Bucky put his head down and concentrated on his breathing and the rocky ground beneath his feet; one wrong step on the uncertain gravel and he’d be lost, recaptured by his pursuers. Because of the twists and turns of the wadi he was in, he couldn’t hear them behind him, but he knew they were close. They were also on horseback, which was his only advantage right now; the uneven ground of the dry river bed would slow them down and, if Bucky were lucky, give him enough time to find a place to hide. This part of the country was a maze of dry creek beds, awaiting the rainy season to fill up and temporarily turn this sunburnt, acrid region into a veritable Eden. It would take Hydra weeks to systematically search them all.
The risk, of course, was that Bucky would himself get lost in the maze and die unpleasantly of thirst and exposure, but he’d far prefer that than getting dragged back to the Old Man of the Mountain in chains for another round of “re-education.”
A shadow in the wall of the wadi caught Bucky’s eye and he changed course to investigate. Hidden from the main course of the canyon was a smaller river bed; following it up, scrambling over boulders and water-polished gravel, he traced his way to the irrigation channels of an abandoned farm, weedy and marked by stunted, twisted olive trees. The collapsing farmhouse was too obvious a hiding spot so he searched instead for the well that was likely somewhere on the property. He found it in a far corner, haphazardly boarded over, and with a prayer he slipped between the boards into the dark shadow of the well. Bracing his back against one wall and his feet on the other, he slowly and carefully made his way down, wondering just a little too late if there was going to be water at the bottom.
But it ended up dry, which was probably why the farm was abandoned. To his surprise, though, when Bucky dropped the last few feet to the bottom of the well he fell backwards when the ground moved under his feet.
“What the hell?” Bucky said, drawing his dagger as the darkness at the bottom of the well moved and became a lump, then a head and a face appeared.
“Who the hell are you?” The face hissed in French. “What are you doing here?”
“Uh, hiding?” Bucky answered in French as well, rusty though it was after years of speaking Arabic. "Who the hell are you?"
“You can’t hide here, I’m hiding here! Get your own spot."
As Bucky’s eyes grew used to the darkness he realized that the man had been hiding under a dark blanket to conceal his pale skin from anyone looking into the well. “There’s room for us both,” he said. He looked up at the narrow sliver of sky visible from the top of the well. It would take far too long to climb back up, he would lose every minute of the lead he'd gained. “Please.”
“Ok, fine, get under here.” The man gestured and threw the blanket over both of them. It was hot and humid and smelled of sweat and dirt, but Bucky was grateful for it all the same, though it would provide scant protection if anyone decided to fire down into the well.
“Who are you hiding from?” Bucky said, voice so low it was almost inaudible. Every sense was strained for the sound of voices or horses, but so far the only sounds were birds calling to each other far in the distance.
“The Ten Rings,” the man said just as quietly. In the darkness, Bucky made a face. Sometimes rivals and sometimes allies of Hydra, the Ten Rings were a nasty bunch of jackals drawn from the dregs of every invading force that had thought to own the Holy Land. This man must have been lucky or skilled to escape. “You?”
“Hydra.” Bucky slid his hand under his clothes and pulled out a flask of precious water. He took just enough of a sip to wet his mouth, dry from running, then he held it out in the direction of the voice. “Water?”
“God yes,” the man said, fumbling in the dark before he found Bucky’s hand. “Thank you.” Bucky winced as he heard the man take a large swallow, but he had no idea how long he’d been hiding here nor how far he had fled before he’d found the farm so he bit his tongue as the man handed the flask back.
They both fell silent for a while, listening to the world go by the dubious safety of their hiding spot, until Bucky could tell that the sun was starting to set. “Were you going to stay here all night, too?” Bucky asked, risking a glance outside the blanket. Sure enough, the sky was starting to darken.
“No.” The man pulled off the blanket and peered upwards. "To be honest, I didn't really plan this far." It was still light enough that Bucky could finally get a good look at the man he’d been hiding with for hours; he definitely had the look of a captive, hollow cheeks and unkempt hair. Despite that, Bucky could tell that under the scraggly beard the man was not an unhandsome one. “I’m trying to make my way to Acre, how about you?”
“Anywhere, as long as it’s away.” Bucky tested the walls of the well, wondering if there was an easier way to climb up than the way he’d climbed down. “How were you going to get out of here?” Bucky asked. Underneath the man's baggy, ill-fitting clothes Bucky could tell that he was shorter and slimmer than Bucky himself so there was no way he could have climbed down the same way Bucky did.
Sure enough, the man produced a pair of thin metal rods, thicker than a hoof pick but thinner than a chisel. With a little bit of effort, he was able to drive one of them into the dry and cracking plaster between the stones of the well. “It’s going to be hard, but easier than trying to climb up like a spider.”
“If you trust me, I will go first,” Bucky said, holding a hand out for the picks. “I can make the holes, and then you can climb up behind me.”
For a long moment the man was silent, eyeing Bucky warily. From what Bucky could tell, the picks were made of solid pig iron, which while it wasn’t gold or silver, it was still a valuable trading commodity now that every scrap of iron, good or not, was needed for weapons for the Holy War. Eventually, though, the man handed them over. “I’ll wait for you at the top and give them back,” Bucky promised, and he slowly made his way up, using the picks to chisel out hand- and foot-holds all the way up. When he got near the lip of the well he paused, even though his arms and legs were burning, and searched carefully for signs of people. Though the sun was already past the edge of the horizon, Bucky could tell that the farm was still deserted. “All clear,” he called back down, and after a few minutes the man’s head popped out of the top of the well.
“Thank God,” the man said, taking a deep breath and stretching his limbs, turning his face to the sky as if it were something he hadn’t seen in a long while. The North Star was already out, shining serenely in the rosy sky, and the moon was low and fat at the edge of the horizon. “By the way, my name is Antoine,” the man said, holding his hand out.
“Iacobus, but call me Bucky,” he said, shaking it and handing the picks back over. “Thank you,” he added. “For helping me.”
“Yeah, about that,” Antoine said, hugging his arms around himself; as the sun went down, the air had grown noticeably chillier. “If you’re not heading in any particular direction, how do you feel about helping me get to Acre? I mean, two heads are better than one, right? Maybe people will pay less attention to us if we travel together instead of apart.”
“Um…” Bucky tried to think of a polite way to say, “I don’t think you’ll be able to keep up with me,” because even if the man had been in good shape prior to his captivity, months of being held by the Ten Rings had undoubtedly taken a toll on him physically. Meanwhile, Bucky was at the peak of his training, able to jog for miles in the heat of the day without faltering and go days without food or sleep. On the other hand, the man had a point; fighters who traveled by themselves were treated with suspicion and mistrust and frequently driven out of towns at the first sign of trouble.
“I can pay you,” the man added when Bucky's hesitation grew telling. “I know it doesn’t look like it right now, but if you can get me to the Knights Templar station near Acre, I’ll be able to pay you, I promise.”
At the mention of the Knights Templar, everything started to make more sense. “The Ten Rings were holding you for ransom,” Bucky said with dawning realization. That explained why a man like this, with his good, even teeth and flawless French, was being held by an organization like the Ten Rings.
“Yes. I mean, they were also making me work for them, but I am pretty sure they kidnapped me for ransom.” That explained the callouses on the man's hands, which were certainly not something a fancy, ransom-worthy French noblemen would have. Bucky wondered what kind of work they'd had him doing.
“Yes, I’ll help you,” Bucky decided. Taking another look at the North Star, he turned and started walking. "Acre is this way," he said over his shoulder. "But we should reach the closest town by daybreak, even if we have to take a rest."
Antoine jogged a little to catch up. "You haven't said how much you want in return for your aide."
"Depends on who finds us first, Hydra or the Ten Rings," Bucky said dryly. "I'll tell you what: if either of us get killed on the way to Acre, I'll give you a 100 percent discount."