"Please help me!" Roxas gasped, gripping the rock in desperation. He didn't know what the carved symbol was but he could go no further. His legs felt like rubber and he was cold, so cold, except where his blood dripped over clammy skin. Only his blood was warm now.
What do you desire? The question seemed to come from the depths of his mind, completely impersonal and uncaring. Roxas sobbed harshly and answered with the desire that came from the depths of his soul.
"Justice!" Justice for himself. For his family. For his sister… the world seemed to wobble for a moment but perhaps it was just his failing vision. Was he dying? This felt like dying.
What will you pay for this desire?
"Anything!" His voice broke on the word but Roxas meant it. He meant it with all his heart. Blood was dripping onto the symbol. Was it glowing? He didn't know or care. He was dying and this was probably nothing but a hallucination so nothing mattered.
"Anything!" His voice rose to a scream and he gripped the symbol, feeling the sharp edges of the carved stone digging into his flesh. That felt real in a world gone completely mad.
Very well. Roxas sighed, slumping down as he felt a strange peace. As if, for a moment, a cool hand rested against his forehead, intending to give nothing but comfort and ease. It reminded him of his mother. He could remember the time she had bathed him and his sister and they had played in the warm water of the tub…
The present faded away into dreams of the past, and Roxas knew no more.
"Ho hum." Axel stretched, cracking all of his joints, then paused to scratch his balls. It was morning in the hinterlands and there was no one to impress but himself. Which was fortunate, because at the moment he looked like a disreputable beggar. The kind of beggar other beggars would drive off on account of the smell. It had been a long time between baths but fortunately he didn't really need them, although everyone else might beg to differ. But he wasn't in the mood for company at the moment and the stench kept the world at bay. Aside from the vultures who found it appetizing but nothing was perfect.
The plan for the day was to walk the path of one of the lesser ley lines and direct the power towards the great wards. That was a fairly easy task but it needed doing and there were no other hands to do it. Humans could sense the rivers of power that made the ley lines, if they were properly trained, but diverting those flows was the work of a master. And while the diversion of primary lines was stable, the smaller flows had a way of separating out and going their own way. If that was allowed to continue eventually the great ley lines would shift as well and the wards would be robbed of needed power. The human wizards would only notice at that point, and by then it would be too late. So Axel walked the path, sometimes reaching down and picking up stones, bouncing them from hand to hand.
The redhead was vaguely aware that he was old and had once had a different life. He could even remember the details if he concentrated. He tried very hard not to do that. It was much easier to simply live in the present time, recalling only a small slice of history. The ancient knowledge wasn't really worth much anyway. People always seemed to have the delusion that great secrets lay in the past but in Axel's experience it was just the same old thing.
"The dawn never gets old though." Axel murmured as he gazed off through the trees. The sun was just beginning to rise and the beautiful colors of the early morning filled his heart with joy. The quiet of the trees, the rustle of the grass, the -
The strength of the plea nearly sent him to his knees. Blinded with pain and a more than mortal urgency, he surged back to his feet. Clothing abruptly shifted from dirty rags to rugged leather armor, scarred and well-used. Steel wheels filled his hands as Axel headed purposefully towards the demand. The world was asking this of him, although the voice sounded like a boy…
It was a boy. Axel stopped dead as he looked at the child, collapsed in a heap, his blood oozing onto an ancient stone rune. No wonder the land had reacted so strongly. Blood magic was always the most potent and the air practically reeked with desperation. Axel checked the area briefly and his lips tightened as he realized there was taint approaching. They were close to the border and while the taint itself could not pass the wards, tainted humans and other wildlife could range freely over the land. Stopping that was the army's job and they could only do so much.
Axel bound the boy's wounds roughly, noticing the spiky blond hair and pale skin. He was unconscious now and Axel could only be grateful as he lifted the child up, resting the limp head against his shoulder. He needed to get them both well away. Concentrating hard for a moment, he fashioned an illusion of the boy and bound it to a stick. It was slightly altered though… his illusion was clearly dead, face empty and stern. It would be fully tactile but would melt away in a day. Hopefully that wouldn't matter. Axel didn't think the pursuers were planning to take the child away for a respectful burial. Hopefully they wouldn't be planning to take the corpse away to eat it.
Pushing that grotesque thought out of mind, Axel set off purposefully out of the clearing. A quick backward glance confirmed he was leaving no real tracks on the hard packed soil. Another quick check of the boy let him know that he needed to get him real medical attention and soon or the child would likely die. That would not be good at all. Axel could and would be punished if he failed the Kingdom badly enough and for some reason this boy was important.
Hopefully he would find out why.
"Unh." Roxas whimpered softly. The pleasant dreams of his childhood and home village were beginning to break up, replaced with the awareness of pain. "Ahn!" Roxas gasped as gentle hands did something that hurt. Everything hurt but the way that cloth stung was so much worse.
"He has at least three broken ribs, m'lord." A woman's voice, calm and unaffected. Along with her ministrations it reminded Roxas of the village wise woman. But who was she speaking to? He struggled to open his eyes but could not. "Many cuts although the ones on his back are half-healed. Most from a whip but this on his arm? I believe that was from an arrow. Someone was trying to kill this lad."
"A good thing they had lousy aim." A male voice this time, just as calm as the woman's. It wasn't familiar though which was reassuring. Roxas would kill himself before he let his masters catch him again. They would kill him now, very slowly. "Child, are you awake?" The man's voice was a nice tenor, Roxas noticed.
"Yes." Roxas whispered, finally managing to crack open his eyes. The light stabbed at them and he winced, turning his head away. That made pain flare in his chest and he whimpered soft as a large, long fingered hand brushed his forehead.
"Poor child. Is there anywhere in the village we can stay, sera? He won't be fit to travel for weeks." Roxas blinked tears out of his eyes and managed to lift his head. There was a blobby blur of peach and bright red that gradually resolved itself into a man. A man with bright green eyes, odd marks on his cheeks and a mournful expression. The woman beside him was grey haired and heavily wrinkled although Roxas doubted she was much past middle age. Peasant women aged quickly in the harsh borderlands. She pursed her lips for a moment then nodded.
"The widow Gana and her son Dexo might have some room, m'lord. But you'd have to pay and work." Her tone was a bit wary at the second qualification but the man just flashed her a quick smile before lifting a hand. Roxas noticed it was heavily callused and not just from a sword. He knew those marks.
"I'm no stranger to work, sera." The redhead confirmed his suspicions, his smile fading back into that vaguely sad expression. The wise woman nodded.
"So I see." She lifted herself to her feet with a grunt, straightening her skirts. "I'll go see them, ask if they can take you. Watch the boy while I'm gone, if you would m'lord." The question was clearly perfunctory but the redhead dipped his head in acknowledgement before turning back to Roxas, picking up a cup and pressing it to his lips. The blonde gulped the water gratefully, suddenly aware of how parched he was. Then the redhead carefully broke the corner off a piece of bread and began feeding him. Roxas wanted to protest that he could feed himself but when he lifted his hand, it shook far too much.
"You look like you haven't eaten properly in a week." He observed in a quiet, neutral tone. Roxas nodded slightly, swallowing the food and wishing the redhead would hurry a bit. Hunger had been an ever-present torment for so long that the slow feeding was almost maddening. Although it might be for the best. Couldn't eating too quickly after a famine hurt you? He wasn't sure but he vaguely thought it might be so. It was hard to chew the heavy bread and his next mouthful was dampened with a bit of the water. "Can you tell me what happened? Or is it too soon?" Roxas shook his head. He couldn't bear to tell the whole story right now, when he could hardly breath without sending bolts of fire through his chest. Not to mention his back and his shoulders… he just couldn't face getting the whole story out. The redheaded noble seemed to understand, just nodding. "That's fine. You can tell me when you're feeling better."
"Why did you save me?" Roxas dared to ask. He wasn't used to seeing any kind of courtesy from the noble kind. Although this man… he wasn't sure if he was a noble or not. Very few of them had the marks of hard labour on their hands, although it might just be riding calluses as well as sword ones. And the nobility could fall on hard times, but that usually made them even more vicious because of it. Roxas shivered a little at the thought but had trouble believing it of this stranger. There was something kind about his almost sad face.
"I don't know yet." The redhead said calmly, making Roxas brow wrinkle in puzzlement. "I expect you'll tell me soon." He added quietly, his gaze flicking to the door of the house. Roxas took the hint and didn't ask anymore. The noble clearly didn't want the wise woman overhearing. Still…
"Who are you?" He needed to know that at least.
"I'm Axel del Harmin." Roxas relaxed a little at that. 'Del' was a noble cognomen, right enough, but in the strict caste system of the Kingdom it was a lesser one. It was given to squires, landless knights and petty counts. Was this man a landless knight? That might explain why he would do a random good deed. Many such knights swore themselves to holy orders. "And you are?"
"Roxas Weaver." Roxas said with a touch of defiance. That simple last name was descriptive of his father's profession, the profession he'd been training for until - Roxas bit his lip, drawing a curtain over the memory then banishing it completely as the redhead gave him another piece of bread. "Or Roxas il Semili." That was his home village and 'il' marked him as a peasant but not a serf. Axel nodded, but there was no recognition in his face. "It was on the eastern border." That made a flash of surprise cross the redhead's face.
"Truly? You've travelled far. This is the west-northern border." That made Roxas remember and his face went blank for a moment as he thought about the dark carriage he'd travelled in, the windows with the curtains tied tightly shut. "Roxas?" The blonde blinked and realized the redhead was holding out another piece of bread for him. He said nothing more and Axel didn't press. The bread was joined by a bit of cheese and cucumber slices, a tiny new vegetable fresh from the garden. Roxas ate it all until he felt stuffed then let his head fall back with a sigh, wincing at the pain of the abrasions on his back. It wouldn't be anymore comfortable to lie on his chest though. The bruises there were deep and newer than the half-healed whip marks.
The wise woman bustled in and Roxas blinked as he felt the air move. Lifting his head again he saw there was a young man with the healer, a stout, muscular boy with a friendly face. He was carrying a couple poles and cloth. Axel seemed to recognize it instantly, taking it from him with a word of thanks and spreading it on the floor beside Roxas' bed. The blonde suddenly realized it was a litter and blushed faintly, trying to push himself up. But the feeling of broken ribs grinding against each other robbed him of strength.
"Roxas, no." Axel's hand was on his shoulder again and Roxas shivered faintly at the feel of those warm, long fingers. The redhead had pianists' hands, as his mother would have put it. "We'll lift you. Just stay still." Roxas nodded weakly then gasped as the redhead gripped his shoulders, the other man taking his feet. They lifted him onto the litter with one smooth move and the wise woman tucked a warm blanket around him. "Thank you sera." Axel said respectfully then spoke to the man as they lifted the litter. Roxas tried to go limp, swallowing hard at the swaying feeling. It was like being in a hammock but he hadn't done that for years. "What will I owe your mother for her hospitality?"
"Just enough to cover the food and extra fuel, m'lord." The young man sounded as pleasant as his appearance, his voice a plain baritone. "It's a cold autumn." Roxas was grateful for the blanket as they stepped out onto the dirt path. There was a cold wind blowing and he tilted his head, managing to catch a glimpse of leaves. Flashes of yellow, orange and red. He'd lost track of the seasons in his captivity although he'd known it was getting cold.
"You have my gratitude for your kind charity." Roxas was quietly surprised to hear such courtesy from a noble, even a landless knight. The boy seemed a bit surprised too but pleased.
The next week was spent in comfort in a farmhouse that reminded Roxas painfully of his past. It was well-built and cozy with a cast iron stove that gave off wonderful heat and heavy blankets to keep him warm. It wasn't long before he could shuffle along although reaching out on his left side was difficult and bending over was almost impossible. Still, he managed to use the outhouse himself, which was a mercy. He couldn't begin to imagine asking someone to help him to the bathroom.
Axel vanished for several days, leaving a few silver coins for his food and board. The widow was a pretty, middle-aged woman and very kind to him. She brewed willow tea to help with his pain and tended the bandages every day. Her son was also very nice and gradually Roxas pieced together their brief life story. Apparently the widow's husband had died from pneumonia one winter after accidentally falling into an ice river in a wagon accident. Her son had taken over working on the farm, handling everything with good cheer. He was currently courting a young milkmaid and it looked like they would be posting the banns soon. They were all happy, safe and content and Roxas felt fiercely jealous for a moment.
"We were happy too though. Until…" He muttered to himself as he looked into the bowl of chicken soup on his lap. Axel's coins had paid for several chickens to make nourishing broth and delicious suppers. He picked up the spoon and sipped, eyes vacant as he thought. His family had been this happy until horror had struck, descending on them out of nowhere. Could the same thing happen to these people? Roxas shivered as it occurred to him that it could. "Justice." He whispered the word, tasting it. He'd asked the voice for justice, not revenge, because only justice could prevent it from happening again. Revenge was a tasty dish but Roxas wanted more. He wanted -
"That smells good." The blonde started, almost spilling the soup before a warm hand caught his shoulder. "Woah! Easy there. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
"I'm sorry." Roxas blinked up at Axel. The noble was wearing his leather armor and it looked grimy around the edges but still serviceable. It made him wonder a bit though. The unconscious arrogance of his bearing proclaimed him a noble but the redhead clearly wasn't at all wealthy, not wearing leather and walking everywhere. "Where did you go?" Roxas asked before sipping his soup again. There was no point in letting it get cold. Axel smiled briefly before sitting down across from him, dropping a few silver coins onto the table.
"I had to get some more money. Also, I found a horse and buggy." Roxas stared at him and Axel shrugged. "The world provides as needed."
"What do you mean?" The blonde demanded. Axel was far too mysterious for his taste. The redhead shook his head, resting his hands on the table and leaning forward. Roxas hesitated, caught by intense green eyes.
"I think you should tell me your story first. What did you ask the rune for, Roxas? And what price did it ask of you?" Axel's voice was soft, almost hypnotic, and Roxas found himself telling his story. It came out slowly, in short, halting sentences. The pain would not allow for anything else.
Roxas had been a child in a peasant village like any other. Their village was owned by the local squire, a fair and kind man with a small but well drilled retinue of soldiers. They were two days ride within the borders, not deep within the Kingdom but not part of the lawless frontier either. They should have been safe.
They weren't. One day when Roxas was eight, raiders came during the night. He didn't know how they had gotten past the army but they had swarmed over the village like locusts. Roxas didn't know for certain but he thought they had destroyed the squire's fortified manor and several other villages as well. There had been a lot of burning and a lot of smoke. His sister and parents had all been killed but Roxas had survived and been taken as a slave. Only a few slaves had been taken, all very young and pretty. Roxas could remember the jolting, terrifying ride, bound hand and foot and slung over a murderer's saddle.
Things hadn't gotten better in the enemy land. They were clearly tainted, and treated their prisoners viciously. None of them had much to eat and they learned to do whatever their captors wanted. Some tried to escape and were beaten to within an inch of their lives. What had followed had almost been worse though. An agent with only invisible taint had taken them back into the Kingdom and sold them to a dealer. From there Roxas had passed through a dozen hands before ending up in the grasp of a noble. The blonde only knew him as master. He had been required to sleep with him and various other, degrading things. Roxas began to go into detail but stopped after a few short sentences at the look on Axel's face. The cold fury there frightened him. Was the noble going to accuse him of lying? The noble kind did stick with their own…
"I see." Axel stood as Roxas watched, frozen. But the noble was just getting them some water. He came back a moment later and handed Roxas a plain earthenware mug. "That's a touch unusual. Such things are not unknown but the victims are usually from out kingdom, not our own people sold back to us." Axel's voice was calm and level but that was not reassuring. Roxas gingerly sipped his water, watching the redhead cautiously. "How did you escape him?"
"Oh." Roxas shook himself and continued the story. He'd just been lucky really. The noble had decided to go to a different villa for the winter, in a warmer part of the Kingdom and wanted to take his sex toy with him. He'd disguised Roxas as a page and kept him strictly confined to the carriage, limiting the food he ate to make him weaker and more tractable. But there was an accident. The axel broke on the unkempt roads and the carriage had to be unloaded so it could be fixed. Roxas had pretended to be completely cowed and then made a break for it the instant he could.
"Wait, the nobles men were following you?" Axel said with a frown and Roxas nodded. "They smelled of taint. Hmm. And what did you wish for when you found the rune?"
"Just… help. And justice." Roxas said reluctantly. It sounded so childish now. There was no real justice in the world… but Axel smiled sadly and nodded.
"I see. What price did you offer to pay?" He asked and Roxas frowned. The noble seemed to be taking all of this seriously. It was rather odd.
"Anything." That seemed to surprise Axel. He lifted an eyebrow, so well-shaped that Roxas wondered if he plucked them. But he didn't seem like the sort of person to do that. Maybe it was just natural. He also had lovely eyelashes, Roxas vaguely noticed. Sort of strange for someone with such strong hands.
"Anything? It didn't specify a price?" He questioned and Roxas shook his head. Axel sighed, finishing his water and pushing the mug away. "A blank note will mean a blank note from me as well, until the Kingdom writes the terms… well, you've given me your story. I suppose I should give you some of mine." Axel hesitated a moment before speaking carefully. "I'm a guardian of the Kingdom. Sort of an ancestral spirit." Roxas boggled at that. Was he serious? But then, magical creatures did exist. They were just very rare. "The rune you bled on was a ley line anchor. A very mystical place. It seems I'm bound to help you find justice for your family." Axel considered it a moment. "I'll need to think about how to do that." It would be very interesting. Roxas could not get justice if he was nothing but a peasant boy. Axel was a realist and while he didn't doubt the lads story, he knew many nobles would refuse to believe it. Not to mention that Roxas didn't even know the name of the man who had purchased him. To find out he would have to get into higher social circles. Axel suddenly frowned, his thoughts pausing. That wasn't right. The land wouldn't have handed Roxas a blank note, promising anything and taking anything for something this simple. There was more to it. How had raiders penetrated so deep into the Kingdom in the first place? Axel felt a chill at that thought but shrugged it off.
He would help Roxas find the man who had used him. Then they could think about the next move.