Nor Iron Bars a Cage

by Kaje Harper

First I was a sorcerer. Then I was a hermit. For so long—for years that seemed to go on forever—I couldn't bear to be touched. I put up not just walls but whole stone bunkers to keep everyone out, emotionally, and physically as well. I was protected from people, from ghosts, from specters real and imagined. Sure, I was alone. But I felt safe. Only, after a while, I wasn't sure any longer whether a totally "safe" empty life was really worth living.

Then Tobin came along. Out of the blue, out of my past, with a summons from the king that he wouldn't let me ignore. I tried to cling to my isolation, but he wouldn't give up on me. Tobin never believed in walls.

This story was written as a part of the M/M Romance Group's "Love Has No Boundaries" event. Group members were asked to write a story prompt inspired by a photo of their choice. Authors of the group selected a photo and prompt that spoke to them and wrote a short story.

103,000 words

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Published:
Publisher: Independently Published
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Genres:
Tags:
Pairings: MM
Heat Level: 3
Romantic Content: 4
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 26-35
Protagonist 2 Age: 26-35
Tropes: Friends to Lovers, Hero and the Great Quest, Hurt / Comfort, Reunited and it Feels So Good, Second Chances, Slow Burning Love
Word Count: 103000
Setting: Alternate Universe
Languages Available: English
Excerpt:

Chapter One

There’s a silence that’s the opposite of peaceful. It’s that moment when the wind drops, and you see the storm-clouds piled up high and dark in the sky. That hot noontime when all birdsong in the forest fades away, and you realize the dappled shadow on the branch above is a hunting cat— when you freeze, and hold your breath, and hold your breath, as it blinks glowing amber eyes, and decides whether it’s hungry. I heard that silence when I woke.

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It froze me there in my bed, eyes still closed, not moving. I was on my familiar little cot in my third-floor room, which I’d been given as Meldov’s junior apprentice and kept even now. I felt the scratch of the cheap wool blanket under my cheek, and smelled the musty combination of old books and stale air. Nothing stirred, nothing broke the stillness, there was no reason for my fear, but my heart pounded a staccato rhythm. I held my breath, fighting awareness, until I could it put off no longer.

From the moment I opened my eyes, I knew I was still dreaming. Fifteen years of meditation and study had given me the ability to tell the difference. Sometimes, though, I wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse, to be aware of my state and to watch my younger self, knowing where this was going, knowing where it would end, and to be unable to do anything.

In this dream, it was always dark in my old bedroom. I’d lain down for just a moment to rest, tired from the work Meldov had set me. My mentor was a strong believer that a tired body made for a quiet mind. It was common for him to give me chores hard enough that I longed for a moment’s respite. But tonight my stolen minute had clearly lasted longer than I’d intended. While my eyes were closed, dusk had turned to full night.

I sprang from the bed, my heart pounding. A year ago, even six months ago, Meldov might’ve made me clean the privy, or cuffed me lightly, with inventive curses for my lateness. But now… now his anger came faster and more sharply and his punishments had a bitter bite. I could only hope that he hadn’t called for me yet, and my absence might not have been noticed.

Asleep, aware but helpless, I wished I could to reach into that dream and stop myself, longed to grab that young, unbroken boy and make him turn around. The window was there, with a clean, free night beyond it. The old apple tree had been an easy route for an agile teenager, on the nights when I’d chosen roaming over sleep. I could have run. But I had no idea then that there was a reason to flee.

I made my way out of my familiar dark room, half by touch, and ran down the stairs as quickly and silently as I could. The only light on the floor below came from the study. I hurried over there and paused in the doorway. Meldov was sitting in his favorite upholstered chair, reading an old book with yellowed corners, his long fingers turning the pages with slow deliberation. When he noticed me, he set the volume aside, open on the small table. Very slowly and deliberately he laid a black ribbon in the book to mark his place.

I braced myself for his anger, but instead he slowly smiled at me and said, “There you are, boy.” He looked me over, head to toe and back up, until my nails bit my palms in the effort to hold still under his eyes. Finally he added, “Did you have a nice nap?” The last word held the whip of acid I’d been expecting.

I’m sorry, sir.” I bent my head.

No harm done. I had preparations to make anyway. Follow me.” He stood and turned toward the door into the workroom.

Now?” I was startled into speaking out of turn. Usually we prepared for a working together, now that I was a true apprentice. Meldov would discuss who we were searching for, what the questions would be. He’d show me the focus, make me work out the ritual and check it for mistakes. This sudden decision was very unlike him.

Yes, now. What did you think I meant, next week?” He pulled the heavy door open, and glanced back at me. “Oh, do you feel unprepared? Don’t worry, boy, we’re not summoning anyone tonight. Or anything. I have a different ritual planned.”

I followed him inside. The familiar walls of the workroom looked closer, higher and wreathed in deeper shadows, although that had to be illusion. There were no windows. We always worked by the same candle light. Still there was a claustrophobic feel to the room that night, and it wasn’t just the foreknowledge of my older self leaking into the dream. Even in real life, fifteen years ago, I’d been reluctant to cross that familiar threshold.

But I followed him in obediently, took the lit taper from his hand, and set flame to the candles he indicated, in the prescribed order. First the door-ward candles, with the words of protection as I lit them. Then the beeswax altar pillars, with a prayer for guidance. I’d sometimes been a bit perfunctory in my prayers to Na, god of mages, but my words were heartfelt that night. Last, the candles of the working laid out on the floor.

It was an unfamiliar shape. Not the usual circle in a triangle, designed to call a spirit to us, but a straight line with only two points, less than an arm’s length apart. There were only three candles on it, short white stubs glued to the floor with dark wax, and I lit them all. Meldov took back the taper. “Good. Now take one of the two ends.”

As I stepped into the charcoal circle at one end of the line, I could feel the power building in the spell. It whispered through me, like a chill wind with the laughter of waiting ghosts in it. I shuddered. “Sir, are you sure?”

Silence, boy.” His voice snapped with restrained tension. “Do your part and all will be well.”

I wanted to argue more. I should have. But this was Meldov, my mentor and teacher, and the man I thought I loved, whether he had an inkling of that or not. Meldov, who’d seen in a scrawny boy the hidden signs of talent, and brought me here, raised me, taught me. We’d probably done a hundred workings in here in the last two years, since he began letting me help in his true craft. And every one had been controlled and effective, and I’d come through safely in Meldov’s hands.

Sorcery was a science as well as an art to Meldov. He chose his foci carefully, called spirits he could learn from, and sent them cleanly on their way. He was one of the best. So I set aside my fears, and tried to center myself and breathe from my belly. Slowly the working trance came over me.

Meldov stepped onto the other end of the line. I saw it, heard it, felt it, as his presence woke the spell. The charcoal line lit with the illusion of cold fire, while the spell stirred and stretched like a cat. It locked onto me, curling tendrils of power around my ankles, reaching slowly up toward my knees. It was definitely different. I was used to the power serving as a fence, sweeping around the central circle to imprison the being we brought there to interrogate. All those times, I’d stood outside the circle, raising and controlling it, but not part of it. Tonight the spell touched me, and it latched tight around me with little hooked barbs I could feel but not see.

I wanted to brush it off of my legs. With every moment, I wanted more and more to get away from that room and that chill force. But I didn’t move a foot, or even open my mouth. I waited obediently for my mentor to explain. Meldov reached out toward me above that glowing line of power, his familiar hand looking different in the odd light. I realized he wore gloves.

Take my hand, Lyon of Riverrun.”

I reached toward him and took his fingers in my own. An action taken of my own free will, because he asked it of me. The last really free thing I did in that house. Until the end. In the dream, the chill of his fingers froze mine despite the gloves, although there was nothing to see. Then his thumb pressed over the life-point on my wrist. It burned me, the pain sharp and real. Or was it freezing cold? I tried to pull free, but he held me still a long, agonizing minute. The ache from it spread up my arm and into my heart. Then he eased his grip, and turned my hand over. There, burned into my wrist, was his symbol— a feather quill, drawing a circle of power.

I sucked in a harsh breath. My hand shook in his grasp. “What did you do?” The burn itself had an odd silver-black shine, and around it the skin was already rising, puffy and red.

You wanted to advance to the next level,” he said, in a voice that sounded reasonable, as if he’d just had me sign a contract. “This will help us work together. Your power and mine will meld. Don’t be a child. The effect is only skin deep. I wouldn’t harm your body for the world.”

I opened my mouth to protest, to ask what he meant. But when I met his eyes, my questions died unspoken. Because he smiled, and it was slow and hungry and dark, and for the first time, he let me see the wraith who’d taken up residence behind his once-human eyes…

I woke shaking.

COLLAPSE

About the Author

I get asked about my name a lot. It's not something exotic, though. “Kaje” is pronounced just like “cage” – it’s an old nickname.

I live in Minnesota, where the two seasons are Snow-removal and Road-repair, where the mosquito is the state bird, and where winter can be breathtakingly beautiful. Minnesota’s a kindly, quiet (if sometimes chilly) place and it’s home now.

I’ve been writing for far longer than I care to admit (*whispers – forty years*), mostly for my own entertainment. I mainly publish M/M romance (with added mystery, fantasy, historical, SciFi…) I also have a few Young Adult stories released under the pen name Kira Harp.

My husband finally convinced me that after all that time writing for fun, I really should submit something, somewhere. My first professionally published book, Life Lessons, came out from MLR Press in May 2011. I have a weakness for closeted cops with honest hearts, and teachers who speak their minds, and I had fun writing the four novels and three freebie short stories in the series. I’ve been delighted by the reception Mac and Tony have received.

I now have a good-sized backlist in ebooks and print, both free and professionally published. A complete list with links can be found on my Books page.
I also have  an author page on Goodreads where I do a lot of book reviews. You can find me to chat there– I hang out on Goodreads a lot because I moderate the  Goodreads YA LGBT Books group there. I also post free short YA stories on that group, more than 50 of them so far. Or find me on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/KajeHarper


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