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, Emma – Belgium, Caleb – Molossia
Chapter Three: Octans
Alfred is used to the life of a vagabond, endlessly roaming the lands with nothing more than what he is able to carry on his own back. Arthur, however, has lived the life of a warrior since a young age. There is very little traveling as a soldier, only the long march to the next destination and then to camp in the same place for months or even years at a time. He can tell that Alfred is annoyed each time he needs to stop and rest, and then feels obligated to blame it on the stiff feeling in his legs.
They have been making their way through the rocky slopes, prickled with small grass patches and fat, rounded cacti, for nearly two days in silence. Neither knows what to say beyond the tending of Arthur’s wounds, and the quick consultation of the starry sky to make sure they’re heading south and not north into Drachma itself.
On the second night, Arthur decides it’s safe to start a small fire (because if there had been any chance the soldiers had saw them, they would have easily caught them by now. What had happened that night could not have been more than mindless slaughter) so Alfred does his best to create a few sparks on dried grasses if only to humor Arthur and Arthur eventually finds himself staring into the small, licking flames with an absent fixation.
“I am Captain Arthur Kirkland,” he says as he continues to stare into the fire. He doesn’t know what he’s saying nor does he care, he just knows that something has to be said because the silence is eating away at him even if he’s not sure as to why. Alfred looks at him from across the fire, his fingers peeling at the thick skin of an orange fruit as he waits for Arthur to say more. “I was promoted to the rank of Captain three years ago by the King himself. Many said it was due to my father’s influence as the Duke, but I assure you that my father cares less about my military success as he does prepping his eldest to take over the Kirkland Estate.”
Alfred dips his head. “I know,” he mutters at his hands. “When your letters stopped… I would ask him for news – a-about you, you know? He never had any. He would just say, ‘Don’t worry lad, he’s not dead yet.’” He peels off a strip of the fruit’s skin and tosses it to the side with an upset noise. “I stopped talking to him about four years ago. Congratulations on making Captain, I guess.”
“I apologize about the letters. Once Sir Conrad found out I was intent on a career, he made sure I had little time for anything else. I know it’s not much of an excuse, but it’s undeniably the only available truth I have.” Alfred sighs and splits the fruit in half, reaching over the small embers to hand a piece to Arthur. “Thank you. Alfred, where did you become so worldly? Two days in this dry land… most of my men would think they were dying by now.”
“I’ve been traveling for a long time – even before I met you. But I’ve been doing a lot of wandering this past year. Sometimes life needs a kind of aimlessness to it. You knew what you wanted in life – or maybe you knew what your father wanted. I didn’t – still don’t. But hey, maybe I will if I just look around, right?”
Arthur frowns as he eats his half of the fruit and rolls his shoulders as they begin to cramp from his lack of proper posture. “So… You completed your apprenticeship with Radu and decided to simply leave? Under the guise as a traveling healer – am I understanding this correctly?”
“No.” Alfred pushes a chunk of fruit into his mouth to keep himself from speaking, but he grows unnerved as Arthur continues to stare unblinkingly into the dimming fire. For a brief moment he thinks he sees something glitter and assumes it’s a wayward ember caught in the wind, but there is a pulling sensation in his chest, aching and tugging him towards a lost and confused state of mind. “I never completed my apprenticeship,” he finds himself blurting out as his chest squeezes in an anxiety that he knows is not his own. “It doesn’t work that way for magicians. Usually you become your own magician when your mentor dies or proclaims that he has nothing left to teach you. Radu’s alive and I know for a fact he still hadn’t taught me as much alchemy as he would have liked to.”
“I don’t understand.” But Alfred can’t tell that Arthur does understand, his vivid green eyes shutting with disbelief as he shakes his head and sends his wild golden locks into further disarray. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“Must we talk about this?” he asks huffily and throws another broken twig into the tiny fire. “What’s done is done and there’s nothing I can do about it, okay? I have… There are more important things to worry about right now, like what are we going to do? Where are we going to go?”
Arthur seems to mull these questions over as his eyes shift from the fire to the sky with an exaggerated tilt of his head. “I’m assuming going back to the capital is out of the question.”
“You would assume correctly.”
There is an irate roll of green eyes. “Yes, of course. It wouldn’t do to have dear old father find out his son’s ‘Not dead yet’, as you say.” Arthur purses his lips in thought. “Perhaps...” he sighs and looks back to Alfred with a steadfast gaze. “I do not know what plans you had with life, Alfred, but mine have always been to protect Flamberge with my life and even though I may be perceived as a dead man, I will not let my country fall to the hands of those… those bastards – not while I still draw breath.” He watches Alfred’s shifting expression carefully, waiting for some form of protest, but when he receives none, he continues. “I know there are several resistance groups along the border towns and cities – civilian militia of sorts. And unfortunately the Drachman forces have been encroaching upon our lands; the army is growing weary and thin, and in some cases these brave civilians are the only defense we have left.” Arthur’s green eyes flashed resolutely. “I want to help them.”
Alfred doesn’t respond immediately. He doesn’t know what to make of the request or if it’s a good idea at all, but he looks down at his scared palms and curls his hands into fists as they begin to burn with an old pain. Alfred knows that sometimes in life there wasn’t a choice; there was doing and there was not doing. The life of vagrancy is a tireless one, and it suited his listless soul. But here was Arthur with a goal – a purpose – and he found himself drawn to it as easily as when he was a child.
“Okay,” he says finally, as if his opinion would change Arthur’s mind in the least. “Let me help you.” He frowns at nothing in particular and tries to shrug away the insecure feeling that plagues him. “As you know, I have nothing to hold me back. I can get you into towns without suspicion or question – I’m a healer and all I have to do is say you’re my assistant or a patient. I mean, maybe you don’t want discrepancy, but the easiest way to gain anyone’s trust is to save the life of someone they find important.”
Out of the blue Arthur chuckles softly, the sound slowly beginning to crescendo after he gives a small snort. “You’re exactly the same!” he exclaims as the fire goes out at last, the last of the embers smothering in the light breeze. “You’re still the same conniving little shit, aren’t you?”
Alfred scoffs in disbelief. “A – a what?” Arthur’s face is filled with nothing but mirth and Alfred can’t help but to be overcome with laughter as well. “I admit I’ve never been called that before, but… it’s not far from the truth.” He grins and shakes his head. “Hey Arthur?”
His old friend inhales deeply, catching his breath and stretching his limbs out in front of him. “Hm?” he hums contentedly, slipping backwards and pulling a tattered blanket behind his head to use as a pillow.
“Despite everything,” Alfred pauses to examine his knuckles as if he must keep a disinterested façade, despite the fact that Arthur cannot see him, “I’m glad to see you again.”
Arthur smiles and points up to the sky, drawing imaginary shapes above his head and simply says, “You too, Alfred. You too.”
--- Line Here ---
Traveling is easier after that night. There is no longer the heavy feeling of unspoken questions to bog them down. They have a singular focus and as Arthur’s muscles limbers up, he also begins to pick up survival tips from Alfred as they traverse across the rocky terrain. He watches in a mute fascination as Alfred cuts open the small cacti with a practiced precision and fills their canteen. In camp they relied heavily on supply shipments of food and drink, and what they could get from the nearby village. Never had he thought to rely on nature itself.
“Radu taught me a lot of things,” Alfred explains at one point as he pulls a piece of bread in half. “Sometimes… Sometimes I think he knew I would leave someday – maybe not how I did, but he taught me the kinds of things that keep you alive.” He chuckles. “That’s why he started to teach me the constellations, you know – for navigation. He just didn’t expect me to like it so much after the basic lessons.”
Arthur takes his share of the bread with a slight smile. “Yes, I remember. Your idea of a parting gift was a school lesson. Charming, really.” He tears the meal into small pieces, chewing on them thoughtfully for a few minutes. “Now that I recall,” he says as he plays with the crust between stiff fingers, “You never said goodbye. It was ‘I’ll see you later’ – not farewell. It’s strange. You were right, even though I’m sure you hadn’t any idea how long ‘later’ would be.”
“Yeah.” Alfred coughs into a curled fist before clearing his throat and hopefully the awkward comment from his mind as well. “So if we continue heading northeast from here we’ll run across at least a road. When we get to the town, what’s our plan of action? I doubt you can storm in demanding to see the militia.”
“I… well…” Arthur visibly falters. “I hadn’t thought… well to be honest I thought you had a plan.”
Alfred chuckles before heaving his travel gear onto his back, creating a wordless signal that their stop is over. “I do, actually. I just wanted to see if you had one.”
“You are absolutely impossible.” But Arthur is smiling his crooked smile as he falls into step next to Alfred and Alfred can’t help but grin at his own feet as the quiet around them is comfortable for the first time. They slip in and out of conversation, speaking softly of the things Alfred had learned from Radu about surviving in their current clime and Alfred is pleased to see that Arthur is quick to learn by observation.
When they find the dusty road, lined with white, dirt covered bricks, Arthur’s relief is obvious and Alfred can’t blame the soldier either. For someone who strives on organization and the chain of command, wandering listlessly and without true direction must have been nerve wracking; and before Arthur can grow too weary of where they are (or are not), just as the sun begins to set they can see the faintest tops of mud and stone buildings on the horizon.
“Let’s make a camp here, just off to the side,” Alfred says with a shrug. “It’s always best to wander in when the sun is out, makes you seem less suspicious. There are posers and snake oil salesmen, you know? You have to put your best foot forward.”
“You’ve done this quite a lot, I see,” Arthur points out as he helps Alfred set up a quick camp. “Do you have a greater livelihood as a healer than a magician?”
Alfred only grimaces at the question. “Perhaps if I was a healer for a king, then yes. Traveling healers, though? I get paid in respect and sometimes that’s all you need.”
Arthur doesn’t argue on that point. During his career he had found out quickly that good connections and respect in all the right places got a man very, very far. So instead he wraps himself into the thin blanket, allowing Alfred to have the bedroll tonight, and tries to make himself comfortable as he stares up at the night sky. The moon is bright and Arthur adjusts the rolled trousers beneath his head as he listens to Alfred settle into the bedroll. “I don’t believe I ever said thank you,” Arthur says quietly.
The healer rolls over to stare at Arthur with confusion as he gazes into the sky. “For what?”
“For saving my life. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy feat, and there was likely a price to pay and for that, I’m sorry. If that’s the case, do let me know if there is any way I can repay you.” He smiles weakly. “However it seems you’re going to continue helping me, with this resistance that you likely find to be nonsense, I’m sure.” Arthur picks at an unraveling thread of the blanket, biting his lip when it comes undone too far and tucks his hands back beneath the fabric. “You don’t have to.”
“I know.” Alfred shrugs as Arthur’s vivid green eyes finally fall on him. “And I’m helping you because I want to, so don’t get any ideas in your head. I mean, if you have to, think of it this way; I help you now and then later, when you’re in a much better position, you might be able to help me. And if not, think of it as a favor to an old friend.” Alfred reaches out of his bedroll and softly hits Arthur’s shoulder. “What are friends for, right?”
Arthur chuckles with a shake of his head. “This goes above and beyond ‘old friends’, but still, thank you Alfred. I owe you a great debt.”
“Anytime, Arthur, anytime.”
--- Line Here ---
The town is bustling with morning life when Alfred and Arthur stroll into the open markets. Arthur sticks close to Alfred as children and women with baskets of food weave their way in and around them as they walk and there’s something about the lively atmosphere that puts Arthur into a kind of calm, despite everything. These people go on with their busy lives, even though the war has ravaged the land and stolen the lives of so many – it was nice to see that even though the worst was happening just on the border, these people lived on. This was what he and his men fought for.
Alfred stops at a vendor’s stall, picking up a warm loaf of bread and handing the owner a coin. “Can you tell me where I can find a healer?” he asks calmly, tugging on Arthur’s sleeve. “My friend has been ill recently and I’m worried he might have a heat sickness.”
The woman behind the stall gives Arthur a sympathetic look and Arthur can tell that heat sickness might be a common occurrence in this region (He’d seen it a few times in the camp, but he’d never had the time to fully understand what it was and how it happened – just ordered the medics to do their best to prevent it from happening). So he does his best to give a weak cough and rub his forehead in a rather dramatic manner. “Oh, yes, you poor dears. The nearest healer house is Emma’s. You’ll find her just at the end of the market – there. It’s the one with the blue door.” The woman smiles at Arthur and says. “Take care of yourself dear. Times are hard and your health is important.”
“Of course ma’am,” Arthur croaks out, unsure if his failing voice is either a façade or the surprise of such kindness. He hurries after Alfred as the blond makes his way into the crowd to follow the vendor’s directions. “There seems to be no lack of friendliness,” he says with a cough. “Not very used to that, I daresay.”
Alfred laughs softly. “Oh yes, you see that often in the smaller towns – and even more so from those who have wares to sell.” They follow the curve of mud and stone carved buildings, the windows open for ventilation and colorful clothes hung over the doorways to liven up their small shops. Alfred finally stops at a door, one that seems to have been hastily painted blue with a scratchy cloth. He knocks three times before pushing the light door open and steps inside, Arthur in tow.
Inside the small healer’s shop smells of sandalwood and heavy mints for stomachache teas, crooked shelves are lined with various corked bottles with a multitude of concoctions within. “Ah,” Alfred says lightly, “Someone who is much more interested in alchemy than I ever was.”
There is a rustling from rooms further in and a stout woman with curly blond hair and a curled pout on her lips stumbles hurriedly into the shop front. “Sorry, sorry,” she rattles away, straightening her ruffled, yet dirty, attire. “I’ve been horribly busy; I hope you weren’t waiting long. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Are you Emma by any chance?” Alfred asks casually, letting his blue eyes wander over the various tonics on display while Arthur stands in the corner feeling very out of place but unwilling to ruin Alfred’s moment.
“I am, and if you’re looking for a love potion or a cure-all, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m a healer, not a witch.
At that, Alfred bursts out into loud guffaws. “See Arthur, this is why I didn’t want to get into alchemy. People think you’re crazy!” He turns and smiles genially at the female healer despite the pulled scowl that has appeared on her face. “Actually, my name is Alfred and I’m a traveling healer and I would like to offer you my services.”
Emma’s nose upturns slightly, her hair sweeping over her shoulders with the slow movement. “I see. And who is this with you then?”
“That’s Arthur,” Alfred says with another smile, pulling Arthur forward to sling his arm around the soldier’s strong shoulders. “He’s my assistant and guard all put into one. If his being armed makes you uncomfortable I can ask him to remove his sword.”
“A guard?” Emma asks incredulously. “That’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Alfred only makes a face, his arm still around Arthur as he holds out his free hand, holding his palm up and curling his fingers sharply. “It’s not ridiculous with this war. Not when everyone sees you as a threat – or a tool.” And with an exhalation of breath his hand fills with the small sparks he was fond of summoning, the embers spilling from between his fingers to float towards the floor before dissolving completely. They’re brighter than they usually are and Alfred can faintly feel their heat in his cupped palm cascading to the floor like miniature falling stars, and somehow he’s sure if he tries hard enough, he could easily make this sparks into a full-fledged fire. Instead he stops, closing his hand to stop the magical flow. He makes a show of checking the floor and his robes saying, “Nothing on fire? Good. Hate it when that happens.”
Emma’s hands are on her hips, her frilled blue robes pushed back to reveal her simple shirt and trousers. “I see. So you’re one of those mages, hm? Decided to use your gifts for good? I can hardly believe that.”
“It’s true ma’am,” Arthur cuts in suddenly, clearing his throat when both Alfred and Emma turn to look at him. “He saved my life.” Quickly he yanks up his tunic to reveal the long white scar on his abdomen that Alfred couldn’t rid him of (but Arthur wouldn’t want him to anyway – it was a constant reminder of what had happened and how close he had been to death). “He pulled me straight from the arms of the White Lady, ma’am. I could have died right there on the battlefield if it weren’t for him.”
Alfred’s brows tip in worry at the slight lie, but Emma reaches up to rub her chin. “You’re a soldier?”
“Was, ma’am. They left me for dead – as I should be, mind you. I have more loyalties to this man than my entire regiment.” Arthur pauses, pulling down his shirt with a thoughtful look. “However… I’ll do all I can to stop those Drachman soldiers from taking away my home. That’s why we’re here. To help.”
“I follow the war,” Alfred explains carefully, letting his arm fall from Arthur’s shoulders with a heavy frown. These days however, it seems as if the war follows him, ravaging more and more, taking and taking no matter how hard he tries to stem its violent path. “I help the soldiers and neighboring doctors. The more soldiers we have to fight – the more men that return to their wives and children after all this is over…” Alfred sighs. “The better off we’ll be, I think.”
Emma steps towards them, tilting her head slightly as she, in turn, peers into their eyes, as if searching for any lie or flaw of character as she approached. She grabs Alfred’s chin and inspects if face, moving this head this way and that before nodding. “There is only so much one person can do in this world,” she agrees softly, dropping her hold on Alfred’s chin. “But sometimes it only takes one person to start something revolutionary. Follow me – both of you.”
With an exchanged look of curiosity, Alfred and Arthur follow Emma into her shop, pushing past a door covered in a shredded rug decorated with strings of colorful beads and bells. “These are all ex-soldiers,” Emma says quietly as the walk into a narrow room with beds pushed up against either side. There were at least twelve men on the beds, most dozing peacefully with obvious injuries and trauma. “I’m merely a alchemist who specializes with medicines. Coughs, mumps, and flus are what I can cure best. But these poor men… the most I can do is set their broken bones and giving out numbing potions. Sometimes the priest comes to pray for them, but usually it’s not enough.”
She ushers Alfred to the side of a man with an obvious head injury. “This is Sir Morgon,” she says, pushing Alfred onto his knees next to the bed. “He’s the leader of our local militia. Without him there is so little organization among them, that I fear if we were to be raided, our town would quickly fall to the Drachman.”
Arthur bounced on his heels at the news and quickly says, “Alfred! How long will it take to heal the man? Until he’s fully capable of his duties?”
Alfred gives Arthur and incredulous glance before he touches his hands to Sir Morgon’s temples, closing his eyes in concentration. He thinks of flesh and how it is to be – to live, breathe, and bleed. His magic flows through the man before him, seeping into his blood and gently touches all that is wrong and broken. He tries to exert himself further when there is simply too much damage in all the wrong places – old and festering, leaving layers for him to chip away at. After a few minutes he leans away from the man and rubs at his eyes beneath his dirty spectacles. “It will take a while,” he finally answers, standing up to roll the tense muscles of his shoulders. “How long has he been like this?”
“A week or two at most. He was trampled by one of the farmer’s oxen, poor creatures were startled and oh, it was a terrible accident.” Nervously Emma bites on one of her nails, her expression perplexed and sad. “He’s going to make it, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’ll be alright. He’s lucky that his head didn’t split from the sounds of it.” He sighs and returns to Arthur’s side looking tired and worn just from that one round. “In the meantime, Arthur here used to be a Captain for the Flamberge army. I’m sure he’d be able to help the locals prepare for battle – he’s seen a lot of it over the past ten years. Is there a second in command? Maybe at least someone Sir Morgon trusted?”
For a moment Emma looks leery of the prospect, but then she only nods decisively. “Yes, a man named Caleb. He owns the inn down the road from here.” She leads them both back out into the shop front, rummaging around a desk for a piece of parchment and something to write with. “He’s a good man,” she says quickly and adds, “No matter how abrasive he seems at first. Give him this letter and he should give you a room and threat or two – that’s just what he does.”
Alfred accepts the note with a gracious smile, bidding Emma a good day as he and Arthur step back out into the busy marketplace. “Huh, that went surprisingly well.”
The Captain makes a gruff noise, causing Alfred to laugh. “I doubt anything is that easy,” he says as they head down the road towards the inn – easily spotted by a hanging wooden sign above the door declaring that there are available rooms. “If the military taught me anything, it’s that very lesson. Don’t let your guard down around this ‘innkeeper’.”
“O-oh… You don’t think he’ll actually do anything, do you? I mean, I’m trying to save his friend!”
Arthur rolls his neck and suppresses a yawn. “Yes, well, I’m not saying he’ll do anything, but if he tries, I’ll run him through. Simple as that.” And to compliment his harsh statement, Arthur grips the leather wrapped hilt of his sword tightly, listening to the material creak under his grasp before dropping his hold.
“Hold on.” They stop just outside of the inn’s doors and Alfred unrolls the letter from Emma to scan her hastily scrawled message. “Okay, I just wanted to make sure she wasn’t going to screw us over or something really fast.” Arthur gives a nod of approval before they push their way into the musty inn.
“Hey! What’re you two doing in here?” Alfred jumps at the sudden voice, inadvertently moving himself closer to Arthur. “Well? Don’t just stand there like idiots, huh? This is an inn, so you better have some money!”
There is a huffy man standing behind a wooden bar, a woman sits in the corner, her head bouncing up and down as she fights a drunken sleep, a frothing mug settled between her fingers. Arthur clears his throat, taking the note from Alfred’s hands and steps up to the bar. “The healer Emma sent us here,” he says in a bored manner and pushes the rolled note towards the innkeeper.
The brunet innkeeper snatched the parcel from Arthur’s hand with an indignant sniff, his brown eyes reading the note quickly, squinting more and more in disbelief as he read. The man bit his lower lip, giving Alfred and Arthur a glower before setting the note on the bar counter. “Alright, fine. So I gotta room for ya, but you’ll have to share ‘coz I ain’t wastin’ more money on you two then I have to.”
He huffs again, jerking his head for them to follow and leads them up a set of creaking wooden stairs to push open a door. “This is gunna be your room. Fight over the bed and whatever. I’m going to see Emma right this minute, so you’ll have the chance to run your stupid asses out of town if this is all a shitty lie. You got me?”
Alfred only smiles at the ruffled innkeeper sweetly. “Thank you, we understand and we’ll be right here when you get back.”
“Damn right you will be,” the man mutters before stalking out of the room, making sure to slam the door behind him.
Arthur glances at the only bed in the room with a sigh. “You get the bed,” he says with a light smile. “You’re doing all the work anyway. You need the rest.”
Alfred moans happily, dropping his satchel and pack to flop onto the starched blankets of the bed. “Oh god, it feels so good,” he groans, rolling further into the sheets. “Arthur you’re the best – the absolute best.”
Arthur finds himself smirking as he picks up Alfred’s mess to layout the bedroll and extra blanket for himself. He looks fondly up at Alfred and lightly says, “What are friends for?”
--- End Chapter Three ---
Unimportant Notes: Ahhh thanks to everyone that’s helping me out through this nanowrimo project. :) Y’all are so great, thank you! Also thank you to Michelle/Cheru for betaing this as I truck ahead. :o