With a gloved hand, he reached down to pat at the neck of the faded bay stallion beneath him. He dismounted stiffly, joints aching in protest as soon as his boots struck the well-trodden road. His eyes scanned the empty streets, leaning against the still heaving flanks of his horse.
Neither one, horse nor rider, was quite as young as they used to be.
Pulling his hood over his head again against the spitting of rain, he walked stiffly towards the hitching post outside of the old inn. His face wasn’t one that would be recognized despite the something of a legacy his name carried. And yet, to most of the world, he’d been dead for over a decade and a half.
He was a ghost.
The reins were tied, knotted tightly around the worn bit of wood that stood in front of the inn. Somehow, things still looked almost exactly the same. Nothing changed, not majorly, aside from the unkempt shrubs and weeds that choked out the earth in the spot where flowers should have been. However, nothing bloomed there aside from a stubborn cluster of flowering weeds.
He shook his head, moving up the stairs quietly to the door. Three times he knocked, stepping back and waiting for someone to answer. It seemed rude to go instead, despite the fact the door was likely open already and the owner would be used to guests entering without an invitation.
“Go away,” came a voice behind the door.
“I only need a room for the night.”
Tapping a foot impatiently, he folded his hands behind his back as the door rattled and cracked open to reveal a sliver of the scowl on the man’s face. His eyes narrowed, whiskered jaw twitching in something of a smile as soon as recognition passed into his eyes.
“Open up, my good man. I’m old and weary,” he answered, words dropping off into a sigh.
“Old?” the man mocked, throwing the door open. “If you’re old now, boy, I’m an ancient.”
The minute they were both inside, arms wrapped around him and he had half a mind to bolt but, instead he stayed, swallowing whatever brief light of fear. There was nothing to be afraid of, he reminded himself. Luckily, the innkeeper let him go a moment later and the two separated.
He looked older, face more grizzled and the hair on his head grew mostly silver instead of the salted black it bad been before. The cane, a crude looking thing, caught his attention and Allikeo’s eyes stared down at how his weight rested against it.
“Are you eating?” the innkeeper asked, reaching up with his cane to prod him in the stomach. “You’re looking thin.’
“I’m eating,” he assured, half in a yawn as he made his way to one of the chairs, “don’t worry about me.”
Reaching down, he moved to unbuckle the straps of his boots and kicked them aside with a groan. His body ached, joints popping stiffly as he raised an arm over his head, and he considered that perhaps Jackson was an ancient after all.
“You in trouble?”
Glancing up, he shrugged. “Not actively.”
A mug as set before him, tall and still trailing froth down the sides. His nose wrinkled.
“Don’t make that face at me. You look like you need it,” Jackson huffed, sitting down across from him. “Why come here? Don’t you have-“
“Yes, yes, I have things to do. Is visiting such a crime?” he huffed, reaching down to take a swig from his mug and cringing. “Your cane, is it new?”
Jackson just shook his head.
“Is there a story? I remember you being a man of many stories before. Certainly you have one for-“
“There is,” the innkeeper cut him off sharply. “But, I don’t feel like telling it.”
Allikeo just nodded, reaching down to take another drink and nearly gagging the second time. He never understood the attraction to a glorified barley sludge that was hardly palatable at best and revolting most every time. Getting to his feet, he walked across the inn to a spout, collecting a glass from the counter and filling it with water instead.
“Never met a man that refuses a mug of ale.”
Smiling, he walked rigidly back to the chair again and sat down with a sigh. “Where is that girl of yours? I wonder if she remembers me.”
Jackson’s eyes fell to the ground. “Suppose that’s part of the story.”
He leaned back in his chair. “Is she well?”
“You’re dense, boy.”
Frowning, he shook his head. “I don’t understand-“
Allikeo blinked. “No.”
The cane tapped once on the floor, a hollow sound that rang out across the inn until it raised from the ground in a shaking hand. His eyes followed where the innkeeper pointed, eyes still glued to the ground. “You’re welcome to check her room if you don’t believe me.”
“Dead,” he echoed finally.
Jackson leaned forward, weight resting on the table. “Ten years ago.”
He cleared his throat, wincing at the sudden dryness. “How?”
There was a silence, one Allikeo wouldn’t dare to break, and he only watched the light drain from the man’s eyes. The garden, the appearance of the cane and the silver in his hair made sense then, clicking in Allikeo’s head.
“Dravara,” the man choked. “I don’t know what happened. All I know is…”
The words trailed off, never to be finished.
“How do you know it was them?”
Truly, he felt awful for asking a man, a friend, about the death of his daughter but some despicable part of himself had to know.
“I was keeping runaways here, two boys. One was injured, beaten, and I didn’t have a choice but to take him in. The other was a quiet boy, useless on his own. Aurora was the older one but he was small and yet,” he paused to shake his head, smiling almost fondly, “I swear that bastard had fire in his veins. Daniel was the other boy, a quiet thing. They helped with the inn and Elizabeth was attached to them. Brothers, I guess. That’s what they were to her.”
The words fell away into silence again.
“Aurora,” Allikeo repeated, arms crossing in front of his chest.
“Heard the name?”
His shoulders moved upward in a halfhearted shrug. “You could say that.”
Jackson swallowed, cane tapping again. “The Dravara came for them some two years after they showed up. They ran with Elizabeth and I stayed, tried distracting them. Bastard shot me,” he paused to point down at his leg, “through and through. Didn’t have to do that but, he did. I got him back, straight in the shoulder.”
“Did you know him?” Allikeo asked cautiously.
A snort. “Of course. You do too.” His words turned sour then, fading to something that was barely above a whisper. “Aurora’s dog, big wolfy thing-“
“Orion,” he exclaimed before he could stop himself. “The old hound made it.”
Jackson nodded but didn’t share the same enthusiasm, only wiping his nose on his sleeve. “He did. The dog found her the next morning after we went looking.” The innkeeper swallowed a cry. “Shot in the belly and left to die.”
Allikeo stared, a chill running down his spine. Saying anything at all felt inappropriate, inadequate and utterly wrong. Swallowed, he just settled on a mumbled apology and hoped, prayed, it was the right thing to do. “I’m so sorry.”
“Ten years,” Jackson huffed, “you’d think it would hurt less now. Let me tell you, it doesn’t. You’re supposed to protect your family. Failing them hurts worse than any bullet.”
He reached a hand across the table, grabbing for the innkeeper’s arm gently. “I know.”
Jackson looked up, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “Suppose you do, boy.”
Leaning back, he let his head drop backwards against the chair. “I’m sorry to change the subject and I know nothing I can say will make you feel any better-“
The innkeeper waved him away. “I don’t want to talk about what happened anymore.”
Allikeo nodded. “The boys you mentioned are alive. Both as far west now…safe.”
A frown appeared on the old man’s face. “Have you been following them?”
“Not exactly,” he answered, shrugging. “I’ve been…watching very carefully where Aurora moves. Though, I have every reason to.”
“What gives you that idea?”
There was a silence between the two of them for a long while.
The explanation was difficult, much longer than he cared to explain so soon after a tragedy had just been dropped between them. He swallowed, shaking his head as he thought back to soon before he’d come to the inn.
A month, perhaps less for all he knew, was all the time that had gone by since he’d gone to the east again. He was there, standing back and unable to do a thing as Rowena pulled the trigger. The instant he showed himself, he would have met the very same fate as Aurora. There was nothing he could have done to stop it.
The more he thought about it, the more the moment haunted him.
Thunder, the crack of the bullet and the sharp echo that followed, still rang in his ears from that day. He returned then, sneaking into the stronghold itself in order to see for certain just what condition Aurora was in. That in itself was a chore and a half, but the terror alone of returning was enough to make his skin crawl.
And yet, even if Aurora remembered the day, he wouldn’t have recognized him. The hood, the rusty gruffness growing in his voice, would have been unfamiliar. Truly, he was beginning to doubt Aurora would recognize him at all.
He looked up at the name. “I thought we agreed not to use that anymore.”
“Why are you following him?”
A smile flickered across his lips. “Don’t you see the resemblance? I was always the prettier one though.”
Jackson didn’t laugh.
“I thought your brother was dead-“
He grinned sadly. “Me too. I spent years trying to find him, but,” Silas paused to shake his head, “no Dravara had the name Evander Kallieon. I figured he had actually listened to my advice, but I didn’t think he’d choose such a ridiculous name.”
“Goddesses,” Jackson breathed, sitting back in his chair. “Trouble runs in your blood, boy, do you know that?”
Silas chuckled. “I know. For his sake, I wish it didn’t. We ran away together, but I was caught, imprisoned and then…released. I taught Evander to fight-“
“Not well,” the innkeeper huffed in a laugh. “The boy was nearly beat to death in front of my inn.”
“You’ll have to forgive me. I never covered fighting off gangs of rabble-rousers,” he replied bitterly.
Jackson smiled. “They avoided the Dravara for two years. I’d say that’s something. Not many can say that after all.”
Silas got to his feet slowly, yawning and tapping the table impatiently. “I know-“
“Stay, just for a night. The inn’s empty right now. I sent a couple boys south just the other day. Since your brother and his friend left, I don’t get much business anymore.”
“Shame,” he replied, rubbing his jaw. “People are afraid of an old man like you.”
The cane wrapped harshly on the table before Jackson swung at him jokingly. “You watch your mouth, boy.”
Alarm flashed into his mind and he fell away, stumbling against the wall and Jackson suddenly looked concerned. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
He tried to cover it with a laugh. “I really appreciate the offer, but I need to go back.”
“You came all this way just to talk?”
His shoulders moved upward in a tired shrug. “I don’t have many people left. I like knowing who is still left.”
Jackson shook his head, pushing himself stiffly to his feet. “It’s not good for you to be traveling without resting. You’ll ride yourself and your old nag to death.”
“I’ll be fine-“
“Where are you going anyway? You just got here,” Jackson protested.
He groaned, dropping his head back against the wall. “I know.”
“One night won’t kill anyone.”
Silas sighed. “Leaving him alone is killing me. He doesn’t…”
His words trailed off into nothingness, but the innkeeper only nodded understandingly. Sitting back down again, Jackson frowned. “You haven’t told him, have you?”
“I haven’t had the chance,” Silas replied, pushing off the wall. “I’ve hardly slept since we rescued Aurora from the Dravara-“
Silas waved his hand. “I convinced Daniel to help me. The two are still friends…or something of the sort.”
“He deserves to know.”
“He does,” Silas agreed. “I’m afraid he won’t know my face. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him and I worry that-“
Jackson laughed. “What do you have to worry about? You boys are dead as far as the Dravara know. He’s your brother, he’ll know you the moment he sees you.”
Silas smiled again, nodding his head. “If you say so. I haven’t changed since we last saw each other?”
“Changed for the better,” the innkeeper corrected. “You look good now, boy.”
He walked forward cautiously towards Jackson, eyeing the cane as he made his way in towards him again. Once again, arms went carefully around him and Silas tried his best not to pull back.
“Take care of yourself, Silas, your brother too. I miss you boys,” he said the moment the two separated.
“I will,” Silas answered with a definitive nod. “I swear.”
Jackson didn’t say another word, only resting his hands on his cane as Silas moved out towards the door again. The night was still just as quiet, just as dark, when he stepped out of the warmth inside. A click sounded as the door closed, closing in the last light behind him.
Aero whickered softly as he approached.
The innkeeper was right about Aurora having every right to know. Evander meant the world to him, the one remaining thing he cared for more than anything. He couldn’t bear to see him hurt, not again. But with Daniel, he had the illusion of safety.
And yet, for wanted fugitives, there was no such thing.
The two were buried, sentenced to die and had their sentences carried out, and somehow they still lived. In the matter of the Kallieons, death truly was an indecisive foe.