Title: Rules to break you

Chapter 1: Hands

He was watching them because of their hands. More precisely, because they were holding hands. And that tickled his interest in some vague way; he couldn't remember the last time he had seen a man holding another hand that wasn't of the opposite gender, or one that didn't belong to someone considerably different in age.

He had no better reason to be watching the city gate other than boredom on a hot day. And there was nothing very remarkable about the two—a man and a youth, from their build—that came out leading horses, other than the hoods over their heads in spite of the heat. Nothing about the pair deserved more than a fleeting moment's worth of attention except that one small detail. Hidden behind the folds of their long cloaks, he could see how tightly the youth's free hand was gripped by his companion.

Protectively? Menacingly? Comfortingly? Or… possessively?

The question held a strange fascination for him. Because of that, he gave his full attention to what happened next.

They passed the gates, unconscious of his observation. Unfortunately for them, they had also caught the notice of the soldiers guarding the gate.


At the order, the taller man pushed the other behind him, even as a gang of soldiers began forming a threatening wall around them. A moment of tension passed, in which the pair seemed poised for flight. The moment passed, barren; too many well armed men now stood between them and escape.

"Show your faces!"

Reluctantly, the two obeyed. Excitement rippled through the soldiers. The two men's hair was black, standing out from the crowd of blond, brown and grey heads around them like pebbles in a sandy stream bed.

The commanding officer rasped, "What is your business here? What do you have in those sacks?"

"We're travellers, passing through. These are our supplies." It was the tall one who answered. He spoke the Shared-tongue with a lilt, uncommon in this region. His deep voice had the kind of heavy dark calmness that precedes a storm.

His explanation was met with a sceptical look. The officer came up and jabbed a finger into the speaker's chest.

"That's a lot of supplies for two."

The dark-haired man remained impassive. "We have a long journey ahead." He added, a fraction of a second too late, "Sir."

The watcher reflected that nothing he could say would change what would happen next. He had seen this scene enacted enough times to know that as a fact. Already he could see in his mind's eye what would take place after this.

Not being privy to this knowledge, the young man added, "There is nothing here that we did not buy honestly."

The officer's face twisted in disdain. The watcher's prediction came to pass exactly as he had envisaged.

"Search everything!"

The soldiers surged forward to go through their belongings like ants on a refuse heap. The pair watched in silence, stone-faced, even when they could see, as the watcher did, how some smaller bags disappeared into pockets. Among their belongings were a bow with arrows, and a short sword. These were quickly commandeered. Though the two owners did not look happy about that, they maintained a prudent silence.

But the men were not through with them yet.

"Remove your clothes. You might have hidden weapons on yourselves."

A look of dismay flashed across the smaller one's face, but the other put a reassuring hand on his shoulder as he answered, "We have no other weapons than these that you see, for our defence. And even if we did, we are leaving the city. We have caused no trouble during our stay, and we will cause none in leaving."

"Are you refusing to do as you're told?" The commander's tone was threatening.

"I am asking you to be reasonable." He still managed to sound calm even in the face of the odds rapidly stacking up against them.

He got an ugly laugh in reply. "That's guilty talk, that is."

Emboldened by their leader's remark, the soldiers moved forward in a pack. The smaller one had shrunk back against his companion, but it was clear there was no escape for either of them. Already, hands were grabbing at their garments.

"Strip them!"

The soldiers made their move, and so did the hidden observer.

Everything stopped moving.

Except for the two, as he had intended. He stepped into their field of vision - a tall, lean man dressed in dark travelling clothes, hooded as they had been. They gaped at him, shock rendering them as still as the soldiers frozen in various poses around them. A few heartbeats passed. Nothing was in motion – not the birds suspended in mid-flight, the pennants arrested in mid-flutter, the branches halted in mid-sway. Even the breeze seemed to be holding its breath.

Then the taller one took a step towards his sword, only to find the stranger standing between him and the weapon. With a small smile, he told them they had exactly fifty breaths' worth of time to take their belongings and leave unmolested.

The pair exchanged glances in the familiarity that marked a long and intimate association. Then both began gathering sacks and lashing them onto their horses. He gave them much longer than fifty breaths in fact, but not so long that they lost their sense of urgency.

"Go, now!" he ordered at last.

They did so with alacrity, and did not stop riding hard until they were a good way outside the city boundaries. He kept pace with them, even though his animal was much less burdened than theirs and could thus go much faster. When they halted, so did he. He got a closer look at them when they dismounted. The smaller one gave him a shy smile. Slight of build, he had an air of innocence about him that suggested he was not very long out of childhood. Ebony waves caressed an elfin face dominated by light brown eyes flecked with gold.

"Thank you!" His voice had a purity of tone not yet tainted by drink and curses. Just then, a gust of wind blew a tangled mass over his face. He tossed back his head and tamed the wayward locks using his fingers as a comb. Judging from the ease and speed with which he did so, he either spent a lot of time in front of a mirror, or spent a lot of time in the company of women.

The man chuckled, amused that he could care about his appearance even at a moment like this.

The youth flushed a little at that, but blurted out, "How did you do that?"

"More importantly, why did you do that?" the taller one interjected.

The watcher resumed his observation. He had thought the taller—and less well-mannered—one to be older based on his voice, but in actual appearance he seemed not that much older than the hair-tosser. He had the same colouring as his companion, though his eyes were a slightly darker shade and he wore his longer hair in a braid. They both had the tanned skin of outdoor life, so it was impossible to tell what their original complexion had been. Still, they did not look alike enough to be related, though both were pleasant enough to the eye.

At the moment, the rude one's face was shuttered and bore a challenging look. He was almost as tall as their rescuer, so he didn't have any trouble looking him in the eye

He was duly admonished by his companion. "He just saved us! It won't kill you to be a little more polite."

"Be quiet." He did not shout, but something in his tone made the other begin to edge away from the watcher.

"It is a fair question. And a prudent one for a traveller," he said, addressing the challenger. Of the two, he was finding this one much more intriguing, even though he was not quite as fetching as the other.

"Be so kind then as to give me an answer." The courteous words belied his belligerent posture. He was unarmed and not heavily built, but from the feline grace of his stance, the watcher had no doubt he could fight barehanded, and probably better than the average muscle-bound oaf.

"My answer is simple. It was a gift…" he lifted his hands slowly to show that he wasn't threatening them. "…from one who has suffered more than once or twice because of a mere colour." He lifted the hood of his riding cloak. "The colour of my hair."

They were silent for a while, taking in what he was showing them in wide-eyed surprise.

Then the small one said, with all sincerity, "It's like moonlight."

His companion had a less poetic, but more accurate comment. "You're a Bender."

"That I am." He was mildly impressed, but he kept that out of his voice.

Awkwardly, the young man made him a small bow, speaking as he did so. "I thank you then, Sir Bender, for your gift."

It seemed he knew the wisdom of not crossing one of his kind, and this impressed the Bender even more than his recognition. Their kind was not so easy after all to know about.

"I'll part ways with you here. Good speed to you." He mounted and turned his steed away from the city.


It was the smaller one again. He made a move towards the Bender, but two sinewy arms whipped under his arms and lifted his body, leaving him with legs kicking in mid-air. The Bender held back a smile. It was increasingly clear to him who was in charge of whom between them. And from the look on the captor's face, his guess was that there was more than a hint of jealousy motivating the act. That, in turn, more or less answered his question on their hand-holding.

He tipped his head at them, and rode off.

"At least tell us your name!" the captive shouted after him.

Over his shoulder, he sent his answer back on the breeze. "You can call me Brook."