121. Pasts

They approached the portable version of a village. It was made up of dark, low tents. Fresh snow must have been falling a short while ago. There were no tracks in it yet, except for those the hundred or so tribespeople left as they gathered.
The snow was knee-deep for the Space Marines already and a dozen of the humans tried to clear at least a small area so that a couple of important people could drop to their knees without vanishing.
Apart from the group shovelling snow aside, there was only one man, who awaited them standing upright. He took a bold step forward when the Space Marines came to a halt in front of the congregation and bowed low. Vox smiled benevolently at the gathered people and when she addressed the man in front of her in a strange Low Gothic dialect, Titus started to suspect why she might be happy.
“I greet you strongest”, Titus understood only just. The words were harsh and guttural and he thought he had heard Vox curse in this language sometimes. “I am the dragon voice and I wish to see my blood”, she declared.
“Oh, divine ancestor”, the one she had spoken to exclaimed, throwing himself to her feet. “Here I am!” He said a lot more but Titus was unable to follow. Partly for the speed and partly for the snow that dampened his voice somewhat. Vox meanwhile did. She picked up speed after a few sentences and the two of them rattled on. Several villagers were called forth and inspected until half the tribe was gathered around her feet it seemed. Vox crouched down as she talked to the children among them. When she rose and turned to her comrades again, she had acquired a small swarm of youngsters in varying sizes. Two of them in her arms, one on her shoulder and the rest following her with excited chatter.
“Look, what I got”, she said quietly and her comrades gathered around her. One of the small children in her arms tried to escape and was caught by Corven, who lifted it up to his face to sniff it gently. This resulted in him having to untangle it from his beard. Meanwhile, the other children engaged the armoured angels that had descended from the sky. Most of them were already able to speak but so hard to understand that communication was practically impossible. The youngest, left in Vox’s arms, started to cry.
“Shush, little one”, she said, stroking it gently with the tips of her fingers. “Don’t despair. Rejoice! For the Emperor has chosen us to watch over you and yours.” Whether it was her voice or the gentle gesture that calmed it, the child went quiet and she handed it to Xavor when he came close. Titus suddenly acquired the child, Corven had only just gotten out of his beard.
“There you go, captain”, Corven sniggered. The little proto-human weighed almost nothing but managed to stand up on Titus’ forearms and smacked its tiny hand into his face while he tried not to crush it. “Go for it, little warrior!”, Xavor cheered it on. “You’ll succeed where I failed!”
The group laughed quietly.
“Let’s hand them back before someone gets hurt”, Vox suggested.
“Ouch!”, Xavor said on cue. He had removed his gauntlets, tickling the small child with his index finger.
“Too late”, she sighed.
“It bit me!”
“I bet it did!”, Vox snapped in playful indignation. “Pray to the Emperor that you’re not contagious! Now, give it back!”
They returned the small horde back to their parents. The Astartes as a whole smiled about this encounter. A way to remember why they were.
Vox exchanged a few more words with the apparent chief. Then, she led her warriors through the assembly of tents and up a path into the mountains.
“So?”, Titus asked casually after a while. The others gave them a bit of space and he wanted to talk. “What’s the dragon’s cave then?”
“You caught that?”, Vox asked, shooting him an appraising glance.
“Barely”, he had to admit.
“It’s a cave further up. It’s filled with warp crystals. Our librarians have to go there to get a few of these crystals and attune them to themselves as a right of passage. They get built into our armour.”
“Would you damage them otherwise when you employ your powers?”
A smile danced on her face as if she was happy about his deduction. “Yes”, she confirmed.
“And to get yours, you went home?”, Titus asked warmly.
Vox nodded.
“I got to tell my mother that I was still alive”, she told him with quiet content. “She had become head of the clan by then. Touched by the white fire… She lived far longer than any of our tribe had before but she’s been dead for almost two-hundred years now.”
“But your family still rules the clan?”, Titus noted.
“Yes”, Vox confirmed, smiling with shy pride. “And they still know my name.”
“Do you think that’s a lineage Grimfang can keep up with?”
“Absolutely!”, she said with conviction. “My lineage started with me burning the village down. His is far older.”
“And why he didn’t rule his tribe is not your secret to give away?”, Titus asked softly when she stopped.
Vox looked over at Arrick thoughtfully. She had told Titus about the friend’s affection for her to explain his behaviour but she was unwilling to part with this detail of his story. Her title had been well earned, long before she had been allowed to carry it.
“All I can tell you is that, last he checked, his family was still in charge”, she said quietly. As she said it, it dawned on her that merging her mind with the beloved would break any discretion. Last night, they had been preoccupied with their own secrets but if they wanted to repeat what had happened, they had to talk this through thoroughly.
“That’s impressive indeed”, Titus mused, derailing her train of thought. “He doesn’t show it.”
“No”, Vox said and drew a deep breath. “And if I ever meet the people who beat that out of him, they’ll have a hard time with me”, she said for now.
“I don’t think he’d take it well if someone stood up for him.”
Vox grinned evilly.
“I never intended to tell him.”
“Mh… I beat him up”, Titus pointed out.
“Yes, but that was because of something he did, not something he is. As far as I can tell you do respect him even though you still don’t seem to like him very much.”
“Where do you get all your information?”, Titus laughed.
“Just watch and listen, captain”, Vox said friendly. “It’s not hard. You do it all the time, just consider that people are at least as important as facts.”
Vox stopped for a moment, looking down at the line of Space Marines climbing after them and then let her gaze sweep over the landscape. “You know?”, she said as she continued on. “I’ve walked these paths since I could walk. I knew the cave before I could talk and when I could talk, I told them what the voices on the other side whispered. If someone had drawn daemons, I could hear it and call them out. ”
“You listened to the dragons in the cave?”
“I always wondered why you have a surname when all the other sanguine blooded don’t.”
She laughed quietly.
“Indeed, my name is more of a job description than anything else.”
“Is this why you make everyone call you by first name?”, Titus wanted to know.
“Part of it, yes. I’m the one who speaks for the dragons, not a dragon myself. Except for certain Inquisitors. I’m quite happy to be a dragon to them.” She grinned. Indeed, now he thought about it, both Laraise and Zork had called her ‘Brother Draconis’.
“What’s the other part?”, he wanted to know and enjoyed that he was not required to suppress his questions anymore. The black shield was gone. She had taken him into her arms. He was allowed. What a wonderful feeling.
“A name is something very personal”, Vox said with a smile. “Calling someone by it creates a kind of closeness that I need to stay with the world.”
“Why didn’t you call me by name then?”
Her smile got a bit lopsided.
“I was afraid to pull you closer.”
“Please, explain this to me.”
Vox looked around sheepishly.
“You always reached out and after a while I wanted you even closer than that but until yesterday I wasn’t in a position to do so. Pulling you up against the black shield hurt. What about you?”, she inquired with a gentle pat on his shoulder guard. “Why don’t you have a surname? All the other Ultramarines have.”
Titus was silent for a while and had to smile about himself when he found that he was reluctant to tell her. Trying to keep secrets after last night seemed a bit silly.
“I’m an orphan”, he confided in her. “I don’t remember my parents dying but I had an older brother who took care of me after that. We joined one of the street gangs on Macragge. I don’t know why but my brother never told anyone my name or our family name and I don’t remember it. I was just ‘little brother’ as long as I can think back. My brother’s name was Titus. He died in a street fight a while later and I inherited his name in the gang.”
“You were the little brother?”, she asked in surprise and Titus sniggered bashfully.
“Yes”, he said, brushing his fingers over the two service studs on his forehead. “I don’t know why I started calling you this.”
Vox laughed when he stopped.
“Well, you weren’t the only one and I feel honoured, my love”, she assured him. “How did you become an Ultramarine?”, she inquired.
“On Macragge, the Ultramarines are everywhere”, Titus explained. “There are statues of them in every major square and all the houses regard it as the highest honour if one of their descendants becomes an Ultramarine but the trials are open to anyone who can prove himself worthy. I entered them after my best friend died during one of our robberies. He fell off a roof and broke his neck. I had a lot of quarrel with our leader in any case. My friend was the second in command and the only one who could at least halfway broker my stay.” Titus shook his head. “It’s all very vague. I don’t even remember his name. My memory becoming so good was a side effect of the remembrancer. But I remember the weakness”, he added darkly.
“I remember meeting you for the first time”, Vox said thoughtfully and Titus lowered his gaze to the stones under his feet.
“Speaking of weakness…”, he muttered.
“I remember the anger about what I saw and about the fact that I had to leave you like this”, she went on. “I had to play it absolutely straight until you had left the cell or you never would have. But looking back now, I’m still impressed with the man I met there. Now, after I’ve learned what he did to you, I’m sure in my own mind that Thrax never wanted truth from you. He wanted to use you to your limits and mistreat what was left. He just wanted to see one of us fall.” Vox threw him a look. “And he never did.”
Titus’ breath stalled under her gaze. It was so familiar and still unfathomable. Vox had done this from the start. Delicately and generously constructing a genuine point that ever so gently managed to push over his own view of the world. He searched for words but soon noticed that her attention had wandered away from him. As she looked ahead, he thought that she looked worried.
“What’s the matter?”, he wanted to know.
She gave him a weak smile when she returned and revealed: “I was just thinking about the cave.”
“What are you thinking about the cave?”, he prompted.
“It’s dangerous if you don’t know how far to go.”
“And you don’t?”
“I have no idea.” Vox sighed. “Last time I was here, I just fetched the crystals for my sword. Since I knew the place and the voices already it was trivial but the cave goes far deeper. Our young librarians sometimes get lost in there.”
“Is there anyone who could help you?”, Titus tried.
“No. You are to stay outside in case I rip open a rift and daemons start to spill out.”
“Let me go in with you”, he asked.
“I want to”, she said quietly. “Really, I do but sometimes, you have to let go of your rock to see if you can fly. Unfortunately, dry practice isn’t an option.”
“I’ll sulk at you for all eternity if you don’t come out, just so you know it.”
“That’s your right of course”, she said and managed to smile but she became serious again quickly. “Titus?”
“Yes?”, he asked and knew that the pain in his hearts was showing on his face.
“Please look after yourself if I don’t make it”, Vox asked him. “I’d be calmer if I thought you did.”
“I promise I will carry on the fight for both of us”, he said after a moment’s thought.
This really seemed to take a weight off her shoulders.
“Thank you”, she said earnestly and both of them turned their gazes to the future.

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Guide Me Through the Darkness by Julia M. V. Warren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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