Part 5

by Shane Carlson

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    Copyright © 2002 by Shane Carlson ( This story is posted for the enjoyment of readers of the Nifty Archive. You are free to make a personal copy; all other rights reserved by the author.

    This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to persons living or dead is coincidental. Certain characters engage in sexual acts which may or may not be legal in the state or country in which a reader may reside. Any reader with objections to graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between males who may or may not have reached the legal age of consent, or readers whose local, regional, state or national jurisprudence prohibits such descriptions, should not read further.  

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    The terrain was a snowy maze slanting from peaks above to plains below. Filled with ravines and narrow vales separated by rocky outcrops and barren slopes, it looked the mad result of some careless giant slashing at the mountainside. Icy wind, constant and remorseless, blew through that maze in a high-pitched hum, occasionally rising to a piercing shriek where it forced its way through a narrow gap. The Eddya Mountains stretched away forever east and west, but here the north face pitched suddenly downward, ending abruptly in vast plains of icy tundra that reached to the top of the world.

    Looking down on those plains, Maryk thought it odd that the top of the world should be so flat, although he knew the view from his current vantage was misleading. The frosty land below actually sloped gently up and down, like a goodwife shaking out her sheets, like waves frozen in place. It was an astonishing contrast to the south, in Velledore, where the mighty mountains grew shorter over a hundred leagues and eventually petered out into foothills. Here in Torghast, the distance from the mountain tops down to those plains was a dozen leagues, and it made for a precipitous journey down a treacherous incline of ice and rock, with few and brief stretches of relatively flat ground. It seemed the White Lady had spent all her efforts in creating the beautiful and wild Eddya Mountains in Velledore, but had grown bored and abruptly ended her work in Torghast.

    Perhaps she had invested so little effort because the tribes of Torghast were barbarian heathens, worshipping demons of ice and fire. Missionaries had attempted to convert the tribes to the glory of the Eight, but had been at best spurned and at worst murdered. In Velledore, many said that Torghast’s blasted landscape was the result of their want of faith.

    Faith or no, Maryk knew that landscape was blasted only if compared to the abundance of Velledore. Torghast was frosty, but life thrived no less here than it did on the other side of the mountains, if differently and in less volume. As in the south, the north side had its forests, although they were short, sparse, wind-blown forests that were more groves of overgrown bushes than proper trees. There were bushes, too, although they looked more like weeds, and produced bitter berries ranging from barely edible to deadly poisonous.

    Wildlife made its existence on these slopes as well: small, quick bears living off those berry-bearing bushes; spry mountain goats providing the tribes their main source of meat and milk; fierce owls, hawks and ravens giving even his beloved Taisha pause; and strange little rodents which looked a cross between a rat and a furry mole. Even the icy plains far below supported life: sizable herds of fleet-footed, shaggy deer munching the tall grass that somehow grew out of the ice; impossibly huge white bears hunting those antlered deer; and, near any sizable body of water, flocks of funny little black and white birds with wings too small for flight.

    It was actually quite an array of life and it never ceased to surprise Maryk there was so much of it in this seemingly inhospitable land. There were apparently enough resources to support the tribes of Torghast, few and widespread as they were. Although the rest of the world had given the name Torghast to all those lands north of the Eddya Mountains, this in fact was the name of only one tribe, albeit the largest and most troublesome one (at least to Velledore). Near a hundred tribes lived all across this varied landscape, all with different names and different leadership. There were the mountain tribes with whom Velledore was unfortunately familiar, most living in the extensive cave systems that seemed to worm everywhere up here, but a few living in proper villages nestled in the occasional sheltered vale. There were the nomadic tribes of the tundra who herded those large, furry ice deer. And, finally, there were equally nomadic tribes who stayed near the sea, subsisting entirely from fish.

    The nomadic tribes had never been any problem to Velledore. These were too far away and seemed to mind their own business besides. It was the mountain clans that were the problem. Fierce hunters and warriors, they delighted in constant raids across the mountain tops, stealing and pillaging whenever they could. Velledore had learned to its irritation that pursuing the troublesome raiders was a fruitless enterprise. They disappeared into their caves or seemingly into thin air.

    Velledore had learned that it could only defend itself from the Torghasti raiders by building adequate defenses and amassing enough people. There was no Velledorian mountain village of less than fifty and with less than a ten-foot stockade. Villages were clustered together as well: three here, four there, each not a day’s ride from the other. This solution of adequate defense and superior numbers had usually been sufficient to deter all but the most daring, and suicidal, of the Torghasti mountain men.

    How could it be possible that this tribal and disunited people had amassed together to attack, of all places, the fortified city of Vel Esya? What plans, if any, did they have now?

    As Maryk moved closer to the torchlight he had spotted some time ago, he intended to find out the answers to these questions.

    The already dim light of the day was rapidly settling into dusk, and would quickly become dark night. The torchlight emanated from a small vale, such as appeared occasionally in the north mountain face, deep enough to be sheltered from the wind and wide enough to allow an honest grove of proper pines to grow. In that vale would be a tribe living in a village of a few rude huts. It would be the third such vale Maryk had passed in these many days of traversing the north side of the mountains in his quest for information. He had passed by caves as well, observing the tribespeople going about their barbarian business. All he had seen thus far had been the normal activity of the mountain clans. He was deep into the enemy’s territory now, and high winter had already begun, dropping torrents of snow. The journey back home would be a difficult task, even for an accomplished mountaineer like himself.

    His hard work had not been in vain, however, for he had noted two general things about the clans, one reassuring and the other worrisome. These generalities would be of little use in strategizing defense—or, hopefully, offense—against the tribes unless he could get more specific information, something that had eluded him thus far.

    It was reassuring that they seemed to be hunkering down for the winter, amassing supplies and firewood just as they did every cold season. It was reassuring because they were not mobilizing for a spring assault on Velledore, although it was too early to be sure. Looking at the cold, windblown wilderness around him, it was astonishing to think that Vel Esya lay just forty leagues away as the raven flies. The Torghasti fiends were devilish quick, and, come spring, Maryk knew they could amass in force across these mountain distances. But, now, it was good to see they had not yet done this. If they had, it would have pointed to a strong solidarity among the diverse clans, an ill omen for Velledore. As it was, they seemed just as disunited as ever.

    It was worrisome that they appeared to be pursuing their religious beliefs with uncharacteristic zeal. He had watched more than one of their awful rituals involving chanting, cutting, screaming and blood, usually in that order. There had been burnings, beatings, flayings, beheadings, disembowelments, and assorted other methods of inflicting deathly pain on a human being, as well as on the assorted unlucky goat or other hapless little furry creature. Maryk thought in a wry mixture of hope and disgust that the clans might sacrifice themselves out of the game, having killed so many of their own that there would be none left to attack come spring.

    There had been something extra about the rituals this winter, though, something different about the way they were being performed, that caused Maryk worry. There seemed to be more order to the unpleasant business, more a sense of focus. The tribes had always used hideous parodies of the symbols of the Eight, especially the Brown Sister’s pentagram and the Black Sister’s octogram, but in the past they had always been just that: ill-constructed parodies. Maryk was no expert in magic, but now the symbols seemed correctly formed, with individuals placed at the correct points. Additionally, he had caught sight of a robed figure or two, figures that looked suspiciously familiar, although he had been unable to discern these clearly.

    These were the seeds of suspicion in his mind. After making this general sweep, he had decided to get in close—as close as possible to a village—and observe things nearby. The problem, of course, was that he had been forbidden to do this. His orders were to make a general sweep, without getting too close, gather information on the general activities of the enemy, and return to report.

    As far as his orders were concerned, Maryk had already completed the assignment. The clans were capable mountaineers and Maryk was deep in their element. Velledorians venturing too close tended to be caught and tortured by the Torghasti. More than one bloodied head had been returned to the Duchess of Vel Esya, and the Bond Corps did not intend for it to be one of their own.

    Maryk, however, was alarmed by what he had glimpsed from afar during those bloody rituals. Why so many? Why so orderly? Who were those robed figures?

    Something important was happening, and he knew he had to find out.

    Besides, in addition to himself, another had been sent on reconnaissance, good old Ferrys to the west. Maryk felt certain that Ferrys and his gyrfalcon would follow orders exactly. The man was probably already back home, reporting what Maryk had already discovered: the tribes, while not mobilizing, did seem to be zealously pursuing their religious beliefs. Maryk smiled: although Ferrys didn’t have much imagination, his mental lack was more than compensated by his impressive physical endowment.

    Maryk was confident the Duchess and the Queensguard were getting the general information they needed back in Vel Esya. This gave him the opportunity, however risky, to find out what was really going on.

    In the back of his mind, he felt Taisha grumbling again. Her displeasure had steadily been growing the further they moved away from her preferred habitat south of the mountains. As far as she was concerned, they might as well be on the moon for all the food choices up here. She disliked the tough, stringy meat of these strange, furry creatures and was uncomfortable with the general lack of proper foliage. She was a bird of the trees, and there were only so many rocks she was willing to perch on. She perched on one now, practically glowing with irritation as she ostentatiously preened herself and ignored Maryk, rejecting the soothing thoughts he attempted to send to her.

    He hated it when she acted this way. She was punishing him for making her fly low and unobtrusively all the time. With such a limited range of flight, she had only been able to catch those foul little rodents, and if there were ever a gourmet with wings, it would be his Taisha, delicate eater and proper lady that she was, even if clothed in feathers. She saw no reason to come to this desolate land, with a distinct lack of her favored dish of fresh fox. She couldn’t wait to get back home; the constant wind and snow and storms were getting to her, and she had become a little buzzing ball of irritation in that special place in his mind.

    There had been only one good thing about the rigors of his current expedition. He had not had any opportunity to even think about succumbing to the call of the wild hunt. Just surviving in this wild, snowy wilderness was work enough. When he linked with Taisha, it was for a quick surveillance sweep, although he did have to maintain a constant, heightened awareness of her to keep her near him. This was taxing, but the extra effort was necessary because her distinctive blue-gray feathers could be spotted immediately by the enemy.

    For this reason, he had dismissed the idea of maintaining his distance and using her as his eyes to observe the village he now approached. The Torghasti would quickly notice the royal bird of Velledore if she flew right over their heads. Taisha had been a reason to send another, but Maryk was the most experienced and accomplished—and oldest—Bond Sibling in the Corps. No one else could perform a surveillance with his acute level of experience. It was why he had been sent to the heart of the enemy’s territory.

    The sky was nearly dark, and the torchlight was steadily becoming brighter. As he approached the vale, he heard muffled drumming. He thought there might be chanting over the drums, but the howling wind made him unsure.

    He ordered Taisha to remain on his shoulder and not utter a peep. He mentally sent the image of her hood being placed over her head to reinforce this, and was confident that she had gotten the idea. He crept down until he got as close as he dared, finding a sheltered spot between a scrubby pine and a boulder that gave a fairly good view of the village.

    Even compared to Velledore’s remotest mountain hold, the village was a scruffy affair, and it was the largest Torghasti settlement Maryk had thus seen. Fifteen or so domed huts were clustered haphazardly wherever there was a flat space in the tiny valley. Made of lashed branches packed with mud, some of the domes were quite large. Among them was a roughly circular, cleared space in which several tall torch poles were erected, the fire of each slanting sideways in the wind and sending off little showers of sparks.

    A dozen muscular warriors were posted as a barrier to scores of tribespeople milling about, some standing, others walking back and forth, a few jumping up and down to see into the clearing, but none actually entering it. A handful of drummers pounded just outside the circle of guards. Maryk grimaced when he realized the sticks beating the rhythm were bones. He wanted to believe they were of animal origin, but their size and shape cried human. The tight-stretched skin across the drums was of an uncomfortably familiar pale, pinkish hue.

    The clearing was completely empty, even of snow, and ringed by torch, guard and drummer, beyond which the fur-clad tribespeople gamboled about, their excitement palpable.

    Maryk wondered what was going on. Some sort of ceremony? The Torghasti were rarely so excited about the crude, bloody attempts of their barbarous priests to draw demons out of snow, or fire, or wherever they came from—wailing terror was more common. In the past and from afar, Maryk had spied on these attempts, which produced much screaming and blood but little evidence of powers from another world. The best, and bloodiest, work had created curious forms that hovered menacingly for a few moments, then disappeared in a puff of smoke, usually to the howling irritation of the priest.

    Maryk had always considered the religion of Torghast, called Fashdouk, to be a particularly ineffective one: so much blood for such little result. Those pathetic little puffs of “demons” hardly seemed worth the effort.

    The strange affair occurring now was different, however. There were nearly a hundred people down there cavorting and leering. That meant there were at least four clans, which in turn meant at least two tribes—an astonishing concept. Clans fought clans even in their own tribes. To have the people of two tribes dancing next to each other meant a monumental change in Velledore’s barbarous northern neighbor.

    Suddenly, the drumming stopped. Maryk found himself leaning forward in close attention as a hush fell across the assemblage below. Maryk’s sense of time told him what they had been waiting for: the sun had just completely disappeared behind the curve of the earth, and night had truly begun.

    In unison, the drummers beat a long, slow tattoo. The crowd parted as a solemn group marched past them into the clearing. There were four of the Fashdouk priests, dressed in a gaudy array of fur, leather and bones. The sight that followed them made Maryk’s hair stand up on the back of his neck.

    They were simply four figures dressed in voluminous black robes, deep cowls pulled well over their heads, but they were the ones he had previously glimpsed from afar—the very figures that had stirred his suspicions, suspicions that were now being horribly confirmed.

    They seemed to be priests of the Black Sister, although Maryk, who was casual in his personal relationship with the Goddesses, named her: Skarvya. His mind reeled for a moment: what were the Children of Skarvya doing here with the Torghasti?

    Then, horrified understanding dawned on him. They were not Black Priests. They could not be Black Priests, who were the mere representatives of Skarvya the Black—the Eighth Daughter, the Lady of the Underworld—whose blessed work allowed the natural cycle of life and death to occur. No, only one other would dare to wear such robes: they were the evil adherents of the Pashdin Heresy.

    Maryk practically reeled when the realization hit him. The Pashdin fanatics were behind the sudden unification of the tribes!

    Heart suddenly beating fast, Maryk knew he must get this information to Velledore no matter the cost. Carefully, he looked about him and considered how to make his quick exit. All about him was sparse ground, however, and he hesitated to expose himself. He glared down at the village.

    The sight that greeted him made his heart freeze. A long line of prisoners was being herded into the clearing, naked and shivering, all shackled at the ankle and wrist as they trudged slowly and hopelessly in front of the sharp spears of their captors. Most of them were Torghasti—undoubtedly from tribes unfriendly with the two or three presiding at this ceremony. Or, at least, unfriendly to the leadership of the Pashdins.

    But a few of them were Velledorians. Maryk felt his heart catch in his throat at those few men and women, gaunt and stooped, yet still proud and unbroken. They must have been prisoners caught in the autumn invasion, or snatched in a raid from a mountain hold, and kept alive until now. Maryk feared he knew what was to be done with them, and frantically searched for a way—any way—to save them.

    But there was no way. Maryk felt Taisha stir on his shoulder as she sensed the rage building within him, the utter impotence he felt as he knew he could not save his countrymen without exposing himself. He reached up and stroked her gently, even as he wept bitter tears.

    He knew he could not possibly escape the pursuit of a hundred mad tribespeople backed with the dark magic of four, or more, Pashdin priests. Velledore absolutely had to have this important information—at all costs.

    Tears streaming down his face, Maryk watched those costs be paid.

    The slaughter had begun, a disgusting spectacle of hacked limbs, spraying blood and collapsing bodies. The Pashdin priests spoke their spells as they inscribed the lines of the huge octagon, all while twitching corpses gushed blood. The blood flowed across the frozen ground, but stopped short at the magical boundary of the eight-sided star. The Fashdouk priests stood nervously, well away from the faintly glowing lines. The tribespeople cavorted no longer, and watched the grisly proceedings in a subdued hush.

    The Pashdins herded the Fashdouk shamans into the proper positions at the points of the star, while a guard slaughtered the last few prisoners in the nearly complete octagon. Maryk was appalled at the pile of bodies that heaved and twitched in its center, at least thirty of them—and five of them Velledorian.

    The last Pashdin finished the last segment of the star just as the guard disemboweled the final prisoner, who sagged pitifully. At once, the lines of the eight-pointed star glowed brightly, although it was a more a strange, oily shimmer than a proper glow.

    The Pashdin priest assumed the position at the north point of the star and began chanting, arms waving. The guard, apparently dissatisfied at the speed with which the last victim was dying, jabbed his spear in the person’s face, and at last the body flumped over. The guard pulled his spear out with a satisfied jerk, and finally looked about him.

    The priest continued moaning and waving, and an oily shimmering began to coalesce around the bodies. The guard gave a shriek when he realized he was surrounded by the glowing lines of the star, and dashed about, stumbling over the corpses. In a panic, he attempted to leap over one of the glowing lines—Maryk estimated it less than a foot high—but was stopped in mid-air by snaky lightning that streaked up from the star’s edge. The guard’s body vibrated violently as it was surrounded by bright light for a moment, then was thrown right into the middle of the pile of bodies.

    The priest continued chanting during all of this, and those bodies were growing indistinct, as if melting into each other. The stunned guard made a measly attempt to stand up atop that heaving pile of death, but a hand shot from it, grabbing his leg and pulling him back down. Maryk watched in horror as another hand, and another, all reached up to grab at him, all pulling in different directions, until the guard was ripped apart in a fountain of blood.

    As the last pieces of the guard’s body were sucked into the darkly shining mound, a form appeared. Hooded, it was indistinct and tall, wavering and shimmering as it grew from death.

    The figure had its back turned to Maryk, its attention focused on the Pashdin priest who had just stopped chanting.

    “Who calls me?” the figure said. Maryk was astonished to note it spoke in the language of the tribes, a language in which he was fortunately fluent.

    The priest glared triumphantly as he looked up. At least, Maryk thought the priest a man, although he couldn’t be sure.

    “I have called you, Mistress!” the priest said, also in the language of the tribes. “My siblings and I have brought the glory of your truth to these people before you. Long have they worshipped the demons of hell, never knowing the demons were your pets! See the fear of knowledge in their eyes, Mistress! Behold your new minions!”

    The shimmering figure turned in a slow circle, seeming to gaze upon the assemblage all around it. Maryk knew he wasn’t visible from the village, but felt his blood freeze in his veins as the terrible aspect of the creature’s visage passed his way. Vaguely feminine, the figure’s eyes were two black holes of endless nothing that sucked out life and hope. It hesitated for a moment as it seemed to gaze right at Maryk, and he felt sheer terror grip him from head to toe. Could it sense him?

    But the figure looked away and continued its circuit, all the tribespeople on their stomachs, until once again it faced the priest.

    “I sense a lack of faith among the many of you,” it said. “Know you I am displeased. Long have I let you play with my pets, a privilege you have abused. For this you will be punished.”

    At these words, the tribespeople began wailing in terror, weeping even as they continued to lie prostrate.

    “Mistress!” the head priest said. “Yet now they have accepted your glory. They may redeem themselves. Give them a sign, o glorious one! Let them know your power. Use them to crush your enemies!”

    The figure hesitated, then said, “Yes. It will be so. Children! You may redeem yourselves. Bring me the blood of my enemies, and I will let my pets play with you for all eternity. I will give you a sign of my assurance on this, but first give me blood!”

    The clansmen wept at her words, but none of them moved.

    The head priest said, “Give Her blood, you fools! There are those among you who even now do not believe. Let them be offered to eternal night!”

    He looked around, then focused on one of the Fashdouk priests shaking with terror on the star.

    “Him!” the Pashdin priest said. “He does not believe! He has denied you glory these many years—denied you the truth of your Mistress’s glory! Let his blood be cast in the star!”

    The priest howled in a mixture of terror and indignation, raising his fists, but two of the guards raised their spears and impaled him from either side. As the crowd hissed and cried, the Fashdouk priest flopped over, the segments of the star point he occupied rapidly disintegrating into the night air. The guards repeatedly rammed their spear points in him until he no longer twitched. They hoisted his body up, dripping with blood, and heaved it into the octogram, where it seemed to shrink away into nothing, all while the shadowy figure lifted its head, as if in pleasure.

    The Pashdin Priest cried, “Who else doubts? You know who that person is! Let him be cast into the star!”

    A melee erupted among the tribespeople, knives being drawn as accusations flew. In short order, eight more bodies were tossed into the star. At the entrance of each bloody corpse, the figure grew taller and more insubstantial, although Maryk thought that the additional blood should have the opposite effect of making it more substantial, not less.

    It was not a point upon which he intended to quibble or even dwell, for he had decided to use the crowd’s distraction to make his escape. This was too much horror to bear, and he wanted to be well away before two more points of the star were compromised. If they were, the creatures lurking within could escape and wreak havoc. Maryk knew enough about magic, evil or otherwise, to know you never compromised the points of a star. He wondered what madness that head priest was up to, causing one of his anchors to be murdered like that.

    Maryk looked up the slopes, seeing scant coverage. There were rocks about fifty yards away up and to the right. Another thirty yards beyond that was a small grove of stunted pines. His course decided, even zigzagging as it was, he cast a quick look behind him to make sure the tribespeople were keeping themselves occupied. The astonishing sight caused him to pause a moment.

    The figure was huge and nearly transparent as oily shimmers wafted across her form. On either side of her were two more figures, each about ten feet tall, and of the most terrifying aspect Maryk had ever seen.

    They were the “pets” referred to before: the demons of the underworld. Like their insubstantial mistress, they shifted and shimmered, although more solidly than the towering form between them. Both bristled with exaggerated muscles as they howled through toothy, snouted muzzles. Horned and with cloven feet, one was ice blue and snorted frosty drafts, the other fire red as it blew tendrils of smoke. The tribespeople wailed in awe and terror.

    They were so fearsome that Maryk hesitated to expose himself, and he crouched down again as he desperately sought a way to escape.

    The demons stalked around the inside of the octogram, seeming to test its boundary, which Maryk knew was weakened by the absence of one of the anchors. The lead Pashdin Priest glared at the cowering assemblage as he said, “Do any doubt your true Mistress, now?”

   The tribesmen moaned in cacophony, some denying their doubt of her, others asserting their belief in her, and the priest continued, “Yet, you must be taught a lesson, a small punishment for your past lack of faith. You will spread news of your Mistress far and wide, among all the tribes of the mountain lands! You will spread the truth of her glory and the power of her anger! Learn what happens to those who do not believe!”

    The priest motioned to two of the guards, who promptly stepped over to the Fashdouk shaman quavering on the point opposite the dissipated one that had held his erstwhile peer. The guards impaled the screaming man, rapidly murdering him. As the lines of the point evaporated, they hoisted the body into the octogram where the ice demon captured it and tore it asunder.

    The remaining lines of power began to flicker fretfully and pulses of murky color flowed through them. While the ice demon was occupied with the shaman’s body, the fire demon howled as it pressed against the border of the octogram. Slowly, slowly, it passed through the magical wall. Nearly solid inside the octogram, it was insubstantial and wispy on the outside, becoming a red, flickering shadow.

    It was still a fearsome shadow, and, as one, the tribespeople drew back when the demon roared and blew a fountain of pale red fire.

    The priest waved his arms and cried, “As decreed, the tribes will gather at the new moon! Learn what awaits the unbelievers! Those who do not appear will suffer this fate!” The priest looked at the demon and chanted, “Tof Skelya ag’nassa!

    The demon howled and leapt into the assemblage. Although shadowy, it was still deadly as it slashed and tore and killed anything near it. Pandemonium erupted as a hundred screaming tribespeople fled in every direction, the red demon leaving a haphazard trail of mangled bodies and blood as it moved among them.

    Maryk saw this as his opportunity to make his escape. He feared if he stayed in his current location, a tribesman might stumble over him, or, worse, that demon. Perching Taisha on his forearm and tucking her against his chest to keep her from being seen, he started toward the pile of rocks fifty yards away.

    The hooded figure of the shadowy creature towering in the octogram turned its head this way and that in seeming satisfaction as its pet spread chaos and death among the tribesmen. It looked at the retreating back of Maryk and said, “The enemy is among us.”

    The head priest looked in surprise toward Maryk and cried frantically, “A spy! A spy! Do not let him escape!”

    But the tribespeople were too occupied by the demon in their midst to pay any attention to him, and the demon ignored him as it chased the fleeing mountain men. The priest hissed in vexation and ordered the guards to follow Maryk, who had by then reached the rocks.

    Maryk cursed himself twice and thrice the fool as he surveyed the sparse landscape. He should have left much sooner, or not come so close, or... He quelled this thinking and rapidly considered his options. Self-pity would only get him caught. As long as those below kept themselves occupied, he might be able to escape. Taisha clung fiercely to his forearm, her talons seeping through the material of his coat and drawing a bit of blood since he was not wearing his arm guard. It was an annoyance he ignored as he dashed toward the cover of a small grove of pines.

    Besides, he considered morbidly, his blood might be necessary for a last-ditch spell. Taisha’s fierce grip drawing blood might save him a little time, should it come to that.

    The priest looked on in fury as Maryk made his escape. He glared at the remaining Fashdouk shamans who cowered helplessly inside their points of the star, then looked at Maryk’s dwindling form. The priest glanced at the towering figure and the ice demon in the octogram, and hesitated, seemingly in a mental battle with himself. After a moment, he came to a decision and ordered the single remaining guard to kill one of the shamans.

    The other Pashdin Priests cried in dismay, but the obedient guard impaled the blubbering shaman, who toppled over. The lines around him rapidly dissipated, and the remaining lines of power flashed alarmingly as surges of sickly colors passed through them.

    The towering figure chuckled knowingly as the ice demon passed easily through the barrier. Although it lost some of its solidity, it appeared more fearsomely real than had the red demon before it. The ice demon howled in triumph when it stood fully outside the octogram. It immediately sighted the guard and in two quick steps was on the stunned man, tearing him to bloody pieces.

    The head priest pointed frantically toward Maryk and screamed at the demon, “Ag’nassa! Ag’nassa! Tof Skelya! Ag’nassa!

    Instead the demon rounded on the priest, taking a few threatening steps toward the screaming man.

    The other Pashdin Priests stared at each other in alarm and began chanting in unison. The towering figure still in the pulsing octogram laughed deep and menacingly.

    The head priest screamed as the demon loomed over him. Just as it was about to slash at him, the shadowy figure intoned, “Hafput! Ag’nass!

    Immediately, the demon bounded off toward Maryk, who had just disappeared into the pine grove. The head priest sagged with relief.

    Maryk heard the roar of the ice demon and looked in dismay at the rapid approach of the monster. Emotionless, he knew he had no chance of escaping the creature. He sat down and drew out a small knife and a vial from his pouch. He held Taisha in front of him and stared at her for a split second. She glared at him fiercely. He didn’t know how to say goodbye to her, so he simply flowed love to her along the link and gave a quick scratch at the special place she liked on the side of her neck, then had her hop to the ground. Taking off his glove, he looked at the pin pricks of blood on his forearm caused by the sharp points of her talons. He took the knife and gently grasped her foreleg, which she held obediently for him, even as she gazed fiercely into his eyes. He made a tiny incision, and could feel nothing but love and pride as his fierce little Taisha continued to hold her leg out and gaze at him, not uttering a peep.

    He wanted so desperately to meld with her, to be free with her forever. But he could not. If he did so, Velledore would not learn of the dastardly plans of its enemies. There was no way to get information out of a melded avian-human mind. The only way he could be sure the Queensguard got the information was by the Bloodmark Spell, a desperate, last-ditch measure. Maybe, if he finished the spell before the demon arrived, he could meld with her.

    But he didn’t think he would have enough time even to finish the spell. The demon was nearly upon them.

    He began muttering the spell as he saw a pin prick of her avian blood appear on her foreleg. He held his arm out and squeezed it until a drop of his blood spilled on Taisha’s own blood. He flooded images of what he had seen into the blood imprint, as many as he could.

    But their wasn’t enough time to get even all of the important ones. As Maryk continued working the spell, he grasped the vial and quickly unstoppered it, holding it against his chest.

    All too soon, the demon was in front of him, the deathly cold of its form chilling him as he sat and continued the Bloodmark Spell. Readying himself to fling the vial at the demon, Maryk remained calm and continued flooding images into the blood imprint.

    The demon loomed over him, drooling and snorting icy vapors that reeked of foul things. Maryk finally interrupted the Bloodmark Spell and muttered a quick benediction to the White Lady, which would hopefully strengthen the potency of the blessed White Water he was about to fling on the hellish demon. He knew the holy water would not stop the monstrous creature, but prayed that it would slow the thing down long enough to be able to leave some cogency in the blood imprint. He had witnessed a few bloodfires that were completely unintelligible, most likely due to the dire circumstances—like his current one—in which the blood imprints had been created.

    The demon, its skin like ice frozen over dead things, raised its muscular arm for a killing blow. Maryk started moving his arm.

     Suddenly, a small form darted about the demon’s head, shrieking and squawking. The demon grunted and paused, swiping around its head. Maryk used the creature’s distraction to fling the White Water full in the demon’s face.

     The monster howled as white steam began billowing with a sizzling noise from its head. It grasped its face and shook it wildly, tearing at one side. Maryk hopped away, willing Taisha to come with him. In the back of his mind he wondered what other bird had come to his rescue, but escape was a more urgent matter as he leapt up the mountainside. Besides the screaming demon, he could hear the shouts of his human pursuers. As he ran, he continued flooding images into the still active bloodlink, hoping they would make sense.

    Down in the village, the head priest, stunned by his near death at the hands of the ice demon, stared about him in dismay while the three other priests continued chanting in unison. As they chanted, the crazy pulsing of the star’s magical lines had begun to diminish, if slightly. The sole remaining Fashdouk shaman had rolled himself into a quivering ball in the middle of his star point.

    The fire demon still spread chaos in the village, although there were far less victims now, most having run off or been killed. Like his blue companion, the red demon had become more solid after the third point of the star had been destroyed, and this added potency had increased the death toll.

    The shimmering figure in the middle of the octogram had shrunk ever so slightly, but it still chuckled as it turned to the gaping priest and said, “You will be rewarded for your efforts. This has been a fruitful night.”

    The head priest looked at the figure in a mixture of hope and fear. He didn’t see the red demon move up behind him until the creature roared a blistering fire at him. The priest was still screaming through the flames encircling his head when the demon clove him in two and set upon the pieces, splattering blood and body parts everywhere. The lines of the star point rapidly crackled out of existence.

    The three remaining priests did not let up in their chanting as the figure intoned, “All will be rewarded.” Their eyes widened in terror as the fire demon turned its attention on them.

    On the mountainside, Maryk heard the approach of the ice demon. He broke off the Bloodmark Spell and flung Taisha into flight as he whirled to face the creature. Some yards down behind the demon, he noticed the appearance of the tribespeople. He had a split second to decide whether to place the Bloodmark Compulsion on Taisha, which would force her to return to her roost in Vel Eddya no matter what happened, or to attempt to bond with her. Before he could decide, an arrow whizzed past his head, blunting the concentration necessary for either effort. Cursing, he ducked just as the demon leapt a full fifteen feet to where he stood. He rolled out of the way, slipping on the icy rock, and leapt up while the demon turned this way and that a few feet away from him.

    Maryk realized the creature must have been blinded by the White Water and was hunting by smell or sound—or both. That should make it easier to fight it.

    Just then an arrow, and another, shot past him. He crouched quickly and the demon immediately rounded on him.

    As the demon prepared to leap, Taisha and another bird attacked it. The demon stopped its approach and batted about its head, missing both birds as it snorted drafts of frosty irritation. Maryk stood full and pulled out his longsword from his back holster. Holding it aloft, he cried, “The Hawk of Velledore!”

    The demon stopped batting at the birds and swiped at Maryk, who sliced at the creature. Icy forearm met cold steel with a shower of sparks. The demon howled as it retreated a step, holding its forearm in front of it while its other arm batted again at the still attacking birds.

    Maryk also retreated a step as he willed blood to flow into his arms, which had been numbed by shocking contact with the demon. He looked worriedly at his blade, which was covered in frost. Occasional arrows zipped past him.

    The demon started forward, slashing at Maryk who once again met the demon’s blow with his sword. The second contact with the demon proved too much for the blade, which broke into pieces. Maryk hopped back a few steps as he formulated the final words of the Bloodmark Spell to compel Taisha to return home.

    Just as he started muttering them, an arrow pierced him from behind. Stunned, he tried to keep speaking, but the words turned to mush in his mouth. The demon approached, snarling, and raised its clawed forearm for a killing blow. In a preternatural daze, Maryk noticed that the demon seemed smaller and wispier, as if it were fading out of existence. The demon’s arm came crashing down, but, as it did so, it seemed to become invisible. By the time it reached Maryk’s chest, it was a thin, blue shadow that struck him. Although it was a shadow, icy shocks of pain spread throughout his entire torso. Feeling as if his whole body had been frozen, Maryk slipped out of consciousness.

    The remaining Pashdin Priests all sagged with relief as they finished their chanting and watched the octogram and its spawn slide out of existence with a strange, sucking sound.

    In the sky above, two hawks shrieked as they rose upward amidst volleys of arrows. As they became pin pricks in the dark sky, the tribespeople gave up and turned their attention to the prostrate form of their enemy before them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


    A light breeze had picked up, blowing gently northward. The air was damp and cold, but the softly flowing wind carried a dryness to it, making the weather feel merely brisk. The breeze lent an unexpected quality of invigoration to an otherwise dreary day, a dreariness compounded by the gloomy sky. Looking up at the foreboding clouds that hung low and oppressive in these last days of a dying autumn, one would think the city of Vel Tama forever trapped in a deep funk that matched the mood of her gray stone walls.

    But here and there, that heavenly ceiling of gray slate seemed marked by striated sections of white sandstone, like silvery patches in the dark hair of a favorite uncle. These small, light-colored bits of cloud appeared to hold promise of change. They tickled the senses of the city people, seeming to whisper that, at last, the rainy season would end. Although these fine citizens knew that the end of the rains meant that winter had surely begun, they also knew the end of the rains meant a few, brief, glorious weeks of bright weather—sunny, cold and stark—that would eventually give way to the true winter of snow and, if they were unlucky this year, ice. The past few winters had been pleasingly mild, and the people of Vel Tama knew in their bones that they were overdue for a long, cold, harsh, wintry season.

    Still, the prospect of a few weeks without rain did much to lift the general mood of the city, and this late morning provided an animated backdrop in which a tall, sandy-haired boy strode down a broad thoroughfare, headed for the harbor. It had been ages since he had ventured into the Old City, and Havym felt excited at being here. His excitement was heightened by the general cheer around him, and especially by his personal sense of relief.

    He had just performed the last duty required of him to help set his father’s course in the afterlife, and it had gone very well. He had been impressed with the cordiality of the Black Priests in their fine temple, and honored that they had chosen to perform his father’s last rites here on Velleya, the holy island.

    He now felt a little foolish that he had fretted so about coming to the main temple. The priests said that the temples of Velleya were for all the children of the Eight, rich or poor, high or low, and they had just proved it by sending off his penniless father in such a grand fashion. This had all been topped off by the opportunity to admire the muscular form of his temple guide, even if the man had turned out to be a real snoot. Secretly, he wished all priests would be so handsome, but at the same time he was dismayed at the prospect of having to face such arrogance again.

    The northerly breeze blew off the harbor, and carried with it the smell of ships and cargoes, of sails and oars, and of fish freshly caught. It carried also a slight hint of the sea some sixty leagues to the east, a salty tang barely perceptible in the fresh river-borne breeze. Although Vel Tama was a city well inland, the autumn storms and rains blew in from the Miowa Sea and were the source of that salty hint. As well, fully half of the vessels in the Great Harbor had sailed in from the sea seeking the lucrative trade provided by this important city, and their presence bolstered the sense of Vela Tama’s harbor facing some great ocean, instead of a river, however wide and mighty that river might be.

    The storms also blew in scores of thoroughly confused seagulls who flapped about, shrieking and squawking as they hunted for non-existent crustaceans that the weather should have forced out in droves from equally non-existent sandy beaches. Instead, they made a general nuisance of themselves as they scavenged noisily all over the city, terrorizing the hapless river birds and leaving voluminous droppings. It was another reason the citizens of Vel Tama would be happy with the end of the rainy season: the gulls would at last figure out they were in the wrong habitat and wing off eastward, leaving the city in peace.

    Havym, too, looked forward to the end of the rains, and yet he glanced up worriedly at the sky as he rounded the last curve of the road and entered into the sweeping expanse of the harbor itself. He knew that this seeming respite from rain was probably misleading. The clouds above informed his weather sense that there would be one more great onslaught before that dark sky lightened at last, a few drenching hours of downpour which would be the last hurrah of the rainy season.

    Although he was just as anxious as the rest of the city for the sun to reclaim its rightful place in the heavens, right then he hoped that it and the clouds would wait just a little while longer. He needed enough time to walk all the way back to the Inn of the Laughing Queen, gather up Olwyn, and make it to the Queen’s Guardhouse before the drenching began. He wanted to look good for the Guard recruiters, and knew that a poor, bedraggled boy, soaked to the bone and dripping with water, would not make an impressive sight.

    Once again he considered turning around and heading back now, but it was early yet, and Olwyn would be at his lessons with his tutor. Reaching in his pocket and jiggling the few coins he had there, Havym knew he was rationalizing for the real reason he wanted to come to the Great Harbor. Already he envisioned the clatter of dice as they rolled on the ground, leaving winners and losers in their wake. Havym had always been extraordinarily lucky with the rattle and throw, and he felt certain he would be more than usually lucky today.

    Automatically, he reached into another pocket and, feeling nothing there, cursed under his breath. He couldn’t believe he had forgotten his dice pouch. He never went anywhere without his dice pouch. Granted, the past night and morning had been alternately stressful and exhilarating, but he still couldn’t believe he had not brought his dice with him. It was like forgetting to put on his smallclothes—picking up his dice was just something he did without thinking. He had carved and painted them himself and, singly or in combination, could play a score of different games with them.

    Thinking about it, his dice pocket was where he had kept the black disk the priest had given him the previous evening. He thought it strange that he would place it there. He had sewn that pocket himself and used it exclusively to hold his dice, for, truth be told, he felt naked without them. It was as if that obsidian disk had somehow taken the place of his dice, a bizarre and unsettling thought. How could a piece of rock, no matter how shiny and pretty, take the place of his beloved dice, which he had carefully carved and painstakingly painted himself?

    The Black Priest, Devyrra, had called the disk a token. He thought it had merely been his ticket into the Black Temple, but now he was not so sure. He remembered that he had constantly touched it, as if he had desired to keep it in contact with his skin, and that this had felt natural and right at the time. As far as Havym knew, a token was a sign of something. His brow furrowed in concentration. But a sign of what?

    Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his head and a wave of dizziness passed through him. Stumbling to a stop, he grasped his head and clenched his eyes shut. In doing so, he saw a sparkly rainbow of colors washing across the back of his eyelids. Those sparkles of color instantly became sharp daggers that seemed to stab straight into his head. Gasping, he opened his eyes wide and the stabbing sensation disappeared, although he saw a strange afterimage of swirly colors all about him.

    Forcing himself to stand upright, he swayed slightly as the dizziness passed. He realized he was standing in the middle of the road and that some people were glancing at him in curiosity or irritation as they walked around him. He took a deep breath and started walking again, and felt measurably better. Feeling his stomach growl, he realized he had not eaten anything all morning and resolved to grab a bite soon. It would not do to gamble on an empty stomach.

    He decided he must have forgotten his dice simply because he had been so distraught over his father’s death, and in his confusion had placed the disk in his dice pocket. It was certainly a reasonable explanation, even if it did not lessen his irritation at not having his dice now, when he needed them.

    Feeling normal again, he forced himself to wipe off the irritated frown he knew he had on his face. Although Olwyn insisted his frown was “adorable,” Havym knew gamblers were not given to dicing against a scowling opponent.

    He stood a moment and looked at the arching curve of the harborside, with its broad and shallow stone steps leading down to wide stone quays evenly spaced from one another. Along each quay were docked numerous vessels of every shape and size, from single-paddled fishing boats to big, two-masted ships that looked like they belonged on the ocean. This was the case, of course: those ships were bigger than riverboats but smaller than ocean vessels and were designed to sail both along the sea coast and down big rivers, like the Tamadyn.

    It was especially these large, foreign-looking ships in which Havym was interested, for they would be carrying the foreign sailors, which was the main draw of the Great Harbor. Havym’s own Tarridell Harbor in the New City, while large, was strictly a local affair: the merchants of the New City simply could not pay the money that the Old     City lavished on the foreign traders, money lavished because they had gone to the significant effort of sailing upstream all the way to Vel Tama.

    The traders tended to share their wealth with their sailors, and the happy results of this largess could be found in the bars and inns and alleys of the harbor district, where could be heard the gurgle of ale filling a cup, the soft flap of cards winning a hand, the giggle of a boy or girl leading a patron to a private room, and, above it all, the rattle of dice. Easy to understand, easy to play and quick to win, it was the preferred game of sailors, even if they tended to forget the game was as quick to lose as it was to win.

    Havym certainly wasn’t thinking of losing as he surveyed the bustling activity all around him. A team of dockers secured rope while their fellows pulled a ship into position. Sailors cast off lines as their vessel pulled out. Longshoreman strode everywhere as they carted boxes, parcels, crates and barrels to and from the ships. Merchants gesticulated at red-faced captains as they bargained. A pair of sailors relaxed on some crates as they chatted and enjoyed a pipe.

    Havym hardly knew where to begin, although he couldn’t help eyeing the two lazing sailors. One of them was impressively muscled, even if his face looked the participant of one too many fist fights. But he and his companion were simply sitting and chatting next to a gangplank up which bustled cargo crates; they probably were having a quick break before their ship got underway.

    Havym’s stomach rumbled again, and this helped him decide to go to an inn, where there were sure to be sailors as well as food. A couple of these fine establishments were within spitting distance, and he headed to the nearest one. Walking along, he passed by a cooper’s shop next to the inn. Between the cooper and the inn was an alley in which were stacked various broken casks and barrels, probably discards from the cooper. Sitting and standing among the barrels was a group of men. Havym stopped and regarded that small group, because his gambler sense told him what was going on over there.

    It was a fine game of dice, and Havym sauntered over to stand among them, all thoughts of food gone from his mind.

    As he approached the group, he heard a voice cry, “The Gray Girl has spit on your hands today, good sir! I’m out before I lose any more! ‘Tis too early to be throwing my coin away!”

    These bold words were met with guffaws of laughter as the group parted and a man strode out, muttering to himself. He caught sight of Havym and said, “Beware those foreigners, young sir. They’ve got the Gray Girl’s own luck over there!” He glared over his shoulder for a moment, then departed the alley.

    Havym watched his retreating back, noting the vest of the Longshoremen’s Guild, then moved in among the remaining four men. Two of them were also longshoremen in their distinctive leather vests with gold chains layered over the breast. And, just as the man had said, the remaining two were foreign sailors. Havym eyed them in a mixture of curiosity and appraisal.

    Their clothing was baggy and colorful, and seemed much too light for the weather. Their hair was blond, long and arranged in a series of complex braids through which silken scarves were tied and knotted. Both wore at least three small hoops in each ear. Their dark eyes, almond-shaped and deep-set in angular faces, were fixed in concentration on the game, though one of them cast a quick, sly look at the appearance of the tall, handsome boy. Havym had heard of them, of course, but he had never actually seen one before. They were from Soldana, Velledore’s northeastern neighbor, and were every bit as exotic as he had heard.

    Havym watched the game for a bit. They were playing straight sixes, which was just about the easiest game in the world. Contrary to what the departing longshoreman had said, the Soldishmen were not winning every throw. Indeed, they were not even winning most of them. It was an amiable morning game with small bets, which was a relief to Havym, who did not have much money.

    Before Havym could join in, the two longshoremen announced they needed to return to work. They took their leave, also taking their winnings and, unfortunately, the dice. Havym looked on in disappointment as they left.

    One of the remaining Soldish sailors rattled some coins in his hand and smiled at Havym. “Have dice? More throwing?” he asked in a thick accent.

    Havym shook his head ruefully and pouted, “Sorry, no dice.”

    The sailors sighed and looked at each other meaningfully, then at Havym.

     “You like coins?” one of them asked.

    Havym frowned at the question, forgetting his intention of maintaining a cheerful expression, and also forgetting Olwyn’s warning of the endearing appearance of his cute, scrunched face and pouty lips.

    “I like coins,” he said, slowly.

    One of the sailors grinned openly at Havym’s bewildered frown while the other smiled mysteriously.

    The grinning sailor nodded over his shoulder at the stacks of broken barrels, saying, “Come. We give you coins.” He walked off to the other side of the barrels.

    The remaining sailor with the mysterious smile nodded to Havym and then off toward the other sailor. “Come,” he said, and started walking.

    Although both sailors were alluringly exotic, Havym decided the mysterious one was exceptionally fine-looking, and followed him to stand behind the barrels. Havym noted these had been stacked to create an alcove safe from the street’s view. He suspected the barrels had been stacked purposefully that way, and noted the location of the alley for future reference.

    As Havym came to stand in front of them, the grinning sailor produced a coin which he held between thumb and forefinger. He did some fancy finger work, moving it in and out between each knuckle, rolling it across the palm and back of his hand, and finally flipping it in the air with a flourish. Catching it, he held it on his palm and proffered it to Havym, who couldn’t help but smile at the sailor’s antics. Havym also looked at the bronze color of the coin in appreciation. A bronze was about as much money as he could hope to make in a week.

    The sailors nodded at Havym’s change of expression. “Good smile,” the grinning one said. “More good than sad face.”

    This made Havym smile even more, and the sailor sighed and leaned forward. He reached up and rubbed his fingers through Havym’s unruly locks while he deposited the bronze coin in Havym’s hand. The sailor looked into Havym’s honey-brown eyes and began stroking his cheek and jaw. “Pretty Velasdera boy,” the sailor murmured, using his native word for Velledore.

    Still smiling but feeling suddenly shy, Havym looked down, even as he tilted his head to facilitate the sailor’s caress. He reached up and felt the complicated braids of the sailor’s hair, and the silken texture of the thin scarves and ribbons tied in and throughout them.

    The grinning sailor used both hands to feel all over Havym’s hair and face, and Havym enjoyed the rough feel of fingers callused by extensive contact with ropes and rigging. Havym felt another pair of hands circle his waist and realized the handsome, mysterious sailor had moved behind him. He was of a height with the grinning sailor and the mysterious one was a finger taller. Relishing the sensation of not being taller than everyone present, he used one hand to feel the chest in front of him, and reached behind him to stroke the side and leg of the other man.

    The four hands moved all over his body and Havym’s breath quickened as he felt his flesh rise up. Those prowling hands moved downward and began rubbing the thickening length of his manhood. One hand slipped past the band of his trousers and moved into his smallclothes, and Havym gasped slightly as he felt callused, warm skin begin gently stroking him. Another hand moved down, grasping and kneading his buttocks. Havym swayed his hips between the two men, his breaths coming deep and heavy.

    The grinning sailor in front of him brushed his fingers across Havym’s lips, Havym kissing them as he did so. The sailor replaced his fingers with his own lips and they kissed, all while their hands felt all over each other’s bodies. The handsome sailor pressed up behind Havym, his hardness evident against Havym’s bottom.

    The grinning sailor broke off the kiss, and gently turned the boy the other way. Havym sighed as he looked up at the exotic beauty of the taller sailor, who leaned forward and took his turn at kissing. The grinning sailor moved to stand next to the handsome one, and Havym took turns kissing them both, their faces pressed against one another. By this time, all trousers had been loosened, and three hard cocks now poked out into the cool, late morning air. They all reached down and stroked each other’s lengths. Although Havym was pleased by what he felt down there, he couldn’t help but be more pleased by the fact that he was the best endowed of the three.

    The sailors broke off the kiss and leaned back, each grabbing their manhood and waving them in front of Havym. Obligingly, Havym got down on his knees and began licking and sucking at them. Although he was not the master that Olwyn was, and could not take their entire lengths in his mouth, both sailors sighed appreciatively at his efforts.

    The sailors leaned together, arms around each other’s shoulders, and directed their cocks into Havym’s mouth at the same time, smiling as the boy’s cheeks bulged out with each thrust. After a while of this, the grinning sailor muttered something in his native tongue, then made Havym stand up. Eyes fixed on his long tool, the sailor got down on his knees and proceeded to swallow Havym’s entire shaft down his eager, nautical throat. Havym grunted at the amazing feeling of the sailor’s throat muscles working his cock.

    The handsome sailor used his shipmate’s distraction to lean over and explore Havym’s mouth with his own. While he kissed the tall, brown-eyed man with a curious yet appealing slant to his eyes, Havym reached down and stroked the sailor’s shaft.

    The grinning sailor seemed determined to swallow as much of Havym as possible, and kept his nose buried in Havym’s patch of curly hair until it seemed the man would choke. The fact was that the sailor was simply too good, and Havym felt himself quickly approaching the point of no return.

    The grinner seemed to sense this, and pulled off, smacking his lips. Looking up at his countryman, he said something in Soldish. The handsome one laughed and shrugged, saying something in reply and pointing at a barrel.

    Havym had no idea what was going on, until the grinning sailor pulled down his trousers and leaned over the barrel, exposing his nicely rounded ass, which he wiggled at Havym.

    “You fuck this?” he asked, winking at Havym.

    Although tempted at the invitation, Havym wasn’t sure if he wanted to go that far, here in broad daylight, even if he was safe from casual observers.

    Sensing his hesitation, the handsome sailor pulled out two more bronze coins and handed them to Havym, then went over and rubbed the grinning sailor’s buttocks, parting the cheeks to expose the winking hole of his randy compatriot. “You fuck this. You like,” he said, smiling.

    The extra coin decided him, and Havym moved into position behind the panting sailor. The handsome one deposited a large gob of spit onto the tan-colored rosebud, then easily worked in two fingers. He leaned over and kissed Havym deeply, depositing some spit into Havym’s mouth. Havym got the idea and dropped another drooly gob onto that waiting hole. The handsome sailor wrapped an arm around Havym and grabbed his dick, kissing him while he did so. He then positioned the purple head of Havym’s long tool right at the sailor’s port-of-call, and pushed Havym gently in until the entire shaft was buried in there.

    The grinning sailor moaned out loud and the handsome one hissed at him to be quiet. The grinner lowered his voice but continued to moan while Havym thrust in and out of him. The handsome sailor started grinning himself while he watched Havym’s tool slide in and out of his fellow seaman’s hole. He then leaned over and kissed Havym as he stroked himself.

    This went on for a while, and Havym couldn’t decide which he liked better: the hot, grasping slickness of the grinner’s manhole, or the expert kissing of the handsome one’s sensual mouth. The combination soon proved to be too much, and Havym tried to mutter around their interlocked tongues that he was about to blow.

    The handsome sailor reached down and began stroking his countryman’s cock, all while he continued to stroke himself and lock tongues with Havym. The grinner came immediately, shooting ropes of white cum down the side of the barrel, moaning in an uncomfortably loud voice while he did so. With the handsome sailor’s tongue rammed as far as it would go into his mouth, Havym felt himself explode deep inside the seaman. The handsome one gave a last few powerful strokes, and his white seed spilled across the round ass of his shipmate.

    They broke off, panting heavily. The handsome Soldishman cupped Havym’s chin and said, “Pretty Velasdera boy kiss good.”

    Havym smiled, and said, “Pretty Soldana sailor kiss good, too.”

    The handsome sailor laughed and said something to his countryman, who laughed in return. They all got themselves dressed and in order, and walked out from the alcove. To Havym’s pleasant surprise, the grinning sailor insisted on giving him two more bronze coins.

    As the two sailors walked away, they said over their shoulders, “Our ship coming in spring. We hoping see pretty Velasdera boy again!”

    Havym chuckled, then stood a moment in the alley, counting his good fortunes. Not only was it still early, the sky was, if anything, a bit lighter. The air was practically feeling warm, and the streets beyond the alley were a hive of activity. He had just gotten paid five bronzes to do what he normally did for free. Not only had he been paid, but he had been paid by two exotic Soldish sailors. Olwyn was going to be so jealous.

    He jingled his newfound wealth in his pocket. In less than an hour, he had made more money than he could hope to make in a month—and money made so easily. Briefly, he considered the merits of spending much more time down here at the Great Harbor, but knew he didn’t see himself spending his life that way. Besides, he felt his escapade with the two friendly sailors was a manifestation of his luck, and it was never a good idea to try to press one’s luck. Luck was something you had to flow with.

    He had always been lucky. In dice, he was always winning more tosses than he lost, but it went beyond the luck of the game. Although it was true he had lost his parents, he had been lucky to be adopted by the kind Ollynses. Although he had lost his mother, he had been very lucky to befriend Olwyn. Berta had been a surrogate mother to him, buying him clothing and gifts (usually behind his proud father’s back) and dispensing motherly advice throughout his childhood. It was mainly her influence that dissuaded him from seriously considering the life of a prostitute.

    Sometimes, he could feel his luck. Occasionally, he knew when he was going to win. It was a kind of buzz at the back of his neck, a feeling that, if he turned around quickly enough, he might be able to catch a fleeting glimpse of it. But, he also knew to do so would scare it away.

    When he felt his luck, he had learned not to concentrate on it, not to think about it, not to worry about it, but only to let it flow.

    He was feeling it now.

    How lucky he was to have met those cheerful, lusty, generous sailors. He wondered what other lucky things the day would bring him. He started walking out of the alley.

    Just then, two figures turned into the alley. They paused at Havym’s presence, then one of them lifted a dice cup. Rattling its contents enticingly, the figure said, “Gonna have a quick one. Care to join in?”

    Havym smiled.