Once outside the walls, they put their horses to a run, heading nowhere in particular but in the general area of the woods east of the city near the little village of Hawk. Once the edge was off, they slowed, and began just sort of poking around, talking occasionally but mostly just being together. Winona and Marco rode behind, unobtrusively, and it seemed to Rhys that Andy had at last learned to ignore them.
Then they heard a whining. Dismounting, Rhys preceded Andy in the brush, treading carefully. Marco pushed past Andy, too, sword out. It didn't sound dangerous, but you couldn't be too careful. What it was, however, was a dog, a mostly-spaniel, with her leg in a trap, bleeding and shattered.
"Keep away, your Lordship, young sir," warned Marco, "it doesn't know you, and it'll likely bite."
"Damn," said Rhys, "she's got to be in pain. Maybe I could... I wish I had a cloak on. I could call Aven..." His brother was good with animals, better than with people.
"Oh, come on," said Andy. "Why make her wait?" He pushed past them, going down on his knees next to the dog.
"Andy, watch outoh damn!" Rhys's warning was too late; the dog snapped and caught Andy's arm.
But Andy only caught his breath and held still, crooning softly to the dog, "Poor baby... take it easy now, I know it hurts and you're afraid, but we aren't your enemies, easy now." He took the dog's head gently in his right hand and disengaged it from his arm. "Good girl," he said, stroking her head, and then added to Rhys, "come hold her head while I get her foot free."
Rhys shook his own head, but did as he was bid. Andy got so serious about the oddest things. Rhys watched Andy's hands, sure and deft, open the trap and gently pull the dog's leg free. "She's wearing a collar," he said to Rhys, "she must live around here somewhere, maybe in Hawk. What do you think?"
"I think," said Rhys resignedly, "that we are going to find out who owns her."
But when they got to Hawk, nobody owned her. Andy's father didn't believe in house dogs, anyway, let alone mongrels, so Rhys was bracing himself for taking her home himself (at that, Aven had brought home worse) when a boy herding cattle homeward said, "That's Crazy Krasik's dog!"
"Who?" asked Rhys.
Crazy Krasik, it turned out, lived out beyond Hawk, towards Túnandra, alone in a hut in the woods. He was old, and crazy, his madness defined by his refusal to allow anyone to approach"he's shot people, your lordship, my father says so!"and his never coming to town. "We leave orders for him at the Message Oak"Krasik, it turned out, was a leatherworker, and good at it"and we pay him in kind" so he never left his hutand, per the rumors, at any rate, he shot his crossbow at people who got closer than the Message Oak. "If I were you, your lordship, I'd just tie that dog to the Oak and leave it. Crazy Krasik'll find it, all right."
"We can't just tie her a tree and leave her!" protested Andy after the cattle-boy had passed on with his charges.
"We don't need to shot by a crazy man, either," said Rhys, reasonably he hoped. "Winona?" He turned to the guard, one of his mother's oldest employees.
"Truthfully, my lord? 'My father says he shoots people that get to close to his hut' sounds like a bogey-man to me, like 'if you go outside after midnight, the shadow-goblins will eat you'. No one has ever actually been eaten by a shadow-goblin, but mothers still tell their kids that, to keep 'em inside."
"Shadow-goblins?" said Rhys curiously, and then shook his head. "Never mind. Later."
"My lord?" said Marco, who was both younger and newer than Winona and so a little less sure of himself with their young lordships. "My lord, if he'd really shot someone, he'd have been arrested. Wouldn't he? Even outside the walls like this?"
"Of course he would," agreed Rhys. "The Army would have... There. I'll ask Kami."
'You boys stay away from him,' was Kami's repressive response to that query, the damping tone clear even on the net spell. 'He's not dangerous unless provoked, so don't.'
'You mean, he has shot someone?' Rhys tried for details.
'You boys just stay away,' replied Kami, officer and elder sister combing in the order.
'Yes, ma'am, Captain Lady Kamilla, ma'am,' thought Rhys, but what he said was, "Kami says he hasn't shot anyone." 'Huh,' he thought to himself, 'I don't remember joining the army. You boys. Huh.' "We might as well ride up there," he said to Andy. "We don't have to stay, after all."
Marco looked at Winona; she shrugged. It was clear she wasn't worried, so Marco decided he wasn't either. Andy never had been, just impatient.
They rode past the huge oak towards Crazy Krasik's hut, Andy nursing the dog and Rhys still fuming inwardly over Kami's you boys; he had the temper to match his red hair, but he had calmed down by the time they reached their goal, and was ready to leave if it seemed wiser. The hut was small, single-storied and probably only one room. The yard, such as it was, was neat, and there were even a few late autumn blossoms under the one window.
And in the door stood a tall, old man with a crossbow in his hands.
"Get away from here," he called out, his voice raspy. "Get, or I'll let fly at you!"
"Uncle," said Andy, "we don't mean to bother you. We've only found your dog." He dismounted as he spoke.
Rhys followed suit. He wasn't perturbed: the crossbow wasn't even cocked, let alone loaded. The man was a recluse, obviously, but just as obviously not really dangerous. Andy could give him the dog and they could leave. Winona and Marco exchanged glances, but their assessment matched Rhys's. The old man wasn't going to hurt their charges with an unloaded crossbow.
"Haven't you boys anything better to do than torment a poor, innocent beast?" snapped the man, holding his crossbow against his chest and blocking the doorway.
Andy paused, surprised. "Oh, no, Uncle we didn't, I promise. We only found her, she was in a trap, and felt we couldn't leave her. Let me take her inside for you," he added, and the man fell back before him.
Rhys smiled involuntarily; another victim of Andy's obliviously wielded charm! Crazy Krasik hadn't wanted them in his yard, and now theyAndy anyway, and Rhys was followingwere in the hut. He ducked his head to enterhow did Crazy Krasik manage, he was a half a foot tallerand checked in surprise on the doorsill. The inside of the hut was even neater than the outside, sparsely furnished to be sure, but clean and orderly. Bridles, harness, and tools covered a table that took up one wall; a bed and small table took another wall; the fireplace, and a small simple portrait of a young man (son? wondered Rhys, brother? himself??), dominated the third; and, astonishingly, a bookshelf filled the fourth. Two small rugs and a pile of blankets, probably the dog's bed, were on the floor. Andy knelt down there and put the dog down on the blankets. It whined when he put it down, and he said, softly, "Poor girl. I'm sorry."
Almost reluctantly, Crazy Krasik knelt down next to Andy to look at the dog's foot. Andy stroked its head and the old man saw the blood on his arm. "Ey, boy," he said, concern and something else in his voice. "Princess bit you?"
"Oh, she didn't mean it," said Andy, "she was just scared, weren't you, Princess?"
"It wants cleaning," said the old man with the concern of someone for whom a Grey Priest was a legend instead of a daily occurence or a best friend's brother.
"Oh, it's all right, Uncle, don't bother yourself," Andy shook his head, but the old man took his arm and pushed back the sleeve to look at the injury. It really wasn't much, and the old man realized that, but he didn't let go at once. Andy, starved for physical affection, didn't object to the gentle grip; in fact, as the old man turned his arm over, gently touching, Andy closed his eyes briefly and sat back on his heels. The old man jerked his hand away as though Andy's arm had suddenly turned to flame.
Rhys, who had been standing by the fireplace shaking his head resignedly, tensed up, his hand going to his knife in reflex reaction to the sudden fear that had entered the room. Andy sat up straight, his hazel eyes widening in dismay as he realized what he'd done. "Oh, Uncle," he began, "I didn't mean to..." His voice trailed off as he stared at the old man, who was trembling.
"Get out," he said roughly, "you boys get out now. Just get. Now. Now."
Rhys was more than willing to oblige him, maybe he didn't shoot people, but he was peculiar. But Andy just knelt there unmoving, staring, a dawning wonder on his face.
"Oh, Uncle," Andy said softly, almost, it seemed to Rhys, compassionately. He wished he could see the old man's face. Andy continued, "don't be afraid. You don't have to be afraid of us. Not of us." He put his hand gently on the old man's forearm, and Rhys suddenly understood what he meant. "We understand, don't we, Rhys?" Andy looked at Rhys, smiling, and Rhys crossed the room to his side and put his hand on Andy's shoulder.
"That's right," he nodded, "we won't hurt you... certainly not just for looking. He's worth looking at."
The old man stared at them, his blue eyes losing their fearful expression. Finally he said, "You boys... you boys are... a couple?"
"That's right, Uncle," Rhys capitulated to the form of address. Somehow sir didn't sound right, it might even have been insolence, and he wasn't sure that Krasik was the man's true name. Uncle, if rustic, was working for Andy, and Rhys rarely quarrelled with success. Or Andy, for that matter.
"Yes, Uncle, we are," Andy was affirming, his brilliant smile coaxing an answering one from the old man.
But that smile was short-lived, and fear came back into his eyes and face. But this time he didn't pull away from them in defensiveness; he leaned forward, grasping Andy's shoulder and Rhys's hand in his old, wrinkled hands, his grip still surprisingly strong. "You have to be careful," he said intensely. "Watch yourselves, all the time. Trust no one. No one."
"Uncle?" asked Andy, puzzled. Rhys found himself swallowing; the old man's paranoia was catching, he realized. He wanted to disengage, snatch up Andy and run. But he held his ground.
"You're too young," the old man said, staring up at Rhys, "you're much too young..."
"I'm nineteen, Uncle," Andy soothed him, "and Rhys is younger, but he's not that young. He's of age..."
"Of age, under age, what the hell does that matter to us?" The old man got his voice back under control and said, "Those are their concepts, boys, they don't apply to us... you're too young, much too young to go to jail. Believe me, please. You don't want to go to jail. You don't." He stared desperately at Andy, willing him to believe.
Andy stared back at him, as did Rhys, for a long moment, and then said, with genuine puzzlement, "But Unclefor what?"
Rhys knew, or thought he did. But he too was puzzled. "It's legal, Uncle. And we're going to be married."
"Legal?" The old man stared at them. "You can marry? You're going to marry?"
"They passed a law, I think twenty years ago?" Andy, enlightened, glanced at Rhys for confirmation, Rhys with his mother on the Council of Nobles.
"Yes. Twenty years agoMain Session in '79," confirmed Rhys. "Uncle?" He knelt down beside Andy in front of the old man, the silent dog between them now completely forgotten.
"You boys are so lucky," the old man whispered. Tears gathered in his eyes and fell unheeded. He looked, once, at the portrait, and then back at Andy. "Oh... do you know how lucky you are? Do you?"
"Uncle," said Andy softly, "what is it? Tell us."
"Yes, " said Rhys, who knew someone who needed to talk when he saw one. "What?"
"This is how it used to be," the old man began, and they settled to listen, shoulders touching...
("They put him in jail!" Rhys would rage later at home, to his concerned mother and dismayed father, rage as though it were their own personal faults. "They put him jail just for falling in love! He didn't hurt anybody, he just fell in love! And they put him in jail. For five years! With criminals! Thieves, and muggers, and rapists, and gods know what else. He wasn't a criminal... he just fell in love. ...And jail was hell, and he was supposed to like it 'cause he was bent, and the guards never interfered, and his lover died, and no one would talk to him when he got out, or give him a job, and there was no place for him to go, and he's been alone and afraid ever since, keeping people away for fifty years!")When they came out of the hut, Marco and Winona were waiting, breaking off their conversation. Winona had checked with Rhys on the net a couple of times, and he'd been, he felt, a little curt. He looked at the two of them: tammies, both married to humans, Marco bent... suddenly he felt a surge of sympathy that took him very much by surprise. "I'm sorry," he said, mostly to Marco, "I didn't mean to keep you guys waiting like this... you must be hungry," he added as they stared at him. It was nearly dusk, he saw.
"We're all right, Lord Rhys," said Winona a trifle puzzedly, handing him Rainforest Jasper's reins. "You've not kept us that long." They've kept us longer before this, her glance said to Marco, and his agreed, though he kept silent, holding Rover for Andy.
Andy took Rover's reins and mounted. Rhys glanced at him, a little concerned; he was very subdued. It wasn't surprising, considering what they'd just heard, it had nearly subdued Rhys himself and Andy was more sensitive. Still, Rhys would have to keep an eye on him.
They headed back toward the city in silence, knee to knee. Winona and Marco dropped back behind them. After a quarter of a mile Andy said, "Rhys... we have to see him again. We can't abandon him."
"No, of course not," agreed Rhys. "I was going to suggest it myself. Sweet Erinna. Fifty years living in fear... he was afraid we'd have him jailed again, just for touching your arm."
"Stop," said Andy.
Rhys looked at him in surprise, and then reined Rainforest Jasper to a halt. Andy pushed Rover against the overo's side, squeezing Rhys's leg between the two horses. Before Rhys could register a complaint, he had forgotten it: Andy leaned over and kissed him. Rhys reached for him, held him tightly, responding to his passion with passion of his own. It was Rover that broke the spell, tossing his head moving away suddenly from Rainforest Jasper. Rhys didn't let go, and he ended up with Andy suspended in his arms, overbalancing him so that both of them ended up on the ground. Rainforest Jasper stood still, only tossing his head, but Rover took off. Not that either Andy or Rhys noticed.
Rhys had just about figured that Andy wasn't going to sleep with him until they were married. He'd given up on it, in fact, but now... "Red, why are we wasting time?"
"Don't ask me, love. It's your idea. God, Andrusha, ahhh," Rhys's voice trailed off as Andy kissed his throat. No doubt about it; Andy had learned to ignore the guards' presence, as Rhys had always done, his whole life long.
Rhys wasn't sure how long it was they were lying there, lost in each other, Andy's mouth and hands insistent, burning, on Rhys's skin. But suddenly, somewhere close, something startled a covey of quail and they burst skyward like thunder. Even Rhys jumped, and Andy startled backwards a good foot.
"Just quail," soothed Rhys, pausing to look with satisfaction at Andy, his pale hair and fair skin warmed to gold by the late afternoon sun, his lithe body half bared... "Just quail, love, come back here." He reached out, but Andy stared around himself, dismayed. Oh, no, thought Rhys, damn those quail. Damn them! "Love, please come back."
"Oh, Red," for a moment Andy yearned towards him, and then he shook himself. "No, my mother. She has that party tonight... and I'm going to be late as it is." He began buttoning his shirt, and Rhys flopped back onto the grass in disappointment, closing his eyes. After a moment, he felt Andy's hand caress his stomach lightly.
"I have to go to that party, Rhys. You know that."
"Yes." Rhys took Andy's hand and held it against him for a moment, and then sat up and began buttoning his own shirt.
"I'm going to tell my father," offered Andy.
Rhys glanced up sharply, eagerly. "When?"
"Hmmm," said Rhys. Nothing new here. But he tried to sound encouraging, because Andy was nervous about his father, even though Rhys thought stern and distant hardly merited such nerves.
Andy realized that hadn't sounded like as firm a declaration as it was meant to. He hurriedly added, "I mean it, Rhys. You know my father's in Teradathat's why I can't miss this party. I don't know exactly when he'll be back, five or six days, but I mean to tell him as soon as he's back. I will."
Rhys smiled at him. "I love you, Andy Malinsky."
"After the party? Can I... I will come to Dawnfires. If I may?"
"If? Gods above, what's this 'if'?" He hugged Andy to him, laughing at him. "How long have I been trying, anyway? 'If'?"
"Tonight, then. ...Gods above, Rhys!" Rhys stared at Andy, who sounded truly upset. What now? "Rover!" Andy said. "Where's Rover?"
Rhys laughed again. "Over there," he pointed to Winona and Marco, the latter of whom had Rover firmly in hand, neither of whom were, only apparently, paying any attention to Lord Rhys and his friend. "But," Rhys added, "you could have ridden double with me. Anytime. Anywhere."
"I know," said Andy. "I love you too."
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