preface

The young man lay on the grass, almost motionless, as a groan escaped his lips. His vision went dark as he exhaled deeply.

– – ~ – –

“Duck!”
The taller youth fell flat on his face in the deep snow, the back of his head throbbing. He could hear the laughter of his best friend, though it sounded far off, almost as if he were in a cave. He slowly stood and turned around, mischief dancing in his dark eyes.
“You should try warning someone before you throw”.
Nikolos wiped his eyes with frozen gloves, still doubled over as fits of mirth shook his body. He managed to choke out “I … shall … try to … remember.” before once again giving into laughter.
Had he been watching, he would have seen how the corners of Stefano’s mouth turned up ever so slightly, giving his handsome face a rather impish appearance before charging his friend. Stumbling through the snow he tackled Nikolos as his own body began to shake with the humor of the moment. As they both fell into the snow, he tore at the man’s tunic and shoved a handful of snow beneath the leather.
“Lookin’ a bit blue there, Niko”.
“Revenge may be best served cold this day, Stef”, came the reply.
The friends began rolling in the snow, both pulling at the other’s clothing in an effort to fill any space with the glistening flakes. Pant legs and sleeves, nothing was off limits. Stefano was just slipping his fingers beneath his heart-brother’s waist band when a well-known voice thundered across the field.
“Stefano!” “Nikolos!” Master Bariss worked through the drifts, his brow furrowed in rage. “Pray tell why the two of ye are næ studying for the morrow’s examinations?” His question was more a demand, the words almost lost completely in the heaviness of his Southland accent. He may have married into the camp years past, but his dialect remained as strong and thick as the day he first stepped foot before the fire.
Both boys began answering as they scurried to their feet. “Master Bariss…” “Sir we only…” “Surely a short reprieve is allow…” They were cut off as the Master of Learning held up his hand.
“Do næ try to weasel out of this. I saw clearly wha’ ye both were doing.” He slowly stroked his chin, a habit developed during the days he used to wear a beard. “I should tell Larson…” He paused, leaving the warning hanging like an icicle on a thin tree limb.
“Please don’t, Sir”, Stefano stepped forward, then bowed low. “We do not wish to be separated, our friendship …” He paused to look at Nikolos”. “We are brothers of the heart.”, he concluded.
Master Bariss smirked and waved his hand toward the camp. “Go. Afore I change m’mind”.
As the boys did their best to run through the snow pack, Nikolos looked over at his friend and whispered, “We will have to continue our … battle … at a later time”.
Stefano smiled in return, desire burning deep within his ebony pools.

– – ~ – –

“Dizzy. Can’t focus. What … what is happen….”

– – ~ – –

An infant’s wail echoed through the camp followed by a loud roar of half-drunken men standing around the main fire pit. Each man was congratulating the new father. Each was also trying to hand him another mug of honey mead. The father stood there in a daze, a half-smile on his face, his dark eyes moist. Master Troch approached the group, wiping his hands on a cloth fragment. “Surely the fates smile on you this night, Stefano. Allise has borne a son.”
Once again the cool night air was shattered with the roar of joyful men as the Master Physician squeezed the father’s shoulder.
“Go to your wife, son. Celebrate your lineage with her now. And hold her as she holds the future of this camp.”
Stefano slowly climbed the steps and ducked into the softly lit wagon. He paused to look down at his wife and son, tears held back for so long now flowing freely. Sitting beside her, he placed a hand on her shoulder and she leaned against him, holding the sleeping child.
“He is beautiful. Just like his mother.”
“He has his father’s firm chin and noble eyes. Even now a soul could get lost peering into the depths of those eyes.”
Stefano cleared his throat softly. “I had thought … that is, about his name … I was thinking …”
“Nikolos.” Love shone in her eyes as she smiled up at him. “What else could it be, my love? I know holding his name does not bring him back, but maybe it can lessen the pain you still carry.”
He chuckled lightly, a touch of grief lingering. “You know me so well.”
“You are mate to my soul, dearest one. How can I not?”
His hands shook lightly as she handed the child to his father. He ducked out of the tent to stand on the top step. He looked out over the sea of joyous faces, men and women alike. He knew what they waited for, and he was eager to answer them.
“He shall be called Nikolos, for he is truly of my heart.”
The crowd went wild.

– – ~ – –

“Sleepy…”

– – ~ – –

Master Indesh stood in front of the grieving one, hands on the man’s shoulders. “The whole camp grieves with you, son of my heart. Your loss is truly shared by us all.” He had remained at Stefano’s side ever since Toch was killed by trembling death. Though they were not blood-related, they had grown closer over time.
Stefano shook his head. “Why, father? Such a simple thing. The grass fresh with dew, a tiny misstep, a slip, the river….” Tears flowed anew. “… and to lose them both?”
Indesh pulled him to himself and sighed. “We know not the ways of the fates, Stefano, my son. Their ways … are their ways. ‘Truly none can discern the wisdom of …”
“No! Don’t say it. I have been reminded of it too much already. Wisdom? If it was wisdom to take my wife and my son….” His fought back a fresh onslaught of tears. “Everywhere I look I see her face. I hear his voice in the wind.”
“Indesh.”
The physician turned as the stranger walked forward. Dressed darkly with cloak and boots as black as pitch, he was an impressive sight. Nodding his head, he turned back to his son.
“Stefano, the traveler, Viktor is here. He wishes to speak with you.” He glanced again at the man who had only recently strode into the camp, bearing stories and news of far-off places. He was only known as ‘Viktor’ – a man with no home and apparently no discernable past. He sighed and patted his son’s shoulder. “Talk to him, Stefano. Perhaps he can help you with your grief.”
Viktor indicated the path to the river. “Walk with me, lad. There are many ways through grief.”
Stefano nodded his head, his steps faltering as he tried to keep up with the taller man. “I don’t know where to turn, traveler”, his voice almost a whisper. “There is nothing left for life, all I see is the road of death.”
Viktor’s low voice rumbled from his chest, “There are ways through death, young one. As with grief, for the two are eternally entwined. Together yet separate, each has a path of pain and a path of growth.”
“I just wish the grief to end. I have had more than any one man should bear.”
“Then let me help you.”
Victor stepped behind him. Stefano let out a soft hiss as he felt the older man’s lips press the nape of his neck. Instinctively he tilted his head to the side, his eyes closing. Suddenly he inhaled, pain surging through his body as he felt the piercing of flesh. Euphoria began to flood his veins as the traveler gently drank, pulling life. As Stefano slipped to the ground Viktor knelt, opening his wrist with his thumb nail. He pressed the wound to the young man’s lips, gasping in pleasure as the other now drank. After a few moments he pulled his arm away and the wound slowly closed.

– – ~ – –

Stefano rolled his head side to side, moaning, as the fog began to lift from his mind.
Finally he lay still and his eyes fluttered open. Shadows wove in the dark orbs of his eyes as he searched the traveler’s face for answers. “Am …. am I dead?”
Victor smiled. “No, dear chylde. You have walked a path through death, now to stand with the night and learn how to master grief and release your past.”
Stefano nodded and closed his eyes.
“I will … try.”

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