CHAPTER TWO - THE TASTE OF ASHES
With the echo of Adar’s footsteps in his ears, Draigh stared at the bed where his brother had been moments ago. Sprawled out. All loose-limbed. Smiling up at him mischievously, despite Draigh’s words of warning.
Some would have even called those words nagging, or have accused him of trying to act like a parent. After all, he was only two minutes older than Adar, not two years, let alone twenty. But Adar’s good heart made him think the world would open its arms to him. And mostly, it had. For now. But being on the wall, Draigh had seen things.
He was sure that’s what the shadowy figures sometimes wreathed in red or green or purple light in their elaborate robes, hoods and glowing jewels were. They didn’t come near the walls, not near enough for an arrow to reach from his most powerful bow. And they only appeared when he was alone. If Donal joined him on a shift, the woods would stay dark, not illuminated by their witchfire.
Yet he knew they were real and out there. Watching. Waiting. And there were more of them every year. Then more of them every month. Then more of them every week. Then more of them every day. The night before, he’d sworn that they formed a circle around the whole of Thistleford, pressed shoulder to shoulder, there were so many of them.
He’d crouched down and watched them back. His breath had come in ever more rapid gasps. Sweat had popped up on his upper lip and forehead. The hair on the back of his neck had stood on end. They had remained distant yet close. Sometimes he wondered if they were really physically there, or if they were someplace else, looking in.
He also wondered why they didn’t just come. Come into Thistleford and reveal what drew them there. It wasn’t as if the wood and stone walls or the gate would stop them. Magic couldn’t be stopped by simple timber or cut stone. But they didn’t. They stayed where they were.
But, at the same time, Draigh felt he knew why they remained. They were here for him and Adar. They were waiting for some invisible line to be crossed. Once that happened, they would know and they would come. And, even if the people of Thistleford didn’t wish to exile them for whatever that line crossing was, they’d have no choice but to send Adar and Draigh to walk the Wicked Path.
Because no one could stand before the witches and live.
So he urged caution. He urged normalcy. He urged the boring, yet safe middle of the pack. Don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention. Don’t show just how special one was. He hoped and prayed and wished that this would keep Adar safe. But he knew his brother was believing him less and less each year. Adar was chafing under restrictions that he couldn’t understand. How long before Adar simply ignored them?
His brother was far from foolish or stupid. He just didn’t really understand or believe the danger there was. Draigh had thought of telling Adar about the witches and the threat he believed they posed to the two of them. So many times he’d considered it! But every time he’d shut his mouth and had kept silent. Because he knew that, instead of being afraid, Adar would want to understand the witches! He could very well see his brother joining him on the wall, seeing their magical light, and calling to them. He could even see Adar going out into the woods to try and find them.
So no, he hadn’t--and couldn’t--say anything. Witches were not felinees like Mox who could be tamed to accept pets and treats and sit on one’s shoulders. No, they were like storms that ripped through the forest, splitting trees in two down to their roots and unearthing old graves. He had to protect his brother.
But he really wasn’t worried about Adar crossing the line that would draw the witches. Not really. Adar was innocent. Adar was loving, kind, generous to a fault, warm and funny. Adar was sunlight and summer breezes. Adar was… everything.
Draigh was down on his knees before Adar’s bed and burying his face into the pillow where his twin’s head had just lain. Adar smelled of cinnamon and bright citrus. Draigh gripped that pillow, breathing in his twin’s scent as if he needed it to live. Maybe he did.
Just the other day, when he’d come home from his shift on the walls, his brother walked out of the bathroom, wet and warm from the tub, skin still steaming from the heated water, humming happily. And Draigh had followed him into their bedroom, shielded himself from being seen--a skill that was not normal and one he couldn’t have explained how he accomplished--and came up behind Adar.
His brother had only a towel wrapped around his lean hips. His bare chest, muscled with dark coffee-colored nipples, was wet still. Rivulets of water ran down his bare body from his short, dark hair.
With Adar not able to notice him, Draigh had allowed himself the hungry gazes he normally shunted away as Adar unwrapped the towel from his waist and used it to dry his hair. Draigh’s breath caught at the sight of his brother’s rosy manhood, hanging low from its nest of dark curls. He longed to run his fingers over the swell of Adar’s buttocks, let those fingers dip into the space between them, and watch as his twin moaned with his opening touched.
They were twins, but Adar’s body was always such a revelation to him! An undiscovered country that had some familiar hills and valleys, but was wholly new at the same time. He knew that Adar’s cries of completion--bitten down and attempted to be hidden from him when his twin pleasured himself at night--were different than his own. Higher. More breathy. He yearned to be the cause of those sounds. To bring his brother to completion and more. And there were moments when he thought that Adar wanted that too.
Like that moment when he had tracked his brother like prey to their bedroom, and came up behind him, so close that Adar’s back almost touched his front. His cock was rock hard in his leathers. His blood was singing.
He won’t want you.
He’ll be horrified.
Don’t do this.
His good heart will break.
You’ll lose him forever.
But I just need… I just need… Need…
He needed to smell his brother’s scent. That was all he needed. And so he dipped his head down, his nose a hair’s breadth from the place where Adar’s neck and shoulder met on the right side. He drew in a breath and--
“Gods, Draigh!” Adar laughed, sensing him finally, before swinging around with an eager smile on his lips. A smile that Draigh sometimes thought was special in some way. Just for him. “Were you trying to scare me?”
“How did you get in here without me noticing? Working on your woodcraft? In the house, I might add!” Adar continued laughing.
“Yes, I was trying to… scare you,” Draigh answered and stepped back.
Except he had scared himself.
For that line, he now knew, wasn’t likely going to be broken if Adar came in first in the race, or his killing monsters with his bow that others couldn’t see, let alone hit, in a million years, it was going to be this.
His love for Adar.
His too great love for his twin.
His forbidden love.
That would bring the witches to their door. So he was the real danger to Adar. And if he stayed here, where his twin was within easy reach, he would cross that line.
He took in one more breath of the pillow before setting it down, even recreating the press of Adar’s head in it so that it wouldn’t have appeared to have been disturbed. He was on his feet.
He needed to remove himself from his brother as much as possible. He would spend every waking minute on the walls, and then, at the end of the Festival of Nightfall he would accept Donal’s offer to join his household. His stomach churned at the thought, but he would do anything to protect Adar.
Even if it was from himself.
He donned his sword, bow and quiver before he opened the latch of the side window and stepped out onto the slate room of the first story below. He effortlessly crossed the damp tiles and jumped off at the edge into the side yard below, landing in a crouch. No one was around to see. His hearing--so much better than a normal person’s--told him that.
That same hearing alerted him to Aunt Cathe revealing Donal’s offer to Adar. The sheer betrayal and raw pain in Adar’s voice as he said, “Donal?!” had Draigh blindly running from the yard into the street. He hardly noticed the tap of his boots against the cobblestones as he walked swiftly towards the central square.
Thistleford was shaped like a large wheel with the “spokes” or main streets radiating out from a central square that was lined with the main shops, the blacksmith, the tavern, the mayor’s house, and a Guildhall for the Watchers, of which Draigh was one and Donal’s family had lead for generations.
The town was further divided into sections based upon the points of the compass. Their home was in West Thistleford. West and East were where the homes of the stolid, tradesmen lived. While South Thistleford held both the artisans and the poorest of Thistleford’s inhabitants. The race took place in South Thistleford. The artists, of all people, designed the ridiculous complicated courses that had as much climbing and jumping as they did running. Last year’s race was mostly on the rooftops. Who knew what this season would bring.
Finally, the leaders--and the most wealthy--had larger homes in North Thistleford. Donal’s household was there. As he was the wealthier and had better standing between them, it was to his household that they would go and live. If it had been reversed, they would have stayed with Uncle Thom and Aunt Cathe. Not that Draigh would have chosen anyone from a lower station. Not because he cared about that, but because he needed to get out of his house and away from Adar. He never would have partnered, he would never have left Aunt Cathe and Uncle Thom’s home, absent the line that was just daring to be crossed with Adar.
If I leave my brother will be safe.
If I leave my brother may seek out love for himself.
If I leave temptation will leave me too.
But that last thought wasn’t true. He’d always felt this way about Adar and he always would. But his twin wouldn’t be in the bed beside his, Adar’s light breathing and heartbeat would not a song in Draigh’s ears, or the scent of him an aphrodisiac in Draigh’s nostrils. He would have to choose to take so many acts to get to Adar once he was gone that surely, he would remember himself and stop.
That was his hope anyways.
The streets leading to the central square were only lightly traversed now as people got themselves ready for the beginning of the Festival of Nightfall. Soon, crowds would be flocking towards the square, faces bright with excitement and the desire to enjoy themselves.
As he crossed over the Autumn Bridge, he saw that the water was still high, despite the temperatures dropping here and even more so in the mountains. The ice melt was still flowing down to them. It was used for cooking, cleaning and brewing among other things. Only in the deepest part of winter did it freeze up to a trickle and force them to melt snow or cut ice from further up the river’s source. Those were always dangerous missions, because that was when the forest’s creatures were most desperate too.
He strode past several bonfires already lit and tended to by servicemen and women. He saw old Mama Lucke sitting on her stool by one of the largest blazes. Her long dark skirts looked a little more worn this year, her face more lined with age, but she gave him a large gap-toothed smile when she saw him.
“Draigh! Will you be coming to hear my tales tonight?” she asked him in her warbling old voice.
He directed his feet towards her, stopping a little away, close enough to see that her eyes were still bright, not yet clouded with drink. That would change. But there would be plenty of tales before that happened, he thought.
“Not tonight, Mama Lucke,” he said kindly. “I am up on the walls.”
“Of course, you are!” She slapped her knee with one beringed hand. The rings were old copper things with stones she had dug out of the ground herself, of no real value. She dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “You’ll keep the witches away. I know they are amassing.” She pressed the left side of her nose. “I can smell them! Magic has a scent, you know! Bitter and sweet like before and after a storm.”
His heart leaped at her words. A chill settled upon him despite the roaring fire. Most people laughed at her stories of the witches, said they were just tales to frighten the children, and made as much from alcohol and smoke weed as any memories Mama Lucke might actually have of the last time Thistleford had caught the witches’ interest. But now that he had seen them, he wasn’t sure what to believe.
“Why would the witches be massing near Thistleford?” He asked in what he hoped was a casual tone.
She looked at him silently with those bright eyes for so long that he was tempted to shift from foot to foot guiltily. But he held his ground and his stillness. If she had something to say, she would have to say it out loud. He’d heard enough whispers over the years about his mother, or more importantly, his father, the nameless, faceless person who had put Draigh and Adar in his mother’s womb and left them all.
The rumors were ludicrous from his father being a witch to an old god of the forest. The fact that his mother had twins was seen as inauspicious, too. Twins always were born with some differences. Magic, was whispered by some. Madness, was whispered by others. But he and Adar had been so careful--and he had made himself so useful--that many of the whispers had stopped over the years. The fact that Donal had asked him to join his household said as much, and that Adar was welcome in practically any house in the town said more.
So long we keep safe and quiet.
“Well, Draigh, I don’t know,” she finally said. “Witches’ minds cannot be easily assessed.”
He surprised himself by pushing this conversation, “The last time they came--”
“Near 50 years ago! I was but a youngin then!” Her raspy voice grew rich with the familiar tale.
“Yes, yes, I know. Adar made you tell us this story more than 50 times to us,” Draigh sighed. “But you never did say exactly why they came.”
“For young Cassie! As I told you--”
“But what did Cassie do exactly that drew their attention?” Draigh felt like Adar asking these questions, but it also left him feeling strangely exposed. Because, unlike Adar, he never let curiosity lead him. He kept his thoughts to himself.
Mama Lucke rocked back on her stool, her lips smacking a bit together as if she needed a drink already--and maybe she did as payment for this information--but he wasn’t going over to the stall where Barman Lee was setting up frothing pints quite yet. But he started to feel like a fool when she said nothing to him. There likely had been no Cassie, let alone a reason for her being taken.
“Well, she helped them!” Mama Lucke finally answered just as he was about to wave goodbye and leave for the Guildhall.
“Helped them?” Draigh paused and his brows furrowed. “Them as in the witches?”
“They can change shape, you know,” she reminded him. “One of them took on the form of a mighty stag with these webs between its huge antlers. A skull stuck in the web. One of our boys thought it was a monster. And it was, in a manner of speaking! But…” Here Mama Lucke paused and meaningfully looked over at Barman Lee.
Draigh fished out a coin from his pocket and held it up for her to see. This was enough to get her five drinks, at least. Her eyes widened when she saw it. The ancient money was rare and worth quite a bit more than she could barter for one of her stories. It had been a gift from Donal. She smacked her lips and held out a hand eagerly.
He shook his head. “Tell me first.”
Looking wounded that he didn’t trust her not to run off to the stall and drain her five pints of beer all at once, she nodded and continued, “She was a healer, Cassie see? She had a kind of special knowledge about the plants that would let her heal even those with Bonebreak Fever or Galloping Cough. And she loved the monsters. Just like your brother does!”
Draigh wasn’t happy to hear that.
“In any case, she was there when the stag was shot with an arrow,” Mama Lucke explained. “And she was intent on saving it, which she did with her potions and care. Or maybe the witch simply healed herself and was just touched by Cassie’s good deed.”
“But the witch took Cassie away,” Draigh pointed out. “That sounds more like punishment than repayment.”
Mama Lucke blinked at him. “Well, it depends on your point of view, don’t it? To the witch, Thistleford might have seemed a terrible place and she thought she was rewarding the girl by taking her away from here. While for us, the Witch World is the terrible place.”
“I see. So it wasn’t that Cassie was simply different, but she helped the witch--”
But Mama Lucke interrupted with a wag of her finger, “Only someone different would want to heal a monster like that! Someone better off away from Thistleford! Someone who didn’t belong!”
Draigh couldn’t help but think about Mox, and how Adar had insisted on helping her even as everyone else had wanted to kill her and keep the pelt. He wondered if “Cassie’s” story was actually Adar’s story just renamed and Mama Lucke was trying to tell him something. Anger boiled inside of him. His and Adar’s “differences” had helped the people of Thistleford more times than could be counted, but still they were othered.
“A promise is a promise, Draigh!” Mama Lucke held out both hands eagerly for the coin.
“Yes, it is.”
He flipped it up into the air, feeling unkind as she had to scrabble to get it, but then he thought of her “story” and that guilt faded away. Plus, as soon as she scraped the coin off the ground, she was hustling over to Barman Lee and demanding to be served. Draigh wondered if she would be in any shape to tell the children her stories around the fire tonight. If they included that barely veiled story about Adar he was glad she might be too in her cups to speak at all.
He turned and headed towards the Guildhall where the other Watchers were meeting to assign roles that night. Donal would be there, handing out assignments, and taking on the hardest himself.
He was Draigh’s senior by about six years. His work on the walls had kept him busy, or so he said, from finding a life partner earlier. But Draigh guessed that his parents had hoped Donal’s tastes would turn to women, any woman, but they never had. So now, they simply wanted him to have a partner and he had chosen Draigh. He should have been honored that the scion of such an important family--and a man he actually respected--wanted to partner with him for life.
But he didn’t.
Because the thought of anyone, other than Adar, left the taste of ashes in his mouth.