“Hey. Hey, Wil, c’mon, wake up.”
Wil swatted blindly, realizing too late in his sleep stupor that he’d done it with his right hand. A low hiss skidded through his teeth, and he curled the now-throbbing hand—thank you, Brayden—to his chest. He dragged open hazy eyes. Shut one. Squinted.
“Are you all right?” Brayden’s tone was all urgent disquiet. When Wil only blinked in muzzy irritation, Brayden’s face pinched up with worry, and he took Wil by the shoulders to roughly sit him up. “C’mon now, say something, do one thing I ask, all right? I’m drowning here.”
Annoyed, Wil shrugged out of the grip. “Get off, will you? ’M sleeping.”
And why was he annoyed and not afraid? Where had his reflexes gone, damn it?
A balled-up something came at Wil’s nose—another handkerchief? What the hell?—pressing a little too roughly. Wil tried swatting that away too, but Brayden shook his head.
“Just calm down. You’re bleeding.”
And if that wasn’t the dumbest contradiction Wil had ever heard.
“What…? Why am I—?”
“What were you dreaming?” Brayden gently but intractably tipped Wil’s head back, pressing fingers at either side of the bridge of Wil’s nose.
Wil fumbled at the handkerchief and squinted fuzzily at the ceiling. “Coffee.” He frowned. “I was dreaming about coffee, and… rain, I think, but I don’t—” Suspicion crowded out the sleep haze and murky confusion. “Why d’you care?”
Wil pushed Brayden’s hand away and snatched the handkerchief. Brayden let him, leaping back as though Wil had just spit hot coals at him. He just stood there, looking down at Wil with a mix of disbelief and too-cogent dismay, shaking his head slowly back and forth.
Wil couldn’t decide between bewilderment, apprehension, or pique. “What?”
Brayden didn’t say anything, just stared, still shaking his head like he was trying to deny Wil’s very existence, before he turned slowly, stunned gaze going inexorably to the little window above the cupboard. Staring, as though the steady drops of rain had mesmerized—
It all slipped into place, snapped into a broader shape, like those puzzle pieces Brayden was always on about. Every bit of blood in Wil’s body dropped to his gut, leaving him cold and sickeningly numb. “Oh shit.”
Brayden’s hand was tangled in his hair now, as if he’d gone to brush it back and forgotten what he was doing halfway through. “Yeah” was all he said.
His voice was thin and shakier than Wil had ever heard it before. Wil’s own dawning dread was somehow temporized by the fact that Brayden looked almost as shocked and repelled as Wil felt.
“You were there.” Wil’s voice was just as tremulous as Brayden’s had been. “How did you—?”
“I’ve no idea.” Brayden turned to look at Wil—dark, intelligent eyes gone wide and near vacant now. He frowned. “No. No, I… I mean, yes. Yes, I do. I think I do.” He looked at Wil, still knocked for six, but earnest now. “Millard was right. She loves you.”
And that was just about enough of that. Wil threw back the tangle of bedding and lurched up, only half noticing the dull spikes of pain that shot through his hips, his thighs, even his arse as he did so. Damn it, he’d had a feeling he was going to pay for a day in the saddle. He ignored it, skirted clumsily around Brayden, and made a dive for his pack on the floor. Wil backed himself out of Brayden’s immediate reach, hugging the pack to his chest as though it was going to offer even the smallest protection when Brayden decided to… to… well, to do whatever he meant to do.
Except Brayden didn’t look as if he meant to do anything but stare at Wil in troubled bemusement. He merely turned his head and followed Wil with his gaze.
“You’re still bleeding,” Brayden said quietly. “Looks like it’s slowed some, but check your ear too.”
Wil swiped at his ear, then his nose, then backed up another few steps and into the wall when Brayden leaned over, retrieved the stained handkerchief from the bed, and held it out. Brayden did it all without taking a single step, the breadth of his reach going from the bed to the wall where Wil cringed without having to so much as stretch. No wonder he wasn’t chasing Wil around the room—he could probably reach every corner of it without moving more than two steps.
“Take it.” Brayden held the wad of bloody linen out between his fingers. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to grab for you. Just take it before you bleed to death.”
Slowly, cautiously, Wil reached out, eyes never leaving Brayden’s. A shudder he couldn’t help swept along his backbone when his bloody fingertips brushed Brayden’s knuckles.
“What do you mean to do?” It was small and too timid, mumbled through the ball of blood and linen.
Brayden looked as though he hadn’t thought of anything beyond the damned handkerchief. He rubbed at his face, the scratch of callused fingertips against the bristly growth on his chin louder than it should have been, but it was like Wil’s senses had trebled. He could hear raindrops searing and sizzling in the flue of the chimney, could hear ash tremble loose from the dying coals in the fireplace and sough down through the grate, could feel the infinitesimal drop in temperature with each one. He would swear he could hear Brayden’s heart beating, almost as loud in his ears as his own.
“Do?” Brayden laughed, a low, arched snort without a trace of mirth. “I’ve been called. No.” He frowned, jaw clenched, and cast his gaze out the window. “No. I’ve been dragged into a calling I didn’t even believe ten minutes ago.” He shifted his glance to Wil, mouth twisting with bitter irony. “And it’s really not what you think it is. Whatever sinister things they told you, they were lies. Besides being a foul little shit who drugs and preys on little boys, Síofra’s a bloody filthy liar. He lied because he wanted you to be afraid of me. It’s why he sent those men to Lind, and… I don’t know, but She certainly—” He cut himself off, head tilting. “How could you have believed…?” A baffled pause. “How can you look at Her and not see the way She loves you? How could you ever think She means you harm?”
Wil shook his head slowly, inching his way along the wall toward the door, eyes locked to Brayden’s. Curiously, Brayden only watched him do it, a peculiar raw interest in his gaze, like he was seeing Wil for the first time and didn’t know what to make of him.
“You’ve seen Her?” Wil couldn’t help asking, voice low and hoarse, vibrating with both reluctant wonder and profound betrayal.
Brayden didn’t answer the question, merely flicked a look over Wil and said, “You might want to put on some trousers before you bolt. And your boots.”
Wil stared. “You’d… I can…?”
Again Brayden didn’t answer, only slouched over to the bed, sat heavily, then propped an elbow to his knee and dropped his head into his hand. He rubbed at his brow.
“I don’t know what to do,” he muttered to the floor. “I’m meant to protect you. She ordered me to—She bloody chastised me for not doing my job—” A cynical laugh barked out of him, and he looked at Wil. “Except She didn’t tell me how I’m supposed to convince you I’m not going to kill you, and I can’t prove a negative. The only way I can prove it is to keep not killing you, but you’ll go on expecting it, I’ll go on terrifying you without meaning to, and when you look at me like that, like I’m the worst monster conjured from your darkest nightmares, it makes me want to take your head off, so how am I supposed to…?” He threw his hands out. “Do I let you go, let you walk right into whatever’s out there waiting for you? Do I keep you a prisoner for your own good? You tell me.” Wil saw nothing in his eyes but honest confusion and earnest asking. “What d’you want me to do? What do you want?”
It resonated right through Wil’s chest, rife with remembered surprise and cautious hope, and he echoed back the answer he’d given the last time the question was put to him. “I want to not be afraid anymore.”
Brayden winced, as if hearing the words was another confirmation of something he didn’t want to believe. Wary, Wil lowered the handkerchief, fairly certain now the bleeding had stopped, and peered curiously at Brayden. It scared Wil a little to see Brayden like this. From the moment Wil had laid eyes on him, Brayden had oozed confidence and good sense, wily intelligence, and the capability to bend any circumstance to what he chose. To go from that to this… disoriented perplexity… it was almost as unnerving as knowing that what had set it off was too real to be denied.
“All right.” Brayden sucked in a long, bracing breath. “I want you to not be afraid anymore too, but I don’t know how to… I didn’t mean to… to….” He waved his great hand about. “I didn’t mean to ‘follow’ you, and I don’t even really think I did—I think She did—and even if I did, I’ll be buggered if I know how, and I’ve no idea—”
“She was there?”
“She brought me. I wouldn’t’ve been there had it not been—”
“You’re always there.” It just… blurted out of Wil, heated and furious, before he realized what he’d said and shut his mouth. He hugged his pack a little closer to his chest.
Brayden blinked over at him, eyebrows twisted tight. “What the hell does that mean?”
Wil’s teeth clenched, and he shook his head, angry and mortified when tears seared the backs of his eyes.
“You’re always there.” It was maddening, enraging, that not only did Brayden really not know, but that Wil couldn’t stop himself from enlightening him. “You’ve always been there, Watching me. You just didn’t know it, because… because….”
Wil was posturing as if he knew what he was talking about, and strangely, Brayden was listening to him. Inexplicably it drove up Wil’s anger until it spilled out his mouth like messy splatters of poison.
“Because you’re a great lummox of a man who thinks if he just reasons hard enough and believes hard enough, everything will be as he thinks it should be. You didn’t want to see, you didn’t want to know. And now you’re going to sit there and tell me that all this time, She’s been watching, She’s been seeing, and you could but you wouldn’t, and there I was—” Wil bared his teeth in a snarl. “You want me to believe Síofra lied, made me afraid of you because he was afraid of you, and all right, it makes sense, but it doesn’t fix anything! Where was She for all this time? Where were you?”
He hadn’t any idea that any of that was coming. It was as if he was listening from the outside as every word shot from his mouth in little darts of betrayal. His mind was caroming back and forth, remembering everything he’d been told, everything he’d believed, and the possible relief of contemplating it all for lies was almost a bigger betrayal than having been lied to in the first place. It would almost be less wrenching to think that this man—this Guardian—was everything Wil had ever thought he was, that he’d just been playing with Wil all this time, letting him suffer through small snatches at hope so it would be all the more painful when he finally took it away.
Believing that She knew, that She’d sent Brayden—Her bloody damned Guardian—that Brayden had been there at Wil’s back all this time and done nothing….
He didn’t know what to do with himself. There was a chasm at his feet, and he was standing on sand.
“I’m sorry.” Brayden’s voice was soft, almost small. “I didn’t know.”
“Why didn’t you know? You were there, you were Watching, and He just… sleeps, always sleeps, and mumbles things at me I don’t understand, tells me She loves me, and then just… just goes away when I ask Him for… to make it stop. I thought it was….”
Tears were burning Wil’s eyes and cheeks, but he didn’t care anymore. His throat was rough and sore, but he couldn’t stop screaming.
“I thought I was being punished, and I couldn’t… couldn’t make the thing I was being punished for stop, and I hated Him because He made me, and I hated Her because She didn’t care, and all the while—” A rough snarl nearly closed Wil’s throat. “You say She loves me like it’s supposed to make everything all right. I don’t want to know She loves me. I want to think She’s dead, or She hates me and laughs when I scream, and now you’re sorry!”
He threw the pack, hurling it as hard as he could at Brayden’s head. Brayden only dipped a little to the side, dark gaze following the pack’s trajectory as it bounced on the bed and down to the floor. He looked back at Wil, the regret in his eyes lancing another wrenching spike into Wil’s heart.
“What am I supposed to do with ‘sorry’ now?” Wil said, a whisper this time, broken and hollow.
Brayden was silent for a long time, just looking at Wil, before he shook his head and pushed out a heavy sigh. “I expect you could tell me to shove it up my arse. But I would ask you to consider that perhaps I might have known, had my home not been attacked before anyone could tell me.”
Wil closed his eyes. The softness of the words, the quiet intent behind them—it hit Wil right behind the breastbone, sharp and raw.
“You didn’t know—you were a child. It wasn’t your fault. I understand that.” Brayden’s voice was still quiet, very calm, but there was a slow swell of wrath welling beneath it. “Just give me the same benefit, all right? We’ve enough blame and blindness between us already, I think.”
All Wil’s own wrath seemed to have left him. He was disoriented without it. “How do you know…?” His voice was softer than he liked, but he couldn’t seem to get enough air. “How do you know you’re… you’re not—?”
“Those marks the Brethren wear.” Brayden’s teeth were tight, his jaw clenched. “Those tattoos—d’you know what those are?” He didn’t wait for Wil to answer. “They’re clan marks, the tokens of the Old Ones, Lind’s shamans. Only they don’t just tattoo them on—they etch them right into their skin. They’re runes that spell out Wæpenbora in the First Tongue. Do you know what that means?” Again he didn’t wait for an answer. “It means paladin, weapon bearer, warrior protector, Mother’s soldier. And the funny thing is, written language in Lind is forbidden, except for the shamans. My father wore the mark of the Weardas—they’re only a little different—and I didn’t know what they meant until ten minutes ago. I didn’t bloody remember. I’d seen them for the first ten years of my life, and yet I didn’t recognize them. I saw them on those men the first night at the inn in Dudley, and I knew I’d seen them before, but….”
Brayden’s hands closed into fists, that low level of rage still vibrating through him.
“All that meaning and history in a word they likely can’t even read, and those men stole it all, took it like it belonged to them, and then tried to take away everything it means.”
Wil thought about it. Carefully. It still wasn’t enough—it was too ambiguous and not nearly enough to stake his life on.
“But how do you know?”
Brayden sighed. He looked exhausted already, and it couldn’t be past sunup yet.
“Think about it for once, and try to do it without any of Síofra’s noise cocking up the logic. You said you saw my mother—she smiled at you, touched your cheek. Does that seem like something the mother of someone meant to kill you would do? I don’t know, because no one told me, and right, I could still convince myself She was a dream or delusion if I tried really hard—but I know now, I can’t stop knowing, and I can’t offer you any better assurance than that.
“I can offer you the relative safety of my protection. You’re not helpless, you’ve survived on your own, but things have changed, and this is… this is fucking huge.”
Brayden rubbed at his brow, agitated but trying not to show it.
“I can help you, but not if you keep trying to run from me, not if you still insist on believing I’m going to murder you. I can’t make you trust me, and I can’t keep seeing that, that… look in your eyes.”
He didn’t say that he could force his help if he wanted to. Wil didn’t know if it was because Brayden was serious about asking what Wil wanted, or simply because he didn’t have to say it—it was fairly obvious.
A sharp rap at the door startled them both. Even though it nearly loosed a shriek from Wil’s throat, he was almost glad for the interruption. He kept pinging from hope to guilt to suspicion to wrathful outrage, and every word Brayden spoke pushed Wil closer to some kind of edge.
“Open up in there!” someone barked from the other side of the door. More pounding rattled the hinges, this time heavy and impatient. “Open up, I say!”
Wil half expected Brayden to throw himself between Wil and the door. But Brayden merely drew his gun from the holster strapped to his thigh, slipped his hand beneath the bedding, and nodded at Wil.
Wil raised his eyebrows but opened the door cautiously to a red-faced innkeep, hand raised in a fist as though caught midknock and mouth open on more thwarted demands. There was a thick, nasty-looking cudgel hanging by his hip. The innkeep paused when he saw Wil, then leaned in with a wary look.
“There’ve been complaints from the other guests.” The innkeep shot his glance over Wil’s shoulder, eyes narrowed in suspicion, presumably at Brayden. “Said there was shouting up here like murder was being done.” He looked back at Wil, gaze lingering pointedly—on the yellowing bruises, on the bandaged hand, on Wil’s no doubt bloodstained nose and lip, and doubtless his chin as well—his overall disheveled state. The innkeep leaned in and lowered his voice. “Everything all right, lad?”
Wil dropped his gaze, then angled it slowly over his shoulder. Brayden was watching—no warnings in his eyes, no threats, just a cool interest in what Wil would do. Wil was pretty interested himself. If Wil shot the innkeep a desperate glance, whispered to him—help, I’m afraid, he’s kidnapped me, anything—the innkeep would be an instant ally. Wil could run, and no one would try to stop him but Brayden—maybe not even Brayden. And if Brayden did try, he’d be so occupied with explaining the situation and trying not to get himself arrested that Wil would be long gone before Brayden managed to sort the tangle.
Wil somehow found himself nodding. “Thank you, everything’s fine. I’m afraid I was dreaming and woke with a nosebleed, and I rather….” A warm flush flooded Wil’s cheeks, and he swiped at his face, embarrassed, in case there were any residual tears lurking. “I rather went to pieces for a little while, until I finally realized I was awake, and….”
The innkeep still looked chary, eyeing Brayden dubiously over Wil’s shoulder. He apparently wasn’t going to go away unless he was convinced someone wasn’t going to get murdered in one of his rooms, and right now he seemed fairly convinced that Brayden was the one who’d done the damage to Wil.
If the situation weren’t so surreal, Wil might’ve doubled over with preposterous little cackles. Hahaha, look at this, me coming to the defense of big, scary Constable Brayden, oh the irony….
Wil cleared his throat and looked down with an uneasy shrug. “I had a…. I was accosted several days ago by brigands—” He waved vaguely at his face with the bandaged hand. “—and I’m afraid some of the effects… linger. I’m very sorry to have disturbed the peace of your establishment.”
The innkeep’s tense stance softened immediately. He even looked a little abashed. “It’s quite all right, there, Mister…?”
“Wil.” He gestured over his shoulder. “And this is my companion, Constable Brayden from Putnam.” He shot another glance back in time to see Brayden lift a bemused eyebrow.
The innkeep bobbed a nod. “Jarvis.” He stuck out his hand to Wil, then smiled apologetically and withdrew it when Wil ruefully waved the wad of bandages that was currently passing as his hand. “Are you well, then, Wil?” It was earnest and solicitous. “I can send for a healer, if you need—”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary,” Wil assured him quickly. “I’ve already embarrassed myself enough. I’d just as soon forget any of it happened, if you don’t mind.”
“As you wish.” Jarvis hovered at the door, still frowning in concern.
Perhaps Wil had chosen the wrong course of action. Perhaps he should have just barked at the man and got them thrown out. It likely would’ve been quicker.
“My Elli brews a brilliant headache remedy,” Jarvis said with a decisive nod. “I’ll have some sent up, shall I? And I don’t expect you’ll want to come down to breakfast soon, what with….” He cleared his throat. “A tray, yes? Eggs and bread and whatnot. Elli will handle it. I’ll send her along.”
“Coffee?” Brayden piped in.
Jarvis spared him a wry smile. “Indeed.”
Absurdly touched, Wil thanked Jarvis warmly, then slowly shut the door on his smiling face. With the click of the latch, all the tension seemed to run out of Wil. He leaned his forehead to the jamb, closed his eyes, and sighed.
“Um.” Brayden said from behind. “Companion?”
A droopy little half snort whiffed out of Wil. “Ah, Cynewísan,” he muttered to the door. “Where the women wear trousers, the men love men, and the sheep are bored.” He turned and leaned his back to the door. “I’d never have got away with that in Ríocht—they’d already have us out on the gibbets.” A shrug. “It was either ‘companion’ or… something else I couldn’t think of in the moment.”
“It’s fine.” Brayden waved his hand. “It’ll just confirm what he already suspected last night, I expect, and it did rather take care of… other suspicions.” He tilted his head, eyeing Wil thoughtfully. “You could’ve got away.”
Wil looked down, chewing his lip. “According to you, I don’t need to get away—I’m not a prisoner.”
Brayden sighed, slipped the gun out from beneath the bedding, and reholstered it. “Can I ask you something?” His eyes were on his fingers as he resecured the weapon.
“You can ask.”
Brayden didn’t acknowledge the ambiguity, just nodded. “Last night—well, this morning, I guess—the coffee, the rain….” He stopped fiddling, set his jaw, and looked at Wil straight. “Did I hurt you?”
Wil frowned. “Hurt me?”
“You said it hurt when Síofra… did the things he did.”
“Oh.” Wil hadn’t thought about it until now, what with the blur of… everything that had happened since Brayden had shaken him awake. And now that Wil was thinking about it, he wasn’t sure if it was a relief or a new worry. “No. You didn’t hurt me.” Brayden looked so relieved, Wil found himself feeling an odd sort of sympathy. “Then again, you didn’t… or rather I didn’t—” Frustrated that he couldn’t seem to find the right words, Wil scowled at the floor. “There was no push.” He said it quietly, almost to himself, thinking. “You wanted something, and I chose to give it to you. And it didn’t hurt.” It was as simple as he could make it, as close to sense as he could come.
“Huh.” Brayden deliberated over that for a moment. “Has it ever happened that way before?”
Wil shook his head.
“Then why the bloody nose?”
Wil’s mouth twisted sourly. “You keep asking me these things like I know. No one told me either, y’know.”
Brayden opened his mouth, closed it, then rubbed at his stubbly chin. “You chose to give me something. Why would you do that?”
Wil could feel that embarrassing flush rising to his cheeks again, and he gritted his teeth, annoyed. It wasn’t as though the dreams always made sense. In fact, sense was rather a rare thing, in his experience. It had just seemed like something he wanted to do at the time. The truth was he’d felt bad about the things he’d said last night, the way he’d accused Brayden, and coffee had seemed such a small thing. Now it took on significance all out of proportion.
“It hasn’t rained in this part of the country for a long time,” Wil mumbled fractiously. “If I’d known… if I’d thought of it myself—”
“Right,” Brayden was quick to agree. “Rain. That makes sense.”
Apparently they both decided to forget about the coffee entirely. Wil was a touch comforted that at least Brayden was as uncomfortable about it all as Wil was. It was small consolation, but consolation it was.
Brayden shifted, still looking uncomfortable and trying really hard not to. “Listen, I’ve not even had a piss yet.” He stood. “I’m going down the hall to take advantage of plumbing while we have it. Then you can have your turn.”
Wil had to keep from blinking in surprise that Brayden was going to leave him in the room by himself. It was… strange, this new tentative trust. And Wil didn’t even know yet if it was real or merited. He tried not to show his confusion, just shrugged and made himself busy with retrieving his pack from the floor and rummaging in it for nothing in particular.
Brayden watched him for a moment, then walked to the door. Stopped. He looked at Wil over his shoulder.
Wil didn’t look up. “I’ll be here when you get back.”
Brayden only nodded and quit the room.