suspicious_popsicle: (Default)
Story: Nettles
Series: Tales of Vesperia
Pairings: Fluri
Warnings: none

A/N: Written for Fluri Month 2016. The prompt was 'protection; wishes will come true.' It's a Fluri version of the fairy tale “The Six Swans.”

Disclaimer: The characters in this story are from Tales of Vesperia and do not belong to me.



Steel rang against steel as Flynn Scifo, Commander of the Knights of Zaphias, locked blades with his lieutenant, Sodia. They were ringed by a circle of guardsmen who had left off their own practice to watch. Flynn ignored them. Sodia was a difficult opponent. She didn't believe in going easy on him, commanding officer or not, and he approved of that attitude. They struck at each other, catching blows against bucklers or cross guards, backing away when necessary, circling and seeking to take advantage of any opening. When Sodia's passion shone through, she read like an open book. In the middle of a fight, however, her expression was closed, her eyes cold and calculating. Flynn could anticipate her moves, but only just barely. He spun away, narrowly avoiding being skewered, and let his momentum carry him back around to strike low at her legs. She stumbled as she leapt back and he pressed the advantage. Victory would have been his in moments were it not for the sudden shout that cut through the quiet morning.

“Flynn! Commander Flynn!”

Automatically, Flynn held up a hand to signal a halt. The circle of guardsmen that had surrounded them fell back, giving him a clear look at the source of the disturbance. He was momentarily shocked into stillness at the sight.

Karol, one of the pages assigned to the guard, was lurching forward, doing his best to help support the weight of a man far taller than himself. The stranger's face was twisted by a grimace, and his clothes were soaked with blood. A breeze carried the rank, animal stench of it to Flynn's nose. One of the stranger's hands was pressed tightly against his side, his fist clenched white-knuckled around a sheathed sword. The only sound he made as they came closer was the sharp hiss of labored breaths forced through gritted teeth. It was Karol who spoke for both of them between gasps.

“Boar! Huge boar...in the woods! It attacked.... Yuri—my friend—he fought it off! He needs a healer!”

Flynn snapped out of his shock and sheathed his sword, striding forward to meet them. He'd been hearing reports for several days of a monstrous boar roaming the forests. Two hunters had been injured by it already, and one gored to death. A hunt had been organized for the next day to go after the creature, but seeing another person harmed made Flynn wish once more that action had been taken sooner.

Karol was wide-eyed and panicked, smeared with blood, but seemingly unhurt aside from a number of scratches which he'd likely gained while helping his friend through the woods. Yuri, on the other hand, had a sickly look to him that Flynn recognized as pain combined with blood loss. Beneath the hand pressed to his side, the blood that saturated his tunic was thick and wet, unlike the stickier, drying patches elsewhere. Though he'd fought off a wild boar, he obviously hadn't come out unscathed. Despite that, he tried to stand straighter as Flynn approached, though the effort was obviously a strain. There was a dark, unhappy look in his eyes that said he wasn't pleased about all the fuss. This wasn't a man whose pride would tolerate a healer being called out to his convenience, not when he was still able to drag himself along.

Halting a step in front of them, Flynn held Yuri's gaze. “I'm Flynn Scifo, Commander of the Knights here. I thank you for aiding Karol. Come with me. I'll escort you to the infirmary.”

Yuri lowered his head in what should have been a nod, but weariness kept it bowed. He followed without a word. Karol stuck to his side like a burr as they made their way around the castle to the herb garden on the eastern wall, and the entrance to the infirmary. Karol chattered anxiously the entire way, still shaken up by the encounter with the boar and his friend's injury.

“It's all my fault. I was going to visit Yuri, but I ran into the boar on the way. I know I should have just tried to get away, or run back here, but I just kept going! I led it right to him,” he said miserably.

“Running to him may well have saved your life.” Flynn paused to look back, just in time to see Yuri ruffle Karol's hair, smiling, though the gesture made him wince. When he looked up, Flynn caught his eye. “You have my gratitude.”

Yuri's gaze slid away. He shrugged off the words as if it hadn't been a big deal. For the moment, Flynn decided not to press the point. First, Yuri needed to see the healer. Later on, there would be time to speak with him about what he had done and how he had come to know Karol.

In the end, it was Karol who told Yuri's story, or at least as much of it as he knew. By the time they made it into the infirmary, Yuri was visibly shaking and his complexion had taken on a gray cast. He sank down onto the nearest bed while Karol, needing to be doing something, herded the healer and her assistant over from where they had been sorting bundles of fresh herbs. The drying blood on Yuri's hand was so thick and sticky that Flynn had to pry his fingers loose from his sword to set it aside. Barely able to lift his arms by that point, Yuri wasn't even able to remove his tunic on his own. He let Flynn strip it off, gritting his teeth against the pain as it peeled away from his skin and pulled at his wound.

There was a gash in his side longer than his hand, and deep where the boar's tusk had first caught him. Fresh blood welled up as it was exposed, and Flynn was hustled out of the way as the healer brought clean cloths to staunch the flow. She barked orders to her assistant, to Karol, even to Flynn, demanding hot water, more cloths, particular bottles of herbs and salves, and a kit with a fine, sharp needle and gut thread for sewing gaping wounds shut.

Yuri remained awake as his wound was cleaned out and then stitched up. Sweat broke out on his face, and he clenched his fists so tightly around the sheets that Flynn almost feared his joints would pop from the strain. Once the worst was over, as the healer daubed salve onto the raw, puckered flesh before bandaging it, her assistant brought Yuri a cup of tea. Karol had to help hold the cup for him to drink it, but it seemed to do Yuri some good. He relaxed swiftly once he had drained the cup and soon lay passed out on the narrow bed. It happened quickly enough that Flynn surmised that the assistant had mixed in something to help him sleep.

Flynn stood back out of the way as the healer and her assistant cleaned away the rest of the blood staining Yuri's skin, and attended to other, more minor injuries as they went. Karol hovered nearby with a basin of hot water and a supply of clean cloths. He was the only one who was not shocked by the state of Yuri's hands.

Covered in a mixture of blood from himself and the boar, the damage to Yuri's fingers and palms had been overlooked until the healer scrubbed one clean. She revealed reddened, blistered skin covered with oozing sores. Flynn gaped, scarcely able to believe Yuri could have maintained such a strong grip on his sword, much less fought off a wild boar with his hands in such a state. The damage was so extensive that he feared it had to be some horrible disease before Karol spoke up, shattering the incredulous silence that had fallen with the discovery.

“It's the nettles. He has this huge, gigantic pile of stinging nettles, and he beats them into flax to make thread. He's weaving something. I don't know what. He won't tell me. He's only ever told me his name. ...Well, he wrote it, actually. He doesn't talk, not ever.”

Flynn nodded. So, Yuri was mute. He'd been wondering about that. Sometimes, wounds seemed to hurt less when a man gave voice to the pain. That small relief hadn't been an option for Yuri.

Leaning against the wall, Flynn looked down upon him. His color was already improving. Eased by sleep, his features were handsome—beautiful, even. He was young—Flynn guessed them to be approximately of an age—handy with a sword, and capable of writing his name at the very least. His tunic, now a blood-soaked mess in the refuse bin, had been cut from fine linen. His sword....

Reaching out, Flynn took up the sword that he'd so hastily leaned against the wall earlier. The hilt and scabbard were thickly coated with blood—no surprise, all things considered. Flynn took up one of the discarded cloths that was wet more with water than blood, and tried to clean away the worst of the mess. The thick, silk ribbons tied around the scabbard were a lost cause and would have to be replaced, but the dark wood came clean fairly easily. He did his best with the hilt, though it was stained beyond his ability to clean. The guard was thankfully plain, and he wiped the blood from it, too.

When Flynn drew the sword, he had expected to see blood smeared down its length. Instead, the steal emerged gleaming like new. Yuri had thoroughly cleaned it before sliding it home, obviously more keen to take good care of his weapon than himself. It was a fine blade, light and perfectly balanced. Flynn raised it, watching the light shine along its edge, then held it straight out before himself to sight down along its length. He got the sense that it would be a good blade for mischief in a fight, a good blade for a man who knew what he was about. It felt ready to leap forward in his hand.

The healer cleared her throat pointedly, and when Flynn looked up to see her switch her stare from him to the naked steel, he understood her message and sheathed the blade. The infirmary was no place to be fooling around with swords. Still, he had another small hint. The sword Yuri carried was no common weapon. Whoever he was, wherever he had come from, Flynn was certain that there was a story behind his arrival in the woods.

As if sensing his thoughts, Karol left the women to their work and came to stand in front of Flynn. His gaze was trained on Yuri as he began to speak.

“I met him when spring started. He lives by the river. I thought he was really weird at first—because of the nettles. And because he can't talk. But he's a really good guy! He's been teaching me things, like how to fight and fish, and he knows all about what plants you can pick and eat and he's a great cook!” Karol's arms were rigid at his sides, fists clenched around the hem of his tunic. “He got right between me and the boar, even though I led it straight to him. Is he...?” He looked up at Flynn, eyes bright with threatening tears. “He's gonna be okay, right?”

“With the proper attention and plenty of rest,” the healer said, somewhat sharply.

Thinking that they should take that as a hint, Flynn touched Karol's arm and indicated the door with a nod of his head. Although he was obviously reluctant to leave Yuri's side, Karol allowed Flynn to steer him outside. The scents of the herbs growing in the garden were a welcome relief after the stench of blood that had filled the infirmary, and Flynn paused to take a deep breath. He handed off Yuri's sword to Karol, who clutched it protectively to his chest as they started back toward the training yard.

“What is it that he's making with the nettles?” Flynn asked.

“I don't know.”

“Do you know why he's doing it?”

“No.”

“Do you know where he came from?”

No.” He looked up beseechingly. “He's not a bad guy.”

A smile tugged at one corner of Flynn's mouth. “Anyone with hands that badly injured who would still try to protect someone from a wild boar is certainly not a bad person.” He ruffled Karol's hair, remembering all of a sudden Yuri doing the same, and wincing with the pain of it. What could drive a man to intentionally damage his hands that way?

“I need to go get his things,” Karol said. Miserably, he added: “I think the boar might have destroyed some of them.”

“I'll go with you. Just in case.”

------------------------

It was just as well that Flynn had volunteered. Karol led him to Yuri's camp beside the stream, little more than a fire pit made up beneath a shallow overhang of rock. For all the simplicity of his makeshift home, there were plenty of things to fill it: a bed roll, a cloak of fine wool, a hunting knife and whetstone, a set of cookware including a small pot, a pan, a kettle, a plate and bowl and dented cup, a ladle and spoon, and a pack containing hard traveler's bread, a needle and thread, a large, white feather from a swan or similar bird, and a locked trinket box with no key. In addition to all of this, there was the mound of stinging nettles that Karol had described.

Near the stream, in an area of sand churned up by the boar's hooves, was a swath of stiff material woven from nettle thread. Karol gave a cry when he saw it. He ran straight for the torn blanket or cape—whatever it was meant to be—and picked it up despite Flynn's warning not to touch it. If it had indeed been woven from stinging nettles, some of their needles might yet remain. If Karol felt them, he gave no sign. His face was crumpled with guilt.

“Yuri's been working so hard on this, and now it's all torn up! All because of me.”

“You shouldn't blame yourself. You couldn't have faced an angry boar on your own. Besides, if Yuri is really your friend, he'll be more glad of your safety than worried over a bit of extra work.”

“Yeah.” Karol sniffed and drew himself up a bit straighter. “You're right. We should hurry and get everything together! He'll want to go back to work as soon as he wakes up. Maybe I can help.”

He bundled up the torn cloth and bolted for the horse to get the canvas sacking he'd insisted on bringing. Having seen the pile of nettles and realizing now that Karol meant to bring those back to the palace as well, Flynn was glad he'd done so. He ordered Karol to pack up the rest of Yuri's things. Flynn's thick gloves would protect him from the nettles, so he took on the job of gathering them up and stuffing them into the sacks. As he worked, he wondered again why Yuri would need them, why he would be making them into thread using his bare hands, why he would be weaving a garment or blanket from them. What was the motive behind this bizarre self-flagellation he practiced? Although Karol had nothing but good to say of him, and Flynn wanted to trust the boy's judgment, he was growing more and more concerned about what events had led Yuri to their doorstep.

------------------------

When they arrived back at the castle, they found that Yuri had awoken and was in the process of trying to escape the healer's clutches. He was making slow headway across the training field, barred by the healer who stood arms outstretched directly in his path. She was trying to shoo him back to the infirmary like a farm wife after a misbehaving rooster. The clear frustration on his face as he was thwarted time and again in his efforts to get around her was almost enough to make Flynn laugh.

“Yuri!”

Karol barely waited until Flynn had reined his horse in to a stop before jumping down. He cradled both the weaving and Yuri's sword to his chest as he took off across the grass. Yuri halted at the sight of him, and even smiled, glad to have spotted an ally, maybe, or possibly just happy to see a familiar face. Flynn dismounted and followed Karol more slowly, watching Yuri all the while.

“We brought all your things for you, so you don't have to worry about anything while you rest! I made sure to get everything, and Flynn even brought all the nettles—every last one!”

He fumbled the bundle in his arms until he could hold out the sword to him. Yuri took it with a bandaged hand and a nod of thanks.

“I...I picked this up for you.” He held up the folded nettle cloth and shook it out to reveal the damage. Yuri's eyes went wide and dismay flashed across his features as Karol continued on, head lowered. “The boar messed it up. I'm so sorry! If I hadn't come out to find you, the boar wouldn't have seen me, and then I led it right to you! It's all my fault!”

Yuri gestured as if to wave aside his concerns, then knelt before Karol in order to meet his eyes. He patted the boy on the head, smiling for him to hide the discouragement Flynn had seen only a moment ago.

“You forgive me?” Karol asked. Yuri nodded. “I'll help fix the damage.” This time Yuri shook his head. “You still have to do it all yourself?” Another nod.

“I'll not have him mucking about with stinging nettles in my infirmary!” the healer insisted. “He's there for patching up, not to be making himself worse. I won't have it!”

To Flynn's surprise, Karol put himself between her and Yuri. Even though he had always been intimidated by the woman, he was willing now to argue on Yuri's behalf.

“This is important! Yuri has to finish it!”

“My time is important, young man! If this fool wants to ruin his hands, he can do it elsewhere and not be one more chore for me and one less bed for those that must hurry back to an honest day's work!”

“But—!”

Yuri silenced Karol with a hand on his shoulder. He shook his head, nodded his thanks to the healer, and slipped past her. She didn't make any move to stop him this time. Instead, Flynn stepped in, almost without thinking.

“You saved Karol's life. The least we can offer you is our hospitality while you heal from your injury. If you cannot do your work in the infirmary, then a room will be prepared for you in the castle.”

Karol grabbed Yuri's arm. “Say you'll stay here! At least until you get better.”

He hadn't seemed prepared to accept when Flynn had made the offer, but one look down at Karol and Yuri had lost. He nodded assent and sighed, then held up a warning finger and pointed to his injured side.

“All right, all right. Just until you get better.” Already back in high spirits, Karol tugged on his arm. “Come on! I'll show you around!”

“Karol.” Immediately, Flynn had his full attention. He had seen the sweat beading on Yuri's brow, noticed the stiffness in the way he held himself. Even without all of that, he could have guessed the strain it took to be walking around with a fresh gash in his side. “Yuri needs to rest. Give him a few days to recover before you begin dragging him all around the grounds.”

“Ah! R-right.” He grinned sheepishly and let go of Yuri's arm. “Sorry.”

Yuri grinned back at him, then threw Flynn a quick glance of relief. He might have been reluctant to accept the offer, but he would be thankful enough for it while the pain of his wound and the demands of healing took their toll on his body.

----------------

So it was that Yuri came to stay in the castle. A small room was found for him very near to Flynn's own, and the chamber was cleaned out and made ready. It was a cramped space, barely big enough for Yuri to spread out his nettles when alone. During his first few days, he barely ventured out, though he was never still when Flynn visited. Karol spent part of every day with him. Between the two of them and the instructions the healer had provided along with fat jars of salve and herbs to be added to the wash water, they helped Yuri keep the wound clean and bandaged. It seemed to be healing well, and by the fourth day, Yuri was sleeping less and following Karol out onto the castle grounds.

As soon as Yuri was able—sooner, in Flynn's opinion than he should have—Yuri began practicing drills with his sword in the mornings. He didn't have space enough to do so in his room, instead choosing to lay claim to a corner of the practice yard. Flynn would watch him some mornings, making note of his form, of the fact that he was disciplined enough to rise early for such exercises. He had, at that point, decided that Yuri was either of noble blood, or a commoner lucky enough to have found a wealthy patron. He had been trained as a fighter, and had demonstrated that he could read—neither were skills common among the lower classes. He handled his sword as if it had been made to fit his hand. If he was truly its original owner, then there was no arguing that he had been a man of means. Whatever had happened to cause him to flee or be cast of out his old life remained a mystery, but the more Flynn watched Yuri, the less he felt that the blame lay with him.

Yuri was as good a friend as Karol had described and better. He always had time for the boy, even though Flynn could see the guilt in his eyes when he set aside his work pounding out nettles or weaving the thick, stiff threads together. Yuri took pains to hide any such reluctance from Karol. They sparred together when some of Flynn's own knights might not have bothered. Yuri helped Karol with his chores seeing to the horses, mending tack, and maintaining the store of weapons—swords, bows, pikes, and axes—that were kept for practice. Whenever he would happen upon them while they worked, Flynn couldn't help but pause to watch. Karol talked endlessly, encouraged by a look or a gesture from Yuri, whose raw, nettle-blistered fingers warred with whatever task he had been set. Yuri never let his pain stop him from lending a hand, and Karol's confidence swelled beneath his attention. All in all, Yuri proved to be a welcome, if strange guest in the castle.

---------------------

It was a particular oddity of the air shafts within the castle walls that allowed sounds to travel from the room Yuri had been given to Flynn's quarters. Late at night, particularly after days when Karol had monopolized most of Yuri's time, Flynn would sometimes hear the rhythmic pounding as Yuri spread out the stinging nettles across the stone floor and beat them with his fists, or stomped upon them with his bare feet to soften them into flax for spinning.

At first, Flynn had ignored the sounds. As the days passed, however, he found it increasingly difficult to do so. One night, more than a week after Yuri had come to the castle, Flynn slipped out of his room and stole down the hallway to Yuri's door. Standing just outside, the noise of Yuri's labor was oddly muffled. He knocked lightly, half expecting to be ignored, or even turned away. Instead, a moment of silence passed before Yuri opened the door a crack, just wide enough to peer out. He didn't seem entirely surprised to see Flynn, but then, it wasn't as if he had had any other visitors aside from Karol. After a pause, he opened the door fully and stepped aside in invitation.

“I'm sorry to interrupt,” Flynn said. “If you don't mind me taking a seat on your bed, I'm sure I can manage to keep out of your way.”

Yuri motioned for him to make himself comfortable, and Flynn sat down at the foot of the bed. He scooted back across the thin mattress until he was tucked into the corner where it fetched up against the wall. He drew up his knees, wrapping his arms around them and watched as Yuri knelt on the stones and went back to work. The smack!-smack!-smack! of the side of his fist or the meat of his palm against the floor made Flynn want to wince in sympathy. Every strike drove more of the tiny needles into Yuri's skin. Every impact threatened to burst another of the blisters that covered his hands. Although Yuri had left the tiny window unshuttered and open to the thin, night breeze, the room still held the faint reek of blood and pus.

“How can you stand doing that to yourself?” Flynn asked. He knew that he wouldn't get an answer, not a verbal one at least, but he saw Yuri pause and sit a little straighter before he sighed and resumed his work.

Why are you doing it? What are you making?”

Yuri shook his head. He wouldn't be answering those questions. Flynn chose to deliberately misunderstand.

“I know you can't speak, but you can write, can't you? You wrote your name for Karol. I can bring you paper and ink so that you can tell your story.”

Again, the only response he got was a shake of Yuri's head. His long hair was black silk in the candlelight. It fell forward, screening his face. Flynn wondered if it got in his way, if perhaps the only reason that he didn't pull it back was to avoid the pain of touching it and the mess of dirtying it with his oozing hands.

“Karol believes that whatever it is you're doing is important, somehow. I can see that you believe it is.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Yuri arched an eyebrow.

“I don't know what I believe. There are rumors circulating that you're an enchanter. People think you're casting some sort of spell with your weaving.”

Yuri snorted. His hands rose and fell, beating the nettles flat against the stones.

“I don't believe that.” Flynn let his head fall back against the wall. “I don't know what you hope to achieve by it. I think you must be pretty desperate, though, to be so persistent about it. What will you do if if costs you the use of your hands?” Silence was his answer. The room was dark and comfortably warm. “What if you can't finish?”

--------------------

Flynn was startled awake with a jolt. He peered around blearily, unable to make anything out in the darkness. Something had hit him in the gut, and his fingers traced the shape of a foot lodged between his stomach and his still drawn-up legs. Memory returned, and he realized that he had fallen asleep sitting on the end of Yuri's bed. He stretched, trying to work the stiffness out of his limbs. His inner sense of time told him that it was not long until dawn, and he wondered if there was any point in trying to return to his own bed for another hour or so of sleep.

Carefully, he eased Yuri's foot off of him so that he could get up. Beneath his fingers, he could feel blisters clustered nearly as thickly as those on Yuri's hands. Flynn had seen him begin softening the nettles by stomping on them, and he frowned as he stood up and tugged the thin blanket over Yuri's exposed feet. He feared that Yuri would do little more than cripple himself if he kept up this spinning and weaving. Still...still, there was that nagging feeling that Yuri's madness served a purpose. He was, aside from the strange business with the nettles, an agreeable person, and a good friend to Karol. If only he could be convinced to explain himself....

Quietly, he crept out of Yuri's room and returned to his own. There were too many mysteries hidden behind those storm cloud eyes, and Flynn couldn't begin to guess at his motives. He knew that there was no malevolence in Yuri's weaving, but in the face of the unknown, suspicion and fear bred the most popular explanations. He could only hope that Yuri finished the task set before him quickly, and that those who saw him at his daily exercises or working quietly with Karol recognized that a good heart beat within his chest.

It was that hope that put the idea into Flynn's head as he was preparing for the day. Up until that moment, he had been little more than an observer during Yuri's stay in the castle. However, if he wanted people to accept this stranger that Karol had brought into their midst, what better way than to act as an example? From the moment he had unsheathed Yuri's sword, he had been curious about what sort of opponent its wielder would be. Now he had the perfect excuse to find out.

A few hours later, when Yuri emerged only a little later than usual to begin his morning drills, Flynn was waiting for him. Instead of supervising his knights while Sodia led them in their own practice, Flynn strode across the field to join Yuri.

“Good morning.” Despite his late night and early rising, he felt wide awake as he smiled. Yuri eyed him warily and nodded a greeting. “I was wondering if you might satisfy my curiosity about something.” The look Yuri gave him now was doubtful, but Flynn pressed on. “I've been watching you spar with Karol, and I was hoping you wouldn't mind going a round or two against me.”

For just a moment, Flynn was sure that Yuri would deny his request. The injury to his side was healed enough for him to face Karol in short bouts, but that was a far cry from sparring against a trained knight. He wouldn't have offered if he didn't think Yuri was up to it, and he fully intended to go easy on him. Flynn simply wanted to get a sense of Yuri as a fighter. He felt that it would help him understand Yuri better as a person. Just as he was beginning to think that he shouldn't have asked, however, a grin broke through Yuri's surprise to light up his face, and he nodded eagerly. It was the first genuine smile he had ever bestowed upon Flynn.

“Wonderful. Whenever you're ready.”

Somehow, Flynn managed to keep his smile in place and turn to walk calmly away and give Yuri space to warm up. Inside, his heart was racing. He hadn't expected the warmth of that grin, hadn't expected to be struck by the brilliance of Yuri's excitement. He leaned against the fence that surrounded the yard, waiting for his heart to calm down before he dared to watch Yuri run through his stretches before making practice passes with his blade. He was beauty flowing through the clear morning sunlight. His movements were confident and graceful despite the pain of his blistered hands and feet. His expression, though no longer infused with such eagerness as had upset the rhythm of Flynn's heart, was focused and captivating.

Yuri signaled the end of his warm-up with a flourish; tossing his sword so that it pinwheeled in the air, then catching it as it came back down. It was a signature move of his, one that Flynn had considered foolishly showy. Now, however, as Yuri met his stare with a challenge in his crooked smile, Flynn couldn't deny a certain admiration for his cockiness. He pushed away from the fence and came forward, drawing his sword when he was close enough to cross it with Yuri's in a brief salute. They stared a moment longer into each other's eyes across the sunlit edges of their blades, then, with no apparent signal passing between them, the match began.

The kiss of their swords gained force in a brief test of strength. Steel sang as Yuri spun, whipping his blade free and bringing it back around in an eye blink, slashing at Flynn's side where he was met at the last second by Flynn's broadsword. He pressed in, but Flynn was stronger and threw him off, bringing his blade up to block Yuri's quicksilver strikes—One! Two! Three!—all in rapid succession. Yuri flipped his sword—Arrogance or habit?—and Flynn was there in an instant, blade diving for the opening only to slice along empty air as Yuri weaved around it, sinuous as a curl of smoke rising from an extinguished candle. His sword swung up at Flynn's back, and, once again, Flynn was barely able to block in time. He had a brief glimpse of Yuri, hair fanned out behind him, eyes shining over a wide grin, before the moment passed and the fight rushed on.

They came together in clashes of steel, boots churning the earth beneath their feet, swords splintering the sunlight into brief, blinding shards. Yuri was quick, lithe, and daring. He moved like a small, darting bird, or one of the lightning quick lizards that sunned themselves on the castle walls. He flowed like water around Flynn, pausing only to take advantage of an opening or seek to create one when his patience ran out. His focus was intense. Flynn could feel it like sunlight beating down on his armor. It felt like he was the only thing that existed for Yuri, just him and the fight, no past or future or pain.

Taken aback by Yuri's grinning ferocity, Flynn found himself legitimately on the defensive. He had thought to go easy on Yuri, given that he couldn't fight with everything he had while his hands were still a mass of nettle blisters. That idea of courtesy had left him unprepared and struggling to keep up. He felt a moment's shame when he realized his mistake, and then the tide of the match began to turn. Yuri had come after him with everything he had to give; maybe out of respect, maybe out of a will to win, maybe just because he had sensed that Flynn would try to go easy on him. If he had pressed just a little bit harder, he might have won in those first few minutes. Once Flynn began taking the fight seriously, however, the result was a foregone conclusion. At his best, Yuri could have been a match for him. In his current state, however, trying to overcome injury with spirit, the best he could do was to hold his ground for as long as possible as Flynn broke his rhythm and put him on the defensive.

Yuri didn't give in, and he didn't pull his punches, for all that they must have hurt him far more than they hurt Flynn. His swordsmanship, already personalized with flourishes that would get most men killed in a real fight, became almost erratic as he kicked out to gain himself space or tossed his sword high overhead in order to throw a punch. He was hard to predict, but he was also slowing down as his footing became unsteady and his grip less sure. When a sideways slash sent his sword flying away out of reach, the hilt slick with blood and fluid from his blisters, the fight was over.

They stopped in their tracks, panting for breath, eyes locked on each other. Slowly, Flynn lowered his sword from where he had raised it to strike. He became aware of his knights watching them silently from a short distance away, and he had started to turn to address them when he heard Yuri give a short, breathless laugh. He'd started to extend a hand to shake after the fight, then apparently thought the better of it after seeing the ruin of his palm. He smiled wryly at Flynn and shrugged, then went to pick up his sword.

Flynn beat him to it. “Let's go see to your hands. It was thoughtless of me to ask this of you in the first place.” One glance at the expression on Yuri's face, and he added quickly: “But thank you. I would be honored to spar with you again.”

Yuri grinned at him again. This time, Flynn was prepared for it. Or maybe it was only that his heart was already racing from the thrill of their match.

For the rest of the day, Flynn remained preoccupied with thoughts of how the fight had gone. He'd been amazed by Yuri's swiftness, the way he had set aside his pain and seemed to exist separately from it during the time they faced each other. He was a strong person, both mentally and physically, and in his relationship with Karol, Flynn had seen that he was kind. There was a spark in Yuri, something that burned brightly, something that seemed threatened by his compulsion to return day after day to the stinging nettles which were ruining his hands. Flynn wondered if it would be best to get rid of the nettles and the weaving, to force Yuri to set it aside. He couldn't bring himself to do it, however, not when he didn't understand why Yuri was so driven to continue. Time and trust would be the key, he decided. Perhaps eventually Yuri would confide in him. Maybe then Flynn could help.

Sleep eluded him that night. Flynn lay awake in bed, though he could hear nothing from Yuri's chamber and assumed that he must have moved on to spinning or weaving. It wasn't noise that kept him up, however, but thoughts about sparring with Yuri. He had felt the exact moment the fight should start in a way he never had before. It had been as if he'd sensed the synchronization of their heartbeats. He kept replaying parts of the match in his head, glimpses of the poetry of Yuri's movements, the certainty behind his attacks, the playfulness in the way he dodged. Sparring with Yuri had felt more like a dance than a clash. Flynn had practically been able to sense him to counter, and he was sure that Yuri would never have faltered were it not for his injuries. There was definitely something special about him, and Flynn eventually drifted off with his thoughts full of gray eyes, silken hair, and a broad grin behind a flashing blade.

------------------

The next day, Flynn left his knights once more to run through warm-up stretches and drills with Yuri. He had thought to ask for another match, but Yuri's hands were clearly worse than before, and he walked somewhat gingerly. It cost him to grip his sword firmly, but he held himself to standards above the pain and completed his exercises. Karol was on his way over when Flynn left him, and he was glad that Yuri would be kept away from the nettles. It was hard to see him using his body so poorly.

As Flynn crossed the field, he saw that Sodia had been watching them. He smiled for her, trying to reinforce the idea that Yuri was no dark enchanter, simply a bit of an oddity. Sodia didn't smile back. She had something on her mind, and Flynn could guess what it was. Sure enough, as soon as he was close enough to hear, she spoke, keeping her voice low.

“Sir, there have been a number of concerns raised about that man.”

“I'm aware of the rumors, Sodia, but that's all that they are. Just rumors, nothing more.”

“They say that the cloak he's weaving will grant him unholy powers in exchange for the blood and pain of its creation.”

“That's a new one, then. Last I heard, they hadn't made up a story to explain why he's doing this, only that it must be bad.”

Her frown pressed tighter at his tone. “Sir, I don't believe you're taking this seriously.”

“How can I? I've watched him since he arrived, and I've yet to see any evil in him.”

“Lord Ragou believes it to be a serious matter.”

That got his attention. Ragou was a minor lord who Flynn had arrested several months back. He had been raising the rent of the people who lived on his land until they couldn't pay, then offering the debtors he'd created a chance to work off what they owed by amusing him. He would pit them against each other or against wild beasts. If a man survived, his debt was forgiven...at least for the past year. There had been blood on his hands thick as tar, but the Council of Lords that should have convened to judge him for his crimes had come up with one excuse after another to delay the trial. Ragou had been relegated to his winter home near the castle, but no further consequences had been imposed, and Flynn was nearly out of hope that justice would ever be served. However, for all that he had escaped punishment, Ragou still held a grudge. Flynn wasn't sure why he should be interested in Yuri, but he knew that nothing good could come of it.

“Thank you for keeping me informed. Let me know if you hear anything else.” He started to leave, but Sodia had one more piece of unsettling news for him.

“I've heard that they're burning people accused of witchcraft out in the countryside,” she murmured. “Just rumors, no formal complaints, but I believe it warrants investigating.”

Goosebumps prickled along Flynn's arms. He hoped it wasn't true, but absolutely couldn't risk ignoring the possibility that such a thing was going on. Even still, he couldn't believe that such troubles might invade the capital, the very seat of the King's justice.

“I'll see to sending out teams immediately.” She nodded and followed him as he went to rejoin his knights and select who would be taking on such a mission.

------------------------

Later that night, Flynn once again slipped from his chamber to Yuri's as most of the other castle residents were slipping into slumber. He took his place on the foot of the bed and made quiet, one-sided conversation. Yuri was weaving, working the thick, uneven thread into the unfinished garment with his gnarled fingers. It meant that he was able to sit on the bed next to Flynn instead of kneeling on the floor, and Flynn watched him as they passed the time together. Every now and again, his shoulders would shake with silent laughter, or he would flash a quick smile at Flynn before turning his eyes back to his work. Even though he wasn't able to contribute a single word to the conversation, he still gave the impression that Flynn's company was welcome rather than merely tolerated.

This time, Flynn was still awake when exhaustion crept up upon Yuri and forced him to stop. He watched as Yuri's hands drooped down onto his lap into the pile of nettle fabric, watched as Yuri leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes with a sigh. Carefully, Flynn eased the ugly thing out of Yuri's hands and off his lap. He wasn't stung as often as he had expected, but he did still feel prickling against his skin several times. Yuri cracked an eye open to watch him, but was obviously too tired to insist on going back to work. He didn't move until Flynn got up off the bed, and then merely toppled onto his side atop the covers.

Smiling, Flynn collected the basin and ewer off the top of the chest, and the box of supplies the healer had sent to help care for Yuri's wound. He knelt beside the bed and arranged his supplies next to him on the floor.

“I'm going to take a look at your hands,” he murmured. Yuri peeked at him, but quickly decided that he didn't care. He closed his eyes again and wriggled to make himself more comfortable.

Gently, Flynn lifted one of Yuri's hands. He studied it a moment, then wet a clean cloth and began to dab gingerly at the broken blisters and smears of blood. Yuri's flesh was too warm, and he grimaced at the touch of the cloth, but he did not pull away. He let Flynn bathe his hands then coat them with salve to draw out the nettle fibers and soothe his abused skin. His only objection was when Flynn wrapped bandages around his hands. Yuri came awake at that point and tried to pull his hand away, but Flynn kept a grip on his wrist.

“Let me do this for you. At least at night you ought to have a care for the state of your hands.”

Frowning, Yuri pointed at his sword, and mimed a clumsy grip.

“That's why I waited until you were ready to sleep. Remove the bandages first thing in the morning, if you must, but at least for now—”

Again, Yuri tried to pull his hand away, and again Flynn stopped him.

“I am insisting upon this. It would be a waste to see someone of your talents crippled because of this strange compulsion. If you feel that helpless, then you are welcome to come stay the night in my quarters. I can see to anything you might need.”

The face Yuri made at the suggestion that he felt helpless was almost enough to make Flynn laugh. He managed to contain his amusement—barely—and stared Yuri down until his will won out. Satisfied, he continued wrapping Yuri's hands, doing his best to preserve what flexibility and freedom of movement that he could. Yuri provided no further interruptions, though he watched Flynn all the while, candlelight flickering in his eyes. When he had finished with Yuri's hands, Flynn moved to do the same for his feet. By the time he was done, Yuri was barely managing to keep his eyes open.

“Get some rest,” Flynn whispered. “Tomorrow, you can do what you need to do, but for now, rest and heal.” That small respite was all he could provide in return for what Yuri had done for Karol. He cleaned up and blew out the lamp. As he let himself out, he paused for one last glimpse of Yuri, little more than a shadow upon the bed as he lay already fast asleep.

--------------------

It became part of Flynn's routine to visit Yuri at night, so much so that he began bringing tea with him or mulled wine, a loaf of bread and wedge of cheese to share, or fruit-stuffed pastries when he discovered that Yuri had a taste for sweets. He would sit with Yuri until past midnight, filling the lonely silence with talk, sometimes reading to him, sometimes trying to puzzle together Yuri's past. Yuri never gave him any answers, never nodded yes or shook his head no to questions or guesses, but Flynn slowly learned to read him, learned to look for the set of his shoulders, the tightening of his lips, a darting glance. He was never allowed to question for too long. Yuri wanted his past to remain a secret, and it was for that reason that he didn't—not couldn't, but didn't, Flynn was sure—speak. Nothing Flynn said could persuade him to change his mind.

“I want to help you,” he said one night.

Yuri was sitting before him on the floor, spinning his softened nettles into the ugly thread he worked with. His hands were in horrible shape and had been for the past several days. They had become bad enough that he was neglecting small tasks. He had barely eaten from the tray Flynn had carried in, and his hair was filled with tangles. As Yuri bent over his task, Flynn had taken up a comb and began to work through the knots for him, half expecting to be pushed away.

“I know you're doing this for a reason, and I know it must be a good one for you to put yourself through so much. You've made it clear that you have to complete this task on your own, but there must be something I can do to help. If you would only tell me the reason, at the very least we could lay to rest the rumors of witchcraft.”

At that, Yuri whipped around to stare at him. His hair slipped from Flynn's fingers.

“Yes, Karol told me about what happened.”

That morning, as Yuri had been sitting by the pond, watching the swans while he'd used up the last of his thread, two of Flynn's knights had confronted him. They had accused him of witchcraft, of beguiling Karol and trying to enchant Flynn, of a dozen everyday unlucky coincidences. Karol had come upon them while they were making up their list of grievances. He'd told Flynn later on that Yuri had ignored them right up until they had tried to snatch away his weaving. At that point, Yuri had risen up and drawn his sword. He had tossed his weaving to Karol for safekeeping, and then taken on both knights at once. Injured and outnumbered, Yuri had still managed to win. He'd sent the knights packing, dripping wet from when he'd knocked them into the lake.

“Don't be upset with him for telling me. As Commander, the discipline of the knights is my responsibility. Their conduct this morning was my failure.”

Yuri shook his head and turned back to his work.

“I'm being serious.”

He waved a hand dismissively over his shoulder. It seemed that, as far as Yuri was concerned, the matter was settled and none of the blame lay with Flynn. He arched his back and shook his head so that his hair waved like a banner. Flynn snorted, amused at how easily he could make himself understood without words, then began combing once more.

“You saved Karol's life. Perhaps it's made me a bit partial towards you, but I've always considered him almost a younger brother. Still, until he met you, he wasn't conscious of his own strength. He's gained confidence, and that has led to him being more accepted by the other pages, the squires, even my knights. They seek him out now rather than excluding him. He's coming into his own. That's your influence, not mine.”

He didn't voice the suspicion that some of this new attention was meant to separate Karol from Yuri and his rumored evil influence. Flynn knew better. Yuri had been nothing but a blessing for Karol.

Flynn ran the comb a few more times through Yuri's hair, then: “He told me that you were asking about me.”

Yuri grew very suddenly still, then shrugged.

“He must have bored you to tears. He said he told you nearly everything he knew.”

Yuri had no reaction to that, and Flynn smiled to himself as he set aside the comb to run his fingers though the silk of his hair. What Karol had said was that Yuri had pointed at Flynn to indicate his interest, then kept making motions for Karol to continue talking until he had exhausted the topic.

“What did you learn about me from him? I should warn you—he has been known to exaggerate.”

Yuri set aside his thread and turned around so that they sat facing each other, knees pressed together in the small space. He reached out and squeezed Flynn's biceps—

You're strong.

—rapped Flynn's head lightly with his knuckles and smiled—

Smart.

—and finally, laid his palm against Flynn's chest and patted twice—thump-thump—with his fingers.

And you've got a good heart.

Flynn wondered if Yuri could feel his heart racing. He was grinning like a fool, but couldn't help himself. Pleased and flattered, he lifted Yuri's reddened and swollen hands to kiss the backs of his fingers.

“Then from what I've seen, we're well-matched.”

--------------------

Flynn made it very clear to his knights that he would not tolerate harassment. He had already spoken to them about the rumors of witch hunts and the need to halt such activities immediately. He was not about to let that sort of fanaticism take root in the capital, and certainly not among those under his command. He spent less time with Yuri during the day in order to focus more on the discipline of his knights. Karol was busier than ever, as well. As for Yuri, though he had initially been reluctant to leave his chamber during the hours when he was free to focus on his inexplicable project, now he ventured out to the edge of the training ground or a corner of the stables or the shore of the lake. He openly welcomed Flynn during his nightly visits, making it clear that he was missing the companionship he'd had during his first days at the castle, even if he was more industrious on his own.

Reports began returning from the small units that Flynn had sent out into the kingdom to investigate the reported burning of witches. That particular paranoia seemed to be working its way toward the heart of the kingdom from the borders. The further out his knights went, the more they heard about hunts and trials and burnings. As Flynn had feared, they discovered that the victims were usually blameless—individuals who didn't quite fit in and were forced into the role of scapegoat for all manner of illness and calamity. The knights spread word in every town and village that such a perversion of justice was against the King's law and not to be tolerated, but their reports back to Flynn were not always optimistic that such an order would be followed once they had moved on. It became evident that it was only a matter of time before they came upon an active witch trial.

Flynn didn't hear of any further incidents involving Yuri, but he did notice that people would abruptly pause their conversations as he passed by, and from this he surmised that the rumors were still circulating. The atmosphere in the castle was changing. Inconveniences such as milk going sour or a hen laying no eggs became ominous. The day after Yuri had spent part of the afternoon in the stables mending tack, a horse threw his rider, causing the man to break his arm. A cook saw one of the swans bowing its head over Yuri's hands as if pledging obedience. It seemed that any complaint made was somehow linked back to Yuri. People's readiness to make a scapegoat out of a stranger worried Flynn.

“Let's move your things into my chambers,” he suggested one night as he washed and bandaged Yuri's hands. “It would actually give you a bit more room to work.” And Flynn's authority would provide just a little extra protection.

Yuri shook his head, rejecting the offer as Flynn had known he would.

“It would make me feel better if you did.”

There was no way to force Yuri to accept and he knew it. In truth, he was surprised that Yuri had remained in the castle for so long. Flynn had expected him to leave once his side was healed, and that injury had ceased to slow Yuri down long ago. Another thought occurred to him as he packed the salve and bandages away.

“You'll be finished soon, won't you?” The sacks of stinging nettles that he had helped Karol bring to the castle were empty. Yuri had only one sleeve left to finish of the robe that he had woven. “What will you do then? You'll be freed from this obligation then, won't you?” He stared down at Yuri's bandaged hands, and took them in his own. He had to fight to keep from squeezing Yuri's fingers. His next question: Will you leave? stuck in his throat.

Yuri's answer was a kiss. His lips pressed softly against Flynn's hair like a reassuring pat on the head. When Flynn raised his head to meet Yuri's eyes, he saw his ardor reflected there; affection, admiration, and desire mingled in storm cloud eyes and a crooked smile. They leaned closer, a breath apart, the phantom feel of Yuri's lips hot as a candle's flame against Flynn's own—

“Commander!”

Sodia burst in without warning, shattering the moment. She froze when she saw them, mouth hanging open in shock. Yuri pulled his hands free from Flynn's and took a step back, but there was no taking back what she'd seen. The momentary thought that they should even want to made Flynn's cheeks burn with shame. Neither he nor Yuri had done anything wrong. He stood straight, feeling the weight of his rank settle upon his shoulders. Nothing less than an emergency would have led Sodia to come barging in the way she had. Belatedly, he realized that she had expected to find him there, and he wondered how well known it was that he had been spending his evenings in Yuri's room.

“What's happened?”

She still took a moment to gather her wits, and had to force herself to look away from Yuri and meet Flynn's eyes. “A messenger just arrived, sir. From Heliord. A group of knights was returning through the city, but learned that they're holding half a dozen people on accusations of witchcraft. The leaders of Heliord are refusing to listen to your message. They're demanding the right to see justice done.”

The news shocked Flynn. Heliord was less than a day's ride from the castle. For the fervor to have grown so strong practically beneath the King's nose was unthinkable.

“That isn't justice—it's mob rule! Only the assizes have the right to render a death sentence. This ridiculous hunt for witches is getting innocent people hurt!”

“I know that, sir, but something has to be done about Heliord. The knights can prevent them burning anyone at the stake for now, but they can't stay there indefinitely.”

“I'll go myself, with a small brigade. Can you handle things here for me until I get back? I don't want this panic spreading.”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

“Good.” He turned away from her, not caring that she remained as he faced Yuri. “I'll be back as soon as I can. I hate to ask this of you when you've done nothing wrong, but try to keep your head down while I'm gone. For my own peace of mind, if nothing else.”

Rolling his eyes, Yuri shoved at Flynn's shoulder. He grimaced with exaggerated disgust as Flynn caught his hand and kissed it. Knowing that he had plenty of preparations to make before he could leave in the morning, Flynn didn't linger. He shared one last smile with Yuri, then left. At least one of them ought to get some rest.

--------------------

Flynn had meant only to be gone four days in total. He had expected that speaking with the city's leaders would only take him a day, perhaps two. He had not counted upon spending three days arguing with half the city in order to allay their fears and hopefully prevent a repeat of the situation. He also had not anticipated the necessity of escorting two of the victims back to the capital, but he supposed that there was little reparation a community could make for being prepared to burn someone alive. Three of the others had decided to leave on their own, and the sixth, an old woman with an evil eye for everyone she met, was determined to finish out her days in Heliord come what may. So, finally, on the evening of his fourth day away from the capital, Flynn arranged for two extra horses, and let his party know that they would be leaving at first light.

He was just laying down to go to sleep on the inn's lumpy mattress, missing Yuri and hoping that he was at least trying to take care of his hands in Flynn's absence, when someone began pounding on his door. Halfway out of bed, he heard Karol begin shouting and his heart plummeted. There was no good reason for Karol to have sought him out.

“Flynn! It's bad! They've got Yuri! They came and took him!”

He yanked the door open and had to catch Karol as the boy stumbled forward. “Who's got Yuri?”

“The knights! Ragou! He—! Ragou came! He accused Yuri of witchcraft! They came and took him away and the swan attacked them and there was a trial! Flynn, you gotta come!”

“Let me get dressed. Go down to the stables. Ready my horse.”

Karol was off in a flash. Flynn slammed the door behind him and swore. The timing was too perfect. Ragou must have been waiting for such a chance since he'd first heard of Yuri and his connection to Flynn. It was only petty revenge that had motivated him to go after Yuri this way, Flynn was certain. He dressed hurriedly, sick to think that Karol had said his own knights had been involved. What had Sodia been doing? He'd left her in charge with specific orders to prevent this!

Once dressed, he grabbed up his sword and belted it on while he told his lieutenant in the next room that he would be heading back early. He raced down the stairs and out the door. Karol was waiting just outside, mounted on a mule, and with Flynn's horse saddled and ready.

“Ride with me,” Flynn ordered.

“But—”

“You rode that animal here, didn't you? It'll be tired, while my horse is fresh. It'll be faster if you ride with me.”

Without another word, Karol turned the mule over to the half-asleep stable hand. He let Flynn help pull him up onto the horse, then they were off. The moon was bright, and the road was wide and in good condition. Flynn had to force himself to resist the urge to spur his horse into a full on gallop. Nothing would be happening at night, and they would need to pace themselves in order to avoid tiring out the horse. In the meantime....

“Tell me what happened.”

Karol explained as much as he could. Ragou had come to the castle the day after Flynn had left, and the very next day he had accused Yuri of witchcraft and arranged for a trial. One of the witnesses against Yuri had been Sodia, who claimed that she had seen him gathering stinging nettles from a graveyard at midnight.

Flynn gritted his teeth and clenched his fists around the reins when he heard that. He had told Yuri to keep out of trouble!

A whole slew of witnesses against Yuri had stepped forward to give their testimony, and plenty of people had seen the swan that had come out of nowhere to attack the knights that had arrested him. The bird was believed to be his familiar, and had escaped when archers had been summoned to kill it. The trial had still been going on that morning when Karol had stolen the mule and set out to bring Flynn home, so he hadn't been able to say what the result was, but neither of them could assume the best.

“Yuri can't even defend himself!” Karol cried. “It isn't fair!”

Flynn had his own suspicions on that matter, but even if Yuri had been allowed to write out an explanation, he probably would have refused. What secret could be worth risking his own life to protect?

They rode through the night. Exhausted, Karol dozed off several times. Flynn traded off riding and leading his horse as he walked alongside. It was a long journey to make in the dark with minimal breaks, and he praised the animal and thanked it and promised plenty of treats when they arrived. Half of this talk was purely to settle his own nerves. Logic told him that if Yuri had been safe when they had set out from Heliord, then he would remain so at least until dawn. His heart would have nothing to do with logic, however, and the fact remained that Yuri's fate was unknown. He might have been judged, sentenced, and burned at the stake mere hours after Karol had left the castle. There was no way of knowing, and the uncertainty tore at Flynn. The landscape around them changed slowly, but every individual step seemed to be getting them nowhere. The illusion of dawn on the horizon with the capital nowhere in sight taunted him with the fear that he would arrive too late, might be too late already. He pushed his horse as hard as he dared, and prayed.

---------------------

Just before dawn, they found themselves riding up to the castle gates. Flynn swung himself out of the saddle, weary beyond belief and running on reserves he hadn't known he possessed. The guard on duty was slow to open the gate, and Flynn's shouts began to draw a crowd before he was even admitted inside the castle walls.

There was an abnormal number of people milling about, and torches burned everywhere. As Flynn glanced around, searching for Ragou or Sodia or anyone who seemed to be in charge, he noticed a strange shape in the middle of the training field. With a rush of fury, he realized that, as one further insult, Ragou had made sure that the execution would take place in the field where Flynn trained daily with his knights. He threw his head back and shouted over the noise that filled the courtyard.

Where is Yuri?”

“The witch will be brought forth presently.”

The smug, oily voice that had spoken from just behind him fanned the fire of Flynn's rage into a blaze. He whirled around to see Ragou standing calmly several steps away, flanked by two bodyguards.

Flynn advanced on him. “How dare you come here, making false accusations—”

“I made no allegations, merely provided the forum for them to be heard. I should think that you, with your desire to see justice come to all who deserve it, would appreciate my efforts. After all, even your second-in-command could see that the boy was evil.”

Sodia pushed her way through the gathering crowd. She stepped up to face Flynn, eyes clear and free of remorse.

“I asked you to stop this from happening,” Flynn said. Hearing of her betrayal had struck him hard.

“I obeyed the spirit of your words. Your fear was that the innocent would be punished, but this man is no innocent. His familiar attacked me when I came to arrest him. And I saw him myself, the night you left, picking stinging nettles from graves. You can't tell me that he isn't involved with some sort of dark magic.”

“If you knew him you wouldn't believe that.”

“He's enchanted you!”

Flynn stared at her, amazed by her conviction. “I love him,” he said quietly.

“Oh, that is distressing news,” Ragou put in, in tones that suggested he thought it was anything but. Sodia glared at Ragou as if he were some disgusting creature that had crawled out of the muck. It turned Flynn's stomach to think that she could go along with such a transparently hateful man, no matter her belief. Turning his awful smile onto Flynn, Ragou pointed toward the platform that had been erected on the training field. “Not much time left to say good bye.”

Dawn was leaching the black from the sky to turn it a watery gray. In the dim light, Flynn could just make out Yuri dressed in a simple, white robe, being led up to the stake mounted on the platform. He was off without sparing a glance for Ragou or Sodia, heart in his throat, feet pounding over the ground as he shoved his way through the gathering crowd.

Men in livery bearing Ragou's crest surrounded the platform. He must have brought them anticipating that Flynn might make it back in time, and given them specific orders to watch out for him. His sudden appearance as he burst through the closest spectators didn't even surprise them. They merely rushed forward to catch his arms and hold him back.

“Yuri! Yuri!”

He didn't look up. They had left him his nettles, maybe because they had no qualms about letting him continue to damage his hands, maybe because they simply meant to burn his work along with him. Either way, Yuri didn't even flinch as Flynn shouted for him. Stubborn to the end, he was finishing the second sleeve, and had no attention to spare for anything else. His concentration left him docile as a lamb as he was bound foot, waist, chest, and throat to the stake.

As Flynn fought and shouted and Ragou's guards held him back, the commotion garnered the attention of the knights. Some started forward, coming to Flynn's defense automatically. He barely noticed them as they closed with more of Ragou's men. The only thing Flynn saw was Yuri, fingers battling frantically with the last length of nettle thread as four men closed on him with torches to set the kindling alight.

He was still shouting and struggling when the smoke began to rise, still reaching out for Yuri and fighting to get free when the swan trumpeted and flew over the platform, banking so that it glided past directly in front of Yuri. As it did, Yuri looked up. His face was transformed by a triumphant smile as he flung the robe of nettles into the air so that it fell over the swan in mid-flight. The bird dropped, suddenly graceless, to land in a heap upon the platform. As Flynn and Yuri and the entire stunned crowd watched, the robe leached the snowy whiteness from its feathers. The swan grew and changed shape in moments, so that, as the sun came fully over the horizon, it shone down upon a short-haired girl in a robe of fine, white linen.

Heedless of her nakedness beneath the open robe, she got to her feet and shouted over the confused crowd, hands held out imploringly. Her green eyes were wide and frantic, and she wore a key on a golden chain around her neck.

“Please, you must release my brother! He has freed me from my curse!”

When no one moved immediately to help her, she spun and began pulling away pieces of burning kindling with her bare hands. Ragou's men were as stunned as everyone else, and Flynn managed to twist free and haul himself up onto the platform. He joined the girl in clearing away kindling from where Yuri was bound and beginning to cough from the smoke. In moments, they had cleared enough space to be able to reach him without chancing the flames leaping to their clothes. Flynn drew his dagger and cut away the ropes that held Yuri and helped him down, away from the spreading fire. He led Yuri to the edge of the platform, and knelt next to him, one arm around his shoulders as coughs racked his body. The girl knelt on Yuri's other side, one hand holding the robe tightly closed, the other on her brother's arm. Tears sparkled in her eyes.

With the immediate danger past, Flynn became aware of the shouting. Fighting had broken out between his knights and Ragou's guards. The lord himself was ascending the steps to the platform, a thunderous look on his face.

“Sorcery!” Ragou shouted. “Black magic! He transforms his own familiar into this succubus and thinks to be pardoned?”

Yuri's sister stood up, her royal bearing making up for her short stature and unusual attire. “I am Princess Estellise of Halure,” she said calmly. “I am neither demon nor familiar, and my brother is no practitioner of witchcraft! He has suffered for my sake to free me from a curse that trapped me in the form of a swan, and I will not hear a word spoken against him!”

“Where is your proof, witch?”

“The box in my satchel,” Yuri croaked. They were the first words Flynn had ever heard from him. He gaped as Yuri coughed and rubbed his throat, then smiled crookedly up at Flynn. “Welcome back,” Yuri said.

Flynn hugged him. He wrapped his arms around Yuri's shoulders and squeezed for all he was worth. He kissed Yuri's hair, glad beyond words that he was alive.

“Hey, hey. Easy.” Yuri coughed again. “Water first, maybe. Kisses later.”

Flynn laughed. He couldn't help it. As people began handing up buckets of water to douse the flames, Flynn commandeered one and held it while Yuri cupped handfuls to drink. He shouted to Karol to find the small, locked box in Yuri's things, and settled down to wait, one arm protectively around Yuri's shoulders. His knights had taken control of the pandemonium and even rounded up Ragou and his men. An uneasy peace filled the practice yard.

“Our signet rings are in the box,” Yuri murmured. “Estelle has the key. They'll prove we are who we say we are.”

“Will you be able to tell me the whole story now?”

“Sure. If you want to hear it.” His joking smile lasted only a moment. “The short version is that our stepmother placed the curse on Estelle. I was given one chance to save her, and now that I have, we'll have to go back and reclaim the kingdom.”

“So you will be leaving.” He didn't try to hide the disappointment in his voice.

“Eventually. I'd like some time to heal up properly, and Estelle will want to plan.” He glanced at Flynn and leaned a bit more heavily against him. “I'll probably be back. Estelle's the one who ought to be ruling, not me. I'm not cut out for it. Besides, I think you're probably as curious as I am to see how a match between us would go when I'm in top shape.” He grinned, and Flynn smiled back.

“Most certainly.” He hesitated, then offered: “You've been ill-treated by my countrymen. If I can make that up to you even in some small part by offering my strength when you return to retake your kingdom....”

“Is that the only reason you want to come along?”

“Well...that and to spar with you again,” Flynn said, pretending ignorance of the suggestion in Yuri's smile and the mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“Oh,” Yuri said, voice thick now with laughter rather than smoke. “Well. If that's all—”

Flynn interrupted him with a kiss, but although Yuri stopped speaking, his voice rumbled between them, warm and pleasing as he hummed his approval.



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