You meet some strange people travelling the north roads.
Thank you to Ddae as always for her mad proofreading skillz. Originally posted December '06 for my two year LJversary.
Tetheus hadn't meant to wander so close to the town. He tried to stay away from human habitation as much as possible - though demons rarely came this far north, their memory had not yet faded enough for the townspeople not to recognize him for what he was. At one village even the farmwives had come to chase him out with brooms.
He could have stopped them, could easily have torn their skin into strips and watched the square run red -- no. Not any more. That was why he had to stay away from them.
He was growing careless. Sloppy. Last time should have taught him his lesson; he thought the wound had opened up again, he could feel something dampening his coat. He wasn't as quick as he used to be. Six months on the run, catching what he could and sleeping under bushes, was wearing him down.
He didn't look down, though; but kept his eyes on the road. Full dark was still an hour away, he estimated, and he was easy prey like this. No demons this far north, but brigands. A sheepherder would slay a wounded demon and consider it a public service. He swayed in the saddle slightly. He had to get off the road. They wouldn't have to kill him if he fell and broke his neck.
He turned into the brush, following a faint trail through the trees. Already they were shedding their leaves in preparation for winter, and the forest carpet crunched underneath the horse's hooves. Tetheus shivered, though the night wasn't cold enough yet. Fever. The hole in his side ached. Some soldiers were none too assiduous in keeping their blades clean. If the wound was infected... then he would have to find a town further north, where demons were the stuff of childhood stories and engage a healer there. There would be such a town. He wouldn't last the winter otherwise.
Fire flickered up ahead, and his heart sank. Instead of running away, he'd walked right into them. He hadn't even noticed their trail. /Careless/. There was no way he hadn't been heard; he'd made enough noise to wake the dead. His hand went to his sword involuntarily even as his eyes, able to pierce through the darkness, searched the clearing. Only one. He could take him, easily. No! He made himself take the reins in both hands. Not again. Not ever.
"I know you're there so you might as well come out. You've been following me all day. If you wanted to join my camp you should have just said so." The man didn't turn towards him, just stirred up his coals. Something was cooking. Tetheus couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. He appeared to be unarmed.
"I apologize for disturbing you," he said stiffly, and turned his horse around. "I'll be on my way now." He could make it a little further. If he needed to, he could make it a little further.
"Easy, man, you look half dead." The man was at his side quicker than he had thought possible, his hand holding the bridle. "I won't harm you. I've been waiting for you all day." He grinned, an ear-splitting smile that lit up his plain features, his brown eyes seemed to dance with laughter. "I thought at first you were going to rob me, but I don't think you could steal sweets from children in your condition. Come, some hot dinner in you will do you good."
"I have to go," he said, shaking the man's hands off. The whole world tilted crazily, and darkness rushed up to meet him.
"Ah, you're awake finally. I thought you were going to sleep until we reached Draqueen."
Tetheus sat up carefully, mindful of his wound, but it didn't even twinge. The skin was pink and even, as if the angry puffiness of infection had simply been smoothed away. His hand went instinctively to his sword before he realized it was in the other man's hands.
"It's a fine blade," he said, with an experimental slash at the air. He moved, fluid like water, rippling through the forms. "Well balanced. A master forged this, but it's of no maker I know."
"You wouldn't," Tetheus said, scrambling out of the blankets, and casting around for his coat.
The stranger followed his gaze. "I took it down to the river to wash. Should be dry in a few hours."
Hours. Hours he didn't have. He had to keep moving. "It's fine, I don't mind a little damp." He stumbled to his feet, ignoring the rush of nausea. "Thank you for - for whatever it was you did, but I have to leave, I have to be on to the next village by nightfall." He couldn't see his horse.
The other man studied Tetheus' sword quietly for a long moment before he spoke. "Look, I don't know why you're in such a rush, but as long as we're going in the same direction, we might as well travel together." He smiled again, and the sky seemed to brighten. "You look like you need someone to take care of you, and I could use the company." He sheathed the sword and tossed it to him.
"I don't need anything," he almost snapped. "If you could just show me where you tied my horse, I will be leaving."
"Maa," the stranger said, clacking his tongue, "you're a stubborn one then, aren't you? Come on, I'll show you."
"I meant what I said last night, you know," the dark-haired man said when he caught up with him the next morning, with a smile that was barely hidden in his serious tone.
"I prefer to travel by myself," Tetheus said stiffly.
"Well, I prefer to have company, so I'm afraid you're stuck with me." He fell in beside him, with that ever-present smile still on his face. "How's the side feeling this morning?"
"It's fine. Thank you."
"Talkative, aren't you."
He didn't bother to grace that with a reply. Perhaps his silence would make the man realize that he was hardly an ideal travelling companion, and he would leave him without asking too many questions.
A few minutes passed of Hugh looking at him expectantly before he caved and introduced himself.
"I am named Tetheus."
"Unusual name; where's it from?"
He stiffened. If he hadn't already given himself away, naming his birthplace certainly would.
Hugh noticed his tenseness.
"It's all right if you don't want to say. Look, you're obviously on the run from something -I don't really care what- but I think we can be of help to each other."
"How so?" Tetheus said warily. Everyone said demons were not to be trusted, but so far humans in his experience hadn't shown themselves to be much different.
"Well, you're starving and without a scrap to your name, and I," he made a show of patting himself down, "am defenseless. If you'll guard me to Draqueen, I'll feed you on the road, pay you for your efforts once I reach home, and after that you can keep going wherever it is you're going." He smiled broadly. "Deal?"
"I can't go to Draqueen." That would surely be suicide.
"Why not?" Hugh looked affronted. "I assure you they're all perfectly nice people, and I'd be more than happy to put you up if you need a place to stay."
"I need to keep moving." His stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly, and Hugh laughed, a rich, full sound he had never heard before.
"What you need is food, man. Come on, say it's a deal."
He weighed his options. Since his wound had been healed -Hugh obviously had secrets of his own, but he was going to be the last to pry into them- he could make much better time than before, but with winter nearly upon them, food was still going to be an issue, and he had no real idea where he was going to go.
Could he trust this man? Everything he had ever learned said no, but some intuition he hadn't even known he had said yes.
"As far as Chantel," he said finally. "I go no further."
"That's good," he said, almost lighting up the sky with his obvious pleasure. "So," he said, nudging his horse closer, "how about that sword of yours?"