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Call me Eild

by c m

Chapter 6

Morning came all too soon, and loath though I was to do so, I kicked Mikka out of bed in good time so that he could fulfil his mission to deliver the letter from his father to Joran. I kissed him and wished him well, then forced myself to get up. I washed and dressed before heading over to meet Barat ahead of our meeting at the palace.

When we arrived, Joran was already there. As Barat and I entered, he looked up.

'You got the summons as well?'

We nodded.

'Any idea what it's all about?'

I just shrugged.

'Oh well, I suppose we'll find out soon enough.'

Either Joran was a superlative actor, or he genuinely had no idea what was about to happen.

Tibor appeared and called us through to his private meeting chamber. He motioned us all to sit down, and then began.

'Joran, I have asked you here because I hope that you will be able to explain a number of things that Barat and Eild have drawn to my attention.'

I saw Joran stiffen slightly in his seat.

'What sort of things, Tibor?' he said, his eyes slowly travelling across to where Barat and I were seated.

'I understand that Mikka brought you a note from his father this morning following his recent visit. I wasn't aware that you and he were acquainted.'

There was the slightest of pauses.

'We're not. He was just asking me to look out for his son. I imagine Mikka must have mentioned me on his trip.'

It was a good lie and he told it convincingly. I was impressed.

'So it wasn't in code?'

'In code? Of course not, why would it have been? Look...where is this going, Tibor? What are you accusing me of?'

'Do you still have the note?'

'No, I burned it. And please...what is this all about?'

Tibor nodded at me. I took up the story.

'Well, during his visit home, Mikka and his father talked. Mikka gave him the impression that he was unhappy here and his father told him about the plot you had cooked up with him to take me prisoner as a bargaining counter against getting Mikka - and the other hostages - home.'

'A plot? Are you mad? Why on earth would I do that?'

'Because you want me out of the way, Joran. I know that you wanted the role of Ambassador and you know what...I can see how galling it would be for you, a noble and long-term friend of the king, to be passed over in favour of a foreigner and one who had recently been an enemy. And an enemy who refused your advances.'

'Don't be absurd.' He turned to Tibor. 'Please...tell me you don't believe a word of this.'

'Believe me, I don't want to, Joran see Mikka's father has been arrested and has confirmed that the two of you plotted together.'

I saw his eyes narrow.

'Then he's lying. I have no idea why, but he is.'

'Well, we'll know soon enough,' said Tibor.

Barat and I looked at each other. Joran's instincts had again led him the right way. He didn't know if Tibor was telling the truth about Mikka's father's arrest, but he gambled that it was untrue. I suppose he had nothing to lose anyway.

Five minutes passed.

'What are we waiting for?' enquired Joran.

Tibor held up a hand. 'Be patient.'

We heard the sound of footsteps approaching, and there was a knock on the door. One of Tibor's personal guard entered carrying a leather pouch.

'Majesty, we did as you ordered and found these.'

He tipped the pouch out onto the table in front of Tibor. There was an opened letter...and a book of philosophy. I glanced across at Joran and saw him put his head in his hands.

Tibor flattened out the letter, glanced at it and then held it up.

'Apparently you didn't burn it. And apparently it is in code.'

Joran leapt to his feet, his eyes blazing.

'Yes, alright. I did plot to have that worthless piece of shit captured. Why did you do it, Tibor? Why did you give him power and prestige and honour? A man who killed our soldiers. Was he so good in bed...was that it?'

'Watch what you say, Joran. Eild earned every last one of those things I gave him. And you have no reason to be jealous. Have I not rewarded you for the things at which you excel? Then how should it be different for Eild?'

Joran just spat contemptuously on the floor.

'And what happens now, your majesty?' he said with heavy irony in his voice.

'Joran...there is only one thing that can happen now. You know that.'

'You will have me executed? ' I could hear the disbelief in his voice. 'You will truly take my life for this? You should know that there are many who feel as I do about the honours you have heaped on this...this...foreign whore. It will not go well if you pursue this.'

'Don't threaten me, Joran. If others feel as you do, then we must educate them differently. But they will know, above anything else, that men I trust are not to be plotted against and that justice will follow if they do - even for the highest in the land.'

'You are a fool, Tibor.'

'I think you have been the foolish one.'

Joran looked at him. I saw the anger evaporate. When he next spoke, his voice was icy calm.

'Very well. If that is your decision then I accept it. But I also call on my right of single combat to prove my innocence. Choose the King's Champion and I will fight him.'

I saw Tibor pause, and then nod. 'That is your right. In the meantime you will be held under arrest here. I will see to it that you are provided with some comforts as befits your station.'

Tibor motioned to the guards who took Joran by the arms and led him out of the room.

After his departure, Tibor slumped down on a chair.

'Why did he do it? I so wanted it to be untrue. He was my friend. We grew up together...and now, this. And I had forgotten that he might ask for single combat.'

I went over to him.

'I'm so sorry that I have brought this down on you. It was never my intention.'

He looked up at me.

'You've brought nothing down on me. You are a faithful servant. No...what am I saying...not a adviser and a friend. This is Joran's fault and his alone. But by the Gods it hurts.'

I put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. I felt his hand move on top of mine. There was a pause, and then he said,

'I think I need to be alone, now, please.'

'Of course...but perhaps you will come and eat with Mikka and me tonight? I think it is not a day to dine alone.'

'Thank you. That's kind.'

As Barat and I left, and the door closed behind us, I heard a wail of anguish and a long, loud shout of 'NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO' echo from inside the chamber.

Barat and I left the palace and headed towards his office. I asked him about the whole 'King's Champion' thing.

'Ah is the right of those with Joran's position to demand single combat in situations where others would simply be put to death. The King's Champion is traditionally drawn from his bodyguard, but it is a long time since anyone claimed the right to single combat and there is no currently-appointed King's Champion.

Once we got to Barat's office, I realised that I felt mentally exhausted. I decided to head home and take the day off. And I needed to get the kitchen lined up to deliver something special for Tibor's visit that evening anyway.

As I walked through the front door, Mikka was waiting for me.

'How did it go?'

'He tried to bluff at first, but when the guards brought in the letter, he confessed.'

'And what will happen to him?'

'He's invoked his right to single combat.'

'Against who?'

'The King's Champion.'

'And who's that?'

'There isn't one at the moment. They'll have to appoint one.'

He must have heard something in my voice.

'No, no, no, no...not mustn't. It's way too dangerous. And anyway, Tibor wouldn't let're too valuable.'

'We'll see.'

'No...please Eild...PLEASE. Never mind Tibor, you're too valuable to me...please don't.'

He flung his arms round me and buried his face in my neck.

I slowly lifted his face up to mine.

'And you're valuable to me too Mikka. Everything will work out - don't worry.'

I kissed him but he just clung onto me even tighter.

'Umm, I'm just going to the kitchen to sort out details for dinner tonight - Tibor's coming and of course you're invited - and Rollo for that matter, wherever he is. But.......once I've done that, I'm taking the rest of the day off and...well...I was thinking of spending some time in bed.'

I saw a glimmer of a smile on his face.

'And what are your plans for the rest of the day?' I asked.

'Well, as it happens I'm not needed at the office today soooo...'

'Yes?' I enquired innocently.

'Umm...I don't suppose you'd like some company in your bed?'

'Well now...that's an idea...see if you can find Rollo and send him to me.'

I saw the look on his face...and burst into laughter. His eyes widened and then he slapped me on the arm.

'Why YOU, YOU...'

And then he kissed me. I hugged him to me and we gyrated, still in each other's arms, towards the bedroom. I let go of him at the door.

'Be back in fifteen. Just going to sort the meal so we know what we're eating tonight.'

'Hurry. There's something I've been looking forward to eating for two weeks now.' He grinned.

I feigned shock, kissed him again and then headed for the kitchen.

After a brief discussion with the cooks - who were delighted to have a chance to show off - I returned to my bedroom. Mikka was lying on the bed, stark naked and sporting a full-blown erection. He was idly stroking his balls.

'Mmm...someone's pleased to see me.'

'You have no idea how much.'

'Then we better find out,' I said, stripping as I did so.

I lay down beside him and pulled him on top of me. I love the feel of his naked flesh against mine. Mikka's tongue licked the end of my nose before flicking against my lips. I let him inside and we both sighed with pleasure.

Our lovemaking went on for most of the afternoon. We were hungry for each other and we satisfied that hunger in every way imaginable before eventually dozing, Mikka's head on my chest, as we lay spent in each other's arms.

We came to with a couple of hours to spare before dinner. We bathed and dressed and Mikka went off to make sure all the dinner arrangements had been made. I made my way to my office and thirty minutes later Rollo poked his head round the door.

'I've just seen Mikka and heard about Tibor coming here tonight. He tells me I'm invited.'

'Yes, Rollo. It will be good for you to have a chance to meet him informally.'

Rollo smiled. 'I'm looking forward to it. And...can you tell me what's been happening? You did say you'd tell me...I asked Mikka, but he said I'd have to talk to you.'

'Yes, of course. Come in.'

I put Rollo in the picture. He was alternately excited and worried, but in the end just said,

'I'm pleased Mikka's back safely and that Joran can't hurt you anymore.'

'Me too, Rollo. Now, time to get ready to welcome Tibor.'

Dinner turned out to be a convivial affair; Tibor had put the disappointment of the morning behind him and seemed intent on enjoying himself. He certainly didn't hold back when it came to the wine. He also couldn't take his eyes off Rollo - and Rollo seemed to bask in the attention he received. So it was no surprise that, at the end of the evening, Rollo approached me and told me that Tibor had asked if he would like to accompany him back to the palace, and he wanted to know if that was alright with me. It was very sweet of him to ask as, given that it was in effect a royal command, he didn't need my permission.

'Of course it's OK, Rollo. You do know what you're getting yourself into, don't you?'

He smiled. 'Yes, Eild. Nothing that you and Mikka haven't already experienced, I think. But I'd like to. I know what I'm doing and I like Tibor very much.'

'Then go with my blessing, prepared...Tibor is...unrestrained. And you do know that it won't last? It won't be the relationship you dream of. It will be fun, but once he feels drawn to you, he will walk away because he has to. Do you understand? I don't want you to be hurt, Rollo.'

'I'll enjoy it for what it is Eild. Maybe this time it will be more. But thank you for the advice.'

With that, he kissed me on the cheek and went to get his coat before joining Tibor in the hall. While he was doing this, I spoke with Tibor.

'Don't hurt him, Tibor. He's been through a lot. And may I come and see you tomorrow? There's something I need to talk to you about.'

'Of course, Eild. And don't worry about Rollo - he's different.'

These last words bothered me - but I said nothing. Better in the morning when he was sober.

I told Mikka what he'd said as we lay in bed that night. After the exertions of the afternoon all we wanted to do was lay there and cuddle.

'I hope he'll be alright. I'm very fond of him,' Mikka said, 'I know that physically he's very...experienced, but he's still very young.'

'I know,' I said, 'that bothers me too.'

In the morning, I headed over to the palace. Tibor was waiting for me.

'Thank you for dinner last night; you have an exceptional chef.'

'My pleasure, Tibor. And did you have a good night - if it's permitted to ask?'

'It's permitted - as it's you.' He smiled. 'I had a most excellent night. Rollo is...very accomplished. And very energetic. I'm surprised that someone of his age should be so apparently experienced.'

'I expect he told you his story.'

'Yes. Life has been hard for him. I hope I can show him something better.'

'That would be a kindness...and when the time comes...let him down gently.'

Tibor said nothing, he just smiled at me.

'Now, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?'

'The matter of your Champion to face Joran.'

'I see. And...?'

'I will be your Champion. It is me he hates. It would be just for him to fight me. '

'It might be just, but such a thing would be entirely inappropriate. You are my spymaster - you are no longer a soldier. And anyway, I cannot afford to lose you.'

'You will not lose me. I will win. You know of my reputation.'

'You have not used a sword in anger for more than a year. Joran is a seasoned professional. One of the best.'

'Then who will you put against him? If whoever it is loses, what then? What will you do with Joran? What will you do with me? He will hate me even more.'

I saw Tibor struggling with his thoughts.

'Are you sure that you would win?'

'Yes, Tibor. He may be a professional, but he is a General. When I pick up a weapon, I am still a Dog Soldier. I may be your spymaster, but not very far below the surface I am still a trained killer. I will give Joran the justice he deserves. You heard him. He called me a foreign whore. I will make him eat those words.'

Tibor lapsed back into silence.

'Very well...but first you will fight the Captain of my personal bodyguard with blunt weapons. If he says you are good enough, then you may be my Champion.'

'Thank you.'

'Come back tomorrow. I will arrange things with the Captain.'

I turned and left. As I walked through the outer hall, I wondered if I'd see Rollo, but there was no sign of him.

Back in my office, I began to wonder whether Tibor had been right; it had indeed been a while since I'd fought. Would I have lost my edge? But there is no point in worrying about these things. My session with the guard captain would tell me everything I needed to know.

When Mikka got back from work, he came to see me.

'I hope Tibor told you to be sensible and refused to let you fight.'

I looked up at him; his eyes were full of concern.

'Come here,' I said.

I stood and put my arms on his shoulders.

'I have to prove myself against the Captain of the guard first. But I will win, Mikka and then I will beat Joran and kill him. And my incentive is you. I love you, Mikka, and I have no intention of dying yet while there is still so much I want to do with you.'

I saw his eyes widen at my words.

'Did you...did you just say that you loved me?'

'Yes, Mikka. With all my heart. I hope that's all right?'

'All right? All right? It''s...amazing. Really? You really mean it?'

'Yes, Mikka. I mean it. I know that it's what Brygg would have wanted too. And knowing that means I can let him go.'

'Then...if you love me...please, please don't fight Joran.'

'Mikka...I will never be safe with Joran around. Nor will you once he knows we love each other. No-one else can beat him. It is out of my love for you that I have to do this.'

'Don't you dare die, Eild.'

'If I do, you can kill me,' I said with a smile.

'Don't even joke about it, Eild. And now...please...kiss me.'

We kissed long and slow. I felt him stiffen against me. I locked the door and we made love on the couch... and we both knew that it was now more, much more, than just sex.

The bout with the captain of the Guard took place in one of the inner courtyards of the palace several days later. Tibor was there with Rollo standing beside him. Rollo had a huge smile on his face, and he waved at me. I waved back; I was glad to see that he was so obviously happy. Barat was also there with Mikka, and about twenty of Tibor's personal guards had come along to watch their Captain take on the man who wanted to be the King's Champion. I was aware that some lively betting seemed to be taking place on the side. I wondered what odds were being offered - and who was the favourite.

We both wore the light protective armour that would be permitted under the rules of the single combat, with a helmet. We carried a shield and a fighting sword and had a dagger in our belts. The blades were blunt and the ends of the weapons were rounded rather than sharp; this was about 'skill' and not 'kill' - although any blow landing on an unprotected area would bruise and possibly still break the skin.

The adrenalin was coursing through me as it did every time before a fight, but the moment I had the sword in my hand and the herald had called 'fight', I was once again the ice-cold warrior I had always been. I was a Dog Soldier and this was only going to end one way. That may sound arrogant, but I knew it with absolute certainty. We started warily, sizing each other up. The Captain was one of those who liked to talk.

'Come on then, let's see what you're made of.' And, 'Don't worry...I won't hurt you - or not too badly.' And then, ' You really shouldn't be doing this...Ambassador.'

I like talkers. It takes a few percentage points off their concentration when really they should be using every last bit of it focusing on me.

'Do you really think you can beat me? Oh yes, I know about your reputation - but you are nothing compared with me.'

I smiled. And we started to fight.

In a real fight, you don't fuck about. But here I wanted to see what he'd got; I needed the practice. So I let him come on to me. He was a sound fighter; well-trained, but unimaginative and rather predictable. Not someone to underestimate however; if I made a mistake, I had no doubt that he would make me pay for it. But I didn't intend to make any mistakes.

I could see the moment that doubt started to cross his mind. He'd performed a complex manoeuvre including a very nice feint that he obviously thought would do the trick. But I hadn't bought it and as he made the move that ought to have ended in my backing to one side and giving him the opportunity to strike at my unguarded other side, instead I stepped into him and hit him hard on the helmet with the pommel of my sword before throwing my weight onto him making him step back. His arms flailed and I smacked the flat side of my sword against his neck.

'You just died,' I said.

'Why you...'

He came back at me harder than ever and it took all my concentration to parry his blows. We ended up locked together, our faces inches from one another, sword blade to sword blade. The first time he pushed against me, I pushed back - but the second time he did, I dropped my shield and put my hand through the straps across his chest and pulled, dropping to my knees as I did so. His weight was already going forward and he flipped over the top of me, landing in a heap behind me. I drew my dagger and placed it against his neck as he tried to rise.

'You just died again.'

He got to his feet, looked up at Tibor and gave him a nod. Then he graciously held out his hand to me. I shook it.

'Well fought,' he said, 'you do all the conventional things well - but what makes you dangerous are the unconventional things you do. The odds on Joran have just lengthened. And you are welcome in the guard house any time; perhaps if you ever have time you might like to come and teach us some of your tricks.'

'Thank you, Captain. I'd be honoured.'

He walked away with a rueful shake of his head. His men were waiting with the banter that he no doubt expected, and he seemed to take it in good part. That made him an excellent leader and I had a new level of respect for him. I also saw a lot of money changing hands.

As I walked off, Rollo rushed out to meet me,

' were amazing! How did you do that last thing?'

'Practice, Rollo - and I'm pleased to see you. I hope you're enjoying yourself here.'

'I'm having a wonderful time, Eild. Tibor and I seem to get on so well.'

'I'm glad to hear it.'

At that point Tibor appeared.

'Well, I have to say that that was impressive – and, as you saw, you got the thumbs up from the Captain. I suppose that means I have to grant your request and appoint you my Champion.'

'I would be honoured. When does the contest take place?'

'On the day following the next full moon - that's exactly one week today. Use the time well.'

Tibor smiled at me, then turned to Rollo. He spoke softly, saying, 'I'll see you later' before heading back into the palace.

I ruffled Rollo's hair. 'So things are going well between the two of you?'

'Yes, Eild, he lets me sit in the Receiving Room with him - not beside him of course - when he has meetings with ministers and foreign's fascinating. '

'And the nights?'

I saw Rollo's eyes light up.

'He is an amazing lover, Eild - but you know that of course. And insatiable. I had to ask for a night off after three days - I was very sore...he's big and he's rough, but I don't mind because he is also very kind and loving. And he's almost as good as you with his mouth.' He grinned at me.

'Don't let him hear you saying that - second best is not in his vocabulary.'

'Maybe not...but it's true. And...before you say it...yes, I know that it won't last, but that's fine. I've also met some of the other boys who serve him. or two are very nice. One in particular.'

'Be careful, Rollo...while you have Tibor's attention, don't mess about. I mean it. It would cost you your life. And the other boy's too.'

'I'm not stupid, Eild. And anyway...I don't have the strength to mess about with anyone else.'

He flashed his killer smile at me.

'OK. Just so long as you know.'

'I do.'

Back at my lodgings, Mikka was waiting for me. He had a huge grin on his face.

'OK,' I said, 'so I won...but what's the grin all about?'

'The odds were I just made 100 gold pieces.'

I spent the next week practising during the day - on my own. I didn't want word of some of the things I could do getting back to Joran - for I had no doubt that he had his spies . Mikka sometimes accompanied me and I use some of the time to teach him the basics of defending himself. He was a ready learner and picked things up fast . Afterwards, sweaty and tired, we would often share a soak in the bath together - and this invariably ended up with us making love, one of us bent over the side of the pool with the other buried deep inside him.

The day of the contest was soon on us. I spent the night before it on my own. Barat had overseen the production of my armour, made of a blend of metals that he had developed. The result was lightweight but very strong and it allowed me a much greater freedom of movement than anything I had ever worn before. The shield was of a similar material - but my sword was my own. I was used to the weight and the feel of it - and I had honed the edge with care.

The fight was set for midday. At nine, feeling fully-rested, I had bathed and dressed in the simple tunic over which I would wear the armour. Mikka was there to help me, and as we prepared to leave for the battle-ground, he embraced me and held me to him.

'Be careful, Eild and come through this safely. I respect you for doing this...but I love you and I need you. '

'I love you too, Mikka, and I will win today.'

We kissed, just once, and then he loaded my armour and weapons onto a cart and we headed off to the arena.

Joran and I each had a small tent at either end of the ground. In the middle was a square area bounded by a thick line of small white stones on all four sides. If you stepped outside the stones you were deemed to have lost and your life was forfeit. The surface inside the lines was of a coarse sand.

The stands around the arena were filling up with those entitled attend such a contest. Mostly noble families, along with palace staff and a scattering of priests and judges.

In my tent, Mikka helped me into my armour. I put one dagger through my belt, and a second, smaller, one inside my left boot. As I prepared to make my final preparations, a herald appeared at the entrance to the tent.

'Lord Eild, Lord Joran has opted for a contest between unarmoured men as is his right. You may each bear a shield but no other protective covering.'

I nodded. It was a sensible choice. Perhaps Joran had got word of my light, strong armour. But it was still a gamble. I had trained without armour as a Dog Soldier. I wondered if Joran knew that. As I stripped off the breastplate and helmet, and then the boots, replacing them with strapped sandals, all I felt was freedom, not fear. But I could see the fear in Mikka's eyes.

'Don't worry, Mikka. The odds just went up a notch or two in my favour.'

He said nothing.

As I walked out, silence fell. This was not the same as the Games. This was not for entertainment. In a few minutes a man was going to lose his life as a consequence of a judicial sentence. I looked up at the middle of the stand; Tibor was there and I could see Rollo behind him. I looked back down in time to see Joran emerge from his tent. His hair had been tied back in a bunch behind his neck, and he was slowly rotating the sword he carried in his right hand.

Two heralds approached, one stood in front of me and one in front of Joran. A third herald appeared on the balcony and sounded a brief note on a trumpet.

'This fight is to determine the guilt of Lord Joran. He will fight the King's Champion to the death. Once inside the White Pavement, only one man may leave alive. If either man steps over the Pavement, his life is forfeit and he will be executed on the spot by the Captain of the Guard. The fight will commence the next time the trumpet sounds.'

The herald in front of each of us led us towards the fighting ring. We both stepped over the white stones and faced each other.

The trumpet sounded.

Joran attacked immediately. Fortunately, I had anticipated he might and was ready for the welter of blows that rained down on my shield and my sword as I blocked cut after cut. I was happy to defend for two reasons; first, it taught me a lot about his fighting style and the way he used his sword, and second, attacking like that used up energy - a lot of energy. If this turned into a war of attrition, the man with more energy remaining held a big advantage.

Having failed to get through, he circled me warily for a while before repeating the manoeuvre - with the same result. I saw his eyes narrow as he backed away.

I thought it was time to test him gently. I went on the offensive, probing his defence high and then low. He held me off competently enough - but I hadn't really expected anything else. I started to circle him a little faster, jabbing in and then breaking back. I got lucky with a little nick on his forearm when he was a little slow. This seemed to spur him and he attacked with a furious succession of blows. As I danced away, disaster struck; my foot slid on the sandy surface and my knee hit the ground with a crack that sent shooting pains right up my leg. Joran, sensing his moment, stepped up and brought his sword down in what he must have thought would be a fatal blow. And it would have been had I done what he was expecting and either tried to parry the blow or attempted to get back to my feet. I did neither, instead I rolled over the knee that had struck the ground. His sword gashed the arm I had used to pivot with, but it was not the killer thrust he had envisaged. Instead, my roll brought me round beside his legs. As I was rolling, I'd drawn the knife from my belt and I now drew it hard across the back of his ankles, severing the tendons. I completed the roll and stood. I could feel the blood dripping down my shield arm. Joran stood for a moment and then, a look of puzzlement on his face, collapsed onto his knees as his ankles gave way.

I walked round to face him. He looked up at me and then, with a sad smile and a shake of his head, dropped his shield and his sword. Unable to stand, he knew that he could not defend himself.

His handsome face looked up at me. 'Please, Eild, make it quick.'

I knelt in front of him and said, 'I'm so sorry it had to come to this.' And I meant it.

Then I put an arm round his shoulder and embraced him. I looked into his eyes and saw them widen in surprise before the light in them faded as I slid the dagger up under his ribs and into his heart. I gently laid his body down into the sand. It was quick and it was painless – and it was a gift I was happy to give.

I stood and nodded up at Tibor, before walking back to my tent. For the first time in my life I felt sadness over having killed a man, necessary though I knew it had been.

Mikka was all concern over the wound to my arm. It was a nasty gash, but it was only flesh deep. He packed it with a powder that Barat had given him, and then bound it tightly. And then he hugged me.

'Oh Eild, I'm so relieved...and you were wonderful. I was so worried when you slipped but ...'

I put a finger on his lips. 'It's over - that's all that matters. Now I'm sure Tibor will want to see me, so help me look respectable and we'll go and find him.'

Mikka gave me a wet cloth that I used to wipe my hands and face, and he ran a comb through my hair before pronouncing himself satisfied. We left the tent together.

As I'd anticipated, Tibor was waiting outside. He had Rollo beside him. Behind him I could see Joran's body being removed on a stretcher.

'Thank you for giving him a merciful end, Eild.'

'It was the least he deserved as a soldier.'

'Would you come and dine with me tonight? With Mikka, of course.'

I nodded. 'Thank you, we would be honoured.'

Back in my apartments, Mikka ran me a bath. He put oils of orange and rosemary in the water which he said would be good for my muscles. He wrapped a towel around my bandaged arm – which had now started to throb – and carefully helped me to lower myself into the steaming hot water. The smell of the oils and the heat of the water were soporific. And, as ever after a fight, as the adrenalin left my body so the tiredness swept over me. Mikka slipped into the bath beside me and started to gently massage my body. Despite my tiredness, the touch of his fingers on my flesh aroused me and I felt myself hardening under the water. I beckoned him to sit beside me and put my good arm around his shoulders, drawing him into me. We kissed. I felt his hand reach between my legs and take hold of me. He masturbated me slowly and gently.

'I love you Eild. I don't know what I would have done if you'd lost today…promise me you won't fight like that again.'

'I love you too, Mikka. And I'll resign my role as King's Champion. Despite what he did to me, today was the first time I have ever regretted having to kill a man. I must be going soft.'

'There's nothing soft from where I'm sitting.' He giggled.

I smiled at him, kissed him, and then gently removed his hand from my cock.

'Let's save this for later.'


'I promise I'll make it up to you.'

'Hmm…you better.'

'I will. Now…let's get dressed and prepare for this evening.'

The evening turned out in a wholly unexpected way. After we'd eaten (and drunk) both excellently and copiously, Tibor said that Rollo had something to ask us.

'It's your idea, Rollo,' Tibor said to him, 'over to you.'

Rollo looked up a little nervously. He cleared his throat.

'Umm, we…that is I...I mean we, that is Tibor and I, wondered if the two of you would like to stay tonight. With us. All of us together. If you'd like to that is.'

By the end, he had gone bright pink with embarrassment. It was cute. I looked at Mikka. He shrugged – but with a half-smile on his lips.

'Why not?' I said, 'but you'll have to be gentle with me…this arm is pretty much useless right now.' I held up my bandaged left arm.

'I'm sure we can find things to do that won't require the use of your left arm,' said Tibor with a grin.

What followed made me pleased that I hadn't had sex with Mikka earlier. Over the next couple of hours we combined in most of the available combinations. Rollo only bottomed, and I was the only one who Tibor allowed to enter him, impaling himself on my cock as I lay on my back to protect my wounded arm, but other than that everyone came pretty much everywhere. It was exhausting, sweaty and sticky – and fun. At the end, Mikka just lay in my arms, and Rollo was cuddled up with Tibor. But I got a sense that this was somehow an ending and not just a celebration. Then Mikka kissed me and I put the thought out of my head.

After perhaps another half an hour as we just lay there recovering our strength, Tibor propped himself up on one arm.

'Much as I'd like us all to stay here all night,' he said, 'I think four in this bed, enormous though it is, might be a bit of a squash. The room next door is all set up for you, Eild, if you and Mikka would be happy to use it.'

'Of course, Tibor.'

Mikka and I gathered up our clothes from the floor, then I took him by the hand and led him through into the next door bedroom. I suspected that this room would one day be the Queen's bedroom – when and if Tibor married – as it was decorated in an altogether softer fashion. The bed itself was almost as big as Tibor's, and Mikka and I just threw ourselves onto it. It was soft and welcoming. I pulled the covers over us and drew Mikka close to me.

'Tonight was fun, Mikka…but I'm not sure I want to share you any more…would you mind dreadfully?'

'Oh Eild…I feel just the same. Please can it be just us from now on?'

'I'd like that.'

He snuggled closer into me and we kissed. I ran my fingers through his hair as he put his head on my shoulders. And that's how we fell asleep.

I don't know exactly what time it was when we came to the next morning, but there was a tray of bread and juice waiting on the table by the window. As we sat and ate, a servant knocked on the door.

'My Lord, when you are ready, there is a bath ready and waiting for you both.' He bowed slightly and withdrew.

'A bath. Mmm. How lovely…and I think we both need it. I'm not sure I smell so good – and there appears to be dried cum in your hair,' Mikka said.

I reached up and could feel the stiff, matted spikes that told me Mikka was right.

'Come on then…let's get cleaned up.'

In the large, marble-clad bathroom the steam rose from a gloriously deep bath. There was a smell of wild orange from the oil that the waiting servant poured into the water as we entered. He was young and beautiful – and naked.

'The Lord King has asked me to attend your pleasure,' said the boy, flicking his eyes up briefly before looking down again at the floor, 'I am here to wash you, dry you and provide any service that you may ask.'

I looked at Mikka. He gave a little shake of his head. I smiled.

'What's your name?' I asked the boy.

'Kassan, Lord' he replied.

'And how old are you?'

'I am sixteen, my Lord.'

'Thank you, Kassan. You may leave us.'

'Do I displease you, Lord?'

I smiled, stepped over to him and took his chin in my hand, lifting his face up to look at me.

'No Kassan. You are very beautiful and I thank you for the offer of help to wash, but we can do that for ourselves. Don't worry, I will thank the King for his consideration and tell him that you behaved as he expected of you.'

I saw him nod his head, and a nervous half-smile flickered around his lips.

'Thank you, Lord. I would always be happy to be of service to you. To both of you.'

'Thank you, Kassan. And what do you do when you are not washing people?'

'I am here to learn, sir. I hope one day to be head of the Lord King's household. I was told that that was arrogant – but I am ambitious, sir. But the Chamberlain told me that if I wanted to succeed then first I had to shed my pride. That is why I am ordered to attend in the bathhouse and why I am naked. I am to learn humility first.'

'And how do you like being humble?'

I saw a flash in his eyes, and then he seems to gather himself.

'I am happy to serve my Lord King as he asks.'

He bowed his head to us and left.

'Pretty, no?...but I don't think we need him here. I'm happy to scrub your back.'

'Very pretty,' agreed Mikka, 'and no doubt you'll scrub more than just my back….'

'Is that an invitation?'

He laughed.

'Like you need an invitation…'

It was my turn to laugh. We both stepped into the water and slid won into its enveloping warmth.

I scrubbed his back.

Back in the bedroom, swathed in soft towels from head to toe, we both lay on the bed. Now sweet-smelling and pink from the heat of the bath, I was about to ask Mikka what he had planned for the day, when the door burst open and a red-eyed, tearful Rollo stood there.

I instinctively knew what had happened, and stood up and opened my arms. He ran into them, burying his head in the soft folds of the towel. I wrapped my arms round him and led him back to the bed. I sat down, and pulled him onto my lap.

'Oh Rollo…I'm so sorry. But you knew it would happen one day.'

One reddened eye poked out of the towelling.

'You know?'

'I guessed, Rollo.' And I suddenly remembered the feeling I'd had of something being over the previous evening.

'I know I was stupid,' he grizzled,' but I thought perhaps I was different. I thought last night meant…that he…that we…that things were fine…oh god I'm stupid.'

Mikka had realised what had happened, and now sat beside me, putting his arm around Rollo as well.

'Tell us what happened, Rollo,' he said.

'We had a bath together this morning, but he was distant. I asked him what was wrong. He said…he said…that he was getting too fond of me. That he had to let go. I begged him not to. Then he turned on me. Told me to grow up. Not to be stupid. He told me to get out. Wy did he treat me like that, Eild? What had I done to deserve be dismissed like a dog. After all we had done together. All the good times.'

'Oh Rollo…it was only because you meant so much to him that he did that. When you begged him to reconsider, all his instincts would have been to say 'yes'…but he knew he mustn't…so he said some things to try and make you hate him, some things to stiffen his own resolve. Of course he loves you – like he still loves me and like he still loves Mikka. But we all knew that the time would come. Don't be too sad.' I paused and ruffled his hair. 'Was it good while it lasted?'

He tensed…and then nodded slowly.

'Hey…there will be someone for you. A 'forever' someone. You knew Tibor could never be that. Don't be sad. You will always mean something special to him. Anyway….Mikka and I are pleased to have you back. Life's been….boringly predictable… without you.'

Despite himself, a little half-laugh came from the depths of my towel. Then his head appeared. And the he kissed me. And then he kissed Mikka.

'Thank you, Eild…and you Mikka. I'm sorry.'

'Come on, come and have a cuddle. Just a cuddle mind….'

Mikka and I scooched back up the bed and lay down on our sides with Rollo between us. We put our arms round him. We took it in turns to kiss him as he turned his head from one of us to the other – over and over.

'I love you two,' he said, with a smile.

'And we love you too,' we said, together.

Ten minutes later he was asleep. We left him there and got dressed.

'I'll see you back at the house, Mikka. I need to talk to Tibor.'

'OK, Eild, see you in a bit.'

I walked through to the receiving room. There was a queue of people waiting to talk with the king. I saw him glance up at me. He smiled, and whispered a word into the ears of Khal, one of his advisors. I knew Khal and liked him. He walked over to me.

'He says he's going to take a break in about thirty minutes. Can you wait? He'd be happy to talk then.'

'Of course.'

I decided to get some fresh air while I was waiting. I strolled out onto the balcony and enjoyed the feel of the gentle breeze on my face. Was it really only yesterday that I'd fought and killed Joran? It seemed a world away. As I watched, I saw the distant figure of Mikka making his way through the palace grounds to the gateway. My heart gave a skip. I'd told Rollo that he'd find his 'forever' guy…but I knew that I'd already found mine. And I didn't want to share him anymore. I realised that it was not only Rollo and Tibor that had come to end last night. I need to talk to Tibor about that as well.

I was still thinking about Mikka when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Khal.

'He's waiting for you in the back room.'

'Thanks, Khal.'

When I entered the room, Tibor had his back to me and was looking out of the window. He turned as he heard the door open.

'Come in Eild,' he said with a smile, 'what can I do for you? Apparently you didn't need any…company…this morning.'

'It was a kind and generous thought, Tibor, and the boy was exquisite, but after last night…'

'Ah yes, quite. It was fun was it not?'

'A lot of fun…but there is something I need to talk to you about. Well, three things actually.'

'How intriguing. Talk away.'

'First – and this is sort of related to last night – Mikka and I are ready to…make a commitment to each other. We want to be together permanently.'

Tibor's face cracked into a grin. 'Well, congratulations. You will be perfect together.'

'Thank you. It means that we….that we want to be faithful to each other as well. Lovely though last night was…we…'

'Wouldn't want a repeat? I understand perfectly. I will make sure I do not put you in an awkward position. Although it will be hard for me not to want you inside me again. You know you are the only boy who I have ever allowed…wanted…to do that to me?'

'Yes…and I'm honoured. And thank you for understanding.'

'And second?'

'About Rollo.

'Ah, yes…'

'I know that he knew it couldn't…wouldn't…last for ever, but you hurt him with some of the things you said.'

'I'm sorry for that, Eild. But when he turned those puppy-dog eyes on me and begged me to change my mind…I had to be harsh to stay focused. I had grown…I am…very fond of him. He is sweet and kind as well as being very talented in bed. But that is also all he is. He's young. And he's no Eild.'

He said this last with a little twisted smile.

'Maybe one day he will have your other gifts – if he learns from you. But that is also why he had to come back to you. He needs to keep learning if he is to be of real value to me – to us – and our kingdom.'

'Thank you for the compliment, Tibor…and I was sure that was what lay behind what you said. I told him so…but perhaps it would be possible for you to tell him as well – eventually.'

Tibor looked at me and nodded.

'And third…?'

'The boy. Kassan. I will need some more help if Rollo is back in my house. And I admire the boy's ambition too. I saw…intelligence there. And… I think perhaps he might be good for Rollo too…?'

Tibor smiled. 'I see you have lost none of your scheming ability. Which is good in my head of intelligence. And I think you'll find Rollo will be very pleased. Of course, Kassan is yours. And how is your arm?'

'Sore…but the wound is clean. Barat's powder is most effective.'

'I'm pleased to hear it. And now that the Joran affair is behind us, we must move forward.'

He walked over to me and embraced me, then held me at arm's length, his hands on my shoulders.

'You truly have exceeded all my expectations, Eild. I am proud to call you my friend.'

And he kissed me.

I clasped my arms round him.

'I owe you my life, Lord King…and I am yours to command.'

I felt his hands tighten around my arms.

'If you ever call me 'Lord King' again, I swear I'll cut your balls off like I was once going to.' And then he broke into a huge grin. 'Now go…I'm sure Mikka is waiting for you.'

Mikka was indeed waiting for me.

'Good conversation?'

'Very good, thanks. I told him about how you and I feel about each other…that we don't want to share each other anymore. He's fine with that – sends his congratulations, actually.'

Mikka's features broke into a huge smile. He threw his arms round me.

'Oh thank you, Eild. That's wonderful. Umm…we'll have to tell Rollo as well – yes?'

'Yes – unless you want it to be different with him?'

Mikka shook his head. 'No…no…I don't think so. I want it to be just us. Lovely though he is.'

'Good. I agree. But talking of Rollo, I've arranged for some extra help around the house. You can't take responsibility for running the household along with your other work. You remember Kassan, the boy in the bathroom?'

Mikka nodded.

'You remember his ambition? I asked Tibor to let him come and work here. It will be an ideal way to take more responsibility. I would like to help him achieve his ambition of eventually running the king's household, and what better, as a next step, than to learn to run mine? He'll need your help and guidance for a while, but if he is as capable as I think he is, within a year you'll be able to hand over all the household responsibilities to him. Which will be good for your future as well as his. Would you be OK with that?'

'Yes…of course. I think it's an excellent idea.'

'Good…because I also cannot have my partner being a servant.'

'Your partner?' His hand went to his mouth. 'My God…you mean…'

I took his hands in mine.

'Yes, Mikka. You and me. Faithful to one another and equal with one another. You always were, really – in everything but name. And now I want it in name too.'

'I love you so much, Eild.'

'And I love you too. More than anything in the world.'

'Oh Eild.'

His lips found mine and we kissed.

'We'll celebrate later. But one more thing. As well as learning to run the house, I think Kassan may be a good friend for Rollo. In which case we will have achieved the best of every world.'

'You cunning old thing.'

'I'll take that as a compliment. Now see if you can find Rollo. WE better let him know that we have a new member of the household arriving.'

'Will do Eild.'

He gave me one last kiss and then headed off to hunt for Rollo. I went and sat in the library and tried to pull my thoughts back to intelligence, ciphers and all the other stuff that Barat and I needed to refocus on after the distractions of the previous few weeks. But I'd barely opened the book I had taken off the shelf when Mikka appeared at the door with Rollo.

'Come in, both of you. How are you feeling, Rollo?'

'Better thank you Eild. In fact, I'm really looking forward to getting started on learning to be a doctor. '

'Good…excellent in fact. There's two things I wanted to tell you. First, Mikka and I…we're…proper boyfriends – partners - and…'

But before I could get any further, Rollo let out a whoop.

'Woohoo! That's brilliant news. Oh wow…you two, you so belong together…I promise not to ask to sleep with either of you again…I mean, I'd really like to but…oh god, sorry, why don't I just shut up…'

'Don't apologise. Thank you and yes, though you are very lovely and sexy as hell, this does make things different. Between us. And between us and other people. So yes, thank you. And it also means that Mikka will stop running the household – not immediately, but once he's handed over responsibility to someone else. And that's the other thing. We will have a new member joining our household. Someone your age actually who says he wants, one day, to run the king's household. So he's here to learn from Mikka…'

'Kassan? Is it Kassan?!'

'Err, yes…do you know him?'

'Oh Eild…do you remember I told you that I'd met a boy in the king's household when I was…with…Tibor? One who I liked in particular.'

'Yes…yes, I do remember. That's Kassan?'

'YES! Yes…it's Kassan.'

By now Rollo was virtually hopping round the room in delight.

'Oh Eild…oh yes, yes , yes. He told me all about his ambitions. Really? Is he really coming to work here?'

'Yes, Rollo. Really. '

'I can't believe it! That's amazing! Oh wow!'

I smiled. 'I take it you approve.'

Rollo just looked at me.

'Seriously? I am so happy. He and I get on soooo well together. I don't mind sharing a room with him…you know…if there's not enough space.'

By now Mikka was laughing.

'Let's see what Kassan wants shall we. And I'm assuming – from your generous and I'm sure entirely disinterested offer – that it has nothing to do with you wanting to sleep with him?'

Rollo turned bright pink.

'Oh my God, Rollo….you already have, haven't you? Have you any idea how risky that was while you were Tibor's favourite?'

'I know. Well…it wasn't really sex. He was the bathboy one morning. He was made to do that…naked. They said he had to learn to be less proud. He said he was there to help me wash and stuff. I couldn't help getting hard – he was so gorgeous. And he offered to help me out with that. And then he got hard. And I offered to help him back...and well…that was it…we didn't do anything else with each other. We just ended up becoming good friends.'

'While he's with us, you and he are welcome to do whatever you want with each other – provided you both want to – but just don't distract him from his work. He's here to learn from Mikka, not to have sex with you, OK?'

'OK.' Rollo nodded his head vigorously.

'God. Well that's all really. He's due here first thing tomorrow. There is a separate room for him,' I saw Rollo's face fall, 'but if he wants to share with you – and it's his call not yours – than that's OK too. Provided it doesn't interfere with his work. If that happens, he moves out whether he, or you, want to or not. Got it?'

'Yes, Eild, Thank you Eild.'

'Now…when and where do you have to be to get back to learning all about medicine?'

'Oh…umm…tomorrow. At the University.'

'Have you got everything you need?'

'Yes…yes, I think so.'

'Good. Now go and enjoy the rest of the day.'

'I will. And I'm so pleased about you two.' He came over and gave me a kiss, and then went and gave Mikka one too. Then, eyes still bright with excitement, he bounded out of the room.

'Wow…that boy sure has some energy,' said Mikka.

'For sure. But it looks like we 've got a real result employing Kassan – assuming that those two can keep their hands off each other.'

'Don't worry, Eild. I'll make sure Kassan focuses on work first – but if those two are good friends, it should make things easier all round – in every way.'

And so it turned out. Not that there weren't some lumps and bumps along the way - for all four of us (not to mention Tibor). And not a few adventures either. But that's another story.

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