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Title Page


Raven’s Touch

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

About Siryn Sueng and Jessica Collins

Don’t Miss These Great Titles From Deep Desires Press

Raven’s Touch

House of Tannin #1

Siryn Sueng and Jessica Collins

Copyright © 2018 by Siryn Sueng and Jessica Collins

Cover design copyright © 2018 by Story Perfect Dreamscape

All characters are age 18 and over.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblances to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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Chapter One

The sunlight painted the sea, coating it like oil on water as it sank beneath the distant horizon. Inch by inch the tide rose, slowly swallowing the sandy beach.

Cadeon stretched as his horse, Adric, obediently halted. Dismounting, he removed an apple and wine from his pack. Pulling the cork with his teeth, he gulped a few mouthfuls, wiping the remnants on his chin with his sleeve. Adric nickered, nudging Cade, no doubt wanting the fruit. Cadeon often looked forward to this evening ritual — a welcome reprieve from the constant strain associated with his title.

Cadeon smiled and offered the rest of his apple to the large beast. With his companion preoccupied with the treat, he returned his gaze to the setting sun. The waves lapped quietly against the shore — a stark contrast to the raging storm the night before.

He absentmindedly ran his hand through Adric’s mane, a motion he caught himself doing to quell his racing thoughts. He dropped the reins, knowing his horse wouldn’t move from this spot until the sun set and Cade mounted.

Cadeon favored this particular place on the beach. It wasn’t too far from the castle; the large spires rose high over the hills where he could spot their tips. A dusty trail, cut through the green grass, led the way up to the top of the cliff. Beyond that was the castle-town. He could get back to his subjects quickly, if needed.

Cade took another mouthful of wine, allowing its sweetness to coat his throat. If only its magic would work quicker.

As Cadeon looked away from the setting sun, he caught something unusual in the distance — the light sands of the beach littered with dark stains.

He resumed his pace, curious as to what it could be further down the beach. Soon, the black spots became pieces of dark colored wood scattered all along the water line, larger pieces still floating in the ocean some distance out, evidence of a recent shipwreck. Rope, seaweed, and other indistinct objects cluttered the area. Cadeon picked his way through the wreckage, careful of the larger pieces of wood. He idly went through different reasons as to why a ship would have been washed up in tatters. Mayhap the reef is responsible?

Cadeon moved some of the pieces, half expecting to find something underneath the destruction. With no signs of anyone amongst the wreckage, Cadeon surmised it to be an old ship having finally found its way back to land.

He sat on one of the wooden planks littering the sand. Today had been arduous, as most others in the past years. His fiefdom was in conflict, and no matter how he fought for peace, it was naught to be found. He wouldn’t blame his subjects; King William had been on the path toward destruction following the murder of Queen Genevieve, not more than five years earlier, and it affected all the lands.

The king threatened war and invasion of nearly every bordering country, even those which would take months to travel to. King William was certain the murder of his wife was part of a diabolical plot from an opposing ruler. An effort to weaken the his resolve and wait for the perfect opportunity to strike, taking lands from him. Nearly each week the king dispatched another handful of soldiers to examine the towns owned by various lords. Some of these examinations were innocent, yet most wielded death and destruction in a mad search for clues, the king’s men finding any excuse to execute one — or a number — of “disloyal” subjects. Cadeon battled daily to keep the king’s men from his land, and to prepare for his subjects’ protection. A combination of sheer luck, and the legacy of his father now passed to him, kept the king from striking.

Even so, tensions were high. Today, he attempted to resolve a quarrel between brothers fighting over who laid claim to the daughter of the butcher. When he deduced it to be the woman’s choice, the looks on their faces were of such confusion he had to laugh. It was the only moment of joviality he had in the day.

As the sun disappeared behind the horizon he finished the last of the wine, throwing the bottle into the ocean, along with the remaining frustration of the day.

Walking back toward Adric, he wondered if tonight would be when he chose not to return — the same thought which he entertained nightly. Unable to turn away from his responsibilities of his land, he determined he would at least allow himself another jug of wine for the night when he returned, a guaranteed sleep.

Before mounting, a low noise caught his attention. He paused, looking for its source. Hearing nothing more, he deduced it to have been the howl of the wind. Mayhap that second jug is not the best of ideas, he thought, shaking his head as he smiled at his imagination.

Another noise, louder this time, reached him. His stallion’s ears turned as well, proving this time something to be on the beach.

A cough — harsh, as if the throat was rubbed raw. Cadeon turned back to face the lonely beach. What he thought to have been pieces of rubbish just piled together, moved. Wood slipped off into the sand and the black cloth pulled back, revealing a hand lifting from the soft dirt. The rigging of what had once been a ship was piled up on someone; they were tangled in the ropes and sail. As the stranger beneath the cloth turned himself over, Cadeon could make out an oddly shaped insignia woven into the material.

He muttered a curse to himself. This was not what he needed tonight. Yet, as he often did, he found himself walking toward the castaway, putting the needs of others before himself.

• • •

Cool liquid touched Rhys’ lips, entering his mouth. He’d never tasted water so clean. Once the droplets fell down his throat, he reanimated, opening wider to greedily drink.

“Slowly,” a feminine voice chided, pulling the liquid away. “No need to drown.”

He moved with the bowl, wanting more. As he sat, pain shot through his torso. He winced, cursing as he fell backward onto the soft bed.

Behind you, my liege!” Rhys spun at his sergeant’s call, his shoulders stopped by burly hands. Hot breath touched his face as the blade sliced cleanly through his tunic. “It ends here.”

Rhys shot to his feet, hand covering the swollen and tender flesh to prevent further bloodshed. He spun from the bed, instinctively reaching for his sword, finding it missing from his side. In his scurry, his foot kicked the bowl from the woman’s hands. Her startled expression was overshadowed only by the squeal emitting from her lips as water arced through the air.

Rhys struggled to focus on his surroundings, noting a fireplace to his left, burning bright heat against him. The flames illuminated the room, shadows dancing against the back wall. The bed was situated in the center, maroon canopies covering the four posts. A chest leaned against the front wall near the door, where his coverings lay. Looking down, he realized he was changed. And possibly cleaned. The room was silent, save for the echoing of the water bowl circling the ground and the crackling fire.

Looking at his arms, the blood from his memory now vanished. His hands were unsoiled, with the dirt he was accustomed to under his nails missing as well. Definitely cleaned.

He heard a small breath and realized the woman had jumped along with him. Her hands anxiously twirled in front of her stomach as she stood against the wall, her bench toppled over in her scurry to be away from him.

Rhys could not recognize his surroundings, yet held confidence this woman was not to harm him. Just as he began to relax, the adrenaline keeping him from feeling his wound receded. Pain seared through his side. He lifted the shift placed on him to see the wound too was cleaned, fresh stitches now attempting to hold it closed.

He tried to speak, yet his throat stung — a memory of swallowing ocean water coming to mind. What’s happened to me? Rhys forced his body into motion, groaning as he stepped back toward the bed, the stone beneath his bare feet ice cold to the touch. The woman he’d startled stayed pressed against the wall as he moved. He coughed as the dry itch in his throat grew to be too much. Rhys eyed the now empty bowl of water she’d been holding. He lifted his gaze to look at her and she made a soft sound.

“Lie back down,” she ordered, motioning toward the bed with one hand. “You will make your wound worse.”

Rhys frowned, looking down at his torso and the hand that pressed against the fresh stitches. He didn’t move, simply leaning on his leg to the right to ease the pain as best he could. “Where am I?” Rhys rubbed at his throat with his free hand as if he could take away the itch.

The door on the woman’s left swung open. Three men entered the room, the first that led them was dressed in fine clothes, while the other two wore armor, their hands on their swords. Rhys frowned at the intrusion. He glanced over the room, trying to search for where his own weapons were. Though, if it came to it, noblemen tended to be easy enough to overpower. Rhys deduced this man to be no different, prepared to take the man’s sword if need be.

“I see our guest has woken,” the man in the middle announced to the others in the room. “Fear not, your clothes and armor are being tended to. They shall be returned shortly.”

The man who spoke stood quite tall, a wide berth to his shoulders, with skin a shade or two lighter than Rhys’. His hair was brushed back, longer in the front than the sides — a light brown fighting to be blond. Even under the hair on his face, Rhys could tell his features were sharp; a strong jawbone, high cheekbones, and pale pink lips, which by the lack of lines around them, indicated a man who naught smiled enough.

The man relaxed his stance, the two flanking him kept their hands trained to their swords, no doubt ready to protect if need be.

Rhys watched the two soldiers for a moment longer before he turned to look at the man who had spoken. He wondered why his possessions would be returned to him, being a stranger in another’s house, and therefore, likely a threat. “Where am I?” he asked again, a little more strength to his tone that time.

“You washed upon my shore. Luckily, my horse had accompanied me to the beach this night, or you might be waking in the ocean instead.”

“You brought me here? What happened?” Rhys cast his gaze to the floor, glaring at it as if the stone held answers. It’s hard to remember.

The man in the middle cast a glance at the other two, silently assuring them to stand down. He moved into the center of the room, lifting the upturned bench and taking a seat.

“Were you alone?” he asked, voice a combination of authority and concern.

“I … am not sure,” Rhys answered. “It is hard to recall, but I’m certain there were more. Someone attacked me, that much I know. Beyond that—” Rhys shook his head and ran his hand through the thick mess of hair. His fingers caught on the strings of the eye patch, tugging it up a little and forcing him to fix it with a soft sigh. “Bits and pieces.”

After a few moments of silence, the man motioned toward the woman who had given him drink. She hurriedly left, her footsteps quick and light against the floor.

“Do you know who you are?” the man asked, tone softer. “Where you’re from? Or mayhap even where you were going?”

Rhys nodded, he knew himself well; ironically, the only thing he was absolutely certain of. He looked up at the noble. “Rhys Kelstai. I can tell you I am not from here. As for where I was going, I do not know.” He paused, his mind racing. At least I am alive, he thought darkly, wondering how he landed upon this shore. “I should thank you for not leaving me to the ocean’s mercy.”

“You should. And still, you have not,” the man retorted, a sad note to his voice, yet the corners of his lips upturned. He stood, walking toward the fire, leaning his arm against the wooden mantle above the flames as he stared into their movement. “I’ve sent the servants to bring you food and drink. We pride ourselves on hospitality, yet I should warn you — should your behaviors indicate anything beyond gratitude, we would not hesitate to…” he turned, facing Rhys, the small smile still etched into his face, “be extremely inhospitable.”

Rhys swallowed at his expression, and tone. He examined the man closely again — his coverings stretched against his chest and stomach, indicating a firm, muscular torso underneath. For his large frame, he carried himself with a fluid grace, comfortable in himself. The sharpness of his jaw coupled with the intensity of his gaze indicated dominion, likely over others as much as himself. Rhys instinctively knew this man was not one to be challenged.

The nobleman walked toward the door, his guards allowing him to pass through. Before turning into the hall, he called over his shoulder, “Welcome to Tannin, Rhys. I am Lord Cadeon.”

Rhys stared at the empty doorway, listening to the footsteps of the soldiers and Cadeon fade into the distant hall. Lord Cadeon.

He didn’t have an answer to any of that, and the dry itch in his throat currently was not from the lack of clean water. Rhys rubbed at his face as he thought over Cadeon’s bewitching smile and the underlying threat of unpleasant possibilities should he lash out. After such an encounter, Rhys no longer assumed the man would be easily defeated. It would likely be the opposite — not ceding control to anyone. Rhys sighed. He did owe his life to Cadeon, something he wasn’t about to forget.

How to repay him…

Chapter Two

Cadeon shivered as he entered his room, slamming the door behind him. He frowned, stalking to the table that held a large goblet and a bottle of his favored wine. Foregoing the goblet, he uncorked the bottle and took a large swallow of the alcohol. Savoring the sweet taste, Cade wandered toward the window of his bedroom and leaned against the stone while peering out into the dark. Down below in the streets of his town, orange lights burned in many windows and from lamps hung on signs outside.

A brothel seemed an appealing method to forget his thoughts — for a few moments. Idly peering into the streets for a little longer, he turned away, sitting in his large chair situated in front of the burning fireplace. Another swig of wine and deep silence… He stared, unfocused, into the flickering flames as he thought of the stranger playing guest in his home. Rhys Kelstai.

Something about Rhys’ story plucked at Cade’s mind. The dark-haired man couldn’t remember where he hailed from, nor his destination. The only ships with need to pass Tannin were trade vessels. For Rhys to be a merchant, or even an immigrating commoner — Cadeon’s first thoughts — now seemed hard to believe after their meeting.

On the beach, Cade noted Rhys’ weapons. He had been heavily armed; knives and a wickedly curved blade. Mercenary? Guard? Those were the more likely possibilities. Or…

A knock at the door interrupted Cade’s thoughts.

“Come in,” he called, not entirely wanting company.

Ignius, his oldest friend, and most trusted guard, entered. “Tyllan and Sigreid finished scouring the beach. They found gold among the destruction, yet minimal amounts. It appears the castaway is alone — no footprints found along the shoreline.”

Cade nodded at the information, gesturing for Ignius to sit. He recognized the worry etched into his friend’s features. “You have something on your mind.”

“Yes, my lord.” Ignius took a breath before continuing. “Is it possible King William has finally dispatched spies to our land?”

Cadeon acknowledged the question with a nod, having entertained the thought only moments ago. “It is possible, yet unlikely. Tannin has always been a trusted ally of the king, and he is aware of this.”

Cade took a swig before continuing, “Even when his mind suffers, he is keen on who his enemies are and are not. I trust we would hear from King William personally should he call into question our allegiance.”

“Then mayhap, my lord…” Ignius stopped, looking suspiciously away from Cadeon, as if his words had gotten the better of him.

“Mayhap, what?”

Ignius looked up, his lips sucked in. “Mayhap … this is the prophecy.”

Cadeon swallowed, careful not to allow his features to portray anything other than calm. “I thought you disbelieved her, Ignius. Hadn’t you referred to her as an abydocomist?”

“Hadn’t you told me to watch my tongue?” he retorted with a smirk.

Cadeon returned the smile. “And I shall remind you, do the same.” He sighed, returning to the window, looking out to the starry sky.

The scent of rose water flitted to him, a common occurrence whenever he thought of her. Imogen.

My Imogen.

His Imogen, who once softly caressed his face, trailing her fingers down his chest as she sang sweet lullabies to help him sleep. Who would make him laugh until his sides hurt. Who he cared more for than his own blood.

He could still remember how her soft brown curls tickled his chest as she rode atop of him. Her eyes shone in the light of the fire, her delicate features at times more exquisite than he believed he deserved. He loved kissing her pillowy lips, their softness like none he had ever felt prior.

She had been in and out of his life fleetingly, yet left a lasting impression. When she was found outside the castle-town’s walls, picking dandelions and other herbs, she was brought in and questioned as a spy for the king. The moment Cadeon set his eyes upon her, he decided she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. When she spoke his name, his heart raced in his chest. She laughed at him for his inquisition — and her response to her perceived absurdity at his questioning aroused him as no other.

Who have you been sent by, my lady?” he asked her, standing in the doorway to the cell they brought her to.

I sent myself, and I am not your lady. Nor do I belong here. Bring me to your room and we can have a proper discussion.”

Utterly shocked at her declaration, he … did. Once he allowed her in his room, they did have a proper discussion … and more. They had been inseparable for nearly a year.

His men called him crazy and that he had been seduced by the witch. Amongst her gifts was the ability of foresight, a talent not all of his men believed in. She often spoke of a great war, yet would never provide details when asked.

He had fallen in love with Imogen, a love she returned, and she told him more than once their love would only grow. “Our love is true, and eternal, but it is not yet complete,” she would whisper, promising she would find what they needed.

After a year of unadulterated bliss with her at his side, she left for a task she could not name. She swore to return when the time was right, reporting when she did, “We will either all live together, or all die together.” She couldn’t quite see the outcome.

He asked her more of this, yet she sweetly smiled and kissed him before turning to leave their home. Ignius was there as she bid them farewell, opening the castle gates for her. She mused to him, “There will come a day you believe my sight, guard. That day will be when the raven washes upon shore.” She turned then to Cade, running her finger along his jawline as she spoke only to him. “Our raven, my love.”

Cadeon smiled at the memory before the blood ran from his face. He turned toward Ignius. “What was on his breastplate?”

Ignius’ solemn look answered before the words left his mouth. “A raven, my lord.”

• • •

Three suns passed, and the halls of Cadeon’s castle were filled with rumor about the young, black haired man. According to the healer, Gwendolyn, his wounds were coming along just fine — as long as he stayed in bed, which was proving a difficult task.

Cade strode through the hall at a leisurely pace, with no rush to get to his destination. He smiled, rather enjoying the wild rumors as he passed his subjects through the long halls. Some of the talk was rather embellished, such as the stranger being a demon of the sea. Others said he was simply a commoner caught in a storm, and yet some believed he was a spy sent from some country.

Cadeon shook his head as he listened in on a pair of maids as they passed him. The shorter one with dark hair tucked up under the cloth, was talking rapidly. “He’s such a good-looking man, but he’s got a scary look on his face.”

“It’s because he’s a pirate,” the other whispered back frantically. Both women held tall stacks of sheets in their arms, balanced precariously as they walked.

“I hear pirates are rather … well endowed.” The woman giggled the last bit as they turned the corner to another wing of the castle. Cadeon smirked at their assumptions.

He paused outside of the door leading to Rhys’ borrowed room. He leaned in toward the door to listen. When he heard nothing, he gave the heavy wooden door a single solid rap, waiting a beat before pushing it open. What was beyond the door wasn’t what he’d expected to find.

Chest bare, and sporting a rather sour look, Rhys sat with a woman kneeling in front of him. Cadeon’s gaze trailed to the sinewy lines of Rhys’ abdomen. Each indentation seemed to build upon the next. His chest was broad and hard, his breath seeming to expand it even further. Cadeon’s gaze shifted, noticing the beginnings of dark hair leading to under his trews. Pirates are rather … well endowed, the woman’s vice repeated in his mind.

Cadeon swallowed, shaking his head to dissipate the unwelcome thoughts. His blood heated at the compromising positioning of Gwendolyn, however; upon further inspection, he surmised she was working diligently on cleaning his wound.

Rhys looked rather irritated as he glared at the woman. When his gaze shifted to see Cade in the doorway, a wash of relief filled his face.

“My lord. Could you please tell this maid that there is no need for this,” he gestured to her as he spoke in an exasperated tone.

Vexed by his own thoughts, his response came out harsher than intended. “And what would you rather be doing, than to allow a beautiful maiden to be caring for you?”

Rhys looked back at the servant for a moment, smirking, “I’d allow the maiden to care for me in other ways, should it be offered.”

Protective of his healer, and annoyed now for Rhys’ response, he continued, “It is not.”

Rhys watched Cadeon in silence for a moment. When he answered, he sounded genuinely apologetic. “My apologies, my lord. I shouldn’t jest about such things. I would truly appreciate if you could insist that this is not necessary. I’ve had far worse,” he muttered the last bit as he frowned down at her. She pushed his arm up and out of the way again, giving him a glare no doubt, and he sighed as he did as she wanted.

Rhys’ head dropped against the bed frame, defeat on his features. Cadeon immediately regretted his tone. He couldn’t help the smile which crept upon his face at Rhys’ resigned features. “Gwendolyn, I think our guest may need some wine, no?”

She nodded, dropping the cloth into the water and leaving the room to fetch the alcohol as commanded.

Rhys slowly sat upright from his slouched position, a look of curiosity on his face. “Wine?” He glanced over to Cade, then gave a slight shrug. Rhys stood and turned to gather his shift from the bed. Cade caught himself eyeing Rhys’ bared back. As the raven-haired man reached for his shift and slowly drew it up his arms, the muscles in his body flexed and shifted with each motion. The scars riddling his skin held a certain appeal up until the white fabric of his undershift covered everything. Cadeon wondered briefly what perils the young man had been through to bring such scars to his body, including the patch that covered one eye.

Rhys turned and faced Cadeon. He rubbed absently at the wound as he stood there a bit awkwardly. “I … owe you thanks. For sparing my life. I might not remember much of my past, but I can say I know how to wield a sword.” Rhys lowered himself to a kneeling position, down on one knee, bowing his head. “If it pleases you, my lord, I wish to be in your service as payment for my life. For however long you see fit.”

Cade was quiet as he stared down at Rhys. Lift your chin then, remain on your knees… Cade ground his teeth and forced the wandering idea out of his mind before it could be further entertained.

His hands pulled into tight fists. Cadeon swallowed hard and looked away as he took a moment to focus on Rhys’ words and not his position. What are these urges? he questioned himself.

“You remember naught but the fact you could once wield a sword?” Cade bit the words out, attempting to remind himself this stranger may be of ill will. “Am I to trust you will not wield your sword against me?”

Rhys looked up, confusion in his dark colored eye. His brow curved down as he regarded Cade. “I wouldn’t dream of it. You saved my life, I wish to repay you. What better way than to serve as sword and shield. Should I have need to give my life for yours, I would do so, and my debt to you paid.”

Cade studied the man for a moment, uncertain of his own thoughts. For him, trust took time to build, especially in times as tumultuous as these, yet there was something in the man’s eye, which he wanted to perceive as the truth. He caught himself staring at the alluring, rich mahogany, his long, dark lashes framing the orb, much the same as an ox eye. Breathtaking.

He shook his head of the errant thought. It appeared he couldn’t think clearly when it came to Rhys, most especially when he was down on his knees.

“Come then. Let’s find out just how well you think you are with a sword.”

Chapter Three

Rhys followed Lord Cadeon through the halls of his keep. Though the people they passed gave him a wide berth, or looks of distrust, there was a quiet calm throughout. Judging from what he could remember, calm was a novelty for him. He found himself at odds about how to handle peace.

Vivid memories haunted his dreams each night — sounds of men dying around him, armies clashing, their armor groaning with each hit of an axe or sword. Memories of a land with lush green grass, then nothing but ash and smoke surrounding him.

There was also a beautiful woman. Flashes of her, just out of his reach. He could never clearly see her eyes in his memory — the soft glow of sunlight in the visions kept her face partly shadowed. Yet, he remembered long waves to her hair; her pink, pillowy lips separating into a perfect white smile. He looked forward to sleep each night, hoping he would get to see more of his mystery woman, instead; he was bombarded with images of blood and gore.

What he gained from these dreams was that he could fight — a warrior of some sort. He had knelt before Cadeon this day as a measure of respect and repayment, yet knew he was not used to kneeling before any man. Discomfort at the submissive gesture ran through his blood. It seemed as if his body could remember what his mind did not — he hoped this would hold true in his swordsmanship. He kept his thoughts to himself though as he walked with the lord of the castle, sneaking a glance at the mysterious man next to him.

Cadeon was a good-looking man, not much taller than Rhys. They were almost of the same build, though Rhys was of the mind Cadeon had more muscle to his frame. He walked with conviction; his shoulders back, head up, as if both surveying his land and boasting about it. Yet, Rhys did not get the impression Lord Cadeon would be one to boast. It was how Cadeon held himself, heavy with confidence. He appeared stoic, serious about all matters. Unless Rhys was reading into it wrong, which he doubted, Cadeon was a man who demanded complete submission of his subjects. In return, he provided them with every want or need. He wondered if this trait carried into more personal matters as well.

They soon left the castle halls and exited out into the midday sun. Temporarily blinded, Rhys stood in the doorway for a moment, blinking rapidly to try to clear his sight. He heard first before he saw anything. Men shouted at one another, and steel screamed against steel. His heart leapt in his chest, his hand instinctively reaching for the sword at his side, finding nothing. For that brief moment, Rhys believed he was having another nightmare, yet the smells of fire and sweat permeating the air proved him awake. Once aware of his surroundings, he faced Cadeon’s soldiers sparring in a giant field beyond the back of the castle.

Cadeon didn’t spare them any mind as he crossed the grassy area to a rack of weapons. There was a guard standing there, watching them as they approached, a deep frown on his lips as he regarded Rhys. Rhys cast him one glance before returning his gaze to Cadeon. The weapon rack held mostly swords, but there was some variety to them. Cadeon chose his seemingly without thought. Rhys took a little longer to choose. None of them were something he believed he had been accustomed to using. Either too long, or too heavy. Eventually he picked one, holding it loosely in his hand. He cast Cadeon a sly look, a bit of a smile on his lips as he regarded the lord.

“Will this be the first time your armor has been tested, sire?”

“You’ll watch your tongue, wretch,” the soldier snapped, his blade coming free just enough to show steel from the sheath. The man looked over at Cade and scoffed before continuing. “It’s hardly fair, my liege. He’s only got one eye.”

Rhys twisted the sword in his grip, making it sing in the air. He turned to look at the soldier, a hot surge of anger boiling in his stomach at the insult. “I don’t need to see you in order to kill you.”

The guard unsheathed his sword, stepping forward into Rhys’ space. Cadeon also stepped forward, placing a large palm on the guard’s chest, halting his advance. His lips curled again at the corners in Rhys’ direction, as they had the first night at the castle.

“Come now, John. I yearn for the opportunity to ‘test my armor’,” he quipped. Rhys thought he detected a wink toward the guard as Cadeon turned and walked toward the open dirt, yet considering the lord’s normally cool manner, he couldn’t be sure.

Cadeon rolled his shoulders back, looking up to the sun for a moment while taking a breath. He turned around, whirling the sword in his wrist, before taking his stance. Rhys followed suit, mirroring him.

“I must say, sire, your quickness to determine a weapon is surprising. Your sword is one of many the others must use daily, not a personal sparring one?”

Cadeon smirked again, all but beckoning Rhys to make the first strike. “It doesn’t matter the weapon if you are confident in your skill.”

Rhys glanced down at his sword and swung it again, testing the weight one more time. He looked Cadeon over, the confidence in his stance very apparent. The lord knew what he was doing, even if Rhys had first thought the man hadn’t ever held a blade before, much less knew how to swing one. Rhys couldn’t help his own little smirk as he gazed at his opponent. Excitement ran through his limbs. A contest of which belief was stronger, sword or skill — now that was thrilling.

“I suppose we shall see, my lord,” Rhys offered as he readied the weapon, holding it level with Cadeon’s chest, but close to his own body so as not to overextend. They were not leagues apart from each other, but Rhys did have need to step forward in order to reach, and he did so slowly, measuring Cadeon’s response. He had no intention of hurting the man, but he wouldn’t go easy either, wanting to prove his worth. Rhys’ first strike was aimed straight at Cadeon’s chest, a quick thrust that would lead into other, fluid motions.

Cadeon quickly countered, stepping in and turning Rhys’ sword toward the ground as his elbow came flush with his jaw. The hit was pulled, no doubt, yet left a sting. Rhys shook his head, smiling at the excitement rushing through his system. This is going to be fun.

Rhys turned, landing an elbow strike of his own as their swords clashed. Cadeon twisted around quickly, lifting his sword to strike from above. Rhys was able to block, kicking out yet just missing Cadeon’s chest.

They traded thrusts for strikes, counters for feints, as each continued to look for weaknesses in the other, yet they were nearly evenly matched. Cadeon had more power behind his thrusts, yet Rhys had a slight advantage in speed. Other than elbows, neither could land a blow on the other.

Rhys drew back for a quick break. Under the heat of the sun, the exercise had worked up a thick sheen of sweat across his body. Lord Cadeon’s skin shimmered as he moved as well. Rhys’ heart had been thrashing hard in his chest while they sparred. Now still, it beat for other reasons. Fighting with Lord Cadeon had him excited in more ways than one.

Rhys eyed his own blade with a smile. “It’s not my weapon of choice, but it seems suited well enough for me.” He shrugged. Looking back to Cadeon, his smile grew. “Although, should I have the blades that belong to me, I think our match would come out very differently. What of you, sire?”

“Mayhap if I had the blades of my own, it would.” Cadeon smiled back sarcastically. “Ah, me. I have forgotten in your weakened state you wouldn’t be able to last. Shall we return? I can call for the healer to continue her work.”

Rhys paused. He looked down at his sweat drenched tunic, but it wasn’t just wet from the sparring. Small blotches of red had at some point appeared on the white fabric. Rhys frowned as he lifted the shift to inspect the wound beneath. Though not the gaping gash it once was, it wasn’t fully healed either. He sighed as he wiped the light trail of crimson from his skin and dropped the edge of the shift. Shrugging, he faced Cadeon. “Only if you’re willing to concede to me this round,” he said in a teasing manner.

He caught Cadeon’s gaze lingering on his abdomen, assessing the damage the wound had caused. Cadeon’s eyes flicked up to his, an undercurrent of … something … behind the stormy gray irises.

“I concede your confidence surpasses your skill.” He licked his lips briefly, wiping his brow with his sleeve. “I’m reluctant to allow you to continue. After all, I have saved you once, for which I believe you are in my debt. Should I save you twice, what then would you have to offer?”

Rhys was silent at first. Cadeon was right that he was already in debt. However, there was more than one way to repay someone for their kindness. He raised his gaze to Cadeon. “I have many things I can offer you.” The wicked curve of his lips teased at much more than just words being spoken.

Cadeon’s eyes widened briefly before narrowing. He swallowed, opening his mouth to speak when shouting interrupted from across the field. One of the sparring pits had turned into a brawl.

Cadeon glanced back at Rhys, the two left alone for a moment as the men around them rushed to the other field. He took a step closer, lowering his sword to his side. Rhys again mirrored his movement, slightly tilting his head as he licked his lips.

The two men studied each other, near enough to feel the heat emanating off the other. Their chests expanded with the last remnants of their excursion. Their heaving breaths brought their chests close. Cadeon opened his mouth to speak when the guards yelled out again, calling for him to assist.

Cadeon shook his head, backing off as he muttered a curse under his breath. With one last look at Rhys, he dropped his sword and headed toward the other field. Rhys watched him go, a short pang of disappointment shooting through his chest before he brushed it away. He knew the man for a whole of four days and already Rhys was lusting after him. That could get him thrown in a cell, or worse — his head taken from his shoulders. Rhys took a calming breath and turned to follow after his liege.

The men in the fight hardly noticed their lord had approached, too concerned about who was going to win. Blood flowed from both men’s faces, their angry snarls filling the air as they snapped insults between strikes. Rhys moved with Cadeon, not too close, but not too far from him either. Men jeered at those that fought, and others that tried to stop it. The ones who noticed their lord pushing his way through immediately stepped aside. A familiar feeling rushed through Rhys, as if he’d done something similar before. A fleeting memory of men moving aside for him as he passed in earnest. There was a sense of command … but nothing more. He cleared his thoughts, shoving the tattered recollection away for later. Before he knew it, they were in the middle of the fighting and Cadeon’s voice rose loudly over his men, a boom like thunder with a heavy tone of authority.

Rhys moved next to Cadeon. He caught hold of one soldier’s arm as he went to strike out again. “Your lord has ordered you to cease,” Rhys said as the man looked over with a dark glint in his eyes. Perhaps Rhys had overstepped his bounds, but with Cadeon so close to the men who were out of control, he couldn’t help but to try to get them to stop lest they unintentionally injure their lord, though Rhys was certain Cadeon could handle that on his own.

The soldier yanked his arm free and turned his anger on a new target. “Foreigner. You’d do well to keep your nose out of our affairs.” He took a threatening step forward. Rhys stood his ground, yet did not move further, unwilling to harm one of Cadeon’s men, unless need be.

Cadeon’s voice boomed again, chastising the men. “Bloodshed is for the battlefield. I will not tolerate it, nor disrespect.” He gave a pointed look toward the man near Rhys, who after another moment, backed down.

“The day here is done. Return to your other duties,” Cadeon commanded, looking around at the spectators. Spitting blood near Rhys’ feet, the one closest to him shoved past through the crowd.

Cadeon looked at Rhys as the men dissipated. “Come, let’s get cleaned and get your wound tended to again. Then we shall eat.”

“I’ll survive,” Rhys countered, not wanting to waste another minute being bandaged.

“Yes, you will. But you’ll serve me faster if healed.” With that, Cadeon turned to walk back toward the castle, leaving Rhys to fall in line.

Assuming others will obey every command. Rhys laughed to himself as he began to follow. That could be a fun habit to break.

Chapter Four

Cadeon shrugged off his tunic, the sweaty fabric desperately clinging to his skin. He stepped gingerly into the warmed water of his private bath — one of the few luxuries he allowed himself as lord. He often denied himself what he could not provide his people, yet they had multiple bathhouses throughout the castle-town, and the warm water against his tired skin was one he could naught live without.

Cadeon rested his head, his sore muscles sinking into the oiled and scented water. He hadn’t sparred like today in years. His men trained daily, and their level of swordsmanship were a source of pride for him. Yet, Rhys’ expertise far exceeded even his best men.

Cadeon had been trained by his father from a young age, and quickly proved himself above the others. He was knighted early, at age twenty, for his vast improvement over even those older than he. He defended the king in their last great war, honored with the man’s acknowledgment of his fidelity. He obtained his lands, and title, in the battle as well — at the death of his father. He hadn’t fought in recent years, yet he trained daily with his men. He often needed to hold off his skill, teaching them in the process of training, but never fully getting to let go.

Rhys, however, had easily matched him. Cadeon smiled as he stretched the corded muscles of his arms, grateful for an opportunity for fun. He loved sparring, and meeting an opponent as skilled as himself was exhilarating.

Cade closed his eyes, bending his knees up to sink his upper body into the scented water. A low moan slipped from the back of his throat as the heat soothed his tired body.

I have many things I can offer you.” Rhys’ smile flashed into his mind, recalling the statement — his cock twitching in response.

Cade shook his head at the scandalous thought. I’ve been too long without a woman.

Cade pulled the image of Imogen from his mind. Her lips around his cock — the sinful wetness of her mouth — always had him coming quicker than he liked. Her wicked little tongue would flick against his base, swirling the tip just before she swallowed him to the hilt, her nose pressing against his skin. He grasped onto himself, absentmindedly stroking with the memories. His thumb brushed over his slit, causing his body to jolt, the first drops of pre-cum already leaking from within.

He thought to how he liked her best — her long brunette hair curled around his wrist as he took her from behind. He could roughly pound into her as she knelt before him, pushing her lush ass to match each thrust. His hand was working more furiously now, pulling against the sensitive skin. Hard as steel, he twisted his hand, circling himself as he stroked his length. His legs straightened, leaning against the back of the tub, his neck against the metal rim for better positioning.

His tongue darted out as he imagined suckling her breasts, taking each perfectly pink nipple between his teeth. He would bite down, causing a gasp as he worked his tongue over the peak. She would buck wildly underneath him when he played with her like this.

He used his left hand to cup his balls, massaging them as he worked his shaft. The head of his cock was engorged, red and angry with the need for release. His calloused hands worked together, cupping and massaging, stroking, twisting and pulling. He grit his teeth against the pleasure, his skin on fire from the sensations. He felt his seed rising as he continued to imagine fucking his sweet Imogen. The moans from her lips — a sound he would never forget.

An image of himself, lying flat on his back, a bare-chested Rhys taking him in his mouth while Imogen was on his own tongue flashed into his mind. He fucked himself harder, his grip tightening and quickening as he imagined her taste, her moans, while Rhys’ hands dug into his own ass, lifting him up as he hollowed his mouth to suck, hard. He imagined thrusting upwards into Rhys’ mouth just as Imogen’s juices coated his face.

Cadeon came loudly, his cum coating his stomach and chest in hot spurts. His hands stroked through his orgasm, waiting to still until the last stream left his cock. He took a shaky breath as his left hand gripped the side of the tub, trying to steady himself. The warm water splashed against his sensitive nipples, having being disturbed by the motion of his ministrations. His muscles, sore not minutes ago, now loose and relaxed.

Our raven, my love.” Imogen’s words haunted him. He closed his eyes as he laid his head back against the bath, his hard cock still twitching from his orgasm in his hand.

• • •

Cadeon sat across the dining table from Rhys, finding it difficult to look into the man’s eye. Body now cooled from his bath, embarrassment for allowing himself to think of the other man in such a manner lingered. Rhys didn’t seem concerned about Cade’s silence. The food across the table was more than enough to hold the man’s attention. Rhys concentrated on his plate while Cade dragged the goblet of wine toward him, drinking deeply.

“Do you always drink, my lord? I’m surprised you move as well as you do if you’re constantly downing alcohol.” Rhys looked up from his plate, offering a smirk to go with his playful words. “Perhaps you just got lucky then?”

Constantly downing? Cadeon didn’t know how to respond for a moment. He and his men drank, and drank well. The daily stress of sparing, watching over his land, ensuring the safety and wealth of his subjects, all while watching for the king’s spies intensified in the past year. He had never been questioned before about his imbibing, simply because all others had as well.

“Mayhap you have trouble admitting someone is better than yourself?” Cade responded, a smirk to his lips as well, to indicate he too was jesting. Mostly.

Rhys paused in eating to regard Cade with a look that was suspiciously devilish in nature. He tilted his head a little and answered. “Maybe. Or perhaps it was the weapon I was wielding. Your swords are heavier than mine, not as balanced. At least, not to me.” He tore a piece of bread apart and tossed some of it into his mouth. Rhys added onto his words after taking a drink of his wine. “There are few things that I’ve admitted being bested at, my lord. Very few.”

Cadeon caught himself smiling over his goblet in return, noting the ease in which Rhys’ demeanor seemed to pull him out of his normal somber state. “I’d like to hear of the others. This way I can be sure not to best you at something in which you already know you’re lacking.”

“I have little doubt you would attempt to best me in any way you could.”

Cadeon coughed into his wine.

“Are you alright, sire?” Rhys asked, a smirk lingering on his lips.

As Cadeon placed the cup on the table to regain his composure, he noticed the gleam in Rhys’ eye.

“I’m fine. Mayhap you weren’t mistaken in telling me I needed to refrain from the drink once in a while.”

“Yes, well. When swallowing becomes an issue, it may be wise.” Rhys returned his attention to the plate of food after enjoying his jest. Yet, his jovial mood did not linger. The smile gracing his lips soured, and he seemingly glared at the meal before him. The longer the silence stretched, the more tense he became. Finally, he put down his utensils and laced his fingers together, leaning over his plate. Rhys chanced a quick glance up over at Cade, almost as if he didn’t wish to be caught looking. “I wanted to speak with you about something, sire. It’s rather important. Well, perhaps more so for you to hear than for me to say.”

Cadeon paused in lifting his goblet from the table. He eyed Rhys for a moment before frowning and motioning with his hand for the man to continue. “Speak. Let us hear it.”

Rhys set his steady gaze on Cade, a hard look to his eye. “Whilst you disciplined your men, it felt familiar to me. As if I’d done the same. I remember walking through a crowd of battle ready soldiers, fully armed. There were orders being given. About what, though, I’m not sure. However, I’m certain it was rather recent.”

“Does your memory serve you as giving those orders, or taking them?” Cadeon could not imagine the later, yet was interested in Rhys’ recollections.

Rhys frowned. “Giving them, my lord.”

Cade wiped his hand across his mouth, his suspicions based on Rhys’ demeanor and actions from the previous day confirmed. He had been a man of power. Of how much power was still in question. “Do you remember nothing else? Not of your lands, or men? Mayhap a woman at home?”

Rhys’ brow came down in thought. “A woman?” He gave a short laugh and shook his head. “Not in quite some time, my lord. I remember only bits of who was on the ship. I know it was a vessel because I remember the sea air. Most soldiers wear black armor, nothing like the armor of your men.” Rhys focused at the thick wooden table, some spot on it having caught his gaze while he spoke softly, as if telling a tale. “I know your peace here is very different from my home. It’s chaos, nothing but war. I may not remember it all right now, but I know we were at war with someone, like always. I fear I might grow soft if I linger here for too long,” he gave the jest a bit of a chuckle, but it was mirthless. “Ah, but … a woman did heal me once. I remember that,” he said the last bit to himself. He fell silent for a moment, concentration chiseled into his features. Eventually he shook his head. “I remember long hair, it was soft and light in color, but I cannot envision her face.”

Cade sat in stunned silence at the information. There were many more questions than answers, and he found himself uncertain where to begin. Rhys’ face was a mixture of questioning, annoyance, and sadness all battling to be hidden behind a stoic facade. A combination Cade was all too familiar with. Images of his own men, of his father, dying in battle, never ceased.

“Even when we have forgotten everything else, war sticks with us.” Cade’s agreed, softly.

“If I can stay here, sire, perhaps it’ll only be in memory. Memory is easier to contend with.”

“Not all memories,” Cade responded absentmindedly, the scent of rose water again filling his nostrils. Before allowing himself to wallow in his loss, he thought of what Rhys was asking.

Cade nodded, accepting the request. “After this morn, it is I who wish you to stay. I fear, however, you assume this time of peace shall last. It is only by luck it has thus far. If you remain, I shall warn you a storm is brewing. It has been for some time. We’ve managed to keep the clouds at bay, yet I fear they draw closer than ever.” Cade’s lips thinned. He often didn’t speak of his sense of impending ill. Certainly not to strange men who washed upon his shore. He had seen something in Rhys however, something he couldn’t quite name, which drew him to the raven-haired man with the eye patch.

Rhys sighed, and gave a saddened smile. He nodded all the same. “Then if my memory doesn’t serve you well enough, my fighting will. I did promise to repay you for saving my life.”

“With what I have seen of your sword, I have little doubt you would serve well to fight beside me.” He glanced at Rhys, who had looked up at his words. Cade had many soldiers under his command, each vying for a place on top. It seemed as if Rhys, while expertly skilled, was not one who wanted to lead. “A man who gives orders, yet hopes his memory serves others? It’s not often one meets someone who will both give and take.”

Rhys shrugged. “If you’re thinking I was in a rather powerful position before, you’d be wrong. I served someone, I had orders from someone far more powerful than I. After I received them, I just passed them along. Obviously, I wasn’t a very good leader if someone tried to kill me.” Rhys leaned back in his chair and drank from his cup.

“Poor leaders have men who undermine them at every step, yet they imagine they have made the decisions. They are naught but puppets. Good leaders — they are the ones who find themselves at the wrong end of the sword. Mayhap it is you whom your memory is not serving well.”

Rhys stared for a while then he laughed and took a larger swallow of the wine. “You have a way of praising others, sire. Protecting you from the wrong end of a sword will be difficult. But I think I’ll manage,” he offered with a grin.

Cadeon laughed. “Manage you shall, of that I have no doubt. However, not from my own men. After all, great leaders — now we can make anyone want to serve us, with little more than simple praise.” He winked, laughing again just before taking his own sip. It occurred to him then, as much as he was speaking in jest, it appeared Rhys had the same talent.

“And now you’re chaffing me.” Rhys put his cup down, his grin never fading as he regarded Cadeon. He leaned on the arm of the chair, tracing his lips with one finger as he gazed at Cadeon in amusement. “Is it just me, or do you always speak so loosely with the men in this castle?”

“If you consider this speaking loosely, mayhap I was wrong about your leadership qualities after all.” Cade caught the smile still lingering on his face as Rhys’ words continued to sink in. Although I do find myself open more to him than others.

Rather than admit the truth, Cade deflected.“I prefer my men to be open with me, and I in return. If I cannot laugh and mourn with them, cannot share reasons for my orders, why should they find themselves willing to serve my commands?”

“A fair point, my lord. Then, shall I be open with you? How freely can one speak to their lord?” He settled his mahogany colored eye on Cade, his tone almost challenging, much like how he’d done so when they’d sparred.

Cade nodded, intuition telling him he may not like what he would hear. “What I give to my subjects is what I expect in return. Therefore, you should speak more freely to me than anyone else.”

“Is that so?” Rhys replied, an eyebrow arched in surprise. “Then let me ask a question, lest be found on your wrong side. In this country, do men bed other men?”

Cade swallowed hard at the question. The gaze in which Rhys was looking at him had the blood rushing through his veins. His mind returned to the image of Rhys’ mouth on him from earlier. “I’ve had suspicions about some of the knights, especially if we’ve been away from the castle for some time, yet it is not talked of. I would guess it is not uncommon.”

Rhys pondered his response before giving a nod. “I see.”

The question came off his lips before his brain registered he wanted to ask it. “What of where you’re from?”

Rhys paused a moment, as if he were in debate. “Between you and I, it is something that I’ve done and enjoy.”

Christ! Cadeon barely restrained himself from blowing the air out of his lungs. He then realized his oath, chastising himself now for his thoughts and his curse.

The raven licked his lips before speaking again, “What of you, my lord? Where do your predilections lie?”

Cadeon swallowed, choosing his words carefully. “I have been with only women. One woman had taken my heart with her when she left. I’ve had others since her, yet it has not been the same.”

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