Dar was exhausted, he had been running for hours, but it felt like days. He was at the point of collapse, but couldn't stop, not until Sharak told him it was safe to do so. The burden he carried over his shoulder was much to precious for him to risk his pursuers catching up to him. His mind doggedly pushed his legs to run and his lungs to breathe.
Sharak contacted him, those who had followed were no longer on the right trail, and in fact, they were running in the opposite direction getting further and further from their quarry. Sharak then spied their camp just ahead. Relief flooded through the Beastmaster like a bright light on a dark night, "Hold on Tao, just a little further, and we will rest." There was no answer, but Dar hadn't really expected one.
He could see their camp sight and pushed himself the last few yards before almost collapsing into the lightly shaded glade. Only the knowledge that he might injure Tao more than he already was, kept him from just dropping to the ground. Instead he carefully went to his knees and gently lay his friend on the soft grass. He knew that he needed to check Tao's injuries but right now his arms felt like rubber and his hands were shaking too badly. His lungs were screaming, his head was spinning and he was afraid that he would pass out. He lay down next to Tao trying to get his second wind.
Looking from where he lay, he could see the sun just coming up over the treetops. He knew then that he had been on the run for almost four hours.
It had been close to midnight when Dar had finally reached Zad's camp. But it hadn't been hard to find Tao. He had been bound at wrists and ankles to a large boulder, spread eagle and face down.
There had been two guards off to one side obviously not expecting any trouble from their prisoner as they sat by a small fire passing a wine skin back and forth between them. One of the guards felt a very definite call of nature and ran just inside of forest to relieve himself. The other one never knew what hit him as Dar's staff found it's mark on the back of his head.
The Beastmaster hadn't taken the time to assess his friends injuries in any detail. He had only taken the time to throw a blanket over his bare tattered body and cut the bonds that had held him to the boulder.
In a desperate hurry, he had simply wrapped the blanket around his unconscious friend, threw him over his shoulder and ran. It hadn't taken the guard long to finish his business and return to find his fellow guard out cold and his prisoner gone. The alarm went out, the camp came to life, and Dar just ran. He carefully held onto his burden and ran into the thickest darkest patch of forest he could find.
Now it was morning and they were safe in their own camp. Dar was past the point of exhaustion but knew he had to see to Tao's injuries. He sat up slowly and looked down on his friend. The Eiron was much too pale, his olive skin taking on a grey hue and his lips…they were turning blue. Dar reached out to touch the still figure resting his fingers on the side of his throat. He could feel nothing, his eyes widened, "No! Tao! Don't do this to me! Not now!" he straddled the still form and brought his face down close to the other. He could feel no breath, and moving the blanket aside he lay his ear against his friend's bare chest, he could neither feel nor hear a heartbeat. Dar took Tao's shoulders in his hands lifting and shaking him violently, terrified that he was loosing his best friend. He shook him hard again, dropping him with an unintentional thud against the ground, and suddenly the Eiron's back arched and he took in a gasping breath and let it out. The next breath wasn't quite so labored, but was still audible, as was the next and the next.
Dar lowered his head and almost wept against his friend's chest. He sat up and took air into his own lungs, letting it out slowly, and moved to kneel alongside the still form. He gently opened the blanket further and sucked air in over his teeth in a hiss.
Zad's favorite toy was his lash and he used it whenever possible. But this was no mere lash. It had three tails and braided into each tail were bits of sharp metal and bone. The bastard had literally flayed some men to death. Those poor souls that didn't mercifully die at the lashing were usually bound and staked on the hard ground to be picked over by the carrion feeders and insects. He knew that Tao had been bound to that damn rock for more than a day and a half, because it taken that long for Sharak to find him there, get word back to Dar, and for Dar to get to Tao. He also knew that if he didn't do something fast Tao would most likely die. He never stopped to wonder why his friend was still alive in the first place.
Dar could see the same deep gashes across the chest and abdomen that he had seen on his back the night before. One lash had ripped across his belly almost disemboweling him, just a little deeper and Toa would have been dead before Dar could have rescued him. Behind the deep gashes Dar could see the faded remains of bruises left over from the beating Zad had had his men inflict to subdue the Eiron.
He ran his fingertips across two of the noticeably damaged ribs, and he thought to himself that Tao's current state of unconsciousness was in reality a blessing.
There was a stream not far from their camp and Dar quickly took a bowl from his pack and began to scoop enough water to fill their cook pot. He started a fire and put the water on to boil. He hunted through Toa's medicinal bag and found the herbs he needed, and sprinkled a liberal amount into the water. He then set about to make a medicinal salve using the same herbs ground into a paste with a little tallow. He set the herbal water aside to cool, then set more water on the fire, he didn't know how much more he might need.
Taking in a deep breath of the herb scented air, he could feel their effects on his tired body.
He took bits of cloth from Toa's bag and wetting a piece in the now cooled herbal water. He then began cleaning the wounds and rubbing the salve into them.
The more shallow wounds had begun to scab over, but some of the deeper ones were already showing signs of infection. Dar did the best he could to get rid of as much of the infection as possible, even having to reopen one or two that had closed up trapping the putrid corruption inside. He cleaned them thoroughly and then dressed them with moss and more of the cloth.
He very carefully rolled Toa over to lie on his stomach, mindful of bruised and perhaps even broken ribs and perhaps other unseen internal damage. He then began to clean and dress the wounds on Tao's back as well. He found that some of the worst on his back were being taken care of by fly larvae. At first he had started to clean them out as he would the infection, but he knew that the little creatures would consume only the decaying and infected flesh leaving the healthy. He would keep a check on them for now but would let them continue to do what they were created to do.
Dar continued to work over his friend's tortured body and could feel the heat rise from his skin. Quickly he took a mental inventory of the contents of the medicinal bag and remembered that he had seen a small bit of willow bark. It could be boiled down to make a tea, he only hoped it was enough to bring the fever down.
He worked his way down Toa's back to the tender flesh of his buttocks and the backs of his thighs. That's when Dar discovered fresh blood on his inner thighs, the evidence of an even more brutal injury inflicted upon his friend. No, not an injury but a violation.
His hands began to shake uncontrollably and he felt his lungs constrict. It wasn't fatigue this time, it was rage. It had been a long time since he had felt such hatred, and he felt a bloodlust beginning to boil up in his veins. "Oh, Tao!" he whispered closing his eyes.
"Why!" He screamed in his mind, "Toa is a gentle soul, kind, compassionate, a teacher, a healer. Why him?!" but he knew all too well why him.
Zad would know that to hurt the Eiron, would be the best way to hurt the Beastmaster. That's why he had kept him alive. That's why he had been lashed to that rock instead of the ground. The king had probably even told the guard to keep the vultures at bay.
To Zad Tao was only bait for a trap, but good bait must be kept alive. He would play with him breaking his spirit and as long as he was alive there was no reason why his men couldn't have their bit of fun as well. More than likely Zad had found it all very entertaining.
"I'm so sorry Tao, all of this because of me." he bit his lower lip and tried to stop his hands from shaking.
He heard the rustle of leaves at the edge of the clearing and looked up to find Ruh lazily walking toward him. The big cat walked up next to the injured man and sat on his haunches. He caught Dar's eye, "I smelled your fear" he sat watching his human friend for a long uncomfortable moment and then continued, "This one smells of pain and death. This will bring others."
Dar dropped his eyes feeling foolish and ashamed of letting his emotions get the better of him, he knew that Ruh was right. If he didn't get control of himself every predator within miles would be making their way to the clearing. He sat back on his heels and tried to get his ragged thoughts under control. In spite of the herbal scented air, his fear was a signal to every predator within miles that wounded meat was here for the taking.
Willing himself to put his hate and fear aside, and coming back to his knees, he picked up the bowl and went back to work on Tao's wounds. When he had finished with the gashes left by Zad's lash he knew he still needed to check his friend internally. This was the part he really dreaded.
Exhaustion eking from every pore, he stood and walked over to the fire. He took the other bowl of herbal water he had set aside earlier and cleaned his hands thoroughly. Then dipping into the now cool water with his cupped hands, he brought it to his face and deeply inhaled the scent of the herbs feeling an odd sense of calm settle around his spirit.
He squared his shoulders and went back to his friend. Kneeling again he took up the bowl of herbal water and began to clean the blood away, he then took the bowl containing the salve and scooped up a liberal amount with his fingers. He rested his hand in the hollow place in the small of Tao's back for a few seconds, then gently as possible he slid his fingers into the crease of the injured man's buttocks and inserted a finger into Tao's opening. His friend groaned his body tensing, and he began to whimper almost like a child caught up in a nightmare.
Ruh bent down and began to lick at the man's face and around his ear. With his tongue he smoothed dark curls back and away from Toa's face. He then began to lick at the wounded man's jaw, neck and shoulder.
Oddly this seemed to have a calming effect, allowing Dar to proceed with his examination. He could feel torn flesh and swelling, he could also feel the fever deep inside. He removed his fingers to find them smeared with a combination of the salve and fresh blood.
Ruh was still working on Toa's shoulder moving on down his arm. Dar had never seen him do this before, well not to a human other than himself. The tiger lay down and held Tao's limp hand between his huge paws licking and paying special attention to the wrist, chaffed raw by the cords that had bound him to the boulder.
Dar went for more water to brew the willow bark tea. While he was thus busy, Rue came around to Tao's other shoulder giving that side equal treatment. The Beastmaster was fascinated by his actions.
The big cat seemed not to pay him the least bit of attention. He lay down beside Toa again and took the other hand in his paws working his tongue around the wrist. He looked up meeting the Beastmaster's eyes, "Taolker does not smell so much of death now."
"Thank you Ruh. Ah…you called him Taolker."
The tiger was still staring at the Beastmaster, "is his name." He blinked those bottomless amber eyes. Dar was curious. "Okay, I call him Tao, you called him Taolker. Why?"
"He taolkesss"the big cat replied. The answer had seemed pretty obvious to him.
Dar threw his head back and laughed delighted. "Of course he talks" Dar knew that the Ruh's kind humans were nothing more than meat. Dangerous meat, but meat all the same. Tao was no longer meat, he was the talker. Maybe not the most heroic name but it was a name.
The big cat rubbed up against the Beastmaster's leg, getting his attention "Sleep, I watch."
Dar still laughing nodded his head thankful for Ruh. Wearily he thought that it might be a very good idea to follow his suggestion and rest while he could, but first he had things to do.
Dar set about to collect enough branches, leaves and moss to make a fairly comfortable bed, big enough for Tao and himself. When satisfied the bed was soft enough he covered the bed with a blanket. He then carefully turned Tao onto his back eliciting a low groan of pain. He then lifted him and the blanket he had been lying on and gently as possible moved him onto the mossy bed.
Dar then brewed the tea and coaxed a little down Tao's throat, hoping it would be enough to bring the fever down.
Dar then snugly tucked another blanket around his friend's body and then lay down beside him afraid to get too far away. He lay on his side with one arm gently pulling Tao close.
He smiled as he thought of Tao's delight in finding out that Ruh had called him by name. Tao would truly love this.
Ruh settled himself at their feet, and moving the blanket with his massive head and paws he uncovered Tao's legs to mid shin. Dar lay hypnotized by the sight of Ruh's ministrations to his friend's ankles. He was giving them the same attention he had given the man's wrists.
Dar was bone tired and unable to think with any coherence, he simply lay listening to the sound of the tiger grumbling deep in his chest and the steady in and out of Tao's breathing. And then he was falling over the edge into unconsciousness.
Dar came awake suddenly sitting bolt upright. He looked around finding it to be mid afternoon. Still looking around him he wondered what had awakened him, and then he heard the mumbling sounds. Tao was tossing and turning locked in a nightmare. Dare could clearly make out his words. "No! No, more please, no. Kill me I don't care, but please no more." Dar lay his palm on his friend's forehead and frowned, clearly the willow bark tea had not worked.
He looked up to find Ruh staring at him, "He burns"
"I know, I've got to do something fast to bring the fever down, it's much to high."
Ruh humphed tilting his head toward Tao "He, uses water. Water stops the burning."
"I remember, thanks."
He began to gently shake Tao's shoulders trying to wake him, but to no avail. "Okay Tao, okay…I don't want to hurt you any more than you are, but I've got to get you to the stream." And as gently as possible he pulled the man into his arms again. He steadied himself and stood upright his back and shoulders stiff and aching from the night before. Tao lay limply in his arms, head hanging back, arms and legs dangling.
Dar reached the cool water and began to wade midstream. At it's deepest the water only rose to just below his waist. Carefully he bent his knees just enough to lower Tao into the cool water. He firmly held his arm under Tao's shoulders, but released the man's legs. He then very gently began to lightly splash a little water onto his face. Smoothing his wet hand over his friends brow, cheeks and throat.
He worried that the water might be too cool, Tao had taught him that bathing a fevered person with cool water could bring their fever down, but that it was also important that the water not be too cool. Bringing the fever down too fast could cause the patient to go into convulsions. Cautiously Dar lifted him out of the water and lay him on the stream bank where Ruh was sitting passively watching them.
Dar studied him for a moment before going for the blankets. There was no sign of the convulsions he feared, there was only trembling and shaking.
When Dar returned with the blankets he found Tao's eyes open watching him.
"Tao! You're awake!" he fell to his knees beside his friend "You had no idea how worried you had me." Dar's relief was written all over his face.
Tao raised a shaking hand toward Dar's face, "You came, I didn't think you would, but you came." His eyes still hadn't lost the glaze of his earlier fever.
"Why would you think I wouldn't come?" the Beastmaster voice was full of concern.
"How did you know? How could you have known?"
"I don't know how to explain it," he said with a shrug of his shoulders "I had a feeling. I don't know any other way to say it. I just had a feeling you were in trouble, so I sent Sharak to check on you." He said as he snugly wrapped his friend in the blankets once again.
There was a deadness in the Eiron's eyes as he spoke the next words, "You should have saved yourself the trouble, you should have let me die."
Dar felt as if he had bee hit in the stomach, "How can you say something like that?"
By now Tao was shivering so hard his teeth were chattering together, he could only lay there his soft brown eyes full of tears and pain and an almost bottomless sorrow, as he looked into Dar's.
Dar instinctively gathered him into his arms trying to be mindful of his injuries, hugging him tightly to his chest. "You mean much more to me than you seem to know. Tao, you are the best friend I've ever had or ever will ever have. You've taught me so much about so many things. And you filled an empty spot in my heart. You are closer than any brother to me and I don't want to face living in a world without you somewhere in it."
Tao was quiet for a moment, still shivering but not nearly as bad and for the first time in days he finally felt safe. But…if Dar only knew what had been done to him, how he had been ill used, ruined, soiled…he sighed heavily. Would he ever look at him the same?
He knew that he could never keep something like this a secret, not from Dar, so in a weak voice he decided to get everything out into the open. "Dar…they hurt me…"
"I know I've been tending your wounds," Dar whispered into his ear holding him closer.
"No, you don't understand, they really hurt me…there were so many…I didn't want…and day after day…I wanted to die, but…" he couldn't continue he buried his face in the crook of Dar's neck and began to sob.
Dar's heart broke for his friend, and again he was filled with that white hot rage. "Oh Tao…I know, I've tended that wound too." He held his friend tighter as he felt his quiet sobs only increase, and began to rock slightly, "I'm so, so sorry I was too late to save you, I'm so sorry…I wasn't there but…we're far away from them now, and there's no way they will find us. Just let it go my friend, let it all go."
Dar didn't know how long he had been sitting there holding his friend, when he noticed that sunset wasn't far away. He felt a huff of breath travel across the side of his face and looked up into the worried eyes of the tiger. "He's ok for now Ruh, but he's very sad."
Ruh nuzzled Tao's face and began to wipe away the salty tears with his tongue, "Hey, I'm okay Ruh, really" Tao squirmed laughing weakly, surprised at the attention.
"He's been that way since I brought you into camp early this morning. He hasn't left your side. And he's given you a name. You see Tao, there are too many of us who would miss you if you were gone. How empty this world would be without you." Dar hugged him close again.
"Come on, I need to get you back to the fire, it will be night soon and I need to replace your bandages. I also need to get some food into you. How long has it been since you've had anything to eat?"
"I'm not hungry, Dar" his voice was getting weaker "and I don't…don't think…I can walk." He closed his eyes and shame colored his face.
"That's okay, I didn't intend for you to walk, I carried you out here and I will carry you back, but I do intend to get some food into you. I think you'll be able to handle a little broth don't you?" and with that he lifted his friend from the ground and carried him back to their camp.
Dar gently lay Tao on the bed of moss and leaves again and began to check his wounds, cleaning and replacing the wet bandages. He turned him onto his stomach and took care of the wounds on his back side, wondering how his friend would react to that other wound being checked. Dar needed to know if the bleeding had stopped or he wouldn't have bothered him so soon after waking. He took a deep breath, "Tao, I know this will be hard for you, but I need to check…where you were hurt. I need to know if the bleeding has stopped. Are you up to that?"
Tao's fear was almost palpable, but he nodded his head and buried his face in the blanket.
"Okay, I'm going to turn you onto your side, and I want you to draw your knees up a little. Can you do that for me?" Dar very gently moved his friend onto his side and Tao drew his knees up as Dar had asked.
There was a tussle in the grass near the stream bank and Kodo and Podo bounded into the camp.
"Hey, and where have you two been?"
Suddenly Dar was inundated with mental images of eating and playing and finding something shiny and then there was some more eating and maybe some more playing. He could only chuckle and shake his head.
"I need you to settle down and stick around for a while, I might need you later."
The little ferrets chattered in agreement sending him images of the injured Tao.
"Yes, he's been hurt, and doesn't need to be bothered, so leave him alone."
Completely ignoring Dar, and in unison they bounded toward the bed, sniffing at Tao from head to foot. The little fur balls were everywhere tickling him under his chin around his neck across his chest around his feet, squirming around his stomach and back up under his chin. This proved to be a very useful distraction and Dar examined his friend quickly before the ferrets tired of their game and bounded off to play somewhere else.
Dar noticed blood mixed with the salve on his fingers was dried blood this time. That was a very good sign.
He covered Tao with the blanket once more tucking it in tightly around him. He had an odd suspicion that Kodo and Podo, had purposefully distracted Toa. Maybe they could feel his fear or unease, and had set out to comfort him in their own unique way. Whatever, it worked, and now Toa was asleep with the little furry beasts curled up tightly against the small of his back taking a nap themselves.
Ruh was hungry and with a final sniff around Toa's face, he padded off into the forest to hunt.
Dar kept himself busy around the fire. He had cooked a light stew, and was getting hungry himself, so he sat and ate some of the stew with a little bread he had saved from the day before. As he ate he watched his friend sleep. He seemed peaceful enough, maybe he was able to get a little true rest, he hoped so, Tao needed all he could get.
Dar let him sleep for another hour, but really needed to get some food down him. He had spooned some of the broth from the stew into a bowl and brought it over to where his friend lay.
Hating to wake him but knowing he needed to, Dar gently shook Tao's shoulder. "Tao, come on wake up. I need for your to eat."
"No," Tao groaned, pain clouding his face.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cause you pain." Dar smoothed his hand over Tao's hair.
"No, it was already there. You didn't cause it." He groaned again "Dar, I really don't think I can eat anything."
"At least try, you've got to get some nourishment into you or you won't be able to regain your strength. Please Tao, try." Dar was getting worried. The Eiron, already thin had lost too much weight in the last week. Dar would was adamant, he would have to try some of the broth.
"Okay, give me the bowl."
With Dar's help he painfully raised up into a slightly sitting, slightly leaning position, but he was too weak to stay there without support. Dar moved up behind him so that he could lean against his chest. Tao reached for the bowl, but his hands were shaking so badly that there was no way he would be able to feed himself. Apologetically he shook his head and looked down. "I'm sorry, I don't seem to be able…" he felt embarrassed at his weakness.
Dar only smiled, "It's okay, here let me help." He said as he dipped the spoon into the broth and brought it up to his friends lips.
Tao was able to swallow the first few spoons-full, but when Dar had tried to get him to take another, his stomach was actively rebelling against the invasion. He turned his head swallowing hard trying to quell the nausea that was about to overtake him. "Sorry," he rasped "No more please, I can't."
Dar set the bowl aside knowing that Tao had done his best, at least he was keeping this much down. "Okay Tao, that's enough for now. Are you warm enough, do you need more blankets?"
"I'm fine, just let me sit up a bit longer, I'm tired of lying down." He lied. He was miserable and afraid to go to sleep. He hated feeling so helpless, he hated feeling so needy, and as much as he hated Dar's pity he hated the thought of going to sleep more. Every time he drifted off he would find himself back in Zad's camp, and his men… He gave an involuntary shudder.
Dar noticed the shudder and tightened his arms, "Tao, you can sit up as long as you want, but if you would like, I don't mind lying down with you. We can share body heat, I feel a cool turn to the night air."
Tao could hear the exhaustion in Dar's voice, and felt like a child. Of course Dar was tired, he'd carried him for miles and then had had to play nursemaid for most of the day. As much as he wanted to say yes he shook his head, "I'm so sorry Dar." He whispered. "I…don't want to cause…I'll…be okay really."
"Sure you will," said Dar as he helped Tao to lie down on his side again. He tucked the blanket in around him, and then spooned up behind him. "Tell me if I hurt you," he said over Tao's shoulder as he wrapped his arm around his friend pulling him tightly against his chest.
Tao winced slightly, "Thank you Dar, honestly I'm okay"
"It's alright to be afraid, I don't think any less of you for it. In fact I'm not doing too well myself."
"Look, you don't have to humor me, I'll be just fine." He was feeling even more miserable and foolish.
Dar sighed heavily against Tao's ear, "Listen to me, I meant what I said, you really scared me." He sighed again, "You died Toa, for a few minutes you were dead. I couldn't find a heartbeat and you weren't breathing, your lips were even turning blue. I…I panicked…I began to shake you screaming for you to wake up. My hands were shaking so bad I dropped you, which I suppose was a blessing, because hitting the ground knocked the breath back into you." He was quiet for a moment, "Don't ever do that to me again." He said as he buried his forehead in the back of his friend's neck breathing heavily. "I swear, I'll kill Zad for doing this to you."
Tao was shocked by the bitter hatred evident in Dar's voice. He could feel his rage. "Dar! No! Not for me, don't do this because of me. If you kill Zad in anger or for revenge, you'll be no better than him, and you'll lose a part of yourself. The best part, and then in the end he will have won after all. Promise me Dar! Promise me you're not going to do something so stupid! I mean it! You have to promise me!" his whole body was trembling.
Dar pulled him even closer, nodding his head still pressed against the back of Tao's neck. His anger seemed to vaporize leaving him totally exhausted, and emotionally drained. "Whatever you want Tao."
"You have to say it Dar. Say it!" Tao wouldn't be able to live with himself if Dar went down that dark path.
"Alright, I promise. I give you my word."
Dar could feel his friend relax against him as he heaved a sigh of relief. "Do you feel better now? Still wish you had died?"
"No…I'm sorry Dar…I just…"
"And now? How do you feel now? Do you feel like sticking around for a while, because if you don't all promises are off."
"I think I'm going to be okay now, I think we're going to be okay now. Thank you for saving me."
Dar placed a kiss on the back of his head, "And thank you for saving me."
He knew that Tao was right. He would loose himself if he killed Zad, like he would love to do. His very soul cried out in rage, wanting revenge, but he knew the cost was too high. He would loose everything he had become, everything he had worked for and he would probably even loose Tao.
He felt his friend relax into sleep and he smiled burrowing his face into Tao's hair inhaling the herbal scent. Tao was alive and with him again. They were going to be okay.
He knew that Tao would need some time to heal, and he would probably have bad dreams for a while yet. He also knew there would be more than a few bad days ahead for his friend, but he would come through this. They would come through this together. By force of his will he believed that Tao would be okay, and he let this knowledge seep down into his bones. There was no room for doubt.
In the future there would be lovers, wives, children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren if they should live so long, but no one would ever be able to replace Tao. They were brothers maybe not in flesh, but most definitely in spirit. Dar felt as if his very soul was connected to Tao, and he was so thankful he hadn't lost him.
He sighed and allowed himself to fall asleep, knowing that tomorrow was a new day. An other day with Tao.