Chapter 5

"How much further?" Skip grumbled, shifting uncomfortably in the saddle. He'd thought he was sore before, but his muscles were discovering whole new levels of pain. No doubt of it now, he was going to be walking bowlegged for days, and not for any good reason, either.

Jesus Christ, how long was it before somebody invented the fucking internal combustion engine? With this kind of incentive, you'd think they'd have perfected it two weeks after they invented the wheel.

"Not long," Dante reassured him. "We'll stop soon."

"No, I mean to – " Where? My God, I don't even know the name of the fucking town or village or whatever we came from, much less where we're going. "To wherever we're going."

"Ryven, the capitol city of Alskar," Dante supplied helpfully. "Another day's ride, no more."

"I thought you said this – creature – was fast," Skip growled.

Dante chuckled.

"Díoltas is faster than any steed in the kingdom," he said. "Unfortunately, muírnigh, you cannot travel far without rest, so we can cover less than a third the distance of an ordinary good night's ride. 'Tis not to be helped. And this forest has slowed us further – the road is too poor and muddy for best speed." They'd been riding through heavy forest for a couple hours now. It reminded Skip unpleasantly of his childhood. All he needed was a few mountains and a shitload more bruises, maybe a few belt marks on his back to add that last bit of authenticity.

"What's that mean, 'muírnigh', anyway?" Skip asked suspiciously. Probably something even less flattering than 'kitten'. His guesses ranged from 'prick tease' to 'pain in the ass.'

Abruptly Dante pulled Díoltas to a stop in a small clearing.

"Hush," he said almost absently, and Skip shut up. He twisted around in the saddle to look at Dante. The taller man's expression was intent, as if he was listening to something very far away – and didn't particularly like what he was hearing.

"What?" Skip whispered when several long moments had passed.

"A sending," Dante whispered too, as if afraid of being overheard. "A seeking, and not from those I serve. Perhaps – yes."

Abruptly Dante slid from the saddle, all but pulling Skip down after him. He laid Skip gently on the uncomfortably cold and rather damp ground, then turned back to Díoltas, guiding the beast over next to Skip. At some unseen signal the steed lay down on the ground at Skip's side. Skip had barely recovered from the astonishment of that when abruptly Dante all but flung himself on Skip, covering the smaller man's body. Skip froze in surprise and fear, tensing when Dante cupped Skip's chin, raising it so the smaller man was gazing into those bottomless emerald green eyes.

"I need you to trust me, muírnigh," he said softly. "I'm not full-bred darkling, I cannot bend your will to mine by force, so you must allow it. The seeking is for you, so I must hide you from it. Díoltas and I, we can conceal your body with our own, but if it is your thoughts being sought – I ask you to trust me, to allow me to place you in a sort of sleep, a place of silence deep within yourself where whoever seeks you cannot find you. Can you do that?"

Two days ago Skip would have said no without hesitation. Two days ago he'd have said that he wouldn't trust a relative stranger to pick a splinter out of his finger. Today, after fear and insanity, near rape and near death, after sickness and the taste of blood and more strangeness than he'd experienced in a lifetime, Skip had few or no compunctions left. He nodded.

"Good," Dante whispered, almost against Skip's mouth, still holding Skip's chin. "Come into my eyes, Spencer Lawrence Thomas. Come into the darkness and be sheltered there."

And as easily as that, Skip fell into emerald green pools, into darkness, into silence.

Into peace.

How long he drifted in silence, not thinking, not feeling, Skip had no idea; it could have been a second or a thousand years. His next awareness was a pulling, gentle but irresistible, drawing him up and out as if pulling him out of the water, and in the next moment he was lying startled and disoriented on the ground, gazing up confusedly into Dante's green eyes, seeing something very like awe there.

"What's the matter?" Skip said hesitantly. "Didn't it work?"

"It worked," Dante whispered. "The sending passed you by without finding what it sought. Ah, muírnigh." The deep voice was rich with wonder. "No other has ever trusted me so deeply. Well I know that in part it was only because you care so little for yourself, but still – ah, muírnigh, you stir things in me, emotions I never knew I possessed." He shook his head sadly. "Emotions I can ill afford."

He sighed, getting up; Skip, chilled by lying on the cold ground for who knew how long, missed the warmth of his body.

"We might as well camp now," Dante said resignedly. "We'd not get much farther tonight, and if we're to eat, I should hunt. I never thought to bring journey food for two."

Skip swallowed.

"Do you, er, um – you know, kill animals?"

Dante snorted.

"Oh, aye," he said, his eyes twinkling. "And then . . . I cook them and eat them. Preferably with salt and herbs and a good crusty loaf, and with a good draught of wine to drink besides."

"Oh." Skip grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. I didn't mean – "

"Of course you did," Dante said easily, giving Skip a hand up from the ground. "Ask me what you will. I cannot promise answers to every question, but I willna lie to you." He glanced uncertainly at Skip. "Can you build a fire while I hunt? Tomorrow we'll be nearing settled lands, and game will be scarce."

Skip smirked.

"Sure," he said. "Go on."

Dante gave Skip a rather skeptical glance, but turned away and vanished into the dark forest with amazing rapidity. There was enough moonlight that Skip located a few pieces of deadfall and, despite the damp ground, enough dry leaves and twigs to serve as tinder. He laid the fire – admittedly with not nearly the easy skill Dante had shown – and kicked the general area around it clear of leaves and debris, then pulled out his lighter, chuckling as he easily lit the tinder. Up till now he'd felt all but useless, so he supposed he was entitled to just a little gloating now.

Once the fire was burning nicely, there was enough light to easily locate more deadfall to burn, and he'd accumulated a fair pile by the time Dante returned carrying two weird-looking creatures that might have been a missing link between rabbit and woodchuck.

Gee, Toto, I think fucking Kansas went bye-bye a while back, Skip thought wryly. He hoped to hell Dante didn't expect him to clean and prepare the things. He'd done a little hunting in his time; you couldn't grow up in the backwoods of Kentucky without getting dragged along by the good ol' boys on a hunting trip or two (usually as the entertainment), but his participation had mostly consisted of carrying a gun and griping a lot about the bad hunting, and missing by a mile when he did have something to shoot at. And the closest he'd come to cleaning game was gutting and scaling a fish on his first and only fishing trip, and he'd nearly lost his lunch doing that. Thereby earning himself one hell of a beating by his father for being such a "useless, weak little faggot." Not that Daddy and his redneck buddies found me so useless that night, Skip thought bitterly. The thought made his gorge rise and Skip had to look away from the game. He doubted he'd be able to eat any of it.

Thankfully Dante squatted down at the edge of the circle of firelight and nonchalantly gutted and skinned the animals while Skip carefully directed his attention elsehwere. Skip had never cooked anything more complicated than a hot dog over a campfire, and he was duly impressed when Dante rigged a spit over the flames to roast the meat, although the carcasses looked way too bloody and . . . authentic to suit Skip's stomach. His father's hunting trips had quickly soured him on game, and since Skip had left home, he'd never eaten anything but nicely anonymous parts from the grocery store.

Skip glanced down at his hands. They were shaking, and he realized that his unhappy stomach might not have as much to do with childhood memories or the prospect of newly-dead animals for dinner as he'd thought. Now that he thought about it, maybe the heat of the fire wasn't all that was making him sweat rivers, either.

Dante glanced up.

"Time, muírnigh?" he said quietly.

Skip clenched his hands together, hating his own weakness, hating the hunger that had nothing to do with food. (Useless weak little faggot useless weak little faggot useless weak little -- )

"I can wait," he mumbled, wondering if he was lying. It felt like a lie. He fought down the humiliating urge to beg. How many times had he begged for a fix? Begged, yes. Also lied, cheated, stolen, traded or outright sold his body . . . he felt sicker.

"No need." Skip jumped; Dante was suddenly right beside him, one long-fingered hand on his shoulder. The hand moved, brushing his hair back gently. Dante's voice was soft. "Muírnigh, relax. I'll not deny you what you need."

Skip nodded wordlessly, folding his arms around himself, staring into the fire as Dante fetched the cup and a leather skin of wine from the saddlebags. He filled the cup with wine and turned away, and Skip tried not to lick his lips in anticipation as he heard the scrape of Dante's knife leaving its sheath. Skip clenched his hands harder to stop their trembling.

Jesus, Thomas, you've got it bad, he thought helplessly. Found yourself a whole new drug, and God, are you hooked. And just your luck, you'd have to pick one that has one single source in the known world. Or in the unknown world, as the case may be. Shit. Thomas, you are so fucked.

Dante squatted down beside Skip again, handing Skip the cup. Skip tried to restrain himself and failed; he almost snatched the cup, put it to his lips and drank deeply, desperately. He drained the cup and threw his head back, breathing harshly, eyes closed, shuddering as the liquid burned through him. He forced his eyes open.

"It was . . . stronger," he gasped. He felt lightheaded, exhilarated, strong. The night around him seemed . . . transparent. He could see so clearly – not as if it was daylight, but as if the darkness was only a thin veil, easily penetrated. The night sounds seemed sharper, clearer, even if he couldn't identify them; scents were just as intense, and Skip was miserably aware that he could really, really use a bath.

"Aye." Dante stroked his back slowly, calming him. "The need struck you sooner. You needed more."

Skip closed his eyes, licking his lips. More, yes, but he still . . . wanted.

"What's this doing to me?" he asked in a whisper. Few drugs with this profound a high came without a price his body was probably ill-prepared to pay now. A few days ago that wouldn't have mattered; now, somehow, it did.

Dante sighed.

"Touching a part of you that few mortals experience," he said. "Deepening a bond between us. Each time bringing you a little closer to my world."

Skip swallowed hard.

"Will I become – something else?" he said barely audibly. "Something like you?"

"No." Dante's voice was reassuringly firm. "No, that cannot happen. A pure-born Feeder can bring about a change of sorts, but not I. My blood only creates a . . . sharing . . . between us. If you can be cured of your illness soon and then taste no more of my blood, there will be no permanent effects. The bond will fade in time."

"Ah." Skip heard what Dante wasn't saying – that if he didn't kick this particular habit pretty damned soon, there would be 'permanent effects.' He didn't ask what that might entail; he wasn't sure he wanted to know, not right now when he functionally had no choice. Hopefully the whole issue would become moot anyway.

Dawn was starting to tint the horizon. Dante pulled the blankets from the saddlebags and spread one on the ground, and suddenly Skip felt awkward. The first time they'd camped, he'd been too sick to know or care what the sleeping arrangements were. At the cabin they'd chastely shared the bed, but with Dante on top of the covers. Now he wasn't precisely sure what Dante's expectations were, despite the pretty speech he'd made.

When the roasting meat was done, however – it was gamy and rather tough, but to Skip's surprise, his growling stomach showed no reluctance whatsoever, and he was hungry enough that it tasted like ambrosia – and they'd eaten, and Dante had packed away the leftovers for later, Dante settled himself cross-legged beside the fire, gesturing at the blankets.

"Get some rest, muírnigh," he said. "I'll keep watch."

Skip sat down on the blanket hesitantly.

"You're not going to sleep?" he asked guiltily. He felt a pang of regret, remembering the taller man's warm strength beside him the night before.

Dante shook his head.

"Nay, we've had one bit of trouble, I'd best keep alert for more," he said. "No fear, Skip, I can go long without sleep when it's needed. With luck, if we can ride hard later, eat in the saddle, we'll make Ryven before the next dawn." Far from seeming glad at the prospect, Dante scowled slightly, as if their arrival in the city presented a whole new set of complications.

"What's the matter?" Skip asked softly.

Dante glanced up and smiled faintly.

"No need to concern yourself, muírnigh," he said. "Rest now."

Skip yawned, once again wearied in the wake of Dante's blood, ready to sleep despite the strangeness of going to bed at dawn. As he slid into sleep, he muttered, "Never did tell me what that means."

But he was snoring before he received any answer.

Dante woke him in the late afternoon; rested and strengthened, Skip felt well enough to help Dante clear up the camp before they set out again. Riding still made him so sore that Skip wondered whether he'd walk bowlegged for the rest of his life, but the end of their journey was enough of an incentive to make Skip almost eager to jump into the saddle again.

A short ride saw them out of the forest, and almost immediately wilderness gave way to signs of civilization. The road widened and sported deep ruts that spoke of wheeled vehicles, wagons or maybe carts; large fields showed signs of cultivation although it was too early in the season for Skip to recognize the greenery poking up through the tilled soil. Then there were houses of a sort – squat stone dwellings, or log cabins such as the one they'd stayed in, with pole barns and fences, livestock in pens and chickens and geese in the yards. The sight of the farms and animals once again reminded Skip uncomfortably of his childhood, and he tried to chat with Dante, hoping for a distraction. The other man seemed taciturn today, however, lost in thought, and although he answered Skip, he made no attempt to sustain the conversation, and at last Skip fell moodily silent.

At last, however, Dante pulled a piece of cloth out of one of the bags and handed it to Skip.

"Put this on, please, muírnigh."

Skip unfolded the cloth. It was a sort of hood of black cloth, with a scarflike piece at the bottom that could be wrapped over his nose and mouth to hide most of his face.

"Why?" he asked slowly.

Dante chuckled mirthlessly.

"Trust me, puisín, you'll be happiest if nobody sees you and reports your presence to whoever cast that sending."

He had a point there, and Skip awkwardly donned the hood. Dante helped him wrap the lower piece comfortably.

"Won't this look a little odd?" Skip asked at last. "Me riding in front of you like this, with my face all covered up?"

Dante shrugged against Skip's back.

"Soon enough it will be full dark," he said. "Until then, anybody who sees you will believe I'm bringing in a prisoner."

And am I a prisoner? Skip thought. He entertained few illusions about being able to escape the man riding behind him. He thought about the matter-of-fact way his rescuer had killed those men in the alley, and he shivered, glancing around, now glad for the distraction of the countryside around him.

Then they began passing people on the road, and what Skip saw struck him silent.

The people didn't look anything like the news features he'd seen on Renaissance Fairs or the like; in point of fact they looked a hell of a lot more like the farmers and miners and other back-country hicks Skip had grown up with. For one thing, they were dirty. Here were no pretty gowns and jewel-toned tunics; these people wore drab coarse clothing and looked like they'd been playing in the mud all day. Or rather working in the mud all day; most of them looked bone tired. Few rode horses; some walked alongside horses laden with baskets, others rode in carts or wagons pulled by horses, mules or oxen. Some were still working in the fields Skip and Dante passed, although it was almost dark.

Spring planting season. God, I remember that even though we didn't have a farm. Skip shuddered. It wasn't a memory he treasured. Sometimes he'd taken odd jobs on other people's farms, just to get out of the house for a while. He remembered it well – rocky poor soil, sickly aching muscles even when he didn't start work with his body welted and bruised, bleeding fingers, old rotten potatoes and onions to be cleared out of the storage bins, moldering hay smelling of pig shit.

"What's the matter, muírnigh?" Dante asked quietly, his arm tightening around Skip's waist.

"Nothing," Skip said shortly. He saw a slender, slight youth with white-blond hair walking by the side of the road and closed his eyes. That didn't help; it only meant that instead of looking at the present he gazed directly at the past instead.

Kix. Oh, God, Kix, smaller than me only because he was always so damned thin. Looking at him was like looking in a mirror. Sometimes I loved him so much because we were all each other had, sometimes I hated him so much because looking at him reminded me of everything ugly in my life, in myself. Small warm hands – God, it felt so good to hold each other close at night –

Stop it, God damn it! Skip felt the first sting of tears in his eyes and fought them relentlessly down into that cold dark place where all his hurt lived. He's dead, he's gone, he's not coming back and it's your fucking fault so let it the fuck go. Right now there's no drugs and no booze to let you forget for a little while, what the hell, I deserve to remember anyway –

"Skip, you're trembling," Dante said worriedly. "Are you ill again so soon?"

Skip swallowed.

"No," he said faintly. "No, it's not that, it's just – bad memories."

"Of your Gating?" Dante asked. "Have you remembered what happened?"

Skip concentrated, desperate for a change of thoughts. He had a dim flash of an alley, a faint memory of a cold hand on his shoulder – then it was gone.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "No, I was just – it just reminds me of where I came from."

"Really?" Dante sounded surprised. "And you a crossover. So your world is more like this than I'd have thought, eh?"

"God, no." Skip laughed shortly. He shook his head. "No, my world's nothing like this. It's just – okay, before here, I came from a big city. But I grew up in the country, in an area that a lot of the country saw as kind of backwards and primitive by comparison to the rest of the country. It was all mountains and woods and little bitty farms here and there. I left there when I was pretty young and never went back. So I haven't really seen a lot of farms and woods in a long time, and seeing all this just kind of, you know, reminded me."

"Ah." Skip could feel Dante nod behind him. "Not a happy youth, then."

Skip gave a short bark of bitter laughter.

"You could say that."

"Ah." Dante was silent for a moment. "I saw the scars on your body when I was bathing you, some of them very old. From your childhood, then?"

Skip shrugged uncomfortably.

"Some of them," he said. "Not all. I haven't exactly lived soft." He laughed humorlessly. "I have a history of getting myself into bad situations."

Dante chuckled drily.

"So it would seem, from the manner in which I found you," he agreed. "But I think this situation was hardly of your choosing. You remember nothing, then, of how or why you came here?"

Skip sighed.

"No. I wish I knew. I don't think there's a 'why'. It must have just been some kind of accident. I can tell you this for sure: I never knew this place existed, not as far as I can remember. And as far as I can tell, my memories seem to be pretty good before I got dropped here."

Dante was silent for a long moment as they rode.

"No accident," he said, his voice surprisingly grim. "Nay, muírnigh, perhaps there was no intent on your part. But somebody, somebody with intent and power aplenty, opened a Gate and brought you through it. Such a thing could not happen by chance."

"A Gate," Skip repeated, grimacing. "Between – um – my world and here? But how? And why?"

"Good questions both," Dante said, and Skip felt him shrug. "There is only one 'how' – magic, very powerful magic. Why – " His voice went grim again. "That I would much like to know. And there will be others whose . . . curiosity . . . will be even greater."

Skip shivered at the cold tone of Dante's voice, but he realized somehow that the anger wasn't directed toward him. That was something. He had an idea that this Dante was not a person he'd want to have angry with him.

"So . . . you don't know anything either?" he ventured hesitantly.

"Nay, I know some things," Dante said quietly. "I know that you have some of the Gift – that much I can feel – but no control to use it, so the will and the power came from another. I surmise that that other pulled or thrust you through the Gate, and somehow you managed the power and will to free yourself in mid- Gating. Were you not Gifted, the rift would doubtless have killed you a dozen times over. Threshold sickness and the loss of your memory, those are from tearing yourself prematurely from the Gate instead of exiting at its intended terminus. Those things I know, as I know that that caster knows your Truename, more's the pity."

The hairs at the back of Skip's neck prickled. He'd already grasped that there was some significance to names here – what, he didn't understand.

"How do you know that?" he said softly.

"The sending yesterday," Dante said, just as quietly. "A lesser seeking, a seeking of the body, can be rooted in some personal belonging, an article of clothing, a lock of hair. But a seeking of that strength needs the Truename. Only by your trust was I able to hide you from it." He sighed, shaking his head. "Whoever cast that sending could not expect that you'd chance so quickly upon one who could hide you, or that you'd make it possible. He'd not have cast it, either, had he much knowledge of where you'd come out of the Gate. He must think you elsewhere, out of reach of his seeking. That buys a little time."

A little time for what? Skip didn't want to ask. He was pretty damned sure he wouldn't like the answer. Besides, he had plenty to think about already. Gates. People who rode horses instead of cars. Magic.

"Ummm . . . Dante?" Skip asked hesitantly. "Where are we going, exactly?"

Dante reached around Skip and pointed ahead.

"There," he said. "Ryven, capitol of Alskar."

Skip squinted through the failing light. Far ahead on the road he could see a long wall that enclosed a city, but he couldn't see any more detail than that. There were lights there – torches, lanterns or fires, from what Skip had observed so far. He shivered.

"Well, which is it, Skip?" Dante murmured, a slight smile in his voice. "Cold or afraid?"

"A little of both," Skip admitted.

Dante's other arm wrapped around his waist, pulling him back more firmly against the hard body behind him.

"I canna tell you there's nothing to fear," he said quietly. "But I'll do what I can to protect you, muírnigh. I could do no less, and can promise no more. The cold, though – " Dante pulled something else from the saddlebags, a long soft cloak of the same black as the hood, and wrapped it securely around Skip, almost smothering the smaller man in the warm garment before enfolding him in his arms again.

They rode for another couple of hours, until the last of the light was long gone from the sky, although the darkness didn't seem to bother Díoltas in the least. The city grew nearer, and nearer, and then it was there looming ahead of them. A few people riding horses or wagons or walking still passed in and out of the gigantic wooden gates, and a few bored-looking guards watched them with only moderate interest. When Dante rode closer, however, the guards instantly went to alert, stepping forward to meet Dante.

"Welcome back," one of the guards said in an odd tone, one that told Skip that Dante's welcome was less than genuine. "The High Lord's been awaiting you two days now."

"I was delayed," Dante said shortly.

"Shall I send a messenger?" the guard asked awkwardly, glancing at Skip.

"No, I'm going there straightaway," Dante said. Then he hesitated. "Captain, tell your men, if any mages make to enter the city, they're to be detained and a messenger sent to the High Lord. Everyone is to be checked without fail."

The guard's breath hissed slightly.

"Aye, dark one," he said softly. "It'll be done. Is there some danger?"

"There's always danger," Dante said flatly, and he urged Díoltas on, into the city.

Skip was bone tired, and he could feel the sickness settling in again – the nausea, the tremors, a cold that seemed to seep into his bones and leech the life out of him. He barely took note of the streets as they passed – cobblestones on the main roads, although he could see that the alleys and smaller side streets were dirt. Shops and what looked like inns and taverns lined the streets, but they passed through that area quickly into what looked like a more affluent residential neighborhood. The houses were large here, elegant, but Skip hardly noticed them.

They came to a second set of gates, these heavily reinforced with iron, and the guards here looked more alert even before they recognized Dante. Nobody challenged them; the guards simply nodded to Dante and opened the gates, letting him ride in. They rode across a dark stone courtyard, empty but for what looked like a few servants who stopped to stare. Almost to the double doors of the large stone building ahead, Dante slid from the saddle, helping Skip down and keeping an arm around him to support him.

"Can you walk?" he asked quietly. Skip wasn't entirely sure, but he nodded. Thankfully, Dante didn't test him by releasing him, but he took the saddlebags and slung them over one shoulder, patting Díoltas.

"Get you on to the stable, beauty," the taller man murmured to the strange creature. "Just this once, will you let Nathan attend to you, eh, without biting off his hand? For me, Díoltas?"

Díoltas snorted with what sounded suspiciously like disdain, but he wandered off toward an outbuilding Skip could only assume was the stable. Still supporting Skip, Dante walked to the door of the large building, where a guard let him in.

"Welcome home, sir," a dark-clad lady just inside the door murmured. "I've already sent a lad to the High Lord. Will you go to the hall?"

"Aye, might as well have this done," Dante said grimly. He led Skip across a wide entry hall – then abruptly stopped, glancing around. Suddenly he jerked Skip into an alcove, pulling a curtain across to block the view of anyone in the entry.

"Listen to me, Spencer Lawrence Thomas," he barely breathed in Skip's ear. "You've no notion of the danger you're in, and there's little I can do, so little – but you gave me your name, you trusted me with your soul. There's one more small protection I can give you if you wish it. If you'll trust me once more."

Skip swallowed hard. He could read nothing in Dante's eyes but that darkness, but he felt something – from the other man? Something faint but tangible, something very like fear.

He could've killed me a hundred times over already. Hell, he wouldn't have even had to – half a dozen times already, he could've just left me to die. If I can't trust him, I'm as good as fucked already.

"I trust you," he whispered.

"The more fool you," Dante whispered, a note of sadness in his voice. He turned them in the alcove, pressing Skip's back against the cold stone of the wall.

Dante leaned toward Skip, and in a moment of astonishment Skip wondered if the taller man was going to kiss him again. But in the next instant Dante pulled the fabric of the hood aside and sank razor-sharp teeth into the side of Skip's throat.

It wasn't pain, not exactly, or not alone – it was pain and pleasure mingled in a heady terrifying maelstrom with which Skip was more than familiar. Even as he pushed vainly at Dante's muscular body, he was fighting harder against himself and his memories than against the man whose mouth was the sharpest pleasure, the sweetest pain he'd ever tasted.

Skip would have struggled but for the hard body and the hard stone holding him prisoner between them; he would have screamed but for the strong palm sealing over his mouth. Instinctively he bit down, as hard as he could, and fiery ambrosia filled his mouth, his senses, his soul.

Then Dante drew back, holding him gently now as Skip shuddered, whimpering. Dante cradled Skip against his shoulder, stroking his hair softly.

"Hush, shhh, muírnigh, shhh, leanbán," Dante whispered. He wiped the side of Skip's throat with the hood, then gently wiped Skip's mouth, too, before pulling the fabric across his face again. "'Tis all over now. Shhh, you must be strong now, puisín. Come, we can't stay, they're waiting for us."

The nausea and shaking had stopped with the small quantity of Dante's blood Skip had swallowed, but he walked numbly, almost in shock, beside a man whose expression was so blank he might have been carved from stone. Dear God, Dante had bitten him. He shivered at the memory. Shit. I'm hard as a fucking rock. Great. I don't know where we're going or who we're going to meet, but I'm going to meet them with a fucking hardon. From being bitten. Fantastic. Can this get any more surreal? Am I positive I haven't just slipped a few gears in the upstairs clockworks?

Another set of heavy doors, another set of guards silently admitted them. They walked into a huge vaulted hall, as cold as the knot in the pit of Skip's stomach. There were fires burning in four huge fireplaces flanking both side walls, but either they'd been lit too recently to banish the chill in the room, or the chill was all in Skip's soul. The stone walls were covered with thick tapestries depicting battle scenes; Skip had never been much for museums, but he'd seen their like before, probably on some PBS special. The floor was likewise covered with thick rugs, and his feet and Dante's made no more than a muffled hush-hush sound. There were desks and seats lining both walls, but they were empty now.

At the far end of the hall was a raised dais containing an ornately carved stone throne, presently occupied, and several smaller chairs, none of which were occupied at present, although there were two other men on the platform. A half-open door in one back corner told Skip that the other occupants of the room had probably come in the back way.

The man occupying the throne was, to Skip's surprise, a tall, well-built black man in a dark maroon robe with gold trim – nothing that looked like a royal robe, more of a dressing gown, albeit a luxurious one. Standing beside the throne was a much shorter man in a blue robe tunic and trousers – this obviously his daytime clothes – remarkable for his piercing blue eyes and the abundance of mahogany curls that cascaded down his shoulders and back nearly to his waist. At the smaller man's feet crouched a third man dressed – barely – in butter-soft brown leather trousers that hugged his muscular body from waist to mid-calf. Dark blond hair had been cropped off short, and icy blue eyes gazed at Skip suspiciously. The man's nostrils flared, and Skip had the oddest impression that the man was . . . smelling him?

Dante walked unhesitatingly forward to a few yards from the throne, then dropped gracefully to one knee, pulling Skip with him.

"High Lord," Dante said levelly.

"Dante," the black man said, dipping his chin slightly. "Your business in Athrin?"

"Concluded successfully," Dante said concisely. He drew a ribbon-tied scroll from a pouch at his waist. "The information you requested."

The half-naked man came forward and accepted the scroll, backing away to place it in the black man's hand. The lord tucked the scroll away in some recess of his robe without looking at it.

"I congratulate you on another sucessful mission," the black man said quietly. "But who's this you've brought, who goes hooded in my presence?"

"With respect, High Lord, I meant to hide him from the eyes of others until I'd sought your wisdom," Dante said expressionlessly. "If I may ask, High Lord Simon, is the Vizier nearby?"

"He'll be here shortly," the black man said, smiling slightly. "Your arrival caught us at our leisure." Then he frowned. "And what has my Vizier and Consort to do with this man?"

"Perhaps nothing, High Lord," Dante said. "Perhaps everything. You'll know whereof I speak when you see his face."

The black man shrugged.

"Then show me," he said.

Dante took a deep breath, then turned to Skip.

"Remove the hood," he said softly.

Skip took a deep breath too. Despite Dante's expressionless face, he could feel the other man's intense emotion – uncertainty, anxiety. Fear. Silently he reached up and pulled the hood off.

High Lord Simon gasped, rocking back in his throne. The blond man went utterly still, his eyes narrowing.

"By the gods!" the blue-clad man choked, his eyes wide. "What does this mean?"

Dante chuckled mirthlessly.

"You're the scholar, Lord Blair," he said drily. "I had hoped you might offer some wisdom."

"I don't get it," Skip whispered, shaken by the reaction all around him. "What's the matter?"

"James," High Lord Simon whispered, his lips barely moving. "Fetch my Consort."

"No need, my love, I'm coming, I'm coming," a cheery voice announced from the half-open doorway. "You can't expect me to present myself in court in naught but a nightshirt, my love!"

A slight figure trotted into the room in a swirl of silks and long pale hair.

"So, Simon, what matter is so important as to tear us from our bed, and at such a very inopportune moment?" the voice continued merrily. The figure turned. "I'm sure Dante could wait to – "

And time stood still as Skip echoed the gasp that came from the dias, as Skip gazed into the face that he could not possibly be seeing, as all the blood rushed out of his head and his world turned upside down.

"Kix," he whispered, disbelieving, as he fell unresisting into oblivion.

Email: Shadow