Three days passed by the time they were able to travel along an actual road rather than trample through underbrush and fight their way through brambles and brushwood that was almost too dense to ride through. They had stopped twice for supplies, never staying any longer than what was needed. Sleeping had been difficult and while they had taken refuge in an inn one night, Aurora found he couldn’t even close his eyes without panic setting in.
Being hunted, he thought, was more horrible the more he considered that Sarafina was caught in the middle.
“There is a town up ahead,” Silas declared from where he and Daniel flanked Sarafina on either side. “We should stop, it’s late and I don’t think we’re still being followed.”
“How can you be sure?” Aurora called up to him.
Silas glanced behind him.
He didn’t need to speak for Aurora to nod in mutual understanding.
“I’m tired, papa.”
Aurora winced at her voice, staring ahead of him at the back of the girl riding in front of him. He didn’t hear what Daniel said in answer, only hearing an equally tired mumble from him as the group rode on. They would stop soon, he assured himself silently, and, even for a short while, perhaps they would have the illusion of safety again.
He looked up, shadows passing in front of them as the buildings came into view and he could pick out the few candles still lit in windows above them. It was small, more of a cluster of buildings on cobblestone streets than an actual town. For the travelers, it was likely the most inviting thing they had seen in a while.
His eyes narrowed, catching sight of the inn at the end of the road, nestled between two branches of cobblestone that led off in opposite directions. A frown crossed his face, mouth opening to question just where they were when it hit him. Aurora nearly keeled over, hands snapping back harshly on the reins.
Willow stamped impatiently.
“Aurora?” Sarafina yawned from ahead of them, turning her pony to face him. “Are you coming?”
He didn’t move.
A memory, the feeling of a blade across his back, ice against the side of his battered face. It came back, the blood that had rushed out from the cuts and dribbled from his open mouth. The streets, the snow, had run red there before.
Aurora shook atop his horse, shuddering and staring ahead of him blankly to where the garden had been. Bare, dead and tangled tendrils stood in place, a graveyard where flowers once grew. He had been killed there, not far off in a clearing he knew very well he could find the way to.
The reek hung in his nose and he looked down at his hands, horrified by the crimson he found there, dripping from his fingertips and staining his coat. It wasn’t his as much as he had always wished it had been, his blood and not hers. She shouldn’t have been there, shouldn’t have run with them and been involved in a fight she was never meant to be a part of.
He didn’t remember sliding from his saddle.
Aurora wasn’t sure if he actually dismounted or had simply fallen, but the ground rushed up to meet him as his legs folded. Silas was there, helping him back to his feet and throwing one of Aurora’s arms over his shoulders.
“Evander, look at me. You’re alright. What’s wrong?”
“Why?” he managed, the word coming out slurred.
“What do you mean?”
Tugging away, Aurora staggered from him. “Why are we here?”
Silas’ fingers went up to rake through his hair and he swallowed. “Give me the chance to explain, but first, we need to go inside…”
The creak of a wooden door, familiar as it was heartbreaking, cut him off.
Aurora couldn’t bring himself to look up, staring down at the ground and fighting back a cry, legs shaking beneath him. “I can’t be here.”
“Evening,” Silas called pleasantly.
“What are you doing here? I thought you were…”
His eyes rose, face falling the moment recognition hit him. The man limped outside, hobbling down the stairs with a cane held firmly in one hand. Things had changed, between the gray in his hair and the faded look in his eyes, that much was obvious.
He nearly broke down sobbing again.
“He lied.” It was all he was able to croak out.
“I…Daniel, you’re here too. Boys, my boys,” he paused, face falling from a grin, “why didn’t you come back?”
Jackson looked between them, eyes lighting up again as the smile returned. “You kept that old thing?”
Aurora couldn’t bring himself to respond beyond a nod.
“We didn’t think you’d hold onto it.”
“I tried telling him that,” Daniel cut in. “He’s not eager to give it up.”
Jackson only grinned again. “My boys, come inside. And this young lady, we need to be introduced.”
Silas collected the horses, moving off towards the stable wordlessly. Aurora was the last outside, still standing, half in a daze and staring back at the innkeeper. Jackson walked closer, cane clicking across the stone as he neared. “Welcome back. If I knew you were coming, I would’ve made something.”
“I don’t eat much now,” Aurora admitted dryly.
He frowned, raising the cane to tap in front of his boots. “You and you’re brother are looking thin. You’re tall, not as tall as Silas, but bigger than me now. Come inside-“
“I’m sorry,” he cried. “I’m so sorry.”
Jackson shook his head. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for. This place has been pretty lonesome since you left. I kept your damn dog for you, but the beast finally died a few years ago. Been alone since then, save for the runaways that come my way.”
“You don’t understand-“
“Aurora,” the innkeeper said calmly, “you don’t either. Come inside, we’ll talk, boy.”
The innkeeper shook his head. “They got you, didn’t they?”
He swallowed, not speaking.
“They’re more out there, like us. You’re not alone, not anymore. Come inside, please, your brother and I can explain.”
Aurora stood where he was, head bowed and eyes staring down at the street. There was a hand on his arm, careful and leading him forward gently. He didn’t fight, stumbling once and then again when he got to the stairs.
An hour passed since they’d arrived and Sarafina was sent to bed, a room that Aurora dreaded to even look towards. He knew who it had belonged to, who had slept there behind a door he’d recognize upon looking at it. The entire thing, the returning to the inn, and even though Jackson was alive, the first bit of good news he’d gotten in a while, it still made him feel sick.
He didn’t want to remember more than he had to, recall the night that had left his hands permanently stained no matter how hard he scrubbed away at them. They could be rubbed raw, scalded with water that left angry red burns on his hands, and it never would completely disappear. The inn, the sight of the doors, his old room, and the odd emptiness in the air, only made the feeling worse.
A weight pressed onto his shoulder, hand closing over his arm and Aurora leaped from his chair, backing into the wall and nearly tripping over his own feet. His eyes widened, terror flashing through his mind. He had to leave, go and never return.
“Easy,” Daniel called gently, “it’s just me. Are you alright?”
Aurora nodded, gasping and glancing sideways to where the innkeeper stared back at him with a frown. He half managed a laugh. “I’m sorry…I-I was just,” he swallowed, “startled.”
“You’re not well, are you?”
Daniel stepped back wordlessly, sitting down in the same chair he’d been in before and leaning backwards. Aurora didn’t respond, only sliding down against the wall into a heap.
“I knew something was wrong about you. They got inside your head, didn’t they?”
“You already asked me that,” Aurora mumbled weakly.
The cane tapped impatiently on the floor. “And you ignored me.”
Aurora shook his head. “No, sir. I was locked away, but that’s not…the problem, not right now. It is a problem, but not now,” he paused, head going to rest in his hands, “not now.”
“I told Daniel not to call me sir and I won’t have you doing it either. What’s wrong?”
He breathed out a shaking sigh. “Don’t make me say it, please.”
“We never should have come here. It follows me, they follow me. I’m dangerous-“
Daniel cleared his throat. “Silas brought us here. That has nothing to do with you.”
“This has everything to do with me!” Aurora snapped, rising to his feet.
Jackson stood, pushing up with his cane. “Sit down. No one is blaming anybody for anything.”
“I’m sorry. I never should have come here, ever, at all. I can’t look at this place the same. Everything that happened here was my fault. All of it, the Dravara,” he choked, voice breaking, “Elizabeth…was my fault. I can’t even begin to apologize and I certainly can’t forgive myself.”
“Sit down,” Jackson ordered, wrapping harshly once on the floor. “Right now, boy.”
Aurora did as he was told, sliding back down uneasily and sitting stiffly, one hand moving to the lurch of pain in his middle.
“You’re forgetting something. I brought you in here, beaten half to death and bleeding all over my floors. I took in two boys who knew shit about the world, one,” he paused to motion towards Daniel, “who couldn’t even hold a damned pistol, and a second one more scared than I’d ever seen anyone.”
He didn’t look up.
“Two became friends, fancy that. Bastards became more than that and I had two sons of my own. The Dravara could have broken both my legs, snapped my arms and beaten me and I would’ve fought for you. There isn’t a day in my life I have ever regretting what I did for both of you.”
Daniel cleared his throat, breaking the brief silence. “You threw me up against the wall over there, threatened to kill me for something I’d said. I knew you wouldn’t hurt me, or I know now. Back then I wasn’t so sure. You may think coming here was a mistake, Aurora, but those times were the best in my life.”
“It’s not that I regret all of it-“
“It’s her, isn’t it?”
Aurora bit his lip, nodding and letting his eyes shut. “It was my fault.”
“Won’t you listen to me-“
“Vex it all!” Jackson cried. “Don’t you understand? That night…ruined me. But you don’t understand that Elizabeth wasn’t the only one I lost that night. I lost my family, my sons too.”
“And I took your daughter from you!”
His chest ached.
“What…” Jackson trailed off, looking towards Daniel. “What is he talking about?”
Daniel’s eyes flickered to Aurora and he only shook his head. “It’s not my place.”
“When we ran,” Aurora paused, choking back a cry, “we split up. Daniel went with Elizabeth and I tried to keep the others away. I shot one of the Dravara, Aldwyn actually-“
“The bastard came back,” Jackson breathed. “Not sure if that’s bravery or just plain stupid.”
“I left him with that officer and went to find the others. Daniel and I met up, but Elizabeth got separated. There was yelling, in the trees, and they were loud…it happened. I didn’t mean to pull the trigger, I really didn’t. Elizabeth…called my name.”
Aurora choked then, unable to continue.
Jackson blinked, be it the tears welling in his eyes or something else, Aurora was too afraid to look at him to find out. Instead he only stared at his hands, the crimson still adhered there, clinging under his nails and cracking across groves in his skin. He glanced up, hat falling over his eyes, but the red was gone, fading as if it had never been there at all.
“You did it?”
There wasn’t a shout, not a yell and certainly no harsh crack of the cane breaking over his head. Part of him expected that, welcomed it even. However, there was only a stillness that nearly had his composure breaking completely.
“I never…” Jackson trailed off, sitting down in his chair again. “Did she know it was you?”
Aurora swallowed, nodding again. “I held her…until they took us.”
The man only bit his lip, trembling and finally breaking with a sob. “Good, that’s good.” He stopped, shaking his head. “No, it’s not...just,” he hesitated again, voice cracking, “better than being left there alone. I never thought I’d outlive her. A father just doesn’t think about that. But what you did…”
The words trailed off, unfinished.
“I’m sorry,” Aurora managed.
For a long while they were silent, unable to speak a word while Aurora somehow managed to keep his eyes dry for the first time in a while. His chest hurt, aching every time he tried to struggle in a breath. Finally, Jackson looked up again.
“I can’t blame you,” he croaked. “I just can’t. It’s not your fault. What I’m saying is…I forgive you. I’m glad, if it had to happen, she had you.” A laugh broke out into the air, something that barely clung to soundness. “Goddesses, I can’t believe I’m saying that…glad. But she had you, she wasn’t alone…and I can’t blame you for trying to protect the two people you loved the most. I forgive you. I can’t blame you…I never will.”
It was his turn to laugh, something equally out of place. “You’re a better man than I.”
He shook his head. “I’ve never been able to forgive me.”
The innkeeper swallowed, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “There comes a time where you choose to forgive yourself or carry the weight of it forever. Whatever you chose, just know…it’s alright to put the weight down. I forgive you.”
It was all he could choke out.
“It’s time you start forgiving yourself, boy.”
Aurora only managed a nod, pushing himself up on still wobbling legs and shivering at the chill running down his spine. He looked to Daniel, catching his friend’s eye before his attention moved back to the fire burning in the hearth. It was the very same, a pile of burning logs, the lick of flames that had taken his name.
“I never wanted to hurt anyone.”
Jackson followed, standing and wiping his eyes again with a tired sniff. “It’s late, boys. You’ve got a lot ahead of you,” he paused, looking towards Aurora, “a lot behind you. You should get some sleep.”
Sighing, Aurora smiled. “I don’t do that much.”
“Try,” Jackson said half in a yawn, shuffling away down the hall. “Just try. Goodnight, boys. Welcome home.”
He was gone then, shut away behind a closed door and Aurora was left still leaning against the wall. It wasn’t until Daniel came closer, placing a hand carefully on his arm, that he looked up.
“I’ll try,” Aurora answered quickly. “Don’t worry.”
Daniel shook his head. “Not about just that…all of it.”
Aurora didn’t wait for an answer, hearing something of the same words as he moved off towards his old room. The doorknob stuck, creaking out a groan along with the door he managed to shove it open. The stacked boxes, a bare bed and a dresser were still in the very same spot, untouched.
His hand slid over the back of a chair, one that had been shoved against the wall where she’d sat, explaining the aftermath of an attack he barely remembered anymore. It had been left there, just tucked away for a while. Nothing had gone away.
A smile crossed his face, staring down to brush away the dust from the seat before he eyed the bed nearby. Sleep tugged at his eyes, exhaustion weighing down his limbs the longer he stood upright in the old room.
Her laugh, the shirt he’d been given that nearly could have been worn as a dress, and the clack of Orion’s paws across a rough grain floor. It was all there, etched into the doors, tucked into scuff marks where boots had been tossed and decorated walls that had taken the brunt of his anger, painting knuckles bloody and fingers bruised. The earlier days of the inn, the voices of boys far too young to understand what a situation they were in; all of it remained.
Aurora sat down heavily, easing his boots off aching feet and sitting back against a pillow that felt too soft, too foreign, after sleeping on the ground for a few nights. He groaned, eyes closing as he brushed one hand over the still healing wound at his side. The call of sleep, was terrifying as it usually was, never sounded so sweet. For once, things felt different, without the constant edge of panic and fear nipping at his ankles.
For once in over a decade, he felt at peace.