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The Hero's Brother (12.1)

by mellifera


He wasn’t alone.

It must have been noon, or evening. Carter wasn’t sure. He was sitting in front of a glittering river of cool water. The water was clear enough to reflect the pebble bed below. In the sun overhead, where the forest divided for several leagues on either side of the river, lit up the river gold. It was as though someone had turned molten gold into water and it had become translucent.

And Shiloh was sitting on the other side of the river. On her left cheek, she had a blackened scar. A brand.

There was nothing to set Carter on edge, but that didn’t stop a cloud of unease from wrapping around his mind. His stomach felt like he’d swallowed stones and now they were weighing him down.

There’s a lot I haven’t told you,” Shiloh said, hand lazily drifting back and forth in the golden river. “There’s a lot I should have.”

Carter didn’t respond. He didn’t know how to respond to that. How was he supposed to tell Shiloh he already knew she’d been lying? Or even how to play off of what she had already said. She’d left any questions too open ended for him to know what to ask.

She glanced up at him. Carter remembered that someone used to say that Carter had eyes that looked like a sky right before a bad storm, and Shiloh’s looked the way thunder sounded. He was always on the edge of a storm, while Shiloh was always the one in it. Carter had a feeling that it was his father that said it, but he didn’t remember his father. How could he know that he had said this?

It’d be ironic if that was true. His children had stormy eyes, and he had died in a storm on the sea.

We’ll be okay, baby brother,” Shiloh said, still watching him. Her eyes were quiet now, sad almost, and the dark grey reflected the river of gold. Shiloh said this a lot, especially when Carter was having one of his bad days. It’d become something of a comfort to him now.

He stood up, tremors running through his hands. Thunder cracked in the distance, and Carter glanced up to see the clear blue sky had turned almost black like smoke. The river still glittered gold. No, not glittered. It glowed.

When he looked back at Shiloh, she was standing slowly. But something pulled Carter’s gaze to his right. There was a man standing there, is red leather armour and a brand on one of his arms. One of his arms that was extended as he pulled back a bowstring.

Carter felt the air leave his lungs, but he didn’t move as the man released the arrow. Carter didn’t want to look but something compelled him to turn back to Shiloh. She was already tumbling into the river. As Shiloh’s hair fanned out in the river, a crimson line ran through the river from those black strands.

And then he heard a metallic clang-

Carter woke up to an owl trilling in the distance, his heart pumping so hard and fast it hurt his chest. He felt his hair plastered to his forehead, cold sweat making his skin sticky. He was trembling.

The trees loomed overhead, seeming stretching endlessly up above him. Carter hadn’t gotten the impression that this forest was as cold and unwelcoming as the forest right before Edgewood, but in that moment, he could imagine the branches reaching down and grabbing him in sharp, unyielding claws.

And it felt like someone had put one of those trees on his chest. His breath came in heaves and he tried to take in the situation. Koshar, who had been curled up next to him with head resting on Carter’s shoulder, made a low noise of discontent. Carter was still laying down though.

Koshar stood up and sat beside Carter’s head. Carter watched those bright amber eyes watch him in the dark and felt only a little unsettled by the cat’s unrelenting stare.

And then Koshar leaned forward and started licking Carter’s forehead.

Although he wrinkled his brow, Koshar’s affection grounded him more than anything else could of in that moment. He managed a weak smile and reached up to scratch Koshar’s cheek. The cat rumbled and stretching his chin out to give Carter better access.

It wasn’t the first time Carter had woken up from a nightmare, but since Koshar always slept next to a different person – barring Gideon and Finn – he’d never been beside when he’d woken up.

He let out a long, but quiet breath. He’d also never been caught and didn’t want to start tonight. All his muscles were tensed, which wasn’t helpful since they were already sore. Ever since they’d left Edgewood, Isha and Gideon had persisted with training. They’d been…working around Carter and his tendency to freeze at times. But it left him aching and sore.

When I used to have nightmares, Isha would refuse to leave until she was sure I was all right.”

Carter’s heart leapt in his chest and he had to take a gasping breath of air before he twisted to see Gideon, illuminated by the moon in a clearing with no canopy, watching him from his post on a fallen log.

I- I’m sorry. I, um. I didn’t- um.” Carter looked away from Gideon, heart pounding again and making his ears hot.

Gideon was quiet for several moments, and Carter pulled his sleeping roll tight against him as if that would protect him. Then, “You could… come join me.”

That gave him pause. Gideon had never sounded so unsure of himself before, not even when he’d been apologising. Carter’s mouth was parted as he caught his breath, and Koshar had apparently grown bored of comforting him and left to lay beside Whisper. Carter crawled out of his sleeping roll.

Neither of them said anything as Carter walked over towards Gideon. He stopped in front of the log questioningly, and Gideon gestured beside him.

You have a lot of nightmares,” Gideon said once he’d sat down. He opened his mouth but then shut it again, as if dismissing whatever it was he had meant to say. But when Carter frowned and looked at him, Gideon shifted on the log. “I’ve heard you waking up a lot.”

Oh. Carter hadn’t been as subtle as he’d believed then. This, however, brought up a new question.

You take- um, most of the night watches,” Carter said. It had been something he’d noticed early on, and heard Isha and Gideon arguing about before, but he’d never worked up the nerve to ask about it.

Gideon pursed him lips and glanced away. “I can’t sleep most nights. If I’m going to be awake, I might as well take watch.”

Oh.” Carter glanced down. “Nightmares?”

Yes,” Gideon said, and then sighed. “No. Yes and no. It’s a long story.”

Carter wrapped his arms around himself, trying to still his shivering. It wasn’t even cold. Carter wasn’t even cold. Gideon looked back at him and Carter knew that Gideon had already noticed. He didn’t look back at Gideon, but Carter couldn’t help that Gideon was tensed too.

He suspected that was because of the coteries.

It had already been a fortnight since they left Edgewood Village, and they hadn’t seen or heard anything from either of the coteries. They were all getting more and more on agitated every day they travelled without confrontation. They were, at least, getting closer to the Spire. Carter was sure that, if he climbed one of the trees, he’d be able to see it in the distance.

The Spire really was obnoxiously big. Or tall, anyway.

Gideon-” Carter cut himself off and his cheeks immediately flushed. He hadn’t meant to say anything, he’d only been entertaining a question. It wasn’t important.

But Gideon was watching him now inquisitively. Carter winced, cursing himself for letting himself slip. He rubbed his arms and shrugged, looking off into the forest. It didn’t look quite as imposing anymore, but Carter was still uncomfortable. It felt as though someone had grabbed his stomach and started wringing it out.

Um,” he said, chewing on the inside of his lip. “Well, I- I, um.” He let out a deep breath. “What was- what was Shiloh like? When you knew her, I mean.” Carter clasped his hands and started rubbing the back of his thumbs to give his hands something to do other than shake. “I- I feel like I don’t know her at all anymore.”

Gideon hesitated for a moment, then cleared his throat. “I’ll be honest,” Gideon said, “I didn’t like her when we first met.” Carter turned, surprised he was actually answering his silly little inquiry. His lip twitched at Gideon’s admission, and Gideon’s expression softened at it. “In my defence, I was suf-” When Gideon paused, Carter watched him curiously. Gideon sighed and pursed his lips. “I was sick, at the time. But she grew on me. Her and Isha got along like a tree on fire.”

Um. Do you- do you mean a house on fire?” Carter asked.

There was something…comforting about the way a smile strained at Gideon’s mouth. “That kind of thing is lost on me,” he admitted, shrugging. “Shiloh was a lot gentler than anyone else in the coterie. There was something distinctly about her that didn’t really belong, but she did find her place. She was one of our healers.” Gideon watched him closely, as if watching for Carter’s reaction.

In all honesty, that didn’t surprise him. Oh, it wasn’t as though Shiloh had ever expressed interest in healing, but she cared for every bruise and scrape Carter have ever received. He hadn’t thought about the coteries having healers, but he supposed that went along with all the fighting they did. It was the position that made more sense for her, either way.

If it…helps,” Gideon started, tugging on hem on his vest, “we were planning to- to escape. The island, I mean. With the relic.” He cleared his throat, glancing away from Carter. “To sell it. Isha and Shiloh made this grand plan to go to Merra and catch a ship. And she said there was someone else. Shiloh did.”

Carter stiffened. “A ship?” he asked, pulling Gideon’s attention back to him. Carter felt his face warm and he squirmed on the log. “I- I- um. I just- ships are- I don’t- there’s storms-” As much as his stomach was swirling, his leg bouncing slightly, he also found frustration tightening his chest.

Just because he feared things didn’t mean that he wanted to admit to it.

I don’t like them either,” Gideon murmured, crossing his arms over his chest. He didn’t meet Carter’s glance of surprise.

Without knowing how to respond to that, Carter let his shoulders slump forward. He ran a hand through his curls, no longer damp with sweat. The trees no longer looked so menacing, and the owl cooing in the distance sounded more like a lullaby than a call of alarm.

He felt heavy. Like someone had draped a blanket of iron over him. He let out a long snuff of air through his nose and sent a side-ways glance at Gideon.

Um,” he said, his voice cracking. His leg bounced. “I think I’m- I should go back to sleep. I think. Um,” Carter cautiously met his gaze, “thanks? For…” he gestured vaguely. When Gideon followed his hand gestures and then looked away without any further acknowledge, Carter stood up.

He was about to lay down to sleep, when Gideon called, “Carter?”

Pretending like the sudden noise hadn’t just made him jump, Carter whirled around, looking at him expectantly. “Yeah?” he said, far too loud and far too quickly. He immediately bit his tongue. Why not wake up the rest of them?

Gideon frowned and shrugged. “Your hair looks… messy,” he said, and then avoided his gaze.

Carter really wasn’t sure what this meant, but he paused for a moment. “Oh,” he said, but held back any thanks because he wasn’t sure if it was meant to be an insult or a complement or- yeah, he wasn’t sure what Gideon had meant at all. “Well, um. Goodnight.”

His only response was a distracted nod. Gideon swung his legs to face the other side of the log. Carter took this as a dismissal and eased himself back into his sleeping roll. He laid on his side and pulled his blanket close, shutting his eyes and hoping to be spared from any more nightmares.

word count: 2,099


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When she transformed into a butterfly, the caterpillars spoke not of her beauty, but of her weirdness. They wanted her to change back into what she always had been. But she had wings.
— Dean Jackson