"I am so sorry you had to see that," Zoya whispered, bowing to Sieg and then Orrin in turn.
Orrin found himself a little miffed. Oh sure, now their translator acknowledged him, of all times. She never apologized for ignoring him, but she did for freezing up at seeing something most people would find disturbing? What was up with this Lady?
The Stallion knight found himself just standing there and listening, with no ideas on anything to contribute. At one point, Sieg stood next to him and gave him a smile - which Orrin appreciated, giving a half-smile in return - but he still found himself feeling like a fifth wheel.
A small sound below him caught his attention, and he noticed a little mouse skittering over his foot. Had he not been wearing closed shoes, it might have tickled. Slowly, he bent down, reaching with a longer arm to invite the mouse onto his hand.
Thankfully, it wasn't much longer until the suggestion to leave was mentioned. "No objections there," the half-dwarf said, beginning to follow. "I don't think we're gonna learn anythin' new here, anyway."
Orrin feels left out and plays with the mouse. He follows the others out of the temple.
Vilified for deeds done in the light~/Hiding away within plain sight~ These cloaks are keeping safe the secret faces~ Terrified of making one mistake~/Narrow mind 'till the soul begins to break~ We are just husks seeking the world's false graces~ (From Masks by Aviators)
It was close to sunset by the time the knights trudged back to Zoya’s manor for the knight. Sieg could tell Orrin was cross, both about their lack of progress and about their translator’s blatant favoritism, but there wasn’t a lot he could really do for either of those things. He felt bad, but at the same time he was becoming a little frustrated as well. Getting angry with the situation wasn’t going to fix it.
They ate dinner- more of the strange but not unpleasant Langean food- and Zoya gave them each a room to stay in for the night. Though the manor was small, the room was definitely a cut above what they’d have gotten at an inn, and it was the best bed Sieg had slept in since he left Corvus. Though he was a bit nervous about sleeping with the vampire afoot- and slid his dagger unsheathed under the pillow just to be safe- the fatigue of the trip and the softness of the bed conspired to overwhelm his nervousness, and soon he was sound asleep.
* * * * *
Fire, everywhere, all around him, burning and searing. His skin cooks, he can smell it as well as feel it, and he can feel wetness from the burns that he knows is blood. Sweat evaporates as soon as it pours out of him, and he longs to run, to escape the heat, but he can’t. Something is on top of him, pinning him down. He thrashes, but that only makes the pain worse. Tears pour down his face, scalding in the heat of the blaze.
He looks out through a crack in the wooden beams, and he can just see a distant figure flinging a javelin into the air. He hears the monster shriek in agony, and then-
With a tremendous wrench, Sieg wrestled himself free of the confines of his blanket, rolling off the bed entirely and landing with a thump on the floor. He clenched his teeth hard on a cry of pain as his elbow struck the wood of the floor. Sweat and tears poured out of him, and he looked about himself in wild panic. What happened, where was he? Where was the dragon, the flames, where was…
Sieg curled himself into a ball on the floor, sobbing softly. Fear and pain and confusion were very, very slow to release him from their grasp, but at length he finally managed to pull himself out of the dream enough to remember where he was. Without Orrin there it was harder- he probably lay hunched on the floor for well over an hour- but at length he was able to uncurl, and pull himself up into a standing position.
Sleeping now was hopeless. With a sigh, hoping that Zoya would not mind him wandering about at such an early hour, Sieg pulled on a pair of trousers over his nightshirt, clipped his dagger to his belt, and walked out of the room. Part of him wanted to go outside, and get some fresh air, but even through the thick blanket of despair and old grief clouding his mind he knew that would be stupid. So instead he eventually found a bench that was positioned close to one of the windows, and sat down on it with his elbow resting on the sill and his chin on his arm.
With barely a rustle of her dress and only the tiniest of whimpers from the floorboards, Zoya stepped out of the darkness and into the light cast by the moon pouring in from the window. She had changed out of the finely embroidered dress she wore into a simple nightshirt, though her hair was still woven into her twin braids.
“You should be getting some rest. There is still a lot of work we have to do and you cannot do it if you stay awake,” she said quietly. Her dark eyes seemed to scan him, drinking in his slumped position and the lingering traces of despair on his face. A frown crossed her brow. “But you do not appear to be in any mood to sleep.”
The noblewoman perched down on the edge of the bench beside him, still watching the knight as one would watch a child sick with fever. “I am familiar with nightmares and how they linger,” she leaned closer to Sieg, giving him a small smile. “Do you want to talk about it?”
The knight glanced around in surprise, his shoulders tensing up instinctively. When he saw who it was, however, he forced himself to relax. Or tried to anyway, his body wasn’t listening as well as he might have liked.
“It’s nothing I’m not used to working around,” he said softly. “I get these nightmares far more often than most people get such recurrent dreams- at least twice a week, sometimes more. I’m very good at functioning on not a lot of sleep.” He sighed. “You… you’re very kind, and I appreciate that. But you don’t need to stay up for me, Zoya. Especially not when you’ve clearly burdens of your own to bear. My load isn’t one I’d wish on anybody.”
“You poor thing,” Zoya’s eyes softened and she shifted even closer to Sieg, her thin fingers alighting on his shoulder with a featherlike touch. “Even if you are used to this, that doesn’t mean you should suffer. I don’t want to see you hurting, not when I’ve promised to look after you and tend to your every need.”
Her lips curved into a soft smile and she lifted up her hand to carefully brush a lock of his hair away. “You are a knight, brave and strong, so it is natural that you might wish to hide what hurts you. But the women of Lange are far too aware of the trauma that men face when coming back from a battlefield, especially the kind that disturbs their sleep. I will not think less of you for it, and it is far easier to share the load. Especially with somebody like me, who understands.”
Sieg wondered idly if being so touchy with a person you’d barely met was a Langean thing. They certainly seemed aloof, but then again most of the people he’d spoken to today he was talking to about the monster that haunted their city, which didn’t encourage warm feelings. He was inclined to wince away from Zoya’s touch, but it reminded him distantly of his mother Morgaine, and how she would always hold and stroke him when he was upset as a child.
“Talking about it means reliving it,” he said softly. His eyes stung in spite of his efforts to keep himself in hand, and he scrunched them shut. “I just want to forget… but at the same time I don’t, because that was the last time I ever saw…”
Sieg bit his lip, feeling his shoulders quivering as if to announce his distress and weakness.
“Shh, shh, it’s alright, don’t cry,” Zoya murmured soothingly and stroked his hair. “You’ve suffered a cruel fate, and you deserve some peace. The Trickster laughs at the misfortune of mortals but even he has to get tired of watching one person suffer. And you have certainly suffered plenty.”
The noblewoman moved even closer, stopping with barely a few inches between their bodies. “Perhaps he sent me to help you, or perhaps he sent you to me so I might end your suffering. You can trust me with your loss,” she turned her head to face him. “Tell me, what happened?”
Sieg felt the last of the defenses that had been weakened by Orrin’s sympathy crumble. He pulled himself into a tight, trembling ball, his face hidden in the crook of his arm, and slowly, hesitantly he started to speak.
“I… it’s always the same dream. It happened when I was sixteen, I’d just been made a squire and it was to be my first action. A dragon, a crazed man-eating dragon that was terrorizing the countryside. I wasn’t supposed to fight, just translate between the elves and the humans, but something went wrong and…”
The memories were rising up in him again, trying to swamp him and carry away his consciousness. It was too soon, too soon after the dream, if he kept going he knew he’d lose himself to the visions playing inside his eyelids. But he kept talking anyway, his mouth relaying the story in a confused jumble even as his mind was battered with horrifying images.
“It set fire to a barn full of grain and the thing just blew up, like it was full of exploding powder, the fire was everywhere and the debris field was enormous. I was standing too close, and I was trapped, I…”
It was too much. In his mind’s eye he could feel the heat of the fire all around him, the weight of the beams pinning him, the searing of hot metal against his skin. He whimpered, clenching his hands into fists, struggling and failing to get another coherent word out.
“Hush, hush, it’s alright, don’t be scared. You’re here, not there, there is no grain barn or fire in Tarpan,” Zoya stroked his head, running her fingers through his hair as though they were rivulets of water. Her face twisted into a grimace of sympathy but her eyes remained focused firmly on him. “Calm down, tell me the rest.”
A thought seemed to occur to her and she lowered her hand from his hair down to his back, stroking it gently. “You said it was the last time you ever saw something or someone,” the noblewoman murmured. “Tell me who or what you lost.”
The gentle touch on his back made him gasp softly, a sensation of limpness racing down his limbs from where Zoya’s hand rested. He instinctively flinched away, but the calming effect and the soothing calmness of the Langean woman’s voice did manage to ease him out of the flashback. He shook his head at her question of who he’d lost, whining softly. He wished he could tell her, she was being so kind and he wanted to, but…
“I’m sorry,” he muttered softly. “I must look pathetic. It’s so hard to talk about this. You’ve been kind, but it’s like… like a block in my head, if that makes sense.”
Zoya smiled and shook her head, continuing to stroke his back now that she had noticed the calming effect it had on him. “You’re not pathetic, Sieg. You’ve suffered a great loss and been through so much hardship. Even the bravest men would flinch at the mention of a dragon so for you to confront it and still be as strong as you are is a great feat, worthy of heroes. There is no shame is bearing scars from that incident. But at some point, you will have to be stronger than that pain.”
She gave a little sigh and turned her head slightly, trying to meet Sieg’s gaze. “I know I am a stranger. You’ve known me for barely a day. But I swore that I would do everything in my power to help you in your task and that includes looking after you. It is my duty as your host and translator. But I cannot help you unless I know what happened. I don’t want to see you suffer,” she lowered her voice, her expression the very picture of sympathy. “Trust me with this. Let me help you.”
After a short while, Zoya turned her gaze towards the floor, biting her lip. “Please?”
Sieg wished she would stop stroking his back. The cocktail of euphoric chemicals it was hitting his brain with was making it hard to think. But even despite the exhaustion and emotional turmoil roiling in his mind, the woman’s voice was crystal clear in his ears, and he fixed on it because it gave him something external to concentrate on. He didn’t feel strong, or brave, or any of the other things she said, but even if he disagreed with the words the calm voice was an anchor against his own distress.
The knight had gone completely limp against the wall by this point, shivers and ripples moving across the skin of his back where she touched him. When she looked into his eyes, he bit his lip, feeling an upwelling of guilt at the pleading in her voice. He’d been rebuffing her all day, and he and Orrin had drug her through traumas of her own and the scorn of the citizens of Tarpan. Yet here she was, still trying- no, begging to help him.
“...It was my father,” he said finally. “He was a knight too, and he was at the battle with the dragon. With so many of us trapped in the burning barn the dragon would’ve had an easy meal. It was swooping down to pick us off when… when-” he choked on a sob. “Papa th-threw a javelin at it’s wing to distract it. I could see everything through a crack in the planks around me. Th-the dragon got so angry, it turned on him and… and it…”
He’s have brought his hands up to his face, had the total relaxation from his muscles not made it more effort than it was worth to move. So when the tears started to flow down his face, they were unshielded and plainly visible in the moonlight filtering through the window.
“The dragon breathed fire on him. He didn’t die right away, it just went on and on… I could, c-could hear him screaming, I still hear the screaming in my n-nightmares.” He clenched his eyes shut, whimpering softly. “I… I h-hated myself for so long for that. For the fact that he d-died so horribly to save me.”
Zoya had listened quietly to the story, going as still as a hunting owl as she did so. Even her hand, which had been making its way down his back, froze midway down it. There was no sound from her, nor a breath or a rustle of cloth to break the silence that had settled. However, her dark eyes betrayed her mind as it worked through his words and his tears.
Finally, however, she brought up a thin finger to his cheek, wiping away the tears that were pouring out his eyes.
“You poor thing. To lose somebody you love so much, to see it and to have to keep reliving the experience over and over in your sleep, that is indeed a cruel punishment, too cruel for even the Trickster to inflict,” the noblewoman murmured, her voice maintaining the calming, soothing tone that she had adopted for the conversation. “I am sorry. No wonder you suffer so much.”
She moved her hand away from his spine and rested it on his shoulder, giving off a sigh. “It is nature’s way, however. A parent would do anything for their child. Even give up their life to save them.”
The half-elf shrugged dismally, his expression pained. “I know. And I know he’d want me to go on with my life, and not dwell on what happened. But it’s so hard when my mind keeps forcing me to see it again and again and again. I just wish…”
He clenched his hands into his hair. “I wish I hadn’t been so stupid and weak that I needed protecting. I became a knight so I could protect myself, and my family, but… but because I was there in the battle…”
Zoya leaned forward again, putting her arm around him lightly, ready to remove it at any time should he find the touch uncomfortable. “You feel like a knight has to be strong, and they do not always have to be. No matter how strong a warrior is, they will sometimes falter. But at least you remember.”
She smiled kindly at him, giving his back another stroke. “It’s worth remembering. Your father’s sacrifice was an important one. Even if he wanted you to move on with your life, I doubt he would want you to forget what he did. Or for you to make make the same mistake twice.”
He flinched hard at those words. “Th-that’s not… that’s not what I meant… Of course I wouldn’t forget what he did, I’m not a monster, I just… He was my father, of course I can’t forget him! But l-listening to him scream as he d-dies, over and over again in my sleep, it’s unbearable!”
Zoya flinched as well, glancing down at the floorboards. “Of course you are not a monster. The thing out there, the one you are hunting, is the real monster,” she turned back to him, the smile returning to her face. “You are a man who is suffering from the burden of his guilt. But the fact that you help people, you’re out here helping us, speaks of you as a very brave man, no matter what your sins were in the past.”
She tilted her head. “Does Sir Ironbeard know?” she asked, her tone inquiring.
Sieg looked away, his expression bleak. His sins? He’d always blamed himself for what happened, but everyone around him insisted it wasn’t his fault. He’d always felt on a logical level it wasn’t his fault, and his guilt over the matter was irrational. But here this woman who he barely knew heart the story, and she was talking about sins?
...It made sense, in a way. Someone who had no emotional investment in him, and no debt to his father, would be more willing to be brutally honest in her opinion. It didn’t make the remark hurt any less. He pulled away from her a little, his back going tense again.
“No, I’ve not told him,” he said softly. “...Maybe I should? He knows I dream about Father’s death, but not the details.”
Zoya let her hands drop away from him, though she did not remove her eyes from the half-elf. “It might not be such a good idea. The memory still hurts you, so much. You and Sir Ironbeard are clearly friends but do you trust him enough with the information?”
She sighed and looked away from him sadly, her shoulders slumping. “You’ll finish this job and never see me again so your secret is safe with me. I am not a knight either. But Sir Ironbeard...he’s your partner, isn’t he? You need him to protect you and he needs to trust you to protect him,” though her head did not move, the noblewoman gave Sieg a sideways glance, “You best not give him any reason to doubt you.”
Sieg almost objected that such an admission had no reason to make Orrin doubt him, but… well there was that time with the strzyga. Sieg had proposed a plan, an admittedly brainless plan, and Orrin had fought him tooth and nail over it. The half-dwarf wanted to protect him, just as Belial had, and Sieg had already admitted to Orrin that he could be rash and rush into situations on impulse to do dangerous things. What if Orrin did decide Sieg needed to be protected?
He bristled somewhat, frustrated. “I’m not helpless. It’s… it’s been thirteen years, I’m stronger now than I was then. Of course I can protect him. He’s… he’s got to understand that the things someone does when they’re sixteen don’t reflect on what they do when they’re almost thirty.”
“But what if he doesn’t understand?” the noblewoman turned away, taking her braid and fidgeting with the end. “I can’t help but notice the difference in height between you two. Those who are bigger and stronger protect those they see as weak.”
Her arms dropped, curling around herself. “He does not seem to trust me either, even though I’ve done all I could to be helpful to you both,” a little shudder ran through her. “Even though I’ve had to relive some painful memories myself.”
Zoya shifted a little closer to Sieg again and tried to lower her head down to his shoulder but stopped herself just in time, moving away. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me,” she murmured. “It’s just with you...I feel safe with you.”
Sieg shook his head. “I’m glad you do, but… I think that’s part of what’s making him cross. It’s not that he doesn’t trust you, it’s that you keep turning to me for answers and he feels ignored and frustrated.”
Though if he really does see himself as needing to be in charge and protect me… no, that’s ridiculous, you know it’s because of what he’s had to deal with before and how he looks. Sieg shook his head, sighing. “I’m sorry if he’s come off as brusque… he’s not normally like that.”
“How long have you known him?” she murmured. “Maybe that’s how he is? Maybe he is finally showing his true nature around me, some Langean woman he has no intention of befriending?”
The noblewoman shifted in place, looking uncomfortable. “I’m sorry I keep coming to you for answers. I don’t feel safe around him, like I do with you.”
The half-elf shivered, remembering suddenly Orrin’s admission that he’d always had issues with his temper. He’d learned to be a knight for the sake of discipline and self-control. Could it really be that Zoya was right, and just beneath the surface that belligerent side was still there? The half-elf clenched his hands into fists. Was he really just being duped?
“I… I don’t know, I…” his throat closed so that his voice emerged as a hoarse whisper. “He’s my friend, he’s… he’s the first person I’ve met besides my sister who’s like me, who knows how it feels to be half one species and half another, for, for everyone to regard you as a freak and an abomination. He… he can’t”
Zoya stretched out her hand again to touch his back, his expression the very picture of sympathy. “It’s not my place to judge, I am after all only a stranger. But...it makes sense to me now. I should have realised. You sound like you had your sister and you still look vaguely human. You have no reason to feel bitterness towards us like Sir Ironbeard must have.”
She gave his spine another stroke. “It can’t be easy to deal with any of this. But it’s alright,” she murmured comfortingly and put her other hand on Sieg’s shoulder. “You will always have me. You can trust me.”
Sieg’s mind was swimming with a confused haze of grief and bitterness. Why did everything have to always turn out this way? Why couldn’t he just have friends and be happy? Even his own sister he knew always lied about her pain and put on a show of being strong for him when she wasn’t. No one was ever honest with him, no one thought he could handle honesty or be supportive in his own right.
He tried valiantly to come up with some sort of objection, but he was too overwrought to concentrate. His head was starting to pound from exhaustion. When Zoya stroked his spine again, this time he didn’t flinch away. Her comforts cut through the tumultuous jumble of pain and frustration that was threatening to swallow him. She said he could trust her… and maybe she was right. She’d given him harsh truths without trying to sugar coat them for his consumption. She knew about his broken, damaged psyche, and she insisted she trusted him to protect her anyway. Zoya was willing to be honest with him, to lean on him, and… well if Orrin was going to be curt and rude to her, the half-elf owed it to her to try and live up to the trust she was placing in him.
Finally, Sieg smiled and reached up to squeeze the hand she’d put on his shoulder. “Thank you, Zoya. I’m sorry about all of this, but I promise I’ll do everything I can to live up to your faith in me.”
The noblewoman’s lips remained closed but they stretched out into a wide smile. Her eyes too, threatened to brim over with happy tears. With some hesitation, she twined her fingers around his, returning the gesture.
“Thank you. Just hearing that means so much to me. And...I hope I’ve helped you,” Zoya murmured, bringing her hand up from his spine and stroking his head again. “Maybe now, you can try to get some sleep? You have a long day ahead.”
He shuddered a bit as his muscles loosened under her fingers, but reluctantly sighed. “I wish I could, but it’s unlikely. Sleep never comes easily after a nightmare like this. If I do sleep, it’s lightly, fitfully, and not very restful.”
“Then I’ll stay with you until you fall asleep and make sure that it is undisturbed. You see, the women of Lange have their own tricks for getting troubled men to rest. There’s a song my grandmother taught me said to chase away nightmares. You won’t understand the words but I’ll sing to you anyway,” she continued to run her fingers through his hair, the gesture rhythmic and soothing, trying to get him to relax. “I’ll sing and you go to sleep.”
Sieg had reservations about how well this was liable to work, but he gave the Langean woman a tired smile and nodded. If she said this trick had worked before, he saw no reason to object.
The noblewoman sat up, allowing the knight to lean on her shoulder if he so wished and quietly began to sing in her own language.
“Не морочь ты своей головой, Пусть уйдет во мрак страшный сон твой, Я дам тебе покой, любимий мой. Спи сейчас, богатырь дорогой.”
Whether it was the soft crooning of her song, the ministrations on his spine, or some combination of both Sieg couldn’t say, but before she’d gotten halfway into the second lyric he found himself relaxing. His amber eyes glazed with fatigue, and he quickly gave up the Herculean effort it was taking to hold them open. He slumped sideways, his head coming to rest on Zoya’s proffered shoulder as his consciousness gave way to a warm, black abyss where even his nightmares could not find him.
She waited for a short while after the knight feel asleep, listening to his breathing and enjoying the sensation of him being close. Zoya took a deep breath, closing her eyes with satisfaction, before carefully lifting Sieg’s head off her shoulder and putting him down to rest on to the wooden bench. She got up and went off into the depths of the house, returning after a few moments with a small pillow and thin blanket, the latter of which she wrapped loosely around the half-elf. Then, as she lifted up his head and propped the pillow beneath it, she stopped and gazed at him for a few moments before reaching out and brushing a few stray locks of hair from his face and around his neck.
“Good night, my knight. Sweet dreams to you,” she purred like a satisfied cat before retreating into the darkness.
The rest of the day is no more productive than the start of it was, so the knights head to Zoya's place to sleep. Sieg wakes up from a nightmare late at night, and Zoya finds him brooding. She comforts him, and he slowly opens up to her, telling her something of his history. Zoya opens up to him in turn, confessing some insecurities she has regarding Orrin, which disturb Sieg a great deal. Eventually the two reach an understanding, and Zoya helps Sieg to sleep.
Sieg finally woke a little before dawn the next morning, still sitting on the bench where he'd been left the night before. He was startled and confused at first, but then he remembered what had happened. A small laugh bubbled out of him. So Zoya's trick had worked. He'd slept so deeply that he couldn't remember if he'd dreamed at all, and he felt as rested as if the late night wake up had never happened at all.
She's something else, he thought. Still, grateful or not he didn't want to be caught out in the middle of the parlor like this by Orrin when the half-dwarf finally woke. Awkward questions about what he was doing on the bench instead of in his room aside, the previous night's conversation had made him... uneasy.
He went back to his own room, quickly changing into some proper clothes. He didn't want to wake Orrin if the big knight was still asleep, so instead Sieg went down and out to the open area between the manor and the stables where they had left their horses the previous day. Once there, Sieg started exercising with his sword. Orrin would no doubt join him eventually, and they could decide what to do about the vampire hunt. In the meantime... Sieg needed time to think.