We Shine Brightly (2/3): gift for [livejournal.com profile] bootson

Dec. 30th, 2012 10:49 pm
[identity profile] stuffitmod.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] bandomstuffsit

Part 1

Frank scoops up his satchel, handing the strap to Brendon as he takes his spot to Brendon’s right.


“We haven’t all the time in the world, after all. Got presents to unwrap soon.” Frank’s voice plays at blandness but fails to hide the amusement skimming the surface.


Brendon reaches down and wraps warm fingers around Frank’s wrist.


“Not my fault.”


He uses his right hand to grasp his locket. Lady Luck settles her head firmly against his neck as Brendon opens the locket.


“You had your chance to open yours early.”


His words start out bathed in heat only to finish chilled when the world around them reknits itself into the barren wasteland of winter. The sweat beading at his hairline automatically begins to freeze. It’s uncomfortable, but not a new sensation.


“Where to now?”


Brendon knows only a portion of the forest surrounding them. He traveled through only once. He and Greta spent a late February night under the hazel trees at the path’s edge before stumbling to the oak to ask for safe passage elsewhere.


By the end of their journey, he was feverish and Greta had to steady him when he walked. The experience was far from fun. But not long after, they found the city. So there was no longer a reason to continue traveling.


Frank and Gabe shrug in unison.


“I hear water. Following its path, we’re bound to find a town, sooner or later.” Frank stalks off of the vague path toward the rushing of a river that has the grace or maybe the stubbornness to not freeze over during the frigid temperatures.


Brendon doesn’t hear the water, but Gabe seems to because he’s right after Frank hunting for the mysterious river that’s hidden by the congested mass of trees growing in a tangled mess past the path. It shouldn’t be surprising, Gabe’s attuned to bodies of water and Frank was trained to listen for context clues.


Unlike Brendon, who was taught softer subjects, even before he left for a better life.


It doesn’t make him useless, just reinforces their trio as well-rounded. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses. When together, they’re complete in ways that they aren’t when separated.


Which is a heavy thought to mull over while he’s struggling to catch up with the guys. Gabe has ridiculously long legs coupled with an eerily keen ability to climb rigging without tangling up in the ropes and Frank’s short with a fast stride akin to that of a stalking predator. Brendon’s just an average person, magic flowing through his veins or not. He hasn’t the natural grace nor the training, even if he’s scarily good at sprinting after years of growing up in a household of many brothers and sisters.


Not that that skill has much use here, where the trees and bushes have grown into a knot of thrumming life past the line of hazels that herald the oak set just off the path, to the left. It reminds Brendon of the stand of trees not far from his parents’ property. Only there was room to move freely without being caught tangled-up in a mass of limbs and vines if one decided to explore without the aid of a trappers’ trail.


Lady Luck flies through a round hole left open where two tree limbs loop around each other but fail to completely fuse together and he follows below her, mostly by slipping between gnarled and twisted roots that have grown upward instead of down into the hard ground. The path forward is congested and slow going. Frank’s taunting Gabe about his height when Brendon finally makes it through the tangle of trees and hibernating underbrush.


“Pines were not meant to stride through a hardwood forest it seems.” Frank’s voice is peppered with amusement at Gabe having to stretch after being confined to slouching or clinging to tree trunks just to make it through.


“While tiny, long-haired hares, like you, were born to dart through the gaps? You’re right, height means nothing.”


Brendon has to strain to hear their bickering for the sound of rushing water is almost deafening. It seems that if one were to dash through the forest too quickly, they’d stumble and find themselves swept down the river that cuts its path parallel to the treeline. There’s barely enough bank to stand on safely without falling in.


He’s mildly surprised that Frank didn’t accidentally drag both he and Gabe into the frigid drink. Leading the way or not, he has a tendency of falling into lakes or rivers when they’re together. Brendon’s lucky he had to slowly pick his way through the mess behind him because if not, he would have toppled the three of them into the river himself.


Graceful, he is not.


There’s ice clinging to frozen, dead grass at the edges of the river bank. The river mist hanging over the water stings as badly as a nest full of angry hornets when a breeze kicks the frozen moisture in their direction. Brendon shoves his hands into his coat pockets and pulls out his favorite pair of gloves. They’re black leather and lined with the pelt of some game animal Frank caught and skinned after he was transferred from the local militia to that of the kingdom’s main military patrol.


They were the first gift Brendon ever received from Frank while they were in the bubble. The unwrapped bundle came with a story as blunt and as unfrilled as Frank usually was when he felt uneager to embellish the way Gabe usually did.


An acquaintance of Frank’s bet against his trapping skills one fall night when their unit was resting after a long day of patrolling. The next morning, Frank signed on to trap game for the unit’s daily meat requirement.


By the end of the reaping season, Frank had an impressive tally of snared kills. He had won the bet and the acquaintance lined his newest pair of gloves with the spare bits of pelt and gave them to Frank as a reward.


Instead of keeping the gloves, Frank gave them to Brendon, seeing as the excessive trapping had turned him against the unnecessary slaughter of animals. Though it didn’t curb his compulsion to take on arbitrary bets just for the sake of winning. There’s nothing that can break him of the habit. His need to prove others wrong runs much too deep for that.


Gabe pops the collar of his winter slicker with one hand and adjusts his grip on his duffel with the other. “The clouds are thinking about showering us with pellets of ice. We have a day’s worth of light left. Unless someone wants to pitch an imaginary tent here, we might want to move.”


Frank shrugs before marching off southward at a steady pace. His knit cap is pulled down low, almost covering his eyes even though there’s a few strands of dark hair trying to escape by crawling down to the edges of the wool.


The cap is a twin of the one Gabe’s wearing.


Brendon has the triplet shoved in another coat pocket. He transferred the cap to his coat almost a week ago, the same as the gloves, when he realised the wind and chill weren’t going to let up; it was only going to get worse. He never starts out wearing the woolen monstrosity because he already has a hat for the city, even if she’s really not a hat at all.


He crows victoriously when he finally fishes the thick, woolen thing out of an inside breast pocket. Gabe laughs at him, placing a steadying hand between his shoulders when he sways a little too forcefully from trying to tug the cap down over his freezing ears.


He turns his head and grins up at Gabe. “I still don’t believe that this thing was knitted from enchanted yarn. Entertaining story or not.”


Up in front of them, Frank scoffs. His voice has to fight against the noisy river for proper attention. Thankfully, by now, Brendon’s used to the sound, so it’s easier to ignore in favor of his jibbing.


“That’s because they weren’t. Knowing Gabe, he found the blasted things in a rubbish bin and thought them too amusing to be left to rot.”


It’s plain by the bite of his words, Frank’s being deliberate. His sarcasm loves to come out and play when Gabe’s in a happy enough mood to indulge his cutting sense of humor.


Brendon’s never met a more unusually complimentary pair of fellows. Upon first look, one wouldn’t think Frank and Gabe to be friends let alone two of the closest people to have ever decided to run schemes and rackets together. To say it was surprising when Brendon found himself easily included in that friendship is a gross understatement.


“It wouldn’t be the first time someone threw out an object of worth without knowing their mistake. That’s how I found the lockets. Not that they were in a rubbish bin, more like scattered about a back alley behind the clocksmith’s workshop.”


Gabe pats him on the back and hums something happy and jig-like under his breath. A second or two after, Frank joins in. It takes Brendon far too long to recognise the song as one of the pub ditties he learned his first few years living in the city.


There’s this small dive of a joint called The Fiddler’s Stage that Spencer used to frequent before he and Greta married. There were plenty a night where Brendon would find himself dragged away from his apprenticeship and the work table piled high with broken and unfinished toys so he and Spencer could unwind there.


Those first few years were when Brendon realized he could have more friends than just Frank and Gabe. Not that the notion ever stopped him from writing letter after letter across the parchment pages of his journal or slipping out of the city to visit with them when the time was right.


How it took him forever to realise he was in love with them will always amaze him. Greta still laughs at him for coming to that thought as late as he did. Because, of course, Brendon holed up in her and Spencer’s spare room the rest of the Christmas party that night just mulling over everything before she knocked on the door and let herself in.


But that’s jumping too far ahead. Or is it skipping too far into the past? Brendon doesn’t know. He shrugs his shoulders without meaning to and Gabe arches an eyebrow when he doesn’t mention what he’s thinking about.


Lady Luck flies ahead of Frank before banking back and dropping to perch on his shoulder. She whistles along with the harmony and Brendon feels a grin tug at his chilled lips. She’s a songbird at heart, and the only time he ever left her at the shop or his upstairs room while he and Spencer went out, she was angry enough at him to stay silent for a week.


Ever since then, Brendon’s made sure he has his hat for every occasion of merriment. He learned his lesson. Lady Luck goes with him almost everywhere, these days. Spencer might not get out as much anymore and The Fiddler’s Stage might have been exchanged for The Pale Pony with the lads down the lane, who are apprenticing at the master carpenter’s shop, but the singing of vulgar or drunken ditties has yet to change.


It’s fun getting to be loose and lax enough to belt out rubbish about barmaids and busty millers’ daughters without blushing the first time around.


It seriously used to amuse Spencer to no end that Brendon didn’t know a single slum song. He took it as a personal challenge to acquaint Brendon with as many dirty jigs, stories, and songs as possible.


Those were fun nights.


Brendon hadn’t the heart to tell Spencer that it was less a naivety towards vulgarity as it was an unfamiliarity with the realm he resided in. It took three years before Spencer realised the truth. After that, he prodded until Brendon taught him a few of the lesser involved tunes he had learned back home. Though, those never included the shanties, hymns, and cadences Gabe and Frank taught him.


It felt much too sacrilegious to tell the tales woven into those tunes.


“Some people don’t know what they’re missing.” Is all Gabe says before he launches into a full-out historical ballad that has Frank groaning and twisting around to walk backwards while pointing at Gabe and declaring him dead to them.


He joins in, regardless.


It’s hard not to when it’s the Ballad of Cornish Hall, which starts out pleasantly enough and ends woefully tragic and sad. It’s never been one of Brendon’s favorites, but then stories of war and the fractured lives of lovers who came out of the mess broken and alone never are for they cut dangerously close to the thoughts he’s never enjoyed entertaining.


Yeah, not exactly a happy tale that one is, though, it starts off joyous enough.


Brendon waits until the chorus breaks down into the happy hurrahs of the service men celebrating their first victory before he grabs hold of the narrative and switches it with a less tragic tale. The cold air carries his voice higher above their heads now that the river’s slowed to a more sedate pace, with ice forming across more of the bank muffling the racket some as well.


Frank nods in front of them and picks up his pace. He won’t actively sing Mallory Mains. However, Brendon imagines he’s smiling as much as he ever does when he’s stumbled into remembering his forced enlistment. Gabe huffs sadly at Brendon’s side, but then he’s always been oddly fixated on Cornish Hall for a person who bemoans the existence of the military at every chance he can get.


It’s possible that all the complaining and contempt came more from Frank’s plight than any other self-appointed opinions on the matter. Much in the same way that Brendon dislikes both the merchant traders and the military for taking his two favorite people away from him.


The rest of the evening finds them breaking from the river, perhaps, a few hours before dusk, to follow a very worn path as it hugs the treeline. Brendon’s pocket watch hasn’t been wound yet. He forgot to wind it when they left the bubble, so he’s unsure of the exact time. Maybe Gabe was right to invest in a wrist sundial, considering the thing needs no wound cogs or springs to run.


Brendon’s still partial to his pocket watch. It’s one of the few trinkets he was able to smuggle out of his house all those years ago. His parents forgot that it wasn’t something he tinkered into ticking away the wound hours. There was no way he wasn’t going to use that to his advantage.


There’s that concept of not being the most honest person ever, again. It’s not really a problem. Not one Brendon imagines he’ll be called on anyway. The guys prefer him just the way he is, which is to say mildly naive with a dash of inventiveness, a sprinkling of wicked humor, and a hell of a lot of fake wide-eyed wonder when he’s feeling extra impish.


As dusk finally approaches, Frank slows to a more sedate pace while Brendon and Gabe bookend him when he drops the few steps behind to fall in line with them. The path under their feet expands and breaks from the treeline in a mad dash for the town that’s now in the distance straight ahead.


A crooked post juts upward from the ground in an attempt to touch the sky. A handful of weathered hand-painted signs point in several directions. At the post, part of the path separates into several smaller trails that snake away from the town.


One particularly curvy trail plays tag with the treeline before plunging right into the thick of the darkness. Brendon finds his eyes continually wandering in that direction. There’s something tugging at his magic. It’s this small creeping feeling of fingers snagging in imaginary netting before twisting the ropes with subtle snaps to the rigging.


He can’t remember ever feeling this way. A sharp whistle right near his ear causes him to startle and almost trip over his own feet when Lady Luck chirps. “You’re worrying them. Just don’t look and you’ll be fine. It’ll pass.”


Brendon wants to ask what will pass but he doesn’t get a chance to because frozen rain begins to fall. It seems the heavy clouds have finally decided to make good on their earlier threat.


Gabe tugs on his slicker while cursing the clouds for being cruel.


“Finicky old blowhards, can’t ever freaking wait.”


He twists gloved fingers into Brendon’s coat sleeve when Brendon starts off in the wrong direction. Away from the town, in hopes of following the trail into the forest.


“Wrong way, Bren. There’s bound to be a nice inn in town where we can stay instead of the frigid forest.” Gabe’s voice sounds almost far away.


Brendon isn’t sure why. He’s distracted by the vague sound of voices that seem to be playing tag amongst the drops of sleet and has trouble focusing.


Frank snags his free hand and, together, he and Gabe drag Brendon through the town’s open gate. Lit street lamps flicker in the wind, casting shadows against the glass walls of their prisons. Brendon leans heavily against Gabe’s side and stares at the yellow flames.


Darkness is rapidly approaching them, along with the storm. The air feels thick and charged. Brendon closes his eyes and tries to calm his racing heart.


He’s safe here, standing in the middle of a cobblestone road with buildings rising up around them. There are wards up. Lots of wards. He can feel them. Just as well as he suspects Gabe and Frank can.


It still does nothing to explain why the forest was suddenly enticing when hours before it was not.


People walk by. Some whisper things he can’t understand. Frank’s hand tightens around his wrist. Gabe tugs off his knit cap and replaces the wool with the felt of a warm hat. Brendon stiffens and with his free hand, plucks the hat from atop his head.


It’s Lady Luck. She’s transformed herself back into his hat. He runs soothing fingers across her brim. She rarely changes forms without his assistance. It’s alarming to light onto why she would resort to twisting into this form again without his knowledge.


“What happened? I...I don’t understand. The forest, is it enchanted?” Brendon knows his voice crawls out as a confused whisper. However, he’s unsure as to how to change his tone seeing as he is confused.


Frank shakes his head.


No, it’s not. Come on, it’s freezing out here. We’ll talk about it once inside, okay?”


Brendon finds himself nodding. His eyes trip first from Frank to Gabe before cycling back to Frank again while he and Gabe share worried glances with each other when they think Brendon’s not looking. It’s glaringly obvious there’s something he’s missing. Something extremely important.


It’s unnerving.


He lets himself be herded to the nearest inn. The sign swinging in the wind is rusty at the hinges. A screechy scrape of iron follows every downswing. Frank pushes the door open and Gabe closes it after they file in.


The innkeeper doesn’t ask for identification, only inquires on the state of their affairs while Gabe hands him three gold coins for their stay.


“Room’s up the stairs and to the left. There’s stew left hanging over the hearth. Help yourselves.” Is all the short, stocky man says before he pockets the gold coins and turns to shout at a young man shelving ledgers behind him.


He doesn’t seem to care about three men sharing a single room, but then, with travelers it mustn’t be uncommon. Brendon shrugs and finds himself looking out the frosted front window in the direction of the hidden treeline.


There’s no magic tugging at his spirit now. That doesn’t mean he’s forgotten or lost interest. It feels as if there’s this round pebble lodged in his chest that is nothing more than a knot of want.


Brendon longs to pick at that knot until it unravels.


The sound of thunder is unexpected, though, not uncommon for a winter storm. He jumps at the sound, regardless. Frank and Gabe steer him up the stairs, away from the front door. They seem wary and on guard.


“Just tell me” is out of his mouth before Gabe’s even shut their room door fully.


Frank sighs and rips his knit cap off his head. He tosses the woolen thing at the bed before walking to a rickety chair and dropping down to sit after letting his pack settle at his feet with his walking staff leaning against a nearby wall.


“What have you ever heard of The Hunt?”


Brendon shakes his head. “Not much. Aren’t there songs about something like that? It’s an ancient rite, I think.”


“Something like that. Only not. It’s dangerous and to be caught up in the madness is unwise.” Frank stares at his hands. He won’t look at Brendon.


Gabe sets his duffel at the foot of the bed. Once his coat is hanging from a bedpost, he perches on the edge of the footboard. Brendon’s expecting him to say something, but he doesn’t.


“Why?”


Frank takes his gloves off, slowly. “Because it’s when the dead get their chance to hunt once more, Brendon. Any mortal brought into the fray is lost to death or something much worse.”


Brendon’s breath catches in his throat. “Oh.” He didn’t know. “I didn’t know.”


“No harm, no foul, Bren. Just don’t wander outside during the storm without us.” Gabe kicks his boots against the bottom of the footboard to stress his words.


“Why didn’t it draw you and Frank in with me?” Brendon lets his satchel slide from his shoulder and sets his hat on the back of Frank’s chair.


Lady Luck ruffles her feathers out before hopping from the chair to Frank’s shoulder. From there, she flies to the table sitting nearby.


“You’ve been away from home for far too long” is the only thing she chirps. Apparently, pruning her feathers is more important than saying anything more.


“We’re used to old magic. Don’t dwell.” Gabe shrugs as he tips backward and falls on top of the heavy mass of quilts covering the bed.


Frank unbuttons his military coat. When he stands, he drapes the fabric across the back of the chair. There’s no more conversation about the storm raging about outside. Instead, Gabe rolls off of the bed and pulls out a deck of cards so he can set out to beat Frank at poker.


Brendon laughs through half of his hands. Gabe’s good at cards. Frank’s better. So, it’s a game of over-the-top bluffing and Frank cursing Gabe for cheating while Brendon hides his laughter behind a flimsy shield of wax-coated cards.


For seven days, the weather fails to clear. They spend the week at the inn. Gabe holds court in the dining area. The other guests hang off his every word. Frank snags a chair and watches from a slight distance with a bemused expression playing across his lips while Brendon uses the well-lit setting to his advantage. There’s a mechanical snake he’s trying to finish and the dimness of their room doesn’t help when he’s got the toy’s guts spread out on a flat surface.


On a whole, the experience is jovial.


However, some nights, Brendon will find himself standing at the window in their room just staring out into the darkness without really seeing anything. The wards carved into the structure of the inn keeps the magic from tugging at his clothing, but it’s a close thing. Especially, when he wakes up a few hours before dawn, when everyone else is sound asleep, sure he’s heard the howl of a wolf ringing in his ears.


There’s longing settling into his bones. He can feel it. Frank and Gabe have to know it’s there.


By the seventh day, Gabe’s stories begin to fall flat and he retreats from the other guests to sit at Brendon’s side. Frank’s grin thins into something more akin to worry than mirth. Brendon hates that he’s the cause, but he can’t reign in the want.


He has to go into the forest.


When the eighth day dawns, it’s cold and without a single cloud in the sky. Brendon’s awake. He’s been as such for hours, listening to phantom howls with his eyes closed. A warm hand pressing against his cheek pulls him out of his thoughts. Frank frowns at his state of dress; Brendon’s been in his travel clothing since he changed after waking.


If it wasn’t for his promise to Gabe, for how much he cares about both Frank and Gabe, Brendon would have already slipped out into the darkness.


“Can we?” Brendon’s not sure what he’s asking, not really. He just knows the forest is calling to him. Soon. Soon he’ll go.


Just not alone.


Frank smiles at him sadly. “Sure, Bren.” He sets his hand on Brendon’s shoulder and the weight should be grounding except for how it isn’t.


“I’m sorry.” The whisper is quiet and gets eaten by a loud yawn from behind them.


Gabe’s awake.


He shuffles closer and rests his chin on Brendon’s head. “What are you sorry for?” He yawns again, this time, around his words.


Brendon tries to smile but finds he can’t when he glances at Frank. There’s resignation and steely determination glinting in Frank’s eyes when he replies before Brendon can say anything.


“Nothing. There’s nothing for anyone to be sorry for.”


And that’s that.


They’re going to explore.


Maybe, they’ll come out alive. Brendon hopes they do.


He’s expecting their day to start off like a shot. However, Gabe holds them back.


They spend hours browsing shops for their wares. Frank shells out a few brass coins for a new lantern that he can hang from the end of his staff while Gabe buys a blanket he promptly hands to Frank when they’re standing outside once more. Frank’s pack has more room in it. It’s magicked to hold more than Gabe’s duffel because Brendon couldn’t weave an enlargement enchantment in with a waterproofing one. It was either more space or dry goods. The spells weren’t compatible. And no matter how often he tried to splice the two while he was back home, he just couldn’t make them work together.


It isn’t until the sun is starting to set that they make their way past the town gate. Brendon’s fidgety and Lady Luck settles for riding on the lip of Gabe’s duffel after she’s jostled from her normal perch one too many times. Even travel by satchel isn’t happening since the satchel is just as active as Brendon.


They’re standing at the signpost watching the sun sink under the horizon when the eerie sound of a howl breaks the silence around them. Brendon stares at the treeline. He’s about to bolt down the curvy trail when Gabe grabs the back of his coat.


“Together, Brendon. Not alone.”


Frank drags a match across his breast pocket, igniting the tip. He lights the lantern and dips his staff low to the ground, getting a feel for the weight. The match smulders from where it was discarded.


Another howl climbs into the air and Brendon jolts forward. He can’t be sure, but he might be mumbling to himself. He doesn’t have the time to examine what he might be saying. The howl sounds weaker than it ever has. He has to go now.


Frank grips Brendon’s sleeve with his free hand while he swings the lantern forward with the other.


“Not too fast and don’t break my hold, okay?” Frank’s voice is steady. Solid.


Brendon nods. He can try.


The darkness envelops them when they make it past the treeline. Frank’s lantern cuts through the ebony the best it can. Shadows lurk everywhere. Brendon can feel their gazes on his back.


He shudders.


For the longest time, there’s not a single howl. And then. There is.


It’s this low, mournful note. Weak in too many ways to be comforting. Brendon stutters to a stop and Gabe bumps into his shoulder.


“What is it?”


Brendon shakes his head. He’s afraid. He doesn’t know what will happen if this wolf dies but he fears for what might if it does.


“It’s dying.”


Frank swings his staff to the left and then to the right. The trees aren’t as congested in this portion of the forest, even if there are broken limbs and uprooted trees -some of them barely older than saplings- generously scattered about everywhere.


“What is?”


Brendon tugs his collar against his throat. The night air is downright frigid.


“The wolf.”


There’s one last howl and Brendon strains in Frank’s grasp. He has to move faster.


The lantern changes positions. Gabe stretches it out farther as Frank urges Brendon to sprint through the debris by whispering it’s okay, Bren, just don’t let go.


He’s breathing hard by the time he scrambles across the thick trunk of a felled aspen. Frank’s right there at his side. Gabe isn’t far behind; the lantern is swinging somewhere near his head as if it’s a spectral light or some well-trained will-o-wisp.


Beyond the fallen aspen, the treeline recedes to form a clearing ringed by barren hazels and green, green cypress. The dead grass shows signs of trampling and there are patches where only divots of dark earth remain.


However, that’s not what grabs his attention. At the far edge of the clearing stands a massive ash tree. A length of silver rope swishes from the lowest branch.


It’s not swaying in the wind unassisted.


Brendon tries to breathe and finds he hardly can. There’s a person snared in the rope. No. Not a person, but not a wolf either.


Wolfkin.


Anyone less would be long dead by now.


Moonlight bathes the clearing in cold light. Gabe gently sets Frank’s lantern down.


“Brendon, don’t-”


Whatever Gabe finishes with Brendon doesn’t hear for a slight whimper carries on the chilly wind. The wolfkin has finally lost its strength to howl. Brendon can’t stand to do nothing.


He shakes off Frank’s hold, shedding his satchel as he does so, and flat out runs to the base of the ash tree. He’s not tall enough to support most of the wolfkin’s weight, but he does the best he can. He doesn’t know what else would help. The rope won’t listen to his magic unless he touches the blasted thing and it’s too far away.


“It’s okay.”


“It’s okay. I’ve got you.”


He’s whispering reassurances under his breath when, suddenly, he’s carrying less weight. Gabe’s on the other side of the wolfkin, with an arm wrapped around the guy’s knees and the other under his feet.


“We’ve got you. Just relax, and we’ll have you cut down in no time.”


There’s the sound of rummaging. Brendon glances toward the clearing to find Frank rifling through Gabe’s duffel, looking for something.


“Gabe, I swear, if you lost your damn knife, I’ll kill you myself.” There’s an urgency in Frank’s voice that has Brendon doing his best to lift the wolfkin higher, closer to the rope, away from suffocation and death.


The hazels and cypress watch everything silently. They offer no help. However, staring at the hazels’ barren limbs, Brendon remembers something.


“Frankie, he put it in a coat pocket this morning, while you were getting breakfast.”


Frank pulls out of his crouch and stalks toward them. He rests his cheek against Gabe’s shoulder blade. “Which pocket, Saporta? I don’t have time to play where’s the magical knife.”


Gabe adjusts his hold on the mostly non-responsive wolfkin and grunts from the exertion.


“Left one. You’ll have to unsnap the button clasp.”


Frank snaps his jaw shut and grinds his teeth before huffing out “I know how to work a button clasp, thank you very much.”


Brendon turns his head and presses his face against his shoulder to keep from giggling. Even in tense situations, Frank and Gabe are conditioned to ruffle each other.


It takes several minutes for Frank to climb the tree. When he gets to the rope, he whispers cut true, blade and the rope severs under the knife’s brash attention.


Gabe, with Brendon’s help, slowly lowers the wolfkin to the ground. Once they’re sitting, Brendon makes quick work of the remaining bindings. The silver bites at his fingertips, but he doesn’t pay the sting any heed. He’s not allergic to the metal strands, it’s only the magic woven in with the threads that he’s having any issue with. And, even then, there’s not much damage to be done.


Without the silver pressing into his flesh, the wolfkin’s skin smoothes out, tufts of coarse, black fur recedes and his ears shrink into round human ones instead of those of a true wolf. There’s no telling how many hours he spent suspended between forms, fighting to gain control of any sort.


Frank jumps from the ash branch. He lands on his feet, in a crouch, as if he’s some jungle cat stalking his prey. He’s the one to gather their supplies and drag everything to their little huddle of bodies.


Gabe pulls his dark herbal bag from a duffel compartment. He’s bound to have a salve in there somewhere that might help heal the rope abrasions. There’s also treebark of some kind sitting at the bottom of the bag that when boiled in water should dull the pain.


Brendon can recite, by heart, most of the medicinals Gabe carries on his person. If not by name, then at least by function. Frank can as well. It was something Gabe taught them one winter after their stories began to wander into more serious territory.


Frank sets his lantern in front of them.


“I’m going for firewood. Don’t do anything stupid.”


Gabe shrugs at Frank without even looking up from his bag of medicines. Brendon’s too busy struggling out of his coat to shrug. He does make sure to remind Frank not to just steal tree limbs.


“Remember, you have to ask first.”


Frank glares at him. “Thank you for the needless reminder, I’ll take it under advisement.”


Brendon tries to smile innocently. He fails, mostly because it’s extremely cold out tonight and he’s finally divested of his coat. Not that he’ll freeze, he always carries a spare, even if it’s more a combination of three lesser coats instead of a proper winter coat.


Before he stalks off, Frank pulls the shrunken coats out of Brendon’s satchel. A few shakes and the fabric elongates. Brendon finds his vision blocked when Frank tosses the bundle at his head.


It takes a moment to flail into his secondary coat. After he does, Brendon pulls out the pair of gloves he keeps in the right pocket. His favorite pair are going to cover the wolfkin’s hands when Gabe’s finished bandaging them so he needs another pair if he doesn’t want to lose his fingers to frostbite.


He’s in the process of draping his winter coat across the wolfkin’s shoulders when dark eyes blink at him. Brendon tries not to startle, but it’s a near thing. He wasn’t expecting the exhausted wolfman to wake until morning. If even that.


“Hey.”


The wolfkin cocks his head to the side, as if he’s listening to something no one else can hear and whines when the motion pulls at the abused skin around his neck. Gabe tuts at him before applying a thick layer of salve across one of the wounds when the wolfkin is distracted.


“We’re friends, I promise you that. This salve will draw out the silver poisoning and help with the healing process.”


Brendon nods while Gabe talks. Maybe he’s reassuring enough.


“I heard you calling. We couldn’t get out here sooner. I’m sorry.”


There’s a clatter of wood as its dropped next to the lantern without tipping the thing over. Frank huffs and stares at Brendon. He never likes when Brendon apologizes for stuff he shouldn’t.


And there was no way it was safe to be out until tonight. The state of the forest itself is testament to that.


Frank’s about to say something harsh centering around that notion when the wolfkin reaches out and touches Brendon’s wrist lightly, as if he is in awe.


“I wasn’t expecting a willow in the company of an aspen and an ash. I was asking for death, not salvation. They got away and that’s all that matters.”


Frank uses his lantern to light the tender stuffed at the bottom of the fire pile. “We’re not treefolk, even if Gabe’s tall enough to be a softwood. Brendon’s the farthest thing from a willow you’ll ever get-”


“Frank.” It’s more a call on Frank’s barbed tone than it is of his words. Gabe sets to wrapping the wolfkin’s left hand with a linen bandage. “He’s right, we’re not treefolk, though I’m still uncertain as to if the dwarves claim him. I know the sprites and the fae do not.”


Brendon slides his free hand up to his lips to hide the smile that’s trying to curl at the corners of his mouth. He’s far too used to Frank and Gabe to not smile at them regardless of their surrounding. As a distraction, he drops his hand and asks a question he probably shouldn’t.


“Who are they?. I mean, you don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to, but maybe we can help you find them. Or you can just tell us your name and leave it at that. A fair trade.”


The fire begins to crackle as the flames strengthen. Frank goes off to collect more firewood. They’ll need it if they’re going to camp out here in the cold.


Brendon’s not expecting an answer to his question. He’s actually under the impression that the wolfkin fell asleep on them. He’s not going to press for anything. Sleep is good for the soul. It’s recharging.


He’s in the process of pulling out his spare button down when the fingers that never left his other wrist slide down to press against his pulse point.


“I made them go. Tried to break the bonds. Only succeeded in pushing them out of harm’s way.”


The wolfkin’s voice is rough in spots and thin in others. He doesn’t give names, not for himself nor for the they he keeps mentioning. Brendon’s heard of wolves with two or more mates before. It’s rare but not impossible.


There’s no other bond for a wolfkin to have with anyone that would be strong enough to warrant breaking for safety. To the best of Brendon’s scant knowledge on the subject, mate bonds can not be that easily severed. Only death can do that. However, a command can be given if the mates aren’t wolfkin that would effectively compel the mates to leave any dangerous area, with or without their mated wolf.


Brendon can’t imagine doing something like that. He couldn’t give Frank and Gabe up seven years ago, and he can’t now. They’re his, regardless of anything that might get in their way. If one of them is trapped, they’re all cornered. That’s all there is to it.


“They’re going to be angry when they see you again.” Gabe tries to gentle his voice as he carefully removes the wolfkin’s unbandaged hand from Brendon’s wrist but Brendon can tell he’s thinking about how he would feel if Brendon or Frank did such a thing to him.


Gabe would not be happy. Not at all.


Brendon touches his arm, trying to be reassuring without saying anything, when Frank reappears with more branches and tender. Of course, he notices the touch and Brendon can’t help but glance at the wolfkin in sympathy. Frank’ll ask later and they’ll fill him in, but for now, that look is easily translatable.


He’s lost those he cares for and I’m thinking about what we’ve been through.


After the wolfkin falls into a fitful sleep curled up in Brendon’s coat, Frank rests his head against Brendon’s neck and wraps an arm around his waist. It’s a rare showing of excessive emotion that doesn’t happen often when they’re awake. Hand holding has never counted, while hugs and clinging always have.


“They’re not dead, right? We can help him find them so they can yell at him for his stupidity.”


Gabe shuffles closer and leans against Brendon’s side. He reaches out and tossels Frank’s hair. “He tried to break his mate bonds and only succeeded in banishing them from the forest. So we’re doing this?”


Brendon closes his eyes and listens to the fire crackle and pop. They asked for an adventure. Looks like they’ve been granted their wish.


“Looks like we are. The trees said they’d be sentinels tonight. We can sleep without a watch.” Frank pulls away long enough to tug blankets from his pack.


Gabe fans one out and drapes it over the wolfkin while Brendon enchants the other to expand until it can comfortably cover three people huddled together.


They fall asleep not far from the base of the ash tree, curled against each other while the fire continues to blaze merrily.

Part 3

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