Paths of Desire: Part One
I have traveled the paths of desire
Following smoke and remembering fire
The night is falling, the path is receding
I don't need to see it to know where it's leading
It had started innocently, with snowballs. Some of the younger boys had begun it, probably in simple fun.
But they attracted a crowd, bored from the long empty days of winter and warmed with a few too many pints of ale.
*piff!* The snowballs turned to handfuls of gravel and mud, and finally to stones.
"We don't want you here!"
They whizzed through the blue winter evening air like angry birds, and he crumpled to his knees, arms wrapped around his head to shield it. A fragment of firewood connected with his shoulder and the thin earth-colored fabric of his shirt darkened with blood. He made no sound, no protest of innocence.
None of them saw the shadow detach itself from the bare forest trees, dark eyes silently drinking in the scene.
A particularly well-aimed clump of frozen dirt hesitated a bare second away from his temple, then swerved away to plop harmlessly into the snowbank behind him. The mob failed to notice, flinging missiles and curses with equal vengeance. The hail of objects curved subtly around him, but the crowd merely hurled more, until a soft voice brought them to a halt.
"By whose authority do you do this?"
As one the mob turned to look at the man standing at the forest's edge, snow calf-high on his black boots.
"Beggin' the pardon o' your lordship," the largest one touched a finger to his forehead, the nod barely perceptible. "We're a free village here, and we're just removing this demon-spawn from our little community."
"Demon-spawn?" the man in black raised an eyebrow at the frail shivering form in the snow. "Surely such a commendable yeoman such as yourself does not indulge in such... faerie tales?"
An old woman elbowed her way to the front, clutching her crutch defiantly. "But 'e's a witch, sire! Bold as brass, that's what! Spouting things no holy child of god should know! 'E's a devil, I tell 'e! Should have drowned him at birth, the filthy changeling!"
The crowd murmured agreement, and missed the slightly exasperated look that crossed the features of the man in black.
"Honestly, good citizens. You are surely above such idle superstition. There are no such things as witches." Something invisible rippled out from him, under the thick layer of snow, and kissed a rational stillness into the red haze of their fury. His voice was calm, reasonable. "Return to your homes. Trouble this one no more."
The peasants blinked slowly, abandoned stones dropping from their fingers as drifted off in twos and threes, not speaking. The village common was soon left empty save for the stranger, the still figure in the ditch, and the snow that had begun to drift down from the darkening sky.
Ashley Riot sighed in mild frustration, rubbing at a crick in his neck. When were they going to learn that true evil would never stand for being stoned by a bunch of ignorant yokels? This part of the country was particularly rife with such activity, the center of operations for the relocated monks of the Iocus sect. Differences were not to be tolerated, and the winter made it worse. It seemed that every night he stopped to sleep he had to save another so-called sorcerer. Anyone odd was a target, most of them hadn't even the vaguest touch of gift or--
The Dark rippled around Ashley, familiar as his cloak. He narrowed his eyes, looking again at the boy on the ground. Well, there was a first time for everything; the Dark hummed faintly around the slight tattered body.
Ashley knelt in the snow next to the young man, who was carefully sitting up on his knees, head bowed to the wind. He placed one gloved hand on the boy's shoulder. "Run along home now, they shan't bother you again."
No home to run to, the Dark informed him, belatedly. Thanks for the timely information, Ashley flung back at it, but the Dark had ever been equipped with a lousy sense of humor.
Slender fingers delicately removed Ashley's hand. "I thank you for your assistance." He said, with a coolness that bordered on insolence. His voice was low, older than Ashley first suspected, perhaps almost twenty. The Dark volunteered precious little information.
Ashley frowned. Maybe he should have let the mob have this one. He nodded to the wound on the boy's arm. "Come on then, that should be looked at." The boy's shoulder blades poked up from this thin shirt like unfledged wings, bare skin exposed to the brittle air. Ashley reconsidered. Hunger could excuse a lot. "If you'll point me to the nearest inn, I'll be glad to share a meal with you."
The boy got to his feet slowly, ignoring Ashley's proffered hand, his face hung with cold blue shadows. "The nearest inn is the Swallowtail, next to the blacksmith's. But the keeper is a liar and a thief. If you want a warm bed without fleas and your throat uncut in the morning, then go to the Gryphon, half a league past the crossing of the King's Way and old fort Road." He lifted his uninjured arm, pointing past the small gathering of huts. "That way. But if you want venison stew you're out of luck."
"Thank you," Ashley murmured, trying to get a good look at the man's face. There was something... "Will you be joining me?"
He lifted his head, tossing back pale lank hair. "I don't need charity." He retorted, eyes the same cold lead blue as the sky.
Ashley Riot shuddered with something that was not the chill. The young man in front of him was the very image of Sydney Losstarot.
"You'd better hurry," The boy added, turning to leave. "He locks the door early."
"Wait!" Ashley turned to whistle his horse from the woods, but by the time the black gelding trotted obediently to his side, the boy was nowhere in sight. Ashley's Dark-sense found him faster than his eyes, collapsed in the snow behind a nearby hencoop, his pride carrying him no further. A quick inspection revealed a lump the size of a goose egg on the back of his head.
The horse emerged from the thickening snowfall, his hot breath steaming Ashley's shoulder. "Come on, then." Ashley looked down at the still boy slung across his pommel. "Take us to this Gryphon Inn."
Orpheus, reins untouched, cantered silently to the King's crossroads.
The innkeeper took one look at his new arrival and the limp shape in his arms, bundled up in a heavy cloak, and without hesitation had one of the girls show him to his best room. A shrewd glance at the careful tailoring of the black leather garments and the simple elegance of the blade at Ashley's hip had informed him that there was money to be made here.
"...Anything I can have brought up to you?" the barmaid asked, curtseying awkwardly as she tried to get a glimpse of Ashley's companion.
"A bottle of Valendian burgundy. Preferably with the seal still on." Ashley deposited the unconscious boy on the bed, and took note of the thick pile of quilts. "Hot water and bandages, if you have any. And something to eat."
The girl nodded, tallying the items in her mind and hoping for some extra coppers from her employer. "Right away, sir."
"One moment." Ashley frowned at the boy on the bed, recalling something. "Would you happen to have any venison stew?"
She sighed sympathetically, preferring to stall with a handsome young nobleman than return to scrubbing pewter downstairs. "Right famous we are round here for it too. Sorry t'say, m'lord, but cook slipped on the steps this morning, not been in today. And all the missus makes is potato soup. S'good an' warm, though, for your hurt friend?" She craned her neck again, but the cloak still muffled the boy's features.
Ashley stifled a smile, sure that he must be the most exciting thing to have happened around this backwater for a while. "That would be fine." He flipped her a coin and she blushed, twitching a red curl.
"I'll have a look for a bit of mutton for you as well, sir." She dropped another curtsey and exited with a flounce.
Ashley didn't watch her go, carefully unwrapping his guest and smoothing back the tangled hair. He thought he might have been mistaken in the bewildering twilight light, but the curve of lip and high thin brows were unmistakable. Even the fragile lacework of his ribs beneath pale skin was the same, and though his arms and fingers were flesh and blood Ashley knew somehow that they were identical to Sydney's as well. The Dark, so willing with answers, remained more silent than it had been in the seventeen years since Leá Monde had poured her inky secrets down his back. He couldn't even glean the boy's name, even in sleep when it should have been easy. Instinct more than compassion made him keep a wary eye on his charge, and Ashley Riot had learned the hard way about ignoring instinct.
He stripped the boy out of the filthy remnants of clothing and tucked him into a bed that, while straw, was blessedly clean. It seemed the boy had been right about that, as well.
"Sir?" The maid knocked on the door, and waited for Ashley's permission before entering. "I've brought your dinner and-- Sweet Saint Hilgrid!" she almost dropped the tray in her eagerness to make the warding sign of the rood, and Ashley had to dart out a hand to steady the platter or lose his meal.
"What is it?" The girl radiated fear, but a good bit of interest as well, and the Dark hummed in Ashley's veins. "What ails you, lass?"
"Forgive me, sir." She very carefully set the tray on the table, keeping her eyes on the sleeping boy as if he was a wasp she feared to let out of her sight.
Ashley followed her line of vision. "Do you know him?"
She nodded, absently twisting her apron. "The witch-boy of Starling Hill. Holy fires, sir, what's the likes of you doing with 'im?" She caught his disapproving look and lowered her eyes. "I-- I mean no disrespect, but, he's got a reputation in these parts, and--"
"He assisted me on the road and was wounded for his pains." Ashley made full use of his height. "I'll not have anyone troubling either of us, is that clear, girl?"
She nodded. "Yes sir. Will-- will you want breakfast in the morning?"
"I'll come down for it." He realized the wine bottle she had brought was dusty but the right vintage, the promised mutton was a full leg and the bandages and hot water were clean. Thinking perhaps he'd been a bit harsh on her, he pulled a coin from his belt that flashed gold as he put it in her palm. "For your pains." He ushered her to the door, applying a gentle touch of persuasion. "I'd appreciate it if the identity of my companion remains secret. You'll do that for me, won't you, m'dear?"
And he smiled.
The girl's cheeks went bright crimson, and she bowed, clutching the gold valin. "As you wish, m'lord."
Ashley shut the door behind her, latching it with both iron and a murmured ward, to keep out any trouble.
"That's more money than most people in the village see in their lives."
He turned, veiling his surprise. "Is it? Well, then I don't regret giving it to her." He cracked the seal on his bottle and filled a cup. "Do you want a drink?"
"Where are my clothes?"
"I burned them."
"You what?" He tried to get to his feet, but his legs got tangled in the blanket and it was either his modesty or his mobility, and he chose modesty, quilt clutched to his waist. "Think you I have suits for you to burn at leisure?"
"It'll keep you from running away." Ashley savored the first sip of his wine. Perfect.
The boy glowered. "I'd steal yours."
"And be arrested and flogged for violation of the sumptuary laws? I think not. Come then." He offered the boy his cup. "Have some."
Pale eyes surveyed the flagon suspiciously. "I have no coin to pay my debt. What are your intentions for me, sir?"
The Dark rippled with a vague suggestion of the boy's thoughts, and Ashley felt his ears burn. "Nothing of that sort, young man. Is compassion always so badly received in these parts?"
The boy smiled, just a little, and Ashley wondered what he'd just given away. "Only by me, m'lord." He reached up to accept the proffered wine, and drank deeply as Ashley dampened one of the rags with the warm water. "What are you doing?"
"Treating your wounds. You got quite a knock on the head. Is your vision blurry?"
"It will be if I have much more of this." He lowered the cup. "Why did you save me?"
"I don't condone injustice." Ashley dabbed at the wound on his shoulder. "Hold still."
"What if they were right about me?" His gaze was even, and Ashley met it for a long time.
"Even so, it is a brutal form of execution. Besides," he lifted the wine from the boy's hands, and finished it. "They were not."
"You don't believe in witches?"
Ashley tied the bandage. "I don't believe in cruelty. There. Are you hungry?"
The boy tore his eyes from the platter of food. "No."
"Really?" Ashley sighed. "A pity. She brought more than I can eat, that's for certain. Shame for it to go to waste."
"I'm not a child."
"No?" Ashley refilled the wine goblet and passed him the bowl of soup. "Then eat something."
The hesitation was minimal, the boy's throat moving as he swallowed the warm liquid, arms trembling slightly.
"What's your name, boy?"
He lowered the bowl and drug a hand across his mouth. "People call me Starling. When they call me anything worth repeating."
"Starling?" It tasted wrong in Ashley's mouth, echoed sourly as he tried to place it next to the body that so painfully belonged to someone else.
He nodded, returning to his soup. "You are?"
Ashley rummaged in his saddlebag for a spare shirt. "Evan of Rynndale."
His slurping stopped immediately, eyes narrowed to slits. "And a dreadful liar you are, Ashley Riot."
The Dark hissed an apology, but Ashley ignored it. His name, in that voice, sent shudders of familiarity down his spine. "So you are a seer, then."
"Sometimes." Starling placed the empty bowl on the table. "If I don't think it will cost my hide."
"You know who I am?" Even this far from the capital and years after, Ashley Riot was still a wanted man.
"I know your name and that you have a fey beast for a horse, but little more." He leaned back cautiously in the pillow. "And you have a strange generosity about you." He opened his mouth as if he would say more, but shook his head and seemed to find the half-filled cup of wine more interesting.
"Well, that would seem to be enough to earn you a stoning." Ashley laid the discovered shirt aside and began digging again. "I think I might have a pair of trews in here to fit you, perhaps a little long in the leg but better that than the frost on your skin. I think it best if you come with me, this country does not seem safe for you and-—"
He was interrupted by a faint snore. The boy was sound asleep, emptied cup dangling from his fingers. Ashley freed it and folded the slender arms under the warmth of the coverlet, and sat back to watch him sleeping, his dinner forgotten.
He woke up with a bony tangle of arms and legs shoved firmly against his chest, both hands splayed against his back. Not so uncomfortable, almost pleasant, actually, in the cold room, was it not for the fact that he was twitching.
Dreaming, the Dark whispered. Want to see?
Ashley, uneasy with the invasion of privacy, was still unable to say no. The Dark unfurled before him, revealing candlelight and the soaring, decayed beauty of arches and buttresses, the sound of falling rain. And his own face, looking grimly away.
What is this?
His dream. What he sees, dreaming.
Dream-Ashley looked back down at himself, his lips moving only once, as he nodded. The metal planes of an artificial arm rose in front of his eyes, pointing to the ceiling, and lowered wearily again. After a moment the matched pair of cruel hands lifted to frame his face, pulling him down, dream-Ashley's eyes closing, mouth parted.
Ashley jerked himself out of the dream-sight, heart thundering. The Cathedral with Sydney all those years ago, easy enough to recognize. The confirmation of his suspicious about the boy was drowned out by the altered memory, the event that never happened. There had been no such kiss, no moment of tenderness in all those dark hours. What mockery was being played here? Sydney, even in his moment of confession, had been as sharp-edged as his fingertips, as cold and unyielding as steel. There was no warmth in any embrace he might have offered, had Ashley even considered such a thing.
Slender hands ghosted over the contentedly humming mark on Ashley's back, the hair against his cheek soft and gleaming pale in the shadows of the room.
He is warm now.
And Ashley was unsure if it was himself or the Dark that thought it.