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The company reaches Habrseng; Radomil clarifies a few points.
CWs: Depression/anxiety/pre-TSD (hard to separate here), slight disassociation, low self-worth, implied suicidal ideation, referenced hypothetical violence and death, implied past suicide. Despite all the warnings, this is a positive sort of chapter in the end. It is SFW.
Words: A tad over 2.5K
Sunbeams filtered through the pine trees on either side of the road. The rays didn’t carry enough warmth to melt the dappled patches of snow, but there were fewer of those in the forest anyway; most of the ground was bronze with fallen needles. The morning sunshine passed through puffs of mist, reflecting off water droplets so each cloud of breath glowed with pale gold light.
Radomil rubbed his eyes, exhaling another wisp of illuminated fog. The scenery was beautiful, but he was almost too tired to appreciate it. The combination of spending time with two close friends and discussing his dream so often meant he’d been having a great deal of trouble falling asleep lately.
He wanted to share Catha’s belief that they could avoid the oncoming end of the world. Looking at it rationally, a good outcome was unlikely, but the alternative to believing otherwise was worse. On the few occasions he managed to convince himself they would pull it off, it was like an iron band around his heart came loose; the wave of affection that washed over him when he thought of his friends could swell and swell without smashing against the shores of reality.
Even more importantly, if “unlikely” turned to “impossible” inside his head, he’d lose the motivation to at least try and stop the catastrophe, and that was too much to lose. The risk to the world was too large in scale to actually feel real, but the danger to his friends felt immediate and substantial. He had to believe there was a way to keep them from dying, or without question they would die.
Brushing his fingers over a pine sapling as he passed, Radomil scooped up a handful of snow and stuck it down the back of his shirt. That woke him up. He shuddered at the cold dripping down his spine as the memories of his dream dissolved, bringing his thoughts back to the present.
They’d reach Habrseng today, probably before noon. While the trees blocked their view of the mountains, preventing triangulation, the presence of the forest itself indicated they were getting close to the city. Habrseng’s main source of income was making and exporting ink, the most popular variety of which used pine soot as an ingredient.
His companions were quiet this morning. Catha was probably enjoying the scenery, while Mures had been quiet in general for some days now. Radomil suspected he was feeling down, but didn’t know why. When he’d asked about it, the sorcerer had put him off with a curt denial that it was anything worth discussing, and he’d left the matter alone since then.
However, he was beginning to worry. As his elation over Catha’s return had faded, he’d considered that several of Mures’ concerns about their relationship and future as a company had only just been resolved when they’d reached Isa’s tomb. Perhaps some hadn’t been resolved as completely as he’d thought, or the sorcerer had rather more concerns than Radomil had realised.
He slowed his pace, dropping back to walk beside Mures as Catha took the lead.
‘Do you want to pick anything up in Habrseng?’ he asked. ‘I expect what we collected from Isa’s tomb will cover the new gear Catha needs with plenty remaining.’
‘Are you sure? There’s no rush. The winter will be a lot colder; you haven’t spent it this far south before, right? Bringing thicker clothing could be wise.’
‘Alright,’ Mures said, not looking up. His mismatched eyes gazed without much focus on the road a few arm’s lengths ahead.
‘I’ll probably grab a few things myself.’
Perhaps they could talk a little while searching for new equipment. Radomil wondered if Mures’ recent reticence was due to Catha’s having joined them; while the three of them weren’t together all the time, there hadn’t been stretches of hours on end without her present, either. He frowned, disappointed that his excitement over his old friend’s return might have led him to neglect his new friend.
Mures gave a mumbled acknowledgement, but said no more. The company walked in silence until the trees began to thin out, ancient giants giving way to gangly saplings and brush interspersed with stumps. Not long after that, the sounds of civilization carried towards them on the wind, and after a few more minutes the woods opened to reveal the outskirts of a small city.
There were no walls around Habrseng, but a line of furnaces separated the huts furthest from the city’s centre from the wilderness. The scent of woodsmoke drifted through the air, and Radomil could see people gathered by the ends of some of the furnaces, collecting what he assumed was pine soot.
A few of the workers called out friendly greetings as the company passed by, which the mercenaries returned with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Not many people visited Habrseng, Radomil guessed, especially not this late in the year; the heat radiating from the furnaces went some way towards countering the day’s chill, but it was cold even so.
‘Let’s find an inn,’ Catha suggested, ‘and drop off our things. Then we can go out to purchase new gear.’
‘Sure.’ Radomil glanced at Mures, who didn’t object, though nor did he look excited by the prospect of resting and seeking out better equipment.
There was an inn not far into the city, a pleasant, single-floored building with a hearth in the middle and rooms arranged in a circle along the edge of the round central hall. There were no three-bed arrangements available, only two and four-bed ones. The mercenaries agreed on the former, and left their belongings in a pleasant, wood-walled room decorated with ink paintings of the mountains outside.
‘I have more to obtain than either of you,’ Catha noted, ‘so I’ll set off on my own. I’ll see you sometime in the evening, most likely.’
‘Goodbye,’ said Mures. Radomil clapped her amicably on the back as she headed out, then turned to his companion.
‘I thought I’d pick up more wool,’ he said. ‘I’m almost out of the stuff from the last village after making Catha’s hat. The wool merchants probably won’t be far from where you can find warm clothing, so do you want to just go together?’
Mures didn’t answer at once. ‘Okay,’ he said after a few moments of apparent internal debate; his tone suggested he wasn’t convinced of his decision, but perhaps thought it the best among bad options.
Finding the wool merchants was quite simple. Habrseng wasn’t a large city, and seemed to be a friendly one; the residents were happy to point the two mercenaries in the right direction when Radomil asked.
Mures didn’t take long to select garments; he appeared to choose them almost randomly, save that they were all black. Well, that wasn’t much of a surprise, Radomil reflected; he’d only ever seen his friend wear black, and there wasn’t much point in spending time comparing similar garments when nothing was likely to fit Mures’ bony figure well anyway.
The spellsword had finished with the merchants on one street and was cutting through an alley to reach another when Mures addressed him.
‘I’m going to leave tonight,’ he said. ‘You and Catha can each have your own bed.’
‘It’s not far from here to Jameivird; you certainly don’t need a third party member to make it there.’
Radomil halted, gazing at him with alarm. ‘You’re leaving the company?’
‘Yes. It’s only a few days early, anyway. I’ll wait until you’re done looking for wool and then head out.’ He turned away, face empty of expression, and continued down the alley.
‘Wha - Mures, wait a second!’ Radomil hurried after his friend, who slowed after a few steps with evident reluctance.
‘Why are you leaving?’ he asked. ‘And what do you mean, only a few days early?’
‘We’d part company before Jameivird, or on the way there.’ Mures sounded as if he very much didn’t want to continue the discussion, but Radomil paid this no mind.
‘You said you were fine with our plans only two nights ago,’ he said. ‘What changed?’
‘Nothing; it’s just a few days. I don’t know why you’d care much about it.’
‘The plan wasn’t for you to leave in a few days! Catha told you, didn’t she? That we’re visiting the university and then deciding where to go?’
For the first time since entering the alley, Mures ceased to look unnaturally calm. He looked off-balance instead.
‘No; she said the two of you were going there, but I thought - the university’s against dark magic, so I assumed you didn’t want me around. For that.’
‘Oh.’ Of course Catha hadn’t known to be especially clear about this; how could she? He hadn’t explained Mures’ concerns about being left behind out of respect for his privacy, and the sorcerer wouldn’t have mentioned them to someone he hardly knew, either.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘We do want you around - I want you around, Mures, very much. Our agreement to travel together is still in effect as far as I’m concerned. If you want to part ways, then -’ not fine, it wasn’t fine - ‘I’m not going to stop you, but don’t leave on my account.’
Mures didn’t seem to know what to say. He looked shocked for a moment, and then tentatively happy, and then his expression settled into a kind of grim resignation that Radomil didn’t like at all.
‘Thank you,’ he said, voice carefully even. ‘It’s probably… I think it’s better all around if I just leave now anyway. So, thank you, again, and I hope you and Catha find a way to fix what you see in your dream. I’m sure you will. You’re - well. Thank you for letting me travel with you for so long. And for your - for the time and friendship you’ve spent on me.’
He nodded at Radomil and, after a brief hesitation, held out his hand. The spellsword didn’t take it.
‘Will you at least tell me why it’s better?’ he asked, aware that his voice was a hair’s breadth away from shaking.
The other man didn’t answer at once. He looked conflicted. After a very tense period of silence, he said, ‘Catha and I will end up fighting eventually, and you probably don’t want to see that. If you… If what you’ve said about your feelings in regards to me are true, I’d guess you would rather not see me die. And obviously I’m not going to try and kill her, even if I didn’t think you’d intervene to help her. Which of course I do - I’m not suggesting you wouldn’t.’
Radomil once again found himself almost entirely adrift in a sea of assumptions, mostly incorrect but giving the odd impression that they hung together somehow nonetheless. He didn’t let it distract him.
‘Why in the world would you end up fighting Catha? I thought you were getting along fairly well; did I miss something?’
‘Well - no, you didn’t, but obviously she has. I have no doubt you’ve realised she’s perfectly cut out to be some sort of heroic figure, and I’m precisely the opposite. We’ve talked about this before.’ His voice was getting gradually tighter.
‘Yes, and I told you, I think you’re wrong. There’s no reason for you to be the antagonist or the villain or come to a bad end. We established that, didn’t we? I thought you knew where I stand on the matter.’
Mures shut his eyes. He was very still, but Radomil could see tears collecting on the ends of his patchy eyelashes.
‘Even without that,’ he said faintly, ‘she’s a far better friend. It’s not worth the risk. You’ll be upset if we do end up fighting, and you don’t need me around anymore, if you ever did. I can’t give you what she can.’
‘You’re both my friends.’
‘And with Catha, you can believe the world isn’t going to end.’ He spoke at a normal volume now, but his voice cracked. He sniffed. ‘Or at least hope it won’t. I can’t give you that. I’m glad - more than I can tell you - to have been your friend, but in the end she’s worth more than I am, as a person and to you.’
Radomil felt strange. It was as if all the feeling in his body had abruptly drawn inwards, leaving his fingers and toes and even his face oddly numb. When he spoke, it was like he was listening to himself from outside.
‘She’s not worth more than you are,’ he said. ‘Setting aside objective assessment, I mean to me. You’re both my friends. Equally.’
Mures looked as though he were about to speak, but Radomil cut him off.
‘Catha does give me that hope,’ he said, ‘but you give me something just as important. I didn’t believe we could do anything about the end of the world - sometimes I still don’t - and you make me think that caring about and being with a friend is worthwhile anyway.
‘I never had that with Catha, because with her it was always about trying to believe things could be different. That doesn’t matter with you. Even when I don’t think we can prevent it, even when I’m convinced we’re all going to die a few years from now, I still want to be your friend. I love you both, and any risk I might be taking if we keep travelling together is insignificant compared to that.’
He stopped. Mures was staring at him with an expression which suggested he was about to either pass out or burst into tears. In lieu of either, he took several deep breaths, digging the fingers of one hand into the opposite wrist, and shakily asked, ‘You really want me to stay with you?’
Radomil didn’t think words were adequate to express how he felt. Stepping forward, he extended a hand; when Mures didn’t object or move away, he wrapped one arm around the sorcerer’s shoulders, then the other, and then they were both holding on to each other so hard it was almost painful.
His friend was shaking; he’d started crying after all, and Radomil felt several tears slip down his own face too. He tangled one hand in Mures’ stringy hair and pressed their temples together, closing his eyes.
‘Please don’t leave on my account,’ he repeated in a rough whisper. ‘You’re as much a part of the company as any of us, and you’re more than welcome. You’ll always be welcome.’
Mures started to respond, but his voice broke and he didn’t try to repeat himself. Instead, he squeezed Radomil even more tightly and slid a hand up between his shoulder blades to push him in closer.
They stood there for a while with the muffled sounds of the city drifting past. Eventually, the spellsword drew back, though he kept a hand on each of his friend’s shoulders.
‘Where were you going to go, anyhow?’ he asked hoarsely. ‘If you’d left today.’
Mures sniffed. His eyes were rimmed with red. ‘I… nowhere.’
This might’ve meant he was going to stay near Habrseng, but Radomil didn’t think so. Over the years he’d been a mercenary, he’d lost too many comrades, not in battle but after it, to the same sort of hopelessness he heard in Mures’ voice.
He pulled the sorcerer closer again.
‘How can you think that’s preferable to upsetting - potentially upsetting me if you stay with the company?’ He sounded distinctly choked even to his own ears.
Mures’ narrow shoulders jerked in a shrug. ‘It’s not the worst way things could go; it was never going to end happily for me anyway. I don’t really care. I don’t want the last thing I do to be hurting my - my very dear friend.’
Radomil made a noise halfway between a sob and a laugh. ‘Mures, I can assure you, if you die, I’m going to be upset regardless of the circumstances. I think you’ve drastically underestimated how much you mean to me’
There was a pause, and then, in a strangled tone: ‘Possibly, yes.’