Finan could not find Uhtred anywhere for love nor money. He had disappeared from the alehouse when Finan was not looking. He was not with Aethelflaed, who was with her daughter, and Finan knew he would not be with King Edward after a day which had seen him tortured in Edward’s name and then offered a throne. Truly, Finan thought, Uhtred’s life was as mad and as ridiculous as the man himself.
“The new Lord of Mercia cannot have got himself kidnapped the night before he takes the throne,” Finan whispered to Sihtric, who had arrived not long ago with Young Uhtred from their pursuit of Lady Aethelflaed and Lord Aldhelm.
“He has not accepted the king’s offer yet. And Uhtred can take care of himself,” said Sihtric, and that was true. But Sihtric had worked hard to catch up on his drinking since he had joined them in the alehouse, and he was no longer in his right mind. And he had not seen Uhtred walk out of the palace that day with bruises on his face after a beating he did not deserve, had not seen Uhtred’s movements grow stiff and sore as the day wore on, as Finan had.
“I am going to find him,” Finan said. “Fetch me if you hear something has happened,” he added, and Sihtric rolled his eyes, but he nodded.
Finan left the alehouse and went to the healer to purchase supplies, the memory of Uhtred’s hurts clear in his mind. Then he went to the stables, for that was usually where Uhtred could be found when he desired solitude and peace. Ordinarily Finan took pains not to intrude upon him at those times, but he could not help but picture the uncertainty on Uhtred’s still-swollen face after his conversation with Father Pyrlig. Uhtred, Finan thought, had doubts.
Uhtred was not in the stables, but his horse was gone, and from there it was a simple thing to prepare his own horse and track Uhtred’s progress through the Aegelesburg gates and out into the countryside. The guardsmen pointed him in the same direction Uhtred had taken, and Uhtred had not bothered to conceal his trail, for who in Mercia could or would challenge the mighty warrior Lord Uhtred?
Finan found him and his horse less than half a mile from Aegelesburg. Uhtred let out a loud sigh when he caught sight of Finan, and Finan smiled.
“You, my friend, look ready to flee,” Finan said.
“I am thinking about it,” Uhtred admitted, but he got down from his horse and waited while Finan did the same.
It was quiet all around them in the twilight with not another soul in sight. Uhtred had chosen a spot well away from the road, so Finan dared to take his hand and press a kiss to his palm. Uhtred’s answering smile was weary and a little wry.
“Come on,” Finan said, and he led Uhtred and their horses deeper into the trees until they could no longer see the torches flickering back and forth along Aegelesburg’s walls. They secured their horses to a tree and together they built a fire, and Finan pulled the furs from their horses’ backs and laid them on the ground.
Finan took a flask of water from his saddlebag along with the healer’s pack of supplies and sat down beside the fire. “Sit,” he said to Uhtred, and he pointed at the ground in from of him.
“I am not a hound,” Uhtred said, but he did as he was told when Finan glared at him. “Mother hen,” Uhtred muttered, and he sounded so childishly resentful that Finan laughed.
“Hush,” he said, and opened the small bundle in his lap. It contained clean cloth and herbal compresses. It was not much, but it would make Finan feel better to administer them, and Finan knew that Uhtred would be grateful when he stopped being such an arse.
“This is not necessary,” Uhtred said, as Finan dampened a strip of cloth with cold water from his flask. He wrapped it around one of the compresses and pressed it to Uhtred’s swollen cheek.
“Humour me,” Finan said, and Uhtred stopped his protests with a sigh.
They did not speak. Finan cupped his other hand around the curve of Uhtred’s jaw and neck to keep his head still. Uhtred did not look away from him, watched him with curiosity and no small degree of wonder, and Finan did his best to keep his touches tender to try and ease the lingering pains in Uhtred’s body.
“Show me where else,” Finan said, when he was satisfied that Uhtred’s face was soothed.
Uhtred shook his head but began to take off his armour, wincing as he lifted it over his head. Finan hurried to help him remove it, and helped him ease out of his shirt, too.
His torso was black and blue with bruises. Finan had expected that. But his eyes were caught by Uhtred’s wrists, bloodied and chafed, and for a moment his vision whited out with sheer rage, for it meant that Uhtred had been chained. He had been chained like an animal, made helpless and beaten bloody by a man’s bare fists. “I’ll kill the man who did this,” he swore, and his voice shook with the force of his fury.
“It was Cenric,” said Uhtred. “The king’s oathman. He fought with us at Beamfleot and thought he was following his king’s orders.”
“You should not defend him,” Finan said, outraged as he always was on Uhtred’s behalf when he was not given the respect that he deserved.
Uhtred said nothing further, for he no doubt considered the matter closed. And, Finan had to admit, it was a small and impermanent injustice, as far as injustices against Uhtred went. But it made Finan’s blood boil to think of his man mistreated in such a way, and his hands shook for a while longer as he cleaned and wrapped Uhtred’s wrists with the soft cloth. He kissed each of Uhtred’s wrists when he was done, just to see if it would make him blush a little. He was pleased to note that it did.
He checked Uhtred for broken ribs and found one cracked, which set his blood boiling anew, but he said nothing and worked faster, for Uhtred had begun to shiver in the cool night air. He held the herbal compresses to the worst of Uhtred’s bruises and draped an arm around his shoulders, keeping him close.
Slowly, slowly, the tension and fear of the day seeped from Uhtred’s body, and he listed closer and closer until he leaned heavily against Finan. He lowered his head to rest on Finan’s shoulder. “I am not good company tonight,” he whispered, and turned his face into Finan’s neck and clutched at Finan’s arm.
“When are you ever?” Finan asked, and he smiled at the soft breath of Uhtred’s laugh against his skin.
He helped Uhtred back into his shirt and wrapped one of the furs around his body to keep him warm, then drew him down so that they lay facing each other on the ground. Uhtred took Finan’s hand and kissed his fingers, and Finan reached up to toy with the tiny braids in Uhtred’s hair. They smiled stupidly at each other; Finan would have bet a week’s worth of ale that they looked like fools.
"We should return to Aegelesburg soon," said Uhtred after a while.
"When you're ready," Finan said, and he knew then that Uhtred would accept the king's offer.
He said nothing of Uhtred’s doubts, and Uhtred did not speak of them. But it was a long time before they packed up their things, and went back.