They had begun piling logs on top of each other for the funeral pyre when Liathan awoke. He convulsed, choking and retching, his lungs expelling masses of water, scraping his insides raw. They had their swords on him in moments, blades unwavering, their eyes hard.
He swiped the back of his hand across his mouth, feeling the softness of his river-washed skin. It took a moment for the dizziness to pass, for the film of water to clear from his eyes. He saw his brothers on the ground, their bodies laid out beside their Roman enemies. Blue clay mixing with the soil, washing back into the river, into the earth, as they should. As he should.
He crawled to his knees and their swords closed in around him. The Roman slave standing tall, bringing the metal to his throat, to finish now what his fingers had not. Liathan held his head high. Fingers clenching uselessly in the wet soil as he waited for the blow.
Then Esca stepped forward, reaching for the slave's hand and shoving the blade away from Liathan's neck. Liathan stared, uncomprehending as Esca spoke to the slave in his own tongue, their ugly, blocky language falling smoothly from his lips.
The slave lowered his sword. Esca kept talking and the look in the slave's eyes began to slowly change. Liathan had flash of comprehension, the knowledge of what Esca was saying sure in his mind. He blamed his water-logged head for his slowness.
"Kill me," he said, the words coming out raw. It was the water he'd choked up, that was all. Esca stopped speaking and turned to look at him, a hardness coming over his face. Liathan had seen that look directed at the slave. But the man was not a slave, that much was clear, that much and more, was clear now. He could not trust Esca's face, nor his eyes, nor the words that fell from his lips.
Liathan pushed himself to his feet. He swayed a little, his hands spread for balance. The wet stones shifted under his feet and he almost fell back into the river, crashing to his knees and catching himself at the last moment. He winced, facing the ground, eyes falling shut. Then he pushed against the stones and surged upright. He held himself still by force of will, ignoring the sickening way the land rocked.
The Romans shifted their feet, a nervous breeze running through them, but the slave kept his sword point to the ground and they all followed his example. No, he was no slave. The lies Liathan had swallowed twisted in his gut like fouled rations.
"Kill me," he said again, looking at Esca. "I die with honour." Unlike you. Esca did not flinch, no hint that he had understood the unspoken. The slave spoke to Esca, without looking away from Liathan, and Esca replied in his tongue, translating perhaps.
Liathan raised his chin, ignoring his unease at his own ignorance. He remembered the slave's impotent anger when Esca and Liathan had talked in their own language. Would that he could turn time back, send the sun spinning backwards in the sky. He would have taken the offer Esca made him, would have slit the slave's scarred, Roman throat.
The slave who was not a slave snapped out an order and the Romans hurried to obey – old men in skins and furs. It hurt, the thought that these ancient, decrepit Romans had won against his brothers. The proof of his folly, running his people until their strength had gone, carried on only by the fire of his own betrayal. He'd let them spill into the valley like fools, wanting the blood spray on his face, wanting to watch the slave choke and die under his hands, watch Esca's lying eyes turn dull and dead.
They pushed him down, shoving him back to the ground. He writhed and fought, snarling wordlessly like a wild-man. They brought him down all the same. Bound his hands and legs with rope, scratchy and rough against his skin. Trussed him like prey, like an animal, like a slave.
The Roman slave... Liathan racked his mind for the name, Esca had told them, his father had said it so jeeringly. Marcus Flavius Aquila. (He saw his father's body in his mind's eye, small and strange in death, the spark that had made him great had fled from his bones.)
Aquila had them light the pyre for one of the Romans. The rest of the dead were left by the river for the crows. He cared nothing for the Roman dogs, but it hurt to see his people abandoned without rites, without prayers.
Esca would not meet his eyes as they turned from the pyre. Walking past the dead as if he did not see them.
They slung Liathan onto the horse, lashing him to the saddle so he would not fall. His furs, heavy with water, stuck wetly to his skin.
He spoke the ritual words into the horse's flesh. Begged the Gods to pile their anger on his useless back. It was his choices, his decisions that had sent his men to their ignoble deaths. Let them find peace in the afterlife. He would suffer for them. Suffer enough for all of them.
His son was last along the line. Eyes staring blankly up at the sky, skin drained inhuman pale. The blood washed from the jagged cut across his neck.
Esca stopped and knelt, brushing his hand over the boy's eyes to close them. He leant over him and pressed a kiss to his unlined brow, lips moving in a silent whisper before joining the others. Liathan stared at the small body, looking peaceful now, as if sleeping. He kept his eyes on him, turning his head at an angle to keep the body in sight, his muscles ached and the riverbank was soon obscured by the Romans marching behind. Still he looked, kept looking until the valley was far behind them and even the trees had turned into a mess of dark green.
The swaying of the horse worsened the sickness in his head. Only the fact that he'd already expelled all the liquid within his stomach stopped him from fouling the horse's flank. Each stumble, each lurch sent twitching lines of pain across his brow, across his chest, across his stomach. His clothes slowly dried, the wind chilly as it cut across his back. The heat of the horse was a furnace in comparison, carrying with it the unfamiliar scent of horse-sweat and treated leather. Each step took them further from his home, further south, towards the land of his enemies.
They halted when the sky purpled and grew black. Weak Roman eyes unable to navigate the darkness. Liathan's vision blurred as they lifted him from the horse, his body screaming in pain as his abused muscles were forced into a new setting. They propped him against a tree and he could barely manage to focus on his breathing, let alone his captors.
After a few minutes, once his myriad pains were once more controlled, he raised his head, drawing his knees up to his chest and looping his tied arms around them.
They'd made camp efficiently, setting the perimeter, pulling down branches to shelter them from the worst of the wind. Two of the Romans went to gather game. Liathan saw Esca had a pair of rabbits, cut down by his arrows while they journeyed. Liathan knew first hand how sharp his aim. But the memory of hunting with him was soured, and he pushed it away.
Aquila sat and watched Esca skin and gut the first rabbit. They talked in the Roman's language, voices rough with humour and presently Esca slung the other to Aquila, who began preparing it with his own knife.
No one looked at Liathan.
The Romans returned eventually, they had vermin mostly, game was scarce in the Winter months, the year had only just begun to turn towards the Spring.
They lit a fire. No fear of pursuit, not now. Esca and Aquila sat a little apart from the others, the distance deferential, not wary, similar to the seating around his own camp fire. He understood why they treated Aquila so, he clearly commanded these men. Though whether that was from before, or due to the eagle that stood watching over the camp, Liathan wasn't sure.
He didn't look at the eagle again. A bad omen, bad omen from the start.
Aquila shifted, grimacing and Esca moved round towards him, leaving the preparation of the food to the Romans. He had Aquila stretch out his leg and pulled the cloth from it to reveal a scar, the skin around it irritated and red. Esca began to bind it carefully with strips of cloth, Aquila bit down against the pain. Liathan watched, hoping it would grow infected and kill him, but knowing his luck was too poor for such fortune.
Soon the food was cooked and they settled in to eat, trading stories in their own tongue. The rhythm of talk was low and easy, but, perhaps the dead weighted on them, or perhaps it was his own presence at the edge of the fire. Their talk was not as high spirited as was common after battle, and soon they fell silent.
After he had finished his portion, Esca stood and went to the fire, taking a further portion of food and carrying outside the circle, towards Liathan. He straightened, pushing against the tree, feeling the roughness of the bark at his back. Esca approached him slowly, eventually stopping to squat in front of him.
"I will untie your hands," he said, looking at Liathan, ignoring the tense silence behind them. These Romans, the old men. They understood what was being said, of course they did. Their armour was old and rough, replaced here and there with more familiar leathers. They had lived across the wall long enough to learn, long enough to trick people into thinking they had honour. Just like Esca.
"Cut my bonds and I will kill you," said Liathan.
Esca's face did not change and Liathan questioned again how he could have trusted this man, how he could have once seen his smiles as true, believed anything he showed, other than this ugly blank mask.
Esca knelt on the ground opposite Liathan. He leant forwards, raising his hand, a leg (rabbit, too large for vermin) held in it. "Eat."
Liathan kept his mouth shut, staring at Esca, aware his hatred was showing in his eyes.
"Eat and you will live. Live and you may yet kill me," Esca said this steadily, as if commenting on the flavour of the meat. Still his face was blank. A good skill for a liar -- such control.
Liathan opened his mouth and Esca brought the leg forward. Liathan ripped a strip of meat from the bone, imagining some other flesh between his teeth and Esca smiled, a fierce, bitter smile, as if he read the thought from Liathan's eyes. Perhaps he had, Liathan was no liar, no snake that he had to hold his thoughts separate from his body.
He swallowed and bit again, the rabbit, though tough, was not burnt to charcoal as his own food often was, and the juices escaped his lips to trail down his chin.
He ate the meat fast, hunger awakening in his stomach and the bone was stripped clean in a matter of moments.
Esca remained in front of him a second longer, his eyes once again dark and impenetrable. Then he stood smoothly and walked back into the firelight.
Liathan wiped his chin on his shoulder, the sudden urge to hide his face in his furs so strong, that he forced himself to turn back, to stare and meet every gaze he could. He stared each of them down, except Esca, who was looking at Aquila, and Aquila, who was returning his look.
Liathan closed his eyes, but the image stayed burnt, like the firelight, on the black of his eyelids.
The water rushed over his feet. It was cold, the chill of icy freshwater springs. It rushed past his legs like a shivering whisper, echoing strangely in the valley.
His father stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, heavy on his shoulder. There were men in front of him, tall men, tall as his father. Their eyes were pits of darkness. He was afraid.
His father's grip tightened on his shoulder. He was speaking, but the wind snatched away his words. The wind, loud now, screaming past them, screaming like a voice risen in mourning, screaming over the mountains.
His father's grip on his shoulder was hurting and fear rose in a choking wave. He began to fight it, push it away. The hand was stone. The men were shadows, their eyes gaping holes. There was blade against his neck and it was sinking into his flesh, sawing across his throat. He could not shout. The wind was screaming. Blood bubbling up and flowing over his lips. He was falling. His father's face cold and stern. His father's face blank and dead. The water was rushing over him. There were hands gripping his neck. Sinking into the wound and scraping painfully against his spine.
Liathan startled awake.
His pulse was pounding in his ears and he was shaking -- weak and light-headed. His breath was coming in rapid, painful gasps. He had fallen to the side as he slept and his entire body was aching and tense, muscles locked tight.
He forced himself under control, forced his breathing to steady. The wind through the trees was was loud. He shoved away his memory of the dream, pushing himself back up until he was sitting. He was shivering still. Just the cold from sleeping on the ground.
He pressed his eyes closed, but images from the dream threw themselves up against his eyelids and he snapped them back open. He looked across the camp and stilled, muscles pulling tight. Esca was sitting by the glowing remains of the fire, still and silent in the grey pre-dawn light. No one else moved, the Romans still slept by the fire, huddled in their furs and skins.
Esca did not speak. Just stared, eyes unreadable. And Liathan felt pressure build in his throat, the blade slicing into his skin. What are you looking at? He wanted to ask. What did you see? Had he moved in his sleep? Moaned and shook like a child in the throes of a nightmare?
Esca did not speak and Liathan asked none of the questions gathering in his chest. Finally, after a length of time that felt like hours, but must have been only minutes, Esca turned away to look beyond the camp. Liathan breathed out slowly, the tension flowing from his muscles.
He did not fall back asleep. Though Esca did not turn to look at him again, Liathan spent the time watching the sky turn gradually whiter.
Soon the Romans began to wake and break camp, working as efficiently as they had last night. There was talking then, all in the Roman tongue. Esca stowed his belongings, he made no outward show of listening, but Liathan was sure he knew what was being said. He piled the packs onto the horse. Then he unfolded a long rope and tied one end to the saddle.
He had apparently taken the role of Liathan's keeper, for it was he who approached him, unbuckling his knife as he drew closer. Liathan tensed. "You will walk," Esca said, "if you try to run..." He hitched his shoulder, drawing attention to the bow slung over his back.
He fixed Liathan with a hard look. Liathan said nothing and Esca took his silence as agreement, bending down and cutting through the bonds on his legs. The second he was free, Liathan kicked out hard. Esca, clearly expecting it, grabbed Liathan's foot around the ankle and pulled down sharply, sending Liathan sprawling to the ground.
Liathan grappled with him, trying to pin him beneath his body, but Esca was fast, his body all bones and sinew. He kneed Liathan in the stomach, struck out at his head with his elbow and in a matter of moments Liathan was pinned beneath him, Esca's blade tickling his throat. Esca's hair was a little ruffled, a reddish flush to his cheeks.
"Are you done?"
Liathan bared his teeth and Esca grinned fiercely. "No, I guess not."
Aquila asked something in his own tongue and Esca replied in turn, not taking his eyes from Liathan.
"I'm going to let you up now. Try anything and I'll pin you down again." He stayed on top of Liathan a second longer, perhaps waiting for Liathan to try and buck him off. But Liathan stayed still. He was remembering the last time they had wrestled, laughing and carefree after the hunt. Esca had pinned him then as well and he had been glad. Proud his small friend held such hidden strength, such skill.
Misery twisted in his gut and Esca stepped off him smoothly. Liathan pushed himself to his feet and stood, silently waiting.
Esca was not smiling now, the humour entirely fled from his face. He looked as if he might speak, but Liathan didn't want to hear anything he had to say. He dropped his head, looking down at the floor. Aware of the message he was giving, head bowed. But better to seem broken than to truly break.
Esca said nothing to him and he tied the rope from the horse to the bonds around Liathan's hands. It was not long before they were moving again.
At first he kept falling. Aching muscles seizing up at odd times, and the uneven lurch of the rope as the horse moved was difficult to match to his pace. The rhythm of the walk was off, not the familiar lope he used when in pursuit of prey. Each time he lengthened his stride, he would be tugged in a different direction by the rope. Still, he managed to keep his feet under him, not falling to the ground to be dragged along behind, as Aquila had been so many days ago.
These men were slow without their horses to carry them. They moved at a child's pace. It was an insult to be their prisoner. An insult to have lost to them, and Liathan bore it badly. His shoulders slumping as the weak sun broke the clouds and shone down upon his bare, washed head.
Caught in his thoughts, he did not realise they were stopping until he struck the horse's rear, the animal shying and tossing his head at the impact. Liathan moved swiftly back, wary of the horses hind legs, but the beast was well trained, or perhaps simply tired, for it did nothing.
The Romans laughed, their eyes glittering, and Liathan turned away from them, biting his lip. He looked instead at the land, recognising it. He was at the edge of his people's hunting grounds. Any further and it would become unfamiliar, the very rocks and mountains would work against him. He cursed his earlier inattention. He had to escape today. Before they took him any further.
He turned to look at the Romans. They were talking again, but their words were clearly farewells and Liathan realised this must have been what they'd been talking about. Half of the men turned and began to walk away towards the east. Only four remaining with Aquila and Esca, and Liathan himself made seven.
This was good for him. Fewer men would make escape easier. They began moving again and this time Liathan watched as they went. Esca, for all his threats, walked at the front with Aquila, his bow holstered over his back. Clearly he did not expect Liathan to run at all. Perhaps his show of brokenness had persuaded him – Liathan remembered the lines of the dead by the river -- perhaps he thought Liathan had nothing to return to.
Liathan swallowed against the roughness in his throat. He watched the Romans. They would glance at him occasionally, to make sure he was keeping up, but otherwise they ignored him, talking between themselves, in their own language.
Liathan raised his bound hands causally and scratched at his jaw. He tugged sharply on the necklace of teeth hanging around his neck ignoring the pain as it pulled at his skin. Finally the leather snapped and he lowered his hands. He looped the extra length around his fingers, and slid it until he could grip the longest tooth tightly. Then he shoved it into the knotted rope, jerking it and twisting to saw through the fibres.
It was slow going, the tooth was not as sharp as a blade and the angle was awkward, but slowly the fibres began to fray.
They were walking over uneven ground, a detour, trying to avoid the main road south, and the wild men and warriors that plagued it. Each lurch of the horses feet tugged on the rope and sent the tooth slipping in his hands. It cut into his flesh over and over until the rope was stained red with his blood. He kept his hands as low as he could and tried to shield the sight with his furs.
Eventually they entered another forest, this one less dense than the first. The trees would not provide as much cover when he ran, but they would do better than the open plain.
The men were slowing down, looking for a place to stop and eat a little. Aquila had started limping a good while back and though he said nothing, it was clear he needed to rest. Perhaps infection had set in.
This was Liathan's chance. When they were distracted with making camp and taking out their food, he would run. He waited until the horse stopped, waited until Esca was attending to Aquila, his hand resting lightly on the Roman's shoulder, their heads inclined towards each other.
Liathan tugged his hands sharply, pulling them free of the final loops of rope. The slickness of blood on his skin helped him slip free. He slapped the horse's rump and spun on his heel, in his haste he stumbled on a stone. Shouts went up behind him. He caught his balance quickly, fear leaping in his chest, and sprinted for the trees.
He heard the horse neigh behind him, heard the men scrambling to calm it, grab their weapons and pursue him. He dared not look. Dared not check over his shoulder to see if Esca had an arrow nocked and was even now letting it fly. The skin on his back itched, waiting for the blow to strike, and his ears were pricked for the whistle of the arrow through the air. But he heard no such thing, and he hit the tree line in seconds.
He could hear them following, thundering through the forest at his heels, shouting in their rhythmic language – most likely commands to spread and cut him off.
He did not know this forest, having passed the edge of his lands with the last mountain, but he knew enough to angle north, to head back towards his home. Of course. That was exactly what they would expect him to do. He sprinted, legs eating the ground beneath him, ignoring the screaming of his muscles. As soon as he was sure he was out of sight, he turned, heading south and away from all that was familiar.
Running soon began to take its toll on his lungs. They weren't entirely recovered from the drowning, and while he'd been able to manage the slower, walking pace, running like this was an entirely different matter.
He slumped against a tree trunk, panting hoarsely. Each breath felt like it was scraping the inside of his lungs red and raw. The pain was starting to slow him down, especially teamed with his exhaustion from the past few days, and his hunger on top of that – the rabbit leg from yesterday felt a whole world away. But he could not stop, could not slow. He pushed himself away from the tree and began a lurching run.
He followed animal tracks that eventually widened out into a clear path – the road south. He followed it until he came to a small clearing. There he paused for a second, tilting his sweating face up towards the sky, the breeze flowing over his skin.
The air was strangely clear of bird calls. No sound but the wind, still whipping the trees into a frenzy. It took a second for him to realise what that meant. The fog of nerves and fear of pursuit making him slow. There was a blood-chilling scream and he spun on his heel, raising his arm to protect his face. A man leapt from the trees down onto him, brandishing a short blade.
Liathan managed to get himself in close enough to block the man's swing, his fist striking his forearm. He grappled, digging his fingers into the other man's tattooed muscles.
The man writhed and shoved, trying to get him to break his hold, but Liathan was stronger and had more practise. He twisted the man over, shoving his shoulder and bringing him round, grabbing at either side of his head and snapping it to the side. The man's neck broke with a heavy crack and the body went limp in his hands.
Liathan had no time to rejoice, another scream came from his left, this one ragged with the edge of grief. Liathan scrambled to pick up the warrior's discarded blade, raising it barely in time and blocking the swing that would have cleaved his face in two.
The second warrior was bigger and heavier. He bore all his weight down on their connected blades, and they were pushed dangerously close to Liathan's face. Liathan kept pushing up, straining against the warrior's strength, and then, at the last moment, he flipped down and to the side, shoving himself through the warrior's legs and bounding upright behind him.
He spun, but again the warrior met him blade to blade. They broke apart, then came together again, blades flashing in the sun. The noise of the fight echoed through the clearing and Liathan spared a second to worry about the noise reaching his pursuers, before the warrior kicked at his legs and Liathan had to focus back on the fight.
They fought fiercely, well matched, the warrior's size against Liathan's nimble speed. But Liathan was tired already, where the warrior was fresh, and Liathan's grip was soon soaked with blood from the cuts he'd made escaping his ropes.
Liathan was slightly slow in meeting the next strike, his tired feet slipping and making him stumble. He scrambled backwards, bringing his blade up and turning the next away from him. He was no longer attacking, all his focus on blocking and blocking, keeping his feet steady.
The warrior pushed him back across the clearing, gaining on him step by step. Each strike harder as he sensed his victory until finally he smashed down, the clashing impact reverberating all the way up Liathan's blade and along his arm to his shoulder. He stumbled back, his foot catching on a gnarled root, and fell heavily to the ground. The warrior kicked hard at his elbow and Liathan's arm went dead, losing his grip on the sword. The warrior was raising his own blade for the final blow and Liathan could do nothing but watch it fall.
There was a high pitched whistle, and the warrior halted, staring in comical surprise at the feathered shaft sticking out from his chest. Another whistle and a second arrow was lodged in his throat.
The warrior inhaled wetly, and coughed, blood leaking from his lips, and then, like a felled tree, he began to fall slowly to the ground, crashing backwards. His body twitched and groaned in its death throes and Liathan stared in shock.
He scrambled away, pushing himself to his feet and grabbing the sword with his other hand, his weakened one still limp at his side. Esca stepped from the tree line, feathered arrow nocked, the point aimed towards Liathan.
They didn't speak, Liathan stared wide eyed at his unlikely saviour. Esca's face hard, he spared a glance for the warrior Liathan had already killed, another for the man he'd brought down with his arrows, then looked back at Liathan. They stared at each other silently, the birds still holding back their calls, the only sound the hissing of the wind through the trees.
Then Esca did something Liathan did not expect. He lowered his bow, pointing it down at the ground.
Liathan stared at him in surprise.
"Go," Esca repeated, jerking his head to the side.
Liathan did not move, waiting for the trick, for the bow to come swinging back up and the arrow to fly into his heart. But Esca did nothing, just stood there, a strange, pleading light in his eyes.
The use of his name startled him into moving and he edged around the body, not wanting to turn his back on Esca. He glanced quickly at the trees, then back, hesitating. Esca jerked his head again.
"Why?" Liathan asked, his voice hoarse.
Esca rolled his eyes in exasperation. "You want to talk now?"
"Why are you letting me go?" Liathan insisted, stubbornly.
Esca sighed. "I didn't bargain with Marcus for your life only for you to waste it as a slave. Go."
Liathan took a step towards the trees, then stopped again. This time not thinking of Esca, but of himself, his people. The dead. What was he going back to? He was shamed. He had led his warriors, not to victory as his father had, but defeat. He had not died honourably, fighting his enemies, as his brother had, but been taken captive by them. He would return empty handed and alone. He would bring home only shame.
He stared blankly at the trees. Surely freedom was better than nothing? Surely there would be some way... His grief weighted down his feet and he could not take another step, his entire body heavy as if turned to stone
"In the name of the Gods, Liathan will you go?" Esca said harshly, from behind him. And Liathan dragged his heavy feet, finally heeding his order... only to see a Roman step out into the clearing.
Another followed close behind, this one armed with a bow and arrow like Esca. But unlike Esca, his was pointed at Liathan.
The Romans were breathing heavily, as if they had only just arrived. Perhaps drawn by the earlier clash of blades. They spoke to Esca in their own tongue as Liathan scanned the tree line, he could still make a run for it, could still-
The Roman with the arrow raised his bow. "Don't even think about it," he said, his words accented heavily, but still understandable. Liathan held himself still. "Drop the blade," the Roman ordered, and when Liathan did not comply, he drew the string of the bow back even further, sighting down the arrow.
Still Liathan held on. He saw now, he had nothing to go home to, nothing to run to. Better to be dead than so shamed.
He heard the crack of twigs directly behind him and his muscles twitched in surprise, but he was too slow to turn, Esca had his wrist, twisting and breaking his grip on the blade with smooth, practised movements. He placed a hand on his shoulder and pushed him down, and Liathan, the fight finally going out of him, let himself be borne to his knees.
He heard Esca's indrawn breath as he circled and brought Liathan's hands together, felt the stroke of his thumb over his cut and bloodied palms. Then Esca was binding a rope around his arms, lashing them together tightly and pulling him up to his feet. Liathan kept his head down, his gaze on the ground.
They left the clearing, the Romans went first, Liathan next, Esca walking behind. He kept his hand on him, on his shoulder, slipping to his back or resting between his shoulder blades. He let Esca push him into the centre of the group, well guarded from running again. The Romans' eyes were wide, their hands moving often to check their blades, settling on the pommels of their swords, or the strings of their bows.
Aquila sat on the ground, his leg stretched out before him. The dressing was clean, he must have replaced it himself while the others searched for Liathan. He asked Esca a question, gaze flicking to Liathan, then back. Esca withdrew his hand from Liathan's shoulder and the cold pressed in on that patch of skin.
Esca answered Aquila's questions steadily, and since there was no uproar or anger, Liathan assumed he kept what he had said to him a secret. He didn’t know why Esca had given him that chance, still wasn't sure that it hadn't all been an elaborate trick. But the weight of his lost escape was lying too heavily on his shoulders, and he couldn't spare the energy to decipher Esca's strange loyalties.
Liathan lost track of time, sitting there wrapped in his own misery, and he started when Esca appeared in front of him. Esca waited for him to meet his eyes. "I'm going to see to your hands. Will you let me?" Liathan stared at him. What did he want? Reassurance he wouldn't kill him? How could he kill him? He had no weapon and Esca was better than him at wrestling.
Perhaps Esca read his confusion as agreement, for he shuffled around behind him and began fiddling with the rope, Liathan soon felt it loosen and release. He looked up. The Romans were standing about, keeping watch, but Aquila was looking straight at him. Liathan's heart thumped heavily behind his ribs.
Esca moved round to his front, blocking his view of Aquila. He brought Liathan's arms up into his lap, and began to take strips of cloth, the same he used for Aquila's leg, washed and cleaned and cut up smaller. He began to clean, then bind Liathan's hands.
Liathan winced slightly as Esca's ministrations irritated the cuts, but they were not deep enough to cause real trouble, they would just pull and irritate as they slowly healed. Liathan watched Esca work for a while, then, speaking quietly so that the words would reach Esca's ears alone, he asked, "Did you tell him?" Esca glanced up at Liathan from under his brows, a sharp look before dropping his gaze. He did not reply straight away, releasing the hand and taking the other, beginning to clean the blood carefully.
"Tell him what?"
Liathan scowled. "You know what."
Esca sighed. "I did not tell him."
Liathan looked over Esca's head at Aquila. He was looking at Esca now, a tiny smile in his eyes and the slight hitch of his lips. Liathan looked back at Esca, his head bent over Liathan's hands so all he could see was the mop of his hair and the curve of one ear.
"Will you?" he asked.
Esca finished with the other hand raised his head, his face smooth and blank once more, no hint of the emotion he had shown in the clearing. He stared at Liathan, his gaze running over his face. "Perhaps," he said. He drew Liathan's hands together and tied them again at the arms, well above the dressings on his hands.
He rose and walked back to Aquila. They traded a few words, and then Aquila was commanding the Romans to break camp. They shuffled around, Aquila going to the horse, Esca making his hands into a step that he might leap into the saddle. The packs were removed and distributed between the others.
Liathan was bound again by rope to the horse and they began to move through the woods.
This time Liathan did not search for an escape. Did not watch the Romans move and catalogue their weaknesses, or the best moment to run. There was nothing to run to. He had lost himself his place in his clan, and Esca had taken from him his chance at death.
He stared at the back of Esca's head as they travelled, occasionally the line of his profile when Esca turned to look, or talk with Aquila. He did not understand him, this traitor who offered him freedom, who broke every bond of honour, but to whom he now owed his life.
They continued to journey towards the wall. The Romans stowed their armour in the packs, and together they looked much like any other travelling party. When set upon by bandits, they and Esca dispatched any would be attackers easily, but for the most part they avoided any people they saw.
They kept a slow but steady pace, Aquila varying between walking and riding to rest his leg. The walking sections gradually growing longer as it healed, Esca's skill clearly saving the Roman from any infection.
He saw too, to Liathan's hands and in a couple of days the wounds were closed and the bindings taken off.
Liathan was plagued by nightmares, each time waking sharply into the darkness. Esca was not always on watch, and when he was he made no movement, and no mention of it the day after. Since the Romans and Aquila failed to even give him strange looks, Liathan assumed he was silent when re-living the distorted memories, and he was glad that at least he did not attract any special attention on top of his suffering.
The dreams cast a grey shadow on the days that followed and Liathan was reminded of them at odd moments -- the sound of the wind through the trees, the sensation of water as he swallowed it down.
Despite his melancholy, Liathan found himself watching the changed scenery with interest. The settlements here were larger, trading towns placed squarely on crossroads or fords.
Liathan, with his skin free of woad and his headdress lost, attracted no particular attention, in fact, as they grew closer to the wall and finally joined the main road, he saw many walking similar to him. Slaves tied behind livestock, tied loosely in single file, or piled beside each other in a cart.
The sight sparked uncomfortable thoughts and he began to seriously consider his plight. Esca had persuaded Aquila to spare him and take him as a slave. Liathan had understood this from the first moment, from the second he saw Aquila's face change, back at the site of the battle. But despite the knowledge, he hadn't fully allowed himself to believe it.
He'd been taken in a fair fight, Aquila had held him down and choked the life from him. It seemed fitting then that his second chance at life would be also at Aquila's hands.
The debt of honour that Aquila had invoked for killing his father was balanced. They had fought and Aquila had won. The Gods had spoken. He thought perhaps he should hate Aquila a little more for what he'd done. But he could not find it in himself to mourn his father as he had his brother, despite the painful symmetry of both their deaths -- at the hands of Romans, for the sake of the eagle.
Consumed by his thoughts, it took him a while to notice the gradual swell of people on the road South. Donkey and oxen carts eventually replacing those pulled by men, horses replacing men on foot. As the number of people increased, so too did the noise of talk and movement. Stalls began to line the sides of the road, food sellers and craftsmen hawking their wares. Trade was done between travellers on the road as they walked, money and goods exchanging hands.
A short man, face almost entirely eaten by his wiry beard, split from his cart and came alongside Aquila, on the horse, and Esca, walking beside him.
He greeted them, raising his hand to catch Aquila's attention.
Liathan felt a bolt of fear. He may care little for Aquila, but if he was exposed as a Roman things would not go well for any of them.
Aquila simply nodded and smiled, however, before turning back to the road, and Esca intercepted neatly, drawing the man back a little way from the horse. As they came closer to Liathan he began to make out their words.
"-is weary from the travel, tell me, how can I help you, sir?"
The man smiled, the movement shifting his beard but not reaching his eyes, which scanned their small group quickly. "Oh simply some talk between fellow travellers. I have come recently from the east, I bring much news..." He proceeded to elaborate on news of the clans, the different bonds of war and of peace. He inclined his head towards Esca, waving his hands as he talked, as if sketching the picture in the air. But his eyes strayed to Aquila, the horse, the Romans and Liathan, never alighting too long on any of them. Esca nodded, feigning attention, though Liathan was not sure how much he was actually retaining, and how much he was trying to think of an excuse to send the man away.
"But tell me, young sir," the man said, suddenly turning to pin Esca with a look from under bushy brows. "How far have you travelled? I see there is dust and mud on your boots and on your cloak."
Liathan was listening close now, wanting to hear what Esca would tell him.
"We have been travelling a long time. It is true." He nodded slowly, running a hand through his dusty hair. "My foster-brother is getting married." He nodded towards Aquila. "The ceremony is to take place in the lands of my people, and that of his wife. We are his honour guard, his uncles." He gestured towards the others. "Myself, and his slave."
The man nodded, digesting this information. Then he glanced at Liathan and Liathan tensed at the sharpness of his gaze, stumbling a little. The man looked back at Esca.
"His slave. Indeed. Has he served him long?"
Esca shook his head. "No, not long."
"Hmm." The man nodded. "A fine specimen, won in battle I assume?" And he looked again, this time his gaze lingering on Liathan's long legs and muscled arms.
"Yes," said Esca, shortly.
"Unusual gift for a bride," The man said lightly. "Unless you intended to trade him for something more... suitable? I notice you are travelling light." And his eyes flicked over their group again.
Liathan tensed, but managed this time, to keep his walk steady. It was true, for a wedding envoy, they were travelling very light.
Esca shook his head sharply, obviously realising the flaw in his lie as well. "No," he replied. "The slave holds some significance for my clan. He will be well received. "
The man nodded. "Ah, revenge is it? Well." He walked silently for a couple of paces. "Still..." He glanced up at Aquila. Liathan, familiar now with his usual seat on the horse, could see the difference, the tension in the way he held himself. He would be asking Esca for a full account of the conversation when they stopped.
Liathan tried to imagine what it would be like across the wall, in the land of the Romans, surrounded by conversations he could not understand. By people he could not understand.
The man began speaking again. "If your brother happens to change his mind, I have a fine stock of slaves brought in from my travels." He gestured back towards his cart. "Well trained, no captured warriors here." He laughed brashly, and Esca's lips rose in a starchy smile.
"Young, biddable. Well trained. Look for me at the inn in the next town, I stay two days before crossing the wall to trade with the Roman invaders." He spat on the ground perfunctorily.
Esca nodded stiffly. "Of course."
The man smiled genially again, and with a final lingering look at Liathan, he moved back to his own cart.
Liathan shrugged his shoulders, but the sensation of the man's look stayed with him long after he had disappeared into the crowd.
Eventually, as the sun sunk low into the sky and began to bleed orange into the clouds, Aquila called a halt. They continued a little way away from the road, enough to give them privacy to hold their own conversations, and Aquila dismounted, his steps sure, his leg causing him little trouble.
The Romans took the opportunity to rest, settling on the ground, one taking out some hard biscuits and sharing them between them.
Liathan squatted on the ground behind the horse, enjoying the pull of his muscles as he shifted his position. The familiar ache from a long time spent walking. He wished he could massage his calves, use his hands to ease the ache, but he settled for bending and stretching his legs out as best he could.
Esca and Aquila were talking, Esca's face betraying his nerves for once. He gave the road behind them sharp looks every so often. Aquila seemed intent on something, gesturing with open palms. Liathan watched them as they talked, trying to decipher their body language, Esca closed off, Aquila open. Persuading him of something then.
It was strange, they acted almost like the lie of foster-brothers was true. When Aquila gave orders to his Romans he did not wait to see them carried out, he knew they would be. But with Esca, he asked.
How had they two become equals? What bargain had they struck?
Liathan glanced at the packs piled on the horse. The bulky shape of the eagle, swaddled in cloth.
Had they agreed to seek the eagle together? But why would a Mac Cunoval aid a Roman to steal the Eagle? It made no sense. He kicked at the ground angrily. Esca made no sense. Aquila was at least, simple. He came for the eagle, he took the eagle. Liathan rocked back to sit squarely on the ground, stretching his legs out in front of him. And not only that, he gained a slave as well. A fine specimen, Liathan sighed.
Perhaps that was what they argued about. Aquila trying to persuade Esca to sell him off. An unnecessary weight. Esca had said he convinced Aquila to spare his life. It would make sense then for Aquila to want to be rid of him. Perhaps his time spent pretending to be a slave had left a bad taste in his mouth. Perhaps he wanted no reminders of all the fetching and carrying and following orders.
Liathan imagined being sold to the bearded man, remembering his intrusive gaze. He set aside his own unease. The man was just a trader, he'd sell him on to someone else, another clan, or, he said he was going over the wall. He'd sell him to another Roman perhaps.
Liathan winced, would that fate truly be better than the one he had now? He didn't know. The knowledge that he could not go back did not make the thought of his future any more palatable.
Aquila and Esca split apart, and Aquila roused the Romans. They began to walk again, back towards the road, A little while later a town appeared on the horizon, a dark smudge against the sunset, slowly growing larger as the light failed. They arrived just as the last rays were failing, the watchmen restless as night approached.
The town was larger than any Liathan had seen before, wooden walls, tall as a man, and mud brick buildings slumped together within.
The central square was sanded and almost clear of stalls, trading ended with the sunset. Some few traders were still packing up their wares, catching the last of the buyers.
One of the Romans moved to the front, clearly more familiar with the town, and he led them down the streets to a large building. Aquila dismounted and stayed with the horse, sending Esca in with the Roman to secure lodging.
Aquila and the other Romans did not speak, the stream of people in and out of the inn were enough to keep their Roman tongues still in their mouths. Liathan was gripped with a sudden mad urge to shout out, Romans, here! These men are Romans! But he blamed the thought on fatigue and bit his tongue. Aquila gave him an odd look when he saw Liathan's sharp grin, and Liathan turned away, dropping his eyes until he could control his face.
Presently Esca came out with a boy. They divided the packs between them, Aquila lifting the wrapped eagle carefully from the horse and hooking it under his arm. The boy led the horse away to the stables, and they made for the doorway and the light spilling out from it.
Inside, the innkeeper was standing, tunic stretched tight around his fat middle, his head balding and shiny with sweat.
The heat was suffocating, a roaring fire in the hearth, and the inn was full to bursting. There was a chair set in the corner and a bard sat singing with a reedy voice, his eyes glazed white and blind. Beside him, on the floor, a youth plucked her harp in time with his voice, her thick hair piled into braids around her head.
The innkeeper bellowed a name over the din, and a serving woman split from the crowd, carrying an empty jug of ale in her hands.
"See to these men, they'll take the rooms upstairs."
She nodded, passing the jug over to him, and running her hands through her dark hair. She smiled prettily, if a little wearily and beckoned for them to follow. She turned and sidestepped as a man left off from listening to the bard and made for the door. His steps were made clumsy by drink and as he passed them he stumbled and fell, crashing into Liathan.
Here misfortune struck, and later Liathan would lay the blame solely at the feet of that twice damned eagle.
Liathan, whose hands were still tied, stumbled, unable to catch himself, and knocked into Aquila, like a line of game pieces stacked in a row. Aquila's leg, which had until that moment been masquerading as healthy, suddenly buckled and Aquila fell, his hands jerking upwards, his grip on the eagle loosening and the cloth covering it slipped, exposing the curve of its golden head.
Liathan allowed himself to fall fully to the floor, knocking the eagle from Aquila's hands and covering the hateful thing with his body.
He remained on the floor, using his furs to shield his movements as he pulled the cloth covering back over the eagle's head.
A moment later he was being pulled roughly to his feet. Aquila took the bundle from him, pressing close enough that Liathan could smell the salt of his sweat, before stepping back.
Esca was shouting after the drunk man to mind where he went, and when the man showed little notice of him, he rounded on the innkeeper. Who was staring at the bundle Aquila was gripping, a glittering light in his eyes.
Liathan swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat. He dared not let the innkeeper see the fear in his face and he turned away, catching Aquila's eyes, wide and as white as his own.
Esca had them hustled after the serving girl within moments, and they did not speak until in their rooms, the Romans taking one, himself, Esca, Aquila taking the one opposite.
Their room was simple, the only light came from the fire in the hearth, flames settling in to suck away at the wood. There was a low pallet beside the fire, a larger bed in the centre of the room, and a small table in the corner.
Liathan looked straight at Esca. "The innkeeper saw," he spoke before they could, voice rough with nerves.
Esca pressed his lips into a bloodless line.
Aquila spoke then, and Esca nodded at him, waving a hand at Liathan and replying in kind.
Aquila glanced his way, speaking in his tongue and Esca translated. "He says thank you for your quick thinking in covering the eagle."
Liathan shrugged, glancing over at Aquila, then back at Esca, uncomfortable with the look in Aquila's eyes.
"If a thief is willing to slit one throat, he's willing to slit more. I did it to protect myself."
Esca raised an eyebrow, but translated all the same. Of course, Liathan had no way of knowing what he was translating, but since Aquila sent him a mirror of Esca's look a second later, he guessed Esca had translated honestly.
Liathan scowled. He could have been acting selfishly. Their time spent with his people had not been long enough for them to truly know him.
Aquila asked something and Esca replied before turning to Liathan. "You saw his face, do you think he will attack us for it?"
Liathan shrugged, still angry from before. "Who can predict the actions of a man without honour." Esca's face went blank, and Liathan ignored the snap of disappointment in his chest. Aquila spoke sharply, Liathan recognised the cadence, and he thought he recognised the shape of the words -- What did he say? Esca shrugged, not taking his eyes from Liathan and replied in a monotone, far fewer words than Liathan had said. Aquila looked between them, a frown between his lines, but he didn't press.
Aquila spoke a while longer with Esca, Esca pointing at the door, then both of them looking over at Liathan for a second, who controlled the urge to shuffle his feet under the sudden scrutiny. Esca walked over to the door. "I'm going to get us food," he told Liathan. "I won't be long." And then he was gone, Liathan and Aquila left alone together for the first time since the battle.
Liathan stood awkwardly by the fire, staring at the door, watching Aquila move about the room from the corner of his eyes. He was limping still, clearly the tumble had pulled some muscle in his leg and re-awoken the injury. Eventually Aquila stopped and Liathan could feel the sensation of his gaze as it travelled over him.
Liathan turned at the sound of his name. Aquila was standing by the bed. He gestured for Liathan to come to him.
Liathan moved, walking slowly until he was a pace away, Aquila gestured for Liathan to sit on the bed, and Liathan moved jerkily around Aquila to sit.
His limbs were filling up with tension and his body began to flicker with energy at finding himself so close to the man who had almost killed him.
Aquila reached for his belt and took out a knife, the blade sharp. He brought it close to Liathan and Liathan tensed even further. Would Aquila kill him now? Take advantage of Esca's absence? He could blame it on Liathan, tell Esca he tried to run. Tried to break free, attack Aquila. Self defence.
Liathan dragged his gaze from the blade to Aquila's face. It was as unreadable as Esca's ever was. He raised the knife and Liathan could feel his pulse beating in his throat. Everything focused down to the point of that blade. The flickering shadows the flames threw against the wall seemed to slow their dance. He could run. He could attack. He could break honour and kill his master.
The thought roiled in his belly. The word settling weirdly into place between his bones. Master. He was a slave, taken honestly and fairly in battle. It all came down to that one question, that knife edge, did he accept with honour, or fight without. His heart beat heavily and memory placed a palm over his chest.
He tiled up his chin, baring his throat without breaking Aquila's gaze.
Aquila smiled grimly, and nodded slightly to himself. The blade flashed, moving swiftly downwards... and sliced through the bindings on Liathan's hands.
There was a second of silence, then Liathan exhaled roughly. His chest rose and fell rapidly and he stared at Aquila in mute surprise.
Liathan recognised the Roman word.
"Slave," Aquila said again. And this time Liathan understood. He nodded, swallowing roughly.
"Slave," he repeated, the word feeling heavy and strange in his mouth.
Aquila stood and looked down at Liathan. He dropped his hands to the bed, clenching his fingers in the covers, uneasy under Aquila's stare.
He heard the creak of steps outside and there was a knock on the door.
Aquila opened his mouth, then grimacing, closed it and walked to the door, pulling it open a little to look out, and then wider to let Esca in.
Esca had a tray in his hands -- a jug, a bowl and a hunk of bread. He carried it over to the table, glancing between them both and at the loops of rope that had slipped to the floor by Liathan's feet.
He deposited the tray on the table and Aquila pushed the door shut. Liathan stayed sitting uncomfortably on the bed. Esca looked between them again, then walked to the hearth, squatting to stoke the fire. He began to speak over his shoulder to Aquila.
Liathan stood abruptly and walked to the table.
He could feel their eyes on his back. He took a bowl and filled it. Then he turned, his eyes lowered, and walked jerkily towards Aquila. He held out the bowl. Aquila did not move. Liathan's skin crawled. He glanced up from under his brows, then began to lower himself to one knee.
Aquila's hand shot forward, his fingers closing around Liathan's elbow. The bowl was knocked to the side, a little soup spilling to splash over the floor. Liathan felt the grip through the layers of his clothes, the solid strength of Aquila's hand, thick fingers wrapped tight around Liathan's more slender limb.
Liathan hunched his shoulders, the blood rushing to his cheeks. Aquila barked out a question, still gripping Liathan's arm. There was a pause, then Esca translated.
"What are you doing?"
Liathan looked up at a him. "I'm his slave." He dropped his eyes, unable to hold Esca's gaze.
Esca translated and Aquila released his arm suddenly, the movement so abrupt that Liathan jerked, soup again spilling over the side of the bowl.
There was a knock on the door, Aquila hesitated, then finally went to answer, letting the Romans in once they identified themselves.
They did not seem to notice the tension in the room, and began to talk to Aquila in low voices. He glanced at Esca, then allowed himself to be drawn away to the side of the room. Liathan stood stock still, his grip on the bowl white knuckled. Esca approached him slowly.
"You don't have to serve him."
"That's what a slave does," Liathan replied, between grit teeth.
Esca shook his head, then nodded, frowning. "Yes, but..." He glanced at Aquila over his shoulder. "Its not necessary now, not while we're travelling," he said finally, decisively. "When we get over the wall..." He sighed and looked at Liathan.
Liathan couldn't deal with the pity in his gaze.
"Then what am I supposed to do?" he hissed, hands itching for the familiarity of a weapon.
Aquila had claimed him, had taken that knife and sliced through his ropes. His heart was still drumming from the shock of it. He didn't know what was expected of him. What a Roman slave's duties might be. All he knew was how to be a warrior for his clan. And that was the one thing he could never again be.
"I cannot- What am I supposed- " He jerked his head to the side, cursing. And then he turned away from Esca, walking back to the table. He poured the soup back into the jug and put the bowl back on the tray with ill-grace, only just stopping himself from slamming it down like a child in a tantrum.
Esca was still looking at him when he turned around.
"Marcus," Esca called without turning. He gestured between him and Liathan and pointed to the door, speaking in the Roman tongue. Then glanced over his shoulder at Aquila for his reply.
Aquila looked hard at Liathan, then nodded abruptly.
"Come," Esca said to Liathan."We will go down to the common room to eat."
Liathan followed Esca out. And when he drew close Esca spoke, inclining his head towards him and lowering his voice. "We will attract less attention. Marcus would have to sit without speaking, and the others speak with accents, this way we can keep an eye on the innkeeper." He glanced up at Liathan. "Unless you would rather stay in the room?"
Liathan looked at Esca in disbelief. Stay in the room? He'd be glad never to have to enter it again. He saw Esca was wearing a small, teasing smile and the sight of it irritated him, turning his lingering embarrassment into anger.
"Is he your master?" He blurted out.
Esca's smile dropped off. "No." He shook his head.
Liathan halted. "Then I don't understand. Why are you with him? It makes no sense." He remembered asking a similar question before, sitting beside the fire with Esca and his father.
Esca pulled him into the shadow of the common room door, glancing around them quickly. "I was his slave," Esca replied, moving right in close and breathing the words into the air between them. "He set me free."
"When?" Liathan pressed, staring down into Esca's eyes.
"After we took the eagle."
"Stole the eagle," Liathan corrected.
Esca dropped his eyes. "Yes."
"Why did he free you? For helping him? For protecting him in my home?" He pushed Esca's hands off him. "You told me you tricked him into taking you across the wall, but that was a lie. You tricked m- us, not him."
His vice was climbing and Esca shoved him back against the wall again. "Shhhh. We mustn't attract attention."
Liathan glanced around sharply, The serving girl glanced up from pouring ale at a table by the door, and he smiled stiffly at her over Esca's shoulder. She raised an eyebrow at the sight of them pressed close to each other, and the corner of her mouth twitched in a smile.
"Yes, it was a lie."
Liathan looked back at Esca sharply.
"I didn't set out to trick you. I didn't know your people would find us, or that you would have the eagle. I didn't-" He shook his head and released his grip on Liathan's furs, stepping away from him. "What's done is done. Will you come with me and eat, or would you rather return to the room?"
Liathan pulled his tunic straight, then pushed away from the wall, gesturing exaggeratedly for Esca to precede him.
In the common room the youth was still playing the harp, but the bard had stopped singing and was drinking at a table in the corner. The swell of people had thinned a little, those remaining sat at the tables, nodding their heads to the music.
Esca hailed the serving girl and got them two bowls of soup and a hunk of bread. Liathan dug in gratefully.
"How are your hands?" Esca asked after a little while had passed.
"Fine." Liathan's grip tightened on his bread.
"May I?" Esca asked, reaching forward. After a second Liathan dropped the bread and extended his hands, palms up.
Esca traced the fine red lines with a fingertip, all that was left of the cuts. The feel of Esca's calloused fingers made his skin tingle.
Esca nodded. "Good." He released him and Liathan drew his hands back. He rubbed the sensation from his skin and picked up his bread, breaking off a chunk and raising it to his lips.
They ate and watched the others in the common room. The innkeeper didn't seem to be paying them any special attention and Liathan began to relax, nodding his head to the music. If he tried he could almost pretend he was back home, singing around the fire with his family. He hummed along, recognising the tune, and fitting the words to it gradually. He began to sing quietly, his voice pleasant and clear.
He let his eyes fall shut, losing himself in the song and he did not realise how quiet the space around him had grown until he came to the end. There was a sudden flurry of applause and he jerked his eyes open, flushing. Half the people in the room were clapping and the harp player raised her instrument in a salute from across the room.
Liathan raised his hand awkwardly.
"Strange way of not attracting attention," Esca said wryly, and Liathan felt his face heat, missing the stiff blue of his mask more than ever.
The clapping gradually subsided, and another song begun. For a second Liathan thought that would be the end of it, that the Gods had chosen to smile on them for once.
No such luck.
A heavy hand alighted on his shoulder.
"Well, if it isn't the young sir and his brother's slave."
Liathan turned his head sharply. The slave trader from the road stood looking down at them, his thick beard looking even bigger from this angle. Liathan shifted in his seat and the man's grip tightened painfully on his shoulder for a second before releasing.
"I see now why you would not part with him."
Liathan turned to Esca, but his face was a polite mask once more. He dropped his eyes to the tabletop.
"A voice like, that... well..." The trader sighed.
Esca nodded and made to rise, but the trader intercepted, "No, no, I shan't keep you long, wanting to get back to you brother I'm sure." He paused. "Where is he now?" He asked, voice deceptively light.
Esca hesitated and Liathan glanced up at him, and, perhaps Liathan was learning to read his mask, for he was sure Esca was searching for a lie and coming up blank. "He was weary from travel," Esca replied finally. "He is resting."
"Ah yes, a good place to rest, this. I have stayed here many a time." And he waved a hand to catch the innkeeper's attention. Liathan saw the innkeeper's face split into a smile as he recognised the trader and Liathan's stomach lurched. Then the innkeeper saw who the trader was standing next to, his eyes flickering over Liathan's face and the back of Esca's head. His gaze sharpened and Liathan cursed. He had been too quick to relax. The innkeeper clearly had not forgotten them. Now he would ask the trader for news and they would exchange knowledge of their suspiciously light wedding envoy... and their suspiciously shiny belongings.
The trader left them to go to his friend, and Liathan and Esca, in silent agreement, stood and made for the door.
"We should leave." Liathan said as they approached the room. Esca halted outside.
"Now? After taking up two rooms and eating and drinking and singing?" He gave Liathan a derisive look. "It would look suspicious. And where would we go? This is the only inn in town."
"We could sleep outside." Liathan insisted, an ugly knot of worry in his chest.
"The town has closed the gates. If we leave now there will be questions, only thieves creep away in darkness."
Liathan clenched his fists. "If we do not go it will be thieves creeping into our rooms tonight!"
Esca nodded sharply. "I know."
The door snapped open and Aquila's face appeared, raising an eyebrow at Liathan, who realised the noise they were making. Esca raised a hand and nodded in wordless apology. They entered and Liathan felt the awkwardness from before settle over him.
Esca looked between him and Aquila, and rolled his eyes. He began speaking rapidly to Aquila, pointing to the door, to Liathan, to the eagle. Liathan watched him explaining the situation, and eventually Aquila began to reply.
Liathan's inability to understand anything more than the basic outline of the conversation frustrated him, and he turned away, busying himself with sorting the bedding for his pallet. After a second, and after glancing at the other two to see they were both still conversing, he readied the blankets on the bed as well. Then he returned to the pallet and sat cross-legged on it, letting the fire warm his back
Eventually Esca and Aquila stopped talking, both their movements' stiff, showing their dissatisfaction with their circumstances.
"We will leave before dawn. Before it is light, when everyone is still asleep," Esca said, glancing between Liathan and the bed. He raised an eyebrow, but made no mention of Liathan's work. Still, Liathan was filled with unease and he began to second guess what he'd done.
Did Esca expect him to fight against this? Should he be fighting it? Forced into follow orders instead of trying, awkwardly, to anticipate? Liathan stretched out on the pallet, trying to put the questions from his mind.
Esca and Aquila climbed into the bed, talking in low voices for a while before subsiding into silence.
Liathan wrapped himself in his furs and the blanket. The heat was strange and stifling after so many nights spent outside. Despite the comfort, he could not sleep. Instead he drifted off into a half dream, jerking back into wakefulness when one of the others rolled over and spoke in their sleep, or when a log slipped in the fire.
Eventually he managed to fall into a fitful doze, and his dreams began to wind themselves about him again.
He saw the room, but the light was not the flickering yellow of the fire, it was the crispness of daylight streaming in from above. There was no roof, only air. It was fresh and full of the promise of snow.
He sat by the fire, his furs and blanket were gone, his skin pale and white. He was a boy again, free of paint. His hair was long and brushed the tips of his ears as he turned his head.
By the door stood a great hound, its fur, pale white. It looked down at him sternly, the clean arch of its neck was smooth and straight.
He felt small.
The hound moved towards him. It grew brighter as it came until its skin became indistinct, its form dissolving into brilliance.
He heard his grandmother's voice. "The hound, Liathan, is the guardian of the clan's honour." He was at home, sitting by the hearth, watching his grandmother stir a great cast iron pot, the wrinkled lines of her face shifting as she spoke. "The white hound lives in all of us." She pressed her gnarled hand to his chest, her dark eyes piercing him. "In here."
His heart jumped in response to her voice, thumping against his ribs.
"Little Liathan, little white hound. Will you carry it for your clan?"
Liathan's voice was strange and high with youth. "Niall will be clan chief after our father. He will carry our honour."
His grandmother smiled, but her eyes were full of tears. "Look." She bent close to Liathan, dry lips skating the curve of his ear. "Look," she said, pointing up at the sky. There was a flash of movement against the white, a flash again and Liathan saw now -- a bird, swirling and diving at a great height. Its wings caught the sunlight and sent it shining back. Its wings were gold. An eagle. It screamed and dived, falling sharply downwards.
"Look," his grandmother whispered again and Liathan turned back to her
His grandmother was gone, in her place his brother lay on the ground. Blood was leaking from a wound in his chest, leaking into the freshness of the green grass. "Look little hound, look," he spoke, blood trickling from the corner of his lips.
"It comes," he said, raising a wavering hand and gripping Liathan's palm. There was a creak and a thump as the ground they were standing on began to move. Liathan's hands itched, fire crawling underneath the cuts. "It comes," he said again, and it was not Niall, but Aquila, pulling sharply. The creak came again. "It comes!"
Liathan woke, kicking out with his legs. He'd contorted himself under the covers, and his limbs were tangled in the furs. It took a few moments for him to kick himself free, pulling his thoughts from the snares of the dream as he did so.
He was shivering despite the warmth.
He looked up at the other two, still sleeping. Esca moaned in his sleep, rolling over onto his side. Liathan looked around the room, wondering what it was that had woken him.
He was about to dismiss it as purely the fault of the dream when he heard it, the same creaking noise he'd heard in his dream, as the ground had given way beneath his feet. For a second he stared at the floor, utterly confused, before his sluggish, sleep-stained mind made sense of it.
The wooden floor, creaking. Outside. At the door.
He sprung up silently, kicking his blanket to the side and rushed to the bed. He reached for Esca, who startled awake a second before Liathan's hands touched him. Esca's hand slipped under his pillow and back out in a smooth movement, his blade drawn before he'd even blinked the sleep from his eyes.
Liathan pointed at the door meaningfully and Esca nodded, elbowing Aquila awake and communicating the warning with a look.
A fight inside the room would be suicide, close quarters, with nowhere to lie in wait. And storming out of the door would be just as useless, hacked to death in the hallway.
Liathan scanned the room, some spark of memory from the dream prompting him to look up... there.
He pointed. Up in the corner of the room the rushes of the roof had become thin and weak, sagging slightly inwards.
He looked back down and met Esca's eyes. Esca nodded and gestured to the table. Between them they carried it carefully over to stand it beneath the roof.
As they passed the door, Liathan heard the low murmur of whispers, and he saw the lock shift slightly. Clearly their attackers had chosen stealth. That would buy them a little more time.
He climbed on top of the table, shoving the rushes with his hands, grimacing at the noise as the rushes bent, then snapped, coming apart in clumps, until, sooner than he expected, he could feel the cold night air against his palms.
He widened the gap as much he could, then looked back down. Esca passed him a pack, waving for him to go. Liathan shook his head, taking the pack, but stepping down. He pointed at Aquila, then at his leg. Esca stared at Liathan, a strange look in his eyes. Then he nodded and turned to Aquila. Aquila crossed his arms, brows drawing down. Esca shoved his shoulder in exasperation pointing up at the roof sharply. Aquila tightened his lips, but nodded. He climbed up onto the table, then scrambled up out of the gap. Liathan winced at the noise, glancing worriedly at the door.
Aquila's hands appeared through the gap in the roof and Liathan passed up the pack, then Esca passed up the other, this one with the eagle wrapped securely within it.
Perhaps Aquila was not expecting it to be so heavy, but truly, Liathan was sure the evil bird was playing with them now, for it slipped in Aquila's hands and thunked heavily against the wall, then the table, and then the floor.
The three of them stilled in shock, then exploded into movement, even as the men behind the door did the same.
Liathan bent and scooped the pack up, slinging it up to Aquila, then he reached forwards and grabbed Esca, lifting him bodily, using his extra height to heave him up out of the hole, his feet barely touching the table.
Then the door was breaking in and Liathan was bounding up. Aquila and Esca grasped his arms as the men ran across the room. He felt the brush of air as a blade passed dangerously close to his flailing legs, and then he was up through the hole and clambering precariously onto the roof.
The night air was cold against his skin after the muggy warmth of the room, and he blinked against the darkness, eyes taking a second to acclimatise.
Esca scrambled forwards in front of him and leapt down to the ground. Liathan grabbed a pack, flinging it down to him. Aquila threw the other at the same time. Then Liathan slid forward to the edge of the roof and leapt off, landing nimbly on his feet. The drop was not long enough to hurt, but the impact was solid, and he felt it up his legs.
He looked up at Aquila, wondering how he would fare with his injured leg, but Aquila was already moving, sliding to the roof edge, then twisting, gripping it with both hands so that his body hung down, from there the drop was halved and he let go, falling the final distance. Still he lurched to the side as he landed, face tightening in pain and Esca rushed to support him.
Liathan grabbed the packs and they moved as quickly as they could down the darkened street. The cries and shouts of pursuit echoing behind them.
Liathan had to slow his pace to stay with the other two, and the slowness had him on edge, wishing he could leave them and sprint off into the darkness. He shifted the packs on his back, eyeing the shadowed darkness of the street, before turning his feet back towards the other two.
They picked a direction at random and set off. The town wasn't big enough to get truly lost in, which excluded the possibility of hiding and lying low. They needed to leave soon, before the entire town was roused and they were pinned within.
Liathan, at the front, was the first to reach the end of the street. It opened into the main square and he skidded to a halt, spinning on his heel. He turned and ran back to Esca and Aquila.
"The centre of the town is that way." He pointed the way he had come. "We need to turn."
He looked beyond them, seeing the lights as their pursuers, now armed with burning torches, began to spill out of the Inn.
They scanned the street frantically.
"There!" Esca said, pointing at the narrow gap between two houses.
Liathan struggled through the passageway, Esca fitting easily, dragging Aquila along beside him. Aquila's face was pale, but he bit down on his lip and made no sound to betray the pain in his leg.
They shuffled along further, edging out into a parallel road as their pursuers began to run up the street they’d just been in. They ducked and held their breath, thanking each of their Gods as the passage they had taken was overlooked.
Then they were up and running again. Liathan reached for Aquila's other arm and they half carried him between them, moving faster this way. Soon they caught sight of the town wall, its dark shape cutting off the street.
They approached the foot of the wall and Esca knelt to make his fingers into a step, as he had when Aquila mounted his horse. Aquila went to leap but his leg buckled before he could, sending him crashing into Liathan. Aquila grunted at the pain, lips pressed tight together until pale and bloodless. Liathan gripped him tightly, keeping him upright, and Aquila's hand remained heavy over his shoulders. Liathan tried to ignore the unsettling feeling at being so close.
"This won't work." He told Esca. "Take him." And he let Esca take Aquila's weight.
Then he took the packs and slung them over the wall, hearing the thump as they landed on the other side. He glanced about as he stripped off his heavy tunic. There was no sight of pursuit yet, but he could hear them shouting nearby.
He bundled his fur in his hands, then, taking one step back, leapt forwards, using his momentum to walk up the wall, and using the furs to protect his hands as he gripped the sharpened stakes at the top.
He took a second to catch his balance, then, settling on the fur, leaned down, reaching for Aquila with both hands.
Between them -- Esca providing a step and Liathan gripping Aquila's hands, they were able to pull him upwards. Aquila gripped Liathan's forearm's strongly. His hair sticking to his forehead at the pain and exertion.
He scrambled up, the stakes ripping his tunic as he dragged himself to the top, and then he was on the furs beside Liathan, turning to lowering himself down the other side in the same way he had on the Inn's roof. The thick muscles of his arms corded and stood out as he swung himself round.
He dropped to the ground and Liathan watched him crumple, wincing at the sight. He glanced back at Esca.
"Go, I'm fine." He waved at Liathan, and Liathan leapt down beside Aquila.
He squatted to check, Aquila was panting, but still conscious, and Liathan raised his head to look out at the land. The tension in his chest eased. They were out of the town now, ahead of their pursuers. No one would follow them out here in the darkness.
The land sloped sharply away from the battlements, then rose smoothly as it entered the woods. The sky was still dark, though the stars provided a muted light.
Liathan glanced abut for the packs, finding them rolled to the bottom of the slope, a little way away. He glanced back at Aquila who had raised himself until he was sitting, back resting against the wall. The faint starlight painted his face strangely, casting the hollows of his eyes into darkness. Liathan felt a sudden bolt of fear at the sight, dream mixing with memory. He remembered seeing Aquila at the river, standing under the eagle. Remembered the men in his dream. Their eyes were shadows.
Aquila's face was angled towards Liathan and after a second he reached out his hand for help standing.
Liathan hesitated. He could run now. Sprint for the trees. There were no ropes on him. No ties to keep him here.
Esca's hands appeared on top of the wall, gripping the furs tightly.
They would be fine together, they had a good hour of darkness to put distance between themselves and the town. He could make for the trees, he could take the road back north. He'd helped them escape, surely that was enough to satisfy honour.
He tensed his legs and time seemed to stretch as it had in the room with Aquila. He stared at him, the way the starlight smeared his face, the steadiness of his palm. He saw, from the corner of his eye, Esca's head appear over the wall, the messy mop of his hair.
And Liathan moved, bounding down the slope, skidding and falling and stumbling back upright. He left the packs where they were and sprinted for the trees, his feet striking the earth hard as his pace lengthened.
He could feel the press of his grandmother's palm against his chest. The skin above his heart felt warm even as the rest of him grew cold without his tunic. But Aquila did not call after him, and Liathan did not look back.
He ran, the slope eaten up by his long legs. The trees rose black and tall and he disappeared into them, running, running, as if there were hunters clutching at his heels. He ran to escape the town, to escape the others. But more, he ran to escape his thoughts, and the palm, like a brand, he still felt over his heart.
He caught glimpses of the stars through the branches and unthinkingly used them to orient himself, turning his feet towards the north.
Would they come after him? He glanced over his shoulder, seeing nothing but shadowy trees. At any moment he expected the sky to split, and the hound from his dream to leap down onto him and give chase. He could almost hear it, snapping and snarling behind him, biting down at the ragged dregs of his honour.
He pushed himself to run, brambles scraping at his legs. Despite his missing tunic, he soon grew hot, flushed and heavy with shame and exhaustion. The lingering tiredness from his broken nights and the days spent travelling began to make itself known.
He ran on and on until his limbs were shaking, his mind clearing of anything but the urgent need to keep moving, to flee and flee and run until he could run no more. His steps grew uneven, the undergrowth seeming to grow more tangled, clawing at his feet.
His run became a lurching walk, his heart beating heavily, drawing painful breaths in and out from his lungs. Eventually he gave in to exhaustion and halted, reaching out to steady himself against a tree trunk.
The sky through the trees was not so black as before, a greyish tinge beginning to stain it -- dawn approaching slowly. The birds were shouting out their greetings in a great cacophony of cries.
His legs gave out and he slid down to sit on the ground, leaves and twigs crackling underneath him. He was so tired. Not just his limbs, but his organs, his mind, his heart. He rested his arms on his knees, hands dangling, and lowered his head.
What was he doing?
He saw Aquila in his mind's eye, sitting with his back to the wall. What if he was wrong? What if they had not escaped? What if Aquila's leg had caused him too much pain? Would he have stayed behind and demanded Esca leave him? Would Esca have heeded the order? Liathan thought not. He felt an ugly flash of shame.
Had he abandoned them to their deaths? With his help they could have carried Aquila into the trees, could have escaped as he had. Was the loss of their lives on his conscience? What would the Gods do with him now?
He turned his head up and rested it on the trunk, looking through the branches as they waved and shifted in the breeze, revealing patches of sky between their tangled fingers.
He should not have run.
He should have stayed. He should have ignored that snake voice that told him to flee, that made him recall the embarrassment of his attempt to serve Aquila. He'd sworn. Not in so many words, maybe, but by implication. Sitting on the bed before Aquila. He'd known in his heart what it meant.
A slave was not without honour. He knew that. He should have stayed.
He raised his hands to his face, scrubbing his palms over his features, noting again the clean smoothness of his skin. He ran his hand over his head. He could feel the itchiness of new growth, lingering under his scalp.
What was he thinking, going north? He was no longer a warrior of the Seal People. No longer the Chief's son, nor his grandmother's little hound.
He was nothing, a nobody, without people, without home. He could not go back. He knew that. Why had he run?
He pushed himself to his feet. Aquila would have to kill him, if he returned. A man without honour was one thing, but a slave without honour was worthless. No one would be willing to spend their days watching, spend their nights with a blade in hand, waiting for the betrayal.
He looked about him blankly. He had no idea where he was. No place he could go to.
He had no kin in this part of the world and a stranger, alone in the woods, would not be met with welcome by any sane traveller. They'd think him a thief, which he was, he stole himself away. Or a murderer, which, if Esca and Aquila were truly dead...
He closed his eyes, feeling a cold fist close around his heart, and glanced back the way he came.
To leave without even knowing what his actions, what his cowardice had brought upon the other two? He shuddered. He couldn't do it.
He had to go back.
He had to know for sure, even if Aquila claimed his life. At least he would still be alive to do it.
He turned and began to retrace his steps. Moving slowly at first, then picking up speed. The undergrowth was easier to navigate, the path he'd taken easier to backtrack upon, and his exhaustion seemed to fall away as he ran. A flicker of hope, the dream-hound watching in satisfaction.
But eventually the energy his decision had given him began to flag, and his genuine tiredness broke in. He could not maintain a running pace constantly. He dropped into a loping walk and began to study his surroundings.
The sun began to climb in the sky, and soon it was shining down through the trees. The leaves stained the light green, and the woods were bathed in the delicate light. He passed under birds, flitting through the branches, without causing them to call in alarm. Watched rabbits halt and stare at him, their ears sharply pricked. He saw a group of deer far to his right, newborn fawns unsteady on their thin legs, the buck standing proudly beside his doe, its head tilted to watch Liathan as he passed.
Soon Liathan found what he was looking for, and began to turn from his earlier path, following the downturn of the land, and increasing sogginess of the soil. In moments he'd found a small bubbling brook, the water that flowed over the reddish stones biting cold. He knelt and gathered handfuls, bringing them to his mouth and swallowing thirstily.
The water tasted strongly of peat, nothing like the spring near his home, which was young and clear. It seemed only to underline what he already knew, that home was a very long way away.
Still, it was water, and it was fresh. He drank gratefully.
He was hungry too, but the desire to eat was easier to ignore, the meal from yesterday had been hearty and he was no stranger to the ache of hunger.
Some placeless urge was pushing him to move again, to not tarry here by the fresh water. He saw Esca and Aquila's faces in his mind and the memory shoved him back onto his feet, splashing across the stream and curving back to join his path.
Soon the trees began to thin, and he slowed as he reached the edge of the forest, looking about him warily, and listening for the sounds of people.
He edged towards the tree line and looked out towards the town. He could see the wall, stretching smoothly away from him, the wooden posts catching the morning sun.
The breadth of it was uniform, and he did not know where they had climbed over. He saw no packs, and no bodies, and something in him eased for a second, before he realised what little that meant. Their bodies would not have been left by the wall for the carrion. He turned to look towards the road and the gate to town.
It was shielded by the curve of the wall and he began to make his way around. He left the sight of the town and, waiting for a party of traders to pass, slipped from the cover of the trees to join the road. The traffic was not yet the bustle of the day -- the earliness of the hour working in his favour.
He approached the town from the road, trying to hide his wariness. Without his tunic he was less recognisable. There was no reason for the guards to associate the bound slave from the north, stumbling after a horse, with this lone man approaching the town. Still, he knew a man arriving without escort or kin would attract suspicion, and he could not help but tense.
As he grew closer, he looked up at the wall and the spikes by the guard tower. He saw two heads impaled on the stakes and he stumbled, breath choking in his lungs. He forced himself to keep moving, approaching them slowly, until he could see more clearly. The heads were old, rotting and black. Relief shuddered through him.
He kept walking towards the town, slowing as he approached. The guards stared at him warily, hands shifting on their weapons.
He raised his own hand in greeting. And one of the men split from the others and strode a couple of paces forward. Liathan halted with a good space between them.
The man jerked his chin at Liathan. "Alone?"
"Yes." Liathan shrugged. "We were set upon by bandits, my party was scattered, they took everything I had, even the clothes of my back." And he smiled, inviting the joke.
The man did not smile.
"None made it here then?" Liathan asked.
The man shook his head. "No." And then a second later. "Sorry," he added, thawing a little.
Liathan sighed "I had hoped, but... thieves" He shook his head sadly.
The man nodded. "Honour-less dogs." he removed his hand from the handle of his blade and swept it across his brow. "We've been plagued by them as well."
"Oh?" Liathan stepped closer,
The man nodded, and leant in, a glint in his eye. "Romans."
Liathan pasted a suitable expression of shock on his face.
The man nodded and continued, "They stole from our inn here, came in disguise, took a room, and stole..." He shrugged. "Gold, I heard it was."
"Gold?" Liathan asked, raising an eyebrow. His scepticism must have been obvious for the man shifted back, frowning.
"Well, so I heard."
Liathan nodded rapidly. "Of course, of course." He waited a second, then, when the man didn't seem inclined to provide anything more, asked, "What happened to them?"
"Oh, they were killed."
Liathan's heart stopped.
"All but three."
It started beating again. "Is that so?" he managed to choke out.
The man glanced at him and Liathan coughed, pretending to clear his throat. He waved his hand for the man to continue.
"They escaped over the wall before light. A party was sent out to track them, they probably have them by now. They left at dawn."
Liathan wasn't confident his face could lie convincingly enough and he turned to scan the tree line, raising a hand to rub his jaw. Once he was sure he had himself under control he turned back. "Best of luck to them then," he said shortly, and he nodded, stepping away.
"You aren't..." The guard gestured towards the gates.
"Oh no, I must search for others who travelled with me. Maybe some yet live."
The man nodded and turned to go back to his fellows. "I hope you find them," he said over his shoulder.
"As do I." Liathan muttered under his breath, turning back onto the road.
He maintained a steady pace until the town was hidden by a curve in the road, and then he began to run.
Esca and Aquila would have headed south for sure. But he had no idea if they'd keep to the road or turn off it. There were tracks leading away from the road every so often, but he had no way of knowing if they were the right ones. His ignorance crawled at his skin.
He passed a few travellers on his way, and each time he stopped and asked about the party from the town. The travellers all pointed south, and he followed, able to at least track them, if not the other two.
He rounded a curve and saw an old man sitting by the verge, his cart piled full of sacks of wool. Liathan greeted him and smiled, trying to contain his nerves.
"Tell me, have you seen a group come by this way? From the town." He pointed back the way he'd come.
The old man tilted his head, thinking. "No, no." He shook his head. "There was a farmer and his wife, with cattle for market, they were going to the next town over. No good for cattle this one." He pointed to his own cart meaningfully. "Good for wool."
Liathan shook his head, he couldn't care less for the buying and selling of wares. "You're sure they didn't come by here? You're sure?"
"Yes." The man nodded decisively. "I'm sure."
"Thank you." Liathan reached out to clasp his hand, then turned back the way he'd came. The last group he'd asked, had said yes, they saw the men pass not so long ago.
He began backtrack, scanning the verge closely, looking for tracks. It did not take him long to find it and he left the road and began to follow.
The tracks led him down a long, rolling slope into a valley, and then along the path of a stream, the moss covered ground springy and wet. Eventually the stream opened into a shallow lake.
He was lost for a moment there, scanning the bank frantically until he saw the path pick up again on the far side, and he waded over, the water-logged ground sucking at the soles of his boots.
The path wound then, crossways up the mountain side, and Liathan ignored it, scrambling up the steep rocks, gripping clumps of heather and grass tufting around the boulders to drag himself up the almost vertical slope.
He gained the top, stood, then ducked instantly, settling in amongst the plants and rocks.
He could see the people from town. They were climbing the next slope over. As he watched, the last of them disappeared around the curve of the path. Her body obscured by a rocky outcrop. As soon as she was gone, Liathan straightened, skidding down the slope. He slipped and lost his footing, rolling the rest of the way. Mud smeared his bare skin and his hands and arms were scratched by all manner of brambles and rocks. His rapid fall slowed as he approached the foot and he managed to avoid striking any of the large boulders which peppered the slope.
He dragged himself to his feet and sprinted across the valley, wincing at the suck, suck of his footsteps in the soft mud. Then he was at the other side and scrambling again, pulling himself up and up towards the summit.
This face was rockier, and though he had the skill, it was made difficult by the wet smears of mud that covered almost every part of him. He slipped once or twice, knocking his knees and elbows as he grabbed for another purchase. But the pain meant nothing, the knowledge that he was running out of time spurring him on. He had to reach the others before the townsmen did. He had to.
The slope eventually became too steep to climb and he cast about for a path, finding a narrow, strip of ground that wound its way upwards. Sometimes he leapt for a higher rock and levered himself up, arms straining. Sometimes there was no option but to follow the winding path around the next outcrop and he took it at a run, trusting in his balance.
He passed into the cloud as he climbed, the wet mugginess of it sticking to his skin and getting in the places the mud had missed. Still he climbed, higher and higher until finally, with an abruptness that made him stumble, the land levelled.
He could see no more than four paces before him. Everything looked grey, rocks and stones and fog. The air up here carried voices strangely, and he could hear the townspeople, hear the noise of talking so clear that he jerked, expecting to see them appear at his shoulder.
He began to study the ground, moving slowly and carefully over the stones, studying each groove, each smudge of mud on stone. And he began to follow the path they had made. Controlling the urge to run madly forwards until the fog cleared and just hope he was going the right way.
He could not leave this up to hope.
Finally the fog began to thin, and with it grass started to wind its way between the stones. He saw the bent blades and depressions left by feet and he picked up his pace.
The land here sloped down at a steady rate, not quite steep enough to slide down, but still Liathan had to watch his footing, not particularly wanting to stumble and fall directly on top of those he was pursuing.
The marks they left were fresh and his spirits lifted even as the sun began to break through the cloud. Perhaps he would overtake them at the next rise. On the heels of the thought, he heard a shout, one voice high and clear, then two, then three, each raised in victory.
The hunters had found their prey.
Liathan abandoned all attempt at stealth, leaping forwards and heading directly for the sound.
The fog thinned to nothing and finally he could see. The land here curved into a scooped bowl. The depression in the centre carrying an almost circular pool. Rocks and boulders were gathered around the edge of it, bent, blackish trees huddling between them as if for shelter.
It was by those trees that Esca and Aquila stood, weapons out, facing the attackers that sped down the slope towards them. The three closest were the ones shouting, closing the distance between them rapidly. Behind them came two women, and behind them a man Liathan recognised. The great bushiness of his beard seared into his memory -- the slave trader. The metal of his blade glinting in the sun. Two archers stood on either side, taking position on the slopes, their bows aiming directly at Esca and Aquila's armour-less bodies.
Even as Liathan watched, the one closest to him loosed an arrow. Aquila ducking at the last moment, to let it strike harmlessly on the rock beside him.
Liathan moved, running low as he came up to the side of the archer, then leaping up onto his back. He gripped his face and snapped his head the the side before the man could even get a yell out.
Then he was scrambling off him, taking up his bow and aiming across the way at the other archer. She hadn't yet noticed him, and was sighting down her bow, into the hollow. Liathan drew back his string, aiming the arrow and exhaling.
Time stilled, the land around him seemed to fall silent.
He saw the archer draw her bow tight, saw the focus on her face, and then both their arrows were flying through the air.
Liathan's arrow seemed to disappear from his bow and reappear sticking perfectly out from the archer's neck. She crumpled to the ground. Liathan turned his gaze down to the others.
Aquila was locked in battle with the last of the closest three, his face clenched tight and pale with rage. He stumbled on his bad leg, and Liathan's heart leapt in his chest. But Aquila rose again, turning the fall into a lunge. As Liathan watched, his blade sunk home, he ripped it back out, blood gleaming wetly as the man fell to lie beside his fellows.
Aquila stepped forwards and Liathan saw Esca's body, lying still on the ground
Liathan did not remember how he passed the next few moments. Could not recall taking up the archer's blade and storming down the slope.
He did not know if he shouted, or if the three remaining attackers turned to face him.
Did not know how he might have looked all covered in mud and blood from the dead archer, eyes wild and black.
The next thing he remembered was being in the air, the drop from a great, angry leap and seeing exactly the path his blade would take. Seeing the shocked, terrified stare of the woman below him.
And then he was crashing into her, his sword stabbing into her flesh. He tore the blade out, blood-spray hot against his face.
The battle seemed to snap back into reality around him. Aquila was clashing swords with the last woman. The trader was between Liathan and Esca. Liathan charged forwards, ducking to slice at his legs but the trader was there to meet him, snarling viciously and shoving him back. The thickness of his arms straining under his tunic.
Liathan rallied and leapt forwards again, striking and stabbing in an insane flurry of blows. The trader had strength and skill, but Liathan was lit by madness and and the trader could not withstand the onslaught, finally faltering and moving his blade, too slow.
Liathan plunged his sword forwards, blade parting cloth, then flesh as it sunk into his chest.
The trader gasped, blood draining from his face, his skin suddenly pale under his beard, his eyes wide and shocked as the life slowly drained from them.
Liathan pulled his blade free and spun. Ready to meet the next attacker.
But there were none. Just Aquila, listing to the side a little, but with his blade held steady; and Esca, lying on the ground.
Liathan stepped forwards, but Aquila did too, moving between them. His gaze hard.
Liathan stared at him confusedly for a second, before finally grappling with his emotions and starting to think clearly once more.
He stepped back, and then dropped his blade. Raising his blood stained and weapon-less hands.
Aquila let his sword point down, then he went to Esca, raising him carefully onto his lap.
He brushed the hair back from Esca's brow with painful tenderness. "Esca, Esca," he repeated his name, clutching him tightly. Esca did not move. Liathan felt his knees give way, a black cloud seeming to descend over the three of them.
Esca opened his eyes. Liathan stared in shock as Esca blinked, then coughed, body shaking. His face tightened in pain. He blinked again then focused on Aquila, staring up at him. Aquila's face was blank with shock, and he started when Esca raised his hand to his cheek, leaving a bright smear of blood on his skin.
Liathan forced himself to remain still, trying to get his breathing under control. Shaking with relief and adrenaline from the battle.
Finally the two broke apart and helped each other to their feet. Esca's thigh was red with blood, but the arrow that had lamed him was nowhere to be seen, it must have passed clean through.
He turned to look at the dead and only then did he see Liathan. His face went utterly white for a second and he swayed. Aquila grabbed him tighter, and, seeing where he was looking, began speaking rapidly, shaking his head.
Esca thought he had helped their attackers, Liathan realised, and he scrambled to his feet, hands outstretched. "No, no," he said hoarsely. "I was not, I- I came back."
Esca stared at him, then swallowed roughly, still gripping Aquila for support.
Liathan stared back, eyes flicking to Esca's leg.
"You need treatment-"
"Why!" Esca shouted, the word echoing off the slopes.
Liathan stared at him, breathing shallowly.
"I was a coward. I ran from you. Like a coward. I ran from you both." He found the weight of Esca's gaze to heavy to bear and he focused on a point beyond his shoulder.
"I am an oath breaker, A craven. Without honour."
He was panting, the words dragged up from the very pit of him.
"I had to try to... I could not live... I came to..." To fix it. He could see the hound from his dream, hovering at the edge of sight.
He took a step forward, dropping to his feet before them and raising his head to bare his neck.
"Kill me." He looked between them. "I don't deserve to live."
The painful symmetry of the moment was not lost on him. And he hated that he had brought so much shame on his own shoulders.
Aquila looked down at him, understanding his actions if not his words. Esca moaned and Liathan's eyes cut to him, seeing him sway against Aquila, hand pressing against this wound. But his eyes fluttered open again, dark as they met Liathan's.
"Swear to me," he said, and his voice was inhumanly harsh. "Swear you will never run again."
Liathan forced the words around the block in his chest. "I have nothing so swear on."
Esca's gaze was painful. "Swear on your son."
Liathan's blood turned to ice in his veins. His son, whom he had killed for betraying his honour. His own son, who had died for a lesser crime than Liathan had now committed.
He shook his head sharply. "I cannot. I must die, I-"
"You ran from us!" Esca interrupted him. "You forfeit your honour, everything..." He paused and sucked in a breath, lines of tension appearing on his brow. Aquila said something but Esca shook his head, eyes snapping open. "... It's ours. To do with as we will."
Liathan could 't look away from him. "Yes," he breathed.
"Then swear it."
"I swear," Liathan said, "I swear. I'm yours."