Until Dawn (2)

21 minutes, 25 seconds

Auriel had miscalculated; because of course he had.

It was dark, he was night blind, he couldn’t concentrate because of the noise in his head. The ground was uneven as he had run along the treeline, knowing it would lead him back towards the gate of the town.

And then he had fallen. His foot had caught in an earth hole, and with a scream he had gone down, pain shooting up his arm when he had tried to cushion his fall, only succeeding in spraining his wrist.

And his leg… Tears flowed out of his eyes uncontrollably as he moved his ankle even slightly, and he bit on his knuckle to muffle another shout. It hurt. He had twisted it so badly that all he could feel was white-hot pain, maybe he had even snapped the tendon.

Oh god.

As the realization of what that meant hit him, his breath accelerated from uneven pants to panicked hyperventilating.

He was stuck here. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t run, he couldn’t escape. Nobody knew where he was; so nobody would come to find him.

This is how they must have felt, he thought, feeling weirdly detached as he stared into the night, his heart fluttering in fear. No escape, nobody to find them. Just fire and pain.

The screams in his head increased in volume, the smell of burning wood mixing with something different, something infinitely more horrible.

He gasped, burying his head in his hands and digging his fingernails into his scalp.

“Noooo,” he cried, involuntarily swaying back and forth, before pain shot through his leg once more and he yelled.

Desperate, Auriel struggled to get up with only one leg, but it hurt so goddamn much. He only lasted three hops until he stumbled, and the fall was enough to make him scream again.

“I want this to end,” he lamented, voice just steady enough to not be outright sobbing, clamping his hands around his hurting leg, staring down at his ankle. “Why won’t this night finally end?”

He just sat there and cried, not even trying to get up anymore because what was the use? He felt the coldness already, having settled deep within.

Thankfully, slowly, there came numbness with the cold, so after a while, he stopped crying, just sitting there, feeling life drain out of him by the second. At least the screams would stop, then.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, and he meant everyone: his burned down village, Leyan, who had to be desperate upon discovering that he wasn’t by the fire anymore, Eon, who would scream and yell and cry and blame himself. Auriel only ever made everyone worry. “I’m sorry.”

He didn’t hear a single sound around him, but suddenly, he was lifted off the ground, shouting in fright and instinctively fighting against it.

“Stop struggling,” an unfamiliar voice commanded curtly, and only now did Auriel comprehend that it was a person that had lifted him up into their arms.

“What- Who-” Auriel started, close to hyperventilating again, but they were moving, and that was better than lying there with a snapped tendon.

He got no reply, but after a while, it became apparent where they were heading: towards the town.

Realization dawning on his face, Auriel leaned back, staring up at the person carrying him, bulky and completely covered in armor.

“You’re the guard. The one who wouldn’t let us inside.”

More silence greeted him, and Auriel huffed, feeling uncomfortable in the guard’s arms but simultaneously so scared to be put down and left behind that he clawed his fingers into the guard’s shoulder armor.

Eyes wide, Auriel looked down, trying to make out the ground. The guard was tall, taller than anyone else out of their group, and incredibly intimidating.

And he was carrying Auriel towards the gate, which he could see now, coming closer quickly. So Auriel had to have been pretty close already before he had twisted his ankle.

“Um, thank-” Auriel tried, then ringing for breath because the panic was still having his heart in an iron grip. He took three deep breaths and tried again, dizzy. ”Thank you for picking me up.”

There still was no answer, simply a hum in return, vague enough to not even give a hint whether the guard was mad or full of pity or apathetic.

Anxiety settled into Auriel at this complete disregard, and he stuttered out, “I, actually, I searched for you because I hoped… I don’t know what, you haven’t let us in before – that’s not an accusation! I mean, you kind of left us to die here, but I don’t mean to say- Look, I know it’s not your responsibility, just-”

“Quiet,” the guard interrupted him, and Auriel’s breath hitched, cheeks flaming.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

There was movement next to Auriel’s head, and for the first time since he had lifted him into his arms, the guard seemed to look him in the face.

There was a pause hanging in the air between them, even though the guard’s steps didn’t falter.

This pause lasted until they had reached the town gate, high stone walls towering above them.

Carefully, almost gently, the guard lowered Auriel to the ground, who had to make a fist to stop his hand from desperately reaching out. He was here, at least. Alive. That was more than he had hoped for.

Placing his hand in the middle of the gate, the guard waited, motionless, before a shift went through the air. The gate creaked, bolts moving around, and Auriel held his breath.

Sorcery.

He was still staring at the gate slowly creaking open when the guard turned back towards him, bending down and getting his arms under Auriel’s back and knees.

“Come on,” he said, “inside.”

Not daring to utter a word, Auriel let himself be carried into the town behind the walls, foot throbbing. It felt as if it had swollen to twice its original size, and he was already scared to look at it.

They slipped through a crack between the two heavy oak doors that immediately closed behind them again, and Auriel managed to catch a glimpse of a silent town stretching out behind a marketplace.

Before he could see anything more than vague silhouettes of buildings, though, they were turning left and entered a small house that seemed to be part of the stronghold around the town; a guard house.

Pushing the door open with his shoulder, the metal of his armor colliding with the wood with a clank, the guard carried Auriel into a dark room.

Shivering involuntarily, Auriel clutched at the arms lowering him onto something soft; a mattress, probably.

A moment later, candles were lit up, tinting the room into dancing yellow light, still too dim, but immediately, the tightness in Auriel’s chest started to loosen. He felt as if he could breathe again after almost suffocating, sitting on his icy fingers to warm them up, trembling.

The guard moved through the small room, a tall figure, still not any more chatty.

Not that Auriel didn’t appreciate the help, but… why bring him here? Hadn’t they been denied entrance before? And it didn’t really seem as if the guard was happy with Auriel’s presence.

When the guard eventually returned to the bed they had placed Auriel on, the young man flinched and straightened up, heart beating loudly.

“Um, thank you, again. I… I don’t want to impose?” It sounded like a question and was so very stupid, given that Auriel did, in fact, impose.

The guard stared at him, eyes glinting from under the helmet, before they lifted their hands and pulled it off, revealing a slim, slightly angular face, dark hair, and an unsmiling expression. Male, from the looks of it. Handsome. Very handsome, actually; Auriel blushed. Maybe elvish.

Auriel had never met an elf before because their people lived secluded, for the most part, and Auriel had grown up in a small human village far away from anything magical. Until Eon had crashed into his life, panicked and with a haunted expression, in need of help and with a spark of Light around his neck.

“Show me your ankle.”

Startling out of his memories, Auriel’s eyes snapped back to the present, meeting an unflinching, calm gaze that demanded his attention.

“Ah, I, I twisted it when I fell. It should be good soon enough.” Auriel basically squeaked out the last word as the guard sank to his knees before him, carefully taking hold of Auriel’s foot and pulling off the boot.

A pained sound escaped Auriel’s mouth, bitten off before it could become a scream. He fought against the urge to pull his foot back towards himself.

When the boot was off and the guard began rolling down Auriel’s sock with long, nimble fingers, it was already apparent that dark bruises were tinting Auriel’s skin, everything from the ankle and lower swollen and sensitive.

Suppressing another whimper when the guard carefully moved the foot, Auriel started talking again, mainly to distract himself from the pain. His voice was soft and sounded strange, almost as if it wasn’t his own, and his head felt so light as if it would float away any moment.

“I didn’t expect the hole. It’s going to be fine, though. No need to worry. I twisted it, but it’ll heal. Maybe snapped the tendon-”

“The tendon is fine,” the guard interrupted him, looking up, and distantly, Auriel thought that he would like to know the man’s eye color. He couldn’t see it, though. He couldn’t see very well at all; everything seemed kind of fuzzy, and there was a ringing in his ears. “Your foot is broken.”

“I’m fine,” was the last that Auriel said, and then he passed out.

When he woke up, he stared at the stone ceiling for several disoriented seconds, his surroundings not making any sense.

Then, everything came rushing back to him – the night, the guard, the twisted ankle – and he snapped upright with a gasp, looking down and seeing him covered by a thick blanket.

Sunlight was filtering in through a window to his left, probably facing the marketplace, and the color of the light looked like dawn.

A small sound clawed itself out of Auriel’s throat.

He had made it. He had actually made it through another night.

Looking around, he took in his surroundings for the first time since his arrival.

The interior of the guard house wasn’t spacious. There was a small kitchenette, a wooden table and two chairs, domineering half of the room. To his right, a beautifully carved chest stood next to a mirror and an empty armor holder, his backpack, bow and quiver leaning against it. Directly next to Auriel on the small night stand stood a glass of water and a basin, probably to wash his face.

A surprised smile on his lips, he reached out for the glass of water.

The movement sharpened the awareness for his body, and when he felt his foot, clunky and heavy under the cover, he paused. Finally, the bandage around his sprained wrist registered, too, pulled tight to not leave him much room to move it around, but loose enough that it didn’t pinch his skin.

Reaching out and turning over the blanket, he took in the stiff, thickly bandaged shape of his foot, stabilized by what appeared to be wooden bars. It seemed that Auriel had been taken care of well.

The morning chill let his skin pimple with gooseflesh, so he buried himself under the blanket once more and finally grabbed the glass, downing the water in big, thirsty gulps.

Sinking back down, Auriel let the happenings of last night pass through his mind again, consciously this time.

Now that his head was clear again, the screams and fear and even most of the pain gone, reduced to a dull throb, he had to admit that the guard’s behavior was weird, to say the least.

To leave a group of people out in the Darkness was one thing. It didn’t speak for the town, to be honest, but it wasn’t unheard of. These days, people were cautious to a fault, shy of strangers, even if they arrived just at the heel of dusk, bringing the shadows with them. But to be so rudely refused, so vehemently, when it had been obvious that they were fearing for their lives…

And then, completely contradicting his earlier words, the guard had carried Auriel inside, bandaged his wound, and let him sleep in his bed. Was it because he was hurt? Was that an elven thing? He had heard that elves were healers, oftentimes.

Still, it was weird, and through the overwhelming rush of gratefulness, Auriel couldn’t help but feel a little bit cautious, too.

It didn’t take long before the door opened, the guard slipping inside, surprisingly light-footed and quiet despite his armor.

“You’re back,” Auriel greeted him hesitantly, smiling shyly. He didn’t know how to behave. “Thank you for bandaging my foot. And wrist. And um, taking me in. I probably wouldn’t have made it otherwise.”

When he got no immediate reply, Auriel swallowed, prepared for more silence; which was why his eyes widened in shock when the guard pulled off his helmet, shaking his head to fluff out his flattened, midnight black hair, and caught Auriel’s gaze.

“You’re welcome. I’m not a healer, but I know the basics.”

He continued to shed his armor, pulling away layers of metal and leather, revealing a much leaner body than his bulky silhouette from the night had suggested.

“Ah,” Auriel replied, not sure where to look, so he ended up watching his fingers pick at the blanket. “That’s impressive. I’m Auriel, by the way.”

At that, he looked up again, finding two dark blue eyes looking back at him; so dark they almost seemed black when shadows flitted over the guard’s face.

“Kian.”

“Kian,” Auriel repeated, smiling up at the guard. “Are you an elf?”

Kian huffed, not deigning to answer that.

Instead, he stepped forward to the bed, picked up the edge of the blanket, and looked at Auriel, silently asking for permission.

Sitting up, Auriel nodded, letting Kian pull the blanket away and check the hold and snugness of the bandage.

Satisfied, Kian hummed, then covered Auriel again.

Was the guard always that silent?

“Did you see my friends anywhere?” Auriel asked quietly, hope and anxiety alike swirling in his chest. “I lost them yesterday.”

“No,” Kian shook his head, rummaging around the chest and pulling a bedroll out of it.

Oh. Auriel looked around, only now realizing that he was occupying the only bed in the small house.

“I’m so sorry, you don’t have to give me your bed. I can sleep down there,” he started, shifting around to get out of the bed, hissing when his foot hurt.

Faster than a human could have been, Kian stood next to Auriel, pushing him back down with gentle force.

“You’re injured. Don’t move too much.”

“But you-”

“I’m an elf,” he replied, eyes flashing, something like hurt pride crossing his face.

Auriel stilled, unbothered by the few golden curls falling into his eyes, his curiosity peaked. “And that means… ?”

“I don’t need much sleep, and I have more endurance by nature. You take the bed.”

Kian’s eyes were surrounded by dark lashes, the angrily furrowed brows above them standing in contrast to his elvish delicacy. Why was he so mad?

Giving up, Auriel sighed, averting his eyes. Then he would just lie there. Maybe his angry saviour would be a little more inclined to talk after he had caught a few hours of sleep, too.

Unexpectedly, Kian didn’t move away immediately, still hovering close. When Auriel glanced at him, he still looked mad, but another emotion had mixed into his expression, making it unreadable.

“You’re still a boy,” he guard murmured, the furrow between his brows deepening. “Why did they bring you here?”

Sputtering, feeling a heated blush rise in his entire face, Auriel leaned back and glared. “I’m not a boy! I’m twenty, actually.”

There was no need to mention that Eon, Roslyn and Ivain called him ‘kid’. They had been the first people of their group and had jokingly adopted him, the youngest one, as their child. It had stuck with them, somehow, and it wasn’t as if Auriel minded their affection.

This time, he really didn’t get a reply, Kian staring at him for a moment longer, before stepping away and vanishing through the adjoining door.

When he returned, he looked clean, his sharp features eye-catching in the early morning light, wearing softly flowing clothes instead of his previous ones.

Auriel looked out of the window to give Kian more privacy as he settled on his bedroll, the rustling of fabric comforting for someone who had slept on a bedroll between others for quite a while now.

When the rustling stopped, Auriel couldn’t help but stare at Kian again, the guard’s back turned towards his unwanted guest.

“Goodnight,” Auriel said quietly, watching Kian’s head move just a little, turning his ear in Auriel’s direction.

“Goodnight.”

Auriel smiled, sinking back into the mattress to catch another few hours of sleep.

It was when Auriel woke up next – the color of the light hadn’t yet reached a golden tint, so it couldn’t be that much later – when he heard the ruckus outside.

A sound like yelling found its way into the guard house, and, sitting up, Auriel was pretty sure he knew where it came from.

Looking around, he saw that Kian was already gone; probably outside to face the source of the noise.

Next to the bed, leaning on the wall, were two wooden crutches, and a cup of tea had been placed on the nightstand.

Auriel swallowed. discovering that it was still warm when he touched it.

He wasn’t sure why he was so overwhelmed by Kian’s kindness and attentiveness; he was an elf, after all. But the guard had also appeared to not like company, especially not in his private space, so his care was touching.

Or maybe he just isn’t used to it, Auriel thought, drinking his tea, before he shifted and sat on the edge of the bed, pulling the basin with water towards him.

After a lick and a promise, he pulled on one boot on his good foot and then fished for the crutches, heaving himself upright and leaving the house to see for himself what was going on.

The first thing Auriel noticed was how beautiful the town in front of him was, stretching out behind a marketplace of cobblestone with a lavish fountain in the middle of it. He could spot trees and flowers not far away, seemingly artfully and strategically placed to harmonize with the buildings of stone and wood.

A big smile spread over Auriel’s face, his artistic soul pleased with the beauty he was seeing. He hadn’t sketched in a very long time, given his fast-paced, terrifying lifestyle, but right now, he itched for paper and a pencil.

The second thing Auriel noticed was that except for the raised voices faintly coming from behind the gate to his right, the town was pretty silent. It was almost noon, wasn’t it? Looking up and squinting at the blue sky, Auriel nodded to himself. Weird.

Slowly, Auriel made his way towards the gate, surprised when he noticed Kian standing on Auriel’s side of it, his posture relaxed, even as his face was as unsmiling as before. He didn’t even wear armor, and briefly, Auriel wondered if the guard had been startled awake by the yelling, too.

“I think my friends are here,” Auriel told Kian, finally reaching the man. Making his way over cobblestone with crutches was a wobbly, arduous affair.

Kian nodded at him, gaze dropping towards Auriel’s foot, but he didn’t say anything.

“Thank you for the crutches, that’s really thoughtful,” Auriel continued, feeling a little bit nervous, and, embarrassingly, shy. It was thoughtful, though. Not to mention that Auriel couldn’t even fathom when Kian had had the time to go fetch the crutches for him.

That was when the yelling picked up in volume again, and Auriel was pretty sure that he could recognize Vidal’s voice.

“They won’t stop, you know,” Auriel said and wobbled in place, deciding to hop a step back and lean against the wall to steady himself. “They’ve probably followed my and your track. They’ll just continue yelling if you don’t open the gate, or maybe they’ll try climbing the wall.”

Kian’s expression shifted minutely, and he looked… kind of exasperated. Auriel had to suppress a laugh.

“No entrance,” Kian repeated his words from the night before, and Auriel frowned.

“You’ve let me in, though,” he pointed out. It didn’t make any sense. Also: why? Why would nobody be allowed to enter?

Kian’s brows furrowed again, and he turned to eye the top of the wall above the gate. “Nobody is allowed to enter. It’s my duty to protect this town.”

“But they wouldn’t bring any harm! They’re only here for me.”

“And how would I know?” Kian asked, turning around, holding Auriel’s gaze calmly. There was something unshakable about him, like the stronghold itself.

“I…” Auriel tried to come up with a reason, but there was none. Kian couldn’t know if any of them meant to bring harm or not. “They can just collect me and go?”

That got an almost shocking reaction out of Kian: his eyebrow bounced up, before his entire face changed into disbelieving indignance.

“Your foot is broken. Outside this town, there’s nothing but the ill forest and a long valley, framed by mountains. An elf would be engulfed by Darkness before they’d even come close to shelter, let alone an injured, human boy.”

“I’m not a boy,” Auriel grumbled, cheeks flushing, but he was shivering just at the thought of another night like the last one. He couldn’t do that. He just couldn’t.

Silently, they stood there, listening as the yelling faded.

A smirk flitted over Auriel’s face. They would try and get in now.

“I understand your concern,” Auriel started again, thrilled when those dark blue eyes immediately returned to him, watching his face. “You have a duty to fulfill. You don’t know them, you don’t know me. But you also understand that they’re worried about me, right?”

There was no reply, but Kian continued to study him, eyes raking over his untidy curls, over his rumpled clothes, over his bandaged foot.

Then, he sighed, throwing a glance in the direction of the strangely quiet town, before he looked back to Auriel, who tried not to flinch at the suddenly hard lines of Kian’s face.

“If it turns out that they’re not as harmless as you’re saying, they’ll suffer the consequences.”

With that, he turned around, and with bated breath, excitement tingling through his chest, Auriel observed Kian press his hand to the gate, waiting motionlessly until it started to creak open.

Seemingly out of thin air, he produced a long, elegant dagger, and then stepped outside.

Following on his heel, Auriel crutched through the crack between the heavy doors, a high sound of relief and distress leaving his lips when his eyes landed on his friends, who had all taken a defensive, almost aggressive stance.

Eon’s eyes were the first to flit over to him, widening as his expression changed from anger to relief, and then a cry rang out as Leyan launched themselves at Auriel, taking his face between their hands and peppering it with kisses and tears.

“You stupid, stupid boy,” Leyan sobbed, and Auriel swayed precariously on his crutches.

That was when Kian appeared next to him, quiet but clearly noticeable. Actually, Auriel found it to be impossible to not be aware of the guard and his aura.

“Either you’ll come inside now or you’ll stay outside completely.”

Turning towards him, Auriel nodded, then waved his friends through the gate with a motion of his head.

“Come on in. We can regroup for a day. It’ll be alright.”

“Now wait a minute-” Ivain snarled, but Vidal shoved him forwards, giving Auriel a relieved smile.

“Lead the way.”

Auriel turned, catching Eon’s gaze, chest tightening when he saw the eye bags and exhausted lines in his face.

“Where… where’s Ayescha?” Auriel finally noticed the distinct lack of the lively, intelligent woman, and Eon shook his head, his face displaying worry and fear.

Heart heavy, Auriel turned and led the reluctant hero party into the town.

When he passed the gate, Auriel paused briefly, turning his head into Kian’s direction.

“Thank you,” he smiled softly, widening it further when Kian held his gaze.

The guard nodded once, before he returned to scrutinizing the group, pulling the gate closed behind them again.

The sound of the bars and bolts falling into place echoed in the silence of the town with a heavy finalty.

Princie

Hey there, I'm Nat! I'm the author behind princesandfrogs, and as you can probably guess, I really love writing. So I thought why not share some of my original content here, in this quiet corner of the internet :3 If you'd like to take glimpses through the keyhole of my world, you're welcome to stay! Get yourself a nice cup of tea, and here we go!

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