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Swordbreaker Chronicles Chapter 4: Broken Wings

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Continued from Chapter 3: Lovers and Thieves | Table of Contents

_______________________________________________

 

 

It was a pitiful group that finally made their way through the doors of Ashville's hospital. Nero was still unconscious. The other three had fallen into a silence deeper than snowy winter, limping along with the last dregs of their strength burning into fumes. 

A bed with wheels affixed to it was hustled out for Nero, and creaked under his weight when Audric laid him upon it, with help from a male nurse. Everyone was rushing, and talking, and moving. Pointless. Couldn't they see it? He was gone. Florica stood beside the little bed, holding his warm hand, her eyes searching his face again and again for life she knew she'd never find. Her heart felt like a stone, cold and heavy in her chest. Claire's last words to her spun around and around in her head, destroying another small shard of her soul with each iteration. He wouldn't want you to die here. He was willing to put his life on the line for you. They both did, and they died for you. They died for you. They died for you. 

Another nurse came to wheel the bed away, and Florica moved with it, keeping hold of Nero's hand, her eyes still on his face. The nurse stopped, and sighed. "I need to take him to the healer now," she explained slowly, as though speaking to a small child. "You need to stay here."

Florica gave no sign of hearing the woman, and when the bed started moving again she still followed it, clinging to Nero's large hand as before. 

The nurse stopped again, a look of mingled frustration and pity crossing over her face. "Come on," she muttered under her breath, and moved around to Florica's side. She tried to tug Florica's hand loose, but despite the gentleness of her grip, the little blond gypsy squealed in pain. The nurse quickly let go, and her eyes widened as she took a closer look at the gypsy's hand. "Shit," she muttered. The gypsy's hand was covered in blood, dirt and grime, and the nurse had at first assumed that the blood belonged to the big fellow on the bed. But the girl's hand was badly burned, and had a deep cut in it that looked like the work of a blade of some kind. "On second thought, I'll take both of you together," she conceded. "If they ask, just tell 'em you're family." She glanced back at Claire and Audric, and then over at the male nurse, who was just disappearing around a corner. "Hey Peter," she called. "Can you get these two checked in for me? Thanks," she added as he spun around on one heel and came back down the hall, a longsuffering look on his face.

* * *

The room they brought Nero to felt cold, to Florica. They didn't have to wait long for the healer. An older man came in, moving with a sense of brisk purpose. He checked Nero first, and his brown eyes narrowed. He shook his head at what he found. "Does he have a will?" he asked gently. Florica didn't answer. She didn't know. The question, and the tone in which it was asked, made her feel even more awful, so she ignored the healer.

His attention turned to her, next. He reached over to raise her chin to look at him, but as soon as he touched her, his hand jerked back again. "Holy Gaia's tits," he swore. "What happened to you!?" He shuddered at the feeling of her aura, reflexively wiping his hand on his shirt. Quickly, he came around to her side of the bed, took a moment to steady himself, and then laid his hands on her, one on her forehead and one on her heart. He grimaced at the damage he found, hardly knowing where to begin. It was a miracle she was still alive, nevermind standing. "This might hurt a bit," he muttered, and set to work.

* * *

When she woke up, Florica found herself in one of the hospital beds. Her aura had been mended, it didn't hurt to breathe anymore, and her hand no longer felt like it was on fire. But that only made the pain of the memories all the worse. She kept her eyes closed, wishing again that she could have just died. She didn't know how long she'd been unconscious. It only felt like it had been a few seconds, but from the feel of it, someone had washed her, and taken away her clothes, dressing her in a soft white gown instead. Hearing voices outside the open door of the room, she opened her eyes. The healer was speaking with one of the nurses. Florica's eyes fell on Nero, and she felt another surge of remorse as she watched the steady rise and fall of his chest. They had washed him, too, and moved him to a solid wooden bed. He looked smaller somehow, without his armour, without those blue eyes looking back at her reassuringly. She'd never seen him asleep before. "Nero," she whispered, but he didn't stir.

Her jaw clenched in frustration and grief, and she lay back in the bed, staring at the blank white ceiling as she listened to snatches of the conversation outside her room.

"...must have been a talented healer, but our arts can only go so far."

"You think it was her?"

"Could be, she has the right aura for it. But she was torn up pretty bad. I don't know if..."

The rest of the conversation was drowned out by the rattle of another rolling bed being pushed down the hallway, its creaking wheels slowly fading away after a minute.

"...all we can do. You get the paperwork yet?"

"Yeah, just need the gypsy's. She didn't have any ID or anything, and her friends weren't very helpful. Think she'll wake up soon?"

Florica looked out at the door, and met the healer's brown eyes. He gave her an understanding look. "I don't know, Caroline. She's been through hell. Go easy on her for me, will you?"

"Sure thing, Dr. Gregore." The nurse slipped into the room, carrying a clipboard, and stopped in surprise. "Oh, you're awake! Good, then, uh..." she glanced down at her papers. "...Florica, right? How are you feeling? Can you sit up for me?" The nurse was obviously making an effort to be gentle, and was just as obviously impatient and tired.

Reluctantly, Florica sat up. The movement made her ache down to her bones, but it was easily bearable now. The doctor knew his trade well. She glanced down uncomfortably at her hospital gown, feeling underdressed without her clothes and headscarf. The nurse gave her a drink of water, and then settled onto a chair with her clipboard. "I just need to fill out some of this with you, and then you can rest," Caroline assured her. "Name?"

"Florica Veshenga."

"Can you spell that for me?"

Florica obliged. Nero had managed to teach her that much.

"Age?"

"S-seventeen."

"Birthday?"

The gypsy didn't know it, so she instead gave the date when Nero had rescued her from Weland.

"Home address?"

Florica recited it, her voice trembling a bit as she thought of that empty house.

"Next of kin?"

"N-Neromius Caesar," she answered dully.

"That name sounds familiar, uh..." Caroline flipped through the sheaf of papers clipped to her board, glancing at one further down. Then she glanced over at the man on the bed. "...Oh." A note of awkwardness entered her voice. "Uh, anybody else?"

"N-n-n-n-no. It's j-just...us."

The nurse sighed. "I'm sorry for your loss," she intoned, sounding as though she had already said the words a hundred times that week. "Well, you've got a clean bill of health, so just let us know when you're ready, and we'll get you signed out."

"M-m-my clothes?" Florica asked weakly.

"Oh sweetie, they were ruined. Whatever was in your pockets you'll find in that drawer, but we had to burn your clothes. There was just too much blood. Do you have a friend that could fetch you clothes from your house?"

Florica shrank back to lean against the corner of the wall, the bed creaking under her. She shook her head silently, her eyes welling with tears again as she thought about Nathaniel and Claire.

"Well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," the nurse concluded, a tad exasperated, and left the gypsy to be miserable in peace.

Edited by Song Sprite

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"I see," Audric murmured as he scanned the chart the healers had presented him. "His parents died when he was a teenager. There weren't any blood relatives to take him in, but his parents named his godfather the guardian. I don't think he left a last will and testament, but I've dispatched one of my people to check his home and his attorney's office for anything." The Count's smooth and mellifluous tones fell silent as he looked towards the window at the sunset and a fresh wave of grief washed over him. He forced it to bad as the healer spoke. 

"And what of the girl?' inquired Dr. Gregore, arching an eyebrow.

"As far as I know and as he's concerned, that's his little sister. She lives with him, and whatever she needs you can bill to him. Or, failing that, send it to me." Audric returned to his seat beside Claire's bed, where the young woman lay peacefully sleeping, her sword arm wrapped in bandages to the elbow. "Is my cousin going to be okay?" He reached over to brush a hand through her hair, before reclining in the comfortable chair and fixing the healer with eyes of glacial ice. 

"She should be. I have no idea what mad form of magic she was using, but.. she'll recover and it doesn't seem as though the damage is likely to be permanent." At this, Audric merely nodded. 

"Good." And he leaned back into the chair, directing his gaze to the ceiling. "When can we take them both home?" Gaia knows they've had a rough time of it. Better to take them someplace where they won't be reminded of what happened with every waking moment. The image of his friend, sliced open and covered in his own blood, flashed painfully into his memory and he inhaled sharply. He swiftly waved off the concern from the Doctor, shaking his head as he brought himself back to the moment, to his responsibilities. He could only imagine how panicked Mia was at that moment, or had been every moment of danger since they camped outside of the forest. It was a sobering thought that he should be there, breathing and walking and moving, when his best friend lay still and lifeless down the hall, kept alive by the barest of threads and the bravery of one girl. 

"Take me to see them, please." He rose from his chair with quiet determination, his movements still quite fluid despite his aching bones. 

-- 

He followed the doctor into the room, pausing at the foot of Nero's bed. The mercenary seemed smaller, somehow, as though his vast body had shrunken in the absence of his conscious spirit. Audric's eyes traced the path of scars from his arms upward, noting with surprise the quantity and savage origin of them all. He couldn't take it any more. Audric turned, to face the girl, and he forced a small smile to his lips. "Florica. How are you feeling?"

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Florica was still sitting huddled in the corner of her bed, leaning against the wall with her arms wrapped loosely around her knees. There were deep circles of weariness shadowing her eyes, which were dull and reddish from weeping. Fresh tears were shining on her cheeks. When she heard her name, her eyes slowly travelled up to Audric's face. She focused on him for a moment, but the question was forgotten as other thoughts flashed through her mind, twisting her face in guilt and grief. She dropped her eyes, staring down at the sheets instead. "Audric," she murmured. "I...I'm s-so s-s-s-sorry..." more tears blurred her vision and began running down her face.

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At the sight of her tears, his eyes stung with want to let free his own. Instead, he shook his head and took a seat at the foot of her bed, folding his arms across his chest. The walk there had given him a few moments to collect his thoughts, and he had considered well what he would tell her. But preparation gave him little sense of ease with what he needed to do. "It's not your fault, Florica. It was.. a terrible idea from the beginning, and we who survived it last time should have known better than to chance it again." 

He held up a hand. "But that's not why I'm here. I'm here because I know he would have wanted me to make sure you're okay. Doctor Gregore says it's a miracle he's not dead -- your miracle, I should say. But that wound by all rights should have been fatal." Audric sighed deeply. "I've seen him survive some unbelievable things, but.. this is.. unique. There's a chance he might still wake up after his body heals, but there's also a very big chance he won't, and we need to make preparations for that moment if it comes to it." His voice wavered as he finished the sentence. "He.. left everything to you. Including the store and his accounts." 

"I think he wanted you to be taken care of if something happened to him. Honestly, from what I've been told and what he wrote in the will.. I can't help but wonder if he thought it was inevitable that this would happen." Audric glanced across the way to the slumbering form of his oldest friend, and then back to her. "You're.. welcome to come and stay with my wife and I in Grey County. Or, I'm sure.. to accompany Claire home. I don't like the idea of either of you being alone right now. It's hard to lose someone like that. For both of you." 

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Florica cringed at his attempt to comfort her, shaking her weary head slightly in disagreement at the man's claim that it somehow wasn't her fault. She knew better, down to her very bones. She had brought this hell on all of them. She didn't have the strength to voice her disagreement, but it was clear from the look on her face that she still blamed herself for everything that had happened.

"He would have wanted me to make sure you're okay."

As though any of them would ever be 'okay' again. He's not waking up. If he were going to, he would have by now. It's not a miracle, just a different curse. She leaned back and closed her eyes, fresh tears burning their way out of her.

"He left everything to you."

Her eyes opened and her face twisted into a bitter mask of helpless frustration at the words. She didn't want to hear that, didn't want to think about having things that used to be his. She shook her head again, as though to deny Audric's words. But she could not refuse anything that Nero had willed. Especially not now. And in any case, there was no need to deal with that, yet. Not until he... She choked on another near-silent sob, nestling her nose and mouth into her curled arms to stifle the noise. She knew she was making it harder for Audric, reacting like this. But the tears just wouldn't stop.

 "You're welcome to come and stay with my wife and I in Grey County. Or, I'm sure to accompany Claire home. I don't like the idea of either of you being alone right now."

She shook her head more definitively at his proposition, her small streak of stubbornness rearing its head. She wanted to stay close to Nero. She owed him so much more than that. And the less she saw of Claire, the better it would be for both of them. "Y-you should....t-t-t-take h-her w....with you," she uttered in a low, dull voice. Let me alone. I'm nothing to you, and I can't keep stealing strength from well-meaning strangers. It's not meant for me.

 

 

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Audric fell silent as Florica buried her face into her arms and sobbed, and in his heart, he understood that hers was a far more difficult burden to bear. Nero had gone to protect her, and now he was for all intents gone because of it. Whatever had happened in the forest would haunt them forever. Audric nodded as she stubbornly refused to come and stay with his family. "I'll see if she's willing to come with," he demurred, rising from his seat unsteadily. "I'll be back tomorrow afternoon. Please get some rest." And with that, the Count of Grey gave her a polite nod and strode to the foot of Nero's bed, where he paused, hoping for a moment that the man would crack a smile, or joke, or cough and awaken. Anything that would free them of the awful burden of loss they had been left with. Nero remained still. He grimaced and departed the room.

His walk down the hall to Claire's room was silent and without interruption in the dead quiet of the ward. The door was closed when he got there, and so Audric lightly rapped at the surface of the wood with his knuckles. Silence. He knocked again, this time calling her name. There was a small scuffling sound and the tinkle of wind chimes. Audric wrenched the door handle open and swung it open with all his strength. The air flowing through the room was much hotter, even with the window swung wide open; a series of scorch marks in the rough shape of footprints led their way to the scorched windowsill where they abruptly stopped. He ran to it, looking down at the one story drop. The grass below still smoked idly where her footprints had scorched it. Gaia, no. Audric thought, as he slid down into his chair. You're really going to hunt him, aren't you. 

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With Audric's departure, the door clicked behind him, and a deathlike silence filled the room, somehow made only worse by Nero's soft, steady breathing. The bright artificial light glared down at them with a low hum of energy.

Time passed.

The pain did not.

Florica fumbled her way out of the bed, her barely-covered legs unsteady beneath her, and knelt beside Nero. "Aquila mea," she whispered, her small hand sliding into his giant one again. Her tiny voice sounded loud in the hushed room. "P-please..." But he did not wake. He was not going to wake. The cruel finality of it crashed down upon her again, and she rested her head on the edge of the mattress beside his hand as fresh sobs wracked her body. Her stomach, chest, throat and eyes burned with pain from her endless weeping, but that was nothing compared to the pain of the emptiness she could feel in Nero's form. "Please, brother," she sobbed. "It's time to go home! Why won't you wake up?" she bawled at last, with all the helplessness of a child who faces death and cannot understand it. But she did understand. He was gone. She was speaking only to his memory, speaking only to herself. And that was why her words flowed freely. They always did, when she was truly alone.

With shaking hands she lifted his heavy palm to rest upon her head, as he had done so many times in life. Anything for a shred of comfort. But the familiar touch only made her cry the harder, and she wept long into the night, alone with the breathing body.

At some point, she fell asleep on the floor beside him, one hand still clinging to his. Exhausted past every breaking point, she slept as though dead, and did not wake when, in the early morning, a surprised nurse found her there and tucked her back into her own bed.

The next time she woke, it was late in the afternoon. A pair of nurses had angled Nero up on several cushions and were carefully threading a feeding tube down his throat. Florica shuddered and turned away, curling up with her back to the room. She wondered if Audric had been by yet. She remembered, dimly, he had said he would visit again today, but she couldn't remember what time he had said. She hoped he had already come and gone. But it didn't really matter. Nothing mattered any more.

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His heart was a tumultuous din as he walked through the door of the ward, the fine fabric of his black suit as wrinkled and disheveled as it had been the last time he had taken it from his closet. It had been a friend's funeral that time, as well. Uncharacteristic dark pools hung beneath the biting cold of his eyes as they swept the hallway. As he walked, the healers and nurses moved out of his way, and he was quite unsure whether it was respect or some form of intimidation which inspired them to do so. He had not slept at all since discovering Claire's disappearance. The night of tracking her signature across the city to its abrupt end at her home had been a long, disheartening venture. The door to the apartment was left open for all the world to see the chaos within. The place had been sullen and empty, clothes and cookware and broken glass from a hundred sources scattered across the floor. Scorch marks traced across the floor where she had left. She was going to keep her word, and he could not stop her. The tragedy of the Holt would continue to play out. 

But he had things to do, matter of great importance, and the source of his hopes were locked away in the briefcase he carried at his side. Audric knocked at the door to her room, and, upon hearing a reply, he entered the dismal room where the half alive lay awaiting the world's actions upon them. He turned to her, and gave a short, polite smile. "Florica. I brought something for you," he said, placing the briefcase on the side of the table and opening it. He brought some neatly folded clothing out and set it aside -- he had been to their home and picked up what little clothing he could -- and then his fingers closed around the simple parchment his friend preferred to write upon and produced it. In Nero's angular script was her name, beneath which he had sealed it with the wax impression of a dove in flight. "I found this on his desk today. From the ink stains, I'd say he wrote it right before we left. I don't know what it says, but he was always very deliberate, thoughtful, about things like this. I don't expect that he went into this without some idea of setting his affairs in order." 

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Florica was sitting up when he entered the room. She looked as though she had been crying again, but she also looked as though she had finally gotten some real sleep. Weakly, she returned his smile. At the sight of her clothing, relief and gratitude glimmered in her dark blue eyes, and she managed to murmur, "Th-thank you."

When her eyes fell on the parchment, the light in them faded a bit. Not more paperwork... But she took the folded parchment from him, and a wistful look passed over her face at the sight of her name. Her fingers reverently traced the letters and the delicate wings of the dove in the seal, and she glanced over at Nero with a look of mingled reproach and amusement, as though he had whispered something for her ears alone.

She chewed nervously on her lower lip, and her shy eyes darted up to Audric's face for a moment. "Sh-should I open it?" she asked hesitantly. The gadje traditions regarding their varied uses of the written word were still largely a mystery to her.

At his affirmation, she very carefully peeled away at the wax, trying to open it while leaving the impression of the pretty bird intact. It had been pressed there by Nero's hand. Such things were precious. But it could not be preserved. She flinched as the wax suddenly cracked, the seal breaking in half. "I b-b-broke its wing," she observed sadly. But now the letter was open. She unfolded it and scanned it, before offering it back to Audric. "C-c-could you r-read it to me?" she asked humbly. It would have taken her a long time to sound out all the words, and she knew that Audric, too, was curious as to what his friend had written.

Edited by Song Sprite

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Audric blinked as she asked for permission to read a letter clearly addressed to her. He chuckled despite himself, and nodded his agreement. "Yes. I think he intended it to be read by you," he added, his gaze slipping from her to the form behind the closed curtains. Her reaction to the breaking of the wax seal drew his attention back to her, and for the second time in their brief interaction the Count found himself at odds with his understanding of the strange girl. I can't help but wonder how you and Nero got past the little misunderstandings and the gulf between where you came from. But, then again, I can't say he didn't manage that with a few others. Including, I suppose, me. He smiled wryly, and gently took the letter as she offered it, inspecting the damage to the seal with his own eyes. 

To him, seals were of little import -- something to keep the letter authentic and then, perhaps, to appreciate if it was a particularly finely made one. He had never seen this one used before by Nero; the Caesar family crest was of a fierce eagle in flight, talons at the ready, not a peaceful seeming image of a dove. He must have made it for her. No wonder you wanted to keep it intact. His handling of the parchment was more delicate as he opened it fully at her request, and began to read in his clear and precise tones. 

"Little Poet, 

If you are reading this, then I have finally fallen. I can only hope that with my death, I secured your life and the lives of those who travel with us.
I knew this day might come, but know that the time I spent with you was without a doubt the most peaceful of my life. It was far, far better than
a man like myself ever deserved. You gave me a family again, made my home a home, and gave me the strength to follow my heart. 

In my eternal gratitude, to you, I leave the bookstore, our home, and all of my worldly possessions. I know it isn't what the Banjari normally do,
but.. please accept them. Find a boy, even that Grimmholt kid, and if he's worthy, then settle down and lead a happy life, for me. I sent a letter to
Doctor Benson at the hospital for you. Knowing him, I'm sure he'll find some way to let you help there, and I hope it helps you heal. Please 
commit my body to the flames where my parents were buried, and spread the ashes in my garden, where the flowers bloom. 

Thank you, columbus mea. 

If the bearer of this message is my attorney, he should have the documents you need to prove you are my beneficiary. 
If the bearer is Claire.. know that she is, for all her faults, a good woman and she'll take care of you. 
If the bearer is Audric, then know that he will grant you protection and guidance should you ever need it. 


 

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As Audric began to read, Florica stood restlessly. She walked past the little table, pausing to pick up a headscarf from the top of the stack of clothing Audric had brought, and then wandered over towards Nero while she absently tied it and tucked her hair back under it. She leaned against a bedpost and searched his face, imagining the words coming from him.

"...it was far, far better than a man like myself ever deserved. You gave me a family again..."

That odd little look of bemused reproach crossed her face again, and she shook her head. Brother, you deserved so much more.

"...I leave the bookstore, our home, and all of my worldly possessions. I know it isn't what the Banjari normally do, but.. please accept them. Find a boy, even that Grimmholt kid, and if he's worthy, then settle down and lead a happy life..."

Florica sighed, and looked down at her shaking hands. Without you? Do you still not understand that you were my sky? Still... for you, I'll...try. I'll try. She tilted her head in a small nod.

"...I sent a letter to Doctor Benson at the hospital for you. Knowing him, I'm sure he'll find some way to let you help there..."

The little blond gypsy blinked at that, realizing that Nero must have prepared all this on the very night of their departure. No wonder you looked so tired that morning. Oh my aquila...all I ever did was take from you, till now there's nothing left. You never gave me a chance to repay any of it - and even now you're gone, you keep giving me such sweet gifts. I wish...

"...Please commit my body to the flames where my parents were buried, and spread the ashes in my garden, where the flowers bloom..."

The gypsy shuddered a bit at that, and laid a protective hand on his still form. Not yet, aquila.

"...If the bearer is Audric, then know that he will grant you protection and guidance should you ever need it."

Audric fell silent, and Florica glanced over at him, fresh moisture glistening in her blue eyes. Wordlessly, she took the letter back from him and carefully re-folded it. She held it to her chest and bowed her head, listening to Nero's voice repeat the words over again. Settle down and lead a happy life. She bit her lip. It was beautiful. It was impossible. But she owed it to him to at least try. After a long moment, she whispered, "Th-thank you, Audric." She searched for something else to say. "I...I d-don't know h-how to t-take c-c-c-care of a.....b-b-bookstore," she admitted helplessly.

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"I wouldn't worry too much about that part," Audric said simply, glancing across the way to the slumbering owner of the store. "When Book|Ends burned down, he rebuilt it, and I helped. At that point in time.. he was still searching for you. So, naturally, he did as much as he could to make sure the bookstore would run in his absence. There's some good people there, and they'll take care of it while he heals." Audric gave a small smile. There was still a chance, however small, that Nero might awaken from his coma. He had to believe it was possible, for the girl before him and for himself. 

"It's up to you whether or not you'd like to visit there. The employees are somewhat aware of what has happened, but they're not in the know as far as the severity of his condition. However, they do know that you have the authority to step in at any point, though you're welcome not to." Audric leaned back against the wall, contemplating how he would phrase his next thought.

"This thing he mentioned with Dr. Benson. Would you like an introduction, or would you prefer to do that part alone?" It seemed like the right thing to do. In the short time that he had gotten to know Florica, and been told about her, one of the facets that stuck most plainly in his mind was her shyness. If you were awake, my friend, you would do it. But you're not. I will keep her safe until you do wake up. 

 

--

 

He awoke as the first howls pierced the still darkness of the night. 

Silver eyes flecked with shimmering crimson took in the twisted, gnarled branches and trunks of the Grim Holt with familiarity and disdain. A thick layer of fog hung over the damp earth and glistening bark, obscuring the edge of the forest from view by those outside. He rose to his feet from the hollow between the roots that he had fallen into, footsteps sure and light against the treacherous landscape as he crossed the thick line of oaks that so easily barred entry to outsiders. As he neared, however, the groaning trunks bent and bowed out of his way, the ancient hexwood yielding to the demands of its Master without question. 

He felt it as he left the borderline of the Holt, his home, his prison for the last hundred years. 

Destiny.

Freedom.

Hunger. 

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"This thing he mentioned with Dr. Benson. Would you like an introduction, or would you prefer to do that part alone?"

Florica thought it over, and nodded slowly. She wasn't really in the mood to meet someone new, but that was unlikely to change in the near future, and it would be a comfort to have Audric beside her, even though she had only known him a short time. "I-if it's not...too m-much trouble," she answered, her gaze drawn again to Nero. I hope you know what you're doing. 

The gypsy slid her letter carefully into the desk drawer that held the rest of her and Nero's things, and then picked up the neatly folded clothing. "I'll j-just...change, f-f-first," she murmured. She sounded detached; she felt numb. None of this seemed real. Not without the only one who'd ever truly seen her. The gypsy moved slowly, as though through a passing dream.

* * *

After a few minutes, she opened the door to emerge from the room and meet Audric in the hallway. But she hung back in the doorway, her hand resting on the frame, reluctant to leave the illusion of sanctuary the small room provided. She glanced down the hall in both directions, and then up at Audric, and then back at Nero's body. Her fingers tightened on the frame until the knuckles were white. I can't. I can't leave you.

Be brave, little poet, she thought she heard him say. Her lower lip trembled, but she nodded, once, and stepped out into the hallway, the door closing behind her with a soft click. Her weight shifted shyly from left to right as she silently waited for Audric to lead the way.

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"It's not," he reassured, packing the other, less important items back into his briefcase and snapping it shut. "Of course," he replied as she asked to change, inclining his head in deference before he turned on his heel and walked towards the door. "I'll be right outside." And with that, he twisted the brass handle and vanished into the hallway.

"So you're back. I've been meaning to talk to you, Count." 

Audric turned to face Dr. Gregore, offering a hand by reflex. The healer waved it off with a polite gesture, and instead looked in the direction of the door. "I sent a messenger to your address in Ashville, but they said you were out. I was, for a moment, concerned that you had returned to your lands without leaving word." Audric arched a blonde eyebrow in silent question. "I.. well, there's no easy to way to say this. Your friend is rallying, somewhat, or at least his body is. But he's still non-responsive, and we fear that the blood loss may have caused severe enough damage to his faculties that he may never reawaken, even if he heals completely otherwise." He paused, allowing the words to sink in. 

"Have you told her that?" Audric inquired levelly. 

"No. Not yet, at least." 

"Don't. Let me do it. I think she's had a rather rough time of it. Has always had a rough time of things, actually. That man was her rock, and now he's going to crumble, quite slowly, while her best efforts weren't enough. It would destroy her to know that, at this point in time." He fixed Gregore with a frigid gaze. "For now, we'll save the one we can.. and see if my friend can save himself."

A conflicted look flashed across the healer's face for a moment, but it vanished, instead replaced by one of consternation. "You're not going to do her any favors by denying it. You're not doing yourself any either. But I'll honor your wishes. I'll take my leave now." The healer walked away, leaving Audric to replay his words endlessly until the door behind him opened and he felt the air against the back of his neck. 

"Yes, of course." He stepped to the side to allow her to pass, and then set off through the winding hallways of the ward until it came to a small junction, where they turned right. He was quiet as they walked, the weight of the world pressing further onto his shoulders as they walked. Should I tell her now? Or after we meet Benson? But before he came to a decision they found themselves in the clinic that the hospital offered to city residents. It bustled with the remnants of the afternoon rush of the sick and ailing, and it took some maneuvering before they managed to cross the main room to the small annex where the doctors had their individual areas. Audric rapped his knuckles on the door of Dr. Benson, and after a moment it swung open to reveal the doctor. 

Dr. Benson was a man of average height and generous proportions, balding, with a finely waxed black mustache. His cheeks bulged with a mouthful of a sandwich, which he quickly swallowed. "Yes?" he asked, in an amiable basso, looking first to Audric and then to the gypsy girl beside him. "I thought I told the desk I was taking my lunch," he said, cheeks flushing a bright red. "I'm sorry, did you folks need some help? Where are my manners, I'm Dr. Hall Benson. And you are?" 

"Audric Ademar, and this is Florica Veshenga. I believe her brother, Nero Caesar, wrote you not too long ago about taking her on as an assistant?" 

"Oh, oh yes. I actually only recieved it this morning. I'm surprised, though. I didn't know he had a little sister -- I thought all of his family died in the crash." Dr. Benson fell silent as a thundercloud crossed Audric's face at the mention of the disaster that had claimed his mother's life. "Well," Audric finished diplomatically, "would you be willing to take her on and show her the ins and outs of the trade? She's a talented healer, from what I've seen." 

"Er.. yes. Yes, I would." He extended a large hand to Florica. "You can just call me Hall." 

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As they crossed the bustling waiting room, Florica kept her eyes down, following Audric's feet as he wove between the benches and children. She could feel eyes following her - some curious, some, perhaps, resentful. Many folks disliked gypsies on sight. Pickpockets. Dirty. Heathens. Idiots. Loose. Childsnatchers. A steady, restrained undercurrent of suspicion and worse, that followed her people like a chill mist whenever they trespassed into the gadje world. Florica was long used to the sensation, but she felt it more keenly, here. She was the only gypsy in the room; quite possibly the only one who had ever set foot in it, as the Banjari usually tended to their own injured. And the gadje here were already stressed by the illnesses that had brought them here, out of the comfort of their homes. It was not a pleasant atmosphere, and Florica hurried after Audric, glad when they finally exited the far side of the room.

She finally raised her eyes as the door to Dr. Benson's office squeaked open. Oddly, her first impression of the heavyset man was of a mouse startled with a mouthful of cheese, and the image brought a shy smile to her lips. She shook his offered hand, trying not to look quite as out of place as she felt. He had a kindly aura, if not quite as robust as she had been expecting. "Nice to...m-meet you," she said carefully, striving to control her stutter. 

"A pleasure," the big man replied agreeably, though his green eyes were a bit puzzled. Perhaps by the sight of a healer with so many scars, or perhaps by what he felt in her aura. Florica shifted uncomfortably under his gaze, and glanced away, looking around his small office without really seeing any of it. Her thoughts jumped back to Nero, lying so still in that little room, and instantly she felt her eyes begin to burn with grief again. She hastily put the thought away, forcing herself to pay attention to what Dr. Benson was saying.

"...haven't had an assistant in a while, always nice to have an extra pair of hands. Usually we get students from the university, but we do make exceptions for natural talent, like you describe. I'm afraid I'm booked for the rest of the afternoon, but we could do an orientation first thing tomorrow morning, if you're free?"

Florica nodded, not quite trusting her voice, and smiled weakly, her eyes settling for a moment on Dr. Benson's face.

"Well, good then. That's settled. Lovely to meet you both. Florica, I will see you here first thing." He nodded to both of them, obviously hoping to finish his meal before his break ended.

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