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Behind him, he could hear the hunting horns. Their harsh brays sent out slashing spears of sound that raced through the forest, galloping past him far faster than his own bare feet could trod the uneven ground.
What sounded to be a score or more of hounds echoed the hunting horns' nerve-wrenching blare. He could just make out the unruly animals yelping and howling as they jerked at their leashes in excitement, eager to be let loose to follow the scent so thick and rich about them.
Valerik listened to the death so close behind him as he ran. Wincing when high dried grasses slapped against his bare legs, leaving blood and slivers of skin caught on briars and thorny bushes, falling and getting to his feet with heart pounding, he ran. How long would he be able to continue at this pace?
Already, so soon in the hunt that he could still hear the hounds behind him, the breath was ripping through his aching chest, sweat pouring down his naked body. Though the early morning was still chill, the uneven ground holding fast to swirling pockets of fog and mist, he knew the sun would blaze down on his shorn head like a furnace by midday.
But midday was an unattainable goal, one that Valerik refused to consider. None of the hunted had ever been known to last so long as that. Midday was the promised land, unattainable, imaginary.
His thickly muscled slave's body twisted and turned as he raced through the dim forest. In the cool of the early morning, the heat engendered by his frantic running rose from his skin in clouds of steam--steam that reeked of fear and torment. His questing eyes, ever moving, ever seeking a place of safety, were wide andanxious, their nut-brown depths almost black in the grip of insistent terror.
And always, in the back of his mind, the pounding fear danced and gibbered, a constant unwelcome companion.
As was death. He had no wish to die, though he did not know who he was or why he'd awakened one day as a slave. Had he always been one? He did not think so.
But now he would never know. His shreds of memory would be ripped from his mind by hungry hounds' teeth, slashed from his quaking body by swords and knives.
They had cut him lose just outside the castle walls, where the trees crowded close to the ancient stonework and the ground dropped off in a gentle slope towards the denser forest that ringed the elevation where the castle perched. Jerked from his straw pallet just before dawn, his scanty rags were stripped from him to offer the dogs as scent. Then he stood with arms outstretched as his manacles were struck away, leaving only a leather collar around his neck for a leading chain. For his tormentors, minions of his former mistress, the chain was a leash to lead him through the long corridors and across the wide courtyard to the open gate in the wall.
Valerik stumbled and fell twice, was whipped to his feet the first time, then dragged breathless the second before he managed to scramble up again. The second time he fell, a thought raced through his mind like a galloping horse--why did he bother rising? Why not lie here and let them beat him to death? It would be easier in the long run.
But to his surprise, he found the desire for life was strong inside him. He struggled up and followed the armed men to the high barred opening in the stone wall.
Outside the gate, his new mistress, sister of his old one, sat on a heavy roan stallion. The sun struck sparks from her cruel barbed spurs as they shoved Valerik forward. He fell on his belly at her feet.
"Slave," said the Lady Rivia in her high-pitched, grating voice, looking down her long nose at Valerik where he groveled on the muddy ground. "Slave, you have been convicted and sentenced to death." The lady paused for a wide yawn, her thick lips spread in a huge circle.
The sudden and violent death of her sister did not seem to cause the Lady Rivia an overpowering burden of sadness. The rumors abounded that Rivia had instigated the several previous attempts on the late Lady Lerona's life. A pity none of them had succeeded. If they had, doubtless some other poor fool of a slave would be in Valerik's place now, and he would be shuffling away, eyes averted, so as not to infect himself with the guilt of the other.
Valerik hid a grin at the thought. His empty belly chose that moment to growl and spasm, and he twisted on the muddy ground.
The Lady Rivia resumed, her words rattling out, her tone thick with disinterest and obvious boredom as the man condemned to a frightful death lay before her. "In my mercy and as proscribed by law I give you the chance to escape the justice meted out to you. You have the time of one glass to gain a start. Reon!"
Reon, the Lady Rivia's major-domo, lifted a small hourglass in one hand and exhibited it to the mounted freeborn and noble hunters, and to the gaggle of slaves that had gathered together to hear the sentencing.
Valerik heard a gasp of dismay from the unruly mob of house slaves just inside the gate. One said, in a tone pitched in the lowest of undertones, to be heard by slaves alone and not by their betters cavorting on prancing mounts, "The glass is too small. Valerik does not stand a chance."
Valerik knew the slave was right. Of course he didn't have a chance. What slave ever had a chance in the hunt?
A flick of a horsehide lash stung his back. He scrambled to his feet, eyeing the hounds warily. They sat at their ease, tongues lolling, eyes disinterested. The mass of smells that surrounded them shielded him--for now. Soon, though, the other slaves would be dismissed, and his own discarded rags would provide the hounds a scent to follow.
An hour was the proscribed time. The sands in the glass held perhaps a third of that time, perhaps less. He looked down the hillside to the trees. He was sure he could make it to their cover. But afterwards?
Roads snaked through the forest; he knew, as he'd come here along one, linked with other slaves in a long clinking line. If he ran due west, and if he ran fast enough, he was almost sure he'd cross a road.
He rose to his feet and took a deep breath as the major domo raised the glass in the air. Reon held it there for a heartstopping time. One of the hunters--it was Lord Arcon; Valerik had served him wine not two days gone, and received a smile as reward--leaned over and idly flicked at Valerik's bare back with his riding crop. Valerik gasped as each of the two dozen lashes he'd received last night screamed in protest.
"Enough," said his lordship lazily. "Turn the glass. And be sure that breakfast is hot when we return."
Reon grinned and turned the glass.
The undergrowth was thinning about Valerik as he ran, the stunted trees growing larger and more twisted. His frantic eyes jerked from side to side, in silent desperation marking here a tree with branches sturdy enough to climb, there a hole in which he might be able to lose himself before the hunters could reach him.
Then, before his hurrying feet could slow or dodge, before the sound of rushing water could warn him, a gushing stream spread wide before him, deep pools interspersed with shallow rocky stretches. Valerik plunged in, submerged his aching body, and gasped as the icy mountain water came near to taking away what little breath he had left in his straining lungs. With awkward strokes he struggled to shallower depths, spluttering as he drew great draughts of cold water into his burning throat, the water battling with the air that he needed just as desperately. With meticulous caution, he threaded his way over the slippery rocks to the other shore, careful to leave as undisturbed as possible the green slime that coated many of the stones.
His foot hit a steady-looking rock that proved a lie and he stumbled to his knees, his heart racing. It would not do to fall and break a leg at this stage of the game, so soon, so close to the castle. Nor had he any wish to blaze so easy a trail, a trail that any one of the hunters might follow with little effort.
Valerik struggled up and onward.
The hounds were loose from their leashes.
As he ran, Valerik could hear in the distance the change in their yelps, a higher pitch of intensity and eagerness. The cries they made showed how much the hounds, no less than the hunters, were determined, striving with all their might to find their quarry and rip it to pieces.
He increased his pace as the breath whistled through his nose and inflamed his already raw throat; his soaked skin dried as he ran, the air rushing over him to snatch sweat away even as it formed on his naked, aching body. Valerik topped a rise and dared a quick glance behind him, then slithered down the brushy bank and came to a stop, his heart in his mouth.
A segment of rough and rocky road snaked around a bend on his right and disappeared into the density of the forest to his left. Deep ruts full of muddy water littered its uneven surface, remnants of a late night shower that gleamed like lost jewels in the fragmented rays lancing through leaf-dappled branches.
Better running, a surface free of trips and traps for hurrying feet. But would it be easier for the hounds to catch his scent? Or would his smell mingle with that of others who used what looked to be a heavily traveled road?
Valerik wondered as he squatted on shaking legs and strained to catch his breath, his mind jittering like a mad thing. Did he dare use this route to try to throw the hounds off his track? Would his fear-laced scent mingle with the others that had passed this way?
A jingle of harness.
Valerik's heart froze within his chest, the air stopped in his throat.
No. The fearful, familiar sound did not come from behind him. Not hunters, then, not yet, not yet.
The sound, suddenly not so fearful, came from the thick trees at the sharp eastern bend of the road. It was the sound of a single horse, cantering down the road in his direction, soon to be in full view.
In an instant, Valerik was sprawled flat on his belly in the rank weeds that choked the roadside ditch, his burly body half-submerged in viscid slimy mud. His heart unfroze and began to race, galloping like a terrified horse. He tried to quiet it, sure the pounding would give him away as the sounds grew nearer. He drew in enormous silent breaths, mouth agape.
Without conscious thought, his hand tightened over a convenient sliver of rock.
After an eternity that consisted of perhaps a dozen rapid heartbeats, he saw the horse round the bend. Valerik peered at it through the screen of tender weeds. A great ebony stallion, it was traveling with high-stepping, well-fed, early-in-the-journey cheerfulness. An ebony stallion, but with a pale mane and tail tinged with gold--Valerik had never seen such coloring on a horse before--it carried a rider muffled in a dark cloak, with hood pulled up against the cool of the shadowy, tree-draped road.
Valerik held his breath, aching body death still, as the horse pranced ever nearer to his hiding place.
The great animal's pace slowed, from a canter to a trot, then a walk. Almost, Valerik thought, as if the beast had heard something that had startled ... no, not startled, but interested it.
Valerik stared at the huge creature through the thick weeds, willing it to come nearer, to stop in a convenient place, to not see him until it was too late. His eyes squinted with the intensity of his desire.
Closer, closer ... almost there...
The stallion stopped short of the ditch by several body lengths, too far for Valerik to reach it in one quick leap. He could feel the disappointment tear through his aching limbs, like barbed whips on naked skin.
The faint bay of hounds echoed in the distance.
A snort of interested interrogation blew from the stallion's nose. It shook its huge head in an almost human motion.
"A hunting pack," came a low husky voice from within the hood, as if soothing--or answering--the horse. "Not too far away, either, from the sound of them."
Valerik jerked to his feet, the sliver of rock gripped like a dagger in one hand. He flung himself towards the horse and rider, plunged his free hand into the folds of the black cloak and gave a mighty heave, toppling the rider to the rutted road. Then he scrambled into the saddle, mastered the great horse in an instant, and rode away from certain death at a gallop.
That, at least, was his hastily devised plan.
As is the case in many such plans, its execution fell somewhat short of Valerik's expectations.
The black stallion danced backwards at the sudden appearance of a naked rock-wielding man; it snorted its surprise as it shook its great head at him.
Valerik slammed a foot against a stone half-hidden in a deep, mud-filled rut. He fell to his knees in the puddle, splashing rank water into his eyes, effectively blinding himself with the stinging, filthy spray.
Valerik spat out a long string of curses in a low desperate voice, as his battered foot throbbed in agony.
Valerik heard that same husky voice, a quiet conversational tone with the faintest hint of humor in it this time. The pain in his foot--and his curses--had taken away his breath and prevented a reply ... although he was sure that he could, at a less stressful time, think of a number of suitable ones.
"Good thing you're not the prey of those hounds Daemon and I just heard," continued the voice with somewhat less evident humor, as the noise of baying grew noticeably louder. "You'd hardly stand a chance, what with that vast fund of grace and speed that you've just exhibited for us."
Dashing the filth water from his face and eyes, Valerik glared up at the horse and rider. From his vantage point at their feet, they seemed to go up and up forever ... towering over him and making even his large bulk feel insignificant. The sun behind them cut into his bleared eyes as he struggled to his feet, managing a bit more cursing under his breath and feeling like a clumsy fool.
A terrified, clumsy fool.
"I need your horse," Valerik growled as he reached out and tried to seize the reins a second time. He brandished his jagged stone at the rider. "Give him to me and you'll come to no harm."
"You're a slow learner," was the only reply, coupled with a short laugh.
The square toe of a shiny black leather boot kicked upward once--and the stone in Valerik's hand went flying over his head, to land in a distant puddle with a despairing splash. The great black horse reared up, pawing the air so close to Valerik's head that he could feel the wind from those sharp hooves slashing past his face. The steed danced backwards on two legs, out of the desperate man's reach, then crashed to the ground with a jolt that made Valerik's teeth rattle.
"I'm very much afraid that I can't let you have Daemon," called the rider with another laugh. "He'd never allow it, you see."
A commotion of dogs sounded in the woods, from along the path that Valerik had been following. He could make out individual animals now, as their yelps became clearer and closer. Damn, he thought briefly as he turned, his heart in his throat, and peered back through the trees as he tried to calculate their distance from the sounds they made behind him.
Had he time to run into the woods on the other side of the road?
Valerik turned back in time to see a brown hand fling the cloak back and pull down the hood. Tawny hair spilled over black-clad shoulders, gray eyes with a sardonic gleam gazed down at Valerik from a sun-darkened face.
Reckless, Valerik stared up into the face of the woman on the horse, daring a blow in punishment for his effrontery from the whip that hung from the saddle. A pleading expression spread over his face, though he knew it to be worse than useless.
He couldn't help it. Valerik didn't want to die.
But why should this woman--without a doubt of noble blood, richly dressed, on a valuable horse and with a blade at her side--why should she risk her own life to help a slave being hunted to his death?
"However," continued the woman as she looked up the bank that Valerik had so lately slid down, "sometimes ... just sometimes, mind you ... Daemon will allow a passenger. Come."
The woman kicked one boot free of a stirrup and stretched down a long-fingered hand. Valerik looked once in her eyes, once again over his shoulder. Was this another trick? Would she kick him in the face if he reached for her outstretched hand?
The hounds sounded almost at his back.
Valerik thrust his naked foot into the empty stirrup and swarmed with clumsy haste up behind the woman.
The woman shrugged out of her cloak, whirled it about Valerik's shoulders with one hand and spoke four words--two for him and two for the stallion.
"Hold on. Run, Daemon."
The baying of hounds died away in the distance as the great horse, disdaining the weight of its double burden, galloped easily down the rutted road.
Valerik didn't like to hold too closely to the woman who had rescued him, but he had little choice in the matter. The huge stallion flew over the rough road, its mighty legs churning as it slowed for nothing, charging through deep puddles to fling muddy water onto its riders, dancing around tumbled stones. Once it threw all three of them into the air to clear a fallen tree. Valerik clung through handfuls of cloak to her sturdy shoulders; even in their present situation, he found time to relish the interplay of muscles as she directed the great horse.
"Not much further!" shouted the woman as they hit the ground with a rattling jar.
Valerik inched infinitesimally closer, the saddle hard and rough against his crotch, his bare legs pulled back to miss being mauled by bright metal stirrups.
Behind them once, through a break in the trees, echoed the long doleful wail of disappointed hounds. Valerik grinned to himself, barely able to keep from hugging the woman.
He had done it--with a stranger's help, aye, but he had done it. He had escaped the ravening hounds, the heartless riders. Whatever happened now, wherever he ended up, no one could take that immense pleasure away from him.
He had escaped the hunt.