Chapter 1: The Cup of Water
Charles carried two full buckets of water in the garden, poured the water over the herbs and then walked back to the pump to fill the buckets again. He had repeated this since the morning mass, and still the herb garden wilted right before his eyes in the midday sun. He poured the last drops over the foxgloves and sighed. The rain had been sparse this summer, and Charles had read many grateful prayers that at least some of the plants had survived this far.
He picked up the empty buckets and turned to return to the water pump. He walked down the garden path, and stopped at the kitchen door. Sister Moira commanded the kitchen, and Charles had become quick friends with her since he had arrived to this monastery. She was a good woman, fair and strong. Today she had a whole flock of sullen novices gathered around the dish pails, soap foam up to their elbows. Charles rapped on the doorframe and she turned, smiling when she noticed it was him.
”I heard the bells chime as the end of Presentation. Is there any news from the Hall?”
She looked over the novices, satisfied that they were busy enough, before stepping outside to talk with him. She shot a disapproving glance at the sky as well, the heat taking its toll on everyone.
“Nothing official,” she said, brushing her hands against her apron. She glanced around to see if anyone was in earshot. The novices were too occupied with their task to care about their discussion, and the servants didn't use the garden path at this time of day. She still lowered her voice to a whisper. “But after the morning mass, I heard the Prioress say to her clerk if there is no one chosen today, they should release this barbarian alpha back to the wild where he came, and summon an another one.”
“It's against the Church ordinance to summon another alpha when one has already followed the call,” Charles said, thinking the ramifications. “The Prioress must be desperate if she even considers it. Insubordination like that would mean a setback to her plans to secure a seat in the Bishop Council.”
“Perhaps. Though I side with the Prioress on this one. The Alpha is a strange one, nothing like I've ever seen to follow the sacred call. Holy Adit forgive me for even saying this, but I felt relieved when the Alpha took no interest in me.”
Charles nodded, even though it was inconsiderate of her to say that. He couldn't participate in the Presentation but she could, so to say that she didn't want to be chosen was cruel. But Charles brushed that thought aside. He knew Moira's meaning, and decided not to read anything more into it.
“You and Prioress agreeing on something? I think I'll go light a candle to honor this miraculous day!” Charles laughed and Moira laughed with him, shaking her head in disbelief.
“I think I'll do the same,” she said. “But no monastery has failed to complete the Fecundity rituals in the last five years, and I don't want us to break that record. Especially now, when the Abbess is sick.”
Charles nodded in agreement, and picked up the buckets again. “I agree. This matter is in the hands of the Holy Mother Adit, and we must pray for Her guidance. And for Alpha's swift decision.”
“In Her name,” Moira said, and glanced at the novices again. Since her back had been turned for awhile now, they had started to wash less and giggle more. Moira shook her head. “Ah. Another lesson in the value of focus is in order. Stop by in an hour, I'll set a piece of fresh bread aside for you.”
“Thank you, I will,” Charles said and continued down the garden path.
The pump was near the old brick wall. It was a shady spot, the area tiled with smooth, round stones. He placed the first bucket under the pump and rolled up his sleeves, to start the familiar struggle to get the lever down for the first time. The pumping was easy when he got the motion going, but before that he had to put some muscle into it. The pump was temperamental, and didn't give anything for free.
He had just gotten the first hesitant sputter of water, when novice Sean rushed to him, carrying a crystal pitcher in his hand.
“Brother Charles, oh I'm so glad I found you! I need to ask you a big favor!”
Charles turned to look at him, while pumping the lever to keep the water going. The pitcher he held had a silver top, decorated with a figurine of a dove and a snake tangled in embrace. Charles recognized the emblem.
“You serve the Prioress today? I don't envy you novice,” Charles said and smiled, then nodded toward the water. “Go ahead, fill your pitcher. Though it's not much of a favor.”
“Thank you,” Sean said, pushing the pitcher under the stream of water. “But that's not the favor. You see, I was on my way to fetch water for the Hall when The Prioress ordered me to take water to the Abbess chambers instead. Would you mind helping me and taking a cup of water there, just to tide the Alpha over? It's hotter inside the Hall than out here, if you can believe it.”
“Water for the Alpha? But...”
“Well, more like for the Sisters guarding him, because the Alpha naps most of the time.”
“He sleeps?” Charles asked, pumping harder few times to keep the water flowing. “That is odd.”
“Shows how much we interest him,” Sean said and pulled the full pitcher away from the pump. “Would you mind helping me, please? You don't have to worry about the Alpha, really, he always sleeps, like I said, and besides, aren't you...” He bit his tongue before finishing the thought and blushed beet red.
“Barren?” Charles finished for him. Sean blushed even brighter shade of red, staring down to his feet in embarrassment. Charles let go of the lever, the flow of water stopping gradually.
“I am so, so sorry, Brother Charles! Please forgive me, I didn't want to insult you.”
The novice looked like he was about to burst to tears. Charles didn't blame him, because if he repeated his remark to Sister Moira, the novice would get a good beating. Sister Moira oversaw the novices, and even the slightest inclination of impertinence from them made her take up the cane. But Charles didn't think one slip of tongue warranted that, especially since the novice spoke the truth.
“The sun must've struck me deaf today, because I only heard you ask for my help and nothing else,” Charles said and reached to pat his arm. “Go on then, take the Abbess her water. I'll take a cup to the Hall.”
Charles watched him dash down the path and shook his head. He remembered how difficult the novice life could be, and Moira often blamed him for being too soft on them. Moira believed in discipline, but Charles wanted to think that a kindness never went to waste. But now he had the extra task to take water to the Hall. He reached to take the drinking cup from the little nook on the brick wall, where it was kept in case anyone needed a quick drink of water. He brushed the dirt off, rinsed the cup in the bucket and filled it with a fresh water from the pump.
Charles walked to the Hall in brisk pace, counting he could make two or three trips between the garden and the pump before it would be time for lunch, if he could get this done quickly. He went to the servants door, because that was the easiest route through the Hall. The air inside was stagnant, the heat like a thick blanket. At least outside there was a whiff of wind now and then, but here the air didn't move. Charles walked through the office quarters, past the entrance to the scriptorium and down the winding corridors until he reached the main hall.
The main hall was a large, open space, with curved archways that lead in and out to other sections of the Hall itself. It was otherwise unremarkable space, except for the floor. It was a complex work of mosaic, full of color and movement. Some pieces were no bigger than a fingernail, some as big as a baby's hand. It presented the aspects of the Goddess Adit, and how all the different aspects were held together by Mystery, its symbol the white empty circle in the middle of mosaic. There were millions of pieces on the floor, and you could spend hours just following the patterns running through the different images.
It was usual practice to make a novice to count a section, to learn focus and concentration. Charles had done it as well when he had arrived here. Not as punishment, but because he liked the sense of inner calm that exercise created. He had counted the Mystery, the exact place where the Alpha now knelt.
Charles stopped at the doorway to look at him.
The novice had been wrong. The man didn't sleep. His eyes were closed and his chest rise and fell with even pace, but it wasn't from sleeping. He prayed, Charles was sure of it. He could feel his alertness, the calm focus radiating from him. It was as familiar to Charles as his own heartbeat. The thick golden chains ran across his chest and arms, the ends bolted to the floor so that he had to remain kneeling. His back was straight, his hands resting on his thighs. He was relaxed, like the chains were a decoration, something that he wore because it pleased him, but what he could shed without a second thought.
His chest was bare, and Charles stared at the symbols tattooed across his shoulders and down his arms. The design broke over his left rib bones, thick jagged scars pulling the skin. Charles had seen scars like that before, on the veteran's of the great wars. Remnants of deep wounds closed with a blunt needle and thick thread. Maybe he had sown the wounds himself, or some other soldier had done it, fingers slippery from the blood.
The memory made Charles' hands shook, and water splashed from the cup to the floor. Charles scoffed at his own clumsiness and crouched to mop up the water with his sleeve. When he straightened back up, he saw that the Alpha had opened his eyes and stared at him. Charles startled, and took instinctive step back.
The Alpha frowned, and moved his fingers in a small gesture, beckoning him to come closer. Charles looked around for help, but there was no one else in the main room. The Alpha shouldn't be left alone at any time while he was in the monastery grounds. But there wasn't a single monk or a nun around. Charles stood there undecided for a moment. It wasn't proper conduct to approach the Alpha outside the Presentation. Then again, there was no direct rule that forbade it either. And the man was thirsty. It went against Charles' conviction to hold help from those who needed it.
The Alpha beckoned again, staring at him intently. Charles walked slowly closer, holding out the cup. He glanced at the chains, and then back at him, indicating that he couldn't exactly reach out. Charles got even closer, leaning to place the cup to his hands. Without warning, the Alpha grabbed his wrist and yanked him out of balance. Charles crashed down his knees and the cup clattered to the floor, the water spilling over the mosaic. The Alpha held his arm while pushing his shoulder back, and he went with the motion, ending up flipped on his back. He half laid on his lap, half sprawled on the floor.
Charles stared up at the ceiling, amazed how quick it had happened. Then he realized he was sweaty and dirty from the garden, smearing all that on the white mosaic. This thought made him finally try to struggle free from his hold. The Alpha huffed, amused, and pressed his fingers against the back of his neck. Charles stilled immediately. He knew the pressure points in the throat and neck, and what kind of damage it would do to press down even a sliver too wide. The Alpha's hold was perfect, and Charles didn't want it to change.
“Please, this is a sacred space,” Charles said quietly. His head was too tilted to the right so he couldn't see the Alpha's face, but the hold on his neck didn't ease. “My death would desecrate it.”
“You beg for the room, but not for yourself?”
He sounded curious, not angry. His voice was soft and deep, nothing like Charles had expected. This close, Charles could smell his skin. It was a strange scent, wide in all directions. It made him think the small bluebells the grew in thick masses near his family home. The scent was overpowering and more he breathed it in, the more he started to like it.
“Death is just one of the Goddess Adit's many aspects. My life and death are in Her hands, beyond my own wishes,” Charles said.
“Your life is in my hands now,” the Alpha said. It was illogical, but his words made Charles feel safe. Protected. The Alpha moved slightly, the chains clinking, and Charles tensed again. The Alpha must've felt it, but he said nothing, only leaned over him as far as the chains allowed. He inhaled the air over the bare stretch of his neck, the exhale tickling Charles' ear.
“Please let me leave,” Charles tried again. He realized that someone was bound to walk in the room at any moment, and he knew there was an emergency protocol for this type of thing, if the Alpha threatened or attacked anyone in the monastery. This could turn very bad, very quickly.
“You are frightened,” he said, tilting his head even further on the right. “Why?”
“I fear that there will be consequences for you if you don't let me go.”
“You, fear for me,” he repeated, and then he laughed, his lips so close to his skin that Charles shivered. “How curious.”
“I mean no disrespect.”
The Alpha said nothing, only tugged the collar of his shirt. The soft, worn fabric gave in easily, revealing a stretch of his chest. Charles tried not to let the panic take over, but it was hard to stay calm when the Alpha pressed his palm against his bare skin. The gold chain on his wrist pulled taut with the movement, and the metal pressed against Charles arm. The chains were heavy. The thought hadn't crossed his mind so far.
“Do you have a name, monk?”
“Good enough,” he said and shifted again, leaning down over his bare chest, breathing deep. He stayed like this for a moment, moving his head this way and that, tracing some unseen path running through his skin. Charles got a horrible urge to laugh, the madness of the situation starting to dawn on him. This was all wrong. This was the Alpha, summoned here as a central part of the most sacred ritual of the religious year, and here he was, draped over his lap like a cheap blanket. The only one, who the alpha could not choose. And yet, the Alpha wouldn't let him go. Charles didn't know what to do.
“Please, let me return to my duties, and you can return to yours? It's important that you choose the fertile mate today. We all wait for your decision.”
“Tell me about your duties?” he asked calmly, ignoring his pleads.
“I take care of the herb gardens. Today, I carry water. I've tended every plant from a seedling, and now the heat is destroying all my hard work. I must get back to it.”
“Gardener? No. You have been in the battlefields. I can smell that on you.”
“To help the wounded, and bury the dead. Not as a soldier.”
“You know the marks on me, what they mean?”
“Yes, some of it. The count of battles, and victories, men who followed you, and the men you lost,” Charles said, trying to think back what he had learned about the tattoos years ago. Combinations of design could change the meaning, but he was certain that he recognized these correct. The Alpha stretched his arm as far as it would go, holding it in Charles' line of sight. The tattoo was a black spiral, with delicate details looping over in entwined swirls.
“Does this please you?”
“I...I don't understand.”
“I wish you to carry my children, Charles the Gardener. Do you find my victories are enough, or shall I leave to collect more? I'll bring you the head of every enemy you name.”
Charles blinked in confusion.
“Carry your...You choose me to... But it's impossible!”
“They bring these bearers to me, and tell me to pick one. All day long they march them through here like cattle, and they are all pale and empty like frozen lakes. Except you, little gardener. You came to me alone, full of heat and life. I want you.”
“I'm not, I'm...Please listen. It can't be me. I've been told I suffered an injury as a child, and can't bear children. You have to choose someone else,” Charles said, the shame burning inside his mind brighter than ever before. He wanted to hide away from this humiliation, and this sense of loss that he had to live with every day.
“Lies!” the Alpha shouted, releasing the hold of his neck, turning and pulling him, and once again he went with the motion and ended up kneeling in front of the Alpha. The chains were taut around the Alpha, he squeezed Charles' shoulders painfully. He looked furious. “I read your scent, and there is nothing broken in you! Who told you this lie? Tell me, I'll see them punished!”
“Please, don't say that, I can't take this,” Charles pleaded. “It hurts too much.”
The Alpha blinked, and released his hold. Charles crawled further away, sitting down, his whole body shaking. He brushed away the tears and took a deep breath, then another, trying to calm down. When he looked at the Alpha, he had returned to his earlier position, back straight, hands resting on his thighs. Except this time, he had a hard-on, the loose loincloth covering it only barely. The Alpha glanced at him and noticed his line of sight. He grinned.
“Does it please you, bearer? Your touch made it happen.”
“Can't be,” Charles muttered. The Alpha snorted.
“Spread your legs and I'll show you what can and can't be.”
Before Charles could say anything, two Sisters walked into the room, one carrying a water pitcher and a wash bowl, the other a stack of towels. They stopped at the edge of mosaic pattern and stared at them.
“What are you doing here?”
“What have you done?”
They asked the questions at the same time, and Charles didn't know which one to answer first. He reached for the toppled cup still laying on the floor and stood up, straightening his torn shirt.
“Goddess have mercy!”
“In Adit's holy name!”
At first Charles didn't understand what had shocked Sisters in such degree. He glanced at the Alpha and noticed that he stared at him too, with a smug smirk in his face. Charles followed his gaze and realized that his pants were soaked through. Either he had wet himself, which hadn't happen since he was an infant, or he had gone to heat, publicly and suddenly.
“Can't be,” Charles said again and the Alpha barked a laughter.
“You two, go tell your leader that I have made my decision. This is the bearer I take. And I take him now.”
Their training kicking in action, the Sisters put down the things they've been carrying and approached them cautiously. Charles first instinct was to back toward the Alpha, not go toward the Sisters. They made placating gestures at him, like he had turned into a wild beast they tried to capture.
“You are the gardener, true? I'm Sister Else, and this is Sister Anna. I want you to walk toward me, would you do that for us? Go on. A few steps. That's all.”
“Come here. You belong to me,” the Alpha commanded, reaching for him but the chains didn't give enough, his fingertips on inch away from Charles' hand.
Every rational thread in Charles urged him to move toward Sister Else, but another power wanted him to take a step back instead, to take the Alpha's hand. He couldn't follow either desire with a clear conscious, so Charles stood still, frozen in his indecision. The Sisters took advantage of it, and surged forward, seizing his arms and pulling him further away from the Alpha. He roared in fury, struggling against the chains, reaching toward Charles, but it was too late. The Sisters dragged him toward the door, ignoring the Alpha's enraged curses behind them.
“Please, he will hurt himself! Let me speak to him and explain, please, he will listen to me!” Charles pleaded, struggling to get back in the room. Sisters held him firmer, marching him to the door leading to the north wing, the way to the infirmary.
“Don't worry about him, he will be fine,” Sister Anna said.
“We will get you cleaned you up, and then you can see him again, hm?” Sister Else added, like bribing a petulant child with a piece honey cake. Charles wanted to laugh at that image, but suddenly he felt a stab of excruciating, like being gutted with jagged hot blades. Sisters wrapped their arms around him to stop him from keeling over to the floor.
“Breathe, it's the first hit, it won't last long. Keep breathing. People, we need help in here! Hurry!”
Chapter 2: The Alliance
Alpha's decision doesn't delight everyone.
“What did you say?”
“We received a word from the hall,” the clerk repeated. “The Alpha has chosen his bearer, Prioress Emma.”
A drop of ink fell from her pen, stilled in mid-motion, and splashed on the parchment. She lifted the tip and frowned, both at the messed letter and to her clerk.
“How is that possible? The Presentation doesn't commence until the prayers are over, and the bells haven't chimed yet.”
“The bearer wasn't part of the Presentation, m'am. Apparently he brought the Alpha a cup of water on his own,” the clerk explained. “The Sisters who witnessed the meet, say that the Alpha's choice is indisputable. Shall I order the preparations to begin, m'am?”
The Prioress leaned to wipe the metal tip of the pen to a piece of cloth, before placing the pen back to its holder. The metal tip was valuable, and she didn't want to ruin that. Then she leaned back on her chair and folded her hands in her lap. Her clerk stared at her expectantly.
“And who is this man then? The bearer?”
“Brother Charles, m'am.”
That was the one name Prioress hadn't expected to hear. Any other would've been bad, but this one could be a disaster. She squeezed her hands together to keep them from shaking.
“He's the gardener, correct?” she asked, even though she knew exactly who Brother Charles was. She needed time to think.
“Yes, m'am. He arrived here from the Temple in the early spring, to build the medicine garden. He had had excellent results on that front. The Abbess herself complimented him on his work in the start of summer. He served at the Grand Library as a novice and took his vows with the Archbishop's blessing. He has written extensive research both in the fields of botany and in medicine. He served a long period in the Northern monasteries, and on the battlefields of both great wars. He is said to be a virtuous and honest man.”
“That may well be, but he is still a stranger to our community,” Prioress noted. She hadn't expected this, an oversight, but she started to realize that this might be a fortunate turn after all. She knew how to spin things to her advantage. “Fetch a midwife from the town, as highly respected as possible. Whoever delivered the mayors firstborn, that's the one we need. They can inspect this Brother Charles, and sworn oath that he is pure. Then, and only then, we will start the preparations.”
“And the Alpha, m'am? He is in aggravated state.”
“Of course he is, what other states they have? Strap him down, and if that doesn't do it, sedate him. We have no use for him until we are certain about this Brother Charles.”
“As you wish m'am,” the clerk said and bowed, leaving the study and closing the door behind him. Emma waited for a long minute, to make sure there was no other interruptions. She pressed her fingers against her forehead while she waited, to focus and calm down.
“All clear,” she said when she was sure it was safe. She dropped her hands back to her lap, folding her fingers together. A man stepped in the room behind the painted screen in the corner. The screen was white and green, a dove on other panel, a world snake on another. A gift from her father when she had taken her wows. The symbols joined together, the dove pecking the snakes eye, if you folded the screen a certain way. Her father always had a sense of humor.
The man walked behind her, sliding his hand along the curve of her neck.
“When I told you to summon the barbarian here, I meant to kill him, not hand him a blessed bearer.” He grabbed a hold of Emma's hair, pulling her head back and staring down on her. “The bearer will make him even stronger, and now that he has chosen one, he is under the protection of the Church. I piss on your slut goddess, but I still won't go against the whole weight of her church.”
“The man sat here for two days, lord Shaw. If you didn't get here quick enough, then blame your horse and not me,” Emma said, staring boldly back.
“My horse is worth more than you,” he said and pressed his free hand against her throat and squeezed in warning. “So watch your pretty mouth.”
“I thank you for your advice, my lord,” Emma said, and smiled. “But what comes to this bearer, I believe this situation could be turned beneficial to both of us.”
“I'm listening,” he said, releasing his hold on her throat, but still pulling her hair, fingers touching her scalp. It prickled, the sensation running down her spine like a trickle of cold water. Emma sighed and leaned her head against his hand.
“Recall the rumor that spread in the spring, that the Archbishop planned to investigate all the monasteries, due allegations of blasphemous acts? The one that the Archbishop's clerk claimed to be false in three different public speeches?”
“You spoke nothing else for a week.” Shaw let her hair go, shoving her head to side. Emma smiled again. His petulance was, at times, adorable.
“A rumor that is so stubbornly denied, always has its roots in truth,” she said and stood up, wrapping her arm around his shoulder and leaning against his chest, inhaling his scent. She had missed him. “What you may not know, is that after this rumor was laid to rest, we received a generous funding from the Church, to help us with the rebuilding of the old gardens. Only a week from that, and Brother Charles arrives, armed with plants and string of curious questions.”
“So you think this Brother Charles is the Archbishop's spy,” Shaw said, wrapping his arm around her waist and pulling her closer. “And this is your chance to get rid of him?”
“Ah yes, but unfortunately I can do nothing about Brother Charles at the moment. The situation is much too precarious. If anything happens to him, the Archbishop's attention will focus here. I can't have that.”
“But alpha is volatile in heat, and might attack the bearer. Especially if the connection between them is superficial,” Shaw mused. “Interesting idea. But there will be believers around them during the ritual. Do you have a way around that? ”
“The Church protects the Alpha with all its strength, and during the ritual, I am the Church. The protection I offer might be nonexistent. But the bearer will be connected to the same power as I am, and out of my reach,” Emma said, tilting her head to look in his eyes. “So tell me my lord, how many moments does the bearer have left to live, if I let the Alpha's veins run dry on the altar?”
“Not many,” he ran his fingers through her hair, and yanked her head back again, kissing her roughly. “I will slit his throat for you before the bearer's loose cunt slips free from the barbarian's dead flesh.”
“Thank you, my lord,” she said, reaching up for an another kiss. “The barbarian goes to berserk from the mating heat and slays his bearer, then takes his own life in his crashing guilt. Not even the Archbishop can question that story. And this Brother Charles has no ties here, no family who would demand retribution from the monastery on his behalf. Case closed.”
“Without their king to hold them together, his army will break back in fractions, and there will be nothing stopping me from invading a land that weak,” he said, kissing her again. “Now, all this talk of blasphemy has given me a hunger for it. Get on your knees.”
Emma smiled and knelt down in an elegant motion, her blue robes fanning around her. She had done and undone this part of his armor so many times that she had no problem to find the right buckles, and loosen the needed straps. A skill that a woman of her stature shouldn't possess, but Emma had always prided herself for knowing exactly what she needed to know at any given time. He was already hard when Emma wrapped her hand around his cock, stroking slowly few times before letting him go. She waited as he tangled his hand deep in her hair, the glimmering whiteness flowing around his fist, before yanking her head forward. He loved her hair, and couldn't keep his hands away from it for long.
He held her head in place, rubbing the tip of his thick cock against her lips. She made a point to look reluctant, only opening her mouth a fraction at first, giving him the satisfaction to force his way into her mouth. She knew this game, and what he wanted to see. She held still and let the disgust and horror float in her eyes, adding notes of sudden pleasure when he pushed his cock deeper and finally slow acceptance when he pressed down her throat. He pulled away and she hung in his hold, long ropes of spit dripping from her open mouth. He smiled at her and held his cock in front of her face for a moment before thrusting again.
“The Church deems devouring of Alpha's seed as blasphemous act. Any member of the Church caught performing this crime, will suffer the punishment of...”
He pulled out and looked at her, shaking her slightly when she didn't respond swift enough.
“Whipping. 20 lashes, and five added lashes for every proved occasion,” she said and opened her mouth again. He made her wait a moment long before pushing his cock back in her mouth, down her throat as far as he could go, holding her neck to feel how her throat tightened and bulged from the assault. He enjoyed choking her, to feel her struggle in his hold, and she was happy to oblige.
It was all an another layer of rebellion for her, the high she wanted and needed. A priestess sucking cock, an omega fighting against her alpha's hold, both acts in the middle of the monastery, in front of the holy relics forbidding these acts. She pushed her hand between her thighs, pressing down hard. He held her head between his hands, fucking her mouth with rough shoves. She moved her fingers in his rhythm, her own movements as rough as his.
“Two hundred and twenty five lashes now,” he muttered, thrusting faster. “Messy and long death.”
She had done the math, the thrill crawling on her skin. She couldn't resist this, the pull of willfully going against everything she was supposed to hold sacred. She could do anything, defy gods and men if she wanted. He thrust few more times before pulling back, and she sucked, his seed filling her mouth in thick spurts. She twisted her fingers and her orgasm crashed over her like a wave. He pulled away, and she sat on the floor for a moment, leaning her hands on the warm stone as the aftershocks shivered her.
Shaw straightened up his clothes, his legs only inch away from the hem of her robe. He crouched down and touched her face, making her look back to him.
“You kill the barbarian, and in reward, I will take you to the Breeding Stones. If any monk, nun or damned clerk tries to stop me, I'll kill them all and burn this place down to the ground.”
Emma hated the delight his words caused, because she knew he was lying. He would never give her a child, or publicly claim her in any shape or form. Then their tie wouldn't be a secret anymore, and he would lose that power over her. He never gave up any power he had gained, ever. He was predictable in that way, and that was his weakness.
“Thank you, my lord,” she said and looked at him, his taste on her tongue, the scent of her hair in his fingers. Maybe after this matter with the spy was settled, it would be time to show Shaw that claiming could go both ways. Emma turned her head to hide her smile. That would be delicious. “I won't disappoint you.”
Chapter 3: Countdown
Charles is prepared for his duty.
Term 'charismata' is a plural of 'charisma', used here in a sense its used as an ecclesiastical term; 'a divinely bestowed power or talent'.
“Almost done,” the midwife said calmly, without looking up. He straightened and pulled his hand away. “Now, drink that tea. It'll help with the pain.”
The midwife pulled the sheet down his legs and turned to the wash basin Sister Anna held ready for him. The whole room waited in silence. The midwife didn't rush, he washed and dried his hands in peace, before turning to the clerk who waited by the desk in the corner, pen and parchment ready. Charles took a quick gulp of the tea. It was too hot and burned his mouth, but he didn't care. Maybe it would help with the pain of humiliation too. He knew what the midwife would say. That the Alpha had been mistaken, and his reaction to him had been some physical quirk, a cruel joke his body played on him.
“I have inspected this man from the Prioress request, and I can testify that he is an omega, never given birth and in early stages of the heat,” the midwife said. “If there is no dispute from the Alpha, I say he is physically able to fulfill his obligation to the Goddess and the Church.”
His words made Charles gulp the tea down the wrong way and he coughed helplessly, staring at the midwife in utter surprise. Sister Else patted his back and snatched the cup away so he wouldn't spill it on the bed.
“Oh, there is no dispute,” the clerk said. “The Alpha has been clear about his opinion on the matter. Would you be willing to give a sworn statement on this Mr. McCoy, for the records?”
“I swear in the Adit's Holy name and in my honor as a midwife, that what I had testified is true to best of my understanding,” he said and the clerk wrote his words down and then held the parchment out to him so he could sign it. He did that as unhurried as everything else. When he was finally done, the clerk nodded and everyone in the room snapped in motion.
Sister Else helped him out of the bed and Sister Anna helped him put on a clean robe, soft and white. Charles didn't have much modesty left, but he was grateful for the gesture. The Sisters lead him to the door and he followed them without a word, too stunned to even think. The midwife didn't seem like a man who joked on matters like this, but it was too unbelievable, his mind refused to process it. In addition, something that the clerk had said seemed important.
“He said something about me?” Charles asked from Sister Else as they walked down the empty hallway. Charles was grateful for the slow pace, he felt lightheaded. Outside the bells started to chime, and Charles realized that they rang because of him. He stopped to listen and the Sisters stared at him expectantly for a moment.
“The Alpha you mean?” Sister Else asked. “Yes, he talked about you.”
“What did he say?”
“I don't want to repeat things I haven't heard myself,” Sister Else said and ushered him forward, to the door leading to the baths. A monk, whose name Charles couldn't remember, opened the door for him when he saw them approaching. He bowed, and Charles stared at him in amazement.
”Watch the steps now,” Sister Anna said and they supported him all the way down the wide stairs, to the tiled bath floor. The walls were white, the cold and hot baths marked with carved symbols on the doors. The air was humid and easy to breathe, smelling like flowers and herbs from the soaps and oils.
“But could you find out what he said? I need to know,” Charles tried again as they kept walking. For some reason the idea that the Alpha talked about him, still thought about him, made everything better. The pain dimmed into a distant echo, and it was easier to think. “Please?”
“I'll see what I can do. But let's get you settled in the bath first, hm? This way,” Sister Anna said. They lead him to the another door and held it open for him. “Is there something else you want?”
“I would like to talk with Sister Moira,” Charles said. “If that's alright.”
“Of course. She will be here soon,” Sister Else said and smiled. “It's good to have a friend around in time like this. In previous years, she has been in charge of the food alone, but if you wish, she can direct your preparations in its entirety.”
“Thank you,” Charles said. The room was one of the hot baths, the copper tubs glimmering in the light streaming from the narrow windows near the ceiling. Three novices filled one of the tubs, pouring hot and cold water in turns, one bucket at the time. A Sister stood next to the tub, adding oil in the mix, one drop at the time. The novices stopped to stare at him before the Sister snapped at them to keep working. When the tub was full, the Sister shooed the novices out of the room before her, and closed the door.
“Let's get you in the tub,” Sister Anna said and helped the robe off of him. Charles stepped in the tub, and sat down, the steaming water reaching up to his chest. The water was a touch too hot, but it still felt good, breathing in the fragrant fumes. His joints ached even worse than before, the pain crackling across his skin. Sister Else pulled his head back for a moment, pouring water over him.
“I'll go see how it's going upstairs,” Sister Anna said, folding the robe. “Do you want me to tell something to the Alpha?”
Charles couldn't concentrate on her words. Suddenly the thought that Sister Anna would be anywhere near the Alpha infuriated him. He wanted to smash her head against the tiles, over and over. The impulse was so strong, that he tried to get up without even realizing it, snarling at her in warning.
“Touch him and I'll rip your head off! Slut!”
Sister Else held him down, fingers digging on his shoulders. “Second hit! Hurry! The tea!”
The women held him in place, and forced another dose of the bitter tea in his mouth. He swallowed and the rage evaporated as quickly as it had hit. He sat back down to the tub, sloshing the water over the edge. The women released their hold slowly, keeping a close eye on him.
“I'm sorry, I didn't mean that,” he said. “I'm sorry.”
“We know. The heat plays all sorts of tricks on you,” Sister Anna said, smiling. “No harm done. Keep drinking that tea, I'll be back with news.”
Charles took the cup from her and nodded in thanks, leaning back against the curve of the tub. He closed his eyes for a moment. He could still feel the anger roiling somewhere in the bottom of his mind, but the tea helped, blurring all the sharp edges. Sister Else poured more water over his head and lathered soap in his hair.
”Thank you Sister, I will take it from here.” He heard Moira's voice from the door and he opened his eyes, relieved. The soap foam dribbled to his eyes and he blinked.
She looked calm, her sleeves rolled up like she was about to make bread. She walked next to the tub, and sat down on the wooden stool, to be on his eye level. She smiled and patted his arm. “Congratulations, dear friend. How are you feeling?”
”Confused. Embarrassed. There is soap in my eyes. And this tea is awful. I've made this few times, but I never realized how bad it tastes,” Charles said, staring at the drop of liquid left in the cup.
Moira smiled and took the small washing cloth that Sister Else held out for her, and wiped Charles' eyes carefully. ”There. Better?”
”Tea still tastes bad,” he muttered, and chugged the rest of it and handing the cup to her. Moira placed the empty cup on the side table.
”Sister Else, would you mind preparing more tea? Maybe add drop of honey to it? Brother Charles and I could use some time to talk.”
Sister Else nodded and left the room, closing the door behind her. Moira rubbed a block of orange blossom soap between her hands to create foam, placed the soap back to the dish and reached to massage the foam to his wet hair. Charles leaned against her hands, the water sloshing over the edge of the tub. Moira didn't seem to even notice that her dress got soaked.
“If it was me in there, I would be scared out of my mind,” Moira said.
”I'm fulfilling the sacred duty in accordance of my beliefs. Why would I be scared?”
”Because you are a human and not a block of wood.”
Charles peered at her under the foam, and Moira brushed her hand across his brow to stop the soap from getting in his eyes again.
“I'm afraid that this turns out to be a mistake,” Charles said quietly. “That he doesn't want me after all. He sees me again, and says no.”
Moira said nothing for a while, simply rubbed the base of his skull in firm, circular motions.
“You didn't hear this from me, but after you left the hall, they managed to calm the Alpha down, and move him to the preparation quarters. Then someone mentioned that the midwife was here for you. The next thing they knew, the Alpha threw a chair out of the window in his rage. Lean forward.” Moira scooped some water with a little bowl and poured it over his head to wash the soap away, while rubbing his head briskly. “The Alpha said that we insulted you, if we doubted your excellence as a bearer. In his eyes you are as perfect and flawless as the Goddess herself.”
“Oh.” Charles sat silent for a moment. “Did he injure himself? Or anyone else?”
“The chair isn't much use anymore, but the Alpha is fine. Eager, too. He has displayed his manhood to anyone who cares to see it, boasting about his bearers power. And judging by the amount of blushing and giggling in the hallway, his interest haven't waned much.”
Charles sunk deeper in the tub, grasping hard the edges of the tub and stared at Moira, blinking the water away from his eyes. She stopped and touched his shoulder, looking worried.
“Is it an another hit? Are you in pain?”
“No, not in pain,” Charles said and glanced down, blushing. “The other thing.”
“That's a good sign, no need to be embarrassed,” Moira said gently. “This all must be difficult for you, all happening so fast. But tell me, why did you think you couldn't do this? You've never told me.”
“Because there isn't much to tell,” Charles said, thinking back. “As a novice, I was in the service of a record keeper at the library. He was an old man, and my task was to search and carry all the records he needed.”
“You found your own record,” Moira guessed. “And you had the symbol of infertility after your name?” She picked up the washing cloth and took his hand in hers, rubbing the cloth over his arm. The sun had left his skin tanned and the hard labor had turned his muscles lean, bones visible. Like the old horses, trudging on the fields.
“Yes. And no,” Charles said. “My name had symbol combination I had never seen. I couldn't find explanation in any of the books, so I finally had to ask the keeper to tell me what they meant.”
“And did he?” Moira asked, running the wash cloth over his shoulders.
“After some pestering. The symbols recorded an accident with fatalities, malformation and charismata, but that's just a gibberish set, the keeper didn't understand it either. He consulted with others, and they came to conclusion that since the mark for infertility is a mirror image of charismata, the scribe must've made a mistake. Accident, malformation and infertility? That was a rational set. So they categorized me with that, as barren.”
“But they made a mistake! How this stayed undetected for so long? Any alpha in any Presentation could've told you that you are like anyone else. Prop up your leg.”
Charles did so, and Moira scrubbed his leg with circular motion, propping up another when she tapped his knee.
“I have never been part of the Presentation,” Charles said. “Since the records showed that I shouldn't be part of it. And I believed the keepers, I've never doubted their interpretation.”
“I understand,” Moira said. She let his leg go and he pulled it back under the warm water. “Does this mean that you have charismatic gifts? If the record is correct?”
“Not that I've ever noticed,” Charles said. “But I don't know what the malformation means, or what accident? I don't understand any of it. And I don't have any blood family left, no one to ask what happened when the record was made.”
Outside the bells chimed. Moira stood up and took a linen towel from the shelf, snapping it open.
“Come on then, time to get out of the tub.”
Charles stood up and stepped out of the tub carefully, the air feeling cold on his naked skin after the heat of the water. Moira wrapped the towel around him.
“Don't worry about the records, or anything else. Right now, your only job is to allow the heat rise in you, alright? Concentrate on that.”
“I don't think I could stop it if I wanted to,” Charles muttered, blinking the water away from his eyes.
“Oh you could, but please don't. Did you hear the second bell? They will start the first prayer now, and I need to get you across the hall,” Moira said, and smiled, rubbing him dry. “Now that you are clean, let's see what we can do about this skin of yours. The amount of oils and creams we have, you will be so lush, that your Alpha will go delirious from half a glance.”
“Don't tease me, please,” Charles said. “I can't take it from you. Anyone else yes, but not you.”
Before Moira could answer, there was a knock on the door, and Sister Anna came in the room, carrying a tray with a fresh cup of tea.
“Excuse me Sister Moira, but the Brothers wanted me to let you know that they are ready for the bearer now, and Sister Else asked me to bring the tea.”
“Thank you,” Moira said and glanced at her. “Was there something else?”
“I spoke with the Brother guarding the Alpha, and he said that the Alpha wanted the bearer to know, that he will be happy to please the bearer as many ways as he likes, as long as he likes, and that all parts of his body are in bearer's command,” Sister Anna said, placing her words carefully while staring at Charles. “He would like to start serving you immediately.”
“Really? He said that?” Moira smirked, and turned back to Charles. “I told you. Goddess in his eyes.”
Charles shivered from the thought of it, the heat rising in him like a tidal wave. He clutched Moira's arm in silent plead. Moira patted his arm and tugged the sheet firmly around him.
“Sister Anna, give him the tea, and let's get him across the hall before his knees buckle. Hang in there, dear friend. It won't take long until you can be with the Alpha. Only two chimes of the bell.”
Charles leaned against Moira's shoulder and burst to tears. He didn't want to wait. He couldn't do it. Sister Anna held the teacup to him.
“Third hit is the worst. Here, there is honey in it. Take a sip.”
Chapter 4: Give Or Take
The ritual forces Charles in the position of power.
Everything in the clearing was green and gold. The trees, the glass lamps, the robes on the acolytes carrying the incense burners, the thick smoke wafting up in the air. Charles laid on the breeding stone, staring up in the darkening sky. He ran his fingers along the carvings on the stone, the intricate curved lines smoothed from the thousand touches. He didn't know how many omegas had laid on this exact spot before him, touched these carvings, looked up at the same stars. It felt like he could feel them all, the rituals on top of rituals. The breeding stone breathed through him, waiting.
The congregation started a hymn, the voices mumbled through the trees. Charles didn't know how many people there were outside the clearing. The members of the monastery surely, but also practitioners from the nearby villages. This was the most important ritual of the religious year, and even people who didn't take part in other ceremonies would attend to this one. He listened to the singing, the sound calming like a drone of bees. He imagined people sitting in the grass, how they laughed and talked about mundane things between the hymns. Would there be rain tomorrow, how the apple crop would turn out this year, would the dinner be ruined if the ritual didn't start soon. Novices would be excited. The monks and nuns who had seen this dozens of times might hide their yawns, maybe secretly glad to be on that side of the trees, not on this.
No one sang in the clearing, it was quiet here. The acolytes paced in silence, following the circles set around the breeding stone. The trees were the first line, the lamps the second, then white stones, and black, and the last circle made of iron, embedded in the ground. The Prioress stood next to him inside the iron circle, preparing her tools in proper order, her heavy robes rustling every time she moved.
“We are ready to start,” the Prioress finally said, and the word spread from acolyte to another across the circles, passed through the trees to reach the congregation. The hymn ended, and there was a moment of hushed quiet, before the choir raised their voice in the first part of liturgy. Charles kept tracing the carvings, the idle movement helping him to keep calm. The stone felt warm under his touch. The Prioress spoke the first commands, the people answering her with the affirmations. Charles concentrated on his breathing.
The Prioress spoke the first verse of the incantation. Her style was precise, pronunciation sharp, the words falling on his heated skin like snowflakes. He felt the power inside the words, its weight pressing him against the breeding stone. The choir moved to the next section, and the Prioress adjusted her words to fit the choirs voice. She found the balance, the incantation starting to gain momentum. Charles closed his eyes for a moment. He could already feel the Alpha approaching. He wondered what his name was. No one had told him, and he hadn't had a chance to ask.
The Prioress poured three drops of scented oil over his head, and Charles opened his eyes to look at her. She spoke the ritual words over him, and brushed his forehead before backing away, stepping outside the iron circle. The choir finished the hymn in questioning note, the silence falling over the clearing. Charles stared up to the sky, feeling alone and vulnerable. He blinked away tears that fogged his vision. It wasn't right to cry in a holy moment like this. The air in the clearing shifted.
Charles didn't have to look to know that the Alpha had walked through the trees. His presence was undeniable, his scent clear and bright even through the incense smoke. The Alpha stepped over the circles, and Charles felt them break under his bare feet. The acolytes closed the circles after him, like closing doors, the sacred space secure around them. At the edge of the iron circle the Alpha hesitated, just a waver of doubt. Charles understood him, but didn't say anything, he couldn't even look at him. The Alpha had to choose to cross the circle himself or the ritual would fail. Charles held his willingness in front of his thoughts, hoping he would catch the emotion. Maybe the Alpha could feel him the same way Charles felt him.
The Alpha stepped over the last circle.
The Prioress called the words of Testimony and the acolytes affirmed her, the choir beginning the next part of liturgy, signaling the Acceptance and the continuation of the ritual. Charles heard the congregation talk in hushed tones, and Charles wondered what they said about him. The Alpha had accepted so quickly, maybe that was not proper here. Or maybe it was a good sign. Charles tried to concentrate back to the moment.
The Alpha walked closer and his knees touched the breeding stone. Charles felt the impact across his back, the stone a strange, amused conduit between them. Charles dug his fingers in the loops of the carvings for support, and lifted his head to look at the Alpha. In this light, his tattoos were a dark mass over his shoulders and chest, the bare skin a sharp contrast against the design. Charles couldn't stop staring at his chest, the curve of the muscles. It felt safer than looking him in the eyes. Charles leaned back against the stone, feeling shy. The Alpha reached to touch his ankle, palm of his hand warm.
”I've been searching for you for so long,” the Alpha said, the sound of his voice making him shiver. “Lit thousand candles in prayer. for years, and in the end, it's your own Goddess who gives you to me. I should've turned to Her sooner. My Goddess is too bloodthirsty to care about bearers.”
“You prayed for me,” Charles repeated, staring at the sky. The idea of being an answer for his prayer was astonishing, and even more so if he had prayed Adit. Alphas didn't have the right words to converse with the omega Goddess, so their prayers were often unheard. Suddenly Charles felt frightened to be the center of such mercy and love. He had prided himself for having faith, the obedience to serve the Goddess, but now he realized how limited his understanding was, how profound Adit's love was for her subjects.
“And now I have you here, in front of the men and the gods,” the Alpha said, sliding his hand along the curve of his calf and back again, squeezing his ankle. It was a simple caress, but for his fresh, scrubbed skin the sensation was intense. Charles held his breath, and opened his knees. The Alpha pushed his knees back together, shaking his head.
“Not yet,” he said. “You are afraid again, and I can wait.”
The choir begun the Exaltation of Adit, his favorite hymn. He rested against the stone, listening and repeating the familiar words in his mind, while the Alpha slid his hand again along the curve of his calf, this time brushing his fingertips against the sensitive skin behind the knee. Charles gasped in surprise, loosing the track of the words. The tense pleasure was so unexpected, he had never felt anything like it. The Alpha did the same on his other calf, slow warm slide, a quick teasing brush and Charles gasped louder.
“Interesting,” the Alpha muttered, like Charles was a complicated problem he attempted to solve. He grabbed a firmer hold of his ankle, rotating his leg gently to expose the patch of skin behind the knee, and leaned to press his mouth there. Charles forgot how to breathe, how to think. The Alpha flicked his tongue, tracing the hamstring and Charles moaned, twisting in his hold. The Alpha held him tighter and licked the same spot again. Charles pressed his hand over his mouth to keep the desperate shriek inside.
“Hm. Let's try the other one.”
The Alpha released his hold and snatched his left ankle, exposing the knee with a smooth twist. His mouth felt even better there, the pleasure shooting up along Charles' veins, settling in the pit of his stomach. Charles gasped, still aware that the Prioress stood somewhere behind him, that the acolytes walked and chanted around them, that over hundred people sat on the grass right outside the clearing. The Alpha kissed his knee, a bare hint of bite, and the sensation went through Charles' body like a rising wave. He moaned louder, forgetting why he had tried to be quiet in the first place. He was so wet that he dripped on the stone, his thighs slick.
“Don't, it's too much, I can't,” Charles pleaded. The Alpha let his knee go, moving up to lean his hands on the stone over his shoulders. The Alpha was careful not to touch his skin at all, just holding himself over him.
“Still claiming that? You know nothing about your own powers, how you affect me,” he said. “Look at me.”
Charles stared stubbornly only at his chest, noticing the thorn pattern right under his collarbone. Baptized in the Battle, Charles remembered that one. Then curiosity got the best of him, and Charles glanced further down. The Alpha laughed, and Charles snapped his eyes closed, blushing in embarrassment.
“I appreciate that, but I meant up here,” the Alpha whispered, leaning a bit closer. “Open your eyes and look at me.”
Charles opened his eyes and stared at his chest again. He chose a trail of ink, following the pattern across his chest until it ended into a swirl over his shoulder, then turned to look further, along the curve of his throat, his lips, where he spent another moment simply staring, hesitating another split second before taking the leap. He looked straight into his eyes.
“Oh,” Charles said. “Oh. ”
“Yes. Now, touch me.”
Charles lifted his hand and brushed his fingers over the ragged scar on his side, feeling the bumpy shape of the healed skin. It was a simple touch, but the Alpha gasped in turn, small tremors running across his skin. Charles did it again, just to feel him shiver under his fingers.
“You're catching on quick, bearer.”
The choir ended the Exaltation, and moved to the next segment, the Prioress speaking the holy words. The congregation added their voices to the prayer. The clearing was full of sound, the power of the ritual coming together. Charles felt it, surrounding the air around them. There wasn't much time left for talking.
“What is your name?” Charles asked hurriedly. He wanted to know his name. He had to know. “Please.”
“Erik, the leader of...”
“Good enough,” Charles said, sliding his hand around his waist, pulling him down against him. He laughed again, but the amusement died when Charles kissed him. Maybe he hadn't expected it, maybe Charles was too bold, but he didn't care. He wanted to taste him.
It was better than he had imagined. This close his skin smelled incredible, his lips warm. Charles brushed his lips against his, working up courage before pressing against his mouth, flicking his tongue coyly along his lip. Erik pulled back. Charles looked at him surprised.
“I wanted to take my time with you, bearer,” he said. “But even my self-control has its limits.”
“Let's try another one,” Charles said, repeating his own words back to him. He reached to kiss him, pulling him back down. Charles nipped his lip and pushed his hips up, grinding against him.
Erik made a strangled sound, pushing his tongue in his mouth. Charles let him, and used his distraction to slide his hand down the slope of his back, to feel the curve of his ass. Erik shivered and pressed down, grinding back, crushing him against the stone. The ritual moved forward around them, and Charles felt the urgency of it, pushing him faster toward the edge. Charles caressed Erik's back, sliding his free hand between their bodies, wrapping his hand around his cock. Erik bit him, and Charles yelped in surprise. Erik licked the sore spot on his lip, the little pain turning into something else. Charles moved his hand up, tracing the whole length of his cock and then back again, mesmerized.
“You approve?” Erik muttered against his mouth. Charles just squirmed to open his legs more. Erik helped, lifting himself up again and reaching down to hook his arm under the crook of his leg, pulling up. The motion caused Charles to slide down, the carvings of the stone scraping his back. The Prioress picked up the cues of their movements, and shouted the Summoning, her words spattering over Charles skin like hailstones. Erik rubbed the head of his cock against his slick hole and Charles bucked to meet him.
“Do it,” he pleaded, and Erik leaned to press his forehead against his.
“It will hurt.”
“Don't care,” he said, holding his arm for support. “Now. Now.”
Erik hesitated a moment longer and Charles bucked again, knocking him off the mark. Erik growled and tightened his hold, shifting to bite his neck. Charles stilled, and Erik tried again, pushing hard, but still he got nowhere. Charles wanted his cock inside him, but he didn't know how to help him, too nervous to concentrate. Erik rubbed him again and pushed, and this time Charles relaxed at the right moment, gave in to that pressure, the head of his cock popping inside him.
It hurt, and instinctively Charles tensed up. Erik held still, giving him a chance to adjust. He licked the bite mark on his neck, and Charles gasped. Erik took that as a sign to push deeper. He worked his way in, slow and steady. The pain was intense, but still Charles welcomed the sensation, following the motion of his hips with his own.
It took forever, and still it was over too soon. Erik bottomed with a heavy thrust. He kissed the curve of his neck and Charles leaned to do the same, feeling the pulse thrum under his skin. Something wet splashed on his shoulder and Charles turned his head slightly to see what it was. Erik cried, tears rolling down his face, and when he noticed that Charles saw him, he hid his face against the crook of his neck. Charles stroked his back. He heard the choir, the sound of prayer, but it was a distant, insignificant chatter now. Charles only felt Erik.
“It's alright,” Charles whispered. “I got you.”
Erik rocked back and forth deep inside him, and the pleasure intensified so suddenly that Charles thought he would split apart from it. He clutched Erik's shoulders, pressing as close to him as he could get. Erik thrust faster, and Charles pushed back to meet every one of them. Sweat made their skin slick, and Charles rubbed his face over his skin, fascinated. He smelled so good, it was unbelievable, the scent only getting stronger. He wanted to drown in that scent, fuse into his skin without a seam, be part of Erik forever.
Charles lost track of time, the track of the ritual, the pleasure dictating his every move. He reached under Erik's arms to grab a hold of his ass, to feel his muscles move with every push, opening his legs as far as he possibly could. More he touched him, the harder Erik plowed into him, sweat dripping down from his face. They moved relentlessly, lost in the depths of each others flesh. The Prioress called the finishing word of the incantation, and the stone burned under Charles' back.
The orgasm crashed over them both at the same time, the power of it tearing through them, shaking them like leaves. Erik shouted, shooting inside him in thick bursts. Charles swayed against him, taking all, riding the orgasm. Black dots danced across his vision before he remembered to take a breath. Erik slowed back to the gentle rocking motion where they had started, and Charles looked at him, blinking sweat from his eyes. Aftershocks jolted him, his whole body tingling from toes to fingertips.
“I...ah...You didn't...I thought you would...”
“Knot you?” Erik panted, leaning against him with his full weight, as deep in his as he could get. “I can't control that, my darling bearer. You do.”
“Yes,” he said, pressing his palm against his forehead, keeping his head tilted and kissed his mouth softly. “You can make it happen. Or not. You choose.”
“I don't know.” Erik started fucking him again, pressing feverish kisses against his mouth and cheek. Charles returned the kisses, listening the sound of their bodies slapping together, his come dripping out of him. He wanted to keep it inside him, where it belong. Charles wrapped his arms around Erik's waist and squeezed his muscles, milking his cock. Erik groaned and Charles repeated the squeezing motion, running his hand across his back.
“So good, uh, you do catch on quick,” Erik muttered, picking up pace, slamming in him hard. Charles gasped for air, little helpless whimpers escaping his mouth. He held on, squeezing his cock with every up thrust, feeling every inch of him.
“Now, now,” Erik chanted, pushing deep and holding still, the second orgasm crashing over him. Charles squeezed him, holding his breath in anticipation. His cock throbbed inside him and then it happened, the strange, intense pressure. The crackling pain surrounded his hips, the sensation of being too full, spread too wide. Charles moaned, moving his hips to adjust to the knot.
Erik groaned against his neck, his thrusts getting shorter and shorter as the knot widened, locking him in place. His whole body shook from the force of the orgasm, as he filled him with his come, and not a drop escaped this time. Charles hold him tightly, as he fell into the alpha delirium, the endless orgasm shattering his speech into nonsense, the high overcoming his mind.
Charles hummed a wordless song to Erik, rocking him gently, stroking his sweaty back over and over. The Prioress stepped back inside the circle. Charles remembered the flow of the ritual again, it was time to call the second Testimony. Charles turned his head to look at her, and something changed inside the circle, the iron screaming at him in warning, the breeding stone full of worry. He couldn't move, irrevocably tangled to Erik, and because of it, vulnerable. The Prioress stood next to him, eyes cold as grave.
Charles didn't how it happened, he didn't even know what he did. He saw the intention in her mind before her hand ever moved, and his only thought was to stop it. The energy burned through him, the air crackling, and everyone else on the clearing froze, Erik turning dead weight on top of him. Whatever Charles had done, it didn't affect the Prioress. Her hand moved, quick, elegant motion, the small dagger glimmering in the light.
Charles raised his hand and snapped a hold of her wrist. He didn't think about it, he simply did it. Her pulse thrummed against his fingers, and her thoughts flowed through his mind; her longing and anger, all tangled into black gnarled mass inside her. Charles could see the roots of the darkness, how it grew from the set structure of her mind, feeding energy from her like a witchweed. He didn't know how he saw it, but he did, as clearly as he saw the dagger in front of his eyes.
The dagger looked part of her hand, like it had grown out of her. The tip was thin and frail, like you could snap it with your bare hands. But Charles knew the metal the dagger was made of. It was unbreakable, and sharper than any other blade known to man. In skilled hands that dagger was as dangerous as any weapon. Erik's weight crushed him against the stone, impaling him in place. He couldn't move, he could hardly breathe, the sharp tip glinting before his eyes. A fraction forward, and it would plunge in Erik's neck.
“I know what you want,” Charles said. “The man, he is here. Near the trees. Take him. Leave us out of it.”
“You don't understand,” she whispered, her hand unwavering in his hold. “There is no other way. It will be fast, I promise. He won't suffer.”
“I know what you want,” Charles said, pressing the words against her mind, willing her to believe it. “You can have it, now, with our power. Use it. Pull him inside this circle.”
The curiosity bloomed, and her eyes flicked to the shape standing in the shadow of the trees. She pulled the dagger back a fraction of an inch, the question how to do it burning inside her mind. Charles let the power flow through himself into her, throwing it at her, leaving nothing behind. His heartbeat slowed, the lights turning pale, his hold loosening until his hand dropped on the stone. Still he kept feeding her the power, and she lifted the dagger an inch more, her skin glowing golden. And Charles pushed, more and more, letting go off of himself, melting in the breeding stone, becoming a hollow conduit between her and the Goddess. Erik was his anchor, the weight securing him down.
The Prioress turned slowly, staring in the darkness where the man stood, frozen in place like the rest of them.
“Come to me,” she commanded, and the man awoke. He ran toward her as obediently as a dog. Charles felt the circles break in sharp pops as he crossed them, the power turning precarious and fragile.
“Hurry,” Charles whispered, his throat dry. She grabbed a hold of the man, pulling him over the stone and Charles used every shred of energy he had left to roll Erik off the stone, falling down with him. He landed badly, Erik's dead weight pinning his hand and he heard the bone break with an audible snap, the knot tearing loose with a spurt of blood and semen. He clung to his consciousness, knowing that if he blacked out the power he still wielded would vanish with it.
The Prioress glowed in the light, a halo of strength over her and she held the man over the stone as easily as he had no will of his own. One perfect turn of her hand and there was a small wound on his neck, a mere scratch. It was enough. Charles watched the drop of blood forming, the inevitable fall and splash on the stone. The Prioress spat over the blood and the breeding stone accepted the bond, the carvings turning golden for a heartbeat, then dimming back to stone gray.
The power left Charles like a turning tide.
The acolytes awoke with confused looks on their faces, turning to stare at them all. Charles felt the wave of disjointed thoughts coming from them, a blank wall of noise, and it made him heave meekly.
“Fetch the guards! This alpha attempted to murder the bearer!” The Prioress shouted, still holding her man from the scruff of his neck. He had a look of utter surprise on his face, and he didn't even blink until she released her hold of him. At that moment he seemed to snap out of his reverie, and he turned around, slapping the Prioress so hard that her head flung back and she dropped to her knees. The acolytes gasped in surprise, stopping two circles away.
“You backstabbing whore!” he shouted, pulling a hunting knife from his belt. His mind was a sharp scream over the pale nothingness of the acolytes. He intended to kill them all, his mind a sea of blood. Charles shifted to cover Erik's unconscious body the best he could. He didn't know why he hadn't woken up with the rest, but he would protect him as long as he could. His broken arm twisted and the fresh pain made the world sway unsteadily in his eyes.
“Run,” the Prioress whispered to the man. “It's the last and only advantage you will ever get from me. My love.”
Charles was the only one close enough to hear her words, and the quiet laughter that accompanied it. The sound made Charles skin crawl with fear. The man turned and fled, no one trying to stop him. He vanished into the woods, like the trees had swallowed him whole. The Prioress stood up, wiping the blood from her split lip.
“You two, get the doctor. You, go get some water to revive this alpha. And all of you, go tell the people that the ritual is over, and that everything is fine,” she ordered. The acolytes stared at her, eyes wide. “Go! Move!”
The acolytes rushed to carry out her orders, and the Prioress walked next to Charles, kneeling down. She pulled him away from Erik, rolling his unconscious body aside easily. She was strong, as if the power Charles had poured into her hadn't diminished at all. She held his head in her lap, her green robes pillowing around him.
“Now, I need you listen to me,” she said quietly, brushing dirt off his cheek. Her hands were ice-cold. “A wild alpha tried to destroy the ritual and kill you. Why? Who knows. We fend him off, bless the Goddess, and that's the end of it. Do you understand?”
Charles tried to nod, but he barely managed to blink.
“You say anything else,” she continued, “if you so much as breathe a single word that contradicts that story, your child's head will be smashed against the breeding stone the second it's born, your strapping alpha there will be hanged, and you and me will burn at the stake, side by side. So, do you understand me?”
“Yes,” Charles said. “Wild alpha. Fend off. Happy ending.”
“There, good boy,” she said, patting his shoulder. “We all want the happy ending.”
Chapter 5: The Time And The Distance
Erik wakes up to a cold reality.
“Wake up Erik!”
Someone shook him, insistent. Erik forced his eyes open, the dim light piercing through his head like a spear. It was the worst hangover of his life, piled over two or three regular hangovers. He closed his eyes. The darkness was better and he tried to relax back into it.
“No you won't, come on. Open your eyes!”
Someone slapped him, hard, and Erik opened his eyes hurriedly, trying to focus on his surroundings. Everything was white and smelled like carbonic soap and dry air. The infirmary.
“There we go. Now, up. Up! Drink this.”
Erik let himself be pulled up so he sat somewhat upright and took the cup shoved in his hand. He chucked it down without looking. The sharp burn of alcohol was a surprise and he coughed hard, staring at Moira.
“What the hell?”
“It's moonshine. Do you want another?”
He nodded and held the cup out to her. She poured another two fingers, then corked the small bottle and slipped it back to her apron pocket. She patted his shoulder and walked to the door. Erik drank the cup empty and grimaced. The alcohol tasted horrible, but it also eased the blinding headache.
“He's here,” Moira said and opened the door, glancing out to the hallway. She muttered something Erik didn't quite catch and shut the door again. She turned to lean on it, crossing her arms. Erik knew that look. It was the stubborn look, that said she hid something from him and it would take serious arm-twisting to get it out of her.
“What happened?” he asked and rubbed his neck. His shoulder and side hurt, like he had fallen down.
“You tell me. What do you remember?”
“Charles,” Erik said. “He was inside my head. I've never felt anything like it.” He tried to think back, but all he remembered was Charles' eyes. “Is he alright? I didn't hurt him, did I?”
“He's fine, considering,” Moira said, but before Erik could ask what she meant, there was a quiet rap at the door and she turned to open it. ”Finally! Get in here,” she whispered and pulled a scrawny kid in the room, closing the door behind him.
Erik remembered him. Mess of red hair, mundane scent that resembled warm porridge and milk. He had brought him water few times when he had been chained down like a dog. The boy carried a bundle of clothes under his arm and Erik's boots in other.
“Here. The weapons are trickier,” he said, dropping the boots to the floor and handing the clothes to Moira. “The Prioress has her personal guards in every hallway. I can get to the storage room, but I have to go through the ceiling window. ”
“Time is an issue, Sean.”
“I know ma'am,” he said, glancing at Erik. “I'll be quick.”
Moira held the door open and he slipped back out.
“You found a new apprentice?” Erik leaned to place the empty cup on the floor. The headache widened, the pain splintering down his jaw. He ignored it. ”Is he any good?”
“None of your damn business. And I wouldn't even need a new one, if your cursed Lieutenant had kept her hands to herself. Next time one of yours defiles one of mine, I will introduce them to my meat cleaver,” Moira said and tossed the clothes next to him on the bed. “Get dressed. We need to get you out of here.”
“No, we need to find Charles,” Erik said and picked up his shirt, pulling it over his head. “I'm not leaving without him.”
“Yes you are,” Moira said and threw his boots at his feet. “You heard Sean. The Prioress has guards all over the place. I'm already risking my cover helping you! It's too dangerous to go anywhere near Brother Charles now!”
“You are a good big sister,” Erik said, flashing his most charming smile at her. “And you'll be even better one if you help me to get to my bearer.”
“Save it,” Moira said, crossing her arms again. “This madness has gone far enough. I warned you not to come here. I tried everything I could to get you kicked out before anything could happen. Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to slander you? My own family? Act like you are some rabid dog roaming the yard?”
”No you aren't,” Moira scoffed. ”You think you are invincible now that you managed to force an omega to the Breeding stone with you. Well you are not. And you'll get us all killed if you don't do as I say.”
“I didn't force him. He came to me on his own,” Erik corrected and started to pull his pants on. ”He chose me and there is no man or God who can keep us apart now.”
“Right. Because you are invincible, are you? Listen to me, there is a bigger picture here,” Moira said. ”If you want to help your bearer, I need to know what happened in that clearing. So tell me again. What do you remember?”
“Charles,” Erik said automatically. Something tugged at the edges of his memory, right under the splintering headache. “And a slap. Someone slapped the Prioress?”
Moira nodded. “Yes, I saw the bruise. Who was it?”
“I don't know,” Erik said, fastening his pants. “Not me.” The memories were hazy, flashes of images that made no sense, the perspective fluctuating. Erik shook his head and regretted it when the headache sparked back, stronger than ever.
“Try to think,” Moira said. ”The Prioress stands there, she performs the ritual, the Breeding stone alights and then you...”
“What does it matter what happened there?” Erik interrupted. He loved his sister, but there was some things he didn't want to discuss with her, even if she knew all about the Breeding stone. ”I know you are after that woman, but that has nothing to do with me and Charles.”
”It has everything to do with you two! I've tried to build a case against the Prioress for months and I've gotten nowhere. It's like trying to nail smoke to the wall! She's smart and ruthless, and she doesn't leave witnesses behind. Something strange happened at that clearing and if either of you saw it, I need to know what it was, what she did there.”
“Keeping Charles here won't help with your case,” Erik argued, reaching for his boots. “Even if he knows what the Prioress did, he can't testify. The law clearly states that if the witness of a crime was in heat, their testimony is void. I can't help you either, my testimony won't matter in the omega court.”
“Don't teach me how to do my job little brother,” Moira said. “I didn't get this case just because I bake good honey cakes.”
”I don't mean to insult you, I know you are the Archbishop's best enforcer,” Erik said, tying his boot with quick pulls. “If you want that woman gone, take her head and I'll help you to bury the body in the woods. That will solve your problem permanently.”
“You are not one of us, so don't try to solve problems you don't understand,” Moira snapped. ”What the Archbishop wants is a public trial and execution, a warning example. And for that to happen, I need Brother Charles. The Prioress guards him like a holy relic, which can only mean he saw something at the Breeding stone. He's my way in.”
Erik got up and he room swayed in his eyes. He grabbed the bedpost for support. His arm hurt, the pain shooting up the bone and radiating to his chest. He sat back down. The room shifted, shapes of people around him, their mouths moving; we have to set the bone, Brother Charles. They took a hold of his arm and Erik felt the touch on his own skin. Charles was tense, afraid and Erik reached to take the pain, pulling it in his arm instead of his. He stared at his arm and heard the crack so clearly that it surprised him that the bone didn't jut out through the skin.
”Erik? What's wrong?”
”Charles broke his arm, didn't he?”
Moira nodded, her face turning pale.
”I can feel him. He's in pain.”
”Holy Adit, guard us all,” she whispered.
Erik shook his head, the pain bright and hot, crawling up his arm. Moira closed the distance, grabbing a hold of his face, forcing him to look at her. ”Don't do this, it's not meant to last. Release him! Erik! Let go!”
”No, I can't. He needs me to...” Erik tried to understand what Charles wanted, the pain distorting the meaning. He saw flashes, images of sky and trees, the Prioress' green robes, her mouth moving, the words almost at Erik's reach. “He shows me that there was another alpha there.”
“In the clearing? Near the stone?” Moira asked, tensing. “Are you sure? This is important.”
”Yes, alpha at the stone. He stood right there with us. Charles tries to show me his face. The woman did something to me, or him, she... I don't understand,” Erik muttered, the images blurring together like a candle melting into a puddle of wax. “There was a knife. Everything froze.”
“Only one alpha can cross the holy circles during the ritual, there can't be two present! That can't happen, the consequences are inconceivable. She might have created a Conversion, I have to do some research if...” Moira stopped. “Wait. What do you mean, everything froze?”
“I don't know what he means. I don't remember any of this.” Erik stood up again, brushing Moira's hand aside. ”I have to go to him. Now. He's afraid of that woman.”
”No! No. Think like you were her,” Moira said. ”Think! If what Brother Charles tells you is true, the only way that could happen is if the Prioress invited the alpha inside the sacred space, into the ritual. That is a certain death sentence if she's caught. She will cover this up. The acolytes know nothing, for the whole Monastery would know by now. That leaves you, Brother Charles and that other alpha. Brother Charles is untouchable for there might be a child in him, and that other alpha is in the wind. What's your play?”
Moira stared at him expectantly. Erik knew where Moira headed with this.
“I would trace that other alpha and kill him, while keeping Charles close to control him. Find something that I could use to threat him with if he tries to step out of the line.”
“Exactly. So will she, and you are what she needs for that. As long as you are here, Brother Charles is firmly in her hold, he won't have a chance against her. You want to help him, then you need to leave and find that other alpha before she does.”
”And if there is no child?” he asked. ”What will stop her from getting rid of Charles then?”
”My brother, doubting himself. This must be the first,” Moira said, brushing her fingers through his hair, setting it neat like she used to do when they were children. “I've never known you to fail on what you set out to do. Either way, there's time before we know and that gives me time to build the case against the Prioress. Brother Charles is my way in.”
Erik closed his eyes. Every instinct told him not to leave his bearer alone. He should be with him and that was the only thing that mattered. Except Moira was right. If he stayed, he would put Charles in more danger. He knew he had no position here, no place in this omega's domain other than what they let him have, and he was quickly wearing out his welcome. Erik remembered how Charles had feared for his safety at the Hall. Not for himself, but for him. If he stayed, Erik knew that fear would make Charles weak, bring him down. Erik couldn't let that happen. He opened his eyes and stared at Moira.
"You will protect him for my place," he said. "And don't give me any bullshit about your mission. You'll protect him like you were me, promise me."
She took his hand in hers. "I swear on our father's name and in the Goddess Adit's name that I will do everything I can to protect your bearer from harm, bodily or spiritual. May all the deities be my witness."
There was a hurried knock at the door and Moira let his hand go and turned around, a knife appearing in her hand like a magic trick. She opened the door carefully and Sean sneaked in, carrying Erik's weapons.
”Too much noise is never a good thing, novice,” Moira said and closed the door. She slipped the knife back to her pocket. “For future reference.”
The novice held the sword awkwardly from the scabbard, the hilt tipped down so the sword was on the verge of sliding out and clattering on the floor. He held the dagger under his arm and tried to balance everything so not to drop that either. Erik reached to take the sword from him. The novice looked relieved to have it out of his hands.
”What's the plan?” Erik asked, buckling the scabbard to his belt without looking, the fastenings as familiar as the back of his hand. Moira took the dagger from the novice, pushing it to her apron pocket. Erik didn't comment, he knew how good she was with sharp implements and his dagger was much better than her own small knife. The novice didn't look like he would be much help with any weapon. Erik was sure Moira would correct that fault in the future.
”The best bet is the old service corridors,” Moira said. ”It will take us to the loading docks and there you can follow the river upstream. You should be able to cross to the forest after a mile. I got the message to your Lieutenant, she will be waiting near the place where the river curves.”
”Still not speaking her name? You hold your grudge long, sister,” Erik said. “You know she didn't claim your apprentice out of spite. She paid the heat money to the Church for it. And you have to admit, that your last apprentice was not cut out to be a nun. She is wild as a forest fire.”
She shook her head, annoyed. The novice stared at them curiously and she turned to speak with him quietly.
Erik felt another tug in his mind, the room swaying in his eyes as Charles touched him again, his mind clearer. Erik tasted the dull flavor of herbs in his mouth. They had given him something that eased the pain. Charles showed him a piece of wood or stone, decorated with carvings of the Adit's Revelation, with the idea that he should go to it. The connection faltered and vanished.
”What does Adit's Revelation mean?”
They turned to stare at him.
”That's the carving above the door connecting this wing and the Hall,” Sean said. “That hallway is the quickest way in or out. The servant stairs from that side would take you to the Washer's Yard. The river slows there, it's easy to swim across.”
”And that part of the hallway has Brother Charles' room, so it's also crawling with guards. We can't go that way,” Moira said. ”It's too dangerous.”
”He wouldn't show it to me if it wasn't important,” Erik said. “I want you to take me there. Now.”
“Sean, go back to the novice quarters,” Moira said and pushed the boy to the door. “Hurry. Don't stop for anything, don't let anyone see you.”
“But ma'am, you need my help, I can...”
“No. I'm not risking you, your part is done. Go on. Don't argue with me or I will get my cane and beat that bullheaded attitude right out of you, so help me Goddess.”
The boy turned paler and slipped out of the door without a word.
“Kids these days,” she said as she turned around. “They don't listen anything without the threat of cane.”
“He doesn't let his fear stop him. He'll be a good agent someday.”
“I don't remember asking your opinion,” Moira said and took the dagger from her pocket. “But thank you. Now, let's get out of here.”
The hallway was empty. The sun was rising, casting pink and orange on the walls. Erik followed Moira as quietly as he could. Her shoes gave no sound on the wooden floors. She walked quickly until the hallway split to three different directions. More rooms on the right, the hallway widening before them and stairs to the next floor on her left. She pulled him in the shadow of the stairs. “Last change. The loading docks or the Washer's Yard, your choice.”
Erik didn't know if it would work but he concentrated on Charles, trying to hear his voice again. He was there, waiting and he showed him the Adit's Revelation again. “The Washer's Yard.”
Moira sighed but she didn't argue with him. She shifted her hold on the dagger, the blade gleaming against her black skirt. She waved him to follow and continued forward. It didn't take long before they heard the telltale clink of an armor, and she pulled him in an empty room, leaving the door half-closed. Erik leaned against the wall to see better.
Four guards walked past them, not looking around. They had long swords, and they walked with the practiced gait of professional's who knew what to do with them. The monastery guards were usually old alpha's, seeking refuge behind the convent walls after the old age had taken away their heat. These guards looked spry and professional, their gear expensive and well maintained. Even surprised, they wouldn't go down quietly. Erik cursed under his breath and Moira pressed her hand over his mouth, shaking her head.
Erik expected the guards to stay at the hallway but they kept going, he could hear the steps quieting. Moira lifted her hand and peeked to the hallway.
“That group goes one floor up, then loop back down. There is other groups too.”
“Then we better move,” Erik said. “Which way?”
“Straight ahead, then to the right.”
Erik lead this time and Moira followed. The hallway split again and he glanced around the corner to see what was ahead.
Three guards stood in front of one door. The hallway was empty and bare, the rising sun filling it with light. They couldn't get past them without turning invincible. Erik felt Charles tug him, telling him to hurry.
”Charles says we should walk past,” Erik whispered. Moira shook her head, frowning. ”He says to do it now.”
Erik took her hand and pulled her with him, walking on like he was about to have an afternoon stroll at the garden. The guards didn't turn their heads to see who approached them, they didn't seem to even blink. Moira's hand shook in his hold, but he squeezed her fingers to calm her down. The guards stood there like statues. Erik stopped.
“This is what he meant,” Erik said quietly, waving his hand in front of the guards face. She didn't react to the movement. “Frozen.”
”Brother Charles is causing that?” Moira whispered. ”How?”
”I don't know,” Erik muttered back. “But he's in there.”
He could feel Charles behind the door, his scent still lingering in the hallway like he had walked through here only moments ago. Erik let Moira's hand go and pushed past the guards to grab the door handle. Charles pushed him away from it, the touch on his hand clear like Charles stood there beside him. His fear burned in the back of his throat, a sharp taste of copper. Moira grabbed his arm to pull him back.
“Erik, no,” Moira pleaded. “Don't waste his help. He tells you to leave, doesn't he? You don't know when this spell ends, there will be more guards coming through here, please. Come away.”
“It's not right, do you hear me? You belong to me. You are mine!” He slammed his hand against the door, not caring if he would be hacked apart at Charles' doorstep. It would be easier to die here than walk away without him.
“It won't change, you know that. A month, two months from now and he'll still be yours, but that won't happen if you die here today,” Moira said, pulling him away from the door.
Erik let her do that, allowed her to lead him away. When he let go of the door handle, Charles' relief was like a wave inside his mind. Erik tried to hold on to him but Charles pulled away, the connection wilting. He wanted to return to the door, order him to come with him, bend him to his will, but Moira wouldn't let him go. She kept pushing him forward.
Two guards stepped around the corner and Erik walked right into their laps like a fumbling rookie. The guards were as surprised as he was, and for a moment they did nothing but stare at him. Erik moved, pushing Moira back behind him and slamming his fist in the first guards face. They didn't wear helmets and the man's nose broke with a loud crack. He staggered back, sputtering blood on the floor and his partner pulled her dagger, aiming at his face. It was a half-tempted try and Erik smacked her hand aside, grabbing her throat and slamming her head against the wall. She slumped down like a rag doll.
The guard with a broken nose squirmed on the floor and Moira stepped behind Erik's back and pressed her fingers in his neck, finding the right pressure point. He lost consciousness in a split second. She crouched down to set his head in better position so he wouldn't choke on his own blood.
“Think they saw you?” Erik asked, checking that the woman breathed before stepping over them. Spat of violence made him feel better, calmer.
“No. And these guards are new. They can't tell one black skirt from another. This way.”
Moira tugged his hand and Erik turned to the left at the end of the hallway, the turn taking him to the stairs. There was no candles lit in here and the stairs were pitch black.
”Hurry,” Moira whispered and handed him the dagger back. ”There is a gutter near the rose bushes. It's a tight squeeze but it will take you behind the wall, in the river. I will send you a message when I know something more.”
Erik leaned to kiss her cheek and she hugged him tight.
Moira turned around, vanishing back to the hallway.
Erik walked down the stairs as fast as he could. He slid his hand along he rough surface of the stone wall, the complete darkness disorienting. It felt like the stairs would never end. Finally there was a light, a flicker of lone candle at the base of the stairs and he walked towards it. The candle was stuck in a hole in the wall, the wax dripping on the floor. He pulled the latch open from the heavy wooden door and the door opened quietly, the hinges oiled. The air smelled like morning, the heat already shimmering over the stones. A bird chirped somewhere. Erik let the door close behind him.
The Washer's Yard was a paved area between two large sheds build against the Monastery wall. He found the gutter, cutting some of the roses to get through. It was a tight squeeze like Moira had warned, the dry dust and dirt caught in his throat. He tried to keep quiet, squirming through the hole to the other side. He stopped for a moment to unfasten the sword, before he dropped in the water, the river sluggish like the novice had said. He held his sword above the water, walking, not swimming until the bottom dipped and he had no choice. He cringed when the water lapped over the worn leather, seeping in against the steel. The sword was his most valuable tool and rust was its only enemy.
There was a stretch of open space between the river bed and the forest, and he sprinted across it, refusing to look back, not thinking anything else but the green shadows waiting in front of him. He knew if he looked back he couldn't go on. He ran steadily, following the river upstream. After some time he heard the bells chiming, but he pushed the faint sound in the back of his mind and kept running until he had to stop. He leaned against a tree trunk and threw up the alcohol and stomach acid. He hadn't had a proper meal in days, he hadn't even realized it before now. He straightened up and looked around, checking the position of the sun. He could find Raven in two hours, and be well back behind his own border before sundown.
He would find his way back here, some day soon. He turned to walk in the north.
The wind had changed directions, blowing colder from the northwest. It smelled like autumn, rattling the decorations on its way as it blew through the streets. It was still a week until the harvest festival, but this was a free city, run by commerce and the wealthy shopkeepers liked to start early, to show customers how elaborate their decorations were this year. Erik stood in an alley, carefully out of sight. He watched the people walking by, how the children clutched their parents hands. He counted the days passed from the ritual, like he had done every day since he had escaped from the Monastery. The habit had become his lucky charm. He knew it was a ridiculous, but Charles felt closer that way.
“Sir, I found him,” Raven said behind his back. “Little mouse wandered off to the wrong side of the main street. I got to him before the constables sniffed out his trail.”
Erik turned. Moira had sent her apprentice, not hired anyone else to deliver this message. He didn't know if that was a good or a bad sign. The boy looked nervous, smaller than Erik remembered. He wore a shapeless wool coat, worn but clean. He had gloves, boots and a knitted scarf, but he still shivered from the cold. He clutched a small parcel in his hands.
“I'm sorry sir. I got turned around,” the boy said and glanced at Raven. She stared at him and he turned his eyes hurriedly back to Erik. “ This place has changed since I was a child.”
“Do you have something for me?”
The novice looked around, a knee-jerk instinct that Moira hadn't weeded out yet. The novice should've realized that Erik wouldn't let any outsider hear this conversation, that he had his men guarding the area. But he was young. He would learn to think three moves ahead, five if he would turn out skilled in his profession. Moira didn't train agents that got caught.
“Yes, here. I hope it's good enough, it's the only one I could get my hands on, sir.“ He held the parcel out to him and Erik took it, slipping it to his coat pocket. “Sister Moira asks for you to hurry with the capture. We received reports that the Prioress is close to finding him. Closer than you are.”
Raven shifted her stance, smiling coldly.
“You don't slander alpha's abilities unless you want a trashing, little mouse,” she said. “Maybe I should teach you a lesson how to address your betters. It's never too late to learn.”
“I'm only repeating Sister Moira's words, ma'am. I mean no disrespect,” the boy said, tilting his chin in defiance. It was adorable, like a kitten trying its claws against a lion. Raven smirked, inching closer.
“Careful, Lieutenant. You don't want to go against Moira again. You know how that ends,” Erik said and she backed down, crossing her arms with a displeased look. Erik would have to have a word with her later. “Novice, my men will escort you to the local church, I arranged that you can stay the night there. You can take the message of the capture with you tomorrow.”
“Thank you sir. I don't mean to doubt your or your crews skills, but you do know we are running out of time, sir? Sister Moira told me to be clear about this. If I don't return with the good news, she doesn't know if she can keep her promise to you. Those were her exact words, sir.”
Raven opened her mouth to chide the novice again, but Erik shook his head to quiet her down.
“Go brief the crew, Lieutenant. Now.”
Raven turned around without another word. She vanished in the alleyway, the buildings creating a dark maze of narrow corridors. The boy stared after Raven with wide eyes.
“Sir, is that the Lieutenant whose name Sister Moira doesn't speak?” he asked. Erik smirked and nodded. He gasped and turned to stare at her again until he couldn't see her anymore.
“Novice,” Erik called and he turned back to him, straightening his back like he expected to be reprimanded again. “How is Charles? Have you seen him?”
“I'm sorry sir, I haven't. He isn't allowed to work in the herbarium anymore. The Prioress claims he has asked to be left alone to his prayers. His meals are prepared separately and the Prioress' personal clerk takes them to him. We can't risk contacting him, and he haven't tried to reach out to us any longer. We don't know why. Maybe it was too big of a risk for him and the child, or his abilities decreased.”
“Too many if's,” Erik said. “I don't like it.”
“I'm sorry sir. We try, but the situation is volatile at the Monastery. The Abbess doesn't have many days left in this world, and upon her death the Prioress has all the power within those walls until the Church appoints the next Abbess. She will control everything. Sister Moira fears that Brother Charles isn't the only one in danger anymore. There are hundreds of people in there, sir. Sister Moira has a duty to protect all of them.”
“You don't have to explain my sister's convictions to me, novice,” Erik said. “I know her better than you.”
“Yes, of course sir. I'm sorry.” The novice stared at the ground, shifting uncomfortably.
“Was there something else? It's getting dark and you should get to the church. The constables are strict about the curfew.”
“I have to confess something to you, sir. Sister Moira advised against it, but I can't take my vows with a clear consciousness until I do.”
“Go on,” Erik said, pushing his hands to his pockets. He didn't know what the boy meant. As far as Erik knew, the novice had done nothing but helped him. But whatever the matter was, it obviously weighted on him. The novice looked restless.
“Sir, it was my job to bring you the water that day in the hall. I had too many tasks that afternoon and not enough time, so I asked Brother Charles to help me. That's why he was there, that's why all this happened. It's all my fault sir. I ask for your forgiveness for causing you and Brother Charles so much grief.” He lifted his eyes and looked at him when he said that.
“Why shouldn't you tell me this?” he asked carefully.
“Sister Moira thinks it would change your perception on Brother Charles. It was a coincidence that he was in the hall, not his own choice,” the boy said. He was pale as a ghost and Erik realized that he was terrified of his reaction.
“You didn't hold a knife to his throat, did you? Pull rank? Threat him in some other way if he didn't help?”
“Then he could've said no and go about his day, couldn't he? But he chose to help you instead.”
“I knew he would help when I asked,” the boy muttered. “He's kindhearted to the novices.”
“That isn't your doing either. I forgive you if that makes you feel better, though I see nothing to forgive,” Erik said. “I know who's the blame here, and it isn't you. Corporal Summers!”
The young man stepped to the alley from the street. “Yes, sir?”
“See that novice gets to the church safely. And make sure he gets a warm meal and a good bed.”
“Go with Corporal Summers, novice. You've done your part,” Erik said and patted his shoulder. “It's time I do mine.”
Erik waited until the young men were out of sight before turning to follow Raven in the back alleys. He took the parcel from his pocket and unwrapped it as he walked, tossing the brown paper away. It was a small wooden box and he slid the lid open to glance inside. It contained a white porcelain disk, with painted motif of a snake and a dove. The snake was painted with black and gold, the dove with blue, the official colors of the Archbishop's office. It was a counterfeit, but not many had seen the real thing to know the difference. He took the disc and slipped it in his breast pocket before throwing the box away.
Raven waited for him in the small open space created by a fenced backyard and crossing of three alleys. She sat on upturned apple box and straightened up when she saw him coming.
“We're ready sir,” she said. “Team, gather around!”
Erik had trusted Raven to choose the team, and she had done excellent job. There was twelve of them in all, clad in same type of black coats as Erik. The coats hid the weapons, but he knew the arsenal they carried. All were steady, level-headed people and that's exactly what Erik needed for this mission.
”You know who we are after and what he is. I need him alive, so no one lays a hand on him other than to secure him out of there. Raven runs point, she has the last word. When you have him, do not let him escape,” Erik said. The group nodded in affirmation. ”If anyone is tempted to sniff around, let me remind you that you are all bound. Your spouses can demand retribution if you mix with these omegas, and I will personally cut your cocks off on their behalf. Everybody clear?”
Another round of nods, this time with more weight.
”Then we move,” he said and pulled the black cloth over his mouth and nose. It was soaked in anis oil, the smell overpowering his senses. It made him cough but he breathed shallow and even, letting the smell settle in the back of his throat. The team followed his example and scattered in the narrow streets.
The sigils of the constables turned more infrequent as he walked deeper in the other side of the town. The houses changed too, and with it the streets. The careful plans seemed to end, the houses built with some internal logic that wasn't readily seen. The streets ended and returned again as smaller paths, looping back to its origin and changing again. Erik walked on, not too fast or slow to caught unwanted attention. He knew Raven followed him, and rest of his crew blocks to the left and right before him, but he still let his sword hilt show. Many glanced at it, noticed the carved blessing of the Goddess of Death and Retribution and moved hurriedly along. The sword wasn't his, but it was an excellent deterrent. No one wanted to pick trouble with a mercenary at this early in the evening. Not enough cheap alcohol to boost courage.
Where the city's control weakened, the private contractors took its place. The first enforcer stopped him when he had reached the third block. The woman approached him rather casually, short red coat with black stripes, sword strapped to her belt. Erik didn't stop, and the woman settled to walk beside him with equal long strides.
”This is marked territory, not a good place if you work for the wrong employer,” she said, nodding toward his sword. ”Take a left and you are on the safer waters within a block.”
”Thank you for your advice, miss,” he said and kept on walking.
The woman hurried past him and turned to block his way. Erik stopped and looked at her squarely in the eyes. She was young, and she had the air of someone who had battled and won round or two, hence thought too much of themselves.
"Hey, did you hear me? Turn around and walk away while you still can," she said, her hand resting against the sword handle.
Erik took a little disc from his pocket and flashed it at her. She stilled and stared at him with wide eyes. A simple sword-for-hire was one thing, but one hired by the Church another. Erik was glad the cloth hid his smirk as she stepped aside quickly. Erik put the disc back to his pocket and kept walking. The woman stood there for a moment and then rushed after him.
“Can I be of any help to you, sir? We are always happy to aid the holy Church.”
"Has there been other officials in the streets tonight? Constables too far from their areas?"
"A few. We are keeping an eye on them,” the woman said.
“Where are they?”
“Heading to the docks, to the whore houses. That's where the trouble always starts. If there is trouble, I mean.”
“I'm sure there isn't. Thank you miss,” Erik said. The woman stopped following him and turned around, returning to her station.
Erik walked on, thinking. If it was the Prioress' crew, it sounded like she was following a cold trail tonight. Erik had a better information. It had cost him, but if it was true, it would be worth it. He turned to a narrow street, looking for the specific carved sign on the door. He found the house in the middle of the street. The house was old, the paint flaking off and the roof showing bald patches. The front door however looked new, heavy oak with metal trimming. Erik waited for a moment before he heard the quiet whistle from his left, that meant Raven was all set. He walked up the few rickety stairs and pushed the door open. From the corner of his eye he saw Raven reaching the end of the street, vanishing to behind the corner.
The foyer was small, a big counter cutting the space in half. It blocked the way so that anyone wanting to get inside the house proper, would have to go around it to do so. There was a painted screen at the other end of the counter, creating a small private nook behind it.
”No new customers tonight,” came the voice behind the screen. Erik took a gold piece from his pocket and tapped the metal against the counter surface, the sound bright and distinctive in the empty room. There was a sound of teacup clattering against a plate and creak of chair when the madam stood up. He walked around the screen and leaned against the counter in a manner that suggested he had planned to do so from the start.
The madam was a tall man, more bone than flesh. His purple coat was tailored to fit, the buttons engraved silver. What ever his profit margin was, it obviously didn't go toward the upkeep. He glanced at the gold piece in Erik's hand, and he was ready to bet that the madam could tell the weight of it correctly down to the fractions.
“How can I help you sir?”
”The rumor has it that you have a rare delicacy in your menu,” Erik said, pushing the square piece of gold in the space between them. ”A true Converted?”
“I'm afraid you are mistaken sir.”
Erik took the porcelain disk from his pocket and slid it next to the gold piece. The madam stared at the disc for a moment, his hands splayed over the counter like white spiders.
”This is an unusual request for a man of your stature. Sir.” His mouth quirked over the last word, like he wanted to add something less polite to that statement. “The Church denies the existence of the Converted. I'm sure you are aware of this.”
”The Goddess has her ways, the Church its own,” Erik said with a sanctimonious tone. ”And I'm something of a scientist, curious to settle the debate. Maybe this will help?” He slid another square piece of gold across the counter.
The madam blinked and Erik tried to read from his expression if he had overplayed his hand. The man might be greedy, but he wasn't stupid. A real high-ranking officer of the Church wouldn't pay over, he would raid the place and take what he wanted. But the pay seemed to be right, as the madam swiped the gold with a quick move under the counter. Erik relaxed slightly.
”We do pride ourselves on the fact that we cater to all kinds of tastes,” the madam said. ”Even such that the holy Church in their wisdom have deemed inedible. Everything served in strictest confidence, of course. ”
”Naturally,” Erik said.
”I'm afraid that I have to ask you to leave your sword here sir. For security reasons, of course, I'm sure you understand,” the madam said and his face settled into an expression that vaguely resembled a smile. “We don't want any accidents within the premises.”
Erik nodded and undid the fastenings, placing the sword on the counter.
“If you would be so good to wait for a moment, we have to clean before a new serving,” the madam said, about to leave within the house.
”No need. I'll take it as it is,” Erik said.
The madam's expression twitched, his disgust clear for a split second before he returned to his earlier neutral stand.
”Of course, as you wish.” He rang a little bell and a servant appeared from the behind the inner door. ”New customer for the corner room.”
”But he is not ready...”
The madam raised his hand and the servant shut her mouth.
”Show him to the room. Now.”
The servant curtsied and held the door open for him. Erik took the disc from the counter and slipped it back to his pocket, nodding at the madam as he walked in the house proper.
The smell hadn't been strong in the front room, but here it was sickening, even through the anis oil. It was the smell of omegas, but there was nothing captivating about it, only rot and filth. Erik grit his teeth not to show his reaction. The servant would report it to the madam and the discretion the gold had bought would vanish if he would realize that Erik wasn't a true customer.
The servant led him to a second floor and stopped in front of a purple door.
“Here you go sir. One hour serving, any complaints go through the floor master,” the servant said, nodding her head to the end of the hallway, where a large man leaned against the wall with a bored look. “Questions?”
Erik flipped a copper penny to her and she snatched it quickly before pushing the door open for him. Erik waited until she turned away before stepping inside and closing the door behind him. There was no locks, there never was in a place like this. Erik took a flat piece of wood from his pocket and leaned to shove it between the floor and the door. It would slow down anyone trying to get in.
The room was as his informant had described. There was a bed, a chair and a basin of water on top of it. Shaw sat on the bed, his back turned to the door. He was naked, his skin littered with bruises, bite marks and half-healed scrapes. He spoke something but Erik couldn't make out of the words. It sounded monotonous, empty litany of phrases. It could've been a prayer, if Erik had believed he was the praying kind. He stopped talking, sniffing the air in a loud inhale. Erik took the dagger hidden in his waistband and bounced, wrapping his arm around his throat and pressing the sharp tip against the soft spot behind the jaw. Shaw squirmed and opened his mouth to scream for the floor master.
”Steady, steady,” Erik shushed, pressing his hand over his mouth. He stilled as he recognized his voice, swiveling his eyes to stare at him. ”Sorry to cut your whoring short, but it's time to return to your maker.”
This close he reeked, his scent sour and damp at the same time. Erik had seen corpses that smelled better than him. He struggled harder in his hold, his bare feet scuffling against the floor boards. Erik cursed and held him tighter, the dagger skidding over his grimy skin and drawing a shallow cut. Shaw kicked his knee and Erik's hold slipped. He fell to the floor, crawling to the corner to a bundle of clothes shoved aside there. He pulled a long dagger underneath it, the blade smudged black so it didn't gleam in the light.
”I'm not going back to that insane bitch! I rather die!”
”Now now,” Erik said and changed his hold on the knife, the blade pointing down. ”Death hears when you call it.”
Erik had read everything he had found about the Converted. He knew that even though Shaw had lost his alpha nature, and turned into this twisted kind of omega, it didn't mean he had lost his skill to fight. It would've been better to take him by surprise, but Erik didn't mind fighting him either. He had waited for a change for it, when Shaw had eyed his territory as addition to his own. But Shaw never came down to the battle fields, always staying at the edges, out of sight.
Shaw attacked with an angry snarl, aiming at his throat with a quick slash. Erik sidestepped what the room allowed, the tip of the blade swishing past and he used the motion to hit his open side, the handle of his knife giving the blow some weight. He got him in the ribs and he backed away, staring at him, the white of his eyes visible.
“It should've been you,” he hissed, his face distorting with anger. “You and your meddling little cunt! You should've died, both of you. Don't worry, there is still time. I'll gut your bearer, and you will get what's coming for you!”
“Big promises from a common whore,” Erik said and feigned an attack on the left, pushing him toward the corner. “But you are right. I'll get mine and you get yours.” He hit him but he dodged, trying to get out of the corner. There was a rattle at the door and then angry shouts when the door didn't budge.
“Time to go,” Erik said and reached to grab Shaw's arm. He slashed, the blade ripping through the coat but missing skin. Erik shook him and when that wasn't enough, he shoved him against the wall, the knife rattling to the floor. He kicked it away and dragged him to the window. He struggled, trying to get free but Erik slammed his face against the window to daze him. The frame was black iron, the small round glass embedded in irregular pattern. He pushed the tip of the knife under the window frame and moved it back and forth, the rust flaking off in big chunks. The shouting got louder, the door inching open.
Erik pushed the knife to its sheath and punched the window frame to get it moving, the old wood cracking under the strain. It gave in with a pop and Erik glanced down, whistling sharply. There was a whistle in reply and Erik took a hold of Shaw's neck, shoving him through the window. It was only the second floor, so Raven stood idly by as he plopped to the pile of garbage. There was more whistles and his crew moved in, tying him up like a deer carcass before dragging him in the back alley.
Erik squirmed through the window, pushing up to stand on the narrow sill. The door opened with a loud bang, bouncing back from the wall and Erik smirked at the floor master's surprised look before he let go, jumping down to the ground. He landed too far, tumbling against the back wall of the next building. He grunted and got up, running to the alley where Raven waited for him. The floor master shouted after them but the sound quieted soon as they got further away from the whore house.
“Any problems?” Erik asked.
“One team run into the Prioress' people, but they knocked them out of the game, sir,” Raven said, slowing down to a walk.
“Taken care of, won't be found in few days. Should I go back to take care of the madam? He might report this to the magistrate, sir.”
“Report what? Losing something that doesn't officially exist? I don't think so. He doesn't care the constables poking in his business anymore than we do. He gained a sword and two pieces of gold, he'll write it off as a loss and move on.”
“If you say so, sir.”
“I want you to stay with Shaw,” Erik said. “Get him out of the town tonight. Keep him out of sight until you've passed the border to the forest. With any luck, in few days this will all be over.”
“Let's hope so, sir,” Raven said and started to jog after the crew who held Shaw. Erik stopped for a moment, glancing up to the rising moon.
It wouldn't be long now. He would get Charles back.
Chapter 6: Sudden Motion
When Erik proposes an exchange, Charles puts his plan in motion.
I figured that if summer ritual was around June (Midsummer-ish), and harvest ritual is in October (Halloween-ish), then Charles would be about five months pregnant.
Charles woke up an hour before the first bell, like he had woken up since he was a child. He didn't attend the morning service anymore, but old habits were hard to break. He kept his eyes closed, listening the faint hum of the awakening minds. The sound was familiar now, but it hadn't started like that.
When he had helped Erik to escape, he had focused only on him. He hadn't known how he did what he did, he simply used the skill and it worked. After, he had laid in the cot, shaking and sweating from fever, a headache clawing its way through his skull. Maybe he had used the gift wrong, done something Goddess frowned upon, because Adit's blessing turned into a severe punishment.
He could hear everyone, every living human mind in the Monastery. Alien impressions, random thoughts, bright emotions flooded inside him, washing away his own sense of self.
He fought hard to stay whole under that tidal wave. He made it through the first night, and the next day and the night after that, until finally the edges of himself settled back and he was sure he wouldn't disappear in the minds of others. All through this, Emma came to stand by his bed, her mind glowing with delight of witnessing his death. She whispered things to him, threats, things she would do to him, to Erik when she would get her hands on him. How it would be easier to everyone if he would give up, return to the arms of the Goddess.
Charles refused to give her the satisfaction.
The sound of human minds stayed with him. There was no escape. It was a constant roar, building into an unbearable blanket of sound at daytime and lightening to nagging buzz at night. It was exhausting and painful, he barely slept and he couldn't find solace from the prayers. He had no one to tell him what this gift meant, how to use it, what he should do with it. He learned on his own, through experimenting. He tried and failed and tried again, until he found the way to box the noise outside, control it. With more practice he came up ways to do more than simply survive a day. Because his child needed him to do more.
The baby woke up, a short tapping sensation. When he had felt the movement for the first time, he had cried, out of happiness. It still amazed him, every time.
”Morning Pollywog,” he muttered. He couldn't reach the baby's mind, it was too unshaped and fluid but his voice had an effect. “You could sleep more, hm?”
Instead calming down the baby turned again, kicking around restlessly. He sighed and opened his eyes, getting up slowly to keep the nausea at bay. When he was awake his control was good, but sleeping was still difficult. His dreams were full of strange images that didn't belong to him. Few hours of sleep, but that was better than nothing.
He stood up and walked to the window, pushing it open. The morning air was cold and damp. It smelled like autumn. The cold air made the healed arm ache, but there was a tall maple tree behind the window and he liked to take a look at it every morning. He could see the autumn progressing from the color of its leaves. He missed his garden, seeing how all his hard work had turned out but there wasn't much he could do about that.
He washed his face in the wash basin and glanced at the tree before drying his face. The leaves had started to fall, few cold nights turned the colors incredibly bright. A good storm or two, and the tree would turn bare.
”Today would be a good day to plant bulbs,” he said. ”I had some interesting lily cultivars, I looked forward to see them bloom in the spring. I don't think anyone will know to plant them now. Shame.”
The sound of minds got louder when the novices woke up all at once. He strengthened his shields and the silence returned. He pulled the window closed and went to his chest to get dressed. He chose pants and a shirt, gray knit sweater over it. He didn't wear his robes anymore, since he wasn't part of the Monastery life. It didn't matter, he had plenty of clothes. The congregation remembered him and Pollywog with gifts, especially after Emma had spread the rumor that he wasn't feeling well. It wasn't completely untrue. He was tired, but it had nothing to do with his health, but his growing ability to cross the border from his mind to others, the way it allowed him to understand people's thinking and to manipulate it. Seclusion had only helped him to grow his range.
He went to the work room and shoved the coals in the fireplace to see if he had to start the fire from the scratch. Luckily there was some embers left at the bottom and he knelt to feed small strips of dry bark to it, to get a proper flame before adding twigs and finally a log over it. He checked the kettle for water and moved it over the fire. He got up clumsily and brushed the dirt from his knees. He went to his reading table and took his cup, tapping the dried tea leaf crumbs from the bottom. The dinner dishes got taken away, but tea he made himself and he didn't always bothered to rinse the cup. He spooned a new patch of leaves in the cup from the little jar. It was a mix of black tea with ginger, it helped with the nausea. He waited for the water to boil, shifting through his notes.
He had started on the Annals of the North Frontier two days ago, but he had barely gotten past the first winter. The text was slow-paced and riddled with acronyms and military jargon. He had to rely on two other books to understand what had happened in the endless small skirmishes near the border. In any case, Erik's name should've been easy to spot, but so far he hadn't found anything. Unless he remembered his tattoos wrong and he had wasted his time researching the wrong battlefield. He had only seen the tattoos twice after all, and he had been rather distracted on both times. He had tried to draw them from memory but the results varied.
“I don't know what to tell you, Pollywog. Your father is difficult to pin down,” he said. The kettle rattled when the water boiled. He took his cup and turned to fill it. He pushed the kettle off the fire and let the tea sit. He heard the door downstairs open and close, then the steps in the stairs. He walked back to the table and set the cup down, far from the papers.
“Still drinking that tea?” Emma asked from the door. “It smells awful. Morning sickness should've passed by now.”
“I apologize,” he said, sitting down. “How's the headache? I have some dried lavender, you are welcome to it.” He knocked some papers around with his elbow, covering his tattoo drawings. Emma wouldn't take it well if she saw them.
“Tell me you have found something new. That would cure my headaches. All of them,” she said, walking closer the table. She looked pale, the canary yellow robe adding to the sickly pallor. If she wore that, it meant she would lead the morning prayer, which meant she was here for the glamor. Charles stifled a sigh.
“Like I told you yesterday, I've gone through all the books, twice. There is only one solution to your problem, every single reference to the matter agree on it. You need your alpha, I'm sorry, your omega to undo the change. You take him back to the breeding stone at Harvest, a drop of blood as sacrifice and a true prayer to Adit, and the shift should reverse itself.”
“And if I don't?”
“You will be as true alpha as one born, and you can't stay here,” he said. “That's all I can find about your...condition.”
“Then look again!” she shouted. Charles stared at his cup, twirling it around, watching the tea leaves float. Anything to avoid her eyes. Her moods shifted dangerously as her new nature grew stronger. He heard her march back and forth, then stop, the bright clink of her prayer beads as she played with them. She was nervous.
“Your future lord and keeper send me a message. He has my Shaw,” she said suddenly, her voice calmer. “He proposes the obvious exchange, you for him. Truthfully, I'm disappointed with his lack of imagination. In his place, I would've asked for gold.”
Charles looked up, trying to keep his expression neutral. The baby kicked, picking up his quickened heartbeat.
“Well. That's your chance then, to turn this around.”
“Oh, my chance? Don't you mean your chance?” She walking back to him, leaning closer. “If you belief your troubles will be over when you are with him, think again. You've been with me for months. It's my scent on you, not his. Do you honestly think he will belief that I didn't touch you? I'm sure you looked up his tribe in your precious books. You know all about what they do to two-timing omegas, don't you? It's not going to be a happy end.”
He said nothing. She leaned even closer, her lips almost touching his cheek. Her skin reeked.
“It's a humiliation, and that's something a man like him can't ignore. He will wash away his shame with blood and you know it. The question becomes, do you have enough power to change his mind? I don't think you have.”
“He won't harm his child,” he said. “Beyond that I don't care.”
“Of course! Why didn't I think this sooner? You yearn for martyrdom, don't you? Interesting. I didn't know you had such plans for greatness,” she sneered. ”I can see it now, it will be beautiful. All the young people, lighting candles in your name, praying for guidance before the Presentation. Well, they wouldn't want to end up like you, naturally, which is exactly the reason to pray that much harder.”
Charles wanted to retort that there was a lot she didn't know about him, but he kept quiet. He had learned to accommodate her moods, because anything else was too dangerous. Her mind was like a bag full of broken glass and splintered wood. Touching her was the same as sticking his hand in that bag and grabbing a fistful of sharp edges. He didn't want to do that until there was no other choices left.
“I have to lead the morning prayer,” she said, turning back. “I need a glamor.”
“I gave you one yesterday. Stacking them doesn't help, you know that.”
“That glamor was defective! Do it again,” she said, her voice tensing. “Do it better. People give me looks. All those bitches everywhere, staring at me, all the time, talking and staring, crawling under my skin...”
“Calm down,” he said. “You can control it.”
She closed her eyes, her hands in pressed into fists. “Glamor. Now.”
He stood up and pressed his hand against her forehead. She had a fever that didn't ease with willow bark, her new essence hollowing her from the inside. The fact that she was constantly surrounded by omegas didn't help. All the recordings he had found about unprepared changes agreed on one thing: the Converted should embrace their new side, and stay away from their old. And Emma was here, in the one community where she was alone among hundreds of omegas, all packed around her without respite. She had to act like she used to, be what she used to and that act got more difficult every day. Charles did what he could to keep her functioning but lately nothing he did lasted for long.
The glamor was a simple thing to do, but it took some time to get the details right. He had come up with it accidentally, when he had read about insects that could mimic certain parts of flowers. The glamor worked part as a deterrent, part constant loop of reassurance; 'everything is fine, don't pay attention, everything is normal'. Too heavy tampering didn't work, the glamor started to draw interest instead reflecting it. It had to be light enough so the people might wonder what was wrong with the Prioress, but they wouldn't feel the need to discuss about that troublesome feeling and they would forget it quickly.
He reinforced the loop, turning the glamor louder and heavier. He let her go and she looked lost in thought for a moment. Charles sat back down. He eyed her carefully, trying to see which way her mood turned.
“Better,” she said, straightening her robe. “You should've done that yesterday.”
“The glamors won't help for much longer.”
“Well then, what use I have for you? I might as well throw you at the barbarian's mercy, see if he can take some pleasure out of you. Thought I doubt it,” she said, glancing at his belly. “I'm sure he has filled his bed with sprier omegas by now.”
He said nothing. It was such an obvious insult, which meant she wasn't really paying attention to him. The silence was better. She tended to fill it herself, telling him things she hadn't planned to tell. That tactic had given him interesting tidbits about what happened outside this room. But this time she wasn't in the talking mood. Instead she turned around and walked to the door.
“And if this glamor doesn't hold, you'll be doing it again until it does,” she said as goodbye and vanished in the stairs. He waited until he heard the door close downstairs.
“Things are finally in motion Pollywog,” he said and turned back to his papers. “I think it's time to go see your aunt. Don't worry, you'll like her, she's kind and smart. I hope you take after her.”
He rummaged around the papers before he found an old, ragged version of the Daily Prayers. He turned the book around, the glue creaking. It wasn't right to handle a book like that, but he tried not to feel bad about it. This was more important. He moved the covers back and forth until the spine broke and he could pull a piece of paper out. It wasn't a fool-proof hiding place, but Emma's searches were a show of power more than anything else. She thought she could scare him just by shouting slurs and throwing things now and then. Fledgling alphas tended to think highly of themselves, he didn't need books to understand that.
What Emma didn't understand was that Charles could've walked out of here weeks ago if he had wanted to. It wasn't Emma's threats that kept him here, not her guards or the locked doors. It was the realization that at the moment, he was the only one standing between Emma and the rest of the Monastery. He had seen the defining shape of her mind and he knew with absolute certainty that without him, the pressure of the change would break her sanity. The cracks were visible as it was. Charles felt responsible for her actions. He had created her, hadn't he? And it was his job to stop her.
Charles read over the list, and added a few new lines before folding it. If Emma found this, she would kill him instantly, no more talking. The paper contained every single name Emma had mentioned or thought about loudly enough for him to catch. He knew some of them, knew how they connected together and to her. It was interesting what you could find from the books when you knew what to look for.
After his arm had healed, when he had managed to create his first solid mental shield, Emma had allowed him to spent few hours a day in the herbarium. A way to show to the Monastery that he was alive and with child, and a reward for him, something she could snatch away to prove her control over him. It had been brief period, but during that time, Moira had sent him several messages. He had replied when the situation allowed it. Then Emma's paranoia took more acute turn and it had become clear that it was much too dangerous to keep constant connection to the outside. He missed talking with Moira, but he wouldn't take unnecessary risks because of it. He had to wait for the right time.
Charles knew he could trust her but he wasn't sure if Moira knew how far Emma's influence went. She had pull in the inner workings of the Church, Charles had the names of the council members who worked for her. Or maybe Moira already knew all this, the reason she was sent here in the first place. Either way, Charles had to talk with her, see what her plan was, what she knew. What Charles could see, the Monastery posed the biggest problem. Inside these walls, Emma was a danger to everyone. If Moira tried to apprehend her here, the result could be catastrophic. She wouldn't go down easy, no alpha would. She had to leave the Monastery for Moira to make her move and the exchange was the perfect opportunity.
And Moira needed these names, so she could know who to trust.
Charles got up and went to the door, walking carefully down the stairs. Emma had been right about the spryness, he didn't remember the stairs being this steep when he had walked up few months back. The guard sat at the bottom stair, leaning on the wall and nursing a cup of tea. She stood up when she noticed him.
“What are you doing downstairs?” she asked. She was called May, though Charles knew it wasn't her real name. Her mind was flat and angular, almost colorless.
“Escort me to the baths,” he ordered. Her first thought was that it was the wrong time, he wasn't allowed out in the mornings. He caught that thought easily, twisting it so she didn't feel that realization was all that important. She didn't forget it, but she ignored it.
“Ma'am said nothing of a sort,” she said, her obedience more about lack of imagination than true loyalty. “You are to stay indoors.”
“The weather turned cold. The Prioress worried about my health and suggested having the steams,” Charles said calmly, selling the story with a light push. Less was more, so her mind didn't balk. She shifted her feet, changing the cup of tea from one hand to another.
“The baths will be empty during the morning service,” Charles said and added a calm, reasonable strand to his mental push.
The idea sink in her mind and took hold. May nodded, setting the cup aside, her mind returning to its basic shape like Charles hadn't influenced her at all. He felt light-headed, giddy. It had been easier than what he had anticipated.
“Let's go then,” she said and waved her hand. Charles pushed the door open and she followed him outside.
The air was brisk and he breathed deep, delighted. He didn't realize how much he had missed fresh air and sunlight, even rain. He couldn't enjoy the morning for long, May ushered him forward. They walked through the small yards, all empty. His quarters were at the far end of the old part of the Monastery, there was no one else housed there. When they reached the new side, May stopped at the side door that lead to the baths. She held the door open for him and let it close behind them.
The warm, moist air hit the moment they stepped inside the hallway. Charles felt May's uneasiness intensify. She was a soldier, and the thought of moist air touching her meticulously maintained weaponry made her mind restless. That wasn't the only reason. She was an old alpha, lost her scent years ago but the thought of naked omegas still threw her out of sorts. Since it was always easiest to let people do what they instinctively wanted to do, Charles turned around to look at her and smiled.
“The steam rooms are right down the corridor. I can go my own if you want to go have a smoke.”
As much as she wanted to agree, she feared Emma more. She shook her head. “No, I've told to watch you at all times when outside.”
Charles sighed and pressed his fingers to his temple. Her mind moved, its patterns easy to predict. He snared her attention and held it in place.
“You want to wait outside. You want to have a smoke. It's your idea,” he said quietly.
Her eyes glazed for a moment and then she nodded.
“Stay in the steam room, hear? I'll go have a smoke, I'll come fetch you in ten minutes.”
“Of course,” Charles said and waited before she had closed the door behind her before hurrying down the corridor, not to the steam rooms but to the cold baths. He hoped Moira had not changed her routine. It was the middle of the week, the pantry would be filled, the meal plans done and left to the cooks. This was the morning she would take a moment to be alone, wash her hair.
He caught the familiar shape of her mind in the third room and he was so relieved that he had to stop and take a deep breath, to calm down. Pollywog kicked.
“Yes, I'm going. Settle down,” he muttered. He looked around, listened, and when he was sure there wasn't anyone else in this hallway, he walked to the door and slipped in.
Moira sat on a bench, in her long shirt. She combed the tangles out of her wet hair, singing quietly. She looked up when she heard the door close. Her eyes widened in surprise and she rushed up, the comb dropping to the tiles with a sharp clink.
”Brother Charles!” She rushed to him, hugging him tight. Charles hugged her back. Her mind was amazing, full of color and movement, so much light. He couldn't belief he hadn't seen it before. She was happy to see him, genuinely happy, the emotion pure and clear.
She took a step back, holding his arms. ”Oh look at you! You look...”
”I know.” He shrugged, glancing down. ”I'm huge.”
”No, I meant to say you look like you could use a hot meal and a good night's sleep,” Moira said, frowning. ”I've seen the trays. I knew the meals were too skimpy, I knew it. I should've done something.”
”When I couldn't speak with you, I had to rely on what I could see. As long as the trays went up and came back empty, I knew you had to be alive and somewhat in good condition. You are, I hope? Feeling well? And the baby?”
”We're fine. It was wise not to try contact me. Emma has eyes everywhere,” Charles said, pulling reluctantly free from her hold. ”I can't stay long. I heard about the exchange. Here.” He handed the folded paper to her. She opened it and read it through. She read it again and then looked at him.
”This can't be right.”
“It is. I'm sure of every name.”
“There is two Archbishop's enforcers on this list,” she said quietly. “I know these people. They would never go against the Church. Never.”
”I can only tell you what she thinks, and in her mind, these people are on her side. You have to take it in the consideration, don't underestimate her or her influence. It's not enough that you apprehend her, you need to know who not to hand her over, or its all been for nothing. ”
”I've been trying to figure out her end game. What does she want? The Archbishop's seat? She has to know by now that it won't happen. She's a converted, she has no place in the Church.”
”I don't know,” Charles admitted. “I think she honestly wants to undo the Conversion, but I know she has a backup plan, I just can't get a good look of it. But I know you shouldn't get hang up on what happened in the clearing. She plans bigger than that.”
”Bigger than the priestess of omega goddess turning into an alpha?”
”Yes. When she has Shaw, she can do anything. You are the only one who can stop her.”
Moira stared at him, the disbelief radiating from her mind. She said nothing, but her mind moved fast. Charles couldn't keep up with the myriad of thoughts. He felt guilty for reading on her like this without her knowledge, but he couldn't stop. Her presence was calming, her mind reminding him of Erik.
”The exchange, it's going to happen tomorrow. The Prioress' messenger left two hours ago,” she said. She watched him carefully, something clouding her mind. “I know Erik has planned the exchange well, but still, I'm afraid there is a real chance that she will try to...”
”Kill me. Yes, I realized that too.”
Moira squeezed his arm, worried. Charles tried to smile.
“It will be alright. Our lives are in Goddess' hands.” He said it with as much conviction as he could manage. He didn't know what would happen, there was too many possibilities where it all could go horribly wrong.
Emma was smart and unpredictable, she had too many hidden sections inside her mind. She might let him leave the Monastery, but that didn't mean much. She was tactician enough to know not to leave enemies alive behind her back. He knew Emma lied about Erik to advance her own agenda, but he couldn't squash the doubt that she was right. That her alpha nature told her something about Erik that Charles couldn't read in any book. That Emma let him go because she knew he rushed toward his own execution. Moira's mind was a contradiction to that. She believed without a doubt that her brother would protect him. Charles wanted to trust Moira's instincts on this, not his own.
”But your skills, can you use them against her? Freeze her, like those guards?” Moira asked.
”No, I don't think so.” He tried to find a right way to explain it. It was difficult to put in words. “Her mind fractured at the clearing. Now she has two natures, both equally real, both sides attacking the other. It's impossible to control her as whole because of it.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I will try to influence her mind, just enough so that she doesn't notice it, but hard enough that it will sway her attention. I'll make her feel that it is more urgent to secure Shaw than to care about me. I haven't tried it for long stretches but I think I can keep the hold maybe half an hour, maybe less and then...” He shrugged. “I don't know what happens. She might turn back, she might focus on Shaw, it's impossible to tell.”
”It doesn't matter what she does, she won't get her hands on you again, Erik will make sure of it. You'll be safe with him.”
Charles nodded, pushing his doubts in the back of his mind. It didn't matter, he couldn't waste energy to dwelling on that. If he went to Erik out of his own volition, then he gave Erik the right to do anything he wanted with him, and he accepted that.
”It would be better to stop Emma on route, with Shaw. She has six guards working for her at the moment, but I know she can get another six in half a day, maybe more. Can you gather enough officers to back you up? Ones you trust?”
”Please. I haven't wasted all my time baking bread,” she said and smiled. “I have my troops ready ride out from Fort Grans in hours notice. They are all career soldiers. She won't know what hit her.”
”Good,” Charles said and Moira reached to hug him again. She let go of him reluctantly, her eyes sad.
“I'm sorry about everything. You don't deserve all this trouble we brought on you.”
“Trouble? What do you mean? Without you, there wouldn't be Pollywog,” he said, surprised that she didn't see that. “If that's trouble, then its a trouble I'm happy to have.”
“Pollywog? That's funny,” Moira said. Then the realization hit. “Oh. Erik didn't give you a name.”
“It didn't feel right to do it myself. And I had strange dreams about frogs for some time, so. ” When he said it out loud it didn't make much sense. Moira smiled.
“I've heard that can happen. Can I?”
Charles nodded. Moira pressed her hand against the bump.
“Hey Pollywog, this is your aunt Moira. You be good now, and we will find you a pretty name,” she said and smiled again when Pollywog kicked. “He will give you one when you see again. He won't leave his child without a name,” she added, straightening up.
“Yes. I...Yes. Of course.” He reached to hug her one more time and then let her go. “I better get back. Take care.”
He left and didn't look back. He couldn't bear seeing the look on Moira's face, it was bad enough to feel the faint emotions trailing after him. He walked back the same way he had came, listening the hallways. The baths were empty and quiet. He stopped at the steam room door. He didn't see May so he leaned his back against the warm tile, trying to calm down.
”I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, but I hope I did the right thing for you, Pollywog. I really do.”
Chapter 7: The Winning Hand
Erik has his bearer, but that's only the start of his troubles.
It had rained for days, the tracks through the forest washing away. It wasn't a big problem. Erik knew these woods as did his whole unit. They wouldn't lose their head in the first thicket. These woods could have a strange effect on some.
Erik had chosen the place for the exchange carefully. The spot was at the edge of the large lake that split the forest in two. In the old times, this lake was a holy place, where the alpha's came to show their respect to the Gods, and drown their enemies in the cold, dark water. The ground was lush here, everything grew large and gnarled, the woods crowding the water from all sides. The place offered a good vantage points if you knew the terrain, but to uninitiated it was a challenge.
Half the battle was to choose the right battleground, and Erik intended to keep his upper hand.
They waited under the cover of the large pine trees, the rain weak but persistent. The drops of water fell on their shoulders with sharp snaps, sliding down their oilskin coats. The horses shook their head, the rain and rustling branches making them skittish.
”Sir, with all due respect, I think we should've taken more men with us,” Corporal Summers said. He didn't like this place, but Erik was pleased how well he held himself together. He had promise.
”You are out of line, corporal,” Raven chided.
”No offense meant ma'am, but we don't know what kind of troops this woman has under her command,” Summers said, not backing down. “The lake is wide open. A few good archers could cover this area without any trouble.”
“It doesn't matter if an archer is good, if they have no clear line to shoot from,” Raven said. “We have men in every vantage point from here to klick to the north. They are more use out in the woods than stacked behind us. Or do you doubt your ability to fight if there's trouble? Some weakness in your knees?”
Erik glanced at Raven, who looked annoyed. The corporal was young, but he had a sharp mind and good instincts. He also had the habit of speaking up when he saw something that didn't feel right to that sharp mind. Raven interpreted that as insolence and had no patience for him. Erik in other hand saw the value of it. That was why he had promoted him in the first place.
“Are you a gambling man, Corporal Summers?” Erik asked before the argument got a chance to get louder.
“Yes sir. I play cards.”
“Then you must know that you can't win anything from someone who refuses to sit down to the card tables,” Erik said. “If the Prioress thinks she's in control of the situation, she will take her seat and we will clean her out. If she balks, we get nothing. Do you understand?”
Summers nodded and blushed, embarrassed. Before Erik had a chance to continue, there was a faint melodic whistle from the woods.
“Go get our guest ready, Corporal,” Erik ordered.
Summers turned his horse and vanished soon in the forest. The trees ate all the noise, leaving only the sound of rain behind.
“Are you sure about this sir?” Raven asked when Summers had gone. “You might have the winning hand, but do you know what you play for? Your bearer... He might be different.”
“You said you didn't mind some fresh air when we left this morning,” Erik said. “Are you now complaining, Lieutenant?”
“Then keep your opinions to yourself.”
“Yes sir!” Raven said and snapped her eyes forward.
Erik knew Raven had a point, but he couldn't allow himself to think about it too closely. He didn't know. From Moira's messages, and what the novice had told him when they had captured Shaw, he knew Charles was alive and well. Beyond that, he had nothing.
Still, he had no real choice here. Erik had to see Charles again, hear his voice, touch him. Even if the Prioress had turned him against Erik, if Charles would only say how much he hated him for abandoning him and the child, Erik still needed to hear it from him. Erik was ready to accept that, accept anything, as long as he could see Charles one more time.
“Sir, there's somebody on the road.”
“Let's move,” Erik said, snapping his heels, his horse trudging forward, looking for a sure footing in the slippery mud. He rode closer to the lake, Raven following behind. Erik kept his eyes on the movement in the woods. Six horses. The Prioress wouldn't walk, and she wouldn't make Charles walk either, Erik hoped. Four soldiers then. She could have more if she had left soldiers to secure her exit. Erik would've, so he didn't doubt that she had thought the same.
Erik reached out, trying to mimic the way he had communicated with Charles in the morning of his escape. Silence. He tried again, holding an image of Charles in his mind like a flag. Something quivered at the edge of his mind, there and gone before Erik could make sense of it.
Raven stopped her horse next to him at the small widening, formed naturally to the shape of the lake. From there the track narrowed, the thickets on one side, the steep drop to the lake on the other. That would force the Prioress to approach them alone.
She appeared from the forest, her blue coat easy to spot. Her horse was a lean legged mare, throwing its head nervously. The Prioress controlled the horse with a hard hand, ushering it forward. Two of her soldiers followed, while two hung back, blocking a view to a person on a brown horse. Erik tensed, trying to see if it was him.
Raven coughed and shifted, her armor creaking.
It was hard to take his eyes away from Charles, but he turned his attention back to the Prioress and her soldiers. The two wore identical cloaks, loose and shapeless. Erik tried to assess what kind of weaponry they might conceal. Swords, surely, but those would be useless in narrow space like this. Crossbows, possibly. Those would be a bigger problem. Erik knew his armor was best there was, but he still didn't want to test its strength against an arrow to the chest in the close range.
The Prioress stopped, considering the disadvantage of leaving her guards behind her back instead having them next to her. Finally she made up her mind and ushered her horse forward, close enough for a conversation.
”Prioress. You have something that belongs to me.”
The woman smiled, a bemused tug that made her skin wrinkle around her eyes like rice paper. This close the changes in her were clearer, her features sharp and lean like she was hollow inside. Her scent was unpleasant, even through the rain.
”If you refer to Brother Charles, he belongs to the Goddess and her Church, not to you.”
”You don't speak on the Goddess' behalf anymore,” Erik said, keeping his voice emotionless. ”And unless you hand me my bearer, you'll soon find that you don't speak for the Church either.”
”That sounds like a threat,” she said, her smile turning brittle. ”You have some nerve, speaking about things beyond your understanding, dog.”
The insult was so halfhearted that Erik wanted to laugh. He kept his expression neutral.
”You are mistaken,” he said. ”I understand your problem and I can offer you a solution.”
”And what is my problem? Pray tell.”
”You have managed to hide your new colors this far, good for you. But Adit's reign of the year ends at the Harvest, and our God's reign begins. You can't stop that. Your superiors will find out about a priestess who sprouted a dick in the middle of the sermon.”
”That's not going to happen.”
”It will, and you know that,” Erik said. ”And since you are here, you must also know that you need your bearer to cure your condition. Now, I have him. You can get yours, when I get mine.”
“Here's my counter offer: you keep mine and I keep yours,” The Prioress suggested. “Forget Brother Charles. He's no use to you. He won't desert the Church, so what that leaves you? Mate locked in the Monastery, and an omega child who can't inherit your kingdom. If you keep mine, you double your land and fortune in one move. Breed him until you get an heir and then get rid of him. It's a win-win.”
Raven shifted in her saddle, her hand resting on the hilt of her sword. Erik kept his eyes fixed on the Prioress.
“There is only one deal: yours for mine. Take it.”
The Prioress said nothing for a moment. There was something stiff about her, in her posture. She blinked, jerking her head.
“And if I don't?”
“Your bearer likes to talk. We can't shut him up,” Erik said, flashing a grin. “I think I will take him to meet the Archbishop. They can have a long talk about what happened at the clearing and the affair you two had. Shaw says that you suck better than the whores of the Skysail. High compliment.”
The Prioress scoffed.
“He's an abomination. He'll be disposed before he opens his mouth.”
“Maybe. But everyone knows that if there is one Converted, there has to be an another. How long will it take before someone comes to ask you about these rumors, that an executed man has cried your name in his last moments? You know he will, he can't help it.”
Again she moved oddly, her shoulders rigid, her hand opening and closing, clutching the cloth of her cloak. It was like she fought against some invisible current. Her eyes glazed over for a split second and then she relaxed, giving in.
”Where is he?”
”There.” Erik pointed at the lake, to the strip of shore that was visible between the trees. A dinghy sat there, bobbing on the water when the man sitting in it moved.
”Please. That could be anyone.”
Erik whistled sharply and a shape parted from the trees, splashing to the water and reaching to do something to the man. There was a scuffle, the man on the dinghy not taking it well. Then loud cursing ran over the water. The Prioress made disapproving noise.
“I see his temper haven't improved.”
”I bound him down. You can keep the rope,” Erik noted. ”You'll need it.”
”How generous,” she said. ”I assume we trust each other on the bodily harm issue?”
”Looks like it. I haven't seen mine yet,” Erik said.
She waved her hand and her soldiers ushered their horses, turning aside. Erik trusted Raven to keep watch as he pushed up to see better. One of the soldiers pulled the brown horse's reins, and it took a few hesitant steps forward. He was a shapeless form, but he knew it was Charles. His scent was as pale as the rain, but it was him. Erik couldn't be fooled on this, but something about his stillness worried him.
“It's him,” Erik said, sitting back down. “Follow the trail along the lake, you'll get to where the boat is tied.”
The Prioress nodded stiffly and waved her hand again. The horses neighed when the soldiers ushered them to turn in a small space, but they handled them well. They rode down the trail first, then the Prioress following them. The last two soldiers let the brown horse go and rode after the Prioress.
“That was too easy,” Raven said quietly and Erik nodded in agreement. Something was going on, but he didn't know what it might be.
”I think she'll finish her business with her own, and be back for yours. The Converted can't satisfy their hunger, sir. They have no control."
”I agree,” Erik said, watching the Prioress ride away. “We'll deal with that when the time comes.”
Charles didn't move from the spot they had left him. His horse nibbled the little tufts of brown grass at its feet.
”You should fetch him sir, or he might sit there all day.”
”I don't need your advice how to handle my get, Lieutenant.”
He waited until he couldn't see any movement between the trees, before he dismounted. He patted the horse's neck and pulled the reins over its head. He hand them to Raven. “Stay here.”
Erik walked down the trail to him. The wet ground was slippery and uneven, the twigs and roots snagging the hem of his coat. Charles didn't turn to look at him when he got closer. It looked like he had fallen asleep with his eyes open.
“Bearer,” Erik called carefully and took a hold of his horses reins. The mare looked at him with more interest than its rider. “Charles?”
He blinked when he heard his name, but that was all.
“Do you remember me?” he asked, pushing the hood of his coat down. “From the Hall? From the stone?”
Another blink, but his eyes didn't turn from the empty space he was fixed on. Erik looked at him closely. He didn't seem injured, but he wore a shapeless coat, gloves in his hands. Easy to hide anything.
“She did this to you?”
“You are doing this?”
“You must have your reasons then,” Erik muttered. “But we can't stay here.”
He pulled his coat off, shook the excess water away and reached to flung the garment over Charles' shoulders. The stiff cloth settled over him crooked and Erik tugged the hem, making sure he was covered against the rain. The horse neighed, the rustle of the coat making it nervous. Erik shushed and patted its neck.
“You don't want your master to catch cold in the rain, do you?”
Erik pulled the reins and the mare followed him, sure-footed in the mud. Erik kept glancing back at Charles but he didn't react to anything around him.
“Does he need a medic sir?” Raven asked as they got closer. Erik looked at him for the answer. No blink.
“No, I don't think so,” he said and took the reins of his horse from her and pulled himself on the saddle. “Ride front, I'll take the tail. Let's get out of this rain.”
There was no room for two horses to go side by side, so Raven took the mare's reins and led it forward. Erik stared at Charles back, shapeless under the oilcloth coat. He trusted Raven with his life, but he didn't want to give his omega to anyone's hands. It was ridiculous, but he couldn't shake the feeling that Charles was in danger that he couldn't perceive or prevent.
The forest was quiet, the light draining away under the trees. Erik kept a close watch, but nothing moved in the woods. The ride to the house took longer than Erik liked, but finally Raven picked up the pace when the trail turned into a wider footpath. The path led to a small pond and to the house build at the edge of it. The color of the stone melt with its surroundings, the house seemingly appearing out of thin air. Erik had known the man who had built it, the care he had taken to get that exact illusion. The same couldn't be said about the tents camped in semi-circle closer to the shoreline, the black oilcloth tightened over them to keep the rain outside.
They rode down to a small, stamped yard. Erik dismounted, Raven still holding the mare's reins. Charles didn't move, like it meant nothing to him if they rode on or stood still.
“Shall I get some men to help, sir?” Raven asked.
“No, I got this.” Erik walked around the mare to Charles' side, taking the reins. Raven nodded and dismounted, tying their horses to the beam.
“Lean down, I will catch you,” Erik said to Charles and reached for him. He tugged carefully and Charles slid down like he had spent all his energy and couldn't hold on any longer. Raven spotted next to him, ready to catch Charles if his hold slipped. “I got him, I got it,” Erik said and picked Charles up in his arms before his feet could touch the ground. “Get Mrs. Faraday.”
Raven nodded and hurried towards the tents.
Charles felt heavy and frail at the same time, drowning inside his coat. This close he could smell him. The Prioress' stench was over him and underneath it, the pale scent that Erik didn't remember him having before. It made him think of fever. Fear crawled down his spine like an insect with too many legs. He knew how to fight a battle, but he couldn't fight an illness.
Erik carried him up the stairs to inside, nudging the door open with his foot. The house was all ready for him, Erik had made sure of it before they rode out this morning. The fire burned in the fireplace, so it was warm and dry. He placed Charles carefully on the chair by the fire. He pulled the oilcloth coat off his shoulders and hang it to dry. Charles followed him with his eyes, which was better than the empty look he had before. Erik knelt next to the chair, suddenly unsure what to do or say. He had thought about this moment for months, and now he was afraid to even touch him. Charles shivered and he snapped to motion.
“Your coat is soaked through. Let's get you out of it.”
The buttons were small, the wet wool putting up a fight. He undid the buttons, his fingers clumsy and pulled the coat off of him. Charles eyes fixed on the fire as he slid back to the dead calm. Erik didn't know what that meant, but it seared him, the disapproving silence. He deserved it, but it was still painful. He got up and hung the coat to dry. He picked one of the blankets set ready on the bench, and turned to fold it around Charles' shoulders.
Now it was clear that he was with child. Erik had known it from the letters, but it was different seeing the truth with his own eyes. It made it real for him. He would be a father and what kind of help he had been for Charles? He knelt back next to him. He couldn't stand this silence.
“Charles. Tell me what you want me to do,” Erik asked. He would rather take his anger, because that he understood, he knew what to do with that. This empty calm led to nowhere, it gave him no direction.
It was if he had reached his hand and hit him. Erik didn't argue. He straightened up and grabbed his oilcloth coat, walking back out in the rain. Raven stood at the end of the stairs, back pressed against the wall to keep away from the sputtering gutters. Mrs. Farraday stood next to her, holding the leather satchel in her arms. Both women turned to look at him.
He didn't know how to say it, but Mrs. Farraday nodded like that made perfect sense. She was a solid woman, nothing much rattled her. It was a good quality on an army medic and Erik was relieved to see her. She could make sense to this. She walked briskly up the stairs and Erik moved aside to let her past.
“Nothing to worry, sir. Sometimes first timers get overrun with their protective instincts, makes them skittish and frightened of silly things, even their own mate.” She patted his arm. “I'll take it from here, sir.”
She went inside, closing the door behind her. Erik stared at it for a second, before turning to Raven. She snapped to stare at the rain beaten pond, her face deliberately blank.
“No one comes near the house, Lieutenant. Make sure of it. And come fetch me the moment she comes out.”
Erik pulled his coat on, drawing the hood up. It still smelled faintly of Charles and he growled to himself for his own weakness, this whole stupid mess. He splashed through the yard back to the brim of the trees, to the start of the forest path. Summers walked toward him, leading his horse down the trail, its hooves slipping. He stopped, brushing water from his face and leaving a smear of mud behind.
“Sir, the Prioress took her mate and left the lake side. I met with one of the scouting patrols and they said that the woman had reached the edge of the forest, and she has turned to head east.”
“Not towards the Monastery?”
“No sir, she's on the Cattle Road.”
“What the hell is in east?” Erik muttered. He ran through the terrain in his mind, all the roads and towns he knew in that direction. There was too many possibilities. The Cattle Road eventually joined with the main road, and with that she could be headed anywhere. Charles might know, but he would rather crawl to the woman herself and beg for the answer, than bother Charles with this.
“The patrol is still on her tail, making sure she doesn't turn back, sir.”
“And Sister Moira?”
“They send a rider to meet with her troops. There hasn't been a word back yet, sir.”
“Fine. Ride back to the lake, and report to Lieutenant when you hear back from Sister Moira or the scout patrols. Anything changes, I want to hear about it.”
Summers turned the horse back to the trail. Erik watched him vanish in the forest and turned to look at the house. There was no point to stand behind the door like a beaten dog, but that was exactly what he longed to do.
No, that wasn't right. He wanted to break that door and chop it into fire wood, along with every other door Charles would try to close between them from now on until the day of their death.
He scoffed at the thought. He wouldn't do that either. It wasn't the door that was the problem.
Erik glanced at the tent camp. The smoke curled from the small portable stoves, the rain making a steady drumming sound over the oil cloth. He had the scout patrols in the woods, a handful of troops here. They could dismantle the camp within an hour, a night's ride and they could be home, warm and safe. But he didn't know if Charles would see it the same way. Erik didn't know what he thought as home.
Erik walked to the armory tent, to take leave his gear and clean up. There was a bucket of cold water, and he didn't have more clean clothes, but he did what he could. He got dressed again and walked to the mess tent. He needed something to distract him.
Corporal in the mess duty handed him a cup of soup and he sat down to eat. He talked with everyone there, to make sure that they knew their watch rounds. No one wanted to stay out in the rain, in the dark, but his soldiers didn't question the need for it. The bearers were always guarded over, that's was just the way it was. The younger soldiers gave him sidelong glances, silently wondering why he sat with them when his bearer was here. All the married ones gave him understanding nods and off-handed pats in the back on their way out to their guard shift.
He listened gripe about the sorry quality of the horse shoes these days, and how weather like this was hell on all living beings. Erik nodded, filing away the notion that he should talk with Raven about showing Summers how to run an inventory on provisions and supplies. The boy might have knack for it, with his eye for details. Corporal took his empty cup away and pushed a mug of tea in front of him. She was a tall girl, married last spring to a quiet boy with wheat colored hair. She slid him a folded oilpaper paper square, flashing a shy smile.
“I saved the last of the sugar, sir. For your husband's tea.”
“Thank you, Corporal,” Erik said. He didn't correct her about the husband part. It was better if no one questioned Charles' place. He was his husband, in any way that mattered, even if they didn't have the priests words over it. Erik took the sugar and pushed it in his pocket. He was sipping his tea when Raven pushed under the door flap.
“Sir, Mrs. Farraday would like a word,” she said. Erik got up and pulled his coat on. The men and women looked at him, the mess tent suddenly quiet.
“Everyone knows what to do. Lieutenant is in charge,” he said, looking around. There was nods, raised cups.
“Good luck sir.”
Erik nodded and walked outside, Raven in tow. The rain had eased, the air turning foggy.
“Any word from Moira?”
“Nothing, sir. Haven't seen Summers either. I hope the boy haven't gotten lost in the woods.”
“I told him to stay at the lake,” Erik said, walking briskly. Raven jogged to keep up. “He's not the kind to wander off.”
“Right. I'll keep an eye out all the same, sir.”
Mrs. Farraday waited for him at the stairs. She stood up when Erik got closer. Raven hung back, returning to her spot near the wall, turning her back, for an appearance of privacy.
“He was nauseous, and he has been for a good while,” she said. “I helped him clean up, gave him lots of liquids to drink and some ginger and mint. It should make him feel better. I don't know what that lot has fed him, if anything, but he is skinny like a stray dog. The child is well though, a feisty kicker.”
“That's all? He felt sick?” Erik asked, frowning. “Is that why he asked me to leave? Because I've seen worse, he knows that.”
Mrs. Farraday glanced at the pond, avoiding his eyes. Erik waited, folding his arms to keep from shaking the truth out of her. She sighed, looking back at him.
“I don't know how to tell you this, sir. I think someone has filled his head with all kinds of bull.”
She looked uncomfortable, clutching her the leather satchel like a shield.
“He believes that you will punish him. For some slight, I didn't understand the reasoning, but he believes you will take his life, sometime soon. You can understand he is...”
Erik didn't want to listen anymore, he had to see Charles. Now. This madness had to stop. He tried to push past Mrs. Farraday, but she wouldn't let him past, blocking the stairs.
“Out of my way,” Erik said low, using all his self-control not to push the woman aside and rush up the stairs. She stood her ground, with a look that said Erik had to be ready for a fight if he wanted to pass.
“Sir, please! If you scare him, it won't make him belief he's mistaken, now will it?” Mrs. Farraday waited until he nodded in agreement. “I don't know exactly what he has gone through, but whatever it was, it had left him rattled. And he has had enough excitement for one day. I advice you let him rest.”
”When he thinks I'm going to kill him? Trust me, no one rests with that thought in mind.” Erik breathed deep, forcing himself to calm down. He reached to take her arm, pulling her gently out of his way. ”Mrs. Farraday. I have to talk with my mate, please. I won't upset him and I'll call you if he wants you there. Fair?”
Mrs. Farraday didn't look convinced but she nodded, pressing against the wall to let him pass. Erik was thankful for that, because he didn't want to be disrespectful. But she couldn't stop him from seeing Charles now. Nothing short of an army could.
He opened the door and went inside. The room was empty and quiet, the fire crackling in the fireplace, the lit lanterns adding light. A crumb of incense burned on a metal holder, the smoke curling up in the draft. Mrs. Farraday's handiwork. Her house of healers was overtly cautious about wandering spirits, especially if there was someone with child. Erik didn't know if Charles would see it as a heresy, or if he knew the meaning of the smoke. He should take it out if it bothered him.
He pulled his coat off and hang it on the nail by the door before walking to the bedroom door. There was a bigger one in the upstairs, but downstairs bedroom had a small tile stove, so the room warmed quicker. In the morning he had thought that Charles would sleep better there. The door was closed and he hesitated for a moment. Maybe Charles couldn't stand his presence at all.
He couldn't back down. He had to tell Charles that he was safe. He couldn't stand the thought that he laid there, afraid of shadows, things conjured up by some lies the Prioress had fed to him. He had had enough of that woman and her influence. She wouldn't win.
Erik knocked and waited for the answer. There was a quiet sound and he opened the door. It was warmer here than in the main room, but darker, a candle lit on the night table. The windows were small, the glass thick and green. Charles laid on the bed. Mrs. Farraday had piled whole stack of colorful blankets over him and it looked like he had been tucked into a nest. Mrs. Farraday had left mug of tea on the nightstand, along with a pitcher of water and a plate of small confectioneries, the ginger and mint she made herself. She had thought to bring a pail on the floor, if he would feel sick again.
Charles was awake. He watched him enter without a word. Erik left the door open and approached the bed. He knelt, the floor cold under his knees. Charles looked surprised. Erik bowed his head, down, feeling the stretch in his back. He had never done this. He tried to remember the proper words, but Charles' closeness made it difficult. He wanted to touch him so badly it hurt.
”What are you doing?” His voice was a quiet whisper, but Erik was happy to hear even this much from him, as long as it meant he wouldn't kick him out of the room.
”Greeting you,” Erik said and glanced up. “The way its supposed to happen, if we had met in a freer place and time. With your permission, of course.”
He looked uncertain. Erik bowed back down and this time the words came out easy, a long sentence that every alpha memorized, for if you failed it, maybe you wouldn't manage to get your wedding wows right either. Erik finished it correctly and for a moment he felt relieved. At least this one thing went right. Maybe the luck was finally on their side. He straightened up.
“What does it mean?” Charles asked.
“The rough meaning is 'blessed the path that led me before you, willingly I lay my sword at your feet'. Or so we are told. It's a dead language, only parts of it remain for ceremonies.”
“What should I reply?”
“You can ask me to leave, or you can tell me to stay,” Erik said. “But first, I want to hear what you told to Mrs. Farraday.”
He shook his head.
“It was a serious accusation. I need to hear what you said.”
“I told her that she shouldn't touch me. Emma had touched me and I didn't want her smell smeared on anyone else,” he said, closing eyes like he had to recall what had happened. “She did it on purpose. This morning she made me wear her shirt, her robes. I had to do it, it was dangerous not to. She...” He blinked, looking unsure. “She described in detail what that would mean to you. Forced the emotions inside my head. I tried to explain that to Mrs. Farraday. I don't think she believed me.”
“You couldn't stop the Prioress."
“I could have, but I had to save my energy. I had to hold her mind as long as I could. She couldn't know. It's difficult.”
“Is that what you did at the lake? And all this time in here?”
He nodded. Erik thought back, imagined the route the Prioress had to take out of the forest, the distance she could've managed in this terrain, in this time. Now matter how he counted it, the distance was impressive.
“That's your range,” Erik said, amazed. “That's what you can do.”
“I didn't know until I tried,” Charles said. “I had to try. She wasn't about to let me go.”
“You believe I will hurt you, and you still came to me,” Erik repeated, trying to understand. “With your gift, you could've gone anywhere, and no one could've stopped you.”
“I had to come to you. I don't care if I die, I still had to come.”
“Because my place is with you.”
He said with a simple certainty, like Erik had asked if he would get wet from the rain, or if the sun rose in the morning and set in the evening. Erik pushed up, walking closer to the bed and crouching back down to look in his eyes.
“You don't understand yet what kind of power that gives you over me, but time will correct that. You have nothing to fear from me,” Erik said, brushing his hair away from his eyes. "Not now. Not ever."
Charles said nothing, but he relaxed, with a fleeting expression that might have been a smile. Erik took that as a small victory.
”I'll let you rest.” Erik stole one more touch before straightening up. Charles pushed the blankets down and struggled to sit up, leaning his back against the headboard. He looked pale and Erik thought he would be sick again. He reached to help him. Instead Charles took his hand, looking at him.
“Don't you want to hear what I have to say to your greeting?”
Erik bowed slightly. “Honored bearer, how do you answer?”
“I want you to stay. Here, with me. Please? Even for a little while? I don't want to be alone.”
Erik wouldn't have denied him anything, and this was an easy request to carry out. He didn't want to leave him either.
“Of course. As long as you like,” he said. He crouched to untie his boots. The laces had never been so complicated in his whole life, his fingers shaking, but finally he managed to pull them off and he tossed the boots in the main room, reaching to close the door.
He walked to the bed, sitting on the edge. Charles patted the space next to him and he moved there, laying down next to him. He slid down, turning bit awkwardly to face him. Erik smiled and looked at him properly for the first time today, every little detail, like he had studied him in the Hall when he had captured him in his arms. Such a stupid trick, and it had worked. He still couldn't believe it. Erik smiled wider.
“What are you thinking?” Charles asked.
“Can't you tell?”
He shook his head. “I would rather hear you talk.”
“I remembered the day we met. How you looked in my arms. All sunlight and rightful anger.”
“I thought you were insane.”
“I was. From thirst, hunger, lack of sleep. The midsummer boiling inside my blood. And then you appeared, with that cup of water. Not a best moment for an introduction, but I recognized the truth about you, didn't I? Now there's a child in you.”
“Yes, a child that makes me thirsty and hungry and won't let me sleep. Must be yours then,” Charles muttered, shifting closer. Erik smiled and reached to touch him.
“I'm sorry that my child is ill-tempered.”
“No, Pollywog is lovely, most of the time. A good listener. We get along.”
“That's the pet name I came up,” Charles said. “I'm sorry, it's silly.”
“It's funny, for such a child that won't let you rest or eat. We have to find a proper name, though. Maybe it will make the child more content.”
He looked relieved, and Erik couldn't help it, he leaned to kiss him. Charles stayed completely still, a shiver running through him. Erik pulled away hurriedly, afraid that he had ruined the little trust Charles had on him.
“You didn't want that. I apologize.”
“No. No, please. I want you. I do.”
“It's the woman again, isn't it?”
“I can't get her out of my head,” he said, agitated. “It's ridiculous! I have the gift, not her! How can she do that, why is she still here!”
Erik shushed him, pulling him back to his arms.
“You can drive her out, she's no match to your strength. And you have me.”
Charles said nothing, just kissed him, a hurried gesture, like he feared Erik would push him away. He held him tight, stroking his back in relaxing circles. Charles pulled back and Erik eased his hold but didn't let go. Charles glanced at him and slid his hand under his shirt, his touch hesitant at first, then bolder when Erik didn't stop him. He touched his skin restlessly, like he had too many routes to follow and he couldn't settle for one, he had to trace them all at once. His hand ended up on his belt and he played with it, pulling it open.
“Are you sure?” Erik asked, touching his neck. “We can just talk. We don't have to do more.”
“We should do more," he said, pulling the belt. "There are all kinds of health benefits, I can't remember what they were, but I've read about it. All reliable texts,” Charles said, pushing his shirt up, out of the way.
“Well if they were reliable...” Erik smiled and followed his lead, sliding his hand under the blankets, searching for the hem of his shirt to get a touch of his skin. He caressed his belly carefully, watching his reaction. He stilled for a moment, then smiled shyly before continuing his own exploration, pulling the fastenings of his pants. Erik pushed the blankets aside, to admire him.
“I liked it better when you didn't wear this much clothes,” he muttered, yanking the fastenings that didn't want to open. Erik took his hand and lifted it to rest on his shoulder, starting to undo the fastenings himself.
“When the weather allows it, I shall walk around without a stitch for your pleasure,” Erik assured and continued pulling off his pants. He kicked them off and threw the bundle on the floor. He sat up for a second, pulling his shirt over his head and it followed the pants to the floor. He laid back down and pulled Charles back to his arms.
“Is that a promise?”
“I shall be known as the Naked King for generations to come,” Erik said. Charles started to laugh and he kissed him, delighted to hear that. Charles returned the kiss and soon the laughter quieted, their breathing turning heavier.
Erik wanted to take his time, touch him with the care he haven't been able to show before, but Charles wasn't having it. He kissed back hungrily and squirmed closer, trying to get under him. It didn't work, because his belly was in the way. He plopped on his back with an exasperated sigh. Erik smiled and pecked a quick kiss on his lips.
“We have to try it the other way around,” he said and when Charles looked confused, he nudged him gently, helping him to turn to his side. “Like this.”
He pressed against his back, kissing his shoulder, the groove of his neck. Charles shifted closer, lifting his shirt out of the way and pressing his ass against his hard cock. He swayed his hips and Erik groaned against his shoulder, all his intentions of the careful approach wavering.
“Beloved, my self-control isn't endless,” he whispered.
Charles craned his neck to glance at him. Erik reached to kiss his cheek, the corner of his mouth. His scent was different now, wider and more complex. It had color. More him. Erik buried his face in the crook of his shoulder, inhaling deep, getting familiar with him like it was the first time.
“I need you,” he said, swaying his hips again. Erik pressed against him, tilting his hips for better angle and pushed in. He wasn't truly ready, or he fought him out of instincts. He was tense, his muscles taut, his breathing shallow. Erik tried to be slow and careful, picking up Charles' cues. He let out a pained little cry. It must've hurt more than he had realized, or his mind had drifted to the dark waters again. Erik stopped, kissing his shoulder.
“Do you want to stop?” he asked quietly.
“No. Keep going,” he said and Erik tried again, sliding his hand along his side, between his legs to tease the soft skin of his inner thigh. That had gotten his attention in the summer. He moaned in the pillow and Erik did it again, scraping lightly the sensitive skin, pushing his thigh between Charles' knees, covering him, lodging him in his lap. For a moment Erik just stayed still, kissing his neck, teasing and stroking the areas he liked the most. Slowly Charles relaxed in his arms, leaning back, his hips moving ever so slightly. Erik hold back, keeping up with the caresses until Charles glanced over his shoulder, all flushed and beautiful.
“Please,” he said, and that was all the asking he had to do. Erik thrust deeper, finding a slow, pleasurable rhythm for them both, listening Charles' quiet gasps. He kept it up until Charles came, writhing and moaning in his arms and then he thrust slower, rocking him through the first orgasm to the second, until he couldn't hold back any longer, coming with him, mouth pressed in the soft curve of his neck. He bit down, as gently as he could, tasting the sweat on his skin. Charles wailed, clutching his arm. Erik licked the mark until he calmed down, the after shocks shivering him.
Afterwards, Charles rested his head against his shoulder, tracing idly the shapes of his tattoos. Erik stared at the ceiling, amazed by the depth of happiness he could feel.
“A left twirl, two spikes,” Charles muttered. “That was it.”
“What was, beloved?”
“I kept drawing your tattoos, but it didn't make any sense. I couldn't find you in the book, but I was in the wrong year. Now I know what book I need.”
“You want a history book? Now, in bed? The things that come out of your mouth, bearer, I don't know if I should laugh or cry.”
Charles chortled at that and the sound was so endearing that Erik couldn't help but kiss him. He indulged in the pleasure, capturing his mouth and only letting him go so he could kiss him again.
“Satisfied?” he asked between the kisses.
“Almost,” he muttered against his mouth. Erik lifted his head to look at him, frowning.
“I'm afraid I haven't said my prayers today,” he said, solemn and serious.
“Do you want to say them now?” Erik asked, suddenly worried. He didn't know all the details that went with a religious life, but he didn't want to keep him from it. If it was important to Charles, it was now important to him.
“Well, as novices, we are taught that Goddess Adit hears all kinds of prayers,” Charles said, stroking his chest with light fingers. “The ones we say. The ones we think. And especially those that we do.” His hand trailed further down and Erik held his breath, staring at him surprise. Charles smirked and moved his hand.
“Glory to Her name,” Erik said and laughed low, kissing him again.
Erik woke up to a quiet knock on the door. Two quick, two slow. He pushed up, pulling his arm free under Charles' shoulders. The candle was close to burnt out, the room dim. He got out of the bed carefully, reaching for his pants. Charles muttered in his sleep, turning. He waited to see if he would wake up, and when he didn't, he reached to tug the blanket back over his shoulders. He grabbed his shirt and opened the door, slipping out and closing it behind him.
Raven waited for him. She looked serious.
“I'm sorry sir. We have a situation.”
“What is it?”
Raven nodded to the chair by the fire. Moira's young apprentice sat there, Mrs. Farraday by his side. She talked quietly to him as she bandaged his arm. He had been beaten badly, half of his face one swollen bruise, his posture rigid. Broken rib, maybe.
“The woman did that to him,” Raven said, her voice tense. “And little one says that she has your sister.”
Chapter 8: The Rig's Dent
Erik goes off to save Moira, who needs less saving and more back-up.
”What happened?” Erik asked, pulling his shirt over his head.
”Boy said it was an ambush,” Raven said quietly. “From his description, I think the woman managed to find the remnants of Shaw's crew.”
Erik cursed. He had told Moira to consider that possibility. Moira had sent the reply that her informants said that while Shaw had spent his days on his whore crawl, his troops disbanded, the lack of pay a quick incentive. Erik had suspected that the core could remain, the ones who followed Shaw out of loyalty, or stupidity. Moira had looked into the matter again, but found nothing. Obviously the Prioress had been more successful locating them.
”And the novice?”
”Shaken, in pain,” Raven said, glancing over her shoulder. ”Asked to talk with you, sir.”
”Bring him a blanket, would you?”
The room smelled faintly of incense and medical herbs, mixed with the slight scent of fear, and pain. Erik waited for Mrs. Farraday straighten up and give him a nod before walking closer. He didn't want to agitate the boy more. Raven brought the blanket, and wrapped it over the boys' shoulders before returning to stand by the door.
Erik pulled the foot stool closer and sat down, to be on the boy's eye level. ”Sean. Tell me what happened.”
“They were waiting for us,” he said, the bruised cheek turning the words into a mumble. “They...Blood everywhere, I've never seen that much... I couldn't help her! They took her!”
”It's alright. Look at me.” He obeyed, too inexperienced to know any better and Erik snared his focus, to calm him. It was a simple trick that worked with the young omegas. ”You are safe here. Tell me about the ambush. Where did it happen?”
“They cut us off from the main road. I don't know how many soldiers there were. Ten, or more, I'm not sure. They wore black coats, a blue stripe on their sleeve. Sister Moira saw that and told me to get out of there, but I didn't get far. I tried, I swear.”
“I know you did. Then what happened?”
“This tall woman caught me, and slammed me against a tree trunk,” he said and touched his swollen cheek, remembering back. “I was on the ground. After that, it gets hazy, I don't... Prioress appeared, like from thin air. There was wounded soldiers on the ground and she just leaned to slit their throats, she didn't even blink, she just...”
“But she didn't do that to Moira,” Erik said, interrupting him before he would get caught up with the blood again.
“No. She hit her, and one soldier tied her up, put her on a horse. Then she...She turned to me and she hit me. She said I deserved it.” Sean clutched the blanket around him, staring on the floor. ”The tall woman pushed me toward the forest and told me to walk while I still could. I didn't know what else to do, so I walked.”
“You did the right thing.” Erik glanced up at Mrs. Farraday, who shook her head to his silent question. She hadn't defiled him. Maybe the Prioress hadn't thought of that, or she wasn't able yet, but either way that was some relief. The boy could recover from a black eye, and so could Moira. Other than that, nothing in this sounded good. He looked at Raven who looked grimly back. She didn't like the sound of this either.
“I'm going to kill that woman.”
Erik turned. Charles stood in the doorway, buttoning up his cardigan. He looked pleasant, like he had merely wished good morning, but his fingers shook on the buttons. Erik stood up.
“I'll bring you her head. I swear.”
”I didn't ask you to do it.”
Charles walked toward the door, like he was about to go and kill the Prioress before breakfast. Erik wondered again what kind of omega he had managed to get, if he should be proud or worried. When he walked past him, Erik reached to grab his arm, stopping him. Charles turned to look at him, his mouth a tight line. He was angry.
“Let me go. I said I'm going to kill her, and I will.”
”Not like that you won't,” Erik said. ”Lieutenant, go fetch my armor. My bearer wishes to go to a battle, and he needs the proper gear for it.”
”Yes sir,” Raven said without blinking an eye, her hand already on the door handle.
”Brother Charles, please, what are you saying?” Sean said, struggling to stand up. Mrs. Farraday reached to stop him, shushing him to stay put. “No, but, you don't understand! He can't take a life! He puts his soul in peril, he shouldn't speak that way!”
”He claims he can, so he will,” Erik said calmly, looking Charles in the eyes. ”He'll need a weapon. Lieutenant, what do we have?”
”Daggers, hunting knives. I can find a sword or a bow, if Sire wishes.”
”What do you want?” Erik asked Charles. ”I don't recommend trying your first kill bare-handed.”
He stared back at him, and Erik recognized that look. If he had been an alpha, there would've been a fight, sure as rain. The quiet, empty-eyed man from yesterday was gone, as was the smiling, warm lover that he had had next to him in the bed. This Charles was different.
”Who says it's my first kill? Let go of my arm!”
Raven raised her eyebrow in surprise, and the poor novice turned pale, his eyes wide with shock. Mrs. Farraday knelt hurriedly next to him, nudging him to lean back, lifting his legs on the foot stool.
Erik smiled and released his hold on Charles' arm. Nothing but a gardener, sure. He had known there was something different in him from the start. Erik found himself liking this new side.
”Find him a sword then,” he said, directing his words to Raven. “Big enough that I can see it coming, in case my beloved loses his temper with me.”
”I wouldn't hurt you,” Charles said, turning back to him. “I would never hurt you.”
”You don't know what you will do, that's the danger when people sworn to peace turn sides, but it's your choice. You want to do it yourself, you'll do it yourself. We'll back you up.”
“I'm sure you can take out the woman, but her soldiers are a whole another matter,” Erik said. “We don't know where she is, or how many alpha's follow her yet. If any.”
“What do you mean?” Charles asked.
“Even with Shaw on her side, she has to assert her leadership to this crew. I'm sure others will contest her for the leader position, she won't have it for free. That means fighting, and that takes time. Maybe a day, maybe less.”
“Everyone has to see it,” Raven added. “Not many spots in that direction where to camp with that many soldiers without someone noticing. Rig's Dent, or the Groove. We should check out those first, sir.”
Erik nodded. She was right. He turned to Sean. He looked frightened, and the conversation didn't help him feel any safer. Whatever they decided to do, they should discuss it somewhere else.
“Sean, I want you to stay here with Mrs. Farraday. She will take care of you.” He turned to Charles. ”And you, take your coat please. You're coming with me.”
Charles obeyed without a word and Erik went to pull his shoes on, snatching his own coat and pulling it on, before ushering Charles out the door. Raven followed them down the stairs, and took her place on his left, adjusting to his stride.
The air was brisk and clear, the rain had stopped sometime during the night. Mist wafted over the pond, the morning sun turning it golden. It was a beautiful morning, if they could've stopped to enjoy it. The mud had frozen into a hard shell, and it crunched under his boots. Erik reached to take Charles' hand. He didn't want him to stumble.
“It would have made more sense for the woman to keep the boy with her instead letting him go,” Raven said. “Corporal Summers said he found him wandering at the lake path. I think she set the novice this way on purpose, sir.”
”I can help you,” Charles said. “I know her better than you do.”
”I know,” Erik said. It hadn't escaped him that Charles' abilities could be useful. He wasn't proud thinking that, but it was the truth. He could control minds, it would be foolish not to take that into account. ”Raven, go wake everyone. I want scouts in the woods straight away. We need to find out where that woman is.”
Raven nodded and turned, jogging through the wispy fog back to the tents. Erik held Charles' hand, and lead him toward the storage tent.
”You think this is about me,” Charles said, following after him.
”Yes,” Erik said. “Don't you?”
There was no other explanation why she had left Sean alive, instead killing him. He didn't know how quick Moira's superiors would notice that their agent hadn't returned. In a day maybe, half a day? A good head start for the Prioress, maybe even enough time to reach Shaw's manor, a definite tactical advantage. Instead, she send the boy back, roughed him up enough to make a point, with a short of written instructions how to find her. It meant Moira was the bargaining chip.
“She has Shaw,” Charles noted. “Her thoughts were focused on him. Why would she want me now?”
“She's a newborn alpha, and like a child, she has all the impulses but none of the control,” Erik explained, pulling the string that held the tent door closed. “You said it yourself, you've been the center of her attention for months, and Moira is right there, with no ties to anyone. The Prioress won't stop to one omega, because she won't see any need to stop.”
“Still, you will let me come with you?”
Erik turned to him. “I want to keep you safe, and for that, I will beg on my hands and knees if that makes you change your mind and stay here.”
“I want to keep you safe,” he said. “They plotted for your death as much as mine. What if Emma's trap is for you? Shaw might have asked your head, and Emma will give it to him. You need me there.”
“Then, if you want to watch my back, you need something sturdier to wear,” Erik said. “Now, let's see. Take your coat off and try this for a size.”
He pulled one of the under coats from a trunk. It wasn't an armor, but it was better than simple wool coat. It was padded, the seams forced and small metal rings sown in neat rows from shoulders to hem. The sides were open, so the coat could be fitted around the wearer. Erik waited him to take his coat off before helping the garment on him.
“The biggest question mark in this is Shaw,” Erik said, helping his arms into the sleeves. “If she managed to get him to work with her, it might help to get Shaw's soldiers to fall in line faster. Though I doubt that. Shaw has always been a sneaky bastard, and the change didn't cure that. I think he'll start kicking up trouble for the fun of it. That will work to our advantage.”
“Emma had trouble controlling the unfamiliar urges, he might suffer from the same,” Charles suggested. “He might have the impulse to...rouse interest.”
“Considering that we found him in a whore house, I don't think he can stop rousing the interest,” Erik said. “Which, with the rut moon today, might cause even more fighting. That's good. We don't have to do much if they fight among themselves.”
“Except Moira is in the middle of it.”
Erik nodded, and tugged the hem of the coat. “How does it feel? Too heavy?”
“Was it true?” Erik asked, starting to tie the jacket closed. “That you've killed someone?” He didn't care, but what he knew about Charles, and his Church, a thing like that would weight on him.
“Yes. And no. I don't remember it myself. I was only a child. I read about it, that there was an accident.”
“From the same book that said you couldn't have children?”
Charles nodded. Erik didn't know what to say. He had no idea what this record keeping was that he referred to, or why Charles placed such faith on it, but it seemed ludicrous to him. There was a story there, but it had to wait. He tied the string and pushed the ends inside the seam, straightening up. He took his hand in his, kissing his palm. “My last plead, stay here? For Pollywog's sake?”
“I can't. I created this, and I have to fix it.”
“I had to try,” Erik said. “Promise you'll leave the killing to me. I said I would go against your enemies for you, let me be true to my word.”
Charles nodded again. Judging by the look on his face, it wasn't a true promise.
Her arms hurt, but she took the pain as a good sign. Numbness would be worse. Moira focused to stretch her fingers, the rope biting in her wrists and elbows. It had been a cold and wet night, her head throbbing from where Emma had hit her. She had woken tied to a tree at the edge of camp. She had been left with the horses, maybe to mask her scent, maybe because it was an easy spot to guard. The horses were tied to the birch trees under a steep, rocky hill. Even if she got her hands free, she had to make a long, heavy climb in the dark, or try her chances to get through the camp. Neither was a viable option.
She had spent the night listening the sounds of shouting and fighting, trying to pry the ropes open. Sometimes, when it got quieter, she could hear a river, and that, combined the little else she could see, made her think she knew this place. It was a vaguely bowl-shaped valley, surrounded mostly by hills and dense woods behind the ridge, creating a sheltered area in the bottom. A small river ran past the south end. Crossing the river was an easy way to get to the valley, but any other route was far more laborious. Travelers tended to camp here on their way to the capitol, if they didn't want to get far from the main road, but couldn't afford the time to go all the way to the nearest town.
Moira was sure the place was called the Dent, or something close to that. It helped to think something to stay awake.
The camp had quieted down, the light changing when the sun rose higher, streaming in the valley past the cover of the trees and she wasn't any closer getting her hands free. She was angry, and deeper down, afraid. When Emma had settled her leadership with these soldiers, her attention would turn to her, and she tried hard not to think what she would do first. She took short breaks, then tried again, but the ropes were thick and the knots tight.
Moira heard the soldier before she saw him, the heavy thud of his boots on the ground. The horses whinnied, shifting their legs. Moira relaxed, slumping down the best she could, staring on the ground and closing her eyes. It was better if they thought she had no fight left in her.
The soldier walked to her and leaned to cut the piece of rope around her waist. “Get up. The lady asks for you.”
The soldier had a strong accent, his words slurring together, but there was nothing unclear about the way he yanked her up to her feet. Her hands were still tied together, the yanking causing her shoulder to twist and the pain shoot up, radiating along her side. She bit her tongue to keep quiet. She didn't like the look the soldiers had gotten the last time she had made a sound. She knew that the rut moon neared, and she also knew that it would be better to be dead than see it rise, alone in a camp full of alpha's.
The soldier pulled her along, and Moira focused to keep her footing. It was hard to keep her balance with hands tied to her back. The ground was uneven from rocks and roots, the yellow birch leaves turned into slippery cover, impossible to tell one lump from another. She didn't want to fall, because she knew the soldier wouldn't have any problems dragging her on whether her feet carried or not.
Moira looked around as much as she dared as they walked. The camp was quiet, few lazy curls of smoke raising from the fire pits. There was no sign that they were about to pack up and leave the valley. Moira didn't know why, but it worried her.
She didn't know what exactly had happened during the night, but apparently Emma had swayed Shaw's crew to join her. It would've made more sense for them to take Shaw from her, than accept her as a leader, but Emma was a skilled speaker, she knew how to manipulate any situation to her benefit. That had always been her strength. Moira hoped some of the Shaw's crew had tried to turn the situation. More they killed each other, the better.
The soldier took her to the tent in the middle of the camp, pulling the door flap aside and shoving her in. She stumbled, trying to find her balance. The tent was big, brightly lit, warm from the large coal pan set in the middle. The air smelled like porridge and fried meat, and Moira's stomach growled.
Emma sat on a chair set near the pan, an empty plate and a cup at her feet. She didn't wear her black robes anymore, but regular clothes, brown boots and pants, white shirt and a heavy wool coat. She looked young and frail, but her eyes were sharp, and cold. She stood up, walked to her and looped her arm to hers.
“Long night?” she asked, with a mock politeness. “You look terrible, I must say.”
She led her in the room, pushing her down on a narrow cot. Moira stared right at Emma. She wasn't going to turn her eyes, not for her. She sat down next to her, and reached to brush her face.
”I never liked the way you looked at me,” Emma said, sliding her thumb over her cheek. ”Always searching for the faults in everyone. Maybe I will tell my lieutenant to blind you, what do you think? That does sound good, doesn't it? My lieutenant. My soldiers. My everything.”
Emma tapped her fingertips against her skin, like testing the ripeness of an apple. Moira tried to not to blink, fighting the urge to turn her eyes from hers. The second she did that, she had lost. Emma's scent wafted around her, she could taste it in the back of her throat. It was chaotic scent, layers that didn't fit together, like those artificial oils they sold at the whore alleys.
”In other hand, I want you to witness when I kill your brother.”
Moira tried to keep her expression blank but failed. During the night, she had assumed Emma had grabbed her because she knew she was with the secret police, because she needed leverage with the Church. If she knew about Erik, it meant she hadn't given up on Charles. She wished that Erik had had enough sense to take Charles across the border during the night, to his domain. Emma couldn't get him from there.
“Oh? Are you surprised that I know?” Emma smiled to her expression, trailing her fingers lower, looking for the pulse point in her neck. “You did excellent job keeping your bloodline out of the official records, but it wasn't enough against Brother Charles' inquisitive mind. Once I planted the idea to read about Erik, he was relentless with the task. Like a dog with a bone. He didn't realize that further he looked into Erik, the more he exposed you. I had to cash some favors to confirm it, but what a wonderful surprise it was!”
“We are not family.”
“Yes, you are from the wrong side of the blanket, aren't you? No wonder you were handed to the Church. You have done well on your own, a decorated member of the secret police, Archbishop's enforcer. I have to admit, you weren't my first guess as a spy,“ Emma said, sliding her hand lower on her chest. “I wonder, it must've been strange to stand in the line in the summer, let your own brother take a sniff at you. How was it?”
“We are not family,” Moira repeated. “He won't come for me, if that's what you think. He's gone home, with Charles. You're never going to see them again.”
“You forget I know Brother Charles,” Emma said and smiled. “We had time to get to know each other. Your brother might not care rat's ass about you, but Brother Charles does. He'll convince the king to try saving you and he'll agree. That's the kind of stupid thing love makes you do. Hmm...You smell incredible. I've never noticed.”
She leaned closer, to lick or bite, and it made her skin crawl. She had to get Emma's focus turned on something other than her scent. She tried to stay calm, not give in to the fear.
“Your mate won't like this. Remember him? Shaw? What happened to him?” Moira asked.
Emma sighed, straightening up. “Ah yes. My darling little slut. Honestly, I have always found this obsession about one perfect match ludicrous, but yes, he has turned out to be quite the problem here. I'll take care of him after tonight.”
Moira didn't want to know what that meant, but she didn't like the sound of it. If she was ready to kill her mate, then Moira had no chance talking her way out of here.
“He had the right idea though,” Emma continued. “I can't expand my territory, unless your brother is gone. He has too much influence across the border. So it will all work perfectly, you see. He'll die, I'll have you and Brother Charles, and all the land I want.”
”There's one problem.”
”Brother Charles? He does have the way inside people's heads, but killing your brother will help with that too, you know how fragile you omegas are. Death of a mate will break his spirit.”
”I meant me,” Moira said and smashed her forehead in her face. Or tried to, for Emma moved her hand and slammed her palm against her chest, smacking her to the ground.
”I like you,” Emma said and stood up, kicking her on the side. Her boots were heavy, and the kick landed on her already bruised side. She screamed and tried to roll away from her, but she smacked against the cot's wooden legs. Emma kicked her again, harder. ”I would rather have you over that sniveling slut, but don't think that means much. If you are more trouble than you are worth, I will kill you.”
She reached to grab her hair and slammed her head against the hard ground. Lights flared behind her eyes, she could taste blood. Moira tried to pull free, but she held her tightly, smiling when she squirmed in her hold. There was a cough at the door, that made Emma let go of her, her face smacking on the ground. Moira tried to hold back the whimper, pulling her knees up to make as small target as possible.
“Ma'am, we spotted movement a few miles in the east,” the soldier said. “It might be him.”
“Just when this got interesting,” Emma said, sounding disappointed. “Don't worry darling, we'll continue this when I come back,” Emma said and walked out, the guard holding the tent flap open for her. “Stay here. No one comes in.”
“Yes, ma'am,” the guard said and let the flap fall back after her. Moira rested her cheek against the hard ground. The cold earth felt wonderful, the burn in her cheek fading. She knew it wasn't good, not truly. If she laid here long enough, the cold would seep in, make her slow and drowsy. She ran her tongue across her teeth, feeling if Emma had managed to knock any loose. She hadn't. Moira struggled to turn into a better position, to spit out the blood. If she swallowed too much, it would make her sick.
She tried to catch her breath, before turning again, trying to get on her stomach. If she managed that, then maybe she could push up to her knees. She focused on that task so hard, that it took her a second to hear the rustling sound coming from the corner behind her. She froze, straining to listen. The sound stopped, and Moira craned her neck to see what happened. There was a flash of metal, a quiet sound when someone cut the threads that held the seam together. Moira tried to turn, trying to see better.
The knife moved steadily up, then vanished. For a moment nothing happened, then someone pushed through the tiny opening. It took Moira a minute to recognize Shaw. He had gotten the same beating as she had, maybe few times over, his face showing every stage of bruising, from fresh purples to old sickly yellows.
“What are you doing here?” Moira whispered.
He motioned her to stay quiet and crawled closer, eyes fixed on where the guard stood behind the door. The flap moved as wind caught it, the edge pushing open, the sun shining in. They froze together, but the guard had her back turned to them, lighting a smoke. The wind settled, the flap pushing back to its place. Shaw moved again, quicker, bouncing to her side and grabbing her arm. Moira struggled without thinking and Shaw held the knife in front of her eyes. She froze again, staring back at him.
He moved behind her back and started sawing the ropes holding her wrists together. There were sounds outside, steps as the soldiers marched past, metal clanking, people calling each other as the soldiers got up and dressed in their armors, regrouping somewhere in the south end. Shaw cut the thick rope, the threads snapping one at the time. The guard outside said something and laughed, another soldier laughing too and asking for a smoke. Moira tried to stay still. She didn't want him to cut her by mistake.
“Why are you helping me?” she whispered, sure that the conversation outside would mask the sound of her voice.
“Shut up,” he hissed. “I'm not helping you, Blackskirt.” The rope broke and Moira pulled her hands free, the blood rushing back to her fingers. She bit her tongue, the tears escaping as she tried to keep quiet and not to cry.
“Don't faint, wimp,” he whispered, smacking her shoulder.
“Burn, stinking whore,” Moira hissed back and Shaw smirked.
“That's more like it.”
He folded the knife and put it in his pocket before crawling back to the open seam and pushing out. He crouched outside to hold the opening for her. Moira started to go after him and then stopped. She didn't know if she should trust him, what his angle was. He wasn't helping her out of goodness of his heart. He looked at her for a second and then shrugged, letting the seam flop back, the quiet scuttle over the dead leaves telling her which way he headed. Moira considered the situation. What other choices she had?
She followed him.
They left the horses into a meadow and continued their way by foot. The terrain was rough and though Erik went ahead with his crew, scouting the easiest paths for him, Charles started to get tired. The coat was heavy, and he hadn't had this much exercise and fresh air in months. He didn't want to say anything, not after he had insisted to go with them, so he tried to keep up with the pace.
Erik kept checking back to him and Charles made a point to put up a neutral expression, not let his exhaustion show. It didn't fool him. He changed positions with Raven, who took the lead while he stayed behind next to him. She moved through the undergrowth like a quiet shadow and Charles watched her go with a sudden envy. He felt clumsy and weak, not like himself.
”I should've forced you to stay at the house,” Erik said, holding his arm to help him get past a fallen tree trunk. ”This is too much for you.”
“I'm fine,” Charles said, brushing the low hanging branches off his way. “With me, you have advantage over Emma. I hear you think that when you talked with your lieutenant. And I agree with you. I can find Moira faster than you.”
“Do you listen thoughts all the time?”
“No, not knowingly.” Charles thought of his answer, to explain something that was still strange to even himself. “People don't offer me their thoughts ready-made. It's more like catching fleeting images, parts of ideas. It's up to me if I can make any sense to it, and sometimes I don't, no matter how I listen. It's a strange gift and I'm not sure why the Goddess would give it to me.”
“And me? What do you hear from me?” He sounded tense.
Charles smiled, holding his arm. “It's different with you.”
“Different? Different how? I know, I'm not the wittiest, smartest man alive, but isn't there something you like?”
“That's not how I meant it. I tried to say that I hear you effortlessly in a way that doesn't happen with anyone else. You can use it, if you need.”
Raven jogged back to meet them, her breathing quiet puffs in the air. “Two scouts came back, we were right. They found them at the Rig's Dent, it's right up ahead. There are at least three patrols around, one at the river, two up here. They don't work together, they snide at each other, instead sharing any information. We can use that, sir.”
Erik nodded. “Good. What routes they use?”
“The patrols walk in a circle,” Raven said cheerily. “First along the ridge, then downhill where the ridge turns toward the river, through the camp and back up from the other side. There's a team that stays in the woods, going in jagged motion between the ridge and the forest. They keep on the beaten paths, they don't want to muddy their fancy cloaks. They make a lot of noise, sir.”
“Have you witnessed a death before, through your gift?” Erik asked, turning to him. “Would it hurt you?”
Charles had to stop and think. It was a good question, he hadn't thought of that. “I don't know.”
“Then we have to try something else. It would be best to intercept the patrols in the woods, so if they make noise, it won't carry far,” Erik said. “I need you to stay here while we do that. I'll send someone to fetch you, when it's safe to move on. Raven will stay with you. Corporal Summers? You too.”
The lieutenant didn't feel pleased with the job, but Charles was happy to have her with him. She was practical and sharp, and he got the sense from Erik that he trusted her without hesitation. It was good enough for him.
“Can you look for Moira at this distance?” Erik asked.
“Maybe if she focused her thoughts to me, but since she doesn't know that we are out here, then no, I don't think I can catch her like that. If she's unconscious, drugged or injured, it will make it even harder. I have to get closer to the site.”
“Too dangerous until we get a better look what's down there. You only have to poke your head over the ridge at the wrong moment for them to notice us. Wait here, until you hear from me.”
Charles didn't want to argue, this was Erik's specialty, not his. He might have read a book or two about the old wars, seen the battlefield when everything was over, but that didn't help to build an effective strategy in a situation like this.
Erik's mind felt calm, focused, looking at the terrain like a puzzle. Charles trusted that he did the best possible decisions, but still, he thought it was silly to stand here, when getting closer would help him to find Moira. He didn't move as well as he liked, but he could walk slow. If he could pull Moira out of there, it would free Erik's hands. He didn't say anything, but Erik sensed his hesitation. He reached to take his hand.
“Promise me you stay here. Out loud.”
Charles nodded. ”I'll stay in the forest.”
“Thank you. Lieutenant, you are in charge.”
Moira dashed in the cover of the shrubs, kneeling down for a moment to rub her aching hands back to life. She looked around to see what way Shaw had gone and crawled after him. The branches snapped against her face, the ground slippery under her hands. She tried to be as careful and quiet as she could, but her breathing was labored, and every exhale sounded loud in her ears.
Shaw had stopped to wait for her behind a large boulder, and when she was close enough, he held out his hand and pulled her next to him. He dug around the cover of leaves, and pulled out a sword in worn brown scabbard.
“Here. Take this,” he said, shoving the sword in her hands.
“This is your plan? One old sword? We can't fight our way out of here,” Moira said. “Those are professional soldiers, with proper armors and weapons. I can take out one, maybe two if I get lucky, but I know your reputation. You've worn sword mostly for show.”
“Don't be an idiot, Blackskirt. I know that, I paid for their training and gear. You would be hacked to pieces in seconds.”
“My name is Sister Moira, not Blackskirt,” she said, annoyed. “And what do you expect me to do with this?”
“I know who you are, Sister Moira,” he said, peeking around the boulder to see what happened by the tents. “That's why I helped you. I want you to kill Emma for me.”
“Right. Nice try.” Moira pushed the sword back to him. “I'm going to climb over this ridge and get out of here before anyone notices.”
“Go right ahead. There are patrols in the woods, you'll be hacked to pieces there too. View might be nicer though.”
“Going back there to look for her, with a sword in my hand, that's going to work?” Moira said, frowning. “You can get near her, you're her mate! You kill Emma.”
“If I could kill Emma, don't you think I would've done that last night, when she did this?” he said, pointing at his bruised face. “As it happens, she knew all about that neat trick alpha's use against their bonded mates. She ordered me to not to harm her the second I got out of that dinghy. So no, I can't kill her. That doesn't mean I can't find some plucky Blackskirt to do it for me.”
He shoved the sword back to her hands and turned, moving quickly through the undergrowth. Moira cursed and pushed the sword under her skirt, tugging the hilt under her waistband. It was a weapon, better than nothing, and she didn't want to drop it. Moira followed after his trail. He had stopped to lean on a pine tree that grew in tilted angle from the hillside. Moira pushed to his side to see what he looked at. There were soldiers gathered at the other side of the camp, toward the trail that lead up to the ridge. Moira didn't know why, but it looked like they were about to march into the forest. Shaw didn't look worried about that.
“She's not an alpha yet,” Moira hissed. “She shouldn't be able to use that trick on you.”
“And I'm not omega yet, but that didn't stop me from having a great time at three different whorehouses before your brother came to spoil the fun,” he said, leaning his back to the tree trunk. “If I remember your ludicrous religion right, you have sworn to aid omega's that ask for help. All welcomed to Adit's arms, some drivel like that. Well, here I am, omega in need. Go kill that bitch.”
“We swear to help those who truly seek Adit's grace. You just want to save your own ass.”
“What can I say, I'm attached to it. Come on, time to move.”
He dashed on, and Moira followed him, cursing her skirt that kept getting underfoot, tripping her up. She was used to hard labor, but running fast and low in uneven ground started to burn in her legs and lungs. Shaw stopped near a few birch trees, the hillside turning steeper. Moira ran next to him, holding on to the narrow trunk, trying not to slip. Shaw looked completely carefree, which considering Emma's words was a strange attitude. Moira frowned.
“I can't kill her,” Moira said. “I have my orders. The Archbishop wants her alive. I need to get out of here and alert reinforcements!”
“If I was you, I would start thinking what are your changes to make it if you don't kill her.” He turned to look at her. “Time to hold on!”
“Good luck!” He grabbed her shoulder and before Moira realized what happened, he shoved her hard, throwing her out of balance. Her hold slipped from the tree trunk, and she fell down the muddy, rocky hill toward the tents.
Erik was sure Charles wouldn't stay put, he knew it. He wanted to turn around and go back to him, protect him from whatever plan he had for getting to Moira. He didn't turn, because he also knew that Charles was smart, skilled and he wouldn't do anything that put their child in danger. Erik decided to trust that knowledge, and focus in the task at hand.
Erik took a quick glance around his surroundings. The visibility wasn't much, the wind had pushed the gray clouds back, the thick cover of the pine trees straining what was left of the bleak daylight. Thankfully the Prioress' soldiers had stomped a clear trail in the soft ground. Predictable guards made everything so easy, Erik thought. He guessed that the Prioress had secured Shaw's officers, not his foot soldiers. It had been a while since the officers had done something as mundane as a guard shift. Skills tended to rust when you didn't use them.
His crew moved through the forest in a line, following loosely the trail toward the part where the ridge lowered, and the trail turned down toward the camp. Erik had made quick calculations, based on what the scouts had seen. It was likely they were outnumbered, but his squad specialized on guerrilla maneuvers. They knew how to fight fast and dirty. The fight could be over before the Prioress even knew it had started, if her crew wandered in the woods unprepared.
Erik moved in a steady pace with the line, keeping the trail in his sights, while moving deeper in the undergrowth. His second lieutenant was before him and he waved a stop sign, when a new signal came down the line. Four guards in sight, two and two.
Quiet, take out, he signaled back. He knew his crew thought the no-kill order was too soft approach, but it wasn't only for Charles' benefit. Less dead bodies meant there was less to clean when they were done, and with the rut moon not far away, it was better to keep the blood spill minimal. For everyone's sake.
He stopped to wait. The first of the line let the Prioress' soldiers walk past, so they could take them all out at once. They were talking, their boots thudding on the ground. One of them smoked, the smell of tobacco trailing around them. Erik could've spotted them coming a mile away. His second lieutenant signaled again, telling him that the front was ready.
Erik moved quick, like his weapons and armor weighted nothing. He slammed his hand under the soldier's jaw before he had time to make a sound, and squeezed hard, dragging him into the shrubs. His second lieutenant spotted him, helping to hold him down. The soldier was strong and he tried to fight them off, but he ran quickly out of air, his feet scuffing the dirt. Finally he lost consciousness and Erik tossed him around to his stomach, pressing his fingers into the pressure point in the neck. It would keep him out in the cold for a while. Erik used the man's own belt to tie his hands behind his back, while his second lieutenant took his weapons.
They kicked the bound soldier further in the woods. It was bit basic, and such binding wouldn't hold a grown alpha for long, but it didn't matter. All they needed was to take out the Prioress, and this situation would be resolved.
There were more sounds in the woods, loud thump when someone got their face smacked against the tree trunk. There was no signals for help, so it must've been another Prioress' soldier. Erik returned to his spot in the line, his second lieutenant doing the same. He moved forward and Erik followed him, watching if there was more coming. His second lieutenant stopped, sergeant before him turning to report from the scouts. Erik walked to them.
“We've taken out four, and the scouts took out another two that came snooping near the river. They also found few stiffs left at the bank, maybe from last night. Other than that, the place looks quiet. We could go take a quick look, sir?”
Erik counted. The woman couldn't have much more than fifteen soldiers in the valley. There simply wasn't space for more. Unless she had split her troops in two and had another unit camped by the river bank. That's what Erik would've done, but he knew his crew was loyal to him, he could trust them to have his back. The Prioress didn't have that luxury. She left her soldiers on their own, and in an hour she got someone trying to usurp her. She would've kept all the soldiers right where she could see and control them. Eight down, that meant maybe seven, or more, still somewhere. He had seven soldiers with him. Not ideal.
“Any chance we can get down there without being seen?”
“There's a spot ahead with some cover, enough for few of us to slip down, sir. I don't know if we can get back up the same way if it turns ugly.”
Erik thought about it. If it would turn ugly, Moira would be the first one in danger, and as much as he trusted his crew, this was a family matter. He had to get down there.
“Few with me, rest will watch our back, I don't want any surprises from up here when we're down there,” Erik said. “And send someone to check on my mate. Don't let him go down the hill, but if he thinks he can draw Moira to us, let him try it.”
“Alright. Let's go.”
Charles stood still, feeling Erik as a bright sensation as he moved through the forest like it was no obstacle to him. His mind felt focused, his soldiers' minds dim shapes around him. Charles let go and pulled back to himself, listening what was around him. Alex and Raven were the loudest, one at his right and one at his left, their minds alert and clear as they watched their surroundings. Charles turned the sound of their minds low and tried to listen past them. He turned around, slowly.
There was a mind somewhere left and down, moving toward them. It was too far to pinpoint exactly, but it was a start. It could be Emma's soldier, and capturing one could tell him a lot. Where Moira might be kept, what had happened to her. He had to get closer to the ridge to get a better reading, but he had promised to stay here. Then again, the ridge was part of the forest, so really, a walk there and back wasn't technically breaking his promise.
”Right. Come along,” Charles said, making up his mind. He turned to right, walking toward the part of the ridge where the trees thinned. It was a good spot to look down to the campsite, feel out that lone mind, and see if there was any sign of Moira.
The two soldiers hurried after him, the dead leaves muting their steps. Charles kept going without looking back. He didn't walk that fast that they couldn't keep up with him.
”Sir, we have to stay here,” the corporal, Alex, said, jogging to his side. He wasn't exactly stopping him yet, but Charles got the sense that he was about to stand in his way.
”You heard what your mate ordered, sir,” Raven added behind him, sounding disapproving.
”He's not my mate yet. I took his words as a suggestion, not an order.” He pointed at the spot near the ridge where two birch trees had fallen down, creating a triangle that hung over the ridge. “That's where I'm going. Someone is down there, and I want to know who it is.”
”No, that's too far,” Raven said, moving next to Alex and blocking the way. ”I'm in charge of your safety. I can't let you go there, sir.”
Charles sighed. They stood side by side, both with a stubborn look. ”Do you know about the gift I have? Erik has told you?”
They nodded, nervous.
”I know you don't want to sit here and do nothing, and neither do I,” Charles said. “And you know I can make you come with me, whether you want or not. Arguing is a waste of time. We'll go this way.”
They looked uncertain, but Charles didn't give them a chance to say anything. He pushed past them and continued his way toward the fallen birch trees. The mind started to move, going further down toward the camp. Charles picked up the pace. He had to catch that person.
”Sir, this side is easier to get through,” Alex said and hurried before him, pushing the vegetation down to make a clear trail. Raven came to his side, adjusting her stride to his. Her hand hovered near his elbow before she pulled her hand back, realizing she shouldn't touch him without permission.
”May I ask what your plan is, sir?” she asked.
”I'm not sure yet, I have to get closer. There's someone down there who thinks hard about something, but I can't tell what, or who it is. There's violence there. It might be one of Shaw's men.”
”That would be a neat solution, if her own crew gave Sister Moira to us,” Raven said quietly. “Let's stop here, sir, and Summers can go take a closer look first.”
Alex nodded and continued on his own. Charles stopped next to a large pine tree and he leaned his back against the bark, catching his breath. All this walking with constant strain to listen ahead got to him. He should've practiced more. Pollywog decided to give a nasty kick, and he grunted, pressing his hand on his side.
“Everything alright, sir? Would you like a sip of water?” Raven asked, She looked calm, even though her mind waved between worry for him, and worry what Erik would do to her if something happened.
Charles smiled. He liked her. “I'm fine, thank you.”
Alex had reached the trees and waved at them to keep quiet. He crouched down, crawling on his stomach to look over the ridge. Charles focused to listen, following Alex's lead on the direction. The person was in the hillside, about halfway up. Charles reached out carefully to touch their mind. It was odd, squirming sort of thing, and he got a flurry of ideas about Emma before his hold slipped.
It had to be Shaw. No one else had such compulsive need to think about her. Charles got the idea that he was ready to bolt at any second.
Charles reached to grab Raven's arm, and she looked at him surprised. Charles mouthed 'Shaw' to her. She frowned, turning to wave at Alex and mouthed the same to him. He waved his hand in reply, showing he couldn't deny or confirm that. From his vantage point, he probably didn't see his face.
“He's about to run,” Charles whispered to her. ”I'll try to lure him here. Be ready.”
Raven nodded and pulled free, moving quietly to Alex's side, taking a quick glance down the ridge. Charles followed her, staying back and out of the way, but getting bit closer so he could work. Raven turned to point to the right, to a dip in the ridge. It was a good spot to ambush him.
Charles nodded and focused on Shaw, reaching out to touch his mind. He crouched behind the cover of few shrubs, he didn't like the spot, and he tried hard to think a way out of there. Charles nudged his mind, slipping him the idea that there was a safe spot up in the tree line, trying to weave it seamlessly in the stream of his thoughts. It took a few tries, but finally Shaw caught on and after a moment of consideration, started to climb up toward them. Charles let go of his mind, waving at Raven and Alex to get ready.
It was easy to hear his progress on the unsteady terrain, small rocks getting loose and rattling down. They waited, listening. He climbed slowly, finding the easiest route, stopping at times to rest. Charles didn't want to interfere too much, but he occasionally nudged him to get him moving. He wasn't sure what Shaw would do. His mind felt more fluid than Emma's, but it also had the same disjointed, cracked feel as hers. The change hadn't been kind to him either.
The moment Shaw appeared over the edge, Raven and Alex grabbed him, stopping him from sliding back down and escaping. He yelped in surprise, kicking to get free of their hold. They ignored his struggles, dragging him over the edge, toward the trees. When Raven deemed it was far enough, she nodded and they plopped him on his back like a sack of flour. Alex pressed his hand over his mouth to shut him up and pressed his knee against his chest to pin him to the ground. Raven straightened, pulling her sword.
”I say we kill him and be done with it,” Raven said. “It will knock the wind out of that woman once and for all.”
“Or she will lose the little sense she has left, ma'am,” Alex said. “Rut moon is coming. She starts killing, she won't stop. This is not a good day to go off to the deep end.”
They both turned to look at him, waiting his decision.
Charles hesitated. Raven had a point, but so did Alex. It was impossible to know what would happen if Shaw died. There was also the fact that Shaw was an omega, or to close it anyway, and Charles felt partly responsible. He had given Emma the idea in the stone, to take Shaw, and now he had to own up to his actions. If that wasn't enough, he had taken a vow to Adit, and it was a great offense to Her to willingly injure another omega, no matter what the tactical advantage was. He didn't think Raven cared for the theological side of this, but he had to consider everything.
”We can't kill him,” he finally said. “I understand it makes sense, but I can't allow you to do it. Too unpredictable.”
Shaw closed his eyes in relief and Alex scoffed. Raven shook her head, but she didn't argue his decision.
“What should we do with him then?” she asked.
Shaw squirmed again, kicking the ground, trying to punch Alex's leg. Alex made a disgusted sound, but didn't let go.
”We'll hold on to him for now. First, I want to find Moira,” Charles said. “He knows something about that. Let him speak.”
Alex lifted his hand from his mouth, but didn't shift his weight on him so he couldn't get up. Shaw stared at them all, then relaxed, like it had been his plan all along to lay on the soggy ground.
”Call this dog off and I'll take you right to that Blackskirt, if that's what you want,” Shaw said. “Brother Charles, wasn't it? You've got Emma all up in knots you know. Literally.”
Alex slapped him, hard. ”Shut it! You don't speak to him like that!”
Shaw sputtered, spitting blood from the split lip. He smirked.
”Why not? He should thank me in his hands and knees, you know. I'm the one who arranged that strapping alpha to him, didn't I? Without me, they might have never met. He owes me.”
”You are still breathing, aren't you?” Raven said. ”Now shut up before I change that.”
“You aimed to slit my throat at the sacred stone,“ Charles said. “I don't owe you anything. You'll lead us to Moira, whether you want or not. Hold him still.” Charles knelt awkwardly next to him, Raven holding his elbow for support. He reached to touch Shaw's forehead. ”Let's see what's in your head, shall we?”
Shaw bucked, trying to get away, to avoid his touch. Raven crouched next to him to help pin his legs down, so he wouldn't kick him.
Charles didn't bother doing it slow, he simply pulled the things he needed out of his head, like picking seeds from a glass jar. Shaw froze, his eyes wide with pain and shock, but Charles ignored it, digging deeper, pushing aside the thoughts that didn't interest him. He found Moira, and then Emma, and Moira again, all thrown into one messy idea.
”Interesting. You gave Moira a sword to kill Emma, but deep down you hope Emma would kill her. Well, that's understandable. No one likes competition in front of their own,” Charles said. ”Either way, a good tactic. If Moira dies, Erik will surely avenge it, and kill Emma for you anyway. It's a win-win. You can choose another alpha then, if there's anything left of you after Emma's death.”
”Let me go,” Shaw hissed, his voice strangled.
”Now, be a good boy and show me where Emma is. I know you can feel her, just think about her. That's it, go on.”
”Shh, shh.” Charles shushed, smoothing away his anger. He watched and moved inside his mind, and realized that Shaw could feel Emma the same way he could feel Erik, a bright sensation among the dimness of others. Shaw had a connection to her, a strong, painful connection. That much was clear.
“Emma's at the north end of the camp. I'm ready to bet that Moira is there too. He pushed her right to her on purpose,” Charles said and took Raven's arm again, letting her help him back on his feet. He sighed, feeling exhausted. Shaw's mind was a nasty swarm of things, it wasn't something he wanted to touch again. “I can't help her from here. We have to go down to the camp.”
“Absolutely not. Sire sees you there, it's my head on a spike,” Raven said. “I'm in charge of your safety, and I say you don't go down there.”
Charles sighed. “Really? This discussion again?”
“I'm afraid so.” Raven folded her arms. “We'll stay here.”
Charles smiled. “No, we won't.”
The fall wasn't long, but it felt like she managed to hit every single rock on her way down. The hilt of the sword banged on her ribs, the same spot that had already bruised earlier and she cried out in pain. Moira landed elbow first, the pain shooting up along her arm. She laid there, head spinning, dirt in her mouth. She spat, struggling to get up, the scabbard poking her in the leg. She cursed Shaw in the lowest hell. He was nowhere to be seen, the hillside empty as he had never been there.
The soldier was on her before she realized he was there. She was a tall, dark-haired woman, her grip like iron around her elbow.
”There you are dolly,” the soldier said, yanking her on her feet. ”Found her!”
Another soldier jogged to her behind the tents, the same one that had stood guard at the tent door. “How the hell did she cut the seam?”
“Didn't ask her. You ask.” The soldier pushed her toward the other man who grabbed her arm, shaking her. Moira slumped down, pretending that the fall had knocked her dizzy.
“Let the lady ask, she liked beating this one. It might make her forget that we haven't found her mate yet.”
The soldier held her arm and dragged her on, the same way he had done in the morning. Moira went along with it, playing beaten, holding her arm stiffly to her side like she had injured it. The leather scabbard rubbed her bruised side, the cold metal of the hilt burning on her skin. Feel of it gave her strength. She only needed one chance. If she failed to take out Emma, she would at least go down fighting.
The soldier's took her past Emma's tent, toward the center of the camp. Emma stood there, giving orders to a young soldier, who nodded and turned, running toward the river.
”We found her, ma'am. Here she is.”
Emma turned, her hands on her hips. ”What were you thinking running like that? Now you've really upset me. Do you figure that will end well for you?”
Moira kept her eyes turned down this time. She didn't want her to grab her and find the sword. The bustle of the camp had changed. She could hear the horses neighing, the wind banging the tents. It was too quiet. What had she done with her troops?
”Did you find Shaw?” Emma asked from the soldier.
”No ma'am. We're still looking.”
Emma grabbed her jaw, forcing her head up to stare into her eyes, digging her fingers in the bruises in her cheek. It hurt and Moira tried not to scream, blinking to keep back the tears.
”I can smell him on you. Where is he? What did you do to him?”
Emma shook her, the pain crawling on her neck and face. ”Tell me, or I'll carve your eyes out!”
Moira didn't doubt her. The sword weighted on her side, she couldn't hold it for long. She had to use it, or let the sword drop to the ground. She kicked Emma to get her back off, to get some room to move, and pulled the sword.
Erik slid down the steep hill, as quiet as possible. In the bottom was a good spot, plenty of tall shrubs, a few scrawny trees and rocks for cover. He stopped to wait, his second lieutenant sliding next to him. It was clear at first glance that the camp was set up like a damn tea party. The tents pitched where the ground was even, how it was the most comfortable. The doors faced different directions, the tent corners pushing together. One good fire would level this place. His second lieutenant scoffed, noticing the same.
“Easy to move around,” Erik muttered. This worked for their benefit. He heard the quiet clatter and thumping behind him as two of his soldiers came over the ridge. He signaled for one to circle the camp from the left side, the other to the right. “You, with me.” His second lieutenant nodded and followed after him.
The camp was quiet, but he didn't want to assume it meant there was no soldiers around. He moved carefully, his second lieutenant at his heels. It wasn't hard to spot the Prioress. She was loud, for one, shouting something in the middle of the camp. It was the only sign of people he could hear and they moved from tent to tent to get closer. Erik stopped and glanced around the corner to see what the woman was doing.
The Prioress stood there with two of her guards, her back to him. She shook Moira like a dog shaking a rat. Erik pushed his anger aside and marked calmly how the guards were positioned behind Moira, how she held her arm pressed to her side, her face swollen with a nasty bruise. The guards stared at her with hungry looks, their attention focused on her more than anything else, swords still in sheaths. Their mistake. He pulled back behind the tent and his second lieutenant went past him to take a quick glance as well.
“We could take her now,” Erik noted.
“Four tents behind them, don't know what's in there. She's still on her feet, sir.”
It was a fair point. It was smarter to wait that his crew had time to check the camp, find out if there was more soldiers. He just didn't know how stable the situation was, or what the hell went on in the Prioress mind. Charles would have been a great help right this moment. There was a commotion, and Erik took another look.
“Tell me, or I carve your eyes out!” the woman shouted at Moira, shoving her. Moira stared back at her with a look Erik recognized. This wouldn't end well.
“Shit,” Erik muttered, waving at the second lieutenant to get ready.
Moira kicked her and Erik realized why she had stood like that. She had a sword under her arm. She didn't try to pull the blade, instead she held the scabbard like a bat and swung it, hard. The hit landed squarely on the Prioress' shoulder. She let out a surprised cry and stumbled back. Erik heard the hiss of metal when the soldiers drew their swords and he was already moving, running around the tent and closing the distance to where they stood. She felt helplessly far, the guards could cut her down in split second. He would never reach her in time. He ran faster.
The Prioress straightened up, holding her arm and screaming insults at her, at her guards. Moira turned to face the guards, pulling the sword with a quick draw. The guards smirked, closing in. Moira backed to get more room, her head tilted, the bashed side of her face hindering her view. Erik didn't know if she had realized he was there. He kept running, aiming for the guards.
Erik didn't bother with a fair fight, he crashed on them fast and hard. He smashed the hilt of his sword against the first guards face and he dropped to his knees in the mud. The second one managed to lift her sword, but Erik was already too close, sliding under her guard and slamming his shoulder against her chest, knocking her down. She fell with a heavy thud, and Erik finished her with a calculated kick in the head that knocked her unconscious.
He turned, ready for the Prioress' attack, but there was no need. The woman tried to hit Moira and missed. Moira punched her with the sword hilt, and she fell down like a sack of sand.
His second lieutenant reached them, pressing his sword against the guards throat, to discourage any sudden bouts of bravery. The man was too busy pressing his bleeding nose to try anything. Erik turned around, waiting for the next attack. The noise should've been enough to draw out the Prioress' troops, if there was any in the camp. A fight broke out at the west edge, then another. Erik turned to whistle sharply, and there was a quick reply from the woods, three more of his crew sliding down the ridge.
Erik didn't want to leave Moira, even if the Prioress didn't look like she would get up any time soon. He wasn't about to repeat his mistake and let her surprise him again. More importantly, he had no idea what had happened to Shaw. He didn't want that bastard sneaking up on him.
“Take two through the middle, and two to the left,” Erik said to his second lieutenant, who nodded in reply and ran to meet the soldiers.
The guard on the ground tried to get up and Erik turned to him, pressing his sword against his neck. “Don't. Weapons. Take them off and throw them over there.”
The man moved carefully, first tossing his sword on the ground, followed by two daggers. Erik nodded toward the woman. “Hers too.” He reached to pull her sword and tossed it on top of the pile. “Good. Press that nose, you're making a mess.”
The guard sat on the ground, hand over his face, staring at the woman. Erik ignored him, knowing a beaten alpha when he saw one. He turned to Moira, who stood over the Prioress, sword pressed against her chest, the look on her face telling that she was sorely tempted to press down the blade.
”In the name of the Archbishop and the Holy Church of Adit, I arrest you for the inquisition of your crimes,” Moira said, and kicked the Prioress, hard. ”And that's a thank you for the hospitality.”
“Good work,” Erik said. For a second they just stood there, trying to catch their breath. Erik noticed she favored one side, her stance stiff. She wiped her hands to her skirt, stifling a wince. Erik went to her and reached to give her a careful hug. “Are you alright? That kick looked personal.”
“Black eye, few bruises, nothing to worry about,” Moira said, squeezing him in return. “You don't know how happy I'm to see you, but how? How did you know?”
“Your little apprentice told where to find you.”
“Sean? He's alright?” Moira asked. “I thought he was...” She was close to tears, and he patted her back gently.
“He's fine, he's safe. Mrs. Farraday took good care of him.”
“Thank you,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Your timing was perfect.”
“I knew you had everything under control,” Erik said and smirked. “I figured to give you bit backup, that's all. If you truly want to thank me, you could let me kill that woman. Charles asked for her head, and I want to make a good impression.”
“What do you mean?”
“He wants her head, and I want to give it to him,” Erik repeated. “Charles haven't seen me fight once. I don't want him to think that I can't even kill one of his enemies when he asks. That's not how you charm a mate, you know.”
Moira shook her head, taking a step back. “Good grief. I should smack you, so help me Adit. I don't believe that Brother Charles would ask you to do that.”
“Don't take my word for it, you can ask him yourself.”
“He's here? You let him come along, in his state? What's the matter with you?”
“This is as much his matter as yours and mine,” Erik said. “He was sure he could handle it.”
The sound of fighting quieted, and there was a loud laughter, whooping. Erik whistled sharply and there was quick replies. He whistled again, with a low sound, rising at the end and there was new round of replies, some from the woods as well, the scouts moving to secure the soldier's bound in the forest.
“We have the rest of this useless lot, my crew will gather them here. Do you know what happened to Shaw? Is he dead?”
“I don't know. He cut me free, gave me the sword and then skittered to the bushes,” Moira said. “He must be halfway to the nearest town by now. Damn shame, I needed his testimony.”
His second lieutenant jogged back, smirking widely. “Sire, your mate came down to the camp. He has a prisoner.”
“What?” Erik turned to look where he pointed. Charles walked in front of the little group, Raven behind him, holding Shaw in a firm grip. Summers was last, his sword in sheath. Erik muttered a curse.
“He got Shaw,” Moira said, proud, and then she realized something and punched him in the shoulder. “You put an armor on him! Have you lost your mind?”
“It suits him,” Erik said. “And its a coat, not an armor.”
“He's not supposed to wear any of it,” Moira said. “I hope you didn't give him a sword too, because I will kick your behind so hard that you'll walk funny for a week.”
“You have a sword in your hand!”
“We're different and you know it,” Moira said.
“Calm down, he didn't want one,” Erik said, ignoring her angry look. “Lieutenant, take care of these prisoners, I'll be right back.”
It wasn't an easy walk down the ridge to the campsite. They followed the ridge toward the river and Raven found the spot where it was safest to walk down, with some cover. The hill wasn't the steep, but the ground was littered with loose rocks and slippery mulch, and Charles tried to be careful with his footing. He didn't want to fall. He spotted the fighting between the tents, the sound of metal against metal. Shaw's mind beamed in delight when he heard the same. Violence excited him, his mind striping in red blood lust. Charles didn't want to listen, but he couldn't shore up his mental shields without losing the sense of what was ahead of them. The minds in the camp fumed with aggression, it was hard to make sense all of it.
There was few birch trees at the bottom and Charles stopped there, leaning against the silken bark to rest for a minute. The shouts got louder, the fight moving closer.
“It's better not to go through the fighting, let's wait it out,” Raven said, stopping behind him. “By the look of it, it won't take long.”
“What? No, let's go kill someone!” Shaw said, trying to push past him. “That guy there! He's fucking annoying, let's do him!”
Raven growled and grabbed Shaw's arm, yanking him back. “Goddammit Summers! Would you watch him?”
The fight fluctuated back and forth, but it was clear that Erik's crew had the upper hand. Emma's soldiers tried, but there was no cohesion, everyone stuck in their own spot, fighting alone, when Erik's crew fought seamlessly, their skill and practice showing. To Charles the fight looked fast and efficient.
“I'm going to kick their ass, if they don't stop playing around,” Raven muttered. “They could've finish them already!”
“Damn jokers, ma'am,” Alex agreed, holding Shaw back. He tried furiously to squirm free from his hold, something about the situation tickling his broken mind. “Stop it, would you? Or I'll smack you again.”
Shaw scoffed and sat down on a rock with a huff, folding his arms. “I bought those swords, and those stupid sons of bitches don't even know how to use them! I hope you kill them all.”
Raven kept watching the fight. Charles couldn't tell the difference, the soldier's minds stayed poignantly hostile but something must've changed, because she patted his arm and nodded.
“Alright, let's go.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said, helping Alex to pull Shaw up his feet. “When the slapping starts, the actual fight is over. Good rule of thumb.”
“How interesting rule,” Charles said. “I had no idea.”
“You will hear a lot of other interesting things when Sire will rip me a new...Never mind.”
“Asshole,” Shaw offered helpfully.
“Shut it,” Alex said.
“Don't worry, I'll take care of Erik.” Charles said. He didn't think Erik would be thrilled that he hadn't followed his orders, but he didn't think he would be terribly mad either.
“With that belly? He must be really horny to give you a poke,” Shaw laughed. “Though some like that.”
Raven and Alex were both about to smack him silent, but Charles waved them not to, and turned to him. “You are starting to annoy me. Please don't. It won't end well for you.”
Shaw smirked. “Don't bother. I know your precious Adit demands all kinds of vows of nonviolence and protecting others, some weird nonsense like that. You won't hurt me.”
“Well I haven't taken any vows, and I don't care for your help, so shut up if you know what's good for you,” Raven said. She stared at Shaw until he turned his eyes down with annoyed sigh.
“Sir, can you find Sister Moira from here or should we move closer?” Alex asked.
Charles focused to listen, picking up threads of thoughts, and he found Erik and Moira among them, side by side. They were somewhere in the middle of the camp. “That way,” he said, pointing behind a large tent that might have been the mess tent.
“I'll go first. Can't be too careful, some of these idiots might not realize they had lost,” Raven said and moved in front of him, pulling her sword. “Summers, you got the rear.”
The site was spacious, but the large tents were crammed together tightly. The ground had turned to mud under people's feet, there was an open fire pit slapdash next to a tent. Charles looked back the way they had came. The side they had walked down looked much steeper from here. He hoped Erik had this in control, he didn't know if he could climb back up to the forest.
One of Erik's lieutenant's jogged around the corner toward them. Charles didn't remember if he had heard his name, but he was a sturdy, calm man, his mind settled in pragmatic, focused way. He bowed at him before turning to Raven.
“Why are you down here?” he asked, feeling more amused than worried. “I sent Perkins to look for you up at the treeline. Didn't she find you?”
“No, I haven't seen anyone,” Raven said. “What happened? Did you find Sister Moira?”
“Yes, the lady is fine.” He turned to stare at Shaw. “And this one?”
“Shaw is my prisoner,” Charles said, trying to sound assured. “Where's Erik?”
He understood that Erik's crew didn't consider him part of the chain of command, and that was fine. He could feel that they didn't think badly of him, they were mostly curious. Still, he had taken Shaw prisoner and he was responsible for him. He didn't want them to decide what to do with Shaw without him.
“Yes sir,” the lieutenant said, glancing at Raven, feeling amused. “Your husband here, I'll go get him for you.”
“My...” Charles stopped himself, hiding his surprise. “Thank you.” He didn't know why Erik would claim such a thing, but he must have his reasons.
Charles walked where the lieutenant had pointed, Raven pulling Shaw after him.
Moira watched Charles at the distance, talking to Erik, the way the gravitated toward each other. Charles looked happy, healthier, and even if the armor coat didn't suit him at all, he looked stronger than back in the Monastery. Maybe Erik had finally done the sensible thing and talked with him last night. She wanted to go greet Charles as well, but Shaw stood there, and she was sure that one word from him right now would make her snap. Besides, she had work to do.
Erik's second lieutenant pulled the guard with a broken nose to his feet, before rolling the unconscious woman on her back, slapping her to wake her up. She twitched and groaned in his hold.
“There we go! I'll take these out of your way, ma'am.” The lieutenant grabbed the woman and pulled her on her feet, forcing her to walk where Emma's soldiers had been gathered into a little group. Erik's crew joked and laughed, shoving them around as they stripped them from their weapons, throwing the swords and daggers into a large pile on the side.
Moira nodded and crouched down to check on Emma. She was out in the cold. No blood, and her breathing sounded about right. She wouldn't die on this. Moira would've rather hold a living snake than touch her skin, but she was her prisoner now, and she wanted to make she wouldn't cause any problems. She pressed her fingers in Emma's neck. She hadn't studied pressure points as much as Erik, but she knew enough incapacitate someone for a good while. Basic training. Emma's eyes fluttered open and shut, her breathing turning deeper.
One of Erik's crew came to her side. She was a dark-haired woman, with a green coat and light, crafted armor. She waited politely a few steps back, until Moira looked at her. She bowed, showing respect to either her stature as Erik's sister, or to her black skirt.
”Ma'am? I brought soldiers from the woods, and Lieutenant told me to come here to help you. What do you need?”
”What's your name?” Moira asked, straightening up.
“Tie her up, and put her on a back of a horse,” she said and the soldier nodded. “Let's try to keep her alive?”
Moira walked back to the tent where Emma had beat her. She pushed the door flap aside, letting the daylight inside. The cut seam banged in the wind, the dead leaves piled up on the ground. The coal pan had gone cold, and it still reeked here. Moira walked around the tent, looking for Emma's bag. She found it under the narrow cot. She dropped it on the cot, rummaging through it. She wished she had some gloves, it was unpleasant to touch her things with bare hands. The bag had nothing but clothes.
Moira wondered what Emma had done with the rest of her things. Papers, personal items, things she had kept under lock and key in her office. She might've burned everything, but Moira doubted that. Emma wasn't the type to leave the Monastery empty-handed, and she had watched her every move. If she had shipped her things out of the Monastery, Moira was sure she would've heard about it. She heard Erik's voice from the outside, demanding the alpha's attention. She walked through the tent one more time, but there was nothing useful there. She went back outside, looking for Perkins.
Chapter 9: The Rut Moon
In the end, Charles takes control of his future.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Erik walked to meet Charles in the middle of the camp. He looked worried, like he expected a scolding. Erik wanted to pull him in his arms, assure himself that Charles was unharmed, but instead he stared at Raven. She bowed her head.
“I gave you an order.”
She said nothing. Which was smart, since she didn't have an excuse. She should've known better. Erik couldn't be mad at her, because he had expected something like this. He knew Charles could bend anyone to his will.
“It was my decision,” Charles interjected, pushing past Raven. “I said we need to catch him, and they did what I asked.”
His crew rounded up the Prioress' soldiers, pushing them past them and Erik saw the smirks and the appreciative glances toward Charles. He could guess what they were thinking. Everyone knew omegas could hold their own, but it wasn't everyday you saw one pulling something like this over trained alphas. Raven would not hear the end of this.
“Very well. He's your prisoner,” Erik said. He was proud that Charles had caught him, and Moira would be thrilled, but he tried hard not to think what kind of danger he had put himself.
“The little monk got you whipped fast, king. If I had known that, I would've thrown him at you sooner,” Shaw sniggered behind Charles' back. “No bodies? You didn't kill anyone! That's embarrassing, sure sign of a worthless mate! You should think again, Brother Charles. Get rid of the baby, snare a better mate and...”
Charles turned and stared at him. Erik didn't know what happened but Shaw started to shake in Raven's hold, screaming like Charles had poured hot lead to his ear. He didn't stop until Shaw's knees gave out. Raven let go of his arm and he slumped down to the mud.
Charles blinked and smiled at him.“I warned you. In the future, don't comment my child, or my mate, or any other part of my life. Thank you.”
Shaw nodded, staring down to the ground like he was afraid to look him in the eyes again. Erik didn't know if he was more proud or frightened about what Charles could do. It was some power, and he didn't know if it had any limits.
He turned to Summers. “There are horses at the edge of the camp, fetch a few. Calm ones. Tie this one up and put him on a horse. Prioress too. She's few tents that way. Moira's there with her.”
“Yes, sir!” Summers pulled Shaw up, and pushed him to walk toward the tents. He didn't put up a fight, he hardly seemed to know where he was anymore. Erik nodded to Raven, indicating she should go with him. She strode after Summers.
“How's Sister Moira?” Charles asked.
“She got into a scuffle, but she's alright,” Erik said, reaching to rest his hand against his neck, pulling him closer. “Everything is fine.”
Charles smiled, cautious. “You are angry.”
“Worried, mostly. It's getting dark, and I would feel better if you and Moira were headed back to the house. First, we have to deal with this lot.”
“You took the lead, you can see this through,” Erik said. “What do you want to do? These soldiers are our prisoners now. I wouldn't care to hold on to them, but you would get good money in ransoms.”
“I think most of them were following Emma because they were afraid of her,” Charles said, looking around him. “I don't get the sense of true allegiance or loyalty. Can we let them go?”
“Yes, if you wish.” It was a lenient approach, but short of killing the soldiers, it was the easiest solution. This many prisoners would be more trouble than they were worth and in all honesty, Erik wanted to get rid of this lot as fast as he could. “In turn, please don't ignore my orders in a situation like this again, promise me. Your safety is my responsibility.”
“I was in no danger. You should trust your own crew more,” he said. “You can't anticipate every danger, you have to learn to trust my judgment. I know what I can and can't do.”
“Amuse me then,” Erik said. “For the rest of the night, at least.”
“I won't ignore your orders tonight,” he said and kissed him quick, like he was unsure if he was allowed to do that.
Erik smiled. “Thank you. Now, let's get rid of this lot.”
His crew had dragged the soldiers from the woods down to the valley, so all in all there was thirteen of them, some still wearing Shaw's color, others with a blue stripe on their sleeve. It was clear there was no cohesion within this group. They were about as ready to attack each other as fight Erik's crew. The ones with the Prioress' colors looked the worst, all bleeding, some more than others. They were the ones who had put up an actual fight, when Shaw's generals had lacked their stamina. They looked dirty and ruffled, but mostly unharmed.
His crew pushed the soldiers to him, tossing their weapons to the ground. Some of the weaponry looked decent, some decorated useless. His crew looked cheery, like the scuffle had been the thing they had needed. Erik noted there was no serious injuries, only minor scrapes.
”Your leader was beaten. All omegas here are under my protection,” Erik said loudly, to get their attention. “Anyone want to challenge me for that right?”
Erik looked around, reading the crowd. He half-hoped that someone would be dumb enough to step up, he could burn some energy. Charles might like to see him fight in proper manner. The group was silent, staring down with sullen looks, avoiding his eyes. There was no fight here, Erik could see it from their postures.
“No? Then take your sorry assess and start walking.”
They looked up, surprised. They glanced around like they expected knives in their backs at any second.
“Walking, my lord?” one of the generals asked, a blue stripe in her sleeve.
“Your horses and weapons buy you a walk to the main road,” Erik said. “Get a move on, you might get there before the nightfall. I spot you in the forest when the moon rises, it's an open season on you.”
They turned, some quicker than others, and headed toward the river.
“Go escort them the first mile,” Erik said to his second lieutenant. “No need to be polite.”
Charles stood at Erik's side as he controlled the group of soldiers with ease, his presence pulling everyone's attention. He kept his back straight and expression neutral, feeling Erik's crew watching him. Emma's soldiers stared at the ground, silent. It looked like they surrendered, but their minds were much more aggressive than their expressions. They didn't want to give up their gear, it meant giving up a small fortune. They knew that the Church would come after them eventually, for what had happened to Moira's knights.
Charles knew that some of them were on the verge to start the fight again. He nudged their minds, squashing that incentive. Not because he feared that Erik couldn't handle this, but because he was tired, and he didn't think he could stomach anymore fighting.
The soldiers milled there for a moment, the mood changing. Charles watched the soldiers turn and start walking, slowly at first, until Erik's soldiers started smacking their backsides with their swords, driving them on like cattle. It got them moving, and they jogged toward the river, following the bank. The sound of their minds quieted gradually and the campsite felt suddenly eerie, the trees crowding around it.
“Everything alright?” Erik asked. “Do you need to sit down?”
He shook his head, fighting the impulse to lean against him and rest his head against his chest. “I'm fine. Those people weren't happy to give their gear, they were thinking... All kinds of things. It's getting quieter now.”
“Don't worry, it will soon occur to them that Shaw won't be coming back, that his estate is now wide open for some brisk alpha to claim. That should brighten their mood. They'll be murdering each other before they reach the road.”
“I think the Church will seize the lands,” Charles said. It wasn't his area of expertise, but he was sure the secretaries wouldn't waste the chance to do that once Shaw was in their custody. He didn't want to guess what else would happen to him, or Emma. They probably wouldn't even get a trial. For some reason that thought felt unsettling.
“It's a valid guess,” Erik said and leaned to peck a quick kiss to his cheek. “Now I want you and Moira go back to the house. No detours, no adventures. Please?”
“What about you?”
“I'll catch up with you. We'll clear this place first, make sure there's no trace left about of them being here. Or us, for that matter.”
“Leave no evidence?”
“These are not my lands. Someone finds this mess, and there's going to be inquiries. What happened, who was here. We don't needs questions like that.”
Charles looked at him closer. “You are worried. About me?”
“Trouble finds you easily, I don't want the civil law to find you too. Even if you belong to Church's jurisdiction, it doesn't guarantee they won't get to you.”
“You fear shadows,” Charles said. “I haven't broken any laws. No one is out to get me.”
“Unmarried omega, with a child, strange gift to read minds, alpha's attacked in the woods, abandoned camp, Prioress gone, Lord Shaw missing...Few dumb constables draw all the wrong conclusions, and you'll stand in trial for murder, or blasphemy, or I don't know, damn public indecency.” He looked at him, serious. “I'm not taking any risks. Moira will want to keep this in control too. We should help her, don't you think?”
Charles nodded. When he put it that way, it did sound suspicious. He didn't think anything like that would happen, he had spent last months isolated. No one knew about his gift, beside those directly involved, and Erik's crew. He doubt they would ever betray Erik's trust.
“I want you to go back to the house, and take Moira with you.” Erik whistled, and Alex jogged back to them. “Summers, you are in charge of this one. Try to do better this time, would you? Don't fold on the first threat omega throws at you, you'll never get a mate with that attitude.”
He nodded stiffly, blushing.
“Erik, please don't tease him,” Charles said. “He did well.”
“And he can always do better, isn't that right, Corporal Summers?”
Charles smiled. It sounded exactly the same what Sisters said to the novices when they did something silly. “You did well,” he repeated. Kind words never went to waste with the novices, he was sure the same applied to young alphas too.
Alex brightened up. “This way, sir.”
Erik reached to kiss Charles one more time. “I hold you to that promise. Straight to the house.”
Moira saw the soldiers driving Emma's soldiers out of the valley, toward the river. She didn't know what Erik had decided to do with them, but she saw Charles standing by his side, and he looked calm. That made her think they weren't going to kill them. Maybe Erik had decided to let them go. Interesting.
She walked back to Perkins. She had found some rope and she had tied Emma into a tight bundle, arms against her sides. She had managed to hoist her on the back of a horse, her head lolling down the horse's side. It looked secure now, but if she came to and struggled, she would fall.
“See if you could tie her in the saddle too,” Moira said. “Tight as you can.”
“Yes ma'am,” Perkins said. Shaw sat at her feet with a vacant look on his face. Moira glanced at Perkins who shrugged in reply. “Corporal Summers dropped him here like that, ma'am. He haven't said a word.”
“Check him for weapons, he has at least one knife.”
“Yes, ma'am. I'll fetch you a horse, if you care to wait here?”
Her side and arm ached, and a thought she should get on a horse made her wince. She tried her best to push the pain in the back of her mind. She looked around, and noticed that the rest of Erik's crew already went through the tents, starting to break the camp.
“First, could you go find out what they'll do with all the things here? Order them to save all papers they can find, items with a snake and dove emblem, personal belongings. If they don't listen to you, go straight to my brother.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Perkins hurried to the closest high-ranking officer, relating her message.
Moira turned. ”Brother Charles! I'm so glad to see you. How are you feeling?”
He walked to her and hugged her tight. It hurt but she didn't mind, hugging him back just as tight. The awful coat didn't make it any easier. Moira didn't understand what Erik had been thinking.
”I should be asking that from you,” Charles said, letting her go, looking at her closely. “That looks serious.”
Moira waved her hand, to say that the bruises meant nothing, and they shouldn't speak of it. ”My own fault. You warned me about her and I should've listened.”
“Erik said we should get going, it's a long ride to the house,” Charles said. “Alex here said he has horses ready.”
“I can't wait to get out of here, but I have to talk to Perkins before we leave,” Moira said. “You go ahead, I'll be right there.”
Charles nodded and went after Summers. Moira waited, walking to the side to see what happened in the camp. Erik's crew worked fast and efficient, and she hoped Perkins had managed to get the word through fast enough. She came behind a tent and walked to her.
“They'll gather all the personal property for you, ma'am. Apparently we'll take everything worth anything, and they planned to burn only the trash. There's enough horses to carry everything back to the house. It will be faster that way than shifting through it here,” Perkins said. “If that works for you, ma'am?”
“That's fine. Thank you, Perkins.”
“Of course ma'am. Do you need help with the horse?”
“No, I remember where they are kept.”
Moira walked back to where she had spent the night, to get a horse. Most of them were saddled, and the black mare looked friendly enough. Moira grabbed the reins and tried to pull herself up in the saddle. She raised her arms and her injured side flared up, the pain crawling around her back. She let go and leaned on the horse's side, patting its neck. It turned its head, trying to see what she was did. Moira patted its neck again, considering if she should call Perkins to help.
”Sister Moira. Would you let me help you?”
She turned. Raven stood close by, looking at her cautiously. ”Lieutenant,” Moira said. ”Thank you, but I would rather have you guard my prisoners.”
”I can do both. Ma'am.”
Moira scoffed. ”Ma'am? Have you decided to show me some respect? Do you feel quite alright, lieutenant?”
“I've always respected you, ma'am,” she said. “Whether you like to acknowledge it or not.”
“Oh, and I suppose you expect the same in return? You stole my best apprentice. You can't honestly expect me to appreciate that.”
”Irene didn't belong with your Church. I think you know that as well as I do,” she said, holding her hands for her to use as a step. “It was her choice.” When she put her foot there, she pushed her up, getting her in the saddle with practiced ease. “You should try respecting that. Ma'am.”
Moira bit her tongue not to say something she would regret. Raven had a point, though it still burned her to think about Irene. She had had such promise, and she had left so sudden, discarded everything to go with Raven. It wasn't something Moira could easily forget.
Raven seemed to have nothing else to say, since she turned to choose a horse from the lot, taking the reins. “We should get going. It's the rut moon, no need to dawdle. We'll follow the river for half a mile, then we'll turn to the woods. It's a detour, but there's a better trail, it's an easier ride. How are your injuries?”
Charles hugged Moira, and she felt distant, preoccupied. He could tell she was in pain, that she held herself together with nothing but strong will and stubbornness. Charles didn't want to push her with questions, so he nodded and went back to Alex, who held a horse ready for him. He helped him in the saddle, before going back to help with the prisoners. Charles waited for Raven, watching her discussion with Moira from his vantage point.
The discussion looked polite, but Raven was tense, and Moira was angry. He hadn't realized that they knew each other. Moira had never mentioned that, but she hadn't talked about her family or her past to him. For her to be his friend, Charles realized that he knew very little of Moira's life.
Raven walked her horse closer, checking that the prisoners were secured before turning to go over the bridle and the saddle.
“Everything fine?” Charles asked.
“Yes. We have a friend in common, that's all,” Raven said, tightening the cinch. “Sister Moira asked how she's doing these days.”
It was a lie, but Charles didn't pry. Rut moon, like everyone kept repeating. It wasn't a good time to bother her with something that upset her, and she had done enough, going against Erik' orders on his request. He didn't want to thank her by prodding some old wound.
When everyone was ready, Raven lead the little caravan out the valley and toward the river. Charles had a place after her, and Alex stayed back, holding the rear with Perkins who was in charge of the prisoners. The river bank was wide enough to ride side by side, and Moira rode next to him. Charles was glad for the company.
“What happens to them?” Charles asked, looking back where Alex talked with the other soldier, Emma thrown over one horse, Shaw on the other, his hands tied in front of him.
Charles was relieved that Emma was unconscious, that he didn't have to hear anything from her. The anger he had felt in the morning was gone, but it had been the first time he had felt such intense need to protect his family. He wanted a chance to observe it in peace before someone agitated it again.
”If they make it through the night, I'll take them to the Temple, to face the Tribunal. Emma is responsible for the death of Church knights, and she should be hanged for that alone,” Moira said. “The problem is that the damn woman smells like an alpha now, and the Tribunal has no jurisdiction over the alpha. Then there's that list you gave me.”
“Was it useful?”
“Yes, but it complicates things. There are some serious people in that list. We need to know a lot more about her connections to those names, before we can do anything,” Moira said, glancing back. “I don't want her getting out of this because we didn't investigate enough. I made that mistake once already.”
“Is it possible that she could walk away?” Charles asked.
“I don't think so, but I don't want to take any risks.”
”I don't know. That's up to the Tribunal. As an omega, I don't know if he has committed anything more than prostitution and stupidity. Still, he's Converted and officially they don't exist. There's too many variables to say for sure. They might let him live in exchange for his testimony against Emma.”
Charles knew something else bothered her, but it was hard to read any details even this close. Too much pain clouding her thoughts, and she was tired, hungry, and tense. Those things didn't make her think clearly either. That worried him. He didn't want her making decisions about the prisoners when she wasn't thinking straight. Charles wasn't sure if it was the rut moon, or if it was only him, but if Moira got the same impulse to protect her family as he had had, she could do anything. She decided that she wanted to lynch them, who would stop her? Sean didn't have the stature to talk sense to her, Erik would agree and Raven would bring her the rope.
That left him. He cared about Moira, and he decided that he would keep her from doing something that she would regret later.
“You don't have to worry about them, Brother Charles. I'll take care of it,” Moira said.
“I know. I trust you."
The trail through the woods was bumpy, and it didn't take long before Moira's side and arm ached again. She tried to keep the pain contained, aware that Charles might pick it up from her, but either she didn't do a good job, or the ride got to Charles too, because she heard him take few strained breaths.
Luckily Raven kept the pace as easy as she could, checking back often to ask how they fared, but the daylight started to run out on them, and Raven had no choice but force them all to pick up the pace for the last mile. When they reached the house, Moira was exhausted and in lot more pain than back in the camp.
Moira hadn't seen this place before, but it looked like a good choice for the night. The house was weather-worn but solid, smoke raising from the chimney. The yard stomped even, a clear walkway made from smooth stones that lead to the pond. There was a neat row of tents at the other end, the place quiet as Erik's crew wasn't here.
As she rode closer, she noticed a familiar face waiting at the steps that lead to the house.
”Mrs. Farraday! I'm so glad to see you,” she said when she came to greet her, taking a hold of the reins. ”You look well. Still patching up Erik's scrapes?”
”Someone has to look after this lot,” she said, reaching to help her down from the horse. ”Look at the state of you. We need to get you inside, I want to have a closer look of those injuries.”
Moira slid down, leaning against her arm. She remembered Mrs. Farraday. She had been on a mission near the border few years ago, and she had gotten a nasty cut on her leg. She had gone to Erik for a few days to rest, and Mrs. Farraday had patched her up so well that the cut had hardly left a scar. She looked just the same, calm and efficient.
”It's only bruises,” Moira said. ”I have to take care of those two first.”
”Lieutenant will see to them,” Mrs. Farraday said. ”Why don't we go inside, I have warm dinner ready at the house, and a soft bed, all set out for you.”
Moira shook her head, watching Raven first help Charles down, then taking the prisoners down from the horse and dropping them on the ground as simply as tossing luggage. The young Corporal came to help, taking a hold of Emma's arm. She hadn't shown any signs of coming to, which was fine with Moira. Shaw had snapped out of his sullen reverie and now complained loudly about his bruised ass. Perkins said something to shut him up, dragging him after Raven. There was a tent set aside near the wood line.
”That's the woman?” Mrs. Farraday asked, following her line of sight. ”She doesn't look like much.”
”She's dangerous, and so is her man,” Moira said. “Maybe more to each other than to us. We'll see how they make through the night.”
”The fall moon clears out the mismatches of the summer,” Mrs. Farraday noted and pressed her fingers gently under her chin and turned her head, taking a closer look of her face. “That's a handsome shiner. Let's put something on it before your eye swells completely shut.”
Charles walked to them and Mrs. Farraday turned to him, smiling. “And you sir, you look like you could use some food too, and a strong cup of tea.”
“Thank you, but I want to wait for Erik,” he said, with a distant look in his eyes, staring at the woods. “He's not far.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Farraday said, all reasonable and calm, knowing enough not to argue. “Though it'll be dark soon, and it would be better to go inside before the alpha's return, get settled. It's mostly married folk here, but they haven't been home in a while and the few young bucks will get restless, there's no helping that. I don't like to leave the young novice alone for long.”
”Is he in bad shape?” Moira asked. She had captured Emma, but it was difficult to feel good about that, knowing that she had failed this mission in many other ways. Sean was her responsibility, she should've taken better care of him.
”Nothing that won't heal. He's a tough boy,” Mrs. Farraday said, ushering them toward the house, like herding a flock of stubborn geese. “Though if you don't mind my advice, it would put his mind at ease if you tell him that he did the right thing when he ran. He was worried about that.”
”Of course he did the right thing,” Moira said, frowning. “What else he could've done, kill the alpha's with his bare hands?”
“I said the same, but he didn't think I knew what I was talking about,” she said.
“I'm sorry, if he spoke you rudely. I taught him better than that!”
“He's a kind boy, I didn't take it personally.”
”I'm sorry, but what happens tonight?” Charles asked, focusing on them instead staring at the forest.
”Rut moon will make the alpha's restless, but you don't have to worry about it. Erik will take care of it,” Moira said. ”We'll spend the night inside, and those two can spent it wrapped up like babies so they don't tear each others throats open.”
”That's not what I meant,” Charles said. ”Mrs. Farraday, what did you say about the mismatches of the summer?”
”Fall moon gives you a chance to push away the mate you attracted under the summer moon, if you don't care for them anymore. They don't teach you the year cycle in the Church?”
”They do, but we have no need for the fall moon,” Moira said. ”We don't have to see the alpha ever again after that one night. It's not an issue for us. The bigger problem is how to keep my prisoners alive through the night. I don't think Emma will take this moon well.”
”Erik could do that tonight? Break the tie between us?” Charles asked, looking worried. Moira sighed. She didn't understand why this bothered him all of a sudden. Erik should've made his feelings known by now. They had had a night together. How long it took?
“You can do that too. Omegas who want to choose someone new in the next Midsummer heat use this night. That doesn't concern us either, we can serve Adit on the sacred stone only once, you know that,” Moira said. “Mrs. Farraday, what should we do with the prisoners? They'll make noise, and it will put an unnecessary strain on everyone.”
”I'm sure Lieutenant could gag and bind them,” Mrs. Farraday suggested.
”A few yards of rope won't hold them all night,” Moira said. ”Can you drug them? If they were unconscious, it would solve everything.”
“No, we can't do that,” Charles said. “It would deprive them the chance to pray and turn to the deities for help tonight. If anyone needs that, its them.”
”It's a mercy they don't deserve,” Moira said. ”They are my prisoners, I'm in charge of their safety. Safest thing for them is to be quiet and calm.”
”Emma is your prisoner, but Shaw is mine,” Charles said. “I have a say here. In my opinion, its our duty as a servants of Adit to allow them a chance to pray to Her, or any other deity, if they so choose. That's how I feel.”
Moira turned to look at him. ”You don't understand all the dangers of this night! The alphas will be jittery when the moon rises. They are armed, tired and far from home and their mates. If they have to listen and smell those two all night, they will end up meeting the Gods, instead just praying to them.”
Charles stared back at her calmly, it felt like talking to a wall. Mrs. Farraday walked ahead of them, politely turning to look at the pond, the waves lapping against the smooth rocks as the wind started to rise. Moira didn't expect her to weight in on this argument. She would see Charles as Erik's mate first and foremost, and she wouldn't go against Erik.
“I can't stand here and let you drug them, it would deprive them a chance to ask the deities forgiveness.” Charles repeated, like Moira hadn't understood his argument. She scoffed, shaking her head. She liked him, but at times his idealism got badly in his way.
”Have you forgotten what they did to you? Emma held you prisoner, threatened you and your child, tried to kill Erik, not to mention what she did to me and Sean, and she killed six knights of the Church! And you still want to help them?”
“I know what they did, that's not in question. This is about our duty as Adit's servants,” he said, crossing his arms. “We have our responsibilities, if you haven't forgotten.”
“You are not serious!” Moira said, exasperated with this whole conversation. It was damn clear those two wouldn't pray through the night, they would either kill or fuck, or both. She didn't want to explain the effects of sex and blood to Charles. He was a grown man, he should realize to think these things himself.
“How about this. It would be useful if Shaw managed to break the bond between them under this moon,” Charles said. “He hates Emma, and he would turn on her immediately without the bond. The case against her would stand on much better legs if you had an omega testimony on record. Or if they found a way to unravel the conversion. You could hang Emma, no matter who she knows.”
Moira took a double-take on him. She had been slow not to caught up on that. “That's true. Still, it's too much of a risk. They escape, who knows what they'll do.”
”I doubt Adit will turn Her eyes to this forest, no matter how they pray. This forest was used to honor much crueler deities than the Merciful Mother,” Mrs. Farraday noted over her shoulder. “Though if its important to you sir, I can see if I could give them something to take off the sharpest edge, but will keep them lucid enough to talk. If that's what they want to do with their night.”
“There, will that do?” Moira asked, bit more sharply that she had intended. Her face hurt, she was tired and hungry, and she could feel the moon coming, the fear crawling in the back of her neck. She didn't think she could stand any alpha looking at her, touching her again. “May we go inside now?”
“I would like to wait...”
“For Erik. Fine with me. Mrs. Farraday?”
“I'll come help you settle down, and I need my bag for the sedative,” she said, turning back to them. “And you sir, please wait near the stairs and come inside immediately if you get tired, yes? I'll be right back.”
Moira followed after Mrs. Farraday up the stairs, holding on to the bannister for support. She held the door open for her.
“He's a curious one, isn't he?” she noted, nodding down where Charles stood, looking at the forest.
“He has to be, to stand Erik for longer than a day,” Moira said. “I don't know if I should pity them or congratulate them.”
“Oh, now, you know which one is right,” Mrs. Farraday said. “Go sit down, I'll go see your prisoners.”
Erik looked around the site. It was empty, nothing left after them. The ground was trampled, but there wasn't much they could do about that. As long as there was no trace who had been here, or why, it was enough. They had found small cart at the river bank, and it had helped clearing the site. The little what was worth something, they tied on the back of the horses Prioress' crew had left, bigger things like the tent fabrics, food and the coal pans they lifted in the cart. Erik made sure that everything that Moira might find interesting was packaged well.
Clearing the site had been an easy task and it hadn't taken them long.
What worried him more were the bodies of Moira's knights. As far as he knew they were still where Prioress had struck them down, and anyone could stumble on them, but it was unlikely someone would be in the woods at this time of year. Either way, it couldn't be helped. He didn't know where the bodies where, and it was pointless to search for them in the dark, during a rut moon. With any luck, the bodies would still be undisturbed until tomorrow, when Moira could show where they were, and all of this would stay in Moira's control.
His crew strolled back from chasing the Prioress' soldiers, and Erik waved them to gather around for a quick talk.
“Everyone knows what the situation is,” he said, looking around. “There are omegas staying at the house. No one goes anywhere near it during the night. I think no one is horny enough to try Shaw, right?”
There was round of scoffs and disgusted sounds.
“Someone feels like having a scuffle, that's fine. We have it here, now and then its done. When we go back to the house, it's best behavior for everyone. I know it's not a way to spent this moon, but that's how its going to be this time. Anyone thinks they might have trouble with this, tell me now.”
“It's your fresh mate there, Sire,” one of the men said. “Excuse me for saying, but you'll be running the hottest without a go.”
Few other soldiers nodded, all married, agreeing with the statement.
“Then it's up to you to stop me from embarrassing myself,” Erik said. “One time opportunity to punch me in the face without consequences. Use it well.”
There was a round chuckles. It wasn't all a joke, Erik knew they had a point there. When Charles had rode off with Moira, it had felt like a physical blow. He knew where he was, he knew he was safe, but simply not seeing him at the moment felt excruciating. He couldn't imagine how it would feel when the moon would urge him on in full force.
“We'll all try our best to keep a lid on it,” he said. “Agreed?”
No one had anything against that, and Erik nodded. “In that case, you four, take these horses and get going back to the house. Rest of you, with me to fetch our horses from the meadow. We are done here.”
The ride back to the house was uneventful, they tried to keep a good pace to use the last of the daylight. The new horses made bit of a fuss as they got deeper in the woods, the wind rattling the trees making them skittish, but they managed to keep them on the trail.
The house came to view and Erik picked up the pace. The place was empty and quiet, and in next moment, full of shouts and horses neighing as his crew filled the yard.
Charles stood outside, at the bottom of the stairs, the lantern lit near the door. It was dark, but he could see he looked exhausted. Erik dismounted and tossed the reins to the closest soldier, and strode across the yard to him. Charles smiled when he saw him, and it eased his tension.
“Why are you outside in the cold, something wrong?” he asked, pulling him in his arms. It wasn't wise, moon this close, but he didn't care. “Aren't you tired?”
“I'm fine. I wanted to make sure you got back alright,” he said. “They talked about this night, and I was worried that... I don't know. It sounded alarming.”
“Don't worry beloved, the night isn't as dangerous as it sounds. Go inside and go to sleep, everything will be better in the morning.”
”Don't you need me?”
”More than air, but it's not right for me to have you tonight, when everyone else has to go without,” Erik said quietly. “Moon would urge them to fight, and I don't want to injure my crew for your pleasure, not even if you demand it.”
”Demand it? Is that sort of thing done?”
”Some omegas find violence thrilling.”
”I think I'm done with thrills, and violence,” Charles muttered, resting his head against his shoulder. “I'll see you in the morning?”
“Yes. Sleep well.”
“I would say the same, but I don't think it will be any use.”
Erik kissed him lightly, his self-control already on its limits. He smelled warm, dusty from the road, and something else, sweet and heavy like ripe fruit. He wanted to taste his skin. Erik forced himself to let him go and take a long, controlled step back. Charles looked unsure, swaying on his feet before he turned and walked up the stairs without looking back. Erik was grateful for that. One longing glance from him, and he would've thrown everyone out of the house in the cold and spent the night with Charles, common decency be damned.
He waited until he closed the door behind him before walking away to check what Raven had done to the prisoners. He found her standing near a tent with Mrs. Farraday, discussing something in low voice. He didn't remember that tent being there in the morning, so someone had had the incentive to get the prisoners secluded for the night. A tent wasn't ideal security wise, but better than them spending the night out in the open. There was not much choices, in any case.
“Everything in order?” he asked when he got to the women. “Mrs. Farraday?”
“There was a heated conversation about what to do with the prisoners, but they came to a workable agreement.” She nodded toward the tent. “They are secured and sedated, should hold most of the night. We were discussing about the possibility to have a guard near the house, sir.”
“I can do it sir, I know I'll be thinking Irene anyway. Summers is no use, but Perkins could take half the night, she's a newlywed, some moving around could be good for her. Or Benson, he's always cool headed.”
“You let Charles talk you into going after Shaw,” Erik said poignantly. “I'm not exactly itching to let you in charge of him again.”
“Leave it to me sir, I can keep him indoors,” Mrs. Farraday said. “In all due respect, the real problem will be how to keep you out of the house.”
“You think you can manage that?” Erik asked from Raven. “Keep me from bothering him?”
She nodded. “You take one step on those stairs and you will get my boot in your ass, sir, guaranteed.”
“That's settled then.” He looked over the tent. “I don't care what Moira said, if those two try anything, kill them. I'll take the responsibility.”
Charles walked up the stairs, trying not to listen what Erik thought about him. He didn't trust his own self-control. One stray thought, and he would turn around and go to him, not caring what would happen. He hadn't expected the moon to feel like this, and it had barely started. He didn't look back, closing the door behind him. He could do this, because Erik could.
He felt tired to the bone. The argument with Moira still bothered him. He understood her argument, but it still felt negligent somehow, like he should've tried harder to help them. Maybe Moira was right, maybe he tried to shove the deities forgiveness where it wasn't wanted. They could help themselves, if they truly wanted.
The room was warm, fire crackling in the fireplace. The house felt small now that they were all here. Moira sat with Sean, talking with him quietly. Sean's mind was in nervous movement, Moira's was calmer, more collected, though pain turned her natural lines more tangled and muted. Charles was too tired to look any closer. He guessed Moira told Sean some version of what had happened in the camp.
He started to undo the hooks and ties that held the coat together. He didn't remember exactly how Erik had secured it, but he pulled where he could reach, hoping for best. The door opened and Mrs. Farraday came in, closing the door behind and pushing a sturdy bolt in place.
“Here, sir, let me help,” she said, pulling the fastenings open from the sides, before tugging the sleeves to get the stiff fabric moving over his shoulders. Even with her help it took a minute to get out of the garment. He sighed in relief when the weight was off of him. He hadn't realized how uncomfortable it had gotten.
“Everything was fine outside, the prisoners are comfortable and somewhat awake for the night,” she said, folding the coat in two and setting it on the bench by the door. “There's warm soup in the kettle and some bread, please help yourself. I'll go fetch that salve for Sister Moira from upstairs.”
“Thank you Mrs. Farraday,” Charles said. He went to the window, trying to get an idea what happened in the yard. The glass panes were thick, and he could only see shapes moving in the yard, hear muffled pieces of conversation.
“Do you know what they will do?” he asked, when Moira had finished her explanation. Sean stood up and went to stir the soup in the pot over the fire.
“I think Erik orders them all in that pond before the moon rises,” Moira said. “They'll be fine. Come sit here with us. You should eat something.”
“They go in the pond? The water must be freezing! They'll die!”
“Nonsense. It's the rut moon, their blood runs hot,” Moira said. “They'll curse and sing, tell crude stories about the omegas who have let them crawl between their legs, that sort of thing. They won't die. Come away from the window, you will catch the cold sooner than they will.”
“Back home, they have to break the thin ice over the water first before going in, and while they float there, they have to keep smashing the ice from freezing over again. That's why it's called the Crackling night,” Sean said, ladling soap into a bowl and serving it Moira. “More racket they make, the healthier children there will be. I don't know if that's true or not, but that's what the folk say.”
“Yes, this is nothing, compared to some places. You'll see a proper rut moon celebration next year,” Moira added, taking the soup bowl. Sean handed her a piece of bread and she swirled it in the broth to soften it.
“What do you mean?”
“When you marry Erik, you can take part of the festivities,” Moira said absentmindedly, and then stopped, looking at him. “I'm sorry, it was wrong of me to assume that. I don't know what you have decided to do.”
“Of course they'll marry, what sort of talk is that,” Mrs. Farraday noted, coming down from the upstairs, carrying a decorated wooden box. She set it on the table, and sat down. “Now, let me take a look of that bruise.”
Moira got up and sat next to her, setting her soup bowl on the table. “It's not that simple, Mrs. Farraday. Church takes special interest to Adit's chosen. He can pick and choose his next post. He plays this smart, goes with the politics, and he can build an impressive career out of it. Bearing a Midsummer child is a major advantage in the Church.”
“And marrying the leader of all the northern tribes is nothing? Sire's mate is as much the leader as he is, there's more politics for him to handle than he has time to care. Besides, we need him more than the Church does. There's nuns and monks enough to trip over, but he's the only one who Sire wants.”
Charles coughed politely. “Do you want me to leave while you two manage my future for me?”
They turned to look at him.
“I'm sorry sir,” Mrs. Farraday said. “I only meant to say that many would be happy to see that Sire has finally found a mate. He's been alone too long, it worried us all.”
“You might as well know now, that not everyone will think that,” Moira said. “Adit's followers are thought to be meek and soft, not good mates at all. They will mock you for it.”
“Well, those fools have never met you sir,” Mrs. Farraday said, picking up a glass jar and soft cotton cloth from her medicine box. “The way you marched to face your enemy, then took him as a prisoner, I would say you are as tough as any omega back home. Bit of fresh air, good solid food and you will do well.”
She opened the jar and a sharp smell of herbs wafted in the air. Moira made a face but didn't object when Mrs. Farraday swiped some ointment in the cloth and started to dab her cheek with it.
Charles he turned to peer through the window again. He could hear the splashing, loud shouts. He shivered, crossing his arms. The cottage was cozy, he was warmly dressed, and still he felt cold just thinking about the water. He could feel Pollywog sleeping, and it shivered to think that his little baby would have to go through something like that.
Though the child had the right to know all the high holidays and traditions, learn songs and stories that went with it. He couldn't teach those thing, he didn't know them like Erik and Moira did. He knew the holy scriptures and the moral sermons, hundreds of names for plants. Was that enough?
“Would you have to set your vows aside, Brother Charles?” Sean asked. “I mean, if you married, and left the Monastery. Isn't that what happens? You would have to give up your faith?”
“No, he only gives up his place in the Adit's Order, which means he no longer has the responsibilities or the rights of a devote member,” Moira said. “He can continue his religious life as he sees best, as a secular member.”
“He can't simply leave the Church. First Sire has to pay the heat price your Church asks,” Mrs. Farraday added, nudging Moira's head bit to the side to spread the ointment. “It will turn into a widow's keep, if things end poorly and you want to take refuge in the monastery again. May the Gods protect you from that.”
Charles felt foolish. He hadn't thought any of this. He had focused surviving one day at the time in the Monastery. He had only imagined Erik hating him, not wanting him. Charles realized that despite his skills, he had no idea what Erik thought about their future. They hadn't had the time to discuss about anything.
“When the Secretary gets a look of the heat price Erik can offer, you'll be pushed out of the door before Pollywog has even born,” Moira said and smiled at him.
“They wouldn't force him, would they?” Sean asked, alarmed.
Charles understood his reaction. It was natural that the topic would interest him. He was young, and under Moira's tutelage he could end up moving from Monastery to another, and the Midsummer would always be there. He could be called to the stone, and faced with the same problem as Charles.
“No, he'll make his own decision,” Moira said. “Church doesn't sell its members, as a rule.”
The shouting got louder, then turned to something like singing. Mrs. Farraday stood up, setting the cloth aside and closing the jar before placing it back to the medicine box.
“That's the moon rising,” she said. “I think it's time to go to bed, young man. That Summers' boy was rather interested about you, we better tug you under the blankets before he comes howling under the window. Sister Moira, do you mind sharing the upstairs bed? I'll take a look of your shoulder and side, while we are at it.”
“Yes, that's fine.” Moira got up and walked to him, taking his hand in hers. “I'm sorry if our talk upset you, and I want to apologize about the argument we had. I care about you, and I hope you are happy, whatever you decide to do.”
“I know, and thank you. I'm glad you are here.”
Moira went upstairs after Mrs. Farraday and Charles sat down to eat some soup and bread before retiring to downstairs bedroom. The coals glowed in the little stove, a candle lit on the nightstand. It was the same as last night, except this time he was alone. He undressed, left his clothes at the foot of the bed and slipped under the covers. It was warm and cozy, but he couldn't relax, thinking about Moira's words, and Erik, in the water. He closed his eyes and tried to force himself to rest.
He dozed in and out, the buzz of minds outside permeating his dreams. The baby didn't sleep well either, turning and banging his side until he turned too. He kept startling awake in irrational fear that he was back in the little room in the Monastery, that he was alone again.
He snapped fully awake to a feeling that someone had called his name.
The room was dark, the candle had gone out, but the coals still gave some light. He didn't bother lighting another candle, he reached for his clothes and got dressed quick. He opened the door to the outer room, and found Mrs. Farraday awake. She stood at the front door, looking like she hadn't slept a wink and Moira in her long undershirt, standing on the stairs and pulling her hair back. It looked like they were readying for a fight.
They shushed and turned to stare at the door. Charles listened. There was an angry conversation going on at the other side, fuzzy minds moving around the house. He picked up Raven's thoughts first, she was right outside, her back against the door. She shouted something, her mind pricked with worry. Then the argument quieted, but the mood tensed, the feel of violence getting sharper.
“There was a fight,” Moira whispered, waving him to come closer. “Erik's behind the door, demanding to see you. Raven's trying to talk sense to him.”
“I'll see him,” Charles said without hesitation. He didn't know why they would doubt that. If Erik needed him, he would help him the best he could.
“That's not a good idea sir,” Mrs. Farraday said. “You haven't steered the rut before, this is not a good time to practice. He can't control himself well, he might hurt you without meaning it.”
The shouting got louder and something smacked hard against the door. They all jumped in surprise. Charles got an overwhelming feeling that he had to see Erik, right this second.
“Open the door,” he ordered.
“I can't let you go outside, I'm sorry. I promised him I would keep you inside the house!”
“He will kick that door all night, if Raven can't handle him. I don't think the door will stand until morning,” Moira said, coming down the stairs to stand beside Mrs. Farraday. “Charles can steer it, it's not that difficult. Erik has such hots for him, he'll listen his every word. He wouldn't hurt his child.”
“What do you need me to do?” Charles asked.
“Remember how Midsummer made you feel, when was Erik near you?” Moira asked. “You wanted to do what he asked, didn't you? That's exactly how he feels. It's your turn to be in control. You need to tell him to go back in the pond and take the others with him. You don't back down, he backs down.”
Charles nodded. “I can do that.”
Mrs. Farraday didn't look convinced, but she didn't argue further. She turned and pulled the bolt, cracking the door open. ”Back away from the door!” she shouted.
There was a scuttle in the stairs, and Charles could feel the swivel of the minds, their attention turning to the door. Mrs. Farraday stepped aside, letting him get past to the door. “Careful, sir, please?”
Charles nodded and went outside to the landing. It was dark outside, the moon hidden behind the clouds. He could still feel its pull. There was few lanterns set on the barrister, lighting the stairs but not much beyond that. Raven stood at the top of the stairs, Erik behind her on the second step. The rest of them were on the yard, or at the water line, some milling around, some sitting or laying on the cold ground. Charles shivered, his breath puffing in the air. Either they didn't notice or they didn't care how cold it was. He didn't understand how they could stand it.
Erik shoved Raven aside and wrapped his arms around him, pulling him close. Charles reached to stroke his back. He had lost his shirt somewhere, and his naked skin was sweaty and grimy under his hand. He smelled like the pond, muddy and cold, and something else underneath, wild and delicious. The scent swooshed in his head like hard alcohol.
“I thought you were gone again,” he muttered. “I...I couldn't find you.”
“Here I am,” Charles said quietly. “Don't worry. It's alright.”
His stomach made hugging awkward, but Erik pressed against him, hard, warm and smelling like heaven. Charles wanted to give in to that, fall down underneath him. It would be so good, he knew it.
Be strong. Be in control. He repeated it in his head like it was a prayer.
“Erik, listen to me. You have to go back to the water,” Charles said as stern as he could, his voice shaking. “Please?”
“No, you want me,” Erik muttered against his neck, nipping playfully the exposed skin. “I can smell it on you. Take your clothes off, I'll make you moan. You know how good I am, you'll love it.”
“Control it sir,” Mrs. Farraday warned behind him, grabbing the back of his shirt. “Don't give in.” Her touch was strong, jolting him to focus. There was people around them, people who needed him.
“Erik. In the water. Now.” It came out with more strength this time.
Erik didn't let go, but he didn't press on either, his breath warm against his neck. Charles tugged gently his arms, pulling free. “Go. I will be here.”
For a moment he was sure Erik wouldn't do it, but then he took a hesitant step back. Charles saw a forlorn look flash across his face but he pushed him steadily away, as kind and firm as he could. Next time. There would be other moons.
“Everybody in the water!” Charles shouted, loud and sure. He didn't know where that strength came from, but it felt true, part of himself. The alpha's looked up at him, scampering on their feet and heading to the lake, no questions, no fighting. Erik turned and went down the stairs without looking back. Even Raven swayed on her feet, staring at him eyes wide.
“You can stay,” Charles added. “Continue your responsibilities.”
He waited until he saw Erik stepping in the water. The singing started again, quieter, with a new, mellow tune. He turned back to inside, shivering with cold. It had felt good, but strange at the same time.
“Well done,” Mrs. Farraday said, helping him back inside and slamming the door shut. She pushed the bolt back in place. “You are a natural. After you've practiced it few times, you can get them hop like bunnies.”
“Why would I do that?” Charles asked absentmindedly.
“Good grief,” Moira said and started to laugh. She sounded tired, and a bit hysterical.
“How about you two go back to bed?” Mrs. Farraday suggested, taking his arm and leading him away from the door. “It's been a long day for you. I'll stay here, in case something else happens.”
“I don't think I can sleep, I would rather sit here,” Charles said. “Why don't you take a nap, Mrs. Farraday? You must be exhausted.”
“I'm used to staying up at night. Tea, then?”
“Not for me, thank you. If you don't want it, I'll take the bed. Sean kicks in his sleep, I think I have enough bruises,” Moira said. “Wake me up if it gets rowdy again.” She patted his arm as she walked past, and went in the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Charles sat on the chair by the fireplace. Mrs. Farraday poked the coals, throwing few strips of wood to get the fire going before pushing the kettle over the flames.
“Is the rut moon always like this?”
“In essence, yes.” She watched the kettle, adding one more log in the fire. “Back home, the celebrations are bigger, and rowdier. Though it's much more fun when you spent it with someone. I suppose you don't care much of this moon behind the Monastery walls?”
“No, I'm not sure if there's even a prayer for it,” Charles said, staring in the flames.. “Though I would like to see those celebrations someday. If I stay in the Monastery, then this was the last moon I can spend with him.”
“That's the question, isn't it?” She reached to take small pouch from the mantelpiece and spooned tea leaves in the kettle. “Are you happy and content if you never celebrate another high moon? Some want nothing to do with those, and some can't get their fill. Everyone has to find their own peace with it.”
“It's a difficult decision.”
“That's true. If you agree to marry Sire, I doubt you can keep him out of your bed, moon or no moon,” she mused. “A different kind of hardship, I imagine.”
“And you, Mrs. Farraday? What do you think of the moon?”
“Me? My moons were done when my wife died. That was now, what, seven years ago,” she said, and reached to take two cups from the mantelpiece. She handed him one and took the kettle, pouring the tea. She filled her own cup before setting the kettle back on the hook and sitting down with a sigh. “We spent some moons in ways a pious man like yourself should know nothing about. She was a wild one, tall and lean like a stock of wheat.”
“What happened to her?”
“She caught a fever, and it went to her chest. We tried everything we could think of, but in the end, it didn't make any difference. She passed away a week later.”
“I'm sorry for your loss,” Charles said. He could feel the memory in her mind, but he took care not to disturb it. It wasn't for him to look at, it was hers.
“The high moons lost their shine after that, but I'm not that old that I don't remember the thrill. I suggest you leave any big decisions for later, if you don't mind the advice. This night isn't the perfect time for rational thinking.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Farraday. I appreciate your advice.”
They drank tea and listened the singing. Mrs. Farraday explained him the meaning of the words, though Charles sensed that her translations glossed over the most lewd parts. She was easy company, and he started to feel better. He finished his tea and set the mug aside, settling on the chair. She brought him a blanket and Charles dozed off.
He startled awake. It was quiet, and the light had changed. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Is it over?”
“Yes, I think so. The sun is rising,” Mrs. Farraday said, tossing a log in the fireplace. “Would soup do for breakfast? Or I can venture outside, see what's in the mess tent.”
Charles listened. “I think I should be the one to go outside, if you don't mind,” he said. “Erik is outside, waiting for me. Where's my coat?”
Erik sat on the bottom step, nursing a mug of lukewarm tea and watching the light change as the sun rose behind the trees. The smoke rose from the mess tent, the smell of food wafting in the air. Perkins had taken guard turns with Raven during the night, and they had both managed to sleep here and there. He rubbed his face, trying to shake the cobwebs. It had been a long night, and he had spotty recollection of it all. He had sent his crew to sleep away the brunt of the night before they had to start breaking down the camp. He had settled for a dry set of clothes and mug of tea.
The bolt clattered on the door, and he turned to look, expecting Mrs. Farraday to come outside first. He had heard voices inside, but he hadn't knocked on the door. He didn't want to disturb them. He felt ashamed about how he had lost his control last night, coming at the door and arguing with Raven. The details were hazy, but he remembered Charles being there, holding him. It had felt good, perfect, but for some reason he had gone back to the pond.
The door opened and Charles stepped out, closing the door behind him. He had his own gray coat on, scarf and gloves stuffed in his pocket He looked like he was ready to leave. He came down slowly and sat next to him on the stairs. Erik held his hand to support him.
Charles looked at him for a moment, before reaching to brush dirt from his cheek.
”You look like death warmed over.”
Erik took his hand, kissing his palm. ”I hope we'll get a chance to spent one of these high moons in a proper way.”
”Indoors, for starters,” Erik said. “In a big bed, with soft pillows and clean sheets. And food and wine. Possibly a bathtub. I can be persuaded on that, but I'm not budging on the bed.”
”Hm. You are a dainty and delicate man, my lord.”
Erik frowned. ”My lord?”
”I've been told you are something of an important person,” Charles said and smiled. ”So I thought I should start addressing you with more respect.”
Erik liked his smile. He hadn't had a chance to enjoy it much.
”There's more sweeter names I would like you to call me,” Erik said, kissing his hand again. ”You are dressed to travel. You aren't going to abandon me now, are you? Did I scare you last night?”
”No, nothing like that,” he said. “I have to return to the Monastery. It isn't long before this little one comes to the world, and I still have my duties to the Church. I've been cut out of religious life long enough as it is.”
”And what does that leave me?” Erik held his hand tighter. If Charles wanted to leave, he would let him leave, but he didn't know how he could live with that decision.
Charles smiled again, a cheeky little grin that made Erik feel giddy.
”I suppose you have to do what any other alpha does, and go find a respectable broker to negotiate a marriage contract. I've been told you can afford a heat price, which according to your own words, I'm worth paying for. You are man of your word, aren't you?”
Erik smirked and leaned to kiss him, inhaling his scent. It was beautiful, deep and rich, and his fingers itched to pull his clothes aside and sink his teeth in his skin. The moon was gone, but the need still lingered. He pulled away to keep that impulse in check.
”You know, there's also a time-honored tradition of stealing your omega. You keep them happy enough, they never realize to leave,” Erik noted.
”We won't do that.”
”No? Are you sure?”
Erik kissed him again, slower, taking his time to taste him, breathe him in, burn him in his memory. Charles pressed closer for a moment, his hand warm against his shoulder, body pressed to his side. He pulled away this time, looking at him closely.
“What?” Erik asked, surprised with the change of topic.
He smiled. “I want breakfast. You should bring me some food. Isn't that also one of the time-honored traditions?”
“Yes, it is.” Erik stood up and took his hands, helping him get up to his feet. His coat was shapeless, and hid his state completely. Armor had suited him better.
“I can't go back to the Monastery wearing an armor,” Charles noted, catching the errand thought. “There would be some unsavory talk.”
“That's why you carry a sword to go with it,” Erik said and took his arm. “I don't know if there's anything worth eating in the mess.”
“You have tea.”
“That's not a meal, especially if you plan to ride all the way to the Monastery today.” He looked at him. “How are you feeling? All that happened yesterday, and the night, it wasn't too much? Maybe it would be best if you stayed here and rested before going back. We could lie in bed all day?”
“I'm not sure how restful that would be,” he said, smiling.
“True, we might get sidetracked.”
“What happened to them?” Charles asked, nodding at the tent where Raven had shoved the prisoners last night. “Do you think they changed?”
“Judging by the noise, they were either fucking or fighting. No one have cared to go take a closer look yet,” he said. “And neither will you,” he added before Charles would decide it was his job to check on them. He didn't want him anywhere near those two, ever again.
“They are alive,” Charles said, with a distant look. “I don't know about the rest, it's all mangled together.”
“It's between them what they did during the moon. They brought this on themselves, let them suffer the consequences,” he said, leading him toward the mess tent.
The door flap was tied aside, the morning light streaming in. Perkins stood by the portable stove, stirring something in a pot. There was saddle bags set in a neat row against the tent wall. There had been a plenty of food at the Prioress' camp and they had brought all of it with them. There was bread and dried sausage on the table, small block of cheese, even a jar of jam. Erik noticed how Charles face brightened. He wanted to kick himself. He should've taken better care of him, it was disrespectful to let the bearer go hungry.
”Good morning, sir,” she said, nodding. ”There's tea brewed in the pot, and porridge is almost ready.”
“Thank you.” Charles sat down and Erik took a seat at the other side of the narrow table. It was a few planks set over trestle legs, but it was stable enough. The lieutenant brought a cup and a bowl for Charles before carrying the porridge to the table. Erik poured the tea, while Charles filled his bowl with porridge.
Perkins went back to the stove, checking the fire and poking it, like she couldn't decide if she should keep it on, or let the fire die so the stove had time to cool before they started breaking down the camp.
“I'll take care of the fire, you should go and have a nap,” Erik said. She did look like she would fall asleep on her feet, but mostly Erik wanted her to leave so he could talk with Charles in peace. “You've been up all night. I can manage cooking if things come to that.”
She nodded, unsure, like she didn't know what to do. Charles stood up and went to her, touching her arm gently.
“You don't have to worry. Your husband has made through the night well. He knows you thought of him and no one else.”
She smiled. “You believe so, sir?”
“Yes I do,” Charles said. He said it with such assurance that Erik believed him, though he wasn't sure if Charles could know something like that. Her home was far, even in northern standards. Erik couldn't belief Charles' gift could cross that distance.
“I'm sorry, I know this is forward, but would it be too much ask for your blessing? My husband read the prayer to Adit in our wedding, it would mean so much to him.”
Charles took her hands in his. “May Adit bless your husband, and guard over your marriage.”
The lieutenant beamed, the most emotion Erik had ever seen in her. “Thank you, we are so honored!”
“Go on, go have a nap,” Erik said. Perkins nodded happily, and left. The morning air smelled like it would rain again today. If Charles wanted to get to the Monastery before nightfall, Erik should let him go soon. He wanted to spend as much time with him as he could. Maybe if Moira was content to his crew, he could accompany Charles all the way to the Monastery road, and his crew could escort the prisoners in the capitol.
Charles came back to the table and sat down, pulling the porridge bowl closer.
“You can know something like that?” Erik asked. “Does your ability have any limits?”
“Yes,” Charles said, stirring the porridge. “I am the limit. I didn't read her husband, I read her. She has the bond to him, I simply repeated what she already knew to be true.”
“She looked pleased, no matter how you did it, and I happen to know her husband. He'll be beside himself when he hears about the blessing.” He patted his coat pockets, remembering something. He pulled the little square out and reached to open it carefully over his porridge. “There, the last of the sugar. She saved it for your tea yesterday. I forgot all about it, but it goes as a thank you now, don't you think?”
“Thank you. This was my first blessing, I should've done this many times by now. All I did, was sit alone in a room for months. I've done nothing worthwhile.”
He looked sad and Erik reached to take his hand. “It's not too late. You can do plenty when you get back to the Monastery.” Then he realized something. "They wouldn't punish you for all of this? That you left, spent the time here?"
Charles said nothing, just stared at his food.
"They will, won't they?”
"A case could be made that the Prioress told me to do all these things, and I can't disobey orders from her. Though I stayed here for two days, when I should have gone back straight away when I was free to do so.”
“Well, you couldn't leave,” Erik said. “I'm responsible for your safety, and I decided that you couldn't ride back on a night of the rut moon. Rest of it you can conveniently forget, if you think that's for the best. No one will contradict your story. I'm sure Moira will come up with some official spin how the woman was captured.”
"I don't even know who will handle this matter. Maybe nothing happens before they elect a new Prior or Prioress, and that takes time. The baby might be born by then, or your broker has negotiated a marriage contract." He spooned the porridge around the bowl, looking thoughtful. “Anything can happen.”
Erik waited him to continue but he said nothing more. He didn't know much about the Church politics, but Moira did. Maybe she could use her influence to see that Charles wouldn't get in much trouble from this.
“They told you about the North, did they? Moira and Mrs. Farraday?” Erik asked, turning his cup between his hands. Life with him would be different from the monastery life, he wasn't sure what Charles thought about it. ”Does that worry you? You can ask me anything.”
”I thought about the child's name,” he said, setting the spoon on the side. ”I don't know your custom for giving names.”
”Usually the bearer gives the child their name,” Erik said, trying to remember the details. He hadn't been a part of many namings. “Since you can contest who fathered the child, but it's always sure who the bearer is. It's safer that way. Other than that, there isn't much tradition to it. When it's clear that the child is strong and healthy, and ours certainly will be, the family holds a celebration. It's mostly eating and drinking? If you like to have a religious ceremony, I have nothing against it.”
“I should do it?” Charles asked, surprised. “I don't have a name to give! I don't know much about my family, I've always been with the Church.”
“What does the Church say then?”
“Often Midsummer children get a name drawn from the religious texts, but I thought you might not like that, given that you're not Adit's follower.”
“I would be happy to do the naming if you wish, except I hadn't thought about any first names,” he admitted. “Maybe the name comes clear when the child is born? It could turn out you knew it all along, and the child likes to be called Polly.”
Charles started to laugh and Erik smiled.
“Maybe you can give your family name for start, we can think about the first name later,” Charles suggested. Erik nodded.
“That's reasonable.” He sipped his tea, pleased that they had solved this problem.
Charles leaned closer. “Would you tell me what it is?” he whispered.
Erik raised an eyebrow and smiled, standing up. He bowed cordially. “Erik Lehnsherr, at your service.”
The spring came early that year.
Charles stood at the edge of the garden, watching the novices work under the guidance of two Sisters. During the winter, the novices had cut and shaped the timber for a fence, and now that the ground was soft enough to work on, they were busy building it around the garden. It looked great already.
Charles had given his notes and plans to the Sisters who had shown interest to gardening. Second summer was important time, the garden should take more shape and it would need a plenty of dedicated work. He was sure the garden would be in good hands, even if he wasn't overseeing it anymore. The Sisters had written notes, asked questions and overall felt interested to take the garden as their responsibility.
It had been an interesting winter. The Abbess' health had taken a turn for the better, and the new Prior had taken his seat with a great celebration. He was a reasonable, calm man who had listened his report of the events without interruption. Charles had picked up from his mind that he had once been in Charles' place, as Adit's chosen, and because of that he also told him about the night in the cottage and how he had threatened to kill Emma.
“There are rules that help us to conduct our behavior outside the Monastery, but many forget that the origin of those rules isn't the Church, but the inner moral sense given us by the Goddess Adit. If you feel content of your actions Brother Charles, I see no reason to punish you. I trust you did what you felt was needed at the time.”
He had been genuinely relieved to hear that. He hadn't realized how much it had worried him that he had acted against the believes he had followed his whole life. The Prior didn't blame him, and he suggested that he focused on his duties that he had been kept from during Emma's reign. When Erik's broker came to start the marriage negotiations, the Prior discussed with him in several occasions about what he thought about it, what it would mean to accept the marriage offer. Charles was thankful for the conversations. As he got back to the familiar routines, he started to hesitate if his decision to go with Erik had been wise after all.
The novices chatted and laughed as they worked, their minds a colorful bubble of sounds. Charles walked along the edge of the garden, the gravel smoothed into a neat walkway. He stepped carefully over a narrow ditch and walked to the back, toward the damson trees. There was a sunny spot, where the small buds had already broken through the soil. He had found out that Moira had planted the cultivars in the autumn, following his notes. She had done a good job.
”Here it is, look at that,” Charles said, crouching down to one knee, brushing aside the dead leaves to reveal the plants. ”Look at the colors at the tip, see? That's the cultivar I told you about, remember? It will bloom into a pretty flower.”
Baby blinked and yawned, squirming inside the travel bunting. It was made from dyed wool, embroided with animal motives and quilted with down feathers. It was a gift from the Sisters, meant for traveling. He was an easy baby, certain what he liked. He slept and ate well, and didn't fuss with else. Charles had dressed him warmly in his new clothes, and he was sure he would do alright, even if they planned to travel for some time.
”Don't find this interesting? No? That's alright. I'll show you something else.” Charles straightened up and went back to the walkway.
When his time had neared, he had been anxious and restless. He had had strange dreams, and he had been sure that something would go wrong, that he would die, scared and alone. In the end, he had had so many midwives by his side that they had tripped over each other.
Erik had sent Mrs. Farraday for him, who brought two of her colleagues with her. Then there had been McCoy from the village, Sister Anna who had to be present during the birth of Midsummer children, and the Brothers and Sisters from the hospital wing. Halfway through Charles had had enough with their constant bickering, and he had ordered everyone out, except Mrs. Farraday and Sister Anna. When he had the chance to concentrate, it had gone quick. When Mrs. Farraday had placed the baby on his chest, screaming and squirming and Charles had cried, unable to comprehend that he was finally here.
Later Erik told him he had made Mrs. Farraday describe that moment to him over and over, until she threatened smack him around the ears if he didn't stop bothering her with it.
Charles walked past the kitchen door, nudged open for the mild spring wind, the smell of fresh-baked bread drifting in the air. There was a new Brother in charge of the kitchen, but the novices stood around the dish pails like always, laughing and talking more than working.
“That's where your aunt worked before,” he said. Baby stared at him sleepily, sucking his fist. “She's a good kitchen matron, but much better police. She's waiting to meet you. She threatened to spoil you rotten.”
Moira had taken her prisoners to the capitol, and the Temple had kept her busy since then. Charles had gotten few short letters from her, telling she was well, and hoping he was the same. He hadn't expected she could explain in a letter what had happened to Emma and Shaw, but it made him wonder. Maybe it was for the best that he didn't know.
“I'll show you one more thing before we'll go find your father,” he said, walking to familiar route to the water pump. The stones had been swiped clean, sun warming the stones on the Monastery wall. He hadn't been here since autumn, but nothing had changed. He looked into the groove under the ledge, pulling out the cup stashed there.
“Look at this.” The baby reached to grab the edge of cup, pulling it closer to have a taste. Charles smiled and pried it gently away. “No no, don't put it in your mouth. Look at the color, hm? I met your father all because of this cup, believe it or not. I tried to give him some water to drink and he didn't want any. He wasn't very polite about it.”
“Half an hour into the married life, and I already managed to lose the track of my husband,” Erik said behind him. “There's a bunch of monks laughing at me behind my back.”
“It's called an entourage, and they are much too polite to laugh at you. At best they smirk,” Charles said, turning to look at him. “I wanted to show our son where it all started before we leave.”
He still got the excited little flutter when he looked at Erik, even if he had been staring at him since this morning. He looked dignified, and incredibly handsome. He couldn't wear weapons inside these walls, but he had a ceremonial armor on, carved with complex pattern and polished to a high shine. He had a black coat, trimmed with purple motifs and lush mink fur. It was much too warm for the weather, but it showed his stature and wealth.
He smiled and held out his arms, and Charles handed the baby to him.
Erik had gotten his first chance to hold the baby three days ago, when the heat price agreement had been finalized, and Charles had a chance to spent an afternoon with him. They hadn't been allowed to be alone, but the chaperons hadn't stopped them from admiring and doting on their child. The name was still under consideration, and they had called the baby Polly. Their own private joke. When the chaperons had told him it was time to leave, Erik had been reluctant to let them go. Charles had felt the same. These three days had felt like three years.
“How's my little boy? All cozy and bundled up? It's a long ride home,” Erik said, rocking him carefully. The baby stared at him for a moment, then returned to suck his fist, his eyes drooping shut. Erik nodded at the dish in his hand. “I remember that cup.”
“Do you? The way I remember it, you didn't take one look of it before knocking it out of my hand.”
“The way I remember it, there were more interesting things to admire,” Erik said and leaned to kiss him. Charles returned the kiss, despite the baby between them, and the Brothers muttering disapprovingly behind them. During the winter, he had thought about him, and imagined this exact moment when they were together again. It felt perfect.
When he straightened up, Erik looked mighty pleased with himself. Charles smirked.
“You should take that cup with you,” Erik said. “It's a good luck charm by now.”
“I can't do that. It's the property of the Monastery.”
“My husband can do anything he bloody well pleases,” Erik said cheerily. “Besides, I gave this place a trunk full of silver today. That should get them a cartload of new dishes.”
“There will be a Midsummer again, someone else might need it more,” Charles said and placed the cup back to its place before turning to take his arm. “I had all the luck I needed.”
"Spilled Water" by stelline_soup, originally posted here at The XMFC Holiday exchange
Finally finished with this story! Thank you all for reading, and thank you for the comments and the kudos, for bookmarks and recs! And thank you stelline_soup for the beautiful artwork!