"The Gift of Silence–Part II" by Arwensong

(Dedicated to Astraplain, and with my gratitude to both Astra and Thyme, for their help and encouragement)

I gave my first love laughter, I gave my second tears,

I gave my third love silence, through all the years,

My first love gave me singing, my second eyes to see,

But oh it was my third love, who gave my soul to me.

"Gifts" by Sara Teasdale

Florian stared out the window of the room he had been given in Count Romanov's castle in Budapest. It was a far cry from the suite he'd enjoyed for such a short time in the Austrian palace. The dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary made travel between the two regions easy for a man like Romanov, but the difference in culture, even in this new, modern twentieth century, was startling to someone like Florian, raised in the far more cosmopolitan Paris. Seeing the bent forms of the shabbily dressed peasants as they tended the Count's fields, he could believe that he had traveled back in time some two hundred years.

Florian repressed a sigh. His mother had railed against what she had seen as the travesties of the latter part of the 19th century, when uprising saw much of his class' wealth stolen from them by the populace. He had been too young to form his own opinion then, so he had accepted his parents' belief that the nobles were entitled to keep what had been theirs by right of inheritance for many generations, held onto after the revolution by blood and courage. But surely this type of inequality was wrong, where the many worked in poverty for the wealth of one?

And such a one.

They had arrived at the Castle two days ago. Thus far, Florian had concentrated on learning his new discipline of silence. Laila and he had discussed it ahead of time. The fact was, it was too easy to accidentally speak no matter how disciplined one was, they'd decided, at least in the very beginning, so she had offered to pierce his tongue, as some of the harem girls in Morocco did for ornamental reasons, to aid him in remembering to keep still. When she first suggested it, he had been horrified, but she assured him that it stopped hurting–after a time–and was even considered titillating by some men. Florian did not want to think too closely about that, though of course his mind immediately had gone that route once he directed it not to! He wondered what Ray would think of his having a pierced tongue...

Ray would love it and probably find him some outrageously expensive gem to put in the tongue-ring, Florian had thought, blushing so deeply that Laila had nagged him for an hour trying to find out what he had been thinking.

But they had not had time to implement that plan, or any of the other clever ideas they had discussed. Laila and dear Solomon were back in Vienna and Florian was on his own in his effort to rescue Ray, who had gone through two more of those terrible transformations. Four when you considered that each day saw him go through two–one into a man and one back into a swan. It was in watching the pain that the man to swan change caused–both emotional and physical pain–that Florian almost cried out, and he knew that he needed to do something to prevent such an accident from happening and destroying all hope.

Turning away from the window, Florian moved purposefully to his jewel box. Selecting what he hoped would serve as a suitable tongue ring–it was an emerald stud set on a post– he used tweezers to hold the gold post in the flame of a candle for a few minutes to clean it as Laila had taught him to do. Whiskey worked also but he no longer was provided with a decanter in his room, he reflected, his lips quirking upward. Alas for the perks of nobility that he took for granted until they were gone. Like Laila herself, and her no-nonsense way of taking care of all of them, he thought. He hoped she was safe. Solomon and she were clever, far more clever than Romanov.

Though somehow that seeming greedy fool had captured Noir– so it was best not to underestimate him.

Deciding he had delayed long enough, Florian steeled his nerve and stuck his tongue out.

I will not wish for this to only hurt for a minute since the idea is for this to hurt for a good long time–long enough to remind me not to use this part of my body. Short of cutting it out, I see no other remedy. Here goes nothing...

The pain made his eyes water and blood filled his mouth with its coppery taste but he continued to press the post in, gagging on the blood and saliva that threatened to choke him before he finished. Head swimming, he finally felt the tip on the underside of his swelling tongue and clamped it. Done. He sank to the floor.

The Count sat in his salon, waiting impatiently for his quiet guest to appear. He had given him two days to become acclimated to his new situation–and to realize how dependant he was upon Romanov for his every need. Florian failing to be punctual for meals was not what Romanov was expecting at this stage of his plan!

Noir was brought in, the usual chains in place, and his eyes quickly scanned the room for Florian.

"Where is Florian? What new game are you up to, Romanov? You do realize that if you have harmed him, you will die, don't you?"

"And is it you who will kill me, birdman?" Romanov answered him flippantly but his eyes revealed his fear. Noir was not a man to trifle with, no matter how helpless he might appear. And there was that little matter of Azura Romwell. He had made it quite clear that foul play would not be forgiven. Removing the men from Vienna was pushing the line, Romanov knew, but hoped to excuse it by the presence of that Romany spy, Lailan. True, he had misled Azura about Noir not being able to be removed from the palace grounds but technically, it was only stretching the truth. Noir was still on Romanov land, and Austria and Hungary were one country, so it was not a big lie. Only a little lie.

While Romanov was working this rationalization out in his head, Noir was getting angrier. And an angry Noir is a very dangerous man. Before Romanov quite realized what was happening, Noir was behind him, the chain that bound his wrists looped over Romanov's head and tensed across his neck.

"One move and you are a dead man," Noir whispered.

"You will die if I die," Romanov said, his voice also a whisper since very little breath could get past the chain over his windpipe.

"True, but if you have harmed Florian, I do not want to continue like this. Can you say the same? I must tell you, I am more than a little insane from being a swan for weeks, so do not look for rational choices from me."

"What do you want? I cannot give you your humanity back, that must be earned."

"Tell your man to give me his knife and gun and then to unchain me. Let me go find Florian and do not hinder me. We will come down–if Florian is able to come down. If he is not, I will decide what I am going to do about you then."

Romanov was having increasing trouble drawing breath so he nodded to his man to do what Noir asked. The man would be punished later for letting Noir get the drop on them, though Romanov did not even see the master thief move. How could he be so fast?

Ray did not waste time. As soon as he was armed and unchained, he knocked the guard out and left the room, locking the door behind him. It would take Romanov some time to summon help with his bruised throat. Ray had noticed the night before that the bell pull was in disrepair, requiring the guard to leave to summon a servant each time Romanov wanted something. He knew any reprieve he had was temporary, but he hoped to have enough time to find Florian and find out what had delayed him.

It did not take him long. He wondered if his natural instincts were honed by his newfound animal nature as he found himself heading directly for a room on the third floor, which was usually reserved for those persons who were neither guest nor servant, the governesses and tutors who came from good families that had fallen on hard times. Ray's jaw tightened. Florian's title and bloodlines were no longer affording him protection–that was the message Romanov was sending.

Ray held his breath as he opened the door–letting it out in a rush as Florian's bloody, crumpled form was the first thing he saw. He ran forward–but not without remembering to lock the door behind him. Years of being a master thief made certain precautions second nature.

Rolling Florian onto his back, Ray touched his fingers to Florian's throat, and relaxed. There was a pulse. Lifting Florian from the floor, he carried him to the bed. He frowned– he knew he had lost weight though the days spent swimming had kept him in shape–but Florian must have lost a couple stone, and he could ill afford the weight loss.

Unfastening Florian's blood-soaked shirt, he checked for the source of the blood. He couldn't find any apparent injuries on his chest. Normally he would suspect a nosebleed, Florian was prone to them, but his nose wasn't bloody. The blood was all over his chin and...his mouth.

His mouth. Gently, Ray pried open Florian's mouth. He grimaced at the sight...and smell. Florian must have vomited at some point and swallowed it. He was lucky he didn't choke to death. The next question was why had he vomited, and more importantly, why was his mouth full of blood?

Retrieving the basin of water from the plain dresser that was one of the few pieces of furniture in the room, along with the bed, Ray dampened one of Florian's washcloths, which was neatly folded next to the basin. Carefully, he began to wash away the blood and vomit. Fresh blood welled up as he did, and he swiftly shifted one arm behind Florian so he could shift him into a half-sitting position.

Florian's eyes fluttered and he moaned. His eyes opened and joy lit them as he saw that it was Ray holding him.

"Don't...," Ray started to warn him, afraid he would speak, but pain had replaced the joy and Florian's hands flew to his mouth as he grimaced.

"What did they do to you?" Ray muttered under his breath. Shaking his head and smiling wryly, Florian opened his mouth wide to show Ray his handiwork.

"Why in bloody hell would he...no, he did not know where you were. You did this to yourself, didn't you? That is the emerald I gave you. So..again. Why? Not that you could answer me even if you were supposed to talk, not with that stud in your tongue, it will be a wonder if you will be able to talk normally when this is ..."

Ray stopped his complaining, which was only his way of trying to cover his worry, something Florian knew well, judging by the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eyes. He went so far as to wiggle his poor abused tongue at Ray, causing that frazzled man to run his hands through his hair and grin sheepishly.

"Well, I cannot say I am pleased with you, Amethyst, you scared about a decade off my life! When I think of seeing you collapsed on the floor with your shirt drenched in blood..." Ray shuddered, then continued, "but it was brave of you to pierce your own tongue like that. I hope you do not get it infected. Did you think to ice it first to numb it at least?"

Florian's widened eyes made Ray laugh quietly. "Let me guess–Laila. She must have been the author of this plan. Though to be fair, she would have had a painkiller handy to sooth your tongue once the worst was over. I wish I could do something but we will not have much more time. Romanov will break down that door eventually. Here, I was able to get this knife from his guard–keep it with you at all times. I suspect you will need to protect yourself. When I am in my swan form you will be at his mercy."

Florian wrapped his arms around Ray tightly. Ray rested his head on Florian's, inhaling deeply of his scent, blood and vomit mingled with the lavender and sandlewood and something else that was Florian's unique scent.

"I love you so, Florian. I promise you, we will get out of this," Ray murmured into the fair hair. He could feel Florian's nod. A moment later, Florian was gently pushing him away.

"You want me to leave?" Ray could not keep the hurt from his voice. Florian shook his head no; tugging on Ray's arm, he led him over to the window. The castle had small alcoves outside each window, even on this level. There was a padlock on the casement but that was hardly worth a second glance for a man of Noir's talents. Florian smiled when the window swung open as though there had not been a lock. He waved his hand in the direction of the forest–then paused, stricken. Was he communicating too much?

Ray read his mind. "Don't worry. You are allowed to gesture–this spell is not anywhere near as onerous as Romanov would have us think. I've heard talk. He's tried this before. Those swans who swam with me–they were all women before. Some turned by the old Count...some by this one."

Florian's shock was written on his face. His Amethyst really didn't need words to communicate, Ray thought fondly, pulling him close as he continued to look over the grounds–it was a different side than he saw as a swan. Perhaps he should leave the lake and explore. And perhaps he should be saying his ideas out loud so Florian could let him know when he was getting warm? He felt like smacking himself in the head. He dropped a kiss on Florian's head instead, and then turned around so he could sit on the window ledge and face him..

"Without Solomon and Laila, you will need help finding the nettles– I can search from the air. It will do me good not to just swim around all day. Plus– I've always wanted to fly. And then there's the whole you're risking your life to save me part of this adventure. What do you think?"

Ray raised one eyebrow inquisitively. Florian started to laugh but the pain in his tongue stopped him. He smiled ruefully instead, then nodded forcefully to be sure there was no mistake–he approved of the plan.

"Good. Let's see if we can get a start on it now instead of waiting for them to come for us. Start making a rope from the sheets while I check out the best route. I'll be right back."

With that, Noir disappeared out the window. Florian smiled fondly. The very familiarity of the scene was a comfort–how many times had he watched Ray disappear through a window like a black cat jumping into the night. While not quite inured to the risk Ray courted every time he went out as Noir–look what had happened this time!– it was reassuring to see Ray acting like himself. He was not so far gone into the feral nature of the swan that he could not remember how to pick a lock and walk across a roof like a cat.

Trying to ignore his swollen, painful tongue, Florian left the window and began to pull the sheets from the bed so he could knot them into a rope ladder. He heard sounds of people gathering in the hallway. Good thing this was second nature for him much as escaping through windows was for Noir.

Florian moved back to the window, a quickly packed bag in hand, as the first blows struck the heavy wooden door. By the time he was climbing out of the window, Ray was back. Florian offered him the bedsheet ladder, which Ray efficiently tied to the casement, using a knot that would come undone when he pulled on it a certain way. He then helped Florian the rest of the way out the window. Eyes sparkling, he told him, "Time for us to take back the control, Amethyst."

All Romanov and his men saw when they burst into the room were bloodstains on the floor, the bloody shirt and basin with blood-stained water. And the open casement banging in the night breeze.

Romanov swore in both of his native tongues. Lashing at his guards with the whip he carried, he ordered, "Find them...and bring them back."

He wanted Florian. Very much. The sight he'd had of the passionate, tender Noir that Florian brought out whetted his appetite for the master thief in an entirely new way as well. He was fast reaching the point where he cared not what Azura might do, he would take his pleasure from both men, breaking them to his will. And keeping them even when the spell was over–if it ever was over, that was. He liked the idea of two captive man/swans more and more. His father had many such creatures, why not start his own very special collection of male swans? Swans lived such a very long time...if they were careful.

Solomon held his gun on the chef, Francoise.

"Where did they go? And why were you left behind?"

The chef twisted his toque in his thin hands, his eyes darting from Solomon to Laila nervously.

"It is better to tell him," Laila advised him. "He might look like a bookkeeper but he is much nastier than he looks. He will shoot you in places that will hurt...very much...but not stop you from talking."

"But I did nothing wrong," Francoise wailed. "Me, I loved the Rochefort family. The Duke, he was such a lovely boy. I refused to have anything to do with harming him. That is why I was left behind. Because I would not help them! But I was warned. If I help you, I will be killed by the Count. He is a very bad man. I must get away from here. Who would have believed that to work with Romwell was the better job? I never should have hidden my skills and let Truffautte go with him. Me, the fool, I stayed here."

"Where did they take the Duke, Francoise? You say you love him, loved his family. You know that Romanov has nothing good planned for him, that is why he removed him from here. Where did they go?"

Francoise looked confused. "Why, is that all you want to know? I thought you were going to torture me for secrets about the spell! He took him to the castle, of course. He feared the two of you almost as much as Azura–especially after he saw that one put a protective spell on the Duke, one that would curse him if he harmed him or the jewel thief."

Solomon looked at Laila. She shrugged.

Grimly, Solomon questioned the chef more closely. Romanov had been positive that "Lailan" and possibly Solomon too, were planted by Azura. He fled to get away from them so they could not summon Azura, so whatever he had planned, he definitely wanted to keep Azura away from it. Why then had he shown Azura his black swan to start with? Or had he truly not expected someone to show up who stood a chance of breaking the spell?

Azura had been called away by urgent business. He'd been willing to ignore it and accompany them but Florian and Sugar had actually thought that Romanov would be less on guard without Azura there, given the competition between the two men. They had not expected him to act so aggressively against Florian, another member of European nobility. It was an important misstep on their part, Solomon reflected, and would necessitate calling Azura back as soon as possible.

Once he was satisfied he had all the information the man could give them, Sugar let the man prepare them dinner, though he had Laila watch him carefully. All things considered, he reflected, better to expose oneself to the cooking of a questionable ally with unquestionable culinary skill, than Laila's known cooking disasters, despite her unswerving loyalty.

As they sat enjoying the repast, they argued over their next step. Laila wanted to head for the Hungarian castle immediately. Francoise had been able to give him the general direction.

"And when we get there, what do we do? Break in? That will achieve nothing but our quick deaths."

"I can't believe I am listening to Solomon Sugar!" Laila exclaimed. "You want us to abandon Florian and Ray now, when they need us more than ever?"

"No," Solomon said slowly, but whether that was because he was thinking about how they were going to help Ray and Florian, or whether he was going to indulge in a second piece of gateau, Laila couldn't tell.

It was both. As he reached for the serving fork, Solomon said, "we must contact Romwell Junior and let him know what has happened. He will give us the muscle we will need to neutralize the Count. This step of removing Florian and Ray argues too strongly against Romanov's intentions of playing fair. We must assume he intends the worst and act accordingly."

Laila shook her head. "I don't trust Azura."

"I don't either but we can trust that he would not want someone else to destroy Ray and Florian. The man is obsessed with Ray, and by extension, Florian. It isn't so much that he hates Ray now as he hates not being important, the most important one, in Ray's life, just as he was when they were boys. He would love to have the opportunity to swoop in to the rescue. The fact that he came to get Florian demonstrates how much he wants Ray out of Romanov's clutches."

"Or for Florian to die," Laila suggested sourly.

"But if Florian dies in his attempt," Solomon reminded her quietly, "Ray is trapped as a swan forever."

Laila was quiet for a long moment. Then, finally, she said, "Do you want me to go or will you?"

"He is less likely to harm you out of spleen, and much as I hate to admit it, you are more likely to know how to get into his lair by subterfuge than I am," Solomon pointed out. "What I can do is head to Hungary ahead of you to lend what aid I can to Florian and Ray. I am willing that I be the one to go to Romwell, however, so it is your choice."

Laila thought about the choice. She wanted to help Noir in the best way she could. She hated that she couldn't be the one to break the spell, but she had to face the truth that Florian was better suited to being quiet. She had accustomed herself to the idea that her skill with healing would be useful but now it appeared even that was being denied to her.

"Facing down Azura is always dangerous, isn't it?" Laila looked at Solomon pensively.

"Most certainly. I confess, I'd prefer to take my chances with the castle full of guards, but I am willing to take the task you do not choose."

Laila picked at a small spot in the tablecloth while she thought. Solomon helped himself to more gateau. After several minutes, she raised her head. Romonov was going to need a new tablecloth, Solomon noticed, seeing the fairly large tear where the small spot once was. Considering the welt on his head and the bruises that marred Laila's face, he decided that was the least they should be doing to Romanov's prized possessions.

"Let's think. What little gift should you take with you when you go to visit Azura? You know the type of thing that Noir and Azura would like– Romanov would be sure to have something here that we, well, you, could help yourself to."

Laila grinned at the suggestion, but had to ask. "Is that wise?"

"What would Noir do?"

That was enough justification for Laila.

"What do you mean you cannot find them? A large black swan and a man who cannot talk? My people must know about them, have seen them! If talking to then has not yielded what I want, the you must beat them until they tell you something! It has been over a month! Someone must have seen some sign of them!"

Noir stood just outside the room and listened to Romanov rant at his staff a while longer. It was becoming a ritual. Every few days he gathered them together and issued threats. Sometimes he made good on the threats. Noir didn't mention that fact to Florian when he returned to him after one of his reconnaissance trips for food and information. Florian would feel guilty. His mouth twisted. He wouldn't want that. Then he'd have to feel guilty about Florian feeling guilty.

Noir left silently through the kitchen, but not before taking enough food for Florian and him, as well as some extra to give to the friends Florian had been making among the poorest of the peasants who lived on the Count's land.

He took a circuitous route back to the old hunter's cabin. It was a beautiful moonlit night, the type of night he loved to be out in...in normal times. Not now. Not when the only time he could spend with Florian in his own form was during the night. Dawn found him going through the agonizing transformation each day. But that was nothing, to his mind, not when he thought of what Florian was going through.

Slipping back into the cabin, not more than a hut really, Ray undressed quietly. Florian was in the small cot already. Ray knew that he was awake– Florian never slept until he knew that Ray was back safely, but he pretended to be so Ray wouldn't scold him for wasting his time worrying.

But then again, sleep probably didn't come easily to him. Ray sat down on the cot but instead of lying down next to Florian, he sat with his legs pulled up beneath him. He reached over and gently took Florian's hands between his own, holding them lightly. Florian sat up and Ray adjusted his arms and legs so that he could hold Florian on his legs, supported by his chest and shoulders.

Florian tried to pull his hands away but Ray held onto them, bringing them up to his lips to kiss them. He talked quietly while he slowly made his way, swollen finger by swollen finger, along the poor abused hands until Florian relaxed against him and let him continue his ministrations along the rest of his body, talking the whole time.

"You know, I don't have a lot of memories of my parents but the ones I do have are very precious. I run them over in my mind so I don't forget them, keep them fresh. There's one that I especially like to remember now that I'm older because I like to think it tells me what kind of person my dad was, what he valued. My mother used to look at her hands the way I saw you looking at yours. After living in the desert, taking care of a husband and child, she no longer had the soft hands of a titled lady of leisure, hands that marked her as one of the class to which she'd been born. She felt ashamed of them sometimes and worried that she was not as beautiful as she had been, that maybe my father would think her less beautiful. And my father would laugh at her and tell her that her hands were far more beautiful to him now, the hands of a mother and wife, than when they were the hands of a useless society lady."

Ray had made his way down Florian's chest. He looked up and smiled. "You were never a useless society man, but I can agree with my father. Your hands have always been truly beautiful, and I admit that I've admired them, I admit it. I bet you've been thinking,, Noir loves beautiful things and what will he think if my hands scar from these cuts from the nettles, or what if the calluses never go away. Let me tell you now and I'll tell you again every night if you need me too- your hands have never been so beautiful to me as they are now, swollen and cut with your labor of love. I hate that this task causes so much pain, but the appearance of your hands–that is something I will always look back upon with great pride for what you have endured for love of me."

Florian's eyes teared up, but they were tears of happiness. These past weeks, alone in the cabin for so many hours doing the painful work with the nettles that he gathered, he'd had a great deal of time to think. Ray had found an isolated area, the cabin one that had been used in ages past by huntsmen for former counts, those responsible for supplying meat for the castle, and also for making sure no poacher was "stealing" from the rich man's table to feed his family. It was a lonely time, even compared to his childhood, which had been very isolated at times.

The nights–those were heaven– hours of just Ray and him that made the pain and worry and isolation worth it. He worried about Solomon and Laila, but Ray told him to trust to their ingenuity and brains–it would take more than Romanov to best those two, Ray assured him. The best part wasn't the lovemaking, which was amazing, but all the talking that Ray did. Usually Ray was pretty quiet about the things that mattered most. He'd tease, or yell, and he was really good at plotting, but he rarely shared how he was feeling.

With Florian unable to talk, Ray's innate sense of fairness seemed to motivate him to fill in the quiet hours at first; but once he started talking, he took to it like he was the one who'd been bound by a vow of silence from which he'd only just won release. As a result, they had grown closer than ever despite the difficulties they faced.

Still, isolated as they were, the poorest of the poor did find their way to their area. At least, the women did. The first time Florian was approached by some of the older women by a small stream where he was washing the few items of clothes he and Ray shared, he didn't know what to do. A pile of nettles nearby bore testimony to who he was, and he knew from Ray's reports that the Count had men scouring the area for them, offering a reward for their capture. A reward would mean a lot to families like these.

His mind raced with these thoughts, trying to come up with a way of running away without leading them to the cabin, or, if he left the cabin, to figure out a way to leave word to Ray that wouldn't lead their hunters to him as well. Before he could take any action, the oldest women in the group walked toward him, her hands outstretched. He stumbled backward frantically, but she called out to him soothingly, first in Hungarian, and then in German. But it was the condition of her hands that spoke to him more than her words.

The old woman had badly scarred, twisted hands–that was what she was trying to show him in order to reassure him that she meant no harm. Florian stilled his flight and waited in silence as she came right up to him and took his hands in hers and raised them to her face, where tears were running down her cheeks.

"I took the vow of silence fifty-eight years ago for my Friedrich," she told him in German, which Florian knew from his years with his tutors, refreshed by his more recent adventures in Germany with Noir. "I was the last one to succeed, my young friend...until now. You have nothing to fear from my family or me. We wish only to help you...as much as is permitted. I can show you the way to make the shirt when the time comes and loan you a loom. The young ones, my granddaughters can help you seek out the nettles. And my daughters can help with your other chores so you can concentrate on your main task. This is not something to do without a family to help you and as one who loves a swan man, you are like family to us."

Meeting Gisela–which was the woman's name–brought a wonderful change to Florian's days. He no longer was alone. The lack of a loom for working the thread from the nettles into cloth had been worrying him, along with his complete lack of sewing knowledge without Laila, but that obstacle was now overcome. Ray was relieved that Florian had company–safe company–once Gisela thought to stay around to explain the changes in the small cabin. Her large family of daughters and granddaughters helped with the cooking and cleaning and took good care of Florian, enabling him to make good progress on the shirt. They also helped kept a lookout for any strangers wandering too near his area of the woods, giving him ample warning to hide. One of Gisela's sons was prepared to say he was using the cabin for a while if anyone should notice it was in use and make inquiries.

Florian enjoyed sitting by the stream and listening to the women when they did laundry. They insisted on doing his and Ray's also, teasing him about his fine black swan, which all of them had noticed of course. Gisela's husband had been a fine swan in his day and the family lore made all of them comfortable with the idea of a man who spent half his time as a swan, Florian realized bemusedly, wondering how Noel would take the news, if they ever had the chance to tell him about it. He hoped Laila or Solomon had thought to send letters to the boy while he was away at boarding school! No sooner had he the thought than he was amending it, hoping that if one of them had contacted Noel, they had not said anything about Ray being a swan and Florian performing a dangerous quest! No need to worry the boy.

An unexpected business trip. In Hungary. That would be a much better explanation.

While he was thinking about these matters, Florian was also picking nettles, the deep, poison filled spines piercing the skin of his calloused hands despite the care he used in plucking them from where they grew. The stinging gel would ooze out and seep into the open sores, burning so badly his eyes would water with the pain. It was hard to think of much else when picking the nettles, try as he might to focus on other topics. Like Noel at school. Or Laila and how she and Solomon were faring. What Gisela and her daughters were up to...

Screaming.

Floran dropped the basket of nettles he had gathered and hurried toward the stream. A trio of large, roughly dressed men were attacking two of Gisela's daughters and her oldest granddaughter, while Gisela lay silent on the ground, blood running from a welt on her head. The three women were struggling but they were no match for the larger, stronger men.

Florian needed to do something, and quickly. He had the knife on him that Ray had given him for protection–but to use it successfully against all three men, that would require a great deal of skill. Noir level skill, which he did not possess.

But he could bluff. He grabbed up several smooth stones.

Stepping forward into the open area near the stream, he sent a stone flying toward the head of the man who was furthest along in his assault on one of the women, Maria. Bull's eye! With a solid hit, Florian sent him falling sideways off of Maria, who started scrambling away, pushing her skirt down and moving away.

Two more stones sailed true, hitting their respective targets. The other two women were able to scoot away also, all three of them huddled around Gisela, checking to see if she was alive first, and then if she could be moved. Florian brandished his knife at the men. He couldn't verbally challenge them, he thought, frustrated, so he needed to keep their attention on him in other ways.

Waving the knife seemed like a good idea, while he waved his free arm toward the women, jerking his head sideways in a gesture he hoped conveyed the message that they should go for help–at once!

As the men staggered back up to their feet, the girls seemed to regain their senses. With Florian making his stand between them and the villains, they gathered Gisela up between them and started walking away as fast as they could.

The three men stared at Florian. They argued between themselves for a moment, in Hungarian that was too fast for Florian to catch, and then the scruffiest of the bunch smiled a nasty smile before switching to German before speaking again.

"If you take our women, peasant, then you will have to fill in for them. Good thing you aren't bad looking. With that hair, from the back, I can pretend just fine."

Florian wished he had not chosen to speak in German; that was a speech he could have done without. He debated running but he didn't want to risk them deciding to chase the women instead. So, he stood his ground and fought, handling himself well enough to make them... good and mad. Eventually, his knife tossed aside and his clothes ripped away, he was pushed to the ground. There was some further delay while they argued over who would go first.

They argued while the sun's setting rays were touching the water, a fact Florian was almost too beaten to notice. What he did notice, his heart leaping, was the sound of large wings overhead. A few moments later, just as large, rough hands were spreading his legs wider apart, there was the sound of a gun's blast and Florian smelled the gunpowder as it exploded into the chest of the man who had just climbed on top of him. The other two men didn't wait to find out more, they ran.

Ray came running up from the water just as Solomon Sugar ran forward from the woods, a pistol in hand. Ray looked up at him briefly as he knelt at Florian's side.

"No time to talk–you need to stop those two–permanently. If word gets back to the Count about Florian we'll have a veritable army descending upon us. Can you take care of that and then come back to help me get rid of this body?"

Solomon smiled faintly. "Good to see you too, my black cat. Sorry to be almost too late."

Ray, holding the trembling Florian in his arms, deigned to smile. "You weren't late at all. You were just in time. And I'm grateful. But I must take care of Florian and you must take careof those two loose ends before we have time to discuss my gratitude and where you've been, agreed?"

"Agreed."

Solomon Sugar was a peaceable man–but a pragmatic one. He had no trouble dealing with trash removal when it was necessary. He appreciated the two strong young men who showed up to help him bury the bodies, however. They told him they were from the Swan family, and not to worry–Gisela's family would never betray the Black Swan or the Der Mann mit dem vielchenblau Augen.

After the villains were dispatched and disposed of, Solomon took a moment to collect himself before going back to the small cabin that his new allies directed him to. He'd wandered for weeks searching for some sign of Florian or Noir. He'd almost given up and headed back to find Laila. Yet something had made him strike out one more time, and keep going, ever deeper into the forest. Pure luck had led him to the clearing by the stream at the exact moment when Florian needed rescue.

Luck. Divine Providence. Karma.

Whatever it was, it was a close call. He shuddered to think of what those brutes would have done to Florian had neither he nor Ray arrived in time.

Solomon had been born a Jew, but he'd abandoned the faith of his fathers many years before. He certainly didn't practice the mix of paganism and Christianity that Laila and Ray followed, but at a time like this...

He wished he had someone to thank.

TBC in the Conclusion– The Gift of Silence–Part III

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