Scorpion (Memory of Scorpions, #1)
This title is #1 of the Memory of Scorpions series.
|$17.99 $14.39 (20% off!)|
|Print and Ebook||$20.98 $14.69 (30% off!)|
Never stop fighting.
Kendras is a casualty of war: injured, penniless, and quite possibly the last surviving member of the only family he’s ever had—the elite fighting force known as the Scorpions. When a steel-eyed mercenary offers him medicine and shelter in exchange for submission and a secret task, Kendras has no choice but to accept. He is a Scorpion; he’ll do whatever it takes to survive.
But his true goal is to rebuild the Scorpions. Neither Steel’s possessive nature nor Kendras’s shattered foot can keep him from finding the last of his brothers, or the mysterious leader of the Scorpions, the man who held Kendras’s heart long before Steel tried to take it for himself.
The goal is simple, the situation anything but. To rescue his leader and escape from Steel for good, Kendras must fight through a morass of politics and intrigue where enemies may be allies and even allies have hidden agendas. But Kendras isn’t only fighting for his lost lover and tribe—he soon realizes that nothing less than the birth of an Empire is at stake.
(Note: This is a revised edition of Scorpion, originally released in May, 2011.)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
Click on a label to see its related details. Click here to toggle all details.
Kendras hobbled back on land, teeth gritted so hard his jaw ached. The familiar nausea as he adjusted to firm ground washed over him, and he had to pause to not stumble. That forced him to rest his weight on the bad foot, and the pain seared up to his throat and into his skull. At least the pain burned away the despair that was threatening to settle in, choking off all strength, and he stood there, knees shaking with strain, searching for anything to rest against. The seagulls wheeling overhead laughed at him. Their comrades on the ground barely bothered to hop out of his way, as if they knew he was no threat.
Another step, and more agony.
He suppressed a grunt, made the step as quickly as possible, but even taking his weight off the leg hurt.
When he finally reached the end of the quay, he was covered in cold sweat. Leaning against the whitewashed wall of a food shack that wouldn’t open for another few hours, he noticed that he was being watched.
A beggar was staring in his direction despite the dirty rags over her eyes that suggested she was blind. A freckled boy and his dog, both accomplished rat catchers judging by the quarry dangling from a line tied to a stick, glanced furtively toward him. From a colonnade, a group of burly stowaways watched him openly, as if assessing whether his weapons and armor were worth taking.
Continue. Do not cause them to think twice.
He’d have preferred to stand and fight. Only, of course, he was outnumbered, and he knew better than to put any faith in the reputation of the Scorpions. Reputation prepared the enemy for defeat, but didn’t cause it.
He ducked down the dubious safety of a narrow alley leading away from the harbor and didn’t allow himself to rest until the sounds of seagulls had dulled. His best bet was to stay somewhere nearby. He’d never make it up to Dalman without help. Crossing the wild underbelly between the harbor and the walled city up on the cliff in his state would get him killed.
A door flew open, spilling Marines, arm in arm, too drunk for their song to make any sense or possess any kind of melody. They zigzagged from the left wall to the right one, never letting go of one another as they took turns pushing away from the buildings. Kendras grinned wryly. He’d been like that more than once. Nothing like sharing a bed and puking into the same bucket in the morning. He crept closer to the tavern, which turned out to be just as rowdy a place as he’d expected, but not hostile. At least not hostile to men like him.
Kendras made it through the door and to a greasy bench, where he leaned against the wall. His armor dug into his spine, but he’d lived so long in armor that he ignored it. He’d even slept in armor when necessary, force-marched when ordered. He pulled his legs out of the way when one patron was pushed against his table in what promised to turn into a friendly brawl. Last thing he needed was somebody stomping on his shattered foot.
As he watched the brawl commence, everything else blurred into sound and color that simply went on without him, not affecting him, not touching him once. Unsettlingly similar to the state he sometimes reached in the middle of battle, only without the feeling of being immortal.
When the serving wench brought him ale, unasked, he paid with his last few coppers. Sipping the watery brew, he noticed a man watching him, another soldier, short-shorn head indicating he was either still engaged or had recently been released.
Kendras held the other man’s gaze, gauging whether the interest was a threat or a nuisance, and found the expression entirely neutral. When he looked away, the other man stood and headed toward him.
The soldier sat down, and gestured at the table between them. “Free?”
Kendras looked up, meeting the soldier’s gaze. “I’m not a slave.”
Gray eyes narrowed with amusement. “I figured.”
“Did you?” Kendras glanced toward the door, calculating whether he’d be able to make it there without losing face. The chances of that were pretty fucking slim.
Gray Eyes leaned back, one hand on the table, arm straight, measuring him up. “You just came from the river boat.”
Kendras inhaled deeply but didn’t allow himself to sigh, instead releasing the breath slowly. “What do you want?”
“To offer help.”
“Ah.” Kendras pursed his lips. Despite the simple, sturdy clothes, this man wasn’t a lowly foot soldier. Maybe cavalry or some elite unit. His relaxed poise suggested confidence, even though this was clearly not his home turf and there were no comrades around. Interesting.
“Where’s your unit?” Gray Eyes asked.
“Left them before Fetin.”
Now Gray Eyes smiled, and Kendras had the uncanny feeling the man knew exactly what he’d meant. Too clever to be good company, this one.
“And you’re down on your luck.” It wasn’t mockery or scorn. The sky is blue; you’re on your last coppers and hurt.
Kendras shrugged, admitting nothing and pretending not to care. He knew well enough that he couldn’t fight or work with his foot, and no healer would treat him without payment. That meant he’d most likely have to sell his armor.
Only, of course, right after a war all the plunder hit the markets, and well-made armor would fetch a laughable price. Even the prices for slaves would be all but ruined, so selling himself would be pointless too. Who’d buy an injured man when much better, younger, and prettier meat was for sale? In his state, he couldn’t even become a bandit—and the beggars wouldn’t tolerate him competing for their territory.
Gray Eyes watched him think.
Annoyed, Kendras shook his head. “You don’t seem the charitable kind.”
“Charitable?” Gray Eyes gave a snort. “No, that I’m not.” He tapped his fingers on the table, maybe impatient to be going. Then, out of nowhere, a silver coin appeared between his fingers and came to rest on the worn wood. “Follow me?”
“To earn enough that you won’t go hungry while your wounds heal.” The silver coin vanished. Gray Eyes stood, held his gaze for a long moment, then turned to go upstairs.
Kendras considered his options, but the truth was, he’d already gone through all of them. There was nothing left to do.
He pushed himself up from the table and pressed his lips together when he had to move the leg again. Just putting weight on it felt like a sword point entering the sole of his foot and slowly pushing upward, splitting the bone. Gods below, this fucking hurt. Small step by small step, he hobbled across the room and then supported his weight against the dirty wall as he climbed the stairs.
He had no idea if and how he could get downstairs again, and for one ridiculous moment, he thought he’d be trapped. But he’d been trapped the moment he’d been injured.
He made it to the landing, wiping the sweat off his brow. Gray Eyes stood there, watching, not offering help or comment. Kendras caught himself scanning the corridor, despite the fact that he didn’t have his glaive and whatever came next wouldn’t be fighting. A man who could buy him wouldn’t attack him.
Gray Eyes opened the nearest door and held it ajar.
Kendras hobbled in, setting his face in stone to not betray his agony, but his careful movements gave it all away anyway.
He felt the man at his back when the door closed behind them. His muscles twitched with the motions he’d make to skewer Gray Eyes if they’d been on the battlefield. Standing still in the middle of the room was torture, but Gray Eyes did not indicate what he wanted.
A movement caught Kendras’s eyes. In a silvery arch, the coin was flicked onto the bed, where it landed, gleaming. The unscarred surface shone as if minted just today.
“Do you need help with that armor?” Gray Eyes asked.
Kendras tilted his head, then glanced over his shoulder. “You’d pay me for that?”
“Yes.” The other man stepped closer. Inside striking distance.
“You can get it cheaper than that.”
“Would you have followed me without getting paid?”
Kendras huffed. As if he’d tell him that. “Open the hooks at my neck.”
Gray Eyes inched closer, alert like a wild animal, and placed his hands on Kendras’s shoulders, seeking the hooks that held the scale armor tight. He had to pull the coat together to take the weight off the hooks, and the familiar feeling—first of tightening around his shoulders, then the release—brought up memories of his comrades readying each other for battle.
Kendras stepped away, despite the pain, and opened his broad belt, then loosened the fastenings under his arms. He bent over and pulled. Slowly, the scale armor slid off his back, then its own weight pulled it down and, like a snake, Kendras freed himself. He straightened, not sure his foot would allow him to gather and roll up the armor, so he took a moment to find his resolve.
Gray Eyes stepped to the side, studying him in his protective leathers. “More.”
Kendras gave a half-smile but didn’t feel any humor. The man with the money called the tune. He’d really like food and maybe even a medic’s attention. He began to unfasten the leathers, fingers working on their own.
The heavy leather tunic came off, and there was a hiss of appreciation from the side when he bared his chest. He saw the other man cup himself, the half-hard cock clearly outlined by the way Gray Eyes stood there, groin tilted forward.
Kendras tore his eyes away from the strong hand roughly kneading. He’d get to that part soon enough. Too soon. He sat down on the bed, unspeakably relieved to take the weight off that foot.
Getting one boot off was easy. The other one nearly made him scream before he relented and took his dagger, cutting into the side of the boot and down to the hobnailed sole. He sat there shaking when he’d finally freed the bandaged, splinted, badly swollen foot. Even with his dark skin, his toes were half-purple and half-black, and he wondered idly if he’d lose them, before he stood again.
The foot felt like it would come apart when it touched the floorboards, as if only the boot had kept it together. Kendras hated the other man for giving him the order to strip, for demanding to see everything, even the injury.
He pushed his trousers down, sat, and pulled them off his feet, careful to not touch the bad foot. He wiped the sweat off his face with his arm, then stood again, this time keeping all his weight on his good side. Without the armor, that was a lot easier.
“That what you wanted?”
“Not yet,” the other man said and smiled. He was fully hard now in his trousers.
“You’re mad. You could easily get a couple of boys for that.”
“That’s not my taste.”
Kendras shook his head. He doubted very much that he could fuck the other man in his state.
“Do you suck?”
Gray Eyes accepted that. He nodded toward the bed, and Kendras got on it. After undressing, this wouldn’t be too hard. He could pretend there was no coin lying there. Pretend, pretend, pretend. He’d never done this for money, had never expected anybody would offer him money, either, at least not since he’d become a Scorpion.
Getting on all fours, he placed his leg in a way that the bad foot wasn’t touching the lumpy mattress, which incidentally opened him up.
He glanced to the side and watched Gray Eyes undress. Riding boots, tunic, then his trousers, baring a pale body with sunburned neck and arms covered in golden hair. His dick was certainly adequate and remained fully hard, and Kendras wondered if he’d have taken that more like a compliment if he hadn’t been paid. But he didn’t want to think about the man, didn’t particularly care why he preferred a crippled soldier to an eager, good-looking boy who could be had for a handful of coppers.
Gray Eyes joined him on the bed and moved between his legs. The sound of spitting, a practiced hand gliding over his ass, a thumb tracing his crack.
“Fetin, huh,” Gray Eyes murmured. “Which side were you on?”
Kendras couldn’t help but tighten. He told himself that was because the wet thumb was forcing entry, because the other man spat again, adding more and forcing the thumb deeper.
“Oh really?” Gray Eyes didn’t sound surprised. “Well, I’ll enjoy fucking your ass then, Dalmanye. Like you did us.” With that, he forced his way inside, and Kendras sucked his breath in and held it, held it to not give anything away.
The burn and stretch were hard to ignore. Every instinct screamed at him to shake the man off and kill him for the attempt. But that wouldn’t do. He needed the money. Even if it came from an enemy who paid to mock him with this. He’d been wondering about Gray Eyes’s allegiance, but assumed the man might have been just another mercenary or drifter from inland. A Fetinye. Damn unlucky meeting, under these circumstances. Not that he had any loyalties. He’d serve Fetin if there was money to be had and if their officer signed the contract.
He pressed his lips together as he felt the other man pause and spit again, clearly struggling to get fully inside him. There was no point in making this hard for him—it would be over faster if Kendras complied. He pressed against the burning discomfort, that sharp friction his body remembered well enough. Not encouraging, just accepting as best he could.
“Oh damn you,” the other man said, and began to move. He might not be the biggest, but he knew how to use what he had.
Kendras stared at the wall, lifting his gaze away from the coin underneath him, and resisted the thrusts, which, despite the situation, stoked a fierce pleasure inside. Even though this wasn’t a comrade and despite the burn, the pleasure was immediate and irresistible. The pain might even have added to it; sometimes rough sex was the only way to take the edge off.
Gray Eyes’s thrusts were harsh, but not brutal, and after a few, he paused to add more spit, working it inside him with ungodly skill. Kendras wanted to tell him not to stop, but remained silent. One way to keep face—be the paid whore. Silence was the best he could do.
Finally, Gray Eyes found a rhythm and fucked him faster, hard enough to move that ankle a bit, which made Kendras groan.
One hand slid from his hip down to his groin, and there was an odd little sound from Gray Eyes when he touched and then took Kendras’s hard cock. An admission, some kind of defeat, but Kendras couldn’t care anymore when Gray Eyes began to stroke him in time with his thrusts.
Both together were unbearable, too good, and Kendras moved, feeling their skin slide together, sweat mingling as every stroke and every thrust robbed him of thought and control. He could hear the desperation in the sounds of their bodies, sometimes perfect together, then resisting, forcing, and yielding. He almost felt alive, and that sudden realization cut to the bone. He might just live. He might just want to go on.
Then climax took him, and he only vaguely felt Gray Eyes clutch his hips harder, coming inside him.
Kendras fell onto the wet spot underneath him but couldn’t care about it, couldn’t move because Gray Eyes lay on top of him and his semi-hard dick slipped out but rested against the inside of Kendras’s leg, hot and wet. Kendras relished the soreness in that moment, the exhaustion, and the sheer satisfaction so much that he didn’t try to get Gray Eyes to back off. Just two bodies. “You’ve done this before,” Gray Eyes murmured against his shoulder.
Kendras huffed. He’d have been content to just sleep. “Maybe.”
“So I was right.”
“You doing this.” Gray Eyes rubbed his face against Kendras’s back like a cat.
“That why you were alone?” Kendras asked. “Seeking your entertainment?”
“Not quite.” Gray Eyes pushed himself up and off, then got to his feet. Kendras turned his head and ended up looking at an admittedly nice pair of thighs.
“What are those?” Gray Eyes reached down to touch the back of Kendras’s hand.
“Scars.” Kendras turned his hand fully. “The officer thought the tattoos weren’t visible enough. So he cut the outlines.”
“And you call me crazy?” Gray Eyes shook his head. “What about that?” He indicated Kendras’s wrist, and Kendras, half-amused, turned it to show the tattoo there too. “Seventeenth? Your unit?”
Kendras shrugged. A Fetinye might not have heard of the Seventeenth—the Scorpions—and now he likely never would. It seemed pointless to display the symbols now if the people and deeds belonging to them were memories.
“Thanks for the money,” he said, and saw a smile form on the other man’s lips. Maybe Gray Eyes wasn’t so bad. Maybe he didn’t mind that Kendras had helped defeat his home city. Maybe it wasn’t personal.
But something still tickled in the back of Kendras’s mind. If he hadn’t been so tired, he might have kept pondering it, but that, too, seemed pointless. He’d learned a long time ago to sleep when the opportunity arose, and right now, there was a bed and the low hum of satiation. Even his foot was silent. For the first time since he’d been injured, rest was a possibility. He closed his eyes and listened to the man dress and then pull the door shut behind him.
He awoke at a touch against his shoulder. He startled to his feet to defend himself—only to scream as pain exploded white in his vision. He reached for the bed, keeping upright on the bedpost when all he wanted to do was squirm like a stuck worm. The pain was so intense he retched.
Everything came back: The battle. The wound. And how he’d spent the night.
When his vision cleared, he saw an old woman look up at him with watery eyes. She was so small she could have been a young girl, which, for a moment, disoriented Kendras further. “What do you . . . want?” Kendras rubbed his chest, and heard a heavy silver coin fall to the ground. His payment. He’d slept on it. He cursed and reached for the rolling silver disk, but the old woman was more nimble and picked it up before Kendras could reach it.
“Night shadows? They happen to many soldiers.” The old woman pressed the coin into his hand, and Kendras flicked it back onto the bed.
“Be glad I didn’t kill you. What do you want?”
“Look at your foot.”
“Right.” Kendras furrowed his brow. “And you are?”
“The Temple Guard’s medic.” The old woman pulled a rickety chair close to the bed. “Used to be, anyway.”
She looked so ordinary and dignified that Kendras believed that outrageous claim. A flutter of hope in his chest, almost worse than being startled.
“Sit down.” The old woman picked up a leather bag, formerly of good quality, embroidered with heavy silver thread. “Now lift the leg.”
Kendras complied and tried not to look at the mess of sloppily applied bandages that hung off his limb like a torn shroud. “Who sent you?”
Kendras coughed. “What does he look like?”
The medic gave him a glance that said “My, aren’t you insatiable,” then shrugged, most likely accepting that it wasn’t her business. “A blond soldier.”
“Yes, that would be the one,” the medic added with a hint of humor as she tested the chair before sitting down.
Interesting connection for a Fetinye soldier. Why would Gray Eyes know the medic of the Temple Guard? Unless, of course, he didn’t and had merely followed the trail to find any kind of medic.
Kendras ground his teeth when the old woman pulled his leg over and settled his knee and calf across her bony thighs. He really, really did not want to watch this.
The medic unfurled a leather roll with steel instruments and hung it from the bedpost by a loop. “Now, let’s have a look at this.”
“I can’t pay you.” Kendras realized immediately he’d made a tactical mistake. He could have admitted to that after the treatment.
“You don’t think very highly of your lover,” the medic chided, selecting a sharp, thin blade to cut the bandages around Kendras’s foot.
“He told you that . . . what we are. Why?”
“It’s not uncommon to explain such things.” The medic kept cutting at the bandages, loop by carefully selected loop, until they fell away. “How old is this?”
“Two, three days now.”
“The swelling is bad.” The medic put the blade down and ran her dry fingers down his calf, tracing the ankle, following every line there, pressing into the swelling. Kendras groaned.
“The next bit will hurt,” the old woman said, her fingers already creeping toward the middle of his foot. Kendras twitched with the impulse to fight, defend, kill. Flashes of memories. The Scorpions’s medic tying down wounded men, Scorpions leaning with all their weight to hold a comrade for treatment, the injured Scorpions sometimes raging like lunatics, pink foam flying from bitten lips. Now he wished he had somebody to hold him down.
“What happened there?”
“Siege engine. The wheel went over my foot.”
“You were already down?”
Kendras indicated the side of his head, where a crust of blood covered part of his temple. The swelling had subsided, but the first two days of headache from whatever had hit him had been as crippling as his foot. “They thought I was dead. It woke me up.”
“I bet.” The medic’s hands kept testing, prodding, and Kendras felt the nauseating pain of broken bones rubbing against each other like walking on glass shards.
“I’m amazed they didn’t amputate.”
“I didn’t let them.”
“Ah, yes.” The medic then proceeded to the toes, but by now the foot felt so raw that even the lightest touch made Kendras grit his teeth and contemplate murder.
“Well.” The medic took Kendras’s leg and set it back on the bed, then rubbed her palms on her trousers. “A few bones seem to still be intact in there, but the others are ruined.”
“What does that mean?” Gray Eyes said from the door, then closed it behind himself and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“This will take at least six or eight weeks, depending how well he heals and if he has the patience to wait it out. Even then the foot might not be as strong as it was.”
Gray Eyes met Kendras’s gaze, then lifted his shoulders. “Amputation will turn him into a useless cripple. I’ve never seen a foot soldier fight well with a peg leg.”
“It can be done,” the medic said. “It would get him back on his feet faster and quite possibly with less pain.”
“I’d rather die,” Kendras said. He would. He had already extended his life by three days. Fetin should have ended it all, but it somehow hadn’t. He was living on borrowed time. How he spent it didn’t seem important anymore. But he’d be damned if he didn’t want to know why Gray Eyes had told the old woman he was his boyfriend.
“That can be arranged, too, if you choose.” The medic’s watery blue eyes seemed oddly compassionate.
“Maybe later.” Gray Eyes approached and cast a long look over Kendras’s leg, then up to his groin, chest, finally face. “I’d say do what you can. Bandage him up and give him something for the pain. I’ll move him into a safe place and call you if I need you again.”
“As you wish.” She slipped from the chair. “We’ll have to set the bones. It would be best if he was unconscious.”
She glanced at Kendras. “You’ll wish you were too. He’ll have to pull the bone fragments apart while I put them in their right places. You’ll thrash like a horse and scream. He might not be strong enough to hold you still.”
Kendras gritted his teeth. Did he trust Gray Eyes enough to be unconscious with a medic who’d offered to kill him if he wanted? He’d have struggled with a comrade, and Gray Eyes wasn’t that.
Gray Eyes watched him. “I can knock you out.” He drew a dagger from his belt, turned it in his hands to use the pommel for striking.
Try it, Kendras thought, and clenched his jaw harder. Gods below, he didn’t have any other choice. Death, pain, more pain. How tempting.
Kendras looked at Gray Eyes, and despite everything, gave him a quick nod.
“I’d rather not treat a broken head too,” the medic said, and dug in her bag for a small round stoneware bottle. “Drink this. It’ll numb you and put you to sleep for a while.”
Kendras took the bottle, broke the wax seal, and pulled the cork out. He recognized the smell from something the Scorpions’ medic had used when available. The same gods-awful bitterness that made most men vomit once they woke up.
He drank it and handed the bottle back, feeling the oily liquid run down toward his guts, leaving a foul taste in its wake. His mouth numbed first, which was a blessing. He settled back on his elbows. The numbness spread through his body, and he began to feel heavy and weak. Tired.
“You’ll have to hold the heel and pull the toes away from the ankle. Keep them that way while I move the bones into position,” the medic instructed Gray Eyes. “Don’t let go until I say so.”
Kendras lay back and closed his eyes. Giving in to the drugs was easy. He didn’t want to be around when they did that to him.
# # #
When Kendras woke, the medic was just pulling a few rolls of fresh linen bandages from her bag to finish wrapping up his foot. “It feels a little more secure now, but under no circumstances should the foot hit the ground.”
“Yes.” Kendras tried to ignore the nausea in his stomach, instead watched Gray Eyes. He’d changed clothes and now wore a clean shirt over his leather trousers and heavy boots. A sword hung at his side, a simple weapon that clearly had seen use and possibly recently.
“A pinch of this three times a day or when the pain gets too bad, in hot water. Boiling, not just steaming. Always with something to eat.” The medic pulled a waxed linen bag from her pack. “That should get you through the weeks ahead.”
Kendras didn’t like that Gray Eyes took the bag, but there was precious little he could do. After all, the man had paid for it.
“Let’s get you out of the city,” Gray Eyes said.
“Yes, darling.” Kendras pursed his lips as if amused but gave the man a hard stare. Gray Eyes had the decency to look a little hurt.
Kendras dressed in his leathers, a slow and laborious process when it came to the trousers, while the medic gave Gray Eyes more instructions.
Kendras put on one of the boots, but not the other, then wrapped himself in the leather top, fastening it. He’d done this so often the routine was both calming and disturbing.
What about the other Scorpions? There had been heavy losses, but he couldn’t be the last one, could he? Maybe they had regrouped and buried the dead. He’d have to find them. Once he could move enough to have any chance to find them. That meant doing everything to ensure he didn’t end up a useless cripple.
“Hey.” Gray Eyes stepped closer, knife out, and Kendras wondered if he’d threaten him. But the man instead reached down to cut open the already ruined boot with fast, forceful motions, splitting it into two halves before sliding Kendras’s bad foot into it, hardly touching it.
“Can you ride?”
“Man or horse?”
Gray Eyes laughed. “I have no doubt in your skills, but right now we should get moving. This is no place for you . . . or even me.” He wrapped up Kendras’s armor in a linen bag, then offered Kendras a wooden crutch. “I got you this, but you will have to ride. It’s a fair way away.”
“I’m not going back to Fetin.” Not yet. Not like this.
“Neither am I.” Gray Eyes hoisted the armor on his back, then held out the crutch to Kendras. “Come.”
Gray Eyes helped him down the stairs, out onto the street and then onto the back of a horse. Wherever Gray Eyes was taking him, it would beat begging for alms. In his state, he couldn’t fend for himself. So he did what was necessary. No alternative. It had served him well before.
Thankfully, their horses were tranquil, well-fed geldings. For all its even temper, his might have been a cart horse. Gray Eyes tied its reins to his saddle, but that seemed hardly necessary. Both horses walked side by side like they’d done so all their lives. Like men, horses were creatures of habit.
Nobody seemed to pay them any mind as they rode out. The guard at the city gate was more concerned with soldiers streaming in than out. Already, the ocean priesthood had decreed a “fortnight of peace,” which meant that anybody spilling human blood inside Dalman would forfeit their lives. Kendras had expected to see the tidal cages well filled with corpses when he’d returned, but maybe that had been too early. Men’s hunger for blood had been sated during the battle of Fetin. Building fresh appetite might take a few more days.
They followed the road that ran parallel to the gentle curves of the Kanenti River, slow and dark here. For now, they headed steadily east toward the Shoulders of Golgat, a mighty gap in the mountains that the Kanenti traversed on its way to the ocean.
The Shoulders were the only easy passage from inland to the plains of Dalman, and just as easily protected. An enemy army from the inlands that braved either the mountains or the veterans of Eagle’s Test still had to conquer Dalman itself, a formidable fortress surrounded on three sides by the sea, its white walls impenetrable by the gods’ will.
Dalman’s harbor lay nestled below the heights by the river, the slope between the walls and the harbor claimed by the seedy underbelly of the city. Those who couldn’t afford the city’s taxes lived there in a labyrinth of constantly changing shelters. Riffraff, strangers, criminals, and beggars roamed the streets and were at each other’s tender mercies. Every now and then, the city guard showed up for the exercise, breaking a few heads, leaving some bleeding corpses in the streets to keep the lawless in line.
Unlike the old royal city, Fetin sat further inland, shielded by mountains and, in turn, overseeing the intersection of the northern-southern and western-eastern trade routes. Fetin trusted its walls, soldiers, and network of spies to keep it safe. The two cities hadn’t been so much rivals as brothers, with the smaller brother constantly testing his limits, until, finally, the bigger brother brought him low. Part of Kendras hoped Fetin would never recover from the attack. The battle for the walls was not something he wanted to remember.
“How far is it?”
Gray Eyes glanced at him. “We should arrive before dark. Since we’re on the road together, you could tell me your name.”
“You can call me Steel.”
“I can. Where does that name come from?”
“My eyes.” Steel shrugged. “I assume. It works for me.”
Kendras fell silent and shifted uneasily in the saddle. He’d hurt tomorrow. Well, worse than he already did. His horse took no notice and merely plodded along.
“Yes, they say people with gray eyes have no soul,” Kendras added after a while.
“Nothing to lose then.” Steel grinned. “It’s a boon in getting hired.”
Clearly a man without soul has no conscience either. Kendras turned in the saddle and looked at the river flowing along not far away, carrying wide-bowed barges down toward the ocean.
The sun was sinking low, coloring the sky blood red and bruised purple, when they left the main road and turned south along a path into the foothills. Fields lined the dirt track, but they were empty. When Kendras and Steel arrived at the farmstead, the only people to acknowledge them were a couple of guards who nodded toward Steel and then returned to their duties.
This was one of those lush estates that fed Dalman, producing the grain and wine and meat that the city needed to live. Why would somebody who owned such a place trawl the taverns for companions? Who was this man?
“It’s not mine.” Steel dismounted and handed his horse over to a slave girl. He stepped to Kendras. “Take my shoulder. Slowly. That’s it.”
He steadied Kendras, holding him around the waist. Then he pulled the crutch free and handed it to him. “Remember what the medic said.”
Steel walked slowly enough for Kendras to catch up. In the inner courtyard, two men were amusing themselves with tossing chicken remains amongst the dogs.
“Ah, our glorious leader is back,” the taller, bony man said with a half-assed salute. “Looks like he brought fresh meat, too.”
“Shut up,” Steel said. He led Kendras down toward the guest quarters. Kendras didn’t speak until Steel opened a door for him.
“What is this?”
“What do you mean?”
“Fresh meat? Haven’t been called that in a while.”
Steel cleared his throat. “They were drunk.”
Kendras gave him a level stare.
“You need a place to heal. Well, this is it.”
“Who owns this?”
“Couple of important people who hired me.”
“And where are they?”
“Off to Dalman.”
“Leaving you in charge? A Fetinye?”
Steel shrugged. “If you don’t believe me . . . .” He left that hanging in the air, then added, “Listen, I’m the best bet you have. Those boys, yes, they belong to me, but they won’t bother you.”
“What are you, Steel?”
“Since you sacked my hometown, I’m now a mercenary.”
“You made good use of your time since Fetin’s fall.”
“I didn’t say I was there when it fell,” Steel snapped, looking like he was forcing himself to remain calm. “Right now I don’t know if my people made it out all right, or who’s raped and who’s dead. Or both.” He swallowed. “Rest up. The slaves will feed you.”
“I raped nobody.”
“I said rest up.” Steel exhaled sharply and took another step back, then turned and marched down the corridor.
Kendras closed the door behind him, briefly regarded his new surroundings, the polished floor, whitewashed walls, a clothes chest, washing water in a bowl, and a lit oil lamp. The bed was made, the mattress soft when he sat down. He was meant to be comfortable.
A slave entered the room unbidden and set down a wooden plate with some food. Cold meat, a quarter loaf of spiced bread, and a small bowl with olives. A cup held steaming water and gave off a foul smell that reminded Kendras of the medic.
The slave refilled the oil lamp and closed the wooden shutters in front of the window. Only then did she look at him. “Do you need anything else?”
“Give me the plate.”
She hesitated, but when Kendras indicated his ruined boot, she snatched up the plate and handed it to him with an outstretched arm. She wisely stayed out of reach, and Kendras almost grinned at the irony in this.
She nodded briskly. “Anything else?”
“Who does this farm belong to?”
“The gods.” She glanced over her shoulder. “I truly cannot stay.”
Kendras waved a hand. “Go, then.”
She hurried off as if his presence had suddenly become onerous.
Kendras ate first, then drank the foul liquid. Hopefully he’d be able to keep the food down if the herbs ruined his appetite or turned him nauseous. That way, at least, he didn’t ruin the pleasure of eating. And while his stomach roiled, it eventually calmed enough for him to undress and settle in the bed, stretching out his sore limbs under the light covers. The herbs subdued the throbbing pain from his foot enough that he closed his eyes and rested, grateful for unexpected kindness, even if it came from a mercenary who clearly had an axe to grind.
He woke when his door opened, and Steel entered. The man paused, stared down at him as if trying to see every detail in the gloom.
“You haven’t come to cut my throat,” Kendras murmured.
“No. Quite the opposite.”
Was this how it would be now? He’d been quartered like a guest, but when the master of the house had an itch, he’d get fucked like a slave. Steel’s erection left no doubt of that.
“So what are you waiting for?” Kendras kept his tone flat, making it a challenge rather than a question.
“Maybe for you to tell me your price.”
No slave, then. A whore. Not much of a step up. Maybe it amused the mercenary to bait him first.
Kendras huffed. “I’m here on your sufferance. You said it. I have nowhere else to go.” He was only too aware that Steel could easily pull the covers down and fuck him. He wasn’t in any position or state to fight. If it had been one of the Scorpions, he wouldn’t have minded, but Steel was an outsider.
He held Steel’s gaze. For the second time in his life, he needed a stranger’s kindness to live and maybe fight another day, if his foot ever healed. The last time that had happened, it had changed his life forever. Compared to the officer, Steel was a nobody.
“You don’t have the stomach for it. Steel.”
Steel’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not here to force you.”
“Oh, really?” Kendras scoffed. “If you lie with scorpions . . .” you’d better have a taste for poison. The sentence had never been truer. He wouldn’t dishonor his comrades now.
Kendras shrugged and pushed the blanket down, baring his chest and stomach, all only hints in the semi-dark. His hand pushed the blanket deeper down to show off pubes, stomach muscles, and part of his cock. Steel’s greedy expression almost made Kendras laugh.
“A silver coin bought you once. How much do you charge now?”
“I didn’t charge,” Kendras said. “You offered.”
“Will another coin be enough?”
“Why so angry?” Kendras lifted his thigh and pushed the blanket to the side until it only covered one leg. The one with the bad foot. He had no desire to display his injuries.
“I don’t have my silver here.”
Kendras huffed laughter. “Then fetch it.”
Yes, I’m playing with you. I have you by the tail, and you squirm. How long will you fight? Which one will win out—pride or need? Do you dare the scorpion?
“Unless,” Kendras added.
“You take it up the ass.”
Steel recoiled. “No.” He gritted his teeth. “I . . . don’t do that.” His voice was soft, if halting, as if to pacify Kendras. “I could suck you.”
Kendras watched him, but didn’t answer.
Finally, Steel blew out a breath and drew closer again. “So?”
“Go get your money. You can still walk with that.” He let his hand drop to his groin, tugging his cock, which was now half-hard. He liked the idea of fucking Steel in return—and none too gently, either.
Steel turned to leave.
“And oil,” Kendras added, voice low and level.
By the time Steel returned, as commanded, with oil and a silver coin, Steel was no less hard. If anything, the bulge in his trousers had grown. Interesting. Here was a man who wanted more the harder he had to fight for it. Kendras could have told him that was a weakness when it came to sex; the easy victories were just as good as the difficult ones.
They could easily have gotten together like soldiers often did, but not after the first silver had changed hands. It was his way of settling his scores. Not a chance encounter, no mutual favor. Steel would either take it or pay up. Very easy.
Steel set the oil and the lantern down and turned up the wick. The light tore Kendras’s bandaged foot out of the gloom.
Steel let the coin play over his fingers, casting flickering reflections over Kendras’s body, forcing Kendras to give him his attention.
Kendras glanced at the coin, then up into his face, and waited.
Would he place it on the nightstand, or flick it onto his body, demanding he turn around, then fuck him hard, with anger? Kendras turned his hand to lie, palm up, on his stomach, and Steel simply placed the coin inside.
That sealed the deal.
Steel stroked lower to touch Kendras’s cock, which hardened fast in his grip. Steel gasped and swiftly shed his tunic and trousers. Kendras watched Steel’s face; the man looked like he’d never seen cock. Steel settled between Kendras’s legs, and Kendras opened them, keeping the broken foot off the bed as the medic had cautioned him. Steel scooted up, opening Kendras’s legs wider and further, exposing his ass. Kendras only hoped that the fucking wouldn’t unsettle the broken bones.
“I’ll have you like that, but not exactly like that.” Steel ran his hands along Kendras’s inner thighs. “Turn toward the edge of the bed.” He tapped him on the knee and got off the bed himself.
Kendras positioned himself, legs in the air, ass exposed over the broad frame of the bed. Steel took the moment to oil his cock and coat his fingers, then stood between Kendras’s legs.
Steel snatched a pillow and jammed it under Kendras’s ass to expose him further, and wiped his oiled fingers in Kendras’s crack. He plunged into Kendras in one harsh, deep thrust.
Kendras grunted at the invasion, but in his position, he was powerless, and his first priority was to keep his bad foot out of the way. Steel, and what he was doing, came a distant second, and Steel seemed to realize that. His features tightened with anger more than lust.
Kendras took the fucking like he’d take a whipping, in fierce silence, betraying only what little could absolutely be forced from him, breathing harshly not from lust but from the exertion of resistance and keeping his foot out of the way. He didn’t struggle, didn’t defend himself. He stared at Steel and right through him, withdrawn, far away from this.
Steel had to work hard to get off. The initial anger on his face melted into desperation and was soon tinged with disgust, but by then he seemed unable to stop himself, and he rode it to completion.
Just like with a whore, isn’t it? Kendras thought, just before Steel pulled free and wiped the sweat from his face.
Once they were no longer connected, Kendras pushed himself back to lie properly on the bed, one leg down, the other dangling over the frame. He ignored his erection, wouldn’t touch himself with Steel watching. But Steel stared at it, hunger and exasperation mixing with the slack expression on his face.
Kendras would have liked nothing better than to grab Steel’s neck and feed him that cock, or tumble him on the bed and thrust it inside him, but whores didn’t do that. And he might get kicked out on the street for it. The thought sobered him.
Kendras pointedly followed Steel’s gaze. “You can have that too.”
“You should pay me for that,” Steel groused, but climbed on the bed. He kissed Kendras’s stomach first, traced his tongue along the V-lines running from his hips toward his groin.
Kendras remained completely silent when Steel took the head in his mouth, slowly, despite how practiced he clearly was. Licking and then sucking on the head, running his tongue around it, offering touch with lips and tongue, sliding it along the slit—Steel concentrated entirely on his cock and nothing else.
Every now and then, Steel took as much as he could, and then pulled back while sucking, resisting letting go of what he’d managed to fit inside. He took Kendras’s balls and squeezed them in his hand.
Kendras’s stomach and thigh muscles tensed and flexed with Steel’s ministrations, and Steel seemed to take his cues from these responses. He increased the stakes, sucking and squeezing now to get him off.
When Steel pulled back, Kendras put his hand against the man’s neck, one tensing of muscles away from pushing Steel back onto his cock. Steel blew cool breath over his wet tip, and the hand that had been fondling his balls moved between Kendras’s legs, finding his opening.
With the oil and his own seed, Steel pushed two fingers easily into him, fucking him again now with more skill and more endurance. Only then did he resume the sucking. Kendras gritted his teeth, grabbed Steel’s sweaty neck harder and pulled him deeper onto his cock. His hips bucked upward, the growing need washing his disdain and stoic calm away.
Despite Steel’s best efforts and all his skill (and Kendras had to give him that), he choked when Kendras forced his way down into Steel’s throat, tried hard to pull away, but Kendras wouldn’t let him until his orgasm exploded and he came into Steel’s throat.
Choking and spluttering, Steel had no choice but to take it. He all but jumped back when Kendras, sated and languid now, released him.
“Bastard,” Steel muttered, rubbing his throat.
“You’re right, though,” Kendras said. “I should have paid you for that.”
Steel laughed. “Think I earned my coin back?”
Kendras regarded him from under heavy lids. “Depends what you’re planning to do with that hard-on.”
“Can I fuck you again?”
Kendras shook his head. “Come here.”
Steel came closer. Kendras nudged him to get on top of him, before he spit into his hand and closed it around the man’s cock. He’d done this a hundred times with a comrade in need of relief. Nothing to it.
Steel thrust against the hand, and, settling lower, against Kendras’s tensed front, and soon began to pant with need despite the fact he’d come not too long ago. Steel kept most of his weight off Kendras, supporting himself on his elbows while thrusting. Kendras slung his leg across both of Steel’s, holding the man tighter, almost like a lover or a comrade, giving him more friction.
Sliding flesh on flesh, smells of sweat and sex mingling in one glorious rush of exertion. Kendras humored Steel, getting him off like Steel was the more inexperienced man. Maybe he was, but Kendras never thought of himself as anybody’s lover.
With a desperate sound, Steel came, and Kendras kept jerking him off through orgasm, milking his seed from him until he had nothing more to give.
Steel rolled off, but seemed otherwise unable to move. Neither could Kendras. Instead, he let the clean linen bed sheet soak up his sweat and breathed in their mingled scents. Steel lay next to him, close enough that Kendras felt the warmth of his shoulder against his own.
Kendras placed his left hand on his stomach, noticing how the light from the lantern threw the scars on the back of his hand into relief. They outlined the black tattoo and made it more visible against his dark skin. The scorpion’s tail went past the wrist, the pincers on the first and third knuckle.
“I didn’t know you could tattoo black skin at all,” Steel said, looking at his hand.
Kendras turned his wrist, displaying the “17” on the inside, right on top of his pulse. No scars here.
“Tell me about your unit.”
Kendras glanced at him. “How much have you heard about the battle?”
“Dalman won, much pillaging, raping, and burning in Fetin before the Lady Protector got the king to stop his troops.”
“I was not around when that happened.” Kendras rubbed the scorpion with the thumb of his right hand, which had the exact same tattoo, only mirrored, the tail curving the other way.
“You were wounded before?”
Kendras nodded. “We faced the Flames when they led the charge to break the siege.”
“They must have been desperate to use the Lady Protector’s personal guard. Why you?”
Kendras huffed. “Seems the king thought we were the best he had.” Unlikely. Maybe he’d wagered on killing them all so as not to have to pay them.
“Then why have I never heard of the Scorpions?”
Kendras shrugged. “We were a small unit, rarely more than twenty men. Those who matter know us.”
“How many are left?”
“I have no way of knowing.” Kendras’s eyes traveled down Steel’s front. “What about you?”
Steel scratched his chest idly, as if to gather his thoughts. “I was more a bodyguard than a soldier. Trained by an independent sword master. I do what I do to eat. People hire me for tasks that would make other warriors fear for their souls, as I have none.”
“Do you share that idea?”
“I couldn’t tell the difference, could I? Maybe I don’t, but I don’t know what it feels like to have one.”
Kendras half turned to meet his gaze. Steel shifted uneasily.
“The other men?”
“They stick to me because I can find them work.”
“Who are they?”
“Puppy was the man who was asleep. Everybody loves him, hence the name. The long thin one is Stick. They are both hired swords, I know them from my bodyguarding days. And then there’s Widow. He’s . . . different.”
“Not a hired sword?”
Steel grimaced. “He kills because he enjoys it. He called himself Widowmaker, but the name’s too long in a fight, so ‘Widow’ stuck.”
“You’re not a real unit, just hired swords sticking together because you can find dirty work.” He kept most of the derision he felt out of his words. It wasn’t their fault that they were so much less than the Scorpions.
“To be frank, we’re good at what we do.”
“But you’re not a unit. You’re not a commanding officer.”
“No.” Steel shrugged. “That’s not how it works.”
Kendras pulled up the light blanket and adjusted the pillow, then settled in comfortably. Not an officer, no real skill to lead, no ironclad fist that kept these men together. They’d crumble like a sandcastle licked away by the first wave.
What little he’d given Steel, the man had let down his guard and given him a lot more. To the right man, Steel might be an asset. But when it came down to it, Steel was just a hired sword without much claim to anything, least of all proud military history or even any kind of history.
We, unlike any other mercenary band in the world, have a memory. We remember everything.
Kendras jerked awake. He’d almost heard the officer’s voice. Not admonishing him, just calmly there.
He’d rested enough, indulged his pain enough.
Never stop fighting.
He had. Again. He rolled out of bed and let Steel sleep. The early gray light of morning seeped in through the wooden blinds.
Farm. There had to be a smithy. He remembered the guard at the gate had carried a pike. The solution was so obvious Kendras cursed himself for not seeing it sooner.
[A]nother Voinov winner! [F]awless storytelling by my favourite wordsmith . . . Highly recommended!
[A] dark, riveting story . . . [A]nother winner from Aleksandr Voinoiv.
[A] rich piece of storytelling . . . [I]’d recommend it to M/M fantasy romance lovers.
The narrative . . . [W]as smooth and thrilling. I couldn’t put it down.
I highly recommend it to every MM fantasy fans.