CWs for the whole series: General/implied abuse, character death, captivity, self-harm
He was tucked up in the dark, creaking rafters of some long-abandoned farmhouse. He could smell the rot in its bones. The windows were half missing, and the shards of what little remained had razor edges which cut the moonlight, illuminating the constellations of dust he’d kicked up getting up here. He shifted in his moss-padded seat, high above the dirt floor so far below, a position that gave him a good view out of the shattered window and out onto the gravel road. Fog smothered the air, clung to his aspen skin and made him shiver faintly. Right foot planted on the window sill, other foot braced against the rafter, he hugged the roll of blankets pinched between his legs.
Listening for the signal took so little headspace that he soon got bored. He let himself zone out and study the glow of the heavy golden moon through the fog, the warm light thawing through the midnight’s icy blue. It gave his restless mind a moment of peace, even if the slightest sound made him flinch back to attention. What if he missed the sound because he’d distracted himself with pretty lights? No, that was too humiliating a thought to bear.
He wasn’t supposed to break into the blanket roll, but the night air coming through the window was making his toes numb.
I won’t be able to run with them if I can’t feel my feet, right?
After checking the road carefully, Oly carefully untied the string wrapping bundle of blankets, then pulled apart the waterproofed packaging to extract one: a faded blue curtain. They had to steal what little they could find and stow away, so most of the materials they had for the journey were castoffs. He draped it over his shoulders while he worked at recreating the original knot and wrapping, but it was much easier to pull things apart with such stiff fingers than it was to put them together. He eventually came up with something that would be much harder to pluck away, but at least it wouldn’t undo itself while he was running. Besides, it might be warmer the next time they all needed to unpack.
He thought about the others when his mind inevitably drifted again. Laya’s deft and elegant hands, calloused with work yet capable of incredible delicacy. Still, he could imagine her failing to undo the knots once, twice, then swearing until the earth was salted and passing it to Leon.
Oly thought of Leon’s large, strong hands. He’d forgotten his strength many times and crushed, torn, shattered, and spilled quite a few of his old duties, yet he was overflowing with patience. Ever-tolerant, ever-resilient, he was the mountain that withstood any weather and provided shelter to those around him. Nevertheless, if he couldn’t get the knot undone then he would most likely just snap the string entirely.
Jacivik would scowl and cross his arms, what a waste of good string, he’d say, why’d you untie it at all? Practical and analytical, he would still eventually grow to understand eventually. He cared more than he said, so Oly knew he’d forgive a need for warmth and comfort on a night like this.
More playfully, Mavani would wrap her arm around Oly’s shoulder in her overly familiar way and tease him for it. Did ya get the shivers, little prince? That thin skin hasn’t thickened up yet, huh? Bet it never will. Never mind that he used to be from the high north, and it was his transport down here that thinned his skin. Oly rubbed his cheek, recalling how many times she’d pinched his cheek to tease or infantilize him. He believed it was her way of caring.
Outside he heard the crunch of gravel, footsteps on the path, and he fought down the urge to jump up and check for his companions.
Don’t make a damn sound. Don’t do anything until you hear our signal, ok? Laya was very firm on that point.
Oly pulled the curtain tighter around himself with a shudder. He’d acclimated to Kishalon’s late summer too quickly, this fall chill ill-suited him now.
The signal, where’s the signal? The footsteps are getting closer…
Oly rose to his feet and nimbly leapt over to the next rafter, away from the window. The moment his heel slammed down on mossy wood, the beam gave a dangerous buck and creak that reminded him just how old the building was, but he was never practiced with quiet or stealthy landings. He restrained himself enough not to slap his hand against the wall for stability, instead he widened his stance and carefully extended his hand until the pressure of his fingertips against the grain of the stucco wall gave him a point of friction to anchor against. Oly took a deep breath to steady himself and closed his eyes to focus.
The rafter’s creaking stopped. He let out the breath.
The sound of footsteps on gravel drifted up through the window and crunched in his left ear, then disappeared. He strained his hearing to determine where they went, then his right ear picked up the noise through the open door. He’d tried to close it the best he could when he first arrived, but the hinges were broken and he had no real way to inch it across the floor aside from his own meager strength. He’d only made it move a pace or so.
He watched the door from the shadows and froze when he saw three soldiers enter and scan the room. Oblivious, yet looking with obvious purpose.
One ventured further to start looking behind and under the pieces of rusty equipment, using his sword to slice open the bellies of various half-rotted baskets. Dust bled from the gashes, mice and mold having long since consumed the harvest within.
“Look,” the second soldier called. He pointed to the ground, where Oly’s efforts to close the door had turned up the dirt accumulated on the floor, exposing a streak of moist and loose earth. “What do you think?”
“Within the last few hours, at least. We’re close.”
Oly dared not move his body, he cursed the trembling of his legs, the awareness that he couldn’t hold this position forever. He feared the beating of his own heart, though he knew he was the only one who could hear it. He slid his eyes over to the bundle of blankets, then to the broken window. He couldn’t jump through without injuring himself, either by the landing or by cutting himself.
It was a bad idea, but he could feel the ghost of movement in his muscles as the impulse to escape hit him anyway.
“There are tracks inside, but none going out. It’s been waiting for hours.”
There was a fourth set of footsteps. “He’s here then? Scrap!”
Oly forced the breath to freeze in his lungs. That voice was far too familiar.
“Scrap, your friends are halfway across the country. We lost their trail hours ago, they weren’t even going this direction.”
Oly smirked. The attempt to rile him up was a bit too obvious, especially coming from his handler. Oly was a patient man, but there was no resisting the urge to run when one of the guards finally looked up and practically locked eyes. Maybe he would have been cloaked by shadow, maybe he was glowing with pale light. He had to move, regardless.
The guard opened his mouth to say something, but Oly didn’t even wait for him to make a noise before he was bolting down the rafter. That couldn’t last long, so Oly deftly used the same route down that he used to climb up; the last sturdy shelf in the barn, then pushed off to the ledge of a stable door. He screamed as the rusted hinges gave way and caused him to topple over into the clutches of a guard. His ankle had rolled on the way down, but that was nothing when the man growled with annoyance and shoved him into the wall, making his head knock against something sharp and metallic. He didn’t see what exactly it was, as his vision started fading and warmth dripped down the side of his face.
“Don’t worry, we’ll heal you up.” His old handler reassured as Oly’s legs buckled and he slid down the wall, his friend’s names on his lips. “Again and again and again, until you’ve taken the punishment for all your little traitors too.”