90% funded! And a new excerpt!

Thursday, 3 January 2019

I can't believe it, we've only 10% to go and we're funded! Keep sharing, 

In celebration, I'm posting an excerpt from Chapter 2... in which Iain is very much Iain.

* * * *

The next morning, Montagu, Ufford and the rest of the Galloway Dozen break south, direct to Carlyle, leaving Harry at a small crossroads with Montagu's man-at-arms, a hired local guide, and a boy in a cage. They're to take the long way around, bypassing the English nobles and their households streaming south along the main London road from their Scottish victory, avoiding their questions about the prisoner.

Harry's little band head west, towards the Irish Sea. The guide, in his heavy accent, says it will be two days along the Cumbrian coast until the old Roman road bends eastwards again through the forest and meets the London road at Kendal. Harry has always loved the ocean, and he feels as if a great weight is lifted from him now that he is out of the company of Rabbie and the other knights. He's almost calm. It's the most peaceful he's felt in months, and if he could get off his horse and kiss the English soil without his companions laughing at him, he would.

But as they sway in single file down the dirt track leading westwards, past dramatic hills dotted with curious sheep and wary peasants, Harry can't get his mind off the boy. He's still bound and gagged, his cage still covered by a sailcloth sheet. But he's awake.

An hour into the vast Cumbrian landscape with no witnesses but sheep, Harry makes a decision. He rides back and yanks the cover off the cage. This gets him a glare from Johann, Lord Montagu's bald, red-faced man-at-arms, but the boy is quiescent, huddled in a corner, glaring at them.

At midday, the hilltop road  splits, a spur of it dipping down to a wide, sandy beach, fed by a clear stream. They pull up by the stream to break their fast and water the horses. Their guide lopes off with some of Harry's coin to a nearby collection of hovels, looking for a peasant who can sell them anything other than salt beef and hard biscuit. He soon comes back with a brace of hare, and he and Johann set to skinning and cooking them.

Harry checks on their prisoner. He is all too aware the Scottish boy hasn't eaten in three days. The boy stares back at him, long hair now matted with dried blood, shirt stained with piss and filth. He looks exhausted but his eyes still burn with a pale, fevered fury, a determination Harry has never encountered before.

Harry can't find it in his heart to hate him, whatever Rabbie says about the Scots. The boy obviously had some upbringing, given his ease in French and his mother's dress, finer than any his own mother had ever had, fine as any of the great ladies at the King's table, even denuded of its embroidery.

Harry unlocks the cage and reaches in to pull the boy out. The Scottish boy flinches hard when Harry touches him, and Harry wants to strangle Rabbie in that moment. The boy shivers uncontrollably as Harry helps him out of the cart, shaking with hunger and exhaustion and some combination of fury and terror.

The boy's bare feet sink into the dark beach sand and there's a moment where he pokes it with his toes, digging in, feeling the wet grains. It's a strangely endearing, intimate gesture, so normal after days of blood and horror, and Harry has to glance away.

When he looks back, the boy is watching him again, waiting for whatever comes next.

“We're in England now,” Harry says. “I'm cutting your gag. You can yell all you want. Please don't bite me again.”

The smell of roasting hare wafts over and the scent causes Harry's stomach to clench in hunger. He can't even imagine what the boy is feeling.

Harry cuts the gag before he can second-guess himself. He steps back, holding the boy up but also at arms length. The boy's wrists and ankles are still bound, but he does his best to stand tall, defiant, even if the shaking undermines it. Uncurled, he's not nearly as small as Harry thought, only a few inches shorter than him. But the boy is so thin. It's a thinness born of constant hunger, of not enough, for a prolonged period of time. Harry thinks back to Montagu's words, they would have starved in that keep, and realises their terrible truth.

The boy yells.

And yells and yells, in Gaelic.

At the sky. At Harry. At the hills. Johann and their Cumbrian guide, Tom, jolt to their feet and reach for weapons but Harry stops them with a raised hand. After what seems like an eternity the boy falls down in the sand, shaking. No tears fall, but it looks like he's crying. His voice cracks and breaks, and the yells crumble away first into hoarse whispers, then nothing. He's just hitting his forehead against the sand, over and over, his lips moving soundlessly as if he's reciting a prayer, or a curse. The silence is startling after so much noise.

Harry squats down next to him. “I'd like to wash you. Can you swim?”

The boy sits back onto his knees and turns his head to Harry. There's sand stuck to his forehead. Harry's hand twitches, the urge to brush it off stilled instantly by the look the boy is giving him. It's a narrow-eyed expression of complete and utter disdain.

Then, in the most beautiful French Harry has ever heard, the boy whispers, “Of course I can fucking swim, you great Sassenach idiot. I grew up in a tower in the middle of a loch.”

Harry laughs, despite himself. “Well, I'll have to leave your arms tied then.” He reaches forwards and cuts the rope binding the boy's ankles.

Harry helps the boy up. They walk towards the ocean, the boy shaky as a newborn foal, his thin legs barely holding him. The boy stumbles, and Harry should expect what happens next but he's still caught by surprise when the stumble becomes a sweep of leg that knocks Harry square on his ass.

The boy runs.

Harry shouts to Johann and Tom, and they give chase. The boy falls, skinning his knees, but pushes himself up rapidly and keeps running, blood coursing down his shins. He's not fast. He's too exhausted to be fast, and Harry catches up to him just as he gets to the stream at the top of the beach.

The boy glances back at the thunder of Harry's footsteps. Harry watches in horror as the boy's ankle turns on a stone and he starts to go down. With bound arms, there's no way he can break his fall.

Harry lunges and grabs the boy before he can hit the ground. They both end up in a heap on the marshy edge of the stream, the boy thrashing and keening his anger. But Harry has both height and strength on him, and just wraps his thickly-muscled arms around the boy from behind. Harry still has to dodge the boy's attempts to break his nose with the back of his skull, and his shins get a bruising from the boy’s heels, but they’re both reasonably unscathed.

“C'mon,” Harry says, hauling the boy to his feet. “Let's get you into the ocean.” Harry holds the boy by his upper arms, in front of him, and frog-marches him towards the slow roll of waves. The boy doesn't fight, and Harry can't tell if he's given up for the time being, or if he's just waiting for his opportunity.

The boy hisses as the cold salt water washes over his many cuts, over the irritated, broken skin at his wrists and ankles. But he obediently ducks under the water when Harry exerts a gentle pressure on his shoulder, letting the sea clean the filth and blood out of his hair. He dunks himself a few times and then stands up and shakes like a dog, managing to get a substantial amount of water on Harry.

Then the boy tips his head back and closes his eyes for a moment, the midday sun hitting his pale, elegant face and turning the drops of water in his raven-dark hair into something like jewels. His long linen shirt is translucent from the water, clinging to his slim body. His lips are rose-red from the abrasions of the gag and the irritation of the salt water.

Harry's throat goes dry. Who is he?

“Better?” Harry chokes out.

One pale eye opens, and a bowed red lip curls in a snarl. “You honestly expect me to congratulate you on that being the least shit thing that's happened to me this week?” The boy spits, hitting Harry in the cheek. “You killed my family. I will kill every one of you.”

Harry uses his free hand – the one that isn't gripping the boy's bicep against his next escape attempt – to wipe the saliva from his face. He sighs, and changes tack. “I'm Harry. What's your name?”

The boy laughs, sharp and hollow. “You killed them all and you don't even know my name. Fuck you. Death. That's my name.”

He turns his back to Harry. “If you're done being the Good Samaritan, I'd like to go back in my cage.”

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