It was only when the sounds of pursuit had faded completely that Seregil eased the reins on Cynril, risking a look behind him at his partner and talimenios. Alec gave him a tight smile as he pulled up Windrunner, then he dismounted to check on Patch, currently employed as a pack horse. She was a little winded from the fast pace they'd had to set but lifted her head gamely and nuzzled his chest. Alec patted her neck affectionately, checked the straps securing their possessions, and then remounted his horse.
"What now?" he asked Seregil, who was scanning behind them for signs of their pursuers.
Their latest job as thieves had been successful but their erstwhile employer less than honourable; instead of payment, he had loosed his household on the pair of nightrunners. That they'd managed to escape with both their lives and possessions had been due equally to luck and skill, but Seregil was disinclined to press either.
"We'd best avoid the coastal towns for a while," Seregil said. "That tale will spread, whether Lord Fenwick wills it or not." He studied the signposts at the cross-roads before them and dismissed one immediately as it led back by winding ways to Skala, debating the other two options. One led north, into the rough foothills of the Nimra mountains, while the other led into the gentler valleys and farmlands. He knew which suited his present mood but was it fair to subject his companion to the harder path?
He looked over at Alec and the younger man met his eyes forthrightly. Despite the perils Seregil had dragged Alec into over the past few years, his loyalty had never wavered. Indeed, Alec seemed to have a faith in Seregil that he himself had lost, consigning even his heart into Seregil's keeping. Not once during their past year of self-exile had Alec betrayed by look or word that he regretted that decision, that he would have preferred to live the more comfortable and conformable life of Sir Alec back in Rhiminee. To second-guess him now would be a disservice to his talimenios.
"We go upland," Seregil decided. "Stay away from the larger towns, maybe find a small hamlet where we can settle for a while." Not long, though; Seregil hadn't been able to find his ease within the company of strangers since he'd left Rhiminee and Alec, used to a rougher life from childhood, hadn't voiced a complaint.
He didn't complain now, either, turning Windrunner onto the northern road with the docile Patch trotting along behind.
For four days, they travelled north, along what passed for roads in those parts. It was high summer and the roads were dry and hard, and the first day they moved at a brisk pace, in case they were still being pursued. The second day, certain now that they were safe, they allowed their mounts to proceed at a more leisurely pace. And that night, instead of taking turns at watch, they rolled up in their bedrolls together, their bodies eager for the intimate touches they'd had to forgo for the past two nights. It would have been folly to disrobe completely, but knowledgeable hands found ways past clothing and fastenings, and eager mouths and hands assisted them to a completion no less the sweet. Afterwards, with their arms wrapped around each other and Alec's head resting on his shoulder, Seregil fell into an easy and untroubled sleep for the first time in days.
The following two days, their travel was equally leisurely. Seregil assessed the landscape around them with a knowledgeable eye. The fertile fields had given way to woodlands, plentiful with game, and Alec's bow supplied their cook-fire so that they didn't need to dig into their meagre supplies. Distant smoke indicated the location of many small hamlets, although they were careful to keep their distance, but they encountered no one else travelling along their path.
Seregil also assessed Alec as they rode further north, away from the troubles that had dogged their heels for the past year. Alec had bounced back from his ordeal while they were under the kind care of their hosts at Watermead, although he still suffered from the occasional nightmare. But for the past year, there had been a shadow of guilt in his eyes, and although he'd never said a word, Seregil had known that he was thinking of their friends still fighting the war. During the past few days, though, the shadows had melted away and the sparkle had returned to his eyes. His smiles had always been plentiful, but now his laugh rang out again as they talked and teased while they rode. Seregil found his own smile returning in response, and the further north they travelled, the lighter the burden on his heart.
Toward the end of the fourth day, Seregil decided to take the risk in order to restock the supplies they couldn't forage, taking the track towards the nearest hamlet instead of turning away. It was nestled into the cup of a valley, and the sheep and cattle grazing the hillsides indicated that it was prosperous enough to support the inhabitants in relative comfort. There was a small square at the center, and as they dismounted, a number of the more curious inhabitants came out to greet them. The local shopkeeper was willing to trade dry goods for the skins Alex had tanned, and the villagers offered glasses of homemade wine in exchange for gossip from the larger world.
There was no hostelry to welcome them for the night, and although Seregil knew that he had only to produce his harp and they would have supper and a place by a fireside, he was oddly reluctant to do so. Trappers were common enough among the hill-country, but a bard travelling along these ways would be remembered and remarked on. Fortunately, Alec came up with a solution: an abandoned homestead just beyond the village proper that they were welcome to use. So after bidding farewell and accepting a skin of wine for their trip, they mounted up and rode out along the track north. Then he went to investigate their possible lodging.
Seregil cautiously opened the door to the cabin, certain that he would be met with any number of wild creatures and rodents who had made the place their own, in absence of human inhabitants. Instead, he found that the place was almost tidy, as if not long deserted, although he wouldn't like to chance the straw mattress on the low-slung bed. The stone fireplace looked serviceable and it was the work of a few minutes to gather firewood. By the time Alec had finished with the horses, Seregil had quite a cheery blaze going.
"This is cozy," Alec declared, setting their packs down beside the crate that served as a table. He pulled out bread and cheese, as well as the wine they'd been given, and they made quick work of their meal, then laid out their bedding before the fire. Alec gave the mattress a wistful look, and Seregil decided that in the morning, they'd tackle the job of cleaning and restuffing it. And the fireplace smoked a little, sure indication that something was blocking part of the chimney, so that would have to be checked. Then Alec was kissing him, with that combination of innocence and lust that fired Seregil's blood like none other, and any other housekeeping thoughts evaporated like mist.
After breaking their fast the next morning, Alec helped Seregil drag the mattress outside without a word, although he couldn't quite conceal his surprise that they were not immediately moving on. Together, they emptied out the old ticking and hung the cover on a line to beat out the dust and mites, then gathered sweet-smelling grasses to stuff it again. Alec scrambled onto the roof to peer down the chimney and dislodged a squirrel's nest, while Seregil fetched water to clean the table and the few dishes and pots that had been left.
"I might be able to make stew for supper," Alec said, checking that the pot was serviceable, "if I can hunt up some meat."
After lunch, by unspoken agreement, they followed the stream to its source, a pond up on the ridge. This high up in the hills, the water was a little cool, even at the height of summer, but it had been a week since Seregil had been able to strip off his clothes and get a thorough wash, so in minutes, he was naked and plunging into the pond's waters. Alec joined him, whooping with delight at the coolness of the water and startling a pair of otters who were disporting themselves along the bank. Like children, they splashed and dove and wrestled, and when the wrestling became too heated and the water too chill, they dragged themselves up onto the bank so that they might continue their sweet sporting on firmer ground.
Afterwards, sated and sleepy, warmed by the sun, they lay entwined together and dozed. Seregil lightly stroked Alec's back, irresistibly drawn to caress the sun-warmed flesh – the sun loved his talimenios nearly as much as Seregil did himself – and kissed the damp fair hair.
"Our clothes could use a good wash as well," he murmured, although he didn't bestir himself to tend to the matter, far more content to rest here with Alec. "The ones in our packs as well."
"Mmm," Alec muttered sleepily. "My tunic needs patching, and your trousers. And Patch's bridle needs mending as well, if we've got the time."
"There's no place that we need to be."
Alec made a sleepy assent and Seregil said, hesitantly, "I was thinking that we might stay here."
Alec lifted his head, meeting Seregil's eyes. "For how long?"
Seregil didn't look away from his companion's searching gaze. "A while."
"It will be fall before too long, and winter comes quickly after that up this high," Alec pointed out. "If we plan to avoid the larger towns this winter, we will need to begin preparing for that."
Seregil shrugged. "This place is as good as any other, and as there are no claims on it…"
Alec considered and nodded. "The windows will need covering, to keep out the cold, and the byre needs repair, but the cabin appears solidly built. It will do."
"It will be a hard winter, living up here on our own," Seregil cautioned.
"I'm accustomed to hard living," Alec said simply, then leaned down to kiss Seregil. "I can endure anything, so long as you are here with me, talí."
A fierce pride in and love for his talimenios filled Seregil, and he wrapped his arms around Alec as he pulled him into a deeper kiss. Alec's love for him was like a second sun, and if it didn't completely banish the shadows of pain in his soul, at least it beat them back into the dark corners. The gods only knew what he had done to deserve this treasure in his arms, but as long as they allowed him to keep Alec with him, he would take what the gods sent, and gladly.