4. The Devil’s Crown

Ehandar woke with a throbbing, heavy head. Almost immediately the events of the preceding evening flooded into his consciousness. When he had dressed himself he went to Anaxantis’s room. The moment he opened the door the stale smell of urine made him retch. Anaxantis was awake and glared at him with contempt and disdain, mingled with an undertone of fear. Ehandar loosened the collar from the chain and carried him to the bathroom.

“Clean yourself up,” he said not unkindly, “and stay here till I come to get you. In the meantime I will let the servants clean your room and give you a new mattress and covers.”

He looked at the still naked boy, who had dark patches under his blue-gray eyes. Anaxantis stared back at him with a vacuous look.

“I’ll get you some clean clothes,” Ehandar said while leaving the bathroom. He turned around. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. It… it shouldn’t have happened.”

Anaxantis remained mute and his eyes seemed to look right through him.

“What did I expect?” Ehandar thought irritated with himself. “He was hardly going to say that it was all right then, was he? I shouldn’t drink that much wine. I’m not used to it. It makes people stupid, and it makes them do things they normally wouldn’t do.”

But there was a second voice that very quietly kept asking “Are you sure it was only the wine?” The voice was so feeble that he easily pushed it to the background.

When the servants had finished cleaning the little room and had replaced the soaked sheets with crisp, fresh ones, Ehandar admonished them.

“You better be discreet about this. My brother is sick and he doesn’t need you lot gossiping about some unfortunate accident that was out of his control. If I hear but a whisper about this, you will all pay dearly. Understood?”

The servants nodded, duly intimidated.

“Well, at least the out-of-his-control part is true,” he thought bitterly. “Damn it, this should never have happened.”

When they had gone he went to get Anaxantis who meanwhile had washed and dressed himself. He locked him to the long chain beside the hearth.

“There is food on the table. Bread, butter, cold cuts and three kinds of cheese. Eat something. You’ll feel better.”

The boy didn’t seem to have heard him. Ehandar sighed and stood up. It seemed as if he wanted to say something, but he turned around and left.

“What is there to say?” he thought, disconcerted. “If he needs to be killed, I’ll kill him, but I’ll do it clean and quick.”

“I’ll race you to that tree on the hill,” Gorth yelled and rode off full speed. Ehandar gave his own horse the spurs and darted after him like an arrow out of a bow.

By only a hair’s breadth Gorth won the race and, laughing, the two friends sat down beneath an old tree.

“Feeling better?” asked Gorth, suddenly serious. “You looked mighty troubled last evening.”

“That’s because I realized that I’m in a hopeless situation,” Ehandar smiled wryly. “Later some more truths struck home. It seems my father, His Glorious Majesty the high king of Ximerion, has set me up to fail. He has given me totally inadequate means to hold the Northern Marches, and, what’s more, he knew perfectly well what he was doing. Draw your own conclusions.”

Gorth looked at his friend with a worried expression.

“Why don’t you ask him for reinforcements?” he said. “Explain to him in what state you found the defenses of the northern border.”

“As if he didn’t know that already, Gorth,” Ehandar replied, shaking his head. “If I ask him for reinforcements, I as good as admit that I am incompetent. No, that’s the last thing I want to do, go crying to daddy for help.”

“Can’t you recruit extra troops locally? The cities must have militias. Commandeer them. You are the lord governor after all. Surely it is within your authority.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Ehandar mused, “the Northern Marches consist of the Province of Amiratha, the County of Mirkadesh and, in the south, the Duchy of Landemere. I’ll visit the most important cities of Amiratha, to begin with Dermolhea and Ghiasht. They are nearest the border and stand to lose the most. If I remember correctly there isn’t a count of Mirkadesh anymore since four or five generations. The county is ruled by a council of elders, chosen from all villages. If I can organize them, they may be able to defend their stretch of the border. That’s about thirty, forty miles taken care of. The duchy of Landemere is another matter. They lie so far to the south that they feel not responsible for the defense of the frontier. The old duchess is stingy it seems, but I’ll pressure the old broad to give me a contingent of soldiers.”

He smiled at Gorth.

“Yes, it could work.”

“And don’t worry about Portonas or Tenaxos. We have everything under control. We’ll keep you posted of their slightest move,” Gorth assured his friend with a broad, self-confident grin. “You’ll see, the Devil’s Crown will be yours eventually.”

“Is it that what I want?” Ehandar asked himself. “The Devil’s Crown? Legend has it that the crown of Ximerion hails back to the first man who declared himself king. Zardok, the king of the devils, became so enraged at this impudence that he swore to exact vengeance. He forged a crown of pure gold and gave it to the first human king, who wore it proudly, thinking that the devil himself bowed to his majesty. But the longer he wore the crown, the more the poison that Zardok had imbued it with drove him mad. At first it made him overly confident in his own accomplishments, then haughty and arrogant with pride. Later the crown made him paranoid and suspicious of all those around him, still later mad with fear of losing it and at last ruthless and cruel in his efforts to keep it. At the same time its magical beauty was such that everyone who saw it coveted it. And since that day no wearer of the crown has ever known a peaceful night. Do I really want this? But what else can I do? I am in a race that I must win or lose, because I am not allowed to quit. Unless I flee my homeland.”

The next day Gorth left to rejoin the Southern Army. Ehandar accompanied him a few miles. When he saw his friend disappear behind the hills, the feeling of abandonment returned, but this time he had a feasible plan and he was certain that he could drive his fears away by resolute action.

On the southeastern side of Torantall, the capital of Zyntrea, there is a steep hill of solid rock, rising abruptly to a height of over three hundred feet. It is only accessible from one side. At the top, on a plateau of about four hundred by two hundred yards, stands the ancient temple of Astonema, the Goddess of Wisdom. Or so the common people believe. In reality it is the main temple of the Great Mother and the seat of her cult.

Three old women slowly traversed the vast interior space. The oldest was known to the worshipers of Astonema as the High Priestess, but her true title was simply the First Daughter of the Great Mother.

“I still marvel how this imposing building manages to uplift your spirits,” the Second Daughter said.

“That is,” the First Daughter replied, “because it was designed to make you feel part of its greatness and not, like the temples or houses of worship of the false gods, to make you feel small, fearful and humble.”

“Shouldn’t we concentrate on the matter at hand?” the Third Daughter asked. “Our plans lie in ruins around us.”

“Maybe not exactly in ruins,” the First Daughter mused, “but they are certainly damaged. Let’s just hope not beyond repair.”

They went through a door that led to a room with a vast balcony that looked out over the city of Torantall.

“I always feared something like this might happen,” the Third Daughter said. “We have depended too much on too few people. My fears have come true. Emelasuntha has disappeared and so has her son. He was supposed to herald the new age of the Great Mother under her guidance.”

“He may not be dead yet,” the First Daughter replied. “And the Ormidonian branch of the Sisterhood is actively looking for his mother. We must consider giving them permission to use disciples of the seventh outer circle.”

“Don’t forget,” the Third Daughter countered, “that even if Anaxantis is still alive his medicines will soon run out. What will happen then?”

“He will recover, I suppose.” The First Daughter shrugged. “We can always start the treatment over, or find other means to make him into the king we want. Maybe Emelasuntha has enough influence over him to rule him without any aid. Don’t forget that he isn’t prepared for the throne. He is more of a scholar, and he has no training in kingship, diplomacy or weaponry. Moreover, as far as we can tell he has no inclination to become a warrior.”

“So where does all this leave us?” the Second Daughter intervened.

“We carry on with those parts of the plan that are not affected. It can’t be difficult. The House of Tanahkos is already divided against itself. It will just require a nudge here and there, a little push now and again… and then the Devil’s Crown will fall of its own accord into the lap of he who will become the weak king.”

“May the Great Mother help us,” the Second Daughter sighed.

Ehandar’s first attempt to get more troops for the defense of the border began with a visit to Mirkadesh. The county consisted of six villages of about equal size, lying closely together. The main activity there was agriculture. The villages all looked about the same, with simple, well-maintained houses and farms. The people seemed, if not happy, well-contented. He was received with all honors by the Assembly of Elders. He explained that due to several circumstances the county would be expected to defend its own stretch of the border from now on.

“We have no weapons,” one of the elders said, “and if we had, we wouldn’t know how to use them.”

“You can buy weapons and I will provide experienced soldiers to train your men,” Ehandar replied.

“The problem is, Your Lordship,” the elder said, “that we have no gold or money to buy weapons with. That is probably why the Mukthars have not attacked us for more than seventy years. We produce what we need ourselves and have little to do with people from outside Mirkadesh. What little money our modest trade brings in is just about enough to pay the taxes.”

“You mean you have no treasury, no reserves?” Ehandar inquired. “Whatever do you do when a harvest yields too little to feed yourselves?”

“That is in the hands of the Gods,” the elder replied.

“Maybe I can provide weapons. How many men between twenty and forty-five years old can you free for military duties?”

“That is another problem, Your Lordship. You see, we need everybody to work the fields and herd the flocks or we can’t produce enough to sustain ourselves. Your Lordship will agree with us that it wouldn’t help the war effort if famine broke out in Mirkadesh.”

“So, if I understand you correctly,” Ehandar said, exasperated, “you have no money, no weapons, and no men. In case the Mukthars should attack, in spite of your optimistic predictions, what are you planning to do?”

“Flee to the nearby mountains if time permits it. If not, it is in the hands of the Gods,” the elder shrugged.

Ehandar felt suddenly depressed.

“In other words, you are not going to lift a finger to defend yourself,” he said, trying to keep the dejection out of his voice, “but you count on the Ximerionian army to safeguard you.”

“Forgive me, Your Lordship, I don’t mean to be impudent, but isn’t that why we pay taxes?” the elder asked.

Ehandar didn’t know what else to say. It was like hitting a sponge. It didn’t resist, but gave in and regained its original form as soon as the fist was lifted. He couldn’t even be angry. Mirkadesh wasn’t going to be a factor in the defense of the northern border, and that was that.

Mirkadesh, it seemed, was content to be in the hands of the Gods.

Martillia was studying the gigantic statue of Astonema, the Goddess of Wisdom, that stood in the Great Temple, when out of a small door the Second Daughter appeared.

“They say it was fashioned after an ancient original, you know,” she said to Martillia. “Astonema used to be the Goddess of War and Hunting, but after the Darkening she was supplanted by a male God. She didn’t disappear however. She became the Goddess of Wisdom, yet retained all attributes of her former role. Wasn’t that clever of her? See how she still wears a helmet and a breastplate and carries a shield and a spear?”

“What is that little winged creature she is carrying upon her extended hand?” Martillia asked.

“Ha, nobody is very certain, but some think that it is the Goddess of Victory. The lesson she gives us here is that ultimately victory is the gift of wisdom.” The Second Daughter smiled.

“And the result of wearing sturdy armor and carrying sharp weapons,” Martillia thought dryly.

“The First Daughter permits you to use disciples of the seventh outer circle in the search for Emelasuntha,” the Second Daughter resumed. “We will send no additional reinforcements, but we will take it directly upon us to look after Anaxantis. That will free up about ten of the sisters of the Ormidonian Chapter.”

“Very well, convey our thanks to her Holiness. I will depart immediately for Ormidon.”

“May the Great Mother guard your path, daughter.”

Martillia descended the broad path that led from the Temple into the city of Torantall. Before undertaking the journey home, she had to take care of just one thing. She was horny. Better to get that irritating feeling out of the way. She was not planning on losing time to find a suitable willing partner. She would simply pay for one. Luckily she knew that the best place to find whores in almost every city was near major temples or houses of worship.

While she made her way through the narrow little streets she looked for a male prostitute that wouldn’t disgust her too much. When she found one to her liking, she stepped resolutely towards him.

“You, boy, is your dick for hire or is it only your hole you are selling? I’m willing to pay you a Ximerionian moltar.”

“But you’re a woman… a girl…” the prostitute gasped.

“Can’t get it up with women, can you? Not even for that much money?” she taunted him while showing him the silver coin.

“It is more money than I could hope to make in a day and night,” the prostitute debated with himself. “Besides, with her short hair, she almost looks like a boy. A pretty boy at that.”

“Of course, I can,” he replied, “and I even have my own place nearby.”

“Lead the way then, boy. I am horny and I don’t have much time”

“She has a foul mouth. But as long as she’s paying…”

Once in the dusty little room that was dominated by a bed, Martillia began to undress.

“Come on, boy, strip. I haven’t got all day.”

For the first time since he had entered the business, the prostitute felt embarrassed.

“How do you want me to mount you, lady? Any special—”

“You? Mount me?” Martillia laughed out loud. “Are you mad, boy? I will ride you. On your back on the bed.”

He hesitated.

“Come on, you are bought and paid for. Lie down.”

Reluctantly the young man did so. Martillia took her leather belt, grabbed his hands and tied them up, while keeping him down with one knee on his chest. She fastened the belt on one of the spokes of the head of the bed.

The prostitute lay defenseless, with his hands tied above his head.

“What are you doing?” he whimpered.

“You’re a male, boy, kind of anyway, and as such you can’t be trusted to control yourself. I don’t want your grubby mitts all over my body. I have use for one, and only one part of you.”

She looked at the flaccid dick of the prostitute.

“By the stinking hole of Sardoch, he can’t get it up and I am certainly not going to suck him. Let’s see if some light beating excites him.”

She sighed.

“This might take longer than I expected.”

Uppam Fraleck had been lord mayor of Dermolhea for twenty-eight years. He had seen a lot of people come and go and he prided himself on having outlasted all of them. From a window in the council room he saw the lord governor of the Northern Marches with his retinue walk across the inner courtyard.

“He is alone,” he reflected. “Could it be true what they say? That he has murdered his brother and colleague. I wouldn’t at all be surprised. He is a Tanahkos and the wolf cubs will already be fighting over the throne. He is a Tanahkos and that means he is arrogant. He is also young, very young. That as well means he is arrogant and at the same time susceptible to flattery. Well, feigning deference is easy enough. I wouldn’t be where I am if I couldn’t do something as simple as that.”

Ehandar was welcomed into the Council Room by a beaming lord mayor.

“Your Royal Highness,” he almost purred, “it is an honor… Please, take my seat.”

He bowed and pointed to an ornate chair at the head of a large table. Ehandar sat down.

“Thank you, Mayor,” he said. “Do you have something to drink? It was a tiring journey.”

The mayor clapped his hands, and two servants came into the council room, carrying drinks and refreshments on silver plates. The mayor himself poured wine into a silver cup and offered it to the lord governor.

“In your letter you stated that there were certain matters you wished to discuss with me?” the mayor asked.

“He could have given me my full title of ‘Lord Mayor.’ He accepted the ‘Royal Highness’ readily enough.”

“Yes,” Ehandar replied, after he had taken a few swigs of wine, “I see you like to come straight to business. Good. I like that as well. As you know, my first responsibility is the defense of the northern border. We can’t be certain just when or where, but the probability of an attack by the Mukthars is very high. I don’t have to remind you what happened twelve years ago, I suppose?”

“No, you don’t. I was here until the day before they came. Of course, when they did arrive I was already far away. And you, you were all of five years old at the time,” Uppam Fraleck scoffed silently.

“Our fair city was sacked, and, alas, many lives were lost.”

“Yes, exactly. I hope to prevent that this time around. To that end I am mobilizing as many men as I can. My own troops are not sufficient to effectively withstand them. I’ll be as direct as I can, Mayor. I want Dermolhea to take part in the responsibility of its defense. I’m here to commandeer your militia.”

“But of course, Your Royal Highness,” the mayor acquiesced in an oily voice. “The militia is at your disposal.”

“And a fat lot of good it will do you. The militia has about two hundred members. They’re supposed to practice, mainly archery, to defend the walls. In fact most of them became a member of the militia for the honor, such as it is, or the uniform, or the empty titles they call themselves by. Most of their gatherings are spent drinking beer and wine. I doubt they could hit a cow standing ten feet away with an arrow. But they are all yours.”

“Excellent. How many men are we talking about?”

“Finally, I’m getting somewhere,” Ehandar thought.

“I am not sure. Two hundred and ten or two hundred twenty-five. Something like that. Archers mainly.”

“Is that all?” Ehandar exclaimed. “Dermolhea is a city of seventy-five thousand inhabitants and all you’re offering me is two hundred archers? That’s not even three men for every thousand citizens.”

“What can I say?” The lord mayor almost shrugged. “This is how things stand.”

“Well, it won’t do. I want at least a contingent of two thousand men from Dermolhea.”

“Ah, Your Royal Highness, that will be difficult, but I will do my best of course. I will put it on the agenda of the very next meeting of the Council. You know how it is. I have twenty-four colleagues and decisions of this kind can only be made by a two-thirds majority. It will not be easy.”

“Nothing seems to be easy in the Northern Marches,” Ehandar reflected bitterly. “I know these councils. They will talk and talk, interminably… and do nothing. Don’t these people care at all that a savage tribe can attack them and sack their city all over again?”

The conversation continued for about half an hour during which Ehandar conveyed his firm intention to rouse the whole province into a state of defensibility, and the Lord Mayor gave his equally firm assurance that he would assist him with all the power of his office.

By mid August, Ehandar had gotten thoroughly depressed. Wherever he turned he met with, not exactly resistance, but a debilitating lack of enthusiasm on the part of the inhabitants for taking the slightest interest in their own defense. The further cities and communities lay from the border, the greater their lack of motivation was. Only the Duchy of Landemere remained to be visited. When he had formed his plans, he had calculated that the duchess could at the very least provide him with a contingent of about a thousand soldiers. Now, he wasn’t all that certain anymore. The wily old bird would probably find ways to wriggle out of any pressure he could apply on her.

The greatest success he had booked was with the small tribe of the Cheridoni. Four hundred years ago they had sought asylum in Ximerion, and they had been given a small valley at the eastern border under the provision that they were responsible for the defense of its mountain passes. They were permitted to keep their own laws and customs, as long as they fulfilled their obligations and recognized the overlordship of Ximerion. The Cheridoni had received Ehandar with great hospitality, but he saw immediately that their population was rather small. Their main occupation was raising horses and training them. Cheridonian horses had an excellent reputation. They immediately acknowledged their debt to the kingdom of Ximerion that had sheltered them for the last four hundred years and had offered him hundred and fifty horses, which represented an enormous amount of money for their tribe. They also agreed to form a cavalry unit of fifty warriors on horseback, fully equipped and trained. They had requested respectfully that their unit be allowed to remain under the command of their own officers.

Ehandar had been all too happy to grant this reasonable demand. He had even offered to give their commander the rank of general in the Ximerionian auxiliary army, a gesture which had greatly pleased the elders of the tribe. Relatively speaking their contribution to the defense efforts was the highest of all. Six weeks later a first unit of twenty warriors, accompanied by fifty horses had arrived at Lorseth.

The grand total of three months of efforts to raise troops had resulted in about eleven hundred extra soldiers of — with some exceptions — mostly doubtful quality.

It was not nearly enough.

While pondering his next move in the war room, a guard announced a visitor who claimed to bring news of Gorth of Sidullia. When the man entered he saw that it was Gorth himself, his once dark red hair now straw blond. Gorth wasn’t smiling as he entered.

“Gorth,” Ehandar exclaimed, “what have you done to your hair?”

“I’ve bleached it, and I am traveling under a different name, Ehandar,” he replied, while hugging his friend. “I have terrible news, I’m afraid. I came as fast as I could.”

Ehandar gave Gorth a cup of wine.

“Out with it,” he said with an eerie feeling of impending doom.

“We’ve been discovered. The servant of Portonas we had bribed has been found out, or he has betrayed us, we’re not certain which. Anyhow, when he had his next meeting with Rullio he was covertly accompanied by Portonas’s men. Rullio was captured. When after several hours he failed to return, we went looking for him. Nothing, only signs of a struggle and his sword. We don’t know where he has been taken. From what we know of Portonas, it is almost certain he has been tortured.”

“Portonas wouldn’t dare. Rullio is of the highest nobility,” Ehandar said, more in hope than because he believed it himself.

“Ha, as if that would stop Portonas. As I said, Rullio has been taken to an unknown location, probably far away from Fort Nira where your father has made his headquarters. They will have recognized him of course, so Portonas now knows that it was we, your friends, who spied on him. The five of us have fled the army, rather than keep waiting till Portonas came for us. By the Gods, I hope Rullio is dead by now.”

Ehandar said nothing, paralyzed with fear.

“He will come after me for certain now,” his panicking thoughts raced. “This is worse than three months ago. There will be no doubt in his mind anymore that I am a danger to him. He will feel it necessary to eliminate me. And now I am blind and deaf also. I have no way of knowing what is happening at the southern border, except what they choose to tell me in official communications.”

“What will you do?” he managed to ask.

“I thought to apply to the cavalry here, under an assumed name. That way maybe I can still be useful to you, and it is the farthest I can flee without actually leaving Ximerion. If you have no objections, that is.”

“No, it’s fine. I believe there are openings. A few men got injured and some were decommissioned for various reasons. If you encounter any difficulty, I will intervene on your behalf.”

“Better not, Ehandar. In fact we should meet as little as possible. I don’t want to break cover, except when strictly necessary. I’m sure I’m more than qualified to be accepted on my own merits.”

“Do you need anything? Money?”

Gorth grinned.

“I’m good, thank you. After all, I will be earning a salary. For now I will return to the woods nearby and sleep there. Tomorrow Serimar Delono will present himself to the recruiting officer.”

They went over the situation again until evening fell and Gorth could leave under the cover of darkness.

Anaxantis sat by the hearth, quietly reading a book, when Ehandar returned. Beside him was the empty bowl out of which he had eaten the simple porridge that had been his staple for the last three months. He didn’t say a word and continued reading while Ehandar ungirded his sword and laid it on the table. After taking off his mantle and tunic with the eagle crest, and hanging them in the wardrobe, he sank into the big chair by the hearth, which at this time of the year was not burning. He rested his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.

The fear had swollen to full fledged panic.

“What am I going to do? What am I going to do? Before this happened there was a chance that Portonas would have left me alone. Now that he knows I suspect him and have been spying on him, he will surely want me gone. And I still don’t have enough troops to defend the border. Demrac and the other generals barely take me seriously, and the lower officers don’t know me, let alone the soldiers. At any moment a Royal Writ, whether it be one from Father or Portonas, could undermine my position. Worse, I could find myself a prisoner instead of lord governor. There must be a way to avoid this, but I’ll be damned if I can see it.”

Behind his back Anaxantis, who had carefully observed him as well as he could from his position, quietly went to the table where Ehandar had left his sword. Without making a sound he removed the belt. Then he went back to where his brother sat and threw it into his brother’s lap.

“Use it,” he said calmly, while he loosened the laces of his shirt, “it will make you feel better. It did the last time.”

“What?” Ehandar asked, flustered. “What do you mean?”

“Beat me. You’re obviously in pain. Share it with me. Beat me. You like to beat me, don’t you?”

Anaxantis removed his shirt and turned his back to his brother. Ehandar was stunned and immediately torn from his worries.

“Is that really how he sees me?” he thought. “But of course he sees me like some monster that likes to inflict pain. He has no reason to think otherwise.”

“No,” he said forcefully. “I won’t beat you. I don’t want to. Why would—”

“Then take me,” Anaxantis interrupted him while loosening the drawstrings of his pants. “I know for certain you liked that.”

“Piss on me, if it makes you feel better,” he added.

“Is he serious? What has gotten into him?” Ehandar thought, stunned.

He looked at his brother, clad only in his drawers, his face impassive yet earnest.

“His hair has grown and it suits him. In fact, he is quite handsome. Strange that I never saw that.”

“No,” he said, but it sounded less self-assured. “Why would you even… consider this?”

Anaxantis shrugged.

“You’re my brother,” he said, “and I love you. Maybe more than one should love a brother. I don’t like to see you in pain.”

Anaxantis came nearer and sat in Ehandar’s lap, throwing one arm around his neck and laying a hand upon his breast.

“Take me,” he whispered into Ehandar’s ear. “You want to. I want you to.”

He moved his hand downwards.

“You can’t lie to me anymore, Ehandar. Your body speaks for you.”

Ehandar felt himself blush.

“No,” he said, “it will hurt. I’ve hurt you too much already.”

“I don’t care and you will be gentle,” Anaxantis said and his lips sought Ehandar’s.

“Is there no battle, no battle at all I can win? Have I no defenses? Even here?”

“We’re brothers,” Ehandar said, his words belying what he really wanted.

“We’re half brothers. If that. But first and foremost we’re Tanahkoses. We don’t obey laws. We make them,” Anaxantis replied, in a soft yet confident voice, barely breaking the contact of their lips.

Hesitantly, very cautiously, Ehandar kissed him back.

“It’s just a kiss. I can stop it at any moment, and then it will be over.”

Just like water that at first seeps through a small crack in a dam, but gradually widens the gap and at long last bursts through it with roaring force, taking the whole structure with it, Ehandar’s feelings swept him away.

It wasn’t just a kiss and it had never been just the wine, he understood now.

When finally they stopped kissing and Anaxantis had reclined against his chest, Ehandar opened his eyes and looked upon the blond head that so trustingly lay against him.

“How could I ever… ”

But he didn’t want his thoughts to go there. He reached into his pouch and retrieved a key. Almost timidly, trying not to disturb the softly breathing boy on his lap, he opened the collar and let it drop to the floor. He gasped when he saw the crusts that had formed on the chafing wounds on Anaxantis’s neck, and which somehow he had overlooked until now. He cursed silently.

Anaxantis looked up at him. Ehandar gulped.

“Will you share my bed tonight?” he asked, almost shyly. “You don’t… only if you want to.”

As only answer Anaxantis rubbed his body closer against his. Ehandar carried him to the big bed, laid him softly down and undressed. Before getting into bed, he removed Anaxantis’s drawers. The boy smiled and lifted his hips to accommodate him. When he had crawled into the bed, he took Anaxantis in his arms and planted a tender kiss on his mouth. He straddled the boy, bent over and started kissing him first on his neck, gently, as if trying to heal Anaxantis’s wounds with his lips, then let his lips wander on the boy’s chest and nipples, in a downward movement. He felt Anaxantis shiver. The boy turned on his belly under him.

“Do you want this?” Ehandar asked. “We don’t need—”

“Do it,” Anaxantis said.

He grimaced involuntarily when Ehandar entered him, and clenched his eyes shut. The older boy held back a while before lowering himself as carefully as he could.

“Tell me if I’m hurting you,” he said anxiously.

“It’s all right,” Anaxantis groaned.

With careful deliberation, Ehandar started moving up and down as he felt Anaxantis relax beneath him. He felt an almost uncontrollable urge to thrust vigorously, but instead kept moving at a steady rhythm. A soft moaning escaped from his partner’s lips and he felt a gentle clenching around his member. When finally he peaked, it was not a forceful explosion but an equally satisfying, gushing release. He let his body sink down upon Anaxantis’s and kissed him on the neck, while still remaining inside him. When later he withdrew, he turned the boy around and was greeted by an enchanting smile that was impossible not to return. Ehandar took him into his arms and lifted him half up, while he took Anaxantis’s member in his hand. He pressed his lips upon the slightly open mouth of the boy, while he kept stimulating him. Soon he felt as if all the air was sucked out of his mouth, and Anaxantis’s body contracted and then stretched out, at the same time turning to Ehandar while his semen erupted on both their bellies.

Anaxantis was still panting in the afterglow, while Ehandar moved a sweaty, wavy strand of blond hair out of his eyes. The gray-blue eyes looked up with gratitude, and Ehandar, for the first time in his life, felt wanted, needed.

He wished he could hold onto the moment, stop the time, but inevitably it passed.

He stood up to get a towel, moistening a part of it with fresh water, and cleaned them both under Anaxantis’s adoring gaze. When he climbed back into bed and stretched out beside him, Anaxantis sighed as he snuggled against him. With his head in the crook of Ehandar’s shoulder, the boy almost immediately fell asleep.

For a long time Ehandar didn’t dare move, even when his muscles began to ache from holding the same position too long, for fear of interrupting the peaceful, trusting slumber of his partner. Feeling the nearness of the warm, slender body almost brought tears to his eyes.

“How could I have been so stupid, so blind? He must have loved me for a long time before this. And I, who have always felt so lonely, even with my friends around me, have done nothing but push him away and blame him for everything. Well, all that is going to change. Tomorrow I’ll explain everything to him, all the dangers that lurk around us, all that went wrong, all my failures, and this time I will listen to his advice. With my arm and his brain our chances of surviving the struggle for the Devil’s Crown are more than doubled. We’ll make the Marches into an impenetrable bulwark from which we can’t be budged.”

When he had checked that the boy was fast asleep he carefully made himself more comfortable. Anaxantis moved in his sleep and laid a hand on his chest. Ehandar smiled and drew the covers over both of them.

“He has forgiven me,” were his last thoughts before he became drowsy and sank into a deep sleep.

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