and then found a way to use Blaen's dironan abilities, he would be unstoppable. He would be able to see what would happen in the future and turn things to his advantage."
"Blaen would never submit to him."
Nat blew out a frustrated breath, then went on in a softer tone. "Look, I didn't say he would. At least not willingly. And not at first. But there are ways to break a man. Even the strongest of men. You should know that, Jydan."
Jydan muttered under his breath, looking away, then he wiped a hand over his face, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, I know. I'm just a little tense, I guess. Stressed too. And exhausted."
Nat reached over and gripped Jydan's shoulder tightly. "And well you should be. I wish you would have gotten word to me. I could've helped. I would've helped."
Jydan threw a grateful smile at Nat. "I know. There was no time to get word to anyone though. I was out of commission for a full day and not able to get anywhere very fast for a few days after that. I had to ride hard and fast to make up for lost time. As it was I barely got there in time. Rik was all the way up in Raiders Canyon in Rillanda. And even then I didn't know where to find it. But with some help from a new friend, we got there in time to save Blaen and the rest of the captives." He paused and rubbed his eyes. "And now we're trying to get back through Gurodel before Rik can get to us. This hard riding just has us all so tired. I think I could sleep for two days straight."
"You look it, my friend."
Jydan sighed. "I'm sure I do. But, unfortunately, I can't do that just yet. Once Blaen and I are safely in Eirena, I think maybe we'll take a vacation. Maybe find myself a new warhorse. But until then ..." He stopped and yawned hugely.
Nat chuckled and directed Jydan toward a doorway just a few feet ahead of then in the hallway. "Why don't you think about sleeping for a bit? I'll wake you up just past dawn, okay?"
"Yeah. Where did you put Blaen, by the way? I know I saw him stumble down this way earlier. He's more tired than I am, I think."
Nat pointed at the doorway. "I told him that you two would have to share a room -- and a bed -- for the night. We're pretty much full up right now. Still got a lot of the local villagers here since their homes haven't been rebuilt yet. From the looks of your partner, I would say that Blaen's probably already sleeping fairly heavily."
Jydan shook his head. "Probably taking up all the bed too. He's a hog when it comes to space."
Nat laughed and shoved Jydan toward the door. "Go to bed, Jydan. I'll see you tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, yeah, tomorrow."
Jydan shut the room door and stared sleepily across the small, dimly-lit room, letting his eyes adjust. A small covered candle sat on a table on Blaen's side of the bed. With that light, he could make out two saddlebags dumped carelessly on the floor at the bottom of the bed. Plus he saw Blaen's boots and cloak near the lone chair in the room. Blaen himself was sprawled on his stomach across the double bed, snoring lightly, one arm hanging off his side of the bed, the other thrown haphazardly to the other side, hand resting on the other pillow. And he was on top of the blankets, clothes only half-removed.
The mercenary laughed softly, shaking his head in amusement. He moved around the bed and carefully pulled the half-off vest down Blaen's arm, the one hanging off the bed. Deciding that Blaen's trousers, thick socks, and loose white half-unbuttoned shirt would be fine, Jydan maneuvered Blaen to a sitting position and pulled down the thick blankets. Blaen muttered softly in protest against the manipulation as Jydan rolled him to his back and shoved his limbs under the covers.
Jydan soothed him after he was settled, stroking back curls from Blaen's forehead and eyes, "Sh, sh, go back to sleep, Blaen. It's just me, Jydan." With a contented sigh, Blaen dropped back into sleep, shifting only a little to get comfortable. Jydan reached for the blankets, pulling them up to rest around Blaen's shoulders, adjusting the shirt first to cover more of Blaen's exposed cool skin.
It was then that he saw the blackened mark on Blaen's left shoulder, just below his collarbone. He frowned, staring at it, settling onto the bed for a closer look. "What is that?" He drew the candle closer, examining it. A small black outline of a double-edged axe. And it was etched into Blaen's skin. "That wasn't there before. I would've remembered something like that."
Blaen's knife wound injury during the battle that Shadowrose had been killed in had been in his left arm. Jydan remembered distinctively cleaning and bandaging the wound -- Blaen had made such a fuss about having to take off his shirt. He was extremely modest and shy and very much disliked having to remove any more clothing than absolutely necessary. The shirt had been ruined anyway, but it still had taken Jydan three tries to get it removed without Blaen grabbing it from him. And there had been no markings anywhere, nothing like the axe now cruelly decorating Blaen's skin.
Jydan touched the mark with one finger, running over it lightly. Blaen immediately pulled away, whimpering in pain. Jydan laid a soft hand on Blaen's cheek, "No, no, it's okay. Sh, sh, sleep, Blaen." Blaen settled back down after a few moments, but Jydan could still see echoes of pain in Blaen's features. That means the mark must be new. Very new. He stiffened.
Making an effort, he stilled his angry thoughts and took a deep breath, holding back the swear words and interesting names he wanted to use on Rik at the moment. He stood and stripped out of his outer clothing, then crawled into the opposite side of the bed, under the thick blankets. Blaen shifted toward him in his sleep. Probably looking for more heat to leach. He watched as Blaen turned toward him, settling close to his side, face relaxed again. Tomorrow, Blaen, we need to have a little chat on why you didn't tell me about this. He yawned again, then finally let his eyes close, feeling wave upon wave of exhaustion fall upon him, dragging him down into a deep, heavy sleep.
Three sharp raps awoke Jydan the next morning. He opened his eyes to find himself on his side facing the door. He called out in reply, stifling a groan. "Thanks, Nat." After another moment, he heard footsteps leading away from the door. Jydan sighed and closed his eyes again. Didn't I just fall asleep?
Behind him, pressed close to his back, he heard Blaen mutter under his breath. "Don't wanna get up."
Jydan pushed himself up to a sitting position and rubbed both hands over his face, pushing away the remnants of sleep from his eyes. "Sorry, kid, we need to get going." He turned to see Blaen curl into himself, face buried in the pillow. Jydan chuckled and reached out to tug on several locks of hair. "Come on, Blaen, wake up."
Another mutter and a groan, then Blaen flipped himself over to his back, raising both hands to knuckle his eyes. Jydan grinned at the sight, biting his tongue to keep from saying how young that made his already young friend appear. It would not be appreciated. Blaen's arms fell back to his side and Jydan's eyes fell onto the partially-revealed mark on Blaen's left shoulder. Memory of its discovery last night flew back into Jydan's mind. As much as he wanted to ask now, he couldn't. We need to get on the road and get going. He slapped Blaen's leg, then stood up, stretching.
"Get dressed and start waking up the rest of our traveling companions. I'll see to the horses and make sure the supplies are loaded. If everyone hurries, we can eat and be gone before the sun's fully up." As he talked, Jydan pulled on fresh trousers and a clean shirt, then his leather overvest and boots. Blaen hadn't moved yet.
Jydan eyed him before leaving the room. "If you're not up and dressed and out of here in a minute, Blaen, I'm bringing back a block of ice."
Blaen glared at him and sat up, swinging his legs out of bed. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm up. See?"
Jydan nodded, a smile in his eyes. "Good." He paused halfway out the door, then grinned widely. "You are so cheerful in the morning, Blaen. I don't know what I'd do without you." He barely got the door shut before the pillow smacked against it and slid down to the floor in a lump of cloth-covered feathers and linen.
It wasn't until their afternoon rest stop that Jydan got a chance to bring up the subject he most wanted to discuss with Blaen. They had paused at a slow-moving shallow river to let the horses rest while they ate a quick midday meal. The former captives were scattered along the narrow bank, all knowing to keep in sight of Jydan who sat with Blaen on an outcropping of rocks near the horses downstream. Jydan watched lazily as Blaen refilled both of their canteens, then drank of the water himself before picking his way back to the rocks.
Blaen pulled himself up onto the large flat rock in a swift motion, then handed Jydan his canteen. Jydan uncapped it and took a large swallow, sighing pleasantly. "Thanks." The younger man nodded at him, smiling, then began nibbling on the hunk of cheese and bread Nat had wonderfully provided for them. Jydan ate his own meal silently and quickly, his eyes alert and constantly scanning the banks of the river for any signs of trouble. He waited until Blaen was nearly done eating, then hesitantly began speaking.
"Why didn't you tell me about the mark?"
Blaen stiffened and stared into the river. He didn't say anything for a long time, instead concentrating on pulling apart pieces of the remainder of his bread and eating them slowly. Finally he sighed out, "How did you find out?"
"Last night, when I came in to go to bed, you were taking up most of the bed. I had to move you around. Your shirt sorta moved and I saw it."
Jydan waited, but he said nothing further, just stared down at the bread and the rock beneath them. He frowned and laid a gentle hand on Blaen's shoulder, wary of the mark, being careful not to touch it. "Did Rik give it to you?"
A small shudder tore through Blaen's thin frame as he nodded. "Yes. The first day, he said he wanted to mark me so that his ownership of me could never be mistaken, that I would always remember no matter who I ended up with." He took a deep breath and let it out in a rush. "So much for my getting over him."
Jydan didn't like the bitterness he heard in Blaen's voice and he tightened his hold on Blaen's shoulder slightly, accidentally closing his fingers over the mark. Blaen winced slightly and Jydan shifted his hold immediately. "Sorry. It's still sore, isn't it?"
"Yeah, a little, usually only on direct contact. Nothing major. Nothing to worry about."
"You never answered my question. Why didn't you tell me?"
Blaen shifted, pulling his legs up to rest his chin on his knees. "I didn't ... I didn't want you to know that . . ."
"That I'd been marked as a slave. That Rik had branded me like, like a stock animal, like property, specially approved by Rikondja Slavemaster."
Jydan winced at the blunt words, then moved down to sit next to Blaen, sliding his arm across Blaen's shoulders and drawing him closer to his side. "You are not a stock animal, Blaen. Neither are you anyone's property. You are a person, a free person, with your own mind, your own wishes, hopes, and dreams. You do not belong to anyone, especially not Rik."
Blaen inclined his head in acknowledgment. "I know that." He stopped, then shook his head angrily. "It's just that, well, it's still a brand, a symbol to show that I was a slave, or at least, I was supposed to be."
Jydan was silent for several long moments, looking for the right words. Finally, he licked his lips and dived in. "You could think of it that way, or you could think of it as a symbol of surviving, of courage, of strength, of triumph. You got away from Rik."
Blaen interrupted. "No, you and Kell got me away. I didn't do anything."
Jydan turned Blaen carefully to face him, holding him by his upper arms. "Look at me, Blaen." After a moment, Blaen complied, his blue eyes unreadable for once, closed off. The kid must be learning from me how to do that. He continued sternly. "You stood up to Rik. You didn't let him get to you. You defeated him long before Kell and I got there. You defeated him with words. You told me yourself that he has no hold on you now, that he can't frighten you anymore. Don't let this," he shifted one hand to run a gentle thumb lightly over the spot he knew the mark was, "don't let this mark destroy all you accomplished."
Blaen frowned, unrest filtering into his eyes. His voice was low and sharp. "But it's a mark of slavery, Jydan."
"No, it's a mark of survival, Blaen. You are not a slave. You never could be. You're too feisty and stubborn and strong-willed and resourceful for that. I know you. And I know that is the truth."
Blaen's eyes softened and stared into Jydan's, hope warring with despair, both emotions flickering across those dark eyes for a long time. Finally, Blaen smiled, the tension in his shoulders relaxing. "A mark of surviving Rik, of defeating him. I think, I think I like that."
Jydan sighed out in relief, a wide grin spreading across his features. "Good." He squinted up at the sun, judging how long it had been, then called out past Blaen, "Everybody load up. Time to go." He watched a moment to make sure they all heard, then turned back to Blaen. "That includes us. Move it, kid. You have to get off this rock before I do."
Blaen chuckled and slid down, landing agilely on his feet. Jydan landed next to him with a muffled grunt. "Oh, to be young again." Blaen laughed harder, his eyes crinkling in amusement. Jydan swatted at Blaen, but he ducked and danced away, grinning largely.
Jydan rolled his eyes and turned away to go to his horse, muttering under his breath about youthful innocence and stupidity at aggravating mercenaries. He wasn't expecting the arms that suddenly slid around his middle, hugging him from behind or the muffled 'thank you' mumbled into his back. Jydan patted the hands locked at his waist, then reached around and drew Blaen up beside him, hugging him tightly once, then releasing him, leaving one arm over his shoulders.
"My pleasure. Now, let's see about getting these horses ready to go." He paused, then went on. "After this is all over, we need to go find me another warhorse."
Blaen looked up at him. "What about Eri?"
"Eri? Oh, did I forget to tell you? Sorry. Eri is back in Xiomaga still. I paid for his care and feeding for at least a month in advance at the local mercenary guild. They know me and know what I'll do to them if he's not okay when I get there. So, we'll pick him up and be on our way. Sound good to you?"
- The End -
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