|And they came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted feet, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers; some they took away with them in fetters; many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults; and some they drowned in the sea|
—An account of the first Viking raid in England, 793 C.E., recorded by Simeon of Durham
They throw him in the hold with the rest of the—what they stole: bags of grain and heavy wheels of cheese with the monastery seal in the wax, ale and gold and iron and cloth. There aren't any other people, he's the only—the only slave, his mind supplies, running more quickly than he can stand. He doesn't let himself think it again, just works around his bound hands until he's not lying on top of them anymore. The ship is moving, yawing slowly from side to side, and it's dark and warm in the hold. Eames sleeps.
He wakes up to a heavy hand slapping him hard across the jaw. Two men, barbarians. The one with the heavy black matted beard drags him up to his knees with one hand while the other one crosses his arms and grins, his mouth a tangle of broken teeth. Beard grabs his jaw and and rubs two rough fingers along his mouth and then smiles and shoves them inside. Eames gags, tries to move and can't, and then Beard pulls his fingers out and drops him against the wooden floor.
There's a third man, standing quietly in the doorway, the man who. took him. Arthur, they called him, when he dumped Eames on the deck of the ship and turned away to help carry the rest of the cargo.
Arthur speaks, his voice low. Their faces go blank and sullen and then they turn and leave, Beard giving him a nasty little smirk.
Arthur stares at him and then he puts down the small wooden cup he's holding and kneels down and cuts Eames' hands free. Eames grits his teeth as the feeling floods back into his wrists and fingers, unable to keep himself from making noise. Arthur sits on a low chest, waiting, his hands dangling loosely between his knees.
"Water," he says, finally, his voice so heavily accented that Eames can barely make sense of it at first and then Arthur puts the cup down in front of him. Eames hasn't had anything to drink since a small bowl of goat's milk before matins, a world away now. The water is cool on his aching throat and then gone too quickly.
"Thank you," Eames says, when he can pick the words out of his memory. Arthur's face goes so frighteningly blank that Eames thinks he's gotten the words wrong and then Arthur starts speaking in clipped guttural sentences and Eames shakes his head; he doesn't understand.
Arthur nods, still staring at his face. Then he pulls a roll out of his pocket—it's one of Brother Matthias' white rolls for market, soft and honey-sweet with crisp, crenellated peaks, still fresh, the smell of it making Eames’ mouth water. He can see it, the rows of bread cooling on the long wooden racks at the back of the bakehouse, late afternoon sunlight sifting in, Brother Matthias shaping the coarse, heavy loaves the monks eat, dipped in a little milk or beer if it's more than three days old—he's dead now, probably, Eames thinks. Brother Matthias had been old, but tough like a scrawny old rooster, his forearms arms thick from years of kneading bread and cuffing novices on the ears when they tried to steal feast day treats; he would have fought back.
Arthur leans in, offering him the roll, and Eames twists his face away, sick with the thought of it, of the delicate roll in Arthur's dirty, rough-knuckled hands.
Arthur says something else; everything sounds ugly in his language. Eames stares at the floor, thinking, stupid, he'll get angry now, hit you, worse. He hears Arthur stand and can't help the ripple of tension that goes through his body, the ghost touch of dirty fingers rubbing against his tongue.
Arthur's hand puts the roll next to him and Eames hears his footsteps recede until he's alone again.
No one comes down to the hold again to see him for the rest of the journey. He eats the roll, finally; Brother Matthias hated waste.***
What did you think, Arthur tells himself. Did you think he’d be happy that you killed his friends, took him away from his life? He watches the man look around his little stone hut—the fireplace, the weapons stacked neatly in the corner, the table and chairs he built himself last winter, the huge, finely carved bed he’d been given as a gift when the Chieftain commissioned a new one, his reward for a good season. "You’ll need some place to keep her when you take a wife," he’d said, an ungentle hint, but summer and winter came and Arthur didn’t. hadn’t.
It had taken years for Arthur to earn the right to this land, the little building on it, the right to move out of the longhouse where the unmarried warriors lived, but it probably doesn’t look like much next to the tall, timbered walls of the monastery, room after room of fine candlelight and warm woven rugs.
Arthur hadn’t planned to take him; he’d already killed a score of monks, mowing through the refectory and the chapel, the bakehouse, letting the dull red roar in the base of his skull push him, axe and sword, shield at his back. He ran, deeper into the monastery, seeking the treasury, but the first monk he found to ask wouldn’t tell him where it was; he killed him with a single ripping stroke up through his chest, a mercy kill, and moved on. He stopped in the doorway of the next room, nudging the door open with his hand and taking it in with a quick glance; a man, bent over a tilted table, stroking letters into a clean sheet of vellum. Arthur breathed quietly through his open mouth and adjusted his sword grip, thinking of the best way to get this monk to talk. The room was silent except for the crackle of the fire, the scratch of his quill, and as Arthur watched the man made a little blue bird with just a few strokes, his broad hands impossibly delicate around the narrow quill. Arthur slammed the door open and shoved inside, smashing a row of bottles to the ground, and the man looked up, his eyes widening in shock, flickering from the ink splattering the floor to the red mark on the door to Arthur’s face and Arthur had—hesitated.
"What’s your name?" Arthur says. The man is still staring at the bed and doesn’t respond and Arthur barely gets a hand on his shoulder before the man jerks himself out of his grasp, stepping sideways. He’d fought Arthur, at the monastery, struggled against him as Arthur got him down on the floor and hit him until he went limp in his hands. He meets Arthur’s eyes steadily, not giving much away.
"Arthur," Arthur says, tapping his chest. The man nods. "You?" Arthur says.
"Arthur," the man says, his mouth shaped oddly around the sounds.
"No," Arthur says, and taps two fingers against the man’s chest, the bare skin at the base of his throat. "You."
"Eames," the man says, his voice low.
"Eames," Arthur tries. It doesn’t sound like a name to him, but the man—Eames—nods.
It’s past sundown and Arthur’s begged off from the return celebration, willing to endure the jabs about how eager he is to bed down his new slave to avoid having to drink and talk when he’d rather be sleeping off a solid eight weeks of fighting, the last hard final push of the season before the ocean grows too rough to venture into, stiff with injuries from the early summer, sleeping in the brutal cold of the deck, half rations at the end. Arthur is the first off the boat and the last to return, killing in a wild haze that leaves him exhausted and empty when he comes back to himself; he doesn’t remember enough of it to be able to boast about it.
He starts a fire in the fireplace, goes out to the stream and gets a fresh bucket of water and puts it in front of the fire to warm, takes off his gear and puts it in the corner to be cleaned and oiled tomorrow and then opens the chest at the foot of the bed and gets out a fresh undershift and pants, digging down to find a loose linen tunic he thinks will fit across Eames’ shoulders.
Eames watches him and says nothing. His robe is stained with blood and dirt, torn at the shoulder and hem, and his hands and face are dirty. Arthur strips off his clothes next to the fire and gives himself a quick, thorough wash before putting on the clean clothes and then he offers the bucket and washrag to Eames, who doesn’t move.
"For you," Arthur says, starting to feel impatient. He’s tired and wants to sleep. "Come here," Arthur says, and when Eames doesn’t, yanks him towards the fire himself, dragging the filthy robe up and over his head. Eames lets him, but when Arthur starts scrubbing the cloth across his body, his hands close slowly into fists at his sides.
He’ll fight, Arthur thinks. He can’t win and he knows it, but he’ll fight.
He offers the rag to Eames again and this time Eames straightens his shoulders and reaches for it, rinsing first his face and the rest of his body, not lingering. Arthur hands him the bundle of clothes and adds another log to the fire.
"Finally found someone pretty enough to suit you?" Geir had said, when they’d first met up at the burning gate of the monastery and Arthur was shoving Eames ahead of him, keeping a tight grip on him. Arthur has tumbled a few women at midsummer and enjoyed a friendly hand with a few warriors, bought a whore when he could scrape together the coin, shared his blanket on cold nights with scared boys, their first season away on the boats with the men, in exchange for a mouth on his cock, but he’s never owned a slave. Eames belongs to him, he’d be well within his rights to take him, press him face down on the bed and spend inside him, but Eames will fight.
Eames dresses himself and when Arthur points to the bed, he goes. He doesn’t say anything, or react when Arthur climbs in next to him, pulls the furs up around them. Eames is stiff and silent next to him, about as appealing as sticking your dick in a frozen lake.
"Go to sleep," Arthur tells him. He doesn’t know how to say that in Saxon. He’s a light sleeper and he’ll wake if Eames is stupid enough to try to attack him in his sleep; he thinks of Eames, kneeling in the hold, staring up at him. Arthur would die before allowing any man to take him prisoner, but Eames wants to live. He won’t throw his life away on an attack in the dark.
He falls asleep listening to Eames’ shallow, wide-awake breaths in the darkness.***
Afterwards, Eames doesn’t remember very much of the first days; he doesn’t let himself think beyond making his way forward, one footstep at a time—learning enough of Arthur’s language for Arthur to stop dragging him to where he wants him to be, folding his hands around the bucket handle with an impatient look on his face, becoming accustomed to the clothes Arthur gives him, pants that fit narrowly along his hips and shins, tunics that feel too short, lie softly against his skin after a lifetime of coarse monk’s robes, doing the work put before him, climbing into Arthur’s bed at night, not thinking, not thinking.
He had expected Arthur’s home to be grim and dirty, but the village is small and prosperous, well-tended longhouses in the fields around the inlet, a cluster of tidy stone houses at the head of the harbor, the Great Hall where the Chieftain and his family and many of the unmarried warriors live, a massive stone and sod building, as big as one wing of the monastery, with living quarters and a sprawling sunny kitchen with wood fires that burn all day.
Arthur’s hut is high above the village, in the shadow of the forest; it’s a long, steep walk up a rutted road that turns into a sheep track near the end. Eames spends much of the first days working in the kitchen in the Great Hall, washing dishes, scrubbing floors; by the end of the day, his knees and feet and hands ache, and he’s mostly relieved when Arthur shows up and jerks his chin at him or says,
"Enough," and leads him outside. There are always warriors in the courtyard who stop Arthur to talk; Eames gets used to standing and waiting, staring up at the hut, which looks very far away, barely visible on the hillside in the grey twilight.
"Why far?" Eames asks, at the end of the first week, the first sentence he’s managed to put together successfully. Arthur’s walking next to him with a loose, rangy stride, his shield slung over his shoulder, his knuckles raw.
"Quiet," Arthur says, after a moment. Eames considers whether that’s an answer or an order and can’t decide.***
Arthur stops him before Eames pulls his tunic back over his head after washing.
"Get on the bed," he says. He points, but he probably doesn't need to; Eames understands more every day, and Arthur hears him repeating words to himself while he works, under his breath, the sounds gradually coming a little easier into his mouth. Eames looks at him, his jaw tightening, and then hangs his tunic back over the chair by the fire and lies down on the bed. Arthur looks at him in the flickering firelight; Eames’ body isn’t what he’s used to. His own body is ropey, narrow, whittled down to the bone, brown from the sun on the water, scarred from battle. Eames is bigger—not gone to fat like the old men who sit by the fire in the Great Hall, no longer able to fight, but bulky, sleek, well-fed. Other than the few faded bruises on his ribs, the ones Arthur put there, his body is utterly unmarked, pale as milk.
"Turn over," Arthur says. Eames does it.
Arthur has been patient for more than a week—sent Eames down to Egill to learn how to speak, shown him how to care for his gear, watched him haul dirty linens down to the lake in the faded blue tunic that Arthur traded Geir a newly carved knife hilt for, talking a little with one of the slave girls while they beat the wash against the rocks, a flash of a smile. Sleeping next to him, listening to the others joke about how warm Eames must be keeping him at night, what it’s like to fuck a soft monk, whether he’s sweet and compliant. He’s not compliant, but Arthur wants him. He owns him; he means to have him.
Eames makes a choked sound when Arthur first touches him, starts to jerk away from him and suppresses the movement. Arthur uses cooking oil to make it easier for him, pours it on his fingers and presses Eames open for a while before slicking up his cock and leaning down over Eames to push inside. He doesn’t want to damage him and he goes slowly, but Eames is tight, his body rigid beneath Arthur's, his neck bent in submission. He doesn't make a sound while Arthur fucks him and he doesn’t try to get away so Arthur doesn’t have to hit him or hold him down—he doesn’t move at all, not to let Arthur touch his prick or his mouth, but Arthur doesn’t last anyway. He’s been thinking about it every day, Eames a warm solid weight against his back in his bed, his watchful face as Arthur shows him how to tend to his things, his hands working over the leather fittings of Arthur’s gear as deftly as they’d drawn that little bird, the shape of Eames’ chest when he strips off his shirt to wash.
"Tell him—" Arthur said, hanging in the doorway of Egill's hut. "Does he understand what—"
Egill spoke and Eames responded.
"He says—he's your slave," Egill said.
"Does he have any questions?" Arthur said. Egill translated and Eames looked up at Arthur, his soft mouth twisting in an incredulous, almost mocking smile.
"No," he said, directly to Arthur. "No—questions."
Egill grunted in approval. "Smart mouth. He'll learn quickly," he said. "Be able to beg for your cock before you know it."
"Tell him—no one touches him but me," Arthur says, more for Egill's benefit than anything.
Arthur cleans Eames after, checks to make sure he’s not torn.
"Finished?" Eames says, his voice dull, not even trying for the right inflection.
"Yes," Arthur says and Eames rolls away from him, facing the wall. Arthur cleans himself, stokes up the fire, and sits for a little while, carving a couple beads for Egill’s little daughter, something he can do easily without thinking much on it. Eames doesn’t move again. Arthur drops the beads in a little cup on the mantel and goes down to the longhouse, where there’s always someone awake, grinding barley for porridge or restringing a fishing net, happy enough to have a hand.***
Arthur brings up porridge baked into little flat cakes from the Great Hall, wrapped in a cloth, still warm. Maybe he means it as a reward for good behavior; Eames doesn’t want to eat them, but he’s hungry. He thought he had grown used to hunger at the monastery, where he was told, often, that his mouth was too full of blasphemy to make room for the evening meal, that he could fill his belly with prayer instead, but he’s cold all the time here, fetching and carrying for Arthur, scrubbing down the rust on his cooking pots and digging up his overgrown kitchen garden, rebuilding the fallen wall around the garden, more physical work than he ever did back—before. Arthur serves himself first at meals but he doesn’t take more than his share; Eames is often hungry anyway.
Arthur boils water on the hob while Eames eats, makes himself a cup of the black, strong herb tea he drinks. Then he sits down opposite Eames and says something. Eames shrugs; he doesn’t understand. Arthur stares at him; he’s surprisingly small out of his armor, narrow hipped, his tunic loose against his thin shoulders, but Eames has seen him, training on the long grassy field near the forest, the awful violence of his attack, even against his own men, the unforgiving lines of his body in a fight. Eames had fought back the best he could when Arthur took him, but he knows now that he had no chance, that Arthur hadn’t even had to work to knock him down and bind his hands.
Arthur takes another sip of tea and tries again.
"Are you hurt?" he says. Eames’s arsehole was sore when he woke, and hurt more as he got dressed, a hot, throbbing ache inside him; it hurts to stand, to sit, and worse to move.
"No," he says.
"You’re lying," Arthur says, and then, in Eames’ own language. "Don’t lie to me."
Of course he knows how to say that, Eames thinks, letting himself feel a little of the boiling edge of his anger. Must be useful for bullying people, stealing every small thing they own.
"Yes," he says. "You hurt me." It doesn’t matter, Arthur already thinks he’s weak, took the gardening shovel out of his hands and frowned over the blisters on Eames’ hands, doesn’t even bother to put away his weapons, wholly unconcerned that Eames might pocket a knife and stab him when they’re in bed together. Arthur could probably rip him apart even from a dead sleep, Eames thinks. He thinks Eames is too much of a coward to try, and he’s right.
"I’m hunting today," Arthur says. Eames has heard Arthur talking to the others, the quick rise and falls of his voice, but with Eames he speaks slowly, in short sentences. "You—" He stands and digs around in one of the wooden storage boxes that are lined up neatly against the wall, coming out with stack of clothes, a bone needle and thread. "Can you?" he says. The clothes are torn, need mending; the last time Eames had a needle in his hand, he was sewing up the binding of a book.
"Yes," he says.
"You can—in bed," Arthur says, standing, and Eames flinches, can’t help it. Arthur sees it. "Hunting," he says. "until sundown." He puts on his cloak and takes his knife and bow and leaves.
Eames is skillful with a needle, but he has to concentrate and it’s a relief to be able to tuck himself in next to the fire and not think about anything but the next stitch, knowing it will be hours before he has to look at Arthur’s face.
Arthur comes home with rabbits, already gutted, spitted on a stick. He roasts them over the fire while Eames finishes mending the last long tear in a heavy red cloak and then they eat, pulling apart the hot, tender meat with their fingers. It’s late summer and the rabbits were young; the meat is thick with crackling fat that melts against Eames’ tongue. He's full, warm from the fire. He doesn’t finish his portion. Arthur is quiet next to him, looking content; he wipes his hands clean and reaches for the mending.
"This is fine work," he says, touching the neat stitches. Eames sewed up the rips and patched the holes with fabric from a few shirts too far gone to be repaired. The left elbow in every shirt was torn, so he doubled the cloth to reinforce the repair. Arthur turns over one of the shirts to inspect it more closely. Then he puts it back in the stack, takes up the folded cloak, and puts it into Eames’ hands.
"yours," he says. Eames shakes his head and puts it down.
"for you," Arthur says, pointing.
"I don’t want it," Eames says and sees Arthur glance at the bed and then away. Eames feels his face go red.
"It will be cold," Arthur says. Eames shrugs, meets Arthur’s eyes in a defiant stare. Arthur’s eyes are big and brown, wild as a deer’s. He doesn’t look angry, just tired and confused.
"I’m a slave," Eames grinds out; the first word Egill taught him. "You don’t need to buy me."
"You—" Arthur bites his lip, clearly struggling for words. "You belong to me," he says finally. "I keep you safe." He puts his hand on the cloak, and adds "warm."
"If I say no," Eames says. Arthur doesn’t say anything at first.
"I’ll beat you," he says, quietly. Eames has been beaten plenty of times—they hit him with a switch at the monastery until he was eight and old enough for the strap, punishment for asking too many questions or the wrong ones, for being irreverent, for drawing pictures on the back of the pews during services with a bit of charcoal, for stealing carrots from the garden, once for smuggling a kitten he found into the dormitories. Eames has been cuffed for mouthing off, had his ears boxed for wasting ink on unnecessary and profane and indulgent drawings, his knuckles slapped with a hard hickory stick for incorrect answers during lessons. He isn’t afraid of the beating Arthur will give him.
"I don’t want it," Eames says. Arthur stands; Eames digs his fingers into his knees and doesn’t let himself move. Arthur picks up the cloak and shakes it out; then he goes over and hangs it on one of the pegs next to the door, just above the low shelf where Eames’ boots sit.
He waits before lying down to sleep, to see if Arthur will tell him to take his clothes off, but Arthur doesn’t. It doesn’t mean anything; Eames has already seen how careful Arthur is with everything he owns, inspecting his leather wristlets for wear and putting them aside if they need repair, cleaning and oiling his knives—Arthur won’t use him if he thinks he’ll damage him further.
He’s better inside a week; Arthur has to know he is because he makes Eames help him haul flat stones from the shore to build the wall around the garden higher and then cut new sod for the roof, twelve days of unrelenting labor, dragging the heavy cart Arthur borrows up the rutted hillside and unloading the stones, carrying and laying the sod, lifting it up the rickety ladder and setting it into place. Eames falls into bed after dinner and sleeps the moment his head touches the pillow, wakes with his back and legs stiff and sore. Even Arthur, who can carry three stones to Eames’ two, and does, is moving more slowly in the mornings after the first few days, but he wakes Eames at sunrise and forces him out the door all the same, still stuffing down the black bread they eat for breakfast. Some mornings there’s a thick smear of butter and one day Arthur takes him down to one of the longhouses below, in the village, and drops off a few long, smooth wooden spoons he’s been carving over the last week and they take home a little jar of berry jam. Arthur eats a spoonful of it, right out of the jar when they get home, standing in the kitchen, then sees Eames looking at him, and swallows. He pushes the jar towards Eames along the table, offers him the spoon. When Eames doesn’t take it, he says,
"We worked hard today." Eames isn’t much for sweets, but he looks at Arthur, standing in the kitchen in an old tunic with a tear at the throat, a bright smudge of jam on his lower lip, the man he’s worked with shoulder to shoulder these last weeks, who’s dropped a stone on his foot and hopped around in the back garden cursing until he tripped over a second stone and sat down hard on his arse. He’s just a man. Eames takes the spoon out of his hand and takes a bite of jam. It’s tart and wild and sour; he takes a second spoonful.
"Before the snow comes," Arthur says, one day, when Eames is shivering in the bleak dawn as they pull the cart up the hill to the fields. There are horses in the villages, even a couple oxen; Eames doesn’t know why Arthur is using the handcart and doesn’t ask. They load the cart and haul it back down, bracing themselves on the steep hill to keep the cart from skidding. Eames’ back is prickling with sweat by the time they brace the cart wheel and unload the sod into a stack next to the hut.
"How much snow?" Eames asks, dropping the last length and wiping off his forehead. Arthur shrugs and then puts his hand up against one of the stones on the building, almost shoulder height.
"Last winter," he says.
"What?" Eames says. They got a little snow at the monastery, a crisp feathery dusting in early winter, frozen grass sticking up between clumps of snow, one or two storms that melted off a week later, a few weeks of heavy, icy rain in January. Arthur moves his hand up a few feet, above his head, nearly to the beginning of the sloped roof.
"Two years ago," he says. Eames is staring at Arthur’s hand, so he doesn’t notice his face at first, the little flicker of a smile on his usually solemn mouth.
"You—that’s. not true?" Eames says.
Arthur shakes his head; still smiling faintly. There’s a shadow of a dimple in his cheek.
"That’s—" Eames sorts through his vocabulary. The closest he can come is "Why did you lie?"
Arthur says something he can’t understand and then stops short. "Your—face," he says, sketching a quick motion at his own face, widening his eyes, dropping his mouth open.
"I did not," Eames says, but Arthur just widens his eyes even more. He looks ridiculous. Eames bends down to pick up the next length of sod, finds that there is an answering smile on his face. He kneels next to Arthur on the roof and crouches next to him in the fields at midday, eating bread and cheese and a couple of small, sweet apples from a wild tree in the corner of the field, watches Arthur cut the sod in long strokes, his mind fully occupied by the problem of pulling the sod from the ground to the cart to the roof without tearing it. That day passes by easily, until Eames is washing himself in the kitchen, wiping down his face and about to pull on his undertunic and sees Arthur watching him. He’s sitting on the bench by the fire, hands gone still on the thin knife he uses almost every night, carving out shallow cups or a grip for a bow, sometimes little animal figures, a badger, a hawk, a funny fat pig Eames saw a little boy playing with in the dirt one day down in the village.
Eames’ throat feels tight, but he doesn’t look away from Arthur watching him, the hot rough look in his eyes as they slide slowly down Eames’ body.
"Put your shirt on," Arthur says, and bends his head back down over his work.
Eames waits, for weeks. The first frost comes and the leaves fall from the trees. His back stops aching and he doesn’t have to haul the water from the stream one bucket at a time anymore, but can manage two at once smoothly enough to keep most of the icy water from sloshing over the edge onto his boots. He has calluses on his hands and the loose tunics Arthur lent him grow tight in the shoulders and bind in the arms. Arthur finds a few new ones somewhere, yellow with age, mended, but the fabric is still good. Eames has his first dream in Arthur’s language, his second. He understands everything, even when he meets Arthur and Geir coming up from the training fields, cutting across the stiff, frosted grass to the path where Eames is carrying a bag of flour over his shoulder, their share from an afternoon of grinding in the millhouse. Geir is telling an involved story about a hunting trip, and Arthur is answering in monosyllables; Eames likes Geir, who comes around to walk down to the training fields with Arthur and will lean in the doorway and talk to Eames while Arthur puts on his boots, about nothing at all, how he’s courting a girl named Frieda who refuses to show him any favor, whether Eames thinks she’d like a green ribbon or a blue ribbon for her hair.
"Hey," Geir says to him, as they reach the little track that goes up to Arthur’s hut. "Keep his prick warm tonight, will you? He’s been cross as a bear, all day." He gives Eames a friendly grin, claps Arthur on the back, and turns away.
And Arthur, still doesn’t use him, doesn’t fuck him.***
"What’ll you take to use your slave’s ass?" Danil says, during training one day.
"No," Arthur says.
Danil shrugs. "Keeping him tight, huh," he says. "What about his mouth?"
Arthur ignores him, ducking under and around and slapping the flat of his blade against Danil’s shoulder.
"Sloppy," he says. "Again." Danil lifts his sword, grinning. He’s a big man with a careless grin and little, greedy eyes; strong in a fight but pigheaded and impulsive.
"How about if I land a hit, you let me have his mouth," he says. Arthur opens his mouth to tell Danil to fuck off and sees a few of the other men turning to see what he’ll say. There are families who live in the fine stone houses in the village who have owned slaves for generations, who were half-raised by slaves who are raising their own children now, who go to the slave markets when they need more help in the fields, in the kitchen, and buy a trained slave for more coin than Arthur can bring in in a season of raiding. No one had said anything but there had been a little smirking when Arthur had said that Eames wasn’t to be sold off with the rest of the take, that he was keeping Eames for himself, for his share, but he sees now—they believe he thinks himself above his station, to take a slave.
"His mouth," he says, evenly. There’s a cold spark of disgust in his chest at the thought of Danil forcing Eames’ mouth open and he meets Danil’s attack one-handed, shoving his sword in and under Danil’s and then giving a sharp twist, disarming him. He steps back to let Danil pick up his sword and says, "Too bad." Danil takes it poorly, yanking his sword up with a scowl, and then he says,
"Maybe I made the wrong bet. Have you even taught him to use his mouth yet, or is it your mouth that’s been getting all the use—" Arthur whips around and cracks his shield up under Danil’s jaw, throws him back on the ground and shoves the shield up close under his throat.
"How is it," Arthur says pleasantly, "that we’re talking about my mouth, when it’s yours that dribbles shit everywhere you go?" Danil grunts in pain; Arthur can see the whites of his eyes. Danil coughs and Arthur presses the shield down, just enough to make his point, thinks of Eames, slumped sleepily at the breakfast table, cradling his head on his hand. He forces a smile and gets up, letting his shield knock up hard into Danil’s chin as he stands.
"Keep your diseased prick away from my things and I’ve no quarrel with you," he says, and turns away before Danil gets to his feet.
He spends the rest of the training working with Arik, who is the Chieftain’s nephew, quiet and hard-working; he never seems to notice that the old tunics he wears to training are made of cloth of a finer weave than anything that Arthur has ever owned.
"Danil spoke out of turn," he says, when they fall back from each other, circling.
"Unusual for him," Arthur says, and Arik’s mouth quirks into a smile.
"You’ve never had a slave before," he says.
"I do now," Arthur says, lifting his sword, feeling tired. "Will you seek to take him from me?"
"You mistake my meaning," Arik says. "You earned the right to him. If you train him well he’ll be a credit to you. I meant only that a slave can thrive when he’s given some patience, a steady hand." In two summers, he’ll be a war chief, and Arthur will take his orders. Arthur meets his eyes and nods.
"Half-speed this time," he says, and Arik starts a long slice in towards him.
Arik has the right of it, Arthur thinks. Eames knows well who owns him, understands that it’s Arthur’s choice, to give him new boots, to let him him eat his fill from the stewpot, to allow him rest when he tires. Danil would beat Eames bloody, earn his hatred, but what should Arthur care if Eames hasn’t yet learned how to be as careful with his words as he should, if he doesn’t keep his eyes on the ground? Eames does what Arthur tells him, that’s enough.
He’s still thinking as he walks up the hill to the hut, carrying his sword over his shoulder. Arthur set Eames to haul rock from the long, narrow field in front of the hut that morning. When it’s done, he’ll be able to grow a crop of wheat and oats and won’t have to barter for bread any more, but he’s been working to clear it for two years and made little progress. It’s slow going, working in the little time he has when the ground is unfrozen and he’s not training or away raiding, and the soil is unforgiving, some of the rocks so big they take two men to budge them. Eames is still working when Arthur gets to the rise in the road, pulling at a huge rock, half out of the ground. He’s stripped down to his undershift and it’s sticking to his chest, his shoulders straining and bunching, strong as a bull. It’s difficult to see the soft monk whose wrists Arthur bound together in the man who yanks the rock free with a shout of triumph and then pulls back, breathing hard and wiping the back of his hand over his forehead. He turns his head and sees Arthur and says,
"Did you see that?" His eyes are pale blue shot with grey, glinting with surprised pride.
"I saw it," Arthur says. He thinks—perhaps there are more men than Danil down in the village who would seek to master Eames, just to prove that they could.
"You belong to me," he says to Eames, after dinner.
"I know that," Eames says, getting up and starting to clear the table, wrapping up the hunk of cheese in a linen cloth and tucking it into the stone shelf.
"No one else can fuck you," Arthur says, keeping his words deliberately short. Eames speaks well and is intelligent enough to be able to figure out most of what people say, but he wants to be plain. "Or use your mouth or your hand." Eames’ back is to him, but his movements around the kitchen are jerky, putting the bread and what’s left of the stew in one of the carved bowls, wiping down the spoon and knives with a wet cloth. "Do you understand?" Arthur says.
"Yes," Eames says. His tone is short, close to rude; he’ll be beaten if he sasses back like that when he’s helping in the kitchens.
"Don’t—talk like that," Arthur says. Eames turns around slowly and his eyes are flashing, dangerous. Steady, Arthur thinks, patient. "That’s not safe for you," he tries. Eames stares at him. Then he starts to unbuckle his belt, his hands clumsy. "What are you doing?" Arthur says.
"You want to fuck," Eames says.
"No, not—" Arthur says.
"I see you look," Eames says, biting out each word carefully.
"Stop," Arthur says.
"Why?" Eames says, mocking. "I belong to you. My mouth, my hand, my—"
"That’s enough," Arthur says, but Eames just keeps taking off his clothes and Arthur finally stands and grabs at him, knocking his hands back away from his belt, gripping his wrist when he tries to pull away. "You see what happens to slaves who talk like you." Eames looks away, defiant. "I decide when we fuck," Arthur says, "Not you." He tightens his hand on Eames’ wrist until Eames nods, still refusing to meet his eyes. "If someone wants you—you tell them I said no," Arthur says. "You don’t fight. You don’t—" he drops Eames’ hand and gestures at his own face, wishing he had the words to explain. If Eames backtalks like that when Arthur isn’t there, someone will knock him on his back in the dirt and fuck him just to make a point and Arthur won’t be able to do anything about it except demand repayment—pair of strong new boots, perhaps a good knife if Eames is damaged, nothing more.
"Smart mouth," Eames says quietly.
"Yes," Arthur says.
"I catch trouble for it—before, also," Eames says, tilting his head, the reckless light in his eyes gone.
"Caught," Arthur says. "Caught trouble."
"Caught," Eames repeats. "Not you."
"What?" Arthur says.
Eames tilts his head. "You never cat—caught—trouble for talking," he says.
"No," Arthur says, and then realizes Eames is almost smiling.
"Too quiet," he says, one eyebrow twitching up.
"Sh," Arthur says, turning away. The bread won’t be good tomorrow; he starts cutting it up to add to the chicken feed bucket. Behind him, he hears Eames buckling his belt.
"If anyone tries to—" Arthur says. "You run. Find me."
Eames grumbles something under his breath in his own language, but says "Yes."*
The next day, Eames comes home with a little cloth wrapped parcel. He puts it down on the table and flips open one corner to show Arthur.
"Maple candy," he says. "Your share for the work in the sugar house." It’s heavy, hot work, boiling the syrup, keeping the fire stoked with wood, but Arthur had owed a favor and sent Eames. There aren’t any maples on Arthur’s land, and he can’t waste barter on sweets; he hasn’t had maple candy in more than two years.
"You keep it," Arthur says. Eames’ labor belongs to him and the candy as well, but he’s not small enough to take it, not with Eames sitting across from him, face bright with heat still from the sugar house, splash burns on his hands. Eames tilts his head, assessing, curious; he spent the first weeks looking past Arthur’s shoulders or at his shoes, but now he looks at Arthur’s face, all the time. It borders on insolent but Arthur thinks of how Eames will lift his eyebrows, the nearly amused little quirk of his full mouth if Arthur tells him to stop looking at his face and says nothing.
"You like sweet food," Eames says. "You have it."
"You earned it," Arthur says, reluctantly. The candy is dark, with neat edges from the mold; the center is probably still warm.
"Give me something for it," Eames says. "Give me the rabbit you finished last night."
"Why?" Arthur says.
"I want it," Eames says.
"That’s for Gregor," Arthur says. The ears are crooked and there’s a gouge on one of the feet where his knife slipped, but Gregor is four and won’t mind. "I’ll make you a new one."
Eames nods, and then picks up the candy and puts it down next to Arthur on the bench."You take this now," he says. "It won’t keep. Pay me later." Eames is watching him, waiting, so Arthur breaks off a piece and puts it in his mouth. The candy shatters softly apart under his teeth, melts on his tongue, heavy and warm and sweet.
"It’s good," he says, because Eames is leaning against the table, arms crossed, watching him still.
"Good," Eames says.***
"Will you take a badger?" Arthur says to him, as Eames pulls on his boots, getting ready for the long afternoon shift in the kitchen.
"I don’t understand," he says; it’s been happening to him less and less, but Arthur still sometimes says things he can’t begin to make sense of.
"I have a good piece of wood, but no space for ears," Arthur says, just as unintelligibly.
"Slower," Eames says.
"Your rabbit," Arthur says. "For the candy."
"My rabbit for the—yes," Eames says. "You don’t have to." He is beginning to see that Arthur, who had at first seemed like he had little to do with the bustle of the village, living high up at the edge of the forest, is someone of importance, with demands on him. He trains, incessantly, with his fists and with a sword and knife, single combat that can blossom into two or even three men circling him, shields raised, a grey wolf in a pack of lumbering bears. Eames sees him teaching, on the training fields, younger, blooded warriors and occasionally even children, correcting a grip on a beginner’s wooden sword. His presence is expected on hunts for boar and elk and bear and, on occasion, in the Great Hall. Eames’ labor in the kitchen buys much of their bread, but it’s Arthur who brings home butter and milk from some barter that Eames doesn’t see.
"Helped with calving, last spring," Arthur says once. Once home, Arthur also works through a seemingly endless round of tasks, repairing the hut and maintaining his small plot of land. Eames had known Arthur would take the candy from him; he’s seen how Arthur scrapes the spoon across the bottom of the jam jar or licks the juice from late summer plums from his palm. He had asked for the rabbit in a moment of impulse, and he had never expected Arthur to honor the agreement. It must show in his face, because Arthur’s shoulders stiffen.
"I said I would do it," he says. Offended, Eames sees. Arthur doesn’t know how to keep a slave and he forgets, treats Eames as he might treat Geir; today it reminds Eames that Arthur may have the luxury of forgetting that Eames is a slave, but Eames does not. The slaves in the village have a rigid hierarchy, with the slaves owned by the Chieftain holding it over the rest, the slaves who manage the households or belong solely in their master’s beds barely speaking with the big slaves with raw hands who tend to the cows and sheep or grind flour in the millhouse. Eames, who shares Arthur’s bed but does the scutwork in the kitchen, is trusted to tend to Arthur’s weapons and his holding but works his land as well, fits nowhere, and is half-shunned and half-ignored.
"You don’t have to keep an agreement with me," he says, reminding Arthur.
"I keep all my agreements," Arthur insists.
"A badger, then, very well," Eames mutters, hating the conversation, wishing he had said nothing about a carving to begin with.
He doesn’t know when Arthur finds time to make it, but not a week later it’s sitting on the small trunk Arthur gave him to keep his clothes and boots in, a fearsome badger with sharp claws, small enough to sit in the palm of Eames’ hand.
The warriors gear up a ship, working all day; Eames does the tasks Arthur sets for him, carrying barrels of food down to the ship from the kitchen, washing the heavy woolen tunic Arthur wears in battle and hanging it to dry before the fire. Arthur lays out his gear on the table when he gets home, goes over every join, and then he starts to sharpen his knives.
"How long?" Eames says.
"Short," Arthur says. "Nine days." He tests the blade of the knife against the edge of his palm and then says, "You stay here and tend the house. Help in the kitchen."
"Yes," Eames says.
Arthur wakes him, in the bitter darkness before dawn, one hand on his shoulder.
"I’m going now," he says.
"Oh," Eames says, wondering if he’s supposed to wish Arthur luck in going out to kill, to plunder. He won’t do it. Arthur looks at him. Then he lifts his hand and shows Eames the weapon in it: a long, wickedly sharp axe he’d worked over last night, sharpening until the edge gleamed, dull and grey. "For firewood," he says, although they have an axe for firewood, tucked in a dry spot near the chopping block. He puts it down on the table and then he lifts his hand in a wave and leaves.
Without Arthur, the bed is very cold. Arthur is usually silent when he’s not telling Eames what to do or correcting his grammar, but the hut is very quiet without him on the other side of the fireplace, working over a piece of wood or cleaning a knife, his lips pressed together in concentration. Eames walks to the kitchens in the Great Hall in the early dark of the afternoons; the village is bleak and silent, the trees lining the path already bare.
It’s Frieda who sees him looking out at the empty harbor and says, "It’s hard to wait."
Eames shrugs, pounds down the dough.
"I’m going to marry Geir, when he gets back," she says. Her arms are bare to the shoulder, dusted in flour, and she flips over her own loaf and gives him a proud smile, blooming, hopeful, beautiful, in love.
"Why are you telling me?" Eames says.
"Why not?" she says.
"I’m just a slave," Eames says. "You should—"
"Geir loves Arthur like a brother," Frieda says. "He’ll be the godfather to our children."
"And what does that make me?" Eames says flatly. She presses her lips together; her hair is done up in braids, coiled on top of her head, adorned in ribbons.
"You don’t miss him," she says. Eames looks around quickly; there’s no one else in the kitchen.
"How do you think it is, between me and Arthur?" he says. "Do you think he brings me pretty ribbons from the fair and begs for kisses from me?"
"No," she says quietly. "I only saw you—looking, that’s all."
"Arthur fucks me," Eames says, ignoring the prickings of his conscience, reminding him that Arthur hasn’t, once, since—but once was enough, he tells himself fiercely, more than enough, remembering the hot panic of being held down with Arthur forcing his prick into him, knowing that if he resisted, Arthur would hurt him as much as he needed to and do it anyway. "I’m his possession. He owns me, everything I do, until he gets tired of me, until I get too old or ugly to be his hole to fuck and then—"
"You can’t run," Frieda says, quickly, in an undertone. "It’s five days on a fleet horse to any port where you could find passage, you couldn’t make it on foot—"
"I’m not—I know that," Eames says.
"They would—make an example of you," she says. Her hands are working, working, pounding and slapping the dough, but her voice is very quiet. "Arthur told Geir you had a quick mind. Don’t waste it getting yourself killed."
"It’s nice that you take such an interest in Arthur’s property," Eames says and sees Frieda’s eyes slant toward him in dismay.
"You can’t—are you trying to catch a beating?" she says.
"I don’t care," Eames says recklessly. He’s been knocked in the face in the kitchen more than a few times for moving too slowly, for having a disrespectful look to him, once for dropping a tray of dough on the floor. It hurts, but no one who’s hit him yet has had Brother Jeremiah’s talent with a fist, and no one makes him pray, afterwards.
"Arthur beats you," Frieda says, not quite a question.
"No," Eames says, unwillingly. Frieda turns the loaf into a fat ball and tucks it under a cloth to rise and then wipes her hands down on her apron and says, not looking at him, "He hurts you for sport?"
"No," Eames says.
"Then he—" Frieda pulls a new piece of dough towards her and starts to work it into shape. "He is cruel to you in his bed." Eames forces himself to take a long, calm breath.
"What do you know about that?" he says. Frieda lifts one shoulder.
"That I am lucky," she says, looking tired. "To have someone I wait to see, that I watch the ocean for. I only saw you watching as well, and I thought—" she shakes her head and turns back to her dough. Frieda taught Eames how to work the bread, his first weeks, when he was still stumbling with exhaustion, speaking slowly to him, showing him how to shape his hands around the loaf. She mumbles to herself as she works and braids her loaves into complicated shapes and once beckoned Eames outside while they waited for the loaves to finish baking and pulled out a little flask of mead.
"Papa’s," she said, taking a hearty swallow and then handing it to Eames.
"Won’t he notice it gone?" Eames said. It burned his throat, going down, making him cough, stronger than the thin beer they drank at the monastery or even the wine for communion. She whacked him on the back, once, and took back the flask.
"He starts the day so drunk he can barely count," she said, mouth twisting wryly. He remembers that afternoon, the mead warm in his belly, Frieda snickering under her breath when he pulled a face behind old Borga’s back when she complained at how slow they were working.
"Frieda. I wish you good luck for your marriage," Eames says.
"Thank you," she says. She smiles and then abruptly sobers. "I wish you—good luck, as well."
"Arthur isn’t—he doesn’t try to be unkind," Eames says, slowly.
"If—" she begins.
"Maybe he doesn’t know how much I like ribbons," he says. Her eyes snap to his, but then she nods.
"I am sure it is only that he doesn’t know what colors you would like," she says, and her eyes are still troubled, but she doesn’t make him speak about it again.
The warships are sighted at the horizon on the morning of the ninth day; by early afternoon the ships are at the dock, men swarming up the hill to their homes. It was, Eames gathers, a successful trip, and he works most of the day in the kitchen, hauling wood, chopping turnips, preparing for the feast they’ll hold to celebrate the warriors’ return. He wonders if there was a feast the night Arthur brought him back; he can barely remember anything about it, being shoved up the endless hill in the darkness, stumbling, seasick even though he was on dry land.
He’s on his fifth trip up from the harbor, hauling a few burlap sacks of grain on his back, when he sees Arthur. He has a dirty bandage on his arm and his hair is filthy and matted and he’s scanning the crowd of people unloading the boat, looking, Eames realizes, when Arthur’s gaze meets his, for him. Arthur doesn’t smile at him, just nods and swings his body down to the dock, agile in spite of the wounded arm.
Arthur pushes his way neatly through the crowd; when he reaches Eames he takes one of the bags from him and they start up the hill together.
"Any trouble while we were gone?" Arthur says.
"No," Eames says. Arthur is—there was a little statue in the cloister at the Abbey, a St. Francis, with an austere, beautiful face, one long hand raised to catch a bird in his palm, and Eames is oddly reminded of it by Arthur, trudging up a hill in a dirty tunic, badly needing a wash.
"There’s a feast tonight," Arthur says. "I thought we’d go."
"Wait until you try the turnips," Eames says. Arthur turns his head, surprised. "It—it was quiet," Eames admits. "With the ships gone."
"Yes," Arthur says.
"What are the feasts like?" Eames blurts out, unable to stop himself. It’s stupid, to talk to Arthur like a friend; Arthur isn’t his friend, but Eames was never alone once, in his whole life before Arthur, sleeping in the long crowded dormitory, working and praying shoulder to shoulder with others. Arthur knows him, that he wakes too slowly in the morning, that he doesn’t like milk in his tea, will at least look him in the eye instead of looking past his shoulder, easing the awful ache of loneliness, making it bearable.
"Food, ale," Arthur says, shrugging. "Songs, boasting, stories. We met a bard on our way back and he’s agreed to stay for tonight; don’t know if he’s any good, though."
There is food, a huge abundance of it; Eames eats off Arthur’s plate, but Arthur sends him to refill it, again and again, and soon Eames realizes that Arthur’s not hungry anymore, just taking a piece of meat or turnip now and again and leaving the rest for him. They sit on long benches around the huge, stone-walled firepit of the Great Hall; Arthur, without hesitation, takes one of the best seats, nearest to the fire, out of the way of the steady steam of people walking to the kitchen. He slouches back in his seat, holding the mug of ale loosely in his hand. Eames sits at his feet, ignored by the men who come to talk to Arthur. It’s boring, technical talk, difficult to follow, about some new kind of shield they’re building in a village up north, about when to use a single or double hand attack. Arthur doesn’t say very much, but the men seek him out anyhow. A few of them, the young ones, give him worshipful smiles or clasp his arm, transparently seeking his favor in a way that makes something squirm in Eames’ gut.
When most of the food is gone and some people are groaning, loosening belts, dropping off to sleep in their seats, the drinking begins in earnest. Arthur hands Eames his half-full ale cup.
"Drink that," he says, "and get more; they’ll sing now."
Eames knows about singing, the long droning trickle of Latin that they sang in church, the songs he used to hear the little girls sing on market day, but it doesn’t prepare him for the way Arthur settles back, rapt, when the song starts, for the story itself, a sea beast, a boy, the stars above and the pit below, fire and darkness and light.
"Pretty good," Arthur says, after, and beckons a slave girl over to refill his cup again, as the music changes to something wild and fast. Eames looks up and sees Frieda and Geir, tangled together on one of the benches, kissing, his hands wrapped tightly around her waist. She’s touching his face, twisting her hands through his hair.
"I could have gotten you more ale," Eames says, but Arthur shakes his head.
"Stay here," he says.
It’s smoky in the Great Hall, very warm, and the ale has slowed his mind and when he looks up, he realizes, it’s not just Frieda. It’s not just kissing. More than half of the benches are empty and beyond, past the fire, down in the living area, there are shifting bodies beneath furs, hidden in shadows. Across from him, a warrior draws the girl with the pitcher of ale down into his lap, kissing her neck, yanking at her bodice with heavy fingers until it gives way and then fitting his mouth over her nipple. She giggles and threads her hand into his hair, pulling him closer, the pitcher of ale knocking sideways as he tugs her around to face him, groping her hips. Eames startles when Arthur puts a hand on his shoulder.
"It’s late," Arthur says. "We’ll go now."
Arthur doesn’t speak until they’re almost back at the hut; he walks quickly, half a step ahead of Eames, shoulders hunched against the cold. Eames turns his face into the wind; it feels good against the heat in his face.
"You liked the singing," Arthur says.
"Yes," Eames says. "The food was good."
"Good turnips," Arthur says, and pushes open the door.
They strip down to their pants and undertunics quickly, take turns scrubbing their faces and hands in the bucket. Arthur rebinds his arm with a fresh bandage, working quickly, his face drawn into hard lines by exhaustion.
"Good night," Eames says, after they climb into bed. It’s familiar, Arthur’s warm presence next to him. His belly’s full from the food, his head pleasantly fuzzy with ale; he drifts, almost asleep, for a long time before he notices Arthur shifting restlessly next to him. He squeezes his eyes shut, feigning sleep; he doesn’t want to be made to get out of bed to get Arthur a cup of water or—but Arthur is. at first Eames thinks he’s in pain. He’s lying on his back, the blankets shoved down to his knees, with his shift rucked up over his stomach, moving a little against the bed, his shoulders, his hips. His eyes are closed, and his face is twisted in some emotion that Eames wants to call anguish, but—Arthur’s hand is in his pants, wrist jerking, and then Eames sees his cock, Arthur’s fingers around it, the slick head sliding out of Arthur’s fist.
Eames knows better than to look, but he does anyway, at the way Arthur arches his back and bites his lip, the way his hand moves and his mouth opens in a soundless sigh, the way his cock jerks and he catches his seed in his palm, dripping through his fingers, and wipes it on his shift.
Eames shuts his eyes, hurriedly. After a moment he hears Arthur get up and move around the room, the splash of water. Arthur comes back to bed and Eames opens one eye, cautiously, but Arthur’s turned away from him, curled in on himself, his head tucked beneath the blanket. Eames sleeps, but not for some time.
Arthur’s awake before he is, coming through the doorway naked from washing in the stream, carrying a fresh bucket of water. Eames thinks of Arthur’s teeth, set delicately against his lower lip, the quivering muscles of his stomach—in the cold morning light, unaddled by rich food and too much drink, Eames is well aware of what Arthur was doing to himself. Self-abusers corrupt themselves from the inside out, they blacken everything they touch with sin. He looks at Arthur, barefoot in his undershift, wiping a droplet of water off his nose with the edge of his hand, waiting for his water to boil for tea. Arthur is a barbarian and a murderer, already corrupted from the inside, Eames reminds himself, but he can’t think of it with any heat. Abbot Christopher’s pious lectures are far away from him now and Eames had only ever listened with half an ear in the first place.
"Tea?" Arthur says.
"Yes," Eames says.
Arthur’s traded his labor for the day to Brunn in exchange for a bale of goosedown to restuff Arthur’s comforters, which are thin and flat with wear.
"It’ll be lifting and carrying," Arthur says. "Not so many slaves here as strong as you." There’s a note of pride in his voice; Eames feels himself warm to it and then feels a thick wave of disgust—this is what he’s become, he thinks, a dog waiting for a pat on the head from his master. "You’ll be glad of it this winter," Arthur says, looking at him a little oddly. He means it well, Eames tells himself, and stands, reaching for his cloak.
"Wait," Arthur says.He reaches for his pack and unwinds the rope holding it closed and then digs through it carefully, finally pulling out an intricately carved box and a cloth-wrapped parcel. He puts them down on the table in front of Eames. "Open," he says.
The parcel is a blank, leather-bound book and a stack of crumpled, loose sheets of parchment, smoothed down and neatly folded. The cover on the box fits tightly and Eames has to ease it off with his thumb. Inside are four bottles of ink: black and blue, red and green, and a few reed quills, badly bent.
"I can ask someone to put aside a few good feathers from the geese for new quills," Arthur says.
"Where did you get this?" Eames says. The box is heavy in his hands, well-made, the ink bright and new.
"I took it for you," Arthur says. "Is it—that’s not what you use?"
"Did you kill someone for it?"
"They were dead anyway," Arthur says softly.
"Do you like it?" Eames says, looking at the curling tendril of hair falling forward over Arthur’s cheek and feeling sick with anger. "Murdering people, stealing things?"
"That’s not your place to ask," Arthur says, leaning forward and slamming the lid down on the box, snatching it away. "The food you eat, the clothes you wear, they’re all because I—. I wasn’t supposed to let you live; we weren’t meant to take slaves on that raid, I could have killed you then—"
"Maybe you should have," Eames says. Arthur stares at him. He gathers up the box, the book, the papers, and puts them back in his bag, and then he hangs it over his peg and leaves.
Eames scrubs his hands down his face. Brunn is expecting him. He puts on his cloak and leaves; he looks, but Arthur is nowhere to be seen.
"You’re late," Brunn says. He’s a big man with a bushy beard and a self-satisfied expression who runs a bustling household in a big stone house which lies in the shadow of the Great Hall.
"My apologies," Eames says, keeping his eyes on the ground.
"I know Arthur turned your arsehole inside out last night, but I expect to get my worth from you today," Brunn says. "Understand?"
"Yes," Eames says.
He carries boxes and bags for most of the morning, from Brunn’s neatly swept courtyard through the house to the workroom. Brunn’s house makes Arthur’s neat little hut look shabby and poor. The masonry is all new and the smooth-planed plank floors gleam, covered with soft rugs. Brunn’s workroom is lit with fat wax tapers and he works at a table that is long and intricately carved with grapes and olives, a table made far away to the south. Arthur’s furniture is well-made, but very plain, and Eames can recognize the wood from the trees in the forest not twenty feet from Arthur’s door.
Men come in and out to see Brunn all morning, ignoring Eames for the most part as though he’s beneath their notice, cuffing him in the head to shove him aside if he’s in their way.
"Who’s that?" one of them asks, when Eames hauls in a heavy trunk.
"Arthur’s," Brunn says.
"What, really?" the man says.
"Says he’s a hard worker," Brunn says.
"On his back, maybe," someone says. Brunn lets out an ugly snigger. Eames can feel their stares on him, knows his face is hot. He’d been glad when he’d realized how much he could understand of what people were saying around him. He had thought it would make things easier. He wedges the trunk into a corner and turns to get get the next load.
It’s late afternoon when he carries the last bundle in and sets it in a corner. He’s tired and hungry; he hadn’t thought to bring any food and Brunn hadn’t offered any.
"Kitchen floors need scrubbing," Brunn says, not looking up from his work. "Through the back of the house."
Eames thinks, no clever jokes about how much time I spend on my knees? He’s not stupid enough to say such a thing to Brunn, even if Arthur thinks so. Eames goes to the kitchen and asks for a bucket.
He’s half way through scrubbing down the long flagstone floor of the empty kitchen when a girl slips in through the back and starts working at the table, shelling peas. She’s wearing a bright green dress and has a black eye.
"Hello," Eames says. He knows her by sight, a slave he sees sometimes in the kitchens or at the lake when he’s washing clothes. She doesn’t answer. Eames turns his hand back to his work.
"We’re not supposed to talk," she says quickly, in a quiet undertone. Eames looks up without stopping his work. Her hands are moving quickly, dropping peas into a dish.
"We’re not talking," Eames says. "I’m scrubbing the floor and you’re shelling peas."
That puts a little smile on her face. Eames doesn’t know anything about girls. This one looks young and very tired. The bruise on her eye is new. Brunn, Eames thinks. He bangs the scrub brush down into the bucket and yanks it out, scrubbing hard at the next length of floor.
"You live up the hill," she says.
"Yes," Eames says.
"Is it true what they say?" she says, after a moment.
"I don’t know, what do they say?" Eames says, still scrubbing.
"That he’s not right," she says. "That he’s—possessed by spirits in battle."
Eames doesn’t say anything, not wanting to think of Arthur’s face, his hand, covered in blood, pushing Eames to the floor of the scriptorium.
"Does he turn into a beast and rut between your legs?" she says.
"Does he what?" Eames says, the scrub brush slipping out of his fingers.
"When he fucks you," she begins, speaking more distinctly.
"No," Eames says. "I heard you. He does not turn into—where did you hear that?"
"That’s what they say," she says. Eames scrubs harder. He thinks of Arthur, cutting sod, dirt on his nose. Arthur’s lips peeled back in a killing grin. Arthur pulling his hands behind him and binding them, dragging him through the halls of the monastery. Arthur, putting the box of inks on the table.
"There’s nothing wrong in his head," Eames says, thinking of Arthur’s calm eyes, telling him to leave his shirt off.
Arthur’s at home when he gets there, adding sharp greens to a pot of stew.
"Hungry?" he says, when Eames comes through the door and hangs his cloak. The days are very cold now and the warmth from the fire draws him close. He holds out his hands, flexing his fingers, taking a look in the stew pot. Arthur’s begun to make more food when he cooks, although he still takes the same amount for himself. Eames ate carefully while Arthur was gone, half-portions, lifting a roll or two off a rack in the kitchen, sometimes not even waiting to get home before eating it, warm in his palms. Gluttony, they called it, at the monastery, a lack of self-discipline, but Arthur had only looked at the sack of porridge grain as he made breakfast that morning and frowned.
"Nearly done," Arthur says. Eames fetches the bowls and spoons and they eat together, dipping hunks of bread into the stew.
"How was it today?" Arthur says. "Did you—"
"Keep my mouth shut?" Eames says.
"No," Arthur says. "I know you know how to do that."
"I didn’t this morning," Eames says, thinking of Arthur’s expressionless face, repacking his bag.
"No," Arthur says. He pushes his spoon around his bowl, head bent. "I can’t ask you to like it, being a slave. You—work hard. You learn. You’re obedient." He looks up at Eames. "I’m well pleased by you," he says quietly.
"How is it, you can have a slave?" Eames says, impulsively. Arthur lifts one shoulder and takes another bite of bread. "The other warriors live in the long house," Eames says, wanting to understand. "Brunn has—two of everything," Eames says, touching his bowl, his spoon. Arthur made him the bowl, the first week, and traded for the spoon.
"Brunn divides the shares after the raids," Arthur says. "And he is brother to the Chieftain, so no one will say that his portion is sometimes larger than his kill. And I am not—kin, here."
"Then how—" Eames says.
"I work," Arthur says. "I fight. The others take their share in gold, but I took this. No one said I could have you, but no one will—say no to me," he says, simply, but Eames knows. The men in the village respect Arthur, but they fear him as well, keep themselves a little apart from him.
"Oh," Eames says.
"Brunn’s slaves have new clothes," Arthur observes. "His men don’t do women’s work."
"I scrubbed his floor today," Eames says. Arthur sighs.
"Brunn’s a prick," he says. "I won’t trade your work to him again."
"It doesn’t matter," Eames says. Arthur splits the work evenly between them, except where one of them has more skill. Eames burns everything; Arthur does most of the cooking. Eames does all the sewing, and has started to work his way through Arthur’s old mends, fixing the clumsily stitched seams with neat repairs. He sees, for the first time, that it does matter to Arthur, that Arthur takes his turn scrubbing the floor and hauling the water, that Arthur shows him some measure of respect that Brunn would never think to offer a slave.
"Frieda will take Geir’s marriage offer," Eames says.
"Where did you hear of that?" Arthur says, sitting up, looking interested.
"I worked in the bakery with Frieda," Eames says. "She tells everyone her business."
Arthur snorts. "That’s true enough," he says. His face softens. "That’s good," he says. "She’ll make him a good wife." Eames eats a spoonful of soup. He doesn’t know what makes a good wife. Arthur drops his eyes to the table, eats. "Did you have a woman?" he says, not looking up. "Before. A wife?" He takes a breath, and adds, lower. "babies?"
"No," Eames says. Arthur’s shoulders loosen, almost imperceptibly. "Do you not—" Eames begins slowly, "I was a monk."
"Do you not know what that is?"
"Some are married," Arthur says. "Some places we go."
"Not—not where I come from," Eames says. "We don’t—monks can’t get married, can’t have children."
"You don’t lie with women," Arthur says, knowledgeably.
"No, not with—not with anyone," Eames says, imagining with a kind of grim glee the expression on Abbot Christopher’s face at this conversation. Arthur is listening idly, shredding the last of his bread into his broth, but his head jerks up at that.
"Oh," he says. "So you—you never."
Eames shakes his head. The look on Arthur’s face is almost comical; it makes Eames want to laugh, even against the hot dark ache of remembrance in his chest. Arthur’s fingers inside him, forcing him open.
"Oh," Arthur says.***
Arthur puts the paper and ink in his chest below the bed; he has no use for parchment or ink, but he won’t offer again. Easy to fool yourself, he thinks, that when your slave is warm and fed, when there are no marks on his body and he speaks easily with you, that he’s content. He’d thought of Eames, on the raid, bunking down on the hard deck and picturing Eames curled in the center of his bed, warm as a badger in his winter den. Geir had taken a brooch for Frieda, ripping it from a bloody cloak and tucking it away in his pocket with a little satisfied smile.
Arthur sees Eames watching as he takes the ink box out of his pack. His fingers tighten on his mending, and his face is hungry, longing. Arthur waits, but Eames doesn’t ask. Arthur tucks the loose parchment against the side of the chest where it won’t wrinkle, and pushes it back under the bed. Eames takes his food and shares his bed because he has no choice; Arthur won’t lie to himself that there’s anything he has that Eames would want for himself.
He takes his pleasure with his own hand at night, when Eames is asleep. It’s what he’s used to and he can bring himself quickly to completion and fall into sleep. Eames doesn’t stir next to him. Arthur could fuck him, if he wanted, be Eames’ second time, his third, be the first cock inside his soft mouth, but Eames works hard all day and collapses into bed with a groan, dead asleep almost immediately, and Arthur wants him rested for the next day’s labor, not beaten and sore. Arthur isn’t rich enough to own a slave he can use in his bed alone and there’s too much work to complete before the snow for him to lose himself in Eames’ body without a care to the work he’ll lose from Eames if he does. He’s tired himself, still pained from some battle injuries from the summer. His hand is quick and familiar, easier than forcing a recalcitrant slave, and Eames is strong enough to give him a real fight, these days. Arthur thinks about it, sinking into Eames’ body, Eames spreading his legs for him, looking up at him, his arms flung above his head, unresisting, and comes easily into his own hand.
"We’ll go to the hot spring for a bath today," Arthur says. He usually washes in the stream, but it’s getting colder and there’s a bad ache, low in his back, that he’s hoping will soak out. He wrenched it in the last raid, something he can’t quite remember, a shield crunching down into his arm, shouting, blood in his mouth. He’s been waiting for it to fade, lying in bed and feeling it throb, slowly, while he waits for sleep, but every day of labor has been making it slowly worse.
"I had a bath in the stream two weeks ago," Eames says.
"You—" Arthur looks at him. "You stink," he explains.
"I do not," Eames says. "At—before, we took three baths a year, that’s more than—"
"What?" Arthur says. He’s heard of this, that Saxons are disgusting, that they never bathe and stew in the same garments for months at a time, but he always thought it was just stories, a way to shame your enemies. Looking at the indignation on Eames’ face, he’s suddenly less sure. Eames washes readily enough in the bucket before the fire, and grumbles, but goes in the stream and scrubs himself down when Arthur tells him. He doesn’t smell any worse than Arthur, but he could use a wash.
"I don’t stink," Eames mutters and Arthur hands him their clean clothes and soap and facecloth, and pushes him out the door.
"What does it matter if you're fair if you smell like a goat," Arthur says, almost to himself.
"Fair." Eames snorts. "That's not what they call me in the kitchens."
"What. do they call you?" Arthur says, hearing his voice go cold. Eames' mouth flattens.
"It doesn't matter," he says, starting to walk more quickly up the hill, and Arthur doesn't make him say it. He can't stop people from calling Eames his tight-arsed slave, his slut. Eames makes it worse for himself, he thinks, always looking like he needs to be taken down a peg or two, the proud tilt of his head, the way he carries himself. From the end of the Great Hall, carrying a cup of ale to Arthur, he looks like he thinks himself a warrior.
"This is—it’s hot," Eames says, his mouth opening in surprise when he slips into the water.
"It’s a hot spring," Arthur says, tilting his neck back against the stones set at the edge of the pool and staring up at the sky.
"How?" Eames says. Arthur cracks open an eye.
"It comes hot from the ground," he says. Eames’ eyes widen.
"How?" he says.
"I don’t know," Arthur says, annoyed. "A dragon breathes fire on it."
"That’s not true," Eames says, but he doesn’t sound entirely sure. He scrubs a hand through his short hair, and Arthur watches water run down his arm, dripping off the heavy bone at his wrist.
"I don’t know why," he says. He wets down his cloth and puts it over his face, sinking into the water until it’s up to his chin. He hears Eames splashing a little, shifting, but soon he stops, grows quiet.
"Not so terrible, yes?" Arthur says, as they’re dressing.
"Better than the stream," Eames allows. Eames skin is flushed, bright from the water and he moves loosely back down the hill. Arthur follows, working his shoulder; the soak didn’t help, seems to have made it yet worse, kindled the deep burn in his back into a throbbing, icy pain that that marches insistently along his shoulder and down to the base of his spine.
In the hut, he digs through a chest until he finds the bottle of muscle rub; a thick liniment, heavy with herbs. He puts it down on the table and strips off his tunic, wincing a little as it catches his bad arm. If Eames can’t fix it he’ll have to go to the Healer, which he can ill afford to pay for. Arthur turns. Eames is staring at the bottle, his face gone white.
"My shoulder hurts where I can’t reach," Arthur says.
"What?" Eames says. He’s looking between the bed and the door, shifting on his feet.
"My shoulder," Arthur says, slowly. "You’ll rub it down. Your hands, my back. That’s all."
"My hands," Eames repeats. He looks as though he still wants to run, as though he understands that there’s nowhere for him to go. Arthur turns around and climbs up on the bed, lies down on his stomach, pillows his head against one arm. He doesn’t hear Eames move. "It’s on the right side," he says. Eames is shifting behind him, silent. Arthur can hear him breathing, quick and harsh; his doing, that a man who shared his bread for breakfast this morning is standing in his home, too frightened to speak. "In my arm, too," Arthur says.
He waits, and after some minutes, the bed dips under Eames’ weight and then there’s a hand on his shoulder. No oil.
"Here?" Eames says. His voice is unsteady.
"Yes," Arthur says.
Eames’ hands are slow, at first, too light. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s useless against the pain in Arthur’s back and Arthur opens his mouth to tell him to stop when Eames puts his hands at the top of his shoulders and sweeps down in one long movement once, twice, a third time, and then he puts more of his weight into it and does it again and Arthur can feel the knot next to his spine begin to unlock. He can’t stop the groan of relief that cracks out of his mouth. Eames’ hands lift away, immediately.
"No—" Arthur says, "keep. like that." Eames’ hands come back and Arthur half lifts up into them, a month of pain coming apart under Eames’ palms. Eames leans into him on the next stroke, pressing him heavily into the bed. He stops.
"I’ll tell you when to stop," Arthur says. He means it as an order but it comes out in a hoarse mumble, and Eames rubs his hands lightly back up Arthur’s center and gives him one more hard sweeping stroke before beginning to work over Arthur’s back in earnest, first the longer strokes, again and again, everywhere, along his shoulders and down his back and then his fingers wrapping over Arthur’s ribs and slipping down to his waist, for a long time, hitting the edges of the worst pain but never crossing into it. Then Eames stops, one hand low on his back, pressing, and his fingers walk up, slowly, stopping just on a the lump of pain tucked under Arthur’s shoulderblade. Three fingers, very light.
"There," Arthur says. Eames presses in and the pain ratchets up and up and Arthur opens his mouth to tell Eames harder, or maybe to stop, when Eames’ other hand closes over his shoulder and pulls down, a sturdy tug, and Arthur jerks up against his hands like a fish in a trap.
"How did you—do that?" Arthur says. His voice comes out breathless. The pain is gone, and there’s just a spreading warmth in his ribs, a superficial tenderness from Eames’ fingers.
"I didn’t do anything," Eames says. His hands are gone again.
"Yes," Arthur says, yawning. "Put a blanket on me, I’m sleeping," he says.
"It’s not even dinner time."
"Have something for yourself," Arthur says, feeling generous, closing his eyes.***
Eames’ hands shake, even when Arthur is safely asleep, and he has to sit down for a little while. Arthur hasn’t put a hand on him in months, and still. He puts the bottle back where Arthur took it from; that helps. It shouldn’t matter; he never even saw the bottle—before, but, all the same, it helps. The fire’s a little low; Eames goes outside.
He drops a load of firewood trying to close the door without putting it down and then bangs the pot against the hob, loudly, as he heats water for tea, but Arthur doesn’t stir, still face down in the center of the bed.
He has tasks; mending—always mending, Arthur rips his clothes in training constantly—apples to slice and string and hang to dry. It’s not dark, he could set the nets in the stream. Instead he sits down at the table and looks at his hands. He learned how to draw a hand, a knee, from looking at his own, rubbing his hands along the muscles and tendons until he understood how they worked. He’d never been able to see enough of a man’s back to understand how the bones and muscles came together in the quick glimpses he caught of the other brothers in the dormitory.
Arthur sleeps, breath heavy and even.
"Snow will come now," Arthur says, one afternoon when they’re stacking firewood against the house. "No raids until summer." Within the week there’s a foot of snow on the ground and the stream is iced over. Arthur borrows a horse and hauls up a barrel of barley, brings back two fat does from a hunting trip, guts and dresses them and puts the meat into the frozen ground beneath the house. There are shelves and hooks on every wall of Arthur’s hut and they fill slowly with preserved food until there’s no space left. There are three smoked hams hanging over the kitchen table and Eames bangs his ankle on a crate of salted fish so often that it’s bruised brown.
"Fuck," he says, in Saxon, when he does it yet again, and Arthur turns his head interrogatively.
"Fuck?" he repeats.
"It means ‘Fuck’" Eames says, still holding on to his ankle. Arthur laughs and turns back to his lunch. He’s stripped down to his pants, his tunic and shift drying by the fire; there’s a hard wet slush falling from the sky and Arthur spent the morning on the training fields.
Eames looks at Arthur’s back: heavy with muscle, but narrow all the same. With his thumbs on Arthur’s spine, Eames' fingers had nearly spanned Arthur’s waist. Eames had felt it, the bad spot on Arthur’s back, the knotted muscle around it, how it had seemed to give a little, under his fingers, to want to be undone.
Eames thinks about the curve of Arthur’s shoulders, the strangely delicate cut of his ribs, the sweep of muscle from his neck to his shoulder. He tries to stop.
Eames developed a little talent for thievery at the monastery, taking food, when he could get it, a pair of socks left carelessly unattended, scraps of parchment, but he doesn’t need it to take Arthur’s trunk out from under the bed. It’s not locked. The box of ink and the book are still on top. Training has been running late all week; Arthur won’t be home for hours. Eames finds a stack of sheets of loose parchment tucked into the corner. He takes two. He leaves the book.
He draws Arthur’s back, quickly, first, trying to get the feel of it in his hands down on paper. Then he recopies it, going painstakingly slow, the knobs of Arthur’s spine and the cut of his hip, the long scar sliced across his shoulder. He looks at it; it’s good. He burns it.
He’s drawing a serpent on the other sheet of parchment when Arthur comes in the door. It’s too late to pretend he’s doing anything else, to burn his work and put the ink box back where he found it. Arthur sees him, but doesn’t say anything, just hangs his cloak on a peg and pulls off his boots.
"You weren’t using them," Eames says when Arthur drops his sword and shield in the corner and goes to fix himself a bit of bread and butter.
"They were for you," he says. He bites into the bread. "Ask before you go in my things," he adds, but absently. He’s craning his neck to see, so Eames pushes the paper forward.
"The sea beast," Arthur says. "From the song?" Eames tries to pull it back and Arthur puts his fingers down on it, at the edge of the page, clear of the still-wet ink. He looks at it, turning the page a little. Eames feels a chill crawl up his spine, a memory, Brother Tobias burning a drawing he made, Jonah and the Whale, Jonah with his tunic torn open, shivering in the deep cavern of the whale’s mouth. "You’ll pray this afternoon," Brother Tobias said, pushing him to his knees to watch the parchment shiver and curled up, black, in the fireplace. "You’ll pray to rid your soul of sin." Eames had prayed, not understanding, but now he’s seen Arthur, rubbing his cock, Arthur, twisting, back releasing under Eames’ hands; he has an idea what Brother Tobias saw in his drawing. Arthur strokes himself to completion more nights than not, and Eames watches, every time he’s awake, Arthur’s hand, how wet his prick gets, his bitten lip. He can picture the disgust on Brother Tobias’ face, if he were alive to know, and wonders at how little he cares.
"Where are the wings?" Arthur says, finally.
"There were wings?" Eames says. He’d been able to follow most of the song, but he hadn’t understood every word.
"Black," Arthur says. The tips of the fingers on one of his hands twitch inward. "with claws."
Arthur leaves the book on the table the next morning. Eames opens it after he’s gone; he hadn’t gotten a good look at it before. It’s big, smoothly-bound in leather, and the parchment inside is thin, very fine. He puts the book in his box, where Arthur never looks, and heads down the hill to the kitchens.
"May I draw?" he says, the first time, after he’s spent the day in the kitchen, brought home a stack of warm rolls in a cloth, finished the dinner dishes, the mending, cleaned and oiled Arthur’s boots and leather breastplate.
"Yes," Arthur says, hardly paying attention, frowning over the proportions of something he’s carving, but Eames is cautious anyway. He draws the bucket, tucked neatly into the corner, a drying washrag laid across it. He draws the uneaten rolls, sitting on a plate. Arthur doesn’t ask to see.***
"I’m finished," Geir says, throwing his hands up when it starts to hail, tiny icy crystals pinging against the trees, striking their faces. "This is not a good day for a hunt."
Arthur sighs, but slings his bow over his shoulder and turns to follow Geir. They were supposed to spend the day at it, but they’ve wasted a morning and Geir has two squirrels, Arthur, a single rabbit. They haven’t even caught sight of a deer.
"This is a day to sit by a fire and have a beautiful woman bring you a mug of ale," Geir says, ambling along next to Arthur.
"Does Frieda know about these plans of yours?" Arthur says, pulling the hood of his cloak up.
"That’s funny," Geir says. "You know, you’re funnier now that you’re getting some tail."
"Don’t start," Arthur says.
"Frieda likes him," Geir says. "She thinks you should be kinder to him."
"Does she," Arthur says. Frieda is in love and thinks the rest of the world should be, as well. "I already courted his favor by murdering everyone he knew and then holding him down and fucking him."
"Did you have to hold him down?" Geir says, stepping across a fallen log.
"Yes," Arthur says.
"Shame." Geir shrugs. "Can’t be helped."
Eames is drawing at the table and startles, badly, when Arthur comes in the door. Can’t be helped, Arthur thinks.
"I thought—you were supposed to be hunting," Eames says, fumbling the inks back into the case.
"I don’t mind that you draw," Arthur says, taking off his cloak and boots, pushing his wet hair off his forehead. "As long as you finish your other duties first." Eames isn’t listening, trying to cover the page with his hand.
"Let me see," Arthur says, curious. He likes the glimpses he catches of Eames’ drawings before Eames closes his book and tucks it into his box, the bold, curling lines that somehow grow into something more, a grey whale or the view from Arthur’s doorstep, a sketch of the rows of bread rising in the kitchen, of Arthur’s boots in a jumble in the corner.
"Let me see," he says again, firmly, holding out his hand and meeting Eames’ eyes. He’s been drawing in the book for weeks and Arthur has never asked to see yet, but Eames should know better than to think he can refuse. A muscle in Eames’ jaw jumps. He lifts his hand and nudges the book across the table, pages fluttering. Arthur pulls it toward him and takes a look.
"Oh," he says. It’s— "Is this me?" he says. It looks like him, but not in any of the ways he’s used to seeing himself, in the lake, the ocean, his wavering reflections in shields. On raids, in glass windows and mirrors, eyes black, face bloody, smashing glass.
Eames nods. Arthur bends closer. Him, outside the hut, lifting the axe to split a log. His hands, carving out a bowl. His face, a few times, solemn, talking, once, gesturing with a spoon. His back, shirtless, by the fireplace, the scar he’s never seen from a sword wound he took when he was sixteen. The scar is a raised slice across his shoulder, long healed.
"I’m sorry," Eames says quickly, reaching for the book. Eames, who never apologizes for anything, who chafes defiantly under any correction for disobedience. Arthur turns over the next page.
"What’s this?" he says, scarcely able to make sense of it at first.
"I’m sorry," Eames says again. Another picture of him, Arthur sees, this one spread across the entire page. He’s in his bed with his hand around his cock and his face is—
"What is this?" Arthur says.
"It’s nothing," Eames says. He’s bundling the inks and pen back into the box, his face expressionless.
"Did you—this is me," Arthur says, leaning closer. His hair is spread out on the pillow, tendrils sticking to his face and shoulders. The muscles in his shoulder and belly are straining with effort. His eyelashes are against his cheeks, pretty as a girl’s.
"I don’t know why I did it," Eames says, sounding shaken. "Burn it."
"You saw me," Arthur says. "Doing this."
"Yes," Eames mumbles.
Eames shakes his head.
"When," Arthur says again. He doesn’t think his voice sounds harsh, but Eames stares at the floor.
"After the feast," he says. Weeks ago. Arthur’s been using his hand since then whenever he wants, sometimes many days in a row at a time.
"And?" Arthur says, but Eames doesn’t say anything and doesn’t look up.
"More than once?" Arthur says, guessing. Eames flushes.
"I didn’t know," he says. "I thought you were—ill."
"I do as I please in my own bed," Arthur says, closing the book with a snap and pushing it back across the table to Eames.
"You’re not—" Eames hand closes slowly over the book. Arthur has seen Eames, angry, rebellious, disobedient, but he’s never seen Eames look as though he actually thinks he might have done something wrong until now.
"My eyelashes aren’t like that," Arthur says. Eames stands and tucks away the book and the ink into the wood box where he keeps his belongings.
"I don’t know that word," he says.
"These," Arthur says, touching his eye. "Too long."
There’s something about the pictures, tugging at his mind; Arthur thinks about it as they eat and clean up dinner, then as they sit by the fire, Eames putting a lumpy darn in a sock, Arthur working on the set of nesting bowls he’s making for Geir and Frieda’s wedding. It only comes to him when he’s pulling off his tunic to make ready for bed. He wears his shift to bed every night and pulls it up over his stomach when he strokes off. His chest had been bare in Eames’ drawing.
Arthur doesn’t think of it further until he wakes up with a hard prick one morning and slides his hand drowsily into his hands, palming the head. Then he wakes up a little more and remembers. Eames. Arthur twists his face to the wall, tightens his fist for two strokes and then stops. He sits up and yanks his shift off over his head and drops it to the floor. When he lies back down, he sees Eames’ eyes on him.
He doesn’t try to make it last any longer, he doesn’t turn his body so Eames can get a better look, he doesn’t do anything differently, but it is different, with Eames curled up on his side, looking. No one has ever wanted to watch Arthur before.
After, he half-expects Eames to pull out his own cock, but Eames doesn’t. Arthur thinks about ordering him to do it, but dawn is breaking, there’s work to do. Arthur settles for sending Eames out to fetch water for breakfast.***
Eames draws the snow, swirling down from the top of the hills, blowing through the harbor in a white blustery sheet, falling in fat flakes on Arthur’s shoulders as he chops firewood, again. The days grow very short and Arthur sets him fewer tasks, seems content to let Eames drag the table close to the fire so he can draw, as much as he likes, until his fingers are sore, before Arthur tells him to clean up or turn himself to another task.
"I like winter," Eames says.
"That’s good," Arthur says, looking up from chest with a broken latch he’s been trying to fix for the last week. "There’s more to come."
The first weeks, they work while the sun is up; the kitchens are still open in the Great Hall and Eames has grown as deft as Frieda at shaping loaves of bread. Arthur spends his days with the warriors, warmed by the firepit. Eames brings him lunch or a mug of ale sometimes, finds him talking or mending gear. Arthur comes to find him in the early afternoon when the sun is already starting to sink and they walk home together through the blustering drifts of snow. The hut is cold and dark when they come in the door; Arthur lays the fire and Eames fetches a bucket of snow to melt.
In time, the sheep track fills with snow until it’s impassible, the snow up over Eames’ hip; they hollow out a path to the wood-pile after every storm and the snow climbs higher up the walls of the hut.
"We won’t go down the hill again until spring," Arthur says and then he has Eames pull out every piece of bed linen and boil them in Arthur’s biggest kettle, draping them over chairs to dry in the heat of the fire. They scrub down the walls and floors with old rags and Arthur breaks apart his shield and replaces all the wood. He has Eames draw up plans for the garden in spring and rearrange all the shelves and rip out and mend some of the oldest seams in his tunics, but even Arthur finally admits that there’s little more work to be done and that it’s often too cold to spend much time out of bed at all. They sleep, as much as they can.
Eames is sprawled in bed dozing when Arthur comes back inside carrying a load of wood he drops by the fireplace. He stokes the fire and adds a few new logs and then shucks off his cloak and boots and climbs back up into bed, shoving his feet onto Eames’ shins. Eames comes fully awake and flinches away.
"You’re like ice," he says.
"I was outside getting firewood while you were in here sleeping like a lazy squirrel," Arthur says, throwing his arm across Eames and sliding in closer, tucking his face against Eames’ back, where Eames can feel the chill in Arthur’s cheek even through his clothes.
"Cold," Eames mutters.
"Next time I can send you to get the wood," Arthur offers. Eames sighs and stops resisting. Arthur is restless and nearly always gets the wood; the only price he exacts is telling Eames what he thinks of lazy southerners.
"There was nothing stopping your ancestors from setting up somewhere with a reasonable winter," Eames says, shivering a little as Arthur tucks his cold hands against his sides.
"I thought you liked winter," Arthur says. He moves his feet to a new place, tangling them between Eames’ knees and making a contented noise low in his throat. Eames feels his cock stiffen a little; that’s been happening, in bed with Arthur all day, who insists on lying against Eames so closely Eames can feel his heartbeat.
He wonders what it’s like to be Arthur, who touches himself when he likes, who seems not to care that Eames can see. At the monastery, Eames slept in a narrow bed in a long dormitory with forty other monks. His cock used to stiffen there, too; he learned to ignore it.
"You say you have no kin here," Eames says, when he has slept for as long as he can, when it is too cold to get out of bed to draw, when he is tired of staring at the crackling fire and feels heavy and slow with boredom. Arthur seems content to sit in silence for hours, but he nods when Eames begins talking and straightens up against the pillows.
"No," he says, readily enough. Eames can well believe it; the people in the village are broad and mostly fair. Arthur is narrow, sharp, dark.
"How did you come here?" Eames asks.
"I was the fifth son," Arthur says. "My family were fishermen."
"You didn’t want to become a fisherman?"
"Too many mouths to feed," Arthur says. "I had some—talent in a fight, and my father found me a place here as a fosterling. I learned to fight, I earned my shield."
"What of your family?"
"My mother," Arthur says, "died of a fever the summer after I left. My father paid to have a letter sent, so I would know. The next season after that, there were some bad storms in the west, and my father’s boat was taken, but there was no one to pay to send a letter, so I didn’t know until two winters after."
"My family had only one boat," Arthur says, answer enough. His mouth is a little pensive; Eames thinks about what it would be like to draw it, he could do it in three strokes, two strong slashes and a soft curve of a quill. "And you?" Arthur says, leaning up on elbow. "How were you called to the life of a monk?"
"I was left at the monastery, on the doorstep," Eames says.
"How old?" Arthur says.
Eames shakes his head. "I don’t remember. They thought—one winter, perhaps two."
"You stayed," Arthur says.
"There was nowhere else for me to go," Eames says. "And they taught me to use pen and ink."
"You don’t talk to your god," Arthur says. "Other—I see others, like you. They still kneel and—"
"I don’t like to kneel," Eames says.
"Teach me some of your language," Arthur says, one afternoon, while Eames is brushing the crumbs from their lunch out of the bed clothes and rearranging them. It’s been too cold to leave the bed for three days, and Eames and Arthur have already told each other every riddle they know.
"All right," Eames says, and coaches Arthur through a short sentence. Arthur stumbles over the syllables, has to try a few times before he gets it right.
"What does that mean?" Arthur says.
"It means, I have very cold feet," Eames says. Arthur smiles and then his smile gets a little speculative.
"How do you say—" he makes a loose, shaking motion with his right hand. "rubbing yourself off?"
"I don’t know," Eames says.
"You don’t have a word for it?" Arthur says.
"We don’t—no one does it," Eames says "It’s wrong."
"Who says?" Arthur says, starting to look genuinely curious.
"God," Eames says shortly.
"Your god—" Arthur begins.
"No," Eames says. When Eames was twelve winters, he’d found a book on a back shelf of the library with pictures in it; saints and warrior angels, ink drawings. He found excuses, to go to the library, to look at the book and when he had it memorized, he started trying to remake the pictures for himself, drawing on a flat stone with a bit of chalk. Brother Andrew caught him at it, drawing a picture of David, trying to get the lines making his face to look right, and broke his arm for him, twisting it up behind his back, pinned against the cold stone wall, explaining what a blasphemer Eames had become.
His arm healed, and they apprenticed him in the Scriptorium—
"To put your god-given talent to a higher use," Abbot Christopher said, but Eames saw that he was watched, and learned to be careful. They taught him to write, to draw, to use pen and ink and after ten years, he had earned back enough trust to make a few artful flourishes in the borders of the manuscript, even a fanciful animal, although Brother Tobias frowned over them sometimes,
"What were you thinking, to draw this?" he asked once, when Eames had drawn a sky creature curling down the margin, a long, flipping tail, a gaping maw.
"Only of the majesty of god’s creation," Eames murmured, a lie, his first. He waited an agonizing week, barely able to eat, for god to strike him down. The next lie was easier.
He knew better than to ever allow anyone to see the drawings he made on stolen scraps of parchment and burned because he had no place to hide them. Saints and warrior angels, still, although the book was long since gone from the library; Eames had never been able to find it again.
God, he thinks, wasted his time on boys drawing on stones, but he didn’t save him when Arthur came; let Arthur’s mother die and the sea take his brothers. "Not my god," Eames says. Arthur nods.
"But you never—" he says, making the gesture again.
"You don’t have a word for it either?" Eames says. Arthur colors a little.
"You don’t stroke off?" he says.
"But—when you. Are you whole?" Arthur says, his eyes falling down towards Eames’ lap.
"Yes," Eames says, indignant.
"You get—hard," Arthur says, confirming.
"Yes," Eames says. "Yes."
"What do you do then?"
"Wait," Eames says. "It goes away."
"It—" Arthur looks taken aback. "Every time?" he says. "You never—"
"Never," Arthur says, almost to himself. Then he punches his pillow into shape and lies back and says, "Do you know the story of the Cock and Hen that went to the Dovrefell?"
"No," Eames says.
"Once there was a hen that had flown up and perched on an oak-tree for the night," Arthur begins.***
Arthur tells Eames stories until his throat hurts from talking. He’s not much of a storyteller, forgetting parts and having to backtrack, but Eames is an appreciative audience, laughing over silly children’s stories, asking for more.
"What now?" Eames says, when Arthur says he can’t think of any more stories.
"Sleeping," Arthur says. "It’s late."
Eames puffs out a discontented breath. "I’m not tired," he says. "Were you up here all alone last winter?"
"Yes," Arthur says.
"Lonely," Eames says. He shifts restlessly against the bed, and his shift falls open a little, at the throat.
"You pass the time," Arthur says, absently, watching the rise and fall of Eames’ chest beneath the thin shirt. The room is dim, but he can see the shadow of a nipple through the shirt, the heavy layers of muscle Eames has built, hauling wood, building walls.
"How," Eames says and Arthur reaches forward and puts two fingers at the hollow of his throat. The skin is soft there and the point of Eames’ collarbone is an elegant curve under his fingers, the prow of a ship, the curl of a seashell. Arthur looks up at Eames’ face: surprise, mostly, a little apprehension.
"Doesn’t hurt," Arthur says, curling his fingers a little against Eames’ hot skin. Eames nods, and Arthur pulls his knuckles down, down, pulls Eames’ shift up until he can put his hand flat on Eames’ belly, rubbing his thumb through the short hair there. Arthur hitches a little closer; Eames is warm and his skin is soft to the touch. He pulls in a heavy breath, stomach flexing against Arthur’s hand and Arthur pulls the tie of Eames’ pants open, hooking one finger into the waist to tug them lower.
"On your back," Arthur says, touching the curve of Eames’ hip, lightly. Eames is at least half hard under the fabric of his pants, a heavy bulge just brushing the inside of Arthur’s forearm. Eames rolls on his back and Arthur pulls the waistband of his pants lower, shifting his own hips against the mattress, wondering if Eames will want to take his shirt off too, so he can see all of him, if Eames will want to touch him, after. Eames is breathing deeply, and Arthur glances up at him, thumb curled low in the hollow of his hip, and says,
"Do you want me to?" he says. Eames stares at him, uncomprehending. "Do you?" Arthur says.
Eames doesn’t do anything, or say anything, or move.
"You can tell me," Arthur says.
Arthur pulls his hand back. "You can—tell me," he says, again, but Eames doesn’t. "All right," Arthur says, and turns over, feeling a fool, that he could so easily misjudge what Eames was asking for. He closes his eyes, tries to sleep, but he’s worked up, restless himself from lying in bed all day next to Eames, all the talk about stroking off, touching Eames; his cock is stiff. He can’t sleep. He begins to touch himself, still curled in on his side, working his cock as quietly as he can. Behind him he hears Eames rustling around, making a discontented noise. He stops.
"What," he says, low. It’s his bed; he’ll do as he likes in it. If Eames doesn’t like it, he can sleep on the floor.
"It’s—I can’t see," Eames says. Arthur rolls back over, surprised. "I thought," Eames says, in a small voice, but he doesn’t say anything else. Arthur puts his hand back on his stomach, slowly. Eames settles back, pillowing his head on his elbow, watching. Arthur’s mouth feels dry. He takes a breath—his bed, he reminds himself, and wraps his hand around his cock. He’s hard, has been hard for what feels like an age now, and he sets a jolting, rough, rhythm. Eames doesn’t make a sound; Arthur can almost forget he’s there except that when he looks over, Eames is watching, attentive, his eyes moving between Arthur’s face and his hand on his dick. Arthur’s cock is slick with his own pre-come, achingly stiff in his hand, and he works himself faster and faster, arching up into his grip, and still doesn’t come. His dick starts to feel a little sticky, dry, sore, and his fingers are tired and he’s so—hot, too hot under Eames’ stare, skin pricking even in the cold air.
"I can’t—" he says, his voice hoarse. "I can’t—"
Eames is still watching him, rolled up on one elbow now, and Arthur gasps in frustration and squeezes his eyes closed, jerking his cock harder, and then he feels Eames’ hand close over his, the pad of his thumb bumping gently against the exposed head of his cock and his climax rips out of him, a hot rush of feeling that leaves him dizzy, gasping for breath.
"You—" he says. Eames is staring at his hand; there’s a stripe of come along his fingers. Arthur falls back against the bed, chest heaving. "That was," he says.
"I didn’t say no," Eames says.
"What?" Arthur says, not following at all.
"I didn’t say no," Eames repeats, and Arthur comes back to himself with an aching anger low in his gut.
"You don’t say no to me," Arthur says. "I can fuck you whenever I want, use any part of you, but what makes you think I want to use a slave who sulks and feels ill-used even when he’s fed and clothed, never abused or beaten, given every—"
"Do you want me to be grateful—" Eames says, voice hard.
"You should be grateful to me," Arthur says. "You could be rotting in a cold grave, but you’re here, lolling in my bed, letting me entertain you with riddles and stories, like I’m your—get me a cloth," he orders. Eames gets up and fetches a clean rag from the kitchen.
"I didn’t say no," he says, climbing back into bed, hanging back against the edge.
"Is that all you know how to say?" Arthur says, mopping roughly at his shirt, the mess on his belly and hands. He thinks about Eames’ big, graceful hands, writing in his book, something Arthur will never know how to read. "I’m not—a scholar, but I’m not stupid," he says. "My touch disgusts you."
"No," Eames says.
"No," Arthur echoes, mocking. He feels spent, all the good from his climax wiped from his body by Eames’ unreadable face. "I told you not to lie to me," he mutters. "What do I care what a slave thinks?"
"You—" Eames says, shaking his head. He says something in his own language, stops. "I can’t be grateful to be a slave," he says, and there’s still a slim edge of anger in his voice when he says the word. "But I know that you don’t—hurt me. And that you could."
"Yes," Arthur says.
"You’re angry at me and still. you—don’t," Eames says. "Why?"
"I don’t know," Arthur grinds out, but knows it’s because he’s weak; a man would hold his slave down and take what he wanted, not trouble himself over the chill in his slave’s voice the next day, his turned back in his bed.
"When was—when did you first. use your hand?" Eames asks. When Arthur stares at him, he makes a tentative, loose-wristed gesture.
"I don’t—eleven winters," Arthur says, abruptly. "Geir said—he showed me, out behind the millhouse." He remembers, the sun on Geir’s bright hair, his crooked grin when he pulled his tunic up. "And—you," he says, realizing. "No one to show you."
"No," Eames agrees.
"It’s not so difficult to figure out," Arthur says.
"Maybe for a—a scholar," Eames says, his mouth twisting, and then he takes the rag from Arthur’s hand and lifts Arthur’s fingers back to his throat, where his pulse jumps against Arthur’s thumb.
Eames is still hard, the head of his cock just cresting his foreskin, pressed against the front of his pants.
"Take them off," Arthur says, and waits while Eames fumbles them down his legs. "Get your hand wet." Eames stares at him until Arthur grabs his wrists and forces it up to his mouth. "Get it wet," he says. He’s not going to lick Eames’ hand for him. Eames touches his tongue to his fingers. Arthur sighs; he doesn’t train beginners on the field—too impatient, too harsh, too rough.
"What do I do?" Eames says.
"You’ve watched enough." Eames licks his palm. "Again," Arthur says, waiting, and then he pushes Eames' wrist back down to his cock, now fully hard, leaking a little. "Touch it," Arthur says. Eames hesitates, but when he finally wraps his fingers over his dick he lets out a soft shuddering noise, barely audible. Arthur thinks of Eames, curled up in the dark with his balls aching, forbidden even his own touch, and says, "Feels good?"
"Yes," Eames says, a soft exhalation. He’s looking at himself, his fingers, his cock, flushed from his hairline to his sternum. Eames moves his hand and his hips hitch up and his back arches, mouth falling open.
"You’ll—" Arthur swallows, because Eames is fucking up into his hand in a careless, frantic rhythm, probably beyond hearing anything Arthur says. "You’ll go fast, your first time," he says, and Eames rolls sideways, pushing roughly into his hand, braced against the mattress, and comes with a short, raw yell.
He rests his cheek against the mattress, as if he’s too weak to hold his head up, panting, open-mouthed. Arthur offers him the rag, but Eames doesn’t take it, just closes his eyes.
"I’m not cleaning up your mess," Arthur says. His voice sounds a little rusty.
"Yes," Eames says, in Saxon, and then clears his throat and says "Yes," again, and takes the rag. His fingers don’t seem to be obeying him and his eyes are sleepy, heavy-lidded, quiet in a way that Arthur has never seen. Eames drops the sodden rag on the bed, and Arthur hooks it up with one finger and flips it onto the floor. When he turns back, Eames is asleep.
"I want your hand," Arthur says, briskly, two nights later. Eames will be angry, he thinks, go silent and stiff-shouldered, the way he hasn’t been since the snow started to fall, but Arthur is tired of his own hand and there’s no labor to be done to keep him from using Eames. He wants Eames to know his place and he wants Eames’ big hands wrapped around his cock, making him come, is half hard at the thought of it. Eames is pulling on his tunic after washing; the hair on the top of his head is sticking up.
"My hand," he says, agreeably enough, and climbs into bed.
It’s good; Eames uses both hands, frowning in concentration and Arthur reclines against the bed and takes what belongs to him, thrusting his cock into the cup of Eames’ warm hands until he comes, easy, into Eames’ palm, closing his eyes and resting while Eames gets out of bed and cleans himself.
"You finish yourself, if you want," he says sleepily, as Eames is settling back into bed next to him..
"Do you need to grant me permission?" Eames says, sounding a little out of breath. His hand is already on his dick.
"No," Arthur says, but he thinks about Eames, asking, and opens his eyes to watch. Eames comes quickly, kneeling up and making a mess of his side of the bed.
"Come here," Arthur says, when Eames has finished and cleaned himself, and Eames slides obediently across the bed and presses himself against Arthur. Arthur pushes at Eames’ shoulder until he’s pillowed comfortably against Arthur’s chest, a warm weight.***
"Today," Arthur says, in Saxon. "We talk only—like you."
"What are you talking about?" Eames says, rolling over, still half asleep, not pleased that Arthur is sitting up and letting cold air in under the furs.
"In your tongue," Arthur says, correcting him. "Until sleeping time."
"What are you talking about?" Eames says, in Saxon.
"Yes," Arthur says. He shoves down the covers further, thinking. "Breakfast," he says, finally.
"Why?" Eames says. He knows Arthur knows at least a little Saxon and since the beginning of winter, Arthur has asked sometimes, a word or a phrase, and repeated them back slowly, but Arthur has never offered to to speak to him before, except to give him orders when Eames doesn’t understand.
"Time goes slow," Arthur says. There are heavy pauses between his words and he chooses them carefully. It makes him seem uncertain, new. "Breakfast."
They eat together, pushing a bowl of hot wheat gruel back and forth across the table.
"This?" Arthur says, pointing at his spoon.
"Spoon," Eames says. Arthur points at the table.
"Table," Eames says. Before the morning is over Arthur has run out of things to point at in the hut, so Eames gets out his book and starts drawing with a stick he burns to a point in the fire, making smudged black lines on the page. A ship, a horse, the stand of trees at the edge of Arthur’s land, fish, sleeping beneath the ice. Then Arthur takes the stick out of his hand and draws, carefully.
"Sun," Eames says, leaning in to look over Arthur’s hand. "Sky, moon, stars." Arthur knits his lips together and scratches at the page with the stick, and then shakes his head.
"I can’t—not like you," he says. Then he lifts the book and says, "I—look?"
Eames bites back a harsh reply, that Arthur owns everything he does, that his pretending to ask is an insult, but—Arthur is different, closed in by the snow. Talks more, never gives Eames the irritated look that means he’s asking too many questions; Eames finds he doesn’t want to break the fragile peace between them.
"Yes, you can look," he says. Arthur wipes his fingers on his tunic before turning the page. He lingers over the book, head bent, turning the pages slowly, until Eames starts to feel self-conscious, wants to snatch it back. Arthur likes the animals, tracing the lines carefully with a forefinger, and he smiles over a picture of Geir, staring moonily after Frieda as she walks away from him, but he takes the longest over the drawings of himself, the drawings Eames can’t stop making. It’s because he sees Arthur so much, he tells himself; Arthur is what is in his mind to draw.
"You draw me," Arthur says. "Very a lot."
"Often," Eames says.
"Many often," Arthur says.
"No," Eames says, smiling a little, but Arthur misunderstands and says "No? I am here, and—here, also," he flips through page after page, Arthur, Arthur’s body, Arthur’s face and hands, the narrow curve of his hip that Eames can never get right. "Many often," Arthur says firmly. "Why?"
"I like to draw you," Eames hears himself say. "To draw people," he says, clarifying. "You’re who I see, you’re interesting to draw," he adds, knowing Arthur can’t really follow. The tips of Arthur’s ears go pink.
"You move too much," Eames says, keeping his voice brisk. "I have to work from memory and I get things wrong, so I keep trying again, that’s all it is."
Arthur shakes his head, lost.
"I move," he says, finally.
"I can. be still," Arthur says.
Arthur looks away. "Not—for nothing," he says, closing the book and putting it back down.
"Do you—you’ll let me draw you?" Eames says.
"You said. You like," Arthur says, sounding reluctant. "Nothing else to do," he says, lifting his chin.
"I—all right, yes," Eames says. "To pass the time."
"Where," Arthur says, standing.
"It’ll take time," Eames says. "you should find a comfortable place." Arthur nods, and then he straightens and goes over to the bed.
"Here," he says. "If you go too slow I can sleep." Then he unbuckles his belt and pulls his tunic up over his head. "You—" he says, looking abashed, when he sees Eames looking at him. "always with no shirt."
"Not always," Eames says, clipping his quill to make a sharp new point, but Arthur gives him a smug little smirk and pulls his shift off too.
"Often," he says, and lies down on the bed. His pants droop low on his belly, exposing the arc of his hip. He twists a little, settling. His chest and arms are hard with muscle, and there’s a deep scar that cuts down his chest, collarbone to nipple, but he’s lithe as a fox—"With colors," Arthur orders.
"Yes," Eames says.
He draws Arthur’s body in blue ink, the elegant wings of his shoulders and the strict lines of his face, his curled hands, a little too big for his body, like a boy, and the coiled strength in his chest and arms, not like a boy at all. Arthur’s hair is pinned below his shoulders, lank and needing a wash, but Eames draws it twisting over the pillow, wild, uses the blue and black ink, twining the lines around each other. He uses a little smudge of red at Arthur’s mouth, the soft tips of his nipples, and draws the worst of the scars in green and black, the seams holding Arthur together. The shadows start to grow long before he’s nearly finished, starting to render Arthur’s feet, when Arthur says, in Norse,
Eames glances up at him but doesn’t put down his quill. Arthur’s pants are tight against his cock, and his eyes are heavy with lust.
"Only my language until we go to sleep, remember?" Eames says, stalling for time, wanting to finish the drawing. Arthur is silent. He’ll be angry, Eames thinks, hates it when Eames mouths off in response to a direct order, but he adds a wedge of blue that’s the arch of Arthur’s foot and is—finished, when Arthur says, in Saxon,
"Stop your—work. Come here."
Eames puts down the quill and walks to the bed. Arthur is skinning his pants down his legs.
"Up," he says, still in Saxon. He throws his pants on the floor and lies back. Eames gets up on the bed and kneels by Arthur’s hip, but doesn’t touch him. Arthur is heavily aroused, but he stares up at Eames for a long moment before he says, "Touch me."
Eames puts his hand on Arthur’s forearm. Arthur frowns.
"Not there," he says.
"Where?" Eames says. Arthur looks at him. "Your shoulder?" Eames says, running two fingers up Arthur’s arm, along the lines he just stroked into parchment with ink.
"No," Arthur says. He doesn’t know the words and he won’t ask, Eames sees, bound by some invisible line in the rules he’s created. Arthur sighs. "Lower," he says. Eames keeps his hand flat on Arthur’s body, slides it down his chest, his stomach. Arthur’s dick twitches. "Lower," he says again. "Your hand," he says.
"My hand what?" Eames says, lifting it away. Arthur makes a noise low in his throat; there’s a bead of fluid at the tip of his cock, another. "Put back your hand," he says. Eames puts it on his thigh. Arthur glares.
"More up," he says, after a moment.
"Higher," Eames says.
"Higher," Arthur echoes. Eames brings his hand to his hip and Arthur tosses his head restlessly on the pillow, his face tightening in frustration for a moment before his eyes open and he gives Eames a sly smile. "Your hand is my sheath," he says, so triumphant that Eames lets out an inadvertent laugh. He’d taught Arthur that word this morning, Arthur pointing to each piece of his gear in turn and repeating, diligently, after him. "Now," Arthur says. Eames slides his hand down over Arthur’s cock, and Arthur gasps in relief, eyes closing. "Move," he says, and then licks his lips and adds "your hand," even though Eames is already stroking him, bracing himself so Arthur can push up into his palm.
"Now you," Arthur says, after he comes, lying back and watching Eames wipe his hand. "Put your clothes off."
"Take your clothes off," Eames says, getting his shift and pants off. Arthur nods, but doesn’t repeat him, just says,
"Down." Eames lies down and then watches Arthur sit up next to his hip, cross his legs under him, and do nothing. Eames shifts impatiently, and lifts his hand to touch himself, but Arthur pushes it away from his body.
"No," he says.
"No?" Eames says.
"You were—" Arthur thinks. "I wait for your hand. Now you." Eames blinks. Arthur wants Eames’ hand frequently and doesn’t seem to care if Eames wants to stroke off after. Eames has grown used to Arthur watching him, looking drowsy, his body lax. Except for the once, Arthur has never offered to touch him.
"You want me to wait," Eames says, guessing. Arthur leans forward, lifting one hand.
"I touch you where you say," he says.
"I—" Eames switches to Norse. "Can I just take care of myself?" Arthur shakes his head.
"I don’t hear you," he says.
"I’ll—my neck," Eames says, in Saxon. He wants Arthur to put his hands on his prick and stroke him, but can’t get the words to form in his mouth. Arthur puts two fingers, lightly, on his neck, just under his ear, looking curious, his hair falling across his cheek as he leans forward.
"My chest," Eames says. Arthur thinks and then slides his hand lower, fingers spreading. One pushes across his nipple and Eames makes an involuntary noise, hips twisting a little. Arthur leans forward and touches it again, sliding the pad of his forefinger over it, back and forth.
"I don’t know this word," he says. He slides a finger across Eames’ chest to the other nipple, which is already peaked. Eames closes his eyes.
"I’ll stop," Arthur says, but doesn’t for a long moment, just sliding his fingers softly over Eames’ nipple, one at a time. Then he stops. Eames opens his eyes.
"More?" Arthur says.
"More," Eames says. His voice is shaking. His cock is leaking on his stomach. Arthur puts his finger back and Eames thinks of Abbot Christopher, his dour, pinched face, what he would think to see Eames on his back, wanting his master’s touch, asking for it. Arthur is leaning forward, watching him avidly, smelling of the release that Eames gave him. Eames stops thinking of Abbot Christopher, stops thinking of anything at all, says,
"I want your hand," his voice hoarse.
"Where?" Arthur says, but he slides his hand lower, along Eames’ stomach.
"My cock," Eames says. Arthur’s hand is very strong, and Eames hips jerk up helplessly into him until Arthur kneels up and puts a hand on his opposite hip to hold him down.***
Arthur goes to sleep with a satisfied, compliant slave pressed along his back, keeping his bed warm, and wakes up with Eames again, thumping crossly around in the kitchen. His paper and ink are packed away already.
"Good morning," Arthur says, sitting up and pushing down the bedclothes. Eames jerks around, startled. There are black shadows under his eyes. "Are you unwell?" Arthur says. Eames hasn't been coughing or warm, but fevers can come on suddenly in winter.
"No," Eames says. His hair is wet and there's snow melting in the kettle for breakfast.
"You're—making breakfast," Arthur says, although he's done it these last three weeks, happy for an excuse to move, a task for his hands, and a good chance of eating unburnt porridge, which rarely happens when Eames cooks breakfast. Eames has seemed content to stay in bed until Arthur has the fire roaring and hot porridge in his bowl.
"Yes," Eames says. He turns back around, scraping down the edges of the pot.
"What are you doing?" Arthur says. He slides out of bed and yanks his clothes on.
"I’m serving you," Eames says contemptuously. "Isn’t that what you want?"
"Do you want to walk down this road?" Arthur says.
"fuck yourself," Eames says almost under his breath, still clattering the spoon around the pot.
"I said go fuck yourself, you arsehole," Eames says, throwing the spoon into the pot and turning around, and Arthur grabs him by the collar and has him on his knees on the floor before the words are out of his mouth. Eames is shaking under his hands, looking for a fight, and he yanks his wrist out of Arthur’s grasp and rolls sideways, throwing a punch. Arthur isn’t expecting it, and Eames makes contact, landing a solid hit against Arthur’s cheek. Arthur catches his wrist easily—Eames is no fighter and doesn’t push his full weight through the strike—and forces him back down, pinning his arms behind his back. Eames gasps, angrily, opens his mouth again, and Arthur says,
"Why, because I’ll make it worse?" Eames spits out. "I fucking hate you and I don’t—" Arthur shakes him, hard, until Eames’ teeth clatter together, and then he shoves Eames down by the neck until his face is pressed against the floor.
"Do you know what they say about you in the village, even to my face?" Arthur says. "That you must be sweet to me, that you must play the whore for me in my bed, for me to be so kind to you."
Eames swallows audibly, and says nothing.
"But you don’t, do you," Arthur says. He tightens his hand until Eames grits out a soft,
"No," Arthur says. Eames is panting softly under him; he’s hurting him, bruising his neck, and he has a flicker of memory of the night before, of Eames’ wry little smile at Arthur’s accent, the way he’d licked his lower lip and rubbed his cock against Arthur’s palm and feels—tired. He drops Eames and stands. "I can be hard with you just as easily as I can be kind," he says, and turns to the fire.
He scrapes the blackened porridge out of the pot into a bowl and drops it on the floor in front of Eames and then turns back to make himself a new, unburnt portion. Eames doesn’t eat; he doesn’t move, just stays kneeling, staring at the floor. Arthur eats his porridge at the table in silence; he’s not hungry.
The day passes very slowly. Arthur has grown used to Eames, tucked up in his bed asking for stories, leaning on his elbow at the table with a blanket over his lap, working over one of his drawings.
"Where’s the drawing you made?" Arthur asks, hours later, when Eames still hasn’t eaten, and is shivering on the floor still, now with cold, his face turned away from Arthur.
"I burned it," Eames says.
"Why?" Eames is proud of his drawings, keeps them all, even the ones he says didn’t come out as he meant. He’d been pleased with the drawing he’d made of Arthur; Arthur had seen it in the way he worked over the page, in his face when he came to bed and put his ink-stained hands on him, in the way he’d teased his fingers along Arthur’s arm, feeling the way the muscles knitted together and looking satisfied.
"I don’t know," Eames says, tonelessly. Arthur looks at him, the strong lines of him, the curve of his head, bent, defeated. He’s never needed to hurt someone weaker than he is to feel like a man.
"Get up," he says. "Get in bed."
Eames climbs slowly to his feet; Arthur can feel the chill of him when he slides under the blankets. "Are you going to fuck me?" he says.
"No," Arthur says.
"I wouldn’t fight you," Eames says. He means it to sound submissive, but he sounds desolate.
"Yes you would," Arthur tells him, feeling the edge of an odd smile on his mouth. He’s never seen a slave so prideful as Eames, spoiling for a fight.
"I didn’t fight you last night," Eames says. "I asked for you." Arthur folds his arms and looks at Eames’ face in the flickering firelight. There’s a hot red stain crawling up his throat. He turns his face away under Arthur’s regard. He’s embarrassed about liking to be touched, Arthur sees, about the way he’d curved up under Arthur, begged with his body and and even his mouth a little, saying "yes, yes," the way his nipples had peaked under Arthur’s finger. It’s hard to remember, the way Eames’ body responds to him, the full-grown breadth of him, that he’s only ever known Arthur’s touch.
"You wanted a hand on your prick," Arthur says. "Just like any other man. It would have felt the same whether or not you were my slave."
Something slackens in Eames’ face. He looks incredibly tired, his face shadowed; Arthur wonders if he is sickening with some illness after all.
"Go to sleep," Arthur says and Eames, for once, obeys without question.***
Arthur makes the porridge in the morning, adds a handful of dried apples and gives Eames a double share, sits him at the table and says
"Eat." Eames’ stomach groans; he picks up the spoon. Arthur waits until he’s finished, and then he says,
"You can’t speak to me that way again."
"And if you—raise your fists against me, I’ll have to beat you," Arthur says. He turns his cup of tea around in his hand. The back of Eames’ neck feels tender, but he’s had worse from hauling sod. His arms aren’t bruised. Arthur had been holding back.
"I’ll use your hand when I want it," Arthur says. "You’ll share my bed. It’s too cold for you to have your own pallet; perhaps in spring. The rest of your duties will continue as before."
"I don’t—" Eames says uncertainly. Arthur puts down the mug with a dull thunk.
"Do you think I’m so ugly that I can’t find a willing bed partner when I want one?" he says.
"No," Eames says. Girls in the village look after Arthur, some of the boys, as well; Arthur never appears to take any notice.
"I expect your hand, without any sulking," Arthur says again. "I won’t touch you unless you ask."
"I don’t hurt slaves for entertainment," Arthur says. "You don’t want me to touch your cock." He shrugs. "If it doesn’t interfere with the duties I set for you, it’s no skin off my neck. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Eames says, although he doesn’t. Arthur is looking maddeningly calm and reasonable, like he agrees not to touch cocks over breakfast every day. Arthur stands.
"Let me see," he says, and peels back the collar of Eames’ tunic. His finger moves once, softly, over the worst of the bruise. Then he says, "Do you know how to play Tafl?"
"No," Eames says. Arthur puts a little box on the table and flips it open.
"I don’t have a real board," he says. He has a folded piece of parchment marked into the game board and a collection of buttons and acorn tops and a few little carved figures. Arthur smooths the parchment and starts placing the figures.
"Brunn had this game," Eames says, moving a few of the buttons onto the board.
"Here, like this," Arthur says, sliding the pieces into place. Brunn’s set was gold, flickering with inset jewels, and the board was a fine piece of mahogany, the lines set out with mother-of-pearl. Arthur beats him twenty games straight before Eames beats him once, and, in the next days, still beats him four games for every one that Eames wins.
"That’s—good," Eames sighs once, staring at the board as Arthur places a marker. Arthur’s beat him nine games in a row; it’ll be ten after Eames’ next move.
"You want me to let you win?" Arthur says. "That’s no way to play a game."
"No," Eames agrees, frowning at the marker still. "I’ll take my victory as I earn it." He picks up a button and puts it down in the center of the board. Arthur’s eyebrows slide down.
"Fuck," he says. Eames wins that one.
Arthur keeps his word. He doesn’t ask for Eames’ hand that night, but he does the night after, opening his pants and drawing in a breath when Eames kneels next to him on the bed. Eames slides his fingers firmly over Arthur’s hip, the little sweet spot that makes Arthur twist into his touch if Eames brushes a fingernail across it, tightens his hand around the base of Arthur’s cock and tries to feel angry and degraded and disgusted, but what he truly feels, with Arthur’s prick in his hand, is powerful.
Arthur may talk about his other willing bed partners, but Eames can’t believe that he’s ever allowed anyone to see him this way, his head tossed back on the pillows, his mouth opening hungrily, his eyelashes fluttering, dark and long against his cheeks, no matter what he may say. Eames should hate Arthur but his body won't listen to him and even his hand on Arthur gets him hard, fills him with mindless lust, makes him wonder, wonder what Arthur might do, if he put his mouth against his lips, if he ate up his soft gasps, licked at the warm pink bow of Arthur’s lip. Arthur’s thighs tense and go slack and Eames can believe that Arthur would let him, that he would fist his hands in the cloth at Eames' shoulders and lean up into the kiss, he would let Eames' tongue or fingers in his mouth if Eames wanted. Arthur, who doesn’t seem to remember that what a slave might want is irrelevant.
Arthur doesn’t look at him in triumph or scorn, not when he spills, his body jerking helplessly beneath Eames’ hands, not when Eames fumbles open his pants and takes himself in hand, slicking his cock with Arthur’s seed and coming at the feel of it, unable to keep the harsh cry from falling out of his mouth. The only thing Arthur says is,
"I’m cold," when Eames has flung off his soiled shift and wiped his hands. Then he wants to put his icy hands on Eames’ belly and press his body against his back. His mouth opens when he falls asleep, a little hot spot against the center of Eames’ shoulder. Eames doesn’t sleep for a little while; his mind is full of the drawing he wants to make of Arthur in the morning.***
"The time passes too slowly," Eames says, folding his arms and putting his head down on the table. "I miss the sun. I miss—hauling rocks."
Arthur nods. "It’s worst just before the cold breaks," he says. "Soon."
"How did you pass the time before? Last winter there wouldn’t have even been anyone to play Tafl with."
"Last year I made the table and chairs," Arthur says.
"You did?" The table is plain, but strongly joined, neatly proportioned.
"Who taught you?" Eames turns to look at the rough flourishes carved into the high back of his chair.
"I taught myself," Arthur says. "I—lots of mistakes," he says, ruefully.
"Do you make things for other people?"
"Just the spoons, the animal for the children, small things," Arthur says. "My work is expected—in other places."
Killing, he means, but does not say.
"Another game?" Eames says. Arthur groans, but starts to set up the board.
Spring comes rushing in, four days of hard rain and warm sun melting the snow, the ice on the stream creaking and then breaking. There are little new yellow flowers popped up in the grass and, fetching water, Eames sees a little family of new rabbits, the kits smaller than his fist, hopping unsteadily after their mother.
The men are rowdy and boisterous on the training field; Arthur comes home grinning, covered in mud, with a wide red scrape running the length of his arm, and throws himself bodily into the stream, surfacing a moment later, yelping at the cold. Eames heats a bucket of water in front of the fire for himself.
"There will be a fair, as soon as the ice melts in the hills," Arthur says. "Seven days. You’ll plant the garden while I’m gone, start to plough the field if the mud softens enough." Eames is rubbing down a sore spot on his back, concentrating while Arthur leans forward, his hands flat against the table.
"Higher," Arthur says and then grunts when Eames digs his knuckle in and sweeps it along the knotted muscle.
"What a kindness you’re doing, to leave me all the ploughing while you force yourself to celebrate and—"
"Impertinence," Arthur murmurs, breathing through his nose while Eames pushes his thumbs low against his hips. Arthur’s been training hard; he’s holding all his pain inside his back and shoulders. Eames presses his palm flat against the base of Arthur’s back and then wraps his hand over one hip and pulls, a steady pressure until Arthur lets out a creaky sigh and his spine loosens.
"I meant, I hope you will enjoy yourself while I obediently follow your instructions to the letter," Eames says.
"How do you think we’ll pay for grain to sow the field?" Arthur says, turning around, rolling his shoulders and giving Eames a grateful nod. His cock is half hard in his pants from the rubdown.
"Should I?" Eames says.
"Yes," Arthur says. He leans back against the table and Eames slides his hand down his stomach, past his waistband, palms Arthur’s cock. He knows Arthur’s body very well, after the winter, how best to touch him. Arthur moves his feet apart and Eames steps in between them.
"How will you buy grain?" Eames says.
"There are—prizes," Arthur says. "For—for winning contests of skill." Eames looks down his body, listening to the distracted cadence of Arthur’s voice, watching how Arthur tries to keep his voice steady with a hand working his cock. There’s a game he plays with himself, when he has Arthur like this, to see what he can push Arthur to do, to see if he can put a thought, the smallest idea, into Arthur’s mind, and watch it grow.
"What kind of contests?" Eames says. He pulls back and licks his hand and tugs Arthur’s pants further down before he continues.
"Ah," Arthur swallows. "Footraces. Fighting, weapons and—and—" his voice trembles as Eames speeds up, and he has to brace himself against the table.
"And." Arthur says. "Fists, fighting with—with fists, strength and—"
"And you’ll win?" Eames says.
"Many of them," Arthur sighs. Arthur is generally taciturn about his skill on the battlefield; Eames has never heard him brag.
"Boastful," Eames says, slowing down just enough to make Arthur frown and put a hand on his wrist.
"You have a smart mouth," Arthur says.
"You’d shut me up if you wanted to," Eames says, pushing, a little. Arthur lets him say things when Eames has his hands on him that he’d never allow when they’re clothed, but half the time he’ll cut Eames off with a harsh look, say "Finish me," his tone final. Not this time.
"You—" Arthur’s eyes fly up to his mouth and he goes red, jerking up into Eames’ palm. Eames thinks about getting his mouth on Arthur, about how it would feel to open his lips around Arthur’s cock and grip his hips to keep him still. A year ago he didn’t know that anyone ever did such a thing, but now he has Arthur in the palm of his hand and wants more, wants to see what sounds Arthur will make for him, how he’ll look afterwards.
"You please me like this," Arthur mutters.
"Do I?" Eames says. Arthur is leaking, just from speaking of it, dripping down over Eames’ knuckles. "You’re looking," he says.
"Hm," Arthur says. He puts his fingers on Eames’ mouth. "You talk too much." Eames opens his mouth and Arthur’s fingers slip inside and against Eames’ tongue. Arthur makes a choked noise in the back of his throat and says, "You should—please me with, with your mouth," but he puts his hand over Eames’ hand, tightly, and keeps it on his cock, moving it, until Eames pulls his hand free, says,
"Yes," and gets down on his knees.
Arthur is usually quiet when Eames strokes him off, sighing a little, yelling as he reaches climax, but he moans at the first touch of Eames’ mouth on the tip of his wet cock and his hands come down on Eames’ shoulders, fingers scraping across the fabric of his tunic. He’s been wanting it, Eames thinks, he’s been holding back, honoring some agreement he thinks he’s made with Eames, and Eames closes his hands around Arthur’s hips and licks and licks him, tries to get Arthur’s cock fully in his mouth and can’t.
"Suck me," Arthur says, finally, and it’s an order, but his voice twists and drops away into a moan when Eames does it.*
Arthur keeps looking at him, after, through evening chores and dinner, until Eames looks up from the new plan he’s drawing for the garden and says,
"Do you have a task for me?"
"Your mouth," Arthur says. "I’ll expect its use."
"Now?" Eames says. Arthur never requires his service more than once a day, but he thinks about licking Arthur to full hardness, how Arthur will still taste of his release, and pushes back his chair.
"Not now," Arthur says shortly. "When I tell you." There’s something in his face, crackling, dangerous. Eames ducks his head back to his work. "And you talk too much when you’re—when I’m using you," Arthur says. He clears his throat. "You’ll stop."
"You need only say what you want of me," Eames murmurs. "If I don’t please you," but he knows he did please Arthur, the way Arthur had whimpered and clung to his shoulders, his cock jerking in Eames’ mouth. Knows that there was no thought in Arthur’s mind of using his mouth until Eames had placed it there with his hands, his words.
"I will," Arthur says. He stares at the bed, at Eames’ mouth again, and then he says, "Firewood," and doesn’t come back until Eames is finished with the garden plan and drawing a border of honeybees and moles and snails in blues and reds.***
The fair is a half a day’s ride; they arrive at sunset and make camp. Most of the others go off in search of the alehouse or the row of tents set a little down the river where you can buy a whore. Arthur stays behind and eats his dinner and then lays out his bedroll and sleeps. The contests are to start the next day and he intends to fight well.
There’s a long row of merchant tents between the fields where the contests of strength are held and the wide, low valley next to the stream where the cooking fires are. Arthur walks past the booth a dozen times before he stops to look: a careful collection of cloak pins, intricately wrought—rabbits and wolves, stags and pins that are just a twining coil of of glinting metal, pleasing to the eye.
Eames has a perfectly good cloak pin, strong and plain, as befits a slave. Arthur goes to join the footraces, up on the hill. He’s not as fast as he was at seventeen winters, when no one could catch him, but he’s traded his speed for strength and cunning. He does well still in the races and better when he’s fighting with a short knife, with his fists, with a sword.
When Arthur stops again, the merchant hurries over, smelling a sale.
"Buying for yourself?" he says, glancing at Arthur’s own plain iron cloak pin. "Or a gift?"
"A gift," Arthur says, unwillingly. Eames likes beautiful things, glances his hands along the finely carved furniture in the Great Hall and the curls and loops make their way into his drawings, as a border at the edge of Arthur’s tunic or the curling waves of the ocean. Arthur picks up a heron made of ivory, and then touches a coiling serpent, rendered in silver, with finely detailed scales and a gaping, fearsome mouth.
Eames would like it, perhaps, Arthur thinks, but he can’t be sure. Eames is everything that Arthur requires of him: obedient and hard-working. He never tells Arthur no, not anymore, but Arthur has little idea what he thinks, that sometimes he’ll smile at Arthur and seem happy enough, that sometimes he’ll grow quiet, hunched over his book, writing his strange, scratchy language. That he’ll leave it without any protest to come to Arthur’s bed when Arthur requests it—but then, it’s not a request, even if Eames never lingers long enough for Arthur to sharpen it into an order.
Eames asks to draw him, often, but Arthur usually says no; it reminds him that he likes Eames’ eyes on him, too much, that he enjoys Eames’ words, his hands, his mouth, more than he should. There are words for men who forget themselves with slaves, for men who don’t take a woman.
"The serpent," the merchant says, giving Arthur a flattering smile. "You have a good eye."
Arthur holds it in his palm, runs his thumb along the arc of its body. Then he puts it down.
"The workmanship is very fine. A skilled hand made this," he says. "I’ll tell my friends of your wares."
Eames is warm and willing in his bed, these days, seems well-content to let Arthur use his hand and even his mouth, throw an arm over his broad back to keep his warmth against him in sleep. There’s no point in wasting money to risk Eames, pressed back against the wall, frowning even in sleep, sulking when Arthur asks for what it’s his right to take by force.
He weighs the purse in his hand, heavy with his winnings, and turns towards the alehouse.***
The men return to the village at sunset on the sixth day. Eames is working in the garden, but stands when he sees two men on horses peel away from the larger group and come along the sheep track. As they get closer, he sees that Arthur is slumped face-down over his horse and Geir is holding his horse’s reins in his fist. The breath goes out of him a little; Arthur is very still.
"What—was he injured?" Eames says, already moving forward.
"He’s piss drunk," Geir says, swinging off his horse. "Arthur," he says. He leans forward and gives Arthur’s cheek a gentle pat. Arthur doesn’t move. Geir shrugs and pulls once on Arthur’s wrist and Arthur slithers down off the horse in a tangle of limbs. Geir catches him, easily, hauling him up with one arm around his ribcage. He’s a head taller than Arthur and Arthur looks small, collapsed into his armpit.
"I can walk," Arthur mumbles. When Geir loosens his grip, he weaves alarmingly, and Geir fists a hand in the back of his tunic and dumps him against Eames’ shoulder, where he’s a warm and pungent weight.
"Eames," Arthur says.
"What—" Eames says, pulling back instinctively from the smell. Arthur stumbles forward against him.
"That’s vomit," Geir says cheerfully. "Our boy, here, crushed his opponents on the fields of honor, but his legendary feats of prowess were soon overshadowed by his legendary drinking, which the bards will be singing of for years to come."
"Did not," Arthur says, nonsensically. Geir unloads the saddlebags from Arthur’s horse and dumps them inside. "I won," Arthur says. Up close his breath is sour.
"I wouldn’t let him go to sleep before you get some water down his throat," Geir says, swinging back up onto his horse. Eames just nods, already struggling to manage Arthur, who is half-collapsed against his shoulder, a deadweight. "Have a pleasant evening," Geir says, and then he gathers the reins of Arthur’s horse and starts down the hill.
It takes Eames a long time to maneuver Arthur inside and get his boots and tunic off. Arthur is pliable, but so unsteady on his feet and uncoordinated that his attempts to help just impede Eames’ progress, and finally he says,
"Stop," pushing Arthur’s fingers away from his bootlaces for the fifth time.
"Eames," Arthur says blurrily, and collapses back on the bed.
"Yes," Eames says.
"Eames, your mouth," Arthur sighs. Eames’ feels his chest go tight, thinking of the crude talk he hears in the village, that arse Danil and his "does Arthur like fucking your pretty mouth", even the time Frieda sighed and said, "I wish my lips looked like yours." He waits for something ugly to come out of Arthur’s soft mouth, Arthur who has hurt him, but never tried to humiliate him with words, who just asks for Eames’ hand or his mouth as he asks him to pass the butter.
"Your mouth," Arthur mumbles again, staring at the ceiling. "I like how you talk." Eames looks up at him. Arthur’s smile fades. "I didn’t bring you anything," he says.
"I’ll live," Eames says, starting to work Arthur’s tunic up over his hips.
"No," Arthur protests, "Geir got Frieda a belt and a new set of sewing shears, but I know you don’t like—when I give you things like that."
"You’re not making sense," Eames says, getting the tunic off, Arthur obediently lifting his arms over his head.
"You were so angry about the ink," Arthur mumbles.
"That was months ago," Eames says. Arthur’s undertunic has a few sour-smelling damp patches, and Eames sighs and pulls it up too, and then stops when he sees the bandage. "What’s this?" he says, taking Arthur’s shoulder and leaning him back flat on the bed so he can get a better look. It’s a large, white rectangle, starting just below Arthur’s left nipple and wrapping across his ribs, strapped around his torso with a couple thin bandages, spotted and flecked with blood. "Geir didn’t say you were hurt," Eames says.
"He didn’t know," Arthur says vaguely. "I got it after."
"What, you—what happened?" Eames says. "Let me see it."
"No," Arthur says, but he doesn’t actually protest when Eames fetches a bowl of water and a clean cloth and slips a knife under the bandages binding down the wound. He peels it back carefully, even though Arthur is likely too drunk to care if he’s gentle or not. He’s expecting a red, raw wound from a knife, a deep ragged cut, but when he gets the bandage up, it’s a tattoo.
"What’s this?" he says slowly. It’s a blue bird, taking wing, lines sketched across Arthur’s narrow ribcage and curling around his side. It’s—his drawing, his work. "Where did you—" he begins, not certain what to say. Arthur’s skin is reddened, raised around the already healing lines of the tattoo, but the stark blue lines against his skin are—beautiful, Eames thinks, unbidden.
"I stole it," Arthur says. "Your drawing. I thought—I thought maybe you knew and didn’t mind," he adds softly.
"No. I didn’t know," Eames says, still staring, shaken. He wants to put his hand on it, the bird, Arthur’s chest. He often doesn’t look at drawings after he finishes them, tucking them away and forgetting about them.
"Oh," Arthur says and then he rolls sideways on his hip and fishes a folded piece of parchment out of his pocket. "It got a little bent," he says. Eames takes it. It’s folded in quarters, worn soft and fuzzy and yellow at the corners. Eames unfolds it; there are a thousand tiny creases in the parchment, and the bottom fold is torn, crumpled.
"I don’t—" Eames says, glancing from the picture to Arthur’s ribs; it’s a good copy; he couldn’t have done better himself, and the bird seems alive in the subtle motion of Arthur’s ribs.
"It got torn," Arthur says. "I tried to fix it, but—it just kept getting worse, so—"
"So you got a tattoo of it?" Eames says, at a loss for words, and that seems to snap Arthur out of his friendly, drunken haze, because he straightens, and when he speaks his voice sounds close to his regular, slightly clipped cadence.
"That’s right. It needs to be covered for another two days."
"All right," Eames says. He sets a new cloth against the tattoo and rebinds it and then he makes Arthur drink two cups of water. By the time he finishes, his head is drooping onto his chest, half asleep. "Lie down," Eames says, taking the cup from him, and Arthur slides down bonelessly onto the mattress and falls into sleep seemingly instantaneously. Eames pulls the blankets up over him and goes to tidy the bandages.
He leaves the picture on the table, flattened and open. He has to crawl over Arthur to get into bed. Arthur’s face, in sleep, is lax and open, very young, his hair flung out on the pillow in heavy waves. Eames thinks about touching it, how it might feel, twined in his fingers. He doesn’t.*
Arthur takes his turn on the plough the next day, although Eames can see that his head pains him.
"Perhaps a rest," Eames suggests, when Arthur is shoving the hand-plough through the rutted earth, looking pale. The village is very quiet below, few people stirring.
"No," Arthur says. "The ships will leave to raid as soon as the seas calm."
"When is that?"
"Some months yet," Arthur says.
"That’s long enough to take a morning of rest," Eames says.
"No," Arthur says. "It’s not."***
There’s too much work. Arthur had thought having a slave would make life easier, but what it really means is the creation of a wholly new, endless list of tasks. With Eames at home while Arthur raids, he can tend the garden and the fields, chickens, perhaps even a goat if Arthur can pull together enough barter to get them one, but that means ploughing and sowing, weeding the garden, digging out irrigation channels, rebuilding the chicken coop and starting work on the pen for a goat on top of tending the garden and Arthur’s training obligations. Eames works hard all day, but he wakes slowly, and Arthur gets used to having to shake him awake several times before he thumps out of bed, rubbing at his face..
"Wake up," Arthur says, for the third time, the day they’ve put aside to wrest a stump from the field. Eames makes a contented noise, and flops over to his stomach. "Eames," Arthur says.
"Arthur," Eames mumbles, eyes still firmly closed. "If I owned y—"
"You don’t," Arthur says, and shoves him so hard he nearly falls off the bed. "The stream, water. Now."
Eames pushes the covers off and gets up, shooting Arthur a confused, resentful look, even though Arthur didn’t hit him hard enough to hurt him. He pulls on his clothes and takes the bucket, and Arthur watches him go. Eames is—perhaps, growing complacent, he thinks. Arthur doesn’t mind that Eames makes jokes sometimes, that they trade stories at the table or in bed, before they fall asleep, that Eames will work on his own drawing projects in his book in the evenings, but he won’t have an insolent slave, who cannot hold his tongue, who forgets who his master is.
They spend the morning digging out around the stump, trying to shift it. The sun is warm and they’re both sweating by midday. Arthur pulls out their lunch bundle beneath a tree at the edge of the field and Eames yanks off his overtunic and throws himself down in the grass, taking a piece of bread. He bites into it and then rolls sideways, reaching across Arthur’s knee to grab a piece of cold chicken, without asking.
"We’re going to have to chop it in pieces to get it out," he says, lying down on his back, chewing. His chest moves gently; he looks perfectly relaxed, head pillowed on one arm, the gentle curve of his cheek just starting to grow a little pink from the sun. "Pass me the water?" he says, and then smiles at Arthur when he does, their fingers brushing.
"I want to fuck your mouth," Arthur says. Eames blinks.
"Here?" he says.
"I can’t use my own slave on my land?" Arthur says.
"Yes," Eames says, "I—yes, but usually—"
"Enough," Arthur says. He sits on a broad flat rock that he and Eames had pulled out of the field last fall; it was so big they could barely lift it between the two of them and they dragged it clear of the field, under the tree and left it. Eames is staring at him, chewing slowly. "Come here," Arthur says. Eames dusts off his hands and gets to his feet.
"On your knees," Arthur says and Eames goes, without question. Arthur feels a hot thrill at it, at the breadth of Eames’ shoulders, bent for him, out here where anyone might see how Arthur takes what belongs to him. Eames is strong, Arthur thinks, feeding his already hard cock into Eames’ mouth, holding his jaw none too gently. Eames chokes a little and Arthur eases off, because he can be generous, he is generous, sharing his bed with an insolent slave who barely knows his place, who thinks, what, dares to think of Arthur’s body as—as something that might be used for his pleasure, when he exists to provide relief for Arthur’s body, and any pleasure he might take in it is at Arthur’s discretion. Eames puts a hand on Arthur’s knee, the palm flat against his kneecap, rubbing a little. Arthur takes Eames’ face in his hands and fucks his cock into his wet, impudent mouth, what, what does Eames think, what does he dare to think, that he could have Arthur on his knees, using his mouth, rubbing his cock across his open lips, that Eames would have him on his back, squeezing his arse open with his hands, that Arthur would spread for him, let Eames walk his fingers down his spine into the crack of his arse, put his fingers inside him, lie between Arthur’s legs and push his—and Arthur would never—would never—Arthur holds Eames’ jaw, yanks on his hair, makes him take it, pulls Eames’ head back as he comes so he hits Eames’ face, marking him. Eames sits back, breathing hard, mouth open. He puts one hand on the ground to brace himself and wipes at his face with the other, spunk on his lips, his cheek, his hand.
Arthur gets his breath back and pulls his clothing to rights. Eames settles himself on his knees and pulls up his tunic. His hands are on the tie of his pants when Arthur says,
"What are you doing?"
Eames nods, looking out to the stump in the field. "I can be fast," he says. He loosens the tie with efficient fingers.
"Did I say you could touch yourself?" Arthur says.
"No," Eames says, looking up, lifting an incredulous eyebrow. Arthur never makes him ask. Arthur swallows. Eames did well with his mouth and there’s a damp stain on the front of his pants from his cock, leaking, Arthur thinks, from letting another man use him. His body knows its place even if his mind doesn’t.
"You may," Arthur says magnanimously. Eames gives him a level, unreadable look and then he huffs a little darkly amused breath and says,
"That’s all right." He turns back to his half-eaten lunch and picks up a piece of cheese.
"You want it," Arthur says. Eames shrugs.
"I don’t feel like it," he says. "Will you force me?"
"No," Arthur grits out. Eames’ balls can turn blue and fall off for all he cares.
"What did you mean?" Arthur says, when Eames is lying next to him in bed. He’d been hard for almost an hour before it had gone away, and the stain had taken even longer to dry. Arthur had sunk his axe so deeply into the tree stump that he’d barely been able to get it free, hating how little he understood of Eames, that Eames wouldn’t just—pleasure himself if he wanted it so badly, would haul stump wood with his cock pressing against the front of his pants like it was nothing.
"What?" Eames says. He doesn’t even seem annoyed at Arthur, took Arthur’s seconds at supper when he didn’t want them and thanked him, frowned over a difficult tear in Arthur’s leather gauntlets for nearly an hour with his needle, nothing on his face but concentration.
"What?" Eames says.
"This morning," Arthur says.
"This—I don’t. did I say something?" Eames says, turning onto his side.
"When you said if you—if I belonged to you," Arthur says, barely able to get the words past his teeth.
"I said—did I?" Eames says. He lifts one palm. "I don’t—I was asleep. I probably only meant I wouldn’t kick you out of bed to break ice on the stream before the sun rose."
"Oh," Arthur says.
"Is that—" Eames tilts his head, considering. "is that why you wanted to tell me I could get off?"
"I won’t have you thinking about me like that," Arthur says. Eames face goes blank—that’s rage, Arthur thinks, because he knows Eames now, his face when he’s angry, when he thinks he has some right to be angry.
"You don’t own what I think," Eames says, low.
"I know that well," Arthur says, galled, oddly furious. "You are the most disrespectful—"
"Maybe—" Eames touches his wrist. He doesn’t look angry anymore. Arthur stares at Eames’ hand, his two fingers, just a touch against his knuckles.
"What," he says, wondering if Eames thinks he can say anything he wants and never earn a beating.
"Maybe," Eames says again, licks his lower lip. "Tell me—give me your permission to touch myself," Eames says. There are a few faint fingerprint bruises on his jaw where Arthur gripped him too hard, like a callow boy with his first.
"You, you can," Arthur says. Eames won’t, he thinks, in the moment he says it; Eames will say no again.
"I can?" Eames says, he puts his hand lazily on his belly.
"You can—stroke yourself," Arthur says.
"Hm," Eames says, a soft, easy noise, already working his pants down his legs. Arthur watches. Eames’ cock in his fist, his thighs sprawled open, thrusting up. Eames doesn’t ask for his hand.***
Arthur takes him to the hot spring again the next morning, whatever ill humor he was in seemingly gone. Eames tips his head back against the side of the pool, watching him, thinking idly of how he’d like to hold Arthur’s arse in the palms of his hands next time he takes him in his mouth, tighten his fingers over the curve of his cheeks until Arthur cries out for him.
"Did it cause you. bother yesterday. To be outside?" Arthur says obliquely, looking down at the water. Eames knows what he means well enough, but doesn’t answer, to see what Arthur will say. Arthur pushes Eames in the farming, tells him he’s weak or soft if Eames asks for a rest even after hours of work, but he’s soft, himself, about the bruises he occasionally gives Eames when he’s stroking him off, grabbing at his arm or digging his nails into his wrist as he reaches climax. He frowns over them. He never apologizes.
"Is it—unseemly, in your country?" Arthur says, finally.
"No," Eames says. "I don’t know."
Arthur’s face is warm from the heat of the water; it reminds Eames of how he’d looked, eyes dark, staring at Eames after coming on him, touching his lip unconsciously where there was spunk on Eames mouth.
"Did you want to use me now, out here?" Eames says, making a vague gesture at the grassy hillside.
"No," Arthur says. "Don’t—I’ll tell you when."
Eames ducks under the water to hide his involuntary smile. It’s—something, that Arthur wants his touch so badly that Eames can make him flushed and short with only a few words. He spent the first months with Arthur thinking he was solemn and cold, measured, calculating, but he sees the heat at Arthur’s core now. Arthur works in a ruthless, ceaseless grind, but beneath that, Arthur wants, and Eames feels an answering echo in himself, in the way Arthur closes his mouth around a piece of candy or pulls Eames’ hands to him in bed, his haste making him clumsy, a little rough, as though he thinks the only way he’ll ever be allowed to have what he wants is to take it by force. Eames puts his hands on Arthur and knows the answer to the riddle he could never put a name to, through the empty ache of his cold boyhood, the space he tried to fill with prayer and couldn’t, the hole he lined with drawings of beautiful things he’d never touch.
After they finish, Arthur hoists himself out of the pool and sits on the edge to trim his beard, clipping it close against his face.
"Why always so short?" Eames asks. He keeps his own beard clipped short because it’s what he’s used to, because Arthur put the shears down in front of him his first week and pointed at his face, but many of the warriors wear their beards as long as they can grow them. Arthur’s is short, a pleasant scratch against his skin when he tucks his face into Eames’ back in sleep.
"Why offer your enemies a handle?" Arthur says, tilting his head back and clipping beneath his chin.
"I can," Eames says, making a quick gesture to his own chin. Arthur stops. Then, after a moment, he nods. Eames pulls himself out of the pool and Arthur turns, hands him the shears, and tips his head back. He doesn’t hesitate. Eames runs his fingers up Arthur’s throat and then clips the longer hairs away quickly; it takes no time at all, Arthur’s hands quiet against his knees. Eames trims his own beard afterwards, but Arthur doesn’t offer to help. He doesn’t speak again until they’re dressed and walking home.
"Do I scratch your tender Saxon skin?" he says, squinting at the path. Eames looks sideways at him and Arthur lights up into a crooked grin, and Eames thinks of the tattoo, beneath Arthur’s clothes. He hasn’t found a way to touch it again yet.
Eames is mending net by the stream; it’s full spring now, the ice long gone; he’ll drop the net and they’ll have trout for supper fried in goose grease, crisp and hot, handfuls of new bright greens Arthur will bring when he comes back from the village. It’s very warm; Eames has long since taken off his cloak and pushed up the sleeves of his tunic, kneeling on the soft ground, working new thread into the tears in the net.
"You," a voice says over his shoulder. "Slave." Danil, come out of the forest with a brace of birds. Eames nods politely. "Fetch me a cup of water," he says. Eames pushes to his feet and does it, with his own cup. Danil drinks, drops the cup on the ground. "I’ve had good hunting today," he says. "Good luck finding my prey." Eames nods again. Danil is a dangerous fool, Arthur has said, and wastes time in battle prolonging his foe’s death. "And good luck, finding you here, too," Danil says.
"Arthur’s not here, is he?"
Eames says nothing. He takes a careful step back; it’s a mistake. Danil sees him and lunges forward, bearing him to the ground, shoving his knee between Eames’ thighs, holding his wrists. Eames struggles to shove him off and Danil laughs.
"You think you can fight me? I’m a full warrior and you’re a bedslave. You can’t win, and if you even manage to land a hit, I’ll be within my rights to have you flogged to ribbons." Eames tries to push, but Danil has a tight grip on him, bending his arm back until Eames’ elbow screams in pain, and then he leans down and puts his lips against Eames’ ear and says. "Arthur can’t keep his eyes off you, why do you think that is?"
"I don’t know," Eames says, heart beating rabbit quick. He can still get away, still run.
"I think you must have the tightest, sweetest, little cunthole he’s ever used," Danil says, his breath fetid. "A little selfish to keep it all for himself, don’t you think?"
"I think Arthur won’t be happy when he finds out what you’re doing," Eames says, forcing his voice steady. Danil laughs.
"Who will tell him," he says. "You? Do you think he’ll still want you once I’ve split you open on my prick? Arthur won’t even share a knife."
"Not with you," Eames says, angry now, knowing his anger can’t make it any worse than it is already. Danil slaps him, knocking his face sideways.
"You should be nicer to me," he says. "Give me a good, hot ride and maybe you can persuade me to make a place for you in my bed when Arthur doesn’t want you anymore—" Eames spits in his face and rips his arm free, slapping his fist into Danil’s stomach, a clumsy punch but enough for him to scramble free. Danil grabs his ankle and throws him down, rolling him onto his stomach and shoving his knee against Eames’ back so hard it knocks the wind from him. Danil puts a heavy hand on the back of his head and grinds his face down into the dirt, leans down and bites the back of his neck, his breath hot and wet against Eames’ skin.
"You fight like a little bitch," he says. "And I bet you fuck like one, too. Does Arthur make you scream when you’re bouncing on his dick? Do you beg for his—" Danil is ripped away from his back, and when Eames looks up, he sees—Arthur, tumbling end over end with Danil, snarling and punching like a rabid dog, like nothing Eames has ever seen when he watches Arthur on the training fields, where he is brutal but very efficient, his every move precise and well-formed. Eames pulls in a breath and pushes himself slowly to his knees. Arthur has Danil on his back and is beating him with his fists, his face grim with fury.
"All right?" Geir is loping up the path, just reaching the field; Arthur must have come at a dead run. Geir extends a hand, but Eames flinches away from him and gets up to his feet himself. He pulls his tunic back down, working to keep his hands steady. Geir is looking out at the field, at Arthur, who rears back up off Danil, grabs him by the throat, drags him stumbling knee-deep into the stream, and then dumps him under, face first. Danil kicks, struggling against him, and gets his head out of the water for the space of two heaving breaths, clawing at Arthur’s hands, and Arthur grabs his arm and yanks it back sharply, at the wrong angle. Danil screams, and Arthur shoves him back into the rushing stream, holding him under with both hands.
"Should we," Eames says. "Should we try to—"
Geir shakes his head. "Arthur’s not—he won’t stop when he’s like this."
"He’ll kill him," Eames says.
Geir looks at him, and says, slowly, "Perhaps you sought Danil’s favor—"
"I didn’t," Eames spits out.
"Then he took something that wasn’t on offer, and wasn’t his to take," Geir says. "Arthur can take recompense as he sees fit."
By the stream, Danil’s legs have stopped moving. Arthur drops his body and wades back out of the stream.
"Be kind with him," Geir murmurs, and then Arthur reaches them and steps between Eames and Geir.
"Tell his kin if the body isn’t off my land by sundown I’ll throw it in the forest for the wolves," he says and then he takes Eames’ arm and pulls him towards the house without another word. He’s soaking wet, his knuckles are bleeding, and his arms and face are flecked with blood.
"Arthur," Eames says, when Arthur shoves open the door and pulls him inside. "Arthur, wait," as Arthur pushes him toward the bed.
"Take your clothes off," he says.
"Do it," Arthur says raggedly. His eyes are darting, wild, barely sensate.
"I’m doing it," Eames says, keeping his voice even. He takes off his belt and his boots and pants, pulls his tunic and shift off over his head. Arthur watches, fists clenching, doesn’t move to help.
"Did he—did he hurt you?" Arthur says, staring his body up and down.
"No," Eames says. There’s a deep fire-hot pain in his back where Danil’s knee landed, and his elbow feels weak, already stiffened and sore, but he’s not really hurt, not in the way that Arthur means.
"Your hand," Eames says. "You’re bleeding," but Arthur just blinks at him and then submits dumbly when Eames uses his shift to wipe the blood from Arthur’s face and hands.
"All right?" Eames says and then Arthur starts pulling at his own clothes, seeming almost confused by the fastenings, and eventually Eames kneels down and helps him with his boots, and when he stands back up, Arthur pushes him down on the bed and climbs on top of him, his own pants sagging down his hips, ignored, while he licks at Eames’ throat.
"Tell me what, what did he do," Arthur says, his hands skimming down over Eames’ shoulders, barely touching him.
"Nothing," Eames says. "He just—my neck," and Arthur sucks in a sharp breath and rolls him over and touches it. The skin isn’t broken, but it feels bruised and sore when Arthur puts his fingers against it, and then Arthur slides down behind him and licks it, and his hand rubs down Eames’ belly to his cock.
"You’ll do this for me," Arthur says, nosing at his neck, licking over the bruise. Eames can feel Arthur’s cock at the small of his back, hard, leaving a sticky wet patch where Arthur is thrusting against him in short, jerky bursts, but Arthur doesn’t seem to notice, circling his hand mindlessly over Eames’ stiffening cock. "Like that," Arthur mumbles, "Like that, you like that, my hand on your big prick—"
"Yes," Eames says, pushing into it, hot for it now, for Arthur’s hands running over his body, Arthur’s mouth sucking and licking along his shoulders, and then he feels Arthur’s other hand sliding down between them and along the crack of his arse, in between, the tips of his fingers rolling against Eames’ hole.
"I won’t, I won’t go inside," Arthur says, still stroking his cock. "I won’t, I just want—" he’s moving his fingers in soft circles and it feels—Eames wants to hate it, but it makes him grab Arthur’s hand on his cock and force him to work faster, crushing Arthur’s fingers between his, while Arthur frigs his finger gently against his hole, licking at Eames’ spine, open-mouthed. "Show me," Arthur says insistently, "Show me, I want to know how to make you come—"
"Arthur—" Eames says, and spills over their twined hands. Arthur kisses his back, soft, his shoulders, presses one weightless kiss against the bruise on his neck and then slips free and Eames hears him splashing in the bucket. When he comes back, his face and hands are damp and clean and he has a fresh wet rag for Eames.
Eames reaches a hand out to take it, but Arthur climbs on the bed and pushes gently against his shoulder until Eames is on his back, and then wipes him down. His face, his hands, his chest, his softening cock. Arthur is still wearing his pants, twisted and falling down his hips, the tip of his hard cock sticking out over the loosened drawstring of the waist.
"Do you—Arthur," Eames says, but Arthur ignores him, turning the cloth and wiping Eames’ belly again with the clean edge. "Arthur," Eames says, a little more sharply.
"Hm?" Arthur says. His eyes are vague.
"You’re still hard," Eames says and Arthur looks down at himself.
"Oh," he says. "Yes."
"Do you want me to," Eames says, and wraps a hand around him.
"Yes," Arthur says, scrambling off his knees and lying down. "Yes."
"My hand?" Eames says.
"Your hand," Arthur says. "Or your—" he stops. "Your hand," he says firmly, but he’s staring at Eames’ lips.
"Do you want my mouth?" Eames says.
"No," Arthur says, softly. Eames leans down and puts his mouth on Arthur’s cock, licking over the tip, parting his lips around the head. Arthur’s hands fist against the bedclothes.
"I killed him?" Arthur asks, in the morning. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, naked, his hair tangled down his back, drinking the cup of tea Eames put in his hands.
"Yes," Eames says, leaning over to stir the porridge in the pot hung over the hob.
"Good," Arthur says, after a moment, staring at his tea.
"You don’t remember," Eames says. Arthur lifts one shoulder, takes another sip of tea. "Will you—will there be trouble over this?" Eames asks.
"Any man who wishes for trouble can knock on my door," Arthur says, his mouth hardening, "and I will answer." He gets up and opens the chest at the foot of the bed, starts pulling on clothes. Eames ladles the porridge into two bowls and puts them down on the table. He fetches the little pitcher of goat milk they keep in a cool spot just outside the door, and when he comes back in, Arthur is sitting at the table, pulling one of the bowls towards him.
"Thank you," Eames says, taking a seat and reaching for his bowl. Arthur goes still.
"For what?" he says, his fingers still curled over the edge of the bowl.
"For—for yesterday," Eames says. "For—Danil would have—"
"I’m not hungry," Arthur says, shoving his chair back.
Arthur doesn’t come back until nearly dinnertime; his boots are muddy, and there’s a long new tear in his tunic. He puts down a brace of thin squirrels by the fire.
"Dinner," he says, and little else for the rest of the evening.
He doesn’t touch Eames for eighteen days, and if he strokes off, he doesn’t do it where Eames can see him.
On the morning of the nineteenth day, Arthur finishes his breakfast and says,
"You need to learn how to fight."
"No," Eames says. "I can’t."
"You can," Arthur says. "And you will."
"I can’t fight like you," Eames says.
"No," Arthur says. His mouth twists wryly. "Most people can’t."
"I don’t want to learn."
"Then do it because I tell you," Arthur says. "Because it pleases me to teach you."
"Do you want me to please you anymore?" Eames says. He’s tired of lying in bed, wondering if he’s allowed to touch his prick now that Arthur doesn’t want to watch. Arthur blushes, red hot.
"Yes," he breathes. "Slave," he adds, a moment later.
Arthur makes him practice, after breakfast, every morning. Eames hates it; it makes him feel slow and clumsy and reminds him of Danil’s hands on him, his knee, crushing him into the dirt. Arthur doesn’t snap at him, but he’s not a patient teacher and he always expects Eames to be better than he is.
"You can do better than this," Arthur says, the third week, grabbing at Eames. Eames twists out of his grasp.
"I’m not trained like you," he says.
"Doesn’t matter," Arthur says, slapping the back of his hand against Eames’ stomach. "You couldn’t beat me in a fight but you should be able to pin me. You’re bigger than me, and heavier. Quick. Strong." He throws a punch and Eames knocks it away, feints back at him, and Arthur dodges out from underneath him, catches his arm and bears him down to his knees, arm behind him. He lets go and steps back.
"Get up," he says "Again."
Eames stands, shaking out his shoulder.
"You have to want to win," Arthur says.
"I’m trying," Eames says.
"Not hard enough," Arthur says. "You have to want—"
"I don’t," Eames says. "I’m not like you, I’m not—"
"If you can pin me, I’ll use my mouth on you," Arthur says.
"What?" Eames says. Arthur already looks like he regrets saying it, but he doesn’t try to take it back.
"You heard me." Arthur has begun to use Eames’ hand again, but he waits for days, until his need is very great, and then he comes too quickly and rolls away from Eames before his prick softens. Eames finishes himself in the dark, listening to Arthur pretend to sleep.
"How long," Eames says.
"Twelve count," Arthur says and Eames throws a punch that knocks him sideways.
Arthur doesn’t let him win. He knocks his elbow into Eames’ side, punches him in the chest, in the throat, slaps his knuckles into Eames’ cheekbone hard, harder than he’s ever hit him before, even though he told Eames he was going stop holding back with him days ago, that Eames wasn’t learning anything from Arthur going easy on him. The first time Eames gets him down on the ground, he rolls them over and gets his hands around Eames’ throat and Eames has to punch Arthur twice in the face before he can get enough leverage to drag him sideways by the tunic. Arthur dives sideways off him and rolls to his feet and when Eames finally does get him down again, grappling with him in a confusing tangle of limbs, Arthur’s fists are in his face and stomach, his sharp knees digging against Eames’ legs until Eames somehow gets him down on his face and sits on him heavily, his legs on either side of Arthur’s hips. He holds Arthur’s wrists in one hand, twisted up the small of his back, using the weight of his body to hold Arthur against the ground, pushing Arthur’s face into the grass so he can’t throw his head back and knock him in the teeth. Arthur struggles under him, digging his fingers cruelly against Eames’ hands, the entire time Eames is counting off.
"There," Arthur says, when Eames lets him up. There’s a smudge of dirt on his face, and his shirt collar is torn. Eames’ arms ache; there’s a hot swelling on his cheek where Arthur hit him, just below his eye. "I told you."
"Yes," Eames says.
"You did well," Arthur says.***
Eames doesn’t say anything about Arthur’s mouth that night. By morning, Arthur realizes that he’s left it on purpose. He allows another day to pass, telling himself it’s Eames’ choice to redeem his winnings or not, but he knows that’s a coward’s way out. Arthur is no coward.
"When will you take what’s owed to you?" he says, the next night, when Eames has cleared away the dinner dishes and settled in next to the fire. He’s unwilling to say the real words, but Eames doesn’t look confused. He shakes his head.
"I honor my debts," Arthur says.
"I know," Eames says. He looks down at his hands. "I—what if someone finds out?" Arthur feels a hot choking wave of disquiet in his throat—no man—no warrior—would allow a slave to—to use him for pleasure.
"Would you tell?" he says, his voice sharp and ugly; he’d deny it. No one would take Eames’ word over his. Eames looks up at him.
"Who would believe me?" he says, quietly and Arthur sees it; Eames would never say. Eames’ gaze slides down and settles on his mouth, lingers; it’s agreement enough. Arthur stands and then realizes he’ll have to kneel if Eames stays in his seat by the fire and feels his back go rigid. Eames sees it too.
"The bed," he says, half questioning. Arthur nods.
Eames hooks down his pants and folds them over the end of the bed and then takes off his overtunic. Arthur takes off his overtunic as well. Eames’ cock is soft, lying against his thigh. Arthur has only ever used someone else’s mouth with his dick and he was always hard before he got it in. He doesn’t know where to start, but Eames is lying on the bed, waiting, and he won, Arthur tells himself, he fought well, so Arthur leans down over him and puts his lips against the shaft. Eames is still and silent. Arthur pushes away the memory of Eames lying motionless beneath him and opens his mouth around the head of Eames’ cock, gives him a soft little suck, keeping his mouth wet and open, the way he likes it when has a mouth on his cock, and Eames—Eames lets out a hot, low moan and his knees fall open.
Eames is big; Arthur never gave it much thought when he was letting Eames find relief with his hand, but it’s all he can think of with Eames’ swelling cock in his mouth. Arthur’s had young warriors who can bring their mouths to the hilt of his cock and Eames even manages most of it, choking a little, when he does this for Arthur, but Arthur can’t, with Eames, can only just fit the cockhead in his mouth without choking and has to do the rest with his hand.
"Arthur," Eames mutters. He still isn’t moving and Arthur knows, what it’s like to be that hard, what effort Eames must be expending not to—anger him, Arthur thinks. He pulls off to look at Eames, still working his prick a little with his hand. Eames thrusts up against him, his hips riding into Arthur’s fist, but his eyes are apprehensive.
"We made an agreement," Arthur says.
"I’m your thrall," Eames says. There’s a little raw red cut, directly in the center of his lower lip, a tooth mark. "I don’t have the right to enter into that agreement."
"But you did," Arthur says. He knocks Eames’ knees open and slides up closer to him, touches the groove of his hip. "You beat me. You’re owed my—my mouth."
"All right, yes," Eames says, in a hard, hungry voice Arthur has never heard before and he reaches up and puts a hand on Arthur’s cheek, tugging him down, thumbing his lips open. He leaves his hand on Arthur’s face while Arthur slides his mouth back down over Eames’ cock and begins to suck and then runs his fingers up past Arthur’s ear and through his hair and Arthur realizes that his own prick is aching with it, with Eames’ heavy hand on his cheek and the desperate want in his eyes, the heat of his skin, his taste of his swollen cock fucking Arthur’s mouth. His mouth is so wet with his spit and the wetness from Eames’ cock, sliding out the sides of his mouth and down over his hand, fisted around the base of Eames’ dick, that in the first moment that Eames begins to come, Arthur doesn’t know it, and then Eames’ spunk is all over the inside of his mouth, his chin, smeared over the corners of his lips. Eames hands are on him, pulling him up, and Arthur falls forward, graceless, thrusting his hips against Eames’ slick belly, his softened cock, licking at Eames’ throat. Eames’ hands come slowly around him, rubbing down softly over his shoulders to his waist, one heavy hand stroking down his back while Arthur shudders through his release.
When Arthur lifts his head, after, Eames reaches for his face and wipes the corner of Arthur’s mouth with his thumb, his arm still wrapped tightly across Arthur’s waist.
Arthur spends the late afternoon hours of training running drills with Olaf, who is big, but quick for his size, brutally strong. They’re well-matched and he likes sparring with Olaf, who is even tempered about being taken to the ground by a man half his size. His beard isn’t grey yet, but he’s been fighting for long enough to pick up some good tricks and isn’t stingy about teaching them. The sun is sinking below the hills before they stop, breathing hard. Arthur glances up the hill; the walk will feel long tonight after an afternoon of being hit in the shins with the flat of a battle-axe. Olaf follows his gaze.
"Still liking your sheep shed?" he says, because that’s what it was before Arthur took it; crammed with broken feed-troughs and rotting hay, rusted shears. Arthur sheaths his sword and picks up his shield. He’s late; Eames will be expecting him.
"Better than listening to you snore all night," he says. Before Olaf was married they slept on neighboring pallets in the Great Hall.
"I don’t know how you stand it, alone up there all winter," Olaf says, as he turns down the hill. Arthur opens his mouth and closes it. Olaf knows about Eames; had last week mentioned that if that big slave of Arthur’s needed a pair of pants, he had an old pair in good condition that he’d part with in exchange for a carved bracelet for his daughter.
"I like the quiet," he says, because a slave is a tool, a hole, no more company than a sharp knife or a cooking pot.
Arthur will go home and Eames will look up at him from his mending, from cutting the vegetables and meat for dinner, from his drawing book, the edges of his blunt fingers stained with ink. They’ll eat together, and Eames will try to convince him that they should irrigate the garden with some Saxon method he promises is better than anything Arthur has seen before; he’ll pull out his book and show Arthur another round of diagrams, he’ll suggest they split the garden down the middle and have a competition to see whose side will grow the biggest melon, he’ll swear to Arthur that in England radishes grow as big as a man’s fist, and onions as big as his head, he’ll slap the table and laugh at Arthur for believing him for even a moment. Eames will slip past him, a key into the lock, flipping the tumblers over, one at a time.
He’ll take Eames to bed and Eames will say yes when Arthur wants to touch him.
What of it, Arthur thinks, that he knows his slave's body as well as his own, perhaps better. Eames' body is his, his to use, to work his land, to beat if he disobeys, to bring to pleasure, if he wills it. And he wills it, he thinks, watching Eames thrust into his palm, the way Eames will lick and suck at his fingers if Arthur brings them to his lips, wanting, wanton, the press of his powerful body against Arthur's hands. In another life, he could have been a feared warrior, a nightmare to his enemies, but in this one, he’s Arthur’s, and Arthur has had enough of quiet.***
"We’ll have to cut your hair. It’s growing too long," Arthur says. He holds up the shears; he looks almost regretful. Only boys and slaves wear their hair short; Arthur, Eames realizes, thinks cutting his hair will shame him.
"I like it short," he says. He sits on a low stool just outside the door and Arthur stands behind him, running his fingers through Eames’ hair, cutting slowly.
"I’ll take a wife soon," Arthur says, brushing the hair off the back of Eames’ newly bare neck.
"Oh," Eames says. "Who?"
"Don’t know yet," Arthur says. "Maybe—Geir has a cousin down the coast."
"Pretty?" Eames says, thinking, that’s why, then, all the hauled rocks and new sod, Arthur rebuilding the tumble-down hearth, ploughing the fields, mending bed-linens and scrubbing the walls, so Arthur could carry his bride across the doorstep and tug the ties at her bodice open and kiss her soft mouth.
"Geir says so," Arthur says. "I haven’t met her."
"I wish you every happiness," Eames says coldly. Arthur’s fingers in his hair go still.
"Of course I’ll make certain—"
"What," Eames says, unable to contain the bitterness in his throat, "you’ll make certain to get a good price for me so you can buy your wife a new dress? You’ll be sure to buy my labor for an afternoon if she doesn’t care to dig out the garden?" And Arthur would, Eames knows, can already see him doting on a pretty, laughing girl, kissing her, tucking her into his arms at night, unwilling to make her lift a finger if she doesn’t want to.
"No, I—I wouldn’t sell you," Arthur says, sounding bewildered. "I thought—. Nothing will change for you."
"And what will I do?"
"What you do now," Arthur says. "And I thought you could teach the children to write and draw, to speak Saxon. And if Geir or some others wanted the same for their children, we could find a place to have lessons." Eames says nothing, staring at the ground, wondering what corner Arthur will have him set his pallet in when he sleeps with his wife in their bed. "In a few years I could earn enough to buy you a wife," Arthur says, sounding tentative.
"No," Eames says, disgusted. "No—how could you think I would ever want that?"
"I—you are of great value to me," Arthur says firmly. "There will always be a place for you in my household."
"That’s what you say now," Eames says. "What if your wife doesn’t like having—"
"She’ll do as I say," Arthur says, sounding angry now. "You don’t understand. I have—responsibilities, to my war chief, to this village. That means children, and soon. It was one thing when I was up here alone, but now I have you, and if I don’t take a wife in the next two summers, there will be talk—"
"Why did you even take me then?"
"I wanted you," Arthur says. "I—work, as hard as I can. I do everything that’s asked of me. I wanted—something. for myself. And that’s you." He pulls in a rough breath and runs the shears gently along the hair at Eames’ nape. "An—ungrateful, disobedient, insolent, smart-mouthed slave who cannot cook, and who will lie abed until the sun is high in the sky if he’s not kicked out of it." He’s silent, then, tipping Eames’ sideways with two fingers on his ear, clipping first one side and the other.
"Finished?" Eames says.
"Yes," Arthur says. He brushes the last of the hair off Eames’ shoulders and steps away. Eames stands up.
"She’ll be lucky to have you, Geir’s maybe-pretty cousin," he says. "You’ll be a good husband to her."
"Nothing has to change," Arthur says. He turns to go inside, and Eames thinks about Arthur’s children, if they’ll have his dark hair and eyes, if they’ll be clever and loyal and fierce, how their faces will look when they’re sad.
"Maybe she has big bosoms," Eames says. Arthur snorts a half laugh through his nose, just like Eames knew he would.*
Frieda and Geir are married a week before the tall ships are to depart on the first raid of the summer. Arthur sends Eames down to the longhouse to help out in the kitchen for a full four days before and dedicates his evenings to carving a curling, curving edge into each of the bowls he’s made, following a pattern he asks Eames to draw for him.
Eames spending the morning of the wedding hanging lanterns in the grove where the celebration is to be be held. Geir’s cousins, innumerable, have been streaming into town for the last three days, and there’s no room in the Great Hall to hold them. There’s a forest of tents in the valley by the lake, and the cooking fires burn all night.
"I—I’d like if you were at the celebration," Arthur says, that afternoon. Eames is sitting on the bed watching Arthur dress, in a brilliant blue feast day tunic that fits closely against his slender waist, fastening his cloak with a gold pin Eames has never seen him wear before.
"I’ll be in the kitchen, keeping back the best bits for myself," Eames says. Arthur draws on his newly polished boots and wraps his sword belt low over his hips. "You’ll be busy with all the girls," Eames says.
"What girls," Arthur says. He’s frowning over the folds of his cloak, looking down at himself.
"The girls looking for your favor," Eames says. "You look—" he reaches out and brushes his hand down the front of Arthur’s tunic, admiring the soft weave of the cloth, the way it lies against Arthur’s chest. "I never saw you look so fine," he says.
"What need have I of looking fine?" Arthur says, a little crossly, but he leans into Eames’ hand.
"I think you should wear this next time we break stumps," Eames says, letting his fingers slide down. Arthur breaks into a little smile that fades, slowly, as he meets Eames’ eyes.
"About. the girls," he says. "I’ll—I need to—"
"It doesn’t matter," Eames says. He pulls Arthur’s belt buckle straight. "I know."
The kitchen is bursting with people, busy even once the celebration has been underway for hours and there is wild music and drunken shouting emanating from the grove. Half the slaves in the village are working in the kitchen or serving; Geir’s father is very rich and owed many favors. Darkness falls and the moon rises while Eames hauls crate after crate of dishes to the stream, scrubs and returns them to the kitchen to be taken back down to the grove and dirtied once more.
Arthur’s leaning against the back of the house as Eames comes up the path with another load of dishes. When he sees Eames, he pushes himself off the wall and takes the crate out of his hands.
"Go get your cloak," he says.
"I’m supposed to—" because there are more dishes, more work, but Arthur shakes his head.
"You’re finished," he says. He twists back through the door with the crate and Eames follows him, digging through the pile of cloaks just outside the kitchen to find his.
He expects Arthur to go home, but Arthur takes a different path at the head of the harbor, up along a narrow, rocky path into the hills above the village. The moon is full, hanging low in the sky, lighting their way. In the red fires of the kitchen, Eames would have thought Arthur was drunk, from the flush in his cheeks, but he’s nimble and sure-footed as they walk higher, through a forest of slender birches, checking over his shoulder now and again to make sure that Eames still follows.
They come out in a long clearing, new spring grass waving gently, wildflowers. Arthur leads him through the tall grass to a massive flat rock that stretches to the edge of a high cliff jutting out over the ocean. They’re on the other side of the harbor, and the village is just a collection of flickering lights, far away.
"Do you like it?" Arthur says, quiet, at his elbow. Eames looks up at the sky, wheeling overhead, the moon and stars, the black endless ocean. The grass is soft and cool under his hands when he sits.
"Yes, I like it," he says.
"Wine," Arthur says, yanking a bottle out of a satchel under his cloak and putting it in Eames’ hands. It’s a long narrow earthenware bottle with a wax seal, a little dusty. "Only the finest for Ulvar’s son," Arthur says. "We took six crates of this in a raid last year and it’s been in his cellar ever—" he cuts himself off abruptly.
"What?" Eames says. Arthur hesitates.
"I know you don’t think well of how we live here," he says. "How—I—"
"You think I don’t know what you are?" Eames says, and Arthur flinches, and then nods, his mouth flat.
"Open it," Eames says, putting it back in Arthur’s hands. "I was scrubbing dishes while you were smiling at farmers’ pretty daughters, and I’m thirsty."
"I didn’t smile," Arthur says, breaking the seal with his knife and wedging the cork free.
"They looked at you just the same," Eames says. He takes the wine out of Arthur’s hand and takes a long drink, and then looks down Arthur’s body in the obvious way that always makes Arthur flush in pleasure and pretend he doesn’t like it. Eames has hundreds of drawings of Arthur, but only a handful Arthur has agreed to sit for, always reluctant, scratching the back of his neck and denying that he’s anything to look at, and then turning into Eames’ regard like a flower to the sun, every time.
Eames doesn’t know anything about wine; it tastes well enough to him, makes him feel warm, makes Arthur slide down next to him and point out constellations, his mouth dark with wine and hair tumbled down over his shoulders. He looks young and happy, all of fifteen winters, with his knee tucked against his chest, smiling sideways.
"How did you find this place?" Eames says, when they’ve tossed off their cloaks and are leaning back on their elbows, staring at the sky, fingers bumping every time they hand off the bottle.
"I used to come up here when I lived in the Great Hall, to be—far from people," Arthur says.
"You brought me, though," Eames says.
"I—yes," Arthur says. Eames offers him the bottle and Arthur leans to take it, but then darts in and presses a small kiss to the corner of his mouth, chaste. Eames looks at him and he cuts his eyes away, takes the bottle out of Eames’ hand and drinks, his throat moving, and when he’s done, Eames take the bottle from him, puts it on the ground, and kisses him full on the mouth, his hand closing over Arthur’s jaw to hold him still.
"Don’t," Arthur says. "I know well that I’m a fool."
"Why?" Eames says.
"Because of what I did," Arthur says, shoving himself up, angry and miserable. "Because you—Eames," he says, "I—" and Eames sees, that Arthur is trying to apologize, as best he can, that he brought him to this place to beg his forgiveness.
"I don’t want to talk," Eames says. He wants Arthur, in bed and out of it, wants to draw him, his pointed elbows, the long lines of his back, to teach Arthur the name of every part of his body in Saxon, to press the knots from his muscles, wants to beat him and be beaten at Tafl, to argue about how to best lay out the garden and learn how to cook from him, to lie in bed and be told the stories that Arthur makes up now that he’s told Eames every story he knows, wants everything that Arthur can give to him, but he can’t offer him forgiveness. There are some things that can never be put right. "Come here," Eames says, and draws Arthur into a kiss, pulling him down onto his chest, kissing Arthur’s mouth fiercely, because he has wanted this, to part Arthur’s lips with his own, to feel Arthur’s breath in his mouth and Arthur pushes into him, lets him grip Arthur’s face in his hand and open his mouth with his tongue and ruck up his fine feast day tunic to get his hand on his cock.
Arthur pulls back, breathing hard, and says,
"I didn’t—bring you up here to do this. You don’t have to do this."
"I know that," Eames says, distracted by Arthur’s thighs bracketing his body, thinking about whether he can ask for Arthur’s mouth on his cock.
"You don’t know that," Arthur says. "I want you," he says, his voice low, "all the time, every day, and you don’t—you don’t seem bothered by it, but if that’s truly what it is, you’ll stop." He looks away. "You’re not required to—to kiss me, or draw pictures of me, and if all you want to give me is your hand, then that’s—" he swallows. "Your hands are good. And if that’s not—if it’s not even your hands, then you’ll just have your regular duties at the house and we’ll. speak no further of it." It’s a long speech for Arthur, and it rips out of him, as though he’s been working on it, as he fights, as he hunts, as he weeds in the garden with Eames, as they lie in bed together and take each others’ warmth.
"That’s why I brought you here," Arthur says. "To say that."
"My hands," Eames says and Arthur nods, a sharp jerk of his chin, and starts to climb off him, keeping his face carefully averted, his shoulders stiff, and Eames catches his wrist and yanks him back down into a kiss, rolling him sideways into the grass. Arthur kisses him back very carefully, his palms lying politely against Eames’ shoulders.
"I’m going to use my hands," Eames says, "to take off my clothes, and yours, and then I’m going suck you, and ask for the use of your hand and you—" Arthur pulls his mouth back in, kissing him hungrily, his fingers already pulling at Eames’ tunic and in the end they don’t get beyond pushing their clothes aside enough to rub off against each other. Arthur comes with Eames’ tongue in his mouth and Eames not long after, in the wet mess on Arthur’s stomach.
They sleep together, in the tall grass, sharing cloaks, and when they straggle back in the morning, no one sees.***
They don’t talk about it, those last six days. Arthur teaches Eames to swim, splashing at each other in the shallows of the stream, Eames letting Arthur bear his weight, trusting him not to let his head fall beneath the water. Eames lets Arthur press him back against the cool stone of the hut and kiss his throat until Eames is pulling at Arthur’s clothes, dragging Arthur’s mouth to his, rutting against him.
Only a fool or a wise man loves a slave, who has no choice but to do his bidding. Eames lets him. Eames takes pleasure in him, but Arthur knows the truth of it, that there is a dark hard hurt in Eames, a cut that won’t mend, a tangled black coil that Arthur put there with his own hands and that if he keeps Eames, it will grow like a choking weed until Eames comes to hate him. He’ll have to give Eames his freedom and Eames can’t stay, he won’t want to stay. It will take time to pull together the money to pay for his passage back to his home, but Arthur can do it in a raiding season or two if he works at it, and he’s too selfish yet. He wants his six days; he wants one more winter, and then, and then. He makes the promise to himself, too much of a coward to tell Eames.
They don’t talk, and they fall into bed earlier and earlier.
"Eight weeks," Arthur says, the morning he leaves, Eames grants him a kiss, leaning against the table, presses his forehead against Arthur's and looks into him with his clear eyes.
"I won’t bring you anything," Arthur says and means, you hold my heart in your hand.***
The weeks pass; it’s summer and there’s much to do. Eames tends Arthur’s holding and helps with the sheep, hauls nets fat with fish from the lake, in sudden demand now that the only men left in the village are old and lame. It’s Eames who stops, when he sees a cart foundered in the deep mud in the road at the head of the village, puts down the bundle of hay he’s taking back up to put in the chicken coop, and wades in past Ingrid and her son, who are pulling at it from the front. He sets his shoulder against the wheel and pulls it out of the rutted mud in four heaves and then drags it back to the courtyard of her house, the splintered wheel skidding as he pulls, her son guiding from the front.
Ingrid says, "I’ll get you a cloth," and brings him back a wet rag and a pail of water. Eames cleans himself the best he can and is starting back out of the village with the hay over his shoulder when an old man stops him.
"You there," he says. He’s sitting in the afternoon sunshine, on a bench against a stone wall. His leg is propped on a stool, twisted and useless. "You," he says. Eames stops and puts the bundle back down.
"Can I help you?" he says.
"You’ll sit down and have a cup of ale now," the man says. Eames hesitates.
"I know well who you are," the man says. "You think I don’t know everyone in this village, sitting here every day with nothing better to do than watch?"
"I should be getting home," Eames says.
"Even a slave grows thirsty," the man says. "One cup of ale. That was a fine feat of strength."
Eames sits, takes the cup of ale, drinks, hears a few stories of feats of strength, years gone past.
He stops on the way home, staring out over the empty ocean, the wheeling hawks above the forest, thinks. Perhaps there is a place for him here. He thinks of Arthur, who has made him a place, the best he can, with the strength of his will alone. He thinks of how he’ll ask Arthur to touch him, when he returns. He thinks of what they’ll say to each other, curled together in their bed.
The weeks pass.
The boats come in slowly, an hour or more between each one. Arthur isn’t on the first or the second, and Eames hauls trunks and boxes, barrels of food, heavy bags of gold, up to the Great Hall, setting them in a stack outside Brunn’s house and feels unsettled inside, waiting, wanting badly to see Arthur swing himself down to the dock, push through the crowd to find him. He wants to go to the feast with Arthur and eat off his plate, listen to songs and walk up the hill towards home, wants Arthur to sling an arm over his shoulders and grin at him, bear him down into the bed, a heavy, hard, weight, muscle and bone.
He sees Arthur the minute the ship docks; he’s not one of the men jumping down to secure the lines or throwing the heavy gangplank to the dock. He’s not one of the men lifting their hands in greeting. He’s not Geir, who dives headlong for Frieda, picking her up and swinging her around while she laughs. He’s standing, face quiet, on deck and when the plank is set he walks down to the dock.
"Eames," he says, and that’s all. They walk up to the hut together.
"Can I—do you want some food?" Eames says. Arthur’s face is dangerously thin, his hair matted, his beard unruly and crusted with salt.
"No," Arthur says.
"I’m—glad of your safe return," Eames says, because the words are burning in his mouth.
"I’m—you look well," Arthur says. "The house looks—" his voice sounds a little odd. He clears his throat. "You took good care; you did well." The summer has put another layer of muscle on Eames; his clothes are tight across his shoulders again. He had chosen his smaller tunic to wear this morning, thinking of Arthur, the way he used to run an appreciative hand across Eames’ chest, down over his arms, the one time he’d murmured, "I would not wish to meet you on the battlefield," and Eames had rolled him to his back and taken his cock in his hand, pressed his lips just below Arthur’s ear and said, "Then it is a good thing I am in your bed, is it not?" Arthur had laughed, low and warm.
"Thank you," Eames says, numbly.
"I should bathe," Arthur says. "Then we’ll go to the feast."
Arthur turns his back on Eames to pull off his clothes, but Eames sees. Arthur is gaunt, the bones of his hips sharp, too-deep hollows beneath his collarbones. His entire body is covered in black and green bruises and barely healed cuts, raised red welts on his shield arm and chest, a long, raw burn on his shin.
"Arthur," Eames says, but Arthur shakes his head.
"It’s always like this," he says.
Eames stands in the doorway and watches him wade into the stream and then forces himself to look away, to fetch a new set of clothes for Arthur and lay it out on the bed. He chooses the nicest peach from the collection he’s been ripening in a bowl on the table, checks to make sure there are no bad spots, and cuts it into sections, remembering Arthur, the day before he left, lying with his head in Eames' lap and eating strawberries from his fingers, trying to get Eames to put his fingers in his mouth until Eames pulled him up into his arms, kissing and kissing him, letting Arthur push him down in the grass and stroke him until he came, sucking teasing kisses against his throat.
Arthur won’t eat the peach and he doesn’t eat at the feast, either, tucking himself into a seat and sending Eames to get him a mug of ale, and then another, a third. He doesn’t seem to notice that Eames can’t eat unless he does, but by the third cup of ale, he starts to share with Eames, their fingers brushing every time they exchange the mug, and then Arthur is rubbing a hand along his cheek and standing to leave.
Arthur takes off his boots and cloak and then stands, barefoot, just inside the door, hands dangling at his sides.
"What is—are you hurt?" Eames says. Arthur is staring at the bed, his face dull and expressionless, and he shakes his head.
"Can I—do you want to eat something?" Eames says.
"No," Arthur says.
"What do you want?" Eames says.
"Get the oil from the kitchen," Arthur says.
Eames touched himself, put fingers inside himself while Arthur was gone, working himself up slowly, thinking of Arthur sucking him or coming to pieces in his arms, licking his fingers wet and just touching at first, finally doing it with one finger, telling himself he’d never do it again if he hated it, and then screwing two wet fingers into himself the next night, heart pounding, shaking with want. He’d thought of what he’d say to Arthur and how Arthur would scowl and deny that he wanted it, how Eames would have to coax him into it, slowly. He hadn’t thought it would be Arthur, pulling off his clothes and dropping them carelessly to the floor as he walked to the bed, shoulders hunched. Eames looks at Arthur’s back, the notches of his spine. He can just see the edge of the wing of his tattoo on Arthur’s side. Arthur needs this. Eames takes off his clothes and then he gets the oil.
Eames waits for Arthur to tell him to come to bed, but Arthur is silent, climbing up on the bed and lying down, staring blankly at the ceiling.
"What should I do?" Eames says, finally, coming to the edge of the bed, clutching the oil too tightly in his hand. Arthur doesn’t say anything for a long time, and then he says,
"I—I don’t—" Eames says, stuttering. Arthur’s eyes are awful and grim.
"Do it," he says hoarsely, an order. He turns over onto his belly. He’s shaking, a fine, almost imperceptible tremor, and Eames puts the oil down on the bed and climbs up next to Arthur, puts a careful hand on his shoulder.
"Arthur, will you not say to me what has happened to you?" he says.
"Nothing," Arthur says. "Nothing happened to me."
"Did a few weeks without a master make you forget your place?" Arthur says, his voice like iron. "I told you to fuck me."
"No," Eames says and Arthur rears around up off the bed and backhands him, hard enough to knock him to the side, and then throws a couple hard punches into his chest and stomach.
"You’ll do it," he says, fingers digging into Eames’ chest, "or I’ll beat you until you can’t stand. I’ll use the—the whip on you."
Arthur never hits him, never touches him like this, and Eames has had weeks to himself, tending to the little garden and the chickens, working with Frieda in the kitchen and eating alone on his stoop, drawing pictures in his book and pleasuring himself in bed and forgetting that he’s owned by anyone.
"I don’t believe you’ll do that," Eames says. He puts the tips of his fingers against Arthur’s hand. "I don’t want—"
"I’m tired of listening to what you want," Arthur says, knocking his hand away. "Didn’t you have a single friend to speak with before I took you? Geir and I used to laugh about it, what a slut you turned out to be, begging me to fuck your mouth, because you thought—"
"I never forgot my place," Eames says. His face is burning and there’s a choking spike of black rage in his throat, old rage that’s been rotting in his belly for a year, waiting for him, unforgotten. Arthur yields to him the moment that Eames reaches for him and it’s easy to dump him over on his stomach and pry his knees apart. "Do you think," he says, "Did you think I ever once wanted you, wanted to touch you or put your cock in my mouth?" He dumps the oil carelessly down over the crack of Arthur’s arse. Arthur’s is panting, harsh little breaths, his shoulders tight; he looks small and scared and Eames feels—infuriated, remembering Arthur on top of him all those months ago, Arthur’s fingers inside him. "No one wanted you, so you found someone who couldn’t say no," he says, and shoves his forefinger inside Arthur, not caring if it hurts. Arthur makes a hot, shocked sound and Eames jams his finger in further. Arthur is still, unresisting, his breath too loud. Eames bites his lip and adds a second finger, a little more slowly, knowing what it must feel like, but Arthur comes up partway on his knees and shoves himself back on them. His shoulders tense and he sucks in a breath through his teeth.
"What is wrong with you?" Arthur says, his voice ugly. "A man tried to fuck me once; I was twelve, an unblooded boy," he’s pushing against Eames’ fingers still, his fingers twisted in the bedclothes. "I killed him for that insult. You’re a man and you didn’t even fight me, just rolled over and took my cock like a bitch, like a dickless coward—"
Eames grabs him by his hair and shoves him face down into the bed, jams his cock inside in one long unforgiving stroke. He’s hard, throbbing with it; Arthur lets out a high, pained whimper and Eames pulls out and fucks in again, tightening his grip on Arthur’s hair and pulling his head back,
"You feel that, right," he says. He yanks Arthur back against him and thrusts into him again, "don’t you?"
"Yes," Arthur gasps out.
"You—your cock," Arthur says. His voice is trembling and Eames, stops, hilt deep in him, his grip on Arthur loosening a little. Arthur is tight around him, almost too tight; he could have put another finger in him to stretch him open, Eames thinks. Arthur twists around, sneering, "I’ll go down to the Hall. I’ll go down there and find a real man to fuck me, not some soft fucking monk who never even had the balls to get his dick inside a woman. You’re half a fucking man—"
"You shut the fuck up and take it," Eames says, boiling over, angry and disgusted, by the filth pouring out of Arthur’s mouth, by himself, the sick, burning excitement of holding Arthur down and mastering him. "You’re not going anywhere." He pulls Arthur’s hips up against his and starts to fuck him in hard, angry strokes, digging his fingers into Arthur’s waist, and Arthur scrabbles for a hold on the bed and loses his balance, his face slamming against the mattress. "Is this why you took me? Is this what you wanted from the beginning," Eames says, "to spread your legs for me?" Arthur shakes under him, spread out on the bed, unresisting. "Did you think I wouldn’t find out?" Eames says, starting to think of all the overheard little whispers in the Great Hall, in the kitchen, a year of insinuating comments he thought he’d learned to ignore. "You were made for this," he says, "to be on your knees with my cock fucking your round little arse."
"No," Arthur says, shoving up underneath him, and Eames catches his arms and presses them against the bed. "No, that was you," Arthur spits out, "couldn’t get enough even after I forced you—"
"You don’t fucking say no to me," Eames says, remembering Arthur saying the same to him, how he hated him for it. He tightens his hands around Arthur’s wrists until the bones are digging into his fingers, "You say, please." He drops one wrist and puts a hand on Arthur’s back, pushing him down into the bed, and starts to fuck him in a rough, steady rhythm.
"Please," Arthur says, low.
"Please—I don’t, I don’t know," Arthur says.
"Please fuck me," Eames says. "Please come inside me."
"Please," Arthur says jerkily. "Please come—in—"
"That’s better," Eames says. "Please touch me," he says.
"Please, please," Arthur says, mumbling, like it’s the only word he knows anymore and Eames slides his hand down Arthur’s heaving chest and rubs his fingers along Arthur’s cock, which is rigid, the head wet against his palm.
"This is what gets you hard?" Eames says, curling his hand around Arthur’s dick and rubbing his thumb along the head while Arthur squirms against him, panting. "Begging to be used as a hole for me?"
He starts moving inside Arthur again, rutting into him, forcing Arthur to fuck his fist. Arthur drags in a sobbing breath and braces himself against the bed, elbows rigid, and something in Eames breaks, that the soft, sweet pressure of Arthur’s mouth on his the day he left, that all the nights he lay alone in Arthur’s bed, counting down the days until his return, thinking of how he wanted to touch him, be touched, should come to this, Arthur hunched face down on the bed, his legs spread wide, still moving back against Eames’ punishing thrusts.
"I’m sorry," Arthur says, his voice cracking and Eames drops his hand from Arthur’s dick and leans down, hands braced on either side of Arthur’s shoulders, caging him. He puts his mouth to Arthur’s ear and says,
"I don’t care, is that what you want to hear?"
Arthur nods, shivering.
"That I like listening to you crying on my dick? That I don’t care whether you come, that it doesn’t matter if it hurts as long as you keep my prick warm?"
"Yes," Arthur whispers.
"Put your hand on your cock," he says. Arthur doesn’t. "You know I like to watch you," Eames says. Arthur shakes his head, but Eames fucks into him harder and he gasps and lifts his hand on his dick. "Do it," Eames says, and Arthur starts stroking, his hand moving slowly. He works himself hesitantly, pushing back against Eames and into his hand, and Eames says "That’s good, that’s right." Arthur lets out a low, ugly sob, and Eames wraps a hand over Arthur’s chest and helps him, lifting him up until he’s kneeling and Arthur’s in his lap, sagging back against him, Arthur’s hips twitching restlessly. Eames holds him tightly, barely moving his dick in Arthur’s arse at all, letting Arthur set a clumsy, hitching rhythm, working himself with a tight heavy hand and grinding down on Eames’ cock until Arthur throws back his head against Eames’ shoulder and comes with a wordless, faltering cry.
"Arthur," Eames says. Arthur’s heavy, sliding out of his hands, and Eames lays him face down on the bed. They’re still joined, but when Eames tries to pull out, Arthur scrambles back up on his knees, following him. "Don’t you—want me to stop?" Arthur shakes his head, no, his thin shoulders low, defeated. Eames feels sick, suddenly, looking at layers of cuts and bruises on Arthur’s body, the painfully sharp edges of his ribs. "I’m stopping," he says. "Arthur—"
"Please," Arthur says, shaking his head, frantic. "Please please please, come in, inside me, I want, please. I—tell me what you want me to say."
"Arthur," Eames sighs.
"Please," Arthur whispers, pleading, and Eames eases him down flat on the bed and rolls his dick into him, as gently as he can. He’s a little looser now, after coming, no longer vise-tight on Eames’ dick. Arthur is trembling underneath him.
"Oh—Arthur," Eames says helplessly and keeps fucking into him and Arthur turns his head on the pillow. His face is red, wet with tears, and when Eames strokes back the hair back off his cheek, he catches Eames’ hand and brings it to his mouth, kisses his fingers, and Eames comes like that, his fingers tracing against Arthur’s lower lip, Arthur’s hand holding his.
Arthur can’t stop shaking afterwards.
"You are a stupid fucking arsehole," Eames says, more to himself than to Arthur, moving around to pull a clean blanket out of the chest and wrap it around Arthur, who is quiet, passive, allows Eames to prop him up against the headboard with a pillow at his back, well clear of the mess of spunk on the sheets.
His own hands are unsteady as he makes Arthur a cup of tea, which Arthur drinks obediently, and then he lets Eames turn him over and check his hole, his legs lax as a new colt’s. It’s red and swollen, but there’s no blood.
"You’ll be sore tomorrow," Eames says. "The next day too."
"I’m sore now," Arthur says, with a tired smile.
"Arthur," Eames says, choking on his apology, not even certain where to start and some of it must leak through in his voice, because Arthur shakes his head.
"I wanted you to," he says. "That was what I wanted. You’re mine. You do what I say."***
Eames is worried, hovering over him, frowns when Arthur gets out of bed the next day, keeps making him plates of food.
"Your cooking’s improved," Arthur says, eating the soft eggs Eames puts in front of him, salty cheese and new spring onions crumbled over the top. It hurts him to sit, but the look on Eames’ face every time he shifts in his seat makes him try to avoid it.
"Come here," Arthur says, finally. Eames stands in front of him. "I drank too much ale last night," Arthur says. "And I was. I mistreated you."
"Arthur, that’s not—"
"After battle," Arthur begins, and then can’t go on. Eames’ hands are in front of him, twisted into fists, and he takes one in his hand. Eames lets him uncurl his fingers, touch the chapped knuckles, run the tip of his finger along the calluses on his palm.
"Knees," Arthur says and Eames comes down quickly, just between Arthur’s feet, still holding Arthur’s hand in his. Arthur puts a hand to his cheek, slides it up into his close-cropped hair, which is soft against his palm. It’s very short and Eames’ beard is neatly trimmed as well. He—made ready, Arthur thinks. He was waiting.
"You are—pleasing, to look at," Arthur says. Eames eyes jerk up to his, surprised. "Have I not said?"
"You have said I am strong," Eames says slowly. "When I am too lazy at the plough for your liking." Arthur puts his thumb against Eames’ lower lip.
"I have. I thought of this," he says. Eames swallows.
"What—what of it?" he says.
"Only of the presumptuous and disrespectful words that come out of it," Arthur says.
"Only for you," Eames says, very softly, and Arthur leans down, then, takes Eames’ mouth and Eames gives him a soft, open-mouthed kiss, tilting his head for Arthur when Arthur brushes his knuckle along the fine cut of his jaw.
"May I ask—I would beg a question," Eames says, when Arthur pulls back.
"Did you learn manners this summer?" Arthur teases, but Eames shakes his head, not joking. "Yes, you may ask," Arthur says, and Eames still hesitates for a long moment before saying,
"Did you ever—find another, another to do—"
"No," Arthur says. Eames nods.
"You weren’t—like this, after the raid last fall," he says.
"That’s two questions," Arthur says. He touches the corner of Eames’ mouth again. Eames licks his lips.
"Was it really only my words you thought of?" he says.
"That’s three," Arthur says. Eames meets his eyes. Then he pushes in closer, nudging Arthur’s thighs open with his shoulders, sliding one hand up Arthur’s thigh, just under his tunic.
"Would you like me to suck and lick your cock until you spill in my mouth?" he says, his voice gone rough. His hand stays still on Arthur’s leg until Arthur says,
Eames is very soft with him, very gentle, and Arthur has to pull Eames’ hands to his hips, where Eames always held him down before. Arthur wants to suck Eames off, after, but Eames is still kneeling, watching him, and Arthur doesn’t think he would welcome it.
"You may find release with my hand," Arthur says, keeping his voice purposely a little curt, and Eames nods eagerly, but doesn’t move until Arthur says,
"Get on the bed," and climbs up after him. Eames comes to completion very quickly, moaning against Arthur’s mouth, and he settles obediently into Arthur’s arms afterwards, but there’s still a strange, bothered undercurrent in his voice when he speaks again.
"How long until you leave again?"
"Not for three weeks," Arthur says. "Perhaps four."
"I don’t—" Eames begins.
"That won’t happen again," Arthur says, quickly. "I’ll—I won’t. I’ll remember how. It’s always—like this, the first time back." Usually he gets drunk with Geir and comes home and sleeps it off for a few days and starts training again. This time he thinks perhaps he’ll take a week or two, make sure his injuries heal fully, that the fields are growing well, let Eames coddle him a little. He’ll be ready when the ships leave again.***
Eames tries to wait for a good moment—tries to make a good moment, but Arthur evades him easily, without seeming to, asking Eames a detailed question about what schedule he’s been using to fertilize the garden, coming home having secured the promise of a colony of bees and spending the afternoon hunched with Eames over a page drawing a plan for the hive they’ll build together, or even just coming up behind him and sliding a single finger down the back of his neck, murmuring,
"Leave your work," and then taking him to bed and touching him until Eames can’t begin to think of any words but the ones Arthur tells him to say, his mouth parted, lips brushing the head of Eames’ cock.
Finally he gives up and turns over in bed and says, "Do you have to go out again?"
"Yes," Arthur says, without opening his eyes.
"It’s not—you can’t want to do it," Eames falters. Arthur shifts around, turning towards Eames.
"I don’t have a choice," he says. It’s very late, and very quiet, and Arthur seems to gather himself together and then says, "You don’t think I—. Every time now, when I. I start thinking, about, about what it’s like, for everyone who knows him, if he has a lover or a family or. if he feels like I—" he huffs out a rough breath and says, "and I do it anyway. It’s the only thing I know how to do."
"Just—stop, then," Eames says. "You can, you can work in the village, make tables and—"
"No," Arthur says.
"Why not," Eames says. "I know you like it and you’re a deft hand with it, with the carving."
"I’ve thought of it," Arthur says. "But I can’t keep you if I don’t fight."
"You’d sell me?"
"They would take you away," Arthur says, his voice lifting in despair. "They’d take everything. I earned the right to—keep you, with blood, with—"
"You can’t do this for me," Eames says. "I don’t want you to."
"Oh," Arthur says, his face falling. "Oh. Well, I suppose, then." He looks at Eames, his eyes dark and sad. "I can. talk to Geir. He’s. Frieda will be with child soon and not—he’s so besotted he wouldn’t ask her to get a mug of ale for him if she didn’t feel like it. He can afford to keep you, even after the baby, and—"
"Or I’ll give him some, some extra to keep you," Arthur says, looking around the room. "My share of the take from this last raid and—he’s always had his eye on one of my halberds, he’ll probably—."
"And what are you going to be doing?" Eames says coldly, as Arthur has everything so well planned.
"I don’t know," Arthur says, fiercely. "I’ll leave."
"If you think I can, I’ll watch you bed down with my friend, raise his—his children, I—"
"You’re not leaving," Eames says. "And you’re not going to make me fuck Geir."
"He’s—handsome, I thought," Arthur says, "He wouldn’t mistreat you."
Eames gives him a flat, disapproving look, and Arthur sighs.
"There, you see?" he says, half smiling, touching the curve of Eames’ cheek. "I have no choice but to fight."
"Can we—" Arthur says. "These three weeks, I want only to speak of the house and the fields, to touch you in my bed. Can we?"
"I have your permission to touch you?" Eames says, after a moment.
"You know the answer to that," Arthur says.
"Then yes," Eames tells him, reaching for him. "Yes," he says and pulls Arthur’s tunic aside to kiss his neck. Arthur wiggles out of his clothes and pulls at Eames’ shift until Eames kneels up and takes off his clothes as well, presses Arthur back into the bed, nuzzling his mouth against Arthur’s throat, running his hand down Arthur’s ribs, still too prominent, hooking his fingers under the back of Arthur’s knee to pull their hips together and Arthur puts his hand on Eames’ waist to pull him in, rubs his cock against the crease of Eames’ hip, sighing.
"You can," he says, fingers tracing up Eames’ sides, "you can take me—"
"I won’t do that to you again," Eames says.
"It felt good," Arthur says.
"I hurt you," Eames says. He slides sideways off Arthur and Arthur follows him, wrapping his ankle across Eames’ leg to keep them together, sliding up until Eames’ hand is against the top of his arse, slipping down, parting him a little. Arthur’s cock jumps against him.
"You see?" Arthur says. He moves and Eames’ finger slips deeper down towards his hole and Arthur makes a jagged, breathless noise and says, "I like it. It’s yours, if you will take it."
"I see," Eames says. He slides his fingers lower, until they’re just resting on Arthur’s blood-hot hole, not pressing in. "This belongs to me?"
"Yes," Arthur says. Eames kisses Arthur’s neck until Arthur is sighing, pliant against him, and then brings his hand around, between them, and rubs his thumb over the wet head of Arthur’s cock, circling.
"And this?" he says. "This belongs to me?" Arthur’s mouth tilts up.
"Yes," he says. He rolls to his back and Eames leans up over him. "Yes." Arthur takes Eames’ hand from his cock, pulls it up his belly and presses it flat against his chest. "And this," he says. "And this," he says, very carefully, in Saxon, his fingers wrapped in Eames’.
"Arthur," Eames says. Arthur lifts up against him, asking for his mouth, and Eames crushes him into the bed, kissing him with his whole heart.
Eames wakes up to Arthur on the floor on his elbows and knees, retching, barely past the end of the bed.
"Don’t, don’t," Arthur mutters, when Eames touches him. "Go back to sleep.".
"Are you sickening with something?" Eames says.
"No," Arthur says. "Just a dream, that’s all," and then he seems to come back to himself a little and lets Eames get him clean cloth and get him back up into bed. His hands are very cold. Eames cleans up the vomit on the floor and gets back under the covers.
"What did you dream of?" Eames asks. Arthur stares at the ceiling.
"I don’t remember," he says.
In the morning, they share a slice of ripe melon between them, sitting on the stoop, and then Eames brings Arthur a mug of tea, a knife, a stack of funny bits of wood he’s been saving for him all summer, a bowl of round pebbles and a slingshot, leaves him sitting cross-legged in the shade of the house to protect the garden from rabbits, and goes to see Frieda.
"A fair?" she says. "Well. There’s one to the east, but no one ever goes."
"It’ll do well enough," Eames says.
"And how is your master this morning?" she says.
"Very well," Eames says, but his voice comes out strained and he has to look away. "I shouldn’t stay. Arthur will not like me wasting time with talk," he says.
"Yes," she says. There’s a tentative smile on her face that grows when she steps closer to him. "I know that—that Arthur is very strict with you?"
"Very," Eames says. She reaches up and tugs the edge of his tunic straight, over one of the still-warm marks Arthur left with his mouth, last night.
He waits a day before he asks. Waits through another night of Arthur’s dreaming, his tortured breaths, as though he’s drowning.
"Will you take me to the fair down the coast?" he says, in the morning.
"Where did you hear about that?" Arthur says, yawning.
"Frieda," Eames says. "I asked."
"I want to go away with you," Eames says. "Just for a little while. We can be there and back in eight days. That’s more than enough time before you have to leave again."
Arthur turns over, eyes curious. "You’ve been planning," he says.
"Will you go?" Eames says. Arthur sighs.
"Wouldn’t you rather—stay here?" he says, brushing his knuckles over Eames’ hip. "With the bed?" He looks lazy, content, and Eames feels a hot flare of panic. Arthur will say no.
"Please," Eames says. He scrambles up with his knees against the mattress and takes Arthur’s hand in his. "Have I ever asked you for anything?" he says. "Do this for me, come away with me, just for a few days, and I promise, I’ll never ask you for anything else."
"It’s just a fair," Arthur says, confused. "Not even a good one."
"Please," Eames says and Arthur says yes.
Geir walks up the sheep track when Arthur is down in the village.
"Heard you were going east to the midsummer festival," he says, sitting down on the low stone wall of the garden and watching Eames pinch back the herbs.
"That’s right." Eames looks up at him. "Arthur won’t be back up from the village for a little while—"
"My family fostered Arthur, when he first came," Geir says. "Did you know that? We were six; we used to share a pallet. I remember the first night he came, I thought he’d cry—I knew I’d cry if I had to leave my Dad and Mam. But Arthur never did, not once." He stops, considering, and then says, "I had a little Poppet back then that my Nan made for me, and I would have shared it with him. He didn’t have anything but the clothes on his back. I would have given it to him if he’d wanted it. But he never asked. He wouldn’t even ask to hold it."
"Maybe he didn’t want it," Eames says.
"He’s saved my life more than a few times," Geir says, squinting at the horizon. "I never saw anyone who could fight like him."
"Seems to me he’s done enough fighting," Eames says, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but Geir is still looking away, his expression fixed and calm.
"Frieda had a good strong mare as part of her dowry," Geir says. "She’d like to sell it, but she’ll fetch a better price outside the village. It would be a favor to us if you could sell her now and save us her care."
"I’ll speak with Arthur," Eames says.
Geir nods. "Which way do you plan to go?" he asks.
"The eastern shore road," Eames says.
Geir nods. "That’s a rough road, but two men and a horse may go quickly enough," he says, and then stands, dusting off his hands, and heads back down the path.*
They leave two mornings later at daybreak; it’s a fine summer day and they make good time, taking turns on Hulda, a sturdy brown horse with one white ear, who trots gamely along, even under the weight of their full saddlebags.
"This was a good idea," Arthur says, when the more deeply rutted road near the village has faded away into a narrow, overgrown track. He knocks a hand against his shield, hung against Hulda’s flank, and says, "perhaps I’ll enter a contest." He smiles up at Eames and brushes a hand against his ankle. "Would you give me a token for luck?" They’re just passing a long stand of tangled thorn bushes, dark green from summer, and Eames reaches out and snaps off a stiff, prickly branch, and hands it to Arthur.
"There you are," he says. Arthur laughs, softly, and before Eames can stop him he flips up the saddlebag to tuck the branch in and sees.
"What—" he says and Eames reins in Hulda and slides off, watching Arthur open first one saddlebag and then the next, looking at what’s inside.
"What is this?" Arthur says, finally.
"It’s gold," Eames says.
"I can see that, where did you get it?" Arthur says, his voice rising.
"I stole it," Eames says. It’s everything he could get. No one takes a second look at a slave, carrying a box into a house, hauling a load that’s too heavy for him up a hill, and Eames was beaten many times at the monastery for being light-fingered before he got too clever to be caught.
"Brunn isn’t kind to his slaves," Eames says. "And he thinks too well of his place in the village to imagine that he should be careful of his belongings."
"What did you do," Arthur mutters, almost to himself, shaking his head. "What did you—" he turns and Eames sees that his face is cracked open in bewildered grief. "Is it—do you hate me this much still, to do this? I thought—"
"I don’t hate you," Eames says. "How could you—ever think that?"
"I own you," Arthur shouts. "I hurt you. I fucked you and I liked it and you haven’t forgiven me for it, and—" he smiles, an awful, mirthless smile, and when he speaks again, his voice is gentle. "You need to go. Right now."
"No," Eames says.
"They’ll kill you," Arthur says. "I can’t protect you from this, do you understand that? I can’t—no one will keep a slave who steals."
"I won’t leave you," Eames says, trying to put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder, but Arthur flinches back away from him and says,
"Why did you do this then, why?"
"This is what it costs," Eames says harshly. "Two berths on a ship, silence for the people who see us, enough to make life on the other side."
"I don’t—" Arthur shakes his head. "You didn’t have to do this. I would have—if I’d known you were going to do this, I would have given you your freedom. I would have found a way to pay for your passage on a ship."
Arthur shrugs. "I got along well enough before."
"No you didn’t," Eames says. "You would—you would take a wife you didn’t want. You would go out again and again, until there was nothing left of you to come back. And I could never—I—"
"All right," Arthur says. "I see." He pulls his shield off the hook on the saddle, straps on his breastplate, and then tightens the girth on Hulda. He looks at Eames and the edge of his mouth curves gently into a smile. "Up," he says.
"What are you—"
"Keep to the path," Arthur says. "If you ride hard you’ll reach a fork before sundown; take the left—"
"No," Eames says. "You’re coming with me."
"No," Arthur says, shaking his head. "The horse can’t carry two, I’ll slow you—"
"Do you think they won’t kill you when they find you?" Eames says.
"They can try," Arthur says, with a hard grin. His eyes are dark, determined.
"Arthur, you—you can’t," Eames says and Arthur kisses him then, tugs him in and presses his mouth to Eames’, soft and sweet, stroking his fingers down Eames’ jaw.
"Please," he says. He tips his forehead to Eames’, so close to him that their lips brush with Arthur’s words. "Please. You’ll go, and I’ll buy you time; it will take them time to take me, I promise. Please, do this for me."
"Yes," Eames whispers and pulls Arthur to him, kissing him hard, and Arthur gasps into it, opens his mouth for Eames’ tongue, and then begins kissing him back, hungrily, kissing Eames’ top lip and then his bottom lip, tilting his head against Eames’ mouth, and running his hands over his face, remembering him, memorizing him, and Eames runs a thumb along Arthur’s cheekbone, through his hair, holding him tightly, one hand cupping the back of Arthur’s neck and then he spins him around and knocks his feet out from under him.
Arthur doesn’t see it coming but his instincts are good and he catches Eames in the chest with an elbow and drags him down too. They struggle in the grass, rolling over each other. In a fair fight, Eames would have no hope of winning, but Arthur is weak from the raid, still, and caught off guard, and Eames is a long way from the boy whose whose arm cracked, slammed up against a stone wall, a long way from the monk on the floor of the scriptorium, looking up into the face of a nightmare. He’s stronger than Arthur and he’s not scared of him and he shakes off Arthur’s hands long enough to grab a fistful of his tunic and jerk his shoulders up off the ground and then punches him across the jaw hard enough to snap his neck back. Arthur’s hands loosen on Eames’ arm and Eames rolls him over and crushes him into the ground.
"You," he says, "are a stupid fucking idiot, who is wasting time we can ill afford to lose."
"Eames," Arthur says, shoving furiously against him.
"I will never leave you behind," Eames says.
"Let me up now," Arthur says, coldly. "That is an order—"
"Who," Eames says, yanking Arthur’s arms behind him and leaning down to his ear, "are you talking to? You’re face down in the dirt. You don’t have a slave anymore. You don’t have a house. You don’t have a village you’ll ever walk into alive again. You have me, and we’ll run together or we’ll die together—"
"Fuck you," Arthur says. "Let me up." He’s struggling still, and Eames has to use all his strength to keep him down and get a one-handed grip on Arthur’s throat.
"Or I’ll choke you out and bind your hands and you’ll wake up slung over Hulda’s back in a few hours."
"You can’t," Arthur says, his voice breaking. "You can’t do this, you can’t just take me away from my life without asking, without—"
"So now we’re even," Eames bites out, dropping Arthur in the dirt and shoving up off him, heart pounding. Arthur flips himself over, but doesn’t stand, just stares up at Eames. He swallows. Then he says,
"Will you help me up?"
Eames puts out his hand, and Arthur leans up and clasps his arm, a warrior’s grip, a greeting.
Hulda is chewing thoughtfully at some grass, some few feet away. Arthur tugs his tunic straight and touches his throat, gingerly. His hair is tangled and his face is smudged with dirt. Eames bends his left arm, wincing.
"You were right," Arthur says, looking at the trampled dirt. "That was a waste of time. You think Hulda can carry both of us?"
"We’ll cut your hair tonight," Eames says.***
They ride hard, first sharing Hulda and then switching off as she gets tired, taking turns jogging by her side, until it’s too dark to see the pitted uneven road, until Arthur’s legs and feet ache and Eames looks grim. They give Hulda her feedbag and share a cold meal, sitting in the grass beneath a tree. The moon is a crescent, but low in the sky and bright enough that Arthur can look at Eames’ face.
"You’re free," Arthur tells him.
"You’re giving me my freedom?" Eames says, an odd little quirk to his mouth.
"No, that’s not—" Arthur struggles to find the words. "I thought. You took it, your freedom."
"You taught me to fight," Eames says.
Arthur sits, his head bowed, and Eames kneels behind him, combing his fingers through Arthur’s hair, pulling it straight. Arthur thinks about what it will feel like without the weight of his hair, his neck bare, his head light as a bird.
"Ready?" Eames says. The shears are cold against the back of Arthur’s neck.
"Yes," Arthur says.
"In my country, Arthur is a name for a king," Eames says and makes the first cut.
There’s a little farm, on the edge of a forest, where two men work the land. There’s a small house and a weatherbeaten barn, a few cows and goats, chickens pecking in the back fields, a sprawling vegetable garden.
It’s a quiet place, far inland and away from main roads, where two strangers attract a little talk, but it’s not the sort of place where people ask questions and both men are well-liked in the village.
One of the men has a clever tongue and a quick, easy grin. He’s slow to anger, but good with his fists if it comes to it, a good man to have at your back. He’ll write a letter for you, if there’s someone to read it where you’re sending it, and if there isn’t, he’ll draw you a picture—your bonny new husband, your fat new baby, the pig that won you a prize at the fair.
The other man is slight as a boy, and sunny, with a soft crown of curls falling into his eyes; you wouldn’t look to him in a fight. If your plough breaks and you can’t afford a new one, he’ll come out and take a look, and fix it often as not, and if you have no money, he’ll take home an apple tart or a thick wedge of cheese. If you can’t spare even that, he’ll lift one shoulder and say, in a tilting, rolling accent, that it doesn’t matter, to pay when you can. He can make you a fine new bed or a milking stool or a breadbox, and every year, the May Queen wears a circlet made of wood, carved into loops and whorls, light as a feather on her glossy hair.
It’s far to the south, this village. The winters are mild, and the summers are very long and very warm. The village is so far inland that only a few people have ever travelled far enough to see the ocean, even once, and when the man takes his shirt off to work the fields, no one has ever even heard of the creature on his back, a great, black tentacled sea beast, coiling over his shoulder and around his waist, one tentacle curling gently, just a finger’s distance from the blue bird on his chest.