Here you'll find
Even a minstrel might get weary of wandering, when what he dreams of keeps eluding him. Takes place a few years after Ravens, Owls and a Nightingale.
The courtyard was silent as he walked across it, footprints cutting a darker swath over stones glistening in the wan moonlight. The soft, worn leather of his shoes hardly made a sound and his step was cautious, for he didn't want to slip and fall on the rounded, hard cobbles covered with heavy dew. Winter was drawing nigh, so far there still was no frost to lick the stones icy, but he knew that wet stone could be equally treacherous underfoot.
He pushed the heavy door open and stepped in, eyes adjusting slowly to the deeper darkness of the room. No one was sitting on the benches that lined the walls, no sound was heard anywhere. Nor had he expected any. It had already been late when he'd walked in through the iron gates, and now it was later still, after dining and sharing news with his friends.
A lantern had been left by the small window and he went closer to see if he could light it. The candle inside was short but its wick caught the spark anyway, and soon its flickering illuminated the dressing chamber. With a sigh he sat on the bench and slowly began to strip off his clothes.
The tunic and shirt were discarded first and folded carelessly on the bench. They were soon followed by trousers and breeches, and finally the man was naked. He picked up a big towel from the pile on one end of the bench and fumbled his way towards the inner door. After a moment's hesitation he turned back, fetched the small lantern, and only then pushed the door open.
Warm, moist air surrounded him as he made his way towards the large basins of water, placed the lantern on one wooden stool and sat cautiously down on another. The bathhouse wasn't hot any more but the air was still pleasantly warm. And, much more importantly, there was plenty of hot water left.
With slow, measured movements the man scooped water into a bucket and began to wash himself, luxuriating in the soft touch of the liquid. He let rivulets run down his back and legs, listened to the warmth licking his skin and pooling in his lap.
This was heaven, sitting in this warmth and washing himself with plenty of hot water. The aches he'd accumulated over the years, the weariness after the latest trek, he could forget them all in this smooth darkness. Well, at least almost... the ankle he'd sprained over two years ago was once again protesting the day's brisk pace. Slim fingers rubbed it absently, confirming that it was slightly swollen.
If he stopped to think, most of his joints were telling stories of countless walked miles, days of rain and mud and snow and sleet, innumerable nights slept in hovels and sheds and sometimes even under the open sky. But he didn't want to listen to them, because they would just whisper alluring suggestions into his ear and he'd already made up his mind. He still had one leg of the journey left.
The man stood up and poured water over his head, spluttered for a while, then gathered his blond hair into one dripping rope and wrung it. He smiled ruefully; it had been a mistake to get it wet, but he just couldn't forego the pleasure of washing it properly now that he had the chance. Already the wet mass was feeling cold against his skin, but he merely shrugged it over one shoulder and continued washing. It'd dry eventually, and he was going to braid it for the night anyway.
"You must be Mioll, the minstrel."
He nearly fell off the stool as he spun around, heart racing wildly, and tried to scan the surrounding darkness to locate the speaker.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the disembodied voice continued, hasty and sheepish. "I didn't mean to startle you. Sorry. I thought you'd noticed my clothes out there."
"N-no," he stammered and forced out an embarrassed laugh. "No, I didn't... my, but you took me by surprise!"
"Didn't mean to, I really didn't." At least now there was the voice and the sound of movement to guide him so he could look in the right direction. "I was dozing, I guess, and it never occurred to me that you might not know I'm here."
"Upon my word, sir, I didn't," said Mioll, who by now had had enough time to gather his wits and start feeling mortified at his own reaction. "Though why it should startle me like that, I don't rightly know, seeing as I'm in a safe and friendly place!"
At last he could see whom he was talking to. Treading carefully on the wet floor, the man had got close enough so that Mioll could make out a shape. The manner of speaking had already given him some clue of what to expect, and what he saw fully met his expectations. His companion in the bathhouse was tall, dark-haired and bearded, with broad shoulders and muscular arms and legs – a seasoned warrior, by no means an exceptional sight in Deleon Castle.
"I don't think there's anything strange about your reaction." The voice was gruff but friendly, and the man smiled a little as he sat down on another stool. "Can't shake old habits. You're a minstrel, used to traveling and I bet also used to looking out for yourself. You thought you were alone, so it's no surprise if you're wary when taken unawares."
He grinned. "Just like I can't stop being a soldier when I lay down my scabbard for the night. No offense taken, and I hope there's none on your side, either."
"Indeed not, sir," Mioll assured, happy that his hands had stopped shaking. "It's just that being caught off–guard when wearing nothing tends to make one feel even more vulnerable than usual, I guess."
The man laughed heartily. "Yes, you're so right there. That's why everybody's often rather unwilling to get properly undressed when on campaign – keeping the clothes on makes you feel more prepared, even though it gets uncomfortable very quickly."
"I agree," the minstrel sighed, then made a face. "Oh, but I'm sorry, sir, I think you asked me something a while ago and I still haven't answered! Yes, Mioll Labeth is the name I go by, and I must apologize if we've met before, but at least in this light I don't think I recognize you."
"No need to worry," the man said and fished a piece of soap from a low bowl next to him. "I know for sure we haven't met, and therefore you cannot know me. My name is Karim."
Mioll nodded, absently rubbing his arm with a washcloth. "You have joined Deleon's troops rather recently, then?"
"No, I've been Lord Rhodan's man all my life. That makes over twenty years now."
"Really?" The minstrel stared at him. "Well, I thought you spoke like someone from here! But if that's so, then I really can't see how we've not met before?"
"It's the truth, nevertheless," Karim insisted. "Yes, yes, I know you've been a frequent visitor for so many years, and yet somehow I've always managed to be elsewhere when you've been around."
Mioll arched an eyebrow but the man nodded emphatically. "Just believe me. That's why I had to ask for your name. Although, truth be told, I was certain that I was indeed looking at the fair and elusive Mioll at last."
The minstrel burst into laughter. "I've been called many things in my life, but – elusive? Knight Karim, you must be joking!"
"I'm not!" At least the man did nothing to refute the title Mioll had slipped in, and the minstrel filed away this piece of information. So the man was either determined to pull his leg, or else he really was a warrior trusted enough to be called a knight of Deleon?
"What else can I call you, if not elusive?" he continued, "when I've kept hearing about you for at least fifteen years and yet have never caught as much as a glimpse, until now?"
"Fifteen years?" Mioll echoed, amused and increasingly curious.
"Yes," Karim said with a firm nod. "I was fighting by my Lord Rhodan's side when we conquered Moydherr –"
Mioll's hand stopped and he couldn't hold back a grimace as memories surged up. The man made a sympathetic sound.
"It can't have been a nice place to be trapped in, with the battle raging all around," he said. "Anyway, I was one of the attackers. But by the time victory was ours, I was already wounded and out of the game."
"Oh. Badly?" Mioll tried to squint at what he could see of the man in search of some visible scars, without looking like he was staring. As if in response, the man's broad hand crept to rub his thigh above the left knee.
"Was out of active service until well after you'd left Moydherr with Lady Bialka and her kids. And after that I was in the troops that were left there to hold the castle."
"It's not a bad place, Moydherr, when you don't have to live there with Lord Theren," Mioll said.
"You're not the first one I've heard to say that," Karim smirked. "Anyway, when I eventually returned to Deleon, all there was left were stories about this other minstrel who'd gone east, again with Lady Bialka."
"But that's not the only time I've been here," Mioll argued, "not by a long way!"
"No, but it seems that I have always been somewhere else," Karim countered. "On campaign. Going somewhere with a convoy. Stationed in some recently acquired place. Or on my farm, more recently. Honestly, I'd already begun to think that maybe you don't really even exist. You've been described to me as looking like a fairy, and seeing you now I'm tempted to think that you are indeed one."
Mioll laughed. It felt wonderfully good to sit here, warm and comfortable, let water caress his weary body and banter with this man whose teasing tone of voice made his insides ache.
"A fairy, what?" he grinned. "Knight Karim, what's wrong with your eyes?"
"Nothing wrong with them," the man insisted. "And verily, I still am not quite sure that you are real. For one thing, if you're not a fairy or an elf, then how is it possible that you look like a lad even though I've been hearing about you for so many years?"
"I didn't realize it's that dark in here," Mioll said shaking his head. "When you see me in broad daylight, sir, you won't be able to understand how you could ever be so deceived."
"I don't think so," Karim said. "No, I don't. You must've been a mere kid back then."
Mioll chuckled. "Oh no. No kid. I'm willing to wager that I'm older than you are, knight Karim."
Now it was Karim's turn to burst into laughter. "You? Older than me? Minstrel Mioll, with due respect, I suspect that your eyes are in fact blurring far worse than mine!"
"No they aren't." Mioll squinted assessingly and looked the man up and down. "Hmm, let's see now... you're a mature man with plenty of experience, but by no means getting old yet. Nor do I think that you were quite a boy any more when fighting in Moydherr, for that was no place for kids. Therefore my guess is that you are past your fortieth year but not five-and-forty yet."
"Well done!" The sigh was incredulous. "I'll be forty-four this coming spring."
"And I'm nearly two years your senior." Mioll was pleased with himself.
"There aren't that many things in this world that are truly impossible, I've found," Mioll said. "I'm telling the truth, and I'm sure you'll believe me well enough in daylight."
The dark man smiled, a warm and genuine smile.
"Be that as it may, I'm glad I meet you now at last. I've been curious about you."
"Maybe it's because I've kept hearing about you but never managed to actually see you." Karim chuckled. "May sound funny, but that sort of thing tends to make me terribly curious."
Mioll shrugged. "Well, it's a good thing then that you happened to be here now," he said lightly. "Otherwise it would've been your fate to stay curious."
Karim glanced at him with a frown. "Why do you say so?"
Mioll opened his mouth to reply, but all of a sudden the flippant words stuck in his throat. When he finally managed to force them through, his voice was so hoarse that he instantly wanted to kick himself.
"Because this is my last visit to Deleon," he said.
"Oh!" The man sounded genuinely disappointed. "So, what castle has claimed you as its own?"
"No castle. I'll be going south." Mioll bowed down to dip his hand into the half-full bucket at his feet, head lowered so that wet hair slipped over his shoulder and hid his face. His fingers found a washcloth, grabbed it and squeezed. "Back – home."
"Yes. That's where all minstrels come from, and that's where I'll be headed from here."
Karim looked at him closely, elbows propped on knees.
"Home," he repeated thoughtfully. "Is it really home for you?"
Mioll's fingers closed around the bundled washcloth.
"That's where I come from," he said tightly. "Why wouldn't it be?"
"I don't know... I just thought, well, I've last seen my home village about ten years ago, and it definitely didn't feel like home any more. You, too, you've been all around the place for so long. Doesn't this feel more like home by now?"
Mioll let out a weary snort.
"I was fourteen when I left," he said under his breath. "Thirty years and more since I last saw the coast, so I hardly remember what it looks like there. But I've been going around enough. I'm getting tired of being on the road."
He shook his head and scooped some hotter water from the large basin.
"But why should you go on roaming?" Karim's voice was warm. "Why not settle down somewhere here – in Deleon, for instance? I'm sure you'd be more than welcome to stay! Why go away, to a place you don't even remember?"
"Deleon already has a minstrel, and dozens more visiting every year," Mioll said matter-of-factly and stood up. "And since no other castle has asked me to stay, either, I guess that means that the Revnashi lands don't want me."
He grabbed the bucket of water and poured it over his head, cursing himself silently. It really didn't do to talk like this to anyone, least of all a man he'd only just met! He was Mioll Labeth, minstrel par excellence, and he was committing a major faux pas by behaving like this. The fact was just that he was so exhausted, in more ways than one, feeling goddamn tired and drained and bitter – but still this didn't do. Absolutely not.
For a while Mioll just spluttered, grateful for the water that gave him a legitimate reason to be silent and gather himself once more. Finally he had to open his eyes once more, and he peered suspiciously at his companion who was oddly quiet.
Karim was merely sitting there and looking him with a strange expression on his face. When their eyes met, the dark man quickly averted his gaze and turned his back.
"Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to stare."
Mioll blinked in confusion as the man began to vigorously wash himself, then frowned. What had he seen – surely not embarrassment? That would be a first, meeting a shy Revnashi!
"I, uh, I don't mind... I mean, I know I look strange next to you people. I'm used to being stared at."
Karim glanced over his shoulder and then looked away once more. Mioll stared at the broad back, completely taken aback by the sudden change of mood. Damnit, what had happened? Had he said something to offend?
The minstrel grimaced to himself, mind groping for something he could say or do that would bring the situation back to normal, all the while methodically rubbing his arms and torso clean. Clean...
"Would you like me to wash your back?" he offered as a token of peace.
The man hastily shook his head. Mioll blinked a few times, then a thought crept to his mind and his eyes went round. Good gods, could he be right or was it just wishful thinking? Well, he'd be damned if he didn't at least try and find out!
"I'd be much obliged if you'd wash mine," he continued innocently and took a step closer, washcloth in one extended hand. When Karim shifted as if to look at him, Mioll dropped it on the broad shoulder and turned his back. "Please?"
He heard the stool scrape against the floor as the man stood up, then the rough cloth touched his skin. It rubbed tentatively and Mioll pressed into the touch, eyes closing.
"Oh, this is a rare treat," he sighed. "Rub harder, please!"
Mioll listened to the hiss of Karim's breath behind his back. His lips pulled into a smile.
"Yes," he sighed with some regret and turned to take the washcloth back. Karim quickly returned to washing himself once more, but not quite quickly enough. Mioll's eyebrows quirked, his spirits soaring again after the slump, for one glimpse had been enough: the man was sporting an impressive hard-on.
That made him both profoundly wistful and horny as hell, and Mioll looked appreciatively at the man's muscled back, smiling. There was a splendid example of a Revnashi male in full mature glory, and moreover, a man who seemed to be taking some interest in him. Mioll Labeth sure wasn't one to let such a prize slip through his fingers – hell, for all he knew this might be his last chance to enjoy the intimate company of such a creature!
Revnashi men had held a profound fascination for him ever since he'd first set his eyes on them, and Mioll had not spent all those years in their lands in vain. He knew the people all right, and the big question now was, how would Karim react if Mioll let him know that he'd noticed the situation? The man might deny it all, or get furious at the mere suggestion that he was perhaps interested in intimacy with a man. Or, much less likely, he could even admit it. So what would be the right way to go about finding out?
"Thank you," the minstrel and sat down once more, careful to keep his voice casual even though his brain was busy sorting out ways to dissolve the tension in the air. Suddenly something the man had said popped into his mind. "So, what brings you to Deleon now, knight Karim? I think you said you have a farm, so shouldn't you be there? The harvest season isn't quite over yet?"
The back remained turned towards him, but he was certain that it relaxed minutely.
"Not much I can do there at the moment." Karim's voice echoed relief and Mioll smiled, glad to notice that the ploy was working. "I have people there to take care of the harvesting, so I thought I'd come here for a while to meet up with old friends and to greet my Lord Rhodan and his sons. But yes, that's where I stay for much of the time."
"Doesn't it ever get boring?" Mioll went on. "I mean, how does a seasoned warrior like you get used to such peaceful living?"
The man shrugged. "Pretty easily. I don't mind at all having a house to call my own. Even if it does get a bit lonely every now and then."
"Apparently then you don't have a wife to share it with," Mioll observed.
"I shouldn't think that finding one ought to be too difficult, though? A distinguished man like you, who's in Lord Rhodan's favor and even has a house and a bit of land to himself..." After a moment's hesitation Mioll ventured to add: "Such a handsome man in his prime, too."
Now there was no mistaking about the uneasy shifting, and Karim mumbled something.
"What did you say?" Mioll inquired blithely, then continued in his best innocuously garrulous tone: "Oh, and if I'm too nosy you can just tell me to shut up, knight Karim! I've been told before that I can be quite a pest sometimes."
"Just said that I'm not interested in having a wife. And it's all right, it's not as if I hadn't been asked the same thing many times before."
Well, if that wasn't plain enough...
Mioll took a deep breath and decided to push his luck. Closing his ears to the mad thumping of his heart, he gave the man a slow, visibly assessing look. "Not interested in a wife? I wonder – what might you then be interested in?"
Karim turned and the blond minstrel braced himself. Never before had he dared to proposition a Revnashi so directly, and he could only hope it wouldn't earn him a broken nose or worse. He met the eyes without flinching and waited as the man just looked at him for a good while. Finally Karim swallowed.
"Can't you guess, minstrel? Haven't I given myself away by now?"
"I think I might venture a guess," Mioll said softly. "And if I guess correctly, then I must say that I am extremely flattered."
"Flattered?" The man sounded genuinely astonished.
"Didn't I tell you a moment ago that you're a very handsome man, knight Karim?" The minstrel tilted his head. "That's what I said, and that's what I meant. I am flattered that a man like you should think I'm still attractive."
...well, a far more probable guess was that the man knew about the minstrels' inclinations and decided that Mioll would do, in the absence of anything better?
"I – I think you're very attractive."
Karim's tone was embarrassed and yet endearingly earnest, and Mioll firmly silenced the nasty, cynical voice whispering into his ear.
"Thank you," he said and stood up to rinse himself, openly letting Karim see the effect of their conversation on him. He could almost feel the dark gaze devouring him, and a glance at his companion proved that it wasn't mere imagination. Yes, that was all the confirmation he could ever hope for.
"Where are you accommodated, knight Karim?"
"In one of the larger guest rooms," the man replied throatily. "Not exactly private, I'm afraid."
"Ah, but the Nightingale has kindly given me a room for myself." Mioll smiled, green eyes narrowing into slits. "It's tiny, granted, but it's private. With a bed just large enough for two, if they aren't too demanding."
Karim licked his lips and straightened himself, and the minstrel's knees went wobbly. He sighed in incredulous wonder and sent hasty but heartfelt thanks to his lucky stars for not forsaking him quite completely, not yet. The man's tall muscled body loomed in the thickening darkness of the bathhouse, and his thick, erect cock bobbed when he took a step closer. Mioll grinned at him.
"I think you need to finish washing first."
The last remains of soap were quickly rinsed off with plentiful water, and just moments later the two men were in the dressing room once more. They pulled on enough clothes to be decent while they crossed the courtyard back into the keep. Karim bowed his head not to knock himself out as he entered the little room under the staircase, then eyed his surroundings in surprise while Mioll lit a candle.
"I didn't know about this room," he said. "Never even noticed it before."
"Silly man," Mioll admonished and slipped closer. "This is where visiting minstrels are usually lodged. Since men are more to your tastes than women, haven't you ever taken your chances with them?"
"Only once." The man inhaled with a hiss as Mioll let a hand slide underneath his shirt and along warm skin, then he grabbed the blond by the waist and their bodies crushed together. "Too young... they all look too young."
"Hah, didn't you just tell me a while ago that I look like a lad as well?" Mioll gasped, listening to the broad hands that roamed on his back.
"You do and you don't." Karim looked deep into his eyes. "Oh, by now I can see and feel well enough that you're indeed a grown man. But if you'd seen yourself back in the bathhouse, you wouldn't think it so odd. I swear you were glowing. Just like the riverside people say the water elves do, when they sometimes show themselves on foggy nights."
The minstrel shook his head in wonder, chuckling. "The things you say, knight Karim..."
"Silly things," the dark man agreed and squeezed him tighter. "Been hearing far too many stories in my life. And yet none of them hinted that elves might be endowed with something like this."
Mioll ground his forehead into Karim's shoulder and moaned when a hand closed over his crotch and gently rubbed his erection through the shirt. There was no way he could keep his hips from bucking into the touch, and gleefully he dug his fingers into muscled arms to keep himself upright. Oh gods of sea and sand, the man was like a rock in the afternoon sun, a rock that oozed heat...
The bed creaked when their combined weight landed on it. Hands fumbled and grabbed, tore the last pieces of clothing out of the way until there was nothing to keep skin from touching skin. Karim kissed Mioll passionately and the minstrel laughed breathlessly, trying to pull the man still closer even though he was already squeezed between the bed and that hard body so thoroughly he could hardly breathe.
Karim's hand was pumping him but Mioll fought back, desperate not to let it all come to an end too soon. He managed to slip a hand between them and found his slick prize, then squeezed it so that Karim swore aloud and pushed into the grip.
"Wait," Mioll panted. "Karim, wait..."
Somehow the big man still heard him and pulled back to look at him, breathing heavily. Mioll saw his own need mirrored in the dark eyes and smiled.
"Do me," he whispered. "Fuck me, Karim."
Lust-hazed eyes widened. "Are – are you sure?"
"Yes," Mioll hissed, one hand already groping for his medicine satchel. He knew it had to be somewhere in the little niche between the bed and the wall, and it simply had to contain something that would ease things just enough. "Just a moment... damn..." His fingers sorted through the various ointments that would only cause more discomfort than anything else, then they touched something rough and closed around the little vial. "There you are!"
He pushed it into Karim's hand and then slowly lay back on the bed, bracing his arms against the wall.
But Karim, damn him, refused to be quick. Maybe he was afraid of hurting Mioll or maybe he just wanted to prolong the fun; whatever the reason, Mioll was writhing on the pleasuring fingers and nearly sobbing with need before Karim finally took his own cock in one oily hand. A few slow strokes, and he guided the tip to nudge against Mioll's hole.
"Please, Karim," Mioll gasped and hooked one leg over the man's broad shoulder. "Please!"
When Karim's hands settled possessively on his hips, he still had enough presence of mind to grab a corner of the blanket so he could muffle himself with it. It was night and sound didn't carry too well from the little room into the corridor outside, but still. This was Deleon Castle, home to hundreds of people, some of whom still might be up and about even at this hour, and no one was to disturb him now, when this big, burly man was fucking him so thoroughly he wanted to shout. Not even his brain that was again trying to whisper nasty things into his ear – the last time, maybe never again. Mioll told it to shut up and focused on just enjoying the man in his bed.
Karim was fucking him with long, steady thrusts that made heat explode inside him, over and over again. Oh gods, he knew he wasn't going to last long and there was nothing he could do about it...
Mioll arched up when Karim's hand closed around his sex, and all too soon he was already spilling himself with such intensity that he nearly blacked out. The big man was nowhere near ready yet, though, and by the time he came with a low groan, the minstrel wanted to cry of sheer ecstasy.
Mioll winced, breath hissing through his teeth, when Karim finally pulled out and rolled to lie down next to him. He listened to the last lazy waves of pleasure that pulsed through him, and to the hand that threaded through the wet strands of his hair, combing it away from where it stuck to his face and shoulders. The callused fingers were surprisingly tender.
"Should've brought some water along," the man sighed. "Or a wet towel, or something. But I guess we were in too much of a hurry to think ahead."
"Mmm," Mioll agreed, making a half-hearted effort to wriggle away from the wettest spot. It wasn't too easy, because Karim took up most of the bed. "I think I took my towel along. I seem to recall that I had it on my shoulders."
Karim turned to fumble at the pile of discarded clothing beside the bed, then grunted in satisfaction. "You're right. Here, let's get you a bit cleaner."
The towel was just moist enough to feel wonderfully cool and fresh on heated skin. They helped each other to wipe off the worst mess, then tossed the towel away once more and crawled properly to bed, using the blankets to cover the wet mattress as best they could.
The lone candle was burning low, its flame barely alive. Mioll shut his eyes tightly and pressed the back of his wrist over them to ease the prickling behind the lids, but still he couldn't hold back a tear that squeezed its way out and rolled down his face. It burned; the coarse blanket had probably chafed the skin at some point.
He felt Karim's weight shift closer, then the man's hot body spooned against his back and an arm wrapped loosely around his waist.
"I could get used to this."
The voice was low and husky. Mioll swallowed the lump that had lodged itself in his throat.
"What about you?"
The minstrel opened his eyes and turned to squint at the man in the near-darkness. "What do you mean?"
"I've been thinking so many times..." The arm resting on Mioll's waist tightened a little and he felt the man's breath on his nape. "My farm is actually a damn nice place. Not too small, not too big. Just right for someone like me, who has no family."
Karim chuckled a little and Mioll shivered, listening as if mesmerized to the low murmur.
"I've thought so many times how well I'd like it there, if there was somebody who'd sit by the fireplace with me in the evening and wake up in the same bed with me in the morning."
Mioll's breath hitched when a large hand sneaked to his crotch and gently cupped his genitals.
"It's no castle, granted, but anyway." Karim's lips grazed Mioll's shoulder. "And you can always leave in the spring, if you feel like it. I mean, your home village has kept for these thirty-odd years, so staying one more winter hardly makes any difference, right?"
Mioll's arm moved on its own, closed tightly over Karim's arm around him and squeezed hard.
"Do you think you'd care to try it out – what it'd be like to have a bed to share with someone?"
Mioll took a deep breath, swallowed a couple of times, smiled to the darkness.
"Yes," he whispered. "I think I'd very much like to try."