The cage in his hand rattled slightly as Damir stepped out into the late afternoon sun. He pulled the door shut behind him and lifted the birdcage into view. The dove inside anxiously flapped her wings.
“In a few minutes you’ll be free, girl. Just hold on a little longer,” Damir said with a chuckle. For weeks he’d nursed the wounded bird back to health. Now that she was healthy, he would release her into the wild and to the freedom they both desired.
“Letting her go?” Elina asked from an open window.
Damir jumped and turned to look at his sister. The wind that cut across the farm rustled through his hair. He screwed his nose up. “Don’t do that. You scared the shit out of me.”
Elina laughed merrily, her young eyes bright with mirth. “That was the point. Make sure not to return with another stray, all right? We can barely take care of ourselves, let alone another animal.”
“Who’s the eldest here?”
Elina arched her brow and gave him a deadpan look. “Who has a bad habit of playing nursemaid to every wounded creature he stumbles upon?”
Damir rolled his eyes and waved her off. “I think we’ll be fine. I highly doubt I’ll come across a wounded animal between here and the fields.”
“Somehow I doubt that. My luck, you’ll find an endangered field mouse and swoop in to save it.” Elina pushed away from the window and vanished into the house.
“That brat,” Damir groused good-naturedly. Even though there was a ten-year age gap between them, Elina paraded around as if she were the head of the household. He brushed off his sister’s warnings and headed out to the fields to properly release the rehabilitated bird.
Damir wished he had the luxury to sprout a pair of wings and fly away himself. Instead he was shackled to the ground, forced day in and day out to live in isolation from the rest of the world with only his younger sister as an ally. What he’d do to trade in his chains for a chance to reach the sky, to embrace freedom for all it was.
“At least you can do that. Enjoy it for the both of us,” Damir told the dove as he set the cage down along the edge of the wheat field. Beyond the field was the forest, which kept both him and Elina walled up from the rest of the world. No one passed through the forest to reach them.
He opened the door to the cage and reached in. The dove flapped her dusty gray wings until her feathers ruffled, but stilled as soon as Damir gingerly wrapped his fingers around her body. Carefully he pulled her out and held her up. With a smile, he whispered, “Be free.”
He simultaneously tossed her into the sky and let go, watching as she carried herself toward nefl
. Despite the ache in his heart, his smile grew as he watched the dove fly away.
“One day,” he whispered dreamily, “one day, I’ll fly away.”
He reached down and closed the cage before picking it up. As he pivoted toward the farm, his eyes caught something just down the field line. It was a dark form collapsed on the ground. Damir sucked in a sharp breath and stared for a moment in surprise.
Someone had invaded their home.
Someone was hurt.
He snapped from his daze, dropped the cage, and sprinted across the yard to the body, praying the person was still alive. His gaze flitted over the figure as he skidded to a stop, taking in the assortment of wounds. He crouched and pressed his hand to the man’s back. Shallowly, it rose and fell.
“Thank the Child-God,” Damir whispered and began to gather the man up. Damir was in no way small. He stood at a solid six foot one with a body of lean muscle sculpted from days of toiling on the farm. But this man dominated him with a body made of bulkier, heavier muscle. With a grunt, Damir hoisted him up and struggled to get a good hold around his waist, which had been painfully sliced.
He hauled the man’s arm around his neck and began to half drag him across the yard to the farmhouse. By the time he pushed through the door, sweat poured down his body.
“Elina!” Damir shouted, dragging the unconscious man past the threshold. Elina rushed down from her room on the second level.
“What’s wrong?” She asked before her gaze settled on the man Damir was holding up. “Dear Lar, what happened?”
“I don’t know. I found him passed out by the field. Help me lay him down on my bed.” Damir began to maneuver around the small home to where his bed was tucked into a corner. The house was split into two levels. The second level was actually an attic that they had refurbished into a bedroom. The first was split between a kitchen, a small sitting space in front of the hearth, and a bedroom for Damir.
Damir laid the man down on his bed, which was in the far right corner of the house, just behind the stairs that led up to Elina’s room. He let out a grunt and swiped the back of his hand across his forehead as he stood.
“Is he alive?” Elina asked as she moved the man’s feet so they were stretched out, and stepped away.
“Yes, but for how long, I don’t know. We’ll have to work quickly if we want to keep him alive. Get me some water and a cloth, and open the window over there. I need some light,” Damir said. He quickly began to remove the man’s shoes. He needed to see all the damage before he could assess what he should do.
Elina didn’t argue at his orders. Hastily she threw open the window closest to Damir’s bed and let in the light. It pooled over the floor and bathed the bed in warmth. She scurried to their small kitchenette and found a large porcelain bowl. He heard her pour some water into it from the pitcher. When she returned to Damir’s side, he had already begun to work off the man’s shirt.
Carefully she moved the well-used candle and Scriptures off the makeshift nightstand beside Damir’s bed and set the bowl down. “What else can I do?”
Damir winced as he pried back the shirt and looked at the bite wound. Puss had already begun to form around the lacerations. Elina scrunched her nose.
“Oh God, he smells like death took a shit.”
“Elina!” Damir scolded. “Get me the scissors, and then go outside.”
“But Damir,” Elina began to argue but snapped her mouth closed when Damir sent her a scathing glare. She swallowed and nodded, tossing the stranger a final look. She found the scissors and passed them to him before vanishing outside.
With his sister gone, Damir began to cut the rest of the shirt away. He then worked the man’s pants down, stripping him until he was left wearing nothing. Damir gave the body a critical once over, inspecting every wound he could find. Blood and dirt caked the man’s skin, and his face was covered in a mask of scrapes and cuts. A gash bled across the man’s right brow. Damir lightly ran his thumb over it, brushing aside flakes of grime.
The most severe of the injuries he could see was the man’s shoulder, which looked like a wolf had gnawed on it. There was an infected gash in his side and mottled bruising from what appeared to be cracked ribs. His right knee was swollen up like a blowfish. Damir grabbed one of the cloths soaking in the bowl of water and squeezed it out. He began to carefully wipe away the dried blood and clean the wounds.
Damir dabbed at the bite wound, wincing as he cleaned the puss away. Lucky he had found the man when he did. Much longer out there and he might have died from infection. The man’s skin was hot with fever, and his lips were dried and cracked, no doubt from dehydration.
“You’ll be okay,” Damir whispered to the unconscious figure.
The water soon turned a murky brownish red. He changed the water and did a second cleansing until the man’s body was no longer caked in grime. Damir moved to sit on the edge of the bed. His breath hitched when he looked down and finally took in the chiseled features of the man he’d saved.
The stranger’s jaw was strong and hard, a regal line that was softened by a pair of full lips. The bulky body was sculpted from battle, fitted with a pair of broad shoulders and tapered hips, sienna flesh striped with pearlescent scars. His hair was the color of raven feathers, a shade of black that in the right light gleamed hues of violet, green, and navy. Damir ached to see the man’s eyes. Would they be another brilliant shade, just like his hair?
“I’ll have to heal you if I want to see them,” he murmured. Lightly he set his left hand on the man’s chest and spread his fingers. The air grew warm around him as he focused his aura on mending the man’s wounds. Aether--the power of Zoria--rushed through Damir and migrated down his arm. It tingled in his veins as if millions of bubbles popped inside him. He could feel pieces of his soul pouring into the man, could feel the energy as it flowed from him. An ethereal light grew from his palm, and the cerulean lines that wrapped around his palm and arm, like prominent veins, began to sway.
Damir let out a shuddered breath as his energy pulled from him and pooled into the magic. Wounds stitched back up, skin sealed, and scratches and scrapes erased as if they’d never existed. Damir pressed a little deeper, helped ease the swelling until it dissipated and the torn ligament in the man’s knee repaired itself. He sealed the bite, staving off the infection until it vanished, and mended broken marrow.
The light grew brighter. A celestial ball expanded around his hand. The muscles in Damir’s body quaked as he concentrated on healing the deeper injuries, the ones that throbbed beyond his sight. When the final wounds--both external and internal--were remedied, he released his hold on the aether and collapsed onto the hard body beneath him.
“Fuck,” Damir panted and tried to catch his breath. It was the most he’d used of his power in a long time.
The man beneath him didn’t wake, but Damir could feel the rise and fall of his chest. The man’s skin wasn’t as clammy now, the fever having been brought down by his curative abilities. Damir licked his lips and pushed himself up, his legs slightly shaky as he stood.
“Damir? Are you done?”
Damir turned his head and saw that Elina stood in the doorway.
“Yes,” Damir said and swallowed thickly. The man would still need rest, but he would be okay. Damir pulled the spare blanket at the foot of the bed up so he could cover the stranger.
Elina crossed the room to her brother’s side, looked at his arms, took one look at the man on the bed, and cursed under her breath. “You didn’t!”
Damir looked at her and grimaced. His head spun as he walked over to a chair and tentatively sat down. “He would have died.”
“You shouldn’t use your powers! You don’t know who this man is or where he comes from.” Elina worried her bottom lip, fear clouding her large hazel eyes.
Damir offered her a small smile. “It’ll be okay. Nothing will come from this. Just tend to your chores.”
He hated to see such a look on his sister’s face. At twelve, she had seen more in her time than should have been allowed. Damir tried to protect her from what he could, but some things couldn’t be helped. Elina moved away from the bed and hesitated in front of him.
“Are you sure? You don’t look well.”
“I’m fine. I just need to sit for a bit. Go. There are things to be done. When I’ve caught my breath, I’ll join you.” Damir waved his hand.
When she didn’t budge, he added, “Go, Elina.”
Elina let out a heavy sigh and threw a glance over her shoulder at the man on the bed as she left the house. Damir closed his eyes and focused on regaining his strength. As if someone had cut open a vein, it felt like all his strength had been drained right out of him. He’d never used that much energy before to heal someone. Damir opened his eyes and looked down at the still-quivering lines on his arms. They slowly came to a standstill. He knew they wrapped around his left arm and spiked out in various pathways until they drew a chaotic path up his shoulder and vanished inside his shirt, marking the way to the left side of his chest where his heart was. More lines extended from around his heart in a unique starburst. One of the lines coiled around his sun-kissed throat.
He rubbed his fingers down the inside of his arm and flicked his gaze to the man on the bed. What would he say when he woke? What would he do when he saw Damir?
Damir only left the farm to make exchanges in town twice a month. They remained in isolation for a reason, and this was the first man to breach that solitude in five years.
* * * *
The wolves were after him--chasing him, hunting him, killing him. They were at his back, their jaws snapping at his heels. Sweat trickled down his face; his eyes stung, and his vision blurred. He blindly ran. His lungs ached. They felt soggy, every pant strained and constricted. He choked on vomit, tasted fear. It replaced his adrenaline, became his adrenaline. His veins pulsed with the ominous fact that there was no escape. He was a capsized ship. He would go down.
A low growl rumbled from the alpha wolf’s throat. The sound was deafening. It silenced the pounding of blood in his ears. The alpha led the pack in their slaughter. Balin hazarded a glance back. The alpha took a running leap, and a scream ripped from Balin’s mouth.
“Easy,” a man said as Balin shot forward. The slight pressure against Balin’s shoulder guided him down. Balin struggled to catch his breath. His lungs ached as if he were still running.
But he wasn’t. He had escaped the woods. He had freed himself from the endless race.
“There you go; just breathe,” the man continued to urge as he wrung out a cloth and patted it against Balin’s sweat-covered brow. “It was only a nightmare, nothing more.”
Balin struggled to focus his eyes on the man in front of him. Where was he? The last thing he remembered was the forest and then a brilliant light.
“Where...” Balin tried to speak but broke into a hoarse cough instead. His throat was dry and raw as if someone had poured all the sand in the Sun Fields down his throat.
The man dropped his cloth into the ceramic bowl beside the bed and grabbed a glass of water. The man helped him sit up so he could drink. As Balin took paced sips of water, the man spoke.
“You’re at my farm. I found you just outside the fields. I don’t know where you came from, but you were really bad off when I found you.”
Balin pulled away, some of the water dribbling down his chin. He finally took in the rustic home around him, so unlike the hell pits he was used to seeing every day. The scent of hay and livestock came on a breeze through the open window.
“Where is this place?” Balin asked. His voice was still hoarse. “Who are you?”
The man offered a small smile, and Balin felt his heart skip a beat. Against the warm light that spilled into the room, the man’s hair seemed to sparkle as if it had been spun from golden threads. It fell in feathery, soft waves around his face, stopping just past his chin. He kept it tucked behind his ears, wisps of bangs falling into the bluest eyes Balin had ever seen. They were a unique shade, like the tropical waters of Balin’s homeland, a brilliant aqua that practically glowed against the sun-kissed flesh.
“My name is Damir, Damir Rosen. You’re in Pheor.”
Damir set the glass of water aside. His voice was pleasant to Balin, holding the deep resonance of the Pheorian accent; Balin had always favored the Pheorian dialect because of its elegant emphasis on vowels and its smooth tone, which was unlike the thick brogue of Terrasolis. The planet of Zoria was unhindered by mixed languages but shared All-Speak. Only the elves spoke in foreign tongues.
“Where in Pheor?” Balin pressed. His body felt stiff, but beyond a bit of bed soreness, nothing hurt. If his memories were correct, he should have been writhing in pain. Yet he wasn’t.
“We’re about half a day’s travel from Canaan.”
Balin watched as Damir closely studied him. He was young in the face, his chin just beginning to grow defined, and his lips were still soft and full. They formed a cupid’s bow, plump with a slightly thicker bottom. Balin would have bet his best horse that Damir wasn’t older than twenty-two, tops.
A strange blue line wove its way down Damir’s throat, like a prominent vein, and the more Balin looked at the man, he could see a vibrant vein peek out from Damir’s rolled-up sleeve on his left arm and wrap itself all the way around his hand. Balin grabbed Damir’s wrist before he could pull away, and squeezed. “Why am I not injured? I was bitten by a Pheorian wolf. What are you? A medicus?”
“I healed you, so you should be thanking me,” Damir whispered. He dropped his gaze to the offending hand but didn’t pull away.
Balin held on for a moment longer and then released his grip. “You’re right; my apologies. Thank you.”
Damir combed his fingers through his hair, brushing aside some bangs that had fallen into his eyes, and spoke. “You should rest. Even though I took care of your wounds, your body still needs time to recuperate. You were dehydrated and overtaxed, so it’s best to remain abed a bit.”
“How long have I been asleep?” Balin asked as he reached for the glass of water.
“About a day,” Damir replied as he rose from the bed. He hesitated and tucked his bottom lip between his teeth for a moment. “We can discuss what happened after you’ve regained your strength. For now, just sleep. When you wake, I’ll have dinner ready.”
Balin opened his mouth to argue, but the truth was, he was still exhausted. As much as he didn’t want to return to his nightmares, his body craved sleep. He took a long drink of water and set the glass aside. For now he’d rest. Then, when he regained his strength, he’d see about reaching Canaan.
Cythra’s tits. I was supposed to be at the castle four days ago
. Balin lay back against the pillow, surprised at how comfortable the humble bed was. Sleep quickly reclaimed him.
DAMIR TURNED AWAY as the stranger settled beneath the old quilt. He walked over to the window and drew the curtains shut, dimming that small corner of the house. When Damir turned around, the man’s breathing had evened out. As he studied the slumbering man, a small smile curled Damir’s mouth.
Amber. His eyes had been the color of amber.
Damir shook his head, and his thoughts scattered. Fantasizing about a pair of eyes was not a productive way of spending his time, even if they were the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen.
“What are you daydreaming about?” Elina asked as she walked into the house, brushing some dirt off her dress. Her long silvery-blonde braid swung behind her with each step. She screwed up her nose and glanced at the bed where the stranger slept. “Did he wake? Any clue who he is?”
Damir shooed Elina out of the house before she woke him up. “Yes, he woke, and no. He needs to rest,” he told her as he stood in the doorway. “You can interrogate him when he wakes.”
“I’m surprised you aren’t freaking out, Dammy. Usually you’re the one being ultraparanoid.” Elina propped her hands on her bony hips and cocked a brow in her brother’s direction. “So what gives? You got the hots for him or something?”
Damir rolled his eyes and gave an exasperated sigh, ignoring the warmth that crept across his cheeks. “No, Elina. But he was injured, and we couldn’t leave him to die.”
“So he’s another stray. Didn’t I tell you not to bring any more home?”
“Who’s the adult here?” Damir asked with mock severity.
Elina gave him a toothy grin and shrugged her dainty shoulders. “Sometimes I wonder.”
“Go find something to do before I find a chore for you. The roof could use a little work. And who knows, there might even be an accident.” Damir narrowed his eyes at her. She let out a chuckle and walked away, waving him off.
When Elina was out of sight, Damir’s doubts came back. Who was this man? With eyes of amber and hair the color of raven feathers, he was definitely not a man from Pheor. Damir could only pray he hadn’t been wrong in bringing the man home.
* * * *
Balin woke to the smell of dinner cooking. It was a fragrant scent filled with roasted vegetables and spiced meats. He hadn’t even realized how famished he was until his stomach gave an embarrassingly loud growl. He carefully pushed himself up, mindful of his stiff muscles. He rolled his left shoulder, testing it. He didn’t understand how this man had healed his wounds, but he was grateful. Beyond the soreness, exhaustion, and hunger that bombarded him, he felt better than he should have.
“Good, you’re awake. I’ll get Damir,” a melodic voice chirped. Balin glanced over at the girl standing near the bed. She was nothing more than a child, but her hazel gaze ran deep, filled with a knowledge some men thrice her age had yet to discover.
“Damir?” Balin asked. His mind flashed back to the aquatic eyes that had glowed so warmly at him.
“My brother. I’m Elina.” She clasped her hands in front of her and slowly swung her hips back and forth. “He went out to check on the animals one last time before dinner.”
She turned to the fireplace where a large pot was set, and stirred the contents. He saw her deeply inhale, and then she spun around and skipped out of the house like a sprite.
Balin licked his cracked lips. “Damir.”
The name rested pleasantly on his tongue. It sent delicate ripples over his body and stirred a warmth he hadn’t felt in years.
Just as Balin managed to get out of bed, the sheet wrapped around his waist, Damir returned with his sister. He looked over at Balin with a wide smile that seemed to brighten his already luminous eyes.
“How do you feel?”
“Considering my previous state, I’d say wonderful,” Balin replied. He tried not to let his thoughts drift over the past few days. Howls still echoed in his mind like stubborn poltergeists. He rubbed a hand through his tangled hair. “I...I want to thank you, for your generosity. Not many men would be so kind.”
Most men would have slit his throat and taken what was left of him, not that there had been much to take. The men he’d spent his lifetime rubbing shoulders with in the lowest of shade halls--the filthy gambling dens, where men could find cheap drinks and drugs--didn’t think twice about another man’s life. Damir was a radiant light in the blight of Balin’s life, a rarity he hadn’t known existed.
Damir gestured to the small wooden table set up in front of the fire. Balin glanced down at the sheet still wrapped around his lap and then to Damir and his sister. “As much as I would love to join you, there is just one slight problem.”
Confusion drew the man’s brows together. Balin found he liked how the tip of Damir’s nose tilted up.
“Clothes. I have none.” Balin stated and chuckled softly when Damir’s face turned a rosy shade.
“Oh, of course. Elina, fetch some of Father’s clothes and bring them down. They should fit him just fine,” Damir ordered.
Elina nodded and rushed upstairs. When she returned, she brandished a pair of simple brown cotton trousers, a plain shirt, and a pair of old leather work boots. She passed them to Balin with a smile.
“Here you go.”
“Thank you.” Balin took the clothes and looked between them. When neither of them moved, he said, “I may not be the most modest person, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to change in front of a lass.”
Elina colored brightly and turned her back to him, finding something to busy herself with in the kitchen. Damir abruptly turned on his heels and whisked away the bowl of water that had sat on the nightstand. His ears pinked at the top. Balin smirked to himself and let the blanket fall away. He pulled on the pants and shirt and shoved his feet into the boots. The leather was soft and well-worn.
Balin had worn worse, but he had also worn better. The cotton of the shirt scratched against his skin. He patted the old clothes, and some dust escaped. “Finished.”
Damir turned around and peeked at him from beneath his long lashes, his eyes sparkling brightly. Balin’s breath caught. The man truly was striking.
“Let’s eat,” Damir said, then coughed into his hand.
Balin moved toward the table and took a seat. He inhaled deeply as Elina set a bowlful of broth in front of him.
“It may be a bit before you can eat solids. It’s important to get some fluids in you,” Damir explained.
Days without food and water had left his body wrung out. Balin knew it would be some time before he rebuilt his stamina and strength.
Damir sat across from him, and Elina nestled herself between them, a spoon in her hand. Damir shook his head at his sister.
Elina set her spoon down and clasped her hands together. Damir bowed his head, and after a quick glance up at Balin, he said, “Lar, thank you for the bounty in front of us. We thank you for the blessings of today and pray that you give us strength. Please look over our friend’s injuries and help him regain his strength. Thank you, Lar; in your name we pray. Amen.”
“What is your name?” Elina asked as she dropped her hands and picked up her spoon.
Balin picked up his spoon and dipped it through the broth. “My name is Balin Cor.”
He paused to wait and see if there was any recognition of the alias, but neither Damir nor Elina showed any. Elina probed further with her questions.
“You aren’t from Pheor, are you?”
Her eyes were round with curiosity. The soft pucker of her mouth was endearing and reminded Balin so much of his own sisters.
“Elina, don’t ask so many questions,” Damir reprimanded, though Balin could see the same curiosity in his caretaker’s eyes. Damir looked up at him and then dropped his gaze to his bowl of stew and returned to eating.
Balin chuckled. “It’s all right. I am more than happy to answer her questions. No, I’m not from here. I come from Terrasolis. Have you heard of it?”
“That’s to the south, right?” Elina’s face split into a large grin.
“Yes, it is.” Balin took a spoonful of broth and moaned with appreciation. “This is delicious.”
It might have been from the fact that it was his first meal in days, but it tasted like heaven. At Balin’s compliment, Elina’s face glowed with pride.
“What of you? Have you always lived here?” Balin asked, his gaze briefly taking in the blue vines that wrapped around Damir’s neck.
“Yep! It used to be our parents’ farm,” Elina answered.
Balin wished he could get a response from Damir. He addressed him directly. “And you, Damir? Have you ever left? Perhaps trained at the Royal Academy in Civitatem Aurum?” Balin asked before he took another spoonful of broth.
“No,” Damir said as he poked at his food. “I only venture to Canaan when necessary. Otherwise, neither I nor Elina leave the farm.”
“But surely you’ve trained in magic. You healed me, did you not?” Balin frowned, taken aback that they had never left their farm.
“I did. But as I told you before, I am no medicus, nor have I ever trained as one.” His reply was stiff.
“An Album Mage, then?” Balin asked. While he had never seen a mage with such markings before, it was the only explanation he could think of to explain how he’d been healed.
“No,” Damir replied, “and I’d rather not discuss it, please.”
Balin opened his mouth to ask some more questions but snapped it closed a second later. Damir had been gracious enough to take Balin into his home. The last thing he wanted to do was overstep his welcome. “Of course. My humblest apologies.”
“It’s all right.”
Although Damir assured him all was well, Balin thought he heard an uncomfortable edge to Damir’s voice.
Balin returned his attention to his broth and finished it without further questions. He managed to put away two bowls before they cleared off the table. Elina chatted the entire time, and while Balin tried to remain attentive to the girl’s questions, he found both his gaze and his mind drifting over to a rather demure Damir.
When the meal was over and the dishes washed, Elina stretched her arms over her head. “I’m going to bed. Good night, Damir. Balin.”
Damir watched her go. As she climbed the stairs to the second level, he said, “Good night, Elina. Sleep tight.”
Balin leaned against his seat and studied Damir as the man put the last of the dishes away. “You don’t talk much, do you?”
Damir turned to face him and pressed his lips together. Balin could feel the desire pooling in his stomach. This man was dangerous. His powers were unknown, and his beauty was unparalleled, a combination that was always deadly. Many kings and politicians had fallen under the double-edged blade of a vixen such as Damir.
“You should return to bed. You need to rest,” Damir replied.
Balin rolled his eyes. “That is the most I’ve gotten from you all evening.”
Damir gestured to the bed. “You must regain your strength.”
“Where will you sleep?” Balin asked as he returned to the bed.
“I don’t want to put you out,” Balin quickly argued. He would not be averse to having Damir beside him. The thought pulsed hot in his blood and made his heart shudder pleasantly.
“It’s all right. Please, rest. I’ll be fine on the floor.”