Slowly, Alexander peeled away bandages to look at the wound in his side. He couldn’t see it properly, but he knew it was bad. It had looked clean after the skirmish, a glancing blow – but it had been four days, and it wasn’t healing. It was hot to the touch, tender. What was worse, there was a smell when he last strip of cloth, and puss. There was a thick fuzz in his mind, the first tell-tale sign of fever.
Alexander felt eyes on him. He glanced across his tent to find his Celt watching. It was too dim to see the vibrant colour of the boy’s gaze, and his face was as still as a mountain lake. He hadn’t moved for a few hours, knees pulled up to his chest, arms crossed over them loosely, the chain that ran from his wrist cuffs to the central pole of the tent slack, the set that hobbled his feet together pulled taut. His long, blue-tipped fingers played idly with his thick silver torc.
How long had it been – one month? A little over that. He didn’t fight the chains any more. Not that he struggled against them with any force, but Alexander had heard the boy testing the links one at a time at night. No longer. Had he finally given up?
As their gazes held for a handful of silent moments, the mystic’s chest expanded in a deep breath. Alexander thought he would speak – speak without urged to by pleasurable torment – but the air left him in a soft sigh, his eyes dropping away and jaw jutting forwards then drawn back with some emotion Alex didn’t understand. Frustration, yes – but nervousness and anxiety too.
Alexander stared at the boy for a handful of seconds, thinking out the hints of the boy’s body, the flickers of emotion. It added up to one thing. “You know, don’t you?” The low tone drew shadowed eyes to him. “You know I was poisoned.” A frown creased the Briton’s brow. As if ‘poisoned’ alone confused him. Did he understand the other words? He picked out words to describe his need, a crude skill that most picked up over time – but if he understood more than just words for objects, actions…
He turned away and called out for his aide, needing another set of hands to wash it with acetum before wrapping a fresh healing poultice in place.
The poultice didn’t help. That night, his fever rose. He dreamt of dark, moonless nights, a cold, forbidding land with fearful creatures that moved through ancient trees and no gods to stand between mortal and element. A battle, swift, bloody. His men fled the field, only to be ridden down by savage creatures made of man and beast. He tried to rally them, but a huge, bellowing boar sprang forth, moulded from the bodies of his dying soldiers to gouge open the belly of his horse. One great tusk ripped into his side, pain tearing at his mind. The chaos-beast fed on his still screaming mount. He was unable to run. Unable to attack. He could only watch it devour his stallion – then when it was done, turn its great bloody snout towards him…
He couldn’t wake from his fevered hallucinations for hours on end, surfacing for desperate minutes, exhausted, sweating and shivering at the same time. Aching. Parched. Awake, he prayed to Diana. Far from her temples and priests, he knew there was little hope of him pleasing her. One soldier in his cavalry unit knew of healing, serving as a physician after skirmishes. He attended to Alexander and did what he could, burning small blocks of opium to fill his tent with sweet fumes to sooth his delirium and adding henbane to the pastes applied to his wound. His Optio came to him when he woke on the second day. The Alae would not move on without Alexander. The rest of the legion was moving on, but the cavalry had been permitted to remain with their commander.
He was lost in his nightmares for another three days – the boar hunting him as he fled, seeing his soldiers fall to the barbaric, woad-stained man-beasts that seethed through the trees. He stumbled into a familiar valley, the trees huge and full of whispering shades. At the apex was an alter of skulls, old bones coated with fresh blood. And a woman, bound there, naked and screaming. Thick black hair, olive skin, dark eyes, belly rounded with child – Pam. Struggling for freedom.
A shadow moved and a figure emerged from the seeping dusk. Pale ivory skin decorated with thick blue whorls, hair darkest brown, eyes sharp piercing blue. He lifted a heavy, crude dagger over his head and plunged down, again and again and Pam was screaming, and Alex couldn’t get closer, and there was the hot, stinking breath across his neck as the chaos-beast caught up with him, and he couldn’t do anything –
He jerked. Thrashed against the heavy furs cocooning him. Kicked himself free. Hand scrabbling his side for his sword – but Pam wasn’t screaming anymore. The trees had turned to leather panels. The only light came from the oil lamps at the far side of the tent. No great beasts, no battles. No Pam. No dagger-wielding Celt.
His gaze moved through the darker corners of the tent, frown forming as he followed the chains attached to the central pole towards a collection of furs. The cuffs were open.
His mind was fogged by fever, his body aching and weak with exhaustion, but neither could temper the flush of emotion that tore through him. Skin-tingling fury and a lurching panic. How had he gotten loose? The cuffs were open; they had been unlocked, not slipped out of. Someone had taken his mystic.
He found his sword and pulled it free of its sheath. With the naked blade, he walked out into the camp, determined to find who had his slaveboy.
An hour later, he returned. The mystic was no-where to be found. The sentries hadn’t noticed anyone but his second-in-command enter or leave his tent. It was night, most of the men were sleeping five to a tent. There was not enough room to hide another person. The horses were calm, so no one had moved through them. The woods surrounding the camp were watched almost constantly. Alexander had finally searched his second’s tent, his Optio watching him with worry rather than nervous guilt.
He didn’t want to return to his tent – it would be giving up – but he couldn’t walk in a straight line, couldn’t think clearly, and the shadows squirmed in the corners of his eyes. Tomorrow, he would look. He couldn’t lose that slave – such a gift from the Gods only came once in a lifetime, and this one, so clearly blessed by his Goddess…
He was halfway to his bed when he heard a clink of metal-on-metal.
Alexander turned, the speed of it making him stagger. There, on the animal skins, was the Celt. Chained again. Eyes gleaming. Face blank, body warily tense.
“You-” Alexander started. He stared at the boy for a heartbeat, then advanced on the native. “Where were you?” he hissed. “You weren’t here. I saw that you…” The slave slid back as Alex can in reach, but the chain stopped his retreat. Alexander stooped, catching the chain and pulled, drawing the boy’s arms forwards and up. The cuffs were closed, locked. The blue-stained fingers curled, the wrists looking thinner with the heavy, solid cuffs enclosing them. Alexander dropped to his knees before the slave and kissed the pale, cool hands. His eyes shut, head bowed, lips trembled as they slid over skin. Relief, such… sweet relief. The slave twisted his hands away from him mouth to cup his face, cool digits stroking over his cheeks and jaw.
It was warm in the tent.
It hadn’t been a hallucination. He had been gone. Alexander opened his heavy eyelids, his own hand sliding up to take hold of the Celt’s slender throat, above the silver torc. He felt the muscles under his hand tense, the flutter of a pulse, the nervous swallow. He couldn’t help but stroke his thumb along a valley made by two different muscles. The hands cupping his face had stilled as he laid his hand on the Celt’s throat, but now they moved again, thumbs rasping over Alexander’s unshaven jaw.
Softly, his voice wavering slightly with exhaustion, he said, “You weren’t here.”
The boy’s lips parted slightly and he swallowed again. His gaze dropped to Alex’s lips then returned to his gaze.
Alexander squeezed slightly until the Celt’s eyes widened. Slowly, he repeated, “You weren’t here.”
The boy fidgeted, his expression somewhere between unhappiness and stubborn arrogance. Alexander’s grip tightened, and the slave grunted. At the sound, Alexander relaxed, fingertips stroking the mystic’s neck. When the boy was silent for too long, Alexander began to squeeze again.
His slave was a very fast learner.
Before his hand could close much, the Celt took a sharp intake of air and his voice – oh it was like fur caressing skin, when all that had been felt before was poorly cured leather. “You, rest. Alexander rest.” The name was almost too much, too alien to speak, his tongue stumbling as he spoke it, but hearing Latin from the slave was beautiful. He wanted more.
Alexander stroked the boy’s nape and shook his head slightly. “No. You weren’t here.”
The Celt’s shapely lips pressed together and his brows drew closer. He wasn’t going to reply. Could he? Was it more because he didn’t know the words rather than not wanting to tell?
He had been gone, the chains unlocked. Now, he was back and chained. Someone must have taken him. There was only one reason to steal a slave without skill. Alexander dropped his sword and caught the hem of his slave’s tunic. The reaction he got from that supported his thoughts – the boy jerked back, the chain clattering as it was fought, blue eyes opened wide with alarm.
Alexander murmured softly, meaningless words he used when soothing his horses, following the Celt as he squirmed backwards until he lost his balance and sprawled on his side, hands pulled away from his body by the chain. Alexander ignored the near soundless thrashing and pushed the slave’s tunic up, searching for injury or stain – not expecting what he found.
For a moment, he was confused. The slave panted, his struggles dying as he realised it was futile. Alexander picked up one of the leaves that had been stuffed inside his slave’s clothing, his mind working.
“Are these to poison me?” Alexander asked with a quiet tone. He pinned the Celt with a stare, reading the tense lines in the youth’s body, the fear and nervous energy that was barely held in check.
Alexander let out a slow, weary sigh and got to his feet and picked up his sword from where it lay. The Celt was no gift. He had been enthralled by the tattoos, the face, the mind. He was chaos-spawn. There could only be one fate for such a slave.
The chain clattered as it went slack. Alexander turned to keep an eye of the soon-to-be-dead slave, in case he panicked and attacked. But the slave had gone to his knees, one hand reaching out to Alexander, hovering uncertainly. He started to pulled away when Alexander’s attention fixed on him, but then he stopped. Reached out again. Touched Alexander’s hand. Fingertips sliding over his knuckles then down his fingers to the leaf still clutched in them.
The Celt tugged at the leaf, and Alexander let him have it. The boy moved slowly, deliberate. He held up the leaf and said a word in his language, the syllables gliding through the air as naturally as birdsong. He swallowed and frustration showed clearly, not knowing how to say it in Alexander’s language.
His mouth twisted down then he reached for his torc, twisting it around and tugging it from around his neck. He sucked on one of the open ends of the crude decoration, his jaw working as he bit the metal. Alexander watched, eyes narrowing, his sword angled towards his slave, but the boy didn’t try to surprise him. After a minute, he took the silver torc and dropped it carelessly, then put the leaf in his mouth. He chewed, but didn’t swallow. The skin about his eyes tightened, the taste obviously unpleasant. He took from under his tunic another leaf of different shape and chewed it up, too. His eyes met Alexander’s, and he reached out again – this time towards Alexander’s sword. He pressed one fingertip to the edge and drew down, slicing open his skin.
Blood trickled and pattered the ground. The Celt brought the bleeding finger to his mouth and smeared the pulp over the cut with his tongue. He showed Alexander his finger – it was still bleeding freely but the crushed leaves were in contact with the wound. He even swallowed to repeat the word. He edged closer to Alexander on his knees and touched the edge of Alexander’s bandage, and said the word again.
Alexander lifted the side of the bandage, breath hissing as pain flared, but he didn’t stop until his fingertips found a partially dried pulp. Pulling his fingers free, he examined them in the half-light. Chewed-up leaf bits.
“You… were trying to heal me?” The mystic only blinked in response. “Why would you? You got loose – why didn’t you ru… uh.” The world tilted. There was a clink of metal again, and hands curved around his elbows. A sickening rush and a low grunt. Warm air tickled his neck.
He was eased back carefully, his sword taken from his hand and fingers stroking through his hair. Alexander swallowed and said, “You got out. Without anyone noticing. Why didn’t you go? Why… come back?”
The fingers kept moving. Alexander didn’t think he’d get an answer, and he was surrendering to the dark seduction of sleep when his slave spoke. “Mmn. Bones. And… poi. Poison.” Alexander had never heard such sadness in so few words before.
It didn’t make sense. Not the words, not the tone and not a captive slipping his chains and returning to them in order to heal his captor. Except, maybe his Goddess did have a hand in this. It comforted him – almost as much as the gentle fingers moving through his hair.