The Hunting Book One, Part II
(With all due acknowledgments to LADYHAWK)
There were times when Bodie forgot that he had been born a human, and the world of the humans seemed a thousand miles away. In the weeks since he had run from Garth's tuath he had buried the old memories deep, submerging them beneath the hopes and dreams of his new life, and it was as if he had been born here in Morhod among Raven's people. The memories of humankind were ragged about the edges already... Bodie wanted to forget, needed to forget as surely as Raven needed to put the past into its place. The elf had been shown all the worst of human nature and precious little of the good of which humans were capable; if he had come out of his captivity in Garth's encampment with a loathing for humans that went right through to his bone marrow, Bodie could not have blamed him.
Yet Raven had come out of his captivity in love, and even now, after human and elf had shared the same bed until summer was almost spent, Bodie could still find himself disbelieving, that an elven prince could have come to love him so. But there was no doubting Raven's heart; he was as generous with his words as with his body, and Bodie had heard the love from his lips again and again. Raven spoke such things freely, like any elf, leaving his human mate blushing and wishing that humans were less embarrassed by their feelings. To Bodie, who had been a warrior since boyhood, such words were not easy; and he tried to let his body speak for him. Raven basked in the glow of the human's loving, craving his favours, and did not seem to need the words.
There were times, in the dead of night, when the elf was woken by awful dreams that sent him back into the bitterness of captivity, and at those times Bodie would find the love words from somewhere and croon them into the mass of red-brown curls, lulling his mate to sleep and willing the terrible recollections to fade away. Raven was a warrior too, but he was made of different stuff to the human's concept of the fighting man. Small, slight and yet surprisingly strong, he was heir to the warm, emotional nature of his people; his heart was sentimental and generous, he laughed quickly and wept as easily, for there were no traditions among the elves that men must hide their feelings, and he had never been made to learn how.
When it came to love, he gave himself freely. Bodie, a human, with all the human terror of betrayal, had been taken aback by his lover's easy trust, especially since Raven had been treated so badly as Garth's captive... An old man's whore, drugged and violated for ten endless days before the warrior he would come to love arrived back in the encampment, and spirited him away. Bodie often shook his head over his lover, wondering at the elf's trust; it was almost frightening, and though Bodie could never seem to find the words he needed to tell Raven how much he was treasured and adored, he knew that Raven was intuitively aware of the fierceness of the human's commitment.
Bodie lay on a flat rock above a pool into which poured a small waterfall; even the air seemed green as the sunlight filtered through the canopy. It was warm and still, only the sounds of birds, fallow deer and Raven's splashing breaking the quiet. The human closed his eyes, thinking back to the night, three weeks before, when the shaman had come down out of the northern lands. Raven's whole clan had gathered to watch its favourite son take the foreigner as his mate --
Candles, thousands of them, fluttering in the breeze; incense gusting across the courtyard, woody and sweet. Three score elves, young and old, men and woman, clad in their finest, silk and leather, silver and jade, smiling at the young chieftain and his lover. The soft light covered Bodie's high colour, the flush of embarrassment and of too much alcohol, as he was toasted and honoured by the chieftains. They spoke in the old language, the tongue of blessings and curses, and he did not understand, but their smiles were enough. He stepped back out of the light, waiting for the shaman called Falcon, who would arrive with Raven himself, at moonrise.
The shaman was a young man but his back and his left side withered; he had been crippled from birth, but his was a great power for healing others. It was not magic, Raven swore, but Bodie was convinced otherwise. He had seen Falcon work miracles that had nothing to do with ordinary medicine. Falcon walked with a stick and moved with care, but Bodie had never seen him in other than high spirits, and he was loved wherever he went. He arrived in the courtyard as the first silver of the gibbous moon showed over the treetops, and the crush of clansmen fell silent, standing aside to let him pass.
Raven was a pace behind him, and at the sight of his lover Bodie's breath caught in his throat. Raven wore a tunic of gold silk, embroidered about the shoulders in green and white; on his brow, threading into his hair, was a thin gold circlet, the mark of a chieftain. His legs were bare, his ankles clasped by heavy silver pieces, coiling serpents with jade eyes, and gold winked in the candlelight among his fingers.
The Kith were a beautiful people, Bodie knew; and of the whole tribe, Raven stood out from the rest. Feyleen, his mother, had said as much to Bodie, and she made no exaggeration. The human stood, transfixed, watching his lover follow the shaman into the courtyard as the moon rose; Raven was glowing with pleasure, absolutely innocent of his looks. He greeted his mother with a kiss on her cheek and then moved on to Bodie, offering his hand.
Bodie took it and was drawn into the middle of the courtyard, where the fountains had been stilled for an hour. Falcon spoke in the old language and the words were lost on Bodie, who spoke only the hill dialects. Raven understood and answered for them both -- it would have been his place to answer anyway; Bodie knew that he was taking responsibility for the outsider, and would be held accountable for the human's conduct. If Bodie betrayed the clan, it would be Raven who would pay the price.
Betrayal was the furthest thought from Bodie's head; he stood in the wash of the candlelight, listening to the meaningless sounds of an ancient tongue, watching Raven smile and nod acceptance of his responsibilities; and then Raven turned to embrace him briefly, and lifted his mouth in search of the kiss that would seal it. Bodie's lips touched his, the human intending brevity, the elf knowing better, and the kiss was deep; Raven's tongue in his mouth stole Bodie's breath and when they broke apart he was panting, grateful for the sudden eruption of cheering that covered his discomfiture.
The pact was sealed properly between cool linen sheets while the revelry went on into the small hours of the morning. Falcon and his own lover, a girl whose gifts were also special, sat at the head of the table while Raven and Bodie slipped away, unnoticed as the elves became more interested in their wine... Of that night, Bodie remembered only the incandescence in Raven's face, the light in the green-gold eyes, and pleasure beyond bearing. Feyleen had wept out of happiness. At last Raven had found someone of his own; after years of rejection and loneliness, because of the human blood he inherited from her, Raven had found a lover who could love him and -- perhaps more importantly -- a lover who could not give him children, so passing on the human blood, of which the elves were so afraid. Bodie was not surprised that the elves were so reluctant to allow humans into their clans; the only humans they had known, with the exception of Feyleen and few others, were vile men, out to enslave and exploit. Little wonder that no woman would take Raven to her bed, for fear of having his children.
The clan elders wore expressions of relief when Raven chose to bond with a man; aside from a life of utter loneliness, or a bonding with some woman who was barren, whether she loved him or not, what else was there for him? Raven's was a warm, great heart, filled with love, and to see him unhappy was, for Bodie, beyond bearing. Since he had come to live in the chieftain's home he had learned to crave the elf's smile, and when Raven frowned or brooded Bodie would willingly play the fool to make him laugh again, or take to the war trails to right whatever wrong ailed him.
Foolishly human, Bodie thought, smiling down at his lover, who was sculling along on his back, face turned up to the sun, brown arms and legs pulling him lazily across the calm surface of the pool below the white cliff. Bodie sat on a boulder, sunning himself but not venturing into the water, for he had never been more than ankle-deep in his life and had the humans' not unnatural fear of drowning. Raven knew no such fear; he swam like a fish and loved the water, and brought Bodie to this place almost every day. Summer had been hot, and autumn promised to be warmer yet; the elf was nut-brown now, fit and strong. Bodie would not be cajoled into the water but he had shed his own tunic often enough to have acquired a faint tan himself.
Swimming was for fish, not for men and elves, Bodie thought, and was content just to watch. But then, he would watch Raven even when the elf was asleep; watch him for no reason, save that he was beautiful, and that he filled the human's eyes. And what better reason to watch him? Bodie demanded as he looked down at his lover, revelling in the play of muscle and sinew as Raven swam lazily to and fro, brown skin gleaming in the sun, hair streaming, his body innocently flaunted by the healthy exercise.
The pool was deep; a waterfall fed into it, tumbling down off the face of the cliff, but at this time of year, when the rivers and streams were sluggish after the heat of summer, there was not much more than a trickle to disturb the surface of the pool. The trees were still green; only here and there did an ash or beech begin to show the lick of flame that warned of autumn's swift approach. Soon, the weather would grow cool, and Bodie looked forward to the winter time. The rains, and later, snows, would urge Raven home to his family, his hearth, his bed. Bodie sprawled on his belly on the boulder, chin pillowed on his forearms; with winter the elf would be less energetic, less eager to run and ride. He would slow his pace, drowse the long, cold weeks away --
With me, Bodie thought happily. Safe in my arms, warm against me... Aye, so I am foolishly human, what of it? He reached for a pebble, tossing it down into the water. The splash drew Raven's attention; he looked up with a grin and Bodie waved. "You have been in there long enough," Bodie called, pretending to scold. "If you don't come out at once you will be a prune, wrinkled as old leather!"
Raven laughed, knowing Bodie's tone of jest. They played words with one another constantly; in the weeks since they had crossed the Black Hills into freedom they had argued only once, and Raven had acknowledged, later, that Bodie had been right...
The elf had gone out with his kinsmen, netting for songbirds, and the hunt took them into the hills to the north. That was Fen country, dangerous, because Garth's warriors roamed with the Fen. Raven had asked Bodie to accompany him, but Bodie had counselled against the journey, becoming angry with Raven refused to listen. So the elf went out without his mate... Sure enough, the party was seen; there was fighting, and Raven came home with a scratch that had taken a week to heal. The scar was gone now, but Bodie had hated seeing it. He had watched Raven suffer, both from the wound and the strained silence between them; they had even lost the songbirds, there was nothing to show for the trip but pain and anger. Elf and human lived in silence through one endless afternoon, and it was late in the evening when they broke it, in bed. Bodie had fretted for his lover, and hungered for him, and with Raven between the same sheets, hurt silences became impossible to sustain.
Hoisting himself out of the water onto a yellow sandstone ledge, Raven stretched out in a patch of sun to dry, and Bodie lowered himself from the boulder, coming to finger-comb the long, tangled hair for him. Playing with Raven's hair was one of life's great pleasures, and the elf had learned to like it. He wriggled, cat-like under the attention of Bodie's pampering fingers, and gave a moan of pleasure. "Am I like a prune, like old leather, then?"
"Rather, like damp velvet," Bodie admitted, his combing fingers playing in the pelt of soft fur that lay on Raven's chest. The elf's skin was cool, dewy, and he bent to taste it. "I don't understand this fondness for water. Water is fine for bathing and for drinking, but all else is foolishness."
"Human," Raven accused, prodding Bodie's ribs with a sharp fingertip. "I like to swim; you would enjoy it too, if you were not such a coward."
Bodie bit the elf's shoulder in retribution. "I am no coward, sweeting; but I dislike water... Though I will admit, you are cool and soft, from your swim." He transferred his lips to Raven's mouth, kissing him deeply, revelling in the response as his lover's tongue found its way between his lips. The kiss tasted of the strawberries they had eaten for lunch, and the wine they had drunk later, and Bodie tasted Raven too, a taste that was unique and addictive. "Oh, Ray, you are my heart, you know that. I have no pretty words for you -- I never learned them and feel wrong saying them, human that I am. But I love you more than I love the blue sky of summer --"
"Hush, I know," Raven said softly, his tone deep and husky. "I know how hard it is for humans to speak of such things. We are different, our hearts are more at peace, we are not taught to feel shame and sin in our loving. I have enough words for both of us, and your hands speak clearly enough when you touch me."
"Do they?" Bodie smiled, drawing a caress across Raven's flat belly until his hand cupped the velvet softness of his groin. Raven purred, shifting to rub himself against the human's palm, accepting the possessive gesture without question. Bodie felt a throb beneath his palm and tightened the grip, taking Ray's cock in his hand, squeezing gently.
"Your hands speak clearer than your words, aye," Raven sighed.
"And you are completely shameless," Bodie accused softly. "It is only this morning since we made love! You woke me early, kissing me, and the next I knew I was a captive, without a chance."
"Willing captive," Raven added. "Wriggling beneath me, wanting me to pleasure you, which I did, before I gave myself to you."
"I know," Bodie said softly, kissing Ray's mouth again. "Love is the only joy that can be given as a gift, and your love is... life to me, I think. Without you I was nothing, and would be nothing again. Never forget that, little chuck."
Raven smiled, drawing the bigger man down until Bodie lay on him, only the fabric of the human's breeches separating them. Bodie closed his eyes to savour the sensations as Raven undressed him, feathery fingers, deft and sure. He could feel the heat and hardness of Ray's erection, pressing into his belly and making the muscles quiver in response, and as they began to rock together, heat on hard heat, he was thinking back to the morning's loving. Raven had cherished every inch of him without reservation before spreading his long legs in invitation, and Bodie took him gently, watching his face, wanting to know what it was he was feeling that made him look that way.
He gulped air as they climbed up toward release, imagining how it would be if he were the one who spread his legs. Ray would be as gentle as a mother with her babe, he knew, and if it hurt a little, what of it? Raven had always asked to be loved like that, and Bodie had never refused him; he would tremble, cry out and thrash about, puzzling and fascinating the human. But still Bodie hesitated, curiosity and lust building in him every day. Ray swore it was of no matter to him, but Bodie had seen the hunger in his eyes; sometimes he would ask to use his lover's hand, a tight, oily grip that eased the fierce hunger in him. Soon, Bodie promised silently as they came, almost together, in the patch of sun -- soon. Tonight, perhaps. Tonight.
Pulling air into his lungs, Bodie blinked back to the present, focusing on the pool and sunlit glade, and relinquishing the memories of the morning. Raven was gazing at him patiently, aware that he was daydreaming. Bodie reached for him and kissed him. "In my homeland, they would say you have bewitched me," he said with s wry smile. "Have you?"
"Not in the way they mean," Ray shrugged, rubbing his back on the rock, for we have never possessed that kind of magic... But if I have beguiled you by loving you, so be it. You took a slave and made a freeman of him; I would have loved you if you had been old and ugly. How much more shall I love you, since you are young and sweet to the eye?" He reached up to kiss Bodie's throat. "I gave myself in trust to you, and entreating my gods to give you to me... They answered wisely, I think."
"You think?" Bodie echoed. "You can say that, after this morning?"
"I had been dreaming," Raven smiled. "You were lost in the forest and my heart was wild with fear. Searching, I came upon you in a glade not unlike this one, and you were sleeping. You said you had been waiting for me, and drew me down, wanting me. I woke hard, and had to rouse you."
"Not so far fetched a dream," Bodie admitted, "for I always want you, one way or another." He kissed the waiting lips again and stretched. "It must be late by now; we'd best be getting home."
Home. He had begun to think of the house in the woods as his home not long after arriving there. The clan had made him at home and Feyleen had accepted him at once as another son. Bodie found it difficult to think of her as a mother -- she seemed his peer, in all ways, a beautiful girl with long, yellow hair and brown eyes. But she was much older than the human warrior who had brought her first born out of purgatory, and had two other children besides. Her husband, Wulff, had died when Raven was eighteen, at which time the torque of a chieftain had been placed on the boy's neck, and now Feyleen was courting again. She was seeing a silversmith, a tall, handsome scholar from the gentle westcountry, and Raven approved. He had already urged Feyleen to marry again, well knowing the pain of loneliness.
But loneliness was a thing of the past now. Bodie pulled on his clothes and led the way from the glade, walking with Raven, playing tag with him among the trees and chasing the fallow deer; often they stopped to kiss, and it was late when they saw the house. The shadows were long and the smoke of cook fires was curling on the rising night wind.
Morhod, Bodie thought, looking down at the house from the brow of the hill beyond the orchard. It was a word in the old language that mean The Land Of Summer', and in the human tongue would have simply meant west'. There were many elven tribes, and few humans beyond the Black Hills. To the north were the Painted People, neither human nor elven, barbarous and primitive; to the east, the tuaths belonging to Garth and Ethron, and the human chiefs; to the south and west, the hospitable, gentle lands belonging to the elves, before the traveller reached the mountains, and the sea.
One day they would travel, Bodie thought. One day. He chased Raven down off the hill, catching him by the orchard gate and kissing him soundly until he begged for air. Time to travel later. The dogs came bouncing up to greet them and Raven fussed over them, taking Bodie's hand as they ambled up the winding pathway toward the house.
Twilight had just begun to thicken, and the figures on the path ahead were indistinct until they drew closer; then Bodie recognised the warrior, Cuillin, and the old man, Dermot. They were lounging by the well, smoking and watching out for the chieftain. As they drew closer, Raven hailed them.
"Dermot? What's amiss?"
The old man got to his feet, the pipe in his gnarled left hand gesturing at the forest in the east. "Scouts have been seen, too near at hand, Raven."
"Scouts?" Raven's brow creased in a frown. "What -- not human scouts?"
"Aye, humans," Cuillin affirmed. "There have been reports of odd men, and at least one party, with horses, though they keep to the deep forest for the sake of concealment... There is danger afoot, Raven."
Raven glanced at Bodie. "So there might be... Garth's men, do you think? Or the Fen? What could they want here?"
"Us," Bodie growled, his fingers squeezing Ray's for a moment. "Garth was never a man to forget a grudge; our lands have been at war these twenty-five years in proof of that!"
"And he would send scouts so deeply into our lands?" Raven mused.
"If he felt the grudge keenly enough," Bodie nodded. "I know him too well... It would be best to call the warband to order, I think."
"Aye." Raven stirred, setting one hand on Cuillin's shoulder. "Gather the host, as speedily as you can, Cuillin -- I leave the charge to you. Send out our own scouts, and post lookouts in the hills."
"It will be a day at least before we can mass a large warband," Cuillin said doubtfully, knocking out his pipe on the side of the well.
"Then the sooner the riders go out, the sooner we will be secure." Raven gave Cuillin a shove. "Off with you, old friend, and see to it."
"The riders have already gone out," Cuillin said with a wink. "I know my duties... Raven, Feyleen is out."
"Out where?" Bodie asked sharply. "With Roth the silversmith?"
Cuillin nodded. "They took horse and went out this morning, and should have been back by this time... Raven, I have sent scouts to search for them, but it is dangerous. The scouts could run afoul of the humans as easily as not."
Raven's brow was one deep frown. "What else can we do? Roth is a crafty old wolf; mayhap he may be wise to the danger and bring her home by stealth. Your leave, Cuillin; I think I must show my swords the whetstone."
"And mine," Bodie said quietly as they hurried toward the house. "I have brought you nothing but trouble, Raven."
"Stuff and nonsense," Raven said, not looking back. "You have brought me only happiness, but happiness has a price, and perhaps we are about to pay it."
Not with Feyleen's life, Bodie prayed soundlessly, jogging after the elf -- please, gods, not with Feyleen's life -- or anyone's life.
The house was bright and busy and there was an air of tension. Even the servants were scurrying about on the warriors' orders, and Raven was accosted by the chief steward as he stepped through the door. Scouts had never probed so deeply into the elven tuaths, and this emergency was something new for them. Raven gave swift orders to the steward; horses to be brought in from the paddocks, the cooks to prepare for the gathering warband, the house to be defended, arms to be broken out and placed in the hands of the serving staff and anyone who was willing to take up a weapon.
Bodie followed his mate up the stairs, watching Raven bring his swords from the carved sandalwood trunk. He had three blades and two dirks; a double-handed broadsword with a jewelled hilt and crosspiece, very old and precious, rarely ever to be used; a shortsword, well used and notched with age; and a whipsword, light and thin, its blade crescent-curved, its hilt basketed with a tracery of steel. All five weapons were sheathed on a baldric that looped over his left shoulder and buckled about his waist, and he changed out of his light blue tunic into his leathers before putting it on.
Clad in leather, he looked more like a warrior; this was the way Bodie had first seen him, three years before on the killing field, where Raven had given him the gift of life. Leather breeches and jerkin that hugged the slender body, and boots trimmed with black fur. Bodie shook his head ruefully over his mate. "I shall fear for you, my love."
"And I for you," Raven admitted, "but we are warriors, Bodie, what would you have us do? Hang back, stay by the hearth and send others out to do the red work because we are in love? Many others are in love too, and if we all stayed at home the battle would never be fought."
"I would have peace between Garth's lands and ours," Bodie said softly. "And I think it will be up to us to forge that peace. Feyleen is the prize, and us -- Garth's daughter, his grandson and his erstwhile captain. If not we, who shall make peace?"
Raven nodded soberly. "Aye, can I but agree? If Garth is to send his men this deeply into the elven tuaths, no one will be safe. We will be fighting every day, or we will have to move further into the west to escape the harassment."
"Retreat before the enemy?' Bodie blinked. "Rather, take the war to them, surely, and fight them in their own lands. Win it, once and for all."
"Could we? Raven asked, seriously considering the proposition. "There are not many of us, Bodie, there never were. Garth has numbers on his side -- this is why we have only ever snapped at his flanks and defended ourselves. To march the war trails in earnest would invite disaster."
Bodie shrugged. "Mayhap you have a trump to play he has not counted on... Or perhaps he has counted its worth, and has taken fright."
"Riddles?" Raven asked. "Not now, love, there is not the time to play."
"A trump," Bodie said, smiling sadly. "Me, Raven. I know his tuath, and the eastern hills, like the back of my hand; I know his passes, his weaknesses, the strengths of the warbands, how to circumvent the defenses. I am a danger to him, and I would warrant Garth knows this well. It is I he fears, and this is why he has sent scouts to plague us. He does not know Feyleen lives hereabouts, nor that you are his kin. If he did..." Bodie reached out to catch the elf in an embrace. "If he had known you were his grandson, would he have violated you? He would have killed you, or perhaps used you to barter with the elves, but -- would he have taken you to his bed? I think not."
"Better to be used as a bed slave for some short time, and then be free and whole and alive," Raven said throatily. "A kiss, love, and then we must be busy."
"A kiss," Bodie said scornfully. "Tonight was to have been special."
"Special? How so?" Raven asked, nuzzling the human's ear.
"I was going to give myself," Bodie admitted, a thrill running through him at the thought. "It is past time I gave you the pleasures I have been taken from you, and I have found the curiosity and lust to match my cowardice. Tonight, I was to be yours." He kissed the elf and allowed a wry grin. "Now, we shall sleep with a warband, and if we can share a kiss in private we shall be lucky!"
Raven's eyes were wide, smoky, dark, and he swallowed. "There is later... You will not change your mind, will you?"
"Nothing could change it," Bodie admonished, cuffing his mate's ear gently. "Now, kiss me, and then let us to work."
The cooks had scrapped their plans for the evening meal and brought food out to the warriors who milled about the perimeter; by moonrise, Bodie was mounted on Jasmin, riding between Raven and Cuillin on the fence by the orchard. He was at a disadvantage, he knew; in darkness, the elves' night vision was far superior to that of humans -- but Garth's scouts would be at the same disadvantage, and he said so. "If we hold to the shadowed places, beneath the trees, they will not see us; and if we are quiet -- their hearing is no match for yours either."
"Aye," Raven agreed. "Damn! Where is Feyleen?"
"In hiding, I hope," Bodie growled. "If Roth is as canny as we think, he may have seen the scouts himself, or heard them; and if he has, he will have gone to ground and taken Feyleen with him. It is we who are the prize, not the lady."
That at least was a point for gratitude, and Raven nodded readily. He drew rein by the orchard gate as the stewards' trap came rattling out to meet them, and he, Bodie and Cuillin ate sitting on the fence while the horses grazed and stole apples from the low branches.
The moon was almost full again. Looking at it, Bodie was reminded of the night of his bonding -- the sight of a full moon would always bring him such thoughts. There had been happiness that night the like of which he had never known existed, and, not for the first time in his life, the warrior yearned for peace. Home and hearth, and the joy of a lover. He ate eggs, cheese, bread and honey, washing the food down with mead, and left the lookout work to the elves, for he was nearly blind now.
It was Cuillin who pinpointed the danger, alerting Raven with a hand on his arm. "Shh, and listen -- there. And there. You hear them? A rustling in the forest -- again. You heard this time?"
"I heard," Raven whispered. "They are some distance away, still. How many?"
"Six, seven," Cuillin guessed. "Not many more... Horses."
"Aye," Raven agreed. "A raiding party, led in by the scouts."
"How far away?" Bodie asked quietly, putting away the skin of mead.
"A mile," Raven guessed. "Coming this way, but not overtly -- they are holding to the woodlands, moving with caution... They do not wish to alert us."
"Wise," Cuillin whispered. "I'll ride back to the house, Raven, and bring a dozen riders... You would be best not to challenge them, just keep them in sight until I bring a band with me. There are too many of them."
With that he was gone, leaving Raven and Bodie leaning against the gnarled trunk of an old apple tree, the horses grazing close at hand. Jasmin's reins were in Bodie's left hand, and Raven's favourite horse, a strawberry roan called Lightfoot, was crunching apples at his shoulder. Raven's head was cocked as he listened hard, tracking the intruders by their noise while Bodie could still hear nothing, and soon he was stooping to gather Lightfoot's reins.
"They are close," he whispered. "Come, this way. If we remain beneath the trees, out of the moonlight, we will see them when they break onto the path."
Bodie followed his mate into the deep well of moonshade to wait, straining his human ears and, at last, hearing the telltale rustle of branches and leaves that betrayed the raiders' progress. "Soon," he whispered. "That way."
He held his breath, his eyes fixed on a break in the woodland where the trees and briars had been cleared, and very carefully he drew his shortsword. If they could hear the raiders, the human scouts would also be able to hear them. Raven drew the whipsword, its fine blade whispering on its oiled leather scabbard, and a moment later they saw the humans.
But for Feyleen, they were the first humans Bodie had seen since he and his mate had escaped from Garth's tuath, and he found that he had no liking for what he saw. Big men, leather clad and surly, mounted on shaggy warhorses, dirty from the trail. He counted eight warriors and murmured a comment on the accuracy of the elves' assessment.
"Just sharp ears, "Raven smiled. "Nothing more... Oh, dear gods. No."
"Ray?" Bodie hissed. "What is it? I cannot see."
"There, behind the horses," Raven told him. "They have found Feyleen and Roth -- wait, you will see them shortly. There."
Bodie's human eyes caught sight of the captives as they were hustled into the wash of the moonlight, and he swore beneath his breath. Roth was tied, his hands secured at his back, and he was bleeding from cuts about his head. The blood looked black against his skin. Feyleen was loose, but her gown was torn and her hair a tangle, and Bodie wondered if the humans had realised she was not an elf. Unless they touched her to see the shape of her ears, how would they know? And if they once began to touch her it would go badly.
The raiding party was commanded by a Fen; Bodie recognised him by the patch over his right eye and the scar that trailed down his cheek. His name was Doged, and he had it in him to be an animal. If he was in command of this group, they were here on killing work.
As the party broke out of the woodland, Doged's lieutenant came up alongside, petitioning for attention. "We are encumbered by the prisoners -- I say kill them before we get any nearer the house. With them tying our hands we are easy prey for elven archers. We cannot risk it, Doged!"
The Fen hunter grunted in agreement. "You may be right; they are deliberately noisy, and slow... Aye, they shall die. But I want the woman before we make away with her. If I cannot take her back with us as a warprize, I want her here."
"There is not time," the lieutenant argued.
"I can be quick," Doged grinned, his teeth glittering in the moonlight. He swung down from the warhorse and handed its reins to the lieutenant. "Watch."
In the shadows between the apple trees, Raven and Bodie stiffened. The elf muttered a livid curse, taking half a step forward before Bodie's hand on his arm stilled him. "There are too many of them," Bodie cautioned.
"But -- my mother!" Raven hissed. "He shall not have her the way they had me, Bodie, no matter that there are long odds. Let me go!"
"Wait for Cuillin," Bodie counselled. "Just a few more moments."
"A few more moments and she will be raped in the grass," Raven said through clenched teeth, "and a few more after that, dead. Let me go! Bodie!"
Bodie glanced back toward the house, straining his ears, but he could see and hear nothing. Cuillin would have to find enough men to make a band before bringing help out here, and suddenly there was no time. He gave Raven a nod and let go his arm. "I have won through on worse odds before now," he admitted, "and the stakes are high enough. We challenge them."
But Raven would have challenged on his own, Bodie knew. There was a feral glitter in his eyes, a haunted look about his face, and his body was strung as tautly as harp strings. He well knew the pain and dishonour of violation, and Bodie no longer attempted to hold him back. Fear clawed at the human's wayward heart, but it was not fear for himself. To see Raven hurt was intolerable; to see him dead -- I shall also die, Bodie realised without paying the thought much heed.
The elf was stepping boldly into the moonlight as Doged ripped the gown from Feyleen's shoulders and took her hair in a cruel grip, lifting it aside to expose her ears. "She -- by all the gods, a human!" The Fen said sharply. "A yellow haired human! Garth will hear of this. So like his daughter, eh? Keep still, little bitch, or do you wish to be hurt?"
Feyleen was kicking, but it was a useless, token protest. Behind her, Roth the silversmith was held in the grip of two men, both much bigger than himself, a dirk held against his throat. Bodie's practised eye assessed the party. There were three Fen among them -- Doged, a big, burly man in black leathers, and a frail, hunched figure in a brown cassock. Their seer, perhaps a healer, even a shaman, if they had managed to cajole or bribe such a one onto such a mission. The seer rode at Doged's left hand, watching the proceedings through slitted eyes, and Bodie was sure he had seen the man before.
Artos, one of the bear totem, powerful, deadly. A twist of fear wormed through Bodie's innards as he stepped after Raven into the moonlight.
"Enough." Raven's voice whipped over the raiders. "Let the woman go and challenge a warrior instead, if you have the spleen for it!"
Doged whirled, bringing Feyleen with him; she fell to the ground at his feet, stunned and holding her head before gathering her wits and scrambling away from the humans. "Who the --" Doged stopped, peering at the challenger. "Raven? Ah, so the woodcutter was true. We have found you -- and Bodie also."
"Aye, you have," Raven spat. "Feyleen, get out of the way."
There was a moment's stunned silence before Doged drew his sword. "Feyleen? The human woman, Feyleen? And the two of you?" A harsh laugh passed his lips. "The chief will pay handsomely for the three of you!"
"Save that you will not leave this tuath alive to collect," Bodie snarled. "Even now you are surrounded -- throw down your swords and mayhap you will live."
"Spit in the wind," Doged growled. "And come hither, little elf, try your steel against mine and meet your master." He glanced at Bodie and leered. "Or have you met him already?"
Swordsteel chimed a moment later, and Bodie stepped forward to cover Ray's back as the whipsword chased the human's heavier blade to and fro, patterns of skill and anger, weaving in the air. Size alone made the Fen slow, and Raven drew first blood, a deep wound in Doged's side that slowed him further. The look on the human's face was murderous and he called the others in at once, as Bodie had known he would.
Abruptly they were surrounded, swordsteel chiming like bells in the night -- the sound would draw the elven warriors soon and Bodie held to that hope as he cut about him, putting down two of the humans while Raven dispatched Doged and set about another. Four were twitching in the grass and Raven was bleeding from a scratch on his right arm when Bodie turned quickly to meet the next, every nerve warning him of danger.
It was Artos, a dirk in his hand, death in his eyes; behind him, the two remaining warriors had taken to horse and were about to withdraw from the fray, but Artos held his ground, furious and terrible in his rage. The Fen shaman gave Bodie a snake-smile, sharp little teeth catching the moonlight. "Hear ye from the people of the bear, Bodie. You have killed my brother, Doged. If it cost me my life's blood, I shall have ye. Come, Bodie, come, take me!"
"You have only a dirk," Bodie panted, "be still, fool."
"Dirk?" Artos barked with mirthless laughter, reversing the blade in his hand and throwing it with the ease of long use. Hilt over tip, it whirled by the human warrior, and Bodie's heart stilled in his chest as he heard Raven give a yelp of pain and shock. "I have no dirk, now, Bodie. Come, take me!"
"Ray?" Bodie did not take his eyes off the Fen shaman, did not dare. "Ray!"
"Just a wound," Raven gasped, "just my leg -- Bodie, let the madman be!"
"Take me!" Artos screamed, lunging forward in the saddle, fingers reaching for Bodie's gullet.
In simple self-defence, Bodie brought up his sword, and there was the sickening feel of the blade biting through a body, clean through it, before Artos fell into his arms, heavy against him, fingers still clawing as he died.
"If it cost me -- my life's blood --" Artos gasped, "I -- shall -- have--"
He said no more, but Bodie saw the witch-fires glittering in his eyes, red, terrible, insane. He died with a choked scream; Bodie felt the energy coming surging out of him, coursing through every nerve like a lightning bolt. Strange, awful tremors shook Bodie; his blood seemed to burn, his bones melting, but it was over too quickly for him to feel pain or much fear.
Light blossomed in the night, a nimbus, ruddy and magnificent; at the heart of it stood Bodie, holding the dead Fen shaman in a deathly embrace, and Raven could not look away, though he knew two of the human raiders remained alive. His lover gazed down at the Fen, transfixed for one endless moment before the nimbus thickened. The life energies of a powerful adept poured out, circumfusing the two of them before the cloud began to thin once more, and he could see the figures.
The Fen was still in death now, not even twitching, so spent was his body; but Raven barely noticed him. Bodie was gone. Standing on the body, talons ripping it as it fought for purchase, was an eagle, wings outstretched, throat crying out as if in pain. Raven's head spun, sickness rose in his chest and he barely heard the last two living humans crash away into the woodland.
"Bodie?" He got to his feet, hampered by the injury to his right leg, where the dirk had nicked his thigh, and limped forward. "Bodie?"
The eagle peered at him, bright, hard eyes evaluating him, and for a moment Raven was afraid the bird would take wing and be gone forever.
"Bodie, do you know me?" He held out his hand, waiting for the vicious beak to draw blood, but it did not; the eagle merely watched him, allowed him to touch it, stroke the cap of coarse feathers. "Bodie?" Raven whispered, going to his knees beside the bird. "You know me, don't you?" Tears misted his vision and his head bowed. "Oh, Bodie -- do you know me as a bird, or as a man?"
The eagle's throat made a harsh sound, a keening wail. Raven tangled his fingers in the mantle of feathers about its neck. "Warm," he murmured, "you are still warm... Bodie." He closed his eyes, tears squeezing between his lashes, and surrendered to a feeling of helplessness the like of which he had never known. As a captive in Garth's camp, he had thought he knew what helplessness meant, but that was different; there, there was no one at risk but himself. Here...
Here was Bodie, held in the circle of his arm, an eagle, almost as big as he was himself, terrifyingly strong, all the power and savagery leashed in as the bird nestled against him. Bodie. Raven lifted his head, looking into the bird's eyes, trying to see his lover there, but there was nothing.
"Raven?" The voice was Feyleen's. She had a dirk in her hands and had cut loose Roth. The silversmith was rubbing his wrists and mopping at his bleeding head, but otherwise he seemed unhurt. "Raven?" She came to his shoulder but her son did not answer. "Raven!"
The tousled head lifted and huge, bruised eyes looked up at the woman. "Did you see? Feyleen, did you see?"
"Aye." Feyleen gazed at her son and the eagle that was Bodie. "I saw a shaman give his life to work an act of vengeance... Oh, Raven -- take heart. At least he is not dead."
But the heart seemed to have been cut from Raven's chest. He buried his face in the warm, coarse feathers, holding the huge bird, praying to the elder gods that what Fen magic could do, elven magic might undo. The elves so rarely possessed such powers; in any generation there was perhaps one great shaman -- in each tribe, at any one time, just one. "Falcon," he croaked. "Where is he?"
"Gone into the south, after the bonding," Feyleen told him. "I don't know where."
"Find him," Raven murmured, drawing back to look at the eagle. "Send riders at first light. If there is a way, he will know of it."
Feyleen cupped her son's chin, turning his face up until he would look at her. "There may be no way, even I can see that."
His face twisted. "I know," he said hoarsely. "The gods are cruel. They sent him to bring me out of captivity, gave him to me for my own, and then take him from me. Aye, he is alive, but --" He heaved in a breath and looked at the bird. "Beautiful," he admitted. "As strong and as beautiful as ever he was, but... How shall I stop loving him?"
She stroked his hair gently. "You never will, my son; still, I love Wulff, though he has been dead these five years. I shall love him always, as you will love your human mate." Raven's eyes were blind as they gazed up at her and her heart turned in her chest; he was in agony, and there was nothing anyone could do to ease his pain, save perhaps the crippled shaman who had bonded him to the human. "We'll send for Falcon," Feyleen promised. He did not seem to hear; he was trying to mask his grief in the way human's did, but he had never learned how. "Oh, Raven, weep if you will, there is no shame in it."
But Raven got to his feet. "Two of the raiders escaped. We must be after them, lest they get clean away and out of the tuath. They will take our secrets with them, and we will be done for."
"Cuillin will attend to that," Feyleen said quietly, watching the great golden bird, its feathers turned to ice blue by the moonlight. Its eyes never left the elf, and its shuffling claws made to follow him. "Home, Ray," she said softly. "There is nothing more that can be done tonight."
"Where is Cuillin?" Raven said angrily. "He left to bring help so long ago!" As he spoke he heard the clatter of hooves and dragged his sleeve across his face. "Our scouts work as well by night as by day; they must seek the humans before all is lost. Ho, Cuillin!" As the horsemen appeared about the curvature of the path he hailed their leader. "Two of the raiders have escaped -- that way, into the forest. Find them; bring them back here, or kill them."
"Aye," Cuillin responded. "Raven, you're hurt-- you challenged them?"
"With little choice," Raven said bitterly. "Feyleen was a prisoner... Go, Cuillin, before the humans make too much distance."
Cuillin cast about, seeing only Feyleen, Roth and the bird. "Where is Bodie? Surely he has not gone after them?"
There was only silence from Raven, and Feyleen answered for him. "This carcass belongs to a Fen shaman. He gave his life, Cuillin, for vengeance. Bodie killed his brother, their leader. Bodie... the bird."
"The bird?" Cuillin looked from Raven's ravaged face to the eagle. "The eagle? Dear gods, what magic to the humans command?"
"A Fen shaman," Raven said, sounding choked. "I know nothing of their arts, neither do I care. Ride, Cuillin!"
The cavalrymen were moving as he spoke, Cuillin leading them into the dense crush of trees and bushes, and suddenly the night was still again. Feyleen rubbed her arms, glancing at Roth for help. "Catch the horses, Roth. Raven, to home with you. You are hurt yourself."
"A scratch, nothing more," Raven said dismissively, his eyes on the eagle that sat patiently watching him; a tearing pain lanced through his chest. "Oh, Bodie, what have I brought you to?' Roth handed him the loose reins and he swung up onto Lightfoot's saddle as his mother and her lover mounted Bodie's own horse. Jasmin was skittish, frightened, curious of the bird, seeming almost to recognise it. As Raven settled on the sheepskin of the saddle the eagle spread his wings, fluttering just four times, his weight landing lightly on the pommel before Raven.
"He knows you," Feyleen said quietly, "even now."
"As the animals know me," Raven said bitterly. "But it is better than nothing." He put one arm about the bird's sloping shoulders and touched the horse with his heels, starting Lightfoot for home.
The servants stood aside in confusion as they watched the eagle fluttered into the house, following Raven up the stairs to the sanctuary of his apartments. There, it perched on the carved sandalwood trunk where he kept his weapons, and Raven closed the door lest the stewards take fright at the great bird of prey in the confines of the house.
Bright, black eyes studied him in the light of the candles as he took off his swords and lay down on the foot of the bed. His leg hurt but he barely noticed it. There was a sense of awful unreality about the scene, as if, at any moment, he would waken from a dream and find himself in his lover's embrace, soothed and reassured. "Bodie?" The eagle cocked his head. "Bodie, can you understand what I say?" No response flickered in the bird's shrewd eyes, and his own eyes misted with tears. "I will fetch Falcon," he promised. "He will be here soon - -- before the week is out, or I shall know the reason why! We'll find a way, love." Empty words, spoken as much to reassure himself as to soothe the eagle. Bodie was beyond understanding.
For a long time they studied one another, elf and bird, and Raven felt his wayward heart break. Falcon was a shaman, not a magician -- there was a world of difference between the two. Was there anything that could be done to set to rights Fen magic? Mayhap there was not; the sickness of dread lingered in Ray's innards, exhausting him quickly. "And if Falcon cannot set you free, what will become of us?" He whispered. "You are beautiful, still -- and young and healthy. Shall I keep you here, a prisoner, for the sake of having you?" He choked off a moan, blinking the grief away, trying to be practical. "I cannot. You shall be free, one way or the other... The sky, Bodie. No human has ever known the joy of living flight, but you shall... Will you count the trade even, flight, for the gift of my love? Aye, I love you... Feyleen is right. I shall always love you. Had the humans killed you tonight, I would love you still; at least you are alive, and at peace. There is no pain in you, is there? Forgetfulness. Oh, you know me, you came with me, but without pain."
He rubbed his eyes, which felt gritty and sore. "The pain is mine, love... You shall have the sky, I promise, if Falcon knows no answers. Stay west of the Black Hills; no one shoots eagles here. Stay here, our skies are high enough." He rolled onto his side, head pillowed on his arms. "This is your home."
Raven's head ached with despair and confusion and he closed his eyes. "Your home and your bed," he said to the eagle, the words slurring with exhaustion.
A knock at the door interrupted his muddled thoughts and he sat up as his mother appeared, the physician at her back. The old woman carried her medicine bags with her and dumped them on the floor by the bed, wary of the bird and not eager to approach it. "They said you were hurt, Raven."
"A scratch," Raven affirmed. "Nothing, Patra, to be sure."
"Then let me be sure," old Patra scolded, as way her way. "Let me see."
He got to his feet, dizzy with fatigue, and took off his leathers to show her the wound. She peered at his leg, making disapproving noises. "It is nothing, you see," he said, preoccupied, vague.
"It is deep and ragged, and none too clean," Patra corrected. "This should have been looked at much sooner. Lie down and grit your teeth; I must clean it."
He barely felt the pain as astringents were swabbed onto the wound, the old blood sponged away, and the healing ointments smeared into the cut. Patra stuck a bandage on it and stood back, looking down at the chieftain with a deep frown. "What else ails you, Raven?"
"Nothing you can cure," he said sadly.
"I can give you a draught to bring you sleep," she offered softly.
He shook his head. "Not tonight."
"You should rest," Feyleen argued.
"Aye, but not in a drugged stupor," Raven said stubbornly. "The bird will not sleep or, if he does, he will wake with the sun and grow restless. What would you have me do, jess him? I will not. Neither will he be hooded... I know what it is to be blind." He found a small, ragged smile, curling his long, bare legs under him. "I will rest as I can, Feyleen; and Patra, I am not ungrateful for your help. Perhaps some other time you may give me a draught."
"Then I'll bid you goodnight," the old woman said.
As she left, Feyleen sat on the foot of the bed. Raven was distant, his eyes on the bird, his injured leg crooked awkwardly, going unnoticed. "Cuillin will be miles away," she said, the name reaching him. "I will have a rider heading into the south after Falcon at first light." Raven simply nodded. "Will you eat? It is late."
But he shook his head. "Not now."
"Wine, then," Feyleen pressed, but again her son shook his head.
"It would be too easy to take refuge in a cup, and the time for that is not yet. Time to surrender all hope when Falcon has told me there is none."
"And if he does?" Feyleen whispered.
Raven seemed to come awake. "I shall free the eagle; if he stays with me, I shall rejoice and cherish him, perhaps go hunting for a mate for him." His voice broke and he closed his eyes. "I am not at my best, mother. Forgive me."
"Forgive you?" Feyleen leaned forward to take her first born in a close embrace, rocking him against her. "You are my pride, Raven." She kissed his hair and felt his arms go about her as he pressed his face into her shoulder, the trickle of tears cool on her skin. "The gods have always loved you, without fail; how many times have we thought you dead, only to have you return? Petition them again, with whatever words have wooed them in the past... They have never refused you before, have they?"
He did not answer and a moment later she felt him withdraw and stood up, wrapping her arms about herself. He sat curled on the foot of the bed, his chin on his forearms, his eyes heavy, his mouth a tight line of fretting. "Try to rest at least... I'll leave you in peace."
She was gone before Raven even realised she had spoken, and he blinked at the closed door. The eagle shifted on the carved sandalwood, looking at him in mute curiosity, not understanding what was happening but accepting of it. Slowly Raven uncurled and lay down; the night was no longer young and dawn would come soon enough.
The sky began to lighten long before the sun was due and the eagle became restive. Raven stirred, dressing in a blue tunic and Bodie's sandals, given to him when he had nothing else to wear, in Garth's camp, only weeks before. Sharp, shrewd eyes followed his every move and he frowned. "You are hungry," he guessed. "And you must hunt for yourself... I know nothing of hunting game. Will you fly away from me, will you be gone forever?" The fear that the bird would do just that was awful, but a moment later the eagle dispelled his doubts.
Hopping from its perch, it came to him, the savage beak closing about his hand with a gentleness he would not have credited, tugging at his fingers insistently. Like a lifetime pet, Raven thought, and knelt to cherish the eagle with a desperate embrace. "Come, then, I trust you. Come and hunt for yourself, then come back to me. Wait at least for the shaman to return before..."
Before you cast off the life of a man forever, he thought bitterly, opening the door and ushering the bird out through it. The notion was terrible, but some part of him refused to be deluded. Falcon was a shaman; his magic, if such it could be called, was for healing and divining the future, not for working tricks such as humans found amusing.
The house was silent and no one saw Raven leave by the back courtyard. He closed the gate behind the eagle and stood aside, glorying in the bird's golden plumage in the first wan tendrils of daylight. Beautiful was an understatement; savage, deadly, and yet oddly gentle... Bodie. It spread its wings, stretching them to their fullest extent for the first time, and Raven caught his breath. "Fly," he whispered. "Hunt. Play in the sky for the joy of it, then come back to me, please. Don't leave me, not yet."
The eagle looked at him curiously, fluttering the massive pinions, wider across from wingtip to wingtip than were his own arms, and its first flight was a graceful ascent up onto the fence of the paddock where Jasmin, Wind, Lightfoot and the other warhorses were drowsing. "Fly," Raven said, "go, Bodie. The sky belongs to you."
Did the bird understand? He could not tell, but the bright, sharp eyes were drawn into the south as a flight of pigeons appeared over the trees, and the great wings were spread at last. Raven watched the nooked claws release the wood of the top rail, and he could not breathe as he watched the bird take to the wind.
Bodie. In moments the eagle was high up, gliding, wheeling on the first thermals of morning, and he shaded his eyes, looking into the rising sun to follow its shape. The bird was arcing into the south over the forest, and would hunt over the grassland -- rabbits, rats, field mice. Not wanting to lose sight of it, Raven whistled for Lightfoot and opened the paddock gate. The horse came at once and he vaulted onto its bare back, taking a handful of mane; a warhorse responded to spoken commands as well as to those of bit and spur, and he had only to tug on the mare's mane and whisper into her ear.
The world was fresh, dewy and cool, and Raven felt oddly alive; the wind in his face smelt of humus and flowers, and it would have been a fine morning to play, to lazily make love and swim and eat. His heart constricted as he watched the eagle stoop on some prey beyond the trees, and he urged Lightfoot into the woods, a shortcut to the common land where Bodie was hunting.
He saw the bird as he broke from the cover of the trees; it was perched on a boulder, a scrap of fur in its talons, and as it saw him it took wing, heaving into the air and swooping toward him to alight at his feet as he slid down from the mare. The scrap of fur was a dead rabbit, and the prize was deposited at Raven's feet, as if it were a gift.
"Do you not hunger?" Raven knelt in the grass, picking up the poor dead thing, the first dead animal he had touched in his life. "Here, eat, since you have killed this. Eat and be strong." He held the bloody carcass to the eagle, and the bird took it from him, delicately, gently. Raven knelt back to watch the vicious beak tear the meat to shreds before it was swallowed, bones, fur and all, in large chunks. "You always lusted for meat, didn't you?" He whispered, "Human!"
The eagle did not understand, but it paused in its preening to look at him, and he stroked its feathers. "Play now, while you can, for I must to home soon -- the warband will mass today, and, grieving or no, I am still its chieftain."
For an hour he lay in the grass while Lightfoot grazed, watching the bird of prey wheeling in the thermals over the grassland. The morning grew warm swiftly, the rising sun dazzling him as he watched the sky, but thunderheads were massing along the horizon and there was an electric tension in the air, as if there was to be a storm. Summer thunder, Raven thought, closing his eyes against the brightness. How often did the summer of one's youth end in blood and thunder? "Not this time," he prayed, "not Bodie" Was Feyleen right? Did the gods hear him and answer with their aid when he was in danger or strife? If they did not, why did he still live, when he should have been dead in Garth's camp weeks before? "Please," he entreated whatever god would listen, "hear me; I shall never ask again -- and if there is a price, I will pay it... Only listen!"
There was the sound of hooves as he lay watching the eagle, and Raven sat up to see a rider heading fast into the south on the big, black racehorse that was the pride of his stable, the fastest horse he owned. "Go swiftly," he bade the horseman, "and bring the shaman back soon." How far could Falcon have gone? Not far, for he was cherished wherever he went and thus travelled slowly.
He got to his feet, whistling for Lightfoot, and the eagle answered too, returning to swoop about him as he hauled his weight onto the horse's back. "Home?" He asked, wondering if the bird could understand simple worlds. Animals could, he knew, understand more than humans or even elves gave them credit for. The eagle replied with a hoarse cry, and Raven turned Lightfoot back toward the house. "We will come out again in the evening," he promised. "But you are still the mate of a chieftain, remember, and I have duties to perform."
The duties were performed only sketchily. Cuillin did not return that day, and a messenger scurried home with news that was not good: the two humans who had come raiding into the elven tuaths were long gone, holding to the forest with all the skill of the woodsmen they were; on fast horses, in another day, they would be across the Chaika River and beyond reach. That was bad; escaping, they would take with them too many secrets. Maps could be drawn, elven strengths guessed -- and they took with them the location of both Raven and Feyleen, too. Raven ached anew as he realised the terrible danger.
"We may have to leave here," he told Feyleen as she drank wine with him on the balcony outside her room, three days after the Fen shaman had sacrificed his life for an act of vengeance. Three days; Raven felt a thousand years old. He hungered for Bodie, a useless yearning that only tormented him, for the eagle knew nothing of his feelings. Bodie was gone. His bed was empty, his heart emptier yet, and every day he gazed into the south, waiting for the shaman. "If the humans know who we are and where we are," he went on, forcing his mind back to the present, "there will be no peace for us here. Safest to leave."
"This is my home," Feyleen said stubbornly. "Rather, strengthen the warband and be ready for them when they come again."
"Fighting, fighting, all the time," Raven sighed. "I have had enough of it to last my whole life through. I have ridden the war trails since I was a lad and have seen such things as you cannot imagine... I have no stomach for it, Feyleen, not after this. The fighting took me into captivity, the fighting has brought Bodie an awful fate. No, we will leave, go into the west and settle somewhere beyond the reach of the humans."
"Garth will never rest," Feyleen whispered.
It took a moment for what she said to sink in, and then Raven jumped. "Garth? How do you -- I never spoke to you of what happened!"
"Bodie," Feyleen shrugged. "I made him tell me it all... I would listen to you in the night, crying out in your dreams, and I had to know. Raven, I am your mother; I loved you before the rest of the world even knew you existed! How can I hear your grief and not ache for you? So I made Bodie tell me."
"Everything?" Raven coloured, averting his eyes. "He told you --"
"Enough," she said very gently. "There is no dishonour, so do not trouble yourself. My father was never a kind or generous man. He used his women badly and literally sold me in betrothal to strengthen his warband. When Wulff found me I was in despair, and I fell in love -- oh, as fast as you and your human. I ran... What else could I do? And in so doing began a war that has lasted so long, and brought such hardships. If there is dishonour to be shouldered, it is mine." She reached out to touch his arm. "Bodie told me enough, but kept your trust, Raven. He has never spoken of it to any other, or even to me after that one day. I needed to know, and he understood."
"Still, it was cruel to tell you," Raven murmured. "I was treated badly, and by my grandsire. He is... not a sire of whom I would be proud."
"Nor would I," Feyleen agreed drily. "Which is why I ran from there." She stirred. "Take cheer, Ray --"
"Don't," Raven hissed, eyes squeezed shut.
"Don't do what?" Feyleen's voice was husky and thick.
"Don't call me... that," Raven said brokenly. "That is his name for me, and I cannot bear it." He heaved a breath and forced a faint smile to his lips. "The nights are long and I ache for him. I'm sorry."
Feyleen took his hand. "So am I. I had not meant to hurt, but it is a name I liked, short and sweet. But, take cheer; Falcon will be here soon."
"Soon," Raven echoed, "and then -- what? He is not a magician. We have no tricksters. Our adepts are scholars and shamans, not magicians."
"Still, Falcon is heir to the wiles of a thousand generations of shamans," Feyleen argued. "What a Fen trickster knows, he will know. Trust him."
"I do," Raven said honestly. "I trust him with my life... Bodie is my life. I have come to realise that, Feyleen. Without him I am only half alive, and kept afloat with hopes. Oh, time will heal me, I do not doubt."
"You are so young," Feyleen said quietly.
"So," Raven growled, "is Bodie. A scant few years older than I."
With that he got to his feet, and Feyleen watched him drink his cup to the lees and put it down with a clatter, his movements jerky and abrupt, betraying strain. He left without another word, heading out into the courtyard below the balcony. The eagle perched there in the old pear tree, waiting; evening had just begun to thicken, the beginning of the long, gentle twilight, and the ritual of the hunt was due. A joy and an agony for Raven, Feyleen knew; and she bade Falcon to return with all speed. If the worst came to the worst, at least Raven would know to mourn wholeheartedly and let grief run its course; this way, with the mourning held at bay by uncertain hope, the pain was so much keener.
Six days after the Fen shaman had been burned along with the human and elven dead, and Bodie had been lost, Falcon and his girl, Lilith, rode back into the hills south of Raven's lands, led by the rider who had been sent to fetch them. Cuillin had brought the warband home when it became clear that the escaping human raiders never would be found, and Raven was busy orchestrating defences: if he and Feyleen were to remain here, they must be prepared to fight again. To be taken by surprise was to invite disaster.
A stable lad hurried to fetch the chieftain, and Raven's heart was in his mouth as he ran back with the boy, meeting Falcon at the old Thistle Gate in the south boundary. Falcon had not been told of the trouble, and the look on his smooth, brown face said that he feared the worst. He waved as he saw the chieftain, petitioning at once for news.
"No, it is not I," Raven said breathlessly, "but Bodie..." He told the story in clipped, almost clinical sentences, only the catch in his voice betraying the pain he felt. The shaman heard him out, a deep frown tugging his brows together as they went on to the house, and Raven led him into the courtyard where the eagle sunned himself and slept.
"Bodie," Falcon said softly, approaching the bird of prey with caution and stroking the golden plumage when he was allowed. "What would you have me do for him, Raven?"
"Restore him," Raven said huskily. "Fen magic cannot be greater than ours."
"Nor is it," Falcon admitted. "But, Raven, consider what you have asked... What was the price of the magic, in the first place?"
"The life of --" Raven began and stopped. "Dear gods. The life of the Fen shaman." He blinked at Falcon. "Is it the same in our lore? Is that what I am asking of you?" His eyes glittered with tears and he squeezed them shut. "No -- it is too much. How can I ask that, your life for Bodie's?" He pulled his sleeve across his face. "Is there no other way? No way at all?"
Falcon sighed deeply, one arm going about Raven's bony shoulders. "You are in pain, little one. Come inside, drink wine and we will talk."
A goblet of rich red wine, and Raven's stomach began to settle. He sniffed on sinuses that had blocked and studied the tiled floor before his feet without seeing it. "I will not ask it of you, shaman. I have not the right, and not the heart to take your life from you for reasons so selfish as mine.'
"Even if you had asked it," Falcon said gently, "I could not grant you my life. I am the property of this whole tribe, Raven. My gifts belong not to me but to all. My duty is first to the tribe, then to the chief, then to you, lastly to me... But..." He took a breath, watching the green-gold eyes as they fixed on him; the pain was bright in them. "How much is Bodie's life as a man worth to you?"
"Everything," Raven said honestly. "Everything I have, everything I am."
"Are you sure?"
Raven nodded. "I have had six endless days to think about it. Bodie gave me back life when I should have been dead. I have had weeks of happiness I have never expected; he gave me everything, Falcon. How can I owe him less?"
The arm about Raven's shoulders hugged. "There is a way, love, but the price is fearfully high. Were I to advise you, I would say, let the eagle go free and weep until your heart mends itself."
"A way?" Raven asked thickly. "How?"
"You saw a man spend his life to work the trick of it," the shaman said slowly, "and this is how it must be -- the energies needed are vast. I know the way of it -- I was taught as a boy by my master, arcane skills, weird and much respected. But my life is pledged to the service of the tribe, Raven; if it is not to be my energies, expended, whose will it be?"
Raven blinked at the older man. "Mine?"
"If you so decide," Falcon said softly.
"And it will kill me?"
"Not at once," the shaman whispered. "Because you are little more than a child. I am a century older than you, Raven; it would kill me quickly. You? It will spend your youth, rob you of many, many years. A human would die at once, as the Fen died; we live much longer, so..." He sighed. "You will become old, as old as Dermot, with all that means. You understand?"
"Hair white as snow, skin like old leather," Raven murmured, "a body grown slow and unresponsive to love... Will he love me, if I am this way?" He closed his eyes. "Aye, he would always love me, I know. But would he want me? Would I hunger for him?"
"Love him," Falcon said gently, "but need him? Great age has different ways, little one; your heart will be warm though your body beyond rousing. There will be a few years for you, venerated as an elder, cherished by your clan. And Bodie at your side... Choose, Raven, but be sure. There can be no turning back. Let the eagle go free, and live the life Bodie gave you when he brought you home from the humans; or give him your life, watch him glory in his youth at the expense of yours. It is an awful choice, I know."
Raven stirred. "No, Falcon -- there is no choice at all. It is a matter for the heart, not the mind or the honour. Whatever I have is his." He clasped the shaman's hand. "When will you do it?"
"There is little point delaying." Falcon's brown eyes brimmed with tears. "You are so beautiful, Raven," he said, tracing the chieftain's features with feathery fingertips. "How can I destroy this?"
"Look at the bird," Raven whispered, "and think of Bodie. In destroying whatever nature gave me you restore him, and he is more beautiful than I, by far. Do it, Falcon; the longer I delay the more my heart will be uncertain... But, can you grant me one wish? Just one, if you can?"
"What?" Falcon asked, guessing.
"One night," Raven said huskily. "One night with him, while I am young and am able to love, and while I am still something he will want to touch and hold. Please? Is it possible?"
"I think so," the shaman said gently. "I have enough of my youth left, even now, that I can survive a night as an ancient."
"My word will be my bond," Raven told him, going to one knee at the shaman's feet. "I shall come to you at first light to make payment for your services... Will there be pain?"
"For you? Yes," Falcon said sadly. "For the eagle? He will know nothing. I will be quick, and shield you as I can, so do not fear."
"Then do it now," Raven pleaded, "before my foolish heart can weaken. I... I am afraid."
"You are a child," Falcon said sadly, "so young, still running and playing. The sacrifice is greater than you know, Raven. Be sure."
"I am sure." Raven turned away, calling the eagle after him. "Come to my apartments. There is quiet there and servants within earshot. What will you need?"
Falcon limped after the chieftain and the eagle, into the house and up the back stairs. "Just an hour, no more than that."
"Then I will write a letter for Feyleen," Raven said huskily. "If I told her to her face she would argue, and fight, and this I could not bear. They would all counsel me to let things be, and call the eagle my pet."
"And so do I," Falcon murmured.
The green-gold eyes were dark with regret. "But the decision is mine. Have you ever been in love, Falcon?"
The shaman smiled. "Twice, once a long time ago, and now, with my Lilith. You do not have to explain to me, Raven... I know." He ushered the bird into the chieftain's rooms and stepped inside after it. "Go and write your letter. Lilith will come for you when all is well. I will need some place to rest, afterward... I will be very old, you know."
"Take Wulff's rooms," Raven suggested. "They are yonder, across the house; my mother has left them as they were, they are unoccupied."
"Aye," Falcon nodded. "Come, Lilith, and help me."
For a long time Raven stood staring at the closed door, his thoughts a hot, chaotic turmoil. His nerves were raw, his body shaking and he was reminded of the feverish morning on which he had woken in the humans' camp, a prisoner. Stripped, chained, he had hung by his wrists from the gate lintel, believing that he would be flogged, until his legs were held apart and he realised the punishment intended for him was of a different kind. Only the first rape hurt him; after that the flood of semen actually prevented him from injury and there was only humiliation as they cut him down and laughed at him as he tried to walk. Death has been no more than a moment away for ten endless days, and then --
Then Bodie had come home, and there was peace and gentleness, and hope. Raven walked slowly down the stairs to the library in search of quill, indigo and paper, and he poured over the letter, labouring over each word. Feyleen would never understand -- none of them would. But none of them had been a chattel, a bed slave, an old man's whore, yearning for the escape of death; Raven had known it all, and knew the debt he owed Bodie. If it meant his youth, his life, what of it? He had been living on borrowed time for years.
He had finished the letter, folded it and sealed it with wax when there was the patter of bare feet beyond the door and Lilith's face appeared. She was a lovely woman, Bodie's age, smaller than Raven, with long copper hair and eyes that danced. Now, those brown eyes were haunted, and Raven got to his feet at once. "What is amiss? Is Bodie --"
"Bodie is Bodie," Lilith told him, "and Falcon is... Come quickly."
They took the stairs at a run, Raven's heart hammering against his ribs, and at the door to his rooms he pulled up short. Falcon lay on the floor, his body shrunken and crooked, his skin gone away to parchment, his hair straggling. He had emptied out his life, Raven saw, and he was as old as any elf ever was. Dragging his eyes away, he saw the shape lying in his bed, recognising it with a painful start. Bodie. The human lay deeply asleep, unaware of the drama and horror in the room as Raven and Lilith lifted Falcon to his feet and supported him between them.
"You will die," Raven said thickly. "You must take me now, I think."
The shaman's voice was a hoarse cackle. "Do not fret for me, all is not as dreadful as you assume. I am merely old, and tired. Wearied - -- dizzy. Help me to Wulff's rooms and let me sleep. Lilith will tend me... Raven, take your night with him. Live your life in one night. Love until you are unable."
"I will," Raven whispered. "It is evening already. When will he waken?"
"Soon," Falcon croaked as he shuffled out of the chieftain's rooms. "He will be fit and strong, have no fear. And he will remember nothing of what has been, so your night will be spent in peace, not in argument."
The shaman was frail, so light that, when his strength failed him, Raven picked him up and carried him as one might carry a child, taking him to the rooms that had been Wulff's and leaving him on the quilted bed. Lilith smiled shakily at him in thanks and shut the door, and Raven hurried back to his own apartments.
Bodie was sound, not stirring as the elf came to stand at the bedside, and Raven looked his fill, his heart quickening as always as he drank in the human's almost heart stopping beauty. Beauty like the night -- dark and cool, skin so white, hair so nearly black, eyes that were like gemstones, laughing at the world with the arrogance of youth and confidence. Raven stooped to lift the quilt away, his eyes covering the human's body an inch at a time.
He was not perfect, as an elf would have been; there were scars all over him. Raven knew every one of them with fingers and tongue, and loved them all. The broad, smooth chest rose and fell steadily and, pressing his ear to it, he heard the familiar thunder of Bodie's heart. Warm, the white skin invited his touch, and he revelled in the chance to explore the body he loved anew. There was so little time.
Tomorrow, Bodie would grieve for him, and weep for his lost youth, sit dreaming of all that had been, coddle him through the frailties of age, and not be able to bear the cold, parchment-like hands upon him. Raven blinked and tears away, determined not to make a ruin of the night Falcon had given him.
While Bodie slept, he bathed, attending to his body until he was smooth and soft and both skin and hair smelt of roses and honeysuckle. He dried his hair, pushing the curls back, behind his ears, which Bodie had learned was an elf's open invitation to loving, and searched for the jewellery he knew Bodie loved best. There was a silver chain, fine and cool, for his neck, an anklet with tiny bells that fascinated the human, two bracelets engraved with coiling serpents, and a thin gold cockring, more for ornamentation than practicality, for there was a depth to the elven sensuality that could still astonish the human.
Already throbbing with desire, Raven did not dress, but sat on the foot of the bed, cross legged, watching his lover gradually stir awake as the evening thickened outside. He had lit a dozen candles and gloried in the shimmer of the light on Bodie's fair skin; his body reacted almost violently to the sight, an ache in his loins and a flush colouring his face. He caught his breath as Bodie woke at last, the long, blue-black lashes fluttering open. Blue eyes smiled at him and Bodie stretched, supple, predatory, reminding Raven of the eagle.
The human sat up slowly, a moment's disorientation banished as he saw his mate, naked and gleaming in the candlelight, fiercely aroused, his favourite jewellery shimmering on the sun-brown skin. Bodie laughed richly. "Look at you! Was there ever anything half so beautiful?"
"You," Raven said. "I am not beautiful, merely healthy and good humoured."
"Let me be the judge of that," Bodie snorted. "And look, see what you do to me without setting one finger upon me!" There was no questioning the effect of Raven's looks and proximity. Bodie's cock throbbed against his belly, demanding attention, while the human was still barely half awake.
Raven ignored the ache of his own arousal; time for that later. They had all night. All night. Their final night. The sweet agony of knowing that it was the last made it all the more beautiful, and he inched forward over the rumpled quilt to offer everything he could. He knelt astride Bodie's chest, doubling his torso until he could take his lover's shaft deeply into his mouth, sucking and cherishing until Bodie could take no more and pushed him away with a choked laugh. Then Raven knelt again, presenting himself, forehead on his folded hands in mute supplication.
Light hands caressed his buttocks and he heard Bodie give a throaty chuckle. "Why so desperate, love?" The human asked.
"Complaining?" Raven asked, muffled by the quilt.
"Hardly," Bodie admitted, one large hand slipping between Raven's legs to cup his balls, gently massaging.
"Then indulge me," Raven purred, lifting his hips in invitation.
Bodie needed little encouragement. He bent, kissing the perfect white buttocks and holding them apart for his tongue; Raven was open already with wanting and Bodie replaced his pampering tongue with teasing fingers until the elf cried out. "Wait, be patient," Bodie scolded, delighted, and positioned himself.
The long, slow slide of penetration was easy; helpless with delight, Raven almost forgot the day's desperation, writhing with Bodie until the human withdrew completely, before either of them was ready to come. "Turn over," Bodie said breathlessly. "Over, love." He had to lift Ray onto his back and help him, spreading his legs and lifting them over his shoulders; Raven was dizzy with the heat and hunger, a week's abstinence increasing the pressure until the cockring almost hurt. Bodie was inside him again a moment later and he dragged his lover down until he could have his mouth too.
Bodie surrendered to the kiss with a moment's surprise. Raven was not just hungry, he was ravenous, desperate. The excitement was infectious and soon Bodie could not hold back. No amount of expertise could make it last long, and before he knew what he was about Raven had taken him up over the peak and they were clinging together in a boneless embrace, panting for air. It was half a minute before Bodie could hear and understand, and then he heard Ray's breathless words. Nothing coherent or relevant, just disjointed confessions of love.
The elf recovered first and Bodie was content to be still, revelling in the through pampering he received, from head to foot; as yet he was unable to grow hard again and rolled onto his side instead, grabbing Ray by the hips and pulling him in close to suck him. Raven was fiercely aroused again already, bucking and heaving, but there was no surprise in that. Elves and humans were by no means the same in their appetites or their capabilities. He sucked in a slow, even rhythm, aware that his lover was shaking like a leaf and that thunder had begun to roll about the hills, and then Ray was coming, the salt-sweet life's essences pouring from him, scalding Bodie's throat.
Exhausted now, the elf lay still and Bodie squirmed around until he could hold his mate and kiss his mouth. "You taste of me," Raven slurred against Bodie's open mouth.
"Hardly surprising." Bodie kissed him again, refraining from licking or touching the graceful, pointed ears, lest he should arouse Ray again, so soon; he could arouse him that way, he knew, but Raven would be comatose with satiation -- too much, too quickly. Bodie contented himself with a through exploration of the mouth he loved. "Why?" He murmured at last. "Why so hot, love? So desperate for me?"
"Because I love you," Raven lied. Because this is the last, and the night will be too short -- I must pace myself, he thought, getting one elbow under him and looking at Bodie hungrily, through the eyes of a lover. He knew every plane and contour of Bodie's face and form with hands and lips, and would never forget the feel of the human's hot, velvet skin, no matter how cold his own body grew with age. For a long time they lay still, looking at one another while heartbeats calmed and breathing eased, and then Raven took Bodie's hand and stroked the long, square fingers carefully over his ears.
Bodie watched his mate shudder at the touch, glancing down the length of the lean, brown body to watch him become aroused. The third time, Ray would be very much in control, he remembered, and he felt the heat rise in his face as his nerves strummed with anticipation. "Ray?" He whispered. The green-gold eyes smiled at him. "You want to, don't you? You want me now." "More than anything," Raven admitted. "But only if you want to."
"I want to," Bodie said honestly. "Here, let me help." He drew out of the elf's embrace, coming to his knees as he had seen Raven do countless times.
He was trembling; Raven's hands discovered the evidence of nerves and he smiled. "Surely you cannot be afraid of me -- not after all that has been."
"Afraid?" Bodie managed a chuckle. "Once, I might have been, but now... I want you, Ray. As much as you ever wanted this from me, I want it from you."
"Then you must be frantic for it," Raven said, attempting levity as he bent to kiss down Bodie's supple spine, lave him with saliva, plunder his final secret with a cherishing tongue. Bodie moaned as the first promising sensations threaded through him, and cried out as Raven began to use his fingers. Slick with pre-ejaculate, they rimmed him, slid inside and caressed, opening him. Excitement flared along his nerves and Bodie wriggled, wanting more, a harder, deeper touch.
"Ray? Do it, Ray, please."
"I will. Hush," Raven purred. He was grateful that he had come twice already, for now he had the control he needed to make Bodie's first time perfect. Would it be the first and last time? Tears stung his eyes. "I love you," he hissed fiercely as his cock nudged against slick, tight muscle pressed. "Never forget."
It was the first time in many months that Raven had felt his shaft slide into the welcome of another's body and the sensations were as overwhelming for him as for Bodie. He went down onto his mate's sweat-slick back, sobbing into the dark hair as Bodie began to wriggle.
"Do it, Ray," the human moaned, "oh do it, please!"
Obliging him was no hardship. They moved together slowly and gently, and time seemed to suspend itself. A moment lasted a decade, disjointed curses and words of love hung aloft like thistledown. The coming was slow and deep, reaching every nerve as the thunder rolled about the hills again. Summer thunder, Raven thought vaguely as he lay panting on Bodie's back, his right hand still nestled in the human's damp groin, curled about flesh now soft. He began to take his weight on his knees and elbows to withdraw but Bodie's voice halted him.
"No, don't move. Not yet. Stay with me."
Raven lay still again "I hurt you," he whispered.
"Only a little, and only for a moment," Bodie smiled. "Now, I wish you would remain there forever. We are one, you and I, for this short time... You're growing soft within me. You feel... Even my bones are liquid." He produced a shaky little chuckle. "How long, you insatiable elf, before you can do it again?"
"An hour," Raven judged. "For now I am spent, but you know us well." At last he began to stir. "Here, I am suffocating you." He withdrew and pulled Bodie into his arms; the human's body was leaden and hot. "Sleep, my beautiful love... You are also spent."
"And you're beautiful," Bodie murmured, nuzzling Raven's ear and sucking it now that he knew he could do so without risk of spoiling their games. Though Ray was for the moment unable to respond the sensations were enough to bring a groan of pleasure to his lips, and a shudder coursed through him. Bodie was nearer sleep than he would admit, sliding down in Raven's embrace until his head was pillowed on the elf's flat belly; his fingers played in the sodden tangle below and he wrinkled his nose at the unique tang of Ray's musk, tracing the gold band of the cockring. His body was still singing with delight and he kissed the twitching abdomen beneath his cheek. "Musk and roses. A fine scent, Ray... You were hungry for me."
"Aye." Raven combed through Bodie's dark hair. "And you made me the gift of your virginity. I wish I could have given you mine. Do you need ointment, love?"
"No, you were skilled and gentle," Bodie slurred.
"Still, I would sooner get you a salve. Here, rest while I fetch cloths and water... We are both in a sorry state!"
Bodie rolled over on the tangled quilt to watch is mate pad away for ewer and basin, and a pot of brown salve left over from the treatment for some scratch. The damp cloths mopped at him, tickling between his legs, and he smiled at the elf's expression of concern. "Sweet idiot, do you think I am so frail?"
The green eyes cleared. "Mayhap you are stronger than I," Raven admitted. "My first time, I hurt badly and would have been grateful for a moment's care." Moving suddenly, Bodie took him by surprise, pulling him into an embrace that crushed him until he panted for breath. "Bodie, must you demolish me?"
The human released him only reluctantly. "I'm sorry, Ray. When I hear that you have been hurt I am barely sane."
Raven blinked at him for a moment before falling against the larger body once more. "Love, that was years ago, I was just a boy. My lover was not malicious, merely a little eager and clumsy -- and you know how we heal even if we are hurt."
"I know," Bodie whispered, holding him. "But I love you and am foolish where you are concerned." He licked one little rose-brown nipple until it puckered in his mouth, then suckled it avidly. Drowsiness snatched at him and he yawned, the gust of warm breath stirring the elf's chest hair.
"Sleep," Raven ordered sternly.
"Aye. Then you will have me again," Bodie muttered.
"As wanton as a youth, Bodie?" Raven teased.
"And what of it?" Bodie's voice was indistinct, his limbs heavy with sleep.
Wrapping arms and legs about him, Raven rested his head back into the pillows. "Oh, gods, would that the sun should never rise again," he whispered. "I am lost." The stars of midnight crept into the window as he watched, the candles burning out one by one. Thunder continued to growl but the rain held off, and Raven rested fitfully, becoming cramped under Bodie's weight.
Not long after midnight the human stirred; Raven kissed him awake, nibbling his ears and nose, and Bodie sat up with a dreamy smile. "More?" he asked thickly.
"More," Raven affirmed, mirroring the smile.
"Then give me the gold ring," Bodie suggested. "I am human, and may have need of it." He watched Ray slip it off and lay back as the slender fingers slid it onto his own cock, which twitched beneath the touch but was slow in responding. Raven bent to suck him, gradually coaxing him up to arousal. "I shall be useless tomorrow," he observed drily.
"Then sleep all day," Raven murmured. He lay down, his body pillowed full-length on Bodie, and opened his mouth to a searching kiss.
"Take me again," Bodie whispered.
"Later," Ray promised.
"You may be too optimistic," the man chuckled. "I have come twice already."
"I am patient and attentive," Raven smiled.
"And your fingers are like magic," Bodie admitted. "What do you want this time, then?"
For a long time Ray just undulated against him, hot and supple; there was no urgency now. Bodie rolled them onto their sides and began again, kissing him languidly before Raven turned onto his belly and Bodie stretched out on his back, rubbing his cock in the clench of the elf's muscular buttocks. At last Bodie sat back on his heels to look at his love; Ray lay with one leg crooked to accommodate his erection, his spine flexing involuntarily, his hair spilled across the pillow.
"Bodie?" The voice was deep and husky.
"Aye, come here," Bodie said gently, lifting his mate into his lap and leaning back into the pillows. "Up with you... There -- ah!" Ray's weight impaled him and the curly head tossed as Bodie arched up into him. Through almost closed eyes Bodie watched his lover move, the blue of grudging moonlight that found its way through the gathering overcast limning his muscles, glistening on skin that was streaked with sweat.
"Oh, love," Raven whispered, "never forget -- never."
"Forget?" Bodie could barely speak, barely understand, as Raven worked hard at their pleasure, bringing them slowly to climax.
Elven seed showered the human as Raven came, the contractions of his muscles pulling orgasm from Bodie a moment later. As the cock within him softened to allow it Raven fell forward, cradled on Bodie's chest, almost asleep; but he fought off sleep, luxuriating in every caress until Bodie was drowsing again, and storing up every scrap of feeling he could glean against the morrow.
He was afraid. It would almost be better to die than to be plunged into the winter of old age. Many warriors did not live to grow old and infirm, frail, and he had never seriously considered it... Feeble, impotent and ill, he thought bleakly, and the fear rose up, engulfing him. He buried his face in Bodie's warm shoulder, trying to tell the time by the stars. With dawn his life was lover; Falcon would take his life gently, make him the gift of death, if he asked it, he knew; and it would be kinder to Bodie, save him from the anguish of watching his mate die one day at a time, body drained, heart broken. Death was an old adversary to Raven, and it frightened him less than the prospect of illness and decrepitude.
"But how can I leave you before I must?" He whispered into Bodie's hair. The human murmured in his sleep but did not waken. "What shall I do?"
If there was an answer, Raven could not see it and instead he spent the night storing memories as a squirrel hoards acorns. The smooth feel of his own skin; the way his nerves would tingle when Bodie stirred in his arms, the flush of warmth as he thought of their lovemaking, the arousing little gusts of his mate's breath on his chest...
Just before dawn, when the land lay deeply asleep, Bodie woke. They did not speak -- Raven did not trust his voice and was grateful for the darkness that hid the glitter in his eyes. Bodie stretched against him, wanting to kiss him, and Raven opened his mouth to the searching tongue. It counted his teeth and played with his own tongue, the kiss a thousand years long, gently arousing the elf. The human was not so quick to harden, and Raven wriggled about to help him, wanting him with a ravenous hunger.
The last time. Ray put the thought from his mind as he cherished his mate's body, with lips and hands coaxing him up to a burning desire. Bodie kissed him again and turned over in his arms; his voice was no more than a whisper. "Take me again. Please."
"I will," Raven murmured, and stooped to chart the human's spine with licking kisses that made Bodie squirm in delight. Ray took him by the hips, lifting him, hugging him, cheek against his shoulder blade as Bodie knelt for him. "I love you. You are my heart no matter what happens. My best love..."
In the midst of the surge of desire, Bodie heard and frowned. There was a strange little catch in Raven's voice, as if he was fighting back grief. He -- it must be the gift of pleasure, Bodie thought dreamily, to be offered the surrender of his mate's body for the first time. That must be it. Smiling to hear the wealth of emotion in Ray's lovely voice, he spread his legs, pillowing his chin on his folded forearms. "Come on, little chuck," he said breathlessly, "I am impatient for you."
Raven slid one hand between the human's legs and Bodie purred in time to the caresses. Ray's skill was wonderful, his patience a luxury in itself, and when he leashed in his warrior's strength, easing into his mate's taut body a fraction at a time, Bodie felt his heart melt. "Ah, sweetheart," he crooned, rocking in the elf's slow rhythm, "ah, gods, how I love you."
The words were balm to Raven, gentling him as his heart grew uncertain with fear. The sky was lightening. In an hour he must go. He tossed his head, forcing the thoughts away, drowning in Bodie and making the moment last forever. When the human became wild, trying to drive him deeper and increase their easy rhythm, Raven stopped and pressed him down into the bed. "Shh, slowly, slowly, or it will be over. Too soon, too soon."
Bodie was panting, his muscles beginning to shake, and he lay still, let Raven do as he chose. His mind was swimming, what his mate was up to was beyond him, but whatever Raven wanted was perfect. He moaned into the pillows, a wordless license for Ray to do anything at all with him.
They were riding the edge of exhaustion when Raven allowed them to come at last, and the human cried out; no one had ever flown him so high or for long. His mind was gone. Raven was his whole world, and as his mate withdrew from him he struggled to turn over, all leaden limbs and thundering heart, clutching the elf against him as he felt the tug of weariness. Raven lay still in his arms, limp, sated, and Bodie felt the trickle of tears on his chest. "Shh, little chuck, rest now, you deserve it!" He pressed his lips to Ray's head and closed his own eyes. The room smelt strong, the bed was a wreck; if this had been the night of their bonding it could have been no more intense. Indeed, their first nights together had been lacking by comparison! Vaguely, as he gave in to the embrace of his dreams, he wondered what could have inspired his lover so... Time to ask him in the morning -- if he was still alive.
The sky was growing brighter as Raven watched, and his heart raced in his chest. Soon he must go. Bodie was dead asleep now; he had given his all, everything he had. Ray wriggled carefully away, not wishing to disturb him, and Bodie merely turned onto his side, curling up. For some time the elf stood at the bedside, gazing down at all he loved, painfully aware that he would never stand here this way again... Falcon would take his life, if he had the courage to ask it. But the shaman would take his youth, no matter if his courage held or not. Raven stepped away from the bed, eyes lingering on Bodie as he went to bathe, to wash from himself the traces of their loving.
He brushed his hair, standing before the silvered mirror, studying the face of a youth and trying to picture himself old and withered. It would be a long time before he dared look in a mirror again, he guessed, and his heart skipped wilfully. He dressed in his gold tunic, sliding the chieftain's circlet onto his brow. Even as an ancient, he would still wear the circlet, it was his birthright. He clinched the tunic at his waist with a scabbardless baldric, but left his legs and feet bare; the little bells on the anklet Bodie loved tinkled as he returned to the bedside.
The human had not stirred; in sleep he looked no more than a boy, smooth and beautiful, filling Raven's eyes now as he had the first morning he had set eye on him... In a cave, high in a cliff, the hiding place. They had been on the run then, fugitives from Garth. "My grandsire brought us together," Raven murmured, "and now he has set us apart." Garth's scouts, and their Fen shaman, were responsible for every woe that beset his clan, and his heart was heavy as he considered Garth...
There would be a reckoning one day; the human would be brought to account for what he had done. Raven vowed this fiercely as he bent to kiss his mate's lips one last time before withdrawing from the room, and from all that had been.
Lilith was waiting for him, sitting in the cane chair down the hall, and she beckoned him urgently. "Falcon has slept, but he is weakening; he will not live long without you, Raven."
"I know," Raven admitted. "I... I am ready. Is he strong enough to make the magic?"
"Aye," she judged, "but we must not wait any longer."
"Then take me to him," Raven said softly. "I owe him a debt I can never repay... He gave me the finest night of my life."
The woman looked up at him with a nervous smile. "Raven, I sorrow for you. The price is so high."
"Higher than riding to battle and being killed by your enemy?" He shook his head. "No, the price is the same. Life... Death. Where is the difference?"
They padded silently to Wulff's old rooms, and Raven was shocked to see the old man who was the shaman. Falcon was unrecognisable, and Ray acknowledged a pang of terror. Is this what was in store for him? I am younger than Falcon, but --
"Raven?" Falcon's voice was a mere croak. "Son?"
"Yes." Ray sat down on the side of the bed. "I came as soon as... What must I do? Tell me, and I shall help."
Falcon's eyes were blurred with fatigue. "Come close, embrace me, and relax. It will take time... I am not strong."
In fact he was frighteningly weak. Raven shuffled closer, lay down beside the shaman, wriggled toward him and pressed his body against the thin, withered chest. Weak, bony arms closed about him, drawing him nearer, and he closed his eyes, trying to relax as he had been told. Falcon was weeping, a deep, racking sorrow at what he was about to do, and Raven soothed the old man.
"It is my decision, my choice," he murmured. "I owe you my life, and you must take it. Falcon, be at peace..." He broke off, his breathing becoming a little erratic. "Falcon -- my nerves are tingling, and I'm cold."
"It has just begun," the old man whispered. "Do not be afraid, I will not let it hurt you."
Raven caught his breath at the strange, alien sensations and buried his face in the old man's shoulder. Falcon's arms about him were protective, supportive; the cold seeped into him.
As the door clicked shut Bodie stirred awake, one arm reaching for his mate only to find the bed empty and cool. He pried open his eyes, yawning and listening for the sounds of activity in the adjoining room. Ray was fastidious to the point of mania and had like as not gone to bathe. Bodie smiled; the night had been abandoned and he needed to bathe himself.
There was quiet from the apartment's other rooms, and he frowned, wondering if Ray had gone in search of breakfast. Hunger gnawed at his own innards and he found the thought of food unbearable. He slid out of bed, nose wrinkling at the smell of bed and room, and went to quickly wash before pulling on a yellow robe and heading in search of breakfast.
It was the sound of grief that drew his attention to the library, and he stood at the door, frowning as he saw Feyleen. She sat at the oaken table, a paper in her hands, and her eyes were red. She looked up as he appeared and the sight of his face seemed to worsen the grief.
"Whatever is wrong?" Bodie asked softly, forgetting about food and coming to stand at her side.
In answer, she thrust the letter into his hands, and Bodie puzzled over it. The elven script was not difficult, but he had learned to read it only recently. It was Raven's hand -- he would have known it anywhere, and Ray could be unreadable at times, when he was in a hurry. The looping script defeated him at first, then he caught the gist of it and stood, speechless, beside Feyleen as he made sense of what Ray had written.
"He's -- he's done what?" Bodie murmured, barely article. "Falcon -- I was -- an eagle? I don't believe it! The last I remember was..."
"I saw it," Feyleen told him miserably. "I saw it happen. You were cast down by the Fen shaman. Raven sent for Falcon to come and set matters to rights, and this is Falcon's plan. The shaman gave his life to curse you, and Raven will give his life to set the curse to rights." She looked up at him, and thought there was a look of accusation in her eyes. "You have been life and death to him, Bodie. Life and death."
The numbness held Bodie rooted to the spot for an awful, endless minute before he could get his legs to work; and then he fled. Guests were always installed in the old wing of the house, and he knew which rooms would be given to such as a shaman. Only the best. The door to Wulff's apartments was closed, and he flung it open without knocking or balling ahead. The sight before him stunned him yet again.
There was his mate, lying, docile, in the embrace of an old, old man; it was almost a lover's embrace, tender and close, but Raven was deathly pale, his lips moving soundlessly, only the occasional moan letting Bodie know that he was conscious. Beside the bed stood Lilith, her hands clasped tightly, her eyes fixed on the two men, and Bodie spared her a single glance.
"Ray! Ray, for the gods' sake, no! Falcon, you cannot!"
All the human's disbelief drove Bodie. He could not believe that he had been subject to Fen magic, nor that Raven owed any debt or price. All he could see was his mate, white and cold in the arms of a man so old it was a miracle he was still alive at all. "Ray!" Bodie bent over the men, one hand on Raven's arm.
Lilith took a step forward. "No -- do not touch them, you will --"
Raven's eyes opened, unfocused, blind, and his throat produced a hoarse, choked cry. The shaman's skeletal hands clutched at him but the damage had been done and as Bodie watched his mate began to shake. Cold, fright, pain, all the things Falcon had been shielding him from; abruptly the cushioning trance was broken, and Raven's face twisted.
"Ray? Ray!" Bodie could see only that he was in agony, and as Lilith's hands tugged at him, urging him away he shrugged the woman off, pulling his lover out of the deathly embrace.
"No!" Lilith cried, shrill with the cutting edge of panic. "Bodie, no!"
But the human was beyond hearing. In his arms, Raven was like ice, his muscles shuddering as his body tried to warm itself, and his whole body convulsed in a kind of torment Bodie could not understand. It took all Bodie's strength to hold him still until the threshing ceased and he passed out.
Lilith was keening, hugging herself, head shaking in useless denial; even Bodie could see the truth. Falcon was dead. The keening wail of elven mourning filled the room but Bodie closed his human ears to it. Raven was a limp, dead weight in his arms, cold as stone, and he was searching desperately for his pulse and heartbeat. They were faint and rapid, but he was alive, and Bodie stood, lifting his mate's slight body and turning his back on the woman who keened for the Kith shaman.
At the open door stood Feyleen, almost as white as Raven, her hands tight clasped at her mouth, and Bodie pushed past her, vaguely aware that she was on his heels as he carried Ray into the nearest unoccupied room. The elf did not stir and Bodie threw open the ottoman, bringing out every rug in it; he cocooned his mate in them, cradling the cold, inert body against his own for warmth.
"Falcon --" Feyleen began breathlessly.
"If the old man was Falcon," Bodie said grimly, "he is dead." He watched the woman's mouth twist. "It is too late, Feyleen -- it is Raven who is endangered now. Fetch me brandy, have the servants make tea; he is dying with the cold."
Shock, Bodie guessed. He had seen shock assail men after injury a thousand times before, and knew it killed as many people as ever swords and lances could account for. He chafed at Raven's hands and face, trying to win back the capacity for rational thought. Feyleen had gone in search of spirits, and there was no more he could do but wait and hold his mate, and hope.
Footsteps heralded Feyleen's approach and he looked up over Ray's bowed head. "Peach brandy," she panted, thrusting a tantalus and goblet at him.
He took the cup, trickling a little of the fiery spirit between Raven's blue lips. "Come on, Ray, fight, try!"
But it was an hour before Raven even began to surface, and the first signs of returning consciousness were moans of pain. He was still cold but the shaking had eased, and Bodie peered at his face as the green eyes opened, fluttering and half closing against the light. "Love, can you hear me?"
"Bodie?" Ray croaked? "Is it over?"
"Tell me what's wrong," Bodie pleaded. "You are hurting? How? Where?"
"Cold," Raven muffled against the rugs. "Ah, pain... He said it would hurt but --" His hands clutched convulsively at Bodie.
"Ray," Bodie crooned, "be still, be still." Anguished, he looked up at Feyleen. "Where is the old woman, Patra, the healer?"
"There is nothing she can do," Feyleen murmured, her eyes fixed on her son.
"She can mix a draught to ease his pain," Bodie said savagely. "Fetch her."
"No need," a husky voice cackled from the doorway. "I came as soon as I was told." Patra shuffled into the room, dumping her bag on the floor. Bodie was too intent on his mate to see the thunderous expression on her face, or the sharp, jerky movements, betraying anger, as she mixed the draught.
The human took it from her, holding the cup to Raven's lips and making him drink it to the bitter dregs. He coughed on it, but it acted at once and his head lolled against Bodie's shoulder. His heart was stronger now and Bodie began to relax. He gave the two women a single glance. "Go now. If he is in need I will call you, but leave him to me now."
They did not argue, and Bodie turned back the bed, piling the blankets on top of it before sliding in between the sheets himself to offer his own body head. Raven was simply asleep now and the pangs of a mortal fatigue were snapping at the human's heels too. The night had been exhausting, the morning a living horror. Bodie put his head down on the pillow, set to watch and wait for as long as it took.
By mid-morning Raven was warm and his breathing was deep and even. Bodie slid carefully away, calling for servants to fetch tea and food; he went quickly back to their own apartments for shaving tackle and oil. The air was still ripe with the unmistakable smell of sex and the memories of their loving were suddenly painful. He shaved as he waited for the food to arrive, watching the elf sleep, the colour returning to his face. Raven had never looked so delicate, so terrifyingly fragile, not even when Bodie had found him chained as an exhibit on his grandfather's feasting table.
He looked like a child, like a waif lost in a storm, big blue smudges beneath his eyes, his brow crinkled in distress or trouble even though he was asleep. The human ate bread and cheese, tasting nothing, marking time.
At noon, Raven stirred. Seated on the foot of the bed, Bodie reached out at once to take his hand, lest he think himself alone. He said nothing, not knowing if Ray would be properly aware or still wandering in delirium, but the green eyes had begun to clear and the elf seemed to know where he was. A smile of relief gentled Bodie's expression and he lifted his mate's hand to his lips to kiss the cool fingers.
Raven saw Bodie's face first, saw the relief, the love, but before he could be bewildered he saw his own hand... Smooth brown skin stretched tautly over bone and muscles, the blue of veins showing only faintly through his summer tan. He frowned, trying to think back to the morning. He had gone to Falcon; he remembered the shaman's frailty, the touch of the thin, claw-like hands. Then, there had been darkness, like dreamless sleep, oblivion, until -- Pain and fatigue, and a terrible coldness, the chill of the grave.
He gazed at his hand, wondering why he saw the skin and muscles of a youth. "Bodie?" His voice was still a croak. "What happened? Where is Falcon?"
"Shh, time to worry about that later," Bodie said, burying his own deep misgivings. "Just rest. For now, you are safe, let that be enough." He stooped to touch his lips to Ray's forehead.
"But I -- I am --" Raven stopped to cough. "Mirror. Please, Bodie."
Having read the letter that had been left for Feyleen, Bodie knew what was on Raven's mind, and he went at once to fetch the silver mirror with which he had shaved, holding it for him to see his face. "You are beautiful, so be at peace."
"How?" Ray puzzled. "I don't understand."
"Later," Bodie said sternly. "Will you drink a little brandy and sleep?"
Raven nodded wearily. "I could sleep a year away."
"Sleep the day away," Bodie smiled. "The morning is soon enough to fret."
The peach brandy was old and priceless; it burned across Raven's throat, warming him and going to his head, and as his mind began to spin dizzily he put the goblet down. Bodie fluffed the pillows and he relaxed, cat-like on them. His human lover sat holding him for a long time, cocooning him in security, and he slipped down into sleep, not understanding what could have happened but too tired and confused to care.
With his mate deeply asleep, Bodie crept away. There was a palpable air of trouble in the house, and the servants' faces were tight with anger. He met Feyleen in the chieftain's dining hall and she beckoned him close, speaking in a whisper that he had to strain to hear. "There is going to be trouble, Bodie, you know that, don't you?"
"The shaman," Bodie sighed. "Falcon is dead."
"They will say you and Raven killed him," Feyleen said softly.
Bodie shot a hard glance at her. "Murdered him?"
She blinked. "'Murder' is not a word that is in the elven vocabulary, but they know the word treachery'," she told him.
"Treachery?" Bodie echoed. "Raven would have died!"
"That was the price he chose to pay, to restore you," Feyleen said bitterly. "The decision was his; it was not your place to intervene."
Bodie could think of no argument and studied the tiled floor mutely for a long time. "All right. The sin is mine. Raven went willingly, I knew nothing of it until it was almost too late. I touched them, broke the spell of it. They cannot blame Ray for what I have done."
"You don't understand," Feyleen said sadly. "When Raven took you as his mate he accepted responsibility for your actions -- a human among elves, stranger in a strange lang. The wrongs you do, such as they are, are his too, by association. He will be punished as will you."
The word brought back haunting memories from the days of Bodie's human life and his knuckles whitened. "I will not stand by and let them hurt him because I have broken your laws. I will warn you, Feyleen, I will draw my sword before I will let them take a whip to him, and if the elders require his life, I will use my sword on whomever stands between us and freedom!"
The woman shuddered. "You speak as a human... I have begun to forget that those ways ever existed. Flog him? Elves do not do such things, nor do we take the lives of others under the banner of the law. No, Bodie, they will not exact human vengeance on him, or you... But it will cost him his birthright."
"He will be disinherited," Bodie concluded grimly.
"Aye. They will strip everything from him, and he will go from here as an outcast. The clothes he stands up in, a horse, his weapons to protect his life on the road... The rest is forfeit. Everything."
Bodie closed his eyes. "If that is all, we can weather the storm... I have never had much more than that, Feyleen; to such as me, it is not much of a threat."
"But he has been a prince," Feyleen whispered.
"He has been a bed slave," Bodie hissed savagely. "They hung him by his wrists and raped him until he could not walk, then took turns using him by night while he was blind and alone. A prince? He has been a chattel, a thing, an object -- the lowest of all forms of life, there for anyone to use. The freedom of the forest and peace and the companionship of his lover will seem kindly by comparison... Don't fret for us, Feyleen. Rather, fret for yourself."
She frowned. "For myself? How so?"
"Cuillin was shouting in the courtyard earlier," Bodie said, his voice steely. "He is still furious over his failure to recapture the human raiders... They are in the pay of Garth, and they will be back in your father's tuath already. What will they tell him? That they have found the place where Raven is, and where there is a human woman with yellow hair, whose name is Feyleen?" He smiled, an expression devoid of all warmth. "Do you imagine Garth will do nothing? There will be fighting here, and killing. You must beware -- and, meanwhile, the elders will be banishing two of your best swords, one of them the chieftain who has led your warband on the trails of battle for years. Who will take the chieftain's circlet from Ray?"
"His sister, Willow," Feyleen said bleakly. "She is my second born... And she is a warrior, though not a great one. Raven is the best of us, as I have told you already." She dragged both hands across her face. "The reckoning will come soon -- a day or two, when the elders have gathered for the council. Tell Raven gently. He will be distraught enough when he learns that Falcon is dead. He is a slave to his honour and always has been. And Bodie... Take care of him once you are gone from here. He is strong, but you are stronger by far. Human."
"I will," Bodie promised. "There is an old saying... Who knows what fragile wonders have died out of the world for want of the strength to survive. Ray is not so delicate, but neither is he cast from iron." He gave the woman his hand on it. "I will let no harm come to him." he paused, considering Feyleen's fingers. "And of Falcon, I can only say that I regret deeply what has been. If there was a way to undo the harm, I would set it to rights -- but I would not trade Ray's life. The world lies in the lap of the gods; this morning was their doing, not ours -- they meant him to have life, and I will not go against their wishes."
At last Feyleen managed a wan smile. "Perhaps you are right... He is well now?"
"Sleeping," Bodie assured her.
"I spoke to Lilith a little while ago. The trance had barely begun when you interrupted them. Falcon had drained little or no energy from Ray, and there will be no damage to him... But this clan no longer has a shaman." She shook her head doubtfully. "There is no one to take Falcon's place -- Lilith will not be ready for many years, and now she has no teacher."
"And all on my account," Bodie said grimly. "And so they will cast me out, and Raven with me. What have I brought him to?"
"To life," Feyleen whispered. "Do you want the gods' honesty from me? I am rejoicing that my son is alive and in youth, and if Falcon's life was the cost of it -- must I choose between my own life's blood and a stranger, even if he is the Kith shaman? Don't ask me to choose, Bodie, for I will choose Raven every time! There, do you call me wicked?"
"No more wicked than I am," Bodie smiled, sadly, "for I would choose as do you. Falcon was a friend, though I barely knew him. Raven... He is my life, and not only would I die for him, but I would kill for him. There is some subtle difference, you see."
"Oh, I see," Feyleen agreed. "You have killed for him in the past, and I think you will in the future. Hie you well, Bodie, on the road. Do not let the elders anger you when the council meets; they speak from the eyrie of the law, and are imprisoned by its ideals. Stand straight before them... You have broken every tradition and a shaman has died -- what is done is done, and beyond repair. Accept their judgment and go. It is a wise man who learns to shoulder his own responsibilities and stand by his errors."
"Errors?" Bodie's face drew tight and his voice dropped away to a whisper. "Truth, Feyleen? If I had known I would kill Falcon, I would still have done it... I am not proud of it, but there it is. I have killed a shaman, one who could have been my friend." He averted his eyes. "There is shame in it, eating at my heart, but if the price of Raven's life was Falcon's..." He sighed. "Falcon has lived five times Ray's few years. There is justice, if justice is needed. Shaman? Look for another. There are always adepts."
Feyleen was doubtful but kept silent, watching him take his leave, striding away to the kitchens to eat. The servants would avoid him now, she knew; he would serve himself and Raven, for no one wished to show any support for them. Soon, they would be gone. A rider had left already, going quickly into the west to fetch Willow. The girl was twenty, young and inexperienced, unmarried and still at study. She had never expected to become the chieftain of this clan, and she would be as shocked as any of them to learn of her brother's disgrace. But Feyleen hid a sigh of relief... So Raven was an outcast.
One had to be alive to be an outcast.
Late afternoon was warm, and Bodie went to open the windows in the rooms he had shared with his mate since they had arrived here. No one had been in to do for them, the bed was still a rumpled disaster and the air still carried the last faint traces of last night's love. Bodie sighed over the state of affairs and set to work, bundling up the soiled bedding and making the bed up afresh as the breeze blew in to waft away the telltale odour. He crept back into the room where Ray slept as the first flush of sunset crept out of the west, finding the elf stirring awake and stooping to kiss him. His mouth tasted of peach brandy and he was better, responding to the kiss with a flick of his tongue in greeting.
Bodie tousled his hair gently. "Come on, love, come and bathe, you'll feel better, clean and well fed. Then back to bed with you."
"I'm not strong," Raven warned, "and dizzy. You will have to help me."
In fact, Bodie carried him, and it was like carrying a child. Ray sat in a carved wooden chair as the tub filled with hot water from the cistern on the roof, and then soaked while Bodie washed his hair and brought him fresh clothes. He was still dopy and confused, but he studied his lover's face, seeing the expression of veiled worry, and said, "tell me what is wrong, Bodie."
"Later, when you've eaten," Bodie promised, forcing a smile. "Feyleen is bringing dinner for us. We'll eat here tonight."
And every night, until we go, he added silently, but he wanted to see Ray eat before he burdened him with the truth. The elf ate only sparingly, a little fruit, bred and honey; he was waiting for an answer, and clearly expecting the worst. Guessing? Bodie wondered, seeing the frown that tugged Ray's brows together as he ate.
"Falcon," Ray said at last. "How is he?" His voice was hushed. Knowing.
"He is dead," Bodie whispered. "I... I broke you up before he could begin to take the life's energies from you. I killed him."
The green eyes closed and Ray rocked to and fro for a time in silence. "We have broken the oldest traditions. They will never forgive us."
"I know," Bodie agreed. "Feyleen has told me that the greatest cost will be to you... Your birthright. They will disinherit you, and cast you out."
"And you with me," Raven whispered. He got to his feet, pacing to the window and gazing down into the courtyard. "It is that Falcon is dead that matters."
"I did not know it would kill him," Bodie said gently.
"And if you had known?" Raven did not turn to look at him, but Bodie could hear the catch in his voice.
"Shall I choose between Falcon and you?" The human paced silently up behind the elf, arms sliding about him to draw him back into an embrace. "Had you made the choice, which would it have been -- Bodie or Falcon?"
Raven shuddered. "I think... I would have been the death of Falcon," he said in a hoarse whisper. "I am the death of Falcon." He turned into Bodie's arms, face buried in the human's shoulder. "We must leave."
"The elders will convene in the next few days," Bodie said into his hair. "Take that time to grow well again.. You are shaking and cold even now. Come to bed and rest. Time enough to think of running when we must."
"If we wait, we must stand up in the council hall and be judged." Raven clutched at Bodie. "The shame is enough without that."
Bodie lifted his face and kissed him. "Little chuck, the judgment is not in the hands of the elders, but in the letter of the law. Everyone here knows what we have done, and what the penalty will be. What can the elders do to us -- show us their disapproval? How can that hurt us? We know they disapprove before they speak. They are nobles and gentry, Ray; what do they know of the hard life we have lived? Or of the love that binds us together... I have killed for you before and I shall kill for you again, as you will for me. That it is Falcon who is dead is a bruise upon my heart, but -- he has lived his life, many, many years. Time for you to live yours."
"Yet we have killed a shaman," Raven sighed. "No price is high enough to pay for the crime of it."
"You offered him everything you had," Bodie argued. "I came between you -- you would have gone to your death willingly to buy life for him. I sinned, if you will call it sin. I dare say I shall pay the price for it... Karma. But you? There is no blame against your name."
"I took responsibility for you," Raven murmured.
"And that's absurd," Bodie said gently. "You are not my keeper, and I have a mind of my own. There is nothing you can do to bring Falcon back, Ray... If this was a human tuath, they would flog and castrate me, and then throw me out into the woods to live or die as I could." He felt Raven stiffen in revulsion, and took the elf's face between his hands. "To the hellfires with your elders. You are the chieftain of this clan, and you took responsibility for me when you bonded with me. I shall bow to your will... Tell me what you want of me, and you shall have it."
"What I want?" Raven echoed.
"The price of Falcon's life," Bodie whispered. "The skin of my back and my manhood would be the price in Garth's camp. Others would have my head pickled in a barrel of brine. I know your people are less savage, but clearly you are plagued by guilt that is not yours but mine. Tell me, Ray. You sentence me, and be damned to the elders."
Raven took a breath and let it out slowly. "There is nothing either of us can do to bring Falcon back, but the wound to the Kith is deeper than you know. They have no shaman now -- Lilith is not ready."
"There will be a shaman somewhere," Bodie said softly. "You propose a quest? That we find the Kith a new shaman, one who can step into Falcon's shoes and fill the chasm we leave behind us? The road will be long and hard, and we will pay our price in this way? Hardship and hurt, in a thankless search?" He smiled faintly. "You are a born martyr, Ray... And this time you are right. Falcon would have approved... We'll stay here till you are strong again, and go west, away from the humans." As Ray pressed against him for warmth and support he closed his eyes, chin rested on the elf's tousled head. "You're wearied, aren't you?"
"Yes," Raven admitted. "Last night was the best and worst of my life. Today I find myself alive and whole and in even worse trouble!" He reached up to kiss Bodie's mouth. "If we must leave here, paupered and in disgrace, and go into the west, it will mean working, you know. We are warriors, but there is no red work to be had between here and the sea."
"Maybe." Bodie said, nose wrinkling affectionately. "But I am clever with the dice, no one shoots straighter than you, and we are both woodsmen. With luck, we will work little and live well... They will take everything from you?"
"I will have my swords, my bow, and Lightfoot," Raven said, letting Bodie draw him to the freshly made bed and undress him. "If we salt away a few coins now, they may not uphold the letter of the law."
"Which is what?"
"That we be searched," Raven said with a rueful grin, "to the skin. It goes back to antiquity, when an unscrupulous princeling stole the family jewels, took them into exile with him and sold them to the clan enemies!"
Bodie smiled, watching Ray fall into bed. "I hardly think they will be so stringent with us. Surely they know us better than to think that we would make off with your family's valuables."
"I should think so," Raven admitted. "But some of the elders will be in a fine fury with me, and it would not surprise me if I was treated to the fullest of their attentions... It is no matter, love. What befalls me is no more than I deserve. They will lecture me, you know; I did not keep you under proper guidance. How little they know you."
"As if need a keeper," Bodie said, sliding into bed and pulling Raven up onto his chest. "As if am your pet barbarian."
"That is what they have thought all along," Ray admitted. "Forgive them; these are gentle, temperate lands. We have yet to learn the ravages of war on our own soil."
Bodie's face and voice darkened. "Soon, you will. Cuillin could not capture the raiders, and they will have drawn maps for Garth by now. I have told your mother of the danger and she understands. Your sister is to be chieftain here now."
"Willow is poorly suited to the task," Raven said bitterly. "If she leads the warband over the hills, she will die. Either that or end her life as I almost ended mine, a chattel in the bed of her grandsire."
"They are wise to the dangers now," Bodie said thoughtfully. "What happened to you shocked them all. They will take greater care."
The elf relaxed in Bodie's embrace. "Hold me close, I am cold."
"Aye, so you are." Bodie pulled up the quilt. "Better? Think happier thoughts, sweetheart, or your dreams will play you false... Think of last night. Think of what you did with me." He felt Ray smile against his chest. "You are weary and unwell, but you won't sleep this way, haunted by all that has been, and you need to rest. I have an idea."
The curls were warm in the human's fingers as he lifted them back from Ray's ears, and the elf sighed deeply as he felt the first of many kisses. He stretched, his skin whispering on Bodie's hardening in moments under the pampering. Bodie was not aroused -- nor had he expected the human to be capable after the rigours of the night before. Instead, Bodie simply cuddled him, trapping the hard, hot shaft between his thighs, and concentrated on his mate's ears. Raven purred, rubbing himself between Bodie's muscular legs, and came as Bodie thrust his tongue deep into his ear. There was only a little semen, not enough to make Bodie reach for cloths, and he sought Raven's mouth as the elf stilled.
"I love you," Raven whispered against his open mouth, "and always shall."
"Sweetheart," Bodie murmured. "Sleep now. Time enough to fret later."
But, for all his words, the guilt seared Bodie; as he closed his eyes to sleep his thoughts were on his bonding night, and before his mind's eye was Falcon, young and alive, smiling at Ray, rejoicing in the younger man's love. Falcon was dead, and even though Bodie accepted the responsibility and ramifications for the shaman's death the pain was still keen. My fault, he told himself as he drifted nearer to sleep -- my fault and, though my soul be damned, given the same choice, I would commit the same crime.
Falcon haunted his dreams and he slept little. Raven slept like the dead and was awake before him, bright eyed but solemn, sitting up against the pillows and gazing at the room about them. "Home," Bodie said softly. "And you will miss it, I know... Take cheer, Ray. We will find another home. A cottage somewhere, to return to when we have done with our journeying for the year."
"A quest?" Raven asked, looking down at him, fingertips raking through the human's morning stubble, which fascinated him. "To find a new shaman?"
"If you like." Bodie tugged at his mate's arm, urging him down beside him. "It is early as yet. Rest a little longer; you are still pale."
But Raven was restless, and though he lay down as he was asked he did not rest much. Nor did he sleep that night or the following night as they waited for the council to convene and judge them publicly. Bodie was largely unconcerned by the elders -- they did no more than speak the law, which made it impersonal. But many of them were blood of Raven's blood, and he took the judgment much harder. His sister arrived, a girl whose beauty stole the breath and whose hands were sword-calloused and leathery. White with fury, she accorded Raven a nod and not a word by way of greeting, and Bodie said nothing to or about her.
The rejection hurt Raven but he withdrew behind the same carefully manufactured mask he had worn when Bodie first saw him, chained on Garth's feasting table. He dressed in his finest to face the elders, his jewellery lovingly polished, and he stood up straight in the firelight to answer the charges that were levelled against him, admitting culpability without argument.
It was unjust, and Bodie was stinging as he watched Ray shoulder the guilt for which the human should have answered. The elders ignored him utterly, all their attention focused on the young chieftain. The gold circlet that should have been on Ray's brow lay on a velvet cushion at Feyleen's feet, and Willow sat with her eyes fixed on it... As if she could not wait to get it onto her head, Bodie thought. It was doing the girl an injustice, he knew. She was furious for the family honour. Never in all the chronicles had a chieftain been responsible for the death of the tribe's shaman, and Ray's name would be blackened for as long as anyone remembered the Kith. The elders were equally as furious too; and they were as vengeful as Raven had predicted, stripping him item by item; the jewellery he had worn was put into a little chest, and they were not satisfied until he stood naked in the firelight, possessing nothing. He dressed again, his eyes on the ground, and said nothing in his defence. Bodie waited in the background as the elders read the erstwhile chieftain a lecture on irresponsibility, and then it was over and they were not merely free to go, but compelled to.
The council had convened in the feasting hall, and as the doors closed behind them the human breathed a sigh of relief. "We leave at dawn," he said.
"We leave now," Raven corrected. "They have left you your things, so you had better fetch them while I catch Lightfoot and your horses. Hurry, I am eager to be gone from here. I will sleep better under the stars than beneath this roof."
"Aye, you may be right," Bodie admitted. "Westward?"
"Westward," Raven agreed, heading out of the courtyard in the direction of the paddock. "I'll saddle the horses," he called back out of the darkness. "Pack your things and be quick."
"Our things," Bodie whispered, wishing Raven would accept that. He was as cast adrift now as he had been in Garth's camp, owning nothing. His clothes, his weapons, his horse -- and lucky to have that. Bodie was not much better off, but he had made preparations. Hidden in the hollow hole of the old pear tree was a leather bag with enough silver coins in it to see them through the winter, and to buy them clothes, blankets, utensils, the many things they must have. It was the elders' intention that Raven pay handsomely for his mate's crimes, reduced from prince to stable lad, worked hard for his pay by a master who knew of his past ills. Bodie's lip curled at that. The elders had a lot to learn about a human's hard-won ingenuity.
He had already packed most of his things and had only to pick up the rolled sheepskin, his own and Ray's weapons; he was out of the house in moments, pausing to say farewell to the dogs and cats Ray had treasured, before he was heading in his mate's wake. Feyleen's voice called him back.
"Bodie! Bodie, wait, are you leaving already?"
He beckoned her to walk with him to the paddocks. "Ray will stay here no longer. If you wish to bid him farewell, come with me."
"He is hurt badly," she observed. "I have just seen my daughter don the chieftain's circlet... It does not suit her. Mayhap she will be an able leader for the warband, but Willow has less about her than Raven... Where will you go?"
"To find the Kith a new shaman," Bodie said with a faint smile. "Westward, into the hills. Feyleen, don't let the others blind you to the dangers. There will be human raiders in your forests often now. Garth will have maps, and he knows where you are. There will be red work to be done, and if they strike at your heartlands, leave the warband to Cuillin until Willow has proved herself. We will leave word of where we are as we go, so that you can find us, if the worst comes to the worst... I pray that it will not, but if it should..."
"If it does, I will send riders after you and damn the elders," Feyleen said grimly. "Willow may be stubborn about the clan pride, but a clan must survive before it can have pride. There is danger I know, but we will take care. It is you and Ray for whom I shall fret."
"Don't," Bodie smiled. "We shall take care of one another now as always, and if you call for us, return." He held out one arm until Feyleen embraced him, and kissed her cheek. "Now I shall leave you with Ray while I pretend to see to the horses... He is hurt enough, Feyleen. Make the parting easy."
The elf must have heard every word -- his ears were as acute as any wild creature's, and both the humans knew it, but Raven gave no indication that he was aware of Feyleen's presence until she approached him, whispering his name. Bodie strode away, far enough to hear nothing, stroking Jasmin's face as he waited for his mate to manage the final parting from his old life. There was a weight of pain in it for Raven that Bodie could not share; the human had never owned much, nor had he any birthright to lose. But he could feel Raven's hurt as he stood, politely disregarding the others, until Feyleen kissed her son and fled. He turned back then, looking at Raven in the blue starlight. "Ray?"
"We must go," Raven said huskily, catching Lightfoot's reins. "It is a fine night, well suited to travelling."
Bodie caught him, hugging him tightly before he would let him pull himself into the saddle, kissing his mouth deeply. "There is a pride about you," he observed, "wilful, stubborn... And I love you for it. We make camp tonight as freemen, without even the duties of home and clan to bind us."
Raven clung tightly to him. "I have nothing, now, to give you, Bodie."
Tears stung Bodie's eyes. "Sweet fool, do you think objects matter to me? I fell in love with you in the midst of hardship and want when you had a good deal less than you do this night. Do you remember?"
"I remember lying in your bed, frightened, not knowing who you were or what you wanted of me," Raven husked. "I had no cause to fear. The love was in your voice almost from the first; though I was blind I could hear it... as I can hear it now." He reached up to kiss his lover, "I have you; what else do I need?"
In that moment, Bodie promised him a palace, a fortune and finest material things life could offer. His own fortune, not some inherited estate, entailed and merely in his keeping for as long as he pleased the elders. Perhaps Raven was no longer a prince, but one day he would buy and sell the clan that had disinherited him. The vow was made silently; Bodie merely kissed him, whispering into his hair that it was time to go, but the promise was nonetheless determined.
They took the path out through the orchard, climbing the slope to the west and pausing for a time to look down at the house from that vantage point. Lights burned brightly there; they would be celebrating Willow's arrival as the new chieftain. "Home," Bodie said quietly. "You will miss all that is here."
"Aye," Raven admitted. "But you spoke of a home of our own, a cottage where we shall winter, returning from the year's journeying." He found a smile, faint and ragged about the edges. "Odd as it may seem, a cottage of mine, with you in it, has come to mean more to me than a great house filled with family tradition."
"Tradition," Bodie observed, "can be a curse." So can ambition, he added, ruefully, though he chose to say nothing. A cottage? Perhaps Raven would be happy with so little, but not the human. There would be silver on Raven's wrists and a warband at his back again; the Kith would know his name and, if not honour it, fear it. Bodie frowned down at the house, his thoughts going with Feyleen for a moment. The danger he and Ray left behind them was terrible, and Willow was as yet untried. Still, Feyleen was no fool. "We leave word of where we have gone," he said to Raven as they turned into the west. "They may not know it yet, but they will need us. They do not know Garth as we do."
"And I far too well," Raven agreed. As Lightfoot fell into step beside the human's mount he gave Bodie his hand. "Let me show you the westcountry, sights you cannot imagine, adventures you cannot dream."
Bodie squeezed his fingers. "Where you go, I go... I just wish we did not always seem to be fleeing in the night."
"The night is for lovers," Raven said softly, casting a smouldering glance at the human. "Isn't it?"
"In which case," Bodie sighed philosophically, "we shall probably always flee by night. It is a good thing that I would follow you anywhere."
They took the trail through the woods, and the forest swallowed them, dark, cool and at peace. Oddly, Bodie felt more free than he had ever felt in his life. It was a kind of freedom he prayed Raven would also come to cherish.
-- THE END --