Letting out a long sigh, he shut his eyes.
And opened them again a moment later when a cool hand touched his face. It took a moment for his vision to adjust, but the infirmary seemed much darker than it had only a moment ago. The beds were all empty and though the candles were lit, the room was swallowed in darkness.
The hand that cupped his cheek was joined by another, and a shadow loomed over him.
Sage squinted through the darkness, but the shadow remained veiled. “Who are you?” he asked.
One hand lifted and fingers combed through his hair. How you look like him, a soft voice whispered. I wish he could see you now.
Sage glanced down at the hands that touched him. Long and slender, with creamy skin marred only by calluses from long years of labour. “Maybe he will see me one day,” he suggested, if only to comfort the shadow. It seemed so terribly sad; he didn’t want it to suffer.
It gave an unhappy sigh and once more cupped his face in both hands. You deserve to know what happened. You deserve to know the truth. Bastard, they call you. Orphan. They are cruel words spoken by cruel children who do not know the truth. You will do great things some day, my son. I know you will. I have always known. You are the sunshine of my life.
The hands slipped away, and the shadow faded into darkness.
Sage jerked forward and reached after it. “Wait! Please, don’t go!”
His words were greeted with silence.
He gave it another moment, then flung the blankets off his bed. He had to find the woman behind the shadow. He didn’t know what was driving him, but he had no choice.
His injured leg bothered him little as he stood and padded across the room. There was no sign of the woman who had spoken. It was as if she had disappeared from the infirmary entirely.
Well, no matter.
Moving slowly so his steps made little noise on the stone floor, he wandered across the length of the room to the door leading out to the rest of the Arbour. The handle was icy when his palm touched it. He winced and pulled his hand back, and listened at the door instead. Silence rang from the other side.
Gritting his teeth, he opened the door and stepped into the bitter cold.
He was no longer in the Arbour.
He was in an enormous stone hall. Black iron brackets lined the walls between banners of ladies and knights, and chandeliers dangled from the tall ceiling, but no fires were lit. Windows were shuttered, but still flutters of snow found their way inside the cracks and piled along the edges of the room. A long carpet ran down the length of the hall—it was the colour of spilled blood, with elaborate embroidery along the edges of swords and shields and mountains. The sight of it made him frown—he recognized it somehow—but before he could ponder it further the shadow reappeared.
Only it was no longer the same shadow. The sad woman was gone. The hands of this shadow were large and rough, dark bronze and dusted with black hair. They too had calluses, but the kind Sage recognized from his own hands—the kind earned through years gripping a hilt and pulling back a bowstring.
Did ye ever see your own fate? a voice asked. It was not the soft, gentle Highland lilt of the infirmary’s shadow. It was gruff and weathered, with the faint burr of a man born in the Wastes. For all the great ye think ye’ve done, did ye ever stop to think ye aren’t immortal? Your flesh bleeds, same as mine.
“I know I’m not immortal,” Sage said, shaking his head. Just as the insignia on the carpet was familiar, so was this voice, but it wasn’t one he knew. “I never thought I wasn’t.”
You are broken, the shadow hissed. You are defeated, and yet ye know when ye’ve lost. I respect ye. I always have. I never called ye bastard. But I cannot let ye go free. Ye stand now in the halls of my ancestors. This is where you meet your end, same as his enemies met theirs.
Sage shook his head again. “I don’t even know who your ancestor is. I don’t know why you think I’m important at all.”
The shadow’s hand reached out and slowly gripped the front of his shirt, balling the fabric into its fist. The true heir has returned, Sage. I have won.
The hand fell through his chest and crushed his heart.
His eyes opened, and finally he could see.