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“You’re lucky,” Leon said with a thin edge of humor in the deep voice. “You might have been halfway to market before I caught up with you.” He paused long enough to swing his leg over the saddle, and dropped to the ground, supple as a big cat. “And you were lucky it was Yussan who caught you, because if it’d been anybody else — and there are scores of the bastards out here! — there’d have been a pail of blood spilled, maybe some of it mine. Bloodletting,” he added darkly, “puts me in a foul temper.”
Martin’s head had begun to spin, and none of this made any sense. He was cold, his knees hurt, and fear prickled through him, making him colder yet. He knew the night was not really chill, since Leon’s broad torso was bare, and he seemed comfortable enough. But fear seemed to make the blood drain right out of the extremities, leaving Martin close to trembling.
The big man was glaring down at him, and his heart was in his mouth as he hunted for his voice. “You were looking for me? I don’t understand.”
The sound of a chuckle surprised him. “I know you don’t,” Leon said shortly. “I’d be shocked if you did.” He cocked his head at Martin and asked oddly, “What are you, boy?”
The question might have sounded strange, but Martin knew the answer without even thinking about it. “I’m an idiot,” he said dutifully, without even taking a breath. “I know I’m an idiot.” He shifted again on knees that had begun to bruise. “You think it didn’t occur to me, when Yussan was talking about taking me someplace? Selling me? Would he have done that?”
For some time Leon studied him mutely, while he, himself, was little more than a dark silhouette against the twilight sky. Stars had begun to twinkle there, and the night air was sharp. Somewhere not far off, a campfire or perhaps the hearth in a trapper’s hut was sending out a veil of woodsmoke that made Martin long for home.
“Oh, Yussan would have sold you,” Leon said at last. “You haven’t heard his name, back in Esketh?”
“I have,” Martin admitted.
“Then you know what he does. He makes a very good living, trading in morons. And there’s never any shortage of halfwits breaking curfew to try their luck in these badlands.” Leon cast a disapproving glance over the ruins, and on, toward the distant city of Arkeshan.
“Halfwits,” Martin echoed, and sighed, for the word was accurate enough.
At last Leon stirred and gestured with the sword. “Get up on your feet, boy. Are you hurt?” The dark eyes were all over Martin as he scrambled up.
He stood, head bowed, grateful for the twilight, which would hide the hot blush on his face. He could have mentioned his knees, which were going to be blue tomorrow, but he held his tongue as Leon said,
“I don’t see a mark on you. Nobody laid a finger on you, then?”
“Nobody touched me,” Martin admitted with a deep shiver, for he knew what could have happened. He chanced a little glance up at Leon, and then bowed his head again. Leon towered over him, bigger, broader, older, with a power Martin envied. “You know there’s a gang of men out there, armed with bows? They could shoot us dead.”
Again, the chuckle. Leon shifted his grip on the sword. “Who told you that?”
“Yussan.” Martin lifted his head now, eyes wide in the near darkness, eager to see Leon’s face. “It’s what he said. A whole gang out there, armed to the teeth.”
“And you believe everything you’re told?” Leon asked teasingly.
“Well, no,” Martin began, “but —”
“I think you do believe everything you’re told,” Leon observed, as if it amused and annoyed him at once.”I think you followed some wild goose chase out here, and you need your brains examined. My gods, you deserve to be groomed for the markets, and then stood up on an auction block!” He paused to look Martin up and down. “Have you any idea, any at all, the kind of lessons Yussan would have taught you?”