The Hunting Book One, Part I


Book 1
Part 1

The stars of mid-summer were wheeling about the pole, and Bodie spared them a glance as he handed his tired horse to the boy who came running from the stable to meet him. He had been on the road for two weeks, and there was little pleasure in being home again, for he was the bringer of bad news. There would be no alliance with the Fen, the warlike tribe in the north; and beyond the Black Hills the elves were restive, their elders counselling war.

There had been no peace in the tuaths between the great forest and the sea since Bodie was born; he had grown to manhood amid battle and the tales of glory, and was himself a warrior upon whose shoulders honour was heaped. It was he who was sent to deal with King Ethron of the Fen; and Ethron had known him by face and reputation, speaking with him on equal terms, though the offer of an alliance was rejected. Ethron had no enemies among the elves, and was reluctant to make them by treatying with his neighbour, Garth.

But Garth bore the elves no love, and often sent his warriors raiding over the Black Hills. Bodie had been blooded on such a raid; ridden to glory on them, and nearly given his life more than once. The elves were not large in stature, when measured against human males, but on the field of battle few could better them, and no one had their match as horsemen. They bred their own warhorses, big, powerful animals with minds of their own, and once astride them, elven warriors were a force to be respected. Garth knew this; though he nursed a brooding hatred of their kind he also gave them a grudging respect, and Bodie was sure that if there had not been the lust for vengeance in his heart, there would have been peace.

Bards told the story often, keeping the old wounds alive; they sang old songs of how Garth's eldest daughter, Feyleen, had been stolen out of the tuath by the elven prince, Wulff, and never seen again. The fighting had been long and bitter, and since none of Bodie's people had ever struck deeply enough into the elven tuaths beyond the Black Hills to know the truth, it was uncertain that Feyleen had even lived. Bodie could fully appreciate his chief's consuming grief, but it was an old, old story, to him as unreal as a legend, and it was only the fighting that was real in his life.

There was blood on his hands from many battles, and at his young age he was lucky to be alive; battle wearied him and he yearned to be free of the scourge of duty. On the long ride back from the tuath of the Fens he had promised himself: this time, when he was rested, he would go. He would take what was dear to him, pack it, mount his best horse and escape -- ride into the peaceful south where the woodlands and places of many rivers would hide him, even if Garth sent men to search for him...

"Welcome back," a voice called, close by his elbow, and Bodie stirred, jerked out of his reverie as he strolled toward Garth's feasting hall. The man who had spoken to him was Seldredd the Lame, an old warrior who was still a fair hand with broadsword or axe. Bodie peered at him in the darkness, seeing the white swathe of a bandage about his right shoulder.

"You have been injured," Bodie said quietly. "Has there been fighting?"

"While you were in the land of the Fens," Seldredd affirmed. "A party went raiding along the hills and was met by a fierce band of elves, out to protect their cattle and borders. Four of us were killed and twice as many injured, but I escaped with just this scratch, and we took prisoners."

"Prisoners?" Bodie echoed in surprise. That was unusual; elves would never allow themselves to be captured, if they could help it. They knew that their lot as captives would be bad, and were quick to make away with themselves.

"Aye, two prisoners, though one is dead now. He died of his wounds a week ago... But the other is worth his weight in silver! Garth has caught himself a prince from the land of Morhod, and is engaged in Feyleen's vengeance -- not before time, eh?" Seldredd laughed. "Go up to the hall and you will see him... Aye, and you'll have news for the chief, I'll warrant."

"Bad news," Bodie affirmed. "There will be no alliance; Ethron is no fool to make enemies among the elven kingdoms... Your leave, Seldredd. I must speak with Garth, and am wearied and dirty from the road."

The old warrior stood back to let him pass, and Bodie glanced down at his dusty, travel stained garb; he wore the breeches, tunic and boots of the warrior, set about by a bearhide cloak, and even his silver was dull with tarnish after so long on the road. Perhaps he should bathe before going to speak with the chief, he thought, and then dismissed the idea: the news he carried was of greater importance than his shabby appearance.

The feasting hall was full, warriors and freemen jostling each other at the spits and mead barrels; it was dim and smoky, the only light issuing from the three big hearths and the torches that stuttered in the breeze let into the hall as Bodie swung open the door. A few of the more sober revellers looked up to see who had arrived, and Bodie forced a smile at men who were his friends. They waved, and one lad shouted up the hall.

"Garth, the messenger is back!"

Bodie swung the cloak from his shoulders and dumped it on a vacant bench as one of the serving girls thrust a goblet of ale into his hands, and he drank half of the potent liquid before skirting the crowd at the roasting hearths to approach Garth's table. His eyes were narrowed against the smoke, and it was difficult to see through the crush, but his gaze raked to and fro, searching not for the chief, whose seamed, lined, walnut face he knew well, but for the warprize, the captive prince from beyond the hills.

The crush of warriors and freemen drew apart to permit him to approach the chief's table, and as he did Bodie stopped short in surprise: the elf was there in the full wash of the firelight, fine chains binding his ankles to an eye-bolt in the table on which he sat, naked, like a living decoration. He was unhurt, as far as Bodie could see, and clean; his long, curling hair spilled about his shoulders, freshly washed, and his skin was so pale that in the illumination from the hearths he seemed to be made of molten gold. He sat still, his slender limbs curled into a graceful attitude, his head bowed, eyes closed, and his mind seemed to be far away.

Bodie felt a pang of regret that a warrior should be brought to this, but put it from him; his chief had an old score to settle, and it was none of Bodie's business to interfere. He came to the table, touching one knee to the floor, and confronted Garth with the news without preamble. The chief was an old man now, but still strong as a bull and with an intellect as sharp as it had ever been. He heard the warrior out and grunted in displeasure, but in truth it was only what he had expected to hear. The Fen had no quarrel with their elven neighbours, and Ethron traded across the hills, leather and herbs, gold and hunting dogs.

"Ah, so be it," Garth rumbled as Bodie fell silent. "If we must fight alone, we will -- as we always have. Come and eat, Bodie, you look wasted from your efforts. Sit at my table and drink my wine... And look at my prize. This we took in a battle ten days ago. Come closer, do not be afraid; he is chained, and in any case I have had Shon blind him, he can do no one harm."

Blind? Bodie's eyebrows rose and his mouth twitched in distaste. It was not the way a warrior should end his life, chained naked on a feasting table, sightless and alone. He took a deep cup of wine, and moved closer to look at the elf. And it was as the elf lifted his head that Bodie saw his face clearly for the first time.

His chin slacked and his fingers almost let the cup fall. It was a face he knew, an image stored, etched into his memory from a bloody day three years before, a day of battle and sorrow, and of hurt... Seeing this face again, in this of all places, opened the floodgates of memory, and Bodie was deaf to Garth's prattling for long moments, submerged in the past --

Pain, ripping through him from the dirk thrust into his chest, just below the ribs. The sickening fall from his horse, the hammer-blow of the ground, impacting with his protesting body, the terrible knowledge that the end was at hand, that the warrior who had struck the blow would finish it now... He would look into the face of Death, see it clearly. He rolled over in the mud, eyes narrowing against the afternoon sun; there, mounted above him, was the elven warrior with the night-dark eyes, astride a spirited pony whose neck and chest were smeared with blood. Bodie held his breath, helpless on the turf, watching the warrior draw his javelin from its place beside the sheepskin saddle. There was no panic -- he had faced Death often enough to recognise it, call it an ally. But every bone in his body turned to ice as he saw that this was the end --

"No, that is not our way!" The voice was lilting, husky, speaking the common language of the hill tribes. "When have we vented our anger on the fallen?" it shouted. "The man is down, let him be in peace!"

Bodie's eyes left the razor-honed tip of the javelin, searching out the man who had spoken for him, arguing honour over anger, buying back his life. Green, slanted eyes looked down at him out of a face that was beautiful in a savage way, fine boned, cat-like, dangerous. A riot of copper curls haloed the warrior's head, and the torque of a chieftain circled his neck, gleaming on fair, milky skin. His garments were a mix of leather and silk and he wore much silver about his limbs, marking him out as a noble among his people. Bodie's eyes opened wide as the elf leaned down, frowning at him. "Can you make it off the field? You will be trampled, like as not, if you remain here."

There was a deathly weight about Bodie's body, and he could barely move at all with the dirk still sunk in the wound, and he shook his head. A moment later one long-fingered hand was extended, and pulled him to his feet, and the elf smiled. "Thank your gods that we have a code of honour," he said as he supported the injured human. "The fallen are no longer a part of the war, to us; we will do you no harm. Here, shout for the blacksmith's lad, yonder, he will lend you his arm."

Then the elf was gone, and Bodie stood mutely for a long moment, staring after him, before he could spare the breath to shout for the boy, and limp off the field into the hands of the waiting healers...

Shon had tended him as he lay, ill for weeks. The same Shon who had blinded the elf. Bodie's insides were churning. Blinded? How? He reached out with one hand, cupping the elf's chin to look at his face -- just as pale and fine boned, just as beautiful, but the savagery had gone with his sight. Now, he looked as tranquil as a painted saint. Resigned to his fate, waiting to die, to escape this place, for Death was the only way out. The eyes that looked back at Bodie were dark, like those of a doe, wide open, and there were no scars.

"You're sure he's blind?" Bodie asked softly.

In answer, Garth drew his dagger and probed dangerously close to the big, limpid eyes; the elf did not register the blade, and Bodie grunted in surprise. "Then how was he blinded?"

"Some herb or other, dropped into his eyes," Garth shrugged. "I know not, neither do I care. I just asked Shon to take his eyes, and I am glad that he did it without disfiguring the creature's face. It would be a pity to mar such beauty, would it not? Though, in the dark, all cats are grey."

"In the dark?" Bodie frowned, letting go the elf's chin; it sank back to his breast, and the green eyes fell closed.

"In the dark," Garth affirmed, and chuckled. "In my bed. He is as sweet as you would expect, as hard and sinewy as a warrior woman to the touch, as yielding as a maid, once he is drugged. Try him yourself; perhaps you will come to appreciate the ways of elves."

Shock immobilised Bodie for a moment. Garth was using him this way? If this had happened to any man, it would be shameful, but to a warrior it was a living death. It was enough to turn Bodie's stomach; he knew that among the elves there were no traditions of men bonding only with women -- to them, love knew no such restrictions, and if two men felt the stirrings of love no one would stand between them. Among human warriors too, such pairings often took place, but it was frowned on. Bodie remembered his own youth with regret -- love denied for the sake of convention, two young lives consigned to unhappiness so as to make two old men, fathers, happy. Who was the more right -- or wrong? -- he wondered, the elf who saw love and recognised it for what it was, or the human, who saw love and twisted it into perversion?

He stood silently beside Garth's feasting table, watching the slow rise and fall of the elf's chest, and bitter tears stung his eyes. The long legs were curled up, one thin muscled arm wrapped about them, and the tumbled curls smelt sweetly of herbs. As he watched, the wide, expressive mouth twisted, and looking up Bodie saw why; the chief was stroking one lean buttock, a gesture of ownership. Bodie bit his lip, trying to escape the awful image of this blind, beautiful, fey little creature rendered helpless by some drug and violated by the bullish human by night, for vengeance.

Anger and resentment rose up in his chest and he had to move or relinquish his own sanity. Bodie cleared his throat, drawing Garth's attention from the prize. "Aye, he has more than his fair share of charm. What is his name?"

"Raven," Garth told him, withdrawing his hand, "of the Kith tribe. It was one of the Kith who stole away my Feyleen, so..." He shrugged. "Vengeance is a bittersweet joy, Bodie, as well you know. You have lived your life on the field of battle. And on that score -- we would grant you some boon or other for your troubles. It is a long, hard ride into the land of the Fen. What trifle would you take from us?"

The words were on Bodie's lips before he could stop them. "Him," he said almost too quickly. "Raven."

The chief blinked at him, then threw his head back and laughed. "Ah! So you are not so pure in heart as I thought. Fair. He is yours for tonight."

For tonight? Bodie thought. And tomorrow he goes back to you? He cannot! "For longer than that, if he pleases me," he said, smiling like a snake at the chief and forcing out words he hated. "I have earned more than a mere night's pleasure, surely?"

"Aye, so be it." Garth drained his cup, belched, and ordered more wine. "I'll have him sent to you, later."

"I'm tired even now," Bodie said, yawning. "I would to bed without delay, if it pleases you to allow my leave...?"

Garth gave him a shrewd look. "Tired, or eager to take your pleasures from a tender body placed at your disposal, you young rogue?"

"Both," Bodie shrugged. "Any why should I not be? How many women do you think I have come upon on the road. Not that many!"

"So be it," Garth agreed. He reached for an empty cup, poured a measure of ale into it, and produced a pinch of some weird herb from a leather bag at his belt. Sloshing the ale about in the bottom of the cup, he took Raven's hair between his fingers and pressed the cup to his lips. "Drink, or you will regret your arguments, you elven swine! You are not so treasured here that you could not find yourself whipped for insolence... There." Not a sound slipped by Raven's lips as he gulped the ale, and Bodie watched his head loll in dizziness almost at once. Garth tossed the leather pouch at the waiting warrior. "Here, take this. Just a pinch at a time, remember, or you'll kill him, but he may come to his senses before morning." He shoved a stout, black iron key into the lock securing the fine chains to the eye-bolt in the table, and tossed the loose ends of the ankle chains across the wood. "Damage him and you'll answer to me, remember; you do but use him -- he is my property."

"I'll take care," Bodie promised, little more than a growl in his throat. He wrapped one arm about the elf, finding his skin hot and smooth, and drew him forward, over the edge of the table. He came to his feet, swaying a little, and Bodie propped him up, maneuvering him through the crush of jeering freemen toward the door. The thin body seemed to weigh like that of a child, and as the drug took effect he found himself almost carrying the elf. It was cold outside, for all that this was summer, and he stopped at the bench where he had left his cloak, swinging it about Raven's nakedness and fastening the clasp at his throat. The elf was largely unaware of what was happening, but in his blindness he reached out for guidance; the silent, helpless plea for assistance caught cruelly at Bodie's heart.

How often had he reached out since he had been brought here, and been given hurt or insult in return? Or had he not reached out at all? Bodie gave him one strong hand, letting their fingers mesh together, and under the noise of arguments and raucous merriment he said, "Can you walk?"

The elf's voice was husky, so long had it been unused. "I can," Raven said very softly. "The drug makes me confused and dizzy, like being too drunk to know which way is up."

So he would be aware when he was taken, Bodie thought grimly as he steered the unfortunate warrior out into the quiet of the night. His own house stood not very far from the chief's feasting hall, and it had been closed up since he had left to deal with the Fen. The hearth was cold and dead, and there was a smell of must and damp. Bodie slammed the door behind them as Raven stepped over the threshold, and guided him to a chair. "Sit; I must light the hearth or we will freeze. Have they fed you?"

"Yesterday," Raven said, hugging the cloak about himself. "I do not hunger anymore."

"You mean you're trying to starve yourself to death to get out of here?" Bodie savagely struck flint to steel and watched the glimmer of a spark ignite the tinder in the bowl between his palms. He touched the wicks of three candles to the flame, and the light came up, allowing him to see the elf. "You are too beautiful to be a warrior," he said, "for when one of your gifts becomes a captive, life is no more than a living death."

"Yet, I am a warrior," Raven whispered. "I was a warrior. They took my eyes, and took my life with them. I wish to die, to escape." He bent his head, but Bodie saw the glitter of spilling tears as he went to one knee at the hearth, holding a dripping tallow candle to the kindling until it caught alight. "What do you care of my troubles?" Raven said at last after a long silence. "Show me your bed and get it over with. The drug has made me weary, I wish only to sleep now."

"Aye, sleep it off," Bodie agreed, "then I shall fetch you food and wine, and make you eat it. Come, this way. Mind the bench... There." He unfastened the cloak and lifted it away, spreading it on top of the skins and rugs for extra warmth. "Can you feel the fire?"

"Yes." Raven reached out with sensitive fingertips, exploring the shape of the bed, finding the pillows. "I am not cold, nor ungrateful, for all my show of self-pity. But I am tired to the bone, and yearn for sleep; so be about it, if you will."

Then, as Bodie watched, the elf knelt on the bed and made himself ready, seeing to his own body deftly and efficiently -- ways learned out of necessity, and to save himself being hurt by -- barbarians, Bodie thought bitterly as he registered the rise in his pulse rate and temperature. Raven knew what was expected of him, but he was not about to be hurt without need; his talented, nimble fingers stroked himself erect, teased himself until the drops of sticky, pearly pre-ejaculate wept from the tip of his swollen cock, and then he collected the moisture and took it to his anus. If not for his precautions, Bodie guessed, Garth would have taken him dry, and in all probability he would have been dead of his injuries by now.

Bodie swallowed, himself achingly aroused at the tragic little rite performed before him; but for all the pain in his balls he could no more have mated the elf than he could have taken wing and flown. Raven took his weight on hands and knees, waiting to be used, and his arousal was diminishing as Bodie watched, the self-imposed erection subsiding. So there had not even been that much reward for him, Bodie thought with a resurgence of the bitterness.

To feel his face cupped in gentle hands was the last thing Raven had expected, and the blind eyes gazed up into the darkness, where he imagined the human must be. There was a catch in Bodie's voice as he spoke. "What have they done to you?" There was no answer Raven could make, and he was unsure if he was being taunted, or perhaps questioned about the acts he had been subjected to. He had opened his mouth to speak when he felt the light, feathery brush of lips on his, not a kiss so much as a caress, and he was lifted over to lie on his back. He complied at once, spreading his legs and lifted his knees, weight on his shoulders, only to find his knees nudged back together and his legs set straight and flat again. He was caught without words, wondering with a growing fear what was to become of him now, when he felt a warm caress at his groin, a gentle hand that took hold of him, coaxing him back up to arousal and --

Pleasuring him. The elf murmured in disbelief. What human would do this for him, and why? What could be expected of him in return? To be used as a whore had become so usual that he had ceased to fret about it; what else was there that humans did that could be sprung on him by this man with the gentle voice and way, who promised him food and saw to his pleasure? He closed the blind eyes and took what he could get, enjoying what was given to him; there had been little enough that was good in life lately.

Bodie did not torment him with wanting, needing; to do so would be sure to convince Raven that tonight was intended for humiliation and subtle torturing. As he climbed up toward the peak, Bodie denied him nothing; the smell of the elf's musk was strong in his nose, rising from a body that was clean and fine, and it was no hardship for him to put his head down and taken the swollen, rosy head of the throbbing shaft into his mouth. This at least would set the elf's tormented mind at rest.

Raven cried out as he came; Bodie wondered how long it was since he had been permitted release. He arched up off the bed and then fell back, spent and murmuring in bewilderment as he dragged air into his lungs. Bodie lifted his head, frowning down at the helpless creature, rendered weak by his coming and racked by poorly concealed fright. Raven was waiting to be mauled now, and if Bodie had ever had any thoughts of touching him again, he changed his mind. The sheepskins were heavy, and inside of them the elf would be warm as he slept off the drug; Bodie tucked them into place, caressing the too-thin face for a moment, sweeping the heavy curls back onto the pillow.

"There, now you will sleep. It has been a long time, hasn't it?"

"Yes," Raven whispered, but would not elaborate. "What do you want of me, human? At least tell me!"

"My name is Bodie," Bodie said quietly. "And what do I want? I want to watch you sleep, and then wake with a clear head, and eat."

"One eats to live," Raven said, the words slurred, "and I do not wish to live any longer. Not like this, not here." He shuddered visibly. "I am not sure how long I can bear Garth using me as he does. And the others to whom I am lent are not so kind as you. Let me die in peace."

Bodie bit his lip; he had been fiercely aroused and on the point of stroking himself to relieve the aches, but the elf's words killed the arousal in a moment. "Sleep," he repeated. "And you will not be in this place for much longer, this I promise you."

Already Raven was on the brink of dreams, hardly hearing; the sense of what Bodie had said took some time to sink in, and when it did, all he could say was a slurred, breathless "Why?"

Standing at the bedside, Bodie watched him sleep, enchanted and bemused by the little creature in his bed. Raven was much smaller than a human warrior, with long, inky lashes and hair that would have honoured a woman. With the curls swept aside, his ears were revealed, graceful points that seemed to invite the touch of Bodie's fingers. To touch them was to arouse him, Bodie knew, but that was an elven secret; Raven had not touched his ears when he was making himself ready, when he was sure Bodie would take him -- as if he was trying to keep the sensitivity of his ears a secret, lest it be used as a weapon against him. In Garth's land, few people were familiar with the ways of elves, and it was only Bodie's long association with warriors from tuaths along the Black Hills that made him privy to their secrets.

Sleeping, Raven looked no more than a child, but it was an illusion. He had worn the torque of a chieftain at his throat, the day he had saved Bodie's life, and he had been a warrior even then, three years ago. There were no scars on his body, though he would have been wounded countless times, but that was the elven magic. They could heal any wound, no matter how bad, without a trace, and perhaps this was one reason that their lives were so long... Raven, Bodie knew, could be more than a hundred years old -- there was no way to tell. What a way for such as he, a prince of the Kith, to end, a whore in the bed of whatever human chose to use him for a night.

No more, Bodie thought bitterly, reaching for the cloak and swinging it on. You will be out of this place, even if they make me a fugitive for offering you aid! He fastened the cloak by its ring brooch and stepped silently toward the door. Raven was safe enough here, and Bodie had things to do. There was food and wine to be brought -- and he had a score to settle with Shon, a man who was supposedly a healer and who had taken the eyes of a warrior. Bodie frowned at that; was it possible that Raven could heal the damage, and that his sight would restore itself, if he lived? Even so, that did not absolve Shon of the terrible crime.

The door clicked back into place without a sound, and Bodie hurried across the common area toward the healer's house, knocking on the carved wood of the door and answering the call from within. The healer was an old man, very wise, very much respected and loved in Garth's tuath, but Bodie's eyes were blazing anger at him, and Shon recoiled at the look, wiping his hands on the blue wool of his robe and tossing his empty plate to the floor.

"What brings you here, Bodie, at this time of night, with murder on your face?" he asked, coming closer, the seams and lines of age treated cruelly by the firelight.

"I have come about Raven," Bodie growled. "And I would have you tell me how it can be that you -- you! -- took his eyes from him! How could you?"

Shon sighed heavily and beckoned Bodie to the hearth. "How am I to go against the wishes of the chief? I should be punished if I displeased Garth so, and I am too old to be whipped, Bodie. So I did his bidding... And not." He allowed a faint smile to show through his cautious mask. "I washed the elf's eyes with one of the weird herbs, but the effects are not permanent... It is the herb I once used to treat young Yeleth, if you recall; he had had ash scattered into his eyes and they were scorched. I washed his eyes with the herb to ease his pain, and he was blind for several weeks."

"And then his sight returned," Bodie said, remembering. "So you have not taken Raven's eyes from him after all..." He breathed a sigh of relief. "Then I can give him heart before we make our escape."

"Escape?" Shon echoed. "You are to spirit the elf out of here?"

"Aye," Bodie nodded. "I owe him my life, Shon. The day, three years ago, when you took a dirk from my chest -- I should have been dead before I found my way off the field, had not Raven come between me and my foe. I owe him everything I am, everything I have today, and I will not allow him to be used in this way. It is shameful, and dishonours us all."

"It dishonours Garth most of all," Shon agreed, distaste written clearly on his face. "I have told him, time and again, that he will pay for his evil deeds. Perhaps not in this life, but in the next. He will be a swine in his next life, imprisoned in a stye and overfed till he is bloated, then slaughtered for the table and consumed with relish!"

At last, Bodie smiled. "Would that that could come to pass! You will keep our secret, Shon? If you speak of this to anyone, we are done for."

The healer gave Bodie a hard look. "Am I so ignorant of honour that I would be your betrayal? Away with you, young rascal! Better, tell the elf that I have done him a kind deed, that he will see again in a week, perhaps less, and that he should live and grow strong."

"I will," Bodie nodded. "Shon, have you food that I could give him? He has been starving himself -- and they have been forgetting to feed him. It has been his intent to abstain until he dies, to effect his escape, and this is without need."

The healer shook his head sadly. "That such things should happen beneath our gaze, and we see nothing... Man is a blind, cruel animal, Bodie, and we deserve to be dealt badly in the game. Here, I have food aplenty, and he is welcome to it. Wine too."

Minutes later, Bodie slipped back into his house and shut out the chill night wind. Raven had not stirred, nor would he for some time, Bodie guessed, and he put the food down at the bedside, undressing and slipping in between the sheepskins himself. A draught of warm, musky air greeted his nose, a nice smell that already he had come to associate with this beautiful creature, and he propped himself on one elbow, studying the elf in the firelight. There was a pelt of soft fur on his chest, and his nipples were small and brown, but his face was hairless, and when Bodie drew cautious fingertips across it he felt no stubble. Raven murmured in his sleep, responding to the gentleness of the caress, and Bodie swallowed, wanting more than anything to comfort him.

How easy it would be to fall under the spell of this one, he thought wryly, and took his hands away, denying himself the pleasure of exploring the inert body... Better to wait until Raven was clear headed, until he could see, until he was free, and had the right to invite or reject the caresses --

The sudden thought that they might be rejected was like a blow in Bodie's middle, and he put it from him at once. He was, he knew, pleasing to the eyes of the women he had courted, and he prided himself on his physique. He was much bigger than the elf, stockier, more muscular, but his chest was devoid of hair, and the hair on his head was thinner and darker, and kept shorter. He had never seen his own reflection clearly, but his women called him beautiful, and Bodie was happy to leave such judgments to others.

Beauty was right here beside him, relaxed in sleep, gentled by the release of the awful tensions that must have made life an agony, and Bodie could not command his hands a moment longer. He passed his palm over the warm, furry chest, running his fingers through the fine hair, and was rewarded by a sleepy purr of gratification as the elf turned toward him, unconsciously seeking comfort. Comfort after so long in purgatory... Bodie did not have the heart to withhold the boon, and took Raven into his arms. The elf was light, hard, warm, sweet to hold, and Bodie's nerves were singing as he tightened the embrace.

He was falling fast, lost, succumbing to the kind of magic Raven possessed, probably without knowing he possessed it. Bodie wondered if all the elves were so lovesome, and doubted it; Raven was Raven, and to greet him here, in his own bed, was like a dream come true. Bodie closed his eyes and invited sleep; it was slow in coming, but the road had tired him more than he knew, and eventually he slid down into dreams.

He woke with a start, aware before he came to that Raven was trying to slip out of his arms, and he locked the elf into the embrace, not letting him move very far. "So you are awake at last. Feeling better?"

"Clear headed," Raven admitted. "I... Bodie, what you did... Why?"

"Why should I pleasure you?" Bodie asked gently. "Why not, when I owe you my life?"

The blind eyes gazed sightlessly at him. "I do not understand."

"No more should you. You never heard my voice, nor touched my face to recognise me with your fingers. One day, three years past, in a skirmish in the hills, you came upon a warrior with a dirk in his chest, looking up from the muddied turf into the face of an elven warrior about to spear him. You called out to the elf, speaking of honour, and bade him leave the fallen human, for those who have gone down are no longer part of the war. I don't expect you shall remember, but that human was I."

There was a long silence, and then Raven put his head down on the pillow beside Bodie's. "I do recall, mistily," he murmured. "It was no more than I would have done for any human, and I would do it again, even now, when I have come to know the ills of humankind at first hand."

"So speaks a brave and generous heart," Bodie teased quietly.

"Foolish heart," Raven said, little above a sigh. "And now I, in my turn, am in your debt. Take me, if you wish. Everyone else has. I have nothing else with which to repay you."

The words clawed at Bodie and he felt his arms tighten about the elf. "I wish I could make reparation for what my fellows have done, but I cannot. What I can do, I will. I have brought you food, and news. Shon, the healer, has told me that the herb with which he washed your eyes creates sightlessness for but a short time. In a week, or a little longer, you will see again."

Raven's whole body gave a convulsive jerk, and then relaxed again. "I... I shall see again. You are not telling me untruths to taunt me, surely?"

"I would not taunt you," Bodie admonished. "I owe you everything I have, and I am no ingrate. In fact, I have more news for you. Tomorrow night, all being well, I will take you out of here. No one else shall touch you before then, I promise, and soon you will be free."

Raven was shaking, and Bodie was not surprised to hear a harsh, racking sob. "Oh, do not taunt me!"

"I speak only the truth," Bodie crooned into the masses of curls into which his nose was pressed. "Here, be calm, be at peace, little one..." He hardly knew what he was about, as his lips sought and found the elf's, and their first kiss was light and easy. Bodie tasted salt and with gentle fingers wiped the trickling tears from Raven's cheek. "Shh, I promise, no one else shall have you, not ever, in this place. Rest now. I have brought you food, and you must eat to have strength, if we are to run in the night."

"All right." Raven rubbed his face, rolling away onto the sheepskins and sitting up. He was too thin, Bodie saw, and there were bruises that he had not noticed before, purple finger prints on his back and buttocks. "I am hungry," he admitted. "You have given me back life, I think."

"Then eat," Bodie said sternly, reaching for the mutton, cheese and bread. "Here." He put the food into the elf's blindly seeking fingers. "Can you ride, Raven, or have they hurt you too badly?"

"I can try," Raven said though a mouthful of bread and wine. "I am not so bruised as that, though my body has known better days."

He ate in silence, finishing the bread and cheese but not touching the mutton. Perhaps he did not eat meat, Bodie thought, and resolved to think of that in future when fetching food. It would be useless to bring him food he could not, or would not eat. Then Raven wiped his hands on a corner of the cloak Bodie had thrown back across the bed, and lay down.

"I owe you so much," he said throatily. "Take me if you will, I shall not struggle. Your kiss speaks of wanting, and in truth, I have naught else to give. Here, I will help. You will not hurt me, I know."

Bodie watched him turn over and come up to his knees, and the throb of arousal returned, but there were finger bruises on the pale skin of the elf's buttocks, and he knew, without looking that the little entrance to his body would be sore and distended with the abuse.

"Not now," he said softly. "Never, unless you ask it of me, and only then when you are yourself, unhurt, and smiling."

"Do you not desire me?" Raven asked huskily, frowning as he began to wonder if this, of all humans, the man who could be so gentle, was the one who would find him unlovely.

"Desire you? Dear gods," Bodie growled, "so much I am aching! But I will not touch you like this, as I have said. Not blind and hurting and in captivity. So lie down and rest, grow strong. Tomorrow will be an ordeal."

Obediently, Raven turned over and lay down, but his fingers reached out hesitantly, and Bodie caught his breath as he felt the first cool caress at his groin. "You have no need to -- " he began, "Please, Raven, I do not ask it of you -- you cannot even see me!"

"I have been used badly," Raven said, his voice no more than a sigh. "If you do not desire me because I am dishonoured, you have but to say so."

"Dishonoured?" Bodie was blinking through a mist of tears, and reached out to cradle the elf's face. "Aye, you have been dishonoured -- and I do not wish to add to the weight of ill done you. I can tend to my own needs, Raven."

"And I do not wish to leave debts unpaid," Raven said stubbornly. "If I have been used by all and sundry against my wishes, can I not touch you now that I wish to?"

But Bodie took the hands from his groin, brought them to his lips and kissed the palms. "No. Not now. Later, when you are free and have the right to choose, when you are well and I have heard the sound of laughter from your lips. For now... Be still, little one, and rest." He drew away, coming to his knees, lifting the bedding away with his movement and allowing a rush of cool air to sweep the elf's pale body. Bodie smiled down at the innocently wanton sprawl of slender limbs, and huge, limpid, bewildered eyes, and as he knelt he put his own hands to work, touching himself deftly in the ways he liked. Raven knew what he was doing; his ears were sharp as only a wild creature's are, and the brush of skin on skin was like a sigh. He stretched, knowing that Bodie's eyes were fixed on him, and passed his hands over his own chest and belly.

"You are evil," Bodie observed as he stroked his balls and rubbed his throbbing cock against the quivering muscles of his abdomen. "But you are beautiful."

"Trying to please," Raven said, a husky purr. "Looking at me while you pleasure yourself is no hardship to either of us... One day, perhaps I shall watch you do this."

"One day, perhaps," Bodie panted, getting close, his slitted eyes roaming over the elf's thin body from curls to knees and back again. Raven was not aroused, he saw... He was unwell, underfed and under a vicious strain, and was like as not unable to grow hard again tonight... Which made his offer all the more telling, Bodie thought. He remembered the willingness with which Raven had gone to his knees and was glad that he had not accepted the offer; it would have made him feel very bad to learn, too late, that the elf was not capable of rising to the pleasure, and was merely surrendering to another's need out of gratitude.

Bodie's eyes half closed and he pictured the muscular roundness as it had been offered to him... felt the heat of tight, gripping muscles about him as he closed his fist about himself and squeezed... It was too much, and he came at once, slumping back to the sheepskins, quivering with reaction. He heard only the ringing of his ears for a time, and then Raven's voice fought through to some part of his mind that was still awake.

"Did you enjoy me?"

"Enjoy?" Bodie echoed.

"In your mind. You dreamed me, I know." There was the sound of humour in Raven's voice, and Bodie took the lure like a starved fish.

"You were sweet and fine, and responsive," he admitted, "and I wanted to pleasure you as I took my own pleasure from you."

"And did you?" Raven asked, dropping a kiss on Bodie's shoulder.

"Oh, yes." Bodie smiled, wriggling at the kiss, thinking back on the little fantasy. "You were quite content."

"Then I shall sleep," Raven yawned, "since both of us are now content. And when I am sighted once more, and free, perhaps I shall ravish you in this way."

"Me?" Bodie echoed. "I have never... Never..."

In an instant the comfortable, easy concord between them, which Bodie had come so quickly to treasure, was gone; Raven was strung as tautly as harp strings and trying to draw away, and when he spoke his voice was low, a monotone. "I am sorry, I meant no disrespect -- I didn't know. You pleasure me so adeptly, I assumed... I am sorry, really. It is just that I am happy for the first time in so long, and I am not thinking clearly."

Expecting to be cast aside, Bodie guessed, for insolence or insubordination. "You've got a lot to unlearn, sweeting," Bodie said softly, pulling the elf back into the circle of his arms and settling the bedding about them. "You are a man, and a warrior, and a prince among your people. They have made you a chattel, but you will soon forget what has been. Freemen do not apologise for jests made in happiness, do they?"

"No," Raven said, muffled against Bodie's shoulder, "but I am not a freeman yet. A bed slave has no life of his own, and no right to say what I did. I shall learn to control my tongue."

"Say what you please, when you please," Bodie said, inhaling the warm scents of the elf's body. "I have never done that, given my body to another in that way. I don't know if I shall ever offer it to you -- wait until you see it, maybe you will not want it! But if it pleases you to offer your body to me, I shall not refuse you. Only if it pleases you, if it is some service you need and want. I shall take nothing from you, ever."

The elf's relaxation was total; boneless as a drowsing cat, he lay at the human's side, and to know that he was at peace lent a great euphoria to Bodie's heart, as if, at last, he had begun to repay the enormous debt he owned to this person. He owed life itself to Raven on his own behalf, and on behalf of his fellows, he owed so much more.

I owe you the pleasure that was stolen from you so cruelly, he thought as Raven slept; and by that token, you are due my body, if you want it, for I have not the right to offer you another's... He closed his eyes, his brow crinkling in a frown as he tried to imagine what it must be like. Would Raven be a gentle lover, or would he be as uncaringly direct as he had been on the battlefield? Surely, knowing what it was like to be violated, he would have learned gentleness now, even if he had not known it before? Bodie felt his nerves tensing up with the imaginings; the elf, for all his small stature, was well endowed, and when the blood engorged his cock he would impress even a human male. Bodie imagined the heat and power ramming into him, and shuddered. They swore that it was rapture beyond bearing, when done with love, but he had never desired the experience, to find out --

Because I have never been in love? Bodie wondered, and felt a thrill of shock. Love? He looked down at the elf and choked back an ironic chuckle. Dear gods, will it be love? Of all the creatures in creation to fall in love with it has to be the one I cannot have! An elven prince who is in my bed by misfortune, and who would spurn a human if he were among his fellows... And I am returning him to his people, so that he will spurn me before long... He tried to harden his heart and failed utterly as Raven murmured in his sleep and snuggled closer, half blanketing Bodie's body with his own.

The human heaved a sigh and surrendered. If the Fates had this in store for him, so be it. His heart would ache, but time heals all. He closed his eyes, knowing he had to sleep, for tomorrow eve there would be no rest. Sleep lapped about his tired mind, drawing him down into the realm of dreams, and he went without a struggle.

Fingers, tugging at his hair very gently, woke him, and he blinked at the stream of sunlight cascading in between the blinds at the window. He had slept soundly and his body felt refreshed. He rolled over and met the elf's blind eyes. "Raven? What is it, Ray? Are you all right?"

"I had to wake you," the elf said by way of greeting and apology. "I must answer the calls of nature, I'm afraid, and this place is strange to me."

"Oh, of course." Bodie rubbed his face and sat up. "Thoughtless of me, really. Come, I'll get you some clothes -- they will be a little large, but I think they will suffice."

"Clothes?" Raven sat up with a smile, pulling his fingers through the tangle of his hair. "I have had no clothes since the morning they stripped me to see what they had won. It will be strange to be clad again."

"I will not stand for you displaying your charms for all to see," Bodie quipped. "Display them for me if you wish to, but from now on -- you are no one's whore, Ray, understand this." He dropped a kiss on the elf's smooth cheek and went to throw open the trunk where he kept his own clothes. He chose a tunic, russet red with green thonging, and black breeches; his soft white leather sandals, which laced about the calf up to the knee, and a scabbardless baldric which was inlaid with slivers of moonstone. "Can you dress?" he asked, dumping the clothes at Raven's side.

"I don't know," Raven admitted. "As yet, I have not tried." His fingers sorted garment from garment and he dressed with surprising deftness, only needing help with the sandals' laces, which Bodie fastened for him. The baldric clinched the loose tunic at his small waist and he turned about for inspection. "Will I do?"

"I think so," Bodie smiled. The clothes were loose, which accentuated the slender body, but not so loose that they swamped him, for they were tightened by the leather strips where it was important. "Now, take my hand and I will show you the place I use."

Raven held out his hand, waiting for Bodie to take it. "Last night... I thank you, for everything. The food, the rest, the gift of pleasure."

"No need," Bodie said bluffly as he opened the door. "Mind the door sill here... It was pleasure enough for me to sleep beside you. My bed has been empty for years and I had forgotten how sweet it is not to be alone."

He led the elf about the house's west wall and into the woodland at the fringe of which the structure stood, and left Raven to his needs, going down to the stream for fresh water. When he returned, a bucket in either hand, the elf was sitting on a rotting log, sunning himself, waiting patiently for the human to return, and Bodie checked in surprise. The blind eyes were wide open, and he saw their colour for the first time. They were green, as green as the sea with flecks of gold. Raven's upturned face gave the sun worship, and Bodie felt his breath catch. For a moment he did not move a muscle, just standing by a gnarled old oak with the buckets.

"I know you're there," Raven said quietly, "I am not deaf too."

"And elven ears are sharper than any human's," Bodie added. "I have brought water from the stream. Come, we will have tea while we wait for the crones to fetch fresh bread and food." He stepped closer. "Put your hand on my shoulder, for I am carrying two buckets."

"Better, give me one bucket," Raven smiled, "and take my hand."

No one saw them return to the house, for it was very early as yet, and Bodie settled the elf in the sun while he put water on the fire to boil and dug out the powdered rosehips and honey. A knock on the door announced the arrival of Mora, one of the crones who ran errands for the baker, and Bodie took from her a basket of loaves that were still hot. Raven's nose was working as he ladled honey and quinze onto the hot bread, and there was the satisfaction of watching the elf eat well.

"I shall have to trap for rabbits," Bodie said, leaning on the door and gazing out at the forest in which Garth's stronghold stood.

"I am easier to feed," Raven yawned, scratching at his ribs as he stretched. "Elves do not eat meat -- we cannot. This is why the forest creatures have no cause to fear us and are our friends. We cannot digest meat, I don't know why. We are different from humans in so many ways."

Bodie blinked in surprise. "Then I shall barter for milk and cheese, and vegetables."

"No need, the forest is full of them," Raven smiled. "Take me out into the woods this morning and I shall find all I need. You may find our foods pleasing to your own tastes."

The morning flew by, and Bodie watched Raven's keen olfactory gift lead him unerringly to the plants he wanted. There were leaves, roots, the petals of wild roses, tiny wildflowers that tasted of honey, and Bodie was surprised by how good many of the plants tasted. Some were to be cooked in the ashes of the hearth, and by noon, when they ambled home, the basket in Raven's hand was full. His free hand was in Bodie's, as if it belonged there, and Bodie shook his head with a wry smile. "You know, if you were not a prisoner here, our life would be pleasant."

But Raven shook his head. "I am an alien here; they look at me as if I am an animal, and they use me as one, not merely because I am a captive, but because I am... not human." He lifted the curls back from his ear, taking his fingers from Bodie's for a moment. "This is enough to set me apart."

"Not that alone," Bodie amended. "There does not seem to be a human bone in your body, and your face could not possibly be human, or your eyes... Aye, you are right. You must go home, this is not the place for you."

"I am not ungrateful," Raven said quickly, "and my offer stands: if you desire my body, it is yours for the asking, if only because I know you will ask, not merely take. After what I have endured, that seems like paradise."

Bodie came to a halt in the shade of a wide, ancient chestnut tree. "You must ride hard, tonight," he said quietly. "How badly have they hurt you? I can ask Shon for help, if you need it."

The elf's thin shoulders shrugged. "I am not badly hurt, for I know how to make myself ready. Garth would let me do that, because he liked to watch me tend myself, and -- " Abruptly he paused, head on one side. "Someone is coming, Bodie, I should not be out here, should I? There will be trouble for you... A man's footsteps coming this way... Quickly!" He dropped the basket of edible plants, unbuckling the baldric, loosened his breeches and lay down in the grass on his belly. "Quickly," he hissed, "if they think you have brought me here to mate me in the sun, they will only laugh!" He wriggled the tunic up off his hips, exposing the white perfect rump Bodie had been watching all morning. "Lie on me, for the gods' sake, Bodie, please, before they take me from you and I am beyond all help!"

It was not difficult to comply. Bodie loosened his own clothing, the throb of arousal beginning at once, and stretched out on the elf's back, pressing him down into the grass. He lay still, trying not to move but knowing Raven could feel the heat and hardness of his arousal. Moments later he too heard the approaching footsteps, and he whispered into the elf's ear, "I am sorry, Ray, so sorry." Then he began to move at last, slowly and carefully, rubbing his thickened cock in the cleft of the elf's rump, pleasure surging through him despite the knowledge that this was a sham for the sake of safety.

Raucous laughter intruded, and he turned with a furious expression, looking over his shoulder to see Seldredd the Lame, standing at the edge of the tiny clearing, hands on his knees, helpless with laughter. "Leave, or call yourself my sword brother no longer!" Bodie spat. "Go and buy a whore if you wish to watch the sports of others!"

Seldredd blinked in astonishment, but he left -- and Bodie knew that he would carry the story back with him, of how Bodie was mating the captive in the woods... The yearning to do just that was painful, and it was all he could do to climb weakly off Raven's back and come to his knees. "He's gone," he said shakily.

"And you sound tormented," the elf said huskily. "Finish it, and be at peace, I do not mind."

"Ray -- " Bodie protested, listening to the thunder of the blood in his ears. "Ray, I cannot use you."

"You can," the elf smiled, and rolled onto his side. "See?" He stroked one flat palm down across his belly, and Bodie saw the erection growing there. "I am not dead wood, you know," Raven said a little sheepishly.

With a groan, Bodie gathered him into an embrace, hugged him tightly, then laid him down in the grass again. Raven purred as he felt Bodie's weight settle on his back once more, and murmured in delight as Bodie reached around with one hand, wriggling it into his groin to hold him too. It did not take long; Bodie had been too tense and Raven was unwell, which rendered both of them off form, but it was sweet and satisfying.

Pangs of guilt marred the pleasure for Bodie, and he got up at once, as soon as he was able, using the hem of his tunic to mop his spilled seed from the elf's hot skin. Raven lay still, basking in the aftermath of it, and did not notice when Bodie quickly examined him. "You're sore," Bodie said throatily, one palm caressing the curve of a buttock.

"As you would expect," Raven said wryly. "I have not been pampered, you know! There is no harm done. I... I was not a virgin when I was brought here. Does that upset you? That I have loved a man before?"

"No," Bodie said quickly, "for I have loved a man too. As a boy, long ago... But it came to nothing -- our fathers came between us."

"Sad," Raven observed.

"My heart stopped aching long ago." Bodie straightened his clothes and dropped a kiss on the elf's nose. "Let us go home and eat. You are so thin that I have bruises from your bones! Ray... I did not intend that."

"I know." Raven buckled the baldric about the borrowed tunic and got to his feet. "Bodie, stop punishing yourself! You made me come too -- you have given me more pleasure in less than a day than I have known in so long. If you do manage to spirit me out of here, and if we make it over the hills to the tuath of my people, I shall see to it that you are rewarded. What would please you in return for your troubles on my behalf?"

You, Bodie thought sadly, in my bed from choice, breathing words of love into my ear as you come beneath me, and I deep within you, and welcome there... He shook himself hard. "Oh, enough silver and gold to keep me off the battlefield for some time," he said, forcing a light tone. "I have grown wearied of warring for pay and wish to be at peace now."

Raven frowned. "Your voice speaks of other truths than your words." He gave Bodie his hand, to be guided back to the house. "Say what you mean."

"No," Bodie said firmly. "One day, perhaps, if the gods choose to smile on me, but not now. There is nothing to speak of. Come, eat, then rest. You are less strong than you know."

"Stronger than you think," Raven corrected. "But I would sleep, if you will allow me. I have slept little since I was brought here."

He slept the afternoon away, curled up in Bodie's bed, and Bodie used the time to pack the few things he felt some real affection for... He would not be coming back to this place, he knew. Soon, Garth's men would discover that the warrior and the elf were gone, and then there would be a hunting... So we run far, and fast, Bodie thought grimly as the afternoon grew dim.

They would ride into the south where the forest was thick, where the passes through the hills were labyrinthine and treacherous; Garth's men would hunt them, but Bodie knew the hills better than any of them, and they would be safe enough. There was a pass through to the elven side of the Black Hills, and if it was still open, once through it they would be safe. Sometimes rock slides blocked it, but there was nothing Bodie could do about that... If it was closed, they were probably done for, and that was that. If Garth's men caught them, they would be brought back here in chains, Raven to be raped for as long as he could live, Bodie to be flogged until he was dead.

A grim, uncertain future, Bodie thought as he used a black iron poker to turn the roasting vegetables in the ashes and stirred the stewpot that was slung over the fire. They would eat well, sleep if they could through the evening, and steal away when the crowds gathered in the feasting hall to drink and gamble the night away. The horse pens lay at the northern edge of the settlement, and Bodie owned three animals, two saddle horses and a big, strong pack animal. They would leave the pack horse behind for the sake of speed on the trail, and with dawn -- and with luck -- they would be far, far away before they were discovered missing. Sooner or later someone would go to the house where Bodie lived, expecting to find him making Raven's life a misery; and then the scream would go up, and the war band would be on the loose, shouting for vengeance.

At dusk Raven stretched awake, sitting up and using his incredible hearing to pinpoint Bodie. A sunny smile lit his features, tugging at the warrior's wayward heart. More than anything, he longed to see Raven smile now; he came to the bedside and bent toward a kiss, and the elf opened his mouth to it with heartstopping generosity. For the first time, Bodie dared to take Raven's mouth deeply, and when the elf wound his arms about the human's neck Bodie felt himself surrender.

Love hurt. It was like a pain in his chest; awful tremors beset his arms and his eyes prickled with scalding tears. At last he lifted his head again, looking down into green-gold eyes that could not see him, and he ached to say it -- I love you. I love you. But it was foolishness and he held his tongue, smoothing the tangled curls back and somehow keeping his fingers away from the delicate, graceful points of Raven's ears.

"Come and eat, Ray. You look better, I think. There is colour in your face at last."

"I am healing," Raven said, levering up off the bed and stretching his thin frame. "Where are my clothes?"

"I folded them here," Bodie told him, putting the garments into his outstretched hands. "And I have a cloak for you, too. My boots won't fit you, but luckily the weather seems set to hold, and we won't be cold, You're healing fast, aren't you?"

The elf nodded as he dressed. "Two days since I have been taken, and I am half recovered. It is part of what you call our magic... But it isn't magic, really, just the way we are."

"And you live a great deal longer than we do, too," Bodie added. "How old are you, Raven? Much older than me?"

Raven smiled wistfully. "I have never seen you to know, but your face is smooth to my touch. If you are twenty-five, you can be no older. I am younger than you. The day I came between you and your foe, on the killing field, I was twenty and had worn the torque of a chieftain no more than two years." His face clouded. "They took it from me, the torque. It has been in my clan for a thousand years, but I have lost it. They will never forgive me for that."

"Never forgive you?" Bodie echoed, looking up from the hearth. "After what has befallen you here? God's teeth, have you not suffered enough?"

"Perhaps." Raven came to the fire and sat down on the bench, and Bodie set a platter into his hands. "The roots smell good. You are clever with herbs... I smell roses and honey, too, and mead."

"But milk for you," Bodie said sternly, "for you are too thin. Time for wine and ale later. Here." He put a deep cup into the elf's hand. "Now drink it, and I will fill it again."

"You're not my mother," Raven said, hiding a smile. "Though she was much like you, and with good reason. You humans are all alike! Either punishing or coddling -- is there no middle way?"

The remark was cryptic -- 'you humans are all alike' -- but Bodie chose that moment to burn his hand on the poker, and it was much later before he began to chew on what Raven had said; and the elf was asleep again, his limbs curled up into a hibernating-squirrel ball by the fire. Bodie's mind was on the time; his pack lay on the bench, thonged and finished, and as the freemen gathered at the feasting hall he woke the elf with a kiss.

"Ray? Time to go. We must not tarry -- it will be noon tomorrow before they know we have gone, but they will travel faster than we."

"Because I am blind," Raven said bitterly.

"Because they are angry," Bodie corrected, "and reckless, and because they will command daylight where we must ride by night. Are you well, Ray?"

"I like that name," Raven said. "No one else has ever called me that. At home they call me Blackwing sometimes, and pet names that are too embarrassing to repeat."

"Sweeting, little chuck, pet," Bodie teased.

"And worse," Raven admitted. "And no, I will not tell you them! They are lovers' names, and you would taunt me with them." He paused, reaching out with one hand until Bodie took it. "Bodie, you will be a fugitive after this. If you come to Morhod with me, at least I can protect you. My people will grow accustomed to having a human in their midst after a time, and in my home you would be honoured."

"Maybe," Bodie said carefully. There was a great yearning in him to do as he was asked, go with Raven to Morhod and be free... But it would be too painful to live in his home, be with him, day in, day out, and never be able to touch him, kiss him. When he got home, his kin would be waiting for him, his lover, a woman, perhaps even children. Bodie sighed and schooled his heart to caution. "If you are well enough, we will leave as soon as we have eaten. I have packed what remains of the food, for there will be no time to stop until we have put many miles between us and Garth's cavalry."

Raven ate well, as if he had not seen food in a long time -- perhaps he had not; and then Bodie locked the door behind him and led the way to the pens where the war horses were kept. He knew that Raven was as fine a rider as any of the elven warriors, and he knew that the smaller of his two horses, Wind, would follow Jasmin to the gates of hell, so, if Raven could simply stay in the saddle the horse would choose her own path in Jasmin's wake.

The settlement lay blanketed with sleep and drunkenness, and no one saw them as Bodie led the elf into the pen, found his own horses, and brought the saddles that carried his brand from the tack shed. Ten minutes after he had locked the door of his home for the last time, Bodie was swinging open the gate, and as he hauled himself into Jasmin's saddle and led Raven into the night, he bade a cynical farewell to Garth's stronghold.

It was the best and worst of places; his boyhood had been happy, his young life marred by a love affair gone wrong, his marriage ended in pain, as his wife of less than a year died in childbed. It was here that he had been honoured as a warrior... And here, by some uncertain chance, that he had met the other half of himself, and felt his heart warm in love. Bodie had not loved Beth, and she had been little more than a child trying to have a child; she had been promised to him in marriage, and when the girl came of age they literally thrust her into his bed and wished him many fine sons. Bodie thought back to the months he had shared with her; there had been friendship, such as a man could share with so young a bride, and she had not been disappointed by his attentions, wanting him so often that she became pregnant with all speed.

Too young, Bodie thought, and felt the twinges of guilt... If he had only taken notice of her cycles and changed his loving accordingly, he could have prevented the baby. There were many, many ways to make love without getting a woman with child, and he had blamed himself for four years for Beth's painful death. His son was stillborn, strangled in the womb, and since the day he had buried them, there had been no one else in Bodie's bed.

There had been women, and a few men, friends and brothers in the ranks of the warband; he snatched his loving where he could, almost furtively, as if a long period of mourning were expected of him, and frustration became a familiar companion. He accepted the aches willingly, counting them the price he paid for Beth's tragic end.

And now my debt to her is paid? He wondered as he led Raven out into the wilds, letting Jasmin pick her own way among the holes in the road. At last poor Beth was resting easily, and Bodie was free? He made a face at the thought: free -- to do what? To lose his heart to an elven prince who would pay him off in silver and send him into the guest wing of the palace he called home? There to live as a respected, tolerated human, with Raven forever near and yet out of reach. The thought was not pleasant, and Bodie knew that he would take payment and leave. There had to be a place for him somewhere in Morhod, as the human who had brought their prince out of perdition.

They made good time, sometimes walking to spell the mares, and long before dawn was flushing rosily in the east, they were climbing steeply. Bodie was still lost in thought as he plodded along, Jasmin's reins looped over his arm, and he did not notice Raven's distress for some time. The elf said nothing, even when he fell, but the rattle of pebbles on the winding hill trail drew Bodie's attention, and, turning back, he saw Raven on his knees in the cold blue wash of the starlight.

It was not the first time he had fallen, but this time he had not the strength to get up again, and Bodie could have kicked himself for a fool. He dropped Jasmin's reins and hurried back to lift the elf to his feet, and Raven stood unsteadily, a hand pressed to the small of his back, biting off a sound that was uncomfortably close to a whimper.

"Ray, what is it?" Bodie whispered.

"I am hurting, and you are right, I am less than strong. Too long without food and sleep, and too many nights spent in the beds of strangers... Is Wind strong? I weigh little, if she can carry me."

"Fool, fool," Bodie muttered, embracing the elf fiercely. "The horse has not worked for her keep since the fighting three months ago; she has dined on oats till she has grown sleek -- of course she can bear your little weight. I walk to rest my Jasmin, for I am no feather to her, but you must ride... Oh, Ray, why did you not speak sooner? Damn, your knees are bloody!"

"They will heal," Raven told him, accepting Bodie's help to half lift him into the saddle. He winced soundlessly, gripping the sheepskin with his knees. "All right, I can hold to the horse. We are losing time, Bodie."

"And you cannot go much further," Bodie said. "There is a place I know, a hiding place, not easily reached, but I think we can make it. Only a few people know it exists, and we could stay there and watch Garth's men ride by, if we are lucky."

"And if we're not?" Raven asked pointedly.

"We are lucky," Bodie said emphatically. "If you were not fortunate, you would have been dead by now. Garth would have killed you. Instead, you lived until I returned. And I... I am fortunate indeed. I have known you, and that is gift enough." He squeezed the elf's cold hand. "We must be moving."

With daylight they travelled faster, but Raven was white and lifeless, and Bodie was worried. Without the elf's consent, he made tracks for the hiding place, and they came upon it not long after noon. Raven jerked awake as Wind came to a halt behind Jasmin, and found himself listening to the echoes thrown back by a cliff wall, close at hand.

"Where are we?" he asked, reaching out with what senses he had.

"A place called Redcliff," Bodie told him. "A wall of rock in which is a cave, high above the trees; goats and the fleet of foot can make the climb to the cave -- I have done it before."

"With the horses, and a blind man?" Raven asked doubtfully.

"I had Jasmin with me," Bodie said stubbornly. "Wind will follow her, and if you cannot see, you cannot be afraid of the drop, can you?"

"I am not afraid of high places in any case," Raven said scornfully. "Bodie, are you sure? Would it not be safer to go on?"

"Go on until you collapse?" Bodie demanded. "And, if you collapse far from cover, and we are immobilised -- Garth's men could come upon us and take us cheaply." He made a disapproving grunt. "No; I have no wish to be chained by the wrists while the skin is flayed from my back, nor have I any wish to watch you violated time and again until they kill you too. Now, hold your tongue, little one, and let the horse follow me."

The ledge that wound up the cliff face was just wide enough to allow a horse to pass, and very steep. Bodie led the way on foot, Jasmin plodding in his wake, and behind her, Wind, with Raven clinging desperately to the saddle, cursing his sightless eyes. It was a long climb, wearying, and Bodie was drenched with cold sweat before he saw the end of the trail. The landscape below seemed like a toyland, even the greatest trees reduced to miniature, and he wished Raven could see it. He called back over his shoulder, "Not far, Ray, the cave is just up ahead."

Raven's hearing told him exactly where the cave was, for he could hear the whisper of the breeze in its open mouth. He was exhausted, aching in every joint and bone, and when he felt Wind's rolling gait come to a halt again he gave a groan of relief. Bodie's hands took hold of him before he could fall, and he came to his feet with difficulty.

Bodie was shocked by the pallor: the elf looked worse now than he had the night he had come upon him, chained on the feasting table in Garth's hall. "You look ill," he said quietly. "You must rest and eat."

"Rest," Raven agreed, "but I cannot face food..." Swaying, he clung to Bodie for support.

Bodie moved quickly, taking saddles and packs from the horses and unrolling the sheepskins to make a soft place for the elf to lay his weary bones. "I'll light a fire," he said. "Evening grows cool... Twilight lies on the land below us. I wish you could see it."

"I will, soon enough," Raven murmured, putting his head down. "I will heal the damage done my eyes quickly enough." He turned over and tried to make himself more comfortable. "I long to see you," he added, almost asleep.

Flint rasped on steel, and the tinder caught alight; Bodie busied his hands with the building of a small fire, using twigs and leaves that had drifted into the cave on the wind. There was plenty of kindling, and no few dead trees that had grown and died in the cave mouth; and he could hear the babble of running water from deeper in the rock crevice.

With the fire burning brightly he took the can from his pack and went in search of water; Raven had eaten and drunk nothing since morning, and in his weakened condition that alone would not bolster his strength. Bodie made tea, pouring two bowls and bringing them to the sleeping place, a nook out of the shifting breeze. The horses were tired, snuffling to themselves on the other side of the cave, and he gave them a worried look. Escape depended on their fitness -- and there was precious little for a horse to eat on slopes about the cave. They would have to be taken out to graze, and they could do that only in darkness. He filled the tin with water several times, listening to them drinking in the gathering gloom, before returning to the sleeping place.

The scent of rosehips rising from the cooling tea had drawn Raven's attention, and he lay on one elbow, sipping at the hot liquid. Bodie sat down on the sheepskins beside him and picked up his own cup. "Where are you hurt?"

"Everywhere," Raven admitted ruefully, "but my back and legs no longer love me! I shall be fine, with rest. We can go on tomorrow."

But Bodie made negative noises. "Now that we have stopped, we shall have to stay here for some time. We must allow Garth's men to come this way, go on, far ahead, find nothing, turn for home and pass us once again. Then it will be safe for us to go on."

Raven nodded at once. "Aye, of course... I am not thinking clearly, forgive me."

"Nothing to forgive," Bodie said blandly. "I have liniment for the horses in my pack; if you can stand the smell of wintergreen I can rub your aches away for you."

The elf was only too eager to take him up on the offer, and Bodie's fingers, smeared with the oily liniment, plied to and fro over the knotted muscles and protesting joints, bringing ease at last. Raven groaned in pure pleasure as Bodie worked, and for Bodie, to touch him was a delight, even if the liniment was making his eyes sting. He rubbed for the better part of an hour, until Raven was rosy red from shoulders to knees and sleeping the sleep of the blameless, and then went to heat water to wash the odour from his hands so as to bring out the food. There was cheese, black bread and plenty of Raven's fare, eggs and dried fruits; he dropped several eggs into the can, suspending it over the fire, and carved into the cheese with his dirk, eating ravenously. Beyond the cave mouth the stars glittered like diamonds in the sky, and he sat watching them, wondering where Garth's men must be by now -- behind, or ahead? How long must he and the elf stay here?

Several days, at least, he decided, and took a look at the food. There was not enough to last them that long, but Raven had shown him that the woods were full of food, if one knew where to look. Before settling for sleep himself he took the horses onto the steep, treacherous trail, letting them graze on the wild grains that sprang from between the boulders. Chilled and weary, he climbed back to the cave and tethered the mares on the other side of the fire. A little more kindling made it burn brightly, but it would be out by morning.

He stood rubbing his arms, his eyes drawn to the flames, lost in thought until the elf's voice, husky and low, said, "Bodie? Where are you?"

"Here," Bodie said wearily. "Never far away."

"Lie down with me?" Raven asked. "The bed is warm now."

The sheepskins were warm with the heat of Ray's body, and as Bodie slid in between them his nose wrinkled pleasurably at the smell of the elf. A musky smell, the tang of perspiration, the odour of the wintergreen. Raven put his head down on Bodie's chest, kissing his throat. "We'll be cold by morning if we don't warm each other," he said sleepily.

"Logical," Bodie agreed, hiding a smile. "But I would hold you for the sake of it -- I don't deny it."

"How long will we stay here?" Raven sounded nearly asleep.

"Oh, until you are well again. A few days." Bodie closed his eyes and lifted the elf onto his chest. "Comfortable now?"

"My sharp bones will do little for you," Raven said wryly.

Bodie tousled his hair. "To sleep with you, when you are told!"

"Like my mother," Raven slurred. "All you humans are alike!"

All we humans? Bodie thought vaguely; but by that time his mind was wandering into dream, and he could not hold the thought.

He awoke to the patter of bare feet and reached for Raven, finding the bed empty. Morning sunlight streamed into the cave, and he blinked against the brightness, seeing the elf feeling his way back along the rocky wall, his bare feet exploring the way. He was clad only in the tunic, which left his long legs free, and Bodie propped himself on his elbows, admiring the sight. "Where have you been?"

"To drink," Raven told him, finding his way back to the sleeping place, "and to answer nature's calling. There is sweet water pouring through the roof of this cave from a stream up above, and I smelt mushrooms. I cannot tell the colour though. Here." He held out his left hand, the palm full of them. "Are they brown or purple?"

"Brown," Bodie told him.

"Ah, good." Raven brought one to his lips and bit into it. "Fresh, too. Try some. There are plenty more."

The flavour was unlike anything Bodie had ever tasted, but Raven was right, they were good. "You look pale, but better," he observed as he put water on to boil and brought out yesterday's bread. "Will you eat?"

"A little," Raven agreed. "Honey and roses -- I can smell them."

Bodie broke open an unleavened loaf and filled it with honey, spread with his dirk, then packed it with rose petals, plucked from blooms that had been fresh the previous afternoon. He handed the whole thing to Raven and watched the elf sink his teeth into it. "It's good to see you eat," he observed drily. "You are never going to grow strong if you do not, you know."

"I know," Raven said between bites, licking honey from his lips.

He missed a trickle, which worked its way onto his chin, and for the life of him Bodie could not have held back. Leaning forward, he licked it away and smacked his lips.

Raven laughed. The sound was devastating, a peal of husky humour that reached into Bodie's heart and squeezed it dry, and he caught his breath. The elf put down the bread and roses without finishing it, reaching out with exploratory fingers, trying to find Bodie in the darkness imposed on his eyes. "Where are you? I want your mouth, if you will only kiss me."

"If I will kiss you?" Bodie echoed. "I could have ravished you in the night... Ah, come to me, I am here."

The kiss was its own reward, long and deep, and Bodie stored every tiny facet of it in his memory, hoarding the details, wanting to secure them where they would remain forever, to be savoured in the future, when all this was no more than a fond memory, and he was alone again. Raven pressed close to him, arms about his neck, but there was no twitch from his groin and Bodie drew back to look at him. "Are you that unwell?"

"I am just tired," Raven admitted. "Tired to the bone. Yesterday was one of the hardest of my life, and today I am aching from head to foot. This has been a bad time for me, and I am... not myself." He knew his cheeks were becoming red and forced a smile. "I am usually quite voracious, actually."

"Are you?" Bodie smiled. "Finish your breakfast and return to bed. I must water the horses and see if I can find them some fodder near at hand."

"There are trees above us," Raven said as he lay down and pulled the sheepskins up to his chin. "I can hear the breeze in them. If there are tender leaves, the horses might graze well on them till we can find proper feed."

Bodie watched the elf stretch under the sheepskins, and went to the cave mouth. "Aye, so there are... Sharp ears you have. I can climb up there later. For now, let me gather mushrooms and such. We will be here for some time, and I've no wish to go hungry!"

The search for food for them, and fodder for the horses, commanded the morning, and at noon Bodie was tossing arms full of the tenderest leaves he could find to the horses when he heard the muted thunder of hooves on the trail down below. Every nerve came alive and he went to his belly at the edge of the trail, looking down into the miniature landscape.

So, the hunting was well underway. A band of horsemen were riding hard into the south, and there was the air of anger about them. Bodie made a face, watching them until they were out of sight above the curvature of the rock, and then he stole back into the cave, waking Raven with a hand on his arm.

"Cavalrymen down below," he said softly. "If they come up here, we will have to fight, and there is only one way to do that. A single man can hold the trail with a broadsword, and I counted no more than a dozen riders. If our luck holds, even if they find their way up here, I can take them."

The wide, green eyes blinked up at him. "If our luck holds, they won't find this place... Trust your gods, Bodie. They have dealt kindly by us so far, they will not forsake us now."

At the cave mouth, they sat to listen, and even Raven's keen ears did not register the sounds of approaching horses. In midafternoon they began to relax, and at last Bodie brought out a skin of mead and took a swig from it before handing it to the elf. "In celebration," he said. "They have missed us." This time, he added soundlessly. They would forge on ahead as far as the bridge on the Chaika River, and then turn for home, for there were only enemies on the far side. They would ride back by this same trail, and if one of the horsemen remembered the hiding place...

Cross your bridges when you come to them, Bodie told himself sternly, and turned his attention to his weapons, his horses, and the man he had come to think of as his lover. They had shared a bed for two nights, he had pleasured Raven twice, and touched himself with the elf within arm's reach. Did that not make Raven his lover? He hoped it did, and when they retired to the sleeping place that night, and Raven came willingly into his arms, Bodie began to honestly hope that the gods would indeed smile on him.

For a long time they lay in silence, warm and content to rest, and then Raven stirred, bringing his fingers to Bodie's face and exploring it, tracing its shape, 'seeing' with his hands as he could not yet see with his eyes. "You are not at all like the other humans I have known," he said softly. "Why?"

Bodie blinked. "I don't know. It's just the way I am. I think I care more than the others. Honour is not just a word to me."

"You have an elven respect for it," Raven said slowly. "You would be happy among my people -- there are humans among us, you know. Even in my clan." He laughed throatily. "My close kin, even."

The ironic little chuckle made Bodie pursue the statement. "Your close kin? This is what you meant, when you said, 'you humans are all alike?'"

"Aye." Raven stretched and settled again. "My mother is a human. She has been in Morhod for a long, long time, so long she has forgotten what it is to be human, I think! She is a great beauty, and they say she is ageing more slowly... There is some magic about our lifestyle, perhaps. In Morhod, I hope you would live much longer than your kindred in Garth's tuath."

Surprise caught at Bodie and he looked closely at the elf's face. "You do not look at all human, Ray."

"No. The humans' seed is too weak; your people and mine can breed, but the children are always elves. I share no common blood with the humans, not even my mother, which is sad, perhaps. She is so beautiful... I can see what my father fell in love with. He was a trader in your land, and very young. He saw Feyleen in the gardens one afternoon -- "

"Feyleen?" Bodie shot bolt upright on the sheepskins, his eyes wide as he looked down at the startled elf. "Feyleen is your mother?"

"Yes," Raven said, "have I said something wrong? They have never spoken to me of her life beyond the hills, only that she was a princess, the daughter of a chief, and that she fell in love with Wulff, my father, and ran away with him to escape marriage to a warrior she deplored. Bodie, what have I said?"

Bodie groaned. "You cannot know, and I think it may be cruel to tell you."

"Tell me," Raven hissed, "I would rather know than be in ignorance."

Very gently, Bodie gathered the elf into an embrace. "Feyleen ran away from the settlement in which you were held captive," he said slowly, "just about the time I was born. The chief who held your chains, Garth -- the man who took you to his bed and used you so... Garth is your grandfather." He felt Raven shudder and stroked the thin body, trying to soothe the trembling. "He always swore that Feyleen had been stolen away by Wulff, and there has been warring between our lands ever since, because of this." He shook his head. "You are fortunate Garth did not know you were his kin, or he should have killed you, I think. Better to be used as a bed slave for a time, and then make good your escape, with the rest of your life to live in peace and love."

"Just so," Raven said, recovering his composure and heaving a sigh. "I shall not tell my mother, I think. It will do her no good to know what has happened to me, and I am healed and well now. I can forget all that has been, and begin again. I shall be as strong as ever, soon."

"For now, sleep," Bodie said against the curls that were tickling his face. "You sound so tired."

"The price we pay for healing so quickly," Raven admitted. "When we are hurt, we hibernate, almost, like the forest folk." He stretched against Bodie and yawned. "You feel so nice. So warm, so..." He was asleep before the sentiment was complete, and Bodie held him for a long time before he too found refuge in dreams.

Hopeful, hopeless but happy dreams; Raven, smiling at him, speaking words of love in a dappled glade, beneath elms and ash and oaks, no hurt to mar their time together, no shortage of time, for life would be long and free. Bodie savoured the dreams, clinging to them, and when he woke at last he left them with reluctance.

But it was a moan of distress that roused him, and Raven's voice had the capacity to haul Bodie physically from his fantasies. He turned over, seeing the elf's slender back turned to him as Raven held his face in his hands, and there was that unmistakable attitude of pain. "Ray? Whatever is wrong?"

"My eyes," Raven muffled through his hands. "They hurt -- morning is too bright, after the darkness."

"You can see?" Bodie yelped. "Raven, you can see?"

"The light woke me," Raven moaned, "but now my eyes are trying to contract, and it hurts. Bodie, help me, I don't know what to do."

"I do." Bodie took hold of the wide, bony shoulders, drew Raven down onto the sheepskins, and pulled the top cover over his head. "Better?"

The elf groaned -- relief. "Much. Darkness is kinder." He began to relax, and Bodie began to breathe again.

"You can see," he murmured, and was at once elated and afraid... What would Raven think, when he saw the face of the warrior who had helped him? Would he cherish it, or find it unattractive? Fretting, he sat still for some moments, until he felt a tentative hand on his thigh, under the sheepskins.

"Bodie?" Raven said out of the warm darkness in the bed. "Bodie, come down here, so that I can see you. My vision is misty, but it is clearing... I have ached to see you. Please?"

"All right." Bodie took a breath and slid down into the sheltered dimness, showing his face and keeping his expression carefully bland.

The green eyes were blinking, narrowed a little, and Raven's sleep flushed face was frowning. Fingertips traced Bodie's cheeks, tickling, and the elf muttered, "You are prickly."

"I need to shave," Bodie admitted. "We humans grow beards, you know."

"I know," Raven agreed, "but I did not think it would be so quick... Do you shave every day, then?"

"Yes," Bodie said quietly, "unless I want to grow a beard."

"Oh, don't," Raven said quickly. "You're so beautiful, it would be a shame to hide your face from me."

Beautiful? Bodie blinked, disbelieving his ears for a second, and then began to tingle as feeling returned. "You -- beautiful? You think so?"

"Beautiful as the night," Raven affirmed, "all I had imagined. More." His fingertips discovered Bodie's long, blue-black lashes, the curve of his mouth, and the elf shook his head ruefully. "The gods have smiled on me indeed! It would have been awful to discover I had fallen in love with a voice, only to find that the face it accompanies looks like a donkey!"

"Fallen --" It was too much for Bodie to credit all at once and he gave a groan. "Oh, Ray."

"I'm sorry," Raven murmured, withdrawing his fingers. "I had not meant to say that -- I know it will make you uncomfortable, but -- it is so long since I have used my eyes, and to see is such a joy." He tried to turn away.

Bodie caught him by the shoulders. "Uncomfortable? Oh, sweet idiot, do you not know what you do to me? Aye, I am uncomfortable, but like this." He moved his hips a few inches, nudging Raven with the erection that was full and throbbing against his belly.

The elf's eyes widened. "And it is not merely desire? I have always had men and women alike pursuing me for my body -- my clan is filled with folk who are called beautiful. But only once has love ever been spoken to me."

"You're so young," Bodie chided, "there has not been time for you to find the one who will claim your heart... You crave words of love? Then listen, and you shall have them. You are my heart, you have filled my eyes and made me ache with longing and tenderness almost from the moment I first saw you. I came so quickly to love you that it made me dizzy and weak with the shock of it. Love you? I was born loving you, Raven, and have spent all my life waiting for you."

Tears welled in the elf's green-gold eyes and as they spilled Bodie leaned forward to kiss them away, his hands cradling the too- thin face. Raven captured Bodie's right hand, carrying it to his groin and pressing it to the hard, hot flesh that settled there. "I want you, with love," he said thickly. "Make love to me, Bodie... You are the only one who has made love to me, instead of using me, in longer than you know."

The cryptic remark was lost on Bodie as the fever of desire drowned him, and he crushed the elf against him, hands and lips everywhere, searching and teasing, until Raven was wriggling in a kind of ecstatic agony beneath him. There was a pain in his balls that made Bodie pant, longing for the release of burying himself in Raven's supple body, but even now, he held back, too afraid of spoiling this fragile, new found love by using him, as so many had. He took his hands from Raven's body, kissing his nipples instead, feeling the elf's bucking hips against his own hip bones. By rights, he should have been the one offering the surrender of his body, but Bodie still could not. It was only what should be expected of him, but fear held him still. He had made Raven so excited that his control had almost snapped, and the elf was much stronger than he had given him credit for.

"Please," Raven hissed through clenched teeth as Bodie bit gently at his nipples, "please!"

"What?" Bodie lifted his head. "Will I suck you, or stroke you? You have only to say what you desire."

"Make us one," Raven murmured, eyes dark and misty as he looked into Bodie's face. "Join us. I want to be part of you -- once joined, never parted again. Please?" He kissed Bodie's mouth with lips that trembled, and turned over in the warrior's strong arms, crooking his right leg to allow the human to manage the joining.

Bodie took him by the hips, settling Raven on his left side, and drew him back until he was pressed against chest and belly; then he waited, needing to know he could control himself, make it easy. "You're sure?"

"Oh, Bodie!" The elf was wriggling in frustration.

"All right, be still, just a moment."

Careful fingers probed the elf, and Raven moaned, squirming; he was not a virgin by a very long stretch of the imagination, Bodie found, but his muscles were still strong and the passage tight enough. He opened readily, accepting the lubricating fingers, slick with his own pre-ejaculate and with Bodie's, and then Bodie was guiding himself into the supple body and Raven cried out. Pain? Bodie wondered, and stopped at once, but Raven drove back, impaling himself deeply, and Bodie's breath caught in his throat.

"Hold me," Raven panted, searching for Bodie's hand and taking it to his groin. "Like this, please." He was wrapping the eager fingers about his cock, tightening them into a fist, and Bodie found the suggested rhythm with a sense of pleasure, that he could give Raven such rapture. The elf could not keep still, and the friction of the gripping anal muscles made it an agony to hold back, but Bodie had determined to make his love come first and hard, and he bit his lip, teasing Raven with minute thrusts and tormenting fingers until the elf was sobbing quietly, suspended between ecstasy and agony. It was as he heard the helpless, racking sobs, that Bodie knew the time was right; he began to thrust hard, driving Raven up toward the peak, pumping his cock in the same rhythm. Raven was wild with it, twisting and wriggling, and Bodie knew when he was about to come; he became rigid from head to foot, his breath indrawn to scream. Bodie bucked hard into him, filling him just once more, and they tumbled over the peak into the spiralling release of orgasm together.

Raven screamed, hoarse and breathless, and a moment later was limp and trembling, sagging back against Bodie. "Hush, be still," Bodie murmured, only waiting until he was soft enough to withdraw naturally before he turned the elf over in his arms and lifted him up onto his chest. Raven's belly was sticky with his own release, and Bodie's seed would escape from his body soon, despite the best of efforts; it was lucky that there was water aplenty in this cave.

"You do that like an elf," Raven murmured. "We are gentle lovers, unlike so many humans."

"Many humans are just as gentle as I," Bodie told him, "it's just that you have been used ill by my people. Each time I think of what was done to you I feel ashamed."

"Don't," Raven sighed. "It was none of your doing. The first night, I knelt on your bed, waiting for you, beyond even the will to struggle. You could have had me in a moment, yet you pleasured me." There was a catch in his voice, and Bodie was not surprised to hear him sniff. "I'm sorry," he went on, "we are more emotional than humans, too. There is no tradition in my tuath that men may not weep, from pain or pleasure."

"I know," Bodie crooned softly. "I know much about your people; most of my life has been spent on the trail, and beyond Garth's borders humans and elves mix almost freely. I know that you are great warriors, that your war horses are stronger than ours; that you heal without a trace of any wound, and outlive us by so long. I know you are great lovers, men and women alike, with great loves and great lusts. The forest animals befriend you -- they know they are safe, as you've taught me. Your bards sing more sweetly than any human could, and when an elf is beautiful, that beauty is enough to blind the eyes of a human. Like you, my sweet; you blinded me in a moment in Garth's hall."

"Did I?" Getting back his strength after the racking release, Raven gave a yawn and propped himself up on his elbows to look at the face he had seen only for a few moments. "I fell in love with your voice and your touch; with your kindness, I think. You cannot imagine my joy, to recover my sight and find that you are so beautiful -- beautiful in a way no elf has ever been... like the night, so dark and eyes so blue." He yawned expressively. "We do not have blue eyes, you know. Green, and gold, and brown, but no blue."

"Green are my favourite," Bodie said drowsily. "Can we sleep now? You have sapped the strength from me, and I feel like weeping myself -- for joy. Dear gods, my love loves me! Was any man ever so fortunate?"

"Few." Raven settled himself to rest, and wriggled. "Would that I could hold your essences within me, as part of me, but I cannot." He stifled a chuckle as he felt the caress of Bodie's fingers, searching out the cooling trickles. "You're tickling me. If I were fully well, that would arouse me again."

"Would it?" Bodie patted the curve of one buttock. "Then I must see to it that I eat well and stay fit, for one whiff of your musk sends me wild... You smell so fine, Ray. How is it that they have not been flinging themselves at your feet, desperate in love?"

Raven did not answer for a long time, and then he said simply, "My mother is a human. There is a fear that human blood will carry after all... No woman will have my children, and therefore few will risk bedding with me. There are herbs one can take to ensure sterility, and I offered to drink them, but they did not trust me. I have had women, but not many of them."

"So you turned to men," Bodie concluded.

"When I began to hurt badly enough," Raven admitted. "After a battle, there is a great energy like a spring coiled within us, isn't there? No woman would have me, what was I to do? First I crept away and touched myself, but I have never cared to weep out of loneliness. When a man called Kieron looked at me with gentle eyes, I went to him. We shared battlefield and bedchamber for three years, and they were good years -- how shall I lie to you? Then he was killed. Even we can be killed, split rib from rib, sundered, where no amount of healing time will mend us." He was silent for a time again. "Bodie, will you bond with me? Give me your hand before a gathering of the clan? Feyleen took Wulff this way, and was permitted the union. No one would send you away -- indeed, I think they would sigh in gratitude, for at last I have found myself a mate who cannot produce children! The elders have been sad for me for years; I have been lonely, and my people are not good at hiding their feelings, as you have seen from me. If no woman was to have me, what could they advise me? I had thought, once, that I would wed a girl called Grelda, who is barren, but she gave her heart to another. For a time she bedded with me. Kept me sane," he added. "After a battle, the others go to their mates, and I had none."

Bodie listened and felt his heart break. How could someone so beautiful as Raven have been so lonely and frustrated? But the fear that human blood would carry was a very real one... The elves were not so bigoted that they were mad to keep their race pure, but the humans they knew -- Garth and his clan, and the Fen -- were barbaric by comparison, and there was always the terror that 'bad blood' would tear the elven clans apart from the inside out. What the humans had never been able to achieve in battle, they could so easily achieve in bed.

"I thank you for telling me," Bodie whispered, "but it was not necessary. I will not pry into your life. My own life has been one of little happiness. As a boy, I saw a man and loved him, but barely had I tasted my first kiss than our fathers came between us. They sent me out to be trained as a warrior, and I excelled. They honoured me and promised me the daughter of a chieftain in marriage, when she came of age..." He spoke briefly of Beth, and Raven lay on his chest, rapt, absorbed in the little tragedy of it. Bodie did not realise he was weeping until he felt the trickle of tears on his skin, and he gave the elf a hug. "Come, come, no grief for my past foolishment, Ray! It was I who killed the girl, for I know enough to have kept her from being with child, if I had seriously considered it." He forced a chuckle. "And there is no such fear between us, is there?"

"None," Raven said throatily. "Sleep, love. Then love me again."

"You have only to ask," Bodie murmured, "and if I can stir at all, I am at your service."

They spent the morning exploring one another, little by little learning what pleased most, and at noon Bodie dared to admit the truth he had known all along. Raven was sprawled, spread eagled and panting already, his skin hot, slick with sweat and clouded in heat and musk, which had Bodie on the point of distraction. They had loved time and again, and the human was almost entirely spent, wondering with some amusement how he was ever going to keep up with this wanton creature. He was certain of Raven now, had heard the declarations of love from his lips, heard his laughter and seen him weep for what had befallen Bodie in the past, and Bodie dared the final caress.

With swollen lips, he nuzzled along from Raven's mouth to his ear, and there began to lick the upswept, graceful peak. Raven tasted wonderful over every inch, it was a pleasure to suck the point of his ear into his mouth, but Bodie was unprepared for the effect it had on his lover. Raven moaned inarticulately, his hands clutching at Bodie's back, and in moments he had gone up over the edge of control, coming as violently as the first time and showering his seed over Bodie's hip. He fell back to the sheepskins, nearly asleep before the spasms had left his body, and Bodie blinked down at him.

"Love? Ray? Ray!"

"Mmn?" Raven slurred. "Should have told you... Do that to my ears when I am cold and unaroused, and I will rise at once. Do that when I am hard already, and it is beyond bearing, like stardust in my veins, like a furnace in my loins, and I must come or die."

"I know," Bodie said smugly. "So now I know what I can do for you when you have exhausted me and still need more. I can pleasure you even when I am spent... It has had me worried, to be truthful. Humans and elves are not so alike as I had thought. We are called insatiable; you are insatiable."

"Are we? Am I?" Raven pried open one eye. "Should I apologise?"

"Not when I have command of your ears," Bodie smiled. "Is there ever a time when touching them does not work its magic?"

"When I am injured, or ill," Raven admitted. "And if I have given all I have. Now, for example. Touch them if you will, I doubt I could respond." Bodie sucked the graceful point into his mouth and cherished it with his tongue, his right hand nestled in Raven's damp groin; the elf's cock gave little sated twitches, but little blood engorged it, and at length Raven laughed. "Even though I am unable, it feels good. What of you? I have left you behind, I fear."

Bodie lifted his head and smiled. "But touch me; I am nearly done for!"

In answer, Raven stirred his leaden limbs and bent his head to kiss and lick, swallowing the human's shaft into his throat as deeply as he was able and pampering him until he came. There was no more than a drop of salt-sweet fluid this time, and Bodie was like a limp rag.

Sprawling out beside him, Raven smiled. "You are the first human who has mated me with love. I wondered if you would be brutal -- "

"Yet still you encouraged me," Bodie slurred.

"Out of my own love," Raven told him. "I could endure a little roughness, for the sake of being one with you. For you, I would have forgiven." He stretched like a sleepy cat and put his head down. "I love you more than the sunlight I have come to cherish, and I will not let you leave me now. Grow accustomed to me in your bed, for I shall be there always."

Bodie pulled him close. "Go to sleep, Ray. Then we'll wash, and eat... Gods, you are so thin!"

Afternoon was no longer young when they woke, and Bodie felt hung over. Raven, by contrast, was like a playful child, cavorting under the water that came cascading in through the cave roof. He was fully recovered, Bodie saw, both from the hardships he had been shown, the ride, and the morning's fevers of desire. The human gave a groan, fully expecting to spend the rest of his life in a state of complete exhaustion. Then he remembered the elf's ears and hid a smile. There were ways and means to make the score more even.

It was a sweet, happy and silly day that spent itself too quickly; as it progressed Raven's eyes grew more accustomed to the brightness and he would sit watching Bodie doze, or looking into his face with a directness that made Bodie blush darkly; but the human had had days to grow accustomed to the elf's looks and Raven had seen his lover for the first time only that morning, so Bodie endured with patience.

They slept soundly that night; Bodie had not the energy to make love again, and merely nibbled Raven's ears until the elf was so sated that he was begging him to stop. The human laughed delightedly, slapped the white, round buttocks, and hugged him. "Ah, I see I have your measure!"

"You have," Raven admitted ruefully. "But I will betray a secret... It is better with you inside me than at my ears, and better in your mouth, or with you in my own mouth. Better even with your hands about me."

Bodie blinked. "I shall remember that. I don't want to spoil anything for you, Ray. What -- what if I am inside you, with my hands working you, and I suck your ears too?"

The elf shuddered visibly. "You learn quickly for a human! I will show you all our secrets, one by one, if you will show me yours. There is no need to hurry; there is time aplenty now."

Time aplenty, Bodie thought as they settled to sleep. The rest of his life -- and if Feyleen had lived on as a girl in Morhod, was it not possible that Bodie himself might enjoy his youth for longer? He prayed to any warrior's god who would listen to let that come to pass, for to grow old and wither away while Raven remained young would be so tragic.

A draught of cold air woke Bodie at dawn, and he realised that it had assailed him as the sheepskins were moved. He wondered if Raven had gone to drink, but, blinking in the wan tendrils of daylight he saw his lover at the mouth of the cave, sitting on a boulder to watch the sun rise. He was naked, his long, slender limbs curled up, his body absolutely still, only the breeze at play in his hair, and Bodie lay transfixed by what he saw. He knew every inch of the elf's form, the taste of him, every moan he would make, the way he could be made to scream as he came, and yet the hunger for him grew worse with time, not better.

He wished, as he lay watching Raven give the sun some elven brand of worship, that they could have stayed here forever, safe from harm and cocooned away from the world and its worries. It was impossible, of course; Raven's whole clan would have been mourning him for weeks, and it was time to put their hearts at ease, but Bodie indulged the selfish whim in his dreams, imagining the life the two of them could live... Alone, the forest full of food and friendly animals, free to love when and as they chose...

Raven turned back toward the sleeping place, finding Bodie's eyes on him, and his cheeks flushed rosily at the expression of unabashed desire on the human's face. He returned to bed without a word, offering the gift of his body, which Bodie took with gratitude and awe, that Raven's love should be given to him so freely, at just a look.

The dream came to an end in the early afternoon. Raven was rubbing down the horses, Bodie was attending to repairs that should have been done to the saddles before they were used, and the elf's keen ears heard the sounds of hooves from far out.

"Bodie, I hear horses," he hissed. "On the trail below. Many men, and riding hard."

Bodie's heart was suddenly in his mouth, and he went to stretch out on his belly, looking over the edge. It was Garth's warband, heading back toward the settlement, and he prayed again -- let them go by! This time, his prayers went unheeded, and his nerves came alive as he watched the warband split up at the base of the cliff. It split into four groups, three cavalrymen in each, and as Bodie and Raven watched a group headed off for the south to probe the forest, another rode into the east to search along the banks of the Yul River, and the third turned back into the east to cover its own tracks... The fourth group disappeared quickly from view, and the only way for them to go was up the precipitous trail which fed onto the ledges, up to the cave.

"Someone has remembered this place," Raven said grimly. "But there are only three. Give me your shortsword, and I will fight at your side."

"Are you well enough?" Bodie asked doubtfully.

"Well enough to have honeymooned with you in the oddest of places," Raven smiled, "and given good account of myself. I am well versed in the arts of the sword, love, and the short sword is not so long as to tax me, even if I am not as strong as once I was. Trust me -- I have no wish to be hurt again after I have only just healed myself!"

"Fair enough," Bodie agreed, "but as soon as we have cut down the men, we must move, quickly. The others will spend the day threshing in the woods, but they will soon be back. When they have waited for some time with no word from the men who lie dead in this cave, they will come up here, and then we will be hunted like wild things, all the way to the bridge on the Caika."

Raven nodded soberly. "But, once across the bridge, we are in my homeland, and they would not dare to follow us. The bridge is -- how far from here? A day's hard ride, two?

"Something like that," Bodie nodded, "so long as the horses do not lame. If they do..." He shrugged. "We might hide again, and trail them, pick them off one by one from the rear. I have a bow, and enough arrows to suffice."

"Dangerous," Raven mused. "Let us see what comes to pass. Kiss me, love, and then come and help me pack your things; we must be ready soon."

"Our things," Bodie corrected, licking Raven's lips. "What is mine is yours, and you know that."

Raven smiled, a dazzling expression, and caught Bodie's head, turning a light brushing of lips into an avid kiss. Then he wriggled away and got to his feet. "I shall love you later, when we are safe, but for now -- to work."

They worked swiftly while the elf cocked his head toward the mouth of the cave, forever listening to the sound of scrabbling feet and hooves, growing nearer. The horses were saddled and Bodie had shown both his broadsword and his shortsword the whetstones again when Raven touched his arm and beckoned him to the cave mouth.

"They are here, just a little way below us."

As yet Bodie could hear nothing, but Raven was sure. He watched the elf take the shortsword in his right hand, and the jewel-hilted dirk in his left, and admitted to himself that Raven was every inch a warrior. With the return of his sight he was recovering the identity he had possessed before they had plunged him into the darkness and made him a whore. Soon, Bodie guessed, he would be himself again, and he looked forward to seeing the spirit and good humour rekindle in his lover.

Then Bodie's ears too picked out the sound of scrabbling feet, and he tensed, flattening out against the rocky wall just inside the cave mouth and waiting to pounce. The first face he saw belonged to a warrior beside whom he had fought in many battles, but he had no regard for the man: he was a butcher and had courted death for a long time. Bodie finished him quickly, having the advantage of surprise; his broadsword slid under the man's ribcage and probed upward, and the body was dead before it hit the ground.

But the first quick strike alerted the other two men, and Bodie and Raven found themselves challenged squarely, one-to-one, with men on whose faces was anger and hate. Raven was much smaller than his opponent, but the difference did not concern him; he wove and feinted like a dancer, evading the axe that was swung at him with an ease and grace a human would have envied. He tired quickly, his breath shortening, but the human warrior was still too slow to catch him, and the weight of the axe tired the man too. Raven struck cleanly, the tip of the shortsword nicking the man's throat and splitting open the big artery there. Blood fanned in the air, spattering his tunic and face, and he stepped back as the warrior went down, writhing and moaning as he poured his life away.

For Bodie the exchange between Raven and the human goliath was an agony, and fear for his lover almost got him killed as he tried to fend off the assault waged against him, and watch Raven too. Within moments he began to relax, recognising great skill when he saw it, and he turned his attention to the man who was trying to eviscerate him; swordsteel chimed like bells in the close confines of the cave and the horses shied in fear as the warriors moved to and fro, a lithe quadrille that ended in death.

As the third body hit the cave's sandy floor, Bodie stooped to clean his blade on the hem of the man's cloak. "Untether the horses, Ray, we have to make time."

Raven was already moving, his voice calming the animals as he led them to the mouth of the cave, and he led the way down, stepping nimbly as a goat over rocks the humans had stumbled on. Still, it was late afternoon when they left the steep incline and at last swung up into the saddle. "We'll be riding by night again," Raven said, "but the night will slow them. They may pitch camp in the woods, and not find the bodies until the morrow."

"By which time," Bodie agreed, "we will be long gone." He kicked Jasmine to a canter, Raven bringing Wind alongside, and smiled. "You are going home, Ray. How does it feel?"

"Like being set free," Raven admitted. "But it is a long way, Bodie, and there is much danger between here and the bridge. Riding at night it is a fool's game, you know that as well as I."

He spoke the truth. The trails were well worn, rutted and scored by pitfalls, and Bodie knew that it would be luck alone if they came through the night unscathed. They made good time, for the moon was high and bright, and Raven was much stronger. The horses tired and they cut speed, sometimes walking to rest them, and plodding uphill on foot so as not to strain them beyond endurance. They were war horses, and strong, and Bodie crossed his fingers, calling to the old gods of his people not to desert them.

Their luck held until the first faint wisps of dawn began to show along the hills, and then Wind cried out in distress, stumbling and going down to her knees. Raven slid down from the saddle at once, taking the mare's right fore in his hands and shaking his head over the fetlock.

"She is lame," he said tersely. "From now on, I walk."

"We rest Jasmin and ride her by turns," Bodie told him. "It will do us no service if you go down too, and you are as yet not strong. Damn! How far have we come, do you think?"

The elf turned back, gazing into the lightening landscape, the way they had ridden. "A day's hard ride. We have bought ourselves some time. But the bridge is still a day's hard ride before us -- or, more likely two days in our condition. And Bodie, they will come upon us by then."

"Then we will choose ourselves another hiding place," Bodie said grimly, "on high ground, a place to make a stand."

"A last stand?" Raven's mouth twitched in a smile. "I have no wish to die with you. If we must hide -- be damned to honour. One has to be alive to be dishonoured, and we can rebuild our shattered honour in time to come!"

Bodie laughed. "We are losing time, and I am tired already before we start walking. Let's move while we can."

Raven was lagging, fading fast, and Bodie put him up on Jasmin before his muscles could fail him. They had been on the trail for eighteen hours, eating as they rode, stopping to drink at streams, and there was a weariness in his bones that Bodie knew he could not ignore forever. Raven was still debilitated, and would not last so long, but they were determined to choose their own place to stand and fight -- or hide -- and not have some location forced on them out of necessity.

Twilight was thickening over the gentle riverlands, and Bodie guessed that, once they had crested the hills that rose before them they would see the river; he ached in every bone and joint and hunger gnawed at him, and when he looked at Raven he saw the ashen pallor had returned to the elf's face.

"We stop, soon," Bodie decided. "We'll make what distance we can in the morning -- maybe they will suffer the same misfortunes as we -- if their horses are lame, they too will make poor time."

"Small chance of all their horses being lame," Raven said ruefully, "but if even half of them are slow, it evens the odds. Two of us -- nine of them left alive. We could take on four of them with a decent chance of life."

"More," Bodie amended, "for we have your ears to tell us of their approach, and my bow, to pick off some of them before they are upon us."

"Then we choose high ground," Raven decided. "Look, there; can we make it to the shoulder of that slope, with the three tall aspens, before stopping?"

Bodie gazed at the slope Raven had pointed out and groaned at the climb. "We can try," he said, getting his feet moving again.

An agony of weariness dragged at them, but they made it, leading the tired horses and forcing one foot in front of the other until the elf and the human were sagging against the largest of the aspens, embracing one another in a grim celebration. "They won't reach this point until noon tomorrow, I hope," Bodie panted, "and we will be rested by then. There is little food left, though, and my stomach thinks my throat is cut."

"Light a fire and tend the horses," Raven said, "I will find food."

He was gone for half an hour, returning with an assortment of fare that Bodie found startling. There were leafy plants, still damp from being washed in the stream, roots and tubers that, when bitten into were sweet; small white flowers, wild roses, last season's nuts, dry but still decent, and green herbs. Bodie had made tea with the last of the rosehips and honey, and they ate in silence, gazing drowsily into the fire while the horses grazed.

The wind was cooler, and Raven smelt rain on it. As they settled to sleep he put the tree between them and the wind, and sure enough, before they had surrendered to the realm of dreams there was a patter of raindrops. Bodie muttered an oath. "All we need now is to be slogging through mud!"

"The sky is clear in the east," Raven said softly against his ear, "so the shower will pass over soon enough... Have I told you lately that I love you? We fight together as well as we make love, don't we?"

"We do everything well together," Bodie yawned. "Even sleep. Shh, little one, and get some rest. Tomorrow we must be strong enough to fight for our very lives." He paused, and held the elf tightly. "If we do make it to your homeland, and if your people choose not to spurn me -- "

"They will honour you," Raven said, "or I shall know the reason why!"

" -- then," Bodie continued, "if you will bond with me, I would be absurdly happy to settle in one place with you and watch the world go by."

"Would you?" Raven propped himself on his elbows; Bodie knew that the elf's night vision was phenomenal, good enough for Ray to see his blush. "Would you be faithful?"

"Faithful?" Bodie laughed. "Do you doubt me?"

"I don't know you very well," Raven admitted. "But our people are quite -- strict is not the word. Particular. About one's bondmate being faithful... I would not stray, Bodie."

"Neither would I," Bodie said, suppressing a chuckle, that Ray could even consider such a thing. "I love you, isn't that enough? Though," he added, "if you want children at some time in the future, I think I can find you a human woman, gentle and affectionate, whose whole parentage is just as sure, and whose blood will do your clan honour. I would release you to bed with her until you have your sons -- so long as you come home to me while she is carrying them, for -- " He laughed. "I am not so chaste and pure that I could be without you for years!"

Raven punched his shoulder. "Why could we not bring her to live with us for that time? Pleasure her between us, and then... Who will know, until the child is seen, whose son or daughter the child is?"

"Yours or mine." Bodie frowned at the idea. "Share our bed with her? Aye, maybe -- years and years from now. For now, there are a thousand things I wish to share with you, and we shall need a thousand nights to try them."

The elf kissed Bodie's shoulder and lay down again. "No arguments from me," he yawned. "You will like my bed... And I shall like to be mated in it. Love has never been made in it."

A thrill ran through Bodie's nerves. "That is something else we shall have to talk about, I think."

"My new bed?" Raven asked sleepily.

"No." Bodie kissed his hair. "You always say... always assume... that it is you who is to be mated."

"Bodie, I don't mind. I know how hard it is for humans to make love in this way, and I know it is frowned upon to be passive, as if it dishonours a man. Among my people, there is no such belief, so I do not mind."

"Still, you are a man," Bodie argued. "It is a man's nature to possess, as well as be possessed. In fact, among my people, it is not a man's nature to be possessed at all, and those few who accept it take their mating out of love. If I cannot do that for you, I should be whipped."

"No such thing," Raven admonished. "If you wished to offer me the joy of your body, how shall I refuse it? It is a delight such as you shall never forget and never replace with any other kind of pleasure."

"I've held you while you endure it," Bodie admitted, "and felt you shake with rapture."

"Endure it?" Raven gave a snort of laughter. "Only if one 'endures' strawberries and cream, and kissing, and dreaming in the sun, and being alive. Oh, love, cease your fretting and go to sleep. I do not mind, as I have said. Give me whatever you will, I shall not ask for more than you can give freely and happily. But first we have to get home, and tomorrow will come sooner than you know. Sleep and grow strong."

He was right -- as usual -- and Bodie closed his eyes, nose pressed into the elf's hair, inhaling the rich, earthy scents of a man. Raven smelt wonderful, familiar, comfortable, and almost against his will Bodie began to relax, sliding down into his dreams with reluctance, because to lie under the stars holding Ray was too great a joy to be relinquished without struggle.

There was a breeze in the aspens when they woke, and Bodie was stiff and sore in every joint. He reached for Raven as he woke, but felt only the cool wool of the sheepskins in which they had been rolled. Blinking in the wash of bright sunlight he searched for his lover, but a moment later realised what had woken him as another projectile landed on his head, dropped out of the tree. Bodie muttered in surprise, retrieving it as it rolled into the bed. It was a hazelnut -- falling out of an aspen tree?

He looked up, collecting the next nut in the face, and saw the elf in the branches, pink in the cheeks as he tried to contain his laughter. Bodie shook his fist at the miscreant, but he was laughing too. "I climbed up to see the form of the land about us," Raven called down, "and saw a bush laden with nuts. They are quite sweet, for last year's crop, if you want to breakfast on them."

He lowered himself carefully from the aspen and into Bodie's arms. "I did not have the heart to wake you."

"You're always awake before me," Bodie observed. "Why is that?"

"We wake with the sun," Raven told him. "You humans sleep much more than we do -- unless we are hurt, and healing, in which case we hibernate... It is no matter, for I like to watch you sleep. I like to imagine what you are dreaming about, what you are feeling."

Bodie remembered his dreams quite clearly, and felt his colour rise. "I will share my dreams with you, one day. For now, I must tend the fire."

Tend the fire and warm water, he thought, to make tea and shave. There were no rosehips or honey left, but Raven had brought several plants and sheets of bark, swearing that they made an excellent tea, and Bodie had learned to trust his judgment where food was concerned. He had begun to wonder if it might be the elf's diet that made him outlive the human -- or at least contributed to their longevity. If there were healers in Raven's clan, he would ask them. He was shaving, peering at his reflection in the polished silver mirror, which was propped in the cleft of a branch, and did not notice Raven's fascination for some time. The elf crept closer and closer, watching him draw the straight razor over his face, and Bodie acknowledged a self-conscious pang.

"What is so strange about shaving?" he demanded.

"I have never really watched," Raven said absently, comparing the look of the unshaved area to the smooth one. Bodie had used oil on his face rather than soap; oil was kinder to the skin and easier to carry, on the trail. Raven bent forward, nosing and testing with the tip of his tongue, and straightened with his face smeared in the sweet oil.

Bodie laughed out loud. "Are you satisfied now? You're as oily as me!" He put the razor to his other cheek, shaving quickly, and then grabbed the elf's head and relished the task of licking away the oil while Raven squirmed in his grasp, panting with laughter. At last Bodie wound his fingers in the curly hair to hold him, and noticed the tangles. "When was the last time this was combed?"

"When it was washed properly," Raven said indifferently. "Some time ago... It is a mess, I know. I shall have it all cut off when we get home."

Bodie was aghast. "Cut it all off? You will not! You will sit still for an hour if necessary, while I take a comb and untangle it... In fact, I have one in my pack somewhere. Come and sit down."

"But, Bodie -- "

"No buts," Bodie said sternly. "Come and sit down, eat your hazelnuts, and tell me about the home I am going to, while I see to your hair."

The elf surrendered, and Bodie dug out the only comb he possessed, a fine thing carved out of bone and engraved with coiling dragons. Raven's hair was almost netted with tangles, and he often yelped when it was pulled, once getting to his feet with an expression of real irritation. Bodie apologised and called him back, promising him kisses if he would comply, and Raven returned, wanting the kisses before he would let Bodie continue.

In half an hour the tangles were mostly teased out, and Bodie dug through his pack for a strip of soft white rawhide, binding the tumble of curls at the elf's nape to hold it down against the wind. "There. That will keep it tidy until you get home... But I prefer it loose."

"So do I," Raven admitted, tossing his head. "This feels strange. I have never tied my hair before, though I notice humans often do it."

As he sat, teeth crunching on the nuts, he had spoken of his home, and Bodie longed to see if it was all true. Gardens, fountains, folk who lived in harmony with nature, playing and savouring life. Raven had several dogs at home, and a house full of cats. They were his family, he said, since he had had no one to call his own before. Bodie heard the poorly disguised sound of loneliness in his voice, and wanted to soothe it away, and as Raven explored the rawhide with sensitive fingertips, deciding it was a good idea to tie his hair, Bodie put away the comb and reached for him.

"How long before they catch us up?" he asked.

"Hours, yet," Raven judged. "It is still quite early -- I should be amazed if they arrive here before noon at least. I will hear them from miles out, and there are vantage points everywhere for a bowman. Will you let me shoot, Bodie? I have keener eyes than a human -- you know what our senses are like."

Bodie nodded at once. "I have seen elven archers at work. Have you used a shortbow before?"

"No," Raven admitted, "only a bow as tall as me, and a crossbow; but the technique will be similar, and luckily the breeze is light."

"Then we will even the odds, and our chances are good," Bodie said, pleased by their plan. "Still, we may die. You know that as well as I do, Ray."

"True." Raven slid his arms about Bodie, lacing his fingers behind the human's back. "I have no wish to die, but it does not scare me."

"Nor me," Bodie said throatily. "But if this is to be our last morning together... I want you. I want you to be mine, one last time." He shrugged. "Many warriors make love before a battle, as well as expend their energies after the fighting is over, don't they?"

"They do," Raven agreed gravely. "And I want you also. We will not come to harm, I don't think, but -- "

"To be safe," Bodie finished, "one last time, eh?"

"The first of many times," Raven corrected, wriggling out of Bodie's grip and pulling off the tunic he had been lent. "How do you want me?"

"Any way," Bodie smiled, standing still as the thin, nimble hands plucked at his own clothing. "Any way at all."

They spread the sheepskins out wide, with the tree between them and the breeze, and Bodie caressed Raven's ears delicately, watching him grow aroused in a moment, shivering as if he were cold. Little wonder that the elf had kept his ears a secret, in Garth's camp. They would have made an exhibition of him, as a freak, when in fact it was something natural to his people. Bodie envied him, until Raven knelt at his feet and sucked him into a fever of arousal at least as intense as that generated by the caressing of elven ears.

Bodie knew exactly what he wanted to do, and turned Ray onto his side, as he had the first time; he filled the elf in one smooth stroke, and lay still until they both had enough control to go on, and then he wriggled his left hand under Raven's bony hip, so that he could cradle and fondle him with both hands. Whimpering with delight, Raven molded to him, moving with him, and Bodie was hard pressed to remember his plan. Ray was close, helpless in his embrace, when Bodie's nearly sightless eyes blinked open and he focused on the pointed ear against his nose.

When he licked it, Raven caught his breath, and when he took the point into his mouth he could barely hold the elf. He had never known any partner be so wild, so frantic, and Raven had taken Bodie up over the edge even before he came himself. Bodie lost any sense of what he was doing, and was not aware when his teeth nipped sharply; from far away he could hear Ray screaming and struggled back to his senses to find the elf writhing desperately in his grip, hardening again in moments, his cock filling Bodie's fist.

"Oh, rub me, rub me," Raven pleaded, his writhing almost painful to Bodie, who had come within him moments before. "Bodie, please!"

Bodie complied, his fist hot and slick with Ray's emissions from the first time he had come; he rolled Raven over onto his belly, lying on him as he tried to control his threshing, and Ray lifted him bodily with the power of what he was feeling. He was sobbing -- Bodie wondered if he was trying to come and couldn't, or trying not to, and he clenched his fist about the throbbing shaft, working it harder. The elf came again with a strangled cry, and was limp as a washrag in moments.

"Ray?" Bodie whispered. "Ray!" He withdrew easily now, turning Raven over onto his back and peering down into a flushed, debauched face. Bewildered, he was unsure if he should offer comfort or jest, and had to wait for Ray's eyes to clear and ask. "Ray, what did I do?"

Slowly, Raven got his breath back. "You know our secrets too well," he said ruefully. "We do that... Not frequently, but sometimes when we are -- especially in need of release." He tried to sit up and failed miserably. "You bit my ear. The pleasure... The pain -- "

"I hurt you?" Bodie muttered, horrified.

"Not pain, exactly," Raven slurred, "like -- like being whipped, but every lash is like coming again, on and on." He shifted. "We can come several times like that -- women many times more; but in the end it is as if we will die of it. Humans cannot, I know, and I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Bodie smiled. "It was incredible holding you while it happened. I don't think you would want that every time, though, would you?"

Raven looked aghast. "Every time? I don't think so! So keep your teeth to yourself after you have taken me over the edge the first time, eh?"

Bodie lifted back the elf's hair to look at the ear he had nipped. "I could have hurt you." He sighed. "There is much I have to learn about elves, and I must learn quickly, if we will share a bed."

"I am an adept teacher," Raven said a little smugly. "Come, lie down and rest now. Then we see to the weapons and saddle the horses. Will we tarry here to bury the bodies, do you think?"

"It would be wise to conceal them," Bodie agreed, curling up in the sun with his lover and collecting a kiss. "The longer they take finding us, the better the chance we will have of making it into Morhod unhindered."

There was a great positive attitude now; perhaps it was simply the aftermath of a loving that had been incredible, but Bodie felt better than he had in days, and the journey ahead seemed bright. He tended his weapons with optimism while Raven saw to the horses, rubbing liniment into Wind's injured foreleg, and when all was ready they ate, and waited.

The sun passed over its zenith and Bodie sat daydreaming, listening to the sounds of the woods; Raven had not spoken in a long time, and at last he looked up, wondering if the elf was dozing. But Raven held his head on one side and was listening hard, his green-gold eyes closed in concentration.

"You hear them?" Bodie murmured.

"I think so," Raven affirmed. "So distant as yet, it could be only the wind... No, it is horses, though I cannot tell how many. They are not riding as fast as they might -- "

"Their horses will be as tired as ours," Bodie said. "Maybe lamed."

"Maybe." Raven stirred. "Time to take position. Give me the bow?"

They had chosen their places earlier, and Bodie watched Raven climb into the branches of an oak; its foliage concealed him, and in the quiver he had a dozen arrows. He swore that he was at home with any such weapon, and Bodie chose to believe him: Raven would not overestimate his skills when their lives were at stake, for to stay alive was everything to him -- to see home again, and share his love without the fretting and worry of battle.

Bodie had chosen a place in concealment also, in the lee of a boulder, on the shoulder of the slope on which they had camped. He had his broadsword drawn, and could just see Raven's lithe shape as the elf sat in the crook of a great bough, an arrow already nocked, his eyes gazing up the trail. Bodie held his breath, straining his ears, and before long he too could hear the riders. More than three, he thought, but less than the nine that were still alive. If Raven could account for several with the bow --

The music of the bowstring contrasted with the sounds of the woodland, and before Bodie ever saw the riders, one at least was dead. He heard the high, shocked scream, heard the bellowing of orders that followed, as the cavalrymen from Garth's stronghold tried to split up and dive into cover. Raven had a second arrow nocked in moments, and the twang of the bowstring was on the air again. Bodie listened, hearing another scream of pain and outrage. Two down. A loose horse rounded the curve in the trail, taking fright and bolting without heed of where it was going, and Raven loosed a third arrow.

It was the last, and this time, though there was no scream, Bodie heard a heavy body impact with the ground. A moment later Raven let himself out of the tree, drawing the short sword from the scabbard that had been threaded onto his baldric, and Bodie watched him double up and dive into the cover of the tree. Then they waited; Bodie gave his lover a hard look: how many? Raven pointed at the bushes and boulders below them, and held up four fingers, then drew his index finger across his throat and held up three. Three down, dead or incapacitated, and four in concealment.

One minute stretched into five, and Bodie had begun to wonder if the cavalrymen had decided to cut their losses and get out, but a coarse voice he recognised from some past argument shouted, "Bodie! There are four of us, and only you and the elf! If you give the elf to us, we'll let you go free!"

"Will you?" Bodie shouted, and gave Raven an ironic grin. "Then come and take him from me." He beckoned Ray out into the open, motioning to him to hold the shortsword in concealment, behind his back. "I have him here. Take him."

The cavalrymen were not so trusting, but there was no way out or back. They had their orders, and Garth was an unforgiving master -- they either took back Bodie and Raven, or they took back their heads, pickled in barrels of brine, to assure Garth that the fugitives were dead... So it was a battle. There could be no escaping it. The four riders emerged from the scant cover of the bushes and chose an opponent, two men drawing square with Raven, and two with Bodie. Bodie shot a glance at his lover -- a glance of farewell, of love and acceptance of anything Fate might do to them now, and lifted his sword.

Garth had sent the best he had, each man a long time warrior whose gifts with the sword were legend; but both Bodie and Raven were legends among their kin too, and they gave better than they got. The battle was brief but bloody, and Bodie would remember it as a series of images, frozen in his mind's eye... The glitter of the sun on an uplifted axe; the hideous death grimace on a man's face, twisting it into a mask of pain and fear; his lover, bracing his foot against a fallen body to prise loose his sword; the red of blood, rubies suspended in the air, as his own sword bit deep and drank.

Both he and Raven were hurt before they had put the four down. Raven was bleeding from a scratch across his chest, and Bodie had collected a nick on his upper arm that looked worse than it was but hurt fiercely. They saw to the wounds before they dragged the bodies into concealment, piling rocks on top of them, within a briar thicket. Raven had taken off his tunic, which was ruined, and used it to blot at Bodie's arm.

"Hold still, I will pack that with moss and bind it up," he said.

"What about you?" Bodie grunted. "Your chest is seeping redly."

"It will have half healed before we are home," Raven said dismissively, "and is only a little wound in any case." He used the tip of the dirk to scrape green moss out of a crevice in the oak, and ripped a strip off the hem of the torn tunic to bind it in place. "You humans are more frail than we, I know."

"Are we?" Bodie blinked. "I seem strong enough to me."

"Yet you die of your infections, sometimes," Raven muttered as he tied off the ends of the makeshift bandage. "There, how does that feel?"

"Fine," Bodie said, forcing a smile.

"Liar," Raven said emphatically, and kissed him. "Now we must to work."

Two of Garth's riders were still behind them -- on slow, lame horses; but Bodie was counting off on his fingers the number of settlements which owed allegiance to the chief, to which those riders could have headed after finding the bodies in the cave. Two could turn into a hundred and two in an afternoon, on fresh horses and with archers among them. He and Raven had to cover their tracks and run. They laboured for half an hour, stacking rocks on the bodies in the midst of the tangled briars, and Bodie's arm was bleeding wetly before they were satisfied; Raven redressed it as they studied the horses, and made noises of approval.

"Wind and Jasmin are rested, at least; Wind's fetlock is only a little swollen now. She cannot run fast, but she can run. And we will see the bridge this time tomorrow, all being well. Damn! If the cavalry horses had not bolted we could have ridden them."

But the horses which carried the brand of Garth's stable were long gone into the woods, and would soon turn for home. Bodie stooped to tighten Jasmin's girth and grunted as his arm gave a stab of pain. "Here," Raven admonished, "let me do that. I am quite well now, and no longer in need of coddling!"

Bodie straightened and watched the elf work; Raven was in good spirits and, apparently, good health. He envied the elves their ability to heal the damage done their bodies, marvelling again at the difference between Ray's people and humankind... They lived longer, slept less, healed with amazing speed, but could not digest meat; their sexuality was unabashed and energetic, and their social traditions were very different. Marriage as such was unknown, but pairbonding was commonplace, and the gender did not matter at all; it did not dishonour a man to be in love with another man, nor to offer his body for his mate's pleasure in the most intimate of ways. Bodie shook his head over the elf as Raven straightened and patted Jasmin's neck. He caught Ray in a tight embrace for a moment, and Raven hugged him in return.

"Bodie?" he asked, curious about the sudden show of affection.

"Nothing... I just love you. And I ask you to have patience with me, when we reach your home. I will try to adapt to your ways with all speed, and not alienate your people."

"Be who you are, and what you are," Raven said sternly. "I'll not have you acting out a role for me -- it is you I fell in love with, not some man I could turn you into! I have no wish to turn you into anything... Except a sleepy-eyed lover, cocooned in my bed, exhausted and happy. Now, move!"

The horses were fresh after their rest, and they made decent time, but Bodie continually looked over his shoulder, dreading that he would see a band of cavalry behind them. Raven, by contrast, gazed ahead, scouting for the pass in the hills which would send them through to the river flats, and the bridge into Morhod. The incline was steep, and they walked much of the way; Wind began to limp, and Raven elected to stay on his feet as long as he could, swearing that he was quite recovered after the ordeal in captivity. He was so cheerful and vital that Bodie believed him, and though he was tempted to smother him in protection he bit back his reactions and allowed Raven his head.

They saw the jagged boulders, heaped up by many a rock slide, in the late afternoon; sunlight was golden and warm and they were sweating heavily with exertion. Bodie crosed his fingers, praying that the way would be open. If it was blocked, all they could do was leave the horses behind and climb over. He did not relish the thought of abandoning Jasmin and Wind, but it was either that or go around the long way, and the risks were too great. If he and Raven were caught, they would die, and not quickly or pleasantly.

Hooves ringing sharply on the rocks, the horses made their way into the pass, and Raven swung down out of the saddle to scout ahead on foot. He had all the agility of one of his people and Bodie merely followed, leading the horses, his eyes narrowed against the glare of the setting sun. "Bodie!" Ray called moments later. "It is narrow, but there is a way! To the left, here!"

It was a narrow squeeze for the horses and Wind had to be coaxed, but they both went through, and at once Raven climbed up onto the boulders, putting his shoulder against loose rocks. "If I can tumble these down into the opening, we can slow them down a little. They will clear them again, but it will take longer to move them than to push them over. There."

Gravelling scattered away and the elf jumped to safety; Bodie caught him, and together they crunched across the loose shale to the end of the pass. There, below them, was the forest, a last range of hills before the Chaika River. "We will see the bridge tomorrow afternoon," Bodie judged. "One more night beneath the stars with you, love, and then you show me this bed of yours. The one in which love has never been made." He dropped a kiss on Raven's mouth. "Love will be made in it soon. And frequently."

"I hope," Raven smiled. "I'm hungry. Let's make what distance we can, and gather food along the way."

The forest was full of food, and when they camped that night Bodie slung a pot over the fire, setting vegetables and herbs to simmer while he and Raven dined on nuts and flowers and drank tea. Unaccustomed to the fare, Bodie was longing for rabbit, or pheasant, but he said nothing. If the elves could not eat such things, then hunting animals in these forests would be unknown, and he was not about to break their customs so soon. Or ever. He rubbed his stomach. Bread and eggs, cheese and preserves, and Raven's favourite food, honey and roses, would have been just as good. The vegetables were cooked when they had seen to the horses and made a nest in which to sleep, and they ate again, tired and pleased just to curl up, sharing each other's warmth.

Bodie woke with the sun full in his face, and this time managed to take hold of the elf before Raven left him. Raven kissed his face and laughed. "Ouch! I had forgotten how prickly you are in the mornings."

"While you," Bodie observed wryly, "are as smooth as a girl child." He swatted the elf's rump. "I would ravish you here and now, but I don't think we can afford the time, can we?"

"No," Raven agreed with a sigh, "but no matter. Tonight there will be clean sheets and soft pillows." He kissed Bodie's nose and wriggled away. "We have time for tea, I think."

They were moving before the sun had fully cleared the treetops, and now Raven led the way, for he knew the land here well. He had fought over these hills as often as Bodie had, and was more at home in the forest than the human. By noon the pass was far behind them, and Bodie had begun to feel safe. He let Jasmin choose her own way behind Wind, riding up onto the brow of a hill, and then reined back to come to a halt beside the elf. Raven's shaded eyes gazed out on the westward side of the hill. "There," he said, "you see the glitter in the distance? That is the river."

"And the bridge lies in the cleft of those slopes, I know," Bodie smiled. "Not a hard ride, from here, and -- "

But Raven had turned to look back the way they had come, and his face froze. He reached over to put one hand on Bodie's shoulder. "Look."

Twisting in the saddle, Bodie gazed back into the east, and his mouth dried. From the brow of a hill, not far enough behind them, he saw the glare of sunlight reflected off a glass. A spy glass, such as cavalry scouts used. "How far behind us are they?" he asked softly. "Too near."

"And heading for the bridge on a different trail," Raven mused. "If they reach it ahead of us they will cut us off. The river is too wide and deep to swim, and the next bridge is a week's ride in the south."

"Then we reach it first or die," Bodie said grimly, nudging Jasmin with his heels. "They will be on fresh horses, you realise."

"But we are nearer the bridge than they," Raven added. "The odds are even... I have won through on odds worse than that before now."

"So have I," Bodie said with a brash grin. "So we move -- and hope."

Wind was labouring, and often Raven chose to lope, leading her at a trot that still taxed her even though she was not carrying his weight. They made slow time, concealed by the woods, often having to detour around thickets that had overgrown the trail, and Bodie was fretting silently. At last, in the heat of the summer's mid-afternoon, he called Raven to stop. The elf had been loping for some time and was flushed, his breathing short.

"We cut Wind loose," Bodie said. "If she follows Jasmin, so much the better, if she does not..." He shrugged. "Then she will be free in the forest, and will find the wild herd sooner or later. Perhaps we will see her, and catch her back a year from now."

"I owe you a war horse," Raven said wryly as he slung the saddle off Wind and threw it under a mulberry bush, then unbuckled the bridle and set the horse free. He stroked her white blazed face and velvet soft muzzle. "Come with us," he said to her, "if you can. It is not far now."

Then Raven turned from the horse and ran, settling into a woodsman's steady gait. Too few humans ever used their bodies, Bodie decided; the elves were in touch with their bodies and their world, in harmony with both. They knew every facet of their feelings, understanding sex and love for what they were, and enjoyed a communication with their environment that humans rarely did. Humans built houses and shut themselves away behind walls, killed the animals for food and gave worship to the gods of war and plenty. Bodie gave Raven a rueful look; the elf was enjoying himself, loving the way his body was working as he loped for home. Behind Jasmin, Wind was tagging along, happier now that she was loose and sticking with her companion for the sake of it.

The gradient was shallow, leading down, always down, onto the river flats, and Raven made light work of the run, as if he did this kind of thing every day -- perhaps he did, Bodie thought, realising that he knew his lover only as a man who had been hurt and used. As Raven reverted to form he was changing -- turning back into the warrior who had saved Bodie's life on the battlefield three years ago. Bodie liked what he saw, feeling a great pride in Raven's self-assured manner and his abilities.

The shadows were growing longer, and Raven had taken off the tunic to make the most of the cooling breeze, when they came down on to the last slope before the river and broke at last from the trees. The Chaika lay before them, wide, deep and splendid, its waters running swiftly, its bridge a silent tribute to engineers long forgotten. Raven came to a halt, tired now, and in a lather of perspiration, and Bodie handed him a skin of water to drink.

"Rest," he said, "I'll take the bow and scout the area. If they had made it here ahead of us we could be walking into a trap."

"Yet there is no way back," Raven panted. "We could lose ourselves in the woods, but they could have us outnumbered and -- "

"What happened to all that elven optimism?" Bodie winked. "Settle here, watch the horses, and let me take a look." With that he got moving, picking his way carefully down to the riverbank and gazing upstream, in the direction of the other trail by which the cavalrymen had come. There was no activity that he could see, and he waited there for some time, fretting as he knew that moments wasted like this could be costly. At length he jogged back up to Raven and caught Jasmin's reins. "There are no riders that I can see," he said, "and if there is an ambush, I cannot notice it. There is nowhere to ambush us... If they wanted to take us, all they have to do is bar the bridge, and where can we go? I think it is safe."

Raven got his feet under him, and had regained his breath. "I shall be as stiff as an old man in the morning," he said wryly. "And not merely from your attentions... It is quite some years since I have run so far."

Their feet were noisy on the bridge, and Wind was still trotting in the wake of her stablemate. Bodie chose to ride now, when they were so close to freedom, with good reason; if they were surprised on the last stretch, he needed the mobility of the cavalryman, for Raven, on foot, was fair game. The horses clattered over the bridge's stone back, as weary and sore as man and elf, and Bodie had just begun to relax when he saw the taut muscles of Raven's face and felt his own nerves' sharp jolt.

"What is it? What do you hear?"

"They are behind us," Raven said tersely. "Hurry now. They won't follow us over the bridge, I don't think. They will be afraid of elven magic on the Morhod side. As if we have that kind of magic."

Bodie nudged Jasmin into an unwilling trot as Raven set off to run, and they covered the span of the bridge with all speed. They were off it, and on the bank at the far side, on land that was the birthright of Raven's own clan and tribe, when the gods ceased to smile.

The arrow, loosed by one of Garth's archers, found its mark squarely in Bodie's right shoulder, and he slumped in the saddle, nearly falling and managing to cling to the sheepskin with great effort. Raven called his name, he heard the elf's voice clearly, knew that he was being propped up, that the horse was being led and urged to speed, but the darkness came lapping up over his head like a tide of thick, black treacle, and the last thought in his mind was one of regret. If he was to die, the worst thing about it was that he would be parted from Raven for so long -- until Raven also was dead, and came to greet him in the feasting halls in the otherland to which the warriorkind were bound. But there was an intense satisfaction, too: if he was to die, at least he had brought Raven into freedom, and had repaid his debt. Bodie relinquished his grip on consciousness at last, hardly knowing what was happening as he was lifted down into some soft, yielding place where the pain had gone away.

It was the sunlight that woke him and he felt his pupils contract sharply as his lids fluttered open. Disorientation swamped him for a moment, and then it all flooded back. The hunting, the bridge, freedom -- pain and darkness. Bodie gave a groan, half in horror at the remembered catastrophe, and half in relief, that he was alive to worry about it. There was a slight ache in his right shoulder, but when he moved he was surprised, for the stab of pain he had expected did not happen. He felt weak, but his head was steady and there was no nausea. Elven healing, he guessed, and tried to focus on the room.

He lay in the middle of a big, wide bed; it was made of carved wood, and he was lying on a mattress of eider feathers with his head on a pillow just firm enough to support its weight. The quilt that lay on top of him was green and gold, and the air smelt of cut flowers and incense. The window was open on his left, a breeze that carried with it the rich scents of the forest stirring the gauzy drapes, and the room was painted out in the palest of saffron, while the floor was tiled in slate. And he was not alone.

There was a girl sitting beside the window, her elbows on her knees, her eyes fixed on him, and as she saw him stir awake she came to the bedside. Bodie blinked up at her, seeing a golden tan, long, fair tresses tumbling to her shoulders, brown eyes and a mouth that smiled. She was small and slender, and her body was clad in white linen, clinched at the waist by a scarlet girdle. Great beauty impressed itself on Bodie in a moment, and before he asked where he was, he said, "Who are you?"

She ignored the question, the smile widening. "You're awake. I wondered how long you would sleep -- still, you've slept away your woes, and will be well now. An afternoon on your feet, and you'll soon regain your strength." She sat down on the bedside and shook her head at him. "So this is Bodie, the human, the warrior. I had wondered what it was Raven spoke of with such obvious pleasure."

Bodie seized on the name. "Raven? Where is he?"

"Out playing with the dogs, who have missed him," she told him. "Be at peace; you are lying in his bed."

His new bed, Bodie thought with a tingling feeling, the bed in which love had never been made. He sighed in regret; there was to have been loving here the night they made it home. "How long have I been here?" he asked softly.

"Three days, more or less. He brought you here in a wagon borrowed from a farmer, and you were hurt. A healer along the way took the arrow out for him, and dosed you with the right herbs and such. Have no fear -- there was no infection, and they merely gave you a sleeping draught to keep you still while their magic worked upon you." She smiled. "Raven brought you here and put you to bed himself. He watched you for a whole day, then I bade him see to his kin, and the dogs. We have mourned him, Bodie -- you cannot know what it has been like to lose the favourite son of a clan!"

"Favourite son?" Bodie echoed. "How can that be, when no woman would lie with him for fear of having his children? How can he be the favourite when he has lived his life in loneliness?"

The girl blinked. "It's love that makes you speak in his defence, I know, but there is no need. Raven is the best of us; the most beautiful, and the greatest warrior, the sweetest singer, and the most tender of heart. If he is cursed with his human blood, then -- " She sighed and shrugged, averting her eyes. "The fault is mine. He is not to be blamed."

"Your fault?" Bodie frowned at the girl. "How so?"

"I am his mother, who else shall take the blame?"

"You? Feyleen?" Bodie found it impossible to believe -- this was a girl, she could be no older than Raven himself, surely?

A smile lit her features, and she lifted back the tumble of her hair to show him her ears. "See? I am as human as you -- and much older than you, Bodie. Oh, if you could see your face! Rest yourself, it is a trick of the place and the life. Fall into concord with this place and its people and you too will see out the seasons and live in youth. Raven is my firstborn son. I have one other, and a daughter, but it is he who shines in my eyes. I have hurt for him, for his loneliness, for so long, and if he has given his heart to you, I pray of you, don't hurt him."

"I won't," Bodie promised soberly. "I love him more than I ever thought I could love anyone or anything. Hurt him? I would sooner flay myself alive! Send him to me, please, I yearn to see him again."

"Soon," Feyleen promised. "I would speak with you a little first. He... Bodie, I asked him where he had been, and what became of him, and he has said no more than a word about what happened. I know that he must have been a captive, and I know that whatever was done to him would have healed on the road out of the east, but... Bodie, understand. I mourned for him for weeks, and now he will not speak to me of it. I seek to share his troubles, to ease the memories, and he is shuttered, closed, hidden away from me. There are times when he sits gazing into space, in an agony of memory, and I have heard him crying out in the night, sleeping alone and woken by some awful memory."

Bodie's face twisted and his heart gave a sharp squeeze in his chest. He hitched himself up on the pillows, feeling barely a twinge from the wound. "Feyleen, it may be that he does not want you to know."

"So, you tell me, and he will never know that I know," she whispered. "I must know, Bodie. By all our gods, he was a captive among people who were once my people. What have they done to him?"

There was a pleading look in the woman's eyes and Bodie relented with reluctance. "He fought with your warband, and was merely stunned in the fighting; when he awoke he was already a captive. They... They stripped him to see what they had caught, and he was given, as a warprize, to the chief, as you would expect. They did not beat him or whip him, but a healer used his wiles to cost Raven his sight. Blind, he was harmless, you understand. Better that than break his bones -- since the sightlessness was only for a time. They did not put him to work, but... Made him a bed slave." Bodie's voice dropped away to a whisper. "Many used him, and badly, having drugged him first lest he should make a fight of it. The chief used him mostly, but lent him out to others who were fascinated by him." He shrugged. "He had been there for ten days when I returned, and I took him out of their hands at once. No one touched him ever again after I returned."

"He has told me a little," Feyleen whispered hoarsely, her face white and strained. "He saved your life, he said, and you owed him a debt which you repaid in this way." She put a hand to her mouth and closed her eyes, and Bodie watched tears squeeze from between her lids. "How could the gods be so cruel? Was he hurt, Bodie, when you found him?"

"Not so badly as you might think," Bodie said gently. "Just sore and bruised, and I saw to his needs."

"And loved him." Feyleen drew the back of her hand across her face to wipe away the tears. "Aye, he was lucky, or he would be there even now, raped and dishonoured. Who was the chief who did this?"

"That isn't important," Bodie said evasively.

"It is. I will send a message to him, and tear to shreds his honour for this! This is no way to treat a warrior!"

"And it is not worth fighting over, if you will listen to Raven," Bodie argued. "His honour can be restored as his body has grown well and strong. It is not right that so many more will die, Feyleen."

"Still, for the sake of my own peace of mind," Feyleen said, "tell me."

"No," Bodie said, shaking his head. "For the sake of your peace of mind, I must not."

"Whatever do you mean?" She stood up, hugging herself. "What does his name matter to me, unless -- " Her face became blank, and then her jaw loosened in dread. "Our enemies are not still -- it couldn't still be -- Oh, no!" She spun away from the bed and paced to the window. "We get little news from the other side of the hills, but a Fen trader spoke of dealing with Garth, so I know my father is still alive. If he still lives, is he still the chief?"

"Yes," Bodie whispered. "Feyleen, I'm sorry. I had not meant you to know, and if you allow Raven to know that I told you, I shall be angry."

The fair head shook, a slow negative, and when Feyleen turned back from the window her face was blank again. "He will never know. Let his heart mend now as mine must... But I will write to my father; a Fen traveller can take my message to him, and I shall curse him for what he has done to his own kin. Let Raven forget it all, Bodie... Just love him."

"Send him to me," Bodie asked again, "please."

She nodded. "You will be well enough to move now; the wound will heal almost without a trace, and our medicinals do not leave you weak. Try out your feet, if you will, while I go and find my son."

The room was silent when she had gone, and Bodie slid out of bed, finding that his head was steady and his shoulder barely even sore. If he had been tended by a human physician, he would have been cut deeply, then shown the poker to cauterise the wound, and left to suffer while he healed properly. He walked about the room, finding flowers, wood carvings of forest creatures, books in a script he could not read, and then dared to stretch his arms above his head. He felt the pull of the bandage that was adhered to his skin with some fixative, and itch from the healing wound, and smiled. There was a feeling of health and wellbeing, and the weakness was nothing to speak of.

He waited a long time and had begun to wonder if Raven had gone out to exercise his animals; if he had, Feyleen would not find him for hours. Bodie went to the window, looking down from the vantage point into a cobbled courtyard in which a fountain played to itself and several cats sunned themselves among the potted plants. This was Raven's home -- his room, his bed? And he had been sleeping elsewhere, lest he wake his lover? Bodie smiled, looking out over the forest in which this place was concealed. This place felt like home. He returned to the bed, liking the feel of cool sheets against his skin, glad that they had left him naked instead of wrapping him in some prudish robes. This was Raven's bed, and prudery had no place in it.

He had settled himself to wait with what patience he could muster when he heard footsteps, echoing on stairs not far outside the door, and his heart picked up at its pace. The door swung open a moment later and the elf's flushed face appeared, bright eyed, smiling in delight. The halo of curls was windblown and untidy, and he had been hurrying, which brought up his colour. He was clad in a yellow silk tunic which left his legs bare, and Bodie's white sandals were thonged to his knees below the hem of the garment. There was silver at his wrist, and gold glittering among his fingers -- a prince among his people, Bodie thought ruefully, and what was I? Just a boy who became a warrior, and fought for pay. What am I doing here? I can't possibly receive all this, can I?

Then Raven was kneeling on the bed and offering his arms, and Bodie went into them, forgetting everything. The elf was hot to the touch, the silk was sheer, almost nonexistent, and beneath it a man's lean, muscular body molded against Bodie's eagerly. Raven's mouth opened to him, inviting a lover's deep kiss in greeting, and when they surfaced from it Bodie discovered that he had pinned the elf beneath him, pressing him into the eider mattress. The coppery curls spilled across white bed linen, and Raven was laughing.

"You have healed almost as fast as one of us," he observed. "A few days and you will be as good as new, which is a relief... I have missed you."

"You have been sleeping alone," Bodie said regretfully. "Well, no more. This is your bed, and you belong in it. Oh, Ray, look at you! You smell of -- what is that? Lilac and honeysuckle?"

"I washed my hair this morning," Raven said simply. "You will smell of that too if you use my things."

"Oh." Bodie pressed his face into the curls and inhaled. "Silk and silver do suit you," he admitted, "but I prefer you, um..."

"Naked," Raven guessed, and laughed. "You are naked... And looking thin. I must see to it that they feed you."

"And you," Bodie teased, pinching the skin over Raven's sharp hip bones. "Shall I let you up?"

Raven caught his shoulders, holding him there. "No, I can breathe, and am comfortable. You feel so good, love. I've wanted you so... Why don't you come and lunch with me, meet the dogs, then see this place. There are orchards by the stream, and a knot garden on the other side of the house. There is the family shrine, and the stables where my horses are. You must choose which you want. Jasmin and Wind are both tired and sore, still, but you can have any horse you like. Anything that is mine is yours."

Wanting his mouth, Bodie bent his head and kissed him, and then sat up and let Raven sit up too. "I could hold you all day," he admitted, "but I must find my feet again, and I am hungry." He gave the elf his hand. "Show me your home, then."

"Your home," Raven corrected sternly.

Dressed in silk and leather, and much silver jewellery, all of which Raven insisted was his, Bodie followed his lover out into the courtyard. He met the cats first, Fluff and Feather, Brighteyes and Whiskers, and then the dogs came bouncing in through the gate to greet him. They were bred for war, Bodie saw, but none of them had ever been in a battle. They had not a scar between them and were big, silly creatures, spoiled with love and soft living. Raven called them Wolf, Vixen and Pup, for the youngest was still little more than a whelp. Wolf was old and too fat, but Vixen was young and agile, noisy and demanding. The three dogs, and two of the cats, trailed the men as they ambled about the house.

It was an enormous building -- Bodie would have called it a palace, but Raven denied that. This was a chieftain's home -- his home -- and if any building was a palace, it was the home of the chief, much deeper in the forest. The portico was clad in pink marble, the roof shingled with earthen tiles, and on all sides were gardens, studded with fountains, shaded with trees in which there were more songbirds than Bodie had ever seen. The most violent sight was the elven boy, stick in hand, chasing rabbits out of the knot garden. Late afternoon saw them in the orchard, lying under an apple tree, making faces at the sour taste of the as yet unripe fruit, which Vixen crunched with relish, and Bodie gazed across at the house. He could see the window over the courtyard -- Raven's room.

"This place is like something out of a legend," he said. "Across the hills, all is timber and mud, and the humans are barbarians."

"They are a young race," Raven said carefully, "and have much to learn. We have been living here for a long, long time. There are never very many of us -- we can choose how many children we will have, you see, and we know that if there are too many of us, we will overtax the food and resources at our command. So we choose to have few children, and therefore there are no cities. You could ride through our lands and miss us entirely, but we are here." He kissed Bodie's mouth. "See? We do exist."

"Oh, you exist," Bodie agreed, catching his head to kiss him again. "Um, when I woke my face was as smooth as yours."

"I shaved you," Raven said throatily. "And not one cut."

For some absurd reason, Bodie blushed. "We go to bed early tonight."

"Do we?" Raven's eyes sparkled.

"We do." Bodie palmed his buttocks and squeezed, and felt Ray shiver. "I want you fiercely, and cannot wait much longer to make use of that bed."

"Nor can I," Raven admitted. "Dine with us, listen to the bards for a time, and then tell them you are weary. They won't argue, knowing how frail humans can be."

"Frail?" Bodie bucked his hips against the elf. "I'll show you how frail I am, you little monster."

Raven laughed delightedly and got to his feet, brushing grass off his tunic. "Let me escape before you are taking me right here -- which is not seemly, for the chieftain of this clan!"

Bodie frowned, sitting up, back against the tree. "What is seemly?"

"Oh, good manners," Raven shrugged. "You may do and say anything, but we have our honour and slights are not ignored. If you choose to bond with me, you will enter the clan; I am the chieftain and the head of this householding, but that has never meant much to me. My mother is in charge, actually. I have ridden the war trails for years, as you know."

"And my obligation to you, as the bondmate of a chieftain?"

Raven laughed, a rumble in his chest. "To bed me, often. To mate me, when we want or need it, hard or gentle. What is it, Bodie?" he added, seeing the flicker of a frown on Bodie's face.

"You have just said it again."

For a moment Raven wondered what he was talking about, then remembered. "Bodie, I have told you already. If you never wish to let me mate you, it is your decision, not mine. I am your bedmate, not your master! Take your time, there is plenty of it. Come slowly to an understanding of what you feel and need, and want. Our loving will be easy."

"But you're the chieftain," Bodie said stubbornly, "not I, and it is -- unseemly for you to submit!"

Raven blinked at him, then threw his head back and laughed. "Those are human values, not ours. I do not 'submit', love, I ask for your favours, and in bed it is all the same. You are so -- so human!"

"I am human," Bodie growled.

"You will forget," Raven purred. "If you want to. If not, then what you recall will haunt you, and you will go back."

Bodie was aghast. "Go back? Leave this, leave you, and go back to mud and killing and -- ? How can you think that, Ray?"

"Then put your heart and mind at rest and grow accustomed to home," Ray coaxed, "and if I ask to be mated, call it -- your duty."

Bodie made a face, getting to his feet. "Duty to my chieftain?"

"Duty to your lover," Raven murmured. "Please?"

There was no way Bodie could refuse him anything when he spoke softly and wore a frown -- or at any other time. He sighed, catching the slender body and embracing it. "Is it seemly to cuddle you in the orchard?"

"Oh, yes," Raven said happily, "and kiss me too, if you like."

"I like," Bodie sighed, and did just that while the dogs chased Fluff and Feather up into a tree and sat whining at the foot of it.

Feyleen did not dine with them, but Bodie met Raven's grandparents and several other clan elders -- uncles, aunts, cousins many times removed. They all smiled at the human and offered Raven the best of wishes, and some of them spoke of a bonding ceremony, to be conducted as soon as a priest could be brought, if the couple were agreeable. Bodie nodded at once, but wondered if he was moving too soon. Raven saw his concern, and drew him out into the courtyard as the moon rose, to ask, "What is it, love?"

"Oh, just that they are accepting me so quickly," Bodie told him. "If they grow displeased with me in a month, a year, how can such a bonding be broken again?"

"It is a simple matter to break it," Raven said quietly. "I simply stand up among the people, making sure that there are witnesses aplenty, and say that I have no wish for your company any longer. You can do the same, if you become tired of me, and no longer desire me." There was a catch in his voice.

"Hey," Bodie said, gently remonstrating. "That isn't what I meant... No second thoughts, no regrets. I was talking about the old folk, who have yet to know me. Do they know how many elves I have killed, warring for Garth?"

"As many as I have killed humans, in the same battles," Raven said levelly. "If that is your concern, leave the old folk to themselves. They know you are a warrior and consider it fitting that a chieftain should bond with a warrior. Better than choosing a man beneath me."

"And they have no arguments," Bodie asked one final time, "that you have chosen a man, rather than some girl?"

Raven punched his good shoulder. "How many times must I ask you to leave behind you your human ideas? Come to bed, and let me set the ghosts to rest!"

The old folk were still talking when they re-entered the dining hall, and Raven merely said, "Good night, and good dreams. We will retire now." The clan elders smiled, one old woman with a deeply wrinkled face, winked at Bodie and made him blush, and one old man thumped Raven's back. They knew exactly where the young couple were going, and Bodie was reminded of his wedding night. For some unaccountable reason he was shy and retreated from the dining hall with gratitude, letting himself be shepherded up the stairs and into the room that was not Raven's, but theirs.

One candle lit six others, and Raven turned back the bed as he watched. The elf stretched lazily, slipping off his tunic and the scrap of linen underwear that was all he chose to wear at home. Bodie gave him a rueful look; being around him, half-clad in this fashion, was going to be difficult, and something Bodie would just have to learn to manage. He undressed carefully, still mindful of the shoulder that had been hurt, and accepted Ray's invitation as he was beckoned into the middle of the large bed.

"Love has never been made here," Raven said throatily, "unless you wish to count the times I attended to myself, being alone."

"No," Bodie smiled. "This is the first time. Our time."

He pleasured Raven slowly and gently, finding him aroused without a single touch at his ears, and kept his hands and lips away from them so as to make it last a long time. The bed was a tangled disaster and Bodie was suckling at the elf's puckered nipples when he heard Ray's soft, lush sigh, and knew what would be asked of him. He lifted his head, moving to turn Ray over onto his belly, but Ray resisted.

"No, please, let me lie on my back. I want to see you."

Legs wrapped about Bodie, and Raven opened to him with all the ease and acceptance he remembered from the loving that had been stolen in flight. Now, there were cool sheets, candles, the breeze from an open window, and if Bodie had ever dreamed of love, those dreams had come true. Sheathed deeply in the elf's body, arms wrapped around his neck, breathy curses and endearments panting into his ear, he felt his senses spin. Nearly dizzy with disbelieving pleasure, he set to work, and when Raven came at last he held the slender body while it rode out the storm of fulfilment. Raven kissed him, holding onto him with arms and legs, still loath to release him, and Bodie looked down into his face, which was sated and positively debauched.

"One day," Bodie said, and meant it, "you shall do that to me."

"Shall I?" Raven asked, smiling sleepily.

"Aye, when I have found courage to match my love, and when curiosity has got the better of my silly little fears." He stroked the length of Raven's softening cock. "You are well endowed, you know, and I -- " He had to laugh. "In that way, I am a virgin."

"And the first time it does hurt," Raven agreed. "Oh, no matter, love -- in your own good time. Your body will know when it wants me in that way, and I will take care." He smiled. "There is a first time for everything." He turned over on the sheets, remembering too late that he had not cleaned the sticky film of his seed from his chest and belly. "Oh, damn. Sheets for the laundry."

"They will be a good deal more soiled and rumpled soon," Bodie said thickly, his eyes surveying the elf's back and buttocks, and his nerves sending a flicker of desire through his groin. "I may be human, but I am not so easy to satisfy as that."

"Good," Raven smiled dreamily. "Come and love me again, when you are able; or shall I make free with you, this time?" He smacked his lips with meaning, causing Bodie to laugh and harden again. "Ah, I see you like the notion! Lie down and let me have you."

It would be easy, Bodie thought as he complied and felt his body besieged utterly, to forget the other world, to forget what it was to be human, to give everything he had to Raven and his clan, and take from them life. And love. He yearned for all they could give him, had waited his whole life to find this place and this man, and as he arched up into Raven's loving mouth, spilling his seed with a hoarse cry, he counted himself the luckiest human alive. Bonded to a chieftain, at home in a palace, cherished in the bed of one he loved; it was like a tale told to children to soothe them into the night... Yet what was happening here had nothing to do with children, he amended as Raven turned him over and rubbed his cock in the human's clefted rear, much as Bodie had loved him that morning in the woods outside of Garth's stronghold.

No, nothing to do with children at all, Bodie thought as Raven grew wild with the surge of desire and love and rode him hard, each thrust pampering the pucker of muscle that was untried and filling him with delight. Raven came again and fell asleep where he was, stretched out on Bodie's back, the two of them stuck together with elven seed, the curly head on the human's shoulder. Bodie tried twice to move him and then gave up, pulling the pillow under his cheek and leaving him to sleep.

Time to wake him, and speak of love, later.

-- THE END --

September 1986

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