“Still pining over our fearless leader? Really, one would have thought you would be quite done feeling sorry for yourself by now.”
The low voice matched its owner’s name perfectly, it reminded him of sand, the wet sand where the surf broke against the land, smooth and velvety until your feet sank in, then grating like millions of tiny daggers flaying away your flesh before you realized what they were doing. It was a treacherous voice, one that used the cold truth and keen observation as a weapon sharper than any blade. Bishop made no reply, just snarled at the elven wizard.
“My. What a mood. Did Sol run out of ale before you could drink yourself senseless tonight?”
“Shut the fuck up, Sand, before I pin you to the wall with a silencing arrow.”
“I am so very afraid.” Sand settled in without an invitation on the wooden bench the ranger was sprawled across. He crossed his legs and looked up at the full moon that hung fat and low in the sky. Somewhere in the distance a long, low howl rose to the shining orb, the female werewolf who haunted the woods around Ember.
“Everyone wants to prove they’re still alive, but what’s the point.”
“And they accuse me of being fatalistic,” Sand shifted a little, his bright green eyes sliding over to examine the human. “This is not like you. Then again, we have all been changed by this experience.”
“We? How have you been changed?” The sarcasm in the man’s voice had no impact whatsoever on the stone faced moon elf. He could handle Bishop’s bitterness, Ammon’s viciousness, Khelgar’s deliberate density, and Casavir’s incessant prattle about loyalty and honor without flinching. Though he would never hear Casavir preach again. That seemed so odd. The only time his calm cracked and the sharp eared viper Duncan had warned them about surfaced was when he had to deal with what he considered nonsense which seemed to consist of anything he did not personally understand. Grabnor could push him over the edge into a pure rage in less than half a candlemark, but he was gone now as well. Elanee usually stopped her mystical mumbo jumbo before that point out of consideration for the Knight-Captain. Qara had only to be present to infuriate him. If he had an arch-enemy she was it. Bishop knew damn well that the elf had savored being the one to kill the bitch as a man would enjoy a fine wine or good sex.
“I recognize that I am too quick to judge others, too slow to compassion perhaps.” His voice was quieter than normal with almost no trace of sarcasm. “I find myself considering more often how my words influence others.”
“You still blaming yourself for that little firebug turning on you? Shit, while you’re at it find a way to take the blame for the orcs, bugbears, vampires, and all those ghosts in West Harbor. Maybe if you bleed enough you can get a job as a martyr in the church or something. Reckon that pays good?”
Sand laughed. It was a startling sound in the darkness, one Bishop had never heard from him before.
“That was a good one my friend, I shall have to remember it for later use.”
He ran both hands through his shaggy brown hair elbowing his companion in the cheek in the process. “Eh, sorry, forgot you were so short.”
“Sorry, now that is something you would not have said when you first joined us. I would have expected something more along the lines of get your face out of my elbow’s way. Could it be you are and I hesitate to use the term, nicer than you were before.”
“Yeah right, I’m a fucking angel, bite me.”
“I like you better when you are being the Bishop I know, not this broody, sulky, wounded bird that has been slouching around here lately.”
He was quiet a little while. “I thought you didn’t like me at all.”
“What gave you that idea?”
“The sarcastic little verbal daggers you like to toss at me, the snobbish, antisocial comments about my cleanliness and eating habits, I could go on and on.”
“Did you ever hear me speak thusly to Quara?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Like you would smart off to the king anyway-”
“Do you honestly think for one moment a crown would stop me from saying exactly what I think?”
He rubbed his chin scratching at the stubble there, “No it wouldn’t. So if you treat someone politely you hate them? You don’t like Nasher?”
“It is a trifle more complicated than that, but you grasped the basics more quickly than I would have expected. Nasher was a great man once, but he is a corrupt politician now. He will do whatever it takes, including sacrificing his own, to maintain his position and his way of life. If I bother to point out your flaws it is because I like you well enough to think there might be something worth redeeming in you.”
“You must love me then because you’re always finding them. Too bad you aren’t female and better looking and maybe taller.”
“Oh, really? I look and smell better than any female in this keep, dance more gracefully, cook better, and I am actually tall for a moon elf, I’ll have you know.”
“So you’re saying you would make some farmer a good and obedient little wife? Put dinner on the table, fetch his slippers, pour his ale as he slaps your bottom until he passes out in his chair snoring to shake the rafters?”
“For about a moment, then I would lose my temper, call lightning on the lout, and bury him in the backyard.”
Bishop laughed at that, a real laugh, easy and with a slightly wicked edge. “My kind of wife, the danger makes the loving that much sweeter.”
“You are definitely not normal, you realize this?”
“So nothing, just an observation,” he watched a line of birds wing in front of the moon.
“They’re free and the whole sky is theirs, but they still seek out each other’s company. Their weakness is their strength.”
“Wild geese, they fled the Shadows from the Mere to Port Llast.”
“How do you know that from here?”
“The shape of their wings, their formation as they fly, the sound of their cries. They are returning home now that the threat is passed.”
“As are many of the people who sought shelter in Port Llast and at the Crossroads there are more caravans and travelers on the road each day.”
“Are you going back to Neverwinter to run your seedy, little potion shop on the docks and rag old Duncan when you get too bored.”
“No, I don’t think so. Are you heading back to the Duskwood to stomp around in the weeds until you get a taste for drinking and winching again?”
Silence descended between them as they both stared at the moon looking for answers to the questions they could not quite put into words. The night wind picked up turning cooler and clouds began to move in bringing a promise of the rain the farmers needed so desperately. Somewhere nearby, a night bird took up a mournful tune.
Out of the blue, Bishop asked, “Can you really cook?”
Sand started realizing that he was growing rather stiff from sitting out in the cold. “Yes, very well. You might say it is a hobby of convenience.”
“Hobby of convenience?”
“I like to eat good food, not tavern swill. I live alone. I have a seedy, little potion shop on the docks as you so succinctly put it. In addition, I am not overly social. So I have few friends or lovers and cannot afford a servant. It occurred to me shortly after I arrived in Neverwinter that if I wished to eat well, I would have to learn to cook well.”
“I shot a brace of quail earlier, fat ones.”
“I have not had quail in quite some time and I suspect you could use a meal not half burned over a campfire and raw in the middle. I could cook them for you, if you like. I have taken up residence in the last house against the castle wall. Clean the quail and bring them to me. Slap my bottom though, and I will hurt you very badly.”
“Afraid you would like it too much, huh?”
He stood and moved soundlessly into the shadows before Sand could retort. The wizard watched him thoughtfully. Bishop’s tracking skills had improved immensely since he had known him. He was a rather stocky man, but he moved as swiftly and silently as the wind. He could stand still in broad daylight and seem to fade into the background until your eyes passed right over without seeing him.
Bishop was not the only one to become more skillful. The difficulty he had always had in shaping and controlling magic through his spells had melted away with practice and necessity. He could kill with a word, heal with a gesture, and command powerful forces that were more than a match for any master in the Hosttower. The only thing keeping him from the robes of an adept was a rather long and tedious ceremony. In fact, he had the right to march up to any of the towers or the academy in Neverwinter and demand testing and his trappings of rank. There was a time that would have been enough for him, the fulfillment of his dream. That was back in the days of long ago when his superiors had relegated him to cataloguing relics and artifacts because they said he would never rise above the level of hedgewizard.
He had been changed far more than anyone could see by their battle with the Shadow King. He had seen nightmares made flesh, heroism so far beyond the tales of books and bards that no one would ever believe him, and he had seen true betrayal, heartbreaking betrayal. Bishop had been the tool of that betrayal but in the end, when it counted, the conscience he had thought long gone had spoken to his wounded heart and he had found the courage to turn on the Shadow King and return to his friends. Others had not. He had heard his Captain cry like a broken child the night after the battle and not just for Casavir and Grabnor. He would have gone to her but Duncan had reached her first pulling her into his arms in a way that showed a caring far deeper than family concern.
He rose at a more sedate pace than the hunter and walked to his temporary residence. By the time Bishop pushed the door open without knocking, he had the roasting pan ready and the fire banked just right. He skillfully sectioned and de-boned the birds with a thin sharp blade.
“Remind me to shoot you from a distance if you have daggers on you.”
“You could try, I suppose, but it would be a waste of a perfectly serviceable woodsman.”
“Serviceable? I’m the best.”
He rubbed the birds with spices then surrounded them with chopped onions and garlic before covering the pan and setting it into the stone slab oven. He washed his hands in a ceramic basin and sliced a loaf of bread he had baked that very morning. The cooking stove heated the entire room nicely so he had removed his robes and wore only a simple green tunic and comfortable breeches. He was barefoot as well. As far as he was concerned if his guest did not like it, he could get out of his house.
Bishop watched the nimble fingers move surely and wondered what else the clever digits would be good at. Silver rings sparkled in the light from the fire and the flickering candles around the room. The man was graceful, even doing such a mundane thing. It would be almost a given that he could dance well. He would be lithe as a woman in your arms, but stronger, more commanding. He knew a lot of humans that were absolutely addicted to elven lovers and he had heard from more than one that the males were just as enticing as the females. He felt a stir of hunger deep in his gut that had nothing at all to do with thoughts of the dinner to come.
“Your humility is simply astounding.” Sand picked a large apple from a bowl and peeled it neatly.
“The old woman in the Lucky Seven bar used to say you could toss an apple peel over your shoulder and read your lover’s initials in it.”
“Well, that sounds only slightly less scientific than the usual method of choosing a mate. Let’s see, how is it normally done in these parts? Hang out in a bar until you wake up from a drunken stupor beside someone ugly enough to make a beholder’s eyes bleed then search for a priest who can be bribed into sealing the union before the baby is born. Actually now that I think about it, seeking out someone based on an apple peel prediction probably has a better success rate.”
“Why don’t you have a lover?”
“That is really none of your business, is it?”
“You’re not ugly even if you are short.”
“I am not short.”
“Duncan is taller if you like the smell of cheap booze, and Daeghun if anyone could stand close enough to tell without getting frosbite, and that drow chick at the merchant shop-“
“She is not taller than me!”
He chuckled, “ah, now, did I get under your skin?”
“Not at all,” Sand sniffed pointedly and sliced some bright, red berries into the bowl with the apples. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
Bishop smiled to himself as he watched the red juice of the berries dampen the pale slender fingers. He moved quietly circling around the table and behind his host. The elf’s dark hair was pulled back severely from his forehead as usual and imprisoned in a small silver clasp, leaving only the two long locks that fell free in front of his ears.
Sand felt the weight of eyes upon him and looked up. Bishop was nowhere to be seen, but he could feel his presence. Most living things had an aura around them as unique as their personalities. Some people could read those auras like tea leaves and divine the secrets hidden there about the person and their past, present, and future. He was not one of those talented souls. He could see auras but only when he was beginning to get one of his blinding headaches.
He knew his companions’ auras very well from Ammon’s cold, calculated evil to Casavir’s blinding light of goodness and justice. Bishop’s aura was, well not good at all. It was dark and evil and full of chaotic violence and anger, something he normally hated, but there was something else in the swirling darkness, flashes of bright red and gold and deepest blue, old pain, old grief, past betrayals, wounds that never healed. He knew those kinds of hurts himself, and the bitterness that came with it. He had raised himself above the pain, cut it off, seized the peace of neutrality and acceptance of the balance of things. Bishop had simply retreated into himself and become jaded. He probably thought that if he did not let himself care about others, if he only looked out for himself, that he could not be hurt again. His evil was the evil of selfishness and it would eat him alive until there was nothing left worth having.
The human was stalking him now. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as the air seemed to grow chilly. He could feel the brush of the dark presence directly behind him. He gripped the knife more tightly and grew still. “What are you doing, Bishop?”
Large hands brushed his ears causing him to shiver then his long bangs were freed from the clip. The raven locks immediately fell down over his eyes and tried to crawl inside his ears something he truly hated.
“Why did you do that?” he snapped.
“Your hair is longer than it looks.”
“So? Do you have any idea how hard it is to get it all back smooth again?”
“Leave it down.”
“Why would I do that?”
A big hand closed over his and the human was suddenly far too deep inside his personal space pressed against his back. Calloused fingertips brushed over the back of his hand tracing the tendons to his wrist. His hand looked as tiny as a porcelain doll’s in his grip. He swallowed and stared at the contrast between pale cream and deep tan, course brown hairs and smooth flesh.
“What are you doing, Bishop?” he asked again this time lowering and roughening his voice to show he was not playing.
“I don’t know.”
The answer was honest, he could tell. That relieved a small measure of his apprehension at least. Bishop was not turning on him, launching some insidious plot. He was acting on some unknown impulse. “Then do you not think you should probably stop it right now.”
“Maybe,” Bishop answered without any real conviction.
He raised the captive hand over the elf’s head resting it against his cheek where he could feel the warmth while snagging the knife with his free hand. He took it without meeting any real resistance. That was unexpected but somehow pleasing. His quarry was unarmed in his grasp. Well, he was unarmed as much as any wizard was ever unarmed without being bound and silenced and separated from their charms and trinkets and scrolls. He laid the blade down on the table in easy reach as if daring Sand to go for it.
It was a dangerous game and he was losing himself in the hunt the way he always did. Maybe he would win, maybe he would lose, all that mattered was each moment of feeling alive. Sand was tense as a young buck in the archer’s sights. Very soon, he would begin to tremble, not from fear, oh no this one was not afraid, but from the effort of remaining still in the predators grip when every nerve screamed fight or flee. He had been in that position once or twice, but more often he had been the predator. He might not have the keen nose that the elf possessed, but he knew the moment a creature was going to freeze and the moment it would break, when and why it would fight to the death, and the instant that the spirit broke and the fight was over.
“Back away.” The low hiss of the voice told him plainly that the viper was stirring and would soon strike to kill.
He felt the air chill and thicken all around him as magical energy gathered. “Yeah.” He placed a gentle kiss on the cool palm then released it taking four steps backwards. He raised his hands in a defensive gesture. “Easy, Sand.”
“Easy? What do you mean easy?” He spun around and jabbed a sharp finger into the center of the human’s chest. “What in the nine hells do you think you are doing?” He raised his hand in an abrupt gesture and the rings on it flashed brightly for a moment before it began to glow a violet colour.
Rangers learned survival skills young and usually the hard way. Bishop evaluated the situation with raw animal instinct and reasoned that his best defense was to throw the offense completely off stride. Sand was not the only one who could wield truth as a weapon. “You do smell better than any of the girls here.”
It worked. Sand stood stock still and the magic fled as quickly as it had gathered as his concentration faltered. “What?”
His eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply, “no, you are not sorry, liar.”
“Okay, I’m not.” That flash of anger in the emerald depths was intriguing. He wanted more. “If you don’t start tossing fireballs or calling lightning, I’m going to touch you again.”
“Keep your hands to yourself, you- you-“
“Asshole? Bastard? Though to be honest, that one isn’t true. My dad was a worthless piece of shit but he was married to my mother. Come on, curse me. Let it out, you’ll feel better and I’ve probably heard it a million times anyway.”
“And sink to your level of crude, I think not.” Sand sniffed loudly feeling his world shifting back onto solid footing. He brought his hand up and shoved his hair back with an impatient growl. The palm of his hand seemed to burn where Bishop had kissed it.
Bishop had kissed his hand.
He froze with the hand still in his hair. Bishop had kissed him on the palm. In his outrage at being held, he had almost forgotten.
“You kissed me, my hand. Why?”
“I liked the way it looked holding that knife all graceful and capable and deadly as a serpent.”
“So you kissed my hand?”
“That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. You’re losing your mind aren’t you?”
“Do you stop talking when you touch yourself or do you get off on the sound of your voice?”
For once words escaped the elf entirely and he just gaped at the human.
“Those hands, that voice, especially when you are really mad, I bet you could make a monk of the Long Death mess his hassock.”
“Bishop! Stop talking about such- things!”
He laughed. This was fun, and very arousing. He had seen Sand in many moods but this was the first time he had ever seen the demure and mannered wizard flustered. The wild hair framing his face made the spots of colour on his sharp cheekbones even more striking. “Come on, you’re a man, Sand. Don’t tell me you’ve never touched yourself on a long lonely night and wished it were someone else.”
“No, well I mean yes, but not, not-“
“Not a man’s touch?” he interrupted.
“No, it’s not that.”
His eyebrow rose sharply, “are you hiding something from me? What is it? Prejudiced against humans?”
“No. Don’t be an idiot.”
“Then come here. It’s exactly four steps, I counted.”
“Without using your fingers, I’m impressed.” The barb did not fool Bishop in the least.
“Got a problem with me personally?”
“Not at the moment, but keep talking and that could change quickly.”
“Tell me. What are you hiding?”
“Nothing that concerns the likes of you.”
“Then take a step.”
“I don’t think so.
“I am not looking for complications in my life.”
“I’m not her or him.”
“Whoever hurt you.”
Sand shoved his hair back, but it was useless. It still tumbled down over his cheeks. “What makes you think someone hurt me?”
“None of your business.”
“I’ll take one step if you take one.”
“This is not some sort of game, human. I do not have the time or the patience to play games.” He took a step forward clenching his fists.
Bishop quickly took a step himself. “I may play games, but I play them for keeps. I put my life and everything else on the line, but only if the prize is worth the risk.”
“And what exactly are you trying to win here?”
He took another step forward and waited. This was it, the point of instinct. One wrong move and the prey was lost forever. He exhaled stilling his mind and body focusing only on the moment. He held his hand out, palm up. “You.”
Sand half turned to walk away and Bishop closed his eyes in resignation certain the game was irrevocably lost. He did not see the moon elf hesitate and turn back. Instead, he suddenly felt a much smaller hand slide hesitantly into his. He opened his eyes slowly afraid the other man would lose his resolve. He realized he should not have worried about that when he met a pair of somber eyes. Sand would never back down from the fires of the deepest hell once his mind was made up.
“If I lose a friendship that I value and do not gain something equal or greater in value to it, I swear I will not forgive you.” He took a step forward and rested his forehead for a moment on Bishop’s chest while he took a deep breath before glaring up at him. Strong arms wrapped around him holding him close.
“I wouldn’t blame you.” He leaned down and joined their mouths in kiss that quickly escalated into a hungry exploration.
In less time than it took to kill a wounded goblin, he found himself on his back across the bed with incontrovertible proof that all those elf enthusiasts he had laughed at were dead on right. Sand was older than him and he was surprised to discover, quite a bit more experienced, at least where pleasuring a man was concerned. He was not in the least shy about telling and showing him exactly what would bring him pleasure either. By the time he collapsed back into the blankets panting for breath, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this prize was worth everything and far more than he had any right to win.
“I need to put the tea on.”
“Yeah, fine.” He was relaxed and warm and wanted nothing more than to lay naked in the soft bed wrapped in the smell of Sand and sex and drift into a sated sleep. An amused chuckle made him crack one eyelid.
“That means, my large and rather heavy lover that I cannot get up until you move your arm and leg off me. So do so, hmm?”
He moved reluctantly rolling onto his back. He watched as he gathered his jet black hair and clipped it firmly back into place. “Your hands are incredible.”
“Just my hands?”
“You’ll have to torture me to get any more info out of me.”
“Do not tempt me,” he replied dryly as he stood and pulled his trousers on.
He laughed, “I have every intention of tempting you at every opportunity.”