It was like watching a circus event. The crowd cheered and called out suggestions as the main players danced around on the scaffolding. Caled's stomach churned. This was like no public execution he had ever seen. The crowd was thirsting for blood and Gam was a distraction until the main attraction could be found.
The Mountain of Flesh leapt onto the stage like a local hero. He wore no mask, his enjoyment of the event more than obvious on his face, even at Caled's distance. He played to the crowd, trying out several axes. Large muscles rippled in the sunlight as he hefted weapons even Caleb would struggle to lift. The fervor of the crowd built with each swing.
Caled's mind scrambled for something that would stop the horrifying events from unfolding. The press of the crowd made getting to Gam impossible. With the knife he had smuggled past the guard, he could take out the Mountain of Flesh, but what good would it do. Someone would simply replace him and Caled and Delio would join Gam on the block. Perhaps together the three of them would have been able to pull something off, but even if they got off the platform, they would never make it out of the crowd alive. There was nothing they could do but watch. "Delio, I'm sorry. There is nothing we can do."
Delio stared horrified at the events unfolding. All he could do was listen as his mind screamed that he could not lose Gam, he simply could not. He looked all around, but nowhere did he see a solution he thought would actually save Gam. When Caled finally admitted defeat, Delio stared at him.
Turning his attention back to the scene, Lio's eyes locked onto the slender blond and his heart ached. He watched as the huge man whispered something to Gam, and then watched his beloved friend yank away as though offended by the words. The wicked leer on the big man's face make Lio's anger boil and his friend's reaction confirmed his opinion. Delio nearly cried out in protest as he watched the Mountain of Flesh raise his hand in preparation, then winced when he hit Gam. Tears fell unchecked at the vision of his dear Gam lying beaten and bloody on the platform. Memories of long ago, of other injuries and horrors they had shared rose in Lio's mine and the bile from his stomach rose into his throat. Rough hands yanked the slender thief up and onto the block and Lio's mouth opened to protect, when he heard Caled's words of defeat. His eyes open wide in horror. There had to be something they could do, there simply had to be.
"I will not sit here and allow them to execute him" Delio hissed, his teeth clenched in rage "anymore than you would if it were Hadrian down there."
Caled could not meet Delio's eyes. As irritating as the sorcerer was, Caled could not deny that if it were him down on that block, things would be different. As the mercenary watched Gam being lashed down he prayed that he would never have to find out what he would do if Hadrian were in such a position.
Gam's head was pushed down. The axe swung up. Delio's sob of grief was audible in the sudden hush of the crowd. Just then, the situation got worse. Almost on cue as the crowd was tensing for the kill, a lone voice was heard shouting "The Scourge of Rhiad! We have found him!"
For a split second, everyone froze, and then mayhem erupted.
Everyone charged. The scaffold, so recently the center of all attention, was nearly pushed over by the crush of the stampeding crowd as people fought their way back towards the gates of the city. Caled was off the roof and fighting his way through the crowd before he had even processed what he was going to do. This had to be a mistake. Hadrian was safe. The powerful sorcerer would never let himself be taken and surely Manix and Sy would have prevented anyone from taking him unaware. No, this had to be a mistake.
Delio felt more panic rise in his throat at the call he had heard. It wasn't possible, he thought to himself, but before he had fully processed it all, Caled was gone from his side and into the crowd. Not sparing time nor energy to be angry at Caled's determination to go to Hadrian when he had just given Gam up for dead, Delio leapt from his place to make his way down. Perhaps with the distraction, he could find a way to help Gam escape.
The feeling of panic in Caled's stomach would not go away until he had seen for himself. The face would be different. There would be similarities, perhaps, but whoever the poor soul was, it would not be Hadrian. Caled broke several noses, but managed to get right up to the edge where the soldiers were straining to hold back the enthusiastic crowd. Caled was pressed up hard against the restraining arm, but he did not object, instead he used the extra force of the people behind him to lean out into the makeshift aisle. Guards came by and pushed Caled back. He fought for a moment before catching sight of his worse fear.
His clothes were shredded, barely hanging on to his bruised frame. Hadrian had a rope around his neck the end of which rested in the hands of a well dressed man with a cocky smile. No one had to tell Caled what had happened. One look at the man parading Hadrian into the city was enough. It was the tracker. The one Caled had thought to have lost. The battle of wills was over and to the victor the spoils. The pride of a successful hunt glowed in his face. Caled knew that feeling well. As a tracker, it was never anything personal, simply a job well done and a reward well earned. Caled had failed Hadrian. Caled's own words come back to haunt him. "If I had the chance I would be one of them." Well here he was, numbered among the cheering crowd, having abandoned Hadrian to their pursuers. Why did he push Hadrian into making that promise to stay? What was he trying to prove?
In his heart Caled knew why. He had started to believe the sorcerer. A part of him had started to reason that the man he had been traveling with was not the sorcerer that had burned that city to the ground. Some how there was another explanation. Caled wanted Hadrian to prove that he could be trusted, to prove that he had not betrayed what they had shared. Now Hadrian was going to die and there was nothing Caled could do about it.
Stones and spittle rained down on the unprotected skin. One man dropped his pants and let loose a stream of foul filth, hitting Hadrian on the chest. The crowd loved it. Caled fought with everything that he had not to tackle the offender and tear him limb from limb. A wild part of him wants to take the knife and start stabbing and slashing away. Only the knowledge that it would do no good stayed his hand.
But what of Hadrian's magic? If there was ever a time to use this great ability, now would be it. But Hadrian seemed as cool and calm as though he was taking an afternoon stroll. His walk was slow and purposeful. He did not flinch away from the rocks cutting into his skin. He paid no heed to the excited crowd. He looked like he was in a world of his own.
Hadrian stumbled as one of the men behind him kicked him and he landed on the ground at Caled's feet. Hadrian looked up into Caled's eyes. Caled knew if Hadrian showed any sign of recognition at all, Caled would be dragged from the sidelines to share the sorcerer's fate. But Hadrian's expression never changed as he righted himself and continued down the street. Caled stared after Hadrian, uncertain how to process all that he had seen in Hadrian's eyes. Those were not the eyes of the companion he had traveled with day after day. They were black and cold and dead. Caled was almost convinced that Hadrian had not recognized him. But Caled recognized that look. He had seen it once before in Rhiad when he watched it burn to the ground. He had seen that look on Hadrian's face then. The young man looked dead. There was no other way to describe it. What ever was going to happen, Caled knew that Hadrian was going to allow it.
They brought Hadrian up to the block. The Mountain of Flesh kicked Gam off the tower to make room for the newcomer. Caled could see Delio move in, dragging Gam underneath the wooden structure to prevent them from being trampled alive by the crowd. Hadrian was being lifted onto the scaffolding when the cry went up. "Burn him! Burn him like he burned them!" The excited crowd was whipped into an ever higher frenzy. Caled made his decision. He was not going to let Hadrian die, at least not alone. He slipped off his boot and pulled out a dagger from under the worn lining. It was small but sharp and correctly thrown it would be enough to do something, although he was still not sure what. Caled had no real hope that this would stop the execution and every faith that soon he would soon be standing behind Hadrian, waiting his turn for his own head to fall. It did not matter. No one deserved to die like this.
Delio spared only glances at Hadrian, for more than
one reason. First and foremost, his concern was for Gam. As much as
he adored Hadrian, it was Gam who was his shadow, his other half and
that was where his heart was pulled. The other reason was more difficult.
The gentle sorcerer had proven over and over that whatever his past
activities, he was not the horrible monster that Caled talked him up
to be and he would not deserve whatever horrors Delio would see befall
him. Knowing that Caled would do whatever could be done to help Hadrian,
Lio moved quickly to the platform, just in time to catch Gam as he was
cast aside. Dragging him as gently as possible, Delio pulled him beneath
the scaffolding away from the pressing crowd. Cradling him in his lap
like a child, Lio held Gam close, brushed away the drying blood and
pressed their lips together. Lio tasted his tears in the kiss, his heart
still pounding as he struggled to reassure himself that his beloved
Gam was still alive