Grimmest of the Sought was Harker. He stood just over five feet, wearing cloaks that hid his scars, and walking with a slight limp from an injury sustained early in life as a Sought. His walking staff was weathered as his body, twisted but sturdy. Harker had blue eyes, unlike any other of the Sought; his father had been from the north; his mother had loved a captive.
"Won't you stay?" Harker said to Vera. She stumbled backward, her skirts catching on the rocks.
"No," said she, "you've given me my freedom, and I know you'll give no more. Why should I jeopardize my liberty by staying any longer? You've promised me freedom, yes, but how can I be sure you won't forget your word?"
"You'll find a maven never lies."
"You... are different," Vera said, sitting down. She gathered her skirt around her feet.
Harker climbed to sit beside her. "I am."
For a while, the two of them watched the figures below, the men--if you could call them men--from Harker's company, working in the camp. They had Finnegan tied to a pole near the edge of the main clearing. Vera and Finnegan had both been taken captive. One was given freedom.
"I am not really one of them," Harker said at length, gesturing out with one scarred hand. "Part of me is hunted, part of me is Sought... but really... I am only human." He turned to look at her. One eye, cast in shadow, peered out from under the hood. His sleeve exposed part of a gnarled arm, and he acknowledged it. "I am not ashamed," said he. "These are the price I pay for being half-bred. These... are what I think I owe for these." With that, Harker removed his hood, staring at her with his prized blue eyes, brighter and more piercing than icicles.
Vera wanted to look away but could not.
"You see," Harker continued, gazing at the figures below, "those men believe I am different. I am inferior. My eyes betray me, do they not? They mark me as half-bred. Once I was born and my mother's secret discovered, she was killed... the man she loved was killed. And I was beaten. And burned. And basically tortured in every way conceivable." He looked to Vera again. "I campaigned for your freedom." Harker returned his sights again to the camp. "They're not bad men. They're not cruel. They're just afraid. The world is hunting them, and they're keenly aware of it. They don't take well to strangers. Anyone--anyone--could be a danger to them."
"Why am I sitting out here instead of down there?" Vera asked. "And why did you follow?"
"They let me grow before they killed my parents. I was allowed to watch them die. I was five. It seems such a waste to kill two people in love... why not kill one and let the other live to love again?" Harker replied. "And so I fought for your release."
"I don't understand."
"You and the man. Why should you both die?"
"Finnegan and I? We're not in love. I hardly know him."
"You traveled together," Harker replied.
"That wasn't exactly prearranged. We traveled in a large party from the north and accidentally were separated... at which time, as you know, your group found us."
"And no bond formed in your wanderings?"
Vera paused. "Why are you here with me?"
"Would you like to watch him die?"
"What kind of question is that?" Vera asked, reeling back.
"An honest one," Harker responded. "If you die among The Sought, you are given all the ceremony you deserve. It is an honor to watch. I extend to you this opportunity."
"Why would I want to stay?"
"First, if you don't see his death, you'll wonder forever if he actually died or if he's wandering this world looking for you--"
Vera was indignant. "That wouldn't matter! I'm not in love--"
"Fair enough. If you stay to watch, you are almost absolutely guaranteed entertainment. There is a show before each execution. It sounds grim, I know, but it is out of respect for the man about to die that we do this. Last supper, last amusement. It's just our way."
Vera shook her head. "The idea makes me sick."
"Lastly," Harker said, "if you leave, you'll miss the final kiss goodbye."
Vera looked sideways at the Sought who sat beside her.
"Oh yes," he said. "It's tradition."
Vera looked away and picked at a rock.
"If you like," Harker offered, bending his head toward her, "you can choose which of us gives him the kiss..."
"If I stayed for the slaughter," Vera began, "would I... be allowed to participate in tradition?"
Harker began to smile, displaying a row of happily discolored teeth.
"Don't look at me that way," Vera said. "You make me nervous."
The Sought looked towards the camp, staring at the man tied to the pole. "You want the kiss," he said, pointing.
During the night, Greystones hunt for packs. The creatures have such appetites as would not be satisfied by even five of the South's largest men, and so most traveling parties from here and about would disband for the night, some stretching themselves as much as two miles apart, that they not be smelled in a group together come twilight.
By day, of course, it was unsafe to travel without a group of twenty-some, because of the thieves and bands of murderers that lurked by the roadside. There were also the common threats of The Sought and several of the other endangered peoples, who would often capture and kill any passersby, fearing enemies among them. It was unsafe to travel at all, in most cases, and often the well-to-do families only did so out of necessity.
The group traveling from the North traversed the land out of this very necessity. It was persecution that drove them out, that drove them south, and some of them farther north, and some east, and some west. But of course, there was not much room for any northern expansion, and only a bit more for eastern and western, and so the majority had fled south. Over the course of two weeks, twelve different parties were dispatched to the South, each on a different day, that they might separate themselves by miles and thus be safer in their travels.
Each party contained thirty to forty men, women, and children, all of them driven from their homes by overpopulation; not so much, really, by overpopulation, but more by the towns having been overrun by Thestles first, followed then by the Garruters. Once, the North had been full of the blue-eyed human men and women, but over the years, as the number dwindled, the others moved in, taking control of what minimal government remained, and oppressing the few thousand people left. One group would smother another; this was the way of the conquest.
Vera and Finnegan had been among the first to leave the North, and they left ten nights before the full moon. It had been timed that way, that none of the parties would have to travel under the new moon, that none would have to crouch and wait and fear the total darkness. On the third night, Vera and Finnegan were sent off for the evening with another man and woman, all four strangers. At some point during the early evening, the man had wandered off in search of more firewood and something to eat, and the woman volunteered to take the first shift minding the fire. Finnegan and Vera slept; their watches would come later.
After a number of hours, Vera awoke and found no one. The fire had dwindled to a single burning ember, the burnt center of a charred stick. The rest of the wood was ash, almost cool to the touch. It had been a while since there'd been a fire here. And the man had not returned with either the food or the wood. Vera started the fire again and minded it carefully for a few hours longer until Finnegan awoke.
"Where is the party?" asked Finnegan, sitting upright with some effort.
Vera poked at the fire and shrugged. She knew the law; you were not to speak above your class.
"What is that?" he asked, almost violently, enraged that she would not answer.
Vera glared at him.
"I see," he said. "Put the law aside, child. We're not in the North."
"They've gone, my lord" she said at last.
"But whither to? And why?" he demanded, as if she knew the answers.
Again Vera shrugged.
"Again you will not speak..."
"I do not know, my lord," she said. "They've gone. When I arose, the fire had died and that man had not returned from what I saw."
Finnegan leapt to his feet. "Mayhap they wandered off and were lost. A woman's weak wits could disorient one easily enough, and that man seemed thick as leather through the skull. Wouldn't it be quite likely for them to lose themselves for an hour or two?"
"That man was a woodsman, a feller by profession. He dwelt in the borough of Romney. As quick or thick as he might be of mind, he'd not disorient with ease."
"Then what? He was taken? He was robbed? Murdered? What is it you suggest? And what of the woman? How long has she been missing?"
"They've both been gone a good five or more hours from what I can tell. I have no idea what could have happened."
"Men don't simply disappear!"
Vera looked around, almost afraid that Finnegan's ranting would awaken something in the wood. "This is the deep dark of a forest night. No one truly knows what dangers lie in wait. The man has gone, and the woman, too. That is all there is to be known."
Finnegan stood in deep concentration. He scratched his lower lip and peered into the woods a ways. After a moment, he spoke more calmly:
"That man was our guide back, was he not? He knew where we'd left the party?"
"Aye," Vera said glumly.
"And I don't suppose you know your directions well?"
"No, my lord... the night has distorted what sense of direction I have."
"Well." He sat and drew his knees to his chest and patted the earth about him. "We can't rely on my schooling to lead us... I've never had need of such trivial things."
"Trivial? Orienteering trivial? Surely this cannot be spoken by a lord lost in the woods. A trivial thing to find one's way!"
"Well, of course matters seem pressing now, but I assure you, there isn't often a time when I lose myself on my estate. And there isn't often a time when I'm navigating the woods alone."
"And were you not paying attention when we walked away?"
"Nay!" Finnegan exclaimed. "Why should I have paid my heed? I'm not accustomed to wanderings of this sort. At home, I have servants to lead me." He looked down and grunted. "This man was good enough servant for me."
"Well, my lord, what shall we do?"
"For one, stop calling me your lord," he said softly.
"Are you not?" Vera asked, her tone matching his.
"Nay, I am... I am." He looked up at her, seeing her for the first time. "I was. But I am no longer a lord. I have no claim to lordship. Among these trees," he said, patting the earth again, "I am reduced to just a man." He looked up, trying to see the night sky through the leaves above him. "Tonight, and until we find the group again, I am just a man. There. That settles things," he said, standing. "Let there be no barrier of class between us, child, no social bounds that bind us to a law in nonexistence."
"Very well, but I'll warrant I'm no 'child' to eyes the likes of yours. Why, I'd hazard I've got three years on you at the least. If I'm not allowed 'my lord' for an address, then take you back your 'child,' too, that we may play from even ends."
"Would 'madam' suit you?" Finnegan asked, bending over her as if to mock.
"If I may call you 'sir,'" she said indignantly.
"Madam," said he, bowing exaggeratedly low, "gentlemen and swine alike are known across the land as 'sir.' If you choose to call me this, you could not please me more."
Vera cocked her head as he rose and smiled.
"Madam, I am Finnegan." He knelt down and put forward a hand to introduce himself.
"Vera," she replied shyly, allowing him one hand.
He kissed her knuckle lightly. "Delighted."
Vera stared at Harker.
"I do not know if you insult or repulse me," she replied at length.
"Is it not true, then," he asked, his voice gruff and intimidating now, "that given the opportunity, you'd not hesitate one moment in displaying to that man even a small degree of affection?"
"You misunderstand our relationship," she murmured.
"The scouts witnessed your play, witnessed your laughter, your ease... your comfort. What is there to misunderstand?"
"Everything," she stressed. "That was the jest of children, of ignorance. That was the play of what happens when the laws are ignored."
"What happens when the laws are ignored?"
Vera was silent. She picked at her skirts and looked absently down the hill. "You're allowed to forget who you are."
In the woods, Vera and Finnegan had stayed two nights at their first camp, just in case another party should happen along. The first of the two evenings, Finnegan bedded down first. Vera watched him as he slid uncomfortably towards a log on his back. When he closed his eyes, Vera was appalled. "Surely you don't sleep like that," she said.
"Aye, I do. Is there a problem with it?"
"No, I suppose you're right. It's fine for sleeping in feather beds, where you've slept your whole life, but surely you don't intend to sleep like that out here."
"And why wouldn't I? It's the way I sleep. Are you passing judgment based on a resting position?"
"I would not think to pass judgment on you, sir. Instead, I might think to save you from whatever wilds are in the night. Strange things are in these woods, sir, and on your back is not your most defensive position."
Finnegan looked her over with angry doubt.
She gestured to her heart and lungs and stomach. "These are some of your most vital elements. When you lie on your back, you expose them all. You should lie on your side. You're a bit safer like that. And with only the two of us, we need all the safety we can get."
Finnegan and Vera slept.
The next day they waited at the camp, afraid to travel too near the road, and afraid of separating themselves from one another. They came up with ways to amuse themselves and pass the time. The sunlight didn't last for very long that day, and at dusk they built their fire and had a small supper of berries and herbs. As they drifted into sleep, Finnegan, through half-closed eyes, looked over at Vera, who was only moments away from sleep herself. "Three years? Nay, I'd undertake naught more than one," said he, remarking kindly on her youth. And then he drifted off, leaving Vera to reflect on things in silence.
When no one came after two days, Vera and Finnegan decided to strike out on their own; either way, the South would be reached, and they'd have escaped what they fled, finding peace where they'd intended.
"We must stay off the roads," Vera had suggested. "I've heard tell of bandits."
"We can't stay in the woods, can we?" Finnegan had asked. "There are animals that could bite."
Vera had laughed then. "What harm are animals?"
Then the two had continued on in silence. Finnegan eventually fell behind Vera a few paces, letting her lead the way. She could direct them roughly southward, and they both knew that if they continued in their course a ways, they'd eventually find themselves overlooking the vast, green pastures of the South. Finnegan took the time to watch Vera as she walked. He had not been schooled on the ways between a man and woman, but he knew already that were it not for social bounds, he could very happily and easily spend a lifetime coming to understand her.
They continued on for four days, stopping to camp once the sun went down and navigation became impossible. Vera estimated that within a few more days, they'd reach the edge of the forest, and they'd have to continue southward through open fields from there. As they journeyed, they bantered and laughed, joked and poked fun.
"Where do you come from?" Finnegan asked one afternoon once they'd been silent long enough.
"You do not want to know, sir."
"Oh, aye, but I do, madam."
"You wouldn't know the town. You wouldn't know the people. We're all too far below you."
"Forget that," he said softly.
"Ingersok, sir. My family dwelt in Ingersok."
"Aye, and what did your parents do?"
"My mum washed a lady's clothes, my dah kept a lord's stables."
"Aye? And what lord was this?"
"Bentram, sir, of Ingersok."
"Of course." He nodded because this made sense, as he'd once heard Bentram described as having the best stables in the North. "And have you brothers or sisters?"
"None surviving, sir."
"So it's only you to merry up your parents?"
"I should think, madam," he said earnestly, "they'd be very loath to send you on your way."
Vera stopped short to turn and look at him. He surprised her; no one surprised her.
"Don't you want to know after my family?" asked Finnegan at length.
"What is there to know? I might guess what do your parents."
"Is that so, madam?" he asked smugly. "I'll have you to know my father minds a den of pigs. And my mother cooks all day and weaves, too, and I've twelve younger brothers and sisters who very noisily make about with themselves around the house, the girls stopping at times to knit, and the boys pretending they can hunt..."
Vera gave Finnegan a look over her shoulder. He grinned at her and pressed his luck.
"And I've an older brother of whom I'm exceedingly jealous, for he just met and wed the daughter of a stable-keep."
This drew Vera to a halt.
"For all you know, madam, it might be true. I am just another man on the road."
Vera continued walking.
"To be honest," Finnegan added soberly as he strode to overtake his lost ground, "I've no parents anymore. And nary a brother nor a sister. I'm the single, spoiled wretch of my own household, and there's not a soul who can tolerate me. I have servants who are paid to humor me, and even they do so against their wills. I'm hot-tempered, cruel-hearted, and at times foul-mouthed. They never teach a lord his manners because lords are not to be challenged. Vera..." The sound of her name in his own throat made him choke. "I don't want to be a lord the rest of my days... I don't want to be ill-mannered and uncrossed. I need someone to balance me out." He reached for the hood of Vera's cloak in front of him. "Challenge me," he heaved.
She stopped short again, and the weight of Finnegan's hand on her cloak made her spin to face him. For an awkward moment, they both stood there, Finnegan embarrassed at having said what he'd said, Vera embarrassed at having heard it. After what felt like an eternity, Finnegan extended to Vera his hand, which she took, allowing him to draw her to his breast.
It was at that moment, in that instant in which Finnegan's jaw began to quiver, that three of the Sought scouts broke through the foliage and seized the two youths. One grabbed Finnegan by his shoulders and wrestled him to the ground, binding his wrists with rope. Another caught Vera across her collar and threw her to the ground.
"You mind her!" Finnegan yelled angrily, an outburst which warranted a back-handed slap from his aggressor.
"We've been tailing you for three days," said the third. "You're dangerous."
Vera stared at Harker.
"Finnegan and I are not from the same class of people. Surely, you must know that. Our ideals are different, our manners are different, our behavior is different. He was born to privilege. I was not." She paused to look at Harker. None of this had meaning to him; he'd grown up among the Sought. "In the North, among our people, there is a clear difference between classes. There are levels, you see, of people of importance. There are two classes, and throughout those classes are divisions. Someone from the lower class is not to speak to anyone from the higher class. People in lower divisions may speak to people in upper divisions, but not classes. And people from the higher class may speak to the lower class, but they will not receive a reply. As you might guess, it makes for difficult, if not impossible, interactions between classes. And this is law." Vera thought for a moment as she pressed the back of her unwashed hand to her mouth. "When you're allowed to forget the law, you're allowed to forget you're the daughter of a stable-keep."
Harker finished her unsaid thought: "And you can interact with lords and fall in love with them?"
"I... I hardly know him."
Harker was sympathetic. He understood about a woman's connection to a man more than any of his fellow Sought; his mother had only known his father a few weeks before discovering she loved him, whereas the other Sought had bred for convenience.
"How could you all have been so wretched to him?" asked Vera, no longer able to resist tears. She hid her face from Harker. "Why Finnegan?"
The four-day journey to the Sought encampment was almost unbearable. Vera was walked in the rear, and, though her head was mostly bent, she could see Finnegan ahead of her. He was unused to walking long distances, and she saw him falter a number of times. Every time his pace slowed, one of the three scouts would club him with a thick board. He would fall to his knees and keel forward, unable to rise for his lashed hands behind his back. After kicking dirt into his face, one of the three would lift him to his feet, and the party would continue.
As they walked, the scouts would spit into Finnegan's hair, and if he dared lift his head--captives were marched in such a way to show inferiority--he was beaten across the ribs with a staff. By the evening of the third day, Finnegan had discovered that his mouth was endlessly filled with blood.
On their march, neither Finnegan nor Vera were allowed food or drink, and they weren't allowed to communicate. At night, only one was allowed to sleep at a time. The group camped for twelve hours, each of the scouts sleeping for eight, and each of the captives sleeping for six. A few times, Vera wept in silence for Finnegan's misfortune.
A southeastwardly journey that should have taken three days painfully stretched into four due to the regular stops to reprimand the one captive. Soon his skin, darker than most other lords' from afternoons spent outdoors, became bruised all over. Dirt and dried blood clung to his face and limbs, the hair at his temples matted, and as the blood began to rot, insects from all around flew to him, landing on his bared shoulders, on his forehead, in his wounds.
At the encampment, things became marginally better. Vera and Finnegan were the first captives they'd had in weeks, and because of that, the holding pens were empty. They were put in separate pens, as was customary. Since the incident with Harker's mother, only men attended male captives, and only women attended females. Also, the Sought were quicker to execute than they'd once been; anyone could be a danger. One woman brought Vera a basin of water for bathing.
"Where's the man who was brought in?" she was asked by Vera. But the woman only shrugged her shoulders, unwilling to speak.
They were fed in the encampment. A few times, Vera saw Finnegan being led across the camp and into some sort of hut. Following, there would be thuds and cracks and groans and wails. Vera knew he was beaten, but she didn't know why. Still, though, the food had returned some of his strength. By the second week, he was the shadow of a man alive, but at least he'd returned to something.
One evening as the entire camp slept, Vera thought she heard her name being called. After a moment, she recognized the voice as Finnegan's.
"Vera," he said hoarsely.
"I'm here," she replied.
He paused, grateful that she was there. "Will we survive?"
She could not respond; she did not know, and she did not care to speculate. Her lack of occupation during her confinement had left her nothing else to do than to speculate on that very issue.
He noted her silence. "But if we do..."
She listened. She could almost hear his breathing, but she didn't know how close he was. It was a quiet night, and much could have carried in that air.
"If we survive, and if we make it south..."
Vera was quiet. The prospect made her cold, and she desperately fought tears.
"Will I... will you... Will you and I still know each other?"
"Finnegan, I--" she began, but she stopped short when she saw a lamp turn on in one of the huts.
"What? What is it?" Trepidation, fear, hung in his voice.
Harker pitied Vera. "No one found you as threatening," said he. "It is as plain as that. No one fears a female captive as much as they fear a male." He shifted uncomfortably. "Tell me, why does any tribe fight another? Why do people hunt the Sought? As I said before, anyone might be a danger."
"But Finnegan?" asked she, unable to understand what harm he might have brought to anyone.
Harker fixed his gaze on the camp below. Finnegan was bound to a post in the center, awaiting the evening's execution. Dusk was settling in. Soon it would be night. Soon the ceremony would begin. "I don't make the rules. I don't even understand them. I'm not a scout. I don't know who's dangerous." He turned and glared at Vera, as if it were her fault. "I work in the smithy. I help build and repair our means of transportation. All I know is that there are people out there who hunt us, who are prejudiced against us, who force us to leave our homes behind and drive us from place to place, under threat of extermination. And there are certain people out there who exhibit qualities of these oppressors. When they are found, they are brought in, and they are put to death."
"Finnegan wouldn't ever hunt your people, though."
"No? Then why wander near the camp?"
"As I recall, the camp was a good few days' march from where we were. And we were headed south. Purely south."
"The scouts reported that you drifted eastward as you went."
"We might have!" she screamed. "I was navigating; I tried directing us southward." She broke into sobs. Vera had a naturally strong resolve, but too much over the course of the month had weakened her. "If we traveled eastward, it was only my fault." Suddenly, she blamed herself for everything; Finnegan was on the verge of death because she'd led him there.
"Come. Bid him farewell." Harker was solemn, stern, but compassionate.
"No... I can't accept his dying."
Vera could see the figures stealing across the clearing of the camp. They made their way behind a building on the far end of her pen. There were shouts and the sounds of a struggle, but then Vera saw Finnegan being dragged from behind the building--he had been so close this whole time, and yet neither of them had known. The gravity of this newly realized misfortune fell on her as lead, and she found herself sinking to her knees. She had not the strength to stand.
Finnegan was taken across the clearing, and in the darkness, Vera could only faintly make out the shadow of the pole to which Finnegan was about to be tied. He was bound by his chest and thighs to the pole. Heavy ropes prevented all movement. His hands were bound behind him, tied together behind the pole. His feet, too, were bound together. Like a crucified man, his head bowed uncontrollably, and it was difficult for him to breathe.
Vera stayed awake that night to watch him. She refused to sleep, that he might die. She wouldn't eat, that she might suffer with him.
She was slight and delirious when Harker oversaw her release on the third day. Unable to see Finnegan, she assured herself he'd last at least a moment longer, and so she forced herself to eat, and she slept without knowing.
That evening, Harker walked her to the hill overlooking the camp. They could see Finnegan clearly as he stood, still tied to the pole. Vera was frightened, and torn between staying and leaving. She desperately tried putting the man below out of her mind. But every time she saw his form, grief struck her as a fist.
Harker gazed at the camp. "Come," said he, more softly.
"He's nothing anymore."
"Is he not something to you? Perhaps there's not much of him left, but what is there... does it not exist for you?"
"I watched three brothers and four sisters die. Two were murdered. The others gave in to sickness. I saw the first two beaten and knifed and speared until they fell to the ground and bled to their deaths. Their bodies lay in the dirt near our home until the next week when the patrols came around to collect the dead. Before they died, they got this look in their eyes, like they knew what was going to happen. For an hour or two, they lay there, but they weren't anything. I don't think any part of them lived for anything anymore. They just lay there in the dirt, thinking of everything, but existing as nothing. I watched the other children waste away. My parents could do nothing for them. They went from the frail but happy children of the lord's stable-keep to mere shadows in under a month. They looked at me as though they couldn't remember who I was. They were silent and sullen. I couldn't know them anymore. I hoped to save them. Nothing worked, though, and all of my nursing was for nothing. They all surrendered." She paused to look with blurred vision towards the camp. "I'm seeing the same thing happen again. And I don't want to see it."
Harker was pensive. "Can't you save that man?"
"From the Sought? I should think not!"
"Can't you give him an existence?"
Vera glared at him, two tears sliding involuntarily down her cheeks.
"You want to."
"I want him well. I want him alive. I want him released."
"He's one of those things at this moment. I urge you to see him while you can."
In truth, Vera desperately wanted to go to him. However, she wanted to be able to hold him and talk with him. She wanted to untie him and walk out of the camp together. She wanted to stroll through the forest southward, and if they made it to the pastures of the South...
Vera stood. Harker rose, too, standing below her. He began to march down the slope to the camp. She followed at a short distance.
"What about a deal?" she asked. Harker stopped in his tracks and looked back at her. "Can I make the Sought a deal?"
"They're not the understanding type," explained Harker.
"If Finnegan and I were released... would they give us a week to be on our way? Would they give us a week to clear the area?"
"Certainly not!" Harker exclaimed. "You know exactly where the encampment is! You could easily tell someone."
Vera looked at him in disbelief. "If it weren't for the trees, Finnegan wouldn't know a forest from a field! He hardly knows south from north, much less east from west. I was navigating! If you want to keep your camp a secret, turn him loose, not me!"
Harker cocked his head to one side. "I would love to set you both free. But it's not my choice to make. I'm just telling you what the elders would say. And, ultimately, it's their decision."
"May I appeal to them?"
Harker laughed. "Feel free, I suppose. For all the good it'll do..." Then Harker turned and continued down the hill. Vera followed.
The heavy gate was opened for Harker when he called to the guards. He tramped in and Vera followed hesitantly, clutching her skirts. In front of them, a large group of men and women had gathered to see the night's events. Finnegan was at the pole before them.
A thin and strange-looking man appeared from one side of the camp. He approached the group and strode to the front of the crowd. "Tonight," he began, "we execute!" The crowd cheered.
"We're just in time," whispered Harker. "They're just about to begin."
"First," the man said, holding up one finger, "the entertainment!" His one finger danced around. The crowd cheered. "Second," he said, offering a second finger, "the final kiss!" He blew a two-fingered kiss to his audience, who cheered in response. "And third," he yelled excitedly as he held up a third finger, "the execution!" With his three fingers, he mimed beheading himself, and a roar of excitement filled the camp. Then the man stepped out of the way, and several jugglers appeared.
Vera watched in astonishment. "You do this for executions?"
Harker considered the tradition. "It lightens the occasion."
Vera swallowed with difficulty. She saw Finnegan shift at his post. At least he was moving.
"Come," Harker said, heading for a building on the far side of the encampment. "They only perform for a half hour or so. If you want to speak with an elder, now's your only chance." Vera followed without delay.
Nalomnon stood behind a table, arranging ceremonial vestments for the execution. The room was small, dark, and musty. The ceiling was low, but Vera could stand upright almost comfortably. "Harker!" the elder shouted as they entered. "What do you mean by bringing a captive inside this room?"
"Your Majesty, if you'll recall, she's no longer a prisoner. You and the Council released her earlier."
Nalomnon studied her carefully, as if reconsidering the decision to release her.
"So we did," he responded hesitantly. "Hup! What business have you, then? I'll assume you've come on business." He continued arranging the vestments.
"Business, yes," Harker said. "It seems this lady would like to strike a bargain."
Nalomnon's jaw opened and he rolled his tongue around his molars as he considered this. His hands were still, and he squinted. Clearly the thought had never occurred to him. "A bargain? For what? We barter, we trade. But what for?"
Harker motioned with his head towards the door. "The life. She wants the man."
The elder almost laughed at Vera. "Young lady!" he exclaimed. "We spared you. We gave you your life. Are you not satisfied with just the one? You want his, too?"
Had Vera the mind or courage to say it, she'd have conceded that since knowing Finnegan, her life had only seemed like half of one when he wasn't there.
Nalomnon took her silence to be an assertion. Again he squinted his eyes. "What do you have to give?"
"Nothing but her vow of silence, I'm afraid" Harker said.
"And..." Vera murmured as she withdrew a small purse from the hem of a skirt. "Aye, it isn't much, but it's all I was given by my family to start a home in the South." Harker's eyes widened. They had searched her a dozen times and found no wealth. She had not mentioned to him monetary compensation for Finnegan's life.
"You're going South?" Nalomnon asked.
" Aye. The North, you might know, is overrun. It's unsafe. Many are fleeing southward."
"Aye," Nalomnon mumbled, "we ourselves have suffered at the hands of those persecutors."
"Then you know our necessity in leaving."
"Your family sent you alone?"
"They could not afford to send anyone else."
"They trusted a young woman such as yourself alone in a forest?"
"Well," Nalomnon said, taking from Vera the purse. "It was either very wise of them to send such an independent and strong young woman, or if it was very miscalculated for them to deprive themselves of such a prized rarity." The old Sought winked at her. "You have a quality I like. We have comrades in the South, do we not?" Harker nodded in response. "I wonder if we need more." Nalomnon turned again to Vera: "What are the conditions?"
Vera explained to him her notion of being blindfolded, led south a ways, and given a week to finish the journey. If they were not settled in the South by the end of the week, the Sought had right and justification for a second capture and sure execution.
Nalomnon thought for a moment longer, paused, and replied, "You'll know my decision when it comes time for the execution." And then he returned to the vestments. "You may go," he said in an irritated way without looking up.
Outside, Harker hung his head. "I'd hoped it might go better," said he. "Nalomnon is the most respected elder because of his sense. He's compassionate, but not to the point of coddling. People think I... people think I am too compassionate. Because of that--and my mixed blood--I will never rise above a smith. Nalomnon is a good man. He's of good stock. His father and grandfather were elders. They, too, were known for their good sense and even tempers. His father cast the only vote against the order to kill my parents. One doesn't forget that," he added quietly. He gazed at his feet. "I only hope Nalomnon has the same kind sense his father did."
Vera grew anxious. "He's only one vote. If his father couldn't make a difference..."
"That was ages ago. Things change in time, even with the Sought. And Nalomnon is the most respected. It's not often that he speaks, but when he does, his word is almost always final."
"But you think it didn't go well," said Vera.
"I was hoping for a firmer answer. He seemed taken with you. That's a good sign."
Vera nodded, unconvinced. "But at least I tried."
"Where did you get that money?" Harker asked finally. The question had been burning in his mind since she first withdrew the purse.
"My family. It really was all the money I was sent south with."
"But they searched you!"
"And I'd hidden it."
Harker smiled. "You're sly."
"Not sly. Careful. Protective. Not sly."
By the pole, the sound of trumpets was heard. The slim man from earlier had stepped up again. "The goodbye!" Harker hissed. "Hurry!" They ran toward the crowd of people.
"And who will give this captive the final kiss goodbye?" the man was saying as they approached. Harker pushed Vera towards the front.
"She will," Harker said, just before a lesser elder reluctantly raised his hand.
The crowd turned to Vera. There was a communal gasp, and even the thin man was at a loss for words. Harker nudged her towards the pole.
"What's the meaning of this?" the thin man asked Harker, his voice barely above a raspy whisper.
"He's entitled to a farewell. She's entitled to give it to him."
"Is she not a captive herself?"
"Not any longer. There's no law to forbid it. She'll wear the cloak and everything," Harker assured him.
"Very well," the man said in hushed tones. "But there'd better not be any funny business." He threw the ceremonial cloak at Harker and rose. Harker helped Vera into the garment while the thin man introduced the circumstances. "It seems we have a special farewell this evening!" he called out.
The crowd cheered in excitement as the gaunt man finished his introductions and Vera stepped forward. She, like Finnegan, stood out from the crowd in such a way that they were unmistakable as northerners. Their stature was just enough greater that they were both recognizable, though Finnegan bowed like a rag doll and Vera was shrouded in the cloak, her face hidden from view.
Finnegan was only faintly aware of the roar of the crowd, cheering and jeering suddenly louder and more intensely. He couldn't make out any words, but he knew that all of it was mostly, if not entirely, directed at him. And he was only faintly aware of the brush of coarse fabric against his cheek and shoulder. And he was only faintly aware of the studied time and care being taken in the cautious approach. But he was distinctly and keenly aware of the lips being pressed against his own. As the figure shuffled beyond him, as the roars became more forceful than ever, Finnegan spat, launching the crowd into louder and louder cries. "You insult me, beast," he said, trying to keep his voice in a low and threatening register.
He felt next the hand at his shoulder, gripping tightly. He tried as much as he could to brace himself for the blow, which he thought was surely impending. Instead, he felt again the fabric as the figure moved in closer. The warmth from the cloaked body was oddly comforting, and Finnegan found himself leaning involuntarily into the form, rather than shirking away from it.
"Finnegan," the warm whisper came, "I would not dare insult."
At this point, Finnegan opened his eyes as wide as he might for what good they might do him. He had been beaten too severely to see properly, and he'd been deprived of too much sleep to remember how to register the sights. But he could see enough to fix his eyes on a loose strand of hair that escaped from the hood of the cloak. And he recognized it. "Again, madam, that I may not reject it," he whispered.
Had she privacy, the nerve, and unlimited time for a proper goodbye, she might have held his face and tried to quell his fears. "Sir, we are under watchful eye, and I'd dare not."
"But madam, it was for the tradition, and what good is tradition when it's spat away?"
She looked around. There were people staring. The executioner was pulling on his own hood. Harker was at the front of the crowd, watching carefully. She didn't have time to think, so she acted without thought. And Vera kissed Finnegan again.
The crowd was buzzing with excitement as the slim man took the floor for the third time. "I think," said he, "that we all know the hour is here! Good man," he called to the executioner, "if you would!" He did a sidestep and allowed the executioner, decked in his ornate costume and hood, to take his place. "Ladies and gentlemen," the man asked, "are we ready for a countdown?" His audience applauded and screamed. Many were hoarse. The thin man began the countdown at five. He kept count with his fingers.
"He has five... four... three..." The man's eyes were ablaze with enthusiasm.
After the count of two, a voice boomed from the back of the crowd. "Stay the hand that slays," it commanded. The executioner had already hefted the axe to one shoulder. Both the executioner and the slim man peered with confusion into the crowd. Indeed, the crowd itself turned around as a mass.
"Who's out there? Who delays the execution?" the man asked, annoyed.
The crowd began to part, and Nalomnon stepped forth. "It needs a second, but there's a motion before you to spare this man," he said.
Waves of chatter spread through the crowd. People looked through the crowd to find the other elders. Three were among the crowd, four to the side, and another three still in a distant building, as they were not gladly associated with executions.
"The man has my support," Nalomnon continued. "I vote to spare him. He's suffered enough at our hands. Would we want to give his people a reason to seek us? Give them a reason to wage war on the Sought? He is headed South. It's a safe enough direction, and I'm convinced enough of his innocence that his release seems only just." Nalomnon paused in his speech to search the faces of the crowd, who had calmed down some in his presence. "Is there none that will second?"
The crowd was silent as death.
"Do not be so cruel and base," said Nalomnon.
In the darkness, a solitary hand raised above the heads of the crowd. And then another, and another, and soon five of the seven present elders had their hands boldly raised.
Peering into the dimness, the slim man saw the votes and reluctantly stepped aside. Nalomnon murmured to him his apologies and called for a guard to have Finnegan released. Vera was petrified by her disbelief. She had returned to her place in the crowd with Harker, and she watched eagerly as the intended executioner lowered his blade. It all still seemed imagined, though, as if none of it were really happening. Yet it was happening, because Vera watched Finnegan cut loose, saw him fall to the ground, ran to him. And she gathered him in her arms, which experience had told her was impossible to do with a vision. He choked and sputtered and clutched at her, spasmodically throwing his arms about, having forgotten how to control them after so long. The blood from his face and wrists smeared over her. Finally, Finnegan managed to control himself enough to tighten into a ball that she could hold on her lap.
For a while, the crowd stayed on, but after only a few minutes, most of them retired to their homes, leaving a sad and mellow scene at the pole. Vera angrily fought tears that refused to subside as she rocked Finnegan back and forth. He was silent and still, though he occasionally gasped for air. Harker stood over them, observing, approving. Nalomnon stood to one side, also watching closely.
"He won't be able to walk," Vera said to Nalomnon, her voice as shaky as Finnegan's legs might be. "I realize now that one week is not near enough time."
"I had thought of that," the elder replied. "And so I'm giving you two horses."
Vera looked at him in disbelief. Even if she had all of the money still from her family's purse, she'd not be able to afford a single horse. And she was surprised at the thought of leaving without an escort or blindfolds.
"I considered a cart," he said, "but I saw no way to get it to the road, and I worried about the crime along the road." He looked Vera over as he'd done before. "The journey shouldn't take much longer than two days by horse, even with one lame rider." He motioned for Harker to retrieve two certain horses he'd set aside. "They're old," he said, "and they'd be retired within a month or two. You can get some use out of them, though, while they still have their riding legs." Nalomnon looked after Harker, and when he was far enough away, the elder produced a small pack. "This isn't much," said he. "There are some herbs I collected that might help treat your friend's wounds. I hope you might find the contents useful."
Harker returned with the horses. As he helped Finnegan onto one, Vera began to mount the other. "Wait," said she, "I may want to ride with him. Please, keep the second horse. I couldn't imagine robbing you of two."
"My child," the elder said gently, "you must take them both. I insist."
However reluctant Vera was to take the second horse, she was very grateful. She thanked the elder for his generosity, and then she took the horse's lead from Harker. Vera bid her farewell to Nalomnon, thanking him once more for everything. Harker walked her to the edge of the camp.
"It gives me great pleasure to see you leave," Harker said. He had grown fond of her in the last days. "It gives me even greater pleasure to see you leave with him."
"He'll need rest," she said. "He'll need care. He needs to be nursed, I should say."
"No better place than the South for rest. There's not an enemy to be found, I'm told. And the fields are forever green, the sky forever bright. You'll find yourself a plot and build your home and make a dwelling, I know. And soon your family will arrive, I trust. And what a happy reunion it promises to be!" He looked at Vera with approval. "I should only wish that I might have known the admirable children you might bear."
"You must visit," Vera said. "With your looks, you're not so distinguishable as a Sought. You could pass through the woods unknown by your foe."
"If I should visit, would I be visiting the both of you together?" Harker asked, leaning in, as if to keep their conversation a secret.
"If I have my way," Vera said almost smugly. Harker's eyes glowed like cracking ice. Vera held Finnegan more tightly to her at that moment and added, "We ought to leave."
"Be safe, good lady," Harker said. "You'll always have my respect."
Vera smiled. "And you'll always have mine. Thank you for everything. And do visit."
Harker fondly patted her leg, nodding, and then he gave her horse a gentle slap on the rear. Vera and Finnegan started off again southward, and as she left, she turned around to wave goodbye to Harker. He stood for only a moment, waved, and returned to the camp. Within two minutes, the camp had completely disappeared from Vera's rear view.
A year later, Harker was expelled. He wasn't done so with any hatred or dislike; he was done so with honor. Nalomnon persuaded the other elders that he had never fit the Sought life, and that he should be allowed to leave if he so chose. Harker, eager to pursue a life outside the camp of a hunted people, chose to go to the South. His blue eyes would disguise him from enemies, and he could act as a southern liaison should the need ever arise. His departure was recorded as an expulsion, that he may never again be required to return. There was a fond farewell, and an outpouring of gifts from the community. After all these years, it seemed to be reparations for the life of abuse he'd led.
In the South, Harker was directed from village to village. When he came upon the fourth village, he knew immediately he'd found what he had sought: In the corner of the town, just below a tall bluff, there was a humble shack. Beside it was a modest pen of pigs, and across the lane stood the beginnings of another home. Harker knocked on the door of the finished house, and a young man responded after some time. He limped and squinted against the light as he answered the door. He had a scar across the corner of one eye that matched a scar on Harker's face.
"Yes?" the man asked after a moment. He leaned into the door to maintain his balance.
"The lady of the house, if she's at home."
"I'm sorry, sir, she's not feeling well. You'll have to come back, I'm afraid." The young man began to close the door, but Harker extended a strong hand to prevent it.
"Please," he said. "I've come a ways and haven't rested in four days. If she's too unwell to come for the door, could you at least pass along to her a message?"
"I'm sorry, sir, she's not in a state to receive messages."
Harker was alarmed. "Is she really that ill? It's not serious, I hope."
"She is with child at the moment, and very far along at that."
He was relieved. "I am pleased to hear that, Master Finnegan."
The young man started. "I'm sorry, sir... what did you say your name was?" Harker answered him. "Just one moment," the man said, and then retreated into the house. After another moment, he returned and issued Harker in.
In a room towards the back of the house, in the lee of the bluff, Vera lay in a bed of straw and feathers. She smiled at seeing Harker. Finnegan hobbled in to sit with them.
"He'll always have that limp," she said, fondly looking to her husband. They held hands. "He's not much of a carpenter, and so this cottage isn't yet much of a home. We'll fix it once my parents arrive. My father is an expert. We've reserved the land across the way for them. We've even started construction."
"I noticed when I came into town," Harker said, his eyes flickering with delight. "I saw an opening one town over... I'm thinking of making a dwelling there."
Vera was surprised. "You?"
"I was given leave of the Sought. I'm a free man now."
She was delighted. "Only hear that, Finnegan? The man who liberated us is now released himself!" With her free hand, she took Harker's hand, and there she lay, holding the hands of the two most important men in her life.
The first grandchild was three weeks old when Vera's parents arrived. The cottage across the way from the young couple had been finished by their arrival, and Harker had even found enough time to finish his own home in the nearby town. With Harker's help, Vera's father was able to repair Finnegan's carpentry errors, and soon everyone was enthralled with daily life in the fair fields of the South. Vera and Finnegan never heard from the Sought again, though Harker kept in constant contact, and liaised for the group on several occasions.
In all, though, life continued without incident for Vera and Finnegan, as well as for all others playing in that grand game of being.