thene: Frank at the end of TTS, with his facemask open. (frank)
[personal profile] thene posting in [community profile] last_herald_mage
- but not so much of an ending. If you don't recall, this was started 3 years ago - I've made a few tweaks over time and have simply edited the two old posts, here and here. More polished version of this fic now available here on AO3. eh. Ngl mostly posting this so as not to waste thousands of words of Stef whining. this is my crack.

I've counted my way through years of barely sleeping. Years hidden between the folds of better days, silent hours taken alone with my needling thoughts. No one else stirs.

What would I dream about tonight, if I dared? I don't want to know. I don't dare taste my nocturnal visions - meeting memories is hard enough, roses sprouting in my sheets, lives he changed, lives made or ruined, brief blooms I cling to and then press dry and brittle between heavy sheets of paper. The thorns remain.

Time never moves in these hours. Sleepless nights from years ago seem like yesterday, living spectres of my own foolishness; nights when I still thought I could do anything, when I'd pace around my room, restless from grandeur, writing songs that would change the world (they didn't) and plotting how to talk around anyone I wanted to (I did, to my peril). I came here with that arrogance, didn't I? I thought I'd find a problem here I'd know exactly how to solve, with good faith and respect from both sides. Bard Stefen, you saved us all. Oh, but it's nothing. Instead, I got blindsided by reminders of how little I'll ever have, how narrowly I'll ever understand people. Sons and daughters, clutching an heirloom war. Revenge is their fathers' legacy, and I can't understand that.

I'll never have a family.

Never had, never will. I didn't come from anywhere. No one will remember me when I go. I can only hope to go north peaceably, as forgotten as the Herald-Mages of old, a faded memory of wartime, not a person, not a man.

Bless my reputation, no one will think ill of me should they catch me staring at a young woman. I still can't tell if I was a fool to not see it the second I laid eyes on her, or whether I'm now only madly conjuring each familiar shadow in her face in the dawn. The slant of her brow, that fold in her upper lip. The morning sky mirrored dark-blue in her hair. Oh thank the gods that gave her brown eyes.

Do I tell her? is a damnfool, dead-end question. Do I tell Jisa? is more threateningly apt, but doesn't matter. Jisa is hundreds of miles away. She'd be angry at me for not telling her before, and I hate having her angry at me. But that's always been the way for me; I could tell all my secrets and lose everyone I have left, or I could keep such treasures wrapped tight and silent in my mind, gradually tarnishing my sanity. Silence, once chosen, is so easy to keep.

Not least because people often allow it of you. Whatever might have been said over breakfast, I can't heard it over the sound of the clamour in my brain. I'm permitted my preoccupation, doubtless out of some mixture of respect for the gravity of my mission and disgust for its minutiae. No one tries to talk to me. I'm sure they all think I'm dwelling on enemy terms and elaborate verbal duels and this-and-thats I'm going to salvage from this mess and other such things that I should be wasting my time on. The things I planned to let them despise me for. If I come home at all, it will be to fewer friends than I left and Ascott, Sergeant Ascott of the King's Guard who used to be a mage-slayer of all the heartrending duties that irony could bestow upon a young woman in a war, will not be one of them because if I even tried to tell her why I can't bear being nothing, less than nothing, to her, she'd only despise me the more.

I can't stop watching her. She's not a morning person - she's nursing a mug of black tea and even her scowls now seem half-familiar, half-utterly strange to me. At least Jisa knows why I might stare at her sideways, and she lets me touch her sometimes. It shouldn't hurt to see these wild oats thriving where they fell. It hurts like I took a thorn from my pocket and swallowed it. Torn words in my throat, unspeakable.

I'm being a wild, shadow-chasing lunatic. My face must have slipped, because Cath is sidling up to me with a worried look on her own. "Something up?" she asks.

Yes. Everything. It's not so hard to explain, if I avoid details. "Ever really needed to talk to someone who's been inconveniently dead for nearly a year?"

"Only every fucking day," she mutters bitterly, and I don't blame her, she's been fighting for too long and she's lost too much and I have nothing but sympathy for how she feels about Karse and I'm too far out of my mind to beg her to forgive them. "Anyone in particular?"

"No one you'd know," I lie; she and Lissa Ashkevron were good friends, and I don't want to lay that on her now. It's pointless, anyway. Liss probably wouldn't even know, and my mind's gone past straw-clutching to thrashing away in my depths. I don't need more evidence; I'm craving an answer that's already staring me in the face and stabbing me in the eyes. I just, stupidly, want to be acknowledged, I want to mean something to any of these people. To anyone. To someone who suddenly means everything to me.

My reverie ends when Ascott jumps to her feet with, allow me my fancy, the sadistic eagerness of a habitual late riser who wants everyone else's morning to be as unpleasantly active as hers. I fall into step with her without feeling able to speak, or even to torment myself with her profile any more, my eyes fixed straight ahead on the watchtower.

She notices my aversion, when my earlier attention was entirely ignored, her due, only natural. "You seem low. They going to give you trouble?" she murmurs out the side of her mouth.

I put on a confident smile for the Karsites, who are hastily finishing some kind of ritual chant to the dawn that I'm sure they know how to do in their sleep, while paying full attention to their surroundings, and possibly during combat. "That's what they came here for."

She eases a step ahead of me, her sword tense in her grip. "Offer still stands if you need it."

I could punch her, really. "I need you alive, Sergeant. I told you that." I'm feeling too much, I didn't mean it then the way I mean it now, selfish and scrabbling, like my heart wants to climb into my voice as I say it but I won't allow that. She's only my comrade-at-arms. My protector. Nothing else binds us. Not my daughter, for hells' sake.

I hope she's sharper than me, I know she slept better; I will be easy meat for Karse this fine morning. When Qi Nar pulls me apart he'll find only dead leaves and dreams in his hands.

How were a handful of thorns ever meant to help? What the hell does he think it does to me when he interferes like that? Doesn't he know how I feel on those rare and ridiculous winter nights when I come shivering back to wherever I've made my temporary bed and find a warming-spell and a few fresh flowers waiting for me? Does he not see me cry myself to sleep? Does he not know how much it hurts to still love him? Why am I tethered to this world, to this dead-end relationship, long after he's walked away from it?

I don't even know what he'd think of me now. Does he still know me? He loved some other Stefen, some flighty youth with a head full of bad poems. It certainly wasn't me. It couldn't be, because me is what happened because he's gone.

Would he love me?

What a damnfool question, as if I could stand still and ask him, moment to moment after every unwinnable battle. Do you love me now? How about now?

But I feel this odd, lighthouse certainty near to me; I'm so sure he loves her, and he has much less of an idea who she is.

It's too late to get rid of all signs of my foulness and weakness. I slump into my spot of floor, waiting for Qi Nar to take his place opposite. Glancing up at him, I think I see red around his eyes.

So I wasn't alone last night. In essence, Qi Nar and I spent the night together in that unmoving fold of time, separated merely by a mile of land while all our companions deserted us in slumber.

Or maybe he's faking it. Or red-eyed from anger. He's my purpose here, still as dangerous an adversary as he was yesterday, and he matters as much as he'll matter tomorrow and every other day until I or mine finally kill him or decide that it's safe to leave him alone. What would killing him do? If he has sons, he keeps them well secret. But that is no reason for me not to fear his sons.

"You slept well?" he asks. His sarcasm is well disguised. I nod, nonchalantly accepting Qi Nar's pretence to care as he sits beside me. "What did you dream of, on this uncertain earth?"

"Family," I reply without even pausing to think on it. If I slept, I didn't dream. I merely thought.

The reddened edges of Qi Nar's eyes seem to throb. "I believed you had none."

"Do we not dream of what we lack?"

"Or what we lost."

That, too. It's time - it's morning, and he seems a hair less hostile, maybe because I'm a crumbling wreck and he'd be a fool to fear me in any respect. I'm no fit opponent in a duel of wills, not now, so I might as well ask him for his story. "Would you tell me what happened to your father?"

His face flickers the same way it did when he first heard my name. I don't care any more, not for politics. Tell me how my lifebonded touched your life. I want your story. I'll know if you lie to me. I have to hear it, whoever you are, wherever you're from.

"Your people sing of it," he tells me, soft dry deadfall words.

"I know." They sing of everything he did and I know every damnedfool song by heart. Qi Nar stares at me, anger opening his eyes to mine, and I feel a sick, giddy thrill at how much I mean to him right now. I was always the wrong person to be here and I deserve all of his hate but I'm the only person you've got. I'm the only one who would listen to his story.

"I would be kind to think him a demon, Bard Stefen." He doesn't. I know he doesn't. That's his whole problem, that he knows a man of Valdemar - of my own heart and soul - could and did do that to his people. It's always been a joke to us, that they think of our Heralds as demons - and did I come here to convince him that my lifebonded was a moral, compassionate person who had a perfectly good reason to burn his father to death -?

My fingers curl in my pocket, bleeding and scratching against all I can touch of that compassion.

I need to stop.

No talking. No thinking, no justifications even to myself. I should have brought my heart here empty.

Qi Nar watches me as I turn out my pocket on the floor beside me. He studies the remains for subterfuge, insult, a sign; none shows itself to him. It only ever meant anything to me and all it means now is my silence. He studies my face next, gauging the flavour of my evident madness. "Do you think I don't know what is said in Valdemar, Bard?"

I stare back at him, silent.

"They sing songs about the mages of old. Every Valdemaran yearns to regain that glory."

"But we won't." I spread a scratchmarked palm. "None know that better than you. What we have, we can't hold with magic." I take a long breath, my next words ingrained in my hindbrain. "We won't need to."

In the silence after my words, everything seems to crystallise. Nightsight, insomniac madness. I spent years saying it to people who never listened and then I thought I came here for a peace no one else even wants but I really came here for the reason I've been everywhere, except this time maybe it's not futile. I'm here to tell the Karsites that our magic is gone and we don't need it any more. And unlike everyone on my side, they're going to believe me.

I've fought a lonely, private war for fourteen years and Qi Nar will be my first ally. He just doesn't know it yet.

I feel my words carrying us over the still pool of time that we share. "You'll never forgive Vanyel," I continue. "Nor will you be revenged on him. He's gone - you can't hurt him even by hurting me. Our mages are gone. You still have -" I pause delicately, "holy miracle-workers, and we've no magic left to counter them. Yet we still stand, while the greatest of yours fell against some man with no name at all -"

I'm making him angry, just angry enough. "You shan't taunt our dead or deny us justice -"

"Justice? His killer has no name," I repeat, words dug out of skin as she listens from only yards away, imaginary blood running from the hole where her name belongs. I'm mad. Silent and sleepless and mad. I'm not taunting Qi Nar, I'm taunting me. "What would you have us do, pretend we know which of us killed the Hand of the Sun? Make you a new demon for you? We were weaker then," I add. "We don't need glory any more. Without mages to save us, all of us have found ways to save each other. That's your choice, now." It's so clear I almost don't have to say it. "Have your revenge on all of us, or forgive all of us."

For the first minute of his silence I'm sure it's working, because only a severe mental jolt would cause Qi Nar to have to expend so much extra thought. For the next five minutes my confidence gradually frays, thread after thread disintegrating at twitches in his dark eyes - gods, if I'd slept. If I'd not drawn out his emotions. If I'd not suggested he take revenge on all when the second of us they'll harm, the first they'll kill will be her. I was always exactly the wrong person because I don't know how not to call open misere.

"Did you really want me to tell you?" he says at last, and suddenly the land below us is gone and he is only a man.

"I do," I promise. "There's no story of Vanyel I don't need to hear. It's by hearing them that I drive out their shadows. I find ways to tell people the magic doesn't matter."

His mouth drops open, as if he suddenly grasps the immensity of what I'm trying to do. "What will you do," he says slowly, "when you've killed all of the stories, Bard of Valdemar?"

I'll fall silent and go north. That's what.

I had it wrong. I had it all wrong. I was only ever meant to savour the scent of the bloom for the brief days that it was near me. Blood and reliquary has only ever been a vile, unshakeable distraction that dogs what shadow of me is still human.

"His age is gone," I tell him simply. "He was a person who Valdemar used as a weapon, and at the last, that was all he could be for us." Mutually assured destruction.

"If you still had mages, you'd use them -"

"And I wouldn't be here. I well know," I pledged him. "But neither would you. Without them, we've a chance together."

It's that weakness that draws him. The implacable strength I set under it that stops him. Tinder and flint, a spark to the brambles and cobwebs in the shadows between us. The fire of the living on the fuel of the dead. Qi Nar rests his fingertips on the earth near me, and I feel his will turning. All we've left, all that was made of us by the passing of one shared memory. "We do," he replies, and his fingers scatter our thorns.

Date: 2015-06-10 05:03 pm (UTC)
kat_nic: A cat wearing glasses (Default)
From: [personal profile] kat_nic
VAN SERIOUSLY YOU ARE THE WORST BOYFRIEND. Ugh this is gutwrenching, poor Stef, ugh ugh. Sometimes you just gotta torment the pretty boys tho, am I right?

Date: 2015-06-10 10:09 pm (UTC)
rymenhild: Manuscript page from British Library MS Harley 913 (Default)
From: [personal profile] rymenhild
Seriously. I mean, Stefen can't even move on because he's still getting love-notes from Vanyel. Who is dead. And he's still doing the job Van assigned to him. And taking care of Van's secret children. Poor Stefen.

Date: 2015-06-11 11:05 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Oh my god I didn't expect to wake up to find this. I spazzed so hard.

"Ever really needed to talk to someone who's been inconveniently dead for nearly a year?" I think this was my favorite line, and it probably sums up a bit of Stefs frustrations. Poor Stefen and his terrible boyfriend.

Date: 2015-06-12 05:19 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Thank you for not cutting it :0 It was perfectly executed as well. I'm sure if Stef did try and talk about it he would be sent into the loony bin. But I do like how willing he is to just go to the Sorrows and fade into the background.


LHM: Love the characters, hate the canon.

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