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As an elite Sacrati fighter in the mighty Torian military, Theos is blessed with a city full of women who want to bear his children, and a barracks full of men proud to fight at his side and share his bed. He has everything he needs—until he captures Finnvid on a raid.
Finnvid is on a secret mission to prevent the Torian invasion of his homeland Elkat. Being enslaved by Torian soldiers wasn’t in his plans. Neither is his horrified fascination with the casual promiscuity of the Sacrati warriors. Men should not lie with other men—and he should not be so intrigued when they do. He definitely should not be most intrigued by the leader of the soldiers who captured him and plan to invade his home.
For Theos, everything would have been easier if the infuriating, lying, bewildering Elkati had never come into his life, but he can’t stay away. When betrayal and treachery threaten both their nations, they must work together to stop a war that could destroy their homes forever—even as they begin to question everything they’re fighting for.
Finalist: Best LGBT SF/F/Horror in the 28th Annual Lambda Literary Awards!
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Theos checked his map one more time, then looked at Andros, his second-in-command. It all seemed clear, but this was Theos’s first time as iyatis and he needed to be careful. Fighting came naturally to him, but this situation called for caution—not his strong point.
“They’re well over the border,” Andros confirmed. Then he grinned, and Theos pulled his own lips back, half-smile, half-snarl. It was time for battle.
Which meant all room for doubt or questions was gone.
Both sides had already noticed the other’s presence, and both sides had found cover in the dense forest on opposite banks of a small stream. Theos had seen about twenty of the enemy, and there were sixteen in Theos’s patrol, so the odds were good. At two-to-one Theos might have begun to consider withdrawal, but even then it wouldn’t have been likely, not when he was fighting with the Sacrati, the elite of the Torian army. No, twenty men was not nearly enough to make Theos hesitate.
But it was never good to be careless. He gave the orders for his team to spread out, four circling around to cut off any possible escape. And then, with a battle song singing from his heart to every fiber of his body, Theos led the charge.
The battle was short. The Elkati fought back, but not well. Theos bloodied his sword on one and elbowed another in the face for a satisfying crunch of bone, but there was no real challenge in a fight like this. It was disappointing, but not surprising.
Four of the Elkati died before Theos knocked away the weapon of the one he supposed was their leader, an older man with some sort of decorative plume on his helmet. Theos held his sword to the old man’s throat and spoke one of the few Elkati words he’d bothered to learn. “Surrender.”
But the old man surprised him, dodging Theos’s sword and pulling a dagger. He lunged upward and Theos stepped to the side, then kicked him in the face. The man was flipped over and landed hard on the ground. Theos stomped down on his enemy’s arm, then brought the tip of his sword to the man’s throat again. He pressed in enough for a little blood to flow, and in a more exasperated tone, as if speaking to a child struggling with a simple lesson, he repeated, “Surrender.”
The old man’s only answer was a glare. But a younger, lighter voice rang out through the forest. Theos didn’t understand the words, but he saw their effect as the Elkati disengaged and stood with heads bowed.
Theos’s men knew the drill. The enemy soldiers were quickly disarmed and their hands tied tightly together. Their feet were bound with only a little slack in the rope; they could walk, but not lengthen their stride into a run. Then their weapons were inspected and their packs plundered while Theos sat back and supervised it all, ensuring that no one was careless.
He wasn’t sure which of the Elkati had ordered the surrender, and he watched them now, trying to understand their structure. They certainly seemed concerned about the old man. Maybe too concerned; they were more protective than deferential. Was he their leader, or their mascot?
It didn’t really matter. The men had no leader now, other than Theos. Whatever their structure had been, whatever their lives had been, it’d all been lost to them as soon as they’d had the bad luck to be discovered on their illicit trip into Torian lands.
No one in Theos’s squad spoke sufficient Elkati to interrogate the prisoners, so there was no point in further delay. His men loaded the Elkati down with whatever had seemed worth scavenging from their packs and added a few of the heavier items from the Torian kits, then they started off. They’d been on the last leg of their moon-long patrol as it was, so they didn’t have to divert from their original course in order to head for home.
Theos pushed a little harder than he might have without the prisoners, making sure they were sufficiently far away from the border to make rescue attempts unlikely, before giving the order to make camp for the night. He also set out an extra sentry, further back along their trail, to give advance warning if anyone was tracking them. They were in the mountains, with most of the land impassible, so there weren’t many directions from which they could be attacked. Having done his job, he allowed himself to relax just a little.
After another quick inspection, Theos loosened the hands of two of the prisoners, giving them freedom to prepare food for the other Elkati. And then one of the prisoners still bound, a young man with barely enough beard to earn the name, stood and shuffled toward him. He held his own hands out, tugging on the ropes. Theos raised an eyebrow, and the Elkati pointed with his chin, gesturing toward two of his comrades who’d been injured in the battle.
“You want to patch them up?” Theos assessed the boy, then shrugged and loosened the rope around his wrists. After all, the prisoners would be more valuable if they were in good health. The boy started working with what seemed like competence. He looked at Theos for permission a few more times, first to take a pot to the spring and fill it with water, then to burrow through one of the Elkati packs for a bag of healing salves. The Elkati were renowned as scholars and doctors, so the Sacrati who’d sorted through their gear had known these potions might have value. But they probably hadn’t intended them to be used on the prisoners themselves. Still, Theos couldn’t bring himself to object. Not until the boy returned to Theos and pointed at his waist.
“You want . . . you want my knife?” Theos shook his head. These Elkati were all brain and no heart; they had no understanding of what was important. “No.”
The boy held up his hands as if promising a truce, but Theos hadn’t refused to lend his knife because he thought it would be used as a weapon. He would have been more likely to lend it if there was a chance it would shed blood. To allow his oath-blade, the sacred steel of his initiation into the Sacrati brotherhood, to be handed to the enemy for use in some menial task? Unthinkable. The question was a sign of the Elkati’s ignorance.
“Here,” Andros said. He picked up one of the kitchen knives and held it out to the boy, handle first. “Will this do?”
The boy frowned, made a gesture of sharpening, and waited until Andros found the whetstone and handed that over too. Then he nodded, just a quick jerk of his head that seemed merely an acknowledgment, not a thanks, and turned back to the other prisoners.
“Demanding,” Theos commented.
Andros grinned. “I think he’s pretty.”
Theos snorted. “I put Xeno on sentry duty for one night and you’re already prowling for company?”
“I expect Xeno will think he’s pretty, too. We’re always happy to share.”
“Not until we’re back to town,” Theos said, letting just a touch of his authority slip into his voice. “You know how strange the Elkati are about sex. They’re good little prisoners now, and I want to keep it that way; you will not set off some holy rebellion because you have an itch.”
“I thought coming on patrol with you as iyatis would be fun,” Andros said with a sigh. He leaned back and watched the young prisoner sharpen the knife. “I thought, ‘Theos is young, and he likes adventure. I’ll go with him.’”
“You were assigned to come with me. And you were assigned because I asked for you. And I asked for you because you have good sense. Don’t ruin that now.”
Andros sighed again in exaggerated disappointment. They sat together for a while, eating the dinner brought to them by the soldier on food duty, absentmindedly observing the prisoners as darkness fell on the camp.
“Which one are you going to keep?” Andros asked as he took Theos’s empty plate.
Theos hadn’t considered the question yet. As leader of the patrol that had captured the prisoners, he had the right to claim one of them. The rest would be divided up and sold, with most of the profit going to the army but a small bonus paid to each of the soldiers on the patrol. “I don’t know. I’ll ask the evaluators, I guess, and take the one worth the most.”
“And then just sell him?”
“What else would I do with him?”
Andros shrugged. “Nothing, I guess. You’re not likely to start a band of mercenaries, are you? And you’re still young and pretty enough to find your own bedmates; it wouldn’t make sense to have a captive bedwarmer.”
Theos snorted. “No, it wouldn’t.”
“Not to mention how worn out you must be with so many calls to the city . . .” Andros grinned. He got a fair share of calls himself.
“Right,” Theos said. “So I’ll just take whoever’s most valuable, sell him, and spend the money on new armor so I can fight better and take more prisoners.”
“That’s the spirit,” Andros said. He raised his tankard of creek water in toast, and Theos returned the gesture. It was the spirit. What more could a man want than good armor, a good sword, and good men to fight by his side? And then to lie by his side at night, of course.
Theos had been abstaining since he was in command of the patrol; sex wasn’t forbidden for an iyatis, but he hadn’t wanted the distraction. Now, though, he looked over at the prisoners, at the “pretty” boy Andros had admired, and he let his mind wander a little. The boy’s skin and hair were fair. Theos, like most Torians, was a mix of practically every culture the Empire had absorbed over the past several generations and had the usual brown skin and dark hair. What would it be like to be pressed against someone so pale?
What would any of it be like, with someone like that? Theos had always been precocious as a warrior and a lover, and he’d found his way into the barracks when he was much younger than the prisoner was now. For the first couple of years he’d been the less experienced, less aggressive partner to whomever could teach him. Later he’d found himself in bed with men who were his equals, and he’d enjoyed the comradeship, the boisterous challenges and easy laughter so much like the interactions on the drill grounds. Now he was often more dominant, but he didn’t do much teaching. What would it be like with someone who needed guidance? The boy was Elkati, and everyone knew they were strange about sex. Was it possible the prisoner had never taken someone to bed? How would it feel to be his first? To teach him how to find and give pleasure, to touch him in ways no one had ever touched him before . . .
Theos shifted to give himself more room, and Andros glanced at his crotch and laughed. “You’ve been quiet this whole patrol,” he said. “Keeping to yourself. That’s not like you.” He reached over and laid a friendly hand on the fabric covering Theos’s growing erection. “You want a little attention? I’m a bit tired, myself, but my hand or my mouth . . .”
It wouldn’t be the first time one of them had given the other relief. They were friends, after all. And the camp was quiet; a few of the soldiers had paired off and there were soft moans and murmurs coming from their blankets. The prisoners were huddled together, clearly working hard to pretend they were somewhere else, or that they didn’t notice what the Sacrati were doing. And the rest of the soldiers were either on duty or getting ready for sleep. No one would care if Theos let his guard down for a few brief minutes.
He shifted away anyhow. “No, I’m okay. I should get some sleep.”
But first he had to make sure everything in the camp was safe. So he stood, ignoring the roughness of his canvas trousers against the sensitive skin of his erection, and headed for the prisoners.
He found the boy and held out his hand. “Knife,” he said quietly.
The boy handed over the whetstone.
“Knife,” Theos repeated more firmly.
The boy rolled his eyes and produced the knife, handing it to Theos with exaggerated care. Theos squinted at him. The small show of rebellion, as if anyone would ask for a whetstone when he knew a prisoner had a knife.
“Hands,” Theos ordered, gesturing to show what he wanted. The boy raised his hands and Theos took the slack out of the rope and then refastened it. He tugged, testing the strength, and found no give. But there was still something he didn’t like. Something he didn’t trust. He stood there, watching the boy feign confused indifference, and thought back. The kid had spent time with three prisoners. Two of them had pretty obvious injuries. The third? The kid had fussed over him, over his hands . . .
Theos took a couple of large steps, not too careful about any prisoners he might be landing on, and found the kid’s third patient. A big man. His hand was bandaged, but there was no sign of blood. Theos yanked on the ropes holding the man’s hands together, and felt them give. The kid had sawed almost through them, leaving just a few strands to make them look secure. Theos yanked again and the ropes split. The man sprang to his feet, and that was when Theos saw the rock in his fist.
The other prisoners were part of it now, roiling and struggling up, all still bound but trying to help their comrade. Theos lost his balance as they rolled into his knees, and the freed prisoner lunged forward, his feet clearly untied as well, the rock aimed right for Theos’s head.
Theos got his feet under himself and ducked beneath the man’s reach. Then he brought his hand up, the heel of his palm hard and flat, right into the man’s nose. The enemy had been coming toward him and Theos had put his full strength behind the blow, so he wasn’t surprised when the man toppled. The bone of his nose had been driven back into his brain, killing him instantly.
The camp was silent, the prisoners still and shocked, staring at their fallen friend. Theos turned to the boy who’d started it all and pointed at the dead man. “Your fault,” he said quietly. He didn’t know if the kid understood the words, but he was pretty sure he got the message. The man had been alive, and now he was dead, and there’d been no point to it. A stupid waste, just because the Elkati boy had thought he was clever.
Theos stepped carefully out of the crowd of prisoners. “Leave the body there,” he told his men, who’d been drawn by the ruckus. “As a reminder. Check all of their bonds and make sure they’re tight.” He shook his head. “And keep that scrawny Elkati tied up—no more knives.”
So that was that. It should have been over. They’d been a little careless, but Theos had caught the problem before it got serious.
Except he hadn’t, because there was a dead body lying among the prisoners. A man who’d never see another sunrise. And it was partly the kid’s fault, sure, but it was partly Theos’s fault too. These prisoners were his responsibility, and now one of them was dead.
Theos spat his disgust out onto the dirt.
Andros approached cautiously. “Apologies.”
Theos glanced at him, then turned back to watching the prisoners as they were reinspected. “I was right there, letting you give him the knife. If I’d thought it was a bad idea, I would have stopped it.”
“Aye,” Andros acknowledged. “But now you really need to let me suck you. You’re all keyed up, and you’ll never get to sleep otherwise. We’ve got another four days until we’re home; you need your rest.”
It was good advice, and Theos took it. He leaned against a tree and looked down as Andros knelt, and just that was enough to help him relax. Everything was fine. They were still alive, and the prisoner . . . Theos made himself stop thinking about the prisoner. Well, the dead one. Instead, he pictured the other one. The young one, who’d caused the trouble in the first place.
But instead of the earlier visions of teaching the boy about pleasure, Theos imagined showing the boy who was in charge. Making him beg, making him need release and withholding it because he hadn’t done anything to deserve it. And then finally, when neither of them could stand it anymore, Theos would drive himself into the boy, would claim and tame and control him.
Andros grunted and shifted, trying to accommodate Theos’s too-vigorous thrusting, and Theos managed to calm himself a little. He ran an appreciative hand through Andros’s short, dark hair, and then glanced over to find the boy staring at them. The rest of the prisoners were huddled together, their heads turned away, but the boy’s eyes were wide and gleaming in the firelight, his gaze fixed on Theos, and on Andros, and on the place where their bodies were joined. Theos pushed in, hard and deep, and felt Andros swallow desperately around him. And he saw the boy’s eyes widen just a little bit more.
Theos looked away then, and made himself focus on the simple sensations, the warmth and the pressure and the wetness and Andros’s busy, generous tongue. But when he felt the tension building, he took a few more thrusts and then pulled out, bringing his hand down to stroke himself as he spurted thick white strands onto Andros’s face. And in the middle of it he turned back and saw the boy still staring, and another wave of pleasure crashed in, making him close his eyes and give in to it all.
When Theos was done, Andros wiped his face clean and laughed quietly. “Putting on a show?” he asked, climbing to his feet.
“I just wasn’t sure you could handle it all. Didn’t want to choke you.” He nodded at Andros’s crotch. “You want your turn?”
“You can owe me. Like I said, I’m tired.”
Theos nodded. “Okay. Thanks.” He refastened his pants, stretched his arms above his head, and refused to look over at the prisoners. “You were right, I wouldn’t have slept without that.”
“I’m very wise,” Andros agreed. He headed off toward his own bedroll, and Theos undid his pack and spread his blankets close to the fire. After checking that the guard was in place and alert, he lay down and let himself relax. He tried to clear his mind, and almost managed it. But there, floating in the darkness, was a pair of wide blue eyes, staring at him. And Theos fell asleep still wondering just what the man behind the eyes had been thinking.
They spent the next day walking, and the day after that too. It was still midfall in the valleys, but up in the mountains winter was fast approaching. Theos had heard of lands away to the west where the terrain was flat, where cities and farms could spread as far as their inhabitants wished, but he’d never lived in such a place, or even visited one. This was the only world he knew, with tall, hostile mountains covering almost all of the land, and human habitation limited to isolated valleys.
There were many valleys, it was true; at last count he’d heard the Torian Empire contained seventy-eight of them, each a semi-independent city-state united more by culture and principles than by government. Well, there was an empress, technically, but she was far away from Theos’s valley and was more a receptor of tribute than an issuer of orders. The valleys sent soldiers back to fight along the eastern border of the Empire, where the enemies were larger and better organized. The west was left to its own devices, defending and expanding however it could, and no one seemed to be too interested in them, as long as they sent their taxes and recruits east each year.
Of course, there were valleys that hadn’t been absorbed into the Empire yet, although they were fewer every year. The Elkati should be the next to be conquered, clearly; they were close to the western border, rich, and as a midsize city-state, with no more than ten thousand inhabitants, they would never be able to stand up to the Empire. But no one had bothered to convince them of that, yet.
So Theos and other soldiers from Windthorn patrolled the borders, as did soldiers from nearby valleys Cragview and Greenbrook, and they all waited for the order to invade, and start teaching the Elkati about civilization. And, occasionally, they found someone on the wrong side of the invisible line and took prisoners.
Theos looked over at the Elkati he’d captured. They were showing the strain, now. The two who’d been patched up by the boy seemed better, which was good; still they were all exhausted. The Elkati were fit enough, but the Sacrati were the elite of the elite, and had been hardened by conditions these Elkati would never know, and certainly never survive. And the Elkati were carrying heavier packs and hiking with their hands tied tight, and Theos had no intention of changing that just to make it easier for them to walk. He wanted to push the Elkati as much as he could without breaking them; it was wise to keep them tired, and it would be nice to get off the damn mountain before the snow came.
The Elkati boy had protested, after a fashion. He’d found ways to ask for special privileges: more food for one of the prisoners after he’d spilled his dinner on the ground; time to stop and bandage another prisoner’s knees when a stumble had turned into a nasty fall; more blankets for them at night since they slept farther from the fire. Theos had refused every request without much consideration. He’d given the boy a chance once, and a man had died. The time for making deals was over. The prisoners would just have to make do. They had no choice.
Still, they were getting ragged. So Theos wasn’t completely surprised, in the middle of the third afternoon, when he heard a voice cry out from somewhere near the front of the procession. But he was shocked to peer ahead and realize that it was Andros who was hurt, slumping to the side as the soldiers around him hacked at something on the ground.
Theos sprinted forward, then skidded to a stop when he saw the sliced remains of a rock viper at Andros’s feet. He looked up and saw the glassiness already coming into the man’s eyes. The viper’s poison was potent enough to protect it against bears and mountain lions, and was almost always deadly to humans.
“Where?” Theos demanded. He fell to his knees and felt Andros’s legs, up above the midcalf boots, and found a swollen bump that made Andros bite back a scream when it was touched.
One of the other soldiers had made a tourniquet, and Theos pushed Andros to the ground before slicing through his pant leg. The red lump was unmistakeable, with two spots already blackening in the middle where the venom had been injected and tissue was beginning to die.
Theos cut hard and deep, his dagger slicing into the flesh as Andros held himself rigidly still. The blood poured out in a cleansing rush, but the original wound was only part of the problem. Even if Theos had caught the putrescence and kept it from spreading, the poison was also in the bloodstream, traveling through Andros’s body. The tourniquet would slow its progress and the venom might be diluted enough to not kill instantly, but that could just make death slower and more painful.
Then Xeno was there, called up from the back of the procession, and he eased in behind Andros and cradled him, kissing his hair and murmuring comforting words, ignoring the tears that were falling from his eyes onto Andros’s too-pale face.
This shouldn’t be happening. The damn viper should have been hibernating, not creeping around, attacking good men for no reason.
It was no way for a warrior to die. No way for anyone to die.
Theos stood up. The prisoners were standing, waiting, and Theos pushed through them until he found the boy who’d healed the other Elkati. “You! Fix him!” Theos knew volume wouldn’t help when someone didn’t know the words, but he let himself yell anyhow. Let the kid know how serious he was. He pointed to one of the Elkati packs, hopefully the one that held the medicine, and then pointed back to Andros. The boy just stared at him.
There was no way the little coward didn’t understand. He just didn’t care. He wasn’t going to help because he didn’t care if Andros lived or died. Theos took a deep breath. He pointed at Andros again, then rolled his own eyes back, mimicking death. Then he pointed at one of the other prisoners and drew a finger across his own throat. If Andros died, that prisoner died. But that wasn’t enough, because Andros was a Sacrati, by the sword, and these useless Elkati were nothing compared to him. So Theos pointed to another prisoner, and then another, and made the same throat-slitting gesture. He waved his arm to indicate all the prisoners, drew his hand across his throat again, and then stared at the boy, making it clear that the threat was absolutely real. If Andros died, every prisoner on the mountain would follow him.
The boy swallowed, looked down at the ground, then up at Theos and started talking. His words made no sense, of course, just endless Elkati gibberish, and Theos raised his hand to strike him into silence. But before he could land the blow, the old man was there. He’d been quiet since the capture, sitting back and watching, following directions and acting like just another prisoner. Now, though, he caught the boy’s shoulders in his hands and shook him, just once, but hard. He growled a phrase that sounded like an order, and when the boy began to protest, the old man said something else and pushed him toward the pack. Theos nodded his approval, then reached out and sliced through the ropes on the boy’s hands with one tug of his knife. He bent and freed his feet as well. He didn’t care what trouble the Elkati got into, not if he saved Andros first.
They were on a narrow pass, and the boy peered around as if trying to find something he needed. Apparently not finding it, he pushed past the soldiers and ran down the trail in front of them, waving an arm to indicate that they should follow.
“Bring the prisoners,” Theos ordered his soldiers, and then he jogged to Xeno’s side. “We’ll carry Andros. The boy . . . he’s our best chance. And Andros is tough.”
Xeno nodded, swallowed hard, and then grabbed hold of Theos’s wrists, the two of them making a chair to carry their friend. They lifted him carefully, then moved as quickly and smoothly as possible, following the boy.
The path wound around the side of the mountain, the curvature making it impossible to see ahead more than a few paces at a time, and Theos’s gut began to tighten as they ran. The boy had gone. Theos had cut him free, and he’d escaped.
But then the ground leveled out and they rounded one more corner to find a small clearing, flat on one side, with a grassy slope on the other. The boy was there, breaking small branches off a fallen tree, clearly preparing to start a fire. Theos and Xeno settled Andros as gently as they could near the fire site, and then Theos was back in motion, finding tinder and flint and steel, yelling at one of his men to find a pot and the others to produce their waterskins in case whatever the boy was up to required water . . . What else? What else?
The boy was busy. He’d found his medicines and had them spread out in front of him, picking up jars and reading the labels with almost feverish intensity.
Finally he seized one of the jars and a wad of clean fabric and headed toward Andros.
Theos tore his eyes away from the boy. He was the leader of this patrol, and he had responsibilities to all of them, not just Andros. He scanned the area and decided that while the site wasn’t perfect, it was good enough for a night, and set his men to finding water, building a cook fire, and securing the prisoners. This far from the border there was little need of a sentry, but Theos posted one anyway; he didn’t want anything else to go wrong.
All through that night, Andros struggled and groaned, and the rest of the camp was subdued by his pain. In the morning, Theos evaluated their remaining supplies and then Andros himself—finally still, but pale and breathing only in weak, pained gasps.
The Sacrati could survive indefinitely in the mountains if they had to. If they stayed with Andros and the winter came, they could hunt and scavenge for food and build rough shelters using the materials the mountain provided. No, they wouldn’t die, but their condition would be diminished. Theos would have left on his first patrol as iyatis with a band of healthy men and returned with a group of scrawny survivors. And fewer prisoners too, because how many of them were strong enough to last the winter?
In the end, his decision wasn’t based on pride, but responsibility. He’d been entrusted with the care of his fellow Sacrati, and he should return them in the same or better condition than he had received them. But Andros was Sacrati too.
“We’re splitting up,” Theos announced to his soldiers. “Xeno and two volunteers will stay with Andros and the boy. They’ll follow us when Andros is ready to be moved.” He held the men’s gazes for a moment, long enough to make it clear that Andros’s recovery was the only acceptable outcome. “The rest of us will take the prisoners on ahead.”
It was a good plan. It was the right thing to do. But that didn’t make it easier for Theos to walk away from his friend, his responsibility. So his feet were heavy as he made himself start along the path, and they weighed just as much two days later when he led his patrol down off the forested slopes and into the pasture lands of Windthorn valley. A sentry greeted him from the raised observation post, and Theos said wearily, “Theos of the Sacrati, returning from patrol. Eleven Sacrati with me, four more to follow as they are able. Sixteen Elkati prisoners, one more to follow with the other Sacrati.”
Another sentry peered over the edge of his platform. “Sixteen, huh? Not bad for a first patrol, especially when we aren’t technically at war. Good to see, Theos.”
It would have been easier to accept the praise if all of Theos’s Sacrati had returned with him. As it was, he grunted an acknowledgment and nodded his band forward. As they passed the platform, each of his men pulled the tiny leather bag of soil from around his neck and hung it back on the long hooks with many other bags already on them. The men carried soil from the valley into the mountains with them so if they fell in the field, they would rest with at least a little touch of home nearby. The valley dirt would be enough to let their spirits leave their bodies behind, believing they were lying somewhere safe. A small ritual, but an important one.
The pastures gave way to cropland on the valley floor, the fields full of workers from the city weeding or harvesting or . . . whatever it was one did with crops. Young Theos had been enlisted to help in the fields, just as all children were, but he’d never paid much attention to what he was doing; he’d been too busy practicing his swordsmanship with a crooked stick, or wrestling the other boys in their endless fight for status and dominance. Agriculture, like everything else that wasn’t directly related to the Torian war machine, was women’s work. Theos appreciated the fruits of the women’s labor, but he didn’t presume to understand the details of it all, just as the women appreciated the efforts of the warriors but didn’t bother with learning the finer points of warfare.
No, Theos’s home wasn’t in the city with the women and children. He belonged in the barracks, the low, rough buildings that circled the walled town as one more layer of protection against any hazards. As he approached the larger buildings that squatted on either side of the city’s main gates, he let his shoulders relax a little. He might wish his homecoming was a purer triumph, but at least he’d gotten most of his men home.
He watched his men herd the prisoners into the roofed holding pen adjacent to the military headquarters. There were others already inside, captured on previous missions by other Torians. Theos stepped closer and squinted at the prisoners, reassuring himself they were secure and behaving themselves, then squared his shoulders and headed to the office to give his report. As Sacrati, he bypassed the tables set up in the main room and strode directly to one of the two private offices in the rear of the building; technically the warlord outranked the Sacrati captain, but the matched size of their offices was a more accurate reflection of their relative power.
Theos knocked on the open door and stepped into the office.
“Welcome back,” Tamon said, standing and crossing the room to land a friendly clap on Theos’s shoulder. “Report now, and we can catch up later.”
So Theos told his tale, the captain listened, consulted the map to see exactly where the prisoners had been captured, and frowned. “What were they doing that far inside our territory?” he demanded.
“None of my men speak the language,” Theos said. “We didn’t question the prisoners.”
The captain didn’t seem surprised by that. Sacrati were warriors, not spies; they weren’t expected to learn the language of every valley they conquered. “Well, they’ll be questioned now.” Tamon seemed personally insulted by the Elkati trespass. “So we won’t be sending any of them to the evaluators for a few days. You’ll have to wait for your share.”
“Actually, sir, I was hoping to be sent back out, to help bring Andros back.”
The captain gave Theos a long look before saying, “You left three Sacrati with him; do you doubt their ability to perform a fairly simple task?”
“No, sir. But I do doubt my ability to rest properly until all of the men I took out with me are safely returned.”
Tamon sighed. “You’re going to lose men, Theos. Hopefully not this time—although if your young Elkati has found a treatment for rock viper bites, I’m going to have more to question him about than just his reasons for crossing the border—but eventually. Every leader does.”
“Yes, sir. But I’d like to put it off as long as possible. And I’d like to know. Sir.”
Tamon nodded slowly. “Uncertainty makes everything more difficult,” he agreed. “Stay in the barracks tonight. Have a meal and a good night’s sleep. You can go back out tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The captain dismissed him, and Theos headed for his quarters. He’d get cleaned up, as ordered, and later on, he’d get some rest. But in between the two? His men had worked hard and fought well, and he would make sure they had ale and wine enough to celebrate their return. That was his duty as a leader.
Then he’d go to bed, and the next morning he’d perform his other duty as a leader. He’d head back to the mountains, and he’d make sure all of his men were accounted for, one way or another.
Theos pushed himself hard on the way back up the mountain. He wanted to get where he was going, but more importantly he wanted to be distracted. If all his concentration was needed to find secure footing and pull his tired body along step after step, there would be no energy left for him to imagine what he was heading toward.
Because, of course, he was going to find Andros dead. The young prisoner had known he couldn’t cure a rock viper bite; that was why he’d protested when Theos told him to try. He’d only gone along with the stupid plan because Theos had threatened to kill the other prisoners, not because there’d been any chance of success.
That was what his mind told him. And if he’d known that it was true, he’d have slowed down. There was no need to run up a mountain in order to help bury a friend. Alternatively, if he’d known for sure that Andros was fine, there’d be no need to go up the mountain at all. He could just wait in the valley, make his visits to the city, and be content.
It was the tiny nugget of doubt that pushed him forward. He made himself stop for the night when it became too dark to move safely, but he just rolled himself in his blankets and chewed some jerky rather than starting a fire, and at first light the doubt roused him and sent him on his way.
Snow clouds appeared midmorning, still far to the west but coming closer, and the wind developed a damp, sharp bite. It wouldn’t be the first snow of the season, not in the mountains, but any fresh snow was one more complication to consider. Theos hastened his already quick steps.
Then, in the dying light of that second day, he turned around a bend and saw the dancing glow of a fire not far distant.
He advanced with care, not because he expected hostility but because it was never wise to blunder into a camp of highly trained soldiers. He heard the sentry stir from the trees by the side of the path, just where he should be, and then, “Hold and identify yourself.”
“It’s Theos, Xeno.”
“I thought it might be. Thanks for coming back. Go on in.”
There was no emotion in the man’s voice, nothing to help Theos guess what he was heading into. So he walked on cautiously, and when he saw the bundle of blankets over by the trees, he knew he’d been right. Andros had died, and they’d wrapped him and put him over there awaiting burial. Maybe they’d found no soil on the mountain deep enough for a grave and were going to carry him into the valley. But then the blankets stirred, just a little, and the boy rose from his spot by the fire and walked over to his patient. He spoke gentle words, none comprehensible, and then crouched down.
Theos strode toward the fire and was greeted by Achus and Elios, the two Sacrati who’d volunteered to stay behind, and the boy stared for a moment before returning his attention to his patient. Worrying whether his work was good enough, hopefully.
Theos dropped his pack by the fire and then approached. Andros was bundled up in blankets beyond what the weather required, his face pale and drawn, but he was alive, his breathing more natural than it had been when Theos left.
“Come to carry me home?” Andros said hoarsely, and Theos crouched beside him, edging the boy out since he didn’t seem to be doing anything anyway.
“I shouldn’t have to,” Theos replied. “You’re Sacrati—a little nip like this shouldn’t be a problem. You’ve already had four days off, and now you want special treatment? You bring shame on yourself, Andros.”
Andros’s weak cough was probably meant to be a laugh. Theos wanted to touch his friend; it felt strange to avoid the casual contact that had always been how they’d communicated best. But Theos didn’t know the rules for dealing with sick people.
He let himself run the fingertips of his hand down over Andros’s cheek, then turned back to Achus and Elios. “He’s hot. Fevered.”
“He’s been hot and cold for days,” Achus said. “Finnvid says it’s normal.”
Theos frowned at the Sacrati by the fire, then at the prisoner now crouched by Andros’s head. “Finnvid?”
“My nursemaid,” Andros whispered. “He’s more than just pretty.”
There was something going on. “He ‘says’ it’s normal?” he asked.
“Not ‘says,’” Elios clarified. “Not in words. But he’s noticed, and he’s not worried about it.”
Theos raised his eyebrows at the boy. “Finnvid?” he said, and the boy raised defiant eyes to meet his. “Can he move?” He made his fingers walk in the direction of the valley. “Tomorrow morning, can he move?”
The boy—Finnvid—grimaced. He pointed at Andros, mimicked the walking gesture, and shook his head emphatically.
“Snow’s coming,” Theos replied, though he didn’t know why he was bothering to use words at all. He pointed to the sky, mimed that something was falling, and then rubbed his arms and shivered with mock cold.
Finnvid bit his lip, then rummaged through the debris on the forest floor. He found two twigs, held them parallel, and laid a leaf on top of them.
“A stretcher,” Theos interpreted. “We could carry him.” They’d have to take the longer paths for some of the way down, the ones followed by traders with their mules instead of sure-footed soldiers. And they’d have to rest more often, if being moved was hard on Andros.
Maybe it would be better to build a shelter, do some hunting, and wait out the season. But just because full-strength Sacrati could survive a winter in the mountains, it didn’t mean that Andros could, not in his weakened state. He’d be better off recovering in the warmth of the valley, with tasty foods and a soft bed.
“Maybe I did come to carry you home,” Theos murmured. He leaned over and kissed his friend’s forehead. “Do you think you’d be able to make it on a stretcher?”
Andros took a deep breath, then choked a little as he released it. “Everything hurts,” he admitted. “All of me. But . . . I could manage.”
Theos nodded. He looked at the Elkati and said, “Tomorrow? We’ll carry him down?” and went through the whole ridiculous series of pantomimes.
The boy nodded cautiously.
So the decision was made. Theos spent what light was left finding two strong sticks, and then went out to take Xeno’s sentry post, leaving Xeno free to sleep in the camp with Andros. They all woke the next morning and shook the fallen snow from their blankets and ate a quick breakfast of dried fruit. Then they strung blankets between the long sticks, rolled Andros on board, and started moving.
Even with two teams of Sacrati to take turns carrying their injured comrade, travel was slow. By midmorning, Andros was breathing in ragged gasps, and Theos reluctantly ordered a break. He waved the prisoner over to tend his patient, and stood watching with a careful eye.
“I’m surprised the boy can think with you making that face at him,” Xeno said as he gently lifted Andros’s head to allow sips of water from his waterskin.
“Does he need to think? He’s not doing much.”
“Maybe he’s trying to think about what to do.” Xeno looked up at Theos and said, “He was good, Theos. When Andros was at his worst? Finnvid was good. He knew what he was doing. He saved Andros’s life.”
“Not yet he hasn’t.”
Xeno scowled at him but didn’t reply, and Theos stamped away to the far side of the trail. He hated feeling useless, hated facing a challenge that couldn’t be met with strength or courage or cunning. Everything in him cried for action, and everything outside him told him to be patient. He preferred to trust his insides.
So he built a fire, filled a cookpot with snow, and added dried meat and vegetables until he had a passable stew. There was enough for all of them, and he put a little in a bowl and carried it over to where Andros was lying.
“Can he eat?” he asked Finnvid, showing him the bowl.
The Elkati shook his head at the food, then at Theos, and pushed the bowl away impatiently.
Theos turned to Xeno. “Has he not eaten? In this whole time, he’s not been eating?”
“He’s had broth,” Xeno said.
“No wonder he’s so pale; he’s starving to death!”
“Finnvid knows what he’s doing.”
“Starving someone to death?” Theos frowned at the prisoner. “Why?” He mimed feeding the stew to Andros and then made a questioning face. If Andros ate, what would happen?
Finnvid made a puking sound and lifted his hands to show imaginary food pouring out of his mouth.
Theos held his fingers close together. “We’d just give him a little bit, not a feast!”
Finnvid shook his head stubbornly, his expression almost scornful.
Theos huffed and rose to his feet. He had no idea whether to trust the boy’s knowledge or his intentions, but he absolutely didn’t like his attitude. “The prisoner eats what Andros eats,” he declared. “No different, no more. If Andros can survive on sips of broth, then so will the Elkati.”
Xeno seemed as if he wanted to argue, but then looked at Andros’s drawn face and nodded.
“Tell me when you think he’s ready to move, Xeno.” Theos stepped away, then added, “When you think so. Not when the precious Elkati gives his permission.”
Another grudging nod, and Theos turned back to the fire and added food to the bowl before sitting down to eat it. When he was finished, he checked his equipment and did some basic exercises, enough to maintain his flexibility and balance without draining strength he might need. And then he waited. Not entirely patiently.
By early afternoon, Xeno and Andros decided they could manage a little more traveling, so Theos grabbed an end of the stretcher, happy to be doing something. Again their progress was slow, and again they only made it a few hours before Andros was clearly in too much pain to continue, but at least they’d made some progress. They stopped at one of the most-used campsites on the route, a grassy clearing next to a cold, burbling stream, and Theos sent Achus fishing while Elios stood watch and Xeno helped settle Andros. By the time Theos had the fire set up and their blankets hung to air and be warmed by the flames, there were four fat trout waiting to be grilled. Four. Good. One for each of the people eating, and he’d boil up the skin and bones to make a broth for the two who weren’t.
The fish smelled delicious as it cooked, and Theos found himself anticipating the Elkati’s reaction when he was denied a taste. Petty, maybe, but there was something about the boy that just grated. His quiet self-confidence was frustrating.
And it was even more annoying when Theos doled out the cooked fish and the Elkati didn’t even look in his direction. As if he’d known he wouldn’t be getting any. As if he’d known . . .
“Xeno?” Theos said. “Andros is healing, right? The Elkati isn’t really doing anything anymore? Just starving him and fussing over him? No real medicine?”
Xeno frowned. “Well . . . he’s still using his potions . . .”
“But you’ve been watching? You know which ones to use?” Theos rose easily to his feet, his trout half-finished on the ground. He stalked toward Andros and the prisoner. “I’ve put up with enough from him. He’s the enemy, he’s already been part of an escape attempt, and I don’t trust him when I close my eyes to sleep. I’m going to kill him now. My dagger right through his spine.”
“There’s no need of that!” Xeno protested, and Andros half-pushed himself off the stretcher.
Theos was behind the boy now, but Finnvid didn’t move. He stayed crouched by Andros’s head. Then Theos took half a step closer, and the boy leaped to his feet, whirling toward Theos with a bottle in his hand, ready to smash it into Theos’s skull.
As the boy swung, Theos dodged inside the arc just as he had with the other prisoner days earlier, but this time he didn’t punch the Elkati’s nose. Instead, he caught the boy’s wrist, twisting it behind his back until the bottle dropped, unharmed, into Theos’s free hand. The attack had been doomed to failure, and had clearly been a desperate last attempt to survive. Theos wrapped his arm around the boy’s throat and leaned forward until his mouth was right by the boy’s ear. “You speak Torian,” Theos said gently. It was the only way the boy could have anticipated his actions.
Finnvid’s body stayed rigid for a moment, then slumped. “Elkati are educated,” he hissed in Torian, his words practically accentless. “We bother to learn things about our attackers.”
“Your ‘conquerors,’ you mean.” Theos made sure he was angled well away from Andros before he shoved the boy into a graceless sprawl on the frost-whitened grass. “You wanted to be well-placed for a position in the new society once we take over. That makes sense. If I were a weaponless coward like you, maybe I’d have made the same decision.”
“I was laughing at you,” the boy retorted. “All the time with your silly gestures and your little shows, trying to make me understand what you meant, when all along I’d understood every word.”
“Yes, yes, very humorous. You, my captive, off to live in slavery in my empire, completely under my control . . . you found a tiny, pathetic way to feel powerful. That’s nice. If it helps, you can imagine me as an ant tonight as you sleep, and in your dreams you can stomp on me.” Theos smiled, showing his teeth. “None of these games will change your reality, of course.”
“You understand nothing! You’re a brute, a thug!”
“I’m Sacrati,” Theos corrected. He didn’t need to make any more arguments, not with evidence like that behind him. “Now, let’s go back to pretending you can’t speak. I’ll even do the entertaining hand signs, if you like.” He pointed at the boy, then used both hands to cover his own mouth.
“Be nice,” Andros croaked from his blankets.
Theos snorted at him. “Why? Because you think he’s pretty?”
“Because he saved my life.”
“Not yet,” the Elkati said, his mouth twisted in a sneer as he echoed Theos’s earlier words.
Theos moved fast, grabbing the boy by his hair and half lifting him off the ground. No flinch, a part of Theos’s mind noted with approval, but most of him had no time for compliments. “The promise still stands,” he growled. “If Andros dies, all the other prisoners die too.” He ran his fingers along the boy’s jaw, noting how soft the hair of his beard still was. “But not you. Not right away. If Andros dies, you live for a little bit longer than your friends. Long enough to see them die, and long enough to learn your lesson. You understand?”
The boy raised his lips in a wordless snarl, and Theos tossed him backward onto the grass. The Elkati had understood.
Theos stalked over to his abandoned fish and flopped down beside it.
“Nice to see you making friends,” Xeno said lightly. He leaned in a little so no one else could hear. “And, iyatis or not, if I hear you talking about Andros dying again, anywhere Andros can hear? I’ll cut out your tongue and shove it up your ass.” He eased away then, but his eyes stayed locked on Theos’s.
Theos had beaten Xeno in every sparring match they’d had since they were youngsters. But sometimes a threat didn’t have to be frightening to convey a message, and Theos made himself nod. “Understood.”
Xeno held his gaze for just a moment longer, then said at normal volume, “Good catch on Finnvid. I was getting pretty tired of acting everything out for him.”
“You’re saying it wrong,” Finnvid said from his spot back by Andros’s head. “It’s Finnvid, not Feenveed.”
“Careful,” Theos warned. “If I decide your name is Dickless, that’ll be your name. So, ask yourself: is Feenveed really all that bad?”
The boy didn’t answer, which Theos took as a victory. He finished his fish and tossed the remains into the pot over the fire. Xeno did the same, with a thoughtful frown toward Andros. Maybe Xeno was finally remembering that Finnvid was the enemy, and shouldn’t be completely trusted. Shouldn’t be trusted at all, really.
But Xeno didn’t say he’d changed his mind about Finnvid, didn’t suggest that they try feeding Andros something solid, and Theos decided not to push it, not yet.
He took the first watch that night, standing guard on the edge of camp as Xeno retied Finnvid’s hands and feet and then settled beside Andros. Achus and Elios had finished their fish and were staring at the flames, sitting close enough together that Theos knew what they’d be up to before they went to sleep.
The night was quiet, guard duty a formality rather than a necessity, and Theos found his attention being drawn to the Elkati.
By the time Xeno replaced him on watch, Theos had drawn some conclusions. When he saw Andros awake, staring at the flames of the fire Xeno had just rebuilt, Theos sank down next to him.
“He’s the leader. He’s the one who ordered the surrender that first day.” It was strange to think of this boy in charge of a band of soldiers, but it fit what Theos had seen.
Andros didn’t seem surprised by the idea. “He kept trying to look after them. Set up that escape, and did his healing.”
“That healing might be his chance.” Theos wasn’t sure if the boy was asleep or just pretending to be, but Theos wasn’t saying anything secret. Actually, it might be good to say a bit more, to be sure the boy understood his position. “If he can prove he’s good for something, he can earn his freedom.” If Finnvid had been a woman, he’d have had lots of choices. Women ran the city, controlled the trade, crafted the tools and weapons, and grew the crops. Even if the incoming prisoners had no skills, they could usually get pregnant and contribute through the production of new Torians. Any woman bearing a Torian child simply had to take an oath of fealty and she’d be made a free citizen. As her child grew up in the Torian Empire, her maternal love was expected to keep her loyal.
For men, though? There was only war.
Theos squinted at the boy. “He’s probably not going to get much taller; hopefully he still has some filling out to do. But he hasn’t been trained properly. Best chance is for him to be a medic.”
Theos wouldn’t admit it while the boy might be listening, but he knew the Torians never had much luck training their own healers. The women had their medicine, of course, and they’d help any soldier who could be brought back to the safety of the city. But they knew better than to venture out into the fields of battle.
“Either that or a bedwarmer,” Theos mused.
“He’s pretty enough,” Andros mumbled.
Yes, he probably was. And when a bedwarmer wasn’t busy serving his master however required, he could spend his time training, trying to find some way to earn a place for himself.
If that didn’t work? The boy might be sent back east to one of the huge mines in the central valleys where he would labor underground, or he might be used for whatever skill-less jobs the army came up with. Theos had seen useless slaves sent to clear paths of traps before more valuable soldiers came through, and he’d heard of them being pushed onto the battlefield as arrow-fodder, distracting the enemy while the true soldiers approached under better cover. It was no way for a man to die.
“He needs to be smart,” Theos said, still not really for Andros’s benefit.
“He is,” Andros replied.
“Well, he needs to act smart. Needs to remember who’s in charge.” A foolish suggestion, probably. It was pointless to speculate. Finding jobs for prisoners was the task of the evaluators, not the Sacrati.
So he left Andros to his blankets and took a brief tour around the camp, looking for dangers he knew he wouldn’t find, stepping carefully to avoid Achus and Elios’s tangle of writhing, half-naked Sacrati, trying to ignore the stir in his own groin. He thought briefly about approaching Xeno, but Andros had always been closer to Theos, and finding relief with Xeno while Andros lay there unable to join in didn’t seem right. So Theos laid another log on the fire and settled back. The Elkati was sitting up, now, and working hard at not watching Achus and Elios. The boy wasn’t going to have much fun as a bedwarmer if he got this flustered when someone else was having sex. But that wasn’t Theos’s problem.
They made slow but steady progress the next day, and at dinnertime Finnvid allowed Andros to eat some finely minced vegetables and a tiny bit of the rabbit Xeno had caught and roasted. Finnvid clearly knew Theos was watching him around the food, and after feeding Andros he defiantly pushed away the vegetables and meat Xeno offered him. “I’m not really hungry,” the Elkati said. “I think I’ll just have a little more broth.”
“Good,” Theos grunted. He reached across and lifted the rejected plate off the ground by Finnvid’s side. “I didn’t get quite enough meat. Does anyone want more vegetables, or should I eat those too?”
He waited a moment for an answer he didn’t get, then started eating. The rabbit was greasy and delicious, almost enough to make him forget that the vegetables had been dried and chopped into something closer to flour than to recognizable forms. Dried fruit, dried grain, dried vegetables, dried meat, reconstituted only if there was time to camp and start a fire—that was the diet of a soldier in the field. The rabbit made this meal a luxury, even if there was no replacement for the vegetable slush.
The next morning, the Elkati ate the same breakfast as everyone else, and Andros managed a half serving of oatmeal. They traveled faster that day, too. By the time the sun was setting, they’d reached the sentry at the top of the valley, and Theos helped Andros pull the leather bag from around his neck. They were home, and their spirits didn’t need to be fooled anymore. Theos hung the bags up on the hook, then told Andros, “We can camp here, if you want, or else spend another few hours on the road and you can sleep in your own bed. It’s your decision.”
“I’m already in bed,” Andros said, patting the sides of his stretcher with satisfaction. “I’m happy either way.”
Theos looked at the other men. The Sacrati would be happy to get home, and walking through the flat valley in the dark wasn’t dangerous. Five Sacrati who wanted their beds . . . Theos caught the Elkati’s eye. Finnvid was trying to look unconcerned, but not really managing it. He had no idea what was waiting for him when they reached the city, and Theos didn’t know much himself. The other prisoners had been heading for interrogation when he’d left the valley; what had they said? Why had they been on the wrong side of the border, and why had they been led by a healer instead of . . . well, instead of just about anyone else?
And even if the questions had been answered in the most innocent ways, what was waiting for Finnvid after the evaluators saw him?
“We’ll camp,” Theos decided. They’d left the cold behind on the mountain, and it would be pleasant to have a night under the stars without shivering. One last night before returning to the usual routine. Well, routine for five of them.
The sentry post was well stocked with food and miscellaneous cooking tools; Theos thought back to his own time on sentry duty and didn’t remember the same level of luxury. It was probably a sign of moral decline that the sentries were living so well now, but he was too happy to see fresh bread to worry too much about it. He just commandeered what he wanted and left the sentries sputtering indignantly. Living on jerky until they were relieved of duty would be good for the soldiers’ characters.
Theos, on the other hand? He and the others grilled slabs of ham, roasted freshly dug potatoes and carrots, and made a sort of apple-berry cobbler for dessert. A few jugs of ale might have completed the feast, but no one complained. They just ate, and sat around the fire. Even Andros, after having a taste of all of their foods, was more-or-less upright, leaning back against Xeno.
“Almost as good as the harvest feast,” Achus said, patting his belly contentedly.
“I always wondered why they fed us so well on those nights,” Elios mused. “After a big meal, I just want to sleep. Pleasing a woman seems like a lot of work.”
“That would explain why you don’t get many invitations to the city,” Xeno said. “You’ll be stuck with one or two kids a year if you can’t make the women want you more often. Theos, though . . . Theos, how many have you got so far? Must be almost fifty?”
“Forty-six, I think. Two more on the way, though.”
Elios shook his head. “Too much trouble. Why get cleaned up, walk all the way to the city, and go through all their nonsense, just to fuck a woman, when I could roll over right now and do whatever I wanted to Achus?”
“You have forty-six . . . Are you talking about— You’ve fathered forty-six children?” The Elkati was staring at Theos, his expression a mix of disbelief and something that looked like disgust. “I’ve heard about the Torian practices, but . . . forty-six? You aren’t even— You’re quite young! When did you start having children?”
“My oldest is coming to the barracks this winter. He’s almost nine.” Theos wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or amused by the Elkati’s reaction.
“You’ve had forty-six children in nine years?”
Theos looked to Andros to see if he wanted to jump into the conversation, but Andros just said, “Carry on. You’re seven kids ahead of me, and I started before you. Explain yourself to the foreigner.”
Theos shrugged. “Three festivals a year. Babies don’t always come from festival couplings, of course, but . . . one or two a year, from that. And then an invitation to the city most cycles, when I’m not on campaign, and they time it all carefully, so quite a few of those visits result in babies. So maybe five or six visits a year, for three or four more babies a year . . .” The math seemed simple.
“We don’t all get the extra invitations,” Achus told Finnvid patiently. “You wouldn’t know it to look at him right now, but when Theos shaves and cleans up, he’s a handsome devil. And the women look at his career too, and hear reports from officers and from other women. They like him because he’s good stock so he’ll probably give them good babies.” Achus lowered his voice a little as he added, “And because he makes them scream with pleasure.”
“While men like Elios are sleeping off a big meal,” Theos said with a laugh. Then he turned his attention to Finnvid. Was it cruel to ask him about his old life, the one he’d never be able to go back to? Maybe, but it seemed awkward to ignore the topic altogether. So he tried to keep his question general. “I’ve heard rumors that Elkati mate for life, like beavers.”
“One male beaver, one female beaver, in their lodge. Beavers.”
Finnvid clearly didn’t like the comparison. “We—we marry. We make vows to be faithful to each other.”
“To have sex only with each other, forever?” Theos frowned. “What if you get tired of each other? What if your couplings don’t produce babies? What if one of you dies?”
“If one of us dies, the other could remarry,” Finnvid said, straightening his shoulders. “But otherwise . . . we remain faithful.”
“Sex with one person. Forever.” Theos realized he’d expected to be laughed at when he’d brought up the rumors. How could anything so ridiculous actually be true? “So, have you married?” Theos was curious. “Will your woman marry again, now that you’re gone?”
Finnvid looked as if he wanted to argue, maybe to insist that his captivity was only temporary. But instead he said, “I don’t have a . . . you don’t have a Torian word for it, then? A ‘wife’? I don’t have one.”
“So . . . wait. If you only have sex with the one you’re married to, and you’ve never married . . .”
The other men around the campfire had faded out of the conversation at some point, but now their attention was back, and they were staring at Finnvid with wide eyes.
“Have you never had sex?” Xeno asked, the disbelief clear in his tone.
“That’s private,” Finnvid replied. He sounded prim and disapproving, but Theos could hear the insecurity beneath it and decided to take pity on him with a less personal line of questioning.
“So, when Elkati are married,” he said, “do you only speak to each other, as well? Only look at each other? If one of you is away on a campaign, the other one . . . just . . . doesn’t have sex? At all?”
“Torian men spend most of the summer away from home,” Finnvid countered. “So it’s the same problem, isn’t it? Your women can’t have sex when you’re not around.”
Theos looked at him blankly, then turned toward his fellow Sacrati, hoping one of them could interpret the Elkati’s words. Receiving no help, he said slowly, “They have sex with each other. They don’t need us for sex, any more than we need them. That’s . . .” He was still searching for some different meaning in the boy’s words. Finnvid was supposed to be a healer, so surely he’d understand these things? “You need a man and a woman for babies,” Theos explained. “That’s all.”
“But . . .” Even in the firelight the boy’s blush was clear to see. Theos wondered if the skin would feel as hot as it appeared. “Yes, thank you,” Finnvid managed to say. “I know about babies. But . . . it doesn’t have to be just for babies. You can sleep with women for, you know, for pleasure. Companionship. All of that. As well as babies.”
Theos was having to rethink his assessment of the Elkati. How could someone so clever about some things be so clueless about others?
“The women live in the city.” He felt like he was speaking more slowly with every sentence. “We could sleep with them for pleasure, but they’re far away. And it’d be a nuisance to have to get approval from the temple every time.”
It was ridiculous that Finnvid could be confused by this conversation, but that was the only interpretation of the expression on the boy’s face. “The temple? Why is the temple involved?”
“To make sure it’s an approved mating. Not too closely related, not too many kids with the same blood being produced—”
“You’ve fathered forty-six children in nine years and you’re worried about too many children with the same blood?”
“I’m not worried. The temple is. That’s why they won’t approve me for more than five or six extra partners a year, outside of the festivals.”
“Otherwise every baby in the city would be his,” Andros said with a grin.
“You’re just as popular,” Theos retorted. “We’d have made a lot of women unhappy if we’d left you up on the mountain with the snakes.”
It would have been easier to let the conversation drift back in that familiar direction. But Finnvid clearly didn’t want to move on. “But if you’re sleeping with all these women . . . there must be an imbalance. There must be some men who can’t sleep with a woman, because you’ve taken them all. That’s not fair.”
“Fair? Women aren’t kegs of ale; they aren’t to be divided up equally for the enjoyment of all the drinkers. If Andros and I have more children, that’s because the women want to have our babies. It’s their choice. Nothing to do with being fair to men.”
“That’s easy for you to say, when you’re the one with all the women! What about the men who are alone?”
“Alone? Being invited to the city . . . that’s . . . well, counting the festivals, it’s maybe ten nights a year, at the most. Being with women isn’t going to keep anyone from being alone.” Theos nodded at Andros and Xeno, reclining together with their legs entwined. “Your friends keep you from being alone. Not women.”
“But it could be women. You don’t have to . . . you know. You don’t have to do unnatural things. You could just be with women.”
“The women are in the city—” Theos started again, but Finnvid interrupted him.
“The women could leave the city! Or the men could go there! You’ve built this whole artificial culture around a simple peculiarity of population distribution—”
“The women stay in the city because they’re safe there. We need them, as many as possible, and we need them to be healthy. One man can have many children in a year; we don’t need as many men. So men go to war and keep the valleys safe, and women stay in the cities where they’re protected. They take care of business, and they build things and raise children.” Theos raised an eyebrow. “What’s so unnatural about that?”
“Your women are happy with this system? They don’t want to settle down with one man and have a family?”
“If they aren’t happy, they can speak up.”
“And the men will listen? Who will make sure the women have voices? How can they know they’re safe to speak, with no mate to protect them?”
“Why would they need a mate to protect them when they have a whole army?”
“What if it’s the army they need to be protected against?”
“Well, one man isn’t going to do much good against a whole army. But, really, why would the army want to attack a woman?”
“Because she challenged your crazy social structure?”
“Women can challenge things. They can go to the city council and say what they want.”
“Without being shouted down by the men?”
Theos was getting impatient. “It’s the city council. There are no men.” He looked up at the stars for a moment, then said, “Remember back when the world was fresh and new? Back when you were pretending you didn’t speak Torian? Those were good times, weren’t they?”
Finnvid’s snort was suspiciously like a laugh. “They were certainly simpler times,” he admitted. He was quiet for a while, then tilted his face toward the same stars Theos had been gazing at. “Do Torians have stories about them?”
“The stars. Do you make pictures from them, and tell stories about them?”
“I don’t understand. Make pictures from the stars?”
Finnvid nodded, and pointed upward. “Like those stars there. You see the brightest one? And then down from it, and over, how it makes a box? And the little stars in the middle are almost lined up. That’s Greanna’s loom.”
“The mother of all.” Finnvid sounded like a man telling a tale to children. “She creates our lives, and then she and her daughters weave us together on the loom and determine how everything will go.”
“Three pairs of twins: Love and Hate, Birth and Death, Laughter and Tears.”
“What kind of a mother would name her daughter Death? Or even Tears?”
“You don’t object to Hate?”
“Well, I guess Hate isn’t too nice either. I wouldn’t mind spending a night with Laughter, though. She sounds like fun.”
“You’d prefer Laughter to Love?”
“Love would be too complicated.” Theos lifted his hand to point at the stars. “That one? And then . . . that one . . . yes, I see the box. That’s their loom. What else do they do?”
“Well, that’s about the only story for that constellation. It’s just the easiest one to see. But . . . up from there, and off to the right. Do you see those two stars close together, and then the other one beyond them? That’s Varin’s sword. The hilt, and then the tip. And his shield is over there, those five stars in a sort of circle?”
“Aye, I see it . . . but who’s Varin?”
“He’s the greatest hero the world has ever known,” Finnvid said confidently. He leaned back on his elbows and stared at the stars and began to tell Theos stories of the hero. And Theos listened, although he spent as much time looking at Finnvid as he did at the stars.
The next morning they woke early, had breakfast, and walked the rest of the way into town. Andros insisted on climbing off the stretcher once they reached the drilling yards and everyone slowed down to wait for his careful, tight steps. When they arrived at the barracks, Elios and Achus accepted Andros’s thanks and then drifted off toward their quarters, and Xeno said he would take Andros to the medics to be checked out. Before they left, they both hugged Finnvid and thanked him, and Andros gave Theos a look that probably contained a message, but not one he could understand.
He walked Finnvid over to the holding pens and peered inside. The other Elkati prisoners were still there, a few of them with fresh bruises and cuts. Theos sighed. “Seems like some more work for you.” Maybe Finnvid would feel better about stepping into the cage if he felt he had a purpose.
But as it happened, Theos couldn’t see how Finnvid was reacting to the prospect. The Elkati’s expression was as closed and unreadable as it had been in the early days, back when he was planning escapes and pretending not to speak Torian.
Which was as it should be, Theos reminded himself. Finnvid was Elkati. He was the enemy. He’d been captured well over the border, and now he’d face the consequences. None of it was Theos’s problem, and none of it was within his power to change. “Good luck,” he said, feeling like a fool as soon as the words were past his lips.
But Finnvid didn’t mock him. He didn’t say a thing as Theos unlocked the cage and Finnvid stepped into it. He kept his shoulders straight and his head high, and strode toward his men without so much as a glance in Theos’s direction.
Theos shut the door behind him, made sure it was locked, then went to give his report to the captain.
“They’re saying it was a dare?” Andros said with disgust. He’d been lying on his bed when Theos arrived to check on him, but now he was propped up on his elbows and seemed about to swing his legs over the side of the bed and march off to right a wrong. “Does Finnvid really seem like the sort of person to cross a border on a dare? Like a raw recruit trying to earn his sword?”
“According to them, Finnvid wasn’t the leader,” Theos grumbled. He’d already gone through disbelief and was settling down into resignation, heavily tinged with confusion. “They said it was the old guy. He’d just been passed over for a promotion and wanted to prove he still had balls, so he led his men into our territory.”
“There’s no way the old guy was in charge. Finnvid was. It’s obvious. You need to go tell them the prisoners lied.”
“I already told them. And you know, the Elkati were a bit bruised when I dropped Finnvid off, but they weren’t really messed up. Not like they’d been beaten hard.” Theos frowned. There was more to this situation than incompetent interrogation, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was. “The interrogators didn’t listen. For some reason it was the warlord’s crew who were in charge, and . . .” He realized what the problem had been. “They acted like being Sacrati meant nothing. Like I was just another soldier with a stupid opinion they didn’t need to listen to.”
“There are always rust stains who are like that,” Andros said slowly. “Usually it’s the ones who thought they should have been chosen, but weren’t.”
“No. I’m used to that. This was . . . It was something different. And when I asked to see the captain, he was busy.”
“On the yards, doing training.”
“No. He was in his office. I saw him.”
“He was in his office, and he was too busy to talk to a Sacrati iyatis?”
“I know. It’s— It didn’t make sense. But that’s what they said.”
“What’s going on, Theos?” Andros’s voice was quiet and serious, and somehow reassuring. Theos wasn’t being paranoid. “There’s something not right.”
Theos pushed himself to his feet. “Keep quiet about it, okay? For now, at least. Tell Xeno to lay low, and I’ll talk to the other two. We shouldn’t say anything different than what the interrogators found. Just until I can talk to the captain and figure out what’s going on.”
Andros nodded. “If you need support, tell me. There’s no way that old guy was in charge. No way. So we still don’t know what they were doing on our side of the line. But if they had a cover story figured out, and they were all strong enough to stick to it during interrogation . . .”
“I know.” Theos stood up and clapped a hand onto Andros’s shoulder. “But I’ll take care of it; you focus on recovery. The rest of the world will still be around when you’re better, and I want you at full strength.”
Andros lifted a hand and laced his fingers through Theos’s. He lay down again, keeping Theos’s hand where it was so Theos had to lean over him. Then Andros raised his other hand and wrapped it around the back of Theos’s neck, tugging gently.
Theos obliged, lowering his head to Andros’s and kissing him. Just lightly at first, but when Andros didn’t release his grip, Theos deepened the kiss.
It wasn’t the start of anything; Andros was mending, but still not fit enough for sex. It was just to show solidarity. Whatever was happening at the higher levels of the military, Andros and Theos would present a united front.
There was a quiet thud behind them, and Theos turned his head to see Xeno standing in the doorway, smiling at them both.
“Feeling better, then?” he asked. He took the two steps across the room and crouched down next to them. A quick kiss for Theos, and then Xeno’s attention was all on Andros. “I got the poppy juice, but they said to use as little as possible. Let me know if the pain gets to be too much, but otherwise we’ll just give you a few drops before you sleep. And I can get a mat for the floor, so you’ll have more room . . .”
“There’s room here,” Andros said. He’d taken his hand away from Theos and was gripping Xeno’s wrist now. “Lots of room. I want you in bed with me.”
Theos stood up and headed for the door. He and Andros were friends, but Andros and Xeno had been a pair for years. Finnvid seemed quite clever, sometimes, so how could he have missed their devotion? How could he think that they must be lonely because there were no women in their bed most nights? It made no sense.
Just one more thing that was hard to understand, Theos reminded himself as he jogged down the stairs toward his quarters. And not one of the more urgent puzzles to be solved. He needed to put the Elkati boy out of his mind, and figure out what was going on in his own barracks yard.
He picked up clean clothes and headed for the communal baths, one of the few luxuries in the barracks.
On this late-fall day, the shutters of the bathhouse were thrown open, light shining in as steam poured out. Most of the soldiers had duties during the daytime, so Theos had the place to himself. It was nice to be warm enough to strip right down, to look at the Torian tattoo on the rounded ball of his shoulder, the Sacrati brand on his hip. He’d gotten the tattoo as a young man, and it had stretched and faded a little as he’d grown, so he checked on it now and then to be sure it wasn’t gone entirely. The brand had been hard-won; he liked to look at that too, sometimes, to run his fingers over the roughened skin and remember what he’d achieved.
And it was always good to pull the leather bracers from his wrists. Every Torian warrior used them, not just to protect their arms but to keep the bracelets underneath them safe. Now that he was in the barracks, though, he could shed the bracers and let the bracelets be seen. He ran his hands over them all, then stepped into one of the large communal tubs.
Theos soaked for a while, then scrubbed himself clean, rinsed off in the fresh water, and headed to the mirrors to shave. He was almost done before he noticed that he had company.
Theos knew the soldier’s face, but not his name. There were well over two thousand men on active duty in the valley’s military, with a couple hundred new recruits each year to replace the men who were killed or who went east to fight on the other border. This was just another soldier in a long line of them.
“Shouldn’t you be on duty?” Theos asked, wiping the last of the shaving oil from his face.
“I’m the night guard this month,” the soldier said. “It’s not a bad job, but there’s no one to spend time with when I’m not at work.”
“But there is today.” Theos moved closer, and the soldier smiled.
“There is today,” the man echoed, and he pulled his tunic up over his head.
Their coupling was friendly, casual. The soldier just shed his remaining clothes and dropped to his knees, using his mouth to bring Theos to hardness, and then smeared some of the shaving oil on his cock. Theos buried himself in the other man’s body, and the soldier braced himself against the wall and arched his back.
It was nothing special, yet it was just what Theos needed. A return to the ordinary, a reminder of the simple things in life: tight, slick heat; a body strong enough to take whatever Theos gave; grunts of enjoyment and encouragement; and a climax that took them both away, at least temporarily, from their worries.
They rinsed off together under the flow of water, and then Theos clapped the soldier’s shoulder and wished him luck staying awake on sentry duty, and that was it. Theos dressed in clean clothes and set his laundry to soak in the tanks next to the bathhouse.
Fresh and clean, he went down to the kitchen in search of food. Technically the soldiers were all supposed to eat at meal times, but Theos was Sacrati, he was just back from the field, and he was hungry. The recruits scurried around to put food together for him, and he grinned. Life in the barracks was a nice change from the mountains.
Theos took his meal outdoors, intending to eat it while he watched the drills under the warm sun. But before he got to the drill yards he was stopped short by a procession in front of the holding pens.
Prisoners were being taken out of the pen and lined up in the road. Not the Elkati Theos had brought in; these men must have come from someone else’s patrol. They already had heavy iron slave collars around their necks, and as they joined their fellows, the blacksmith was hammering red-hot iron into chain links, her hands quick and sure as she worked. She was fastening the prisoners together into a web that would hold until their heads came off or someone with a forge and the proper tools released them.
This was the preparation for a mass slave transport. Not that uncommon, but they usually happened after significant battles, and Theos would have heard from the captain if there’d been one of those lately. He strode forward and spoke to a one-armed man who was watching the work with an overseer’s critical eye. “Where are you taking them?”
“Who are you to ask?” The man’s accent was subtly different; he wasn’t from Windthorn valley.
“I’m Sacrati.” But why was Theos wasting words on this man? He moved a little closer and made his expression dull and threatening. “Where are you taking them?”
The man sighed as if he were tired of stupid questions. “Back east, to the central valleys.”
“Why?” Slaves were usually kept in the valley that captured them until they’d been trained for their new lives. If they proved useless as soldiers, they might be sent to the mines, or if they had special skills, they might be transported to where they were needed, but it wasn’t routine.
“I was told to,” the slaver grunted.
“It’s going to be winter before you get anywhere. You’ll be lucky to make it to the next valley before you’re snowed in.”
“Extra risk means extra rewards,” the man said with an oily smile. Then he turned away.
Theos stepped back and tried to find sense in the situation. The chosen prisoners were young. They were all male, but that made sense; females were captured when the Torians took over a valley, not when they captured trespassers, and there’d been no new valleys claimed recently. But still, there was something about the prisoners . . .
The boys were all pretty, and didn’t seem to have anything else in common. “You’re taking them to be bedwarmers?”
The trader wagged his eyebrows. “They’ll fetch a good price back east.”
It didn’t feel right. This many young, healthy men had failed to meet the army standards? It was unheard of. “Who authorized this?”
“I did.” The voice was chilly, and Theos turned to see the warlord striding toward him. Tall and lean with a hawklike face and eyes that seemed to see everything, the man was imposing. But Theos was Sacrati.
“Why are you sending them? They haven’t been here long, have they?” The pens had been almost empty when Theos had left on patrol. “They haven’t been given a chance.”
“Remember yourself, soldier. Remember your place.” The words were wielded like a whip, but they didn’t sting when they landed.
“Sacrati,” Theos corrected calmly.
“Sacrati are still soldiers, and it’s time you all remembered that. Now, get back to your duties.” The man’s eyes raked over the food in Theos’s hands. “Or your picnic. Whatever you were doing, start doing it again. This is none of your business.”
The next prisoner was pulled out of the pen. Finnvid. His face was tight with anger or fear or a combination of both, and his eyes skimmed past Theos without any sign of recognition. Theos was just another Torian, another slaver. And Finnvid was a leader being dragged away from his men, and being sent on a dangerous journey to an unknowable fate.
“Sir,” Theos said. “I have some concerns about this prisoner. Information I received while on the mountain suggests—”
“No, you have no concerns about this prisoner. He’s none of your business.” The warlord didn’t even glance toward Theos this time. “Leave the area, soldier.”
Sacrati, Theos wanted to insist again. He took half a step backward, casting around the courtyard hoping to find a solution he couldn’t quite imagine on his own. He saw Andros standing on the steps of one of the barracks’ buildings. He was leaning on Xeno, pale and weak, but he was standing. He was alive. “Sir,” Theos said, stepping forward. “As patrol leader, I have the right to first pick of the prisoners we captured. I haven’t made my choice yet.”
The warlord curled his lips into an ugly sneer. “And the business of the valley should cease while you ponder?”
Theos knew what he was doing. That was the frustrating part. Displeasing a leader of the camp, getting involved in something he didn’t understand—he knew it was stupid. And he did it anyway. “I chose that prisoner, sir. Finnvid of the Elkati. I claim him.” He pointed to the boy.
The warlord glared at him for a moment, then jerked his chin toward the office building. “So go tell them inside, and they’ll give you the coin.”
A final chance to escape, but Theos didn’t take it. “No, sir, I don’t want the value. I want the prisoner.”
The warlord’s expression became even more hawklike. “What? You want to . . .” The veins in his neck were standing out, but then he gave a smile, tight and almost more intimidating than his scowl. “You’re a young man, Theos. You’re . . . I know, I said Sacrati were just soldiers, but we both know you get extra attention as one of the chosen. You have no need of a bedwarmer. And they’re expensive, you know. If they’re not contributing to the empire, you have to pay for their food, and for any clothing or medicine they need.”
“But if they have any income, I get to keep that, right?”
“You’re thinking of making him a whore?” The warlord shrugged a little, visibly trying to relax. His voice was lighter as he continued, “Fine, maybe that’s not a bad idea. But . . . just between you and me. As comrades. Choose one of the others, one of the more tractable ones, and I’ll mark it down as if he came from your patrol’s capture. You’ll get a better slave out of the deal.”
And the warlord would be doing it because he and Theos were comrades. Theos managed to hide his disbelief and tried to think of a way to make his interest seem less peculiar. “Thank you, sir, but I’ve already spent time with this prisoner. I like his—his way. His skills. I know he’s a nuisance, but I’ll keep him under control.”
The game was over now; the warlord wasn’t trying to control his anger anymore. He stepped closer to Theos and hissed, “Take another prisoner.”
“I’d prefer to follow the rules,” Theos said quietly. “I’ll take Finnvid of the Elkati, sir. Thank you.”
For a moment it truly seemed that the warlord would refuse. Possibly with a bonus assault. Then he exhaled some of his aggression in an angry huff. “Fine,” he growled. He turned to the woman who had just finished positioning Finnvid in the apparatus used for attaching the collars. The boy was on his hands and knees, his head stuffed between an anvil and a block of wood, strapped in place with a thick band of leather. It wasn’t a scene that should have made Theos’s cock stir.
“Let him up,” the warlord snarled, and the blacksmith undid the straps. Finnvid staggered to his feet, rubbing his neck as if the collar had actually been attached.
Theos stood quietly as the slave trader wrapped a leather rope around Finnvid’s neck. “Enjoy your new toy,” the trader said with a lascivious smile, and handed the end of the rope to Theos.
Theos forced his fingers to accept the strip, and he turned and strode away with what dignity he could find, forcing Finnvid to jog to keep up.
“What’s going on?” the Elkati demanded when they were safely beyond earshot of the rest.
“I have no idea,” Theos growled. He whirled and stared at the boy. “But I’m going to find out. And by the sword, Elkati—you’ll help me. You belong to me, now, and that means that whatever’s going on in your busy little brain is my property. You’d better spread it out for inspection.”
Not surprisingly, Finnvid didn’t react too well to threats. He began by denying all knowledge of a mission, then stopped speaking altogether, and then, when Theos said he could speak or do without food, he’d started talking again: in Elkati. There was a constant song of gibberish coming out of the boy’s mouth by the time Theos finally dragged him up the stairs to Andros’s room.
He pushed the door open, shoved Finnvid inside so hard the boy tripped and landed on his hands and knees, and turned to Andros, who’d made his way up from downstairs and was lying on the bed.
“I saved his life, and he’s repaying me with stubbornness and idiocy.”
“Well, that must be very annoying,” Andros said calmly. “Finnvid, can I offer you something to eat or drink?”
“He’ll have neither,” Theos interrupted. “Not until he starts talking.”
Andros nodded as if he’d expected nothing else. “Ah, yes. Stubborn idiocy.”
Theos stared at his friend. Had that insult been aimed at Finnvid, or . . . “He was across the border for a reason,” Theos insisted. Andros had known all this only hours ago. “He and his men lied about what that reason was, so we still don’t know why they were in our territory.” Theos lowered his voice so he wouldn’t be heard in the corridor. “I couldn’t speak to the captain about it, and it’s too late in the season for a caravan to be heading off. Full of young men who should have been able to earn their chance in the army. At least some of them. And when I claimed Finnvid, the warlord argued with me. He wanted me to take any other slave in the whole train.” Theos shook his head in Finnvid’s direction. “I could have taken one who would cooperate and answer simple questions.”
“Simple questions about his valley’s defenses? About his mission? Just general questions that would help us understand the Elkati strategy, and make it easier for us to conquer them?” Andros’s voice was annoyingly patient. “The same questions you would be totally cooperative about, if you were ever captured.”
Theos squinted at his friend, then turned to Finnvid. “When I leave here, I’m going to talk to the captain. He’ll understand what I’m saying, and you and your men will be reinterrogated. This time by Sacrati interrogators. They won’t let you get away with your nonsense. Do you understand that?”
Finnvid didn’t reply, but the bleak expression on his face made it clear that he understood all too well.
“So you can save yourself a lot of pain—you can save your men a lot of pain—if you just speak up now.” Theos stared at the wall behind the boy’s head and waited. When Finnvid said nothing, Theos made himself continue. “If you don’t respond to the pain, they’ll go further. They’ll kill one of you. That’s the advantage of there being so many. They have lots of spares, so they won’t have to worry about wasting a few. So, aye, kill one of you, and probably hack his head off and hang it in your pen. Maybe the whole body, so you can smell it rot; I don’t know. They’ll castrate another two or three, if it goes that far. Chop off an ear or a nose. If they can’t get the truth out of you, they’ll stop worrying about your worth as slaves, and they’ll take your hands and feet. All those men you led into danger, and they’re going to be mutilated and tortured, just because you’re slow in giving answers that you know we’ll get out of you eventually.”
Theos crouched down next to the boy. “What do you think they’ll take from you?” He reached out, a strange mix of horror and fascination as he thought about an axe hacking through the delicate bones of the boy’s wrist. When Theos touched the narrowest part with one gentle finger, Finnvid jerked his arm away. He was trembling, now, but he still wasn’t saying anything.
Theos shook off the strange mood and tried to sound calm and reasonable. “I don’t want any of that to happen, Finnvid. I want you to be a healer, or whatever else you’re good for, and I want you to earn your citizenship. When we take over your valley, you can come with us and help us rebuild. You can help your people that way. And I want your men to be soldiers. I want them to die as men, if they must die, not as animals. The old man, the one with the plumed helmet, I want him to be a trainer for the new recruits. He may not have enough years left to earn his citizenship, but he could earn a home for himself, and be safe and warm and useful.”
There was still no response. Theos stood slowly. “Andros is your friend, right? You trust Andros?” Even though Theos had just saved the boy’s life, and Andros had done nothing but get bitten by a snake, Theos bet Andros would be favored. “I’m going to leave you here with him. You can talk to him. And you can ask whether anything I said is a lie, or even an exaggeration. You can ask him for advice. And then when I come back, by the sword, you will tell me what you were doing in our territory, and why it was so important to the warlord that you be shipped out as soon as possible.”
Theos looked at Andros but couldn’t read his expression. Well, Andros was Sacrati; he’d do what needed to be done. Two steps to the door, and then Theos turned back to Finnvid. “You’ll stay with Andros until I return. If he gets sick of you, you’ll sit in the hallway just outside his door and wait for me. If you aren’t in one of those places, I’ll consider you a runaway slave. You’ll be punished when you’re caught. And your men will be punished as well.”
Finnvid finally lifted his head, yet his expression was anything but cooperative as he sneered, “Thank you, master. Your instructions are a gift, master.”
“My patience is a gift,” Theos corrected. “But it’s not one that I’ll keep giving indefinitely.” He frowned at Andros. “Make him see sense,” he ordered, and then he whirled and left, slamming the door behind him.
He decided it would be foolhardy rather than brave to go to the headquarters searching for the Sacrati captain; the warlord spent most of his time in that building. And Theos had been heading toward the drill yards earlier in the day before running into the slavers. He’d been planning to eat, his stomach reminded him, and he tried to remember what he’d done with the food he’d been carrying. But he didn’t have time for another trip to the kitchen.
Instead, he headed for the yards. He was greeted by the familiar sounds of men shouting commands, curses, and war cries; the smells of sweat and leather and well-oiled steel; and the sight of sweaty, fit bodies being used as they were born to be: in toil and fierce battle. Theos loved every part of it, and he took a moment just to enjoy the sensations and be glad he was back home. Then he scanned the crowd, looking for the Sacrati.
Other than the ceremonial daggers they all wore at their waists, there was nothing that immediately set the Sacrati apart. They tended to be a bit larger than the other soldiers, but the difference wasn’t dramatic. They wore the same armor and used the same weapons, although the Sacrati saw more action and victories, so they had coin enough to make sure their armor was perfectly fitted and their weapons were customized as needed. Theos’s own sword was two inches longer than the Torian standard and had a special pattern etched into the grip that kept it from getting slippery with sweat and blood. But that sort of thing couldn’t be spotted at a distance in a crowded training yard.
He just searched for the intensity. Where was the group that was pushing a little harder? The group with a few more scars? Where were the grunts of pain followed immediately by laughter and shouts of encouragement? All Torian soldiers fought with strength and skill; Theos searched for the ones who fought with passion, as well.
And he found them, down by the pond, trampling around in the mud and working on finding their footing in the slippery terrain. As he approached he was hailed, and his clean clothes were immediately covered in filth from hugs and sloppy, playful projectiles.
“Welcome back,” Galen said with one hand gripping Theos’s forearm as the other clapped him on the shoulder. Galen was the most senior iyatis in the Sacrati, second-in-command to the captain.
Theos leaned into the gesture, rubbing their cheeks together roughly and taking the chance to whisper, “I need to talk to you. And the captain.”
Galen leaned away. The smile on his lips was for their audience; the warning in his eyes was for Theos alone. “We need to share some drinks! You can tell me about your adventures.”
And Galen could explain whatever was happening in the valley. Theos nodded enthusiastically. “Tonight?”
“I thought you’d be busy tonight,” a mischievous voice added from somewhere in the mud. Whoever it was raised his volume enough for all to hear him say, “Did you know Theos has claimed a bedwarmer for himself? Everyone’s talking about it up at the barracks! Iyatis for one month and already he’s too good to find pleasure with the rest of us!”
Galen’s face was frozen halfway between a frown and a smile, and Theos just shrugged. “It’s a long story,” he muttered. Then he lifted his own voice and told the crowd, “I wanted a tight ass, and with only you sloppy old men to choose from—”
“An ass that’s tight around your tiny dick?” someone responded. “Are you sure you’re not fucking his nostril?”
Ah, yes. Theos was home, and his brothers were welcoming him.
He grabbed a wooden practice sword and joined the drills, sparring and wrestling and sliding around with the rest of them. For an inexperienced warrior, rough terrain could be a great equalizer, adding an element of chance that made it possible for a weak opponent to beat a stronger one. But Sacrati tried to overcome this by training to take advantage of any opportunity; for them, terrain was just one more weapon to be used in battle.
Theos found a rock outcrop, no larger than his fist but firmly anchored in the mud, and used it as a base for one of his feet, giving him a tiny edge of stability that’d allow him to defend against all comers, at least for a while. When the others realized what he was up to, they fought him for possession of the lone rock, trying to push him off in a strange version of king of the hill.
Finally, three of them attacked at once and sent him slipping away to land in the mud at the bottom of the slope, laughing at his comrades as they fought.
His oldest son would be coming to the barracks soon: a well-grown boy, healthy and clever and ready to start training. Theos smiled to think of the boy finding his own brothers, forging the bonds truer than blood that came from working and fighting and living together year after year. One day, Damios would stand on this hill, maybe as a Sacrati himself, and he would struggle and win, and struggle and win, and eventually struggle and fail, as everyone did. Theos hoped he’d be around long enough to see some of the boy’s victories.
But in the meantime, he had his own battles to fight. He pushed himself to his feet, waited for an opportunity, and then launched himself back into the fray, tackling a man off the little outcrop with sheer weight and aggression, tumbling halfway down the hill before clawing his way up to take his rightful spot again. He would hold it as long as he could. That was all a warrior could do.
I was fully engaged in this fantastic world. I felt like I was taking icy steps through the snowy mountains, or sweating in the ice huts and soaping up in the bath house. All the secondary characters are beautifully detailed... The political machinations were fascinating, and I really found myself drawn into the story.
[J]ust plain cute.
I enjoyed this novel and plan to check out more from this author. I recommend it to readers who like war plotting and strategy stories.
[T]his gripping fantasy is not to be missed.
Kate Sherwood has created a rich and interesting world. . . . [S]tirring and triumphant and worth every minute of the journey.