The Hunting Book One, Part III


Book 1
Part III

The air was crisp, the mid-autumn breeze cool. From Bodie's vantage point on the roof his view across the forest was one of flame-decked trees, orange, gold, scarlet. Summer was long gone and already the wind had begun to shift northerly, bringing with it the first sharp-edged promise of winter.

He shaded his eyes against the bright morning glare, admiring the fine sight of the forests of Morhod made over into a wash of molten gold; but the snows would be early this year, and the old folk were prophesying a long, hard winter to follow. Bodie shook his head over the future, an admission of some frustration. It was as if the gods were playing a game, and making the rules up to suit themselves as they went along.

Three months ago, he had been a warrior in favour in a human tuath; that had changed in an instant, the moment he recognised the face of the war-prize who sat chained on Garth's feasting table. Six weeks ago, he had been high in favour in the elven tuaths, honoured as the human who had brought a prince out of captivity, returning him to his place at the head of his family.

And now? Disgraced, Bodie thought with a grin, returning his attention to the hammer and nails at his feet. Disgraced, cast out and labouring for pay in the gentle westcountry where there was no work for warriors because the nearest enemy lay far in the north. Painted sub-humans, dwellers in the caves over the mountains of Casdar, neither elven nor human, and more savage, more dangerous than either.

Bodie stood astride the pinnacle of the sloping roof, a pile of wooden shingles at his left, an open sack of nails at his right. Expecting rough weather as autumn grew steadily chillier, most householders were making repairs to rooves and fences, and there was work aplenty for the human, who was bigger and stronger than the majority of elves. When it was done, he would go to join the men who laboured in the fields, bringing in the last of the harvest.

If he craned his neck to look west, beyond the big, stone chimney stacks, he could see the fields, swatches of gold bisecting the woods, a few reapers at work, stooking the cut wheat. Raven was there somewhere. At the thought of his mate, Bodie picked up the hammer, reaching for nails -- eager to have the roof mended and free to occupy himself elsewhere. Raven worked alone, rarely speaking to the others who laboured around him, ignoring them as they ignored him... The tales of disgrace had run ahead of human and disinherited elf, and Bodie admitted that they were probably fortunate to be given employment at all.

Nothing would alter the fact that Falcon was dead; and that in the long, unwritten history of his people, Raven was the only chieftain ever to have killed a shaman. The injustice of the charge still made Bodie sting, for if anyone had murdered Falcon, it was the human. Perhaps there was no hope of absolution from the elves among whom Bodie lived now, but in his own heart he had admitted the truth more than once --

If it came to a choice, Raven or Falcon, one to live, one to die, he would have hastened the shaman to his death knowingly to win Ray his life... And would do it again, sin and shame or not. As it was, the life they were living was tolerably comfortable, and they earned enough to buy the goods they needed to face a winter on the road. They were travelling, working a few days here, a week there, and if they were not cherished by the folk who lived along the way it mattered little, for they stayed in one place too brief a time to be hurt by unforgiving talk.

The road led them north-west, chasing the winter into the highlands, and Raven was rarely happy to be still, not merely because his name was known and scorned, but because he and Bodie followed a legend into the highlands... A legend in the form of a man. Raven had accepted the responsibility for the death of the Kith shaman, and disinherited, left the lands of his ancestors as a wayfarer with a human companion, his royal blood forgotten. To him, the punishment handed to him by the Kith elders was unimportant; Falcon's death, the death of a friend, mattered a thousand times more. He owed his clan a debt that could be settled in only one way. With Falcon gone they had no shaman, and it was only fitting that the man for whom Falcon had given his life should find another shaman.

The chances of finding one were poor; had it been a horse race, Bodie would have returned his money to his pocket. But to Raven, it was the price of his honour as a warrior, as a man, and Bodie felt the elf's wounded pride as keenly as he felt his own. Raven said nothing of the pain it caused him, but he smiled less, often brooding, his green-gold eyes fixed on the fire, blind, his heart weighed heavily by what had been. The penance handed out by the elders had been, by human standards, mild; the penance Raven imposed on himself was much more savage... He would find the Kith another shaman, and only then count his debt to his clan -- and to Falcon, his friend -- settled.

And so here we are, Bodie thought with a sigh, the hammer battering at the long shaft of an iron nail. They followed a legend into the highlands, and if the human had remembered how to pray, he would have entreated the gods to breathe truth into the tale.

It told of a man. His name was Amber and he was as old as the forest; once, long before, he had lived and worked among the Soren clan, but he grew disenchanted with the ways of his folk and, when a young shaman had been trained to do the work of healer, mage and auger, he had left, making his home in the wilderness where the noise and disquiet of people would not reach him. Centuries had gone by since Amber had left the Soren, but as recently as Raven's own youth, not twenty-five years before, he had been seen. A woodsman had been gravely injured and would have died had not a young man with yellow hair and golden eyes come upon him in the forest, and treated him. Amber? It could be no one else, swore the storytellers.

Raven believed. He had to believe, Bodie knew, and he shook a fist at the wayward, wilful gods of elves and men, promising and threatening in one. Ray had done his penance in pain, humiliation and despair in the humans' camp, long before Falcon had died; he had paid his price time and again, and if the gods wanted more from him, Bodie was angered by them. Enough had been taken from Raven already. Time for some part of his loss to be restored.

A bell rang out, cutting through the crisp autumn air, and Bodie glanced at the sky in surprise. It was noon already; he had been lost in brooding contemplation as he worked at the roof and had lost track of time. As he heard the bell he threw down the hammer and straightened his back. It was time to eat, and even such as he and Raven were permitted that respite. His back protested the work, but there was a kind of satisfaction in doing a job well. The roof looked trim and neat, and would last for many winters to come. Whether the Soran clan liked -- or even knew -- it or not, a human had left his mark upon this place.

The reapers trudged in from the fields by twos, threes, and family groups, but Bodie was looking for a figure walking alone. A little behind the others, Raven walked with his eyes on the sky, watching the birds that were his namesake. His hair was tangled, his clothes dusty, and he was thin again, his face angular within the cap of coppery curls. Bodie smiled a little sadly at his mate; Ray looked brown and healthy, but withdrawn. Lonely, the human thought as he slid down the ladder to the cobbles of the stableyard.

Lads from the house brought out big platters of food -- bread, cheese, fruit, nuts, anything and everything that was seasonable, and even the smiths deserted the forge to eat. The reapers clustered about the food, ravenous and eager to have the best of what was offered, but Raven hung back, looking first for Bodie.

"What, not hungry?" Bodie chided as he joined his companion at the stable door, watching Raven wash in the horse trough and pat his face dry with the hem of the blue tunic he wore.

"Ravenous," Raven admitted, "but they are like a flock of magpies, predatory and rapacious. Let them have their way first. There is plenty for all, and I would sooner have a kiss while I can taste you instead of the elderberries!"

Bodie offered his arms and Raven went into them with unabashed gratitude, seeking the human's warmth. His mouth sought Bodie's blindly, and the kiss was long and deep. There was a time when Bodie would have been reluctant to display his feelings in such a public place, but since he and Raven had been cast out he took a kind of pride in kissing Raven where others could see. It was a gesture of defiance as much as a reaffirmation of love; and Ray needed it as much, or more, than he did himself.

The elf's body was harder than ever, manual labour bringing up his small, springy muscles. Only in the morning did he feel soft and pliant, and by noon he was all too obviously a man in Bodie's arms. His mouth was swollen from the kiss, his eyes hazy with the pleasure of it, and Bodie could feel his stirring arousal through the fabric of dusty breeches and tunic.

"Save that for tonight, Ray," he whispered into one curl-capped ear. "We must return to work once we have eaten."

"Aye," Raven sighed, kissed Bodie's nose and drew out of his arms. "I need vinegar for my hands. When the magpies have jostled long enough over the food, bring ours to the stable while I see to my hands."

He was gone without another word and Bodie frowned after him for a moment before pushing in among the elves in search of bread and fruit. As usual, the reapers made short work of the best, but the quality of what was left so far exceeded the fare in the human tuaths across the black hills that Bodie barely noticed that the pick of the meal had gone.

Hands filled with food, a jug of milk in the crook of his elbow, he followed Raven to the stable and had deposited their meal on a bale of hay before he smelt the sharp tang of wine vinegar and peering in the dimness, saw what Raven was doing with it. His hands were blistered from the work; his lip was caught in his teeth as he held a rag soaked in vinegar to the sores, and Bodie swore lividly.

"Ray, what are you doing?"

"Using the vinegar to toughen my skin," Raven said a little hoarsely. "It is painful, but it works."

"That isn't what I meant," Bodie said angrily. "I mean, what are you doing this kind of work for? You were not born for this! Oh, look at your hands. They are going to be like leather soon -- and you've had them bleeding today. Damn! Your hands are too fine, too beautiful for this work."

"We need the money," Raven said wryly. "Furs and provisions to sustain us on the trail into the highlands will not be cheap, and we have little enough left after we paid the horse doctor to treat Lightfoot. Oh, Bodie, the vinegar is just a little painful, and if my hands are like leather now, they will be soft again when the work is finished." He looked up at the human's frowning face. "Kiss me again?"

Bodie kissed him hard, tongue in his mouth, ravishing. "I will feed you too -- with your hands soaked in vinegar the food will taste awful." He brought the food and sat down. "Bind your hands, sweetheart, or the blisters will be open to the bone by nightfall, and tomorrow you will be useless." He made a sandwich with bread and cheese and held it for Ray to bit into it before taking a large bite of it himself. "The harvest will be in in a few days anyway, and I have almost finished the roof." He held the bread and cheese for Raven to bite into it again and swore over the elf's hands. "You'll work no more at this kind of employment as soon as we have our wages in pocket!"

Raven was blotting the vinegar from his blistered palms and smiled at his lover's words. "What, then? I am a warrior. I was never trained for any other kind of work, so labouring is all I know."

"Let me worry about it," Bodie said drily. "When we have money again, I shall roll the dice and -- and be damned to working! I was born to labour, but you were never intended for this."

Hands dry now, Raven reached for the milk, drinking half of it in one draught. "There are rags over there; would you bind my hands? I'm a little clumsy, as you'd expect."

Still swearing, Bodie brought the rags and tore them into strips. "You had skin like a child," he muttered angrily. "Can you not take the work at an easier pace?

"Shirk?" Raven's face broke into a smile, an expression that was all too rare lately. "Mayhap I could, but not when Hollis is about."

"Hollis?" Bodie glanced up at his lover's face. "That is a rueful look, pet. Hollis is causing you trouble?"

"Not thus far," Ray shrugged as Bodie tied the ends of the bandage, "but if he was able to say I have shirked, his father would be pleased to take my wages from me -- and then I would have to labour at another job! Better to work hard at this one, and then be finished once and for all."

"Wise," Bodie admitted. He did not like Hollis; the householder's eldest son was an arrogant, ill tempered man, almost human in his manner and ways -- and the fact that he was one of Raven's race did not sweeten Bodie's opinion of him at all. He was a swine, and gracefully pointed ears and fine bones did not alter that. "Hollis is watching you," he concluded.

Raven was eating a too-ripe pear, the juice getting everywhere, and he mopped ineffectually at his chin until Bodie used the last scraps of rag to perform the chore for him, kissing him on top of a mouthful of sweet fruit and earning a smile. "Hollis is within his rights to watch me. I am -- an undesirable, remember! And they do not trust you," he added softly. "Humans are seldom found this deep in the west. Outlanders are always treated as aliens. I'm sorry, love."

"Nothing for you to apologise for," Bodie said bluffly. "Stay out of the foreman's way, if you can. He means you no good."

"He means no one any good, if it comes to that," Raven said, throwing away the stringy core of the pear. "The little mute girl, Rhiannon -- you have seen her?

"A lovely little thing," Bodie nodded. "Big brown eyes and hair redder than your own. What of her?"

"Master Hollis is making her life difficult," Raven said grimly, "and she, being mute, cannot call out for assistance. I have had words with him more than once over it." He sighed. "I have no right to speak out to the master's son, but Hollis would treat little Rhian as I was treated, and I cannot stomach that, even if I am cast out again."

One large, square hand cuffed the elf's head fondly, "You would not be you if you could, my love," Bodie said softly. "We are almost out of time -- the others have gone already. Take care this afternoon."

He had bent to kiss his lover's soft mouth when a loud, rough voice intruded from the doorway behind them, and Bodie straightened, seeing the tension that appeared suddenly between Raven's brows.

"Princeling? You are late!" It was Hollis, striding up to the stable, tall and, for an elf, brawny, a riding crop tucked under his arm, his hair tied down by a leather headband, his muscular frame clad in costly brown leathers. Raven got to his feet, stepping about Bodie. "Ah, there you are -- this idle time will count against you, princeling." The title was a taunt, and Bodie felt Ray bristle, although he said nothing, already moving, out of the dim stable and back to work in the wake of the reapers.

But Hollis did not move; he and Bodie stood levelly, eye to eye, each overtly evaluating the other until Hollis smiled grimly. "Something amuses you?" Bodie asked with a spurious mildness.

"You do," Hollis told him. "Mooning over the princeling like a love-struck wench. If he cannot stand the pace it is his own ill fortune. Mayhap he belongs in someone's bed, warming it, while you toil like a man. There is money to be had for such labour, you know." The smile widened.

How Bodie did not take his clenched fist to the master's eldest son he would never know, and it was only Raven's perverse logic that stopped him. If they were expelled from this place for causing trouble, employment would be harder to come by in future, and yet, if they wished to supply themselves for a journey into the highlands, they had to have funds. Either that, or steal, and a warrior's honour would not bend that far... Better to endure for a few more days, take the money and go. What were verbal taunts, anyway? Bodie let a smile replace the scowl on his face.

"You will find that Raven is tougher than you think," he said quietly.

"He talks well," Hollis admitted. "You would be well to advise him to hold his tongue, for I will brook none of it in future. If the only sense he will see is the flat of your hand, teach him that way."

Bodie said nothing, brushing past Hollis and returning to the ladder without so much as a backward glance. To acknowledge that the remark had been made would be to necessitate a reply; and Hollis would be searching for his teeth among the straw... before two errant members of the Kith were on the road again, unpaid and further besmirched. He climbed back to the roof, aware that Hollis was watching him for some time, and the hammer battered savagely at the black iron nails.

It was a warm afternoon, save for the cutting edge of the breeze, and Bodie worked steadily, now and then able to hear the reapers singing at their toil. None of the voices belonged to Ray; he had not heard Ray sing in weeks. "One day," Bodie promised himself grimly. "One day, when this is over, you shall be clad in silk and silver, and smiling." He hammered in the last nail on the western side of the house and stepped over the sharp pinnacle of the roof, preparing to tackle the other side. Anger quickened his pace and he made swift inroads on the work; the sun dipped toward the hills, unnoticed, and as the world grew dim in twilight he worked on, listening for Ray's voice. Ray would hear the hammer and come to find him, when he was finished for the day, and that was soon enough to quit. The sooner the work was done, the sooner he would have the money in his hand and the freedom to leave. The road beckoned like a siren.

Sunset was violent, bloody, and Bodie spared it a glance as it became too dim to work well. The hammer slammed back into the bag of nails and tools and he dropped the sack over the edge of the roof, delighting in its impact with the cobble stones. The reapers had gone for the day, he could see the last of them ambling for home, and he was frowning as he cast about for Raven.

Twilight was thickening swiftly into night, and a quick glance into the paddock beyond the stable yard showed that Hollis' pony was grazing beside the warhorses owned by the wayfarers; Jasmin, Wind and Lightfoot were growing soft and fat with their enforced inactivity. "Ray? Raven!" He called, but there was no answering call. The blacksmith's lad was still working by the cooling forge, emptying out the day's foul water, and Bodie beckoned him. "Have you seen my companion?"

The boy frowned. "Not since mid-afternoon. He was arguing with Hollis in the fields -- I heard raised voices. After that, I don't know. I didn't see the princeling once he went down."

"Went down?" Bodie echoed. "Went down where?"

"Fell," the boy elaborated brightly. "I saw Hollis challenge him, but not what happened after, save that your mate fell."

And no one had thought it important enough to say a word to me, Bodie thought lividly. He took the boy by the shoulder. "Where was this?"

"Yonder," the farrier's lad said indifferently, "where the fields run down to the back." He left the human with that, picking up his pails and finishing the day's work.

Bodie was already moving. Anger quickened his stride as he left the stable yard and he loped out beyond the paddock where the horses grazed, his eyes scanning the fields in search of his mate. If Raven was badly hurt, and had been left to his own devices, injured, there would be trouble as only a human could make it, and be damned to the consequences.

He was at the gate into the wheat field when he saw Raven, far off, at the top of the slope above the stream; he was with a girl -- Rhiannon, the mute, Bodie saw, and his mouth tightened. So Hollis had gone to the heart of things and put the spurs to Raven's sides in a spot where he was already sore. Damn! Bodie castigated himself for a fool -- he should have known.

Ray was on his feet at least, through he walked slowly and his head was bowed. The girl hovered over him, her concern obvious even from this distance, and Bodie thanked whatever warrior's gods were still listening. He waited by the gate, watching the two approach; Ray looked tired and dispirited rather than hurt, and he tousled the girl's head in thanks, kissing her hand as she left him before they reached the gate. She climbed the fence and hurried away through the twilight toward the house, where she slept in the scullery.

Feet dragging a little, Raven looked up and saw his mate at last; he managed a smile and pulled his shoulders back, but Bodie saw the effort it took and was frowning deeply at him.

"There has been trouble," Bodie said shortly, waiting for Raven to offer whatever he would.

"I was unwise," the elf admitted. "It was my own fault." He said no more, falling into step beside Bodie as they headed toward the stable where they slept.

"You're hurt," Bodie growled. "What happened?"

"I went down to the back to wash after work," Raven said, so quietly that Bodie had to strain to hear him. "It is over, Bodie; we still have employment here, so don't fret about that."

"Who gives a curse about the employment?" Bodie demanded. "Will you tell me what happened, or must I quiz it out of you?"

"I spoke out of turn to Hollis," Raven said simply. "He was bothering the mute girl again; he touched her in a way neither she nor I liked, and I spoke unwisely." He found a small, rueful smile as they turned into the stable. "I have paid my price! Hollis was satisfied and -- I think he has had what he has wanted for so long. Me, in a heap at his feet. Now he will leave us all alone."

"You hope," Bodie said beneath his breath. Striking flint against tinder, he lit a lamp and used its burning wick to light two others; in the light he turned Raven about to look at him. One cheek was flaming red from a slap that must have knocked him clean off his feet, and he would bruise there, briefly. Raven averted his eyes, waiting, and Bodie's brow drew into a line of disapproval. "What is it, Ray? A slap cannot be the sum of it."

Raven heaved in a breath. "It is useless to hide it from you, since we will sleep together soon. Oh, damn! It is of no matter, Bodie. I earned this, on Rhiannon's behalf. I had no right to speak so to Hollis. I said such things to his face as I would have said when I had rank and honour, and I expect no more than fair chastisement in return, but..." He bit his lip, and pulled off his tunic, dropping it to his feet and glowering at it.

His chest was bisected by a dozen welts, the skin broken in several places, bruising and swelling marking out a pattern across breast and midriff. Bodie bit back a stinging oath. "Hollis took that god-cursed riding crop to you, because you spoke out of turn?"

"He was well within his rights," Raven muttered. "You didn't hear what I had to say to him! I was somewhat angry."

"Angry?" Bodie echoed, seething. "You don't know the meaning of the word!" He reached out with gentle finger tips, finding Ray's skin hot and damp with beck water. "Oh, fool! You could have beaten that barnyard hero with your hands tied! Why did you not show him what a warrior is made of?"

"Firstly, he had his three companions with him," Raven said ruefully. "And I may not be so invincible against four of them. Secondly, I have a job here that will pay us enough to buy our gear for the journey -- and put enough into your hands that you can dice with strangers, and keep me as a princeling should be kept. Hollis has had his laugh now, and has no cause to blacken our names or withhold my pay. If the exchange for that, and for keeping his hands off the mute girl, is this, what of it?"

What indeed, Bodie thought bleakly, shaking his head over Ray's wilful logic. "You're hurting," he whispered, making the elf sit down on a bale of hay and peering at his chest in the lamplight. "I'll fetch oil and cloths; and we shall see how you have healed overnight before we decide if you work tomorrow. Between your hands and this, I think you have done more than enough."

"I am inclined to agree," Raven admitted, catching his breath as Bodie's cool fingers explored the worst of the welts. "But Hollis will be hard to convince. We will be gone from here so soon; let it be, Bodie. I have had worse from a fight, even from a fall when riding."

Oil smeared thickly over the swollen skin and Bodie muttered an oath. "Aye, so you have; but falls and fights are not the same. Punishment is not a word I care for, especially when it is one I love being chastised. Keep still; I know it hurts, but it will be better for the oil. It is cloves and lemon grass, and will help you heal."

It burned, Bodie knew, and he watched Raven clamp his lip between his teeth until the worst of the pain had gone. A wet rag went onto the oily skin and was pressed down, and then Bodie was satisfied. "Better," Raven admitted. "Oh, love, stop fretting. Tomorrow I shall be half mended -- you know our ways."

"Little fool," Bodie repeated, wiping his hands and putting the oil back in the box where the horses' medications were stored. "And all for what? For the honour of a peasant girl."

"And now, I am a peasant boy," Raven said mildly. "What would you do, or hope some passing warrior would do, if the likes of Hollis, unwanted, put his hand between my legs and sought me out, as if he planned to mate me?"

"I would hope some passing warrior would kill Hollis," Bodie admitted. "And I still wish you had parted the man from his head!"

"If he had been on his own," Raven said wryly, "perhaps things would have been different! But there were too many, and had I fought -- well, these little scratches, sting though they do, are nothing beside what could have been." He managed a cheeky smile. "If they had blacked my eyes, broken my nose and knocked out my teeth, you would have been less than delighted. Toothless, crook-nosed, I would have been beautiful, I don't doubt!"

A moment's horror made Bodie blink. Break Raven's nose, so that it set crooked, and deprive him of his front teeth? He shuddered, lifting the wet rag to peer at the welts. "The lesser of all evils," he admitted. "Oh, Ray, what shall I do with you?"

"Feed me," Raven said drowsily, "then take me to bed... And love me, please, for I need it." He looked up at his mate's face in the lamplight. The lines of anger were still engraved about Bodie's mouth but there was the light of humour in his eyes too -- a wry, ironic humour, as if he were asking himself what he would have done in Ray's place. Let the girl be mauled, or speak out and take his chastisement without protest, so as to save his bones? Some choice! As the elf looked up Bodie stooped to kiss him, lips feathering over the cheek that had been struck. "If you were human, you would have a beautiful bruise."

"I shall not escape entirely," Raven sighed, relaxing under the light caresses. "I am just tired, love. Really." He opened his mouth to his mate's kiss and then Bodie withdrew, picking up the discarded tunic and handing it to him. "Bodie? You are angry."

"Not angry," Bodie corrected. "Unless it is with Hollis. Oh, go and lie down, sweetheart. I'll scout up some dinner for us, and a cup of wine, if I can talk one out of the cook." He gave Raven a wink and turned away, pausing at the stable door to look back to him, a thin, dusky figure, half clad in black breeches and boots, holding an oily rag against his sore chest. The anger was for Hollis, but Ray was right -- they had neither rank nor station now, and only their warrior blood set them apart from the peasants among whom they lived and worked.

The food was simple but there was plenty of it, and the labourers who serviced this farm helped themselves at the kitchen. Bodie took a wooden tray and heaped it with bread, fruit and nuts, twin bowls of steaming broth and a pitcher of mead into which he thrust a poker, red hot from the fire. The nights were getting cold now, and Ray felt the chill keenly.

When he returned to the stable, Raven was already cocooned in the sleeping place. They were using the hay loft and had their sheepskins and saddle blankets there, hay stacked up about them to hold in their own body heat. The lamps had been turned out, save one that burned as low as it would on a bale of straw at Raven's side. The elf needed no light to see well, and the single lamp was a concession to Bodie's human eyes.

A platter of food was thrust into the elf's hands, and Bodie spoke in stern tones. "Eat. You are a wraith already."

"Must you scold me?" Raven sighed. "I'm at a low enough ebb already without your anger."

Bodie blinked down into the huge, bruised eyes. Anger? Was that what he thought? He shook his head slowly, not trusting his voice for a time as he looked down at his mate. Ray was pillowed on the hay, their sheepskins about him, his sore chest bare and his hair in need of combing. "If I am angry, it is not with you, little chuck. If I seem short tempered -- it is with Hollis! Now, will you eat? Then I will see to your hair."

"Don't mollycoddle me," Raven moaned. "You humans are all alike, either scolding or coddling!"

Bodie laughed gently. "Do you remember when first you said that to me?"

The green-gold eyes smiled, though Ray's face was sober. "I do. I remember it, aye, and regret none of it." He turned his attention to the food, a bit clumsy, his hands still smelling faintly of the vinegar and bound in rags.

"Stubborn," Bodie observed softly. "You work like a peasant and take all [words missing] to offer when we could be free, out of here, with the forest for a home. And all for what?" He sipped at the hot mead, chewing on stewed apples. "To provision us so that we can ride into the highlands in search of a myth by the name of Amber!"

Raven said nothing, eating methodically, his eyes on the food, and Bodie said no more. He knew that Ray had a dream of winning back his lost honour, to go home at least to live as one of the Kith, if not their chieftain. His sister. Willow, was their chieftain now; the circlet that should have been his brow was on hers -- and on that score, Bodie acknowledged a thread of worry. Willow was a warrior, but not a great one; and she was not a commander by instinct, as Raven had been. If it fell to her to lead [words missing] into battle beyond the black hills in the human tuaths, it could [words missing]. Worse than it had gone for Raven? Bodie thought bleakly as he ate his meal. Raven, a chattel, a bed slave, violated by his own grandfather. At least Raven had lived: would Willow be so lucky?

His food finished, Raven sat back against the bales of hay and [words missing] Bodie's practised touch as the carved ivory comb worked the days knots and tangles out of his hair. It was either this, or cut it, and Bodie would not hear of that. Once the tangles were out he combed the long curls until they were silky and smooth, and kissed the warm crown of Ray's head. "There, I have fed you, seen to your hurts and your hair... Hm. There was something else you wanted, as I recall. Now, what was it?"

"Don't tease." Raven held open the bed, releasing a draught of musky air, tantalising to Bodie's nose. "Tease me tomorrow when I am happier."

A note in the husky voice reached Bodie's heart with a painful caress. He stooped, lifting Ray into his arms, mindful of his chest. "I have no desire to tease you at all," he said bluffly, "until you are laughing at me... It is so long since I have heard you laugh. What must I do to chase the sadness from you?" Raven did not answer with words, but with a muzzling beneath his human lover's chin. "Ah, I have an idea. I shall love you. Yes?"

"Please," Ray murmured.

And carefully, Bodie thought as he slid into the bed beside his mate, trying to work out which position would irritate Raven's chest the least. At length he chuckled, knowing. Ray was too far gone into a spiral of pleasure generated by delicate caresses and kisses to hear the chuckle, his back arching, hands clutching Bodie's shoulders. Big, hard, throbbing, the elf's cock filled Bodie's fist and he put his head down to lap at it, urging Raven to abandon himself to the act. Ray cried out as he felt his lover's mouth close about him, hips lifting in a blind search for release, but Bodie denied him for a moment, lifting his head and moving up to smother him with a kiss.

Loving Raven was like breathing, a part of Bodie's soul, and when the heat was on them there was nothing else, just the two of them and their joining. Bodie bent to collect his own pre-ejaculate and used it to make Raven moist, slick; green eyes, slitted and hazy, watched him as he lavished attention on the demanding cock, and as Ray understood he was swallowed, murmuring a husky endearment in a tongue so old Bodie had no knowledge of it.

He was beyond hearing anyway. He straddled his lover's slight frame, letting his weight impale him and wriggling to drive Ray deeply into himself. Raven's face twisted as he fought his every instinct, holding back with an enormous effort. He lifted his hips just once, filling Bodie completely, and they both moaned. Bodie in pleasure-pain, Raven with delight he could barely manage. Hard to think that once the human had been afraid of this.

Slender hands on his pelvis urged Bodie to move, and he shifted the little he was able, hearing Ray's strangled moan from far off. The shaft within him was as near torture as delight and the desperate urgency seared his nerve endings. He was about to take Ray's hands from his hips to his groin when Raven offered them without prompting, and the heat welled up like a newly kindled fire. Roughened hands caressed him, urging him, and Bodie squirmed, the dual stimulation drawing climax from him before he was aware of its swift approach. As he came he felt Ray stiffen beneath him and there was heat streaming into him, the elf's shaft jerking against his tender insides. Bodie held his breath, savouring every moment as Ray softened enough to allow him to fall forward in search of a kiss, and Raven held him, his sore chest forgotten, his mouth offered in love and gratitude.

It was some time before Bodie was aware of what he was about, and he looked down into a sleeping face, realising that the sounds in his ears were of laboured breathing as Ray panted beneath his weight. Not even the struggle to breathe could keep him awake, however, and Bodie smiled. He reached for a wisp of hay to mop away the sticky film of his seed, showered on Ray's belly, and mopped at his own legs before stretching out to sleep and pulling up their sheepskins. Raven murmured in his sleep, burrowing closer, his head tucked into Bodie's chest.

"Sweet fool," Bodie told him. "See how they hurt you? Oh, love -- the price of such honour is too high!" He pressed a kiss to Raven's temple, his fingers knotting into wayward curls. "They will love and fear you one day, this I promise! All of them." He closed his eyes, breathing deeply to inhale the musky scent his every sense identified as Ray. The elf stirred in his arms but did not wake, and Bodie followed him into sleep in moments.

The sun rose later and later as winter approached, and the reapers were already making their way into the stable yard to breakfast before heading out to the fields when Bodie woke, one arm shielding his sensitive eyes from the glare. The sky out through the hayloft hatch was bright and clear, and the weather was on the mend after a week of patchy showers.

He rolled over, wondered how long Ray had been awake and was surprised to find his mate still asleep. For Raven to sleep after sunrise was unusual, and Bodie took the opportunity to study him without obstruction. There was a paleness to Ray's face that was also unusual, a lightening of his tan that betrayed strain, and blue rings beneath his eyes. His bones were too close beneath the surface now, and although he, as an elf, healed so fast as to astonish a human, his body was marked in a dozen places.

Here, the broken blisters on his hands, there, the nick of a blade on his arm, the welts on his chest and a palm-print on his cheek. There were finger-bruises on his arms too, and Bodie guessed that he had been held tightly while Hollis had his fun. Other nicks and bruises were consistent with the reaper's trade, and they would heal and vanish, given a week or so. It was the marks of Hollis' satisfaction that irritated Bodie to the point of distraction.

Still, they too were healing fast; what had been broken skin the night before was pink scar tissue now, and the bruises that would, in a human, have been purple, black, were pale and multicoloured on the elf. Bodie stooped to wake Raven with a kiss. "The sun is up, little chuck. How do you feel?"

The green eyes blinked open and Raven heaved an enormous yawn. "I have overslept, I think!" He smiled, stretching and mouthing a silent wince as his chest pulled. "I am stiff. The work is hard on the back, you know!"

"I can imagine," Bodie agreed, "but that isn't what I meant." He kissed the middle of Ray's chest. "Am I to kill Hollis this morning, or will it wait?"

"It will wait," Ray decided after due deliberation, peering at his chest. "I am only sore. It smarts, nothing more."

"Sure?" Bodie brushed one swollen nipple. "Will you work, or rest?"

"I would sooner work," Raven said grimly, "than let him know he has a right arm strong enough to hurt me."

"Stubborn," Bodie accused.

"As a mule," Raven agreed affably. "We will be too late for breakfast unless we hurry, and I am famished."

"You go on ahead, grab what you can while I shave," Bodie told him, rolling out of bed at last. "And for the sake of all your gods, bind your hands before you start today!"

"A lesson I have learned already," Raven said drily as he wriggled into his clothes. "Damn, but it is cold this morning."

"Which will keep Hollis by the hearth till midday," Bodie said glibly. "How long, to get the harvest in?"

"A few days, but we don't have to stay here until the work is done. Rather, how long before the roof is finished?"

Bodie tapped his nose. "There are shortcuts one can take, and I intend to. We leave here in the morning, Ray. Time to speak to the master about the accounting tonight."

Raven was pulling his boots on, and looked up at his mate quizzically. "The decision has been made and finalised while I was asleep?"

"It has," Bodie affirmed. "What happened yesterday will happen again if Hollis is given the chance. And next time... I will probably kill him, Ray. When you are hurt I am barely sane, as I've told you before. If you have been injured in a fight that was fair, I can govern my temper, but this..." He held the collar of the dusty blue tunic aside to look at the elf's chest. "No more. I don't care what you said or did, no more."

The green eyes glittered and Raven gave Bodie his mouth for a moment. "I love you, you sweet, foolish human. Show your face the razor while I bring you something to eat."

The day passed with surprising speed, and from his place on the roof Bodie saw that Hollis did indeed hold to home until noon, when the wind warmed. He saddled his little roan pony and ambled out to the fields -- to play, Bodie thought grimly, and hoped that Raven had enough sense to hold his tongue... Ray was not a fool, and not fond of pain, and since Hollis had had what he wanted perhaps there would be peace.

Bodie left the roof early, stretching stiff muscles and jogging out to the gate to meet the reapers. Raven was alone at first glance, but then the human saw the little mute girl. Rhiannon, tagging along behind him. She was a gorgeous little creature, her hair like burnished copper in the sun, her face nearly as lovely as Ray's, her eyes as brown as the plumage of the wren. Her skin was dusky from exposure, and Bodie saw that Raven had the ability to make her laugh. He was juggling unshelled nuts for her amusement as they left the field, and the girl picked up her skirts and danced with delight, since she could not tell him in words. How old was she? Bodie wondered. Sixteen? A little older perhaps. If she had had a voice, some man would have spoken for her before now. As it was, Bodie's concern was for what would become of her when he and Raven had gone. She would still be here: and so would Hollis. Did he taunt her only to get at Raven through her? Or did he really desire her?

The other reapers had gone on ahead when Ray gave Rhiannon the nuts and looked toward the gate, seeing Bodie there. He waved, breaking into a limber jog that sent him into his lover's arms. "Mm, you feel good. Hold me tight."

"Hollis has been about for a while," Bodie murmured into the windswept hair. "Has he bothered you again?"

"Only with words," Raven said indifferently, nibbling Bodie's ear, "and words can do me no harm. But I'm worried for Rhian once we have left."

"So am I," Bodie agreed, lifting Ray's head to kiss him. "When we speak to the householder tonight, about the accounting, we should tell him about her. He will have words with his son, perhaps." He looked up over Ray's head at the girl; she was lounging by the gate, pretending not to watch them, but her cheeks were flushed, and Bodie hid a grin. She wanted Raven. Of course -- what did that demonstrate but good taste? He gave his mate a parting kiss and shooed him through the gate. "They will have demolished the food by now."

Before returning to work on the roof, the human strode to the kitchen and sent word up to the master that the wayfarers were almost ready to leave; a maid took the message and brought back Morgan's words. "You're to come to the house at moonrise, and he will settle with you," the woman told Bodie. "Your pay will be in silver coin, will that suffice?"

"Indeed it will." Bodie favoured her with the smile he knew had dazzled women on both sides of the Black Hills, and left to finish the roof; he was cutting corners with the work now. It would last nowhere near as long, but it would be spring before the first of the deficiencies showed. If there was one good blow in winter they would put the damage down to the wind.

Hollis was about in the afternoon, riding among the labourers, shouting, and Bodie accorded him the curled lip of scorn. So long as he kept his hands off Raven and Rhiannon, he could shout to his heart's content. He rushed the work and by sunset was done with a few minutes to spare, returning the tools to the forge and washing in freezing water at the trough. Ray's voice hailed him as he was patting his face dry, and he turned to watch his lover come across the yard. The elf was tired, the spring gone from his step, but there was also an expression of -- relief? Bodie wondered, that they were leaving now?

"Come and wash while I sort out clean clothes," Bodie called. "The householder will speak to us at moonrise, and she's up in an hour. We will be out of here by midmorning, little chuck. Mm, a kiss first... You taste of dust!"

"Surprising," Raven quipped, nipping Bodie's chin.

"And how is this?" Bodie whispered, flat palm against Ray's chest.

"Sore, after a day's work," the elf admitted, "but worth it... You should have seen the look on Hollis' face when he saw me. He thought he had cost me dearly with the switch. He was in a fine fury, but I would not rise to his baiting, and since Rhian stuck close to me he could not openly go to her."

A quick kiss, and Ray went to wash, pulling his soiled tunic over his head and dumping it into the trough to wash the dust out of it. Bodie smiled at the brown, thinly muscled back, and went to bring out their clothes. The Kith elders had stripped Ray to the skin, leaving him nothing, on the night of the judgment, but they had not counted on a human's perverse ingenuity, and Bodie had seen to it that he took out of Feyleen's estate sufficient money to buy the things they needed to begin again. He had dealt with a merchant from the south, buying clothes and jewellery while Ray traded for utensils, leather and herbs. Bodie had always liked Ray in white and gold, and he had spent a lot of the pilfered money on a few garments that were of fine quality, would last, and were beautiful.

Washed and dry, Ray climbed up to the hayloft, letting Bodie attend to his hair for the pleasure of it in the last ruddy wash of sunset, and then he dressed quickly. The tunic Bodie had laid out for him was gold with blue and green embroidery about the collar and a big silver brooch to fasten it. A baldric, scabbardless, clinched it at the elf's slender waist, and Ray finger-combed his hair, which was long enough now to sweep his shoulders. There were two thin bracelets of beaten silver, and a ring, and when he had slid them on he would have passed anywhere for a noble. Royal blood will out, Bodie thought with wilful good humour as he dressed himself. His own garb was plainer as suited his taste, his tunic black, its embroidery silver, the belt that cinched it red leather. He wore no jewellery -- had never cared for it on himself and had worn the items Ray had given him simply because they were Ray's gift. If Ray made him further gifts of items chosen out of love, he would wear them too, but wasting money' on frippery for the sake of vanity was not in him. What was he, when all was said and done? A brat who had been trained as a warrior, and had made good, against the odds.

"Will I do?' Raven asked, finished dressing.

"You look positively edible," Bodie said drily. "And I?"

"Beautiful," Raven said throatily. "Brooding and strong, as always -- beautiful as is the night."

"Where as you are beautiful as is a sunny day," Bodie smiled, "and we are well matched. Two halves of one whole, eh?"

"Aye," Raven smiled, the old, genuine expression of good humour he had shown so seldom of late. "Now, have we time to eat?"

They ate their meal in the kitchen, standing in the corner by the big hearth, drinking ale and spooning hot preserves onto still-warm bread while they awaited the householder's summons. Morgan was an old man, given to moods and muddled thoughts, but in his youth he had been an adventurer, and he had heard of Raven's hunting for a shaman with fascination... Less quick to damn than the younger folk, Bodie observed, as if a lifetime's adventuring had taught him that there were stranger things to be seen than those in one's own barnyard -- and that things were not always what they seemed.

They had eaten their fill when a maid came to beckon them, and human and elf followed her deep into the house, to the door of Morgan's library. The woman knocked, opened the door and departed, and Raven led his mate into the room. Its walls were shelved, and there were more books than Bodie could count. The old man sat in a carved wood chair by his hearth, a rug over his knees, and his eyes were sharp and bright even if the rest of him was frail.

"The roof was well done," he said to the human, "and your payment is in coin, in the pouch on the desk there... But you, young Kith. My son tells me you have been a troublemaker."

"I spoke out of the turn," Raven admitted. "On behalf of a girl."

"You wanted to bed with one of our scullions?" Morgan asked shrewdly.

"No. The human is my mate, we were bonded some time ago," Raven told the old man. "Rather, Hollis wanted to have the girl against her wishes. I spoke above my station on the matter and --" He shrugged eloquently. "I was thrashed for my words, so I count the episode closed."

"Thrashed? Hollis did not mention this." Morgan frowned. "He took his hand to you?"

"He took a riding crop to me," Raven said ruefully. "I have paid for my crimes, and prefer to forget it."

Morgan was clearly caught between acceptance and doubt. "Show me your back."

Raven slipped the silver brooch out of his tunic and opened it. The welts were more pronounced than they had been that morning, as they had been rubbing all day. "As I said, he had my price out of me. Is it not enough?"

"For a few words out of turn, rather too much," Morgan growled, one thin fist thumping a bony knee. "Especially for one who was a chieftain! My son has a heavy hand and a fine temper. Over a girl, you said?"

"Rhiannon, the mute," Raven said, smoothing his tunic carefully over his sore skin and replacing the brooch. "She does not desire Hollis, and he will not take no for an answer. When we are gone, the girl will be alone, sir."

The last remark was added pointedly, and Morgan sighed. "There is little I can do for her. She is a scullion only, and Hollis is at liberty to do as he chooses with those bonded to this householding... I will speak to him about leniency, but whether he will listen I cannot say. The evidence of your own breast will attest to his headstrong nature. I regret your pain, young Kith, there was little reason for such dealing over words."

"You didn't hear the words," Raven smiled. "I have forgotten already -- or will, when I have stopped smarting! If it pleases you to release us, we will leave at midmorning.

A second pouch of square cut silver coins lay on the corner of the desk, and Bodie picked the money bags up, weighing them between his hands. One was heavier than the other; for remaking the roof he was due more than the wages of a reaper, and he glanced at Raven's abused hands with a shake of his head. If there was justice at work in the world, he could not see it. They left the old man's library with the first good wishes they had heard since they had been called before the Kith elders, and hurried through the chill of evening to the stable. Bodie lit the lamps while Ray counted out the coins, adding them to the funds they had earned along the way.

"Enough?" the human asked, mentally calculating how much they needed.

"Enough," Raven judged, emptying the coins into the same pouch and stowing them in a saddle bag. "From here, we are travellers, woodsmen, with no thought of labouring for pay."

"For which the gods are due thanks," Bodie said softly. "Your hands will be soft again soon... Soft on my skin." He picked up Raven's hands, kissing the leathery palms, which smelt faintly of vinegar. "Oh, Ray, I'm sorry."

"For what?" Raven asked huskily. "You have done nothing."

"I have brought you nothing but strife," Bodie said honestly. "But for me, you would have been a chieftain, living a good life."

"But for you," Raven corrected, "I would have been dead in Garth's camp long since. And well you know that, so cease this talk. The life we are living is fair enough: food aplenty, a dry place to sleep, honest work, and each other when the day is done. I like a little more loving than we have been getting lately, but in all honesty, I am too tired for it when I have finished the day! When we are free in the forest, I shall probably ravish you often."

"And be ravished yourself," Bodie added, stepping up close and palming Raven's soft buttocks. "Take off your tunic before you rub yourself any more sore. Will you have more oil?"

But Ray shook his head. "It hurts more its properties warrant! I'm half healed as it is... And I want you." He bestowed a quick kiss and went to unroll their sheepskins, aware that Bodie's eyes followed his every movement.

There was an old legend in the human tuaths, that if a human ever set eyes to an elf he was done for. He would chase the will-o'-the-whisp into the sylvan realms and never be seen again... That legend must have begun with some human who was blessed -- or cursed -- enough to have come upon some elf like Raven. By no means were all elves lovesome, or even beautiful, but when they were...

Thinner than ever, Raven had acquired a grace the majority of women would have envied, and his hair had been allowed to grow since he and Bodie had left Garth's tuath. It feathered about his shoulders now, copper-brown and inviting the human's fingers to touch. Bodie stood back to watch his love undress, biting back an oath at the nicks and bruises that marred his skin. Most of the marks were innocent little wounds, but his breast was still bad, and when Bodie bent to kiss his nipples Ray held his breath.

"Hurts?" Bodie asked huskily.

"Not as much as I feared," Raven admitted. "Do it again." He purred as Bodie began to suckle, and parted his legs for the caressing hand that sought him out with intimate knowledge, knowing which touches he liked best, and what would drive him wild. Strong, square fingers, wonderfully gentle, cupped and rolled his balls, probing until they throbbed and the slender hips bucked forward, thrusting the elf's cock against Bodie's belly. Bodie lifted his head with a smile, seeing Raven's closed eyes and swollen mouth, and kissed him deeply, trying to remember not to crush his mate too tightly, so as to spare his chest.

Raven seemed to have forgotten about his hurts, for he pressed tight to Bodie, inviting everything his lover would give him. Bodie broke the kiss as they grew light headed, cupping Raven's angular face between his palms. "Lie down, before you fall down, little chuck. What would you like?"

"Anything," Raven murmured, sinking down onto the sheepskins and taking Bodie down with him. "Anything at all. Ah, come here, only hold me."

After a day's labour in the fields, his body was like spring steel beneath hot velvet, and Bodie explored it with a new fascination, touching, tasting, relearning every plane and hollow. Ray was moaning disjointedly, his mind away on some plane beyond the conscious one, and Bodie took his weight on his palms at last, taking the time to savour the sight of his love. Ray was moving, every muscle flexing involuntarily, his hips uplifted and slowly rotating, soles of his feet braced, fingers clenched into the sheepskins. The hunger for him made Bodie ache.

With great care he lifted the elf's weight, surprised again at how little he weighed, and before Ray was aware of it he was kneeling, the endless caresses discovering his back and buttocks now. He wriggled to comfort, his narrow hips lifting in encouragement, although Bodie needed none. The human knelt behind him, kissing his back as he guided himself into position, and Raven's husky voice murmured disjointed endearments, until the words became a cry, his body besieged, plundered, completed.

The promise of freedom with the morrow had lightened their spirits, lending their love an extra depth it had not had since they had taken employment here. Even Bodie, who was usually silent in his coming, cried out as release ripped through him, his right hand busy at Raven's groin, pulling climax from him moments later.

The green eyes sparkled in the lamplight when, much later, Bodie stirred and pried open his eyes. Ray lay pillowed on him, though he had no memory of their turning over or courting comfort. "Ray?" he whispered, one finger tracing the straight, chiselled nose and perfect lips.

"I love you," Raven told him with a shrug. "Do I need a reason to say it?"

"I hope not," Bodie admitted, hugging him. "I cannot wait to be free of this place... I belong in the forest as much as you do, I think. My happiest memories of all our time together are of loving in the sunlight."

"You should have been born an elf," Raven smiled. "Perhaps you were a changeling -- perhaps you are an elf, and your ears are a mistake. Here, let me look at them." He wriggled up to look, kiss, nibble, until Bodie was chuckling, then reached down to cup a still quiescent cock. "Hm, if you were an elf, you would be ready again."

"I'm no elf," Bodie scoffed. "Not like this bundle in my arms. Let me see, how does this work?" He lifted back the long, loose curls, baring one graceful ear, and kissed the point of it. Ray shuddered; at a lick, he was squirming, and at a tiny nibble Bodie felt the rush of heat, the sudden hardness pressing into his belly. He thrust his tongue into Ray's ear and wrapped his legs about the small, hard body as Ray began to thresh about, not releasing the captive ear for a moment. The elf was wild, bucking and trying to press himself even closer, though Bodie's arms were tight about him. His moans and curses were hoarse, desperate, and Bodie could not hold him still; there could be no holding back now, so he drove him on, licking and nibbling until he felt the whole length of Ray's body stiffen; then the human thrust his tongue into his lover's ear again, and it was more than enough. Cursing, Ray came violently, and was asleep even before Bodie had relaxed.

"Ray?" Bodie lifted the sleeping face to admire it; flushed, debauched. "Ray! I was hoping for a kiss!" But Ray was almost comatose, worn away, and Bodie merely pressed his lips to the lax, swollen mouth and brought up the sheepskins.

They would be out of his place soon enough, and there would be time for catching up on the loving sheer exhaustion had cost them. There was a lot to be said for being a warrior, Bodie thought as he settled to sleep... A labourer's life, by comparison, was aught but easy!

He woke to the sound of eggs tapping on the floorboards and rolled over to watch Raven shelling their breakfast. He was still naked, a blanket wrapped about him, intent on the task, and Bodie smiled. "You went to the kitchen like that?" He demanded by way of greeting.

Ray looked up, his eyes laughing. "Of course not! Rhian was passing and tossed them to me. They are still hot; do you want one?" He passed one shelled egg into Bodie's outstretched palm, and sank his teeth into his own. "She is sad to see us leave," he said thoughtfully.

"Sad to see you leave," Bodie corrected glibly. "That look of lust is the same on any face, no matter how young! She wants you."

"I know," Ray admitted. "Does that bother you, Bodie?"

"That another person can see how luscious is my mate?" Bodie stifled a ribald chuckle. "No. Instead, I am inclined to preen like a bower bird."

Raven's weight landed heavily on him. "Gloating is unbecoming."

"So is moral lecturing at this time of the morning," Bodie retorted, tousling the curly head. "You are in better spirits, my lad."

"We are finished with this place," Raven said, glorying in a statement of the obvious, "and bound for the forest. And I love you." He planted a smacking kiss on Bodie's mouth.

"Would that we had all summer for our pleasure," Bodie sighed, lifting his lover's weight to see his chest. "You are almost healed this morning... Nice. Soft and furry. Show me your hands... Callouses! No more work like that, Ray, and I mean it. There are lots of other things you could do, if you set your mind to it."

Raven rubbed his leathery palms. "Such as what?"

"I have never seen a better fletcher," Bodie said honestly, sitting up and stretching as Raven climbed off him. "Your arrows are the straightest and best balanced, you have a natural knack for weighting a goose shaft. Also, I have never heard a sweeter singing voice than your own; if I bought you a harp you could sit by the hearth and charm your company until they would shower wealth upon you. And you know the healing herbs, too; if you wished, you could sell your skills as a healer."

"I am too young," Raven argued. "In a healer people look for an ancient, one who has a lifetime's experience. But I could be a fletcher, and singing is no dishonour, if people would listen."

Bodie kissed his ear. "I shall buy you a harp."

"Reaping has made my fingers too stiff to play," Ray sighed.

"Then you will do nothing until they are pliant again." Bodie shivered in the chill of morning. "Come, dress before you catch cold. We have our money and can leave at will. Breakfast in the yard, then it is the road for us. First to Riverside, to market. Furs, leathers and provisions. Then... north."

The land rose steeply as one pressed into the barren north; first, the hills, slopes that became more vicious with every mile, then the mountains. The first range was well mapped, and they had a chart, drawn on leather in fine indigo, bought for a pretty price. But beyond the Mountains of Morning rose the higher, more forbidding range; and no one ventured into the Casdar ranges without a warband and good reason. The painted people hunted there -- savage, intractable, unknowable, killing man and beast alike.

Their belongings were rolled into the sheepskins and thonged, and they lifted the heavy leather saddles, slinging packs and all over the side of the hayloft into the deeply piled straw below. A jug of wine in Riverside, also, Bodie promised himself, and a new pair of dice, in case there was a fortune to be made easily along the way. He watched Raven shrug on his jacket, a weighty garment of deerskin with a collar of winter fox; the elves did not hunt the animals with whom they lives - -- indeed, they were unable to digest meat; and when a forest creature died its pelt or hide was treasured. The jacket had cost a lot of money, but it was worth every coin to know that Ray was warm, for the elf felt the cold keenly and they had left Feyleen's estate with so little to begin again. Bodie had a cloak, very heavy, trimmed with brown fox and fastened with an enormous, almost lethal cloak brooch, and inside of it he was too warm. The cloak always brought a smile to his lips as he recalled the times he and Raven had slept wrapped in it, along the road; aye, and loved within it too.

The reapers were just arriving, and Bodie stepped in before them, taking his pick of the breakfast. The milk was still warm, the bread hot, and he and Raven sat on their packs, gazing out at the flame hued forest as free men. The road beckoned, their feet itched to be moving, and as the labourers headed out to the fields human and elf picked up their gear and went to whistle for the horses. Lightfoot, Wind and Jasmin were plump and sleek after their time of idleness, and came trotting to the paddock gate to be petted, displaying surprise and excitement as they were saddled. Bodie would be riding Jasmin, as usual, and Wind would carry their heavier packs.

-- THE END --

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