Their meetings had become more tense and frequent for months now. The traders from the north had come more infrequently. A few never returned to their homes but rather moved on further south, away from the threat that had befallen their world.
Joseph listened to the recounts of what traders, scouts, and other travelers had told them. The army that was coming from the north was formidable. They were strong, resilient, and completely ruthless. There was no one who encountered them and lived, so all reports were second or third hand, or embellished to a point that Joseph didn't think they could take what they heard at face value.
The kingdom of America had finally sent out their own scouts to get a credible account of what was going on in the north, with strict instructions not to engage the enemy or get close enough to endanger themselves. The scouts were due back any day now.
If they came back.
Joseph hoped that they would, but either way he knew that they would have to ready themselves to fight sooner rather than later. The preparations for war had begun some time ago, resources stored away, weapons and armor forged, spells learned.
He thought of David. David was helping their Master Wizard in preparing healing potions to stock, but he was also preparing for the war in his own way. He'd been working on his new play of illusions for a while now. Others would have abandoned their work as a frivolous task, considering what they were facing. But David was even more dedicated, telling Joseph that now more than ever people needed to be entertained, distracted, and mentally refreshed.
Joseph could only smile at David's passion. He himself felt restless. That wasn't a new state, of course. Ever since his promotion to second in command of the city's guard, he had spent most of the time within the walls of Teahor.
He enjoyed being so close to his family, in particular his three sons, but the urge to ride out and explore the life beyond these walls became stronger every day. He'd even volunteered to ride north as one of their scouts, but the king had wanted to keep him close.
"I do not sense that it is your destiny," he'd said. The seer of the court had nodded in confirmation.
Joseph had sighed but bowed in acceptance. His destiny would be the death of him. Well, not literally. At least, his destiny did not say anything about his death. It only said that he would save their kingdom. Unfortunately, it didn't say how or why, so everyone including Joseph was waiting for his destiny to manifest itself.
Joseph didn't complain about it. Adopted by a kind nobleman because of his destiny, Joseph had been allowed to travel the world, and his family wanted for nothing. But it was trying, waiting for a moment that was as nebulous now as it had been five-and-thirty years ago.
He was a knight. He could handle both sword and horse quite well. He trained to be fit. But he wasn't the best fighter in Teahor. He wasn't the quickest, nor the most resilient, nor the most elegant with his sword. If he managed to save the kingdom with his sword, it would have to be by a stroke of luck, though he couldn't quite fathom how that would happen.
"Maybe the leader of their army will come before my sword, already worn down from fight," he speculated to David after the meeting.
"And you will kill them as any other soldier would? That does not sound worthy of a prophecy," David pointed out.
"I know," Joseph said, sighing. "I cannot picture a scenario worth a prophecy," he admitted.
"Then perhaps the leader of their army will lay eyes upon your blessed hair and be so distracted by it that your fellow knights will be able to slay him," David suggested with a smirk.
Joseph gave him a look. "At least I still have all of my hair," he responded dryly.
David glared at him, then both of them cracked a smile. This was part of their repartee, one of many ways in which they liked to tease each other.
David sobered and asked, "Still no word on what is really going on up north?"
Joseph shook his head. "The scouts have yet to return."
"At least we know our kingdom won't fall," David said.
Joseph didn't say anything. He knew as well as David that even if their kingdom would be saved by him as foretold, there was no telling how many lives would be lost before that happened. And his prophecy didn't say anything at all about the neighboring kingdoms. David and his wife Jane hailed from the kingdom of Britain to the East, and her family as well as David's mother could still fall prey to the army that raged in the north.
"How is your play doing?" Joseph asked as a means of distraction.
"Quite well," David said, his eyes getting that special spark that they always got when he talked about his art. Joseph loved to listen to him. David was an artist with all his soul, and Joseph found himself thinking of poems and images sometimes, simply from being close to him and his unbridled enthusiasm. "I believe I have found the suitable characters for my tale," David continued, "and the climax will move the audience to tears."
"Not of boredom, I hope," Joseph teased him.
David opened his mouth in outrage, but before he could begin his tirade, the door opened.
"Sir Flanigan! Sir Flanigan!" came the shouts from one of the squires. "The scout is back!"
"Scout?" Joseph asked. He exchanged a look with David, who looked as worried as Joseph felt and must have come to the same conclusion about the use of singular in that statement. "I'll come with you."
He got up and rushed to go to the throne room, looking at David once more before disappearing through the door.
David looked after Joseph, worry filling his heart.
When he'd first heard about Joseph's prophecy it had only been one of a few reasons to settle down here in Teahor with his new wife. Not many kingdoms had a guaranteed savior in their ranks.
But as the years had passed and he and Joseph had become friends, the abstract certainty of having the kingdom saved by him one day was mixed with worry about how it would happen and at what cost. As a master of the dramatic arts, David knew that heroes more often than not made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives to save others.
And David wouldn't want to miss Joseph's stubborn loyalty, his leadership, but most of all the sense of humor that they shared. There was nothing as satisfying to David as making Joseph laugh, except perhaps playing with his little son Sebastian. He loved his life in Teahor with his family, but there was something about his friendship with Joseph that had a special place in his heart and that he didn't want to imagine living without.
Too restless to continue working, David decided to go out and ask what the others had heard.
Their suspicions turned out to be correct. Of the three scouts that had been sent up north only one had returned, and he'd looked pretty shaken. He hadn't said anything, though, other than that he needed to see the king immediately.
"David?" It was their Master Wizard, Warrick.
"Warrick?" David asked.
"Come with me," Warrick said. "I believe it is time we worked some more on your healing spells. I have the feeling we will soon need them."
David nodded, turning towards the central tower where the throne room was, before following him.
"They are dead."
Joseph was not surprised to hear the news from the only scout that had returned. He listened as he told of an army that didn't rest, didn't eat, didn't sleep.
"How is that possible?" the king asked.
"Nobody knows," the scout admitted. "Nobody has ever gotten close enough and lived to tell their tale. Nothing is certain but the certain doom that this army brings with them wherever they venture."
"What can we possibly do to stop such an army?" the king asked.
"We've prepared all troops for months now, my lord," Sir Garreth said.
"And should I send you out to certain death?" the king asked. "No, if the kingdoms up north could not stop them, we won't be able to do it either. They don't even sound human."
Joseph looked up at that. "My lord?" he asked. Everyone in the room turned to him. "I don't suppose...this could be the Army of Darkness?"
"The ancient myth?" the king asked.
"It is a prophecy," the seer, Jasper, corrected him. "However as one that had no date attached to it, the prophecy has lost its potency over time. But Sir Flanigan might be right. This could be the Army of Darkness. And it might explain..." he trailed off.
The others turned to Joseph, and he knew very well what they were thinking. They had no idea how Joseph would be the one to save the kingdom. If it were through the help of a magical weapon, however, that might make it plausible.
"Jasper, find the most accurate account of the prophecy that we have," the king ordered. Then he turned to Joseph. "Sir Flanigan, are you willing to take on this mission?"
"It is my destiny," Joseph said, bowing.
"He should not go alone," Sir Garreth pointed out. "We should send Warrick with him."
Joseph considered that. Warrick was a powerful wizard. He would be able to help defend against anything that might be lurking in the forest and would be able to conjure food and cast path finding and healing spells. However, he would also be needed in preparation for the war, should Joseph be too late to avoid all confrontation.
The truth, though, was that if he was to go into the forest to find a long lost, almost mystical magical weapon, he knew exactly whom he'd take with him.
"My lord, if I might make a different suggestion. Would you allow me to ask David to come with me?" Joseph asked.
"The illusionist?" the king asked doubtfully.
"He is a wizard," Joseph told him. "Even if he has trained mostly to create illusions to express himself through his art, he has gone through the basic training of any wizard and should be of great help to me." And his presence would guarantee that Joseph wouldn't feel bored no matter how many days or weeks their search took.
"Are you certain? I'm sure there are other wizards we could send with you. Or you could take a squadron," the king suggested.
"My lord, I believe I should go alone with David. I will do my best to fulfill my destiny as swiftly as possible, but in the meantime we should not spare anyone else who could aid in the preparation for war," Joseph said.
"Very well," the king said. "You have my permission to ask him."
Joseph bowed again. It looked as if he would finally find out exactly how he'd save the kingdom.
David read through the scroll again, familiarizing himself with the words. He was quite well versed in the lower medical spells and could ease the pain of most minor ailments, but he'd never had a reason to learn how to pull someone back from the threshold to certain death.
Warrick was a master of his profession and his spells were elegant and efficient, but they took time to learn and great care to properly channel the magic. David could only hope that there was enough time for him to be useful, although of course he'd prefer if he'd never have an occasion to use them at all.
He was trying to internalize the magical words, when suddenly the door opened and Jasper stormed in.
"Master Warrick, I'll need your help to locate the scroll with the prophecy of the Army of Darkness," he said.
"Army of Darkness?" David asked.
Unlike David, Warrick seemed to be familiar with the prophecy. He looked even more concerned than he'd already been. "You believe...?"
"Sir Flanigan suggested that this might be his destiny," Jasper said.
"What?" David said.
Jasper turned to him. "To go into the forest and find the magical staff that will destroy the Army of Darkness. I'm sorry. We'll have to make haste. Warrick?"
Warrick nodded, and they both rushed out, leaving David alone.
He'd never heard of that prophecy. Joseph hadn't mentioned it to him, but maybe the scout had brought them new information to finally identify Joseph's destiny.
David wasn't sure what to think of that. Since the object he was to search for was magical, he assumed the forest in question wasn't one located inside the borders of America, but rather the one to the northwest, which was both magical and dangerous.
David had only ventured into the outer parts of it, picking up some ingredients for potions back when he'd received some basic training from Warrick. The forest had frightened him. Of the magical creatures rumored to wander within it, David had only seen fire-breathing bugs and spiders the size of fists.
He shuddered at the thought. Even in their normal size, David didn't like spiders and other crawling creatures. A displacement spell had been one of the first he'd learned. He felt a lot more comfortable knowing that he could just send a spider onto the other side of a wall out of the house whenever he encountered one.
Soon, though, he'd begun to use magic for other reasons. Illusions had historically been abused by spies and traitors and had earned a reputation of being dishonorable. After effective counter spells had been developed that every reputable capital had deployed, they fell out of use.
David had resurrected them and had breathed new life and meaning into them. That had been a risk. At the time, it hadn't been clear if his craft, the combination of magic and art, would be able to feed him, let alone a wife, child, and dog. But in Teahor, he'd found a king who appreciated the value of art for himself and his subjects.
He'd found a home here in America, a place to follow his vocation—and Joseph.
David's thoughts returned to his friend's prophecy. He knew that Joseph was quite capable of dealing with magical bugs and spiders, but there were other, much more dangerous creatures in that forest.
David reminded himself that Joseph's destiny was to save the kingdom, so whatever happened in that forest, he wouldn't fail. He'd live to return with the magical staff and save the kingdom.
What happened after that, however, was entirely uncertain.
Joseph had to ask around to eventually locate David in Warrick's work chambers. "There you are," he said when he finally found him bent over a scroll.
David turned around abruptly. "Joseph!" He was tense and looked worried.
"The scout," Joseph began, "The others did not survive. The army up north is unlike anything we've ever seen."
"The Army of Darkness," David said.
"Yes, that's my suspicion. I'll leave to find the magical staff," Joseph said.
David got up, but didn't say anything. He looked lost and afraid. "When will you leave?"
"As soon as possible," Joseph said.
David dropped his gaze.
"And I want you to come with me," Joseph said.
David's head snapped back up. "What?"
"I know that it's much to ask, and I would understand if you wouldn't want to leave your family alone at a time like this, but I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather have by my side."
"You want me to come with you into the magical forest up north?" David said.
"I...you're right. I shouldn't have asked. It is too dangerous. I couldn't live with myself if something happened to you," Joseph said. It was the truth. He would love to have David with him, but he couldn't ask him to endanger his life.
"I couldn't live with that either," David said, one corner of his mouth curving up.
Joseph cracked a smile as well. "I will miss you," he said. He took a step closer to David and pulled him into his arms. He felt David enfold him into a tight hug.
Eventually, they had to part.
"I will tell the king. Sir Garreth has suggested that Warrick join me in the first place. That will be best," Joseph said. He'd have the best protection possible and the most powerful magic available. There was no reason to be disappointed. At least that was what he told himself.
"Warrick?" David asked with wide eyes. "You asked to take me instead of Master Warrick?"
"I might have not considered this entirely rationally," Joseph admitted with a self-conscious smile.
David gaped at him.
"I should leave to let the king know," Joseph said. He nodded at David and turned to go, but David stopped him.
"Joe!" David said. Joseph turned to him. "Joseph. I...my healing spells are not nearly as powerful as Master Warrick's. My displacements are mostly for little critters that even Sebastian could handle. But if you want me to go with you, I will."
Joseph did want it, but he could see that David was terrified even if he tried to be brave and do this for Joseph. "I cannot ask this of you," Joseph said, giving David an understanding smile.
"But I can offer," David insisted more confidently now. "You made your choice, and I am honored." He bowed before Joseph. "I'm at your service, sir."
"Do not call me sir again, for one," Joseph said, one corner of his mouth tugging up.
"I shall do my best, sir," David said, grinning.
David felt half sick when he stepped in front of the king with Joseph. The king's speech was probably meant to be encouraging, but it only made David feel more tense. The fate of their kingdom lay in their hands, and while Joseph was destined to save the day, his prophecy made no predictions about his trusted companion.
Mallozzi's castle had been lost in the magical forest for centuries. Nobody knew where it was, how to find it, or what protected it. They all just counted on Joseph's destiny to lead the way.
After the king's speech, they were sent to the armory and kitchens respectively. David prepared to take as much food as was feasible. He also packed a little surprise for Joseph, grinning as he tied everything together.
Then it was time to go to Warrick. He had copied several scrolls for David that might be useful on their quest and cast a general protection spell on them. They were about to leave when Warrick stopped them.
"There is one more thing I'd like to do with your permission," he said.
"What is it?" Joseph asked.
"I would like to cast a binding spell on the two of you. You would be able to sense the other's presence and general state of emotion. It should help you find each other should one of you get lost, and to alert the other should one of you be in danger," Warrick explained.
"What if I die?" David asked. He heard Joseph take in a harsh breath. David only glanced at him. They both knew this was a possibility. David was aware of it and had still chosen to go with him. He could have let Warrick join Joseph on his quest, but a part of him wouldn't allow it. Not after Joseph had told him that he had asked for David.
It wasn't rational. But neither was the idea that they could just walk into a magical forest without plan or guidance and locate a long lost castle with a powerful weapon that would destroy an army that rendered kingdoms into rubble without much effort. It wasn't rational, but it was their choice and maybe it was simply their destiny.
"Joseph will feel it and then the spell will be lifted. If for any reason you need to be unbound, you can say a simple incantation that will lift it. It is an unusual spell, and you might feel...more close than is comfortable, but I believe the positives outweigh the negatives," Warrick said.
Joseph turned to David. David didn't have to think about it. There'd never been a moment when he'd felt too close to Joseph. Quite the opposite, though he tried not to examine that too closely. And they would certainly need all the help they could get for their adventure. He nodded.
"We'll do it," Joseph said, turning back to Warrick.
David hadn't heard of this spell before, so he wasn't sure what to expect. He followed Warrick's instructions and took Joseph's hands.
Joseph gave him a somewhat awkward half-smile. "Why do I feel reminded of my wedding?" he whispered.
"You are the ugliest bride I've ever seen," David joked back just as quietly, though he thought that Joseph looked really quite dashing in his new shiny armor. He flushed.
Warrick spoke the incantation, and suddenly a glow spread around them, enveloping them into a ball of light. It should have been too bright for his eyes, but he could still see Joseph clearly. It looked as if the rays of light spread out from Joseph, just like his ridiculous hair.
Then the light was suddenly gone. After a moment, David realized that it wasn't so much gone as it was...inside of them. He could still feel the light emanating invisibly from inside their bodies. He looked at Joseph and saw reflected in his eyes the same strange wonder of this feeling.
There was an awareness about Joseph's body and mind that was both new and very familiar. Maybe expanded would be the best way to describe it. Enhanced with magic. Bound into near-physical form.
David felt a wave of something form in his stomach. He could see confusion flicker in Joseph's eyes, and then he sensed a wave of calm coming from him, as if he were telling David that everything was going to be all right.
"I believe it worked," Warrick said.
"Yes," Joseph agreed. "Thank you, Master Warrick. For all that you have done for us."
"What you are setting out to do is more than enough thanks," Warrick said. He turned to David. "This is the counter-scroll for the binding."
David took it, and then they said goodbye.
Outside, it seemed as if half of Teahor had gathered. People wished them good luck and waved at them as they passed.
At the gate, Sir Garreth waited with their families.
David hadn't had much time to explain to Jane why he had to do this. In the end, she had only said, "You must do what feels right," and smiled encouragingly at him.
They kissed their respective wives and sons goodbye—and Mars. David could feel Joseph's love for them as well as the fear that he might never see them again. It was the same feeling David had as they mounted their horses.
But at the same time, he felt the call to adventure, to join Joseph on his quest to fulfill his destiny as if it were his own.
They rode to the borders of America their first day, staying the night in a tavern before continuing on their way the next morning.
It was still early when they entered the magical forest. It seemed quite ordinary to Joseph, even though he sensed that it was special. Though maybe those were just David's feelings.
Joseph was enjoying his surroundings as they followed a little path next to a stream. It felt good to be out in the wild.
David apparently didn't feel the same. He looked around slightly wary and after the second time he'd muttered, "Displace," Joseph asked him, "What are you doing?"
"I told you about the fire-breathing bugs," David said.
Right. He had. "I haven't seen any so far," Joseph said.
"That's what they want you to think," David said. "They look harmless, and you'll think nothing of it until you suddenly find yourself on fire."
"Somehow I doubt there's a grand master plan of the fire-breathing bugs to set you on fire," Joseph commented.
"They've already scorched the mane of my mare!" David said.
Joseph looked at him, then directed his horse to ride closer to David. "Where?" he asked.
"Here," David said, pointing at the mane.
Joseph was unable to see a difference, so he slowed down, prompting David to do the same. Once they stood, Joseph leaned forward to inspect that 'scorching'. After very close inspection, he finally found half a hair curled up as if burned. "You are right," he said thoughtfully. "They seem to be very dangerous—if they come in a herd of thousand."
David gave him a look, then suddenly shuddered.
Joseph could feel his disgust through their bond. "Don't think about it," he said.
"Thank you for that advice. I'll be sure to heed it the next time you use particularly visceral imagery to make a point," David said, directing his horse to move again.
They continued on their way discussing their plans or rather the lack thereof. Even though Jasper and Warrick had located the original prophecy about the Army of Darkness, it was very light on details, so that it was still very much unclear how they were going to locate Mallozzi's castle and manage not to die in the process.
Legend held that after the original prophecy had been made, several adventurers had set out to seek the magical staff. But they had all returned empty-handed—or not at all. It was during that time that the magical forest gained its reputation of being very dangerous and unforgiving. These days, nobody ventured beyond the relatively safe outskirts of the woods.
For now, they could simply follow the path, but Joseph suspected that the path would narrow down further and further until it would disappear completely. Or maybe it would simply stop abruptly when they came upon an insurmountable obstacle.
He wasn't quite sure how they'd continue then. Warrick had given David some path finding scrolls, but he hadn't seemed very confident that they would be useful. In the end, their best hope was that destiny would find a way.
"I'm still wondering how your hair will come into play," David mused.
"My hair?" Joseph asked. He was used to David making fun of how it stood up completely untamable, but David seemed genuinely thoughtful.
"Yes, your blessed hair. The seer must have had a reason to bless it after revealing your prophecy," David said.
"Many people receive blessings as a baby," Joseph said. "Your eyes have been blessed," he pointed out.
"They have?" David slowed down and turned to him, frowning. "If they have, that's the first I heard of it."
"They haven't?" Joseph asked. He could have sworn David had mentioned that. "With your ability to see and make those images come to life, not to mention the—" He stopped abruptly, realizing what he was about to say.
"Not to mention what?" David asked.
"Nothing," Joseph said. "I must have made an incorrect assumption. And even if your eyes weren't formally blessed, you must admit, they are a blessing for your works," he quickly said.
"Yes," David said. "One can only wonder what I would have been capable of, had they been actually blessed." He sighed and continued on.
Joseph hid his relief that David didn't further question what he'd nearly said. A compliment between friends was a welcome gift, but Joseph was very much aware that extolling the beauty of David's blue eyes was not appropriate.
He'd been aware of his unusual leanings since his youth.
During his time in France, Joseph had even found another man with similar leanings who'd shown him the pleasure two men could experience with each other.
But that had been far away, and he'd been young and foolish then. Well, more foolish than now. He had a wife and family now. He had responsibility for them and the men that he led, and he took that responsibility seriously.
There was no place for his unusual leanings in his world. And he'd never considered doing with David what he'd done in— It was unthinkable. And he didn't think about it. David was a friend. He was his best friend.
David had come into the city back when Joseph had first joined the guard of Teahor. They'd both learned their way around their new surroundings. When Joseph needed a wizard, he went to David, and when David needed someone to explain to him the customs of America or Teahor in particular he sought out Joseph.
They'd grown close over the years, but Joseph had never considered they could ever be more. Not that he'd ever thought about it. He didn't.
There might have been moments where David's crooked smile stirred something inside him that wasn't quite friendship, and when David inspired him to feel artistic, Joseph sometimes found himself reciting poetry in his head, about the blue of David's eyes, like a clear sky reflected in an ocean of unimaginable depth.
But he would never voice those thoughts out loud. At best, David would ridicule his flowery words. At worst, he'd consider Joseph's feelings unnatural and a betrayal of the oath they'd sworn to their wives.
These moments of weakness were his secret and must never be known by anyone.
Suddenly, it occurred to Joseph that the binding spell that Warrick had cast on them might reveal his thoughts. He looked over to David, but he seemed deep in thought, probably still musing over the possibilities of having blessed eyes.
Joseph sighed inwardly in relief. It appeared that his secret was safe.
They had a brief lunch, eating sandwiches from the tavern, which David raved about in great detail. They let the horses drink from the stream and refilled their own pouches.
After that, they continued to follow the path.
David wasn't used to riding, and he felt that by the end of the day, he'd probably be ready to use some spells on himself to ease the ache in his bones.
Joseph seemed very comfortable on the back of his stallion. He also looked relaxed and clearly enjoyed the surrounding nature.
David looked at him now and then when Joseph's attention was turned elsewhere, simply taking in how happy Joseph seemed. There was something about Joseph that had always made David anxious for his happiness.
The day grew to a close and the bright blue gave way to the black of the night sky. David could feel the progress they'd made in his body. He was also hungry.
Before his stomach could grumble, Joseph suggested that they stop and prepare for the night.
"You must have read my mind," David said.
Joseph looked at him sharply. "I did not. The spell only gives me a vague feeling of what is going on inside you. You're tired and hungry, right?"
David stayed quiet for a moment, trying to feel their bond. "You're worried about me."
Joseph dropped his gaze, his face flushing in the moonlight.
"You need not be, though I appreciate your concern," David said.
They dismounted and David adorned a branch of a nearby tree with a spell of light. While Joseph set up their tent and took care of the horses, David unpacked a small desk and chair to study some of the scrolls that Warrick had given him for their journey.
Joseph's eyes widened when he saw the desk. "Do you have a bed in there as well?" he asked, pointing at the bag, where David had stored their equipment.
"No, but I do have a mattress," David said.
"I've never seen this kind of bag before. It would be very useful for the guard once we set out to fight," Joseph said.
"It is the only one of its kind for now," David said. Joseph was surprised. "It was an experiment of Warrick's. And yes, it might seem useful to transport the guard's equipment, but you must be aware that it requires magic to retrieve any items from the bag. Which means that making your army dependable on it would pose a risk."
"We'd need to make sure to have at least one wizard at our disposal," Joseph said, understanding.
"Also, the innards need to be made of gold for the spell to work," David added.
Joseph's eyes widened as he looked at the bag. "So this simple bag is..."
"Worth more than many of the villages in our kingdom, yes," David confirmed.
"We should probably take good care of it then," Joseph said.
"That would be advisable," David agreed. "Not just for the bag, but also its contents."
For the moment, Joseph couldn't know what in particular David had brought for him. David was looking forward to revealing that little surprise.
The spell to unbind them was easily memorized, though David didn't anticipate that they'd need it during the journey.
Joseph hadn't mentioned feeling uncomfortable about it, and David himself almost didn't notice their bond most of the time. It was as if the awareness that it created between them had already existed before the spell—at least for David.
It wasn't completely unnoticeable, though. David had sensed Joseph's amusement when he'd told him about the fire-breathing bugs and after discussing the lack of blessing of David's eyes, he'd sensed some upheaval in Joseph, though he had calmed down again, quickly.
David wasn't quite sure what had gone on in Joseph's head in that moment, but he had gotten the strong sense that it was better not to ask him.
He went over some healing spells after memorizing the unbinding scroll. They were the most likely to be useful to them, even though he hoped they'd both get out of this adventure without any threats to their lives.
"Are there any sandwiches left?" Joseph asked, interrupting his concentration.
David looked up to find the tent set up, the horses tied down, and Joseph without the light armor he'd chosen to complete his outfit for their journey.
"Yes, there are," David said. He got up to get them—and to finally retrieve his surprise.
Joseph settled down on a blanket that he'd spread out on the soft moss. When David threw the sandwiches at him, he caught them. He started eating, and David used the chance to extract the small barrel out of the bag.
He set it down in front of Joseph, watching for his reaction expectantly.
Joseph stopped chewing, then swallowed the bite and opened his mouth as his gaze settled on the brew. No words escaped from his lips, though.
"Ezrael's home-brew," David said. "The best he had."
Joseph's gaze turned up to him. What David saw in there caught his breath for a moment. Then he swallowed and flushed happily, letting the mixture of gratitude and affection that he felt from Joseph wash over him.
He picked two glasses from the bag and settled down next to Joseph.
"I knew there was a reason why I wouldn't have chosen any other person in the world to accompany me," Joseph said as David filled the first glass.
David only smiled and handed him the glass before filling his own. When he was done, they clinked their glasses together in a toast. "To a successful journey," David said.
"May our destinies come true soon," Joseph said.
They both drank, and David could only wonder what his destiny might be.
After eating and preparing for the night, they settled on the mattress that David had packed in the magical shrinking bag.
Nightfall had brought a chill with it, and David shuddered and pulled their blanket up to his chin.
Joseph would have liked to offer the warmth of his body, but even if he only meant it in friendship and comfort—which he did—he wasn't sure if it was entirely appropriate.
He hadn't drunk enough beer to be light-headed. He couldn't afford it. But he still enjoyed the feeling it gave him. The feeling that David knew him so well and had thought of him.
Considering their quest, a barrel of brew was a complete luxury. But even in his haste to pack, David had remembered the many evenings in which they'd enjoyed a good brew together. It was a shared passion of theirs.
Joseph tried not to think of any other passion. Just as he tried to make sure to stay on his side of the tent and resist the urge to reach out and touch David.
He'd only fallen asleep with David once before, when they'd been too drunk to return to their homes. The morning after hadn't been very pleasant, though, both because of the after effects of the brew and because he'd felt guilty for not returning to his wife the night before.
Katherine was understanding of his weaknesses and often liked to share a brew, but even if she didn't hold it against him, Joseph knew that it was inexcusable not to return to his own bed for the night. He had made sure it hadn't happened again.
This time, however, he did have a good excuse, and he fell asleep wondering what it would be like to wake up next to David.
During the night they'd moved towards each other, so when Joseph awoke the next morning, it wasn't so much next to David as wrapped around him.
He luxuriated in the feeling of having David so close to him, feeling the soft rise and fall of his chest beneath his arm.
He knew that he should move away before David woke. But Joseph wanted to treasure as much as he could of this moment. He took a deep breath, taking in David's scent and dared to press his face into David's shoulder for a moment, wishing that he was allowed to do more, to roll on top of David and...
He swiftly rolled away, putting a stop to those impossible wishes. He needed to clear his head.
David stirred. "'s it mornin'?" he mumbled.
"Yes," Joseph whispered. "You can rest a bit more. I'll look after the horses and wash in the stream, but after that we should pack and continue our journey."
David nodded and turned, pulling the blanket around him.
Joseph smiled fondly, then went outside, making sure to close the tent flaps so that the fresh air of the morning wouldn't intrude into David's sleep.
After taking care of the horses, Joseph went to the stream to refresh himself and his body a bit. He made sure his weapons were within reach and discarded his blouse and shoes.
The fresh air hit his naked chest, and his nipples hardened at the chill. He dipped his feet into the stream, but it wasn't too cold, so he filled his hands with water and splashed it on his face.
His arms and body were next, and Joseph tried to think of nothing but how refreshing it felt when the clear water ran down his body.
He was disrupted in his peaceful routine when he heard a rustling on the other side of the stream. He looked up and saw a wolf with snow-white fur walking between the trees.
Joseph gasped, and at the same time he heard David's surprised voice, "A wolf!"
Joseph abruptly turned around, only to find David a bit further into the forest, staring at the wolf. Joseph was a bit confused that he wasn't still in the tent. But then he remembered the wolf and turned back to it, only to find it disappearing between the trees.
He turned back to David, whose gaze turned to Joseph.
"Uhm," David said, his cheeks flushing a bright red that Joseph was sure had nothing to do with the morning chill.
He suddenly remembered that he was dressed in only his breeches.
"I should leave you to finish," David said.
"No," Joseph said, thinking of the wolf. He wasn't sure what to think of the fact that apparently David had watched him bathe. Maybe he hadn't really and only arrived coincidentally at the same time as the wolf and hadn't had time to say anything.
Whatever David's reasons might have been, right now Joseph was most concerned about his safety. He'd ridiculed David's suspicions the day before, but a wolf was an entirely different matter than a little bug that could shoot flames.
"Stay with me. We don't know if there are more of them around," Joseph said, nodding towards where the wolf had disappeared. "And we don't know if they are harmless. I'll stand guard as you refresh yourself and then we should return to our horses and pack as quickly as possible."
David nodded, looking concerned now as well. Joseph hadn't wanted to frighten him, but they would do well to be cautious, so he was glad to see that David did as he'd asked without further questions.
When he hesitated at the stream, Joseph turned away to give him some privacy. He used the moment to put on his own clothes. Once done, he couldn't help stealing a glance at David.
David, however, hadn't removed his garments, only rolled up the sleeves of his robes and undergarments and splashed water on his face and arms.
Joseph swallowed his disappointment and then tried to banish it from his mind along with all the feelings that led to it.
They were on a mission. The safety of their kingdom depended on them, and Joseph couldn't afford to let anything delay his destiny.
David hoped sincerely that his embarrassment wasn't still written on his face or transferred through their bond. But try as he might, all through their packing and when they started their journey for the day, he couldn't stop thinking about having been caught watching Joseph.
After Joseph had left the tent, David's sleepy mind had turned his words over in his head again until they'd stopped at Joseph washing at the stream.
He'd imagined his naked body in the water and something had stirred in him that made sleep impossible. He'd forced himself to stay and try to get some more rest, but soon after he'd heard Joseph leave to wash, he'd gotten out of the tent and followed him.
Watching Joseph discard his blouse and bend over to remove his shoes had taken David's breath away. He'd felt the urge to walk up to him and run his hands through the ample hair on his chest.
David couldn't understand his strange urges. He didn't know where they were coming from. He only knew that they were not appropriate, weren't normal. When he'd given himself away after seeing the wolf, he'd felt embarrassed, even if Joseph thankfully couldn't know the extent of his thoughts after catching him in the act.
David tried to forget the embarrassing event and concentrate on the dangers that lurked the further they progressed into the forest. But even that didn't work as expected, because being with Joseph and knowing how concerned he was for David's well-being made David feel quite safe and calm about his surroundings.
He tried thinking of his latest play to distract himself and was glad to see that it worked.
After a few hours, they stopped to rest for lunch.
"I will see if I can hunt a small animal for us to eat," Joseph said. "You could prepare a fire and I'm sure you have plenty of bread in that bag."
Joseph took one of his long knives and handed it to David. "Be careful. I'll try to be quick." He got his small crossbow and disappeared between the trees.
David had the urge to follow him, but he knew that he'd only slow Joseph down and make it more likely that an animal would hear them coming, so he stayed where he was.
After a minute, however, he tried to feel their bond. They hadn't been separated for any great distance on their journey so far, so he hadn't really thought to test it, but now he reached out with his mind, trying to search Joseph's presence.
He smiled when he suddenly felt it tugging on him. He could turn and locate the direction in which Joseph had moved and it seemed as if Joseph had answered his "call".
Satisfied that they were still able to communicate on some level, David started to make a small fire.
He was done and had moved on to a spell to turn their bread into freshly baked, when he suddenly heard the rustling of leaves on the tree above him.
Alarmed, he looked up. His mind brought up images of ravens with deadly beaks and razor claws. But then he saw a red bush of hair, and before he could even imagine a properly horrific animal, a giant squirrel jumped down on him to attack.
Joseph sneaked through the woods, trying to make no noise, crossbow at the ready. He wasn't a formidable shot, but he should be capable enough to hit an animal if it wasn't too small or too far away. He concentrated on hearing any noise that might give away the movement of a critter, when suddenly the bond to David that he kept in the back of his mind rushed to forefront.
He could clearly sense David's fear. Joseph turned around and hastily made his way back to their camp. He was still far away, when he heard a shout from the distance.
Spurred into action, Joseph ran as fast as he could, pulling out his knife to fight whatever had attacked David.
He could sense David's struggle, which was both distressing and comforting because at least it meant he was still alive.
When Joseph finally arrived at the scene, he found David on the ground, hands on a squirrel that was clawing at his face.
Joseph moved swiftly. "Remove your hands," he ordered.
David pulled his hand away, and Joseph stabbed the squirrel, eliciting a shriek from it until it slumped on David's face. Joseph pushed the squirrel aside, revealing David's bloodied face.
David put a hand to his face, lifting it to find it stained with blood. He turned white at the sight. "Oh god," he whispered. "I'm..." He dropped his hand and closed his eyes.
Joseph dropped to his knees and cradled David's head. This couldn't be.
David's eyes opened. "Tell my wife and son—"
"You won't die," Joseph shouted at him.
He got out his pouch with water and poured it over David's face to see how much damage the squirrel had done. When the water washed the blood away, Joseph frowned.
He could see several scratch marks, some of them deep enough to draw blood, but in no way threatening to David's life.
He took a clean cloth from his pocket and put it on the wound, gratified to see that instead of quickly soaking in blood, it only absorbed a bit and then stayed mostly white.
"You're not going to die," Joseph said matter-of-factly.
David, who had closed his eyes when Joseph had poured water over his face, opened them again. He frowned. "I'm not?" he asked.
"It's hardly a scratch," Joseph said.
"A scratch! That squirrel was the size of a boar with finger-length claws!" David said, aghast.
Joseph looked at the body of the squirrel. It was unusually large, but it could only be compared to a boar if the boar was still young. He said as much to David, and David huffed.
"I could still be infected. Maybe the claws were poisonous."
David looked so worried that Joseph couldn't help himself and pulled him into his arms. He was relieved that nothing serious had happened to David and that David was still his old self, who could sometimes be overly anxious and dramatic when it came to sicknesses.
And it just felt good to hold him and assure himself that David was fine.
David returned the hug after a moment, pressing the uninjured half of his face against Joseph's chest.
They stayed like that for a moment, until Joseph remembered that they'd set out to have lunch.
"It seems that I have caught an animal for lunch after all," he said when he recalled the squirrel.
David snorted into his chest and pulled back. Their gazes met for a moment, before David looked down, and Joseph turned to pick up the squirrel.
Joseph quickly skinned the animal, and prepared it over the fire while David finished the spell on the bread, making it light and warm as if had come directly out of an oven.
They had cleaned the wound with magically purified water and tied the cloth to David's face. He looked a bit ridiculous, but Joseph decided not to tease him about it, even though it was tempting.
They talked about inconsequential things like the big tournament in summer. They couldn't be sure if there would be one the next year, but they acted as if it would, as if their quest was already a success and the army that had set out to seemingly destroy all life on Earth as they knew it had already been defeated.
They ate as if this was just a voluntary diversion, a little trip taken out of pleasure and not necessity.
It felt good. And if they did survive this, maybe they could do it again another time.
After lunch, Joseph packed up the remains of the squirrel. It might not have been big, but it had been large enough that they'd still have meat for two meals.
David removed the cloth from his face. He took one of the little bottles of potion from his satchel and started dabbing it at the wound, without much success.
Joseph went to his side to help him with it. He held out his hand and looked at David.
David placed the little cloth and the potion in his hands and moved his face so that his wound was facing Joseph.
Joseph ran the cloth along the first mark, carefully applying the potion. Even though he'd made light of David's extreme reaction, he was aware that had the squirrel's claws been sharper, this could have ended differently.
He gently took care of David's wound, treasuring every touch of his skin, every tickle of his short beard. He held David's face with one hand to hold him still, and David looked at him, his blue eyes clear and big.
Joseph swallowed whenever his gaze moved to David's eyes. He knew that he could get lost in them. Being so close to him, being allowed to touch him like this, only heightened Joseph's longing that was usually kept safely under wraps.
He tried to concentrate on the wound. The potion would ensure that no scars would taint David's skin. He was performing an important task here, and it was not the time to indulge in the fantasies that seemed to come in alarming frequency since they'd started their journey.
When he was almost done, Joseph couldn't help a glance at David's parted lips. His heart skipped a beat, and he took a deep calming breath. The desire to touch those lips to his was so fierce for a moment that his hand froze mid-action.
He gulped and carefully looked at David, hoping his feelings hadn't been revealed through his look or their bond.
What he found in David's eyes, however, was neither surprise nor confusion. David's eyes were on Joseph's mouth, and when they moved up to meet Joseph's gaze, Joseph saw a longing that he had never dreamed possible.
It took his breath away, and in that first moment, he almost moved to pull David's face to his and let their lips meet in the kiss that Joseph had longed to share with David for much longer that he'd been willing to admit until now.
But then his senses kicked in and held him back. Even if David felt the same, there was no possibility for them to be together the way he wanted to.
This wasn't like his encounter in France. Bertrand had been an outsider. He'd happily lived alone, watched with suspicion by his peers. He'd shared himself with Joseph and other men before and after. He'd told Joseph that he'd never take a wife, sounding almost scornful about it.
Joseph wasn't like that. He loved his family. Katherine might have never roused the same passion in him that he'd experienced with Bertrand and that he longed to experience with David, but she was a wonderful friend and mother to his sons.
He couldn't sneak out of their home to share himself with David, even if that were possible in the confines of Teahor. It would be dishonorable and disrespectful to her and everyone who looked up to him.
And David was enamored with Jane. Even if by some stroke of luck—if he wanted to consider it that—David returned Joseph's feelings, Joseph couldn't imagine that David would be willing to betray his wife any more than Joseph was willing to betray Katherine.
They belonged with their families and to the court of Teahor with its rules and responsibilities. Rules, which didn't leave any room for two friends to act on feelings that went beyond friendship to breathtaking extent.
His resignation must have shown on his face. David looked mournful for a moment, but then he nodded almost imperceptibly.
Joseph returned his attention to David's marks and applying the potion swiftly and professionally.
They were quiet once they continued riding.
David tried to come to grips with the revelations he'd just experienced.
Over the years of their friendship, there'd been moments when he'd felt drawn to Joseph in ways that weren't explicable, even if they felt familiar.
Now that he'd finally seen his feelings for what they were, he couldn't believe how blind he'd been.
Whenever he'd written a romance or a love poem, the part of the romantic hero had been cast as Joseph in his mind. He hadn't thought twice about doing that, because his plays and poetry had been about the hero that Joseph represented and a woman.
But now David had to realize that when he'd thought about the feelings the woman had about the hero, or when he'd thought about the feelings the heroine would arise in the man, he'd thought about himself as the one who was wooed or who longed to win her hero.
It was unbelievable to him that he had never recognized his feelings, because of course he was familiar with them. He felt them for his wife and had felt them for the woman who'd won his heart before her, but he'd never considered that he could have the same feelings for another man.
He hadn't known that it was possible, and it had taken Joseph's look, the longing and desire in his face to finally see what that special connection between them had always been.
This could be love, and the very idea was both exhilarating and terrifying.
When Joseph's look had changed to one of defeat, it had reminded David of the realities of their situation. With a moment of horrible guilt, he'd remembered Jane. He loved her, didn't he? How was it possible for him to think of another when he had her?
He couldn't. He shouldn't. And not just because of her and Sebastian. Because of Katherine and Joseph's three sons. Because of their reputation and honor. Because of the lives they'd built for themselves and which they would inevitably lose should they follow their inclinations.
He might have discovered something amazing today, but it was something that he would have to treasure in his heart. They could only ever act on this with a shared look and a casual touch that lingered a bit too long. Anything more and they'd risk everything they loved and lived for.
Almost, David amended in his head, thinking of Joseph's lips on his.
They stopped early that evening. Joseph wanted to give their horses time to get a full night's rest.
Dinner was uncharacteristically quiet between them. They kept giving each other looks, and David saw in Joseph's eyes reflected the sad longing that he felt himself.
He wasn't quite sure whether or not to wish that he'd never realized the depth of their feelings for one another. He didn't know what life would be like when they returned to Teahor.
He couldn't imagine how hard it would be to pretend to be nothing more than friends, and to make sure that nobody ever found out the truth. It was already difficult, where they only had to control their bodies and could let their feelings show on their face.
But even if it was hard and would be even harder once they'd returned, David didn't think he would have wanted to miss this discovery. It felt like something had finally fallen into place for him. Now, when a moment of intense fondness overcame him, he wouldn't have to wonder what it meant.
He could finally put a name on those feelings even if the words must never be uttered aloud.
After dinner—they'd eaten more of the squirrel and bread and forgone the brew for the day—Joseph told David that he'd lead the horses to the stream and bathe.
He didn't say anything more, but David still heard the invitation in his words.
They might not be able to act on their feelings, but they could refresh their bodies together. As long as they didn't touch, it would be a simple matter of expedience, considering the possible dangers. Yes, it was simply a practical thing to follow Joseph to the stream.
Joseph carefully put down his sword and knives, close enough to the water that they wouldn't be out of reach should he need them. When he looked up and saw David next to him, a ghost of a smile played on his lips.
He pulled his blouse over his head and dropped it onto a stone next to the stream. Then he looked at David, waiting.
David let his gaze roam over Joseph's naked chest. The need to touch him was strong, but he forced himself to resist. Then he undid the string of his robe and laid it on some dry leaves next to the riverbed.
His undergarments still covered most of his body, but he didn't feel the need for propriety any longer. There was nobody here to see them but their horses. With one swift move, he untied the knots that held them together and stepped out of his undergarments, pushing the shoes off as well, until he stood completely naked before Joseph.
Joseph's jaw dropped, and he stared at David from head to toe and back up until his gaze focused on David's hardening member.
Joseph licked his lips and slipped out of his breeches and the underpants he wore beneath. David's gaze was drawn to his member that was stiffening as well.
His mouth watered with desire—he couldn't say for what exactly. He'd never experiences pleasure with a another man. And he never would, he reminded himself.
They stepped into water and began to clean themselves. It was getting dark, but the moonlight shone brightly enough for David to admire Joseph's body as he bent and moved, water running down his skin, leaving trails of wetness that David longed to map with his tongue.
He quickly turned away trying to calm down. His member had distended nicely, even if he wasn't fully hard yet. He shouldn't encourage it to fill with all the blood that he needed to think—and resist. He remembered the wounds on his face and got the potion from his robe.
"Let me help you," Joseph offered, stepping closer, but waiting a few feet away.
David's gaze ran once again down his body. "Yes," he said, moving his eyes back up. They were fine as long as they didn't touch. Well, didn't touch except to apply the potion.
Joseph took the last steps towards David, taking the bottle and the cloth from him.
He put some of the potion on the cloth then ran it over the mark. "It looks a lot better already," Joseph said.
David could feel the heat of his body. They stood so close that Joseph's slightly hardened member brushed against David's arm.
David's eyes fluttered close for a moment, and he heard Joseph exhale a shaky breath.
Joseph continued to apply the potion, and David opened his eyes again. He moved his arm slightly, brushing against the tip of Joseph's member, making him groan quietly.
God, what was he doing? He wasn't allowed to touch. And even if a witness would believe them that it was an accident, David knew the truth.
He pulled his arm up and away from Joseph's growing member. He had to stay strong.
Joseph quickly finished applying the potion and pushed the potion and cloth into David's hands, pushing himself against David with his whole body for a moment, making David moan.
Then Joseph took a step back, looking and sounding breathless.
"We should finish washing," David said.
"Yes," Joseph agreed, but they kept staring at each other for a long moment, before David forced himself to turn around.
He poured water over himself, rubbing sweat off his skin, but his thoughts were on Joseph and his skin and his body. How easy would it be to turn around and run his fingers over every bit of skin he could find?
He thought of Joseph's stiff member in its thatch of dark hair. David swallowed and gripped his own member. He may not be allowed to touch Joseph, but he could touch himself.
They'd left propriety behind them with their clothes when they'd started washing, so he might as well experience pleasure as close to Joseph as he was allowed.
Joseph couldn't believe the sounds that he heard coming from David. He was panting and moaning, and Joseph couldn't stay strong at such an onslaught of sound and the images it brought.
He turned to look at David.
David was facing away from Joseph. Joseph could see his back and his ass, close enough that he would just have to reach out to touch him. If that alone wasn't enough to bring himself to complete hardness, he only needed to look at the unmistakable rhythm of David's arm as he satisfied himself.
Joseph groaned, not trying to hide it.
David faltered, then turned around to look at him. He didn't stop his movement. Joseph could see the hand around his member, moving swiftly up and down.
He took his own member in hand and started stroking it in the same rhythm as David. Faster and faster they went, each spurring on the other.
Joseph could see pearls of white forming on the tip of David's member when he pulled down. It took all his willpower not to drop down on his knees in the stream and lick those pearls of white away.
He moaned, tightening his grip.
They were both approaching the precipice. With one last deep-felt groan, Joseph climaxed, eyes transfixed on David's member until he started spurting his release along with Joseph's.
It was only then that their gazes met and sought to connect as their bodies experienced the greatest pleasure they knew together—even though they managed to stay apart as they had to.
They walked back to the tent quietly, pulling their horses with them.
Joseph felt both exhilarated and guilty. He hadn't even truly touched David, but what had happened felt more passionate than his encounter with Bertrand. He suspected that it might be that he hadn't known Bertrand the way he knew David. He'd been attracted to the Frenchman, but it hadn't been even close to what he felt for David.
They tied the horses down and settled down in their tent.
"Goodnight," David said, giving Joseph a sad look of longing.
"Goodnight," Joseph answered. He wished he could reach out and comfort David, but they'd already gone too far. They were going to follow the rules that their lives posed on them. If they'd had a moment of weakness in the stream, then he would stay strong at least now.
He lay down and after another look at David turned towards the other side of the tent.
He fell asleep trying to ignore the feeling that no matter how close David seemed right now, he was out of reach for Joseph.
The next day passed uneventfully. There was no repeat of the bathing. They decided to take separate turns going to the stream.
The sight of Joseph reaching his climax was still burned into David's mind. He didn't think he would ever forget how he'd looked in that moment.
He also knew that it was better to try and avoid any situations that would tempt them. Sleeping together in their small tent was bad enough.
On their ride, David tried to talk about inconsequential things to distract both of them. He reminded Joseph of the time where they'd convinced Sir Garreth that it would be a good idea to test all the brew for an upcoming festival. They'd volunteered for the task of course.
To see Joseph smile at the fond memory warmed David's heart. Whatever changed between them during this quest, they'd still be friends first and foremost.
They drank some more of the brew that evening, finishing off the last of the squirrel.
David hadn't put on any further healing potion. Joseph had confirmed that the scars looked to be healing normally. His gaze had moved from the side of David's face to his mouth for a moment, but he hadn't said anything else.
That night was more relaxing than the one before. There was no lingering high from having experienced pleasure together and focusing on their friendship for the day made it slightly easier to lie next to Joseph in the tent that night.
David still caught himself wondering what it would be like if their lives were different. But he resolutely tried to quash any such thoughts. Their lives were what they were. Which were good lives any way you looked at it. He had absolutely no reason to spend it longing for the one thing he couldn't have.
They'd only ridden for an hour the next day when the path before them dwindled down and disappeared for no apparent reason.
David turned to Joseph. Unfortunately, it didn't seem as if he was having a sudden epiphany about his destiny.
"Hmm," Joseph said.
They both came to a stop and dismounted. Joseph walked a bit further in the direction the path last led and looked around. But he didn't seem to come to any conclusion.
He walked back to David. "I believe it is time to try Master Warrick's path finding spells."
David wasn't very confident that they would yield any good result for them. Even Warrick had told him that without a clear idea where the target was it would be difficult for the spell to work properly.
Still he retrieved the scrolls from the bag and tried them one by one.
At first he tried them searching for Mallozzi's castle. When that didn't work, he cast them again, asking for the way to the magical staff that would defeat the Army of Darkness.
Absolutely nothing happened.
"Hey, how about you get out the barrel of brew while I wait," Joseph suggested before he went on.
David gave him a suffering look, but got out the barrel along with two glasses.
Joseph was sitting lazily on the ground, leaning against the trunk of a tree, so David poured him a glass and handed it to him. "You're a better barmaid than a wizard," Joseph commented.
"I'm not the one who's stuck in the middle of a magical forest, unable to follow their destiny," David shot back, pouring himself a glass as well.
"Maybe it was my destiny to rest for a bit," Joseph said. "And shouldn't you be concentrating on your spell?" he asked but still lifted his glass.
"A glass of brew will not make the result any worse," David said confidently, raising his glass as well, before downing half of it in one go.
He tried asking the way to Joseph's destiny next. Then he asked for a powerful weapon, followed by a secret in the forest, and eventually anything interesting at all.
Joseph snorted at the last. By that time he'd had a few more glasses than was probably wise.
David had continued to drink as well, but he didn't blame his lack of success on the fact that he was slightly inebriated by now.
"This is useless," he finally announced, dropping down next to Joseph. "Warrick knew they wouldn't be of any help. He just didn't want to tell us to our face."
"I suppose we could just ride on, hoping that destiny will find its way," Joseph said.
"Is that what you feel you should do?" David asked.
Joseph seemed to seriously consider that. Then he hiccuped. "No," he admitted.
"Well, we can't just stay here and wait for something to happen," David said. "Or maybe that's what we should do?" He looked at Joseph who looked thoughtful again, then shrugged apologetically. "Your destiny really has mysterious ways," David commented.
"Don't blame me. I was just a baby," Joseph said.
"Maybe your hair knows where the castle is," David said, giggling. Oh yes, he was definitely a bit drunk.
Joseph tried to glare at him, but started grinning as well.
"Why don't we ask it?" David suggested.
Joseph looked suspicious.
David lifted his wand and cast a communication spell. He knew that casting it on hair was even more useless than Warrick's path finding spells, but the look on Joseph's face alone was worth it.
David was ready to declare that surprisingly the spell hadn't worked, when Joseph's hair, which had always had the tendency to stand up in angles, suddenly tilted more uniformly in one direction. "Oh god," David said.
Joseph touched his hand to his hair. He tried to move a strand in the other direction, but it immediately turned back the way it had before. His eyes widened in alarm.
David started laughing.
"Apparently, it was blessed after all," Joseph said dryly, which only made David laugh harder. "I think it's time for lunch, and then we follow the way of the hair."
It took a long time until David had calmed down enough to actually eat their lunch before they continued their journey.
Joseph still couldn't believe that the seer who had delivered his prophecy had also imbued his hair with some kind of path-finding magic. He'd never hear the end of it from David.
It was better than riding on aimlessly, though. As they followed in the direction the hair was leading them, Joseph felt that they were getting closer to their goal. He couldn't explain what it was exactly.
It felt a bit like his bond to David. It was as if there was something tugging on him and telling him he was on the right track.
He also got a different feeling as they progressed. Thus far their journey had seemed almost too easy. Many adventurers had tried to find Mallozzi's castle. And even if they hadn't had blessed hair, with enough patience it should have been possible to find it.
And if not find it, at least return from the forest alive. The squirrel that had attacked David could hardly have killed all those that hadn't made it out alive.
Maybe the castle, once they found it, would be fortified with traps.
Joseph shuddered at the thought of finding pits with the skeletons of those who came before them. Worse, landing in such a pit.
"Do you know any levitation spells?" Joseph asked.
"Sure, any wizard does," David said. "Why do you think we'd need one?"
"No particular reason," Joseph said. David could easily be overly worried in certain situations.
"Hmm," David said. "Does your no particular reason say how much levitation would be needed? Because if you think of me levitating you above the trees so that you can look around for the castle, it's not going to work, even if you remove your armor and everything else." He flushed at the last.
Joseph tried not to think about levitating naked around David. It was too bad that wouldn't work, though. Not because of the fantasy that he was very much trying not to have now that David mentioned it, but because it really would have been useful to try to have a visual confirmation that they were heading in the right direction—and to get a feeling for how far it was.
As for his skeleton pit scenario, Joseph decided that as soon as the castle was within sight, they should use ropes to ensure that they could escape any pit traps that Mallozzi might have added to keep people away.
"Do you have any extra ropes in the—" Joseph's stallion suddenly bucked, and he found himself flying through the air and landing on his back. Thankfully, the landing was soft, but he was still disoriented for a second.
Before he could wonder what had caused his horse to do that, Joseph heard a loud growl coming from very close to him. He lifted his head and could only stare at the sight in front of him.
He could describe it as nothing but a beast. It was a mixture between a boar and a wolf, only larger, with long sharp teeth, that were dripping with saliva.
Joseph didn't move. The beast was staring at him with big black eyes. There was no doubt in Joseph's mind that it was only waiting to deal a deadly blow.
Suddenly there was a noise behind him, and the beast's attention snapped away.
Joseph turned his head as well, only to see David trying to sneak up on the beast with his wand.
Without thinking, Joseph rolled between them and unsheathed his sharpest knife. The beast pounced on him with all its weight. Joseph tried to stab it, but the beast didn't even slow down. It opened its jaw and lifted one claw, ripping into the light armor Joseph was wearing.
Joseph was paralyzed for a moment. The beast was able to literally bite through his armor and peal the metal away with its claws as if it were nothing but paper. He remembered the knife and began to stab again, trying to hit where he hoped the beast's heart might be.
This time he got a reaction. The beast howled and then bared its teeth before sinking them into Joseph's chest.
The last thing Joseph knew was unimaginable pain and from far away a dull sound of, "No."
"Noooooooooooooooooo," David shouted.
He launched himself at the beast with the knife he still had from Joseph. He aimed at its jugular vein that was pulsing wildly as it tore Joseph's innards apart.
The beast threw its head back and howled again, blood spurting from its neck. It growled at David, but looked a bit unsteady on its feet. David used all his weight to push the beast from Joseph's body and started stabbing it with the knife in his hands and the one Joseph had plunged into its chest.
The beast tried to swipe at David with its paws but missed and then it collapsed, twitching until the only movement was that of David ramming the knives into it again and again until he came to his senses and realized it was dead.
He dropped the knives and moved to Joseph.
Oh god. It was as if his whole chest and stomach had been opened up and torn asunder.
It took a moment for David to see that his heart was still beating. He could see it moving. How could he still be alive? Suddenly David remembered the protection spell that Warrick had cast on them.
He didn't know if he should laugh or cry. There was no chance that Joseph would survive this for long. But now he at least had the chance to watch him die, David thought slightly hysterically.
Then he forced himself to snap out of it and concentrate. Healing. His potions were entirely useless in this case. He wasn't even sure if the most powerful healing spell in the world could save Joseph now, but he had to try.
He'd learned the words of the spell from Master Warrick, but the hard part was channeling the magical energy into the healing power of the spell.
A wizard like Master Warrick had perfected this. David, however, had no chance in hell that the spell would work to perfection. Luckily, this particular spell was so focused on healing the recipient that if it couldn't find enough power in the magical energy of the caster, it took it from elsewhere.
David didn't care about the risk. He only hoped that his life energy would be enough for the spell to heal Joseph. His heartbeat was slowing down; worse, David could feel the bond between them weakening.
But he wouldn't die. He couldn't die. Not just because it was prophesied but also because David couldn't let it happen if there was a way out.
He'd been wondering about his own destiny. Now it looked like he had found it. If it saved Joseph's life, David would gladly give up his own.
He looked at Joseph's slack face. At that moment, there were no rules and their lives back in Teahor might as well have been in a different world. David would die in this forest, so he leaned forward to kiss Joseph at least once.
Of course, Joseph couldn't return the kiss. David wished he'd have had a chance to do this when Joseph was conscious. But it wasn't meant to be.
He withdrew then, picked up his wand, and gathered all the power he could draw into his body, trying to find comfort in the fact that he gladly gave his life so that Joseph would live to fulfill his prophecy.
When the words left his mouth, David felt all his magical energy pulled away and into Joseph. When it was completely drained, he felt a moment of disorientation. Then the spell returned and suddenly all life was sucked out of him.
David's last thoughts were that he would have liked to have seen Joseph's smile one last time.
Joseph woke up, feeling his body hurt all over. This was worse than any hangover or training or battle.
Then suddenly he remembered where he was. He opened his eyes to see the afternoon sky above him between the leaves of the surrounding trees.
They'd been on the way to the castle. They'd followed his hair and then—
With frightening clarity, the image of the beast suddenly formed in his mind. It had managed to penetrate his armor, and it had... Joseph didn't feel strong enough to lift his head, but he could lift his hand from his side to his stomach and chest.
He didn't understand this. He vividly remembered the beast tearing into him. He didn't know how he could even be alive.
David must have saved him. Joseph forced himself to move his head aside so that he could look for him. He was relieved when he found that David was lying next to him. He smiled weakly.
Then his smile froze when he realized how pale and still David was. No, it couldn't be. David had some blood on his robe and hands, but he didn't look hurt.
Joseph forced himself to sit up. He threw off the battered armor and crawled closer to David. He couldn't be dead. The beast hadn't gotten him. Joseph had made sure of that. Why was—
Suddenly Joseph saw the wand in David's lifeless hand and remembered his miraculously healed body.
"No," he whispered.
He leaned over David and cradled his face in his hands.
"Why did you do this?" he asked brokenly. He didn't give a damn about the prophecy. How would he ever be able to live with himself, knowing that it had cost the life of the man he loved?
Then he felt the weak pulse in David's neck.
"David," Joseph begged. "Please."
He stroked David's face, willing him to open his beautiful blue eyes. He'd write flowery poetry about them for David to ridicule for the rest of their lives, if only he'd have the chance to see them again.
Joseph held his breath, listening closely and hearing David's shallow breath. Once, twice, then David's eyes fluttered open.
Joseph nearly collapsed on him with happiness.
"I'm not dead," David whispered confused.
"No," Joseph said, smiling. "You're alive. You're..." He couldn't help himself. He leaned down and kissed David.
David blinked and looked at Joseph, before moving up to kiss him again.
Joseph returned the kiss with all the strength he could muster. He felt David's arms move around him. He opened his mouth, deepening the kiss. He needed to feel that David was alive.
One of David's arms moved under Joseph's torn blouse, and to feel his hand on his skin spurred the passion in Joseph. He didn't stop kissing David as he pulled at the strings of his robe and pushed it apart.
He slid one arm into David's undergarments, finally running his fingertips over the skin he'd longed to touch.
David began to push at Joseph's clothes. Joseph helped to pull his blouse over his head and to remove his breeches, undergarments, and shoes.
David looked up at him hungrily, and Joseph spared a thought to thank whoever was responsible for making this possible. Some part of him was aware that they were breaking all the rules they'd set for themselves. But right here right now, that world didn't exist.
Joseph parted David's undergarments as much as he could, looking his fill. His gaze moved from David's nipples down the trail of hair that disappeared into the lower part of David's garments, where his member had begun to fill and grow.
Joseph moved to push the garments completely off David's body. David lifted himself to assist him and together they managed to divest him of all his clothes so that they were both naked.
Joseph leaned over David's body. He couldn't believe that he could finally experience this with David.
David moved his hand to Joseph's chest.
"You saved my life," Joseph whispered.
"You saved mine," David responded.
They kissed again, Joseph's body settling on David. Their members lay side by side between them, and Joseph started moving his body to rub them together.
David moaned and deepened the kiss, moving his hand down Joseph's chest to reach for their members.
Joseph groaned when David took them in hand. He thrust into David's hand, pushing his own increasingly stiff member against David's.
David began to pant and started stroking them both at once.
"Yes," Joseph said breathlessly. He kissed David wetly again and again, lifting his head between kisses to look at their members brushing against each other.
David's grip on them tightened, and he sped up the rhythm of his strokes.
Joseph started thrusting harder, feeling his body nearing completion. Seed began to leak from the tip of their members, making it easier to move against each other.
"David," Joseph pleaded.
"Joe," David moaned, moving his hand in short hard strokes.
Joseph could no longer speak. His body moved against David, incoherent noises of pleasure fell from his lips.
Then David shouted and started shooting his seed between them, and the sight and sound of David climaxing threw Joseph over the threshold as well as he came and came and came.
David didn't regret what they'd done. Even as he came down from the highest pleasure, he acknowledged that he would do it again under the same circumstances.
He knew as well as Joseph that it wouldn't be possible for them to be together like this back home in Teahor, but out here where monsters from their worst nightmares could tear them apart, David felt no guilt for being with Joseph in any way they could.
He'd never experienced such pleasure with a man, and before they'd embarked on this quest, he probably would have doubted it was possible. But then he also never would have thought that he loved his best friend as much as his wife.
David mused that while the staff they were seeking was still out of reach for them, they'd certainly made other discoveries that had made this journey worthwhile, even if they'd nearly lost their lives to it.
David was quite aware that he might still lose his life. They'd killed one beast, but there was no telling how many others there were. But at this point he felt strangely calm about the possibility.
He'd been willing to give his life for Joseph's, and he still was if that was what it took to save the kingdom.
After regaining their breaths, they set out to locate some water.
Their horses had fled, so they only had one pouch left each. Their tent and all of David's scrolls and other belongings as well as their barrel of brew were gone. Not to mention the magical shrinking bag laced with gold.
David hoped that Warrick would forgive him, given the circumstances.
Joseph seemed a bit unsteady on his feet as they began walking.
"Are you sure you are well enough? I can go alone. I think I even recall a spell to locate water," David said.
"Considering I had my chest ripped open by a giant beast, I am fantastic," Joseph said.
David nodded, but made sure to keep an eye on him.
They found some water not too far where they could clean the blood from their bodies and clothes and fill up their pouches. For dinner, they ate the meat of the beast and a few of the emergency rations that David had kept on his body instead of the magic bag.
It was strangely peaceful to sit next to the carcass of the beast that had nearly killed them, roasting some meat over a fire under the moonlit sky.
"I wish we still had that beer," David mused.
"Oh yes," Joseph agreed with a sigh and a smile at David.
After securing the fire, they arranged some leaves and moss as a make-shift bed. Joseph pulled David into his arms as soon as he'd lain down next to him.
David looked at Joseph and kissed him. They lay like that, kissing for a while until the events of the day caught up with them and they fell asleep, cuddled together in the cold night.
They had more beast meat for breakfast the next day and filled up their pouches with water. They helped wash each other and Joseph kissed a bit of skin every now and then, prompting David to do the same.
They didn't bring each other to climax this time, still tired from the day before, but even just touching and kissing David made Joseph feel alive even if his body felt battered.
David eyed him with worry when they continued their journey towards the castle.
"I am well," Joseph tried to assure him. At David's doubtful look, he added, "Well enough."
"Let me cast another healing spell on you," David said.
"You nearly died the last time," Joseph said. "I won't let it happen again," he said seriously, cupping David's face.
"This is a simple spell that should ease the aches in your body. I use it all the time," David said.
Joseph nodded. David cast the spell and Joseph felt his body relaxing. He still didn't feel up to full form, but it was definitely an improvement.
"Thank you," he said and kissed David.
Then he took his hand, and they began walking again.
Finding the castle when they finally did that afternoon was really rather anti-climactic.
Mallozzi's castle was not much more than a ruin between the trees. Somehow, Joseph had expected something bigger, something that had magically retained the look it had had hundreds of years ago, when its owner had still been alive.
They were careful as they approached the gate of the castle. Joseph asked David to stay behind, in case there was some magic that would hurt anyone who wasn't allowed to enter.
He slowly approached the gate, seeing nothing that looked like a lock. He was about to open the gate when his hand stopped at some sort of invisible barrier.
"What's going on?" David shouted from his position in the trees.
"I cannot open the gate," Joseph shouted back.
"Can you destroy the lock with your sword? Maybe it's withered over the years," David shouted.
"There is no lock," Joseph shouted back. "I cannot move my hand to actually touch the gate. There seems to be some magical barrier."
"Hmm," David said from right behind Joseph, making him jump.
"I told you to stay back," Joseph said, slightly grumpy.
"If the gate was secured by recognizing you, it would have let you in. It seems there is another means," David said. "Why don't you tell it to open?"
Joseph looked at him, not sure if he was serious.
"Try it! Many spells are activated by words," David said.
Joseph frowned, but turned to the gate. "Open," he said.
Suddenly a voice came from the two statues standing beyond the gate. "Only Mallozzi shall pass."
They both looked at each other. Then Joseph turned back to the statues. "I am not Mallozzi, but it is my destiny to find his magical staff. I am here to save my kingdom from a great threat. The Army of Darkness is descending upon us. You must let me in."
"Only Mallozzi shall pass," the voice said again, unmoved.
"I think I'll go look for water while you keep trying," David said. At Joseph's annoyed look, he smiled and kissed him on the cheek, before leaving him alone with the magical gate that wouldn't let him in.
Left without other immediate options, Joseph recounted to the statues how a seer had visited his parents after his birth and prophesied Joseph's fate as the savior of his kingdom. He told them about the mysterious army up north and how they had come to the conclusion that it must be the one called the Army of Darkness in a much older prophecy.
Finally, he recounted their journey thus far, leaving out the parts about his and David's relationship. All to no avail.
"Mallozzi has sent me?" he eventually tried.
Behind him David snorted.
Joseph jumped again. "Have you cast a sneaking spell on yourself?" he asked.
"No, but you were deep in conversation. That last one might have worked better if it hadn't sounded like a question," David pointed out.
Joseph sighed in frustration. "You seem to be taking this much better than I would have thought. What if our journey ends here and it was all in vain?"
"Well, you will save the kingdom, and if we don't defeat this army, there won't be a kingdom left to save, so I can only guess that this is your destiny. We've lost our path, nearly lost our lives. But this will work out somehow," David said confidently.
"You are right. Let us set up a shelter for the night. Maybe I will have an epiphany in my dreams."
While Joseph worked to build them a little shelter from branches of trees, David made a place for a small fire and worked on a spell to make the rations more tasteful.
They roasted some more of the beast meat. Joseph relished every bite, thinking of what the beast had done to them. Night had fallen and the chill that came with it made them move closer together around the fire.
"This is almost romantic," David commented.
Joseph raised an eyebrow at him.
"We're out in a magical forest, having faced difficult challenges on our quest to find a magical artifact, and now we're eating the very beast that I killed not quite heroically after it started ripping you apart," David mused.
Joseph looked at him seriously. "You couldn't have been more heroic."
"You weren't conscious," David said.
"You killed the beast and saved my life," Joseph said.
"I was nearly hysterical," David said quietly. "But yes, I managed to save you, which is all that matters."
Their gazes locked for a long moment. "You forgot something that is almost romantic," Joseph said, leaning closer.
David leaned forward too and met him in a kiss.
Joseph took his hand and tugged on it. They moved towards the shelter on their hands and knees. David laughed when Joseph proudly presented the collection of branches that he'd stacked together to protect them a bit from the cold.
Joseph kissed him again and laid down, taking David with him.
"Where's your healing potion?" he asked.
"Why?" David asked. "Is something wrong?"
Joseph put his fingers against David's lips to shush him. "I want to be one with you," he said huskily. Bertrand had taken him into his body and showed him what to do. It had felt great at the time, but after experiencing pleasure with David, Joseph realized that something had been missing with Bertrand.
Being with David set his body on fire like nothing in the world had ever done before. He'd never known passion like this before. Not with his wife, not even with Bertrand.
When he was with David, it felt at once as if his world was turning upside down and as if it was finally right. David aroused his body, his mind, his heart. He even managed to touch Joseph's very soul with just a look or gesture.
David watched him now, the flames of the fire playing on his face as the light shone through Joseph's shelter. "One?" he asked.
"Let me show you," Joseph said.
David licked his lips and passed him one of the small bottles hanging from the string of his robe. Joseph set it aside and kissed David again.
They undressed each other, taking their time to explore.
In the back of his mind, Joseph knew that once they found the magical staff and returned to Teahor, this would be nothing but a memory. So he tried to burn every touch of skin, every kiss, every breath that David caught into his mind.
He mapped David's body with his tongue, taking in his taste and smell. He made David moan and whimper until a desperate, "Joe," escaped his lips.
It was only then that Joseph took the bottle and applied some of the potion to his entrance. David watched him, aroused and slightly confused. Joseph vaguely remembered that this would be a tight fit. He pushed two of his fingers into himself.
"Oh god," David said quietly, his eyes glazing over. He'd obviously just realized what Joseph was about to do.
Joseph moved on top of David, positioning himself above his leaking member. He carefully added some potion to it as well and then held David in place as he pressed down to take him in.
David groaned at the pressure. Joseph could imagine what it felt like for him.
David was huge. Joseph had to bite his lip to avoid crying out in pain. He forced himself to relax, but then pulled back to add some more potion.
"Joseph?" David asked. "I'm not hurting you, am I?"
"I'll be all right," Joseph said, trying to force three fingers into himself.
He moved on top of David again. David still felt extremely big as he took him back inside.
He looked up at Joseph breathlessly and suddenly took Joseph's member, which had softened a bit, in his hand. Then he whispered a few words at Joseph, and Joseph felt the burn of being overly stretched subside.
He pressed down on David, moving further and further until he had taken him fully inside.
David groaned loudly as Joseph panted with his exertion, Joseph's heart beating as loudly in his ears. He was one with David, as close as he could physically get.
David pulled him down for a kiss. Joseph returned the kiss hungrily. When David started thrusting up into him, Joseph's body moved and suddenly something sparked in him that was like a firework of pleasure.
He moaned, and David stopped, then started thrusting again, harder and faster.
Oh god. This was what heaven had to be like. Joseph knew nothing but David's body pushing into him and pulling pleasure from his body that he hadn't known possible.
When he started stroking Joseph's member as well, Joseph keened, overwhelmed in ecstasy. He couldn't think, he couldn't talk, he wasn't entirely sure he could still breathe.
He could only feel—David. David. David.
David watched Joseph, transfixed by the look of absolute pleasure on his face.
In that moment, his own desires were secondary to bringing Joseph to unknown heights. David thrust into the tight heat of Joseph's body again and again, trying to move in exactly the way that would make Joseph lose all control.
His hand moved on Joseph's member. Seeds were gathering continuously there now. David wiped the white pearls away with the finger of his free hand, moving it to his mouth to taste him.
An indistinct noise came from Joseph, who watched him, though his eyes repeatedly lost focus.
David increased his efforts to what his body would allow him. He thrust up into Joseph while stroking his member, harder, faster, again and again, until finally a drawn-out shout of David's name accompanied Joseph's climax.
His member shot streams of seed onto David's chest, his body quivered above David and then he collapsed on top of David.
It took all the strength David still had to roll them over against the tree trunk onto which Joseph had built the shelter. Somehow, he managed to change their positions without slipping out of Joseph completely.
Now that Joseph had reached completion, it was as if David could finally feel the need burning in his own body.
He started thrusting into Joseph again, driving into the tight heat that felt like nothing else.
Joseph opened his eyes and watched David with glazed eyes. After a moment, he lifted his legs around David. The movement sent David deeper into his body, and they both moaned.
David increased the speed of his thrusts, moving faster and deeper, needing to be closer to Joseph.
Their gazes caught, and David was overwhelmed with emotion. So many years they'd known each other, working towards this unknown, unimaginable moment. This wasn't just his body experiencing new heights, it was his imagination learning a new truth, his art finding a new muse, his heart finding new love.
New and yet so familiar because Joseph had been there for years, would be there for years to come if David had any say in it. He knew that life as they knew it would never be the same. He didn't want to think about their future, because it was so unclear.
But this moment, right now, they had found something that nobody would ever be able to take from them unless through death. Now and forever, death would be only thing that would ever truly separate them.
David kept thrusting into Joseph, watching the beloved face look at him, until he could no longer rein in control and lost himself in Joseph.
Joseph felt a bit sore the next day, but he regretted nothing. It had been amazing to feel David like that. He hadn't known his body could experience such pleasure.
He moved to kiss David's shoulder because it was closest to him. David stirred. "Morn'n'?"
"Yes," Joseph confirmed, smiling.
David turned his face and opened his eyes. When he saw Joseph, he smiled. Their lips met, and for a while, they lost themselves in the kiss.
Eventually, they had to answer nature's call. When Joseph hissed as he got up, David cast another simple spell against the pain.
Joseph pulled him into his arms. "I should keep you around for every morning after I have trained with my guards," he said playfully. Then his smile froze as realization struck. When they returned to Teahor, mornings like this one would not happen again.
David's look turned sad as well. He took Joseph's face in his hands and kissed him.
"You can start the fire while I get some fresh water," Joseph told him.
At the little spring, he drank some water and filled the pouches, though he did not wash himself. He wanted to be able to smell the scent of their union on him as long as he still could.
When he went to return to their shelter near the castle, he felt a bit disoriented because he sensed David in a different direction than he expected him to be. He followed their bond and sensed coming closer to David when suddenly a fawn appeared between the trees.
Joseph was surprised and stepped closer, moving very slowly so he wouldn't spook the animal. As he approached, his gaze fell upon a little crown on the fawn's head. Joseph's mouth opened.
Suddenly a laugh came from behind some trees, and the fawn disappeared in the blink of an eye.
"David!" Joseph said.
David revealed himself, still laughing. "You should have seen the look on your face."
Joseph glared at him, when suddenly something occurred to him. "Come with me," he ordered, dragging David back to the castle.
"Oh no," David said when they approached the gate.
"Why not?" Joseph asked.
"Because a protection spell that could be fooled by a simple illusion would be useless. It's not as if this is some new magic that the world has never seen before."
"No, but how many people can master it the way you do. Most illusions back in the day had a component that cast a spell on the person to fall for it as well. Your illusions rely completely on your own magic," Joseph said.
"You're trying to flatter me. I think it's working," David said.
"All right, but you must give me a moment. I can't just conjure a convincing illusion out of nothing," David said.
"The fawn was pretty convincing," Joseph said.
"It appears in my next play," David said. "The prince is turned into it for a while."
"Well, just turn the princess into one as well, and all will be well," Joseph said.
"That's actually an interesting idea," David said. "Maybe I could—"
Joseph lifted his hand, interrupting him. "Mallozzi first," he said. "How about we eat breakfast and then you get to work on your most convincing illusion yet?"
Joseph let David work as he tried to put together a convincing illusion of the old wizard. Luckily, a portrait of him hung in Master Warrick's work chamber, but even so, this illusion needed to do more than just be a faithful representation of that portrait.
After several hours in which Joseph had circled the castle several times, rested, gotten some more water, and improved on their shelter, the figure of the old wizard suddenly appeared next to him.
"Joseph. Are you prepared to fulfill your destiny?" he asked.
Joseph looked around and finally saw David, standing a bit further away. "You've outdone yourself," he told him.
"We'll see when it actually works," David said, less convinced.
Joseph felt an eerie calm when he stepped to the gate again with "Mallozzi".
"I am Mallozzi. Let us enter," the illusion said.
Joseph held his breath waiting for the statues to speak, but instead the gate opened. "It worked," he muttered.
He quickly rolled one of the larger stones from the courtyard to the gate, just in case it would close again. David let "Mallozzi" enter until he disappeared out of sight. The gate still remained open.
After a moment, David followed him and they both entered the remains of the castle.
"Follow the hair," David said, looking at Joseph's hair, but then his face fell. "It's not working anymore. Wait, maybe it needs to be renewed." He recast the spell, but Joseph's hair remained its old self, standing up, but not pointing in any particular direction. "I believe we'll have to search the old-fashioned way."
"I'll take the right side," Joseph said, kissing David before he entered the broken door on his side.
Dust had gathered in the corners still protected by a roof. Following his instinct, Joseph walked on and soon came into what looked like a meeting chamber. A large table stood at the center of the room. Joseph walked along its side until he came to the end and a chest caught his eye.
Something in his gut tingled at the sight of it. His breath quickened, and his heart began to beat faster.
He stepped up to the chest and opened it.
Inside he found a wooden staff with a large blue gem on one end, lying on top of a layer of soft black cloth. This was it. This was what they'd set out to find.
He took the staff in hand, nearly expecting something extraordinary to happen, but it simply lay in his hand like any other piece of wood.
Joseph still was sure that this was the right one. And he trusted his destiny. He'd made the decision to take David with him, possibly the only wizard in the world in this day and age who could have overcome the protective spell that Mallozzi had installed.
In a way, it felt as if his only contribution to this find was choosing David as his companion. But then his hair had led the way and Joseph didn't want to consider what would have happened if David had come upon the beast alone.
No, maybe it had to have been both of them. Joseph certainly felt that their destinies were shared. Not just in this, though he didn't dare think beyond the here and now.
He walked back into the courtyard to look for David.
Joseph found David in what looked like a library, surrounded by scrolls. "I found it," he announced, lifting the staff.
David looked up and took in the staff. "What does it do?"
"I don't know," Joseph admitted. "But I feel that this is the right staff. This is what we've been looking for."
"There are also some very interesting scrolls here," David said, gesturing towards the table and the shelves. "Most importantly for our immediate needs, I found this." He lifted a specific scroll.
"A traveling spell?" Joseph guessed. He didn't see a more immediate need for them than to take the staff to its intended target.
"Something like that," David said. "While I try it out, you could prepare some more of that beast meat. I'm starving."
Joseph went to fetch the meat they'd carried with them and carried it back into the castle to roast it in one of the open fireplaces. David was still working with the spell when Joseph stepped out into the courtyard with their late lunch.
"Oh," David said, sniffing the smell of the roasted meat. His stomach grumbled. "Just give me a minute. I hope it will work on the first try."
He cast the spell, but nothing happened. David didn't seem immediately worried about that. "What are we waiting for?" Joseph asked eventually.
"Hmm," David said. "Maybe we should just begin with lunch."
They took two of the chairs outside and sat down to eat the meat and the rations. David cast a little spell on them to make them less hard to swallow. "You're not going to share what the spell was supposed to do?" Joseph asked him.
"If it works, you'll see," David said. "And I really hope it does work. It would take weeks to walk home."
"I don't think we should head back home," Joseph said.
David looked at him.
"There is no telling how far the Army of Darkness has come. They could be nearing America right now. We don't have the time to walk back to Teahor first and then head out to meet them," Joseph said.
"You want to ride out and meet them?" David asked.
"Well, I can't ride out to meet them, but yes, that was—"
Joseph stopped when he heard a noise coming from the gate. Could this be? David got up, his face lighting up when he saw his mare entering the courtyard.
"A summoning spell?" Joseph asked. "Where's my stallion?"
David looked towards the gate. "It seems the spell only summons my own horse. We'll have to make do with her, I'm afraid," he said, stroking the mane of his mare. "You're a good girl. You even have Master Warrick's bag."
Joseph knew that by riding the mare they could be much faster meeting the Army of Darkness, but for the moment, he allowed himself another kind of indulgence. "Does that mean she still has the beer?"
David turned to him and grinned. "And bread that can be freshly baked with a simple spell." Then his face darkened a bit. "If you think we still have the time. You'll not want to ride out as quickly as possible? I thought maybe we could spend the night here, but you're right. If the army from the north moves as fast as the scouts told us, they could be approaching our kingdom as we speak."
Joseph would have loved to spend the night with David in a real bed, but they did not have the time. "But we can still have a good meal. We need to be prepared for what's ahead of us."
David nodded and got out the bread and the barrel of brew while Joseph took care of the horse. The mood was somber as they ate. When they clinked their glasses together, David said, "May you fulfill your destiny swiftly."
Joseph only nodded. His mind might be on the fight ahead of them, but in his heart were thoughts about their lives beyond his destiny.
After their lunch, David hastily collected scrolls and transferred them into the magical shrinking bag. He could only pick scrolls at random. Maybe if they lived through this, they'd have the opportunity to return.
They filled their pouches in the well and mounted David's mare. Joseph took her reins and David sat behind him, moving his arms around Joseph's body. For a moment, he leaned against Joseph's back and squeezed him tight.
Joseph turned to him, and when David looked up, Joseph leaned forward to capture his mouth in a kiss. It was a deep kiss, and when their lips parted, Joseph sighed quietly. David could see in his eyes—that he would have liked to stay here with David, but they both knew there was no time.
Joseph straightened and they started riding, picking up speed once they were out of the gate. They didn't ride as fast as David's mare was capable of. Joseph took care to preserve her strength, but it was still fast enough that David held onto Joseph, making sure he wouldn't fall.
The distance to the outer edge of the forest was not as far now that they rode towards the East. They only took a small break in the evening, allowing them and the mare to rest, drink, and feed, before they continued on even as the sun set and the forest was shrouded in darkness.
The moon allowed them to ride on until they reached the outer tree line that separated the magical forest from the plain beyond.
They stopped and dismounted, taking in the clear night sky and the moon that shone brightly, illuminating what lay before them.
Far away, they could see vague shapes that had to be one of the outer villages of America and in the other direction, coming from the north, they could see...something small that was almost not distinguishable from the plain.
"They're coming," Joseph said. "They're still a day away, but if they keep moving day and night, we'll just be able to meet them before they reach America."
David nodded. It had been right of them to make haste. Tomorrow Joseph would meet his destiny. And maybe his fate.
David took in Joseph's profile, the hair that stood up in angles, his strong nose, the beard that he'd never trimmed quite as neatly as David tended to. Joseph looked at the approaching army with weariness but also determination. David knew that he'd do anything to stop them. Whatever the cost. Not just because it was his destiny, but because he felt responsible for his people.
If Joseph had to give his life for them, he would. David understood that. He was prepared to give his own life if that was necessary. What he wasn't sure about was if he could watch Joseph die. He couldn't imagine returning with the news of Joseph's triumph—and his body. He could not imagine a day without Joseph, much a less a lifetime.
This quest had brought them together in a way that neither of them would have thought possible. David felt that their fates were inseparably linked now. And if Joseph had to sacrifice himself the next day, David realized he would rather meet the same fate than face a lifetime without Joseph.
Joseph turned to look at David. This could be their last night on Earth. David knew that he couldn't waste it.
He took Joseph's hand in his and moved his other hand to Joseph's neck, pulling him close. Their lips met in a tentative kiss that deepened slowly.
"Joe," David whispered, his lips never moving far from Joseph's.
"David," Joseph whispered in return.
"I want you to come inside me," David said.
"I want to be one with you," David said.
"Yes," Joseph said, kissing him again. "Yes."
They managed to move apart long enough to construct a makeshift shelter using David's desk, a blanket, and the mattress. The moonlight was enough to see their way as they undressed.
But David wanted to be able to see Joseph's face, to burn it into his memory forever.
He cast a light spell in their shelter and watched as Joseph mapped his body with kisses. He took David's member in his mouth and sucked it in, nearly making David climax before Joseph had even entered him.
There was so much David wanted to experience with him, but they might only have this night, even if they survived. He needed to know what it felt like to be one with Joseph in the most intimate way.
Joseph warned him that it would burn, but David didn't care. When Joseph pushed a second finger into him, David cast a minor spell against the pain. He still wanted to be able to feel the pressure of Joseph stretching him.
When the tip of Joseph's finger touched a special spot inside him, David's hips bucked up and he moaned in pleasure. Was there no end to what Joseph could do to his body? "Please," he whispered, needing Joseph in ways he couldn't express with words.
"Soon," Joseph soothed him, leaning forward to kiss him, even as his fingers moved inside David, stirring the fire in his body.
David could no longer think and only felt. When Joseph pushed his hard member into him, he keened at the powerful intrusion. David didn't even cast a spell against the slight ache, so soon was it replaced by nothing but pleasure.
Joseph started to move inside him, filling him in ways he'd never been filled before. It wasn't just their bodies that became one, it was their whole beings.
David pulled back his legs and parted them, trying to allow Joseph to push even further, to take complete possession of his body, as he'd taken possession of his heart, mind, and soul.
Joseph's roar rang between the trees as he pushed impossibly deeper, his member finding the spot inside David that made his body convulse in ecstasy.
"Joe!" David shouted out.
Joseph panted loudly, as his hips drove into David relentlessly. "David."
David held onto him and pulled Joseph into a breathless kiss. Then he threw back his head as his body shook uncontrollably, shattering him into a million pieces as he came apart around Joseph.
Joseph didn't stop to move into him, groaning above David until he too started convulsing and collapsed onto David. His softening member slipped out and they turned on their sides, still breathless, cuddling together.
Eventually David had calmed down enough to remove the light spell. He fell asleep in Joseph's arms, feeling that from then on some part of Joseph would always be inside of him.
Joseph couldn't sleep. He watched David sleep in his arms and thought about the future.
Not about the next day. He'd fulfill his destiny and then either die or survive. But if they survived, they'd return home to Teahor and that was the future that Joseph was worried about.
After experiencing this intimacy with David, he didn't know how he could return to their old lives and be nothing but friends. How could he see David every day and never reach out to touch him? How could they spend time together alone, but never get close enough to kiss?
How was he going to live with the memory of this night, of becoming one with David, of moving inside him, with no hope of ever experiencing it again?
Joseph looked down as David snuggled into his chest.
How would he live without this?
Sleep found him eventually.
They didn't share more than a long kiss the next morning. When they left their shelter and looked out onto the plain, they could see the Army of Darkness coming. They must have walked all night.
Joseph looked at David, whose blue eyes were full of trepidation, but also a stubborn determination.
They ate breakfast and even allowed themselves a last sip of brew.
"Destiny," was all Joseph said as he raised his glass.
David brought their glasses together. They drank and then quickly packed their things.
They'd be able to meet the Army before they reached the first village. What would happen when they did was still unclear. Joseph took the staff, but it still only lay in his hand like any wooden staff.
He trusted that destiny would find its way. Beyond that, they couldn't know. He was willing to give his life for his kingdom if he had to. He couldn't ask the same of David however.
"You could stay," Joseph told him after they'd prepared everything.
David only looked at him. "I will be with you, whatever happens."
Joseph nodded. If their places were reversed, he wouldn't let David go alone either. He smiled at David and kissed him.
They rode straight towards the army. One lonely horse against hundreds if not thousands of foot soldiers.
Joseph could feel David's grip on him tightening, but he didn't mind. He was tense himself, waiting for one of the soldiers to notice them. Any moment now, the movement of the army would stop and turn in their direction.
To Joseph's surprise, it never happened. They came closer and closer, and no soldier ever looked their way. Joseph lifted his staff. If the staff had some magical power that could kill these invincible soldiers, they were now within striking distance.
"Joseph?" David asked behind him.
Joseph didn't know what to do. They were going to meet the first soldiers in a moment. "There is no way back," he said, and spurred on their horse.
"Oh god," David said. Then he cast a spell, just as they were about to hit the first soldiers.
Right, left, and front of them, soldiers moved out of their way as if by force.
"It's working!" David shouted, excited. "I can't believe it's— Oh god." Joseph saw what David saw in that moment. He looked into the faces of the soldiers that had struck fear in the hearts of everyone who heard of them. "They're...dead," David said, just loud enough for Joseph to hear.
The gray skin in the sunken faces, the unmovable expressions, but mostly the complete lack of life in their dull eyes sent shudders of terror into Joseph. Now they knew why no group of men would defeat these soldiers.
You could not kill what was already dead.
Joseph kept on riding until they were in the middle of the army, surrounded by the dead, kept safe only by David's spell, which he hadn't even thought would work, and which would probably not last forever.
Joseph brought the mare to a halt and lifted his staff again, willing it to fulfill his destiny.
When nothing happened, he looked up into the sky and shouted. "I have done all you asked of me. What more can I do?"
There was no answer. Instead, after a moment in which they'd both held their breath, the soldiers around them started closing in on them, apparently no longer kept away by David's spell.
David held onto him tightly. "I love you," he said into Joseph's ear.
Joseph turned to him. If he had to die, he wanted the last thing in his sight to be the man he loved. "I love you," he told David, and leaned in to kiss him.
He could feel hands grabbing his legs, when suddenly David pulled away. Without hesitation, he grabbed Joseph's hand around the staff and cast a spell that sounded vaguely familiar.
The blue gem at the end of the staff started to glow. Then light shot from it in all directions, so bright that Joseph had to close his eyes against it.
He could feel the hands that were on him slip away. The sound of bodies falling echoed all around them, but Joseph kept his eyes closed, one hand lifting the staff high in the air, while the other held David's head as Joseph twisted his body towards him.
After what felt like forever, all sound around them stopped and the only thing they heard was their own breathing.
"David?" Joseph asked.
"We're not dead," David answered.
Joseph opened his eyes. The gem in the staff was no longer glowing. He saw David's huge blue eyes looking first at him, then around them.
Joseph followed his gaze and took in their surroundings. Every single soldier of the Army of Darkness had fallen.
He had fulfilled his destiny.
"This smell is awful," David said, wrinkling his nose as they made their way slowly through the bodies.
"Yes, it is," Joseph agreed, turning to give David a commiserating look.
David went through the bottles of potion on his belt and in his satchel, but there was nothing against smell, and he could not bring his mind to remember a spell.
"Why couldn't the staff have turned them into dust?" David complained. "It would have been far more convenient and made for much greater drama."
Joseph chuckled. He turned to David again, smiling fondly this time. David smiled back, leaning against Joseph's shoulder. He didn't even want to think about the fact that soon enough he wouldn't be allowed to do that anymore.
He tried to ignore the smell and take in Joseph's scent instead.
Joseph took the hands around his body in his, stroking them. Joseph led the mare through the sea of bodies until they finally reached the freedom of the plain and could easily ride a mile on until the smell of the fallen dead no longer hung in the air.
They took a bite to eat, though it hadn't been very long since their breakfast. Defeating the Army of Darkness had been rather quick and painless in the end.
"How long has that prophecy been around?" David asked as they mounted the horse again.
"About Mallozzi's staff being able to defeat the Army of Darkness? Hundreds of years. We'd have to ask Jasper or Warrick to be sure," Joseph said.
"It's a good thing you were finally born to fulfill it," David mused.
"Yes," Joseph said, though he sounded a bit subdued. "And I have finally fulfilled my own destiny."
David squeezed his arms around him a bit tighter. Joseph stroked his hands, then took the reins to lead them back home.
They didn't ride very fast now. For lunch they made a fire to roast the rest of the beast meat. David baked some bread with a spell, and they each had two glasses of brew.
They took their time eating and drinking. There was a sense of accomplishment in Joseph's face, but he also looked sad. David knew how he felt.
They'd done the impossible, but their defeat of the Army of Darkness meant that their quest was over and with it the time they'd had together.
"We could—" Joseph began, but then stopped.
David didn't ask what they could. They could stay here one more night, lingering before they had to return, but they both knew it wasn't right. They could easily reach the villages at the outskirts of America by nightfall. Their journey together was over, and now was the time to remember the rules under which they must learn to live.
They slowly packed their things, giving each other long looks, full of what they'd experienced in the last days, and what they would have to live without in the years to come.
"David," Joseph said before mounting their horse again. He took David's face in his hand and kissed him.
It was a deep kiss, full of the passion he'd have to hide once they entered the borders of their kingdom. David returned the kiss to its fullest, opening his mouth for Joseph to let him in.
Then abruptly, Joseph pulled away, looking entirely broken, and mounted their horse. David dropped his gaze, feeling the loss of their physical connection, even if their emotional one couldn't be broken.
He mounted the horse behind Joseph, thinking about the spell that Master Warrick had put on them. Their bond had become a part of them now. He couldn't feel it as distinct from his normal connection to Joseph anymore.
They'd become one during their journey in more ways than one. And that would never change, even if nobody must ever know about it.
Once they approached the first village on their path back to Teahor, a rider left the village to meet them.
Joseph's heart both rose and fell. They were back in civilization. He'd been able to save the kingdom and nobody had to die. But on the other hand they were back in civilization, which meant that he and David could only be friends again from now on.
Joseph stroked the hands around him one last time. He felt David squeeze him in return, before he pulled back his arms as the rider came close.
"Sir Flanigan?" the rider asked.
"Yes," Joseph confirmed.
"We've been awaiting you," the rider said. "We had hoped that you would return before the army from the north. Have you been successful?"
"The army from the north is no more," Joseph said.
The rider stared at him.
"It's true," David said. "Sir Flanigan has fulfilled the prophecy: he has defeated the Army of Darkness with the magical staff that he found in Mallozzi's castle, hidden among the dangers of the magical forest."
Joseph could only smile at the dramatic sound of David's voice.
"You can send scouts up north," Joseph told the rider. "You'll find their bodies not a day's ride from here."
"I..." the rider began, "I shall join my squadron first," he said.
They made their way to the village, where Joseph talked to the leader of the squadron. He sent a few of his men up north and some back to Teahor to give word of the miraculous defeat.
The squadron leader organized a horse for Joseph, but Joseph decided that they would spend the night at the tavern and not ride home until the next morning.
There were fresh drinks and a fine meal, but as Joseph looked over the table at David, he knew that they could both only think of the more humble but perfect meals they'd shared on their journey.
They had separate rooms, of course, and there was never a moment in which he was alone with David.
Before they went to bed, they could only share a longing look over the crowd, and even that was an indulgence he knew they couldn't get used to.
Breakfast wasn't any different than dinner the night before. They were surrounded by people every moment.
The squadron rode with them as they returned.
Joseph tried to put his turmoil over David aside. He had fulfilled his destiny and saved the kingdom. They both had, and he was proud of what he and David had accomplished.
He would also see his family again. He was glad that his sons wouldn't have to grow up without their father. And he would be happy to see Katherine again, who was a wonderful friend, even if she could never be a perfect wife to him.
They were still quite far from Teahor, when the first riders came towards them, forming an honor guard around them.
Joseph looked at David, who straightened on his mare and smiled proudly, despite the sadness that Joseph could see in his eyes and feel in their bond.
The closer they came to the gates of Teahor, the more people streamed out to greet them. Music was played. Flowers were thrown.
They were welcomed like the saviors that they were, even if Joseph didn't feel as if he had done anything special. His real accomplishment had been to choose David to come with him, and that had never been to fulfill his destiny. Though maybe his wish to be with David, which had made him choose him as companion, had been as much part of his destiny as the blessing of his hair and the ancient prophecy of Mallozzi's magical staff.
They finally rode through the gate and inside the sight of Teahor decked out in colorful ribbons and a sea of happy faces greeted them.
The king awaited their arrival and next to him stood their wives and sons.
Mars barked and jumped on David after they'd dismounted, and Joseph laughed before turning to his family and kissing his wife and his sons.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see David doing the same.
Joseph's heart ached when he saw David with Jane. It wasn't an entirely unfamiliar feeling, but now mixed with the longing there was the memory of David's touch.
David turned to him as if he could read Joseph's feelings. And maybe he could. They were still bonded after all, and Warrick hadn't offered to lift the spell. Probably because he assumed they'd already done so after defeating the Army of Darkness.
They shared a long look, though Joseph tried to guard his emotions, locking them into his heart.
When the king started his speech, congratulating them on their successful quest, Joseph smiled proudly, not letting the sadness in his heart mar the moment for those who wanted to celebrate their accomplishment.
Life went on as it had before.
David worked on his new play: The re-enactment of their quest. Everyone was waiting for it, wanting to see with their own eyes how they'd done it.
David wanted to laugh about how little of the truth they were going to see. Though it was more tragic than amusing if he was honest with himself.
Honesty had become hard since their return. He couldn't tell Jane about what had really happened. He'd told stories of their adventures, of course, to her and to many others, but every detail he omitted—because it might give away their feelings for one another—felt like the lie it was.
This whole play was going to be more fantasy than any of his others because it told the story of two friends who set out to find a magical staff and defeat an army. The reality, though, was that for him and Joseph it was the story of finding each other and becoming one.
Returning home meant their separation, and it hurt David every hour of every day. He'd thought about lifting their bond, but he didn't think it would truly make a difference. At least like this he could sense that Joseph felt the same, that he was not alone in this.
And he could sense that Joseph was about to enter.
David steeled himself for Joseph's presence. As hard as it was for them to be in the same room with others, it was even harder to be alone.
Joseph knocked and entered, giving him a slightly forced smile. He stepped up to David's desk. David had to force himself not to reach out and touch him.
"What are you doing?" Joseph asked. His voice sounded almost completely casual, but David could feel the strain that it took.
"Working on the play," David answered, trying to sound just as casual.
Joseph leaned against the desk, and David had to drop his gaze onto one of the scrolls.
"How is it going?" Joseph asked.
"I'm stuck," David admitted.
"Can I help?" Joseph asked.
David wanted to say that there was no help for either of them, but it wasn't Joseph's fault. "Maybe," he said instead, deciding to just show Joseph the scene.
Joseph seemed to do quite well, settling back into family life. Even if David felt his sadness, Joseph was very good at hiding it. He could have been an actor. Maybe he had an idea how to finish the scene.
David cast the spell and in front of them, a stylized scene of the forest sprang to life.
"What is—" Joseph began, but stopped when he saw the beast approach.
David let the scene play out in front of them, watching Joseph, who frowned and clenched his hands into fists as the beast attacked him.
It was probably the most heroic moment in the play, and maybe David had made Joseph fight back a little harder, a little more successfully, but that was what dramatic arts were about. They were about emotional truth more than literal.
Which might be why it was so hard for him to leave out the highest emotions the quest had brought out in both of them.
Joseph watched, rapt, as David slew the already weakened beast. "Was I that close to killing it?" he asked doubtfully.
"No," David admitted. "And I wasn't as calm when I killed it," he commented as his illusion stabbed the beast once more and killed it with a clean cut. He remembered how hysterical he'd been at the time. Nobody would want to see that kind of truth.
David couldn't watch as the scene progressed and his illusion knelt over Joseph's, slightly worried, but overall calm. It was so far from the truth, the actual and the emotional, that the artist in him screamed in silent agony.
"And this?" Joseph asked, eyes firmly on the images in front of him.
"I...I kissed you," David whispered.
Joseph's gaze moved from the scene to him for a moment before turning back.
David's illusion cast the healing spell that knocked him out. Joseph gasped as he saw it. "I still can't believe you did that," he said quietly.
"I would have done anything," David said just as quietly, not daring to turn towards Joseph.
The two illusions lay together for a while until Joseph's illusion came to. David hadn't been conscious at the time, so he made Joseph's illusion check on the beast ensuring it was dead before leaning over David's body.
Joseph's illusion called out David's name, but even that sounded false in David's ears. There wasn't any desperation in his voice, not much more than slight worry, certainly no love.
Without a single touch from Joseph's illusion, David's illusion opened his eyes and then the scene stopped.
"I don't know how to end the scene," David said. He was at the end of his rope as to what he could do as an artist. Some might think it was his job to make up stories, but at the heart of his stories was truth. What was asked of him now was a lie so big that he didn't think he had it in his power.
Joseph didn't say anything, so David eventually turned his face to look at him. Joseph was looking at him with big eyes. Then he closed the distance between them so fast that David couldn't run away.
David gasped as Joseph took his face in his hands and kissed him. David's arms wound themselves around Joseph of their own volition. They couldn't do this. And yet, David couldn't not return the kiss that he so longed for.
He forced himself to pull away, whispering, "We can't," against Joseph's lips.
"I know," Joseph whispered back, leaning his forehead against David's. Then he took David's lips in another deep kiss, before tearing himself away from him and running.
Joseph breathed heavily, trying not to alert others as he ran towards the training grounds, hoping to find a place to be alone.
He found an unoccupied section and tried to calm down, but his hands still shook from the need to reach out and touch David.
David was right. They couldn't do this. But Joseph couldn't go on without it either. He needed David.
His life in Teahor was a good one. He had a wonderful family, three sons that he loved, a wife that couldn't be better to him and their sons, a responsibility that he was willing and able to fulfill, friends and neighbors, the men under his command...they all made his life good.
But it wasn't until he'd gone out there with David that he'd really found meaning in his life.
It hadn't been just David that he'd found out there. There'd been nature and wildlife. There'd been the unexpected, and the challenges that went beyond squabbles between his men or armor that didn't quite fit.
Life in Teahor was good to him, but it couldn't be all that his life was.
He hadn't been born for this. His destiny had led him outside the walls of the city. He'd found it out there with David, and he didn't think it had been a wooden staff that killed an army of undead soldiers.
That had been a task that he had to do, and he'd done it gladly, but it wasn't all. His heart longed to be out there again with David, to feel nature as he was meant to, to battle not wooden training puppets but squirrels or beasts, to be one with the man he loved.
He wished he could go on another journey like that. He wished...
Joseph straightened. There was no reason that his wish couldn't come true. It would be unexpected. There would be no reason for him to ask this. He wouldn't be able to justify his request, but then after what they'd done, what reason would the king have to deny him?
He wouldn't ask for anything that would hurt the kingdom. He wouldn't ask for anything that required unreasonable resources or otherwise put a burden on the kingdom. They wouldn't understand what it really was what he wanted—needed—but maybe they would give it to him.
Maybe Joseph could still have this and finally live again.
David paced the floor in his office. He didn't know what to do. He knew how Joseph felt. The need to be with him was sometimes like a physical ache.
He wanted nothing more than to ease to pain with a simple touch, but at the same time, he knew that a simple touch would never be enough for them and what was more, it would be wrong.
What had happened between them in the magical forest had been wrong too—objectively. But in his heart, he felt that outside of Teahor they had a freedom that made it acceptable, even necessary to break a few rules.
His memories of their nights in the forest weren't marred by guilt, but inside the walls of city things were different. He didn't know how he could return to Jane and face her now while the touch of Joseph's lips against his was still burned into his skin and mind.
He felt Joseph's presence a moment before he entered the door without knocking.
"We can't," David repeated before Joseph stepped closer. He knew that he wouldn't be able to resist him if he didn't stop now. "Not here," he added mournfully, because he needed Joseph to know that he'd always treasure those nights in the forest and never regret them.
"I know," Joseph said determined, approaching David, but not coming too close for David to think. "Not here. But out there," Joseph added, a smile of hope tugging on his lips.
David opened his mouth, but no words came out. He didn't understand.
"Come with me," Joseph said, lifting his hand in invitation. "I have the king's permission. Let's explore the world out there."
David was still confused. "What do you expect to find?" he asked, even as he lifted his hand to take Joseph's.
Joseph looked at him and smiled calmly. "My new destiny," he said.
When David's hand landed in Joseph's, David finally understood. Joseph had found a way for them. They wouldn't have to give up their lives here. But they could still have each other out there.
He gripped Joseph's hand tightly, as he pictured their future. He saw their lives here in Teahor, raising their sons, writing their plays and leading their men, and at the same time, journeys beyond the walls of the city, where they could be together as they were truly meant to be.
David's heart soared as he realized that he could have both. It wouldn't be perfect. They'd still have to pretend when they were in Teahor, and they'd be away from their families quite often. But looking at their lives up to this moment, he felt that this was the only way it could be.
From the moment they'd ridden out on their quest, their old life had been gone. Their experiences in the forest had changed them irrevocably. Their bodies had returned unscathed, but their hearts, minds, and souls had been broken and re-arranged to fit together.
They'd set out to fulfill Joseph's destiny, but it occurred to David now that it hadn't been so much the end of something as it was the beginning. And not just Joseph's destiny.
He finally smiled at Joseph with the same hope in his eyes. "Our destiny."