Alright

Pulling the small, cloth pouch from his pocket, Iain measured a precise portion of the herbs into a mug of warm water. He'd not anticipated how difficult it might be to request a simple cup of water, warm enough to dissolve the herbs, but without the traditional tea. His mother had looked at him oddly, just for a moment, before handing him the mug. Then, grasping his cheeks, she pulled his head within reach so she could kiss him goodnight.

It wasn't that late, but he was exhausted. Not from the walk, from the evening, from elation and tears. From talking and remembering. Had he not known Rafi was alive, he'd have felt her and seen her all night. His twin resembled his grandmother, now passed, but her mannerisms, her voice, they were MacKinnon. He saw her in his mother's face and his father's hands, he felt her in the house.

After he recovered from the shock of hearing Serafina had survived Ostagar, he been overwhelmed with questions. How, when, where? He'd asked them, or had tried to, forgetting his own story in his eagerness to hear all about his sister. A part of him wanted to grab his pack and his cat and run out the door that very night, and all the way to Highever. A younger Iain might have, the squire who thought he knew all about patience and perseverance, who thought he knew all about the world and what to expect from it. He'd have run until he dropped, slept, and run again. In his heart he did just that, in a sense, as he leapt from question to question, barely pausing for answers before he asked the next.

She had been injured, her left wrist. A tickling finger traced his spine as he glanced at his own left hand, the gnarled knuckles obscured by the shadows and dim lamp light. His grandfather followed his gaze and Iain removed his hand from the table and set it in his lap. He avoided Gavin's eyes for a few minutes afterwards, looking instead at his mother, then his father, as each of them spoke.

After Highever had been restored to the Couslands (Serafina had participated in the rebellion – pride in his sister swelled his chest as regret and shame at his absence curled in his gut), Rafi had returned home, to Stormgard. She'd been quiet, they said. At this, Iain frowned. He was the loud one, Rafi was the quiet one, these facts were immutable. He'd calmed over time and she'd learned to come out of her shell a little, but they were who they were, male and female, light and dark, loud and quiet, opposite sides of the same coin. For his parents to tell him Rafi had been quiet meant something else entirely.

It struck him then, and the dizziness he'd felt earlier returned. She'd been through her own version of his nightmare and thought him dead. He remembered how he'd been a year before; he'd barely been able to speak, still.

Oh, Rafi...

He felt he'd failed her again, then, just as he'd felt so when he'd first heard about Ostagar and on and off over the past year and a half – when he dared think of her at all. He felt the tearing inside, the pain that grabbed him when he imagined her gone.

"Iain?" His father's voice was soft, gentle, and Iain glanced up and saw the concern in the older man's face. "Are you alright?"

He nodded, he almost always did in answer to that question. He'd escaped Howe's dungeon; every day after that he was alright.

A meal had passed while they talked and Iain did not remember the taste of it, but when they wanted to know his story, he was glad for the warmth in his belly.

"What happened to you?" One of them asked. It didn't matter who, they all wanted to know.

Pulling his left hand out of his lap, he put it palm down on the table and moved it forward so that the lamp sent his oddly shaped knuckles into stark relief against the shadowed valleys between. His grandfather's attention shifted to his hand immediately. It wasn't a gruesome injury, only his most visible one, besides the scar on his face and the brand on his wrist. He kept his sleeve pulled down on the right side out of habit now, rather than show off that particular mark.

"I fought Howe's men," he said. "I fought them until I lost my shield and my sword and then I hit them with my fists. I lost my gauntlet and I kept fighting." His father reached over to squeeze his forearm. Iain turned is cheek slightly to highlight the scar that traced the right side of his face, almost from the corner of his mouth to his ear, following the line of his jaw. "That's where this is from, an arrow caught me. I'd lost my helm," he'd only had it a month, "I'd lost nearly everything then, they were like frenzied animals the way they came at us." It had all been so very different to sparring with others in the yard. No politeness, no rules, no breaks for refreshment – only the endless clash of steel, the sting of his wounds, thirst as the night wore on, the haze of smoke and stirred dust. Pain. Men dying, not falling away to crawl back to their feet, by dying, leaving blood on his sword and his hands. As the bodies piled up he'd not been able to distinguish friend from foe and the castle had reeked of blood. He still had little idea who else had died, who else might have survived.

"The arrow knocked me into a wall and I don't remember much after that. My ribs were broken and it was hard to breathe. I'd hit my head... I remember hitting someone until my hand broke," even now, catching his knuckles against something solid caused him to wince in memory, "and then I was in the dungeon." He'd not felt every wound or bruise as it happened, he'd been caught up by the need to keep going, to stay on his feet. Only afterward, in the dungeon, had it hurt, together, all at once.

A soft whimper came from his mother, and Iain turned to look at her. She had her hand to her mouth again and she looked so very frightened. Reaching across the table, he took her other hand in his. "It's alright mum," every day after his escape was alright, "I escaped."

He wouldn't tell them what had happened below Vigil's Keep. Only one person had that story, Shy'danu. She was the keeper of his memories, his stories, as she was for all the crew of La Stella Cadente. And even if he wanted to tell it, he wouldn't. To tell them what their child had suffered – it would be wrong, he felt that with ever fibre of his being. He'd escaped, that was all they needed to know. He was alright.

He told them of finding Idowu's ship, of the captain himself, of the bargain, and briefly of his time aboard. They all nodded in silence and he realised they were as tired as he; it was too much to tell in one night.

Sitting in his room later, he gazed down at the mixture swirling in the mug and then he drank the tea quickly, grimacing at the taste of moldy leaves. He did not dream every night, in fact, over the last few months his nightmares had been less and less frequent. He'd barely used the herbs at all, and usually only after waking from a dream, so that he might spent the rest of the night more peacefully. This night, however, he would take no chances. He had learned to anticipate times when he was more susceptible to the dreams. When he was over tired, emotional or not well. When he was angry or depressed. Unfortunately, a side effect of using the herbs too often was that very depression that might bring on nightmares. It was a balancing act – such was life.

Sitting on the edge of his bed, he leaned down to pull his boots off. After removing his socks, he inspected the soles of his feet, checking the twin scars for signs of swelling or infection. He'd walked far that day. The marks looked a little red, but otherwise fine. He stared at the sole of his right foot for a while, forgetting where he was, and then he looked up at the bed across the room, Rafi's bed, or, now, his grandfather's. Dropping his foot, Iain let his mind wander back across the years. He smiled as he imagined a pillow sailing across the room towards him, the combination of pout and frown on his sister's face. Likely he'd said something or done something to antagonise her and she'd retaliated. He'd teased her horribly, not because he was cruel, but because... he could. She knew him like no other. He could say things to Rafi that no one else would understand. Sometimes it felt as if they spoke a different language to the rest of the world and when they played and teased, he knew he could approach the edge and never quite topple over. Always she forgave him. In return, always, he was there for her. Whatever she asked, whatever she wanted, he could not deny.

He'd failed her, and it tore at him again, how much he'd missed her. In the dungeon he'd sung to her. Sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly. Sometimes he imagined her singing with him. The other prisoners had complained at first, then, when he didn't sing, when he'd been beaten too badly, tortured too cruelly, or was sick with fever, they worried for him and whispered snippets of tunes they remembered, encouraging him to sing again.

His shoulders began to tremble and he crossed the room to her bed, which was now his grandfather's but he still imagined it was hers, and he curled up on it and hugged the pillow, missing her more now than he had before. Now that she was so close, yet still too far away. The mattress dipped lightly behind him as Socks leapt up from the floor and a soft, rumbled purr sounded as the cat picked his way over Iain's curled body to settle against his stomach. Iain stroked his friend absently, then slipped his arm around the cat, moved him upwards and let his tears fall into fur. Socks didn't mind, he'd performed the service before. After a while, the herbs took hold and man and cat together slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.