Chapter Forty-One – Weak and Vulnerable

Damien woke up from a long rest later that evening. The agents had brought him back to the town where Relyntha had enslaved a large clan of nomads. According to Maya, the town was called Endynwater, recently built about four years ago. Before that, the nomads had settled in the valley with their portable camps– their rural way of life. But when the Katol clan became aware of an oil deposit in that area, they came in and took it for themselves. They forced the nomads to build upon it, to turn it into a meager form of so-called civilization. Damien did not know what this oil substance was, but apparently it was very valuable. The Katol clan was notably attracted to such valuable things.

The young man sat up in his bed. He could tell by the darkened windows that night had fallen. Upon waking, he remembered this was not his own bed, nor his room, it was simply a space that had been allotted to him as he recovered. Laying in a bed near him was Naelen, still asleep from what it seemed.

Damien couldn’t help but place a hand over his abdomen. He had been stabbed, he remembered. Was it really gone? Naelen’s healing rune must have worked, yet it felt like there was a scar forming underneath Damien’s skin– and quickly at that. The incident had left both of them alive but weak, and Captain Elias insisted that the boys recover before their departure.

“Hey,” Damien whispered over to Naelen, “You awake?”

The Lor elf’s aquamarine eyes blinked open. “You need something?”

“No, I’m just bored. I’m feeling better.”

“Well, good for you.” Naelen rolled onto his side to face Damien, tucking his good arm under his head. His bad arm, the one scarred with magic damage, was hanging limply. Naelen’s slit wrist was now wrapped in a bandage, but there was little to be done for the ruined, pale skin and ugly dark blue veins that winded along it.

Damien had seen magic damage before, but it had been confined to his own body, his own arms. He assumed Naelen had never experienced it for himself, and why would he? Naelen wasn’t one to depend on blood magic. He wasn’t a dark elf, nor a dark mage, yet he had resorted to it for Damien’s sake. The Lor elf had barely spoken since the incident, which was definitely a cause for concern because Naelen was chatty. Normally.

“Does it hurt?” Damien asked, staring at Naelen’s gross arm.

“Yeah.” Naelen tilted his head up just a bit. “I understand you’ve dealt with this kind of pain a lot? In Eolnir?”

“Mhm.” Damien fidgeted with his fingers. “Most of my life, actually.” He had never spoken to Naelen of this before. It was the greatest rift between them, their polar-opposite childhoods. But Damien sensed now that a particular rift had been closed. They had something in common, even if it was an unfortunate thing such as this.

“Baldemar did that to you, over and over?” Naelen asked.

“Yep.”

“Shards. Enduring torture like that for years? No wonder you’re so closed-off.”

Damien chuckled at that. “It will fade, Naelen. You’ll have your flawless skin back in a few days at the soonest.”

“Flawless?”

“Yeah. All you elves have flawless skin, it’s quite maddening actually.”

Naelen turned his chin toward the ceiling, his eyes grew bright with a smile. “I am not flawless. I have blemishes and scars like anyone else.”

“Not on the outside,” Damien teased. “As a human, I have to deal with all kinds of blemishes.”

“You mean like those little red dots that break out on your face?”

“To name a few.”

Naelen turned onto his back again. “You’re a good person, Damien. I’m sorry for the way I’ve treated you.”

“Eh, it was all in good fun, wasn’t it?”

“Not at first, no. I like making trouble, and…I got a little too carried away with you.”

Damien looked over at him. “It’s alright, Naelen. Deep down, I know you’re a decent person.”

“Then why are you always calling me an ass?”

All Damien could do was laugh, and his laughter spread to Naelen soon after. When the giggles faded, silence drifted between them.

“So…” Naelen clasped his fingers over his squinting eyes, “why are you so intent on visiting my sister? Do you…like her?”

“Hmm.” Damien was not sure how to respond. He did like Lila in the sense that there was a bond there, but he was not oblivious to Naelen’s concern behind the question. By all counts, Lila was a sister to Damien as well, and yet…he had this aching need to see her, to talk with her. Opening his lips, Damien struggled to put his feelings into words. “I–I think I’m just tired of being closed-off. You were right, Naelen. When Ash left me I needed to shut down, it’s the only way I know how to process pain.” He paused, expecting Naelen to say something but he didn’t. He just laid there, listening. “I’ve always felt safe with Lila, so I figure I could maybe start with her. I can foster a friendship with absolutely no risk of rejection or pain. I thought Ash was safe for me, but you know…instead she rejected me. Hurt me.”

“Oh, so you’re looking for a relationship,” Naelen grinned. “In Careth.”

“Maybe.” Damien looked down at his belly. “I think I need a true friend now more than ever.”

In the morning, the two young men rose and went out to find a town alive with people. It was hardly the same picture from yesterday. Instead of slaves working and farming the ground, the place was a tightly-knit community. Now that Relyntha had been dealt with, the influence of the Katol clan was nowhere to be seen here. The big tower in the center still rumbled and let off steam, the houses and structures were still intact. Damien had to admit it was a good look for a group of free nomads.

“Ah, finally rested I see,” Captain Elias greeted once he caught sight of the two boys. “Maya tells me her plan is to escort you both through the eastern pass?”

“That’s right,” Damien nodded, recalling the conversation from the day before. “Because it’s not safe.”

“Not in the least,” the captain agreed. “Well, I shall be along for that journey. The nomads have opted to remain here and live off their commodity. Can’t say I blame them. Our contract here is done.”

“They’re staying?” Naelen seemed surprised. “Won’t that just invite more enemies, more invaders? They’re practically defenseless.”

Captain Elias gave an approving grin. “You may not be an agent but you certainly think like one. I will be sending word to the authorities in Careth. Rest assured, the Crown will instate some sort of long-term protection for Endynwater. The Katol clan is a serious threat, one that Lorianthil does not hesitate to defend against. All will be well.”

“So, when do we leave?”

“Tonight,” Elias said. “I am sending Tak to deliver communication ahead of us. I understand there was someone in Careth you were supposed to meet up with?”

“Yes,” Naelen nodded, “my sister.”

“This would be a good time to send a message to your sister. There should be ink and paper in that building over there, be sure to leave your message with Tak so he can deliver it.”

Damien and Naelen went to the building with haste and began scribing their message. It was an exciting feeling, getting to communicate with Lila for the first time in several months. Damien watched over Naelen’s shoulder as he put ink to paper.

“Should we tell her that I’m coming with?” Damien asked.

Naelen had to ponder this. On one hand, it would be beneficial to inform Lila that Damien had decided to come along on the journey. Lila was an elf who did not always appreciate sudden surprises and preferred to plan accordingly. On the other hand…putting physical evidence of Damien’s whereabouts on a piece of paper could potentially backfire. In the event of an interception or mercenaries in Kallus’ service, the letter would only leave them more vulnerable. And Naelen didn’t want that.

“Uh…let’s just tell her about you in person,” Naelen decided. “My father is no doubt looking for us, and believe me, we don’t want to underestimate his resourcefulness.”

If that was Naelen’s final word, then Damien would accept it. After all, Naelen was basically the one in charge of all this.

Once the letter had been written, they brought it to Tak per Elias’ instructions and let the matter be settled for the time being. Perhaps Lila would get their message– or not. Either way, their plan now was to rendezvous in Careth and let Lila take charge of Damien from there.

By the time the sun had fallen and all needed supplies were packed, Elias, Maya, Damien and Naelen headed out toward the eastern mountain pass. Tak had left a few hours before them, riding in the opposite direction with both letters of communication in hand. They left the town of Endynwater behind and trusted the people there would be well looked-after by the Crown within a matter of days.

Damien, being a curious one, kept asking questions of the old captain as they traveled. “So, your job in Endynwater was to rescue the people but not protect them?”

“Agent work can be tiered work,” Elias explained. “We do specialize in priming an area for further intervention, but we do have troves of simple assignments as well. Depends on the contract.”

“Oh, I get it now. They send in agents first and then soldiers?”

“Sometimes. Sending in agents first can be an effective tactic– not always of course. It’s very situational, my young friend.”

“Honestly, I thought you agents were more like spies,” Damien confessed. “I wasn’t expecting so much fighting to be involved.”

“Eheh, yes…” Elias laughed. “We do get hired for a lot of ‘spy work’ as well. Anything from simple reconnaissance to infiltrating large-scale operation is mostly our domain.”

“I see.” Damien grinned. “It sounds way more fun than being a warrior.”

Having overheard them, Maya came over and walked beside Damien. “Is that what you want to be?” she asked. “You’re training to be a warrior?”

“Oh, no, I don’t train,” Damien said. “Naelen’s the fighter, I’m just a smith.”

“A smith? But…your sword.”

“More like a hobby really. I like to use the swords I make, sure, but I’m under no delusions that I could be a great fighter.”

“Why not?” Maya tilted her head. “All things considered, you showed fair skill yesterday. Fighting isn’t everything, you know.”

“I got myself killed.” Damien looked down. “If Naelen hadn’t been there…”

“So? A mistake to avoid in the future then. Doesn’t mean you can’t grow.”

“I’ve never thought about becoming a fighter actually,” Damien said. “It just seems…”

“Scary?”

“I was gonna say dull.”

“Dull?” Maya took offense.

“I’ve seen plenty of fighters, and they’re mostly in it for the glory.”

“Sounds like you’ve been seeing the wrong fighters then.” She turned and caught Naelen’s attention. “What about you? Why do you want to be a fighter?”

Naelen looked at Maya, seeming embarrassed. “Glory,” he sighed, causing Maya to snort. “But– not in the way you might think. My ancestral line is dotted with great warriors, and I dream of being one like them.”

“Ah, but that doesn’t really answer why. Why be great like them when you could be great like yourself instead?”

“Huh?” This seemed to confuse Naelen.

“You are both skilled and talented, Lor elf. Perhaps the glory you search for is not in your past but in your future?”

“Oh, I see what you’re saying. Yes. I admit I haven’t thought about a fighting career much beyond my own training, but honestly…that mission of yours was sort of exciting. Fun, even.”

Maya cocked an eyebrow. “You thought killing my mother was fun?”

“What?” Naelen turned, his mind spinning. “You mean that enemy was—your mother? Well, no, I didn’t enjoy the killing parts. I’m sorry it was your mother. I didn’t know.”

“I knew,” Damien said after a moment. “Relyntha told me on the hilltop before she stabbed me.”

Maya scoffed to the side. “No fears, gentlemen, it was a job. A job we hired you to assist us in. Relyntha was dangerous, and she sealed her fate a long time ago.”

“Do you regret not doing it yourself?” Damien asked.

“No,” Maya answered. “I was actually hoping it wouldn’t be me, though…I never expected it would be the Lor elf either.” She looked over at Naelen, shrugging.

Damien could imagine what is was like to sanction your own parent’s death. It was something he had thought of many times. In waking nightmares, Damien dreamed of himself walking into Eolnir and killing Baldemar, but it was unlikely Maya had felt that way toward her own mother. She did seem truly disturbed over the death of Relyntha, and simply hid it beneath a professional manner.

The light seemed to have returned to Maya’s face as they walked under a starry night sky. Damien had to admit he respected Maya for her fierce and righteous judgment. He respected her willingness to take action where it was needed. Perhaps these agents of the Crown could teach him more if he only asked it. After all, Careth was still a long way off yet.

Damien stole Captain Elias’ attention one more time, felt himself swallowing hard. “Uh, perhaps I could learn to fight more properly,” he said. “I don’t want to be vulnerable like that again, or weak.”

“Hm.” Elias grinned down at him. “You would listen to my instruction? I am no master teacher, but I wouldn’t have you being so vulnerable or weak either. Especially in this particular field. If you wish to continue offering your skills to people then you might as well have some to begin with.”

“That’s mostly what I was thinking,” Damien shrugged. “One day, it could be useful to make swords and be able to wield them.”

Captain Elias accepted the boy’s request with a hard slap to his back. “We start in the morning then. Early.”