The Horse Mistress: Book 1 — Read Ch. 7-8 Below!

Chapter 7: Subduing the Wolf

THE NIGHT WAS PLEASANT, and the wine combined with my exhaustion should have rendered me utterly insensible until morning. Instead, I jerked awake in the small hours, the dregs of a half-forgotten dream lying bitter on the back of my tongue. The fire had burned down to glowing coals, casting a faint orange light over the figures across from me. A low sound—almost a snarl—prickled the hair at the back of my neck, and I sat up slowly.

“Not tonight, my friend,” Andoc said. “I do not give you leave to change.”

The warrior was bare-chested, propped up on one arm so he could look down at Senovo’s huddled form next to him.

I can’t stop it,” Senovo said, and he did, indeed, sound terrified at the prospect of freeing the animal caged within himself.

“I’m not giving you a choice in the matter, amadi,” Andoc said, and my chest constricted at the endearment. “You will not hunt tonight.”

The rumbling growl came again. I caught my breath in shock as Senovo surged up, his hands reaching for Andoc’s face and throat like claws. The warrior batted them away, seemingly without effort. There was a quick twist of bodies that I couldn’t quite follow in the low light, and then he was straddling Senovo’s hips, one hand pinning the priest’s wrists over his head, and the other pressing against his vulnerable neck.

“Yield, my friend,” Andoc said, not even out of breath as Senovo strained against him. “I told you before, you get no choice in this tonight.”

After a tense moment that had me holding my breath, Senovo… melted; there was no other word for it. All the tension flowed from his muscles. His head tilted back, baring his throat to Andoc’s callused hand like an offering.

“There you are, dear one. That’s better, isn’t it?” Andoc said, a soft smile crossing his face. The hands pinning Senovo loosened their grip, becoming a caress, and the priest arched into the contact with a soft noise of surrender. My eyes were drawn of their own volition to the outline of Andoc’s stiff prick, tenting the soft leather of his breeches as Senovo’s torso twisted beneath him restlessly. A flood of wetness pulsed between my own legs at the sight. When I dragged my eyes back up to Andoc’s face, he was looking at me with one side of his mouth quirked up in half a smile.

“Carivel is awake, amadi,” he said, leaning close to Senovo’s ear. “She’s watching you yield to me. I think she likes what she sees.”

Senovo and I shivered in reaction to the words at the same time, and the sound that the eunuch made was almost a whine.

“Shh,” Andoc said. “There’s plenty of time for all that later.” His eyes flicked to mine briefly as he spoke. “Tonight, we sleep.”

The flesh between my thighs was throbbing as I watched Senovo nuzzle into Andoc’s side, the warrior easing himself back down into his sleeping roll with an arm draped possessively around his friend. If I’d been a man in body as well as mind, my cock would have been hard enough to pound stone at the sight. I silently lowered myself back down into my own nest of blankets, unable to keep from rocking the heel of my hand against the crotch of my breeches to try to ease the pressure.

It was a testament to my own exhaustion that I fell asleep again a few minutes later, the scene between the two of them playing over in my mind, following me down into dreams.

* * *

The following morning should have been awkward. Instead, Senovo awoke with a groan, stretching—looking more rested than I’d seen him since the attack. Seeming to remember the events of the night, he froze, looking at me.

“All right?” he asked, watching me with what might have been nervousness.

I nodded. “You?” I asked.

He nodded in return.

“Of course we’re all right,” Andoc said in a voice far too cheerful for the early hour. “It’s a beautiful morning, everyone finally got some decent sleep, and I’m possibly one step closer to hearing more details about Carivel’s uncontrollable lust. What could be better?”

“I never said it was uncontrollable,” I grumbled, glaring at him even as I blushed scarlet. “Senovo, is he always like this?”

“Always,” Senovo replied.

By unspoken consent, we kept to neutral topics as we readied ourselves for the second day of travel. Something about daylight (or perhaps sobriety) did not lend itself as well to discussing private matters as a campfire after dark did. Instead, I attempted to pry more information from Andoc regarding the Mereni, and was once again deflected.

It was cooler than the previous day, with clouds blocking the sun most of the time. As the afternoon wore on, we were pelted with occasional fat raindrops. We’d been riding in the higher elevations for more than a day, but now we were once again descending. The fertile valleys below, while not identical to those around Draebard, were at least more familiar looking than the scrubby uplands had been.

Beneath me, Kekenu suddenly perked up with interest, lifting his head to gaze to our left with pricked ears. In the distance, I made out a herd of horses. Even from here I could see that they were taller and more slender-legged than the animals I was used to.

“The horses look different here,” I said, standing in the stirrups to get a better view.

Andoc nodded. “Mereni horses have a reputation for being as fast as the wind… not to mention rank as hell.”

“Perhaps that’s why they respect horse tamers so much,” Senovo said.

“Maybe so,” Andoc agreed, turning his attention back to me. “Carivel, I know I’ve been playing things close to my chest, but you should know there’s a chance the Leader will ask you to prove your skills on a difficult horse.”

“That’s fine,” I said, unconcerned. A thought occurred to me. “Is he likely to ask either of you two to prove your skills as well?”

“It’s very possible,” Senovo replied.

“Hmm… this may end up being quite an interesting trip,” I said.

* * *

The village of the Mereni was considerably larger than Draebard. We arrived an hour or so before dusk and entered by the main road, riding side by side. While we received a number of curious looks with our strange clothing and short, thickset riding horses, no one challenged us until Andoc dismounted outside what I assumed was the village meeting hall. He handed his horse off to me and approached the door, only to find his way barred by an extraordinarily tall man and an extraordinarily tall woman flanking the entrance.

“State your business,” said the woman.

I was surprised to see that she wore loose leather trousers with a bronze short sword at her waist, and that the man with her seemed content to let her lead the discussion. The woman’s long hair was an unusual shade of fiery red; her features were sharp and strong. Andoc appeared unfazed by her presence, but I couldn’t help but find amusement in the fact that he had to look up slightly to meet her eyes.

“Greetings,” Andoc said. “My friends and I have traveled two days from the west to meet with the esteemed Leader of the Mereni. I apologize that we were unable to send word ahead. Could you perhaps arrange for a message to be delivered?”

To my surprise, he sounded positively mature and diplomatic. I found myself strangely impressed by it.

“What’s the message?” asked the woman.

“My companions and I have come at the behest of Chief Volya of Draebard to discuss an alliance against the Alyrion Empire. Alyrion troops attacked our village in the dead of night four days ago, killing and wounding dozens.”

“Draebard, eh?” the woman said, looking us up and down with an expression of distaste. “I’ll let Magoldis know. Can’t promise much beyond that.”

“That’s all I ask,” Andoc said, the picture of charm. “In the mean time, is there somewhere that the three of us might stay for the night? A tavern or a way-house?”

“Try Harinel’s place. He lets rooms. Keep heading east, and turn right at the second road. It’s the house with the yellow door. I’ll send a messenger there in the morning if Magoldis agrees to see you.”

Andoc bowed and offered his thanks. As I returned his horse to him, I said, “You should try employing some of that charm with your friends, you know, instead of saving it all for complete strangers.”

The warrior scoffed, a twinkle in his eye. “Nonsense,” he said. “It’s far too much effort. With my friends, I prefer to rely on my rugged good looks for most things.”

Harinel, when we found him, turned out to be a stooped old man with one eye missing. His house was ramshackle and crook-cornered, but the inside was spacious and relatively clean.

“I only have one room available tonight,” he said. “Will that suit you?”

Senovo and Andoc both looked to me, and I shrugged my agreement. It wasn’t appreciably different from sharing a campfire with them, and at this point I didn’t have any secrets left for them to discover, to be perfectly honest.

After paying Harinel for the room, we unsaddled the horses and let them loose in the small pen behind the house, where they had access to hay and a shallow wooden trough full of water. Senovo and I were still suffering the ill effects of several nights of grief and poor sleep, so Andoc offered to venture out alone to procure food and drink for us.

When we were alone, I broached the topic that had been hanging between us all day.

“Senovo,” I began, “I want to apologize for invading your privacy with Andoc last night. I hope it didn’t make you terribly uncomfortable knowing that I was watching. I realize I should have left, or at least turned away. I’m sorry. I just—I wasn’t expecting it, I guess, and I didn’t really understand what I was seeing.”

Senovo sat down on the edge of one of the low beds, giving me his full attention. I forced myself to meet his piercing green eyes and hold them.

“I didn’t mind,” he said. “In fact, I’m afraid to say that when I get like that, a bit of additional humiliation rather enhances the experience. Did it bother you?”

“It… probably should have?” I said, losing my battle to maintain eye contact. My hands twisted together in my lap; I looked down at them instead. “Andoc was right, though. I liked it. It was beautiful. Exciting. Even if I don’t really understand why.”

I darted an uncertain glance at Senovo, who appeared unperturbed. I was forcibly reminded that he was a priest, and a good one—however horrific his introduction to that life might have been. Dealing with matters related to relationships and sex was a huge part of what priests did, whether in a ceremonial context or counseling couples regarding their mutual pleasure and harmony. If the fact that the current discussion was personal bothered him, he certainly didn’t show it.

“Would I be correct in assuming that your unusual circumstances mean you have not had much experience with physical love in its various forms?” he asked tactfully.

I snorted softly. “Not unless you count my own fingers in the dark.” I paused for a moment, remembering. “Well. I also kissed a girl once, back in my old village. I was very young at the time. I had to see if I could want girls, like a proper boy. It didn’t work.”

“A reasonable experiment,” Senovo replied. “In addition to the pleasure of purely physical touch, you may or may not have discovered that sexuality relies rather heavily on the mind. In the case of eunuchs, I think I can safely say that when sexuality persists at all, it becomes largely a mental exercise.”

I thought of the fantasies that often played out behind my eyelids while I touched myself, and blushed faintly. It didn’t help that most of those fantasies involved the very person sitting across from me.

Senovo smiled—a brief uptick of one side of his mouth. “I see the concept is not completely foreign to you.”

I cleared my throat. “Not completely, no.”

“Suffice to say, if you can imagine something—and even if you can’t—there is probably someone who finds it arousing. What you saw last night was the way in which Andoc and I fit together. I do not feel desire in the way that undamaged men and women do; that was taken from me the day that my genitals were crushed by the men who owned me. While I can still feel physical pleasure from some forms of sexual contact, and while I happily engage in those sorts of practices with Andoc, the true gift that he gives me is control of the wolf.”

“How?” I asked. “Last night, you asked him not to let you change, but surely that’s something only you can control?”

“The wolf is stronger than me,” Senovo said, “but Andoc is stronger than the wolf.”

“I still don’t understand,” I said, frowning.

“Wolves in packs live within a strictly enforced hierarchy. The strongest control the pack, and the weaker wolves submit to them willingly—though a struggle for dominance may ensue at any time if a submissive wolf senses weakness in one of its superiors.” Senovo paused, as if searching for the best way to put something into words. “When the wolf submits to Andoc, and Andoc forbids me to change, I don’t change. It’s not even a struggle. I can relax, safe in the knowledge that I will remain human. It is, perhaps, the only time I can truly relax, and as such, I treasure it. And him.”

Something clicked within my thoughts. “The night of the attack…” I began, and he nodded.

“Andoc had been gone for days,” he said, “and I was weak. I shifted.”

“You saved my life,” I pointed out.

“Awakening the next morning with a man’s flesh in my belly, and his lifeblood smeared across my face,” he added.

It was actually rather horrific when he described it that way. Not knowing what else to say, I said, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not sorry I saved you, Carivel,” he said. “Never think that.”

I nodded, not knowing what to do with the emotions welling up in my chest. Ever the coward, I changed the subject. “So being with Andoc lets you relax and stop fighting the wolf for awhile. I can understand the power of that, I think. And he… what? Likes controlling people? Being in charge?” I remembered the sight of Andoc straddling Senovo’s hips, his erection jutting visibly within his breeches as he pinned the priest in place. Desire twisted shamefully in my belly, even now.

“He’s a young, strong man, and a warrior,” Senovo said. “I suppose he enjoys the struggle—the physical victory—but honestly, his pleasure seems to come mainly from meeting my needs. My need for him… for his strength and care.”

“Pfft,” came Andoc’s familiar voice from the doorway, “Nonsense. I just like rolling around on the ground while rubbing up against a sweaty, writhing body. I mean, what’s not to like?”

Mortification flooded me as he entered, swinging the door shut behind him with one foot. Still, I should have guessed that the infuriating prat would actually relish the idea of his sex life being discussed in his absence. His grin was wide as he deposited an armload of food wrapped in large, waxy green leaves on the room’s rickety table. A moment later, the mouth-watering smell of roasted meat filled the room.

“So,” he said as he removed the strap of a wineskin from over his shoulder and uncorked it, “we’re finally discussing Carivel’s uncontrollable lust, then? You two could have waited for me, you know.”

He took a deep drink from the skin and passed it to Senovo, looking back and forth between us for all the world as if he were watching an archery contest or a wrestling match playing out on the village green for his entertainment. My deep-seated desire to punch him on the nose reared its ugly head once again.

Instead, somewhat surprised at my own courage, I said, “Yes, in fact I was just about to jump on Senovo and stick my tongue down his throat when you so rudely interrupted.”

Senovo released a faint sound of amusement, and Andoc laughed deep and long. “Well, I’d be a hypocrite if I tried to blame you for that,” said the warrior. “He is rather irresistible, isn’t he?”

“Only to those with no self-control, I think you’ll find,” Senovo said in a wry voice. His own thirst sated, he passed the wineskin across to me.

Sensing that a certain degree of drunkenness would probably help with this conversation, I tipped it up and let the warm drink flow down my throat, enjoying its mellow taste. While Andoc might infuriate me on a regular basis, I had to admit that the man knew his wines. Corking the skin and putting it aside, I tore into one of the chunks of meat threaded onto a peeled wooden skewer. It was delicious… tender pork covered in some kind of unfamiliar spice.

“Now that we’ve finally gotten the ‘lust’ conversation out of the way,” Andoc said around a mouthful of food, “you do realize it’s only a matter of time until I convince you to act on it.”

I… wait, what? I blinked, frozen in place with the meat held in front of my lips.

“You have all the subtlety of a bull in heat, Andoc,” said Senovo.

“Bulls don’t go into heat, amadi. Cows do,” Andoc replied, unrepentant. “I thought you were supposed to know about these things, being a priest and all.”

“Wait, what?” I said, my mouth finally catching up with my brain.

“I said, it’s only a matter of time until I convince you to act on your uncontrollable lust,” Andoc repeated slowly, as if I were hard of hearing.

“But…” I said, evidently trying to dazzle them both with my brilliance, “but, you and Senovo already have each other.”

Senovo looked up from his skewer of pork. “While it’s generally accepted for a young man to dally with a eunuch, the expectation is that he will eventually move on to find a woman and settle down.”

I stared at him, appalled. While I knew as well as anyone that many young men and women gained their initial sexual experience from casual liaisons with acolytes and younger members of the priesthood, there was something almost… blasphemous about the idea of Andoc one day casting Senovo aside like some youthful folly.

Andoc rolled his eyes at both of us, and said, “However, in this case, since I have absolutely no intention of moving on from him, as Senovo so blithely puts it, I suppose I’ll just have to find someone who lusts after both of us. Preferably uncontrollably.”

I was still staring at him, relief on Senovo’s behalf and irritation on my own behalf swirling together like water and wine in a cup. I think my mouth was open.

Senovo sighed. “I’d offer to hit him for you since I’m closer, but as a priest, that sort of thing is frowned upon. Also, we’ve already established that he’s stronger than me.”

“No need,” I said faintly. “I think I’d rather do it myself.”

Andoc lounged back, completely unconcerned. “Except you’re worried you’d end up kissing me immediately afterward, am I right?”

Gods. Maybe strangling him would be more satisfying than hitting him.

“Keep telling yourself that,” I managed.

“Oh, I intend to picture it quite vividly as I’m falling asleep later. As I suspect you will be,” Andoc said, still smiling.

Enough, Andoc,” Senovo said. “Carivel, I should warn you that I’m going to need Andoc’s help again tonight. If it bothers you, we can try to find someplace else to stay, and leave you in peace.”

This was something of a moment of truth, and I was well aware of it. Andoc was looking at me with interest, though he hadn’t refuted Senovo’s words or offered any more infuriating comments of his own. It reinforced what I already believed—he might tease and push and prod, but Andoc had no intention of taking what was not freely offered. Helpless desire for both of them rose within me, utterly beyond my control.

Deresta’s tits. I was so far gone for these two that it wasn’t even funny.

“I already told you it didn’t bother me,” I said to Senovo, giving into the inevitable. “I thought it was beautiful, and that was even before I understood it. Besides, you said knowing I was watching helped.”

Andoc was looking between the two of us with a speculative gaze, obviously curious about the conversation he’d missed. To his credit and my surprise, though, he didn’t say a word.

Senovo nodded. “If it gives you pleasure, then I’m pleased. The gods smile on us when we utilize their gifts in such a way. As long as you know that you can leave at any time if you don’t like something.”

“You won’t leave, though,” Andoc said confidently.

Bastard. He was probably right. I ignored him, and assured Senovo that I understood. The three of us finished our meal in silence, Senovo growing visibly more distant as we did. I was beginning to understand that his distraction was the outward sign of his internal struggle for control. Andoc cleared away the remains of the meal and went to check the horses. While he was gone, I turned my back to Senovo and stripped off my tunic, unwrapping my breasts with a quiet sigh of relief. Pulling the tunic back on, I took off my boots and breeches and made myself comfortable on the smaller of the two beds, wearing only my shirt and smallclothes.

“Are you all right?” I asked Senovo, who still seemed to be off in a world of his own.

“Yes, I’m fine,” he said faintly, eyes closed. “Merely very tired.”

“You’re stronger than you think,” I told him, not entirely sure where the words were coming from. “Andoc will be back soon, though, and you can rest for awhile.”

I watched in fascination as a faint tremor traveled through the priest’s body, his face creasing for an instant with pain and longing.

“Yes,” he agreed.

Andoc arrived a few moments later, a couple of coils of rope from the saddlebags looped over his shoulder. His smile at me was subdued, and he crossed immediately to Senovo’s side, dropping the rope on the bed next to him.

“It’s almost dark, amadi,” he said, “and the candle is barely a stub. Give me a few moments to light a fire so I can watch over you properly.”

“I could do that,” I offered belatedly, berating myself for not having thought of it earlier.

Andoc shook his head. “No, you’re already comfortable, and I don’t mind. It won’t take long.”

I nodded, remembering what Senovo had said about Andoc wanting to care for others. Though he lacked Senovo’s magic fire-starting powder, it wasn’t long before he was feeding wood to a small pile of burning kindling, and soon a merry little blaze was crackling away in the hearth, lighting the room with a warm, flickering glow.

Andoc rose from the fire and returned to the bed, grazing Senovo’s cheek with the backs of his fingers. “It’s time, amadi,” he said. “Take your clothes off and kneel on the bed.”

I caught my breath silently. Already, this was different than the previous night. Senovo rose slowly and undid the fastenings at the front of his traveling robes. The heavy fabric slid from his shoulders, pooling on the rough wooden planks of the floor. Beneath, he wore breeches and boots for riding, but no tunic or linen undershirt. His chest was smooth and flat. Hairless.

Without hesitation, he unfastened the laces of his trousers. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he toed off his soft boots, and stood again to slide the breeches down to his ankles and off. His linen smallclothes followed a moment later, leaving him bare to my fascinated gaze as he gracefully folded himself into a kneeling position on the straw-filled mattress as if in prayer.

I had seen plenty of boys’ pricks in my years working for Jorun. Most of the lads thought nothing of whipping themselves out to take a piss against the trunk of a convenient tree. And of course, I’d attended fertility ceremonies and handfastings throughout my life—though never, obviously, as a participant. I’d seen young men skinny-dipping, and warriors sparring in breechclouts—including Andoc himself—bare-skinned and sweating.

Senovo’s body was the same, but different. His frame was slender, but he carried a sleek layer of fat under his smooth skin, like a river otter. Aside from his dark, perfectly arched eyebrows and the heavy plait of hair hanging from the back of his head, the only hair I could see on his body was a small patch between his legs—much finer and downier than that of the un-castrated males I’d seen.

His prick was small and limp, resting nestled between his thighs as he knelt. Where a man’s balls would normally hang, there was only a flap of wrinkled skin, barely visible in the dim light.

Andoc paced slowly around the bed until he was at the priest’s back, brushing his fingertips softly over Senovo’s shoulders. “I’m going to tie you tonight. How do you want it?”

“Tight,” Senovo said, sounding strained. “Please. Make it tight. Don’t let it get free.”

I caught my breath as Andoc’s hand closed over the back of Senovo’s neck, guiding him down until he was lying on his stomach, the side of his face pressed into the bed.

“Very well, my friend. Now. Stay there.” Andoc’s voice was uncompromising as he removed his hand and picked up the first coil of rope. Looping one end around Senovo’s left wrist, he pulled both of the priest’s arms straight down and back, binding them together behind his body tightly enough that his elbows nearly touched. Andoc quickly retrieved the second length of rope and used it to tie Senovo’s knees and ankles together snugly, leaving a single long tail free.

With his grip on the rope’s tail, he bent Senovo’s knees and pulled his ankles up until they were even with his wrists, fastening his limbs together in a hogtie. There was still some rope left, and Andoc wove it into Senovo’s single braid of hair, using the plait as a handhold to force Senovo’s head up and back. He adjusted the length between the eunuch’s head and ankles carefully, shortening it by increments until Senovo let out a deep groan, his spine bowed in a graceful arch. A shiver skated along my arms as Andoc tied the rope off and stepped back, raising gooseflesh in its wake.

When the warrior pulled a wicked looking dagger from his belt and set it on the table by the bed, I sucked in an audible breath, my eyes flying to his face.

“For the ropes. Just in case,” he said patiently. I nodded, feeling ridiculously inexperienced and stupid.

Andoc’s full attention returned immediately to the figure on the bed, as did mine. I had a fairly solid understanding of using ropes as restraint; it wasn’t unusual for us to tie up a horse’s leg to prevent it kicking out while an injury was treated, for instance. I could see immediately the strain Andoc’s bonds put on Senovo’s body, forcing it into a tense, unnatural position. I suspected it was no coincidence that it also showed off his slender lines in a most appealing manner—I could almost imagine some artist carving the elegant shape laid out before me into wood or bone.

The priest was trembling visibly with the effort of holding himself still, his eyes wide but unseeing. Andoc reached down, fisting the thick plait of hair and using it to force Senovo’s head back even further with a slow, inexorable pull. He leaned over, his lips nearly touching the eunuch’s ear as he growled, “Let go.”

I clamped my legs together around the throbbing pulse at the juncture of my thighs, trembling nearly as hard as Senovo. The priest keened; the noise tailing off to a whine, and then to harsh panting as he writhed and struggled against the rope like a wild animal. Andoc stepped back, staying within easy reach of both the knife and the bound man, his attention never wavering.

Harsh, choked growls echoed around the room, and I quailed as the firelight seemed to momentarily reflect off gray fur rather than golden skin. Andoc was intent but seemingly unconcerned, letting his captive struggle and sob and howl for what seemed like an age, until Senovo’s movements eventually grew heavy and slow with exhaustion.

“Enough,” Andoc said, steadying Senovo’s head with one hand looped casually around his throat. “You’re done now, amadi.”

Whether Senovo was done or not, I certainly was—shaking as hard as the priest beneath my rough blanket, and feeling as out of breath as if I’d been the one fighting the ropes. My skin felt tight and hot, as if it would combust if someone were to touch me. I was glad Andoc was completely focused on Senovo—I didn’t think I could take a teasing comment right now… or even a simple question about my well-being.

Gods. Did Senovo suffer like this every night?

The priest was huffing little sobbing breaths, his throat moving against the gentle pressure of Andoc’s hand. I watched as he slowly went limp under Andoc’s care, his muscles loosening one by one; shallow panting transforming into something slower. Deeper. Andoc eased his hand away, leaving Senovo lying on his belly quietly. The eunuch gradually relaxed into the pressure of the rope, accepting it rather than fighting it.

“That’s it,” Andoc said softly. “You don’t need to fight.”

Please…” Senovo whispered hoarsely.

I didn’t know what he was asking for, though I doubted anyone with a heart could have denied Senovo whatever he needed at that moment. Fortunately, Andoc seemed to know exactly what was being requested.

“Of course, amadi,” he said, and began to run one hand over Senovo’s body with smooth, gentle strokes. The priest sighed and softened even further into the ropes’ embrace, visibly soaking up Andoc’s soothing touch. Andoc’s hand roamed everywhere, giving equal attention to areas both intimate and platonic—his shoulders, his flanks, the crease of his buttocks.

My desire, which had fled completely in the face of Senovo’s desperate, animal struggles, flowed back like a warm tide as I watched callused fingers running over smooth skin. It crested higher when Andoc moved his hand to caress Senovo’s face and the priest rooted forward enough to pull the warrior’s fingers into his mouth, heedless of the rope pulling his hair tighter against his scalp he suckled in utter contentment.

He would do that to Andoc’s prick if he could only reach it, I thought, and couldn’t stop the faint moan that escaped my lips.

“Touch yourself if you want to, Carivel,” Andoc said, though his attention never wavered from his willing captive. “You’re hardly going to offend us at this point.”

I… couldn’t, though. Andoc might tease and prod, intimating that the three of us could be together somehow. But it was all a lie. I was a pariah, and if either of them attached themselves to me, they would be as well. To pretend otherwise was simply cruel.

“What about you?” I asked, to deflect him. “Aren’t you going to take your pleasure?”

Andoc shook his head, still not looking away from Senovo as he carefully pulled his fingers free. “He needs me clear-headed when it’s this bad. Besides, it would be incredibly crass of me when you’re still not completely committed to the idea of being with us, don’t you think? You consented to stay while Senovo submitted to me—just like last night. We didn’t say anything about sex.”

The idea of being with us, he’d said, as if it was a real thing—a thing that could actually happen. Another little splinter of feeling pricked at my heart. It can never be, I told myself firmly. Aloud, I asked, “Is it always this bad for him?”

Andoc supported the priest’s head with a gentle hand cupped under his chin, taking the strain out of the rope tied to his braided hair. He smoothed his other hand over Senovo’s forehead, his thumb massaging slow circles against the priest’s temple. “Not always,” he said. “When he’s tired, when he’s upset. He’s both right now—we all are. When he’s been fighting the change for too long. I think if he ever stopped fighting the wolf and accepted it as part of himself, it wouldn’t strain him so.”

“Maybe someday he’ll see what we do,” I said quietly.

Andoc nodded. Beside him, Senovo had gone utterly slack, appearing nearly asleep within the ropes’ embrace. The warrior shifted and began to untie him. I could see that he had used slipknots, and they slid free easily enough, even though Senovo had pulled them tight in his struggles. The priest slumbered on, seemingly oblivious, even as Andoc pulled the last of the rope free and eased his limbs into a more comfortable position.

“Will he be all right now?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Andoc. “He’ll sleep tonight. That should help with things for awhile.”

“I’m glad. Goodnight, Andoc.”

“Goodnight, Carivel.”

My own sleep was slow to come despite my continued exhaustion. When I finally succumbed, disturbing dreams played out behind my eyelids, vivid in their detail. At one point, Jorun and Gretya rose, blood-covered, from their twisted resting places in Jorun’s hut and pointed at me accusingly, staring with empty eye sockets.

Your fault, they seemed to say. You lied to us. You brought this curse down upon us… the gods’ punishment for your unnatural inclinations.

I shuddered awake with a cry of fear on my lips and tears on my face as I sat up and struggled for breath.

The embers of the fire cast a faint glow in the darkness, and a figure shifted in the bed across from me.

“Carivel?” Andoc’s voice was groggy—newly awakened. He rose, his silhouette crossing the room. The bed creaked as his weight settled on the edge. He reached toward me as if to place a hand on my shoulder, but I knocked it away in a near panic, still gasping out sobs.

“Don’t—“ I croaked, unsure what exactly I was warning him against. Don’t make me show more weakness in front of you. Don’t make me need you more than I already do.

Andoc froze, and slowly pulled his hand back. Instead, he eased himself off of the bed to sit beside it, leaning back against the wooden frame. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll just sit here for awhile, shall I?”

I couldn’t answer; it needed all of my focus to stay silent as I cried. True to his word, Andoc said nothing, remaining a solid but unobtrusive presence nearby. Eventually, the tears subsided, leaving me with a throbbing headache. It was not enough to prevent me from sliding back into sleep, though, clogged nose and all.

It was Senovo who woke me many hours later with a light shake of my shoulder. I grunted and rolled up on an elbow, disoriented in the gray morning light. The feeling of red, swollen eyes and phlegm clogging my throat was becoming depressingly familiar after days of grief, but my surroundings were not.

“We’re in Meren,” Senovo reminded me, correctly interpreting my confused expression.

Meren. Yes. Right. I nodded understanding, and the rest of it came flooding back as I awoke more fully. I cast an assessing gaze over Senovo’s form. He looked considerably better than I felt, except for the faint red rope mark barely visible on his wrist, below the sleeve of his robe. I hoped that meant he’d slept soundly through the night.

“Where’s Andoc?” I asked, looking around the room.

“Three guesses,” Senovo said, a wry note entering his voice.

I let out a little huff of what might have been laughter. “Getting food?”

“Of course. Where else?” Senovo said. He indicated a large wooden bowl sitting on a table next to the room’s single window. “There’s water if you want to wash.”

He made no other mention of my obviously tear-stained face, for which I was very grateful.

“Thanks,” I said, rising. The water was cool and helped clear my head. I pulled on my breeches and took my leave to check the horses and relieve myself in a private corner of the pen, away from prying eyes.

When I returned, I was feeling considerably more like a human being except for the low, throbbing headache that had plagued me since my injury during the battle. A young girl was just leaving the room as I re-entered, and I twisted to the side to let her past through the narrow doorway. Inside, Andoc handed me a chunk of coarse, dark bread with dried fruit baked into it.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“Messenger from Magoldis,” Andoc said around his own mouthful of food. “We’re to present ourselves at the meeting hall in half an hour. Apparently we merit an audience after all.”

* * *

The three of us walked back to the meeting hall a few minutes later rather than take the time to groom and saddle the horses. The tall woman from the previous evening was once again guarding the entrance, though the man across from her was a different one.

“Good morning,” Andoc greeted her. “Thank you for passing on our message.”

The woman eyed him up and down. “Don’t mention it,” she said, her stony expression never flickering. “Go inside. Magoldis is waiting in the first room.”

Andoc sketched a shallow bow and led the way through the door, into the large building. Senovo and I followed, tipping our heads to the guards as we passed. The entryway was at one end of a low-ceilinged hallway, which opened out into a spacious room with a large table surrounded by heavy chairs. Another large, muscular woman sat in one of them, facing the doorway. She was older than the female guard outside, but they shared the same shade of striking red hair and there was a similarity to their features, which made me think that they were probably related. She was also alone in the room.

It was odd seeing women in and around a meeting hall. I wondered if this was the Leader’s wife, sent to entertain us until the Leader himself arrived.

“Magoldis,” Andoc said next to me, bowing low. “It is our honor to meet with you. Thank you for agreeing to see us on such short notice.”

I stared at him for a blank second or two. This was Magoldis? Magoldis, leader of the Mereni, was… a woman?

Chapter 8: Different Strokes

THE WOMAN IN QUESTION rose from her chair and circled the table to stand before us. I felt Senovo’s hand touch my elbow, the faint brush of fingers breaking me free of my shocked immobility. Senovo bowed as Magoldis’ eyes moved over him, and I quickly followed suit.

“Varanis said you’d come from Draebard, at old Volya’s request,” Magoldis said, her attention returning to Andoc. Her voice was low and pleasant, but with an underlying steel.

“That is correct,” Andoc said. “Our village was attacked in the dead of night a few days ago. The Alyrion commander who took over an abandoned hill-fort west of Draebard drew the Chief and half of the warriors away from the settlement on the pretense of a parlay, only to send soldiers in to attack while the villagers were vulnerable.”

“A cowardly act,” Magoldis agreed, though her tone gave away nothing. “I notice that Volya did not think meeting with me was important enough for him to come in person.”

Senovo stepped forward. “Leader Magoldis, Chief Volya could not allow the village to appear vulnerable again so soon after the last attack. We have many seriously injured, including the High Priest. Most of the temple priests and acolytes are dead. Our Chief meant no disrespect to you, Leader. However, he had to put the people of Draebard first.”

Magoldis raised an eyebrow. “Very pretty words, priest. So, who has Volya sent to speak to me in his stead? A warrior, a priest, and… ?”

The Leader’s eyes raked over me, and I froze again, my thoughts still spinning in rapid circles. Andoc rescued me by beginning the introductions.

“I am Andoc, First Among Warriors in Draebard,” he said. “This is Senovo, the most senior of the surviving priests excepting the High Priest himself.”

“And you said the High Priest was injured?” Magoldis asked.

“Gravely,” Senovo answered in a soft voice.

I knew next to nothing of the politics between tribes, beyond the obvious—who was feuding with who, who was allied with who. Nonetheless, I could begin to understand what Volya had done. In his own absence, he had sent his most powerful warrior and likely replacement, the soon-to-be High Priest of the village, and the Horse Master. While two of the three of us might not have come to terms with our new status yet, it was undeniably a dramatic gesture.

Still, the bad blood between Volya and Magoldis—whose society dared to put women in power—was obvious. Looking at Magoldis’ stony mien, I wasn’t at all sure it would be enough to sway her after years of disagreement and distrust.

The Leader’s eyes returned to me. “And this is?” she asked.

The question was directed to Andoc, but before he could answer, I straightened proudly and uttered the nine most reckless words I had ever said in my life.

“Leader Magoldis, I am Carivel, Horse Mistress of Draebard.”

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