by Delyth Penrose
illustrated by Seiwa Kaiyura
By the end of the summer, Gwion was furious at the entire world. It was bad enough that they were war-captives — all right, to be fair, it was pretty much worst of all that they were war-captives, because all the rest of the trouble stemmed from that. But what frustrated him most of all lately was his brother.
They’d always been identical. He’d thought they always would be identical — somehow he’d never thought about the fact that they were going to war, that one of them could have been scarred. But neither of them had been, and anyway, scarring wasn’t much of a problem. A scar would have been easier to hide — or to fake.
How in Hernos’ name was he supposed to get away with anything anymore?
All his life, he’d been able to count on their resemblance fooling everyone but their sister and Anffryth — what was he supposed to do now? It wasn’t fair that he no longer had a mirror-image walking around providing him with an impeccable alibi every time his brother spoke to one of the Imperials.
If it had just been a matter of pranks, he wouldn’t have minded so much — but now that he had something he needed to accomplish, suddenly Faethan’s body was betraying them both.
…Well, no. Not betraying. Just… changing.
Gwion stubbornly tried to crush the hurt voice in his heart that cried that it was betrayal, change was betrayal, he’d never wanted his brother to change, never wanted them to be different. That was just stupidity talking — stupidity and selfishness, and he knew better, he had to know better, or else…
Across the fire, Gilfaethwy flinched anyway, and bent his head.
…ah dammit, he’d gone and made him cry again.
Making Faethan cry was both too damn easy to do and a bloody vicious cycle — his twin was ashamed that he couldn’t keep his heart-seeing leashed anymore, ashamed that he felt everything they felt, because he knew they didn’t want to let him know they felt things that hurt him. Then, once he was upset, he sometimes lost control of the sending as well, and his misery and distress would spill out into the rest of them, and then they were all miserable. And Faethan thought that was all his fault too, which made him even more distraught, which made it harder to control the flares of his power. Arion in particular was far too prone to getting caught up in the whirlwind of self-blame and guilt and anger and shame, and Faethan took way too much responsibility for Arion’s misery in particular, and then… it all just…
Distance was the only thing that sometimes helped, and sometimes not even that. Still, Gwion dropped into his own shadow, reached through Faethan’s fire-cast shadow to grab him, and pulled them both out of the emotional maelstrom of the house into a better shadow, a quiet, hidden nook behind several hay-bales in one of the Imperium’s stables.
The cat who’d discovered the trove of mice and claimed the hayloft for her territory had recently birthed her kittens; they were just old enough for their eyes to be opening, and their hearts were utterly simple and guileless, needing nothing more than mother-warmth and sweet milk.
Gwion must have been hoping too desperately, too loudly, that the kittens would cheer him up. Gilfaethwy took one look at them and burst into howling sobs, huddled in on himself, guilt-sick and furious with himself and so horrified at his power’s flaring that Gwion worried he might fret himself into throwing up again. He’d been doing that too much.
…And he couldn’t even worry about that safely, because of course Faethan took it as an accusation. Faethan took everything as accusations, even when they weren’t meant like that; if he’d just stop —
Gilfaethwy made a horrible half-swallowed retching sound, both hands clamped hard over his mouth.
Gwion smacked himself in the head hard, dropped flat on his back in the hay, and stepped down hard on everything. Nothing to feel, nothing to fear, nothing to worry over, just sunlight filtering through the loft and warm grain-sweet hay and kittens, nobody could be upset about kittens — wait, no, wrong angle. Nobody was upset about kittens. Gwion didn’t think Faethan was upset about kittens.
His brother was gasping, huge shuddering breaths that shook his whole body, eyes shut tight as he fought his power for control.
“Slow down,” Gwion murmured, taking a guess and reaching over to rub the small of his back, where he always ached now. “It’s all right. I’m all right. You haven’t pushed me, or twisted me. You can do this. You’ve beaten it before; you’ll do it again. Come on, come lie down.”
He pulled on his shoulder until Gilfaethwy obeyed, settling down next to him, curling up in a shivering little knot of misery. Gwion rubbed at his shoulders and his side until his breathing came slower, then deliberately let his hand come to rest on his brother’s waist.
Gilfaethwy went too still, rigid and taut as a bowstring, his heart spilling out guilt-shame-fear-dread.
“You are the gutsiest idiot I’ve ever known,” Gwion murmured, and let him feel how much he meant every bit of it. “This is the bravest, stupidest thing anybody’s ever done. Just because it’s unbelievably stupid doesn’t mean it’s not brave.”
Gilfaethwy made a querulous noise behind his hands, but from the nausea-spillover leaking through his emotions, Gwion guessed he wasn’t about to try actual words yet. So he had a little more time to try to thump some sense into his brother’s thick head.
“I love you no matter what,” he said. “No, don’t tense up again. You’re my brother, dumbshit. You know I loved you even before the king tore all our powers loose, so you don’t need to worry you’re twisting me into loving you. I’ll laugh in your face if you try. Got it?”
Gilfaethwy nodded a little.
“Right. Good.” He patted his brother’s hip. “None of us blame you. Yes, dammit, I know you blame yourself every time you lose your grip — but Mercy’s bounteous tits, Faethan, hasn’t it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong and we might be right?”
He hated making his brother flinch, hated the way it started the spiral of guilt-panic-shock-fear when his power spiked raggedly enough to make the cat hiss and lay her ears back. Gwion dug both hands through his brother’s hair, leaned closer, and kissed his forehead, so that he could pour his absolute conviction into his brother’s heart.
“You’re not twisting us. Don’t take this wrong, but, Faethan, when your power’s going wild, you haven’t got enough control to twist us. Think about it: you want us not to worry, don’t you? And you panic because we’re worried and upset, and that makes you feel worse, and it keeps going round. If you were twisting us to what you wanted, we wouldn’t be feeling what you do when the flares take you — we’d be practically sleepwalking.”
“It’s still my fault,” Gilfaethwy whispered. “It’s my fault I can’t control my power anymore. None of you made me lie down with Arion. None of you made me give Livia Vitella her false heir.”
“This is not your fault, dumbass! If the king hadn’t wanted his damned army of earth-bound magic-weapons so badly, if he hadn’t changed us into half-women, into half-witches — none of the rest of this would have happened. Not Arion, not your power-flares, not… not this little one.”
Gwion rubbed his brother’s side gently, still wondering at how a few passing weeks could change the mirror-image they’d held all their lives.
“We wouldn’t even have been captured,” he added, softly. “We wouldn’t have been this far east. If we were still just a couple skinny boys who couldn’t even pick up a broadsword between us, no one would have sent us to hold the front.”
“It doesn’t do any good to blame the king now,” Gilfaethwy murmured, his arm fallen across his eyes, trying to close off the world. “I’m the one who can’t block out my earth-bond with a child in me. It’s just… so loud. So insistent. And the more I push the power down, the fiercer it burns when it flares.”
Gwion sighed and wriggled closer to his brother, pulling him close enough to hug, resting his chin on the top of his head. “Then maybe you shouldn’t push it down.”
“And walk around with a thousand soldiers’ bloodstained heart-voices echoing in my mind all the time?” Gilfaethwy shuddered. “I can’t. I’m scared, Gwion. I don’t know whether I’m more afraid I’ll go mad before the end of this, or that I’ll drive someone else mad.”
“Do you hear them now?”
“Not as loudly, not while you’re holding me,” Gilfaethwy murmured. “But now I hear everything from you. I can’t stop. …I don’t know what to do.”
Gwion said, very quietly, “You don’t have to …finish. If it’s too hard, you can still end this. Let them think it just won’t work.”
Gilfaethwy blinked. When he realized what Gwion was suggesting, he flinched back as sharply as though Gwion had struck him.
“No!” he cried. “Goddess, no — if the Imperials think I’m too weak to carry, they’ll use you and Arion instead! You’d hate it. You’d break your heart hating it, and Arion — he’d — no. It has to be me.”
“If my power went wild,” Gwion said, “I’d put out candles, and hearthfires, and the floors would get soggy from the mists. I’m not in danger of losing my mind in the noise of everyone else’s lives.”
“If Arion’s power went wild, people would die,” Gilfaethwy said. “And that’s if he didn’t find a way to kill himself first. He’d try, if he thought he could spite Livia with his death. I know he would. I’ve heard that wish in him already. He hates this place so much…” He gulped back a half-choked sob, and whispered, “At least I won’t kill anyone if I go mad.”
“That doesn’t make it a better option, you idiot!” Gwion hugged him close again. “We’ll fix this. We have to fix this. Because losing you would kill me. –Dammit, don’t lock up! That’s not an accusation, that’s just… it’s just… true. Ah, Goddess, don’t start crying…”
“I’m sorry,” Gilfaethwy choked, huddled behind his hands again. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.” Gwion kissed the crown of his brother’s bent head, and held him as close as he could. “What about that Imperial mage, the foghead who made our slave-cuffs for Anffryth — maybe he could do something? We can’t touch Anffryth with power because of the spells on the slave-cuffs. Maybe there’s some way he can mirror that to keep the earth-power away from you?”
“No,” Gilfaethwy whispered, one hand moving down to shelter his stomach by pure instinct. “When — when they put us in that shielded cell — it cut off everything, even the moon’s call to our blood. If he blocks me like that — if the child needs my moon-blood to live…”
“…shit. Yeah. Sorry. I didn’t think about that.” Gwion dug a hand through his hair. “Let’s talk to Arion. I mean, the man called lightning into his hands and didn’t die; he’s got to know something about how to handle too much power at once.”
Gilfaethwy bit his lip, but everything he wasn’t saying came spilling out of his heart anyway.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Gwion said, for what must have been the dozenth time. “And he shouldn’t hate you. And either way, whether or not he should hate you, he’s way too busy hating himself. That’s his choice. You can’t take that choice away. All you can do is try to shake some sense into him.” Then he grinned. “And since you don’t have any sense worth shaking, just ask me for backup. I’m the only one of us with his head screwed on right anyhow.”
Gilfaethwy twitched, but it wasn’t a pain-flinch this time; the rush of sheer indignation that blazed out of him was, in Gwion’s view, the best thing he’d felt all day.
“You don’t say that to a person with child!”
He truly wasn’t very big yet, just a soft, sweet curve cradled between his hip-blades — but Gwion turned on his smuggest grin anyway: “If the shoe fits — if the shoe’s the only thing that does fit–”
Gilfaethwy rolled over, knotted both hands in the fabric of his chiton, and shook him hard enough to knock the breath out of him. The tears that still glittered on his cheeks had been forgotten in the wash of pure, uncomplicated outrage: “You take that back!”
Gwion was still laughing — wheezing, but laughing — when he pulled them back through into the shadows cast from Aenfrith’s home-fire.
Leading the horse to water, Gwion realized several exasperated hours later, had nothing to do with getting it to drink. As soon as Gilfaethwy got done shaking him, he took one look around the house, flinched away from the corner where Arion was chained to the roofpost, and threw himself headlong into busy-work.
Eathlwine, the opportunistic wretch, wasn’t about to protest when Gilfaethwy started hauling water for the laundry-pot and hanging the bedding out to air and scouring the dishes and washing the shearing-fleeces and anything else he could come up with to keep him running back and forth to the well, rather than staying indoors where Gwion might ask him to talk.
Finally, Gwion grabbed his brother by the arm, took the bucket out of his hands, and dragged him over to where Arion sat.
And then he had to fight off the need to smack Arion across the head when the warrior’s face tightened and he looked away from them both.
“Hernos’ balls, get your head out of your ass already,” Gwion said, and he wasn’t sure which of them he meant more. “If you two can’t even look at each other long enough to speak–”
“It’s not his fault,” Gilfaethwy insisted. “It’s my fault. All of it.”
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is anymore! You made your choice; it’s over and done with,” Gwion shot back.
Over and done? Arion’s hands flashed sharply through the symbols. You stupid child — it’s barely even begun. For the rest of our lives, I will be the father of his bastard; neither of us can pretend otherwise. I can never again look my lady in the eye and swear my faithfulness to her.
“That’s not true!” his brother cried out. “Your lady can’t possibly blame you for something you never chose.”
It has nothing to do with choice. You carry my child. I could no more abandon you to bear that burden alone than I could reach into the wind and fly.
“You don’t owe me anything!” Gilfaethwy protested, heart-stricken. “It’s not your fault. It’s not your responsibility. I took your seed against your will; you never wanted this…”
Neither did many another unexpected father, Arion’s hands replied. Regardless, it is done. I cannot abandon my duty to my own blood. And I cannot ask my lady to accept the hand of a cripple whose virtue is fouled with a bastard.
“You are not a cripple, and your virtue is unstained,” Gilfaethwy insisted, his hands clenched tight at his sides. “If she were captured by the Imperials and raped by a soldier, you would never call her fouled and cast her aside, would you? She would be blameless. You know she would.”
Arion stared up at him, his gaze mingled between anger and pity. Child, his hands said. Innocent fool. A grown man cannot spill his seed in passion and be held blameless in the act. I took pleasure in the dream you gave me, as I took pleasure in your body. I wanted to believe the dream you spun; I did not even struggle.
“And if the Imperials drugged a captive before they raped her,” Gilfaethwy said, his eyes too bright with barely-unshed tears, “would you then blame her that she felt no pain, that she did not fight?”
A woman taken by force would always be blameless, Arion said. I am neither a woman nor an innocent. If my heart had been pure enough, disciplined enough, I would not have been so willing to seize upon the pleasure you offered.
“Would it have been easier for you if I’d hurt you?” Gilfaethwy demanded, and his voice cracked. “I could have! I gave you pleasure because I didn’t want you to suffer like this! But if you could have forgiven yourself if I had hurt you, then I’ll do it — I’ll hurt you until you blame me instead–”
“Stop,” Gwion said, both hands on his brother’s shoulders. “Faethan, stop this. You’ve both hurt enough already.”
I could never blame you, child. Not when you only did this to protect me. Arion’s gestures were slow, weary, deliberate. If I’d been able to withstand the bitch’s abuse, if I’d been able to shield your heart from my pain, you would never have felt such a desperate need to bargain your body for my safety. It was my duty to protect you, not yours to protect me.
“You and what army?” Gilfaethwy shot back, shaking. “You can’t expect to have killed every last Imperial yourself! If we hadn’t been changed, if we were just ordinary men, we’d have been killed on the battlefield or sold as slaves already. This–” his hand splayed briefly, fretfully, over the pout of his belly– “this is why we’re still here. The Imperials want a child with the earth-bond to raise for their own. That’s what keeps us safe. Not your warrior’s strength, not your sword-skills — this child is the only reason we’re still alive. I have what they want, and they know it, and now they have to wait. That’s the only bargaining-piece we have.”
You should never have been the one to make that bargain.
“I did what I had to,” Gilfaethwy said. His hands were trembling; he knotted them together. “By my own choice.”
…Yes. Because I had already failed to protect you.
“Ah, Goddess, enough already,” Gwion snapped. “There’s no changing what’s already done. What we can change is what hasn’t happened yet.”
How? Arion lifted his hands far enough for his chains to shift and clink. We are all bound; my chains are only the most visible.
For one brief, incredulous moment, Gwion thought, Goddess’ tits, he must have been even more of a pious little saint than Faethan was. If Arion’s parents had never felt the need to send him to his room without his supper, and thus left a sulking boy with uninterrupted time to plot his next mischief… Well, it was high time Gwion corrected that lack in the poor man’s upbringing.
“Nobody’s put chains on our thoughts, you know,” he pointed out.
Gilfaethwy’s shoulders slumped a bit. “I wish they could have,” he murmured. “At least then my mind could be quiet again.”
“No you don’t,” Gwion said, rubbing his back in a clumsy attempt to comfort him. “You don’t want chains on your own thoughts. What you really want is chains to keep everybody else’s thoughts out of your head. That’s totally different.”
Then, reminded of their conversation in the hayloft, he shot another glare at Arion. “Here’s your real chance to be a hero, prickle-pants. Do you really want to sit here spending the next half a year making my brother heart-sick with your bitching? Or are you going to help us figure out what makes him feel better?”
Arion flinched back as though Gwion had struck him. After a shaken breath, he lifted his hands and sketched, How can I help? I hate when he suffers, just as you do.
Gwion really wished the man had a voice, so that he could have told whether that had been defensive whining or something sincerely meant. He looked at Arion for a minute, wishing he had enough of his brother’s gift to feel a heart other than his twin’s.
Gilfaethwy twined his fingers through Gwion’s, and sent a soft pulse of emotion through their bond: support, devotion, a careful thread of hope.
“All right,” Gwion said to them both, and took a deep breath. “Come on. We can sort this out.” He sat down cross-legged on the floor, tugging at his brother’s hand until Gilfaethwy followed him. Then he fidgeted with the hem of his chiton, because there really wasn’t a way to ask this without sounding really stupid.
“So, uh — how do you call down lightning and then not die?”
Gilfaethwy hid his face in his free hand. Arion blinked in startlement. He started to ‘say’ something, but his hands kept pausing mid-gesture and then flickering toward a different thought. Finally he sighed, shook his head a little, and began again.
Lightning is nothing like gossiping heart-noise, his hands shaped, very carefully. Lighting is …absolute. Swift, focused, overwhelming — and then utterly gone. All it needs is a path. I make myself its channel. He shrugged a little, helplessly. I’ve never tried to hold it back, or to contain it. I don’t think I would survive that.
“Yeah,” Gwion said, a little shaken himself. “That sounds… yeah, right, don’t do that.”
If anything, I think the flower-twin would need a water-bond’s aid in taming a heart-gift, Arion signed, tentative. Lightning’s rhythm is death, in search of a single searing instant of change. The rhythm of water is far more like the rhythm of emotions, of life. Lightning lashes through and leaves nothing behind. But emotions linger. They swirl and eddy and fester and burst out of the banks we try to build for them.
“Sure, great, if we had anybody water-bonded,” Gwion muttered, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Seen anyone else like us lately?”
I’m sorry, Arion signed, head bowed.
“It’s not your fault,” Gilfaethwy replied softly. “We just have to think harder, that’s all.”
Gwion held his hands out, twined them together against the firelight, made the shadow-flicker of a bird’s wings dance a flight across the wall. Gilfaethwy leaned his head against his shoulder, watching the bird-shadow fly free with a wistful twist of emotion.
“Shadows aren’t enough like like heart-voices either,” Gwion admitted, unhappily. “Shadows are nothing. Shadows are where light isn’t. I find an absence, or I make one. But there’s nowhere to find an absence of people around a place like this. Too many presences, and they’re all arguing and wanting and feeling and crowding into his head.”
“What do you do in a storm, sir?” Gilfaethwy asked Arion. “When there’s all that power crackling around, when everything’s on the verge of happening at once, and you don’t want to call its attention?”
Arion offered him a slight, wry grin. First, I come in out of the rain.
Gwion snorted. “Smartass.”
When I called lightning to my hand, it was… Arion hesitated a moment, then signed, It was a binding. A covenant. My guidance offered to its restless, seeking power; my acceptance of that power’s deadly price. It is mindless, willful, and unimaginably strong. It seeks, and I hollow myself out to give the vast channel it demands. I forge the path from sky to earth, and the power leaps to its home eagerly. Flower-twin, what path — what home — do the heart-voices seek in you? What covenant could you offer, to guide such power toward its appeasement?
Gilfaethwy bit his lip, suddenly uncertain. “They want to be heard,” he murmured. “They want to be felt, to be acknowledged. The voices want to hear themselves reflected, because in that moment, that feeling is the only thing in the world to a heart that cries out so strongly.”
Gwion sighed, and tipped his head sideways to rest his cheek against his brother’s tousled hair. “You can’t do that,” he said. “You can’t make yourself responsible to comfort every heart that cries to you. Not in a war-camp. It’d be like trying to dry out the sea with a dishrag.”
Then we need to shield you, and to carve a different channel for the power. A lightning-rod on the rooftop, to draw the power safely down into the earth while you take shelter from the storm of their emotions.
“How?” Gwion asked, bemused.
Shelter first. It does no good to raise a lightning-rod if you have nowhere to hide when the power surges.
“…So we get a crateful of puppies to be happiness-roof-thatchers or something?”
“I’d scare them,” Gilfaethwy murmured, eyes closed. “I scare the barn-cat, when I lose control.”
Your shelter needs to be anchored in human will, Arion agreed. Intelligent enough to understand what’s happening, and old enough to have learned how to hold fast against emotion-tides. As for the form of your shelter… do you experience the power like rain or like fire? Is it something that wears you down, or something that devours?
“Both,” Gilfaethwy said, with a short, sharp laugh. “It depends on what their hearts cry out. Anger burns; sadness soaks into everything. Pleasure is dizzying; it goes to my head like wine.”
I think you’ll need several shelters to steady you, Arion said. If each of us were to provide a distinct anchor for you, built upon our own souls’ graces and flaws… Perhaps we should pattern it after the Goddess’ circle. Our own circle was broken, and you may yet be feeling that imbalance between us. I cannot guide Power’s Hand in the circle now, not as a chained slave — but Three-birds could. You cannot be our Maiden, but Painted-face still may. With your brother and I, Painted-face, and Three-birds, you would stand as the Mother at the heart of Her circle. Or when you feel small and frightened, I can be the Mother who guards and comforts you, Her seeking child.
Gwion couldn’t help bristling. The idea of his brother going to someone else with his heart in tatters, opening his power to someone else — making himself that vulnerable, either to Arion who’d gotten him pregnant and wouldn’t stop angsting over it, or to Anffryth who kept them all leashed like well-trained kennel-dogs… He wanted to shout, to hit something, to take his brother’s hand and run and run until they were alone, safe, just the two of them.
“Stop that,” Gilfaethwy told him softly, closing both hands around the fist he hadn’t realized he’d made. “Arion’s right. We already know I can’t handle this myself; how could I ask you alone to endure everything I can’t?”
“You’re our flower, remember?” Gwion muttered, glaring at the ground. “I’m our thistle. I’m the tough, spiky one. I promised Mother I’d take care of you.”
“Idiot,” Gilfaethwy replied, fond and weary. “You can’t hold yourself to that. We were sent to war. Things happen.”
Arion snapped his fingers softly, to catch their eyes back to his hands. This is why we have armies, he signed. So that no one warrior must take all the burden of defense alone.
Gwion coughed, spluttered, and pointed an indignant finger at him. “Now you say that– and how much time have I spent beating you over the head that it’s not your fault we’re here?”
Neither of you are warriors. You had no place upon that battlefield, regardless of the king’s command.
“Enough,” Gilfaethwy told them both, with a soft sigh. “Sir, the idea seems sound, but — to be blunt — it’s not going to be easy. When I can send you into a spiral of grief and shame even without power behind it, with just this…” He cupped one hand to his abdomen, smoothed the fabric softly. “I can’t ask you to steady me, not while you can’t steady yourself because of me.”
Arion bent his head. I have learned something of how to become still and empty, these past months. And I would be… grateful, relieved, if I could ease your burden. If I falter, so be it — but please, let me at least try.
Gilfaethwy looked at him for a moment, then pushed on his heart. For a moment, he staggered him — and then everything dropped away into a dizzying space deeper than the night sky, silent and empty, not even falling because there was nothing close enough to fall to in the vast, hollow void.
He came up short and sharp when Gwion shook him by the shoulders hard enough to snap his head back and forth: “Stop that!”
Arion toppled over sideways, gasping for breath; only Gwion’s grip on his shoulders and the bright, fierce flare of his outrage kept Gilfaethwy from following him.
Through Gwion’s frantic, profanity-laced scoldings, Gilfaethwy looked at Arion and found a shaky grin to offer. “So I guess dropping me into your lightning-channel doesn’t work.”
No, Arion sketched with one hand, still gasping for breath. Sorry. Lightning’s fast. Didn’t know I stopped breathing to do that.
“Heh. Live and learn…”
“And that depends on you living, now doesn’t it!” Gwion shouted at them both, his heart racing at twice its usual speed. “Don’t you ever, ever–”
“It’s all right,” Gilfaethwy said, stroking his fingers through his brother’s hair and drawing away the fierce burn of his angry fright, soothing the scorched place in his heart with the balm of breath and warmth and safety. “We’re all right. That’s why we practice.”
Gwion knew he was being manipulated, but with Gilfaethwy’s hand steadying his heart, he couldn’t dredge up as much outrage as he really wanted. “…Don’t ever do that again.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“…well. Good. You’d better not.”
Gwion was still casting off little stinging sparks of fear and anger and worry. Smoothing his brother’s hair, Gilfaethwy glanced over at Arion, and touched him with a quiet, questioning invitation. Arion nodded a little, shifting close enough to settle his hands on Gilfaethwy’s shoulders, and closed his eyes.
Arion’s heart always frightened Gilfaethwy a little. His power took the path of lightning for a reason — his mind ran deep and vast as the night sky; he felt everything so intensely that something small and selfish in Gilfaethwy’s own heart wanted nothing more than to curl up and hide from the searing purity of his soul.
It was bad enough to know that he’d taken a man like this and used his own purity against him; knowing that Arion blamed himself for it was even worse. But Arion had pushed even that aside, to try to give them comfort. What he’d brought to the front of his thoughts was just as deeply felt, just as near-painful in its intensity, but far more welcoming. Arion held Gilfaethwy close and felt how small he was, how young, how startlingly precious — Arion filled his thoughts with a knight’s defense, solid as steel and unshakable, then built a hearth upon the foundation of stone and warmed them both with the firelight of a father’s fierce adoration.
Gilfaethwy blinked fiercely, but he couldn’t keep back the tears that welled up in his eyes. He missed their father so much, missed their mother’s smile and even their sister’s teasing…
Arion pulled them both close enough to loop his chained arms around the pair of them, and held on tight. Shared, his heart murmured to them. Memory. Longing. Kindred. He poured his own father’s love around them, his memories of a tall, pale-haired warrior who sat in the evenings with the firelight glinting off the flash of a blade in his hand, coaxing free the shapes of playing squirrels and grumpy badgers and birds in flight from old scraps of wood. His mother’s love had been her garden; his feelings of her were tangled into the scent of lavender and roses, the heat of a cup of chamomile tea in his hands and the softness of his grandmother’s favorite quilt.
Home, his heart said, and barred the doors and windows against the war and the Imperials and fear and guilt and desperation. Home, hearth-fire, love.
The twins’ hearts were so entangled in each other that it was impossible to tell which of them was the source of the exhaustion they shared. Arion would have guessed Gilfaethwy, simply because of the demands on his body and his spirit, but Gwion had spent so long being worn down by his brother’s distress that part of their weariness might well have been his own. In any case, it wasn’t long at all before they fell asleep in his arms, tangled together like a pair of newborn colts, all elbows and knees and sprawling limbs.
Arion settled back against the roof-pole and kissed each of them on the brow, filling his mind with what his father must have felt with his children sleeping in his lap, guarding over their dreams.
When Aenfrith came home, all the laundry had been taken down and folded in baskets that were sitting on the front stoop, and Eathlwine was still sitting on the rain-barrel with her spinning and a bundle of wool. He quirked a brow, knowing she much preferred spinning indoors, where the wind wouldn’t toss the unspun wool around.
“Their mage-bond’s been quiet for an hour now,” he said in Eathlwine’s native tongue. “They can’t be doing anything too messy, can they?”
“They were mucking about with the flower-twin’s heart-storms,” Eathlwine said. “I guessed they weren’t killing each other since you didn’t come charging back, but that doesn’t mean I want to be the one who finds out what they were doing. It felt…” She shook a hand like she’d gotten something sticky on it. “Syrupy. Like spilling honey all over. Blech.”
Aenfrith chuckled, and eased the door open a few inches, careful not to let the hinges creak. The three of them were sleeping in a puppy-pile by Arion’s post, cradled protectively in the circle of his chained arms.
…Othinn’s eye, he hated Laenas’ wife.
“At some point,” he said, “I’m going to have to ask you to take the flower-twin with you when you go to the market. Don’t argue in front of him, all right? Just take him with you, when I have to ask.”
Eathlwine was dangerously sharp sometimes. “He doesn’t like being stared at, and he’s getting enough of a belly that people are going to stare. Why do you want him out of the way?”
“I want you both out of the way,” Aenfrith corrected. “You don’t want to have to know. And he can’t lie for shit anymore, not with his heart pouring out the truth to anyone who looks at him.”
She pursed her lips together, then spat. “Just strangle that bitch and be done with it.”
“Frija’s mercy, I wish I could.”
“The Imperial bastards will win this war anyway. They don’t need the earth-magic here. They don’t need the flower-boy’s babe, let alone more.”
“But you’d rather keep your gold and your luxuries.”
“I’d rather keep my head on my shoulders,” Aenfrith said sourly. “They don’t trust anyone but themselves, and they don’t even trust each other. If I step far enough out of line, they’ll kill me slowly to teach an example, and kill you fast because you don’t matter. And then nobody will keep watch for those poor children.”
“Get Nafni to strangle the bitch, and let the cur kill him for it,” Eathlwine said, coldly practical. “Two birds and one stone.”
“Nafni likes her,” Aenfrith said, dragging a hand over his face. “They’re cut from the same cloth, and they both know it. The only blessing is they’re both too damn arrogant to deign to learn the other’s tongue.”
Over the years, Eathlwine had learned some colorful profanity from the sea-raiders to whom she’d served mead in the great halls. Aenfrith wondered if there was any point in explaining which words women weren’t supposed to use in his language.
“Just get him out of the way,” Aenfrith said wearily. “I don’t want him to have to know until afterward. To make this work at all, I’m going to have to lie through my teeth to all of them at once. Faethan makes that …complicated.”
Eathlwine shot him another disconcertingly keen-edged look. Then she smirked, and pulled another handful of wool from her spinning-sack.
“Did I say anything?”
“No,” Aenfrith growled. “That’s the problem. You’ve always got something to say.”
“Maybe I’m feeling merciful.” In response to his incredulous stare, she just grinned again. “Count your blessings already.”
Shaking his head, Aenfrith slipped through the door and closed it quietly behind him.
Gilfaethwy stirred amid the tangle of arms and legs and blankets, blinking sleep from his eyes as he squinted up at Aenfrith. “What’s wrong?”
‘Nothing’ was a lie that the boy wouldn’t accept, not with his abilities, so instead Aenfrith said, “Don’t worry.”
His brows crooked together. “But your heart aches.”
“…I’m sorry. I don’t mean to upset you. Sometimes I hate my duties, that’s all.” Aenfrith ruffled the boy’s fair curls. “Just ignore the grumpy bear. How was your day?”
It was a pointed question; wearing the master-cuff that controlled the boy’s mage-bond, Aenfrith had already gotten a general impression of upheaval, though no life-threats. Like the flower they’d chosen for the boy’s hand-name, though, Gilfaethwy opened up to him eagerly.
As he untangled himself from the sleepers and followed Aenfrith to the fire-pit, the story came spilling out in a jumble of ‘paths’ and ‘circles’ and ‘shelters,’ and something about lightning rods — when the boys tried to explain how their land-magic worked, it usually just made his head ache trying to follow them, and it wasn’t entirely because he was still learning the intricacies of their too-decorative language.
Sitting down with a bowl of stew and a couple of pieces of Eathlwine’s griddle-breads, he held up a hand to slow the boy down a bit. “So you think we can help, Eathlwine and me?”
“I– uh–” Gilfaethwy ducked his head a little, but he couldn’t hide his blush that easily, not when the firelight came from below them both. “I hate asking so much — I feel like I’ve already imposed too much upon your strength, your patience…”
Aenfrith gave a short, incredulous laugh. “‘Impose’ is when I lean over and scare the piss from some short man, yes? Little one, you couldn’t impose anyone. Least of all me.”
“Uh.” The boy was fidgeting with the hem of his chiton. “That’s the other type of imposing. I meant when — when your friend’s drunken cousins come to stay for a fortnight and end up lingering for six months and complaining about your food and disordering your home…”
“Othinn’s hairy nuts.” Aenfrith put a hand under the boy’s chin, pushed up until their eyes met. “You are still not to impose. You are mine. I’m your owner. Your keeper. That means you tell me what you need, so that I keep you safe and healthy. You can’t impose me, not when I own you.”
“It’s said like, um, imposing ‘on’ someone,” he mumbled. “And… you never asked to be given a slave who gives your whole household his nightmares.”
“So you tell what you need, and we make quiet the nightmares,” Aenfrith said. “Come here, little one.” He put an arm around the boy’s shoulders, tugged gently, until Gilfaethwy leaned into his chest; he felt the tension pour out of the boy in a rush, and rubbed his back quietly. “There, that’s better. Now. Tell what else you need.”
“This,” Gilfaethwy said softly, resting his cheek and a careful hand against the pulse-point of Aenfrith’s heart. “This most of all.”
“That’s fine, then,” Aenfrith told him, smiling. “It’s not hard to hold you.”
“But I can’t spend the next half year running from hand to hand like a toddler barely old enough to walk.”
“Why not?” In response to the boy’s incredulous stare, he said, “Some mages need ink, some need goat guts, some need clear nights and scry-stones — you need being held? Fine. You’re not asking my life-blood, little one. Would we help more if we share your bed too?”
The force of Gilfaethwy’s frantic and fiercely sexual embarrassment rolled over Aenfrith like a wave; he kept a good grip on the boy’s collar, to keep him from bolting, and shook his head a little to clear it.
“No, I mean share. Sleep next to a grown man who could steady your heart.” The boy’s embarrassment and tension was still flooding through them both, but Aenfrith remembered what it had been like to be a teenaged boy; he thought about the cold water that poured off the mountain in the early spring, still crackling with ice, and the boy in his arms shivered with him. “Why not?”
“Sometimes I… I want too much. I don’t… trust myself. If I was sleeping and I felt… someone warm, strong, next to me…” The boy’s embarrassment spiked again; Aenfrith rubbed his tense shoulders. “I don’t know what I’d do. If I was asleep, and my heart reached out to take what it wished…”
After a long, quiet moment, Aenfrith tested the shape his thoughts were making. “If you reached out in your sleep, it would be what you wanted. Not because you were forced, not because the bitch commanded you — just what you want.”
“And that’s why I couldn’t,” Gilfaethwy said, anxious. “Because I can make any of you feel whatever I want you to, and if I’m not awake to try to stop myself–”
“Do you know what you want, then?”
Gilfaethwy stared at him; all the blood drained from his face, and his heart-spillage shut down cold and swift as a bucket of ice-melt.
“Don’t be shamed of your wanting,” Aenfrith said, as gently as he could. “Sharing pleasure makes joy, not shame. No one gave you choices before, did they? First you were given to your mad king’s power-grasping, and then to the bitch’s schemes. Someone should have asked what you want for yourself. Have you found that yet?”
Gilfaethwy seized upon that chance like a drowning sailor in a heavy sea. “It’s all right not to know, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is,” Aenfrith said, and ruffled Gilfaethwy’s hair, and held his peace.
He couldn’t be cruel enough to point out how terrible Gilfaethwy was at lying while the boy was trying hardest of all to lie to himself. But all he could feel in the heart-overspill was the tension of a lie; Aenfrith couldn’t tell what truth the boy was trying so desperately not to glance towards.
Boyish embarrassment and impenetrable earth-magic mutterings aside, Aenfrith sat down to puzzle through what he could do that might actually help. The boy was his slave; the Imperials might think of their lifelong slaves as interchangeable and disposable, but Aenfrith had been raised to believe a master’s duty to his slave’s well-being was just as important as the slave’s duty to his master’s commands. Among his own people, no one but a fool would keep a slave for the given five or seven years, treat him shamefully, and then set him free to seek redress. Regardless of their internal wars, the sea-raider clans agreed with each other that slavery was a coin best used to repay debts, not to cause greater ones.
As a responsible owner, Aenfrith had an obligation to see the boy settled and comfortable in his power — even aside from the purely human desire to watch the boy smile, as sudden and warm as the sun breaking through spring clouds.
Keeping him in the house wasn’t working; it was too close to the hundreds of souls in the camp, directly on top of his brother’s sharp-edged restlessness and Arion’s ceaseless guilt and shame. Putting him back in the shielded cell would mute his powers — but it might well kill him and the child in the process. Circles and lightning rods and chantings aside, Aenfrith wanted something he could do to help the boy.
Whether or not it solved anything, smashing things always felt good. Aenfrith took himself and his practice-blade to the training grounds, pulverized some straw-sack dummies, and worked out a plan.
The boy needed to be held more often, to be further from the camp when possible, and, if all else failed, to keep his mind busy with thoughts and distractions more absorbing than sitting around spinning more yarn for Eathlwine. And Aenfrith himself could desperately use the boy’s knowledge of the natives’ tongue in his own work. Unfortunately, he also knew what Gilfaethwy was likely to think of the suggestion, once he understood exactly what Aenfrith was asking of him.
Maybe he could ease him into it, like barely-too-hot water in the bath-house.
Or maybe he’d just have to acknowledge that he couldn’t just use the boy without paying a price.
Aenfrith had spent long years as a negotiator, though — longer years than Gilfaethwy had been alive. If he couldn’t at least blunt the painful bite of truth for one trusting young innocent, he didn’t deserve his rank.
By the soldiers’ central campfire that night, Aenfrith commissioned a carpenter for a bed frame; regardless of what the boy thought about sharing a bed, sharing a sail-sling wouldn’t have been comfortable for anyone involved. He knew enough of rigging to be able to do the frame-lashings himself, but woodcraft was beyond his ken. His homeland was largely carved of seafoam and stone cliffs; he’d never used an axe that wasn’t meant for battle.
The next morning, he caught the boy by the collar, loosened the belt of his slave-chiton, refastened it as a childing woman would — high about the ribs, letting the rest of it spill unchecked to his calves — and put one of Eathlwine’s headscarves on him to hide his too-short hair. Then he brought Gilfaethwy with him when he went to his duty-shifts in the fortress.
To his relief, they found that the distance and the stone of the fortress seemed to dampen the ‘noise’ Gilfaethwy heard from the camp almost as well as it dampened real sounds.
…Not that the sounds Gilfaethwy heard weren’t real. But Aenfrith couldn’t hear for himself what he was trying to help the boy muffle; it felt like being blindfolded and trying to strike at a target through someone else’s guidance.
Gilfaethwy promised him that he felt better inside the fortress, that the bones of his land helped buffer him against the ragged mumbling storm-tides of the invading soldiers’ souls. But something still wasn’t quite steady; Gilfaethwy only ‘spilled’ his heart-voices when something was too upsetting for him to control, and Aenfrith knew the fretful little thread of wanting he felt wasn’t his own.
Aenfrith knew himself; he never wanted anything so timidly. If he wanted it, he reached for it. It had earned him everything from rapped knuckles to fingers burned on pastries to slaps in the face, but he’d also come away with handfuls of sweets and quite a few rolls in the bedding over the years. So the little mouse-creeping want was the boy’s, not his own; he couldn’t quite tell what the boy wanted, though. And he’d already learned his lesson about not asking too bluntly what Gilfaethwy wanted. The mad islander king and the Imperial bitch between them had done a bloody mess of a job convincing the poor child that the only wants that mattered were the things other people expected from him.
Aenfrith sighed, and slung an arm around the boy’s waist, trying to distract them both. He patted the soft round pout of the boy’s belly, and said, “Have you gelíffæsted yet?”
“What? I mean — er — that is… what?”
His blushes were adorable; Aenfrith ought to have felt guiltier about how easily he’d learned to provoke them, but he had greater causes to save his guilt for. He cupped his hand against the warm curve.
“Mothers can feel when they are líffæst, when… life comes inside?” he tried, fumbling toward words for childbearing that he’d never heard spoken in the boy’s own tongue. “The not-born will punch and kick and roll. Have you felt the movings of life inside you yet?”
Giving off a thick rush of excitement-fear-anxiety-curiosity-hope-c
“You people’s oddness put aside, there’s usually just two options,” Aenfrith pointed out, wry. “I have a coin-flip’s chance of being right.”
The sudden, piercing rush of Gilfaethwy’s disappointment startled him; he set his fingertips under his chin, pushed up until the boy met his eyes again. “What’s wrong now?”
“It has to be a boy,” he said, shivering a little. “I mean — I need it to be a boy. A king’s heir. If it’s not, the domina will make me try again, and I don’t want–” He stopped himself short, redirecting that thought by sheer force, and then tried again.
“I’m sorry. I mean, I know I have to make myself do this, because if I don’t the domina’s men will, and — that would be worse. But — if it was a boy, if I didn’t have to try again, I’d be so relieved — please, isn’t there any way to tell? Or do I have to wait the whole time, not knowing if all this is a waste and I’ll have to do it all over…?”
The blaze of fury Aenfrith felt blindsided him. It took the bitter not-quite-satisfaction of slamming a fist into the wall and leaving bleeding knuckles behind for him to realize the fury was entirely his own; Gilfaethwy was staring at him, bewildered and a little scared. The boy had long since worn their demands’ path in his heart to a fretful acceptance, rather than letting it spark like Aenfrith’s own outrage and frustration and dismay.
Gilfaethwy’s very resignation pricked at him again; what kind of place was this, when a war-captive child would have already come to such acceptance of being used like breeding-livestock? And the Imperials called his clansmen barbaric–
And he couldn’t throw a tantrum here, now, like this. Not when he was supposed to be Gilfaethwy’s emotional anchor.
Aenfrith rubbed both hands down his face, bit off a curse in war-skaldic, and hit the wall again for good measure, then tried to offer an attempt at a smile.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to shake your balance. I’m… angry away from you, not towards you.”
“I know.” Gilfaethwy’s attempt at a shrug was just as bad as his own attempt at a smile. “It’s all right, I guess. If there’s no way to know, at least the domina won’t know either.”
No, but that’s why she’s pushing so hard, Aenfrith realized, feeling sick. That’s why she’ll force the others to carry as well. If she can get several children to choose from in the right age range, she can gamble that at least one of them would be born the right sex.
He shut down that line of thought hard, because he couldn’t let Gilfaethwy suspect what was coming for his kinsmen until after it was done. He couldn’t warn him, couldn’t even soften the blow, or else what spilled from the boy’s heart would make Livia ask dangerous questions about Aenfrith’s own loyalties.
Really, making the boy blush was so far down Aenfrith’s list of his own crimes that it didn’t even register as a fault anymore. In fact, Aenfrith considered it more of a civic duty. Make him blush, make him laugh, make him jest and scold, make him feel anything that wasn’t to do with breeding and conquest — make him feel joy, if he could, to try to redress the suffering of the boy’s wyrd and the crimes of his own.
Aenfrith put his arm around Gilfaethwy again, for his own comfort as much as the boy’s heart-anchoring. “Let later handle later,” he said, and hoped his own heart would listen as well. “Meantime, I have riddles for you to busy your head with.”
“Riddles?” Gilfaethwy echoed, skeptical. “You expect me to believe that you speak a hand of languages — or more — and your duty to the Imperials is in crafting riddles?”
“Not crafting them,” Aenfrith corrected, with a broad grin. “Solving them. Come on.”
Trying to pass Gilfaethwy for a young woman rather than a young man had been a calculated risk, especially since he was putting the boy to work as a scribe. The Imperials never taught their women to read. And none of the other sea-raiders had any interest at all in the “ink-scratchings;” they’d come to fight, to inspire sagas, not to craft them.
But their captives’ unique …alterations weren’t common knowledge among the soldiers and slaves in the camp. As Eathlwine had wryly pointed out, most women were better equipped to learn wordcraft than most men were to give birth. If Aenfrith was going to keep taking Gilfaethwy to the fortress as he grew more and more round, then Gilfaethwy would be safer presenting himself as a childing woman.
Still, Imperial slaves were oddly touchy creatures, fiercely protective of any status they could claim; with no end to their servitude, Aenfrith supposed they had to cling to whatever they could, and literacy was a man’s privilege in their reckoning of the world.
Sometimes Aenfrith took shameless advantage of the fact that even the Imperial slaves looked at him as a half-tamed barbarian who could never fully grasp the nuances of ‘civilization.’ It gave him the excuse to find the rules he could break with less punishment than an Imperial would have faced.
Aenfrith kept his arm around Gilfaethwy’s waist as he wandered around the hall gathering up the supplies they would need: ink and parchment and reed-pens and a penknife and a sanding-stone. The Imperial slaves were watching them covertly, through sidelong glances and half-lidded eyes. Gilfaethwy was winding himself up tighter and tighter; his shoulders had hunched almost up to his ears by the time Aenfrith steered them into his work-room and closed the solid oak door behind them.
Under his breath, Gilfaethwy hissed, “They think I’m a whore! They want — they’re expecting to hear noises, they want to — to sneer at the barbarians–”
“Good,” Aenfrith said. “The more they assume, the less accurate the mutterings will be.”
Gilfaethwy rocked back on his heels. “But — they have no right!”
“That’s never stopped mutterings before,” Aenfrith said, grinning. He pulled Gilfaethwy into his lap and leaned him back against his chest, hoping to help settle the boy’s angry shame with his own easy, matter-of-fact acceptance.
“The Imperials don’t teach women to read, just as you people don’t teach women to fight,” he explained. “Their slaves look at me and see a rutting barbarian barely removed from beasthood. They look at you and see a well-fucked broodmare ripening with young. And they expect that. So we let them see what they expect. The less they guess of how bright you are — and how bright I am, for truth — the more we can get away with.”
The boy was making gawping faces like a landed fish. Aenfrith tidied up the pile of supplies on the table, giving him a few minutes to reorganize his understanding of the nature of politics.
“You’re more devious than Gwion,” the boy managed, weakly.
…Little innocent, you have no idea. “More years of practice,” he replied.
“So… if they think I’m a whore, then they won’t think anything of it when you touch me, if I’m …not stifling the voices well.”
“That and more,” Aenfrith said. “It’s for shelter. For your shelter, twice. The stone and I quiet the camp’s heart-noise for you, yes — and also, when you come into the heart of their lair, you need the Imperials to see you for mine. A slave woman is prey to any Imperial that wants one. A slave woman who belongs to a barbarian sea-raider who stands armed at Laenas’ back in trust, though — they’ll go find easier prey elsewhere. You see? Not just some whore — you need to be my¬ whore.”
After a moment’s thought, Gilfaethwy nodded a little, despite the little furtive stings of embarrassment and shame still sparking off of him.
“We’d better not tell Gwion,” he said, as oddly pragmatic as he’d been the morning after he’d taken Arion’s seed from him. “With the mage-cuffs binding us, he already knows he can’t hit you. And he gets creative when he’s thwarted. You’d be finding horse shit in your boots and cat piss in your bedding for the next six months solid.”
Aenfrith chuckled. “My thanks for your mercy! You could have left me unwarned, and then laughed at your captor’s stumbling-around misery.”
“I wouldn’t,” Gilfaethwy protested, and there was that charming blush again; the boys were so fair-skinned that neither of them could hide it.
“Because I walk these boots into this small room with you?” Aenfrith teased, grinning. “Wise front-sight, there.”
“Foresight,” Gilfaethwy said, and his shoulders were hunching toward his ears again. Aenfrith ruffled his headscarf until the band slipped and the fabric slid forward over the boy’s eyes; Gilfaethwy made a little exasperated huff, trying to untangle the fabric from his face.
“So now you’re teasing me even after I had mercy on you? You’re not encouraging me to warn you in the future, you know.”
“The balance-scales of the world need keeping level,” Aenfrith said loftily. “If you take teasing off, someone else must be adding it again. Else the world-snake could slip free from beneath the crooked weight and eat us all! You don’t want that on your back, do you?”
“On your shoulders,” Gilfaethwy said. “Or on your head. And I don’t believe a word of that.”
“See, wise foresight!” Aenfrith praised him, reaching over to unroll the week’s duty-roster. “So. How would you write this in your tongue?”
Gilfaethwy had never really taken the time to wonder what Aenfrith did for the Imperials when he wasn’t watching over their slaves for them. He’d known that Aenfrith was a hired mercenary, not a nobleman; he’d known that he carried a sword, but was more valued for his gift for languages. He’d had a muddled mental impression Aenfrith’s duties involving of a lot of paperwork, and the stack of scrolls and slates on the table only reinforced it.
He hadn’t even begun to imagine exactly how many people would come bursting into Aenfrith’s work-room, carrying in their arguments or confusion, demanding Aenfrith’s mediation on the spot. Or how many harried slaves would bring new piles of scrolls and snatch away old ones. Or that even Titus Cassius Laenas himself would come to Aenfrith’s work-room when he needed something explained to the sea-raiders, because summoning Aenfrith away from his work-room would mean that no one else could find him to clarify their half-understood orders or to give reports that another team of scouts needed in another language six hours ago.
By the fifth door-slamming departure, Gilfaethwy had almost learned how not to flinch. Aenfrith chuckled ruefully, patting Gilfaethwy’s hunched shoulders with a big calm hand.
“How can you stand it?” Gilfaethwy asked. “All the shouting and the banging and the chaos…”
“I’m used to it,” he admitted, scratching behind an ear a little sheepishly. “Caius Murena thinks the world will end if he doesn’t have three full weeks’ munitions in stores, but the Væringjar are sword-warriors, not smiths and arrow-makers. Lucius Cornelius Scipio thinks he can force the Gallii to cut wall-stone for the fortifications — because they’re just colonials, not proper Imperials, he says. But the Gallii from Aquitania are meadowlanders and valley-folk; they don’t know a stone-chisel from a wood-splitter. I tell them this at least six times a month. Late this afternoon Thorgest wil be here arm-waving about some new stupidness of Marcus Petillius the over-hasty. And tonight someone will be dragging a handful of Væringjar out of the Imperials’ wine-jars by the braids again. Ah — and speaking of afternoon–”
He set Gilfaethwy on the bench, padded over to the door, and shouted something down the hall that was met with a laugh and a patter of feet. Grinning, he sat back down, picked Gilfaethwy up, and put him back in his lap, stroking his back as though he were one of the barn-cats to be settled.
“What was that?”
“Kolfinn’s going to bring us plates from the cantina,” Aenfrith said. “To take you into a loud room stuffed full of rowdy soldiers and mercenaries both — I tease you, yes, but I’m not cruel.”
Aenfrith’s prediction about the afternoon wasn’t quite accurate — Thorgest arrived in a beard-pulling stew even before Kolfinn brought their meals.
Gilfaethwy leaned into the curve of Aenfrith’s arm, letting Aenfrith’s sympathetic amusement and occasional barbs of humor drown out the rumble of Thorgest’s temper. He couldn’t follow a word of their conversation, but the emotional tides were clear enough; Thorgest needed a willing listener to slake his storming, and Aenfrith was a laughing harbor that soaked up the pounding of his frustration without taking Thorgest’s distress in for his own.
Once Thorgest had stopped pacing and waving his fists around and flopped onto the other end of the bench with a great rattle of steel, he asked something that made Aenfrith chuckle underneath him.
Gilfaethwy yelped a bit when Aenfrith turned him in his lap, splayed both hands over the ripening curve of his belly, and said something that for all the world sounded like a farmer’s bragging over a prized ewe.
“What are you telling him?” Gilfaethwy hissed under his breath.
“That you’re my valuable war-prize, smart enough to word-craft and child-ripening as well,” Aenfrith said. “Remember?”
Gilfaethwy tried to make himself relax again; remembering how Aenfrith’s men had taken Eathlwine from her village, he supposed it wasn’t just the Imperials who needed to see him as claimed. The sea-raiders took women as bed-prizes against their will too. Aenfrith was just trying to keep him safe — patting and preening and showing off a child that the sea-raiders would assume was his own; surely a proud warrior like Aenfrith wouldn’t show such delighted pride in the signs of someone else’s seed growing in a slave’s belly.
…Still. “You don’t have to boast about it,” he muttered, feeling his cheeks burn.
Thorgest apparently asked for an explanation; Aenfrith said something that sounded drily resigned, and Thorgest gave a great bark of laughter. He leaned over and poked Gilfaethwy’s belly with a finger.
In utter outrage, Gilfaethwy slapped his hand away before it had even occurred to him that it might not be wise to provoke a heavily-armed warleader three times his size.
Both of them blinked down at him; keeping his chin up by sheer force, he kept glaring at Thorgest because otherwise he might have to acknowledge how unbelievably stupid he had just been.
Thorgest slapped his own knee, absolutely howling with mirth. He knuckled laugh-tears from his eyes and punched Aenfrith in the shoulder, offering a liquid growl of rough-edged syllables that cracked with glee in the middle. Gilfaethwy thought he caught Eathlwine’s name in the middle of it, and bristled by sheer reflex; if Eathlwine had objected to being prodded by great hairy louts as well, he wasn’t inclined to blame her in the slightest.
Aenfrith said something wry and long-suffering, and Gilfaethwy didn’t even have to understand the words to shove an elbow sharply back into his ribs. That set Thorgest to laughing again; with a wave of the hand, he stumbled out into the hall, wheezing with mirth.
“What did he say?”
Rubbing his abused ribs, Aenfrith grinned shamelessly at him. “So you can beat me more?”
“Heh.” Aenfrith folded his hands over Gilfaethwy’s curve again, and propped his chin on his shoulder; Gilfaethwy could still feel his grin. “He says that you are like kittens. Small and breakable and soft, so new that you’re still round-bellied with your mother’s milk — and the tiny claws are fierce.”
Gilfaethwy couldn’t decide whether he should be offended or gratified. He settled for moderately cross. “And Eathlwine?”
“He says to not let Eathlwine teach you to make sharper the claws.”
“Sharpen,” Gilfaethwy corrected him. “And I think Eathlwine is a good example. She’s strong and wise and level-headed, and when she’s faced with trouble from stupid men, she fights back!”
Aenfrith made a complicated gesture of warding: “May blessed Frija’s mercy spare us all.”
Gilfaethwy elbowed him again, just on principle.
All in all, Aenfrith had bought himself almost a month of peace — or at least what passed for it in Laenas’ fortress — with his charade.
Thorgest came to visit daily; he was enchanted by ‘Aenfrith’s kitten,’ as he called him, since he couldn’t even begin to pronounce ‘Gilfaethwy.’ He couldn’t resist teasing the boy, either. After standing about looking idle as he gave his reports, he’d wait until ‘the kitten’ was bored and distracted; then he lunged close enough to poke Gilfaethwy’s rounding belly, and pulled back to ‘cower’ behind crossed vambraces as he fended off the predictable indignation.
After Gilfaethwy had bruised his hand twice smacking Thorgest’s armor, he started poking Thorgest with a reed pen instead. After that, since he already had a pen, he started drawing on him.
Thorgest was caught between hilarity and bemusement — how was a warrior supposed to win a teasing-game with a child-rounding slave who took up weapons for self-defense? But he couldn’t let himself lose, either. If the Væringjar warleader let a bladeless, belly-swollen slave-girl defeat him in fair battle, he’d never live it down. Aenfrith had already promised Thorgest that he’d make certain of that; after all, what else were friends for?
Thorgest made a profane gesture at Aenfrith, still scrubbing at the quick little sketch of a mad-eyed songbird Gilfaethwy had left on his vambrace; he forgot to look which way he was going, and banged into the doorframe head-first. Flushed with victory, Gilfaethwy had the magnanimity to let Thorgest get out the door before he started to giggle.
The respite was good for the rest of their odd little family as well. Aside from the general aching grouchiness of the moon-week, Gwion was almost back to his usual self — the pranks were back in full force.
Even Arion had settled some. Gilfaethwy was acutely aware that his condition had grown evident; whenever he could, he caught up a blanket and wrapped it around himself to hide. But one evening, Arion reached over, caught a fistful of Gilfaethwy’s concealing blanket, and jerked it away. One-handed, his fingers flickered through Stop that.
“But — I — er–” Gilfaethwy ducked his head. “I know it …reminds you. Seeing me like this. I thought I could at least try to spare you that.”
I could not forget, Arion’s hands said, quiet gestures amid the firelight. You carry my firstborn. I’ve never known this before. To see how you’ve ripened already, to see the shadow of what you will become — you steal my breath from me. Please. Let me see. If you can bear it, let me touch.
With his heart spilling emotions everywhere, Gilfaethwy crept close enough to kneel at Arion’s side; his breath shook as he brought Arion’s chained hands to rest upon the curve of his belly.
“He’s restless,” the boy murmured, with a fretful, almost apologetic smile. “Can you feel it?”
Arion’s body was drawn taut as a bowstring, all his attention focused raptly in his palms, breathless with yearning.
“He’s small yet,” Aenfrith reminded them both, softly. “There’s time yet to wait.”
“You can’t feel him yet?” Gilfaethwy asked, crestfallen. Arion shook his head a little.
“Just be patient a bit,” Aenfrith assured both their disappointed faces. “In a few weeks, you’ll feel it from outside too. And a few weeks from that, you’ll wish the movings were still so gentle!”
In the middle of it all, the carpenter finished the bed-frame and brought it by. Gwion had watched the process with nothing more than mild curiosity; from Eathlwine’s slave-cuff, Aenfrith got the distinct impression of amusement she’d never admit to aloud.
Gilfaethwy’s reaction, when he followed Aenfrith in the door and found a bed taking up the far end of the house, was much more voluble.
“What is THAT?!”
“We call it a bed.”
“Well, yes, I can see that, but — but– why?”
“You won’t be able to haul your fat ass in and out of a sail-sling much longer, you know,” his twin pointed out, with impeccable if devastating aim. “It’ll be better for your back, too.”
Unfazed, Gwion shot a narrow-eyed look up at Aenfrith.
“He’s my brother, so normally I’d have to ask if you had ulterior motives — but he’s getting heavy enough that you’d obviously find better night-sport elsewhere. So I guess I should thank you for not being another ass-chasing Imperial pervert–”
It was a lucky thing the firelight left so many shadows cast in the corners; otherwise, Gilfaethwy might well have done his twin some damage with the fire-poker before Aenfrith managed to wrestle it away from him and calm him down.
He really hadn’t anticipated how much Gilfaethwy would be embarrassed and upset by the bed. It wasn’t as though it was easy to overlook; the bed took up most of the width of the room. With winter coming, Aenfrith had asked the carpenter to build a frame to support the whole lot of them. Sail-slings weren’t the warmest bedding ever devised, and cuddling together under a pile of furs was much preferable when the wind and snow howled outside.
Aenfrith realized too late that the islander noblefolk thought very differently about bed-sharing than his own clansmen did. Arion had long since given up his privacy to the necessities imposed by chains, and the twins had shared their bedding with each other when they traveled — but that was different, Gilfaethwy insisted, around startled intervals when he would reach over to cuff Gwion across the head for looking too speculatively at the curves hidden beneath Eathlwine’s dress.
Finally, after a great deal of negotiating, Aenfrith tucked the twins into the bed alone for that first night, and took up his own sail-sling again. The periodic rustling noises were occasionally interrupted by a teasing mutter from Gwion, answering thumps, and the occasional snicker. Smiling to himself at the sounds of family, Aenfrith pulled his blanket up and settled in.
The next day, Gilfaethwy wouldn’t even meet his eyes through breakfast, dish-scrubbing, or the walk up to the central fortress; Aenfrith only managed to pin him down once they’d gotten to his office and he’d closed the door against curious eyes.
“So what’s wrong with the bed?” he asked point-blank.
“Nothing! That is — it’s a perfectly good bed, but just not for me — I mean — it’s your bed! You ought to be able to sleep in your own bed. It’s not your fault I’m…” Gilfaethwy stopped short, then looked away.
“Not my fault you’re what? Childing? –Shy?”
When Aenfrith realized he was serious, he threw his head back and laughed. The boy’s indignant glower was even funnier.
Scrubbing the heel of his hand across his eyes, wheezing with hilarity, Aenfrith barely managed to choke out, “How? Choked by over-cuddles? Glared to shreds? Strangled in kitten-fluff?”
“You know what I did to Arion,” Gilfaethwy whispered, hands knotted in his lap.
“I know,” Aenfrith said, still chuckling. “Stop fussing. I own your mage-bond, remember? Yes, I feel your heart-spills, but you can’t force me to anything.”
Gilfaethwy looked up sharply at that, in a wild-edged hope thickly streaked with fear. “You’re certain? I mean — it’s easier to make a man feel pleasure than pain; people want to feel pleasure, and if I — I mean, it’s not fair if I let myself…” He stopped himself short again, a blush creeping back into his face.
Aenfrith blinked twice, clamped a palm over his face, and started laughing again, helplessly, because there was nothing else he could do.
“Othinn’s bloody eye. You’ve gone and tied yourself in three hells of a knot, haven’t you? No wonder you can’t decide what you want! If you can’t feel safe wanting anyone, for fear you’d twist their hearts just because it’s you wanting them…”
The boy’s shoulders were hunching up closer and closer to his ears again.
“That’s it, isn’t it,” Aenfrith said, with a sigh. “Gods of the summerlands, have mercy.” He pushed the bench back from the worktable, and scooped Gilfaethwy up in his arms, grinning at the startled yelp.
“You know the one thing the Imperials do better than anyone else? Reeking, dripping decadence. I bet there’ll be someone among the bath-slaves who takes your eye–”
He’d been right that Gilfaethwy couldn’t force his own bond-master into anything, but the sheer desperate shock of the boy’s terror was enough to make Aenfrith stop in his tracks.
“Faethan?” he asked, softly, carefully.
“I can’t — I can’t–!”
“Shhh.” Aenfrith rubbed the back of the boy’s shaking hands, knotted white-knuckled in his tunic. “Calm down. I’m sorry. We’re not going anywhere. Breathe. Slower.” He spread his palm over Gilfaethwy’s abdomen, pressing slowly and lightly. “Breathe with my hand.”
“You’re all right,” Aenfrith assured him, guiding his breaths with careful, gentle pressure. “I shouldn’t guess at things like this. No forcing — just talk a little, all right? Tell me what’s wrong.”
His breath still hitching in his throat, Gilfaethwy clung even tighter to his tunic, shaking with the effort to obey. “I can’t,” he whispered. “They’re slaves — I won’t do to them what Livia Vitella did to me! I can’t. They can’t say no, even to a human, and I’m not even that–”
Startled, Aenfrith said, “You’re as human as I am.”
Gilfaethwy buried his face in Aenfrith’s chest, shivering. “I’m not normal,” he said. “Normal men can’t make other people’s hearts dance to their will like a breath on candlefire. Normal men can’t get pregnant. Normal men don’t want someone who’s… not. I’m not a proper woman, but I’m not a proper man either; I can’t even guess what I’m supposed to want anymore–”
“Stop, stop, stop,” Aenfrith said. “‘Supposed to’ only matters if one of you is oathbound. Everyone else is fair sport.”
Gilfaethwy blinked up at him, utterly bemused. “But men are supposed to want women,” he said. “And women are supposed to want men. And I don’t even know what I am now.”
Aenfrith gave him a wolf’s grin. “Men are supposed to marry women,” he said. “Women need someone bound to hunt for them while they’re child-heavy and nursling. But who they want has nothing to do with who they wed. Otherwise, three quarters of the sagas would never have been sung!”
“…Wait, what? –Sagas?”
Thoroughly enjoying himself, Aenfrith said, “You can’t tell me your people’s sagas are too much different than ours. Loves, lusts, secret lusts, shouldn’t-be lusts, bastards, wars over shouldn’t-be lusts and bastards, with some extra sea monsters thrown in — isn’t that about right?”
“Er,” Gilfaethwy said. “Not so much with the sea monsters.”
“Boar hunts?” he offered faintly.
“There, that’s my point,” Aenfrith said, nodding. “And in all those war-tales, the bards spend much more time singing about shield-brothers than about wives, don’t they.”
The look on the boy’s face was indescribable. It wasn’t fair to laugh at him. It really wasn’t. Aenfrith manfully tried to keep it down to a couple of sniggers.
“I thought… they meant… that is… um.” Gilfaethwy gulped hard. “How can men even do that with each other?”
Some things were beyond any man’s endurance. Merciful Frija would just have to forgive him the occasional chortle or three.
“I’m giving you to Thorgest this afternoon while I have field training,” Aenfrith said, grinning from ear to ear. “Then we’ll bring you to the Imperial baths, to teach you how bodies work. –And don’t look at me like I’ve just kicked your puppy! Frija’s tits, child, it’s to give pleasure. I won’t let you not enjoy this. Just come, and play. There’s nothing of shame in learning body-joy.”
“I’m fairly sure there is,” Gilfaethwy said, half-strangled.
“Tell me where, little sage.”
“M-mother said… it’s shameful to lie down unwed–”
Aenfrith gave a short, sharp bark of laughter. “Women like to keep a leash on the men who plant seed in their bellies!” he told the boy. “Look at you. You’ve done your duty under Imperial orders; your babe’s father is perfectly well known, and the bitch even keeps him chained at your side. You won’t lose sight of him. And you can’t get any more pregnant now. Where is there shame?”
“Your babe won’t come out two-fathered if you lie down for pleasure. And, little one, you need whatever pleasure you can find in all this.” Aenfrith ruffled his hair gently. “No demands. No force. Just pleasure-play, and learning. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
By the time Aenfrith came to reclaim him from Thorgest’s clansmen, the boy had fretted himself into a little quivering huddle of anxiety. As the three of them walked toward the bath-houses, Aenfrith kept the boy chattering about the vexations of being called ‘Aenfrith’s kitten’ by dozens of sea-raiders and the unfairness of not having enough of their language to protest with. He could feel the boy’s nerves singing tight as harpstrings, and took the excuse to pat his side gently.
He truly didn’t understand how the little islander could be worldly enough to have gotten himself a bellyful of child through bleak, stern calculation, and yet tremble at the thought of free and unfettered love-play. It was as though he found shame in the mere thought of his own pleasure. Or that there was always something wrong with sex-play, maybe because there’d always been something wrong for him. And that body-shame of his was still woven through it all.
Good thing the eunuch in charge of the baths was such a crafty little genius.
Gilfaethwy nearly jumped out of his skin when Thorgest closed the door to the vestibule behind them; Aenfrith led him over to the stone bench built along the wall of the apodyterium, sat him down, and knelt to unlace his sandals.
Thorgest, who was not only proud of his warrior’s build but also shameless, had already stripped out of his clothing by the time he got back to them. Gilfaethwy’s eyes went very wide, and then he looked away fast.
“Settle down,” Aenfrith told him, rubbing his knee. “I swear on my life-blood. This is for pleasure.”
“Do you trust me?” Aenfrith asked, studying him closely.
“Yes!” he said, on pure reflex; then he actually thought about it. “…Yes. I do. All right.”
Aenfrith wished his heart hadn’t leapt quite so fiercely at the sight of that trusting little face turning up to him like a flower toward the sun, flaxflower-blue eyes wide and determined. If nothing else, it was embarrassing to wonder if the boy had felt it; Freir’s balls, he was trying not to scare him.
He almost jumped himself when Thamyris clapped his hands together behind them. “Kyrioi, my joy to serve. And what a pretty young guest!”
Aenfrith barely knew enough of Thamyris’ far-southern dialect to order the local drink, but it was better than explaining in Imperial in front of an already-skittish youngling who knew enough to follow the conversation. After his first few mangled words, though, Thamyris held up a hand and shifted into heavily accented but far more passable Væringþeod.
With a pleasure-merchant’s well-honed discretion, Thamyris didn’t even glance toward the boy when Aenfrith began to explain the more sensitive points. He settled the price briskly, and then tapped a fingertip against his delicately painted lips for a moment’s swift, practiced assessment.
He dropped to one knee at Gilfaethwy’s side, silk-smooth from long practice in the serving-graces, and slipped back into richly-ornamented Imperial.
“Your master has confided in me the secret of your increasing joy,” he murmured, sharing a small, private smile — though Aenfrith was certain the little charmer had known perfectly well from the moment he set eyes upon him. “Our attendants must temper the waters in an antechamber; I fear one of such delicate health might find the main caldarium’s heat too rich. I do beg your pardon for the delay; while we make the arrangements, may I offer a hand-servant to tend to your comfort? Flavia would serve you well, I think.”
“Oh, I don’t need a servant to–”
Thamyris set a fingertip to the boy’s lips. “Flavia is a mother herself,” he said. “And she speaks your native tongue. Truly, I do insist.”
“…Um.” Gilfaethwy looked up at Aenfrith, clearly begging for a rescue.
“I’m certain it will be a delight to place our trust in your skilled judgement,” Aenfrith said, matching Thamyris’ forum-elegant diction with a grin.
Thamyris inclined his head with regal politesse, though the quirk at the corner of his lips spoke wry appreciation of the phrasing as well as the flattery; Aenfrith knew that for all his southern birth, the eunuch had had to smile politely through just as many Imperial jibes about barbarians’ grunting stupidity.
Gilfaethwy buried his face in both hands, but his blushing showed all the way to his collar. Thamyris trailed his fingertips through the boy’s soft, unruly curls, in an odd commingling of sympathy and utterly heartless amusement.
By the time the prettily painted man had coaxed Gilfaethwy into one of the side-chambers — and he still wasn’t entirely sure how that had happened — Aenfrith had followed Thorgest’s lead into cheerfully shameless nudity, and the painted man hadn’t looked the least bit startled about it. And the two of them were doing something to each other with oil and — and then there was a woman in the room with them; Goddess, if his mother ever heard about this, she’d scold him for months. Years.
The woman hadn’t even blinked at the two naked barbarians rubbing oil on each other’s bodies. Instead, her jaw dropped open when she looked at Gilfaethwy.
Gilfaethwy found that reaction wildly unfair, at least for the two seconds before she dropped to her knees in front of him. By that point, he was just bewildered.
“Bright Mercy — I hadn’t realized…” She curved her palms together in the Goddess’ blessing-cup and bent her head to him. “It is my honor to serve you, my liege.”
“I hadn’t known that they’d stolen you away from our temple. I would have offered you the sisterhood’s comfort, if I’d known.”
“Wait, wait,” Aenfrith said, bare and oil-shining and shameless as any beast, and Gilfaethwy stared fixedly at his own toes because he didn’t trust his eyes any further than that. “Flavia, are you talking about your mad king’s heir? –They packed him off to a Goddess-temple?”
Flavia looked back and forth between them. “Are you not the lord Rhys?” she asked Gilfaethwy. “There was only one of the old blood who defied the king’s command, and… you bear the Goddess’ gifts.”
“No, that’s not — I’m not — I’m nobody,” he managed, wishing he could curl up and hide. “Just a distant kinsman, that’s all.”
“But you are of his kind,” she pressed, and he nodded a little, embarrassed.
“Let me get this straight,” Aenfrith said, putting a hand on Flavia’s shoulder. “Your barking mad king took his only full-blooded heir and sent him off to get ceremonially fucked? Which temple are we talking about here?”
Flavia shot him a look that had Aenfrith pulling his hand back as quick as though it burned.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly.
“I am my Goddess’ servant, and Hers alone,” she told him. “Not theirs. I serve here by my own choice. I am not yours to command. Not my body and not my loyalty.”
“I know,” Aenfrith assured her, both hands up. “I promise. No more bringing work to the playground. I’m sorry, Flavia.”
Thorgest clearly hadn’t followed a word of it, but the body language was universal enough that he’d started snickering at Aenfrith’s misfortune. Flavia turned her back on them both, and took Gilfaethwy’s hands between hers.
“I offer the Goddess’ blessing where I will,” she said, much more gently than she had to Aenfrith. “And I promise you, if I’d known, I would have come to you.”
“Why?” Gilfaethwy asked, surprised. “I’m not like the prince; I’m nobody important.”
“Our Lady has marked you for Her own,” Flavia said. “And at a time like this you have all the more need of a sister’s guidance.”
Gilfaethwy blinked. “You mean you can teach me how to stop heart-seeing?”
“How to stop…?” Flavia drew a startled breath. “I… don’t know. Our sisters’ gifts were to be coaxed free, not locked away. I can try, if you wish– but in truth, I’d thought first of your need for guidance and comfort through the coming months.” She touched the curve of his belly softly, and said, “Has anyone even taught you about mallowroot?”
“Other than what it looks like?”
“…Right, then.” Flavia got up, dusted her knees off, dragged a padded pillow onto the stone wall-bench, and thumped it.
“Here, sweetling. Let’s start at the beginning. Take off your clothes and lie down on your left side for me.”
He almost looked over at Aenfrith for help, until he remembered how extremely naked Aenfrith had gotten himself.
Flavia might well be the lesser of the moral hazards at the moment, Gilfaethwy realized. She was unfastening the fibulae at his shoulders, but not… groping. Whatever Thorgest and Aenfrith were doing to each other, groping featured prominently. Much too prominently. But with Flavia present, surely they wouldn’t…
…no, opening his eyes was a mistake after all.
Lying on the bench gave Gilfaethwy a distractingly unimpeded view of the pair of them rolling on the floor like puppies. Each of them was trying to get the other into some kind of pinning-hold while they were both too slippery to grip. The slipperiness seemed to be central to their enjoyment of the game.
It looked like Thorgest was winning — and very interested in winning. He had Aenfrith’s arm twisted up behind his back, Aenfrith’s bare chest shoved against the floor, and Flavia was still standing right there, and oh Goddess they actually were going to — whatever it was men did — right in front of her. Or rather, right behind her; she was still fussing with his chiton’s fibulae.
To ignore a priestess and play at sex-games while she was standing right there, without even offering her Goddess their gratitude before they started…
Gilfaethwy decided very, very quickly that he had better not let Flavia turn around for a while. Not even if the roof fell in.
Closing his eyes again didn’t help at all. Flavia had poured more of that oil onto her hands, and she was touching him, and between the warm slick rubbing and the noises the two great idiots were making…
“Relax,” Flavia murmured, leaning both of her hands into the trembling tension between his shoulderblades. “Haven’t you ever been to an Imperial bath before?”
He shook his head a little, shivering despite the heat of the room.
She sighed. “And knowing those overgrown boys’ sense of mischief, they didn’t explain a thing, did they.”
“Aenfrith said they’d t-teach me,” he squeaked.
Behind her, Aenfrith twisted away from Thorgest’s pin with a wrench and heave that sent the bigger man skidding across the tiles to crash head-first into the opposite wall; Gilfaethwy flinched.
“I won’t throw you anywhere,” Flavia assured him, with the corners of her lips twitching. “Proper bathing is much more soothing. Just rub the oil in, then take it back off, then a nice long soak — the broken skulls are entirely a matter of taste. Or lack thereof,” she added just loudly enough to make a point; Thorgest grunted something that sounded profane.
“I sort of guessed that part,” Gilfaethwy said, sheepish.
“Good. You’ll do fine. Just relax for me.”
“I can’t,” Gilfaethwy whispered, uncomfortably aware of a growing sense of pressure. “They — they’re — I mean, I can’t not feel them; I think I’m going to… um.”
“I know,” Flavia said. “It’s all right. I told you I would offer you the Goddess’ welcome.”
If he hadn’t been lying down, Gilfaethwy would have fallen over. “But I’m not a proper man anymore, not really…”
Flavia smiled at him. “So? I was first consecrated as Caprice’s Sister. We’re quite welcoming. Flexible, too!”
Gilfaethwy squeaked again.
“‘The Mother All-embracing’ isn’t just an empty platitude, sweetling.” She knelt beside him, bent to kiss the curve of his hip, and he shivered. “Just as you are, you are my Goddess’ precious child, resplendent with Her gifts. How could I not share the cup of Her pleasures with my Goddess’ dearly beloved?” She stroked gentle hands along his side, and murmured, “Te concipio, carum.” I accept you, I receive you, beloved one.
For all that bathing with oil sounded absurd, in Flavia’s hands it was both an anointment and a cleansing — she touched with gentle, appreciative hands, calm and unflinching when she saw his strangeness, her heart intent on offering pleasure with a purity of focus that both startled and humbled him. It must have been a priestess’s training, to learn to embrace anyone who felt the need of the Goddess’ comfort; still, she hadn’t flinched from his differences in the slightest.
His mind caught hazily at phrases that slipped through his thoughts like smoke; Flavia’s hands were madly distracting, and he could barely keep his thoughts his own around the sheer pressure of Aenfrith and Thorgest’s tangled-up mirth and arousal and unslaked rivalry.
Thorgest was determined to make conquest; he had absolute, unshakable faith in his body, and in his prowess, and it was a fierce point of Thorgest’s pride not to let a wordcrafter make his clans’ warleader submit like a woman… for all that neither of them had ever explained to Gilfaethwy how they were going to do that once one of them finally twisted the other into yielding.
For his part, Aenfrith felt equally determined that intellect and cunning ought to be able to surprise and overwhelm mere brawn. Tactics, his heart whispered gleefully to Gilfaethwy, simmering with imp-thoughts of smug-smirking-overconfident-bear and down-a-peg and want-to-see-his-face.
They were both breathing hard, both achingly aroused, and both, Gilfaethwy privately thought, stubborn as bricks. He couldn’t help wondering if they were being more stubborn than usual because neither of them wanted to lose face in front of witnesses. If they took this long to determine the captor and the captive every time…
Flavia chuckled, smoothing oil along his calves and rubbing at his ankles. “Don’t worry. They’re always like this.”
Gilfaethwy’s mind tripped over that and stumbled around for a moment. Always implied both happened a lot and happened in front of Flavia a lot. Or possibly happened WITH Flavia.
Aenfrith had never brought a lover into his home, not while his captives were there — maybe he was so unruffled about sharing the bed because his bed was for sleeping and he went to the baths for, well, this…?
“Stop thinking so much,” she chided him, with a swat across the rump that made him yelp in surprise. “This isn’t supposed to be hard. –Well. Only one place is supposed to be hard.”
Her giggles reminded him of Gwion; she had the same sudden lilt to the pitch when she needed to catch a breath, and she radiated unbridled mischief. She patted the curve of his rounding belly, then stroked her palm downward; he made a horribly embarrassing squeak. That provoked another bout of giggles, and a ticklish and very intimate caress from her adventurous fingertips.
At the sound of Gilfaethwy’s startled outcry, Aenfrith looked over sharply. Thorgest, the shameless opportunist, took the chance to hook an elbow under Aenfrith’s ribs and heave. Aenfrith twisted hard, trying to recapture his balance; his feet skidded across the tile, one heel cracked into the stone bench against the wall, and he bit off something that sounded as though it ought to blister the paint off the frescoes. Before he could get both feet under himself again, Thorgest kicked his grounded leg out from underneath him, followed him all the way down, and pinned him flat on his back with an unarguable combination of strength and sheer mass.
Thorgest hauled both of his hands over his head, held his wrists crossed against the stone, and waited, grinning. The words he murmured had the cadence of numbers; from the expression on Aenfrith’s face, and the broadening grin on Thorgest’s, Gilfaethwy guessed there was some pre-arranged signal involved.
Apparently the signal was ‘ten.’ Aenfrith gave an exasperated grunt; Thorgest crowed his victory, calling something toward Flavia that won only a distracted shooing gesture, followed by an extremely unfair kissing-tickle-assault on the insides of Gilfaethwy’s thighs.Gilfaethwy shrieked and thrashed, half convulsed with laughter; Flavia caught him before he could twist his way right off the bench, laughing too.
“Ticklish, hmm?” she chuckled, and kissed his cheek when he blushed. “Good. That’s great fun to play with.”
When Gilfaethwy shrieked protest of the tickling, Aenfrith flinched hard enough to whack the back of his head against the tiles; Thorgest pulled him to his feet by the forearm, and helped steady him with a chuckle.
“When are you going to just give up and admit I’m better?”
“He’s distracting,” Aenfrith said, gesturing at the mage-cuff on his arm. “And she’s devious. Feeling the echoes from what she does to him while I’m trying to fight you off — that’s completely unfair. I claim a rematch.”
“And what about the other score of bouts you’ve lost to me, eh?”
“I beat you twice!”
Thorgest threw his head back and laughed; Aenfrith punched him in the ribs, then folded his arms to settle in and sulk.
Thorgest slung an arm around Aenfrith’s waist; that left the other hand free to slap his taut stomach, then stroke downwards teasingly. “You’ve got nothing to complain about from my loveplay. You should be boasting of the honor of receiving my skills, you ungrateful ink-dawdler. I’ve pleasured you until you can’t walk straight.”
“Yes,” Thorgest said, apparently not recognizing the other meaning. Aenfrith laughed despite himself, and let himself relax into Thorgest’s suggestively coaxing hands.
“Just don’t make me scream. We’re trying not to scare the skittish little thing, remember?”
“…Don’t make me scream too often, then. Hairy, arrogant ass.”
Thorgest grinned, closed his sword-calloused palm around Aenfrith’s cock, and tugged hard enough to make him gasp. “Fight harder next time. You spend too much time lounging around with quill-nibblers, not enough on the field with real men.”
Thorgest shoved his knee into the back of Aenfrith’s to pop the joint forward; Aenfrith reached back and caught a fistful of his beard before Thorgest could take him down hard.
“Gently, you bastard. This isn’t for us; it’s for my kitten. He’s feeling everything we are, and he’s nervous. Touch me like you’d handle a shy little innocent, just this once.”
Thorgest heaved a sigh, and then chuckled. “All right, you’ll make it up to me later. Let’s put on a show for your kitten.”
Gilfaethwy couldn’t breathe. He could gasp and groan and whimper, but simply breathing was far beyond his control; he could feel the heat of Thorgest’s body, the rasp of his calloused hands, Aenfrith’s barely-leashed desire, and Flavia was amplifying it. She had settled herself against his back to give him a perfectly unimpeded view, and her hands were warm and slick and fearless between his legs.
Thorgest called to them both; he picked up the vial of oil, pointed at it with an unintelligible spill of syllables, then poured some into his palm and gestured down at Aenfrith’s body. Aenfrith was looking at him as he spread his legs for Thorgest’s oiled hand; when he caught his breath at the slick heat against the fiercely sensitive, intimate skin between his upper thighs, Gilfaethwy’s breath caught with him.
Thorgest made a point of showing his manhood to all of them as he rubbed the rest of the oil over himself; Aenfrith muttered something that felt like it meant showoff. Thorgest slapped his ass hard enough to make him jump, then slid his slick palm up to the hollow of Aenfrith’s back and pulled him close, chest to chest, thigh to thigh.
Gilfaethwy stared in bewilderment; he’d gotten the idea that Aenfrith would be acting as a woman, somehow, but Aenfrith kept his thighs close together. He stretched up on the balls of his toes like a cat, the backs of his calves tight with the strain, and slipped his arms around Thorgest’s barrel of a chest.
Aenfrith laid his cheek against the pulse-point of the big warrior’s heart, then lifted his gaze and smiled at Gilfaethwy, tender and wryly self-conscious, laying his entire soul bare to the touch of the heart-magic. Pleasure-mirth-rivalry-friendship-trust-h
“Breathe, sweetling,” Flavia reminded him, patting his belly softly, and Gilfaethwy gasped for breath like a drowning man.
When Thorgest thrust into the hot pressure between Aenfrith’s thighs, rubbing against his feverishly eager man-places and the oil-slicked, oversensitized skin of his perineum at once, Aenfrith tightened his arms around him in an involuntary clench; Gilfaethwy was the one who cried aloud. They set their rhythm together, Aenfrith rocking up to meet him, one of Thorgest’s hands flexing against his back and his hips for steadying support; the other he’d slipped between their bodies to tease Aenfrith’s manhood, his thumb rubbing around the head as his fingers clenched and rippled in a too-well-calculated manipulation.
Their laughing rivalry carried through even into this; Thorgest’s pride wanted to make Aenfrith lose himself utterly, to spend himself first, unable to withstand the pleasure he gave. Aenfrith struggled to hold on, to make himself a vessel for the voices of their hearts, to offer fearless, shameless exultation to their audience for as long as he could — and also not to give Thorgest the smug satisfaction of completely overwhelming a ‘weak wordcrafter’s’ endurance.
Aenfrith knew Thorgest’s body just as well as Thorgest knew his; he knew when to clench his thighs and rock his hips down, when to take a breath that would slide hot skin against Thorgest’s nipples, when to scratch his nails down the ticklish hollows beneath Thorgest’s shoulderblades — that trick won a strangled curse and a bout of frantic rutting before he leashed himself again.
Gilfaethwy was the first of them to break. Flavia had matched her timing uncannily well to theirs; by the end, Gilfaethwy couldn’t tell whose body he felt, whose hands touched him, whose warmth and heat rocked against his body’s most intimate places, whose desire rushed through him like leaping flames. His voice broke high when he cried out and spilled himself, his body clenching hard against the hot firm pressure rubbing between and inside.
The pulse of his shattering pulled Aenfrith with him; he shuddered through his climax, clinging to Thorgest’s unfaltering strength when his own knees weakened, rocking against the hard plane of the warrior’s tight abdomen.
The big stubborn ox held out for four more breaths, just to make a point of it, before he let himself follow them over the edge. Even Thorgest stumbled over to the wall for support while he caught his breath, though; Aenfrith held on and let Thorgest drag him along. If he was going to get teased for his ‘scholarly, womanish weakness’ anyway, he might as well take advantage while he could.
“Damn,” Thorgest muttered. “Now we’ve got to wash all over again.” He scratched at a splatter of come on his belly and crinkled his nose. “Right. Pass me the oil and scraper, will you?”
Aenfrith made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a choke, sliding down the length of Thorgest’s body to get the bathing tools from the floor.
Flavia stretched until her back made popping sounds, giving off the drowsy contentment of a cat with a bowl of fresh cream. “Let’s do that again some time,” she said, stroking Gilfaethwy’s hip and side idly. “You pour out the most amazing overspill of sensations! I’ve never come untouched before.”
“Oh, no–“ With a heartfelt groan, Gilfaethwy buried his face in his hands. She poked the ticklish spot in his ribs with devastating accuracy.
“Now don’t you even start. You’re required to lay there and bask for at least a full candlemark before I’ll even think about letting you knot yourself up again.”
“But — you — you were — and I should’ve–”
Flavia settled down against his back again, and put a fingertip to his lips to still his stuttering guilt.
“You’re not like me, little one,” she murmured, softly, for his ears only. “My wants are as giddy as a weathercock; I’ll never settle down and fix my heart in just one place. I had fun. I’m happy. That’s all I wanted. But you…” With a small sigh, she brushed a kiss against the crown of his head. “Really, your heart’s as straightforward as a compass-needle, sweetling. And you don’t even know where it points, do you.”
“Straightforward?” Bemused, Gilfaethwy protested, “I can’t even tell what’s my own heart with everyone else’s voices echoing around in me!”
“You’re not letting yourself pay attention.” She ran her hand down his arm lightly, traced his wrist to his fingertips. “You could have lost yourself in me, wanting to learn a mother’s feelings, a woman’s receptiveness. Or you could have lost yourself in Thorgest, in yearning for what you once thought you’d be, and what was taken away from you. But that didn’t even occur to you. The whole time, your heart was focused on Aenfrith. Not for what you could learn from him — just because he is.”
Gilfaethwy gulped hard. “I’m sorry. I should have been more attentive to your–ow.” Flavia’s knuckles were sharp enough to sting when she ground them into his skull.
“That’s half your problem right there,” she said. “Should have, ought to have, someone else thinks thus and such — no wonder you can’t stop hearing everyone else’s hearts. You’re terrified of what will happen if you don’t listen as close as you can to what everyone else wants! You keep putting everyone else’s needs and expectations over your own — no wonder you’ve lost track of the sound of your own heart’s voice.”
“Then… it really is my fault I can’t stop…?”
“You’ve got it all inside out,” Flavia sighed. “There’s no way you could help it. Everyone else buffets you around so much because you don’t have an anchor-point inside yourself. Because you don’t trust your own heart.”
“I can’t trust my heart,” Gilfaethwy whispered. “I raped a man to get this child. I’ll never, never force my own will on anyone again.”
Flavia glanced up at the other two, startled; Aenfrith made a sour face. “Livia wants an earth-heir bound to the land,” he said. “She beat the father for resisting, until Faethan got himself with child to spare him.”
“Then you forced yourself as much as him,” she murmured.
“It doesn’t matter. It was my choice. And I took his choice away.”
“But you didn’t want to.”
“It doesn’t matter what I wanted! All that matters is what I did to him; he still hurts from it–”
Aenfrith handed the bath-scraper to Thorgest, padded over to the bench, and lifted Gilfaethwy into his arms.
“You’re still hurting too, you little idiot,” he whispered, and held Gilfaethwy’s head against the pulse-point of his own heart. “Here. Listen. This is how to trust yourself. This is how I trust you.”
He stripped off the mage-cuff that kept Gilfaethwy from striking at him with either strength or magic, tossed it aside, and held him close.
Despite all that he’d seen Gilfaethwy do — despite all that he’d felt when one of the storms of his power swept through their entire family — Aenfrith had no fear in his heart whatsoever. No fear, no reproach, a small niggling thread of exasperation tinged with understanding, and that same fire-gold brilliance and warmth that had drawn Gilfaethwy like a moth from the very first.
“Don’t,” Gilfaethwy breathed, struggling against his hold. “Don’t. I swore I’d never let myself twist your heart, but I don’t know how to stop myself–”
“Bullshit,” Aenfrith said. “Even without that cuff holding you back, all I get from you is a furtive little mouse-tickle creeping around the edges — by your own Goddess’ mercy, Faethan, just tell me.”
“I can’t,” he choked, burying his face in Aenfrith’s chest. “It’s stupid, I’m so stupid — you’d never want me. You hate men who sleep with slaves. You’ve never even glanced at Eathlwine that way. You wouldn’t want me even if I wasn’t your slave — I’m nothing like Thorgest–”
“You want me?” Aenfrith murmured, bending his head to touch their brows together. “Not because I own you? You want me freely?”
“I’m so sorry–”
Aenfrith stopped the rest of the protests with a kiss. Gilfaethwy forgot how to breathe.
When the world started graying and spotting at the corners, Aenfrith let him go, but his hands kept moving distractedly over Gilfaethwy’s skin anyway.
“You know this is a terrible idea, don’t you?” he said, almost conversationally. “I own you, and you try so hard to please everyone else, it’s near impossible to get what you want from you — I swear by the gods’ own blood, I thought you were trying to hide from yourself that you wanted Arion.”
“It is a terrible idea,” Gilfaethwy agreed, shivering. “I’m a rapist, a defiler of souls, I’m pregnant with another man’s child, I’m nothing like what you want–”
Aenfrith kissed him again. “It’s a terrible idea for you, idiot,” he murmured, cradling his face between both hands, brow to brow. “I own you, but I don’t have legal right to you. Laenas could take you from me whenever he wished. I have to keep the Imperials’ secrets from you. And other secrets I don’t have to keep, but I will anyway, because I don’t want you to have to know. You’ll probably hate me for them.”
“I’d never hate you,” Gilfaethwy said, fierce and hot. “Never.”
Thorgest gave a questioning handful of syllables, gesturing at them and at himself; Aenfrith’s arms tightened around Gilfaethwy’s body with a short, sharp flare of temper.
“He says I ought to let you go, so you can experience a real man instead.” His reply to Thorgest was a guttural tangle of harsh-edged syllables; Thorgest just snorted, and kept lazily scraping the bath-oil.
“Let me handle this,” Flavia told Aenfrith, and put an extra sway in her hips as she sauntered across the room.
Thorgest’s eyes brightened, and he happily dropped the scraper and followed her fingertips into the bath even without a single word of a language in common. She paused at the door to wink at them both, and closed the door ostentatiously behind them.
The minute the door closed, Gilfaethwy clutched at Aenfrith’s bare shoulders and pulled him down to kiss. The crest of emotion that poured out of his heart crashed over them both at once. He fisted both hands in Aenfrith’s glorious fire-gilded hair and pressed his body up against the sleek shining ripples of muscle, and the shining of Aenfrith’s heart felt like coming home, felt like flying, felt like freedom.
He’d been utterly grateful to Flavia for her acceptance, her kindness. Honored by her generosity in sharing pleasure with him. But he’d never before reached out to touch someone he truly wanted, and it was like walking from firelight into the full heat of the midsummer sun.
This time it was Aenfrith holding him, Aenfrith whose every smile warmed him like sunlight, whose every affectionate hair-ruffle and shoulder-pat he’d gathered up like tiny sweet treasures. Aenfrith was brilliant and funny and fierce and protective and magnificent; and he was looking at Gilfaethwy. And he didn’t see a magic-twisted monster. From the pounding of his heart, Gilfaethwy felt laughter-exasperation-finally, astonishment-caution-sweet-fragile-beaut
Gilfaethwy hadn’t known his body could hurt with wanting, with the desperate demand for more-please-now-more. Something deep inside clenched like a fist, and he cried out with the urgency of it; he struggled to twist further in Aenfrith’s arms, to wrap himself around him and take-receive-fill-demand. His knees folded the wrong way, his elbows were in the wrong spots entirely, his round pouting belly had already grown too big and clumsy, and he dropped his head forward and howled his frustration.
Laughing, Aenfrith pushed fingers up inside him twice at once; it helped, but it wasn’t enough. He twisted his fingers around and rubbed his thumb into something that made the world spark and flare white.
“More,” Gilfaethwy gasped.
Aenfrith’s answering chuckle was husky and breathless. “Greedy little kitten. Do you want to–”
“Shut up,” Gilfaethwy begged. “Please, Goddess, more–”
“Shhh.” Aenfrith hooked his forearm under Gilfaethwy’s knees, turned him away despite a wail of protest, settled him in his lap facing away toward the far wall. Gilfaethwy would have struggled more, except that he felt Aenfrith’s arousal against his back, pulsing with his frantic heartbeat — and he wanted that living heat inside so badly he thought he might die.
With a deep groan, Aenfrith spilled oil into his shaking hand and slathered it over them both, between their thighs, over their groins. “Push down,” he urged, rocking his hips up and forward and filling him; Gilfaethwy cried out in sheer relief. He felt both of their bodies at once, twice over — hot slick heat enveloping him, gripping him, fingers inside the woman’s-place, stroking the man’s-place through the thin barrier of life-pulsing skin — of other’s-flesh that was also his own flesh — lust and pleasure and gleeful curiosity and what-if-I-do-this–
For a minute, Gilfaethwy thought he had died. The entire world burst open; surely his heart had burst with it. He felt the pulse of every living heart in the camp, every living heart for miles, chattering out of rhythm and wrapped up in their own life-fires and glittering like a thousand raindrops in the sun. Then he took a breath, and realized he could breathe, and tried it again. He couldn’t tell which of them was shaking harder — his own body was still clenching with aftershocks, and when Aenfrith slipped his fingers out a miniature sun exploded inside him again, and Aenfrith caught his breath through his teeth as well.
They lay twined in each other for a long moment; Gilfaethwy’s heart was still fizzing like spark-wine: yours, yours, yours– wanted, welcomed, safe, yours…
“Gods of the summerlands,” Aenfrith breathed, and stroked Gilfaethwy’s sweat-slick skin gently.
“If any more of your Goddess’ priestesses can do that echo-thing? No wonder men bid so eagerly for the chance at their nights.”
Aenfrith snorted his amusement, and stretched toward the towels and bath-tools with a soft hiss of exertion. He refastened the master-cuff that bound Gilfaethwy to him with a small sigh, then began to clean them both, slowly, taking frequent excuses to caress and kiss and linger. His fingertips dawdled longest over Gilfaethwy’s heart, and over his child.
Deciding he was going to live after all, Gilfaethwy stretched a little, wondering at the contented hum of Aenfrith’s heart as he bathed them.
“I still don’t understand,” Gilfaethwy murmured. “Why would you want me at all? I mean… I couldn’t be less like Thorgest.”
“You could,” Aenfrith said. “You could be green, and spotted.”
“Sometimes being not like Thorgest is a good thing,” Aenfrith told him ruefully. “I love him like my own brother. I’ve wanted to bash my brother’s thick head in with a rock, too.”
Gilfaethwy bit his lip to keep from laughing; it wasn’t polite to agree, not when Aenfrith was teasing his lover, but he couldn’t quite make himself protest either.
With his heart full of not-the-bed-tangle-again, Aenfrith ran the scraper lightly over Gilfaethwy’s skin, across his shoulders, down his back, and looked for the words.
“Thorgest and I are sport-mates, not love-bonded,” he said. “We fuck each other because it’s fun. We fuck other people because it’s fun. We tease each other about fucking anybody, because the day we don’t tease each other will be the day after one of us has died. He’s a good friend, and an infuriating ass, and if I had to live with him I don’t know whether I’d rather kill him or myself. You don’t need to compete, kitten.”
Gilfaethwy blinked, his heart lifting with sudden relief. “Really?”
“Well, no, I take that back,” Aenfrith mused. “I’d rather kill him, but I’d never manage to, and he’d spend the rest of our lives lording it over me. Thank the gods he’ll never make me an honest woman.”
Gilfaethwy couldn’t help a burst of giggles. Aenfrith grinned as he helped Gilfaethwy steady himself on wobbly knees, keeping an arm around him as he nudged the door to the bath-chamber open.
The gout of steam was followed immediately by Thorgest’s leering catcall. Aenfrith ignored him soundly, settling Gilfaethwy into the warm water and sinking in beside him.
Flavia leaned over and kissed Gilfaethwy’s cheek. “Now, I don’t ever want you to tell someone else that what you want doesn’t matter. Wasn’t it nice to have what you want? It certainly felt like you were enjoying it!”
Gilfaethwy sank down in the water as far as he could, realized it wouldn’t hide his blushes, and gave almost-sober consideraton to drowning himself.
“Chin up, sweetling. It’s much better than handing out misery to everyone in heart’s reach.”
“It’s still humiliating,” he murmured. “And — I’m sorry I didn’t tend to your wants properly, Sister. I shouldn’t ha–”
“No. Bad Aenfrith’s-kitten. Aenfrith, bop his nose.”
“I don’t care what Thorgest told you — my name is not ‘Aenfrith’s kitten!'” Gilfaethwy howled.
“Much better!” Flavia praised him proudly. “Now, if we can just teach you to say what you want as vigorously as what you don’t want, we’ll be right as rain.”
“Listen to the woman; she’s clever about these things,” Aenfrith told him.
“I hate you all.”
“Heh. Save your strength,” he suggested. “You’ll need it. You haven’t even faced your brother yet.”
All the blood drained out of Gilfaethwy’s face. Flavia looked at him closely, worried; even Thorgest blinked at him.
“They’re twins. Lífgetwinnan,” Aenfrith added for Thorgest’s benefit.
“Ask Thorgest if he’ll kill me,” Gilfaethwy told Aenfrith urgently. “Or at least if he’ll break my arm. Or my head. Preferably my head. If I’m in the healers’ hall, they won’t let Gwion mock me for more than an hour at a time — and if my head’s broken, maybe I won’t hear it anyway? That might work. I’m sure Thorgest knows how to break people’s heads. Go on, ask him!”
Eventually, Aenfrith had had to lift Gilfaethwy out of the bath bodily. The stubborn brat was determined to stay where he was until either he shriveled up into a prune or Thorgest broke him, one of the two. Thorgest had nearly broken himself laughing, once he’d gotten the explanation.
Flavia had tried to reassure the boy that it wouldn’t be as bad as he feared. Privately, Aenfrith thought that Flavia had never met Gwion.
It was well past sunset by the time Aenfrith had gotten Gilfaethwy dried, dressed, reshod, and coaxed out of the bath-house toward home again.
Gwion opened the door from the inside before Aenfrith could even reach toward the latch. His hair and clothing were a mess, his face looked almost bruised, and he stared through Aenfrith with a sourly disgruntled twist to his lips.
“Four times, Faethan? Why the hell do you need to go off and get yourself fucked four times running? Or was it six? I lost track of what happened when in the middle there.”
Aenfrith reached back and put an arm around Gilfaethwy’s shoulders before he could make good on his fervent desire to pull the mastery of shadow-walking from Gwion’s heart and sink straight into the ground.
“You can’t be going into heat; it’s not like you can get yourself any more pregnant, you know! Is this one of those lunatic craving things? Some pregnant people eat rocks, you jump anything that doesn’t dodge fast enough?” Plaintively, Gwion added, “What’s wrong with eating rocks?”
“It’s my fault,” Aenfrith said. “I took him to the Imperial baths to have a friend help teach him a few things. I hadn’t thought about how you might react until we were done.”
“Oh, I’ll deal with you later,” Gwion said, narrow-eyed. “And that might explain once, but four times? I was stuck in the middle of six hundred people, trying to help Eathlwine carry the flour-sacks back from the market! And just when I thought you were done, you kept starting again!”
“I’m really sorry, Gwion,” Gilfaethwy said, in a tiny voice.
“You couldn’t have warned me you were, I don’t know, heading out to lose your mind and hump anything you ran down?”
“I didn’t know!” Face buried in both hands, he mumbled, “I didn’t know what it would be like, and then their hearts caught me up — it was only me twice; the other times were… echoes…”
“Have you got any idea how much laundry you owe me? I ruined my clothes! All my clothes — I’d just changed when you went back for number three, unless that was four–”
“I think that was Thorgest and the priestess,” Aenfrith offered.
“The PRIESTESS?!” Gwion howled, and then the only way to placate him was to let him drag Gilfaethwy off to the furthest corner and drill him for all the embarrassing details he wanted.
No one had ever accused Aenfrith of being a fool. He picked up the water buckets and headed straight for the well. …The farther well.
An hour later, Gwion had mostly stopped punching his brother in the shoulder at unexpected intervals. He was still simmering with cranky frustration, though.
“So he took the damn master-cuff off, and you didn’t shove it down a furnace-flue to burn? What was wrong with your brain?”
“I was distracted!”
“For how bloody long? You knew all afternoon that Aenfrith was going to drag you off to a pleasure-house and it never even occurred to you to bring your own brother along?”
“Before we got there, I was mostly trying to figure out if I could have gotten away,” Gilfaethwy mumbled. “I hadn’t expected it to feel good.”
Gwion stared at him, and then smacked him across the head one more time. “That’s why they call them pleasure-houses, you idiot!”
“They called it an Imperial bath-house!”
“A bath-house where they had priestesses!” Gwion moaned, flopping back onto the bed dramatically. “Priestesses! How could it not have been good?”
“It’s not like I knew what ‘good’ even meant, you filthy-minded wretch — I’ve never had fun sex before!”
In the silence that stretched after that, Gilfaethwy pushed the heel of his hand hard against his breastbone, startled by the sudden pain; then he looked over at the silent huddle of Arion’s turned back.
“Oh, hells,” Gwion muttered, and grabbed Gilfaethwy’s arm. “Don’t–”
Gilfaethwy twisted arm free and stumbled across the room, dropping to the floor a careful arm’s length away from Arion.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. “I meant… it wasn’t…” He stopped, gulped hard, and tried again. “It’s just that I had to, and I was so scared. –And you were so much kinder than I had any right to hope for! So much kinder than my first–”
Arion’s fist lashed out and crashed into the wall hard enough that the chain on his wrist chipped into the stone. He made a hoarse, desperate noise, like a raven’s cry.
“It was never, ever your fault,” Gilfaethwy told him, hands fisted trembling on his knees. “You didn’t even know what was happening. You could have hurt me, and you didn’t. You never wanted to hurt me. I could feel that. It helped so much. It’s just that… it wasn’t for pleasure for either of us. You would never have wanted me, if I hadn’t forced you. That’s all I meant.”
With a shaky breath, Gwion said, “Faethan, shut up a little.”
“I’m sorry!” he cried, rubbing at the echo of Arion’s pain in his chest. “I’m sorry, I never meant to–”
Stop, Arion gestured stiffly. There was a thin trickle of blood trailing across the back of his hand from a split knuckle. Don’t. It’s not your fault.
“If I’d been thinking, before I opened my mouth and stupidity fell out…”
Truth speaks for itself, Arion said, and wouldn’t look at either of them. The truth is that Three-birds brought you to the place where you were given your first true taste of pleasure, untainted by fear or shame.
“But I never meant for you to think that you were hurtful, or…”
Truth speaks for itself, Arion repeated, head bent. Please, leave me alone. Just for a little while.
Gwion threw them both backwards into the grasp of shadows, leaping from void to void until he shook them both out into their hay-loft.
“I should’ve dragged you out here to start with,” Gwion muttered. “It’s my fault I sat you down right there for him to overhear. Quit kicking yourself already.”
Gilfaethwy sighed and lay down in the hay, trying to push down the lingering ache in his heart that stung like unshed tears.
“You were so happy earlier,” Gwion said, in a small, wistful voice. “I was jealous, all right? But I just wanted to give you a hard time, not… this kind of mess.”
“I know,” Gilfaethwy murmured. “I don’t know what to do. I was so selfish today — I just grabbed at what I wanted, without thinking about anyone else, and now everyone is miserable again–”
“Oh, fuck no,” Gwion growled, and leaned over to pin him by the shoulders. “You are NOT allowed to go that direction. Arion needs to get over the fact that he can’t change a damn thing now. I need to quit bitching and moaning and be happy for you. And you need to get laid for fun more often. And don’t try to tell me it wasn’t fun, because I’ve got a pile of laundry with hell yeah written all over it. In fact, I nominate you for washing duty.”
“Ewwww.” Gilfaethwy choked and spluttered, then ran a hand over his eyes. “I want to kick and scream, but I suspect it’s a just penance.”
Gwion smacked him across the head. “And don’t go thinking you need to pay penance for enjoying yourself! The penance is for not giving me any kind of warning about it.” With his shoulders hunched, he admitted, “I’ve never been that embarrassed in my whole life. I mean… Eathlwine was right there.”
Gilfaethwy coughed so that he wouldn’t laugh; if their places had been swapped and he could hide in shadows, nobody would have seen him for the next month solid.
“I really am sorry,” he said. “But, Gwion, do you really want me to tell you first, every time I want to find Aenfrith and…?”
Gwion thought about it for a minute, groaned aloud, and fell over backwards into the hay-pile. “There’s no way to win this one, is there? I still think I’d rather have the warning, but… Fuck. He’s screwing my brother; I’m going to have to prank his ass into the next county.”
“Don’t you dare!”
“Well, if some people had thought about taking their brothers along to the bloody pleasure house of nubile young priestesses to start with, some people’s brothers wouldn’t have been shooting off in public and forced to seek reparation for their shattered dignity, now would they.”
“Sister Flavia is older than Aenfrith!” Gilfaethwy sputtered. “She’s terribly kind, and she — she knows things — but there weren’t any nubile young priestesses.”
“Sister Flavia, hmmm?” Gwion rolled over and propped his head up on an elbow. “Do tell.”
“I think you’d like her,” Gilfaethwy admitted. “She’s very… playful, and whimsical, and easygoing. Very creative. And she knows what we are.”
“So which sets of washing should I blame her for?”
Gilfaethwy bit his lower lip, thinking back. “At least the first and third, though depending on–”
“I did not need to know that!” Gwion howled, flinging a fistful of straw at him.
“And do you have to give people everything they ask for? Bloody hells!”
The barn door creaked open; Aenfrith called from below, “Boys?”
“Up here,” Gilfaethwy called. “Is something wrong?”
“I hoped you might tell me,” Aenfrith admitted; the ladder creaked under his feet as he climbed. “I leave you in a house with a half-empty cistern, I fill the cistern, and I walk back in to find your cuffs tugging toward the stables and Arion completely frantic about the fact that it’s his fault you’ve both vanished into the dark. So what happened?” He propped folded arms on the edge of the hayloft, and added softly, “Faethan, you were upset enough that the mage-bond told me.”
Gwion grinned at him, showing a lot of sharp white teeth. “The broody bastard’s all miffed that my innocent little brother says you’re a better fuck than he is.”
Aenfrith blinked, a peculiar expression crossing his face. “Ah, hells, I hadn’t thought about Arion.” He caught a handful of Gilfaethwy’s collar before he could throw himself at his brother’s head. “Come back down here; we might need to take the slow road home.”
Somehow, it made Gilfaethwy feel oddly better that he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been thinking ahead. He clung to Aenfrith’s hand as they walked, taking comfort from his warmth and his strength.
The washing-bucket and kettle felt oddly unsophisticated next to the memory of the Imperial baths; Gwion made sure to tease him as they washed their faces and hands and teeth, too. The bed-warming rocks had been nicely heated by the banked embers; Gwion picked up the tongs and started tucking them beneath the blankets. Gilfaethwy drifted toward where Aenfrith and Arion were speaking.
When he saw Gilfaethwy, Arion stilled his hands abruptly. Gilfaethwy sighed, and knelt beside him, and laid both hands on his shoulders despite his shiver.
“I never meant to hurt you,” he murmured. “But I did anyway. And I know you don’t mean to hurt me, but I can’t help feeling when you hurt. There’s a thread tying your heart to mine, your life to mine, now. You’re important to me. I want to feel your heart at peace. …And I think I understand what Aenfrith meant by the bed. It’s built for a family, not just for… sport. So I thought, maybe…”
It was still hard to come out and say what he wanted. Hard to trust himself to want something that someone else didn’t, and to not push too much. But for them to help him brace against the flares of power that shook them all, Gilfaethwy had to make sure he held fast to the shelter that they were building. And he had to keep watch over the heart they wanted to protect.
“Sleep with us tonight?” he asked. “Just sleeping, just… being. I want to feel what it’s like, being Aenfrith’s family, in Aenfrith’s home. We should have a place that’s home. All of us.”
Arion and Aenfrith traded a silent, assessing look.
“Please,” Gilfaethwy said, unable to stop himself. “I don’t want you to hurt, or to feel unwanted. I might not be able to help that, but… if you’ll let me, I want to try.”
Arion lifted his bound hands toward Aenfrith, a quiet yielding to their master’s will. Aenfrith looked at Gilfaethwy.
“No blushing and flailing this time?” he teased.
“Not when the bed’s for sharing. I mean… you prefer saving the other parts for the bath-house, don’t you?”
“Goddess’ mercy, please save the other parts for the bath-house!” Gwion begged, looking green.
It took them some time to get everyone’s elbows and knees and hair and garments tucked in and not-laid-on and not-pulled, and it took even longer for everyone to settle down into actual sleep. But for such a crisp autumn night, Gilfaethwy couldn’t remember ever feeling so warm.