Yusuf sighs, hangs his head. Hands flat on the table. Behind closed eyelids, sparse candlelight flickers.
“We need more help,” Sebastien murmurs.
Though he knows what he’ll find, Yusuf opens his eyes and scans the table again.
The surface is a strewn with maps and charts, lists and records and reports. There are figures carved haphazardly out of scraps of wood; a turret to symbolize his stronghold, rudimentary horses and tiny men for his thinly-spread forces. All too far apart. All dwindling.
Too many he’s had to remove from the table altogether in the past month.
“There’s no one else,” he mutters. “Andromache’s ships are a month away, still. I can’t lean on Quynh any longer, not with winter approaching. She has her own people to feed.” He rubs a hand over his face. “We have to consider terms of surrender.”
Sebastien shakes his head. “That was never an option, not from the beginning.”
“We didn’t anticipate this,” Yusuf says forcefully, gesturing across the grim story displayed on the tabletop between them. “We thought it would be a show of force, meant to intimidate. Then they crossed the borders, and we have been scrambling ever since.”
“To give up-”
“Would be to save lives.” Yusuf swallows. “At least more of my people would be alive.” He touches a fingertip to one of the horse figurines, alone, a single statue representing the mere five hundred warriors currently camped in the eastern gorge a few hundred of miles away: the final line of defense for the province’s interior as Stephen’s army approaches, having finished pillaging the outer townships. “We cannot withstand this. We will be wiped out by the solstice.” A pause, wind rattling at the windows behind him. “We are alone.”
Straightening, Sebastien folds his arms across his chest. Yusuf’s closest advisor and a seasoned general, he's been showing the strain of recent events. Yusuf sees it in the lines of his face, the shadows under his eyes.
“We aren’t alone,” he eventually says, voice low, eyes downcast, and Yusuf’s heart sinks.
“You could call on him.” He meets Yusuf’s eye. “You could.”
And Yusuf shakes his head. “It’s too soon,” he says desperately. “I can’t ask him because he would come, Sebastien, he would, and he would do anything to help.” His voice thins, breaks. “It’s too soon.”
There’s silence, apart from the creak of the castle in the cold. They’re alone in Yusuf’s apartments, most of the court already moved on to the coast and away from imminent threat. While usually a lively place of music and celebrations, the keep and the surrounding city are little more than hollow husks. The only warmth now comes from the distant bonfires where a small contingent of Yusuf’s army is camped overlooking the settlement.
Finally, Sebastien sighs, and begins for the door.
“He will not forgive you for keeping him in the dark,” he says. “He has a duty, just like the rest of us.”
He’s gone, leaving Yusuf behind with his aching chest and racing thoughts, the war inside of him no match for the tempest beginning to rage outside as night falls on yet another devastating day.
He knows tomorrow will be no better.
Yusuf sighs and harrumphs, back slumped in his chair, the very picture of a disgruntled twenty-one-year-old who would rather be out riding than seated beside his sister and parents in the grand reception hall.
“Gods above,” Yasmine mutters at his side. “At least pretend to be interested.” She’s poised and perfect when he glances over, ever the model princess and eldest child.
“I cannot pretend what I do not feel,” he grouses, though he does push himself upright at the warning look their mother sends his way.
It’s an important day: Yusuf knows this, objectively. He just has no reason to be invested. The apprentice sorcerer arriving will serve his father, first, and then his sister when she ascends the throne. Yusuf himself, the younger son, has no stake whatsoever in who this newcomer is or how their powers will develop under the tutelage of their current court sorcerer, a sallow old man Yusuf has only ever seen from afar and has never seen perform any kind of impressive magic.
He’s not convinced that the whole enterprise isn’t some sort of trick, anyway. Something to keep the kings and queens of the realm feeling safer on their thrones with the threat of a sorcerer at their beck and call. The tradition of court sorcery is an old one, he knows, but surely the world has developed past the need for this kind of showmanship.
Little is known about what happens at the stronghold in the mountains to which children suspected of being magic-sensitive are sent, but Yusuf supposes that it must be a long and cold journey there and back judging by the bedraggled state of the hooded figure that enters the hall. They’re dressed in a long, brown robe, a satchel hung across a broad chest, and they stride forward with purpose. On either side of the hall, lords and ladies whisper with curious interest.
Finally, the newcomer reaches the steps before the royal family, and kneels. Reaches a pale hand up and pulls back the hood.
He’s young, is Yusuf’s first thought. The apprentice is a young man, brown of hair, with unusually wide and pale eyes and a nose with which Yusuf could pick him out of a crowd of hundreds. He appears tired, but his gaze is bright and his voice is steady as he speaks.
“Your majesties. I am Nicolo, of the eastern lands across the great river. I am sent here as your court apprentice, so that I may hone my sorcery and serve your family for as long as I am living.”
It’s a heavy promise, but an expected one. Despite himself, Yusuf’s heart clenches as he considers how this Nicolo must have known of his fate from a very young age, unable to change his path due to his nature.
“Rise, Nicolo,” the king commands graciously. With only a slight wobble on what Yusuf suspects are weary legs, Nicolo stands. “We welcome you. What is ours is yours. Tonight, rest and sup, for these revelries are in your honour.”
Traditional words shared, the hall then dissolves into chatters and music in anticipation of the banquet planned to welcome the court’s new addition. Yasmine stands and descends to a group of her tittering friends. The queen gracefully leaves her husband’s side and makes her way to Nicolo himself, and Yusuf watches as she takes his hands in hers and speaks to him, sharing low words he cannot make out. Soon, Nicolo bows his head, and he is ushered to one side into the care of some household members, likely so that he might wash and change before the evening’s festivities.
“What do you think?” the king asks. He is still seated and leans towards his son, silvered curls so similar to Yusuf’s a riot under the golden circlet adorning his brow.
“He has strange eyes,” is all Yusuf has to say.
“It will be some time before we can trust him,” the king says quietly. “Sorcerers are unpredictable. Your mother has always had a better sense of these things, but this Nicolo will have to prove himself to me.”
Yusuf just nods, his eyes following as Nicolo leaves the hall and dips out of sight with a swish of his long robe.
He stares across the maps until he sees that the world outside may be turning blue with approaching morning, and relents, hoping for a few fitful hours of rest if he is lucky.
No matter how hard he thinks, hopes, worries, he sees no better outcomes for himself and his kingdom. Every decision leads to further death and ruin, further loss, and Yusuf wishes so fervently for the reassuring presence of his father and the soothing wisdom of his mother and a teasing comment from his sister that he has to clasp his hands in front of his mouth lest some loud, pained noise escape him.
As he lies down on top of his bed, clothes and boots still in place for fear of what the morning could bring, he turns on his side, hand outstretched on the coverlet, and the weak glow from a nearby sconce spills across his wrist. Across the symbol inked underneath, black against the delicate skin.
“I need you, Nico,” he whispers, admits, alone and to himself. “I wish I did not. But I do.”
Tomorrow, he decides, closing his eyes and willing himself to sleep.
Tomorrow, he will do what needs to be done.
Nicolo is invited to sit with the royal family and their closest friends when the banquet begins. He ends up seated beside Sebastien, just across from Yusuf and directly across from the queen. Yusuf suspects this was not an accident.
Now that the young man is free of his heavy travelling robes, Yusuf has a better sense of Nicolo, physically. They are of about the same height, thought Sebastien is still taller than them both, and his freshly washed hair appears soft though otherwise unremarkable. He’s dressed in a simple tunic of grey and black, somber colours befitting a court apprentice, but the robe he wears across his shoulders is sewn with intricate silver threads, so complex that Yusuf wonders if magic-users were involved in its creation.
His hands look strong and capable when he reaches for his goblet of wine.
“How are your rooms?” the queen asks.
“They are perfect, your majesty,” Nicolo answers, voice low and soft. His vowels are lightly accented. “Much more than I require.”
“Nonsense,” she says kindly. “If you are to be one of us, you will live as one of us. You will want for nothing. Your path is not an easy one to walk, my child.”
Nicolo dips his head in thanks.
He says little else for the rest of the meal. Yusuf and Sebastien have a merry time drinking cup after cup of wine and retelling some of their best hunting tales for those nearest. He notes, as his mother shakes her head and his sister scoffs at the story of his fall into the creek just west of the keep, that Nicolo gives a small snort of amusement, and Yusuf feels a tiny sense of accomplishment at that.
Later, dancing begins, and Yusuf loves to dance, so he excuses himself from the table and joins in with ease. He recognizes many young faces - lords and ladies that like to give him flirtatious glances, a few that always manage to put themselves in his path when new partners are selected. He doesn’t mind the attention. He knows he has more freedom for dalliances than his sister does as immediate heir, and he appreciates the freedom.
He’s just wondering whether a handsome dark-haired boy, the son of a legal advisor to his father, would respond well to an invite to bed when he takes a break for a drink and spots Nicolo standing and watching the crowds nearby.
Feeling loose-limbed and confident, he makes his way over.
“Do they not teach dancing in the mountains?” he asks, coming to stand at Nicolo’s side so they may regard the twirling couples together.
“Not like this,” Nicolo answers. A slight smile pulls at his lips. “It’s very lively. It is much quieter, where I have come from.”
“I can’t imagine,” Yusuf mutters, picturing dark towers standing in the snow, rows of meditating pupils kneeling, alone in their own worlds as they learn to harness their abilities.
“I like this better,” Nicolo states decisively. “It’s like the castle is alive. So much warmth and light.” He turns his head, and those rounded eyes are so much more arresting up close than Yusuf had anticipated. “We have not been formally presented to each other, Prince Yusuf.”
“I doubt there is much need, Nicolo, the sorcerer’s apprentice.”
“I suppose not,” Nicolo says easily. “But, if you wish to be friends, I would clasp your hand and introduce myself as Nico.”
“Well then.” Without a thought, Yusuf transfers his cup to his other hand, and extends his right. Nicolo – Nico – turns and takes his wrist in a firm hold. “Well met, Nico.”
“Well met, Yusuf,” Nico murmurs.
Between the effects of the drink and those eyes and the feeling of that broad hand on his arm, Yusuf only remembers the next morning that he had forgotten to ask after the legal advisor’s son. He finds he’s not too disappointed about the missed opportunity.
After stopping by the kitchens for a roll of bread and tea, Yusuf sends word for Nile to meet with him. He knows she’s been spending time in the nearby camp, tending to wounds that require aid beyond the capabilities of a healer, so it isn’t long before the messenger he sends returns with her. Among the captains and military advisors that surround Yusuf daily, she cuts a striking figure in her burgundy robes, braids long. Despite the cold of late autumn, she is bare-armed. Nico used to be the same way.
The fire of our magic keeps us warm, he’d said fondly as Yusuf had buried his face into his chest and sleepily sighed, calm and content.
“Your majesty,” she greets him, allowing a quick curtsy. He waves her off and brings her in to kiss her cheek.
“I am tired of formalities, Nile,” he says. “Are you well?”
“Tired,” she allows with a quick smile. “Each healing is a draw on my strength, but I am being careful about where I spend it.”
“Good. As grateful as I am for your aid, you must look after yourself as well.”
She inclines her head. “The boy who fetched me said you had need of me.”
“I do.” He leads her around the group of strategizing men to the other side of the room where they might share a private word. As always, ever since they were young, Sebastien stands nearby with his hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed blade.
“We are not faring well,” Yusuf says to Nile in low tones. “You must know this.”
She nods, glum. “I’ve suspected. The stories shared around the campfires are not hopeful ones.”
“Options are limited,” he admits. “We need more help.”
Uneasy, Nile clasps her arms against herself. “I would help more if I could, but I’m afraid I am at the limits of my powers.” Just as non-magical humans have aptitudes for various skills, so do magic-users. Nile carries enough ability to heal and perform minor miracles, but not as much as the sorcerers of legend.
Not as much as Nico now might.
The next words are difficult to say, but Yusuf forces himself. “I must summon him back.”
Sharp eyes find his.
“It’s another year at least before his journey will be done,” she cautions. “Eight summers. That is what is done.”
“Even as an apprentice, he was powerful,” Yusuf says, trying to convince her as much as himself. “If he can help, and then continue on…” He shakes his head helplessly. “I am at the end of what I can do. My people are suffering. I have a duty to their protection, as does he.”
Each word is a stab to his own heart, but he perseveres.
“It may not even be possible,” Nile muses. “While nature has its hold on him, he may not hear your call.”
“I must try. Will you help?” He bares his wrist slightly, offering it to her.
She stares at the mark on his skin, and then at him.
“If you ask, I will do it,” she says with finality. “But you must be sure.”
I will never be sure, Yusuf thinks.
“I am,” he says, and she nods.
“Tonight, then. When the moon is highest. It will be easiest for me.”
And the plan is in motion.
Night falls on Yusuf’s stronghold just as a messenger arrives on horseback from the army in the eastern gorge. Stephen’s forces are visible but have halted their approach on account of an early winter storm. The reprieve is double-edged as Yusuf fields new worries about how many men will survive until the unfortunate weather ceases.
After spending a few hours with Sebastien planning an expedition to send food and supplies, he retires to his rooms, and waits for the moon.
Nile is ready for him when he later enters the courtyard in the middle of the castle gardens. Leaves crunch underfoot, the carcasses of old flowers drooping on their stems. No one has had time to tend to them or prepare them for hibernation.
“You must be sure,” Nile says again when he bares his arm. Their breath puffs white between them. It seems even the seasons have lost hope, turning straight for winter when the solstice is still weeks away.
“This is my last chance,” Yusuf says quietly.
Taking his arm in steady hands, Nile presses the nail of her thumb into the mark, and chants.
He feels the magic take hold, spreading warm from where she touches him and up his arm, shoulder, seeping into his chest and heart. He feels it like an old yearning, something within him reaching, casting out, and he thinks, Nico, Nico, I need you, come to me.
He hears no answer, and the warmth rushes from him. Nile’s chest rises and falls quickly in the aftermath.
“The message is sent,” she says, letting him go. “The rest is up to him.”
Later, Yusuf dreams.
He dreams of lying next to Nico in the firelight upon layers and layers of furs. He is naked and soft to touch, legs entwined with Yusuf’s, and Yusuf’s hand is reverent on his jaw and in his hair as he kisses and kisses him. They never tire, never bore, seeking the taste and feel of each other for an age.
Please, Yusuf hears himself beg, voice trembling. My love, please. Do not go. Be with me.
When I am returned, Nico whispers. Eight summers. And I will be whole. And I will love you wholly.
He kisses Yusuf, generous mouth yielding.
We will have each other then. Everything will be well.
Yusuf wakes, the moon still high in the inky sky beyond his window, and the pillow is wet where he has cried.
Summer weighs on the land, heavy and hot. Yusuf cannot bear to wear more than a light tunic and sandals on the most humid days, and he dreads having to dress formally for meals when required to.
The interior halls and rooms of the castle are the coolest during the afternoon hours, so he wanders and keeps himself occupied by perusing scrolls and books in the main library. He’s looking idly for a particular tome, peeking into a small alcove as he searches the shelves, and is surprised to find the desk there occupied.
Nico sits by candlelight, an inkwell and pen nearby and a dusty leatherbound book open before him. He looks to have been scribbling notes on a loose piece of parchment.
“Oh,” Yusuf says. “Apologies.”
“No need,” Nico says with a faint smile. “I’ve been growing bored, anyway. I’m grateful for the disruption.”
“Dry subject matter?”
“In a way.” He reaches out to close the inkwell. “It’s a chapter on the formation of the world. The patterns of nature, and the movement of the earth. How this land and it’s provinces came to be.”
Yusuf leans against the wall, arms folded. “I never thought to ask questions about such things.”
“The world is always in flux,” Nico says to him, eyes dancing in the firelight. “Even in your lifetime, I’m sure you can recall sights as a child that are no longer there now.” He exhales quietly. “For us, it is important to understand the ways of the world. How things came to be, the natural connections between everything. It is how we ask miracles of our magic.”
Yusuf frowns. “You have to ask it?”
Nico nods. “Magic is not inherent to sorcerers and other magic-users. Rather, it is all around, and we can simply feel it. It is a relationship.” He laughs lightly. “Often a difficult one.”
“How many years must you study like this?” Yusuf asks him. Nico has been with them six months, and Yusuf has learned that he just passed his nineteenth birthday. Surely he won’t have to bury his nose in his books forever?
“Most study like this is done before we leave for a court,” Nico says, standing and closing the volume on the table with care. “Practical study becomes more important when out in the world. I will continue here, learning from my master, until my twenty-first birthday.”
“What happens then?”
Nico’s face softens. “Then it is the great journey.”
“That sounds… ominous.”
“It is anything but,” Nico says with a chuckle. “But I will have to tell you about it another time. I can feel my stomach as it growls, and I think I must search for some lunch.”
He is awoken more rudely, later, when the sky outside is bleak and grey. Sebastien stands over him, anxious.
“What is it?” Yusuf asks immediately, hauling himself upright. A thousand thoughts fly through his mind: Stephen has made it to the castle, the city burning, his people all dead.
“There is a wolf,” Sebastien says, as if he himself cannot believe it. “At the front gate. Just sitting.”
Yusuf’s heart pounds, and he knows.
He pulls on his boots and tugs a heavy cloak around himself, and follows Sebastien through empty hallways until they emerge outside. A few guards and household members stand warily on the outskirts of the courtyard, and Yusuf sees that the portcullis has not been lifted. Alone, he strides across the open space until he is close enough to see what is beyond.
Against the backdrop of the city that sprawls down the hill, solitary and sitting calmly on the cobblestones: a great grey wolf. It’s eyes-
Yusuf falls to his knees.
“You came,” he gasps. In disbelief, he reaches a bare hand through the rungs of the gate, and the wolf stands, a large and wiry creature. It pads forwards and touches its snout to Yusuf’s palm, hot breath warming his fingers, and then-
Everything glows. There’s a great flash, and an odd cracking sound, and Yusuf blinks and there is no longer a wolf before the gate but a man. Pale. Brown of hair.
“Open the gate,” he yells, voice strangled. “Open it now!”
A great groan and clunk, and the portcullis begins to lift. Yusuf snatches his hand back and then rocks forwards onto his knees to catch Nico as he falls into him, into his chest, and Yusuf drags the length of his cloak around to cover his trembling body.
“I- I’m,” Nico tries hoarsely, weak hands cold at Yusuf’s collar. “Yu- Yus-”
“Hush, my love,” Yusuf tells him, close to tears. “Hush, now. You are here. Thank the gods, you are here. You heard me.” He closes his eyes and presses firm lips to the crown of Nico’s head where it's tucked under his chin. “You heard me.”
He would have stayed there forever, kneeling on the hard ground, his lover clasped to him, had Sebastien not approached and set a hand to Yusuf’s shoulder.
“Bring him inside,” he says quietly. “He’s frozen. He needs food.”
It’s an ordeal to get Nico standing and walking. He’s unsteady on his legs, like newborn foal, and he shivers uncontrollably despite the fur cloak Yusuf gives up to cover him with. Though he has yet to say anything substantial or even look anyone directly in the eye, his hand is like a vice on Yusuf’s as they stagger indoors, refusing to let go.
He’s like this even as Yusuf brings him to his rooms and asks a servant to prepare a warm bath. He shivers a little less as he sits on the bed, though, and manages to hold the cup Sebastien provides him with in one hand as he cautiously drinks.
With water wetting his mouth, his eyes look clearer.
“Sebastien,” he says. His voice rasps, unused as it has been for years. “Older, I see.”
Sebastien chuckles, some tension broken, and takes the cup from Nico when he is done. “Alas, that is the way of the world.” He sets a hand on Nico’s shoulder briefly. “We will catch up, my friend. For now, I will leave you to each other.”
Graciously, he bows and leaves.
The door shuts with a soft click, and Yusuf notes that Nico still has not relented his grip. Carefully, he sits beside him, and brings his knuckles up to kiss. The air leaves Nico’s lungs in a rattle.
“Seven summers,” he whispers, as Yusuf holds his hand against his chest and presses it there. “I have wandered seven summers, and seen nothing as beautiful as what I now see before me.”
“You are a vision,” Yusuf says, relief pouring from him. “I can hardly believe you are here.”
He means it. As Nico sits before him, cloak pooled at his waist, Yusuf can’t help but drink him in, greedy as anything. Memorizing all over again the hoods of his eyes and the fullness of his lips, his nose and forehead, hair, neck, the knobs of his shoulders and collarbones. Yusuf thinks he might turn inside out with wanting.
He sighs and leans his temple against Nico’s, revels in his earthy scent.
“There is much to talk about,” he says.
“Later,” Nico murmurs. “It will wait for later. Be with me, now.”
Yusuf cannot argue against that.
They bathe together, and, finally, the last of the cold seeps from Nico’s bones as he slips into the bath, nestles against Yusuf’s chest, and hums contentedly. Yusuf rests his chin over his shoulder and watches in quiet reverence as Nico draws his fingertips through the water, and he feels as the liquid heats around them a little further.
“Do not exert yourself,” he says, pressing a kiss to Nico’s temple.
“I am not,” Nico assures him softly. “It is like stretching an old muscle.” He brings his hand out of the water, and a spark appears, floating and weaving between his wiggling fingers before winking out of existence. “Like greeting a dear friend.”
He continues like this as they wash and dry and dress in loose tunics. He lights candles on a whim, dries his own hair and Yusuf’s with a pass of his hand. Food has been brought to their room, a platter of cheeses and dried meats and nuts. With ease, Yusuf sets it on the end of his bed and pulls Nico to sit and rest against him, pillows and bedclothes piled comfortably around their bodies. Some of the food, Yusuf reaches for and presses to Nico’s mouth. Some, Nico beckons through the air until Yusuf only has to part his lips to taste.
Since winter approaches and the days shorten, it is not long before the sky outside darkens again. Nico has lain in Yusuf’s arms silently for a long while, idle fingers tracing across his chest, when he at last speaks.
“I am early,” he says, words lilting and distant. “I had one year more.”
“You called to me.”
With a little effort, Nico raises onto his elbow, fixes Yusuf with a knowing look. He’d always been quick, Nico. Had always known Yusuf’s intentions before he himself knew of them.
“Because you need me,” he murmurs with finality. “I can feel it. The war. The land feels sick with it, and the air sour. Death feels close by.”
Yusuf strokes his hair back from his face with care. “It is. It has been.” He blinks hard, thinking of his family. “I did not want to disturb your journey, my love, please believe me.”
“Of course I believe you,” Nico whispers. He places a kiss, slow, on Yusuf’s lips. Their first, since. “We must protect our people, yes?”
Yusuf nods, throat tight. “I can’t do it alone. I’ve failed them thus far.”
“You have not failed anyone,” Nico says firmly. “And you are not alone.”
Helpless with love, Yusuf takes his face in his hands and pulls him close.
An illness falls upon the castle in the dead of winter. Yusuf and his sister are sick and then recover after a few horrible days, but some of the older members of the court are not so lucky. No one yet has died, thanks be to Nico, alone as his master is visiting elsewhere, working day and night tirelessly, tending to the diseased and giving them every comfort he can.
“You must let me help you,” Yusuf pleads, standing in the doorway of Nico’s apartments as he grinds something in a bowl with twitching hands. His eyes are sunken, his wrists boney. He doesn’t fill out his robes like he used to.
“It is not safe,” he says. “I won’t risk you.”
“But you risk yourself?”
“I won’t risk you.” He does not elaborate, so Yusuf does not push further.
Then, the queen collapses, and she does not awaken.
The following fortnight is a nightmare. The nights grow longer and colder, and Yusuf cannot sleep or eat, anxiety gnawing at him from the inside out. He spends dreary days seated outside his mother’s rooms, Yasmine clasping his hands as they wait for news, any news, but the expressions of the healers and attendants that leave to fetch potions or clean linens are telling.
She seems on the precipice of death when Yusuf is allowed to see her, briefly. Pale and sweating in her bedclothes, glassy-eyed, she doesn’t recognize him. Still, the king sits at her side and speaks to her, pleading with her, and Yusuf has to excuse himself.
Nico is outside when he shuts the door behind him.
“No change?” he asks, gentle.
Yusuf shakes his head. “I fear we will lose her,” he says shakily, and there must be something written on his face because Nico puts his hands on his shoulders, and then pulls him forward and wraps him in a firm hug. A tender hand cradles the back of his head.
“I will save her,” Nico vows, chest rumbling against Yusuf’s where they are pressed together. “I promise you, my prince.”
And he keeps that promise.
Nico’s face is impassable as he looks over the map of the gorge. He traces his fingers across the lines marking the steep cliffs and the river, and finally frowns.
“This is one way to enter the interior province,” he says. “Are you not concerned about the islands to the southwest? With the shallow sea frozen over, men could make the journey.”
“We send scouts regularly,” Sebastien answers him. “There is no evidence. We think that word of Andromache’s imminent arrival has spread and that Stephen does not wish to be caught in her grasp.”
“A smart decision.” Back to the gorge. “It then becomes a question of holding them-” He taps the narrowest part, less than a mile from Yusuf’s forces, “-here.”
“I don’t have enough men,” Yusuf says grimly. “Four hundred, at best. We lost soldiers to the storm two days ago.” He gestures at the other maps. “No other units are close enough.”
“No, we must block their path,” Nico says, thoughtful.
Sebastien shrugs. “If we could just build a wall, we would have.” Yusuf shoots him a frown for his unhelpful comment.
“Yusuf,” Nico says, coming to his side. “How wide is the narrowest part?”
“Perhaps… a few hundred yards?”
“And the cliffs are tall? Rocky?”
“Yes.” He sets a hand low on Nico’s back. He doesn’t care whether or not his advisors approve of his affections. “What are you thinking?”
Nico points and looks at Yusuf with clear eyes. “I can break the earth. Pull it down. Enough for no one to get through, not even a single man.”
There is silence at the table.
Yusuf himself is awestruck at the suggestion. Mostly, sorcery is mentioned and people imagine healing and potion-making and slight of hand. Tricks to keep old kings amused. Yusuf had always known that Nico had great power residing within him, but to break the earth? To move cliffs and change the land?
It is almost unimaginable.
“Nico…” He does not know where to begin. “Nile becomes tired after healing a broken bone. I saw you grow dizzy after lifting my little cousin from the creek when she fell. And she was only small.”
“That was then,” Nico says quietly, just to him. “I can do this, now.”
“At what cost?”
“I must do it.” He turns fully to Yusuf, ignoring everyone else present. “This is what I can do. I cannot smite Stephen’s army, but I can do this. I can protect you from this threat.”
Nico then looks across the table, back to business, and begins to discuss with a scout the fastest way to the gorge itself, and Yusuf only notices after a plan is made that Nico had never answered his question.
Nico withdraws after the incident with the sickness. Everyone has recovered, no more new instances occurring, and Yusuf does not see him for a week.
“He is likely tired,” Yasmine says dismissively at breakfast one morning. “He saved our mother’s life. There must have been a cost to him.” She gives Yusuf a look. “Leave him be.”
Yusuf is still having trouble sleeping well, and night hours often find him back in the library, a woollen blanket around his shoulders as he tries to lull himself to rest by reading the most boring and long-winded history books he can find. It almost works, one night, and he’s considering curling up on the bench where he is when there's movement across the room. Squinting, he makes out a shadowed figure.
Nico steps forward, candlelight falling across his face. “Just me.”
“Can’t sleep either?”
“Afraid not.” He walks around the table Yusuf is using as a desk and sits by his side. “What are you reading?”
“I have no idea,” Yusuf replies with a grimace. “Something dull. I’m trying to bore myself to sleep.”
Nico huffs and smiles, and Yusuf’s chest warms.
“I could help?” he offers, raising his hand slightly, but Yusuf shakes his head.
“Save your energy,” he tells him. “You have spent enough of it.” A gentle pause as they look over the open pages before them. There’s an illustration on one page; a battle scene. The face of the soldier nearest to Yusuf’s fingers as he holds the book open is twisted with grief as he holds the body of a fallen comrade. “Besides, there are easier ways to tire myself without draining your magic further.” He sighs and closes the book. “If only I was more in the mood.”
Nico makes a questioning sound. “Is there a herb you would use?”
“No, but a bedmate usually does the trick.”
“Ah.” Nico lifts a shoulder. His robe rustles against Yusuf’s tunic. “I will have to take your word for it.”
Surprised, Yusuf turns to him. “You’ve never…?”
“No.” Nico meets his eye easily, without shame. “Until my apprenticeship is complete, I am expected to abstain.” When he blinks and looks away again, Yusuf is momentarily struck by his unique beauty. The arch of his nose casts a long shadow across his cheek, and his lips captivate Yusuf’s attention as they form around his words.
“I’m sure there are many who don’t follow this rule,” Nico continues, rueful.
“It can’t be easy,” Yusuf remarks. Curiosity burns. “Are you… not allowed to court, even? To flirt? To kiss?”
Nico glances back to him, pins Yusuf with an unfathomable look. “I am allowed to kiss.”
Yusuf is, unexpectedly, grateful for that, for Nico’s mouth is much too lovely for him to have never known the pleasure of a kiss.
“Well, that’s something,” he says, throat dry. He makes his excuses not long after that.
With reports of weather in the gorge clearing, Yusuf feels time slipping through his fingers. The journey on horseback is two days at least, and there is an unspoken fear that even that will be too late, and they will arrive to find Stephen’s army moved on and Yusuf’s men all slain where they stood.
Still, Nico is determined.
Their plan is to ride out with a small contingent. Sebastien tries once to convince Yusuf to stay behind and does not try again.
“If you are lost, then everything is truly lost,” he says, standing to one side as Yusuf tucks a waterskin into a saddlebag. His mare whinnies and paws at the mud underfoot.
“If this does not work, we will be doomed anyway,” Yusuf replies, aware of his own pessimism but unable to stem it. “I will not send him out there alone.”
The discussion ends there.
The following morning, after a fitful night of falling asleep and suddenly waking over and over, tightening his arms around Nico for fear of him disappearing, they set out. Yusuf and Nico and ten others. As the party exits the main gate and begins the trek through the deserted city for the lands beyond, Yusuf looks over his shoulder to where Sebastien and Nile stand, watching, and wonders if he will ever see them again.
They grow warmer with each other into the spring. A steady friendship for which Yusuf is thankful because Nico is a wonderfully calm presence in the midst of life at court. Their apprentice is ever gracious and constant and reassuring, no matter the task set before him, and Yusuf is increasingly drawn to him like a wandering traveller is drawn to the safety and comfort of a campfire.
He loves to watch Nico work. He hangs back in the kitchens one day as Nico laughs with the cook, a broken pot becoming whole again under his palm. He watches as Nico walks through the queen’s favourite gardens, flowers unfurling brighter and larger than ever as he trails his fingers across their stems. There is a burst of glittering sparkles produced for a gaggle of wide-eyed children, a conjured rose offered to a recently widowed lady, a lame horse in the stables suddenly able to trot and canter again. Wherever Nico goes, joy follows.
An amorous seed is planted and blooming in Yusuf’s chest before he realizes.
He knows he cannot have everything with Nico, but the force with which he wishes to kiss him starts catching Yusuf off guard, almost winding him with its strength. There will be moments at meals, eyes meeting over cups of wine, or glances across the banquet hall as they dance, for Nico has taken to dancing, now, under Yasmine’s delighted tutelage.
The tension within him is becoming unbearable, and then there is the summer solstice celebration.
The court spills outside into the gardens at dusk, drink and dancing and music fueling revelries. Fireflies, or perhaps little pinpricks of magic from Nico’s fingers themselves, float in the air, and laughter fills every space, and Nico appears at the top of the stairs that descend into the party, and Yusuf's breath is stolen.
Gone are the greys and blacks of Nico’s usual wardrobe. He’s in green, light and inviting like the colour of new leaves. His breastbone is bare where the fabric wraps his torso, and Yusuf must have had more to drink than he thought because Nico’s hair appears longer, soft, waved, just brushing his collar.
He finds Yusuf in the crowd and is before him between one blink and the next.
“You are radiant,” Yusuf cannot stop himself from saying.
Nico flushes, pleased. “It’s the solstice. The energy of the earth is new and bountiful. It fills me up, makes me feel new again.” Bold, he reaches for Yusuf’s wrist. “Will you walk with me?”
Yusuf can only nod, and they depart the merry scene, soon finding a secluded space between the hedges lining the courtyard.
Nico stops and turns to him when they are concealed from prying eyes. He appears to be searching for words, brow furrowed slightly. Hidden as they are, Yusuf feels able to step closer and take Nico’s hands in his. His gesture is returned instantly, Nico threading their fingers and holding tight.
“I am so happy here,” he eventually says, as if confessing a secret. “I have never known so much joy. I thought my life would be one of work and duty with little room for much else, but now I know that there is so much warmth and love to be felt in the world.”
He looks down at their joined hands.
“You make my days bright, Yusuf,” Nico whispers.
“Oh, my darling.” Yusuf frees a hand, brings it up to stroke around the side of Nico’s face, to nudge under his chin. “You do the same for me.”
Nico’s lips part. They stand so close, now.
“Yusuf, please allow me, for I fear I will go mad if I cannot.”
“Yes,” Yusuf breathes. “Yes. I want the same.”
Finally, he tilts Nico’s jaw, brushes his thumb past the corner of his waiting mouth, and kisses him.
Kisses him patiently and gently. Feels the tremor in Nico’s lips, soothes him by pressing in, firm and sweet, squeezing his hand. It’s a little wet, a tender slide, and Yusuf has never been so affected by a single kiss in all his life.
After, Nico rests his forehead against Yusuf’s.
“I do not know what I can promise you,” he says quietly. “How much I can give to you.”
Yusuf slides his hands around to the sway of Nico’s back and holds him.
“Whatever you freely give to me,” he murmurs, “I will happily have.”
He feels Nico’s smile where it grows, pressed tight into his neck, as they stand entwined amongst the hedges, alone together, and yet, hopefully, never to be truly alone ever again.
They ride longer than they should, several hours into the dark, before Yusuf calls to the party leader and they veer off the road to a grove of fir trees that might shield them from obvious view. Not that they’ve come across any travellers. Yusuf has seen no one at all. Each village is silent, farms unattended. Either people are hiding or have fled towards the coast.
He pitches his tent and helps his fellow soldiers to do the same as Nico and a younger squire gather material for a fire. Yusuf wishes Nico would save his strength, but he admits inwardly that his ability to dry and light the wood with barely a flicked wrist saves time and effort that can't be spared.
After retrieving some bread and cheese wrapped in cloth, Yusuf walks around his companions, gathered in groups of two or three and conversing lowly, to sit beside Nico. He's cleared off a rocky outcrop not far from the fire.
Wordlessly, Yusuf offers him a chunk of the cheese and some bread, and Nico offers him a handful of dried fruit and nuts in return.
“What was it like?” Yusuf asks, after a long moment.
Nico tilts his head back, regards the stars above.
“Time moves differently,” he says. “Worries fall away. The mind focuses only on what is needed. Food, shelter, family.”
Yusuf swallows his mouthful. “You had a family?”
“I found a family,” Nico corrects him. “A pack. I joined as an outsider. It was many moons before they trusted me and allowed me to hunt with them.”
“Nicolo, the hunter,” Yusuf muses, stretching out his legs. “The great, furred warrior. Scourge of the hinterlands, rabbits fear him, foxes admire him-”
“Enough, you,” Nico laughs, nudging Yusuf with his knee. Amused, Yusuf grabs his hand and holds it between both of his.
They quieten, and Yusuf sighs. Rests his head on Nico’s shoulder.
“I missed you,” he mutters. “So much.”
Lips touch his forehead, a spot of warmth. “I love you. I loved you every moment I was out there.”
“I don’t want to lose you.” Yusuf feels weak. He can’t help but confess.
Nico kisses him again and burrows closer against the gathering cold.
Yusuf has to bite back a laugh as he tugs on Nico’s hand, swinging the both of them around a corner, the lights and chatter and jaunty tunes of the banquet hall fading behind them. There’s no one in the dim hallway to see them, nothing but the unseeing eyes of portraits older than his grandfather and the distant flicker of a lit torch.
“Here,” Yusuf says, and he uses his grip on Nico’s hand to tug him close and lay him back on the stone wall. His eyes are bright, his smile wide.
“How extremely presumptuous of you, my lord,” he teases, accent lilting, even as his hands confidently smooth across Yusuf’s waist over his fine court clothes. While Yusuf is dressed in the golds and creams and yellows of his family, Nico is his opposite, long sorcerer’s robes midnight blue and laden with curling silver patterns. His collarbones are bare, and his otherworldly eyes are rimmed in black and grey powder, striking, unnerving.
Unnerving, yes, but not to Yusuf. Not in a while has Nico been unfamiliar to him. A year, now, they’ve been together like this.
“I can never not be presumptuous with you,” Yusuf says, leaning, and Nico barely manages a chuckle before their lips meet hungrily for the first time that night. They’ve had to make do throughout the celebrations of the queen’s birthday with furtive looks and promising glances, all of it leading to this stolen moment of tight hands and tiny shocked moans, opening to each other, slick and warm and wonderfully, wonderfully, familiar-
“I want you,” Yusuf gasps. “Tonight, now. Come to bed with me, I beg you, Nico.”
Nico hushes him with a lush kiss.
“I cannot,” he murmurs, hands tender on either side of Yusuf’s face. “Please. Please do not ask. I do not have the strength.”
Yusuf strokes his hands down Nico’s shoulders, his arms. Leans his forehead to his. “Forgive me. I lose my head with you.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” Nico’s smile is achingly gentle. “You know that I think of it.”
Humming, Yusuf trails his lips along the line of Nico’s jaw. “Tell me again,” he says. “Tell me again what you think of.”
“I think of you,” Nico says, breath hitching as Yusuf’s mouth finds the delicate skin under his ear. “I think of you, beneath these clothes, of your skin bare against mine.” He swallows, and Yusuf feels it as he worries a love bite into the paleness of his neck. “I think of your cock. I think of you finding pleasure in my body.”
“I would,” Yusuf whispers. He lifts his head again. “I would find so much pleasure in you. And I would bring so much pleasure to you, as well.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Nico sighs, and further words are lost between them as they sink into one another again.
The gorge yawns open before them. Great towering cliffs, imposing and dark, low clouds obscuring the sky. The army camp is nestled against the western rock walls, the central river weaving around it, waters black and unforgiving. Yusuf shivers and hopes no one has had the misfortune to fall in.
Nico halts, his horse restless underneath him as he stares out across the scene. Yusuf follows his gaze up the valley to where the cliffs converge closer together. A narrow bottleneck. The gorge beyond is concealed from view.
“Tomorrow,” Yusuf says to him. “Tonight, we rest.”
Miles away, Nico nods vaguely.
The night before Nico’s twenty-first birthday, he knocks cautiously on the door of Yusuf’s rooms. Yusuf himself sits at his desk, brooding. He doesn’t want to face what the next day will inevitably bring. He knows, now, what the great journey of a sorcerer’s apprentice entails. Nico had told him not long after their first kiss in the gardens, but, after, Yusuf had purposefully not ruminated over impending events for the sake of enjoying the time they had. Now, he cannot ignore them.
Sorcerers have a call to nature. They draw their power from it, and, the way Nico explains it, there must be a balance. Reciprocation. In order for his powers to bloom fully and absolutely, Nico needs to give himself up. Give up his body and his mind, and become one with the natural world.
Eight summers. Eight years.
Yusuf will be past thirty.
His eyes burn.
“Yusuf,” Nico murmurs, stepping into the room and nudging the door shut. “Please.”
“Will you go immediately?”
“No. There is some preparation.”
“A month, then?”
“A week, at most.”
Yusuf closes his eyes.
“We knew,” Nico says, low and desperate. “We knew this was coming. I told you as much as I could, please-” His voice breaks. “Please do not shut me away. Not now.”
In a fit of misdirected rage, Yusuf stands suddenly and whirls around but immediately wilts upon seeing Nico. Upon the sight of his downturned mouth, drawn face, eyes wide and bright with impending grief.
“Gods,” he whispers, at a complete loss. He opens his arms. “Come here.”
Nico rushes to him, crashing into him, and their arms are bands of iron around each other.
“I wish I didn’t have to go,” Nico cries. “I swear it.”
Yusuf squeezes his eyes shut. “I know, sweetheart. Oh, I know.” He leans back, takes Nico’s tear-streaked face in his palms. “This is your path, Nico, and it is important to you, and therefore important to me.” He strokes under his eyes. “I will miss you fiercely. And I will wait for you.”
Nico’s lips part. “You will?”
“I must. I love you.”
Nico shudders. It’s the first such utterance between them.
“I love you, too,” he mutters. “More and more.”
“Stay with me tonight.”
Reverent, they undress completely and lay together on the furs before the fireplace. And they just lie together, in each other’s arms, trading kisses and soft words. And it isn’t enough, but it must be for now, and Yusuf buries his nose into his love’s hair, memorizing the scent and feel of him until the morning sun rises on Nico’s birthday.
The day that could end the invasion begins with a loud horn from a nearby sentry tower yanking Yusuf from uneasy sleep. Nico jerks awake in his arms and sits up, the furs that kept them warm all night falling away.
“Not yet.” Yusuf stands, rubs a hand across his beard. “A single call is just a warning.”
“It may be time, then.”
Turning, his padded jerkin in one hand, Yusuf meets Nico’s eye. “It may be. Are you ready?”
A tense nod.
“Then let’s end this.”
They dress and exit their tent to find the camp bustling with preparations for battle. Yusuf quickly makes for the stable area, waving over a handful of scouts he knows to be trustworthy, and orders them to mount up.
“We will head directly for the narrows,” he tells them.
One scout, a woman with reddish locks, exchanges an uncertain glance with her companions. “Stephen’s army has been sighted on the march,” she says. “We would risk riding straight to them?”
He nods towards Nico, who already sits astride his horse, expression stony as he surveys the camp.
“We must make sure he gets there,” Yusuf says. He promises, “This can stop Stephen in his tracks and make sure he never gains another inch of our land.” The certainty in his tone must convince them, for they nod and disperse to prepare.
A boy brings Yusuf’s horse to him, and he sets a foot in the stirrup and hauls himself atop the saddle. After settling his sword on his hip, he looks over to Nico.
“Take the lead,” he says. “I will follow.”
An inkling of warmth seeps into those pale eyes, before Nico nudges his mare with his heels and pulls ahead. With the scouts ready and restless behind him, Yusuf exhales and falls in line.
The ride beside the river along the gorge is an unnerving one. His back feels exposed as they gallop on, and he can’t help but peer ahead, at any moment expecting enemy archers to burst through the pass and rain arrows down on them. As the camp fades in the morning mist behind, he starts to feel oddly isolated, as if there is no war, no encroaching army, and he is simply following Nico on a journey through the wild countryside.
The crags of the narrows loom, and his momentary fantasy dissipates. Soon, Nico slows and stops, dismounts, and Yusuf suggests that the red-haired scout and her nearest companion ride a little further on to see if they can spot anything near.
“You will need to stay back,” Nico says, shrugging his heavy travelling cloak off his shoulders as Yusuf hops to the ground. Underneath, he wears silver-threaded robes, arms bare. Never cold, not with his magic thrumming so closely under his skin.
“I don’t like to leave you so vulnerable,” Yusuf tells him.
Nico gives him a smile and a hand to his cheek. “To have you near buoys me more than I could say.”
Thundering hooves as the scouts return.
“They are close, my lord,” the woman calls. “Not half an hour’s march from the pass.”
Nico meet’s Yusuf’s eye.
“Let me go,” he says. “Now. Before we lose this chance.”
Stay! Yusuf rages inside his mind. I forbid you to go!
He takes Nico’s cloak from him and steels himself because he must.
“Gods be with you,” he says, with as much strength as he can muster. Nico’s thumb traces along Yusuf’s cheek, and then he strides away.
“He’s going alone?” a blond man asks warily.
“He is,” Yusuf says, eyes trailing after the whip of Nico’s robes in a gust of air as he traverses the grassy plain towards the river, towards the center of the narrow cliffs. “We must wait for him.”
The day of his departure, Nico gives Yusuf a gift.
Breakfast is somber, even Yasmine quiet and subdued, and the young men are left alone soon after as the king and queen go to prepare for the farewell ceremony. In their absence, Nico stands and rounds the table, takes the chair beside Yusuf and takes his hand.
“I want to give you something,” he says. “So that you may call to me, if you need.”
Yusuf raises his head in askance.
“I would not presume to disrupt your journey,” he says weakly, thought he knows he will want to.
“I know.” Nico turns Yusuf’s wrist over in his hands. “But I would feel better leaving knowing you can reach me, if you have need.”
Yusuf has no idea what would constitute ‘need’, for he always feels as if he needs Nico by his side, but he stays silent and nods, and then gasps as a rush of heat tingles on the inside of his wrist. When it is over, a rune has appeared between Nico’s thumbs. It wavers, almost immaterial, and then he murmurs a word and it settles into Yusuf’s skin like a tattoo of dark ink.
“A magic-user will know what to do with this,” Nico tells him. “And I will hear your call.”
A tear escapes the corner of Yusuf’s eye, running down into his beard. “What if you are too far away?” he can’t help asking.
“I will never be too far.”
Nico leans over, kisses Yusuf’s cheeks and forehead and, finally, lingering, his lips.
“I will come back to you,” he whispers there.
When he leaves, Nico wears the same brown robe he’d first arrived in three years ago. He turns one last time, just outside the gate, and lifts a hand. And he’s gone.
Four years later, Yusuf’s parents and sister leave on a diplomatic journey to King Stephen’s neighboring province in the hopes of solving a trade-related stalemate between the monarchies. They never return, and Yusuf’s nightmare begins.
Nico is a tiny figure now, an ant below the great rocky crags above him. Yusuf watches as he kneels in the tall grasses of the meadow in a curl of the river, and holds his breath.
For a while, nothing.
Just wind whistling high overhead, the gentle lap of nearby water. Strangely, though, no songbirds.
Then, a distant rumble. Yusuf thinks thunder, at first, but it grows and vibrates lightly underfoot.
“Gods above,” a scout mutters. “What is happening?”
Looking up, Yusuf sees that Nico has pitched forwards, head bowed, hands in the soil. And the rumbling grows, the horses beginning to startle, and then-
The red-haired woman cries out and points. And there, just around the bend of the narrows, a first row of soldiers, marching, and they’ll be on Nico in mere minutes-
“Now, Nico,” Yusuf whispers, hands tight on the reins of their mounts. “Now, my love.”
A great echoing crack rips through the gorge, loud, like a thunderclap, like the earth itself has been torn apart at the core, and, above, Yusuf watches in awestruck horror at the sides of the cliffs begin to collapse. Great boulders falling, dust billowing, the very shape of them crumbling down into the valley. He can’t see Nico now, can only stand rooted as the pass is filled with rubble and chunks of rock larger than several men, piling up, further and further, rolling and crashing.
It goes on and on.
When the rumbling finally ceases, Yusuf squints through the cloud of dust as best he can.
One of the scouts falls to his knees in prayer, and Yusuf is hard pressed not to do the same, to give fervent thanks, because there is no pass, not anymore. The wall of debris sits too high for any army to traverse, and, though he cannot see how far back the gorge has been torn down, he hopes grimly that some of Stephen’s forces were caught in the onslaught.
He then thinks, Nico, and he springs forward, everything else forgotten.
He sprints across the grassy plain towards the foot of the destruction. Dust stings his eyes and lungs, but he pushes onwards, right for where he thinks he last saw Nico kneeling, and runs alongside a bend in the river until an uneven shape in the grass comes into view. Covered in whitish dust, rubble spilled all around, it’s him.
Yusuf falls to his knees beside the prone figure.
“Nico,” he gasps. “Nicolo.”
Carefully, with trembling hands, he turns the man over onto his back. His eyes are closed, mouth slack, a dribble of red across his forehead where he must have cut himself upon collapsing.
“No, no, no.” Yusuf leans across him, palms to cool cheeks. “Nico, please, please, wake up.”
It worked. The plan worked, and Nico’s unfailing resolve saved them, but Yusuf swears he will cease to exist if this monumental act, this final heroic stand, killed the love of his life.
Because Yusuf asked him to come back. Yusuf asked for his help.
He can’t be gone.
He starts to weep and he can’t think straight, not even as the red-haired woman kneels on Nico’s other side and presses fingers under his chin.
“My lord,” she says urgently. “We must get him to a healer.”
Yusuf blinks at her, vision blurred. “What?”
“He is not gone yet, but he will be if we do not act quickly.”
That is enough for Yusuf to shake himself and to stand and take charge again, because failure in this is not an option. Nico saved them, and Yusuf will be damned if he cannot do the same in return.
The atmosphere in the camp changes significantly. Outside the tent, Yusuf can hear the shouts and laughter of relieved men as they break into the last caskets of ale and wine and sing together, toasting the demise of Stephen’s invasion. Their joy is infectious. Yusuf wishes he could join them.
The world inside his tent is a despondent one.
Cleaned and tended to as much as the camp’s healers could, Nico rests on his back under layers of furs and blankets. He is cold to touch, and he does not awaken. He has been this way for two days. Yusuf checks the pulse of life at his wrist regularly, and, while it is faintly there, he still won’t rise.
“He is thoroughly depleted,” one healer had told him as she had dabbed some foul, strong-smelling tincture at the base of Nico’s neck. Yusuf had doubted then that it would do anything to help. “His magic is weak and tired, and so the rest of him is weak and tired.”
“Will he regain his strength?” Yusuf had asked, frightened of the answer.
She had shrugged. “I cannot say. It is between him and nature, now. There is always a balance.”
Yusuf thinks of how Nico’s journey had been disrupted and wonders if nature would now see fit to steal him away completely. He quietly despairs.
Nile and Sebastien arrive at the camp the next day, having heard all the news from a frantic messenger. Upon finding the scene in the tent, after setting a tentative hand on Yusuf’s shoulder, Nile offers to sit at Nico’s side, and Sebastien almost has to drag him away so he can be cleaned of the dust that still covers him, and be made to drink water and put food in his belly. It has no taste, to Yusuf, but he does as he is asked, if only so he can please Sebastien more quickly and return to Nico’s side.
Back in the tent, Nile has a hand on Nico’s and a thoughtful expression on her face.
“I am not sure,” she begins cautiously, “but I may have an idea.”
“Can you heal him?” Yusuf pleads, taking Nico’s other hand between his. Still, so cold.
Nile’s face is solemn. “No. This is not an ailment of the flesh. But I think we could call to him. Like we did before, in the gardens.”
Slowly, Yusuf straightens, turns his wrist over and looks down the rune imprinted there.
“Try it,” he says, offering his arm to her. “We must try.”
With a determined expression, Nile sets her thumb to the marking, and mutters.
Instantly, as the warmth of magic seeps into his skin, Yusuf has the oddest sense of suddenly being very far away. He closes his eyes, feels thrown across a large distance, and feels the pad of four paws, smells moist breath from a dark snout, sees eyes-
Nico. You are far away from me.
The presence in Yusuf’s mind dims, flighty, retreating, and he gives chase.
My love, come back.
His wolf has a name. The wolf hears his name, and he hesitates.
Come back to me.
I love you.
And Nico’s eyes fly wide open and he gasps loudly as if the life has been shocked back into him. Between Yusuf’s palms, his hand begins to warm.
He blinks and looks around. He then frowns, sniffs.
“What in the name of all the gods,” he rasps, “did they try to revive me with?”
And Yusuf isn’t sure if he’s laughing or crying, but he now feels, finally feels, the relief that everyone around him has been indulging in, and the only thing he cares about in this moment is the life in Nico’s eyes, the strong pulse under his fingertips, and the press of his mouth when Nico tugs him over and kisses him with too much emotion and not much finesse.
Still, it’s perfect.
Yusuf leaves Sebastien to oversee the dispersal of the camp in the gorge. Nico is still regaining strength, and Yusuf himself needs to return to the city to begin overseeing efforts to rebuild. His people need to be resettled, the city reopened, supplies and resources distributed as fairly and efficiently as possible before the worst of winter sets in, and his mind spins with all of the work ahead.
But while travelling home, their mares walking almost leisurely along the road, he takes the moment of respite for what it is. Nico is beside him and upright, informing Yusuf idly which wild berries are safe for consumption and which are not, and everything is right for a while.
As night falls, they come across a small town. It isn’t much, but there is a tavern and inn, the burly man running it boasting that he’d never abandon his business even if Stephen’s entire army came knocking. With a chuckle, Yusuf shakes his hand and asks for enough rooms to house himself and Nico and their escort of a few soldiers. Whether the innkeeper recognizes his king or whether he is feeling magnanimous, he agrees.
His wife provides a hearty stew of potato and carrot, some bread on the side, and Yusuf sups next to Nico. Their companions have taken a table across the tavern, one of them strumming badly on a lute, and the ale is flowing freely.
“They’ll be too hungover to ride tomorrow,” Nico comments, mopping up the last of his stew with a crust.
“Eh. They’ve earned it.”
“They’ll keep us up all night.” Nico clears his throat. “Though perhaps that won’t matter.”
Yusuf sets his spoon down. When he looks across the table at Nico, he finds him with shifting eyes, uncertain. He takes his hand. “What do you mean, my heart?”
“I mean-” Nico swallows. “Yusuf, I am not going to return to my journey.”
“I see.” He’d wondered, but he’d thought to leave the discussion for a later date. “Why not?”
Nico bites at his lip.
“When I was unwell,” he begins, attention fixed on their joined hands, “after the gorge, I was almost lost, I think. I was far away. The earth was tugging at me, and I was sorely tempted to stay.” He shakes his head slowly, lost in memory. “It’s peaceful, out there. But then you called to me. And I looked back.” He glances up. “And I felt an… an understanding.”
Nico smiles tentatively. “I do not feel that same tug, anymore. I feel that I am done, and that I have paid my dues.”
Yusuf cannot help grinning at him, happy.
“If you know this to be the right decision,” he says, “then I am glad for it.”
“It is,” Nico states with finality. “And I-”
Yusuf frowns. “What is it?”
Nico’s shoulders rise and fall as he exhales. As if gathering courage, he leans forwards a little. “And I want you,” he admits. “And I don’t want to wait. Not any longer.”
With care, Yusuf kisses his knuckles, and catches him with a heated stare.
“Then we will not wait. Let’s retire for the night.”
So they return their bowls and utensils to the kitchen and disappear upstairs.
The innkeeper graciously has given Yusuf his finest room. There is a four-poster bed and a small fireplace where remnant embers glow, and it is all they need. After lighting a few candles and pushing back curtains so that moonlight may spill inside, Yusuf takes his lover’s hands and draws him close and kisses him.
Before his journey, Nico had always been confident in this. The prospect of finally having everything must loom in his mind, for his fingers flutter uncertainly over Yusuf’s chest and he cannot seem to find the right moment to breathe between the pressing of their mouths.
“We do not have to,” Yusuf says carefully, drawing back. “Not tonight. We have time.”
“I want to,” Nico is quick to say. “I just…” He huffs. “I am not certain what to do. I don’t want to disappoint you.”
“Impossible,” Yusuf says, giving a playful smile that seems to loosen some of the tension in Nico’s shoulders.
“You say that now,” he warns.
Yusuf shakes his head. “It is not so complicated. If we guide each other, and share in each other’s pleasure, there is little that can go wrong.” He touches his lips to Nico’s cheek, and then further down, closer to his mouth. “I want you to feel good.”
“Kissing feels good."
“Then come here.”
Kissing is familiar, as is being naked together, so it is easy to find themselves bare and tangled on the bed. With Nico on his back, Yusuf can rest at his side, set his thigh between Nico’s, and enjoy the stutter of his breath.
“This is nice,” Nico whispers, eyes closing, hips nudging upwards.
Yusuf himself is almost struck into silence by the vision before him. How Nico’s hair fans out on the pillow, the heat in his cheeks, how he doesn’t shy away from his own arousal, instead tentatively embracing it. It’s everything Yusuf had ever imagined, and more. He needs this to be a night neither of them will forget.
“Let me,” he murmurs, and he gathers wetness at his mouth before reaching down and taking Nico in hand. Touches him lightly at first, trailing fingertips up and down, and then finally granting him a true stroke.
The heady sound that escapes his lover is indecent.
“Yes.” Nico’s eyes are dark pools. “Give me more.”
Ensconced together in their little corner of the world, hidden, safe, Yusuf gives him everything.
The queen sits up in bed. Still pale, hair limp, but awake and holding a small cup of tea to her chest. Yusuf stands out of the way as a lady-in-waiting smooths down the duvet, and then moves to sit by his mother’s side. She gives him a tired smile.
“You are not rid of me yet,” she says, teasing, gentle. And he wants to smile back, but can’t, so she drops one hand to grasp his. Her grip is surprisingly firm and reassuring.
“I’ve been so frightened,” he confesses.
“I never lost faith,” she tells him.
“In the gods? They had no reason to cast this illness upon us.”
She shakes her head. “In Nicolo.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
She tries to sip from her cup, but her hand shakes. Yusuf carefully takes it from her and sets it on a nearby shelf.
“He is different, Yusuf,” she says. Her eyelids droop as she tires, sleep approaching. “There is great power and purpose within him. Had I died, I would have gone peacefully knowing he would look after you all.” She exhales, gazing at her son. “I sense that you will do great things together.”
“What do you mean?” Yusuf asks, as quietly as he can manage. She must be halfway inside a dream already.
“There is faith and kindness in you, my son, and I see the same in Nicolo. Faith and kindness, Yusuf. There is little else that matters in this world. These are the things that keep us warm and bright against the dark and cold.” The queen sighs, eyes closing. “The sun may set, but the moon will guide us.”
Years later, in a changed but hopeful world, Yusuf lies awake with Nico slumbering across his chest, their hands threaded over his heart, and he remembers his mother’s words.
How right she had been that his precious moon would return to him amidst an endless night to light the way again.
His moon. His Nico, steadfast and sure.
“You are thinking much too hard,” comes a tired mumble.
“Apologies, my heart.” Yusuf kisses the soft hair within reach. “Just thoughts of what lies behind us. And what lies ahead.”
Nico hums. “Whatever comes next, we will see it through together.” He strokes his thumb across the back of Yusuf’s hand. “For now, rest with me.”
An uncertain future awaits, but Yusuf’s faith has been renewed in more ways than one. Hopeful, he curls nearer to his love and closes his eyes.