by Delyth Penrose
illustrated by cacoethes
Sequel to Teiresias’ Kin: Fruit and Branch.
Cast list and name pronunciations at the guide post.
Gilfaethwy had once assured him, with the bright-eyed sincerity of unshaken faith, that his people’s Goddess amply rewarded honest men.
Lately, Aenfrith was almost inclined to believe him. Because if there was any justice in the world, someone needed to reward honest men for going to all the trouble, and nothing mortal had ever bothered to do so.
The only thing that earned him so much as a pat on the head from his Imperial masters were as many not-quite-lies as he could spin right along the knife-edge of falling over into falsehood. Gilfaethwy believed in him so purely and unreservedly that he couldn’t bring himself to wound him with the crueler truths. His twin Gwion wouldn’t trust anyone who was bedding his brother even if the heavens opened up and buried them in an avalanche of holy white rose petals. Eathlwine took everything, true or false, with the same dry skepticism.
Aenfrith tried — really, truly tried — to give Arion the full, harsh truth. Tried to warn him. Tried to explain. Tried to convince him, because no man deserved what Livia Vitella’s servants would do to him. Arion understood full well that it was the truth; that was never the problem.
The problem was that the stubborn bastard refused to yield. To anyone.
Arion of all men knew what Livia was capable of; he’d had his tongue torn out for his defiance, been beaten bloody, spent half a year leashed to a roof-post with chains that answered only to Livia’s key — he believed every word Aenfrith told him of her plans. Still, his belief had nothing to do with his thrice-damned warrior’s pride.
Aenfrith knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were running out of time. Only a touch of their Goddess’ cruelest mercy had given them this long. Livia had fully intended to have Gwion and Arion taken during their previous moon-cycle — but three days before their cycles’ peak, some Imperial soldier had found a lucky blow and killed the islanders’ mad king. The echoes of the king’s death and the land’s cries had nearly caused Gilfaethwy to lose the child Livia so coveted.
To Livia, Gilfaethwy had suddenly become an uncertain die to cast in her gamble that the old king’s magic-changed kin would breed heirs to the land’s power. She needed a second, stronger vessel to carry her hopes of a native-born, Imperial-raised heir to their earth-magic. She had informed Aenfrith that Gwion would do, but there was no reason to think Gwion would be any stronger a bearer than his twin.
That left Arion, the stubborn, fierce warrior who had killed a score of Imperials before his capture, who had had to be chained and muted before he would even pretend to yield. Arion was the one whose child Livia had wanted from the first — and once they’d killed the mad native king, no one else would take the native warriors and twist them into half-women for the sake of tearing free more of the earth’s power through the life-blood they spilled. Arion was one of the last of his kind, and the only one the Imperials held captive who was old enough and strong enough to bear easily.
Aenfrith knew Arion understood all that. What he couldn’t understand was why Arion continued to refuse his offer. Time was pressing on them all; the twins were growing taller as the months of their captivity passed, and Eathlwine teased them about boys’ insatiable appetites and hollow legs. And Gilfaethwy had reached the midpoint of his term. Livia wasn’t going to wait another month for Arion, unless they could divert her somehow.
Eathlwine had already dragged Gwion grumbling from the huddle of the bed to help her fetch wood and water for the washing-day chores. Gilfaethwy lay warm and still, curled trustingly against him, back to back for the warmth. It was as close to safe as it would ever get.
Aenfrith touched Arion’s shoulder and waited for the immediate wary tension in his body to ease, using his own body to shield their hands’ gestures against any chance that Gilfaethwy might wake and turn toward them.
If you’d just think about–
Arion caught his hands before he could finish, his mouth twisted sourly. No, his fingers snapped.
As softly as he could, Aenfrith murmured, “I wouldn’t hurt you. I swear it on my life.”
Arion had to let his hands go in order to reply. I never thought you would, idiot.
The bitch’s men will hurt you. Just because they can. I don’t want to see that.
Then don’t watch.
It took every ounce of Aenfrith’s self-control to keep from slapping Arion across the head. Instead, tightly, he said, They’ve chained you to my own roof-post, and they don’t even trust me with the thrice-damned key!
They’ll take me while the rest of you are gone. They won’t want witnesses.
And you’d prefer that? Do you hate yourself that much? Aenfrith demanded. Or do you want to make Flower-twin suffer twice over with your pain?
No! his fingers spat. It is nothing to do with him. Nothing to do with you. Only them. I will never yield to them. They will have nothing of me that they do not take by brute force.
They will! Aenfrith gestured sharply. You know they will! I wouldn’t even have to take you in a way to make you conceive; the book-mages would just know that we’d been together, they’d report that truth to the bitch. I could buy you time–
Aenfrith bit his lip hard, thinking of any number of war-skaldic curses for arrogant cock-strutting battle-addled warriors who would rather break than bend.
Why the hell not? he asked, caught somewhere between fury and misery.
Their torture did not break me. I will not let your kindness accomplish what torture could not.
That’s not why I offered!
Arion gazed at him, calm and utterly sincere. I know, he said. You are too kind for the work they have given you. But I think your kindness could break me, in the end. If I am to be broken regardless, I would have it on their fates, not on yours.
Stupid, Aenfrith snapped. Stupid stubborn pain-eating rock-headed–
Arion caught his hands again, with a wry crook of a smile. If you were the one taken, his fingers said, would you be different?
Yes, Aenfrith threw back, and meant it. I’d smile and nod and bend my head and keep my knife sharp for the minute I could plunge it into their ribs when they let their guard down around the meek little tamed pet.
Arion’s small sigh was warm and tickle-soft against his throat. Then you are stronger than I.
Aenfrith had never, ever been tempted to use a captive by force, until Arion. The thought still made his gut twist — but this time, the thought of what would happen if he didn’t made him even more ill.
…Damn it. May the gods damn it all to the third hell of pain and beneath.
Arion’s chains clinked softly as he reached up and touched Aenfrith’s face. I am sorry that you suffer for my sake, he said. Tell Flower-twin I am sorry, too, when they come for me.
Tell him yourself, you gods-forsaken martyr!
You think I don’t know that? I knew I had been forsaken when my own king ordered me to be quickened with child and to cast its unborn life-blood on the altar of his war, Arion said. This is nothing but confirmation.
Aenfrith’s blood ran cold. “What?” he asked, louder than he’d meant.
Arion looked up at him wearily. Flower-twin never told you?
“No! You mean this isn’t the first time he’s… –Both of you were…?”
All of us. Arion’s eyes were deeper than the sea, and as haunted. Making his kinsmen answer the moon’s call like women wasn’t enough to set the power of the earth-bond free. It needed a greater blood-sacrifice to make mere warriors into weapons strong enough to fight a mages’ war.
For a moment, Aenfrith thought he might be physically sick. “And the prince who was exiled to the temple…”
He kept his child against his uncle’s will, and thus could not be sent to the battlefield, Arion said. The Imperial woman is hardly the first to use life-blood to wrest power from us. In a terrible way, I could nearly thank her, for she wants the children to live. But she is the hand of the Imperium’s power, and our unborn children’s lives were given to our king’s war against them. I cannot yield to the Imperium, and I cannot yield to you. I do not hate you. But their lives’ sacrifice must have had meaning.
“Arion, hells take it, it doesn’t help anyone to punish yourself for–”
Gilfaethwy’s hands on his shoulders made Aenfrith jerk in startlement; he felt the boy’s ‘touch’ upon his heart immediately, the offering of comfort shaded by lingering drowsiness and the nagging ache of growing bones.
“What’s wrong?” he murmured, still blinking sleep from his eyes.
Aenfrith cursed under his breath in a tongue the boy wouldn’t recognize, and turned to face him. “Are you hurting again? Lie on your other side, let me rub your back–”
Gilfaethwy put a hand to Aenfrith’s lips to buy himself time for a jaw-creaking yawn, then snuggled closer to him and laid his cheek against the frantic pulse-point of Aenfrith’s heart. “It’s nothing more than usual,” he said, “except for your own hurts. Aenfrith…”
Aenfrith kissed the crown of his head softly, willing his heart to slow enough that the damnably perceptive boy might not press the issue. Behind him, Arion slipped from the bed and padded over to one of the sail-slings strung between the roofpoles, dragging Livia’s chain behind him. The stubborn fool had already learned that Aenfrith wouldn’t pursue their argument in Gilfaethwy’s presence, and took advantage whenever he could.
“Aenfrith,” Gilfaethwy said sternly, and it was like a puppy trying to growl. “I can feel it’s something to do with me. How have I upset you now?”
“Not you,” Aenfrith whispered, eyes shut tight against the world. “Frija’s mercy, it’s not your fault.”
“You would say that even if I lit your braids on fire. Aenfrith–”
“You never told me,” he said, and felt his throat close around grief and pain and heart-sickness. “I didn’t know this wasn’t… your first.”
Gilfaethwy blinked up at him, brow furrowed, rubbing at his own throat to soothe the echo he felt of Aenfrith’s distress. “Oh. That.”
He couldn’t speak; if he started to swear, he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to stop. Gilfaethwy put both arms around him, his belly curving warm and soft and far too real against Aenfrith’s.
“We’re actually not certain, Gwion and me,” he murmured, in that same damnably calm voice that had carried him through statements like it has to be me, so that it won’t be them and I hope it’s a boy, so that I won’t have to make myself do this again and it never mattered what I wanted.
“What do you mean, you’re not certain?”
“There wasn’t time to wait,” Gilfaethwy said. “The Imperials had broken some of our circles, and the king needed more of us at the fronts. So after we were given to the Horned One’s celebrants to be changed, the healers didn’t wait to be fully certain we’d …taken, before they gave us the purgative drug and sent us east.”
“But Arion was certain?” Aenfrith asked hoarsely.
Gilfaethwy nodded against his chest.
“And that’s why he could kill with his power? Lives taken for a life given?”
“We don’t know,” Gilfaethwy murmured. “Not many were given power as strong as his. But if I hadn’t quickened before, that might be why my earth-bond’s stronger now. Or it might be that I’m only stronger while I carry, that it will fade again when my time comes. Or we might all carry differently. It’s not like we’ve enough knowledge to compare, really. Just the prince and myself.”
“Just two,” Aenfrith said, holding him carefully. “And how many of your kinsmen’s children died?”
Gilfaethwy sighed, and rubbed a gentle hand over the knot of pain lodged like a stone in Aenfrith’s chest. “No. There’s nothing that will help you in knowing that. Just bitterness and anger and could-have-beens.”
Aenfrith closed his eyes and counted to ten, and then chose a different language and did it again. It wasn’t as though he had any right to protest the boy keeping secrets from him, not with the number of secrets he held back himself. But it rankled to be protected as though he were a child, by a child.
He bent his head to kiss Gilfaethwy’s cheek, and cradled his soft childing-curve in careful hands. “Restless,” he observed, feeling the flutter of movements within. “I’m sorry. I never meant to disturb you; and you need as much rest as you can…”
“I’m better now,” Gilfaethwy told him, affectionate and exasperated; they’d been having this argument for a fortnight. “The earth cried out in pain at the old king’s death. It’s over. It’s done.”
Aenfrith shut his eyes, but he couldn’t blot out the memories.
He could still feel Gilfaethwy’s blood on his hands, could still see it staining his clothes, could still see his pallor in the grip of the earth’s pain — every soul in the camp had been overwhelmed by the way his heart echoed the earth’s screams through them all. The shielding built into the Imperial mages’ master-cuff had left Aenfrith untouched by the land’s screaming, but he’d been the only one. In utter desperation, he’d carried Gilfaethwy to the shielded cell that blocked them from their land’s power, and then as he and the cell guards stood there shouting at each other about whose authority was greater, Gilfaethwy had lain gray-faced on the bare cell floor, his blood shocking-red against the white of the tile–
“–It’s done.” Gilfaethwy took Aenfrith’s hand and kissed his palm softly, then each of his fingertips. “I’m all right now. The king’s heir is safe and well. It won’t happen again.”
“Safe for how long?” Aenfrith asked, his heart still pounding too hard. “If he’s carrying…”
“Not any longer, I think,” Gilfaethwy said, a bit shy. “It was the lord Rhys’s touch that gentled the earth’s pain. I think the land’s cries only lasted as long as they did because… well, it would take some hours to be delivered of his own heir.”
“Then your kind can bear safely,” Aenfrith whispered, feeling a rush of relief so heady that the world itself spun. “Frija’s mercy be praised.”
Gilfaethwy twisted around and glared over his shoulder. “And how long were you hiding that worry from me?”
From the moment I knew you’d conceived, you sweet self-sacrificing idiot, Aenfrith thought. And twice over from the minute I realized why you were bleeding into my hands, and thrice over from the minute I knew I loved you.
Aloud, he grumbled, “Stop twisting yourself up like that.” He pushed Gilfaethwy’s shoulders straight and his head onto the pillow, then began the massage patterns Sister Flavia had taught him for easing childing-aches: across his shoulders, down his back and sides, opening the arch of his hips, turning each knee out at a time.
Gilfaethwy caught his breath sharply when Aenfrith’s hands found a knot of tension in his back, then gave a soft, whimpering groan as he kneaded it loose.
Of course he’d studied how to rouse the pulse of Gilfaethwy’s desire — Aenfrith had been both delighted and flattered to realize that the boy responded most ardently to him alone. Sister Flavia had assured him that some expecting women were quick to rouse, and that their coupling would do no harm so long as they were gentle with each other. Still, Aenfrith had honestly thought he’d been keeping his hands and his thoughts chaste enough for a drowsy morning’s tending.
“Needy little kitten,” he teased.
“Not a kitten,” the boy grumbled, and pushed his hips back harder against Aenfrith’s hands. Aenfrith held him still, gentle but inarguable; instead of easing, though, the supple caress of Gilfaethwy’s desire tightened into prickles of frustration.
“Not in the bed. Gwion would never let us hear the end of it,” Aenfrith reminded him.
“The bath-house, then? It’s laundry-day; you aren’t expected at the fortress.”
“Not before you’ve eaten your breakfast.”
Gilfaethwy sighed, moodily crushing down his tendril of wanting. Aenfrith couldn’t help a rueful smile, remembering how difficult he’d found it as a young man with only one form of desire to contend with. Small wonder the twins struggled, with twice the desires to manage in themselves– and then having those desires redoubled again by the reflections they felt of each other’s hearts.
“After breakfast, on the other hand,” Aenfrith murmured into his ear, and couldn’t help a bark of laughter at how eagerly Gilfaethwy threw back the blankets and scrambled out of the bed.
When they returned from the bath-house, Gilfaethwy was still aching, but in a much more sated, luxuriantly self-satisfied way. His hips and back hurt almost constantly, between the pressure of his own growing height and the unfamiliar ways the child’s presence skewed his balance and gait; and he was only just past the fifth moon. He didn’t want to think too much about how he would feel in the later stages, how heavy and ponderous a burden the child would become.
The bath’s heat helped. Massage helped as well. Losing everything to body-pleasures helped most of all, and Aenfrith was more than generous with his skills.
After the difficulty he’d had when the king died, the others tried to coddle him like a figure of spun-sugar, like he might shatter at an incautious touch or melt under a drop of rain. Aenfrith and Gwion were caught up in an all-out battle of who could fuss the most; Eathlwine wasn’t as vocal about it, but that only meant she was sneakier. Thorgest, Aenfrith’s other lover and the commander of the sea-raiders’ auxiliary, came to visit every day.
Most of the time, Gilfaethwy made certain to protest their overprotectiveness; he had no intention of being tied to the bed for the winter to laze about growing fat and useless. He’d grudgingly surrendered the arguments over whether he ought to carry water-buckets and firewood, but he wasn’t about to yield his right to walk, no matter how many times Aenfrith or Thorgest tried to pick him up and carry him.
Aenfrith had already discovered how much he loved to be touched and held, and shamelessly used that knowledge against him. Petting was fine. Petting was lovely, in fact. Sitting in Aenfrith’s lap, feeling the warmth of his body and the reassuring strength of his heart, or lying curled together in the bed even though it gave Aenfrith so much ammunition to tease him about his kitten-likeness — he would put up with the embarrassment for the sake of the pleasure. But being picked up and carried about like an invalid was a different matter entirely.
After he’d just been pleasured to the verge of collapse, though… then he didn’t mind quite so much when Aenfrith carried him home from the baths.
Aenfrith took a certain primitive pride in the catcalls of the soldiers and mercenaries watching them, too. His fellow sea-raiders often teased him for preferring inkwork to swordwork. But when he carried his visibly child-rounding slave through the camp after loving ‘her’ into exhaustion, it made a point about his manhood to his fellows without the need for any words at all.
He rubbed a fingertip down Gilfaethwy’s nose lightly, to show off that he could support his full weight in the crook of one arm; the watching soldiers couldn’t feel the tension in his shoulders the way Gilfaethwy could, after all.
“Thinking too hard, or just a sneezy little kitten?”
“I am never going to forgive Thorgest for that nickname,” Gilfaethwy said, and seized one of the fire-gold braids that fell to Aenfrith’s shoulders. “Let’s see how sneezy you get with one of these tickling your face.”
“No, wait, truce! I surrender!” Aenfrith protested, laughing, and tucked his arm under Gilfaethwy’s knees again just in case. “Don’t make me drop you!”
“No more kitten-taunts.”
Aenfrith tried a valiant attempt at the kicked puppy face, quivering lower lip and shimmering eyes and all. Gwion was much better at it; the edges of Aenfrith’s laughter showed through in the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, the sun-bright sparkle in their blue.
“At least save it for special occasions,” Gilfaethwy muttered.
“If I say that every day is a special occasion, you’re going to help Eathlwine throw cooking-pots at my head, aren’t you.”
“You’ll never escape the flower-jests, though — I’ll have to thank Arion again for your hand-name. How many words for flowers do you people have, anyway? I’ll need more weapons to wield, if I’m not to call you kitten.”
“I take it back; you’re not wise at all,” Gilfaethwy said, and Aenfrith chuckled as he nudged the door open with his knee.
Eathlwine met them at the door with a mug of goats’ milk that she handed straight to Gilfaethwy, before turning back to the laundry-pots. It wasn’t polite to groan, but he did anyway.
“It’s for your own good,” Aenfrith told him.
“I hate milk. Another reason you should stop with the kitten-taunts.” Still, he braced himself for the taste and forced down a swallow.
Ever since the day Sister Flavia and Eathlwine had had Aenfrith translate for them as they discussed how best to feed a child bearing a child, Gilfaethwy had been subjected to milk twice a day and more piles of wilted green plant-things than he knew what to do with — and it was the middle of October; he really didn’t know where they were still finding the stuff.
They’d decided between them that since infants, kittens, lambs, and calves all needed milk, he needed milk for his babe’s sake too. His protests about his lack of fur, tails, or cloven hooves had, of course, fallen on deaf ears. And some of the plant-stuff even smelled of seaweed. It was as though anything that even looked green was spring-like enough for the women to feed him.
Gwion had been no help at all; he’d tried to make sympathetic sounds sometimes, when he wasn’t laughing at the expression on Gilfaethwy’s face mid-mouthful, but his heart always muttered thank-the-Goddess-it’s-not-me.
Aenfrith settled them both by the fire and rubbed Gilfaethwy’s back as he choked the goat’s milk down.
“Would you feel better if I drank it with you?” he offered.
“No need for both of us to suffer.”
It was kind of Aenfrith to try to squash the relief he felt, even as he cast about for another offering. “Some mint to chew?”
His stomach did a slow roll and heave at the thought of the goat-musky milk mixed with a bitter-sharp, dust-parched mouthful of dried mint leaves. “Stop,” he begged, breathing carefully around the nausea.
“Sorry.” Aenfrith brushed a kiss against his temple, holding very still for him. Once he was certain he wasn’t going to need to run for the scraps-bucket, Gilfaethwy slumped back against his chest and scowled down into the mug.
“Almost done,” Aenfrith offered, looking with him.
“Ugh.” He drained the mug in three long swallows, made a horrible face, and put it aside, trying to lick the taste off his own tongue.
Aenfrith really was trying to be unobtrusive with the way he’d cupped his hands to Gilfaethwy’s sides, his fingers ever-so-casually curved to rest against the soft pout of his belly, feeling for any tightening or clenching.
If it had been anyone else sitting in Aenfrith’s lap, anyone else feeling the touch of his anxious fingertips, he might even have gotten away with it. “I’m fine,” Gilfethwy insisted. “It won’t hurt me to drink the stuff. Distate’s not serious, not like shock or pain.”
“It’s only been a fortnight,” Aenfrith murmured; since he’d already been caught out, he shifted his hands forward, smoothing the fabric of the slave-garb over the child-curve softly. “You’re so determined not to let us fuss over you. Someone has to make up the imbalance in the world-scales, you know.”
“It’s already been a fortnight,” Gilfaethwy said, a wry correction to his emphasis. “And we learned then that you don’t need to worry. If anything starts to happen, you won’t have to wonder, because everyone will feel it through me.” He folded his hands over Aenfrith’s, and sighed a little. “I wish I could take these fears from you, but you’re so stubborn about holding them tight.”
“I can still count the days,” Aenfrith murmured. “Give me time. A few months to watch you grow round and healthy, and then I’ll let you chastize me for the silly fears that never happened. Until then, I’ll fret as I wish.”
“In ‘a few months,’ the babe will be born!”
“My point exactly,” Aenfrith said, and kissed him. Then he blinked, surprised at the lingering taste of the milk on Gilfaethwy’s lips. “You know, that’s not as bad as I thought. A lot milder than goat-cheese is, anyway.”
“It gets worse?” Gilfaethwy asked, appalled. “And people still eat it? On purpose?”
Aenfrith’s laughter earned him an elbow in the ribs. But the most embarrassing part was that Arion was laughing at him too — near-silently, only a few soft catches of breath to give him away, with his hands pressed over his heart in an earnest though misplaced effort to muffle the ‘sound’ of it from Gilfaethwy’s ‘hearing.’
Arion never laughed at anything.
Gilfaethwy couldn’t decide whether he ought to be gratified or indignant. He crossed his arms and settled in to grouch about it.
By the time Gwion wandered back in for lunch, wobble-kneed and grinning from ear to ear, Gilfaethwy had given up on the sulks. It was impossible to sulk with Aenfrith petting him, Arion’s heart giving off sparks of sympathy-tinged merriment, and his twin’s heart — all the way from the bath-house — pouring out a torrent of lust-arousal-delight-anticipation occasionally spiked with orgasms.
They’d agreed that when Gilfaethwy and Aenfrith took a visit to the bath-house, it was only fair to allow Gwion the same. But Gilfaethwy tired easily, and Aenfrith was overprotective, especially lately. Gwion took quite a bit longer to tire himself out with his lover.
Gilfaethwy would have liked to sulk a bit more, just because Gwion had made such an embarrassing fuss over it the first time Gilfaethwy had spilled body-pleasures into Gwion’s heart. He couldn’t begrudge Gwion his delight in Sister Flavia’s creativity, though. And Gwion needed a woman as a lover — even aside from his own heart’s yearnings, there would be no danger that he might conceive of a woman loving him. He knew how utterly horrified Gwion felt at the thought of carrying a child of his own.
Gwion tried to hide it from him, through some sweetly misguided thought that it was disloyal to feel that way, or to be revolted by the thought of going through the same thing his twin was. He went out of his way to pretend, to tease and laugh as though nothing at all had changed. He even touched Gilfaethwy’s stomach sometimes, awkwardly, filling himself with thoughts like brother-family-safe-loved and new-innocent-treasure-guard, to try to drown out how the thought of carrying sickened him and how desperately he wanted never to face it himself.
He was trying it even then; like a flat stone skipping over the surface of a pond, his heart skittered across don’t-trust-some-sellsword-bastard-with-m
It wasn’t much forewarning, but it was enough for Gilfaethwy to almost have been braced for it when Gwion flopped down beside them and said, “Goddess, Faethan, I’m so glad you’ve no taste in lovers.”
“What did you say?” Aenfrith growled.
“He has no taste,” Gwion insisted. “To have had a woman like that, and to choose some great hairy barbarian man instead? No taste at all. Lucky, lucky me! I’d hate to have needed to fight you for her.”
“Why would we?” Gilfaethwy asked, blinking. “She’s the Goddess’ own. It’s her choice, not ours.”
“Yeah, but any woman with half her wits would’ve chosen you,” Gwion said. “You’re the sweet one. I’d have had to work three times as hard to woo her.”
“No you wouldn’t,” Gilfaethwy said. “I told you she’d love your ribbon-work, Gwion. And I know she’d have been just as happy with flowers. I mean, I know.”
“Yes, but you wouldn’t have told me that if you’d wanted her too. Three times as hard, at the least.”
“Of course I’d have told you,” Gilfaethwy said, startled. “If we’d both wanted her, and she’d wanted us, why shouldn’t we share?”
Aenfrith coughed “sagas” into his fist, eyes bright with mischief.
“Yes, I remember,” Gilfaethwy assured him, then turned earnestly to his brother. “The problems come when people fight over each other, don’t they? All the tales of people killing each other, people fighting entire wars, through jealousy over a lover? You’re my brother. I’d never let a lover divide us like that, not when we could share and be happy all round.”
“But — but — it doesn’t work like that!” Gwion spluttered. “We can’t both marry the same woman!”
“Who said anything about marriage?” Gilfaethwy asked, surprised. “I’m talking about love, not legalities. Love isn’t lessened by sharing — or do you judge Sister Flavia for her service to her Goddess?”
“But she’s a priestess! Priestesses don’t count!”
“Of course they count,” Gilfaethwy told him, nettled. “They share the Goddess’ touch with all, so that everyone knows what it is to be loved. That’s why they’re priestesses.”
“But priestesses aren’t normal,” Gwion said, stubbornly. “Most people just… pick one.”
“That’s the problem!” Gilfaethwy insisted. “To choose only one and expect that one to be everything, to fight over one like wild dogs tearing at a bone — it’s absurd. It’s so much simpler just to share. It’s so good to know you’re loved for yourself, and that the other is loved in his own way, and that both are real. What Aenfrith shares with me is entirely different than what he shares with Thorgest–”
“He WHAT?” Gwion shot Aenfrith a glare that could have melted cold iron. “You’re fucking around behind my brother’s back?”
“Oh, not behind,” Aenfrith said, smugly. “In front of. Alongside, too. Not underneath, though; Thorgest’s too careless of his strength when he’s distracted.”
“And you let him fuck that walking hairball?” Gwion roared.
“What?” Gilfaethwy protested, feeling his cheeks warm. “They’re not like us; they can’t get each other with child.”
“Well, they can’t!”
Behind him, Aenfrith was literally shaking with the effort not to laugh aloud; Gilfaethwy ran a hand down his face, and tried to offer reason.
“Gwion, you’re the one who keeps pointing out my …increasing. I could never ask Aenfrith to go without pleasure once I’ve grown too heavy and awkward to be desired. If anything… it’s selfish of me, but I’m so happy he allows me to share in his pleasure with others…”
“We are not talking about this!” Gwion wailed, and rolled over to try to smother himself with the throw-blanket.
“You started it,” Gilfaethwy said with a sigh, as Aenfrith lost his battle with himself and collapsed into howls of laughter.
Eathlwine looked back and forth between them, not having followed their native language. She gestured in Arion’s hand-signs to Gilfaethwy: Now what’s set the fools off?
Embarrassed, Gilfaethwy realized they’d never developed a hand-sign for their household that meant sexual relations, not that he would have wanted to use it in front of Eathlwine anyway. Instead, he fumbled through Thistle-twin has a lady-friend, and thinks me a fool for choosing Three-birds.
You’re a fool for choosing Three-birds, Eathlwine agreed much too readily, but that’s nothing new.
She handed over a bowl of stew with extra green things floating in it. He tried not to make a face; she chuckled, and gave him a piece of piping-hot griddle-bread with a smear of butter melting into it. Finish your greens and there’ll be an apple after, she signed.
Thank you, he sketched with his free fingers, then set down the bowl for a more proper reply. I shouldn’t complain so. You’re very kind, to make such efforts for me.
She waved a dismissive hand at the notion of kindness, and turned back to flipping the next pair of griddle-breads; but behind that prickly, defensive wariness of hers, something in her heart was pleased.
Without Gilfaethwy’s help in carrying the water buckets and the wood and the baskets of wet fabric, the laundry-day chores ran far longer than usual. The fact that Gwion and Arion were amid their moon-week only made matters worse. Since laundry-day was also market-day, Aenfrith went to the market, because he could carry the grain-sacks and vegetables by himself. That left just Gwion and Eathlwine running back and forth between the well, the cistern, the heavy pots of water rotating in and out over the fire-pit, the storm-drain, and the drying-poles.
After the third time Gilfaethwy tried to pick up a water bucket, Eathlwine tied him to Arion’s roof-post with a backstrap loom, handed him a skein of yarn, and glared until he bent his head and set to weaving.
With all the pots still holding the laundry, dinner was cooked straight over the fire. The brace of river-trout Aenfrith had brought back from the market were cleaned, stuffed with herbs and wrapped in leaves to lay in the coals, and Eathlwine speared apples on wet green twigs and roasted them next to the laundry-pots. Even with the complicated dance of water-hot laundry-in soap-in Arion-scrubs start-the-apples Gwion-rinses pot’s-empty turn-the-fish fill-the-pot turn-the-apples laundry-out, she never scorched a thing — and somewhere in the middle of it all, she dashed off to fetch another mug of milk up from the cool-cellar for him.
Really, he’d have been happier if Eathlwine wasn’t quite so good at arranging all the details.
Gwion and Eathlwine hung the last drying-poles a few minutes before the sun set. As Aenfrith emptied the last of the laundry-pots into the storm-drain behind the house, Arion set Gilfaethwy loose from the loom without a moment’s shame at his earlier denials. Gilfaethwy sighed and stretched and followed the others outside; after a full day’s laundry-work, the house was nearly as humid as the Imperial baths.
The evening was crisp-cool and a bit of a shock after the house’s heat; he shivered, and a moment later found his brother had draped himself around his neck like a cloak: arms clasped in front of his neck, warmth all down his back, and feet dragging as he dropped all his weight onto Gilfaethwy’s shoulders.
“Hang me up with the laundry; I’m wrung out to dry,” Gwion groaned.
Stumbling towards the wall for balance, Gilfaethwy pushed at the arms around his neck. “Gwion…”
“I declare a ban on laundry. Once we’re home, that’ll be my first decree as Uncle’s heir. No more laundry. Ever.”
Gilfaethwy leaned hard against the stone wall, trying to find prying-leverage. “So you’d rather have us all go around naked, then. Including the cook? The steward? The milk-girls? –Uncle Ithel?”
Gwion shuddered and let go, scrubbing at his face as though he could wash out the mental images. “Blech. Goddess forfend! When’d you turn into such a pervert anyway?”
“Me? You’re the one banning clean clothes by decree!”
“Right, then. New decree: once we’re home, I don’t have to do the laundry ever again.” He stretched so far that his back made some horrid popping sounds, and looked up at the moon contemplatively. “Especially on birthdays. Our birthdays are coming soon, you know — the apple-moon’s past full.”
“Birthdays? More than one?” Aenfrith echoed, head tilted to one side. “But you’re twins.”
“Faethan was the shy one, as ever,” Gwion said.
“Your mother had such difficulty bearing you?” The cold spear of terror that lanced through Aenfrith’s heart had Gilfaethwy moving to lay his hands and cheek against his chest on pure reflex.
“We were born during the same night, a few candlemarks apart. Father was so anxious that he forgot to light the timing-candles overnight; that’s all.”
“And we fought over who got to choose the dishes for the feast-day,” Gwion added, grinning. “So, since one of us could have been born before midnight and one after, Mother declared that we’d have our own birthdays, either side of our birthnight. She let one of us choose for the eventide’s meal, and the other for the feast-day.”
“Despite your insistence that you ought to have the feast-rights, as Uncle Ithel’s heir,” Gilfaethwy added tartly, still rubbing Aenfrith’s chest against the slow-fading chill of his fear.
“We were young!”
“And you’re not now?” Aenfrith said, with a wry curl at the corner of his lips.
Gwion stuck out his tongue, which Gilfaethwy thought rather made Aenfrith’s point for him. “The only thing improved by so many years is brandywine, old man.”
“Hah. Ask Flavia what she thinks of maturity, experience, endurance–”
“Enough!” Gilfaethwy said hastily; if he let them get well into it, they’d have dragged him into judging between their boasts of manhood, and there was no way that could end well. Time to steer the discussion away from the shoals. “I wonder if Sister Flavia might know how to make whistlecakes like the cook’s.”
“I’ll ask,” Gwion said, casting an arch look at Aenfrith. “Along with other things.”
“You do that, boy.”
Some days, Gilfaethwy completely understood why Eathlwine was so sanguine about men and their cock-pride. “In any case!” he said loudly. “For your gift, I’ll do your part next washing-day, Gwion.”
“No you won’t,” Aenfrith and Gwion said in unison, then traded a look.
Gilfaethwy sighed. “Goddess’ Mercy, you two, I’m not crippled.”
“And we plan to keep you that way,” Gwion retorted. “Faethan, it’s only been–”
“–a fortnight, yes, I know. But first you’ll say it’s just a fortnight, and then just a month, and by then it’ll be my last season, when I really oughtn’t…”
“Sounds about right,” Aenfrith agreed. “Sound right to you?” Gwion nodded, arms crossed forbiddingly.
“You’re both impossible,” Gilfaethwy groaned.
“Glad I’m not losing my touch,” Gwion said, with his best smirk.
“You can beg my forgiveness with whistlecakes. And a meal with no stewed green slimy things at all.” After a minute’s thought, he added, “Of course, if the milking-goat happened to chew through her rope and vanish, I’d forgive you anything.”
Aenfrith buried his face in one hand, muttering what felt like profanities in a language Gilfaethwy didn’t recognize. Still, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity: “Anything,” he agreed.
Gwion heaved an enormous sigh, plowing both hands through his hair. “And people think I’m the evil twin! I’d guess you don’t know how tempting that is, except I know you do. –Agh. I can’t. You need the stuff, Faethan.”
Gilfaethwy sagged against Aenfrith’s side, disappointed; he’d really hoped that might have worked. Aenfrith patted him affectionately, his heart mumbling of relief — both that Gilfaethwy would have the milk and that Gwion wouldn’t have a free pass at pranks.
“What about this decree?” Gwion offered, a hopeful olive branch. “No laundry and no milk on our birthdays?”
Gilfaethwy looked up at Aenfrith, biting his lip. As much as Aenfrith tried not to remind them of the slave-bonds, such decisions weren’t their own to make — but he looked delighted.
“Not just laundry; I want no chores at all,” Aenfrith said, with a broad grin. “Eathlwine can nag us some other time.” After a moment’s chin-rubbing reflection, he added slyly, “Think we could convince Eathlwine that your people’s tradition calls for a full week of festivities?”
Gwion admitted, “Sometimes I approve of how you think, old man.”
“If we can’t win a full week, what instead?” Aenfrith asked. “No chores, no milk, no greens — what else should we try to win for you?”
Gilfaethwy traded a look with his brother; Gwion shrugged a little. “If Sister Flavia knows how to make those whistlecakes…?”
“You two ask for birthday-feasts so… flinching-ly. Like cats with wet paws,” Aenfrith said, shaking his head. “My clansmen never flinch at a chance of feasts! They get drunk, smash things, and bitch of their heads all the next day — and then Caius Murena leaves it to me to wring the damages from their pay.”
Gilfaethwy blinked. “And you think of that as an improvement?”
“It’s not a proper feast without proper drunken smashings! Is that the word, smashings?”
“Destruction, maybe?” Gilfaethwy offered faintly. “Mayhem? Carnage?”
It took some calculations to work out their actual birthnight across the different calendars. Aenfrith thought it ridiculous that the natives used two different calendars and that neither of them matched the Imperials’; Gilfaethwy thought the Imperials’ habits of renaming months for their imperators and shuffling days back and forth depending on whose faction was in power equally absurd.
“The sun is for crops,” Gilfaethwy told him patiently. “We put seed in the ground based on the days’ length. But life-blood is taken at the Goddess’ moon-cycles, and children are born by Her guidance, a moon for each of our fingers. We calculate our birth and our lives from the moon. Anyone can look up at the night and mark the new moon, without scrying and tools and standing-stones for the sun-reckonings.”
“But the moon shifts against the sun every year–”
“The sun shifts against the moon,” Gwion corrected. “We leave the sun to the farmers and the king’s star-scryers, and sometimes they ask the Goddess’ Hands for a gift-moon for the sun-year, to help the harvest reckonings align.”
Aenfrith blinked, startled. “Wait. So how many Imperial years old are you?”
“Ah hells, don’t make us reckon that out,” Gwion begged.
Much to Gwion’s disappointment, though, their proper birthnight — the night that marked the border between the end of the apple-moon and the new frost-moon — was three days after October’s last washing-day.
Aenfrith looked at his gloomy face, ‘accidentally’ rubbed his foot over the last few marks in the dirt, and said, “Let’s tell her it’s washing-day anyway. The Imperials won’t expect me at the fortress then, and we can have a proper feast for you.”
“A proper sea-raider feast?” Gilfaethwy asked, wary. “The same sort with the drinking and the smashing and the head-cursing and all?”
“Ah, but once you learn to dodge, those are the best parts!”
“Just wait until Hrothmaer gets enough fire-spirits in him to start singing the Ceorlath-sagas.” With a bright-eyed grin that boded no good for anyone, Aenfrith added, “He knows them by heart. All eighteen of them.”
The next day, Aenfrith told Thorgest all about the twins’ upcoming birthdays as soon as he showed up in the workroom. Thorgest promptly stuck his head out into the hallway and shouted the news of a feast down to Kolfinn, one of Laenas’ door-wardens. From there, Aenfrith knew it would sweep through the sea-raiders in less than an hour; Kolfinn knew everyone.
After Thorgest had ruffled Gilfaethwy’s hair, commented in delight about his softening, rounding belly, and snuck in a good patting, he took his leave. Aenfrith saw him to the door, in part to see whether he could find an escape from the barely-leashed simmer of Gilfaethwy’s exasperation with them both.
Livia’s messenger hurrying toward his work-chamber wasn’t exactly a relief. But, somewhat guiltily, Aenfrith realized it wasn’t all that far from a relief either.
The almost-relief didn’t last long.
Livia could do a passable imitation of compassion, when she worked at it. It never fooled Gilfaethwy’s heart-sight; the poor boy always struggled to respond to the way she intended herself to be seen, rather than the way she felt inside. This time, she was making a particularly detailed mimicry of kindness: speaking pretty words of concern for his well-being; insisting that he lie down and rest on one of the elaborately carved reclining couches she had brought from the continent; having Quintus Caelinus Veneficus examine him, because he had crafted the twins’ mage-bonds and Gilfaethwy knew and liked him already.
Caelinus was positively un-Imperial in his guilelessness; his well-intentioned sincerity was one of the reasons Aenfrith had asked him for his help, and one of the reasons that Livia ordinarily found him near useless. He never remembered what he wasn’t supposed to tell people; Livia solved the problem by telling him next to nothing. For her to have summoned him in particular — it had to be for the express purpose of distracting Gilfaethwy.
Aenfrith could think of only two things she’d need to distract Gilfaethwy from. And only one she’d expect to need a mage-healer’s presence to counteract.
Bitch. Hateful, scheming, soulless bitch — I told her to leave Gwion be! I told her about the twin-bond, I told her she’d risk the child she’d gotten, I TOLD her–
Gilfaethwy shot him a startled look from clear across the room, despite Caelinus’ running questions (and an odd insistence on tapping at his knees and ankles until he twitched). Wearing his most stone-blank face, Aenfrith stared straight ahead into nothing, poured the ice-bite of his homeland’s mountain air over his heart’s smoldering rage, and waited for Livia’s work to tear the boy’s heart apart.
From the corner of his eye, he could see that Livia was watching them both, with a hawk’s rapt, merciless intent. So, she was re-testing his loyalty as well. Fine. Let her suspect what she would — she’d have proof soon enough that he hadn’t betrayed her order, hadn’t warned the boy of a thing.
He didn’t flinch when Gilfaethwy suddenly burst into giggles. Caelinus had cupped the boy’s feet in his hands, peering at his toes, pressing on the nails to see what the shading said of the flow of blood. Aenfrith knew how fiercely ticklish his little lover’s feet were. He tried to keep his heart’s fire quelled, tried not to resent how very many things no one had asked him.
“Sorry, sorry,” Caelinus told the boy, and ran a hand over his own thinning hair. “Let’s try your fingertips instead.” He studied each finger, paced the pulse at his wrist, and was promptly distracted again: “How curious. I’ve never seen a fate line so distinctly split that the segments aren’t just discontiguous, they’re entirely offset in parallel… ”
“I have a twin brother,” Gilfaethwy said.
“The one with the thistles? Yes, I remember,” Caelinus agreed. “It’s something more than that, though. See here, the little arch by the heel of your palm, around the mount of the moon? That tells me you’ve been gifted with a particularly sensitive intuition. And this line here? Crossing your fate-line at the first split–”
Gilfaethwy jerked both hands away, clutching at his chest.
The incredulous disappointment on Livia’s face told Aenfrith that she’d only tested their twin-bond on the fractional off-chance that Aenfrith spoke the truth. She’d truly never expected him to be proven right.
In the space of three heartbeats, Gilfaethwy’s face had turned near ashen-pale. Caelinus pressed him down against the cushions on the reclining couch, touching anxious fingertips to the pulse-point in his throat. Aenfrith stood like a stone, refusing to break, refusing to give Livia any evidence of treachery now, not after all this.
Narrow-eyed, she snapped at him, “You’ve made your point, barbarian. Tend to him.”
Aenfrith pressed his clenched fist to his heart in salute, to keep his hand away from his belt-knife. “He needs his brother, domina.”
“Yes, I noticed that,” she said tightly. “I’m countermanding your orders. From here on, your primary duty is to keep him well. To bring me that babe. If he loses that child, I’ll have your head on a pike.”
“I will need authority over his brother’s safety as well,” Aenfrith said. “They’re soul-bound, domina. No more attempts against either of them, not from anyone.”
“Yes. Fine. Go.”
Freed, Aenfrith dashed across the room and caught Gilfaethwy close, helping Caelinus hold him still. He fought blindly against their hands, all elbows and knees, begging for his brother in such a frantic rush of his native tongue that Aenfrith could barely follow him.
Caelinus couldn’t understand a word, but the language of fear was universal. He gripped the boy’s wrists with the same gingerly rigid desperation as though he held a wild songbird, afraid to injure him and yet afraid to set him free in the grip of such mindless, violent panic. “Flavius, his brother — what’s happening?”
“He’s alive,” Aenfrith said, because he could feel that much through the bond of his master’s cuff. “Injured, frightened, but alive. Send a runner for Thorgest — Tertius, the northern auxiliaries’ commander — and Thamyris of the bath-house, and–”
Before he could even finish the thought, though, Gwion dropped from the shadow of the atrium’s southern column, hit his knees hard, and scrambled across the room to fling himself on his brother like a half-wild thing. He was bleeding from the mouth and from a gash at his temple, and they clung to each other like ivy, tangled and inseparable.
Aenfrith took a deep breath. A glance over at Livia’s furious, bitter face told him all he needed to know. She turned and stalked out, snapping her fingers at her door-warden as she passed.
Good. Frija had some mercy left to grant these forsaken children after all. Now to try to spare the other two whatever he still could, if it wasn’t too late.
Gwion first tried to tear Caelinus’ hand off for touching his brother, and then bit him when the poor man tried to wipe the blood from his face. Gilfaethwy flashed between scolding and concern and demanding explanations in such a tangled mess of half-finished sentences that Aenfrith didn’t even try to make sense of it. When he touched Gilfaethwy’s shoulder, though, Gwion whipped around like a cornered wolf; if the mage-cuff hadn’t blocked him, Gwion would have lashed at him as well.
“I’m not trying to hurt you, child,” Caelinus said, frustrated. “I’m trying to help–”
“He doesn’t speak Imperial,” Aenfrith told him. “Listen. Send Laenas’ door-warden Kolfinn — Coelus — to the auxiliaries’ hall, and tell them to guard my home. I have two other house-slaves, and one of them’s been chained to the roofpost.”
Caelinus shot him an utterly appalled look. “Chained to — Minerva’s grace, Flavius, give me the key to send with them!”
“I never had the key,” Aenfrith said, keeping his gaze carefully fixed.
Caelinus’ head twitched toward the direction Livia had gone before he controlled himself. After a moment’s torn indecision, he abandoned the thought of demanding anything from Livia herself; he kilted up the hems of his healers’ robes and dashed for the hall and Kolfinn.
This time when he touched Gilfaethwy’s shoulder, Gwion glared molten fury but didn’t strike out. Aenfrith sat next to them on the absurdly gilded reclining-couch and pulled them both close enough to hold, despite Gwion’s reflexive struggles. He pushed down the lingering snags of anger and fear in his own heart, dropping himself into a semblance of a warrior’s balanced, combat-ready steadiness, because there was no way he could ask any of them for true calm yet.
“You’re safe now, both of you,” he murmured, stroking his hands over them both impartially; at any other time, he would have smiled at Gwion’s little growl. “Keep still. Breathe. For Faethan’s sake, Gwion, let me hold you both.”
Right then, a plea for his twin’s sake was the only thing that could have soothed the boy’s fierce hatred of anything and everything Imperial-touched; Aenfrith knew it, knew how Gwion hated being manipulated, did it anyway. Gwion forced his muscles to unclench by sheer physical effort.
“What happened?” Gilfaethwy whispered.
“Soldiers,” Gwion spat, and touched his fingertips to the trickle of blood still tickling its way down his face. “Couple officers came marching in like they owned the house, looked at the three of us. They grabbed me f-first.” Despite his anger, his voice was starting to shake. “G-got me onto the floor. Like hell was I going to lie there and let them. I t-tried to fight, but…”
“Don’t,” Aenfrith said, wishing Gwion would accept comfort as willingly as his brother. “Don’t fight them. If it ever happens again, come straight to me.”
“But Eathlwine — Arion — I left them–” Gwion blinked hard at the shame-tears prickling in his eyes; Aenfrith felt his terror and self-loathing twice over, from Gilfaethwy’s heart-spill and again from the sheer misery flooding through his slave-bond.
“Don’t fight the Imperials,” Aenfrith insisted. “They’re armed. You aren’t. And if you injure one — if you kill one — they’ll send you to the tribunal for punishment, or worse. Come straight to me, Gwion. You’re the only one who can bring word so quickly.”
“Go, then,” Gwion said, and a couple of the tears escaped. “I just ran away–”
“–To guard your brother, and to tell me,” Aenfrith said, rubbing the boy’s trembling shoulders softly. “That was exactly right. I’ve already sent word to Thorgest. His men will be there soon.”
“Faster if I take them,” Gwion said, his voice breaking. “I shouldn’t have left them.”
“Stop that,” Aenfrith said, hugging them both close. “Othinn’s nuts, you’ve come down head-sick with Arion’s sense of valor, haven’t you? Let the heavy-armored walking mountains keep the valor, little one. Valor isn’t meant for folk like us. It’s not for folk with stealth, or speed, or wits. Valor gets us killed, and stupidly. We win much more often with tactics.”
Gwion buried his face against Aenfrith’s chest, and drew a shuddering breath; he could feel it when the boy’s hot shame-tears began to soak through the fabric of his tunic.
“No, you’re not a coward, you idiot!” Gilfaethwy told him, fierce and angry and frightened all at once. “I don’t care how you hate relying on Aenfrith for anything. I needed you to run. If they’d caught you, if… they’d… I felt it, Gwion. When he hit you. I needed you to escape. You’re not a coward. You were protecting me.”
“I want to go home,” Gwion whispered against Aenfrith’s chest.
“Not just yet,” Aenfrith murmured, stroking his hair with a careful hand. “Thorgest will send word when–”
“No,” he said, and took a horrible sobbing breath. “I want to go home.”
For all the upheavals, the day wasn’t done with them yet. When Aenfrith opened the door to let Caelinus in, Eathlwine very nearly killed him.
While they helped the boys home, they’d conversed in Imperial; Caelinus had truly thought nothing of it. Imperial was the language of civilized conversation; anything else Aenfrith happened to speak was through the necessity of communicating with less cultured barbarians.
But from within the house, Eathlwine had only heard two men’s voices speaking the same language as the soldiers who’d invaded her home and attacked an unarmed youth.
Aenfrith had opened the door, and had only had time to register the blur of motion. Battle-instincts had him twisting himself between the weapon and the boys faster than conscious thought. His chain mail turned the edge of the cooking-knife she’d thrown, but not the impact of the edge of the ten pound cast iron frying pan that followed it.
Then Eathlwine had charged them both with a bone-cleaver in her fist, dashing straight past the by-then-huddled and gasping heap of Aenfrith on the floor to throw herself at the still-standing Imperial-robed other. With war-skaldic curses on her tongue and the rage of the ancient battle-queens in her eyes, she was awe-inspiring even to Thorgest’s bemused and gawking warriors.
She’d almost managed to sink the cleaver into Caelinus’ head before Aenfrith managed to take a deep enough breath to command her to a halt with power behind it. Even with a cracked shoulderblade and three broken ribs from the cast-iron pan, Aenfrith kept trying to laugh.
It had taken a great deal of time to straighten out the mess. Caelinus’ slave-bonds prohibited a deliberate strike against the master — but none of them had known the stricture only held when a slave recognized a master. When Eathlwine realized what she’d almost done — and that Aenfrith might well have died if she’d been able to throw the heavy pan high enough to hit him in the head — it took her a long minute to come to terms with herself. Then her jaw set and she grabbed the cleaver again and she took after Caelinus a second time, having fixed the blame in her heart squarely on him for coming to their door speaking the Imperials’ tongue in the first place.
In the end, Arion held Gwion tight to keep him from vanishing while Gilfaethwy put himself between the terrified healer-mage and Eathlwine’s bone-cleaver, hand-signing to her and stepping sideways into her path again whenever she tried to dodge around him, guarding an Imperial invader with nothing but empty hands and the utter conviction that Eathlwine would never hurt him by choice. Even so, it took him near a candlemark to coax the cleaver away from her.
That started Aenfrith both laughing and pain-choking again; with a sigh, Gilfaethwy touched his fingertips to Aenfrith’s temples and leaned on him with drowsy-warm-snuggle-relax feelings. Apparently yawning hurt even worse than laughing, but it had helped sober him up.
They’d both needed their wits about them to keep Gwion with them, once he’d contrasted Eathlwine’s determination and ferocity with his own blind panic and found himself guilty of cowardice and abandonment.
“Little thistle-head, you were the one they wanted all along,” Aenfrith insisted, the lines around his eyes tight with pain that wasn’t entirely physical. “Livia Vitella was testing my word of your twin-bond, and she’s likely having them beaten within an inch of their lives for their failure right now.”
“Then it’s still my fault!” Gwion snapped. “If I was their target, then it’s my fault they came–”
“Blame the bitch who gave them their orders,” Aenfrith growled. “Don’t blame yourself.”
“She’s not going to stop until I bear for her like Faethan is! He bought Arion’s freedom from her beatings. That’s all she promised him. She’s not going to stop unless — unless I get–!” Gwion stopped short, choking in disgust and horror.
Gilfaethwy hugged him close, aching for his brother’s pain. Aenfrith ran his hand down Gwion’s back carefully, as though he were some skittish, half-wild creature.
“It’s over now,” he said. “She wants Faethan’s babe too much. She saw how their attack on you affected him.”
“Then after the babe’s born, she’ll try again,” Gwion whispered, shuddering. “While Faethan’s healing, she’ll…”
Aenfrith rubbed his free hand down his face, and said, “Most likely, yes.”
“Why?” Gilfaethwy cried. “Isn’t one enough? She wants a false heir who could be the lord Rhys’s child — another infant would be too many months too young, even gotten now.”
“Sometimes infants die in their cradles,” Aenfrith murmured. “Another child would look too young for the first few years, yes — but twenty years from now, it would be much harder to look at two youths and say which was a few months the elder. She looks to crush the resistance, not just today, but twenty years from now, and forty, and sixty.”
“But she’ll be long dead in sixty years,” Gwion said spitefully. “They have the entire continent! There’s nothing here for them but sheep and farmland, and the continent has those already. Why do they even want our land?”
With his arm braced against his ribs, Aenfrith gave a small, careful sigh.
“The Imperials don’t look at war the way my folk do. We raid for livestock to survive a hard winter; we would never stop to lay a stone road on the way to a cattle raid. But when their armies march through, the Imperials build things behind them — roads, fortresses, aqueducts, laid in stone. They look past the winter’s battle to conquer the land for generations, to settle it for their sons’ benefit”
“Only their sons?”
Aenfrith nodded. “Sons can conquer more of the world for the Imperium. Daughters are only good for breeding grandsons. They don’t worship your Goddess in the Imperium.”
“Of course they don’t,” Gilfaethwy murmured, brushing a hand softly over the curve of his belly. “None of them understand yielding for love’s sake.”
Gwion’s heart twisted, a swift sick rejection. Arion tapped his manacles together to call their eyes to his hands, and he signed, You should never have needed to learn that lesson.
“I don’t know,” Gilfaethwy said, looking down. “If I’d been born as a woman, maybe I could have been a proper priestess, not just one of the king’s witch-mages. I think I might have liked being given to Mercy’s Hand.”
“You are a proper priestess,” Gwion said, gruffly. “It was Mercy’s Hand in you that spared Arion from the bitch’s beatings. No woman-born priestess could have done more.” He glared into the fire, and said, “I just… I don’t want to be a priestess. I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t want to be a woman.”
“I know,” Gilfaethwy murmured, and hugged him close. “I’m sorry. If I had anything left to bargain with Livia, I would offer myself for you.”
“Like hellfire are we going to let you!” Gwion snapped. “You’re too damned much a priestess, you know that? You can’t always give up your own body for everyone else’s happiness!”
Gilfaethwy shrugged a little. “It doesn’t matter now,” he said regretfully. “I don’t think I could give her anything more, not unless I were carrying two.”
All three of them looked like he’d just slapped them with a very cold fish. Then, in near unison, they stared at his belly.
“What?” he asked, nettled. “I’m not that big!”
“Twins run in families,” Gwion said, faint-voiced.
“Do I look that big to you?”
“No,” Aenfrith said immediately; he wasn’t fool enough to say otherwise. “But you’re only now coming to your final season, your final increase…”
“I am not carrying twins, you idiots,” Gilfaethwy groaned. “I only feel the one heart!”
“You can feel that?” Aenfrith asked, fascinated. “How long have you been feeling it? What does he feel? Does he know us apart when we pat you?”
“I… er…” Flustered, Gilfaethwy stammered, “It doesn’t know enough to feel complicated things. Just contentment, or drowsiness, or sometimes upset. It doesn’t like my back or my hip bones.” He touched his stomach lightly, focusing inward, seeking the answer to a nagging fear of his own. But the babe had no notion of male or female; it felt warmth, touch, a bit of sleepiness, and that was all. It was disappointing; if he could only know whether he carried a son for Livia, or whether–
“Stop thinking about it,” Gwion growled. “You are not giving her anything else.”
“I can’t give her anything else,” Gilfaethwy reminded him.
“So stop thinking about it already!”
But it really wasn’t that simple to stop.
Each night, Gwion’s heart kept fretting over have-to-run, both-of-us, before-winter before-he’s-too-heavy before-it’s-too-late, tangling over fears and plans and wild-eyed hopes and thoughts of their home — the way it had been before they were changed, the way it couldn’t possibly be anymore.
Their mother couldn’t tuck them into bed and make it all have been a nightmare. Their uncle Ithel couldn’t hold the manor against the Imperials by sheer force of his barrel-chested, booming laughter.
It was almost frost-moon, almost the dying month. They couldn’t survive alone as they crossed a frost-haggard, war-torn countryside with no weapons, no coin, nothing to their names but slaves’ summer-chitons and thin sandals. It was already too late to run. But Gwion’s heart refused anything else; he wouldn’t even think of what would happen if they couldn’t win free of their slave-cuffs and Arion’s chains and Gilfaethwy’s child-burdened weariness and the thousands of armed soldiers in the camp and the war-torn countryside and the bite of winter itself.
So Gilfaethwy thought about Livia, because Gwion wouldn’t. But Aenfrith, the stubborn, overprotective wretch, had guessed the shape of Gilfaethwy’s brooding.
With his writing-hand bound up in a sling to keep his broken shoulderblade immobile, Aenfrith had called a pair of Imperial scribes into his workroom to help with the transcriptions — and it left him with his eyes and wits free to keep watch over Gilfaethwy. Every time Gilfaethwy thought the man well distracted by his dictation to the other scribes, somehow Aenfrith always found something for him to do — no matter how trivial. There was no possible need for a translation of the cantina’s weekly menu into their native tongue, or the duty roster for the month, or (in one of Aenfrith’s more desperate moments) a vividly scatological Imperial drinking song.
Gilfaethwy let himself yield to Aenfrith’s badly-hidden concern, and busied himself with useless absurdities whenever he was asked; and he waited for his chance. On the day Marcus Petillius dragged all six of the Væringjar cohort commanders into Aenfrith’s workroom, arguing at the top of their lungs among five dialects of two different languages, Gilfaethwy breathed a brief, fervent prayer of thanks and slipped away to find Livia’s atrium.
Laenas’ door-warden Kolfinn stopped him before he even rounded the corner.
Clearly, Aenfrith had learned something of tactics from all the Imperial orders he’d translated.
Kolfinn held on to his collar tightly no matter how he squirmed, and waited for the arguing commanders to take their leave before pushing him back into Aenfrith’s workroom. Whatever he said to Aenfrith involved a broad grin and the word “kitten.” He left and shut the door behind himself before Gilfaethwy could escape.
Looking at the boy’s sweet, bright-eyed face, Aenfrith thought, an unwary person really wouldn’t have guessed that this one really was the more dangerous of the pair. The other played pranks, but Gwion could be distracted. Once this one got an idea into his head… well, the last time Gilfaethwy had fixated on something that strongly, he’d gotten himself with child.
Aenfrith badly felt the need for better tools of diversion, because he really didn’t want to find out the hard way what the boy could come up with to top that.
He dipped his fingertips in the water-well by the ink-mixing block and flicked his fingers toward Gilfaethwy’s face; the boy spluttered and blinked away the wet sprinkles.
“Bad kitten,” Aenfrith told him firmly. “Stay away from Livia. The slave cuff is enough; don’t make me tie you on a dog-rope too.”
“A leash,” Gilfaethwy muttered, scrubbing at his face. “And cats hate leashes.”
“I know,” he replied dryly. “Stay here, with me. Nothing good comes from that woman, and a great deal of harm.”
“But I just — if there’s anything else I can offer–”
“No.” Aenfrith pushed down on his shoulder until he folded onto the bench. “She’s already gotten all she wants from you, Faethan. All you can do now is give her weapons that cut your own heart. You’d give her anything she asked for your brother’s safety? She already knows that. She doesn’t need any more proof.”
“Gwion’s safe while you carry,” Aenfrith said. “That’s all you can give him.”
“But it’s not enough!” Gilfaethwy protested, pale and too bright-eyed, clenched hands trembling at his sides. “There has to be something I can do–”
“Welcome,” Aenfrith said tiredly, “to my land. To Arion’s land, the morning he woke to you lying so trusting in his arms and his seed life-quickening in you.”
Gilfaethwy flinched back, hurt; Aenfrith sighed, and reached out to stroke his cheek.
“Only children believe life is just, kitten. This is what adults know: sometimes, no matter how much you try, you just can’t make it right.”
“Then what can I do?” Gilfaethwy demanded. “If I can’t give her anything else she wants, and I can’t bear to live with it hanging over Gwion like a blade–”
“You come to the bath-house with me, and we fuck each other boneless, and nothing will seem as bad after.”
“I know you are! That’s the problem!” Gilfaethwy smacked him across the shoulder, careful to hit his uninjured side.
“Take pleasure when you can,” Aenfrith said, stroking his fingers through the boy’s soft, winter-pale curls. “Pain is a pushy beast; it stalks us and seizes us no matter how well we run and hide. But pleasure is a wary, wild thing, too easily startled into flight. When you catch it, hold it close.”
He stood and stretched carefully, and held out his hand. “Come on, kitten. Let’s go fetch your brother. I’m sure he won’t mind; Flavia’s quite good at distracting men from brooding thoughts.”
Among the many things Aenfrith didn’t understand about the way Gilfaethwy’s mind worked, his body-shame was near the top of the list. The boy truly, deeply thought of his altered body as unnatural, as something to be endured or avoided rather than sought out. He was playful and eager for touch in the outer world, when his body was safely hidden behind draping cloth and shadows. But whenever Aenfrith brought him to the baths, stripped their clothes off in the sunlight from the high windows, and began to touch him intimately, the knot of shame in his heart clenched tight.
It took patience and steady, honest appreciation from warm and loving touches before Gilfaethwy’s shame would uncurl itself slowly, gradually opening out to wondering gratitude, like a soft-petaled flower revealing its inner secrets to the caress of the sun.
From Aenfrith’s own perspective, he knew himself to be one of the luckiest bastards in the entire camp. Once he’d been coaxed away from his shame, Gilfaethwy was so responsive, so eager to please; he would have been a sweet and generous lovemate even without the gift of his heart-magery. With his gift added in, Aenfrith could feel exactly how much pleasure he gave his lover; Gilfaethwy gave pleasure back as instinctively as breathing. Nothing else even came close to loving a heart-mage, when Aenfrith could feel his lover’s desires and delights just as vividly as his own.
Aenfrith knew himself to be a greedy, selfish hedonist. But so long as Gilfaethwy enjoyed his attentions, he wasn’t about to waste a minute regretting his own moral failings. Shame was vastly less fun than sex with an eager, grateful, adoring heart-mage who had a youth’s swift recovery time.
Unfortunately, getting himself out of his own clothing with three cracked ribs, a broken shoulderblade, and a bound arm was up there not far from shame on the less-fun duty-roster. Gilfaethwy caught his breath at the pain-echo every time Aenfrith twisted wrong, too.
“Freki’s bloody fangs,” Aenfrith muttered. “Think Eathlwine would believe it if my belt knife ‘slipped’ enough to cut me out of this?”
“‘Slipped’ all the way up? No.” He tugged carefully at the hem of Aenfrith’s tunic, frowning where a fold caught on the elbow that had been bound immobile. “Maybe if you sit down and lean forward and I pull from the shoulders…”
Bending over hurt like hellfire; white sparks of pain flared behind his eyes every time he tried to take a breath. Gilfaethwy all but tore the tunic off over his head, dropped it in a heap, and collapsed at his side; both of them leaned back against the cool tile for a minute to gather their breath and their wits.
“Maybe we should just wash,” the boy muttered, unconsciously rolling his own shoulder to try to ease the echo he felt of Aenfrith’s aches. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Great gods above and below, I’m not waiting until my bones knit! We’ll just have to be more creative, that’s all.”
Gilfaethwy cast him a wary look before he’d even finished the sentence. The boy was as bright as he was skittish; he’d long since learned to brace himself and look round for nearby doors whenever Aenfrith mentioned notions like ‘creative’ or ‘foolproof’ or ‘don’t worry, I’ve got an idea.’
“Heh.” He reached over with his good hand to ruffle the boy’s hair again. “So, what to play-act? Say that I’m an injured, valiant warrior from beyond the great sea, and you my gentle native healer-mage?”
“At least let us share a language,” Gilfaethwy said, brow furrowed.
“Oh, I’m sure the warrior’s been here on campaign for enough years to have learned your tongue.” He kissed the boy’s temple again, and added, “Besides, who’d leave a land where the healer-folk work their arts stark naked?”
“Well, here I am broken, and here’s all your lovely cream-soft skin, and–” Gilfaethwy’s eyes were so wide Aenfrith wondered if they might fall out of his head. “Story-crafting?” he prompted, grinning.
“Oh!” Gilfaethwy shook his head like a wet puppy clearing out his ears. “Yes. That. Um.” His blushes showed from his brow clear down to the hollow of his throat; even the tips of his ears had pinked. But he dove into the play gamely, making up tales on the spot. “It, uh, it helps to have a pattern? If I’m looking at a broken arm, I can examine my own to feel how the pieces go together? Right. That.”
“Hmm. And being naked everywhere?”
“We mustn’t miss any injuries!” he replied pertly. “Lie down and let me tend to you. All over.”
“Heh.” Aenfrith stretched out on the padded bench, breathing shallowly until the cracked ribs settled from pain-stabs back into their usual ache. Gilfaethwy had perhaps been learning too much from Caelinus’ assiduous tending over the past week, though; instead of starting at the pleasure-points, he started at Aenfrith’s feet, testing the nails for blood circulation.
“Broken up at this end, remember?”
“And which of us is the healer?” Gilfaethwy poured the bathing-oil into his palm and began rubbing it into Aenfrith’s legs with long slow strokes, then took it off with the strigil.
Things began looking up when he’d worked his way up Aenfrith’s legs; he lingered over the soft, highly sensitive skin between Aenfrith’s thighs, but swatted Aenfrith’s good hand away when he reached for him. “Lie still,” he scolded, “or I’ll sit on that other hand and keep you still.”
Grinning from ear to ear, Aenfrith promptly reached up again. True to his word, Gilfaethwy pinned his hand at his side and sat on his wrist — but his fingers were facing the wrong direction to be of any use. Brows furrowed, Aenfrith tried to twist his hand over; Gilfaethwy made a startled little squeak and pinked again, but shifted his hips to keep Aenfrith’s hand flat against the bench.
“You’re under a healer’s care,” Gilfaethwy said, fixing a half-lidded glare on him. “That means the healer gets to push you around, and decides what you can and can’t do, and everyone fusses at you for the most absurd things.”
“Er.” Belatedly, Aenfrith began to have second thoughts about the wisdom of letting Gilfaethwy play healer when he was still miffed about their little family’s anxious concern for his well-being. …Concern, not fussing. Of course they hadn’t been fussing at him. …Much.
“Surely I can move one hand safely,” he said.
“We can’t be too careful,” Gilfaethwy said, over-earnest and far too helpful. “Your shoulder was broken just last week! Clearly you have some sort of bone weakness. You might break more bones if we let you move too much, too soon.”
…No, this game had not been among Aenfrith’s best thought out ideas.
With a certain gleeful sparkle in the wide blue eyes, Gilfaethwy stroked Aenfrith’s hair back from his brow and murmured, “You understand, it’s only that we’re so concerned for you. You have to be more careful. Especially with your bone condition to think of.”
Aenfrith might have squirmed a bit, if squirming didn’t hurt like fire. “The point’s been made,” he muttered, less than graciously.
“Good. So.” Gilfaethwy tapped a fingertip against his chin, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “No lifting anything heavier than a pen for the next four months, not until your breaks are well mended. No more walking around without me; you might fall and break yourself at any moment! And especially no more talking to unpleasant people. No more Livia. In fact, no Imperials at all. Imperials shout, and then you might try to shout back, and with your poor ribs…”
“The point’s made already!” Aenfrith groaned.
“Good. So that means you’ll lie still for me and not struggle at all against what your healer says?”
This was rapidly degenerating into one of his worst ideas ever.
“Yes,” Aenfrith said, closing his eyes. There was nothing else he could say, not without admitting himself to be a hypocrite. Hedonist he’d grant; morally deficient he couldn’t argue either; sharp-witted and devious he was actually proud of; but hypocrisy was one vice beyond the pale.
“Oh, that’s even better,” Gilfaethwy said, interested, and he draped a folded towel over Aenfrith’s eyes as a makeshift blindfold. “There. Now keep still and rest, and let your healer tend to your needs.”
Gilfaethwy’s hands were warm and deft and slippery and completely merciless as he smoothed oil over Aenfrith’s body, gliding his palms over nipples that peaked hard at the touch and then leaving, tracing light swirls over the hollow of his belly when he sucked in a breath at the tickle, stroking just past his groin and lingering between his thighs — passing so close to his balls that Aenfrith could feel the heat coming off his hands, but barely not touching.
If the boy had even had the decency to tie him up, he could have had something to thrash against. Like this, with nothing binding him but his lover’s touch and his own word… it wasn’t safe to flail about when he couldn’t see where he might hit Gilfaethwy, which meant he had nothing but willpower to keep himself still. Aenfrith hated needing willpower.
He twitched hard when Gilfaethwy ran both thumbs up the crease between his thighs; Gilfaethwy clicked his tongue in a mimicry of Caelinus’ fussy disapprovals.
“Lie still,” he reminded him sternly, arching close enough that Aenfrith could feel the shadow of his body-heat leaning over his hip, over his cock. But if he pushed down with his shoulders and heels in order to rock his hips upward for a touch, he really was going to re-crack that damned shoulderblade.
The devious little wretch took his leisure in scraping the oil off as well, dawdling little tickle-scratching patterns with the strigil-blade, then pulling his hands away so that Aenfrith couldn’t begin to guess where the next touch would come from.
Aenfrith rocked his head just enough to whack the back of his skull against the bench. He’d always loved how responsive Gilfaethwy was, how he let Aenfrith know in no uncertain terms when desire sang through him. But it had never previously occurred to the boy to use his heart-sight as a teasing-weapon during their loveplay.
Not until Aenfrith had opened his mouth, let half-thought stupidity fall out like a scarce-fledged chick from its nest, and handed Gwion’s twin inspirations about cock-teasing.
Aenfrith whacked his head against the bench a second time.
“Stop that,” Gilfaethwy breathed, his lips suddenly a bare handspan from Aenfrith’s aching groin.
His whole body knifed itself convulsively around that vulnerable, desperate point of need; Gilfaethwy yelped when the jerk of Aenfrith’s knee clipped him across what felt like a shoulder. Shuddering, Aenfrith tried to force himself still again, tried to uncurl his knees and lie flat. With a soft-pitched chuckle, Gilfaethwy pushed his legs out flat again. And then the warm pressure pinning Aenfrith’s hand lurched and shifted, with hot oil-sleeked weight rubbing and settling across the tops of his thighs, still pinning his hand against his side with the backs of his knees, flesh-heat-life so damned close to his cock and not touching–
“Please,” Aenfrith begged, his voice cracking. “Frija’s mercy, Faethan, please!”
“Just a little more,” he murmured, and shifted his weight again; the stopper on the oil-jar sounded a soft pop. “This time you have to hold still for me.”
“H-hold me by the root. Tight.” Aenfrith gulped for breath, and said, “Else I’ll spend myself the minute you touch me.”
“Oh. Um.” Gilfaethwy sounded both sheepish and a little proud. He reached down and took a solid grip, and Aenfrith bit his lip hard, trying not to let his hips buck upward.
“Sorry,” he wheezed. “Just… gods… wait.”
It felt like Gilfaethwy was utterly fascinated by how his cock twitched and struggled toward a climax the boy’s grip wouldn’t permit him to release. Gilfaethwy touched the tip with curious fingers, and Aenfrith howled a curse in the southern coastal cant, throwing his head sharply enough that the towel slipped down over his face.
“Shhh,” Gilfaethwy soothed, drizzling oil over his cock and stroking it down with far-too-light fingertips. “There. Tell me when you can be still.”
“Nnnngh.” Aenfrith took a shuddering breath and forced himself to a semblance of stillness, tasting blood where he’d bit his lip too hard. “T-trying.”
“Good.” He shifted again, giggled when his slick skin slid over Aenfrith’s, and then Aenfrith felt Gilfaethwy’s knees on both sides of his ribs, felt the tremor in his thighs as he eased himself down — slowly, achingly slowly, taking Aenfrith’s cock inch by agonizing inch into the hot, wet grip of his body’s inner sheath.
“Fuck,” Aenfrith said feelingly, and felt the tremor of Gilfaethwy’s breathless giggles. “Gods. Let me see you.” But the mention of sight sparked off a furtive little burst of the boy’s damned body-shame; Aenfrith shook his head, sputtering at the towel. “Ah, Faethan, please. Let me see that smile.”
He slipped partway out when Gilfaethwy shifted to pull the towel away from his face. Instead of dropping it to the floor, though, the stubborn boy held it against his chest, still hiding whatever he could of his body. Panting softly, eyes closed as he concentrated on taking Aenfrith’s length deep into himself again, he looked like one of the Imperium’s temptation-spirits given warm and eager flesh. His knees were splayed wide, inviting kisses and caresses all up the tender inside of his thigh — wait, knees spread–
With his one usable hand finally set free, Aenfrith reached over, plucked the towel out of Gilfaethwy’s grasp, and threw it clear across the chamber.
He let eyes and heart drink their fill of his lover’s sweet body, offering up frank admiration for his heart-sight. Pale as spring cream, pale as the sunlight dancing across his body and glimmering in his hair, and utterly flawless; he’d never been marked by battle, nor by disease. Small, milk-ripening, fiercely tender breasts, peaked with shell-pink nipples that begged for a touch, save that Aenfrith knew how very sensitive they were. A delightful little cock, hard and needy and flushed rose-bright at the tip, arched up against the soft rise of his belly — oh, so that was the problem.
“Idiot,” Aenfrith said fondly, and spread his hand over both the pretty little cock and the softly rounding belly. “Idiot twice. Do I feel revolted?”
“I just… I’m already… getting clumsy, and…”
“You’ll be big around as a melon,” Aenfrith teased, rubbing the heel of his hand up and down to make the boy’s breath catch and his inner walls clench around him. “We’ll find ways. ‘Clumsy,’ pfah — right now I can hardly move from the waist up!”
“What I’m after’s below the waist,” Gilfaethwy said, carefully clenching inside as he rocked his hips, and Aenfrith sucked in air through his teeth.
“T-that — aaah — that’s my point.”
Gilfaethwy blinked, and then he laughed, surprised and shamefacedly relieved. “Oh! Yes, I see — and if you don’t mind it like this–”
“Not completely like this,” Aenfrith begged, twining his fingers through Gilfaethwy’s. “Next time — less teasing-torture?”
“Torture?” Lifting himself half off Aenfrith’s cock and then pushing back down, thighs trembling from the effort of control, he gasped, “You were half a breath from bursting, you fraud!”
“You did that to me! On purpose!”
“Well,” Gilfaethwy panted, bringing both their hands to his groin. “That’s the aim, isn’t it?”
It took coordination to keep track of whose hand was whose, whose body was whose, in the grip of body-pleasures twining together in a rising spiral through them both. He rocked his hips softly, slid deeper into the velvet-hot sheath of his lover’s body, shivered in bliss at being filled, curled his fingers around his lover’s need, felt the rhythm of a quickening pulse flutter in his hand and in his body. He traced his fingertips over the frantic pulsing vein, and felt the brush of his fingertips spike lust through his own cock.
Teasing was one thing, but it felt so much better to share. To be able to touch where his lover ached for a touch, to seek out his pleasure-points and be rewarded by small breathless cries and helpless, shivering bursts of delight. To be able to give back. To blur the lines dividing self from other into a messy, passionate, indistinguishable us.
He truly couldn’t tell which of them came first; they both felt it, both cried out, and then again when another release took them. A few minutes later, Aenfrith realized it had to be Gilfaethwy who’d leaned against two locked elbows to catch his breath, because he only had the one arm available himself.
Some unburst tension still rumbled through them like an impending thunderstorm, though; Aenfrith blinked until he could focus, opened his mouth to ask, and then they crashed through the wave of raw passion again.
Utterly boneless afterwards, Aenfrith wheezed, “What was that?”
In a very tiny voice, Gilfaethwy admitted, “Gwion. …Sorry.”
“Oh. Heh. Don’ ‘pologize.” Wanting to stretch like a cat and cursing his cracked ribs for the hundredth time, Aenfrith settled for a yawn and scratch.
“We should wash again,” Gilfaethwy said, too limp for much enthusiasm at the prospect of moving.
“Heh. Handy that we do this at the bath-house.”
In the aftermath of their love-sport, Gilfaethwy was always too sated and too deeply relaxed to remember to deny himself what he wanted to reach for; he traced curious patterns along the arch of each muscle beneath Aenfrith’s skin, bent to lick at a trail of sweat shining in the hollow of his throat, kissed the pulse-point fluttering under his jaw, settled back soft and trusting into his arms, perfectly content to be handled and stroked.
All he needs for kittenhood is the purr, Aenfrith thought, smiling to himself as he scraped the strigil over the delicate little wings of Gilfaethwy’s shoulderblades, then down his back. Gilfaethwy tipped his head and nipped softly at the skin of his inner arm, a little warning.
“I thought you said you didn’t read minds.”
“I don’t,” he murmured, and kissed the place he’d nipped. “But when you’re thinking of kitten-teasing, your heart gets …ticklish.”
“Heh. Get my back for me?”
“Mmm.” Gilfaethwy took the strigil from him, leaned back to look, and frowned, barely ghosting his fingertips over Aenfrith’s skin. “You’re all bruise-purple and bronze…”
“Looks worse than it feels,” Aenfrith assured him. “You won’t hurt me. You’ll know if you do.”
Still, Gilfaethwy was breathtakingly careful with the oil and scraper. Aenfrith smiled to himself, rubbing a hand along the slender, graceful curve of Gilfaethwy’s calf.
When they finally slipped into the bath to soak, Gilfaethwy settled himself into Aenfrith’s lap, settled his head against his uninjured shoulder, and closed his eyes, his heart full of loving, pleasure-sated contentment. Aenfrith curved his hand against his child-rounding, and smiled again at a small flutter of movement from inside.
“Faethan,” he asked, “what could I give your brother that he’d let himself accept from me?”
“For the birthday feast?”
Aenfrith nodded against the crown of his head. “He won’t take my coin because it’s Imperial, and he has no fondness for books, and I’m not practiced in handcrafts like the rest of you. I don’t want to give him something clumsily made that he’d take as mockery.”
Gilfaethwy sighed a little. “What he’d like best of all, I think, is to be recognized as a man. A man grown; a proper man who isn’t …compromised. In your land, what are the traditions for a boy coming of age to begin his war-training?”
“One of the chieftain’s bed-slaves for the night. Maybe if I ask Thorgest for the loan of one of his women,” Aenfrith mused, and then blinked at Gilfaethwy’s appalled expression. “What?”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Aenfrith said, brow furrowed. “That wouldn’t go over well?”
“Merciful Goddess, no.” Gilfaethwy ran a hand down his face. “Aenfrith, think about how I reacted to the thought of having a bath-slave ordered to tend me. Then add Gwion’s temper. We don’t have slaves here. At least… we didn’t before the Imperium invaded.”
“What do you do with your law-breakers, then?”
“It depends on the offense. Markings for the lesser offenses, imprisonment or execution for the greater ones.”
“So your law-breakers just sit around doing nothing? What a waste of working men.”
“Waste or no,” Gilfaethwy said, “believe me, Gwion would not appreciate being given a bed-slave for a night. Another man’s bed-slave even less.”
“Picky, picky.” Aenfrith grinned and ruffled his hair. “Still, thank you for warning me. I’d better pass that along to Thorgest, too. He was already planning to give you one of his women for the night.”
“And you didn’t try to stop him?!”
“They’re talented,” Aenfrith protested. “And you share me with him. I thought it was only fair if you took other lovers too.”
“Not a slave,” Gilfaethwy insisted. “Not someone who can’t choose.”
“But they can choose. Thorgest already told them to talk over who would be best for you, and they thought–”
“He told them to WHAT?!”
Both hands in the air defensively, Aenfrith said, “Anyway! No bed-slaves! I’ll warn him!”
“Oh, Goddess.” Gilfaethwy buried his face in his hands and sank lower in the water, giving off waves of incredulous, indignant misery. “Let me try to understand this. Not for punishment but for a reward, you’re sending us to survive a night in a mead-hall full of heavily armed, drunken, wantonly destructive sea-raiders and slave women who’ve been ordered to choose among themselves which of them must force themselves to lie down with strangers who don’t even speak their tongue?”
Blinking, Aenfrith asked, “Is ‘yes’ the wrong answer?”
Apparently, Thorgest had an even harder time with the idea than Aenfrith. He simply couldn’t accept that both of the twins were fools enough not only to turn down the offer of his bed-slaves, but also to be shamed and offended by the mere suggestion. He spent half an afternoon trying to wrap his mind around it, coming back to the workroom half a dozen times to ask if Aenfrith was entirely sure he’d understood the barbarian twins’ language, whether the twins understood how skillful his women were, and whether Aenfrith was absolutely sure he oughtn’t surprise them anyway for the sake of improving their obviously inadequate education in body-pleasures.
Watching Aenfrith try for the half-dozenth time to convince Thorgest that there really was no mistaking a request like “no slaves,” Gilfaethwy wondered about the sea-raiders’ language’s ability to express concepts like “a lover’s agreement” and “only in desire.” Thorgest had never threatened him with rape — but Thorgest identified him as Aenfrith’s kitten. Gilfaethwy suspected Thorgest thought that Aenfrith’s kitten was Aenfrith’s property to command, just as his slaves were his own to command.
And… by the Imperials’ laws, Thorgest wasn’t wrong. Aenfrith could have commanded him to lie down with anyone, regardless of his own will. Aenfrith owned him. It was simply a matter of luck that Aenfrith was kind enough to care how he felt.
Thorgest made an exasperated sound, threw his hands in the air, and stumped back out. Seeing the slump in Aenfrith’s shoulders hurt a little, oddly, in ways he wasn’t sure how to name. Gilfaethwy wasn’t about to let himself feel guilty for not wanting to force a bed-slave, but… at the same time, he didn’t doubt how sincerely Aenfrith was trying to make them happy.
In his own language, so that the Imperial scribes wouldn’t understand, Gilfaethwy said, “Thank you for trying. For caring how we feel, even if you don’t understand.”
Surprised, Aenfrith said, “Why wouldn’t I? Birth-gifts are to make you pleased, not to make you miserable. Nothing’s hard to understand in that.” He sat down next to Gilfaethwy with a sigh, draping his arm about his waist; he was warm and strong and gentle, and Gilfaethwy wished they were alone so that he could kiss him. “So, other than a bed-slave, what could I give Gwion that won’t get me shouted at?”
“Uncle Ithel would have taken him into training as his land-heir this year,” Gilfaethwy said. “He’d have sparred with three men with three different weapons to earn the right to train at arms, and he’s clever and agile enough I don’t doubt he’d have passed his trials. Then a night’s vigil at the Temple, and his liege-oath to Uncle’s service. He’s had practice-blades, but not living steel. Uncle would have given him his first real sword this fall.”
Aenfrith sighed, rubbing Gilfaethwy’s side with a gentle hand. “Except that your crazed idiot of a king had already sent you to war.”
Gilfaethwy nodded quietly.
“I can’t,” Aenfrith murmured. “I can’t give him a weapon myself. Not while he’s my bond-slave.”
“I know.” Gilfaethwy put a hand over his and laced their fingers together. “But maybe you could give him something for defense, rather than for aggression? Bracers, gloves…”
“Leather hawk-gloves!” Aenfrith exclaimed, delighted. “And a chicken to sit on his wrist and cluck at you for him, to spare his voice the nagging.”
With a groan, he protested, “I thought you didn’t want to be shouted at!”
“Not accidentally,” Aenfrith told him, with the smugness of a cat that had just found the cream-pitcher untended. “On purpose is entirely different.”
He leaned closer to Gilfaethwy’s shoulder and looked at the parchment he’d pinned to the work-table, sounding out the words slowly. “Whoever made up your language never read the word-rules. Y and W shouldn’t work like that. To say nothing of all those Ls.”
Gilfaethwy dug an elbow into his side before he picked up the quill again. “You’ll have room to talk about silly writing once your folk don’t simply catch a sparrow, splatter its claws with ink, and let it dance around.”
“Brat.” Gilfaethwy felt Aenfrith’s breath against his cheek as he silently tasted the shape of a few more words. “This is for him?”
“His lineage and land-bond as Uncle Ithel’s heir,” Gilfaethwy agreed softly. “Do the Imperials have any colored inks or gilding for the scribes’ use?”
“Not for military paperwork, no. But Caelinus’ elder apprentice makes art of his ink-spells. I’ll ask him.”
So Gilfaethwy finished his brother’s gift with inks and gold leaf from Caelinus’ apprentice, who was visibly astonished by a childing barbarian slave-woman who spoke basic, clear Imperial and knew not only how to read but also how to illuminate a parchment with a practiced hand. He kept the finished parchment safely hidden in Aenfrith’s workroom, where Gwion wouldn’t wander across it by accident.
That settled, Gilfaethwy turned his thoughts to Livia once more. Aenfrith was too wary to let him speak to the woman unguarded — but he wasn’t quite so careful with the scrolls and slates that the scribes passed among each other.
So Gilfaethwy sent a carefully formal note in his best scribe-hand to Livia’s guard, asking permission to bring Arion to the auxiliaries’ hall for the duration of their birthday feast. He’d read it over twice, making sure that his Imperial spelling was correct and that he’d sounded respectful, not desperate. Surely Aenfrith couldn’t fault him for simply asking such a small thing.
Livia wrote back that the choice had always been Arion’s. If he would yield his stubborn pride, swear his obedience, and be mage-bound to Aenfrith as the twins had, then of course he would be able to attend the festivities. She also offered prettily worded congratulations on the celebration of their birth, and promised a batch of fig-sweets from her kitchen-slaves for the feast.
Really, Gilfaethwy told himself sternly, I should have expected that.
Still, he made another attempt at persuading Arion to swear himself to Aenfrith. He’d tried dozens of times, and been gently rebuffed dozens of times. But he truly couldn’t understand how Arion could have lived half a year under Aenfrith’s roof, yet somehow still think of the Imperials’ chains as a lesser surrender.
He asked, and debated, and coaxed, and eventually whined. Arion simply shook his head, and smiled softly, and told him to enjoy the feast.
Really, Gilfaethwy told himself, I should have expected that too. After all this time, Arion wouldn’t have sworn submission to an Imperial representative for the sake of a night’s feasting, just as Gwion wouldn’t have sworn off his dreams of freedom. But he still wished that Arion could have come with them.
As they finished bundling up the last of the supplies, Gwion was practically buzzing with enthusiasm. Eathlwine had left hours earlier to help the other sea-raiders’ women with the amount of cooking it would take to serve a feast to Thorgest’s entire eighty-man wing of the cohort and several dozen more: the cohort’s slaves and house-folk, Caelinus and his apprentice, Thamyris and Flavia and the bath-slaves — and, most likely, anyone else who noticed the noise and came wandering in to mooch.
So Arion was the last soul left in the house; he was weaving as they left, calm and quiet. Still, thinking of the chaos ahead, Gilfaethwy oddly envied him that peace as he closed the door.
“Relax,” Aenfrith told him, smiling. “Nobody wants to smash you. You’d be no challenge to smash. They’ll go after bigger prey, so they can brag of it.”
“You’re not helping, you know.”
They could hear the rumble of the assembled crowd’s conversations and laughter from several streets away; Gwion, trotting ahead of them like a half-trained puppy tugging at its leash, cast a pleading look back. Aenfrith waved at him; Gwion took off at a sprint, whooping with glee.
Even from outside the hall, the roar of their noisy hearts swept over him like a furnace-flame; Aenfrith stood with him outside the open doors, anchoring him to the calm patience of the earth, until he could bear the howling mad chaos of the revelers’ gleeful heart-voices. It felt a bit like easing himself into too-hot bathwater, stinging just on the verge of pain until his nerves slowly adjusted to the overstimulation.
When he could breathe again, when he felt a little less like a torn scrap of paper curled up and crumbling to ash amid the blastfire-heat of them, Aenfrith smiled and kissed his brow. “Let me know if it gets to be too much, all right?”
Gilfaethwy nodded carefully, testing to make sure his feet could still find the ground. Aenfrith kept hold of Gilfaethwy’s hand as they entered, warm and solid and real.
Thorgest spotted them from across the hall, whooped, and leapt up onto a bench to smash the flat of his axe against his buckler, calling for attention. The dull roar only partly faded, but Thorgest had the lungs to make himself heard over the din regardless; he pointed and shouted, and all around the room men cheered and raised their cups, and Gilfaethwy felt Gwion’s delighted laughter like a trickle of spring-water.
Gwion was a moon-pale flash of white-blond curls and bleached-white slave-chiton amid the vivid colors of the sea-raiders’ feast-day best. He waved both hands over his head at Gilfaethwy, who suddenly realized that the woman beside him in a rich summer-green dress was Sister Flavia. He’d never seen her out of her priestess-robes before. Well, other than when he’d seen her out of everything, but that was entirely different.
Aenfrith shoved their way through the crowd toward them; they made it through just as Thamyris arrived with a tray of drinks, and Gwion beamed from ear to ear when Thamyris presented a wine-goblet to him with a courtly flourish.
One of the mugs on the tray was steaming; with a bright-eyed grin, Thamyris handed that one to Gilfaethwy, who looked at the all-too-familiar milk and groaned aloud.
“What happened to our decree? No milk and no greens? Just for today…?”
“Taste it,” Gwion said, and his heart was bubbling with eagerness; Gilfaethwy sighed a little, closed his eyes, and took a sip. Then he stared down at the mug, and then over at Gwion, who was wriggling with anticipation. “What do you think? Better?”
“Much!” He took another swallow far more eagerly this time. It tasted almost like a warmed, thinner yule-nog — spiced and tangy-sweet and fragrant, and it didn’t smell of the goat-pen at all.
“Happy birthday,” Gwion told him. “You would not believe how much goat’s milk I had to drink to help Eathlwine get the spices right.”
“Thank you,” Gilfaethwy said, pulling his brother in for a hug. “Here. I have something for you, too.”
“Wait a bit,” Aenfrith said, his hand settling on Gilfaethwy’s shoulder. “Thorgest and I want to give him our gifts first.”
Oh, dear, Gilfaethwy thought. Sister Flavia caught his expression, and patted his hands.
“Don’t worry; I taught them how it’s done,” she confided, dimple-cheeked.
On the one hand, that was something of a relief. But on the other, it was Sister Flavia. Gilfaethwy couldn’t keep himself from asking just in case. “There aren’t any bed-slaves? Or chickens?”
“Bed-slaves and chickens?” Gwion asked, wide-eyed. “Faethan, what the hell–?”
“Chickens?” Sister Flavia said, and she sounded interested. “Hmm. Down and feathers could be quite nice–”
Aenfrith, the bastard, was leaning hard on the head table so that he could laugh himself light-headed without doubling over and hurting his ribs. Gilfaethwy found such abandonment of his own responsibility to be profoundly unfair.
“Don’t stare at me!” he protested. “It’s all his fault — the chickens and the bed-slaves!”
Flavia and Gwion both turned to stare at Aenfrith, who started laughing harder. Then Thorgest smashed his axe against his buckler again, and made beckoning gestures toward them. Still wheezing, Aenfrith straightened up with an effort and led them both into the space Thorgest had cleared in the center of the room.
Before Gilfaethwy even knew what was happening, Thorgest had picked him up and sat him on his shoulder, calling something to the crowd; steadying him with one hand, he patted his knee reassuringly as the sea-raiders cheered and drank.
“Tradition,” Aenfrith shouted over the noise, grinning. “Praise the honor-guests, then everyone drinks. Your turn — praise Thorgest as the host! Then everyone drinks again!”
Gilfaethwy gulped, and shyly patted the crown of Thorgest’s head because he couldn’t shake a hand that was holding on to his calf.. “Um. Thank you for this wonderful feast, Thorgest. You’re very generous, and strong, and tall. –No, wait, don’t say that! I meant to say valiant. But also, uh, tall.”
With a broad grin, Aenfrith translated; Gilfaethwy suspected he was putting more polished praises around his fumbling. The sea-raiders happily cheered him and drank again — happy most of all to drink, of course. Thorgest set him down quite gently, patted his head with an enormous hand, and picked Gwion up next. Delighted by the crowd’s attention, Gwion scrambled up to stand on Thorgest’s shoulders; Thorgest barked a laugh and gripped Gwion’s ankles to keep him steady, and gave a considerably longer speech.
Smiling at them both, Aenfrith translated, “He says that Gwion is a blooded warrior despite his youth, but his chance to begin a warrior’s proper training was stolen by his king’s madness. He’s explaining the three-part trial and the temple vigil, and calling three warriors to stand to your test.”
Gwion wobbled abruptly on Thorgest’s shoulders, stunned; Aenfrith reached up to hold his hand, and somehow they got his feet to the ground before his head. Thorgest smiled and patted Gwion’s back carefully, so as not to knock him flat, then strode over to the laughing knot of volunteers who were boasting of their skills and arguing for the chance to prove them before an admiring crowd.
“Better than chickens?” Aenfrith asked, teasing.
“Oh, Goddess.” Gwion buried his face in a hand; Gilfaethwy could feel the prick of tears he was trying to hide, overwhelmed by emotions. “Sometimes you’re too damned hard to resent, you smug Imperial bastard.”
“Much better than chickens,” Gilfaethwy agreed fervently, and touched Aenfrith’s hand to pass him the shock and relief and half-unwilling gratitude Gwion felt. Thorgest chose three men and led them to the center of the open space; Aenfrith ushered Flavia and Gilfaethwy to seats by Caelinus and Thamyris, picked up the larger of the crates under the table, and strode over to Gwion.
The box held a boiled leather breastplate and vambraces, solid enough to soften the bruising of training-blows; one of the warriors buckled Gwion into it, thumped him with a fist to see if it was settled, and grinned at his wheeze. Sister Flavia turned to Gilfaethwy.
“So. Tell me more about the bed-slaves and the chickens,” she said, speaking quite deliberately in Imperial. Caelinus turned around to stare. Thamyris gave a half-stifled laugh, his dark eyes glittering with the potential for mischief. Gilfaethwy slumped forward and thumped his head against the table, then pretended great interest in the serving-platter that one of the slave-women carried.
Once they’d settled the rules of the bouts and the order, Aenfrith came to join them at the table; he’d snagged a piece of roast lamb with the tip of his belt-knife and ate it straight off the blade, much to Gilfaethwy’s horror and Thamyris’ amusement.
“You’re trying too hard,” Thamyris informed him. “Barbarians can make themselves look uncivilized enough without any help, Flavius.”
“Heh.” Aenfrith took a swig of something that smelled of herbs and wild gorse; in bemusement, Gilfaethwy realized it was Sister Flavia’s small-beer. “I’m not drinking; let me be.”
“Why not? It’s your kindred’s type of feast,” Gilfaethwy said, puzzled.
“You need a steady anchor,” he replied easily, “and I need my wits to translate. Besides, if I make enough of a spectacle, they’ll never believe I’m sober anyway. So I’ll get to have all the fun without the next day’s headache!” Then he howled something at the top of his lungs and slammed his fist on the table hard enough to make the dishes rattle. “Betting on your brother,” he added at a far more moderate volume, grinning from ear to ear.
“This is why you can’t take barbarians anywhere civilized,” Caelinus told his apprentice wearily, in a voice that wasn’t pitched as far under the din as he thought. He stood and dusted off his robes, but set a hand on his apprentice’s shoulder when he tried to follow.
“Your pardon, Flavius,” he said. “I have a duty to a patient. Quintilius, if the little one gets himself hurt in the trials, don’t let him bleed out. There are more bandages in my knapsack; burn a summons-glyph if you need me.”
With a wry half-grin, Aenfrith waved him toward the door. Whatever Quintilius said to his master was lost in the roar as Gwion lunged toward his first opponent.
Even knowing that the violent madwoman wasn’t lurking behind the door with a cleaver this time, Caelinus still tapped at the door to Aenfrith’s home, and kept most of his body hidden behind the thick oak panel as he cautiously eased it open.
“Flavius says that you speak Imperial,” he called. “Flavius? –Marcus Ambrosius Flavius, your master?”
The captive’s chains clinked softly as he shifted in the shadows; Caelinus flinched back until he realized the prisoner was only pointing at his mouth. His tongue. …Where his tongue had been.
“Oh. Yes. Er. I mean, Flavius says that you understand Imperial. You won’t throw cooking implements at me, will you?”
By the half-light of the firepit, the captive’s eyes glittered with a certain dark mirth. He beckoned, which wasn’t much of an answer; but at least the hand he beckoned with was empty.
Caelinus crossed the room cautiously, knelt at what he hoped was a safe distance, and untied the bundle he’d made of meats and cheeses and purloined sweets from the sideboards, then filled a goblet with wine from his wine-sack and set it on the floor. The captive looked at him far too steadily, then stood; Caelinus yelped as he realized the man’s full height, and scrambled backwards on all fours.
“I-i-it’s a gift! It’s for you, because — because you’re trapped here, and — and it’s not poisoned, I don’t want to hurt you, and really I don’t much want you to hurt me either–”
But the tall, ghost-pale barbarian knelt beside the little cloth on the floor. He bent his head and touched his fingertips to his heart, then arched his hand out, palm up, cupped like an offering.
“Is that ‘thank you?’ Ah. You’re welcome. I just… I thought this was… important.”
For a barbarian, the pale man had better dining manners than Flavius. Not that that was particularly hard, not when Flavius was in a mood, but still. He waited for the man to finish eating, watched him pick up the vessel of wine, and thought that it was a damnably good thing that this one didn’t have the flower-child’s heart-sight.
It didn’t take long for the drug to begin to affect him.
The man swayed, braced himself on a locked arm, and looked up at him with something far more like disappointment than surprise.
“I’m sorry,” Caelinus whispered, and meant it. “I really am. I just thought… you shouldn’t have to suffer.”
The three trials they’d chosen for Gwion were a test of strength, a test of speed, and a test of skill. Gilfaethwy wasn’t worried by the first two. The test of strength involved wrestling; Gwion hadn’t won, but he made enough of a point of his wriggling stubbornness that the man finally chuckled and let him up, politely naming it a draw. The test of speed was a foot-race against a tall, gangly teenager; Gwion won that one honestly, because his opponent wasn’t quite coordinated on his colt-long legs.
But the third bout was by far the most dangerous. Gwion’s opponent carried a double-handed broadsword, and for all that they weren’t fighting to kill, live steel was live steel. Gwion hadn’t asked for a sword at all. He’d taken Thorgest’s belt-dagger and bound it into its sheath. The sea-raider was already taller and stronger and heavier, and now he had an even greater reach; Gilfaethwy was all but frantic, and Aenfrith wouldn’t stop chuckling.
“What is he doing? Can’t you stop him and make him take something better? Or at least a shield–”
“Your brother’s smarter than he lets on.”
“If he gets himself crippled at his own birth-feast, I’ll– I’ll–” But with the bindings of his slave-cuff, he couldn’t think of a single threat he had enough freedom to carry out. “…I’ll ask Arion to break your ribs. More of them. Can Caelinus actually put his arm back on if he gets it cut off?”
“He’s going to be fine. Just watch.”
Thorgest stepped back from the clearing and gave them room to fight, arms crossed. Gwion sank down into a crouch, making himself a smaller target; the sea-raider didn’t react, balanced and waiting.
Gwion’s patience broke first; of course Gwion’s patience broke first, Gilfaethwy thought in despair. The sea-raider smiled when Gwion slipped a foot sideways, slowly edging around the arc of a large circle. Of course the man was going to let Gwion dance; he had to know he had the better range, the better skill, and Gwion was fidgeting himself around until the fire was shining straight into his eyes — even Gilfaethwy knew better than to get himself caught staring past a foe into back-light.
Gwion’s shoulders heaved as he took a deep breath; his opponent didn’t twitch, ready and waiting for his lunge. He dashed forward, stepped down hard with one foot as he ducked the man’s flat-bladed strike — and he dropped into the sea-raider’s own fire-cast shadow.
The man didn’t even have time to blink before Gwion was literally on him, clinging to his breastplate with one hand and pushing the edge of the dagger’s sheath up hard under his chin. The fighter shouted in shock, toppled over backwards from the unexpected impact of Gwion’s weight barreling into his chest, couldn’t angle the sword in close enough, and burst out laughing.
“Wait, Gwion just won?” Gilfaethwy asked, astounded.
The watching soldiers’ hearts rippled first with consternation, then a sudden explosion of pride-bemusement-glee-disbelief-hilarity.
“Fantastic, my ass– you scared me half to death!”
Sister Flavia hugged them both, and spread around kisses with indiscriminate enthusiasm; laughing, Gwion twisted around and hugged her back, and Gilfaethwy sagged against Aenfrith’s side, breathless and dizzy.
“Don’t worry; we know it’s impolite to maim someone at their own birth-feast,” Aenfrith told him, and Gilfaethwy thumped a loose fist into his chest.
Thorgest lifted the second crate from under the table and pulled its lid off, asking Aenfrith something unintelligible; Aenfrith nodded at him, and so Thorgest made a grand show of pulling out each of their gifts and showing them to the room at large before handing them over. (The presentation of each gift was, of course, met with another cheer and another drink. Gilfaethwy was coming to understand why the sea-raiders ended up smashing so many things, including their own heads, by the ends of their feasts.)
The first two gifts Thorgest brought out were a folded pair of wool-white garments. Arion’s patience was as evident in the even, soft, winter-warm weaving as Eathlwine’s skill in the stitchwork that trailed flowers around the necklines and wrist-cuffs. At first glance the garments looked identical; but then Gwion gave a bark of laughter and handed the one he’d been holding to Gilfaethwy. It was cut larger, looser, long enough to trail on the floor — and the tiny blue flowers embroidered into the fabric were pale, soft-petaled blue flaxflowers. The shorter, slimmer tunic was embroidered with spiky little lavender-hued thistle-tufts instead.
“That reminds me, I still don’t know who to strangle for the thistle jokes,” Gwion said.
“Um.” Gilfaethwy ducked his head; Gwion shot him a skeptical look.
“No! No, it wasn’t my idea, just — um.”
Thorgest crouched under the table again, digging in the box, and he came up with Gilfaethwy’s parchment rolled in his hands and a bright-eyed grin. He unrolled it in front of the entire room; Gwion’s eyes widened as he recognized the formal proclamation of his land-bond.
“That’s your hand, Faethan? That’s–” And then he noticed the thistle-flowers Gilfaethwy had woven into the knotwork in the drop-capital starting his name.
Gwion sighed, and scruffled Gilfaethwy’s hair into an utter mess, and said, “Still. It’s beautiful work. Thank you.” He reached over and took the parchment from Thorgest, whistling under his breath at the detailing.
Thorgest elbowed Aenfrith, not gently; he swatted back, and got back into the box to come up with a stack of papers that he set in front of Gilfaethwy.
“I’m sorry it’s not finished,” Aenfrith said, scratching behind his ear. “I couldn’t bring the original, it’s hundreds of years old and Laenas keeps it in his personal quarters. I thought I’d have had time to finish a clean copy by now, but I hadn’t planned for the broken shoulder…”
“Aenfrith?” Five hundred years at the least, he thought, astonished. If Madrona is the same as Modron of the Curses… “What is this?”
“When Thorgest’s cohort took Durovernum by the sea, they found an old book under the altar-stone of their Temple,” Aenfrith said. “Laenas has a taste for old things. I can’t read it myself; I’m hoping I’ve even copied the letters right. But it looked like a cousin to your tongue, or an ancestor of it. I thought you might like to see it.”
“I love you,” Gilfaethwy said fiercely, wrapping his hand in a fold of cloth to keep his finger-marks from the pages as he traced his place in the text. Gwion looked back and forth between the pile of paper and the two sea-raiders, appalled.
“You two gave me my trials, but you gave Faethan a copy of moldy old paperwork?”
Gilfaethwy thumped him on the head without even looking up. “It’s not moldy paperwork; it’s a book!”
“It’s still not fair!” Gwion turned his appeal to Aenfrith directly. “How would you like it if some Imperial dropped a mess of work on you and called it a gift?”
“As soon as I can finish the clean copy, I’ll take it to be bound for you,” Aenfrith said, sheepish.
“No. Mine.” He lifted a page carefully and started reading the one beneath it, sounding out words under his breath. Gwion rolled his eyes skyward.
“You should have made sure he finished eating before you gave him a book. Or even a mess of old book guts.”
When Aenfrith translated that for him, Thorgest laughed, but Gwion hadn’t been joking.
They let him read for a few candlemarks while the sea-raiders’ women crossed the room with platters of roasted lamb and crisp-crackling quail, bowls of stew and roasted vegetables, wedges of salty-sharp cheeses and crisp harvest apples and piping-hot breads from the hearth.
Gwion made sure to claim pieces for his brother’s plate as well as his own; but despite the enticing smells and Gwion’s deliberate musings on hot-savory-crisp-delicious, Gilfaethwy simply ignored the plate beside his elbow — other than to nudge it further away from his precious papers.
In the end, Sister Flavia leaned over and waved a stack of whistlecakes under his nose. While he blinked up at her in fuzzily belated recognition, Gwion grabbed the whole paper-pile and shoved it back into the box under the table, despite his brother’s startled cry of disappointment.
“Books keep,” Gwion told him. “Whistlecakes don’t!” Several of the sea-raiders had followed their noses across the room; a cluster of them made several drinking-praises to Thorgest and the twins, to the women for their cooking, and to the valor of the Væringjar, and by the time everyone was done cheering and lifting their cups, the pile of cakes had shrunk visibly.
“I’ll make another batch before I claim Gwion for his vigil-night,” Flavia assured them.
“But there’s no temple,” Gwion said, blinking.
“We’ll use the bath-house.” She grinned at their perfectly matched scandalized gawping. “The Goddess walks among us where we live,” Flavia reminded them piously, but the sparkle in her eyes was much closer to unholy. “Why not the bath-house? Cleansing body and soul, living renewal, all that righteousness. The shameless orgies are just a bonus!”
“You’re a very naughty woman,” Aenfrith told her approvingly — and made sure that by the time she led Gwion out of the hall three candles later, the assembled sea-raiders all knew exactly where they were going. Gilfaethwy’s ears rang from the volume of their ribald howls.
Between the sea-raiders’ carousing and Gwion’s own giddy, light-headed anticipation, he felt nauseous and almost drunk; the world kept spinning and heaving until Aenfrith hugged him close, anchoring him with a single heartbeat and a calm, steady center to balance with.
“Time for us to go too?” he murmured.
“Would it be too rude?” Gilfaethwy asked wistfully.
“They’ll be at it all night. Besides–” He stood up and shouted something to the hall that earned another lascivious roar. “–Like I just told them, you’re twins; you deserve your own night’s vigil as well. And I’m eager to learn the rites of your sex-priestesses!”
The night’s crisp, calm chill felt wonderful after the heat and noise and overwhelming festivity of the mead-hall. It had been a wonderful, vivid evening, but Gilfaethwy wasn’t sure he had the internal fortitude to face another cheering mob without a chance to rest first.
His relief redoubled itself when they turned toward home, rather than toward the bath-house. He’d been almost certain that Aenfrith had said all that just to boast in front of the warriors, but right at the moment Gilfaethwy wanted nothing more than a warm, quiet bed. It probably wasn’t polite to let Aenfrith feel how relieved he was, but from the knowing quirk to Aenfrith’s grin, he hadn’t managed to hide it either.
“Sometimes they’re too much for me, too,” Aenfrith told him, and opened the door quietly. Arion was sleeping in a pale, limp curl on the floor; Gilfaethwy sighed a little, and moved to wake him so that he could coax him properly into the bed.
In the corner, something else moved. Gilfaethwy bit back a scream and grabbed for the nearest weapon to hand — the lid of the porridge-pot — and Caelinus’ voice cracked with panic as he protested, “No! No, it’s just me!”
“Goddess, you startled me!” Gilfaethwy dropped onto the edge of the bed with a sigh. “What are you doing here, sir?”
The healer’s heart was beating frantically, even more than the fear of Eathlwine’s skillet could explain; he felt heart-sick, literally. Caelinus wrung his hands together, looking at Aenfrith for help.
“It’s done, then,” Aenfrith murmured, and then his heart was twisting with regret-shame-anger-resignation.
Caelinus nodded jerkily, wringing his hands together. “I… I put him out. So he wouldn’t have to feel them. You might need to… tell him, tomorrow.”
“Tell him what?” Gilfaethwy whispered.
“Thank you, Caelinus.”
The healer nodded again, stiffly, and left.
“Tell him what? Aenfrith…?”
Aenfrith sat on the edge of the bed, and put his good arm around Gilfaethwy quietly. “There had to be be a choice,” he said. “Gwion, or Arion. This was Arion’s choice.”
“No.” Gilfaethwy stared up at him, horrified. “Oh, Goddess, no! It’s my fault, isn’t it? I told Livia myself — I told her about the feast, I told her we’d be gone–”
“It’s not your fault!” Aenfrith shook him carefully, trying to drive the point home. “She already knew. Laenas knew; Kolfinn’s his door-warden. Everyone knew. You can’t gather up eighty Væringjar warriors and set them loose in the wine-casks without the rest of the leadership being forewarned. It’s not your fault. If anything, it’s mine. I knew this was coming.”
“Kitten,” Aenfrith murmured, “this was Arion’s choice. Just as you chose to give yourself for his sake, he chose this. For your brother’s sake, and yours. And, Hel take it, for mine. He wouldn’t let me… handle this for him. If he’d only sworn himself to me, I could have kept him safe, for a time. But, Faethan, after your babe comes… one of them will be next.” With a soft sigh, he added, “He’s never forgiven himself for the choice you had to make. I think he thinks of this as penance. If he’s with child by the time you bear, then he’ll have spared Gwion this.”
“We shouldn’t have left him alone,” Gilfaethwy whispered. “I should have pled childing-sickness, I could have–”
“I wanted you gone, you little idiot!” Aenfrith said sharply. “We both did. If it hadn’t been tonight, it would have been some market-day, or some training-day, and you might have walked into the middle of it. Tonight we’d all be gone for hours, and Caelinus had enough forewarning to drug him so that he needn’t suffer. I just hadn’t expected the thoughtless twit to stay and run his chattering mouth afterward! I didn’t want you to know.”
“What good does it do you to know?” Aenfrith cried, fist clenched in the blankets. “You can’t stop it. You can’t change it. All we can do is wait to see whether it was worth the price. –The very same price you took on yourself, of your own stubborn will, so don’t you glare at me.” With a groan, he toppled backwards onto the bed, running his hand down his face. “Do you hate me for this?”
Shivering, Gilfaethwy shook his head a little, helpless. “Not you. Her. Them. I hate this. But… I can’t hate you.” Scrubbing the back of his hand across his face to catch a sudden hot trickle of tears, he said, “We can’t tell Gwion. He… he couldn’t bear knowing. Knowing why.”
“No. I know.” Aenfrith touched his belly gently, softly. “Do you think you’ll be able to rest?”
“I have to,” Gilfaethwy said, dull-voiced; he wiped his face again, and began pulling the blankets and pillows from the bed.
“Well, you can’t lift him,” he said doggedly, “and I can’t lift him, and I’m not going to leave him alone on a cold stone floor.” With short sharp jerks, he folded the blankets into a bundle and laid them next to Arion’s limp, motionless body, then knelt beside him and pushed on his shoulder and hip to roll him onto the blankets.
“I’ll stay with him,” Aenfrith said. “You shouldn’t sleep on the floor.”
“I’ll live.” He stretched out beside him and settled close, listening to the slow, drugged-steady beat of Arion’s heart.
Aenfrith muttered something under his breath that had a familiar word in the middle it; Gilfaethwy suspected it meant ‘stubborn,’ or maybe ‘stupid,’ or both. But he took another blanket from a sail-sling and tucked it over them both, then sank down at the foot of the roofpost and leaned back against it for support.
“Come sleep with us,” Gilfaethwy murmured, eyes closed.
“Later,” he said. “Right now I think I need to… watch you. To watch over you.” Aenfrith stroked his fingers through Gilfaethwy’s hair with a careful, unsteady hand. “Just… let me watch over you. Just for a little while.”