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Retrograde

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Yusuf awakes, hands gripping his tunic, wet with blood. He is alive. How is he alive? He remembers the sword of the Frank, coming down to cleave into his shoulder. He remembers slicing the enemy clean through the belly and falling to the ground, his lifeblood spilling into the sand.

The world is silent, the battlefield lines have long shifted around him, but the bodies have not been moved. He has not been moved.

He sits up, expecting pain, but none comes. Then he sees the fire. And the Frank.

The other soldier has made camp in the middle of the wretched battlefield. A small fire burns, and slices of fish are cooking.

The Frank, the same man who delivered his death blow. The one Yusuf killed. He’s sitting, tending to the fire, watching Yusuf with his bright eyes.

Before Yusuf can grab for his scimitar, the man gestures to the fish and speaks, in perfect Arabic.

“For you, Yusuf Al-Kaysani. I will not be here long.”

Yusuf has never been more terrified. “Who are you? What did you do to me?”

“I am Nicolò di Genova, the one who killed you and the one that you killed.”

He speaks softly, with confidence, like this is something he has done many times before. Like Yusuf’s armour, the man’s chainmail is stained through, the red cross lost in the blood, but the man doesn’t seem to mind.

“You know my language, you know my name.”

“I know many things,” is the only answer Yusuf gets.

The land around them stinks of corpses in the heat, nothing has survived the slaughter.  “So I am dead,” Yusuf says.

“Don’t worry,” Nicolò says with a smile. “It doesn’t stick.”

Yusuf must have gone mad, because the next thing the man does is reach into the fire with his bare hand. He picks up a roasted fish while his flesh bubbles and burns, then takes it to Yusuf.

“The Scriptures say that Christ ate with his disciples to show he wasn’t a ghost,” Nicolò says, “but that won’t mean much to you for a while yet.”

With this, he pops a few flakes of fish meat into his mouth. He gives a half hearted shrug. “It is not the best meal I have cooked for you, but it is a start.” The rest of the fish is pressed into Yusuf’s slack hands.

Yusuf doesn’t miss the fact that the pale hands that touch his are suddenly free of any burns or blisters. Completely healed, as Yusuf’s body is also.

“How can this be?” Yusuf breathes.

“Ah, the great mystery.” Nicolò drops to the ground beside Yusuf. “We still don’t know how or why, and my life is a particular thorn in our understanding. Go on, eat, I have much to tell you, and not long to say it.”

Yusuf obeys, only so he can recover his bearings enough to see his sword, lying on the other side of him from this strange creature. If he moved slowly, he could grab it without being seen.

The man named Nicolò smiles at Yusuf. It’s a peculiar sort of smile. “You are so young. There is so much to look forward to.” Then his face turns hard.

“Listen, Yusuf, I tell you this now so that one day, you may tell it to me.” The words make no sense, the man is speaking like a prophet of old. “We are now immortal, living and dying and living again. This is a great burden to bear, but there are those like us that we shall find, friends who will be with us for many lifetimes. We have also found each other, and Yusuf, we will always be bound together.”

The man is distracted, his eyes tracing the heavens as he recites this speech of madness. He doesn’t see Yusuf grasping the hilt of his sword.

“If you hurry to the hills, you can reach the encampment before sundown,” he continues in the same tone, and Yusuf plunges his blade into his chest.

The Frank doesn’t cry out, doesn’t even seem surprised to be murdered again.

“I said I wouldn’t be here long,” he gasps out.

Yusuf’s grip on his sword is white knuckled, and he’s shaking all over as he jerks on the blade. He can feel the man’s lung collapsing, blood spurting fresh over his tunic.

“Hurry. Sundown.” The man says with his last breath. With great effort he stretches out a hand and points towards the hills, the place Yusuf’s army were to retreat for safety.

With no air left in his body, the Frank stares up at Yusuf, a soft smile on his face even as he’s dying, like he’s committing it all to memory. Then the man winks.

Yusuf pulls free his sword with a sickening crunch and the man expires. Yusuf flees to the hills.