Heh. I've been recently re-reading all the OLD versions of my tales — and I'm talking the original fanfic versions. Wow. How they've CHANGED.
Let's do a comparison of equivalent scenes (warning: LONG scenes & fan-ficcy stuff behind the cuts, and for the record, LJ's Rich Text editor SUCKS, especially when attempting cuts). The original "Severed Earth", aka "To Catch A King":
"I hope Perry's still alive." Ross's voice was subdued.
Jonathan concentrated on the back of the horse's head. "He is. He has to be."
They'd finally tracked the bandits to a sheltered clearing on the other side of the forest. The night sky was clear, but moonless; Jonathan could see their campfire flickering through the trees, and heard the low rumble of voices up ahead. Probably don't think our group can track that well, Jonathan thought. Then again, the way we reacted…
It had been a total rout, that ambush, and the way the group had reacted would've made any attackers cocky. Hoping to find help, they had only been riding along the trail when the attackers swept down, with warcries and fire blasts from the open air. Jonathan's horse had spooked at a blast of fire, rearing and throwing him to the ground. He'd woken up with a splitting headache, bruised from head to toe. Nothing broken, thank God.
The first thing he'd seen was Neal bending over him, helping him to his feet. He'd acted like a confused idiot trying to get his bearings until Ross finally told Jonathan to sit down before he hurt himself. Then Ross had turned back to help Smitty to his feet.
Then they'd noticed Steve missing.
And I was the idiot who insisted on taking Neal to that Renaissance Festival that started this mess in the first place. How was I supposed to know we'd run into Stephen…and Ross…and Smitty…and that..that gypsy. Jonathan shuddered. That bitch really pulled an act on us.
She'd walked up as they had been standing there arguing and had weaseled right into the center of the group. "You Journey. You real musicians. Come and I show you real gypsy magic…real gypsy music."
And we were flattered enough, curious enough and dumb enough to follow her. Next thing I know, we're waking up in the middle of a forest with the horses nuzzling at us. Now if only we can figure out where we are and how to get back. Jonathan held his horse to a walk, to pick along the trail. My head hurts. My all-over hurts. I don't want to do this. I just want to lay down and sleep for the next century.
But Jonathan knew why he'd done it, why he'd told the others to stay put and let him do some scouting, why he was out here despite his splitting head and aching bruises. He'd at least read about this stuff, fantasy, sword & sorcery, and Ross had done survival camping. They at least stood a chance of pulling this off; Smitty and Neal didn't.
Besides, whether he admitted it or not, they were friends. He owed Steve that much.
"You got awful quiet," Ross said, breaking into Jonathan's thoughts.
"I don't wanna think about the alternative."
"Why Steve? Why attack us for him?" Jonathan burst out, unable to hold back any longer. "And how's that gypsy figure into all this? Something's really weird, here."
"Like it's not weird enough already? C'mon, Jay, get a grip."
"And of course we gotta play fool heroes to see what's going on."
"We're gonna get ourselves killed, that's what going on." Ross snorted. "I thought you'd figured that much out." Ross had insisted on coming along, stating that it was too dangerous for one. "Someone's gotta make it back," he had said.
Yeah, right. He might know survival stuff, but he's playing nursemaid, I can tell that. But he's right, I'm gonna get myself killed doing this.
About a hundred yards away from the campfire, they left the horses tied to a tree, on a long enough rope for them to forage, then Jonathan and Ross proceeded on foot, picking their way cautiously through the underbrush towards the flickering light. The last few yards, they dropped to their stomachs and crawled, slowly, stopping outside the circle of firelight to peer through the covering bushes.
Jonathan stared, as he finally got a good look at the attackers. They were dressed like the security force at the Renaissance Fair, brown, dusty leather armor, tunics, breeches. Clubs and long knives were everywhere; Jonathan spotted several crossbows, as well as quite a few weapons he had no clue for.
"What'd we do, step into a remake of the Three Musketeers or something?" Ross said, his voice just loud enough for Jonathan to hear.
Feudal warriors. That's what they look like. What are middle ages peasant fighters doing here? Oh, hell, what are we doing trying to go up against folks straight from Tolkien?
"I don't like this," Ross muttered. "What's a nobleman doing with this crowd?"
"There. Look at him. He's gotta be. He looks like that one magician from the Fair."
The one Ross pointed at didn't look like much and Jonathan didn't remember seeing him at the Fair. Mousy hair framed a mousy face, but his clothes were rich robes, red & black with silver trim, with a pendant of some sort hanging in the center of his chest. The rest of the bandits deferred to that one, and gave him wide berth.
A bare circle of small, one-man tents, fire in the center — Jonathan tried to note the camp layout as he looked from one tent to the other . Then he saw Steve. The singer was seated up against a huge tree, his hands behind his back and his ankles bound with rope, but he didn't look scared, just angry and frustrated.
One of the bandits went towards Steve, bowed. "Would Your Majesty want some water?"
Jonathan started, heard Ross choke. Majesty?!?
Steve closed his eyes, heaving a sigh. "Man, I keep telling you, I'm not your damn king!"
At that, the man in robes paced over to glare down at Steve. Steve swallowed whatever else he'd been about to say, but he held the man's glare with defiance in every line of his face.
The bandit holding the water waited, shifting from one foot to the other.
Finally, Steve broke the glaring contest, looking up at the water-holder. "Yeah. Please."
Well, at least they speak English or something. That's a plus.
The man in robes watched as Steve drank, and dismissed the other bandit with a curt gesture, though continuing to glare down at Steve. "Your Majesty, you may be sick with brain fever, but I tire of this game of yours."
"I'm not sick." Steve said evenly, his tone that of endless repetition. "I'm not your king."
"Of course not," the man agreed, with a sigh. "But the physicians at the Palace will deal with that. Point is, you are King Phillip of Kern, you are returning to Kern with us, and king or no king, I am very tired of your protests."
"Vicari, close it," one of the other bandits said. "We do no need trouble with th' Crown. We drop him off a' th' Palace an' get our pay an' go back to Chulain an' tha' is tha'."
Jonathan listened in fascination, trying to sort everything out. King. They think Steve is their king. And we're back in the Middle Ages, somehow. Dear God. When we get into trouble, we don't get small, do we? He watched patiently, as the bandits went about setting up camp and deciding on shifts for the night-watch, and tried to recall every fantasy story he'd ever read that might have tactics to help him. The mercenaries obviously thought Steve was sick or crazy; Jonathan knew that would be the counter for any proof he or Ross could come up with. Ambush of their own was out; they were outnumbered, and didn't know how to fight.
"Y'know," Ross said, in Jonathan's ear, "we could let these guys take Steve back to wherever. The folks in charge there'll know he's not the king."
Jonathan nodded absently, turning the idea around as the bandits settled into sleep and the first night watch left to patrol the perimeter — both guards out in the trees somwhere — and finally turned it down, shaking his head. "No," he whispered back. "I've read too many stories about what happens to royal lookalikes."
Ross glanced towards the camp. "You're right. They couldn't fit an iron mask over that nose. So now what?"
"We sneak him out of there. I should be able to out think a bunch of peasants." Jonathan started to back up, but Ross stopped him.
"You crazy? What're you gonna do if –"
"Run like hell, that's what. Stay here. If anything goes wrong, get out of here, got that?"
The bassist looked away, but nodded.
Jonathan scooted back carefully, freezing as one of the guards passed within a few feet of him. He waited until the guard had passed before getting slowly to his feet, well outside the light of the fire. He looked cautiously around, headed quietly towards the camp, looking around again when he reached the perimeter. All clear… They hadn't even put Steve in a tent; they'd left him tied up, in the open, in the center of camp. Stupid, really stupid folks. Talk about a tactical blunder…not that I'm griping. Jonathan crept up to the singer, laid a hand on his shoulder.
Steve started awake. Before he could do more, Jonathan muffled Steve's mouth with his other hand, but then Steve saw Jonathan and his whole body relaxed, his relief obvious.
Jonathan put a finger to his lips in warning, then removed his hand from Steve's mouth.
Not that it did any good. "Jay — god…is — is everyone–"
"Shhhh…yeah, everyone's alive. Ross is with me," Jonathan helped Steve up to a sitting position and pulled his knife (a switchblade, borrowed from Neal), and sliced through the ropes around Steve's feet. But then he got a good look at Steve's wrists.
Not rope binding him, but iron shackle. Jonathan swore, softly, unable to hold back.
"They don't want me to get lost again," Steve said, low and grim.
"You could've told us about your royalty. I'm sure your fans'll be thrilled." The jest came out sharper than Jonathan intended. Steve looked at Jonathan for a long moment, but Jonathan ignored it, contemplating the shackles.
Steve sighed, turned his head away. "The guy in the robes has the key to these things."
Jonathan nodded, prodding at the shackles, trying to think what to do, finally helped Steve to his feet. "Come on. We'll figure something out."
But Steve had glanced up. "Jay!"
Air whispered behind him, and without knowing why, Jonathan threw himself to one side, and rolled away…
…as bolt of Something bright red lanced through the spot he'd been in.
What the hell? He came to his feet with knife in hand and dodged behind Steve as another bright-red bolt tore at his feet and the camp roused up. Inspiration struck then, and Jonathan grabbed Steve hard, holding him tight as a shield in front with the oak tree at Jonathan's back. He pressed the switchblade against the singer's throat, and Steve gasped in shock, but Jonathan ignored it as the clearing fell silent.
Vicari and the other bandits were out in the center of camp, facing him and Steve and Vicari's hands glowed, faint red. Jonathan could only stare.
Ohmigod. Magic — he uses magic. Oh god– Jonathan squelched his mental babbling. "I wouldn't," he said to Vicari, pitching his voice loud enough for the whole camp, choosing his words with care. "I'll take him with me before leaving him to you damn bandits."
That halted them. Vicari looked at him evenly, as if weighing something in his mind.
"Jay, they got crossbows," Steve said, his voice tight.
"I know." But Jonathan's gaze was on Vicari.
The glow of Vicari's hands faded. Finally, he gestured at the others, who lowered their weapons as he stepped forward, spreading his hands wide. "Milord–"
Jonathan brought the blade up slightly, pressing the edge in harder against Steve's throat. Steve's sharp intake of breath halted the wizard. "Don't come closer," Jonathan said. "I know what you are." Now I do, anyway — god, I hope Ross is out of here.
Slowly, Vicari nodded. "Milord, believe me, harming His Majesty is the last thing we want." He studied Jonathan a moment. "You were in the group we ambushed."
Jonathan allowed his jaw to drop in fake shock. "His majesty?"
Play dumb, maybe learn something. And hope they don't catch on to the act.
Vicari nodded. "I thought as much. Milord, please, this is a misunderstanding. I pledge you my word of honor as geasarladh that we will not harm you or King Phillip."
Jonathan kept his face set in disbelief and deliberately snorted, not moving. "King? Him? Right. Steve here's no royalty, no more'n I am."
"Don't say that too loud, Jay. They'll tie you up, too."
"No," Jonathan went on. "I don't trust you at all."
"Truly, milord, the gentleman you hold is King Phillip of Kern. He has been missing for about two months now. We were hired by his uncle, Duke Dahn Kernos, to find him and return him to Kern." Vicari stopped, smiled at Jonathan. "Surely you understand why we are eager to have him back."
"I'm not your king," Steve growled. "I keep telling you– ahh–"
Jonathan had been allowing his knife to slowly drop, but brought it back up against Steve's throat, cutting off his words, when Vicari smiled.
"Dammit, Jay, you're not doing my nerves any good!"
Jonathan focused on Vicari, ignoring the nagging thought that he'd seen the man before. "Mister, you've definitely got the wrong man. I've known Steve here for a long time, and there's others with me who've known him longer than that. He ain't no king."
"We only have your word for that."
There wasn't anything Jonathan could say to that. He settled for scowling at Vicari.
"Well? Do you have some way to prove your words?" Vicari pressed.
For the first time, Jonathan cracked a smile. "We're bards."
That got gruff laughter from the rest of the bandits, as well as Vicari, and Jonathan felt his stomach unknot. I might actually survive this.
One of the bandits came forward, a plain woman in rough leather armor, a wide grin on her face. "Milord, story from Kern is tha' His Majesty is suffering some kind o' brain fever. He got hit with sunstroke or something while on a hunting trip an' disappeared. Winds only know what addled tale he ha' told ye."
"We understand your efforts to protect your friend," Vicari cut in smoothly, "But I have seen His Majesty before. That is him."
"Right," Jonathan said. "You still ain't shown me any proof of this."
He waited while the bandit that had spoken rummaged through packs and came up with a rolled parchment. She walked back towards them, unrolling the parchment and showing it to Jonathan.
"Shit," Steve said.
Jonathan let out a low whistle. The drawn likeness on the poster looked exactly like Steve, and the reward was huge, offered for the safe return of the king. Even if he had gotten Steve out without rousing the camp, the reward would've made sure that the bandits would be after them again. And they know the area. We don't. They have weapons. We don't. They have magic, and we sure as hell don't have that. Gah. Now what?
"It does look alot like him." Jonathan thought fast."You're not gonna hurt him?"
There…just the right touch, I hope.
Vicari shook his head. "Nor you, milord. 'Tis obvious His Majesty knows you as friend and that you act for his well-being. I swear, no one will hurt you."
Jonathan breathed a silent prayer, then settled Steve back against the tree.
Evidently, that wasn't what Steve wanted at all. He struggled and finally kicked out at Jonathan in frustration. "I don't believe you're doing this!"
"Chill out," Jonathan said. "Kern'll take one look at you, you'll be back with us in no time."
Vicari cleared his throat. "You sound as if you do not believe us."
Jonathan let his posture relax. "Oh, I believe you when you say you think Steve here is this King Phillip. I just know Steve's not your king, that's all."
"You can say that again."
"Steve, shut up."
Jonathan waved Vicari silent. "I don't feel like arguing about it, and I sure as hell don't wanna take you on in a fight. You guys seem to be honest fighters, and I don't wanna deprive you of your hard-earned pay, either."
That earned him a flat stare from Vicari. "Your altruism astounds me. What do you want?"
"Let me go back and get my friends. Let us go with you to Kern. That way, if you're right, we'll be on hand to record it." Jonathan made a wry face. It would also cover the fact that he had no clue in hell where Kern was. "Bards gotta make a living, too."
That got another laugh from the bandits — no. Jonathan revised that thought. Mercenaries. They had to be.
"And when it turns out that Steve here isn't the King after all, he won't have to go searching all over creation for us."
Vicari nodded. "That sounds fair."
"I hate to be a pain in the ass," Steve said, "but could someone at least unchain me?"
"I am sorry, Your Majesty, but we need to guarantee you will stay."
"Settle down, Steve. You heard them, they ain't gonna hurt you." Jonathan grinned. "They think you're a goddam king. What more do you want?"
Wow. That's actually painful to read — Jonathan's way too competent, Vicari & the mercenaries way too weak an obstacle. So…posted here for the first time, here's the update — the mainstream gods-I-hope-this-gets-published version of that scene. For reference (as the characters are now waaaaay different): "Vão" is the expy of Steve Perry (short for "Dammit-don't-call-me-Estevão" Carvalo), Rafe – Neal, Dylan – Ross, Ian – Smitty. But don't take the names too seriously or read "Journey" too heavily; my characters are no more Journey than I am, anymore:
Jonathan smashed into the ground, breath ripped from his lungs. He lay stunned, wheezing; explosions, yells whooped, horses' hooves lashed above him —
The hooves jerked aside. Jonathan struggled to get up, to do anything. Chaos thundered around him, hands hauled him up — rough, scarred faces —
"Another one!" someone shouted.
Wet cloth clamped over Jonathan's mouth and nose. The cloth stank of bad pot and mint, and the fumes hurt his nose. Jonathan spluttered, but someone punched his stomach; he gasped in a sour-sweet smell that burned his throat and lungs.
Sound and light faded.
Gradually the light returned, grey and faded as if from a distance, and his head rang with the sound silence made after a concert. Jonathan tasted bile; the blood-smell was still strong. His arms were bound behind him and his chest and head burned with pain. Jonathan closed his eyes, concentrated on breathing. If he tried hard enough, he'd wake up and be back with Lisa.
All he could see was his father. All he could hear was drunken raging, his baby brother screaming…
"Jay?" Scared, urgent. Rafe.
Something scrabbled against the dirt. Then air whistled, followed by a solid smack into skin and a sharp inhaled gasp. Someone fell against Jonathan and twisted as if to shield against blows, shivering violently.
"You fuckin’ assholes —” Vão, somewhere behind Jonathan.
Sudden silence. Footsteps moved away, and Rafe’s breath gasped out. "Don't be dead, Jay. Please don't be dead."
Don't be dead, please…
Memory made Jonathan open his eyes — instant mistake. Sunlight pounded through his head. Resolutely, Jonathan squinted against the painful light. "God."
"Thank god." Rafe sagged. His wrists were bound, his face swollen, bruised, smeared with blood. "Thank god."
The air smelled of burning wood, roasting meat, unwashed sweat, blood. Low rumbles of laughter and cursing surrounded them, and over those, Vão's agitated tenor swearing before a cold voice cut it silent with harsh tones of threat and command.
At that, Jonathan raised his head. Standing over him and Rafe were people dressed like Dylan’s fantasy crap, faded dusty leather ringed with bronze, blocking the sunlight in dark, square shadows. They bore clubs, thick knives, and weapons Jonathan didn’t know — black arcs of metal with wooden handles spanning the curve, wood poles with yellow-orange blades jutting out of both ends. The men were clean-shaven, hair chopped short and uneven, the women stout and scarred.
"What happened?" Jonathan’s mouth felt thick.
"They jacked us." Rafe’s voice cracked. He swallowed, tried again. "They’re going to — jesus —"
“You guys okay?” Vão, desperate, scared.
Rafe snarled something back — the air whistled again, impact thudding through Jonathan as Rafe gasped through clenched teeth.
"Tha' is our land-chosen king," a rough voice said. "Speak a’ tha’ ‘gain, an’ your blood shed in price."
King? Jonathan ignored his pounding head and aching chest, twisted to stare around the camp, a bare circle of small tents, a fire in the center. Vão was a few yards away, slumped against a spreading oak tree, his arms behind his back, his ankles bound. Two scowling men stood over him; a third daubed at Vão’s face with a cloth, though Vão jerked away from the touch. Strangely, Jonathan also heard music, plucked strings in intricate runs. The source was across the fire, an Asian woman in black and purple, out of place among the leather-clad thugs. She kept glancing towards Jonathan, and when she saw him staring, her glance turned into a steady gaze and nod.
It didn't reassure Jonathan at all, not when he was tied up and surrounded by drunken psychos in weird costumes, not when there’d been a dead body where they'd woken up.
Earth hold you, blood between you. For an instant, his grandmother's voice whispered in the slight breeze.
"One more, m'lord," said a rough female voice. Something heavy thumped the earth nearby.
"Dyl,” Rafe said, open panic. "Christ."
Dylan was battered, bruised, and bloody, his face barely recognizable. "I want," he slurred, "horse steak for dinner."
"There was another," said a cold, husky male voice, somewhere out of Jonathan's line of sight.
Ian. Dear god.
"We still search, m'lord," said the woman who'd dumped Dylan; she was plain, horse-faced, in well-worn leathers. She looked Dylan over, her face impassive. "Get the herb-wife t’ this one. He canna answer questions if he dies."
"Do not waste the time, captain," said the cold voice.
Captain. But these couldn't be soldiers, Jonathan thought. Probably some group of psychotic fantasy gamer-geeks; it was the only explanation that made sense. If Dylan would talk to them — he was into that crap —
"Respect, Lord Vicari," the woman said, "bu' the Blood Guardian wants all involved alive."
"He does," said the cold-voiced man.
Squinting against the pounding headache, Jonathan twisted to see the speaker. Dark hair framed a thick, thuggish face; the man's clothes were rich and thick, if dusty, blue tunic and black pants with silver trim. The face looked familiar, but Jonathan didn’t recognize him.
Without any expression, the man — Vicari — met Jonathan's gaze. "Question them here, then get rid of them. Taking them to Kern is dangerous."
"The Blood Guardian commanded it," the woman said.
"The Blood Guard has other motives."
"What the hell you talkin’ about?" Rafe said.
One of the others raised a club but backed off at a sharp gesture from the captain, who stared Rafe down. "Ye feel as talking, then?"
Rafe looked away.
The woman shrugged. "As long as ye breathe, ye live." She gestured again; another man hauled Rafe to his feet. "The fair-hair, too."
“Leave ‘im alone, bitch!” Despite his bound wrists and feet, Rafe lunged against the grip; the woman backhanded him. Two more of the psychos hauled Jonathan to his feet; Jonathan swallowed a surge of nausea. A third knelt over Dylan and fussed with a small clay pot that stank, acrid, biting; Dylan looked unconscious, unmoving.
"No!" Vão struggled to his knees as if to launch himself at the psychos. "They haven't done anything!"
"They are Chulain spies," said Vicari. "They kidnapped Your Majesty and laid hands on your person. They have done more than enough."
"I'm not a damn king!" Vão snapped. “And you know it!”
"Of course, your Majesty." Vicari turned to the captain. "You waste time, Captain. Kill them and be done with it."
“Majesty?” Jonathan said.
"Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?" Rafe said, at the same time.
The look Vão gave them was so…Vão…that Jonathan burst into raw laughter, edged with hysteria; it was too stupid. “Oh god…christ…are you people crazy?”
The captain ignored that. "We start easy," she said to Rafe and Jonathan. "Where be ye from?"
"Go to hell," Rafe said, grinning. “You putos fuckin’ stupid, you think he’s king.”
"Na," the captain said. "We go to Kern. Ye pay teind there, whether ye say true or lie. So tell true. Why protect who leave ye to die?"
Die. Fantasy geeks or not, they sounded serious. “Okay,” Jonathan said, “okay. Enough’s enough —”
"If I'm a king," Vão snapped at the captain, "then I order you, let us go!"
"I asked a simple question, m'lord. Unless," her voice sharpened, "they donna want us to hear the answer?"
"San Francisco," Jonathan said before either Vão or Rafe made these psychos angrier. "We're from San Francisco."
"Ah," said the captain. "An' where is tha'?"
"In California," Vão said, slow, sing-song, sarcastic, "in the United States. Ask him, he knows!"
"Your brain fever is talking, your Majesty," Vicari said.
“Bullshit, you were just in the studio —”
"Captain,” Vicari said patiently, over top of Vão, “you saw the horses. Only Chulain —"
“Don’t you fuckin’ dare ignore me,” Vão said.
"Respect, m'lord," the captain said to Vicari. "They donna look Chulain. An' they dinna fight Chulain. Chulains donna run." She stared coolly at Jonathan. "Well?"
Aching, dizzy, blood-soaked, Jonathan finally snapped. "Well what? We're not part of your damn game and if you can't see that, you're stupid as well as crazy."
“What’d you think I’ve been trying to tell them?” Vão said.
"You are part of it," Vicari said to Jonathan. “Answer the question. And tell the truth, if you can."
"Fuck you, puto," Rafe said.
"Hagan," said Captain Aude; a man snapped to attention, "cut them."
Jagged metal flashed in Jonathan’s face. He jerked back, was held fast —
Rafe lunged against the men holding him, towards Jonathan. Around them, others snatched up clubs, knives —
“Rafe!” Jonathan shouted, full, desperate force. “Stop it — stop!”
The men dragged Rafe back. Rafe struggled, his whole body tense, barely in check.
“I’m okay, Rafe. I’m okay — fuckin’ christ —” The jagged blade dug in; Jonathan shied back, “— what the hell do you idiots want us to say?"
“I ask ye again,” Aude said, as if nothing had happened. “Where be ye from?”
"Ayo." The Asian woman stood close by, her arms crossed, swaying from foot to foot, studying Jonathan and Rafe. "They sound as Ayo, Captain."
"This is na matter for bards, Sion," Aude said. "Donna press our hospitality."
"I repay it, Captain. A bard has ear for speech. They speak as Ayo. They certainly look as runners, with all that blood."
“Little o’ it theirs,” Aude said.
The Asian woman's glance flickered to Vicari. "Yet we are near that border, as well."
"Ayo." The captain studied Jonathan and Rafe.
"San Francisco," Jonathan said.
"One of Ayo’s cities," the Asian woman, Sion, said. "The Ayoans speak different names than we use."
"The weave of their clothes is Ayoan," the captain murmured.
Vão rolled his eyes. "God, you people are dumber than Rafe."
"Chupame, Carvalo," Rafe snapped.
"Look, we don't care about your game." Jonathan struggled to keep his tone reasonable. "We’re the band Karma, and you’re going to have the cops after you if you don't let us go."
"The cops," Aude said. "Ye mean the hunters?"
So people were looking for the band. Jonathan couldn't feel relieved, not with that blade at his chest, not with Rafe ready to snap at any moment, not with Dylan still unconscious. "Yeah. If you want to call them that."
"Your proof of Ayo's involvement," Vicari said. "Conveniently, I add."
"No," said Sion. "He speaks truth of Ayo, for such as he."
"Bard Sion," Captain Aude said, "I ask ye again —"
"To keep silent? Nay, captain, that I will not do. They cannot be involved of Ayo, not as m’lord has it."
“Girl,” Vão said, “you’re the only one talking sense and even you sound crazy.”
“Vão…“ Jonathan said, in his don’t-piss-off-the-psychos voice.
"You said they were from Ayo," Vicari said coldly, to Sion.
"From there, aye," Sion said. "But do you truly claim Ayo recruits geasadair now?"
"Geasadair," Captain Aude said, with a hard look at Vicari. "Ye dinna say tha'."
"They are untrained," Vicari said. "They are no problem."
"Fuck you." Rafe lunged forward again. "Lemme go, puto, I'll show you 'no fuckin’ problem'."
The blade dug in, sliced a jagged, bleeding slash across Jonathan's chest. Jonathan yelped, shied, as the man replaced his blade, this time at Jonathan's stomach.
That body was — and we were — oh christ —
Rafe tore free; clubs smashed him to the dirt. More grabbed Rafe, hauled him back up, yanked his head back so he could see the man on Jonathan.
"A warning, tha' was," Captain Aude said to Rafe. "Once more, an’ the next cut will truly hurt."
Pale, tense, bleeding, Rafe closed his mouth. Vão had pressed back against the tree, eyes wide.
"I'm okay," Jonathan said to both of them, but shut up when the man holding the blade shifted.
"One interpretation suggests itself, Captain," said Sion. "Untrained geasadair this close to Ayo usually means one thing, that they flee Ayo's witchfinders. They may be aiding your king’s escape, unwitting."
"That is a lot of 'maybe'," Vicari said.
"Captain," someone called, and Aude turned. “Captain, we foun’ Conor!” Four others came into the camp, carrying something cradled in cloth between them, a burden they laid gently by the fire.
The body from the clearing.
“We found ‘im,” said one of the carriers, “where they were.”
The blade against his stomach vanished; Jonathan was slammed to the ground and a booted foot drove against his back, pinning him. Jonathan lay gasping, as Rafe snarled, struggling violently as two others pinned him down.
Then Jonathan inhaled sharply, terrified, as cold metal pressed against his throat.
Vão was yelling, but all Jonathan could make out was Aude’s voice, harsh command. “Hold! I said hold, damn ye’s hides!”
“Give word, Captain,” growled Hagan; the blade against Jonathan’s neck dug in.
“Crò-skra,” Vicari said, from near the body. “It stinks of it, Captain.”
More growls. “Hold, I said.” Aude glared down at Jonathan, at Rafe, studying. “Signature?”
“Death-blood muddles such trace,” Vicari said.
“Blood.” Aude knelt, touched Vão’s blood-soaked shirt with an oddly gentle hand. Then she turned on Jonathan, her hand fisted in his shirt. “Well. Is tha’ why ye be so stained, wretch? Ye murder our scout for geas on the king?”
“No!“ Jonathan gasped out, unable to catch his breath. “We woke up like this, we woke up here, we don’t know what —” His breath hissed in as the blade pressed tighter against his neck.
“Th’ blood damns ye both,” Aude said. “Ye —“
“Captain,” Sion said, “wait.”
“Bard Sion, I tell ye again —“
“And I tell you,” Sion said. “Captain, look at them. At that blood. At your scout.” She knelt by Aude, touched Jonathan’s shirt. “Still somewhat fresh. Forgive me, but your scout is not. He disappeared when?”
“Evenin’ before last.”
“The patterns, as well,” Sion said. “Look. The king, this one. Over their backs. Your man is slashed front.”
“Tha’ one,” Aude lifted her chin towards Rafe, “is splattered front.”
“Too lightly so,” Sion said, “if you claim he did the kill.”
“We didn’t do shit!" Rafe, strained, tight.
Scowling, staring at Rafe, Aude raised her hand slightly, stopping the psycho on Rafe before a blow could land.
“You defend crò-skradh now, bard?” Vicari said to Sion.
"I wish only truth, m'lord."
"You imply that I lie?"
"No, that you judge with too much haste."
"You overstep," Vicari said coldly. "You forget who you are talking to."
"No," Sion said quietly. "I do not forget."
“Captain,” said another woman, “we also caught three o' th' horses. They ha' these in th' bags." The woman handed Aude the rough, yellowed parchment.
Ah, christ. Frozen in fear, Jonathan couldn’t speak. They’d already decided their truth, they weren’t going to listen, they —
"Maps," Aude said tonelessly.
"Of Tanner's Cross, captain," the woman said.
"The closest ford from Ayo," Sion said.
"I am familiar with th' area," Aude said, "an' its importance."
“Please,” Vão said, his voice shaking. “Let them go. I’ll stay. Just let them go. They didn’t do anything.”
“Really?” Vicari said. “Our scout was there. And they were there. You were beaten at their hands. They have blood. They are geasadair. They had maps and horses. Captain, what more proof do you need?”
“You don’t have proof now, asshole,” Rafe snarled, only to be silenced by a hard fist.
Despite his terror, Jonathan had heard bluffs enough to recognize the signs. Vicari was hiding something.
He wants us killed!
"Dare land's wrath by shedding possibly innocent blood, if you will," Sion said to the captain. "If you choose to pursue that hunt, allow me to leave your camp first. I have no wish to anger the land."
"I wonder what you wish," Vicari said, "when you speak for murderers and spies.”
Jonathan closed his eyes tight, waiting for the death blow. He would not piss himself. He would not.
"I follow Blood Guardian's orders," Aude said finally. "We take t’ Kern. You four — stake ‘em secure. Let th’ Blood Guardian sort them ou'."
Growls and mutters met this, but were silenced by more cold orders from Aude. The psychos dragged Jonathan and Rafe over to a fallen tree, threw them to the ground. One said something, walked to a tent.
Suddenly Jonathan was hauled up, his face inches from one of the guards, Hagan.
“Ga on.” Hagan’s breath stank of onion and rotted teeth. “Gi’ me reason, crò-skradh.”
A short, sharp command — Aude stared in their direction; Hagan let go. Unable to break his fall, Jonathan hit the ground hard and lay gasping. Metal rattled; the other man had returned with shackles, metal of a deep endless black. Unease twisted Jonathan's stomach. They wouldn't. They couldn't do that.
They were. Hagan snagged the chain as two of the others grabbed Jonathan and forcibly bent him back over the fallen tree, his arms stretched over the trunk. They held him still as Hagan shackled Jonathan in the chain, locking a collar around his neck, taut chain binding his wrists to his ankles.
It froze. It burnt. He gulped air, unable to catch his breath, his hearing and sight suddenly muffled as if he’d been wrapped in thick cloth; the ground beneath him spun, everything off-center and unbalanced. Jonathan choked against the collar, his throat burning with bile and nausea; he heard Rafe snarl and a smack of fist hitting flesh.
"Ayo o' na," a man said, "they be geasadair.”
Panting, Jonathan closed his eyes. Memory shuddered through him; he swallowed thick terror. There was no wind, the earth under his knees was hard and cold, and the only blood between them was drying into his shirt, oozing from the jagged cut and splattered over his back from god-knew-what.
“Jonathan,” Rafe whispered, chained next to Jonathan. “Estoy aquí, hermano.”
“Shut it, ye,” someone growled.
Two other psychos dragged Dylan over, dumped him to the ground in front of Rafe. Dylan’s hands and feet were bound — rope, not shackle — and he looked dazed, battered, bruised.
"At least she wasn't screaming, 'Off with their heads’,” Dylan murmured.
“You okay?” Jonathan said, but shut up when one of the psychos raised a club.
Slowly, sunlight faded to cold night and firelight, a long painful interval broken only when another psycho came over and forced them to eat and drink. A leather bag that sloshed out warm water was held to their lips, and the woman broke off pieces of crusty bread and pushed it into their mouths. Jonathan turned his head, but she slapped him.
"Eat. Ye will na starve dead a-fore we get to Kern." She broke off another piece. "This is na hospitality either, so donna get ideas."
"You gonna help us piss, too?" Rafe sounded exhausted, strained.
"We help ye do what?"
"Piss," Rafe said. "I'd love a puta like you rubbin’ my dick."
No understanding in her face, but Rafe's tone evidently got through. She raised her fist.
"No," Jonathan said desperately. This was too much to be an act. Too consistent. "He means urinate.”
“Make water," Dylan said.
Her scowl turned towards Dylan, but she lowered her hand and conferred with the others, a brief, heated argument. Finally two of the guards freed Rafe’s wrists from his ankles — Rafe pitched forward, face-first to the ground — then hauled him to the other side of the camp. After a bit, they returned, forced Rafe back against trunk again, then grabbed Jonathan.
It went beyond humiliating. Jonathan clenched his jaw against the pain as blood returned to his limbs; they dragged him to a trench outside the camp and then undid his jeans for him. They cursed over the zipper, cursed at Jonathan to hurry up, cuffed him when he wasn't fast enough for them. Somehow, Jonathan kept silent through all of it, until his jaw ached.
Then he glanced at the sky — and froze; the two men nearly dropped him. They cursed and cuffed him again, dragged him back to the trunk, but Jonathan twisted against their grip, staring at the impossible lights in the sky.
Two moons, both at first quarter. The larger swirled red, the smaller pure white.
The camp gradually died to silence and sleep; the night deepened, the moons rising directly above the camp, and Jonathan saw Rafe’s gaze fix, his mouth moving silently. Despite the fear, despite the burning shackle around his neck, despite the strain in his back and arms, Jonathan was exhausted. Hot, sick pressure throbbed just behind his eyes; somewhere, someone moaned, low, steady. It wasn't so much sleep as unconsciousness, and as Jonathan drifted into it, the chains started to glow, red-hot filaments burning into his skin, and someone nearby was laughing…
He thrashed, was held fast. Something covered his mouth, shook him. Jonathan jolted, his groan smothered by the other's hand.
Jonathan blinked, exhausted, numb. The psychos guarding them weren’t in sight. "How…?"
“They went thataway,” Ian murmured, nodding towards the far side of the camp. “Quiet.”
“Idiot,” Rafe breathed, but he was grinning.
"I hid. I stayed hid until they left and then trailed 'em. I’ve been watching all day." Ian felt around Jonathan's chains, cursed softly. “Where’s Vão?”
“Damn, dude.” Dylan struggled to sit up.
"Get Dyl free," Jonathan whispered. His mouth felt thick; words took effort. "Then get out. Go for help."
"Help? You looked at the moon lately?" Then Ian startled, rounded — a shadow blocked the firelight and stopped short, as if surprised.
"Don't come any closer," Ian growled. "I have a knife."
"I have a key." Soft, female. "Will you refuse offered help?" The shadow moved closer; Ian backed off, and the shadow moved over Jonathan.
Hands felt at his neck, and suddenly the metal collar released and his wrists were free. Jonathan pitched forward. Ian caught him before he hit the dirt, and Jonathan grit his teeth against the biting wave of feeling returning to his limbs, fighting not to scream. The woman freed Rafe, steadied him until Ian could take over, then knelt and sliced through Dylan’s bonds.
Panting, Jonathan blinked up and finally saw who it was — the Asian woman, Sion. “You —”
“Quiet — move.” She hauled Dylan up, pushed him towards the trees, then helped Rafe to stand. "The sentries chase shadows, but noise will bring them running."
“How do we know we can trust you?” Jonathan leaned heavily over his knees.
“You do not,” she said simply. “Please — move.”
Rafe struggled to his feet. “C’mon, Jay. Ian, get Dyl.” Rafe helped Jonathan up, jerked his head at the woman. “Go on.”
“You and chicks,” Ian muttered to Rafe. “Jesus.”
She’d slipped ahead of them, once more only a shadow; they staggered after her into the woods, down a thin thread of trail. Jonathan swallowed his misgivings for the moment; he’d learned the hard way to trust Rafe’s street-sense, at least for short-term.
Then a shout rose up behind them, from the direction of the camp. The woman rounded, stared back, then, “Quickly. I must return. Continue down this path,” she nodded down the trail-thread, “sun-birth, until you reach the main trade road —”
“Go what?” Ian said.
“Sun-birth,” the woman said, then, patiently, “east. You will hit the land-rise trade road within a day. Go north, land-rise, to Kern. You can get help there."
"Our other friend," Jonathan said.
"Forget him. They will not hurt him." The woman’s face shadowed. "He is needed. They believe him to be king."
Jonathan stared back towards the camp; everything caught up, every ache, every bruise. Panic sang at him to run, but he couldn't leave Vão with those psychos. The singer didn't deserve that.
The shouts rose in volume; light was blazing from the direction of the camp.
“Go!” The woman pushed Jonathan down the trail. "Better a running rabbit than a cornered stag. They catch you again, they will kill you." She turned and melted into the night woods, no more than a shadow, no more than a whisper of breeze.
“Jonathan —” Rafe shoved Jonathan forward, “— move.”
It made no sense. Nothing of the past day made sense. But Jonathan still wavered, torn. Dylan leaned heavily on Ian; the bassist barely looked coherent. Jonathan’s head and gut still throbbed from the blows and the throw from the horse. The cut on his chest ached, oozing; the skin was hot and tender.
But they were free, and they were alive. For now, anyway.
"C'mon," Ian said. "Horses are this way."