The Horse Mistress: Book 1 — Read Ch. 1-8 Below!

Welcome, and thank you for checking out The Horse Mistress! Please be aware that this novel contains descriptions of graphic violence and graphic sex, including sex between men. Additionally, it deals with issues of gender identity and gender fluidity. If you’re okay with the subject matter, read on and enjoy!
-R. A. Steffan

Chapter 1: Carivel’s Secret

“CARIVEL! WHERE ARE YOU, BOY? Come here at once!”

The voice of Jorun, the old Horse Master, was gruff and impatient as it rang out across the dusty horse pens. I looked up from the section of fence I was mending, quickly locating the short figure striding toward me with his distinctive, bow-legged gait.

“Here, Horse Master,” I called in reply. I gathered up my tools and placed them safely outside the fence so the animals wouldn’t step on them, before hurrying across to meet him halfway.

“Aren’t you done with those repairs yet?” Jorun asked, his piercing, deep-set eyes raking over me from within his weathered face.

“Almost, sir,” I said.

“Quick as you can, then. I want you to watch over that buckskin mare of Volya’s tonight. She’s finally ready to foal.”

I nodded my understanding. Volya’s favorite mare had delivered a creamy white colt last year—a rare prize indeed. The village chief had high hopes that she would throw a matching foal this year, so he could have a white chariot team the envy of every warrior for miles around. Mares were generally left to give birth on their own whilst out with the herd, but for this particular foal nothing would be left to chance.

“Of course, Horse Master,” I said. “I’ll finish up here and be back at dusk.”

“Good, good,” said Jorun. “Mind you eat something first, lad. Being hungry is one thing. Being tired is another. Being hungry and tired at the same time will have you falling asleep before the moon finishes rising.”

“I’ll get something from Gretya, sir. Thank you.”

“See that you do.” Jorun patted my shoulder firmly with a gnarled hand. “Maybe someday you’ll actually get some meat on those bones.”

I resolutely held in the sigh that wanted to escape—I wasn’t that skinny. Honestly. I might not be tall or broad-shouldered, but I was certainly more than strong enough to do my job as Jorun’s apprentice. However, that didn’t seem to stop the man from fussing as though he were my father and not my master.

After mumbling some vague words of agreement, I returned to the final section of fence. One of the rails was rotting where it attached to the post, so I pried it free and replaced it with a new one, pausing to shoo away a curious yearling that wandered up to sniff at my close-cropped hair. Job done, I tidied everything up, wheeling the debris away in a rickety wooden pushcart.

The pens were located a short distance beyond the edges of the main part of the settlement, so that the flies and the smell of manure would not be a nuisance to the residents. The sun was already getting low in the sky when I returned to the center of the village and entered Gretya’s cookhouse. The thatched, circular structure was generally a hub of activity in the evenings, and today was no exception. The late spring weather was pleasant; several men and boys were already lounging on the benches scattered around the outside of the building with their bowls of hearty stew, while Gretya’s daughters flitted back and forth between the tables, filling tankards.

Gretya was a widow, and made a living serving food to those who were unable or unwilling to cook for themselves, for whatever reason. I couldn’t afford to eat meals here very often with my meager apprentice’s pay, but every once in a while I had reason to appreciate the availability of her hearty fare. Tonight was definitely one of those nights, since I would soon need to return to the horse pens for my watch.

“Hello, Carivel, dear,” said the old woman, giving me a gap-toothed smile as she ladled meat and vegetables into a bowl. The rich aroma made my stomach rumble, causing her smile to widen. “I don’t see you nearly often enough, you know. You’re looking well these days.”

I gave her an answering smile of my own. “Hello, Gretya. If you can convince Jorun to double my pay, I promise I’ll darken your doorstep every day of the week. My own cooking always tastes like I forgot to add the salt, even when I didn’t.”

“Ah, you poor lad. I’ll have a quiet word with the old miser one day soon and see what can be done,” she said with a wink.

I laughed softly before thanking her and taking my leave. The village gossips all swore blind that Gretya was Jorun’s mistress, an idea that she playfully encouraged, but which had never to my knowledge been proven one way or the other. On those rare occasions when someone was foolish enough to bring up the question within Jorun’s hearing, they were treated to a stony glare and an even stonier silence. Personally, I was firmly in the “yes” camp—I found something appealing about the idea of the grizzled old grouch secretly doting on such a sweet, motherly figure.

With a quick glance around the yard outside the cookhouse, I identified several of the other boys who helped with the horses chatting amiably among themselves. More interestingly, Senovo was deep in conversation with one of the village elders on the farthest bench, his partially shaved head and the dun-colored robes of a novice priest distinctive in the early evening light. His smooth, handsome face was grim.

I dithered for a moment over asking to join them before losing my nerve and moving to a table several feet away from the pair, but still close enough that I could hear them talking.

Coward, I berated myself.

“Volya won’t give in to some tin-plated Alyrion field marshal who thinks he can come in with a pack of soldiers and trample our way of life,” the older man was saying. “He’ll send them back where they came from with an earful.”

“I do hope you’re right,” Senovo said mildly. “However, I fear it may not be quite that simple.”

Volya, the chief of the village, had ridden out four days ago with a small party of warriors, replying to a summons from an Alyrion commander—newly arrived from the mainland—who demanded a parlay. Eburos was an island rich in resources, but it had only really gained the attention of the powerful Alyrion Empire within the last year or two. It probably helped that Eburos was protected by the sea on all sides, but it seemed that the lure of our fertile soil and productive mines had finally overcome the emperor’s reluctance to send troops across the water.

Now, the collection of small, disorganized tribes and villages that called the island home found themselves facing a powerful foe. Some tribes in the south had already capitulated without even attempting to muster a defense, but as the Alyrions moved north into areas like Draebard, they would quickly discover that not all Eburosi were so accommodating.

“I understand Volya took Andoc with him,” said the elder, causing my ears to perk up even further at the mention of Senovo’s close friend. “He thinks a lot of that young man, you know. Wouldn’t surprise me if the Chief was grooming him as a replacement, what with Volya losing his only son last year.”

“Andoc has many enviable qualities… for a warrior,” Senovo replied, a wry note entering his voice. “However, I’m not certain that the patience required for leadership is among them.”

I hid my derisive snort; the man across from Senovo didn’t bother hiding his. Everyone in the village knew that the young priest and Andoc were virtually inseparable. Their mutual regard appeared to know no bounds despite their tendency to tease and belittle each other at every opportunity. And oh, how I envied them that easy camaraderie—the close bond between two people that I would never, ever be able to have. Instead, I was reduced to watching them both with secretive, longing glances… daydreaming about their perfect features… about Senovo’s voice like melting honey, Andoc’s broad shoulders and strong arms.

My wistful thoughts—not to mention my eavesdropping—were interrupted by the arrival of Gretya’s youngest daughter with a pitcher of ale.

“Hello, Limdya,” I said politely, forcing down a wince as she blushed and smiled at me with sparkling eyes.

“Hello, Carivel!” she replied. “Some of the others are saying that Volya’s mare might have another white foal tonight. Is that true?”

“Yes, it’s true. The Horse Master ordered me to keep watch over her, so he must think the foal is finally coming.” I hoped that would be the end of it, but of course it wasn’t.

“How exciting!” she said. “I wish I could see a new foal being born. Maybe I could come out and watch with you later?”

“I’m sorry, Limdya,” I said with as much regret as I could muster. “But you know women aren’t allowed to help with the horses. It’s bad luck, and the gods might retaliate by making the foal stillborn.”

The words seemed to stick in my throat, but at least they did the job even if they made me feel queasy. Limdya’s face fell in disappointment.

“Oh. Well, I wouldn’t want to risk that, of course. Perhaps you could come over to the house tomorrow morning and I’ll cook breakfast for you? You could tell me all about it then. My cooking is almost as good as Mother’s, you know,” she added hopefully.

The queasy feeling continued to grow despite the excellent stew I’d been eating. “I’m afraid all I’ll be interested in tomorrow morning is a few hours’ sleep, Limdya. Perhaps another time.”

The sparkle was completely gone from the girl’s eyes, and she seemed to slump in on herself slightly. “Yes,” she said. “Another time.”

“Don’t take it so personal, love,” called one of the boys from the other bench. It was Dalon, of course… always a thorn in my side. “Carivel here, he never looks twice at any of the girls. Thinks himself above all of you—too good for the likes of a village lass.”

“That’s not true,” I said quietly, trying to catch Limdya’s eyes as the others at the table laughed. She wouldn’t meet my gaze, and my stomach churned harder.

“He saves his lingering looks for Andoc,” Dalon carried on. “He’d probably rather be taken like a maiden by a big, strong warrior than be the one doing the taking.”

Oh, the irony. If he only knew.

“Who knows,” said one of the others. “Andoc might even go for it. He likes eunuchs well enough, and our Carivel looks sort of like a eunuch with his smooth face and narrow shoulders. Don’t you think so, Limdya?”

“Very funny, you two,” I said. “You know perfectly well that I had a girl in my old village. She died of a fever, and I still miss her too much to even think about being with another woman.”

The old story—the old lie—came as easily as ever. There was a bit of quiet guffawing from Dalon’s table, but at least Limdya’s expression transformed into one of sympathy rather than hurt before she left quietly to serve the other patrons. A cool hand closed on my shoulder a moment later, startling me. I looked up sharply at the figure behind me.

Senovo. My heart sped up.

“A very noble sentiment, Carivel,” said the novice priest, and the boys at the other table suddenly found a great deal of interest in their bowls of food. “Surely, though, your lost love would not want you to be alone forever.”

I forced myself to meet Senovo’s green-gold eyes. To speak calmly, as if my heart were not fluttering against my ribcage like a trapped bird. “Perhaps not.”

He held my gaze for a long moment, and arched one dark eyebrow. “Ah well,” he said. “You are still young, after all. Barely even a man. There’s plenty of time.”

In truth, I was roughly the same age as Senovo. The same age as Andoc. As for the rest of it, though…

“I should get ready for my watch tonight,” I said.

“Of course. May the gods smile on your endeavors,” Senovo said. The hand that had been resting on my shoulder moved to touch my forehead in a brief blessing before he smiled and moved away. My skin tingled where his fingers had brushed against me.

As I rose and tidied away my half-finished bowl, I caught Dalon smirking at me out of the corner of my eye.

* * *

In the privacy and safety of my tiny, ramshackle hut, I took a few minutes to flop down on the straw mattress in the corner and just breathe. I had maintained my secret—my ruse—for almost three years now. I wouldn’t slip up now, just because Senovo was kind to me and smiled down at me with lazy green eyes.

Though it’s not unheard of for a man to lie with a beautiful eunuch, said a little voice in my head, ever so unhelpfully. But… there was also Andoc.

I sighed and stripped my dusty tunic over my head, exposing the soft leather wrappings that bound my breasts to make my chest appear flat. As I unwrapped myself, pausing now and then to scrape ragged fingernails over the itchy places where the leather had chafed, I contemplated the hopelessness of my situation.

Through some cruel joke of the gods, I was born a girl. I never fit in as one, though—no matter how much my mother wished it. I was fascinated by the horse pens in my childhood village almost from the time I could walk, and railed against the restrictions prohibiting women from tending the animals.

The gods gave men and women different roles, I was told repeatedly by the village priests, after every childish infraction. Only male spirits are strong enough to control the spirits of animals. They cannot thrive under the care of a woman. If you want to take care of living things, perhaps you should consider becoming a healer, or a grower of plants?

I still remember the tears of frustration, carefully hidden from all who might see and judge me for them, after trying to tell the priests that my spirit was more male than female. It just happened to be hidden inside the body of a slender girl child. Watching the girls my age as I grew up was like looking at something foreign, something… other. Sometimes it felt as though the only thing I had inherited from my sex was a love of attractive men.

Not that it mattered much, at this point. Even had my attraction been for women, to get close to another person in such a way would be to betray my secret. A man would not want me because I dressed and acted like a boy. Even if I found someone who loved other men—a practice more or less tolerated between a man and a eunuch, but taboo between two un-castrated men—such a person would not want me because my body was still that of a woman. I was destined to be alone, and to make things even worse, my heart had fixated on two utterly unattainable people who already had each other and would certainly have no interest in me.

Perhaps it was safer that way.

Tossing the breast bindings aside, I reached for the clay pot of beeswax and tallow that I used to soothe my skin, rubbing it in and letting the pleasant sensation soothe my nerves. My breasts were thankfully small, but today they were still tender as I suffered through the tail end of my moon cycle. Pulling down my breeches, my lip curled in distaste as I pulled out the pad of rabbit fur wrapped in a linen rag that I used to staunch the flow of blood.

The bleeding had slowed since yesterday, which was good since I had no more rabbit fur and didn’t have the time to go searching for moss or some other absorbent material this evening. I rinsed out the linen rag in a bucket of well water and folded it back into a square. It would have to be enough.

Dusk was fading into dark when I arrived back at the pens beyond the village outskirts. Volya’s mare had been given her own small corral somewhat away from the other horses, but still within sight. A three-sided shelter stood in one corner, bedded with dried peat moss hauled in from a nearby bog. I approached the fence and held out a hand, palm-down, for the mare to sniff. Cassira was a sweet horse for the most part, but had displayed something of a fierce streak after foaling her first colt last year.

That was fine; it was a mother’s job to protect her offspring, after all… something I wished my own mother had shown more of an inclination to do. After greeting the little horse and demonstrating that it wasn’t my intent to sneak around and hide from her like a predator, I wandered off to find a comfortable post somewhere out of the way to lean against. With my blanket wrapped around my shoulders against the slight evening chill, and a waterskin at my side, I curled up so I could see the moonlight glinting off the horse’s dappled buckskin coat. Leaning my head back against the thick, wooden post, I soaked in the faint warmth that emanated from it, left over from the day’s bright sunlight.

Cassira wandered restlessly around the pen, stopping occasionally to pick up a mouthful of hay or stare across at the other horses dozing in their corral. A foal watch like this one was usually a recipe for utter boredom, and while I was aware of the level of trust Jorun was placing in me, that didn’t make watching a horse walk around and eat hay over the course of several hours any more interesting. Before the full moon had reached a point halfway toward its zenith, my mind began to wander.

Because I apparently liked to torture myself, it turned fairly quickly to thoughts of Andoc and Senovo. During the summer months, Andoc had a habit of sparring with the other warriors wearing only a loincloth, which left little to the imagination when it came to his enviable physique. Senovo, though, was always clad in his robes, leaving quite a bit to the imagination. The priests—eunuchs, all of them—were softer than the warriors with their sinewy, battle-hardened bodies. Most eunuchs tended toward roundness through the belly, but not Senovo, whose features were fine and whose body was slender. His face was nearly as smooth as my own. The front half of his head was shaved close, while the straight, black hair growing from the back of his skull was braided into the single, heavy plait that all priests possessed.

For religious ceremonies, he always lined his eyes with kohl. The sight had never failed to captivate me for some reason.

I wondered what he and Andoc did together in private. The lads in the village had plenty to say on the matter, all of it coarse and much of it rather unlikely sounding, though as someone who had never lain with another person for fear of my birth sex being discovered, I suppose I wasn’t in any real position to judge.

In my mind, they kissed passionately and stroked each other with loving fingers. I had a vague idea of what being a eunuch must entail, having seen dozens of colts castrated into geldings over the years. It seemed to me to be an exceedingly cruel thing to do to a human boy. Still, the geldings recovered well enough, and some of them even continued to mount mares afterward, though of course they could not sire foals. So, in my idle daydreams and fantasies, Senovo still gave and received pleasure, writhing with Andoc in a passionate tangle of lips and hands.

The night was quiet and my solitude complete. My left hand drifted up, sliding under my tunic to brush over my raw, sensitive nipples. Leaving my breasts unbound tonight was a calculated risk—but it was dark, and if I saw anybody, it would only be Jorun as I woke him to ask for help in case there was a problem with the foal that I couldn’t deal with myself. He wouldn’t notice if my chest seemed slightly less flat than usual. Though my breasts were a nuisance, there was no denying that touching them like this felt good. So good, in fact, that I felt a pulse of wetness between my legs.

I sighed, irritated, letting my head fall back against the post with a soft thump. I was still bleeding a bit, and had only a linen rag to catch it. If I wasn’t careful, the mess would soak through my breeches.

Mood ruined, I pulled my hand out of my tunic and returned my full focus to the mare with her swollen, heavy belly. Cassira was still restless, pacing the fence. After a few minutes, she froze, looking out into the dark at a point slightly to the east of where I was sitting. With an explosive snort, she abruptly bolted to the far side of the pen, her pendulous belly swinging with every stride. In the large communal corral, the other horses stirred nervously and started to mill around.

I rose, cautious, and followed the fence until I could get a clear look at the open space beyond. Glowing, yellow-green eyes stared at me from out of the dark, and I caught my breath in surprise.

The moonlight illuminated thick gray fur and a sharply pointed white muzzle as a large wolf crept forward silently with smooth, deliberate steps, sniffing the air. The horses were charging back and forth in their pens now, the herd forming up in a tight ring with the youngsters in the middle. Cassira squealed and cantered back and forth along the section of fence I had repaired the previous afternoon, pausing to shove against the rails with her chest as she sought escape.

The hair on the back of my neck rose and a shiver traced its way down my spine at the thought of a wolf this close to the edge of the village. Had it sensed that the mare was about to give birth to a tender, vulnerable foal? For now, at least, the creature’s attention seemed more focused on me than the horses, which was… well, both good and not so good, depending on how you looked at it. I tore my eyes from its glowing gaze to cast around my immediate surroundings in the moonlight. My attention caught on a scattering of fist-sized rocks near the fence, and I dropped into a crouch, picking up as many as I could hold.

I threw the first one as hard as I could at those slanted eyes. It missed, though not by much, and the wolf skittered a step to the side. A low growl rolled across the space between us. The second stone flew true, the growl ending in a yip as the rock hit the predator just above one glowing eye. It was already turning to run as my third rock thumped into its shoulder. The rustling sound of paws running through grass faded into the darkness, and I let out a breath I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding.

Clammy sweat made me shiver as I turned to check on the horses. The herd was quieting, but Cassira still stood in the far corner, head high and ears pricked as she followed the sounds made by the retreating beast. There would be no foal tonight, with the mare now on high alert after the threat. I sighed. I would have to maintain my vigil regardless, lest the wolf return. And, of course, Jorun would have my head if I let something bad happen on my watch.

I gathered up a few more rocks, just in case, and returned to my spot against the post. While I didn’t feel remotely tired just then, I knew I couldn’t afford to let my guard down as the small hours of the night crept by. Resettling myself in a position that was comfortable—but not too comfortable—I rummaged for the worn leather satchel I’d brought with me and pulled out a damaged horsewhip, along with some leather thongs. Angling it so the moonlight hit the braided leather, I started unpicking the frayed section, pausing at intervals to check the horses and my surroundings for unwanted four-legged company.

I was just tying off the end of the intricately braided repairs to the lash some considerable time later when I heard noises coming from the far side of the village. At first the sounds made no sense. It was the middle of the night—who would be shouting and clanging around with such total disregard for people sleeping? Only when the shouting turned to screaming did my weary thoughts start to make sense of the situation, sending my heart hammering with sudden terror.

It was the sound of an attack.

Chapter 2: Soldiers Without Honor

THIS WAS WRONG. This shouldn’t be happening. Neighboring tribes and villages attacked each other sometimes; of course they did. But Draebard was not involved in any disputes at the moment. There were no blood feuds or water shortages causing friction in the area. Besides, no self-respecting Eburosi warrior would ever countenance such a cowardly attack on a village in the middle of the night. It was beyond dishonorable. The gods would strike down any tribe that tried such a thing with a plague of boils, or worse.

I had been frozen in place with shock, but now I clambered to my feet and silently made my way back to the edge of the village, keeping close to fences and walls. I had to see what was happening. The screams were horrible, and as I approached I saw flickering light and smelled thick, greasy smoke. Whoever it was had set fire to some of the huts on the far side of the settlement.

I made my way closer to the center of the village and peeked around the edge of the wall I was hiding behind. Moonlight and orange firelight illuminated the strange, silvery metal chest armor favored by Alyrion soldiers as the figures pressed further into the village in orderly ranks. There looked to be at least three dozen men, armed with swords, pikes and torches.

Oh, gods. They’d drawn Volya and his retinue of warriors away from the settlement, and now they were attacking. Did they mean to kill us all and burn it to the ground, or was this supposed to be some sort of lesson? A warning to other Eburosi?

The horses.

They would steal the horses, or slaughter them. I turned and ran back toward the pens as fast as I could, all thoughts of stealth abandoned. My lungs were burning—as much with fear as with exhaustion—when I reached the gate of the first pen and threw it open. Cassira snorted, trotting through the gap in the fence and making straight for the rest of the herd, which was still milling around in the largest corral. I followed her as fast as I could and opened that gate as well, entering the pen and skirting along the fence to get behind the herd so I could drive them out.

Hyaah!” I shouted, herding the animals through the gate and away from the village, along the track that led north, toward the summer pastures and the foothills beyond. Within seconds, the mob of horses had accelerated into a panicked gallop, the thunder of their hooves slowly fading beneath the sounds of the battle behind me as they disappeared into the distance.

The wolf had better watch himself, I thought, slightly hysterically. He’ll be trampled in the stampede if he’s not careful.

With the horses as safe as they could be under the circumstances, I hurried back to the post I’d been resting against to grab the horsewhip, then ran toward the village, and the screaming.

In my absence, the remaining warriors who had not gone with Volya had stumbled out of their huts, with swords, spears, and axes in their hands. Their furious battle cries echoed through the village. It was strangely jarring to see Eburosi warriors fighting in whatever clothing they’d been sleeping in, without any war paint smeared across their bodies or faces. Unadorned skin made them no less fierce, however, and the Alyrions’ steady progress through the village was slowed as they engaged with the defenders.

Looking around, my attention was caught by a single armor-clad soldier with a torch, moving purposefully toward the cookhouse. Without stopping to think, I ran forward and let fly with the long-tailed lash of the horsewhip, aiming for the man’s eyes. When he cried out and dropped the torch in favor of clawing at his face, I bared my teeth in what might have been vicious satisfaction. It was short-lived, however, as another soldier saw me. He closed in even as I tried to back away, sword in hand and anger twisting his face.

I cracked the whip again, aiming for the sword in hopes that I could pull it out of his hand. I missed, though, wrapping the lash around his forearm instead. He hissed at the sting, but immediately used it to drag me forward, off-balance and staggering. Before I could right myself, the pommel of his sword swept up toward my face. Pain exploded in my temple where it hit me and I dropped like a stone, ears ringing. Through blurry, wavering vision, I saw the flash of the blade as he lifted it for the killing stroke.

This is it, then, I thought, feeling surprisingly calm about the whole thing as my awareness flickered in and out, in time with my pounding heart.

Just as the blade began its downward arc, a large, gray shape slammed into the soldier, knocking him to the dirt with a cry. The wolf snarled, tearing at the man’s throat, scarlet liquid soaking its jaws as I struggled to make sense of the scene before me through eyes that wouldn’t focus properly. The red stain seemed to spread in my vision, reaching out to meet the soft, gray fog that was swirling inward from the periphery. I slipped into darkness with every expectation that I would never wake again.

* * *

When I did wake, sunlight was stabbing into my eyes. My skull throbbed in time with my heartbeat. I tried to groan in pain, but it emerged as a dry croak. An answering whimper made me turn my head. A mistake, as my vision swam again. When it cleared, I was staring into the wide, dilated eyes of the wolf, half-hidden behind a broken cart a few feet away from me, and cowering like a guilty hunting dog expecting to be whipped by its master. Its muzzle was coated with dried gore from the fallen soldier lying in a heap across from us.

Shouting and hoof beats echoed along the central roadway, and the animal flattened itself even further against the ground, obviously terrified. I rolled painfully over to lie on my back on the packed dirt, craning my neck until I got an upside-down view of Volya’s returning party. Andoc was at the front. He reined his galloping horse to an abrupt halt even as the others rode past, heading further into the village where the destruction was greatest.

Easy on that poor gelding’s mouth, I thought as Andoc jumped down and raced toward me, his worried expression looking almost comical upside down. He skidded to a stop midway between my body and that of the wolf, looking back and forth between us as if torn. A moment later, he was kneeling at my side, lifting me to cradle my shoulders carefully in his arms. I smiled up at his warm, brown eyes, feeling giddy.

“Careful, there’s a man-eating wolf here,” I said, and promptly slipped back into unconsciousness.

The next time I awoke, I was inside a hut, lying on a straw mattress on the floor. I stared up at the golden brown thatch visible through the rafters overhead for several moments, blinking. A snug bandage circled my forehead, and I could feel the cool stickiness from some sort of poultice pressed against my throbbing temple. My vision seemed steadier, and the earth was no longer moving in stately, ponderous circles beneath me.

I wasn’t alone. I could hear the sound of retching followed by ragged, unsteady breathing from across the room. Someone else was whispering a litany of soothing reassurance. I rolled gingerly onto my side, lifting my aching head with considerable effort and propping myself on one elbow so I could see. Seated on a wide, low bed frame against the far wall, Senovo was slumped sideways with his forehead resting against Andoc’s shoulder, breathing heavily. Andoc’s hand cradled the back of his neck, steadying him, and a chamber pot rested on the ground in front of him. The priest was naked from the waist up, a blanket thrown carelessly over his lap. His face was canted toward me. I could see dried blood coating his jaw and neck, along with a livid bruise above his left eyebrow. His eyes were tightly closed as he struggled for composure.

There was something… something about the blood and the bruise… but no. My wits were still too addled to make whatever connection it was that dangled tantalizingly just out of reach. Andoc turned slightly, and his eyes met mine. His fingers tightened around the back of the distraught priest’s head for a moment, then relaxed.

“Senovo,” he said softly, “she’s awake.”

Continue to Chapter 3-4

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