by Delyth Penrose
Cast list and name pronunciations at the guide post.
“What a magnificent specimen,” Livia Vitella said, looking at the naked barbarian as she might a particularly spirited horse.
Her husband liked to jest that such things came with marrying into a noted equestrian family. Aenfrith thought it simply further proof that for all their arrogant claims to civilization, the Imperium had far less decency than his own ‘uncivilized’ clansmen.
Still, gold was gold the world over, and the Imperium’s gold spent better than the iron of their chains. He held his tongue, and tried not to think how fine a line it was that kept him from the naked barbarian’s place.
The line was fine enough, for example, that he didn’t try to stop the woman when she walked over to cup the barbarian’s manhood in her palm. It was worth more than Aenfrith’s freedom to lay hands upon Titus Cassius Laenas’s wife.
…And it was worth more than his freedom in an entirely different way, to watch the bound, blindfolded, and gagged barbarian lash out with both chained feet, counting on the men who gripped his arms and shoulders to provide unintended support for his strike.
He missed, of course. Livia Vitella was a true daughter of an equestrian family; she’d approached from his side rather than his front, and a simple sideways step took her behind his knees and out of range. Still, Aenfrith thought he rather approved of the man’s attempt. The Imperium paid him; they didn’t own his soul.
Livia Vitella laughed in delight, even as his handlers fought the barbarian to the floor, bent double, knees and face both ground into the floor. “Spirited,” she said, ignoring the handler that kicked the captive in the ribs. “I like that. A pity the other two are so puny. Tell me again, Cassius, why it took your fierce northern brigands three months to capture one grown barbarian and a pair of striplings?”
Laenas smiled at his wife, because there was nothing else he could do about her. He began again to explain about the way the bone-white barbarians’ power was driven by the earth of their homeland, and the reasons they’d brought so much glass and tile cast of continental clay all the way across the ocean, in order to isolate their barbarian captives from the earth that answered the call of their witch-blood. She cut him off with the wave of a hand.
“They are earth-witches, Cassius, not warriors. They rattle bones and spit cows’ blood and gibber. A score of my father’s men could have cornered and snared them in days. Still, we do need at least a pair of them to breed us a witch-blooded claimant to the madman’s throne.”
She snapped her fingers in Aenfrith’s direction. “You. The blond. Could your incompetent hirelings not have brought one bigger than the striplings? It’s a pity to dilute the fiery one’s strength with such scrawny little weeds.”
Aenfrith saluted on pure reflex. “There were five in the coven, domina. One was too old to bear, and he struck off a second’s hand to free him from our chains. Then the eldest cut his own throat.”
“And you couldn’t recapture one stunned earth-witch pouring blood from a wound grave enough to send even a hardened warrior into shock?”
“…The mists took him, domina.”
Livia Vitella pursed her lips. “Cassius, your sea-brigands make terrible liars.”
“Gods grant it were a lie,” Laenas sighed. “I count us fortunate that the mists took only the one of them, my sparrow. We might well have had none caught for us.”
“I suppose we must make do with what we have, then. Does anyone know if the witchblood breeds true enough for the kingship’s testing, if a human gets one of these things with child?”
Aenfrith drew a breath through his teeth, and bit down hard on his first reaction. “So far, domina,” he said carefully, “there has been only the case of the mad king’s heir, and that but a rumor.”
“A persistent rumor,” she mused. “And wide-spread. If we can get a witch-blooded whelp in something approaching a reasonable span of time, we can call it the heir’s babe, and it ought to respond to whatever blood-born mumblings and scryings they see fit to apply to the land-rule here.”
Livia Vitella looked at the barbarian huddled on the floor under the weight of angry mercenaries who had been shamed in front of their employer’s woman, and sighed. “Still, it’s such a pity to dilute that one’s blood.”
“You’re the equestrian among us, my sparrow,” Laenas said wryly. “I don’t care who beds whom, so long as we get this unruly beast of a country to submit.”
“Have the big one get the striplings with young,” she told him, tapping a fingernail against the bronze of her armlet. “I doubt they’ve the strength to carry such hot blood, but we ought at least hedge our bets. Then, if the big one won’t kill for us, see whether it can be made to carry some fair-haired man’s seed. That should breed us a good strong babe who’d grow up fair enough to pass at need, though I expect we can’t count too heavily upon a halfbreed inheriting enough of the witchery their kingship hinges upon. –Perhaps the bigger blond? His hair is lighter than this one’s. But then, at least this one speaks intelligibly. Ah, I don’t care which; just have it done, Cassius.” Decision made, she turned on her heel and left.
“Horse-breeders,” Laenas said, chuckling. “Still, it’s a clever idea, breeding our own heir to their earth-magic.”
Aenfrith kept his eyes fixed forward, looking at nothing.
“Don’t let her ways bother you, Flavius,” Laenas told him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “The sooner this mad place has been tamed and settled properly, the sooner we can get back to the continent. It’s been hard on us all, I’m sure.”
“I’d kill for a proper bath,” Laenas added with a sigh. “Hot springs to soak in, a couple of boys who’ve been trained to work the saddle-knots out of a man’s spine… gods, I miss civilization.”
As do I, Aenfrith thought. I miss men who look each other in the face when they fight, rather than stabbing each other in the back. I miss men who look at me and see an equal. I miss my own name. My father did not name me ‘the blond one,’ not in any of the languages we speak. I am Aenfrith ec Saelwine, not Marcus Ambrosius Flavius, ‘the blond one’…
Aenfrith closed his eyes for a moment, and gathered himself. “Yes, dominus.”
“You speak enough of their tongue to get the idea across to them, don’t you?” Laenas asked. “There’s no need for this to be any more unpleasant than it must.”
…Any more unpleasant than a proud man and a pair of half-grown children being forced to bear babes who will first be raised to despise them by their land’s arrogant conquerors, and then used to usurp their land-rule? How could it be any more unpleasant than that?
“Flavius? You’re — why, you’re truly upset by this, aren’t you.”
“Speak to me,” Laenas said, brows creased with what looked for all the gods’ mercy like honestly meant concern. “You know I don’t think of you as just a foreigner anymore.”
…’Anymore.’ Because I learned to mimic their tongue too well to be thought ‘just’ a foreigner now. Damn it all —
“Dominus, they are human as well,” Aenfrith said, tight-voiced. “From what I’ve learned from the other captives, they were noble in their own realm, before their king made them into mage-weapons. And two of them are no more than children. It’s one thing to have them earn back their freedom in combat, but to — to breed them like animals–”
“Like slaves,” Laenas corrected quietly. “Our slaves are bred for their quality just like the rest of our stock. And the boys were judged old enough to fight; if they were daughters of patricians, they’d be betrothed by now, if not wed.”
Aenfrith’s expression must have given away more than he thought. Laenas looked away, and dug a hand through his graying hair.
“I know you don’t think much of the Imperium’s practices, Flavius. But they are slaves; even your clan recognizes slaves taken by right of victory in battle, whether or not you breed them after. And it was their own barking lunatic of an insular chieftain who made them into weapons. When I take up a weapon that has already been forged, I expect I will need to use it in the shape it was given to me.”
Laenas sighed. “You’re too gentle for the wars of nations, Flavius. Your skill was made for honor-duels, for pleasure-duels in the arena — man to man, eye to eye, cleanly finished at the end, with a hand-clasp after. You were never made for our politicking and scheming, were you.”
“No,” Aenfrith said, with a sound that might have been a laugh under better circumstances. “No, I was not, dominus.”
“I confess I didn’t intend to give them over to Navinius Durus,” Laenas said, frowning. “The warrior might survive him but the other two are too delicate for his handling. Still, he’s the only other among you pale enough to please Livia with the offspring’s coloring.”
Aenfrith felt his blood run cold. “No,” he breathed. “Frija’s mercy, dominus. Don’t give them to Nafni. –Navinius. –Please.”
Laenas tilted his head a bit to one side. “You wouldn’t find it more merciful to provide them with …an escape, of sorts?”
“If you would offer mercy, either put them with the rest of my war-captives and give them the same chance to earn their freedom in battle, or let me cut their throats now. Don’t give them to Nafni.”
Laenas sighed again, and patted Aenfrith’s shoulder. “I’m not at liberty to show them mercy in either of those forms,” he said ruefully. “Livia would howl of treachery all the way back to the praetorium. But I care far more for your well-being than for any number of captured enemies, my half-wild philosopher-barbarian. If it grieves you to see this done, I can find them another overseer.”
Aenfrith shook his head sharply. “Better me than Nafni, dominus. Better all around, if you want any of them to live through this. He hates their kith, for his fallen brothers’ sake.”
“Flavius… I know it is not in you to take a woman by force. Or a child, come to that.” Laenas was watching him carefully now. “But my Livia is not a patient woman. I would rather give them to Navinius than to have you break your spirit over this. They’re only slaves; they’re not worth such a price.”
Nafni would torture them and laugh, Aenfrith thought, in quiet despair. Nafni would leap at the chance to vent his rage on the kin of those who slew his brothers in battle. And Laenas would give them to him, and smile at me, and lie with an untroubled heart if he thinks it will keep his ‘half-tamed savage’ obedient at his side. He lies through his smiles to Livia Vitella, and he wed the bitch.
It’s no wonder his cognomen was first given to dogs.
“I will see to it, dominus,” Aenfrith said.
“You’re certain you wouldn’t prefer I find another?”
So now to salve his insecurities, I must convince him that I could bugger children with a smile at his wife’s command. Filthy, spineless Imperial cur–
Still. Better me than Nafni. I don’t hate them just for living.
“I take my duties seriously, dominus.”
“Sometimes too much so, I think,” Laenas sighed. “Still, you’ve lightened my heart. I wouldn’t wish to see those boys in Navinius’ hands either. Thank you, Flavius. I’ll give you as much time as I can, but — well, you know Livia.”
Aenfrith saluted, so that he didn’t have to force words through a breath that wanted most of all to become a snarl. Because the implication was clear enough: delay too long, or allow them to delay too long, and they would be given to Nafni, to accomplish what Aenfrith had failed to do promptly enough to suit the Imperial cur’s bitch-wife.
Gods above and below, he missed civilization.
Gwion couldn’t curse as fluently as their harper had, or as viciously as Arion could, but it didn’t stop him from trying. When the Imperials dragged back Arion into the glass-glazed cell, leaving a trail of blood behind him, Gwion spat at them.
“I curse you with the fifty-third curse of the witch Modron, that your joints swell like tree-knots and your pores drip black pus until you rot in agony and die. I curse you with the fifty-fourth–”
One of them backhanded him casually into the wall as the others fastened Arion’s chains to the walls, and they left laughing and chattering in their own tongue.
Arion had been gagged, because he’d killed a score of them with Modron’s curses before they’d learned to silence him and keep him from touching so much as a pebble of their land. Arion was the only one they took seriously, because he was the only one who’d scored deaths against the Imperials; neither Gwion nor his brother had ever been trained for combat, because they were too spindly even to stand up under the weight of full armor.
Gwion’s blood-binding had given him the mists, stealth and secrecy and misdirection, not the bright fierce skyfire and storm-tides Arion held. Modron’s curses from Gwion’s tongue held nothing but impotent venom. But venom he had aplenty; and he remembered the harper teaching them all of Modron’s ninety-nine curses by firelight, grinning with a certain grim amusement at how creative the woman had been in inflicting misery on those who had wronged her.
Instead of songs, the harper had spun curses into the dark, a superstitious talisman of sorts, to cast mythical punishments against the war itself. But the harper’s gift of power had been heart-sight, heart-song, not any sort of warding or cloaking. The Imperials had found them a week later.
None of them had known what Arion’s power would do with a witch’s spells until he cursed the Imperials who caught them in the same bitter futility that had the harper curse the night. Arion had been as stunned as the rest of them when the soldier who’d bound him screamed, clawed at his eyes, and fell over choking on his own bile.
Gwion wished the witch Modron had made her curses shorter, because Arion hadn’t been trained to speak as quickly and clearly as their harper had been. He wished that her curses held power on any tongue that spoke them in need.
He wished that the Imperials would have stayed on their own side of the ocean, and left his homeland alone.
Gilfaethwy made a small choking sound in the corner; Gwion would have thought he’d have wrung himself out of tears by now, but Gilfaethwy always had been the gentlest of them, and he grieved for Arion’s hurts as much as for their own. Gwion stretched out his foot as far as he could, nudged his twin’s hip.
“Don’t give them the satisfaction,” he muttered.
Gilfaethwy gulped hard, shivering, but didn’t reply; Gwion could see the tears streaking his face by the dizzying reflected glitter of the oil lamps outside their cell. Their parents had often wondered how two boys who looked so much alike could be so different inside.
…Well. Not that they were boys anymore, either of them. Gwion used to tease his twin about being the one who got all the woman-blood from their mother while she carried them. The joke wasn’t funny, lately.
Gilfaethwy had wanted to be a historian, of all the impractical, unmanly roles the world held to offer a son of the old blood. The gift that woke in him after his blood-binding to the land was small and gentle and utterly useless for warfare. But he had been a fifth living body to complete the crossed circle for the old rituals; and he wouldn’t leave Gwion’s side even when Gwion was sent to fight a mage’s war. …Not that the king would have let him turn aside from the battle, no matter how unsuited he was.
At least they’d both been taken alive, Gwion told himself. At least they still had each other. At least they’d both lived this long. Instead of himself, the old man could have killed either of them in order to break their circle before the Imperium could take them into custody. Gwion tried to bless him for letting them live, when he didn’t envy the old man his escape into the Goddess’ Havens.
The only way they could tell time in their mage-warded, Imperial glass-tiled cell was by when they were fed and when the lamps were refilled. If it weren’t for the pull of ‘down,’ they couldn’t even have told one wall from another with much certainty. The lamp-flicker through the cell’s window reflected hundreds of times over in the tiles; Gwion had given up counting, but there was nothing else to do either.
He prodded Gilfaethwy again. “Hey. Tell that old saga about the witch Modron and the drunk goatherders.”
“‘Cause it rhymes. The dumbasses might take it for spellworking.”
“I don’t want to make them angrier,” Gilfaethwy murmured.
“I do,” Gwion muttered. “But I don’t remember all her curses. …I bet you do, don’t you.”
Gilfaethwy looked away, and scooted further along the wall so that Gwion couldn’t reach anymore.
Frustrated and angry, without a better, Imperial target in sight, Gwion said, “Coward.”
“I am not! There’s no use in it, we’ll just be–”
Gwion made clucking sounds, flapping his elbows against his sides.
Arion rapped his iron manacles sharply against the wall, hard enough to crack a tile; the sound startled them both into silence. Even gagged and blindfolded, the reprimand was clear enough, as was the glare that would have gone with it: fight the Imperials, not each other.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Gilfaethwy murmured.
Arion sighed and bent his head a little, as close as he could come to reassurance with his hands bound behind him and his collar chained to his wrists.
The lamplight-flickers were brightening a little; one of the Imperials was bringing a light along the passage. Gilfaethwy edged closer to Gwion, his eyes too wide in the half-light. His brother was all but terrified of the broad-shouldered giant, the pale one with the fingerbones braided into his beard and the cold flat stare.
But the man who let himself into their cell wasn’t the ice-pale giant Gilfaethwy feared; it was the other blond one. The one who shaved his face like an Imperial but braided the sides of his long yellow hair like a sea-raider, who wore the Huntlord’s two ravens at the ends of a braided golden torc about his throat — and a breastplate carved with the Imperium’s eagles.
This one, the fake-Imperial, scared — no, he wasn’t scared; he’d never let the Imperials scare him — he was just worried. This one worried Gwion more than the ice-giant. You knew what the ice-giant wanted when he glared at you with the eyes of a vicious, half-starved dog.
This one, though — the fake-Imperial one was smart. Smart enough to have judged the difference in their temperaments accurately. Smart enough to track which of them was chained in which position, and to tell them apart — the others paid no attention to which twin was chained to which wall, but this one studied them until he was sure of his assessment. And then he used that knowledge against them, unerringly.
The fake-Imperial always fed Gwion and Gilfaethwy first. Then he unchained Gilfaethwy and handed him Arion’s meal, stepped out into the passage, and closed the heavily warded door behind himself. Gilfaethwy would take Arion’s blindfold and gag off, and would linger as long as he dared over feeding him. But in a precisely fixed amount of time, the man would rap on the door as a reminder.
Arion would let Gilfaethwy blindfold and gag him without a struggle, because he wouldn’t hurt a child of his own kind. Gilfaethwy would bind him so that the Imperials wouldn’t have the excuse to hurt them again.
But when one of the other guards left a meal to Gwion, he wouldn’t re-bind Arion. Someone would need to call the Imperium’s book-mages down to hex them into blind, frozen, pain-wracked huddles. Only then would any of the soldiers dare to step into the cell to re-bind the savage who’d killed their troops with nothing but his voice and the earth beneath his bare feet.
Gilfaethwy said that he’d accomplished nothing but gathering more pain, more abuse. Gwion didn’t care. Because he had to hope that eventually one of the book-mages would stutter a spell, or one of the soldiers would wear muddied sandals into their prison.
Arion could fight back if he had his voice and the earth. Gwion couldn’t give him the earth, but he refused to take his voice for them. The Imperials would have to win that back by force, every single time they set Gwion loose to feed Arion a meal.
Over the days they’d been captive, the fake-Imperial was the only one who’d never made that mistake. He was the only one who’d noticed the difference between the twins — the only one who’d paid enough attention to notice.
Stupidity and carelessness could be worked around, given time, and Gwion had nothing but time in the Imperium’s prison. But intelligence and perception made a bad combination. A smart, attentive guard was more dangerous than a dull, lax one.
The big fire-blond man didn’t try to touch either of them; he only watched. But he spoke to Gilfaethwy this time, in a low voice. He’d never spoken to them before.
“I have a… stop,” he said, holding out bandages and a pot of salve. His accent in their tongue was better than his grammar, oddly enough. “The tall man was blooding. How do I say a stop for blooding?”
Gilfaethwy blinked. “Bleeding?”
“‘Bleeding’ says stop?”
“Er. I’m sorry. Bleeding says it’s still, uh, bleeding. ‘Blooding’ isn’t …right.”
The big man nodded, watching him steadily. “How do I say a stop for bleeding?”
“Bandages?” Gilfaethwy offered hesitantly, and pointed at the things in his hands. “Those are bandages. That’s medicine. Salve.”
He nodded again, then asked, “Can I have his name? His eyes are stop; a touch could fear him.”
“Frighten,” Gilfaethwy prompted. “A touch could frighten him. Could scare him. His name is Arion.”
“Don’t!” Gwion hissed. “Don’t give them our names!”
The blond man snorted in amusement. “Imperiums are not know what true names have. They give names, not ask. Like for dogs. But the tall one is not peace like dogs. If I ask before, maybe Arion don’t break me when I touch. …Maybe,” he added, with a rueful sigh. Gilfaethwy giggled, then put a hand over his mouth with a guilty glance at his brother.
“What’s your name?” Gwion challenged, and the blond glanced sideways at him with the quirk of a grin.
“Imperiums say Marcus Ambrosius Flavius.”
“Your true name,” Gwion growled.
“I give for yours.”
“Do you think we’re stupid?”
“I think you are know what true names have,” he said. “Asides. You have three of mine names already. And Arion was not need any names to kill.”
“Did not,” Gilfaethwy corrected him. “Didn’t. Arion didn’t need any names to kill them.”
“Stop it,” Gwion growled, glaring at them both.
For once, his brother glared right back at him. “My name is Gilfaethwy,” he said to the blond.
If he hadn’t been too busy being furious, Gwion might have laughed at the expression on the man’s face.
“Glíw… Glíwfæht… um.”
Gilfaethwy clamped both hands over his mouth, but the giggles were escaping anyway.
The blond took a breath and valiantly tried again. “Glíwfæhtwie?”
“Gil-vaith-wee,” he repeated. “Thank you. Flavius is how Imperiums name me. Flavius says ‘yellow hair.’ But my name is Aenfrith.”
“Anffryth?” Gilfaethwy repeated, incredulous. “Anffryth Llawys? That sounds like a girl! You should at least be Emrys or something. Emrys Llaw, not Anffryth Llawys.”
“Yours name sounds like a bed-slave,” the blond said, with a wolf’s grin. “You should-at-least be Ceolfrih, or Gildwin.”
While Gilfaethwy spluttered over that, blushing hot enough to rival the lamp-flames, the blond moved to kneel by Arion, at a distance that very carefully respected the length of his chains.
“Arion, I have bandages. And salve. Please you are not fear — I mean, not frighten. Yes?”
Arion lunged toward the sound of his voice, sliding across the floor and lashing out with the chains on his ankles, since his hands were bound behind him. Silently, Gwion cheered him on.
But the blond had judged the length of the chains accurately, and he backed off a few extra steps just in case. “Not frighten, then,” he said, droll-voiced. “Very not frighten.”
“Never,” Gwion said, fiercely proud. “We’ll never be scared of you Imperial bastards.”
“Let me try,” Gilfaethwy said.
“Don’t! Don’t help them—”
“Goddess’ tits, Gwion, it’s just bandages!” He held out his bound hands toward the blond, and said, “You have my word I’ll not take advantage.”
Gwion groaned aloud. “Don’t promise them anything! Faethan, you idiot– and you gave him my name too, ah gods–“
“I’m not the idiot here,” Gilfaethwy told him, trembling a little, but his chin was stubbornly high. “I’m the one he’s taking chains off.” He rubbed his thumbs into the hollows of his palms, trying to work out some of the cramps, and walked over to crouch beside Arion.
“The way I see it, sir,” he said, “there’s resistance, and then there’s stupidity. Fighting when you can win something back is resistance. But fighting someone who’s trying to offer you healing — to me, that’s stupidity. And I pray to the Goddess my idiot brother never learns this the harder way. Will you let us give you the advantage of binding your injuries before your next battle, sir?” He touched Arion’s arm lightly, giving him the chance to pull away.
After a long, shivering moment, their land’s proudest warrior-mage bent his head, and he let Gwion’s stupid coward of a twin wrap his wounds in the almost-Imperial’s filthy bribes. Gwion turned away, heart-sick.
“Why haven’t you had them mate yet?” Livia Vitella asked him, three days later.
“A nervous, skittish mare off her season is far less fertile than a contented one in season, domina,” Aenfrith told her, as blandly as he could. “And we haven’t observed the length of their cycles yet. Once they’ve bled, we’ll know how to calculate when they are most fertile. It would be unproductive to have Aurianus — the warrior — spend his seed when the children are not receptive.”
She sighed, but acknowledged his point with a wave of her hand. “Well thought. Once you know the timing, though, have them be prompt about it. We can’t have our claimant too many months younger than the heir’s babe.”
Gwion, Gilfaethwy thought, was being just stupid about everything. He tried to fight anyone who approached him, even if they had food. And once the Imperials had noticed that Aenfrith could get one of the twins to cooperate every time he worked with them, then suddenly Aenfrith had been the only one who was given their keys and their food. Gwion had been utterly furious when he noticed the change; he spat insults combined with accusations of treachery at them both.
It hurt. Gwion was his twin, his other half. But Gwion couldn’t seem to understand that there was just no point in fighting when they were chained in a heavily guarded, magic-warded, glass-sheathed prison, out of reach of any hint of their land’s power.
He could feel the absence of the land, like a hollow in his bones, like a sickness in his guts. It was like being slowly suffocated, or slowly poisoned — he felt sick, all the time, and it was getting worse instead of better. He could see that the others felt it too; Gwion was always more snappish when he felt ill, and Arion hadn’t tried to lash out at their captors for days, instead lying in a small shivering huddle, trying to conserve what warmth he had.
Aenfrith had asked what ailed them. Gwion spat vitriol about how an Imperial’s lapdog could never understand. Gilfaethwy had told him how they felt the land’s power rise and fall like breath, like a living heartbeat; how being taken from it was almost like having light taken away, or blood. Aenfrith nodded, brow wrinkled with concern, and brought blankets for Arion.
Gilfaethwy liked Aenfrith. If Gwion fought too much, the Imperials might send one of the crueler guards instead. Aenfrith had never hit any of them, and he even wanted to learn their language. He wanted to talk to them. And he taught Gilfaethwy the Imperials’ tongue, as an exchange of gifts.
For all his wry complaints about the quirks of their language — “what idiot looked at flowers and thinked man-type?” — he was both a quick student and an indulgent teacher. Gilfaethwy found it oddly amusing that Aenfrith’s opinion of the Imperials’ language was even less than of theirs: “dull-blade, finger-counted, wants-to-fuck-maths language. No blood-ness and heart-ness in it at all. Imperium sagas sounds like women’s buy-at-market list!”
Gwion scorned Gilfaethwy’s study of the Imperials’ tongue as further proof that he’d sold his soul to the outland bastards. But Gilfaethwy thought that there was no possible way learning your enemies’ tongue could be a disadvantage.
If he knew what they were saying, he could anticipate things. Better to know what was being said than to have no indication at all what the enemies all around them were thinking. Better not to be rendered helpless, voiceless, whenever Aenfrith was not guarding them.
Aenfrith was quick-witted, and oddly droll. He had a riddle-maker’s ear for words, but he complained about the unpredictability of words that twisted their shapes depending on what the words around them were.
Gilfaethwy mused wistfully that he wanted a roof-slate and a piece of chalk, so that he could teach Aenfrith the patterns to the rules behind the mutations. But he hadn’t even remotely thought such a thing would be permitted, because none of them were allowed to touch their land’s stone.
Two days later, Aenfrith brought him a chipped Imperial tile, its slightly concave reverse side filled with wax, and a stick with one end whittled flat. He showed him how to use the flat end of the stick to make marks in the wax; then he smoothed the wax by bracing the tile over a lamp-flame until it melted, and set it aside to re-harden. Gilfaethwy was as startled as he was delighted.
“Thank you. I didn’t think they’d let me have anything of the sort — I mean, if I broke it, it’d be sharp, and… well. Thank you.”
“I must take it when I leave,” Aenfrith said, and he sounded a little embarrassed by that. “But meantime it makes easier for both to learn.”
“‘In the’ meantime, it makes ‘it’ easier for both ‘of us’ to learn,” Gilfaethwy suggested, smiling. “Or ‘meanwhile.’ All right, let’s teach you to count.” Rubbing his hands together, he added slyly, “Everything mutates when you start counting things with different genders!”
Aenfrith’s groan of dismay was only partially exaggerated; Gilfaethwy laughed, and started drawing in the wax. “Both the numbers and the objects will mutate, and in different ways depending on what the first sound of the object is. Let’s see here. Beer, apples, and sheep — beer is always masculine, and it’s a quantity, like water or fire. Apples and sheep are distinct, separate, and they’re always feminine…”
“Really,” Aenfrith said, grinning. “So what had done with idiot first man who checked woman-ness of a man-sheep’s ass? Checked under a tail, finded a hole, his prick fitted inside, aha! ‘All sheeps are women-like! Quid erat demonstrandum!'”
Gilfaethwy choked at that, feeling his cheeks burn. “No! No, that’s — that’s not — uh. Rams — man-sheep — are masculine. And you want to ask ‘what happened,’ not ‘what had done.’ Anyway! Ten mugs of beer, ten sheep, ten apples…”
“It’s been a month, and not one of them has bled,” Livia Vitella said. “Instead they all sicken with some strange plague. Flavius, give me one good reason I should not give them to Navinius to have them bred by force before they die on us.”
“It’s the separation from their land, domina,” Aenfrith said. “A starving woman will not bleed when she lacks the strength to support her own life, let alone a child’s. A flower will not bloom when it is grown in a dank cave; it will only wither and fade. The gentle one tells me they feel the lack of the earth like a sickness.”
“How convenient,” she said drolly. “We should give them back to the sun and the earth and, just coincidentally, the power to kill us all, then?”
“Only the warrior has that strength,” Aenfrith said. “Their earth-magic is not like the Imperium’s studied spellcrafting. The warrior is the only one who could kill with his power. The stubborn one mastered secrecy, stealth, the mists — but he cannot fight with that, however desperately he wishes he could. And the gentle one only speaks with the hearts of living things. There is no threat in him at all.”
“You’re certain of that?”
“Yes, domina. And even if I were not — based upon the evidence thus far, if we leave them severed from their land, you will never have an earth-mage’s child to train because they will die before they will bear.”
“They’re not plants, to need the earth and sun to live!”
“Among my people,” he said, “we would not take an expensive, high-strung young mare, breed her to a hot-tempered stallion, and then chain her in a cave with stale air and dead grass for the entire year that she carried her very first foal. It would be sickly and weak, if she even carried it to term.”
“A badly trained mare doesn’t kill a man by hexing him til his gut bursts open, seething with poison-vipers,” Livia Vitella said.
“But her kick can kill that man just as dead, if he is incautious with her. The difference is in the training, domina, not in the danger. And I have gentled one of them to my hand already; he takes to civilization eagerly, learns your tongue like a scholar thirsty for wisdom. I will vouch for my gentled boy’s behavior, and I believe that given time and liberty I can make some progress with the other two as well.”
“You’re certain of that?” she asked, lips pursed. “Certain enough to stake your own life on it?”
“I shall hold you to that, you know.” She studied his bent head for a long minute, and Aenfrith wondered how much he was going to regret asking kindness of a shrew like her. “If you’ve truly mastered him, I will let you keep him. If he breaks your restraint, I’ll have his hide flayed from his back and your balls on a pike. –Come on. Let’s test this theory of yours.”
“Ah… now, domina?”
“Have you tamed the boy or not?”
“One, yes, but the other two–”
“Then show me your mastery of the one, barbarian.”
Gilfaethwy wasn’t surprised when Aenfrith returned; Aenfrith often came to visit them between their meals, because he was concerned by their slowly worsening illness. But the woman who swept into the chamber after him, flanked by a pair of Imperial guards, was a different matter entirely. She wasn’t even as tall as Aenfrith’s shoulder, but somehow she managed to look down on them all.
“Translate for me,” she ordered him. “Tell them I am Livia Vitella, the wife of the man who will rule this country, and that I have a gift for them.”
Aenfrith did, and added without even a breath’s hesitation, “The she-dog bites, and her mouth is filthy with death-rot. Don’t angry her.”
“Tell them I have heard good things of the docile one, but I understand that the other two need further persuasion of the benefits of civilized rule. I understand that it can be difficult for proud men to endure a slave’s life, or a woman’s. So in my generosity, I have decided to let them choose their paths.”
Aenfrith’s translation added, “Be the most careful. Her choices are not easy.”
“I offer them a kinder choice than their mad king did; he gave them no choice at all. If they will use their magic to fight at my bidding, I’ll have them housed in proper quarters, bathed, fed, protected. They can live and fight as the proud men they were, if they fight for me. Or they can remain here and begin a family, if they prefer a gentler life to the battlefield that was thrust upon them.”
Aenfrith translated that for them as well, adding, “She means to get mage-children upon you, not by you.”
“Domina,” Gilfaethwy said carefully in the Imperials’ tongue, “why give this choice now?”
The woman made an eerie imitation of a maternal smile. “Because your own king never gave you the choice, and we of the Imperium are more civilized than that. I am a woman; I know what it is to have one’s hand forced against one’s will.”
She took two steps closer and bent over him, running her fingers through his hair; he did his best not to jerk away, but her touch made his skin crawl.
“You are the blond’s gentle scholar, yes? From what he says of you, I cannot think you loved the filth and squalor of the battlefield.”
“I hated it, domina,” Gilfaethwy said, shivering. “But my brother was sent also, so I could not run.”
“An admirable sentiment,” she replied, sweetly. “But now I give you the choice, little one. When the choice is your own, what will you choose? Peace, or war?”
“I choose peace,” he whispered, ignoring Gwion’s disgusted curse. “Please. Do not send me war again. I choose family, if you allow. Please do not send us blood.”
“I grant your choice,” she said, with a benevolent smile. “And I will grant your brother and your comrade their choices as well. Simply swear to obey me, child, and you will live in peace and shelter.”
“Domina,” Gilfaethwy said, miserable.
“Are my terms not generous enough for a captured slave?”
“Domina, I do not know you. But if you allow, I swear to Anffryth — to Flavius –”
“Gilfaethwy!” Gwion cried, and one of her guards clamped a big hand over his mouth, holding his jaw shut as though he were no more than a squirming puppy.
The woman threw her head back and laughed. “You’ve tamed this one better than I anticipated, sea-raider!” she exclaimed. “Fine. Swear to obey your valiant guardian, and I will witness it, as the hand of the Imperial law in this land. Be aware of the consequences, though, if you choose to break a vow given under Imperial witness.”
“I didn’t mean for this,” Aenfrith said, under cover of translating her terms for them.
“It’s all right,” Gilfaethwy said, trying to smile. “I trust you more than the Imperials.” He knelt and took Aenfrith’s hand between his own, then looked up at the woman. “I swear I obey Marcus Ambrosius Flavius as my master, my king. Peace is his to give me, from domina’s kindness.”
“What a dutiful child,” Livia said, stroking his hair. “Tertius, give its chain to the blond. We’ll have them fitted with magebonds later.”
As the guard unlocked his chain from the wall, Gilfaethwy looked at his brother and at the tall warrior who had turned his face away. “Please. Just swear,” Gilfaethwy said urgently, in their own language. “Anffryth wouldn’t hurt us. I know he wouldn’t. Just swear and we’ll be safe, together–”
“What is it saying?” Livia asked.
“Trying to convince his stubborn brother and the warrior to choose peace, domina.”
She cupped a hand under Gilfaethwy’s chin, and pulled his face around to meet her eyes. “I understand your wish for peace,” she said. “But that wish is yours. In fairness, we must both allow them to make their choices as freely as you could — understand? Some men choose war, and that is their choice, however stupid it seems to those of us who hate such wasteful unpleasantness.”
He felt very lucky not to know their language well enough to say what he was thinking, which was that at least those who fought in war knew what weapons their opponents were using, and how to counter them. Instead, he said only, “Yes, domina. But he is my brother; I cannot not-fear for him.”
“So very devoted,” she praised him, as though he were a dog that had a new trick. “Come along, gentle one. Let us give them some time to consider their choice, and meanwhile your master will give you your first taste of peace.”
For all his assurances to Gwion and Arion of Aenfrith’s honor, Gilfaethwy hadn’t quite believed the Imperials themselves would truly let him walk out the door until Livia’s tall guard opened it for them, and left it open. She went first, of course; but it took Aenfrith’s hand in the small of his back to encourage him to follow, because his mind was full of fears of the bone-braided sea-raider’s great sharp sword waiting just beyond the doorway.
Then Aenfrith pushed him again, gentle but firm, and he stepped through the cell’s door — and all the land’s power burst in on him at once. He hadn’t fully known that he was suffocating until he was given air, hadn’t known he was blind in the darkness until he was given light. And the noise of their lives, their hearts, was overwhelming. He clamped both hands over his ears to try to dull the racket, too disoriented to hold himself up, and Aenfrith bit off a curse and picked him up before he could fall and choke on the neck-chain.
Aenfrith’s heart burned like a wildfire trapped behind stone; Aenfrith’s fire was all Gilfaethwy could hear from within the circle of his arms. With Aenfrith to anchor him, he could hold on, could find shelter from the wild chaos of the whole unshielded land; but Gilfaethwy had never seen the warrior in him before, and the fierceness of his heart’s burning was a little frightening.
“After a month of silence, he hears the hearts of every living thing in the encampment, domina,” Aenfrith told her, in response to words Gilfaethwy hadn’t even heard her speak. “He will need time to relearn how to listen without being deafened by the babble. …Yes, domina.”
Then Aenfrith was carrying him away from the woman with a heart like sharp black vinegar, away toward the sun and the sky and air, ah Goddess, air that was fresh enough to dance, and Gilfaethwy clung to his sea-raider’s broad shoulders and thought that anything the vinegar-woman asked would be worth it if only he could hear his land’s heart like this.
The blond sea-raider might have thought that he taught only the flaxflower-twin the invaders’ tongue, and the thistle-twin might well have forgotten the lessons through sheer stubborn wilfulness. But the Imperials had stopped Arion’s tongue, not his ears — and not his wits. He’d learned what the flaxflower-twin had learned, even though the lessons were given to another.
Arion knew that to a war-slave, any weapon was a good weapon. And a weapon was even better when your enemies handed it to you unwitting.
He hadn’t understood all the bitch’s long-worded deceptions — but he’d understood enough to know that the sea-raider had translated her words as well as he was able, and honestly. Arion had never thought that a man who sold his sword could be trusted in anything else, and he still held to that precept. But he was willing to grant that the sea-raider might be the least un-trustworthy among their captors.
After the big fire-blond man had carried the flaxflower-twin away like a fainting virgin on her wedding-night, the Imperial bitch looked back into their cell and smirked.
“Free its mouth,” she told one of the guards, who visibly blanched.
“Don’t be any stupider than you can help, Octus. If it could touch power through the cell’s wards, the first man to feed him would have died that day. I keep it muzzled in here to crush its pride, not to block its power. Free its mouth.”
The guard’s hands shook as he unfastened the gag and took it away; he stepped back fast enough for Arion to think perhaps his lessons in not trusting a caged wolf were getting through to the guards after all.
The woman looked at him for a long moment, and then grinned, sharp and full of teeth. “You’re not stupid, for all you’re wild as a rabid fox,” she said. “You know the choice already, whether or not you understand a word I’m saying. Peace as our slave–” she clasped her hands together — “or fighting to your death on our battlefield.” She punched a fist into a flat palm.
Arion stared back at her, not giving an inch.
“Which?” she asked, enunciating carefully, and illustrating again with her hands to make it absolutely clear. “Peace? Or war?”
It had been so long since he’d spoken aloud that his voice cracked like a boy’s on the first sound. He coughed, swallowed, and tried again.
In her own language, he rasped, “I never serve you. Rot and die, bitch.”
Her eyes narrowed sharply, and then she laughed. “Well. I suppose that answers the question of whether we could trust it not to open its mouth outside the cell.”
“Domina,” Octus said, “it would be safer to have him killed.”
“But what a waste of breeding stock,” she said. “Tertius, cut its tongue out. It needs a tongue to curse — but not to be put to stud service.”
Octus shoved him flat against the tile, and Tertius pried his jaw open with the flat of his dagger, then shoved a metal bar into his mouth.
“Goddess,” Arion choked out, so that his last word would not be the filthy Imperial speech, and then the blade cut through.
For the first time, Gwion understood what his brother had insisted from the beginning. He couldn’t understand a word the Imperial woman had spoken; but Arion had given her defiance, and she’d had him crippled for life, without hesitation. And neither of them could stop her. Neither of them could even slow her down. The cell reeked of blood and burnt flesh, from when they’d forced a hot iron into his mouth to stop the bleeding. Arion lay huddled on the floor, ash-pale, shaking with shock.
Gwion could resist, show his pride, and be broken for it. Or he could break his pride himself. There was no third option, no valiant fight that won his freedom, or mercy, or compassion. The Imperials would have him broken either way. The only question was whether he chose to do it himself, or whether he let them choose how he would break.
Arion had always been the bravest of them. He’d dared them to do their worst, confident in his own strength, confident that he could live through anything they gave him.
His blood spattered the hems of the woman’s dress, her feet, the jewels stitched into her light sandals. She walked toward Gwion with her hands empty of weapons and a smile that knew without question that she would win the fight; it was simply a question of how he would lose, now.
Gwion knew he’d never had Arion’s strength, and hated himself for it. When the woman offered him the two choices, he laced his hands together, begging for peace, feeling tears of shame burning in his eyes, burning down his face.
“Anffryth Llawys,” he said, hoping she might understand at least that much. Whatever she replied involved the word Flavius; he recognized that sound too, and nodded desperately. “Llawys.” He wove his fingers together, drew them down the sides of his face, imitating the blond’s braids, then shaped his hands into a bird over his chest, the Imperials’ eagle on Aenfrith’s breastplate. “Llawys?”
She said something indulgent and condescending, patted his head like a dog, and Gwion let her.
Somehow, Gilfaethwy had never imagined Aenfrith’s life outside the mage-warded prison. Obviously he slept elsewhere; he was a captor, not a captive. But he’d never wondered how the Imperials lived, or how the sea-raiders lived when they conquered a land rather than a sea.
Aenfrith must have been more highly placed in the Imperials’ organization than Gilfaethwy had ever imagined, because they had given him his own home within the fortress’s outer walls — or rather, they had given him a house that had once been occupied by the natives that the Imperials had either driven off or slaughtered when they took the fortress and the surrounding lands.
It no longer looked like any quiet village house Gilfaethwy was accustomed to; the sea-raiders had made it thoroughly their own. They’d taken the house’s plain, sturdy roofpoles, and covered them first with fierce war-carvings and then with bright paint. They’d hung spans of sailcloth between the roofpoles, a few feet off the floor, and there were bright-woven lengths of cloth spilling out of those as well. The firepit was familiar, but the vividly tattooed woman with a linen headscarf bound over her hair by a bright-woven strip of cloth — that wasn’t familiar at all. Neither were the sounds of the harsh, guttural language she spoke.
Aenfrith answered her with more of the same, grinning, and Gilfaethwy realized everything, much later than he had any excuse for. No wonder Aenfrith was more prized by the Imperials than a simple jailer would have been — he spoke at least four languages, possibly more that Gilfaethwy hadn’t heard yet. The Imperials had shown no interest in the speech of the land they were conquering, let alone the various languages spoken by their ragged assortment of mercenaries. But someone had to make sure that all the raiders and brigands the Imperials had lured with tales of gold and conquest marched in the right direction, stuck their swords in the right enemies. Aenfrith had to be the one who gave orders to the companies of sell-swords, because none of the Imperials themselves could.
Aenfrith set him down in one of the sailcloth-rigs, pulled a bright length of warm fabric over him, and Gilfaethwy realized that the things were meant as beds. It made a certain odd sense — your ships’ sails weren’t in use while you were raiding on land, and a bed like that could be taken down and gathered up in seconds, if they had to abandon the rest of their camp and run for their ships.
Then he realized Aenfrith hadn’t fastened his chain to anything, and blinked. And blinked again.
If he’d been Gwion, he would have rolled out of the sail-sling and dashed for the door the minute he realized his chain was loose.
But if he’d been Gwion, Aenfrith would have chained him to begin with.
Besides, Gilfaethwy thought disparagingly, it’s been a month since I’ve had room to take more than three steps, and the earth-song is so loud — it’s like the land itself is heaving under my feet. A child could retake me if I ran, let alone a trained warrior.
The tattooed woman left the fireside to come and peer at Gilfaethwy; she said something to Aenfrith, then saw the chains on his wrists and chattered agitated disapproval. Gilfaethwy pulled his hands under the blanket, ashamed. The woman made an exasperated noise, and then gave a long torrent of words to Aenfrith, who looked, if anything, sheepish. He didn’t try to intercede until she was done, and then offered only a few words, along with a scrap of paper; the woman flung her hands in the air, but she took the piece of paper he held out, then stalked out of the building.
“I’m sorry if I’ve caused you discord with your wife,” Gilfaethwy murmured.
“My wife? Eathlwine?” Aenfrith actually howled with laughter, scrubbing laugh-tears from his eyes. “Huntlord put me out of misery if I wedded Eathlwine! She’s my house-slave, not my wife. I keep her for mercy, not for bedding. Well, mercy and cooking…”
“For mercy?” Gilfaethwy asked, unable to keep the incredulity from his voice.
“Her father sticked a knife in her belly when we raided their village, three years gone,” Aenfrith said, and spat on the ground. “Bastard thinked, ‘I’ll see her dead before I give her for free.’ I taked her — Thorgest wasn’t wanting a third, and no man of us is stupid enough for letting Nafni take a hurted slave. I paid the book-mages to have her stopped bleeding — then we learned she cooks like Frija’s own handmaiden! So me, her, both are lucky. From now four years forward, she’ll earn her freedom, and I’ll gift her with gold so she’ll never need a man who she isn’t wanting. –If she finds one to like, she finds him also a bed-slave, of course. She’ll never have a child, after what her father did. But I think, she was hurted because of men, that maybe makes her not happy with any men. …Heh. After three years with her tongue, I have a bit of sorry for any poor bastard she’s wanting.”
“Oh,” Gilfaethwy said, feeling dizzy all over again. So Aenfrith’s house-slave had reasons to hate men, and yet Aenfrith trusted her cooking — had eaten it for three years with nothing but praise? She could have had her freedom sooner than seven years; she cooked his food, and there was nothing like a chain on her.
…But then, his own chain wasn’t fastened either.
Still, maybe she’d been upset because his chains reminded her unpleasantly of her slavery. Or because he was a man. Either of them might well have upset her, with a life like hers.
“Could you maybe tell her I’m sorry that I upset her?”
Aenfrith chuckled again. “You were not who upset her,” he explained. “She looks at you, she sees a child in chains. She says there is no reason stupid men put childs in chains. I sended her to ask the book-mages, ‘come take chains off.’ A mage-bond is better. It tells me if someone hurts you, if somewhere you go. To know is serious, is …important, with women-starved soldiers in camp.”
“Is Ellwyn — your lady slave — is she mage-bonded to you too?”
“Eathlwine,” Aenfrith said, still grinning. “She had no wanting to wear my mark. But some bastards tried to take her, since she had not a man’s mark. After she taked their daggers and cutted them open, the still-live ones whined like dogs. I said the wrong was in them, not in her. But Laenas the dog, who married Livia Vitella the she-dog — he wind-said to me about the mage-bond.”
Aenfrith leaned close and dropped his voice. “Just breath. Words hiding like rabbits.”
“Whisper,” Gilfaethwy told him. “Whispered.”
“Whispered,” Aenfrith agreed. “I said to Eathlwine that it tells me when men are fist-stupid to her. Eathlwine said that my ears’ll get worn to pebbles, since men are always fist-stupid. But since she taked it, only twice it said of problems. Me, I think Eathlwine scares them better than my sword.”
Gilfaethwy tried to stifle his laughter, but a few furtive giggles escaped anyway. Aenfrith grinned proudly, as though the joke weren’t at least half on him, and ruffled his hair.
“Sleep,” he said. “Your head was shaked up. Sleep and let your head get quiet.”
Gilfaethwy nodded, and wriggled around to find a more comfortable way to lie in the sail-sling. “Thank you,” he said.
Aenfrith looked away, uncomfortable. “Thank me when I can do helping.”
“You already have,” Gilfaethwy said. “Anffryth, do you think… if Gwion was stubborn enough to choose war just to spite me, do you think I could convince Livia Vitella to keep him here anyway? I know it’s his choice, I know that, but– I’m afraid anyway.”
After a long, quiet moment, Aenfrith said, “I think Livia Vitella wanted not giving you true choices. I think she knows what you want, and what he wants. But she is always, always finding ways to make men choose what she wants. Still, I’ll ask about your brother.”
By the time Gilfaethwy woke from his nap, Aenfrith had heard news about Gwion, and about Arion.
Arion was chained in the infirmary so that they could make sure he wouldn’t die of the shock and blood loss; several of the guards brought Gwion to be chained alongside his brother, and they told the story proudly, laughing that a tiny woman had utterly defeated such a fierce barbarian warrior.
Gwion was stunned, trembling like a wounded hare, and none of his brother’s most frantic pleas would earn anything more than an increasingly bitter, increasingly desperate “I’m just fine.”
It took three more days for Aenfrith to beg, bully, and irritate the healers into releasing Arion into his custody. One of them finally admitted it was under Livia’s orders that they kept him chained to the walls of the infirmary, though their own fear made them more than happy to comply with her wishes when hers dovetailed so nicely with their own. Livia had ordered that he was only to be sent from the infirmary back into a jail cell, and he was to be fully chained, not magebound.
Aenfrith managed to persuade the healers that his house was sturdily enough built to qualify, if the chain was fastened to one of the roofposts. In Gilfaethwy’s view, Aenfrith’s definition of ‘persuasion’ involved a lot of standing very close and leaning over to emphasize his height and his strength and how sharp the dagger he was cleaning his nails with was. But finally the healer consented, so long as Gilfaethwy kept all of Aenfrith’s weapons out of Arion’s reach during the transfer.
Gilfaethwy hadn’t realized exactly how many weapons Aenfrith wore, until he was the one carrying the lot of them. And Aenfrith carried Arion as though he weighed no more than Gilfaethwy had, despite his dizzy, angry struggles.
The Imperial mage who came to replace the twins’ chains with mage-bonds, a round-faced, middle-aged scholar with cheerful brown eyes and a nearsighted squint, had a definite sense of humor that seemed at odds with Gilfaethwy’s mental image of the Imperials as uniformly strict and regulated. After he’d spent a while studying both twins and scratching odd runes on a tablet — with occasional penetrating looks in Arion’s direction as well — he settled in to etch the image of flaxflowers and dandelions into both of the binding-cuffs he made for Gilfaethwy, matching the master’s cuff to the slave’s. He etched blooming thistles into Gwion’s set, much to his brother’s vexation.
In the Imperials’ tongue, the man told Aenfrith that he’d found the images he’d used in the forefront of Arion’s thoughts of them, since their countryman would know them best. Gilfaethwy decided it was better not to translate that part of the conversation for Gwion; he didn’t want to trigger one of his brother’s prank-barrages on a man who was chained in one place.
Then, with Gilfaethwy giving him their words a few at a time, the mage actually fumbled through a halting apology to Arion about the domina’s orders not to offer him a mage-bond like the others. Arion lifted his head high and stared at him; after a moment, the mage ducked and looked away, then hurried out of the house.
Gilfaethwy was furtively glad it hadn’t hurt, having the mage-bond put on. The bond was a little dizzying at first, like having the earth’s pull split so that he was pulled to Aenfrith as well as to the ground, but the disorientation faded fairly soon, like the feel of a new pair of sandals. The cuff fit loosely enough that he could even push it up to his bicep to get it out of the way. But despite how slack it felt, it wouldn’t come off over his hand — and it was a mark of how shaken Gwion was that Gilfaethwy was the one who tried it first, under cover of his blankets at night.
He felt guilty for trying, but not guilty enough not to try. Aenfrith looked at him a little too knowingly the next morning, but said nothing aloud; he just ruffled his hair, and passed him a bowl of Eathlwine’s oat-porridge.
Gilfaethwy only realized how much he had come to think of Aenfrith as amusedly, self-assuredly unflappable when he learned what did shake the tall, strong sea-raider. He couldn’t find it in himself to giggle at Aenfrith’s agitated discomfort, though, because he was too embarrassed about it himself.
Apparently their bodies had regained their sensitivity the moon’s cycles as soon as they’d been released from the shielded cell. Arion was the first of them to answer the moon’s call, two days after he was rescued from the infirmary. Aenfrith walked over to their sail-slings with their morning meals, saw blood on Arion’s thighs, and very nearly dropped the bowls he carried.
“What — who — Othinn’s eye, what did that? Did Nafni– ah, hells!” He set the bowls down carefully, because his hands were shaking. He knelt and took Gilfaethwy’s face between his hands, lifted his chin toward the firelight, and there was something fierce and cold burning in his eyes that Gilfaethwy had never seen in him before. “I’ll kill him. Rip his rotted guts out and throw them for the ravens. Filthy bastard of a poxed whore — who did that to Arion? Tell me–”
“Nothing,” Gilfaethwy said, wishing he could crawl into a hole and hide.
“Do not tell me ‘nothing!'” Aenfrith snapped. “He doesn’t bleed of ‘nothing!'”
“Leave my brother alone!” Gwion shouted, and kicked Aenfrith’s hip hard enough to unbalance him before the mage-bond forced him away. “If you want to beat on someone, beat me; I’m the one who never kissed up to your Imperial-fucked ass–”
“No one beats no one,” Aenfrith snarled. “Tell me the bastard who hurted Arion — I’ll kill the whoreson. Only a filthy no-guts coward fucks a man in chains!”
Gilfaethwy felt like his face was burning. He tried to force a sound past the strangled knot of embarrassment in his throat. “Nobody hurt him,” he managed. “It’s not like that. It’s just… um.”
“It’s his moon-tides, you great idiot,” Gwion growled.
Aenfrith looked like he’d just been hit in the back of the knees with an axe-handle.
“…Oh. That. …Right.” Embarrassed and uncomfortable, his eyes flickered around the room, anywhere but at them. “Sorry.”
Gwion laughed aloud, mocking his obvious discomfiture.
Awkwardly, Gilfaethwy patted his arm. “It’s all right. There’s no reason you’d be used to the idea of warriors doing …that. And Ellwyn can’t anymore, can she?”
“No, but still…” Aenfrith dug a hand through his hair, looking up at the ceiling as though it were the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. “I should… what? Should …get bandages? How do you do bandages on — on someone’s inside?”
Half strangled, Gilfaethwy said, “Our sister taught us how to use old towels, or… a sponge…”
“Towels or sponge,” Aenfrith said, nodding stiffly. “I should ask. …A woman. I should go for… ah hells, I should go for asking Eathlwine…”
“Let us eat first, moron,” Gwion said.
“But he’s bleeding–”
“And he’s going to keep on bleeding for the next week. We’d starve before he stops.”
“…Yes. Sorry.” Aenfrith sighed. “I’m not used to thinking men bleed from the crotch for days and not die.”
“Yeah, well, we’re not men, are we. Idiot.”
Surprisingly, Aenfrith reached over and ruffled Gwion’s hair. “You’re childs,” he said. “Childs changed to magic-weapons, yes — but still childs.”
“I am not a child!”
“You are,” Aenfrith said, watching him with a faint, rueful smile. “Only childs say ‘stupid,’ ‘idiot,’ at the man who gives their foods and drink.”
Gwion glared at the firepit hotly enough to melt the stone, if his shamed frustration could have called any such power.
Gilfaethwy murmured, “One child, two children. ‘Food’ is the same for one or for all.”
Flopping down beside them and picking up a bowl, Aenfrith said with a groan, “One water and all water, one beer and all beer, one drink and all drink, put them in the pot and all is one, yes, fine. But put all foods in the pot, and you make one big mess, not one food!”
“I know,” Gilfaethwy said, rueful. “I can’t change how you say it, though.”
Brushing a thumb lightly over the fading cuff-marks on Gilfaethwy’s wrists, he grumbled, “And flowers are not man-like.”
Gilfaethwy couldn’t keep from smiling at his petulance. “Masculine,” he supplied. “I know they’re not. It’s just how the word ‘flower’ behaves. I don’t know why.”
“Stupid scrambled-eggs head-cracked language…”
Once they’d finished their meals and Aenfrith had left to search for Eathlwine and old towels, Gilfaethwy stretched a foot out to nudge his twin’s leg.
“Thank you,” he said.
“For what?” Gwion asked, incredulous.
“You thought he was going to hurt me, and you tried to stop him.”
Gwion sneered. “I thought you were so sure he wouldn’t hurt his favorite pet slave.”
“Still. You thought he would, and you didn’t want him to. Thank you. I thought you’d…” He stopped before he finished that sentence, but his twin heard it anyway.
“You’re my brother, shithead,” Gwion muttered. “Even if you’re an Imperial ass-licking coward, you’re still my brother. …Besides,” he added, and looked away in something that looked like embarrassment. “Fair’s fair. After all your ass-licking — they haven’t let anyone hurt us for a while, have they.”
Knowing what it cost Gwion’s pride to admit that, Gilfaethwy smiled. “You’re my brother, shithead,” he mimicked. “I’d do far worse than teaching a sea-raider our speech, if it keeps the Imperials from hurting you and Arion any further.”
Eathlwine laughed at him for quite a while, and told Aenfrith not to fret his manly head, because she would take care of teaching the boys everything they needed to know about their moon-tides. But Aenfrith went to find Livia as well, since humbling himself at her feet might make her more receptive to what he really wanted to ask.
“Your pardon for my intrusion, domina,” Aenfrith said, kneeling before her. “I need a woman’s guidance.”
“A fierce barbarian warrior like you admits that?” Livia Vitella all but purred. “Whatever has precipitated such an upheaval of the ways of the world?”
“The captive Aurianus is… er. He’s begun his cycle. But in chains, he can’t… tend to himself. And I have no idea what to do about… uh… women’s matters.”
Livia Vitella told him what to do in excruciating detail, taking an obvious enjoyment in watching him squirm. He let her have her pleasure of it, knowing that she would be in a better mood after she’d mocked him to her satisfaction.
“If he were mage-bonded rather than chained…”
“Don’t even think it,” Livia said. “It’s not even remotely tame.”
“I could gain his trust more readily if I could offer him trust as–”
“I don’t want its trust,” Livia snapped. “I want its obedience, and I want its tongue and its chains to remind the other two of the price of disobedience. It doesn’t need anything but its cock intact to mount the others. It stays chained. And if it causes any trouble, I’ll have it beaten and thrown back into the shielded cell. Make sure it understands that.”
After Aenfrith had taken his anger out on a stand of straw training dummies, scoured the sweat off, and stalked back to the house, he pushed the door open hard enough that it banged against the stone, and only then thought of what he might not want to walk in to see.
Mercifully, Eathlwine had finished the most indelicate parts of her instruction. Perhaps not the most embarrassing parts, though. Arion was sprawled on his stomach, Eathlwine was kneeling between his thighs with both hands rubbing hard at the hollow of his back, and both of them looked up and glared when he came banging in.
“Learn to knock, you great gormless bear,” she told him, then patted Arion’s back and tried a few halting words of the natives’ language: “Hot good. I make.”
Arion made a small sound that from a child would have meant distress. She patted his back in quiet sympathy, then strode toward the clay pot of water she’d hung beside the fire to warm.
To Aenfrith, she said, “The poor bastard’s having a bad time of it; he’s bleeding a lot, on top of what he lost with his tongue, and he’s dizzy and sick to his stomach and grouchy as a hedgehog. We need to get calves’ liver, black pudding, and seaweed into him, to help him make more blood. Made into soup, so that he can swallow it readily enough. Honey, to keep his tongue’s stump healing without rot. And raspberry leaf and willow tea to help with the cramps. Plus more of it at hand for the other two; the thistle-brat’s cranky enough I wouldn’t doubt he’s close behind. –What are you looking at me for? You’re the one who speaks the goat-fuckers’ language; you go fetch it from them.”
She filled an old winesack with hot water, then gestured for Arion to hold it against his belly; he rolled over with a grunt, touched it lightly to his stomach, then blinked through an almost comical realization of relief and pushed it harder against his abdomen.
“Poor boy,” Eathlwine said, despite the fact that Arion was both older and a foot taller than she. “Nobody’s taught him the first thing about how to take care of himself, and it’s just damned cruel of the bitch to keep him chained on top of it all. –Why are you still standing here? I already told you what I need from the market!”
So Aenfrith left to buy the food and herbs a woman craved at her moon-tides, on the order of his own house-slave.
…His own house-slave, who’d singlehandedly gentled a barbarian warrior who’d killed dozens of Imperial soldiers and who spat at Aenfrith when he could.
And she’d gentled him without knowing more than a handful of words of his speech, when Aenfrith had spent half his life studying the words of diplomacy in half a dozen tongues, and the other half studying battle-arts to back the words with.
Aenfrith couldn’t help chuckling at the ongoing madness of his life. He suspected Laenas would not take it well if he suggested they inflict first woman-cramps and then Eathlwine on the intransigent native resistance.
Afterwards, Aenfrith decided that it had been the longest week of his life.
The boys started their moon-cycles the next day, within a few hours of each other. And so somehow, in a house where he was the master of three warrior-slaves and a barren house-woman, Aenfrith found himself living the life of a fetch-girl for the womens’ moon-hut.
His one grouchy acknowledgement of Frija’s mercy was that at least they weren’t coming to it on three different weeks; he’d have been spending three quarters of his life dancing to their needs.
Aenfrith bought shaggy bundles of dead weeds at the market, carried buckets of water, boiled soapwort into vats of old rags and sponges and clothes, learned very quickly that the clothes weren’t to be laundered with the other things, boiled them all again, hung everything to dry in the sun, heated hot-water winesacks, brewed raspberry-and-willow tea, learned exactly how much honey each of his slaves needed in order to find the stuff drinkable, even cleaned up after sickness twice — through his miserable nausea, Arion looked a little apologetic, not that he would have ever said such a thing to an Imperial agent even when he could have spoken.
Eathlwine had Arion rinse his mouth with hot willow tea, painted the seeping stump of his tongue with more honey, chased him into a bedsling, put a cool cloth on his head and a hot-sack on his belly, and scolded Aenfrith vigorously; Aenfrith suspected he’d gotten the earful simply because Arion wouldn’t understand a word of her lecturing.
She’d already begun to work out a hand-symbol language with Arion, and the boys picked it up quickly because it was the only way they could share in what their foreign-tongued hostess and their silenced kinsman wished to say; but Aenfrith was certain they hadn’t yet worked out the hand-symbols for excoriating insults to the degree of fineness Eathlwine needed for one of her full-out ear-blisterings.
One day, instead of more honey and noxious weeds, Aenfrith was sent to gather up as many things as he could — with no more direction than that: “just things. Anything.” He came back with a sackful of rocks, nails, twigs, flowers, tools, and assorted junk, which was approved with alacrity so that he could be sent back for more; after he’d gathered up his dozenth sack of anything that would fit in the sack-mouth, they let him rest. Then he learned they were working out hand-signs for the things he’d gathered, and their uses, and anything they could act out with the pieces.
Gwion wasn’t best pleased to learn that his name-sign was Thistle-twin, from the mage’s carvings on his binding-cuff. Arion and Eathlwine both insisted it suited him, and Gilfaethwy kept struggling not to laugh. Gilfaethwy was Flower-twin, from his own cuff; he was a bit embarrassed as well, but he didn’t make nearly as much of a fuss as his thistle-prickly brother did. Aenfrith was smart enough not to muse out loud about how much they were showing how well their respective nicknames suited them.
Eathlwine’s gesture involved fingertips streaked across the forehead and cheeks, like her tattoos. Arion’s took some discussion — Eathlwine wanted to call him Tall-flower, or maybe it was Tall-beauty, but Arion would have none of that, and Gwion grumbled with voice and hands both about why Arion was allowed to reject his naming but he himself wasn’t.
Arion said that ‘Chained’ was enough to identify him. To Aenfrith’s surprise, Gilfaethwy protested vehemently, insisting that ‘chained’ didn’t say who he was. He fumbled a bit through trying to hand-sign a full story to Eathlwine; Aenfrith helped translate to her that in the boys’ language, Arion’s name meant silver, and that he’d been named for a legendary warrior-prince called Llafnarion ap Mellten: Silver-blade, the son of Lightning.
No, Arion gestured sharply. Now I am chained. Nothing else.
“But not forever,” Gilfaethwy insisted.
How? his hands asked, and he was shaking. How anything else, ever? With no words I have no power, I hear the land-song but I cannot sing the lightning down–
Aenfrith lifted his gaze from Arion’s hands to his face. “Who said you have no sing?” he asked, in their speech. “They taked your tongue, your words — but your voice is still in there, yes? You still make sounds; we heared them before.”
Arion blinked, then opened his mouth to try. The sound he made was hoarse as a raven’s cry, and he shut his mouth quickly, looking away in angry shame.
“That’s after you didn’t try your voice for weeks,” Aenfrith said, and he couldn’t keep himself from grinning. “You have a need to shake cobwebs out, but you do still have sounds! Just stay trying!”
When she’d figured out the gist of the hand-signs Aenfrith was flickering through, Eathlwine smacked him across the back of his head, and told Arion with indignant hands, Ignore Stinking-bear. Let your tongue mend first, then try.
“I do not answer to ‘stinking bear’,” Aenfrith growled.
It suits you, Gwion mocked with prissy fingers, still cranky about his own hand-name.
“Gwion,” his brother protested, and added with both hands, Fire-braids? His hair is like candle-fire, barely-red-touched gold…
“I like stinking-bear,” Gwion said with hands and voice both, and Eathlwine grinned at him.
No, Arion said. Aenfrith suspected he’d never go so far as to thank an Imperial agent, but his hands offered a better nickname than ‘stinking bear’: Three-birds. Two ravens at his throat, eagle at his breast.
“I can live with that,” Aenfrith said, and bowed his head in acknowledgement of the gift. “Thank you. It’s a good name.”
Eathlwine dug her elbow into Gwion’s ribs, and sketched, That suits him too. Three birds means three times the noise and three times the shit-droppings.
Gwion laughed aloud; Aenfrith let the boy laugh, and decided to work references to thistles into as many conversations as he could.
Gilfaethwy was nearly as glad as Aenfrith when the three of them had recovered. Even aside from the embarrassment of it, Eathlwine wasn’t about to let them sit and hand-chatter to each other for a week. By the second day, she’d taught them all to card wool and flax, to spin yarn (though none of them had yet learned to do it well), and to weave both with bone-discs and at her wall-loom. For the rest of the week, she’d kept them working. She gave Arion more freedom to chat with his hands than the the twins, since he had no other voice; if the twins’ hands dawdled too long, though, she rapped heads with her longest-handled wooden spoon and chased them back to business.
After a week filled with aches, embarrassments, nasty-tasting possets, and hunched-over hours fidgeting with snarled-up wool, Gilfaethwy thought he’d never been so glad to see a half-moon rise. When Aenfrith had asked if either of them felt up to fetching and carrying, both of the twins leapt on the chance.
Since Gwion hadn’t bothered to remember more than a handful of words from the Imperials’ language, he was sent for things like water and firewood; Aenfrith sent Gilfaethwy to run messages around the camp, to and from the officers, the quartermasters, the weaponsmasters, the armorers, the stablemasters, the scouts, the guards at the gates — anywhere an Imperial could be found, sooner or later Gilfaethwy found himself heading there.
A disconcerting number of the men stared at him. After a morning of it, Gilfaethwy ducked behind a woodrack and checked the hem of his slave-chiton to see if he’d bled from the exertion. But there was nothing wrong with his hem, and the Imperials themselves had put it on him in the cell. He’d seen dozens of other slaves wearing the same garment, the same way. The only ones that weren’t magebound were chained, and the magebound ones wandered around as freely as he did.
If it wasn’t his clothing, and it wasn’t his magebond-cuff…
…well, he was paler than any of the southern-born Imperials by a long reach, pale and odd, with the old blood’s ashen hair and wide-pupilled eyes. But a few of the sea-raiders were nearly as pale, even if most of them were sun-gilded rather than moon-washed.
Gilfaethwy spent the afternoon distracted, wondering in guilty discomfort whether the men stared because they already knew what had been done to their domina’s old-blooded captives, or whether they stared because when they looked at him they could tell something was wrong about him. If maybe he didn’t walk right anymore, or didn’t look right — if his face made it too hard to tell which he was supposed to be…
He was sure he’d never grow a beard after they’d… changed him. And neither his nor his brother’s voice had broken before they were changed, so maybe they never would.
Maybe if he never made it home to the capital, he’d have to get used to being stared at all the time.
…Maybe there wouldn’t be a capital to go back to, for much longer. Some of the Imperial officers had been speculating about how many more troop-ships the Imperator would send, now that the king had been beaten back too far to call the storms to the coasts.
He’d been already struggling on the verge of tears when an Imperial slave wearing Laenas’ crest found him and summoned him to the villa.
He answered the vinegar-woman’s questions as politely as he could, with most of his attention focused on fretting rather than on the exchange of what he thought were meant for pleasantries. But she hadn’t really caught his attention until she asked how soon he and Arion would lie with each other.
“You’re a good, dutiful child,” Livia praised him. “I know that you want peace. If the tall one is too stubborn, too defiant to give you the child you need, I’ll have him flogged.”
“D-domina — I –” I can’t say ‘you mustn’t’ to a woman like this, Gilfaethwy realized, and groped desperately for something else to say.
“You understand, don’t you?” Livia said, smiling in a way that gave him chills. “You need to conceive a child as quickly as possible, so I can prove to my husband that you truly prefer peace, that you truly want a family. Otherwise I’m afraid he may try to imprison you all again, or to send you back to the battlefield. It’s terrible how men treat each other, isn’t it? Better to live as a woman, since you’ve been given that choice. But — the warrior is stubborn, and he has no taste for peace at all. He may need persuasion.”
Gilfaethwy couldn’t make his throat produce a sound.
“After all,” she said, “it takes nothing but a few minutes’ exertion to become a father. If he cannot find the decency to find ten minutes to help you keep your safety, amid all that time he’s spending doing nothing — I think that is criminally cruel, don’t you? Surely he has that much mercy in him. And if not, well then… I’m certain I can provide him some encouragement. He has yet to understand how much simpler his life would be if only he learned to yield to guidance…”
She gave him a pair of honey-drenched fig-sweets, encouraged him to share them with his twin, with more musings about the joys of peace and safety — after the rest of what she’d said, the implication for Gwion was clear enough. Gilfaethwy knelt to her because his knees wouldn’t hold him. She smiled, and gave her blessing, and left him to gather the scraps that remained of his wits.
When he stumbled back to Aenfrith’s home and poured it all out in a shuddering rush of hysteria, Aenfrith swore in a language Gilfaethwy didn’t recognize, gathered him close, and held him until he could stop shaking with a chill that had nothing to do with May’s warmth. But Aenfrith didn’t tell him that he was wrong, or that he’d assembled the wrong picture from her barely-veiled threats.
Gilfaethwy was afraid to look at Arion. If he didn’t look, he didn’t have to see what Arion was saying.
It took him too long to realize that Aenfrith was answering with his hands rather than his voice because there was something he didn’t want Gilfaethwy to ‘hear.’ When he looked up, Aenfrith and Arion both went too still.
“Tell me,” he said, starting to shiver again. “I’d rather know than simply fear what I imagine.”
“I am telling him that he is better than the she-dog’s foaming-sick cur,” Aenfrith said.
No, Arion said. No matter how she beats me, I will not take a child.
The shivers were settling into the hollows of his bones now. “I’m sure,” Gilfaethwy said in a small, unsteady voice, “that the domina could find men who would.”
Aenfrith’s head snapped around to stare at Gilfaethwy; he growled, “What bastard made that thought go inside your head? Today — someone said something? Did something? Who?”
“Nobody,” Gilfaethwy said. “Or… too many people. They stared at me. Soldiers. Men. I thought it was because I didn’t look …normal, anymore.”
Apparently Aenfrith had quite a few languages to choose from, when he was looking for curse-words he didn’t want his listeners to understand. Then, haltingly, he said, “You are like flowers. Like the name of flowers, in your words. It acts man-like when you say it. But when you see it, all you think is ‘how beautiful, how…’ what’s the word? ‘Break-ish?'”
“Breakable,” Gilfaethwy murmured, avoiding their eyes. “Fragile. Delicate.”
Aenfrith nodded. “Some men — they look at that and want to give …like ‘roof,’ ‘tent,’ not a place but a… guarding…”
“Yes,” Aenfrith agreed. “Some men look and want to shelter. Other men, they look and want to break.”
“If I have a choice,” Gilfaethwy said, “I’d prefer one who would shelter.”
But any man who takes a child is one who breaks, Arion said. Anyone can speak pretty words of roof-peace — but when a man takes a child, he looks upon a flower and crushes it. I will NOT become that.
“Even if I beg?” Gilfaethwy whispered, and Arion looked at him sharply.
You don’t want me. You don’t want this. Why beg?
“Because the alternative is so much worse,” he murmured, eyes shut. “I’m sorry. Gwion always tells me I’m a coward. I am. I know I am. But I know you wouldn’t hurt me just because you could. Or mock me in a language I don’t speak. Or… discover how I’m abnormal, and then be disgusted. You already know what I’m like, because we’re the same.”
But you don’t need to fear, Arion said, a puzzled quirk between his brows. She wants a child with earth-song from you. So she needs me, not just any man. So if she beats me, I take her beatings, and meanwhile no one gets a child with child.
“No!” Gilfaethwy burst out. “Goddess’ Mercy, sir — I won’t let you do that! How would you feel, if she’d told you she’d beat me unless you lay with me?”
I am very glad she did not. Arion smiled up at him, rueful and gentle. I am a warrior, a man grown. My place is to stand between innocents and harm. If I can still do so, even captured and chained, then my life still has value.
“It’s not fair,” Gilfaethwy insisted, on the verge of tears. “How can you ask me to do something that you couldn’t live with yourself for?”
Because I can do nothing else, he replied. I cannot fight. I cannot kill. I cannot set you free. I am worthless for anything else. If all I can do is this, then let me.
“You are not worthless!” Gilfaethwy shouted at him, fists clenched at his sides. “If I could set you free tomorrow, even without your voice you’d still be more use than I am! I can’t fight and I can’t defend anyone; my power’s good for nothing but petty bed-gossip! And I’m not a child. You can’t call me a child when I’ve seen the same battlefields you have.” He streaked the back of his hand across his face, furious with himself for the tears, because it didn’t help them see a grown man when they looked at him.
You’re a child. Too young to bear a child of your own. Your voice hasn’t even broken.
“I don’t think it ever will,” Gilfaethwy said, “considering.” Then he thought of another angle he might be able to try; it was embarrassing, but he was almost desperate. “Am I that disgusting, that you can’t even imagine the thought of — of lying down with me?”
Arion could still laugh, and did. Gilfaethwy flinched as though he’d been slapped; Aenfrith’s hand on his shoulder steadied him, but he wouldn’t let him run away.
You’re too young, too unstained, to use such tricks well.
“I was old enough to be sent to war.”
You were sent to war by a madman. Arion sighed, and reached up to touch Gilfaethwy’s hand. Please. Give me this one gift, flower-twin. Let me still serve and protect, the only way I can.
Livia Vitella was a woman of her word. When the next month came, and all three of them bled, Laenas’ soldiers came to take Arion from Aenfrith’s house.
Aenfrith tried to argue with them, but Laenas’ captain had been well tutored by his mistress. Since Arion had not accepted Aenfrith’s protection when he’d been given the choice, the captain maintained that Arion was not Aenfrith’s captive, but Laenas’ — and thus, by convenient extension, Livia’s.
They’d brought five men to take him, even though he was both mute and chained. Livia was taking no chances with a power she didn’t pretend to understand. Even from across the camp, Gilfaethwy could feel the echoes of what they were doing to him, could hear the way his soul screamed into the earth-song in a voice that was nothing but pain.
Arion was returned six hours later, unconscious, with blood pouring from the open lash-marks across his back.
Eathlwine washed his back with her willow-tea while he was still unconscious, and then painted his wounds with honey, because the Imperials wouldn’t give their healing salves to be used on a slave who was being punished.
Gilfaethwy struggled to hold him partially upright while she wound bandages around Arion’s ribs. He wasn’t sure how to hold on — Arion’s back was wet and sticky from the tea-bathing and the treatment, and he didn’t want to touch a wound and hurt him, but if Arion slipped out of his grasp and fell, the dirt would get into everything. He was fairly glad not to understand what Eathlwine was muttering under her breath.
When Arion woke, his pain pulsed out of him with every beat of his heart — but under it all, there was a throbbing flicker of exhausted contentment.
It was the contentment that was hardest for Gilfaethwy to bear. Arion’s pain he understood. His anger. His pride, crippled but not broken. But for Arion to be glad of the pain — to be relieved by it…
Gilfaethwy had never heard true words in heart-voices, but he couldn’t help trying to put words to it anyway, trying to understand. It felt like Arion’s heart was saying I’m worth nothing else, or at least it was only me, not someone important.There was a dim, wounded flicker of pride lingering there too: at least I’m still enough for this.
Gilfaethwy wanted to scream at him, or shake him, or hit him, or cry — it was filthy to feel angry at someone who’d been beaten for your sake, but he couldn’t help himself. He was realizing that despite all his courage, Arion was selfish. He never had offered Gilfaethwy a way to live with being the one who wasn’t beaten. Arion had only said that he was glad he wasn’t the one who had to live with it.
In the end, Gilfaethwy couldn’t live with it either.
The choice was stark and cold. If he wasn’t going to let Arion be beaten again, then he had to give Livia the proof she demanded. To give Livia her proof, he needed to use Arion against his will. And there was a certain sick irony in the fact that Gilfaethwy was the only one of them whose power would let him force himself on a taller, stronger, unwilling man.
His awareness of time beat at him more fiercely than the sun. He knew he only had a couple of weeks to find a way to learn …enough. To learn everything. To wring from his useless parlor-gossip ‘power’ enough strength to defeat two trained warriors and his own twin.
Of the lot of them, Gilfaethwy honestly thought his twin would be the hardest to handle. Even before they’d been changed, the two of them had had a connection their parents alternately laughed at and despaired of when it came time to try to win obedience from them. They’d grown up together; they’d fought together; Gilfaethwy was so attuned to his brother’s heart-voice that he wasn’t sure he could stop hearing it unless they were shielded or killed. But it went both ways. Gwion had never tuned his heart to anyone else’s voice, but he always knew when Gilfaethwy was upset. So Gilfaethwy couldn’t let him know.
He wasn’t arrogant enough to think that he could manage not to be upset. Aenfrith’s voice echoed sharp as a dagger in his memories: I’ll kill the whoreson. Only a filthy no-guts coward fucks a man in chains! And he was worse than a lust-addled coward. He didn’t even have the excuse of being overcome with desire; he was coldly, deliberately planning a crime against his own countryman.
Despite his stolen voice, Arion had been perfectly clear. Gilfaethwy understood that Arion didn’t want him. He understood why. And still he planned to use him, sexually, despite Arion’s absolute refusal. No matter if he never hurt Arion physically, no matter even if he could make Arion dream he wanted it — it would still be rape.
He couldn’t give Arion the chance to say no. He couldn’t watch the Imperials drag him to the flogging-posts again. So, instead, he planned to abuse Arion himself, and pretend it was somehow better.
…At least Livia had left Arion’s soul intact.
Gilfaethwy didn’t like to think about it too much. He tried to think hardest about the planning, about how to get the others out of the house for the right hours.
He tried not to think at all about how angry Aenfrith would be.
Gwion was going to be angry too, but for entirely different reasons — Gwion would be furious that he was even trying to give the Imperials something they wanted, though he might well approve of the attempt to spare Arion’s pain.
Aenfrith, though… Gilfaethwy knew Aenfrith’s opinion of cowards, rapists, and men without honor, and he didn’t want to see the look in his eyes when Aenfrith realized his dutiful, obedient flower-twin was all three.
It was a bad idea, all around. It was a terrible idea. Nobody would be happy, except maybe Livia.
It was too bad he was already determined to do it.
While Arion was healing from the flogging, Gilfaethwy went to the kennels to practice. He needed impetus to learn quickly, and the Imperials’ big hunt-hounds scared him enough — especially during the week he knew they could smell blood on him.
He needed to be able to put different things into different hearts at the same time, and he needed to do it at the same level of reflexive, instinctive memory as walking, or talking. Not breathing — Goddess, he needed to stay conscious of it when he was twisting someone’s soul inside them. But if he learned it like speech, like motion, something he could choose and control… then it would still be his fault, but it would be his deliberate fault, not an accident. Nothing about this could be an accident; he had to know exactly what he was doing, or he might damage Arion’s soul irreparably.
The dogs’ hearts were simple to hear, loud and clear and utterly straightforward. It was easier than he’d thought to reach out and touch those hearts, to lean on them. He could get three of them to start doing the kicking-puppy-foot thing without even touching them — and he liked the safety of distance; he was fairly sure a couple of them thought he smelled wounded and edible.
One day he startled the whole pack into looking up at a ‘bird’ that never existed when he cast a pulse of bright-burning freedom in a sudden arc across the sky. There was nothing there to see or smell, but their hearts heard-felt-sensed it, and then they spent a while milling around snuffling after the scent of a dream.
The next morning, Gilfaethwy climbed inside the kennel. His heart started pounding hard at the way they converged on him, smelling blood. Frantically, fast as thought, he spun emotion-threads to each of their hearts, dyed them with different feelings, and he watched in a shaken tangle of guilt and satisfaction as the pack splintered into two. Half of them cowered against the far fence. The other half yawned uncontrollably, blinked drowsy eyes, and curled up to fall asleep at his feet.
The next step was learning how to dye the heart-strands that bound him to Gwion, and to keep them tinted — tainted — even while he was distracted.
He struggled hard with the thought of lying to his brother at such a blood-deep level. But if Gwion knew what he was doing with Arion while it was happening, there was no way he’d let him go through with it. Gilfaethwy was fairly certain it would hurt; it had hurt the first time, even with the drugged smoke and the ritual cup. And Gwion had always reacted with immediate, angry violence to anything that hurt his twin brother.
The irony in their hand-names hurt, sometimes. For all that he was the more outwardly placid of the two of them, Gilfaethwy knew he wasn’t as faithful, as good, as his brother was.
When he settled on the convenient lie that he was only heart-lying to protect his brother’s feelings, it became a little easier. He told himself that if Gwion couldn’t feel his pain and fear, Gwion would be happier.
In the moment, the stubborn little voice of honesty pricked him. Only in the moment. And he’ll be even more unhappy later. But Gilfaethwy was teaching himself how to ignore that too-honest voice too.
Apparently to lie to his twin, he first had to learn to lie to himself.
Listening was the first part of it; their bond was like a cuff, like a chain’s link, an unbroken, unending circle that fed everything but blood itself back and forth between their hearts. Beneath the chatter of Gwion’s own busy, vivid, stubborn emotions, Gilfaethwy had to be able to separate out what Gwion was hearing from him, and how he felt about it. He started with simple things — convincing himself that he was cold, feeling for the echo of that chill returning through Gwion’s heart-song.
Gwion kept giving him his own blankets, along with glares and mutters about telling people these things out loud. Gilfaethwy had to sneak the blankets back into Gwion’s sail-sling in the afternoons, because he couldn’t tell his brother that he wasn’t cold; he didn’t want to get his brother into the habit of questioning what he felt, when he wasn’t sure how well he’d be able to hold his lies to begin with.
Then he realized that if he was going to be lying for hours, he didn’t really want his brother paying attention to that twin-bond at all. So he turned his practicing toward Gwion’s own distractibility.
It was simpler than he’d ever expected to convince Gwion that his knee itched, that there was a gnat buzzing around, that he was restless and wanted to walk outside. Gwion always wanted to walk outside; he felt less trapped, less imprisoned, when he could see the sky — preferably from a place where no one else was watching.
Gilfaethwy could prime his brother for restlessness with a few small nudges, and with no further prompting Gwion would bundle up a set of Eathlwine’s bone-discs and find a perch in a tree and stay out there enjoying the sun and the secrecy amid the leaf-shadows for hours on end. As long as Gwion brought back a creditable length of weaving, Eathlwine left him to it; neither of the pair of them had ever had any talent for cooking, so keeping Gwion busy at clothwork and handcrafting was safer all around.
He’d thought that Aenfrith would be a problem, because the Imperials’ mage-bond prevented both of the twins from touching their bond-master with any sort of power. But to Gilfaethwy’s startled relief, he found he could control Aenfrith predictably enough, just by sending Gwion out after dark.
Aenfrith’s heart spoke of an almost parental sense of responsibility for those who were his, and Gwion was young and small and dressed in slave-garb amid a camp of restless soldiers who frequently had to wait in line for a camp-woman. When Gilfaethwy had first encouraged Gwion to find the close indoor air and the heat of the banked firepit too distracting to sleep in, Aenfrith had waited a few minutes after he’d crept out of the house — and then he’d followed him, tracking him through the pull of the mage-bond.
Apparently the Goddess had a few small mercies left to spare. Gwion never realized that Aenfrith had been shadowing him on the nights Gilfaethwy practiced. Apparently Aenfrith had learned enough about Gwion’s pride to leave a safe distance between them when he followed along.
Fortunately, Aenfrith seemed to define a ‘safe’ distance both as ‘close enough to intervene if something were to happen’ and ‘far enough not to attract the notice of a touchy, stubborn boy with magic-enhanced pranking skills.’ Gilfaethwy was relieved; he really, really didn’t want to have to work around Gwion’s combined talents for stealth and obnoxiousness when the time-span available for his own assault could be measured in hours.
That only left Eathlwine, and she was a sound sleeper. Gilfaethwy learned that she already settled the unpredictable sounds of the camp into her dreams. It didn’t take much ‘leaning’ at all for her to weave his deliberate ‘sneaking into the porridge-pot’ clatter into her dreaming. Her heart-voice felt amused, and she gave a wordlessly satisfied grumble that made Gilfaethwy suspect she was scolding the porridge-thief in her dreams.
In hindsight, he’d taught himself to twist his power to ruthless ends a little too quickly. He had nothing to do with himself for the whole middle week of their cycle — nothing except running Aenfrith’s errands, worrying about whatever he hadn’t anticipated, and worrying more about how bad what he had anticipated would turn out to be. Of course, he also found time to spend blaming himself for even considering using his power for sexual abuse of his own countryman, and working out the details with such heartless, deceitful precision.
He hoped Aenfrith wouldn’t hate him too much. It would be hard enough to live with Arion hating him; if his owner hated him as well, Gilfaethwy wasn’t sure how he would get through the months …after, when the best option was that he’d be growing clumsy and slow and… vulnerable.
The worst option — where he’d played his only hand, given them warning of what a calculating wretch he really was, and then not conceived, and then had to watch Arion be beaten again — that option didn’t even bear thinking about.
It was a good thing he didn’t have to try to sleep, the night he needed to rape Arion. Lying still was enough to fool his brother, whose attention was far more focused on the pricks of heat and stifling air and restless discomfort and the nameless agitation Gilfaethwy poured into him.
Aenfrith had actually gotten used to Gwion’s restless nights — or rather, to the nights when Gilfaethwy drove him out as practice. Aenfrith sighed a little when Gwion left, waited a good hand of minutes, then picked up his blankets and followed, scratching his fingers through his hair drowsily.
Eathlwine had gotten used to the night-wanderings as well. She didn’t so much as twitch at the complaint of the door’s hinges, but Gilfaethwy pushed her further down into her dreams just to make certain.
When it came down to it, he was less frightened than he’d thought he would be. His hands didn’t shake much while he hid his hair under one of Eathlwine’s head-scarfs and re-bound his sash so that the shapeless slave-chiton hung almost as long as a dress would.
Even if he couldn’t let Arion choose, Gilfaethwy didn’t want it to be unpleasant for him. He didn’t want him to be afraid, or revolted, or hurt. He wanted to give him at least the illusion of pleasure; he owed him that much, and more. He wanted to give Arion a taste of joy, a taste of the life they’d left behind, a taste of freedom, even if he had to lie to do it.
And he knew a little of what Arion had wanted, once.
Before the king’s madness, before it had all gone wrong, Arion had paid court to the lady Llinos Siriol, the bright, charming daughter of Ceredic Fawr of Llynglas.
Arion hadn’t told them much of the story himself, though. The harper had been the gossip of their group, and he’d turned everything into witty verses — particularly when his verses earned vigorous reactions from the poor unsuspecting fools who were trapped listening to him night after night. He’d seemed to take violent attempts on his person as compliments of some strange sort.
When it came to verse-making, their harper scorned mere mundane facts; facts were blithely disposable distractions, nothing more. He’d sung of Gilfaethwy’s torrid midnight love affairs with a leather-bound history-book with the same glee that had spawned dozens of tales of Arion’s reputedly impulsive, lust-addled misadventures: braving fire-breathing in-laws-to-be, swimming muck-covered moats and coming out dripping green like a bog monster, climbing rose-covered walls or crumbling ramparts toward his lady’s bower. In the harper’s tales, the climbing roses always lost their hold on the stone at the least opportune moments, of course.
Arion, his blushes visible even by the firelight, had thrown a mug of cider at the harper’s head — and a sizable stick, and his helm, and a steel bracer, and whatever else was close enough to hand, on several different occasions. He’d vehemently insisted that he wasn’t fool enough to try to climb a wall covered with thorny, fragile roses, that Ceredic Fawr was an even-tempered and well-spoken man, that Ceredic’s Llynglas had never had a moat.
But he hadn’t denied the lady’s name, or the hope he’d lost when they were changed into unnatural magic-twisted half-things and sent to fight a mage-war on a battlefront they weren’t really expected to survive.
Gilfaethwy wished he’d met the lady Llinos, so that he could have borrowed her phrasing even if not her voice. But if he spun his heart-lies well enough, maybe he might not even need that much of reality. After all that had happened to Arion, surely he would be glad to embrace a yearned-for dream, rather than struggle toward a cold, ruthless truth.
It wasn’t hard to imagine the lady’s reactions to Arion’s state; Gilfaethwy’s own heart twisted when he looked at Arion’s chains, his scars. It wasn’t hard to dye the threads he wove into Arion’s dreaming with a lover’s shock and concern. It wasn’t hard to touch him with hands that flinched at still-fading wounds, then smoothed anxiously over his unmarked skin.
“Oh, love, what have they done to you?” Gilfaethwy whispered, willing himself to mean every word of it. He kissed the hollow of Arion’s throat, slipped himself beneath the chains to settle into the crook of Arion’s arms, stretched himself against the warm solid length of Arion’s body. “The Imperials are worse than beasts,” he added; that too was effortless to believe, to project.
He didn’t let Arion startle; he couldn’t let him become aware of waking. He wove his deceptions as quick as thought, wrapping round each of Arion’s tentative struggles in the snare of heart-strands. Llinos; of course it’s Llinos. Of course that voice is hers. Of course she’s come to me here. I’m only dreaming. Of course she would comfort me, in my own dark dreams. She has that generous a spirit.
“I wish I were a fairy princess,” Gilfaethwy whispered into Arion’s memory of Llinos’ voice. “I wish I could kiss each hurt and heal you with it.”
Arion’s throat moved with a sound his tongue could no longer make intelligible; Gilfaethwy stretched up and quieted him with a kiss.
“Shhh,” he murmured, and kissed the frantic pulse-point in the hollow of his throat. “It’s all right, love. We don’t need words for this.”
If Arion had been aware of his waking, Gilfaethwy suspected he would have had a harder time convincing him to take the body that offered itself to him. But, tangled in the snare of the need Gilfaethwy had spun out of months of absence and longing and Arion’s untouched desires, Arion felt none of the reservations that would have gentled his response to Llinos’ embrace in the waking world.
He seized Gilfaethwy and rolled him under, and kissed him with a heat that shook him to his core.
Gilfaethwy had never actually known desire before, not in himself. The night of the Horned One’s rites had been full of terror and shame, not desire. But Arion had certainly known desire — and how to sate it.
The heat and weight of him covered Gilfaethwy’s body, the chains digging into his spine; the inexorable grip of a taller, stronger body spiked panic-memories of the Horned One’s rites through Gilfaethwy’s heart, and it was all he could do not to cry out in terror. His mind almost betrayed him, snagging the heart-threads in the grip of utter panic; it took a quick burst of falsehood to calm himself, let alone Arion.
Nothing but a dream, Gilfaethwy lied to both their hearts at once. Dreaming is safe. Dreaming is beyond the Imperials’ reach. There’s nothing to fear here. Nothing to hurt. Just a dream of Llinos, accepting, embracing, full of joy and comfort…
Even so, Arion had felt the threads snarl with Gilfaethwy’s fright; he stroked his fingertips over ‘Llinos’s’ cheek, kissed ‘her’ more gently, smiled at his waking-dream — and rolled them both again; Gilfaethwy found himself suddenly sitting on Arion’s stomach. It was easier to breathe when he wasn’t trapped, easier to find calm and welcome.
Easier, that stubborn, bitterly honest voice whispered in the back of his mind, to deceive him. Easier to deceive yourself. Gilfaethwy pushed the voice aside ruthlessly, and bent to kiss Arion again.
Arion was gentler than Gilfaethwy had ever dared hope he might be. He tamed his strength with ‘Llinos,’ gentled his hands, took care not to snarl his chains in what would have been the length of her hair. The heat and pressure of his arousal between Gilfaethwy’s legs was intimidating; Arion distracted them both with kisses, with clever fingers tickling the sensitive skin between his thighs, with a maddeningly slow-paced thumb rubbing almost the right spot until Gilfaethwy was whimpering despite himself and rocking down against that hand, needing something more, something inside.
Gilfaethwy only realized what he was doing when he looked up and saw the satisfied, self-contented smugness in Arion’s grin. One startled breath later, Arion’s hands shifted upward and his hot, demanding erection pushed in. Gilfaethwy didn’t have time to flinch away before it filled him, deep and hot and achingly full.
Somehow, it was easier than it had been before; this time nothing tore inside him. He still felt shaky and overstretched, staggering along the line between not-enough and too-much, but before he could come down on the side of panic, Arion pulled partway out and then rocked his hips up hard, sliding hot and fast over nerves Gilfaethwy hadn’t known he had.
The raw heat of it lit a string of sparks all the way up Gilfaethwy’s spine; he barely had the wit to bite down on his hand before he could make a noise Eathlwine wouldn’t be able to sleep through. Arion chuckled, soft and low, and rolled his hips again, slower but just as deep. Gilfaethwy clutched at his shoulders for balance and tried desperately to ride the overwhelming rush of sensation, of being filled and hollowed out at once, burning for a more he didn’t even know how to ask for. Arion’s hands tightened on his hips, fierce enough to leave marks, and the sparks of firelight catching in his eyes burned hot as his desire, hot as his heart’s yearning.
For Llinos, Gilfaethwy reminded himself savagely, because he couldn’t let himself forget amid the rush and ebb of completely unexpected pleasure. A dream of Llinos. That’s all. Just a dream. Not of me.
But his treacherous body tightened itself around Arion, wanting to clutch and hold, wanting to claim him for its own. Arion bit off a startled sound, his hips snapping up harder, an involuntary reflex; when Gilfaethwy could breathe again, he tried to repeat that deep shuddering grasp. The results were gratifying.
Arion’s climax hit him like lightning; of course, the storms were the first power the earth-song woke in him, and the fiercest. After he’d bound himself to Arion’s heart, Arion’s passion, with a snarling net of threads too tangled to sever, the lightning that crackled through him hit Gilfaethwy just as hard. The power blazed white behind his eyes, and then everything shuddered through unsteady gray weaving on the edge of collapse; both of them were gasping for breath in unison.
Arion smiled softly up at his vision of his lover even while the seared, power-charred binding-snare was disintegrating in Gilfaethwy’s hands. Exhausted and content, Arion pulled him down to his breast, wrapped strong arms around him, and fell soundly asleep.
Oh hells, Gilfaethwy thought, too shaky and wrung out to struggle free. The chains that bound Arion’s wrists together kept his lover safely snared in the circle of his arms as well.
When he turned his head, Gilfaethwy could see the firelight glittering in Eathlwine’s eyes as she looked across the room at them both; the rest of her face was lost in shadow. …Oh, flaming hells.
I can’t run away, but I wanted to be at least a little farther out of reach before he wakes.
I hope he doesn’t just break my neck, tomorrow morning.
Gilfaethwy had expected anger. He’d expected the frustration, the blame, the outrage. He’d expected to be shouted at. What he hadn’t expected at all was for everyone to leap to exactly the wrong conclusion.
When he’d let his fear spike, Gwion had felt it — and the Imperial mage-bond had told Aenfrith exactly what was happening in the house, though it couldn’t tell him why. Aenfrith had had to put Gwion in the mage-warded cell to keep him from calling the mists, shifting through the shadows, and trying to kill Arion. Arion was literally guilt-sick to the soul; he would have bared his throat and let Gwion kill him gladly.
Eathlwine dished out five bowls of porridge with utterly phlegmatic pragmatism, handed them out, and settled in to eat, ignoring Arion’s white-faced, searing shame and Aenfrith’s guilt-haunted refusal to take a side.
“You didn’t do anything wrong!” Gilfaethwy choked. “I bound you with power. I raped you. It’s my fault, not yours!”
Arion drove a fist into the roofpost hard enough that the rafters shook.
“It’s the she-dog’s fault,” Aenfrith said, quietly.
“It’s my fault,” Gilfaethwy insisted, scrubbing at the tears he couldn’t seem to stop. “She didn’t tie me up and force me on him. I did that by myself. You told us only a coward rapes a bound prisoner, and I–”
“You’re a prisoner too,” Aenfrith said, staring down at the bowl in his hands. “You’re no more free to choose than he is.”
“I chose,” Gilfaethwy said. “And I stole his choice from him. There was nothing he could to to stop me. It’s not his fault at all. Why won’t you both just hate me instead?”
“You chose,” Aenfrith said, “to try sparing him pain. Just as he chose to try sparing you pain. But you couldn’t, either of you. So now you both have been hurt, and now, I think, you are both …same. Level.” He held out his hands, side by side.
“Even,” Gilfaethwy told him, and wiped his eyes on the corner of his chiton. “But we’re not. He never forced anything from me, so why he’s — he’s breaking like this, inside– that’s my fault. And I’m so sorry. But I’ll do it again, if I have to. It didn’t …hurt. It felt nice. And I know it’s better than letting her beat him again. That’s the one part I won’t ever regret.”
Arion’s head snapped up at that, and he made the first words he’d given since they woke. Women die in child-bearing. Younger women. Smaller women. And you are too young! I told you to let me take–
“You’d have died of it before the summer was out!”
Then let me die! I’m useless for anything else like this–
Gilfaethwy hit him. Arion’s head rocked sideways; Aenfrith caught his wrist before he could swing again.
“Enough,” Aenfrith said heavily. “Arion, you feel better for having got hit?”
After a moment’s hesitation, his hands said, Not enough. Hit me again.
“No!” Gilfaethwy yelped, startled. “I’m sorry — I shouldn’t have–”
Aenfrith reached out and backhanded him hard enough to send him sprawling. “Better now?”
“Funny story, that,” Aenfrith said, sitting down and dragging Gilfaethwy down beside him. “The pain-eater says to the pain-maker, ‘Hurt me.’ So the pain-maker says ‘No.’ …Everyone laughs now.”
Eathlwine didn’t know enough of their language to even pretend to follow the conversation; Arion and Gilfaethwy both stared at him as though he’d lost his mind. Aenfrith sighed, and scrubbed a hand through his hair.
“Tried hitting, tried shouting, tried crying, no use. Nothing changes. Nothing could change from those.”
“But… I…” Gilfaethwy gulped hard. “Someone has to …punish me. I…”
Aenfrith cuffed him across the head, hard enough to rock him but not hard enough to bruise. “I think Arion already punishes you, with his heart-sickness,” he said. “I think you already punished him too, with kicking him in the man-pride. So — back to even.”
“But then… what do we do now?” Gilfaethwy asked in a very small voice.
“We wait to see,” Aenfrith said, with a certain rough sympathy. “Nothing else we can do.”
Aenfrith spluttered a pungent-sounding string of words that made Eathlwine smirk into her oat-porridge. Then he looked over at Gilfaethwy with something a little desperate in his eyes.
“You wanted punished more, yes? Fine. You talk him down from the blood-splashing. No taking him out until he swears for your heart-seeing that he’ll not go kill anybody. There’s punishment for you. Good, probably long, punishment. –Go on. Go get punished.”
The next time Laenas’ soldiers came, Gilfaethwy turned them away himself.
By Livia’s own word, the soldiers weren’t allowed to punish Arion until they knew for certain that Gilfaethwy hadn’t conceived, and they didn’t yet know that. He hadn’t bled when the others did. He clung hard to the hope that he might not.
He wondered if the bright, fierce stab of jubilation was what a knight felt when he protected an innocent. No wonder Arion hadn’t wanted to yield his guardianship — it felt wonderful to be able to stand up and know that he’d spared a captive’s pain. Gilfaethwy suspected it might be unchivalrous of him to exult in their foes’ retreat, but the taste of victory was shockingly sweet.
Once he was sure the soldiers were leaving, he ran inside and caught Gwion by the hands and danced him around the room, laughing.
Gwion tried to smile for him, rather badly, but his heart shouted all the misery and frustration he didn’t want to admit to; Gilfaethwy stumbled to a halt, looking into his brother’s face anxiously.
“What’s wrong–?” Gwion stopped himself short, looked away. Gilfaethwy touched his chin, ducked sideways to try to meet his twin’s eyes.
“What could be wrong? Everything’s fine. Arion’s safe, and so are you, and…”
“And you’re not,” Gwion whispered. The firelight caught and splintered on the tearshine in his eyes.
Startled, Gilfaethwy said, “I’m safest of all. They’d never have me beaten while I’m carrying a child Livia wants.”
“That’s not the point!” Gwion caught him by the shoulders, and only barely kept from shaking him. “Faethan, you idiot… nobody even knows if we can bear children. Nobody’s had time to finish yet. Especially not some scrawny underfed bookworm-boy who can’t even carry a sword and a shield at the same time! Even if you were a girl I’d worry, and girls at least are meant for it–”
With an embarrassed half-shrug, Gilfaethwy said, “It doesn’t matter, really. If we can, then we can. If we can’t, then I’d guess my body will just …empty itself, at some point. All of us survived that much already. And even if I can’t carry well enough for Livia, I’ll still have bought us more time to plan.”
Gwion stared at him, mute and shivering.
“It’d be family,” he whispered. “It’d be your son, or your daughter. How can you say it doesn’t matter?”
The same way I could tell myself it didn’t matter what Arion wanted, Gilfaethwy thought. The same way I lied to your soul, raped a man, and called it kindness. He pulled his brother close enough to hold, and murmured, “You really are the gentler one, aren’t you.”
“…like hell I am.” Gwion sniffled hard, gulped back the wavering edge of tears, and hit him in the shoulder with a loose fist. “You’re the one who’s going to get fat and wipe up shit and get called mama. I’m going to have fun teaching the kid that, y’know.”
“We’re still twins,” Gilfaethwy said, with an edge to his grin. “Do you really want my children to call anyone who looks like me ‘mama’?”
“Ah, shit.” Gwion scuffed a toe on the ground. “Way to ruin all the fun, asshole.”
“Any time, dickhead.”
Gwion sighed, tilting his head against Gilfaethwy’s tiredly. “How long do you think she’ll wait?”
“Before she gets impatient with Arion and me,” Gwion said. “How long do you think the bitch will wait before she wants more? I’m hoping for three months.”
“She wouldn’t,” Gilfaethwy said, shaken. “She told me, as long as I proved I wanted a family–”
“She wants both of us,” Gwion said, weary-voiced. “She had me swear the same vow to peace that you did. She’ll gloat about you for a while, and then she’ll catch me in a corner and ask why I’m not as fertile as you are, and she’ll find a new threat to wave at us. Bet you a gold piece.”
“Where’d you get a gold piece?”
“I didn’t,” Gwion said, with a crooked grin. “But it doesn’t matter, since I’m not going to lose it.”
Suddenly, it was too much. He’d betrayed his brother’s trust, abused a man who’d been beaten for his sake, disappointed a man whose heathen sense of honor was still purer than his own, and salved his shame with the thought that at least he’d bought safety with the sacrifice of his heart and his body. And to hear that even if he went through with all of it, the long months of exhaustion and the pain and fear at the end and the sacrifice of a child he knew he’d never be allowed to raise — even with all he’d torn away from people who trusted him, all he’d given up, if it wasn’t enough to buy even a season’s worth of respite….
“Oh shit,” Gwion said, going pale. “Shit. Shit shit shit– don’t cry, I didn’t mean to make you — ah fuck. It’s only been a fortnight! If you’re already having mood swings, this is going to be the longest year ever.”
“Bastard,” Gilfaethwy choked, grinding the heels of both hands into his eyes. “No. I just — I thought — I thought I’d bought you more time!”
Gwion hugged him suddenly, tight enough to ache. “Dumbass,” he muttered into Gilfaethwy’s hair. “What imbecile told you that you had to be the one to buy all our safety with your life?”
“…It was my choice.”
“In other words, you’re that imbecile. Great.” Gwion scrubbed his knuckles over his brother’s scalp. “I’ll kick your ass after you’re not pregnant anymore. In the meantime, we just have to plan faster, that’s all.”
“Plan what faster?”
Gwion took him by the shoulders again, held him at arm’s length, and shook his head with elaborate slowness. “You really are an imbecile if you thought we aren’t even going to try to get the hell out of here.”
Gilfaethwy blinked. Several times. “We’re magebound. With the Imperials’ own bindings. We can’t even touch the master-cuffs.”
“Arion can. He’s not magebound because the bitch was too wary to let him taste their kind of magic. The irony is fantastic, isn’t it?”
“But they’ve taken all the eastern coast and they’re pushing toward the midlands; we’d have to travel hundreds of miles without letting them see–”
“You forget who you’re talking to.” Gwion blurred into the shadow of the rafters, stepped sideways through a space that shouldn’t have existed, and swatted him between the shoulderblades.
“Anffryth’s the smartest guard they have.”
“Yeah, he is, isn’t he. Handy that he likes you already.”
Gilfaethwy felt as though he’d been scalded. “Gwion!”
His twin blinked at him a little too innocently. “What? I’m just saying. Besides, if you’ve got that much of a crush on him, we might as well take him with us.”
Gwion had once spent an entire summer practicing how to snicker, to drive their lovestruck elder sister into paroxysms of embarrassment. He hadn’t forgotten the technique.
“Gwion, stop it! I don’t — I couldn’t– he’d never–”
“I’d have said the same about Arion, a month ago,” Gwion pointed out, still snickering. “You obviously figured out how to solve that little problem.”
“Because I had to!” Gilfaethwy insisted, hot and fierce. “It had to be Arion. I had no choice. But I don’t have to twist Anffryth’s soul like that. I won’t.”
Grinning from ear to ear, Gwion said, “You’ve got it baaad.”
Trying to throw the porridge-pot at Gwion’s head might have worked better if he’d had the sense to unhook it from the roof-chain, or remove the cast iron lid, or empty out several pounds of water and oats weighing the thing down. Or, preferably, a combination of those, at a point before he’d embarrassed himself by barely managing to get the thing to rock on its chain.
Gwion spared him the rest of the humiliation by helpfully incapacitating himself: he was laughing so hard that he tripped over the fire poker, fell over backwards, and curled up on the floor alternately wheezing and laughing. Gilfaethwy crumpled beside him with a groan.
“I’m not completely stupid,” he said, prodding the fire with the poker that had just felled his brother for him. “I’m pretty sure he only looks at women like that. He’s certainly never looked at either of us that way. He looks at us like children he’s responsible for, when he’s not looking at us like slaves he has to control. And just to twist the knife, if I’ve done my work correctly, I’m probably pregnant with another man’s child! It doesn’t get any more hopeless than that. I’d have to be an utter moron.”
“Yeah, well, we already knew that,” Gwion said, with his shoulders already hunched toward a dodge in case Gilfaethwy took after him with the poker next. Gilfaethwy thought about it for a minute, sighed, and left the poker alone.
“Seriously,” Gwion added, relaxing a little once the chance of maiming wasn’t quite so high. “It’s good that he likes you. It’d be even better if we could bring him with us. He speaks their language, he knows their system — it’d be tons easier if we had him working with us, instead of against us.”
“He’s a sea-raider,” Gilfaethwy murmured. “He’s a mercenary. And we’re captives from the country that’s losing the war. How are the three of us supposed to have any chance of paying him better than the Imperium does?”
Gwion gave him an arch look. “Well, that’s why we have to plan fast. Before you get too fat to wiggle your ass at him — ow! Ow ow shit I’m just kidding put-it-down put-it-down OWFUCK–”
Once Gwion had wrestled the poker away from him and flung it into the rafters, he hobbled back to the fireplace and fell over, wheezing through the blend of pain and hilarity.
“Says my twin.” Gwion grinned up at him despite the fist-shaped mark reddening on his cheekbone. “It’s okay. We’ll figure it out. The bitch made one fatal mistake early on, you know.”
“Not letting Arion be magebound?”
“Nah. Not splitting the two of us up when she had the chance!” The firelight sparked on the sheer mischief in his eyes. “I never thought your heart-tugging could be used for a weapon, but damn you’ve come up with tricks that I’d never have thought in a million years. I’m in danger of being outschemed here, and I can’t let things lie like that. You’ve always been the nice one! I’d die of the embarrassment if I didn’t one-up you here.”
“That’s really not necessary,” Gilfaethwy said, trying not to think about the way Arion still flinched when he looked at either of them.
“Yeah it is.” Gwion sobered a little. “I’ve just been sitting around bitching and moaning and doing jack-all, and meanwhile you’ve been taking way the hell too much into your own hands. I’ve got to pick up the slack, so you don’t feel like you have to do it all by yourself. And sneaking around getting away with shit is what my power’s good for. Seriously, Faethan. We can do this, if we do it together. The Imperium’s never going to know what hit them!”
As he wandered off into wildly-gesturing strategies for everything from prying apart Arion’s chains to spiking the gate-guards’ meals with laxatives, Gilfaethwy sighed a little.
When it came to Gwion’s most spectacular bouts of scheming, the Imperials would hardly be the only ones who didn’t know what had just hit them. The trouble with Gwion’s plans was that despite years and years of practice, Gilfaethwy had never found a predictable way to keep from being caught up in the crossfire.
He’d never thought he might actually begin to feel sorry for their captors. Of course, he felt even sorrier for himself. The day had already passed mind-broadening into the realm of mind-rending, and they hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet.
If Gwion’s wry half-prophecy held true, Gilfaethwy was quite willing to believe this would be the longest year of their lives.