thene: "'The spirit is a garden,' said he." Photograph from (snowdrops of gratuitous self-reference)
[personal profile] thene posting in [community profile] last_herald_mage

I have been poking at four Things That Happened After Strandline; this is two of them. Much awkward, much self-indulgence. :P

Sunlight stung his strained nerves through his eyelids. Vanyel cursed whatever mischievous breeze had disturbed his curtains, but gods, he was glad to wake up at home no matter how much he ached. Especially because he ached. Soft pillows and goosedown, and a precious tapline into the node beneath the Palace. He felt blessedly rejuvenated, though his mind still hurt and his memories were patched with darkness.

He turned his face from the sun, and sensed a different light nearby. I slept alone here for years, and now it's strange he's not within my arm's-reach, Vanyel wondered at himself as he peered at the figure in the chair beside his bed. He did hazily remember Tantras and Stefen helping him to his bed after he'd closed the Gate. That Stefen had stayed, but not lain beside him, he wasn't sure what to make of. They'd spent nights together for weeks - first in Stef's run-down home, then Cul Aber's western gatehouse, then in the cold fortress of Mountather. Long nights, chill mornings, with little warmth or comfort but each other and the music they made.

Stef dozed sitting; in the thin sunlight, Vanyel watched the hummingbird-twitch of his eyelids, mesmerised by the sight of his lover's dreaming.

There was nothing he could say of his feelings. He'd asked Stefen here for Stef's own sake and Randale's - not, gods help him, to warm his long-empty bed. Stef's not beholden to me. I can't demand anything of him - nor deny him anything. Not after what he's been through. Vanyel shivered, the inches between them seeming suddenly and unbearably wrong.

Stefen twitched, as if in response to Van's thoughts and his longing. "Hey." He shifted his hands, and rubbed his eyes with a knuckle. Vanyel saw a flash of silver in the dawnlight; a dagger drawn across his knees.

The bared edge of Stef's knife cut a strange intrusion into the airy quiet of Vanyel's home. He jerked bolt upright, and in his wavering sight, the knife-edge seemed beaded with droplets of clear water. "Stef?"

He shrugged, not grasping Van's confusion. "Was keeping an eye on you. You was hurt."

He thought to defend me. In my own home. Was it so clear how much pain he was in? The taint of the Gate-energy ate at his mind like acid; it was a wonder that he'd been able to sleep - and then he remembered his dreams, the drifting lullabies. "You kept my pain away," he gasped. "Thank you," and he stretched out a shaky hand, touching the back of Stefen's, taut around the hilt of his blade. "Every other time I've Gated to Haven, Healer Andrel's had to give me gods know what to let me sleep -"

"Argonel," Stef told him flatly, and Vanyel's fragmented memories began to piece back together. Andrel - he had seen Andrel - "Smelled pretty weak. He cut it with something, couldn't say what. I got well rid of it," he assured Vanyel. "Out of the window," he explained further, gesturing with his thumb as Vanyel stared at him in consternation. "I wouldn't say he meant ill, but - I seen enough people drink argonel for their hurts until it's all they got. Figured I could do you better."

Vanyel slowly raised a hand to his head. Which was definitely clearer than it could have been. "I, I won't say you're wrong - you didn't have to, though." Stef's hard expression said otherwise. His eyes were a little red, and his hair clung to his scalp in clumps. The air between them smelt like rain. "Stef," he asked uncertainly. "You've been outside?"

Stef slid the dagger back in its sheath and stared down at his hands. "Didn't feel clean - went down to the riverside before it got too light I don't think no one saw me." Van gaped at him. "Tantras showed me the washroom, but, there was people there," Stef added hesitantly.

I'm such a fool. Of course there were. Of course the thought of someone seeing him bathe would frighten him like nothing else.

"What did I do wrong?" Stef asked into his silence, his voice full of wariness.

"Nothing," said Vanyel hurriedly. Everything. Oh gods, I hadn't contemplated how hard it might be for him. He's so used to being constantly on guard. "Stef," he tried to find where to begin. "You weren't to know this, but Healer Andrel is someone I trust absolutely - he's taken good care of me when I've been hurt. He gave me argonel because in the past he's found that when I get these Gate-energy aftereffects, nothing else is going to help me rest. I certainly didn't expect you to use your Gift on me, and he doesn't know anyone even has such a Gift." Silence stretched out as he felt Stefen's uncertaintly. "Stef, I know you've no reason to trust anyone here - and I wouldn't want you to trust just anyone. But a Healer or a Herald? Even if you wouldn't want them to know much of you, you can believe that they won't do harm to me, or to you. They're good people and they're used to being seen as trustworthy. They won't understand you if you don't trust them."

"Right," Stef answered, clearly unconvinced.

Vanyel pushed his sheets aside, and he felt Stef's eyes running over his body - eyes that were familiar now, but rarely so hidden or cold. He turned away and padded to the tall window, pulling his curtains wide and trying to dismiss his fears - What if I'm only prolonging another grievous mistake? The gods knew he'd made enough of them.

Soft morning light washed over his body and painted his panelled walls golden. His quarters were plain by Haven's standards, but he allowed himself the simple luxury of daylight. And fine glass that barely turns the light. And room to move - Stef's rickety home had been barely broader than his stretched arms, with rafters a bare inch over his head, and but one tiny window. The memory vexed him, almost irritated him. Was I expecting gratitude? I finally bring Stef somewhere safe and comfortable and he acts like it were a deathtrap.

He glanced back at Stefen, and watched him curl tensely in his chair, a hand tight around his knifehilt. Dawn shone against his pale face, and he squinted his eyes. As if to huddle away from the majesty of the light and air.

Oh, hellfires. He doesn't associate opulence with anything good.

Vanyel bowed his aching head and padded back to his bed, sitting on the edge facing Stefen. He reached out his hand to cover Stef's, gently loosening his grip on his knife, one knuckle at a time. "Hold it so tight and you'll never draw it smooth," he cautioned. Stef didn't reply, and his hand beneath Van's was barely steady. Not a warrior, not a killer. So brave nevertheless. For me. "I know your trust is a lot to ask," he continued. Gods, when he'd first arrived in Haven he'd been equally disinclined to trust anyone. "But it's currency here. You need people on your side, and that won't happen unless you trust them. If you seem suspicious of a Healer, or a Herald or Bard, they might feel insulted." Stef stared at him as if the thought of exempting some people from suspicion was beyond reason. That's how he's stayed alive - and he's caught my fear. I spent weeks fearing what my enemies might do if they knew I had a lover again - and all the good it's done is to make Stef arm himself against shadows.

And against people who could help him.

He flexed his hand against Vanyel's. "Funny that. Berte always tell me not to trust Healers - every other thing she said to me was a lie, so I guess you've the right of it," he admitted. "Must've been scared they'd see what she was about."

And that made far too much sense, that she would have kept her prized child away from anyone who might have questioned his origins. He's spent so much of his life being kept and used by someone or other. It's shaped him - he never sets the fear aside. It had been so hard to persuade him to sleep in Mountather without a knife beneath his pillow - to entrust his safety to someone else even for a few night-hours. Stef wore the fear so close, gripped it so tight. Like a balancing-rod, as he walked a highwire.

"Stef. I know Andrel will come back here soon to check on me. He has a powerful Gift of Healing." They'd talked much of Gifts, amid hours of exchanging songs and stories. He'd told Stef what a Healer was capable of - Stef had been surprised to hear they could do so little against pain. "Suppose you asked if he could remove that mark?"

Close as they were, Van felt Stef's flash of hope and fear. "That's," and his face caved in despair. "No, it don't go away. I used to scratch and scratch at it... I only knew one runaway who made it go away - he cut his skin off. Bled and turned yellow, and then he died." His eyes creased closed, and he felt at the mark through his clothes, as if to protect it beneath another layer of cover - a mythical hero's weakness. A hidden shame.

"Andrel wouldn't do that," Van promised. "But I've seen him heal wounds that should have been permanently scarring. There's a fair chance he can - "

"I don't like my chances. What if you ask and he can't. Then he knows."

"He'd never tell anyone, I swear - Healers are bound by oaths of silence. I know Andi's never told anyone what he knows about me."

"I don't want looked at," Stef sprang to his feet, circling in agitation. "I know how it is. I hide it, I get by, I don't seek no trouble. I don't expect naught else," and his bleak eyes met Vanyel's. "I'm used to it."

Used to hurting, alone, and his pain cut straight through Vanyel's heart. He stood, shaking, and reached out again to catch Stef's hands. "I know you can survive the way you are," he said gently, holding Stef's eyes. "But you shouldn't suffer just because you can. You deserve more than that."

Stef clutched tight on Vanyel's fingers, and longing mingled with his hurt. Even hope felt like treachery, only a prelude to another wound. "That don't even -"

Stefen spun away at the sound of a tap on the door. Vanyel shot him a significant look, and he heard Stef slide the knife into his belt as he shakily crossed the room to answer the caller.

"Andrel," he smiled, wearily and with a little guilt. He'd so little time for his few trusted friends, and seemed to see them only to burden them with his own misadventures. "I swear, the longer I go without seeing you -"

"- The worse our encounters get?" Andrel looked him up and down, longsufferingly. Vanyel returned the assessment with, he fancied, a little more subtlety. Andi was hale, aging like a birch tree in autumn; dry and crinkled, with strength that moved with the winds. "I'm amazed you're up and about already, after that brew I left last night."

Evasion wouldn't serve him well with Andi; it never did. "Ah, Stefen cautioned me against argonel. I'll find some willow tea soon enough." Andrel looked at Stefen with intense curiosity, while Stef levelled a similar curiosity at his own discarded boots. "I regret I wasn't in the best state to make introductions yesterday. Stefen, Healer Andrel," he waved awkwardly, and to his surprise, Stef produced an elegant bow.

Andrel merely chuckled, taking it for a jape. "My pleasure. I'm glad someone's keeping an eye on you, Van. You seem well-rested."

To his credit, Van's face remained blank. Well, even if he guesses Stef's my lover, he won't tell anyone. That much I'm sure of. "Stef sang me a few lullabies - he has the Bardic gift."

"I see." Andrel's face creased. Stef was watching him sidelong, as if he were a snake. Andi put a hand to Van's shoulder, and steered him to a chair by the fireside. "Take a seat, Van." He complied, and felt the touch of the Healing gift probing him carefully as Andi held his hand. "Your strength's returning. I'm surprised you've recovered so much from the backlash without anything to mute your pain," and he glanced at Stefen, who seemed to be doing his very best to melt into the hearth's stonework. "I really thought you'd run yourself raw this time. Try to rest all your channels for a couple of days - no Mindspeech if you can help it. They're all connected."

"I'll do my best." They shared a too familiar look, Andrel well aware of how likely Van was to follow his prescription, Van aware of his pessimism. I'm an awful patient. At least I'm better with Andi than any of the rest of them. Except maybe Shavri, but he knew he'd never trouble her talents with his aches and scrapes again.

"You're the one who'll suffer if you don't," Andi sniffed. "Does aught else ail you?"

Stef stood quite, quite still, one hand on the mantel. I can't break his faith, Van thought, and shook his head. "No -"

"Yeah." Stef stepped forward, his face locked in determination. He tugged at his clothes, opening his belt. "Van said you could maybe do something," and he turned, raising his tunic and shirt to the level of his heart, "about this."

Andrel studied the inked letters on his skin, a raised eyebrow serving as a question he was far too delicate to ask; instead he would allow himself a million speculations. The mark was surely sign of a misspent youth. A gang fealty, a militia hazing, a memento of a romance with some foreign girl, or boy - to Andrel, it mattered not. "You want a tattoo removed? Of course I can do that."

Stef's breathing quickened, and he shifted on his feet. "Would you do it now?"

"Might as well." He looked Stef up and down, inscrutable in the face of his obvious mistrust. "I'd also like to take this opportunity to examine you." Stef backed away a wary half-step; Andrel, Van noted, seemed quite prepared for this reaction. "I only mean to touch you with the Gift of Healing and search out any growing sicknesses in you. It's much easier to Heal something before it becomes evident than after."

Stef glanced at Vanyel, as if recalling what he'd said earlier. "Right," he assented, and sat awkwardly on the corner of the hearthstone. He still radiated fear - but his will was stronger. Searching, fighting for something. Trust. Safety.

Andrel sat beside him, and laid his hands over Stefen's arms, as if greeting a particularly stiff relative. He closed his eyes, and Vanyel Felt his energy move through Stefen. Starting inside, and moving out through his body from that bright core of energy that was Stefen. "I'll wager you were weaned too young," Andrel mused. "Eldest of a brood, or an orphan?"

Stefen hesitated. "Orphan." An approximation at best. Andrel's world was less messy than his. He doesn't know, so you'll always feel like you're lying -

"That explains your short stature. And it also means you haven't the strongest bones," explained Andi. "You need to take a little more care of them than most people do." Stef chewed his lip; Vanyel had already guessed he'd had little time for taking care of himself. "You broke your right foot some time ago - it's reset a little oddly." Stef froze, and didn't respond. "I'm going to Heal it. This may hurt very slightly," Andrel told him.

"No it won't," Stef murmured. Andrel continued his work as if Stefen hadn't spoken. He knelt to touch Stef's bare foot, tugging at the second toe as the young man sang softly, almost under his breath. The energy between them brightened, and the sound and light hung between them like a dawn bell, meeting the sun at its apex. Andrel straightened, and Stefen flexed his foot gingerly. "That's...feels better," he conceded, his eyes wide.

Andrel nodded. "Now that mark..." Stef gingerly pulled up his shirt again, and at Andrel's gesture, he slipped it over his head. The Healer's hand covered the tattoo, and Vanyel heard Stef's breath catch. "This one won't hurt, but it will take a little time."

Vanyel watched them as the ink beneath Andrel's fingers faded, greying and disintegrating as if it were writ on parchment and left out in the rain. Stefen stared right at him, as if afraid to watch Andrel working. Eventually, Andi raised his head. "There. Not so arduous, but I'd thank you to think twice before getting another one." Only Vanyel could have noticed the hurt that flashed through Stef's cold eyes. "Is there aught else I can do for you?" Andi asked kindly.

"Don't speak of this," Stef blurted out fearfully.

Andrel's eyes widened in surprise. "No need to ask. I'll never speak of anything I see when I Heal you - not unless your life is at stake." He steepled his hands together, and nodded first at Vanyel, then at Stefen. "I'll send willowbark for Vanyel, and also a measure of herbs that will help your bones - you can take them with food, or in tea. And Stefen," he added. "It's unwise to hide your pain. Pain is a banner flown by your body to signal that something's wrong. It's easier to put you to rights if I can see it."

Stef barely breathed until Andrel closed the door. "It's gone?" he asked, staring incredulously down at his own skin. Vanyel reached out a hand, touching his taut skin - paper-pale, the past wiped clean, the future plain in his goosebumps and fluttering breath. Van stroked that unmarked place gently, and Stefen flung himself into his embrace.

"You move easier." Stef climbed the back stairs of the Bardic Collegium ahead of Vanyel, sunlight reaching through the window on the landing above them to caress his hair with flame. He turned as smooth as a dancer, and looked down at his lover curiously. "Your foot," Van explained. "I never noticed before." Was it a mistake to mention it? Stef hadn't explained how his foot had been injured to begin with - which might mean it was a difficult topic. Or it might mean it was so utterly banal to him that it wasn't worthy of comment.

"Oh. I stopped noticing years back. It used to...itch, you might say. Never let it hurt."

He never let anything hurt, and Vanyel somehow resented that as bitterly as any other imposition Stef had borne - he'd never dared show his hurts or even let them slow him down. He never allowed himself to ask for comfort. Pain was so much easier to bear alone than to entrust to someone else. He's so used to bearing it that even I can't always see when he's hurting. I only see when he stops hurting and that wild joy takes him like a dancer.

Anger flashed through his vision with the sparkling dust-motes that swirled in the air.

Stef looked to him sharply, and Vanyel tried to set aside his mood. Am I such a fool that I'm leaking emotions to him? It's possible - the Mind-Gifted are often susceptible, and I can't pretend to know how his Gifts work. That, above all, is why we're here. He slipped his lute case from his shoulder. "Let's see what she makes of you," and he felt Stef's hesitation again. "Don't worry. She's kindhearted and not one to judge. She'll only care about what you can do - and I know you can do everything she'd ask of you. Answer her true, and you'll be fine."

He knocked on the door by the landing.

"If this isn't important," Breda's voice groaned through the wood, "I swear I will flay you alive."

"She has a turn of phrase," muttered Van apologetically, not that casual threats of violence would faze Stef. "She doesn't mean any harm by it -"

"She's in pain," Stef said with savant certainty, and he turned the handle under Vanyel's fingers.

If he saw anything as he looked into the soft night of Breda's quarters, his eyes must be far better than Vanyel's. On her bad days, Breda lived in the dark. Her great north window was so layered with curtains that Vanyel could barely see its outline. He felt the warmth from her firebox, shuttered by cast-iron doors. "Breda," he called. The stagecraft he'd planned seemed suddenly absurd, and unwise. "It's important," he pledged to her as he closed the door.

"Vanyel. I'm sure it is, to lever you out of the Palace." Must all his old friends gripe about his insularity? "I heard you were off east."

"I was. We Gated back last night."

The darkness shifted, as if in the false dusk - truly her element - she had seen something that made her sit up straight. "We? Who goes with you?" she asked.

"This is Stefen. He returned with me from Cul Aber because I needed you to meet him." Stef murmured a greeting, and perhaps he bowed in the dark. "He has a song you have to hear," Vanyel told her.

In the gloom, he found he could resolve Breda's figure, and then the shape of her face. A pillow rested under her cheek, and she cradled a glass in her hand, its rim beaded with who knew what. "Vanyel," she said his name slowly, clearly devoid of all patience. "I'm not in a mood to be played with."

"Then trust me for five minutes," he pleaded. "Have you ever regretted trusting me?"

"I could start." He heard the familiar muffled squeak of her feet hitting her ancient footstool. "Try me, you young fools."

"Oh, I will," replied Stefen, and Vanyel felt him smile. Stef looked to him, with ever a care for the lay of the land, and Van slipped his instrument free and felt out a chord, and then another - notes discovered together, a harmony fit below a vocal line that had never needed anything to support it. He closed his eyes and let Stefen's voice carry him, high and clear as the winter sky.

When the song was done, Breda seemed a very different animal - perhaps a perching hawk, her pillow fallen to the floor, a thin leg folded under her. "You may have been right. I did have to hear that," and she stroked her temple in confusion. Vanyel wasn't sure how long the effects of the song lingered. Perhaps her pain was already returning. "Stefen, may I ask where you learned such a song?"

"I made it up," he replied.

If she had been the owl that she lived like, she would have pricked up her tufted ears. "I see. Have you composed many songs?" she asked.

He hesitated. "I always like to make songs. They're not all so good - I got maybe two dozen for to sing. Others got old, or I keep to myself."

"And do you play any instruments?"

Another hesitation. "Nought proper. Just tin whistle, and I keeps a good beat on a bodhran. Van's been teaching me the lute, but I'm no use yet."

"Show me." Vanyel passed his instrument to Stefen; a good bird, and precious, nothing like the rough thing he'd been teaching Stef to use. Stef cradled the instrument, and felt in the dark for the right place for his fingers. He began one of the songs Vanyel had shown him, and Breda's hand fell back to her lap. Her eyes caught the little light there was, glittering. Vanyel sat mesmerised through the verses until Breda waved a hand, hushing Stef. "How long have you been learning?"

"A half-moon, ma'am."

"That's," and Vanyel felt his uncertainty as Breda searched for adequate words. Great gods, had that been all the time they'd spent together? "You've definitely got the instinct for musicianship. And your voice - you have some formal training, I can tell. I'd be curious to know what."

Stef hesitated, and Vanyel felt an icy shiver jar his spine. "Aye. There was a - a Cejan tutor who had me a year. A maestro."

He'd not spoken of this. I hadn't realised he still carried that place in his voice - and he cursed himself that Breda had drawn the detail out before he had. A half-moon, and I don't yet know you. I keep waiting for more - and she just pries it out of you heedless. His fingers curled against his palms. "I see." Breda shifted, laying her head against one of the chair's great wings. "And you're from Cul Aber?"

"Born and bred," Stef replied mechanically.

"How old are you?"

He hesitated again. "Eighteen, I think. I don't rightly know when I was born."

Breda's eyes flickered. "Do you read?"

"No." Into the gloomy silence, Stef added, "I can learn. I learned a lot of songs."

"Van," Breda said slowly. "Can I talk to you alone for a moment?"

"If it's about Stef? Then no, you can't." That was a promise he'd made, days ago, and he intended to keep it. "I told Stef I wouldn't discuss him outside of his presence. I'm sure you understand what it means to have a rare Gift," he added, invoking every story of Wild Talents and the blessed, afflicted lives of those that bore them.

Breda groaned. "I see. Then I suppose I must say to your face, young man, that you confound me. Vanyel," and she raised a despairing hand toward him, "Here you see me keeping pigeons, and you bring me another cat. And what a position that puts him in. Stefen, I take it Van explained to you what it takes to get admitted to Bardic Collegium?"

"Yes," and he looked fearfully at Vanyel. As if a trap were closing on him.

"By all signs, you have every attribute that counts here. But you're not a child, you're a man and I'm asking for years of your life here. If I'd seen you five years ago," and she sighed. "You're eighteen, and no matter your talents, you'll need years of work to become a Bard. Some of the Journeymen are barely older than you. And I can't remember the last time we took a Bardic apprentice who couldn't read - for that, we'll have to put you with the illiterate Herald trainees we've got. Stefen, it can be done," she said, perhaps noticing some sign on his face that eluded Vanyel's eyes in the dark; he could only sense those downcast eyes on the inside. "But it's only fair to ask what else you could do in those years. Have you no other trade? Most men your age would be seeking a wife and family - we don't allow apprentices to wed. If there's aught else you would do with your life," and she sighed heavily. "But I'm not sure I can let a Gift of such strength go untrained. I'd fear the consequences. I'd fear for what we'd lose."

Maybe Stef wouldn't understand that, but Vanyel did. Strong Gifts aren't given to us by chance. He came because we'll need him. Stef merely shook his head. "Milady, there ain't nought to go back to in Cul Aber. My 'trade', that were singing for people. I took coin for to sooth them and keep peace between them with my songs - weren't barely a peace worth having, time we left, and none of them would trust me since I got seen with the Heralds. Vanyel told me, there could be call in Haven for the peace songs and the songs that stop pain." He looked aside, but Vanyel doubt he would blush as he added, "And I weren't looking for no wife."

Van wasn't sure if Breda would pick up on that comment. He fancied he saw her face crease in the shadows. "You sang my pain away." Breda had a way of questioning with awe. Stef nodded diffidently. "I'd say Vanyel was right. There's call for what you can do."

Her eyes met Vanyel's. "I would like to at least try letting Randale hear him," Van admitted. "There's nothing I wouldn't try for Randale, at this point."

"It'll be years before you could dream he'll be fit to play at an audience."

And by then, Randale will be dead. "A few songs in private, then?" he asked, and sighed. "Stef, I've seen you bring so much relief - I can't deny Randale that just because of proprieties. After everything else he's subjected himself to, near all of it nonsense? At least we can try, and see what the Healers make of it."

He could almost hear Breda's mind ticking in the dark. "I think a few experiments could be in order. In the meantime, could you go find Medren and ask him to show Stefen around? I'll tell Dellar as soon as my skull stops feeling chewed through."

Outside her door, Stefen set his hands to the bannister. He flexed his toes and breathed a hard, slow rhythm - an old performer's trick to steady the nerves. "She'll let me stay," he said. Not a question, not a boast. Just a startling and fragile piece of certainty. "Medren," he continued thoughtfully. "Your nephew?"

"Yes - his room's just upstairs. He's a Journeyman Bard." And something of an outsider here - one who Breda's protected for years. It might help.

Vanyel stepped close to him, and nodded to the upward stairway. Stef didn't move; he stared into a shaft of sun on the floor, as if his thoughts were lost within the light. "I just realised - if she asked me about where I been, I got no way to prove it now." Shadow-words, a cloud passing through sunlight. "Not like you with all your battle-scars," and he nudged Vanyel in a manner an observer might have passed off as companionable.

"The worst wounds never left scars," Van told him, and caught his hand as briefly as if it were a flame.
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