The pair had stayed only a brief few hours at Rostall, eager to press on and reach Kinehold to continue the King’s business. They’d secured passage on a wagon that was carting goods to the larger town, sent a missive each to the King and the leader of the Wilds respectively updating them on what had happened, and then settled themselves at the rear of the loaded wagon, legs dangling over the open back.
“Well, this is nice,” Dain buttoned his jacket against a chill wind that had picked up and tugged playfully at the ends of his hair. “Here we are, on important business – royal business, no less – stuffed ungraciously into the back of a wagon with…” He picked up a sheet, glanced underneath, and then dropped it again. “Potatoes. Glorious.”
“Needs must,” Alwyn smirked. Truth be told, he was enjoying this. His feet were aching, and if he was feeling the day’s walking, then Dain certainly was. The air was a fresh sea breeze that brought colour to his cheeks – a good sea breeze, not the kind that carried harpy songs and the smells of rotting kelp and drying fish. He was enjoying the benefits of being outdoors without the exertion, and his feet were close enough to the ground that he could pull up filaments of magic to recharge.
“You actually like this, don’t you, you crazy old fool?” Dain pulled one leg up and held it close against his chest with a dissatisfied huff.
“I’ll forgive you many things, my friend, but I’m not sure I can forgive you calling me old,” He cracked a teasing smile at Dain, who actually looked momentarily chastened before he regained his swagger.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ve been called worse. Ugh,” He popped his collar as it started drizzling, the wind occasionally pushing the tiny biting drops of water into their faces.
“By people who mattered far less to me than you do,” Alwyn replied as casually as he could, but his heart skipped a beat. “Here,” he reached behind them and took a spare sheet from atop a crate, and wrapped it around their shoulders like a shared blanket.
“And you said chivalry was dead,” Dain tutted, but scooted up closer to him just the same, their legs touching.
“As I recall, I just said you were bad at it.” Alwyn could smell Dain’s hair, the brine and seaweed that doubtless clung to them both from their journey, but something darker, something that lingered around him from the harpy queen’s cave. His jaw clenched and he breathed through the surge of anger.
“What’s wrong?” Dain glanced across at him. “Too close?”
Dain must have felt him tense up. He looked nervous, ashamed again, like he had looked on the beach outside the little fishing village.
“No,” Alwyn said, and moved his hand to pat Dain’s leg reassuringly, but lost confidence at the last moment and just curled his fingers into a fist that he bumped onto his own knee awkwardly.
“I can move-” Dain started to shift away, but Alwyn found his courage and rested his palm on Dain’s leg briefly.
“No,” he said again, gentler. “You’re fine where you are. I was just remembering the harpies.”
“I confess I don’t remember much,” Dain said, “Not even after you walked me out of the cave. Everything until just before we reached Whittide is a bit of a blur.”
“Probably for the best,” Alwyn sighed heavily. “It was not a pleasant experience.”
“I can remember fragments,” Dain leaned forwards now, resting his elbows on his knees. “But they don’t make sense. I can see… This is going to sound very odd,” Dain glanced back at Alwyn. “Humour me, would you?”
“I keep seeing an image of harpies sticking out of the sand in these… grotesque, twisted shapes, all claws and jutting limbs and half-bald wings, like horrified statues.”
“Mmm,” Alwyn frowned.
“That can’t be accurate, can it? Must be my mind playing tricks on me?”
“No, that’s… pretty accurate,” Alwyn stared at the road as it ran out behind the wagon to the darkening horizon. The sun had set just as they were leaving Rostall, and the sky was now a silky indigo blue tinged with a pink-orange glow in the distance.
“What in the hells happened?” Dain sat up again, turned a little to face Alwyn, concern painting his green eyes the colour of bright spring saplings.
“You asked me that back there, and I answered, though you were still in a haze so it’s no wonder you don’t remember. I happened.”
“Talk me through it?”
“Are you sure?” Alwyn traced his friend’s features with his eyes; the ginger eyebrows half-raised in some combination of curiosity and fear of remembering, the strong nose, those beautiful rose pink lips set into a stern line.
Alwyn regaled him with the tale of the airship’s demise, his part in softening the blow, helping the captain secure the injured, and then chasing after Dain, freeing the ship’s crew as he went. Dain listened with rapt attention, his eyes growing darker as Alwyn’s retelling led him through the canyon, past the first few harpy stragglers, to the wider beach where the tens of harpies clustered around groups of sailors, and then into the cave, where he found and rescued Dain.
“It was all just you, then?” Dain asked when Alwyn had finished.
“Just me,” Alwyn looked down at his hands clasped loosely in his lap.
“Well, I’m a lucky bastard aren’t I,” Dain looped his arm through the crook of Alwyn’s elbow and leaned his head on his shoulder.
Alwyn stiffened, felt the warmth of Dain’s head against him, having forgotten quite how comforting it could be having someone else so close to you. He unclasped one hand to rest it on Dain’s forearm.
“I was so angry,” he found the words slipping from his mouth. “I haven’t felt rage like that in a long, long time.”
“I think I understand a little more now why you were so annoyed with me,” Dain spoke. “I hadn’t quite realised that you’d fought through a veritable army of harpies, by yourself, and killed their bloody queen no less, just to get to me. And all I could do was prattle on about… Well, you know.”
“We don’t need to talk about this. It was a horrible situation that had a happy ending and we shouldn’t let it tarnish our day, or indeed our lives, any further.”
“I just want you to know that I appreciate you,” Dain said quietly. “You didn’t just save my life; you somehow also managed to save my dignity in the aftermath. You are a scholar and a gentleman, as they say.”
Alwyn moved his arm until he found Dain’s hand, entwining their fingers. They sat like that for the rest of the journey to Kinehold, silently watching the last of the light trickle from the sky .
Much to Dain’s amusement and Alwyn’s horror, the first reasonable-looking inn they found in Kinehold only had one room available.
“We can look elsewhere,” Alwyn flustered. “I’m sure there are other places we can stay? I don’t mind. I mean, I don’t mind if we stay here either, it’s up to you, I’m fine either way-“
“You are truly delectable when you squirm,” Dain’s little grin formed dimples in the porcelain of his cheeks. “We’ll stay here, lest we find ourselves in a roomless predicament. I’d forgotten that Kinehold can get busy this time of year with the markets. If it makes you feel any better,” Dain touched his hand to Alwyn’s back lightly, “I’ll sleep on the floor.”
The moon was bright in the sky by the time they’d gotten to the city and the damp cobbled streets had welcomed them with the lingering smell of petrichor. It had rained there not long ago, but whatever clouds there were had passed. The wagon driver had pointed them to a well reputed establishment with comfortable lodgings, the bar of which they now found themselves in, standing before an impatient proprietor who tapped their fingers on the logbook irritably.
“Look, are you taking the room or not?”
Alwyn nodded quickly, and taking the cue, Dain turned back to the book, snatching up the offered quill and signing their names. “My good Sir,” He smiled at the innkeeper and slipped a few coins across the surprisingly clean counter, “apologies for keeping you waiting. We will indeed take the room for tonight and tomorrow night; here are a few extra coins for your trouble.”
The innkeeper smiled broadly, swiftly pocketing the coins and reaching behind him for the room key. “Enjoy your stay,” he handed the key to Dain, “and do please ring if you need anything. I can recommend the patisserie next-door for a light breakfast, and you’ll find any number of good eateries along Main Street for more hearty fare.”
“My thanks,” Dain bowed quickly and then snatched up their packs, heading for the stairs.
Alwyn rolled his eyes at him. “Always so courteous.”
“One never knows with whom one may need to gain favour,” Dain shrugged. “Old habits.”
“You’ll have to tell me about the life that brought those old habits some time,” Alwyn followed him up the stairs, fancying he saw Dain’s shoulders tensing briefly at that request.
“Room five,” Dain led them along a red-carpeted corridor, passed a wall hung with several generic landscape paintings in thick wooden frames. The air smelled fresh enough, and the walls and floor were clean, but Alwyn was already feeling the tendrils of claustrophobia. He hoped their room had a good sized window.
Luckily, it had a good sized window and a decent view out over the sea that glistened silver in the moonlight. The room had one large bed, a solid wooden dresser and chair, a tall wardrobe in one corner, and a full length free-standing mirror. Seeing the mirror reminded Alwyn of that night in his room at the castle when Dain had barged in, the day after they’d met. Four days ago, Alwyn counted – four small days. Five, almost, given how close it was to midnight.
Alwyn crossed the room quickly and opened the windows, glad that they opened wide. He braced for a rebuttal from Dain, some complaint about them catching their death of cold, but none came. Something soft alighted on his heart, like a feather, settling there gently.
“The restroom is nextdoor,” Dain thumbed at the wall. “Shared, I’m afraid.”
Alwyn shrugged. “Can’t have everything. It’s nice, otherwise.”
“It is,” Dain opened and closed a few drawers, and then opened the wardrobe doors wide. “Ah-hah!” he exclaimed, pulling out a bundle of neatly folded blankets.”
“Let me sleep on the floor,” Alwyn quickly offered, reaching for the blankets. “I prefer it.”
Dain arched a brow, eyeing him suspiciously. “This isn’t you being all gentlemanly, is it? Because that’s my job.”
Alwyn smirked. “No. I spent years sleeping outdoors. Beds are too soft.”
“Mental note, get a hard mattress,” Dain chuckled quietly but handed over the blankets without further ado.
Alwyn’s cheeks flushed hot. “Must you always?” He turned from Dain and began arranging his bed on the floor.
“I… It’s a reflex,” Dain perched on the foot of the bed. “I don’t do it to make you uncomfortable. Although you are terribly endearing when you blush.”
Alwyn winced; he hadn’t meant to make Dain feel bad. They were two very different people – he had realized that the first day they’d met, in that damp stone cell underneath the town hall in Darkshear. Alwyn was stoic and serious, matter-of-fact, practical. Dain was the exact opposite; extroverted, spur of the moment, unreserved. Would they even be compatible? Maybe an opposites attract situation? Although if part of Dain’s gregarious behaviour was a reflex, some kind of defensive armor…
“No, I’m sorry,” Alwyn bunched up one end of the blankets as a makeshift pillow, something Dain watched him do and then leaned back and snatched a pillow from the bed and handed it to him. Alwyn smiled bashfully, taking the pillow and leaning back onto it. The day’s activities were catching up with him and he felt fatigue creeping through his bones.
“I’ve spent most of my life either by myself, or in the company of hard men.” He shot Dain a glance and quickly added, “Soldiers, before you get any ideas.”
“I’m not used to spending time with someone so…” Alwyn searched for words. “So infuriatingly charming. You are breaking down my walls, Dain Freemantle, but they’re old walls erected long ago for reasons that are no longer relevant. Please be patient with me.”
Dain kicked his boots off and scooted from the foot of the bed to the pillows, flopping back onto them and clasping his hands behind his head. He was quiet for a moment.
“You said erected,” He giggled, and Alwyn rolled his eyes.
Alwyn woke to the sound of the tide rolling in, waves lapping gently against the harbour wall, the rigging of ships creaking and shifting with the bobbing of the water. He took a deep breath, tasting the day against the back of his nose. Last night’s rain had cleared the air and left it fresh and revitalizing. He took another deep breath, noted wafts of fresh baked pastries, coffee, horse manure, flowers. City smells, but not, he glanced up at Dain’s bare leg hanging limply over the side of the bed, altogether unpleasant.
He lingered his gaze over that leg for longer than he cared acknowledge, noting the soft ginger fuzz that covered Dain’s muscular calf, petering out at his ankles leaving skin so pale it was almost translucent. He would have kept staring had Dain’s arm not fallen from beneath the blankets and almost hit him in the nose. He shuffled sideways until he was out from under Dain’s hand, and stood up, walking to where he’d neatly folded his clothes over the back of the chair last night while Dean had excused himself to the washroom.
“Tree,” Dain mumbled from the bed, and Alwyn tensed, frozen with one hand on his shirt. He flicked his eyes up into the dresser mirror, and saw that Dain was awake, lying on his stomach with the sheet rumpled at his lower back, peering lazily at him through his ruffled fiery hair, a sly grin curling the corner of his lips.
Alwyn swallowed, recalling the last time Dain had called him a tree, when he’d had his palms pressed hard against Alwyn’s naked abdomen.
“Look,” Dain shifted slightly, propping himself half up on his elbow. “I won’t say anything, you don’t need to say anything. Let’s just… look, quietly, for a moment, can’t we?”
Alwyn perked a brow, but relaxed all the same, letting his hand rest easier on the back of the chair. There was no harm in looking, was there? He ran his eyes down from Dain’s deliciously messy morning hair, wondering as he went what it might be like to curl his fingertips through those russet locks. Down, over Dain’s supple shoulders, the early morning light casting soft shadows over muscles and highlighting his lithe form as they had done that day back at the castle. Down, along the gentle curve of his spine until his eyes eventually found the sheet, and then tracing the white fabric along the contour of Dain’s hip until it fell into indiscernible shadow before reaching his stomach.
With considerable effort he forced his eyes away, finding his own in the mirror, dark and hungry. His chest rose and fell, slowly, deliberately. His eyes fluttered closed and he felt the heat of Dain’s lingering stare as he, too, came under scrutiny, from the top of his shaved head all the way down to the trunks he’d modestly slept in.
“Well,” Dain’s voice was hoarse behind him. “That’s my appetite piqued. Breakfast? Those pastries smell delicious.”
Alwyn shook his head with a little smile, and pulled his shirt on.
“Spoilsport,” Dain muttered, and Alwyn hurriedly forced his gaze down as Dain slid stark naked from the bed and pulled on his breeches.
They’d grabbed a selection of pastries from the bakery next-door, Alwyn slowly pulling bits from his and savouring the sweet buttery flavour, while Dain was part way through his third with no signs of slowing down.
“So what’s the plan?” Dain wiped crumbs from his mouth. “Is there a plan? Do we have a plan?”
“I checked the castle library before we left and found a map of the city. The forges that work the King’s arms and armor are on the northern docks. They smelt a particular kind of alloy from the ores that benefit from a salt quench when they forge it.”
“If I smile and nod as if I understand half of what you just said, you’ll let me get away with it because I’m pretty, won’t you?”
Alwyn jokingly rolled his eyes. “Oh, your highness, what manner of fool have you paired me with…”
“North of the city, then. Are we walking? Can we walk along the seaside?”
Dain’s hand casually hooked around his elbow and Alwyn found his insides all aflutter. This was terribly new, and he noted that he didn’t mind them walking arm in arm in public.
“I believe there is a promenade,” Alwyn glanced up at the slightly taller man at his side and smiled.
They’d left the inn just as the sun was rising, and the well-worn cobbles on the street shone with a warm gold as the sun peaked over the rooftops. The streets were waking up, with vendors pouring their wares from their stores out onto the pavements, a dazzling array of all manner of goods. It was a somewhat pleasant city, with its proximity to the seaside, and the trees planted on every street corner were tended well and grew strong and tall. Alwyn still felt that little tinge of unease tickling the hairs at the back of his neck, but his discomfort was bearable – perhaps soothed by Dain’s presence.
The seafront hummed with tourists, the families of merchants who settled on the sand while their partners tended to market. Quaint little carts sold cooled drinks and sweets, and Alwyn had to drag Dain away from almost every one of them or they’d never get to the foundries at a reasonable hour.
Eventually the throng quietened as they reached the far end of the promenade and the road ducked back into the city; they were at the industrial quarter now, with more warehouses than rustic little storefronts, and fewer trees on the corners. Alwyn’s skin prickled. A large wagon pulled by four sturdy horses rumbled past them, hooves clattering on the cobbles.
“Wait,” Alwyn pulled Dain into the shadow of a wall. “The foundries will be visible just around the corner. We should consider our next move.”
“You could feel if the ore from Darkshear were there, couldn’t you?” Dain asked, and Alwyn was surprised that Dain was grasping the nuances of his abilities. He nodded. “Well then,” Dain continued, “I suggest that you find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed, and see what the earth will tell you. I, meanwhile, will stick to my strengths, and do some scouting around the premises. Shall we meet back at the promenade, let’s say at noon, and discuss our findings?”
“Sounds good,” Alwyn nodded, and then added, “Be careful.”
Dain gave him a sly smile and a wink before slinking off in the direction of the foundries and vanishing from sight.