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The Hart and the Lion
(Chapters 80 - 89)
by Cita Powers
|Title:||The Hart and the Lion (Chapters 80 - 89)|
|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 sighed and stared at the stars, unexpectedly bright above him, despite the smoke from the fires that ringed the clearing. He pulled the blankets higher and rolled to his side, pressing his body close to Casey's. His nose was cold, and he nuzzled Casey's warm neck.
Casey chuckled and pushed back against Daniel, whose erection slipped between Casey's damp cheeks.
"Not shy anymore?" Casey murmured, rubbing his ass against Daniel's cock.
Daniel groaned softly but did not look toward the house. "Surely they've gotten bored by now and gone to sleep..." He thrust his hips forward, sliding his cock between Casey's legs.
It was Casey's turn to groan. "I don't care," he whispered, sliding his top leg forward, spreading himself wide. "I want you."
Daniel did not argue. He didn't care if Abiba and the Healer were watching. He didn't care that he and Casey were sprawled on the ground in the middle of the fire-lit clearing. All he wanted was to do what, apparently, was needed to keep them safe.
He wanted to fuck Casey.
Taking a shuddering breath, he carefully guided his cock to Casey's hole and pushed.
A gasp and a grunt forced him to pause, but Casey's hand suddenly grasped his hip and pulled him forward.
"Fuck me," Casey ground out, pushing back against Daniel, taking him in smoothly until Daniel's groin rested snugly against his ass.
Casey's skin shimmered.
He blinked and pushed Casey's hair off his shoulder. Then blinked again. The strange luminescence seemed to come from within Casey.
Casey bucked his hips and groaned. "Move, damn you." His skin glowed pearly in the dancing shadows.
Daniel pulled out, hesitated, and then slid deep inside Casey. Casey's skin glimmered.
"You-" he gasped, his hips still moving. "Your skin-"
Casey made a noise deep in his throat. "The protection," he whispered, and tightened around Daniel's cock.
Daniel was warm; no, hot. He moved, over and over, soft, moist sounds filling the air around them. The small bag around his neck brushed rhythmically against his chest, and the scent of salvia hung heavily over them. Daniel flung the blankets off and peered down the length of Casey's torso, not surprised to see the strange shapes from his dreams patterned over Casey's hips, thighs and stomach.
The protection was working.
The shapes spread as he continued to move, scattering to cover Casey's legs and up to his chest. Daniel reached down and fisted Casey's cock, pumping it in time with his thrusts. Casey cried out and stiffened in his arms, and Daniel's hand was suddenly coated with Casey's hot semen.
He quickly brought his hand to his mouth, licking it eagerly. His own skin began to glow faintly, and he pushed Casey onto his stomach, bracing himself on shaking arms as his cock slid in and out of Casey's pliant body.
By the Five, he was close...
Flames raced along his nerves as he slid out, then pushed hard into Casey, his cock pumping frantically as he emptied himself into his beloved.
He lowered himself awkwardly onto Casey's back, holding his sweaty body close, his cock still buried inside Casey. The frigid air chilled his back, but he did not have the strength to pull up the blankets.
Daniel dozed, barely aware of the soft chanting that came from the door of the tiny house, and when the blankets covered him in warmth again, he did not question their appearance as he drifted off to sleep.
They had rolled onto their sides as they slept. Daniel rubbed his eyes and yawned, burrowing deeper into the warmth. It was very dark; the fires that surrounded the clearing were more embers than flame. He glanced at the sky, but saw no hint of dawn yet. Sighing, he huddled close, pressing his softened cock against Casey's thigh. He breathed a kiss over the bump at the base of Casey's neck, and wished that somehow they could have remained connected.
Because now it was his turn.
He needed protection. He knew it. He knew it.
His gut lurched and a drop of sweat trickled down his jaw. He pulled away, rolled away, needed to move as far away from the man next to him as he-
Arms wrapped around him, held him tightly, suffocating him. He could not breathe, could not-
He gasped as hands gently stroked his face, trailed down his neck and across his shoulders.
"Casey..." He pushed his face into Casey's neck and took a shuddering breath.
"I won't do it."
Pulling back, he peered at the dim outline of Casey's face. "Won't do what?" he asked, although he knew what Casey meant.
"We'll have to find another way to protect you."
He smothered a slightly hysterical laugh against Casey's shoulder. "There is a way..."
Not waiting to explain, he kissed Casey hard, then ducked his head under the blanket. Casey's hands caressed his hair as he worked his way down Casey's chest and dipped his tongue briefly into Casey's navel. Casey's stomach tightened as he chuckled. The corners of Daniel's mouth curled up and he licked the top of Casey's hardening cock.
Casey groaned and his hands shook.
Daniel did it again, holding the head in his mouth as his tongue fluttered over the already-moist tip. Casey's hips lifted, and his cock slid in deep - too deep. Daniel choked and quickly pushed Casey's hips down, holding them firmly. He blinked his watering eyes and started again.
By the time he had most of Casey's cock in his mouth, Casey was squirming beneath him and making loud keening noises, even muffled as they were by the blanket. Daniel's jaw ached, but Casey was near the edge, so he slid one hand between Casey's clenched buttocks. Stroking Casey's still-damp hole, he hummed around Casey's cock, and then pushed two fingers roughly inside him.
With a wail, Casey tensed even more, his cock swelling, and then he orgasmed.
Daniel made sure he swallowed every drop.
After licking Casey clean, Daniel peered at his body - it, too, glowed palely in the darkness, and the symbols shimmered faintly under his skin. Casey drew him up from under the blanket and held Daniel as he panted, drawing cold air into his starved lungs. The scent of salvia was almost overpowering.
He heard the chanting, and his face warmed. At least they were covered by the blanket this time, but Daniel suspected that the presence of a blanket didn't stop the women from seeing what they wished to see.
"Your skin is not as bright as mine," Casey murmured, stroking Daniel's sweaty face.
He shrugged and tried to laugh. "We'll just have to do it more often." It was the best he could do right now. He could not bear it if Casey tried to- He swallowed, his throat bone dry.
No. They would just have to make do.
Abiba handed them a packet of cheese and another loaf of bread. Casey put them carefully into his saddlebag.
"There is a traveler's hut one day's ride to the north," she said, picking up another blanket and rolling it into a neat bundle. "After that, you will be able to stay in villages until you reach Rokkaniemi."
Daniel took the extra blanket and tied it to Zeina's saddle. "How long will it take us?"
Abiba shrugged. "A week, perhaps ten days, depending on the state of the road."
"And when we reach Rokkaniemi?" Casey stroked Salimeh's neck and glanced at Abiba. "We know that he will be found by those who are not looking, as part of a household, yet not of the family. Can you tell us more?"
"A little." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "You will know him by the question he asks."
Daniel raised his eyebrows. That didn't sound very helpful. "That's it?"
"Yes." She reached out and the tips of her fingers brushed the small pouch of salvia that hung from Daniel's neck. "Do not lose this," she added, and her cheeks darkened, "and protect yourselves every day. You, especially." She frowned at Daniel. "It is difficult, but you must let him into-"
"I will do," Daniel interrupted, his voice harsh, "what is necessary. But not..." He wiped his damp palms on his thighs. "Not just yet."
"Do not wait too long." She drew up her hood and stepped back, joining the Healer who stood silent and still. "You will need every possible scrap of protection against your enemy, and the longer you wait, the more difficult it will become to allow him inside you."
Daniel nodded, but did not reply. He swung himself up onto Zeina, setting his shoulders and glancing at the mountains ahead while Casey mounted Salimeh.
He did not ache deep in his pelvis with a desire to be filled. Did not clench his buttocks in anticipation of Casey's heated touch. Did not feel the press of his cock against his trousers as it hardened at the thought of Casey sliding easily inside him...
No. Daniel el-Rydal did not feel these things.
Nor did he turn back as they followed the rocky track around the cliff
and Abiba and her house
disappeared from view.
They rode into the small village the evening of the fifth day. A huddle of houses greeted them, the scent of woodsmoke and cooking meat thick in the air. Daniel pulled his cloak close, shivering as the chill air crept between his layers of clothes and brushed against his skin. Damn these mountains. Damn this northern climate. He pulled his icy hands into his sleeves as far as they would go; his fingers were almost numb from the cold, and he knew he would never, ever, feel warm again.
Casey led the way to the largest of the houses. A man stood on the doorstep, bucket in hand, eyeing them warily. Before Casey could open his mouth, the man ducked his head and sketched a half-bow.
"You are the two travelers who come from the noita on the mountain," he said, turning toward the door. "I'll send the boy out to tend to your horses. The mistress is expecting you."
"Thank you." Casey glanced at the man as he disappeared inside, then turned to Daniel and raised an eyebrow. "How much did you follow?"
"Most of it, I think." Daniel dismounted stiffly and blew on his fingers. "His vowels sound strange, flatter than yours, but the words were clear enough." Casey had continued his Ugrian lessons as they rode, and although Daniel had difficulty speaking it grammatically, he could understand a good deal.
"Good. You'll understand enough to get by in the Queen's court." Casey swung himself off Salimeh and took a deep breath. He grinned at Daniel. "There's nothing like a crisp autumn day to stir the blood."
"And freeze off various body parts," Daniel muttered, stamping his feet. "Where is that damned boy? I want to go inside; I can't feel my toes."
Casey snorted and gathered Daniel's hands between his own, chafing them gently. "You'll get used to the cold soon. And I have warmer clothing at home - furred boots and thick woolen leggings and heavy cloaks. You'll be warm enough even in a blizzard."
Daniel shook his head. He couldn't imagine falling snow, despite Casey's vivid descriptions of it. Snow was something one saw on the tops of distant mountains, not that which swirled around you, like blowing sand. His fingers felt a little warmer, however, thanks to Casey's ministrations, and he raised their joined hands to his lips.
A young boy ran around the side of the house, panting. His jacket was open, and the ducked his head when he stopped before them. "Sorry, sirs. I'm to take your horses, and the mistress wants to see you. Go inside, please."
Light and warmth hit him like a blow as they opened the door, and Daniel winced at the pain that blossomed at the tip of his nose and his ears. The room was large compared to the huts where they had stayed the past several nights, and the massive stone fireplace contained a crackling blaze.
"I should beat that boy. He was supposed to be looking out for you."
Daniel turned toward the voice. A grey-haired woman sat in a heavy wooden chair beside the fire. Her face was lined and weather-beaten, her expression dour, but her bright eyes twinkled in the firelight.
"Well, don't just stand there, Kyösti," she snapped. "Come in and give your aunt a proper greeting."
Casey did not move. Daniel spared him a glance; he was standing stock still, his mouth hanging open.
Daniel sighed. He wanted to sit down, preferably so close to the fire that his clothing would scorch. He wanted food and drink. And a bath. He wanted to stretch out on a soft bed with clean linen, in stark contrast to their simple accommodations of the past several nights. And all Casey could do was stand there and gape.
To hell with that.
"Daami," he said, sweeping his cloak back and bowing low, as Casey had taught him. "Ilmarinen bless and protect you. We crave food and shelter for the night." He rattled off the prescribed greetings easily and then hesitated, wondering if his basic knowledge of the language would allow him to pay compliments. "I am Daniel el-Rydal, companion to your-" He broke off suddenly. What the hell was the word for 'nephew?' He jettisoned that thought. "We travel to Rokkaniemi, to help the Queen."
"Ah." She nodded, the corners of her mouth twitching. "At least one of you knows how to speak well."
With a muffled cry, Casey launched himself forward, landing on his knees before her. His hands clutched her shoulders, and he buried his face in her lap. Casey muttered something, but Daniel could not make out the words.
Her expression softening, she stroked his hair. "I knew you would return. Did not the prophecy say so? When the news came of the battle, I told your mother-"
"My mother?" Casey raised his head. His eyes were dry. "Is she here, Täti Petra?"
"No." She sniffed and raised one eyebrow. "She traveled to the holy lakes not long after the news of your- The news of the battle reached us. She said she would ask the gods to grant you safe passage home." Her voice was as dry as the desert air. "She is still there. Now, get to your feet and find a chair next to the fire for you and your... companion, did you say?" She looked at Daniel and lifted both eyebrows. Daniel tried not to look too eager at the thought of sitting beside a fire.
Casey rose and took her hand. "The prophecy was true, Täti. Daniel and I are," he nodded at Daniel, "kansonen sielu."
She inhaled quickly and nodded, the flash of fear and hope in her eyes immediately suppressed. "Well, of course you are. Any fool could see that."
"My father-" Casey began, and then stopped, his lips twisting in a rictus of a smile.
"Väinö was a good man," she said slowly. "But as with many good men, he was blind to certain things. You have proved him wrong, Kyösti. Surely you can forgive him his weakness?"
Casey stared at her for a moment, his cheeks darkening. "What are you doing here?" he finally asked. "How did you know we would come?"
"I am here to get away from the damnable bustle of the city. I didn't have any idea what had happened to you until old Matti arrived this morning with news of two men who had come down from the witch's mountain, one of whom was named Kyösti Makalleinen. Imagine my surprise. Now," she glanced at Daniel, "why don't you both sit down? Your Daniel looks as if he's going to collapse on the hearthrug if he doesn't find a chair soon."
"Of course." Casey turned to Daniel and in a moment they were seated before the fire.
Her eyes raked over them, and she clapped her hands, calling "Kel!"
The man they had seen on the doorstep peered into the room. "Yes, Daami?"
"Tell Pirkitta to warm some wine and hurry dinner, please. My nephew and his companion are hungry." He disappeared and she turned back to them. "And you can tell me what happened as we eat, Kyösti." She took a careful breath, her hands clasped in her lap. "But... Olle and Lijssa?"
Casey stared at the fire. "Lijssa was killed in the battle." His voice was flat. "Olle is alive."
Her fingers tightened until the knuckles shone pale against her dark gown. "Then where is he?"
Glancing at Daniel, Casey laughed bitterly. "He is with Antti. Off on a quest of his own."
Before she could reply, the boy who had taken their horses entered, bearing a tray with three steaming cups. He served them and looked expectantly at his mistress.
"Very good, Vesa," she said with a tiny smile. "Have you seen to the horses?"
He nodded. "Yes, Daami." His eyes went wide. "They're the most beautiful horses I've ever seen!"
Her eyes twinkled. "Are they indeed? I shall have to inspect these beauties in the morning. You may go now, and ask Kel to join us for dinner."
Daniel took a sip of his drink. It was warm and faintly spicy, and liberally laced with alcohol. He took another sip, savoring the burn on his tongue and down his throat. A third mouthful took the burn away.
He did not remember much about dinner. Suddenly bone-tired, merely eating and drinking and trying not to fall face-first into his plate was enough to occupy his scattered thoughts. Snatches of their conversation were strangely clear, and he knew that Casey was telling their tale. Daniel hoped that Petra would not hate him when Casey finished.
With a yawn so wide it threatened to dislocate his jaw, he put down his spoon and sat back.
"Kel, show them their room," she said, and Daniel managed to bow and murmur his thanks before stumbling up the stairs and down the corridor to the whitewashed room with a high, wide bed. Another jaw-cracking yawn set Casey to laughing, and Daniel found himself sprawled on the bed as Casey tugged at his boots.
He must have dozed off briefly, for when he blinked and blearily lifted his head, he was naked and under the covers, and Casey was rubbing against him purposefully.
"Wake up, Daniel," he whispered, pressing his erection into Daniel's thigh. "We must protect ourselves."
"Mmmm." Daniel brushed a kiss over Casey's cheek and sank back into the soft bed. He was so damn tired that even drawing breath was an effort. "Later..."
"No, now. You remember what Abiba said."
And then Casey wrapped his hand around Daniel's erection, stroking it firmly. Daniel groaned. So, so good. He floated on the current of his pleasure, half-asleep, until Casey planted a hand in the middle of his chest.
"Oof." He blinked lazily up at Casey, who now straddled his hips. Groaning again as Casey smoothed unguent over his cock, Daniel lifted heavy arms and ran his hands up Casey's thighs, stroking Casey's jerking cock.
Shadows danced across Casey's face in the flickering candlelight as he raised his hips and positioned Daniel's cock at his hole. Daniel held his breath as Casey lowered himself, forcing Daniel's hard flesh deep into his body.
He did not dare breathe until Casey came to rest in his lap, his thighs quivering with effort, his cock leaking onto Daniel's belly. Biting his lower lip, Casey shifted his hips, taking Daniel in as far as he could go, and then leaned forward, bracing his hands on either side of Daniel's shoulders.
Movement made them both cry out, and Daniel closed his eyes as his cock slid back out of that tight heat. Casey grunted and sat down again, engulfing Daniel completely.
He lost track of the time as he was squeezed and then released, over and over. The scent of salvia tickled his nostrils. Sweat slicked their skin, easing the way between them, and when Casey gasped, his breathing harsh and arrhythmic, Daniel wrapped his hands around Casey's cock and pulled his orgasm from him.
With an oath through clenched teeth, Daniel jerked his hips up and released deep inside Casey. Slowly, muscles relaxing bit by bit, Casey collapsed onto him, smearing his ejaculate between their panting bellies. Daniel's arms held him close.
"Good," Daniel whispered as he forced his heavy eyelids open. Casey's skin glowed, the sigils beneath his flesh clear and dark. Casey mumbled something into his shoulder, but Daniel only tightened his hold before he slid into slumber.
The boy screamed.
The remains of his trousers were torn and filthy, but not as filthy as his face. The fair skin visible in his tear tracks contrasted sharply with the grime that darkened his countenance. His hair was matted and tangled.
Heavy manacles rattled as he moved, trying to avoid the blows that rained down on his bare back. Blood stained his hands and feet and dripped in fat, greasy drops from the welts criss-crossing his prominent ribs.
The whip cracked and his body writhed. He opened his mouth, gasping, and blood colored his lips. He had bitten his tongue.
Dim figures moved around him, voices boomed and then were silent. Hands tore the rags from his hips, leaving him bare, his lean flanks blood-streaked and quivering.
A huge man stepped behind him, his meaty fist wrapped around an enormous erection jutting from a thatch of black hair. With no warning, the man spread the boy's cheeks wide and pushed inside.
The boy screamed until his voice gave out.
Jerking awake, Daniel scrambled from the bed, landing on the floor with a thud. Trembling, he buried his sweating face in the blanket and swallowed hard against the bile that soured his throat.
No. No, it could not be. Not that.
"Did you dream last night?" Casey asked softly.
Eyes burning from lack of sleep, Daniel stared at his bowl of porridge, suddenly nauseated. He dropped the spoon and buried his cold hands in his armpits. A sharp nod was the only answer he could give.
Do not ask about the dream. Please.
Casey rested his hand on Daniel's shoulder. "You should have woken me."
With a shrug, Daniel turned so he would not meet Casey's eyes. "Why should both of us be wakeful?"
And he could not have kept it from Casey then. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Would Casey have forsaken his Queen to save his child? But they were too far away to save Olle...
Allah will be merciful.
"It was my fault." Casey sat down and stared steadily at Daniel. "I should have made sure you were protected."
Daniel shook his head. His throat was so tight he couldn't speak, could hardly breathe.
"No son should have to see his father..." A wrinkle appeared between Casey's brows and he reached across the table, his hand outstretched, an invitation to Daniel to take it, to receive comfort.
Daniel did not move.
Petra entered, carrying a heavy cloak of blue wool, trimmed with a thick band of fur. She peered at Daniel and frowned, but only greeted the both briefly before she draped the cloak over a stool and settled in the chair before the fire. Casey picked up his spoon and took a mouthful of his porridge.
"I am sending Kel with you," Petra announced after she had arranged her skirts.
"That is very thoughtful of you, Täti," Casey began. "But-"
She snorted and gestured him to silence. "He is wasted here. You will find him useful for the remainder of your journey and when you return to court-" She glared at Casey. "You are returning to court?"
Casey nodded. "As soon as we can. Time is running out, and I am still searching for-"
"Good." She suddenly looked old and tired. "The news from the border is worrisome, and word is that the Sachsen's strength increases daily. The Queen has said she will fight to the death and sacrifice herself to save her people, but after the loss of her father and brothers..."
"She will not have to fight if we can find the one who can save us," Casey replied firmly.
Petra looked up, her expression softening. "Do you know who he is?"
The note of hope in her voice made Daniel wince. How could they find this man when they only had a few vague clues on which to base their search?
"No, Täti." Casey sighed. "No, we do not know who he is. But I promise you, we will find him."
"There is something you must know." She bit her lip and turned to face the fire. Daniel frowned, his heart sinking. That simple display in such a self-possessed woman was tantamount to a fit of hysterics in one more openly emotional.
"I have heard," she said, carefully not looking at either of them, "that the Sachsen has been seen with a sorcerer."
Casey set down his spoon. "Yes, we know." His voice was flat.
She looked at them then, her dark eyes darting between them. Slowly she nodded. "Ah. You have protections from the witch?"
His face flooded with color, but Casey simply nodded. His hand went to his chest, where the little bag of salvia lay under his shirt.
Her lips twitched, and she cleared her throat. "Kel?" she called.
A muffled word came from the corridor - it sounded like a curse - and Kel poked his head into the room. "Yes, Daami?" His ears were scarlet and he did not meet her eyes.
"What have I told you about using such language?" She shook her head indulgently. "Are you ready yet?"
"Almost. I just need to-" He disappeared, and something clattered in the corridor.
"Finish your food," she said, turning back to them. "Daniel, there's a nip in the air and winter is coming fast. Neither of you is kitted out for the changing weather, but Kyösti is used to the chill. You, however..." She pursed her lips and looked faintly disapproving. "I would like you to use my husband's old cloak." She waved her hand at the fir-trimmed cloak draped over the stool.
Daniel glanced at Casey, raising his brows. Casey looked as startled as he felt, but he nodded at Daniel, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"Thank you, Daami," Daniel said, careful to shape his vowels the way Casey had taught him. "I am honored that you-"
She made an impatient noise and glared at him. "Nonsense. If you and Kyösti are going to save the kingdom, the least I can do is ensure you don't become chilled and fall ill."
An hour later, they were on the road to Rokkaniemi.
Kel handed him a cup of tea, the steaming cup warming Daniel's cold fingers. He huddled deeper into the thick cloak and held the cup under his chin. Tendrils of heat curled around his jaw and ears.
"Is it always hot in your land, Herra Daniel?" Kel squatted beside their small fire, feeding it with twigs. He pronounced it Dahnyall, flattening and eliding the vowels.
It felt odd to no longer be identified and recognized as an el-Rydal. As el-Rydal Effendi. Now he was simply Daniel, his family name immaterial, his given name graced with a strange title only because of his... association with Casey. Because he was part of a prophecy. Part of Casey. No longer a whole man...
"No." Daniel moved the cup and the moisture on his chin immediately chilled. "It can become quite cold at night. But the days are hot and dry."
Casey barked a laugh, but there was no humor in it. "I have never been so hot. It was enough to boil your blood-" He broke off and hurriedly stood, turning to look down the path. "Will we be there by sunset?"
Kel nodded and handed Daniel a hunk of heavy black bread and a piece of hard cheese. "If we had continued through the valleys, it would take us a day longer to reach Rokkaniemi."
"I know." Casey sounded impatient. "And we still must find him..." He turned and sat on the boulder beside Daniel, taking the bread and cheese Kel handed him.
"As Daami Petra always says, take one thing at a time, Herra Kyösti." Kel's words were muffled by a mouthful of bread.
Casey gave him a sour look. "My aunt's advice, although excellent, isn't particularly helpful at the moment. The Sachsen is gaining strength and it's only a matter of time before he attacks. We must be prepared to meet him in battle, and if I cannot find the one who will save us..." He swallowed hard.
Daniel sipped his tea, willing the lump in his own throat to dissolve. If Casey could not find him, then all their pain and suffering would have been for naught. Daniel could have returned home, tried to save his father, or at least avenge his death. And Olle...
"I'm not hungry." Daniel handed the food back to Kel, who took it with a puzzled frown.
Face pale, Casey glanced at him and then concentrated on his own food.
Daniel drank his tea. He had not dreamed since that horror-filled night at Petra's; Casey insisted that they 'protect' themselves at night and again in the morning. The frequency of their lovemaking was making Casey sore, but when Daniel had commented on how he winced whenever he sat down, Casey merely shrugged and said he preferred a sore ass to raping Daniel again.
Daniel did not press the issue.
Kel carefully doused the fire before they mounted and wended their way down the trail, toward Rokkaniemi. Daniel shivered, already missing the warmth of the fire.
It was dusk by the time they reached the city gates. The long twilights of the northern climes disturbed Daniel - the world should be either dark or light, not a strange, murky half-light when everything looked faintly unearthly and danger could hide in the dimness. He peered up at the tall stone towers that flanked the heavy wooden gates. Guards in helm and mail surveyed the countryside from their perch, their bodies oddly foreshortened by the steep angle.
The guards at the gate looked them over carefully, but did not stop them, and Casey confidently guided Salimeh into the maze of streets. The houses crowded together, tall and narrow, with small windows, stout chimneys, and brightly painted doors. The streets were not congested, but a good number of people were hurrying about their business and did not spare them a second glance.
"We will report to the Queen first," Casey said over his shoulder.
"Like this?" Daniel's stomach lurched, and he looked at his dusty, travel-stained clothing. "Won't she be offended that we did not make ourselves more presentable?"
Casey chuckled. "She doesn't think I can look presentable. At least, that's what she always told me when we were growing up." He stopped in a small square and pointed up one street. "Kel, go to my house and speak with Akseli. It's the third one on the left. Tell him to prepare my room, and have him find you a place to sleep, as well."
"Shall I ask him to have dinner ready for you when you return?" Kel asked.
"No. I expect we'll dine with the Queen. And if she throws us out without giving us any dinner," Casey grinned, "we'll buy something from a stall."
They turned down another street, which debouched onto a large square. Houses and shops lined three sides of the square, and a long, elegant stone building occupied the fourth.
"Is that the palace?"
Casey nodded. "The Palatsi."
"Palatsi," Daniel repeated. His stomach fluttered, and he swallowed, trying to force moisture into his parched throat. Right. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. He was an el-Rydal. No woman, Queen or not, would intimidate him.
Casey sighed. "I suppose I should just get it over with," he muttered, and urged Salimeh toward the open doors.
As they rode up, guards emerged from the building, their worn scabbards showing that their swords were for more than show.
Casey stopped and raised his hand in greeting. "Captain Oskarsson, I am here to see the Queen."
One man gaped at him, and another stepped up to Salimeh and saluted. "Herra Kyösti! I cannot believe- We were told-" His mouth closed with a snap and he turned, barking at the others. "Fools, it is the ruhtinas! Take his horse and inform Majesteetti that he has returned." He glanced at Daniel. "A prisoner, Herra?"
"No." Casey's face darkened and the captain saluted again.
"My apologies. I did not mean-"
Casey threw him the reins and dismounted. "Inform the watch that Herra Daniel is to be accorded the same respect as I. And have our horses treated gently; they have carried us far, and deserve nothing but kindness."
Another man ran from the palace and held Zeina's bridle. Daniel dismounted, swirling his cloak around him in as graceful and princely a fashion as he could before stepping to Casey's side.
Casey looked at him gravely. "Ready?" he asked, one eye quivering in a ghost of a wink.
Daniel nodded, steeling himself. He knew the correct forms of address; Casey had drilled him on those throughout the day. But there was so much to remember, and the thrice-damned language with its nuances and subtleties could so easily spell disaster...
Casey was half-a-dozen steps ahead of him before he realized it. He hurried to catch up - without seeming to rush - and they strode briskly through the door and down a long, cold corridor. Their footsteps sounded loud on the stone, and Daniel tried to look everywhere at once without appearing to gawk.
They eventually stopped in front of a white door. Casey took a deep breath and lifted his chin, then opened the door and stepped inside.
A pretty, fair-haired woman sat at a table strewn with papers and books. She was scribbling on a sheet of paper, her fingers stained with ink, and frowning down at what she wrote.
Suddenly she looked up at Casey and her frown changed into a scowl.
"Ukko's balls!" She flung down her pen. "What the hell are you doing
Casey swept into a bow. "Majesteetti," he said, his eyes on the floor. "I am your humble servant-"
She glared at him. "The reports said you had been killed or captured." Suddenly her glare slide across to Daniel.
Daniel closed his open mouth and bowed as well, staring at a small piece of parchment that had fallen off her desk and lay beside one of the carved legs. His heart thudded in his chest. The chair scraped and light, quick footsteps pattered toward them.
"Oh, for- Get up, damn you both." A surprisingly strong arm hauled him upright. He stared into wide grey-blue eyes that suddenly narrowed. With a sniff, she turned toward Casey. "So, you're not dead."
Casey's expression softened as he looked at her. "No." He continued quickly. "Lijssa was killed..." His throat worked. "But Olle is safe with Antti."
No, he isn't.
He must have made a noise, because Casey glanced at him before turning back to the Queen.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I see." She raised her hand and pushed a lock of hair back, then returned to her chair. "And him?" she said, nodded at Daniel.
"The prophecy is true," Casey replied softly. "Daniel and I are-"
She slammed her hands down on the table, scattering papers over the surface. "Stop it! Your father was right, damn him - there is no truth to that old wives' tale."
Casey's face paled, but he stepped up to the table and rested his hands in it, leaning forward. "It is true, Daana. Whether you wish to believe it or not, Daniel and I are kaksonen sielu."
Her eyes searched his face for a long moment, then she sighed and rested her chin in her palm. Lines of strain and exhaustion radiated from the corners of her eyes and grooves cut deep on either side of her mouth. "I cannot afford to believe it, Kyösti. The Sachsen's troops are poised at our border. I cannot wait for you to follow some half-remembered tale and reveal a miraculous savior who will smite our foe." She fingered a pile of papers on the table. "We must attack now, before he gains in strength and the winter descends."
Casey straightened and crossed his arms over his chest. "Attack now?"
Nodding, she pinched the bridge of her nose and then sat back in her chair. "We leave in two days' time."
"We?" He frowned. "You can't mean to go-"
"Of course I do," she snapped. "They are my people - I must be there for them."
"But you would be in danger-"
"Kyösti." Her voice was low as she slowly stood and faced him. "I will do anything to stop the Sachsen. If I could save even one life by walking naked through the battlefield and giving myself to him, I would do it willingly. Now," she sat down quickly, as though her knees had given way, "stop being an idiot and help me-"
A door behind the Queen opened. "I found the reports you asked for, Daana. Is there anything else you need tonight?" A young woman with thick black hair and rounded cheeks walked into the room, carrying a stack of parchment. She stopped suddenly when she caught sight of Casey, her mouth ridiculously agape.
The parchment fluttered to the floor.
"Kyösti!" With a shout, she dashed to Casey and flung her arms around him, squeezing him tightly. "It's you! It's really you!" Her face split in an enormous grin, she held him at arm's length and studied him intently. "You look well, you look-"
"I'm fine, Kijmi." Her eyes filled with tears as he repeated the news of his wife, and this time Daniel managed to remain silent when Casey spoke of Olle.
Kijmi's glistening eyes turned to Daniel with a look he recognized; he'd seen the same expression on the faces of men looking over potential concubines. "Who is this, Kyösti?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Daniel swallowed hard and involuntarily stepped closer to Casey.
Casey chuckled and turned, flinging his arm over Daniel's shoulders. "This, my little turnip, is Daniel el-Rydal. But you may not have him - he is mine."
Daniel almost laughed at her pout, but then she shrugged and gave him a heavy-lidded half-smile. "Yours, hmm? Perhaps the three of us-"
"Perhaps," Daana said, eyeing them all with disgust, "we could return to the subject of the battle I must command?"
"Of course." Kijmi's appraising gaze lingered on Daniel for a moment, then she turned and began to gather the fallen papers.
"What can I do to help?" Casey asked, letting his arm drop from Daniel's shoulders and walking around the table.
Daana sighed and shook her head. "You can't. Not now. Go home and rest. You both look like you've been traveling for weeks."
"We have." Casey reached out and gently touched her cheek with one finger. "I will not fail you, my Queen. I will continue the search until my life is taken from me."
She raised her hand and curled it around Casey's, holding it to her cheek. Her eyelids fluttered closed for a moment, then she looked up at him and smiled, her face transformed. "I am glad you're back, my old friend."
They hadn't dined at a food stall after all. Casey gave him an odd little smile and led the way to a large house, slightly set back from the street. They were greeted with hugs for Casey, and tentative smiles for him, but Daniel didn't mind. He remembered Kijmi's predatory look and appreciated the servants' reticence.
They ate at a small table before a crackling fire in a room Casey called his study. The food was plain and filling, servants' fare. Akseli, who seemed to be in charge of the household, had objected - Herra Kyösti and his... companion deserved the best the cook could offer. Casey had insisted that that's what they wanted, and, after a short, extremely polite argument, Akseli gave in. Daniel's empty stomach appreciated Casey's persistence.
Kel appeared toward the end of their meal, knocking quietly on the door.
"The horses have been curried, fed, and stabled, Herra," he said, glancing at Akseli, who had insisted on serving them himself. It was not a benign look, and Akseli sniffed meaningfully as he poured more wine for Casey.
Casey nodded. "Do you have a place to sleep, Kel?" He picked up his wine glass and sipped it slowly.
Kel's expression grew blank. "Yes, Herra."
With a sigh, Casey set down his glass. "Where did you put him, Akseli?"
Akseli sniffed again. "Above the stables, Herra."
Casey glanced at Daniel, rolling his eyes heavenward for a brief moment. Daniel bit his lip and turned to the fire. Servants were the same everywhere, it seemed.
"That is not suitable and you know it."
"But Herra, he-"
"And if my aunt Petra found out that you had put her man above the stables, what do you think her reaction would be?"
Akseli's gulp sounded loud in the room.
"I'm certain... That is, I believe I can find a comfortable bed for him in the servants' hall."
"Good. Why don't you see to that now." It was not a suggestion. "Daniel and I can tend to ourselves for a while."
Daniel couldn't help it, he had to see Akseli's reaction. Turning back, he caught a glimpse of the man's rigid back before he left, closing the door just a hair too hard.
"Kel, come and sit down." Casey gestured to a stool beside the fire. "Have you eaten?"
"Yes, Herra. Your cook gave me plenty." Kel stretched out his legs toward the fire and looked at Casey expectantly.
Casey hesitated, his eyes flickering over Daniel and then back to the fire. "Events are moving quickly," he said at last. "The Queen and her troops will be leaving in a few days, and it is our- my duty to travel with her." He did not look at Daniel.
"Our duty," Daniel said softly.
Casey nodded once, a brief acknowledgement.
"She goes to battle the Sachsen," Kel said.
"Yes. So we will not need your services. You may return to Daami Petra's."
"I would rather," Kel said slowly, "go with you, Herra Kyösti. I may be useful on the journey."
Casey smiled. "My aunt told me you would not wish to return."
"Oh, it's not because of her!" Kel's cheeks darkened. "But it is very... quiet in the village, and I'd like to see something of the world before I settle down."
"We are going into battle," Casey replied. "You may see more of the world than you wanted to, and not have the opportunity to settle down at all, if you are killed."
Kel shrugged. "Perhaps. But I'd like to go, all the same."
"Then you shall go with us, and I will be glad of your company."
Kel rose hurriedly when Akseli returned, bowing to them both and then disappearing out the door.
"I have put Herra Daniel in the room at the end of the corridor," Akseli said as he supervised the collection of their dinner crockery.
Casey waited until the other servants had left before he turned to Akseli. "Herra Daniel will share my bed."
Akseli opened his mouth and took a breath, then closed it when he saw Casey's expression. "Of course, Herra," he murmured, eyes lowered.
"I should think so," Casey muttered to Daniel, eyes twinkling.
They followed Akseli up the stairs and down the corridor to a large bedroom. After ushering them inside, Akseli bowed and backed out the door.
"Yours?" Daniel turned to Casey, eyebrow raised.
Casey nodded, his lips pressed together tightly. "Lijssa's room is the next one. I shall have to have it cleared..."
"There's no hurry." Daniel looked around the room. Comfortable. Warm. He could live here.
The thought terrified him.
A rustle of cloth. He turned and his breath caught in his throat.
Casey had stripped off his shirt and was bending over, pulling off his boots. The strong arch of his back, the smooth skin, the play of muscles...
Daniel gulped and reached down to adjust his aching cock.
He took Casey hard, then swallowed him until he came with a groan into Daniel's mouth.
They lay together in the bed afterward, curled around each other tightly. Daniel yawned and relaxed into the mattress, his hands gently caressing Casey's back and arms.
"Daniel?" Casey whispered, his breath warm in Daniel's ear.
"Mmmm?" He snuggled closer.
"Your dream, when we were at Petra's-"
He tensed and his heart sped up, but he tried to keep his breathing even. "I don't want to-"
"It was-" Casey's voice broke. "It was about Olle, wasn't it?"
He disentangled himself from clinging limbs and turned onto his side, facing away. "Go to sleep, Casey." He didn't even try to lie; how could he lie to this man?
"Is he alive?"
Daniel squeezed his eyes closed and took a shaky breath. "Yes."
Do not ask more.
A warm body pressed against his back and hands slid across his chest. "Tell me."
Casey kissed the back of his neck and he gasped, forcing the sob back. Deflect. Redirect. Obscure. "There wasn't much."
"Was he injured?"
Daniel's shudder was completely involuntary; he could not prevent it.
The hands tightened into fists. "I am his father, damn you," Casey whispered harshly. "I must know."
"They-" Daniel tried to clear his throat, but the lump would not disappear. "They were beating him," he choked out. He could not say the other. What words could he use to tell Casey that he son was being raped? His stomach lurched.
"Ukko's..." Casey pressed his forehead against Daniel's shoulder. "My son..."
"We could leave at first light." Daniel raised Casey's fist to his lips. "Change horses, ride like the wind..."
"No." Casey's voice was as cold and inhuman as an afreet. "Even if we were assured of saving him, I cannot go. The Queen leaves in two days. My duty-"
"Your duty!" Daniel twisted in his grasp until they were face to face. His fingers dug into Casey's upper arms. "It is always about your duty. Everything you have done, everything you have forced me to do, is always about your duty! Your duty to a Queen who wasn't even happy to see you, who didn't care whether you were alive or dead!" He pushed Casey away. "Even your son is sacrificed to your duty." He practically spat the last word.
Casey gasped, his breathing rapid and uneven. "The prophecy-"
"May be true," Daniel interrupted. "But then again, it may not. You have not found this man, and time is running out."
"El-Yafe was ill." Daniel took a deep breath. Calm. Control. He controlled so little in his life now; he must control himself. "Who knows how he was affected in the days before his illness," he said, his tone reasonable.
"But you and I..."
Daniel rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. "We are... meant to be together," he said slowly. "No one can dispute that."
"I'm glad to hear it."
Daniel ignored Casey's comment. "But to conclude that our... connection will enable you to find a savior..." He sighed. "I share the Queen's doubts."
"Doubts." Casey's chuckle was as dry as dead grass. "Don't you think I have doubts? I went on that damned journey to Dar Es Salla in order to bury my doubts with facts. My wife was killed and my child captured because I needed to know, to discover as much as possible about something as elusive as rain in the desert. I have no idea how to find this man, no idea what he can do even if I do find him." His fingers brushed Daniel's arm. "No, the Queen is not the only one with doubts. But I must-" His breath was shaky. "I must finish this, Daniel. See it through to the very end, even if it means my son's death, my death, your death. I cannot do otherwise."
Daniel turned his hand and clasped Casey's fingers. "I know." He paused, then rolled onto his side, facing Casey. "When the battle is over, if we live through it, we will return to Zaheira first. Avenging my father can wait, if there is a chance that Olle is still alive..."
Casey pushed him into the mattress and kissed him until all thoughts of pain and death were banished.
"They'll do, but we'll need to have another pair made for you today." Casey shoved his feet into his boots and eyed the thick woolen trousers Daniel was pulling on. "I'll talk to Akseli. We probably have the material on hand. If not, it's easy to find in the market."
Daniel nodded and tugged a heavy quilted tunic over his shirt. He smoothed his hands down the fine material. By the Five, he was actually warm.
"What else will I need?"
Casey frowned. "You should have new boots, lined or furred, but there isn't time to have them made. I'll see what I have. Gloves and a hat, of course. Anything else will have to wait until after we return."
"If we return." Daniel sat and put on the knitted socks Casey had recommended before slipping on his boots. He wiggled his toes experimentally. Warm, and not a bad fit.
Daniel rested his elbows on his knees and looked at Casey. "What else must we do today? The horses' tack..."
"Kel is checking that, and will arrange for any necessary repairs." Casey stood and walked to the window, his hands crossed tightly over his chest. "I must- I have an obligation-" He cleared his throat. "I must pay my respects to Lijssa's parents."
"Shall I accompany you?" He kept his voice solemn, but light.
Casey took a deep breath. "As much as I would appreciate that..." He shook his head. "No. It would not be appropriate."
Thank the Five...
It's not that he was a coward. Not at all. But to face the parents of his companion's dead wife... Well, the el-Rydals have never been fools.
Casey gave him a quick kiss and was gone. After wandering around Casey's room for a few minutes, Daniel went to the tack room. It was not that he didn't trust Kel, but his father had always stressed the importance of double checking the details, especially before entering a potentially life and death situation.
And it got him out from under Akseli's inquisitive gaze.
They worked in silence only occasionally broken by a quiet word or sound. It was restful, perched on a hard wooden stool, methodically oiling the reins, checking the joins, ensuring that the bridle would hold even if he had to pull the reins tight.
Kel was repairing a loose seam in Zeina's saddle, his face screwed up in concentration as he pushed the waxed thread through the stiff leather.
"How long have you worked for Daami Petra?" Daniel asked, setting down the bridle and stretching his aching back.
"Three years." Kel bit his lower lip as he worked.
Daniel rubbed his lower back. "She seems to be a... demanding mistress."
"No, Herra." Putting the needle and thread down on the saddle, he shook his head. "It's just her way. She's a bit gruff, but she treats all her servants like family." His face darkened. "Which is better to my mind than those who are polite to their servants but work them to the bone."
"True." Daniel walked over to Zeina's box. With a whuff, Zeina nuzzled Daniel's outstretched hand. "No, I don't have anything for you."
"Here you are, Herra." Kel took a carrot from his pocket. "I was saving it for him later. He's a beauty," he added, a wistful note in his voice. "Sleeker and faster than our fat, furry beasts."
"He's bred for speed and stamina." Daniel stroked Zeina's glossy neck as he fed the horse the carrot. "But I'm afraid the cold might be too much for him."
"Don't worry." Kel nodded toward a thick, quilted blanket draped over a rod. "I'll make sure he doesn't suffer any more than needs be. And I've got another blanket for Herra Kyösti's Salimeh." Again, Kel's flattened vowels made the name sound strange.
"Herra?" Akseli's anxious voice came from the house. "Herra Daniel?"
With a shrug and a sigh, Daniel walked out to the yard. Akseli was peering from the door, his plump hands clasped together over his padded middle.
"Oh, Herra Daniel." Akseli stood back to let him through the door. The warmth of the house was almost painful after the chilly stables. "They came- I told them Herra Kyösti was out, but they said they had come for you." He gazed at Daniel's clothing, flecked with bits of straw, and frowned. "You must change first, of course-"
Daniel sighed and followed Akseli through the kitchen. By the Five, the man was tiresome. "Who has come for me, and why?"
"It is the Queen's guards!"
Daniel's stomach dropped. "Has something happened to Casey? To Herra Kyösti?" he amended, when Akseli looked confused.
"I don't know-"
They entered the hall, where two men in uniform waited. Daniel strode over to them, fear for Casey making him brusque. "I am Daniel el-Rydal. What has happened-"
The older guard bowed, frigidly polite. "You have been summoned by the Queen," he said, his face impassive. "You must come with us now."
"But he has to change into clothing more suitable-" Akseli bleated.
One look from the guard closed Akseli's mouth with a snap.
Daniel met the man's eyes. He was an el-Rydal, and not some child who could be easily terrorized. "Shall I call for my horse?"
"It is not far. You will not need it."
"Very well." Daniel turned to Akseli. "If Herra Kyösti returns while I am gone-"
"Herra Kyösti attends the Queen," the guard said, gesturing toward the door. "Please, Herra..."
At least Casey was there. Perhaps they needed to discuss strategy with the Queen... Raising his chin, Daniel followed the guards out of the house.
They walked quickly down the street, the guards not obviously flanking him, yet the crowds on the street parted before them. Two turns brought them to the front of another house, smaller than Casey's, but still elegant. The door opened as they approached, and the guards followed Daniel to the threshold, then stopped and turned.
Daniel entered alone.
He paused, his eyes adjusting to the relative gloom of the hall. Raised voices echoed eerily around him. A short, round man appeared before him, bowing and murmuring "Herra..." He gestured toward a door.
The voices cut off abruptly as he entered. He scanned the faces turned toward him. A weeping woman sat to one side, her red-rimmed eyes narrowed. Casey stood beside two men, the sight of whose florid faces and clenched fists immediately brought a rush of anger to Daniel. And the Queen sat in regal splendor beside the window, her hands tightly clasping the chair arms.
"So, Kyösti," said the older man, his lip raising in a sneer, "this is the vierasmaalainen you brought with you to fuck. Does he like having your cock shoved up his arse?"
Casey hit him so hard he stumbled back and would have landed in the fire if the younger man hadn't caught his arm.
"You-" The old man turned to Casey.
"That's enough!" The Queen's voice whipped out. All heads turned toward her. She rose slowly, eyes locked on the older man. "Remember to whom you are speaking, Matius Nikkolainen."
"I do remember, Kuningatar," he ground out. "My daughter's husband, who has bedded a whore, a lutka-"
This time Casey's blow felled him to the floor.
The younger man turned, lashing out at Casey. Blocking his wild blow, Casey caught his arm and twisted it behind him, bringing the young man to his knees with a yelp.
Gasping and scowling, Nikkolainen struggled to his feet.
"Illmarinen damn you, Makalleinen," he shouted, lunging at Casey.
Daniel raced forward and shouldered him away from Casey. Moving more agilely than his bulk would suggest, Nikkolainen grabbed Daniel's arms. Daniel kneed him, slithering out of his grasp when his grip loosened. Nikkolainen scrabbled at Daniel's chest, fingers trying to find purchase on the thick quilted vest.
Daniel grabbed his forearms, desperate to keep Nikkolainen's hands from his throat. The old man was strong - his hands inched upward, shaking from strain, as Daniel fought to pull them down.
Eyes bulging and face livid, Nikkolainen closed his fingers around Daniel's throat. With a gasp, Daniel released his arms and clawed at the hands settling around his windpipe. One finger caught the leather thong that held the pouch of salvia around his neck and as he struggled, he pulled it free of his shirt.
Shifting to gain a better chokehold, Nikkolainen grabbed the pouch.
His scream sounded like that of a soul in torment.
Daniel bent over, hands on knees, gasping for air. Nikkolainen slumped against the wall, holding his hand, his face ashen.
"Isä?" The young man shrugged off Casey's loose grasp and reached for Nikkolainen.
"Sorcery," Nikkolainen hissed, holding his right hand by the wrist. His hand shook and blood dripped from between his fingers.
"Kyösti?" the Queen breathed, rising from her chair. "What have you done?"
"Nothing." Daniel stared at the little leather pouch in his hand. What had Abiba given them? "He has done-"
"Sorcery!" cried the young man, echoed by his mother. He wrapped a supportive arm around his father and glared at Daniel. "Look what he has done. Kyösti has brought a sorcerer into our midst!"
"Curb your tongue, Essa-Pekka," snapped the Queen. She cradled Nikkolainen's hand in hers, studying it, and darted a glance at Daniel before turning back to the young man. "Help your father to a chair and send for a lääkäri."
Once Nikkolainen was tended to, the raw, blistered skin of his hand coated with a soothing salve and dressed, and settled on a sofa, his wife and son by his side, the Queen turned to Casey. "Explain, Kyösti."
Casey shook his head, his face pale. "We did not know this would happen, Majesteetti. The noita gave each of us a pouch of salvia and told us to always wear them as protection, but we did not know... She did not tell us that it could injure another."
She stared at them for a moment, then nodded. "I believe you." Silencing the young man's protest with a gesture, she continued. "As much as I do not want to admit it, I am beginning to wonder about that damned- About the prophecy. If the noita provided such strong protection..."
"Then there must be something important to protect," Nikkolainen finished unexpectedly.
"Exactly." The Queen took a deep breath. "Did she give you other protections?"
Casey nodded, a faint blush tinting his cheeks, but he did not speak.
"Well? Tell me."
Casey glanced at Daniel, eyebrow raised. Daniel bowed his head. If Casey was ashamed...
Casey suddenly stepped close to him, their arms brushing. "Daniel and I must be intimate at least once a day."
Mouth agape, the Queen sank onto a chair.
"Sounds like an odd sort of protection to me," Essa-Pekka muttered, eyeing Casey and Daniel uneasily.
His father snorted and poked Essa-Pekka's shoulder with his good hand. "Forgive this pup, Majesteetti. He has been educated, despite appearances to the contrary. He knows about the prophecy."
"I believe we can attribute his comment to shock," said the Queen, her cheeks darkening as she glanced at Casey, then Daniel. She cleared her throat. "I was certainly not expecting..." She stood. "Well. I would like to see these... magical pouches for myself."
"Be careful!" said Nikkolainen.
Essa-Pekka sprang to his feet. "Majesteetti, let me-"
"Ukko's balls," she muttered. "I'm just going to look at them."
Casey pulled the pouch from under his shirt and they held them out. The Queen peered at them closely, then, before anyone could stop her, brushed a fingertip over the soft leather.
"Daana!" Casey stepped back, snatching the pouch away.
She lifted her finger. It was unharmed.
The woman was as brave as a warrior. Daniel was beginning to understand Casey's devotion.
Essa-Pekka stepped up, jaw set. "I will also touch one. Yours," he said, pointing at Daniel.
Daniel held out the pouch, and Essa-Pekka quickly wrapped his hand around the leather, then pulled it away.
He raised his hand, palm out, to the Queen. The skin was unbroken.
"A protection of great worth," the Queen said. "One which only injures if you are being attacked."
Nikkolainen rose slowly, waving away his wife and son. "Proof that the noita places a high value on their lives, as should we." He walked over to Casey, cradling his injured hand against his chest. "Forgive me, my son. I spoke in the heat of anger and grief."
Casey rested a hand on his broad shoulder. "Honored Isä, I loved your daughter. She was helpmeet, wife, and the mother of my child. I grieve her loss as well."
Nikkolainen nodded, then lifted his uninjured hand. "I will touch one, as well, to prove my good will toward you and your... companion."
Without a word, Casey held out the pouch, and Nikkolainen enfolded it in a hand that was rock-steady. He held it for a heartbeat, then released it with a sigh.
His hand was whole.
Daniel took a deep breath, relaxing a fraction for the first time since he walked into the house.
"I crave a boon," Nikkolainen said, turning to the Queen. "That when we depart in the morning, my son and I, as well as my men, will have the honor of guarding the lives of the kaksonen sielu."
Casey slipped the pouch beneath his shirt again, and his fingers found Daniel's.
They left Rokkaniemi as the sun was peeping over the mountaintops. Daniel twisted around on Zeina, hampered by his many layers of clothing, to see the line of troops stretched out behind them into the valley. He and Casey, accompanied by Kel, were near the front of the line, already ascending the slopes of the nearest peaks. Ahead of them, the Queen urged her shaggy chestnut gelding up a steep path to a ledge overlooking the valley.
She raised her spear, the tip catching the light, shining like a beacon. The men below stilled, their eyes raised expectantly to the small figure.
With a whoop, she pointed toward the mountains with her spear, then let out an ululating cry that was echoed by the troops. She returned to the head of the line with a flourish.
"The Ville-Veikko war cry," Casey said. His eyes sparkled and the cold had put color in his cheeks. His fur-lined hood was pushed back, and his freshly washed hair gleamed in the growing light. Like the other men, he had plaited his hair into several thick braids that spilled down the front of his woolen cloak, the ends bound with bright colored thread.
Daniel wiped his dripping nose with the back of his gloved hand and sniffed. He couldn't wait for the sun to rise - at the moment it was damned cold. Especially his nose. His hair was in one heavy braid down his back. Casey had offered to make several, but Daniel had refused, not willing to look like a complete barbarian. He blew out a breath, fascinated by the mist that came from his mouth. Was that what falling snow looked like?
They stopped at mid-day, long enough to stretch their legs and wash down hard-tack and dried beef with a yeasty beer that spread warmth throughout Daniel's body. Kel watered the horses, and Daniel had mounted when the Queen's shout drew his attention.
He spotted Casey standing with a small knot of well-dressed men. They appeared to be arguing, and he checked that his knife was in his belt before dismounting and joining them, pushing through the men until he stood at Casey's side.
The Queen stood, fists on hips, scowling at the men.
"It is my duty to ride at the fore," she shouted. "I will not be treated like baggage and ride surrounded by guards!"
"Majesteetti," said one man with a long, grizzled beard. "We only wish to keep you safe."
"After what happened to your honored father and brothers..." began another.
The Queen rounded on him. "We do not know what happened to them! And all the guards in the kingdom could not prevent them from being taken!"
No one spoke.
Casey stepped forward, Daniel at his side.
"We will ride with you," he said softly. "You have seen one of our protections in action. Surely we are better suited to guarding you than those who have no idea what awaits."
Her lips pressed together in a thin line, her eyes searching their faces. Daniel met her piercing look without turning away, and after a moment she nodded. "Very well."
Daniel could not quite understand the mutterings behind him, but the Queen lifted her chin and pointed at one sour-faced man. "Do not judge me, Aski. I have seen the hand of Illmarinen in the prophecy, and I cannot be in better hands than those of the kaksonen sielu."
The murmurs grew, and one or two men stepped back quickly, their hands forming wards against sorcery.
With a laugh, the Queen turned toward her horse. "You are like children, frightened of that which you do not understand." The men ducked their heads and hid their hands under their cloaks. She mounted and gestured to Casey. "Come then, my protectors."
As they returned to their horses, Daniel kept an eye out for those who had shown their fear. He did not like the mixture of shame and resentment in their expressions.
"Herra?" Kel followed Daniel's gaze toward a small group of men speaking quietly. The men noticed Daniel's interest and turned quickly, going to their horses. "I heard that we are to ride with the Queen."
"And they were not pleased?" Kel jerked his head in the direction of the men.
"No. The Queen informed them that we were kaksonen sielu, and they seemed... frightened."
Kel nodded. "They would be."
"You know them? But you were with Daami Petra for the past three years."
The corners of Kel's mouth curled. "The good Daami knows everyone, Herra. And she knows their secrets."
"Which she revealed to you over the long winter evenings."
Kel held the stirrup for Daniel. "Of course. What is the good of knowing a secret unless you can tell someone else? At the proper moment, naturally." He winked.
Daniel nodded, suppressing his smile. "Naturally."
They camped that night in a high mountain meadow. The Queen ordered a separate tent set up for the two of them, which caused raised eyebrows and a few hastily concealed grins amongst the servants. Daniel did his best to ignore them, choosing to oversee Zeina and Salimeh's care rather than join the Queen's counselors and nobles.
"I wish to ensure that they aren't suffering from the cold," he said, warming his hands in his armpits.
Casey clapped him on the shoulder. "Illmarinen knows I would prefer to join you, but I am expected to attend the Queen."
So Daniel soothed the horses as they were fed and curried, sharing the servants' fire and listening to the gossip. With his hood up he blended into the shadows, forgotten by those who labored into the night. There was much speculation about the prophecy, and lurid reports of Nikkolainen's injury, but their separate tent had fueled speculation about the nature of the relationship of the kaksonen sielu. Some maintained that they merely needed private time with each other, to "pray and prepare for the battle," while others postulated far more erotic possibilities. None, however, came close to what actually occurred between them.
What a relief.
Daniel slipped away from the servants once their tent was finished. He ducked his head as he went inside. It was not quite tall enough for him to stand in. Their pallets and blankets filled most of the space, but two small camp stools were placed beside a folding table just inside the door. The lamp on the table was lit, giving the tent a warm, homey air and adding precious little heat to the chilly air.
Stifling a yawn, Daniel pulled off his boots and curled up in the blankets. He would at least be reasonably warm while he waited for Casey. He closed his eyes.
The images were broken and ragged, flashes of smooth naked limbs covered in blood, mouths open wide in silent screams, beating hearts carved from twitching bodies. He tried to run but his legs would not move. He could not breathe, could not turn his eyes from the horrors that assailed him. The stench of blood was nauseating, turning his stomach. He swallowed hard, trying not to vomit.
He shook, buffeted by some strong force that squeezed his shoulders and made his bones rattle.
Pain blossomed on his cheek, and he gasped, opening his eyes.
"Daniel? Are you awake?"
Harsh, dry sobs wracked him but he nodded once.
Casey knelt beside him, the golden lamplight burnishing his hair and skin so that he resembled a bronze statue with living eyes. Eyes wide with fear.
With a shaking hand Daniel reached out and grabbed the front of Casey's cloak, pulling him down for a bruising kiss. When he released Casey in order to undo the clasp of his cloak, Casey tried to sit up.
"The lamp," he murmured, but Daniel did not care.
His fingers too clumsy to unfasten the clasp, Daniel simply pushed aside the cloak and went straight for Casey's trousers. Casey yelped as he was shoved back onto the pallet, but he helped Daniel open them and pushed them down enough to give Daniel access to his cock.
The scent of salvia was strong as Daniel licked and sucked him to hardness, and when Daniel finally granted him release, Casey bit down hard on a fold of his cloak to muffle his cries.
They lay panting for a few moments, Casey sprawled on the pallet, trousers still gaping, Daniel resting his head on Casey's thigh.
Finally, Casey tugged Daniel up and into his arms. "Another dream?"
"Not of anyone specifically," Daniel murmured. "Just... horrible things."
Casey stroked his back, long, languid caresses that melted his bones. "The closer we get, the less the protection is working."
Daniel stiffened and peered at Casey in the flickering light. "Have you felt... not yourself?"
"No." The caresses continued, but Casey sounded worried. "But you are still dreaming, even after this morning. Abiba said-" Casey shifted. "You are not receiving the full protection, Daniel. If we could..." He sighed.
Daniel squeezed his eyes shut. "Not yet," he whispered, shivering. He ached to be filled, and yet... "I will when I must, Casey, but not until then."
Soft lips brushed his forehead. "Take me, then, and perhaps I will be able to satisfy you a second time tonight."
Daniel did as he was bid, taking Casey hard and then coaxing him into
another climax with mouth and fingers. But he did not extinguish the lamp
afterward. He lay for a long time, holding Casey and listening to him breathe.
The storm fell upon them the afternoon of the fifth day.
They were traversing a narrow pass that skirted the snow fields, the hot tea they'd drunk at mid-day a mere memory. Daniel pulled his icy hands into the fur-lined warmth of his cloak. When Zeina snorted, clouds of frost shot from his nostrils, which were rimed with ice crystals. Casey had shown Daniel how to wrap a knitted scarf over his nose and mouth, as Daniel had done with his kaffiyeh in the deep desert. Only in this case the scarf was used to keep warmth in, not dust and sand out.
Kel had been the first to spot the approaching darkness. He shouted and pointed, drawing their attention, then slipped from his horse and began scrabbling at the broken rockface that edged the side of the track.
"Ukko's balls! What is it?" the Queen shouted over the rising wind.
Nikkolainen squinted at the fast-moving... not a cloud, nor a flock of birds, nor anything Daniel had seen before. A vast amorphous shape, which boiled ahead of the wind and seemed to suck the light from its surroundings. The old man shouted something to Essa-Pekka, who turned his horse on the narrow track and pelted back down the mountain to the others.
Casey cursed under his breath. "Help Kel," he yelled to Daniel, then turned and went to the Queen.
Daniel slid off Zeina and ran to Kel, who was widening a debris-filled cleft in the rocks, tossing the loose stones to one side as fast as he could pick them up.
"What shall I do?"
"Get the horses," said Kel, not pausing in his work. "Lead them heads in toward us."
Nikkolainen had the reins of Kel's horse, as well as his own, and was moving them quickly into position. The Queen and Casey joined them, and Nikkolainen took the horses' reins from Casey.
"Get in front of her," the old man ordered Daniel. "Majesteetti, you must shelter against-"
"I know," she muttered, pressing herself into the cleft that Kel had cleared. "I'm not a fool."
Half-a-dozen of Nikkolainen's men rode up, dismounting quickly and drawing their horses into the equine semi-circle that surrounded the Queen.
The sky was almost black, and the wind howled through the pass like an afreet demanding vengeance. Daniel squinted into the wind, eyes watering, as the other men huddled close, shielding the Queen from the wrath of the storm. He gasped as tiny specks of white swirled around him: snow.
In a few heartbeats the individual flakes were lost in the cold and darkness. They huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, as the wind whipped around them and the snow turned into stinging ice pellets. The horses shifted restlessly, their warm breath clouding the air.
Daniel stroked Zeina's muzzle, murmuring comfort, although his soft words were ripped away by the howling wind. He squinted through frosted eyelashes at Casey, who had turned to the Queen. Daniel turned as well, breathlessly grateful for the momentary respite from the snow in his face. The Queen scowled at him from the cleft, almost invisible in the sudden darkness. Casey leaned toward her, shouting something Daniel could not understand. She nodded and pulled her heavy fur-lined cloak higher around her neck.
A shrill scream froze the marrow in Daniel's bones. He and Casey turned, shoulder to shoulder, and Daniel's knees threatened to give way.
A huge black shadow hovered over them - a monstrous bird, enormous wings spread wide. Red eyes blazed from the head, and talons gleamed, poised over the backs of the restless horses.
With a cry that echoed in the valley, the bird lashed out with its talons, catching the flanks of one of the horses. The horse screamed and reared, prevented from bolting by Nikkolainen's iron grip on the reins. The panicked horses shifted and pulled on their reins, but the men held fast, and they could only dance about in mounting terror.
Casey grabbed his arm. "The Queen!" he shouted. "It's trying to get to her!"
Daniel nodded as the bird struck again, catching the saddle of another horse and tearing a massive rent in the heavy leather. One of the men yelled as a horse broke free and bolted down the narrow track toward the rest of the company.
The bird was returning for another pass, the terrified horses struggling against the reins, the men shouting and desperately holding on. They had to do something. He had to do something.
His gut turned to water. Daniel knew exactly what he must do.
He turned and grabbed Casey's face with both hands, kissing him hard. Then Daniel darted between the rearing horses, praying under his breath that he would not be trampled.
Casey shouted, but Daniel ignored him. He slipped on the snowy ground and almost fell, recovering himself with an eel-like squirm. His hands were shaking as he pulled off his gloves and reached under his cloak and tunic, but he forced himself to carefully draw out the bag that Abiba had given him.
The leather tie around the top was stiff with the cold, and it took Daniel several heart-stopping moments to coax it open. He peered into the darkness, tracking the massive bird by its blood-red eyes as it circled around and let out a piercing cry, then dove straight toward him.
Plucking out a handful of salvia, he held it carefully and watched the bird approach. Horses screamed, men shouted, but he kept his eyes on the bird as it stretched out its talons and dropped.
"Daniel!" Casey screamed, his voice rising above the sound of the wind.
Daniel raised his arm, waiting, waiting.
As the bird reached out, talons at the ready, Daniel closed his eyes. "Forgive me, Casey."
The impact knocked the wind out of him. Daniel would have cried out, but the talons gripped him so tightly that he could not catch breath. His feet left the ground, his sight dimmed. He must move quickly.
Slapping his handful of salvia onto the bird's leg, Daniel rubbed it hard under the feathers.
With a scream that threatened to deafen Daniel, the bird shuddered and released its hold. He fell, waiting for the pain as his body broke on the rocks.
"Daniel?" Her voice was soft.
Gentle fingers stroked his cheek. He smiled. The touch of an houri; he was in Paradise.
And he didn't even remember the pain.
The fingers tapped his cheek and he took a deep breath.
"Don't move, Daniel." Hands held his shoulders down and he tried to relax, but fire raced along his nerves. The pain in his chest was joined by sharp jabs in his legs and arms. His stomach rebelled and he gagged, then cried out as he was turned on his side.
"Water!" she ordered. Something cold and wet wiped his mouth, diluting the sour taste that trickled down his throat. He shivered. "Here's another cloak, Kyösti. And where's that damn fire?" Warm heaviness settled over him.
"In a moment, Majesteetti," rumbled a voice near his ear.
Daniel peered from beneath his lashes. Casey knelt at his side, his face as pale as the snow. The Queen squatted beside him, a cloth in her hand, her brows drawn together. He blinked and squinted in the bright sunlight.
"Daniel," Casey breathed.
Suddenly he was enveloped in strong arms, Casey's breath warm on his cheek. He winced, and Casey immediately sat back with a gasp.
"I'm sorry." His hands hovered over Daniel, not touching. "Where does it hurt?"
Daniel groaned and carefully rolled onto his back. "Where doesn't it hurt?"
The Queen snorted and shot Casey a look of utter contempt. "What kind of question is that?" She scowled at Daniel. "Can you move your legs?"
Gingerly he stretched out his legs and nodded.
"Good." Without warning, the Queen pushed aside the cloaks that muffled Daniel and began feeling his arms, legs, and chest. Daniel gave a squeak of surprise, but she ignored him.
"Majesteetti?" Daniel began, but before he could continue, she gave a brisk nod and sat back, pulling the cloaks back over him.
"There's nothing broken. You'll do, but you'll be a mass of bruises by tonight. I'll give Kyösti some salve to rub into your muscles before you go to bed." She rose, dusting off her hands. "It's about time you got that fire going, Matius, but I'm glad to see you haven't lost all your woodcraft. Heat some water. I want to give Daniel an infusion before he tries to stand."
She disappeared, and Daniel closed his eyes. The sharp pains had dimmed, but every separate bone in his body ached.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?" Casey's whisper was harsh.
With a sigh, Daniel wearily opened his eyes. Casey's mouth was tight, his eyes blazed.
"There was no other choice," Daniel rasped.
"Don't be absurd!" Casey's hands shook, and he clasped them together, burying them in his lap. "You could have been killed!"
Moving slowly, Daniel reached out, resting his hand on Casey's knee. "It would have killed us all to reach her. There was nothing else to do."
Casey opened his mouth, then shut it and glared at Daniel. "You could have warned me, told me what you planned." His hand covered Daniel's.
Daniel smiled. "No time."
Lifting Daniel's hand, Casey kissed his fingers gently. "You damn fool."
Daniel let his eyes drift closed. "And what does that make you?"
Casey chuckled and held Daniel's hand between his. "You should have seen it," he murmured, brushing a kiss over Daniel's cheek. "After you rubbed the salvia on it, it jerked like a fish caught on a line, then dropped you. Fortunately," he said, his voice dry as the desert, "you fell only a man's height to a patch of soil. Then it rose, screaming, toward the sun..." He swallowed hard. "It crumbled into dust, Daniel, and was blown into a gigantic whirlwind that raced down the mountainside like an avalanche."
"Sorcery," Daniel said, opening his eyes and meeting Casey's bleak gaze. "The Sachsen's sorcerer is powerful."
Casey nodded, his fingers tightening around Daniel's.
Daniel cleared his throat. "We probably won't live through this."
"I want you to know," Casey said, his voice urgent, "that I-"
"Daniel!" The Queen approached, carrying a cup that steamed in the chill air. "Drink this. We must make the next campsite by nightfall, and this will ease your journey."
With Casey's help he sat up enough to drink the infusion. Smokey and bitter, it warmed him, and within a few minutes he was able to stand unassisted.
They mounted, silent and watchful. Hemmed in by the Queen and her guards,
Daniel could only glance at Casey and wonder what he wanted to say.
By the time they reached their campsite, it was dusk. The stars shone brightly in the velvet of the sky, and Daniel was half asleep, his head drooping as Zeina picked his way across the short turf of the meadow.
"Wake up, Daniel." Casey chuckled and dismounted.
His strong arms helped Daniel to slide from Zeina's back, and Daniel could not suppress a groan as his bruised body protested the change in position.
"As soon as the fires are going, I'll get you more of the infusion." Casey led Daniel to a smooth boulder and settled him on it, tucking his cloak around him. "Wait here."
Daniel nodded, too weary to speak. He was cold and hungry, and every part of his body ached. He couldn't move even if he had wished to.
Daniel raised his head and peered at the dim forms, lit from behind by the flickering fires that dotted the meadow. Helms and swords glinted. "Here."
"Majesteetti has requested your presence." The guards bowed, then levered Daniel from the boulder and they set out across the uneven ground. Daniel leaned heavily on an offered shoulder.
He hated this. He might as well be a parcel, moved from place to place at the whim of others. As they approached the largest blaze, voices rose above the general murmur. Daniel forced himself to move faster.
"It was the vierasmaalainen who risked his life to save our Queen," Nikkolainen shouted, facing a man with a grizzled beard. One of the men who had shown fear at the fact that Casey and Daniel were kaksonen sielu.
"A sorcerer would not fear his own creation," the man replied calmly.
Casey stood across the fire, glaring at the man. He did not speak. Next to him stood the Queen, her face solemn. Guards ranged behind them.
"Don't speak such nonsense, Einojuhani." Nikkolainen folded his arms across his broad chest and frowned at the fire. The flames spread a coppery glow over his fair skin. "I know my son-in-law. He would no more bring a sorcerer into our midst that I would."
Daniel stepped into the firelight, stopping close to the flames. A log hissed and popped, the air filled with a pungent tang. The guards behind him shifted, their swords clanking softly.
"But you have said they are kaksonen sielu." Einojuhani's eyes flickered between Casey and Daniel. The corner of his lip lifted. "If the prophecy is to be believed, there is some enchantment involved with their union. And you yourself told me of the injury you suffered from the protection they wear about their necks."
Nikkolainen looked up, his eyes narrowed. "Yes, but-"
"Protection they received from a witch." He paused, but Nikkolainen did not speak. "They have power, my friend. You cannot deny it. And those with great power must be watched and guarded, lest they turn it against us."
"We are not-" Casey began, but a look from the Queen silenced him.
"The most pure of heart can be corrupted by power," Einojuhani continued. "Or used as an unwitting tool for evil."
"If the Sachsen has a sorcerer, they could be our only hope against him." The Queen raised her hand, then let it fall.
Einojuhani bowed. "Even if the Sachsen has a sorcerer, Majesteetti, and that is nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumor, they cannot expect to defeat him. But they are a danger. They could be used against you, against us, and we would have no protection from them."
"What are you proposing?" Her voice was weary.
Daniel's heart fell. Whatever Einojuhani wanted, she would not fight for them.
Einojuhani clasped his hands together and lowered his eyes. He looked as smug as a cat. "Only the most minor of precautions. That they be separated and placed under guard."
This will be our death. Daniel swayed. One of the guards took his arm and steadied him.
"No!" Casey stepped forward, hands balled into fists. "Place us under guard, Majesteetti, but do not separate us!" The guards caught at his arms and pulled him back. "Daana, I beg you!"
She held up her hand and they stilled. "I know what you said about being... About the two of you together, Kyösti, but Einojuhani has a point. You could be an unwitting danger. Surely the protection around your necks will suffice for the two days left in our journey."
Casey shook his head. "You do not understand," he rasped. "We must stay together, we must keep the protection Abiba gave us. Both are necessary to counteract the power of the Sachsen's sorcerer."
"Surely not." Einojuhani's voice was faintly mocking. "Surely the noita has provided sufficient protection for each of you alone. What would happen if one of you died?"
"Then we would both die," Daniel replied, his voice shaking with exhaustion. The guard beside him jerked away, then stood stiffly at attention.
Einojuhani raised an eyebrow. "My, how inefficient."
The Queen glared at him. "Have a care, Herra. Remember to whom you speak."
Bowing low, Einojuhani murmured an apology, but the expression on his face was anything but apologetic.
Daniel could barely hear Casey's urgent words over the hiss and crackle of the fire.
"Remember what we once were to each other," Casey continued, his eyes fixed on the Queen. "If you ever loved me, don't do this. I would rather slit my own throat than cause you harm, and if you separate us, we cannot protect you as Daniel did today."
She looked at him intently, indecision writ clear on her face. Glancing at Daniel, she squared her shoulders and took a deep breath.
Daniel's heart thudded in his chest. Perhaps...
"Take them to separate tents." Her voice rang out. "Treat them well, but do not let them see or speak to each other-"
"No!" Casey struggled in the arms of the guards, but was quickly pulled from the fire and disappeared into the darkness. "Daniel!"
Daniel bowed his head, fatigue and pain etched, like acid, into his bones.
The Queen had handed them a death sentence.
Daniel rubbed his watering eyes and stared at the smoky fire. No matter where he sat, the smoke drifted in his direction. Holding out his chilled hands to the fitful blaze, he coughed weakly as another cloud of smoke enveloped him.
He was so damn tired.
The dreams were bad enough - blood and death haunted his sleep - but not having Casey beside him meant that once he woke, he could only lay huddled beneath the blankets for the remainder of the night, shaking with rage and exhaustion. Allah knew what torments Casey had to endure these past few days.
He would kill the sorcerer with his own hands for putting them through this.
The smoke caught in his lungs and burned his eyes. He raised his head at the soft clank of metal.
"Herra," the guard said, his voice soft. "It is time to leave."
Daniel rose, flushed and dizzy, and stifled a groan. Garish bruises painted his body beneath his clothes; he moved like an old man. Accepting help to mount Zeina was not an option but a necessity. At least they would arrive at the border this morning, and Daniel would see the Sachsen's troops for himself. He absently fingered his pouch of salvia - the rich scent filled his nostrils and cleared the muzziness from his head, even if it could do nothing for the ache in his body and heart.
He looked in vain for a glimpse of Casey as they set out. Relegated to the rear of the long column, Daniel was surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Casey was most likely at the front, near the Queen. An itch started between Daniel's shoulderblades at the thought.
Allah keep him safe.
The dizziness returned, time and again, only to be chased away when Daniel smelled the salvia. He hoped that if Casey was also suffering from dizziness, he knew to use the salvia. Half sick with worry, Daniel sent a guard to the Queen, asking that this fact be passed on to Casey. The guard did not return.
The sun had not yet reached its zenith when a great shout arose from the front of the column, and word eventually reached them that they had arrived at the border.
Daniel waited impatiently as the column moved slowly forward, occasionally standing in the saddle, which caused his guards to mutter and eye him suspiciously. Eventually he reached the top of the track and paused for a moment to drink in the sights spread out before him.
A broad valley lay between high cliffs, the snow-capped peaks of mountains peeping over the jagged cliff-tops. At the bottom snaked a narrow river, the Kemijoki, one of the guards told him. The water glistened in the sunlight, white with froth and foam where large boulders dotted its length. The Queen's troops were spreading out across the browning grass, moving into formations that faced the river.
The Sachsen's army squatted on the other side of the river.
The grass there had long since disappeared, and, farthest from the river, rank upon rank of tents were placed in rigid patterns on the dirt. The army itself stood on the slope down to the river; the men were not in formation, but the frequent glint of steel made it plain that they were armed.
The guards urged him forward, down the slope toward the left. Another guard rode up to them. His face looked familiar - one of Nikkolainen's men.
"The Queen wants the vierasmaalainen brought to her," he said, falling into place beside Daniel.
His heart leapt, and he turned to the guard. "How is Herra Kyösti?" he asked softly.
The man glanced at him, but did not answer. He pointed toward a knoll near the center of the slope. "The Queen is there. I will escort you."
The other guards trailed along behind them as they picked their way through the bustling troops. Daniel searched the milling bodies on the knoll, looking for one particular bright head. Nikkolainen and his men stood in a knot to one side, as if conferring amongst themselves, but of Casey there was no sign.
When they reached the knoll, the guard gestured for Daniel to stop, while he continued on to the Queen. Bowing low, he pointed at Daniel, and the Queen turned toward him.
"Keep him there," she said, indicating a spot not far from where she stood. "And make sure he doesn't stray."
Daniel dismounted at the guards' request, and took up his position to the left of the Queen, trying to make himself comfortable on one of the boulders that dotted the slope.
"Herra Daniel! You are well?" Kel appeared before him, his eyebrows raised in anxious inquiry. He held a container of weak beer and a cup.
"I am. How is Casey- Herra Kyösti?" Daniel took the cup that Kel poured for him. His mouth was a dry as a sandy floor, and the flavor of the beer masked the taste of bile.
Kel looked away. "It has been... difficult for him, as it has for you," he murmured.
"Did he receive my message about using the salvia to counteract the dizziness?"
Kel nodded, his eyes sliding across Daniel. "He did not suffer from dizziness, but the noita's salvia has proved helpful."
Daniel grabbed the front of Kel's jacket. "Kel, you must tell me what has been happening to him."
Swallowing hard, Kel nodded again. "He has not been himself," he whispered.
"He calls out in a strange, harsh voice, and his words..." Kel shivered.
"His words are nothing but blood and destruction."
A chill settled in Daniel's bones. "What else?" he prompted, steel in his voice. He must know exactly what was happening to Casey if he had any hope of helping him.
"He became violent that first night apart from you, and only a pinch of the salvia on his tongue would quiet him." Kel stared at the river, where a group of soldiers from each army faced each other. "The last of the salvia was used early this morning."
Daniel's heart sank. "And how has Casey-"
"They bound him, Herra!" Kel turned to him, tears in his eyes. "Hand and foot, and tied a gag over his mouth when he tried to bite. He struggles against the bonds, and all are afraid he'll do himself an injury."
"Then take my pouch!" His chilled fingers scrabbled at the neck of his tunic. "Give it to him, let him use what I have."
Kel's eyes widened. "No, Herra," he whispered. "The noita gave it to you, to keep you safe. I would not-"
He broke off as a group of soldiers ran up the slope, stopping before the Queen.
Daniel shivered, and a starburst of pain throbbed behind his eyes.
"A delegation?" Her clear voice carried above the murmur of the troops. Einojuhani leaned toward her and spoke softly.
She nodded. "Very well. I will grant safe passage to no more than five men."
Icy fingers clenched around Daniel's heart, and his skin prickled. "No." A mere breath.
He pulled out the pouch, wrapping his hand tightly around the soft leather. "Do not let her-" But it was futile. The Queen would not listen to him.
Some sort of signal had passed to the Sachsen's camp, for a man dressed in royal blue walked down to the river, followed by a small entourage. Somehow they crossed the water - it was difficult to see exactly how - perhaps a boat pulled by a tow line? That detail wasn't important, surely.
The men walked up the slope, the figure in blue at the fore, the troops parting before them. The sounds of the camp - the shouts, the clattering, the ring of metal on metal, the snorts and whinnies of the horses - all stilled as they approached. All eyes were focused on the tall figure in blue.
As they should be.
He was a handsome man, dark hair cut short and brushed back from a noble brow. His full lips were curved in a smile as he stood before the Queen.
Lifting his arms in a graceful gesture, he swept into a low bow.
"Queen Daana," he said, in a soft, rich voice that carried to the farthest reaches of the camp. "I am Berteus, mouthpiece for King Lutor, most exalted, the Sachsen."
The Queen inclined her head, but did not speak.
"My Lord craves your favor, and asks that you honor him with your presence." He held out his hand, a single band of gold around his forefinger glittered in the sunlight. "Surely two such noble monarchs can find common ground in discussion."
A gold pendant around his neck caught the light, sparkling brightly. A gold band that circled his brow glinted and shone.
Daniel's ears buzzed and he squinted, unable to look away from that shining figure. How bright and good and noble...
The Queen's arm rose, her hand extended toward Berteus. Their fingers almost touched...
The pungent scent of salvia tickled his nose as Kel took two steps forward, his own hands outstretched.
"My Queen," he called in a voice as bright and clear as a trumpet. "My Queen, where are you going?"
The world froze for a moment.
The Queen screamed as Berteus' hand grasped her wrist, jerking her toward him. The guards surged forward, shouting, but Kel was faster.
He practically flew to the Queen's side, facing the-
Daniel blinked, the buzzing in his ears gone. The noble figure had changed, blue robes exchanged for black, that benign and beautiful countenance now flushed, features twisted in fury as he glared at Kel.
"You!" Berteus raised his free hand, pulling the Queen to his side. "You are too late this time, Trager. I have her, and my master will-"
Kel stopped and smiled - such a cold, inhuman smile that it seemed impossible for it to exist on a human face.
"She is under my protection, Berteus." He raised his hands again, and his skin, his hair, his entire body, was suffused with a pearly glow. "Release her."
Blinding light surrounded Berteus and the Queen, but Kel laughed and glowed brighter. The light around Berteus dimmed slowly, pulsing as if caught between two opposing forces. He snarled and the Queen's sudden scream made Daniel jump.
Kel flew backward and landed hard on the ground. A cut opened above his eye and blood trickled down his cheek.
Berteus howled in triumph, but Kel staggered to his feet and let loose a coil of dawn-colored opalescence. It surrounded Berteus, quenching even more of his light.
"I will kill her!" Berteus screamed, raising his arm. The Queen, as pale as snow, dangled in his grip.
Kel hesitated only a moment, then beckoned to the coil. It crept from around Berteus, whose harsh laugh made Daniel shiver.
"Herra!" A hand plucked at his sleeve. "Herra, you must come!"
Daniel's eyes were drawn back to the trio who stood on the knoll - Berteus holding the limp Queen, and Kel, bloody but unbowed.
Fingers grasped his arm. "Kyösti is dying."
Allah be merciful.
Daniel struggled to his feet, a cold sweat breaking out down his back. "Take me to him," he breathed.
The Queen screamed again, but he did not even turn his head. It was up to Kel to save her.
They had found the savior; he had been right under their noses. Daniel snorted in disbelief.
But now he had to save Casey.
Nikkolainen, followed closely by Daniel, threaded a path through the milling troops when a shout and the sound of metal on metal sounded from the river. The Sachsen wasn't one to rely only on sorcery, apparently.
If he and Casey were destined to die, they would at least be together.
"Kel told me what has happened to him over the past few days," Daniel said, panting at the old man's pace. "Has he grown worse?"
Nikkolainen nodded, tight-lipped. "He tears at his bonds like a wild animal." His voice shook. "This morning he tried to dash his brains out against a rock. He is my daughter's husband, father of my grandson, and very dear to me. I will do whatever I can to help him."
Daniel swallowed hard. "As will I."
They rounded an outcropping of large boulders and stopped before a shallow cave on the far side of the outcropping.
Daniel almost wept.
Casey lay on the dirt, his face bruised and bleeding, his arms and legs pinioned tightly. He had chewed on the cloth that covered his mouth, and it was damp and bloody.
He stared at Daniel, eyes bright with hatred, and slowly, deliberately, raised his head and slammed it against the ground.
Daniel fell to his knees before Casey, fumbling for his pouch. With trembling fingers, he pulled out a pinch of salvia and sprinkled it over Casey's face.
Casey writhed and howled, the sound echoing eerily amongst the boulders.
"Forgive me," murmured Daniel, and sprinkled another pinch over Casey.
Casey struggled against his bonds, and Berteus screamed in the distance, the sound almost drowned by a crack of thunder.
Daniel dumped the remainder of the salvia into his palm and cast it over Casey, who yelled and thrashed in his bonds. Casey's eyes glittered, and he growled deep in his throat.
It was not enough. They needed greater protection.
Daniel glanced around the cave, his mouth parched with fear. It was not private, but would have to do.
"Herra," he called to Nikkolainen. "I must-" His face burned. "The salvia is not enough. We must be intimate."
Nikkolainen's cheeks reddened, but he nodded calmly. "What would you have me do?"
Daniel's heart pounded so hard his chest ached. His vision swam, and the buzzing in his ears grew so loud he wondered it would not drive him mad.
"I must turn him onto his stomach and... prepare him to receive me." It came out in a rush.
"One moment." Nikkolainen stepped up to his men and spoke a few words. They nodded, and one handed him a thick horse blanket. Nikkolainen spread it on the ground next to Casey. "If you can take his feet, Herra..."
They moved Casey onto the blanket, but he did not go willingly. One kick landed on Daniel's bruised thigh, and he swore loudly.
Once Casey lay on his stomach, Nikkolainen gulped and looked at Daniel. "What shall we do next?"
"We untie his feet and remove his boots and trousers," said Daniel grimly. "We'll need men to hold his legs and shoulders." He could not look at Nikkolainen as he spoke.
Nikkolainen returned with Essa-Pekka and another man.
"Samsa, the captain of my men," he said, gesturing to the older man. "And my cousin. He and my son will do exactly as you say."
Essa-Pekka looked at Daniel, white-lipped. "The Queen," he murmured. "They battle for her - how can this help?"
Daniel shook his head. "I don't know, but it must be done."
They untied Casey's legs and pulled off his boots and trousers. He fought them, but Nikkolainen leaned on his shoulders, so he could not gain much purchase for his kicks. By the time he was stretched out, bare legs spread wide and held down, they were all panting from their exertions.
And, for Daniel, from lust.
"Close your eyes," Daniel said as he unfastened his trousers. "Grant us that privacy, please."
Essa-Pekka had already closed his.
A few strokes of his hand brought him to fullness. He had no ointment to ease the way - spit would have to suffice. Daniel coated himself as thoroughly as possible and clambered over Casey's writhing body.
"Come back to me," Daniel whispered, and pushed his way inside with a gasp.
Casey jerked and howled, but the men's grip never faltered. Daniel shuddered as the tight heat enveloped him, and then thrust in as deeply as possible. One, two, three thrusts and warmth spread up his back, down his legs, and, burying himself so deep it was almost as if he had crawled inside Casey, he came.
Casey was still, and Berteus screamed again.
Limbs shaking from the force of his orgasm, Daniel carefully pulled himself free and slumped back on his heels. "Untie the gag," he said, as he began to shake.
"Daniel?" Casey said, his voice hoarse.
"Release him." Daniel did not wipe away the tears that trickled down his cheeks.
In a moment, he lay beside Casey, wrapped in his arms. His head ached, his eyes were dim, but he had never felt such contentment.
Nikkolainen cleared his throat. "The fighting grows worse, Herra," he said. The shouts and screams of men and the clang of metal grew closer. "And the Queen-" He gasped.
Essa-Pekka made a sound of disgust. "Where is your vaunted protection now? Or was it merely an excuse to-"
"Silence!" Casey's eyes met Daniel's, his bloody, torn fingers stroked Daniel's face. "We have only completed the first part. We must finish the protection."
Daniel nodded and kissed Casey's fingers. The harsh iron flavor of blood flooded his mouth. "I am ready."
He rolled onto his back while Casey drew off his boots and trousers. The other men moved to the mouth of the cave, their backs providing a modicum of privacy.
"I have nothing to-" Casey began, and then stopped. He flushed and reached behind himself.
The semen was cool and sticky, but Daniel did not care. The pain in his head grew, throbbing in time with his heartbeat. Surely it would burst his skull, like an overripe fruit. Casey's fingers were gentle, but after a moment, Daniel reached down and grabbed Casey's wrist.
Biting his lip, Casey nodded.
Daniel cried out as Casey entered him, the pain in his ass vying with the pain in his head. Casey grunted and swore, but did not withdraw. Slowly, inexorably, Daniel was filled.
"Casey!" he called out, writhing and panting. He was in agony. And he was in Paradise.
Prying his eyes open, he traced the patterns on Casey's face with a trembling finger. They darkened, moving under the skin, down Casey's throat to disappear beneath his tunic. Patterns moved along Daniel's legs, on his hands, he could feel them crawling beneath the surface of his flesh.
Casey leaned down. "I came back for you," he murmured, and kissed Daniel hard.
Thrusting quickly, Casey pulled back, gasping for breath. "Daniel!" he cried, and shuddered in orgasm.
The cave filled with a blinding light, and Daniel knew no more.
The bodies of the Sachsen's men lay where they had fallen.
Daniel leaned heavily on Essa-Pekka's arm and surveyed the battlefield. It was difficult to take it all in. The injured were still being tended on the field, and those who were well enough to walk congregated at the top of the slope, where fresh mountain breezes dispersed the stench of blood and vomit. Across the river, the Sachsen's camp smoldered, blacked ruins of tents charring the landscape. The river ran high, as if to rid itself of the blood that smeared its banks and tinted the water red.
"We did this?" his whispered, glancing at Casey, who stood beside him, supported by Nikkolainen.
"Indeed you did," answered the old man, his words tinged with awe. "When the light burst from the two of you, I thought we were on our way to our ancestors. Then the Sachsen's men were flung into the air, as if struck by giants, and when they fell to the earth, they were dead."
"All of them?" Casey's voice shook.
"All save the sorcerer," said Essa-Pekka. "He and Kel fought for the Queen a little longer, but it was clear that he had been weakened by your- By the magic created by the kaksonen sielu."
"And the Queen?" Casey asked.
"She is alive, barely."
Casey took a shuddering breath. "I must see her."
Their progress was slow as they avoided the contorted bodies of the dead. Daniel was not ashamed to cling to Essa-Pekka's arm, for his knees had turned to water and he was as weak as a babe in arms. For his own part, Essa-Pekka helped him along as solicitously as a mother tending her child, not shying from Daniel's trembling grasp.
The ways of Allah were mysterious, indeed.
The Queen lay on a thick quilt spread across the grass, her face as pale as milk where it wasn't dotted by bruises or scored with cuts. Her attendants had wiped the blood from her face and hands, but her garments were stained and torn. Her hair flowed loose over her shoulders, spilling across the blanket like a golden stream. She looked a mere moment from death, her eyes closed, her chest moving faintly.
"Daana!" Casey cried, falling to his knees at her side. He cradled one limp hand in his, holding it to his damp cheek. "Oh, Daana..."
Swallowing hard, Daniel looked away.
Kel sat, cross-legged, on the rise of the knoll, his head bowed and shoulders slumped. Daniel released Essa-Pekka's arm and staggered over to him.
"You," he said gently as he collapsed onto the grass beside Kel. "Hiding right under our noses."
Kel lifted his head. A trickle of dried blood stained the side of his face, and his clothes were filthy, rent with a dozen tears. He stared at Daniel blankly for a moment, then the corners of his mouth turned up in a feeble grin.
"Isn't that the best place to hide something?"
Daniel glanced around. "What happened to the Sachsen's sorcerer?"
Kel sighed. "Good question, Herra." He sniffed and rubbed his nose. "I believe that, between your magic and mine, we have sent him to his ancestors - if those august personages will receive such a twisted scrap of that which had once been a man."
Leaning back on his hands, Daniel closed his eyes and raised his face to the setting sun. The weak rays warmed his cheeks and reddened the inside of his lids. "If they have any sense, they will banish him from Paradise for all the evil he has done." A great deal of evil. His eyes watered and he bowed his head. "And what of the Sachsen himself?"
"Dead." Kel chuckled, a sound as brittle and dry as feet treading on dead grass. "You and Herra Kyösti... The power of the kaksonen sielu is strong, and the Queen's enemies have paid for their temerity with their lives."
Raising his head, Daniel looked over at Kel. "If we are so strong, then why were you needed?"
Kel's chuckle ripened into a laugh. "Strong you may be, Daniel el-Rydal, you and Kyösti Makallainen together as kaksonen sielu, but you had not the knowledge or craft to defeat such as he."
Daniel hesitated. "From what I heard, it sounded as if you have encountered him before."
"Berteus and I have met several times," Kel said, his eyes fixed on his clasped hands. "We were evenly matched, he and I. It took the addition of your power to turn the tide and allow me the chance to defeat him."
Ignoring the murmurs behind him - a soft blend of Casey's voice and, occasionally, the Queen's - Daniel stared at the charred remains of the Sachsen's camp until his eyes burned. "It was given freely... but at such a cost."
"I do not think the cost is as high as you believe it to be," Kel said gently.
"Daniel?" A familiar hand brushed his cheek and came to rest on his shoulder. "She will live, Daniel."
With a sigh, Daniel placed his hand over Casey's. "I am glad."
"We must find a tent for tonight." Casey's fingers squeezed his shoulder. "Tomorrow we start back." Warm lips pressed the soft skin below his ear, and a beloved voice whispered, "and I have slept apart from you for too long."
Daniel turned his head and gazed at Casey, whose fair hair was ruddy in the setting sun. "Never again," Daniel said, raising Casey's hand to his lips.
Casey smiled. "Never again."
"Akseli!" Casey bellowed, scattering the clothing that lay on the bed. Daniel sat back in his chair and crossed his legs, hiding his grin behind his hand.
Footsteps thundered down the corridor. "Yes, Herra?" Akseli rounded the door, panting.
"What happened to my tunics?" Casey flung his arms out. "I had a dozen before we left, and now there are none!"
"They are here, Herra," Akseli murmured, crossing the room to the clothes press. "See?" He lifted out a stack of neatly folded tunics.
"Ah." Casey's cheeks darkened. "Well, we'll need them. Put them on the bed."
Akseli placed the tunics carefully on the bed. "I don't know why you must leave so soon, Herra," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "You have only been at home one day, and now you are taking Herra Daniel and going back to that barbaric land..."
Casey turned away, the color draining from his face. Daniel rose and wrapped his arms around Casey.
"You know the reason as well as we do, Akseli," Daniel said sharply.
"But it was only a dream, Herra Daniel. We all have dreams, but nothing comes of them. Why, last week I dreamt that I had gone to market as naked as my grandmother's tit, and as far as I'm concerned, that's something that will never happen."
Casey turned. "I'll say no more on the subject, Akseli. You have your orders-"
The sudden pounding on the front door interrupted him, and Akseli hurried out of the room.
Daniel kissed a tempting bit of skin on Casey's neck. "Will you accept the Queen's offer of guards to accompany us?"
"I haven't decided." Casey leaned his head back, and Daniel took advantage of the easy access. "What do you think?"
"I think," said Daniel indistinctly, "that we should-"
"Herra Kyösti! Herra Daniel!" Akseli shouted, his voice shrill. "Come quickly!"
Daniel sighed, releasing Casey, and they hurried down the stairs.
Into Olle's waiting arms.
It took some time for Casey to dry his eyes, for Olle to stop speaking, for Antti and the men to pay their respects and greet their friends, and for all the boys who had been rescued to find places to sit on the floor, or beside the fire, or on the window seat. Daniel stared at them all, tanned and fit and unkempt, and shook his head.
Allah is merciful.
As Akseli and the servants bustled about, bringing in food and drink, they told their story.
Olle sat at Casey's knee, and Casey's restless hands constantly touched his hair or arm or cheek. The look of bewildered joy on Casey's face made Daniel's heart ache.
"One of the lessons we learned from el-Rasad Effendi was how to establish a secret method of communication," Olle said, leaning into his father's touch. "Afterwards, I though it would be a good idea for us to create one for ourselves, in case of attack, so it was not difficult for us to pass messages back and forth."
Antti laughed. "I did not believe him when the nuoriherra told me that," he admitted. "But it was true. Market day was in two days' time, and we were in a terrible rush to buy enough horses and clothing to equip everyone."
Olle looked at the other boys, nodding. "Everyone did exactly as they were supposed to at the market, and we got them away easily."
"How did you evade el-Rasad's guards?" asked Casey.
"We separated the boys into groups," said Antti. "Each of us took a circuitous route, and we eventually met up at Amarta, at Porusskov's inn."
"He sends his greetings," Olle added. "And we also saw el-Yafe Effendi in Ashtok."
Daniel leaned forward in his chair. "How is he?"
"Better," said Antti. "He uses a cane and his speech is slurred, but he is no longer bedridden."
Casey squeezed Daniel's hand. "Good. I will send more money for his care before the winter sets in. Perhaps he will be strong enough to come to us in the spring."
After the plates contained nothing but crumbs and the pitchers ran dry, beds and pallets were eventually found for everyone. Casey held Olle close, kissing his bright head.
"I am proud of you my son," he murmured. "You made the right decision, and all the boys owe you their lives."
Olle sniffled and clung to his father for a long moment, then he stepped back and wiped his eyes. "Tomorrow you will tell us of your journey," he said. "I have only heard bits and pieces from Akseli."
Casey snorted. "Who knows nothing. Tomorrow, my son."
When they were alone in their room, naked in their bed, Daniel held Casey's face in his hands and kissed his brow.
"Take me," Daniel said, unafraid at last.
Casey did, and it was every bit as glorious as Daniel could wish.
Afterward, Casey held him in his arms and murmured into his hair. "And what of your father? If we leave, it must be soon, for the winter is closing in fast."
"Perhaps my dream was not true, as in Olle's case." Daniel closed his eyes. His limbs were as heavy as lead and he would be content to stay there forever. "Perhaps it was just part of the sorcerer's malicious tricks."
"You could be right." Casey's fingers caressed his back in long, languid strokes that sent Daniel nodding.
"We will decide tomorrow," Daniel said, and kissed the warm skin of Casey's shoulder before drifting into sleep.
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