"Well, boys, what do you think? He doesn't look so tough to me," the tracker said with a smile.
"I want a good look at him," said a grimy man with a scowl. Looking Hadrian up and down, the man balled up his fists and shook them in the sorcerer's face. "You, you killed both my sons and their families, Scourge."
With those words, the man swung and connected with Hadrian's jaw, sending the sorcerer flying onto his back, blood trickling from his lip. Each of the other three took their turn before the tracker stepped in. "Easy boys - we want him able to walk into the town to face his punishment. The people deserve that."
The men murmured but did not argue. Hadrian was yanked to his feet, his hands tied. He was bruised and his torn clothing hung loosely about him.
As they walked, Hadrian thought back over his life and saw nothing there of value, nothing of worth. He felt his energy drain from him, his life essence drifting away. As they approached the city, the part of Hadrian that felt fear and pain had retreated behind that well-practiced barrier and he felt nothing. The words and actions did not reach him inside his fortress.
Only once did anything get close, prick that hidden place. Steel blue eyes captured his and for a moment, Hadrian was alive again. The terrible words hurled at him, the rough hands grabbing him, the cuts and bruises on his body were painful but could not compare to the pain Caled's eyes caused. Fear danced on his tongue and his heart filled with longing and sadness.
His inner self gasped at the knowledge that he would never again gaze into Caled's face, and that pain was too much. In an instant, Hadrian retreated to await his fate.
"Burn him!! Burn him like he burned them!!"
The crowd took up the chant as Hadrian was yanked down off the platform. The mercenary and his men were caught off-guard by this sudden change in plans, and could not stop the sorcerer from being dragged off into the crowd. Hiding his blade for later use, Caled battled furiously with his fists to keep Hadrian's inky black hair in sight. Blood flowed freely around him as he used his rage to push forward .but it was not enough. The eager crowd had a violence of its own. Arms and legs flailed at his from every direction, several catching Caled hard in the chest, knocking the wind from him. He battled not to go down, knowing the crowd would trample him to death.
A cheer was raised and Caled realized he could no longer see Hadrian. The crowd cheered again and he was ashamed to admit to almost being glad he could not see what new tortures they were inflicting on the young man. It was not until they reached the outskirts of the city that Caled caught another glimpse of Hadrian. Bruised and cut, mud and blood covered almost every inch of his body. Seeing Hadrian like that, something broke free inside Caled's chest; something that had been locked safely away since Rhiad shattered the ice that had encased Caled's heart and demanded to be heard. Hadrian was Caledon's. He had marked and claimed him. Those filthy lowlifes were going to pay for touching what was his. Caled was white hot mad and his mind had never been so focused.
Hadrian was being bound to a pole, wood and kindling stacked at his feet as Caled watched.
"I don't think so," Caled growled. A plan an awful, horrible plan, took shape in his mind. Without a second's hesitation, Caled turned and battled his way back into the city.
Sitting in the dirt beneath the scaffolding, Delio pulled Gam down beside him and worked to remove his bonds. Once free, Lio looked into Gam's eyes and the rein he had kept on his emotions gave way. Silent tears fell as his hands reached up and cupped Gam's face. His thumb brushed blood from Gam's chin as he looked his friend over, reassuring himself that Gam was indeed safe.
"Oh, Lio," Gam said softly. Whatever else he had been about to say was washed away in the atonement of kisses that Delio planted over every inch of uninjured skin on the man's face. So caught up were they in sharing their joy at being alive and together that all else faded away.
Caled's voice broke the spell. "Come on, you two. I need your help."
The thieves crawled cautiously out from their haven to find the square empty. "Where's Hadrian?" Gam was not sure he wanted an answer to that question.
"They are burning him at the stake outside the city." Caled's voice was as cold as ice.
"You're not going to let them ?!"
"No." Caled cut Delio's protest off mid-stream. "No. I'm not." Caled stepped up to the side of the nearest building. He worked quickly, and without hesitation.
Delio watched for a moment, a confused look on his face before his eyes grew wide with understanding. "Caled! You're starting that building on fire!"
"Yes, I am." Again the mercenary's voice was practically toneless.
"Gam, we can't " Delio turned but Gam had already taken off across the square towards the next building.
Delio turned back, confused and unsure, to find Caled looking straight at him, fire reflected deep in his eyes. "Are you going to let Hadrian die?"
There were no further protests. The wood was old and dry and the blaze burned quickly out of control. As they watch bright tongues of flame whip into a blazing inferno. This was not a fire that was going to be easily put out.
Gam put a hand on Caled's shoulder. "Time to go rescue Hadrian."
This time there was a slight hesitation before Caled nodded and the three took off to leave the flames to their work.
"Fire! Fire!" Delio's voice alone would never have carried over the din of the blood-thirsty crowd, but the roar of the fire as it built and burned caught everyone's attention. The tide of bodies changed directions one again as frantic citizens rush to save their homes. The trio was separated as they battled their way through the crowd trying to stampede back to the city.
There were some, however, that did not turn, the desire for blood proving stronger than the need to save the city. Caled, however, was ready. The small knife proved lethal in his skilled hands and his single-minded determination dictated that he left no survivors.
A huge mountain of flesh saw Caled coming and set up to meet him, a dagger of his own gleaming red. Caled's eyes flashed past him to Hadrian. Flames had already begun to swirl up and around the sorcerer's legs, the slight body hanging limp and unconscious from the smoke and loss of blood, head lolled forward, held upright only by the tight bonds. Caled knew he could take his opponent, but it would take time and every second was now precious.
Caled was suddenly no longer alone. A thief streaked past on either side, charging down the mountain of flesh. The mercenary did not stick around to wait for the results. Hurtling himself into the flames, Caled slashed the sorcerer free and then dragged both of them to the ground, rolling until he could no longer feel the bite of the flames. Without a backward glance, he lifted his precious burden high in his arms and ran hard and long into the forest until his legs collapsed out from under him.
It took all their combined strength to take down the large man, but finally Lio and Gam had him twisting and screaming with rage, tied with the very ropes that had bound Hadrian. The thieves shared a smile of satisfaction before taking off after Caled. Despite his burden, the mercenary moved with incredible speed and there were several times that the thieves almost lost him, but finally all four of them collapsed in a sheltered hollow, breathing hard. " must go deeper " Delio managed to gasp, " still not safe "
After dragging in several more lung-fulls of air, Caled
nodded and forced himself back onto his feet. His legs threatened to
give way beneath him. It was several more minutes before he had the
strength to get to his feet again, sheer will and determination moving
him through the forest. But Caled was not complaining. He had Hadrian
safe in his arms and pushing his body to the brink kept him from having
to do the one thing he feared more than anything