"You want us to eat potatoes again?"
"I've got a simple solution if you don't like it," Marin answered, moving the frying pan so that it was directly over the fire. "You can cook for yourself." His companion laughed. Cameron was sprawled out on his back near the campfire in the large forest clearing.
"You're all right thanks," he said easily, not even bothering to open his eyes. "It's your turn. If potatoes are all you can cook, then potatoes I shall have to endure." Marin rolled his eyes at Cameron, the gesture completely lost on his unmoving friend.
"That bacon we picked up today as well. And bread. Will that do you?"
"It will suffice, I suppose." Cameron replied loftily. Marin snorted. Cameron heaved a dramatic sigh and Marin glanced up from the frying pan, a smile quirking his lips as he looked at his friend. Theirs was one of those friendships where their differences brought them together as much as their similarities. Marin had a face that, when not smiling, naturally settled into a brooding expression, and had consequently spent much of the last ten years being told he was far too serious for one so young. In truth, he was by nature given to frequent bouts of introspection that were probably not entirely healthy, and these accusations were not completely without merit. Cameron, in contrast, was all easy smile and boyish charm under his messy blond hair, though Marin knew him well enough to know both the focused attention he could bring to bear on his work, and the explosive possibilities of his temper.
All was silent except for the sizzling of the food in the pan, until the unexpected dry crunch of leaves warned of someone approaching. Marin's head jerked up immediately, and he moved the pan off the heat. Cameron rolled to his feet with a smoothness that belied his previous apparent relaxation. Sword hands went to hilts. They had reasons to be wary, but the figure that stepped hesitantly into the clearing was just a boy in his teens, who came abruptly to a standstill when he saw the two men staring at him. Frowning, Marin touched Cameron on the arm as he walked past him. "I'll deal with this." Cameron relaxed slightly, though his eyes never left the scene before him – and his hand never left his hilt. The intruder fixed his eyes apprehensively on Marin as he approached.
Marin looked the kid over. It was hard to miss the colourful bruises, standing out on his pale face, which could only be the result of a recent beating. He looked no older than fifteen, with grey eyes and hair that was probably light brown when it wasn't dirty. His skinny frame was clothed in ragged trousers and a tunic, whatever their original colour might have been undistinguishable. When he spoke, Marin's voice was even, carrying not a hint of either threat or welcome. In times like these, places like these, it did not do to be too hasty with offers of goodwill.
"Why have you come here?"
The boy looked anywhere but at Marin's face.
"I- I beg your pardon, my lord. I had no idea you were noble, I swear it!"
"That tells me nothing. Why did you come into this clearing in the first place?"
The boy's face was sickly white underneath the bruises and dirt. He swallowed hard, then said,
"When I saw the firelight, I thought it must be woodcutters. I'm a beggar, but I haven't collected much recently. I thought to beg something to eat. Had I known you were nobles, I- I would not have presumed, my lord."
Marin studied him in silence for a long moment, his piercing gaze unmoving. Then he spoke.
"I don't believe you."
"My lord?" The boy stammered, already shifting his weight. Marin reached out, and grabbed the boy hard around the upper arm before he could run. He winced with pain, but did not struggle, and Marin relaxed his grip slightly.
"You are an excellent liar, boy, but I don't believe your story. Your wrists give it away." He held the boy's arm in front of his face. The wrist had scarring all around it. "And your neck. You usually wear wristbands and a collar. Slave chains. And you've recently been beaten, not only your face - that could be explained away by a simple fight - but the way you walk suggests stripes on your back as well. You're a runaway."
For a moment, Marin saw something almost like relief on the boy's face. However, when this was instantly replaced by an entirely convincing fear, Marin decided he must have imagined it. "Well? Am I right?" The boy looked at the ground.
"Yes, my lord."
Both Marin's voice and his grip on the boy's arm remained steady.
"What did you do to earn the stripes?"
"I- I spilt some ink."
"Really? How clumsy of you." Marin's voice had suddenly turned icy cold. "Who is your master then? Another noble? I probably have a duty to return his property to him, don't you think?"
The kid had taken a few steps before he realised he was free, and looked at Marin uncertainly.
"I haven't got a lot of time for so-called nobles who can't control their tempers - or their fists. Go, I won't stop you."
The boy hesitated.
"My lord, you are- merciful. I should not dare ask anything more of you than what you have already given."
Marin's face was expressionless, showing nothing of the uneasiness he had felt since realising the boy was a slave.
"My lord, I haven't eaten in three days." Marin could believe that; the boy's face was gaunt and longing as the smell from the cooking bacon wafted towards them. "If you could just let me have some scraps from your meal, my lord, or the food your horses leave, anything."
Cameron called out from the fire, where he had taken over tending the food when he assessed that there was no danger.
"So, Marin, are you actually going to come and eat the food that you oh-so-skilfully cooked? I assume our new friend is staying for dinner."
Marin gestured with his head for the boy to follow him as he walked back towards the fire. He did so, eyes downcast, and when Marin gestured for him to sit near the fire, he knelt neatly, hands folded in his lap. Cameron presented him with the first wooden plate, piled high, but he did not begin to eat straight away. Instead he glanced up at Cameron as though unsure of the trick. Cameron merely grinned at him, however, and began doling out food for himself and Marin, and the boy began to eat. He glanced up again after the first few mouthfuls, as though he still expected it to be taken from him, but when neither of them showed signs of doing anything of the sort, he bent his head back to the food. He was nearly finished when Marin looked at him. "Do you have a name, boy?" The boy ceased eating to answer,
"They call me Seth, my lord." He was carefully polite, although he avoided making eye contact. "And how did you-" Whatever Marin might have been about to ask was lost, as Cameron interrupted. Although he did not shout, his voice was filled with urgency, and he was rising to his feet as he said,
"He's not a runaway. He's lying. Grab him."
Although their reactions were almost immediate, Seth's had been instantaneous. He abandoned his food, jumped up, and headed for the trees. Marin and Cameron split up, trying to head him off. They were partially successful, preventing him from escaping, but not actually laying hands on him. Expecting an easy capture, neither drew weapons, and Cameron went for Seth, obviously unprepared for the fist in his face, and the kick to his kneecap that sent him sprawling to the ground. The boy fought well, and desperately, but they had the advantage over him in numbers, weight and height. After a few minutes of frenzied fighting, Marin had one arm around Seth's neck, and was twisting the boy's arm up behind his back with the other. Seth started frantically kicking Marin's shins. Wincing, he released the boy's neck for a second. When his hand returned he was holding a knife, and the boy ceased struggling completely, going docilely when he was dragged to stand by the campfire.
Marin raised curious eyebrows at Cameron over the boy's head, and he shrugged in response.
"I'm not sure exactly what it is, but it's something important. He lied about coming across us by accident, he was sent here, to do something, but I couldn't work out what, or by whom." Held immobile by the taller, stronger noble, the boy watched in terror as Cameron loomed over him. When he spoke, his voice was soft, almost gentle.
"Tell us. Who sent you? What are you here to do?"
Seth said nothing. His eyes were wide in his terrified face and he swallowed convulsively. Cameron reached out, and the boy flinched. A quick search of the boy's tunic revealed a tiny vial of dark purple liquid. "Now," he mused, holding it up, "this is interesting. But, Seth, I'm sure it's nothing dangerous, is it? Why don't you drink it, just to show us how harmless it is?" He moved even closer to the boy, making as if to uncork the vial. Marin felt the boy try to move backwards, and resisted. He could feel him shaking violently now. "What," exclaimed Cameron, "you won't drink it?" Seth hung his head.
"Please, my lord." It was barely more than a whisper. "Please."
Cameron took the vial closer still to the firelight, and studied it for a long, silent minute. He then uncorked it, and, ever so carefully, raised it to his nose and sniffed. He replaced the cork, and turned to face the rest.
"It's definitely poison." Then, looking at Seth, "You little bastard."
Two swift strides brought him right up to the boy, who flinched violently.
"Who sent you, boy?" When it looked as though Seth was going to remain silent again, Marin began to increase the pressure of the knife at his throat, scratching the blade lightly up and down, wearing away at the skin.
"Come on, Seth," he said, with a lot more than a hint of threat in his voice. Blood welled up as the knife re-opened scarring from the slave collar. "You've already had your supper. Now sing for it."
Seeming to resign himself to the inevitable, the boy began to talk. His voice was dull and lifeless, and he kept his gaze fixed on the floor. "I was sent by my master. He told me to pretend to be a beggar, asking for food. He said that you were sure to give me something, and that you might even let me stay by the fire for a while. He told me to slip that into your food. He sent a soldier with me to watch me go into the clearing, and he ordered me to meet him on the other side of the forest tomorrow if I succeeded."
"And if you don't meet him?"
"He'll know that you have discovered the plot…" the boy gulped, "…and killed me." Marin glanced at Cameron, grimacing from his position out of the boy's field of vision. Cameron's look of anger did not fade.
"And just who is your master, boy?" Seth looked as though he was considering refusing to divulge this. Marin jerked his arm up until it touched the back of his head, and he gasped with pain.
Marin spoke softly into the boy's ear.
"You will tell us eventually, you know. It will be a lot easier for you if you just tell us now. What loyalty do you have to him anyway?" He made his voice persuasive, and he decreased the pressure on the boy's arm a little. Seth winced – the arm must have brushed against the fresh wounds on his back.
"Cian Kinaris, my lord. Son of the Duke of Phinas.
Marin let out a long, low whistle.
"Well. That certainly explains a lot."
He relaxed his painful grip on Seth's arm, although the knife at his throat remained steady. "So what do we do?"
"You said your master will be here tomorrow, boy?" Seth nodded slightly. "Then I suggest we have a…word or two with him." Marin agreed,
"I'm not sure if there's anything else we can do, you know. Without proof." Cameron held up the vial of poison, and Marin sighed. "Yes, I know, but do you really think the king is going to pay attention to that? All we've got is the word of a slave, anyway, and legally that's not worth anything."
Seth was, quite frankly, not even sure why he was still alive. Three hours ago, he certainly hadn't expected to be. Once he had given all the useful information he had, he had expected a quick dispatch, and had thought darkly to himself that a slit throat was at least a quick death. Instead, however, at the suggestion of the tall lord with the light brown skin, the one who was called Marin or Marik or something similar, his arms had been bound behind his back, and the rope attached to the cart that sat at the edge of the clearing, close by the tethered horses. Then the nobles had gone back to the fire and conversed in voices too low for him to hear, their backs to him, for perhaps another hour before the white one – Cameron, perhaps - rolled out a bedroll and went to sleep. Sleep was something that Seth did not expect to come to him that night. It had occurred to him that the nobles' failure to deal out a quick death probably meant that a longer one was planned, and this was hardly a thought conducive to easy slumber. Nor was his position particularly comfortable. Although it was still early autumn, it had been a cold year, and the night grew colder and colder, wind piercing Seth's ragged tunic. He tried not to shiver, not wishing to attract any attention to himself. It seemed to be working at first, as the still-awake lord did not come near him, but during the fourth hour the man got up from the fire, walked over to him and stood looking down at him.
After a few silent minutes in which Seth huddled over his knees, trying not to shiver and not daring even to risk a glance upwards, the lord swore softly. Seth tensed, waiting for the blow or kick to come, and wishing he had his hands free to protect his head at least. Unexpectedly, however, the older man knelt down beside him and spoke to him.
"I'm going to untie your hands and tie you by your ankle instead. Don't even think about moving, or I'll kill you." It was said so simply, Seth had no difficulty believing it. He stayed absolutely still while the rope was untied then tied about his ankle. The lord kept his hand over the knot, and bowed his head for a moment. When he lifted his hand it was as though the strands of the knot had melted together. "There. You can try to undo that for as long as you want, but it won't work. You can move your arms now." Seth wrapped his arms around his knees, wincing a little at the pain in the shoulder that had been twisted, and then glanced quickly, uncertainly at the man at his side.
"Thank you, my lord."
Seth could not have predicted what happened next. The lord, bruises blossoming darkly on his face from Seth's fevered attempts to escape, removed his cloak and placed it round Seth's shoulders.
"Try to sleep." He got up, and moved back towards the fire, pulling a blanket from his abandoned bedroll as he passed to wrap around his own shoulders as he sat the rest of his watch out, staring into the flames.
Seth stared after him for a moment, then, recollecting himself, curled up on the ground with the warm woollen cloak over him, trying to look as though he was asleep. Though his heart still beat quickly with fear, he forced himself to steady his breathing before he allowed himself to consider the events of that evening. The likelihood was, Seth knew, that they would kill him tomorrow; either that or they would beat him and send him back to his master. Seth was not actually sure which he would prefer. Lord Cian would not be pleased that he had failed to follow out his orders, and death tomorrow was probably preferable to a lingering death by starvation and ill treatment. Seth had been a slave in this country for over three years, and he knew well what happened to slaves who didn't learn to follow orders and to keep their thoughts silent.
This was a lesson that he had often failed to learn: submission did not come easily to him. A surplus of pride often left him balanced precariously, like a ropewalker at a fair, on the boundary between what was allowable – just – and what might get him into more trouble than he would be able to deal with. Usually, he found that youthful unwillingness to relinquish a life that he still hoped would change was too strong to allow him to fall completely. But he had thought, yesterday, that the day had finally come when submission would be too vile. Seth knew he was no assassin. And indeed, it had taken something stronger than the fear bred of four years of captivity to cause him to even contemplate murder on behalf of someone as truly disagreeable as Cian Kinaris. He had refused at first, of course, even after three days of 'persuasion'. And then yesterday, Kinaris had produced the weapon he had been hiding in his arsenal for the year he had been Seth's master. Kinaris turned out to have knowledge Seth had not even suspected he had, knowledge it should have been impossible for him to have. After that, there was no longer a choice. So he had come to this clearing, done his scared little beggar act, and switched to scared little slave boy -an uncomfortably easy role- when that story had not worked. But had he played along only because he had to, and had been dreading the part where he was to use the poison. He was almost glad that he had been caught, would be glad, if it wasn't for the part of him that screamed that seventeen years weren't enough. Life might be shit, but it was what he knew, and he wasn't ready to die.
Seth wondered why the noble had freed his arms and given him his cloak. Although he could not think what it could be, he was sure that there had been an ulterior motive. He had been a slave too long to believe it could be out of kindness, or pity. Remembering the way the strands of the rope had fused together, he wondered to what extent the nobles could use magic. Lord Cameron evidently had some knowledge of thoughts, but Seth could not be sure how powerful he was. There were other talents that sometimes went with that gift: did the blond lord possess them too?
Under the pretext of turning over, as if he were merely shifting in sleep, Seth moved his body and evaluated his physical state. The lash marks on his back still hurt a lot, but they were from two days ago, and he had become used to the constant burning feeling spread across his entire back. He had acquired a few bruises on his arm and his face from today's encounters, his neck was bleeding where the knife had opened scars, and the top of one arm ached steadily where it had been twisted. Those things, however, would heal. It was his ribs he was worried about. When he had refused yet again to act as Kinaris' assassin, Kinaris had hit him until he fell over, and then gone for him with steel-capped riding boots. That had been only yesterday. He shied away from the memory of listening to his ribs crack, sheltering his head with his arms, and praying silently that he would fall into unconsciousness. He knew how dangerous broken ribs could be. However, the blood on his knuckles was not his own, and there seemed nothing wrong with his legs. He decided that, given a chance, he would try to run for it. He could ignore the pain in his ribs if he had to, and there seemed nothing to lose, after all. Despite the dull ache of fear in the pit of his stomach, and the thoughts churning in his head, Seth eventually drifted into sleep early in the morning, a sleep filled with shadows and nightmares before he was pulled down into the blissful relief of black dreamlessness.