by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
illustrated by Ravyn
The sun was shining, for a change. Jaren soaked up as much of it as he could while riding along the road through the valley, for once not in the shadow of one of the peaks. He wished the Elite uniform were a darker blue so it would absorb more of the weak sunlight. Winter in the mountains had not agreed with him, to say the least.
It was nice to see the sun again, though. Spring was finally starting to make a tentative appearance in these gods-forsaken valleys. No more fighting in the snow and ice – no, now they would be fighting in three feet of half-frozen mud. He sighed, thinking longingly of summer’s heat.
“What’s wrong?” Kale asked from where he rode beside Jaren, sounding surprised. “You usually only sound that miserable if we’re riding into a rough battle or there’s a storm on the way. The weather’s gorgeous today.”
Kale, Jaren was both amused and aggrieved to note, had shed his heavy jacket and seemed perfectly comfortable in nothing more than his winter uniform tunic. Most of the rest of the 64th had done the same.
“It’s too bloody cold out, that’s what’s wrong,” Jaren said. “And I’m too drained after that last fight to waste magic on a heat spell.”
“Cold!” Now Kale was astonished, blinking at him in disbelief. The farmboy-turned-private had been born and raised in the foothills just a bit further north than where they were now, Jaren remembered. Presumably this was normal weather to him. “What are you talking about, it’s beautiful out. Look, there are even flowers coming up! They’re early this year.”
“Early!” Jaren echoed Kale’s shocked tone. “Kale, back home the ground would be carpeted in flowers by now. It’s already May!”
“No, it’s not,” Kale objected, frowning. “It can’t be May already. Can it?”
“Just barely,” Dena broke into their discussion, chuckling at Kale. “It’s the first today. You really have a tough time keeping track of the date when we’re in the field, don’t you?”
To Jaren’s surprise, Kale turned pale and groaned, leaning over his saddle to bury his face in his mare’s mane. “I can’t believe I didn’t realize! Please tell me we’re not going to be hitting any towns today?”
“We should be coming across, uh,” Jaren checked his map quickly. “Hollowbrook, right around noon probably. I was planning to stop there for a decent lunch, since we’re making such good time. Why?” He couldn’t imagine why the prospect seemed to dismay his young lover so much. Kale had been skittish about being seen in public when he’d first joined the 64th, hating the assumptions people made about him just because he was the only regular trooper in a unit of Elite. But he’d gotten over that a long time ago.
“Yeah, Coulter, what’s your issue?” Stephon said curiously. “They’ll probably be having a May Day festival! If we’re lucky, maybe they’ll let us in on the feast.”
Immediately a clamour rose from the rest of the unit as everyone started talking at once, the prospect of a festival lifting everyone’s spirits even further than the sight of the sun had. “Captain, you said we were making good time,” Derk reminded him, turning pleading eyes on Jaren as he was tacitly elected spokesman for the group. “Couldn’t we spare half a day? We haven’t had a real rest in months!”
“Festival?” Jaren repeated, caught off-guard. Now that he thought about it, he did remember hearing about something of the sort from the peasants on his father’s lands when he’d been growing up. Duke Weyne and his three children had always been away at court in the capital in May, and since joining the Elite he hadn’t had many opportunities for observing the traditions of the common people in rural areas.
“It’s a fertility rite, sir,” Dena told him, taking pity on his confused expression. “The festival is supposed to ensure the vitality of the fields for the coming crop. At least, that’s how it started out. It’s evolved into a simple spring festival over the years, and most people probably don’t even think much about the traditional meaning behind the dances and the bonfires.”
“Well, I don’t see any reason we can’t take half a day to participate,” Jaren conceded. “As long as the villagers invite us, mind you. We’re not part of their community, and strangers may not be welcome. No soliciting invitations, either.”
There was some grumbling at that, mostly from the younger members of the unit, but they all agreed it was fair. Turning to the one person who hadn’t put in his two cents, Jaren raised an eyebrow when he saw Kale. The younger man had sat up in his saddle again, but his shoulders were hunched and his head hanging.
“Kale?” Jaren nudged his gelding a little closer to his lover’s mount, reaching out to touch the brunet on the arm. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Kale sighed, shaking his head. He sounded as morose now as Jaren had when he’d been thinking longingly of summer. “I just… May Day isn’t really my favourite festival. It’s not a big deal, honestly.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” Jaren said doubtfully. “If it’s going to make you this miserable, we can just keep riding through the day…”
“No! No, there’s no point in spoiling everyone else’s fun just because I don’t like May Day,” Kale immediately vetoed the suggestion. “Really, Jaren, it’s okay. It will be nice not to have to ride or fight for a little while, and if this village is anything like mine, the food will be amazing.”
Nodding, Jaren let it go at that because Kale so obviously didn’t want to talk about it any more. But he made a mental note to ask about it the next time they were alone, just in case it was something Kale didn’t want to discuss in public but wouldn’t mind telling him about in private.
The younger man remained pensive and quiet for the rest of the ride, and by the time the buildings of the village came into view the tension in his shoulders was so obvious Jaren would have been able to see it from the back of the group. But he drew a deep breath and made a visible effort to appear cheerful and unconcerned, and Jaren decided again to let it be.
Much to the gratification of the unit, the villagers were more than happy to welcome them to the festivities. The village was nearly large enough to qualify as a town, and there was more than enough room for a small unit of Elite. They let the horses loose in the paddock by the town square and dumped their bags in the inn, intending to stay the night.
The inn had only two rooms available for overnight stays, which disappointed Jaren a bit as it had been some time since he and Kale had last had a room to themselves. Oh, he could have commandeered one room for himself, that was his privilege as captain, but he wouldn’t ask his men to squash themselves into a room not meant to hold that many people while he luxuriated in the other.
And anyway, they wouldn’t have stopped teasing him for weeks afterwards.
“You’ve come in good time, captain,” the village headman told Jaren as the Elite headed out to the big field that had been cleared for the festival. “We get a fair number of military travellers through here, usually couriers and the like, but it’s always good luck to have mages about for the festival.”
“None of us are likely to know the sort of magic involved in something like this,” Jaren apologized. “The Elite specialize in magic that enhances our battle performance, almost to the exclusion of everything else. This is more like ritual magic, what the true mages do.”
“Of course not, I wouldn’t expect that,” the man chuckled. “It’s simply an old superstition, part of the traditions, and the farmers will be overjoyed to have not one but nine mages present.”
“Eight,” Jaren corrected him. “Private Coulter isn’t a mage himself, just a sensitive who can see magic. He’s able to spot things the rest of us would miss, which is why he rides with us.”
“Ah, that explains it, then,” the man nodded. “At any rate, your presence is most welcome. And I’m certain the unattached young ladies are especially happy to see unfamiliar young men to dance with.” He gave Jaren a knowing smile, and the Elite laughed in acknowledgement. He himself wouldn’t participate in any of the dances, and probably Leor and Kale wouldn’t either, but the rest of his troop would likely have a great deal of fun tonight.
The field was already bustling with activity, even though the festival hadn’t officially started yet. There was a massive pile of branches and straw clearly intended to be a bonfire, several smaller fires where food was cooking, and a group of strong-looking young men were struggling to raise a large wooden pole that looked like a fresh-cut tree stripped of its branches.
“Derk, Stephon, give them a hand,” Jaren called out, and his two youngest Elite ran to obey. With the help of their spell-enhanced strength and reflexes, they were able to get the pole up and driven into the ground in short order. Noticing several colourful ribbons attached to the crown of it, Jaren tilted his head curiously. “What is that?”
“It’s a maypole, sir,” Trant explained. Like Kale he was born of country stock, though his father had been a blacksmith rather than a farmer. “Dancers wind the ribbons around the pole in pretty patterns, to represent male and female energy. I’m sure you can guess which of the two symbols is the male energy,” he added with a smirk, and Jaren snorted in amusement.
“Sounds interesting, I’m looking forward to seeing it,” he commented lightly. Glancing to one side, he confirmed that Kale was trailing along just behind him like a silent ghost, and reached out to tug at his lover’s hand. “C’mon, Kale. You look like your best friend just died. Let’s go see if they’re selling any of those hot jam tarts I can smell, that’ll cheer you up.”
Sure enough that earned him a small smile. Kale had a sweet tooth, something Jaren had been delighted to discover because it gave him a way to indulge his young lover. He knew peasant farmers didn’t see sugar very often, but they made up for it in all kinds of creative ways and he enjoyed letting Kale introduce him to them.
By the time the villagers had all gathered and the festival was in full swing, the two of them had sticky jam smeared all over their fingers, and Kale was laughing again. Jaren watched him with a sense of contentment as the younger man opened up and started talking to the villagers, trading stories of past festivals and local gossip. They must have been closer to Kale’s hometown than he’d realized, because it seemed like the brunet had several acquaintances and even distant family in common with some of the people in this village.
There were few things Jaren enjoyed more than watching Kale when the younger man was happy and relaxed. He was a remarkably open person, not having learned the sort of automatic polite deception practiced by the members of the noble class from a very early age. Having grown up surrounded by first the political manoeuvring of the court and later the rank-climbing machinations of the Elite, Jaren always found Kale’s honest emotions refreshing. Especially the positive ones, and most especially the warmth in the younger man’s smile whenever he looked Jaren’s way.
Someone rapped out a few quick beats on what sounded like a homemade drum, and Kale’s smile vanished abruptly. Once again the younger man looked apprehensive as he glanced towards the maypole, where everyone was gathering. Jaren frowned and started to ask, but his lover shook his head. “C’mon, they’re going to start and you said you wanted to see the ribbon dances,” Kale forestalled the questions Jaren had been intending to ask.
It was true that Jaren was curious about the dancing, so he let Kale draw him towards the circle of people without pushing any further. But he was definitely going to have to find out what was going through the younger man’s head.
A giggling group of young boys and girls in their best clothing had gathered around the pole, each holding the end of one of the ribbons attached to the pole. Smiling mothers whispered and pointed them to their correct places, and the children looked excited. Curious, Jaren lifted an eyebrow at Kale, and his lover sighed.
“The youngest children go first,” Kale explained in a hushed voice. The drumbeats sounded again and were shortly joined by a fiddle and some kind of flute, and the children started skipping about in circles around the pole. “This is probably the first year these kids have been allowed to participate, so they’re excited. They’ll make a lot of mistakes, but that’s okay. By the time the oldest of the unmarried couples go, the dance will have become amazingly complicated. Wait and see.”
Fascinated, Jaren watched as the boys and girls moved in two simple opposing circles, boys in one direction and girls in the other. They wove in and out around each other, frequently missing steps or forgetting to change from inside to outside at the right time, and the result was more a tangle of ribbons than a woven pattern, but it was fun to watch just because the children put so much enthusiasm into it.
There was a brief rest as the ribbons were untangled and sorted out for the next dance. Jaren laughed as the giggling children ran back to their parents, flushed from exertion and excitement. “Looks like fun,” he commented. “I’m a little jealous that I never got to do this as a kid. What about you?”
To his surprise, Kale looked uncomfortable and embarrassed. “Well, I… yeah, I used to dance when I was little,” he shrugged and blushed. “Most of the boys stop participating by the time they’re teenagers, though. Some years the last of the dances don’t happen at all, or are done entirely by girls instead of matched couples like they’re supposed to be.”
“That’s a shame,” Jaren said. “I’d have thought the boys would jump at the chance to show off for the girls at that age, though.”
Kale looked thoughtful. “You know, I don’t think anyone’s ever put it into those terms before,” he chuckled softly, and Jaren was happy to hear that small laugh. “Put that way, I bet the boys would keep participating. Maybe you should suggest it to the headman.”
As Kale had promised, the dances grew increasingly more complex and beautiful. Sometimes they ended with a pretty woven pattern around the pole, and sometimes in a web around the dancers themselves. Sometimes the dance even involved retracing all the steps backwards again, undoing the complicated weave with the same careful precision that had been used to create it.
Jaren enjoyed himself immensely, to the point that he forgot to even feel cold. The music was simple, the dances not at all the sort of thing that would ever be seen in the royal palace no matter how pretty, but it was all the more interesting for that. If Kale hadn’t been so obviously increasingly miserable, Jaren would have said it was the best day he’d had in months.
There still was no visible explanation for the way Kale was withdrawing in on himself more with every passing dance. At this point Jaren was pretty much assuming that it had to be that the festival was associated with bad memories for the young man, and he felt a little guilty for subjecting his lover to what was clearly an unpleasant experience.
Finally the headman announced the last of the dances, and Kale looked relieved. “Almost over,” he murmured to Jaren. “This last one will be the most impressive, and they’ll leave the ribbons up this time. Then they’ll light the bonfire and rekindle all the hearthfires in the village from it, and then comes the feast.”
“That’s an interesting bit of symbolism,” Jaren noted thoughtfully. “Festivals like this really draw the villagers and farmers together as a community, don’t they.”
For just a moment Kale’s expression softened into a real smile again, and he nodded. “Yeah, they do,” he agreed. “Everybody looks forward to them all year. I…”
He was cut off by a sudden commotion among the crowd. There was a disappointed murmur from most people, and Jaren craned his neck to try to see what was going on. He was tall, but not quite tall enough to be able to easily see over the crowd. “What’s going on?” he finally asked the farmer next to him.
“Looks like young Alaine has sprained his ankle,” the older man explained. “Can’t do the dance with four girls and only three boys, and you can’t have less than four couples. Pity, that. Them girls’ve been houndin’ the lads all year to find four that’d dance with ’em, and sure as fire none of the others will volunteer. An’ they’ve been practicin’ for a month, too.”
“Is there not one of you that will take Alaine’s place?” One of the young women holding a ribbon demanded, looking around at the crowd with a pleading expression. All the young men in sight were shaking their heads and backing away with laughing protests.
“Damn, after all that build-up I really wanted to see it,” Jaren said in disappointment. “Trant, Kale, what about you two? Do either of you know the dance?”
“Sorry captain,” Trant laughed from across the circle, holding up his hands. “I left for the Elite long before I was old enough to learn this one.”
“Kale?” Jaren persisted, glancing at his lover as the four girls around the pole looked on hopefully.
Kale looked like a wild rabbit caught in a trap. “No,” he said flatly. “Absolutely not.” He was flushed bright enough that the blush showed even on his dark skin. Jaren couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the younger man look so embarrassed.
“That sounded more like ‘no I don’t want to’ than ‘no, I don’t know how’ to me, captain,” Dena declared with a wicked grin. “C’mon, Kale. This is your chance to show the rest of us up, for a change.”
“Please?” the girl who had spoken before begged him, coming out as far as the ribbons would reach and holding one out to him. “We almost never get to do the last dance, and we’ve been practicing so hard, and then Alaine wrenched his ankle setting the pole up!”
“Do you know how?” Jaren asked him. Reluctantly Kale nodded, and the Elite grinned. “Well, then, what are you waiting for?” he teased the younger man. “Me to make it an order? It’s our civic duty to help the civilians whenever possible, you know.” Maybe if he helped Kale make some new, positive memories, the festival wouldn’t hold such negative associations for him.
“You’re kidding me, right?” Kale exclaimed, staring at him in wide-eyed consternation. “J… Captain! You’re not actually going to order me to do this, are you?”
“Do a good job, Kale,” Jaren instructed him cheerfully, putting one hand on the small of his lover’s back and pushing him towards the waiting girls. “After all if you believe the tradition, their next crop depends on how well you dance.”
“You are going to pay for this,” Kale hissed at him under his breath as Jaren pushed at him, his dark eyes glaring at the older man and promising dire retribution. Jaren couldn’t help but chuckle. It wasn’t that he didn’t take the threat of payback seriously, because he certainly did. But he knew his lover, and he wasn’t too worried. Besides, in this case the benefits seemed to outweigh the risks. And Kale was so damn hot when he was all fiery like that.
The giggling young girls chivvied Kale into position and got a ribbon in his hands. The private looked a bit out of place, being several years older than the rest of the group and the only one dressed in uniform, but otherwise he fit almost perfectly with the image. The others all had his same dark colouring, being from the same general region and lifestyle.
For a moment Jaren wished they had the time to make enough of a detour to visit the town where Kale had grown up. He’d heard all his lover’s stories about his family, but now he wanted to see for himself what Kale was like when he was on his home ground.
The music started again, all the villagers laughing and clapping along as the four ‘couples’ started to move. Kale’s steps were uncertain at first, and Jaren could see from the way he was concentrating fiercely on the boy in front of him that his lover was struggling to remember exactly what he was supposed to do. But it came back to him quickly, and by the second pass of the circles Kale was moving more confidently and looked like he’d been practicing with the rest of them for just as long.
Delighted, Jaren watched as the younger man dipped and wove around the girls and three other men, creating a truly stunning pattern with the ribbons. The weave was so tight and intricate that it would take several minutes of dancing for the entire pole to be covered, with the dancers moving closer and closer to each other and the pole with every pass.
The sensuality of the dance was undeniable, as was the symbolism of the entire rite. When the children had been dancing it had been innocent and adorable, but these young men and women were old enough to be married themselves, and fully aware of everything the dance symbolized. From the looks being exchanged by three of the couples whenever they met their partners in the circle, Jaren guessed that these were truly couples, probably soon to be married as well.
The fourth girl, the one partnering Kale, looked a little disappointed but mostly happy that they still got to do the dance. She kept shooting meaningful looks towards a young man who was sitting at the edge of the circle, his ankle bound in strips of cloth. And Kale looked…
Kale looked flushed and breathless, his lips slightly parted and his eyes almost glazed. Jaren blinked and felt a flush creep up his own neck as he watched, astonished. Most people would probably have mistaken Kale’s expression for embarrassment, but Jaren had seen that particular look in his lover’s eyes too often not to know it for what it was. Usually the only time it had that much intensity was as Jaren was entering him, or just before Kale reached orgasm.
But why in the world…? Bemused, Jaren stared at him. Kale didn’t miss a step in the dance, but his attention was definitely focused internally. If he’d been giving that look to his partner Jaren might have been jealous, but it didn’t seem to be directed at anyone or anything in particular.
Belatedly it occurred to him that Kale might have had more reasons than just simple embarrassment and shyness to protest being shoved into the dance like that. The question was, why?
The only thing that set Kale apart from the other people in the dance, aside from the minor consideration that he’d left his home farm to join the army, was that he could see magic. Thoughtfully Jaren lifted one hand and surreptitiously sketched the sigil for ‘sight’ on his brow, murmuring the spell beneath his breath that would give him the temporary ability to see the flow of magical energy, the same way Kale saw it at all times.
Immediately he had to look away from the dance, his eyes watering with the strength of the light shining from the pole, the ribbons, and all eight of the dancers. The entire square was flooded with pulsing energy, and more was rising with every step the dancers took.
In awe, Jaren realized that though most people might have forgotten the true purpose of the ritual, the dance itself was still the oldest kind of spell, the sort that could be created by anyone with enough focused intent. The vitality of the soil in the area really would be affected, with this much life energy pouring out into it.
Quickly Jaren cancelled the vision spell, looking back at the dancers with spots floating in his vision. That might explain why Kale didn’t like watching the dancing, but not why he would be reacting the way he was. Granted, that was an awful lot of life energy, and it would have the predictable effect on anything living within its reach; Jaren wouldn’t be in the least surprised to discover that a large number of village babies tended to be born nine months after this festival. But Kale was…
Kale was a sensitive, that’s what he was. Jaren’s eyes went wide as he remembered something from one of his very early classes on the theory of magic. Magic was energy, pure and simple. Some people could see it with the help of a spell, like Jaren; others could simply choose to perceive it with only a minimal amount of effort. The former type was unaffected by what they saw, because the spell was specifically for sight and nothing more.
But the sort of mage who could perceive the flow of magic with only a little effort was a different thing altogether, and far more rare. It was as if they had an extra sense beyond the basic five, but their brains had no context with which to interpret the input from that sense. Most of those mages saw magic, just as if they’d used the same spell Jaren had. Some heard it as notes, or smelled it or tasted it, or even felt it as a sensation on their skin. Jaren had known one very powerful mage who had to sing all of his spells, because he perceived magic as chords and melodies and couldn’t interact with it any other way.
The important thing was that how they interpreted the magic was irrelevant, simply a function of the way their brains chose to deal with the input. Magic affected them on a very base level, in a way that was impossible to duplicate or explain.
Because Kale had always talked about seeing magic, Jaren had been thinking of it in terms of the only context he had for it, that spell that allowed him to see it himself. But of course that wasn’t how it worked for Kale at all. And of all the sensitives Jaren had ever met, Kale was the only one who was aware of magic around him at all times. He could easily see magic so weak it took the most sophisticated of spells for Jaren to detect it at all.
Just how sensitive would he have to be, in order to be able to do that? And how would someone that sensitive to the flow of magic likely react to being in the middle of such a massive concentration of it?
Groaning, Jaren smacked his forehead with one hand. “Oh, shit,” he muttered helplessly, torn between amusement and rue. No wonder Kale had been glaring daggers at him. Probably the younger man couldn’t have even expressed in words exactly how and why this would affect him, but affect him it most certainly would.
“Captain?” Leor spoke up from beside him, sounding concerned. “Trouble?”
“He’s going to kill me!” Jaren exclaimed in a low voice, shaking his head and still not looking up.
“I don’t know,” Dena chuckled. “He’s definitely embarrassed, but he’s doing pretty well. I’d say he’s probably enjoying himself and just doesn’t want to admit it.”
“He’s not embarrassed,” Jaren replied, finally looking up at them with a sheepish expression. “He’s… come on, I know you took the same theory classes I had to. He’s a sensitive. That is a fertility ritual. And damned if it isn’t strong enough to blind you if you look.”
Wide-eyed, Dena and Leor exchanged glances. Dena used the same spell Jaren had, while Leor – a minor sensitive himself, when he focused – concentrated. As one they winced and looked away again.
Then they promptly burst out laughing, both of them doing their best to smother it behind their hands but drawing more than a few curious looks from the crowd. Having seen what the three senior officers were up to and recognizing the spell Dena had used, Jaren spotted his other Elite all doing the same, and coming to exactly the same conclusion.
“Oh, gods, poor Kale,” Dena sputtered, trying desperately to bring herself back under control. “You’re right, he is going to kill you.”
“Maybe, just this once, you’d better pull rank and take one of the rooms for yourself, captain,” Leor chuckled. “I’m sure everyone will understand.”
“I think that might be a good idea,” Jaren agreed, a little red-faced himself as his entire unit laughed their asses off at him. It wasn’t often that they got the better of their captain, and they were clearly all enjoying it. He just hoped they’d have the sense not to tease Kale about it for at least a couple of days, until the poor man had a chance to calm down and get over the worst of the embarrassment.
The pole was nearly covered with ribbon now, and the dancers were moving in small, tight circles around it that had them brushing up against each other with every pass. The music was faster now as well, and Jaren had absolutely no doubt the outpouring of magic was stronger yet. Finally the dancers finished with a flourish and a spin, releasing their ribbons to let the last foot or so dangle free from the tight weave around the pole. The crowd erupted in cheers and whistles of approval.
“Wonderful! Your man was flawless,” the headman exclaimed to Jaren. “If you believe the old superstitions, the crops will be good this year, eh?”
“Oh, they’ll be good all right,” Jaren agreed, keeping his eyes on Kale. The brunet was flushed and panting, sweating hard with exertion and something more. The other three couples were embracing to loud catcalls from the crowd, and Kale’s partner had gone off to snuggle up next to the injured boy, leaving Kale standing alone by the pole.
As badly affected as his lover seemed to be, Jaren was half expecting him to tackle the first person to get near him, whether that person was willing or not. Hoping to avoid a messy scene, he decided to try to get the younger man’s attention first. “Kale!” he called, pushing through the crowd towards the pole.
Jerking his head up at the sound, Kale looked around wildly until his eyes met Jaren’s. As if that had been some sort of signal, the brunet turned and bolted, shoving his way through the crowd heedless of the injured and indignant cries from the people he pushed past. Caught by surprise, Jaren wasted a precious moment staring after him before cursing under his breath and following.
Since he wasn’t willing to cause bodily harm it took him a little longer to get through the crowd, and by the time he reached clear space Kale had vanished. Now a little worried, Jaren walked in the direction Kale had last been heading in, figuring that the younger man probably didn’t have enough brainpower to come up with a complicated retreat strategy just at the moment. He kept a sharp eye out on all sides for anywhere his lover might have gone to ground.
He was just contemplating trying to cobble together some sort of spell to find the younger man when he finally spotted Kale near the horse pens. He realized why when he got a little closer and saw that the brunet was leaning over the horse trough, his dark hair dripping with icy water. He’d obviously dunked his head, like a drunk trying to sober up.
“Kale,” he called again, keeping his voice lower this time.
Once more the younger man jumped like he’d been startled, whirling to face Jaren with his hands white-knuckled on the edge of the trough. “Don’t,” he blurted out, clearly panicked. “Jaren, don’t come near me, please.” His voice was hoarse and deeper than usual. He sounded pretty much the same way he did when Jaren had spent a couple of hours fucking him senseless, and just the sound of it triggered a conditioned reflex in Jaren that made him hard so fast he was dizzy.
“Kale, it’s okay,” he assured the younger man, his own voice coming out a little husky. “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what that would do to you. I was stupid, I wasn’t thinking.”
“You…” Kale gave a shaky laugh, edging away from him. “You have no idea. Jaren, stay back!” he pleaded when the Elite walked slowly towards him.
“You’re practically vibrating with the effect of all that magic, Kale,” Jaren said sympathetically. “I don’t need a spell to see that. Let me help you.”
“If you get any closer, I won’t be held responsible for my actions,” Kale warned him, looking like he was about ready to bolt again. “Jaren, please…”
“Kale, there’s nothing you could do to me that I wouldn’t want you to do,” Jaren replied, chuckling. “So what’s to hold you responsible for?”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Kale muttered, flushing further. Jaren took another step forward, and that was clearly one step too close. Letting go of the horse trough, Kale turned and fled into the inn.
Since that was exactly where he’d been hoping the younger man would end up, Jaren lost no time pursuing him. There might not be anything he could think of that Kale could do to him that he wouldn’t want, but that didn’t mean he necessarily wanted to do it in public. And, from the look in his lover’s eyes, he had no doubt that worries about location were the last thing on Kale’s mind.
It wasn’t hard to figure out which room Kale had gone into, since one was locked from within. “Kale, open the door,” Jaren coaxed him, though he was already casting a lock-opening spell even as he spoke. His only answer was a low groan that went straight to his groin.
He pushed the door open as soon as he heard the lock click, and found Kale on his knees beside one of the beds, his head resting on the thin mattress and clutching at the blanket like a lifeline. Stepping inside, he shut the door behind him and locked it again. “Kale…”
The brunet moved faster than Jaren had thought was possible for an unaugmented human, surging to his feet and lunging across the distance between them. “I warned you,” was all he said before he had his hands fisted in Jaren’s tunic and his mouth pressed hard against the Elite’s.
Jaren let himself be pushed back against the door, not fighting the hold at all. He could feel Kale’s desperation in his kiss, in the tightness of his fists, in the way his whole body shivered against Jaren’s. There had been missions when they had been forced to go without intimate contact for weeks at a time, and they’d both been pretty worked up by the time they finally got a chance to relieve the tension. But Jaren had never experienced anything like the way Kale felt right then.
It showed in other ways, too. While not passive by any stretch of the imagination, Kale was definitely the less aggressive of the two of them under normal circumstances. Now he was being demanding and pushy, and Jaren found that he didn’t mind in the least.
Breaking apart at last, they both panted for air. Kale’s pupils were wider than usual, leaving only a thin rim of dark brown around the edges, and he was still flushed in a most becoming way. Jaren groaned and gripped him by the hips, tugging him closer still, and the younger man cried out softly at the increased contact.
His hands fumbling on familiar fastenings, Kale struggled to divest Jaren of his uniform. Fearing the younger man might just tear the fabric if the buckles didn’t give way quickly, Jaren moved to help him. To his astonishment Kale growled and bit the side of his neck, shoving his hands out of the way. “Stay still,” the younger man ordered him, his voice shaking. “Just… just don’t move.”
Breathless, Jaren obeyed, pressing his palms flat against the door behind him to quell the impulse to reach out and touch Kale in turn. To his relief Kale managed to get the tunic and belt off him without ripping anything, though Jaren was fairly certain he’d lost at least a couple of buttons along the way. Kale’s hands were hot against Jaren’s skin as the younger man slid them up beneath Jaren’s undershirt. He pinched and pulled at Jaren’s nipples, much more roughly than he usually did, then dug his nails in and scraped his hands back down again hard enough to leave light welts behind. It stung, but the stimulation made Jaren’s whole body feel more sensitized.
Jaren cried out and shuddered, surprised all over again. Gods and Goddesses, if this was the effect a maypole dance had on his lover, he was just going to have to make a point of ensuring they were always near a village when May Day rolled around.
Then Kale’s hand slipped into his open trousers and wrapped firmly around his cock, and Jaren stopped thinking at all. Kale was a little gentler here than he had been elsewhere, but only a little. He gripped the shaft hard as he stroked, the calluses on his hand scraping against the delicate skin. Jaren fought to keep his hips still, but it was a losing battle as a tide of lust swept over him, washing away his sense and reason.
“You… are wearing too damned much,” he told Kale, his voice rough. Kale just growled again in response, his teeth latched firmly onto Jaren’s nipple preventing him from speaking, but he didn’t object when Jaren lifted his hands this time.
It was hard to concentrate on getting Kale out of his uniform when the younger man was so very bent on distracting him, but Jaren managed somehow. Much as he loved to feel Kale against him bare skin to bare skin, he didn’t think Kale was going to be patient enough to let them get entirely out of their clothes. So Jaren settled for returning the favour Kale had done for him, stripping the tunic and belt from the younger man and going one step further by pushing his trousers and underclothes down to his ankles.
Kale immediately tried to step out of them, but of course with his boots still on that was impossible. With frustrated noise he yanked at his feet, and Jaren thought he heard at least one bootlace snap before Kale’s feet came free and he kicked his pants away. He didn’t have time to worry about it, as Kale released Jaren’s cock to wrap his arms around the taller man’s neck, and lifted himself to twine his legs around Jaren’s waist as well.
Now they were pressed together with their throbbing cocks caught between them, and Jaren swore under his breath as he struggled to control himself. He could feel Kale trembling – no, shaking – against him, hear the desperate keening noise in Kale’s throat under the growls, and he knew he was going to have to be the rational one if he didn’t want this to end with Kale getting hurt. He had a feeling Kale would let him do anything he wanted at the moment, and wouldn’t object no matter what the cost.
Sharp pains in his shoulders as Kale dug his fingers in reminded Jaren that his lover was waiting impatiently. Kale was rocking his hips up, grinding their cocks together in a way that felt amazing but wasn’t going to be enough for either of them.
Wrapping his own arms under Kale’s ass, Jaren staggered away from the door and moved towards the bed. His spell-enhanced strength was more than enough to take Kale’s not-insubstantial weight – it was desire that was making him uncoordinated, and his unwillingness to take his attention off Kale long enough to see where they were going. As a result they literally tumbled into the bed when Jaren hit it with his knee and lost his balance, landing hard on the lumpy mattress and making the rope springs creak loudly in protest.
Desperately Jaren reached out with one hand to rummage blindly among the packs that had been set by the bed. He wasn’t sure if this was the room where his and Kale’s packs had ended up, but all the Elite carried oil to tend to their weapons. That would be enough…
But it seemed Kale wasn’t willing to wait even that long. He squirmed beneath Jaren impatiently, then pulled a move Jaren had used on him several times before, pushing up hard and sending them tumbling over onto their sides. When they’d righted themselves, the bags were out of reach and Kale was perched above Jaren, his knees planted on either side of Jaren’s hips, his hands digging into Jaren’s shoulders.
“You’ll hurt yourself,” Jaren protested, guessing what the younger man intended.
“I don’t care,” Kale said, shifting to position himself over Jaren’s cock and rubbing against him in a way that made Jaren shudder.
“But…!” Jaren wasn’t sure whether to struggle or not. He could easily have turned the tables, of course, but at the moment he wasn’t sure Kale would forgive him for that.
“I warned you,” Kale snapped, and forced himself down onto his lover’s hard cock. He was almost painfully tight and dry around Jaren, and certainly it was painful for him judging by the noises he was making. He refused to stop, and all Jaren could do was brace him by the hips and try to keep him from plunging down too fast.
It was a futile effort, and in moments Kale was seated against him, with Jaren as deep into his body as he could be. Kale paused then, gasping and shuddering, and Jaren thought that maybe he would finally come to his senses. But a moment later Kale was moving again, pushing up and thrusting back down again, each thrust slightly easier than the one before as his body reluctantly opened to the invasion.
At that point about the only thing Jaren could do was give himself up to the sensations, his hips snapping up to meet Kale’s downward strokes and his hands probably tight enough to bruise the younger man’s hips. That was only fair, considering the way it felt like Kale might actually be drawing blood from Jaren’s shoulders, but Jaren really couldn’t find it in him to care in that moment.
This position let Jaren go deep, but also left Kale almost entirely in control of the pace. Kale’s magic-induced need pushed him to be brutally fast and hard, but despite the pain he had to be feeling it was only minutes before he was crying out and convulsing around Jaren’s cock, his seed spurting over Jaren’s muscled stomach and staining the undershirt he was still wearing.
Jaren didn’t care, straining for his own climax. He hadn’t been caught by the effects of the magic, but Kale would start to feel the pain of his thrusts momentarily and Jaren wanted to be finished before he had to pull out. He knew Kale would finish him by hand or mouth, but a guilty part of Jaren had to admit that he’d never felt anything quite as good as how tight Kale was around him right then.
Kale leaned down and pressed his mouth against Jaren’s in a passionate kiss. Jaren’s protest at the sudden change in angle turned into a moan when Kale bit down hard on his lower lip, the sharp sting providing that bit of extra stimulation he’d so badly needed. With a shout muffled by Kale’s mouth, Jaren came as well.
The orgasm was intense, enough that Jaren lost track of the world for a brief moment. When he managed to focus again, he found Kale draped over him like a boneless ragdoll, head tucked under Jaren’s chin and Jaren’s softening cock slipping slowly from his body. When Jaren shifted to try to make them both more comfortable, Kale groaned a soft protest.
“Well, if you had just let me get the oil, you wouldn’t hurt so much,” Jaren scolded him gently, dredging up the energy and focus for a quick healing spell. He held his hands over Kale’s back, letting the energy soak into the younger man’s body to fix the damage before Kale could really realize just how much pain he was in.
“Mmph,” Kale muttered against his shoulder, then made a surprised noise and pushed himself up on shaking forearms. “Jaren, you’re bleeding. I hurt you!” he exclaimed, astonished and distressed. “Oh, gods, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry…”
Jaren interrupted the blurted apology with a quick kiss, then looked down to see that Kale was right. There was blood on his pale skin and soaked into his white undershirt, where Kale’s nails had dug deep enough to break the skin. His lower lip was swollen and he could taste copper against his tongue as well. Chuckling softly, he cast the healing spell again and let it fall over his own wounds this time.
“Easily enough fixed, and no harm done,” he assured Kale. “Besides, I rather think I deserved it, pushing you into the dance like that. I am sorry, I didn’t realize what it would do to you.”
Kale groaned and buried his face in Jaren’s shoulder again, shaking. “It’s never been that bad before. The dances started making me feel… uncomfortable… when I was a teenager, so I stopped doing them. I’m just as glad, if this is the result.”
“Well, comfort yourself with the thought that you’ve done a great deal to ensure the bounty of the crops in this area for the next year,” Jaren said, and chuckled. “Not that they’ll know you had anything to do with it, but from what I saw they’ll have enough for their village twice over.”
“It really makes a difference?” Kale asked, peering up at him with wide eyes.
“It will with that much fertility energy raised and flooding out over the fields,” Jaren said. “And I imagine there will be a bountiful crop of babies in about nine months, as well.” He smiled and Kale flushed and shook his head.
“At least we don’t have that problem,” Kale muttered, startling another laugh out of Jaren. “Uh… I suppose we’d better get cleaned up before the others come back?” Kale flushed dark red, looking around as if he expected the rest of the troop to materialized out of the walls.
“They’re not coming,” Jaren said. “Once I realized what I’d done to you… well, it didn’t take them long to figure it out, and the consensus is that this once I’m pulling rank and we get the room to ourselves.”
“They all know?” Kale looked first horrified, then like he wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere and die. He buried his face in Jaren’s shoulder again, as if he didn’t intend to come up and face the world again any time soon. “I’m never going to live this down,” he groaned, his words somewhat muffled.
“You will eventually,” Jaren assured him, stroking Kale’s shoulder gently. The feel of fabric under his hand instead of skin reminded him that they were still rather overdressed. It was early in the day still for bed… but he doubted the entire effects of all that magic had been purged from Kale’s system in one go. Likely they wouldn’t be sleeping for several hours yet to come.
Not at all upset at the idea, he smiled and tugged at the undershirt. “Come on, let’s get more comfortable while we recover,” he said. “And let me at least find the oil this time!”
Kale made a noise that was somewhere between embarrassment and reluctant desire, and Jaren knew his guess had been right. Well, at least it would take Kale’s mind off the teasing he was likely to get from the others. And next year…
Well, next year Jaren would be more prepared. This was definitely one country tradition of which he heartily approved, and intended to participate in at every opportunity. Surely Kale would forgive him – eventually.
Besides, by the time Jaren was done today, he hoped Kale would be looking forward to the next May Day every bit as much as he was.