Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday's Safe Word Shelf: Tales of Amaranth by Thom Lane

Dark Heart #1
In Amaranth, the Wayfarers' Guild attracts all kinds of custom. When Lucan the mage walks into the stable yard with a lame horse in the rain, slave boy Tam runs to serve him -- and soon Tam wants to do nothing else. Ever.

Lucan is demanding, ruthless, devastating, in bed and out: everything Tam ever yearned for in a master. He's also master of the darkest arts, and not blind to Tam's feelings, but heedless of them. Why would a free man care how a slave feels?

When Tam's mistress asks for the mage's help because the guild is under attack, Master Lucan finds other uses for Tam: as a guide to the city, as payment to a demon in hell. But when he doesn't come back to the guildhouse one night, Tam knows the great man is in trouble - and only an insignificant slave boy can save him...

Healing Heart #2
Coryn is the rarest of mages, a young man with the gift of healing. A chance encounter with a sick slave on the road leads to love unimagined, a match for his gentle heart, and the two to a town riven with plague. It's too much for one inexperienced healer—but still, Coryn will break himself with trying and his new boy's heart in the process. What will it take to heal a healer's heart?

Hidden Heart #3
Tiffin is a slave boy, branded and chained, trained to serve and eager to please. That’s all he knows; his past life is a mystery, wiped from his mind. Sold to a grim fortress and facing a bleak future, he seeks comfort where he can find it, in the arms and at the feet of Sergeant Zander. He’s happy to give over control of his body to that dominant, delightful man -- but someone else keeps stealing into his mind, taking over.

Tiffin doesn’t know how or who. All he knows is how much trouble he’s in, and how much worse it’s going to get...unless Zander can help him discover what's going on, before he literally loses his mind.

Runaway Heart #4
On a drunken bet, Marc broke into Baron Thiviers’ mansion to steal something precious. Discovered and almost caught, he’s being hunted by the baron and his hounds when Finn, the runaway slave boy, saves his life. Marc claims possession of Finn, to redeem that foolish bet--what’s more precious than a beautiful boy? But his so-called friends reject him, and the baron comes after him relentlessly, so he takes the boy and flees again.
Yet it’s Finn the baron can track, by means of renegade magic, and in the end, Finn has no choice. He runs from the new young master he’s come to love and confronts the chasing baron, sacrificing himself to save Marc’s life. Except that Marc too is in love, and so comes after his errant boy, throwing his own life into danger yet again.

Gambling Heart #5
Jay should be a very happy slave boy. His new master is young, hot, affectionate, and no stricter than he needs to be. Also rich now, thanks to one night’s hectic gambling. But the man who lost all that money - and his slave boy too - wants his revenge. He wants everything back, including Jay, and he’ll do whatever it takes to achieve his goal.

It’s dangerous to challenge so much wealth and influence, let alone to defeat them - and that’s only the start of the trouble for Jay and his master Jensen. Jay has a secret, that he’s kept hidden from all the men who’ve owned him. Now that’s going to lead him and his master too down strange roads in stranger company, and into deadly danger, eventually into Hell itself...

Heart's Hunt #6
Once Martel was a thieftaker, an honourable young man working an honourable profession with his father, keeping the city safe. Then came revolution and chaos. Now he’s alone and living as a bounty hunter, as low as he can fall. Rumour says the last of the overthrown royal family is hiding in the forest that borders Amaranth. Prince Joslyn would be a better prize than runaway slaves and murderers; the price on that boy’s head would make Martel for life, and give him a chance to rebuild his reputation.

When he rides into the charcoal-burner’s clearing, he doesn’t find a depraved young aristocrat hiding out with his loyal servant. Rather, he finds a displaced old man doing the best he can with only a slave to help. A willing, beautiful, poorly trained slave. From their first encounter, Martel can’t keep his hands off the boy - and sees no reason to, when the master doesn’t care and the inexperienced boy is sullen and frightened and eager all at once. This is the last thing he was looking for - but can one hot night change the course of a life, of two lives...?

Dark Heart #1
Master Lucan, it was obvious, would demand no less.

Even before I'd closed the door of the gatehouse room behind us, he was already stripping off his jacket and dropping it to the floor, tugging his shirt over his head, sparing me just one swift glance and one barked word: "Towel?"

"Of course..."

I fetched one from the linen press and held it out to him, but he simply turned his back.

His hair was dark and crisp, close-cropped and sodden. I rubbed at it tentatively; he grunted and said, "Harder, boy."

"Yes, Master."

Vigorously, then, his head between my hands; I felt the not-quite-roundness of his skull through the muffle of the towel and suddenly wanted to be exploring that same territory with my fingers, just my skin and his hair and nothing to interfere between them.

Swallowed the desire, moved the towel and my attention downwards.

That didn't help. His shoulders were broad, his back was long and leanly muscled, leaning into the pressure of my hands. This time, when he wanted it harder, that was all for the pleasure of rough contact. I knew; I could tell from the way he worked his shoulder blades.

Mages are men and women of the half-world, all cobweb and shadow, threatening and scary. This close, though, Master Lucan smelled all man; and felt it too, dangerous and exciting beneath my hands. I almost forgot to be scared. Not quite, because slaves never do quite forget, and if we did the collar's weight around our necks would remind us. By the time he turned to face me, though, it was his hands and strength and temper I was scared of, not his powers: the master, not the mage. As it should be.

I dried his chest and arms, feeling the firm resilience of his skin, the hard-trained muscles beneath. I ached to drop the towel and just be skin on skin with him; more than ached, I could feel my cock growing stiff beneath my tunic. In hopes he wouldn't notice, I muttered, "This towel's damp, let me fetch another..."

He stayed me with a hand on my waist. Had he noticed already? I glanced up, and there was no anger in his eyes, only the snap of that relentless impatience.

"It's still drier than I am. Get my boots off, will you?"

"Of course, Master..."

It was a relief to drop to my knees, to drop the towel in my lap to hide my hard-on while I hoped for it to ebb away. Wet leather isn't a turn-on for me, the way wet man can be.

Wet man with his long wet fingers suddenly in my hair, balancing himself while he lifted one foot for me to slip his boot off.

One foot and then the other, and I was quite used to that kind of casual contempt, being used however was convenient to Master. Of course I was; I was slave.

I was used to this too, the way his fingers stayed in my hair, played with it, even once I'd set his boots aside. That didn't do my erection any good, at least not if I wanted it to go away. He laughed abruptly, clipped the side of my head, and unbuckled his belt.

I can take a hint. My hands went to the sodden laces of his trousers and loosed them carefully. I was aware of the weight of his cock within, just as I was of my own, throbbing again beneath the towel; I just wasn't quite ready for the way his sprang out at me, as soon as it was free. Dark with blood, long and straight and tapered, thick at the root but sweetly rounded at the tip...

It was instinct, only instinct that made me catch the tip of it lightly in my mouth, with just a hint of teeth.

For a moment, I had him. He was entirely still, and I could hold him, the size and touch and taste of him right there in my mouth, musk and salt and mastery, the flavour of a man.

Reluctantly, then, I turned the focus of that moment into a kiss and let him go, dropped my head and worked his wet trousers down slowly off his wet legs. What happened next was up to him; he was Master here. Some guests I'd known would give me a whipping for impertinence; some would toss me onto the bed and fuck me without a word.

No point even trying to hide my own erection, now that I'd seen his. Seen it, kissed it, made an issue of it. I probably deserved that whipping. And him so ill-tempered, soaked and delayed in his intentions; he wasn't likely to pass up such insolent familiarity.

Nor did he. His hand closed in my hair again; he kept a switch in a sheath on his boot, where I'd set it just a bend and a stretch away, and I thought he'd work out his temper on my hide. If he didn't have other, worse ways to punish a boy. I'd never seen magic done, but all my life had been full of stories about the dark gifts of mages, how cruel and vengeful they could be...

All he did, though, he pulled my head back to his proud cock. His thumb caressed my temple in a lazy gesture that made me shiver all through; he said, "Lips and tongue and mouth, lad, nothing more. No hands, I'm not a cow for you to be milking. And if I feel those teeth again --"

He didn't say what would happen, but his fingers flicked my ear stingingly, like a promise.

"Yes, Master..."

Healing Heart #2
I couldn't help but shiver when he touched me. I was naked and wet, but the water was warm enough and the wind was warmer; it wasn't that.

He was a free man and my master now, a new master, and a mystery to me. I didn't even know his name yet; I had no idea how to please him. And he had a whip in his belt and a switch in his hand; that's enough to make any slave boy shiver.

It wasn't just that, though. There was more, so much more.

Any free man is frightening, but a mage is worse. Even free men are frightened of a mage. And I'd seen him working magic with just a word and a wave of his fingers—that same voice that spoke so casually to me, those same fingers that were handling me.

More than that, he'd used the magic on me, in me. That mind had flowed all through my body—I'd felt it, like water washing through wool, warm and quiet and powerful—and the magic had made me well when I was dying.

He'd done that for me, just a slave. No surprise if his touch made me shiver.

And more than that, even, more than any of that, he was a tall young man, strong and fit and darkly handsome. Thick black curls, long lashes, startling blue eyes and a sudden smile. His touch would have raised shivers in my skin if none of the rest had been true. My old master had been—well, old. With bad teeth and a mean temper. And a worse wife.

If I could have chosen, if I could have dreamed someone new to belong to, it would have been someone like this. Someone my own age, with no twist of cruelty in his face. Someone who would matter in the world, who would make a difference, do some good. A master to be proud of, happy to serve…

That wouldn't make him kind to me. I'm not a fool; I knew that. Already his whip had kissed me. Which his lips hadn't. Some masters do, some don't; I'd learn soon enough which way he leaned. What he wanted from me.

Right now he sent me running for his pack. Obedience and training had me turning on the word, though my heart wanted to stay just where I was, in his eye and under his hand. At least, as I trotted away from him, he couldn't see how more than my skin had responded to his touch. My cock had been stiffening as I stood there, starting to jut. He might have liked that, he might have laughed at it, he might have been contemptuous or angry. I had no way to tell, and I didn't know enough to guess.

I'd find out soon enough, most likely. My body would betray me again, and he'd react one way or another. In public, maybe, if he was going to keep me naked. Or he might wait till we were alone—but that would be a kindness, and I shouldn't expect him to be kind.

He might or might not have noticed my cock misbehaving. He couldn't see it now—but even so, I thought I felt his eyes on me. I couldn't tell if his gaze was thoughtful or cynical, curious or hot, but I was sure that he was watching.

By the time I'd heaved his pack onto my back, he'd turned away to touch each of the townsmen in turn, to sink his mind into their bodies and see if they were sick.

I guess not. At least, he didn't work to heal any of them. Instead he nodded at their urgent pleading, squared his shoulders and set off along the road. He didn't even look back, to check that I was following.

* * * * *

Of course I was following; of course he knew that. His bag was heavy, but I dogtrotted to catch up, then fell into step behind him as a good boy should.

He still didn't glance over his shoulder, but I knew that he knew I was there. I could read it in the way his head lifted, the way he so very carefully didn't look around.

My lips twitched in a smile that he surely wouldn't be aware of. I hoped. If mages could read minds, I might be in trouble every day. I'd never heard of it, though. People don't talk about mages much, not even free folk—it isn't reckoned safe; but slaves listen to everything, and whispers carry. Sometimes I think we know more than our masters do, about their own business and the world in general.

One thing I did know about mages, they have their training on an island where there are no slaves. They carry their own burdens, wash their own clothes, keep their own rooms clean, and cook their own meals. For years, all the years it takes to make a talented youngster into a master mage.

Just from his youth, I was guessing that my new master was not long off the island. I thought he'd forgotten how to handle a slave. He'd lost that easy, casual arrogance that free men learn as children; and he knew it, and was feeling for it, faking it when he had to.

I'd help, when he needed it. Sometimes a slave just has to train his master.

I walked naked in my master's dust, and the sun burned on my skin; and soon enough my muscles were burning too, my legs were weak and shaking, and I couldn't keep up.

Master followed the townsmen, and I followed him, but I was falling farther and farther behind. And trying to skip and hustle again and again to cover that gap, and stumbling over my own feet and never quite getting there, and gasping for breath in the hot,dry air and almost sobbing in weakness and frustration and…

And eventually my master stopped and turned and came back to me, which he should never have had to do.

I gulped and stood still in the road there, blinking up at him in sudden nervousness.

“Easy, lad,” he murmured, pushing his hand into my sweat-wet hair and shaking my head gently. Some masters like to handle their slaves; some hardly touch them. Already I had my new owner down as a confirmed handler. Maybe it was only because he was new to this, or I was new to him; maybe it wouldn't last, but at the moment I treasured his touch. “I'm sorry, I forgot; you've had a hard time of it, haven't you? Seeing your people die and being sick unto death yourself, near enough, and then that desperate chase for your life. It's no wonder if your legs are giving way a little now…”

He soothed me with his voice and with his hands too, running them over my ribs like a man gentling a colt. He tugged at the straps of the pack; for a crazy moment I thought he was going to take it, but no, he was only adjusting them so that it fitted my back better. He gave me a drink from his waterskin, a good long drink, then tipped the rest of it over my head. And rubbed roughly at my dripping hair, grinning at me, so close I thought he was going to kiss me.

Instead he stepped behind me, gripped my wrists, and drew them back.

I felt the familiar grip of my master's cuffs, shackling my wrists at the small of my back, and then the familiar touch of my master's switch, stroking lightly over my butt and thighs. My muscles twitched, and he laughed at me.

“You're a good boy,” he murmured, “but you need some help now, don't you?”

And the air hissed, and the switch bit sharply, once and again, and I had to bite my lip to keep from yelping. If Master had forgotten how to handle slaves, he was remembering fast.

Then his fingers were under my chin, forcing it up, and again I thought he might kiss me; and again I was disappointed, because all he did was clip a leash to the ring of my collar.

“I won't have you embarrassing me in front of these fools,” he said, still in that low, confiding murmur. “The sore butt is just a reminder, to help you along. If you drag on the leash, if I even feel it tighten, I'll thrash you properly. Understood?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Good lad.” His hand was on my body again, and my cock was stiffening again just from that intimate closeness. This time I knew he wasn't noticing, because his eyes were closed. I felt him inside me, the touch of his mind again, just fleetingly. It was as if fire flowed through my bones, burning out the exhaustion, burning out all the terror and effort of this last day. I gasped; his lips twitched, but even that brief effort at a smile was strained and unconvincing.

He stepped away, cuffing me lightly as he went. Whatever energy he'd passed to me, it had come direct from him; he looked pale and weary, staggering a little as he turned back towards the impatient townsmen.

The switch, the threat, the leash: between them, they would have been enough. I'd have kept my proper place at his heel, whatever it cost me, not to shame him in front of those men. That touch of magic was a gift, unheard of.

Hidden Heart #3
The rope seemed suddenly very thin as I crouched right on the edge there with merlons jutting up on either side, Sergeant Zander at my back and nothing ahead, absolutely nothing below me but the fall. It gripped as tight as a net, though, everywhere. And I trusted the sergeant’s knots as much as I trusted the man himself, implicitly, unquestioning.

I swiveled around in that narrow space to face him, but still didn’t quite dare to look him in the face. It was his hands I watched, those strong reliable hands paying out the rope as I reached one leg over the edge and then the other, as I took my weight on my elbows while my toes groped for a ledge to stand on.

And found one, because he was right, there were plenty of holds. The outer wall of any fortress is about strength, not smoothness. All this stone had been rough-cut and roughly laid; I could reach and stretch and grasp with confidence. Much of that confidence might be a gift from the sergeant, from his knotwork and his arms, his air of utter competence, but more came welling up from within. Apparently the answer to his first question was yes: I could climb.

Apparently I liked to. Something in me relished the challenge of it, even bare-assed to the mountain wind. I clung like a fly to that wall, while Sergeant Zander leaned out above me and called directions, “Your left leg, down and across, a little farther—yes, there, that should hold you. Your arm now, on the left again, that knob of stone you just barked your knee on, you can hold to that…”

He called less and less, though, and gave me more and more slack on the rope as I climbed down farther. It was confidence again, but the other way around; watching, he grew confident in me. The wall offered grip in all directions, and the kitten’s wails were all the guidance that I needed.

Little by little, I drew close to her. When she thought I was close enough, I didn’t even need to reach. She leaped, and twenty needle-sharp claws dug into my thigh. Then up over my ribs to my shoulder, eventually my scalp. She spread herself through my hair and clung tight, like some exquisite torture cap. Then she yelled again, like a command.

Obediently, I began to climb.

Sergeant Zander’s voice came down to me in a righteous bellow, “Don’t be a fool, boy, take her to the window there and let yourself in. The shutter’s open,” but I ignored him. Ignored his orders, at least. I couldn’t ignore the man himself; he filled my mind and soon my sight as well, a shadow overhead, winding the slack of the rope around his arm as I ascended.

At last I reached the embrasure. His fierce grip caught my shoulder and hoisted me through, back onto solid stone again. The traitor kitten abandoned me in a moment, jumping onto a merlon and calling imperiously until her mistress scooped her up. I barely noticed, though. My legs had a sudden tremble in them, as if the climb—or the drop—had taken more out of me than I’d realized.

Sergeant Zander had both hands on my body now, and just as well. Perhaps he’d meant to give me a lessoning shake, to teach me obedience; but I was shaking enough on my own account. He was all that held me upright.

“I told you to go to the window, little fool.”

“Yes, Master,” and then I’d have been alone in the shadows there, and the girl would have come for her kitten but you might not have come for me. I’d have had to unpick all these knots on my own; and see, there’s no strength left in my fingers. It would have taken me half the day and never felt as good as this, just leaning into you…

He didn’t hold me long; he wouldn’t indulge a slave that much. As soon as I was sure of my balance—or he was sure of it, rather—he made me hold on to the merlon rather than him, while he started to untie his knots. Which meant his hands went everywhere on my body, everywhere that mattered. Maybe I was imagining things, maybe I was only hopeful, but I thought they lingered, those hands of his. I thought they might have been brisker and more efficient, only they didn’t choose to be; they chose to take their time and stray a little. His palm slid flat across my shoulder blade; his thumb traced the line of my collarbone; his fingers seemed to cup my balls just for a moment as he tugged the rope out from my butt cleft.

It was all deft and delicate, a touch here and a touch there, while he made a big visible point of coiling up the rope. I don’t suppose young Callie noticed anything. Mistress Callie I should have been calling her, of course, even in the privacy of my head. It’s too easy to let your tongue slip when your mind’s distracted—or when your body is, when a man is casually, delightfully playing with it—and a boy needs to be careful above all.

At least she didn’t talk to me; she didn’t give me the chance to be careless. When she’d done snuggling her rescued kitten, she did remember her manners. “Sergeant Zander?”

He turned instantly, forgetting quite about me—until he realized that I hadn’t remembered my own manners. Wise boys don’t loom over free young women. A snap of his fingers reminded me; I dropped obediently to my knees at his side, just handy for his hard hand to clip the back of my skull, a more stinging reminder.

She thanked him very prettily, and then didn’t seem to know what to do about me. I was only a tool that he had used in her service—but I was a living tool, and deserved some acknowledgment. If I were a dog, she’d have tugged my ears and called me a good boy; if I were a horse, she’d have slapped my neck and given me a carrot.

I was just a slave; she patted my cheek meaninglessly and turned away, crooning to her little cat again where it had snuggled in under her chin.

Sergeant Zander’s hand was on the back of my neck. Had it stayed there, after the slap? I wasn’t sure: only that it seemed to belong there, warm and firm and controlling. I leaned back into the pressure of it, just a touch: just enough for him to notice, because what was the point, else?

He laughed softly, gripped more tightly, gave me a little shake. “All right, lad. You did well. Next time, do what you’re told; we don’t like disobedience in High Hold, and that whipping post’s not for decoration. You, on the other hand”—his fingers hooking through my collar and tugging me to my feet—“you really are quite decorative, aren’t you?”

With no one watching now, his hands were rougher on my body and much more explicit. With no one watching, I had no reason to hide my own excitement—which was just as well, because there’s not much you can do when your cock is jutting out like a tree branch. His was at least decently contained within his trousers, though I could see the stiff bulge of it in outline.

Soon I could see a great deal more of it, as he pulled me through an archway into an empty chamber, kicked the door shut behind us and pressed me down onto my knees again.

In these shadows, in this privacy, I had no doubt what he wanted. It was in his breath, hard and rasping; in his hands, urgent suddenly, losing all their subtlety; in his cock above all, just a hand span from my face now, trapped in leather and all too obviously straining to be free.

My fingers were swift to loosen his laces, to let the great thick shaft spring out; my lips spread wide to engulf the head, to feel its blunt thrusting hurry in my mouth. I’d learned a lot in Amaranth, but Sergeant Zander gave me no time to indulge myself or him with tricks of teeth or tongue. His hands locked my head just where he wanted it; he ignored my own hands, where I was clutching impertinently at his trousers; his hips pumped quickly, and he came in a sharp hot spurt into my throat.

Then he did let me work my tongue a little, to lick him clean. So I had the taste of his cum and the taste of his skin in my mouth to take away with me, like two different flavors of a man, when he dropped the coiled rope around my neck again and said, “Run that back to the stable yard, and beg Master Colson for some work. Your chain-brothers will be hard at it by now, so you’ve some catching up to do.”

“Yes, Master.” I thought I’d been hard at it myself; he obviously thought I’d had an hour’s gift, a playtime.

He drew me to my feet, and then saw the little hesitation in me. “Can you find your own way back? This place is a warren, when you’re not used to it.”

I bit my lip, and nodded reluctantly. It wasn’t that which troubled me. Deep inside, an impossible question burned: will I see you again?

I couldn’t ask; it was unimaginable. And undetectable, apparently. Sometimes you just want a man to read your mind, and he just won’t. Sergeant Zander nodded a swift dismissal, slapped my butt to get me started, turned away.

* * * * *

Maybe I’m just an idiot slave boy who can’t pay attention, doesn’t watch his feet. Maybe I had got myself all turned around by the maze of passages, turrets and stairs, all the many levels of High Hold.

Maybe I was dizzy with a sudden desire, that little lethal bit too slow to say, No, Master, I can’t find my way alone, please show me? Maybe I realized too late, and was too busy kicking myself to keep an eye on where my trotting feet might take me.

That’s what I thought, at least, when I realized—or when I finally admitted—that I was lost.

I really didn’t know how it had happened. I was scudding along the walkway with the rope’s weight around my neck, cool breeze on my skin, Sergeant Zander in my head and the tastes of him lingering in my mouth—and then suddenly it was like I walked in mist or smoke, in a dream world.

I really did think that I was dreaming. Maybe I’d dreamed it all, the slave pens in Amaranth and the wagon and High Hold? That almost seemed to make better sense. How else could I find myself here, naked and branded and wandering in a fog of bewilderment…?

Stairs and corridors, stone and wood, sudden views and sudden shadows: I went this way and that without ever making a choice, without ever really understanding what I did. It was like I wasn’t in control of my own body, even. People came and went around me, or at least were there and then not there. Some seemed to be speaking, perhaps to me, but I could make no sense of what they said.

So, yes: dreaming, then. I didn’t try to fight it. Who knew what world I might wake into? It might be worse than this. It might easily be worse than—

And then I woke. Or found myself back in my body, rather, shivering and sweating both at once, and staggering so that I had to lean against a wall just to hold me up.

“You, boy. What are you doing here?”

Runaway Heart #4
I was running for my life, and all the hounds of hell were at my heels.

Well, no. That's an exaggeration. They were half a mile behind, but I could hear their howling on the wind. And they were actually the hounds of the baron Thiviers, but that's a distinction without a difference. I was, most certainly, running for my life.

And it was my own fault and I was most certainly an idiot, but that didn't matter right now. Right now was all about the running.

The baron is a hunter, first and foremost; his lands are vast and wild. There was trackless forest all around me, and I was thoroughly lost already. I'd run through cramp and terror, through hope and despair. There was nothing in me now but a grim determination not to stop.

I came to a stream and plunged into it, turned upstream, and ran on. The bed was stony and the water bitter chill, biting through my sneaky soft-soled boots. I didn't really think I'd shrug the baron off my trail this easily, but you do what you can. When you're desperate, you snatch at straws.

Mostly, they let you down.

The stream brought me up to a rocky pool, steep crag sides overhung with trees. I stood thigh-deep and gasping, suddenly uncertain, feeling despair build again. I could hear the hounds above the sounds of water, still on my trail; I knew their master would be with them, relentless, unforgiving, murderous…

Something struck me stingingly on the back of the head. I startled around, just in time to see the next sharp little stone hurled at me, not quite in time to duck.

That one caught me on the shoulder, where I was bleeding already. I stifled a curse, and glowered up at the figure on the crag top. Who beckoned urgently, imperatively: Up here! Quick!

I was beyond choosing, beyond reason. What I needed was rescue. Was this it? I took a leap of faith: waded and then swam across the pool, climbed the crag with numb and trembling fingers, hauled myself over the edge, and came slowly, shiveringly to my feet.

He was possibly the dirtiest young man I'd ever seen. Under the filth, though -- even then, with fear like a whip at my back, with every muscle aching and a shudder in my bones -- I thought he might also be the prettiest. Neither the dirt nor the dim dapple of forest light could hide the glamour of vivid green eyes, hair and brows and lashes all the white-blond of ripened wheat.

Nor could they hide the iron collar round his neck, or the brand high on his arm.

He was a runaway, of course, and he thought I was another. Too late, he saw his error. No collar on me, and the clothes I wore had been ripped half to rags by thorns and rocks but were still too fine for any slave. His eyes widened and he took a pace backward, regretting everything, the flung stones and the offered help. I grabbed his arm swiftly, not wanting to lose him. For a moment I thought he’d fight; but all the resistance left him in a rush and he stood as still as any slave, mute and surrendered, starkly terrified. Even the kindest master can be brutal to a recaptured runaway, and the baron had never been kind.

"Easy," I said, wishing I had some better way than words to chase the dull cloud of fear from those brilliant eyes. The hounds bayed again in the near distance. "Hear that? That's for me, not you. That's the baron, hunting me."

He nodded slowly. "I heard them, from -- from where I was. I came this far just to see, and there you were. But --"

But I was a free man, and why was the baron hunting me? It was a fair question, and I didn't have time to answer it, even if he’d found the nerve to ask. Slaves don't question free men, that’s absolute. Even in these circumstances, where fear and flight had made us equal. Almost equal.

"If you know somewhere safe," I urged -- if anywhere could conceivably be safe, here on the baron's own estate -- "could we go there? Now?" Those dogs were coming closer. Only let one of them catch sight of me, and I was doomed. We both were, now.

He nodded again, and turned to the trees' shadow. I let his arm slide out of my grip -- not without a pang, even in these circumstances. Under the grease and dirt and the strange smoky smell of him, there was firm skin and hard young muscle, the beat of hot blood. Soaked through and chilled to the bone and with my life on the line, I couldn't believe I was horny, but even so: it had been a pleasure just to touch him. It was almost a pleasure to drag my weary body into a trot again, if it meant I could trot after him, watching light play on his lean body. He was half-naked, or better than half -- much better! -- with just the ruin of a houseboy's tunic knotted around his waist for some kind of spurious dignity. That was faded and filthy too, but I could still see the baron's house colors in the cloth, crimson and black.

The slave's path took us up a hill thick with undergrowth beneath the trees, some sharp-spined plant that tore further at my ruined trousers and my skin beneath. It stank too, every crushed stem and bruised leaf adding to the reek. At the tree line, where he pulled me down into shadow as he scanned the open slope of the rocky outcrop above, I hissed a protest: “Couldn’t you have found some other way? It's scratched me bloody…” And you too, there were fresh wet streaks in among the mud and scabs on his legs, but I didn't trouble to mention that.

He shook his head. “The dogs can’t track through stinkweed, they won’t go near it. This is where he loses me, every time. I burn it in the cave too…”

That explained the smoky smell on his skin. And the dirt too, perhaps. Dogs and wolves cover their scent by rolling in muck; he might have been taking lessons. I still wanted to take him back to the pool and scrub him sore, to see what exactly lay under that crust of filth and scratches. Not today, though. Today I was suddenly counting on his wisdom to keep me alive, where I’d all but given up on my own account.

When he was ready, when he was sure, he led me on a quick dash over open ground. In the woods some way behind us I could hear the frustrated baying of hounds who had lost their trail, punctuated by a vicious snapping and sudden yelps. The baron was a fool; whips have their uses, but they won’t put hounds back on a scent.

He was still a dangerous fool, though, and he had men as well as dogs under his command. We ran on through more stinkweed and more water, presumably every trick the lad knew to break our trail.

Finally we came to another of those outcrops that broke upward through the forest. He tugged me behind a tangle of creeper where it climbed a rock face, and there was a cave hidden in that cool shadow. I was past words, past thought, utterly done. I sank onto a bed of gathered bracken, almost too exhausted to lie down.

“Wait,” he said softly, “you’re hurt. Let me look. Was it the baron?”

“Oh, what, my shoulder? No. I was clumsy, getting out of the castle in a hurry…” And left an easy trail of blood for the hounds to follow, till they were certain of my scent.

I could see the questions burning in his mouth -- what was I doing in the baron’s castle, and why did I have to run? -- but he wasn’t going to ask. He just tugged the rags of my shirt off with swift, determined fingers, and used them to wipe away the scab of blood and dirt.

“Does it hurt?”

“Of course it hurts. Idiot.”

His mouth twitched into half a smile, while his quick glance up was utterly uncertain. I wanted to reassure him, but he turned away before I could find the words or make the effort.

He came back with a pouch of woven leaves, which held some kind of grease. The deep cut on my shoulder had started bleeding again, thanks to his ministrations; he wiped the fresh blood away and started working in the grease.

“Ouch!” I said, flinching as its sting bit even through the soreness. “What is that?”

“It’s a salve I make, from rabbit fat and herbs. It’ll stop the bleeding, and help you heal.”

It smelled good, as sharp and astringent to my nose as it felt in the wound. Not sharp enough to keep me awake, though. I was sinking already, letting his unexpected strength ease me down onto the bed, asleep before I could even register how scratchy dried bracken is to lie on.

* * * * *

When I woke it was dusk outside, almost entirely dark in the cave. A smudge of red showed where a tiny fire smoked; as my eyes adjusted, I saw him crouched beside it, still and watchful, watching me.

He wouldn’t see a smile; he wouldn’t trust a word. I pulled myself up and sat quietly until he said, “How’s the shoulder?”

“Better, thanks.” I moved it experimentally, felt no trickle of new blood, only the clean ache of wounded flesh.

“Are you hungry?”

I grunted noncommittally. I was ravenous, but he was bone bare, scrawny as an adolescent. I wanted to feed him up almost more than I wanted to wash him. I didn’t imagine the baron's slaves were fed well, but I thought he’d done worse since he ran.

“I’ve put roots to bake in the ashes here,” he said, poking at his little fire with a stick. “They’re not much, but -- well, they’re edible.”

They were. Even two starved young men couldn’t find much more to say about them, but we ate them all, scorching our fingers for the privilege. And drank rainwater from where it gathered in a dip at the cave’s entrance, and then sat over the fire, quiet again until I said, “What shall I call you?”

Those wonderful eyes flashed at me, sullen and resentful. “The baron called me Slut, mostly.”

I bit back a smile and said, “Never mind the baron. That’s not his brand on your shoulder. What were you called before?” I wanted his story, all of it, but I could guess the worst and wait for the rest.

“I was Alfin to the house that raised me.”

“Good, then. I’ll call you Finn.”

He conspicuously didn’t ask in turn what he should call me. He knew, and was stubbornly determined not to do it. No matter. I could wait for that too. For a while.

Exhaustion overtook me again, in waves of weakness. I almost crawled back to the bed -- then looked over to where Finn still crouched on the cold rock floor of the cave.

“Help me with my boots, would you?”

A moment’s stiff reluctance, then he came. The sodden leather clung to my feet, demanding patience and effort together; I really couldn’t have managed, and he was laughing under his breath before the second one eventually submitted, slipping off in a sudden rush that left him sprawling.

That laughter delighted me, but it abandoned him on the instant when my hand reached out to grip his shoulder.

“There’s room here for two,” I said softly, “and nowhere else to sleep.”

Every muscle in his body was abruptly tense, and I wanted to kill the baron. Slowly.

Lacking the opportunity -- and lacking any answer from Finn, beyond that instant giveaway response -- I said, “What are you so afraid of?” He knew the state of me, run to rubble; I couldn’t be cruel to him if I wanted to. I hoped he knew I didn’t want to.

For one long moment I thought he wasn’t going to answer that either. Then he lifted his head and met me eye to eye and whispered, “Disappointment.”

Then he stripped off his ruined tunic in one bitter movement, and did much the same with my trousers before he stretched himself out beside me in the dark.

It took a long time for the tension to ebb out of his body. By the time it had, by the time I felt him relax into the warmth of me where I was just quietly holding him close, I was already ebbing into sleep.

Gambling Heart #5
I knew it, the moment he woke up. He didn’t stir, he didn’t speak, but even so I knew. A little shiver ran all through me, a kind of nervous anticipation: a new day, a new life. A new man. For the first time in months, I had no idea what my future looked like.

A hollow groan rose in the dark beside me. I swallowed down an answering chuckle and nuzzled his shoulder gently instead, just to make sure he knew that I was there. And awake, and ready for him, but mostly just there.

He tasted of salt and smoke and brandy too. I don’t know if people can really sweat out alcohol, but that morning I thought I could get drunk myself just by kissing his skin. If I was allowed to.

I heard him stifle another groan. A moment later, a curious hand reached out beneath the covers and touched my thigh, then my cock.

It lingered there for a minute, curled around my morning stiffness; then slid up over my belly and chest, light and inquiring, until it found its way to the iron collar around my neck and the chain clipped to its ring.

That must have answered both the immediate questions in his surely muzzy head: I was male, and I was slave.

Hopefully, he could work the rest out for himself.

His fingers traced my lips, my eyes, my hair, as if he was reaching for a touch memory in the dark, building a picture in his head. Hoping to trigger some clear recollection, maybe, just what might have happened the night before...

His body shifted, rising above me as he propped himself up on one elbow. Moving was a mistake, though, fatal. A moment later he was sitting bolt upright in the bed and swallowing convulsively. “I need--”

I was way ahead of him, reaching out to snatch up the basin I’d left handy just in case. I thrust that into his lap just in time; he bent over it, spewing wretchedly.

I knelt on the mattress beside him, holding his shoulders until he was down to dry retching. Then I pushed my fingers through the sweat-soaked tangle of his hair, and nudged him into sitting back against the headboard.

“Wait one minute, Master.”

Working by touch, I found the ewer on the side table and poured a beaker of cool water. I pressed that into his hands, making sure he had a grip before I took my own hands away. “Here. Swill and spit, don’t swallow.”

He did what he was told, my good master, then handed me the basin mutely. The chain on my collar ran to a staple at the foot of the bed; it was just long enough--or this room was just small enough--to let me reach the door unhindered.

I had to feel in the darkness for the unfamiliar latch, but there was an unshuttered window in the passage outside. The gray smudge of the predawn sky gave me light enough to see what I was doing as I set the basin down on the floor. It’d be full day in an hour. I wasn’t any too impressed with my new owner’s accommodations, but even in a rooming house as cheap as this I reckoned I could count on a slave coming by soon enough. I’d noticed last night that the rooms might be mean but the floors were scrubbed and the brass was polished. That didn’t happen by magic.

I closed the door with relief on the foul-smelling basin, and made my way back to the bed. He was still sitting there, hiccuping gently, with the beaker clasped loosely in his hands. I filled it again and this time encouraged him to drink.

“Better now?”

“My head hurts.”

“Yes, Master. I know a cure for that.”

“I’m not drinking some foul witches’ brew. I’ve tried too many miracle cures. None of them works, and they all taste more disgusting than each other.”

You drink too much, I thought cheerfully, Master mine. I might have to do something about that. For now I just knelt astride his legs, wrapped my arms loosely around his neck, nuzzled at his lips until they parted. His breath was still tainted with acid, but I kissed him determinedly. Then I murmured, “This cure tastes better than that. And works better too,” as I tugged him down onto the mattress and pulled the covers up over our heads.

I made him sweat again, and then I let him sleep again. I slept too, curled against his side, until I felt him shift and stretch. I was instantly awake then, opening my eyes to find his just a hand span away, looking at me quizzically. It was hard to be sure in the dim light, but I thought they were gray, his eyes, behind his absurdly thick lashes. His hair was a dark, overgrown disgrace that my fingers yearned to play with; I wanted to brush it into glossy good order, then tie it back in a ponytail, just for the pleasure of pulling the ribbon loose again and watching his hair fall back in soft, natural waves around the extraordinary beauty of his face.

“Hullo.” His voice was awkward, still hoarse from last night, and still careful from this morning’s consequences.

“’Morning, Master.”

His fingers were at my throat, puzzled, feeling at the ring of my collar for a tag that wasn’t there.

“What’s your name, boy?”

I just shrugged, and shook my head slightly. I didn’t have one yet.

“Well, who do you belong to?”

This time, I couldn’t keep the smile from my face. “Don’t you remember?”

His turn to shake his head, gingerly. “I remember...I remember dinner at the tavern and getting into a game I couldn’t afford. Nothing new there,” he added ruefully, “except how surprised I was that they would ever play with me.” Free folk are heedless with their slaves sometimes, confessing things they’d never tell their friends. “After that... No, I don’t remember. Did I borrow you from someone?”

“No, Master.” I couldn’t speak for his friends, but the people he gambled with were not that generous, to lend their slaves to him.

“Hire you for the night, then?” His hand on my cheek said he could understand why he would have done that; his anxious frown said he really couldn’t afford it if he had.

I turned my head to kiss his fingers. “Not that either. I belong to you now.”


“Belong to you. Master.”

“Oh, gods. Don’t tell me I bought you? If I could afford to keep a boy, don’t you think I’d have one already?” His gaze swept around the room, in a gesture that pointed up both his poverty and his desperate need of a body slave. The more light that leaked in through the cracked shutters, the more it revealed about the way he lived. Young man adrift in the big city, barely keeping body and soul together. His clothes were threadbare and scattered any old how across the furniture and the floor. His boots were scuffed and shamefully dull. The sword hanging on the back of the door lacked a scabbard, and I thought there was rust on the blade.

“You didn’t buy me. You won me.” In that game you couldn’t afford, my extravagant Master.

“I...won you?”

“Yes, Master.”

“I never win anything.”

I could believe that. His whole life had an air of bitter bad luck about it. And yet he kept playing, he didn’t give up. I thought I could admire that, perhaps. Even while I rolled my eyes at his intransigence.

I thought I might have to do a lot of eye rolling, in days to come.

For a minute then he didn’t say anything, only lay there with one hand exploring my body slowly. Then he slapped my flank, suddenly decisive; said, “Get up and open the shutters. Carefully,” added with a quick anticipatory wince.

I slithered out of bed and crossed the room, stalked by a metallic rustle as I felt the weight of chain dragging behind me. The shutter’s hinges creaked as I drew them open; the fall of sunlight was warm and welcome on my bare skin.

“Come here.”

Back across the room I went, a few short strides, feeling the weight of his gaze now, heavier than the chain and warmer than sunlight. He was squinting a little against that light as he looked me up and down. I stood passive and exposed before him, hands behind my back, eyes down, legs apart, the image of an obedient slave boy.


Eyes up, hands behind my head, legs wider. My body was there before my mind caught up. That’s what training does; it settles bone-deep. Obedience is almost instinct after a while.

He looked his fill and took his time about it. Free folk seldom hurry; it’s what they keep us for, to do their hurrying for them.


I turned around on the word, still holding the same pose, letting him see the back of me.

He grunted. “Bad boy, are you?”

“N-no, Master.”

“This says you are. Not such a bargain after all. Maybe your last master was glad to be shot of you, eh? ”

It wasn’t a question; I didn’t say a word. Besides, I had my lip caught tight between my teeth to keep myself from yelping as his thumbs counted off the evidence, all the welts and bruises from my last whipping.

That had been three days before. This slow exploration of the damage almost hurt worse. Almost. The soreness settles into your bones and you learn to live with it, almost to take it for granted; you learn to how to move and how to lie still, how not to disturb it while it slumbers, while you heal. Then along comes a free man with a devil in his fingers, who seems to know just how to pinch and where to press, to wake it all into fire again.

Heart's Hunt #6
The sound of busy splashing drew me down to the water’s edge.

A storm had passed through ahead of me; soft leather boots on soft ground kept me as quiet as I wished, while heavy spring foliage gave all the cover I needed. Lurking is a craft, a skill that I have practiced, but sometimes the scenery makes it easy.

He never would have heard me anyway, over the rush of the river and the noise he made himself. Young men are seldom quiet by nature. That too is a skill, and this particular young man had found no cause to learn it. He yelped aloud as he ducked below the fast, bitter stream; he came up gasping, and hurled water in all directions as he flailed his arms in the sunlight, as though he could hug all that warmth to himself. And pushed his long sodden hair back with both hands, and yelped again as an icy trickle ran down his spine and between his butt cheeks. And laughed at himself even while the chill of it had him hopping from foot to foot on the stony riverbed, and scrubbed energetically at his smooth golden skin, and ducked again as if it was a dare, as if he was twelve again...

He hadn’t been twelve for a while. He looked nineteen, maybe twenty; certainly no older. Fully grown, not yet grown fully into his strength. He had the lean supple muscles of youth, laid over long clean bones. Coupled with that shimmering skin and the striking mane of black hair--well... I crouched deep into shadow, and settled down to watch.

I like to think I’m ready for anything, but beauty can always take me by surprise.

He was a scrupulous boy, intent on his washing despite the savage cold of these mountain waters. He scrubbed himself with river sand; he rinsed his hair and worked out tangles with his fingers before rinsing it again. He sat on the grassy bank and used a rough stone against hard skin on his heels: a fastidious boy, still with a lot to learn about running barefoot in the hills. He’d have grown glad of those calluses, if he’d only had the time.

I watched with a kind of pent delight, that pleasure that experience can take in innocence. At last, after he’d worked a finger vigorously in each ear to dispel any lingering water, as he rubbed himself down with the coarse length of linen he’d abandoned over a bush before he took his bath, I reached out a hand deliberately to snap a twig off the shrub that sheltered me.

He heard that, no mistake. For a moment he was still as a fawn, alert and afraid. Only his eyes moved, scanning all the river bank to try to spot the danger. He was too hurried, too anxious, too young; he didn’t know how to seek stillness in the shifting shadows. His gaze moved over me without a moment’s pause.

He saw nothing that his boy’s mind could understand as a threat. Nevertheless, he was wise enough to hold on to his alarm. Hastily pushing his head through a slit in the linen to make the simplest possible tunic out of it, snatching up the rope that would knot it into a kind of decency, he was ten paces up the path before he remembered. And came back for another thicker length of rope that he reluctantly wrapped twice around his throat and tied off tight.

Then he was gone, swift as a stag in flight, all long legs and a flash of rump below the flapping tunic. I grinned mercilessly, thinking how a collar only set off his beauty more. And how another better collar would do a better job, one that he couldn’t remove at will; and how a wise boy, this boy, any boy would claim such a collar any day, sooner than the fate that lay ahead, if only he could see it.

* * * * *

Not half an hour later, I rode through the ford and along a winding path to the charcoal-burner’s clearing. I had scouted this already in the dark; I knew the way. And I didn’t want the youngster’s alarm to pass to the old man. Better to be there and so confirm the boy’s fears in the ready flesh, than to arrive too late and find them both gone.

Besides, I wanted a closer look at him, and there could be no time better than now.

My horse can be as quiet as myself, when there is need. This day, though, I rode with a loose rein, like a man with nothing to hide. I let her make all the noise she cared to, as she squeezed her broad body along the narrow path.

He must have heard us, long before we came out of the trees’ shadow. The clearing held a simple cabin, two charcoal clamps, one boy. One of the clamps was turfed over and smoking sullenly, despite the earlier rain; the other was half built, logs stacked vertically, leaning together in a neat and intricate pattern. The boy stood halfway between that and the wood’s margin, with a fresh-trimmed log on his shoulder. He was tense, uncertain, glancing back at the supposed shelter of the trees, half inclined to run again. Loyalty or training held him fast, though, if only just. I thought a breath of relief escaped him, in that moment where he saw I was alone.

What, did he think one solitary man no risk to him or his? I hid another grin. And let my eyes wander obviously up and down the long length of him, where he stood poised in the sunlight, robbed of motion under a free man’s gaze.

The faded, threadbare, oft-washed linen clung to his still-damp skin, showing me all the lines of his body, as clear almost as when he was buck naked in the stream. Now I had no need to hide my enjoyment; nor my impatience, as still he only stood there staring up at me.

“You, boy--take my horse!”

His tangled curls still shone wet and dark as he mumbled something that might have been “Yes, Master”--though it might frankly have been anything--as he dropped the log and came running to Bel’s head. I slid from her back, with my long leather riding switch in hand. Another boy would have known what was coming and been ready, if that has ever made any difference. This one was too new. He had too much to learn, perhaps, and no one taking the time to train him. Some part of me lamented the loss of that, of what he might have become. What I might have made of him.

Still: here and now, I was happy to do what I could. The first slash across his rump startled a cry out of him, outrage as much as pain. He bit it back too late, glowering at me. I saw him remember the collar on his throat and choose to be a good boy, to stand quiet under discipline.

It shouldn’t be a choice. I wished again that I might have the training of him, with all the various pleasures that would promise.

Not so, alas. Not after today, at least. Right now I was free and he was slave, and we had time for one brief lesson. Another stinging slash won his attention, if not his heart. I said, “Wake up, boy. And don’t glare at free folk, and don’t mumble. Where will I find your master?”

The boy swallowed his indignation, and jerked his head towards the hut; when I lifted my switch one more time, he said, “Please, he’s in the workshop. Master.”

That last word came too slow and too burdened with resentment. I really should have stung him again, but it was far too late to teach him his manners now. I had won at least an appearance of respect, however reluctant and superficial it was; I could be content with that, so long as it came hand in hand with a minimum obedience. We wouldn’t be together long, after all. I had no time and no reason to make a bright and eager slave boy out of him.

It just seemed a pity, so much beauty and potential gone to waste.

Still. I had my path to follow; he had his. He stood before me, his eyes downcast in a parody of submission while his chin was high and stubborn, while all his body else was straight and proud. The sun struck shadows from the fine sculpted bones of his face. His shoulders were broad, his hips were lean, his skin glowed supple gold with the shimmer of sweat and youth. The muscles in his bare legs trembled, so tight they were; he must have been expecting to feel my switch again. He knew that he had earned it.

Instead, I reached my hand beneath the brief, ragged hem of his tunic and took his cock in a firm grip.

The boy startled, and gasped aloud. If both hands hadn’t been busy with the bridle of my mettlesome Bel, I thought he would have pushed me away--or tried to--simply as a matter of instinct.

Author Bio:
Author Thom Lane is an English writer who has published romances and erotica as well as fantasies and other books under other names. In his tales of Amaranth, he is combining as many of those genres as possible…


Dark Heart #1

Healing Heart #2

Hidden Heart #3

Runaway Heart #4

Gambling Heart #5

Heart's Hunt #6