“By the gods, they’ve taken the gate!”
Wolfe felt the breath catch in his throat as his father’s second-in-command grabbed him by the arm and began steering him away from the tall window. His father was nowhere to be seen, but his older brother Tomas was still at his station. Wolfe put up enough of a struggle to salve his pride.
“No, Leon, please, I want to fight!”
“No, my lord, it’s too dangerous—”
“I am a man, I can fight!”
A shuddering blow sounded against the thick wooden door to the hall, making the bar jump and creak.
“Your mother and sisters will need you to protect them— quickly, my lord, to the cellar!”
Wolfe needed no further encouragement. Much as he had insisted he could fight, he was no warrior, and nor was he keen to become one. Leon shoved him and Wolfe ran, slipping on the cold stone floor, gripping his sword tight in his hand. Behind him, he heard the splintering of wood and the cries of warriors. Metal rang out against metal as he rounded a corner. The din of battle had only just begun to recede when he heard another, far more chilling sound.
“Unhand her, you brutes!”
Wolfe redoubled his pace and ran headlong into a wide, barrelled chest clad in thick leather armour. He gasped and tried to jump back but strong hands loomed from all sides. His sword hand grabbed and twisted, another fist in his hair and a blade at his throat made him go still and pale. There were only two Murkuri but, much as he claimed manhood, he was young and slight, barely a gnat against the hulking forms of his enemies. Behind them, his mother and sisters cowered, dragged from the escape cellar and up into the hallway.
“What’s this?” the Murkuri pulling his hair sneered. “Another daughter? Why weren’t you in with the ladies, pretty girl?”
Wolfe pursed his lips, unable to meet the warrior’s eye.
“I’m not a girl!” he squeaked. “Unhand my sisters!”
A raucous chuckle met his quivering demand, and his stomach lurched as he felt a rough hand on his waist.
“Looks like a girl to me,” the other Murkuri murmured. “Sounds like one too. I wonder if he rides like one?”
Wolfe froze in shock as the hand on his waist moved to cup his arse. Tears stung his eyes and he tried to lash out, only to have his arm twisted and wrenched up behind his back, making him cry out in pain.
“Let him go! Please! Oh—”
Wolfe tried to hold back his tears as his mother cried and begged, trying to at least keep his dignity as the hand on his arse grew more insistent. He bit his lip as he felt a finger press against his hole through the cloth.
The deep baritone cut through every noise around them. Wolfe could no longer even hear the cries of warriors from the hall. Much to his relief, the men molesting him froze at the command as well. A dark-haired man almost a full head taller than any other and twice as broad stepped into his line of sight, eyeing the Murkuri warriors with an unreadable expression.
“These are the nobles,” the man continued. “Disarm them, bind them, but then bring them to Kolbu in the hall. Unviolated.”
Wolfe trembled as the man’s coal black eyes settled briefly on him. He could tell by the way every other warrior in the hallway moved and shuffled to avoid him that not only was he some sort of commander, but a feared one too. The man reached out towards him and he flinched. A tear bounced from his eye at the movement, but the man’s rough thumb caught it before it could slide down his cheek. Wolfe found himself staring in horror up into the man’s cold dark eyes.
“Plenty of time for that later if the lord will not cooperate,” the giant man added, then grinned and let his gaze travel down to where Wolfe’s heart beat hard and fast in his neck. A nervous chuckle met his words from the warriors, and a second later there was a dull thud on the stone floor. The giant glanced over his shoulder to where Wolfe’s mother lay in a dead faint. “Get her up. Kolbu is waiting.”
Wolfe didn’t resist as warriors pulled his wrists together behind his back and bound him with cord. The warriors herded him, his sisters and the servants who had been escaping with them back the way Wolfe had run minutes earlier. The dark-haired giant slung his mother over his shoulder and followed, ignoring her weak protests as she began to wake.
In the hall, a dozen bodies, Murkuri and Elbiyan alike, lay still and bloodied. Wolfe’s father and two older brothers were bound and on their knees, along with Leon and a few other Elbiyan warriors. The mood among the captured soured further as they caught sight of Wolfe and his sisters.
At the head of the hall, another dark-haired giant, this one with eyes of piercing blue, lounged in the lord’s chair.
“Rune!” the man called. “Well done. A fine haul, don’t you agree?”
The man who’d halted Wolfe’s molestation deposited his mother with surprising care, then straightened and grinned.
“Indeed, Kolbu,” he agreed. “Tryg and Bethilde are rounding up the commoners.”
The man lounging in the lord’s chair — Kolbu, it seemed — chuckled, then clapped his hands together and stood up with a speed and vigour that Wolfe hadn’t expected from one so big.
“Excellent!” He took a few steps, his braid flicking behind him with his movements, then stopped and surveyed his captives, a grin still plastered across his face. “Now, which one of you is the lord? Hmm?”
Wolfe felt a prickle of rage and shame when Kolbu didn’t even spare him a glance, his icy eyes resting instead on Leon, his brothers and his father.
“I am Lord Rowan Almary,” Wolfe’s father said stiffly. “I presume you are the murdering heathen who’s been plundering my villages these past few weeks?”
The Murkuri gave a lewd murmur, and Kolbu grinned.
“You are correct,” he told the lord. “I am Kolbu Kariklif, though I believe most in Elbiya know me as Kolbu the Tempest. I made sure to sign myself as such when I sent you the ransom for us to leave your villages be some weeks ago. Did you not receive it?”
“I do not negotiate with bandits!”
Lord Rowan flushed bright red as he spoke, raising his voice until it echoed in the rafters. Kolbu barely flinched.
“I guessed as much, given we found our messenger in your dungeons,” the giant replied. His voice took on a soft, dangerous quality that made the hairs on the back of Wolfe’s neck stand up. “In light of that… misunderstanding… we have decided to double our demands.”
Wolfe paled, glad that that cold, hard gaze was not on him. The Murkuri had offered to stop pillaging barns and temples in exchange for a town to call their own through the winter. They had given a list of townships they would accept, all with strong strategic advantages for assaulting other, bigger towns on the path to the capital. Wolfe remembered watching his father throw the bearded messenger into a cell with a pit in his stomach, and he found it returned now in full.
“If I would not give you one town, what makes you think I would give you two?” Lord Rowan scoffed.
“Oh, we will still take just the one town,” Kolbu told him. “But, in the weeks since my message, I have learned more about your customs. I think you will be quite pleased at what I have decided.”
Lord Rowan was by now red enough that he looked like he might burst a blood vessel. Everyone else in the hall, Elbiyan and Murkuri alike, watched and listened in silence. The tension was so thick Wolfe worried his mother might faint again. In the absence of an answer, Kolbu merely smiled and continued.
“I have learned that you rank your nobles among themselves,” he began. “And that you loan out your land to others for profit. And,” he paused and grinned, and Wolfe had never been so terrified in his life, “that you are fond of passing property and influence among one another by way of marriage.”
A frightened murmur rippled through Wolfe’s sisters and their servants. His mother was pale and tight-lipped, her spine as stiff and straight as an arrow.
“Preposterous. Only sons may inherit. Unless you intend to give me a Murkuri daughter?” Lord Rowan scoffed. Kolbu still just smiled.
“Ah, yes. I know of that custom too.” The Murkuri grinned again, though Wolfe just now noticed it never reached his eyes. They were always cold and hungry. “But, as we are not Elbiyans, we have our own customs in that regard.”
Wolfe was certain he was about to throw up. By his father’s side, his two older brothers were looking a little worse for wear as well, their eyes flickering at the warriors ringed around the hall. There was no question which party they would be in such a union. Wolfe felt the pit in his stomach shift suddenly, the blood pounding in his head, and he was vomiting before he knew it. The warrior by his side jumped back to avoid getting it on his boots, then dealt him a ringing backhand.
“Adunn!” Rune hissed, and the warrior backed off. Wolfe coughed and spluttered. Sick soaked into the front of his tunic and, thankfully, hid the wet patch he hadn’t clenched enough to prevent at the blow. Around him the Murkuri made noises of disgust.
“Go clean him up,” Kolbu ordered. “Take the women and lock them in a room, and have the servants prepare us a feast. We can discuss the terms of Lord Arl-mah-rie’s surrender over a good meal and their finest ale.”
Wolfe trembled, his stomach still roiling. Please, he begged silently. Please, anyone but…
He didn’t even manage to finish the prayer before the exact man he was hoping to ward away grabbed him roughly by the arm and yanked him to his feet. He stifled a frightened cry as he was dragged away.
“Which way?” Rune barked once they’d left the hall. Wolfe tried to rally his thoughts and quiet his thundering heartbeat. Before he could find the words, though, the giant gave him a shake. “Which way, boy? To your room?”
“Th-that way!” Wolfe gasped, jerking his head. Rune gave a disgruntled snort and began pushing him along in front of him. Wolfe stumbled, his knees going weak, but he didn’t dare stop walking.
His room was empty and silent. It seemed to him that a heavy air of foreboding hung in the air, stifling and thick. Rune gave him a final shove and closed the door behind them. For a moment, all Wolfe could do was shudder and cower, too afraid to breathe wrong lest it be met with violence. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Rune’s large, rough hand rested on his shoulder.
“Oh gods, please, no, I beg of you, mercy, please, please…” His cries descended swiftly into snivelling sobs, his whole body shaking.
“Quiet, boy,” Rune ordered, though it held none of the fire he’d displayed earlier. “Where do you keep your clothes?”
Wolfe wiped his nose on his sleeve and pointed with his bound hands. Rune steered him over to the chest and kicked it open. A bundle of tunics, braies, stockings and undershirts in a variety of colours met their eyes.
“I… I’ll need to change all of it,” Wolfe whispered.
His face felt like it might actually combust and it was hard to bite back tears of shame. Rune watched him with a guarded expression for several seconds, then nodded. Wolfe breathed a sigh of relief that he made no comment.
The next second, though, he was crying and trying to squirm away as Rune reached under his tunic and released his braies. He tried to kick out but the burly warrior batted his legs away like they were nothing. Rune stripped his undergarments away and pushed him towards the bed, holding him in place when he stumbled and fell on his back.
Wolfe screwed his eyes shut, trying not to wail, anticipating the worst. After a few seconds, he heard water trickle against metal and opened his eyes to see Rune pouring water into his washbowl from the jug. He watched in terrified silence as the giant man dipped his washcloth in the bowl, wrung it out and sat beside him on the bed. It was impossible not to jump when the cold cloth touched his inner thigh, but Wolfe found himself grateful to get the piss off despite his fear.
“You’ve not been in many battles, have you?” Rune asked. Wolfe shook his head. “Any before this one?”
“No.” Wolfe shook his head again, trying to keep his voice steady. “I’m supposed to learn courtly skills. My brothers are the warriors.”
“Mm.” Rune rinsed the washcloth, then turned back to his task. As he moved higher up Wolfe’s thigh the young lord found himself breathless. His heart had calmed at the realisation that he was not about to be raped — or at least, not right now — but it rabbited in his chest as Rune’s careful movements brought him closer and closer to Wolfe’s cock. “So you would go to the royal court? Why are you not already there?”
“I-I… uhh…” Wolfe swallowed the lump in his throat as Rune lifted his cock and dabbed at the sensitive skin. The giant’s hands felt strange and warm, but not as awful as the lord had expected. “I need to be married. I-I… I need leverage… t-to…”
Wolfe suddenly realised Rune was smiling faintly as he struggled with his words. He blushed, self-conscious, and Rune gave a soft exhale.
When he was finished washing him, Rune dropped the cloth back by the washbowl and stood up. Wolfe let him untie him, then peeled his vomit-stained tunic off and tossed it at the wash basket. He could feel Rune’s eyes on his naked body as he rummaged through his clothes. The scrutiny made him hurry, nervous of what might transpire if the Murkuri had too long to stare. He hadn’t forgotten the wicked hunger in those deep, dark eyes when he’d first been captured.
“Ready?” Rune asked as he fastened his belt. Wolfe nodded and held out his hands to be bound again, but Rune waved him away.
“Kolbu didn’t say to bind you again, and I believe you’ll be feasting.”
Wolfe nodded and cast his gaze to the floor as Rune took him once more by the arm and led him out of the room. He could hear the sounds of warriors eating, drinking, talking and laughing from the hall, but even from a distance he could tell it was tense. He glanced once more at Rune as they reached the doorway, then took a breath and steeled himself for whatever horrors he might find ahead.