Will alone kept Raife's back to the spear-wielding brigand. He knew that the instant that he engaged the swordsman, the spear would stab for his unprotected back. Only the ease with which he dealt with their commander made them cautious now. If either of the men flanking him regained their confidence, he was a good as dead. As it stood, it was still only a matter of time. Where was Niklos?
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As if in response, a gnarled stick bounced off the swordsman's unprotected face drawing his attention away from Raife. The monk had finally arrived, hurling his makeshift weapon from the tree line as he advanced into the fray. Raife immediately closed on the distracted swordsman, taking advantage of the opening provided by his companion's fortuitous return.
The swordsman never had a chance. Raife feinted to his right drawing a thrust from the still rattled brigand. Overextended for the now nonexistent target, the brigand could not bring his sword to bear as Raife stepped left slashing the underside of his extended forearm. Blood fountained as the brigand dropped his blade and ran. Raife almost ran down the fleeing man, but decided to assist Niklos instead. Turning he was met with a stab of pain in his chest. His empty hand went immediately to the source of the pain, but he felt no blood, yet the pain was still there, a white-hot iron pressing against his flesh. He must have torn a muscle in the battle, but he could not allow an injury to slow him now.
Looking up he saw Niklos, his white robes growing dark with blood from a wound just below his left shoulder. The spearman drawing courage from the sight of blood, pressed his attack. Raife tried to shout a warning, but the pain in his chest intensified stealing his breath.
His worries proved groundless. Niklos twisted, avoiding the powerful thrust of the spear while slipping his right arm under the haft of the weapon leaving it trapped between his forearm and bicep. Pulling the brigand off balance, the monk struck the wooden shaft with an open palm, breaking the weapon in two. Suddenly disarmed, the brigand quickly fell under a flurry of blows from the monk's expert hands.
Still pained by the searing fire in his chest, Raife stumbled over to the beaten but still conscious spearman, gathering up the discarded short sword as he went. Keeping an eye on the fallen man, he looked to his wounded companion.
"What should we do with them?" he inquired gesturing to include the fallen brigand chief.
"Take their weapons, but nothing else. This one can carry the other one," Niklos replied nodding in the direction of the spearman.
"And if they return with reinforcements? I doubt that they will show us the same charity," Raife countered.
"We do not take life if it unnecessary. We are in no immediate danger from these men. By the time they've licked their wounds, we'll be long gone from here," the monk stated matter of factly.
Knowing there was no point in arguing, Raife disarmed the fallen chief and allowed the spearman to throw him over a shoulder and disappear into the tree line. Satisfied that the immediate threat had passed, he went to see to his wounded companion.
Niklos had already begun to build a fire, the exertion of the task causing the red stain on his chest to bloom with liquid petals. Raife's chest was paining him as well but he shrugged it off as best he could. Niklos' need was more dire.
AAs soon as the fire was ablaze, Niklos removed his robes, the drying blood causing him to wince as he pulled the cloth away from the wound. He caught Raife's gaze and held it for a moment before speaking. Raife was amazed at how calm the monk appeared. His eyes were clear, almost painfully lucid.
"Pass me the haft of that spear and your belt knife, brother." When Raife passed both items to the monk, Niklos placed the broken haft next to him as he sat down. He then held the blade of Raife's knife in the flames of their campfire, his eyes never leaving the blade. After a moment, he spoke.
"Stand behind me and make sure I do not fall forward into the fire."
Raife moved into position, placing a firm grip on each of the monk's shoulders. Satisfied, Niklos removed the knife from the flames, its blade glowing from the heat. Pausing only long enough to place the spear haft between his teeth, the monk pressed the heated blade to the bleeding wound. The smell of searing flesh filled the air and Niklos' body went rigid as he screamed through clenched teeth. Focused on holding his companion still, Raife was unprepared for the sudden explosion of pain in his chest. It felt as if he were the one with a hot poker pressed into his tender flesh. Satisfied that Niklos was safe from the campfire, he turned away and promptly emptied the scant remains of his noonday meal on the ground and fainted.
When he awoke covered in a light blanket, the pain in his chest had faded into a dull ache rather than a sharp pain, more hammer than sword. Niklos sat nearby, holding what looked to be a brush hare in the fire. After subsisting on only what they could harvest from bushes and trees for weeks, the prospect of freshly roasted hare would normally have brought Raife to his feet, but in his current state, the smell caused his recently emptied stomach to roll. Struggling to his feet, he moved farther away from the fire hoping to avoid the scent of roasting meat.
"The nausea will pass. Now come and try to eat, the meat will give you strength."
Niklos looked haggard, more tired than Raife had ever seen him. His eyes were glassy and he moved with a stiffness that betrayed just how much his injury pained him. The bandage he had no doubt wrapped around his chest while Raife was unconscious was beginning to show pink in some places.
"Why can't you just heal the wound? If you could pry my life from the clutches of death, then why can you not heal so simple a wound?" Raife inquired.
"Mystical healing demands a measure of strength from both the healer and the wounded. For example, healing this same wound on someone else would only require half as much strength from me as healing myself. If we were not here on the mountainside with the possibility of another ambush, I would take the risk. As we stand now, I cannot."
"Could you heal me? It seems this torn muscle has weakened me more than it first appeared," Raife asked, suspecting he already knew the answer.
"I cannot. Your wound is one of sympathy, it will not pass until I am healed," he explained, holding up a hand to stop the question before Raife could speak.
"The ritual that allowed you to cheat death required a part of my own life force. Even now, it is keeping you alive. Because you posses a part of me, you will feel my pain as your own. If I am wounded you will continue to feel a measure of my pain, and if I die the part of my life force that preserves you will cease to exist..."
"Leaving me dead as well," Raife continued, unable to remain silent any longer.
Niklos only nodded. "We will remain bound until your life force has recovered sufficiently from the shock of death. Only then can a Rite of Separation be performed, it is part of the process that brings you fully into the arms of the Brotherhood."
"And if I do not have the ritual performed, then I die when you die and that's that?" Raife asked, hoping to conceal the real reason for the question.
"No, after a full turn of seasons the Ritual of Binding that links us will fade," Niklos answered, hesitating. Raife knew he was holding something back.
"Then you will die. The shock of losing the portion of my life force is too great a strain to endure without the aid of the Rite of Separation," the monk answered gravely. "Enough talk for now, eat we must make the mountaintop tomorrow," Niklos concluded, passing the skewered hare to Raife, who had now had no appetite at all.
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