So, for the patient and devoted, and I suppose for everyone else too, here's an excerpt from the next chapter of Shadows and Light. It's not beta'd or heavily edited, so it will undoubtedly be tweaked again before you read it on Literotica (soon), but I felt compelled to share regardless. It's close to the beginning of the story. Enjoy:)
It was Xian who ended up finding them a den about fifteen minutes later, and Rafael was more than ready to stop at that point. The appointed spot was a dense thicket down a hill several meters off the trail, heavily shadowed by pine trees. It would be nearly invisible from the trail even in the daylight, and there was a slender stream right next to it, which would be good for the horses and for the two of them. They both dismounted once they’d made their way down the hill, and Xian handed the reins over to Rafael.
“I’ll prepare the camp while you care for the horses.”
That was one of the new skill sets Rafael had had to learn: how to tend to a huge, odiferous, time-consuming animal in a way that would keep it fit to ride. It was far from his favorite aspect of the trip, but after several weeks and with Xian’s help, Rafael was fairly efficient at it now. He found a place beneath the trees where the horses could stand comfortably, and even graze some, and then took off their saddles and pads and exchanged the heavy bridles for simple rope halters. He staked their leads to the ground, then spent some time brushing both of the beasts down and checking their hooves for stones. Then he hauled some water for them, and by that point he was sweating and freezing simultaneously. His horse looked down at the ground, sniffed for a moment, then whuffled indignantly.
“Do I look like a miracle worker?” Rafael demanded. “I can’t make grass spring up from rock.” His horse continued to stare. “The grain cakes will be harder and harder to get. Just be patient and I’ll find you food later.”
This provoked a whinny, and Rafael gave in to the inevitable. “Fine. Don’t blame me if you’re starving in a week.” He took two thick grain cakes out of his saddle bag and fed one to each horse. “Now stop your whining.”
“I never thought I’d see you argue with something that couldn’t argue back,” Xian remarked from the entrance to the shelter that would be their home for the next day. The inside of it had been lined with heavy wool blankets, which would serve the dual purpose of keeping out the light and keeping in the heat. He had pulled the rest of their personal belongings inside and made up a pallet on the ground that would be just large enough for the two of them, if they stayed close. After experiencing the pleasure of sleeping with Xian for the past two weeks, Rafael had every intention of staying as close as humanly possible.
“Arguing with inanimate objects is one thing; arguing with that beast is another. Just because he can’t speak doesn’t mean he won’t try to drown me in guilt.”
“My poor pet, a slave to the will of his noble steed,” Xian smirked as he slipped his arms around Rafael’s waist from behind, pressing cool lips to his neck.
“I live to serve,” Rafael replied flatly, but he nevertheless leaned back into the embrace, craving the physical connection to Xian.
“I know,” Xian said, and kissed him again before pulling back. “The snares are almost ready.”
“I’ll help you set them,” Rafael said.
“As you wish.” They walked together past the stream, wending their way through the thick press of pine needles. Xian held a length of slender wire in his hands, and was expertly tying a noose into the end of it. Once finished, he handed it to Rafael and began on the next one. “We may get lucky with one of the larger traps here. A badger would bring plenty in trade.”
“Or we could simply pay for food,” Rafael offered, not for the first time. He winced as a finger suddenly flicked his ear, hard.
“Or you could learn to be self-sufficient,” Xian said. “I don’t show you all of this because I enjoy boring you, Rafael.” He handed him the second snare and began tying the third. His long, milk-pale fingers dexterously slid the wire into the appropriate loop. “These are things you need to know if we’re to succeed. Once we reach—” He stopped speaking as the wire suddenly slipped from his hands, falling limply to the ground. They both stopped and stared at it for a long moment. Rafael looked uncomprehendingly down at the wire, and then over at Xian.
Xian’s face was always hard to read, his casual expression of imperturbability down to an art after half a millennium of life, but something about the sudden lowering of his eyelids to half mast, hiding the blank white orbs from view, was very disturbing. In all the years of his apprenticeship and the short time they’d been together since then, Rafael had never seen Xian fumble. To see it now meant that things were happening that Rafael had steadfastly refused to discuss for the past two weeks, and the cold ache that swelled suddenly in his chest had nothing to do with the weather.
After a moment, Xian bent and retrieved the loop of wire as though nothing had happened. He expertly finished tying the knot, then turned to Rafael. “Get those two set and baited, then meet me back at camp. Dawn is coming fast.” He took the one left in his hands and moved on, leaving Rafael staring after him in the iron-grey light. After a moment he snapped out of his fear-induced fugue and went to do just that, trying to find signs of animals and choose likely spots for the snares, but in the end he simply tied them down within five feet of each other before sprinting back to their camp.
Xian was already there, not sitting in the den he’d prepared but stroking the nose of his own horse, a large grey male with tufted black ears and a much less argumentative disposition that Rafael’s. He looked over at his former apprentice as he skidded into the small clearing. “Problems?”
“No,” Rafael said after a moment, trying to slow down the anxious beating of his heart. “No problems.”
“Then we’d best get inside.” He stepped away from his horse and took Rafael’s hand, then led him back into the den. They both sat down, and then Xian lowered the final heavy blanket over the entrance, plunging them into total darkness. Rafael sat and shivered, completely unnerved, and jumped when he felt Xian’s hand on his shoulder.
“Sleep,” Xian said.
“Shouldn’t…but shouldn’t we—”
“We’ll talk about it later, pet,” Xian soothed him. “It will keep for a few more hours, and I know you need the rest. Lie down with me.”
“Xian…” Rafael didn’t think he could sleep with the specter of the dreaded “talk” hanging over him, something he’d gone out of his way to avoid up to now, but he was tired from hours of riding through the dreary, interminable hills. The environment simply didn’t energize him the way living in a city had, and he had lived in Clare in whole life before their exodus. To be a stranger in what was essentially a new world was a new and uncomfortable fear that he fought with constantly.
Rafael let himself be coaxed onto his side on the pallet of blankets and cloaks, and when Xian nestled in behind him and fit their bodies together like lock and key, the ache in his chest began to dissipate. He focused on the soft touch of his lover’s breath on his skin, and the steady cadence of both of their heartbeats, and slowly he allowed himself be comforted until he couldn’t stop from sleeping.
If Rafael’s waking moments were marred by an underlying fear of impending change, his sleep was just as invaded by twisted memories shaped into terrifying dreams. He saw his ejection from the Upper City over and over again, and each time Xian brought him back from the brink of death, he did it while laughing, delighting in his former apprentice’s pain. Rafael saw himself bound in the circular chamber, hanging from chains and waiting with breathless anticipation for his master’s hand, or his whip. Instead of Xian it was Myrtea who wielded the weapon, though, and she bit brutally deep into his skin, drawing blood and baring bone.
Even worse were the dreams where she had Xian under her control, chained and helpless. She called him “My beloved,” and she touched him intimately with hands like burning brands, leaving bright red blisters on Xian’s perfect, pale skin. They should have healed almost instantly but they couldn’t; the Blood of Erran had left Xian, abandoned him to his latent mortality, and he was dying now and it was all Rafael’s fault. All he could do was watch and listen as his lover screamed, strange and high and breathy, hardly more than a whimper but—