Apart from the sound of the rain coming down, and the occasional hiss when a drop of water hit one of the torches, all was quiet. The doors in front of us remained closed, and no sounds emerged from within the city walls.
This is ridiculous, I thought.
The soldier walked forward and put his hands on the doors, as if he expected them to open when he touched them. Then he turned back to face us. "He is here. We have to get inside."
"Right." Jared took a step back and looked up, his wet hair plastered to his forehead, and his scarred face almost inhuman in the uncertain light of the torches.
"Hello?" he called out. "Is there anyone there?"
I thought I could hear some movement from behind the doors, and then a hatch opened and a round, pale shape appeared.
"What is it that you want, scarface?"
Rodan took a step towards me. "Nice people here," he muttered, "hospitable".
"Open the doors. We have business in this city."
The face seemed to peer out at us. "What kind of business?"
"We've come to see the King," the soldier said. "Our master." His voice wavered. Jared was right, I thought. His faith is leaving him.
"Ah." Though I wasn't sure, I thought I detected a hint of compassion in the gatekeeper's voice. "There's a place for you outside the city walls. Just turn right and keep the walls to your left, you can't miss it."
"The King will see you there." I thought he would close the hatch, but then he added, "I'm sorry, there were just so many of you. We're not a large town, you know."
I could feel the boy's anguish, even before I heard his voice cry out in my head.
I heard a thud, and for a moment everything went dark. The next thing I was aware of was the metallic taste of blood that filled my mouth. I opened my eyes, but it made no difference. The smell of smoke made me cough, and I wondered whether there was a fire, somewhere. No, please, I thought, not again. Then the dark grabbed me and pulled me under.
"I'm sorry," the boy said.
"I can't go there. That place. I can't go there."
Someone turned me onto my back and lifted my head. I blinked, and for a moment I could see an orange glare. Then it was dark again.
"What are you talking about?" He kept quiet. "Hey, are you still there?"
"They're there," he said then. "My… his father and his brother. His uncle too. They'll know I'm not him."
Suddenly I felt repulsed. "Hey, take it easy," Rodan said from a great distance, as dry heaves began to rack my body and I gasped for breath.
"You steal their bodies, don't you?" I had difficulty forming the thoughts in my mind.
He hesitated. "You won't understand."
"The beauty. The beauty there is in this world."
He was right, I didn't understand, and I wasn't sure I had even heard him correctly.
"What is he waiting for?" he said then. "Why doesn't he just open the gate?"
The gatekeeper cried out, the panic in his voice unmistakable, and I gasped and sat up. "Breathe," Rodan told me catching me by the shoulders. "Yes, that's right." I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the cool night air. In the distance I could hear Jared talking to the gatekeeper, his voice low and soothing, and I allowed myself to drift off again.
"Don't," I said. "Let Jared handle it."
He didn't reply.
"He was almost gone, you know," he said then. "Grief and anger will do that, if you let them. And he did. When his father and his uncle were taken he still resisted, but when his older brother was taken as well he just - gave in. Embraced it, even."
I didn't know what to say. I thought of what my life had been like during the war. And then I thought of my son, and of what he seemed to have become. He's young, I wanted to say. He's gone through more than any boy of his age should have gone through. He didn't have a choice, and you had no right to do what you did.
I shivered, and I felt Rodan tightening his grip on my shoulders.
My son, I thought. I have to see my son. I looked up. Jared was talking to the gatekeeper, the soldier hovering at his side.
"Tell him about the message," I said, loud enough for the gatekeeper to hear me.
I could feel Rodan start, and in the dim light I could see Jared and the soldier facing me. None of them said anything.
"I have a message for the King, that I need to deliver in person."
"What kind of message?" He's biting, I thought. He doesn't trust me, but he's afraid of what might happen if I the message is real and he doesn't let me deliver it.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you," I said.
"Who is it from? Surely, you can tell me that."
I went for the first name that popped into my head. "It's from Merran, the King's grandson's tutor."
"Ah." There was still suspicion in his voice but something else as well - I didn't know what.
I brushed my damp hair away from my eyes. The rain had stopped, and the first light was dawning in the east. Please let it end, I thought. I don't think I can face another day like this.
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