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The Hart and the Lion
(Chapters 60 - 79)
by Cita Powers
|Title:||The Hart and the Lion (Chapters 60 - 79)|
|Fandom:||Sports Night AU|
|Pairing:||Daniel el-Rydal / Casey Mackall|
|Rating:||NC-17 (m/m sex, violence)|
|Author's Disclaimer:||None. I'm like that.|
|Author's Notes:||This began as a little morsel to cheer up Em when she wasn't feeling well. I had no idea that it would take on a life if its own and actually develop a plot. <gasp> Thanks to Em and n for beta-reading, and pushing for more. Any errors and inconsistencies are, however, no reflection on them; I take full responsibility. Comments and criticisms are always welcome.|
Daniel pulled the heavily embroidered edge of his robe straight with a practiced tug and glanced at Casey. The kaffiyeh shaded Casey's face and eyes and hid his sun-bleached hair. He would never pass as a Tuareg, but he wasn't obviously northern. His new robes were not as luxurious as Daniel's, but their good quality bespoke Daniel's supposed wealth - very few could afford to clothe their servants in such fashion. It had cost more than Daniel had anticipated to kit them out properly at such short notice, but it was necessary. A certain display of wealth would be expected, and not showing it could make Mohammed ibn el-Rasad suspicious.
Turning, Daniel led the way along the high stone wall until they reached the open gates. There he stood, imperiously silent, as Casey strode boldly up to the guard.
"El-Rydal Effendi to see el-Rasad Effendi," Casey said importantly. "My Master has an appointment."
The guard glanced sharply at them both for a moment. Daniel forced himself not to fidget. Then the guard nodded and motioned to another guard standing on the other side of the gate.
Without a word, the man saluted his superior and then bowed to Daniel. "This way, Effendi."
He led them across the bare earthen yard to a large building. Daniel's eyes involuntarily rose as the building loomed above them. By the Prophet, it must be five, possibly six stories tall. He had never seen such a structure, built of both wood and stone, with broad windows and...
A discreet cough just behind his left shoulder startled him, and he closed his gaping mouth with a snap and hurried to catch up with the guard, who was climbing several steps that led to the entrance.
The hall was dim after the bright afternoon sunlight, and Daniel had only a moment to glance around before the guard came to attention outside an open doorway, then stepped inside. "El-Rydal Effendi," he said, and then stepped back with a bow. Without a word, Daniel entered the room.
It was a large room, furnished in a most peculiar mixture of styles. A heavy, rough table was pushed against the wall beneath the open windows and was covered with scrolls, books and papers. Several maps were pinned to the walls, and a small armory of weapons was propped casually in a corner. A man was seated on a low couch, his legs crossed, studying a sheaf of papers.
He looked up quickly and nodded. "El-Rydal Effendi," he said in a deep, rumbling voice, "you honor me." Gesturing toward the couch, he clapped his hands and a young boy entered from another door, carrying a tray. Daniel settled himself on the couch. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Casey standing by the door. Good. Servants of his supposed status did not kneel at their masters' feet.
"On the contrary, el-Rasad Effendi, you honor me." El-Rasad gestured to the boy, who set down the tray and poured two small cups of coffee. Taking one, Daniel continued. "I have heard so much about the school, and how your hand has been instrumental in guiding the improvements, that when I found myself in Zaheira, I knew I must visit and see for myself."
El-Rasad gracefully acknowledged the compliment, and they spoke of incidentals while they drank their coffee. When they finished, el-Rasad gestured for the boy to take the tray. "I would be very pleased to show you the school," he said, rising. "If you have the time."
"I would be delighted." Daniel stood and smoothed his robes. "Where shall we begin?"
El-Rasad glanced out the window. "A class of the older boys is having an archery lesson. Let us begin there."
Daniel walked at el-Rasad's side, with Casey a respectful three paces behind, as they left the building and returned to the practice yard. He was interested in the archery lesson, even though the boys were too old to include Casey's son.
After the watching the lesson for a while, they crossed the yard to another building, where a class of older boys was receiving a reading lesson.
"Aren't they old to be learning this?" Daniel asked quietly as one of the boys stumbled through a simple passage.
"No. They are foreign-born, and must learn the language. These children did not speak our tongue six months ago."
"Ah." Daniel heard Casey shift behind him, and looked curiously at the boys. Some were fair, with long, straight hair, others dark complected, with tight curls. They all looked well-fed and were neatly clothed. "They are tribute from the conquered lands, then."
"Some are." El-Rasad gestured toward the door and they returned to the hall. "A number were captured during the fighting at Dar Es Sallah." Daniel ignored the stifled sound behind him, but El-Rasad glared at Casey, then turned back to Daniel. "They are bright boys, on the whole, and will be a credit to the Prince."
"I would like to see them," Daniel said casually. "They sound extraordinary."
El-Rasad laughed. "Not at all." He paused for a moment, looking thoughtful. "There is one, however... But come with me and I shall show you."
They walked down the deserted hall and stopped at the door of another classroom. Casey pressed against Daniel's back, trying to peer into the room, and Daniel elbowed him gently in the ribs. Servants did not crowd their masters in that way.
There were perhaps fifteen or twenty boys of varying ages in the room, all with fair skin. They were sitting in a circle around a grizzled old man, their faces rapt. He was chanting in a sing-song voice, telling an old tale of the bravery and skill of the janissaries against the barbarians. Daniel had heard it many times, but to these boys it was as fresh as yesterday's news.
"We decided to keep them together," said el-Rasad softly. "They are extremely loyal to one another, and refused to be separated."
"Unusual for barbarians," replied Daniel. He could barely heard Casey's snort, but shot back a warning elbow.
El-Rasad nodded. "I think we would have had fewer difficulties if it were not for that one." He pointed to a boy on the far side of the circle. Daniel sensed, rather than heard, Casey's gasp.
The boy had an intelligent, sensitive face, and braided, sun-bleached hair. He was young, no older than eleven or twelve, and there was the promise of lankiness in his limbs. Even if he had not known Casey's son was here, Daniel would have seen the resemblance. The high cheekbones, the firm mouth, the long neck. Oh, yes, he was Casey's son.
"Haleeh is their de facto leader," el-Rasad continued, his admiration clear. "He was the one who insisted that they remain together, and he has cajoled and bullied even the slowest into learning well, so that there is no excuse to separate them."
"Remarkable," Daniel murmured, turning and stepping away from the door, drawing el-Rasad with him, so that Casey could quietly take his place. "How does one go about teaching such children? Surely they require changes in your typical curriculum."
"It's all a matter of strategy," replied el-Rasad with a smile. "It was obvious that Haleeh was the key to their loyalty. Once I could command his loyalty, the others would follow."
Daniel continued down the hall. He would give Casey as much time to look at his son as possible. "Interesting. How did you do that?"
"It was not an easy matter. He had seen both his parents killed in the fighting at Dar Es Sallah, and felt resentment toward any military training. In addition, he felt responsible for his comrades. After watching the boy for several days, I could tell that harshness would not break him, but that kindness might."
"Very sensible," Daniel murmured, relieved.
"He and his comrades are given certain freedoms in exchange for not breaking my trust."
"Indeed?" This sounded promising. "What sorts of freedoms?"
"They have their own sleeping quarters and are permitted to speak to each other in their own tongue outside of classes. In addition, they are allowed to visit the market once a week." El-Rasad glanced back at the class and smiled. "Haleeh is a remarkable child with a quick intelligence and the ability to inspire loyalty in those around him. He will go far." The pride in his voice angered Daniel, but he could not afford the luxury of giving in to such an emotion.
"And what other promising boys do you have here?" he asked. It would not do for el-Rasad to think he was only interested in Haleeh. No. Olle.
They spent another hour touring the school, and Daniel was impressed. El-Rasad was a strict master, but fairer than most, and with a keen understanding of the boys in his charge. The Prince was fortunate to have him.
He looked at solemn young faces in the class before him. The boys were fortunate, as well.
Daniel declined el-Rasad's invitation to return to his office for more coffee, and he led the way to the outer gate, Casey following him as silently as a shade. They did not speak until they were well away from the walls.
Turning to Casey, he searched Casey's pale face, still shadowed by the kaffiyeh.
"He looks well."
Casey nodded, his eyes miserable. "He thinks I'm dead," he said flatly.
"As you thought he was." Daniel spoke gently, and rested his hand on Casey's shoulder. "He is a strong, brave child, and you should be proud of him."
"I am." His voice was harsh. "I never told him that, Daniel. He thinks I'm dead, and I never told him..." He turned his head away, and he shoulder shook beneath Daniel's hand.
"Then you must tell him once he is with us."
"I will." Although his voice was thick, when he turned to Daniel, his eyes were dry. "We will have to take him when they visit the market. The school is too well guarded for us to get to him there."
Daniel nodded. "And that will require some planning and preparation, for we will have to flee immediately. Come." He clapped Casey on the shoulder. "First, let us find out when the next market day is."
Daniel looked up from the pile of oranges and craned his neck. Yes. A group of boys in the distinctive janissary robes was coming toward them, chattering loudly. He could see Olle at the front, gesturing wildly and grinning at the tall boy beside him. He glanced over as Casey came up to him, clad in nondescript robes as he was. Casey was looking hungrily at the boy, and he nudged him with his shoulder.
"Are you ready?" he murmured.
Casey started and tore his eyes away from his son. "Yes." He patted the pouch at his side, and his eyes drifted back to where his son stood before a sweet seller's stand.
"Did you check on the horses?"
Daniel nudged Casey again. Reluctantly, Casey looked at him. "Are you ready?" he repeated.
Casey took a deep breath. "I am ready."
Daniel waited until Casey was in place at the edge of the market square before approaching the boys. They paid him no heed, and he pushed his way through them without any comment other than a few grumbles by those who were jostled.
He leaned forward, his lips close to Olle's ear, and spoke quietly.
"I have a message for you, Olle Makallainen." He had practiced saying the name over and over, until he could fairly imitate the lilt in Casey's voice.
The boy whirled around, blue eyes wide. "Who are you?" he said.
Daniel put a finger to his lips. "Quiet. The message is for you, not the others."
"How do you know my name?" he demanded, but he spoke in a whisper. Glancing at the boys surrounding them, he jerked his head and led the way through the throng. A few of the boys looked at them curiously, but they did not question Olle.
When they were clear, he turned and looked at Daniel suspiciously. "Well? How do you know my name? Even el-Rasad Effendi does not know it."
"I met a friend of yours," Daniel said. "He told me your true name."
"A friend?" For a moment he was young and vulnerable, longing clear on his face. Then his jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed. "What friend. I have no friends in this land save those who are with me in the school."
"You do," Daniel said, taking his arm and beginning to walk toward the edge of the marketplace. "Come with me and I will show you."
Olle took half-a-dozen steps, then suddenly turned and tried to pull away. "Let go!" he yelled.
By all the afreets and demons of perdition!
Daniel clapped a hand over Olle's mouth and jerked him toward the place where Casey stood. Several people looked at him curiously as Olle continued to struggle, and he panted out "new slave" before they could recognize the boy's robes.
Then a high-pitched shout sounded from the sweet stand, and Daniel glanced back, cursing. The boys were looking around for Olle. Damn! He struggled forward, Olle kicking and twisting in his arms.
Suddenly Casey appeared before him, his arms folding around the wriggling boy. He murmured something to Olle, who stiffened and looked blankly at Casey.
"Isä!" he gasped, and gaped at his father. The noise behind them grew, and Daniel glanced back again.
"Hurry!" he said, pushing Casey toward a side street.
They dashed toward the narrow street, pushing heedlessly through vendors and their wares. Casey stumbled over a watermelon, and Daniel grabbed his arm, steadying him as the fruit seller sprang forward, shaking his fist.
They were almost at the entrance the street when Olle looked over Casey's shoulder and shouted "No! Isä, no!" He began to struggle again.
Casey spoke to him, barbaric sounds tumbling out of his mouth, but he did not slow or release his hold.
"No!" Olle cried again, his voice breaking. Daniel looked at him, stunned to see that tears were trailing down his cheeks.
He did not know why Olle would struggle against his father, but there was no time to ask. They had to move as quickly and quietly as possible if they were to get out of Zaheira before the alarm was given.
They sped down the street and ducked into a small passageway. Casey set Olle on his feet and jerked a plain robe out of the pouch at his side. Working quickly, they stripped off Olle's distinctive robe and pulled the new one over his head.
Olle looked up at his father and choked out a string of unintelligible syllables that sounded like a question. Casey's head jerked as if he had been struck, but he replied quietly and briefly. His answer, if indeed it was one, did not appear to appease Olle, but he stopped struggling and followed them obediently, with only a backward glance.
The horses were where they had left them. Daniel threw the stableboy a coin and they mounted, Olle on Salimeh with Casey. They dashed toward the gate, slowing only to avoid pedestrians. Heart pounding, Daniel strained to hear the alarm, expecting any moment to see the heavy gates close before them.
There was no alarm. The gates remained open, and they passed through without being challenged.
They had done it.
Daniel smiled at Casey, the smile slipping off his face as he encountered Olle's glare. They slowed to a walk, and, steely-eyed, Olle spat on the ground in front of them.
"You bastards," he snarled.
Casey swung his arm. His palm struck Olle's cheek with a sharp crack.
"Have you forgotten yourself?" Casey whispered harshly, as Olle stared at him wide-eyed, his hand covering his reddened cheek. "I am your father. You will treat me with respect."
"What about the others? You just left them-"
"Don't be stupid, my son." Casey gripped Olle's shoulder, but he shrugged it off with a glare. Casey returned the glare and continued. "There is nothing we can do for them."
"You didn't even try!"
"Enough!" Casey's hands tightened on the reins. "You are a Makallainen. You will behave as such."
Daniel had never heard Casey sound like that. Imperious, arrogant, as cold as a biting wind on a clear winter night. It was the voice of a man who knew his station in life and who expected others to acknowledge it. Shaking off his amazement, Daniel glanced over his shoulder. He gestured toward a small road that led through the rolling, grassy plains to the north. "We must hurry in case they follow-"
Casey nodded, his lips compressed into a thin line.
"El-Rasad Effendi will send janissaries to find me," Olle said, twisting on the saddle. "He won't give up easily, and you will not be able to outrun his reach."
"I will." Casey's voice was grim and his fingers tightened on the boy's arm. "You are my son. He shall not have you back." He turned Salimeh onto the northern road and urged her to a canter. Daniel followed, silent and wary.
The road was almost deserted and they made good time. When the sun dipped toward the western mountains, Daniel led them toward a small outcropping of rocks not far from the road. They tied the horses loosely and let them graze as Casey pulled bread and oranges from the saddlebags. Daniel scrambled up the rocks and faced south, shading his eyes from the glare. The road stretched behind them, the pale surface shimmering, curving and dipping with the undulating hills. He could see no movement along its length, and a little of the tension bled from his shoulders.
He slid down and dusted off his hands. "We are not being pursued. At least," he amended, accepting the bread Casey handed him, "not yet."
Olle stuffed the rest of his bread in his mouth and snorted. "They will follow you and find me," he said indistinctly. "El-Rasad Effendi will not let me go without a fight."
"Then we will leave the road and travel rough." Fingers itching to smack the smug smile off Olle's face, Daniel tore off a chunk of bread and took a bite. He looked down his nose at the boy. "And fight, if necessary. Your father has sacrificed much to find you. I will not stand by and see his sacrifices be in vain."
Olle's eyes traveled over Daniel. He raised his eyebrows and a corner of his mouth quirked. "And what does a servant have to say about it?" There were echoes of Casey's recent hauteur in his voice. "Hold your tongue."
The insufferable gall shocked Daniel into silence for a moment. "I am no man's servant," he said, his voice harsh. "And I will not allow a whelp of a-"
Casey's mouth snapped shut and color flooded his face. The blow from his hand jerked Olle's head to the side. "El-Rydal Effendi is my ma- my friend, not my servant. You will apologize for your rudeness."
Mouth twisted in a grimace, Olle lifted one shoulder. "I beg your pardon, Effendi."
Daniel nodded once, a curt acknowledgement.
"Do not underestimate the Effendi," Casey said quietly, his hand gripping Olle's shoulder. "He is a good man, and one you will appreciate having on your side in a fight."
Olle rolled his eyes and turned away.
Frowning, Daniel crossed his arms over his chest to prevent himself from grabbing the boy and beating some manners into him. The child was trouble. Insolent, disruptive, argumentative... It was frightening how much he reminded Daniel of himself at that age.
Then Casey glanced at him, his eyes bleak, and Daniel tightened his arms. He wanted more than ever to strike Olle: for hurting Casey, for not acknowledging what Casey had suffered to find him, for his damned ingratitude...
"If the pup is right and el-Rasad wants him back, we need to keep moving," Daniel said, resting his hand on Casey's shoulder and ignoring Olle's glare. "We should be able to make Gazeer by tonight."
Casey glanced at Daniel's hand and smiled. The tight bands in Daniel's chest loosened at that smile. "Of course." Casey's eyes flickered over to Olle and his smile faded. "How far is it to Ashtok?"
"A week if we can maintain a good pace." Daniel let his hand fall and folded his fingers, keeping Casey's warmth inside the close confines of his palm.
With a nod, Casey fetched Salimeh. Olle mounted in front of his father, grumbling under his breath, but he obeyed Casey's instructions.
They entered Gazeer as the last rays of the sun disappeared in the west. Daniel secured a room, for they did not want the innkeeper to get a close look at Olle or Casey. Their dinner was brought to them, and before the servant entered with the tray, Casey made sure that both his head and Olle's were covered, to hide their fair hair.
Daniel dismissed the servant after the dishes were set out, and Olle fell on his food like a starving man.
"Didn't el-Rasad feed you?" Casey asked quietly, a smile touching the corners of his mouth. His eyes were solemn, however.
Olle nodded, his mouth full.
"He's a growing boy," Daniel said with a laugh, breaking off a piece of bread and dipping it into his stew. "You heard el-Rasad speak of his responsibilities and saw the children at the school, Casey. They were all healthy and well fed."
Olle swallowed noisily, his eyes wide. "You saw us? In the school?"
"Yes." Casey took a drink of the thin wine supplied with their dinner, but did not continue.
"Your father wished to see you." Daniel glanced at Casey. "And we needed to discover how best to rescue you."
"But I didn't see you-" Olle's eyes were fixed on his father.
"You were in class. We were in... other garments." Daniel grimaced. They had sold their expensive clothes at a considerable loss, despite the fact that they had only been worn once.
Olle's face went blank for a moment, and then he nodded. "A few days ago two visitors came to the door with el-Rasad Effendi." His eyes flickered to Daniel, then returned to Casey. "They were you?"
"Yes." Casey hesitated. "I wanted... needed to see that you were well."
"We were all well. And happy," Olle snapped. "You could have left me there."
Casey flinched as if he'd been struck, but he raised his chin, jaw hard. "You are a Makallainen. We have responsibilities: to the Queen, to our family."
"And I have responsibilities, too."
With a snort, Casey shook his head. "You are a child. You do not know-"
"I know that you weren't there when they attacked," Olle rasped, his face suddenly pale in the lamplight. His hand shook as he pushed away his plate. "I thought you were dead. Emä tried to-" His voice broke and he cleared his throat. "They cut her," he whispered, "and she screamed and fell. There was blood... Someone hit me hard on the head and dragged me away with the other boys."
Casey made a little choked sound. "I tried to get to you-"
"The others were frightened," Olle looked up and continued in a flat, hard voice. "And I promised them we would always stay together. That I would make sure we would not be separated."
The sound of his own breathing was loud in Daniel's ears. This child... He stared at Olle's round, soft face. There was nothing of the child in his eyes, however. They were obsidian-sharp, implacable.
Casey met those eyes, their expression mirrored in his own. "You are my son. I will not give you up."
"And I cannot break my promise."
Shaking off a horrible sense of familiarity, Daniel cleared his throat. "It is late and we must rise early. I suggest that we go to bed."
"But I-" Olle began.
"Enough." Casey took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "The matter is closed."
Olle's chin jutted out, but he did not speak.
After the servant left with their dinner tray, Daniel looked at the beds. He wanted to sleep with Casey again, to feel the warmth of that lean body against his. He glanced at Olle and stifled a sigh. "I will take the pallet," he said to Casey. "You and the child take the larger bed."
Casey looked as if he would protest, but slowly nodded. "That is as it should be."
It did not take them long to get ready for bed and extinguish the lamp. Daniel stared at the wall and pulled the thin blanket close. The pallet would not have felt half as hard if Casey were there to share it with him. He closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep.
He did not know what woke him. He blinked drowsily and huddled beneath the blanket, too cold to leave his warm nest.
A creak and a soft sound from across the room startled him. A shadow moved toward the window. He lifted his head and peered.
By the Five...
With a flurry of blankets, Daniel scrambled from his pallet and lunged across the room. He grabbed at the shadow, and a sharp yelp warned him in time to avoid the flailing arm that barely missed his face.
He wrapped his arms around the struggling figure, not understanding the words whispered harshly into his ear.
"Stop it," he ordered. "What do you think you're doing, Olle?"
"Let me go! I must go back!"
Daniel tightened his grip, surprised at the boy's strength.
"Quiet!" he whispered. "You'll wake your father."
Olle's struggles subsided, and he shivered in Daniel's arms. "I promised," he murmured, sounding very young, and sniffled.
"I know." Daniel loosened his clasp, but kept his hands on Olle's shoulders. Would they have to tie the boy to the bedposts to prevent him from running away? That sight would break Casey. "If you cooperate, I'll see what can be done to free your friends." His voice wasn't entirely free of desperation.
"What could you do?"
The child was right, damn him. What could he do? Daniel pushed that thought away. "There are many options," he said loftily. "I would have to know more before making a decision."
With a hitching breath, Olle turned his head away and wiped his eyes. "Why should I believe you?"
"Because if you run away now, it will kill your father," Daniel said simply. "And I care what happens to him."
Olle shivered again and hesitated. "Do you promise?"
Olle nodded. "All right. I'll go with you to Ay Astokha."
Stifling his sigh of relief, Daniel released Olle's shoulders. "Good."
There was a groan from the bed. "Olle?" Casey sounded half-asleep.
Daniel pushed him toward the bed. Olle went obediently.
"Here, Isä," he said, and crawled back under the covers.
Casey made a small sound of contentment as he gathered his son to him.
Daniel turned abruptly. By the Prophet, he was not going to be jealous of Casey's son. His eyes burned and he rubbed them like a child. He was tired. He needed sleep.
The morning was a long time coming.
Olle kept his word. He had obediently followed Casey's orders all day, and Daniel's heart warmed at the sight of Casey's pleased smile as they sat down to dinner that night. Daniel had again bargained for their room, and Casey made sure that his and Olle's faces were hidden as the servant brought their food.
"Five more days," Casey murmured as he broke off a piece of bread and handed it to Olle. "Ashtok is large enough for us to disappear, and we won't have to worry about pursuit."
Olle's cheeks reddened as he bit into his bread. "You don't have to worry about it now," he said indistinctly.
"What do you mean?" Casey said sharply. "El-Rasad thinks highly of you. He will not accept your disappearance-"
"He will think that el-Saeed took me." Olle swallowed hard and grimaced.
"Who is el-Saeed?"
Flushing, Olle lowered his head and studied his bowl of stew. "He owns the largest brothel in Zaheira. He saw me in... in the marketplace one day, and went to el-Rasad Effendi to bargain for me. El-Rasad Effendi told him to... Told him I was not for sale."
Casey turned horrified eyes to Daniel and then gently rested his hand on Olle's shoulder. "El-Rasad is an intelligent man. So you think he will search for you in el-Saeed's brothel?"
His head still bent, Olle nodded.
"And when he does not find you there?" Daniel asked.
"He will think el-Saeed hid me somewhere in town, or sent me to his estate in the south," Olle said softly.
Daniel took a deep breath. "And we have traveled north. By the time el-Rasad discovers that el-Saeed has not taken you, if he ever discovers that at all, our trail will be cold."
"My son." Casey's voice was very gentle. "There is more to your story. Tell me."
Olle's ears turned scarlet and he shrugged, his eyes still on the table. "I saw... There was a slave auction in the marketplace one day. The slaves from the brothel were kept in a tent at the edge of the square."
Daniel darted a glance at Casey. The customs of brothel owners might be different in the west; by the Five, he hoped they were. If they were not... He had only ventured inside one of those tents once, and the smell of sweat and fear, the sound of muffled grunts and moans, the sight of the pale, oiled bodies, each one tightly bound to display a clamped or pierced or stretched body part, each face contorted in pain, had sent him reeling back into the market, where he had promptly emptied the contents of his stomach into the gutter.
"We had been studying ways to spy upon the enemy," continued Olle, his voice dropping to a whisper. "The others... the others dared me to look inside, to prove that I could infiltrate an enemy camp. I crept around to the back, and when one of the guards turned away, slipped under the edge of the tent. I saw-" He grimaced and his throat worked, as if he were trying to keep down his dinner.
"You don't-" Daniel began, but Olle glared at him and his hand sliced through the air.
"I do," he said through clenched teeth.
Daniel leaned back and nodded once. He did not look at Casey.
"There were men and boys there, some younger than me, naked, with slave brands on their arms." Olle pushed his hair back from his face with a trembling hand. "They were tied, with... Things were on their bodies. In their bodies..." His face was ashen.
"My son, I-" Casey rested a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"He found me," Olle whispered, looking at Casey with wide eyes. "I- My legs wouldn't work. I couldn't breathe. He walked in and saw me. He smiled." Olle shivered. "He said I was beautiful, and asked me if I liked what I saw..."
"Who saw you?" Daniel asked softly.
Olle swallowed hard. "El-Saeed. He laughed when I ran. When I joined the others and told them what had happened, they joked about it. But it was not funny."
"No," agreed Casey, pulling him close. "It is a terrible fate."
"El-Saeed must have recognized your robe." Daniel frowned. "That was how he knew to go to the janissaries. But surely he knew that el-Rasad would not sell you to him, especially if he wished to use you thus."
Olle shivered again, and Casey glared at Daniel for a moment. "There is no need to add to his fears," Casey murmured.
"I am not afraid!"
"It was thoughtless of me." Daniel nodded to Casey. "As frightening as Olle's experience was, it does mean, however, that we probably will not have to worry about pursuit."
"Yes, of course." Casey's mouth relaxed.
"I am not afraid," Olle repeated, pulling away from Casey. "And even if el-Rasad Effendi had sold me to el-Saeed, I'd never be coward enough to become a slave." His upper lip lifted, and he practically spat the final word.
Casey's eyes fell for a moment, before he gazed solemnly at his son. "Sometimes one does not have a choice in these matters."
Olle snorted. "I'd rather kill myself than allow that to happen."
"You don't-" Daniel began. Casey raised his hand and Daniel fell silent.
"That's very noble, my son." He lifted his chin and his cheeks were flushed, but his voice was steady. "However, death is permanent, and one may be able to escape from servitude."
"Isoisä says that any man who permits himself to be enslaved deserves whatever treatment he receives." Olle's voice was smug. "And that death is preferable to a loss of honor."
"Your grandfather has never had to make that sort of decision," Casey muttered. He picked up a piece of bread. "It is one thing to pontificate from the comfort of a favorite chair before a cozy fire, and another to be forced to decide one's fate, and the fate of those whom one is responsible for, in the midst of battle." His fingers slowly, methodically crumbled the bread into a pile on the tabletop.
"Well, I wouldn't hesitate," Olle asserted with a nod, his eyes sparkling. He took an orange from the tray. "I'd spit in their faces as I'd slip my knife through my ribs and right into my heart. They wouldn't get me."
The color had drained from Casey's face, and Daniel rounded on Olle. "I suggest," he said coldly, "that you refrain from speaking about that of which you know nothing."
Olle opened his mouth, but Daniel leaned forward and narrowed his eyes. Olle flushed and turned to his orange, nails digging into the thick skin. He tore off the peel in chunks and ate the segments quickly, licking his fingers before wiping them on his robe.
Casey stared at the mound of breadcrumbs, starting when Daniel laid a hand on his shoulder. Their eyes met, and Daniel's anger flared again at the sight of Casey's pain. Most of his anger was directed at Olle, to be sure, but a goodly portion was reserved for himself. Oh, he recognized that supreme self-confidence, that unthinking judgment and condemnation. The memories of his own youthful arrogance prickled uncomfortably beneath his skin, and his face burned.
"The unthinking jibe is the cruelest," he murmured.
Casey chuffed a dry chuckle and nodded. "Trite, but true."
He turned his head just enough that his cheek brushed Daniel's fingers. Heat raced up Daniel's arm and down his torso, pooling in his groin, and he stifled a groan.
"Time to sleep," Daniel said, his voice harsh. He squeezed Casey's shoulder briefly before removing his hand. It hurt to move from Casey's warmth, from the strength of his muscles and softness of his flesh, and Daniel clasped his hands together tightly to stop from gathering Casey to him and kissing him senseless.
There were three pallets in a row, and when Daniel suggested that Olle sleep between them, Casey quickly agreed. The fact that Casey did not look happy about the prospect was a slight comfort.
At least Daniel wasn't alone in his longing.
But they were two free men. Even if Casey accompanied him if - no, when -- he returned home, they would have to take wives, father children, deny that which bound them. There was no future for them together - not together as they yearned to be, sharing their bed, their bodies and their souls.
Daniel rolled over, his back to Olle and Casey, and squeezed his eyes shut. It would be as Allah decreed.
He prayed for mercy.
They had made good time, especially after Daniel had purchased a quiet mare, Zarifa, for Olle to ride. Olle had sneered at the sturdy, plump horse when Daniel pointed her out, and tried to convince Daniel that a high-spirited two-year-old would be more suitable.
Daniel had raised his eyebrows. "You think you can ride him?"
Olle snorted and pushed his hair out of his face, looking so much like his father than Daniel had to smile. "Of course I can."
Two hard falls and a gash on his forearm later, Olle held Zarifa's reins as Daniel counted out the money. The purchase put a serious dent in their resources, but there was no other option; Olle needed his own mount.
Ahead of them, the late afternoon sun glinted off the walls of Amarta, their destination for the night. Barely large enough to deserve the name of town, it nevertheless boasted a variety of inns, for it was situated at the crossroads of the principle northern road and one of the western trade routes.
They stopped at the gate, paying the baksheesh demanded by the guard without comment. The man's dark eyes lingered on Olle, and Daniel urged Zeina forward, shielding the boy.
"I am looking for the inn of Gregorii Porusskov," he said to the guard, his tongue moving awkwardly around the uncouth name. "Where will I find it?"
The guard smiled insolently, but provided clear directions, and Daniel was pleased when they left the gate and started down the narrow lane. Yet the place between his shoulder blades itched, and he forced himself not to turn around.
Their innkeeper from the previous night had given them Porusskov's name. "He is a heathen, to be sure," the old man had said, his eyes flickering over Casey and Olle. "But he is honest, and if you tell him that I sent you, he will give you a taste of his best wine."
Porusskov's inn was easy enough to find, and Daniel was impressed by the cleanliness of its courtyard, and the way the stable boys were watching for visitors and ran to help them dismount.
"The master is inside," one of the boys offered as he led Zeina toward the stables. He pointed to an arched doorway. "Through there, Effendi."
The house smelled of baking bread, and Olle sniffed appreciatively. He said something low-voiced to Casey as a tall, broad man entered from a side door, ducking beneath the lintel. He wore tall boots and trousers, and a long shirt bright with embroidery.
"Ah, welcome," he rumbled, his voice like thunder in the hills. "I am Gregorii Porusskov. You wish to stay the night?"
"We do, indeed," Daniel said. "We have traveled from the south, and old Iosef told us that we would not be cheated if we lodged with you."
The man laughed and bowed low. "Considering that he has been cheating his guests for the past fifty years, I cannot consider his words a recommendation. However, you will be comfortable here." He winked and led them down a short hall to a small but sunny courtyard. Crossing the courtyard, Porusskov flung open a heavy wooden door and motioned them inside. "One of my best rooms," he said, smiling.
The room was freshly whitewashed, and the wooden floor was still slightly damp from scrubbing. Two wide beds were placed against the opposite wall, and a table and stools stood beside a wide window. A small tile stove in the far corner testified to the presence of cold winter nights, but now sat empty and clean.
"Very nice." Daniel nodded.
"Will you take dinner here?" Porusskov asked as Olle pushed back his hood and looked around with interest, his fair hair bright in the sunlight. Porusskov glanced at Casey, and then at Daniel, a small crease forming between his eyebrows.
"I do not know yet," Daniel said, suddenly alert. "We have a number of supplies to purchase in the market, and may eat there."
A quick knock at the door heralded the arrival of their saddlebags. In the confusion, Daniel's eyes locked with Porusskov's, and he jerked his head toward the courtyard.
Porusskov nodded, and they slipped out of the room.
"What is the matter?" Daniel asked bluntly, keeping his voice low.
"The boy," Porusskov said simply. "There are those in Amarta who would pay much to own him. With that fair hair and pale skin, he would be worth a fortune in a brothel in the south, or as a companion to a lonely, but wealthy, merchant."
Daniel's mouth tightened. "One of the guards at the southern gate-"
"Him," Porusskov said with a snort. "Omar. No doubt he's reported the boy's presence to his master."
"A man known as Zheh-zheh." Porusskov sneered. "He calls himself a merchant, but everyone knows he's a pimp who snatches up pretty boys and girls from the streets and sells them to the highest bidder."
"The mudir allows this?"
Daniel's question produced another snort from Porusskov. "The mudir is paid enough to turn a blind eye to the proceedings. But there are many who refuse to sit by and countenance such an abomination in the eyes of the Lord." Porusskov's large hand sketched a gesture from forehead to chest, then from shoulder to shoulder. "We have... persuaded Zheh-zheh not to take any children who are under our protection. Why do you think I have four stable boys and three scullery maids?" And he winked at Daniel.
"I thank you for the warning," Daniel said slowly. "Will the boy be safe if he is seen in the market, even with us? Or should we leave him here?"
"It does not matter if he is seen. Zheh-zheh knows he has entered Amarta." Porusskov leaned forward, his eyes fixed on Daniel's. "He will be safe in the market, as long as he is with you. Just make sure he does not venture out alone."
Daniel thanked him again and returned to their room.
Casey looked up, a small crease appearing between his brows. "What did he want?"
Glancing at Olle, who was looking out the window, Daniel took a deep breath. "He wished to warn us."
"What?" Casey's eyes narrowed and he hastened toward Daniel. Olle turned from the window and fidgeted with his sash.
"Apparently there is a market for young boys and girls here," Daniel said matter-of-factly. "And Olle's unusual coloring makes him desirable. Porusskov suggested that Olle should not go out alone."
Casey hissed and reached for his son.
With a toss of his head, Olle crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm not afraid," he said, pulling away from Casey's hand. "I can take care of myself."
"Your fear is not the issue," Daniel snapped. "Your safety is. You will not-"
"You are not my father," Olle interrupted, his cheeks flushing. "You cannot-"
"I can and will-"
Casey's shout echoed oddly in the room. Daniel stared at him, but Casey's eyes were on Olle.
Voice cracking like a whip, Casey spoke to his son in a strange language. Olle swallowed and his eyes wavered, then fell to the floor. He nodded, and when Casey finally fell silent, ventured a quiet word.
"I am to apologize, Effendi," he said, with only a trace of sullenness in his voice. "I forgot myself."
"And I usurped your father's responsibilities," Daniel admitted with a nod. "Forgive me, Casey."
Casey turned to him, brows raised. "I- Yes, of course." He turned back to Olle. "I have informed my son of the danger, and he will accompany us to the market, but will not leave my side."
"Very well." Daniel would have preferred that Olle remain in their room,
but it was too late to
discuss the matter without undermining Casey's already tenuous authority.
Besides, the boy
would be with them. What harm could come to him?
The market was a bustling affair, far more elaborate than Daniel had expected, carrying a wide variety of goods. They moved from stall to stall, keeping Olle between them. Casey had decided that it would be prudent to keep both his and Olle's heads covered, drawing their scarves across the lower part of their faces, and they had not, as far as Daniel could see, attracted much attention.
They purchased a few new garments of warmer materials that would help stave off the cooler weather of the north, another blanket in case they had to sleep rough, as well as a small, but well-made knife for Olle. Casey had protested the purchase at first, only caving when Daniel pointed out that it was not a fighting knife. Olle was very pleased, and thanked Daniel without a trace of arrogance or sullenness.
"It was your father's decision," Daniel said with a smile. "And he is the one who deserves your thanks."
"Of course." Olle bowed his head. "Thank you, Isä."
Their shopping finished, they had their purchases delivered to the inn and decided to eat at one of the food stalls scattered throughout the market. Casey and Olle stood in line, while Daniel secured three seats at a rough wooden table.
"Hey," a gruff voice said, and Daniel turned. A burly man with a thick brown beard and cascades of braids over his shoulders stood beside him, clutching a plate heaped with meat pasties. Two long knives were stuck into his heavy leather belt, and his leather jerkin was battered and scarred with use. A mercenary.
Daniel raised an eyebrow, suddenly wary.
"Find another seat," the man said. "This is our table."
Daniel stood as four other men, each as broad as the other and laden with food, walked up. The first man, obviously their leader, grinned at him and jerked his head to the side. "Go on."
Jaw tight, Daniel looked each man in the eye and then slowly nodded. "Very well." If he were in or near his father's lands, he'd have the men whipped and then imprisoned for a few weeks, but here he had no reputation, no status on which to support his actions. Gathering his dignity around him like his cloak and ignoring their laughter, he moved toward a distant table.
"You sons of whores!" The sound of that treble voice made him whirl around with an oath, his heart racing.
Olle stood before the men, hands on narrow hips, chin high. The men looked at him curiously and he continued. "I can see that your mothers were too busy servicing slaves to teach you manners."
Casey ran forward and started to drag him away, but Olle broke free with a quick move and spat at the leader.
His aim was impeccable.
The leader wiped his face with a broad hand and his eyes narrowed.
"I'll teach you manners, you little-"
He surged from the table, reaching for Olle, who darted away. He bumped into Casey, who staggered back, arms flailing. One of his hands slammed into the face of one of the other mercenaries. He howled and jumped up, swinging at Casey.
With another curse, Daniel pulled his knife from his belt and leapt forward. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Olle's blade flash in the sunlight before it was buried in a battered leather jerkin. Daniel only had time to unsheathe his knife before he was engulfed by the melee.
He caught occasional glimpses of Casey, teeth bared, using a stool to batter his opponents arms and heads, and Olle, face inhumanly calm, darting in beneath the guard of the burly men, slashing at thighs and groins. By the Five, the boy could fight!
Bruised and bleeding from a gash across his forearm, Daniel fell to the ground when a heavy pike swept through the crush of bodies. He blinked the sweat from his eyes and looked around.
A contingent of the guard was dealing with the men still brawling, knocking them off their feet and using the flat of their swords if they tried to rise. Rolling to his side, his eyes flickered over the sprawl of bodies until he located Casey, curled protectively around a squirming Olle.
The owner of the stall rushed up to the guards, gabbling about how the barbaric outlanders had stolen food from him and then terrorized his customers.
"The small one," he said, pointing a shaking finger at Olle, who had managed to wriggle out of Casey's grasp and was sitting up, "he took them to task and proclaimed their shame to the world. They tried to strike him, and began the fight."
The guards nodded, apparently satisfied with the old man's story, and rounded up the mercenaries. As soon as they marched off with their captives, Daniel rose on unsteady knees and hurried over to Casey, who was still curled up on the ground.
"Casey!" His hand hovered over Casey's shoulder. "Are you injured? Do you need a healer?"
Casey coughed and slowly levered himself to his elbow. "No," he wheezed. "Just winded."
"One of the men kicked him in the stomach... or lower." Olle was composed, wiping blood and dirt from the blade of his knife before returning it to his belt.
"In the stomach," Casey said quickly, and Daniel's tense shoulders relaxed a little. Abdominal injuries could be very serious, but Casey's color was good, and he wasn't spitting blood. He would probably only be sore and bruised by tomorrow.
Perhaps Porusskov would have some liniment or unguent that would ease the swelling and pain.
Daniel spared Olle a cold glance. "Are you injured?" Olle shook his head, and Daniel continued. "You fought well, but we will discuss your behaviour later," he said. "Help me."
Olle blushed and lowered his eyes.
Between the two of them, they got Casey upright. By the time they reached the inn, Casey was walking on his own, although he clutched his middle and was bent over like an old man.
As they crossed the courtyard, Daniel spotted one of the stable boys, looking at them in open-mouthed astonishment. Daniel turned and glanced at his companions, then snorted. They were filthy, bruised and bloody, their clothes torn. No wonder the boy stared.
"We will need a great deal of hot water," Daniel ordered. "And if your master has any liniment from the healers, we would appreciate its use."
They entered their room, and Casey collapsed onto one of the beds with a groan. Daniel was pleased to see that the goods they had bought at the market had been piled beside a chair.
Daniel knelt and began to remove Casey's boots. "Help me," he said over his shoulder.
Moving quickly, Olle unbuckled Casey's cloak and laid it to one side.
There was a knock, and Daniel called out, "Enter!"
A boy, carrying a heavy pitcher of water, slipped in, followed by Porusskov. The boy put down the pitcher on the washstand and scuttled out.
"What has happened?" Porusskov asked, carrying a tray containing several small jars.
Daniel lifted Casey's legs onto the bed. "A small... misunderstanding in the market. A certain young person has not learned when to remain silent."
"Ah." Porusskov set the tray down on the table and raised his eyebrows at Olle. "Spoiling to prove himself, eh? And then you two had to rescue him." He chuckled.
"No, indeed," Daniel said grudgingly. "The boy fought well. But none of us would have had to fight in the first place if he had let his elders deal with the situation."
Olle snorted. "But you didn't-"
"Olle!" Casey's voice cracked like a whip. He spoke rapidly in a foreign tongue, and Olle's face flushed deep red as he tried to answer, but Casey gave him no chance.
"My son may fight well," he said, turning from Olle, "but he has much to learn, especially the importance of avoiding conflict."
Porusskov nodded, looking thoughtful. "Unfortunately, that is a lesson many of our betters have yet to learn." He nodded toward the tray. "I have brought a variety of salves for cuts and bruises. Are you certain you do not need a healer?" he asked Casey.
"I just need to wash off the grime from the market and then rest. Thank you for your kindness," he added, struggling to sit up.
"No, no," Porusskov waved a hand at him. "Stay where you are. I will send more hot water so you may all wash."
"And some dinner, if that is possible," Daniel said, pulling off his filthy robe. "We were interrupted before we could eat, and I know the boy is famished."
A boy appeared with the food before Daniel could do more than wipe Casey's smudged face and gritty hands and encourage Olle to do the same. Casey insisted on eating before they did anything else, so they propped him up with pillows and Daniel handed him a bowl of stew and a piece of bread. Olle was already half way through his bowl, eating as if this meal would be his last.
By the time they had finished and one of Porusskov's boys had brought more water and taken away the remains of their meal, Daniel was yawning, and Olle's eyelids were drooping.
"You may not rest yet," Daniel snapped as Olle crawled into bed next to his father. "You are filthy. Wash yourself, and then help me make your father comfortable."
Olle murmured, but did as he was told, quickly stripping off his clothes and giving himself a cursory wash. Daniel dug out an overshirt for him to wear before turning to Casey.
"Tell me if you are in pain," he said, his fingers gently unfastening Casey's trousers.
Casey grimaced as he drew them off, but smiled at Daniel's inquiring look. "Stiff and sore," he admitted, his eyes meeting Daniel's, "but I've endured worse."
"I know you have," Daniel muttered. "And I will do all in my power to prevent it from happening again..." He helped Olle thread Casey's arms through his shirtsleeves and then pulled the shirt over his head. An oval bruise darkened the fair skin of Casey's stomach.
Casey settled back into the pillows with a sigh.
"Isä?" Olle's voice shook. "Isä, what is that mark on your arm?" He stood up slowly, pointing to Casey's slave brand.
By the Five...
Casey had been careful not to show the brand to Olle - not yet, not knowing how the boy felt about those who had been enslaved. But they had forgotten about it in their excitement and exhaustion, and now... Now there was no hiding what had happened.
"Isä?" His face was pale in the shadows.
"I was going to tell you, my son," Casey said softly. "I was captured during the fighting, along with many of our men. We talked about... about killing ourselves, but I decided that it would be better for us to live." His voice cracked and Daniel heard him swallow. "We planned to escape and meet in-"
"No!" Olle backed away, his chest heaving. "You didn't. You couldn't! I've seen what they do to slaves!" he shouted. "I've seen it. You would not..." He shook his head and took a deep, shuddering breath.
"I did what I had to in order to survive," Casey whispered. "As did our men."
Olle flinched. "Our men? Antti? Jouni? Esa? They all..."
"The ones who survived the battle, yes. They all agreed that living as a slave with the hope of escape was preferable to dying needlessly." He reached out a hand to Olle, who stared at him blankly. "We are going to meet them - meet those who could escape."
"Escape?" Olle shivered. "Escape. How did you escape, Isä?"
Casey's eyes flickered over to Daniel and then back to Olle. "I didn't have to, my son. My master was..." His throat worked. "My master was a good man, and he freed me. My manumission papers are in my bag."
Olle looked from Casey to Daniel and back again. "Your master." He practically spat the word. "Were you in chains, Isä? Did he fuck you to prove his ownership?"
Before Casey could do more than gasp, Olle turned and stumbled toward the door. Daniel caught his arm in a hard grip.
"Enough!" he bellowed, giving Olle a shake. "Your stupidity has already caused your father injury. Will your compound your offense by insulting him, as well?"
"Let go of me!" Olle tried to shake off Daniel's grasp, but Daniel swung him around and propelled him into the other bed.
"Be quiet if you cannot help," Daniel said, voice harsh. "We are too tired to speak sensibly. We will sleep, and then in the morning-"
"I will not sleep with him." Olle turned his back on Casey and curled up in the bed. Casey squeezed his eyes shut, pain etched on his face.
Daniel shrugged and picked up the cloth, wringing it out in the warm water. He slowly wiped Casey's arms and legs, checking him for further injuries. Once Casey was reasonably clean, Daniel carefully rubbed in the salve, aware of every hiss of breath and grimace Casey made. When he was finished, Daniel helped Casey into a long shirt and pulled the blanket over him.
Washing himself quickly, Daniel changed into clean clothes and bundled up their filthy garments. They would have to change their plans and stay another day in Amarta, because Casey could not ride in his present state. Daniel would ask one of the maids to wash their clothes in the morning.
"Olle?" he whispered, and leaned over the boy. His eyes were closed and he was breathing regularly. Daniel sighed. Best to leave him where he was.
And truth be told, Daniel looked forward to sleeping with Casey, feeling his warmth, brushing up against him in the night...
He snorted softly and pressed his hand against his hardening cock, willing it to soften. If nothing else, sleeping with Casey would provide an exercise in self-discipline. But he would not miss the opportunity to be close to Casey, even if all they could do was lay side by side in a bed.
With a final look around the room, he crawled into bed.
"Is he asleep?" Casey whispered, the back of his hand brushing Daniel's arm.
Daniel turned and ran careful fingers down the side of Casey's face, across his shoulder and down his arm, tangling their hands together.
"I want you, Daniel." Casey's voice was barely audible.
"And I you," Daniel breathed, sliding his other arm over Casey's chest. "Are you in pain?"
Casey huffed. "Nothing that will not heal in time." He paused, then continued as softly. "The boy did fight well. He has learned much in the past few months."
"Yes, he did," Daniel agreed. "But we will speak of him in the morning. Sleep, my..."
He pulled Casey closer and nuzzled his shoulder. Resolutely closing his eyes, Daniel forced himself to breathe slowly and evenly, although he did not expect to fall asleep.
He blinked and rolled onto his back. A pearly light suffused the room.
"Yes?" Scrubbing at his eyes, he lifted his head.
Casey leaned over him, his jaw tight, his brows drawn together. His hand was on Daniel's shoulder and he shook Daniel again.
"Listen to me, Daniel! I woke early. I looked over at the other bed."
His voice broke. "Olle's
One of the stable boys lit a lamp, and Daniel collapsed onto a bench in the courtyard. Shadows flickered over the walls, collected in the corners, and picked out the lines of exhaustion on Casey's face.
"Sit, before you fall," Daniel muttered, closing his eyes.
The bench beside him creaked, and Casey stifled a groan. A warm hand settled on Daniel's shoulder, and he tilted his head so that his cheek brushed Casey's fingers.
"A quick rest," Casey said hoarsely, "and perhaps some food. Then I will go back-"
"Don't be ridiculous." Daniel forced his eyes open and glared at Casey. "You are half dead on your feet."
"But Olle-" Casey's voice broke.
Daniel took a deep breath. "I know," he said, holding on to his patience with an effort. "But we cannot continue to search if we are stumbling with exhaustion. And it is dark. We cannot search for him in the dark."
"Porusskov is still out there."
"He knows the city better than we do." And there was no guarantee that he was truly searching for Olle. His protests of concern when they had told him of Olle's disappearance that morning had been a little too vehement to be believable. Why would he spend the entire day looking for the child of some guests when he had an inn to run?
Daniel pushed aside those thoughts. They were not helpful right now, and he was too tired to argue with himself over the motivations of their host.
"Effendi?" The boy carried two brimming cups and handed him one. "From the Master."
"He has returned?" Daniel drank deeply, the beer slightly bitter on his tongue. Casey took a quick drink, his shoulders sagging.
"Yes, Effendi. He has just returned." The boy bowed and disappeared through a door on the far side of the courtyard.
Daniel's cup was half drained when Porusskov's deep voice sounded in the clear night air.
"Ah, there you are."
Casey stood, swaying slightly. "Have you found him? Heard anything of him?" There was hope in his voice.
"Sit down, Effendi." Porusskov squatted on a small stool and rubbed the back of his neck as Casey sat.
Daniel looked up, suddenly alert.
"I have not found him," Porusskov said slowly, resting his hands on his knees. "But there are those who continue searching for him."
Casey leapt to his feet. "Then we must go! We can help them."
Porusskov grunted. "Sit down, please." He gestured to one of the boys, who brought a pitcher and refilled Casey's and Daniel's cups. "We must eat, and I will tell you what I suspect. Then we can decide what is to be done."
He refused to say anything more until they had washed and changed out of their dusty, crumpled clothing. "We will eat out here," Porusskov announced as they returned to the courtyard. "I have visited places today whose stench clings to my nostrils. The night air should clear it away."
They watched him quickly finished half his dinner before he looked up. "Why do you wait?" he said, gesturing toward their untouched plates. "I will not speak until you eat."
Daniel scooped up some pilaf. It was very good, and his neglected stomach rumbled. He caught Casey's eye and nodded. "He is right. We cannot help Olle by starving ourselves."
For a moment, Casey's expression turned mulish, but then he nodded and picked up a piece of bread. "Very well."
"Good," Porusskov said. "I spoke with an acquaintance, who may have seen the boy early this morning."
"And?" Casey leaned forward, bread forgotten in his hand.
"According to this person, the boy was approached by one of Zheh-zheh's men, and he went with him willingly."
"Impossible!" Casey's hand smacked the table and the cups rattled. "He would not be so foolish-"
"Foolish or not," Porusskov continued with a shrug, "it seems likely that Zheh-zheh has the boy."
Casey blanched, his hand balled into a fist.
Daniel chilled at the thought. "If that is the case, we must find him quickly."
"Of course." Porusskov held up an admonitory finger when Casey pushed aside his bowl. "But there are several places where he could be held. Others are watching those places, and when Zheh-zheh tries to move the boy, we will intercept him."
"Move him?" Daniel frowned. "Why would he do that?"
Porusskov shrugged. "Because he knows we are searching for the child. His practice is to keep only the unwanted children, the ones for whom no one searches. The others he takes to a market outside town, where he sells them as soon as possible."
Casey muttered something, his face drawn in pain. Daniel reached out and rubbed his shoulder, wishing he could fold Casey into his arms and ease away the lines of agony in his face.
"When is he likely to move the boy?" Daniel asked, tearing his eyes from Casey.
A crease appeared between Porusskov's brows, and he frowned. "Ah." He blinked, then gave his head a quick shake. "Just before dawn. The children are collected at the western gate, and taken to the market. If we can ambush them, and bring down the guard before they reach the gate, we can take back the boy."
"I shall kill the guard-" Casey began.
"That would not be wise." Porusskov leaned forward, his hands clasped tightly. "If the boy is taken, Zheh-zheh will accept the loss, albeit grudgingly. But if one of his guards is killed, he will retaliate."
"He'll accept the loss?" Daniel asked, his voice dubious.
Porusskov nodded. "If only the child is taken."
"Should we be ready to flee once we have him?"
"It might not be necessary, but it would be prudent." Porusskov paused, rubbing his chin. "We cannot take the horses when we go for the child, but I will have my boys take them to a postern in the wall. We will meet them there, and once outside the city, you can cut across the fields to join up with the northern road again."
Squaring his shoulders, Casey picked up his cup. "We shall follow your recommendations, Porusskov Effendi. And we are obliged to you for all your help." He took a long drink.
"In the meantime," Porusskov said, waving off Casey's thanks, "you should sleep. I will wake you when we receive word where the boy is. Be prepared to move quickly, for we will not have long."
Casey's jaw hardened. "I will not be able to sleep-"
"Then we will rest," Daniel interrupted. "You are still recovering from your injuries, and tomorrow will be taxing."
With a reluctant nod, Casey allowed himself to be led back to their room.
It only took a few minutes for them to pack their possessions. Casey picked up Olle's new robe, staring at the fabric spilling from his hand.
"Casey?" Daniel took a step toward him.
He looked up, and a tear trailed down his cheek.
"I will kill the guard if necessary," he whispered harshly. "I will kill ten guards if that is the only way to rescue my son." His fingers clenched the soft folds of the robe.
"And I will help you." Daniel closed the space between them, wrapping his arms gently around Casey's shoulders.
With a soft sigh, Casey relaxed against him, his arms winding around Daniel's back, his head resting on Daniel's shoulder.
"I have missed this," Casey murmured, his lips brushing Daniel's neck.
"And I." Daniel's arms tightened, and he rested his cheek against Casey's head. He hesitated, not wishing to break their fragile peace, but he knew he had to. "Casey?"
"Mmmm?" Casey's lips pressed warmly against Daniel's shoulder.
"Do you trust Porusskov?"
Casey's head jerked up and his eyes met Daniel's. "What do you mean?"
"It is nothing specific," Daniel admitted. "Just that he is taking great pains to help a group of travelers. We can do nothing for him in return."
With a thoughtful frown, Casey released Daniel and turned away. "I do trust him, Daniel. He is a good man, and I have heard that many who worship his God put great store in performing good works without recompense. Perhaps he is one such."
"Perhaps." Daniel slid his arms around Casey's chest and pressed himself close to that long back. "But I shall keep an eye on him, all the same."
Casey sighed and covered Daniel's hand with his own. "And I will not prevent you." He pushed his buttocks against Daniel's erection.
"By the Five," murmured Daniel, his eyes fluttering shut. The warm pressure of Casey's rear made him harden completely, and he thrust his hips forward automatically.
"Daniel..." Casey said in a strangled voice. "I need you. Please."
He could only groan in reply. They stumbled to the bed, fumbling with their clothing. Casey tossed his robe to one side and lifted his shirt, not bothering to pull it off. Dropping his trousers to mid-thigh, he knelt on the bed, still in his boots, and raised his bare ass.
Daniel didn't even try to do more than open his trousers and pull his shirt to one side. He scrabbled for the small vial of unguent that Porusskov had left for Casey, opening it and coating his fingers quickly.
"Master, please!" Casey spread his legs as wide as possible and wiggled his ass.
"Patience," whispered Daniel, but he could not follow his own admonition. His fingers shook as he plunged two deep inside Casey, twisting them roughly, and then pulled them out.
Casey dropped to his elbows and groaned, burying his face in the blankets.
Panting, Daniel grabbed his erection and pumped it once, spreading unguent over the hard flesh. He shuddered and squeezed his eyes shut. Close, he was so close, and he did not want to spill outside Casey.
He took a deep breath and opened his eyes, deliberately not focusing on Casey's ass. The sight of that pale, twitching flesh would be too much for him. Grabbing Casey's hips, he ran the tip of his cock down the cleft until it sank deep into Casey's hole.
They both cried out as Daniel slowly slid inside that welcoming warmth. Daniel paused, panting, as his groin pressed against Casey's damp ass.
Home. He was home.
A wriggle and a gasp broke into his thoughts, and he reached down, wrapping his hand around Casey's cock. With a choked shout, barely muffled by the blankets, Casey orgasmed, his cock jerking in Daniel's hand.
"Ah, good..." Daniel eased him through his climax, finally releasing Casey's cock as it softened.
He leaned forward and planted a kiss on Casey's shaking shoulders, then straightened. First grinding his hips into Casey's ass, Daniel then quickly pulled out and slammed back inside.
Casey grunted and slid forward on the bed. Grabbing his hips again, Daniel held him still as he withdrew almost to the tip of his cock, and then shoved back in, hard. Casey's muscles quivered around him, squeezing his cock so tightly he wondered if he would ever be able to remove it.
By all the Prophets...
He could barely breathe, and sweat trickled down his back and between his ass cheeks. His hands slipped on Casey's damp skin and he scrabbled for purchase. Casey suddenly collapsed flat onto the bed and Daniel followed, the movement driving him in farther, so far that he wondered how they would ever be parted, and he came with a groan, pumping deep inside Casey.
They lay still for a long time, and Daniel's skin chilled as the sweat dried. His cock softened somewhat, but it remained seated firmly in Casey's body.
With a grunt, Daniel raised himself on shaky arms, but before he could pull free, Casey reached back.
"No," he rasped. "Stay."
Planting a kiss on Casey's shoulder, Daniel murmured his agreement. He could do that.
Daniel managed to roll them slightly onto their sides, so all his weight was not resting on Casey, and then flipped a corner of the blanket up to cover their bare asses. Wrapping his arms around Casey's chest, he rested his forehead against Casey's back and closed his eyes.
As the Prophet said, even in adversity there can be joy. And it was
apparent that the joy of
Daniel el-Rydal was completely bound up with one Kyösti Makallainen.
Daniel shifted and tightened his arms. His cock was encased in warmth and he sighed, content. He was still buried inside Casey.
A knock at the door roused him, and he lifted his head to peer over Casey's shoulder.
Before he could speak or move, the door opened, and Porusskov stood on the threshold, holding up a lamp. He turned toward the bed.
"Effendis, it is-"
His voice broke off and his eyes widened. The lamplight flickered wildly over the walls as his hand shook.
Casey stirred, murmuring sleepily, and his ass tightened around Daniel's cock. With a gasp, Daniel realized that the blanket covering them had slipped off as they slept and they were bared to Porusskov's gaze.
"What?" Casey seemed to come awake all at once. Rising on his elbow, he pulled free from Daniel and hissed in pain, his other hand grasping his ass. Daniel bit his lip to suppress his cry, and fumbled with his trousers.
Porusskov muttered a few sentences in a strange tongue, then turned abruptly, facing out the doorway. "It is time," he said, his voice harsh. "You must be quick."
They were ready in a few heartbeats.
"Leave your belongings." Porusskov started across the courtyard, his head averted. "The boys will bring them with the horses."
They followed him silently as he wound his way through a confusing maze of narrow streets and even narrower passages. Before long, Porusskov stopped and held up his hand.
"I must extinguish the lamp," he rumbled softly, carefully not meeting their eyes. "They should be along shortly." He hesitated, frowning, then glanced at Casey. "Remember what I said about the guard."
Casey nodded, but surreptitiously fingered his knife.
Darkness enveloped them when Porusskov blew out the lamp. Porusskov grunted once, very softly. Casey brushed against his shoulder. Daniel squinted and turned his head slowly, trying to make out the shapes of people and buildings around him. It was a black as a tomb.
A soft laugh broke the silence. In the distance, a wavering light drew Daniel's gaze.
"Be ready." Porusskov's voice was barely a whisper.
The laugh sounded again, accompanied by a faint clinking. The light grew stronger, spilling out from around a corner, illuminating the end of the street.
Daniel's fingers drifted over his knife, but he did not draw it. He shook out his shoulders and flexed his arms. If he could grab hold of the guard's throat, they might be able to do this fairly quietly.
The light brightened as the small procession rounded the corner onto their street. Casey stiffened beside him, and Daniel put a warning hand on Casey's arm.
Wait. They were too far away.
But oh, he understood Casey's reaction. Fury sent boiling blood rushing through his veins, and he clenched his jaw to stop himself from snarling.
The guard, a shambling man of middle years clad in a worn leather jerkin and high boots, held his torch aloft in one hand. In the other, he carried a short pike with a nasty, sharpened tip. Ahead of him walked three boys, Olle and two young ones, naked save for bonds around wrists and ankles. They were bound together with heavy chains and moved carefully over the uneven ground, holding the long chains as high as possible. Even so, one of the younger boys stumbled, and only Olle's quick reflexes prevented him from sprawling headfirst.
The guard laughed again and poked at the young boy with his pike. The boy whimpered. Olle's expression was hidden by a shock of his uncombed hair and what Daniel hoped was dirt and not bruises, but the rigid set of his shoulders spoke eloquently of his anger.
Head high, he turned and murmured to the other boys, who clung to him, bodies shaking. They moved forward again, coming closer...
It was difficult to see because the front of Olle's body was in shadow, but his hands moved together, and the chains clanked softly. The boys were only a short distance, almost close enough for them to-
Olle moved, whipping around to face the guard as the two younger boys dropped to the ground. Metal gleamed in his hands as he swung a doubled length of chain once over his head.
The guard gaped at him.
On the second pass, Olle extended his arms and the end of the chain caught the guard on the side of his skull. It stove in with a soft, wet sound. The guard stared open-mouthed at Olle for a moment, then fell to his knees.
Daniel launched himself from their hiding place as Olle swung the chain again and sent the guard sprawling, the pike clattering to the ground, the torch guttering wildly as it lay on its side.
Daniel ran up to them and Olle turned with a snarl. The chain whirled dangerously, and Daniel stepped back, hands held up.
"Olle, it's us," he whispered. Could the child take in the fact that he was facing a friend, and not a foe? Or was he so crazed that he would attack anyone?
Casey appeared beside him, arms open wide. He spoke softly in his native tongue, his voice coaxing, cajoling. He took a step forward.
Chest heaving, chain still whirling, Olle looked from Daniel to Casey and back again. The chain slowed and stopped, falling to the ground with a clatter.
"Isä?" Olle's voice broke.
Casey rushed forward and wrapped his arms around his son. Daniel retrieved the torch, holding it high as he surveyed the scene.
"By the Holy Mother," Porusskov muttered, bending to lift one of the young boys to his feet. "The child is a warrior." He pulled a thin strip of metal from a pocket and beckoned Daniel over. "I must see in order to free them."
He unlocked the heavy iron bonds around the first boy's wrists and ankles, then turned to the other one, still crouched on the ground. With a gentleness surprising in one so large, he coaxed the boy to stand and freed him.
"And now you, my young warrior," he said to Olle.
Olle stepped away from Casey, holding out a shaking hand. "Thank you," he said, his voice as unsteady as his limbs. But his head was high, and he nodded regally.
Porusskov finished removing his bonds, then gathered up the chains. "We must dispose of these elsewhere."
"And the guard?" Daniel did not look at the limp form across the street.
Porusskov shrugged. "Leave him. There is nothing we can do about it now." He picked up one of the boys and settled him on his shoulders, parking the other on his hip. "We must go quickly."
Daniel handed the torch to Casey and carried the chains. By the Prophet, they were heavy. He glanced at Olle. It did not seem possible that one so young could wield such a deadly force. And how had he thought of using the chain as a weapon in the first place?
They moved as fast as possible, and at Porusskov's instructions, Daniel dumped the chains into a fetid pool a few streets away. He shouldered one of the boys, then, surprised at how little the child weighed.
Porusskov glanced at the brightening sky and quickened his pace. "It is not far, but we must hurry."
People were stirring as they darted down a few narrow streets, then rounded a high wall into a small, unkempt garden. Porusskov shouldered his way through a thick stand of bushes and squeezed through a gap in the wall. Casey and Olle followed, while Daniel and the other boy brought up the rear.
They entered another small garden, choked with untended fruit trees and shrubs gone wild. To Daniel's relief, their horses were waiting for them, tethered loosely to a scraggly tree. Two of the stable boys sat on a branch, swinging their legs and eating figs.
"What shall we do with the little ones?" Casey asked Porusskov, as he swung the child off his shoulders.
"They will go with us," Olle said, forestalling Porusskov. "I promised to take care of them." Hands on his hips, he faced his father defiantly.
"The boy is right," Porusskov said, nodding. "With the guard dead, Zheh-zheh will be looking for the children. They must go with you or they would be found and killed." He gestured to the boys on the branch. "Take off your shirts. The little ones need clothing."
"But-" Daniel began, eyeing the children with concern.
"There is no time," Porusskov warned. "We must get away from here." He took the shirts and pulled them on the children.
Olle was scrabbling through his pack. He had already put on his trousers, and tugged out a shirt. "We can't leave them to die," he snapped, thrusting his head into the shirt and fighting his way through the folds of cloth.
Porusskov glanced at the sky and hurried over to a fourth horse, a big-shouldered bay with a white blaze. "It is getting late. I'll take one child, the other can ride with you," he said, nodding at Daniel. He mounted the horse and held out his hands for the boy, who settled nimbly in his lap.
Once they were all mounted, one of the stable boys jumped off the branch and held aside part of a vine that scrambled over the wall. Porusskov urged his horse forward, through the curtain of hanging tendrils.
Daniel brought up the rear again, pushing aside the clinging runners as Zeina moved through the gap in the wall. The sky was a pearly grey as they emerged from the walls of the town onto a hillside covered with brambles, the last vestiges of night erased by the climbing sun.
Taking a deep breath, Daniel rolled his shoulders, the tension in his muscles easing. He turned and looked at Casey, who was staring, white-faced, at Porusskov.
Behind the big man were four or five others, mounted on massive horses, their broad hands wrapped around heavy bows, the tips of the arrows pointed at the three of them.
Porusskov met Daniel's eyes and smiled at them all. "I apologize, my
friends. But there has
been a change in your plans."
Daniel sighed and shifted in the saddle. His hands were tied to the pommel, his feet to the stirrups, and Zeina was tethered to one of their captors' big-boned horses. Olle and Casey rode in front of him, also bound, their horses tethered. The little ones were not bound, and rode with two of their captors.
The men had treated them surprisingly gently. After Casey and Daniel had been secured, one man approached Olle with the rope. He had shied and lunged for his knife, and Porusskov had barked out an order as the man raised his hand to cuff the boy. The man had shrugged and stepped back, twisting the rope in his hands. Olle had held his knife tightly in one hand, the reins in the other, his glance darting around the group. Zarifa snorted and shifted restlessly, ready to bolt.
"My fierce young warrior," Porusskov had said, his smile never wavering, "put down the knife. We are not one overconfident guard with a group of chained slaves. My orders are not to harm you unless you will not accompany us willingly."
They had all waited, scarcely daring to breathe, until Olle muttered something and lowered his knife. He had not looked at his father or Daniel since.
The sun was now high. Perspiration trickled down Daniel's back beneath his shirt and robe, itching between his shoulder blades, and he shifted again, trying to ease the saddle's chafing. They were traveling along a dry streambed, the horses picking their way carefully among the rocks and sand. The banks were lined with thick bushes and high enough that Daniel could not see the surrounding countryside.
Where were they going?
Daniel had tried to ask, but Porusskov only shook his head and told him he must wait. He allowed them brief rest stops, where they could have a quick drink and a piece of bread and relieve themselves under the watchful eyes of their guards. The young ones fell asleep during one break, and instead of waking them, the two men with whom they rode carefully lifted them onto the saddle and settled them as comfortably as possible.
Shadows lengthened as they rode, the sun's glare interrupted by the appearance of more and more trees, tall sentinels whose leafy arms seemed to welcome and embrace them. Daniel shook his head and blinked, trying to rouse himself from his exhausted stupor.
A shout came from the front of the caravan, and their horses' ears pricked. Porusskov urged his horse forward and disappeared around a thick clump of trees. The other horses increased their pace, and they followed Porusskov around the copse.
Daniel sat up straighter, his hands twisting in his bonds. A palisaded hamlet stood before them, roofs of buildings just visible above the wooden fortifications. He studied the close-set ranks of sharpened logs intently and snorted. He had never seen wood used in such a wasteful manner. He looked over his shoulder at the stand of trees, which was much larger than he had first realized. But then again, it seemed sensible. They seemed to have wood in abundance, so why not use the most readily available resource?
A hubbub had broken out at the gate, but they did not pause. Porusskov led them through the jabbering crowd, tossing out a word or two in response to what Daniel supposed were questions.
A startled cry from Casey drew Daniel's eyes to him. The villagers were crowded close around Salimeh, their fingers reverently brushing Casey's legs and feet, their mouths agape.
With what sounded like a curse, Porusskov drove them off, but they stepped back reluctantly. Porusskov jerked his head toward the largest building, a well-made structure of several stories, and they moved on quickly.
They stopped in the forecourt and the guards dismounted. The young ones were handed off to others and disappeared into the house. Porusskov said something to their guards and went inside, leaving the three of them still bound to their mounts under watchful eyes.
Voices raised in anger approached, and Daniel peered at the doorway. Surely it couldn't be...
He started as a familiar form emerged from the shadowed doorway.
"By the blood of our Savior," roared Ysak el-Yafe, "untie him and bring him inside!"
"El-Yafe Effendi," Casey began, looking as startled as Daniel felt, but he broke off as el-Yafe approached his horse and bowed.
"Herra Kyösti, my deepest apologies." El-Yafe beckoned to a guard and turned his head, looking at Daniel for the first time. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. It would have been comical in another time and place, but Daniel was not moved to laughter. "You... By all that is merciful, what are you doing here?"
"Later," Casey said, squaring his shoulders and looking down at el-Yafe. "We will answer your questions later. After you have answered ours."
El-Yafe's eyes darted over the others, stopping on Olle. "You found him," he said softly, his chest heaving in a sigh. "My lord, you found him."
The guards untied their bonds and helped them dismount. Daniel's knees were shaky, and he stumbled, unable to take his eyes from Casey and el-Yafe standing before him. Questions tumbled through his mind, so many that they stopped his mouth.
They were ushered into the house and down a long, dim corridor to a good-sized room. Comfortable chairs and tables filled it, and it was bright in the waning daylight from a cheerful fire and a dozen oil lamps.
El-Yafe bustled around, ordering the servants in an unfamiliar tongue, and settling Casey and Olle near the fire. When Daniel went to sit beside Casey, el-Yafe indicated a chair across the room. "There, el-Rydal Effendi. Please sit over-"
"No." Casey met el-Yafe's eyes and he slowly shook his head. "Daniel sits beside me."
El-Yafe looked as if he would protest Casey's statement, but after a brief hesitation, shrugged his shoulders. "Very well."
Porusskov sidled into the room and stood by the door, arms crossed over his chest. He stared at the floor, his ears pink, and looked for all the world like a schoolboy who had been publicly chastised. Daniel rubbed his sore wrists and could not find it in his heart to feel sympathy for the man.
El-Yafe waited until the servants brought in food and drink, and then dismissed most of them brusquely. A few hovered near the doorways, along with a dignified, elderly man. El-Yafe sat down and seemed to compose himself, then turned to Casey.
He spoke in a strange tongue, but Casey held up his hand and el-Yafe stopped.
"Speak so that Daniel may understand," Casey said, taking a drink of his wine and gingerly leaning back in his chair. Exhaustion was written plainly on his face.
"Why?" El-Yafe sounded startled.
"Because he has the right to know everything."
El-Yafe looked Daniel full in the face, his skepticism apparent. "Surely you can't mean..." His black eyes darted back to Casey.
Casey licked his lips and nodded. "Yes."
"But-" El-Yafe looked from Casey to Daniel and back again, his eyes bewildered. "Are you sure?"
Casey's face crimsoned, but he held el-Yafe's eyes. "I... I am almost certain." His fingers gripped the chair arm so tightly that his knuckles stood out palely against the dark wood.
Casey's words confused Daniel, but he wasn't sure he wanted an explanation. Not just yet. He did want to take Casey's hand and ease his tension. He remembered the warm and pliant Casey he had held in his arms that morning, and ached to be alone with him again.
El-Yafe muttered something that Daniel could not understand and rubbed his forehead. "Very well." He did not continue, however. He sat there, silent and still.
"Have you had news?" Casey asked softly.
El-Yafe looked up. "Yes. At Prince ben Ghaduin's court."
"The Prince? He regained his power so quickly?"
"Once the Prince's uncle heard that he was approaching, the uncle fled, and the Prince was eagerly received by his people."
Casey nodded. "Good."
Daniel sighed in relief. Aloise was safe, and N'tale. He breathed a quick prayer that the Prince's subjects would continue to support their ruler for many years to come, and then turned his attention back to el-Yafe.
"An emissary informed me that he had disturbing news from the north. As soon as I heard, I left in search of you. Thanks to Grigorii," el-Yafe nodded at Porusskov, "I was able to find you."
"That may be so." Casey gave Porusskov a cold look. "But was it necessary to take us captive and bind us to our horses? You could have simply told me-"
"I didn't know about him." Porusskov jerked his head toward Daniel. "Whether he could be trusted."
Daniel opened his mouth, but Casey glanced at him and shook his head. He closed it again.
"And the young one was ready to slit anyone's gizzard," he continued, giving Olle an admiring look. "We were in a hurry, and it seemed the easiest way."
"We will have words later." El-Yafe glared at Porusskov. He turned to Casey and leaned forward, his face grave. "But the news is bad. The Sachsen has lost patience with the Queen's prevarications and has massed his troops at the border."
The color drained from Casey's face. "Troops? So soon? But the treaty-"
"The treaty is dead," el-Yafe replied, his voice harsh. "He burned it before the Queen's negotiator and sent him back to her with the ashes smeared over his naked body."
Casey raised a shaking hand to his temple. "Then I do not have much time."
El-Yafe's eyes flickered over Daniel. "No. A month, perhaps. Two at most."
Daniel stared at Casey. A month or two? To do what? Prevent the Sachsen, whoever he was, from invading? Ridiculous. How could one man do that? It was impossible.
"Ilmarinen help me," Casey whispered.
"If what you suspect is true," el-Yafe said, "then you will both need our Savior's blessings, as well as Allah's and Ilmarinen's." He picked up a cup and drank deeply, then put it down and gestured toward Daniel. "What have you told him?"
"Nothing." Casey looked at Daniel, his eyes warm. "I did not wish to burden him unnecessarily."
"I am not a child who must be sheltered from the truth," Daniel said stiffly. "If I am somehow involved with this-"
El-Yafe laughed, the sound as brittle as dry grass. "Effendi, this is
one truth you will wish
you had never learned."
"That is enough!" Casey glared at el-Yafe. "I will speak to Daniel privately. And I will thank you not to make this more difficult for me than it already is."
"My apologies, Herra Kyösti." El-Yafe sounded sincere. "I am simply... It is difficult to contemplate the fulfillment of-"
"I, of all people, understand your difficulty," Casey interrupted, his face calm. Only a wash of color across his cheeks hinted at his emotions. "However, we are all exhausted, and there are a number of issues that must be dealt with before we retire."
Daniel stared at this regal, self-assured Casey. Yes, he had seen flashes of this man earlier, but facets of the dutiful, obedient slave had still been visible. Now he wondered how he could have missed seeing this side of Casey. How could the man have buried this part of himself so completely?
And yet... Daniel remembered the haughty, bewildered man he had first seen in the slave pen. He squeezed his eyes shut. By the Five, he had seen that part of Casey and had forced it into hiding by beatings and humiliation.
His face burned.
"First," Casey continued, "we must find a safe haven for the boys we brought with us."
"They are brothers," Olle said, reaching for another piece of bread. "I promised them I would not let them be sold."
El-Yafe started and raised his eyebrows. "Sold? What did-"
"My son went alone into the city late last night, despite Porusskov's warnings of the danger to unaccompanied children." Casey's voice was cold. "He was captured by a notorious whoremonger and would have been-"
"I allowed myself to be caught!" Olle pushed away his empty plate.
"-would have been sold this morning if not for-"
"But Isä! I brought down the guard and we would have-"
"Silence!" Casey looked at his son for the first time since they had entered the house. His eyes were narrowed, and hectic spots of color stained his cheeks. "Your reckless actions have brought shame upon our house and endangered all of us," he said quietly, his voice rigidly controlled, but Daniel could hear it catch as he spoke. "You would not have gone far, chained as you were, and then the slavers would have cut off your foot to prevent you from fleeing again. If Porusskov Effendi had not helped us, you would have been lost, for I cannot allow anyone, even you, my child, to jeopardize my mission any longer. Not now, not when the enemy is on our border. Far too much is at stake."
Daniel swallowed, his throat parched, despite the wine he sipped. This 'mission' had to do with the Sachsen and the Queen. In the name of Allah, what was Casey involved in?
"Your mission?" Olle whispered, wide-eyed. "I did not know."
"You were not told."
Casey's cold voice sounded almost inhuman.
Olle bit his lip and looked uncertainly at his father. "I... I'm sorry, Isä. I only wanted to show you-"
Daniel leaned forward and rested his hand on Casey's rigid arm. Olle stared at the floor, his face pink. He was blinking furiously, and a single drop fell onto his clasped hands.
"That is immaterial-" Casey began.
"Casey," Daniel murmured. When Casey fell silent, he continued. "The boy wanted to prove himself. Perhaps he chose the wrong method, but he could not know that the stakes were so high."
Casey slowly turned his head and looked at Daniel, his face a mask, his arm tense beneath Daniel's fingers. Daniel met his eyes warily. Would this new Casey lash out at him for interfering? Banish him from his side? Or would he acknowledge his words as those of an equal?
Slowly the taut muscles relaxed and Casey inclined his head. "You are right, Daniel."
Relief flooded through Daniel, weakening his limbs. His hand shook as Casey covered it with his own. "He is a brave child," Daniel said, his voice thick. "If I had been given a child such as yours, I would be proud to call him my son."
Casey's mouth twisted as if in pain, and he squeezed Daniel's hand gently. "Olle," he said, releasing Daniel's fingers and turning to the boy. He held out his hand, and Olle jumped up and rushed to Casey, kneeling at his feet. He looked so very young as he hugged his father's knees.
Taking a shaky breath, Casey rested his hand on Olle's bright hair. "I am not your grandfather, Olle. You do not have to prove yourself to me. I am proud of you. I will always be proud of you. Do you understand me?"
Olle stifled a sob against Casey's legs and nodded.
"Good." Casey closed his eyes for a moment, still stroking Olle's hair. He looked exhausted.
"The boys, Herra?" El-Yafe said quietly.
Casey opened his eyes. "I have not forgotten them. Do they have names?" he asked Olle.
Olle looked up at his father. "The elder is called Kolya, and the younger Vanya."
El-Yafe started and looked at Porusskov. "Russki? Do the slavers reach so far?"
Porusskov shook his head. "No. But there have been families that emigrate to the city and need money. It is not unknown for them to sell the youngest." His voice was harsh. "I would offer them a place with me, but they cannot return. The guard was killed, and they will be blamed."
El-Yafe's eyes flickered toward Olle. "Very well. I am sure we can find a suitable place for them here."
"I also promised them they would not be separated," Olle whispered.
Pressing his lips together, his eyes twinkling, el-Yafe turned toward the dignified older man who stood in the corner. "Nizam, is this possible?"
The man stroked his beard and looked thoughtful. "Yes," he said after a moment. "Yes. Tulin and Kemal lost their youngest this past winter. They would welcome the boys with open arms and treat them kindly."
"Very well." Casey nodded. "Will that do?" he asked Olle.
The boy nodded.
"Then off to bed with you," Casey said, giving Olle's hair a final stroke.
"Isä, Kolya and Vanya will be frightened," he said as he scrambled to his feet. "May I stay with them tonight?"
"Yes. And you may tell them what has been decided."
Olle hesitated, his face grave. Then he folded his hands together in front of his chest and bowed low.
He spoke, and all Daniel could understand were the words "Ilmarinen" and "Isä." But it sounded like a blessing, and Casey held up his hands, palm out, and responded in kind.
One of the servants led Olle out.
Daniel stifled a yawn, and Casey slumped in his chair. El-Yafe frowned at him.
"Herra Kyösti, you must rest."
"Soon." Casey lifted his chin and squared his shoulders, turning toward Porusskov. "First I must thank you, Porusskov Effendi, for your help in rescuing my son. That must offset the way in which you conveyed us here," he continued drily.
Porusskov ducked his head in embarrassment. "If I had known that you two..." He glanced at Daniel and blushed. "Although I should have suspected it this morning-"
El-Yafe coughed gently, and Porusskov's mouth snapped shut. His blush deepened, and he crossed his arms over his chest.
Daniel covered his mouth with his hand, trying to hide another yawn, but Casey saw it and stood. "We will continue this in the morning," he said to el-Yafe. "I cannot speak sensibly any more tonight."
"I have given you the best bedroom." El-Yafe's eyes flickered over Daniel. "It has a very large and comfortable bed."
"Thank you." Casey held out his hand to Daniel. "Will you come with me?"
Acutely aware that he was the object of everyone's attention, Daniel rose. "Yes," he said quietly but firmly. He gathered his dignity around him like a cloak. An el-Rydal did not become disconcerted by the speculations of the infidels.
But he did not take Casey's hand.
They followed a servant up a flight of stairs to a handsome chamber at the back of the house. Daniel's eyebrows rose at the sight of the bed. It was enormous. Four ornately carved poles supported a canopy over the bed, and heavy curtains hung to the floor.
After the servant pointed out the facilities, Casey dismissed him. As soon as the door closed behind him, Casey turned to Daniel.
"Sit down and be comfortable, Daniel. We must talk."
Daniel silently walked to a chair in the far corner and sat, welcoming the shadows that embraced him. The servant had placed the lamp by the bed, and the golden light burnished Casey's hair and skin and spilled over the fine bed linen.
He was so tired. Exhaustion tugged at his limbs and made his eyelids droop. He struggled to clear his muzzy mind; he must listen to Casey. He must hear what he had to say and respond intelligently.
And if Daniel's suspicions were correct, he must part from Casey forever.
Casey took a step toward Daniel, checked himself, and sighed.
"There is so much to tell you." Casey's shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes and squeezed the bridge of his nose. "I honestly don't know where to begin."
Daniel shifted in the chair, a knot of worry forming in his chest. Casey looked as if he could barely stand upright. The most sensible course of action at this point would be to focus on the essentials, and leave the details until the morning, no matter how much he wanted to know everything.
Daniel stretched out his legs and leaned back. He was an el-Rydal. He would remain composed, regardless of what Casey had to say. "Who is the Sachsen, and why is he threatening the Queen?" Startled, Casey looked at him blankly for a moment before nodding. "Of course. The Sachsen is the leader of a tribe that swept down from the far north ten years ago."
Despite the gravity of the situation, Daniel's lips twitched in amusement at Casey's lecturing tone. "I have heard something of their raids."
"Raids is too mild a term," Casey replied drily. "Not a blade of grass nor a single living creature survived their onslaught. The old King and his six sons, Ilmarinen bless their names, did not wait for the S'behsays to cross our border. They gathered their troops and met them in pitched battle. The Sachsen was killed, but the losses on both sides were so great that, rather than continue fighting, the King proposed a treaty to Lutor, the Sachsen's eldest son."
Daniel nodded. He had heard of a treaty being forged between barbarians, but had paid little attention at the time. Why should he? Apart from the occasional border incursion or foray, there had been little contact between their peoples. But that had changed with the recent attack at Dar Es Salla, where Casey had been captured. Daniel opened his mouth to ask about the attack, then closed it again. No. He must take this in order.
"So the Sachsen accepted the treaty."
"Why would he wish to break it now?"
"I don't know." Casey shrugged. "Perhaps he has rebuilt his troops' strength and believes he can triumph over the Queen's forces."
"If the King had six sons, why is there a Queen on the throne?"
Casey turned abruptly and sat heavily on the bed. Its creak sounded loud in the stillness. "Because the King and his sons never returned from the battle," he finally said, his voice raw.
Daniel sat up. "Why? What happened?"
"We..." He swallowed hard. "We don't know. The guards that accompanied them were discovered in a narrow pass in the mountains, all dead, all mauled by what looked like wild animals. But of the King and his sons there was no trace."
Casey shook his head. "Not there. There was no room. Sheer mountain walls on one side, and a precipitous drop on the other. The troops traveling before and after them swore that no one had passed."
"Then what could it have been?" The skin between Daniel's shoulder blades prickled. "Sorcery..."
Casey's eyes glittered in the lamplight and he made a quick gesture with his hand. "I have long suspected so," he murmured. "But have no proof. And the Queen will not listen..." He propped his elbows on his knees and rested his head in his hands.
Ah. Daniel had many more questions about the Sachsen, but he could not ignore this opening.
"And your mission?"
Casey sighed and raised his head. "To help my Queen and my people."
Daniel snorted, ignoring Casey's glare. "Don't lie to me, Casey. I am tired, not stupid."
"I am not lying to you." Casey stood and squared his shoulders, lifting his chin defiantly. "That is my mission."
"And how were you to achieve this?"
"There is a... legend," he murmured, looking at the wall over Daniel's shoulder. "A tale of one who will save the kingdom during a time of great peril."
Daniel stared at Casey, horrified. "And you are this savior?"
Casey's brows rose and he met Daniel's eyes. "No." He turned abruptly.
Daniel's stomach lurched. "Am-" His throat closed and he cleared it quickly. "Am I?"
Casey's shoulders hunched, but he shook his head. "No."
"Ah." Heaving a sigh of relief, Daniel rubbed his forehead. "Then what-"
"Somehow we- I must find this man and return with him," Casey said, his back still to Daniel. "You heard el-Yafe; my time is running out."
By the Five, it was an impossible task... Clasping his hands together, Daniel took a calming breath. No, not impossible. Very, very difficult, but not impossible.
"But you still have time. Now, what do you know of this savior?"
Casey turned slowly, his brow furrowed. "Very little. A hint here and there." He sighed and scrubbed his hand over his face. "That was why I was in Dar Es Salla before the fighting - I had heard of a book in the Prince's library that might prove useful." He glanced at Daniel and then lowered his head, his hand creeping up his arm to rest over the brand. The brand that Daniel had placed there.
Bile rose, bitter in the back of his throat. Daniel swallowed hard. "And was it useful?"
"Will you tell me?"
Casey raised his head. The thin skin beneath his eyes looked bruised, and there were shadows in his eyes that were not from the flickering lamplight. "Yes. But it is not... easy for me."
"Sit down, then," he said, letting his concern color his voice. "You will do your mission no good by collapsing from exhaustion."
With a sigh, Casey sat on the edge of the bed. "All I have learned," he began, "is that he will be found by those who are not looking, as part of a household, yet not of the family."
"That's it? That's what you know?" Daniel stared at him. "It sounds like a riddle."
"But that's impossible. How can you even-"
"There is more." Casey looked away and his jaw tightened. "I cannot find him on my own."
Daniel sat back in his chair. "You need my help." It was not a question.
Casey bowed his head, his hair bright in the lamplight. "Yes."
Daniel hesitated a heartbeat, but he knew what was right. And what he wanted. "Then I give it freely."
"Don't." Casey turned and flung the word at him. "Don't give anything freely until you know what is being asked of you."
Slapping his hands on the chair arms, Daniel rose. "Then tell me!" He strode to the bed and loomed over Casey. "What is being asked of me?"
Casey closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, the heat in
his gaze burned deep into
Daniel. "To give yourself to me, heart, body and soul."
Daniel took a step back, reeling as if he had been struck. Surely he had heard wrong, had misunderstood. "You cannot mean-"
Casey nodded, a grim smile curving his lips. "Oh, but I do."
He rose and Daniel took another step back. He could not help himself. Trying to calm his racing heart, he stood his ground and met Casey's eyes. "I am here with you. Is that not enough?"
His throat as dry as the parched desert sands, Daniel stiffened his spine and threw his shoulders back. "It will have to be."
Casey's smile faded. "Then I will fail." He lifted his hand, running gentle fingers down Daniel's arm. "But I do not think that will be the case... my Daniel."
Daniel narrowed his eyes but could not suppress a shiver as Casey's fingers slid over his shoulder. "Don't." His voice was hoarse.
"Why not? Is this not what you wanted when you bought me?" Casey leaned close, his breath warm on Daniel's cheek. "Am I not allowed the same desires?"
"I freed you." It was barely a whisper.
Casey's hand crept to the back of his neck, caressing him gently. His other hand rested on Daniel's shoulder. "You returned that which was not yours to give."
"And you are taking that which is not yours to hold."
With a faint smile, Casey shook his head. "You are wrong, so very wrong. All of this has been prophesied." His fingers tightened, holding him firmly. "It was foretold from the day of my birth, when the holy one defied the guards and came to my mother's bedside. He laid his hands upon me and spoke the words of prophesy. I was kaksonen sielu, one of the twin souls who would save the kingdom in time of greatest peril."
Barely breathing, Daniel listened, Casey's hands warm on his skin.
"My father was a practical man, who did not heed the old ways. When he heard of this, he turned the holy one from the house. In his anger, he forbade it to be spoken of. But my mother told me when I was old enough to understand."
"But how do you know I am the other?" Daniel murmured. His hands shook, and he clenched them into fists. Heat and cold raced over his body, squeezing his muscles, freezing his joints, stealing his breath.
Casey pulled him closer. "Because of the rest of the prophecy. The holy one said I would lose myself and find myself at one and the same time, and my other half would be both my master and my slave." Casey laughed harshly. "Most of the prophecy has already occurred. All that remains is for you to become my slave."
"Yes." Casey's voice resonated with power, compelling and seductive. "We must become one, an unending circle, each fitted so tightly to the other that outsiders would not know where one ended and the other began."
Terror choked him and rooted him to the spot. He could not breathe; only shake his head over and over.
Casey brushed his lips over Daniel's cheek. "We are merely pawns in Ilmarinen's hands."
Their foreheads touched, and Daniel closed his eyes. He could not... and yet he must. May Allah be merciful...
Murmuring words that Daniel could not understand, Casey angled Daniel's head and kissed him.
He was aflame, scorched beyond life, branded by the heat of Casey's lips and tongue. Daniel moaned deep in his throat and raised shaking hands to Casey's shoulders. Control. He must regain control.
With a grunt, Casey held him tighter and refused to relinquish it. Daniel struggled for a moment, and then, dizzy from lack of air and the astonishing revelations whirling in his brain, opened his mouth wider and accepted Casey's kiss.
He had no idea how long it continued, but when Casey finally pulled away he stood, gasping, staring at the man he thought he knew. Casey placed a hand flat on his chest and pushed. He sat back on the bed, his hands going out behind him for support.
"I want you," Casey said, his voice low, commanding. "I want to be a part of you."
Daniel did not even have time to feel fear before Casey drew a ragged breath and his hands moved, fumbling at Daniel's groin. "I will not hurt you," he murmured as his fingers caressed Daniel's cock. "First I will bring you pleasure. So much pleasure-"
Daniel groaned and closed his eyes, his hips lifting to press his cock against Casey's warm fingers. Nightmare images flitted across the back of his eyelids, and yet... And yet Casey's mouth had replaced his fingers, soft lips and hot breath coaxing Daniel's cock to fullness. Daniel opened his eyes, staring at Casey's bright head.
He locked his elbows as Casey tugged his trousers down over his hips and thighs, trapping his legs. With a hungry moan that raised the hairs on the back of Daniel's neck, Casey wrapped his fingers around Daniel's cock and lowered his head, lips sliding tightly around Daniel's hardness.
Daniel cried out and surrendered to the shattering pleasure of Casey's mouth.
At some point his arms gave way, because when his vision cleared, all he could see was an expanse of whitewashed ceiling. He tried to raise his head, but the muscles of his neck were too weak to support the weight of his skull, and he let it flop back on the bed with a sigh.
Strong hands suddenly grasped his hips and rolled him onto his stomach, tugging him toward the edge of the bed until his legs were off the mattress.
He yelped and tried to slide to one side, but his legs were trapped by his lowered trousers and he could not gain a purchase. A hand landed on the small of his back, pressing him into the mattress.
Wet warmth blossomed on one ass cheek, then the other, and he shivered. Kisses. It was all right. He tried to push down the panic that knotted in his chest. It was Casey. He was just kissing him.
A slick finger poked between his cheeks and he tensed, throwing back his head and struggling to raise himself up on his quivering arms.
"Shhh. I will be gentle."
The finger continued to probe. Daniel cried out and squeezed his eyes shut as it breached him, slipping deep inside... Oh, Allah, please, no...
He shook as it slid smoothly in and out of his body, gasping when it twisted, setting his nerves afire. It did not hurt, not yet, and he moaned as sparks of pleasure raced along his bones.
His hands clenched the blanket and he gritted his teeth, repeating his litany. This was Casey. He will not hurt me. He promised to be gentle.
Then the finger was gone and he ached for a moment until heat and hardness pressed against him.
"No," he moaned as the pressure increased. "I can't..."
"Yes, you can." Casey's voice was soft, as were the hands that caressed his back and ass. "Bear down. That will make it easier."
He buried his face in the blanket and sobbed as he tried to do as Casey asked. His muscles suddenly yielded, allowing Casey inside, and he howled into the mattress as pain flooded through him. Muscles lax with pleasure were now rigid, agonized. His tears flowed, wetting the blanket. He couldn't, he had to get away, it hurt too much, it was like-
Gradually the pain ebbed, replaced with warmth. Casey was murmuring soft words, his hands tracing delicate patterns over Daniel's flanks.
Chest heaving, Daniel lifted his head and took a shuddering breath as Casey began to move. Warmth turned into heat, and Casey's thrusts grew harder and deeper. Daniel braced his arms as much as possible so that his tender cock didn't press into the mattress.
With a groan, Casey pushed and held himself deep inside Daniel, quivering as he came. He collapsed on Daniel's back for a moment, his harsh breaths loud in Daniel's ear.
Daniel shivered and tried to draw a breath.
It was done, and he had survived.
When Casey pulled free, Daniel stifled his grunt of discomfort. He did not open his eyes as Casey cleaned and undressed him, and following the urgings of Casey's hands, he obediently crawled under the blanket, rolling to his side facing the wall.
Casey spooned up behind him, wrapping warm arms around him.
Daniel waited until Casey's regular breathing signaled that he was asleep.
Then he allowed the
tears to come.
Daniel rolled over and sat up, wincing as his weight settled on his tender ass. His shoulders slumped as he remembered the previous night. He ached deep inside, as if he had been hollowed out and left empty. That had only been the beginning. It would happen again, and he would have to accept that.
He abruptly stood and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. An ewer of warm water stood on the washstand, and he quickly washed, dressing in the clean clothing that had been laid over a chair.
Following the sound of voices, he walked carefully down the stairs and opened a door that stood ajar. Casey and el-Yafe were bending over a large table, studying a map.
"Daniel." Casey straightened, holding out his hand, and gave him a brilliant smile.
Daniel briefly wondered if that was how he had looked after he had taken Casey for the first time.
He entered, ignoring Casey's hand. After a moment, Casey's smile faded and he dropped his arm.
"We have been studying what maps we can find," he said, turning back to the table. There was a hint of chill in his voice. "El-Yafe Effendi has asked to accompany us to Ashtok. I have told him he would be welcome."
Daniel nodded, although it was obvious that his opinion was not being sought. He stepped closer to the table, craning his neck. Casey did not look up, but he moved to one side so that Daniel could see. Daniel's throat tightened unexpectedly and he stared at the map, willing himself to breathe easy.
It was a large map, nearly covering the entire table. The writing was unfamiliar - large, clumsy characters like those Daniel had seen in the book in the monastery's library. Below that, however, he was relieved to see familiar names.
"This is where the village is located." El-Yafe's dark finger pointed to a blank spot not far from Amarta. "And here is Ay Astokha." His finger moved to the north and west.
"How long will it take to travel there?" Daniel asked.
"Two or three days." El-Yafe looked at Daniel, eyes bright with speculation.
Daniel's eyes dropped, and he stared blindly at the map. By the Five, el-Yafe knew what Casey did to him last night. In an instant his face was scalding, and the room was far too warm. El-Yafe knew that Casey had pulled down his trousers and spread his ass cheeks wide and plunged deep inside him...
"Daniel?" Cool fingers stroked his face, and he lifted his eyes, meeting Casey's concerned gaze. "Are you... well?"
He nodded, not trusting his voice.
Casey hesitated, a tiny furrow appearing between his brows. "I have ordered breakfast," he finally said. "You will feel better once you have eaten."
"I-" Daniel cleared his throat. "I am certain I will." He turned back to the map, glad of an excuse to look away from Casey. The northern border of the prince's lands was indicated by a series of dashed lines, and north of that was drawn a series of interconnected roads and towns. His finger traced a road that meandered through a valley, villages strung upon it like beads on a necklace. "Where does the Queen live?"
Casey leaned across the table, pointing to a large town in the far northwest. "There. Rokkaniemi." There was more than a hint of wistfulness in his voice. "That is where we are headed."
Daniel glanced at him, then looked back at the map. "Then why are we going to Ay Astokha? It would be faster to-"
"Because I arranged to meet my men there." Casey spoke matter-of-factly.
"Retainers, guards, those who have helped protect my family for generations." Casey lifted his eyebrows. "I may not be a warrior, but I was not foolish enough to venture across the border without my men to protect me and my family." A spasm crossed his face, but it was quickly suppressed. "When Dar Es Salla was attacked, we were caught in the fighting. Several were killed, and the rest captured. Before I was-" His throat worked convulsively. "Before I was sold, we agreed that we would try to escape and meet at Ashtok. I promised to wait for them there."
Daniel shook his head. This was madness. "Then you will wait in vain. They cannot simply walk away..." His eyes met Casey's, and the words died on his lips. Would Casey have tried to escape if he had not freed him? Daniel did not want to examine this line of thought too closely, for he suspected that the answer would not please him.
"We shall see," was all Casey replied before the servants brought in their breakfast and the table had to be cleared.
When they sat down, Daniel found that his appetite had returned, and he was grateful for the plain, wholesome food. Olle appeared and took his place beside Casey, informing them that he had settled Kolya and Vanya with their new family.
"When are we to leave?" he asked around a mouthful of cheese.
"Tomorrow morning." Casey looked over at el-Yafe. "You will be ready to go then?"
He nodded. "I am at your disposal, Herra."
Casey bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Very well." He turned to Daniel, sitting on his left, and rested a hand on his shoulder. "I have a number of matters to attend to today, but I think it would be beneficial for you to begin learning our language."
"Why?" Daniel shrugged off Casey's hand and lifted his chin. "You and the boy can translate for me-"
"And if we are separated or injured, and cannot speak or understand?" Casey shook his head. "No, Daniel. I learned your language. Now you must learn mine."
"But I am no scholar!" It was absurd for him to learn that barbaric tongue.
"Effendi." El-Yafe's voice was quiet, reasonable. "As a traveler through these many lands, I know that the possession of even a few words can mean the difference between life and death. It is not necessary for you to master the language, but to understand and speak common, everyday terms is essential for your safety and that of your companions."
Daniel stared down at his bread, his fisted hand on the table beside him. El-Yafe spoke sense, but... His stomach twisted and he swallowed hard, grimacing at the taste of bile in his mouth.
He was an el-Rydal, damn it all! This was not his station, not that for which he had been prepared.
He shifted on the hard bench and winced. Another reminder of how low he had fallen. Allah had abandoned him, left him to die amidst the infidels and barbarians.
A hand rested on his fist, cool fingers coaxing his to relax. He raised his head and looked at Casey, who ventured a tentative smile.
"You will not find it difficult after the complexities of your own tongue," he said softly. "And I will tutor you whenever possible."
Daniel sighed. "I take it that Olle will be my teacher today."
"I will teach you well," Olle said, picking up another piece of bread.
With a shrug, Daniel turned back to his breakfast. He had his doubts
Daniel shaded his eyes with his hand and stood in his saddle. Ay Astokha lay before them, its heavy wooden palisades rising abruptly from the rolling fields. High peaked roofs peered over the top of the palisade, and the river that had been their guide for the last half day, widened into a lake.
The sun was resting on the topmost branches of the trees that grew thickly to the west. They had made good time as el-Yafe had predicted, reaching Ay Astokha in two long days.
El-Yafe and Casey rode before, talking quietly. El-Yafe had deferred to Casey in almost every way, only questioning Casey's decisions when he felt Casey did not have all the necessary facts at his disposal. He had been unfailingly polite to Daniel, as well; he could not be faulted there. But something was not quite right...
El-Yafe turned and looked at Daniel, who sat down abruptly.
"It is not beautiful?" el-Yafe said, gesturing expansively at the sight before them. His face looked drawn and tired. Of course, he was an old man, and they had set a grueling pace.
With a nod, Daniel urged Zeina forward. The skin between his shoulder blades prickled, and he tried to respond casually. "It's an excellent place for a town. Easily defensible, with water access."
Casey chuckled. "I believe el-Yafe Effendi was speaking more of its aesthetics." He looked out over the scene and sighed. "It reminds me of home."
Daniel looked at the town again. No. With its wooden walls, steep pitched roofs, heavy forest, and broad lake, it looked nothing like his home. A pang of homesickness caught in his chest and he turned away, watching Olle as he joined them.
"Do you think they will be there already?" Olle asked.
It was a question that had been discussed more than once over the past two days. Casey had simply shrugged in response.
"It could be a long journey for many of them," el-Yafe said, "depending on where they were sold."
Olle nodded, tight-lipped, and carefully did not look at Daniel.
Casey glanced at the sun. "We will find out soon. But we must hurry. We don't want to be outside the gates when they're closed at sundown."
They were within the walls in less than an hour, following el-Yafe through the narrow streets to an inn that he recommended.
"Years ago Kalevi had been one of the Queen's subjects, Herra Kyösti," he said as they picked their way through the busy streets. "When he was a youth, he had a disagreement with a moneylender and fled to Ashtok, where he eventually made a sufficient fortune to buy this inn."
Casey nodded. "You believe that when they arrive, my men will hear that he was once a subject of the Ville-Veikko and will seek him out?"
El-Yafe smiled. "Indeed."
Kalevi met them in the courtyard, a lanky man with a thatch of graying hair. He greeted el-Yafe with a cry of welcome and a hearty embrace, but when his eyes lit upon Casey, his smile faded.
"Herra Kyösti Makalleinin," el-Yafe murmured, "his son, Herra Olle, and his companion, el-Rydal Effendi."
Eyes wide, Kalevi drew himself up stiffly and then bowed low. He spoke briefly, and Daniel thought he recognized the words "my house," but little else. Olle had been a surprisingly good tutor, but they had had not time to progress further than basic vocabulary.
Casey acknowledged the bow with a regal nod. "El-Yafe Effendi has spoken well of you. My... companion is unfamiliar with our tongue, and I would wish you to speak so that he may understand."
Daniel's face burned, and he was grateful that Casey did not look at him. The request was not meant as an insult, but Daniel vowed to spend the evening on language lessons with Olle. He would not be treated as some feeble-witted hanger-on.
"Of course, Herra." Kalevi's accent was thick, the slight sing-song cadence of Casey's and Olle's speech far more pronounced. He glanced at Daniel, eyes cold, and gestured them inside, bowing again as Casey passed.
He showed them into a cozy room, a fire burning cheerfully on the hearth. The smell of roasting meat made Daniel's mouth water; they had not stopped since dawn, contenting themselves with bread and cheese as they rode.
Kalevi drew a chair near the fire and motioned Casey to sit. He murmured something about supper and his best room, and then disappeared through a door in the back wall. Daniel found a seat by the window, ignoring Casey's gesture of invitation to a seat beside him.
"Well." With a shrug, Casey turned away and grinned at el-Yafe. "You do have an interesting variety of acquaintances."
El-Yafe settled himself with a suppressed groan and smiled. "I was able to do him a few small services over the years, but I do not think our reception is due to his sense of obligation."
Daniel didn't think so either.
A young girl hurried in, carrying a tray with cups and a dusty bottle. El-Yafe's eyebrows rose almost to his hairline, and he let out a soft sound of surprise. "By the Blessed One, we have been honoured," he said, as the girl set down the tray and, blushing, retired.
Kalevi passed her in the doorway, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. "Your rooms will be ready shortly." He pulled a small knife from his trouser pocket and set to work on the stopper. "In the meantime, I hope you will honour my humble establishment by trying a bottle of my finest."
The wine was the best Daniel had ever tasted, and Casey murmured appreciative words after his first sip. El-Yafe closed his eyes and drank slowly. Now that he was at rest, he seemed almost frail.
"I will put the remainder aside to accompany your supper," Kalevi said, when they had finished their cups. "And now, if you would like to see your rooms..."
The room that Kalevi indicated was for Casey was obviously his best room. Daniel wouldn't have been surprised to learn that it was Kalevi's own.
"You and your son will be very comfortable here," Kalevi said, laying a proprietary hand on the bedstead. "I can have a cot brought up if you prefer-"
"Thank you, but el-Rydal Effendi will be sharing my room," Casey said coolly.
With a frown at Daniel, Kalevi opened his mouth as if to protest. El-Yafe stepped up to him, murmuring into his ear. Kalevi's mouth snapped shut, and he blinked, turning startled eyes from Casey to Daniel and back again.
Heat blossomed in Daniel's face, and he turned toward the window, staring into the deepening twilight. Perhaps he should paint a sign which read "Herra Kyösti's catamite" and wear it around his neck. It would certainly save time.
Kalevi cleared his throat, the noise loud in the stillness. "Then, if el-Yafe Effendi and Herra Olle would be agreeable to sharing my second-best room..."
The door closed, and Daniel leaned forward until his forehead rested on the cool glass.
"It is difficult for you. I'm sorry." Casey's voice was barely a whisper.
Daniel shrugged and closed his eyes. "It is nothing to what you endured."
Warm arms wrapped around his chest, and he shivered as Casey nuzzled the nape of his neck. "The circumstances are slightly different. I, at least, could blame it on the fact that I had been captured and enslaved. You must do this of your own free will."
Daniel chuckled to himself. Free will. What an absurdity. He had no more free will than a dog where Casey was concerned.
"Would you like to wash before we go to supper?" he said as Casey kissed his neck and the soft skin behind his ears. His cock filled, and he gritted his teeth.
Casey pulled away.
"Daniel, look at me." It was not a request.
With a sigh, Daniel turned and crossed his arms over his chest, meeting Casey's eyes defiantly.
Lips quirked, Casey met his gaze. "You can be such a fool at times, Master."
The word struck him like a blow, and his eyes fell. Damn him. Damn him to the seven hells for throwing that in his face. He stiffened as Casey stepped close, his hands cupping Daniel's shoulders.
"Don't you realize that I am as much yours as you are mine?"
Before he could reply, there was a loud knock on the door. "Herra Kyösti?" Kalevi called. "We are going down to supper."
Casey heaved a sigh and squeezed Daniel's shoulders. "Very well." He released Daniel and turned away.
The warmth of his hands lingered, and Daniel took a shaky breath before following him back to the main room.
Their supper was as good as the wine had foretold, although many of the dishes were strange to Daniel, and before long they were yawning over their empty cups. Casey had told Kalevi about his men. The innkeeper had said that none had come to him searching for Casey, but promised to discreetly spread word around the town that there were Ville-Veikko staying with him.
With that, they had to be content for the moment.
Yawning hugely and stumbling a little from the wine, el-Yafe allowed Olle to help him to their room. Daniel started after them, while Casey lingered to thank Kalevi again.
Daniel had stripped off and was washing when Casey entered. "It will be good to stay here for a few days," Casey said, stripping off his shirt and sitting down to pull off his boots.
Daniel made a noncommittal noise and dried his face. He turned to Casey, who stared at him, eyes dark.
"I want you, Daniel," he whispered, his hand sliding up his thigh and pressing against his trapped cock. "I want to be inside you."
His throat suddenly parched, Daniel swallowed hard. Please, no. He had dreaded this moment, flashes of memory causing his breath to catch and sweat to dampen his skin. Casey had not taken him since that first night, and Daniel had prayed that it would not happen again.
Allah had decreed otherwise.
"Come here," Casey said, spreading his knees and opening his arms. "I want to taste you first."
Daniel crossed his arms over his chest and stepped forward, his heavy cock swaying before him. He gasped when Casey kissed the moist tip, mouthing the end until it glistened. Casey's hands stroked the backs of his thighs, gliding up to cup his ass, squeezing gently.
He could not help himself, he had to touch Casey's face and hair, run his thumb along those straight brows and over the rise of cheekbones.
Fingers crept between his ass cheeks, and Daniel gasped again as they were pulled apart, cool air meeting moist heat. At the same moment, Casey opened his mouth wide and Daniel's cock slid inside.
He groaned, pumping shallowly, shivering as fingers brushed over his hole and then away. Looking down, the sight of Casey, lips red and stretched around his cock, was his undoing. Daniel choked back a cry and thrust deep, spending himself quickly.
Casey waited until his cock stopped pulsing, then pulled away with a moist sound. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and rose, guiding Daniel face down onto the bed.
Daniel floated in a warm haze, his pounding heart and rasping breath slowing as Casey urged his legs apart. He squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his fists in the blanket as Casey spread unguent on him. When a finger slid inside him, though, he lifted his head and cried out.
"Shhh." The finger twisted and he shivered. "Let me in, Daniel."
It was Casey. His Casey. He must remember that.
But, oh, it was more than he could bear.
More unguent, more fingers, more whispered words. Daniel raised himself onto his elbows. If he could only see Casey, make sure it was him...
"Let me turn over," he said, his voice harsh with fear and arousal. "Let me see you..."
The fingers disappeared, and strong hands helped him roll onto his back, lifting his legs up to rest against Casey's - yes, it was Casey - chest.
He did not close his eyes, did not take them from Casey's face as the heat of Casey's cock nudged his hole. He took a deep, shuddering breath and bore down, grunting as Casey slid inside.
By the Five, the pain was unbearable.
Casey's mouth opened and his eyes closed, his head tilting back. He thrust gently, and Daniel swallowed his cry of pain, waiting, waiting for it to mellow into warmth.
When the pain finally faded enough for him to take a deep breath, Daniel shifted his hips. Casey grunted and thrust, holding onto Daniel's ankles with bruising force.
Another shift and Daniel suddenly gasped, this time with pleasure. Casey thrust again and Daniel gasped with another flood of nerve-scraping pleasure.
Casey pounded into him again and again, until Daniel's cock was hard and his eyes were watering from the effort to keep them open, keep them focused on Casey's face.
With a strangled shout, Casey drove into Daniel so hard that his hips lifted off the bed. Casey sobbed as he came, filling Daniel with warmth. Releasing Daniel's ankles, he collapsed onto Daniel's chest, his stomach pressing against Daniel's hard cock. It was just enough pressure to drive Daniel over the edge, and he groaned, coming over his belly.
They rested for a few minutes. Daniel shivered when Casey's cock softened and slipped from his body, suddenly aware of how damp and sore he was. He pushed at Casey, who mumbled something and raised himself on shaky arms.
Struggling to his feet, Casey stumbled. Daniel had to chuckle at the sight of Casey, hair coming loose from his braid, belly sticky with Daniel's ejaculate, and trousers around his knees.
Casey gave him a wry grin and threw a wet cloth at him.
They cleaned up in comfortable silence. When he was clean and dry, Casey sat on the bed and stroked Daniel's hair.
"What happened?" he said gently.
"What do you mean?" Daniel stretched and rolled onto his side. It really was a comfortable bed.
"Who hurt you?"
In a heartbeat his throat closed and every muscle in his body tightened. Rolling away from Casey, he closed his eyes and tried to control his ragged breathing.
He flinched as the hand rested on his arm, and it was quickly removed. All he could hear was the pounding of his heart and the rasp of his breath. The bed dipped as Casey slid under the blanket, but he did not try to touch Daniel again.
It is as my father said: I am cursed in the sight of Allah.
He made no sound as his tears dampened the pillow.
He dreamed that night, of huge amorphous shapes that hovered menacingly at the edge of his sight. They did not approach, nor did they retreat. They just... watched.
Daniel woke, tangled in the blankets.
He lay blinking at the ceiling for a few moments, until his pounding heart slowed and he could take a deep breath. A small sound drew his attention and he turned onto his side.
Casey lay on his stomach, fast asleep. A faint frown twisted his mouth, and his hands were fisted on the sheets.
Daniel reached out and gently pushed the hair from his face, looping it back over one ear. Casey murmured and the frown faded, replaced by a sleepy smile. His hands relaxed, long fingers slowly stroking the sheets. Sleep stripped him of his cares and responsibilities, and he looked scarcely older than Olle.
Daniel let his fingers trace the thick braid that lay over Casey's shoulder. By the Five, he loved this man and would be with him, regardless of the sacrifices required.
Leaning over, he brushed his lips over Casey's temple. That elicited a murmur of encouragement and a shiver, so he did it again.
Casey sighed and his smile broadened, but his eyes remained closed.
Daniel kissed the closest shoulder, which earned a wiggle of blanket-covered hips. Taking that as a sign of approval, he continued to bestow kisses down Casey's back, inching the blanket down, revealing warm, sleep-soft skin in tantalizing increments.
He hesitated when he reached the small of Casey's back, but a soft grunt and another wiggle indicated Casey's desires. Which so completely coincided with Daniel's.
Sitting up to relieve the pressure on his erection, Daniel pulled the blanket down to the very top of Casey's thighs. Casey shifted his hips, tightening his ass and then spreading his legs in a blatant invitation.
Daniel did not need to be asked twice.
Mouth first, lips and tongue and teeth, gently to begin with, then harder. Sucking, scraping, soothing, the undercurrent of Casey's breathy moans and whimpers urging him on. With a final nip, he sat back and eyed the marks he left on that pale skin with satisfaction before spreading Casey wide and spitting him with his tongue.
His face buried in the mattress, Casey howled.
Daniel set a relentless pace, his fingers gripping Casey's cheeks so tightly that he briefly wondered if he would be able to let go. Casey bucked and squirmed and jerked as Daniel licked and chewed and thrust his tongue deep inside him.
With a final kiss, Daniel sat back breathlessly and stroked his aching cock.
"Don't leave me like this, damn you." Casey was panting so hard that the words were almost unintelligible. He shot Daniel a desperate look and raised his reddened ass, spreading his legs to display his moist, swollen hole. "Do it."
Daniel grabbed the jar of unguent and coated his cock, his hand shaking. He leaned forward, centering himself on Casey and pushed home with a gasp and a prayer.
He wanted to set a slow, easy pace, but Casey would have none of it. No, Casey braced himself on hands and knees and rocked back, swallowing Daniel's cock to the root. Daniel bit his lip to stifle his cry and then followed Casey's lead.
It was bliss. Heaven. The Paradise that was promised to all true Believers. He did not need death and Allah to bring him that - it was here, with Casey.
Daniel squeezed his eyes shut and disregarded his blasphemy. He was here, now, with the man he loved. Whatever would be was beyond his control.
Casey murmured his name and he shook off his thoughts. This was not the time or place for them. Rocking into Casey's warmth, he spread Casey's ass again and thrust deeper until, with a keening cry, Casey orgasmed. His jerks and gasps were enough to trigger Daniel's, and he came inside Casey with a groan.
They sprawled on the bed, limbs tangled, skin clinging damply to skin, until Daniel's cock slipped from Casey's body. Casey shuddered and Daniel rolled off, surprised when Casey quickly turned and gathered him in his arms.
His eyes held Daniel's as his fingers trailed down Daniel's back and over his ass. Daniel gulped but did not look away as Casey stroked between his cheeks. He could not break his gaze - those brown eyes held him as firmly as a snake charmer held those of the snake. Casey's fingers moved, insistent, unrelenting, breaching his defenses as easily as water flowing over a stone. He wanted to look away, desperately wanted to break the cord of communication that stretched between them. Casey could see inside him, could read his thoughts, his desires, ferret out those secrets buried in shadowed corners...
With a thoughtful expression, Casey released Daniel and looked away.
Daniel took a shaky breath and ran his hand over his face.
El-Yafe insisted that they all visit the market to purchase heavier clothing.
"Summer ends sooner in the northern climes," he said, finishing the last of his breakfast. "And we will all need heavy cloaks and stout boots."
Daniel did not object. The town might prove interesting, and, as to the conditions of the northern climes, he had no first-hand knowledge of them and was willing to take el-Yafe's word on the subject.
They spent the day going from stall to stall in the market and wandering the narrow streets. El-Yafe assumed the role of majordomo, loudly commenting on the quality of the goods and the state of the town to Herra Kyösti, Herra Olle, and el-Rydal Effendi. The first time he used Casey's formal name, Daniel shot him a look, but he only winked and murmured, "Do not fear."
They sent their purchases back to the inn with a servant, and el-Yafe led them to the docks on the lakefront. They watched several small ships being loaded and unloaded with a variety of goods, while el-Yafe spoke quietly with a small knot of men.
He gave them a pleased smile after he left the men. "I have been inquiring about passage for my lord and his companion," he said, shading his eyes with his hand and looking out over the lake. The sun was low in the sky, burnishing the water. "Most of the ships will take on passengers for the journey downriver to the sea, but only one or two will allow them upstream."
Daniel frowned. "Why would we want to go upstream? We would be retracing our steps."
El-Yafe cocked an eyebrow at him. "You did not study the map. Two rivers empty into the lake. One is the river we followed here, the other leads back into the mountains, into Ville-Veikko lands."
"So you think we could shorten our journey by taking a boat?" Casey looked dubious.
Olle frowned and opened his mouth, then closed it.
El-Yafe shrugged. "Perhaps. It is good to look at all possibilities. And I was able to leave word that you are here, Herra Kyösti."
"Good." Casey nodded. "It will make it easier for any of my men to find me."
Daniel squinted out over the dazzling water. He was not certain he wanted Casey's men to find him. What would they make of Daniel, and his relationship with Casey? Did they know of the prophecy? Of Casey's mission? He closed his sun-blinded eyes. Rainbow-colored spots floated across the inside of his eyelids.
"Come." El-Yafe rubbed his face and sounded tired. "It is getting late, and I am ready for my supper."
They returned to the inn, where Kalevi had another delicious meal waiting for them. Casey turned the meal into a language lesson, naming dishes and ingredients, and Daniel had to smile at Casey's earnest pedantry as he repeated the tongue-twisting words.
They had finished and were sitting by the fire, when Kalevi appeared in the doorway.
"Herra, there are some men who wish..."
Before he could finish, a huge form pushed him aside and entered in a rush. Daniel was on his feet in a heartbeat, his knife in his hand.
"Herra! Herra Kyösti!"
The words stopped Daniel in his tracks, as did Casey's expression of astonishment and pleasure.
The big man, his voice choked, knelt at Casey's feet, bowing his head and clasping shaking hands before him. Two other men followed his lead; they were not as massive as the first, but each was burly and well-muscled.
Olle threw himself at the first man, shouting "Antti! Antti!" and clasping him around the neck.
The big man rumbled something in Olle's ear, and after giving him a quick hug, set the boy on his feet. He remained kneeling, but he looked up at Casey, devotion writ plainly on his face.
Eyes never leaving the men, Daniel stepped back, but he did not sheathe his knife. Not just yet.
Casey laid his hands on the man's fair head; Casey's tanned hands contrasted sharply with hair so pale as to be almost white. He bowed his head and spoke rapidly, rich, round cadences that filled the room. When he finished, Casey moved his hands to the man's shoulders and urged him to stand.
"Ilmarinen has blessed me," Casey said, rising and smiling into the man's rugged face. "He has returned you to me."
The man - Antti, if Daniel understood Olle's words - looked puzzled and spoke in what Daniel now recognized as Ugrian, Casey's native tongue.
"Wait." Casey held up a hand. "Introductions first, my friend, and then we shall talk." He turned to el-Yafe. "El-Yafe Effendi, who was instrumental in aiding us, and who has kept me abreast with the Queen's news." The men bowed low, and el-Yafe returned the obeisance.
Casey turned and walked over to stand at Daniel's side. "El-Rydal Effendi, my boon companion and friend." He rested his hand on Daniel's shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. "These are my men, loyal retainers of my family: Antti, Jouni, and Eerik."
The men bowed again, and Daniel followed suit, ostentatiously sheathing his knife first. Antti's icy blue eyes glittered, but he turned to the other men and barked out an order. They stationed themselves by the doorways, looming presences that made Daniel uneasy.
"Sit. Sit." Casey gestured to a chair. "How long have you been in Ashtok? Have you heard anything of the others? Have you eaten?"
Antti sat down and grinned. Olle moved beside him, and Antti wrapped an arm around his waist, pulling him close. "It is good to hear your voice, Herra, even if you are still always asking questions."
Daniel stiffened. That was no way for a servant to speak to his master. But Casey laughed before he could speak the rebuke on his lips.
"And yours, my friend." Casey gazed at Antti for a moment, then took a deep breath. "This is not the time for a detailed account of our journeys here, but tell me what you know of the others."
Antti's smile disappeared, and he shrugged. "Little enough. Esa was bou- was taken by a merchant, Pekka and Saku went to the mines, and Eerik, Jouni and I were sent to a large estate in the south. We waited one moon, and then slipped away without much trouble." He snorted and winked at Casey. "They had no more notion of security than a babe. We only waited that long because we wanted to speak the language better before we were on the road."
"I am sure you've minimized your difficulties," Casey said softly. "You can tell me all tomorrow. So you've been in Ashtok for a while?"
"Long enough to get jobs and blend in."
"Jobs?" Casey raised an eyebrow. "Doing what?"
Antti looked smug. "Jouni and Esa work down at the docks - they're the ones who heard of you today. I work for a blacksmith." He flexed the arm not wrapped around Olle, and muscles bulged. "Used to help out old Sami when I was a boy, and never lost the touch. We have a room near the market."
Casey shook his head, smiling broadly. "You never cease to amaze me, Antti. A smith, eh?" He sat back and looked fondly at his servant.
Daniel ground his teeth.
"And you, Herra, what of you?" Antti glanced at Daniel and then back to Casey. "And young Herra Olle, here." He gave the boy a playful shake.
Olle grinned at him, but Daniel's heart plummeted to the floor.
"It is quickly told." Casey's voice was calm, but Daniel could see the tension in his hands. "My master treated me well, and freed me. With el-Yafe Effendi's help, Daniel and I discovered that Olle was still alive and at the janissary school in Zaheira. We..."
"There are others at the school," Olle broke in. "Boys who were captured during the fighting. I promised-"
"Enough." Casey's voice cracked like a whip.
Olle's face flushed and he closed his mouth, but there was a stubborn look in his eyes that Daniel didn't like.
"The subject is closed," Casey continued quietly. "We left Zaheira after we found Olle and-"
"El-Rydal was Isä's master," Olle said, speaking so quickly that the words tumbled over each other. "He branded him and fucked him-"
Casey's hand landed on Olle's cheek with a resounding crack before Daniel had a chance to register the words. "You speak of things you know nothing about." Casey's voice shook, and his face was as flushed as Olle's. "You are a disgrace to our family. Now, go to your room and wait for me there. I will deal with you later."
A sob catching in his throat, Olle pulled free of Antti's clasp and walked to the door, gathering his tattered dignity around him like a cloak. Casey watched him leave, then turned to Antti.
"Was I such a trial to my father?" The pain in his voice made Daniel want to cross to him and gather Casey in his arms.
Antti looked at him solemnly. "Yes."
Casey bowed his head. "I remember."
Antti rose slowly. A muscle jumped in his jaw. "Herra Kyösti," he began, his voice harsh. "Is it true?"
Casey lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. "Yes." He met Antti's eyes.
The power of command cloaked him easily, fitting his broad shoulders as if he had been born to it. Daniel took a deep breath. Casey had been born to it. That much was obvious. It was as if the scales had fallen from his eyes, and he saw Casey as he truly was.
Antti's eyes fell, and his hands curled into fists. "How can you bear to look at him, much less have him by your side?" he rasped.
Casey stepped up to him and placed a hand on his arm. "You must understand one thing," he said, glancing at Eerik and Jouni. "All of you. Daniel and I are kaksonen sielu, and you must-"
"Impossible!" Antti stepped back, bringing up his arms in a warding gesture. "Not him - he is unclean, faithless and-" He pulled out his knife and turned to face Daniel.
Daniel's knife gleamed in his hand, and he kicked a stool out of his way to give him more room.
He would show this infidel how to fight like a man.
Snarling, Antti lunged forward, knife raised. Surprised by his quickness, Daniel twisted to the side just in time to miss the swipe of his blade, and Antti stumbled, catching himself on the table.
Daniel swung his arm before Antti could turn, aiming his knife at the center of that broad back.
His hand was suddenly engulfed in flames, licking up his fingers, curling around his wrist. Pain shot up his arm and burst into his brain. He screamed and dropped his knife.
The flames were gone.
He looked from his unburned hand to Antti, who was also cradling his knife hand, staring at it as if it were bewitched. Both knives lay on the floor. Daniel's stomach lurched.
He slowly turned. El-Yafe stood, his hands raised. The palms glowed for a heartbeat, then... El-Yafe lowered his arms and sat down again. It was as if nothing untoward had occurred.
Casey stood, staring at el-Yafe. After a moment he blinked, then nodded his head once.
"Casey?" Daniel coughed, and tried not to let his voice waver. "Casey, what has-"
Casey moved to el-Yafe, who was slumped in his chair. "You could not tell me earlier?"
"No." El-Yafe smoothed the front of his robes with shaking hands. "There is so little I can do, and I did not wish to provide false hopes."
"You have already been an immense help," Casey said, his voice soft. "And I am more grateful than you could possibly imagine."
Daniel and Antti spoke at the same time.
Casey bowed his head but did not turn. "Please explain it to them," he said to el-Yafe. "I must attend to my son."
Heart pounding in his chest, Daniel watched Casey walk from the room. Flee! his body screamed, but he locked his knees and clasped his hands behind his back, unwilling to show el-Yafe how they shook.
El-Yafe waited until the door closed behind Casey, then sighed. "Sit down," he snapped, gesturing to Daniel and Antti, "and try not to make this any more difficult than it already is."
"You're a sorcerer," Antti whispered, surreptitiously making a protective sign.
El-Yafe chuckled drily. "No. But I have certain abilities that can help your lord in his mission."
"You have-" Daniel swallowed. His throat was parched. "You have been helping him all along?"
"As much as I can, which admittedly is not as much help as he needed."
Antti growled and shifted in his chair, but subsided when el-Yafe gave him a steady look.
"It is vitally important," el-Yafe continued, "that our band is not fragmented by dissent. That is what the enemy is trying to foster, but we must prevent it and remain united in our support for Herra Kyösti."
"How can the enemy - the Sachsen - foster dissent within us? He is too far away... Unless there is one who is sympathetic to his cause..." Daniel stared at Antti.
"How dare you, you-" Antti half-rose, but el-Yafe coughed, and he sat again, muttering.
"A fair question," said el-Yafe. "The Sachsen has a sorcerer in his employ. A very powerful sorcerer; one who is able to influence people from a great distance."
"By the Five..." whispered Daniel, a chill trickling down his spine and lodging in his gut.
Antti mumbled a few words and made the gesture again.
Daniel ignored him. "Who has he influenced, and how?" Daniel asked. Did he influence me? he wanted to ask, but the words would not come.
"I do not know who," el-Yafe said, rubbing his forehead. The fine lines around his eyes deepened. "And you would not understand the how. He cannot force one to go against his will, but he can fuel an existing hatred and encourage a natural cruelty. He can also place doubts and fears that will fester and grow."
Guord. If the sorcerer had a hand in that horror, he would kill him with his own two hands. But there were more practical matters to discuss, first. "What can we do to prevent this?"
El-Yafe's eyes slid over him, and then away. "I have been able to shield you both from his direct attention. This does not prevent him from influencing others, but he cannot find either of you with his mind, and therefore cannot plant thoughts in your heads."
Suppressing a shudder, Daniel closed his eyes and uttered a silent prayer of thanks. He opened his eyes and bowed his head at el-Yafe. "Then we are greatly in your debt, Effendi. I do not know how we are to repay you."
El-Yafe waved a hand. "Finish the mission. Once the savior is found, the Sachsen and his sorcery will flee from certain defeat. That will be payment enough."
"But, Effendi," Antti said, glaring at Daniel. "How can this... this infidel be kaksonen sielu with my lord? It is... disgusting."
El-Yafe quelled Daniel's threatened outburst with a sharp glance. "Why is it disgusting? Because he is not Ugrian? Because he is your lord's former master? Because he is a man?"
Antti's color deepened as el-Yafe spoke. "All of them," he growled, giving Daniel a baleful look.
Raising his eyebrows, el-Yafe sat back. "Are you more holy than the gods, to tell your lord that his chosen companion is not worthy?"
"Perhaps the gods wish to set them apart," el-Yafe continued. "Perhaps it is necessary for them to hail from different kingdoms, for one to be enslaved, for them to both be men. Do you know the minds of the gods? Can you say why this is so?"
Bowing his head, Antti shook it once. "No, Effendi."
"Then do not judge them, my friend." El-Yafe leaned forward and held Antti's gaze, coffee brown eyes meeting ice blue. "Your lord will need all of your support, all of our support, to complete his mission. It will not be easy, but you must set aside your doubts and complaints, else the Sachsen will surely defeat us all."
Antti swallowed, the sound loud in the still room. "I would not be the cause of the Queen's defeat, Effendi."
"Then make your peace with el-Rydal Effendi." A smile flitted across el-Yafe's face. "His road is not an easy one, either."
They spoke the requisite words of peace, but Daniel did not suppose that Antti meant them any more than he did. It was enough to say them, however. Any quarrel they might have would have to wait.
"And now," said el-Yafe, rising, "I would like to retire." He turned to Antti, glancing at Jouni and Eerik. "You may attend me, and bid goodnight to Herra Kyösti and Herra Olle before you leave for the night."
They found them in el-Yafe and Olle's room. Olle stood, head bowed, and Casey turned to greet them with a nod.
"You have explained?" he asked, glancing at Daniel and Antti.
"Yes," said el-Yafe. He smiled and patted Casey's arm, then sat heavily on the bed. "And they have accepted. For the moment."
Casey frowned and then shrugged. "I should not expect more."
Daniel shifted uncomfortably, and Antti turned to Olle.
"And you," he said, ruffling the boy's hair, "must learn to hold your tongue and listen well to your elders and betters."
"Yes, Antti," murmured Olle, raising adoring eyes to the big man. "Isä also said that."
Casey snorted. "But now that Antti has confirmed it, it is so," he muttered under his breath. "Tell us how to find you tomorrow," he said aloud. "We have much to discuss and prepare before we leave."
Directions were quickly given, and the men paid their respects to Casey. Antti enfolded Casey in a huge bear hug and met Daniel's eyes, a smug smile blossoming on his face.
Daniel ground his teeth but remained silent. After all, he was the one who shared Casey's bed. And enjoyed his body.
"May I come with you?" Olle asked as they walked the men to the door. "I could sleep on the floor-"
Antti laughed and shook his head. "No, nuoriherra. You stay here. You would not be comfortable in our cramped quarters."
Goodnights were exchanged, and before long, Daniel and Casey closed the door of their room behind them.
Casey looked at Daniel for a moment, then pulled off his shirt. "Will you be able to work with Antti?"
"Yes." Daniel sat down and tugged off his boots.
"Are you certain?" Casey stood before him, hands on hips, chest bare. The bulge in his trousers drew Daniel's eyes.
"Do not worry. While the Queen is in danger, we will set aside our differences. Now come here." He grabbed Casey's hips and pulled him forward. "I don't wish to speak of him any more," he murmured, nuzzling his lips over Casey's erection.
Casey groaned and canted his hips forward. "Neither do I." He ran his fingers through Daniel's hair, loosening it from its tie, letting it flow over his shoulders. "Don't tie your hair back," he whispered.
Daniel abandoned Casey's erection and glared at him. "I would look like a woman."
Sinking to his knees between Daniel's legs, Casey's hands came to rest on Daniel's erection. "You could never be mistaken for a woman, Master."
The word made his cock twitch and he groaned. It did not take them long to shed their clothing and tumble into bed. Hands and lips mapped sensitive skin, stroking and caressing. Daniel rolled to his side, gathering Casey to him, and they rubbed their cocks together until they climaxed, then subsided into a sweaty, exhausted tangle.
After a cursory cleanup, Casey wrapped his arms around Daniel, carefully avoiding pressing his limp cock into Daniel's ass.
Daniel didn't know whether to be angry or grateful, but he relaxed into sleep before he could decide.
A flat, featureless plain spread out in all directions, the ground only a slightly darker grey than the sky. Long grass swelled and rippled in harsh winds, but Daniel stood in stillness. Vaguely menacing shapes flitted across the dim monotony of landscape. They kept their distance, circling blindly around an impassible perimeter. He shivered and looked down at his naked body. Faint marks showed through his flesh, like tattoos beneath his skin; swirls and loops meandered over his belly and thighs. He craned his head over his shoulder, following their paths over his buttocks to the small of his back.
Casey had put the marks there; he did not know how he knew, but it was the one fact of which he was positive. He shivered again, his skin clammy, and rubbed his goosefleshed arms.
One of the shapes howled, its voice muffled, and the others took up the sound. It echoed around him, from near-squeaks to basso rumbles, and the shapes crowded the perimeter, creating a dark barrier around him.
He turned slowly, squinting at the shapes. They were lengthening, resolving, solidifying before his eyes...
A sudden burst of light blinded him and he flung up his arm to shield his eyes as a cacophony of noise deafened him. Wind caught at him, tugging his robes - robes? - and he stumbled, catching himself on the end of a familiar thick mudbrick wall.
He was... home.
He whirled around. His father smiled at him - his father? - and held out his arms.
"My son! You have returned!"
It was not, could not be real. His father had not smiled at him like that since...
His father stepped forward eagerly, his sleeves fluttering in the breeze, and gathered him up like a child.
"Ah, my boy, I have missed you," he said, pressing a dry kiss to his forehead.
Daniel shifted, moved in the confines of his arms, and his father suddenly cried out and released him.
"What have you done?" he said, stepping back, his hands pressed to his belly. Blood oozed between his fingers and dripped slowly onto the dusty ground. "Daniel?" He looked at Daniel, pain contorting his face.
"Father?" Daniel's throat closed, and he mouthed the word silently. Reaching for his father, he saw the bloody dagger still in his hand, and dropped it with a shout of horror.
His father stumbled and fell to his knees. Blood trickled down the corner of his mouth, and when he opened his lips, a great gout of blood poured down his chest and over his hands.
"Father!" He tried to shout, to call for help, but he could only whisper, a harsh, raw sound that ripped his throat. He reached for his father, but could not move.
His vision blurred, and he could only blink his eyes to try to clear them. Movement drew his attention - there, off to the left - Salaeh and his Uncle Shaul were watching him, their eyes glittering like those of hawks as they caught sight of their prey. He tried to call out to them, but could not make more than a pained gasp.
His father slumped to the ground, the color draining from his face. He opened his mouth and Daniel strained to hear him.
"You have killed me, my son."
His head throbbed, pounding over and over.
Noise. Noise. He stirred and lifted his head, blinking groggily. The door. Someone was hammering on the door.
"Isä! Isä and Daniel!"
The door burst open and Olle dashed over to their bed. Casey grunted and turned, then sat bolt upright.
"What is it?" he asked, his voice rough with sleep.
"El-Yafe Effendi!" Olle's voice quavered and he stood, shaking, before
his father. "He is ill, Isä! I think he is dying."
Daniel slumped on the bench and let his head tip back. Afternoon sunlight spilled across the floor, tiny dust motes swimming in the glare. His eyes burned, and he rubbed them absently. Lights swam behind his closed lids, and the noises from outside grew muffled, as if they were retreating into the distance.
El-Yafe would live.
They had doubted that for long enough. When he and Casey had run to the room, Olle at their heels, el-Yafe was in bed, covered in vomit, his hands clawing at his head. Casey had taken charge, rousing Kalevi, sending for a Healer, supervising the servants as they washed el-Yafe and stripped the bed, remaking it with clean linens.
He had tried to speak, his mouth working, lips stretching and contorting, but no intelligible words emerged. Pounding the mattress with his fists, el-Yafe turned his head to look at Casey. The tendons in his neck stood out as he strained to be understood.
Casey had taken one clawed hand in his, holding it gently. "Rest, my friend. The Healer is coming, and she will make you more comfortable."
El-Yafe's eyes bulged as he lifted his head, and Casey leaned close. With an effort that made the veins in his temples throb, el-Yafe opened his mouth and spoke. "Go."
It was as if he had expended all his energy on that one word, for he had then collapsed back onto the mattress and closed his eyes.
Casey had not left his side, even when the Healer had arrived and tried to shoo him out. He just stubbornly shook his head and held on to el-Yafe's hand.
Daniel had obeyed, taking Olle with him and pacing the corridor for what seemed like hours until she had opened the door and beckoned.
When he had seen the still body on the bed and the tears swimming in Casey's eyes, for a moment he had thought that el-Yafe was gone.
Then Casey had smiled. "He will live."
The Healer had spoken to them both of what to expect, and Daniel's heart sank. El-Yafe would be bedridden for weeks, possibly months, as his damaged body worked to repair itself, and if he ever regained the use of his legs, he would probably require the assistance of a cane. Speech would certainly be beyond him now, although he might be able to speak haltingly in the future.
Daniel had looked down at the still figure and wondered if el-Yafe would have preferred to die.
The Healer had smiled kindly at them, and told Casey that el-Yafe would sleep quietly for a few hours, and that he should go rest.
"Take him away," she had said to Daniel, and he had blushed at her knowing look.
So now he was waiting for Casey, who had begged a moment alone with the Healer. It was not long before a noise roused Daniel. Casey emerged and closed the door quietly behind him.
Daniel stood and stretched cramped muscles. "Would you like to get some sleep?"
"No." Casey rolled his head and winced, rubbing the back of his neck. "Where is Olle?"
"I sent him outside to tend to the horses." Daniel pushed Casey's hand aside and massaged the tight muscles of his neck and shoulders.
Casey groaned softly and sighed as Daniel's fingers pressed deep. "Good. We must send for Antti and the others to discuss the change in our plans."
"He cannot travel," Daniel began.
"I know." Casey gave him a grateful smile and stepped away, rolling his shoulders. Daniel's fingertips tingled as Casey continued. "But the threat remains, and we cannot say here."
He managed to convince Casey to rest until dinner - the men would probably not be free to attend him until the evening - and sent Olle and one of the stable boys off with the message.
Daniel wandered restlessly through the courtyard. He could not go to his room, for he would disturb Casey. He could not leave the inn. There was nothing for him to do, and yet he could not just sit in the sun and doze like an old man.
He found himself outside el-Yafe's room, and knocked softly. When the Healer opened the door, she ushered him in without a word.
The skin prickled between his shoulder blades as he approached the bed. El-Yafe lay still, eyes closed, one corner of his mouth drooping oddly. The hand resting on the sheet was contracted into a claw.
Suddenly he opened his eyes and Daniel started but could not move, pinned by the dark gaze. El-Yafe stared at him for a moment, then closed his eyes with a sigh.
"Effendi?" he said softly, moving closer to the bed. He rested his hand on el-Yafe's, surprised at how cold it felt.
El-Yafe sighed again and his mouth moved. One side of his face was contorted in a scowl, and the fingers of the hand on that side moved restlessly over the blanket.
"Do you want to tell me something?" He looked at the man lying in the bed. This was absurd. What could el-Yafe have to say to him? Daniel glanced at the Healer, but she just nodded encouragingly. "Effendi?"
El-Yafe's throat convulsed, and his one hand clutched the blanket tightly. "Go."
"Do you want us to continue our- what we discussed last night?" Daniel said cautiously.
El-Yafe's head moved slightly. A nod.
"We cannot leave you here," he began, but el-Yafe's hand lifted, waving impatiently. Daniel bit his lip and glanced at the Healer, still and silent in the corner. "Who will keep Casey safe on the journey?" he murmured.
El-Yafe blinked and groaned. His fingers plucked at the blanket.
"Is he still hidden from the Sachsen's sorcerer?"
His head moved to the side. A shake.
An icy lump lodged itself in Daniel's gut.
"What can we do, Effendi?"
El-Yafe reached for him, and Daniel took the shaking hand in his. El-Yafe opened his mouth and grunted. Another sound emerged, and Daniel frowned, trying to understand...
El-Yafe sighed and nodded.
"Is Casey having dreams?" Daniel shrugged. "I don't think so. I can ask him."
A finger tapped his wrist, dark eyes searched his.
Daniel swallowed. "Am I having dreams?"
"Yes." It was barely a whisper. "Shall I tell you-"
A shake of his head.
"What shall I do?"
Half of el-Yafe's face twisted as he opened his mouth. The other half was sickeningly still. He spoke, halting syllables that burst explosively from his throat.
"Abiba?" Daniel frowned. What did el-Yafe mean? Was his mind affected by his illness, and he spoke nonsense?
"Abiba. Is that a person?"
"Am I to go see this person about my dreams?"
"How am I-"
El-Yafe groaned, his fingers clawing at the air, and the Healer quickly came forward.
"You must leave him now," she said, steering Daniel toward the door.
"I must give him more medicine. Perhaps he will be able to see you later." He was almost to the door. "I have heard of a seer named Abiba, who lives in the mountains," she added softly.
"A seer?" Daniel stared at her. "Where?"
"I do not know. But surely there are those who will be able to help you as you journey."
He nodded and left.
Casey was still asleep when he peeked into their room. Daniel went down to the courtyard and sat in the shade, stretching out his legs and leaning against the stone wall. Perhaps he was just being fanciful - surely his dream could be easily explained as a product of his shame and guilt. There was nothing sinister or supernatural about it. Daniel closed his eyes and made his decision. He would not mention this to Casey.
Antti, Jouni and Eerik arrived as they were finishing their supper.
"What are we to do now, Herra?" Antti asked Casey. His hands and face bore traces of a hasty cleansing, but he had not taken the time to change from his work clothes. "Without the aid of the Effendi..." He looked at Casey doubtfully.
"He insists that we continue." Casey looked rested after his nap, but his eyes were shadowed in a way that made Daniel uneasy. "And he is correct. We cannot abandon our mission because one of our party is taken ill."
"But how can we protect ourselves from the Sachsen?" Antti tried to hide his warding gesture, but Casey saw it and shrugged.
"We shall have to do our best. The prophecy speaks of creating protection, but does not say how it is achieved." He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "Tomorrow we will buy supplies, and mounts for the three of you. I shall leave money with Kalevi to ensure that the Effendi is well cared for, and we will depart early the next morning."
"I am not going."
All eyes turned to Olle, who met his father's gaze without flinching. Only a convulsive movement in his throat betrayed his nervousness.
"Don't be ridiculous-" Casey began, snorting dismissively.
"I'm not. I gave my word, Isä! I promised them that we would stay together and that I would take care of them, and I have broken my promise. I must-"
"You are my son, and you will do as I say." Casey turned to Antti. "We will need a number of-"
"Isä." Olle stood, his face pale but determined. "Isä, my honor demands-"
Casey rose, his expression thunderous. "Your honor demands that you heed me! You are my child, you have obligations, responsibilities that are more important-"
"More important than the lives of those who helped me when I thought you were dead?" Olle's voice shook, but he met Casey's eyes squarely. "I have obligations and responsibilities, Isä. I must meet them."
Twin spots of color burned on Casey's cheeks. He raised his hand, brushing away a lock of hair that had fallen into his eyes.
Before he could speak, Daniel sprang to his feet. "Casey, if I may have a word..." Casey glared at him, but he did not look away.
With a stiff nod, Casey sat. "Very well. Speak."
Daniel glanced at the door. "In private, please?"
His eyes narrowed and he showed his teeth. It was practically a snarl. "Public or private, it doesn't matter. Say what you must, Daniel."
A hot flush rose over Daniel's face. Very well, then. He spoke briskly. "Olle is in the right. He has shouldered a man's obligations and responsibilities, and he should be given the chance to see them through."
Casey stared at him. The others did not move.
Finally, Casey chuckled, a harsh, broken sound. "I see. So much for expecting support from the man who is supposedly the other half of my soul."
Daniel stamped on the rage that twisted in his gut. "You will receive my support when you make good decisions. This is not one of them."
Casey eyed him coldly. "And how is my son supposed to achieve this rescue? Alone in a strange land, a child in the wilderness - he would not make it back to Zaheira alive."
"I could go with him."
The color drained from Casey's face as he turned to Antti. The big man lowered his eyes.
"You would abandon me?" Casey coughed to cover the crack in his voice.
"Not abandon, Herra! Never!" Antti swallowed and looked over at Olle. "But there is nothing I can do to help you. I have no magic - I am not able to fight a sorcerer. I could be of use to the nuoriherra, however."
"As could we," piped up Eerik.
Casey looked at them one by one, his face expressionless. His skin was the color of old parchment, and a sheen of sweat gathered on his upper lip. His eyes rested on Daniel for a moment before he looked away.
"Very well." He stood, swaying once. Daniel stepped forward, but Casey caught himself on the back of the chair and shook his head. Daniel did not touch him. Casey took a careful breath. "You will travel to Zaheira, my son," he said formally. "I place Antti, Jouni, and Eerik in your care. Consult them and heed their advice, for they are knowledgeable in the ways of the world, and are your greatest assets. Discharge your obligations, and-" His voice wavered, and he forced the words out. "And return to me."
Moving with great care, he left the room.
Daniel turned to follow.
The words stopped him short, and he glanced at Olle, who was blinking back tears.
"I am in your debt, Effendi," the boy continued. "And if there is anything-"
"I did not do it for your sake."
"I know." Olle bowed low. "Take care of him and watch over him. And may Ilmarinen grant you success."
"And you." He returned the bow. "Excuse me."
He hurried out of the room and down the corridor.
Would Casey ever be able to forgive him?
Daniel shifted on the saddle and stifled his yawn.
The sun barely peeked above the trees, the cool air stirring the branches. Zeina's coat was glossy with moisture, and leather of the reins felt damp in his hands. Jouni's horse - one of the three they had bought yesterday - moved restlessly, stepping away from a steaming pile of fresh droppings.
Daniel caught Antti's eye and gave a tiny shrug in response to his raised eyebrow. He was not going to interrupt.
Casey was saying goodbye to his son.
They stood at one side of the courtyard, shadows still clinging to their boots. Casey rested his hand on Olle's shoulder. Olle seemed... taller than he had two days ago, when he had announced his intentions. He looked up at his father, his face solemn, nodding in response to Casey's words. Daniel couldn't hear what Casey said, but when the murmurs stopped, Olle bowed his head. Casey placed his other hand on Olle's head - it shook a little - then lifted his face to the sky and called out in Ugrian.
"Blessings." Daniel understood that much, as well as "sun and sky." Casey's voice broke once, but he continued.
When he had finished, Casey leaned over and kissed the top of Olle's head. The boy sobbed, then, throwing his arms around his father for a moment before gaining mastery of himself and pulling away. He wiped his eyes and sniffled, but did not break down again.
Daniel stroked Zeina's neck as Olle mounted his horse and they left. Olle and Antti rode in front, Jouni and Eerik behind, their horses laden with the supplies they had purchased in the market yesterday.
He waited until Casey was settled on Salimeh before turning to him.
Casey did not look at Daniel as he urged Salimeh through the gate. "Are you coming?" floated over his shoulder.
It was the most he had said to Daniel in two days.
Daniel fought to keep his breathing even and suppressed the words that struggled to emerge. He was an el-Rydal. He would not beg, plead, argue or cajole. If Casey would not look at him or speak to him, then he would wait patiently until Casey's unreasonable anger faded.
After all, Daniel had been right. The boy had to honor his obligations.
But it had been hard to crawl into bed and fall asleep when Casey had ignored him that first night. He had expected Casey to understand, to see the sense in the solution by the following morning.
Casey had not.
They had met up with Antti, Jouni and Eerik early, and spent most of the day buying the horses and supplies. Casey had not spoken one word to Daniel, or looked at him other than as a stranger. Even the others noticed, and when Antti tried to ask Casey about it, he received a look so cold that his mouth shut with a snap and he did not broach the subject again.
When they had returned to the inn, Daniel had gone to see el-Yafe. He was sleeping, but Daniel pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat there for an hour, just listening to the old man's labored breathing. Kalevi had agreed to care for him, and refused their money. He had murmured something about a pardon, however, and Casey had promised to pursue inquiries with the Queen.
After dinner, he went up to bed, leaving Casey and Olle talking about their respective routes. Casey had not joined him in bed until after he had fallen asleep.
And this morning...
Daniel sighed, staring at Casey's stiff back as they came to the town gate and passed through. One more day. And then he would break down Casey's reserve somehow.
A huge yawn took him by surprise, and he pressed his fingers to his eyes, enjoying the prickly, burning sensation and bright colors that drifted across the back of his lids. If only he could get some sleep.
But if he slept, then he would dream.
And that thought made his stomach lurch and his fingers tighten on the reins.
The sun was high when they stopped. The road had been fairly busy for the first part of the morning, but they had not passed any horses, carts or foot traffic for quite a while.
Casey guided Salimeh off the road and into a small dell beside a tiny stream. He did not speak, but handed Daniel some bread and cheese before sitting with his back against a tree and tucking into his own meal.
Daniel ate quickly, and then went to the stream to bathe his face and hands. He yelped as he plunged his hands in the swift-flowing water - it was like ice - and splashed it over his dusty face. That certainly energized him, and any inclination he may have had for an afternoon nap disappeared.
He turned. Casey's eyes dropped and his grin disappeared. A tiny flutter of hope made him stand still, staring at Casey. Perhaps he would...
Casey scrambled to his feet, brushing crumbs off his cloak, and mounted Salimeh without a backward glance.
Daniel stifled his sigh and followed.
The hamlet, for it certainly wasn't large enough to be characterized as a village, came into view as they rounded a curve in the road. Long shadows spilled across the dusty track, which had narrowed from a well-maintained road where two carts could pass without their outer wheels riding on the grassy verge, to a rutted, stony path.
A small inn perched on the side of the road, its windows turned anxiously toward the valley behind them. Beyond, the mountains rose precipitously, their white peaks glaring in the evening sun.
Casey pushed back his hood and looked at the inn.
Daniel shivered and pulled his cloak tighter. The air was cool and dry, but it was the look on Casey's face and not the temperature that caused his reaction.
Casey's expression had hardened, his jaw tight, his lips thinned with tension. His brows were drawn together and shaded his eyes, which glittered strangely.
Dismounting, Casey flung the reins at an old man who shuffled out of a dark doorway, and disappeared into the inn. Daniel paused long enough to hand the man a coin before following Casey inside.
"...a room for two," Casey was saying as Daniel peered around the dim room.
Ah. Casey stood by the fireplace, speaking with a burly, black-bearded man who was wiping his hands on a cloth.
Pleased that Casey acknowledged him even that much, Daniel made his way over to them, stepping around low stools and tables scattered haphazardly around the room.
Casey turned and flashed him a smile. Daniel almost stumbled in surprise.
"What took you so long?" Casey said, flinging his arm across Daniel's shoulders and pulling him close. "I've ordered ale for us, and supper will come soon."
He stared stupidly at Casey, who gave his shoulders a shake and then released him, sitting down at one of the seats beside the fire and stretching out his legs. "Well? Come and sit, Daniel." He patted a stool next to his. "It's been a long day. We'll have some supper and then early to bed, eh?" He winked.
Daniel sat. He opened his mouth, but couldn't think of anything to say, so he closed it again. Casey leaned back, resting his elbows on the table behind them, and looked around.
"Not a bad place." Casey lifted his eyes to the rafters. "Mallet, the proprietor of this establishment, said that we're his only guests tonight, so we won't have to share a bed with any other travelers."
Managing to make an encouraging noise, Daniel watched Casey out of the corner of his eye. He looked relaxed - the dangerous tension apparent outside the inn was gone, replaced by an expansive affability.
That was just as disturbing.
They drank their watery ale and ate a mediocre supper. Casey conversed jovially with Mallet whenever he came into the room, and bantered playfully with Daniel, even though he could not respond with anything more than a simple word or two.
"Well." Casey set down his empty mug and wiped his mouth, nodding to Mallet who stood in the doorway. "That will certainly keep body and soul together. And now to bed." He rose, and held out his hand to Daniel.
Daniel stood and reluctantly took it.
Mallet led them up the narrow stairs to a low-ceilinged room at the front of the inn. The stone fireplace from the room below defined one wall, and the room was comfortably warm. The bed was old and sagged in the middle, and the linens were worn but clean.
Leaving them with a lamp and a pitcher of warm water, Mallet shut the heavy door behind him.
Daniel's skin prickled.
Casey raised his arms as much as possible in the low room and let his head fall back, stretching like a cat. He turned to Daniel, his eyes heavy-lidded, and smiled.
"Come to bed."
They washed and undressed in silence. Daniel left his folded clothes on the stool by the fireplace, while Casey draped his over the bedstead. Daniel shivered as he crawled into the bed, the sheets cool against his sensitive skin. Casey looked at him, eyes shadowed and cock erect, before joining him in the bed.
He was quickly pulled into Casey's arms and kissed, a hard, possessive kiss that didn't allow him to do more than moan deep in his throat in a combination of fear and arousal that shamed him.
He pulled his head back, hands squeezing Casey's upper arms. "Casey, don't-"
Casey laughed, and the sound froze Daniel's muscles for a crucial moment.
"Don't?" Casey's voice was a harsh whisper in the dim room.
Suddenly Daniel was flipped over onto his belly and his hands were pinned at the small of his back. Before he could recover from the shock, Casey had tied his hands behind him with something that felt like heavy leather.
Casey's belt. The one he'd draped over the bedstead as he'd undressed. While Daniel watched.
Casey's breath ghosted over his shoulder and Daniel thrashed on the bed, trying to knock him over, stop him from-
Casey laughed again and grabbed his ankle, fastening it firmly to the bed. Daniel knew he was using Daniel's own sash, the one his father had given him when he'd learned to ride...
"Don't touch you?"
His other foot was captured and tied as well, and when he opened his mouth to scream, to call for help, anyone, please, Casey stuffed a wad of cloth into his mouth.
He choked and tried to draw air through his nose, fighting the panic that jangled through his nerves and twisted his stomach.
Fingers ran down his back, scraping gently across his buttocks. He yelped as Casey bit him on one ass cheek.
"Don't fuck you?"
He struggled against his bonds, although he knew what would happen next. Of course he knew; how many times had he relived it through the years?
Hands parted his ass and a faint hint of moisture brushed down the cleft. Then Casey clambered between his wide-spread legs and paused, panting harshly, above him.
Daniel whimpered. Allah is great. Allah is merciful. There is no other God than-
Daniel screamed around the gag as he thrust roughly into him, the tearing pain as agonizing as he remembered. He was being split in two, torn into pieces as he grunted above him. He closed his eyes against the tears, knowing that all he could do now was relax his muscles as much as possible until he was finished.
And hope that he would not take Samuel, as well.
It went on forever, and Daniel moaned as he pumped and swore and bit him savagely on the back and shoulders. Finally - finally! - he groaned and shuddered as he poured himself into Daniel.
It was all Daniel could do to not vomit around his gag.
After a few moments the panting slowed, and the sticky, heavy body above his shifted.
The wavering voice seemed familiar, but he hurt too much to think about why that was so.
"Illmarinen protect us!" It sounded like a prayer.
He moaned again as the body moved, pulling free of his in a blinding blaze of pain and landing beside him on the bed.
"What has happened?" Hands fumbled at his wrists, freeing them. "What have I- By the gods, your..."
He heard retching noises as his feet were freed and he was gently turned.
A face appeared above him, a pale disk in the dim room. The cloth was pulled from his mouth, and he coughed until he gagged.
"Daniel?" Hands flitted lightly over his body. "Did I..." They paused and there was a gasp when they encountered the thick stickiness between his legs. "Did I do this?"
Daniel squeezed his eyes shut and wrapped his arms around his chest.
Casey's footsteps pounded on the wooden floor as he ran from the room.
Daniel could hear him calling for Mallet, and then the murmur of voices. A horse clattered out of the inn yard.
By the Five, he was cold.
His hands shook and his fingers were numb, but he managed to pull the blanket over himself. His breath caught as the prickly wool dragged over his bitten back. His ass throbbed, and he tried to ignore the dampness seeping into the sheets beneath him.
The door creaked and Daniel started, eyes flying open, clutching the blanket to his chest.
Mallet stood in the doorway, frowning. "I've sent for the Healer. Do you need anything until she comes?"
"No." Panic threatened to choke him, but he had to know. "Where's... where's Casey?"
"Downstairs. He said he'd wait for the Healer there."
His muscles relaxed fractionally, and he hid his shaking hands in the blanket. He didn't want the Healer - she would ask questions he didn't want to think about, much less answer - but it was too late now. He nodded, not trusting his voice.
"Right, then." Mallet scratched his jaw thoughtfully. "She doesn't live far. As long as she's not out tending to someone else, she'll be here soon."
Daniel closed his eyes. The floorboards creaked as Mallet walked downstairs.
Daniel shivered and burrowed deeper in the blankets. His skin burned, and yet he was so cold...
What the hell had happened?
It wasn't one of the old nightmares, the ones that had dogged him for years - the pain in his back and ass proved that. It was real. As real as the first time it had occurred. He shifted his legs and whimpered as sheets of fire raced through him.
It was not possible.
And yet it had happened.
Esin ibn Jamal was dead. Daniel had watched his oiled and wrapped body being lowered into the grave, and when it had been his turn to pay his respects, he had spat onto the shrouded form. His father had beaten him for that. But for years afterward Daniel had feared the man would rise again to torment him, even though he knew that Allah would not be so cruel as to let that happen.
He rubbed his burning eyes. The man was dead and buried. He was not responsible for what had happened tonight.
Soft, quick footsteps. He was back. He would bind him again, hurt him over and over... Daniel could not breathe, his heart was pounding so fast it would burst. If only he could hide...
A Healer appeared in the doorway.
He could not stifle his gasp of relief.
She threw back her hood and slowly entered the room. "Effendi? I have come to help."
He sobbed once, and then the tears came.
She had let him cry, gently tending his injuries, washing and dressing him with no more than a few soft words. The tears had ceased by the time she had finished, and he lay on his side, warm and comfortable, as she gathered up her bottles and jars.
There was a timid knock on the door.
"No!" He pulled up the blanket, and she darted him a look before crossing the room and opening the door.
"How is he?" Casey asked hesitantly.
"He will be uncomfortable for several days," she replied coldly, stepping away from the door.
Daniel shook his head and tried to object, but his throat would not work. He tugged the blanket higher. Perhaps he won't notice me...
"Daniel?" His voice cracked.
It was Casey. Of course. Ibn Jamal was dead. Dead and buried.
Daniel took a deep breath and peered out of his blanket cocoon. "Yes?"
"I... I'm sorry." He stepped closer and Daniel flinched. Casey's pale face turned a ghastly shade of grey and he stopped in his tracks. "What happened, Daniel? Did I-" he asked hoarsely. His hands quivered and he crossed them tightly across his chest. "I don't remember! Not since- not since this morning. Not until I felt you under me and I-" He swayed, catching himself on a chair back.
He didn't remember?
How could he not remember?
And yet how could he have known exactly what ibn Jamal had done?
Gasping, Daniel shook so hard the bed thudded against the wall.
The Healer stepped between them. "That is enough," she said firmly to Casey. "I will stay with him tonight."
Casey nodded and left without another word.
It took quite some time before his rigid muscles began to relax, since every unexpected noise caused him to jerk to attention. Finally the Healer gave him an infusion and sat beside him, holding his hand. He drifted off, his heavy-lidded eyes fixed on their clasped fingers.
The bright, barren landscape was familiar. He shaded his eyes and scanned the area. He was near his father's house, he knew that, but for some reason he couldn't find the path. He had walked it a thousand times, yet could find no trace of a path now. His skin prickled and the hairs on his arms stood on end, as they did during a thunderstorm. Why couldn't he find it?
Scrambling up a rocky slope, he carefully got to his feet at the top.
The family compound spread out below him, and he could see tiny figures clearly. He felt like a hawk soaring high above the fields, movement below catching his eye.
One figure walking briskly toward the largest building. His father, probably coming from his daily inspection of the stables.
"Father!" he called, but the figure did not pause or turn.
A shadow moving past an outer wall grabbed his attention. It was near his father's rooms... The shadow disappeared.
Spreading his arms wide, he leapt from the top of the cliff and soared, riding the air currents until he was over the compound. A long, lazy spiral took him down to the ground. His booted feet touched the soil, and he raised his hand to wipe the perspiration from his brow.
He had never seen that door before, but he knew it led to his father's rooms. It opened easily, and he walked down a long, empty corridor.
This was not right.
He sped up until he was running, the thud of his heels loud in the breathless silence. A door appeared at the end of the corridor, a massive, heavily-carved portal weighted with iron hinges and hardware. He was breathing hard by the time he reached it and flung it open.
The stench hit him so hard he staggered back, retching.
It spattered the walls, trickling down the whitewashed mud brick in fat, oily drops. It soaked the cushions and pooled on the table and floor.
His father lay on the stained carpet, the gash in this throat so large that his head tilted absurdly to one side. Daniel could see the gaping ends of his windpipe fluttering, as if he were still trying to breathe.
Warm hands cupped his face and he opened his eyes, confused. The Healer stared back at him, a frown on her careworn face.
"What is it, Effendi?"
He jerked free of her grasp and scooted to the other side of the bed.
She sat back and folded her hands in her lap. The frown deepened. "Did you dream of your attack?"
Then he remembered his father.
He shook his head. "Allah is merciful," he whispered, sitting back and wincing as his sore buttocks received his full weight. "My father. Someone tried- There was so much blood- It cannot be..."
She tilted her head and regarded him solemnly. "This dream, was it different than your usual dreams?"
He nodded. "I was told to seek Abiba."
She flinched, as if he had raised his hand to strike, and swallowed hard. "Then the attack-" She broke off and pressed her lips together. After a few moments, she sighed. "Very well. You should not be riding today, but needs must. I will provide you with something that will ease your pain, and we will leave when it is light."
"You will take me?"
Another sigh. "I will take you both."
Daniel stared down at the rope in his shaking hands and thanked Allah that he could not stomach any breakfast. If he had had anything to eat, he would have left it on the ground in the courtyard.
"I can't do it," he said, his voice quavering as much as his hands.
Salimeh snorted and shifted, and Daniel absently stroked her neck.
"You must." Casey's voice was harsh, and he continued to hold out his hands, wrists together. "You said yourself that I was not-" He swallowed. "Not myself. What if I lose myself again? Attack you again? I will not take the chance."
Daniel looked at the Healer, who nodded once.
Bile soured the back of his mouth as he raised the rope and bound Casey's hands to the pommel, securing the ends so Casey could not untie it himself. He could not look at Casey's face, could not bear to see him bound again, although this time it was at his own insistence.
"Come." The Healer mounted her own horse as Daniel fastened Salimeh's reins to Zeina's saddle.
Moving slowly and carefully, he mounted Zeina. He was tender, but it was bearable. The Healer had given him a cup of bitter tea to ease the pain, promising him it would last until nightfall, at least.
It would take them three days to reach Abiba. Daniel passed a shaking hand over his eyes, brushing away the moisture that gathered in the corners.
He could not look back, could not bear to see Casey sitting on Salimeh,
bound to the saddle
like a slave.
The smell of blood choked him. He pinched his nose shut and breathed heavily through his mouth, but now he could taste it, harshly metallic, on the back of his tongue.
The blood on the carpet was congealing, darkening into a fetid pool.
Flies buzzed frantically, swarming over his father's severed throat.
He gasped and tried to cry out, but could make no sound.
Daniel threw off the blanket and sat up, shaking. A dream. It was only a dream. He looked around, the small, bare room dimly illuminated by the fire. He was here, in the traveler's hut, not at home discovering his murdered father's body. Swallowing hard, he wiped the cold sweat from his face and drew up his knees, resting his forehead on them.
He sighed. "Yes?" But he did not lift his head.
Blankets rustled as Casey shifted on his pallet. "Did you have a nightmare?"
"Was it about-" His voice cracked. "Was it about what I did?"
Daniel almost laughed. To have dreamed of that would have been less horrifying. Had been less horrifying, even though it had been ibn Jamal and not Casey in his dreams. And ibn Jamal was dead. "No."
Casey let out a deep sigh and moved again. "About what then?"
He couldn't say the words. If he did, if he admitted what he had seen, that would make it real. Would transfer it from the realm of nightmares into the world of reality.
"I don't remember."
"Oh." Casey grunted and the blankets rustled.
Daniel finally lifted his head.
Casey lay on his pallet beside the wall. The blankets were rucked up around his waist, and he was trying to untangle them with his bound hands.
A surge of bile left a bitter taste in Daniel's throat. Was that better than the taste of blood? He squeezed his eyes shut and suppressed the urge to laugh. He knew that if he started, he would not be able to stop.
Wiping his damp palms on his thighs, he opened his eyes and scooted forward. "Stop it," he said, pulling the blanket from Casey's fingers. "You're just making it worse."
Casey's eyes did not leave his face as he freed the trapped blanket and spread it over Casey. The rope that connected his bound hands and feet caught at the fabric, and Daniel untangled it fretfully.
"Thank you," Casey whispered when he finished.
Daniel just nodded and lay on his side, facing Casey. Casey's eyes were still open, and his hands rested awkwardly on the edge of the pallet, his fingers moving restlessly.
"I'm sorry," Casey murmured faintly. "I'm so sorry..."
"You weren't yourself."
Casey snorted. "That doesn't excuse what I did."
He took a careful breath. "I don't think," he began. Would Casey believe him? It didn't matter; this needed to be said. "I don't think you could help yourself. There were... things were done that you could not have known about."
"What are you trying to say?" A thin thread of hope colored Casey's voice.
"I'm not sure," he said slowly. Daniel reached out and placed his hand over Casey's. The cold fingers stilled, and he chafed them gently.
"You are chilled."
Daniel took a deep breath, trying to calm his pounding heart, and licked his dry lips. He wanted to...
"Turn over," he said, lifting the blanket and pushing at Casey until he rolled over, facing the wall. Daniel pulled his pallet over, gingerly closing the space between them. He lay down beside Casey, who had frozen in place. Slowly he pressed his chest to Casey's back, his thighs to Casey's thighs, and wrapped his arm around Casey's ribcage, pulling him closer.
Casey was a rigid as a stone statue for a long moment. Then, with a sigh that ended in a choked sob, he melted against Daniel.
Daniel's arms tightened, and they slept undisturbed.
The horses picked their way carefully along the faint track that led up the side of the mountain. The path was rocky and steep, and Zeina stumbled when a small stone rolled under his hoof. Frowning, Daniel glanced over his shoulder. He didn't like this. Salimeh was tethered to Daniel's saddle, and Casey was tied Salimeh's. If one of the horses lost its footing...
Zeina puffed and blew as he struggled up a steep slope and finally got all four hooves onto a large, flat rock. His flanks quivered with the effort, and Daniel leaned forward to administer an encouraging pat.
The noise of rolling rocks sounded loud in the stillness.
Daniel whipped around. Salimeh was fighting to maintain her balance, a small stream of loose stones slipping beneath her. Casey swayed on the saddle, trying to steady her, to urge her over the treacherous rocks, but he did not have the reins, and she was too frightened to heed his kicks.
"The tether!" Casey yelled, glancing, white-faced, at Daniel.
Daniel stared at him stupidly for a moment, then understood. The tether... If Salimeh fell, the tether would drag Zeina down as well.
He had his knife in his hand in the next heartbeat and slashed at the rope. Salimeh lurched, pulling the rope taut, and the next swing severed it completely.
Daniel vaulted off Zeina, landing on the rocks with a clatter and wrenching his ankle. He cursed briefly as he scrambled down the slope to Salimeh. And Casey.
He reached for Salimeh's bridle, but she snorted and tossed her head, skittish and still unsteady. Casey bit back a cry as he listed in the saddle, his weight dragging it sideways, toward the precipitous drop.
Daniel sprang forward, catching hold of Salimeh's bridle and urging her forward, to a flatter bit of track. Then he scrambled along the uphill side of the path, grabbing Casey's shirt and the saddle and holding on for dear life.
"Let go!" Casey tried to right himself, to lean away from the drop, but the saddle slipped farther.
Daniel didn't bother to answer. He tightened his grip and jumped up, then bent his knees and swung down, sliding the saddle back the other way enough for Casey to regain his balance.
His shoulders ached, and he wondered briefly what he had done to his ankle, but he could not let go. Not yet. He leaned forward, resting his cheek on Casey's trembling thigh and breathed deeply.
As soon as he could loosen his fingers from the saddle, he began to undo the ropes that bound Casey's hands.
"What are you doing?" Casey nudged him with his knee. "You can't-"
"It's too dangerous," Daniel snapped, his fingers fumbling. "You need to have both hands free-"
"So I can attack you again?" With a harsh laugh, Casey clenched his bound hands. "Don't, Daniel. Don't give me the opportunity."
Daniel didn't reply. He whipped off the rope and chafed Casey's cold hands between his until the blue tint on Casey's fingers disappeared.
Pressing a kiss to each palm, Daniel finally dropped Casey's hands and stepped back. "Take the reins," he said, as calmly as he could. "There is room enough ahead for you to pass Zeina. I will watch you from behind, and if you begin to... lose yourself, I'll bind you again."
"Don't argue with me!" Daniel wiped his damp hands on his cloak and gave Salimeh's rump a slap. "I will not let you surprise me again."
He looked up the trail. The Healer had turned and was watching them. If she had been concerned about Salimeh's near accident, or disapproved of him unbinding Casey, she showed no sign, simply waiting until Salimeh and Zeina had exchanged places and Daniel had mounted again. Then she turned her horse and continued to follow the track up the side of the mountain.
The mountain was in deep shadow by the time they reached the tiny hut where they would shelter for the night. The Healer disappeared inside, while Daniel and Casey fed and watered the horses, tethering them in the crude lean-to on the side of the hut.
When they entered, the Healer silently handed them bread and dried meat. Water heated on the fire, and they ate while she made strong, black tea.
Daniel knelt beside the fire and cradled the cup in his hands, enjoying the warmth seeping into his fingers. His ankle was sore, but not swollen. Casey was sprawled on the floor beside him, his chin resting on his hands, staring into the flames. The Healer sat with her eyes closed, but Daniel did not think she was asleep.
The flesh down Daniel's spine tingled and his suddenly sensitive skin brushed almost painfully against his clothing.
Casey gasped, rolling to his side, his body rigid.
Casey's eyes bulged and he gasped again, his labored breathing loud in the small space.
"Rope," he breathed, his pale face suddenly suffused with color. A muscle in his jaw jumped. "Hurry."
Rope? Casey was ill, why would he want the rope?
The Healer cursed, a word so vulgar and unexpected that Daniel turned to her in shock. She was on her knees, scrabbling amongst their packs.
Casey gasped again, his face twisted in pain.
The Healer thrust the rope into Daniel's hands, and he stared at it stupidly for a second.
"Hurry," she snapped, "before he loses control."
By the Five...
He had Casey's hands bound and was working on his feet when Casey's control gave way and his body relaxed. Then he jerked his feet away and kicked out, catching Daniel on the arm.
"You can't hide from me, boy."
Daniel's blood turned to ice.
It's not him. He's dead. I saw him buried...
"You can try, but I will find you. I will always find you."
His cheek stung, and he covered it with his hand, staring up into the Healer's frightened eyes. She lowered her hand.
"Do not listen to him, Effendi. He is-" She suddenly broke off and turned away. "Tie his feet quickly."
Casey snarled and kicked, trying to loosen the ropes around his ankles.
No. He will not hurt me again.
Daniel grabbed Casey's legs and pinned them, finishing the bindings on his ankles, ignoring, as much as possible, the invective that poured from Casey's mouth.
He forced Casey's knees to bend, and looped one end of the rope around Casey's neck, fastening the other to his ankles. If Casey moved too much, he'd choke himself.
"You think you're so clever, don't you, boy."
Daniel took a deep breath and sat back on his heels, looking at the bound man before him.
He's not Casey. And he's not ibn Jamal.
"So, you think you'll hide from me," Casey chuckled, a sound that sent a shiver up Daniel's spine. "No matter. Samuel is here, instead. He cries even more than you do, do you know that? And pleads for you to come save him as I fuck him-"
Daniel's hands were around his throat, squeezing, tightening, cutting off those words, those memories-
"Effendi, no!" Strong hands pulled him away, and he turned, panting, to face the Healer. "Use this."
He looked down at the strip of cloth she pressed into his hand.
Merciful Allah, he had tried to kill Casey...
He managed to gag Casey before stumbling out of the hut and losing his dinner.
His knees gave way and he sat hard on the cold ground.
I failed you. I hid from him, and he took you instead. You could not bear it, could not stand his filthy touches. So you rode hell-for-leather to the cliff edge and beyond.
Your body was so broken from the fall that no one could see what he had done to you. No one would believe me when I told them why you had done it.
It was my fault.
By the time he returned to the hut, he was chilled to the bone. Even
the fire did little to warm him.
He bent over his father's body and wept. Reaching down to close the staring eyes, he brushed his fingers across one cheek, the flesh ashen but still warm. He brushed irritably at the flies, which settled boldly on his father's severed neck and parted lips.
"You found him."
He whirled around.
Shaul and Salaeh stood in the door, smiling at him. Their fingers were intertwined.
"You did this." A statement, not a question.
"Clever boy," said Salaeh, her lips curling.
Shaul shrugged. "I would have preferred something less... dramatic, but he was going to search for you, and I could not allow that to happen. He might have found you, after all."
Daniel swayed, wiping his damp forehead with the back of his hand. He glanced at his bloody fingers and swallowed his disgust. When he looked up at Shaul and Salaeh, they had stepped closer. "Why?"
"Because I wanted my brother's land." Shaul glanced at Salaeh. "And my brother's wife. You made it easy for me when you fled with your precious catamite." He moved closer. "But even if you hadn't left, I'm a patient man. I would have succeeded in the end."
Daniel shook his head. "No." He stepped back, stumbling over his father's body.
Shaul's hand shot out and grabbed his arm, squeezing it painfully. "Yes. I tried dozens of ways to get rid of you over the years. Samuel was easy - one rape and he did the job himself. Ibn Jamal told me everything; how you both cried and pleaded with him. But you were made of stronger-"
"No!" He tried to twist away, but Shaul's grip was like iron.
"And now what was my brother's is mine."
Shaul raised his other hand and the knife blade glinted.
Daniel cried out.
And sat up, panting harshly. The fire had burned down to glowing embers, but was still bright enough for him to see around the hut. The Healer lay with her back to him, apparently still asleep.
He did not know how long he sat there, the heels of his hands pressed against his burning eyes. Gradually his breathing slowed, and he raised his head, looking over at Casey.
Casey's eyes were open, and he stared at Daniel intently. A dark stain discolored one corner of the gag, and he shifted his shoulders as if he were in pain.
"Casey? Are you... yourself?"
Casey closed his eyes and gave a tiny nod - all he could manage with the rope fastened from his neck to his ankles. An odd little trail glittered on the side of his face: tears. Daniel almost retched again.
"I'm going to untie the gag and see if I can make you more comfortable," he said, trying to steady his wavering voice.
The gag had bitten deep into the corner of Casey's mouth, and Daniel gently wiped the blood away before tossing the cloth onto the fire. It flared fitfully as he untied the rope from around Casey's neck and helped him straighten his stiff legs, rubbing them to warm his chilled limbs.
He held a cup of water so that Casey could drink, and then sat back on his heels. This was Casey, that much was clear. Perhaps he could undo the bindings on his legs...
"You dreamed." Casey's voice was flat.
He nodded, and could not suppress a shudder.
Casey sighed. "I'm sorry, Daniel. I'm so-"
Daniel shook his head and gestured toward the Healer. "Don't. We'll talk tomorrow, after I see Abiba. Perhaps she will know what is happening."
With a snort, Casey lifted his bound hands, brushing his fingers over Daniel's thigh in an awkward caress. "I don't know how much longer I can bear this," he whispered.
Daniel leaned over and kissed him gently. Casey lifted his head, following Daniel as he finally pulled away.
"Turn over." Daniel helped him to roll onto his side, facing away from Daniel. After adjusting the blanket over Casey, Daniel lay down and wrapped his arm around Casey's chest, holding him close.
He only had time to think how right this felt before they fell asleep.
Daniel shivered and pulled his cloak close. The air was crisp, the sunlight bright but without warmth. The wind raced across the ground, fluttering the tiny blossoms of unfamiliar flowers and tossing the branches of stunted and gnarled trees. Even the rocks looked as if they were huddled against the wind.
He was a stranger in a strange land.
The Healer glanced over her shoulder, and Casey raised his hand. She hesitated, her eyes sweeping over him, and then nodded.
Daniel let out his breath.
Casey had remained himself throughout the day, but now the sun was beginning to dip toward the frosty peaks. They should arrive at Abiba's soon. Daniel didn't fancy another night like the last.
A stone outcropping loomed ahead, only the tops of the boulders picked out by sunlight. The Healer headed toward a shadowed cleft in the rocks, disappearing from view as she rounded the corner. Casey followed, and the skin between Daniel's shoulder blades suddenly prickled. He turned and looked back at the path they had just traveled.
He urged Zeina into a trot, and passed between the guardian stones.
It was as if a burden he had been unaware of had been lifted from his shoulders. He took a deep breath, savoring the scented air. He could breathe, with no tightness in his chest, no tension stiffening his spine.
Daniel laughed and followed the path.
A small stone house backed up to the hillside, as if sheltering from the elements. The doorway glowed bright from a fire inside, and smoke poured from a tall chimney. The entire clearing was hazy; several fires smouldered around the perimeter, the smoke oddly sweet scented.
Casey and the Healer had dismounted and were greeting another cloaked and hooded figure as Daniel rode up. He slid off Zeina and the figure turned to face him.
"Welcome, Effendi." She pushed back her hood.
His mouth hung open and he shut it with a snap. How long had he been standing there, gaping? His face burned, the warmest he'd been since they'd left Ay Astokha. She was not traditionally beautiful, but there was something immensely comforting about her. She could be trusted - he knew that deep in his bones.
With a nod, she gestured toward the house.
"Come inside. Zarifa will tend to the horses."
She bade them be comfortable while she bustled about, ladling a thick soup into bowls and handing the bowls to them, along with chunks of brown bread.
"Eat first," she urged, glancing at the fire, which flared up. "I have been expecting you."
Daniel froze, his sopping bread half-way to his mouth. Expecting them? How could she be expecting them?
She must have read his confusion on his face, for she chuckled and leaned forward. "Did you think that so much would be asked of you, without also providing you with the help necessary to give battle to your enemies?"
Daniel stared at his bowl and shrugged. "It certainly seemed that way."
"What do you know about... this?" Casey said, his arm sweeping to Daniel and then back to himself. "About us?"
Growing solemn, she made a strange, fluttering gesture and set aside her bowl. "I know that your protector has been struck down, and that you are under attack by one who uses your pasts and futures against you."
"Pasts and futures?" Daniel glanced at the door as the Healer entered, then looked back at Abiba.
She nodded. "He uses your memories, Effendi, to try to drive a wedge between the two of you."
Casey gasped. "Was that really- Did I-" He broke off with a muttered curse and ran a shaking hand over his face. "Did that really happen to you?" he whispered.
Eyes fixed on the bowl in his lap, any desire for food forgotten in the nauseating heat that suddenly blanketed his body, Daniel nodded.
A hand gently rested on his knee and he flinched.
"Daniel, I-" Casey made an impatient noise. "I ask for your forgiveness."
Daniel looked up. "There is nothing to forgive," he said, his voice sounding weak to his own ears. "It was not you who... did it."
"No, it wasn't," Abiba said brusquely. "You had no knowledge of how to prevent it or to protect yourselves. We will address that." She turned toward the fire, her cheeks flushed.
They were silent for a moment, only the soft sounds of the Healer moving around the room broke the stillness.
"You said," Casey murmured, "something about our future?"
Abiba drew in a breath, letting it go with a sigh. She continued to stare into the fire. "Yours, and the futures of those you love."
"My dreams..." Daniel's hands shook and his bowl toppled to the floor. He ignored it.
"Yes." She turned to him, regret in her eyes.
"Is it-" His chest ached and he could barely draw breath. "Can I prevent it?"
She shook her head. "It will happen in the next few days. There is no way you can prevent-"
"Daniel, what did you dream?"
He stumbled to his feet, shaking off Casey's hand. "I could ride." He forced out the words as he reached for his cloak, struggling to pull it over his trembling shoulders. "Ride straight through. You can tell me the fastest way. I have money, I can change horses-"
Warm hands framed his clammy cheeks. "It is too late," she said, her voice gentle. "Your enemy wants you to leave, to separate the two of you. You cannot go, for you are the only threat to his triumph."
"Triumph?" He practically spat the word. "My father will be murdered by his wife and brother, and you speak of triumph?"
"Murdered?" Casey grabbed his shoulders and turned him. "You dreamed of your father's murder and you did not tell me?"
Daniel looked into those brown eyes, hard with fury, and opened his mouth. No words emerged.
Casey's brows drew together and he relaxed his grip, his fingers stroking the skin they had bruised. "I'm sorry. I didn't- You didn't tell me."
Daniel squeezed his eyes shut. "I couldn't... speak of it."
Casey's arms enfolded him, holding him tightly, and he sagged against that strong body. A strange, tickling sensation crawled along his stomach and back, and he shifted against Casey.
"You must continue your journey," Abiba said. "As quickly as possible. I will provide directions tomorrow, before you leave."
"Leave?" Casey said, his arms tightening around Daniel.
Daniel looked at Abiba, surprised. "How can we leave? We don't know how to protect ourselves."
"You will by the time you leave tomorrow." Abiba looked at the two of them together, wrapped in each other's arms, and flushed. She turned quickly to a table tucked in a dark corner, and Daniel reluctantly loosened his hold on Casey.
"These will help," she said, turning back with two small pouches in her hand. Each was tied closed with a long cord, and she draped the cords over their necks. "Wear these all the time. The salvia leaves provide some protection against... dreams and influences."
Daniel looked at the little pouch and frowned. "This is it?"
Abiba laughed. "Only a part. You must generate your main defenses against his influence."
Casey raised an eyebrow. "And how do we do that?"
She swallowed hard but did not look away. "You must physically penetrate each other."
They stared at her, mouths agape.
"You mean," Casey finally choked out. "Our protection is to... to fuck each other?"
Abiba nodded. "I'm afraid so."
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