She ran her hand down Ruarc’s cheek, and was pleased to feel no stubble. The fact that he kept himself well-groomed pleased her. Gian had taken to tying Ruarc’s hair back for him, and she found she liked the way it looked. He knelt before her obediently, awaiting her command. She’d ridden him for nearly an hour that morning, and his body showed some of the effects. The saddle tended to leave abrasions, and there were light scratches along his legs and torso from stray branches. “When I return, I am going to have the craftsman rethink some of the straps.” She frowned as she examined the small blisters that had formed were the straps went over his shoulders.
“Thank you, my lady.” Ruarc hesitated a moment, then gave a small twitch of his shoulder. “It would help my balance, I think, if the saddle sat either a little higher or a little lower. It tends to slide a bit where it is.”
“I see.” She smiled. “I would prefer a steady, longer ride.” She caressed his face with the back of her knuckles. “Something to consider when I return.”
A shadow crossed his face, gone almost before she noticed it. “Will I be accompanying you?”
Vitalia narrowed her eyes. He’d been complicit in Gian’s recent poor behavior. She was reasonably confident that Gian hadn’t smuggled any letters out for him, but the fact that he had accessed information without her permission made her wary of taking him anywhere he may be able to make contact. “I think not.” She tilted her head at him, then caught his chin. “You’ll not be permitted to write this month.” His face darkened slightly. “Nor will you be permitted to write again until I say otherwise. You attempted to subvert my authority, husband. That is not acceptable.”
“I apologize, Mistress.”
Mistress. He’d never called her that before. For that matter, Gian had stopped using the term as well, adopting Ruarc’s habitual address of calling her ‘my lady’. When had that occurred? “You’ve been a good boy for me, Ruarc. I am willing to be merciful over this lapse. But my forgiveness goes only so far.”
“I understand, Mistress.” He lowered his eyes submissively.
“Good boy.” She leaned forward to kiss his forehead.
Gian sighed dreamily, a beatific smile on his face. They sat near the stream, on grass warmed by the sun. Gian lay on the ground, stretched out with his head resting in Ruarc’s lap and his arms snuggling Ruarc’s leg. His leg had gone numb several minutes ago, but he didn’t have the heart to ask Gian to move. He rubbed Gian’s shoulder, and Gian let out another happy sigh. The duchess and her party had left the previous day, and the duchess clearly thought she was punishing him by forbidding him to accompany them. He had five days to spend with Gian without the interference of the duchess, Madzia, or Durante. He let out a satisfied sigh of his own.
“This is like a story book. The part that comes after the handsome and brave knight saves the day and carries the distressed damsel off on his…” Gian glanced over at Sita. “Reddish-brown charger and we ride off into the sunset together.”
Ruarc laughed softly, then stroked the remains of Gian’s hair. The slightly longer bits curled, and he wrapped one of the curls around his finger. “Saves the day?”
“You rescue me from a dragon.” Gian’s voice sounded a little sleepy.
“A dragon is kind of a tall order.” Ruarc frowned. “How about I rescue you from a couple trolls or —”
“Dragon.” Gian snuggled closer. “You can handle a measly little dragon.”
“How many of those stories end in the damsel in distress tying the brave knight up?” Ruarc raised an eyebrow.
“Just the best ones.” He turned his head a little to look up at Ruarc. “The duchess doesn’t use a flogger right. It’s supposed to sting nicely.”
“You…” Ruarc blinked. “Gian, are you asking if you can flog me?”
“I…” Gian gave him a hopeful smile. “Yes?”
He went quiet for a moment, long enough that the smile on Gian’s face started to fade. It felt strange that the idea of Gian being the one wielding the implement actually made the idea sound intriguing. “If…” He gently caressed Gian’s cheek. “If you want.”
Gian tied him thoroughly between two trees, his arms and legs spread. Knots rubbed against sensitive places while leaving his back and ass free of anything that might interfere with the flogger. Gian’s hand was gentle on the back of his neck as he pulled Ruarc in for a kiss. Gian’s smile was mischievous as he tasted Ruarc’s lips, and his other hand found Ruarc’s cock. Skilled fingers played over his shaft until he was moaning into the kiss. “Gian…”
“My knight.” Gian gave him one more kiss before moving behind him. Ruarc braced himself, but the swath of fire he’d come to expect from the duchess didn’t manifest. Gian’s blow was lighter, somewhere between a sting and caress. Slowly, Gian began building up a steady rhythm, occasionally pausing to caress his cock or sooth a particularly stinging blow with a gentle kiss.
He was surprised to hear himself moan, and the world seemed to take on a dreamy haze around him like he was floating. Gian seemed to be his only anchor back to reality as everything but the man’s touch faded into apparition. Then Gian’s mouth was around his cock, bringing him back even as he brought Ruarc to orgasm. He heard himself cry out Gian’s name.
Being untied felt almost like being stripped naked as Gian released him from the bonds. He lay in his lover’s arms, panting as Gian stroked him gently and lovingly. “My knight. My brave, strong knight.” Gian kissed the top of his head. “Thank you.”
“I feel as though I’ve yet to wake.” Ruarc listened to Gian’s heart, trying to count the drumbeats. Slowly, the world around him seemed to right itself. He hurt, but it wasn’t like with the duchess. It was more like after running a series of drills. A good, satisfying ache.
“I’ve never been jealous before. Seeing the duchess with you…” Gian shook his head. “It’s strange.”
Ruarc blinked and looked up at him. “You’re jealous of me?”
“No.” Gian touched his cheek. “I’m jealous of her. I want…” He sighed. “I’d be a kinder mistress to you.”
“I…” Ruarc slowly sat up, pulling away from Gian.
“I’m sorry.” Gian cringed a little. “I didn’t mean…” He swallowed. “That came out wrong.”
“It’s, um…” Ruarc rubbed the back of his neck. The earlier feeling had vanished. He stood, picking up his clothes. He pulled his trousers on, then paused. “You confuse the hell out of me, Gian.”
“I’m sorry.” Gian curled up on himself.
“I liked it.” He looked away from Gian, staring at the burbling stream.
“What we just did.” Ruarc exhaled. “I liked it. I liked…” He shook his head. “I wonder sometimes what’s wrong with me. Why I didn’t run when the duchess first…” He looked down at his hands. “Why I accepted her bargain so easily and…” He grabbed his tunic from the tree branch and slid it over his head. “Crawling for her makes me sick, but it’s not the crawling part. It’s the fact that it’s for her.”
“And if it were me?” Gian’s voice was hesitant.
“For your smile?” Ruarc turned toward him. “I’d crawl.” He sank to his knees, then crawled toward Gian. “For your taffy, I’d crawl a mile.”
Gian beamed at him, then immediately went to his belt pouch and retrieved a piece of the taffy. He unwrapped it, then glanced down at it before offering it to Ruarc with an outstretched hand. Ruarc bent his head to eat it from Gian’s palm, and Gian made a breathless sound of happiness. “Ruarc.”
He was unpacking the lunch they’d brought when he heard Gian let out a frightened cry. Ruarc grabbed his blade and rushed toward the sound. Gian was laying on his back on the bank of the stream with a sturdily built blond man standing over him. The man had a sword leveled at Gian’s chest. Ruarc didn’t hesitate. He charged, driving his shoulder into the man and carrying him away from the unarmed Gian. The man recovered quickly, bringing his sword to bear, and let out a shout of his own as Ruarc parried the blow.
The man was a little smaller than Ruarc, and some years older. The first fact gave Ruarc an advantage, but the second concerned him given the man’s clear skill with a blade. Older opponents often knew more tricks. Rather than give the man a chance to bring his greater knowledge into play, Ruarc pressed the attack, driving the man back and further away from Gian. Water splashed over them as they moved through the shallow stream.
Things were going well when a second man emerged from the woods, this one carrying a massive axe. Ruarc parried another blow from the blond man, then felt a horrified feeling of recognition as he got a better look at the second man. The second man gave him a small frown. “Do I know you?”
Ruarc twisted, catching the blond man’s blade and then knocking it aside to open a gash on the man’s side. “A little help here?” The blond man growled at the crown prince of the Wildlands.
Doing battle with the Stone Dragon had been difficult enough the first time. Doing it with a second man in the fight didn’t exactly seem like it was going to go well for him. Especially since Ruarc wasn’t wearing armor or carrying a shield. He dodged the axe, then parried another blow from the sword before dodging again, shifting position so the men couldn’t flank him. He moved to keep the blond man between him and the massive Wilder, but the two men had obviously fought together before. The blond man kept clear, moving so that he didn’t interfere with the Wilder’s attack as they pressed Ruarc back.
This was not good. If he didn’t alter the situation soon, he was a dead man. And Gian would be in danger. Ruarc snarled, then shifted. He caught the blond man’s sword on his own, then moved forward to put as much force into a punch as he could. His fist connected with the blond man’s face, shattering the man’s nose and sending him reeling backward to fall into the mud. He didn’t get back up.
“Blood and ashes.” The Stone Dragon snarled, then came at Ruarc with renewed fury. Normally he’d have been able to take advantage of the fact the axe was a slower weapon. The problem was the Wilder was big and strong enough that he could wield it almost as though it were a quarterstaff, shifting his grip to accommodate the closer quarters and lashing out with the pommel.
It was the pommel that caught Ruarc in the shoulder, sending him stumbling. The Wilder tried to come in for a kill, but Ruarc managed to parry the blow and returned a kick into the slightly larger man’s leg. If he’d had a shield, he’d be doing well. He caught the axe on his sword again to deflect it, and the Wilder simply twisted the weapon to hit Ruarc with the pommel again. This time, he knocked Ruarc off his feet. Ruarc saw the axe coming for a killing blow and raised his sword to block as much of it as he could.
There was a dull thudding sound, and then the axe slid out of the Wilder’s hand as the Stone Dragon stumbled forward before falling to the ground. Ruarc blinked at the unconscious warrior before looking back at where Gian stood, holding a tree branch in both hands as a makeshift club. “Ruarc, are you alright?” Gian’s eyes were wide.
“I’m…” Ruarc stood. “I’m…” He stared at Gian for a moment, then looked down at the unconscious man again and started laughing.
“Ruarc?” Gian gave him an uncertain look.
“You just saved me…” Ruarc could hardly get the words out. “From a dragon.”
“What?” Gian blinked.
Ruarc pointed at the unconscious Wilder. “That’s Jurgen Draak. Crown prince of the Wildlands. The Stone Dragon himself.”
“I…” Gian stared, then looked at the tree branch, then looked back at the unconscious man. “I saved you from a dragon.”
“My hero.” Ruarc put a hand over his heart as he laughed again. “Come on. We should get them tied up before either of them wake.”