Ruins of Hope

Beyond the clear surface of the water, was light, was air. Mikael needed air right now. His throat, lungs, chest all screamed for the air he couldn't give them. He reached a hand towards the light, and felt his hand break the surface for one minute before slipping under once more as he began to sink. He opened his mouth and screamed, but only a small bubble came out, causing him to lose yet more air. He clawed helplessly at the light above him, trying to reach it, trying to swim to it, but his energy was gone, and his vision was blurring.

And then he gave up. He closed his eyes and accepted the fact that he was doomed to die, doomed to drown. He felt himself continue to sink slowly to the bottom.

And then a hand broke the surface and grabbed his wrist, pulling him upwards. Consciousness continued to slip from him. Finally his face came in contact with the air. His eyes flickered opened and his lungs filled quickly with a single deep breath. And then he began coughing, water streaming from his mouth. The person holding his wrist continued to pull him out of the water, as he continued to cough. Strong arms were wrapped around him as the cold air penetrated his water soaked clothes, and he began to shiver.

The arms around Mikael's shoulders slipped from around him briefly, and quickly returned, this time with a warm cloak, that was draped around his shoulders before they encircled his frail body once more. He continued to shiver.

It was a few minutes after he had stopped coughing, neither he nor the stranger had moved since, when Mikael pushed away and tried to pull himself to his feet. He stood for a minute, swaying slightly, feeling as triumphant of his own success as one could under the circumstances. Suddenly, pinpricks of light danced in his vision as unconsciousness battled with consciousness and won.

He never felt himself hit the ground.

~*~

The first thing Mikael saw was the night sky and the stars in it. Then slowly the tops of the trees of the forest around him came into sight, and then finally the light from a fire next to him reached his eyes. He sat straight up, eyes wide with fear, only to sink back down to the ground in pain. An ankle he didn’t even know he had twisted throbbed painfully. He whimpered.

The sound brought his rescuer to his side, running callused, but soft and gentle fingers over his forehead, soothing him. He blinked his green eyes, looking up at the person, trying to discern them, but the light of the fire made them wholly a silhouette. He coughed again, lungs still burning from the lack of air not too long ago.

The person leaned forward, and pulled him towards them and into a sitting position, holding his shoulders as he coughed his throat raw, body wracking violently. When he could cough no more, he inhaled deep breaths through his sore throat, resting weakly against the shoulder of his rescuer.

He couldn’t tell how much time went by, perhaps candle marks, perhaps seconds, as he sat leaning against the shoulder of the person. Soon a cup filled with steaming liquid was pressed to his lips. He turned his head away, throat still stinging.

“Drink. It will make your throat feel better. Drink.” Mikael blinked up at the person, fear evident in his eyes, but he was too weak to struggle, much less break away. He looked up at the silhouette holding him, then closed his eyes, reluctantly opening his mouth and letting the stranger tip the warm liquid in.

He choked and tried to spit the tea out, but the stranger put his hand over Mikael’s mouth, forcing him to keep the liquid in his mouth.

“It tastes horrible, I know, but it will make your throat feel better. Swallow.”

Mikael looked reproachfully up at the person, studying them for a moment, trying to make out details and failing miserably, and then swallowed, face taking on a look of disgust. But his rescuer had been right on both accounts; it tasted horrible, but it also soothed his throat as it went down.

The person, a man from the voice, managed to get half a cup down his throat before Mikael couldn’t bring himself to swallow any more. After that the silhouette held him, and between him and the fire, Mikael’s shivers were kept down to a minimum. As Mikael felt himself start to drift back to sleep, he began to curl up, pulling his legs closer to his body. The pain of his ankle shot up his leg and all traces of sleepiness were chased from his mind. He yelped, his whole body tensing. The man unwrapped an arm from around Mikael and gently pulled his twisted ankle back out from under him.

But even being gentle hurt more than Mikael wanted it to, and he had to bite his bottom lip to keep from crying out, and tears sprang to his eyes. When Mikael’s breathing had returned to normal, the other began to wrap the ankle, with Mikael burying his face in the other’s shoulder, tears running down his face and staining the man’s shirt, and making strangled noises of pain. The whole procedure was over in a matter of minutes, and when he was done, the man sat holding Mikael tightly against the chill of the night wind as it whistled around them.

“Why?” Mikael’s voice shook slightly as he looked up at the man from his arms. “Why are you doing this?”

“Would you rather be dead?” came the question of an answer. “That is what one expects when one falls off a waterfall. But I was there, I saw them chase you, and I saw you fall. And I rushed down to the bottom where I saw your hand, and just managed to grab you before you drowned. Does one need a reason to save the life of another?”

Mikael shook his head slowly, a headache just beginning, and was able to think of no response. He closed his eyes, and leaned his head against the man’s shoulder, pressing close. For his part, the other held him close, arms cradling Mikael until he fell asleep minutes later, and for marks afterwards as well.

~*~

It was three days before he woke up again. He was thirsty and hungry, but not as much of either as he felt he should have been under the circumstances, which probably meant that the stranger—

His thought process took a dramatic turn.

The stranger. Where was he? And, more importantly he thought, who was he? Almost in response to his silent question, a shadow fell over him.

“You are awake.” Not a question, but Mikael nodded anyway. "Here." A cup of tea was pushed into his hands.

"I don't… my throat doesn’t hurt anymore—"

"It's good for you," came the brusque response.

Mikael decided that he would rather drink it of his own accord than have it forced down his throat, so he took the cup, and drained it quickly. The shadow made an approving sound, at which he attempted to glare.

He pulled himself into a sitting position, nearly sighing in relief when the shadow didn't move closer. He pulled the blanket around his shoulders.

"Did they leave?" He knew that the stranger would know whom he meant.

"Yes. Three days ago. The same day I rescued you."

"Why? Why did you pull me from the river?"

What was still a shadow, moved to sit down next to him, making it so that he wasn't looking up all the time. His wary eyes followed the movement.

"I have reasons. You are alive, that is all you need to know."

"What about who you are? Can you tell me that?" he asked, almost desperately.

There was a pause, nearly a long silence, and Mikael thought that the other would refuse to tell him. Then he moved out from in front of the sun, and Mikael could see his features. His eyes widened, and filled with fear. "…Jeran…?"

~*~

Mikael struggled to throw off the blanket and get to his feet in a hurry, and only succeeded in nearly tripping himself on the blanket, and the logs next to the fire.

"Mikael. Sit down."

"You tried to kill me," Mikael said, his voice higher in his fear.

"I didn't," Jeran snapped, in an attempt to defend himself.

"You were hired to kill me. It's basically the same thing," Mikael pointed out rationally.

Jeran looked up at him, having not moved from his sitting position on the ground, his eyes smoldering. "Are you dead yet?" he snapped.

Mikael stopped limping. "No--"
"And didn't I have plenty of opportunities to kill you?"

"Yes, but--"

"Hell, I could have let you drown, and you would be dead. Did I?"

"Well, no. But--"

Jeran finally stood. "Then don't you think that there is a pretty good chance that I am not going to kill you now?"

"Well, perhaps--"

"Mikael, we were friends before you knew that I was hired to kill you. All that was real. I wasn't pretending."

Mikael glared at him. "So I'm supposed to take the word of an assassin?" he asked, spitting the word out.

The change in Jeran's face was so sudden that Mikael's glare lost all its potency. He nearly withered under it.

"So you don't trust me now, now that you know that I'm an assassin? What has changed? I didn't try to kill you! They did! The people you've known all your life tried to kill you. Don't you think that you should reevaluate your trusts?"

Mikael looked at the ground, and grimacing at the brutal spin Jeran was putting on things, but he didn't see another way to put it, certainly not one that made it any better. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up at Jeran.

"You're alive though, and they have all gone back to their houses. As far as they know, you are dead, and you don't have to worry about them trying to kill you again, right?"

Mikael nodded, slightly dejected. He opened his mouth to say something, when his face paled, and his mouth snapped closed.

"What?" Jeran asked, worried.

"I- I- I can never go home," he said, eyes widening at the sudden painful realization.

Jeran tried to smile. "Think about it. Do you really want to?"

Mikael managed a weak laugh before it vanished under the tears. He sunk gracelessly to the ground, and sobbed.

~*~

When Mikael looked up, marks later, the sun had begun to slip past the horizon, painting the sky a fitting blue and purple. Colors that, at the moment, fit Mikael's mood. He looked around for Jeran, and found the clearing empty. He decided he was glad of that, it was embarrassing enough to cry, but at least he wasn't crying in front of a friend--

He stopped. Even in his mind he still called Jeran a friend. Mikael trusted his subconscious, to a point. It couldn't lie as far as he knew. And when it told him something, something as clear as this, something he could understand without too much deciphering, it was probably best to listen, wasn't it?

He drew a shuddering breath, still shaky from the crying he had just done. Then slowly, using a tree next to him, he pulled himself to his feet, avoiding putting too much weight on the ankle that, as he had started to stand, had chosen that moment to painfully remind him of its condition.

"Ah! Good. You are awake and standing. That's good." Jeran's voice came from behind Mikael, and he looked over his shoulder at the source.

The other was leading a pair of horses into the clearing, each fully tacked, and with a set of saddle bags over the rump.

"Please, please, please," he begged Jeran. "Please tell me you didn't steal those from the village."

Jeran laughed at him. "What possible use could they have for them? Other than coming to find you, and we know that they aren't going to do that, and even if they were, we don't want them to."

"You did! Jeran, I swear--"

"I didn't, but it was worth seeing your face." Jeran tied the horses reins to a tree on the other side of the clearing, making sure that they had access to grasses and other bushes, before he moved back to Mikael's side. "You know," he said slowly. "For someone who they just tried to kill, you are awfully concerned about them."

"I've known them all my life. Just because they tried to kill me, doesn't mean that I'm going to wish them ill."

"Hn," was the only response from Jeran as he moved away, and sat facing the fire.

"What?" Mikael moved to sit next to Jeran, moving slower because of his ankle. "Would you wish death on someone who tried to kill you simply because they were afraid of you?"

"I did."

~*~

Jeran hadn't said anymore than that, no matter what Mikael had done to try and pull the information out of him, but Mikael had still been able to make a well-founded guess.

Jeran was just like him, had the curse that was feared, and was thus outlawed in all the villages, towns, and cities in the 13 provinces.

Jeran had magic, but it wasn't just that. Magic came from everything around them, from everything on the face of the earth. Even death.

Mikael and Jeran had been cursed with the ability to pull magic out of death.

Jeran vanished only once more, to hunt something for the both of them to eat, and had come back with two small rabbits. Conversation as the rabbits were cleaned and spitted over the fire was carefully kept away from the curse that was over both of their heads. It was cheerful to the point of being too cheerful if only to keep their minds on something else.

The fire started to die and Jeran moved around the edges of the clearing, gathering wood to keep it going through the night. Mikael's eyes followed Jeran as he moved, a speculative look in his eyes.

"What?" Jeran finally asked him, as he dropped the wood to the ground and sat down once again next to Mikael.

"I didn't say anything," Mikael defended.

"I know, but you've been watching me with that look."

"Which?"

"The one that says you want to ask me something. So ask."

Mikael smiled a little, and half sighed. "How long did you know?"

"Know what?"

"That you had it before they tried to kill you."

"Oh," Jeran looked at the fire carefully, and tossed a couple sticks on the flames. "Three months."

"You managed to keep it secret that long?" Mikael looked amazed.

"I guess so. And then my mother died, and, being that I had no control over it at that point, I pulled from her death. The people couldn't help but notice."

The two of them were silent for a while as Mikael processed the information, and Jeran was swamped with half forgotten memories.

"How long--"

"Did I know you had it?" Jeran finished, and then shrugged. "Oh, a while. Maybe even before you knew it yourself. Certainly before you started showing visible signs. I recognize the symptoms, visible or not."

"Ah." Silence filled the air once more as the two stared at the fire.

Mikael opened his mouth again, and was promptly hit in the face by a blanket.

"Go to sleep, Mikael. We have to leave here tomorrow."

Mikael rolled his eyes, but pulled the blanket around his shoulders and curled up next to the fire.

~*~

"Get up."

"Mrph."

"Mikael, I swear you sleep like the dead. I've been trying to wake you for marks. Since damn practically."

"Sleeping this heavily comes in handy for when you have people talking in your ear when you are trying to sleep. Go away." Mikael rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head.

Jeran prodded Mikael with hie toe where he approximated the other's stomach was. "Get up. Now."

"Well, if you're going to kick me..." Mikael threw the blanket off his head and sat up. He grinned at Jeran, who only rolled his eyes and handed the younger man a piece of bread from their meal the night before.

Mikael made the bread vanish in less than half a second. Between the two of them, Mikael and Jeran made their camp follow suit, and before the sun had gotten to the peak of its arch, all sign that they had been there had disappeared. Mikael pulled himself up onto the bay horse, and, after another quick look around the clearing, Jeran did the same.

~*~

"So, I've got death magic, right? So, I'm an assassin to get the magic that I need." Jeran said over his shoulder to Mikael.

"No. Be a hunter. Hunt for those who can't, and get your magic from the animals."

"But you get more from a human."

Mikael gave him a Look.

"You're right, that does make me sound like a power hungry wizard," he said laughingly. "Alright, hunter it is then."

The conversation stopped as they topped the hill over the village.

"How does it feel not to have a home to go to from this moment on?" Jeran asked as the two of them looked down at the village.

"You tell me," Mikael replied, not looking up. He shrugged. "It's not like I have a choice right?"

"No. It's true. You don't."

"But I'll be alright," Mikael said, finally tearing his gaze from the village below. "As long as I've got you." He gave Jeran a grin and then he wheeled his horse around and kicked her into a gallop, leaving Jeran cursing, and kicking his own horse to follow, a broad smile on his own face.

THE END