Dreams of Yet to Be


Fourth story in the Kin/Bran Dreaming Stone series.

There had been fighting but there were no survivors to tell the story. Crows were at work on the bodies and there was blood on the rocks, three men and two boys cut down as they rounded a wooded hillside, an ambush point that was ideal. Amergin had known from a mile away, had smelt death when his two young companions had been oblivious, even Bran, whose senses were keen enough for him to have been chosen out to join the Druidkind. Kinnamus drew rein, watching Amergin swing down from his tall, bony grey mare, but Bran remained mounted, his eyes dwelling on the dead. The wind from the north was sharp and cold, dawn not an hour old in the east, and they were a few miles out from home.

Killing, on Connach's own doorstep? Raiders in the tauth? >From where? Kinnamus brooded on the question as Amergin went to look at the five dead faces, discover who it was who had been slain. Raiding in Connach's hills was a familiar sport, but it was unknown for the insurgents to strike so close to the chief's rath. In the east, over the hills, was Lleu, who lived for war and whose five sons were much honoured warriors. In the south, Mabon, Lleu's kinsman through a marriage most said was made in hell, whose warriors frequently rode with Lleu's. Connach's only ally lay in the north. Fedelma, whose youngest daughter had been promised Kinnamus for her husband when both had been children.

The marriage had not come about, and Connach had been furious. It was almost a year since the girl had taken her lover, Gweir, as her husband, and Kin's father was still simmering in rage. Fedelma merely smiled indulgently, recognising the bond of love Kin shared with his own mate, but Connach would have none of it. Kin doubted that the old man could recognise love in anyone, let alone that which sprang up between the warriorkind; he had seen only a profitable marriage, an alliance between neighbouring tauths to the benefit of both. And it was in his mind that Kin had betrayed him.

So be it, Kin thought indifferently: if the old man wished to believe that, he was allowed his share of errors and foolishness, as was any man. It was enough that Amergin and Fedelma, and the young people who had chosen to follow their hearts, not their elders, were content. Fedelma had spoken out to Connach on Kin's behalf, although Kin's father had steadfastly closed his ears and refused to listen. He ignored his son, now, and for Bran there was only a curl of his lip, a cuff if the young exile from Mona came too close; and such dangerous work as would one day bring the object of his son's affections to harm, Kin was sure. Connach chose Bran's duties personally, and with malice; and Bran was often hurt.

Anger tightened Kin's mouth as he regarded his lover's profile in the wan, delicate sunlight of very early morning. Bran was growing brown after a few warm days spent in the seclusion of the moor; he spent little time in Whiterock when there was any chance of escape, and if Kin could be coerced to leave home before the settlement was astir, and not return till it was slumbering after its feasting, so much the better. Winter bound them to the house they called home, long weeks of cold and ice, and they rarely rubbed shoulders with Whiterock's people. Still, the months were cherished, filled with fond memories for Kin and Bran alike.

The wind under the thatch, the hush and peace after the snow, the crackle of logs in the hearth, hours spent in companionable silence, lying together, quiescent after loving, as if they were as passive as the earth, awaiting spring. Then, the journey upward after the solstice, lengthening days and a shifting in the wind, robins in the snow, the first crocus. As if the earth was alive of a sudden, pregnant with new life, aching to be loved. It was Kin's favorite time of year, a time when, if anything, he loved Bran even more keenly than in the other seasons. And Bran knew; spring was a time when he would seduce his lover deliberately and often, making the gift of his body with flushed cheeks and downcast eyes, as if the fierceness of Kin's emotion overwhelmed him still, despite their six years together.

Bran had always known, and it seemed to Kin that his mate could perceive his feelings as clearly as if they had been spoken. A look, a caress, an indrawn breath, a smile or frown, said more than another's elaborate yarn. What need to speak? Kin could feel Bran's disquiet clearly as they waited for Amergin to look at the bodies. The crows fluttered away, the sound of their winds dry and brittle as he chased them off. They had begun their mutilation and Amergin's face was taut as looked up at his companions.

"You know them?" Bran asked quietly.

"Aye." The Druid straightened, sighing over the loss and waste of life. "They are just warriors and their apprentices. Not friends or kin, but it could as easily have been us lying here, and them finding our dead bodies!"

Kin shifted restlessly in the saddle, his eyes raking the wooded hills; beneath the trees the shadows were thick, writhing, menacing. There was the uncomfortable sensation of being watched, and glance at Bran's face showed the same impression. "Raiders this deep in the tauth? We are not four miles out from home! Who, Amergin? Lleu's men, or Mabon's?"

"Who can tell?" Amergin caught the grey mare's reins and swung up into the saddle. "Connach will be furious -- not least because it is these stalwarts who have been killed, and not Bran, eh?"

"True," Bran agreed drily. "He would set a touch to my pyre readily, and with a smile." He was rubbing his shoulder as he spoke, absently finding the scar left from the most recent of his hurts. He had been sent with a warband of apprentices to guard the cattle on Lleu's border, which was dangerous country, and the cattle were a fair target for such as Lleu. Kinnamus had already been sent to Fedelma with the duties of a courier, and Bran undertook the charge of keeping safe Connach's herd almost alone. Dishonour if he failed in his task, death if he was unfortunate.

It was his death that Connach had intended, Kin was certain; but the old gods watched over Bran like one of their own. They could not keep him from a warrior's hurts, but they could confound the old chief. Lleu's men snapped at the warband of youngsters like rabid terriers. But Bran had already scouted the hills and found a high valley that could be defended by sharp eyed archers. There were four such lads in the warband, and as he drove Connach's herd into safety he set the apprentices to keep watch and dispatched a rider to Whiterock to fetch the cavalry. The apprentices were blooded in that skirmish, Lleu's men cut down by talented young archers; only two of the youngsters from Whiterock were killed, and three of Connach's warriors injured. Bran had been one of them. He had fought to guard the mouth of the high valley, standing his watch through the night when Lleu's scouts would come like wolves. Those who saw him fight spoke of cunning and artistry, of three raiders cut down before Bran tired and was nicked in the shoulder by a lucky sword.

The apprentices had learned a great respect for the lover of Kinnamus Iron Hand. They spoke softly before him, bent their necks and sought his counsel, for he had kept them alive. Kinnamus was furious to the point of distraction, knowing as he did how Connach had endangered the lives of the young people, little more than children, most likely in the hopes that Bran would die to keep them from harm. He was white with rage, his eyes blazing, and for the first time he stood up before his father, the night he arrived back from Fedelman's rath, and spoke his mind. Connach had blustered but Kin, aroused to anger, was more fierce than the old man and his elders had known, and they heard him out. Many of the old men flanking Connach had younger sons among the children sent with Bran; many could have been grieving that night, and Kin included them in his anger. The price of their sons' lives might have been Bran's, and certainly the price of the lads' safety was Bran's pain.

They had brought Bran home, feverish and ill, for the wound was poisoned and needing the hot iron. Kin would never forget the smell of burning as Amergin cleaned out the rank infection and cauterised it; nor the sound of Bran's light voice, a cry escaping him despite his efforts. It was well healed now, but for days he had been weak, unable to eat, the flesh dwindling from his limbs, leaving his bones sharper beneath the skin than ever. Kin had ignored every duty imposed upon him, devoting those days to Bran's health, until the green eyes were laughing, the curly head shaking over him in exasperation. 'I can stand unaided!' he had remonstrated, fending off Kin's hands. 'Oh, let me see to myself now, love -- I am not an old invalid!' Kin had coddled him shamelessly, and enjoyed it, no less than Bran had enjoyed his attentions; Connach kept a surly silence, said Amergin, for Bran had earned a little respect among Whiterock's warband and the chief was in ill favour for his machinations.

The Druid cast a glance backward at the dead. "Lleu's men, or just hill thieves? There is little skill in the way they were killed. Two were knifed, a third battered, the boys merely strangled. It hardly sounds like warriors out after Connach's cattle."

"Thieves, then," Kin agreed. "And gone to ground in these woods, I would say." He shivered animatedly. "I have the strangest feeling, Amergin, of eyes upon me. Are we watched, or am I merely skittish this morning?"

"We are watched," Amergin said quietly, "but there is no danger. They will not strike again in daylight." He closed his eyes, listening with the Druid's unholy gifts. "Aye, they are there. Connach must send a warband, I think, or we will be preyed upon constantly."

They had accompanied Amergin into the river flats, the ride of a few days, across Mabon's country -- a Druid was free to roam where he chose, their kind knew no borders and their escort would be left unmolested. In Amergin's panniers were kelp and sea grasses, odd shellfish and coarse estuary plants; they were mildly poisonous in themselves but, with skill and patience, they would become medicinals. Kin greatly respected such arts; he had seem them heal Bran time and again. Once, his mate's ambitions to become a warrior had been amusing, for Bran had been a slender, nearly fragile boy; later, as his muscles began to harden and the sinews stood out in his arms after a day's practice, Kin took his intentions seriously and fretted instead, knowing how Bran would be hurt. No warrior escaped uninjured, not even those for whom the gods smiled.

But it was Bran's pride that was at stake and Kin had not the heart to forbid him. For Kin, the boy had abandoned his studies, betraying his teachers and leaving Mona forever. Among the Druidkind he would have become a healer, a Seer, given his years; with Kin, what was he? A warrior's bed warmer, there to tend his horse and weapons, and see to the needs of a man's body. To bathe it and rub away its aches, salve its scratches, attend to its sensuality. He had fulfilled every part of his duties, Kin remembered; shy and quiet as he worked, cleaning harness, polishing and sharpening swords, learning to fletch and weight arrows. Learning which salves eased cuts and which liniments cured a man's aches after a day in the saddle; learning which caresses brought pleasure and prolonged it, and how to mould to a man's body when the day's work was done. He had given all he had freely -- Kin would never steal pleasure from him while offering nothing in return; and yet, the warrior knew, each time Bran took off his clothes and knelt for his mate's pleasure, although there was sensual delight for him, there was a deep, racking pain also. The pain of knowing what he had done.

He had belittled himself, made a catamite of himself for the sake of love, and there was no honour in that. And so, Kin thought, remembering, he begged to be allowed warrior's training; and I laughed, thinking he would quickly tire of it and come home, sore, blistered and less ambitious. And I was wrong. It was a warrior who rode beside him, up the long incline on the shoulder of which was Connach's stockade. Not in years had Bran been a warrior's bed warmer, and they had begun to forget that those days had ever been. Bran was his equal on the killing field of battle, his equal between their sleeping skins, and if there was Connach's noble blood in Kin's veins, there was the blood of a Druid chosen in Bran's no matter that he had spurned the elder priesthood.

Whiterock was stirring awake as they approached; there was the taint of hearth smoke on the wind, a few young children, hurling with sticks and ball, dogs prowling the perimeter fence, the night's lookouts leaving their station as the day's guards came on. Kin recognised them, red haired men, bearded and leaning on their war spears as they watched the trio ride up out of the woodland. Amergin hailed them as they swung open the gate. "Cuno! Is Connach still abed?"

Cuno glowered over the side of the fence, spitting into the turf. "At this hour? I should say so. There is trouble, Druid?"

"There is." Amergin dismounted as they closed the gates behind the horses, handing his animal to a lad from the stable. "Thieves in the forests a few miles from here. A party went out last night? Emaine and his friends?"

"They went whoring in the camps along the river," Cuno told him. "Why?"

"They would have been better to have stayed by their own hearth," the Druid said drily. "They are dead, and the crows have their bodies." He turned toward Kin and Bran, one hand on each sheepskin clad shoulder. "I will go to your father, Kin. Rest while you have the chance, eh? For I have a notion he will send you two out hunting today -- to be rid of you once more."

"Sooner out of Whiterock than in it," Bran growled as Amergin strode away, tall, thin and red haired, his white robe loose about his spare frame, the panniers slung over his left shoulder. "Still, I slept little last night and would not refuse the luxuries of our own bed!" He took Kin's hand, kissing its knuckles and urging him toward the house they had shared since Amergin had taken bonding vows from them. "The hearth will be cold, love. Come on."

Their dog was waiting by the door, a big, shaggy animal, part deerhound, part wolfhound, called Rua for the colour of his coat. Its copper reminded Kin of Bran's hair, when the sun caught it, and he petted the dog while his lover lifted aside the weighted doorskins and threw an armful of kindling and firewood inside. The smells of home were inviting and, for all the nuisance of being back in Whiterock, he was eager to shut out the cold morning wind and have Bran to himself. Kneeling at the hearth, his lover was striking flint to steel, blowing on a few wood shavings to start their fire, and Kin watched with a smile that was unabashedly affectionate. He had first seen Bran in the firelight, and could never see him so again without remembering the Beltane eve when they had met.

Lost in reverie, he did not notice that he had Bran's attention until the husky voice said, "What has you smiling like an errant lover at this hour? I have scarce laid hands on you in a week!"

"Since we made love in the reeds while Amergin was digging for shellfish," Kin agreed. "And a prickly bed those reeds made! My back was scarred as from a flogging by the time you were done with me. Not," he admitted, "that I noticed the discomforts at the time."

"At the time, I dare say it would escape your notice," Bran agreed gravely. "I should have put down a saddle rug, shouldn't I?"

Kin shrugged eloquently. "You rubbed me for an hour, loving and contrite, afterwards," he admitted. "So I shall not complain. It has been a week, though, since we were thorough and painstaking. A quick wrestling will not suffice!"

"Greedy," Bran teased. "I want to bathe before you touch me, my love. I am -- shall we say, a little pungent?" He was bailing water out of the barrel at the door, filling the cauldron and labouring to the fire with it. "You will love me all the better if I smell sweet."

"You think I am at odds with you because you smell like a man?" Kin scoffed. "You are a man. It is only proper that you should smell like one." He watched Bran pull off sheepskin, tunic and breeches, standing by the hearth in the linen wrap about his narrow hips. His body still showed its bones, the scar on his shoulder still livid, pulling as he stretched, causing him a moment's discomfort which tightened his mouth. "That hurts, still?" Kin asked softly, coming to look at the healed cut.

"Hm? Oh, only after weeks of sleeping on the ground," Bran said dismissively. "It was deep, you know."

"The tip of the blade nicked the bone, I saw it," Kin told him. "I held you down, remember, while Amergin cut out a shard of bone and sealed it with the iron! I am hardly likely to forget so soon." He traced the line of the scar and kissed it, his tongue following the pucker of mended flesh. "Lie down, while the water heats and let me rub you."

"No need," Bran told him, "I feel fine."

"For my pleasure, then, if not your own." Kin fetched the little glass phial of olibanum from the chest that held their valuables. Each item was a memory and all were hoarded jealously: a thumb ring, Fedelman's gift for their services as her messengers in times of danger; a polished whelk shell, a souvenir of summer months spent healing after a battle, a rare time of freedom for them both; a plaited crown of rushes, beautifully woven and dyed into green and scarlet, Amergin's gift for Kin to give to Bran one Beltane, before coupling him in celebration of the day; and Bran's gift -- the olibanum, sweet and costly, for their pleasure. There was little left in the phial now and Kin measured a few drops into his palm, coaxing Bran to lie on their sleeping skins. He pillowed his head on both forearms, luxuriating in Kin's hands, purring as he was rubbed, his scars attended to until his lover's hands were dry, the oil taken up by his skin, and Kin was merely caressing.

The long, supple curve of the slender back was a delight in itself and Kin's hands mapped it, thumbs tracing Bran's spine as his fingers curved about sharp ribs, sliding downward over tender sides, outward slightly to span the narrow pelvis, and into the warmth between linen and the softness of buttocks. Bran murmured, nothing coherent, lifting his hips for the linen to be removed, a single knot that pulled and left him naked beneath Kin's hands. Kin sat back to look for the simple pleasure of it, smiling at the rueful expression in the green eyes. "You make me shameless," Bran complained. "I lie here like a chieftain's whore, and if you wished, you could mate me and I should not have the slightest inclination to do ought but lift my rump to help you do it."

"Which does not make you shameless," Kin argued, "but merely in love with me. Tell me so, Bran. Give me the words again." He reached over, testing the water in their brass cauldron and lifting it from the fire as he found it hot to the touch. An old white shirt had been torn up for rags and he wrung out a linen square, bathing Bran from shoulders to buttocks, an inch at a time.

"Words?" Bran purred as Kin wrung the cloth out once more, its warm wetness passing through his cleft. "Words are cheap, sweetheart. It is what you feel that matters... But if you want them -- I love you. I always have and always shall. Good enough? You are my heart, my hope and my life, all that is beautiful and all I need and want."

In fact, it was rather too much, and Kin was grateful that Bran could not see his face clearly, or he would have seen the glitter of tears, quickly blinked away as he wrung out the cloth again. He paid undue attention to the slender back, ordering his heart before stooping to kiss Bran's nape and bid him turn over for his front to be attended to. Bran turned and, as he did so, the green Druid stone on its leather thong about his neck caught a glimmer from the firelight. The sight of it diverted him, reminding him as it did of someone else, and he fingered the warm stone, the wet cloth still on Bran's hollow belly. "You were hurt again," he murmured, alluding not to the wound Bran had picked up fighting for Connach, but to the awful wounding Ray had suffered.

For a moment Bran struggled after Kin's meaning, and then realised where his thoughts had taken him. "Ray is a warrior, even as are we. It is in the lap of the gods, Kin. They decide what will be."

"He nearly died," Kin whispered, "and it was a girl who did it, tore his heart half away. I nearly died with him." He stooped, burying his face in Kin's warm, furry chest. "Not a good dream."

"You think not?" Bran's arms closed about Kin's shoulders. "We lived. We came through those days and began again, it is all we can ever ask. I needed you more than ever and you were there, what more is there?" Kin lifted his head, and he saw the moisture in the blue eyes. "Grief, love? For me or for Ray? Neither of us warrant it -- well, not yet anyway."

"I cannot help remembering," Kin said thickly, returning to his task of bathing his love. "They took you -- him -- away into a place filled with illness and death, and cut into him, to take out the pieces of steel. It was so much like Amergin's cutting at you, I was faint with fear. If you had died, so would I. And Bodie would have died, I know." He shook his head savagely. "Not good dreams." The wet cloth sponged Bran's chest, sweeping moist circles about his belly before it was wrung out once more and applied to sides, hips, velvety groin. Kin handled his lover's genitals as if touching a dove, not setting out to arouse him but allowing the arousal to happen if it would. Bran stirred involuntarily, unable to resist, and the shaft rising in his palm took Kin's mind from the dream. "But it was merely a dream," he admitted, "and we lived, and you are certainly alive today! There is proof here, see?" He ran his thumb over the tip of Bran's cock, coaxing back his foreskin to expose the exquisitely sensitive head and delicately brushing it with the cloth, more teasing than bathing.

Bran growled, low in his throat. "You are wicked this morning. I suppose you will mate me now?" Blue eyes met green, sharing infectious good humour. "Aye, and I should be disappointed if you did not," Bran admitted. "It has been a week, after all, and I was never of a chaste nature."

"Never?" Kin's eyes lingered on Bran's groin, watching the twitches of his shaft as it filled out to the last fraction. "Once, I remember. I touched you like this --" A one fingered caress, the length of his cock. "And you shook, and were scandalised at yourself. I kissed you, like this--" A single lick-kiss for the throbbing crown. "And you spilled you seed and gasped."

"I was a child," Bran scoffed.

"You were a virgin," Kin added huskily.

"I was yours," Bran amended. "That night, and each since. I have... learned a little since then, have I not?"

At last Kin threw back his head and laughed. "More than a little!" He wrung out the cloth again, going back to his task and bathing the sweet, dark places of his lover's body, for Bran's pleasure as well as his own. Flashfires of helpless desire rampaged through his nerves and he felt the ignition of lust in his groin, the muscles there tightening as heat began, pressure and the sudden painful awareness of arousal. Finished, he stood and looked down at the sprawl of slender limbs at his feet. Wanton, delighted and laughing, Bran merely waited. "We have an hour or two," Kin judged, "before Amergin has incited Connach to temper and the warband is dispatched." He pulled his tunic over his head and unthonged his breeches. "On the trail again -- damn. We are never at home, since spring."

"Just as well." Bran reached for the olibanum and unstoppered it, applying a swab of the viscous oil to his anus, coaxing it inside and setting the phial down as Kin undressed. "I have never been welcome here, and since Fedelma's daughter wedded Gweir instead of yourself, I think Connach would put a sword in me as soon as look at me." He was intent on Kin's shaft as the words were spoken, and Kin saw his throat twitch as he swallowed, for the intimate treatment of his mate's body had aroused Kin to painful urgency. Very large when excited so, Kin knew he had to take care, even after their years as lovers, or he would cause Bran pain. Bran was well enough endowed, but nature had been generous indeed to Kin, and he was aware of the trust placed in his care. "And speaking of swords that shall pierce me," Bran whispered as Kin knelt at his side, "this is the only one I wish to entertain." He took Kin's throbbing genitals in his hands, stroking and urging. "It is the sweetest kind of self abuse I know, and the only kind to bring my love joy also." A kiss for Kin's shaft, and he turned, kneeling on the sleeping skins, chin on his forearms.

He was open, Kin saw, oily and relaxed, and their coupling would be easy. Seldom had they caused each other hurt, even in the early days, and more often there would be some degree of frustration as they handled one another too tenderly, afraid to risk roughness. Kin bit down on his lip, controlling his urgency with an effort as he positioned the head of his shaft and pressed, sliding through the ring of muscle. It dilated about him, Bran beginning to pant as he was filled, and Kin maintained the steady pressure until he was sheathed completely. Bran was moaning into the sheepskins, fingers clenching and unclenching, but Kin knew there was no pain in him, for his body was moving, hips rotating as he rubbed his tender inside upon his invader, doubling and redoubling the sensations, and bringing Kin surges of delight as he did so.

It was enough for Kin to remain absolutely still and let Bran writhe beneath him, but he knew Bran needed more, and soon his lover was cursing, first asking and then begging, finally demanding that he move. Kin had his breath and his control back and pleasured his mate thoroughly, giving as much as he stole from the captive body. Or more. Bran cried out as he came, panting and exhausted as he went down on the skins, Kin resting on his back until the spasms had finished and the muscles sheathing his cock were at ease once more. A sigh, long and lush, and Bran relaxed, stretched, relaxed again, legs spread to accommodate Kin, head pillowed, eyes closed. "Go on, now, my love. I am complete," he whispered, "and you are still like a dirk within me, so hard, so big."

"Not hurting?" Kin asked softly, licking his nape, beneath sweated auburn curls. "Sure?"

"Just -- just big in me, and hot," Bran assured him in a breathy whisper. "I am too frail to move just now. I am so sorry."

"Shh," Kin shushed, and began again. He could have moved deeper within his mate had Bran been in any condition to kneel, but he was deep enough with his weight pillowed on the slender, sharp boned body and Bran's buttocks widespread against his groin. A long, driving thrust, and Bran gasped, still so sensitive after his coming; Kin kissed his neck and ears, soothing him as he pursued his own release, languidly and without haste. Coming was sweet, exhausting, and he savoured every thread of sensation, reluctant to withdraw afterward. Instead, he lifted Bran by his hips, turning them onto their sides and pulling the sheepskins over them, settling to doze with his softened cock still warmly embraced.

Bran wriggled, comfortable with the intrusion into his body, for it felt easy after the invasion of Kin's erection. Bodie had dozed this way, he remembered, and smiled. He and Ray had been sent into the north, to the tiny village of stone crofts and golden thatch set amid a vale of russet heather, country in which Bran and Kin had felt strangely at home. They were staying at a tiny tavern in which they dared not make love for fear of the taverner's suspicion, but the weather was fair and they had taken a blanket and basket of food, indulging in an afternoon's diversion on a hillside where there were no prying eyes. It had been wonderful, Bran remembered, and Bodie had loved his mate in this position, remaining within him while they slept off their mating, as if he could not bear to be parted from Ray. Bran approved.

They dozed for only a brief time, and it was Amergin's voice from the door that roused them at last, calling their names. A wave of sunlight entered the house with the Druid and they woke with a start, Bran gasping as he felt Kin moving to withdraw at last, leaving him feeling empty and strangely bereft. Kin groaned also, and Amergin gave them a suspicious look, as if he knew exactly what had transpired beneath their sleeping skins. Bran sat up, rubbing his aching back, and the Druid merely chuckled. "Connach is fit to be tied, and is arming a warband even now. He says the heads of these reivers will be mounted on our gate until they rot away. Two of his friends were among the slain, and the son of a third. The party rides at noon, no later. You will want to be with it."

"Will we?" Kin demanded, yawning deeply. "Why so?"

"Because your father is striding about like a caged bear, and even his cronies are staying out of his way. To stay here would be to tempt fate." He caressed Bran's sleep flushed cheek. "Connach will not think twice about dealing a cuff that will hurt you more than Bran, and you will respond with fury, fighting with him, and what began as trouble in the woods will end with you at war with your sire, like as not. Eat, bathe and leave, while you have the chance. There is little to be gained by staying here."

"Sense," Kin admitted, regarding Bran's solemn face. "I have thought, often, that we would be happier elsewhere. Since Fedelma holds us in favour, perhaps she would take us into her warband. You have Druids of your house in her rath, Amergin. Would we be safe there?"

Amergin blinked in surprise. "I would say so, for there are no enemies in Fedelma's clan, that I know of. You have precious few here, if it comes to that! Oh, Connach will not last long, not at the rate he dispatches meat and wine. But wait a little, and your brother will be chief in his place."

"My brother?" Kin made a scornful noise. "My brother has not shown his smiling face in Whiterock in years. He is off looting the ports of Britain and Cornwall. One day the Romans will sink his ship, and that will be the end of him. Then, Connach will die, and --" He shrugged indifferently.

"Then Connach will die," Amergin echoed, "and you will wear his torque."

Again, negative noises from Kin. "Not while my mate is such as this lad of mine. I will not betray him with siring a chief's heirs upon a chief's wife, Amergin. No, not even to get Connach's torque onto my neck." He made a face, sliding out of bed and standing by the hearth to wash in the cauldron's still warm water. "I do not want it, if I tell the truth. I never wanted it."

From the bed, Bran watched his lover, the flex and stretch of long, lean muscle, the interplay of the light on skin that was the colour of the swan and texture of velvet. He saw Bodie then, his mind's eye replaying images from another time. A tiled room with a big alabaster tub and silver spigots from which scalding water ran at will, and Bodie stranding under a tepid cascade, the white foam of lather sluicing from his back and flanks, his short cropped hair plastered flat to his head, unknowing that he was watched, though his mate had stood at the open door for some time. Bran smiled, his palm closing about the Druid stone. No, many of the dreams were troubling and some unpleasant, but there were others, the majority of them, that were delight itself, and in which he and Kin loved to revel while the world was hushed with snow and the earth slept.

"Then I shall speak with my kinsmen at Fedelma's rath," Amergin said mildly as Kin dressed. "She should accept the offer of your services, I am sure, and there would be less aggravation for you there, far from your father's august presence! Mind, if the Romans do sink your brother, they will come looking for you."

Kin pulled on a clean tunic and stood frowning down at the man he had just bedded. Bran was somber, his face reflecting the insecurity that had troubled him since he had been a boy. That Kin would have to accept filial responsibility one day, which meant heirs, which meant marriage, and the dissolution of his bonding. It was not uncommon among the sons of nobility; most married twice. Once, in youth, for love; later, for gain. The first spouse was provided for, her children noble bastards, honoured because they had, at the time, been born in wedlock and were love children where the legitimate heirs were conceived out of mercenary intentions. Bran had lived with the fear, the doubt, and Kin knew how it hurt him. He gave Amergin a sober look, asking for a moment's privacy by glancing meaningfully at the door. The Druid sighed and nodded, leaving without a word.

The sounds of the settlement were pervasive now; the barking of sundry dogs, the voices of children at play, ring of hammers and snorting of warhorses being brought from the pens by the fence. Men's voices, raised and angry as the story of hill thieves went about, and grief for the fallen generated energy and righteous fury. Kin knelt on the sleeping skins, lifting Brans' smooth face with fingers beneath his chin. He had shaved when they broke camp in the powdery light of predawn and it would be hours yet before his jaw became prickly and blue. His hair was long now, the curls feathery about his nape and getting into his eyes as summer warmed; and the green eyes were solemn.

"If the Romans sink my brother's ship," Kin said softly, "I have two other brothers, and they have their sons. Aye, I know. Daffyd is crippled, but that does not mean he will be any lesser a chief than Connach, who is handicapped by age and girth! And I know, Morgan is an idiot, but then, so is Connach! If the Romans sink Tristan, let them make Daffyd chief first. If they tire of him in ten years, they will toss him out again, and it will be Morgan's turn. They will tire of him in ten more years, and toss him out, and by then, there will be Tris' sons to be considered. Oh, Bran, smile for me. If we lived to be as old as the hills and grey as badgers, they might -- might! -- get Connach's torque onto my throat at the end, but by then I shall be past siring brats. Past bedding my sweetest love, in all honesty, too, though you and I shall still share sleeping skins and kisses, though we are too venerable to be capable of much more." He swooped, claiming Bran's soft mouth and ravaging it. "Sweetheart, you know the truth, don't you? We won't live that long -- not on this plane. There is another waiting for us. Magh Mar, and the hearths of our ancestors. You were a Druid, you know better than I what is to be."

At last Bran smiled, and his fingers traced Kin's beautiful features, his wide, sensual mouth, his lovely endearingly upturned nose, the deep, blue eyes, fanned with long, black lashes. Kin kissed his fingers. "What will be? You and I will die a glorious death -- young, and strong, and free until the end. There will be some little pain, coldness and darkness, and then we will be warm once more, wake by the hearths of the Sidhe, feasted and beloved, so Amergin has told me, and he knows everything. We will linger there for long and long, and then go adventuring." He lifted the green stone to his lips. "I will call you Bodie, and love you, and there will be other lives, as we learn and grow, until the Sidhe call us their kin, and other men call us Sidhe. So Amergin told me." An impish smile. "If you believe."

"If I believe?" Kin took the Druid stone from Bran's fingers, palming it and closing his eyes. "Last night, I was with Ray. We were at a feasting, some festive season with a vast green tree decorated with glittering lights, and holly, and the mistletoe affixed to the ceiling. Couples were kissing beneath it, and I wanted desperately to kiss you, but did not dare while the feasting continued, for it is not permitted for men to show such love in public in their world. I sat across the table from you and told you with my eyes how I love you, and then, when the others had gone, and we were almost the last to leave, and our hosts were busied at their kitchen hearths, long after midnight, I dared bring you under the mistletoe and take your mouth. I can still feel the touch of Ray's lips, tasting of spirits and sweetmeats, the caress of his tongue." He opened his eyes, smiling ruefully at his mate. "Oh, I believe. How could I not? It is why death does not frighten, why the end of this will be welcome." He took Bran's hands, pulling him to his feet. "Now, put some clothes on this beautiful body before you have me wild with desire once more." He turned Bran, spreading him to survey the little entrance to his body, which was still oily and a little ruddy. "You are unhurt, I trust."

"Oh, perhaps a little tender," Bran admitted. "You were most gentle, but most excited, and my lover is generously proportioned!" Bran turned back, hugging his mate for a moment before going to open the chest that held their clothes, choosing blue linen shirt and soft old leathers.

The warband was massed already, Amergin sitting on the fence, breakfasting on bread and ale, watching the lads check harness and thong javelins, shields, axes, by the saddles. They made ready to leave without ceremony, and their presence with the warband was not contested. In command of it was old Cuddy, almost of Connach's generation, his beard gone silver, his long hair plaited behind his ears, his belly thickened with fat while his arms were still heavy with muscle. He gave Kin and Bran a frown but held his tongue, for, while he disapproved of Kinnamus' mating, he also approved of Bran's wiles in the field. But for his wolfish arts, the apprentices might have been slaughtered, or run off with the cattle to do service as slaves in Lleu's tauth, laboring and whoring until Connach could be persuaded to send a warband on their behalf. Connach had brought disfavour upon himself, but still, Kin's fancied betrayal of the old man's interests was accounted the cause of it -- and Bran was to blame once more. It was a cruel judgment, but Bran was accepting of it, expecting no more.

There was Connach's voice, roaring at his servants, and as they mounted up Kin cast a hard glance at the hall, seeing his father there for a moment. Amergin was right. They were better off far away from Whiterock until Connach was in better spirits. He nodded farewell to the Druid as the warband began to move, nudging the sturdy black gelding he rode in the wake of Bran's roan pony. Cuddy hailed him when they were a mile on the trail, beckoning him to the head of the cavalry, and then Kin volunteered what information he had, retracing the way they had ridden earlier to bring the warband to the place of ambush. The bodies were more mutilated by crows and foxes, and Cuddy's face was bleak as he surveyed them.

"Go back for a wain, they should not lie here," he growled, speaking to the boy who carried his spears. "A pyre and honours, while we run down the vermin that did this." And then he looked at Kin once more. "The Druid said you were watched, did he not?"

"From the woods," Kin affirmed, pointing. "Though they will have seen us and gone to ground. To have struck this deeply into the tauth they cannot be such fools. Also, they have remained alive after tackling the warriorkind, so they are dangerous. They know how to lay an ambush, certainly."

The woods were miles deep, clinging to the leeward hillsides, dark and forbidding. With the warband were the huntsmen, brothers, Caled and Cei. It was said that they could track a deer across solid rock, and it was to them that the warband's commander turned. The trail was muddy after the rains of the previous afternoon and signs left by passersby were quite clear. Cei chased the cavalry onto the grassy hummocks to preserve what prints were unblurred, and for an hour, while the warriors ate salt pork and brewed borage tea, they deciphered the tracks. "Four men on foot," Caled said at last, speaking shrewdly as Cuddy handed him a cup of the tepid borage water. "They stood there, ready to strike, and then there was confusion. The horses ran off into the woods yonder, the bodies fell where they lay as we saw them, and the men on foot left this place through those trees." He was pointing at a thicket of larch and elm.

Cuddy threw out the cold dregs of his tea and called the cavalry to order. Kin and Bran swung into the saddle, riding in the wake of the band, which made slow progress, following the huntsmen. Bran was shaking his head over them. "We are too noisy," he said aridly. "We sound like a herd of cattle blundering through the forest -- they will hear us coming and be long gone."

"I heard that," Cuddy snapped, without looking over his shoulder. And then he growled in agreement, "And aye, you young whelp, you're right. I have asked my son to bring the hounds, but he will not be here before afternoon." He drew rein. "We will set lookouts, keep the reivers in these woods and wait for the dogs." He gave Kin a piercing glare, accusing, as if his mate was presumptuous for speaking the truth. Cuddy, like so many, could well remember the days when Bran had been a warrior's bed warmer, little more than a plaything for a man's pleasure. There was a grudging respect now, but there was far to go before Bran would be permitted the freedom to speak up, even if his words were true.

The glare was returned measure for measure, and Kin did not wait for Cuddy to turn the band about. He and Bran were a pace to the rear of them, and wheeled their horses, leaving the woodland without ado. Bran was silent, his mouth tugged into a line betraying some mix of hurt and annoyance, and, a little apart from the others, Kin touched his arm. "What troubles you now, love? That old nanny goat?"

"I would do better to remember who and what I am, and keep silent," Bran spat. "I only dishonour you by speaking out of turn."

Kin made noises of scorn, loosing his horse to graze and sitting on a hummock to watch the clouds that were massing in the north, a storm billowing up there, like as not. "Pay Cuddy no mind. He is too old and too soured to see the truth if it was handed to him on a platter. That my mate is a man, and a warrior, and a good one. And very much loved.'

A sigh escaped Bran's lips. "I think they would all be grateful if we did leave, you and I. Fedelma smiles at me, and Ysoult gave us the Druid stone. They would give us the hospitality of their hearth."

"And you yearn to go." Kin cupped Bran's nape, fingers gently massaging there. "After we have dispatched these thieves, we can ride into Fedelma's rath, if Amergin will journey there to buy us rites of passage. And we pack whatever we will take with us, eh? For we may not ride back, the gods willing."

The dogs arrived, leashed and muzzled, in the early afternoon, Cuddy's churlish, hot tempered son loosing them into the woods. Four big grey wolfhounds whose baying voices froze the spine. There were many trails, the warband milling in confusion as the weather worsened, and in the embrace of the forest it was almost night dark. Cuddy was oathing lividly long before the first vast drops of rain began to fall, and Kin knew what his orders must be. "Split up," he snarled. "Quarter these forests -- let the dogs go, if they tear the throats out of the thieves, so much the better!" He wheeled his horse, skirting a briar thicket and driving in his heels to stand the animal on its haunches.

The cavalry divided, by twos, threes and small groups fanning out into the woods, making such noise and commotion as would panic the fugitives. But Kin and Bran held off, studying the lie of the land rather than chasing the hounds. "That way, there is the hillside, caves and the stream."

Bran mused. "I came here with Amergin once, collecting medicinals. If I were running, and I knew I could not make it out of the forest alive, I would want some vantage point, some hiding place." He lifted one serpentine brow at Kin.

"Then we ride yonder," Kin agreed. "Though, the dogs have gone elsewhere."

"The dogs may be following an old trail," Bran speculated. "Chances are, the thieves ran this way and that in their attempts to evade us. We have made enough noise to rouse and scatter the dead thanks to Cuddy's bullish ways!"

Kin gave a snort of humour, bringing his horse about, and they left the dogs' voices behind as they set their horses' feet on the upward gradient. The wind was on the rise now, tossing the canopy and masking every sound, and Bran constantly looked back the way they had come, not trusting his ears to forewarn them of danger. Underfoot, mud gave way to limestone and shale, the horses scrabbling for purchase, and before they broke from the trees onto the knoll above the woods they were dismounting, leading the animals out of respect for their legs. The sky was steely, boiling, and the first raindrops were stingingly cold, falling into the graveling as the broke into the open.

Hesitating, wary as a lame old wolf, Kin's narrowed eyes raked the hillside, searching for any sign of ambush, but in fact, they could not have seen or heard the men. The wind was lashing the trees, their ears filled with the rushing din of the gale in the forest, and the canopy was thick, concealing the thieves until the moment they dropped out of the lower branches, taking Kin and Bran to the ground with them before they had had chance to so much as draw a dirk between them.

Stunned, Kin struggled to his knees, felled once more by a blow between his shoulders, and his vision split, barely serving him as he cast about dizzily for Bran. He was out cold, blood trickling from a gash in his scalp, a thin scarlet line slowly crossing his cheek. Kin fought to rise once more, but a knee between his shoulders pinned him to the ground. They had caught the horses -- two men holding one apiece while a third knelt upon Kin's shoulders and a fourth set about stripping Bran's inert body, searching him for anything worth stealing. There was only the green stone, thonged about his neck, and when they had him naked and were satisfied it was all he had, they took it, turning their attention to Kin. Bran's sword was at his throat and he had sense enough to close his eyes and pretend unconsciousness, letting them manhandle him until he was as naked as Bran and had been robbed of his bracelets, which were silver and very old. The loss did not trouble him, but the theft of the Druid stone squeezed his heart.

With it went his link to Ray, and the knowledge that he would never see Ray again, never hold him or taste his kisses, was painful. There were more immediate concerns to divert him, but the dreadful ache was there, under his heart, a sense of loss -- absurd as it was. Ray belonged to Bodie, in another time, and yet Kin felt bereaved, and half suspected that he had no rights to such bereavement. He stiffened as he felt his body abandoned where it lay on the limestone, his heart thudding against his ribs as he heard the thieves' growled words.

"Camulus, you recognise this face?" The voice of a foreigner, thickly accented. "I've seen him -- it's Connach's son."

"Kill him." A light, husky voice, careless of Kin's identity. "One man's son's another man's prey. What harm can he do us, dead?"

"And Connach? Kill his son and he'll never let us rest! They didn't see our faces, did they? Then leave them be. Connach will like as not laugh at the pair of them. That one, with the curly hair, is his lover. But kill them and the old man will hound us out of the Western Isles." Footsteps loosened the shale as the thieves began to move. "We have their horses -- up over the hill and away. Come quickly, before those cursed dogs lead the cavalry right to us!"

It was raining steadily now, a drizzle that numbed the skin and made the bones ache, and Kin's eyes opened to slits, watching the thieves swing up onto the two warhorses, two on each animal, kicking them to move them up, struggling up over the shale slope toward the brow of the knoll. As they went over the skyline and vanished he sat up, feeling out his knocks and scrapes. His back was bruised, his spine kinked and knotted, and he had twisted a knee in the fall, but otherwise he was merely stunned and chilled. Bran was coming to, one hand on his head as he stirred, and Kin was at his side, peering at the little cut on his scalp. There was a lump the size of a wren's egg beneath it, but the rain had washed it clean already, and the green eyes were clear.

Clear and furious. "Where did they come from -- out of the trees? Damn! They took the horses?"

"And our weapons, and everything we had," Kin said bitterly. "Come on, love, gather your clothes, there is a cave up there, we can at least get out of the rain and make a fire. They left my tinderbox -- or failed to find it." He half lifted the thoroughly stunned Bran to his feet, and they climbed to the dark, overgrown mouth of a tiny limestone cave. Pigeons fluttered out in startlement and there was the rustle of bats' wings from deeper underground. Their clothes were soaked and their skin numb, and Kin's hands shook as he gathered wind drifted twigs, making a fire with savage strokes of flint and tinder. Bran spread out their garments, muttering in annoyance, but Kin was waiting for him to discover their real loss.

When he did there was a blistering curse and Bran sat down, bare rump on a smooth sandstone boulder. "Ah, gods, they have taken it also." He looked up at Kin, making no attempt to disguise the anguish he felt.

"They stole everything," Kin said evenly, "and forewent our murder because one of them knew this face of mind, and they feared Connach's retribution -- no other reason. We have our lives and are at liberty. Perhaps we should be grateful." He came to the sandstone slab and gave Bran a push until he moved over, allowing two to sit. "You're frozen. Here." He offered his arms, and Bran accepted them, watching the fire stutter in the shifting wind from outside.

"Should I feel gratitude? I don't. I feel only anger."

"Will we go after the men, then? They will be clean away by now." Kin chafed Bran's cold arms, tracing the shape of the muscles there. "It is only a stone, sweetheart. Just a Druid stone."

"Just a stone?" Bran pulled away, chin cupped in his palms, elbows on his knees. "To you, perhaps. To me... It's Bodie. Oh, I know, all of that is not real, we do but share a mirror world, a half life, as if we see through the eyes of others, but --" He shook his head. "I love him as I love you, and want him."

Kin's teeth closed on his lip as a surge of emotion took him unawares. He stroked Bran's smooth back, kissing him there. "I know. I love Ray and want him also. They could have stolen anything we possess, but that. I would say they have signed their death warrants, for I see vengeance in these eyes." He kissed the lids, Bran's lashes fanning on cheeks pale with the cold. "So, we wait for the rain to ease, and hike for home, fresh horses, borrowed weapons?"

"If you will," Bran murmured. "Oh, please. How far can they go? They will be on Mabon's border soon, and dead if they try to cross it. Lleu will slay them just as surely, so they cannot get out of this tuath. The river, the forest, the hills, all land we know intimately, a day's hard ride to cross it. And there are but two horses among them, and I counted four men, so they will make slow time, or lame the horses altogether and be on foot once more. I can follow tracks, not as well as Cei and his brother, but after this rain a blind man could track them. We can find them, Kin. Take back our property -- horses, swords, the stone. We are the only ones who know they are mounted, remember. So they are ours."

"Sense," Kin admitted. "It will be dark in a few hours, but there is a hunter's moon tonight -- fitting. And the rain should ease by then." He gave Bran a rueful look. "You realise, we will have to make our explanations when we return alone and on foot, asking for horses and arms!"

"You are Connach's son," Bran said glibly. "You have rank as your ally. Oh, must I bribe you? Coerce you? Tell me what to bribe you with." He slid off the sandstone to be nearer the fire, kneeling at Kin's feet, one hand on a long, lean thigh and rubbing its muscle. "Tell me? What would bend you to my will? What would beguile you until you cannot refuse me?"

The husky voice was beguiling enough, and Kin found a little quiet laughter, seeking some game to lighten their spirits, for the weather and the loss of the Druid stone conspired to darken the whole world. "Bribe me? Mm. Oh, come here, little imp." He urged Bran to kneel between his feet and took his head between his hands. Bran looked up at him with sparkling eyes. "Open your mouth." Bran's lips parted obediently, flicked by a moistening tongue. "Wider," Kin purred as he felt the first throb of desire. He took his cock between careful fingers, damping down on the pangs of arousal, for he wished to slow the filling of his erection for a time. He placed the still almost lax crown between his lover's lips and drew his head forward until Bran had accepted the whole length of the shaft into his throat. Sensations he could never have described and could never get enough of began to ripple his loins, and as Bran sucked gently, his tongue caressing the underside of the growing cock, Kin moaned. Too soon, Bran lifted his head and gasped for breath, for in being so generous, nature had part way cheated Kin.

Still, knowing hands took over the task, and it was almost as fine; and Bran engulfed the throbbing crown once more in time to capture every drop of semen, slowly accepting Kin's shrinking shaft as he quivered in aftermath, until the whole length of him was held upon his tongue once more. Only then did he part from the lax cock with a kiss, and free his mouth to speak. "Are you bribed?" His voice was hoarse, his own erection proud against his belly as Kin looked down at him, neglected and ignored.

"I would shoot the moon for you," Kin panted, "but since the sun is still up, here." He slid off the sandstone, lying pillowed on the soft limestone sand and set about Bran's pleasure. Bran knelt still, thighs widespread, his eyes transfixed on Kin's face as he worked, diligent and painstaking, bringing his mate every fraction of pleasure he could. Bran surrendered utterly to the act, his mouth still filled with the tang of his mate's seed as he let Kin fly him high as a falcon, bring him down gently, and found himself curled in the bigger man's arms by the fire when sanity returned.

"I set out to bribe you," he whispered, kissing Kin's mouth and tasting himself there, a salty tang that was little similar to Kin's flavour.

"You bribed me totally," Kin admitted. "And seduced me! Listen... The rain has stopped." He lifted one leaden hand from Bran's warm chest, feeling out the hem of his tunic. "Our clothes are almost dry, and we have a little daylight left, I think. Enough to be in sight of home by moonrise, if we move now."

Bran gaped at him. "That was a jest, I hope! I am in no fit condition to stand, let alone climb this hill and cut home across the rise. You have had the life out of me along with my seed."

"Have I?" Kin kissed the tip of his nose. "Rest then. I am recovered now, however, and this fire is dying. So, your leave?" He slid away, quickly dressing in stiff, dry clothes and tossing an arm full of twigs into the embers. They crackled, green wood exploding beneath the flame. Bran turned over to lie on his belly, watching the sticks turn to ash as the life returned to his limbs a little at a time. Kin brought his clothes and he sat up with a yawn, taking them and kissing his mate's palm in gratitude. "What was that for?" Kin asked throatily as he felt the wet caress of Bran's tongue on sensitive nerves.

"Because I love you." Bran looked up with a sunny smile. "And because you allowed me to seduce you."

"Allowed you?" Kin blinked in astonishment. "It was I who gave you orders to open your mouth, and thrust my shaft between your lips, never once asking your permission to take such liberties!"

"Liberties, indeed." Bran stood, feet sliding into his boots and stamping to comfort. "I have always loved the taste of you, from the first time I dared sample it. I don't know what I expected you to taste like, but I was unprepared for such deliciousness and have been hungry for you ever since." He pulled his tunic over his head and buckled his belt over it. "I am strong enough to totter out of here now, I think. You have left me enough strength for that."

The air was cool and crisp, the forest streaming, every hillside running with cascades, and they climbed upward after leaving the cave, sticking to the stony shoulders of the hills where many years of erosion had washed away the topsoil, exposing bedrock. Enlivened by the fire, and by loving, they made good time, seeing Whiterock from the brow of a rise a mile away, and as twilight thickened, the moon sitting over the hills like an enormous lantern, Bran picked up their pace, jogging down the last treacherous slope before they began the long incline toward home.

The first face they saw belonged to Amergin, who was waiting at the gate, an expression of fretting creasing his brow. He nodded as he saw them, alone, unarmed and on foot. "I knew something was wrong. A prickling in my bones, as of foreboding. What happened?" Kin put it into a few terse phrases as they made their way to the pens, choosing out a pair of shaggy moorland ponies that belonged to the cavalry rather to an individual. Lads saddled them while they waited, and Bran fetched a quick meal from the braziers by which the farriers were supping. Bread and eggs, mead and last season's wizened apples, goat cheese and onions. "And you will ride out at once?" Amergin guessed. "Well, the weather should hold, and the moon is nigh as bright as her kinsman. Will I accompany you?"

"No need," Kin said through a mouth full of bread, cheese and onions. "You have a lover at home who has waited for you for weeks. Lie with him tonight and leave this to us. We know this tuath as well as anyone."

"And will travel easier if it is merely ourselves who are in danger," Bran added as he tapped the shells from his eggs and rolled them in the onions. "It is a fool's errand, Amergin, by any accounting. We re riding after a piece of stone. Who in his right mind would do such a thing?"

"Who?" Amergin caught Bran by the shoulder and hugged him lips pressed to his forehead. "Someone for whom the Druid stone offers up its fey dreams. Someone in love. One such as yourself, who once wore the robe."

"Aye -- once," Bran admitted darkly. "They let me wear it to go to the Beltane feasts, and it was the last time I wore it, also! He took it from me." He indicated Kin with a lift of his chin. "He stripped me of it as surely as my masters had put it on me. And made a man of me that night."

"Did he?" Amergin's eyes glittered with amusement as he surveyed Kin's abashed face. "I heard the story of how they found the pair of you, wrapped in a yellow calf hide in the ashes, dead to the world. Master Havren was spitting blood, he wanted to tear you limb from limb, the both of you -- Bran for betraying them and showing himself to be a little harlot, and you, Kin, for deflowering a virgin apprentice." Kin choked on a mouthful of mead and Bran blushed rosily. Amergin tousled the curly head and released him. "Oh, go on, get out of here before someone notices what you are about. Cuddy's party has not yet returned and will likely not be back till morning. How long will this vengeance hunting of yours take, do you think?"

Kin finished his hasty meal, mopping his mouth on a wisp of hay. "Oh, a day at longest. Where can they go? And with two horses among four! We can track the nags after this rain and be upon them before the dolts know what is happening. If they fight, it will be the end of them."

"And if they do not?" Amergin asked. "There is a bounty on their heads, if you wished to bring them back, pickled in a barrel of vinegar. The kin of the men and lads they slew are furious and willing to pay handsomely."

"Indeed?" Kin took the reins of his shaggy little pony from the boy who had saddled it. "We shall see."

It was as dark as the night would get before the moon set once more, but the sky was still a dark, velvety blue and Connach's tuath was like a casting in silver, wet and reflecting the moon and stars. They took the ponies westward, up the slope onto the rocky brow of the hills, returning to the cave where they had sheltered and scouting the lie of the land from there. They saw the river, serpentine, shining in the south, on the other side of it, Mabon's lands, and death for insurgents. Woodland filled the valleys between, save for the spaces where peat cutters had been at work, and after the rains they knew the forest bottom would be too treacherous to permit travel, all mudslides and streamlets. The thieves must hold to the dry places.

"I would hold to the top of the hills," Bran mused, "and shelter for the night where my fire would be concealed by an outcropping. We might see that fire. We have the height from this place."

It was a fair enough gamble, and they pressed on, walking the horses between cascades and shale slopes where the limestone was crumbling to powder under the onslaught of the weather. The hills were cutting back, year by year, little by little, but so slowly that from one lifetime to the next it was barely noticeable and of no real importance. And then, they saw the glitter of a flame in the darkness, just over the lip of an outcropping. Bran took Kin's arm, drawing him into the lee of a stand of larch and crabapple, and they slid borrowed swordsteel from their scabbards.

The ponies were dozing, hitched to the larches, and Kin led the way, stealthy as a lame old fox, circuiting the encampment until they came upon it from its blind side. And they were right. The thieves had put five miles between themselves and the woods where they had been hunted and, reckoning themselves safe and secluded, had sought shelter out of the rain. Cuddy's dogs would have lost the scent in the downpour, and the men were not wrong in their complacency. Had they killed the men from whom they had stolen the horses, they would have been clean away, holding to the river until they could scuttle across into Lleu's tuath, lost in the woodland once more, and continue their enterprise.

Moonlight cast a sheet of light from Bran's sword as he lifted it, his eyes meeting Kin's for a moment before they moved out from their concealment and came upon the thieves while they slept. The hilt of Kin's shortsword impacted between a pair of beefy shoulders, their owner woken and plunged into unconsciousness in the same moment, but the other three were stirring from their light sleep, scrabbling after assorted weapons, and the fight was on. They were frightened, and they were desperate; but they were not warriors. Two died in as many moments, one upon Kin's sword, the other prey to Bran's, and the fourth thief went down, tangled and writhing as his sword arm weakened, slit to the bone.

"Two injured, two dead," Kin said acidly as he stooped to clean his sword. "Not a bad night's work. Cuddy will be furious, no doubt."

"No doubt." Bran was going through the men's packs, item by item, looking for their things. He found Kin's silver bracelets first, slipping them over his mate's large, strong hands before going back to search for the Druid stone. For a time it remained unfound, and frustration began to shorten his temper before Kin found it for him.

"Here it is." He turned one of the dead with the toe of one boot, indicating the glimmer of dark, emerald green at the man's throat. "He took it for his own. Damn them!"

Bran pounced on the stone, breaking the thong and taking it back. "Mine, I believe!" The words were hissed possessively, and he held the Druid stone between his hands as if his life had depended on it, only a moment later allowing a sheepish expression to appear. "I'm sorry. Jealousy is unbecoming, but..." He held out the stone for Kin to take it from him. "It is the most precious thing I have ever possessed." He dropped his voice to a husky murmur. "Aside from you."

"Oh, aside from me." Kin enfolded him, kissing his neck and then fumbling with the thong, replacing the green stone where it belonged. "You pounced on it the second before I would have! You cannot know how it felt when I realised it had been stolen. I... I love Ray too much to lose him without a fight. Do I betray you?"

"Oh, Kin." Bran hugged both arms about his mate's wide frame. "Only you would ask such a question. Only you would be so much a slave to your honour -- and mine! -- that you would think such things. Do I betray you when I yield to Bodie, or when I mount him? Not a word, Kin!" he finished fiercely. "Kiss me instead, and let's get these dolts who are alive still tied down, for we won't make much headway with them and I would as soon wait for dawn before trying to move them. The way back is too treacherous to risk it with their burden."

First, Kin peered at the thief who had been wounded, finding the man sobbing piteously over a wound that needed binding. It seemed absurd to bind the arm when in the morning he would be losing his head, but Kin bound it anyway while Bran lashed the fourth thief's wrists and ankles with rawhide thonging. Bleary eyes gazed up at them, glassy and resigned, and the thief spoke up as Kin finished. It was the man who had recognised his face in the woods. "'Tis ap Connach, is it not?" Kin merely nodded. "If It'd known you would come after us like hounds out of hell, you would have died, you and your curly haired little whore."

There was an open handed slap, heavy on the man's cheek, for the words, and Kin half lifted him by the collar. "If you know me, you know that my mate is no man's whore. He was a Druid, he is a warrior. Give him your insults and I shall treat you to the flat of my hand. And you might have made it away, if not for your theft of his property. The green stone."

"A green bauble?" the thief slurred, his head obviously ringing after the blow. "You've killed my cousins and will take my friend and me back for our heads to be lopped over a piece of stone?"

"A precious stone," Kin corrected, straightening and watching the object in question as it caught the firelight on its thong about Bran's neck. "It is a Druid stone, and not for the likes of you. Now, close your mouth and keep it closed, or I shall gag it." With that he withdrew, meeting Bran by the makeshift hearth. "Amergin said there was a bounty on these idiots. I shall spoil you, I think. What would please you? New leathers, soft and fallow brown? Silver for your wrists? Hazelnuts and oranges and lemons, when the trader comes? Silks?"

"Half the bounty is mine, speaking fairly," Bran mused. "So, I am at liberty to spoil you also... Though I think we would be better to save it, love. If we ride for Fedelma's rath with Amergin, we might be required to prove our worth to her officers before they will let us ride with the warband, and if we must, we could go hungry before we are paid again." He gave Kin a wry smile. "I should sooner be hungry with you than well fed without you, but if I tell the truth, I have developed quite a fondness for eating! Let me spoil you in other ways, and keep the bounty, against lean times to come."

Kin nodded deeply. "Aye, so much makes good sense. Not that Fedelma will abuse our trust. And there is Ysoult to speak for us, remember, and her husband. It is not as if her rath is without friends." He threw a bale of twigs into the hearth and drew Bran into the lee of the outcropping that concealed the fire. "Come and doze. They cannot get loose, and dawn is long away as yet."

The sky was still sullen but there was no more rain. They dozed by turn, keeping watch over the camp and resting between fire and rocks until dawn was a suggestion in the east, and then Kin roused his lover with a little shake, sending him to saddle the horses. Together, they manhandled the dead weight of two bodies onto one pony, and tied the surviving thieves to the withers of the second, and before the sun burst over the eastern ranges they were moving. Cuddy would still be out, quartering the woods, Kin thought with great satisfaction. Cold, wet and bedraggled, chasing wild geese. Cuddy would be furious, aye; and so would Connach, and the bounty would find its way into the hands of two errant young warriors still trying to regain their lost honour.

They saw nothing of Cuddy on the ride back, and ignored their captives, rolling easily to the gait of the horses, speaking in quiet tones about inconsequentialities until they headed up the long incline toward the gates of Whiterock. The lookouts saw them as soon as they appeared on the meadow flats and they heard the cry go up, that the Iron Hand and his mate were back with prisoners. Connach was there when they swung down out of the saddle, burly and silver, wrapped about by a cloak of bearskin and winter fox. Kin met his father's steel grey eyes, mutely challenging the older man to speak against him. But there was nothing Connach could say and he stood aside to allow his son into the stockade.

There was Amergin also, and the men whose friends and kin had been slaughtered by these thieves. Kin greeted the Druid with a clasping of wrists, deliberately taking Bran under his arm, for such displays of comradeship spoke more clearly than a tirade. Amergin regarded the bodies with disdain, and the survivors with resignation, for it was he who would be asked to execute them. It was one of the duties that fell to his kind, and he prided himself on the ability to make death swift and painless. "I will collect the promised bounty," he promised. "And then, Kin? What, for you and Bran?"

"First," Kin yawned, "I think we shall sleep! And then, when it pleases you, we would ride to Fedelma's rath. At your leisure, Amergin, but soon, please."

"In a few days," the Druid agreed. "I have set the medicinals to cure and when they are ready I must look to the old woman's ailments. Aye, she has her own healers, but none have the knack that is to be found in these hands of mine." It was said with pride, for Amergin cherished life above all things, even when it fell to him to perform Connach's executions.

"When will they die?" Bran asked quietly, studying the faces of the two thieves still on their feet.

"Midnight," Amergin told him. "It disquiets you, little one? But why? You wore the robe once, it could easily have been you, a few years hence, performing these duties. And you have been a warrior since leaving Mona."

"We took back our property," Bran said with a shrug. "It is over."

"And they slew the sons and brothers of these sullen creatures behind Connach," Amergin said levelly. "They will not live past midnight -- the decision of life and death was never in your hands, nor mine."

Bran inclined his head, acknowledging the Druid's authority, but the sternness of the words was softened by a caress for his cheek and when he looked up the green eyes were smiling. "My love is right, I am tired," Bran admitted. "I slept a few minutes of last night, and perhaps an hour the night before. Your leave, Amergin, while I lay my head down for a little."

"I'll fetch the bounty for you," the Druid promised as they parted. "You won't be cheated of it, no matter the murderous look on yon Connach's face!"

The old man looked as if he had swallowed a lemon whole, Kin thought, and as they handed the horses to lads from the cavalry pens, he chuckled rudely at his father's expense. Bran angled a glance at him, for a moment fearful that Connach could hear, but the chief was occupied with his cronies and they were free to go. The humour possessed Kin until they had dropped the doorskins on home, and then he heard the sigh from Bran's lips and let his mood sober. "You are at odds with yourself," he observed as Bran lit the hearth. "Strange, since we have come home the victors, will be paid handsomely for our efforts, and leave this place with Amergin soon enough. What is it, love? Your shoulder again?"

But Bran shook his head dismissively. "No, that is well healed. But... Ah, I have it in me to brood, and always have had. It is why they sent me to the Druidai as a child, I suppose!" he sat on the bench by the hearth as wood shavings and kindling caught alight, and his fingers lifted the Druid stone free of his collar. "It is this. As if you did not know as much already."

"It troubles you?" Kin demanded. "How so? To me, it has always been a source of joy and escape."

"And to me," Bran admitted. "Indeed, too much so. And yesterday I came to realise how much it owns me! I would have risked everything to get it back, Kin. Everything. Or almost. I would not have risked your life, if I had been made to choose. Yet I set our feet on a vengeance trail because of it. If those thieves had ambushed us a second time, we would not have been so lucky! Foolish, to die for the sake of a stone."

"Oh." Kin sat on the bench at his mate's side, one arm about him. "The decision to ride after it was as much mine as yours, so before you shoulder the whole blame, give half of it to me! And it is not merely a stone, and never was. There is no gem half as valuable -- tell me, if it had been a diamond or a ruby on the thong about your neck, would you have let it go? Would a chief allow the theft of a piece of gemstone half as valuable?" He made noises of scorn. "Connach would have turned out the warband and there would have been a welter of blood! And you know this; so what is it? Tell me. This is not the sum of it."

"No," Bran admitted, and sighed once more. "I have come to care so much for them, and be half at home in their world, when we dream there. I am thinking -- perhaps I care too much for the mirror images. It is a trap to live in dreams."

Taken aback, Kin blinked at Bran's brooding profile. "Well they sent you to the Druidai," he said drily, "for your mind is like a labyrinth." He pressed a kiss to Bran's temple. "You are thinking that I begrudge you Bodie?"

"No, but --" Bran began, and stopped. "I love him," he confessed in a sheepish whisper. "I have come to love him as I love you, and long for the dreams."

"Dreams which are lived out in my arms," Kin amended, "while I am welcomed into Ray's embrace. Oh, sweetheart! My beautiful Bran -- my sweet, silly lover. Take that fretting look from your face this instant or -- or I shall have its measure from you in fiendish ways." Bran shot him a started, suspicious look. "I shall bind you and make sport of your body," Kin threatened, "until you are aching and begging to be mine. Not Bodie's. Mine. And you will know the difference!"

"Do it." Bran closed his eyes. "Sometimes I can barely tell the difference now. In the night, in the dark, it is Bodie's voice in my ears while you kiss me, your hands upon me while Bodie plunders me for all I have. I forget whose I am -- and who. Ray is inside me, in my marrow, I think. And I love this madness."

Kin held him. "If you are insane it is a sweet kind of madness, and one I love also! Does it matter who you are, or whose?" But the green eyes were still troubled, and Kin sighed. "What do you want of me? Tell me what to say or do."

"Let me know -- the difference," Bran whispered. "When I thought we had lost the stone it was grief I felt. Grief! The anguish of losing a dream. Bodie."

"I felt the same," Kin admitted. "And it was like a knife in me, aye." He took Bran by the shoulders, shaking him a little. "You want me to fulfil a threat made in jest?" Bran would not lift his head, but nodded. "If it troubles you so, to live two lives in one, let go," Kin whispered, taking the stone from Bran's throat and holding it to the glimmer of daylight from between closed shutters. "Give it to Amergin, be Bran, be mine, and let go the dreams of what is yet to be." He studied Bran's quizzical expression soberly. "I look at you, and I see Ray -- the way he has of frowning in thought, his eyes veiled, his mouth betraying every feeling. Does it matter which I see, which I kiss? I love you both."

At last Bran smiled. "You are wiser than me, and always have been. Enough, perhaps, that you have had my confession from me and given me absolution."

"Indeed," Kin agreed drily. "And if I tie you and make sport with you, let it be for your pleasure, not some kind of ritual chastisement." He lifted one curious brow at his mate. "What secret, arcane ritual have you seen, inside the inner circle on Mona? Scandalous rites, primitive and sensual?"

"Oh, yes," Bran said confidentially, and only the tilt of his head betrayed the teasing. "I have seen the acolytes spread upon an altar stone and mated by one and by all --" He surrendered, laughing. "No, I have seen no such thing. Indeed, those acolytes are not even permitted to caress themselves in search of pleasure, but what the masters will take a willow staff to their haunches! And that hurts."

"They chastised you so?" Kin asked, hushed. Even now, there was much he had never learned of his lover's childhood.

"For shirking in my studies," Bran admitted. "I never disobeyed them for pleasure's sake, but I had begun to yearn for love." He shrugged. "I would daydream like a little fool, and Master Havern would have it out of me. I was very young, and was swatted through a piece of linen to save my skin, but it still smarted, for all I have no scars to show for it!" He shook his head ruefully. "It never made me a better student." He took back the green stone, palming it and holding it to his chest. "I have always dreamed, and would be dreaming still if you had not found me by the fires that Beltane eve." The green eyes closed, the lush mouth lifted in a smile. "You will never know what I felt! How much a virgin was I? When you stroked me, I had never been touched in those places before and I knew not whether I should be frightened or ashamed." Bran tucked his head into the curve of Kin's neck. "You taught me to be neither, and by dawn I was hopelessly in love with you."

"And now?" Kin enfolded him. "We have seen the future, you and I -- fey dreams of yet to be. Why do they trouble you, when you have seen we shall never be apart?"

Bran drew away, wanting Kin's mouth for a deep kiss. "Pay me no mind. I am making less sense than Connach's fool. If you are content, so am I."

In answer, Kin yawned gustily. "I am better than content! I would change nothing, least of all you... Or Ray, Gods help me, for I love you both. I would ravish you, but I don't think I am capable -- these eyes of mine are trying to close." He lifted Bran's round chin, feathering his lips across nose and mouth. "Will you lie with me? Be Bran, be Ray, whichever, both, neither, as you please."

"Close my eyes, and go to Bodie?' Bran teased. "How easily you fetch me into temptation!" He stood, stretching and yawning. "Yet, you are right as always. This spine is crying out for a soft bed." He pulled his tunic over his head, stood holding it against his chest and watching Kin bank up the fire with peat sods. "Ravish me later," he offered. "Or shall I make sport with you?"

"Oh, please." Kin undressed with hands a little clumsy with fatigue. "Slowly and gently, deep and strong inside me, until I have forgotten who I am and who is riding me." He regarded his uncooperative body with amusement, cradling his lax cock in one palm. "See? I stand here daydreaming of your loving, and my body could not care less!" He eyed Bran's shapely genitals as his lover disrobed, seeing very much the same condition, and chuckled. "Oh, so I am not alone." Bran's skin was warm, yielding to his fingers as he caught his mate by the hips, dumping him onto the bed and sliding between the skins behind him. The feel of soft sheepskins and springy heather was wonderful and he groaned. "Oh, forbidden bliss."

Bran wriggled, turning over in his arms, rubbing against him like a cat, and Kin felt the press of the Druid stone between them. To sleep so was to open a window into another world, to look into a mirror and see images of another time. It was a trap of sorts, as Bran had said, but it was a velvet trap, all the more secure since they had no wish to escape. "Bodie," Bran whispered, licking along Kin's sharp collarbone, and it could have been Ray's voice. Kin was unconcerned, knowing as he did that Ray and Bran were the same.

"I am here," he murmured, speaking into the tickling curls, and if he spoke with Bodie's voice, so be it. He closed his eyes, feeling the stone picking up the warmth of their skin.

This was the life. A penthouse, a Jaguar parked in the garage twelve storeys below, champagne on ice in a bucket beside a king sized bed, a tray of confectionery on the side, and nothing to do but lie around and wait for the job to come to the simmer in its own good time. 'A loaf of bread,' Bodie thought drily, 'a jug of wine, and thou...' Well, a platter of French pastries, a magnum of pink champagne, and Ray, sitting in the middle of the enormous bed, cross legged, surrounded with silk covered pillows, a glass of bubbly in his hand, reading the racing form. He had a fiver on a horse called Gay Abandon, just couldn't resist the name, and if it came in at twenty to one he would be a ton better off. Which would delight the skinflint side of Ray's nature, Bodie knew. It was not that Ray was a penny pincher, or a miser, but he was from a big, poor family and had learned the value of money early on. By contrast, Bodie's own family had been reasonably affluent by Liverpudlian standards, comfortable enough for a kid not to have to do a paper round to earn his pocket money, at least. It was what Ray had done from being nine, and since he had started as an earner so young, the tendency to keep a tight grip on money had followed him into adulthood.

There was the urge to spoil him, to give him the earth, and Bodie indulged himself when the opportunity arose. This undercover assignment was a gift from kindly Gods -- it could as easily have been Murphy and the new lad, Jessop. But Bodie was still limping a little after achilles tendon trouble and, since he was not yet cleared for active duty, Cowley had seen fit to send Murph and Chris Jessop to Manchester to work with their police department, and hand the plum job of the season to 3.7 and 4.5. There was no hard physical work to be done and Bodie could feel the tendon healing slowly, responding to the rest.

He was standing at the penthouse's bedroom window, looking out over the park and river. Late in September, the crowds were thinning away and soon there would be the long swing down into winter. Christmas. Their fourth Christmas together as lovers. Bodie was towelling his hair, a loose terrycloth robe adhering to skin still shower damp. It was midmorning as Ray had yet to prise himself out of bed. The arrival of the champagne and confectionery, their 'ten o'clock', had woken him from his doze, but he was determined to make the most of this assignment. And that, Bodie observed, meant living the life of the pampered, spoiled rich man's pet, even behind closed doors.

'Ray Duncan' was an opportunist, a sometime model and pop singer with a decent reputation in Paris, who made a career out of being a parasite, but, like the orchid, did not kill the host, merely made that host more beautiful. He had latched onto an unlikely patron this time; William Bantry was a renegade with an axe to grind and the money to buy a mercenary army to grind it with. And that was the essence of Cowley's scheme. Assume the roles of two renegades from vastly differing worlds, one recently returned from the Continent, the other from America; make contacts, win confidences, splash money around, and make no secret of violent, anarchistic politics. Ultimately, hire on a force of mercs to attack Britain's police, army and judiciary from the inside.

Which was the point where CI5 would move in and pick up the whole lot, snatching more IRA colonels, demolition experts, weapons men and runners than they had managed to snare in a year. It was dangerous to a degree, in that Doyle's and Bodie's faces were not unknown, but Bantry and Duncan moved in different circles and it was a calculated risk they, and Cowley, were willing to undertake. They had been installed in the penthouse for three weeks, spent their evenings wining and dining what seemed like half the London underworld, and were already accepted for what they were, two predators having a wild affair, preying on one another as surely as they preyed on others, Duncan interested only in money and the advancement of his career, Bantry devoted to seeing England in hell, and passing the time with the pleasures of fine food, wine, expensive cars and, his real weakness, sex.

There was a time when Cowley would have sent Bodie undercover with a woman, or cast Duncan in the part of the wealthy jingoist, one time mercenary, his fortune earned in the jungled hills of Paraguay and Central America, supplying guns to the Contras and drugs to the American smugglers. The days when Bodie had allowed Cowley that much slack rope were over. CI5 agents often made mileage out of their looks and charisma, earning Cowley the affectionate nickname of family pimp, but when an agent was married that stopped. There were a few marriages within the department but only one such arrangement between field agents.

3.7 and 4.5 were still almost unique, but Cowley had seen the strength and advantage of what he had almost at once. There were numerous situations where bringing in a third party from the outside to play the part of mistress, wife, lover, would only increase the danger. Sometimes Murphy and Susan Fischer went out as a couple, given the nature of the job. They could have done this assignment, Bodie knew. Or Murphy could have done it with Jessop, who was young, almost too pretty and a confessed bi. But it would have been a performance on Murphy's part, which would be wearing, given weeks of it -- celibacy and playacting. Better in the parts were Cowley's trump cards.

Bodie smiled at the notion. Trump cards. Cowley was a shrewd old bastard. He had set this job up with an attention to minute detail that was typical. Bantry was a hard nut, ruthless, cynical and mercenary, using Duncan -- but Duncan was as hard as they came after a bitter fight to succeed, and equally cynical, using Bantry, taking him for everything he would give and, in return, offering the delicious sensuality Bantry craved for.

The cover was a sound one, allowing for oddities of behavior -- Ray's disappearance for a day, ostensibly after a fight, actually, to report to Cowley and chase up data from Interpol. Or Bantry's violence toward others who tried to move in on Duncan, and his aggressiveness when it came to the selection of recruits. The colonels came first, the bigwheels, influential, so far removed from the rank and file of the organization that not even CI5 could touch them. And they came from the most unexpected places. A churchman, a lawyer, a surgeon, each highly placed and respected in the community, living a double life as they became, behind closed doors, reactionaries and anarchists, living for the day when England would go down.

'Double life?' Bodie thought as he dispensed with the damp towel and finger combed his hair. 'That's us!' Outside, in company, Bantry and Duncan were users, hunters, demanding a lot and taking what was offered with arrogance. With the door closed on this penthouse the deception was dropped. It was a relief to get back, get rid of the tie that was strangling Bodie and the upper crust act that was suffocating Doyle, so proper with its opal cufflinks and affected manners. Doyle had begun by playing his role with relish, mocking the very strata of society he was reproducing. Mockery had settled down into parody, but no one noticed, assuming that Duncan was teasing his lover, an impression Bodie reinforced by simply laughing when Ray went into the Prince Andrew routine.

But that life commanded less than half their time. The other half was spent here in the penthouse, or in the Jaguar, or in the expensive clubs and restaurants that were part of their cover. With CI5 picking up the tab they were living high, and Bodie chuckled as he thought of the look on Cowley's face when he saw the bills. It would break his Scottish heart.

At the sound of the quiet laughter Ray looked up from the paper. "What's so funny?"

"This is." Bodie gestured at the flat as he returned to the elaborate bed and sat on the side of it, leaning over to taste Ray's champagne-rich mouth. "You got any idea how much this lot is costing?" He lay down, head in Ray's quilted lap, and looked up at the white plaster overhead. "Should have been mirrors up there, you know." Ray gave an earthy snicker. "Big mirrors, so I can watch you while you ride me."

"It's a penthouse, not a cathouse," Ray chuckled. "Still, if you want to get into voyeurism, there's always Angel's."

Angel's was a club catering to cosmopolitan tastes. One was as likely to meet hetero couples as gays, or bisexual three- and foursomes; or any combination of anything at all. The air was heavy with grass and amies, wine and garlic, and upstairs there were sumptuous boudoirs with blood red velvet wallpaper, gold drapes. It was a social club for the extremely rich, not to say the mildly debauched, and they had gone there several times to savour the food and wine, dance and meet with certain contacts. Angel's was safe. There was a bouncer the size of Jaws on the door, and another upstairs, listening for any cry of distress from the rooms. They did not permit violence or domination games, and their 'escorts' were all beautiful, clean and skilled. The chef was one of the best in London, the cellar the finest outside Paris, the sheets silk and changed after each client has passed on. The bouncers would break teeth to protect their escorts, and the young girls and boys brought to Angel's by the club's patrons, but there were few altercations. Angel's was a nest of sweet, sinful, sensual pursuit, not of kinkiness and depravity; those who got their kicks from pain knew better than to go there. It was the only place Bodie knew where he and Ray could enjoy a fine meal, dance unashamedly to the music of a string quartet playing popular songs, and then, if they were so inclined, go upstairs and make love in the outrageous luxury of the place, and be safe while they were about it. It was the most expensive club in town, and with good reason.

"Go to Angel's tonight, if you like," Ray offered. "We've got to meet McCaffey, so we might as well go there as anywhere." He stretched both arms over his head and yawned. "Christ, this is the life. But I'm getting soft, Bodie. By the time we get out of here I'm going to be soft as a jelly. Macklin's going to have a field day with me! Going to have to start running in the mornings or something. Reckon your ankle'd take it?"

But Bodie shook his head. "Nope. So I'll sit and watch you. Stopwatch you, if you like. What, three miles, four?"

"First few days out," Ray agreed, "then five. Get it down to five mile in half an hour by the end of the job, and Macklin won't have a bone to pick. Maybe get into the gym up the road, lift some weights."

"Masochist," Bodie accused, tracing circles about Ray's exposed navel. "You're in heaven, why can't you enjoy it like any normal person?"

"I am enjoying it," Ray said with a grin. "Problem is, heaven doesn't last -- and there's this bloody great fall from grace coming, and a Scotsman with little black wings and horns who'll send us to roast, with Macklin turning the spit!" He stooped, kissing Bodie's mouth and gave him a push. "Wouldn't like to get away from it all this afternoon, would you? I'll ring McCaffey and tell him we'll be at Angel's at -- what, eight?" Bodie nodded. "Get in the car and bugger off out of town. Lunch in a pub, jog down a country lane if any such thing still exists among the housing estates, dip in the river to clean up...?"

Bodie pretended to consider the proposition but there was little to deliberate over. He bounced up off the bed, yanking the quilt off his lover. "You're on, mate! Want to finish the pastries and bubbly before we go?"

"Nah, I'm starting to look like a chocolate eclair," Doyle admitted. "Was a time I'd walk a mile to get one, but I'm starting to crave for the simple delights of a banana."

A ribald chuckle escaped Bodie. "Freudian, Ray. Very Freudian." Doyle threw a pillow at him and they were wrestling, tangled in the bedding until Bodie surrendered with his lover's knee in his midriff and Ray's teeth locked on the lobe of his ear. "Okay, okay, you win. Ow! Mind the bloody ear, will you?" A kiss replaced the nipping teeth and Ray relented, letting him up. "I must be getting soft," Bodie said gloomily. "We did the same thing last month, and you ended up..." He caught Doyle's eye and chuckled. "Remember?"

"Oh, I remember," Ray said drily as he padded to the closet for pale, rock washed denim and a scarlet silk shirt, Duncan's usual flamboyant attire. "I ended up flat on my face with you kneeling on my back, and the next thing I knew you had your fingers in me and you were having your wicked way."

Slightly abashed, Bodie watched him slip into his clothes. "You didn't mind, did you? I never asked if you wanted to."

Doyle gave him a pained look. "Spare me the martyrdom, love. You know I wanted it two seconds after you put your fingers in!"

"You relaxed," Bodie remembered. "You know, opened for me. Inviting me." He shivered, watching Ray zip the pale blue jeans and push his feet into his boots. "And, God, I wanted you."

"That's nice," Doyle said softly, huskily, coming to the bedside and cupping Bodie's smooth, recently razored face. "Knowing you're wanted is half the fun of being in love. The other half is knowing your mate knows you want him just as much, and loves being wanted as much as you do. Make sense?"

"Sounded like Stanley Unwin, but I followed it," Bodie admitted. "I think that ought to worry me. I never was fluent in gibberish before." He caught Doyle by the hips before he could escape, pressing his face into the expanse of soft furry chest where the silk shirt was open, the green stone nestling there on its leather thong. Doyle rarely took it off now, and if anyone asked after its origin said it was a family heirloom. Which was not too far from the truth.

"Silly sod," Ray murmured at Bodie's display of tenderness. "You really think I could object to being made love to? I might, if it was anyone else, but -- you? Or were you teasing?"

"A bit," Bodie admitted. "But it's funny. You don't stop to think about being inside a bird -- it's the way nature designed them! It isn't the same with a bloke. Still feels like I ought to ask permission, get the all-clear to proceed. I don't like hurting you."

"You never have," Ray said huskily. "The pair of you never did a damned thing that hurt me. Oh, the first time, maybe, but that's par for the course." He closed his eyes. "I remember when you turned me over that night. It was dark, the fires were low, hot draught from the nearest one, and there were people singing, somewhere. I knew what you wanted, and I was a bit scared. Christ, I was only a kid! But I wanted to give you everything, even if you did leave me in the morning, and I was sure you would. I thought it would hurt like bloody hell, never expected you to be so gentle. Can still feel that oil you put on before you did me." He shivered visibly.

Bodie smiled at the rapt, intent, self-absorption, both hands still cradling Ray's narrow pelvis. "That wasn't us," he whispered very gently. "Was it?"

"Yeah. I think it was." Doyle seemed to shrug himself awake, and smiled down into his lover's face. "You were so beautiful, you could have murdered me and I'd have gone to the slaughter willingly. You're still beautiful, you know?" He smoothed the uneven fringe on Bodie's brow.

"You think so?" Bodie made a face. "Glad you do, but I'm not likely to agree with you!" He stood, dumping the robe and going to the closet for Bantry's severe but beautifully cut clothes, unaware that Doyle was watching his progress with a lopsided smile and half closed eyes.

The rounded swell of buttocks drew the eye, dark downed between, luscious, tempting, above legs that were full and statuesque, the lines of muscles clearly defined beneath skin that was like downy velvet, white as milk. Bodie had a beautiful back; although his muscles were larger than Ray's own, there was a layer of springy fat just under the skin, so none of them showed unless he performed feats in the gym. The result was decadent marble sensuality. His chest was very nearly smooth, just the slightest dusting of down about each pink nipple and arrowing from navel to groin. There, the whiteness of his skin was in shocking contrast to the luxuriant flare of black which nested heavy but shapely genitals. His cock was smooth, thick, pale until he was aroused, cushioned on the sac that held his testes. Delicate, vulnerable, quivering at a caress, entrusted to his lover without qualm.

Blue eyes were narrowed on Doyle when he looked back at Bodie's face. Bodie stood holding his clothes, waiting, and Doyle merely shrugged. "Just looking. I like to look. You're... not half bad."

"Dark, beautiful and engagingly modest," Bodie quipped, dressing as he spoke and giving Doyle a wink. "Anyway, so long as you're satisfied. I always bloody hated the way I look -- the grass is always greener. Human nature!"

"Yeah." Doyle laughed quietly, putting away their personal belongings and locking the drawer. The maids would be in to change the bedlinen and vacuum the flat, take out the rubbish and restock the fridge that afternoon, and it would not do to have some poor young girl find a battered tube of KY and an SIS issue R/T! He pocketed the key and returned to the closet for the new blue tracksuit and Nike running shoes, purchased two days before when he realised to what extent the good life was taking its toll. He would never gain much weight, but his muscles were softening beneath the tiny layer of subcutaneous fat he carried, and it made him feel soft rather than look soft. Bodie was a little out of shape, but that was understandable and permissible, since he had been given his orders by Macklin himself -- stay off the ankle or you're on for an early pension! It was a typical athlete's injury, and needed only rest to repair itself; the achilles tendon was delicate but not irreparable, the living proof of which was Trevor Francis, who snapped the tendon in his left leg and ten months later went back onto the soccer pitch and put the ball in the back of the net, first game out. Bodie would mend, and Doyle was looking forward with pleasant anticipation to sharing the early morning jogging route with him.

Early morning was a special time; dark, or just on dawn, mist under the trees, breath in the air, silent and peaceful and still, just the two of them while the suburbs slept on. They might see a few other joggers, perhaps a cyclist or someone walking dogs, but they were nearly alone most mornings, especially when the weather was inclement. Being alone with Bodie was a time to be cherished, for there were so few occasions when they were alone and awake. As a rule, peace and quiet were for sleeping, a little loving snatched almost guiltily, because Cowley was waiting and both of them felt the tug of duty. 'Married to the bloody job,' Doyle thought as he packed track pants, running shoes and a towel into a sports carryall, and picked up the phone.

The number he was calling was a Kensington town house. It rang four times and a man answered. "Mr. McCaffey at home?" Doyle's delivery was clipped, terse, as if short tempered, typical of the acidic Ray Duncan. Duncan's life had been no joke, not the way Cowley had set up the scenario and laid down the groundwork, in case anyone cared to check him out. Highschool, and then thirteen years of hard physical work supported by casual whoring as he slept his way close to the top on the photographics and recording industry in Paris. His name was not well known because his voice was most often heard on jingles -- voiceovers for commercials and films, where he sang for money rather than glory; glory came in the form of a band called Stray Cats that played a club on the Seine. There was a manager at that club who would swear that Ray Duncan had played there for ten months, packed the place out, and was a great lay. The scenario made Doyle chuckle; Cowley should have been a novelist.

"Who wants McCaffey?" The voice was silky, bearing a hint of menace. It was McCaffey speaking, the trace of County Antrim accent betraying him.

"Oh, it's Ray Duncan. Bantry asked me to phone you. We can meet you tonight, if you like."

"Where?" McCaffey asked, the menace replaced by interest. Business was never far from the man's mercenary little mind. "And when?"

"How about Angel's?" Doyle suggested. "Play your cards right and Moneybags Bantry might pick up the tab. About eight?"

McCaffey laughed easily. "He's picking up the tab for you all right. Fair enough, Duncan. I'll be there. And tell his lordship I'm allergic to lobster. Brings me out in hives." The remark was glib, and McCaffey hung up.

Doyle returned the phone to its cradle and zipped the sports bag. "He'll be there. You want to book us a table?"

Ten minutes later they were in the maroon V12 Jaguar and heading north, and before hunger had set in they were ordering a traditional ploughman's lunch at a pub called Four Elms. There were tables under said trees and a plump, florid waitress who brought their meal out to them. Bodie slipped her a ten and graced her with a smile, telling her to keep the change. Doyle watched her bat her eyelashes at him and smothered a smirk in his beer. 'Yeah, and he's mine,' he thought with genuine satisfaction, sitting back to enjoy the look of his lover as Bodie set about his lunch. There was much of Kinnamus Iron Hand about Bodie; the likenesses were everywhere, both in build and feature, and in disposition. Sunlight dappled his face, highlighting cheekbones and heavy jaw, and Bodie was squinting a little, fans of tiny creases bringing his face that hint of vulnerability. Doyle castigated himself as a sentimentalist and turned his attention to his own lunch.

From the country pub they cruised west, searching out a secluded paddock with access to a stream, and Bodie pulled the Jag off the road. The whole world was deserted, only the Guernseys in the next meadow aware of their existence. Ray changed into the track pants and shoes, spurning the tee shirt that accompanied them, as the day was already too warm for comfort during hard physical exercise. Bodie leaned lazily on the car's long bonnet and studied Bantry's Rolex. "What, half an hour?"

"Half an hour sounds about right." Ray stretched both arms over his head. "Feels good to be alive. Great to get out of town, too."

"On your marks, get ready --"

"Drop dead," Ray said sweetly, and was gone.

Bodie chuckled, marking the time and setting back to watch. Watching Ray was one of life's great pleasures, no matter what he was doing. He moved like a dancer, slender and graceful, his skin brown, chest deliciously downy, curls lying thickly on his neck. Bodie bit his lip. Some blokes had all the luck -- you had to have friends in higher regions to be blessed with Doyle's attributes at birth, and as a boy Bodie would have killed for them. He still gazed enviously at the slender physique but had long since grown accustomed to the idea that he was not one of the world's greyhounds. Birds had never complained, which had improved his self image at an early age; and Ray was besotted, which dispelled forever the greater part of the envy. Still, dancer's legs and auburn curls would have been nice... And nicer on Doyle, he admitted ruefully as Ray waved, coming back up the paddock fence for the second time.

He was damp and glowing with heat and the sense of wellbeing that comes from exertion. Edible, Bodie decided as he stripped off the sodden clothes and brought a pair of shocking red trunks from the bag. He had one foot in them when Bodie protested. "There's nobody for miles!"

"S'what you think," Doyle snorted. "Five seconds after I decide to paddle in the raw a busload of schoolgirls'll appear, and I'll be in the local nick for indecent exposure before I can turn 'round." He yanked up the trunks, settled them comfortably and stretched. "Feels good."

"You do," Bodie agreed, running fingertips over damp, silky skin. "Your muscles are like knots, you've been going too hard."

"Wanted to," Doyle said indifferently, stretching sideways and touching his toes to loosen up. He yelped and chuckled as Bodie palmed the buttocks in their lycra sheath. "Got designs on me, have you?"

"Haven't I always?" Bodie demanded as Ray straightened. "You are delectable when you perspire, d'you know that?"

"You mean when I'm in a sweaty great mess?" Doyle threw back his head and laughed. "You're mad, Bodie!"

"Quite possibly," Bodie admitted. "I'm in love. It's not an especially sane state of mind! Go on, take a dip nd I'll buy you an icecream." Doyle was gone once more as he spoke, jogging down to the tiny streamlet that ran across the corner of the paddock, and Bodie watched, bemused, beguiled and unabashedly bewitched as he splashed about in the water. A sprite; a dryad daring the sunshine. He jogged back, cool and dewy, and patted his skin dry as Bodie smiled indulgently over him. "You're going to be stiff tomorrow, Raymond, when those muscles grab up."

"So you can give me a rub." Ray winked conspiratorially. "Oily little hands all over me -- your favourite hobby, isn't it?"

"I cannot tell a lie," Bodie confessed soulfully as Ray stripped off the wet lycra and patted with infuriating intimacy. There was a wilful stirring in Bodie's groin and he forced his eyes away. Time for that later, and in more comfortable circumstances than the middle of a field! "What about that icecream?" he prompted as Ray slid back into the jeans and shirt. "Have to head back to town soon."

The bag zipped with a churring of meshing metal and Ray threw it into the Jag's cramped rear. "Double strawberry cornet, and half a gallon of Coke, I think -- running's thirsty work. There's a kiosk on the main road back at the last intersection."

London was drab and grey by comparison and they were caught in traffic, riding bumper to bumper through the rush hour. It was a good thing they had not arranged to meet with McCaffey any earlier. Back at the penthouse, Bodie R/T'd base, a routine check in as Doyle put together ham sandwiches smothered in mustard, and Cowley took the news that they had the meet with McCaffey set up at Angel's with mixed feelings. Delight, that things were progressing smoothly; disdain at the sheer expense of the venue. "It was his set up," Bodie lied easily. "And we can't cry poverty, can we? Not at this stage of the game."

Cowley bought it, and Doyle shook his head disparagingly. "He's getting slow, sending us out on this kind of assignment. Think it's senility? A few years ago he stuck me with a barrow boy job -- and made a tramp of you! I enjoyed the post-grad English student cover, and being a music correspondent was good, too." He made a face as Bodie hung one muscular arm about his shoulder. "Being a biker was not so salubrious!"

"It had its moments," Bodie argued. "Fresh air, making whoppee under the stars --"

"Beating the rest of the pack off with a stick," Ray retorted. "There are certain drawbacks to being a sex object." He winced as Bodie pinched his bottom sharply. "You'll pay for that, mate. Promise."

"I'll kiss it all better," Bodie offered with mock sweetness.

"Among other things you'll kiss," Doyle said darkly. "You're a bloody tease today -- what's got you so full of the joys of spring?" He turned into Bodie's arms, holding him, and Bodie's fingers closed about the green stone on its thong about Ray's neck. "Oh? You had Bran?"

"Mm. He was angry, had been tilting at windmills, which is a mistake in any world, but you're an idealist. Bran is, I mean. Was. Oh, damn, you know what I mean! There was a skinny little kid getting the daylights walloped out of him by his father and you got in between them, blacked the man's eye and took the kid to Amergin. Fine by me, love; problem was, the lad's father was a big friend of Connach's, and they set you up. Have you ever dreamed this one?"

Ray shook his head. "Never. What happened?"

"Oh, a stolen sword, found in your pack, and you were only a kid yourself. Blooded in one skirmish, which didn't make you a warrior as far as the elders were concerned. I was off on Connach's affairs and arrived the morning they were going to treat you to the wrong end of a stick across your back. Amergin was with me, thank Christ; a Druid outranks a chief any day. He stopped the whole show, and went to that little thing, what's his name, Connach's fool?"

"The dwarf? They called him Bunny," Doyle said. "I can't remember their word, but that's what it meant. Rabbit. He hated Connach. Your father -- Kin's, that is -- used to think it was funny to put his foot behind him. Amergin went to him?"

"Because Bunny didn't sleep during the night, and sat on the fence, howling at the moon out of misery," Bodie said bleakly. "And he used to be a stone's toss from our hut remember? He saw the sword planted in your gear, and swore it under oath to a Druid." He smiled thinly. "Connach had to accept it; Bunny's tongue would have gone black and dropped out if he'd lied, I expect! So they tied Donal to the gate instead, and he got the belting you'd been due." He kissed the green stone, and then Doyle's soft, parted lips. "You were furious, hopping up and down with righteous outrage, pink in the cheeks and sparkling with it. God, how I loved you. I was so proud of you I could have bust my seams, and I took you home and seduced you until you had me. You spent your temper on me, I think, before you realised what you were doing, and then I've never seen anything like it. Big eyes, green as this stone. You were sixteen, if you were lucky, and you cried your eyes out when you realised. Didn't once ask me to forgive you, said it was enough that you'd never forgive yourself. I was dazed, you'd never done it like that, never thought you would. You drove me wild with it, right over the edge, thought I was going to kiss goodbye to my mind! And then you sat there crying for shame, so beautiful I wanted to eat you alive, crawl inside your skin and be you." Bodie stirred, his eyes clearing as he withdrew from the dream. "Took me an hour to calm you down, convince you I'd loved every second and was just a trifle sore."

"I'll dream that one day," Doyle whispered, and Bodie realised he was shaking. He forced a smile. "It's nothing. Just... It's getting so hard to tell us apart from them. I sit staring into space -- into the fourth dimension, literally! -- daydreaming about Kin, and hurting for his hurts. I can feel Bran's aches. And his love," he added huskily.

Bodie's shoulders lifted in a shrug. "I know. I do the same things. It doesn't worry you, does it?"

"I dunno," Doyle admitted. "I just know I love you both, and I'll fight to keep you both, and if a trick cyclist ever gets hold of me and they tie me to a mattress, so long as they tie me to the same one you're tied to, and don't take the stone away, I'll die happy."

"Idiot," Bodie accused, and kissed his lover soundly. "Better get your flashy togs on, my sweet, or we're going to be late. Wear the lace, will you? You look a treat in lace."

A lace shirt, like something Douglas Fairbanks might have worn in a swashbuckler from yet another bygone age, soft and loose, leaving his chest bare, white velvet slacks and red leather boots with heels that took Doyle's natural 5'10" and made six feet of it. A wine red velvet jacket, and his jewellery, and he was satisfied. Ray Duncan, ready to take on the world -- 'and chew it up', Bodie thought wryly as he dressed the part of Bantry. Black slacks, grey roll neck, brown suede boots that made his 6'1" into 6'2", keeping him that little taller than his partner, though Doyle's footwear closed the gap by an inch. They looked themselves over and laughed richly.

"Pair of narcissists, they reckon," Doyle said. "That's what they think of us, you know. In love with ourselves and in lust with each other, hating the world and everything in it."

"Misanthropists, misogynists and misbegotten," Bodie said gleefully. "You look good enough to earn a thousand a night at Angel's, if you were working there. Not as a singer, either, if you know what I mean."

"I know what you mean," Doyle admitted. "Used to make me smart a bit, till you hit that potbellied American for groping me. Now I just laugh."

"Snigger," Bodie corrected, fetching the keys to the Jaguar and ushering Doyle to the door. "You have the dirtiest laugh I've ever heard, bar none." He dropped a nuzzling kiss on Ray's neck between lace collar and warm curls. "You smell divine, too. Or is it out of a bottle?"

"Cheek. That's me you're sniffing," Doyle told him not quite tartly.

"If you could bottle it, you'd get rich," Bodie said solemnly, and locked the door to the penthouse behind them.

The traffic was heavy and they handed the V12 Jaguar over to the club's parking attendant with barely five minutes to spare. Bodie had booked a table in the dim alcove along from the string quartet. >From there, one could observe the entrance without being immediately visible, and speak under the volume of the music, which was a valuable source of privacy if there was to be illicit business. Or a little intimate Romance. Angel's was sexually free, but Bodie still valued his dignity, and if he was going to vocalise the whole sentimental truth he preferred to do so without an audience. He followed the waiter to the secluded corner, and ushered his lover to their table. Bantry was possessive of Duncan and noted for his indulgences; Bodie handled Ray's chair personally, seating him before taking his own place and the wine list.

They were almost finished the aperitifs when McCaffey appeared, dressed to kill, in the foyer. The musicians were playing a selection from 'A Little Night Music', and McCaffey chose to make his entrance at the moment 'Send in the Clowns' began. Doyle choked off a guffaw, burying his nose in the menu Bodie watched McCaffey directed to their alcove, gave the man a nod in greeting but denied any vestige of a smile. Bantry had no love for his fellow man. McCaffey was fiftyish, his hairline receding, temples liberally shot through with grey, his skin toughened by years of hard drinking. Once, he would have been handsome in a typically Irish manner, but he was running to seed and did not seem to care, as rich people rarely cared. It was too easy for them to buy anything and anyone they wanted, there was no onus on them to take care of themselves personally. Bodie's lip curled; if young people refused the lure of big bucks for favours, people like McCaffey would learn better. The trouble was, Angel's was full of beautiful expensive escorts of both sexes, and all it took was money.

The couples dancing were a rare assortment of ages, genders and tendencies. McCaffey gave them a disdainful look as he seated himself and ordered White Horse and water. Bodie studied him with overt dislike, waiting, and as the waiter delivered his drink the Irishman leaned closer and said, "I can arrange it for tomorrow."

It was the event they had been waiting for. McCaffey was an IRA colonel who knew everyone in the business from the boot end up. He had known for weeks that Bantry wanted to hire on professionals for a blitz at Christmas, and he had been checking. CI5 sources in American and France were primed with their information; the deck was well marked, Cowley had seen to that. If McCaffey had checked up on Bantry and Duncan he would have discovered how vicious both men could be, that Bantry's fortune came from merc work and running guns and drugs, and that Duncan had killed a man in a brawl outside the club where Stray Cats performed. Self defence; rape was not in Duncan's interests and he knew well enough how to take care of himself. He was dangerous, but Bantry was more so, for Duncan's ambitions were entirely personal where his lover entertained serious politician intentions. And there was a lot of money behind him.

"Tomorrow may be a little premature," Bodie said tartly. "Are you sure?"

"I've got the best in the trade," McCaffey assured him. "Take your pick of them. How many do you want?"

"An army," Bodie said silkily. "A street army, so the bastard British won't know what hit them. How many have you got?"

McCaffey leaned closer, flicking a glance at Duncan's bored face. "Enough. They're not cheap lads, though. And they want to see your money."

Bodie smiled like a snake. "Whatever happened to idealism? There was a time Fenians fought for glory, or revenge, or beliefs."

"Those days are almost gone," McCaffey said dourly. "Poverty is the great leveller, Mr. Bantry. Do you want an army of mercenaries or not? If you're waiting for a force of bold idealists ready to lay down their lives in your name, you can forget it. It's going to cost you, and I've already told the good people you're made of money. Was I wrong, then?"

"No." Bodie paused as the waiter arrived to take their dinner order. They chose leek soup, steak and wild mushrooms, brandied peaches, and as the man left Bodie scraped back his chair, playing out the hand. Let McCaffey stew, it was good for the soul. The string quartet was playing a Joplin waltz, slow and mellow. Doyle accepted the offer of Bodie's company on the floor, fitting against him as they moved languidly to the lilting, old world sound of Scott Joplin. "So?" Bodie asked, close to one curl covered ear. "Too soon?"

"McCaffey seems delighted to oblige," Doyle said carefully, glancing at their table, where the colonel was into his third White Horse and studiously ignoring the dancers. Half were hetero couples, the other half same sex, all relaxed, quietly enjoying the freedom and luxury of this place. It was worth the fortune it cost to come here. "If he wasn't sure he'd string us along, wouldn't he? We could wrap the whole show tomorrow."

Bodie groaned eloquently. "And go back to the real world so soon?"

A soft laugh, and Doyle kissed Bodie's temple, a simple brush of dry lips, discreet and yet openly affectionate. "This isn't us, you know that! Out of our league, love. Besides, I'm starting to go stir crazy. We can still come here occasionally -- save up and do it incognito. Nobody we know can afford to come here --"

"Including us!"

"-- so there'd be no chance at all of being recognised." Doyle's teeth closed on his lips as they moved to the music and watched the waiter deliver their first course. "Grub's on. I'm starved, come on."

The words produced a wince from Bodie, and they returned to their table as the musicians switched to Some Enchanted Evening. McCaffey was waiting -- stewing, Bodie observed, and he gave the man a curt nod. "All right, tomorrow. Where?"

"Leave that to me." McCaffey tossed away the fourth of the night's innumerable drinks. "We've got security to think about. I'll set it all up, send a car for you. What about the money?"

"And what about my security?" Bodie said scornfully. "I'll give you the number of my Swiss account. Check what you like overnight." He wrote the number of an account set up by CI5 and Interpol on the corner of a serviette and watched McCaffey pocket it. "We'll be waiting."

And so would half of CI5. Cowley had been on tenterhooks for a fortnight, knowing that the job would come to the boil in a minute when things began to move at last. The time was at hand, and Bodie felt his nerves begin to tighten in anticipation. "So who are these good people of yours? They come with references, I suppose?" he asked as the wine waiter served a dry white to accompany the soup course and departed.

"They have what it takes," McCaffey said guardedly. "You'll meet them tomorrow. All of them. If they like what they see, they'll sign with you."

"If they like --" Bodie allowed a bark of laughter. "Don't start giving yourself airs and graces, McCaffey. You're not big enough. Go and check that account number. They'll put the call on my tab if you want to use one of the private rooms upstairs. Oh, but enjoy your dinner first." He curled his lip at the other man's thickened, unfit body. "Vice before virtue, eh?"

McCaffey knew it was being mocked but passed over it. It was Bantry's way; he mocked everyone with the exception of the silent, bored and beautiful Ray Duncan. They ate almost in silence, and when coffee was served in a Georgian silver pot McCaffey excused himself, heading upstairs to use the loo and the phone, in that order. Comfortably full and feeling mellow, Bodie sipped the strong black coffee, watching Doyle nibble at the corner of a cracker as if he couldn't face another bite. "He's going to have a fit when they give him the information," Ray observed acidly. "Cowley's got a fertile imagination."

"Yeah. Thing that drives me right round the bend is knowing this Bantry person got his money doing exactly what I was doing. Merc work. I was on big money, still got the odd few bob left. If I'd stuck to it -- oh, what the hell? Then I'd never have met you, would I?" He leaned across the table. "Setting's right. String quartet playing Mozart, good meal inside you, candles and roses, couples dancing. I'm going to say it."

"Say what?" Doyle was hooked, eyes vast and dark, glittering in the light of two fat candles on the table, tiny coffee cup half way to his lips and suspended there, the soft lighting erasing the oddity of the broken cheek until it might not have been there at all.

"I love you," Bodie purred. "I adore you. Worship you. I want to go upstairs and make love on silk sheets as soon as McCaffey's gone. If you'll have me."

He saw Doyle's throat twitch as he swallowed, and Ray offered his hand across the table, treasuring the freedom of this club. "You certainly know how to make a bloke feel like a prince. Oh, love. If I'll have you? If?" He smiled, a sweet and gentle expression that would have blown Duncan's cover utterly if McCaffey had seen it. "I love you -- adore, worship, honour, cherish, all those things. I thought you knew!"

"I do know," Bodie admitted, stroking Ray's palm with three fingertips. "Sometimes I like to say it, and hear it back. I'm only human, you know."

"Are you?" Doyle sat back in his chair, shaking his head slowly over his lover, and then his eyes were drawn to the wide stairway. "Here's comes McCaffey. There's a look on his face you could sell tickets for. The call obviously went through. Aren't these numbered computer accounts wonderful?"

"You get your meet," McCaffey said bluffly, fixing Bantry with a hard look, a gleam in his eyes that was fascinated. "The wages of sin are handsome," he added drily. "Tomorrow, then. Afternoon, I'll send my car. You'll meet the people, choose what you want, and leave the rest to me. Fees negotiable."

"Up to the point." Bodie sat back, looking the IRA man over critically. "Till tomorrow, then. Good evening." McCaffey nodded and withdrew, going to take his coat from the attendant, and Bodie returned his attention to Doyle, watching him swirl the dregs of his coffee about the bottom of the minuscule cup. "That means we'll have to go bugged, and let Cowley close in," he mused. "So long as they don't lose us we'll be fine, and it's over. If they do lose us, we just play it through and pull out, and it's Cowley's loss. At least we'll have picked up the leaders. A Monsignor, and optometrist, a barrister. Damn. People you'd never suspect in a month of Sundays." He yawned beyond one delicately raised hand and let the whole subject go for the moment. "This is our last night in Paradise on the firm. Want to make the most of a good thing?"

"Oh, yeah." Ray stretched, flexing his shoulders and neck, and smiled lazily. "Why don't you take me away from all this?"

Benjamin was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, smiling politely in greeting. A beautiful young man in a white suite and white bow tie. Bodie merely glanced meaningfully up the stairs and Benjamin smiled graciously. "Please follow me, gentlemen. The Empire Suite has been attended to."

Up the stairs, red carpets, framed da Vinci and Caravaggio prints, white woodwork, gilt door handles, a gold key on an ivory keyring pressed into Ray Duncan's hand. The key was always given to the escort, the wife, the lover -- the party for whom the tab was being picked up. A simple courtesy that showed how much the giver of pleasure was respected here. Doyle accepted it with a smile, ushering Bodie inside and locking the door behind them. When Angel's 'attended' to a suite of rooms, they meant airing them out, changing the sheets, leaving a bottle of champagne, and little case of accessories, all of which had been returned to as-new condition. The rosewood case held lubricants, rings and a strap of enormous cultured pearls for a man's pleasure, richly exotic condoms, mink gloves, scented cigarettes that might or might not have been marijuana, and a few capsules that might or might not have been amyl nitrate. Bodie removed the tube of lubricant and closed the lid on the rest. All he needed was standing next to him.

There were mirrors on the ceilings and one wall, offering them the opportunity for visual as well as tactile sensation, and Bodie watched Ray's body with lazy pleasure as he undressed it, caressed and pampered it. Ray was very much aroused, feeling like a million quid, Bodie guessed. The slender hands undressed him slowly, caressing everywhere in return, and Ray was watching the mirrors, murmuring in appreciation as he slid Bodie's slacks and underwear off together, exposing the luscious swell of buttocks. He knelt at Bodie's feet, coaxing his clothes off altogether and, as he stepped out of them, took him by the hips to hold him still. Bodie moaned as the heat of Ray's mouth closed about him, moist lips and busy tongue drawing him higher and higher. In the mirror was a scene of rampant sensuality that wiped every thought but one from his mind, and he pulled out of Ray's grasp at last. "Oh, enough, love -- going to waste it in another sec. Come on." He gave Doyle his hands, pulling him to his feet, and they sprawled on the vast bed, pressed together and rubbing languidly, too near sated with rich food and wine to be in a hurry.

The overhead mirrors gave Bodie a glorious view of slender, brown back and peachy buttocks. He palmed their roundness, squeezing, delighting in the image as his fingers sank in, dividing the delicious cheeks to expose Ray. Doyle caught his breath, head tipped back, wriggling as his anus was stroked, rimmed and invaded by a single loving finger, but Bodie withdrew the caress as he felt his lover begin to shake. A pat for each buttock, and he lifted Ray's head from his shoulder to look at him. "Hey, wakey, wakey."

"I'm -- not -- asleep!" Doyle panted, green eyes opening, dark and smoky with the hunger Bodie had generated. "Where's that tube?"

"Here." Bodie passed it into his hand and spread his legs. "Be gentle with me, I'm feeling fragile."

"Are you?" Ray took the tube, uncapping it, but bestowed a deep kiss to Bodie's mouth before continuing, tongue hunting for its companion, finding Bodie's and making love to it with devotion. Bodie was dizzy when Ray lifted his head again, barely aware as he was spread and folded upon himself, knees hooked over Doyle's shoulders.

He was watching the mirrors overhead, saw Ray coat his fingers in the cool, slick lubricant, saw his own body open and offered up like a sacrificial lamb; saw Ray's fingers approach and enter him. It was a sight he had never seen before and his heart began to hammer as he watched through slitted eyes; Ray's fingers were buried deeply, moving in and out, the wrist rotating, bringing waves of pure delight for minutes before he withdrew the gentle fingers and reached for a tissue at the bedside. "You okay?" The green eyes were sparkling with mischief and affection. "You've been wheezing and groaning like a hundred year old organ."

"Have I?" Bodie laughed shakily. "Worse than usual? S'these bloody damned mirrors! Look up."

Ray did as he was told and bit back an oath. He saw them entwined, Bodie's legs about him, his own body curled comfortably on one hip, his hands holding his lover's buttocks. "Christ, is that what we look like?"

"Do it," Bodie breathed, closing his eyes to shut out the mirrored image, and shut out Ray's face, for it was like the aspect of a seraph, so timelessly beautiful as to hurt. "Do it, love."

And Doyle obeyed, positioning himself and sliding into the hot, slick passage until he was completely sheathed. Bodie was panting, fingers digging into wide, bony shoulders, and as he felt Ray pause to rest he opened his eyes, daring to look at the mirrors. Ray was taut above him, every muscle and sinew stretched and strained with effort as he held still, making it last; and then he began to thrust, and his back flexed, buttocks clenching, relaxing, as his hips undulated, fluid, perfect, rhythmical. Bodie was floating, barely breathing, weak with delight as Ray loved him for a long, long time.

They slept briefly, waking to the soft chimes from the phone, a signal that indicated they had had the suite for an hour. There was no time limit, but the space was charged for by the ninety minutes, and half an hour's early warning was perfect. Time to wake, bathe in the gorgeous bathroom adjoining the boudoir, dress and stand before the mirrors to ensure that they left the club looking as fresh and immaculate as they had arrived. 'Well, perhaps not as fresh,' Bodie admitted, for the pair of them looked mildly debauched and drowsy. Replete. Satisfied. He feasted on Ray's mouth before retrieving the key and presenting it to him. "It was wonderful, love. Thanks."

"You're thanking me?" Ray pantomimed a double take, leading him to the door. Benjamin was waiting, taking the key from them with a smile, and as they headed for the stairs the maids would go in, change the sheets, clean the bath, run the airconditoning to remove the telltale scents of two men in love.

The Manageress was waiting with their account, settled on Bantry's credit card, and Doyle laughed over the bill as they took the Jaguar back from the parking attendant. It was midnight, and Bodie was yawning. "Job's over tomorrow," he said inconsequentially. "We turn back into pumpkins this time tomorrow."

"I'll still love you even if you are full of mush," Ray assured him, earning a dark blue glare before Bodie relented and laughed, pulling the Jag out of the parking bay. "Seriously, it's been fantastic, but it couldn't last," Doyle added reasonably. "Too much of a good thing makes Jack a dead boy."

Bodie made a face. "I suppose you're right. Well, I've got a few weeks' grace, I suppose. The ankle is going to be a bother for a while yet. But they'll sling you at Macklin in a few days."

"I'll be out and running at six in the morning," Doyle told him. "The flesh may be weak but the spirit is determined." He lounged in the Jaguar's left bucket seat, watching the London lights go by as Bodie wheeled back across town to the building atop which was their penthouse. "Have to brief the Cow, pronto, soon as we get in. He'll have to send over some bugs and have us tailed, or the whole thing's been a waste of time and money."

"Waste of whose time?" Bodie demanded. "I've had the time of my life. This is the way I always wanted to live... Mind you, so long as we're together, what's the difference? I could be just as happy in a thatched hut with you. Have been." He gave Doyle's drowsy profile a glance and smiled. "Sleeping on heather and sheepskins, dressing in leather and fur, eating black bread and pigeons' eggs." He chuckled richly. "We didn't complain."

The reminiscences were close to Doyle's own heart and he reached over, right hand cupping about Bodie's thigh as he drove, pulling into their road and swinging down into the carpark under the building. "They didn't complain. They did all right, I reckon. They had each other, same as we have. When it all comes down to the bottom line, what else is there?"

What else indeed? Bodie wondered as he parked the Jaguar and locked it. Tomorrow, the operation would be simple, a mere going through the motions. A courier would come over with radio bugs, Cowley would put a tail on McCaffey's car, following it out to hangar, warehouse, farm, wherever the mercenaries' recruitment parade would take place. A squad would surround the whole establishment, helicopters, army reinforcements in the event of a real shooting war; a couple of hours and it would all be over, barring the paperwork. Back to the real world with a thump. A day's debriefing, a thirty page report, then Doyle would be in Brian Macklin's clutches to be tuned up after weeks of indolent self-indulgence while Bodie assumed light duties pending the achilles tendon healing. Life as usual.

They were tired, spent, satiated and ready to crawl back into bed and sleep after a single chaste kiss. Bodie tugged Ray back into the circle of his arms, holding him tightly and tucking his face into the angle between chin and sharp collarbone. The Druid stone was there, warm, hard, bringing a thrill to his innards as he closed his eyes, thinking of Bran. Wild, prideful, beautiful Bran with his mane of unshorn hair tangled by the wind over the moors. Bodie's lips grazed Doyle's forehead, but Ray was already asleep and did not stir. Dreaming? Bodie peered at his face in the faint illumination from streetlights far below. There was a crease at his brow, as if he was confronted with some difficulty, but Bodie did not worry over the dreams, for Bran was never alone, had never been alone since the Beltane eve when he had been seduced by a warrior. They had dreamed the best of Kin's and Bran's lives, and the worst; they had dreamed their own death, and Bodie remembered only coolness and peace, and love, a going down into the embrace of darkness and comfort, as if returning to the womb to be reborn, or from which to reawaken in some Elysian field. It was a comfortable notion, reassuring and heartening, and Bodie settled to sleep.

The warband returned in the evening, cold, muddy and tired; and Cuddy was furious as he heard the news, that Connach's son and the lad's unlikely mate had brought back the thieves alone, two of them to be executed in the morning. Connach himself was angry but could say nothing, since Kin and Bran were warriors of some reputation and the bounty was being collected by the Druid's own hand. Amergin wore an expression of guarded mirth, not eager to annoy the chief openly, but not reluctant to show that the night's proceedings amused him greatly. He outranked Connach, but that was not to say that a Druid was free to take liberties; they rarely abused their position, remembering their mortality. Even Druids were not proof against a knife between the ribs.

It was late and sunset was almost gone, no more than a smear of dark scarlet low in the west when Kin went to the hall to fetch back their meal. For once, there were muted salutes as he entered Connach's presence, a few of the elders who had lost friends and family appreciating the young man who had brought the hill thieves home to justice. Amergin's smile was gone, however, and Kin remembered that, at dawn, he would be spilling human blood in the grove. The executions fell to his hand. Amergin disliked to kill but had been taught to kill well, with one swift, sure stroke, like that of the surgeon. The thieves would not suffer, no matter that their heads would find their way into the niches of the grove's standing stones, there to watch over the fortunes of the settlement until they were bleached and white.

The bounty was paid in coin, jewellery, furs, enough to buy a degree of comfort for Kin and Bran for a round of seasons, two if they did not indulge in too many whims. And by then, Fedelma's elders and colonels would have learned their worth. Amergin watched Kin stride down the hall to the kitchen hearths, waiting for him just out of earshot of the dais that held his father's ornate chair. Kin bent his neck before his sire, a stiff, reluctant pleasantry that was required of him, and then turned directly to the Druid, that uneven brow raised in question.

"I have your bounty price," Amergin said quietly. "And I will be riding out of Whiterock in a few days, if you wish to ride along and guard my back from such hill thieves as you brought back this morning." He gave Connach a hard look. "You will be better out of here. The old goat has never forgiven you for the marriage that never was, you and Fedelma's filly. Old people have it in them to be stupid. Cruel, too." He handed a cup of mead into Kin's hands as the warrior beckoned for a serving girl's attention, asking for a meal to be wrapped for him and Bran. They always set aside the best for the ill favoured misfits, Amergin knew, and watched Kin wink his thanks to the girls.

"We will ride with you," the Iron Hand was saying, sipping the potent mead slowly. "I don't think Connach will even notice we have gone for a year! Or perhaps he will realise he has no one to mock when my Bran is no longer under his feet." He gave the chief a glower. "Better off in Fedelma's rath, even if we must prove ourselves all over again! We have done it once, we can do it again -- and Fedelma knows us at least. I liked the old woman, you know. There is much about her that suggests the girl she once was, as if there is a youth hiding inside that grizzled exterior, waiting for the chance to escape."

"Perceptive," Amergin said drily. "You have lived so long with one who was a Druid's apprentice that you have begun to see with their eyes. Bran is fey, you know; it is why they called him to Holy Mona when he was a child."

"He is also a man," Kin added blandly. "His is too warm a heart for his youth to be wasted on prayer and study. Let him run and love while his seasons accumulate, and return to study later, when he and I are past all else!" He sipped the mead and saw Amergin's fond, regretful smile. "We won't live that long, will we, Druid? You have told as much to my mate, and he told me."

The Druid shrugged. "I have seen things -- I also am fey, and better equipped than Bran to make sense of the things my mind sees. I have seen a time of mist and despair, blood and pain, and out of it a great peace, as if something young and free is torn out of the womb of death." He took in Kin's frowning face and chuckled quietly, squeezing his shoulder. "Pay me no heed. Go out and live, take every day and every hour, and love. It is the best of the human heart, is love. There is courage, too, but without love that becomes careless arrogance. There is intelligence, but devoid of loving that is no more than calculation and memory of dusty fact. There is an hour when all things die, Kin, but you should be the last of men to fred over it; your stars are kinder than that -- as I have told Bran."

Kin looked up as the girls brought a pack of food, the smell of cornbread and roast pork rising from the oil skins. He nodded his thanks and stood, leaving the empty cup on the bench. "You are a source of comfort," he told Amergin ruefully. "Toss a coin down for the gods, and pray that our stars do not change, eh? Will you bring the bounty to our home?"

"When I have eaten," Amergin offered.

But Kin murmured a negative. "Tomorrow is soon enough. I am starved for more than food, if you must know, and Bran is waiting for me." He smiled farewell and left the Druid chuckling after him. The night air was crisp and cool and he could smell more rain in the hills; the whole of Connach's land would be sodden and green on the morrow. Rain was Eriu's greatest wealth. He skirted the vast puddles that gathered in wagon ruts and any depression, returning to the house by the fence that had been their home for three years. They had been good years, but the time to go was long past and Connach's schemes had ceased to amuse either Kin or Bran.

The younger man was hungry, falling on the food and demolishing it while Kin laughed and wrestled Rua for the crackling. Then Bran sat by the hearth, pink and at peace with a good deal of wine inside him, and brought out his harp. He had a sweet voice that grew deeper by a note or so with each year, and Kin loved to listen. Tales of battle, of glory and woe. Tales of love. Tonight Bran sang of Maev and her exploits, her machinations and great lusts, and when he set aside the harp Kin was upon him before the strings were still, sweeping him between their sleeping skins and pinning him there, taking and giving until it was difficult to tell where one body ended and the other began.

Later, as they lay watching the fire burn down and listening to the rustle of wind and rain in the thatch, Kin told Bran of Amergin's plans to ride into Fedelma's rath. "We pack what we will take and leave the rest to the fool, the rabbit," Bran said softly. "I owe him a great deal -- my back has no scars from the whip, thanks to his sad eyes! He can have the house, if they will let him. There is enough, on the bounty, to begin again, is there?"

"Comfortably enough," Kin affirmed, licking along his mate's prickly jaw, down the line of his gullet and into the hollow place where the pulse beat strongly. "It will be reward enough to be out of Connach's sight! We should have gone years since. Connach would have forgotten about us, I think."

"Do you?" Bran made noises of much scorn. "You are more trusting than I! In any event, what will be will be." He kissed Kin's nose and pressed closer. "I have never regretted a moment I have spent with you, no matter your father's ire. And there is so much more." He lifted the green stone and laughed breathily. "We lay beneath enormous mirrors and I mated you while you watched. More decadent than Romans! But it was wonderful. I hope we dream that again."

"Better," Kin retorted, "we will live it!" He hugged Bran firmly and pulled up the skins as the firelight began to dwindle. "They are us, you told me. I believe."

"As well you believe," Bran said around an enormous yawn that gusted damp air into Kin's ear, "for it is the truth." He put his head down. "Tomorrow, we pack and soon, we leave. You will charm Fedelma, I am sure. No one can resist this mate of mine." He graced Kin with a speculatory frown. "Why have you not charmed up a fortune by now?"

The notion made Kin laugh, a rumble deep in his chest. "I am not a magician -- and not a whore! If either of us has the look of a wanton little creature to whom sensual allure is his stock in trade, it is not I, young man!" He cupped Bran's warm, damp groin, rubbing with the flat of his hand. "What need of a fortune, when we are free and together?"

"Mirrors, and a ceiling to carry them," Bran mused, "would cost richly."

Kin angled an astonished glance at him. "Bodie and his mate are having an influence on you," he observed. "You begin to be as decadent as they." Bran opened his mouth to protest but Kin forestalled him with a kiss. "Go to sleep when you are told, time enough to argue when you are wide enough awake to know what you are saying!" A yawn answered him and Kin turned over, lying with most of his weight pillowed on Bran's accepting frame. He put his cheek down on the soft, furry breast, and closed his eyes.

-- THE END --

January 1988

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