The Hunting Book One, Part V
Summer would be early and hot, Bodie thought absently, his eyes following the serried ranks of clouds across the sky. They were high, fleecy, promising no rain, and already the wind was warm out of the south. Morhod was girdled by highlands: to the north, the Casdar range, to the east, the Black Hills that formed the frontier between the elven and human tuaths. To a degree the mountains acted to pacify the climate, earning these gentle lands their name. 'The Kingdom Of Summer'.
It was a name conjuring images of peace, prosperity and long life, but Bodie had learned better. It was twenty-five years since there had been peace along the Black Hills and many elves had paid for one human woman's freedom with their lives, with their pain. Feyleen had fled her home, her father and the marriage arranged for her, riding westward with the elven chieftain, Wulff; for her it was a blessed escape but the price of freedom was high.
Twenty-five years of sporadic fighting; many dead, many hurt. Among them, Bodie thought bleakly, Feyleen's own eldest son. Raven was quiet, subdued, letting Lightfoot pick his own way among the wagon ruts as they headed east in Amber's wake, toward home. The horses were tired, hard ridden for too long, and Jasmin was not much short of lame. Bodie walked much of the way to spare her, he and Raven seldom speaking, each ensnared by their thoughts.
Willow was dead, and many of the Kith, and there had been burning. Raven's face was taut, his body betraying his feelings more eloquently than his expression, for he was trying hard to school his face as a human might have. Ash had not known who was dead, who was hurt; the news that came out of the east with riders only a day before and as yet all was chaos. The humans had come through the hill passes the instant they were open, striking deep into the Kith heartlands, this much was known; Feyleen had been alive when last she was seen, and bound over the saddle of a warhorse. She was a captive now, or dead already.
And Raven blamed himself, Bodie knew. Had Garth's men not pursued him across the hills they would never have discovered Feyleen; he should have died one day in high summer, as so many others had died, a day when elves and humans met in a skirmish along the hills. He had not said as much but Bodie knew his mate too well to doubt what was in his heart. Raven had been silent for days, and if he had eaten or slept Bodie was unaware of it.
Grieving for his kin, for his sister, the human knew, though for himself he had little regard for Willow, remembering all too keenly how the girl had treated Raven after Falcon's death. As if her brother was a murderer, a savage. Anger could easily kindle in Bodie's guts as he thought back to the night of the judgment: he had stood in the hall, watching the elders strip Raven of everything, his honour, his birthright, even his jewellery and clothes, until he had nothing and was cast out for his sins.
His sins? Bodie sighed, shaking his head over the elf's slight figure as Raven rode a pace ahead of him, head bowed in introspection. If Raven had done anything at all worthy of penance, Bodie did not know of it. He had been a warrior since boyhood, a chieftain for several years, won battle honours and the respect of his clan. He had been a captive, a bed slave, used and abused until his spirit was broken, his eyes blind, death his only ambition.
If there are sins marked against us on the slate, they are mine, Bodie thought ruefully. It was I who brought him out of Garth's tuath, I who killed the shaman. He nudged Jasmin with his heels, urging her up alongside Raven's tired mount. The elf stirred, looking up with a preoccupied frown.
"Give Lightfoot an hour's rest," Bodie suggested. "We'll make tea." He watched Raven's nod of acceptance, waited for him to speak, but in all honesty he no longer expected his mate to say anything. The last time Raven had made idle conversation was the night before they had left Ash's farm.
It had been a bittersweet night, one of sensual excess, fierce passion and breathless tenderness, leaving them bruised and exhausted in the morning. Raven had spent himself utterly until there seemed to be nothing left. He slid to the ground at Bodie's prompting, leading Lightfoot into the shade of a young oak, bending his back stiffly as he gathered enough dry kindling for a fire. Bodie brought out his tinderbox, striking flint to steel and blowing on the wood shavings until they were well alight, his eyes never leaving his mate as Raven went mechanically about the chore of making tea.
He was withdrawn, moving like a shadow without substance, and Bodie felt a thousand miles from him. There was pain in that, an ache suspended between disquiet and despair, but nothing seemed to find Raven, not words, not a caress. Bodie chewed his lip, watching the long-fingered hands working the leather thongs of a saddle bag. That night at Ash's Raven had been smouldering, voracious, impossible to satisfy, impossible to resist. Now it was as if a wall separated him from the rest of the world, and Bodie wanted to tear it down a brick at a time with his bare hands.
Dried peppermint leaves flaked into the blackened can and Bodie slung it over the fire, taking the elf by the shoulders and pressing him down to rest by the tree. "Enough for now," he said softly. "You need to rest as much as the horse." He tipped Raven's chin up, thumb brushing across the full lips; the green eyes were dark, solemn, and Ray simply waited, passive beneath Bodie's touch. The human kissed him, softly at first and then demanding a response as Raven remained too passive. He thrust his tongue between the elf's teeth, courting passion as he crushed Raven's thin, hot body against him.
At last the elf moaned, responding with an obvious reluctance, his tongue curling about Bodie's for a long time until they broke apart and Bodie drew away to see tears on the long, black lashes. "Damn you," Raven whispered, averting his eyes and turning his face away.
"For what?" Bodie whispered. "What have I done?"
"I -- I'm trying to be like you," Raven said quietly. "I cannot."
"Trying to be like me?" Bodie echoed. "How so? Ray, look at me. Ray!"
The elf's slanted eyes were brimming as he looked up, compelled to by Bodie's fingers beneath his chin. "What must you think of one who is so wet-eyed?" He tried to smile. "You are strong as elves are not. I cannot help it."
"Idiot." Bodie crushed him again. "You're hurting, aren't you?" He felt Raven nod against his shoulder and threaded his fingers into the long, soft curls. "Then weep, you fool, ease your heart," he said very softly. "In days I have not been able to reach you and that hurts me." He felt Raven's arm go about him with an absurd, euphoric sense of relief. "Gods, is that what it has been? You are afraid to show me your tears in case they shame you?" He tugged at long, loose curls in admonition. "How little you think of me. Ah, I am human, and we humans are foolish in our own way. Should you not weep for your kin and friends?"
Raven heaved a sigh, his breath a warm draught inside Bodie's shirt. "I did not want to shame you. I am your mate, after all, and must look to your ways first."
Moisture tickled Bodie's skin and he felt his own eyes prickle. "Shame me? You did not see me weep, did you, the night Amber found us in the pass, and you were cold, near to death." He chuckled, ambushed by a gentle humour at the absurdity of it. "Aye, I wept while my heart broke, and I a human!"
"For me," Raven sniffled. "Oh, Bodie." He licked along Bodie's collar bone, tasting his own salt, and drew away. "I love you," he offered sheepishly. "I thought to be like you, lest you think me a child."
"You are a child, in elven years," Bodie told him, cuffing his head tenderly. "Never grow up, sweeting. Kiss me?"
The water was boiling hard when they remembered the tea and they spent an hour, lying in the sun while the horses grazed and dozed beneath the trees. Raven's eye was on the time and he stirred first, tossing away the dregs of his tea and whistling for Lightfoot. "We will catch up Amber this afternoon, and if we keep moving, sleep at home tonight."
At home, Bodie thought bleakly; if there is anything left of it.
Along the road they had gleaned a few more details as this farmer and that wagoner had tales to tell. They were ugly stories of battle and destruction, and Bodie watched his mate's face twist as he listened. They said there was a ruin where the house had been, scorched earth and the blackened skeletons of trees. Raven prayed the stories were exaggerated; Bodie had learned a terrible cynicism and could not find enough hope to doubt.
Rested, the horses adopted a steady clip, stepping out proudly through the morning, and Bodie began to scan the road ahead, looking out for Wind. Amber had ridden on along this road, heading for the Kith lands while the human and his mate had headed for Riverside, there to bring Ash the news that a shaman had been found. And Amber must have heard the news even before Raven's cousin had given them it, for he had put many miles between them, riding hard.
It was midafternoon when Bodie recognised his horse and Amber's tall, sparely built figure striding out beside her, the reins looped over his arm, his grey woolen robe marking him out as a shaman while his gait betrayed his mood. Amber was anxious, tense, Bodie knew; and little wonder. He was a Kith himself, and of Raven's own bloodline, back through however many generations. The spillage of Kith blood would wound him as deeply as Raven.
Lightfoot broke into a canter as Raven touched his heels to the horse's sides, and Bodie urged Jasmin after him as Ray called the shaman's name. Up ahead, Amber halted, turning toward the sound and raising an arm to wave as he recognised his kinsman. Raven slid from the saddle into the shaman's arms, fingers clenching on the grey wool as Bodie reined back and met Amber's odd, golden eyes over his mate's tousled head.
"Sour news," Amber said by way of greeting. "I have ridden hard enough, and your horses look lame. Still, we shall see home by eve. And then..."
"And then?" Bodie prompted, sliding to the ground as Amber lifted Raven's head to kiss his cheek.
"And then we shall see," the shaman said, looking into Raven's face with a deep frown. "Are you ill, little one?"
"He has driven himself without mercy," Bodie said when Raven merely shrugged. "As if fasting and going without sleep will somehow set matters to rights. He has the impression this sorry state of affairs is his fault!"
Raven's cheeks flushed as he looked away. "I am on borrowed time, Naryr," he said softly to Amber. "I should have been dead so long ago. Had I died, as a warrior should have, none of this would have happened and no more blood would have been spilt."
"That is not how destiny works," Amber said tartly. "Ask your mate. I think he has a keener sense of destiny than you."
"Bodie?" Raven chanced a glance at Bodie's face to see his mate's wry smile. "Something amuses you?"
"No." Bodie drew Raven out of Amber's embrace, both arms about him and holding him tight. "He means only that you cannot see destiny for honour, while I cannot see honour for destiny." A frown puckered Ray's brow and Bodie kissed the faint lines. "I could not give a bent penny for honour where you are concerned, little dove. I would lie, cheat, steal, kill, aye, and die for you. It is my destiny to do so, and I will do it gladly. Destiny sent you to me; you were not meant to die, the gods never intended you for the vultures. They had definite plans when they thrust you into my bed that night." He watched the green eyes cloud. "Will you go against their plans?"
"Destiny?" Raven echoed. "You believe? I thought you believed in nothing."
"I don't know," Bodie admitted. "But I have seen you come within a hand's breadth of disaster so often only to be snatched away again. There is some god who is in love with you, I think. He cannot keep you from hurt, but you are never alone, and what happens in your life -- aye, destiny. Honour is folly, Ray, I have seen men die for it, needlessly."
Raven bit his lip. "And what, Bodie, when honour is all you have left? When your name is a curse and your family have cast you out as a disgrace?"
The human looked up, meeting Amber's golden gaze with a faint smile. "Destiny, again. If you had not been cast out, we would never have met the shaman, and as his future and ours are woven like the strands in a basket, we had to be there. What say you of that, Falcon?"
The shaman spoke, but the voice was not that of Amber. Falcon's voice was not so deep, not so resonant. Amber's face, when he spoke in Falcon's voice, became serene and almost without expression, but the voice of one who had been dead for months was clear and strong. "The human speaks true, Raven. Let the gods decide what is to be."
"The last time I decided that," Raven grumbled, "I rode to battle and the next I knew I was hanging from a gate lintel wishing I was dead!" He gave Bodie's waist a hug and released him. "All right, so these shoulders of mine are not burdened by blame. Tell me how that makes matters any better!"
"It doesn't," Bodie admitted, "but at least you might try eating and sleeping now. Tell me what you can achieve by driving yourself?" He swooped on Raven's mouth with a kiss, hardly noticing Amber's presence; how often had they made love in the same room, in the privacy of another's polite disregard? It had been a long winter.
Amber was already swinging up onto Wind when Bodie released his mate. The shadows were lengthening and it was past time to be moving. Bodie recognised the lie of the land, the shape of the hills, the very smell and colour of this place. It was Kith country, lush and rich. Homecoming should have been a joy for Raven and it was a cruel twist of fate that he was taking the shaman back into a worse scene than the one he had left. But home was home and Bodie could see Raven enlivening as he watched.
The hills swept upward, the great swathe of Rapid River cut down into the southwest toward the sea, far away, and as they crossed its bridge even the human could have been in no doubt of where they were. It was early evening, the sunlight golden on new, green barley, when they crested the last rise and saw the estate that had been Raven's birthright. Or what was left of it.
The woodland hid most of the damage but there was a blackened area where the orchard had been, scorched earth from the paddocks to the stream, and the house had gone. In its place was a tumble of rubble, a scattering of shingles that marked the site where it had stood. Raven made a tiny choking sound and Bodie tore his eyes from the scene of destruction to look sidelong at his mate.
Beyond him, Amber was wearing a thunderous expression, but Raven looked merely stricken. "I was born here," he said softly. "All my life I have thought of this place as my home. Bodie, look at it."
"A house on a hill," Bodie reminded him. "Red bricks and a golden thatch, an orchard and -- remember?" He reached out, catching Raven's hand. "That will be our home, we always said so. Ray?"
"Aye," Raven admitted. "I wonder if my dogs are alive." He touched his heels to Lightfoot, urging the tired animal down the winding hill slope onto the path that led through the ruined orchard. On the right was the place where a band of Garth's warriors had come out of the woods, Feyleen a captive, their own shaman soon to give his life for hate, beginning a chain of events that led them, ultimately, back to this place and this scene of chaos.
Destiny, Bodie thought as he and Amber rode in Raven's wake, skirting the blackened stumps of trees and approaching the ruin of the house. As they broke from the woodland they saw the camp pitched alongside the mountain of rubble; a warband had gathered, a dozen pavilions and smaller tents, gaudy flags announcing the clans. Green and white for the Syrae, blue and yellow for the Ionae, red and green for the Silvae. Raven's colours were the green and white and he slid from Lightfoot's saddle, approaching the nearest pavilion in search of a face he recognised.
It belonged to an old man. Dermot was sitting on an upturned barrel, his pipe between his teeth but unlit; he looked up at the sound of footsteps, blinking at the young man's face in astonishment. He got stiffly to his feet, calling back into the pavilion. "Cuillin? Cuillin!"
"Aye?" Bodie recognised the voice at once; Cuillin was a warrior and a good one. He would have fought at Willow's right hand, backing her with his years of experience while she headed the warband, being the clan chieftain upon the disgrace of her brother. And Cuillin was hurt. He was limping, his left leg splinted, his left arm bound to his side, his face white with pain, though he, as an elf, must have been healing with that race's natural speed. He saw Bodie and Amber first, bit off an oath of surprise; then he saw Raven, and his face drew tight.
For a moment Raven was sure he was about to be rejected out of hand and his shoulders straightened; he was aware of Bodie at his shoulder, silent and supportive with all the unvoiced threat of a panther. But Cuillin's expression was merely one of well guarded grief and his brown eyes glittered with unshed tears as he spoke. "You are returned, Blackwing. And to this. You see the dishonour of failure. We are broken."
Raven looked up at Bodie for a moment, giving his hand to Cuillin a moment later. "Many are dead?"
"The warband was gutted," Cullin said gravely. "There are fifteen of us left who can bear swords."
"So few of our men are left?" Raven turned to Bodie, his expression simply blank with disbelief. "What of the other clans, Cuillin? Would they fight with us? I see their banners here."
"You see their banners here for the rites for the dead," Cullin said sadly. "The pyres burned yesterday. It was your brother who set a torch to Willow's pyre. Will the other clans fight with us?" He shrugged eloquently. "I don't know. I don't think so. They have had enough of the Kith, I think; we have had too much to do with humankind, and brought sorrow on ourselves." He looked at Bodie with a faint smile of apology. "I mean no disrespect, but even you can see what has been. But for Feyleen and yourself we would be at peace, still. And our warriors would still be alive."
Bodie nodded soberly. "No offence taken, Cuillin. But I don't think the fighting is over yet -- and the other clans may not be able to ignore it for long. Now that Garth's men have been in this tuath, and have won a victory here, seen your riches --"
"And looted them," Dermot growled. "We were never rich in material things, not like the Silvae, who have gold and emeralds in their hills. And what we had, Garth's men took." Taking the pipe from his mouth, he gestured about at the burned ruin of house and orchard. "What you see is what we have."
"Yet we must raise a warband," Raven said quietly. "Or Garth's men will be back. There is nothing left to steal but our young people, and he would have them. I know him. Elves are sold at market in his tuath, or given as war prizes. He will raid again, deeper and deeper into these lands until we are gone." He raised haunted eyes to Bodie. "Am I right?"
The human nodded. "Aye, though it pains me to affirm what you have said." He lifted one crooked brow at Cuillin. "The clans could not be rallied, in their own interests?"
It was Raven who answered. "They must first believe there is something to fight for. If they cannot believe, they cannot fight."
"So speak to them," Bodie suggested, one hand gesturing about at the gaudy banners fluttering in the evening breeze. "No need to call them to a hosting, they are already here."
"I am not their chieftain," Raven hissed.
"Then who is?" Bodie turned to Dermot, demanding attention as the old man began to whittle at a stick with a knife like a razor. "If Feyleen is gone and Willow is dead, who is the chieftain of this clan now?"
The old man sighed, setting his knife down. "Abelard is the chieftain, but he is too young to assume such responsibility, so until he comes of age we have no proper clan chieftain and our affairs will pass into the hands of the Kith elders themselves. We no longer have the right to speak for ourselves, Bodie -- aye. This is what it has come to."
The eldest Kith of royal blood wore the diadem of the whole tribe, Bodie knew. She was an ancient, so old that even she had forgotten her age. Lyra belonged to the Ionae, only remotely related to Raven's clan. With Willow's death the only legal heir left to Wulff and Feyleen was their youngest son, Abelard, and Abelard was not yet twelve years old.
"Oh, the lad will come of age in six years or so," Cuillin was saying as Bodie brooded over the state of affairs. "Then we will have our voice back. He will wed and sire his own heirs -- with all speed, we hope. Then we can begin again. Six years in silence is not so bad, is it?"
"Six years without a banner, without a voice," Raven whispered. "Ah, gods, what have I done?"
Bodie gripped his shoulder hard, hurting, drawing him out of the introspection before he could begin to fret again. "This is nonsense, Cuillin. Your heir is standing before you, a man and a warrior."
"Bodie." Raven spoke very softly. "You know that isn't true. I am a Kith only by blood, not in name."
"Are you?" Bodie made a derisive sound. "And they would sooner hand the clan into the care of a boy and a woman so old it is a miracle she still lives! You are making no sense. And besides, what was the dispute over? Falcon? Then it is finished! Raven, speak to them tonight while they are all here. Let Amber speak to them, let it end. Abelard is too young to be burdened this way."
The shaman stood a short distance away, not missing a word and not offering one either. Cuillin and Dermot did not even pretend to understand what Bodie had said, but they recognised the tall, yellow haired man's garb and were consumed by curiosity. It was Dermot who spoke at last. "Raven, you have brought a shaman home with you?"
"I have brought more than a shaman," Raven said, drawing away and leaning against Bodie, his shoulders against the human's broad chest. Sheer weariness communicated clearly to Bodie and he took Raven's arms in both hands, urging him to move. "Bodie?"
"A meal, a bath, sleep," Bodie growled. "Then dress, and Dermot will have gathered the clans, elders, warriors, everyone. Won't you, Dermot?"
The old man nodded, stoking his pipe. "Aye. I'll call them together, tell them that Raven has returned --"
"And that he has with him a man they will wish to meet," Amber said, speaking for the first time, his voice deep, resonant, in the gathering gloom. Dermot looked up, seeing a tall, angular stranger with long, yellow hair and strange, beautiful eyes. "You don't know me, do you, old man? No; not even you are old enough, though your father may have known me, in his youth."
The pipe was forgotten. "Shaman?" Dermot said, hushed.
"Later." Amber stirred. "I also would like to eat and wash, and our horses are in need of care. See to it, old man, and gather the clans as your young chieftain has ordered."
Young chieftain? Bodie thought as Dermot ambled away, whistling for young lads to see to the horses. He slipped one arm about Raven's thin shoulders. "This way. I smell food, and there must be a tent we can use."
Half an hour later Raven was stretched out in a wide, hooped tub, a cup of hot wine in his hands, and Bodie was pouring a last bucket of water on him, hot enough to make him yelp. Smiling, he dumped the last of it over his head, producing a bottle of soap and setting about his mate's tangled hair. Raven had eaten a little but his body was too tired and too tense to allow him much indulgence. He sighed under Bodie's hands, leaning back and allowing himself to relax as the fingers massaged his scalp, touching his ears without the human's conscious intent. Too late, Bodie realised he would be arousing his lover and he made noises of displeasure.
"You are displeased by my excitement?" Raven demanded. "There is a first time for everything, I suppose."
"You are almost spent," Bodie observed,"and you must speak to the clans this evening. Look at you! Thin as a lad and tired as one thrice your age. You think you have energy to waste in games of that kind? Later, perhaps, so look to your virtue, little chuck, and school your body."
Raven gave him a wry glance. "You may be right. So take your hands from my hair, kiss me instead."
"Your hair is clean enough as it is," Bodie judged, tipping half a bucket of cool water over his mate's head and kissing his mouth while he was still spluttering. Raven's tongue flicked his, a tiny caress without passion, and Bodie lifted his head. "Now, relax while I eat, then I will have the tub."
"And I shall pour boiling water over you," Raven threatened, lifting one slender leg out of the water. "See? I am stewed like last season's apples."
"You're beautiful," Bodie said softly, revelling in the sight presented to him. Raven was glistening in the light of four brass lamps, his hair streaming, his eyes enormous and dark with dilated pupils, drops of water trapped among the hair on his chest, the raised leg innocently flaunting his genitals. He stilled, looking up at Bodie unblinkingly, and Bodie watched him come fully erect without a touch. Raven swallowed hard, closing his eyes.
"I know you're right," he said ruefully, "and I am trying, but my body is too wilful, and it loves you."
With a mock sigh Bodie leaned over the tub, nuzzling his mate's ears while he feathered one hand about his groin, fondling him gently. "It has been days," he admitted. "And for an elf I suppose you have shown remarkable restraint." He sucked the point of Ray's ear into his mouth, felt the shudder ripple through Raven's every nerve, and tightened his grip about the elf's cock. "Come on, then, relax and be pleasured. You will sleep all the sounder for it, and perhaps eat again. Ah, like that. Push, try harder. Come on, Ray, push harder."
He was deliberately withholding stimuli, making Raven reach for it, needing to feel the desperate hunger building in his mate after days of Ray's silence and distance. A moan left Raven's throat, his hands sliding into the water as he tried to touch himself, but Bodie caught his wrist. "Not that way. With me, Ray."
"Touch me," Raven hissed, lifting his hips, his head tipping back, supported by the side of the tub. "Ah, gods, will you touch me, please!"
The feather-light touch of Bodie's flat palm became a firm rub and at last he sucked hard on the graceful tip of Raven's beautiful ear. Ray bucked, his free arm going about Bodie's neck as he sought release with desperate urgency. It swept through him like a summer squall and he was limp again, sagging against the tub, his mouth open to its plundering as Bodie searched through the dark, wine-rich haven within his lips.
Doped green eyes looked up at Bodie with a lover's smile, sending a thrill of contrition through the human. "I'm sorry. I teased you," Bodie said sheepishly. "I needed to feel needed, if that makes sense."
"It makes sense," Raven yawned. "And you were right -- I am exhausted now. I shall fall asleep right here if I lounge any longer." With an effort he lifted himself out of the tub, drying himself with obviously leaden limbs while Bodie stood leaning on the post which held up the pavilion's roofing, admiring the sight of his mate in a comfortable, exhausted confusion.
It was some time before they noticed a sound at the pavilion's entrance, which was hung with silks that screened the interior, affording a little privacy. Bodie turned, seeing a boy's face in the lamplight. The lad was waiting patiently to be spoken to, knowing he would be recognised. Raven's face and Willow's hair, Bodie saw, a slender body clad in a sky blue silk tunic. Abelard was a beautiful child who would grow into a beautiful man, almost as winsome as Raven. Not for the first time Bodie wished he could have known Wulff, whose blood had sired these two.
A hand on Raven's bare shoulder drew his attention and he turned, rubbing his hair with a patch of dry towelling; the sight of his brother was an obvious surprise and Bodie watched him smile in greeting. "Abelard, where have you been?"
"With Dermot." The lad took a step closer. "He said you were back but I didn't believe him. I thought you could never come back."
"Why?" Raven dropped the towel and sat down on the bench against the tent post to sort his clothes, although he was not about to dress. He would sleep first; an hour or two of sound sleep would be as good as a tonic. "You might have known we would return, after all the trouble there has been."
"They said you had run, with your human." Abelard stole a glance at Bodie and shrugged. "They said you have no honour."
All at once Raven's eyes were glittering with anger. "Who said that?"
"Some of the boys." Abelard was clearly ill at ease, sheepish, even a little ashamed -- though not of his brother. Of his own imaginings. He was looking closely at Raven, Bodie knew; seeing his brother's body, its whipcord muscles, its spare elegance. Looking at Raven as a boy looked at a man, wondering what it would be like to be a man himself. The notion made Bodie smile in spite of the insults Abelard relayed from his companions.
"Your friends have spoken out of spite," Raven said levelly. "I went with the human because they cast me out, and because I love him. I have never lied, nor pretended to be anything I am not. I am half human, as are you -- if there is shame in that, we share it, you and I. Do you begrudge me my lover because of his human blood? Then look to yourself, for there is Garth's blood there too!"
"No," Abelard said slowly. "I have never begrudged you Bodie. For a time, he was like kin to us."
"He is your kin!" Raven's tone was tinged with the edge of desperation. "They have disinherited me but I am still your brother, and he is my bonded mate, which makes him your brother also. Oh, Abelard, he is not an alien. He loves me also, and counts you his kin."
Bodie nodded as the boy looked up at him, saw the lad's cheeks flame into crimson patches. He hid a smile. "How long were you standing there, Abelard?"
"Long enough," the boy admitted.
There was a brief silence while Raven blinked at his brother, suspended between outrage and hilarity. At last, hilarity won and he laughed, a sound Bodie had not heard in days. "Then that will teach you not to creep about unannounced, watching people when they believe themselves alone," he scolded. "Were you very shocked at what he did to me?"
Scarlet replaced the crimson and Abelard shuffled from foot to foot. "Not shocked, because I have seen others doing... that. But it was you. It was -- I'm sorry." He cleared his throat, looking at Bodie again. "You do love him, don't you? The others said you bonded with him because he was a chieftain, and you a mere human warrior."
"Your friends are fools," Bodie said mildly. "I think you have seen enough here to persuade you of that, yes?" As Abelard nodded he gave Raven a push in the direction of the pavilion's skin-strewn bed. "Now let your brother rest, for he is all but ill with fatigue. And I wish to bathe, and I refuse to do so with an audience. I am human, and we guard our modesty closely."
They were alone a moment later and Raven slid into the bed, lying on his belly to watch Bodie disrobe. "He is a beautiful child," he said, slurred with sleep. "Isn't he?"
"Almost as gorgeous as my mate," Bodie said teasingly, winning a smile and a husky endearment. "Aye, he has the Kith charm." He slid into the water, lying back against the tub and rubbing his back on the smooth planking. When he looked back at the bed, Raven was already asleep and Bodie sat watching him with a frown. Amber had called him chieftain, as if he was so sure that Raven was to wear the diadem of his clan again --
And then it came to Bodie like a bolt out of the blue, a sudden understanding of the workings of elven affairs.
Of course Amber was sure! Raven had the right to call him by the familiar name, 'Naryr', which meant 'Old Father'. Amber was not merely his kin, but of Wulff's own bloodline. The heir to Raven's clan was not Abelard. The heir to the whole Kith tribe was not an old woman called Lyra. Amber was the heir to both the Syrae clan, and the Kith, but Amber, a shaman, would not claim that right, settling the chieftain's circlet on the brow of a kinsman in favour.
Raven. Bodie felt a vast warmth coil through his insides as he watched Raven sleep. Clearly, Raven had not yet considered Amber's position -- but it was clear, the shaman had. He had a right of birth, and he was about to exercise it. Bodie could have laughed, for all the awful state of affairs, for all the gnawing fear for Feyleen. Raven would close his eyes tonight as a chieftain, perhaps as the chief of the entire Kith tribe, and his banner, the green and white standard of the Syrae, would flutter higher on the mast than those of the other clans. Destiny? Bodie thought, settling back to soak away the aches of days on the trail. He would wake Raven with food as late as he dared, but he would say nothing, he decided, let events take their course.
Satisfaction would be the sweeter for letting things happen in their own good time.
The white silk tunic was loose about Raven's body; the clasp that held it at his left shoulder was not silver but gold, the stones set into the precious metal not moonstones but emeralds, and his arms were heavy with much jewellery. There was a chief's ransom stowed in their saddle bags, as yet a secret, for they had paid their way on the road with gambling and songs. Bodie delighted in choosing pieces for Raven to wear and pressed a fist full of rings onto him before he allowed his mate to buckle on the polished, supple baldric that marked him out as a warrior.
"Are we out to flaunt our fortune?" Ray asked shrewdly.
And Bodie nodded. "Out to show them what we have achieved, aye. They sent us from here with nothing. I remember repairing roofs, I remember you toiling in the fields last harvest until your hands bled, and taking a beating on behalf of a girl. They intended you for poverty and hardship, but we have fared better than they thought. We have a fortune at our command the like of which the Kith have never dreamed they could own. And they were correct -- it is not theirs, it is ours." He stepped forward, half clad in black breeches and boots of soft black pigskin that cupped his thighs, catching Raven against him. "I love you. Make me proud. Speak to them as their master, for you are."
"Am I?" Raven relaxed against his mate's body, rubbing like a big cat against Bodie's bare chest. "I care little for their favours. I wish simply to raise a warband and go after my mother. We are hunting even now, Bodie."
Bodie sighed. "So we are. But the end of the trail is in sight, for this time it takes us back to its source." His expression darkened. "Garth. Her father, your grandsire. Your nemesis. The man I hate most in this world." He cupped Raven's face. "I will kill him if the gods grant me the chance."
"Kill him for me?" Raven murmured. "Revenge?"
"For me." The human bruised Raven's lips with a fierce kiss. "For satisfaction. You are my darling, more precious to me than all these baubles, and vengeance is my right by the law of possession. You are mine to protect, mine to avenge. Mine to possess. Aye?"
In answer, Raven shivered, pressing against his mate. "Aye. It is only the mirror that haunts me, love. I cannot forget the things we saw there."
The Chrysalis, Bodie thought bleakly, holding Raven for a few treasured moments as they waited for Dermot to summon them to the meeting of the clans. Images of chaos and terror; images that were sweet and promising. A girl with Raven's face; Raven himself seated upon a grand chair in the shape of a griffin, a chief's torque at his throat, a chief's circlet on his brow; a cottage on a hill; a funeral pyre; blood and the outrage of a flogged back; Raven again, captive and in servitude. Bodie sighed, lifting his mate's chin to kiss him more gently, nuzzling across the elf's smooth cheek.
"I can forget the images no more easily," he admitted, "but what will be, will be. We cannot deny the future, Raven, no matter where it leads. This I have learned." He tightened his grip. "But I have not come this far to end in defeat and death. We will win through. Amber is sure of it, and he reads the stars nightly."
"The stars?" Raven rubbed his nose against Bodie's, as intimate a caress as a kiss. "I know nothing of his magic, but I trust him."
"Yet you are shaking," Bodie said softly. He sighed heavily. "I too am afraid, if you would have truth of me. Honour lies not in knowing fear but in pressing ahead, regardless. I think --"
Dermot's voice interrupted from the pavilion's silk-hung entrance. "The elders are gathering, Raven, and they are impatient. Best not to keep them waiting, I would say."
Drawing away, Bodie stood back to admire his mate as Raven chose a tunic for him. Black silk and silver embroidery; two big silver bracelets, luminous as moonlight; serpentine rings with emerald eyes, and for his neck a heavy chain hung with tiny icicles. Diamonds. Raven looped it over his head, fingering the chain thoughtfully while Bodie chuckled. "There is a fortune hanging about our limbs tonight. We look outrageous."
"You look beautiful," Raven corrected. "Black is your colour, silver your metal."
"And you in white and gold," Bodie added. "You could be an angel, little scamp -- until you smile like that, and put back your shoulders! I can see your nipples through the silk, they make me itch to have you."
"Later," Raven said, smiling. "I promise." He looked down at his own white silk and russet red boots, which cupped his thighs, buckled about the knees, matching the soft deerhide breeches he wore. The garb of a prince. "For now, I go to play words with elders who hate me. Stay close, Bodie."
"You don't trust them?" Bodie demanded. "They would not harm us, surely."
"No, there will be no fighting," Raven corrected. "But I have never needed you more." He offered his hand, pleased when Bodie took it. "Amber will be there ahead of us."
They left the pavilion, drawn by the glow of firelight to the levelled area that had been a garden. A bonfire burned brightly there, the trees were hung with lamps, and the banners fluttered in the night wind, flanking the clan leaders. Abelard sat beside the green and white standard of the Syrae; one-eyed Swallow lounged indolently at the head of the Silvae; beside the Ionae banner with Lyra and young Jade, a man of Ray's height whose green eyes had earned him his name and whose quick tongue was well known. Lyra was his grandmother; his presence beside her was no accident, for she was old indeed -- too old to do more than preside over her clan.
They were clustered about the fire and there was no laughter, merely sporadic, desultory talk and the crackle of burning timber. Amber was there, holding to the shadows just out of the ring of the firelight, waiting, and Raven went to join him, holding out both hands. Amber took them, drawing him closer to whisper into his ear. Bodie watched Raven nod, looking up and accepting a kiss upon his lips, a tender but impassionate gesture which did not offend Bodie, for he understood Amber's feelings toward Raven. Fiercely protective of his young kinsman was Amber, knowing all that had befallen him. Bodie was not the only man who would kill for Ray, and the comradeship the shaman felt for his mate simply made him smile.
Then Raven and Amber stepped apart and Bodie joined them, taking Raven's shoulder as he stepped into the firelight. A hush fell on the gathering, elders and warriors looking up at him with curiosity, some displaying animosity, most simply waiting. Bodie stood aside deferentially, enjoying an enormous satisfaction as he feasted his eyes on his lover. Raven was gorgeous in the firelight, all silk and gold, his hair like burnished copper, his bearing proud, as befitted the son of a chieftain.
It was Lyra who spoke up, leaning forward on her knee, her face wizened like a pickled walnut but her eyes bright and sharp. "You are returned to the fold, black sheep. And the road has been kind to you, I see. There is much gold about you; won fairly, was it?"
"Won fairly," Raven said mildly, refusing to take the bait as he was taunted. "The shaman will attest to it. Oh yes, I bring the Kith a shaman. Tell me, Lyra, what was the charge held against me? Why was my rank stripped from me? Falcon died while I lived. I have never sought to deny that."
A girl's voice answered, speaking from the body of the Kith. "You could not. I saw Falcon die. I saw your human mate destroy him for his pains!" It was Lilith, small and slender, clad in a shaman's white robe though she had yet to earn it; she had been the nearest to a shaman the Kith had possessed since her teacher, her lover, had died.
Raven met her eyes, smiling sadly and beckoning her forward. "Come, Lilith. There is sweet news for you, perhaps sweeter than for the rest of the Kith." He held out his hand but though she joined him in the firelight she refused to take it. "I have brought a man called Amber," Raven said clearly, speaking as much to the elders as to the girl. "You know the name, I think."
For a moment there was a stunned silence, then cries of outraged denial. Jade raised his voice, shouting for order, and in the silence that fell Lyra stabbed one gnarled finger at Raven. "We will have no lies from you. The gold about your limbs cannot buy you the right to deception!"
"No deception," Raven said carefully, glancing grimly at Bodie. They had known it would not be easy. "We followed a legend into the mountains. There is a valley, just below the timber line, and there, a man whose name has long been known to the Kith. Amber is a Kith. And he is my kinsman." The silence was like cut crystal, brittle, waiting to shatter. In it, Bodie held his breath, watching Raven beckon the shaman forward into the light. "Amber, please."
Tall, angular, commanding, Amber wore the shaman's robe by right, his hauteur furled about him, his scorn for the disbelievers curling his lips. He smiled faintly at Raven, bent his neck before Lyra, accorded Jade and Swallow no more than a glance, and fixed upon Lilith with an intensity that made the girl hesitate. Bodie watched her shiver and frowned, wondering. Falcon was with Amber, alive in his aura; if Lilith was a shaman in the making, should she not know? Should she not feel him there?
Raven was waiting, his eyes moving from Amber to Lilith and back again, watching the shaman's face soften, its lines somehow reflecting Falcon's face, or if not his features, his expression. Tall, gaunt, compelling, he stepped forward, holding the girl captive without a gesture. Neither of them spoke. The Kith were intent upon the silent interchange, waiting as was Raven, and Bodie realised that much hung upon Lilith's reaction in the next moment.
They respected her, had turned to her as their shaman in Falcon's absence and come to trust her. She swallowed, her mouth open to speak although no sound escaped her lips, and her brow puckered in a frown. One slender hand raised toward Amber, reaching, questing, though she did not seem to know for what.
At last Amber said softly, "Close your eyes, little dove. Look at me with the eyes the gods gave you instead."
Obediently, Lilith blinded the eyes she had been born with, her frown deepening as she studied Amber with the odd, fey senses that had come to her as she grew into adulthood. She took a breath, choking, and cried out. "Fal -- Falcon?"
Crumpling at the knees, she was out in a dead faint a moment later but Raven caught her before she could fall, holding her weight against him until Amber took her from him. Lyra and Jade were on their feet, their faces wild with a curious mix of defiance and longing to believe. The old woman shouldered her grandson aside, approaching the shaman with the arrogance of great age.
"Who are you?" she whispered, looking up at him, for Amber stood a little taller than Bodie, which was tall indeed for an elf.
He smiled at her, an expression that illuminated features that could be cool, distant, warming them. A young expression, Bodie thought, though he well knew the shaman's incredible age. "Your fathers knew me," he said slowly, speaking clearly, his voice accented with the hill dialects. "I left here so long ago, too long ago for any of you here tonight to have known me. Not even you, Lyra, for all the eight generations you have watched grow beneath your wing. You know my name, you have no need to ask who I am."
"Amber?" The old woman's eyes narrowed. "She called you by another name. She called you Falcon."
"She sees me with other eyes," Amber said, his tone deep and resonant. "She looks upon me with the shaman's other senses and sees a deeper truth than you. I am Falcon. Falcon is with me and has been since he gave his life to Raven."
Jade took a step forward. "Gave his life? It was said the human murdered him!"
"You should not be so ready to believe all you are told," Amber said tartly, and then his voice changed utterly, lightening, the resonance smoothing out, until any who had known Falcon could not have mistaken the tone. "I gave my life. At the final instant, I chose to give it. It may not have been mine to give, but you Kith had owned my whole life for a century and I reckoned the little that was left was mine to squander as I chose." One hand extended, fingers running through Raven's hair, cupping his cheek. "Raven is as much your chieftain as ever he was. You wronged him on the night of judgement, you Syrae elders, though the fault was unwitting." He paused as the girl stirred in the crook of his arm. As she wandered back to consciousness he set her feet to the ground, looking down into huge brown eyes. "Tell them, Lilith."
The Kith were breathless, waiting; even Bodie was barely breathing, the electricity in the air making his spine tingle. Lilith's fingers were still knitted into Amber's and she heaved in a breath, searching for her voice. "He -- he is Falcon. I feel Falcon about him. I don't understand, but --"
"Falcon came to me," Amber said simply, as if that explained everything.
To Bodie it was still mystifying, but the Kith elders muttered oaths, the odd prayer, a scattering of obscenities, and Lyra stepped back, one hand on Jade's shoulder for support. Her old eyes demanded truth of the girl. "You could not be mistaken?"
"No, my lady, I could not." Lilith looked up at Amber with a quizzical smile. "I have mourned Falcon for too long to be mistaken, and now..."
It was Falcon's voice that spoke again. "I did what I must, child. Do you despise me for it?"
"I did." Lilith was speaking with her eyes closed now, her face twisting in concentration as she feasted on Falcon's presence, rampant in the shaman's aura. "I blamed the human, I blamed Raven --"
"It was never Raven's fault," Falcon said gently through Amber's mouth. "He was tranced, and mine. And he was ill, afterward, was he not? Human?"
"I thought he would die," Bodie said, stepping forward as he was invited to join the elves. One hand cupped Raven's shoulder. "I thought I had taken your life and I was willing to pay the price for it."
"I gave it," Falcon said offhandly before Amber's voice returned and the shaman's face cleared, his golden eyes blinking down at the girl for a moment. He looked up then, fixing on Lyra, Jade and Swallow. "You know me. I am of the Syrae, and much older than anyone about this fire. I am Amber, grandsire of so many of you, and of Raven. I am Falcon, also, as Lilith has told you. There is my birthright to be considered. I am the High Chief over all the Kith by virtue of my age. I am the chieftain of the Syrae by blood right."
Lyra nodded readily, reclining against the skin strewn chair brought out here for her. "Aye, so you are. And few would argue that. The Kith have been gutted lately, as you know. They need a strong chief and I am too old. The Syrae need a strong chieftain, and Abelard is too young. Fate has an odd way about it."
"But Raven is a man, and a warrior," Amber said levelly.
"Raven?" Jade was on his feet again. "Raven was cast out."
"Wrongly," Amber snarled, his dislike for the younger man plain. "I have spoken already of this, as has Falcon. You seek to challenge me?"
Jade held silent, though he also held his ground.
"Then, you wish to challenge for the chieftain's circlet of the Syrae clan?" Amber pressed. "Will you fight me, Jade? You will die. I have been a warrior all my life as well as a shaman."
"Fight you -- to the death?" Jade echoed. "And perhaps kill a shaman by sheer luck, and be cast out as my hapless cousin was cast out?" He flung a rueful glance at Raven. "Not I!"
Amber nodded. "You have some shred of sense, at least. Then there is no one here who would challenge my birthright."
The old woman cackled, birdlike laughter. "There are few fools among the Kith, shaman. What of it? You have the circlet of your clan, and that of the High Chief, if you want them."
But Amber shook his head. "I want neither. You are welcome to the chief's honours, my lady. I want nothing of that. Neither do I wish to burden myself with the responsibilities of a chieftain."
"Abelard," Jade said acidly, "is a mere child."
"And Raven," Amber spat, "is a man. The chieftain's circlet is mine by blood right, as you have conceded. Then it is mine to bestow upon my heir."
"Your -- heir?" Lyra stood again, curiosity enlivening her.
"Aye." Amber smiled faintly, coolly. "Many, many of you fit into that category! Dozens around this fire can trace their lines back to me, but one in particular is close to me. I am of his clan, of his bloodlines through his father, Wulff. Oh, yes, Raven is my heir."
There was a hush, quickly replaced by an eruption of consternation. Beneath the din Bodie caught Raven's eye, saw the quick rise and fall of his chest as he breathed shallowly, the clench of his fingers as he waited it out until Amber spoke again. "Abelard," he said, beckoning the lad as the hosting of the Kith quieted again. "Give me the circlet."
The lad had worn it by right, but his relief was obvious as he took it off, coming hesitantly to pass it into Amber's fingers. Bodie had seen it before, a thin gold band that had graced Raven's brow the night of their bonding and on other occasions when he must play the part of the chieftain. It was very old, worn smooth, its length engraved with runic characters so old perhaps only Amber could read them. The shaman turned it over in his hands, until it caught the firelight, studying it with overt fascination.
"How long is it since I have seen this? I never wore it myself, never wished to. Raven?" He looked up, beckoning Raven closer with a lift of his chin. "Will you accept your clan into your care?"
It was an odd question. Bodie puzzled over it, wondering at the perversity which made Amber ask it. Would Raven even want to be taken back by the clan that had treated him so harshly? They were doing him no favour by thrusting the circlet back onto his head; the Syrae were a broken clan, their riches looted, their warband cut away, their royal household all but destroyed and their only direct heirs half human, which meant no elf would wed or bed with them.
Bodie looked into Raven's face, saw the pageant of emotion chasing across his features, confusion, longing, a little wariness, finally, resolve. "They are my clan, my family," he said huskily. "Whom shall they turn to, if not to me? I will take it."
"You may rue it," Amber said wryly, but he lifted the golden circlet, sliding it onto Raven's smooth brow and tugging at one loose curl. "You are my heir, little Kith. Look to your clan and take care." A kiss for Raven's cheek, and Amber stepped aside, addressing the gathering again. "When you speak to the chieftain of the Syrae now, speak to Raven."
Bodie could not have held back his smile to save his life. He came to Raven's shoulder, luxuriating in his mate's time of glory, and took Ray's hands, kissing his palms. He leaned close to one pointed ear. "Full circle, love. You are their master, let them know that."
"Bodie," Raven admonished, half delighted, half abashed. He smiled at his mate and then turned away, thanking Amber with a stiff half bow before meeting Lyra's bright, dark eyes. "My lady, the first duty that falls to me is to raise a warband."
She put one hand to her head. "A warband? Ap Wulff, are you mad? For what?"
"Feyleen was taken," Raven said patiently. "She will be put to death for the treason of consorting with Garth's enemies. Would you have me abandon her to that death?"
"Your warband has been torn apart," Lyra said wearily. "And as for the warriors of the Ionae and the Silvae -- ah, gods, speak with Jade and Swallow, it has gone beyond me."
The chieftain's circlet caught the firelight, threading through Raven's hair, and Bodie watched his mate turn toward his cousins, given leave by the High Chief. Swallow was not young; for his face to be seamed and lined he must be already well turned the century, Bodie knew, for Falcon had been a young man at that many years. He had one eye, the other cut away in a knife fight in his youth, though his body carried no scars, as an elf's would not. He was a warrior through to his bone marrow and Bodie respected him for his years of experience. Jade, by contrast, was young and soft, born into a rich householding, raised in wealth, groomed for power and blooded as a warrior as a merely cursory duty, so that his warrior status might allow him to judge and order other warriors. He was handsome, tall, his face smooth, his body rounded with muscle, and the scorn he felt for Raven was clear in his expression.
Scorn, Bodie thought bitterly, because his bondmate is human, and Raven himself is half human -- and trying to raise an elven warband to liberate yet another human. He bit his lip, silencing himself as Raven faced the two men and drew his shoulders square.
"I cannot believe that you would let Feyleen be put to death," he said honestly. "You all gave her your acceptance when she wedded my father."
"True," Swallow agreed, his voice deep and gravelly. "We came to love her, aye; but there is a difference between love and madness, ap Wulff. Love ends and madness begins tonight. She is condemned by her own people for consorting with elves, and, many Kith would say, condemned by our people for bringing death and suffering into Morhod. You would ask our warriors to ride into the human tuaths on her behalf? There would be blood, Raven. More death. We cannot afford so much killing -- much more, and we would have no warband and have to look to other tribes to protect us. There is no honour in that."
Raven took a breath. "Blood ties are strong," he said levelly. "She is of our tribe, even by marriage. Her blood is in my veins, and Abelard's."
"And Garth's blood." Jade was angry, unable to maintain his calm facade. "The blood of that monstrosity is a scourge upon your line! Well was it when you mated with a man, so that Garth's lineage ends with you."
"Jade!" Lyra barked the name, silencing her grandson. "Enough. We are not here for feuding, but to settle the matter of the warband. Continue, Raven."
Beneath the crackle of the fire, Bodie heard Raven sigh heavily and took a step nearer his shoulder. "There is much truth in what Jade says," Ray admitted. "But blood is blood, and Feyleen is my mother. Wulff was old when he married her, though to a human's eyes he would have seemed young." He looked at Bodie and smiled sadly. "Wulff mated also with a man, in his youth, so coming to his later years without an heir. With his lifetime's experience he chose Feyleen for his wife. Are you saying he was wrong, a fool?"
There was silence then as Jade and Swallow considered the question. Wulff had been great warrior, respected and adored by all the Kith; to impeach his name now would be a mistake, and even Jade would be rash to speak so. It was Swallow who answered at length. "Wulff gambled upon the woman's beauty and gentleness, that her blood would overcome her sire's and yield child kin worthy of the clan." His face creased in a smile. "And he was right. Your honour will be the end of you, Raven. You are the conscience of this clan and there is nothing of Garth about you. Wulff's gamble was a wise one."
"Then you will fight on Feyleen's behalf?" Raven asked, holding his breath.
But Swallow shook his head. "No. The woman is condemned and a warband riding after her would ride to its doom. I see no reason to condemn yet more of our warriors to death. Any such hunting can only end in disaster. Madness."
At last Bodie spoke up. "There are strategies, ways and means. It is not so impossible as you might think." He paused, tense under the scrutiny of the clans, knowing that they were judging him and, through him, judging Raven. Ray was looking at him, pleased to have him speak, his expression wistful. "Remember, I know Garth's tuath like my own backyard. I was born there. My knowledge of the passes, the woods, the hiding places, is the reason Raven is alive, for they pursued us to the bridge on the Chaika River before they counted the hunting finished. I can lead a force into Garth by those ways --"
"Madness," Jade hissed. "Perhaps you could do it, human. But not with Ionae warriors under your banner. Look to the Silvae, for we will have none of it. You would have us gutted the way your own clan has been gutted, and -- Feyleen is not even one of us."
Bodie glanced at Raven, one brow up; the lines of Ray's face were drawn taut as he turned toward Swallow. "You speak for the Silvae. How say you?"
"I speak with regret," Swallow admitted. "But we cannot invite the tragedy that has befallen your clan. We grieve for you, Raven, and for Feyleen, but there can be no Silvae warband beneath your standard. With regret," he added, "we cannot help you."
For a moment Raven closed his eyes and when they opened they were cold as ice. "Then there are other ways and we will take them," he said quietly, "other means."
"Other ways?" Lyra leaned forward on her knee. "You will not go alone? I will not allow it, ap Wulff! You have obligations to your clan, since you have accepted the Syrae from Amber's hands. You will do them no good as a corpse."
Again, it was Bodie who spoke. "We will buy an army of mercenaries," he said mildly. "Professional warriors who war for pay and expect to take reasonable risks in return for rich reward." He smiled, not a glimmer of humour in his eyes. "We can afford it. Pass the word amongst the tribes as you return home on the morrow. The Syrae are bound for war and will pay handsomely for any sword that can rally to the banner before the new moon."
Lyra's dark, birdlike eyes went to Raven. "He speaks boldly, for one who is merely the chieftain's mate. Does he speak with your voice, Raven?"
"Aye, he does." Raven's expression warmed by degrees as he looked at Bodie, so tall, so broad, clad in black from head to foot, his long hair tossing in the breeze, the silver jewellery shimmering on his fair skin like captive moonlight. "Bodie speaks with the voice of the Syrae, of whom he is one, and I think he has said it all. There is nothing more, my lady." He accorded her a stiff half bow. "So we will end here and bid you goodnight."
The Kith murmured, a sibilant whisper beneath the crackle of the fire and sough of the wind in the trees. Bodie fell into step a pace behind Raven, joining Amber, Abelard, Dermot and Cuillin beneath the standard of their clan. The human reached up to touch it, outline the shape of the griffin that was embroidered into its heart in gold wire. The shaman took Raven into an embrace, his fingers tracing the line of the chieftain's circlet. "You spoke well, did your clan honour. As did Bodie." The golden eyes smiled at the human. "The Kith have no more cause to regret your presence than they had to rue Feyleen's marriage. But what of these strategies, Bodie? You spoke in earnest, not in spite, I trust. You will no doubt raise a fine warband -- the best professionals would welcome the opportunity to ride against the humans, for they have long wished to avenge so many dead friends. But do you court disaster, Bodie, or are there ways, as you told the chieftains?"
Bodie gave Amber a look of reproof. "Have you not known me long enough to know I weigh my words with care? Especially when it comes to the safety of my chieftain? He rides with me, remember. There will be danger, as there has always been danger, but there are strategies that will hold water."
"Explain," Amber prompted, absently tousling Abelard's fine brown hair, which was deeply wavy rather than curly.
But the human made negative noises. "Not tonight. Tonight we rest. I don't know about Raven, but my spine is crying out for somewhere soft to lie."
They left the firelight, walking back through the chilly night wind to the silks at the entrance of the chieftain's pavilion. Abelard stood aside deferentially, giving the comforts of it to his brother with a muttering about sleeping with Dermot, and Amber's eyes were on the stars. "I must work," he said, preoccupied, drifting away as Abelard went with the old man, leaving Bodie to usher Raven in out of the cold.
The pavilion was richly decorated. Fine rugs underfoot, deep snowy-white sheepskins on the bed, two braziers burning fiercely, food and wine, a rack of robes at their disposal. A servant was behind them, bringing their saddle bags and leaving them at the entrance, then they were alone again and Bodie saw that Raven was shaking. Fatigue, tension, even fear, he guessed, and poured a cup of wine, pressing it on the elf before he could resist. Raven drank it to the lees, passing it back into Bodie's hands for it to be refilled. He brimmed it again, watching Raven drink deeply before taking a breath and subsiding against his lover's body.
"You have driven yourself too hard," Bodie observed softly, taking the cup from him and holding him tight. "Your muscles are cramped. Lie down, let me rub you. There must be something here to use... ah, olibanum, this will do." He lifted Raven's head from his shoulder, slipping the circlet from his brow and kissing him. Piece by piece, the king's ransom of jewellery was stripped from his limbs, then Bodie luxuriated into the task of undressing him, tumbling him onto the softness of sheepskins. Raven was pink from the wine, drunk much too quickly, his eyes heavy, thoughtlessly seductive, and Bodie turned him over, discarding his own clothes and jewellery, lest the oil foul the costly black silk.
"We ride to war," Raven said hoarsely. "For the first time, I am afraid."
The oil left a glistening swathe from nape to buttocks and Bodie knelt astride the slim hips, massaging from the shoulders downward, every muscle, every bone receiving its share of attention. "I don't think anyone ever rides to war without some trepidation. Yet we still go. There is a reason to go, let that be good enough."
"Feyleen," Raven whispered, beginning to relax beneath Bodie's hands almost reluctantly. "And the future. Garth's people will be back, now they have sacked us once. Next time they will take our young people, to stand on the block at a market auction." His face twisted. "Had I lived, I would have stood there. Gelded and worn out, little use for anything anymore. I would have fetched a pittance." He wriggled under Bodie's ministrations. "We have to go."
He spoke as if he was trying to convince himself, and Bodie frowned. "Do you doubt, love? If you do, speak now and we will make an end to it. Feyleen might be dead even now and what awaits us on the trail was shown us by the mirror."
"No!" Raven's voice rose sharply. "I cannot believe that the mirror showed us what must be. It sets out what might be -- what might be. Forewarned, we can make light of battles that would be the death of others. Believe that. I do."
But he was shaking. Bodie kissed his neck, warm under the heavy curls, and redoubled his efforts, massaging the elf's thin back until the skin was glowing red. "I believe," he said, throaty with emotion. "And what of the other images, Ray? We leave behind us a scorched ruin where your home stood. It will take years to rebuild it."
"A cottage on a hill," Raven whispered as Bodie began to massage his buttocks and thighs. "The hill above here, perhaps? We could pay the masons to build it for us, it would be quicker than waiting for the whole house to be rebuilt, and give us somewhere to call our own when we are returned."
Bodie smiled. "Now you are thinking properly!" He coaxed the knotted muscles to relax, kneading the big sinews that corded the backs of Raven's thighs. "They can rebuild the big house too, for the sake of tradition -- we can afford it. And when we run out of funds we know where the pass is, we can find our way through to the valley one summer. The riches were left there for us." He rubbed the slender calves, manipulating Raven's ankles, which eased tension and relaxed the body, working slowly back up to his thighs and spreading them.
A sigh, and Raven sprawled helplessly beneath his mate's hands, expecting the massage to continue within him and not disappointed. Relaxation pulsed through him in waves from his very centre as Bodie oiled him and gently stroked there, knowing and sure. Overwrought and fatigued, he was slow to arouse and was still not much more than passive when Bodie turned him over, reached for more oil and began again, this time beginning at his jaw and working from there down.
"A child with my face," Raven said softly, watching Bodie as he worked, kneading breast muscles with firm strokes and then pampering nipples with gentler touches before he used his flat hands to relax taut belly muscles.
"And the torque that was taken from you, about your neck," the human added. "That bodes well for us." He passed one oily palm over Raven's groin, barely touching him at all, before he began on the big, hard muscles in his thighs. More oil, strong fingers, deft manipulation, and Raven was limp, saturated with the pleasure of touch and warmth.
He watched through slitted eyes as Bodie worked down to his feet and back up. A drop more oil, and the square, capable hands parted his thighs, massaging with fingertips now, pampering his swelling testicles as if handling a dove. Raven watched his cock fill with blood, arching over his belly, and sighed, lifting off the sheepskins as his spine tingled. Bodie smiled. "Ah, you like this?"
"Oh, no. I am quite indifferent," Raven teased as his lover's fingers transferred to his shaft at last. He was breathing deeply, every nerve alive, his eyes drinking in Bodie's white, beautiful body as the human knelt at his side, intent upon his task. "Bodie, let me spread for you," he whispered, nudging Bodie's knee with his own. "Move aside, let me open."
Kneeling between slender, wide-spread thighs, Bodie continued to stroke and pull, smiling at his mate's response as Raven began to sigh and moan. "Tell me when, little chuck," he whispered, finding himself just as breathless and quivering, not far short of his own climax, without Raven once touching him.
"When?" Raven whispered, lifting his knees. "Ah, now. Now."
Bodie lifted the long legs over his shoulders, nudging into position and pressing. Open, boneless and oily, Raven's sheath about him was like hot, moist velvet and he moaned, letting Ray's legs slide down to hug about him and settling on the elf's chest. He took the beloved face between his hands, massaging the high cheekbones with his fingertips while his tongue performed a similar service for lips and mouth. Otherwise he lay still, holding much of his weight on knees and elbows and luxuriating in the caresses as Raven's hands cut tingling swatches across his back. Their tongues made love without urgency as Bodie massaged his mate's smoothing brow, lifting his head at last with a smile.
Beneath him, Raven was floating, his arms falling away to lie over his head, his breath coming in shallow, panted moans, his eyes closed and mouth open, and Bodie could feel the steady throb against his belly. He pressed down, rubbing Ray's cock between them, felt his mate stiffen in response, breath catching. The green eyes opened, dark as a stormy sky, and Raven licked his lips, raising his hands to cradle Bodie's skull. "Move. Please move."
It was lush and endless, leaving them asleep before Bodie had even found the energy to do Raven the courtesy of cleaning him. They woke -- perhaps minutes, perhaps hours later, and the human's limbs were like so much lead. He watched, drugged with the glow of shared pleasure, as Raven slid out of bed and went stiffly to fetch the wine. He was still glistening with oil, as exhausted as his mate, and smiling at his condition as he sought a scrap of linen rag and saw to his own needs, mopping at his legs as Bodie's seed escaped him.
Was there anything half so beautiful? Bodie wondered as Raven slid back into bed and passed him a cup of wine. "The warband will gather swiftly," he said, sipping the rich liquid. "News of what has taken place here tonight will be heliographed into the west with sunrise, and I... I love you." He could not hold back the confession as Raven stretched and pulled his fingers through his hair, disorganising it into a tousled halo, like burnished copper in the lamplight.
"I know you do," Raven said softly, stretching out on Bodie's sated body and wriggling once before he put his head down. "I was proud of you tonight. You spoke up like a warrior --"
"I am a warrior!" Bodie protested.
"-- and like the mate of a chieftain. You are a Kith, no matter what Jade might say to the contrary."
"Jade," Bodie said scornfully. "Amber dislikes him intensely."
"So do I," Ray admitted. "He and I had a dispute over a horse when I was just a child. The animal was mine, out of our own stables, but bred from his stock. My father had gambled with him for the services of a stallion, and won a mare in the same game. Jade disputed the outcome of the gambling -- but not before he saw the colt. He took back his mare and the foal with her, and I was in tears over it." He chuckled quietly. "I was seven. Jade was already a man; he is Feyleen's age. I think he may have been in love with Feyleen himself, at the time, and trying to hurt Wulff through petty things like the horse."
"And hurt you instead," Bodie observed. "Did your father not contest it?"
"Wulff took the whole matter to Lyra," Raven yawned. "She said there was no way to decide it, as both Wulff and Jade oathed on the Kith standard that each of them was in the right. So Jade kept the colt." He paused, nuzzling Bodie's shoulder. "And Lyra gave me another horse, the pony I learned to ride on. A lovely little skewbald thing with a sweet way and endless patience. I fell in love with it and forgot the colt."
Bodie laughed gently. "I thought Lyra had a fond spot for you! She agreed to your return with great speed! And Jade loved Feyleen, you say?"
"Aye, so I would say," Raven muffled, yawning again. "I saw the world through the eyes of a child, but that was what I thought. Feyleen is so beautiful, and Jade is one who warms only to women, you know. He hated Wulff, I think, for having it all. He married Feyleen after his bondmate of many years was killed, or I would never have been born! Wulff paired with a man first." Raven lifted his head, kissing Bodie's mouth deeply. "His mate was like you, they tell me. Big, dark, with eyes that were deep and laughing and skin that was white."
"While you favour your father," Bodie added. "Wulff was like you, so Feyleen says. His hair so curly, his eyes green and slanting. He was not quite so beautiful, but he was gorgeous enough for a human woman to look once upon him and fall beneath his spell." Setting aside his empty cup, he wrapped both arms around Raven, tongue in his mouth and tasting only the wine. "It is why Feyleen loves you so. You are like Wulff born again."
Raven smiled, his expression growing wistful as he thought of his mother. "They will treat her badly, won't they?"
"She will be confined," Bodie said thoughtfully. "If she tries to run and is captured she will be chained to secure her in future, and she could be beaten for her trouble. But she knows this and will be mindful of it. They will not violate her; she is Garth's daughter, after all, and they will remember that."
"Aye." Raven settled, the gust of a yawn tickling Bodie's chest. "It is a long ride back to Garth's tuath, and they will be slow because of their injured prisoner. But the new moon is a fortnight away. How long has Feyleen before they will try her? Kill her." The last words were a whisper.
Bodie tightened the embrace. "Human law is most specific. There will be a moot, but not until full moon. The elders will try her and if it is decided that she will die, proclamations will be made so that the people will be in no mistake about Garth's justice. They will wait until the tribes have all heard and many chieftains will come to watch the deed."
"And how --" Raven shivered and began again. "How will it be done?"
"With a sword." Bodie closed his eyes, burying his face in Raven's hair. "They will take her head off cleanly, one blow. At the last she will not suffer. But we will be there long before that. Tomorrow, we counsel with Amber, plan our strategies, make plans." He pulled the sheepskins higher about his mate's shoulders. "For now, sleep."
Wine, fatigue, worry and his mating had left Raven like a washrag and though his thoughts were a painful chaos he slept soundly. Bodie's sleep was less deep, though the night spent itself easily, and they stirred as the encampment began to break up, the elders and their entourages wanting an early start, with long journeys ahead of them.
Stiff and cramped, Bodie slid out of bed, wrapping his cloak about himself as he went to answer his body's demands for relief. The sun was an hour up, and atop the hill to the north there was the blinding flare of the heliograph sending the news into the westcountry as fast as it could be flashed out in code. The humans had nothing like it, as basic as the codes and concepts might have been, and Bodie still marvelled at the system. The news that Raven had returned, brought back Amber and accepted responsibility for his clan would be on the seacoast beyond the western highlands by nightfall, and professional warriors from all over Morhod would answer the summons to arms.
Mercenaries, Bodie thought, standing barefoot and cloak-wrapped by the green and white standard of his clan, which fluttered in the breeze by the pavilion's silk-hung entrance. Mercenaries were the best and worst of men: idealists and those to whom ideals were an alien concept. Not all elves were creatures of honour and ethics. There were rogues, gamblers, adulterers, the violent, the reprehensible. Bodie watched the camp break up with a strange, uneasy feeling in his chest. How often had he watched such a sight? And it had always been a precursor to war.
So an army of mercenaries would gather beneath the banner of their clan, and in spite of the Kith there would be a hunting into Garth's tuath. It would end in blood, Bodie knew. Garth's blood -- a river of human blood to avenge the elven blood that had been spilled. He turned back into the pavilion as the Ionae pulled out, their horses laden, wains carrying their pavilions, wagon masters shouting at the animals, boys and girls playing senseless games under the horses' feet.
Raven was still asleep, which was unusual in elves. Even at Amber's home, in the mountain valley, cloistered away from the sun within a cave, he would wake as if some sixth sense told him when it was dawn. Bodie pulled on breeches and boots, warming his hands at the fire as he waited for a steward to arrive with breakfast, enjoying the sight of his lover at peace.
There would be little peace from here on, if there had ever been gentle times before. But soon, Bodie promised silently, soon, the war would be over forever. Garth was the instigator of the war -- the other human chieftains would not treaty with him and elves were still free to trade in their lands. Bodie thought back with bitterness to the last mission he had performed for Raven's grandsire. Garth had sent him into the north to parlay with Ethron, the chief of the Fen, a wild, savage people whose boreal forests would have been a cold hell to other tribes. Ethron had had a scribe, a beautiful little brown eyed elf with yellow hair and a sweet voice. At first Bodie had thought it was a slender woman, realising only later that it was a young man. Among the big, burly fen, at first glance almost any elf would look like a girl.
Ethron would not treaty; nor would Garth's neighbours to east and south -- they traded with the elven tuaths and knew how unwise it was to incite the people of Morhod to anger. Elven warriors, though of small stature by human standards, were fearsome and brave, and their war horses were the finest stock to be found anywhere. Garth had misjudged his neighbours badly and would soon learn that his mistake was a costly one.
A stirring of silks, and Bodie turned to see a girl at the entrance, carrying a basket of food. She nodded greeting to Bodie but her eyes were on Raven, still deeply asleep. Bodie took the basket from her, smelling fresh bread, honey, herbs, roses, cheese, and she glanced once at him before returning her attention to the young chieftain. A little miffed, Bodie tousled her hair.
"Manners, girl. He is asleep and I awake." She coloured swiftly and ducked her head sheepishly. Bodie laughed. "But he is beautiful, I'll grant you. Be off with you. And if you see Amber, tell him we would speak with him."
A yawn from the bed announced Raven's waking as the girl hurried away and Bodie went to dump the basket of breakfast down beside him, luxuriating in his mouth as he came awake. Raven wrinkled his nose affectionately, fingernails scratching through Bodie's beard stubble. "It is like kissing a sanding block," he complained. "Won't you shave?"
But Bodie shook his head. "From now, my beard grows, so does my hair. It is part of the strategy we spoke of, remember. It must begin now, there is no more time to spare, little dove. If you would prefer, I will refrain from kissing you until my beard is less painful."
"I spoke in jest," Raven scoffed, sorting through the food. "Kiss me by all means... only take care, or my tender skin will burn!"
The strategy was simple. Bitterly so. Amber arrived while they were still eating, breakfasting with them and lending them his undivided attention as they spoke by turn, setting out the plans they had often made, only half in earnest; plans by which a victory could be wrought and the fighting ended forever.
An army of mercenaries would be easy to raise and easy to pay, with the riches they had brought down from Amber's valley. No more Kith needed to die to achieve the victory Bodie hungered for, and he saw the same hunger in Raven's eyes. He sat on the bedside, eating bread and honey while Raven wrapped a cloak about himself, going to boil a can of water on the brazier and make tea. Amber watched his heir's slender form with a frown, saying nothing as Bodie spoke, though he clearly had misgivings.
Two could pass through the forest and along human paths unnoticed where an army would be challenged and fight for every foot of the way. It would be the death of both of them if they were recognised, but Bodie had the solution to that. He was raking his nails through a day's growth of stubble and putting his fingers through hair that was much longer than he had ever permitted it to grow before. It was long on his shoulders now, the fringe heavy upon his brow, and given it, the beard and the unaccustomed lightness of his body after so long spent on the road, he knew he could pass among men who had known him all his life and not be recognised.
Raven was a different matter. He could grow no beard, as elves never shaved, and though his hair was much longer now than it had been when he was a captive in Garth's tauth, he could do little to disguise face and body. Still, Bodie hoped it would matter less. Raven had been a captive for ten days and for much of that time his face had been bruised, swollen from beating. The bruises had subsided with the elf's usual rapidity, but by that time he had been the chief's property. He had spent his days chained by the ankle to a ring in the floor, sleeping away the nights drugged in a shadowed corner, and few would have noticed his face. By night, he was sometimes lent to Garth's guests, but if as many as a dozen of the men would recognise his face it would be no more than that. They were more likely to recognise his body, Bodie thought ruefully, his eyes following Raven's movements with lazy sensual pursuit as the elf brought the tea back to bed and sprawled out, his long legs crooked before him.
So two could pass unchallenged among the humans: one as a human wanderer, heavily bearded and with long, concealing hair, the other -- a prisoner, Bodie thought bleakly. A prisoner with his hands bound behind him and his feet tied to the stirrups lest he make off. The humans in Garth's tuath would see them and assume that a soldier of fortune had captured an elf in whose body he delighted. It was odd and perverse; among humans, if a man fell in love with one of his own gender he was an object of scorn and reviled -- for the love, Bodie guessed. Because if the same man raped an enemy, captured an elf and kept him for a catamite, there would only be laughter, some of it directed at the human for his lusts, most of it directed at the elf, for his pain.
They could ride back through the forest by the same trails, Bodie told Amber as they breakfasted, come to within a few miles of the chief's settlement, and there listen for news of Feyleen, scout the fortifications, check the security that surrounded the woman, seek a way to snatch her to safety before the fighting began. For fighting there would be. By stealth and wile, a mercenary army might pass through the same woods, making camp and waiting --
Waiting for men on the inside to create diversionary chaos, to breach the defences, give them all the opportunity they needed to strike hard and fast at the humans.
The plan was sound, watertight, strengthened by Bodie's intimate knowledge of Garth's tuath, but Amber was making noises of displeasure as they finished. "I can see a dozen ways for it to go awry. Accident, to begin with. Suppose one of you is hurt. You would be alone in alien country."
"I could fall from my horse, break my neck and be on my funeral pyre in the morning," Bodie growled. "If we are to call an end to this, give me good reasons, Amber."
"Raven," Amber said promptly. "Once you have bound his hands, tied him to a horse and paraded him before the humans, what makes you sure you can keep him safe?"
Bodie bit his lip, looking up to meet Raven's eyes, which were oddly serene while he knew his own face was haunted. "It is the one aspect of the plan that affrights me," he admitted. "We must take care, Amber. What more can I say?"
"And if they are determined?" Amber pressed. "They offer to buy him from you. You refuse, and they challenge you."
"Then I will kill them," Bodie said coolly. "I have never been defeated in a combat and do not intend to start losing at this stage."
"He must look to me, we know," Raven admitted. "We have seen what the future might hold -- the mirror. But I must look to him also, for I have seen him bloodied by the lash and I am no more ready to see that come about than he is to see me in the hands of others." He turned to Bodie with an intense expression. "If you never leave me alone, nor leave me unwatched, we will win through. Tie my hands only lightly so that I may slip the ropes if there is real need. I can ride a horse as well without my hands as with them, as can you -- a warrior must learn the trick of that, since he will have his sword in one hand and shield in the other. And I will watch your back for you. They will not question that your bed slave watches your back." He flushed, averting his eyes. "To be the catamite of one man is paradise compared to being the plaything of a dozen. A dozen could kill me in a hour's careless sport. Knowing that, they would expect me to protect my interests, such as they are. Better to watch your back and stay alive so as to one day escape, no matter that you rape me when the fancy takes you."
Bodie shuddered visibly. "Speak once more like that, my love, and I will call an end to this myself," he warned.
"We will take care," Raven repeated. "And I will look to you also. Your skin is too precious and too beautiful for it to be broken by the leather and I should hang my head in shame for letting it happen to you." He reached for Bodie's head, kissing him, and then turned back to Amber. "The plan will work. We will get into Garth's stronghold, cripple his defences and perhaps snatch Feyleen before it begins. We will assign a date, one night at dark of the moon when the humans are blind and we elves will see as if it is day. Then there will be the final reckoning between Garth's clan and ours. Twenty-five years is a long time to wait for the reckoning. It is past time."
The shaman sighed, resigned to the fact that they were going, no matter the danger. "Maps," he suggested. "I will ride with your army of mercenaries to keep them in line, but I have never been across the Black Hills and must have maps if I am to lead them properly. Can you draw them, Bodie?"
Vellum and indigo were brought at a word from the chieftain, and Abelard came to look over his human brother's shoulder as Bodie drew detailed charts of the human tuaths, marking rivers, fords, bridges, the hiding places and snares, the hamlets and farms. The last chart he made was of Garth's encampment and he drew it in great detail.
"They call it Garth's forest," he explained, labelling the chart in the cursive eleven script he had learned. "No special name. Before this it was Cua's Forest, and Rho's Forest. Each usurper expunged his predecessor from the map and so there is little that survives from the past." He looked up ruefully. "Foolish, I know, but it is the human way." A few notes were added to the chart. "It stands on a forested hill above a river; four trails meet there. We took the south one, away from the busy roads, this one leads north, into Ethron's tuath, eventually. Here is the river -- it forks, see? Both rivers lead to the sea, in the east and south, and Garth has boats on them. Sometimes large boats. He captured a trader once. Put its crew in irons and seized the boat as well as its cargo. So avoid the river banks, for there will be warriors on the water."
The shaman was watching closely, absorbing each snippet of knowledge until, by the time Bodie was done it was as if he knew the fall of the land personally. "We will ride by this trail," Raven told him, tracing a line on the map. "And end at the hamlet of Deera. There, they will know the news, what has become of Feyleen. We will take to the forest again, travel in hiding, and I will remain in the woods while Bodie goes into the stockade itself and springs Garth's defences before the warband is due." He straightened, one hand on his brother's shoulder. "We will gut the warband before it knows we are there, and seize the stockade. With that, all the tuath will be in our hands. We will hold Garth hostage, and his sons with him."
"Three sons," Bodie elaborated, replacing the quill in the pot of indigo. "Though when we left one of them was ill unto death from a wound sustained in the battle in which Ray was captured. His liver was pierced, so they said. No, I do not think Japeth would live long. So Garth will be left with Feyleen's two brothers, Blackfox and Gilead. They are not pleasant men. Like their father, you understand. One is a riever -- Blackfox. Many children wear his face in that tuath. It is a tradition that whatever woman the chief or his sons desires must go to them. An old tradition, long abused. Blackfox is lame, but it never slowed him and his blood is quick to heat at a beautiful face."
"I know," Raven said softly. "He had me many times, with my hands bound at my back and my face bruised on the floor. Does he treat the women so harshly?"
"So I have heard," Bodie said, reaching for Raven's head, not to kiss him before Abelard but simply to massage his sensitive scalp with loving fingertips, which would make Raven purr. "And sundry lads too -- you were not alone. The other one, Gilead, is more predisposed to killing. More likely to ignore the woman and kill her husband and sons, and take her possessions. He will fight, for sure, while Blackfox lingers on the fringes of the fracas like a lame duck. Gilead will die that night, if not on my sword, then on someone else's. And Blackfox will die thereafter, I think."
"On my sword, if he stands between me and Feyleen," Raven oathed, looking down into Bodie's eyes with grave intent that softened into affection as he saw the love in the human's blue gaze. He dropped a kiss on Bodie's mouth, not caring if Abelard did see it, and then stepped away to consult the charts. "We wait now only for the mercenaries, and they will not be slow in answering the call... One thing troubles me, Amber. We carry with us a great weight of diamonds and other precious stones -- all we own in the world now. We cannot take it and keep it safe while we ride into Garth's tuath. What shall we do with it?"
"Some I will take, to supply the warband," Amber mused, "the rest I would hide. There is a dolmen near here, where lies some ricon no one remembers. It is said to be haunted and few people go there. Buried beneath it, the stones will be safe enough -- leave the task to me."
Raven stirred, stretching, his shoulders snapping audibly. "Gladly. Now, I am for exercise before my body sets like cement! Ride with me, Bodie?"
A smile, and Bodie was on his feet, one long arm cradling Raven's waist, fingers tickling his ribs. Abelard bounced up off the foot of the couch, his eyes bright. "Can I ride with you also?"
But Raven had caught the look in Bodie's eyes and shook his head. "Another time," he told his brother. "Stay with Amber instead and learn something. Ask him to teach you mathematics, or how to read runes. We will be back by noon, I think. Bodie?"
Their horses were tired and lame and the stable lads brought up other animals, fresh, skittish young things that pranced and fought the bit, eager to run. The morning was warm, promising the first hot day of the season, and spring was rapidly becoming summer, like a butterfly born out of its chrysalis. Raven was mounted on a tall, rawboned grey gelding, Bodie on a chestnut mare with a temper to match her colour. She would be mated soon, Raven told him; he was eager for Lightfoot to sire progeny and the mare given to Bodie for a morning was the finest female in the stable.
She was a wonderful animal and Bodie looked forward to seeing the colt she would throw at Lightfoot's pleasure. One of next season's colts, he thought, realising that he was looking into the future. There would be a future. He refused to consider that they were bound only for disaster, planning to share the colt's birth, and his training, with Raven. The mare carried him up the hill slope away from the blackened site that had been the house, courtyard and gardens, and on the brow of the hill they reined back to grieve over the view.
There was a glitter in Raven's eyes that was irresistible, a flush to his cheeks, and Bodie recognised that expression. The elf's blood was up but he was out to tease, out to make an elaborate game of it, and his lover would earn the right to pleasure today. Bodie caught him by the shoulders, kissing him soundly before Ray began to wrestle, slippery as an eel and agile as a boy. Bodie wrestled him down, kicking and laughing, and he was up again the instant the human's grip relaxed, pouncing on his mate, all nipping teeth and tickling fingers. Rolling, Bodie was on his feet, Raven's right hand trapped, the left shouldered aside as he yanked up the blue tunic and grabbed for the knotted tie at the waist of his breeches. Raven was hard already but not about to give in yet.
A twist and he was loose again, hands on Bodie's shoulders, trying to topple him, though he was laughing too hard to wrestle well. Bodie secured his feet, ignoring the grappling and reaching under Ray's tunic again to slip the knot in his waist band. The breeches loosened and the elf stepped away quickly before his mate could have him, turning to keep Bodie at bay while he fumbled for the loosened knots. But Bodie redirected his attack, hands under the linen tunic again and yanking the breeching down over Raven's rump.
A gust of laughter became a yowl of outrage as Bodie dealt two stinging slaps, one to each bare buttock, and Raven leapt out of his grasp, sprawling in the grass and glaring at him, though the whole effect was ruined by his infectious laughter. "That hurt," he accused a moment later, schooling his voice to sternness.
"Ah, poor love," Bodie crooned. "Shall I kiss the damage better?"
"I -- yes," Raven said darkly, and knelt up with a fluid wriggle, baring his rump again, every movement designed to tease. He bent forward, presenting, and gave Bodie a sultry look. "Well, where are the kisses?"
"Little imp," Bodie said fondly. "Here, then, kisses, since I seem to have left my fingerprints on you." He knelt behind his mate, stooping to nuzzle his buttocks. A kiss became many kisses, the nuzzling intimate and tender where a moment before they had been wrestling, and at last Raven relaxed in the grass and let Bodie do what he would. Bodie's hands covered the palm prints left by the slaps, holding the rounded buttocks apart to expose him, and Raven bent his knees a little, guessing that Bodie wished to mate him again. "No, not so soon. I am not out to hurt you," Bodie purred. "You don't look sore but I cannot see inside you." He pulled the elf over onto his back, knelt astride him, opened his shirt and unfastened his own breeches to display his arousal. Cupping Raven's head in both hands, he lifted him toward his groin.
Slender hands took hold of his waist, holding most of Raven's weight, and Bodie inched forward a little to help as Ray nuzzled and kissed, at last sucking his mate into his mouth and tugging on Bodie's hips until the human gave a moan, thrusting between soft lips until the throbbing head of his cock grazed Raven's throat. He felt Ray swallow to relax the muscles of his gullet and gentled his rhythm for as long as he could bear it.
At last he could take no more and writhed out of Raven's grasp to feast his eyes upon his mate. Flushed and heavy eyed, Raven lay in the grass, his clothes disarranged, his mouth swollen, and Bodie fell in love again. He discarded his clothes as Raven watched, pretending to examine the elf's own cock before laving it with saliva to supplement the hot sticky pre-ejaculate that wept from it as a caress. Then he kissed Raven's mouth and lay down on his side, wriggling back until his buttocks were against a bony hip.
"I am impatient," he scolded, "so be quick about it."
"Be quick?" Hands on his pelvis, a knee behind his, a sudden shove, and Raven was inside him. "How quick?"
Bodie was suddenly suffocating with the heat and bulk within him. "Not -- not that quick --"
"I'm sorry, I was playing." Raven withdrew with a sharp breath and began again, entering slowly, infinitely gentle. "Forgive me." He nuzzled the human's ear as if he were an elf, tongueing within it. "I love you. Forgive the game."
"Sweet -- idiot," Bodie panted as Raven's tongue caressed his neck and slender fingers found his groin. "Ah, you are so sweet in me, so sweet, you cut out my heart and take it for your own. Take me, Ray. Aye, deeper now, like -- like that." He was gasping, trembling with rapture, whispered endearments gentling him as Raven sheathed himself to the hilt and began to work at pleasure for them both.
The sun was warm and perspiration was glistening on them when Raven carefully withdrew and took Bodie in his arms. Climax was still quivering along Bodie's nerves, his muscles weak with it, and he lay against his mate, pushing his tunic out of the way to reach his chest. Raven smiled and pulled it off, holding Bodie's head as he suckled -- he knew full well how to arouse an elf again. Blue eyes, doped with satiation, looked up at Raven as Bodie lay back, and Ray knelt astride his lover's sticky abdomen, letting Bodie spread his thighs until his tendons were pulling. The human did not offer his hands, merely watched as Ray attended to himself, and when Raven stilled, on the point of release, captured his wrists and held them away so as to watch him come.
Wreathed in heat and musk, Raven went down onto Bodie's chest, panting as if he had run for miles, and Bodie held him, stroking his hair until he was calm. "We will plant the orchard here, and have that swing seat," he said softly. "And do this whenever we like. And the cottage will be there; I wonder if we can save these trees, or if they will have to go to make space?"
"Ask the masons," Raven yawned, wriggling comfortably. "We will contract them today and the cottage will be complete when we return from the east. I am not taking Lightfoot, and I think your horses have had all they can take. There are warhorses in our stable that would serve. Choose any; they are all your property, since they were mine."
Bodie lifted Ray's face to look at him. "Elven law does not work that way. A person's mate does not necessarily own that person's goods."
"True," Raven said indifferently. "But I choose to make you my heir. I will document it with Amber before we leave. If I am dead, everything belongs to you, not to Abelard. Abelard is not cut out for soldiering; he will be an artist, a poet, not a fighter. And this clan needs a fighter at its head. If I am to die, so be it. You will see that the clan prospers, I know. Amber will agree; he knows and trusts you, you are a Kith through your bonding, and far better fitted to be a chieftain than my brother. Amber does not want the circlet so --" He kissed Bodie's brow. "If I am dead, you are the chieftain of this clan."
For a moment Bodie struggled to absorb what he had been told. A human who had soldiered for pay would be a prince among the enemies of his people? Then he shook his head in denial of the notion. "If you are dead, I am dead. I have gone far beyond the point at which I can live without you. I told you once, I am your chattel, your owned thing, and the words were honest."
"You are mated to a chieftain," Raven whispered. "You have responsibilities to your clan."
"You have a brother and a shaman in your line, let them choose another heir," Bodie said, closing his eyes and tightening his grip on Raven's thin, hard body. "Do you want me to oath upon it? I will." He reached aside, bringing his knife from its sheath at the belt of his discarded breeches. Raven knelt up, frowning deeply, for he had never seen such human ritual. Bodie lay still, looking up at him with a smile that stole the elf's breath, primal and beautiful. "I am mated for life and to death," he said mildly, "and I oath vengeance for whatever harm befalls you. With your death, I too shall end. The gods are my witness and it is sealed thus." He turned the knife, nicking his forearm, sucking the tiny wound clean. "My words and my blood are one." Bodie tossed the knife away. "There. It is as legal as any piece of parchment witnessed by your elders."
The green eyes flooded and Raven turned away to hide the tears, grateful for Bodie's arms about him as the human embraced him, back to chest. "Damn you," he murmured. "Ah, damn you and your gods with you!"
"You curse the gods because they made me love you?" Bodie whispered against Raven's ear, trying to nuzzle it, but Raven turned his head away before his mate could fill him with the mind-numbing pleasure, knowing it for a tool that could be used against him.
"For making me love you," he corrected. "Do you realise what you have done? These shoulders of mine carry the weight of your death."
"I am alive," Bodie purred, nuzzling Ray's neck instead.
"And will remain so, until my luck has expired," Raven hissed, "at which point -- I take you with me?" He shook his head. "I will not - -- cannot. See what you have done? I dare not ride to battle, if my death is yours!"
"Raven." Bodie turned him about, fingers digging into his arms. "It has always been so, since we met. I have just never said it before." He watched the green eyes close. "Wolves mate for life; so do swans and even little forest creatures. Shall we be different? Do you imagine I would want to live on, without you? Or let your death go unavenged? You think poorly of me, little dove."
At last Raven smiled ruefully. "Foolish human."
"Foolish elf," Bodie retorted. "We come as a matched pair, one more foolish than the other. In future, think first before you act rashly. Think of your life as if it were mine. It is, you know."
Raven lifted the forearm that had been nicked, sucking at the little cut, tasting the iron tang of Bodie's blood. "Do you want me to oath in this way?"
"You have done more than that," Bodie said softly, stroking his hair. "As Falcon will attest. You gave more than a drop of blood. You went to an old man and offered everything you have short of your life." They were silent for a long moment, not a muscle stirring, and at last Bodie had to break the spell at any cost. He rolled, dislodging his mate, and bounced to his feet, pulling Raven up with him. "Enough of this. We came out here to ride horses and each other, not to be maudlin on so beautiful a day. Put your clothes on while I catch the nags." He dealt another stinging slap to the buttock he could reach and threw Ray's blue linen tunic at him before Ray could plan any retaliation.
"Contrary, unpredictable, tormenting, facetious, arrogant --" Ray grumbled, plucking a hand full of grass to clean the silvered trails of semen from his skin before reaching for his clothes. He had his breeches on when he heard a soft animal voice, high and familiar, echoed by another a moment later.
Sandals in one hand, tunic in the other, he squinted in the bright sunlight, following the sound, and was murmuring in delight a moment later. "Bodie, come and see! Bodie!" Dropping his clothes, he knelt in the flattened grass, his attention fixed on the shaded nook between the aspens. Bodie's human eyes would have had more difficulty distinguishing shapes in the well of shadow but Raven could easily make out the four cats. Fluff, Feather, Brighteyes and Whiskers came to rub against his legs and he scooped up two, holding them against his chest as Bodie brought the horses back from grazing.
Fluff and Whiskers rubbed against Bodie until he picked them up, then climbed all over him with sharp little claws that made him yelp. Raven looked up from his pets, his eyes at least as feline as theirs, impossibly green in the sun. "They must have run when the fighting started. Cats are wise. The dogs would have fought, I think."
"Aye." Bodie draped Fluff around Raven's neck, watched her bite his hair and laughed as Raven ducked in the interests of self preservation. "Something to build a home around," he observed, playing with Whiskers' soft, black fur and then setting him back onto his feet to rescue Ray from Fluff's mischievous, destructive claws.
The cats chased each other back into the woods and Raven pulled on his tunic and sandals, surveying the hillside with pleasant satisfaction. "We will contract the masons today. The silver bracelets should pay for the cottage, I think. And that ruby, the one in the earring, will pay for the big house to be rebuilt from the foundations up."
"The earring?" Bodie grunted in displeasure. "I liked that."
"But I cannot wear it," Raven admitted ruefully. "It holds my ear just tightly enough to keep me in a constant state of helpless lust, and I don't think even you have the stamina to match pace with that!"
Bodie chuckled richly. "I dare say I haven't." He handed the gelding's reins to his mate and kissed his nose. "I'll race you to the stream."
"The stakes?" Ray asked, swinging up into the saddle.
"A promise from you," Bodie said in a spuriously bland tone as he mounted up also. "If I win you will promise to guard your own life as jealously as if it were mine. Fair enough?"
The gelding was far faster over short sprints than the chestnut mare; Bodie knew full well that Raven held him back and conceded victory.
In a week the first of the mercenaries rode in, five wind tanned, leather clad, surly individuals, two of whom were women, all of whom were seasoned and whose gear betrayed much use. Bodie eyed them shrewdly, seeing trail dirt on them and knowing they had come far. They had been fighting Painted People for a chieftain of the Avan, the Kith's neighbouring tribe, to the north. They were a motley band, some of them unsure even of the tribe they hailed from, so long had their people been on the road, but they bent the knee before the green and white banner of the Syrae clan and pitched camp in the woods to wait for others of their kind to swell the ranks of the warband.
They arrived by twos, threes and groups, some riding out of the south where there was trouble between warring chieftains of the Laika, same from the west where pirates were at work on the river as high as Osiri, where Raven had once fought and been wounded.
Some had heard that this clan of the Kith had been looted to the point of poverty and demanded to see their pay first; some Syrae elders took umbrage but Raven bade them be silent, displaying a tiny part of the cache he and Bodie had brought from Amber's valley. The remainder was already buried, only the shaman, the chieftain and his mate knowing where it lay. The dolmen was the tomb of a chief long forgotten, dating from the era when the elven peoples were not yet properly elves and the forest creatures as yet more than animals, an era when humans had yet to be born out of the primordial slime. Many swore it was haunted but Amber dismissed the tales as superstition, burying the gold, silver and gems in an oilskin, to be reclaimed when the fighting was over.
The moon waned and hammers rang on the hill, loggers cutting back the scorched sections of the forest and hauling timber up to the carpenters and masons who were at work on a cottage. Thatchers were at labour as soon as the wood was up and Bodie spent an afternoon watching a craftsman making their windows, tiny panes of glass going together to form a whole sheet, sealed into strips of lead.
They were long, warm days as summer fast approached, and they might have been happy but for the restlessness of knowing that soon, too soon, the warband would march. Amber studied the maps and charts Bodie had drawn until he had memorised every stream, every hamlet; and he read the stars nightly. The portents were good, he said, speaking to the mercenaries who had accepted that until battle was joined they would answer to the shaman. They watched Bodie with interest and some mistrust but Bodie cultivated patience. Most of these warriors had fought against humans and buried their friends and kin -- they were riding to war at Raven's behest as much to avenge their dead mates as to earn their pay.
It was a philosophy Bodie could not disapprove, no matter that the animosity was directed against humankind. Only the older mercenaries remembered the days when there had been no fighting between their people and humans. The days before Feyleen had come to Morhod. But there were few old mercenaries; their work did not encourage old age. Bodie showed them a human at work as the band massed, let them see that a human was a man also, that his work was the equal of their own, and that he had the trust and the love of a chieftain.
Raven was restless, sleeping and eating little as the moon thinned away and the day of their departure drew nearer. He and Bodie would march first, a few days ahead of the warband, travelling light but heavily armed. Behind them, Amber would keep the mercenaries to schedule and on the right trails, holding to the forest and travelling often by night so as to evade human eyes. The plan was sound yet the dangers were as awful as they were unavoidable and Bodie watched his mate prowl like a caged tiger, refusing rest and food until even Amber noticed the chieftain's behaviour and gave Bodie unequivocal orders to do something about it at once.
There was one way to make Raven sleep for a time, and Bodie employed it, arousing him again and again until he was exhausted and complaining that his ears were sore; when he woke it was to discover himself the pawn in an elaborate game he could not possibly win. He was bound hand and foot to the leather couch with scraps of silk, his hands fast over his head, his legs stretched until he was immobile. He glanced ruefully at his body and shook his head at Bodie. "I am past rising, I am afraid. You have waited too long if you wish to give me pleasure too, and if you wish to take pleasure, you have bound my feet together in error."
"No error." Bodie sat down on the edge of the couch, fluffing the pillow beneath Raven's tousled head to make sure he was comfortable before producing two items. In one hand he had a goose feather, in the other an enormous platter of food. "Now, you will eat."
"I'm not hungry." Raven tugged at the silks, discovering that his hands, gently confined as they were, were absolutely captive, like his feet.
"I did not ask if you were hungry," Bodie said mildly. "I said you would eat, and eat you will, or I shall torture you until you do." He brandished the feather and used its tip to disturb the hair at chest, armpit, belly, and groin. Ray's face twisted as he wriggled. "Now, will you eat?"
"I don't want to," Raven muttered. "Let me go!"
"Not until this plate is empty." Bodie drew patterns across his mate's ribs, hips and genitals until Ray was gasping and pink in the cheeks.
"Let me go!" Raven roared. "I'm not hungry!"
"No," Bodie admitted, "I don't suppose you are, but you're going to be awfully desperate soon, aren't you? Amber has said you will be ill if you refuse to eat, and I won't have that." He played the feather over thighs and testicles, nipples and navel, until Raven was whimpering. "Will you eat?"
"All right," Raven gasped, his face twisted and sheened with a film of sweat. "What have you got?"
After almost a year with his lover, Bodie knew exactly what Raven liked best and had brought it all. Too much food, he knew, but he was not prepared to relent until Ray was claiming sickness. He held a wedge of bread, honey and roses to the elf's lips, watched him bite into it, stooped to lick away a trickle of escaping honey before it could get onto the pillow, taking care that his new beard did not chafe the elf's skin, and held it to his lips. Again. "There is milk, too, when you thirst."
"Wine," Raven said through a mouthful of bread.
"Milk," Bodie corrected blandly, pressing a dried apricot on him. "Then there are cherry pastries filled with cream. And potatoes with garlic butter. And apples that have been soaked overnight in barley spirits. Which would you like first? Because you're going to eat them all or suffer the torture."
Raven glared at him, the muscles standing out in his arms as he tested the silks again. "Monster," he accused, muffled by another dried apricot which made him come up spluttering. "Milk, then, you horror."
Very gently, Bodie lifted his head, held its weight while he drank, returned his head to the pillow and mopped his lips with a cloth. "What next?"
"I'm not hungry," Ray growled and then rethought his position as Bodie picked up the feather, twirling it about his nipples. "Did you say you have cherry pastries with cream?"
A pastry was forthcoming, broken into small pieces and delivered to his lips until it was gone, followed by milk and a kiss. Bodie licked his mouth clean of cream and stroked his hair. "I shall torture you this way every time I can somehow tie you down," he said softly, "unless you are kinder to yourself. What will it be, the feather or garlic bread?"
Green eyes glowered at the feather poised over the elf's quivering belly, and Raven sighed. "If you tickle me now, I shall be sick. A waste of good food."
"Hm." Bodie studied the goose feather thoughtfully. "Perhaps we shall put that to the test." He drew a pattern on the sole of Ray's left foot.
"Monster!" Raven howled. "Give me the garlic bread, and if I am sick, you will clean the carpets yourself or wake in bonds like these and be tormented until you cannot remember your name!"
He was not sick, and most of the food passed his lips; very full and very exhausted, at last he simply turned his head away from another offering and begged softly to be released, no longer at play but in discomfort. Bodie slipped the knots and helped him sit up, covering him with a rug. "Gods, what it takes to get you to eat a decent meal." Ray was moving his shoulders stiffly, wincing as cramps assaulted him, and his mate held him, rubbing him until he was almost asleep again.
Amber appeared at the pavilion's entrance as Raven made the effort to stir, seeing the debris of the meal and lifting one brow at Bodie. "Servants have told me you have been rowing and fighting, that Raven has called you a horror and a monster. These walls are thin, you know."
"Fighting?" Bodie guffawed, displaying the feather. "He has been put to the torture, shaman, until he ate." Amber laughed aloud, taking in Raven's chagrined scowl and Bodie's look of smug affection, the feather and the knotted silks. "And I have threatened to do it again," the human added, "if he does not eat."
"I shall eat," Raven muttered, clutching the rug about himself. "And in any event, we march tomorrow. What are our numbers, Naryr?"
No fewer than two hundred swords had answered the call to arms. The encampment on the fringe of the forest had become a bustling city under canvas and so many warhorses were difficult to feed. Grass would not foster the kind of spirit required of them and grain was brought in daily by wagon to supply them. Swordsmiths had serviced every blade, the leathers were all refurbished, every archer supplied with two score clothyard shafts.
The time to march was at hand. Amber sat on the couch beside his kinsman, twisting a scrap of silk between his hands. "You should leave with morning, Raven. The war band will be a day or so behind you, the timing is right. We have the new moon tonight, and dark of the moon in four weeks. Time enough to cover the distance, scout Garth's defences, seek news and have the red work done at our leisure, eh?" He cupped Raven's chin. "Take care. He will be like your shadow, you will come to no harm. I believe this, or I would counsel against the hunting."
"I know." Raven met Bodie's blue eyes levelly and smiled. "I have never been so gently tormented, nor so lovingly, as just now. Nor have I ever eaten so much! I feel too full to move."
"So sleep," Bodie said with an insolent grin. "Go on, put your head down. I will see to our packing and show your swords the whetstone one last time."
The shaman gave one loose curl a tug of admonition as Raven settled. "Look to your body, or how can you guard his back?" Then he was on his feet, leading Bodie from the pavilion. The shadows were already long, hammers still ringing up on the hill where the cottage was well begun, the smoke of mercenaries' cookfires tainting the breeze. Amber watched Bodie pace with a frown, recognising the signs of fretting about him as much as Raven. The human was more artful at concealing his fears but they were there nonetheless; his jaw was set, his skin a little more pale, his eyes hard, cynical, when they were not looking at his mate. There was no one Amber trusted more, for all the man's human failings -- or perhaps because of them. He offered his hand, and Bodie took it, gripping it strongly.
"Luck, Bodie," Amber said quietly. "But stealth will take you further."
The night was cold for one so close to summer and Raven lay close, eager to share his mate's body heat. They would ride with dawn and from the early hours were subconsciously listening for the war horns that called the mercenary encampment to order every morning. They did not make love, not feeling the need or the urge and luxuriating simply in closeness, rarely even speaking.
The horns brayed at the first inch of sunlight and Raven sat up, looking down at Bodie in the last glimmer from the lamps. With light fingers he outlined his human's features, closing his eyes as he did so to remember the time he had been blind and alone, desperate and in need. Full circle. Now he rode to war, in command of an army of soldiers of fortune, a prince among his people, and Bodie was not his rescuer but his sword brother. He smiled, opening his eyes to feast them on his lover's face. So beautiful in the lamplight, was Bodie, not even the beard detracting, for Raven had long since grown accustomed to it.
Bodie watched him, returning the smile in the last moments of gentleness before they became fighters once more. "What are you thinking?"
"How gorgeous is my mate," Raven told him. "How beautiful are his eyes, how much I love him, how I wish to hold him close, guard him jealously as he grows old with me, and tell him each day how I adore him."
An unaccustomed blush warmed Bodie's face and he sat up to reach Raven's mouth. "When I get you home safe and sound, little imp, you will be mated until you are sure you will not survive, then mated again." He pressed a kiss to the elf's brow and rolled out of bed as the horns called again. "And so to war."
Few saw them leave, for they departed on the trail through the burned out orchard, Raven astride the grey gelding, Bodie sitting on a black animal, a stallion that was the grey's stablemate. Two fine horses but neither of them so costly that they would draw attention to themselves. They wore warriors' leathers and steel and carried few in the way of comforts, but the woods were full of food and even Bodie had learned to tell the best of fare at a glance.
They slept rolled in knotted sheepskins as they had slept every night since the Kith elders had disinherited the young chieftain; a few weeks of comfort had not softened them and to Bodie it was a source of pleasure to lie with Raven under the stars of late spring. The weather held fine and they made good time, sighting the Chaika river, which was the border between Morhod and Garth's tuath, with time to spare.
Resting the horses, they camped on the Morhod side of the river for several days, and Bodie found Raven's attention on the moon as he counted days on his fingers, reckoning the date. "It is summer tomorrow," he said thoughtfully. "And tonight my people will be celebrating Velen. Do humans mark the first day of summer in some way?"
"By sacrifices," Bodie told him. "They go out and kill things. Doves and bulls, sometimes white chickens, to propitiate the gods. Then they get drunk and some fight and some will mate anything that moves until they are overcome and fall over." He chuckled at Raven's horrified expression. "What do your people do?"
"Weeks ago, people were netting for birds," Raven said. "Tomorrow, at dawn, flocks of doves will be set free, the priests will spill wine on the earth, then --" He snorted with laughter. "Then many will get drunk, some fight, others mate anything that moves until they fall on their faces. There is no blood but in the end it is the same. Like any of the festivals, Velen is an excuse for wine and sex. As if an excuse is necessary."
"Humans need such excuses," Bodie said glibly."Our priestkind tell us that sensuality is a sin, you know. Oh yes. Which is why we preserve our modesty, observe monogamy and do such awful penances for transgressions. You know, scourging and fasting, and walking on hot rocks."
"For -- for being aroused?" Raven demanded, and shuddered at Bodie's nod of affirmation. "I don't think elves could afford such beliefs; we would starve to death and have no skin left before long. Some of your customs mystify me."
"Not my customs," Bodie corrected. "I am of the Kith, remember. And I intend to celebrate Velen... We have no doves to free, but we can spill wine on the earth, drink the rest and make love till we cannot stand. We have a few days to spare, Ray, and this may be the last time we can risk pleasure for a long time. Once across the river we are in human country, and you are a captive, remember."
There were words to be spoken as the wine spilled; Bodie did not understand them but Raven knew them by heart, almost singing them in the old language before he poured the last of the rough red into two cups and held one to Bodie's mouth. They celebrated in a nook between young oak trees, the horses tethered out of sight of the river, sleeping soundly when they were beyond rousing.
The river was low now, spring's meltwater gone down to the sea, and carpenters had serviced the bridge. Bodie regarded it with a jaundiced eye; he had seen it once before, the memory red-tinged with pain. He had lost consciousness soon after using it and woken -- at home, he thought. With Feyleen watching over me. The memories were bittersweet, not quite a year old, and Bodie savoured them as he nudged the big black animal alongside Raven's grey, crossing the bridge from Morhod and safety into the human lands.
Familiar wooded hills rose before them, fresh and green; they were headed for the pass by a trail Bodie knew well, and did not tarry in the open. In the concealment of the forest Raven was in no danger but still the human felt his spine lock up with tension as he led his mate deeper into a tuath that had once almost killed him.
They made camp beneath aspens and elders, out of sight of a wagon path and taking it in turns to stand watch, for these woods were full of hunters. Deer scattered away from them, afraid of human and elf alike, fear learned at the hands of the hunters.
Farmers had been cutting back the woodland lately. Great tracts of land that had been virgin forest when they rode this way the summer before were now under the plough, and Bodie drew rein, halting the black on the fringe of the trees as he saw a house and smelt hearth smoke on the wind. Raven was a pace behind him, well aware that now the charade began in earnest.
Sliding from the saddle, they set about a deception planned long before. Ray's weapons were rolled into their bedding, thonged over the rear of Bodie's saddle and, unarmed, the elf took off his tunic and boots, pushing them into a spare corner of one pannier. From the bag he brought a length of hemp rope, handing it to Bodie with a wry smile before he turned about and clasped his hands at his back. "Not too tight. Think of my delicate skin."
Deft as any woodsman, Bodie tied artful knots that would hold firm unless a lot of pressure was put on them. Satisfied, he stood back and frowned over the elf. "Pull them." The sinews corded in Raven's neck and sweat broke on his forehead. "Too tight?"
"Just -- a moment," Raven hissed through his teeth, knowing the ruse had to be convincing. He took a breath and pulled again, and at last the knots gave way, allowing him to get his hands free. Beneath the saddle flap was a dirk, honed like a razor, well within his reach. Bodie retied the knots and lifted him into the saddle, producing a few feet of rope and securing Raven's ankles into his stirrups with knots that would be split on the blade of the dirk in the event of trouble. He took the grey gelding's reins over his ears, looping them over the pommel of his own saddle, and swung up onto the squeaking leather. Raven was quiet, pale and withdrawn, his eyes downcast.
"Is it too uncomfortable?" Bodie asked softly, loathing the look of helplessness as Raven lifted his head. Bare chested, his hair brushing his shoulders, his hands secured behind him, he was the picture of a soldier's whore, and Bodie hated it. If he had ever half suspected that the image would be arousing, he knew he was wrong.
"No," Ray said carefully. "But I itch and cannot scratch."
Bodie hid a smile. "What itches? Your arm? Hold still. Better?" He leaned over with a kiss and drew back to see Raven's rueful expression. "All you must do is be silent, keep your eyes down and trust me. That, or we go back right now. You tell me, little dove. We go back?"
In answer, Raven nudged the grey gelding forward, setting their feet on the path that would lead them, inevitably, to Garth's stockade.
There were labourers in the fields. Bodie nodded greeting to them, watched them peering at his captive, muttering amongst themselves, but he did not look back, trusting Raven's phenomenal hearing to forewarn them of any danger. They held to the road now, since the woods had been hewn back, and made fast time. By nightfall Raven was white to the lips, his face drawn; when they came to rest in the yard of a wayside farmlet and Bodie lifted him roughly from the saddle he fell, his body cramped from the hours of confinement imposed on him by the open road.
They were watched by the farmer and several of his labourers, and Bodie let him fall. The workmen laughed, highly amused as Bodie turned his back on his mate to tend to the horses, leading them to a stone trough and letting Raven struggle to his knees on the cobbles. The farmer came forward, wiping the laughter away with the back of his hand. "What have you done with that? Been up it till it can't keep its feet?" He was still sniggering and Bodie wanted to lash out, pinning on a bleak smile instead.
"Lodging for the night," he said tersely. "The barn will do. How much?"
"A silver bit," the man said offhandly."Or an hour with that."
Bodie lifted the pouch of coins from his belt, pressing two tiny silver squares into the man's dirty fingers. "There's extra for food."
"You want to feed it as well?" the farmer asked, indicating Raven with a nod of his head.
He had forgotten that many humans referred to elves as if they were less than people, and Bodie felt suddenly ill. He looked back at Raven, still on his knees, breathing deeply, clearly too cramped to rise. "Yes, food for the elf," Bodie said indifferently. "Will one of your lads look to my horses? I've paid you enough." He strode back to Raven's side, hoisting him to his bare feet and holding him by one upper arm as the farmer motioned a young boy with red hair to tend the nags.
The food was poor, and Raven could not eat most of it. The broth contained meat, which to him was indigestible, and Bodie gave him all of the bread and preserves, the apples and milk. The barn door swung shut and one lamp lit the gloomy interior as Raven sank gratefully against Bodie's shoulder. "I cannot pull the ropes, I'm sorry. Can you let me loose for a while?" He groaned as his shoulders moved at last, biting his lip as Bodie rubbed at his cramps.
"Tomorrow, I find a way to release you more often," Bodie growled. "You're hurting badly, aren't you?" It was useless to lie, and Raven just nodded. "We will be back in woodland in the morning. A few hours at a time, and then we stop and give you some ease. Better yet?"
"Better." Raven drew away, working every joint in his body one by one. "How far is it now to Garth's stockade?"
"Five days, seven perhaps, if we travel slowly," Bodie judged. "I'm sorry, love. So sorry. And so ashamed."
Raven lifted his head, the green eyes wide in the lamplight as he stretched his spine. "Sorry for what? And ashamed of what?"
"Ashamed of my people," Bodie said awkwardly. "For what they said about you. And sorry that I cannot beat respect out of them."
There were audible snaps from Raven's joints as he straightened, finding a rueful smile. "In the first place, you are of the Kith, so there is nothing to be ashamed of. And in the second place I am here by choice. So long as you never call me 'it' and 'that', what does it matter? They treated me as an animal before, remember. I am not shocked to be treated so again."
"Perhaps not," Bodie grumbled, "but it quickens my blood to fury. Did you hear that man? An hour with you, in return for lodgings! I could have killed him, and his labourers with him."
"I heard him," Raven said wryly. "Rein your temper, sweetheart. You will hear much more of that, if memory serves me rightly." He unrolled the sheepskins and stretched out on them. "Gods, I am tired. Will you rub me?"
Bodie rubbed him for most of an hour, kissed him deeply and sat watching him drowse. For tonight at least there was safety. The farmer was no warrior and would not set out to challenge one. Still, Bodie lay with his sword close at hand, covering Raven with the skins so that, if they were surprised, he would not be obviously unbound.
The rattle of barn doors woke them soon after dawn. Raven froze, his eyes snapping open, searching for Bodie, but the human was alert in the same instant and moved closer, pinning him beneath his weight, one hand clenched in his hair, an illustration of possession. The farmer merely laughed, slapped his thigh in mirth, selected a pitchfork from the array of tools by the door, and left them. Raven relaxed again, exhaling through his teeth.
Breakfast was fresh milk and yesterday's bread toasted over a brazier in the yard. Raven's hands were bound, his bare feet shuffling on the cobbles, which were still cold, and Bodie threw down his cloak, pushing him onto it as he held the pitcher of milk to his lips. "Drink the lot," he whispered. "We'll find proper food when we're back in the woods."
The new farmland met the forest a few miles ahead and they were safe from human eyes again late that morning. Raven stretched his shoulders, pulling on his boots and foraging for food while Bodie went over the horses with an eye to their health. The stallion had one loose shoe, the gelding one fetlock that could have used a little rest, and he was grumbling about the costs of a farrier as Ray lit a fire and made tea.
"For the richest man in the westcountry, you are tight fisted indeed," the elf teased. "Money is no object, and you are well aware of that. There will be a farrier in the hamlet ahead, won't there?"
"It will mean taking you among people," Bodie muttered.
Raven sat down to watch the can of water boil. "No one will lay hands on me, not while you are there. I am your property, as surely as your horses, your weapons, your money. If they take an interest in me they will petition for favours." He found a bleak smile. "There will be no favours forthcoming. That is all I need to know."
"All right, you know best," Bodie said shortly, his tone terse.
"Bodie?" Raven looked up. "What do you want me to say? That I cannot stand to be looked at that way? That their insults wound me? That I wish to strike out and my wrists are bloodless within the ropes?" He shrugged, rubbing his palms together. "All that is true. So I blind my eyes, close my ears and pretend I am far away, along with you. If I can endure a little longer, so can you. Now bring the cups, this tea is ready."
The hamlet was no more than a cluster of shacks along the road, its fields chequerboarding the hills. Bodie let the stallion pick his own way down the deeply rutted trail, nudging him aside in the direction of the smithy as the shadows lengthened. Raven whispered for attention, needing to stand and ease his muscles, and Bodie lifted him down with greater care, making sure he could hold to his feet before releasing him. He stood by the horses, catching the sun in the corner of the smith's little yard, his eyes cast down, his ears following every sound about the township as Bodie hailed the farrier.
The man was big and beefy, attended by several apprentices, two of whom went to check the nags' shodding while the warrior talked terms, showing his money. The smith was busy, reluctant to do the chore at once, but Bodie produced an extra coin to sweeten the fee and he agreed. Slitted eyes looked over the horses and the captive, and the farrier stifled an oath. "By the gods, an elf. Where did you catch it? A pretty one, too. Not for sale?"
"Not for sale," Bodie affirmed, turning back toward the front of the smithy and biting back his anger as he saw the farrier's lad with his hand between Raven's legs. "Get away from him!" The words were snarled and his stride betrayed his fury as he went to snatch the boy's hand away. Ray's teeth were clenched on his lips but he had not moved a muscle. Bodie gave the lad a murderous look, stopping just short of a cuff.
Behind him the farrier bawled at the lad for his impudence. "Get off his property before I take a stick to you, Lath! Keep your thieving hands to yourself." He gave Bodie an apologetic grunt. "The boy is a nuisance. You want to make sure it isn't damaged? I don't think it's hurt."
Bodie shook his head. "No. Just see to the horse and I'll be out of your way. Another silver bit for you, if you do the job with all speed."
They were on the road in half an hour, and Bodie pulled the grey gelding up alongside, giving Ray a wry glance. "Satisfied?"
"He only touched me," Raven said quietly, very much on his dignity, which was absurd for one who was bound. "He did not hurt, just wanted to know if elves are men or not. There are a lot of strange stories I have heard." He looked up into Bodie's face, saw the whiteness of anger. "Really, it's all right. If nothing worse befalls me than that I shall laugh about this campaign next month."
Gratefully, Bodie led them back into the woodland, opting for an arduous side trail that took them over the hills rather than holding to the road any longer. Freed, Raven chose to run ahead of the horses, limbering his body and filling his lungs. They pitched camp for the night above a river and Bodie pointed into the north. "Garth's stockade lies in the fork of this waterway. We will see Deera in three days, and the Chief sits two days up the road from there." He turned smouldering eyes on Raven, the last lick of bloody sunlight along the western rim limning his face.
The elf could have seen in pitch darkness and took a quick breath at his mate's expression. Angry and hard. "Bodie, what is it?"
A shake of his head betrayed Bodie's confusion and he turned away to tend the fire, not knowing how to explain the restless fury inside him. It was more bitter than he had expected to see Raven treated in this fashion and the fact that Ray was accepting of it angered him further, though he knew it was an irrational rage. Hands on his back, caressing softly, sought to soothe the fury away but it had gone beyond that.
Spinning around, Bodie caught the gentle hands, his own grip cruelly tight. "Don't. You're not a whore."
"I wanted to touch you," Raven said quietly. "What have I done?"
"I --" Bodie felt the anger sunder his innards and pulled Raven against him. "Nothing. You have done nothing. It is I who cannot bear it when they speak of you as if you were a piece of flesh to be used for lust. I swear I'll lop the next hand that touches you."
"Ah, sweetheart, don't," Raven implored. "You're hurting worse than me in this, aren't you?" He drew away to see Bodie's darkened face. "There is no need. You have kept them from me. Come and rest. Or lie with me." He chuckled in a moment's honest humour. "There is one sure way to keep others from possessing me."
"Sure way?" Confused and inexplicably in pain as he held Raven against him, Bodie buried his face in his mate's hair.
"Sure way," Raven whispered. "If you are within me yourself, no one else can be there. Lie down with me, and be sure now."
The anger cooled a fraction but Bodie was still seething with disquiet as he stripped his lover. His hands shook less with passion than with reaction to the fierceness of the outrage at the humans' words and hands. He oiled Raven without preamble, turning him over and entering him at once. Raven cried out, sucking in a breath. "Bodie? What -- what have I done?" His voice was sharp and high. "I'm sorry -- I'm sorry."
He was rigid, frozen, shivering, and Bodie caught his breath at the elf's words, realising that Raven thought he was being punished for something he was not even aware he had done. He had spread himself, ready to accept Bodie's judgment, trusting him to the last degree and assuming that for Bodie to be furious with him he must have sinned indeed and be due chastisement. Bodie's throat constricted as he realised what he was doing, felt the tremors racking Raven's slight body as the elf waited.
Then the pressure was gone and Raven was lifted, his face kissed. "It is I who should be sorry. I didn't meant to hurt you. You haven't done anything, and even if you had --ah, do you think I could hurt you that way to punish you? Punish you?" He shuddered. "It is just harder than I had thought to watch it happening and the mirror haunts me. I keep seeing the collar about your neck. Forgive me? Have I hurt you? Turn and let me see."
Relief made Raven too limp to protest as he was turned over again and he felt a bubble of irrational laughter as Bodie lifted his hips, spread his buttocks and kissed the muscle that a moment before had been stretched too suddenly. Pleasure rippled through him as Bodie's tongue teased inward and he felt the rush of his blood. "I thought you were angry with me."
"Angry with the whole human race," Bodie muffled against Raven's buttocks, the elf's musk strong in his nose, irresistible. He sat up and lifted Ray against him. "And no, I will not enter you again tonight, so do not ask it of me. It is too dark for me to see what I have done to you, but there is no blood. Well, none that I could taste." He coloured and buried his face in his mate's shoulder. "What would you like?"
In answer, Raven simply lay on him and rocked, and Bodie surrendered to the act, holding the curly head against his shoulder as elven seed splashed on his belly and chest. They were silent for a long time, and then Bodie found his voice on the fringes of sleep. "And incidentally, I'm very insulted."
"Uh?" Raven fought back to wakefulness. "Insulted?"
"You thought I was out to punish you, and damned well accepted it," Bodie told him indignantly. "Don't you ever -- ever! -- do that again. If I am ever insane enough to hurt you intentionally, I do not deserve patience. I deserve to be thrashed; and if you have ever done anything that makes me so angry, though what it would be is beyond me, we talk. Or shout. Argue, fight even. But never mate in anger. Do you remember a time you went out with your cousins, netting for song birds, and I had warned you that Fen archers would see you, and you wouldn't listen --"
"And came home bleeding," Raven finished. "Aye, you were furious. And you wouldn't even speak to me until we were in bed, and then wouldn't touch me until we had talked for hours and learned to laugh about it." He ducked his head sheepishly. "I remember."
"I am gratified," Bodie said drily, lifting Raven onto his chest and palming both warm buttocks. "If I ever hurt you, put your foot where it will do the most good, as you did to your cousin Lerrad when he propositioned you all those years ago."
At last Raven spluttered with laughter. "I would cripple you! I will do no such thing. Ah, Bodie, go to sleep. I love you, and that is the end of it. I was prepared to be hard ridden to make amends for whatever I had done to anger you. Punishment did not occur to me, just that I had angered you unwittingly until you needed to mate me that way. It hurt a little because you were so quick, but I have never shied from a little pain." He bit Bodie's shoulder sharply, adding in a husky whisper, "especially when it is in a good cause."
The bite stung and Bodie mouthed a silent 'ouch', reckoning he had it coming. "You will remain at my side tomorrow," he growled. "I will not let you out of arm's reach."
He was as good as his word and Raven was beset both by pride and embarrassment as Bodie kept one hand on him every moment they were within the roadside hamlets. A grip on his arm, his shoulder, the human's fist knotted into his hair, offhandly holding him to Bodie's side while there was haggling over food, services and lodgings. The humans looked slyly at him, muttering amongst themselves, lewd, crude remarks that were too soft for Bodie's ears but raised a blush on Raven's cheeks. Some of the suggestions were not even physically possible, he was certain.
They slept in a farmer's hayloft, the ladder pulled up ensuring security, and at last Bodie let his captive go. Raven sprawled in the hay, finding a little rueful laughter. Bodie glared at him as he unrolled their sleeping skins and Raven quietened with an apology. "Forgive me if I see humour in it, but -- you did not hear the things they were saying."
"They can say what they like," Bodie muttered, "so long as they keep their hands to themselves." Then he looked up with a scowl. "What were they saying?"
The laughter was back before Raven could swallow it. "Strange acts that would be impossible to perform," he chuckled, "even for elves."
"I'm glad your sense of humour is intact," Bodie said, straightening. "Mine is wearing a little thin."
Raven merely shrugged, "They see only your whore when they look at me. In a way I am flattered, for they envy you. Two women were considering asking if you would trade them. Their horses for me. And they were fine horses, two of them."
At last Bodie saw the perverse humour and allowed a chuckle. "Tomorrow eve we will be in Deera, and I must scout for news. There is a tavern, we will sleep in a proper bed."
It was raining lightly as they set out and Raven was shivering, the wind chill on his skin, his feet frozen. Bodie fastened his cloak about the elf's thin shoulders, stopping often to make a fire and warm him. The rain cleared away by midday but the afternoon was not warm, the sky low and promising thunder before nightfall.
The woods were behind them now, only patches of forest surviving the farmer's axe. The road was lined with cotter's houses, the air smelling of woodsmoke and the myriad smells of humankind. Bodie's olfactory gifts were not so keen as to notice them but Raven's nose was wrinkling as they approached the hamlet of Deera; there was no greater trigger to memory than that of scent, and nearly all his memories of his time spent among humans were bitter. Trapped in introspection, he kept his eyes down, rolling to the grey gelding's steady gait, and did not notice the miles.
For Bodie it was odd; it was the first time he had been among humans in a year and he found his perceptions of them had changed. They were clumsy, overblown, arrogant, shambling creatures, even the young girls and lads unlovely and unkempt. Their houses were rambling and untidy, their manners uncouth, their dress coarse.
Thunder rumbled along the mountains in the east. The Fen country would be already storm-sieged, the boreal forests lashed by the downpour that was on its way, and Bodie headed quickly for the inn. Beside it was a livery and lads came out to take the horses from him as he lifted Raven from the saddle, one hand knotting into his hair to hold him; to the humans it would appear a gesture of possession, to Raven a caress, to Bodie himself, a necessity, for the humans were intent upon his mate, weighing his value in trade against horses and leathergoods.
A silver coin stabled the nags for the night, and then Bodie led his captive under the inn's creaking sign. It carried Garth's standard, indicating that the taverner had once served in the chief's house. That more than anything placed Bodie especially on his guard.
The inn was half full, a fire roaring in the hearth, and he took the cloak from Raven's shoulders, spreading it out to dry, his jacket along with it. The elf shuffled closer to the heat, holding his feet to the blaze and hissing a warning at Bodie as a big, ungainly man, enormously fat, approached them.
"You'll be staying the night?" the taverner asked, wiping his hands on his apron, and when Bodie nodded, gave the captive a look of suspicion. "Do you want that stabled, or will you be using it?"
"The elf stays with me," Bodie growled, one hand closing about Raven's arm. "Any objections, and I take my business elsewhere."
"No objections, so long as you control it," the man told him. "This is my place and I'll have no trouble under this roof. Here, wait." He shambled back to the tap bar, rummaging behind it and returning a moment later with an object both Raven and Bodie recognised. A leather collar and a length of fine chain. The taverner threw it at Bodie. "I'll hold you responsible if there's trouble, mind."
The landlord did not move until Bodie had buckled the collar about Raven's neck, tight enough to satisfy the man, but not so tight as to hurt. "Food," he said tersely, turning toward the hearth and praying Raven would follow without tension on the chain. The elf padded at his heels, sitting at his feet without a word or glance, eager just to be warm. His feet were dusted with ash and he began to relax as Bodie watched, the confinement of his hands his only complaint as the food arrived.
Nose twitching, Ray identified the food as meat and groaned, hunger gnawing at his insides. A hand fell on his nape below the collar, massaging gently out of sight of the tavern's patrons, and a moment later a chunk of bread, soaked in brandy and laden with apricot preserves was brought to his lips. He ate readily, not looking up until Bodie held a cup of wine to his lips.
As he drank he heard footsteps by the hearth and stiffened; the chain tightened as Bodie gathered it in. Three pairs of boots appeared in his line of sight and he curled his legs beneath him, testing the ropes about his wrists. They gave a fraction and he was satisfied.
The chain bit into Bodie's hand as he clenched his fist about it, looking up with spurious indifference at the three humans who toasted him in ale. He nodded a greeting, waiting, knowing what they wanted.
"Is the elf for sale?" The largest of the three spoke, a money pouch in his hand, jingling. Bodie merely shook his head, leaning back against the chair's wooden back, and the man grunted. "Aye, why would you sell it? We'll pay you to use it, then. A couple of silver bits for the night. No damage, of course. I haven't had an elf in years."
"And you won't be having an elf tonight," Bodie said quietly. "No deal. Get out of my way." He stood up, giving the chain a yank to stir Raven. He watched his mate get stiffly to his feet and shortened the chain to bring him close.
The big man's mouth tightened. "Now, that's not hospitable. We've offered to pay you and told you we won't damage it, what more do you want?"
"I want you to step aside," Bodie said icily, his tone menacingly sweet. "Because I'm going to retire now, and the elf goes with me." He slung the saddle bags over Raven's shoulders, hitching them up securely and turning away toward the crooked stairs.
"Now just one minute." The man raised his voice, holding Bodie back with a hand on his arm. "You're a stranger in this place. The least you can do is extend your hospitality, the custom of the road. Our money is no good?" He spat into the fire. "Are you trying to insult us? It's only a slave, and an elven slave at that! And it must be talented beyond imagination for you to be so jealous."
Another of the three spoke up, taking a step toward Bodie with a thin smile. "We won't break it. I've got grease, and you know these elves, they'll open to take anything."
Fury seethed under Bodie's breastbone. Very deliberately, he drew the dirk from its sheath at left of his belt. "Step out of my way. My patience is already short."
The three were farmers, not warriors, and at the sight of a warrior with a blade in his hand they backed off. Bodie pushed Raven before him, giving him just enough chain to manage the stairs; behind them the tavern's patrons were muttering, displeased, some angry at the display of inhospitality. Bodie did not care, wanted only to shut the door on their room and take the saddle bags from Raven's shoulders. He kicked the door shut, slid the dirk away and pulled Ray against him until the elf begged for air.
"Bastards," Bodie spat, pulling the ropes with sharp jerks betraying his anger and setting his hands to the collar.
But Raven caught him by the wrists. "No. There may be trouble, and if they force our door it would go badly for you if I was loose." He stretched, standing close by the door's tiled hearth, and as Bodie watched, took off his breeches. "There, that is what they will expect. You had better rope my hands again soon, too." He met Bodie's aghast face and forced a smile that was bleak. "Anything else of danger, sweetheart." The chain tinkled between his fingers as he ran them from the collar to the leather strap in Bodie's hand. "This is what we saw in the mirror, and I am weak with relief."
"Relief?" Bodie demanded, his tone disbelieving as he reached out with fingers that shook to touch the collar buckled about Raven's neck.
"Relief," Ray said ruefully, catching his lover's hand and kissing it. "For it is you holding the chain! You can hold my chain whenever you please." He dropped a wet kiss on Bodie's mouth, tasting the meat he had eaten and making a face. "If you desire kisses, get rid of that taste. Here, there is wine." Coarse red liquid slopped into the single cup and he pressed it into Bodie's hand. "Gods, I am still cold. Come and sit by the fire."
Bodie held the cup in numb fingers, watching Raven kneel by the hearth, holding his hands to the flames. "The mirror," he whispered, sinking down into the wooden chair beside his mate.
"The mirror." Raven looked up, his eyes dark and unblinking. "Drink wine, and then kiss me. I want your mouth. Then tie my hands in case those dolts disturb us! Oh, love, I wish you could see your face. What is it?"
"This." Bodie gestured with the chain, dropped it as if it had become suddenly molten, and sank the wine in one untidy gulp. When he looked up again Raven was gathering the links into his right hand and holding the loose end out to him. He took it with a curse.
"Some lovers," Raven said shrewdly, "play little games of domination with one another, and make sport with things like this."
"Because they have never known the truth," Bodie murmured. "If they could see what I saw in the well, they would never play those games again." He traced Raven's features with feathery fingertips. "I saw them play such games with you. There is no joy in causing pain, no pleasure in the humiliation of one's mate." He forced a lopsided smile, his eyes too bright in the firelight. "I hope you do not desire me tonight, sweetheart, for I don't think I'm capable. Not like this."
Raven smile, an expression of incalculable sweetness, and caressed Bodie's knee. "I love you. This is of no consequence, Bodie, it matters nothing to me. So I wear a collar, what of it? So long as it is you holding my chain, it is just a piece of leather, nothing more. Now, kiss me and then tie my hands, and let's go to bed. Tie me loosely like this," he added, his hands clasped before him rather than at his back, "and give me a foot of slack rope, then, if you hold me I shall be fine."
Grumbling noisily, Bodie did as he was asked, securing the loose end of the rope to the bedframe and watching with jaundiced eyes as Raven looped the end of the chain about the same post, an artful deception, for both the chain and the rope were tied with slip knots. Satisfied, Raven stretched out on the soft skins and arched his back. "A proper bed! My spine has forgotten the feel of this. But not," he added moments later as Bodie slid in beside him and enfolded him, "the feel of that." He was pulled back against the human's warm body, one leg crooked over him to hold him, but he felt the cold press of leather at his shoulder. "What is that, a scabbard?"
"My dirk," Bodie affirmed. "I don't trust them. Angry men bear watching."
They did not sleep, too tense although they were both tired; and it was wakefulness that provided Bodie with the edge he needed as the night grew old, the tavern's patrons grew drunk and the louts' anger magnified. The creak of the door heralded the scuffle and Bodie drew the dirk within the sleeping skins, turning over in time to see the man who had petitioned him. Hands reached for his throat, clumsy but like iron, and the dirk twisted like a silver eel, up under the ribs, sliding in through leather jerkin and soft fat.
As quickly as it slid in, Bodie withdrew it, seeing two shadowy figures at the door. A choking sound, and the man collapsed across the foot of the bed, blood gushing across the skins. Bodie clenched a fist into the collar of the jerkin, dumping him onto the floor. "Who will be next?" They hesitated, peering at their associate.
"Tallwch? Tallwch!" The voice was coloured by the accent of the south, and frightened, as the dead man's friend stepped closer.
"Get the carcass out of here." Bodie got his knees under him on the hard mattress, the tip of the dirk never wavering. "Move it!" At his back, Raven lay absolutely still, barely breathing, his unblinking gaze fixed on the tableau, and Bodie felt him stiffen as his ears caught the sounds of commotion downstairs. A moment later the human heard the pounding of feet and was not surprised when the taverner appeared, a hissing brass lamp in his hand.
"What in the names of all the gods is this?" he roared.
Bodie's mouth twisted into a travesty of a smile. "What does it look like? The elf is bound, see? I am asleep and these oafs force my door. I wake to find hands at my throat. I should lie still and be strangled?" He glanced once at the body on the floor. "He is dead, and deservedly so."
"And because of an elven bitch," the taverner spat. He glowered at the bed slave's shapely form, exposed by the disarranged bedding, his bound hands, the collar still about his neck, and swung on the intruders. "You're a pair of fools to think you could force your hand. Get out of here, Gamyn. And you, Elias, and take this dead meat with you." He turned a furious face on Bodie. "And as for you, you can pay for the death rites. A man is dead for the sake of a slave's arse. Think yourself lucky your whore is not forfeit to Tallwch's family, to be sold to keep his kin. And the next time you are offered good money for sport with that thing, take it. Any more trouble and the guard shall hear of it."
The door slammed and they were alone again. Bodie cleaned the dirk on a fold of the sleeping skins and slid it away, watching Raven's taut face. "I'm sorry. There was nothing else I could do."
"Scout for news in the morning," Raven whispered. "Learn all you can, and with all speed, and let us leave. There is danger here. Those men will have friends, and we are alone."
Bodie nodded thoughtfully, sliding down again and pulling his mate against him. "Humans make me sick with shame. No elf would behave so."
"You are a young people, as yet," Raven said softly, wriggling against Bodie's welcome heat. "Another thousand years and humans will mature."
There was not much solace in that and Bodie spent the night with his ears open, every nerve tingling as he waited for more trouble. The taverner had threatened the guard, and there was cause for concern in that. Garth's soldiers might not recognise him or Raven, but there was no need for his face to be known for trouble to spawn.
With dawn they were as tired as when they had bedded. Bodie kissed his lover soundly before leading him down to breakfast, his hands confined at his back, his shoulders burdened with their saddle bags. Barefoot, he padded soundlessly to the big hearth and knelt in the warmth, waiting for fresh bread, preserves and sweet milk. The taverner was glowering at him, begrudging him every bit, and he pretended not to notice.
Other patrons were scandalised by the night's folly; the word 'murder' was on the lips of several men and only Bodie's obvious status as a warrior brought him the freedom to kill and not be called to answer for his actions. A warrior was trained in combat and well armed; only a fool would provoke him, and when such fools reaped their reward it was a matter for scorn, not the guard.
Still, the dead man had been popular and few of the tavern's clients could understand the warrior's refusal of decent money for a night's amusement between the legs of a slave who was less than human to begin with. Bodie's fingers remained knotted in Raven's hair, his fingertips gently rubbing even while the chain was held short and he hailed the man drinking at the bar.
"What news have you? The chief's daughter has been brought back, has she not? I heard Feyleen is back in Garth's Forest."
It was a farm wife who answered, a tankard of mulled ale half way to her lips as she controlled a squealing piglet by trapping it between her feet. "Ah, what's it to you, warrior?" She cocked a glance at the elf and let loose an earthy chuckle. "You've no particular love of elves, by the look of you. Word has it that one is ridden nigh to blood, for you never take your hands off it. Yet you'd kill a man to keep it your own. Why is that?"
As much as he hated to voice it, Bodie knew a decent enough answer. "You're all strangers. How do I know where your men have whored? If you think I'll let them get up him with the sickness, and so catch the sickness myself, you're vastly mistaken. But what of Feyleen? What says Garth?"
The farm wife took a swig of ale, recapturing her piglet. "She is to be tried at the moot. The elders will come in for it but it is too late to convene them this month, for the moon was full yesterday. Why? You wish to see her head in a basket? By the gods, you hate elves indeed!" The woman gave a shudder. "She was mated to one, you know. Filthy notion, letting something like that in you. Paederasts!"
The absurdity of it made Bodie almost dizzy and he said nothing, urging Raven to his feet instead and leaving without a word. The livery lads saddled the animals while they watched and he took the burden from Raven's shoulders, buckling the panniers to the saddles. The taverner was waiting at the door, watching Bodie unfasten the collar and taking the chain from him with a grim look. "Money for the sleeping skins," he growled. "They are too bloody to serve again." Bodie shoved a silver bit into his hand and turned his back on the man to lift Raven into the grey gelding's saddle, tying his bare ankles to the stirrups under the innkeeper's furious glare.
The freedom of the sparse woodland was like paradise. They sought only seclusion, not to travel, and Bodie loosed his mate for Raven to forage for food he could eat, tending the fire and making tea. A lush salad and the best of last year's nuts, honey tea and a handfull of wildflowers for dessert, and Raven was satisfied. He sat on a rotting log, absently rubbing his chafed wrists and listening to Bodie's tuneless whistling as he whittled a stick into a pile of shavings. "If Feyleen will not be tried till the next full moon, we are in ample time," he mused. "Dark of the moon is in a fortnight, and our warband is already in the woods inside the passes, a week's march behind us."
Bodie nodded thoughtfully. "We will ride for Garth's camp slowly. Hold to the woodland -- the weather is fine again now and I would sooner sleep peacefully with owls and acorns than spend another night at a tavern."
"In the rain?" Raven asked. "We were lucky to be under a roof last night."
"And a man is dead because of us," Bodie said mildly. "You heard the taverner. Had I not been a warrior, he would have called the guard. For the man's murder I should have been judged by the guard captain, oh, not executed, because I was acting in my own defence. But they would say I had brought about the scene, and so was partially to blame."
"To blame?" Raven demanded. "You were at peace and the man had his hands on your throat!"
"Just so," Bodie agreed. "And why? Because I would not be -- hospitable." His face twisted. "You are a bed slave, there to open for whoever desires it. Ah, gods, I hate this place." He buried his face in his hands. "I want to go home, Ray. Just get out of here and go home. Can we not steal Feyleen away one night and run? We got out that way once before, we could do it again."
Arms slid about him, pulling him close, and he pressed against his mate, head tucked under Raven's chin. "You know we cannot," Ray said quietly. "Garth has sacked and looted his way through our lands once, he will do it again. Next time he will take our friends, our young people. And in these lands you know what will become of them. Bed slaves, there to open for whoever desires it, Bodie." He lifted the human's bearded chin and kissed his mouth. "We are within sight of the end of this, we cannot go back." He glanced about at the woods with a faint smile. "We can take a week over reaching Garth's camp, free and alone. Do you know how long it is since we have made love? Aye, that long! Once, I thought I would burst if I were made to wait so long, but there has been too much strife." He cuddled Bodie unashamedly. "We have no hurry now, have we?"
"No hurry," Bodie echoed, inhaling the rich, earthy scents of Ray's body, sweat, musk and leather. He nuzzled the elf's throat, kissing along the faint red line left by the collar. "Ah, Raven, I love you." He tightened his grip on the slight, hot body in his arms. "Did you hear what the stupid woman said? Paederasts. Not fit to mate a woman, you understand. Unclean."
"Strange, then, that we produce generation after generation of child kin," Raven observed drily. "It is an old woman's prejudice, Bodie. She has been taught all her life that elves are filthy creatures because our men bed with men, and mate the way we do. It is just custom to despise us for it. When the fighting has been over for a decade or two things will change."
"You hope," Bodie said ruefully. "No, you're right. I am not like them, and neither was my friend Kevin, and there are others who are forgiving and understanding. The animosity is because of the fighting. Who knows? That woman may deserve compassion. She may have buried a husband and sons from the fighting. You may have killed her kin yourself, sweetheart." He looked into Raven's eyes to see gentle humour there. "An end of the fighting, and things will change. I know."
A kiss for his nose, and Raven turned away to rescue the honey tea he had set to boil. "A week before we must tackle Garth's defences," he said over his shoulder. "I expect we can be creative indeed in that time."
"Oh, I expect so," Bodie agreed blandly, taking a cup from him and acknowledging the stirring of his loins. "It has been too long since we loved," he added gravely. "Why, I have almost forgotten the taste of you!"
"Liar," Raven accused fondly, and then laughed. "Humans, of course, are most adept liars -- it is why you make such good gamblers." He cuffed the human's tousled head and nipped his ear. "Drink your tea and ravish me in the grass."
Compliance was a source of delight.
All roads led to Garth's camp, and they were in need of repair after a spring that had been wet. Road gangs were at labour, dishevelled men in chains, working under the indifferent gaze of guardsmen, and Bodie recognised no few of them -- guards and slaves alike. There were old associates in Garth's red and black colours, men Bodie had fought beside; there were old enemies in chains, men he had fought against and respected as adversaries. Garth was fighting ceaselessly, as if he lived for war. To the south was Sinnoch, a chieftain with whom he fought over rights to the lush hill country; to the east, Petrus, with whom he disputed ownership of the herds of red deer and wild horses. In the chain gangs were men from both tuaths, and Bodie, who would once have passed over the servitude of his fellows, was now disquieted by the sight of men in slave iron.
The land rose toward a single peak, its crest grown crooked since the courses of underground streams had undermined it. About its feet forked the river, splitting into two rivers and heading for the sea. The natural fortifications were superb, and they were reinforced by the stockade, a wall built of whole pine trunks, pegged and roped together, encircling much of the camp. Like a prison, Bodie thought bleakly as he reined back a few miles out, on the fringe of the last tract of woodland.
It was not safe for Raven to go on; these woods were the last stretch of security for either of them. It was late in the afternoon and they were restless; they had taken a week over making no more than two days' march, slept, eaten and loved until they were revitalised, their spirits restored, and the horses were growing sleek with fat.
The trail to which they had held wound on up the slopes, feeding into the great gateway, but it was only one way into the settlement. Bodie knew them all, knew the strengths and weaknesses of the camp. It was like a porcupine, its spines obscuring its secret: that it was flawed and vulnerable. The horses were penned at one side, and there were no more than fences at that point, as the cavalry had long since complained that they were not able to deploy fast enough. A year ago, Bodie had taken Raven out that way with ease, slipping away in the darkness.
In times of war the fortifications would be strengthened, but when there was no threat they were lax about security, earning Bodie's scorn. He had drawn rein on the road, his shaded eyes sweeping across the pine log walls; beside him, Raven was watching a flight of swans over the river, and the sound of hooves went unnoticed for some time.
"We part here," Bodie said thoughtfully. "You may camp, stay out of harm's way for a day or so until I have taken a thorough look at the place, made sure it is all the same. We have a half moon now, and I'll meet you -- right here, I suppose, at moonrise, say the night after tomorrow." At the look on Ray's face he had to chuckle. "No one will recognise me. I'm shaggy as a goat with this beard and this unshorn hair. I never looked like this before, nor will I again, as soon as I can shave."
"I look forward to playing with a razor," Raven admitted. "The beard is all very well, and attractive enough, but I like you smooth. Like an elf," he added teasingly. "I shall never comprehend how your face can be so prickly when your chest is smoother than mine and the curls below so soft. Ah, so I can still make you blush, can I?"
"This jacket is too warm," Bodie said indignantly, and had taken a breath to admit his flush when the stone caught him hard in the back of the skull, plunging him into oblivion before he had toppled from the saddle.
Sheer astonishment froze Raven's limbs for a moment as he wondered what could have happened. But there were shouts from behind and he spun the gelding about, pulling the ropes about his wrists without thinking about it and reaching for the dirk which was sheathed in concealment beneath the saddle flaps. "Bodie!" He slid to the ground, turning his mate over and pressing his fingers to his throat; he was alive, the pulse was rapid and blood was a wet trickle on his neck, and the stone that had hit him lay not far away.
The shouts grew louder, hooves clattering on loose pebbles as Raven looked up, and at once he recognised the two faces. They had been at the inn, forcing the door, and their friend was dead on Bodie's dirk. Gamyn and Elias. Raven could not tell one from the other, but the larger of the two held a slingshot, a peasant's weapon, all too deadly in the hands of one adept with it.
They were coming up fast and Raven drew the sword from Bodie's scabbard, prepared to use it and acknowledging with a thrill of bitter irony that this was probably the end of their hunting. At his feet, Bodie came to with a groan, limp and groggy, unable to move much though he knew the state of affairs. "Get out!" he slurred, his eyes unfocused on Raven as the elf stood over him with the sword, watching the riders approach.
"Little you think of me," Raven hissed, extending one hand. "Take my wrist. Get on your horse, I can hold these fools."
Bodie reeled to his knees, but he knew he was good for nothing as his vision split and his guts began to heave. "Get out while you can," he growled, fighting just to stay awake and in control of his innards, his vision gone away to a red-tinged fog. "Run!"
Wagon wheels were rumbling behind him, and Raven flung a glance over his shoulder to see a wain approaching, half a dozen humans lounging on its load of potatoes. 'Too many,' he thought feverishly. A man with a sword went down to a flying brick too easily. He thrust his hand at Bodie again. "Take my wrist, Bodie!" When there was no response he took the human's arm in a painful grip, wrenching him half way to his feet as he heard the humans begin to bellow between themselves. The wain rolled to a halt, the road blocked behind them, and Bodie was a dead weight in his hands, too heavy by far for one of Raven's stature to lift over a saddle.
In a tenth of a second Raven came to instinctive decisions that might have taken an hour had they been thought out. He grabbed the reins of the black, swinging into the saddle and kicking the animal hard to send him diving into the woodland that hugged the riverbank. Behind him, Bodie was out cold with one chance to die and one to live. And if there was even one chance left to live, Raven would take it. The humans could kill him there and then, but he was gambling, praying, that they would not. Farmers were not warriors, and if they killed a warrior they would answer to the guard, this much he knew. Better to deliver Bodie into the hands of the guard, burden him with the murder of Tallwch and let the solders do the rest? It was Raven's one last gamble.
He put a mile between himself and the road and doubled back stealthily, unrolling his weapons from the sheepskins at rear of the saddle and shinning up an old oak that would give him concealment and a view of the road. From that distance the humans would never see him, but he could see them clearly and, if he strained his ears, hear some part of what they were saying. Guardsmen were on the scene, blustering and shouting, Gamyn and Elias explaining that the dispute had been over an elven bed slave, and that the creature had escaped into the woods, taking the warrior's horse and weapons.
As he watching, Bodie sat up and a groan passed Raven's lips. He had gambled right. There was much shouting and waving of arms, demands made and refused, and at last the officer in command of the guardsmen raised his pilum to put an end to the bickering. Bodie's hands were shackled without further ado and he was dumped unceremoniously over the withers of the grey gelding. The guardsman was shouting, Raven's ears were more than sharp enough to catch the words: "clear out of here, 'tis none of your business now till you are before the Captain in the morning. State your case and if he's as guilty as you've been saying they'll flog the hide off him for the dead man and give you the elf for your sport once he's been netted. Oh, aye, we'll comb these woods for the vermin. Now, get your faces out of my sight."
The horses moved off and Raven dropped out of the tree, gathering the black's reins and swinging back into the saddle. He had to move, and fast, or the game was over. His first though was to simply run, like a hunted thing, but the folly of that was too obvious. A hunted thing was run to earth, the dogs would have his throat in the end and it was over. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply and willing the power of logical thought. They would assume he had run; so the safest place was right here, not half a mile from the place of the dispute. Which meant concealment, and quickly.
He nudged the stallion, scanning the woods for the oldest, stoutest of its oaks, a tree with branches like the arms of a lover, strong and densely clad. There was one, so old that its branches spanned a whole glade, and beneath it he slid to the ground, unsaddling the warhorse and setting to work. A rope went over one bough and he pulled saddle and pack up into the branches, scrambling up the trunk after them and pulling leather, steel and sheepskins into the fork of three limbs. From there, he could see nothing of the glade and it was a safe bet that concealment was total. He checked his weapons, buckling on his baldric for the first time in a fortnight, and dropped to the ground again to chase the horse. The black would be caught and so fine a stud thoroughbred would be claimed by the chief. Raven grunted in ironic humour. When the warband cut the heart out of this tuath at dark of the moon, a week away, he would have both the Kith horses back.
And Bodie, he prayed, watching the horse out of sight and climbing back into the tree to wait. It would be night soon; the sky was high and clear and he closed his eyes, petitioning any god who cared to listen for good weather.
Twilight was long and soft. On another day he would have called it beautiful but its loveliness was wasted on him now. He longed only for the freedom of the night, knowing that if he held to the shadowed places and moved with all stealth, the humans were as near to blind as badgers.
The stars were high and clear as he left the tree, unconsciously marking its position and knowing he could return to it in a straight line, a gift elves had without even knowing they had it. He stuck to the woodland, running uphill until he was beneath the very walls of Garth's stronghold and pausing to catch his breath there. The place was familiar but the memories were distorted and vague. The morning he had been brought here he had been concussed, walking stiffly behind a horse and not taking much notice of where he was as he believed himself soon to die. There was a compound within the walls, he knew, and the horse pens on the other side of the crooked hill, the way Bodie had taken him out that night, a year ago.
He doubled up, running in the shadows as the half moon showed her face above the hills. There were guardsmen but they were drinking, dicing to pass away the time, and Raven stole by unnoticed, pausing only to avail himself of a short bow and a quiver of arrows, left thoughtlessly by the fence of one of the pens. He slung both over his shoulder, feeling the lick of confidence as he armed himself. Thirty arrows evened the odds a great deal, when they were in the hands of a fine archer.
Horses milled about in the pens, covering him. His own grey gelding was already there, recognising him and snuffling a greeting; he rubbed the soft, velvety nose and left the animal, pressing on into the stockade. Now it became difficult, for the only experience he had of this area was as a blind man. He closed his eyes, using his nose and ears to scout the area. There, the wall; there, the bulk of horses, the reek of a privy, and, finally, the rustle of the wind in the trees. Bodie's old house stood by the woods above the pine log fence, he remembered, a stream cutting down off the hillside, providing fresh water. He squeezed his eyes shut, fighting his memory for every scrap it would yield up.
Bodie had led him out of Garth's feasting hall in summer, and the wind had been at his back. The summer wind here struck out of the west. He opened his eyes, scuttling from one well of shadow to the next, and it made sense. There was the house that could only have been Bodie's, snug against the woods, and across the compound, the great feasting hall.
His bearings intact, Raven turned back in the direction of the gate in the stockade wall. He had hung from the lintel for an eternity, his hands bloodless and his body fouled with blood and semen, and the warriors had laughed as they lounged by the guardhouse. His narrowed eyes made out the building; it stood against the inside of the wall, lights blazing from within, and if Bodie was anywhere in this whole camp, he would be there.
Moving like a wraith in the shadows, Raven slid along the wall of the guardhouse, glancing swiftly into each window, knowing that prisoners must be confined here. He avoided the bright rooms, for there would be only soldiers off duty in such places; and in the third darkened place his elven eyes made out a shape among the straw. The tiny window was too small to accommodate a man's shoulders, closed off by a wire mesh, and he dared not raise his voice for there were guards close at hand.
He watched for a long moment, hoping the prisoner would look toward the window, but Bodie merely turned over, face to the wall, and seemed to sleep. His clothes were torn, Raven saw; there was blood on his shirt, a few stripes across his shoulders, but he did not seem to be badly hurt, and there was a pitcher of water on the flagstones; but every bone in the human's body betrayed despair and Raven ached.
Too soon he heard the guardsmen astir and scuttled back into the shadows to watch the building. There was no way to free his mate tonight, so Bodie would be before the Captain in the morning. It was an image he had seen in a silver mirror, high in the mountains, that haunted Raven; all he saw was blood as he curled up in the lee of a haywain to think. There would be a price to be paid for Tallwch's death, but then, perversely, Bodie would be free to go.
Unless he was recognised. Unless he made trouble for the guards and was shown a sword. Unless word of a captive elf reached Garth, and Garth chose to exercise his right to dictate the law, in which case Bodie could be dead. Raven rubbed his face hard, trying to think it through. Wrongdoers came before the Captain right there in the guardhouse, but where would the scourger do his work?
And then he remembered the whistle of the lash, a crack of leather on skin, heard fleetingly one morning when he was being taken to Shon, the healer, from Garth's hall. He had been too ill to care much for another's pain, but he remembered a voice counting off the strokes, so it was a legal chastisement. He remembered turning left out of Garth's building and walking not more than thirty yards, and the sound of the lash had also come from his left.
Unseen, he slipped from house to house, tracing out the route they had taken him and shortening his stride as he remembered how he had limped that morning, needing Shon's care badly. He paced out the distance, his narrowed eyes finding a common area by the horse pens. And there was the triangle. He nodded bleakly. So this was where Bodie would be brought, if he could keep his temper and resolve to take the punishment and go free.
Take the punishment? Raven's mouth twisted. Not while an elven archer was at hand, with a heavy quiver, and not when the pens were full of warhorses a few yards from the place of rough human justice.
The cell was dark and Bodie watched the square of moonlight cast from the tiny window slide across the floor, marking the time. His back smarted sharply, half a dozen welts from a guardsman's switch rubbing on the linen of his shirt; nothing by comparison with the pleasures of the morning, he thought bleakly. Gamyn and Elias had no shortage of witnesses to the events of the tavern -- their whole party had come up the road for tomorrow's market. If they left him even half the skin of his back he would have to consider himself fortunate.
And Raven? Hide, Ray, Bodie thought, don't run, or they will turn the dogs out and hunt you down. Hide, let them go by, and then slip away like a fox into freedom, and wait. Wait for me. He squeezed his eyes shut. Praying and damning the gods by turn until he heard the crow of a rooster in the thatch above.
The last he had seen of Raven, he had a sword in his hand and a good warhorse under him, and was riding hard into the woods. Forest was the elf's natural habitat, he thought, knowing that Ray would lead them a merry dance if they followed him into the trees. He would lead them in circles, tie them in knots, pick them off one at a time until they pulled out. Aye, an elf could do that.
He lay still, watching the cell lighten as the patch of sky framed in the window grew bright, and knew from long experience that Leon, the Captain of the chief's guard, would be busy soon after dawn. The routine of this place was still like a subliminal instinct, so long had he been a part of it. His thoughts went with Raven, feasting on memory, luxuriating in the lush recollections of love, and when keys rattled at the door he simply walked at pilum point, his eyes on the ground, out into the bright sunlight. Fighting would achieve nothing: the smarting stripes across his shoulders were the reward for a scuffle just inside the gate. There was a guardsman with a gap where his front teeth should have been and retaliation had been swift.
Leon held court under a red and black awning, Garth's colours, the chief's standard fluttering at his side, a scribe at his left hand taking notes. And Leon was invariably hung over after a night in his cups. Bloodshot eyes focussed on Bodie, set in a face that was darkly tanned, deeply seamed, the black hair retreating from his forehead. Bodie knew the man well and guessed how blurry the world would look to him; still, he kept his face turned to the ground as dawn grew into fragile early morning.
The plaintiffs were there too, the men who had offered to buy Raven's body for the night. The old anger rekindled at the thought and Bodie's bearded mouth twisted. The price of a night's whoring upon an elf was measured in silver coin; the price of Raven's honour might as easily be measured in his mate's blood. As perverse as it seemed, there was a kind of balance in it and Bodie stood silently, offering not a word to dignify the plaintiffs' case until Leon spoke directly to him.
"The elf belonged to me," he said. "It is my choice who sets hands upon -- it." At the last moment he remembered the correct words, though it nigh on choked him.
It was no argument, he knew, and Leon would dismiss the case in an instant. He had buried several brothers in the fighting and was supporting their widows and kin; and he had been one of those who had used Raven while he hung from the gate on the morning of his capture. Bodie glowered at that gate, seeing in his mind's eye a scene that had long haunted him. Leon was speaking and he forced himself to listen. It would be the scourger, as he had expected. Fifty cuts of the leather, enough to tear his back to tatters; and upon its recapture the elf was to be given into the possession of Gamyn and Elias, to employ or dispose of as they desired.
There was no chance of that, Bodie thought with a peculiarly sweet satisfaction. In six days the waning moon would be gone. Two hundred warriors would come out of the forest and the very men who had their way today would in all probability be dead. Bodie gave Leon a hard look as his hands were tied and he was hauled away from the court. Leon would die that night, and if no other sword had found him by morning, Bodie's would have him then, one loving caress of nickel steel that stole away his life.
Dogs and children scattered between the houses, shouting and barking, but Bodie was indifferent to them. The sky was high and clear, the weather holding good, which might mean the difference between life and death to him in a minute's time. A man with a flayed back could barely walk, let alone fight to survive, and there was no human in this tuath who would lift a finger to help him.
The scourger was already at work, the sound of his justice disturbing the peace of the morning. Whistle, crack, groan or scream, and a voice counting. There was blood on the sand of the common area and a young man being carried away by his friends. The scourger stood pulling his tool through a wad of leather to clean it, and Bodie gave him a look of scorn, not for the first time pitying one who chose to earn his living in this way.
The ruined linen was torn from his shoulders and he bit his lip, breathing deeply and closing his eyes as he reached down inside himself for the kind of resolve, the feral courage that would keep him on his feet and give the scourger no pleasure in his work. The common area was almost deserted at this hour, though a few would gather to watch later. Gamyn and Elias were there, taking a malicious delight in Tallwch's vengeance and planning in undertones what they would do with the elf, how much he would fetch at auction. The scourger was attended by one guardsman, and two guardsmen had marched the prisoner from the guardhouse. Bodie stood at pilum point even now, and though his eyes were drawn to the freedom of the woods on the hillside beyond the horse pens, he knew better than to run.
To run was to die, and abandon Raven in this place. He snarled at the guardsman who caught his bound hands, tugging him toward the triangle, but offered no honest resistance; nor would he have fought, even had the man succeeded in securing him to the ironwork. But, so abruptly that Bodie had not even time to be shocked, the man was dead, a goose shaft buried in his neck, blood gushing from the jugular.
A second arrow dropped the other guardsman who had marched him here; a third buried itself in the scourger's heart, and Elias began to howl, flinging himself behind a water barrel. Gamyn stood rooted to the spot, stupefied, watching like an idiot as a fourth arrow found its target in the back of the final guard. The man had been diving into the lee of a wain and took the arrow in his kidneys; he went down with a terrible screaming, the mortal agony galvanising Bodie.
The whole skein of arrows had taken no more than twenty seconds, each one loosed by a master archer who had marked his targets before firing the first. And there was but one such archer who cared a fig for Bodie's life in this tuath. Heart hammering against his ribs like a caged bird, Bodie spun, his warrior's eyes going from vantage point to shoot hole, trying to calculate the drop of the shot. He had it pinpointed to the last few yards when he heard a piercing whistle.
A sound so familiar he could have shouted for joy. It was the whistle Raven used to call Lightfoot, bringing the horse at once from the other side of the paddock. Bodie's ears located the sound as he heard it and he was running before it silenced, vaulting the fence into the melee of loose horses, fighting through their crush and ducking through the gap between post and rail on the outside fence. There were guardsmen by the timbers: dead guardsmen, arrows feathered neatly into an ear, a gullet. They had died without a sound.
Another whistle, and Bodie changed direction, struggling with the rope about his hands and cursing the knots for their fastness. Then he was in under the green limbs of the woods, Elias' howling diminishing behind him, and his blood was singing in his veins. Scattered sunlight caught the blade of a knife and he whirled into a defensive crouch, in the same instant focussing on a wild, savage, beautiful face as Raven grabbed his wrist and slit the ropes.
A pace behind him were two horses, the grey gelding and a tall roan with a white blazed face. Raven sheathed his knife, fingers biting into Bodie's bare shoulders. "Have they hurt you? Bodie! Have they hurt you!"
"No, I -- no," Bodie panted as Raven's fingers bruised him.
"Then get on your horse and tell me where we go," Raven hissed. "They will be like rabid dogs behind us, we have time but none to waste."
It was the tone of command that spurred warriors to do his bidding, the sharp demand for obedience, the congenital expectation of it, that had made him a cavalry commander in his youth. Bodie was already moving before he realised he had jumped to obey like a common soldier, and simply smiled ruefully. A fistful of the roan's mane and he vaulted onto it, bareback, catching the trailing reins and digging in his heels. "Follow me!"
Only one who had played in these woods as a lad would have known the way, and many of those to whom Garth's tuath was their home might not have been aware of the old mine workings on the topping to the south. It had been a zinc mine, long ago worked out by smiths needing the substance to make brass. The river below had been polluted by the tailings in Bodie's father's memory, and Bodie himself had spent many a day in mock adventure there.
With Kevin, he remembered feverishly as he urged the roan to greater speed. Kevin, the boy who had wanted him, loved him, shown him what it was like to be kissed by one who cared. He put Kevin from his mind as the roan stumbled over a rotten log and Raven called his name sharply, a pace behind. The woods were tangled with briar and scrub and twice they detoured, climbing at last by a rabbit trail that became so steep they slid to the ground and led the animals for fear of their legs.
"A mine?" Raven panted, scrambling through the gravelling and pulling the gelding up after him when the horse began to protest the incline.
Bodie was ahead of him, kicking in the worm eaten timbers that closed off the mouth of the workings. Inside was a wide area worn smooth by the feet of innumerable, unknown and long dead slaves looted from other tuaths to labour here: the hill had literally been hollowed out as if by an army of badgers. "Inside," Bodie growled, urging the roan into the well of darkness and, as Raven brought the grey gelding out of the bright morning sunlight, jammed the planks back into place.
"Safe?" Raven was breathing hard, his voice a little hoarse.
Words eluded Bodie and he let touch speak for him, crushing his mate within an inch of Raven's ribs, seeking his mouth and smothering him. Raven yielded with a moan that spelled relief. "You're not hurt, are you?" he asked when he was allowed to speak again. "Not if that is anything to go by. They have switched you -- your shoulders."
"It is nothing," Bodie murmured, face buried in the elf's hair and inhaling the scent of him.
"Let me see." Raven kissed him slowly, tongue exploring every part of his lover's mouth, and then pushed him into the latticework of sunlight that fell through the sparse, ill fitting timbers. "Oh, sweetheart," he whispered, careful fingers touching the welts. "Why did they do this?"
"Because I knocked the teeth from a guardsman's mouth," Bodie said breathlessly, even the sting of Raven's fingers on his abused skin welcome. "It is nothing, Ray, really. It will heal, but the man will never regrow his teeth."
"Yes he will," Raven muttered, "given a few months. Won't he?" He watched Bodie shake his head and gaped. "You mean, if humans lose their teeth --"
"They stay lost," Bodie affirmed.
The elf gave an enormous shudder. "Then at all costs, look to your teeth, for I don't know how beautiful you shall be without them! And now, sit down and let me take care of you. Hush, Bodie! Not a word. I can hear water running deeper underground, and there is sure to be silvermoss here somewhere."
"But --" Bodie began, cut off by a glare and a kiss. Then Raven was gone, melting into the darkness, and as the euphoric sense of relief wore away he began to shake. He sat down against the wall just inside the timbers, watching the wooded slope below the mine. It was cold out of the sun, so early in the morning, but there was wood and kindling aplenty.
Footfalls on sand caught his attention and he turned back from the sunlight to watch Raven return. His tunic was torn into rags, half of them soaked, some of them discoloured with a silver-green slime that made the human arch one suspicious brow. "What is that?"
"Just moss," Ray told him. "We use it a lot to help healing -- though I will admit, as a rule it is mixed with oil and scented with eucalypt. This is the same, but not so pretty. Why, my love, are you squeamish?" He kissed Bodie's mouth and turned him with one elbow, as his hands were full.
Surrender was sweet. Bodie leaned forward, felt the welts swabbed clean, patted dry and then smeared in the awful green stuff. Patches of linen that had been Ray's tunic were pressed into place, sticking to the welts by the moss' own tackiness, and Bodie murmured in surprise as the smarting eased.
"A fire," Raven decided, chafing his hands to warm them. "And I have no tinderbox. Damn." He pulled a pile of twigs together, selected a straight one, feathers of bark, and unstrung his stolen bow. It was an old technique and Bodie did not disturb him as he looped the bow string about the straight stick, playing it almost like a musical instrument in a notch cut into the second stick, until the heat of friction blossomed into flame. "I have your saddle and pack," he told Bodie as they warmed their hands. "I hid them before I chased the stallion. I shall go back to the hiding place for them tonight. They will comb the woods by day, for us, won't they?"
"Aye." Bodie's hands were rosy with heat now and he drew Raven against him, luxuriating in the tickle of his chest, matching nipple to nipple and rubbing. "I hoped you would wait for me. I was going to take it and try to catch up with you."
"Foolish," Raven whispered. "Take it? Twenty lashes? Thirty?"
"Fifty," Bodie corrected, and watched Raven close his eyes. "I am strong," he said stubbornly. "I would not have folded up like an empty shirt."
"Fifty lashes would flay a man," Raven said, not much above a growl. "I saw it happen once, fighting along the hills before I wore my father's torque. We were watching an encampment, one of the men had been caught stealing from his fellows, and the warrior in command of the band tied him to a tree and took a horse whip to him. I was no more than fifteen; I had seen clean killings in one skirmish before that, but I spewed up all my belly held in sickness." He gripped Bodie's arms hard enough to bruise his biceps. "I do not care how strong you are, no mate of mine will be treated so."
"How did you know where to look for me?" Bodie was nuzzling one elegant ear, his nose sorting through tangled curls.
"I went into the camp last night, and --"
"You what?" Bodie pulled away, aghast. "You did what?"
"I said, I went into the camp by the way you took me out, the horse pens. From there I followed my ears and nose, playing blind games. I looked into your cell, saw you, but I could not speak or be heard. I knew where the scourging would be done, and I took my horse, and one other for you, when I killed the guards on the fence. They changed just before dawn and I shot the new men as soon as the old were out of sight. Then I climbed into the best tree and plied my trade." He smiled wryly. "I am a warrior, or have you bedded with me for so long you have begun to forget that?"
Bodie made a disapproving face but returned to his explorations of the exquisitely sensitive elven ear. He could feel Ray beginning to shiver and wanted him with a frightening ferocity. Reluctantly, he released him. "If you wish to safeguard your virtue, keep me at arms' length, little chuck."
And then a sultry expression Bodie loved of old replaced the look of concern on Raven's face, and it was a predator before him, stalking him, bringing him up against the wall in the patch of sunlight and stripping him with deft fingers. Bodie caught his breath, shivering as Raven's hands passed over him, a square inch at a time, neglecting no part of him. He was panting again, his chest heaving, as he watched Raven step away into the sun, standing pooled in it, the hair at crown, chest and groin shining copper as he touched himself, showing his own body attentions he had shown Bodie a moment before.
He cupped his genitals, laving his cock with its own pre- ejaculate until he was glistening and slick. "Turn," he whispered, urging Bodie against the wall. "Turn and spread, for I love you and cannot wait."
No more could Bodie. Palms against the earthen wall, he spread his legs, wriggling back as he felt the hot, snub press that was about to pierce him. Raven was kissing his nape, shaking as he reined back the driving desire to possess, hard and fast, an affirmation of life. As if shocked by the power of his own needs, he was painstakingly gentle, though the restraint brought a moan to his throat. Bodie needed more, and as words proved too elusive he reached back, cupping the elf's buttocks and pulling hard.
Unable to control, Raven slammed into him. Bodie braced his shoulders, arched outward from the wall and desperate for Ray's touch as his cock ached for attention. He had gathered the words, was about to speak them, when the elf reached around, cupping and rolling his balls, squeezing his shaft, while the pressure within him shifted and twisted, tearing the breath from his throat.
Human seed splashed onto the wall and Bodie held to his feet by willpower, waiting for Raven to finish; he was close, his breath coming in hot gasps, his fingers clenching on his mate's hip bones, his rhythm becoming erratic. He came with a breathy curse, filling Bodie with a coil of deep, sweet -- joy, Bodie thought foggily, smiling against the wall. 'Pleasure' was to come oneself; 'joy' was more, the giving of pleasure to the mate of one's very soul. As Raven sagged at the knees, withdrawing by necessity as his body weakened with release, the human turned, catching him and holding him up, propped chest to chest.
"I thought only of you, all the time," he admitted. "All night. I did not care much what they did to me, so long as I could live and be free, and find you. I asked your gods to tell you to wait for me."
"Wait for you?" Raven panted. "As if I was going anywhere! Remind me to ask Amber to test your intellect, for I think it has lately diminished!"
He sucked a fold of skin at Bodie's shoulder into his mouth and bit down, lifting his head to survey the mark and lick soothingly at it. "There, you are branded. And remember, in future -- I am a warrior, and I am your mate. You gave me your life, one day at home, remember? There is a little scar on your arm to show for the contract. Your life was mine legally, from that moment, and your body with it." His eyes were glittering with gentle, satiated humour. "And I do not take kindly to my property being abused by others! How are your stripes, sweeting?"
In all honesty, Bodie had forgotten about them, and said so. "That moss of yours must be charmed. An old family remedy, is it?"
"Perhaps, since Amber is one of my clan." Raven frowned over the human's shoulders. "There is an older remedy yet, and one I think I shall try, as these welts look angry to me. No few women," he went on, releasing Bodie and beginning to work, stroking his ears thoughtfully, "say that there is no more healing balm for the skin than a man's cream. Have you heard that?"
Against his will, Bodie felt himself blush. "Aye, I have, and seen a few rich bitches keep a slave for the purpose of supply. Their skin is young and tender, admittedly, at great age, so there may be truth to its theory."
"I have nothing else to use," Raven smiled, one hand cupping his cock as he stroked his ear deliberately. He closed his eyes, face and neck flushing with heat, and came again, a brief climax that was almost cursory and left him frowning at his palm. "Hm. I have wasted the better part of what I had on a part of your anatomy that had no need of it. This will suffice, until I can make more."
"Wasted it?" Bodie chuckled richly as he felt a little trickle at his thigh. "Let me be the judge of that, eh?"
A kiss for his bearded mouth, and Raven turned him, peeling off the patch of rag and spreading the cooling cream onto the welts. "There. If that and the silvermoss do not conspire to heal you, there is no truth to the shaman's wiles! Now, give me a moment or two and I will see what I can find to eat. I hid your saddle and pack in an oak tree in the woods on the other side of the camp. As soon as it is dark, I'll take the gelding and fetch them."
"We go together," Bodie said stubbornly.
"But you will blunder about in the dark like a blind thing," Raven remonstrated, "and you know perfectly well that I have eyesight like... Ah, all right. Together. Then, where? They will search the woods for us until they are sure we are clear into the next tuath. This may be the safest place, this mine."
Bodie nodded agreement. "We will sleep cold, since your pack is gone."
"We shall sleep hot and sticky," Raven teased, loosening the timbers, "for we shall be together. And besides, it is summer and the weather is fine." He smiled, a little drowsy and dopy. "Keep the fire going, I won't be long."
The woods were full of food. Roots baked in the ash while they sat by the rough hearth, chewing on honeycomb and often kissing, and the bushes were still laden with last season's nuts. It was not elegant fare but Bodie had learned to enjoy it, and Raven could at least digest it. There had been a time, as a captive in Garth's camp, when he had eaten meat, not realising what it was. Sickened and ill, it was as if he had been poisoned and the healer had given him salines to empty his stomach, lecturing Garth on the ways of elves, what they could eat and what they could not.
Twice Raven cleaned and redressed the welts and by evening the angry redness was gone as the combination of cold water, silvermoss and his milk hastened healing. In the afternoon they made love again, Bodie possessing his mate with languid ease and many whispered endearments, Raven catching his semen to make good use of it, until Bodie was laughing, embarrassed and delighted.
Sunset flooded out of the west, bloody and magnificent, and they took the horses out as daylight failed. "Stay close and let the horse pick its own way," Raven said sternly, shivering in the cold night wind. "I know the route, but it will do us no good if you fall and break your neck. Not all the shaman's skill will mend that." He paused, mounting up and wriggling in acknowledgement of the afternoon's more sensual activities. "And you really cannot regrow lost teeth?"
"Really," Bodie said blandly. "Rich people have wonderful ivory replicas made, impossible to tell apart. But I would sooner look to my own teeth, if only for the sake of kissing you. And you can regrow them as fast as you lose them, I suppose?"
"Of course," Ray said innocently. "I thought everyone could. When I was twenty I had my front teeth knocked clean out in a fight over my mother's honour as a human. And before you suspect to the contrary, I won that fight. I lost my teeth, but I broke his arm and Falcon had to set it in splints, sticking out like this." He held out his arm at a right angle and gave a snort of laughter. "Feyleen was furious with me when I went home, as if I was a child -- and I wore the chieftain's torque at the time!" He gathered the reins. "Take care in this darkness."
The woods were empty. Only trappers would be abroad at night and they saw none of those. The only moment they spent in the open was as they crossed the road, and Raven led them by the shortest route to the oak where he had hidden the gear that had been on Bodie's horse. The saddle he gave to the human, knowing that Bodie preferred to ride with stirrups when he was able. There was bread, preserves, honey, grain and oil in the saddle bags, and one of their sheepskins against the night's chill. Their clothes were rolled within it and Bodie sorted leather jerkin from woolen tunic, dressing quickly and sharing the warmth beneath his cloak with Raven before the elf kissed him and drew away to pull on his jacket.
"Will we scout the defences tonight or tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow night," Bodie judged. "There is too much moon tonight, but she will be no more than a sliver tomorrow. Dark of the moon in -- what, five days?" From the saddle bag he drew the notched tally stick, bringing it up to date and checking the running count against the warband's set schedule. "Aye, five days. In that time we shall scout Garth's defences, spring them and join the mercenaries at the rendezvous place. Tonight?" He reached for Raven's hand. "Tonight, I want to eat hot food, lie by a fire and hold you. Perhaps you shall sing to me, and tell me stories of our clan. Aye, and kiss me often." He squeezed the elf's cool fingers. "I love you."
The woods would be alive with solders with morning, they knew, as the guard cast its net further afield, searching for the murderers. The pyres would be lit for the scourger and three pilum carriers, and the report would have gone to Garth, that the human who had owned an elven bed slave had escaped his flogging, aided by a master archer. They would assume there were three fugitives, Bodie thought shrewdly as they led the horses into the mine. Certainly, no human in this tuath would ever reckon with an elf's concern for human skin.
They would also assume that humans and elf alike would be running, heading for the north. Ethron would not send back any of them, for he had a hearty dislike of Garth, and although his relations with the elven tuaths were not friendly he bore them no special animosity. Fen would fight with elves if they believed their borders had been transgressed, but it was the same indifferent skirmishing that went on everywhere, merely play between warriors, to pass the time. So Garth's soldiers would be watching the roads, the passes, Bodie concluded, and if they combed the woods it would be for the elf, not the humans.
They were drowsing by the fire, full of food and tea, replete and pleasantly weary, when Bodie tugged Ray's hair for attention and asked, "If an elf chose to flee with haste from this camp, where would he go?"
"He would follow the river," Raven yawned. "Head for a hill and you can be brought up short by cliffs, but rivers cut great channels with the winter rains and at this time of year the waters are low and it is a safe wager there would be a way through until he was right out of the tuath. Why do you ask?"
"As I thought," Bodie mused. "Garth's scouts will tell him this also, and that is where they will search." He kissed the ear closest to him. "I think we will be safe here until after tomorrow. By then they will assume their quarry has long gone, on foot. That black stallion from our stables will turn up shortly --"
"And go home with the rest of us." Raven yawned again, turning his face into Bodie's shoulder. "Gods, I'm tired. I have not slept since... I can't remember. Should we stand watch?"
"Humans," Bodie reminded him, "are as blind as badgers in the dark, and dawn is still several hours away. Sleep, little love, while you have the chance."
But Bodie could not sleep though his body was weary. He lay awake, watching his mate in the glow of the firelight, loving every plane and angle of face and body, every swirl of hair at nape and chest, the pucker of little brown nipples, the scent of a man's body. It was a long time since they had bathed and they smelt strong, earthy, but at his worst an elf smelt merely masculine. Bodie was less enchanted with the smell of humans but Raven did not seem to mind, rubbing his cheek on Bodie's chest as he stirred in his sleep. "Beautiful creature," Bodie accused softly, sweeping back his hair to see his ear. Raven snuffled, wriggled to comfort and slept on.
A warrior, Bodie reminded himself. A warrior who had gone into Garth's camp, found him and found a way to bring him out. His arms tightened about his mate, bringing him closer yet, and Bodie was marking time, counting the days, until they could be free of this place and go home. Home to a cottage on a hill where there was peace and the melody of an old, old culture, and where it was permitted for a man not to merely use another man's body for lust, vengeance and fury, but to love that man, bed with him in love, revel in his body as a thing of beauty and share with him all things from bruising passion to great tenderness, without being held up to scorn and ridicule, and called a paederast.
Paederast! Bodie thought with a wry twist of his mouth, stroking Raven's face. Aye, and what if we are? He closed his eyes, yearning for that cottage, the girl child with Raven's face, for Wulff's torque to sit on his mate's neck again -- the images shown them by the mirror. His back merely stung a little after Raven's ministrations, and while Ray had worn a collar for a time it had cost them no lasting grief.
Only one image remained, haunting Bodie, and it was the worst, the most final of the three. A funeral pyre. He put the image from him with an effort of will, burying his face in soft brown curls and pulling up the sheepskins.
There was raucous singing from the hall; they were drunk, Bodie knew, drunk and drugged, whoring to pass the dark away, amusing themselves with unfortunates who had no option but to comply. Professional harlots, slaves, those with debts to settle and no other alternatives. Raven's face was taut in the faint reflection from flickering pitch torches; too many bad memories, Bodie guessed, and cupped his mate's face briefly, bringing him back to the present, for there was work to be done this night.
The camp's defences were thorough but flawed nonetheless. The warning system was particularly weak. A network of ropes lay between the bushes, each connected to a drum in which were pebbles. A horse, or infantryman, snagging a foot in one of the ropes, and the pebbles would rattle, alerting the watch. It was an old, safe system, completely trustworthy: unless it was sprung by a man on the inside. The stockade followed the line of the hillside, giving way to woodland in the west and the horse pens in the east. With the warning system crippled a band could pass easily through the woods while the horses were run off and the fences demolished, leaving little to guard.
Nothing had changed. There was a family living in Bodie's old house; the chimney was alight, a smell of cooking meat issuing from it, a litter of carpenter's tools and children's toys about the door sill, and they crept by without a sound, not even pausing until they were in the woods again. There, Bodie stopped by a fallen log and turned to his mate with a smile, well aware that Raven could see as if it were daylight.
"One day last summer, I brought you here, remember? And Seldredd came upon us, and I had to pretend to mate you in the grass. I loved you even then and hated the deception after all that had been done to you."
"And found that you had roused me too," Raven added, "and pleasured me right here once Seldredd had gone. Oh, I remember. I remember lying with you in that house, frightened. I don't know what I thought you were going to do to me, but I was terrified, trying to imagine something in which you would begin by bringing me pleasure and end by hurting me. Was I very foolish?"
"Wary," Bodie corrected. "Wisely so. And blind." He dropped a kiss on each of Raven's eyes. "I never told you, did I? I stormed into Shon's house and railed at him until he told me what he had done. Washed your eyes with an herb that would take your sight for only a time. And you thought I was taunting you when I returned with the news."
"I wept," Raven said ruefully. "Why is it wrong to weep? I have never understood that human custom."
"Oh, it is said that women weep, and since women are scorned for being weak men must at all accounts not be like them." A quick hug, and Bodie turned uphill. "We must scout this place thoroughly. The blood of our men depends on it."
But nothing had changed. They found every link in the defence network, marked its place for future reference, and stole out of the encampment before the silver of the waning moon had set. The horses were tethered in the woods, and soon after dawn they were asleep in the security of the old mine.
The timing of the attack was crucial and Raven matched the tally stick to the moon, four nights later, as they buckled on their leather and oiled the swords one final time.
"The warband will be over the hill," Bodie whispered, examining his swords in the last glimmer of firelight. "We have till midnight to cut the defences, and then they will be upon us. We will be at the rendezvous place before Sabik rises if all goes well --"
"And by dawn it will be over." Raven returned his sword to its scabbard with a sure slide of nickel steel on oiled leather and came to stand before his mate. Bodie was seated on a boulder, still busy with his whetstone, but set the chore aside as Raven came near, snaring his lover between his knees and catching his collar to pull him down. They had made love that afternoon -- always a ritual for the warriorkind, when there was a chance, however remote, that one or both might not return -- and the last echoes of delight still reverberated along their nerves. "Bodie?" Raven threaded his hands into Bodie's hair and stroked his beard. "I want to take Feyleen out of there before it starts. It could go badly for her. They could kill her for spite once they know they are overrun. I have heard of such things."
"As have I," Bodie agreed. "She will be held captive somewhere around Garth's halls, but where I am not certain. It will be dangerous, sweetheart."
"But to come so far and have her killed even as the warband takes the camp," Raven said softly. "The ultimate irony. Please, Bodie."
The human sighed. "For you I would risk it."
"For her?" Raven asked, his voice a husky purr.
"Perhaps," Bodie admitted. "Because she is your mother. We will be like thieves, then. And only after we have sprung the defences, mind, or many of our people could be killed needlessly. After the camp is as defenceless as a tortoise without its shell, then we look for Feyleen, and not before."
Raven kissed his forehead and drew away. "Wise as always. Time, love."
Time to move. They left the mine for the last time, riding down the rabbit trails they had used before and stealing into the woods about Bodie's old house, this time not to mark the defences but to cut the ropes, silencing them. It was not a long task and one performed without much labour. Raven was watching the sky, charting the stars across it in judgement of the hour, and as they cut the last rope he laid a hand on Bodie's arm.
The rendezvous point was a tree, blasted asunder by lightning many years before and bleached white as bone by the sun, standing on the brow of a hill a bare three miles west of the camp. The warband would be there at midnight, by the rising of Sabik, a star whose red eye glared out of the east like a portent of evil in summer. It was still early, there was time to move with stealth, and Bodie nodded readily. To come so far and lose the prize at the last was a cruel prospect. Raven was right.
The camp was lit only by sporadic torches and the compound was empty. The shutters were up, hearth smoke heavy on the air, and they were down by Garth's vast pine timber halls without incident. Many of the rooms could be scouted by merely listening. There, the kitchens, here the servants' quarters; Garth's own rooms, the women's quarters, for wives, concubines and bed slaves.
"She could be there," Bodie mused. "Among the wives and geldings." Then he shook his head. "No, it is not secure enough, and she must be guarded also. Garth would never allow a warrior access to the women's quarters by night, and the geldings are no good as guards. Never been taught how to hold a pilum, let along which end of a sword is which."
"So where?" Raven's eyes were closed, his head turning this way and that as he listened to sounds the human's ears could not hear. "There is singing in that house, yonder. High pitched, a boy's voice, or a gelding. And -- a man with a sweet speaking voice, kind words. And - -- Bodie!"
As his mate's fingers dug into his shoulder, Bodie turned in the direction of the house that had Raven's attention. It was a freeman's house a little apart from the rest, its windows shuttered, its door slightly ajar. "You hear her?" Bodie asked very quietly.
The look on Raven's face was almost pain. "I hear her. She is in good spirits, I think, praising the lad for his song and -- she speaks also with the man. He will be her guard. No harsh words between them. I would say they are at peace, without bickering, for all the captivity." He drew his short sword and took a quick glance about the compound. "Quickly, then. We have the place to ourselves."
Like all human houses of that design, there would be two rooms. The guard would be in the outer, the inner chamber set aside for the woman's confinement. Bodie whispered this softly to Ray, seeing him nod in understanding, before they were at the door. By luck it was already open a crack, a little yellow lamplight spilling through it, and there was no necessity for the noise of forcing it.
Inside were two men, both of them taken utterly by surprise, neither of them armed. One was slight, dark, pale, a harp on his knees, clattering to the floor as he rose to his feet from his place by the hearth. The gelding, Bodie knew, transferring his eyes to the other man. Tall, fair, his body thickened with muscle, shapely and strong, clad in a white tunic and black breeches, his face betraying his startlement as he too came to his feet, spilling a drop of wine from his cup.
"Stay still and you will come to no harm," Bodie said levelly. "The inner chamber, Ray. I'll hold these two. And be quick." Feet soundless on the deeply rugged floor, Raven moved to the inner door as Bodie kicked the outer shut and placed his back against it. He watched the gelding step backward, putting the fire between himself and the stranger, and smiled. "You have nothing to fear, lad. I have not come here to hurt you, merely to take your captive." He looked back at the warrior then, taking the time to notice his face.
Handsome, clear cut with a generous mouth and grey eyes that were gazing at him as if -- as if in recognition. Bodie checked, feeling the same stirring of fascination. The man was familiar, yet unfamiliar, as if he was known but somehow changed, somehow different, but in a way Bodie would have expected. And when he spoke even the voice, the accent was familiar.
"Bodie?" he asked, brow creasing in a frown of patent disbelief. "Bodie, is it you?"
It was the voice that supplied the final piece to the puzzle and Bodie might have dropped his sword in astonishment. "Kevin? Kevin!" Fourteen years had gone by since the day two lads had been seen in a glade, caught in an embrace, tasting the sweetness of lover's kisses. Bodie's skin prickled as he remembered with savage clarity, Kevin had been fair, with grey eyes that were beautiful, a warm, gentle voice and honey coloured skin. But he had been fourteen years old. The man before Bodie was inexplicably unchanged on one hand, and on the other vastly different.
But it was Kevin.
"What are you doing here?" he was asking, his tone urgent. "The last I heard of you, you were a fugitive, Garth was cursing your name by every god he could lay tongue to. You had stolen the war prize, the little slave everyone was talking about. You rode west and they never came upon you, no matter the hunting."
"Aye, so I did," Bodie said, preoccupied by the confusion of his thoughts. "The little slave is a chieftain. Your captive is his mother, Feyleen, and he has just gone through that door to tell her she is a freewoman."
Kevin's eyes widened. "That is the boy they were raping?"
"That," Bodie affirmed, "is the chieftain of the Syrae clan of the Kith. Aye, we are still together. He is my mate, and has been for a year." He smiled at Kevin's incredulous expression. "Aye, I am mated to a chieftain, the heir to his royal house and his fortune. And we ride at the head of his cavalry."
"Cavalry?" Kevin echoed. "Are you telling me there is a warband behind you this night?"
Bodie nodded deeply. "There is. And you don't know how lucky you are. My mate elected to fetch his mother to safety before the fighting began, in case she was killed for spite during the affray. Had you been her guard when our mercenaries got here, they would have killed you with delight, avenging their dead brothers. You have the gift of your life, Kevin, from Raven's hand. For the gods' sake, get on your best horse now -- now! -- and put many a mile between you and this place."
To his astonishment Kevin smiled, an expression that warmed his features and took years from his age. "I have guarded Feyleen from harm this long, Bodie. I shall guard her a while yet."
"I am here to take her from you," Bodie said blandly.
"In case I kill her?" Kevin chuckled, sitting idly in the big wooden chair by the hearth and calling the gelding to his side. He was a lovely creature, brown eyed, dark haired, perhaps Raven's age, and frightened. "Kill Feyleen? I would sooner cut out my heart. I have loved her for weeks, Bodie. You came here chasing wild geese -- to save her from the executioner?" A shake of the blond head. "No. I would not have let her stand trial. We were waiting only for the camp to forget she is here, as the novelty of her presence faded, and then I was to take her to my home. She loves me also, she has said, and I believe her."
It was Bodie's turn to gape at the other man. "She is Raven's mother, aye, and almost old enough to be your own mother!"
"She is like a girl," Kevin scoffed. "She seems hardly older than poor little Raffi here. And I loved her from the moment I saw her."
"And what of him?" Bodie growled, indicating the gelding as Kevin gave his waist a squeeze. "If you love Feyleen, what of him?"
The lad was studying the floor, his face betraying embarrassment. "Ah."
Kevin said quietly, "Raffi belongs to me too. They raped him once too often one day, and I bought him. I love him too, in my own way, but they took his manhood from him when he was a child." There was deep sorrow in Kevin's tone, a great gentleness, all that Bodie remembered. He let his sword go down and leaned heavily on the door. "Raffi is mine," Kevin repeated. "Feyleen understands."
Aye, Feyleen would understand. Bodie smiled, looking over his old friend from head to foot. "You grew into a handsome man, Kevin."
"As did you," Kevin admitted. "And mated to a chieftain. You have gone up in the world." He shook his head, bemused. "The little slave is gorgeous, Bodie, beautiful as I have never seen. A chieftain, eh? A warrior?"
As if on cue Raven appeared from the inner chamber and Bodie looked at him with a consuming sense of pride. Clad in his white woolen tunic, his leathers and boots, a sword in his hand, his hair blown into a feathery tangle, he was every bit as comely as the slave Kevin had described, and every inch a warrior. "She says she is well," he began. "And she says --"
"Ray." Bodie beckoned his mate to his side. "We have no fight here, and I must make the introductions. Raven ap Wulff, chieftain of the Syrae clan of the Kith, son of Feyleen, grandson of Garth, this is a very old friend of mine, one I have told you about. His name is Kevin."
He waited for the elf to connect the name with the memories and saw Raven's brows lift in surprise. "The lad who..." Raven turned toward the tall, blond man with a frown. "May I say, fourteen years have probably improved you both." Kevin and Bodie shared a chuckle and Raven sheathed his sword. "What Feyleen has told me is true, then? You and she are to wed?"
"And you," Kevin said, rising and taking a step closer, "are to be my chieftain also. Tell me, Bodie, is this gorgeous creature a difficult master?"
"He can be most... demanding," Bodie teased gently, earning a furious glare from Raven. "He knows, Ray. I have already told him how long it is we have been mated. The gelding is Raffi, who belongs to Kevin. All that remains is for the five of us to decide on our plan and move. Where is Feyleen? She is surprised, no doubt!"
"Shocked speechless," Raven affirmed with a grin. "But relieved also. They have not treated her badly since they crossed the bridge on the Chaika. She told me Kevin was part of the escort group that met the raiders." He looked sidelong at the tall, yellow haired human, weighing and evaluating what he saw. Kevin was handsome; not beautiful, as was Bodie, but handsome and good natured, the lines of his face suggesting humour. Fascinated, he continued to study the stranger as he said, "I have asked her to be quick about dressing and she understands the dangers."
Still standing against the door, Bodie beckoned the gelding to the window. "Here, keep watch. If you see anything in a uniform coming this way, shout." The lad looked first at Kevin, and when Kevin nodded went to stand by the window, looking through the crack between shutter and wall. "Horses," Bodie said sharply as Kevin buckled on the baldric that had been looped over the back of a chair. "We have two in the woods. Feyleen could ride with one of us. Does Raffi ride?"
"Rather well, actually," Raffi said, shy, quiet, his speaking voice sweet and light. "I may not be a man but neither am I so useless. Kevin has taught me to do almost anything a man can do. I can fight, too. He taught me to use a sword and axe."
And you love him, Bodie observed, watching the deep brown eyes feasting on Kevin's face. "Then arm yourself," he said. "There is to be red work tonight."
"We stand by Feyleen," Kevin said levelly. "Her brothers bear only hatred for her and would as soon kill her as spit. I have crossed swords with Blackfox more than once, and his sons are up to no good. Gilead is less hateful but his sons are no less angry than Blackfox's, and Japheth's two sons -- he is dead, you know. Died of his wounds not long after you stole Raven out of here, some ailment of the liver. The fry are furious to know that they have a cousin who is -- not human." He spread his hands, an apologetic expression. "I'm sorry, but that is how they understand it."
Raven's mouth drew into a tight line. "And you? What do you understand?"
The human's expression warmed. "Feyleen has spoken endlessly of her home and family. I feel I know you all. You can trust me, Raven. Ask Feyleen. And in the meantime I should go out and saddle our horses. Shall I dispatch the guard, Bodie? It would be safest if the dolts were silenced." He was gone as Bodie nodded assent.
"You trust him implicitly," Raven observed quietly, coming to stand at Bodie's shoulder, his ears listening for sounds out of Raffi's line of vision.
It was Raffi who spoke. "You can trust him with ought and all, my lord," he told Raven. "I should have been dead long since, but for Kevin."
"Aye." Raven looked up at Bodie with a rueful smile. "It is just somewhat sudden, love. He is family in all but the law, and a stranger! And since you belong to him," he added to the gelding, "you also are my kin under the law. Take my hand."
"My lord," Raffi murmured, touching his knee to the floor at Raven's feet, out of habit. Raven made noises of exasperation, beckoning him to his feet, and at last he took the offered hand.
"And my name is Raven," Ray added as the door opened to the inner chamber and Feyleen appeared, flustered and hastily dressed.
She had plaited her hair and put on breeches and a tunic -- Raffi's clothes, Bodie guessed as he went to embrace the woman in greeting and kiss her cheek. She was in good spirits, flushed and excited; and she frowned at Kevin's absence.
"Raffi, where is he?"
"Gone for horses," Bodie said softly, impressed again by Feyleen's beauty. Raven had inherited her nose, he thought, smiling at the sight of the two of them together, so different and yet so similar. "If you are quite ready, we should leave while we have the chance."
They left the hearth alight and the lamps burning, locking the door behind them and slipping down to the horse pens like wraiths. Raven led the way, his eyesight spotting Kevin at once, and Bodie shepherded his charges to the gate while Ray ran on into the woods to bring back their own horses. The stallion was there, recognising Bodie's scent and snuffling at him, and the human spared a moment to pet him as Raffi tussled with the gate. The guards outside it were dead.
Hooves clattered on gravel, signalling Raven's return, and in moments they were mounted up, Feyleen electing to ride behind Kevin, to Raven's momentary annoyance. But Feyleen had depended on Kevin for life itself for weeks; little wonder that she should choose to depend on him now. The stockaded camp was still quiescent, silent, and Raven nudged the grey with his knees, hissing at the others, "Follow me and keep in line. I will choose the surest trail."
It was far short of midnight as yet, Bodie judged, looking over his shoulder in search of the single red eye of the star called Sabik. It rose almost on the stroke of midnight but its constellation had not even begun to rise yet. They were in good time, and Raven's elven eyes set them on the safest route, trails worn smooth by trappers and woodsmen.
The land fell away into a deep rift, climbing steeply on the other side, several miles westward. They splashed through a stream in the valley, slithering on shale as they began the upward leg, and Bodie strained his eyes, just able to see the lightning-blasted tree that was the rendezvous place. He brought his horse up alongside Raven's, speaking in a tone too soft for human ears. "Ray, what if there has been some mistake, and the warband is not there?"
"Then we would press on and run for home, secure our safety and find out what in the gods' names had happened," Raven whispered, "but you can be at peace, Bodie. I can hear them. Horses. Many horses. And their scouts will have seen us already -- we are almost home."
The trees thinned away toward the brow of the hill and they broke at last into starlight, drawing rein within sight of the tree. It was Amber Bodie saw first, recognising him by the shaman's pale grey robe and his blondness; he strode out of the tree line, beckoning them just over the crest of the hill and into a well of impenetrable darkness. The elves could see perfectly well there, but the four humans were blind.
"All went well?" Amber asked, catching Feyleen as she slid from Kevin's saddle.
"More or less," Raven said breathlessly. "And for you?"
"Little incident," the shaman told him. "Strangers, Raven?"
"Friends," Feyleen said quietly, speaking deferentially before a shaman who was a complete stranger. "How many warriors ride with you?" She looked up into a half seen face, feeling the man's familiarity keenly. "Who are you, shaman?"
"Later," Amber said evenly. "There is to be fighting and we cannot delay. I shall stay clear of the red work; stand by me and you will come to no harm."
Kevin took Raffi by the shoulder, giving him a push after Feyleen. "Stay with her."
"But I can fight!" Raffi said indignantly.
"I know you can." Kevin's tone gentled. "But the only other swords I would trust tonight to guard Feyleen belong to Bodie and his mate, and since they will look to each other -- stay with her, Raffi. Go now."
From the darkness beneath the trees there were the sounds of activity, the squeak of saddle leather, the clatter of hooves. The mercenaries streamed out into the starlight, heading fast into the south while Bodie and Raven turned north, separating from the main body of the cavalry to perform their final task: run the horses off, demolish the fences and set ablaze the pile of sundered timbers. It was the first time in a year that either of them had seen a battle, and neither of them had fought in a conflict of this size. Bodie was conscious of a tightness in his chest, a cold in the marrow of his bones. Foreboding? Or just the harbinger of the death that was to come?
Glorious or terrible, or both, he knew already it would be a night engraved on his memory. Fighting with the raiders within a camp where he had been born and grown to manhood was odd indeed; but he had come to hate this place. One endless night spent in a cell in the guardhouse as his body ached for the touch of Raven's had been enough to sever any ties of affection he might have nursed.
The post and rail fence was sturdy, but the two dead guardsmen had carried axes and Bodie put the dull blades through the hemp fibre ropes as Raven shouldered his quiver and picked off the midnight guard patrol that was rounding the stockade wall. The timbers scattered, sounding hollow in the darkness, and Bodie was in the pen a moment later, urging the horses to flight. They were gone into the woods as he brought out his tinder box, kicking the wood and rope into an untidy bonfire. Everything was dry after the long, warm days. The ropes caught, pungent smoke billowing about the timbers and then the wood itself was alight, the brightness of the blaze hurting the eyes in the darkness.
Satisfied, they mounted up, turning westward, up the slope and into the woods, circuiting the camp and coming up fast behind the body of the warband. Before they had joined the stragglers sword steel was ringing, chiming in the night like a multitude of bells, and it had begun.
The guard turned out, warriors seconding the pilum bearers, and elven archers cut them down on their own door sills. An upturned lamp set a freeman's house alight, illuminating a scene that was as terrible as it was stirring, half a thousand humans and elves massing along the stockade wall, the gate going down, the battle pouring through it, cavalry and infantry massed and heaving, the ground running red with blood.
Most of it was human blood; the elven cavalry rode over the guardsmen, crushing them like so many beetles, and the warriors were unprepared, often drunk, easy prey. Bodie might have pitied them had he not remembered all too keenly the deeds these same men had done. There was Leon, swinging a mace at an elven mercenary, striking one blow before his head was sundered from his shoulders and he went down, writhing in death; vengeance, Bodie thought icily. Vengeance for one elven captive who had been shown no semblance of pity. He turned, looking for Ray and finding him not a pace behind, bright eyed, his sword red, his face gilded by the light of the fires.
The battle ran in surges, its clamour deafening the ear, and by dawn the humans broke, many scattering into the woods. Warriors, Bodie thought scornfully. Are these the men I was once proud to say I fought amongst? Kevin was on foot, his horse dropped by an axe blow, his sword notched and crimson, but he was unhurt. Raven's right arm was nicked and scratched and Bodie himself was carrying sundry scratches about his sword arm, but they were minor things, not even nuisance value. Human dead littered the camp, the hillside reeked with the noisomeness of battle, and as dawn flushed the sky Raven was oathing by his father's gods as he counted the dead.
The chief's hall was surrounded by elven cavalry, as it had been since the early moments of the battle. Garth was in there, sitting like a black widow spider at the centre of his web. Bodie slid stiffly to the ground as horns brayed across the camp, pulling his leather jerkin over his head and plunging his arms to the shoulders into the freeze water in a horse trough. He was inspecting his cuts and scratches when he heard Raven's voice calling Amber's name, and turned to watch his own party gather.
Evidently, the shaman had spoken at some length with Feyleen: she was walking wearily with him, sickened by the sight and sound of battle, the stench of blood and death, but her hand was in his until she saw Kevin. The blond head lifted, Kevin dropping the chipped, begrimed axe with which he had fought, and Bodie watched him take Feyleen in his arms, kissing her quickly before he let her go, indicating his fouled clothes. Raffi was behind her, waiting for Kevin's attention but not pressing for it, and Bodie watched his old friend take the gelding in a tender embrace, kissing his mouth also. Raffi was deeply in love; the tragedy of it caught at Bodie's heart. Within arm's reach, Feyleen smiled at them, stroking Raffi's hair as he lay against Kevin, and Kevin, realising that the woman did not care about the state of his clothes, reached out for her too, an arm about each of them and kissing them both.
A lump rose in Bodie's throat and he turned, finding Raven at his shoulder, his tattered tunic in a heap at his feet, his skin dewy with water, and clean. He was watching his mother, her lover and the young gelding they both seemed to cherish, and Bodie saw his mate's eyes glitter with tears. He tugged Raven into his arms and crushed him, hungry for his mouth. "We should go and find Garth," he said when Raven let him speak again. "I'll find us something clean to wear. Green on you, today, I think. Our clan colours, yes?"
"And black for you," Raven said softly, his eyes going back to his mother. "She has found someone to love... He is very handsome, Bodie. And Feyleen cares also for Raffi. I'm glad for that. He is a pretty thing, isn't he?" He smiled suddenly, looking at Bodie with an irrepressible humour. "You realise, Kevin is your kin, now. Your brother, the mate of your chieftain's mother. Raffi is our brother too, since he is Kevin's property, so goes elven law. WE don't own people, as humans seem to, and such ownership is understood --"
"As kinship, I know." Bodie smacked Raven's mouth with a kiss and drew away. "Let me find us something to wear. Leon always had a flair with clothes and he is between your size and mine. I shall go and ransack his house. Wait here for me, and keep an eye on the chief's halls. Kevin!" The blond head turned and Bodie beckoned him closer. "Survey the dead, Kevin. See who is among them. I saw Leon die, but not Garth's sons. If Gilead and Blackfox are still alive, they belong in irons pending execution." He paced toward Leon's house, Kevin falling into step beside him. "I want the honour of killing Blackfox myself, remember. If you come upon him, leave his head on his shoulders. I shall be Garth's executioner also."
"Vengeance, Bodie?" Kevin asked shrewdly. "For Raven? I know -- they whored upon him. They spoke of your mate in -- crude terms."
"Vengeance," Bodie said mildly, kicking in the door of Leon's house and stepping inside, ignoring his woman and servants as he threw open the trunks that held his clothes. A leather tunic, thonged about the collar and sleeves, he threw to Kevin; a loose black shirt with wide sleeves and much embroidery he took for himself; a pale green tunic with white embroidery and a soft white collar, he took for Raven, appropriating Leon's jewellery at the same time.
The knowledge that Garth would soon wear irons was acid-sweet; hunger for his death was consuming. Bodie swallowed it with an effort. Garth would die soon enough.
Raven was smearing salves on his cuts and caught the green tunic as Bodie tossed it to him. It was a little large and he buckled his harness over it so that it gathered at his waist, emphasising his slender body. Bodie washed at the trough, pulling on the black shirt and watching Kevin inspecting the faces of the human dead. Many, so many.
Human bodies were heaped in confusion, and Amber glanced broodingly at them. "They must be burned, with all speed. Make that their pyre, we can rake sand into the site later. You there! Send loggers into the woods, see to the fires."
"And our dead?" Raven asked, trying to count the elven losses.
"Twenty of us have died," Amber said thoughtfully. "Not so many as we had feared, though we have no few injured. And the woods are full of humans who ran at the height of the battle, remember. There will be sniping and skirmishing for a week or more."
"We will find them," Bodie growled. "Kevin?" he called as the blond man finished with his unpleasant duty and wiped his hands on the ragged remains of a tunic. "Blackfox is among them, or Gilead?"
"Neither," Kevin said, turning from the mound of bodies and shading his eyes to survey the damage to the camp. Two buildings had been burned out and the fences were down, the gates had been unhinged and the ground was filthy with the blood of men and horses, but a few days would set it to rights. He gestured toward the chief's hall. "They will be with their father and kin. The roaches prepared for their final stand."
Bodie gathered Raven and Amber with one beckoning hand. "Time for the chief of this tuath to pay his price, I think." He touched his mate's face briefly, rubbing a smudge from his nose. "It is your place to speak, love. This has been a blood feud, and the blood is your own. You address not only your grandsire but your uncles and cousins. This tuath is yours by right of conquest."
There was a wary expression of Raven's face, as if he had yet to learn how to believe that. Feyleen stood with Kevin, Amber and Bodie at both his shoulders, and all about the warband of mercenaries had the humans cornered, silent. "There will be hatred of us for what we have done," he said quietly. "Look at their faces, Bodie. Hatred."
"Ignorance," Bodie corrected. "They have lived twenty-five years in ignorance, sending their sons to fight a pointless war, believing Feyleen was stolen away by Wulff. When they learn the truth, as they will, they will moderate, perhaps even feel foolish."
"Aye," Amber agreed. "It is past time to set the account straight. But caution, Raven -- Garth's untimely murder will make for more hate."
The area before the chief's hall had been cleared, dead horses dragged away, sand thrown onto the patches of darkening blood. Raven drew his sword, walking slowly toward the doorway, Bodie, Amber and Kevin a pace behind him. Three wooden steps led up to the arched entrance and he came to a halt at the foot of them, clearing his throat before he raised his voice.
"Garth! Your tuath has fallen, your warriors are broken. You are a prisoner of the Kith and will show yourself. Garth!"
For some time there was no sound from within and Raven glanced at Bodie, wondering if he had even heard. Then, the creak of a door pivot, and a face appeared. A face Raven recognised. It was not Garth but had his look about it. Blackfox stepped out into the morning, his bearing arrogant, his expression only scornful. He looked down at Raven, his wide mouth twisting as he recognised the man he had raped, a year before.
"So it is true. The little bed slave has grown wings and become a warrior, has he? And his lover is returned also. Good day, Bodie. You have gone up in the world, I see. Aye, a marriage for wealth is sound strategy."
Anger tightened Bodie's mouth but Raven's sidelong glance stayed his tongue and he held to silence. The elf was not prepared to be baited, nor to dignify the human's words by noticing that he had heard them. "Bring out your kin," he said levelly. "It will avail you little to make a struggle now. The time for that is past."
"Where is Gilead?" Bodie growled. "Hiding behind his father as usual?"
The door slammed back on his hinges and a grey cloaked man, tall and muscular, not much older than Bodie himself, ducked out into the sunlight. "Gilead is here," he said loudly, rudely. "And his sword ran red with elven blood in the night. I have taken no few of you with me, Raven." Gilead spat the name as if it were a curse.
Bodie took one step forward. "Mind your tongue, princeling, or I shall cut it out of your head." His tone and his eyes were hard and cold and he meant every word. "And your sons, bring them out too, and quickly."
Three of them were no more than children, two were youths, two grown men. They were the legitimate heirs of Garth's three sons, the children frightened, the youths bewildered, the two men bitter. Bodie gave each a dismissive glance. "Your cousins," he told Raven offhandly. "They are a sorry looking brood, I know. The red haired stripling is Conn. A gambler and ravisher of women. There are freemen in this tuath who would put a sword in him, given half a chance. There beside him is Shiram, a scoundrel, a thief and a coward, punished by the elders before he was out of boyhood. The youths are Lyn and Young Garth, and if they have not hurried in their brothers' footsteps by now they soon will. The children are Deryn, Jai and sickly little Rolth, always ill from the day he was born."
"And where is Garth himself?" Raven whispered, his narrowed eyes peering in through the open door, into the gloom within.
It was Blackfox who answered indifferently. "Our father is not in the best of health or spirits. He will hold to his hearth, I expect."
"Will he?" Anger tinged Bodie's voice and he beckoned Kevin closer. "Disarm these imbeciles, secure them in irons and go though this building with a squad until there are no traps left unsprung. Trust no one, least of all Garth."
It took half an hour to empty the building of its share of snipers and snares: Garth's heirs were confined, the elders shackled, the children under guard as much for their own protection as to control them, for they were frightened badly, and the weakling of the litter, Rolth, was ill. Raven sat on an upturned barrel, drinking wine to wash the taint of battle from his throat, and at last Kevin dragged the last dead sniper out of the hall, calling Bodie's name. "It's empty. The servants are at work, under guard. I've told them they have an army to feed and to be about their work. Garth is holding court in his hall." He spoke scornfully, resheathing his sword as he took Raven's side.
The time of reckoning, Bodie thought bleakly, falling in beside his mate as Raven mounted the steps and ducked in through the low, arched doorway. It was dim and smoky inside, though he remembered nothing of the look of the place. It was the smell he remembered, and his blood chilled. There, the feasting table where he had sat in the evening, naked and exhibited as a warprize. To the right, the doors that led to Garth's chambers, places of pain and anguish. Before him, the vast hearths in which burned logs the size of small trees, and beyond them, the dais with its heavy, carved chair and deer hides. And Garth.
Raven had never seen Garth. On the morning of his capture he had been too hurt, too ill, to see faces when the chief arrived at the gate to take possession of the prisoner. He remembered a deep, gravelling voice, calloused hands, exploring his chest and groin, a rag scrubbing the blood and semen from his legs and buttocks until he was fit to be raped by a chief; burning, throbbing, as the act was committed, and then the release of oblivion as he fainted. He was conscious when the healer arrived, but Garth had gone. He knew he had struggled when they told him of his impending blindness, knew he had begged, though he had no idea what he had said. He had broken that morning as his eyes were blinded, and in that darkness it hardly mattered who was using him.
He knew the men who had whored upon him by their voices, their hands. Blackfox had liked to taunt him with whispered insults as he violated the captive body. Gilead preferred to use his mouth, all the while telling him he was ugly and less than human. Garth merely grunted with effort, soft bellied and heavy on him, his shaft so thick as to suffocate one of the elf's small stature. There had been others but it was a blur of drugs and anguish and only these three remained in his memory.
Fascinated in spite of his crawling nerves, Raven approached his grandfather with a deep frown. Wulff's parents had died when he was very young, and he remembered them only vaguely as people of enormous age. Wulff himself was, by human standards, old, though by elven understanding of time, merely seasoned and mature. Feyleen's mother had died in childbed, giving Gilead his life, so Bodie had told him, and his only grandparent sat before him like a vast black spider.
Garth was old, older than he had imagined, and until he remembered how short the human's natural lifespan was he reckoned the man's age in centuries. But no; on this side of the hills their ways cut short their years and Garth could be no more than sixty years, if that. Pickled in his alcohol, wizened by his drugs, smoked by the weeds these people chose to burn for pleasure, his health ruined, his body corrupted by his food and excesses. Obese and asthmatic, the old man licked his lips as Raven approached, wheezing for breath.
A pace behind his mate, Bodie frowned. Garth had not been so fat, so old or so breathless a year before; his health had deteriorated fast, and it was ironic to imagine -- if Raven had stood in this place as a captive today, his grandsire was in all probability not potent enough to make sport with him. He was heavily cloaked, brown hides with an ermine collar giving him the appearance of a bear. His brow was circled by a thin gold ring, the mark of his rank, but the torque at his throat was lost amid the roll of fat and his straggling beard. Bodie was shocked at the sight of the man and glanced at Raven's profile, seeing his mate's sickened look, to know what had lain upon him, come within him, owned him.
At the foot of the dais Raven came to a halt, drawing his sword and offering a salute with it. "You know my name. You know why I am here."
The old man cleared his throat, a sound like a spade in gravel. "Do I? I know ye as a blind whore on his knees with his legs apart. Who are ye?"
"Raven," Raven whispered. "Your grandson. As you well know."
There was a brief silence and Garth hauled himself upright in the grand chair. "Feyleen's mongrel issue," he growled. "Well you belonged on your knees as a whore. I would set you to such service again, were you my prisoner."
"But I am not," Raven said quietly. "You are my prisoner, my lord, and you live at my pleasure."
"Then kill me," Garth rumbled. "Or have you no spleen for a man's work?"
"I will not." Raven stepped back from the dais to Bodie's side. "You are a hostage against the good behaviour of the people. Taunt me if you will, I care little for words. Your circlet, Garth. Give it to me."
The old man's teeth bared. "Take it from me."
Raven nodded, expecting the gesture of defiance. "Bodie, Kevin, take it."
The two men stepped up onto the dais, swords naked, defying Garth to twitch a muscle in protest, and Kevin lifted the gold from Garth's brow, handing it to Bodie, who handed it in his turn to his mate.
It was ancient, Raven knew. Garth's own grandsire had been a usurper, ripping it from the sundered head of a chief who had died on his own aloes. "It is mine by right, not merely by conquest, but by blood," he said levelly, turning it in his hands to admire the engraving work. "I am your heir, Garth, no matter that you think me a mongrel." Raven set the circlet onto his head, his eyes closing for a time as he thought of all that had been. The pain and degradation of being an old man's whore; the disbelieving joy of finding the mate of his soul in this place; the euphoria of freedom and the return of his sight. Eyes blinking open, he turned to Bodie, holding out his hand. "It is complete."
"I'll see to Garth," Kevin offered, watching the elf with overt fascination, seeing a small, slender creature with luminous eyes and skin the colour of honey, wearing the colours of his clan and the circlet not of a mere chieftain, but of a High Chief. Raven was beautiful, Kevin admitted; as beautiful as a warrior as he had been as a chattel, or more so, and the love shone out of him as Bodie clasped his hand.
"Complete," Bodie whispered, yearning to hold his lover and denying himself the pleasure, for Garth would only revile them.
Raven's nose was wrinkling in distaste as he scented the air. "Ah, gods, what is that stench?"
There was the smell of burning and Bodie gestured toward the open door with a nod of his head. "The pyres. They are burning the dead already. It is as well, for the day is warming. It should not burn for long. We shall have to deploy soon, Ray. There are chieftains in the camps along the river who may fight, and the woods are full of those who ran before us."
"See to it," Raven said softly, watching his grandsire escorted from the hall at the point of Kevin's sword. "I am so tired," he admitted, smiling ruefully as he went to sit by the hearth. "It is almost over, Bodie. We will call in the chieftains and elders. Feyleen will speak to them and if they will oath allegiance to our banner there will no more bloodshed. There had been too much killing; the smell of blood sickens me."
"Aye, me also," Bodie admitted. He sat on the bench beside Raven, offering his arms and holding his mate gratefully as Raven moved against him. "It was in this place, a year ago, that I first saw you. Sitting right there, on the table. Do you remember?" A kiss for Ray's mouth and he smiled. "I knew you at once. You gave me my life, years before --"
"I remember," Raven said softly. "I remember you gave me your cloak against the cold as you took me out of here, and gave me food, warmth. Love. Life." He lay heavily against Bodie, rocking gently to soothe the disquiet of being in this place again.
Guessing, Bodie stroked his hair. "Come on. Come and see your standard raised at the gate, let Feyleen see the circlet on your head. Then we will give the mercenaries marching orders and see about a place to sleep. There is going to be confusion you know; many of us and little space. We could take Leon's house, if you like. I don't want to bed beneath this roof; it feels bad, doesn't it?"
"It does," Raven admitted ruefully, getting to his feet and pulling Bodie up with him. "I shall leave the arrangements to you, love. You know this place, and its people, better than I."
The bonfire was fiercely alight, human and elven dead alike disposed of within it, and Amber was speaking the old, sacred words over the elves who had died. There was grieving among the mercenaries: a man for his son, a woman for her lover, a girl for her sister. Bodie called Kevin as he returned from securing the old man, speaking briefly with him about their deployment. "And send messengers," he added. "Tell the chieftains and elders to present themselves and bring their scribes. There will be a counsel -- a fortnight hence, at full moon. They were to be here anyway for Feyleen's trial. Let them come and oath upon the Kith banner instead."
"And if they will not?" Kevin asked shrewdly.
"Then they shall leave the tuath," Bodie shrugged. "Raven will not have them killed, I know, though personally I should be happier if they were dead. Killing is not his way, unless there is an urgent need for blood." He smiled, watching his lover drinking ale with his mother and the gelding. "And you, Kevin. You are to wed at earliest, are you? Amber can dispense the formalities for you. What of Raffi, though?"
"Raphael belongs to me, I told you." Kevin's shaded eyes went to the lad. "He is my lover, of course. He has learned to give me so much pleasure, Bodie. And it brings him pleasure when I hold him. He can savour kisses as can any man, and when I am inside him he feels at one with me, so he says. He craves the mating for that, although he has no means to respond, and I have heard him moan with the pleasure of being the same body with me for a time. I am very gentle with him, Bodie; I can set his heart free, though he was gelded. Feyleen has told me she understands. She has been charmed by my lad too, and her beauty holds him captive. He will come with us. It offends you, Bodie?"
"Offends --?" Bodie blinked in astonishment. "No. I am glad, for Raphael as well as for you. You hold his heart in your hand, you know. Oh, so he cannot respond like a man, what of it? Many girls can love their men without feeling the bite of passion, too. Garth would have gelded my Raven, you know," he added almost silently, and could not prevent a shudder. "Gods help me, I hunger for the old man's death, but --"
"Bodie." Kevin's hand was warm on Bodie's shoulder. "It is over. It ended when I took the circlet from Garth's head. The elven torque that had been about your mate's neck is kept in a box in the chief's bedchamber. He shall have it back too, and wear it when the chieftains and elders come in for the council. You love him as life itself, don't you?"
"That obvious?" Bodie asked ruefully.
"That obvious." Kevin stirred. "Your leave. There are duties that fall to my hands and time is short."
Bodie watched his old friend stride away, collecting Raphael and a cup of wine and kissing the gelding's mouth before he shooed the lad away about some chore. The mercenaries split into smaller bands, one riding southward, one north, two into the east, there to quell whatever resistance and take the news to the clans that had rallied beneath Garth's banner and would now bend the knee before the standard of the Kith.
The green and white banner fluttered in the mid-morning breeze, rampant above the place where Raven had been violated and blinded, and it was complete, Bodie decided, meeting his lover in the middle of the compound and seeking his mouth. Raven kissed him hard, tasting of ale and of himself, and Bodie's fingers traced the line of the circlet on his brow, warm, now, from his skin.
"High Chief," he said softly, not quite teasingly.
"Not yet." Raven drew away, his eyes narrowing against the sun as he looked up at the green and white standard. "Not until the fighting has ceased and the humans either accept us, leave or are dead. I am Garth's blood heir; that must win me the elders' consent, surely."
"Let things take their own course," Bodie advised. "The elders are not bad men, and they are old enough to remember the way things were before the fighting. They well remember the man Feyleen was betrothed to -- the story has been told countless times to keep it alive. He was a warrior, big and ambitious, scarred from many battles, less than handsome, a user of women. Wulff must have seemed an angel by comparison. Let Feyleen tell the truth at the council; let the elders deliberate and make their decisions. If they decide against us, we can ignore them. This tuath is yours, whether they like it or not. I don't think they would be so unwise as to go against our warband."
"Mine?" Raven shook his head, stifling an enormous yawn. "If it is anyone's, it should be Feyleen's. She is a generation before me -- yes, Bodie! I know that human women do not count as their fathers' blood heirs, but as I am constantly reminded, I am not a human." He yawned again. "And I'm tired. You mentioned finding somewhere to sleep."
They commandeered Leon's house, sending his women away to room with the serving folk in the great hall. The house was one roomed, the floor soft with sheepskins, one enormous bed in the corner by the hearth, a deep wooden tub leaning against the wall. As Bodie had expected, Raven elected to bathe, washing away the grime of weeks on the trail; lads brought buckets of scalding water, brimming the tub, and Bodie pampered his mate shamelessly, soaping and rinsing him for the pleasure of it before bathing himself while Raven drank wine and examined the enormous bed.
"This smells of lilac and lemon leaves," he observed. "The women were fastidious enough, at least. It will do."
"Put your head down," Bodie said fondly. "Kevin will see to the humans and Amber to the elves. Would you mind if Kevin roomed with us, at least for a time? There is a dire shortage of lodgings!"
"Aye," Raven agreed, stretching out and rubbing his back on the soft skins as Bodie climbed from the tub and towelled dry. "There are smudges beneath your eyes like hearth soot," he observed drily. "Sleep, love, while you can."
"I will." Bodie pulled on a soft brown robe, finger-combing his hair as he went to the door. "But first, some food. You may not be hungry but my stomach thinks my throat must have been cut in the battle." Sunlight streamed inside as he opened the door, hailing the first human lad he saw. "You there!"
It was Raffi, his arms full of linen bandaging, and he came obediently at Bodie's call. "Aye, my lord?" His brown eyes met Raven's as he stood at the door sill and he blushed at the elf's nakedness and lazy, complacent masculinity, quickly averting his gaze.
"A little task for you, Raphael," Bodie said gently. "When you have a moment, bring us some food. Not meat, mind. Raven cannot eat it and I choose not to, on the offchance that it is this gobbling of poor dead creatures that makes humans grow old so fast while such as my mate keep their youth! Feyleen will have explained it all, I suppose."
"She told me," Raphael affirmed. "Bread and cheese, then."
"And bring your own things here, and Kevin's," Bodie added. "You will be lodging with us for the time being, as there is a shortage of space. Let Kevin know, when you see him." He tousled the gelding's long, brown hair, finding it soft as silk. "Knock before you enter, eh?"
A rosy blush stained the lad's cheeks and he hid a smile. "Aye."
Bodie closed the door, finding Raven frowning at the cold hearth. "And what ails you of a sudden, little chuck?" The brown robe was tossed to the floor and Bodie sat on the bedside, passing his hands over Raven's skin. "Like warm apricots," he said with a smile, bending to bury his face in the elf's furry chest. "Yet you frown, Ray. Why?"
"Oh, I am counting my blessings," Raven admitted, replacing the frown with a smile. "I could have been like Raffi, you know."
"And I would have loved you just the same," Bodie said quietly, lifting his head and looking into his mate's face. "I would have bonded with you, no matter."
"With a gelding?" Raven bit his lip. "I could not have loved you."
"You could not have mated me," Bodie corrected very gently. "There is a difference. A girl could not mate me either, Ray. Shall I love her less because she cannot?" He swooped, bruising Raven's mouth with a kiss. "You would have loved me and I you, and there would have been all kinds of pleasure between us. For me, the delight of taking, for you, the delight of giving. To be one with you is a joy beyond all others, which is why I long to take you inside me. Would you have felt less delight, to be one with me?"
Raven sighed heavily. "I suppose not. But all the same, I am glad they kept their knives away from me! And glad," he added, "that Raffi has someone." He purred as Bodie kissed across his abdomen and nibbled velvety genitals until they began to stir. "Be one with me," he invited, "while we have the chance. Celebrate with me, for we are victors today." He wriggled around, nuzzling and kissing until Bodie was moist and slick with warm liquid, wept from his aching cock. Then he knelt, eyes glittering like those of a cat at play, and Bodie was helplessly at his command.
Pent up with the tensions of the night's bloody work, they could not last long, but Bodie did not withdraw, feeling the heat and urgency beginning to build against almost at once. Raven lay beneath him, catching his breath as he felt the shaft within him thickening once more, and he rolled to and fro, clenching his muscles about the intruder, arousing his human with great skill. Bodie oathed lividly as he came fully erect, snug inside Raven's body; he knew he could control the ferocious desire this time but was determined that Ray should lose every vestige of control, purging his tensions and the unwanted memories of battle to buy him peace enough to sleep.
Already panting, Raven yelped as his cock was teased, his balls probed by knowing, talented fingers; he cried out as his ears were nuzzled, knowing what Bodie was about, dreading and desiring what was to come in equal measure. His vision became a red mist, his body stretched taut on the rack of its own passion, and he knew he was heaving, trying to drive Bodie deeper, though his mate was already sheathed to the hilt. A tongue in his ear and he froze as his spine became ice and his guts tightened; he was begging, he knew, unable to govern his voice. He heaved back as Bodie slid in again, encouraging the human to effort.
Bodie took the point of the beautiful ear into his mouth, teasing with the tip of his tongue and resisting Raven's demands for as long as he was able. Pinning him to the bed, he held his mate still, withholding all stimuli but the slightest rub within him and the tiny licks at his ear. Raven was still going up, had not reached peak yet, and Bodie knew how to drive him after a year as his mate. The elf was writhing desperately, trying to thrust his cock into the grip of human fingers, and as his throat let loose a cry of utter torment, Bodie knew he was as high as he could go.
He released the sensitive, gorgeous ear, tightening his fist about Ray's throbbing length and beginning a quick, hard rhythm, push and pull, nudging Raven's thighs wider to place exquisite tension upon the muscles of his groin, magnifying the sensations of climax for him. The elf gasped and froze, moments away from his coming, and Bodie sucked the ear back into his mouth, biting very gently as his tongue laved saliva into the aural channel. There was time for him to buck into Ray's tortured body just once more before he screamed and climax tore him to tatters. The spasms of powerful anal muscles demanded climax of Bodie a bare moment later and he released Raven's ear, lest he use his teeth unwittingly.
Limp as a dishrag, Raven just lay dragging air into his lungs, crushed beneath Bodie's weight, with not even the energy to beg for breathing space. Slowly his gasps eased and as Bodie spiralled down to the real world it was to realise Ray was asleep. His limbs were leaden, his heart very full, and he turned his mate over, cleaning him with a loose corner of the sleeping skins, not even drawing a whisper from him. There was a deep, warm, satisfaction in the knowledge that he, a human, could exhaust an elf; a little learning went a long way.
The smell of sex was still faintly noticeable when a soft knock at the door announced Raphael. Waking with an effort, Bodie called him in as he drew the skins over Ran's comatose form. The lad had brought a basket of food and, as weary as Bodie was, the promise of a meal was too good to be turned down.
"I brought you the best," Raffi said, shy and trying not to flush as he smelt the lush, telltale odour of mating and saw Raven's boneless sprawl. "Also, I have brought our packs, if I may bring them inside."
"Of course," Bodie said through a yawn. "This is your home, for the time being at least. Make yourself comfortable -- but we got the bed, Ray and I! He is the High Chief here, and I do not believe a High Chief should bed on the floor."
The food was very good, the bread still hot, the preserves and honey freshly made, the cheese white and mild, last season's apples stewed with malt and barley spirits. Bodie ate ravenously as Raffi unrolled his pack and Kevin's on the other side of the fire. "They have imprisoned Garth and his kin in the guardhouse," the gelding told him. "They are comfortable and Kevin says they will remain there until the council meeting." He looked up at Bodie speculatively. "Won't you be killing them?"
"You want them killed?" Bodie prompted, chewing on a slab of bread and cheese. "Who has hurt you, to want yet more blood?"
"Blackfox," Raphael admitted. "Kevin bought me from him, eight years ago. I thought I would die before he took me out of here. They treated me as they treated my lord, when he was a captive here, so they told me." He was looking at Raven's sleep-gentled face. "For a prince to be used so --"
"Aye," Bodie agreed. "But all that is past. Raven will not execute them, I don't think. But they will be cast out after the elders have spoken... I shall lop Garth's head myself, I think, when it is -- timely."
"Safer dead," Raffi whispered. "They will make trouble if they are allowed to go. They will be back, and with an army. Garth is too old, the heirs are too young, but Blackfox and Gilead --" He shuddered. "Better dead. Please, Bodie, speak to your mate. Sooner an axe now than we wade in blood later."
Bodie frowned deeply. In all honesty, Raphael spoke his own thoughts, and as Ray woke, Raffi going out to find Kevin on some task, he brought a cup of wine to his lover's lips and said, "What of Garth's kin? Time to scheme now."
Stretching and yawning, Raven reached up to draw his fingers through Bodie's beard. "When are you going to shave this off?"
"In the morning," Bodie said with a smile. "Don't change the subject. What are we to do about Blackfox and Gilead? They would be safest dead, you know. They bear only hatred for you and all who stand with you. Kill them, Ray. A drop of blood now saves a river of the stuff later. Garth will be a hostage till his execution, I know, but let me kill his sons, Ray."
But Raven's face drew taut. "They are Feyleen's brothers, my own uncles. I would bring outrageous fortune on us, killing so close to home."
"Superstition," Bodie said shortly. "Outrageous fortune will surely visit us if you do not kill them!"
Raven sighed heavily. "They would be sent from this tuath with only their horses and arms. What more is to be done with them?"
"That was our elders' judgment upon you," Bodie said pointedly. "It is not enough, given the sins of Garth's clan."
"We killed a shaman," Raven corrected. "There is no greater sin."
"No greater sin?" Bodie echoed. "Ask Raffi about that! Blackfox owned him." At Raven's expression of surprise, he nodded. "Aye. And whored upon a gelded child. Raphael wishes him dead."
There was an expression of disquiet between Raven's brows. "I too would have killed him, a year ago," he admitted.
"Then kill him now. Here," Bodie added, reaching for his discarded baldric. "I will see to it. Give the word and he is dead, and Gilead with him. Garth we may need as a hostage, but the others are no more than a reminder of bad times. Let me have vengeance, Ray. Now," he hissed sharply.
There was silence for a moment as Ray chewed on a handful of nuts, and then he lay back on the pillows, fingers twisting his hair. "Let the elders speak first. It may be that they will consign the two for execution, and it will be out of my hands. Then you can toss a coin with Kevin to decide who will kill Blackfox -- you, in vengeance for me, or him, in vengeance for the gelding."
"And they would still be dead, and no stain on your hands," Bodie mused. "Aye, so be it. A fortnight's confinement and then they stand before their own elders. But I'm warning you, Ray." He leaned closer, kissing his mate's cheek. "If the elders seek only to banish them, they will end in blood despite the judgment. I do not believe Kevin will let Blackfox out of here with a whole skin. And neither will I."
At last Raven smiled, but it was a rueful expression. "Killing within the clan is abhorrent to elves."
"And raping within it?" Bodie gathered him close. "You heard what your swine of a grandsire said. Knowing who you are, he would make a whore of you again. He is not an elf, little dove. Neither am I, and neither is Kevin. You and Amber look to elven affairs; leave us to settle the human."
A vast yawn delayed Raven's reply and before he could speak Bodie kissed him soundly. They ate and then rolled themselves in the sleeping skins and slept again, waking in the evening as Kevin's knuckles rapped on the door. He brought hot food and mulled ale, his weapons, his valuables, and Raffi. Feyleen was with Amber and several of the mercenaries, sharing rough luxury in a freeman's house by the woods; Kevin spoke fondly of her as he ate and Raffi bailed the bathwater out of the forgotten tub, emptying it straight out of the window.
The camp was alive with activity, the summer evening warm, twilight long, and Bodie sat on the door sill, listening to tales of glory told by a dozen bards who gathered at the fire outside. Wrapped in Bodie's cloak, too satiated and comfortable to dress, Raven sat on the window ledge, enjoying the cooling, cleansing night wind. Feyleen came to be with Kevin until the bards were silent, the food and wine exhausted, and then they parted with a kiss and whispered words. Bodie slammed the door on the gathering darkness as the watch called the time from the head of the stockade wall. It was late and the day seemed to have been a century long at least.
Casting off the cloak, Raven slid in between the skins, watching Bodie disrobe in the firelight with idle pleasure and welcoming him into an embrace as he too slid into the bed. Across the fire, Kevin was already stretched out as Raphael performed his last chores, yawning as he tidied and cleaned. His body, Bodie saw as the gelding joined Kevin, was as pure as that of a child, thin and supple, hairless, perfect and without gender. Beautiful and pliant, moulding to his lover with grace and simplicity.
And much later, long after midnight, Bodie woke at a faint sound, looking across the fire to see the love between them. They believed their companions asleep and Bodie did not move a muscle, holding Raven's face to his shoulder, watching them with the elf's lack of shame at the act of loving, so long had he belonged to an elven clan. Kevin was on him, nuzzling his nape while the rise and fall of his hips beneath their skins and the twist of Raphael's face betrayed the act. There was joy on the lad's face, too, as Kevin burst within him. It could never be an act of lust for him, Bodie realised, only ever of love, and there was something very beautiful about his surrender, his gift of joy to his mate. A gift, for Kevin would never take. Bodie closed his eyes, pretending not to hear the gentle words that were whispered between them and understanding full well how Feyleen had welcomed the gelding into her affections along with Kevin.
His dreams were confused and unpleasant, as always after there had been fighting; he woke at dawn, cold sweat bathing his limbs, eager for Raven's arms about him. The others were sound asleep now and in the first fragile moments of daylight they made love quietly, a simple rocking together until Bodie was soothed and drowsing while Ray slid out of bed, dressed and went in search of breakfast.
The aroma of hot cereal and sweet milk woke him, but as he took the bowl from his mate's hands he saw the oil and razor and laughed, waking Kevin and Raffi. Raven stifled the laughter with a kiss and brandished the razor. "That is the last time your kiss will burn me, sweetheart," he purred. "Eat your breakfast while I strop this blade, and then keep very, very still."
The beard was the last leftover from the battle campaign and Bodie was glad to be free of it. Kevin laughed heartily as his old friend suffered the razor. "Will you shear off your hair too?"
"He will not," Raven said sharply. "You humans have an unnatural dislike for hair, but he is a Kith now. Aren't you, my love?"
"To the bone marrow," Bodie agreed offhandly. "And you," he added to the others, "are Kith the moment you are wedded. Kevin. You will love Morhod. It is everything this tuath is not." He lay back, pillowing his head on his folded arms as he watched Raven clean off the straight razor and put it and the oil back into the soft leather pouch. "Morhod. It means 'Kingdom of Summer'. To us, it means home." He caught Raven by his waist, tumbling him onto the bed. "Our cottage will be half built by this time. The knot garden planted, the orchard begun." Raven straddled him, fingers tracing the line of his jaw, impossibly smooth and soft now. Bodie sighed, relaxing completely for the first time in so long. "The collar about your neck was no real hardship; the few stripes on my back, long healed. Only the image of that funeral pyre remains to haunt me." He paused, catching Ray's hands, holding his wrists tightly. "Ray, kill Blackfox and Gilead."
"Let the elders speak first," Raven whispered. "I will not have blood of my blood on my hands -- superstition, I know. But I will not sign the warrant for killing within my own clan, Bodie. No Kith ever did, no Kith ever will. And you are a Kith also. Remember that."
Bodie sighed again as Ray left him to pour sweet ale, his eyes following Raphael as the lad slid out of bed, dressing quickly, as if his neutered body embarrassed him before whole men who were strangers. "You have a beautiful mate," Bodie said pointedly to Kevin.
"As have you," Kevin admitted, for his grey eyes were following Raven. He looked across at Bodie, sharing a chuckle with him.
The gelding was flushed with pleasure at the compliment, set at his ease by it and by Raven's gesture of comradeship as the elf brought him the first cup of ale, freshly mulled. "My lord --"
"The Kith," Raven said quite sternly, "have a pride about them and reserve that term for their elders. Now, I am as young as you, and if your mate weds my mother, you are my brother. I will not have a brother of mine bending his knees before me. I have a name, Raffi. Use it."
"Raven." Raphael ducked his head, glancing at Kevin to see the blond man's smile. "I was going to apologise for my body, for it will do your clan no honour, but I think you would call me foolish for the words."
"Moon happy," Raven affirmed. "And another thing. You are a Kith chieftain's brother, soon. There will be no menial tasks for you. Do for Kevin as I do for Bodie, if you wish to, but look to your honour, remember who you are." He cupped the gelding's face. "And be at peace! You and I have much in common. We have both done service that shames us and I was merely lucky to escape their knives. They have told you what became of me here?"
"When Kevin and I returned to join the chief's service, not a week after you were stolen away. The warband was still out hunting you and the story was on everyone's lips. Blackfox was bragging about what he had done to you."
"Aye," Raven said ruefully. "We have both suffered beneath his hands. That alone makes us kindred, so forget this foolishness about shame. Ask Kevin, he will tell you the same."
"I would tell him," Kevin said, half clad as he swatted Raffi's rump, "that he is cherished. Also, to run to Feyleen, bid her goodmorning from me, and ask her if she will ride in the woods with me, for I wish to be alone with her for an hour. We have a wedding feast to plan, remember."
"Soon," Raphael said softly, half way through the door. "I would be legal kin with you, Kevin, and when you wed my lady, under Raven's law, we will be."
Kevin smiled after him fondly. "He is the sweetest lad. I have never known him to raise his voice in anger or pettiness."
"And he loves you," Bodie added. He offered his hand. "Welcome to our clan. We have a lot of old times to talk over!"
At the window, Raven watched the two with a slight frown, admiring the blond man's handsomeness, wondering with a thread of real concern how much of the old attraction was left between him and Bodie. It had been a thing of adolescence, he realised minutes later as the two humans guffawed at this and that memory, simply two friends whose hearts belonged elsewhere after fourteen years of separation. Kevin leapt up at the sound of Feyleen's voice, hurrying to her side with a lover's eagerness, and Bodie sent for horses too, escorting his mate in another direction, sharing with him the haunts of childhood and the kisses of a grown man.
The new moon appeared that night, set to wax as summer grew warm and the divided warbands met odd pockets of resistance along the river. Most chieftains knew better than to struggle, surrendering their arms to prevent bloodshed this tuath could ill afford now, with the cream of its young men dead.
There was anger and resentment among the humans; elven swords held them in check and they brooded, waiting for the council to convene. With the deep ill feeling, Feyleen's wedding was a quiet affair, Amber speaking ancient words Bodie had heard only once before, on the night of his own bonding. He, Raven, Raphael, the shaman and the couple were present, a few dozen candles fluttering in the evening breeze, but the massive feasting was delayed. There would be time for the celebrations, in Morhod. At home.
Still, it was an occasion for much happiness. Kevin commandeered a freeman's house and Raven took Raphael into his and Bodie's company for a few days. The gelding was eager to please, much too shy for either of them to so much as touch him before he would flush and retreat with a muttering about his chores; they let him occupy his hands, offered companionship and did their best not to embarrass him with their lovemaking. Once, Bodie caught him watching, large-eyed at the sight of two whole men at love. He was sheepish and repentant as Bodie, who had forgotten the feel of shame, and Raven, who had never known it, chuckled. It was Ray who had woken the lad, groaning as he was possessed, and they were at rest again before they were aware of the gelding.
An uneasy, brooding silence fell on the humans as the moon thickened. For a week there was peace, guarded and strained, and then one morning there were shouts from the old guardhouse where Garth and his kin were confined. Servants taking breakfast in to the old chief returned at a run, demanding assistance, a healer, and Amber went with them, returning from the woods where he had been gathering night blooming herbs.
Already awake, Raven met him in the compound as he strode from the guardhouse, his brows knitted in a moody expression. "They found Garth dead," the shaman said simply. "He died in his sleep, I would say -- I have been expecting it. He was in uncertain health and this war has been more than enough to make an end of him." A hand on Raven's shoulder called the young man back. "Blackfox and Gilead have oathed death for you. You should know. Clan law aside, Raven, you may be best to kill them. Blackfox has petitioned for the honour of lighting his father's pyre, and since the weather is warming I have given instructions for it to be built now, just outside the gates."
"Aye," Raven nodded. "But kill them?" He closed his eyes. "Bodie and Kevin advise me to kill them also. I will wait for the elders' words, shaman. In a week they will be here, then we shall see."
The old chief's son left the guardhouse with his wrists and ankles chained, a torch in his hands, his face lined with hatred, fury, as he stood beside his father's pyre under guard. Garth had been laid out on a bed of timbers, dry kindling and oiled wood shavings. The pyre would burn fast, brightly. Raven and Bodie saw the torch set it alight, and the human's fingers clenched into his mate's shoulder. "The mirror," Bodie whispered. "Is it the pyre?"
"It must be," Raven said softly, "for I know the look of it. Ah gods, Bodie, is it over?"
"Over," Bodie echoed, holding the elf and watching Garth's pyre stutter in the midmorning wind. Blackfox glanced backward, over his shoulder, at them, his face filled with venom. Bodie's innards twisted and the warmth of the sun seemed to cool. Blackfox was dangerous, as perverse as rapacious as his father, and nurturing a bottomless rage.
He was lusting for vengeance, Bodie knew, thirsting for it, and there could be no reconciliation. Blood of Raven's blood he may have been, but he must die, and his brother Gilead with him, or there could never be an end to Garth's legacy of hate. Bodie turned his back on the man, urging Raven to return to their house, for they had the place to themselves now that Raffi had gone to join Kevin and Feyleen. Blackfox would keep for the time being. In a week, when the moon was full, the elders would meet, and then it would be decided, one way or the other.
But Blackfox would not leave this tuath alive -- Bodie vowed that, and knew that Kevin had made the same oath. For if he left these forests with his life a blood feud that was a quarter of a century old would begin again. Bodie bit his lip, scheming silently at Blackfox's death as he shut the door on the bustling encampment and set about his mate's pleasure to divorce his restless mind from the state of affairs.
Raven watched him curiously, knowing that much was amiss but leaving the questions unspoken, for, in all honesty, he suspected the answers. A lifetime's traditions weighed heavily on him but Bodie's need for Blackfox's head, loose in the dust, was echoed by his own nerves. There had been a time when he had needed vengeance as much as he had needed air to breathe, but a year had done much to heal the wounds on mind and body, and the river of blood that had been let in the battle had been enough to close them forever.
With Garth's pyre alight it was surely finished, and old, old elven tradition stayed his hand and his tongue before he could consign men of his own lineage to the axe. Bodie called it superstition and perhaps it was, but Raven was too wearied of the feud to take matters into his own hands. Let the humans' elders decide the fate of their own.
Holding his mate as Ray slept off an hour's sensual excess, Bodie stared into the cold hearth, Blackfox's face looking back from his mind's eye, baleful and as venomous as Garth's had ever been. Dangerous. Let the elders speak, Bodie thought bleakly, but no matter their decision, be damned to elven tradition. He looked down at the curly head on his chest, silently admitting that there was much within him that was still human -- human enough to kill cynically and accept the consequences, whatever they were. Human enough to kill to protect what was his; for it was the world he held in his arms and his destiny, he conceded wryly, to be the plaything of whatever gods made games with foolish mortals.
-- THE END --