Home For The Holidays

by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
illustrated by marourin

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/70211.html)

It was snowing as they approached Kale’s home village, but the fat, lazy flakes that drifted down were a vast improvement over the raging storms they’d encountered in the last two mountain passes. Even Kale was chilled to the bone, and Jaren had been spending magic to heat their tent each night so they wouldn’t freeze to death.

Everything was exactly as Kale remembered it, as if he’d left the day before and not almost three years ago. It was a little eerie, but it did make it easy to navigate despite the heavy blanket of snow that smothered everything.

The further they went, the more Kale’s nerves threatened to strangle him. Jaren had convinced him that they should take the opportunity to visit Kale’s family while they could, but he was both anticipating and dreading the upcoming reunion. His family had spent the last years believing that he’d left to become an Elite, arguably the most prestigious position in the Istrion army. They didn’t know that he’d been rejected and spent his time in the army as a mere private, and he wasn’t looking forward to shattering their cherished illusions of him.

When they rounded a stand of trees and the familiar farmhouse of rough-hewn logs appeared, Kale felt his heart squeeze in his chest. It didn’t matter how long he’d been gone or that he hadn’t thought he would ever return – it was still ‘home’.

“There it is,” he said, forcing the words past the lump in his throat. He glanced at Jaren, wondering what the noble-born man thought of his family’s home. It wasn’t the first time Jaren had seen evidence of his lover’s excruciatingly lowborn origins, but it was one of the most blatant.

There wasn’t even a hint of condescension in Jaren’s eyes, just curiosity and genuine interest in Kale’s family and past. Once again marvelling that he’d been lucky enough to find someone as unique as Jaren, Kale smiled and turned his attention back to the road.

As they rode closer, Kale saw a young woman come around the corner of the house carrying a pile of firewood. She paused when she saw them coming, and looked surprised. “If you’re looking for town, you’ve taken a wrong turn,” she called when they came within earshot. “This road doesn’t go much further.”

“Cassy?” Kale asked uncertainly, looking down at the girl. She had to be one of his sisters, judging by her features, but hadn’t Cassy had brown eyes like him?

“No, I’m Lira,” she replied, shocking him.

Lira?” Kale stared at her. “You can’t be. She wouldn’t be more than… than…” He tried to do the math in his head. “Fifteen? That can’t be right.” She’d been twelve when he’d left home, just beginning to change from a girl into a young woman. Embarrassed, Kale realized that he’d still been thinking of her as that little girl. The doll he’d brought as a Mid-Winter gift for her was going to seem more than a bit silly.

She dropped her armful of wood and her hand flew to her mouth. “Kale? Onira save us, is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” he confirmed, shifting nervously in his saddle. She shrieked and threw herself forward to hug his leg. His gelding snorted and stamped nervously, and he tightened his hands on the reins to calm it before it stepped on her foot and hurt her.

“Lira? What’s going on?” A man appeared in the doorway, brushing sawdust off his hands. His shoulders were tense and he looked suspicious, but he relaxed marginally when he saw that Lira didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger.

“Sam! It’s Kale, Kale’s come home,” Lira exclaimed.

“Kale?” Samual’s eyes widened, and his suspicious expression vanished entirely as he smiled. “By the gods, it is you. Look at you, riding a horse like a noble with a fancy sword at your hip. Don’t just sit there; come inside before you freeze to death, you and your friend. I’ll call Evin to tend your horses. Evin!”

“No, we’ll handle them,” Kale said hastily as he and Jaren both dismounted. “There are spells worked into the tack, and the horses are battle-trained. Evin might lose a hand.” He reached automatically for the reins, but his lover grinned and snatched Kale’s reins away instead.

“I’ll handle the horses, you go catch up with your family without me hanging over your shoulders.” Jaren turned a friendly smile on Kale’s older brother. “If someone could just show me where everything is?”

“I will!” Kale’s youngest sibling, Evin, came bounding out of the house. He’d only been five when Kale had last seen him; if he’d met the boy elsewhere, he’d never have recognized him.

Kale gave Jaren a nervous look, and got an encouraging smile in return. Then Jaren turned and led the horses away, following Evin to the barn, and there was nothing left for Kale to do but face the rest of his family.

illustrated by marourin

Lira had attached herself to his arm and was gushing happily at him, mostly gossip about neighbours he barely remembered. The feeling of everything being the same had vanished with the shock of seeing his siblings, and Kale was startled to realize how far he’d come from the naive farmboy who’d left this land so long ago.

Inside the big room was surprisingly cold and dim. Kale frowned as he looked around. The fire in the cookstove was tiny, and the main hearth was unlit. He remembered having beeswax candles to add light on the dark winter days, but the only illumination now came from the fire or leaked through the cracks in the shuttered windows. More cracks in the chinking of the walls let the cold wind inside, moaning like a distressed child.

“Look who’s home, mama,” Sam said, one hand on Kale’s shoulder to push him towards the cold hearth. “The conquering hero returns.”

“Kale?” His mother’s voice cracked with weariness, and if the appearance of his siblings had surprised him, he was dismayed to see how much his mother had aged in less than three years. She huddled beneath a pile of blankets in a chair by the hearth, bent like an old granny. She couldn’t be that old, could she?

He came forward and knelt beside her rocker, taking one hand gently in both of his. Her eyes were milky and she stared just over his head, obviously unable to see him. Her sight had been going when he’d left, but she’d still had some vision left and she’d always seemed almost stubbornly vital. “Yes, mama, it’s me,” he said, and his voice came out husky. “I’m sorry I haven’t been home in so long.”

“Don’t be silly, boy,” she chided him, and her smile was still as warm as he remembered it. “We knew you must be busy, doing all those important things. Lira, tell me, is he as handsome in his uniform as I always knew he would be?”

“He’s not in uniform, mama,” Lira said, surprised. “Kale, you’re not even wearing armour.”

“I…” This was the opening to tell them the truth, but when he opened his mouth he couldn’t make the words come out. This was even worse than he’d been afraid it would be.

Thankfully he was saved from answering by Jaren’s entrance. The warrior-mage had Evin perched on his shoulders like a toddler, his spell-enhanced strength more than up to the task. Evin looked absolutely thrilled, and the expressions of shock on Sam and Lira’s features were priceless.

“Elite don’t wear armour, it only slows us down,” Jaren explained. “We use spell-enhancements instead. And we’re out of uniform because we’re not in the army anymore, not since the war ended. We’re just unemployed mercenaries now, nothing nearly as glamorous.”

“I thought Elite weren’t allowed to leave the king’s service?” Sam asked, confused.

“Ah, but Kale and I are war heroes,” Jaren informed him, putting a hand on Kale’s shoulder and squeezing reassuringly. “We saved the whole country and ended the war.”

Somehow Jaren’s presence lent him the courage he’d lacked a moment before. Taking a deep breath, Kale dove in. “So Jaren got a special dispensation, and he’s been following me around ever since.”

“Oh, I was following you around long before they let me go,” Jaren reminded him cheerfully. “Elite or not, you’ve saved my life too many times for me to be willing to let you out of my sight.”

“I don’t understand,” Kale’s mother said. “Kale? Who is this with you? What does he mean?”

“This is Jaren Delwash,” Kale told them. “He was captain of the 64th Elite, the unit I served with. But I… I didn’t make the Elite.”

There was a stunned silence, which Jaren smoothly jumped into. “Despite that, he was arguably the most valuable trooper in the army. Without Kale’s ability to see magic as well as he does, the Semaskans would have devastated us in the last battle.”

“I’m not a mage, it turns out,” Kale explained, and he even managed not to sound bitter about it. “But my ability to see magic is a lot stronger than most true mages, which is one of the reasons why Jaren kept me in his unit. The other is that we’re shieldmates.”

Kale had thought long and hard about how to deal with this aspect of things. Same-sex relationships had been tolerated in the army and were even fairly well accepted in big cities, but rural areas like Kale’s family lived in were another matter. He’d finally decided that he refused to act as if he was ashamed to have Jaren as a lover, so the best thing to do was deal with it up front. In some ways, it was harder to admit to than his failure to become an Elite.

“Shieldmates?” Samual repeated. “Doesn’t that mean…” He glanced at Evin and trailed off, but his meaning was clear to everyone else in the room.

“Yes, it does,” Kale nodded, and stood. Jaren kept his hand on Kale’s shoulder, a steadying anchor that he badly needed at that moment. Sam and Lira looked shocked, and his mother looked dubious, but none of them said anything further.

After an awkward moment, Kale cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Where’s everyone else? Cassy and Amelie and Papa?”

Sam and Lira exchanged glances, and his mother looked upset. “Cassy married that Miller boy she always had such a crush on,” Lira told him, but she sounded far more subdued than such good news warranted. “She and Amelie both work up at the manor for the baron.”

“At the manor? But that’s half a day’s travel from here,” Kale exclaimed, looking at Samual. Amelie was his wife; Kale wouldn’t have expected his brother to let her go like that.

“Evin, why don’t we go see how big a snowman we can build,” Lira suggested abruptly, taking their youngest sibling by the hand and leading him outside.

“Things have changed since you left, little brother,” Sam said once they were gone. “About a year after, the old lord died. The new baron… well, he does things differently.”

“Different how?” Kale asked with a sinking feeling in his stomach. The old baron had been a distant figure to him; someone they paid taxes to twice a year, and otherwise didn’t think about much. For the most part he’d left his peasants alone as long as they paid their taxes on time.

“All the pretty girls on his land work at the manor now,” Kale’s mother murmured, wringing her hands. “Cassy, Amelie… we’ve managed to keep Lira from his notice, but it won’t last. And your father…”

“Papa was sent to the stocks for poaching last February,” Sam said grimly. “The punishment was five days, but he was an old man and his pride had already been broken. He didn’t last three.”

“Poaching!” Kale was shocked and horrified. “But our family has never poached.”

“We never had to, our land was enough to keep us fed,” Samual said. “But the new baron has a different opinion about how much is owed him in taxes. It was pay and starve, or eat and lose what little land we have.”

“After a few months of listening to his children go to bed crying with hunger each night, a man will do anything to feed his family,” Kale’s mother said softly, grief evident in her voice.

Appalled, Kale looked at Jaren. The older man was biting his lip, his blue eyes fierce with emotions he was holding back. Jaren had been a good commander because he’d cared for the men in his charge, and Kale still thought he’d have made a wonderful duke if his father hadn’t disinherited him. Jaren had a way of treating everyone like people, unlike most nobles who seemed to view anyone beneath their station as mere chattel.

“Does the baron have no overlord you could make a complaint to?” Jaren finally asked carefully, clearly trying not to lose his temper.

“Oh, aye, the Earl of Lorene.” Samual spat on the floor, indicating his opinion of the earl. “He’s good friends with Baron Reichan, he is. I doubt he’d even let us in the door.”

“Reichan? Alix Reichan?” Jaren asked, eyes wide. “I never heard ill of him. He and I were good friends as boys.”

“What nobles do among other nobles is one thing, Jaren,” Kale reminded the older man. Sam and his mother looked shocked at Jaren’s casual claim of friendship with their overlord. “And people change as they grow up. Have you even seen him since you entered the Elite?”

“Well, no,” Jaren admitted, frowning. “I was too busy training, and anyway I was trying to keep people from realizing who I was until I was commissioned and it was too late for them to send me home.”

Samual looked back and forth between them, and visibly swallowed his pride. “Please, m’lord. If you were friends, is there aught you can do? My wife and my sister… I fear for them. For all of us. If the taxes this year are as bad as the last, we’ll all starve next winter. We’ll be lucky not to eat our seed stock this year as it is.”

“Oh, I think I a word or two with Alix wouldn’t go amiss,” Jaren said, a dangerous light in his eyes that Kale recognized as another warning of his lover’s formidable temper. “But please, don’t call me ‘lord’. I’ve no more status than you – my father disinherited me, and I’m not even a captain anymore. Your brother is my partner now, not my subordinate, and as far as I’m concerned that makes us equals.”

Kale bit down on a wry smile and shook his head, amazed once again at the walking contradiction Jaren represented. Blond and pale as only the nobility could be, the man carried himself with a confidence that spoke of someone raised to authority and privilege. Yet there he stood among Kale’s lowborn family, as plain and simple as the earth they tended, and declared them his equals.

“You said it’s half a day’s travel,” Jaren said to Kale, thoughtful. “On foot or by horse?”

“On foot, of course. Or do you not remember how useless I was on horseback when you first met me?” Kale replied wryly. “But the snow is getting worse, and we already pushed the horses hard to get here. I don’t think we’ll make much of an impression stumbling in after dark, half frozen and weary to the bone.”

“Very true,” Jaren acknowledged reluctantly. “I’m sorry… Samual, isn’t it? Your wife and sister will have to wait just one more day, but I promise you I’ll do everything in my power to see them returned to you.”

Sam looked disappointed, but he covered it well as he nodded. “They’ve managed this long, I imagine they’ll manage a little longer. Any help at all is more than we were expecting.”

“And in the meantime, I think I’ll see what I can do about using the last of the daylight to help stretch your stewpot so our unexpected arrival doesn’t cause you hardship,” Jaren added. “I’m a fair shot with a bow, and that forest we passed was teeming with game.”

“If you’re caught…!” Kale’s mother protested, her hand flying to her mouth in fear.

Jaren sketched her a bow, though she couldn’t see it. “Madam, if they catch me I am in a considerably different situation than your husband was. I may not be my father’s heir anymore, but I do still have certain privileges.” He grinned, that dangerous gleam still in his eyes, and his aura pulsing strong with anger in Kale’s vision. “If nothing else, I am still an Elite, though the King has released me from service. I don’t imagine Alix has any game wardens who could or would want to be on the wrong side of an argument with me. Kale?”

“You go,” Kale waved him off. “I’ll only slow you down. I’ll dress and butcher whatever you bring back, same as always.” Jaren grinned a little wider and tossed a brief salute towards Sam before he ducked out the door.

Kale watched him go, more from a desire to avoid the inevitable questions from his family than from any desperate need to soak up Jaren’s presence. Sure enough when he turned back again he found his mother wringing her hands repeatedly as she stared blankly into the distance, and Samual was giving him a measuring look.

“All right, little brother,” the older man finally said, gesturing him towards one of the rickety chairs around the table. “Let’s hear this tale of yours right from the beginning.”

With a resigned sigh, Kale settled himself into the seat. “It all started one morning when the Semaskans caught my company by surprise…”

Suppressing a yawn, Kale sat a little straighter in his seat and tried to look attentive. Lira had noticed and called him on it every time his attention wandered, and he didn’t want to seem like he was ignoring his family. It was just that he was so tired. It had been a long, hard journey to get here, and he hadn’t exactly had a chance to recover. His brother had grilled him on the events of the last three years while Jaren was out hunting, and then Kale had been busy gutting and skinning the brace of rabbits his lover had brought back.

Once that was done, the two of them had started on the many chores that needed doing on the farm and around the house. Things that Samual had been forced to let slide, unable to keep up with the sheer amount of work. Much of it was simple manual labour that required two strong men, such as going into the forest and hauling back fallen trees to be turned into firewood. With Kale’s help, Sam was able to put a good dent into the workload.

Some of what needed doing had been left because it required skills or supplies that Samual just didn’t have access to, like chinking the cracks in the walls of the house with something more durable than moss and pinetar. That part Kale couldn’t help with, but Jaren could. The Elite weren’t taught many spells outside of strictly offensive and defensive magic, but Jaren had a habit of soaking up every bit of magic lore he could get his hands on. He knew more spells than some true mages, and was infinitely adaptable with them.

By the time his mother called them in to dinner, the house and barn glowed like pale magic beacons to Kale’s eyes. Some of it was lingering power from the spells Jaren had used, but Kale spotted more than a few protective sigils lurking about.

A hand on his shoulder jolted him out of his wandering thoughts. Kale blinked and found Jaren holding him and grinning, while Lira and Evin giggled and Sam coughed into his hand to hide a smile. “What?” Kale asked, though he had a feeling he already knew the answer.

“You nearly fell face first into your soup,” Jaren said, chuckling. “You’re done in, Kale, and truth to tell I’m not much better off. I’m sorry,” he added to Kale’s family. “We don’t mean to slight your hospitality, it’s just that it was a long trip to get here.”

“Of course, and here we are putting you both to work like draft beasts the moment you arrive,” Kale’s mother said, flushing. “We’re the ones being rude.”

“Not at all,” Jaren shook his head. “You’re Kale’s family, and I’m glad to help in any way I can.”

“I don’t mind, mama,” Kale assured her hastily. “But if we’re going to be of any use in dealing with the baron tomorrow, we’re going to have to sleep soon. We can do more visiting and catching up once Cassy and Amelie are back.”

“Lira, you take Evin in with you tonight,” Sam declared. “Kale, you can sleep with me, and your friend can have Evin’s room.”

“Sam, that’s not necessary,” Kale objected, his heart sinking. “Jaren and I can both sleep in Evin’s room, and I won’t have to bother you.” When his brother hadn’t said anything about his relationship with Jaren, Kale had dared to hope his family would be able to accept it without problems. But there was no good reason for Sam to split them up like that.

“We moved things around a bit since you left,” Kale’s mother said. “Samual and Amelie have most of what was the boys’ room, and papa built a wall to give Evin what was left. There’s not room for both of you in there.”

“We’ve got our bedrolls, and we’re more accustomed to them than sleeping in a bed,” Jaren put in. “I don’t mind bunking down wherever there’s enough space to stretch out, and that way nobody has to give up his bed.”

“Nonsense,” Kale’s mother replied, looking offended. “You’re our guest, we’re not going to make you sleep on the floor.”

When his mother took that tone there was no point in arguing with her, as Kale knew from experience. He exchanged a brief dismayed glance with Jaren before looking down at his plate so his expression wouldn’t give him away. At least they weren’t being blatantly obvious about their disapproval, but it was clear they had no intention of allowing Kale and Jaren to be alone together.

The ironic part was that Kale doubted they’d have done anything but sleep. They really were both exhausted. Now, accustomed as they were to having each other nearby, Kale doubted they would sleep at all well apart.

“I’m really sorry about this,” Kale apologized miserably to Jaren as his family set up the sleeping arrangements.

“Don’t be,” Jaren told him, running his fingers briefly through Kale’s dark curls. “It’s not the end of the world, and at least they’re not chasing me off with a pitchfork for having corrupted their innocent son.” He grinned at Kale, who blushed but smiled back.

“Being corrupted by you was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Kale declared. “Sleep well, Jaren. We’ve got a hell of a day ahead of us.”

The lands of Baron Reichan of Harlis were hardly the most extensive or wealthy in the country, and the ancestral keep reflected that. Squat and dark, it hunched over the land like a stone spider in its web. Its defensive origins were clear in the thick curtain wall and tiny arrowslits that passed for windows, but outbuildings sprawled beyond the walls now.

“Now we find out how much old friendships are worth,” Jaren murmured, and spurred his horse towards the gate. The doors into the outer bailey were open and there were no guards, but a man-at-arms met them in the courtyard. “Tell Alix that his old friend Jaren is calling on him,” Jaren ordered before the guard could get a word out.

The man studied them briefly, and Kale was glad they’d worn their best clothes. Jaren certainly didn’t have any trouble adopting the mannerisms of a bored noble. After a moment the guard nodded and turned to go inside.

Jaren dismounted and Kale followed suit, taking the reins of both their horses like the good servant he was pretending to be. There was no way Kale could pass for nobility of any kind, not when he looked just like every peasant working in Reichan’s fields, but it was just as well. This way Kale would be able to speak to the servants without arousing suspicion, and hopefully he’d be able to find Cassy and Amelie.

“Jaren! By the gods, it is you.” A well-dressed man appeared in the doorway, peering at them in astonishment. He was about Jaren’s age, in his mid-thirties, but time had not treated him as kindly. His sandy hair was thinning and he sported a paunch that suggested physical activity was not one of his favoured pastimes. His squint indicated a certain amount of nearsightedness. Kale tried to imagine this man being friends with athletic, energetic Jaren, and failed. Well, perhaps he’d been different when he was younger.

Certainly Jaren showed no hesitation when he strode forward and clasped the other man’s hand. “Hello, Alix. It’s good to see you again. Gods, has it really been almost twenty years?” Jaren grinned and clapped Reichan on the shoulder. “You look as good as ever.”

“I’ll assume that’s just your usual charm speaking, as I know perfectly well what I look like,” Reichan replied with dry good humour. “You, on the other hand, look a decade younger than I know you to be.” He waved, and several servants came forward. “Let my people take care of your things, and come inside.”

Jaren glanced back at Kale, who nodded and led the horses towards the stables. He’d take care of their mounts and then join Reichan’s men-at-arms and servants for their dinner, and see what gossip he could pick up.

Inwardly, he was confused. Reichan certainly didn’t look like the type of man who would collect beautiful servant girls and run his people into the ground. He looked more like the sort of scholar who lost himself in his books for weeks at a time, and hardly paid any attention to the world around him.

Appearances could be deceiving, Kale reminded himself. Clearly, Reichan was that kind of man, or Kale’s family wouldn’t be suffering.

Once the horses were settled, Kale took the back entrance into the keep and headed for the hall. Dinner would be served relatively soon, which meant most people would be getting ready for it. If luck was with him, he’d spot Cassy or Amelie.

They weren’t in the great hall or the kitchen, but when Kale started peeking into the rooms Amera finally smiled on him. His younger sister knelt on the flagstones scrubbing out a fireplace. Her hair and clothes were clean and well tended, but she had pulled locks of her hair forward to hide her face. Her shoulders were hunched, and she kept glancing nervously over her shoulder. When she spotted him, she flinched and ducked her head, and Kale could see her hands trembling.

Looking around, Kale confirmed that no one was in sight before he stepped forward and closed the door. “Cassy. Cassy, it’s me, Kale.”

She looked up again, her eyes wide. “Kale? Oh gods, Kale, is that really you?”

He dropped to his knees beside her and held out his hands towards her. “Yes, it’s me. I came home for a visit, and Samual told us about what’s been going on. I’m going to get you and Amelie out of here, I promise.”

“No!” She clutched at his hands, her eyes wild. “No, Kale, you have to get out of here. Run, quickly, before he gets hold of you!”

“Who? Reichan? What’s he done to you?” Kale demanded. It broke his heart to see his pretty, confident sister reduced to this frightened, shivering creature.

“No, no, it’s…” She stopped abruptly and shook her head. Blue light flared around her in a brief aura, and Kale’s eyes widened. “I can’t speak of it. Please, Kale, go now. Leave or stay, but leave me in peace. I’ll get in trouble if I’m caught speaking to you.” She bent back to her task, clearly intending to ignore him.

The last thing Kale wanted was to get her in trouble, so he nodded and stood. “We will fix this, I promise,” he said fiercely. “Tell Amelie if you can.”

He couldn’t resist the urge to run his fingers through her hair, and his chest squeezed when she flinched away. Fists clenched in rage, Kale left her where she was and went in search of his ‘master’ instead.

Once again the Goddess of Luck seemed to be on their side, because he found Jaren alone in one of the other rooms. “Well?” Kale asked his lover, and Jaren looked back at him with a bewildered frown.

“I don’t get it,” the older man declared. “Alix is just as I remember him, only even more lost in his studies. The only thing he could talk about was a research paper on comparative folklore through music that he’s working on. He’s even hired himself a permanent bard to teach him the songs – and as far as I can tell, that’s the only thing he’s spending money on that his father didn’t. I don’t know where all those taxes are ending up, but it isn’t with him.”

Something is going on,” Kale said grimly. “I just spoke to my sister – Jaren, she might as well have been a stranger. I’ve never even imagined Cassy could look so… defeated.” He had to pause for a moment to unclench his jaw so he could continue speaking. “What’s more, when I asked her what was going on, she was stopped from answering by some kind of spell.”

“Magic? Are you certain? No, don’t answer that.” Jaren looked disgusted with himself. “It’s you, of course you’re certain. Alix is no kind of mage, Kale. He doesn’t even have the potential for it.”

“Well, someone here is, and we need to find out who,” Kale said.

“Easy enough. Everyone important will be at dinner – I can’t imagine it could be one of the lower servants, they wouldn’t have the influence to make Alix raise the taxes. His guards eat at the lower tables at the same time as his family and the upper servants. You should be welcome among them.”

“And whoever they are, if they’re strong enough to do this, they’ll be strong enough for me to see their aura even at a distance,” Kale agreed. “Then what?”

“Then we take them to Alix and let him decide. Knowing him, he’ll be squeamish and hand the problem off to me,” Jaren said, a fierce glint in his eyes. “And that will be the end of that.”

The great hall was crowded, but not unbearably so. From his seat at the lower end of the left table, Kale could see the entire hall. The noise level was unbelievable, but Kale had heard worse on the battlefield. At least this was only conversation, not the screams of the dying.

He didn’t see Cassy or Amelie, but there was no denying that all the serving girls were pretty – and just as frightened as Cassy had been. It made him angry to watch as they scuttled around the hall, flinching away from every loud voice or exuberant gesture. From the few good looks Kale had gotten at his lover, Jaren wasn’t any happier, though for once the warrior-mage was doing a good job of controlling his formidable temper. He was making conversation with Reichan and the baroness, and Kale wouldn’t have been able to tell he was angry if not for the reddish shade of his aura.

Frustratingly, Jaren was the only person with an aura of any strength that Kale could see. There were a few people scattered about the hall with magic hanging around them in a cloud so thin even Kale could barely see it. They probably weren’t even aware they had mage potential, not at that level of power.

At the high table two others had slightly more noticeable auras; one older woman whom Kale suspected was the midwife for Reichan’s visibly pregnant wife, and a man dressed in the robes of a cleric. Neither was strong enough to have cast the spell Kale had seen on Cassy, not unless they’d been doing something recently that had drained their power to a dangerous level.

There was no one else. Could it be a lower servant after all? Someone with a grudge who had manifested mage powers that hadn’t been noticed by the priest? But what possible revenge could they be enacting by abusing the serving girls and raising the taxes for no good reason?

Seeing Jaren looking his way, Kale shook his head and shrugged. Jaren frowned briefly, and his smile when he replied to something Reichan had asked him seemed strained.

Suddenly a hush fell over the crowd, starting at the upper right and working its way rapidly through the hall to the corner where Kale sat. Startled by the sudden change, Kale rose up slightly out of his seat to try to see what was going on.

An unassuming man was walking through the space between tables. His sumptuous silk and velvet clothes, richer than the baron’s, suggested he was a nobleman, but the lute he carried said otherwise. This must be the bard Jaren had mentioned. But what kind of bard could afford clothes like that? They had to be fake, theatrical props. If so they were the best imitations Kale had ever seen.

“What’s going…” he started to whisper to the man beside him, but the guard glared and hushed him fiercely.

“Bard Davin,” Reichan greeted the man happily, and the bard swept him a deep bow.

“What would you like me to play for you this evening, my lord?” the bard asked as he straightened. Kale frowned. There was something… off about the man, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but it made Kale instantly dislike him. He’d learned to trust his instincts in matters like this.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t magic. The bard had the barest hint of power around him, but like the others with mage potential it wasn’t strong enough to do so much as light a candle. He wasn’t behind the spells, either. Kale bit his lip, frustrated. Who else could it possibly be?

“Play something nostalgic, in honour of my old friend’s visit,” the baron commanded, and the bard bowed once more.

“As my lord wishes,” he said, and pulled his lute around to his front and struck the first chord.

An avalanche of colour hit Kale, so unexpected and overwhelming that he didn’t even have a chance to brace himself. It crashed over him in a swirl of mind-bending colours, pulsing and shifting in time to the music. It was all Kale could do not to be sick. For a moment he thought he was hallucinating. He’d heard of people ‘seeing’ sound under the influence of a strong fever, though he’d never experienced it for himself.

Only when the sensation persisted without any other symptoms manifesting could Kale make himself believe that it really was the music he was seeing. It was magic, though it was unlike any other magic he’d ever known. Davin was not a mage, but somehow his music was so full of power that Kale could hardly see anything else.

Here, then, was the answer to their riddle. The lyrics Davin sang were little more than inane maundering, but his power said something very different. It whispered in Kale’s ear, suggested that he should reward the bard extravagantly for his talent, murmured that there was nothing wrong with Davin abusing the pretty girls.

Kale nearly fell into the trap – the bard’s demands seemed so reasonable. Surely there was nothing wrong with Davin being rewarded for his hard work. How could anyone object to that?

Just before he might have been lost completely, he caught sight of Cassy standing in the door to the kitchen, clutching a serving platter against her chest and staring at him with despair in her eyes. Despite the haze of swirling colours that nearly obscured his view of her, that sight hit Kale hard and stuck with him.

Kale had always been fiercely protective of his little sisters, and time away from home hadn’t changed that. However powerful his magic might be, the bard couldn’t convince Kale that giving Cassy over to abuse was in any way acceptable.

Struggling to his feet, Kale fought the subtle influence of Davin’s magic by keeping that image of Cassy’s despairing face firmly in his mind. One quick look at his lover confirmed that there would be no help from that direction. Jaren looked absolutely rapt, and the angry crimson had drained out of his aura to be replaced by shades of blue.

Feeling like he was moving through molasses, Kale forced himself to walk between the tables towards the bard. Davin’s attention was focused on the head table, and he had no idea there was anything happening behind him. Perhaps Reichan or even Jaren might have warned him, but they were too far under the bard’s spell to pay attention to anything but the music. Davin’s own power and greed worked against him.

With an effort of will Kale drew his sword. The sound of metal scraping on leather was barely audible over the music, but Kale’s yell of fury echoed through the room and cut harshly across the pleasant chords.

Startled, Davin started to turn, but he was too late. Kale’s sword struck him in the shoulder with enough force to cleave right through the bone. The bard gave a strangled scream, dropping his lute and clutching at the wound. Kale disengaged and pulled away, and blood flowed freely as the bard collapsed.

Colours were still pulsing through the room, ugly colours that made Kale nauseated. Throughout the hall people were shouting and growling, and he was afraid he might have a riot on his hands within moments. Davin was bleeding out on the floor, thrashing weakly with the last throes of life, so he couldn’t be the cause of it. That left only one possible source. Spinning on his heel, Kale slashed downward and struck the lute, putting all of his strength behind the blow.

The fine wood shattered beneath Kale’s sword, and he could have sworn he heard a shriek of agony. All the colours convulsed, then were sucked into a tight ball. They swirled violently there for a moment before exploding and vanishing completely.

Panting, Kale found himself down on one knee in the middle of the room, leaning heavily on his sword for support. People were panicking now, and Reichan had stood up and was shouting in an attempt to restore order. “Seize that man,” the baron commanded, pointing at Kale. The befuddled scholar was gone now, replaced by an enraged nobleman.

“No!” Jaren threw his hand out towards Kale. Bright purple magic streaked out to surround him, and Reichan’s soldiers found themselves unable to pass through the magic barrier. Kale breathed a quiet sigh of relief and struggled to get his feet back under him.

“Jaren? What is the meaning of this?” Reichan demanded, turning to Jaren with a betrayed expression. “Is this how you repay my hospitality?”

“Alix, look around you,” Jaren said urgently. “Really look, and think for yourself. Your servants are terrified and abused. Your people starve and die under the taxes you’ve heaped on them. It was magic, Alix, magic to control you and warp your perceptions of reality.”

He glanced at Kale for confirmation, and the younger man nodded. “I think it was the lute, not the bard himself,” Kale gasped. “It felt… wrong, evil. I didn’t think magic artefacts could be evil or good.”

“They can’t, unless they’re possessed by something that is,” Jaren said grimly. “A spirit or lesser demon, it doesn’t matter. It used the bard to get what it wanted – energy caused by fear and suffering.”

“Magic?” Reichan looked appalled, scanning the room and seeing for himself the signs of corruption that Jaren had mentioned. “My gods… what have I done? My poor people…”

Jaren put a hand on the other noble’s shoulder. “It’s not too late to fix things, old friend. Be the good lord I know you can be. I’m just glad I came in time.”

The purple barrier around Kale had faded, and he felt someone take his arm to help support him. He looked down and found Cassy staring back at him with fragile hope in her eyes. “Kale. It really is you,” she whispered. “I thought I was dreaming, or going mad from despair. You saved us.”

He turned and hugged her carefully, mindful of the abuse she’d just been through. “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” he told her.

She shook her head, and smiled tentatively. “I’m just glad you came at all. I’d given up hope.”

“Never give up, Cassy,” he told her. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I’ve left home, it’s that you can never give up hope. The gods reward their faithful in the strangest ways, and in the most unexpected moments.” He glanced across the hall to Jaren, and couldn’t help smiling.

Kale couldn’t quite remember ever having such a heart-wrenching Mid-Winter celebration. Baron Reichan brought Kale’s family to the keep, and the reunion with the two girls was highly emotional. Cassy spent half an hour crying on their mother’s shoulder, and Amelie didn’t leave Samual’s side all night. Their father’s absence was like a gaping hole, but even that loss finally seemed to be mending.

Reichan owed Kale his lands, riches, and perhaps even his soul – a fact Jaren had driven home to his old friend at length and in detail. Reichan offered Kale a permanent position on his guard, and Jaren an indefinite welcome.

Kale was tempted. He’d spoken to enough mercenaries over the years to know that their lives weren’t nearly as appealing as the songs made them sound. They lived from one job to the next, frequently broke, hungry and cold. And seeing his family again had made him realize how much he missed them.

But one look at Jaren told Kale he couldn’t accept. Jaren wouldn’t stop him, would even do his best to encourage him, but his lover would be miserable living in such a cold climate and in a place where his talents would be going to waste. Reichan had no need of a mage, or even a sensitive like Kale.

“Thank you,” he told the baron. “I’m flattered, but I can’t accept. Jaren and I still have too much to do with our lives to be ready to settle down.”

Reichan looked back and forth between them, then nodded with a rueful smile when Jaren walked to stand beside Kale and take his hand. “I see. I wish you both the best, then, and you’ll always be welcome here. Is there anything I can do for you?”

Kale looked at his family, and back at the baron. “Take care of them, please,” he asked quietly. “Sam’s pride won’t take well to anything that smacks of charity, but if it’s a reward to me…”

“I understand,” Reichan nodded. “I will do my best for them, and for all my people who have suffered. I can only begin to make up for the damage I caused, and being under the influence of a spell doesn’t mean I can escape responsibility for my actions.”

He moved away, and Kale’s older brother approached them in his place. “M’lord Jaren,” Sam said awkwardly, looking at the warrior-mage. “I… I have to admit that I wasn’t too happy to hear about Kale’s relationship with you. But if not for you, my wife and sister would still be suffering, and my family would starve this winter.”

“Hey, Kale did all the hard work,” Jaren said with a friendly smile. “I just got us in the door. And I thought I told you not to call me ‘lord’, Sam. I’d rather just be ‘Jaren’ to you and the rest of Kale’s family.”

“Still.” Sam cleared his throat, and looked down at his feet. “It’s obvious that you make Kale happy, so… what I mean to say is, you’re welcome in our family.”

“Thank you.” Jaren’s eyes softened, and his smile widened. “I’m honoured. I promise I’ll do my best to make sure he stays happy.”

Sam nodded while Kale blushed, and he knew he wouldn’t have any further trouble from his family over Jaren. Wryly, he wondered how long it would have taken them to accept the matter if Jaren hadn’t had the chance to play hero. Well, Jaren probably would have won them over fairly quickly; he was good at that. He’d certainly stolen Kale’s heart in hardly any time at all.

Later, when they were alone in the room Reichan had given Jaren, the older man put one hand on Kale’s shoulder and looked deep into his eyes. “Why did you turn Alix down, Kale? It was a good offer. You know I meant what I said, about wanting you to be happy. And don’t try to tell me it wouldn’t make you happy to be close to your family.”

“Of course it would,” Kale said softly, moving to take his lover in his arms. “I’ve missed them. But you know, sometimes you seem to think you have to be the one who has to make all the sacrifices to keep me happy. It works both ways. I want you to be happy too, and we both know you’d hate living this far north. How can I be happy if you’re miserable? Besides,” Kale grimaced. “There is a reason I left home, and it wasn’t just starry-eyed dreams of being an Elite. I love them, but I don’t really fit in with them. I’m a soldier, not a farmer or even a useless guard.”

Jaren smiled, and hugged him back. “And a fine soldier you are, too. I’d have fallen to that bastard’s spell if you hadn’t stopped him. How many times have you saved my life now?”

“Don’t worry, the score is nowhere near even,” Kale answered him with a grin. “And I’d say today proves our Lady Amera hasn’t lost interest in us yet. I’m not sure what we’re doing that’s so amusing to her, but I hope it never changes!”

“Still,” Jaren purred with heat in his eyes. “There must be some way I can properly show my gratitude without evening the score.” He ran his hands up Kale’s sides to the lacings on his leather doublet, making the younger man shiver beneath the touch.

“I’m sure you can think of something, if you put your mind to it,” Kale agreed breathlessly, reaching for Jaren’s belt in turn. To his surprise Jaren caught his hands and held them away, grinning at him.

“I’m not paying you back for anything if you’re working as hard as I am,” Jaren pointed out. He grabbed Kale by the waist and picked him up, making Kale go dizzy at the casual display of strength. He loved it when Jaren did things like that, because it reminded him just how amazing his lover really was.

Jaren deposited him on the feather mattress with a little too much force to be called ‘gentle’, and Kale sank into the deep softness of it. They didn’t get many chances to sleep in beds this nice. Wriggling happily, Kale revelled in the feel of it. Satin sheets, too, judging by the softness he could feel catching on the callus of his hands, and he wanted to feel it against his whole body. “Well, hurry up then,” he demanded, figuring he might as well take advantage of it if Jaren was feeling generous.

Chuckling, Jaren knelt on the bed beside him and started deftly stripping Kale of his clothes. Kale didn’t need to do a damn thing to help – Jaren was more than strong enough to lift him when necessary to get the clothes off his body. That left Kale free to just concentrate on the feel of his lover’s strong hands running over his body, first through the clothes and then over his bare skin.

Then it was Jaren’s mouth on his skin instead of just hands, and Kale cried out as he arched up into the touch. After so long together the older man knew exactly where to touch and tease to wring the most sensation out of Kale’s body, playing him better than any master bard could hope to play an instrument. Teeth closed over his nipple and tugged gently, then bit down hard enough to pinch at the same time as Jaren’s tongue swirled over the nub.

Scrambling for something to hold onto lest the tide of sensation wash him away, Kale’s hand caught a fold of Jaren’s tunic. “You’re wearing too much,” he told the older man, forcing his eyes open so he could see Jaren’s expression. “I want to be able to touch you, too.”

Releasing the nipple he’d been tormenting, Jaren sat up with an exaggerated sigh. “You never let me just do anything for you,” he mock-complained, with a smile to soften the words as he reached for the laces of his tunic. “And you’re impatient to boot.”

Kale just smiled up at him. “It’s not as much fun for me if I can’t touch you,” he told the other man. “You never let me do all the work either, I notice. I love the noises you make, they make me hotter than anything else.”

“Well, then.” Jaren’s eyebrow rose, and his smile grew more heated. “I won’t deny you, if it means that much to you.” He stripped off his tunic and shirt in one move, baring his chest. His muscles shifted and moved beneath pale skin, catching the candlelight and reflecting it like a marble statue come to life.

With a noise of appreciation Kale ran his hands over the flesh, lingering on the places he knew were most sensitive. Jaren was fumbling with his breeches now, struggling to get them down over his hips to bare more of himself to Kale’s touch, but Kale kept his attention strictly to the upper part of his lover’s body for the moment.

“You’re so gorgeous,” Jaren said, his voice gone husky with desire and emotion. “You have no idea what you do to me when you look at me like that. Gods, Kale, it shouldn’t be possible to turn me on that much with just a look.”

Kale smiled at his lover, pleased. When Jaren said it like that, he had to believe that his lover really did think he was beautiful. “It’s only fair, considering what you can do to me with just a glance. I’ll never get tired of looking at you.”

“Lucky for me,” Jaren murmured, and finally managed to shed the last of his clothes. He settled himself down over Kale, but too low for the younger man to be able to reach much more than his upper chest. Seeing the wicked gleam in his lover’s eyes, Kale groaned as he realized what Jaren had in mind.

Not that he was complaining, but he wanted to participate a bit more than that. “No,” he said, catching Jaren by the shoulder and tugging at him. “Not like that. Turn around, damn it, I told you I want to be able to touch you too.”

Jaren looked surprised, but only for a brief moment. “You will be the death of me one of these days,” he told Kale, shifting so he was lying on his side facing the foot of the bed.

“Not any day soon, I hope.” Kale rolled onto his side as well, and that put him at a level with Jaren’s cock. He loved to look at it, swollen and red, solid evidence of the desire Jaren felt for him. But he loved to touch it even more, and when he reached out and brushed his fingers over the hard flesh the sound Jaren made was more than enough reward for anything and everything he’d ever done for the Elite.

Even though he’d been anticipating it, the moment when Jaren ran his mouth over Kale’s cock made the younger man shudder with startled need. Somehow it always seemed to feel just as shockingly amazing as the first time Jaren had gone down on him, and Kale hoped he would never grow jaded over it. Jaren licked and nibbled his way along the shaft, and Kale couldn’t stop the ragged moan that escaped him. His hips jerked as he fought to keep them still, and he shivered as Jaren chuckled against his skin.

Two could play at that game, and there was no way he was going to let Jaren take the advantage like that. Closing his eyes, Kale tried to focus on what he was doing rather than what Jaren was doing to him. He wrapped his hand around the base of Jaren’s cock and took the tip into his mouth, running his tongue over the soft skin and tasting the salty liquid already pooling in the slit.

It was hard to remember that there had been a time when he hadn’t liked doing this. If for nothing other than the quality of desperate moans he could wring from Jaren with simple flicks of his tongue, he’d have loved it. At the moment those moans were vibrating against his own cock, an even more immediate reward for Kale. He moaned back just to tease Jaren, and had to swallow a chuckle when that made the older man’s hips jerk against him.

Then Jaren stopped teasing him and swallowed him in earnest, and Kale’s next moan was genuine. He fought his body not to rock forward and choke the older man, but he desperately wanted more of his cock in that tight, wet heat. Probably feeling the struggle Kale was going through, Jaren wrapped one arm around Kale’s hips and held him forcibly still. That left Kale free to try to writhe as much as he liked.

‘Try’ being the operative word, but at least he didn’t have to fight to hold back. Whimpering, Kale clutched at the sheets with one hand and tightened his fingers around Jaren’s cock with the other. He wasn’t nearly strong enough to be able to pull that trick, and that meant Jaren was going to be distracted keeping control of himself. He’d have to be creative if he wanted to make up for that. This was a race of the sweetest kind, to see who could get the other off first.

Kale started sliding his mouth up and down along Jaren’s cock, covering his teeth with his lips and scraping them along the hard flesh as he went. That made the older man groan and tremble beneath him, and Kale knew he was on the right track. Releasing the sheets, he trailed that hand up along Jaren’s inner thigh, then dragged his fingers down beneath the older man’s erection.

Jaren’s balls were already tight, and he actually cried out against Kale’s cock when the younger man took them in hand. Kale rolled the sacs between his fingers, tugging gently and sliding his fingertips over the places where he knew it felt best.

Then, greatly daring, he did something he’d never quite had the nerve to try before. He slid the tip of his index finger lower still, rubbing it over the tight pucker of Jaren’s ass. The older man went motionless beneath him, and Kale felt him catch his breath. Before Kale could panic that he’d gone too far, though, Jaren moaned and rocked his hips up in an obviously encouraging gesture.

Swallowing hard – an action that made Jaren whimper as a side benefit – Kale pressed his finger gently against the tight ring of muscle. It slipped inside with surprising ease. It wasn’t hard to imagine why Jaren enjoyed being inside Kale so much, not when he could feel the tight pulse of heat against his finger.

He was so focused on what he was doing that Jaren caught him completely by surprise with his next move, pushing two fingers slowly inside Kale’s body. The sudden sensation of fullness made Kale buck against the arm still restraining his hips. Dizzy with need, he had to pull away from Jaren’s cock to gasp for air, struggling for control.

Jaren was having none of that, and he knew exactly how Kale liked it best. He worked his finger relentlessly, curling his tongue around Kale’s cock and stroking with enough force to make Kale shudder. It was too much, and now that Kale’s attention had been forcibly drawn to what was being done to him, he knew he wasn’t going to last much longer.

Then Jaren curled his fingers up and found that spot that always made Kale see stars, and that was the end of it. With a strangled cry Kale came hard, spilling into his lover’s mouth. Jaren sucked and licked at him enthusiastically, dragging out the orgasm and drawing every last possible sensation from Kale’s body.

“Enough! Gods, Jaren, enough,” Kale finally had to cry, unable to bear another moment of stimulation against his over-sensitized flesh. He moaned as Jaren slowly drew back off his cock and the cold air struck his wet, heated flesh. Jaren didn’t withdraw his fingers, though he did stop moving them.

“Kale,” the older man groaned, shifting to spread his legs and give Kale better access. Taking that as the encouragement it was undoubtedly meant to be, Kale drew a deep breath and returned his attention to his lover.

Now that his focus wasn’t divided, he was able to really concentrate on what he was doing and Jaren’s responses to it. Letting the noises his lover made guide him, Kale dragged lips and tongue and even teeth over the sensitive places on Jaren’s cock. At the same time he pressed his finger in a little deeper, curving it to try to find that place that always drove him crazy when Jaren hit it.

He knew when he’d succeeded, because Jaren actually cried out and arched up against him, trembling. Kale was briefly surprised at the strength of the older man’s reaction, until he remembered just how good it felt to him when it had been a while since they’d last had sex.

Smirking, he rubbed his finger repeatedly over the slight bump that seemed to be the source of the amazing feelings. At the same time he took Jaren into his mouth again, sucking hard and swirling his tongue over the tip. He had to let go of the base of the older man’s cock and press his arm over Jaren’s hips, leaning down with all his weight to keep the Elite pinned to the bed. It was an effort, especially considering how shaky he still was from his own orgasm, but he didn’t have to keep it up for long. Within moments he felt Jaren’s body begin to convulse around his finger, and a moment later the older man gave a hoarse shout and Kale’s mouth was flooded with bitter, salty fluid.

He swallowed all of it, returning the earlier favour and coaxing as much as he could from Jaren’s body. Only when Jaren was writhing and whimpering softly beneath him did Kale relent, slowly withdrawing his finger and moving to sit back. Breathless, he looked down the length of the bed, to find his lover sprawled out over the mattress with one arm flung over his eyes, panting. At some point Jaren had removed his hand, leaving Kale feeling a bit empty, but caught up as he’d been in what he was doing Kale had hardly noticed.

Seeing Jaren looking so thoroughly wrung out made Kale feel more than a bit smug, but he was still a little nervous. “Jaren?” he said softly. “Was that all right?”

Jaren chuckled softly, the sound more than a little rough. “Was that all right, he asks,” he rasped, lifting his arm enough to let him peer back at Kale. His expression was dazed and sated, and there was no sign of any negative emotion in his eyes. “I’ve told you a hundred times, Kale, you’re welcome to do anything you like to me. Yes, that was more than all right. I’d forgotten just how good that feels, actually.”

Slowly Jaren pushed himself up to a sitting position, moving with obvious effort. He got himself turned around and tugged Kale down to lie with him, arranging them beneath the covers so they were lying properly in the bed. Kale was happy to cuddle close, listening to Jaren’s still rapid heartbeat and feeling the older man’s chest rise and fall beneath his cheek.

“Would you… rather we did things the other way around?” he asked, startled by the thought. He’d always been the bottom, and it had honestly never occurred to him to do it any other way.

“Mmm… not particularly,” Jaren said, running one hand through Kale’s curls with lazy strokes. “Don’t fret over things so much, Kale. I don’t mind anything you do to me, and if you’d like to experiment I’m happy to go along with it. But if I hadn’t been perfectly happy just as we were all these years, you can believe I’d have said something about it before now.” He smiled down at Kale, his blue eyes bright with love and sated heat. “We’ve always been about as compatible as two people can be, Kale, I doubt that’s going to change at this late date.”

“All right,” Kale agreed, and relaxed. He was a little tempted by the invitation to experiment, but he was going to have to think about it a bit first.

“On the other hand,” Jaren’s voice took on an exasperated note, “someday I am going to tie you up and actually manage to focus entirely on you. That’s about the only way I’m ever going to accomplish it, it seems.”

The thought made Kale shiver – not from old, bad memories; he’d thankfully gotten over that a long time ago. No, the reaction was definitely one of anticipation, surprising him more than a little. “I never said I would make it easy for you,” he pointed out, smiling. “If I did, you wouldn’t have to keep trying so hard or so often, and where would be the fun in that?”

Chuckling, Jaren hugged him a little tighter, and Kale closed his eyes. He’d definitely made the right decision, turning down Reichan’s offer to stay here. He and Jaren still had far too much ahead of them to explore, in more ways than one.

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