I was running for my life, and all the hounds of hell were at my heels.
Well, no. That's an exaggeration. They were half a mile behind, but I could hear their howling on the wind. And they were actually the hounds of the baron Thiviers, but that's a distinction without a difference. I was, most certainly, running for my life.
And it was my own fault and I was most certainly an idiot, but that didn't matter right now. Right now was all about the running.
The baron is a hunter, first and foremost; his lands are vast and wild. There was trackless forest all around me, and I was thoroughly lost already. I'd run through cramp and terror, through hope and despair. There was nothing in me now but a grim determination not to stop.
I came to a stream and plunged into it, turned upstream, and ran on. The bed was stony and the water bitter chill, biting through my sneaky soft-soled boots. I didn't really think I'd shrug the baron off my trail this easily, but you do what you can. When you're desperate, you snatch at straws.
Mostly, they let you down.
The stream brought me up to a rocky pool, steep crag sides overhung with trees. I stood thigh-deep and gasping, suddenly uncertain, feeling despair build again. I could hear the hounds above the sounds of water, still on my trail; I knew their master would be with them, relentless, unforgiving, murderous...
Something struck me stingingly on the back of the head. I startled around, just in time to see the next sharp little stone hurled at me, not quite in time to duck.
That one caught me on the shoulder, where I was bleeding already. I stifled a curse, and glowered up at the figure on the crag top. Who beckoned urgently, imperatively: Up here! Quick!
I was beyond choosing, beyond reason. What I needed was rescue. Was this it? I took a leap of faith: waded and then swam across the pool, climbed the crag with numb and trembling fingers, hauled myself over the edge, and came slowly, shiveringly to my feet.
He was possibly the dirtiest young man I'd ever seen. Under the filth, though -- even then, with fear like a whip at my back, with every muscle aching and a shudder in my bones -- I thought he might also be the prettiest. Neither the dirt nor the dim dapple of forest light could hide the glamour of vivid green eyes, hair and brows and lashes all the white-blond of ripened wheat.
Nor could they hide the iron collar round his neck, or the brand high on his arm.
He was a runaway, of course, and he thought I was another. Too late, he saw his error. No collar on me, and the clothes I wore had been ripped half to rags by thorns and rocks but were still too fine for any slave. His eyes widened and he took a pace backward, regretting everything, the flung stones and the offered help. I grabbed his arm swiftly, not wanting to lose him. For a moment I thought he’d fight; but all the resistance left him in a rush and he stood as still as any slave, mute and surrendered, starkly terrified. Even the kindest master can be brutal to a recaptured runaway, and the baron had never been kind.
"Easy," I said, wishing I had some better way than words to chase the dull cloud of fear from those brilliant eyes. The hounds bayed again in the near distance. "Hear that? That's for me, not you. That's the baron, hunting me."
He nodded slowly. "I heard them, from -- from where I was. I came this far just to see, and there you were. But --"
But I was a free man, and why was the baron hunting me? It was a fair question, and I didn't have time to answer it, even if he’d found the nerve to ask. Slaves don't question free men, that’s absolute. Even in these circumstances, where fear and flight had made us equal. Almost equal.
"If you know somewhere safe," I urged -- if anywhere could conceivably be safe, here on the baron's own estate -- "could we go there? Now?" Those dogs were coming closer. Only let one of them catch sight of me, and I was doomed. We both were, now.
He nodded again, and turned to the trees' shadow. I let his arm slide out of my grip -- not without a pang, even in these circumstances. Under the grease and dirt and the strange smoky smell of him, there was firm skin and hard young muscle, the beat of hot blood. Soaked through and chilled to the bone and with my life on the line, I couldn't believe I was horny, but even so: it had been a pleasure just to touch him. It was almost a pleasure to drag my weary body into a trot again, if it meant I could trot after him, watching light play on his lean body. He was half-naked, or better than half -- much better! -- with just the ruin of a houseboy's tunic knotted around his waist for some kind of spurious dignity. That was faded and filthy too, but I could still see the baron's house colors in the cloth, crimson and black.
The slave's path took us up a hill thick with undergrowth beneath the trees, some sharp-spined plant that tore further at my ruined trousers and my skin beneath. It stank too, every crushed stem and bruised leaf adding to the reek. At the tree line, where he pulled me down into shadow as he scanned the open slope of the rocky outcrop above, I hissed a protest: “Couldn’t you have found some other way? It's scratched me bloody...” And you too
, there were fresh wet streaks in among the mud and scabs on his legs, but I didn't trouble to mention that.
He shook his head. “The dogs can’t track through stinkweed, they won’t go near it. This is where he loses me, every time. I burn it in the cave too...”
That explained the smoky smell on his skin. And the dirt too, perhaps. Dogs and wolves cover their scent by rolling in muck; he might have been taking lessons. I still wanted to take him back to the pool and scrub him sore, to see what exactly lay under that crust of filth and scratches. Not today, though. Today I was suddenly counting on his wisdom to keep me alive, where I’d all but given up on my own account.
When he was ready, when he was sure, he led me on a quick dash over open ground. In the woods some way behind us I could hear the frustrated baying of hounds who had lost their trail, punctuated by a vicious snapping and sudden yelps. The baron was a fool; whips have their uses, but they won’t put hounds back on a scent.
He was still a dangerous fool, though, and he had men as well as dogs under his command. We ran on through more stinkweed and more water, presumably every trick the lad knew to break our trail.
Finally we came to another of those outcrops that broke upward through the forest. He tugged me behind a tangle of creeper where it climbed a rock face, and there was a cave hidden in that cool shadow. I was past words, past thought, utterly done. I sank onto a bed of gathered bracken, almost too exhausted to lie down.
“Wait,” he said softly, “you’re hurt. Let me look. Was it the baron?”
“Oh, what, my shoulder? No. I was clumsy, getting out of the castle in a hurry...” And left an easy trail of blood for the hounds to follow, till they were certain of my scent.
I could see the questions burning in his mouth -- what was I doing in the baron’s castle, and why did I have to run? -- but he wasn’t going to ask. He just tugged the rags of my shirt off with swift, determined fingers, and used them to wipe away the scab of blood and dirt.
“Does it hurt?”
“Of course it hurts. Idiot.”
His mouth twitched into half a smile, while his quick glance up was utterly uncertain. I wanted to reassure him, but he turned away before I could find the words or make the effort.
He came back with a pouch of woven leaves, which held some kind of grease. The deep cut on my shoulder had started bleeding again, thanks to his ministrations; he wiped the fresh blood away and started working in the grease.
“Ouch!” I said, flinching as its sting bit even through the soreness. “What is
“It’s a salve I make, from rabbit fat and herbs. It’ll stop the bleeding, and help you heal.”
It smelled good, as sharp and astringent to my nose as it felt in the wound. Not sharp enough to keep me awake, though. I was sinking already, letting his unexpected strength ease me down onto the bed, asleep before I could even register how scratchy dried bracken is to lie on.
* * * * *
When I woke it was dusk outside, almost entirely dark in the cave. A smudge of red showed where a tiny fire smoked; as my eyes adjusted, I saw him crouched beside it, still and watchful, watching me.
He wouldn’t see a smile; he wouldn’t trust a word. I pulled myself up and sat quietly until he said, “How’s the shoulder?”
“Better, thanks.” I moved it experimentally, felt no trickle of new blood, only the clean ache of wounded flesh.
“Are you hungry?”
I grunted noncommittally. I was ravenous, but he was bone bare, scrawny as an adolescent. I wanted to feed him up almost more than I wanted to wash him. I didn’t imagine the baron's slaves were fed well, but I thought he’d done worse since he ran.
“I’ve put roots to bake in the ashes here,” he said, poking at his little fire with a stick. “They’re not much, but -- well, they’re edible.”
They were. Even two starved young men couldn’t find much more to say about them, but we ate them all, scorching our fingers for the privilege. And drank rainwater from where it gathered in a dip at the cave’s entrance, and then sat over the fire, quiet again until I said, “What shall I call you?”
Those wonderful eyes flashed at me, sullen and resentful. “The baron called me Slut, mostly.”
I bit back a smile and said, “Never mind the baron. That’s not his brand on your shoulder. What were you called before?” I wanted his story, all of it, but I could guess the worst and wait for the rest.
“I was Alfin to the house that raised me.”
“Good, then. I’ll call you Finn.”
He conspicuously didn’t ask in turn what he should call me. He knew, and was stubbornly determined not to do it. No matter. I could wait for that too. For a while.
Exhaustion overtook me again, in waves of weakness. I almost crawled back to the bed -- then looked over to where Finn still crouched on the cold rock floor of the cave.
“Help me with my boots, would you?”
A moment’s stiff reluctance, then he came. The sodden leather clung to my feet, demanding patience and effort together; I really couldn’t have managed, and he was laughing under his breath before the second one eventually submitted, slipping off in a sudden rush that left him sprawling.
That laughter delighted me, but it abandoned him on the instant when my hand reached out to grip his shoulder.
“There’s room here for two,” I said softly, “and nowhere else to sleep.”
Every muscle in his body was abruptly tense, and I wanted to kill the baron. Slowly.
Lacking the opportunity -- and lacking any answer from Finn, beyond that instant giveaway response -- I said, “What are you so afraid of?” He knew the state of me, run to rubble; I couldn’t be cruel to him if I wanted to. I hoped he knew I didn’t want to.
For one long moment I thought he wasn’t going to answer that either. Then he lifted his head and met me eye to eye and whispered, “Disappointment.”
Then he stripped off his ruined tunic in one bitter movement, and did much the same with my trousers before he stretched himself out beside me in the dark.
It took a long time for the tension to ebb out of his body. By the time it had, by the time I felt him relax into the warmth of me where I was just quietly holding him close, I was already ebbing into sleep.