Here he stood, now, at the end of it all. The desert loomed wide before him, sand still radiating heat up through his boot-soles, sky shrouded in the deep blackness of new night. A great void of emptiness and thirst set to swallow him.
Oliver wore loose-fitting clothes and a soft, sand-colored hood over his head. He carried a bag over one shoulder packed with food and water for a day or two. Besides that, they’d stripped him of all his possessions - not a single copper coin or even a map to guide him. Well, of course, what good would those things be? If he did have a map, where in the world would he go?
The weight of the vast night pressed down on him, near-physical. Oliver pressed his palms to temples and tried to feel. He hadn’t had the chance, yet, really; with all the eyes on him, glinting in the firelight from a hundred glaring faces, when they’d taken him to the edge of town and the priest had pronounced his condemnation, his skin had buzzed with numbness. His insides had been ice. To be cast out, to be damned, it was what he’d feared his whole life; it was what he’d seen in every nightmare, what he remembered when he woke in sweat, eyes burning with tears.
Now he was cold.
“Well,” he said aloud. The night absorbed the word.
Oliver didn’t look behind him. If he did, he knew, he’d still be able to see the cluster of houses, the little night-challenging fires of the only home he’d ever known. Maybe if he looked long enough he could imagine he saw his own house - the little structure he’d shared with his brother, Julien, before Julien had gone off to join the hunters. The structure which very lately he’s shared with someone else.
The whole thing had seemed inevitable at every stage. How long had he known it would lead to this? He’d spent all his early years in nightmares and confusion, thoughts dark and riotous when his parents came home from the hunt, blood on their fingernails and murder in their eyes. Even then he’d known he ought to feel bolstered, sheltered by the strength of them, but he was afraid of them instead. He couldn’t stop wondering what it would feel like if they turned those red-washed blades on him. Julien was enthused by their profession, or at least performed enthusiasm. Oliver had never gained that knack.
And then when they died - that day they set out into this gaping empty and were consumed, the same fate Oliver had just been sentenced to bladeless - he’d known he should be filled with righteous fury at the desert witches who’d conjured that sandstorm, and honored at the prospect of assuming their role along with his brother. Julien had certainly taken to the role with devotion. He made his own blade after their parents’ were lost in the sand. He’d moved out of the old house to live with the other unmarried hunters, honing his art with them, learning to become deadly.
But Oliver hadn’t. He’d said he was waiting. Was that when he’d known what was going to happen? His nightmares hadn’t dropped off, but they’d changed. Instead of his parents’ blades he saw the tense, zealous lines of Julien’s shoulders, a finger jabbed at his chest, accusing words bit out through his bared teeth. He saw him shouting to the priests, hatred, derision, betrayal in his voice. He saw exile. Why, even then? He hadn’t had a concrete thing to be afraid of in those days. But had he known it was coming?
Was it the day he’d been out late working one of his waiting jobs, picking fruit and making baskets and doing everything to delay his fate of becoming a hunter - the day he’d come home in the dark to find someone hiding inside his empty house? The day he’d first laid eyes on Red, the pale, emaciated man with the jeweled eyes of a desert witch, huddled by his tattered old armchair, too desperate to be frightening?
He should have taken Red to the priests. Or killed him himself, since, after all, he was a hunter by blood. He’d known, every second that passed after he saw Red the first time, that that was what he should have done. So why had he done the opposite? Had he shut the door, pulled the witch to his feet, urged him to silence, offered him food and water, because he’d always known this was going to happen? Had it been fate, and had Oliver been powerless, in that moment, to do anything but what he was destined for?
A cold wind blew across Oliver’s face. He shivered, drawing his hood further over his head. He had to get moving soon. There was no where, of course - to move in exile was, of necessity, to wander. But he’d have to travel the sands tonight until he found somewhere to rest, or the sands would swallow him, just as they had his parents.
Still numb. What did he feel? Why couldn’t he say?
What had he felt when he’d watched Red scarf down two bowls of soup and nearly drain the house of water, bathe and climb back into the armchair and finally begin to relax? What had he felt offering him a thin old blanket and checking all the doors were locked and telling him he could stay as long as he needed to? What had he felt, when Red had told him he’d been on the run nearly all his life - from sandstorms and thirst in the desert, or from the bloodlust of these towns’ hunters - and then smiled at him, and shown such simple gratitude that Oliver had been unable to consider betraying him?
The emotions then had come in floods. Wonder and fascination. Repulsion and fear. Staring at a witch, by Red’s own admission, the sort of creature that was supposed to be soulless and subhuman - knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that Red was neither. Knowing that whatever he’d done to any hunting parties had been payback in kind. Compassion for his pain and his fear. Guilt, too - the knowledge that this action could never be made known, that it would spell his damnation if it was. Emotions enough to tie his stomach in knots and send his thoughts spiraling into nightmares that only went deeper and deeper.
At night, by the small, flickering fireplace, Oliver had asked Red questions. Red sat with his head bowed and his hands clasped, eyes dark, and answered in a voice rough and unused to conversation. He told of his life in the desert. It was an exile’s life, wild and frightening. There was no safety in it. No center. No shade in the daytime, no light in the dark. Oliver watched the firelight play over the thick scars that ran over his hands in a hundred places. What could have caused so much injury to a man so comparatively young? He didn’t ask for specifics there. He didn’t want to know if Red had suffered any scars at the hands of Oliver’s parents, or his brother.
But he found his eyes tracing those scars again and again, each day he came home to find Red still there. He found himself memorizing how the light and the shadows touched the rough skin. It made something within him feel strange, guilt and fear and fascination colliding with something larger.
How long had he known? All he was sure of was that one night, he’d come home to find Red asleep on the armchair, his eyes screwed shut and his fists clenched, a groan of terror issuing from somewhere deep in his throat. He’d crossed the room and watched him shift in his sleep, legs twitching as though in imagined flight.
“Red,” Oliver had said. He hadn’t realized how soft the word would come out. He’d knelt by the armchair. “Red, wake up.”
The groan wasn’t loud enough to alert the neighbors. Red had stayed within Oliver’s walls for months now, and no one had heard him, no one had found him. But Oliver wasn’t worrying about being overheard. He saw the fear in Red’s face, and it frightened him. He saw the pain and it pierced him. He remembered his own years of nightmares - his parents’ blades, Julien’s fury - and thought he knew what Red might be dreaming of.
So he took Red’s hands in his, as softly, as gently as he could. “Red. You’re safe.”
Red’s eyes snapped open. His breath cut short, his nostrils flared. But when his gaze met Oliver’s he seemed to absorb where he was, and after a moment, he relaxed again.
“You’re safe,” Oliver said. “I’m here.”
And Red smiled, a small, tentative smile, relief and thanks bleeding through his hardened shell. And Oliver hadn’t known what he was doing, or maybe he had. He’d risen a little higher on his knees and pressed his lips to Red’s. As though he’d always known he was going to.
For a moment, then, Oliver’s nightmares fled. The images that had haunted him in his dreams before he’d ever had anything real to fear, the burning in his chest, the saltwater in his eyes, the death he tasted at the back of his tongue, metal like a blade, the crushing terror evaporated. Red breathed in and kissed him back. One scarred hand curled around the back of his neck and pulled him closer, and Oliver clutched the other, holding it like a lifeline as he was tossed by some intangible wind. Wind that blew through his mind, too, cleared it so it was empty, and vast, and wild.
But when the moment ended, all the fear came crashing in again, and Oliver retreated. He stammered out an apology and fled. Into his bedroom and into the corner, shaking, working to breathe as panic threatened to overwhelm him. What had he been thinking? The images rioted through his brain again, uncontrolled - they would kill him for that, they would cast him into darkness, they would drive him out with those cursed blades. He would never be safe. Never, ever again.
The only way to save himself would be to turn Red in. If he lied about having helped him before, if he marched him to the priest right now and had him killed, he might still get away without punishment. If he joined the hunters at last he might still have a chance. He knew that was the only way out of this encroaching death trap. Yet, still, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
And before he had a chance to speak to Red again, that very next morning, Julien found him.
A pause. A breath.
Oliver looked up, eyes tracing the stars in their lines across the heavens, and took his first step forward into exile.
How long had he known? He always had. From the moment he’d been able to walk and see and speak, he’d known this little fortress town, blades up against the wild sand, cut out for murder, was not his home. He’d known he couldn’t be a part of it the way his parents were, the way Julien was. He’d known his heart would betray their laws and that every step he took, every breath, he was hurtling closer to that end.
Now there was nothing before him but the exile he’d feared. Being hunted, starving, dying for water, fleeing all human society. Burned skin and lightless nights and scars, criscrossing his hands like Red’s.
Oliver took another step forward. The numbness was fading. At last, he was beginning to feel again.
Had he known this was coming too? A moment later, with his next step away from everything he’d ever known, Oliver began to laugh.
“Well,” he said, and his voice was a little louder. “Well, well!”
What he’d feared had come. His brother had dragged him from their home, brought him to the priest - he'd barely managed to get Red away first, force him to flee while the town was distracted by him. The crowd carried torches as the sun went down. As though ready to tie him to a pyre. Julien had accused him of treachery and duplicity and cowardice, and the crowd had roared, and Oliver had stared out at every face and seen not a scrap of compassion. Not a single hand outstretched to help him.
And his eyes hadn’t burned, and his lungs hadn’t failed, and he’d survived. Oliver’s pace picked up over the sand. He was cast out, left for the sands to swallow - and he was still alive. Despite the harsh life he knew awaited him, he felt, suddenly, that he had nothing more in the world to fear.
So let the desert swallow him. Let the brutal and the untamed take root in his blood. Let his body be part of the sandstorms, let his hands be scarred by life - he would no longer live in fear.
“Red,” he called to the waiting night. “I’m coming!”
The night swallowed his words, but perhaps, somewhere, another lost soul heard them.
Oliver laughed. He would find Red, and they would find safety in each other. They would be each other’s center, each other’s light. A light better than the cruel gleam of a hundred hunters’ knives. They were free now.
In the village that had raised him, Oliver would never be seen again.