Joy's Bonfire


Now, as in Tullia's tomb one lamp burnt clear
Unchanged for fifteen hundred year,
May these love-lamps we here enshrine,
In warmth, light, lasting, equal the divine.
Fire ever doth aspire,
And makes all like itself, turns all to fire,
But ends in ashes; which these cannot do,
For none of these is fuel, but fire too.
This is joy's bonfire, then, where love's strong arts
Make of so noble individual parts
One fire of four inflaming eyes, and of two loving hearts.

John Donne
Eclogue for the Marriage of the Earl of Somerset.

It had been a bad year for the village. The severe cold had taken many lives, and lasted far too long. Then, with the crops only three weeks planted, the floods had come and washed away all the hard work and new sprouts. Now, even if the weather was perfect from this moment forward, the crop would still be small--there not being enough seed left over to generate any surplus beyond what would be needed to carry the village through the next winter. And if anything happened to this crop, or the weather betrayed them yet again, there would not be enough for all in the village to survive the coming cold. It was a desperate time.

The village's High Priestess declared that a blood sacrifice was needed. She proclaimed that the man who had been washed up by the flood had been sent by the fates to serve that purpose. So, instead of being sheltered and comforted, he'd been strapped splayed to the cold stone altar to await night-fall and the rising of the moons.

For long hours Prince William Bodie lay stretched across the sacrificial stone. His extremities had been numb from the cold of the river when he had finally managed to crawl ashore; now, after long hours without movement, he could feel them no more. Even had he been able to free himself from the bonds that held him, he doubted that he could drag himself more than a few feet. The luck that had guarded his back in the past had vanished into the raging river along with his horse and one of his father's soldiers. He thought back to the events that had brought him to this altar and his soon to be death as a sacrifice to the harvest god of this small, superstitious village. His father would raze it to the ground if he ever discovered the truth of what had become of his only child, but knowing he would be avenged offered little comfort. Bodie would prefer to live.

He had been on a trading mission for his father to a neighboring kingdom in the western lands. They had come to an agreement that was beneficial to both fiefdoms and would result in closer ties. King Philip had sent his son instead of going himself so that Prince William could take a good look at the young princess who would soon reach maturity. The King was becoming concerned that his son, who had now seen twenty-five seasons, had yet to choose a mate. One way or another, the King managed to contrive circumstances so that every eligible female in his kingdom and neighboring ones should be seen by the Prince. His father was becoming so desperate that even a few fairly ineligible ones had been appended to the queue.

Even now, he managed a smile at the memory of one who was so spectacularly well gifted that she made heads turn as she passed. Prince William himself had run into a door, looking, when he realized that he could see her coming out from behind a column before the main part of her body had managed to disappear behind it. But then she'd opened her mouth and talked. It wasn't a very nice comment, but, after an hour in her company, when his father had asked how he liked her, the Prince had replied, 'Her brains must be in her tits because they certainly aren't connected to her mouth.' That had shut the King up and he'd given up on match-making for a bit.

Bodie had at first found this amusing, but after almost three years he'd began to tire of the constant parade of females. He was as frustrated as his father, because, as time went on, he despaired of ever finding a mate. There had been nothing wrong with the most recent of the young women--in point of fact, she was very attractive and intelligent--but there was no communion, no sharing of the soul and spirit. 'How can I hunger so much for this, yet find none to fulfill my desire?' He'd had women in plenty--besides being a prince he was very attractive and had the reputation for being an exceptional lover--and they all provided pleasant diversions, but no one captured his heart or mind--no one touched his soul.

The youngest daughter of King Charles seemed to be perfect. She was beautiful, unspoiled, kind, and intelligent: all that he could desire in a mate. But, while he wouldn't have been adverse to sleeping with her--that was if he despoiled maidens, which he made it a rule never to do--he did not want to spend the rest of his life with her by his side. So he'd left the realm of King Charles with a heavy heart, beginning to give up hope of ever finding someone to spend the rest of his life with. In fact, he'd almost talked himself into going back and proposing to his cousin, Susan. She was a good sort, wouldn't plague him too much, and would make an excellent mother and queen. As for a life-time companion, to stand by his side and fill his heart and soul, he had about concluded that such a love did not exist, at least not for him. It was depressing to realize after twenty-five years that he was a romantic and had believed in true love; it was even more depressing to give up his dream, but the dream of a special lover, meant only for him, was slowly slipping away like grains of sand through his fingers. The tighter he tried to hold on, the faster they flowed out.

He'd trailed behind the rest of the party, lost in thought, trying to convince himself that Susan would be a choice he could live with. They'd come to the river that divided the two kingdoms and started to cross. The water was already quite high and swift, but it still appeared safe enough. None of their party knew that a storm raged high in the mountains and was even now unleashing massive flood waters into the normally quiet stream. Bodie had looked up at a shout from the bank, to realize that the water was rising swiftly, and his two guards were several paces behind him. He'd urged them to hurry on, and, as one was unseated by the rush of water over him, the Prince had grabbed him and hauled him onto his horse. The other soldier and his horse, still further out in the channel, had been swept away into the deepest part of the river and were carried quickly out of sight.

They'd made it almost across when the volume of water had increased critically, and a branch had struck him in the side. Both he and the man he held had been unhorsed and were soon fighting the torrential currents. The man had managed to grab a tree limb and Bodie another. As the soldiers on shore rushed to their aid, another piece of debris struck him and tore his hands free; he was swept away. He grabbed for a log and held on for dear life.

The current tossed and tumbled him, and only his weakening hold on the wood kept him from drowning. The speed of the water was incredible, and he knew he must have been carried at least two or three days' ride from his father's lands before he'd seen a chance to make for the shore. A huge tree overhung the water, and he'd grabbed its branches as he passed under them. From there he had pulled himself ashore and collapsed from cold and exhaustion. It was there that the village's High Priestess, along with half a dozen others who had come out to inspect the damage done to their crops, had found him. The crops had been severely damaged, first by the heavy rains, and then most of the rest had been washed away by the floods that followed.

He'd been almost unconscious as he'd heard her declare him sent as a sacrifice for a better harvest. Trying to protest and fight, he'd been taken, gagged, and tied to a stone altar with leather thongs. There was no chance for him to identify himself. As it had been midday and the stone was in the sun, it had warmed him a bit, but he was still unable to free himself, nor speak to convince them that his father's reward would be better than the harvest they would obtain by shedding blood. Now evening was upon them, the first moon had risen, and they had come to prepare him for the sacrifice. They had cut his damp, ruined clothes off and coated him with some kind of ceremonial oil--it smelled faintly of nuts and made him aware of how empty his stomach was. Bodie struggled against his bonds, but his numb limbs could make no headway. Soon the sun would set, and with the rising of the second moon he would die.

The Mage was weary as he neared the village he had made his home. He had spent the past six weeks either on the road or at the home of his mother, and he longed for the peace and quiet of his own bed and several uninterrupted days to recuperate and regather his strength. The gathering of mages had been informative, and he'd learned much new magick; also, some excellent herbalists had come from afar and they had shown him new medicines to mix from local plants. When rested, he looked forward to experimenting, but seven days on the trail from his mother's house had left him more interested in hot food and a bed than mixing potions. Yes, after a couple of days' rest, he would have much work and research to do, to perfect his newly acquired skills but for now only sleep appealed.

He smiled as he thought about his mother. When he was a boy she'd hosted these gatherings once every three or four years; since he'd grown to manhood and moved out on his own, they had proliferated to every two years, and she was even talking about planning them once a year. Ray knew that the increase was due mostly to her desire to have her son visit more often. It did no good for him to point out that she could just as easily visit him on an occasion or two. But, no, his mother was rooted to her home and wasn't about to leave it for more than a day--even to come to see her precious little boy, as she liked to call him. One too many 'precious little boys' this last trip and he was glad that she didn't come to visit. So she'd found a way to entice him to come to her. Gatherings were too important, and offered so many chances to learn, that he wouldn't miss one if he could help it; but he did not look forward to the prospect of making the long journey once a year. Maybe, if he chose to move to a larger village and could collect more money for his services, he could buy a horse. That would make the journey much easier, but the place where he lived now suited his need for privacy and time to himself.

As he made his way over the top of the final hillock and the village came into view, he knew that something was very wrong. Torches were lit everywhere and only one villager was in sight. He was obviously there to guard the road and was under the mistaken impression that he was well hidden in the fork of a tree. The Mage's eyes were magick sharp and he knew of the watch-post, so he quickly spotted the guard. Precognition, which he sometimes experienced, told him now to hasten or he would regret it. And, as with all visions or illusions of the future, it was not complete, only a faint stirring at the edge of his consciousness--but this haunting vision was pressing in on him. Something important--vital to him--was happening.

He moved swiftly off the side of the path before he could have been spotted and through the brush to come upon the guard from the village side. 'We'd all be dead in our sleep if he were the watch on the night of a hostile raid,' Mage Doyle thought disgustedly as he spoke to the man above him.

"Oi! Trey, why is the village lit like harvest festival, and what are you guarding the road for?" Ray was amused when the startled man lost his balance and fell out of the tree, landing hard on his butt.

The man was scared and shaken--the Mage had appeared from nowhere--and answered with more truth than he would have had he his wits about him. "Mother Kaye set me to watch the road in case rescue should come."

'The man has the brains of a slug,' Ray thought to himself--hating the wasted time it was taking to find out what was going on--but he knew that it was best to have some fore-knowledge before heading into whatever trouble he sensed lay ahead. This fool would be easier than most to get the truth from. 'Of course, that assumes that the idiot knows what's going on.' The Mage had his doubts.

"Rescue? From whom?" Ray pressed.

"His people of course." It was obvious that Trey felt that the wizard was being particularly obtuse today; he had sense enough not to say it. Mage Doyle was not known for his even temper, and his powers were great. There were rumors that one particularly rude and dishonest trader had spent a night and day as a rabbit, but you couldn't believe everything you heard--could you?

"Whose people?" Doyle felt the press to hurry, and if he didn't get a straight answer soon, he would leave the fool to his watch and seek for the truth elsewhere.

Fortunately, Trey--made extremely nervous by the irritation he saw on the Mage's face--started babbling all he knew. "Floods came and washed away all the new plants; they also washed a half-dead man ashore. Mother Kaye said that the fates had provided him for a sacrifice of blood to bring a good harvest this fall."

"Bloody hell!" The wizard grabbed the man by his shirt, almost throttling him.

"Quick, man, have they done it yet?" Trey trembled under the Mage's anger, not able to speak, only to shake his head no.

"Where?" Doyle pressed, sensing that he had little time. The man he held couldn't seem to get his breath, nor his wits about him, to answer. An idea came to Ray. "At the stone?" The watchman could only nod, and then found himself dropped to the ground, watching the wizard run in the direction of the dark blood stone. He was glad to be away from the coming confrontation. Mother Kaye and Mage Doyle often butted heads, and when the power flew it was best not to be around.

Doyle cursed himself for a fool. He'd thought that the influence of his three years in the village had rid them of their primitive beliefs in blood sacrifice. Normally it was animals; that had been bad enough. But a man! He was horrified at the thought. 'Pray heavens I'm not too late!'

The path to the blood stone took him along the outskirts of the village. As he passed his hut, he detoured to drop his pack and strip his filthy wet clothes off. He donned his mage's robe and the amulet that would help to magnify his power. Doyle hated taking the time but needed the edge that the impressive robe would give him. As tired as he was, he couldn't hope to fight the entire village with brute power--he didn't want to anyway. These were people he had known and protected for over three seasons. To harm them would distress him greatly, but he couldn't allow a blood sacrifice. The negative karma that would produce would curse the village for many years to come--in point of fact, he doubted that the village would survive such darkness. He looked longingly towards his trunk and dry trousers, but the voice inside him that had been telling him to hurry urged him to a run. Time had run out.

Prince William's last hope was gone. He'd planned to tell them who he was when the gag was removed before the sacrifice. But it hadn't been removed, and, strain as he might, he could neither get free nor make them let him speak. The High Priestess, Mother Kaye he'd heard her called, had led the chanting and worked the crowd into a frenzy. They were shouting a word, but he didn't know the meaning of it. Must be the god he was being sacrificed to, he decided. As the second moon rose over the horizon to join the first, he looked hard into the Priestess' eyes, hoping to sway her and stop this madness. Her eyes burned with fear and fire; to her this was necessary to prevent her village from starving in the coming winter. He saw the knife raise and began its downward descent towards his heart. Prince William struggled futilely against his bonds; his last thought was that, 'At least death would come swiftly.'

The knife was an arm span away from his chest when a bright, white light flashed across the clearing, pulling the sacrificial blade from the woman's hand and sending it flying to embed itself deeply in a large oak tree across the clearing. Silence descended. All around looked about them in confusion. The Priestess screamed, her hand lightly burned by the power of the light.

Bodie strained to see who had delivered his salvation. He could see nothing but people moving to escape from something. Briefly, the Prince wondered if there were a higher power or Fate that had come to take its sacrifice in person. Finally, into the torch light around the altar, stepped a man.

The man was tall, five-nine at least, well built and strong, with light brown, wavy hair that hung down to the middle of his back. He wore a robe of deepest blue that covered him to his calves. When he spoke, his voice was deep and resonated throughout the clearing with power and authority.

"No! No blood sacrifices!" Mage Doyle spoke with anger.

"Don't interfere, wizard. This doesn't concern you. Only blood will ensure a good harvest. Would you have us starve?" Mother Kaye's voice held the conviction of one who had been raised in the old religion and had never truly turned away from its dark doctrines.

"Blood will bring bad karma on all who participate. Did blood bring you mild winters and good harvests before I came? No! Only death and several plagues. To take life will not give life. That is the way of things."

The villagers were torn between their old faith and their new. The Priestess spoke again, "Has our lot improved so much since we stopped the blood? No. Now we've lost our first planting and have barely enough seed to try another. If that fails--we starve. The fates require blood, and he's been sent to give it." She pointed at the young man strapped to the stone.

Doyle heard the murmurs and whispers of agreement--knew that his teachings of three years couldn't hope to overcome the superstitions of generations, implanted from childhood on. How to explain to a people afraid of starving that years of blood had cursed their village and that only time would purge the stain of the bloody ground--more time than three years?

It looked as though it were going to come down to a choice: did he fight and hurt or kill many of those whom he'd called friend, or leave and let them kill the man before him. He turned and for the first time looked at the man sprawled on the altar. Even in this state Doyle was surprised to find that he found him beautiful. Naked, all adornment gone, the skin and muscles of his body were smooth and sleek. 'Like those of a hunting cat,' the Mage thought. His eyes roved up the man's body: well muscled legs, well developed sex organs--'The man had been gifted,' Ray mused--flat abdomen, broad muscular chest, strong arms and a handsome face, capped by shoulder length dark hair.

He started to turn away when he met the man's eyes and felt himself falling into their black depths. The man was a stranger--the face not known--but deep within the eyes there was a spark of recognition. Soul spoke to soul and said friend--lover. 'I know you. But how can I know you?' his mind wondered. And his mother's voice out of the past, 'I just knew.' How long he stood lost deep in the soul of the other, he could not say. But when he came to himself the situation had again worsened. He heard the chanting again and Mother Kaye was speaking.

"Leave us, wizard. He is ours."

And Ray knew what he had to do. His voice with the power of his magick beneath it drowned out the chanting around him. "No, he is mine, and I claim him as my Other."

"No--" The Priestess refused to give way.

"Yes. And any who try to harm him shall face my wrath. His soul is mine."

"Your wrath now or starving later--"

He interrupted Mother Kaye, knowing that he had no choice if he wanted all to come out of this unharmed, but knowing also that the man on the stone was not likely to forgive him for what he was about to do. "To spill blood is death, and to kill will only bring more death. The sacrifice that needs be offered on the stone should be that of seed and life. I will claim my Other and our seed shall bring good harvest."

That stopped the chanting; the Priestess did not look happy, but she knew that the reason of his words had won him many followers. Even she herself could see that his offering might be enough. "We will see your offering and if the stone accepts it."

'Fuck!' Doyle thought to himself. He'd never done what he was proposing to do, and he sure as hell didn't want an entire village as an audience, but one look at the faces surrounding the altar, and he realized that like it or not he had to go through with it. 'Providing, of course, that I can perform. God help that the other man can as well.'

Ray walked up to stand beside the man on the altar. He touched the side of his face with one finger, leaned over and whispered in his ear.

"I'm sorry. I wanted the first time to be different, but I don't have any choice. This way no one dies and that's the most important thing." Sighing, Doyle said, "I don't have the power now to defeat them all, so we'd more than likely end up dead if I try to fight. And I don't want to kill. I've called many friend, these last three harvests." He gently stroked the side of the bound man's face, looking deep into the dark eyes he wondered what colour daylight would reveal, then leaned over and kissed his forehead; stepping back, he unfastened his robe and let it fall to the ground around him. He stood before the altar naked, eyes still locked with those of the dark-haired man, knowing that if they were to get through this, he must eliminate all awareness of those around them and they must see only each other.

His concentration was so intense that he was unaware of the fear that gripped the villagers, causing them to back away from the stone altar. First, his eyes had glowed with a green fire, and then, as he dropped his robe, his whole body appeared to be consumed by it. The Mage had lived among the villagers for three years, and although they had seen him perform small bits of magick--and suspected that he was capable of much more--none 'til now had had an inkling of the true power he possessed. It was as if they'd adopted a sparrow, only one day to find it spreading its wings to become an eagle before their very eyes.

Ray used his skills to draw the man into his world with him and then climbed upon the altar and knelt between the spread legs. His arms came up to rest on each side of the pale chest and he leaned down and began to kiss, bite and lick his way over the cold body. He spent time on each nipple and then worked his way down to the softer stomach, tonguing the bellybutton, weaving a magic spell that would soon consume them both. As he felt the man's erection stir, he moved swiftly to take it deeply into his mouth, his hand at its base milking it for its precious fluid. Incredibly, considering all the man had suffered, he came within minutes. Doyle took the liquid into his mouth, swallowing the first spurts but holding the final one, until he at last raised up and spit on the altar.

"His offering," Ray said aloud without turning to face the crowd. It was his turn now and he couldn't risk the distraction.

Mage Doyle got up from the altar and released the thongs that bound the man's legs so that his knees could be raised. Then stepping back, he rubbed the sacrificial oil onto his penis, it was thick and viscous and should serve to protect the stranger from injury. He then climbed back onto the altar; more oil was rubbed gently into the small orifice now exposed. He could tell that the dark-haired man was in pain from having his legs moved after such long immobility, but realized that the sooner he could get him to his hut and before a warm fire, the better it would be. 'Just one more offering, sunshine,' he thought to the man before him as he slid his erection deep into the body beneath him, the oil easing the way.

Ray concentrated on the man's eyes, allowing himself to fall into them again, to find the Other that he knew was there. He called to the Other and he was joined. Their minds merged, and, as he began to move within the man's body, he was startled to feel the hard press of an erection into his stomach.

"So good. It can be so good," he whispered gently into the ear of the stranger. It didn't take long before both men groaned. As he came, Doyle felt the man's legs--having now come back to life to a degree--grip him tightly and pull him farther into himself. The magick flowed between them, blue and green tongues of fiery energy swirled around them.

The villagers watched in awe as green-blue fire spread, surrounding the altar, making the clearing glow, and masking the details of the coupling from watching eyes. None would challenge the Wizard's claim to the man now; nor risk the power that could be unleashed by harming a mage's Other. The brightness of the light made it impossible to see much of what was happening on the altar, but as the fire slowly faded, the Wizard stood and said only two words.

"My offering."

The robe that lay on the ground he picked up and placed around his shoulders, he roused himself enough to give orders. "Kal, run to my hut and get a fire started; also, borrow at least two blankets from someone and have them warming for when we get back. And food. Soup or broth would be best, and some warm herbal brew. Now go!" Kal hurried to obey--not wishing to anger the wizard more. The mage walked over to the tree that held the sacrificial knife and pulled it out. Walking back to the altar, he began to cut away the ties that bound the weakened man to the stone. As he cut, he gave more instructions.

"Kress and Vir, stay; I want you to help me carry him back to my hut. The rest of you," here he looked up and cast an angry gaze around the clearing, "I don't want to see you for a very long time. I'll not soon forgive, nor forget, what you tried to do here." He nodded down at the man beneath him, "I doubt he will either. So just keep away."

All but the two men he'd ordered to stay quickly left. The remaining men moved off to the far side of the clearing, wanting to be as far away from the Mage as possible. In point of fact, they'd have preferred to leave with the rest, but having seen the bolt of lightening that struck Mother Kaye and the knife, decided it was better not to disobey the wizard. He was not in a tolerant mood.

Ray concentrated all his energy on freeing the man and then rubbing some life back into his limbs. After a few minutes, as the dark-haired man began to shiver, he called to the men and had them carry the man to his hut. He felt--and knew he acted--like a mother hen with just one chick, but found he could not stop himself. This one had suffered enough, and he wanted to ease his pain. Kress and Vir laid him gently on a blanket covered mat before the fire and left quickly.

The Mage didn't even notice their departure. He took a bowl of warm water and a cloth and began to slowly wash the oil and dirt from the man's bruised and battered body. The dark man, who'd been barely conscious since his second release of seed, slowly opened his eyes to see himself being cleansed by his auburn-haired savior. He refused to think about what else this man had done to his body. He wasn't happy about it--in fact, when he could think and feel again, he'd probably be damned mad about the whole thing--but right now he was just too cold, too tired, and hurt too much to waste the energy. Prince William was also very glad to be alive.

Feeling a tensing of the muscles beneath his hands, Ray looked up to see that he was under observation. He smiled. "Hi, sunshine. I won't ask how you're feeling--my guess would be bloody awful. So, I'll just ask what your name is?"

Bodie opened his mouth and tried to speak but found his throat too dry. He'd almost drowned that morning, but they'd staked him out at high sun and given him nothing to drink since.

Sensing what the problem was, Doyle cursed, "Those bastards. They treated their animal sacrifices better than they treated you. I know it's not my fault, but I am sorry. Wish I'd got back sooner and saved you some of the trouble. 'Course, me mum wanted me to stay another day, but something told me not to. Guess the fates had it planned." As he was talking, the wizard poured a herbal brew into a cup, then he helped the stranger raise his head to drink the warm liquid. "Easy now. Not too much. With nothing on your stomach for so long you could make yourself sick. Easy, that's it; just a few more sips. Good." Ray lowered him back down and went to rewarm the water so that he could finish cleansing the man. He turned as his guest gave a rough whisper.

"William. Name's William."

Ray gave a blinding smile and replied, "I'm Doyle; Raymond Doyle, but you can call me Ray." He moved back to finish washing the groin, legs, and feet of the supine man. Feeling William tense as he was washing his groin, he rubbed gently and used his other hand to stroke a well muscled thigh. "Easy, William. I'll never again take you without your permission. I'm sorry our first time had to be like that, but truly it was the only way." Having finished, the Mage rose and dumped the water out a window, then picked up a clay pot from the shelves along one wall and came back to the wary man.

He began to talk to distract the dark-haired man from what he had to do next. "I don't think I hurt you, love, but I've got to be sure. Plus it's best if I apply some salve--stop any disease from getting to you. Can't have that now that you're mine--you know? Okay? Over on your side...that's right," he said as he managed to roll William over. "Now just hold there....

"I'm sorry about Mother Kaye. She's not really a bad sort. Just raised on the old religion and this winter 'bout drove her over the edge--actually, no 'about' to it, after what she almost did tonight--but, ya see, she cares for these people. Feels that each and every one is her responsibility, and so every death she views as her own personal failure. We lost six people to the cold last winter--two kids, a couple of elders, her niece and another man who got caught in a storm. Was hard, you know.... Easy now, mate, just a little more salve, and then I'll help you sit up and get some soup down you. Yeah, that's alright--all set. Can you stay up once I get you there, or do I need to hold you?"

Bodie didn't like being so helpless--much less having his private parts messed with--so he tried to shove Doyle away and sit up on his own. He hadn't made it up on one elbow before the room started spinning, and his arms collapsed from under him.

"Stubborn sod, aren't you?" Doyle's smile was tender and approving. "Well, no matter, I'll soon have you up and about, and you can be as independent as you like then." Doyle poured out a tankard of broth from the pan warming over the fire. "'S hot now, so be careful, and take it slow," the magician cautioned as he sat down behind William and pulled him up until he was sitting between Ray's legs. The Mage held him upright and slowly let him drink from the mug. The wizard wanted the man to forgive or at least understand why the villagers had done what they had. "I was talking about Mother Kaye, right?" William didn't answer; Ray didn't really expect him to: he didn't appear to be a very talkative lad. "Anyway, when she lost her niece...well something must have snapped. She was determined not to lose any more of her charges. I'm afraid that this flood was the last straw for her. You see with the first crop destroyed, there's barely seed enough to try for a second. This is a poor village. Last time the crops failed a quarter of the village died in the winter. That was only six seasons ago, from what I've been told. Wasn't here then, ya see, I came only three harvests ago."

The broth finished, Ray put the mug down, but continued to hold Bodie close in his arms, offering warmth and comfort. "They're just scared, William. Don't want to die in the cold dark, their bellies empty." He noticed that the man he held was now breathing heavily and regularly, deeply asleep. He laid him down, pulled his sleeping pallet over, covered it with one of the extra blankets, then rolled William over on to it and covered him with the other. Doyle then got himself and the hut ready for sleep. He built the fire up, made sure all the windows were shuttered, stripped and cleaned himself, blew out the tallow and laid down, naked, beside the sleeping man. He nestled close and wrapped him up in comforting arms, drifting swiftly into oblivion.

The Mage was awakened about four hours later by the shivering of the man in his arms. 'Damn, I should have known. Fever! Well it's not surprising considering all that he's been through.' Ray quickly built up the fire, put water on to warm, and then went to his shelves to gather up his medicines. He had all the ingredients he needed except the one most important one--of course.

Kneeling beside the shivering man, he spoke, "William, can you hear me?" The eyes opened and the dark-haired man nodded.

"Good. You've got a fever. It's early stages yet, and the faster I can treat it the easier it's going to be for you to get over it. But I need to go get something. I'll be back in ten, fifteen minutes at the most. Will you wait?" A part of Ray was afraid that the ill-treated man would take the first opportunity to escape--even sick as he was. That could prove fatal for both of them.

Prince William looked hard at the man who knelt beside him. A part of him did not want to trust--wanted to run away from this Ray, what he'd done to his body, that he implied he intended to do again, and worst of all how his body had responded--but another part, the rational part, realized that his father and his men would soon find him, if he could just stay alive, and the best chance of that was in letting this Ray care for him. When his father came, then he would decide what to do about Ray and this bloodthirsty village. They couldn't be allowed ever again to consider blood sacrifice. The next person might not be so lucky...'cept right now he didn't feel so lucky.

He nodded, saying, "I'll stay."

A blinding smile met his show of trust, and a kiss on his lips soon followed. It was all too brief, and the fact that he considered it so scared him about as much as anything. His body started shivering all the harder. The Mage added another blanket to keep him warm and then was swiftly on his feet, throwing on some clothes, and was soon out the door.

Ray went straight to the baker's house and pounded on the door. It took a few minutes, but the man finally opened the door and drew back in fear. The power he'd seen displayed that night he wouldn't soon forget. Harper, the baker, a stout man whose figure demonstrated the excellent quality of his wares, stepped back when he saw who was at the door.

Glaring, Doyle didn't bother with explanations. "I need bread, old bread, with mold. Do you have any?"

Staring, as if he thought the Mage had lost his mind, Harper was slow to respond. About to repeat his question, and thinking that the stupid fellow would make an excellent bullfrog, Ray heard his wife, Marge, call out. "We've got a few old loaves. I'll get them for you." She was there within a few minutes, handing over a sack that contained bread she'd saved to bait animal traps. "There you go. The rains the last few days have caused a lot of mold and we've a good bit extra."

Looking into the sack, Ray's torch was bright enough for him to see that there was plenty of mold on the bread. "Thank you. This will work nicely." He nodded and left. They remained staring after him until he disappeared into the darkness at the edge of the village.

The Mage was back in under ten minutes, and upon entering his hut he realized that William's shivering was worse. He used the now hot water to make more herbal brew, and, as it steeped, he quickly began to mix up the potion as he'd been taught by his mother many years ago. It was one of the first potions taught a healer, and the most important one. Mold to fight the badness that had entered the body was a new addition to the formula, but its results showed its worth, there was also special plants and powders to keep the fever from consuming the patient while the other ingredients fought the bad. He kept the components to hand but the mold had to be acquired fresh with each day. He helped the man sit up and rest his back against a chest near the fire, then began to talk to distract the still shivering man.

"This won't take long. We'll get the first dose down you and then see how it goes from there. All depends on how you react; may need a larger dose or this may be enough. This stuff tastes like shite, but you'll have to take it three times a day for the next week or so." He turned and smiled back over his shoulder and said to reassure the man behind him, "Don't worry, sunshine, I won't let anything bad happen--"

"Little late for that now. Isn't it, sunshine?" Bodie was tired of being treated like a child who couldn't take care of himself. His voice clearly revealed his irritation. The fact that the Mage only chuckled at his reply got up his nose quickly.

"Can you fight with a sword, William?"

Bodie looked confused at the change of topic. Finally, he answered, "Yeah, 'course."

"Good. You can teach me. I'm lousy." His patient just glared. "Look, mate, all I'm trying to point out is that this is my job. I make medicines and do a bit of magick--"

"More than a bit--from what I saw."

"No, I do a bit. I don't normally display my powers like that. It's dangerous and scares people. I'll have to leave the village now that they've seen it, or some superstitious clod might resolve to do me in my sleep in case I should decide to harm them. Or someone else might decide that a mage would make a good sacrifice to gain them power, wealth, or long life."

"Our mage doesn't fear that."

"Let me guess. You're from a larger town, maybe a king's castle--bet the mage lives in the castle--and he's older, well liked and been 'round long as most can remember." Ray ground harder with the mortar and pestle, taking his frustration out on the mixture he was preparing.

"Yeah, so what if--"

"So what--is that most wizards don't live like that. Our powers make us both feared and envied. Takes a long time to find a protector who will trust us enough to accept us and give us shelter. Plus many of us like to travel, not be tied down to one place. You're a soldier--you should know that feeling of not wanting to be trapped."

"S'what makes you think that I'm a soldier?" Bodie found himself curious as to where the Mage had come up with that idea; it also kept his mind off just how bad he was feeling. He ached all over, he was hot and cold at once, and his body wouldn't stop shaking.

"Not hard. Your shield arm bears the callouses and scars of many fights and lots of training. Your legs, arms and back muscles are full and well developed, and your hands calloused in the spots you'd see a warrior's." Bodie didn't deny or agree; he just watched this strange man with wary eyes. This one was very observant and clever.

He went back to the earlier subject, "You were talking about my mage."

Ray chuckled, "Better not let him or her hear you call them that. We don't take well to being owned."

"'S not what I meant," Bodie was feeling defensive.

Finished mixing the powder, Ray paused to pour out the brew into two cups. He handed one to William after putting a fine powder in it.

"What else did you put in--?"

"It's a sleeping draught. As bad as you're feeling, you'll have trouble getting to sleep and even more trouble staying there." Ray nodded down at the vessel in William's hand. "Drink up. Then I'll take you out to the woods to relieve yourself."

Being a king's son and heir, Bodie wasn't used to being bossed around, he didn't like it one damn bit. He decided that when he felt better--Ray walked over and reached down, lifting him up, when his legs gave out beneath him, he clutched at the Mage for support--and he could walk, he'd show this green-eyed sod a thing or two. In the meantime some relief wouldn't be remiss about now, and he let Ray help him into the woods.

When they returned, Bodie found he was freezing and couldn't even stand on his own. He'd shoved Ray away in a show of independence. The Mage--never exactly the most patient of men--had let him fall flat on his arse and crawl over to the front of the fire. He'd made it but doubted he'd have the energy to roll over if he needed to. He watched the Mage back at his work table finishing his potion.

Turning, Ray held a cup in his hand; he walked over and knelt down beside the erstwhile warrior, helping him to sit up. "Come on, drink this, then roll over." He chuckled at the grimace on his patient's face. "Told you it tastes like shite--didn't I? Still, after a couple of more doses you should be feeling fine."

The skeptical look that William shot him only made him laugh out loud.

Bodie was getting damn tired of being laughed at. "I'm glad you find my predicament so amusing."

Ray stopped laughing, and his look became dark and serious. "I don't find it amusing at all. They came damn close to killing you, and I'd have ended up spending the rest of my life looking for someone who was no longer reachable." He paused in his speech to ease William down; he stroked his cheek and then leaned over and their lips met in a long kiss. Sitting up, he concluded, "I laugh because we both made it out alive, I didn't have to kill anyone to do it, and, although you feel like bloody hell now, you'll be fine in a day or so. And I've found you at last. I'd say I have a lot to be happy about." Seeing William's eyes begin to drift shut, he planted a quick kiss on his forehead and said, "Sleep. You'll feel a lot better when you waken."

Trying to glare at the man kneeling beside him, Bodie discovered that a good glare required the use of more facial muscles than he currently had control of. As he drifted off to sleep, he thought, 'Going to tell him not to kiss me. S'not supposed to do that. I'm not like that...and what the hell does he mean finally found me? Not been lost....'

And a tiny whisper in his mind asked back, 'then why do you like the kisses so much and why do you feel found?' He was asleep before he could finish the thoughts.

"Now why the hell couldn't you have rolled over like I asked," Ray grumbled at the unconscious man. He pulled and tugged to get him flat on his stomach and keep him on the sleeping mat at the same time. Finally, satisfied with William's position, the healer began to massage the sleeping man. His body had been abused badly and was covered with bruises. 'Probably from all the debris in the river hitting him,' Ray mused. Wrists and ankles were rubbed raw by his struggles to free himself. 'You're a fighter, love; I'm not in for a calm time with you. Am I? S'alright, I like a challenge.' It was the middle of the night and the Mage was very tired, but he knew that William would sleep longer and feel better if his muscles had been soothed and relaxed. Hours on the blood stone unable to move, after however long in the river, would have left them in a sorry state. As Ray worked his way down to the sleeping man's buttocks, he felt a slight arousal. 'You're enough to arouse the dead, sunshine. Fates, what a body. You're worth the wait.'

That brought to mind Ray's concerns about how well William would accept him as his life mate. Not at all easily, if he was any reader of people. And, unfortunately in this instance, the Mage was excellent at that talent. Moving on down to the man's powerful legs, Ray sighed. His Other had never been with a man before--if he was any judge--and therefore would take a while to get used to the idea. Still, whether William knew it or not, accepted it or not, half the bond was already forged and it would have to be completed or both would die. That was dependent, of course, on whether Ray was right and this was his Other. He thought back to a discussion with his mum long ago....

"But how will I know she's the other half of my soul?" Youth did not react well to the answer 'you'll just know.' Ray was sure there had to be more to it than that.

"I know it's hard to understand and accept--and by the way, Ray, it can be a man just as easily as a woman." At the look of horror on her son's face, Ariel chuckled. "You might never find another man attractive in your life, but if your Other is male, you'll ignite to him like tinder and no one will come close to completing you but him, or her."

"I'm not interested in men that way--"

"You'll be interested in your Other, no matter what the sex." Her son's look was one of fear and resentment; she could tell that he was determined that his Other would be female. 'Well, he'd learn.'

"Ray, few are lucky to find the person who completes them; celebrate that completeness in whatever form it comes."

Nodding, but not looking happy about the advice, Ray returned to the subject at hand, "But how will I know her?"

'Very stubborn--this one,' his mother had mused as she tried a different tactic.

"I was just a lass, not quite of marriageable age, I was watching and playing games with the younger children of the village. I knew I was different, I had some power, but had taken pains to hide that fact. Different was not good in our village; a few had been driven away, and one killed out of fear--so your grandparents and I had hidden our gifts.

"The village was becoming an important trade center, a road and river met and a bridge of stone had just been completed, some important men had come to negotiate passage across our bridge in exchange for food and protection for the town. The river was both blessing and curse. It gave us fish and commerce and protection on one side, but it also flooded with great regularity and thus brought us famine, as well, when it destroyed the crops.

"The nearest king had finally settled his wars enough so that he could turn his thoughts to commerce with his neighbors, and our town and bridge was on a potential major trade route. Being a sovereign village, at the time, our elders were free to negotiate with those who would make use of the engineers' work.

"I was aware of all of this and that the king and his party were there, but as it didn't concern me directly--being the daughter of a pair of healers and all--I mostly ignored what was going on around. We were tossing a special wooden ball that my father had brought back from one of his trips. It was perfectly round, incredibly smooth, as if it had been polished for hours on end, and very light in weight. One of the boys got too energetic, and it rolled under the hoofs of a cart horse. It was flattened out and it's surface marred; as I knelt down, picked it up and held it, I fought the tears that wanted to come. I was supposed to be a young maid now, not a child to cry over the loss of a toy, however special and bright." Ray watched his mother's eyes lose focus as she stared into the distance of the past, remembering with joy the tale she was recounting.

"The first I was aware of the man was when he knelt down in front of me and took my hands between his. I felt warmth and a tingle, and there was a soft glow from the ball in my hands as it reshaped itself and its surface returned to the smooth red it had been before the horse trod on it. A deep, rich voice asked, 'How's that?' I was too startled to think clearly, so I answered honestly, 'Much better, but it weighs more now than it did before.' He replied, 'Show me,' and his hands closed around mine yet again.

"Somehow--I'm not sure to this day what I sensed--I knew he was reaching to adjust the weight. Instinctively, I opened my power and guided him in the complete restoration of the ball. I felt his startlement, but no fear, and he didn't withdraw his hands; they squeezed mine tighter. Looking up at that, I fell into the deepest pair of green eyes that I'd ever seen. I heard him catch his breath, and I gasped because I suddenly found it hard to breathe myself. We knelt like that, staring at each other, for what must have seemed an eternity, but Sasha, my best friend, told me later was only five minutes or so. Finally, he stood up, pulling me after him, and took me into a big hug. He swung me around and after setting me down his first words were, 'We belong to each other now.' I smiled back and that was that. At least for the two of us.

"My parents weren't too thrilled that the king's Mage had decided to claim me--he was fifteen years older and had quite a reputation with the maids--but there was no arguing with either of us. I returned with the king's party to the court, under the king's guardianship, and served as an apprentice to your father for eighteen months before Rayson and I were wed and became fully bonded. From that day to the day he died neither of us looked at another."

Ray had listened to the story intently--his mother had never told him the full truth before. His parents had always said that they met at court and fell in love after getting to know one another. He wondered, "Why didn't you tell me this before?"

"Because the idea of two halves of one soul is not an easy one to grasp and it's only now that you've reached maturity and I see the same hunger in you that dwelt in myself that I realize that you've got an Other out there to find as I did. Joining with your Other...nothing can compare to it. Some pairs even mind join and can sense when their mate is near or in danger. I've even heard tell of one pair that could read thoughts if they tried hard enough. It's a completion such as none can describe. But if you fail to find the rest of your soul, the emptiness that will always nip at your heels will leave you always feeling alone. I wasn't going to tell you about the joining until I was sure that it was for you as well. But you've reached manhood, and the hunger burns in you. You will either find joy and completeness in finding the one you seek, or your soul will bleed from a wound that will not heal."

His mother's words had touched his need deep inside and confirmed what he'd been feeling. They'd also terrified him, and he'd pushed his hunger away into the secret recesses of his soul--refusing to dwell on the slow bleeding that drained him with each cycle that passed him unfulfilled.

But now, settling down against the man he'd rescued, he felt a relaxation far within. He'd found what he sought and needed--'Now, if only I can convince William of it.' Sleep soon claimed him, his last thought was that, 'William might be his name but it didn't feel right somehow.'

The next morning saw them both tired and slow to rouse. It was long after sunrise before Ray awoke. His first action was to prepare more of William's medicine. Kneeling down by the man, he gently shook him. Bodie grumbled and groaned and rolled away from the disturbing presence, pulling the blanket up over his head. The Mage set down the cup he held and rolled him back none too gently. He was tired, as well.

"Come on, mate, time for another dose of medicine."

The sleeping man tried to shove him away, but Doyle held him still. Slowly, eyes opened, and Ray gasped at the deep, rich blue that the daylight revealed.

Sleepy as Bodie was, he still found himself staring into the most beautiful green eyes he'd ever seen. How long they gazed, neither man could say, but it was the shout of children playing outside that finally broke the spell. Ray helped him sit up and, turning, grasped the cup for him to drink.

"Drink this and then you can have a cup of brew." Seeing the grimace and glare from his patient as William took a drink, the Mage fought down a smile. He'd had to take the potion on a few occasions himself, and it was bloody awful.

He coaxed the man before him, "Come on, that's only half of it," he peeked into William's cup, "drink it all and I'll add honey to your brew." Bodie glared but complied. The lure of honey was strong, but wouldn't in and of itself have been enough; the fact that he felt so damn much better--not ill, only weak--after all he'd suffered the day before did much to encourage him to follow his host's instructions. In his experience, the fever he'd suffered during the night would normally hang on several days, so waking up feeling almost normal was a pleasant surprise.

As his host handed him the sweetened drink, he decided to cut to the heart of the matter. "If there's a horse that I can buy or borrow, I want to be off today."

The patronizing look that met this statement only served to get up his nose. He didn't give a damn what the Mage thought, he was not going to become involved with him. "I'm not hanging about. I appreciate that you saved me yesterday--although I'd have preferred you use another method--but that's all. If you want a reward, then tell me what it is, and when I get home I'll see that you get it." Bodie was not about to reveal who he was. Now that his life was no longer in jeopardy, he did not want the events of the previous day to become known to anyone else. Whatever reward this mage chose could be anonymously delivered by a servant.

William's haughty demeanor angered Ray; he snapped, "Despite how you feel sitting on your arse, you'll not be up to riding for another couple of days, at the very least. Your injuries in the river, the long time staked out on the stone, coupled with the method of your salvation, would make riding sheer hell, and that doesn't include the fever that you succumbed to last night. That'll be alleviated only if you rest and allow your body to heal. And as for riding, that presupposes that someone in the village possessed a horse that they'd be willing to loan you. The last horse the village owned died of old age last winter and served as dinner for several days."

He saw Bodie grimace at the statement. "You might turn your nose up at it, but this is a poor village and can't afford to let anything go to waste. Including a dead horse. Two or three more might have died without the nourishment that was provided. So unless someone comes to get you, we'll be walking out of here when we leave," Ray stated firmly.

"Now wait just one damn minute. I'm leaving, not you. We're not bonded--"

"We're half bonded--"

"There's no such thing. You either have a bond before the king or you don't--"

"I'm not talking about the law, but about the connection that's begun between us. We shared power--"

"I don't have any power--"

"Well, the blue fire didn't come from me, mate."

"Nor me either," William glared his denial.

Seeing it was no use to argue, and sensing through their fragile new connection that William believed he was telling the truth, Doyle let the subject drop. 'Must be a latent,' Ray concluded, 'who'd never used his power before. Going to be a lot to teach you, sunshine.' He'd let that be for now, but continued the argument.

"Well, wherever the power came from, you've got most of mine now--"

"What the hell--?" Bodie's head was starting to hurt, and he wished the Mage would start making some sort of sense.

"When we bonded--"

"We didn't bond--" He rubbed the side of his head in pain, thinking, 'I wish to hell he'd quit saying that.' All Bodie wanted to do was forget the previous night.

"I started a bond when I--"

"You don't have to say it. I know what you bloody well did; I wasn't unconscious, you know. Could we just drop it?" Bodie was definitely beginning to feel sarky about the whole thing.

"Look, you want to know about the power and the bond--I've got to talk about fucking you."

Bodie grimaced at the words, wishing he could deny the truth of what Ray claimed. "Why the hell did you have to--"

"Because the only reason they left you alone was that I claimed you as my Other. Mother Kaye may be superstitious, but she's got some power, and has seen even more. She'd have known the instant I offered a false coin for true. I had to initiate a bond."

"What do you mean initiate?" Bodie knew he was going to regret asking, but was drawn against his will to believe the story the Mage was weaving.

"I transferred my magick to you when I spilled my seed in you." Ray ignored William's grimace of disgust. Actually, some part of him felt the same--he wasn't exactly thrilled that his Other had turned out to be male. "Look, William, you're not exactly what I had in mind either. Sort of pictured big tits, nice arse, and long red locks, and definitely no cock between her legs--"

"Fine. I'll take one of those, too. Now take your power back and break this bond."

"'S not a full bond, only a partial one. And I can't break it; not unless one of us dies, and I don't intend to do that. And I sure as hell don't want you to. Spent the greater part of my twenty-seven seasons looking for you; not about to throw it all away just because I'm not thrilled with the current wrapping."

"Well, I'm not a present, and I'm not bonding with you. And what the hell makes you think you're my Other?"

"I take it you do at least know what an Other is?"

"Yeah. I've heard the stories. Bunch of fairy tales for young girls."

"Well, you're living it. And we either complete the bond or die."

"And how do we complete this, this...." Bodie waved his hand back and forth in front of himself, refusing to use the words.

"Union, joining, bond. I screwed you to begin it; to complete it you do me."

"Oh, we're taking it in turns, are we?" Bodie allowed his disgust to show. 'Not in my lifetime, sunshine!'

"Yes, we bloody well are. Can't see you being my bottom forever, and I'm sure as hell not about to be yours."

"Now get this straight...a...a.... What the hell did you say your name was again?"

"Ray. Raymond Doyle. At your service." Doyle placed his arm across his stomach and bowed from the waist. Bodie failed to detect the mocking irony that the mage put into the gesture.

'Wonder if he's always this bloody thick,' Ray speculated to himself. 'Still, after all he'd gone through, and had yet to face, he supposed it wasn't fair to judge him as slow too quickly.'

"Well, Raymond Doyle, I do not accept your proposal, and I plan to be on my way just as soon as I...." Bodie rose swiftly, only to be caught in two strong arms as his head spun. Doyle lowered him gently back to the sleeping mat. 'Well, that certainly showed him,' Bodie mused, disgusted with his own weakness before the mage.

"You ever going to learn to listen, or do you prefer doing everything the hard way?" Seeing William's glare, he just grinned and gave orders. "Lie still and allow your body to recover. I'm going to go and round up some breakfast. If you're lucky there might even be a bit of pig's meat left to go with the eggs I plan to get." Standing, he pointed at the half full cup of cooling brew. "Drink up, sunshine. If you don't, I might get the idea that you're trying to stay weak and helpless to remain at my mercy." He winked at the reclining man. The angry snort that provoked had Doyle chuckling as he went out the door.

The Mage returned swiftly with bacon, eggs, and milk. William sipped the cold tea and watched as breakfast was prepared. His stomach growled in anticipation, and Ray's head turned, looking over his shoulder; he gave the seated man a big smile. Bodie huffed and turned away, hoping that his guts would soon quit turning to water every time the curly-haired man chose to smile at him. 'Must be weak from lack of food,' he concluded. It couldn't possibly be because he was responding to something...? No! Absolutely not! He refused to even consider the possibility. The Mage was just superstitious like the rest of the village and feeding him fairy stories. Bodie had never been attracted to a man, and he wasn't about to start now. 'Sides he had to marry a woman and produce an heir to the throne. No way in hell was he even going to consider any other alternative.

Eating the food that was placed before him, he avoided talking to the Mage. Ray for reasons of his own had gone silent, and Bodie told himself it was a decided improvement. So he felt like kicking himself when he heard his mouth ask about the Mage's history and profession. He listened to Ray talk about the village and healing and potions and power. He talked a little of his own upbringing--being careful not to mention that he was a prince--and his previous experience with mages.

His father's mage was the only one he'd had any close contact with, and he was more an advisor than a healer or magician. "I just don't believe in magick, Doyle. As far as I've seen, it can't do much. Doesn't save crops, control the weather, make whiskey, or cure people's ills, so what good is it?"

"Well, it can do some of that, but there's always a price. The mage that you know may not be skilled in the arts of healing. That's really a separate skill apart from the power. It has more to do with plant recognition and remembering the combinations of ingredients needed to treat a particular illness. Power might help a bit, but knowing how to recognize the illness, and what to do to treat it, that's a combination of skill and art with little magick involved."

And so the discussion went. Bodie was not aware that he was being taught about being a mage and healer and that Doyle was learning more about him and his attitudes and beliefs. They talked for several hours, William watching as Doyle straightened up his hut from his long absence and treated a few individuals that were in need of his healing skills. They were very timid and approached the hut with gifts in their hands and apologies on their lips. The Mage treated them, and Bodie watched from his seat by the fire. They avoided looking at him, and at first he thought that they were disgusted by him and the joining they'd witnessed between himself and their Mage, but then he realized that their embarrassment was from how he'd been treated before that by the villagers. They were repenting of their behavior, not disgusted by what they had seen. After that, he found himself able to relax and enjoy watching Doyle at work.

No matter how determined he was to recover quickly, the ordeals of the previous day wore on him, and he found himself nodding off over the late luncheon the Mage had prepared. Having finished his last bite of fried pig, he became aware of Doyle helping him to stand up from the table and guiding him to the sleeping mat. "Come on, mate. There's a storm brewing, so we won't be having any more callers until it passes. You need more sleep."

"I'm just fine--" Bodie protested.

"Pull the other one. Now lie down and give in to your body," Ray cajoled.

"And what are you going to be doing?" Tired as he was, Bodie had no defenses against the voice within that wanted Ray near.

"Why, lying down right beside you. I spent the last week walking and sleeping on the trail, and I'm not ashamed to admit an afternoon nap is most appealing."

Bodie lay down, telling himself that he should protest the Mage's intent to join him, but he discovered that he couldn't be bothered. He watched as the fire was built up and a stew put on to cook. He vowed not to make it easy for Doyle to join him, but found himself scooting over to give the other man room on the mat. Ray laid down behind him and cuddled up to his back spoon fashion. They were both soon fast asleep as the rains broke and the wind howled. Bodie's last thought was 'Next time the Mage could sleep on his own' even as he wiggled his hips slightly, settling himself tighter against the man behind him, unaware of the incongruity of his actions and thoughts.

The rest of that day and the next passed much the same, each man revealing little of his background, but much of his thoughts and beliefs. Bodie realized that he liked the Mage, and that they had much in common. It was the dawn of his third day there that they were awoken at the break of daylight by a pounding on the door.

Ray rolled from his position cuddled up against William's back to lie flat on the mat. He shouted at the door, "This better be important or, whoever you are, you're going to be hopping away."

Bodie kept his back to the Mage and hid his smile. Doyle was never bright and cheerful in the early morning hours. He'd arisen every day to make Bodie take his noxious potion, and they'd both snapped at each other, he irascible over the taste of the foul stuff and Ray over having to get up to mix it. 'Leastwise it's someone else getting up his nose this time.'

The knocking stopped at his words, and a voice explained, "Mage Ray, Kress and Kel returned from hunting last night--"

Doyle muttered under his breath, "And you want me to celebrate that they managed to find their way home without a trail of bread crumbs, no doubt."

Bodie rolled over and whispered in his ear, "This is an accomplishment, I take it?"

Ray snorted as the voice on the other side of the door continued, "They saw horses. Two, maybe three. Kel says one of them's a beaut. Tall and black, and the devil himself must ride him, because they couldn't get anywhere near them."

Sighing, Ray rose, pulled on his robe, and opened the door. "I suppose you want me to come and help you catch them?"

"Well, they spent most of yesterday trying and didn't get closer than a dozen lengths--"

Interrupting, disgust in his voice, Ray said, "So they spent all day yesterday winding them up, and now they want me to calm them down. Well, if I catch them, then two of them belong to me."

"Kress said you could have the small one. Said it was more to your size--"

"You go tell Kress that he can go chase them to hell and back and that soon a mule will be more to his size."

Vir, who had brought the message, quickly backed off. No one was sure if the rumors about the Mage's power were true, but after what happened three days ago, he wasn't going to argue. He bowed, saying, "I'll tell them that you will join us shortly."

As he turned and fled Ray called after him, "I don't want a large ham-handed group along--" Vir was long gone. Ray cursed, "Bloody hell. Now I'll have to fight about who's to come along." He turned to find Bodie standing and attempting to dress.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Going with you. That black one he described sounds like mine. And he won't let anyone else near him."

Ray's smile was smug, "He will me."

"Turn you into mincemeat, he will."

"I get along well with animals." Ray watched as William limped across the room to collect his boots--the only items the village had salvaged from his attire. "Look, you can barely walk. Whatever hit your thigh and hip has done some major bruising. It's only temporary, but you're not up to a long walk."

"So maybe they're close?"

"Nah, five leagues down river--if those rat brains haven't chased them even farther on."

"And how do you--"

"The river takes a sharp bend there, and the high walls give way to a stretch of sand and a field. Just about everything from upstream washes up there during a flood. Kress and Kel might have claimed to be going hunting, but it's my bet that now that the water's down, they went to see what they could scavenge. The horses were probably tired and stayed to graze. If they want to make for home upriver, there is a narrow pass on the high bank. Most won't chance it without a human hand to serve as guide. So if they chased 'em yesterday, the horses are either back in the field or farther on down river."

"I want my horse. Took me years to find and train him, and I'm not--"

"I'll catch him for you, sunshine. But in the meantime, stay here and stay dry. In case you haven't noticed, it's raining out, and you've not been over the fever all that long."

"I'm more than--" Bodie started to protest, and Ray nudged against his hip, "Ow! That hurt."

"Yeah, and it'll hurt worse if you try to walk five leagues on it. And then, if we catch the horses, imagine riding on it pounding away as it thumps against the horse's spine. Or the other area pounding down into the saddle."

William grimaced at the images that came to mind--he did not need to be reminded of why else his arse was sore. He gave up, with a pout. He hated being sick, and he hated being helpless, and it all just made him irritable.

"Fine. But when you come back with no horse, because Dark Star's run off, don't say I didn't warn you."

"Dark Star? That his name?" Bodie nodded yes, pout still firmly entrenched on his lips.

"Like that. You're a romantic at heart. That's alright; tell you a secret: so'm I." Having finished dressing and stowing some food in a pack, Ray moved swiftly over to the dark-haired man and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. He was out of arm's range before William could react.

He chuckled to himself as his mate's disgruntled, indignant voice chased him out the door, "I told you to stop kissing me!"

Ray was approaching the last of the horses. The other two had been easy to catch, but this one was warier, and proud. He wouldn't allow just anyone to master him. 'Just like your master. Dark Star. It suits you, sunshine.' The horse was a black, tall--sixteen or seventeen hands--and there was a white star between his eyes with a black spot in the center. 'Come on, love, give over; I'm not feeling so well.' The Mage was feeling weak and a bit dizzy; he had to get back soon or risk passing out. 'Damn, maybe I should have let William come along. But, no--he's not in any shape.'

The problem was that, until the bond was completed, they shouldn't shift more than a length or two away from each other. Ray missed his powers--it was like an aching void within--but every time those blue eyes smiled at him, he knew the price was worth it. But it was obvious that it was going to take William some time to come around to accepting the link between them. Ray forced himself back to the task at hand, finally focusing enough to realize how he could reach the horse.

He concentrated his mind on the image of William. He gave it form and substance, sound and smell, and then, once whole, projected it at the horse. Dark Star's head shot up from where he was grazing, and he trotted over to Doyle without a whinny of protest. Kress and Vir, who had accompanied him, groaned in amazement. 'Just have to offer the right lure,' Ray smiled to himself as he slipped the lead over the horse's neck.

"Good, we've got three horses now." Now that the horses were caught Kress was determined to fight for the ownership.

Ray wasn't having any of it. "No, the village has a horse. The black belongs to William, I'm taking the roan, and the village can have the cart horse." As Kress started to argue, Doyle glared, "After the treatment he received at bloodthirsty hands, he deserves to have his horse returned. I get one for catching them--you two had all day yesterday to try and failed miserably--and the village can make good use of the cart horse."

Glaring, but knowing when he was beaten, Kress subsided into discontented silence.

Vir, ever more practical and lazy, asked, "Can we ride them back?"

Eyeing the black, Ray hoped that the promise of his master would be enough for him to allow the Mage to ride. He didn't dare show weakness--Kress would pounce on the opportunity--but he was sorely in need of transportation home other than his own two feet. He nodded. "Let's give it a try, but keep them to a walk or slow trot. They might have been injured in the flood, and we don't want to lame them."

The other two men mounted and waited on the Mage. Ray drew in a deep breath and only let it out once he'd settled on the horse's back without a flicker of protest from the beast. 'Guess you want to see your master as much as I do.'

"Come on then, let's go." The three men rode back towards the village.

Bodie tried to return to sleep once the Mage had left, but found that he was restless. As the day progressed, he decided that a walk might help to loosen his aching limbs and restore the strength and limberness to them. He walked in the forest, avoiding the prying eyes of the villagers; he didn't want to face the looks of mingled awe and dread they cast his way whenever any discovered him. Returning to the hut and eating his lunch, he tried to ignore the fact that he missed Doyle. By no shadow time, when the sun was directly overhead, he'd begun to feel unwell. The feeling persisted and worsened over the next hours, until he fell into a fitful doze.

The baker's wife, who came to bring bread for the evening meal, found him unconscious and could not rouse him. As she ran back towards Mother Kaye's for help, she encountered the Mage returning with the horses and the two other men.

"Ray, there's something wrong with the stranger. Please hurry! I couldn't rouse him."

Off his horse in an instant, he ran to his hut to find William unconscious on the mat before the dying fire. Unaware of the woman's interested eyes, he knelt down beside his mate and spoke. "Come on, love. I'm back." As he murmured the soft endearments to the unconscious man, he gently stroked his face and then leaned in to kiss his lips. William stirred, "That's right, love. We're back. I brought your horse, too. He loves you as much as I do, sunshine. I won't go so far again. Promise." He succumbed to his own weakness, lay down beside the unconscious man and was quickly asleep.

Marge shut the door to the hut, instructed Kress to pen the horses and, when he looked to protest, she merely glared at him, and told him that his greed would one day be the death of him and if he pushed the mage too far this time might well be it. Kress let it go and left to do as he had been ordered.

Looking back at the hut, Marge mused over what she had seen. Like many of the others, she'd doubted that the stranger was truly the Mage's Other, but after watching him with the man, she decided that he hadn't been lying after all. Mage Doyle was many things, and he cared for the people of the village with great passion and devotion, but he always did best at a distance--he normally had little patience or tolerance for individuals.

The man she saw with the stranger was not the Mage she had known. 'Well, that explains his insistence on keeping one of the horses for his own. He would leave with the stranger.' Continuing on her deliveries, she was slightly saddened. She found that, spiky temper and all, she would miss the Mage.

William and Ray awoke to the sound of a troop of horses and a shout from the center of the village. "You there, where is the man who owns the black horse?" The voice was angry and hostile, and a cry of pain soon followed.

"Oi, help me up, Doyle. That's my father, and from the sound of things he's got wind of at least some of what happened." Bodie found that he felt better, but his muscles had stiffened up again, and he couldn't move swiftly as needs.

Ray got to his feet and pulled William up. "Come on. I'll not have him hurt the people of this village," the Mage stated.

"I'll do what I can, but blood sacrifice will not be allowed," William cautioned.

"And how's he going to stop it? Tell the king?"

"Well, not exactly. You see, he is--" William tried to explain before another cry interrupted him, and Ray was out the door leaving him behind. 'Thanks a bunch, mate.' He heard Doyle's voice echo across the clearing and as Bodie made it to the hut's door saw a crop raised to again strike a terrified man.

'Trey,' Ray recognized the man being held.

"Stop, you damn fools," he shouted. "Trey barely has enough wits to talk when he's not terrified. Scare him senseless, and you'll get nothing from him."

The angry man was not interested in advice and raised his whip to strike again; he'd heard a confused tale of what had happened to his son and was both furious and fearful. The idiot had better be telling the truth that William was still alive, or he'd raze the village and not one ignorant savage would be allowed to escape. As the riding crop descended, a brilliant green-blue light shot out and knocked it out of his grip.

The magician approaching spoke again, "I said to stop--"

Before Ray could finish, another man rode forward, putting himself between the angry father and the young Mage. This one was sandy haired and radiated the aura of magick. "I'd not try that again, laddie, if you know what's good for you." He made it clear that he would protect his master.

"Then tell him to quit beating the poor fool, or we'll see who's stronger. The idiot has little enough sense as it is. The man you're looking for is--"

"Right here," William spoke from behind him. "Greetings, Father, it's good to see you. You made good time." The prince limped forward slowly, his hip and thigh still plaguing him.

"William, thank god!" The King was off his horse and taking his son into his arms in seconds.

Ray relaxed. Anyone who loved William that much couldn't be all bad. It was at that point he got a good look at the clothes the older version of his love wore and the ring on his finger.

"Bloody hell! You're Prince William!" he said to his mate.

'Fuck,' he added silently to himself, 'My mother's going to love this.'

Bodie turned, a broad smile on his face. "Father, may I present to you Mage Raymond Doyle. Doyle, my father, King Philip."

Glaring at William's amusement, Ray bowed to the king. "At your service, Sir."

Bodie mused that the greeting might have been more effective if Ray'd sounded as though he meant it rather than that he was choking on the words. "And this gentleman is Mage Cowley, whom I was telling you about." The two wizards exchanged nods of greeting.

It seemed that Bodie took after his father for directness; the King got right to the point. "We've got parties searching all along the river for you and Ger. The only thing that kept me sane was George's assurances that he could sense your life force. Then earlier today, we ran into a man from this village who took off at a run when we asked after you. Once we caught him," the king nodded at Trey, "we got a garbled story about blood sacrifice and other nonsense."

"Not nonsense, unfortunately, Sir. I was to be offered to the harvest god at second moon rise and would be dead now if not for Raymond's intervention. Although his methods were somewhat unorthodox, he saved my life, and has cared for me since. I would have tried to head back towards home when they found the horses, along with Ger's body, but my hip is still plaguing me. It took quite a hit from a piece of debris in the river and then banged hard into a rock. I'm afraid that I'll not be able to ride for another day at least."

Giving his son another one armed hug, King Philip said, "You're alive and that's all that matters. I'm sorry about Ger, I'll see his widow well provided for. But blood sacrifices will not be allowed. We must consider how to eliminate them."

"Well, enough grain and food to last the winter out would go a long way towards stopping the practice," Ray observed dryly.

The King glared at the Mage. This one had no sense of respect; but as he owed the man William's life, he'd tolerate a lot. He ordered their camp to be set up in a clearing to the north of the village and then invited Ray to dine with him and his son.

"Thank you, Sir. I'd like that." He turned to his patient, "It's time for your fever medicine."

"I'm sure Cowley can treat my son." The King did not trust the primitive cures likely to be offered in this backward village.

Doyle glared, but held tight to his anger. "Perhaps Mage Cowley would care to watch my preparations of the fever drink." He bowed towards the King and elder mage.

"Ach, lad I'm a mage and healer; I know how to prepare a proper fever tonic."

Ray wasn't about to budge. "I know a mage who can turn himself into a wildcat and back, he can make lights in the sky and fire roar; but if you take a potion that he's concocted, you're taking your life very casually. He can never remember if it's three parts black root or black flower, or if the potion calls for yew berries or holly," Ray observed.

Mage Cowley laughed, "I know Endor. It's more than your life's worth to impugn his brews to his face, however."

Smiling back, Ray said, "And he can't figure out why no plants will grow near his hut." They both shared a laugh at that, both having been witness to his patients' surreptitious disposals of his many cures.

"All right, Doyle, you've made your point. Do you want to watch me, or do you want me to watch you?"

"I'll watch you," Ray nodded for the other mage to go ahead of him. "He's been on the medicine for three days; I reckon that he should take it for another four."

"Being cautious," Cowley commented. His voice held neither agreement nor disagreement with the treatment, only inquiry.

"William...Prince William went through a lot between the river and the village. I caught the fever within an hour of its rising, but I still prefer to err on the side of caution. Here's my hut. After you." Ray pushed open the door and motioned for the other mage to proceed him.

Cowley looked around the room. No real bed, only two chairs, a couple of chests, a table, and a wall lined with shelves; it was not impressive quarters. Mage Doyle obviously had some powers, but he doubted that they were very great if this was all he could earn.

Doyle threw down the gauntlet, "My ingredients are over here. Help yourself."

A raised eyebrow met his challenge, and the elder mage set to work. When done, he turned and said, "I think you'll agree that this is an adequate fever drink."

"It's adequate for the fever, but not for the sickness that is its cause."

"We have no elixir to treat that that does any good."

"There have been some interesting new developments over the last four or five years. Here, let me show you." Ray mixed and added his own special ingredients to the brew, turned and handed it to the other man. "It smells and tastes even worse, but I've seen it save the leg of a man whose wound had turned red and begun to seep."

"That's quite a claim, laddie."

"Nevertheless, it's true, and there is more than one villager who can vouch for its success. I've spent the last few years experimenting with it and I'm quite satisfied with the concoction I've developed. A word of caution, however, and the major drawback to the treatment: the mold must be fresh, so the mixture can be made up no more than four or five hours in advance. I was lucky when William's fever struck in the middle of the night; the baker had some moldy bread that I could use. When I'm at home, I normally keep some bread in a damp pan in the warming trap in the fireplace. Most festering wounds can't wait the two to three days for the mold to grow."

"Well, I'll give it a try when I get back to Denver's Cross. In the meantime, I'll take some moldy bread with me when we leave. I've not examined the lad; when will he be able to leave?" Cowley's respect for the young mage had grown considerably. He had demonstrated not only knowledge of new methods but also a willingness to hone and perfect his healing skills. Too many young mages tended to neglect the healing skills, preferring to concentrate on the development of their magick. This one had his priorities right.

"My preference would be for him to wait at least two more days, but I doubt he'll be willing to do that. He's not going to be able to ride for at least that long and probably several days longer without considerable pain. If the King insists on leaving sooner, I'd suggest that Prince William ride in the wagon." At Cowley's snort, Ray grinned, "Yes, I do realize how that suggestion is likely to be met, but even as smooth a gait as Dark Star possesses is going to hurt the Prince like hell if he tries to ride. The wagon's not much of an improvement, but at least he can shift about and take some of the weight off his injuries."

Nodding, Cowley realized something, "How do you know about Dark Star's gait?"

"I caught him and rode him back from a field down river."

"You rode that beast? Ach, no one rides that monster but Bodie." Cowley could not keep the disbelief from his voice.

Ray shrugged; he didn't care whether the old man believed him or not. "Ask around if you doubt me. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few tasks to perform before we dine."

Recognizing a dismissal when he heard one and not wanting to stir up trouble, Mage Cowley picked up the fever potion and headed to the door. He'd just got it open when Doyle's voice called out to him.

"Keep an eye on him, and make sure he drinks it all down. He needs it more than the plants."

Cowley nodded and left. He realized that the young man had got the prince's measure very quickly. And he sensed that there was more going on between the two men than met the eye. He decided to suggest to the king that they remain in the village for a day or two. It would give the prince a chance to recover more and him a chance to snoop around.

In the evening, two days later, Mage Cowley entered the King's tent to find a battle royal taking place between the King and his son.

"Damn it, William, you're keeping things from me. If you're protecting someone in the village--"

"I'm not protecting anyone. I just want to forget what happened and go back home. My leg is better, and I suggest we leave tomorrow."

Seeing the King about to object, Cowley interrupted, "An excellent idea, Prince William. But if we're going to leave tomorrow, you need your rest. I suggest you return to the Mage's hut and make an early night of it."

About to protest, seeing the angry look on his father's face, and the determined look on the Mage's, Bodie gave in with poor grace, gathering up his things and a change of riding clothes for in the morning. He still groused to himself about having to share Doyle's bed, but Ray had insisted that the hut would be more comfortable and warmer than a tent, and Cowley had taken his side. He was damn tired of being coddled, and this was the last night he'd put up with it. He stormed out of the tent, refusing to acknowledge to himself that if he had insisted, he could have joined his father's camp. This was the last night he'd spend with the Mage and an unacknowledged part of him did not want to miss it.

Waiting to assure himself that his son was out of ear shot, the King finally spoke. "All right, George, what have you found out?"

It had taken two days, a bit of whiskey, and some psychic pressure, but he'd finally uncovered the story of Prince William's ordeal. As he recounted it, the King became angry all over again.

"The village can't be allow to get away with this.... Punishment must be meted out."

"They are independent of any kingdom, and any action you take might be perceived as an attempt to increase your borders by making war on smaller neighbors. That would not go down well with the other kingdoms, and you could find yourself at war all over again. Peace has been hard won; I'd hate to see it lost over this."

"Then what do you suggest I do?"

"Probably as Doyle suggested that first day. Establish trading relations with the village. They can serve as a watch post for your southern border, and in exchange horses and food could be provided. They have no one to turn to if the winter is especially hard or the crops fail. Stationing a couple of men here and supplying them could do a lot towards easing the strain. Also, your presence here in the person of the border guards would discourage any more such sacrifice attempts. If they know that word will reach you or the other kingdoms, they aren't likely to try again. And you get a full day's extra warning of trouble from the south."

The King took his time to consider all aspects of the plan. He didn't like to be seen rewarding such behavior as had occurred, but he valued the hard won peace, and this suggestion had the merits of expanding the protection of his borders and discouraging more barbarism. He nodded. "Very well. And perhaps I'll send a messenger to King Clarence and suggest he do likewise. That way the village gets more commerce and Clarence doesn't think I'm trying to expand my territory. The land around here is definitely not worth a fight."

'Now to the other more pressing matter,' the King thought. "About this Doyle and his method of helping my son. It can't be allowed--"

"Your Highness, if you want my advice, you'll stay out of it."

"But he defiled my son--"

"He saved your son, without killing anyone. How he did it is between the Prince and himself."

"You would defend him?" The King's ire rose.

"It's not for me to accuse nor defend. William has chosen to keep the details to himself--"

"You can't tell me that he doesn't feel debased--"

"No, I won't. But he's also of the opinion that Doyle had no other choice than to kill several of the villagers. While I believe that part of him wishes that Doyle had taken that option, his intellect tells him that the better choice was not to kill."

"And this...this...bonding...this I sense there's a lot you're not telling me. George, he's my only son and heir; I have both a right and need to know."

"Aye, I suppose you do, but I'm not sure what to tell you."

"Well, is it possible and what are the implications?"

"It all depends on whether or not Doyle is right, and Prince William is his Other." The Mage struggled to explain. "The legends are mixed--in part, I think, because no two bonds are the same--but one element is in common to all: once a bond is formed only death will dissolve it."

"But Doyle cannot give my son an heir."

"No, he's aware of that, and while I couldna get him to talk much, he did make a passing reference to them sharing a woman so that children could be produced."

"Sharing! He's not serious? That's...that's unacceptable. There needs be no third party."

"I'd say he's quite serious, and that he's given it quite a bit of thought since he realized who the Prince was. Bodie didn't see fit to tell anyone in the village. I think he hoped to slip away and that we wouldn't find out what had happened to him."

"He's shamed by it then. A man doing that to him."

"I'm not so sure that's what's got him so upset. If that were the case, I doubt he'd willingly return to share Doyle's bed at night."

"You mean they are--"

"No, it's only to sleep; but I went early to rouse them this morning, and they were huddled together for warmth. If it were shame Bodie felt, he'd not want anything to do with the Mage. I believe his discomfort is in the fact that the whole village witnessed what occurred, not the occurrence itself. He's always been shy in that way."

"Yes, that's true. And must you persist in using that silly childhood name? I prefer not to use our family name in that manner."

"You may not, but Prince William prefers it. Like it or not, when he becomes king I'll lay you odds that he'll have himself crowned King Bodie." The King glared at his mage but didn't disagree; George was more than likely right. William had never liked the grandsire he was named for.

"You've changed the subject again. I want to know about this bonding and this idea of sharing a woman. There is no need--"

"I'm afraid that's where you're wrong. From a couple of things a bonded friend let slip once, I know that in a bond they can't cheat on the other."

"Surely if it's a matter of needing an heir, there would be no need to sneak?"

"Not a matter of going behind the back of the mate. From what Julius revealed, the man can't perform, doesn't respond to anyone but the Other."

"You mean...." The King's shock was apparent. Cowley fought down a smile; the idea of not being capable was one King Philip would not like one small bit. His liege was a man of great appetites, and being limited to one woman would not suit him at all. How little he knew his son if he thought that William took after him in this area. Cowley had no doubt that the Prince would be quite contented to pair the right person and look no further. Still, prudence dictated he not point as much out to the King. He decided it was best that Philip knew all.

"Aye, that's exactly what I mean, and there are some other things you should be aware of, too. You're not going to like them."

"I haven't liked much of what I've learned so far this trip, so why should this be different?"

"All right. Doyle transferred his power to William when they joined on the stone, and thus began the bond. In order to complete it, William must transfer power back in the same manner--"

"You mean he has to...?" The King's voice contained distaste at the idea.

His attitude wasn't a surprise to the Mage. King Philip had always been one for women only. "That's correct; once that's done, then the bond will be completed."

"And if William chooses not to complete it? As he appears to have." The King sounded pleased at his son's apparent decision.

"Then Doyle most likely will slowly fade and die without it. The few mages I've run across who have lost their power, for one reason or another, never survived more than a year or two."

"So then William will be free." Seeing the Mage look away and refuse to meet his eye, he pressed, "What aren't you telling me?"

"If Doyle's right, and they truly are bond mates, then Bodie won't survive long after his death."

"But surely one bond mate can survive the other?"

"Long bonded pairs, if there are children to survive for, have been known to have one partner survive the other's death. There's something about having sufficient time together, and even some talk that the soul of the dead partner dwells with the living one if they've been bonded long enough. I can't say, as I have no Other. But those not joined, or newly joined, don't tend to survive the death of the other in the pair."

"And William?" The King was afraid of what he would hear but he had to face the truth.

"I'm afraid, watching him seek a mate over these last years, and the desperation I was beginning to sense in him, that I'd have to say that he has an Other that his soul needs for completion."

"But a man!"

George Cowley shrugged, "I wouldn't have thought it, but have you watched them together? They've known each other less than a week and are completing each other's sentences and jokes. I've heard the Prince laugh more in the last few days than in the last six months. And there have been a couple of times that they've seemed to read each other's minds. Just this morning, they started a fight over a comment that I didn't hear, but they did." At the King's puzzled look he went on to elaborate. "Bodie didn't want to take his fever draught, and I saw him grimace as Doyle prepared it. Suddenly Doyle was arguing with him over a comment Prince William might have made about his being overly protective. Now Bodie hadn't said a word--I was watching him--but they both had heard him say something and were fighting about it. I don't think either man realized that it hadn't been spoken aloud."

"Maybe the Mage has cast a spell on my son?"

"I'd considered that. But there are certain signs, a sort of trance like state in the victim, and also a power that radiates--I've detected neither, and you can't force a bond. It's either there or not. Whether or not Doyle is right in his assessment, only time and William can tell us. Still, we leave tomorrow, and once the Prince is away from Doyle, we should get a better feel for how things stand."

"I'll do as you suggest. But you'll excuse me if I hope that this bond is all in the mind of Raymond Doyle."

Cowley nodded and left. Both men turned in early but found sleep elusive.

Six weeks later, Mage Cowley and King Philip watched Prince William storm from the throne room.

"George, he's not the same man who left ten weeks ago to negotiate that trade agreement with Charles and take a look at his youngest daughter."

"No, Your Highness, he's not. He's suffering. His man servant tells me he barely sleeps most nights, but instead spends the time pacing. The servants have begun to call him The Ghost because of the way he stalks around the castle at night. And his friends say that he won't talk about what is bothering him and has become very moody."

"You think it's because of what was done to him?"

"No. I think he's missing Doyle and not willing to admit to it."

"This can't go on, George."

"He won't tolerate our interference, but I'll see what I can do."

Several hours later Cowley seized the opportunity when the Prince came to him to treat a sword nick he'd gotten during a sparring match.

"Hang on, I'll mix you up a salve and a drink to fight the evil that's entered your body."

"You never used to do that. Why now?"

"I learned it from Doyle." He sensed the Prince stiffen at the mention of the other man's name, but ignored it.

"I would have thought that you'd know more than him?"

"In some things--yes. But he's made it a practice to keep in touch with other healers and to experiment with their remedies. This is one that I think he's responsible for refining to its current formula."

"And is it any good?"

"Aye, laddie, I'm quite impressed. Remember the wound that Michaels took a few weeks ago?" At Bodie's nod, he continued, "Well, he didn't tend to it properly, and by the time I saw him, I'd normally have taken the leg, but I remembered Doyle's claim and decided to try out his potion. Michael's still on the medication, and the leg will always be slightly off, but the poison is gone and he will be able to keep it. It will be a shame to lose such a good healer."

At the last statement, Bodie, whose mind had begun to drift, suddenly paid attention. "What do you mean lose him? He's not here is he?" The Prince looked around as though he expected the Mage to come oozing out of the floor boards.

"No, lad. I mean he's likely to die--if he isn't already dead."

Standing up and striding over to the older man, Bodie visibly had to restrain himself from grasping him. "Why should you think he's dead?"

"A mage who loses his power normally fades away in a few months time. There's a hole in them that nothing can fill, so death takes them."

"Don't be ridiculous. Doyle's not a fragile flower to fade away." Bodie began to pace the length of the small room, talking no longer to Cowley, but to himself. "I didn't ask him for his power. I don't want it. Can't do anything with it. Damn it, it's all fairy stories anyway. I thought you would be more intelligent than to believe such fargos." With that he was gone.

Cowley looked after him as he finished up the mixture. He'd give it to Bodie's man servant to treat the Prince with that night. Well, he'd planted the seeds, now it was up to the Prince. He only hoped it wasn't already too late.

Bodie felt guilty--and that made him angry. He hadn't asked Doyle to save him, nor to give him his powers, nor to establish this ridiculous bond. A bond, he kept insisting to himself, that didn't exist. 'But if it doesn't exist, then why the hell do I miss him so bloody much?' Sleeping had become impossible. Every dream that came contained images of Ray. And in most of them they were locked in passion. These last weeks, every damn time he closed his eyes, he'd see himself fucking the Mage, blue-green fire swirling around them...and he was falling, falling deep into emerald-green eyes. He shook himself to stop his wayward thoughts. It was bad enough to dream of him at night and wake up damp yet unfulfilled; he refused to be haunted by him during his waking hours as well.

Striding through the castle towards the stables, Bodie didn't notice nor acknowledge the presence of anyone else. Servants moved swiftly aside, and acquaintances had given up trying to speak to him weeks ago--he'd barely noticed. Even women held little pleasure for him now. He'd tried a couple of times, but had been unable to respond to their charms; the humiliation of such failure had led him to give up the attempt.

He slammed out of the castle and soon found himself at the stables. A ride on Dark Star was now his only comfort. Noticing that the sky had darkened, he decided that getting soaked suited his mood just fine about now. He entered the darkened building, at first blind to what was going on, but he heard his horse neighing in anger. Hurrying forward, he found a stable hand whipping the horse with a leather crop. He was outside the stall so that they horse could not reach him, but Star had worked himself into a frenzy and would injure himself if he didn't calm soon.

Bodie grabbed the man, threw him against a wall, and, grabbing the whip away from him, began to beat the cruel groom. He only struck him three times before he stopped himself and ordered the man to the yard to be dealt with in a few minutes. Turning, he slowly calmed his hysterical horse. Once Star was calmer, the Prince left him and shouted for the head groom, demanding to know why such a fool had been allowed at any of the horses, much less Dark Star.

The fight raged, the head groom groveled and the other man attempted to justify his unjustifiable treatment. Prince William only got angrier, and none of the three noticed the gathering storm until a bolt of lightening hit a nearby tree, knocking them all off their feet. Bodie regained consciousness to find several servants surrounding him and Cowley's voice calling for them to clear a path to let him pass.

The Prince managed to sit up before the Mage reached him and started to stand. A hand on his shoulder restrained him.

"Easy, lad. You've been out for a bit."

"The other two?"

"Jax will be fine, but Mervin was burned and I won't know the extent of the damage until he wakes up. He should survive, but whether he'll ever be right again...." The Mage shrugged.

His head pounding as though Star were galloping through it on shod feet, Bodie looked about himself. The sky was crystal blue and there were now no clouds in it. "Mervin was never right. I caught him tormenting Star, and this wasn't the first time he's been caught abusing an animal."

"Well, it'll probably be the last for a good long while," Cowley's voice contained grim satisfaction at the idea.

Groggy and still looking up at the heavens, the Prince inquired, "How long have I been unconscious?"

"Five, ten minutes. No more," The Mage replied.

"Then what happened to the storm? It was black as pitch when the lightening struck that tree." William was still looking around himself as if he couldn't trust his senses.

"Aye. So the witnesses said. But by the time that I came out here, there was no sign of any storm." The sudden and brief storm worried the Mage; there had been several over the last month, but this had been by far the worst. He would soon have to get to the bottom of their mysterious appearances. Calling to two lads, he instructed, "Help the Prince up and to his chamber--"

"I don't need--"

"You need sleep and time to recover. I'll mix you a draught that should get you through the night."

Bodie opened his mouth to protest, but at the Mage's glare snapped it shut. In truth, he would give much for an uninterrupted night's sleep, free from dreams.

The green-eyed, auburn haired man dropped to his knees, taking several deep breaths, both to calm himself and to restore some of his depleted energies.

This had been the worst one yet. He'd almost not been able to stop Bodie killing someone with their combined power. The storms were a manifestation of his mate's anger, and they were getting worse. Soon, Doyle knew, he would not be able to control them from this distance.

He wanted, he needed, William to come to him, but he was not going to be able to wait much longer for his lover to come to his senses. It had all seemed so simple six weeks ago when he'd followed the King's troop home and taken lodgings in an outlying farm. He would wait for the Prince to accept the facts, come to him, complete the bond, and all would be well. But that plan didn't take into account how stubborn William could be. 'A mule had nothing on him, that was for damn sure.'

Getting up and heading into the cottage, Doyle decided to eat and go to bed. Magick was hard enough to control when you were in direct contact, but at a league's distance it was damn near impossible. 'Maybe I should have insisted on accompanying him back to his castle.' But Ray knew that was not the solution. If Bodie couldn't come to terms with their bond on his own, then he would never accept it, and it would never be truly completed.

Ray knew that they must remain close or they'd both become weak and ill, so he'd followed his lover and remained near. They'd only had one close call. Apparently, Bodie had attempted to ride with a hunting party and had fallen ill on the way. Doyle was thankful that they'd not pressed on with him. Much farther and neither man might have recovered. 'Give in, damn it. We'll have much more freedom once the bond is whole, you stubborn fool.' Ray had no idea why a partial bond needed close proximity and a full one could stand large distances but that was the way it was and being partially bonded was driving him nuts. Still he was determined to wait and bide his time for his mate to come to him.

An hour before dawn, Mage Cowley's sleeping draught could no longer hold the Prince in its sway. He awoke, confused and fearful from the unremembered dreams that had plagued his sleep. Feeling drugged and muddled, not thinking, but operating solely on instinct, he dressed for riding and made his way to the stables. Swiftly saddling Dark Star, he mounted and rode out like the hounds of hell were after him. He didn't know whether he was running from something or towards something, only that he could no longer bear to live as he was. Somewhere in the night, his soul had made a choice; he only wished that it would tell his mind what it was up too.

He rode hard to the north, but found himself ever drawn eastward. After an hour's ride, he realized that he must have circled around the town and was now to the south of Denver's Cross. Recognizing where he was at last, at the farm of the widow Hollings, he decided to stop and beg a drink. Dismounting, he looped the reigns across the saddle--Star would help himself to a drink from the trough and then graze until his master was ready to leave.

Knocking on the door, he was stunned when Ray Doyle opened it. Ray looked equally shocked, and neither man spoke, nor even breathed. Finally, necessity forced them to draw breath, and Bodie realized his decision was made.

He grabbed Ray and pulled him hard up against his chest, and his lips plundered the pliant ones beneath his. 'Mine. All mine. Now and always. Not going to let you go--ever. Alive. So alive. My sunshine.' He became aware as he allowed his lips to nip and bite Ray's neck and shoulder that the Mage's words were echoing his own.

"Yours. Just yours. Forever and always. Lover." Ray's pleas added an new thread to the woven words. "Do it. Finish it now, Bodie. Join us." The smaller man pulled slightly away and dropped his head to nuzzle William's nipples through the soft, linen shirt.

"Oh, stars, Ray. Let's get inside." Bodie switched their positions so that he was in the hut and Ray the door and began to walk backward towards a mat by the fire. "One of these days, sunshine, I'm going to get you into a proper bed."

Chuckling as he switched his attentions to the other nipple, Ray teased his lover, "So you want to wait until we ride back to the castle?"

"Sod it," Bodie was not in the mood to wait.

"No, sod me, lover."

"Bloody hell, don't talk like that, or I'll come in me pants and we'll never get this done."

Most of their clothes either removed or hanging open, they finally reached the mat. Doyle dropped to his knees before the Prince and pulled his trousers and pants down and off in one hurried fumbling motion. He took the revealed cock deep into his mouth and began to suck, only to find himself shoved harshly away and flat on his back on the mat.

"No you don't. It's my turn." The Prince was on him before he could draw a breath to protest. He heard seams rip and then Bodie's lips were on his cock sucking him off. The grip on his penis and balls was tight, preventing him from coming.

"Let me come. Oh, stars, Bodie, let me come."

Bodie let his teeth gently rake the organ and loosened his grip. Ray screamed as he came, green and blue fire consuming him. His lover gave him no respite; he released his limp organ and then was kneeling between his thighs and plunging deep within him. It shouldn't have been possible--he'd never had it happen to him before--he always needed at least a half an hour to recover--but Ray found himself hard within minutes of his last orgasm. They were wild with passion, insensate to any and every thing around them. Bodie pounded in and Ray raised up with all his might to meet each thrust. It couldn't last long, sparks lit the air around them, and energy flowed all around them. They came together, shouting until hoarse and collapsed entwined unconscious onto the mat.

Waking in his lover's arms an hour later, Doyle smiled and thought to himself, Well, that's one problem with a more than satisfactory resolution.

"Stop being so smug, Doyle. It's not becoming."

"I didn't say anything."

"Yes, you did. You were congratulating yourself on--"

"I thought it, but I didn't say it."

"Bull shite. I heard you."

Ray sat up and turned to look at his lover so that Bodie could see his mouth. He thought at him, Can you hear this, lover?

"Bloody hell! Yes! Your lips didn't move."

That's 'cause I only thought the words. You try.

Don't be silly. There's no such thing as mind reading, the Prince thought back.

"No, then how come I just heard you say there wasn't, only your lips didn't move?"

"This is going to take some getting used to." He didn't sound any too pleased at the idea. I don't know if I want him reading all my thoughts. What happens if I see a pretty girl?

"Then we'll enjoy her together. You know, before you, I'd only been interested in women."


"'S true. You're my one and only man. And I wouldn't worry about reading each other's thoughts. I think, given a little practice, that we'll be able to limit it to only when we want to communicate."

"I hope so."

Ray's nose twitched, "What the hell's that odor?" He kept sniffing around and realized that it was William and himself. He leaned down to sniff his mate's crotch, finally recognizing the smell. "Bacon fat! You greased us up with bacon fat! Bo-o-odie!"

"It was ready to hand, and I didn't want to do you dry. You don't like it, we'll find something else to use when we get home. Maybe we should ask Cowley what he'd--"

"Don't you dare. I'm sure I can come up--" He broke off at his mate's laughter and cried as he pounced on him, "Why you dirty, rotten sod."

They wrestled like two puppies at play. Soon they found themselves with Ray on top and both men hard. Grabbing a handful of bacon fat, Ray reflected that Bodie was right, 'it worked and was to hand.' He lubricated them both and entered his mate. He wouldn't have given odds on their being able to come again so soon, but the abstinence of the last weeks had left them needful.

The loving this time was gentle and slow, each man savoring the feel of the other as they slowly approached climax. Ray reached his hand down between them and slowly stroked his lover until they both came in another shattering climax. At least this time he remembered pulling out and snuggling down next to his mate before sleep claimed them.

The next time they awoke, it was to the sound of horses in the farm yard and shouts of greeting.

Ray nudged Bodie, "Up and at 'em, sunshine. Unless I'm much mistaken they're looking for you."

"Sod 'em. Tell 'em to go bug someone else," the Prince was feeling sated, happy, and sleepy and was not in the mood to be bothered. He snuggled in closer to his mate and tried to ignore the shouting.

"Well, if someone doesn't answer them, they're just likely to come in to search the place," Ray stated dryly.

Bodie groaned, knowing that his lover was right. His father was probably turning the kingdom over looking for him. He stood, grabbed his trousers, and, pulling them on, headed for the door.

"Oi," he shouted over the confusion in the yard, "What do you want?"

"William, where the hell have you been and what are you doing here?"

"Sod it," he said in a soft voice over his shoulder to Ray, "It's my father."

"He's going to have to know sometime," Ray observed as he pulled on his trousers.

"Well, I was hoping to put if off a bit--"

"I'm not going to be someone you sneak off to--"

"Never wanted you to. Was just wanting today to be just for us." He glanced back over his shoulder and gave his mate a very seductive look from top to bottom--concentrating on his lover's bottom. "Wanted to make love a few more times before we had to face my dad and the rest of 'em. That's all."

Ray smiled, touched both by William's acceptance of what they now shared and his mate's desire to be alone with him. He finished dressing by pulling his shirt over his head and went to join him at he door.

King Philip was in the middle of it gloating to Cowley, "See, I told you that William would come round and start back with women if given time. My Captain tells me that a widow lives here."

Giving the King a wry look, the Mage said, "Well, as she has three grown children and half a dozen grandchildren, I don't think that's what the Prince is doing here." When he observed Ray join Bodie at the door, he concluded dryly, "I hate to be the bearer of unwelcome tidings, but it looks as though you just acquired another son."

The King started at that and looked up to see the young mage leaning against his son in the cottage's doorway. He was about to protest and refuse to sanction the union, when he observed his son and the man exchange a smile. 'Damn. They're in love.' He couldn't remember seeing William ever look that happy, and there was a definite smugness to both men's demeanor. It seemed the elder Mage was right.

He rode forward and dismounted. Seeing the look of doubt that passed between the two men he finally made his decision.

The King held out his hand to the young man, and Ray took it with startlement. As they shook hands, the King said, "Welcome to the family, Raymond." The smile that lit both men's faces at his words confirmed his decision for him. As William leaned over and gave the Mage a kiss on the cheek, the King decided that the pairing might not have been his choice for his son, but if it made him happy he could live with it.

"Shall we return home? We have a bonding ceremony to plan."

Raymond shared a thought with Bodie, I don't suppose it's prudent right now to mention that we've got to go and see me mum first?

The Prince snorted and thought back, What do you think, sunshine. We'll break it to him later. So who is your mum?

That's another story, love. I'll tell you all about it later. They shared another smile as they mounted up and rode off.

-- THE END --

21 September 1997
Published in Chalk and Cheese 18, Agent with Style, 1998

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