Rating: M / MA
Warnings: Blood and sex; sad feelings, and my bad writing.
Summary: Alfred is only a magician in training when his best friend rides to war, never to return. When it seems he can never reach the grand potential his mentor believes he can, he runs away and miraculously finds the focus and reason to his life; but at a cost. How do you protect someone who is connected intimately to you, just as the stars are connected in a constellation?
Important Notes: Radu – Romania, Conrad - Netherlands
Chapter Two: Lepus
There is a pit just outside the rocky hills of the small village, one that had been repurposed for the past two years to throw in the corpses of those who could not be saved. It is a gruesome sight and the smell of decay and sickness is more than enough to chase off even the most intent of invaders. Alfred stands at the edge of this pit, a cloth soaked in perfumes held up to his mouth and nose. His blue eyes scan over the rotting flesh and dirtied clothes, looking for the bloodied Captain’s uniform and pale, pink complexion amongst the blue and green.
He knows that there is no way Arthur is dead – he knows so because it’s too hard to accept otherwise. His heart leaps into his throat when he finally spots the torn red cape that Arthur was wearing when he was carried into the stagnant hut. He slides down into the pit, trying not to gag as the rancid smell overpowers the perfume of his cloth and rotting flesh squishes under his boots. He makes his way to Arthur, grabbing as much fabric of the Captain’s collar as he can before beginning the slow, arduous task of dragging the man from the maggot infested pit.
Earlier the physician insisted that Arthur hadn’t been there long, but even after five minutes Alfred finds it difficult to breathe or to keep from gagging. He has to drop the cloth from his mouth and nose to pull Arthur up the shifting rock edge to lay his old friend out on the ground. Alfred rolls Arthur over onto his back so he can get a clear look at his face.
“I’m so sorry,” Alfred mutters as he brushes a squirming maggot from Arthur’s greasy hair. “I should have tried harder, should have woke up sooner and stopped them from throwing you in the pit.” He sighs as he begins to inspect Arthur’s vitals, checking for breath and a steady pulse as he pulls off his satchel to retrieve a flask of water and a clean linen cloth. He begins cleaning Arthur’s pink cheeks, clearing the skin from any foul substances that were likely wrought with disease. “I just wanted to say goodbye.”
Arthur only looks like he’s sleeping. It’s not a trick of the light or a façade of makeup. His chest rises and falls with even breaths and his heart beats rhythmically, but he simply doesn’t wake. Alfred sits by his side, carefully cleaning him and brushing his hair as he stares into that familiar face, wondering what he should do or say if those fae green eyes are to ever open – or if they don’t.
If Arthur leaves him then he has no one left in this world. When he was a child, Arthur was the only one that didn’t want to use him, who only wanted to be his friend and talk about being a knight – Arthur was his hope on the days when he thought he couldn’t bear disappointing Radu again. And even though Arthur had forgotten him easily enough, there was always a part of him that wanted to find someone just like his old friend.
“Arthur, you need to wake up,” he pleads, tapping Arthur’s rounded cheek to try and stimulate his senses. “They think you’re dead, but you’re not, right? You’re a fighter – a warrior, that’s what you always told me. You can’t die. I haven’t said goodbye.”
Everything in his body hurts, both from the emotional strain and the magical backlash that leaves his joints creaking and muscles aching. For the first time in a long time, he doesn’t know what to do. Healing was simple enough; mend the wounds, restore, revive, and renew. But loss is something he thought he had coped with long ago, and to choke in its face now – Alfred doesn’t even have his courage left. He bends over Arthur, touching their foreheads together as his shoulders begin to shake and quiver with repressed sobs. “Goddamn you,” he sobs out, “Goddamn you for dying like this.” After everything he did to try and save Arthur, he just decides to not wake up. For the time being, Alfred lets his grief take hold, wracking his poor body with choked sobs and shivers of anger.
And when he feels he is almost completely spent of tears, something touches his cheek and Alfred reels back in shock. Arthur’s vivid green eyes are opened ever so slightly, almost leering at Alfred as hot tears begin to wet the corners of his puffy eyes once again. “Rude,” Arthur whispers, the corners of his pale lips barely upturned enough to show his amusement. Alfred curses something under his breath, quickly taking Arthur’s hand into his and squeezing it before checking Arthur’s vitals again. “Alfred… is that… you?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” he answers in a pinched tone, trying his best not to sniffle. “Who else would it be?” Arthur’s breathing seems labored, but he has a pulse and Alfred isn’t sure if he should be worried or not, so he grasps Arthur’s hand once again and waits.
Arthur doesn’t answer for a long time and simply stares off to the side. Finally his lips part in a sigh and he says, “What happened… to me? Am I at the capital? I… I just remember… the hands.”
Alfred doesn’t know what to say. Arthur saw the hands that reached into him on his deathbed, the ones that pulled him away from peace and the gate of the afterlife just so Alfred wouldn’t have to see him leave again? Alfred purses his lips as his eyes downcast. What is he supposed to say? It’s been nearly ten years and Arthur had almost died. He’s not sure what protocol or manners to perform in such a situation, so he says something without thinking it through. “Have you ever heard the story of Lepus?”
There is a look of disbelief on Arthur’s weary face before he closes his eyes with a strained sounding chuckle. “After all this time,” he says hoarsely, “you still indulge in your stories.” Arthur swallows thickly, his lips dry and nose running. “I’m tired.”
Alfred looks up from Arthur, judging the distance from their spot on the rocky ground by the vile pit to the small hut on the hill by the village. “Don’t sleep just yet, alright? I’ve got to get you to a bed.”
“I can’t move.” Arthur sighs and his head falls back in exhaustion. “Not yet… too tired.”
“You almost died,” Alfred says with a shake of his head. “I wouldn’t let you stand anyway. What kind of healer would I be if I put my patients into danger like that?”
He stands and quickly begins packing up his satchel once again. When he’s sure he has everything, he unclips Arthur’s cape from around his neck and gathers the two edges into his hands. Alfred slowly begins to drag Arthur through the rocks and dirt towards the village, purposefully ignoring Arthur’s soft question of, “Healer?” as he goes along, making sure to mind pointy rocks or the occasional prickly plant.
Alfred knows he isn’t exactly the strongest man around, and Arthur seems to grow heavier and heavier with every step that he drags his friend. He is thankful that no one sees them as he pulls Arthur up the hardened clay step to the door of his hut and drags him inside, and Alfred wants to keep it that way. As far as anyone else knew Arthur had died that night, and if they see him now they would accuse Alfred of bringing a corpse into his hut.
He helps Arthur onto his modest bedroll, making sure to remove the small dragon totem from underneath his pillow before Arthur rests his head upon it. “I don’t have much better right now,” he says wearily as he picks up a pail for water and a stiff cloth that he uses to bathe himself. “I’m going to get you a change of clothes and then I’ll clean you up. You’ve been in that pit for too long, you could get sick.”
“Hnn,” is Arthur’s pained response before he quickly drifts off into a wavering sleep of exhaustion.
Alfred simply sets to work, closing off his mind and allowing his fingers to pretend that Arthur was just another soldier that he had to help. He strips the Captain of his filthy clothes, fetches water and begins to clean what he can as Arthur murmurs feverish words in his sleep. When he is finished, he places a cool rag on his old friend’s forehead and sits next to him, contemplating what to say when he wakes next.
--- Line Here ---
When Arthur opens his eyes it is dark outside and he’s wearing a simple pair of breeches and a linen jerkin. He manages to reach a hand up and rub at his face. Everything feels unexplainably heavy, as if his limbs are not his own and he’s trying to maneuver another person’s body. “Alfred?” he calls out softly as he makes an effort to sit up and look around. There is a simple blanket and a rolled up tunic next to him and it’s the most pathetic makeshift bed he’s ever seen – even for battlefield standards.
The shredded cloth covering the door of the hut parts open and Alfred steps into the hut. He looks worn and tired as he stoops in the corner to wash his hands in the bucket of water. “Oh,” he says with a slight start as he turns to inspect Arthur’s progress. “You’re awake already. You should lie back down.”
Arthur only attempts to shrug but finds that his muscles are too rigid. “Alfred, what’s going on?” His voice cracks and he smothers a cough with his hands. “What happened to me?”
There is a long sigh from Alfred and Arthur can’t believe how much his friend has changed in these years. He’s tall now, with small, swelling muscles that speak of hard times outside of his tower. He wants to ask about everything, but there is no time. He needs to return to his post, to fight, to do his duty, not lie around like a gimp as he is nursed to health.
“It was a belly wound,” Alfred explains carefully, sitting cross-legged on his own blanket next to Arthur. “It was just under your ribs, with a spear – or so I was told. You were bleeding fast and half dead by the time they got you here. I had only been here a few weeks and your men must have been desperate because I’m sure they hadn’t heard about me yet.” He twines his fingers together, staring at his lap as he speaks. “When I saw it was you… And then… then you said my name…” Alfred sighs. “I couldn’t let you die.”
Arthur doesn’t say anything for a few moments, letting the information sink in. He glances over to Alfred. “What happened to your hands?”
Startled, Alfred presses his palms against his knees, hiding his scars from view. “That’s… a story I’d rather not tell right now.” Quickly he gives his knees a slap and stands up to grab his discarded satchel. “Anyway, I’m sure you’re starving. I brought you some bread – I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to keep it down.”
There are so many unspoken questions between them, but nothing is said as Arthur slowly eats while Alfred fetches more water to drink. Alfred fills a wooden cup with the cool water from the well at the base of the hill he lives on and hands it to Arthur with a frown. “Do you feel sick at all? I wouldn’t be surprised to find that you caught something in that pit.”
“Pit?” Alfred makes a disgusted face but doesn’t explain, so Arthur finishes his meal in a contemplative silence. “I have to get back to my troops. They need me.”
“I…” Alfred sighs heavily, leaning back so he can stare at the thatched ceiling of his hut. “They think you’re dead, Arthur. They left yesterday after giving you a quick service. They said there was no time for a proper one, and that they would send a letter to your father so he can retrieve your body for a real funeral.” His fingers wind into the thin fabric of the blanket he is sitting on and his brows furrow in thought. “Radu never taught me much on military protocol or anything, but I’m sure it would cause some kind of havoc if you showed up after you’ve been proclaimed killed in the service of your country.”
Alfred waits for Arthur to say something, for the military career man to turn and yell at him or argue with his logic, or simply say that he never wants to see the healer’s face again. But Arthur doesn’t. Instead his hands wring around the wooden cup tightly as he stares at the water inside intently. “What is the story of Lepus?”
“Wha – Oh.” Alfred bites his lower lip and shakes his head slightly. “There actually isn’t much of a story behind Lepus. He’s the rabbit of the moon, you know, and he was sent to the heavens to forever be hunted by the dogs of Orion. Lepus… always is running across the sky. Poor bunny, don’t you think? He can’t even defend himself, just has to run and run and run.”
The Captain is silent as he frowns. “That’s a morbid thought,” he says, setting his cup aside to stretch out his fingers and wrists, hoping to gain more control and flexibility of his muscles.
“It’s a morbid life.”
They sit in silence and Alfred hates the quiet around them. When they were younger the only silences were the companionable ones, the kind that were comfortable and easy to slip out of and into again. These ones were strange and unsettling, as if every movement of Arthur’s body is an unspoken word or a signal that he cannot understand but should, even though he knows it’s likely not. “You need to sleep,” Alfred decides to say and gently pushes on Arthur’s chest to make him lay down. “I’m… I’m going to finish an errand. When I get back, you should be sleeping.”
He waits for Arthur to settle into his blankets and close his fae green eyes before he slips out of the hut to sit on one of the few grassy patches the slope of the hill has to offer. There are greenish colored clouds covering the expanse of the night sky, the waning moon adding a soft light to the sickly color. Alfred frowns at the night sky and leans back. He hates the cloudy nights when the stars are hidden, especially on the nights when he wants to think, such as tonight. Alfred lifts a hand towards the sky, taking his index finger and draws out an invisible pattern above his head, unsure of what constellation he is attempting to draw or create before he gives up and decides to stick with one that he knew the best and cherished.
With a flex of his fingers and flick of his wrist, Alfred summons the sparks of fire that he’s been conjuring since he was a child to draw in the sky. It’s a motion that’s familiar and easy so he doesn’t think as the small speckles of fire jump from his fingertips to hover delightedly in the air. And as he’s drawing the final “star”, Alfred has a sudden moment of clarity, and he can’t quite describe the feeling. It’s as if he knows what it is to be for a brief moment or two; what it is like to burn and devour everything in his path, to understand how it feels to light a path or warm a hearth.
What he doesn’t expect is for the final sparks to flare from his hands, to go from wafting embers to bright, scorching bursts of flame that he had only seen Radu perform as a simple demonstration. Alfred yelps as the fire swells into the air and floats back down to the earth to catch on the sleeve of Alfred’s robe.
“Fuck!” he yells as the threadbare fabric of his sleeve burns easily while he flails his arm and rolls on the ground to put it out as quickly as he can. And just like that the moment of clarity is lost and Alfred is left to stare at his ruined robe sleeve with a stupefied look.
There is a clamor and Alfred looks up with wide eyes to see a panicked Arthur toppled over on the clay step of his hut. “What happened?” the Captain asks, clearly out of sorts. His green eyes are unfocused as he blinks rapidly, grasping at the ground for some sort or purchase that he can’t seem to find. “Are you alright?”
“I… yes, I’m fine.” He stands quickly and takes off his robe, draping it over his arm as he walks over to Arthur who is still on the ground in confusion. “Didn’t I tell you to go to sleep?” he asks as he helps Arthur to stand on shaky legs.
“I was – I tried, I did,” Arthur says dumbly as Alfred carefully brings him back into the hut. “I was going to but then it was hot. It was hot and hot and then you yelled.” Arthur moans to himself and presses a hand to his sweaty forehead. “But then it’s not hot – not any longer. I don’t understand.”
Alfred helps Arthur to sit and fixes the bedroll that had been mussed in the Captain’s momentary panic. “You might’ve caught something after all,” he murmurs as he tucks the extra blanket around Arthur’s shoulders and prepares a new damp cloth to press against his forehead. He watches as Arthur simply begins to drift off into much needed sleep without another word. Whatever is happening, he doesn’t like it – doesn’t like the fact that the monotony in his life is being stripped from him ever so slowly. And he definitely doesn’t like that he’s completely unsure of himself or what to do or say every moment that Arthur is conscious. This shift pulls him back to days that he would rather never remember, the times spent alone in his darkened study praying that he wouldn’t fail his mentor or his King or his only friend out at war.
He spends the night sitting at Arthur’s side, pondering over the evening’s events. Alfred knows something is wrong with him, or perhaps it’s just different, but he cannot put his finger on it. Something has changed and it has altered his abilities in a way that he’s both uncomfortable with and excited about. The mistake he made only a few hours ago was the most black magic he’d ever performed in his entire life and he’s not sure if he ever wants it to happen again – at least not in that capacity.
And still there are too many unanswered questions plaguing him. He finds that he can’t sleep, not due to the lack of bedding, but because the most prominent question will not – cannot – leave his troubled mind.
--- Line Here ---
Alfred has only been caring for Arthur for two days when the physician begins to grow suspicious, or at least that’s how Alfred sees the squint of the elderly man’s eyes and thoughtful strokes of his beard with gnarled fingers as he stares long and hard at Alfred as he works. He tries to convince himself that he’s being paranoid but it’s hard with the man always over his shoulder and he finds himself wavering and distracted from his tasks of healing.
It is the peak of the afternoon when the elderly physician approaches him, touching his shoulder gently with an age spotted hand. “Something is on your mind, young one,” is all he says when Alfred jumps at the touch.
“I – o-oh.” Alfred finishes washing his hands, drying them on a stiff cloth with a sigh. “You can tell, huh?” he asks evasively, fishing for any information as to what the old man thinks he is thinking.
“It’s obvious. Is it because it has been so cloudy as of late? Everyone in the village knows how you love to stargaze. It relaxes you, does it not?”
Alfred lets loose a breathy chuckle. “Oh, yes…” he trails off with a thoughtful frown. “It’s hard to relax sometimes; I just like the peace the unchanging sky brings. Usually… well… I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like cloudy nights are a bad omen, but maybe that’s just because I like the stars so much, hm?”
The elderly physician laughs, his head tilting back as the whooping sound pours from him. “There is always that chance, but I wouldn’t read much into it.” He smiles, his teeth in impoverished disarray that makes the gesture more slovenly. “Why don’t you have your afternoon rest? Collect your thoughts and then I would like you to help me reset a broken limb.”
“Okay, alright, I’ll do that.” Alfred smiles fondly at the man before he leaves. There is a disgusting feeling rollicking around in the cradle of his stomach and he’s afraid of what it might mean. He should know better than to lie.
--- Line Here ---
When the sun begins to drop behind the curtain of mountains in the west, Alfred helps Arthur to stand and stretch muscles that had stiffened during his bedridden state. Arthur is vastly different than Alfred remembers. He’s colder and quieter, the politeness that had been drilled into him as a child no longer welcoming but instead it’s forced and uncomfortable as he tries to talk with Alfred about inconsequential things such as the weather. Alfred also hates to admit that Arthur has become a very handsome man (and he had been jealous enough when they were younger, life is cruel to him it seems). Arthur is handsome, courageous, and a leader, while Alfred is none of these things. However, Alfred is hardly surprised.
“Does anything hurt?” he asks as Arthur stretches the well-developed muscles in his legs and abdomen, using Alfred as a mobile support.
Arthur stares past Alfred and at the plain walls of the hut. Alfred grows concerned by the silence and grasps Arthur’s wrist to pull him closer so he can press his palm against the Captain’s forehead, but unexpectedly Arthur catches Alfred’s hand and examines his scars with a surly expression. “Why aren’t you at the capital?” he asks Alfred, puzzled, “Why are you here and… and a healer of all things, Alfred? What happened to you?”
“Nothing happened to me,” he says with a frown, snatching away his hand only to catch Arthur as he stumbles forward due to a lack of support. “I’m sorry.”
The Captain only shakes his head. “Don’t be. It’s not my place to question you. We’re far from friends, I understand that, but it’s hard… hard to not care.” Arthur’s head hangs as he tries to think of something else to say but only sighs and continues with his train of thought. “Why aren’t you at the capital with Radu, Alfred?”
Alfred struggles to find the right words to say. His mouth opens and closes and he’s on the brink of breaking down and telling Arthur about everything that had happened since the day he left on horseback without letting Alfred have his final farewell (is all he had wanted was to be there with a goodbye and hug, to stand at the castle gates and watch Arthur leave until he was nothing but a speck on the horizon). But before he can, there is an unsettling noise outside and Alfred freezes in his spot.
There are muffled screams just beyond the cloth covering the windows and doors of his hut and Alfred pulls Arthur to a window so he can rip down the fabric. Outside a horrific scene is revealed. The village below them is burning, soldiers in gold and silver armor raiding homes and capturing civilians. Alfred can’t react, doesn’t know how to. The war has finally found him, and even though he is overly familiar with its aftereffects, it is an entirely different thing to be trapped by it.
“Alfred!” Arthur shakes him, grabbing his chin in a harsh grip and forcing his blue eyes away from the destruction below. “We have to leave! Don’t just stand there like a bloody fool! Where’s my sword?”
The thatched roofs of the village huts burn quickly and assuredly, creating a quiet roar or destruction and heat, the black smoke wafting upwards to choke at the reddening sky. Alfred’s body feels as if it’s moving on its own as he hurries to fetch the sword that he managed to salvage from the medical hut upon Arthur’s request. Arthur leans against the wall, fastening his jerkin and weapon properly against his hip while Alfred begins stuffing all of his possessions in his travel pack, making sure to take what little food he has at hand and his full canteen of water. “Hurry,” Arthur urges him and begins to hobble outside, ducking as well as he can and making his way down the opposite side of the hill as the village is.
“He-hey!” Alfred whisper-shouts at Arthur as he scrambles after the soldier, afraid that he might alert the attention of the men who are currently burning down the village he had grown to enjoy being a part of. “Don’t move so fast! You’re not well enough to be moving around so much!”
Arthur sends Alfred a narrow look, one that has hardened with years of war, training, and death. “It’s do or die, Alfred. And I have no intention of dying at this very moment. Not after surviving that last bit.”
Alfred doesn’t say anything, only hurries to Arthur’s side and slings the Captain’s arm behind his neck to help the man walk faster down the rocky hill. A particularly desperate scream pierces the evening air and Alfred is suddenly very aware of himself and what is happening. “How did those soldiers get here?” he demands as they begin to pick up a limped trot once the ground evens out. “What the hell happened at the border, Arthur? Those people are dying!”
“And what are you going to do about it?” Arthur barks; his voice drops smoothly into a deep, authoritative tone that speaks of years in command. He stops, causing Alfred to stumble. “Alfred, you’re a magician! You can do something about it! I bet it’s less than a single platoon; oh it’s so very likely the case – maybe thirty men! Alfred!”
“Just keep running.” Alfred jerks Arthur back into their stunted run. Arthur opens his mouth to protest, but Alfred knows it’s coming and cuts him off. “No, Arthur, no. There is nothing I can do. Goddammit I wish there was, but there’s not. Okay? Just… hurry before they see us. Don’t stop. Do not stop.”
Confusion is evident on Arthur’s face, but he does as he’s told and keeps his pace with Alfred, occasionally looking over his shoulder until he can see the hut on the hill being burned in the distance as the sky purples and stars peek out from the thick black claws of suffocating smoke.
So they are tasked with doing nothing – nothing to save the innocents or repel the evil that has swooped down from the Drachman border; nothing but the morbid task of running.
--- End Chapter Two ---
Unimportant Notes: Many thanks to Michelle/Cheru for betaing this while I’m working on it for NaNoWriMo! :)