The Dreaming Stone
Second story in the Kin/Bran Dreaming Stone series.
Though Beltaine was only a week away it was still cold; the wind that came winging down off the sea brought with it the tang of ozone, and there was a cutting edge to it. Kinnamus Iron Hand shrugged up the sheepskin collar of the heavy jacket he wore, resettling the load he carried; over his left shoulder, a brace of rabbits, over the right, a bail of kindling. Perhaps the son of a chieftain should not have to do such work, but he had wagered his lover for the chore, and, not for the first time, Bran had won. Kin smiled ruefully as he thought of Bran; he was a curly haired little wild cat, as beautiful and as free as the moors, with the haunting, haunted green eyes of a seer. There was no need for him to wager and win, Kinnamus knew; all he had to do was ask, and the one they called the Iron Hand would obey out of love... Not that Kin had any intentions of letting Bran know that! He took liberties enough as it was.
The slope that led up to the stockaded encampment of Whiterock was not steep, but it was long, and as cold as the day was the sweat was running from Kin's face as he climbed up the last stretch; trickles down his spine made the skin prickle, and he laughed quietly. There had been a time when Connach's son would have sent a menial on such errands, but those days were over. Connach, on his deathbed had not expected to see the summer out, had nearly disowned his eldest son; that Kin was still permitted to live in Whiterock was a favour bestowed unwillingly on him.
And again, Bran was at the root of it. The son of a chieftain had a duty to produce more sons; it was an unwritten law, a tradition, and Connach viewed with disapproval his eldest son's pairbonding. There was no law that forbade a man's taking another man as his bondmate, and among the warriorkind it was smiled on... If Kinnamus had been an ordinary man, not the son of a chieftain and the heir to a tauth, no one would have questioned his choosing the wild, beautiful young warrior-bard, Bran.
But Kinnamus ap Connach had shirked his filial responsibilities; he would never take a wife, never produce heirs, and the fact that his father had four other sons to continue his line did not much appease the old man. Kin thought back on the chieftain's tirades, and his smile became grim; for all the strife there had been between them, he still respected his father, but there was not much love between them. Once, Connach had tried to have Bran banished, and when that had failed, he had tried to have the Druidkind take him back to Mona by force... Kin remembered the stormy night he had pursued the priests, challenged them before the law, and beaten them in single combat.
All to end where? He thought, toiling up to the gate in the stockade and exchanging greetings with the lad on guard. To end here; a modest house with a thatch that needed repairing after the battering of winter, skins on the floor that had seen better days, a string of wiry, shaggy little ponies, none of them worth much at market, decent weapons, halfway decent clothes... And the kind of happiness all Connach's riches had never bought him, he added as he turned toward the doorsill of his home.
For all his father's fortune, Connach was a miserable old sod, rarely seen to smile, never heard to laugh or have a kind word for anyone... Kin chuckled out loud as he took in the sight before him: Bran was there, sitting in a patch of sunlight, passing the whetstone along the blade of his sword, while their dog, Rua, rolled on his back, begging to be tickled. From time to time Bran would oblige him, and then the big hunting dog would growl and snap at his feet, playing at mock battle until Bran yelped in protest.
Sharp canine ears caught Kin's chuckle, and Rua rolled to his feet, shaking himself before hurling himself at Kin and worrying at a loose rabbit. "Get off that, you thieving animal," Kin laughed, "it's your dinner, hound! Bran, get this beast off me!" Rua was still limping after an injury sustained in the last cattle raid, or he would have gone rabbiting too. The cold did not bother him, but Bran did not like the chill, or the damp, and would do anything to stay out of the wind. He was, Kin thought fondly as he watched his lover put the sword aside and come to take charge of the dog, a creature of the summer and sunlight, one of the Sidhe, as surely as if he had been born in Magh Mar. A week before Beltaine, he was still heavily dressed in leathers and sheepskins, still cursing the wind's cutting edge.
"You're sooner than I'd thought," Bran greeted his lover, pulling Rua off and pushing him away from the rabbits. "I've not been trading yet."
"So we'll go together," Kin shrugged, dumping the rabbits and kindling on the door sill and stretching his shoulders. "Come here, little chuck; it's been hours, and I've almost forgotten what you taste like." He caught Bran in his arms and drew him close, seeking his mouth. Bran's kiss was as sweet as ever, as generous and as loving, and Kin ravished his soft mouth until they were both laughing.
"You know full well what I taste like," the smaller man chided, reaching up to knot his fingers in Kin's long, dark hair and tug it. "I remember the morning even if it's slipped your mind!"
"Slipped my mind?" Kin gave a chuckle that was evil, palming Bran's small buttocks and squeezing lightly. "Oh, I'm not so absent minded as that! Will we go trading, then, or return to bed? I'm cold and tired, for all the exercise."
"Wine, and a meal," Bran said firmly. "Sleep away the afternoon, I'll look to the chores now." He kissed Kin's mouth quickly and drew away, then his face drew tight. "There is news from Connach's house... Your father is unwell."
Kin snorted. "He's always unwell. He's been on his deathbed since the autumn! I think he'll be there for years yet."
But Bran shook his head. He had learned the healing arts on Holy Mona, as a student of the Druidai, and knew grave illness when he saw it. "I think not, love. Not this time will he recover... An emissary is here from Queen Fedelma, too, and this has upset him."
"An emissary?' Kin frowned, pausing in the act of lifting the doorskins to precede Bran into the house. "On what business?"
"That I have not heard," Bran admitted, picking up the rabbits, "but it must be important, for Connach roused himself to speak with the man. And I... I heard your name mentioned." He watched Kin straighten and roll his eyes to the wind-swept sky. "What is it? Bad news?"
"It could be," Kin said bleakly. "Did I never tell you? There was a contract signed between Fedelma and Connach when I was just a child."
"A contract?" Bran shook his head. "You've said nothing to me of it."
Kin beckoned with his head. "Come inside and shut out the wind; you can skin the rabbits while we speak." He held the doorskins aside for Bran to duck in out of the cold, hauled the kindling over the sill and dumped it by the smouldering hearth; and as Bran sat down, bringing out his skinning knife, he searched for the simplest words to tell a bitter story. "Fedelma has a daughter, Ysoult; you may have heard of her."
"A beautiful girl, by all accounts," Bran nodded. "Yellow haired, and spirited, so they say."
"Aye," Kin agreed. "And she will be fourteen years old now. When she was three -- when I was just a lad of eight -- Connach and Fedelma arranged a marriage between us. When I chose you, I told my father to cancel the arrangement; I assumed he had done so. I have no wish to insult Fedelma, but I'll not wed Ysoult to keep faith with a contract that was not of my making!"
There was silence between them for a long time, and Bran's green eyes frowned down at the skinning knife that was idle between his fingers. At last he looked up, meeting Kin's dark, smouldering blue eyes with hesitation as he cleared his throat. "There will be trouble with your father."
"So there will be trouble." Kin sounded indifferent. "We have weathered such trouble before; we'll weather it again."
The skinning knife moved a few strokes and then fell idle again. "We've never run before this kind of wind," Bran argued. "Before, your father had only tradition to fight with, now... A contract is legal, Kin. Binding."
"Not when it's broken, and long since," Kin said. "How long, love, how long since we had them break it? Five years! I stood with you before the priests at Imbolc and took your hand; they all watched us. They saw me kiss you that day, and every day since. If my father is a stubborn old fool, that is his affair, but he is still the chieftain, the law is in his hands."
"And what of Fedelma?' Bran dropped the rabbit and knife and came to sit at Kin's left side, one hand on his knee. "Fedelma is stronger than we; her warband is twice the size, her Druids have twice the honours and favours. She could buy and sell Connach, and you know that as well as I. She may force her hand... Will you send us to war over it?"
The green eyes were deeply troubled, and Kin felt the old anger come bubbling to the surface; anger at his father for the harsh treatment of the stranger who had come here, friendless and alone, as the bondmate of the chieftain's son. It was starting again, and this time, it could be bad -- worse than a headlong dash across the moor to catch up the Druidai before they could have Bran on a boat and gone... Bran had been a boy, then, not able to challenge in his own right. Now? It was a man who sat at Kin's feet, small, wiry, strong, love in his eyes and anguish on his face.
"I won't have them fighting over me," Bran warned, brave words betrayed by the catch in his voice. "I swear, I'll go first, Kin, before I'll let them start killing over me!"
"Go?" Kin repeated. "Go where?"
"Anywhere -- away, out of here. If I'm gone, Connach and Fedelma have nothing to squabble about! You'll wed the god cursed girl and have done with it, and I..." He averted his eyes, his shoulders lifting in a shrug. "I shall find a place for myself, somewhere else."
"Little fool," Kin accused, without heat, and took Bran's gentle face between his hands. "Do you think I could let you go? By Camulus, you think little of me, my pet! Here, sample this instead, and reconsider." He bent his head, kissing Bran deeply, tongue exploring every part of the mouth he knew so well, while his hands strayed everywhere, stroking, teasing, pampering, until Bran gave a whimper and clutched at him.
"Oh, love, don't, not now. You know I cannot think when -- when --"
"You can't think, I know, not when you're hard and aching," Kin whispered, "which is why I'm doing this. If you think I'd let you go from here, and take the girl in your place, then clearly my words have not been speaking aptly enough. If I'm so tongue-tied where my heart is concerned, my hands must do the speaking for me. Like this... and this."
Bran was feverish with the tide of desire, so quickly aroused, clinging to Kin as the Iron Hand drew him over to their bed; he could barely breathe, and thinking was out of the question, as Kin had intended. It troubled him more than he could say that Bran could even consider the possibility that Connach and Fedelma could force the marriage through, and as he pulled Bran's clothing loose, kissing and pampering the white, quivering skin, he alternated between anger at his father for the pig-headed foolishness of it, and bewilderment, that Bran could doubt him.
But then, Bran would always doubt himself first, blame himself for faults not his own -- it was his nature to question, to wonder, and try and fail; and often, to win through. "Little fool," Kin murmured, one palm on Bran's chest, the other on his knee to hold him still as he bent his head toward the swollen cock that throbbed pitifully at the mercy of his teasing. "Take my loving and think again, my heart!"
Bran writhed helplessly, lifting his hips toward the hot, wet haven of his lover's mouth, at once resenting and cherishing Kin for having the power to reduce him to such helplessness. He clutched the dark head, urging it down onto him, spreading his legs for the stroking fingers, and it did not take long -- Kin was much too skillful. He came in great, exhausting waves, slumping back to the sheepskins beneath his bare back and hugging his lover tightly as Kin lay down beside him, and he was blinking through a mist of tears as he sought Kin's mouth; the kiss tasted of his own essences, salty, unique, and he licked Kin's lips and cheek clean as he tried to discard the sudden feeling of drowsiness that always swamped him after Kin had had his way.
"So?" Kin demanded. "Do you think, still I shall let you go?"
"No," Bran murmured, "and 'tis not that you've shamed me into thinking so, love; I never thought so. But I won't let them fight over me!"
"So, if you go, we both go," Kin said evenly. "This is right?"
"Aye," Bran agreed, nibbling on the bridge of Kin's nose. His hands stroked down the length of his lover's hard, muscular body, coming to rest at his groin, and not finding the hardness there that he had expected. The green eyes frowned. "Do you not want me?"
"You are a fool," Kin laughed. "I always want you, but... later, my dove. Now, I am too tight-strung. I must confront my father, soon, before this goes any further, and until I have it clear with him, I can't be happy."
"Nor satisfied," Bran said wryly. "Are my hands so unskilled? Is my mouth so inept that I could not do for you as you have just done for me?"
Kin tousled the tangle of curls. "No; you are as skilled as one who has made a study of the art, but -- you know my mind, Bran. When I love, I like to take wing, let you fly me so high that I lose sight of the earth... If I were to give myself to you know, my father would intrude between us and make a ruin of it." He kissed Bran's sensitive, expressive mouth gently. "No, let me settle with Connach, then come home to bed, and you shall have me. Fair?"
"Fair," Bran said with mock gravity, and his fingers slipped about Kin, cupping his buttocks and stroking suggestively. "I shall have you, as you had me thismorning."
The smouldering blue eyes fell shut and Kin shuddered, the kick of his arousal reaching out to every nerve in a tenth of a second. "So you shall... But later, Bran. Not now." He kissed Bran's nose swiftly and wriggled away. "I must see to this business before time wastes; and I think you must see to the rabbits, and go to trade, before Rua has eaten the whole brace, and the merchants have run spare of stocks!"
Bran sat up, yawning and rubbing his eyes. "You expect me to go to market after that?" he demanded. "I feel as if I've run five miles!"
"Out of sorts after the winter," Kin said sagely. "No matter; we'll soon have you fighting fit again. 'Tis Beltaine next week, and summer follows."
"I am fighting fit," Bran said indignantly. "I slew three in the cattle raid, I may remind you!"
"Aye, so I saw," Kin laughed, "I am but teasing..." He stood still for a long moment, looking down at the thin, smooth body that still reclined on the grey sheepskins of their bed; Bran was naked and uncaring of the scrutiny, basking in it and smiling up with a kind of heavy-eyed satisfaction that made Kin want to hug him, made it hard to leave him, since the taste of his essences still lay on his tongue and the warmth of those strong, supple limbs was still a tingle in his own veins. "I must be gone," he said, shaking himself out of the reverie. "See to the chores, I'll not be long, I promise."
With that he fled, not daring to tarry longer at home. He ducked out into the wind, feeling the sharpness of it anew and pausing to toss Bran's sword and whetstones back through the doorskins before he pulled his jacket tighter about his chest and headed for the long, timber building that was his father's hall. The black and scarlet banners of Connach fluttered there: three ravens, the Badb, on a field of blood... Connach loved war, lived for it, and all his life was spent thinking back to the days when he had been a warrior. There was little love in his life now, and there had never been much; he had had four wives, but none of them had loved him as Kinnamus knew he was loved. Bran knew what love meant; he could ache with it till he wept, and sang for the joy of it, and when he expressed it physically it was like another language, one spoken fluently with fingers and lips, wordless and exquisite. Kin shook himself, trying to force his mind back onto his father's devious schemes.
Whiterock was not a large village; it stood on the brow of a holl for reasons of defence, three score wicker houses held captive by a stockade fence about which the younger warriors patrolled, night and day. There were enemies everywhere, and few allies. Beyond the hills in the east was Lleu, a warlord whose joy in life came from raiding his neighbours. To the south, it was Mabon, a kinsman of Lleu by marriage, and just as violent. Only in the west did Connach's people have an ally: Fedelma.
And so Fedelma was constantly wooed, placated... Kinnamus sighed as he shouldered through the knots of old women and children at the cooking pits; if Fedelma was to be propitiated yet again, the sacrificial lamb wore the garb of a warrior, and his name was Iron Hand. Damn! It was unfair, and it was foolish of Connach to push his son so hard, but still Kin could see the position the old man was in. With enemies everywhere, one did not seek to displease one's only ally.
The chieftain's hall was dim, smoky, almost empty at this hour, but it would soon fill when the servants brought in the meat and ale. Kin lifted the doorskins aside and peered into the gloom, hoping to see his father seated at the end of the hall, by the hearths, but Connach was gone. Three men were there in his place, and he forced a smile of greeting as he saw the Druid. Amergin was tall, lean, his hair a blazing red cape over the shoulders of his white robe, his green Druid stone catching a glimmer from the firelight where it lay on his breast. Amergin was a little older than Kin and Bran, handsome and blessed with the seer's gifts; and he was wearing a troubled expression.
The other two men were Connach's lieutenants, Owein and Brathach, two great warriors in their own right, but men for whom intellect was not a curse. They grinned and winked in greeting, and it was Brathach who put it all into words. He was much smaller than Kin, shorter than Bran, but stockier than either of them, very strong, with a barrel chest and thickly muscled arms. "No need to bed with a lad any longer, ap Connach," he chuckled, "when there's a warrior maid lusting for you! Somewhere soft to lie, somewhere proper to put it when the fancy takes you!"
Kin forced a smile though he felt no humour, and turned his back on the lieutenants, beckoning Amergin away from the hearth. The Druid gathered his heavy brown cloak about him and followed, until he and the chieftain's son were standing well away from the others. Amergin sighed deeply, putting one hand on Kin's shoulder, supportive, sympathetic. "They do not understand, like so many men," he said gently. "There are those of us who do, however, so take heart, Iron Hand. I have spoken on your behalf already."
The words made Kin blink in surprise: Amergin was full of surprises. He also had a pairbonded lover, a boy from the mainland who was growing into a tall, handsome man under the Druid's tuition. But young Tegid was no match from Bran, either in his looks, his physique or his brains, and there was always a sense of pride, which Amergin allowed Kin to feel, that he had chosen well when he chose Bran. Amergin loved his mate for reasons best known to the pair of them -- no one pried.
"I have spoken to your father already," the Druid went on, "and also to the messenger from Fedelma's camp. The queen is intent on the marriage -- Connach never cancelled the arrangement, I understand. But the messenger is one of the brethren, one of Mona's own, and he has told me many a truth. The girl is not as happy about it as her mother. Fedelma sees only a union between her people and ours, and does not see as far as her daughter's wishes."
"And the lass' heart lies elsewhere?" Hope sparked in Kin's chest. If he could make Connach see sense, and if young Ysoult could speak likewise to her mother --
"Aye," Amergin nodded. "She is in love with a warrior, Gweir --"
"I know him," Kin said, "a horseman, as I recall. A fine warrior."
"The same," Amergin smiled. "He was here last Beltaine, at the feast. I saw him with Ysoult then, too... Ysoult has more than enough cause to worry, I know. When she weds, she should be a maiden, but..." He chuckled. "I saw them at the Beltaine revelry, and if she weds other than Gweir, there will be words of annoyance!"
Kin's eyebrows climbed toward his fringe. "Is it so? Then, all the more reason for her to wed the one of her choosing. Oh, Amergin, what are we to do? Two old goats will make wreckage of four lives unless we tread with care... Bran says he will leave Whiterock before he will allow them to fight over us, and I warn you, I will go with him."
"You may have to," Amergin said gravely, "but there is still a chance to put it all to rights. Listen; next week it is Beltaine again, and I have that long to reach Fedelma and speak with her. There is no reason for Ysoult to have to wed a noble such as yourself -- she is the fifth daughter, not the first. And Gweir is a good enough man even for her... I will speak to the old woman, and to your father again, and come Beltaine..." He smiled, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Come to the fires and swear your vows again, I will hear them. Bring your mate, choose him again before all, and have Connach see that your mind is made up. If this does not decide him, then it will decide Fedelma! By that time, I will have spoken with her of Ysoult's lover --"
"Speak carefully," Kin warned. "It could go badly for the girl if the old woman rises in anger. I would not have the child ill treated, or sent to servitude because of being in love!"
"Nor would I," Amergin agreed, "and you can trust me. Meanwhile, there is little you can do, Kin. Connach has taken to his bed again and Fedelma's man is sleeping off his wine. Leave it for now. It is my concern from here. Return to Bran, and put his heart at ease, perhaps."
Kin smiled honestly for the first time in an hour. "I will... And my thanks to you, Amergin. Were it not for you, I think Bran and I should be on our best horses and leaving here tonight." He laughed. "Like thieves!"
"Like eloping lovers," Amergin corrected, sharing his humour. "Go, before those dolts of lieutenants can speak crudely at Bran's expense and anger you. It would not do to fight with them, and you would have to, lest Bran's honour be left in tatters."
The Druid was right, and Kinnamus left his father's hall quickly, not looking back at the warriors who lounged, drinking at the hearths. The noise from the market gathering was still loud and he strode toward the melee, his eyes slitted against the sudden shafts of late spring sunlight, roving to and fro among the men and women, in search of Bran. It was the tangle of curls he saw first, and a moment later saw that Bran was trading for a harp; he was bartering with polished stones, the plunder from the last cattle raid on which he and Kin had ridden. The stones were his share of a take that had been fair, and Kin blinked in surprise as he saw them exchange hands, his lover accepting an old harp in trade. He should not have been surprised; Bran had always spoken of his love of music, but not in years had he owned an instrument.
"Extravagant," Kin accused softly, coming up behind his lover and sliding an arm about him. Bran turned quickly, startled, then winking in greeting. "And what else have you acquired?"
"Whetstones, flint, a bolt of linen, sal petrae to rid us of crawling things... There are oranges, brought in by the Greek, but they look brown and old to me, and moths have been at the silk. The Roman over there is selling blades; I know you want a dirk, but beware, they are not good. Better to wait for the next ship, or better yet, gamble for a proven blade."
"Wise," Kin admitted, looking over the dried fruit on a stall at his elbow. There were all manner of goods; jewelry from Gaul and Rome, blades made near at hand and those made in far off lands, fighting cocks and hunting dog whelps, parrots and monkeys, silk, velvet, pelts and cosmetics. The ships had dropped anchor just two days before, and already the merchants were nearly bought out. Kin traded a big silver ring for a sack of figs and dates and a fine silver chain from which hung a moonstone. He looped the chain about Bran's neck and kissed his cheek. "For you. We need nails also, or the thatch will be blown into the next valley with the next wind!"
"And a hammer," Bran added, smiling at the moonstone. "I have something for you also. Here." He dug into the pouch at his belt, bringing out a big brass bracelet, polished until it shone like gold, engraved with coiling serpents. He took Kin's left hand and pushed it onto his wrist. "There. Aye, it looks as well on you as I thought."
"Extravagant," Kin repeated, examining the bracelet appreciatively.
Bran shrugged. "We can afford it. And the next ship will not arrive till late in summer. We need flour and salt, too, remember."
Domesticities were taken care of quickly; there was little they needed in any event. There were rabbits, wild fowl and fish to be caught a mile or two from the stockade, and eggs to be found everywhere, since the chickens were under one's feet all over Whiterock. In the forests, wild honey was easily come by, as well as nuts, bush fruit and herbs. Wild wheat and oats were there for the taking in autumn, and the woods abounded with edible vegetables and medicinal plants. Leather was cheap, for at Samhaine each year the slaughter of the season's bullocks was unavoidable, and for a meal the children would gather flax, sea coal or kelp. The sheep that roamed, grazing on the hillsides below the stockade, were nearly wild, and whoever had the courage to shear them was welcome to their wool.
Laden, Kin and Bran strolled home, their teeth working on the dried fruit and nuts from some land they had never heard of. Bran had traded two spools of gut for a skin of wine, and Kin was toying with a pair of ebony dice, very hard and shiny in his palm. "I'll play for a dirk with these," he said as he ducked into the house ahead of Bran, dumping the bags he carried. "There'll be some fool ready to wager his shirt and lose it."
"Just so long as you don't lose yours," Bran said dryly. "And now, tell me what Connach said, earlier."
Kin shrugged. "He was gone, back to his bed, when I got there; I spoke with Amergin instead... The messenger from Fedelma's camp is one of the brethren, and he has tales to tell of little Yesoult that would make you smile. She is not so maiden as Fedelma and Connach believe; she is as pairbonded as we, in all but the law, with the warrior, Gweir."
"Gweir," Bran frowned. "Do I know him? A cavalryman?"
"Aye." Kin drew tight the drawstrings on the bag of figs and dates and tossed it into the corner on top of the bags of flour and salt which Bran had just dropped there. "Gweir is a good man, and deserves a good woman... And Amergin will say as much to Fedelma, with all the subtle wile of the Druidkind. And we... Come Beltaine, little chuck, he will take vows from us again, if we will stand in the firelight and show my mule-headed father yet again that we mean what we say."
Bran blinked. "Aye, Connach might listen. But what of Ysoult? It's the girl's honour we are dicing with here, Kin; she will be shamed to see her betrothed vow with a man again, won't she?"
"Maybe," Kin agreed reluctantly, "and maybe relieved. If she thinks I have no eye at all for women, then she may pretend scorn -- and Fedelma too."
"But it's well known how you womanized before you and I... Before we..."
"Before I seduced you in the firelight, five years ago next week." Kin gave his lover a cheeky grin. "Aye, I remember. I was not much more than a boy, blooded not long before in a battle for my father, and I went to the feasts in search of a partner, clad as a warrior and acting like one. Someone to drink with a warrior, I sought, someone to lie with me, later. There were women, girls; and there was you." He smiled, looking into the mirror of his memory. "You could not see yourself that night to know how you looked, but how was I to see beyond you? They had let you wear the white robe, and you wore it proudly, with silver at your throat and wrists, and the firelight dancing in your hair. The breeze tossed these curls of yours into a halo, and your eyes were like the sea on a sunny day." He opened his arms, and Bran stepped into his embrace. "I held out my hand to you, remember?"
"Aye." Bran closed his eyes. "I was afraid -- afraid of my teachers' wrath, and of what you would do to me. I'd seen men together, seen them giving and taking joy, but... I had seen the pain, too. I was about to refuse you, you know, when I looked up at you, and then I saw the light in your eyes, the gold on your skin in the firelight, and my body betrayed me. Here." He put his flat palm on his abdomen, pressing slightly. "A fire in my loins... I had felt it before, but never so strongly. A hunger. I have felt it every day since! So I went with you, defying them all. I would not have made a very good Druid, would I?"
"Amergin has a lover," Kin said gently.
"Amergin waited until he was released by his teachers," Bran corrected ruefully. "And I? I went with you in the shadows that night!"
"And every night since," Kin added. "How shocked you were at yourself, remember? I took off your robe and touched you cleverly, and I could hardly hold you still!"
"It was the first time," Bran said, blushing deeply. "And I learned with all speed, give me that much credit."
"And I hurt you," Kin added softly. "Later, not long before dawn. The first time. Ah, love, it is like yesterday." He held Bran tightly, feeling the breath squeezed from his lungs in return, and when the smaller man lifted his head Kin saw a glitter in his eyes, feral, wild. "Love?"
Bran gave him a push. "To bed with you. All this talk has made me want you fiercely."
"But I am hungry," Kin teased.
"You shall eat later. The rabbits are still mostly raw in any case, and you have no teeth for raw meat. To bed, I said!"
"In the middle of the day?" Kin demanded. "You have become as decadent as a Roman!"
"And what would you know of Romans?" Bran scoffed, undressing while Kin lounged by their bed. "Now or tonight, where is the difference? I shall be no more ready then than now, and a good deal less patient about it for being made to wait."
"Insatiable," Kin accused. "Why two hours ago, when I came home --"
"You had your way," Bran growled, tossing his leathers away and stretching his thin, supple body. "And you promised me mine. Did you think I would be incapable before evening?" Wickedly, he cupped the heavy testicles that were throbbing between his thighs, brushing the thickened, hardened shaft with his thumbs. "Must I touch myself so? There was a time when you --"
"Demon," Kin said sternly. "Come here and undress me while I touch you."
Twice, while Bran's nimble fingers worked at the task, Kin tried to change the play to one of his own, but Bran was determined; he would let Kin touch as he liked for as long as he could, then step away, and Kinnamus was laughing ruefully as they tumbled onto the bed, Bran on top of him, biting and kiss his chest. Bran had it in him to be wild but never savage, and Kin never doubted him; he always knew he could relax and let Bran have his way, and rarely did they make a struggle of it. As his nipples were pampered and his genitals teased, Kin surrendered to the tide of desire, wanting what Bran wanted with equal fervour.
How long the sweet torture went on he did not know, but at last he was kneeling, pushing back to impale himself on the furnace hot shaft of steel that thrust into his heart as Bran had, not long before dawn when they had woken too early to tackle the day. Bran filled him again and again until Kin was mindless, flying, riding the crest of soaring pleasure, unaware that he was crying out in time to the thrusts and the tight, stroking fist that held his own straining shaft. Bran made him come first, and Kin went down, limp beneath his lover while Bran was still moving. From far away he could hear the rich, husky voice panting endearments and soft curses, and then Bran was coming too, an explosion of heat lancing into him and filling him before Bran was spent, boneless as a rag doll on Kin's back.
For some time they were too sated to move a muscle, and then Kin rolled over and lifted Bran onto his chest; the green eyes were heavy, drowsy and smiling, and Kin tousled the springy curls. "Satisfied now?"
"Are you?" Bran purred, knowing the answer full well.
"Aye," Kin told him. "Kiss me, then sleep, my pet. Dream of Beltaine next, when Amergin will take the vows from us again, and Connach will hear."
Bran sighed heavily. "Aye, and so will Ysoult. And the girl will be as shamed as I would be to see you go away and vow with another."
"As shamed as you?" Kinnamus frowned. "How would you feel?"
"As if I had betrayed you without intent," Bran admitted, "by being so unlovely, so inept, that your bed was cold even though I had been there... I would not have the girl hurt like that, love."
For a time they were silent, hovering around the brink of sleep, and then Kin lifted his head. "Ysoult is a woman, now; she may speak with whom she pleases. What, if she entered into a scheme with us, and Amergin, and her lover?"
"A scheme?" Bran asked, kissing Kin's nose. "So, she will know, when she sees us choose one another again, that we are bonded from long ago, and in love, and not imagine that you are spurning her for spite, or out of revulsion for her?" He laid his head down on Kin's chest, yawning. "Aye, 'tis kinder to the girl that way. Will Amergin carry a message to her?"
"He would," Kin affirmed. "He is gong to speak with Fedelma soon, and I shall ask him to speak also with the daughter and her warrior." He wrapped his arms about Bran. "I am wet and sticky, little chuck. Won't you do me the service of cleaning me?"
Bran hauled himself up and yawned deeply, reaching for a hearth rag, which lay abandoned on the swept earth of the floor, the remains of a blue linen shirt he had worn last summer. It tickled Kin until he laughed as the stickiness of their drying essences was swabbed away, and as Bran pulled up the sheepskins to warm them while they dozed they caught the first whiff of cooking food.
As they settled to sleep Rua pushed in through the weighted doorskins, sniffing the air; he smelt the rabbits and the sex, but as there was nothing unusual in either he merely woofed at the men and went out into the sun again. Bran closed his eyes, wriggled closer to his lover and relaxed every bond and joint, the manifestation of contentment. Kin stroked his face, throat and shoulder until he purred again, and murmured of his love as he slipped into his dreams.
But Kin lay awake for some time, his thoughts returning to his father, and to the trouble there could be if Fedelma and Connach ran true to form... Leave matters to Amergin, he thought, following Bran into sleep. Leave trouble to the Druidkind, for it is their strength to make it and mend it. He turned his face into the soft curls by his cheek, smelling the herbs with which they had been washed, enjoying Bran's unique scent, the tang of sweat, the sweetness of mint, the musk rising from his groin. Kin smiled, counting himself lucky, and surrendered to sleep.
Amergin left Whiterock for Fedelma's camp the next morning and did not return for six days. They were building the bonfires when he came striding back up the slope toward the stockade, and the servants had been at work on the feast for two days. Whiterock was decorated with flowers and woven birch, and the weather was fair, the afternoons growing warm with promise of summer.
As the Druid returned, Kin and Bran were exercising their ponies, riding to the river and back as they did each morning when the weather was good, and Amergin called their names from the shoulder of the hill, leaning on his staff to watch them approach at a leisurely canter. "What news?" Kin shouted as they drew rein.
"Good news," Amergin said, and from the smile that widened his generous features Bran guessed that he was genuinely pleased. It was as if a weight of worry had been lifted from his shoulders, and he could have embraced the Druid as Amergin said, "I have spoken with Fedelma, and the old woman's anger is not at you but at Connach. Still, she would prefer a union of our people, and will speak with you, Kin, upon her arrival here."
"The answer will be the same," Kin growled.
"I know," Amergin nodded, "and she suspected, but she will... appeal to your honour as the son of the chieftain, to set aside your kinship with the bard, and take a wife." He shrugged eloquently. "I think she will suggest that you marry for business and riches, taking her daughter, and keep a second home, with love in it, elsewhere."
"No!" Bran said loudly, sliding to the ground and loosing his pony. "I won't be humoured and tolerated, Amergin. I'm a warrior, not a catamite!"
The Druid's smile warmed. "I did not say that you were, Bran, merely that Fedelma still seeks to arrange this marriage, and that it will be suggested. Oh, be still and trust me. I spoke also with Gweir and Ysoult, and they were given heart to learn that Kin has chosen his life's partner already."
"But --" Bran began.
Kin slid one long arm abound his waist and drew him close. "Hush, little dove, and wait. We'll speak with Fedelma. She is no fool, then, Amergin?"
"No fool, and not the heartless, scheming dynast they make of her," the Druid said wryly. "She was angered with Connach for his machinations... I told her how cruel it would be to force Ysoult into this marriage; imagine the girl, young and winsome, trapped in a house without love in it, bearing your children because it is your duty to sire them and hers to carry and nurse them..." He shrugged with a deep sigh. "I must be about our business now, and will speak with you later, before Fedelma's party arrives. There is much to be done."
As the Druid strode away, up the slope toward the stockade, Bran's face darkened in a frown. "It would be cruel to the girl," he murmured, "and if it comes to be that you will marry her, I would not have her hurt."
"Oh?" Bran looped his pony's reins over his arm and they strolled back toward the woods along the bank of the stream, where wild flowers were beginning to fill the air with honey sweetness. "What would we do then, we two? Perhaps she will fall in love with both of us, and share our bed. Stranger things have happened before this! Sleep with both of us, and call us both her lovers. She would carry your children too -- imagine this!" Kin laughed aloud. "You have never been with a woman, have you, love?" he said quietly while Bran was smiling, and watched the smaller man blink in surprise.
"No," Bran said honestly. "On Mona, as a boy, they would not let me go with girls, and then I swore to honour you, and when I make such pledges, I stand by them." He could feel a blush stealing across his cheeks. "There have been women, though, who have looked at me."
"They're not blind," Kin said drily. "They see your beauty even as I saw it -- how could they not. Did you ever wish to bed with one?"
"Once or twice," Bran admitted, "for curiosity. I have never felt the softness of a woman, or tasted their tenderness." He shrugged philosophically. "But without love, the deed is cold and empty, and I was fated to love you."
They were silent for a long time, and then Kin whispered, as they strolled along the fringe of the woods, "And what, if Ysoult chose to take us both?"
"Then I would honour you in this as everything," Bran said levelly. "Go if I was told, stay if I was asked, love her if that was what she wanted, and you asked it of me." He lifted his head, and the green eyes were misted. "But as I have said before, if you told me to go, I would go -- far, and forever. I am not a catamite, Kinnamus, nor will you make me one."
"Sweet fool," Kin said fondly, reaching out to tousle the windblown mop of curls. "I would flee like a thief in the night before I would dishonour you in that way... Come, we must return. Time is wasting and there is much to do, not merely for the Druidkind."
Whiterock was alive with activity and gaiety on the very brink of summer, its people abroad in their finery, its Druids clad in their white and crowned with flowers. Amergin, chief among them, sat in trance through the afternoon, divining the future, conferring with the gods of the island tuaths. Connach somehow struggled from his sick bed and walked about the stockaded village, his wolfhide cloak clutched about him for all the gathering warmth of the day; and late in the afternoon, as the shadows were lengthening and willow smoke wafted upward from the cookfires, the lookouts at the gate sent up a clamour, heralding the arrival of Fedelma's party.
They came straggling up the slope, twice a score of ponies, some of them mounted by warriors whose war spears and swords were mirror-bright and whose leathers were trimmed with gold, some of them carrying litters in which rode the old woman and her attendants. Bran and Kin gathered with the others at the gate to see their arrival, and watched Amergin greet his friend, Fedelma's Druid, Emain. Emain was even taller than Amergin, his hair and beard black and his eyes so deep a blue that they too seemed black, and shrewd, like the eyes of the raven. Then Kin gave Bran a nudge with his elbow. "See there; that is Ysoult, and behind her, on the white pony, that is her warrior, Gweir."
Bran's eyes narrowed against the brightness of the slanting sunlight, and as he saw Ysoult he murmured soft words of approval. She was beautiful, with long red hair that spilled like a cape over her shoulders, and skin as white as Kin's. She was laughing with her chosen one, as if she too was at ease after the Druidai had taken a hand in the confusion. But would Fedelma and Connach listen to the young people? If it came to the law, the elders could still order the marriage, and then -- what? Bran swallowed, looking at the girl and trying hard to imagine her sharing his bed with Kin. Soft, female, and mysterious; how would she taste? Beneath his hands, how would she feel? Would he and Kin pleasure her together, and would she return their favours? Bran shook his head at the notion. To be sure, it would be less cruel to Ysoult if they took her into their home as one of them and enveloped her in the same love they shared themselves, but what would she want?"
Obviously, she wanted Gweir, and Bran transferred his attention to the warrior. The man was not tall, and quite stockily built, with skin like tanned leather and gold gleaming at both his ears; his hair was as red as the girl's own and he was cleanshaven, revealing a face that was not handsome but alive with laughter and affection. Aye, Ysoult had chosen well, and Gweir would make her happy, if he was given the chance.
Knowing what was expected of them, Kin and Bran left the gathering before the queen's party moved in through the gate. In disfavour, Kinnamus was not welcome at such meetings, and Bran, even now, was little more than a tolerated visitor whom half the people here wished would leave. They went home and shut the door on the lovely late spring evening, and Kin poured wine, trying to put his faith and trust in Amergin. Beltaine was tomorrow, and the fires would be lit with evening. The feasting began at noon, and he and Bran would stay well clear of the merriment until dusk, when the crush became thick enough for them to pass unnoticed among the revelers.
They spoke little that evening and were up with the dawn, loveing gently before they must face the day; before they had eaten breakfast, Amergin was at the door, calling in through the weighted skins: "Are you awake? Fedelma is asking to speak with you, Kin."
"And with Bran?" Kin asked, going to lift the doorskins aside.
"He may accompany you," Amergin allowed, "but it is with the son of the chieftain she wishes to deal. She has... little opinion of Bran, I am afraid -- but then, she has never met him, and probably imagines some pretty lad with the ways and manners of a girl!"
"Then she will be surprised," Bran said tartly, reaching for his clothes.
Still seated by the hearth, to which he had returned to finish eating after admitting the Druid, Kin watched his lover dress. Bran had chosen to wear the best he had; the leather pants were skin tight, russet red, and tucked into black boots on which the short-clipped fur had been brushed until it was like new; he had a silk shirt, expensive, brought in from Rome, where it had been bartered by a merchant from the east, and it whispered on his skin like gossamer, dyed the palest of saffron. It was laced at the front, but he left the laces loose, purposely to display the gold amulet that nestled on his chest among the fine, dark hair. The amulet was the favour of a chief, a recognition of valour, courage in battle, and he wore it proudly; it had been hard won, and he had a scar to show for it, a thin white line on his back from the lance he had deflected in order to buy the life of a chief from the Fates. Silver, lovingly polished, banded both his wrists, and the baldric that clinched the loose silk at his narrow waist carried both dirk and scabbard.
Finished dressing, he lifted one brow at Kin. "What will she see?"
"A warrior," Kin said throatily. "A man. Too winsome for his own good, perhaps, but a man nonetheless."
"Then come quickly," Amergin said, trying to hurry Kin. "It serves no purpose to annoy the old woman."
The words were wise enough, and a few minutes later the Druid was holding aside the doorskins to usher Kinnamus and Bran into the house where Fedelma and her attendants were lodging. It was dim inside after the brightness of morning, and Kin blinked, trying to adjust his vision. Fedelma was thinner and smaller than he remembered, but her eyes were still bright as cut glass in a face that seemed to grow ever more gaunt. Spots of rouge stained her cheeks, and her hair was coiled up on her head, white but strong as wire. She was seated on a bench strewn with hides, and the cloak which surrounded her frail limbs was trimmed with the red fur of the fox.
She was old indeed, Kin realised with a start; Ysoult was still just a girl, but this woman was well into the autumn of her life. He struggled to remember how many brats she had mothered; six? And Ysoult was the youngest, born long after the others. He inclined his head before her as she looked him over critically, and she barely nodded in response before turning her attention to Bran, who stood a little way behind him.
As he saw the old woman's eyes shift toward him, Bran stepped forward to show himself, and, in the way he had been taught as a boy, touched one knee to the floor, head bowed. He waited to be told to rise, and for some time Fedelma said nothing, until he wondered if he were to be left in this attitude; anger stirred along his veins. The niceties of proper behaviour before one's ricons should not be abused by their chiefs -- so taught the Druidkind, who had taught him. He raised his eyes, pupils dilated now so that he could see clearly, and looked her in the face. She must have been handsome in her youth; her bone-structure was still fine, in age, and she was smiling at him.
"So you are Bran, the one they have been telling me about. I have heard of you from Amergin and Emain... You bed with Kinnamus ap Connach, I believe."
"I do," Bran said, still on one knee at her feet, but, seeing the smile, no longer resenting the position.
"Out of friendship or lust?" Fedelma asked shrewdly.
"Out of love," Bran corrected quietly.
"Hm. They have told me this as well," the old woman whispered. "And you have bedded with him for some time, have you not?"
"Five years," Bran admitted. "Since I was a boy in the care of Mona."
Fedelma nodded. "You were to be a Druid. What changed your heart?"
Bran glanced up and back at Kin, who stood in the shadows, smouldery and seemingly close to anger, that his partner should be so questioned. Bran gave him a secretive smile. "He changed my heart, my lady," he said honestly. "And there will be no changing it back."
The raven-bright eyes narrowed on him and Fedelma leaned forward, better to see him in the dim lamplight. "You are beautiful, I'll give you that. I can see what Kinnamus cherishes so. Aye, you may rise, Bran. I must speak with ap Connach now." One thin hand waved him away, and Bran retired to the shadows.
Kin stepped forward to take his place, waiting until Fedelma had watched Bran come to a halt beside Amergin. Then the raven-eyes were demanding truth from him, and he took a breath as Fedelma said, "You've no love of women, then."
"Untrue," Kin said, forcing a smile. "I can appreciate great beauty, no matter where it is to be found."
"There is a man in your bed," Fedelma observed.
"So there is," Kin shrugged. "And what of it? You have said already that he commands such charm as you can see yourself. Shall I be blind to it?"
"But what of sons?" Fedelma demanded.
"My father has other heirs," Kin growled, "he has no need of me as a stud bull to sire yet more."
She nodded acceptance of this. "But what of yourself? Have you no wish to prolong your bloodline? Or will it end with you?"
Kin turned to smile at Bran. "We have spoken of this already, my lady, and agreed on it. There are women aplenty who would come if we called them, and some day, when we are of the mood, and have the riches to attend to the many concerns of child kin, we will have children by whichever women are content to be pleased and give us the children without seeking to tie us in marriage. There will be sons from us both, one day."
"Bastards," Fedelma said in a barbed tone.
"That is of no matter," Kin smiled.
"To your father, it would be," Fedelma corrected.
"Since such heirs would not be in line for his seat, it has little to do with him." Kin's tone was just as barbed. "Fedelma, what would you have me do? Take Ysoult to wife and make her unhappy? Or would you have me make her glad? The only way she could be happy here is in our home -- our home, for a home of her own will be empty of me for most of the time, as my heart lies elsewhere."
"With Bran," Fedelma concluded. "Interesting, young rogue. Take her into your home -- and your bed? Yours and Bran's? Ha!" She slapped her knee and just for a moment Kin caught a glimpse of the girl she must once have been. "Would that I could change places with my headstrong young Ysoult -- I should set you at odds, ap Connach! I should take you up on the offer, and ravish you both by night!" She cackled outrageously, making Kin smile in response; he cast a glance at Bran, who was looking indignantly amused, while Amergin was trying to hide his own laughter.
"My lady," Kin said reasonably, "set your daughter's happiness first! I have no doubt that we could make her happy in our home, and mayhap even in our bed, but this is not what she wants. She wants Gweir -- surely you have seen this? Were we to welcome her, Bran and I, we should choose to welcome him too, and she would go with him, not us. Then, whose would be the seed that sires the heirs you and Connach want -- mine, or Bran's, or Gweir's?"
"You have no honour at all, have you?" Fedelma cackled. "Wed the girl, and send her to her chosen lover, while you bed with a man?"
"I cannot afford honour," Kin said, with perhaps a trace of bitterness. "I have been almost disinherited for loving Bran, and if I must choose between a golden circlet on my head and him, there is no choice." He shrugged. "I have come to count happiness above honour, Fedelma. And yes, discreetly, I would send Ysoult to her lover so as to leave me and mine in peace."
"Hm, so you would," Fedelma nodded, "and I daresay you would be right to do so." She thumped her bony knee and pulled the cloak tighter about her frail body. "Ah, very well. I have seen your love, and I am not so blind that I am unaware of his gifts. He is a man, sure enough, and I cannot taunt you... And you are right: a lifetime's sacrifices have taught me the value of happiness. But what of your father, Kinnamus? He will not be so easily appeased.
It was Amergin who spoke in answer, stepping forward into the ring of the lamplight. "Tonight, my lady, when the feasting and merriment have been dispensed with and the time is right for ritual, many couples will pledge fealty before their gods. Kinnamus and Bran have agreed to do so again. I took such vows from them five years ago, and I will take them again. Let everyone see that they choose each other, and Connach would be a fool to go against it; he may be the ricon here, but there is the law, and couples are made and broken by the common law."
Fedelma raised one brow at him, corrugating her forehead. "Aye, it is a sound idea. This is your wish, is it, Kinnamus?"
"It is," Kin nodded, "and Bran has agreed. My father may be angry, but it will be an impotent fury, soon past."
"Then so be it." Fedelma gathered the cloak about her and stood up, turning away from the three men and walking stiffly toward the door at her back. "I will be there to see it, and so will Ysoult and Gweir... Mayhap they will choose to give you vows of their own, Amergin."
"I should be honoured to accept them," Amergin smiled.
When the old woman had gone, Kin turned to Bran, grabbed him in a fierce embrace and kissed his mouth hard. "There, now there is just Connach to deal with. So Fedelma is not a she-spider after all!"
Bran wriggled loose and hugged Amergin in thanks, and the Druid stooped to kiss his nose. "There, it is as I told you," the tall, white robed man said, laughing. "You fretted for nothing."
"He enjoyed fretting," Kin said drily, drawing Bran out of Amergin's embrace and draping a possessive arm about him. "He loves nothing better than to doubt and castigate himself, and the only cure for it is loving."
"Then take him home and love him," Amergin smiled, "but hold something in reserve for tonight. This of all nights is for lovers."
Beltaine. The eve of summer, Kin thought as he and Bran returned to their home and changed out of their finery, comfortable in their old, battered leathers as they worked the morning away, gathering herbs and kindling and trapping for rabbits with Rua, out on the slopes to the west. Bran was happy, and Kin's heart lightened to watch him; they lay in the young, green bracken, kissing while the ponies grazed and the dog raced after the hares, and when Bran loosened their clothing Kin was content to sprawl on the springy bed of stems and leaves and let his lover work hard at their pleasure. There was something special about making love under the sky, something right and timeless, and Bran made it last a long time, lying on Kin and rocking heat against hard heat, nothing elaborate. Kin held his head and kissed him deeply, honestly hoping that Ysoult and Gweir should be even half so lucky as they.
The feasting began as the sun climbed to its zenith, and they stayed away. Kin caught a glimpse of Connach, red in the face from fury as Fedelma told him what had been arranged, and wisely avoided the old man. Fedelma grew angry with the old fool and vented a tirade on him, a stream of invective that would be recounted by a dozen story tellers for years, but Kinnamus was pleased that he had not been there to hear it. He and Bran lazed away the afternoon, returning to the stockade when the colours of evening began to paint the world, gold and rose. The Druids were out in force, thirteen white robes, torches flickering, bright in the long twilight, and the crowds abandoned the feasting tables to take station by the fires.
Such fires were blazing all across the island, and across Albion too, and the names of the gods, Camulus, Dis, Andrasta, were invoked by a hundred arch-Druids while Celts from so many tribes stood by to watch and pray. Kin and Bran, cloaked against the cooling night wind, stood a little apart from the others, feeling oddly as peace as they watched Amergin go through the age-old ritual again. There were many chants to be sung, then many petitioners came forward with individual requests to be made of the gods.
Finally, Amergin's wide, dark eyes searched among the crowd and found Kin's pale, serious face, and the long, elegant fingers beckoned him into the firelight. Kin took Bran's shoulders, ushering the smaller man before him, and as they came to rest before the Druid he heard a muttered oath from his father. Ignoring the old man, Kinnamus turned his attention to Bran. The green eyes were glowing, gold in the flickering light, and Amergin smiled at both of them, one hand on each of their heads.
"How choose you?" he asked, just above the crackle of the fire.
"As I chose years ago," Kin said huskily, "so I choose again, in honour, and with the sanction of the gods."
"And you?" Amergin asked of Bran, one eyebrow up.
"I choose Kinnamus ap Connach above all others," Bran said, the corners of his mouth lifting in a smile, "in honour and with love."
"So be it," Amergin said, nodding. "The choosing is witnessed by all, as is the law... Go in honour and in happiness."
They went, stealing out of the firelight as cheering broke out from the warriorkind, among whose ranks no few had chosen in similar fashion. But Kin flung a glance back at Connach and was rewarded with a murderous glare. Anger came seething up under Kin's heart: be damned to the old man! Fedelma had agreed to her daughter's wishes that the contract be broken, Gweir was a good man, and Amergin had seen to it that the law was satisfied -- what did Connach want? The money that would change hands, Ysoult's bride price? Rapacious old son of a bitch, Kin thought bitterly -- anything to increase the family fortunes! He put Connach from his mind with an effort, drawing Bran into the shadows just beyond the circle of the firelight, where the breeze blew waves of heat into the nook between the boles of two great trees.
There, they fell into a fierce embrace, and found themselves stretched out on the soft, moist turf, pressed together and blanketed by Kin's cloak. Bran's mouth was open, hot and sweet on Kin's, and Kin felt his lover's telltale wriggles as the kiss deepened and they became aroused. Too much wine, too much excitement, and now relief, Kin thought, trying to hold Bran down as he began to arch upward, pressing himself into the larger body that covered him.
"Sweetheart," Kin whispered into his hair, "be still for just a moment -- not like this, Bran. Hush! I want you. I want you."
Five years ago, it had been so different; Bran had been just a boy, shocked at his body for its wantonness and feverish with a tide of sensation he did not understand. Now, he was a man, just as feverish but knowing what he wanted, and what his lover so desired. As Kin got to his feet he stood also, and within the embrace of the vast wolfhide cloak Kinnamus held about him, he stripped off his leathers, pleased to be free, cool and comfortable with the brush of the air against his skin; deftly, he took the clothes from Kin too, folding them and placing them on top of his own, and they stood together in the shadows, wrapped in Kin's heavy cloak, feeling the steel hard, furnace hot demands of each other's arousal.
"Ah, love," Kin murmured, his hands cupping and caressing Bran's small, muscular buttocks, "how I want you."
"Then you shall have me," Bran said throatily, and slid down Kin's body to kneel at his feet. Kin followed him down; it was almost completely dark here, and the sounds of the crowd were muted. Here and there under the trees, other couples were locked together and there were the sounds of love, heady and arousing, from all sides. Beltaine was about love, the time where spring became summer, Kin thought as he collected his pearly pre-ejaculate and used it to moisten first his fingers and then his lover's sweet body. Bran moaned, tossing his head, as he leaned forward, weight on his hands and knees, and Kin went to his knees behind him, the cloak heavy about them, keeping out the cool wind as he guided himself with trembling fingers and pressed home to sheath himself in Bran's warm welcome. Bran cried out again, pushing back and murmuring disjoined endearments, reaching for Kin's hand to place it in the nest of his groin. "Please," he whispered, "touch -- ahh --" The plea was unnecessary, for Bran's pleasure was on Kin's mind before his own, and while he slid in and out in gliding thrusts that urged his own climax closer, he lavished every caress on the man writhing beneath him, climbing higher and higher toward the outburst of rapture.
It took a long time, and from far away Kin heard Bran give a throaty scream as he came, the strength pouring from him along with his semen, and Kin had to lift him back to his knees as he went down onto the grass. Still taut with need, Kin soothed his lover with soft, unheard words and kisses about his neck; and then, having secured Bran's release he set about his own, moving fast and hard and deep, and prolonging Bran's pleasure as he courted the joy first given to him by his lower's pliant body five years ago this night.
Lying still not quite on his knees, Bran floated somewhere out of his mind, exhausted, sated, the tender assault on him keeping him aloft as Kin thrust powerfully into him, getting close, tensing in every muscle, and coming at last in scalding waves that filled him. Then Kin went down too, unable to find the strength even to kneel, and, beginning to recover, Bran drew him close, turning over and tucking the cloak about them. Pillowed on Bran's shoulder, Kin dozed for some time, comfortable and happy, his mind filled with images from yesteryear --
Bran had been a solitary boy, pale and thin with enormous eyes that lit up when he was amused. The Druid's white robe hung loosely about limbs that had still to thicken with muscle, and when he was naked he flushed rosily, almost too shy to ask for what he wanted, and answered the caresses that were offered him. The first time had been quick, no more than a few strokes and the welding of two mouths, one hungry but cautious, the other eager but confused. Half an hour later, it had taken longer, and Kin could still feel the stream of velvet smooth liquid on his tongue, still hear the husky cry as the boy, shocked at his own responses, let go. They had slept after that, awakening while the midnight stars were aloft, and Kin had gone for wine and food, returning to their shadowed nook to feed his young lover and then seduce him again. This time, he lay on the boy, let him feel a man's weight on him, first on his front, while he slid erection against erection until Bran could no longer hold back and came powerfully, and then on his back, while Kin rubbed his demanding cock in the cleft of the tight, muscular rump, each stroke caressing the pucker of untried muscle that beckoned to him. Bran had slept on his chest, both of them rolled in a yellow calf hide and worn out, but they woke again before dawn, and this time, when Kin turned Bran over and lifted him to his knees, Bran knew, by instinct alone, what was to come. He whimpered as he was hurt, and Kin's heart went out to him, cutting through the haze of arousal and gentling him, and he made it slow, endless, until Bran felt the surges of pleasure breaking like waves over his head, swamping him. Hopelessly in love, Kin did not use him, and as Bran came again he let himself come at the same time; when he was soft enough to withdraw without causing the boy even a twinge of pain, he went to fetch cloths and water. The green eyes watched him, sleepy as a lizard on a cold day, and the husky voice murmured a question that tore the heart right out of Kin. Bran had wanted to know if the warrior would be leaving him, now that he had taken what he wanted. Laughing softly, Kin had reached for the Druid's white robe and gently dressed his lover again, then dressed himself, and as he saw the lad's eyes begin to glitter with unshed tears of regret he kissed them closed and drew him down beside the fire to sleep, rolling them in their calf hide among the ashes. At dawn, the boy's teachers found them, and when an old man threatened Bran with a tirade Kin drew his dirk, held the boy close against him and told the old teacher to go away. He went, and Bran slumped against Kinnamus Iron Hand, clutching at him and speaking in bewilderment. What was he going to do now? Where would he go, and where would he live? Kinnamus lay down and cradled him on his chest; he remembered the words he had spoken exactly.
"You're mine now, and if you will come with me, there is no need to fear. Carry my spears if you will, and share my bed. I will look to your needs."
Stubborn, independent little Bran had grown up fast; a year, and he was a hand's breadth taller, could ride as well as Kin himself, and had learned the arts of sword and lance. When raiders came in out of the west, he rode into the frey beside his lover; Kin was terrified for him, and indeed Bran came off the field of battle with a wound he could put three fingers into, but not before he had been blooded. Three of Connach's enemies lay cold on the moor, his swordsteel in them... Bran was a warrior. He would never again be just a man's lover, a warrior's bed-warmer, there to clean the weapons, tend to the horses and see to his mate's physical needs. He had chafed at his role since he had gone with Kin and devoted much of his energy to learning the skills of the warrior; Kin gave him his head, for all he was frightened for him, because to make a catamite of Bran would be to drive him away, Blooded, a warrior in his own right, he was carried off the killing field of battle and spent a month out of action. Kin remembered the frustrations of being without his loving, and smiled; several times he was on the point of going with others, and it was love that sent him back to tend Bran as Bran had tended him for so long. Then, one day he found Bran on his feet, and there was a look of hunger in his eyes -- he too had missed their tender games in bed and was hot, needing Kin badly. He could not kneel as yet, for his left leg was still too unco-operative, but he gave his partner their phial of sweet oil, leaned his palms against the wall, and asked to be mated before the hunger killed him.
Kin could still shiver at the memory of it, still recall the joy with which he had complied, more than once. It was not much after that, when Bran was well and strong, that the Iron Hand made his real decision. He had never allowed himself to be mated by another man, never offered his body in that way, for all the tenderness he was prepared to show in other ways; but he had been listening to Bran's cries of rapture with a growing fascination, and when Bran had given him the oil and almost begged to be taken, Kin became convinced that he was missing more than half of the pleasures that were to be derived from their mating. Strong again, Bran was joy itself in the peace and haven of their bed, never asking Kin to offer his body, as if it had not occurred to him that he would ever be offered that; his eyes widened and his jaw became slack as Kinnamus gave him the oil and asked him to be gentle, for it was his first time. For a moment Bran felt only worry, fright: he remembered how it had hurt him, the first time, and the last thing he desired was to hurt the man he loved. But Kin was adamant, and one lazy afternoon late in summer, he went willingly to his knees, wanting Bran to mount him more than he had known that he could want anything. Bran was careful, skilful at first, for he knew Bran's technique well; but it was the first time he had felt his aching cock thrust into another's body, and it did not last long. For Kin, it was over before the pain had turned into pleasure, but he was astute enough to know this, and an hour later they did it again. That time Bran's great concern was for Kin's pleasure, and it was nearly perfect. Still, Bran came first, but Kin merely smiled and touched himself deftly to bring himself off within seconds, never letting Bran know that he had needed the moment's assistance. The pain had gone, replaced by a tide of pleasure that was violent in its intensity, beyond anything he had ever imagined; little wonder that Bran mewled and cried out beneath him, and that, after a month of being a coddled invalid, he had begged for the coupling managed easily against the wall...
Dreams, half formed and happy, spun and unraveled in Kin's mind, and it was some time before he realised his name was being called. He blinked his eyes open, seeing clearly in the starlight, and saw Amergin's face. The druid was smiling fondly at the lovers who lay wrapped in Kin's cloak, but he was speaking urgently. "Ah, you are awake at last -- I thought you must have died! Come quickly, Ysoult wishes to speak with you."
"What, now?" Kin demanded, stretching beneath Bran's weight.
"Yes, now," Amergin repeated. "She will be leaving soon, and she wishes to thank you and Bran for -- saving her life, so she says."
Kin groaned. "Oh, tell her you have conveyed her thanks," he said, "that is enough. I know how glad she must be, but I --"
A girl's voice was calling, then. "Amergin? Amergin, where are -- Oh, I see you now. Have you found them?"
"Bran?" Kin whispered. "Wake up, little chuck, and keep still. We have a lady's company, I fear and --" He laughed. "Neither of us is dressed for it." Beneath the wolfhide cloak, they were naked, kept warm by each other's body heat. Bran came awake with a moan and sat up carefully, the cloak loose about his shoulders so that, decently covered as he was, he was just as obviously naked in the embrace of his mate.
"They are here," Amergin called, and stood aside to make the introductions, "Kinnamus ap Connach, Iron Hand, and Bran. The lady Ysoult, daughter of Fedelma."
The girl's eyes were wide as she looked down at the two men. There was no surprise in the fact that they were naked -- couples were wrangling in the shadows everywhere on this night -- but she had expected them to be coarse, lewd, unlovely about it. The thought that they might be young and beautiful had not occurred to her, and she was speechless for a time, trying to decide which of them was the more beautiful -- Kinnamus with his long, dark hair and velvety skin, or Bran, with his tousled halo of curls and the pelt of soft hair on his chest.
"My lady?" Kin said at last, prompting quietly. "You wished to speak with us about...?"
She came to her sense with an effort. "Merely to thank you," she said at last. "You have made my life what it is -- happy -- and I owe you a great deal. I have little to give you, but this, and it is yours." She held an object out in the palm of her hand, and Kin reached to take it; Ysoult shook her head slightly. "No, not for you, for Bran. But for him, I should have wedded you and lost my own love, and much as I thank you, Iron Hand, I thank Bran first, for seducing you, by whatever wiles."
Bran took the object, holding it to the faint light cast by the far off fires. "It's a gem," he said. "Precious?"
"A Druid's dreaming stone," Amergin corrected. "As dangerous as it is priceless, and with your permission, I will instruct you in its use, or you will learn to curse rather than bless it... The dreams are not always good."
"It was my brother's," Ysoult said wistfully. "When he died, he gave it to me and asked that I dream of him. I do, often, but the dreams are too sad, and I have no wish to remember him in sorrow. You take it, Bran. You were to have been a Druid, so they tell me, you will use it well. Again, I thank you -- and if there is aught I can do for you, or for you, Ironhand, in future, you have but to call on me... Farewell."
With that she was gone, and Bran sat looking at the stone; oddly, it was warm and shimmering in his palm, making his skin tingle. Kin leaned closer to look at it. "Green," he observed. "Amergin?"
The Druid sat on the grass beside them and looked at the stone with a guarded expression. "She has given you something that could be more painful than pleasant. If you prefer not to run its gauntlet, I will take it."
But Bran shook his head. "No, Amergin, I'll try it. I remember, when I studied on Mona, there were stones like this. Tranced dreamers would fly in their dreams, living other lives, in other places... I will try it."
"And I?" Kin asked, feeling left out.
"Aye, it would be safest together," Amergin said. "Now, listen. What you will dream may belong to the past or to the future -- you may not be able to tell which. The dreams may not be good, but endure them, for they show you the truth of what was, or will be. Past lives, and those yet to come."
"And we go into the dreams together?" Bran asked, smiling at Kin. "Aye -- we will be together always, nothing is surer. What must be do, Amergin?"
"Nothing much." Amergin motioned them back to the grass. "Hold the stone between you, both of you touching it, and sleep. The rest is in the hands of the gods. I will stay here, in case you are troubled, and wake you if there is need to." He smiled. "Go on, sleep again. You look exhausted in any case!"
"Weary," Bran agreed, and lay down on the cloak's soft folds with a yawn. "Sleep with me again, my love," he said, tugging at Kin's shoulder. "Lie beside me and dream with me. Do not fear, Amergin will see that no harm comes to us." He wriggled close as Kin lay down, wanting the strong arms about him, and closed his eyes.
For a long time Kin thought he would never sleep; knowing that to sleep was to embark on a voyage into the unknown was disquieting, but Bran's steady breathing soothed him and at length he succumbed to the soft darkness, not even realising that he had closed his eyes. They were warm and comfortable, and Amergin sat close by, cross legged, his eyes on the stars, his mind far away on its own meditations. Kin relaxed, putting his trust in his love, and turned to face the unknown as a warrior...
The rustle of papers and the sharp jangle of the telephone roused Bodie from his thoughts and he looked up across the desk at Cowley as the older man answered the call. The sound of the phone was like a harbinger of doom; Bodie had learned to dread it, and his nerves tightened at once. In the chair beside his own he heard Doyle stir restlessly, and glanced sidelong at his partner's attentive face.
"Cowley," the CI5 controller said. "Aye, we're standing by... So he's hiding like an apple in an orchard, is he? Very inventive. No, I think we can handle it, Minister, and with a good deal more adroitness than Special Branch. It is still in our area... Yes, sir. Thank you. Goodbye." The phone went back into its cradle with a plastic click and the Scot looked up at the two field agents. "Sansom has been identified positively by an officer with the Police. There was some trouble at a bike meet in Surrey two days ago."
"Bike meet?" Doyle asked, frowning. "That's a bit out of Sansom's area, isn't it? He's on the James Bond routine -- expensive hotels, trips on Concorde and driving Lotus when he's over here."
"And what better way to evade us," Cowley demanded, "than change his whole act? He's riding with a 'touring club' called the Apaches. Perhaps you've heard of them."
Bodie gave a grown. "Heard of them? Hell bent on self destruction, that bunch! They're in the papers at every verse end, disturbing the peace and brawling. Sansom's riding with them?"
"So says officer Sherman," Cowley affirmed, "and he's a long time beat man. Doyle will probably back up his credentials."
"Yeah," Doyle said reluctantly. "Trained observers working from photos don't usually start seeing things." He got to his feet, stretching his back. "So what do we do? If he's riding with one of their chapters, looking like them, it might take us a year to find him -- by which time Ambassador Levin will be stone cold dead. We've got three weeks!"
"Twenty days," Cowley corrected. "And it shouldn't take that long, Doyle. Not when you and Bodie will be riding with the Apaches, and there's another big bike meet in ten days' time, in Kent."
The field agents shot glances of startlement at each other, and then at Cowley, and Bodie cleared his throat. "I did hear you correctly?"
"An undercover assignment," Cowley nodded, shuffling papers. "Effective immediately. Leave your guns and ID here. Take your own bikes, and try your best to look dishevelled... In your case that won't be difficult. Check in by pay phone, not R/T... The last Police update put the chapter in a pub out in Islington. You'd better move yourselves."
They were in the lift, on their way down to the carpark, when the full meaning of the assignment began to hit home, and Doyle groaned. "Living out, all weathers, sleeping on the ground, nowhere to take a bath, or get a decent meal... Christ, why do we let Cowley do this to us?"
"Dunno," Bodie agreed dolefully. "Funny way to earn a living."
"Bloody funny," Doyle said, leading the way toward the gold Capri Ghia and sliding in behind the wheel. "Still, it'll be an experience. Never did this before. Be stupid if we got arrested, wouldn't it?"
"Idiotic," Bodie grinned, "and the Cow'd have our guts for garters, so it had better not happen!"
A quarter of an hour later they were pulling their biker's gear out of the back of the wardrobe, and Doyle was shaking his head over Bodie's as-new black leathers. "No way, mate, they're too good. You're supposed to look like you've been on the road for ages. Scruffy. The old cords you keep for working in the garage in would do. The buckle boots are okay, because they're still mucked up from the ride down to Cornwall. The cammo jacket's all right."
Bodie made a face. "Oh, great. I'm going to look --"
"Disreputable," Doyle supplied with a cheeky grin. For himself he had chosen his oldest jeans, a black tee shirt with the sleeves rolled up, the old Rossi boots he had never quite got around to throwing away because they were so comfortable, and his ancient RAF jacket, kept for purely sentimental reasons long after it had become too shabby to wear much. He tossed the clothes onto the foot of the bed and chuckled. "That should do."
"Police'll be coming after you with a net," Bodie growled, unbuttoning his shirt and preparing to change his whole image from one of casual elegance to one of veiled savagery. He sighed. "So much for the weekend's fishing we had planned."
"Might still get to do some fishing," Doyle reasoned. "I mean, we'll be riding with the Apaches, but what'll that entail? Keeping our eyes peeled while we sit in the sun and do nothing, or frighten the locals, just by being there. Until we see George Sansom, we're bikers, pure and simple."
"Pure?" Bodie made a face. "That's a contradiction in terms, sunshine -- and that's another thing we'd better sort out. What are we supposed to be? Friends or what? Because if we're just friends riding together, you're going to get propositioned half a dozen ways in the first afternoon. So am I, if it comes to that, but you're more the type to attract attention."
"Meaning what?" Doyle demanded, pausing in the act of slipping off his cream coloured slacks."
"Meaning -- don't be thick, Ray," Bodie remonstrated. "Bikers are hard boys, right? Hard boys want to get on top, don't they? And I'll be doing my best hard boy act too, so they won't look at me first, will they? Wanting to get on top, they'll look at you."
"And I'll be acting like Charlie Bronson myself," Doyle muttered.
"Right, but they'll see your hair and your eyes and your bum first," Bodie grinned, "and jump to all sorts of conclusions. So what do you want to let them think?"
For a moment Doyle was silent, folding his slacks neatly and placing them on a chair, and then he shrugged. "How about the truth? They're going to see me curl up to sleep with you anyway, so where's the point fighting it out with them when the first night's kip will tell its own story?"
Bodie breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank Christ for that. I thought you were going to play it straight -- you know, fight with all and sundry to keep their grubby paws off your anatomy, and leave me on my own."
"Not," Doyle smiled, "that you're going to be getting much of that if we're sleeping in a crowd. I'm not that much of an exhibitionist, love, and even if I was, I don't care for passion on the ground. Gives you bruises."
Bodie laughed, catching Doyle in a brief embrace and kissing his ear as he went to shut the wardrobe door. "Oh, I dunno, might be nice, humping among the buttercups. Nice day and all that. Catch a trout for lunch and fry it in a greasy hubcap, and then have you for dessert."
"Moron," Doyle said fondly. "Get dressed before we lose the link-up with these bikers. Cowley's mad enough with the whole do without us screwing it up any further."
They hit the road within the half hour, Doyle astride his Suzuki, Bodie on the BMW, and they could tell from the looks they were getting from passing motorists that the costuming was good enough. They felt comfortable, unfettered by the exigencies of fashion, or what was correct and expected in 'proper' circles; there was a great freedom, and an undeniable sense of power in the knowledge that 'ordinary' people would move aside and let them go by, not wanting to provoke any kind of an incident.
The pub, the Saracen's Arms, in Islington, was almost empty, as if its patrons had got up en masse and gone when the Apaches arrived; seventeen bikes were ranked up along the kerb outside, Harley, Honda, a few old Triumphs and the big, malevolent Kawasakis. "Jeez," Doyle muttered as they backed their own machines in between the Apaches' mounts, "It's like a scene out of 'Mad Max'."
"Keep your hands on your holiday money," Bodie quipped bleakly.
"And your back to the wall, I know," Doyle added. Lifting off his helmet, he ran his fingers through his hair. "They'll have seen us arrive."
"Couldn't exactly miss us -- the place is like a crypt." Bodie slung his helmet over his forearm, left hand through the open face, visor up. "Let's see if they want to fight, then."
They did. The leader was a man with a tangle of blond hair and scars on his face from some burning, long in the past; his name was Donnegan, and he had the final word as to who rode with this chapter, and who did not. Bodie and Doyle invited themselves into the company with a few bad jokes, and bought a beer all round, and if it had ben up to most of the Apaches it would have been a convivial occasion. Donnegan was not so happy; he and Bodie took one look at each other and it was instant hatred, and it was Doyle who smoothed it all over, one hand on Bodie's shoulder and a smile pinned in place. "We're not looking for a fight, mate," he said silkily to Donnegan, "just a bit of company on the road."
"You touring?" Donnegan grunted.
"Right. Tryin' to get away from it all," Doyle nodded, sipping at his beer. "Out of work -- bugger the idea of payin' rent and getting chucked out by the landlord for being queer." He grinned brashly at Donnegan's sudden frown. "Know what I mean?"
Donnegan's expression twisted into something that could have been called a smile. "I know. You get off that way?"
"Why not?" Doyle shrugged. "Makes life simpler."
"With 'im?" Donnegan nodded in Bodie's direction.
At last Bodie spoke up. "Yeah. Any objections?"
Donnegan grunted. "Doesn't faze me, mate." He sipped at the froth atop his glass, licking it off his upper lip with a salacious tongue. "Wanna fight for 'im?" he asked conversationally.
"No," Bodie said, tone as cold as ice.
"Oi, it's got bugger all to do with either of you," Doyle said loudly. "I choose. Got it?"
"Suit yourself." Donnegan shrugged and swallowed half his beer in one gulp. "If you want to ride with us, you just stay out of my way. You're not part of the club, but the road's free."
"Oh yeah?" Doyle kept his snakish smile fixed in place. "And what do we have to do to get into the club?"
Donnegan's blue eyes narrowed. "You wouldn't be up to it."
"Try us," Bodie growled.
But Donnegan shook his head. "Nah, we don't want you. Ride along and stay out of the way, okay? And keep out of Apache business, hear?"
If they told the truth, Bodie and Doyle were more than willing to stay out of the bikers' way; they were an uncouth, aromatic lot, foul mouthed and boisterous. The club hit the road an hour later, and several of them had had too much to drink; it did not seem to make any difference. Donnegan was riding the Kawasaki 1000 with the silver and black trim, and he led the pack onto the motorway and east out of London into the lush sanctuary of the countryside.
It was odd; the beautiful, sunny weather made it feel like a holiday and it should have been a revitalising change from the noise and sameness of the city, but Bodie was ill at ease, forever on his guard, knowing that Donnegan and his yes-men were less than welcoming of newcomers. The touring club pulled into a meadow that fed down to a stream, and the big engines revved into silence, riders climbing stiffly off the assorted bikes and sprawling in the grass to drink more beer and eat the kind of junk food that would make Doyle cringe. Bodie gave his lover of six months a grin and beckoned him into the shade of a sycamore a little apart from the others.
"No need to hobnob with them," he said quietly. "All we have to do is be here, and get them used to us, so that when we stick around for the bike meet in ten days' time they've stopped even noticing us. Then we grab Sansom, reach for a phone, and Murphy can come out and pick us all up."
"If Sansom goes to the meet," Doyle said gruffly. "If he's even with the bloody Apaches by that time. If he hasn't decided to change his act again and masquerade as a politician or a doctor --"
"Or a stripper in a gay cabaret," Bodie finished glibly. "It's iffy, I agree, but what the hell else are we going to do? Half a chance is better than no chance at all. And if the Apaches are letting him tag along it means he's got a mate in the club."
"Does it?' Doyle wondered. "We're tagging along, aren't we?"
"Maybe," Bodie mused. "But the trouble hasn't started yet. It will soon."
It started in early evening, when the touring club dined on fish and chips, and Bodie departed on his BMW to bring takeaway Chinese, which was more to his taste and Doyle's. There was an offsider of Donnegan's, Art Findlay, big and uncouth, and Ray had been aware that he was being watched almost since he and Bodie had walked into the pub. A hand stroked his shoulder, and he ignored it, but when it tousled his curls he knocked it away, and after a few verbal exchanges the fight was on in earnest.
It did not last long; a little technique went a long, long way -- and size was no match for learning. Doyle put Findlay down in three blows without seriously hurting him, and the bigger man lay on the grass, winded, while the bikers jeered and cat-called, telling him to go and pick on someone his own size or stick to school girls in future. Satisfied, Doyle returned to the work he was doing on his bike, cleaning the plugs while he waited for Bodie to return. He was putting the tools away when he looked up to see Donnegan on the other side of the sway-backed saddle of his Suzuki, frowning down at him.
"Not very friendly, are you?" Donnegan growled.
"Not one of you, am I?" Doyle said offhandly. "Don't have to be."
"And if you were one of us, you'd play?"
"Nope." Ray slammed the lid on the little tool box. "Bodie'd kill me."
"I could kill him for you," Donnegan offered.
"You?" Doyle laughed. "Not in a month of Sundays, mate. Anyway, forget it. Bodie's quite enough for me... Sorry." He stood up, stretching. "Besides, I don't know that I'd want to get put through the meat grinder just to join a touring club. What's your initiation, then? Play pitch and toss, loser gets screwed into the ground? Or do I just get down on my knees as an outsider and get up again as an Apache, and that's all there is to it?"
Donnegan blinked at him, threw back his head and guffawed. "You can do it that way if you want, but as a rule, you do a job."
"What kind of a job?"
"Wake up, curly locks," Donnegan rumbled. "A job. A robbery. How d'you reckon we bankroll ourselves -- draw the dole?"
Light dawned, and Doyle kicked himself -- he should have known. "I'm not a bloody damned criminal just because I can ride a bike and wear leather!"
"Then in your case," Donnegan said indulgently, "you can get screwed, and call yourself initiated. Okay?"
"Thanks, but no thanks," Doyle said, snake smile back in place, and it was with considerable gratitude that he heard the approaching engine voice of Bodie's big BMW. "Shove off, will you? I'm hungry, and I don't want a killing spoiling my appetite. Bodie'll take you to pieces if you lay a finger on me." He did not add that he would wade in and help him. As yet, the love that he shared with Bodie was fiercely guarded and prized above all possessions, so delicate, so fragile, that the thought of others intruding upon it, putting a strain on it, was terrifying. It would last, Doyle knew, and would grow stronger with time, but even in years to come they would guard what they had jealously.
The idea of another man's hands on him made Doyle shudder with distaste, and he had said as much to Bodie, finding that it was a feeling they shared. It was not easy for Ray to maintain the hard, brash face before Donnegan and his friends, but he knew it was the best protection he had. If the bikers knew how new to the sphere of bisexuality he was, there would be worse trouble, and perhaps killing.
The BMW growled to a halt and Bodie swung off it, lifting off his helmet and giving Donnegan a speculative look. He ambled up to Ray and slid one possessive arm about his waist. "This person been annoying you, sunshine?"
"Nah," Doyle said dismissively. "Just talking over Apache ethics. They're quite interesting, actually. They haven't got any."
Donnegan laughed at what he perceived as a joke. "Bloody right, we haven't got any, so remember that." He turned his back on Bodie as if inviting him to thrown down some challenge, and stalked back to his own group.
Ray let his expression darken as the biker departed, and the breath hissed over his teeth. "You were right; I've been propositioned twice while you were getting the nosh. I put Findlay down, and then Donnegan decided he'd have a go! With a bit of luck, they've got the message."
"Damn," Bodie muttered. "I knew we should have gone together... Come on and eat before it gets cold."
For just a moment there was a flint-hard look in Doyle's eyes, but he let the anger dissipate before it reached his lips. Of course Bodie felt protective toward him -- didn't he feel the same way about Bodie? Naturally it was on Bodie's mind to do his fighting for him -- Bodie was bigger and much stronger, and when Ray got hurt it was as painful to him as Bodie's getting hurt was to Doyle. Ray sighed; they were still trying to adjust, even now; there was a sort of slop-over from the days when they had been protective of women and girls: transferring their affections to one another meant carrying the protective urges on too, which was fine by Doyle most of the time. It was only when he felt his self esteem, even his masculinity, threatened that he felt the pangs of resentment. In the early days there had been sharp words between them, but no real arguments, because they both understood what it was they were feeling.
Love did not come free and gratis, Ray thought as he sat on the grass by the bikes and dug into the food hungrily. Even if they had been told, the day they had seen the truth of their feelings, that there would be stormy weather ahead, they would not have chosen to walk away from it. Nothing in life was ever easy, and there was no reason to expect this aspect of their partnership to be trouble free. Six months had mellowed them a great deal; they often ached for each other, but sharing the same bed for months had taught them that to ask was to be given, and the aches of wanting were assuaged with more simple pleasure now than in the early, frantic days.
Sharing a bed with Bodie was the answer to everything Ray had ever wanted; as another man, Bodie knew to the last detail how to make their pleasure perfect, and they shared the same voracious libido, so that frustrated arousal had become a thing of the past. Often, they went to the other extreme; weekends were times of abandon and days off became a half remembered haze of exhausted fulfillment that left them as hung over on their return to work as if they'd been on a pub crawl. Vitamins, Ray had said seriously, we need vitamins; and he had bought in bulk to save money. The multivitamins worked like a charm, allying Cowley's suspicious (which were dead accurate in any case). The old man knew what was happening behind closed doors of home, but since 3.7 and 4.5 had been totally honest at the outset there was nothing he could say in protest.
As he ate, Doyle was thinking back to that day in April when he and Bodie found themselves on the moors below the River Tees. It had been so cold and so wet that the chill got right into Ray's bones and he was ill. Stranded out in the wilds, it had been pure luck when Bodie spotted the smoke from the fires of a Tinker encampment. Luck? Ray smiled, and his fingers wriggled into the warmth below the black tee shirt he wore, finding the shape of the green stone he had been given by the old Tinker woman, six months before. It was a Druid stone, a dreaming stone, and still he wondered at its odd magic.
How many times had he and Bodie settled to sleep, their fingers knitted together, and between their palms, this green stone? The dreams were like life, a window into another world, another time... The past. Young, fresh, nearly virginal, the past beckoned them, and when they stepped through the doorway opened by the dreaming stone, they became two versions of themselves, two men who had become more dear to them than their families. Kinnamus was as beautiful as Bodie, Ray thought, looking at his lover as Bodie finished the food and lay back, very full and drowsy as the shadows grew long with evening. As beautiful, and as passionate; Kin's hair was long, falling to his shoulders, windblown and night-dark, and he often wished that Bodie would let his hair grow. Perhaps, one day, if they lived out their enlistment with CI5 and retired, maybe Bodie would let his inner self show through, and become Kinnamus Iron Hand for a time.
The thought made Ray smile. In his ears was a voice -- Kin's, Bodie's, it was no longer possible to tell them apart; it spoke to him huskily in moments of affection, telling him how beautiful he was, how much he was loved. Ray did not consider his own looks worthy of the word, but clearly Bodie did, and it was all in the beholder's own eye. Bodie laughed, outraged, when Ray called him beautiful, offering to take his lover to the optician's to get his eyes checked. And the same was true of Bran -- Bran the bard-warrior, somewhat younger than the Iron Hand, reversing what was true of Bodie and Doyle; Bran, whose brown, slender body, green eyes and tangled curls enchanted both Bodie and Kin alike. Bran had never seen his reflection properly to know what he looked like, but Bodie had told Doyle that the warrior was his mirror image, as much as Kin was Bodie's own reflection.
The memories of Kin's loving reverberated through Doyle's body; often, he and Bodie would wake after dreaming with their hands about the stone, and find themselves aroused by the passion of the others, and it was a joy to go through the act they had dreamed, living it properly. Joining four lives across the gulf of time? Ray thought, smiling as he caressed the stone. Such thoughts made him want Bodie, and he forced his mind to other things, not eager to betray his feelings in this of all places.
September was warm, flushed with an Indian summer that seemed endless, and the night was not really cold. They rolled themselves in three thermal blankets, sheets of silver foil that held in so much heat that they were too hot. Sleeping on the ground was less than comfortable, and Doyle pillowed himself on Bodie, ignoring his lover's protests and smothering them with a kiss, cocooned in darkness at midnight. Bodie emerged from the kiss, his breathing short, and forced a chuckle. "Been a long time since last night," he murmured. "Shift over a bit, love... Up a bit... That'll do."
"Bodie!" Ray hissed as hands deftly loosened his jeans.
"They're asleep, snoring like pigs in clover," Bodie said, absorbed in his task of accessing his lover's eager body. "The amount they drank, they'll be asleep till ten in the morning. Listen to them! Like living in an Army barracks, I'll tell you. Christ, aren't men noisy in their sleep?"
"Where as we are cold sober," Doyle grinned, relaxing as he saw the logic of Bodie's argument. "Oh, all right, come on then. No harm in it."
It was quick and quiet, breathless and ecstatic, made all the more so by the strangeness of writhing together wrapped in thermal blankets in the grass beside the bikes, under the stars of late summer. The only sound they made was a dual moan as they hit the peak together, and no one was awake to hear it. For a while they lay, pressed together and panting, and then Bodie laughed. "I'd like to kiss you, but we're too whiskery. Be like kissing a sanding block."
Ray echoed the laughter. "Never mind, kiss me anyway. I'll be careful." He searched for Bodie's mouth in the darkness, revelling in the meeting of their tongues, and then searched for a handkerchief to dry them off. "Nice," he said appreciatively as they settled to sleep again. "Phew, we're going to smell a bit on the high side in a week."
"Unless we can find somewhere to swim," Bodie yawned. "Maybe we can get away from these loonies for a bit. Donnegan's starting to get my goat."
It was a long week, one in which they lived on their nerves and began to ache with the affects of sleeping on the ground, but at the end of it they felt alive. Bodie knew that the day of reckoning with Donnegan was coming, and he had begun to look forward to it; his fingers itched to apply themselves to the task, much as Doyle brushed over every insult and ham-fisted advance. But they took the excuse of finding a phone to call in to base as license to pursue a few hours alone. The bikers were working their way slowly but surely toward the show ground where the meet was to be held, and the weather was still good. The assassin, Sansom, was still on the loose, and the odds were good that he would accompany the Apaches' chapter with which he was riding to the meet. Cowley took the call as they stood in a phone box on a deserted country lane, the bikes parked on the lush verge, only the sounds of birds, wind and sheep intruding. The standard check-in took all of five minutes, and Bodie hung up the heavy black phone, letting the phone box's door slam shut.
"Peaceful without the godless hoard, isn't it?" Ray said drily. "I didn't know I could get so sick of the smell of beer and oil, and blue jokes."
"Know what you mean," Bodie agreed. "I'd forgotten how tiresome it can get. Living in the bush with a dozen assorted mercs is about the same. You keep your eyes open and watch your bum, or somebody'll have it. Fight, fight, fight. It's kid stuff, isn't it? Doesn't hold too many charms when you grow up and start to think with your brains instead of your balls." He gave Doyle a sidelong glance. "You know, they were settled in for the day at that picnic site, frying sausages and boozing as usual. They'll still be there at ten in the morning... If we went back at nine, they wouldn't realise we'd gone till we were back."
"Mm," Doyle mused. "They'd only think we'd been out humping in a hedge."
"They'd be right," Bodie said brashly. "Come on, love. I'll buy you an icecream and a bag of crisps back in the village, and then -- look over there. There's a way down to the river, beech trees everywhere. Swim, get clean -- well, cleaner, and doze in the sun."
"You're on," Doyle agreed at once. "I smell like a pheasant that's been hanging on a hook for six weeks."
They bought crisps, soft drinks and chocolate biscuits in a tiny corner shop, and savoured all three; after a week on beer and burgers and chips, there was a lot to be said for lemonade. "Reckon I've gone off beer," Bodie said gloomily as he crumpled up the wrappers. "Seen enough of it to last me the next ten years. Chips, too."
Doyle guffawed. "You -- gone off chips? I don't believe it!" He was sitting on a rotten tree stump to pull off the Rossi buckle boots, his eyes on the glittering surface of the river, a few yards away. They were absolutely alone, not a soul for miles, and he stripped to the skin, tossing his clothes on top of the boots. "Yuck. Too bad they couldn't be washed -- pity to put 'em back on filthy."
"There are ways and means," Bodie said, winking. "Old trick we learned in the bush. Here, watch." He collected Ray's clothes along with his own and looped them over low branches in the tree beneath which they sat. The breeze tossed them to and fro, fluttering like flags. "Blows the pong out if you leave 'em long enough. They won't come up clean, but they'll come up fresh. Up in the mountains where it's a big mistake to get anything wet, because in the cold you'll never get it dry again, they do this with everything."
"Smart stuff," Doyle grinned. "Last one in the river's a rotten egg."
The water was cool and a great relief, and they lingered in the shallows, swimming, playing, diving for pebbles. Bodie revelled in the spectacle of Doyle at play, constantly reminded of Bran. There had been a time when Bran and Kin had been injured in the same cattle raid, and left at a village on the coast to heal. Summer had been long and hot, and they had limped out into the hills when they were able, sunning themselves and growing strong again. There was a river, sluggish and low, and Bran swam like a fish. Ray's muscular little rump, breaking the surface as he duck-dived, brought a smile of recollection, and as Doyle surfaced again, gasping for breath, Bodie grabbed him.
Making love in the water was easy and, nearly weightless, especially nice. Locked together, Bodie deep inside his partner's supple body, they twisted and rolled and floated, first one way up, then another; and then bodie withdrew and turned about to offer Ray the same pleasure, holding still with his toes clenched in the mud and his torso suspended on the water, while he was mounted. Doyle made the pleasure last just as long, and came inside his lover in mid-water, floating and clinging tightly to Bodie's wide shoulders. Swimming for the bank was hard work, as dopy and sated as they were, and they collapsed beneath the beech tree, laughing. Bodie's week old beard scratched Ray's cheek as he was kissed and nibbled, and for some time they slept.
There were raucous bellows as they rode back into Donnegan's company late that afternoon, and they chose to ignore them; the bikers were only saying the truth, in any case -- they had been out screwing in peace. Aside from the fact that, technically, it wasn't exactly legal in 'a public place', if a deserted meadow could be called 'public', where was the crime? Bodie gave Donnegan an obscene gesture and grinned insolently. Donnegan was not amused, and Ray's narrowed eyes went from the pack leader to his partner and back again... It was going to come to violence, sooner or later.
"Cool it," he hissed at Bodie. "We've got to stick with this mob till we see Sansom, and we'll not manage that if we get ourselves chucked out! Come on, Bodie, it's just another three days!"
Three tense, haunted days in which the feeling between Bodie and Donnegan worsened steadily, so that by the time they rode into the show ground where the biker people met, there was an overt hostility that could flare up at the drop of a hat. Thousands of bikers were there, and there were a dozen clubs, the chapters of which congregated together. The Apaches, the Eagles, the Hell's Angels proper, the Commancheros, the Wolfpack. Doyle recognised them by their crests and flags; anyone who read the bike magazines would have recognised them, but he did not much relish them. There were all kinds of people, from the tough savage kind to the hangers-on, the uncouth women, the pot-bellied Harley fraternity, the God Squad whose mission in life it was to preach the Gospels to the wild kind, the scrambles-riding clubs, commercial parties from body shops, dealerships, and the press.
The Apaches gathered beneath a placard on which was painted an American eagle with its talons full of arrows. Nice bit of artwork, Doyle thought as he and Bodie lounged, sidesaddle on their bikes, watching the proceedings from a discreet distance. Behind them, the Commancheros were having a dispute over chapter leadership, and fists would be flying soon. Bodie gave Ray a nudge with one elbow. "Coppers are here."
"Need to be," Ray said drily. "People get killed at these meets."
"I know," Bodie said, and his mind was on a touring club called the Eagles of Transylvania, their leader, King Billy, and an old, old friend from the days of his military service, beaten to death and waiting to be avenged. He could still feel the old anger at the killing, still feel the hurt at the injustice of it... And still recoil in shock at what he had done. He had set Doyle up that time, booked him to ride in a race in which he could have been killed or maimed -- but he had known Ray could do it. Beat the local champion. Put King Billy in his place -- second place. Then, the Widow Maker, anger and hurt combining to bring him through a suicide run unscathed. If it had ended there, honour would have been salvaged, but it went on. Out in the woods, the kind of challenge Kinnamus Iron Hand would have relished, one against many, the warrior against the pack. Bodie almost winced aloud as he remembered putting Ray down with a blow in the middle, to keep him out of it, as if Ray could be kept out of it. There had been a bruise the size of the palm of his hand on Doyle's fair skin for a fortnight, and he had said not a word in protest about it, which made Bodie kick himself all the harder.
That was two years ago, and Bodie shrugged off the memories with an effort as he hard Ray's voice calling his name. "Hey, Bodie... Look there. The big Honda. You reckon that's --"
"Yep," Bodie affirmed, watching the big 1100cc RC Honda wheel into the Eagles' encampment. There was something shamelessly gorgeous about the bike, its red-white-blue racing fairing giving it the look of high speed even when it was standing still; and astride it, wearing a visorless helmet that displayed his face, was a man they recognised. Sansom. Ten days' patience had paid off. "I'll keep an eye on him," Bodie whispered under the growl of the bikes, "you grab a phone and get a bunch of them down here to grab him."
Getting Sansom away from the Apaches would be impossible, single handed, they both realised; he was in the midst of the bikers, one of them, like an old friend. Bodie sat on the sun-warmed leather saddle of the BMW, watching his partner saunter away to a phone as if he was going to call his bookie, and in twenty minutes he saw Murphy's face in the crowd. Behind him was Anson, and Lucas and McCabe were approaching from the opposite direction, There were no fewer than a dozen Policemen in the area too, all wearing studiously blank expressions that telegraphed the fact that they were in on the pickup. Bodie tensed, drawing Doyle into the lee of the pavilion in which the beer was flowing like water; neither of them was armed, and it could get nasty.
The fracas, when it began, was like a small war, and the Apaches gave good account of themselves; chains, bottles and several sawn off shotguns gave the Police a run for their money, but the CI5 men were better armed, and a volley of well placed shots cut down the men with the guns. The Apaches tried to split up, making a dash for their bikes or trying to lose themselves in the crush, and it was just chance that sent Donnegan in Bodie's direction.
As big as Donnegan was, the fight was over in a few lightning-fast moves, and Ray just stood with his arms folded on his chest, watching as his partner cut the pack leader into kindling, splitting his knuckles in the process. "Not bad," he allowed as Bodie came back to join him, shaking the life back into his bruised right hand. "Getting a bit sloppy in your old age, though."
"Oh?" Bodie made a face. "Next time I'll just stand back and let you have at it, shall I?"
"If you like." Doyle winked at him. "Might as well go and exchange the time of day with Murph. Then I, for one, would like to go home for a bath and some clean clothes, and a decent meal, and six hours' sleep on a real mattress. How's that sound?"
"Bloody wonderful," Bodie growled. He stood beside Donnegan's unconscious body, watching the blood ooze in a crimson trickle from nose and mouth, the bruises purpling about his eyes. "Big man. Pretty good while he's got a knife or a bottle in his hand, and half a dozen behind him."
"They all go down the same way," Doyle said philosophically. He had seen it dozens of times, in both lives. Bodie -- Kin -- there was precious little difference in the long run, in a fight or in love, and he said so, very quietly, beneath the din of the budding riot. "Home," he finished. "I want to be clean and well fed. And if you feel like crawling in between clean sheets with me for some kip and whatever, feel free."
"Oh, I will," Bodie promised.
They had forgotten how good a hot shower could feel, or what a simple vegetable casserole smelt like as it simmered in the oven, or what a real interior sprung mattress felt like against two spines crying out for it. Doyle gave a moan of shameless luxury, rubbing his bare back against the sheets, drawing his fingertips over his face, which was shaved as smooth as a child's. It was only five in the afternoon, but they had been busy since before dawn, and they were tired. Bodie slid in on the other side of the bed and echoed the groan of delight, a moment later catching Ray's head and exploring his face and mouth with avid lips and tongue. "Christ, you feel good. Taste good," he said, drowsy after the hot water and meal. "Haven't been able to kiss you properly for a year, so stop complaining and open wide."
"Who's complaining?" Ray said between Bodie's consuming kisses, accepting his lover's tongue hungrily.
Tired out by the day's exertions, the tension of the job, and the urgent power of arousal, they slid quickly into sleep, relaxing for the first time in ten days. On the fringes of dream, Bodie wriggled one leg between Doyle's and drew him back,holding the small, hard body against his chest. It was at times like this when the past and present seemed to fuse into one, when Ray and Bran were indivisible. Doyle was still wearing the green stone on its thong about his neck, and Bodie took it in his fingers, holding its Doyle-warm shape between his own hand and Ray's furry chest. To do that, and to drift into sleep, was to invite the doorway into the other time to open. Once, it had been a strange and disquieting world, but now it was like going home. Bodie closed his eyes, as eager for the look and smell, the taste and feel, of Bran in his arms as for the man he knew as Ray Doyle, and knowing they were the same.
Dawn was streaming out of the east, bloody and magnificent... The first day of summer, Amergin thought as he yawned, stretching his stiff back as he came awake from his meditations, only then realising that he had spent the whole night standing watch over Kinnamus and Bran. Ysoult had a lot to answer for: had it not been for her gift of the dreaming stone to Bran, Amergin himself could have been curled up with his own lover and dreaming.
The two men were still asleep, but they were tossing fitfully now, as if the dream was fading, and as Amergin watched Kin wrenched himself awake. There was a bewildered, lost look in his eyes as he blinked around in the wan light of dawn, and it took some time for orientation to flood back. As it did he gave a grunt of astonishment, and looked down at Bran. The smaller man lay in the crook of his left arm, frowning in his sleep, his fingers cradling the green stone. Deftly, Kin took it from him, and as he watched Bran woke too.
He sat up, blind and deaf to the world about him until Kin drew a caress across his back and said, "Shhh, gently, little chuck. We have been dreaming." The tense muscles in Bran's back and shoulders relaxed almost at once, and he lay back, yawning and scratching his ribs.
Amergin acknowledged a burning curiosity. "So, tell me -- where have you been, what have you done?"
It was difficult to put it into words, but they tried as they sorted their clothes and dressed, for the morning was not warm. They spoke of brotherhood and honour, of being warriors, of conflicts and duty, of making love in the sun and under the stars, and of the freedom to roam. But the rest of it was strange. "There is much that I don't understand," Kin admitted. "Engines of speed and destruction that I understood perfectly there, but here..." He could only shrug. "I don't know. I think we will grow more accustomed to it as we learn of the other world."
"As we learn?' Bran looked up from pulling on his boots. "Then we will use the dreaming stone again?"
"Aye," Kin nodded. "I love you there as much as here, sweeting. Your name is Ray... A strange name, but good sounding."
"Bodie," Bran said, pronouncing the name with the burr of his people. "Aye, strange indeed, but right." He smiled, glancing at Amergin. "It is us, and it is the future, not the past. Many years will go by before we have dreamed comes to be real, but there is a great, wonderful knowing, Amergin... As strange as the world will become, as hard and unforgiving as life will be, we will be together, Kin and I, then as now."
"Just so," Amergin nodded, getting his feet under him and stretching away the night's cramps. "How shall you be separated? If Magh Mar cannot do it, how shall the future? I must away now to my own home -- I have been gone too long. Use the stone with care, both of you, and if the dreams are too cruel, let it pass into another's hands."
As the Druid walked stiffly away, past the smouldering remains of the fire, Kin said, "It was cruel, in a way. So much hate and bitterness in the world. Still, they liked it, and -- do I remember rightly? They still had the stone. I recall the feel of it in my hand, warm from your skin."
Bran smiled, slipping the green stone's thong about his neck. "They have it, love, and they dream of us. Mayhap their dreams will be happier than ours, but I don't envy them. Their world is a colder one than ours, and their dreams are our reality." He stepped into Kin's embrace and hugged him. "Not all the years will set us apart, not death itself." He lifted his lips for a kiss and then drew away. "Come, I'm chilled and hungry."
"Home," Kin agreed, swinging the cloak about his shoulders and fastening its chain across his throat. "We must thank Ysoult, I think."
"She has gone," Bran yawned. "Gone with her warrior -- and happiness to her. Your father will be less than happy, though."
Kin made a face at the mention of his father. "Let him retire to his deathbed, then. I can find little sorrow about in his disfavour -- and much to rejoice about thismorning. If Connach is too angered with us, we will leave. But we go together."
"We always will," Bran murmured, fingering the stone, his mood and tone reflective and introverted.
"Today is for laughter," Kin said sternly, tousling the sleep-tangled curls. "Come, I'll race you home -- the loser shall slave at the hearth!"
They took off at a gallop, dodging and jumping couples who were still asleep among the litter of last night's festivities, garnering insults and reprimands as they went. On the verge of the woodland, in which stood his own house, Amergin turned, shading his eyes against the rising brightness, to watch them race up the hill toward the stockade. As usual in a foot race, Bran was winning -- Kin would never learn not to wager in such things; Amergin wondered what the stakes were, material things or loving favours. To Kin and Bran it was all the same, win or lose, had been for years, and always would be. What they shared was as precious as it was timeless, and if other men could not understand it, that was their loss. Amergin himself had cause to envy them.
Kin caught his lover at the gate, grabbed him by the arm, kissed him thoroughly and then used Bran's momentary lapse in concentration to race on ahead. Amergin laughed out loud, his ears catching the faint wisp of sound that was Bran's yell of outrage, muted by distance, and then Bran was gone too, diving after the Iron Hand in a contest that had become hopeless. Amergin turned for home, still smiling. Kin might win the race, by foul means, but Bran would get his retribution in other ways, and before the morning was out.
-- THE END --