Klauen turned his hands over in the torch’s light, watching the shadows and shades play over years of developed callouses, incisions and scarring. His eyes almost imagined a pattern to them, before the tail-end of a crease would derail the thought again. Klauen closed his hands and imagined how Blair must feel when he looked down at his hands, ran smooth and sure fingers over the moulded flesh where digits used to be.
Klauen tipped his head back against the uneven rock wall and let his eyelids lower him into cool, quiet darkness.
He remembered the sharp taste of alcohol when it had first hit his tongue, burning rum that ricocheted off his teeth and laced pain-inspired latticework down his throat. He’d come up choking and spluttering, mouth agape as the bottle nearly fell from his grip. Geben had shouted a cheer-filled warning, righting Klauen’s hand before any more amber liquid could paint the tiles.
“What the fuck,” he’d gasped, blinking over at a cacophonous Blair and Runde through watery eyes.
Geben had given him a hearty pat on the back, joining in their laughter. “Hits the spot, right?”
Klauen had brought the bottle back up to inspect, and taken another – more well portioned – sip, and found his second experience more pleasant. The fire was still there, but it didn’t explode off of his tongue like that time, and it coated his throat pleasantly.
He relinquished the bottle to Geben, who took an experienced swig, passing it onwards before reaching over the table to grab them some mugs.
“Your first proper drink,” Runde cheered, and Klauen found their good-humour contagious, letting the smile spread eagerly across his features. He’d had beer before, of course – he was fourteen, for Fathers’ sake – but never anything this strong. When Blair had found out, he’d insisted that they introduce him to ‘the best’, and Klauen wondered curiously if twenty-year-old rum was what they’d had in mind.
Blair caught two mugs, weighing them in his palms before he set them on the table between them. He leaned across conspiratorially, inviting Klauen into his space as he snatched the bottle off a protesting Geben. Runde took the opportunity to peck a kiss on his unsuspecting cheek.
Blair poured about an inch, by Klauen’s estimate, into each mug, and pressed the nearest into Klauen’s sure hand. Then he’d wound his arm through Klauen’s, linking them at the elbow as they both leaned close enough to feel one another’s warm breath.
“Ready?” he breathed, mischief dancing in his gaze, and Klauen grinned, before drinking deep.
When they broke apart, Runde and Geben were cheering, and Blair poured another round of drinks while Runde sought out another bottle from the kitchen’s cellars.
By the time they’d opened their third bottle, even Klauen could tell that they were fairly drunk. Geben was laughing nearly incessantly, and Blair was louder than Klauen had ever heard him before, but their mirth hung around their heads like a pleasant fog, numbing them to their own boisterousness and filling them with a heady sensation.
Klauen’s head had been spinning, and he’d sat down on the table that they’d pushed back against the wall to make room, to watch while the other three took turns wrestling. Runde was teaching them a manoeuver, some way to wrap your arms around someone’s torso and twist them down to the ground. Klauen wasn’t paying much attention, taking small sips from his almost-empty mug. Blair had seen him watching, and had sauntered over, all confidence and grins, to tease him.
Klauen didn’t know what had made him do it. Maybe it was the liquid courage, or maybe it was the way Blair had looked in the dim torchlight, a faint sheen of sweat gleaming on his bare chest.
He had stood between Klauen’s knees where they jutted out from the table, glancing over his shoulder as he drawled something about their friends. When he’s turned back, Klauen had lurched forward and seized his lips in a kiss.
It was sloppy, and messy, and drunk, but he’d felt Blair’s eager hands where they’d wrapped around his sides, pushing up his shirt as nails scarpered across his ragged back. Klauen had coiled his wrists and knees around Blair’s waist, dragging him closer as Blair had pushed harder and headier, his lips ravenous with the taste of Klauen. The thought had made his head spin worse than the alcohol.
It was only their second kiss, but when they pulled back to Runde and Geben’s ecstatic hollering, it felt like Klauen had known Blair an eternity. His silver gaze was littered with flecks of deep grey around the pupil, and a faint dusting of freckles was scattered across his cheekbones.
Klauen had laced his fingers into Blair’s, practically leaping off the table as he dragged the teenager into the hall with him, alight with electricity and all-too-eager to move. He wanted to see Blair in motion, to watch the light dance across his shoulders and feel his hands on Klauen’s hips as they danced.
He had spun them around the cobbled floors of the hall, laughing endlessly and revelling in the sensation of Blair’s molten fingertips searing into his spine. Geben and Runde had been swift to follow, the former leaping onto a table top to scream into the quiet night.
Klauen had staggered blindly onto the dais, tumbling over his own feet and stumbling to right himself. He hadn’t disengaged fast enough, his arms and fingers and wrists curled around Blair as the pair of them staggered gracelessly over the short dais and into the cabinet pressed against the far wall.
Klauen had rapped his head harshly against the dark wood, groaning as Blair toppled onto him, all mismatched arms and legs as the cabinet had groaned and rumbled above them. He’d heard something clatter, and then shatter at his right wrist.
The rest of the night had been somewhat of a blur. He recalled the sound of the guards’ footsteps when they’d come to see what the ruckus was about, and were astounded to find four fourteen year old boys standing on tables and entangled together on the dais floor.
He recalled the hand that had wound around his collar and dragged him drunkenly to his feet, steadying him impatiently. He remembered the sight of Blair, calmly trying to settle the guard that was furious with him, who obviously knew who he was, though Klauen couldn’t remember who it had been now. He remembered the sight of one of them lunging onto the table to drag Geben back to the floor while another wrestled Runde down.
He remembered with sickening clarity, the boom of his father’s bellow, the way it had shaken his ribcage and startled his fluttering heart. He remembered how it had plunged like a small bird coated in a thick sheen of ice, splattering and shattering somewhere at the base of his stomach.
He remembered being man-handled onto a bench by reluctant by dutiful hands, shoved into a sit beside Blair and Runde and Geben as his father had screamed and hollered while he’d tried not to sway or throw up, and kept his gaze fixed solidly on the table.
He recalled the panic when his father had ordered a dagger be placed in his wide, open palm. He felt now the same shame he’d felt back then, wishing that he’d had the courage or the gall to stand up to him, to stop him from doing what came next.
Blair had screamed, and no amount of alcohol would have been enough to numb that pain. Geben had begged and cried, and even Runde had sobbed, though not as hysterically as Klauen when he’d pleaded with his father. He could still see the splatter of red across the long wooden table, etched into the grooves that the dagger had carved.
He remembered sitting with his back turned away from the medic soldier who had healed the stumps of their fingers as best he could under the conditions, and wrapped them in white cloth that quickly stained bloody at Klauen’s father demand. Klauen’s horrified gaze had been fixed on the six digits that lay scattered across the tabletop, now more bloodied chunks of flesh than fingers.
They weren’t important, his father had muttered to him, an exasperation and annoyance lining his tone as he’d cleaned the dagger. Just two useless fingers each. Two end fingers, they’d be fine.
Klauen had swallowed down bile and quickly swiped away the tracks of tears that lined his face, lest his father see them. The guilt plagued his form, even now, that his father had never taken his own fingers. It would have felt like recompense for his sins, at least, knowing that he’d suffered the same fate as his friends. But Great Mage Konig Stahldritten wasn’t going to leave his son maimed and brutalised.
No, only his friends, insignificant others, deserved to lose fingers over his transgressions.
Klauen sighed and chewed at his lower lip, closing his hands into fists in his lap. They had been fine, in the end, if sporting a mutilated hand constituted ‘fine’. And none of them had ever blamed him, though a deep part of Klauen wished they had.
Klauen slowly pealed his eyelids back, letting them readjust to the light, and was surprised to discern a figure in his cell. The man stood directly before him, in the middle of his cell, watching him in the silence, a wry smile twisting his lips into a smirk.
He recognised the young man’s harsh smile, his calculated cherry-brown gaze, and the way the light played across his sun-kissed skin. They’d been husbands once, what felt like an age ago now.
“What do you want, Herrin?” Klauen demanded. His brow descended immediately into an impatient glare.
“I can’t check up on you?” he half-teased, his stance non-threatening and easy. Klauen didn’t trust him for a second.
“You’re sounding more and more like Kuren every day,” he sneered, and watched Herrin laugh.
“I suppose I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with him,” he mused aloud, shrugging, allowing the insult to roll off of him like displaced ash. It settled between them as he fixed Klauen with a smirk. Is that the best you can do?
Klauen bared teeth in a false smile, a trick he’d picked up from his dear husband. “Don’t suppose there’s any room in the sociopath’s club for a psychopath?”
A glare twitched at one of Herrin’s eyes, and Klauen’s lip curled a little more genuinely this time.
“You’re not going to charge at me, are you?” Klauen asked, raising his manacled wrists into Herrin’s view. “Even shackled, I’ll still crush your skull into this rock wall.”
Herrin didn’t look like the idea appeased him very much, but he wasn’t one to back down from a threat or a contest. “Do you want me to make you slam your own skull into the wall, until you can’t lift your head again?”
“It’d be better than listening to you ramble on,” Klauen shot back icily.
Herrin took a leisurely step forward. “How’s Blair?” he asked after a measured moment.
“You don’t get to ask me that,” Klauen responded bluntly, straightening as much as the uneven wall would allow. His manacles clanged dully in his lap.
“Has he forgiven you?”
Klauen smiled thinly. “Yes. He has.”
Herrin smiled. “Have you forgiven yourself?”
Klauen’s smile slipped. “You just don’t know when to leave, do you?”
“Not really, no,” he retorted icily, turning back for the door. His hand passed between the grated metal, and then the cell door swung open. Herrin turned an open palm into the corridor beyond. “After you.”
Klauen had leapt to his feet at the first sign of movement from Herrin, but now he gazed warily at the open grate door. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Herrin sighed. “We both know how this is going to turn out. I’m giving you the option of walking out of your own free will.”
Klauen laughed bleakly, carefully studying his expression. “I’m not leaving, Herrin.”
Herrin raised his hand, palm up, as if in warning. He tilted his head to one side, murmuring, “We’re leaving here, together. Now walk.”
“I’m not leaving Blair.” Klauen’s tone was blunt, unwavering.
Herrin barked a laugh, beckoning Klauen forward. He took a shaky step forward, against his will. “And I’m not waiting, Klauen.”
“The instant your magery wanes, I will kill you,” Klauen warned. “You will let your guard down eventually, Herrin, and once you do, I will find my way straight back here. And you, you will be lying dead in a forest somewhere between here and the Erde Realm.”
“You’re a child,” Herrin snarled bluntly, casting a quick glance into the corridor. His hand rose, honing in on Klauen’s chest. The Stahlborn took five eager strides forward and crossed the cell. He was close enough to inhale the smell of the Feuerborn now, the scent of candle wax and heat.
Herrin turned two cherry-brown eyes up to him, running over his puppeted body. “I hope you said your farewells.”
The lowlord led the way out of the unlocked cell, Klauen sharp on his heels, his entire body tensed against its own fluid movements. They wove most of the way down the maze of hallways unnoticed, stepping once over the body of a guard who’s face sported a split in his forehead. The wall he lay beside was stained red.
Herrin drew to a halt at the end of the next corridor, peering around the ragged rock. Even from here, Klauen could feel the cold biting against his bare forearms, could inhale the sharp icy air. They were near the entrance, and Klauen could practically taste the snowstorm beyond the protective walls of the cave.
“How do you think you’re going to get me out of here unnoticed?” Klauen gritted out, straining against his magery. It was difficult to get a grasp on something so intangible. His body didn’t flinch under Herrin’s influence.
Herrin snorted. “I only need to get you past two more guards.” He reached down with nimble fingers and unbound the red sash at his waist, closing the distance between them with one step. Klauen’s entire being reeled back from his presence, but his body remained steady.
The lowlord hooked the sash around his neck, tying a well-practiced and familiar knot. Klauen was reminded of their first encounter, when Herrin had first revealed his magery and his true personality to Klauen, as he had tied the Highborn’s own daggers belt around his waist. “You know, the Iron Faithful are surprisingly forthcoming with their security information,” he supplied, and rose to the tips of his toes to tug the back of the makeshift scarf over Klauen’s sandy brunette hair.
The red clashed jarringly with Klauen’s own muted palette. Klauen watched him tug at the material sceptically. “They’re going to see straight through this disguise of yours. They’re going to recognise me, if the manacles don’t tip them off first.”
“Oh, husband of mine,” Herrin practically sang, flashing him a bright-toothed smile. “You have so little faith in me. Put your hands on my stomach.”
Klauen’s hands jumped to the material of the lowlord’s shirt at the command, though Klauen suspected that Herrin hadn’t needed to say it aloud. He could feel Herrin’s minute breathing through the material, the stretch and pull of his lean build. He recoiled from it, wishing he could pry his hands away from the lowlord’s body.
“Why?” Klauen hissed, trying to focus on anything else. Herrin finished making his final adjustments, checking that Klauen’s neck and hair were completely obscured.
“Because those guards’ shift finishes right now,” Herrin responded in a quiet rush, as if that explained everything. Klauen could see he was right; the four sentries were pulling away from the cave’s yawning entrance now, lowering attentive spears as they headed back into the depths of the labyrinth to relinquish their duty to the next poor frostbitten soul.
Anxiety sang through Klauen’s veins. They were going to recognise them. They were going to recognise him, and then he’d be screwed.
“Just know,” Herrin murmured, casting one last glance at the approaching sentries to confirm his timing. “I hate this as much as you’re about to.”
“What the fuck are you talking ab–”
Herrin seized the edges of the scarf, his knuckles brushing Klauen’s cheekbones as his lips slammed into the Stahlborn’s. Klauen’s senses were overwhelmed with him.
His nose was digging into his cheek, his lips alight with the feeling of his crushed against them. He smelt of heat and fire and ash and warmth and it was wrong, it felt wrong. But his hands remained fisted in the material of Herrin’s shirt, pressed tight between their bodies beyond sight of the sentries that moved past them unseen and unperturbed.
After what felt millennia, Herrin broke away with a grimace, seizing Klauen’s shoulder and relieving a torch-holder of its burden as they surveyed the snow fields beyond. “I fucking hate snowstorms,” he muttered, seemingly unaware that he had spoken aloud.
And then they were rushing headlong into the blizzard beyond, the wind whipping the scarf into Klauen’s tingling face as the cold clawed with jagged hands at the torch in Herrin’s palm. Klauen saw white and breathed ice.