Adorin cringed as Ralk lifted himself above the bars using both arms. The wound on his shoulder was healing nicely, but with all the strenuous activity, he was bound to pop a stitching. He wanted to say something, but Ralk didn’t seem to be in pain. In fact, he was enjoying himself for the first time.
Anyone unfortunate enough to be sentenced to fight to the death in the coliseum rarely looked forward to it. The more Adorin got to know the G’yel, the more he dreaded the upcoming days when Ralk would have to fight. As crazy as it was to consider, the two were becoming… friends of sorts.
The young man shifted uncomfortably on the concrete seat overlooking the arena floor as Ralk released the bars and dropped to his hands and paws. He pointed at Vicco and then at the wooden weapons on the rack. After pulling two practice swords, he tossed one to the human captain.
Vicco reflexively caught it and gave the G’yel a questioning look.
“You want to fight?”
Ralk smiled, holding the sword in a duel stance, its edge pointed at Vicco’s chest. His feet were spread slightly, one in front of the other with one arm raised. He’d seen G’yel use swords before, and they had their own strange styles and stances. They were terrifyingly agile, despite their size.
“Alright,” Vicco said, sliding the smaller wooden sword back into the rack before drawing a much larger great sword. “This is more to my liking.”
The G’yel lunged forward and Vicco effortlessly deflected the blow, the blade long enough to block any swing from reaching him as long as he was fast enough to swing it into position. Ralk flinched for a moment, giving the human the perfect opportunity to bring the butt of the sword up into his jaw, staggering his opponent.
Adorin stood and ran down the steps. Ralk looked up at him and lifted his hand while wearing a blood-soaked grin. He… enjoyed this? The younger man stayed close to the edge of the wall as he looked on. Perhaps the G’yel underestimated his human opponent.
Ralk shifted his stance, bringing the sword closer, his hulking body nearer to the ground as the two circled each other. Vicco leaped forward, letting the long, wooden blade slice upward. The speed surprised Adorin. It may have been fake, but it was still hefty and long.
The G’yel lifted from his feet and spun to the side, letting his sword crash into the side of Vicco’s breastplate. The G’yel stumbled a little, but balanced himself with little effort. The old injury on his leg and the fact that he probably hadn’t done this in years showed through. Even with those disadvantages, he still likely outmatched a seasoned human warrior.
Vicco held his sword up to block another swing, attempting to stagger the frenzied G’yel again, but he was too slow. The more Ralk swung the sword, the faster he was on his feet. It was like watching someone wake from a long slumber, becoming more alert by the minute.
The captain was stuck on the defensive, not able to swing or riposte or he’d leave himself open to another one of Ralk’s inhuman jabs. Vicco’s plated armor and choice of weapon gave G’yel fighters the advantage of speed. If he removed his armor and chose a lighter weapon, he may have been able to beat Ralk.
One would have expected the captain to grow frustrated with his stalemate, but that wasn’t what Adorin saw on Vicco’s face. He was studying Ralk’s movements, expressionless for a few minutes before falling into an aggressive battle stance.
Ralk jumped forward and sliced down, and something unlocked in Vicco. Even in plate, strength surged through his muscles. He jumped to the side, and with a burst of unnatural speed, the sword swung upward, nearly hitting the G’yel in the abdomen.
Ralk jumped back in surprise, but he didn’t notice Vicco’s rapid downward swing with the broadside of the great sword to minimize injury. It impacted Ralk’s back with a loud clap.
The G’yel let out a high-pitched whine and fell to the ground; however, he rolled into Vicco’s legs. With a swift twist of his body, he swept the captain’s legs out from under him. The human fell to the ground with a loud, metallic clank.
Both of them lay still for a moment, and Ralk was the first to stand. He bowed and reached down for Vicco’s hand. The G’yel would have a nasty bruise, but he shook with adrenaline as he grinned with excitement.
Vicco looked up at the G’yel and cocked his head before grabbing onto his hand, allowing his opponent to tug him to a stand.
“That was…” the captain breathed heavily, the same grin plastered on his face. “Incredible.”
Adorin jumped down from the wall and ran over to the two. Ralk slumped forward a bit from his injury, but overall he seemed fine.
“I thought I would surely lose. I had never seen moves like that, and if I had taken longer to figure them out, he would have found a way to beat me.”
“You both are impressive. I never thought I would see a human match a G’yel in a fight. It usually takes about five men to bring one down, if you can even get close enough with their crimson steel.”
Vicco watched the panting G’yel, his eyes carefully studying his opponent.
“He’s out of practice, and I noticed he limps. Most of his weight shifts to his left, so it was easier to find an opening. All it would take is a couple weeks of training, and he would surpass me. Unfortunately, humans have physical limits well below most G’yel.”
“Still,” Adorin said, letting the sentence slip with a slightly amorous inflection. “I could watch you fight all day.”
After the words left his lips, Adorin’s eyes darted to the ground, and he clenched his jaw. Perhaps Vicco hadn’t noticed. The younger man cleared his throat.
“If only I could use a sword that way.” Adorin had no choice but the feign interest in the skill now. What he really wanted to do was watch Vicco’s large, masculine form dominate another fight—and possibly dominate him later in his fantasies. Ralk sniffed the air behind him, and his thoughts froze.
“Perhaps I could teach you,” Vicco said, turning to slide the great sword into the weapon rack. Ralk leaned in close to Adorin.
“If only you could practice with his sword,” the G’yel whispered with a jagged sneer. Adorin pushed him away before Vicco turned around, holding two smaller practice blades in his hands.
The captain tossed one at Adorin, but instead of catching it, the hilt hit him in the chest before falling to the ground. Ralk burst into fits of rapid laughter. He hadn’t heard a G’yel laugh in years, and it was just as high-pitched as he remembered, though less terrifying now.
Even though it seemed to mock him, Ralk’s had a friendlier, almost contagious timbre, which made Vicco laugh for a second before his eyes widened in concern.
Adorin winced in pain before rubbing where the weapon hit him. “Ow! Why did you throw that? You were standing right there.”
“Oh,” Vicco said as he rubbed the back of his hand nervously. “I uh, thought you’d catch it.”
Adorin bent over to pick the wooden sword off the ground. “I was not expecting you to throw it.”
“We’ll work on your reaction time,” he replied, shifting his stance. It was different now that he held a smaller sword. “Stand up straight and focus on me.”
Adorin did as he was instructed. “I am not ready for a duel,” he said sheepishly.
“Oh, not even close,” Vicco laughed, but stopped when Adorin scowled at him. “We’re not doing that. You need to not only practice holding a sword, you need to build strength in your forearms, shoulders, and back. Without that, you would never have the stamina to fight for more than a few minutes at most.”
Adorin lifted the sword. “Okay, so what now?” he asked, trying to mimic the way Vicco stood.
“Lift your arm straight and begin moving the sword back and forth using the wrist, like this.” He lifted his sword, pointing it forward before using his wrist and forearm to swing the sword backward. He repeated the motion a few times before nodding at Adorin. “Go on, try it.”
Adorin raised the weapon, and tried to keep stable while swinging it back and forth. It didn’t look right, but the younger man barely had control over the motion.
“Lead with the edge. Don’t turn the sword to the side.”
“What does that mean?” Adorin kept swinging, turning his wrists too far inward.
“Hold for a moment,” Vicco said, moving behind the smaller man. His free, gauntleted hand slid down Adorin’s forearm before lightly gripping his wrist, twisting it outward a bit. “Pull back.” Vicco’s breath was hot on his neck, and Adorin could feel his pulse and breathing quicken the longer they were in that position. Ralk crossed his arms and smiled at both of them.
Despite the distraction, he followed Vicco’s instructions, letting the sword swing straight back.
The weapon swung straight with little wind resistance.
“Keep going,” he whispered, not backing away. This was torture, and Adorin tried his best to stay focused on the sword and not the armored man pressed against him. “Good.”
Adorin kept at it, but the sword slipped back into bad form as the muscles in his forearm burned.
“This hurts,” he muttered, accidentally letting the sword fall to the ground. His arm hung limp at his side in pain as he sucked in air through his teeth. “This really hurts.”
“You did good,” Vicco said, patting the smaller man’s shoulder before retrieving the sword, handing it back to him. “Take it and practice doing that every morning.”
“Every morning?” Adorin shook his head. “I—I don’t think I am cut out to do this.”
“You won’t know unless you try,” Vicco said with a wicked grin. “And now that you’re gonna live with me, I’ll whip you into shape.”
“I am not one of your soldiers, sir.” Adorin glared at the captain for a moment, but yielded to the man’s intense, narrowed expression. Those eyes, the confident posture, that imposing figure and chiseled face—it was hard to argue with a man like that. “Fine.”
“Good,” Vicco responded, his arms now crossed. “It’ll be good for your body and mind, even if you don’t take to the sword.” Ralk said something similar earlier. Perhaps there was something to it. Healing the body was one thing, but he was ignorant when it came much else.
“What do you think of the G’yel?” Adorin asked, changing the subject. “Do you think he’ll be in good shape by Tulta?”
“I wouldn’t worry about him.” Vicco smiled at the G’yel. “Lord Yanth spent a fortune, and he’s not going to make it an unfair fight and risk losing his investment so soon. And judging from the way the G’yel handled himself with me, I think he’s more than ready to face any normal challenge.”
Adorin sighed in relief. “Good.”
“You’ve really gotten attached to him, haven’t you?”
The younger man opened his mouth to protest, but choked on his words. “I can’t handle watching people die.”
“Sounds like you choose the wrong profession.” That blunt reply made Adorin wince. It wasn’t the first time someone pointed that out.
“Medicine is not for the soft-hearted, Rin. If you let this get to you every time, you will break down. When that happens, you will be useless to me and those you are tasked to heal.”
Tauh may have been a horrible mentor, but he had a point. There was no outlet for the stress of treating severely wounded or sick men. After it was all over, he would go back to his small, dark room and dwell on what he could have done differently, despite not being able to change the outcome.
“I can see why you like him,” Vicco said, interrupting Adorin’s thoughts. “He fought with honor. Did you see him bow? I didn’t think they did that.”
“I told you Ralk can be trusted.” The G’yel’s head snapped toward Adorin.
“Yeah. I named him,” Adorin said, giving Ralk a calming nod. “It sounds like a G’yel name, does it not?”
“I like it,” Vicco said. “That suits him.”
The large double doors to the fighting pit swung open, and one of Vicco’s men dashed in, stopping to salute before speaking.
“Sir.” The man’s arm went rigid at his side.
“At ease.” Vicco walked over to the weapon rack and slid his practice sword into one of the free slots. “What’s so important that it can’t wait until I’m done here?”
“I apologize, sir, but Major Pickton has requested your presence.”
The captain tensed for a moment before exhaling calmly through his teeth.
“What does Prickton want?”
“He didn’t say, sir.”
Vicco turned to Adorin and shook his head. “Can you handle this?”
“What, walking from the coliseum to the pens?” Adorin said sarcastically. “I am quite sure I am capable.”
The man laughed and patted Adorin hard on the back, nearly knocking him to the ground. “That’s not what I meant, but I’m sure you can handle… what was his name again?”
“That’s right.” Vicco walked toward the doors with the man following behind at a short distance. He stopped and turned around, kicking a bit of tawny dust up from the pit floor. “Practice with that sword for a while before you leave.”
“Yes sir.” Adorin gave Vicco a half-hearted salute, provoking a snort and an eye-roll from the man before he disappeared into the corridor.
Adorin turned and walked face-first into Ralk’s chest. He hadn’t realized the G’yel was so close. The man stumbled for a moment before backing away.
“This is a nice name you gave me. Ralk,” the G’yel chuckled, pointing to the sword in Adorin’s hand. “How do you feel holding that?”
“Wrong,” Adorin muttered before sliding the sword into the rack. “I feel wrong.”
“Hm.” Ralk brushed past the human to examine the different weapons. “Perhaps it is not a weapon you need.” He reached for a medium-sized wooden shield and examined it, bracing it firmly by the leather straps before offering it. “Here.”
Adorin hesitated, but Ralk prodded the shield into his chest. He slipped his left arm through the leather straps and held it outward. It was heavier than it looked, and he couldn’t move it very fast. In fact, his arm ached after a few seconds of holding the shield in front of him.
“I am pathetic.” Adorin shook his head and pulled the shield into his chest for stability.
“Yes,” Ralk said with a laugh. “Right now you are, but you have a sturdy frame. With enough training, you will hold this shield as both protection and a weapon.”
“Mm-hmm.” The G’yel crossed his arms and stared down at Adorin, pleased with himself. “It is perfect for you. A shield could kill, if you have the strength. But you can defend yourself and stun your opponents as well. It is a useful weapon for a healer that does not like to kill.”
“I—I suppose.” Adorin held the shield out again, and muscle fatigue overwhelmed him. “I cannot hold this thing.”
“Then let us start small,” Ralk said, grabbing the shield before placing it on the ground. He walked over and grabbed a pair of small halteres. They were stone weights, rounded on the bottom and ground flat on top with a handle carved underneath toward the end. “These are different from what my people use, but it brings me back to my youth.”
Adorin grasped the weights by the handles. They weren’t heavy at all; in fact, they were light enough to lift easily.
“I could probably go heavier than this,” Adorin said.
Ralk shook his head. “These will be fine for now.”
The man sat the weights on the ground and furrowed his eyes.
“Wait a moment. This is supposed to be your time to exercise. Why are you all so interested in me?”
Ralk cackled in a pitch much higher than his talking voice. When he was younger, that laugh was the most horrible sound in the world. He heard it echo from the town during the slaughter—loud and piercing, mocking death itself.
This was different. Ralk was showing a much more cheerful side of himself, and for a moment, the G’yel looked rather attractive in his own way. It was a brief feeling, but it was enough to make Adorin blush.
“What is so damn funny?” he asked, a reluctant smile creeping up his lips.
“Everything,” Ralk replied, his laughter dying down. “This was a good day. I have not been able to laugh in so long. A G’yel that cannot laugh, cannot enjoy life.”
As it drew closer to noon, the suns’ heat became unbearable, as though they were sitting on top of the arena.
“Let us return,” Adorin said, stepping into what little shade there was. “It is time for lunch, and I would not mind jumping into the pond.”
“You are reading my thoughts.” Ralk placed a thick, furry arm around Adorin’s neck as they walked toward the doors. He hadn’t taken note until then how friendly they had gotten toward one another. Their hostility yesterday should have turned disastrous. What changed?
The peace between them was welcome, and the friendship was unexpected. Adorin thought back to the dream he had last night. Did Lydia know he’d meet Ralk again? As much as he was around her cabin, the G’yel was never there. When did she find the time to teach him, and what were Ralk’s feelings for her? Were they the same ones Adorin had?
Eccentric as she was, she was very easy to love. Though there was no word for love in the G’yel language, Adorin could see it in his eyes when he brought her up in conversation. G’yel or human, emotions were the same for both.
With every moment they were together, the more human Ralk seemed.
“This is much better,” Ralk said, smacking through a mouthful of food as he sat on the edge of the pond next to Adorin. His legs splashed through the cool water of the pond.
“I would rather be here than torturing myself back in the coliseum.” Adorin slurped a spoonful of leftover curried lamb. It was room temperature, but still delicious. The preserving spices insured the food would keep for a few days, and Adorin wanted to finish it before then.
“We are still going back this evening, and you will pick up where you left off,” Ralk said. Adorin stopped chewing and glared at him. “Do not look at me like that. You may think you know what the body needs to heal, but you do not seem to understand how to keep the body and mind from getting sick in the first place.”
“What does that mean?” That was the first time Adorin had ever heard someone mention preventing sickness. “I thought this was for… you know.” He lowered his voice. “Easing frustration.”
“You will understand if you keep doing it.” Ralk took another bite of his lunch, this time catching a bone with a loud crunch. “About the frustration part, you can do other things to ease that.”
Adorin put up his hand. “If you are talking about what I think you are, that airship has left port and returned, making many trips.”
“I see.” Ralk threw a smaller chunk of meat in his mouth and chewed. “It does not solve everything, but it is something. It is rather hard for me out here with so many animals watching.”
Adorin shuddered mid-slurp. Deep down, he assumed G’yel did it as well, but it wasn’t something that he gave much thought to. Who in their right mind would? Now that it was there, front and center in his mind, there was no way to shake it.
“I did not know G’yel did that,” Adorin said, trying to choke down the rest of his bowl.
“You did see that I am male, correct?” Ralk chuckled as Adorin’s face burned. That was another thought that now resurfaced—the G’yel lying naked near the pond. He’d seen nothing quite like that. It was shaped a bit differently, and much larger than anything human.
Adorin cleared his throat, rinsing the bamboo bowl and spoon in the pond before placing them in his basket.
“Yes, I did,” the young man snorted. “It launched the brush rather far.”
“I cannot believe you did that.” Ralk got serious for a moment, but joined in with a chuckle. “I suppose I deserved it.”
“I am terribly sorry, again. That noise… for a moment, I thought I felt it too.”
Both of them went quiet, and the splashing of the water combined with a lack of restful sleep nearly caused Adorin to fall over.
“The signs are there, you know,” Ralk said, breaking the silence. “Vicco is courting you… in his own stupid, frustrating way.”
“Unless he is direct, it is too dangerous to assume anything.” Adorin stretched a sore right arm above his head. “He has nothing to lose by telling me, but such honesty could cost me my life or freedom.”
“It must be maddening to play the game when there may be no winners.” Ralk stood and walked toward the pen. “Is there anymore of that salve left?”
“I just did that this morning,” Adorin groaned and wobbled to his feet, following the G’yel. “Are you sore again?”
“No.” He smiled and turned toward the human. “Lie down on my bedding.”
“Are you hard of hearing?” Ralk picked up the medicine basket and grabbed the bottle of salve before pointing to his bed.
Adorin swallowed hard and nodded before sitting down.
“Lie on your back and relax.”
What was he thinking? They were becoming friends, but this seemed to cross a line. There was a small part of him that found this rather thrilling, though. No one had ever done this for him, let alone a G’yel.
“What has gotten into you?” Adorin asked as Ralk lifted the man’s foot in his hands before resting it on his lap. Once the rough pads on his palm brushed against the human’s foot, he remembered why he never liked people touching down there. He jerked his foot back and started laughing uncontrollably.
“Ah. Sensitive feet, I see.” Ralk grabbed the foot and pressed hard into it. Suddenly Adorin’s nerves went from ticklish to euphoria.
“Oh,” Adorin moaned out, surprising himself by the sound he made.
“My feet have been fine for a while, but I enjoyed the touch of your hands.” The look on his face was strange, and Adorin couldn’t quite place it with any one emotion.
“I have had time to think lately, and you have done nothing to deserve my ire. You did what any good-natured person would.” He squeezed Adorin’s foot and looked down. “You did what Lydia would have. In fact, I and the rest of my kind have done nothing to earn your compassion, though our hatred of humanity is well justified, I assure you.”
The man’s face flushed. Were those the words he longed to hear from the G’yel he saved that night?
One day, you might meet such a G’yel, but friendship with one does not come easy.
Lydia’s words came pouring into his thoughts as Ralk continued massaging his feet, not able to make eye contact anymore.
“I…” Adorin was too stunned to find the words to reply.
“I am sorry,” Ralk whispered, lifting the other foot in his lap. Adorin felt warm, wet droplets on his toes. Was the G’yel crying? Could they cry? “I am glad I got to see you again. I was not at first; in fact, I cursed every god in existence that I had to see a reminder of my peoples’ atrocities. But perhaps I was spared enough time so I could tell you this. So I could ask your forgiveness.”
There was a person kneeling there in pain, wanting what anyone would. He wasn’t a monster or a beast that lacked the capacity to feel anything beyond violence and hatred. Adorin felt embarrassed for even thinking that.
An overwhelming sadness sat heavy on his chest as he took Ralk’s pain as his own. He hated being able to feel what others do. It left him a mess of different emotions, many of which weren’t even his.
When had he started doing this, and why? It was worse when the person was physically wounded. He had to push down the phantom waves of pain that afflicted him as he watched men writhe in agony. It was the only way to continue treating patients without passing out.
“Ralk,” Adorin whispered, slightly gasping for air. “You did nothing wrong that night. You tried to warn us. You did all you could, and you paid for that kindness.” He swallowed back the bitterness, but it came back up again. “Being good-natured, doing the right thing despite everything else—the traits you think admirable, it does nothing but end in tragedy.”
“No.” Ralk’s voice was much softer than before. “It changes the hearts of others. Whether you see it or not, that is what happens. Those that died in your care probably felt comfort knowing you were there in those final moments. That is what causes you pain, no?”
Adorin nodded, not able to speak as warmth streamed down his face.
“When I was in so much pain from that arrow, but you comforted me. Years made me forget because I wanted to, but I felt… something that night.”
He let go of Adorin’s feet, allowing the human to sit up against the wall. Ralk crawled over and plopped on the bedding next to him.
“Perhaps that is what has gotten into me. Everything I silently observed, the way you treated me despite what my people did to yours—” Ralk’s eyes gleamed as he spoke. “—the way you calm yowlerbacks with the touch of your hand… it makes me wish I were more like you.”
“And here I was, wishing I could be more like a yowlerback,” Adorin laughed, breaking a bit of the seriousness.
“Well, I am glad you are not.” Ralk smiled. “When this is over, I hope you will remember me. I hope you will one day forgive my kind.”
Adorin’s heart dropped. The wonderful comradery between the two lately made him forget the upcoming spectacle of death and dismemberment. They could live in that moment, but time would eventually take what it wanted.
“What if I got you out of here?”
“Adorin…” Ralk shook his head.
“I am serious. I want to leave this place. I want to go back…”
“There is no place to return,” Ralk interrupted, his arm sliding around Adorin’s back as he pulled the young man into him. It was… comforting, calming.
“What is this?” Adorin thought as his eyes got heavier.
“There is no home for either of us to run to, and there is no place on this island that is safe to escape.” He leaned back and rested his head against the stone wall. “You have options and the potential to be what this world so desperately needs. I am not worth risking that future, and I would refuse anyway.”
“Why?” Adorin pulled away from Ralk. “Why tell me all this? Why not make me hate you? This is cruel.” Adorin choked on the words as he sobbed. “I do not want to lose more people in my life. I do not know how much more I can endure.”
Ralk leaned forward and nodded. “Be my ne’ak, Adorin. Give me something to fight for so that I fight harder not to lose it. I tell you these things because you have made me realize I do not want to die. It is easy to fall in battle when there is no one left to care. I had no ne’ak, and I wanted to die that night. It made me bitter, cruel. One becomes a broken beast when one no longer cares.
“I feel something for you. I have felt it for a while, but I wanted you to hate me, as you said. But I cannot do that now, and it is your fault.” Ralk grinned as another tear rolled down his face only to be swallowed by damp fur. “You made me care again, so take responsibility and be my ne’ak. Be my family. Make me strong, like I was when I was younger.”
Adorin leaned in and wrapped his arms around Ralk’s chest. “Do not die, you bastard, and I will be your family.”
“Then it is a deal,” Ralk said, returning the embrace. The two quickly separated when the door creaked open. Adorin furiously wiped his eyes on his shirt as familiar boot steps clanked toward the pen from around the corner.
“Adorin?” Vicco’s voice was somber, almost worried. He appeared in front of the pen and looked down.
“There’s something important we need to discuss,” he said, extending his hand. “Follow me.”
“What is wrong? Tell me now.”
Vicco sighed, leaning back against the bars before running his bare hands through his sweaty hair.
“My request to have you move in with me was denied.”
“Okay,” Adorin said, a bit disappointed. “I had not moved yet. It is not as though I have lost anything.”
“But you have,” Vicco said. “It seems Tauh has been keeping something rather important from you. When you stole from him, he filed a public complaint. Since he is a man of renown and you are his apprentice, he was able to do this with no trial.”
“What does this mean?”
“You have been a slave, Adorin.” Vicco swallowed hard, but his stare remained ice. “And you are a slave until you pay your debt, and that debt can be anything Tauh wishes. He can also sell you if he chooses.”
Adorin shook his head. “No,” he said. “No, that is untrue. I have been able to roam freely.”
“Of course you can. There is no need to keep you restrained. The island is deadly, and no one will sell a slave goods, let alone an airship ticket.”
That explained a lot. He thought racism was the reason people avoided him, but everyone knew he was a slave before he did. How?
“I—I do not…” Adorin trailed off. It was as though his very soul left his body, leaving him a husk. He couldn’t cry, he could talk—he could barely breathe.
“Then get him off this island, human,” Ralk hissed, surprising both Adorin and Vicco.
“Be silent,” Ralk stood and walked toward the armored captain, his snout and sharp teeth uncomfortably close. “I do not care what you have to do, but get him out of Nau.”