Time’s Torture

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“All this doesn’t tell us how the sun was stolen from the Unseelie,” Stranger said.

Aleth laughed above his head. “I thought you’d fallen asleep.”

“So did I,” Stranger admitted. “Go on, though.”

“There’s not much to tell, I’m afraid. Oberon was outraged that the thing had dared to possess him and use him, and wanted revenge. But the truth is that nobody really knows how he took the sun from the Unseelie. Most think a dragon owed him a favour.”

“Dragons can do that?”

Another laugh, a little incredulous. “Why, dragons can do almost anything, my sweet. As long as it doesn’t require the use of thumbs.”

Stranger sat up. “Don’t call me that,” he said, not looking at the Teller.

“Are you not sweet?”

“I’m not yours.”

There was a silence. “I see,” said the elf. Stranger looked at him sharply, but Aleth only seemed pensive. A wave of embarassment rose to his cheeks.

“I have a sweetheart,” he found himself saying. “In… in Cat’s Court. And a child. A daughter.”

Aleth frowned. “So?”

Stranger sighed and tried to find an explaination that would satisfy a fairy. Their notion of relationships rarely included monogamy. “I would… prefer not to become… distracted, on the road back to them.”

The elf laughed, the delighted laugh of one faced with a child’s logic. “Indeed,” he said eventually. “Very well, then.” And still laughing, he lay down to rest.

After a moment, Stranger lay down next to him. He tried not to touch the other man, though he knew he would wake up in his arms. That morning (if you could call it morning), he had been the one holding the elf.

She wouldn’t blame you, a voice in his head whispered. She wouldn’t even have to know.

He knew that sailors at home indulged in such things frequently.

That’s not the point, he told the voice. Who knew what mishap might await him should he let himself be tempted by fairy flesh? Would succumbing to that desire have the same effect as eating englamoured food?

It’s probably too late for that, he thought.

He tried not to think of the possibility that if he did manage to return to Cat’s Court, his wife and child might be dead and gone for centuries, but since Aleth’s arrival he had found it far more difficult not to think. His usual routine of walking and foraging and avoiding enemies and finding places to sleep was changed. His past blurred into his memory so that a week or a century might feel the same, but since Aleth had joined him, it felt like time had begun to flow again. Of course he knew it always had, but his newfound awareness of it was less than comfortable.

He’d heard talk of new things in Cat’s Court, the names of kingdoms he did not know, and seen things exchanged that he seemed alien to him. Surely these were simply barbarian kingdoms and their odd inventions, things he had never had the chance to learn of before he had left. Surely it wasn’t too late.

Was it?

What if it was? Time moved differently here. He might return but a moment after leaving, or he might find himself back centuries later. Aleth had teased him at first, with tales of humans that only put a foot back in Cat’s Court and found themselves crumbling to dust as time caught up with them. Stranger had hit him then, and told him to shut up. Surprisingly, Aleth had.

But the seeds of doubt, so long ignored, had begun to sprout in his mind. Should his wife have remarried, he could bear it. He would at least have the chance of winning her back then. And if not, seeing his daughter would suffice. But what if both had grown old and died without him? What of his brothers, his descendants? Those children would never know what had happened to their grandfather. Or even who he was. What if his descendants were all dead? What if he had none?

What if another era had come and gone, and the world he had left was no longer his? That thought, so long avoided, turned his blood to ice.

Stranger buried his head in his arms and tried to remain still and silent as waves of panic and grief smashed through him. He felt like a child lost at sea, surrounded on all sides by cold grey water, kicking frantically to stay on the surface, and not knowing which direction to swim in, or what monsters were lurking below him, watching those tiny kicking legs and wondering whether it would be worth the effort to reach up and pluck him for a snack.

He did not move away when Aleth laid a warm hand on his back, nor did he resist when the elf shifted closer and pulled him into his arms, hushing and crooning like a mother soothing her child. The apprehension he felt as he buried his face in the other man’s shoulder and let Aleth’s hands stroke his hair was nothing compared to the pain in his chest. His last half-sane thought before he surrendered entirely was that trick or no trick, he hadn’t felt a moments comfort in eternity.

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