KENDRAS hobbled back on land, teeth gritted so hard his jaw ached. The familiar nausea as he adjusted to firm ground washed over him, and he had to pause to not stumble. That forced him to rest his weight on the bad foot, and the pain seared up to his throat and into his skull. The pain at least burned away the despair that was threatening to settle in him, choking off all strength, and he stood there, knees shaking with strain, searching for anything to rest against. The seagulls wheeling over Dalman’s harbor laughed at him. Their comrades on the ground barely bothered to hop out of his way, as if they knew he was no threat.
Another step and more agony.
He suppressed a grunt, made the step as fast as possible, but even taking his weight off the leg hurt. Nothing he could do lessened the pain. Resting the leg or moving it, his only choice was between the sharp knife-edge pain of putting weight on it and the thudding, bone-grinding pain of not moving it. He’d tried burning spirits, which dulled his head but never reached his foot, and being drunk and in pain was worse than being sober and in pain.
When he finally reached the edge of the harbor, he was covered in cold sweat. Leaning against the whitewashed wall of a food shop that wouldn’t open for another few hours, he noticed that he was being watched.
A beggar was staring in his direction despite the dirty covering over her eyes that suggested she was blind. A freckled boy and his dog, both accomplished rat catchers judging from the quarry dangling from a line tied to a stick, glanced furtively toward him. More threateningly, a group of burly stowaways watched him openly, as if assessing whether his weapons and armor were worth taking.
Continue. Do not cause them to think twice. He’d have preferred to stand and fight. Only, of course, he was outnumbered, and he knew better than to put any faith in the reputation of the Scorpions. Reputation prepared the enemy for defeat but didn’t cause it, whatever civilians believed.
He turned the corner and hurried away from the harbor, one step after the other, not allowing himself to rest until the sounds of seagulls had dulled. His best bet was to stay somewhere near the harbor. He’d never make it up to Dalman without help. Crossing the wild underbelly of the city between the harbor and the city up on the cliff in his condition would get him killed. He’d grown up there. Too many predators lurked in the crooked alleys.
Opposite, a door flew open. Marines appeared, arm in arm, too drunk for their song to make any sense or possess any kind of melody. They zigzagged from one wall to the other, never letting go of one another as they took turns pushing away from the buildings. Kendras grinned wryly. He’d been like that more than once. Nothing like sharing a bed and puking into the same bucket in the morning. He moved closer to the tavern, which turned out to be just as rowdy a place as he’d expected, but not hostile. At least not hostile to men like him.
Kendras made it through the door and to a greasy bench, where he leaned against the wall. The armor dug into his spine, but he’d lived so long in armor that he ignored it. He’d even slept in armor when necessary, force-marched when ordered. He moved his legs out of the way when one patron was pushed against his table in what promised to turn into a friendly brawl. Last thing he needed was somebody stomping on his foot.
He watched the brawl commence, but everything else blurred into sound and color that simply went on without him, not affecting him, not touching him once. A rather unsettling similarity to the state he sometimes reached in the middle of battle, just without the feeling of being immortal.
When the serving wench brought him ale, unasked, he paid with his last few coppers. As he sipped the watery brew, he noticed a man watching him, another soldier, short-shorn head indicating he was either still engaged or had so recently been released that his back still remembered his sergeant’s rough justice.
Kendras held the other man’s gaze for a few moments, gauging whether the interest was a threat or a nuisance, and found the expression entirely neutral. When he looked away, the other man stood and headed toward him.
The other soldier sat down, and gestured at the table between them. “Free?”
Kendras glanced up, meeting cool gray eyes. “I’m not a slave.”
The gray eyes narrowed with amusement. “I figured.”
“Did you?” Kendras glanced toward the door, calculating whether he’d be able to make it there without losing face. The chances of that were pretty fucking slim.
Gray Eyes leaned back, one hand on the table, arm straight, measuring him up. Doubtlessly studying the armor, his build, assessing him, one warrior to another. “You just came from the boat.”
Kendras inhaled deeply but didn’t allow himself to sigh, instead releasing the breath slowly. “What do you want.”
“Offer help.” Gray Eyes didn’t smile.
“Ah.” Kendras pursed his lips. Gray Eyes was clearly a soldier from the way he moved and spoke, but despite the simple, sturdy clothes, this man wasn’t just a lowly foot soldier. Maybe cavalry or some elite unit. His relaxed attitude suggested confidence, despite the fact that this was clearly not his home turf and there were no comrades around. Interesting. Normally soldiers banded together for drinking.
“Where’s your unit?” Gray Eyes asked.
“Left them before Fetin.”
Now Gray Eyes smiled, and Kendras had the uncanny feeling the man knew exactly how that was meant. Too clever to be good company, this one.
“And you’re down on your luck.” It wasn’t mockery or scorn. The sky is blue; you’re on your last coppers, and hurt.
Kendras shrugged, admitting nothing and pretending to not care. What else was there to do? He knew well enough that he couldn’t work with his foot, no healer would treat him without some solid silver or gold in their hands first, and that meant he’d most likely have to sell the armor.
Only, of course, right after a war all the plunder hit the markets and even well-made armor fetched a laughable price. Even the prices for horses and slaves would be all but ruined, so selling himself would be pointless too. Who’d buy an injured slave when much better, younger, and prettier meat was for sale? In his state he couldn’t even become a bandit—and the beggars wouldn’t tolerate him competing for their territory.
Gray Eyes watched him think.
Annoyed, Kendras shook his head. “You don’t seem the charitable kind.”
“Charitable?” Gray Eyes gave a snort. “No, that I’m not.” He tapped his fingers on the table, maybe impatient to be going. Then, out of nowhere, a silver coin appeared between his fingers and came to rest on the worn wood. “Follow me?”
“To earn enough that you won’t go hungry while your wounds heal.” Gray Eyes stood. The silver coin had vanished again. The other man held his gaze for a long moment, then turned to go upstairs.
Kendras considered his options, but truth was, he’d already gone through all of them. He did that before a battle, so he didn’t have to think when any thought would have slowed him down.
He pushed himself up from the table and pressed his lips together when he had to move the leg again. Just putting weight on it felt like a sword point entering the sole of his foot and slowly pushing upward, splitting the bone. Gods below, this fucking hurt. Small step by small step he made his way across the room and then supported his weight against the dirty wall as he climbed the stairs.
He had no idea if and how he could get downstairs again, and for one ridiculous moment he thought he’d be trapped. But he’d been trapped the moment he’d been injured. This was just twisting himself tighter into the snares that held him.
He made it to the landing, wiping the sweat off his brow. Gray Eyes stood there, watching him, not offering help or comment. Kendras instinctively estimated the width of the corridor, despite the fact he didn’t have his main weapon and whatever happened next wouldn’t be fighting. Most likely. A man with those kinds of resources wouldn’t attack him.
Gray Eyes opened the nearest door and held it open for him.
Kendras hobbled after him, setting his face in stone to not betray the agony he felt, but his movements gave it all away anyway.
He felt the man at his back when the door closed behind them. His muscles twitched with the movements he’d make to skewer him if they’d been on the battlefield. Standing still in the middle of the room was torture, but Gray Eyes gave no indication of what he wanted.
A movement caught Kendras’s eyes. In a silvery arch, the coin was flicked on the bed, where it landed, gleaming. It was an unscarred coin, shining as if minted just today.
“Do you need help with that armor?” Gray Eyes asked.
Kendras tilted his head, then glanced over his shoulder. “You’d pay me for that?”
“Yes.” The other man stepped a little closer. Inside striking distance.
“You can get it cheaper than that.”
“Would you have followed me without getting paid?”
Kendras huffed. As if he’d tell him that. “Open the hooks at my neck.”
Gray Eyes stepped closer, carefully, alert like a wild animal, and then he placed his hands on Kendras’s armored shoulders, seeking the hooks that held the scale armor tight together there. He had to pull the scale armor together to take the weight off the hooks, and the familiar feeling—first of tightening around his shoulders, then the release as the armor gaped open—brought up memories of his comrades readying each other for battle as the mists lay across the fields of Fetin.
Kendras stepped away, despite the pain, and opened the broad belt then loosened the fastenings under his arms. He bent over and pulled. Gradually, slowly, the scale armor slid off his back, then its own weight pulled it down and, like a snake, Kendras freed himself of the scales. He straightened, not sure his foot would allow him to gather and roll up the armor, so he took a moment to find his resolve.
Gray Eyes stepped to the side, studying him in his protective leathers. “More.”
Kendras gave a half-smile but didn’t feel any humor. The man with the money called the shots. Kendras would really like eating and maybe even a medic’s attention. He began to unfasten the leathers, fingers working on their own.
The heavy leather tunic came off, and there was a hiss of appreciation from the side when Kendras bared his chest. He saw the other man cup himself, the half-hard cock was clearly outlined the way Gray Eyes stood there, groin tilted forward.
Kendras tore his eyes away from the strong hand roughly kneading. He’d get to that part soon enough. Too soon. He sat down on the bed, so unspeakably relieved to take the weight off that foot that he’d have done this only to feel this lessening of the pain.
Getting one boot off was easy. The other one nearly made him scream before he relented and used his dagger, cutting into the side of the boot and down to the hobnailed sole. He sat there shaking when he’d finally freed the bandaged, splinted, badly swollen foot. Even with his dark skin, his toes were half-purple and half-black, and he wondered idly if he’d lose them, before he stood again. The foot felt like it would come apart when it touched the floorboards, as if only the boot had kept it together. In that moment, Kendras hated the other man for giving him the order to strip, for demanding to see everything, even the injury.
He pushed his trousers down, sat down, and pulled them off his feet, careful to not touch the bad foot, even though that took longer. He wiped the sweat off his face with his arm, then stood again, this time keeping all his weight on the good side. Without the scale armor, that was a lot easier.
“That what you wanted?”
“Not yet,” the other man said and smiled. He was fully hard now in his trousers.
“You’re mad. You could easily get a couple of boys for that.”
“That’s not my taste.”
Kendras shook his head. He doubted very much that he could fuck the other man in his state.
“Do you suck?”
Kendras shook his head. “Badly.”
Gray Eyes accepted that. He nodded toward the bed, and Kendras got on it. After undressing, what came next wouldn’t be too hard. He could pretend there was no coin lying there. Pretend, pretend, pretend. He’d never done this for money, had never expected anybody would offer him money, either, at least not since he’d become a Scorpion.
Getting on all fours, he placed his leg in a way that the bad foot wasn’t touching the lumpy mattress, which incidentally opened him up.
He glanced to the side and watched Gray Eyes undress. Riding boots, tunic, then his trousers, baring a pale body with sunburned neck and arms covered in golden hair. His dick was certainly adequate and remained fully hard, and Kendras wondered if he’d taken that more like a compliment if he hadn’t been paid. But he didn’t want to think about the man, didn’t particularly care why he preferred a crippled soldier to an eager, good-looking boy who could be had for a handful of coppers.
Gray Eyes joined him on the bed and moved between his legs. The sound of spitting, a practiced hand gliding over his ass, a thumb tracing the crack.
“Fetin, huh,” Gray Eyes murmured. “Which side were you on?”
Kendras couldn’t help but tighten. He told himself that was because the wet thumb was forcing entry, because the other man spat again, adding more and forcing the thumb deeper.
“Oh really?” Gray Eyes didn’t sound surprised. “Well, I’ll enjoy fucking your ass then, Dalmanye. Like you did us.” With that, he forced his way in, and Kendras sucked his breath in and held it, held it to not give anything away. The burn and stretch were hard to ignore. Every instinct screamed at him to shake the man off and kill him for the attempt. But that wouldn’t do. He needed the money. Even if it came from an enemy who paid to mock him with this. He’d been wondering about that but assumed the man might have been just another mercenary from somewhere else. A Fetinye. Damn unlucky meeting, under these circumstances. Not that he had any loyalties now. He’d serve Fetin if there was money to be had and if the officer signed the contract.
He pressed his lips together as he felt the other man pause and spit again, clearly struggling to get inside him. There was no point in making this hard for him—it would be over faster if Kendras complied. He pressed against the burning discomfort, that sharp friction that his body remembered well-enough. Not encouraging, just accepting as best he could.
“Oh damn you,” the other man said and began to move. He might not be the biggest, but he knew how to use what he had.
Kendras stared at the wall, lifting his gaze away from the coin underneath him, and resisted the thrusts, which, despite the situation, stoked a fierce pleasure inside. Even though this wasn’t his comrade and despite the burn, the pleasure was immediate and irresistible. The pain might even have added to it; sometimes rough sex was the only way to take the edge off.
Gray Eyes’s thrusts were harsh, but not brutal, and after a few, he paused to add more spit, working it inside Kendras with ungodly skill. Kendras wanted to tell him to not stop, but remained silent. One way to keep face—be the paid whore. Silence was the best he could do.
Finally, Gray Eyes seemed to have found a rhythm and fucked him faster, hard enough to move that ankle a bit, which made Kendras groan.
One hand slid from his hip down to his groin, and there was an odd little sound from the other man when he touched and then took Kendras’s hard cock. An admission, some kind of defeat, but Kendras couldn’t care anymore when the other man began to stroke him with his thrusts.
Both together were unbearable, too good, and Kendras moved with the thrusts, feeling their skin slide together, sweat mingling as every stroke and every thrust robbed him of thought and control. He could hear the desperation in the sounds of their bodies moving, sometimes perfect together, then resisting, forcing, and yielding. He almost felt alive, and that sudden realization cut to the bone. He might just live. He might just want to go on. Then climax took him, and he only vaguely felt the other man get there, too, coming inside him.
Kendras fell onto the wet spot underneath but couldn’t care about it, couldn’t move because the other man lay on top of him, his semi-hard dick slipped out but rested against the space between his legs, hot and wet. He relished the soreness in that moment, the exhaustion, and the sheer satisfaction so much that he didn’t try to get Gray Eyes to back off. Just a body.
“You’ve done this before,” the other man murmured against his shoulder.
Kendras huffed. He’d have been content to just sleep. “Maybe.”
“So I was right.”
“You doing this.” Gray Eyes rubbed his face against Kendras’s back like a cat.
“That why you were alone?” Kendras asked. “Seeking your entertainment?”
“Not quite.” Gray Eyes pushed himself up and off, then got to his feet but remained close to the bed. Kendras turned his head and ended up looking at an admittedly nice pair of thighs.
“What are those?” The other man reached down to touch the back of Kendras’s hand.
“Scars.” Kendras turned the hand fully and displayed the scarred, tattooed skin. “The officer thought that the tattoos weren’t visible enough. So he cut the outlines.”
“And you call me crazy?” Gray Eyes shook his head. “And that?” He indicated Kendras’s wrist, and Kendras, half-amused, turned it to show the tattoo and scar there too. “Seventeenth? Your unit?”
Kendras shrugged. A Fetinye might not have heard of the Seventeenth or “Scorpions,” and now he likely never would. It seemed pointless to display the symbols now if the people and deeds belonging to them were memories.
The tattoos, not dark enough against his skin, and the raised scars of the etching remained. He’d worn the scorpion on his gloves, but he didn’t know where they were. The glaive was gone. Not that he could have wielded it now.
“Thanks for the money,” he said and saw a smile form on the other man’s lips. Maybe he wasn’t so bad. Maybe he didn’t mind that Kendras had helped defeat his home city. Maybe it wasn’t personal.
But there was still something tickling in the back of Kendras’s mind. If he hadn’t been so tired, he might have kept pondering it, but that, too, seemed pointless. He’d learned a long time ago to sleep when the opportunity arose, and right now, there was a bed and the low hum of satiation, and even his foot was silent. For the first time since he’d gotten injured, rest was a possibility. He closed his eyes and listened to the man dress and then pull the door shut behind him.
He awoke at a touch against his shoulder. He startled to his feet to defend himself—only to scream as pain exploded white in his vision. He reached for the bed, keeping himself upright on the bedpost when all he wanted to do was squirm like a stuck worm. The pain was so intense he retched.
Everything came back: The battle. The wound. And how he’d spent the night.
When his vision cleared, he saw an old woman look up at him with watery eyes. She was so small she could have been a young girl, which, for a moment, disoriented Kendras further. Her soft tsking sound didn’t fit a demon, so he was most likely facing a mortal, despite the fact she’d just appeared in the room without warning. Not that any kind of demon would show him any interest.
“What do you… want?” Kendras rubbed his chest, and heard a heavy silver coin fall to the ground. His payment. He’d slept on it. He cursed and reached for the rolling silver disk, but the old woman was more nimble and picked it up before Kendras could reach it.
“Night shadows? It happens to many soldiers.” The old woman pressed the coin into his hand, and Kendras flicked it back to where it had been.
“Be glad I didn’t kill you. What do you want?”
“Look at your foot.”
“Right.” Kendras furrowed his brow. “And you are?”
“The Royal Guard’s medic,” the old woman answered. “Used to be, anyway.”
She looked so ordinary and dignified that Kendras believed that outrageous claim. A flutter of hope in his chest, almost worse than being startled.
“Sit down.” The old woman picked up a leather bag, formerly of good quality, embroidered with heavy silver thread. “Now lift the leg.”
Kendras complied and tried not to look at the mess of swollen flesh, discolored skin and sloppily applied bandages that were dirty and grimy after two days now. “Who sent you?”
Kendras coughed. “What does he look like?”
The medic gave him a glance that said, “My, aren’t you insatiable,” then shrugged, accepting, most likely, that it wasn’t her business. “A blond soldier.”
“Yes, that would be the one,” the medic added with a hint of humor as she tested a rickety chair before she sat down on it.
Interesting connection for a Fetinye soldier, considering that Fetin and Dalman had just been at war. Why would Gray Eyes know the Dalmanye Royal Guard medic? Unless, of course, he didn’t and had merely followed the trail to find any kind of medic.
Kendras ground his teeth when the old woman pulled his leg over and settled his knee and calf across her bony thighs. He really, really did not want to watch this.
The medic unfurled a leather roll with steel instruments and hung it from the bedpost by a loop. “Now, let’s have a look at this.”
“I can’t pay you,” Kendras said, realizing immediately after that he’d made a tactical mistake. He could have admitted to that after the treatment.
“You don’t think very highly of your lover,” the medic chided, selecting a sharp, thin blade to cut through the bandages around Kendras’s foot.
“He told you that… what we are. Why?”
“It’s not uncommon to explain such things.” The medic kept cutting at the bandages, loop by carefully selected loop, until they fell away. “How old is this?”
“Two, three days now.”
“The swelling is bad.” The medic put the blade down and ran her dry fingers down the calf, tracing the ankle, following every line there, pressing into the swelling. Kendras groaned.
“The next bit will hurt,” the old woman said, her fingers already creeping toward the middle of the foot. Kendras twitched with the impulse to fight, defend, and kill. Flashes of memories. The Scorpions’ medic tying down wounded men, Scorpions leaning with all their weight to hold a comrade for treatment, wounded men raging like lunatics, pink foam flying from bitten lips. Now he wished he had somebody to hold him down.
“What happened there?”
“Siege engine. The wheel went over my foot.”
“You were already down?”
Kendras indicated the side of his head, where a crust of blood covered part of his temple. The swelling was down, but the first two days the headache from whatever had hit him had been as crippling as that foot. “They thought I was dead. It woke me up.”
“I bet.” The medic’s hands kept testing, prodding his broken bones, and Kendras felt the nauseating pain of broken bones rubbing against each other like walking on glass shards.
“I’m amazed they didn’t amputate the foot.”
“I didn’t let them.”
“Ah, yes.” The medic then proceeded to the toes, but by now the foot felt so raw that even the lightest touch made Kendras grit his teeth and contemplate murder.
“Well.” The medic took Kendras’s leg and set it back on the bed, then rubbed her palms on her trousers. “A few bones seem to still be intact in there, but the others are ruined.”
“What does that mean,” Gray Eyes said from the door, then closed it behind himself and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“Healing this will take at least six or eight weeks, depending how well he heals and if he has the patience and money to wait it out. Even then the foot might not get as strong as it was.”
Gray Eyes met Kendras’s gaze, then lifted his shoulders. “Amputation will turn him into a useless cripple. I’ve never seen a foot soldier fight well with a peg leg.”
“It can be done,” the medic said. “It would get him back on his feet faster and quite possibly with less pain.”
“I’d rather die,” Kendras said. He would. He had already extended his life by three days. Fetin should have ended it all, but it somehow hadn’t. He was running on borrowed time. How he spent it didn’t seem important anymore. But he’d be damned if he didn’t want to know why Gray Eyes had told the old woman he was his boyfriend.
“That can be arranged, too, if you choose.” The medic’s watery blue eyes seemed oddly compassionate as she offered him death.
“Maybe later.” Gray Eyes moved closer and cast a long look over Kendras’s leg, then up to his groin, chest, finally face. “I’d say do what you can. Bandage him up and give him something for the pain. I’ll move him into a proper place and call you if I need you again.”
“As you wish.” She released Kendras’s leg and slipped from the chair. “We’ll have to set the bones. It were best if he was unconscious.”
She glanced at Kendras. “You’d wish you were too. He’ll have to pull the bone fragments apart while I put them in their right places. You’ll thrash like a horse and scream. He might not be strong enough to hold you still.”
If it was that bad, he might even take the bed apart. Kendras gritted his teeth. Did he trust Gray Eyes enough to be unconscious with a medic who offered to kill him if he wanted? He didn’t. He’d have struggled with a comrade, and Gray Eyes wasn’t that.
Gray Eyes watched him. “I can knock you out.” He drew a dagger from his belt, turned it in his hands to use the pommel for striking.
Try it, Kendras thought and clenched his jaw harder. Gods below, he didn’t have any other choice. Death, pain, more pain. How tempting.
“Believe me, if you move too much, I could do more damage than good,” the medic warned.
Threatening a medic with retaliation wasn’t wise. Kendras looked at Gray Eyes, and despite everything, gave him a quick nod.
“I’d rather not treat a broken head too,” the medic said before Gray Eyes could move, and dug in her bag for a small round stoneware bottle. “Drink this. It’ll numb you and put you to sleep for a while.”
Kendras took the bottle, broke the wax seal and pulled the cork out. He recognized the smell from something the Scorpions’ medic had used. The same gods-awful bitterness that made most men throw up once they came back. He drank it and handed the bottle back, feeling the oily liquid run down toward his guts, leaving a foul taste in its wake. His mouth numbed first, which was a blessing. He settled back on his elbows. The numbness spread through his body, and he began to feel heavy and weak. Tired.
“You’ll have to hold the heel and pull the toes away from the ankle. Keep them that way, while I move the bones into position,” the medic instructed Gray Eyes. “Don’t let go until I say so.”
Kendras lay back and closed his eyes. Giving in to the drugs was easy. He didn’t want to be around when this happened.
WHEN Kendras woke, the medic was just pulling a few rolls of fresh linen bandages from her bag and to finish wrapping up Kendras’s foot tightly. “It feels a little more secure now, but under no circumstances should the foot hit the ground.”
“Yes.” Kendras tried to ignore the nausea in his stomach, instead watched Gray Eyes. He’d changed clothes and now wore a clean shirt over his leather trousers and heavy boots. A sword hung at his side, a simple weapon that clearly had seen use and possibly recently.
“This, a pinch of it three times a day or when the pain gets too bad, in hot water. Boiling, not just steaming. Always with something to eat.” The medic pulled a waxed linen bag from her pack. “That should get you through the weeks ahead.”
Kendras didn’t like that Gray Eyes took the bag, but there was precious little he could do. After all, the man had paid for it.
“Let’s get you out of the city,” Gray Eyes said.
“Yes, darling.” Kendras pursed his lips as if amused but gave the man a hard stare. Gray Eyes had the decency to look a little hurt.
Kendras dressed in his leathers, a slow and laborious process when it came to the trousers, while the medic gave Gray Eyes more instructions.
Kendras put on one of the boots, but not the other, then wrapped himself in the leather top, fastening it. He’d done this so often the routine was both calming and disturbing. What about the others? There had been heavy losses, but he couldn’t be the last one, could he? Maybe they had regrouped and buried the dead. He’d have to find them. Once he could move enough to have any chance to find them. That meant doing everything to ensure he didn’t end up a useless cripple.
“Hey.” Gray Eyes stepped closer, knife out, and Kendras wondered if he’d attack him, but the man did nothing but cut open the already ruined boot with fast, forceful motions, splitting it into two halves he pried apart before sliding Kendras’s bad foot into the boot, hardly touching it.
“Can you ride?”
“Man or horse?”
Gray Eyes laughed. “I have no doubt you ride a man well, but right now my mind’s on getting you out of the city. This is no place for you… or even me.” He wrapped up Kendras’s armor in a linen bag, then offered Kendras a wooden crutch. “I got you this, but you will have to ride. It’s a fair way away.”
“I’m not going back to Fetin.”
“Neither am I.” Gray Eyes hoisted the armor on his back then held out the crutch to Kendras. “Come.”