A/n: I had no idea how to split this up so it's just one long chapter. Hope you have fun reading it :)
Niklaus had spent the night alone but in the morning he rejoined the others, helping them gather up camp which didn't take long. A warm breeze did much to relieve the burden of the morning heat. He guessed this was summer. Surely it couldn't get any hotter here. The humidity would make the journey tiresome.
The five of them resumed their trek south, Kavel taking a far lead ahead of them. This time he could be seen as there were no trees to hide him, just open land with tall dry grasses. Roger hadn't said a word to him though he acted as if nothing were amiss. He walked next to Khu, in between him and Athalla, and Niklaus kept to Khu's right side to try and keep himself from even glancing at the thief. He wouldn't know what to say anyway or if there was anything that could be said. Was it even needed? Roger showed no evidence that their argument had even occurred. Niklaus again stopped himself from looking directly at the thief. That was becoming more difficult as the day went on.
He set his eyes on the horizon as they pushed their way through the sloping grassland, leading down to what only the Tangarian seemed to know. Here the grass was tall as their eyes and seemed to stretch forever, leading down into yet more grassland. Compared to the forest this area was stretch of boring nothing as far as the eye could see, but at least there weren't any spiders. There were other creatures though: tiny flying insects which bit at their exposed flesh. They were easily killed but were infuriating as the day wore on. Niklaus and his companions had slapped at dozens of them in the last couple of hours. The insects didn't seem to bother the Tangarian, he noted with a frown.
"I am the only one of my people who has traveled this land in some time," The Tangarian said. He seemed to notice the tension and perhaps had decided it was best to take their minds off whatever was troubling them.
Roger laughed derisively. "What's so wonderful about Tangar that they'd rather stay?"
"It's home," Khu said simply. Niklaus knew what he meant. Despite how he had been treated in Staatsgard he missed it for just that reason: it was home. "Not many share my wanderlust. I have left home many times but I always return."
Niklaus was surprised to hear this. Athalla had said Tangarians kept to themselves, never leaving their homeland. "How far have you traveled?"
"Not enough to satisfy me." Khu smiled but to Niklaus it still seemed strange to see. The Tangarian hadn't done it much in the time he'd known him. Come to think of it there hadn't been much to smile about aside from defiling Kavel's garden. Everything seemed to spiral downward after that. "I have been as far as West Bay and as north as the Dragonback Mountains of your homeland, Niklaus."
"But how?" Niklaus asked, but it seemed a silly question. No doubt the Tangarian would respond as Athalla had when she was asked such things: he walked. But no matter how he traveled a Tangarian would be noticed in the North, noticed anywhere but Tangar, he imagined.
"I wanted to know the world," Khu said, spreading his arms to indicate the land around them. "What better way than to travel it? I cover my face, if that's what you're asking."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Roger point to his sharply pointed ears. "You'd have to cover more than your face."
"I do when I travel these lands." The Tangarian pulled a hood over his head, then a cloth over his nose and mouth. It hid all but his eyes and the hood shadowed them, their unusual blackness not as noticeable. "To a casual observer I am a poor traveler. A rare man does more than glance at a man in rags, dusted in the dirt of the road."
"You shouldn't hide what you are," Athalla blurted but after second reddened in embarrassment. She lowered her eyes to her feet as she walked. Niklaus noticed her glance up shyly at the Tangarian as she pushed some of the tall grass out of his way. "Who you are, I mean, and they'd know just speaking with you."
"Right," Roger said with a laugh. "Can't hide your voice, I expect."
Khu had a noticeable accent to his deep voice. Niklaus had never met any other Tangarian but surely people would wonder where Khu was from if he spoke.
"I have run into trouble there, I cannot deny it. I am not always a fair judge of character. My father said honor is in a man's actions. The eyes can trick and a mouth can lie. Because of this I mostly watched." He looked to Athalla who seemed to stare at him if he was the only person around. Niklaus doubted she really understood his words as she was looking at him so intently. "Hiding your face," he said, flicking his gaze to Niklaus, "Or changing your name doesn't hide who you are."
He scowled then, suddenly reminded of how the Tangarian would have known that.
Roger found this funny. "What would you say of your friend's actions, Tangarian?" Niklaus glanced at him then, but looked away when he was caught.
"I cannot blame him any more than you for defending your friend. Grief tests him. Even you must see that."
"We are to forgive him everything then?" The thief's tone was sarcastic; it seemed he was still waiting for Kavel to snap at any moment. "How long before he tries to cut it from him again?"
"He won't," Niklaus answered for him. Kavel kept ahead, too far away to hear what they discussed. "Kavel gave his word."
"What's the worth of his word to me? You heard the Tangarian, Nick. He believes honor is in deeds, not words." Roger laughed as if that was the silliest notion he had ever heard. "Of course in the next breath he did just contradict himself. I hope it's not habit forming."
"You don't listen," Khu said patiently.
"Don't take it back now," Roger drawled, "You can't. Perhaps you don't know your friend as much as you think."
"Sometimes we respond without thought, driven by the intensity of what we feel. In an instant it can fuel such actions that afterward only cause regret. A weak man is never tested; he gives in to all. A stronger man is tested and resists. An even stronger one is the man who can live with what he's done and forgive himself, make a change for the better and learn from his past."
Niklaus thought about those words. If Khu was speaking generally he supposed the elf made sense, but he didn't know what sort of man Kavel was. To Niklaus it seemed that Kavel himself was still deciding though he apparently had centuries behind him.
"Fine enough words, of course," Roger said, "But we're talking about him."
"There is no way to know someone completely but I do trust him," Khu insisted. "I'm no fool that I'd ask you three to do the same." He nodded to the elf ahead but when he spoke his next words seemed to be for Niklaus alone. He removed the cloth from his face and pushed his hood back, cutting his black eyes at him. "Give him time."
The Tangarian walked ahead and once he was out of ear shot Niklaus heard Roger scoff. "I've had enough of him making excuses for that elf."
Niklaus looked to him in surprise. "Are you talking to me?" The thief had hardly said a word to him all day, he was sure he was being ignored.
Roger answered by shoving a skin of water at his chest. Niklaus accepted it, noting how little water they had left when he tipped it to his lips. He cut his eyes to him as he drank, seeing a scowl on the thief's face that made him wish last night's conversation had never occurred.
"These things!" Athalla muttered. She slapped repeatedly at the insects flying around her. She had welts going up both her arms. "Are they all that's down here? How long must we suffer this? I itch all over."
"You knocked me sideways for talking like that just yesterday." The thief chuckled at her but he was swatting the insects away as well. They all were. Niklaus hated them, whatever they were. His skin was red and irritated where they bit him and itched like mad.
"Shut up! Why are you even standing next to me anyway?"
"I have to stand between you and the Tangarian. I think the only reason you haven't suggested we ditch these fools is because you like looking at his face."
Niklaus laughed but stopped abruptly when Athalla reached around Roger to slap him on the back of his head. Perhaps she didn't realize how taken she was with Khu. It was obvious to all.
"That's not why!"
"Not the only reason why?" Roger teased with a wide smile. Athalla anxiously flexed her hands as if tempted to punch the look off his face. "Still part of it, obviously. Let's ditch these fools."
"Then who would lead us through the jungle?" Niklaus asked. He didn't want to wander aimlessly. They had a goal and their guides knew the way. "I've never been in one. And if you get snatched up by a Child of Tserrus, what are we to do? We can't harm it."
"Fuck what Kavel says! If it has its leafy tentacles on me, you, both of you had better do something. Athalla could fill it with arrows," Roger said and then looked at Niklaus. "And you set it on fire once it lets me go. I'll hack it to pieces so your collective conscience remains clear."
"You'd be at it for days!" Niklaus protested, but when the thief winked at him he realized he was only joking. He flushed in the wake of Roger's teasing grin. He looked away then, trying to focus on the slightly trampled grass that served as their path ahead. "Khu said these things are taller than the trees."
"It's said they nearly reach the sky, Roger," Athalla said tersely. She clearly didn't appreciate his jest. "I think it would likely not respond to a few arrows, and Niklaus would probably set the whole jungle on fire. And you… idiot, would be slicing away at one of our sacred flowers with your little knives until the day you died! As much as that amuses me I'd rather not waste my time. We are not 'ditching these fools'."
"I wasn't serious," Roger amended. Niklaus watched him comb his fingers through his hair. Roger's fingers trembled slightly. Something was bothering him though Niklaus could tell he fought not to show it. "All right, but I was serious about getting rid of them."
"We're not going to be traveling with them forever," he said but it didn't seem to calm him.
"Forever!" Roger cringed as if it was the word itself and not the idea of traveling with these elves for an indeterminable amount of time. "No one said anything about forever, Nick," he rushed out. "Gods, can you imagine? Never mind. I'd rather not."
Athalla was obviously troubled. She watched Niklaus nervously out of the corner of her eye. "Kavel's only around at night anyway," she said to both of them. "I don't think he wants to travel with us."
Night was what Niklaus worried about. The elf didn't seem to sleep. They couldn't stay up all night trying to protect themselves from him. Khu said he wouldn't be any trouble but that didn't mean they all didn't worry about that. The elf himself seemed to be racked with an inner struggle. He was jumpy, erratic. Something was bound to happen whether both Khu and Kavel assured them they'd be safe with them.
"And the Tangarian's better?" Roger groused. He pushed at the grass in front of him as if it was an annoyance he'd like to see erased from the world. "Of course you'd think so. You've been making eyes at him from the minute you saw him, I imagine."
"Making eyes?" Athalla turned a questioning look to Niklaus but he wasn't sure what Roger meant.
"Whatever. I'm keeping an eye on the both of them." Roger walked ahead, angrily brushing aside tall grasses.
"How do you make eyes?" Athalla whispered but Niklaus only shrugged. "What's wrong with you?"
He had too much on his mind to just pick one. The insects and the heat were distracting and exhausting. Niklaus could see Roger ahead, last night's conversation still on his mind. He hadn't even asked, hadn't a chance to before Roger flatly refused to discuss it. However it had been in the back of Niklaus' mind ever since the words had left his lips in that hut. Because it happened to me. It wasn't something that could be said and then forgotten about. Roger had said he ran from his mother as soon as he was too fast for her to catch him up. If he was captured by similar men as he said perhaps it was too painful to discuss but that didn't mean Niklaus didn't wonder what he had suffered in their hands. Had Roger been sold to a guild house as those children would have been? What had he been through that made him want to kill those men when moments before he had suggested they go around them?
Niklaus drank from the skin again, deep in thought but not prepared to discuss what was bothering him. "We've got to find some water soon," he said instead. "We're running low."
"Because you're drinking all of it. Give it over." Athalla took the skin from him and squeezed the last drops into her mouth. "Wonderful. When did you become so selfish?"
"Don't lay into me," he groaned. "We're all miserable and I'm too tired to argue with you."
"I'm sorry. You're right. It's the heat and these damn bugs." She passed the empty skin back to him. "I think Khu has another one."
"Tell me more about Tserrus," Niklaus said because once she brought up Khu it was likely she'd drift in thought and stay there for the rest of the journey. "Does he cause the heat to make us suffer?"
Athalla chuckled then. "He is the sun so I suppose he does but I don't think it's to make us suffer, no."
"If he created all of us, why hadn't I heard of him before?"
"What do your people believe?"
"I never held to religion, but my father believed in the spirits of our ancestors. There were even some in my village that prayed to them. Maybe they thought the spirits watched over them."
Niklaus hoped the afterlife was how he imagined, peaceful. He didn't think there was anything beyond this but rest, which was something he didn't get enough of in this life. In death his magic would be gone, indeed all worry would be gone, and he hoped that he'd find peace with his kin in the nothingness. In being finally at rest. It was something they all had in common; all would die, all would disappear. He didn't need religion to tell him that. It was something he just knew to be true. He didn't want his father to be watching over him anyway. He wanted him to be at peace, not spending his afterlife with yet another job to do.
"You certainly call on them often."
"The Ancestors?" Niklaus' face reddened. "I guess I never thought about it. Something my father used to do. I've heard you call on Tserrus in the same tone. As if to scold him."
"Not to scold!" She laughed helplessly. "Scolding a god. Very funny." Athalla walked on beside him and she explained. "Northmen have their ancestors, we have our gods and Tannikans have theirs. I don't know if you've noticed but not much of us seem eager to be open about our cultures anymore."
No, he supposed not. Tannikans seemed to distrust the elves for little reason, Northmen too. And the elves were a secretive people, no matter that Athalla's clan stayed in the North. Although news didn't travel quickly in his homeland. How long had Athalla's clan been there? He hadn't even known they were there.
"Do you really hate Tannikans?"
"No. I think they're frustrating, intolerant and stupid," she said and Niklaus could agree up to a point, he knew people weren't all the same, though he had met few Tannikans that weren't as she described. One couldn't judge a whole people based on a bad experience, he thought. "I feel the same about Roger but I don't hate anyone."
"Sounds like you're describing my kinsmen."
"I'm sure we all have faults, yes," Athalla conceded, rolling her eyes. "Do you want to know about Tserrus? You're the one who brought him up." Niklaus nodded, deciding it was best to steer off the topic of Tannikans if it was only going to frustrate her. "He is the sun and the sun brought life to the world, along with light and warmth to help his creations grow. All that comes out of the earth is his and all that lives in it."
"So I owe all this to him?" Niklaus spread his arms to sarcastically include his entire life and all obstacles within.
"No, he gave you life but you have to live it. Whatever you do is based on your choices."
Niklaus stared at her in disbelief. "Hestiani just thrust a purpose on me due to magic I was born with, hardly a choice I made." If he didn't have magic none of this would have happened. Niklaus would have stayed happily enough in Staatsgard; his people would have accepted him. He knew that.
"Yet instead of going home we're all traveling to Tangar," she paused to slap at another insect on her arm, frowning when she had to wipe her hand on her clothes to remove its remains. "You made a choice to follow the new path laid out before you."
"I could have said no?" Though he couldn't imagine it. What would Hestiani have said if he refused her? What did gods normally do to willful mortals? Something horrible, he thought. "What sort of god is she that she does this?"
"One that can't move freely in his world, none of them can actually. Tserrus prefers independence in his creation. He won't let the rest interfere," Athalla said which made him think about the tears. They must be important if Tserrus would allow Hestiani to interfere on his behalf. "Hestiani guards the spirit realm, a place where it's said all magic came from. It's told that she mixed it with the soil, infecting the world with its power. I never knew more than that about her. She doesn't concern those of us that don't have magic." Athalla smiled wistfully then and hooked an arm in his. "As a child I always knew I'd be a hunter. I preferred the stories about his sister, Amon. She is night, death and shadow all in one. I hope to see her when I die."
"How many gods do elves have?"
"Hundreds!" Athalla exclaimed with a laugh. "Far too many to name and not all of them are kind."
At those words Niklaus preferred his own people's beliefs. At least there were no hordes of watchful gods, dubious of intent and nature watching over their every action. Hestiani was the only one he was sure existed, but hearing there could be hundreds disturbed him.
They caught up with the others just after sunset. The tall, yellowed grassland was still around them and seemed never ending, stretching out into the near darkness. Clouds had gathered overhead. The stars obscured by a dark blanket of deep gray. They shared food and Khu passed around his skin of water, which was the last they had. Hopefully they would come across something soon.
"There is a road not far from here," Khu said. "It's well traveled by merchants. We should continue and cross it tonight."
"We need water," Roger complained. The sun had baked them all day and they hadn't come across any body of water or any hint of life other than the flying insects.
"It will rain soon," Kavel said as if rain would solve everything. The elf was shivering though it was far too hot. So this, he thought, was probably why they stopped. Niklaus watched him guardedly but it seemed the elf watched him just as much. Kavel kept glancing at him, all muscles tensed as if to hold himself still.
"I don't like the way he looks at you," Roger whispered, now standing beside him. Niklaus was surprised to be addressed.
"I thought you were ignoring me," he whispered back, his eyes still on Kavel who was now crouching on the ground holding himself.
"It's harder than I thought." Niklaus heard him say. "You make it difficult." He stared at Roger curiously then, dragging his gaze from the shivering elf. "Please, as if you don't know."
"What have I done now?"
"Took off your shirt for one."
Niklaus looked down at himself. He had tucked his shirt into his pack long ago. He was covered in sweat, dirt and bits of the dry grass which broke off during their trek through them, leaving pieces clinging to his skin. He absently scratched at one of the welts on his arms. He didn't feel very fetching and in his opinion he probably didn't look it either.
Niklaus gave the thief a questioning look. "What are you talking about?"
"Is this another one of those dirty conversations that can be saved for later?" Athalla cut in. She was rifling through Niklaus' pack that was still on his shoulders. She pulled out some dried deer meat they had packed for their journey and walked to Kavel with it.
Roger and Niklaus watched this with apprehension. "Athalla… no, he doesn't—" Niklaus warned but she took no heed.
"Don't you think he needs it?" She offered it to Kavel who merely sneered at it. Athalla tossed it at his feet. "You clearly need to eat something."
"Get that animal flesh away from me," Kavel growled. He kicked at it and scrambled away from it in haste. Athalla was too shocked to respond. She stared down at him, backing away slowly.
Khu rushed over to her, guiding her away from him. Niklaus watched him whisper to her but he spoke so lowly and was far enough away he couldn't hear what he was saying to her.
"'Listen to my words and stop imagining me naked'," Roger said, mimicking Khu's deep voice. Niklaus bit his lip, fighting a smile as Roger continued, mocking Athalla's voice this time in a wavering falsetto. "'Whatever you say, Khu. Can I call you Khu? You're so handsome! Take me now!'"
Niklaus let out a nervous laugh, "Be serious."
"I'd rather not," Roger confessed with an exasperated sigh. "Then I'd have to think about why Kavel's looking at you like that, and how many more days we're to suffer it before I have to cut his eyes out."
"That's… extreme," Niklaus said then, turning to look at him. "He hasn't done anything. The looks are making me nervous but if that's all he does we should count ourselves lucky."
"Hasn't done anything yet, Nick, and there's something to be said about preemptive measures. You trust too easily. You were asleep when he cut your hand up. He's insane, clearly, but this…" Roger gestured to the Kavel, who was still shaking and crouched on the ground. "I've seen something like this before."
"What do you mean?" That seemed like an odd claim. "When have you seen this?"
"One of the girls at The Bodice was beaten rather badly long before I met her. The one who did it was punished but she has had to take this powder in her drinks for years since. She said it dulled her pain, but speaking with her I'd swear it cured her of being human as well. When she forgets to take it she shakes, almost as if she can't bear being without it. Her body craves it. It's hard to be around her then."
Niklaus considered this, watching Kavel cock his head distractedly. The elf stopped shaking and was focused on something he heard nearby. Niklaus couldn't hear anything other than the insects buzzing around their heads; was he listening to them? "I haven't seen him take anything or drink anything but water," he whispered, just in case Kavel was listening in.
"I doubt this elf has been taking the same thing but look at him." Kavel was acting strange, but that didn't mean what Roger said was true. "Something's going on."
"So instead you'll cut out his eyes? His wife, whatever she was, has just died."
"Sure, the skeleton woman is gone, what a tragedy!" Niklaus stared at him in shock but Roger seemed to be seriously unnerved by this. "This isn't grief, Nick. Don't be so bloody naïve."
Niklaus couldn't help but see grief. It was clear to him that Kavel was in pain and didn't imagine he was far off mark seeing it translate into physical anguish. The death of loved one wasn't something Roger should be so flippant about. Who was he to judge how one mourned a loss?
With time, he thought, it would get easier but there were still days he was reminded his father was gone and that he'd never see or speak to him again. His father would never know what Niklaus had experienced being away from his home.
"You're seeing something that's not there," Niklaus murmured but as soon as those words left his mouth Kavel jumped to his feet. The elf turned and stared off into the near darkness, still as a statue.
"You must see it too. It's written all over your face. You can't lie to me, Nick, everything you feel is—" Roger began but Khu and Athalla had rejoined them so he shut his mouth, scowling at the two of them. "Well?" he snapped at Athalla. "Discover your kindness is wasted on the likes of him?"
"I apologize," Khu said, raising his hands in a peaceable gesture to try and calm their group. Niklaus looked around the two of them, noticing the elf had disappeared again. "He's not himself."
"I don't see much of a difference," Roger countered. "He's been nothing but crazy since we first met him." Niklaus tugged on Roger's sleeve but the thief yanked his arm away. "Stop that."
"He's gone again."
"He's…" The Tangarian trailed off, glancing at where Kavel had been. Disappointment clouded his features.
"Having a wild fit somewhere?" Roger offered.
With the look Khu gave the thief Niklaus imagined that was exactly what he was doing. The Tangarian didn't elaborate however, but turned away from them. "He'll catch up with us. Let's be on our way."
"Yes, we're to travel all night apparently," Roger complained loudly and was promptly shushed by Athalla. "Don't you elves ever need a rest?" Athalla told him to be quiet with a sound slap to his arm this time. "In between all the crazy?"
"Be quiet!" she hissed at him. Then Athalla ducked down, her profile a shadow through the grass. "Do you hear that?"
She crept toward Niklaus, gesturing down. In his periphery Khu pulled his hood over his head and drew the cloth over his face. The four of them all crouched together, waiting in tensed silence but he could hear nothing but their collective breathing.
Niklaus glanced at Roger. "What's happening?"
"It's probably Kavel," Roger said. "Suppose we'll hear screaming next."
"Hush!" Athalla punched him in the arm. "Listen!"
Distant voices could be heard ahead and they seemed to be getting closer. Khu turned his head and pulled down the cloth covering his face. He mouthed something to Athalla that Niklaus didn't catch, and soon he was following them, trying to match their slow and nearly silent steps. A few feet more and the voices became more distinct.
"An' they taste like shit," he heard a gruff voice say.
"Beer helps," a woman replied and was answered by a round of laughter. How many were out there?
"Plenty of it back here, Tema," said another woman. Her voice was older, even gravelly but still obviously feminine.
Niklaus heard the soft snorts of a horse and its heavy steps. He peered through the tall grasses, pushing handfuls aside. A few feet ahead the ground dropped off sharply but the road Khu had mentioned was only about five feet below, a dusty narrow strip of brown crossing their way south. A lantern light swayed, jostled by the movement of an approaching wagon heading east. He could see four figures in back of the wagon and one holding the reins in the front.
Niklaus jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder and he was pulled back from the light. "They're just travelers," he whispered but the Tangarian motioned for him to be quiet. Khu peered through to see for himself.
"Why are we hiding from them exactly?" Roger asked, forcing the Tangarian to share his vantage point. "Do they look murderous? I don't think so."
Athalla shushed him and they all waited in silence, listening to the travelers' voices on the road.
"Did you see that?" Niklaus heard one of the traveler's say. Her voice was so close. "I think something just went by."
"Bigger than a rabbit." At those words he heard the horse and the wagon slow to a stop. "Give me that lantern."
"There's something moving in the grass, look."
Khu ducked down, pushing Roger away from the light, but it was probably too late. The group at the wagon had to have seen them already.
"My gods!" One of them exclaimed and the light shifted away, pointing ahead of them on the road. "Are you all right?"
"It's an elf," another said and Niklaus instantly knew who they must have seen. "What are you doing out here in the dark?"
Roger scrambled out from the Tangarian's hold and went to look once more. "What's he doing?" He heard him say. "He's just standing there…"
Niklaus moved closer to him, "What do you see?"
"Kavel!" The Tangarian stood from the grass and hurried to the road, leaving the three of them still crouching in the grass. "Don't!"
"Shit!" Roger looked back at Athalla and Niklaus and jerked his head in the direction of the road. "Looks like there's trouble. Come on."
Niklaus followed his friends out of the grass and dropped into the road, just outside the circle of light the lantern cast on the ground. Kavel was standing next to their horse, and all the people in the wagon were staring down at him as if they'd never seen something so strange. He reached out and stroked the neck of the horse absently. The poor beast shifted its feet and jerked its head away from him.
"Kavel," Khu said again, his voice a plea this time. "Friend. Come away from there."
"You lot with him?" The man who asked this stood from the back of the wagon, a hand clutching at the hilt of a short sword at his belt. In the soft glow from the lantern the man's wizened face was deeply lined—slivers of shadows marking the wrinkles on his cheeks and forehead. His voice shook, betraying his unwillingness to face whoever else might be in the dark. "Come in the light."
Niklaus looked to the rest of his party, but no one seemed to want to take the first step. Whoever these people were, he wasn't afraid of them. He walked toward their lantern so they could see his face. Athalla joined his side next, apprehension in her eyes as she studied the group in the wagon.
"What are you doing out here?" The old man gasped at the state of them.
They probably did look a bit crazed, having traipsed for miles in the heat, grassing sticking out all over them. A woman was beside him, probably his wife Niklaus thought, and two men sat across from her. One was wearing a dark robe, a hood hiding his face, and other was the spitting image of the man who had just spoken, just a few years younger. This was a family, he assumed, why would they hurt them?
"Calm down," the old woman said. She was sitting next to the older man, reaching up to grasp his arm. "You'll scare the girl."
"Scare the girl!" The robed man said with a laugh. "Look at that bow she's got." Niklaus glanced at Athalla who they must have been talking about. "It's bigger than she is. If she can pull that she can handle Mort fumbling at swordplay."
"Fugitives by the state of them." The driver's face was lit up by the glow of the lantern she held toward their faces. She was younger than the rest but had a haunted look to her, as if she had been driving all night in haste to escape whatever she left behind. "We're stopping," she said after giving Niklaus and Athalla a good look. Her traveling companions in the back all dropped from the wagon.
"Stand aside!" one of the men bellowed at them.
Khu pulled Kavel out of the way as the group moved toward them. The clouds that gathered overhead rumbled and lit up unexpectedly.
The woman at the reins passed the lantern to one of the men and clicked her tongue at the horse. "Come on, Marion," she coaxed. "We're not going on in the rain." She led the horse and wagon off the road and parked it under a tree on the other side. "Forget them for now! Come over here and help me get the tent up before the sky opens and destroys our supplies."
"Turn my back on a masked man?" The man who was apparently called Mort (strange name, Niklaus thought) still had an unsteady hand on the hilt of his sword as he studied Khu.
"Brotherhood wears masks like that," the old woman said. Niklaus couldn't imagine what this brotherhood was. "They never show their faces." She glanced at one of her companions, the robed man. "You'd know him, Hamish?"
The robed man nodded to Khu, but his face was hidden by his hood. "Only one monastery I know of," he said. "Didn't think I'd meet one of my own out here."
"I'm sure rogue brothers hide in the grass then, distributing pamphlets to weary travelers in the dark." Roger chuckled but the man didn't seem to appreciate it. "You find that funny, lad? What's a sniggering boy like yourself doing with a girl like that?"
"Not what you're thinking obviously."
"Quiet, Ro'k—Roger," Athalla interjected.
"You all right, girl?" the old woman asked. "Have these men hurt you?"
"She's with us," Niklaus assured her but the woman didn't give him even a glance.
"Get over here and help me with this bloody tent!" called the driver from the other side of the road. The clouds flashed above them, threatening a torrential downpour, he was certain. It would be a fitting end to a trying day.
"You go help Tema before she has a fit," the man told the others, but his attention never left Athalla's face. "How old are you, girl? What are you doing with these men?"
"I'm not a girl," Athalla said irritably. "And I'm perfectly capable of choosing my traveling companions."
His eyebrows rose in surprise at those words. "Pardon, then," the man said and backed away. He joined his group in pitching a large tent near the tree.
"You'll leave them alone," Khu whispered to Kavel as soon as they were alone on their side of the road. "You said you could handle this. Are you still with me?"
"Yes and I can," the elf said defiantly. "I will. What more assurance do you need?"
Niklaus couldn't imagine what they were discussing. Perhaps it was his condition, whatever it was aside from losing Hestia. What was Khu worried about? What was the harm in talking to these people?
"I hate to interject," Athalla began, turning her attention to Kavel's profile in the dark. "But what's wrong with you? Did you have to show yourself? If you had kept with us—"
"They're hardly hostile," Niklaus interrupted, gesturing to the group on the other side of the road. "Why shouldn't we speak to them?"
"Nick…" Roger said tiredly. "Not everyone wants to be your friend." Niklaus stared at him in shock. What was that supposed to mean?
"Wisest words that ever passed your lips, boy," Kavel said which pushed Niklaus over the edge.
"I'm tired, burned by the sun and it's about to rain." Niklaus told them both. "If you want to travel in that then do so on your own. They have a tent and I'm going to speak to them."
"Why don't you tell them your life story, Nick?" Roger drawled before he turned away. "Maybe they'll feel sorry for you."
"What's the matter with you?" Niklaus shouted at him. Was that a jab because of last night's argument? "Why are you acting this way?" He could barely look at Roger now and so turned his attention to Kavel. "If you didn't want to talk to them why were you even there?"
The elf seemed to have nothing to say to that. He folded his arms resolutely over his chest and looked to Roger. "You're just going to let this happen?"
"What do you want me to do?" Roger drawled, glancing at Niklaus. "Physically restrain him?"
"Niklaus has a point, you know," Athalla said, her tone suspicious. "Why did you run out in front of them?"
"That's not important now. We should move on," Khu interrupted. "We need to find shelter before the rain falls."
Where were they supposed to find shelter in the dark? They couldn't see much further than the people setting up camp on the other side of the road and only that by courtesy of their lantern. Unless Khu's weird black eyes could see in the dark they were out of luck.
"Did you not hear?" Niklaus threw up his hands in frustration. "They have a tent."
Kavel shrugged. "Kill the humans and take it then." Niklaus stared open-mouthed at him. The elf didn't seem to be joking.
"Kavel!" The Tangarian sounded just as stunned as he was. "Control yourself!"
Roger was laughing, nearly doubled over he found the elf's solution so hilarious. "Yes, let's murder our way south! I'm sure that won't cause any problems."
"It's not funny!" Athalla shouted, and Niklaus agreed, but no one else paid attention to her.
"Their kind has been killing us for centuries," Kavel said as if this was a well-known fact they should all consider.
The Tangarian groaned and dropped his head in his hands. Niklaus couldn't believe they were discussing this! Arguing was only going to waste time, and he was sure the people on the other side of the road could hear every word.
"And that's reason enough to attack every human you see?" Roger pushed Khu out of his way to get at Kavel, grabbing the elf by the front of his shirt. "Why are you even with us? Do you want to get us all killed or are you just hanging around so you can do it yourself?"
The elf chuckled and it was a frightening thing to hear. It sent a shiver up Niklaus' spine. "Boy, if I wanted you dead I would have killed you while he was asleep!"
"He's here because he's the only one who has experienced this!" The Tangarian interjected. He pushed them away from each other. "Calm yourselves!"
"He could just tell us and then fuck off back the way he came," Roger snapped, he narrowed his eyes at Kavel. "You're not wanted here."
"Roger, stop," Niklaus' plea only seemed to anger him further. "This isn't helping!"
"Between you and this crazy thing," he yelled over him, "We'll never get where we're going!"
"You'll die in the jungle, Ro'kirr," Kavel said darkly. "I can wait until then."
"You bastard!" Niklaus grabbed Roger before he could launch himself at Kavel. "Get off me," he snarled. He fought against him, one of his flailing arms unknowingly hitting Niklaus in the face. An elbow slammed into his ribs and knocked the breath out of him, but Niklaus wouldn't let go. "Get out of my way!"
"You'll do nothing of the kind!" Khu jabbed his friend in the chest with one finger. "We're protecting them. You swore to help me! If you can't behave yourself then perhaps you should go back."
"I'm not going anywhere." The elf folded his arms across his chest again, his creepy eyes glaring at Roger who told him if he wasn't going anywhere then he should shut his fucking mouth.
"Nick, if you don't get your hands off me—"
"What? You'll hit me again?" Roger's anger waned slightly then but Niklaus was too angry now to care. Kavel shouldn't have said anything, true enough, but shouting at each other well within earshot of these strangers was a bad idea. He let him go when he felt Athalla's hand on his arm.
"Ignore him," she said and led him away from Roger and the others. Though Niklaus could still hear them yelling at each other. "This may not be the best idea. What will these people do once they realize Khu's a Tangarian? They were blamed for destroying those villages."
"That's not true," he said immediately. "I don't think it's true."
"Tannikans believe what they are told."
He worked out of her grasp then and stepped away, exasperated. "Athalla, not everyone is the same, and not everyone would simply believe something without seeing it for themselves."
"You can't assume people are friendly here."
"We can't assume anything! We'd have to speak with them to find out. They're not even going the same way we are anyway. We're pushing south, right?" Athalla nodded mutely but was still obviously disappointed. She wasn't even listening! "Their wagon goes east. Look at them, Athalla."
Niklaus gestured to the men and women on the other side of the road. Their clothes were simple and hardly in good repair. It was clear to him they'd spent their coin on supplies for the journey, wherever they were going. They were all quite older than him by the looks of them, not to mention road-weary. Even their horse, skittish as it was of Kavel (who wouldn't be) was a weather-beaten old mare that had seen better days.
He threw a glance over his shoulder at Roger, the thief's words echoing in his mind. He could be such a bastard! Kavel as well! They were more alike than either of them would care to admit. "I'm not saying we should run over there and—and… I don't know, announce Khu's a Tangarian—"
"What should we say? If they ask where we're going?"
"Who says we have to say anything about it?" Niklaus hardly knew anything about this trip anyway! All that had been offered was Khu's vague idea of what would happen when they got there. The only one that seemed to know was Kavel and he wasn't keen on discussing anything at all. He would rather argue and kill their path south apparently.
"Why wouldn't they ask? A practical question to a group skulking around in grasses at night."
"That wasn't my idea!" He said, wildly gesturing to where they had left Khu on the other side of the road.
"Imagine how it seems to them."
"They came from the west. This is Pergne's territory, isn't it? Why should they care about a Tangarian? Or any elf for that matter. The elves trust Pergne, right? At least the ones in the forest seem to. Why wouldn't his own people trust him as well? Wouldn't they share his views on elves?"
"Most humans don't see it the way you do. I don't know enough about this Pergne or his people to say. They're all Tannikan citizens, Niklaus, regardless of which side of the country they're on. They're human." She said those last two words as if they were a condemnation. He couldn't believe this was coming out of her mouth! He expected this from Kavel, but not from her.
"I'm human," Niklaus reminded her as she seemed to have forgotten. "I can't be the only one who doesn't resent the existence of elves. These folk met Kavel in the road! Kavel!" he stressed this, because that elf was the least personable of them all. "And they didn't threaten him. They were more concerned about you than any of us."
"They think I'm a child!" She protested and heaved a sigh of frustration. "You heard how they spoke to me!"
"How would they know otherwise?" Athalla was offended by this but it was the truth and he felt she needed to hear it. "I didn't know anything real about elves until I met them. Still can't tell how old they are just by looking at them."
Roger walked over to join them in time to hear those words. "He's right you know," he said. "You look about twelve."
"No one asked you!"
"I'm going to help them," Niklaus said. "You four can save yourself from expressing any kindness today if that's your wish."
"My gods…" Roger groaned, and there was just enough light periodically flashing in the clouds for him to see Roger roll his eyes. "What did you wind him up for?"
"You started this!"
"Kavel started this, elf. Bastard ran out in front of their wagon." Roger grabbed at his arm but Niklaus jerked away. He was done arguing about this. "Nick, don't be stupid!"
Niklaus ignored him and walked purposely across the road to the group of people struggling to pitch their tent before the rain started. The old woman was left holding the lantern, its glow shaky in her hands. She nearly dropped it on the ground when she noticed him walking toward her.
"Stay back, lad. We don't want any trouble!"
"I came to help," he said but the woman didn't look convinced.
"Mother," the other woman said. Beyond the light she and the robed man were setting up wooden poles in the ground. "Hold the light over here. I can't see a blasted thing!"
"There's a man," the old woman said, her voice wavering as she stared at Niklaus. "What do you want? We don't have any money."
"I don't want your money."
"Clear off, then," the old man said and guided his wife away from him.
"By the sun," the robed man groused as if his words were a curse. "If he wants to lend a hand give the lad a job. We'll never get this thing up in time. If those leaflets get wet my journey's wasted."
"Right." Another man walked toward Niklaus and shoved a bunch of rope at his chest. "Got a name?"
"Niklaus…" he said, arching an eyebrow at the rope in his arms. He studied the man in front of him, wondering what his connection was to these people. He looked so much like the old man, perhaps he was his son? They definitely had the same shrewd look about them. Would it be rude to ask? By the way the man was looking at him now probably wasn't the time.
"I'm Robert." The man squared his shoulders and looked right in his eyes. "You hurt my family and I'll kill you."
"Robert!" The old woman gasped, and she did drop the lantern then. It smashed on the ground and they were all in the dark.
"Stars above!" A bunch of scuffling and cursing was heard in the direction of the tree. The clouds lit up again but by now it just seemed like an empty threat to him.
"Ain't no stars, brother, and there won't be no tent either. Blasted lantern's busted!"
"That's what you get for threatening strangers, fool."
"Look what you've done." Niklaus cocked his head to the side at those words and saw Roger's faint profile next to him. "What are you good for?" He took the rope from his arms. "Give them some light," Roger said and nudged him with an elbow. "Go on."
"If you even can," Roger drawled teasingly. "If you can't…" he laughed. "Hmm, listen to them."
The old woman kept repeating over and over how sorry she was which only made Niklaus feel worse. One of the men, he couldn't tell which, was telling her to forget about the bloody lantern already and help him with his pole.
Roger chuckled for a good while, "Really?" he said, but Niklaus only cringed in silence—still feeling like a fool for even approaching them. It was too late now. "What's this rope for?"
Niklaus sighed heavily. "I don't know."
"Well, just stand there," Roger said. "You wanted to help these people. Glow or something." Niklaus gave him a defeated glance. "I've seen you do it before, don't give me that look."
"Take a breath, Niklaus," he heard Khu's voice behind him, and flinched when he felt a palm on his sunburned shoulder. "Close your eyes."
"This is hardly the time for meditation." It seemed Kavel had joined them as well.
"Be quiet," Athalla said. "We're not alone."
"How many of you are there?" The man asked. Niklaus had forgotten the man was still there! Why didn't he bother telling Roger what the rope was for?
"Just five," Niklaus assured him patiently. "We won't harm you."
"Four of us wouldn't, anyway," Athalla said.
He hoped she was talking about Kavel and not him. Niklaus hadn't tried much of his magic since the cavern. Once more or less on accident and the second time he hadn't given it a thought. Kavel had been coming toward him on the branch; it had just been instinctive to protect himself. Although now that he had to think about it, and he had an audience, it wasn't as simple.
"What are you saying?" the man demanded.
Niklaus rushed to cover Athalla's words but Roger cut him off before he could begin. "Well, seems you can't do it. I suppose we'll just stand here in the dark all night."
"Roger, if you want to try it be my guest!" He shouted but as soon as he got the words out of his mouth his hands began to glow. Niklaus groaned; it would be Roger to set it off. The thief gave him a bright smile when he looked over, aglow from the light in his hands. "Ugh! You're a bastard," he told him but he couldn't keep a straight face.
Roger winked at him. "That's what they say."
"My gods!" The man in front of him shielded his eyes from the light. "What sort of spell is that?"
"It's not a spell," Kavel said. Niklaus shuddered, hearing his voice so close. The man could take a moment and break it into a million pieces. He could even feel his breath on the side of his face. "It's him," Kavel finished reverently.
He jerked when he felt the elf's fingers trace up his arm. "Get away from me." Niklaus hastily walked away, feeling his strange eyes following his every movement. The elf seemed determined to close in on him but Khu held him back. He had the feeling that Tangarian was really doing him a favor. Maybe Niklaus owed him one in return after all this.
"I've never seen a mage do anything without a spell!" The man gave him a wide berth, watching him in amazement. He called over his shoulder to the others, his eyes never leaving Niklaus' glowing hands. "He's brighter than our lantern."
"Bring him over here, Robert," the younger woman groused. "We still can't see what the hell we're doing."
"Everybody close your eyes," Niklaus said, walking toward the four setting up the tent. The horse backed away hesitantly in the face of his light, blinking its large eyes. "Sorry." The horse didn't respond.
"What are we closing our eyes for?"
The old woman gasped. "I told you we didn't have any money!" Someone shushed her.
"I've never done this on purpose before…" Niklaus trailed off because everyone was staring at him as if he was insane. Roger was laughing which hardly helped matters. How was he supposed to concentrate with that going on? Did someone mention poles again? Why was that even funny? "I'm sure it will be fine though." He smiled somewhat hesitantly at their skeptical faces.
"Is he serious?" The old woman asked. "Are you serious?"
He waited, shifting his feet uncomfortably as they all covered their eyes, but Kavel watched openly and had gotten out of the Tangarian's hold. Khu was too fascinated with the magic to pay attention to his friend. Well, Niklaus thought, he could forget about that favor.
Niklaus took a shaky breath and kept his eyes on the wolfish grin stretching the elf's lips. The sight made his hands shake, and the light spilled from his palms and in between his fingers like warm liquid. It pooled at his feet but that wasn't where he wanted it to go.
"Come here," Kavel whispered to him. "Bring that to me." The elf paced in front of his friends, all muscles tensed.
Niklaus shook his head fervently. He wasn't going anywhere near him. The light was snaking away from him toward the elf anyway, shining on the ground, a transparent blue. "Stop that!"
"Is he doing it?"
"Yess," was Kavel's answer, an excited hiss between his clenched teeth.
Niklaus turned away from him, too disturbed for words, but he kept the elf in his periphery. There was no way he was going to turn his back on him now. He took a deep breath and tried to tune him out but all the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end; he still felt the elf watching him.
"Come on, Nick, we don't have all night."
"Be quiet!" This was so much easier when there weren't so many people around. Niklaus shook himself. "Come on," he begged the light. "In the tree or something. Just don't set it on fire."
"Someone say something about fire?" One of the men asked.
"Please be quiet…." Niklaus groaned.
"I don't think we should start a fire until we get the tent up," the old woman said.
"Fucking gods," he heard Roger say and he walked over, crossing the light snaking in the grass. Roger dropped the bunch of rope on the ground and put his arms around him. His cheek pressed against his shoulder and Niklaus winced in pain. "Relax, forget the elves," Roger coaxed. "And the sunburn. You're so pink." He took a deep breath when Roger lightly stroked down his arm. He was trying to calm himself. "Well, maybe not so pink in this light."
"Get off me." But those words were more for the press of Roger's cheek on his sunburned shoulder. Already Niklaus was breathing easier. He shut his eyes, trying to drown out the voices of the others.
The old woman was still on about the fire, saying it was best to wait, and the other woman told her patiently, "We'll wait, mother, keep your dress on."
"No," Roger said lowly. He continued speaking, as if they were the only two there. "What was all that green stuff for, eh? Don't you have any confidence in yourself?" Niklaus laughed at that! When it came to this, no, he didn't have any confidence. "What did the Tangarian say? Something about feeling your center?"
Niklaus raised an eyebrow at that as Roger seemed to be feeling his center for him. He was sure that hadn't been what Khu meant when he was trying to teach him meditation, but Niklaus had barely been paying attention during all that. It was funny that Roger would know such a thing. He must have been really looking in on them that whole time.
As Niklaus felt one of Roger's hands palm possessively across his abdomen his eyes flew open. He didn't remember closing them. For a moment there it had seemed if they really were the only people there, but now the others' voices faded back in and he was brought abruptly to the present.
This wasn't quite appropriate now considering everyone was opening their eyes, probably wondering what was taking so long. Niklaus tried to bring this to his attention but Roger didn't seem to notice them. He gulped when one of Roger's thumbs stroked the skin just above the buttons on his trousers. "Do you think that helps?" Niklaus asked in a small voice.
"It doesn't hurt," he said, laughing. "Does it?"
No it didn't hurt. Definitely not. He blushed then, but it hurt his sunburned cheeks to do it. Niklaus placed his hands over Roger's as things were about to get very embarrassing. Was it the magic making him so sensitive or just his touch? "Stop it," he said but his hoarse plea only amused Roger.
"What are you two doing?"
"Ugh!" Someone exclaimed. It had to have been Athalla. "In front of everyone?"
"You should stop that now," Niklaus said, his cheeks reddening further. He pried Roger's hands off him, frowning at the mischievous smile on his face. "I hate you."
"You're really bad at it." He glanced down, chuckling. "You couldn't hide that if you wanted to."
"Shut your—" Niklaus couldn't get the rest out, the light was leaving him. He looked down, amazed as Roger's skin seemed to soak the magic in, his arms glowing around the edges as if he was made of light himself. "How…?"
"Tserrus!" Athalla exclaimed. "Are you all right, Roger?"
"He's fine!" Kavel growled in answer.
The light was still there, however, and Roger had it all to himself. His entire body was a bright beacon of blue, casting a light whose radius included not only the tree, the wagon and the poor bewildered horse, but half the road behind him.
"Oh, I'm so, so sorry," Niklaus said, trying desperately to keep a straight face. This shouldn't be amusing, he told himself. He could have seriously hurt him.
"What?" Roger pulled back a little, staring at them all in confusion. "He did it, right?" he asked. "Am I…" he raised his hands to look at them, "…glowing?"
"Humph," one of the men said and motioned Niklaus to stand aside. "Don't block the… uh..."
"Young man?" Niklaus heard the old woman say.
"Roger," Roger offered, looking what Niklaus had done to him. He didn't look happy about it. "Is this permanent?"
"No?" Niklaus had no idea. He shrugged, half-smiling and backed away before Roger decided it was a good idea to punish him.
"Just hold still," Kavel grumbled at Roger.
Niklaus and the rest of the party helped the travelers raise their giant tent while Roger complained not far away. He moved around them as they worked when they asked him to, but not once did he take a breath in between telling them all that if he was going to spend the rest of his days as a human lantern certain people were going to suffer horribly. Niklaus was glad no one else took him seriously. He suspected that certain people were really just a certain person, and really, Niklaus felt horrible. He wouldn't say that Roger didn't deserve to be put out-especially after how he acted today—though he hoped it wasn't permanent.
He tried not to laugh too much… unlike most of the others. Kavel and Roger were the only ones who didn't seem to find this funny. Kavel seemed more upset than Roger was, but he didn't say anything about it. Niklaus could honestly say he preferred the silent brooding to… whatever the elf had been doing before. He shuddered just picturing the elf's predatory look in his mind. He understood what Roger had meant then. Mourning for Hestia or not, after tonight Niklaus couldn't trust him.