Erotic fiction and short sex stories

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Under the Falcon's Wing

The Rus were scattering in every direction now. Their mail armour was little protection against our hail of arrows and for every man still on his horse, another lay wounded or dying. We were careful not to injure the horses, since previous engagements with the enemy had lost us a number of our own stout, well-bred animals that had fed on the grasses of the high steppes themselves.

Houlun, the leader of our war-band, lifted her lance in the air and raised a shout to the heavens. "People of the Plains! The Rus dogs are fleeing before us! Again they have brought boys to fight women. Trample them as they cry out for their mothers!"

With these words she spurred her horse and bore straight at the last pocket of the enemy's resistance. Echoing her cry we all followed close behind. The Rus fought valiantly, as only cowards can when faced with death. The battle was already raging when I reached it, my mare having been injured in our previous battle and favouring her left side. I hung off my saddle to the right to compensate for the list in her gallop and my lance struck true, taking one Rus warrior straight in the chest as he swung his shield about and lifting him straight off his horse. I flung the broken lance aside and looked for Houlun.

As usual she was in the thick of the battle, hungry for glory. Her blade shone bright in that late afternoon light, and wherever it flashed blood soon followed. Then her horse collapsed beneath her and she vanished behind the fray.

I spurred my mare forward, trampling the injured Rus still struggling with the point of my lance in his chest. I saw Juchin, Houlun's second, swing off her horse to come to her aid. A Rus had hamstrung Houlun's stallion and it lay on its side, neighing pitifully.

I drew my battleaxe from my hip, swung off my own mare and threw myself into the battle. I was no longer as fast as I had been when everyone had called me the Falcon, but I was still fast enough for the likes of these Rus.

Juchin fell, her face and front a torrent of blood. The tall Rus warrior who had struck the blow was swinging his greatsword in an arc towards Houlun as she struggled with another foe. I came between them, bringing my axe down upon his head. It brained him and he sunk to the ground, twitching, his life-blood spilling down into the earth.

Houlun, pulling her sword from the gasping Rus on the ground before her, turned and grinned at me.

"So the Falcon can still fly!"

I said nothing, but threw myself against the few exhausted Rus still standing.

They were quickly defeated. As we tended to our wounded and dispatched the enemy already half in death, we took stock of the outcome. Fifteen Rus dead, and only one of our own, Juchin, struck down.

Some of her friends busied themselves with preparing her body while Houlun saw to the gathering of the booty and captives. I contented myself with the chore of dispatching the wounded. We Plainspeople are no torturers, unlike many of our enemies. When we bring death, it is swift and final.

I found the bodies of two Rus lying beside a fallen horse. They were dressed differently from the others and wore richly embroidered robes. I had seen such Rus before. They were priests, followers of the Book. One had been riding the horse when our arrows had felled him -- fletching bristled from his back like a forest. I knew he must be dead.

The other was shorter, slighter in build. I sensed movement from him, secretive breathing. I placed my foot on his body and rolled him over.

A boy - no, a young man, one just freshly touched by manhood. Beardless and slender, his milk-pale skin and hair of woven gold marked him out as Cuman rather than Rus.

As I drank in his beauty, his eyes flashed open and he was upon me, a blade shining in his hand. I stepped back and slapped the blade from his grasp, returning to backhand him to the ground.

Foolish to try such an old trick! No, not foolish - courageous, perhaps. So often the Rus showed themselves to be cowards, even when there was nothing left to lose. That a boy-priest, untrained in battle, would attempt such an attack earned my grudging respect.

The boy lay crouched on the ground, staunching the flow of blood from his broken lip with the back of his hand. He stared up at me with sky-blue eyes filled with hate.

I sighed. Perhaps the one beside him was his father. He had every right, then, to hate me. But the battle was over and he had lost. Things would go easier for him if he accepted the fact.

I pulled him to his feet by the neck of his hood and marched him to where the other captives were. He was the youngest by far, and the fairest. He would not be destined to tending the yaks and collecting dung for the fires. No, his fate would be the warming of some lucky warrior's bed.

I left him. He gazed after me, his wide blue eyes fearful. The warrior in charge of the captives pushed him to his knees.

Houlun divided up the booty. Despite her arrogance and recklessness, she was always unerringly fair. I had my eye on several of the horses -- although nowhere as strong as our animals, they were not uncomely beasts. New blood was always welcome in our herds and my mare was needful of a strong stallion to father her foals.

But when the time came for Houlun to distribute the horses, they went to others. I sat there, gnawing at my liver. Had I not done her a service by braining that Rus who would have slain her? I fumed in silence at the slight on my honour.

At last the time came for her to distribute the captives. They were led out and the interested warriors busied themselves with examining them. The boy attracted particular attention and he was well stroked and prodded with many a lewd jest.

The process bored me. Houlun put an end to the inspections and raised her voice.

"Today my life was spared by the skill of one of our most courageous warriors. Step forth, Chamuka! Or Falcon, I should say."

I started at the sound of my name and my old title. Houlun grabbed my hand and gave me a resounding clap on my back, then addressed the others. "Today the Falcon showed that even with the keepsakes of many combats weighing her down, a great heart is all that is needed to fly. For this reason, I consider it fitting to give to her the flower of our booty: the gold-haired boy."

At first there was some scattered murmurs, but they quickly turned to words of congratulation. The others knew that Houlun was not flippant in her generosity.

Yet the gift made me uncomfortable. "I thank you, Houlun, for your generosity, but what need do I have of him?"

Houlun grinned. "Come now, Falcon! I know these river plains are far warmer than the steppes, but an empty bed is not a thing to be relished. And even if he does not please you in that way, surely having someone to clean your ger and prepare your tea is not unwelcome?"

I knew better than to argue. There would be no changing Houlun's mind and to refuse would be unseemly. Still, I felt as though the gift held some hidden jest. Well, if that was so, then let her enjoy it!

And yet, the boy... I had never had any interest in slaves. Houlun, I knew, had an eye for pretty young men. Had she not been feeling generous today, this boy would not doubt have replaced her current favourite, dressed in silk and lying on the many pillows of her ger awaiting the return of his mistress.

The boy looked on, ignorant of what was happening. As I approached, the warrior in charge of the captives lifted him gently to his feet in deference to the fact I now owned him. He brought him to me and spoke a few words of Rus to him.

The boy's eyes went wide and he shook his head. The warrior chuckled and pushed him toward me. Embarrassed, I grabbed the boy by the arm.

"Come," I told him. It was the only Rus word I knew.

The boy did not put up a fight but came with me, his blue eyes downcast. I knew well such a posture: one often saw it in captives who have given up hope.

But what to do with the boy? Well, Houlun had spoken well of me at least. She had mentioned the keepsakes of my many battles, meaning my wounds, of course, or rather that one wound from many battles ago.

A keepsake, she called it. The long scar above the badly-knitted bone was a memento of a far greater pain than just the loss of my previous swiftness. For the same battle had laid my husband beneath the earth, only months after we had lost our son.

I looked at the boy. He was around the same age as my son had been when he died. And yet he looked nothing like my son had.

My son, lying in the ger given over to the dying. No shaman would allow someone to die within their own ger and bring disaster upon the others who dwelt within it. I remembered the last time I saw him, wasted away to a bundle of mere sticks wrapped with skin, though his eyes still held their deep, shining glow.

He had said nothing and lifted his hand. I took it in my own and he had died. And that had been the end of my hopes. I was too old to have any other children. Over forty summers had come and gone, and perhaps several more I had forgotten to count.

Not long after, battle had taken my husband from me. I did not see him die. I was far from him, lying beneath my injured horse, my leg crushed and useless, splintered by a Rus axe.

The Rus. I hated them, but as much as I hated any enemy. I hated the disease that had taken my son more.

I looked at the boy. His eyes were wide and fearful. Of course, my appearance frightened him. Taller than him, I bore all the features of a woman of the Plainspeople: almond eyes, far darker than his own sky-blue ones, high cheekbones, black hair worn long in twin braids upon the neck, skin the colour of bronze. I must be utterly alien to him, so unlike his own feeble women, so unlike the mother he would never see again, who would mourn him, though ever hopeful of his return.

Well, at least he lived. He had no reason to complain. The earth holds many more far more deserving of life than him.

He stumbled. I pulled him up sharply and he cried out. I loosened my grip on his arm. My anger slipped away from me as quickly as it had been kindled. There was no need to hurt the boy. He was young and frightened. He had fought back. Maybe he would prove useful in some way. I took hold of his hand instead.

The hand was soft and warm in my own.

Perhaps Houlun was right. My empty ger, taking tea alone. Alone with thoughts and ghosts. He would warm the place.

And warm my bed? I chuckled at Houlun's bawdiness. The boy would have his own blankets. I had no interest in his slender, girlish body, his soft golden hair. I would prove Houlun a fool if she was trying to belittle me with the boy, trap me into emulating her degeneracy. The boy would be put to work, and he would work hard. That soft hand in my own would soon know the roughness of work in a camp of the Plainspeople.

-----------

Nestled before me on my mare, the boy shivered. From fear or the cold? It was early autumn here in the northern lands of the Rus, and for me it felt like the depths of highest summer back on the steppes.

His shivering annoyed me, whatever its cause. Weakness! No wonder the Rus fell so quickly to us. They were followers of the Book, and their religion made them weak. A religion for slaves rather than warriors -- so strange that they shared so any of their beliefs with the followers of the Prophet! But the boy was no doubt well-versed in its teachings, well-versed in the sayings of Jesu. An educated boy might prove helpful.

I grinned. How different a fate would now be awaiting him if Houlun had chosen him for herself! Little chance she would wait long before stripping him of the flower of his innocence. Houlun, I imagined, was no more gentle amid her blankets than she was on the field of battle. She would wrestle him out of those robes and throw him to the floor and despoil him like any other foe. I knew the boy had no knowledge of women. As a priest of the Book, he would be wholly innocent of the delights of the flesh. How surprised he would have been to find such mysteries so suddenly and aggressively forced upon him!

And yet the image that came to my mind did not please me. Houlun's hunger, her body pressed upon his, her demands and lewd laughter, treating him as her plaything. I recoiled in disgust.

We reached the camp. I glanced down at the boy, saw the wonder on his eyes. As a priest of the Rus he had likely never have seen one of the permanent camps of the Plainspeople. The open fields beside the river were spotted with the white and gold of our gers, their red horse-hair pennants flying in the breeze like tongues of fire. My mare whinnied to her brothers and sisters grazing by the river.

Following after Houlun we passed through the gates of the camp, with only the riders carrying Juchin's body breaking away. Bukidai and the other shamans were already coming to meet her, take her body and recite over it the spells that would help remind the death-spirits of her worthiness. Then her body would be left upon a hill far from the camp for the animals to strip her of her flesh and hurry her spirit to the afterlife.

I reined in my horse and watched the little funeral procession. The boy looked up at me, wondering why we had stopped. I felt the hot sting of humiliation and muttered dark words under my breath. I spurred on my mare and we entered the camp.

-----------------

I pushed aside the felt door of my ger and gestured to the boy. He took a few steps forward, hesitant, but in no mood for such foolishness I shoved him inside. The funeral of Juchin had turned into a celebration of our victory, and along with the other captives he had watched us at our drinking and singing around the fires. The many cups of airag had done little to temper my earlier annoyance. The sound of the singing and laughter was clear even now through the felt of the ger, and I bristled at it.

Foolish. Foolish to resent such happy sounds. It was right to celebrate. We had been victorious!

And yet, funerals have always weighed heavy on my heart. Maybe it had been better, better if I had died In that battle long ago. All of us, together.

It had been thought such as these which had driven me to seek the solace of my ger. Houlun had grinned when I grabbed the boy and gave my apologies.

"It looks like our Falcon's blood runs hot after battle!" she'd said to the others, laughing, and then to me, "Go easy on the boy, Chamuka. Even a youth's soft bones may break!"

I had grinned at the jest, but in truth my heart had rankled.

The boy looked about, wide-eyed, as I took up the poker and roused the fire in its central pit. The dormant embers there stirred and I tossed on more dried horse-dung to feed it. There was wood enough to feed the fire here by the river, but the old ways are the most comforting. Soon the air was filled with the rich scent of the fire and I felt good to be home.

I took off my hat, placed it carefully on one of the chests then sat myself down on a stool. The boy was still gawking at everything -- this was, after all, the first time he had seen the inside of a ger. No doubt the brightly painted and intricately carved chests and stools and the low, lacquered table were very different from what he was used to.

I drew his attention by clicking my fingers then gestured towards the rugs on the floor beside the fire. He blinked at me, took a step forward and then stopped again.

I sighed. The boy, so brave in battle, was frightened now of his own shadow. I sat up, took hold of his sleeve and led him to sit down.

I shook my head, wondering just how useful he would prove to be. I sat down across from the fire and began to take off my armour.

Well, there was no time like the present for the boy to learn his duties as my servant. I pointed at the leather thong that held together the chest and back plates of my cuirass. He stared at me and I mimed untying the thong with my fingers. Still he made no move, so I grabbed hold of his hand and placed it against the armour.

At last he seemed to understand what I was asking. With fumbling fingers he undid the thong, revealing the silk jacket I was wearing underneath. His eyes went wide and I was reminded that silk for him was a symbol of wealth and opulence. For the Plainspeople it was also a practicality, since silk helps catch the heads of barbed arrows and allows them to be pulled out of wounds without recourse to the knife.

But that wasn't the reason for his surprise. The flush that spread across his pale cheeks told me the real reason: it was merely the fact that he was looking upon a woman's undergarments that had elicited such a strong response.

Grinning, I turned and offered him my other side. This he undid as well, his slender fingers still nervous.

I lifted the cuirass from my shoulders. My arm and leg greaves soon joined it and I had the boy place them together in their chest.

I stretched, glad to be free of my armour at last. I did not bother to change from my underclothes but sat by the fire.

The boy sat too, but on the opposite side, his eyes turned away from me. Was it hate or embarrassment that made the sight of me so unpleasant, I wondered. As I watched him from the corner of my eye he edged closer to the fire, as though guilty for accepting something offered by the enemy. Well, the cold makes allies of us all and the day was waning. He was probably hungry, too.

I went to the cupboard and took some cheese and meat from it. This I brought to him.

"Don't grow used to this, boy. After this it will be your job to serve me."

He did not understand me, and the gruffness of my words alarmed him, though I had meant them in jest. The food, however, he well understood. He took it from me and gazed at it for a long while. Then all of a sudden he fell upon it. I sat back and watched him eat, pleased.

"Is it good?"

He stopped eating and glanced up at me. His childish face betrayed some emotion I could not place: resentment? Thankfulness? But he quickly returned to his meal.

I went and poured myself a cup of airag from the vat, then after a moment's thought filled another cup and offered it to the boy. He took it and sniffed. I laughed.

"Drink it. It's good. Good!" I rubbed my stomach. I sat back down on the rug and took a long desired draught of the sour and salty liquor.

The boy sampled his own and soon fell to spluttering. I laughed again. Airag is nothing like the grape wine that the Rus enjoy so much. The fermented mare's milk was alien to his lips.

I noticed then, that he had left the goat and eaten only the cheese even though he was no doubt still hungry. The priests of the Book very often deny themselves meat, a religious taboo I suppose, and one I could respect. The Plainspeople have many such taboos. I took the meat from him and ate it myself, bringing him some more cheese and yoghurt which he ate greedily.

"Good," I said. "Eat well and get strong. There will soon be much work for you to do." It was pleasant to watch him eat. Like many Rus he seemed underfed.

A few more lusty draughts of airag and the exertions of the battle slipped from my body. I lay on my side and let the fire warm me. I knew my leg would soon stiffen if I did not move it, so I sat back up and stretched it out. I rolled my silk trousers up, baring my tan skin, and ran my fingers across the old scar, the dead flesh smooth and senseless beneath my fingers.

I felt the boy watching me. No doubt he found the scar ugly to look at. I turned to face him and he dropped his gaze, the pale skin of his cheeks growing pink.

The dark thoughts that had been stealing up upon me as I touched the scar fled and I was filled with amusement. So the sight of a woman's leg was a matter of great shame for him? I decided not to display myself any further. I rolled my trousers back down and sat up.
The boy did not meet my gaze. Instead, he took up the cup of airag again and tentatively lifted it to his lips. He grimaced and drew it away,

Smiling, I got up and took it from him. "Perhaps one day you will come to like it," I said. I finished it for him and placed it along with my own cup on his empty plate. I pointed to the plate and then to the pantry.

The boy quickly took my meaning, but he feigned ignorance. I lifted an eyebrow and pointed again to the crockery before him. Then I lifted my hand and cut the air with it.

The boy knew better than to act like he had misunderstood my meaning this time. He gathered up the crockery and put it away in the pantry.

"Good," I said. "It will be your job to tidy up. Tidy up, do you understand?"

He blinked at me. "Tidyup?" he repeated.

I sighed. "Well, it's a start. Now it's time for bed." I pointed to the blankets. "Bed."

"Bed?" he repeated.

I nodded. I took off my silk jacket, folded it up and lay down on the blankets. The boy looked at me fearfully.

"Time for bed," I said, patting the blankets. "Sleep, do you understand?"

He took a step back, shaking his head.

Then I realised what was wrong. He thought I was demanding he share my bed. I grinned. The boy who had gambled his life to strike at me, now horrified by the thought of my embraces!

I opened my mouth to try and explain, but hesitated. Why not demand he share my bed? He was my spoil of war, after all. And the night would be cold. His slender body would fit nicely in my arms.

Stupid, frivolous musings, such as would amuse Houlun! I pushed such thoughts away, turned over and pulled the blankets over myself. The boy would understand the meaning. I heard him moving about. Perhaps he was looking at the flap of the ger, wondering if it were possible to escape. No. He knew escape was impossible, that to try would likely lead to his death.

Would he try regardless, I wondered? He did not move for a long while and I began to imagine that he was lying there, staring at the flap, waiting for me to sleep so that he could make his escape. It would be regrettable to lose him before I had time to see whether he could make a workable servant. I rolled over, ready to spring and tackle him if he moved.

But he remained on his side, unmoving. I crawled over and pushed at the lump he made under the blankets. He stirred, muttering.

Already asleep. The terrors of the battle and the terrors of my ger had stolen his spirit from him.

Well, he was still little more than a boy.

I took a blanket and went to cover him with it, then railed on myself. What was I doing? Such stupid sentimentality! He would have to grow tough quickly if he was going to share the way of life of the Plainspeople. Was I his mother to coddle him so?

My hand, holding a blanket I had woven myself, covering the body of my son. The image slipped unbidden to my mind.

I tossed the blanket aside in a rage and threw myself back on the floor and pulled my own blankets over myself.

As I lay there, I grew colder, despite the warmth of the fire. My leg, colder still, coldest in the place the Rus spear had split it to the bone. It still hurt, that wound, though years old. Cold and painful, the ache deep in the bone.

---------------------

I woke before the boy. I nudged at him with my foot.

"Wake up," I said. "Time to work!"

The boy woke with a start. He pulled the blankets around himself and scrambled away from me with the eyes of a frightened deer.

Was I really so fearsome? I reached up and felt my hair. Ah, it was always like this of a morning, especially when I was too tired after battle to brush it. Perhaps it had frightened him.

I retrieved my comb, sat on a stool and began to brush at the ranks of tangles arranged against me. The boy watched me like a cornered animal and I soon tired of it.

"Tidy up," I said, pointing at the blankets with my comb.

He stared at me.

"Remember? Tidy up!"

My voice was gruff and he started. Then he got to his feet and began to gather up the blankets and fold them.

I nodded to him. "Good," I said. "Tidy up and we'll have breakfast."

He did not look at me while he worked. His movements were those of one dreaming. Still in shock, perhaps. No wonder the Rus had proved no match for us. Their easy life here in the warm valley of the Ijil had made them soft.

But no, the boy was no Rus with his golden hair, his sky-bright eyes. Probably a Cuman. I had fought the Cuman. Unlike the Rus they were great warriors. For generations they had raided the Rus themselves, but the two had joined together to fight us as Jaliqai Khatun had moved west from the steppes. The Rus wholly destroyed, the Cuman had managed to retreat. Now some of them fought alongside us, far to the south, with our Khatun against the rebel house of the Halagus. So strange that this boy might be of the same blood as one of those bloodthirsty turbanned warriors!

"Come," I said, first in Rus then in my own language. He put the blankets in his hands down and approached. He kept his head lowered and stared at the floor, refusing to meet my gaze, though I caught the flick of his long eyelashes as he glanced up at me.

How was it that this boy could be so arrogant in such a servile way? I gripped his chin and raised his eyes to mine.

"Are you Cuman?" I asked.

He recognised the word, but made no reply and just stared at me with those eyes, ice-blue now.

"You," I said, tapping his chest. "Cuman?"

He nodded, then.

Was he a slave, I wondered? No, the son of a slave. Perhaps that explained the mixture of servility and insolence.

I sighed. "Here. Let me show you your next job. You will prepare my tea for me."

He watched as I showed him how much of the dry leaf to take, how much water to add, and of course the rancid butter which is the most important part. He turned up his nose at the butter and I chuckled.

Probably I smelled bad to him as well. He would not understand the importance of one's smell to the Plainspeople. The greatest honour Jaliqai Khatun ever bestowed on a worthy warrior was to award them her old clothes, saturated in her scent. With that scent came power and prestige. In the same way, my whole ger smelled of me. No doubt the boy would too, soon enough.

I lay back and had him repeat what I had shown him. He used too much tea and did not add enough butter, but for all that his first attempt was passable.

I took the cup from him. "You may have the tea I made," I said, indicating the other cup. He took it.

I drank my tea and indicated with an arched eyebrow that he should do the same. He tasted his own and grimaced. But he quickly took another sip. He was thirsty, and the sour richness of the butter did not hold him back.

His tea was astringent from the surplus of leaf, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I watched the boy drink. What had I done in my ger of a morning usually? I seldom tarried here. Too many things to think of. But with the boy...

A voice from outside the ger. Houlun.

"Nohio horio," she said, the polite words uttered when entering another's ger. "Hold the dog," spoken whether there is a dog or not.

The flap opened and she pushed her head in.

There was no need for Houlun, being the beki, to stand on ceremony, but politeness among the Plainspeople has always been a matter of course. I beckoned her in and offered her tea and candies as she sat.

The boy stared at the two of us. Houlun looked to me, amused, and I turned and raised an eyebrow to him. With a start he got to his feet and went and made tea.

"Not so much leaf this time," I warned. "Leaf." I mimed pouring from the cannister with my hands. "Do you understand?"

He nodded and busied himself with his task.

Houlun whistled. "One night and he's already eating out of your hand like a lamb." Her eyes narrowed. "I suppose you share my philosophy of using honey rather than the stick? No doubt the fun you showed him last night has made him bond to you."

I laughed, unwilling to let Houlun's jest affect me. "He had his own bed. But we have already reached an understanding."

Houlun watched him as he bought the bowl over to me. I shook my head and indicated Houlun and he took it to her. He glanced at her, unsure.

Houlun grinned and reached out for the cup.

"A prize befitting your valour," she murmured. "Such beautiful eyes and hair, and skin like curdled milk." She sipped her tea. "A Cuman, do you suppose?"

"Yes," I said. I sipped my own tea. "I asked him before. I think he is the son of slaves taken by the Rus."

"Perhaps," said Houlun. "He has taken to his position quickly. That is good. No need to wrestle him, then."

"I think he would break," I said.

"You left early last night," said Houlun. "Your company was missed."

"This old wound," I muttered.

Houlun hugged her bowl. "Yes. You move fast despite of it. I saw much of the old Falcon yesterday."

I nodded. The compliment, though genuine, pricked me. I had been one of the most skilled with the axe before my wound, and now I served mostly as an archer. Though the position brought no less honour with it, it was a reminder of what I had lost.

"Please come to my ger tonight," said Houlun. "As my honoured guest. We will eat mutton and gamble. And bring the boy. He will enjoy the company of others who speak his language."

"I will come," I said.

Houlun finished her tea and left. The boy cleaned the cups without having to be asked.

"Good," I said to him. "Now come. There are many other things you must learn."

------------------

The boy shivered in the cold. I would have to get him more suitable clothes than those robes. He always wore his hood down and his neck was open to the elements. The cold had turned the skin of his face and neck rose-pink, a not unbecoming colour, but an unhealthy one.

"Come," I said.

I showed him the various jobs being done around the camp. Though we were a military camp, our supremacy in this region meant that everyday life was little different from a village at peacetime. We still sent children and pregnant horses back to the steppes as a precaution, but otherwise we were free to let our flocks and cattle roam free, knowing the Rus were not likely to harass us.

The camp was already alive. Fires flickered outside the gers to ward off the cold. Millet porridge was being cooked and the smell pervading the whole camp. We passed people kneeling around a great square of felt, sewing and chatting, the making and repairing of our homes always a communal activity. Others were combing the goats, harvesting the long, soft hair used for making scarves and clothes. I had the boy try his hand at everything, and though he worked in silence he was no longer in the dreamlike state of shock he had suffered earlier. His long, slender fingers were well-suited to the more technical work, and the swiftness at which he took to the various tasks elicited murmurs of approval which pleased me. He would prove useful after all.

We took our lunch together with everyone else around tables set out under the sky, taking great chunks of mutton with greasy fingers. In the camps of the Plainspeople slaves who work well eat well. I took the opportunity to teach him some of our language, pointing to various items and teaching him the word. He learned quickly.

My neighbour Yesuntei had a young son around the same height as the boy and she happily gave me a set of clothes for him. The boy stood awkwardly as she brought out that long, collared robe called the deel and placed it against him.

"It should fit," Yesuntei murmured. She took hold of the boy's old robe by the hem and lifted it. He struggled for a few moments, but soon understood the futility of his protest and submitted. His undergarments were the next to go. He placed his hands over his nakedness and Yesuntei grinned at me.

"Seeing spoils such as these I regret missing battle all the more," she said. Heavy with her third child, she had remained in camp despite being one of our best archers. Women of the Plainspeople regularly fought pregnant, but not during the last third of their pregnancy.

"I don't think your husband would be pleased sharing you with a boy," I said with a laugh.

Yesuntei snorted. "He'd be happy for the rest. My blood always runs hotter when I'm with child."

We laughed. The boy stared at us, no doubt wondering what was so funny. His bemusement made us laugh all the more.

My eyes settled on his slender form. A priest's body, soft with good food and relaxed living, but not unattractive. All the more attractive, perhaps, for how different he looked from us. The paleness of his complexion, like a girl's, and the blondness of the sparse hair on his body accentuated that girlishness. Yet he had been fast with that knife. A brave spirit dwelt within that milky flesh.

He dropped his gaze. We had had our fun. Yesuntei placed the deel around his shoulders and showed him how to fix the clasps. It was important for him to wear it loose, like a man. I would not have him dressed effeminately, like the slaves who shared Houlun's bed.

Yesuntei finished tying his sash, placed a fur hat atop his head and stepped back. She looked him over, but said nothing. I knew what she was thinking. I was thinking the same. The boy, despite his pale skin and gold hair, suited our clothes exceedingly well.

Pink flooded his cheeks and he turned away from us. I smiled at the childishness of his reaction. The lingering of my eyes had shamed him.

Yesuntei glanced in my direction. "I hope you are prepared for the envy you will attract, Chamuka."

I laughed. "There will be no envy. He is going to work." I took his hand. "Thank you, Yesuntei. I will have him bring you some of the horse-flesh we took in the battle."

Her eyes glittered. "There really is no need, Chamuka," and we fell into that polite combat which is the giving and accepting of gifts among the Plainspeople.

"Go, then," said Yesuntei with a laugh after I finally got the better of her. "I accept your kind offer. But you must go before the boy gets the wrong idea."

I followed her eyes. I was still holding the boy's hand.

I let it drop.

"Come," I said after some final words of thanks to the grinning Yesuntei. "Your work is waiting for you."

-----------------------------

I left him in the hands of others to learn the different jobs of the camp while I spent the day practising with my axe. The sharp ache in my leg shamed me and I pushed myself hard until the rest of my body ached with the same violence. I was still training when Cheren, the young man charged with cutting the wood today, brought the boy back to me.

I made one last swing at the target hanging from the pole, then fell to one side, panting.

"Falcon," said Cheren. "Here is Nikola. He has worked hard today."

I stared at the two boys. "Nikola?"

I realised, then, that I hadn't bothered to ask the boy his name, or to introduce myself. The boy Nikola glanced at me. He looked tired. So he did not shirk hard work. The dirt on his hands and face and the wood-chips on his clothes pleased me and I smiled at him.

He looked down at his feet. So he found it hard still to meet my gaze.

The boy was exhausted after the day's labour. As he fixed my tea, I watched his long fingers at their work. Fingers used to books and pens and other gentle things, they were red and blistered.

I, too, was tired. My body ached, my leg more than the rest. Fool that I was to try and escape it. When he handed me the bowl I gestured to him to make himself tea as well. He nodded and busied himself. He did not add any butter to his. I hoped he would grow used to our food soon. The fat and salt of the butter were good for energy, good for keeping out the cold. He would grow sick if he only drank tea. Meat as well. Cheese would only serve him so far with the punishing work of a camp of the Plainspeople.

As he tidied the ger, I taught him some more words: the name of the banner hanging from the crown of the ger, the poles, the altar, the stools and other furniture.

Eventually I had named everything. His labour had also been a lesson. The ger fell silent except for the spitting of the fire.

He knelt down on the blankets, looking to me for permission to lie down, or so I thought. I smiled at him. He did not smile back. Instead he brought his hands together, bowed his head and closed his eyes, the way the Rus pray to their god. Their god, I knew, was a god of the sky like ours, but theirs was a vengeful, frightening god. Tengri was not frightening. How could he be? He was the source of everything that was good. His children the sun and moon watched the earth for him, guarding against Erlik, the lord of death. The boy knew of Erlik, though he would call him devil and shaitan.

The boy prayed for a long time. When he was finished he looked up at me. Perhaps he was expecting me to utter some word of censure, to punish him for his behaviour. He did not know that there were followers of the Book like him among the Plainspeople, though not many, and none in our camp. The god of deserts and towns, of the slaves and the dispossessed, his god was out-of-place on the steppes and held little attraction to us. More of the Plainspeople wore the yellow sash of the disciples of Madraya, or followed the prophet of Mecca, that great warrior of the southern deserts. Among the Plainspeople all were allowed to worship freely. It must have seemed very strange to a boy whose religion punished apostasy with torture and death.

His surprise amused me. He watched me, expectant, and soon appeared to grow disappointed I had not punished him. That look did not please me. To seek punishment was a foolish diversion, a waste of effort. The followers of the Book feared pleasure, I knew, thinking it an evil temptation. I had heard that some of their priests forwent not just meat but also the touch of a woman, and not merely in times of ritual observance, but throughout their whole lives. To think of this boy here, this beautiful boy, for whom many girls' and women's blood would run hot, living and dying a virgin seemed an awful waste.

Such thoughts annoyed me, at last.

"Rest," I said, gesturing to the blankets on the floor. "Tomorrow you will work hard again. Do you understand?"

He nodded. "Yes," he said. "I understand."

"I am your mistress," I said. "My name is Chamuka. Some call me Falcon, but you will call me mistress."

"Mistress," he repeated.

"You are Nikola, yes?"

He nodded.

"Rest, Nikola. You worked hard today and I am pleased."

He blinked at me, not understanding.

I sighed. I could not expect too much at once. "Rest," I said. "I will bring you food later. Food?"

Food he understood. He nodded with enthusiasm.

I left him. The night's fires already flickered through the camp. Houlun and others were seated around one not far from her ger. I made my way there.

"Falcon!" Houlun roared as I stepped into the firelight. She looked about and frowned. "The boy?"

"In my ger resting," I said. "He worked hard today with Cheren cutting the wood."

Houlun sighed. "A shame. We would at least have had something more pleasant than Ordu's beaten face here to look at." Ordu, the warrior of our camp most skilled with herbs and the knife, was sitting on her left, and she gave him a hard push which he took with a good-natured grin. Houlun indicated the now empty spot and I sat down. A bowl of airag was thrust into my hands.

We ate and drank and laughed into the night. Life was good to us here in the valley of the river Ijil. The Rus continued to fall and the slaves and booty flowed like the waters of the great river itself. Ordu brought out his horse-head fiddle and played as we sang some of the great long-songs which seem to come so quickly to the lips after many cups of airag, songs of valour, sung in the throat and resonating in the chests of all present. I wondered what the boy Nikola would make of it. The singing of his people was very different, although the voice of their shamans, their monks, was not so dissimilar to ours. No doubt he could sing, too. I knew his voice, even bearing foreign words, would be sweet to the ear.
Laughter filled the smoky night air and my heart grew lighter.

Figures approached out of the darkness.

"Falcon," came a voice. I knew it at once. Taghai. His face appeared in the flickering firelight. He was dragging Nikola behind him.

I frowned. "What is this?"

"I caught him near the edge of the camp," he said. "No doubt he thought he might try to escape."

I stood. Nikola looked up at me, his eyes disdainful.

The others had fallen silent, watching.

I tore Nikola from Taghai and slapped the boy across the face. I did not hold back my strength. He fell to the ground and lay there, blood streaming from his nose. He did not cry out.

Silence from all the others, but finally Houlun laughed. "The boy has spirit, don't you think? He will learn our ways soon enough." And with her words the talking and drinking resumed.

Nikola stared up at me. He no longer showed any disdain, just that cold distance of one whose spirit is broken. I grabbed his arm and dragged him to his feet.

"You're leaving, Falcon?" asked Houlun with an arching of her eyebrows.

"The boy needs further training," I said.

Houlun laughed. "Very good. But careful not to break him."

I dragged the boy inside my ger. "You shamed me with your behaviour," I said, so angry that I forgot he could not understand me. "You must not try to escape. You must do all that I say. You are a slave, never forget!"

The boy stared at me dumbly. Incensed, I raised my hand to strike him again. He flinched away, his eyes wide and fearful.

The pathetic sight stayed my hand. I let it drop.

"Go," I said, disgusted. "Sleep. Tonight you will have no food. Let your empty stomach remind you of your duty."

I pushed him to the floor. He slunk away and found his bed. He wrapped himself in his blankets and rolled over so that his back was to me.

Irritated, I blew out the lights and sought my own bed. I lay there in the smoky darkness staring up at the crown of the ger. Despite my anger, tiredness drew my eyelids closed, helped by the airag I had drunk.

I heard a strange sound in the darkness, like the bubbling of a spring or the flowing of water.

No, that was a dream. But there was a sound, the sound of weeping.

The sound distressed me. I threw my blanket over my head and after an eternity, half-hearing, half-imagining the boy's soft sobbing, sleep eventually drew me down into its merciful embrace.

--------------------------

Nikola did not try to escape again, nor did he cry again after that night. He had sobbed out his despair into the blankets until he was hollow. He no longer met my eyes with his own. He did all that I required of him, methodical and passionless. He showed no insolence, but neither did he display any other emotion to me. The warmth I had felt that first night had bled out into the darkness with the blood I had spilled from his mouth.

I harangued myself long for striking the boy. And yet I had had no choice. To coddle him would have invited further attempts at escape. Houlun and the others would have smiled into their airag at my weakness, would have jested behind my back about how the Falcon doted on her new pet like a mother.

Nikola did his work. He cut wood, collected dung, sewed and lifted and dragged and did all that was demanded of him. A fine slave, people said. I allowed him more freedom, let him tend to the goats along the river, within sight of others. Maybe I thought such a kindness would thaw the ice around his heart. It did not.

We spoke little. I had continued to teach him our words, but after a while the lessons, so dumbly taken, weighed hard upon me. He understood my orders. That was enough.

As the nights grew longer, the air colder, the sky greyer, so did my thoughts darken. The time of year when my husband and son had died grew close. I took long rides on my mare alone. Houlun knew I did so, and she would often wait for me at the edge of the camp and ask me how my scouting had gone. She always asked this without any trace of mockery. I was thankful for her allowances.

The day finally came. I left the camp early. I travelled to the left of the rising sun, north-east, through plains of yellowing grass. After several hours I reached low hills. The sun was high and hot, the grass grey-brown, blasted. The wind blew in my face, cold with the steppe.

The place they had been left was not far from here. I approached the hills. The wind shifted. I smelled nothing but my mare nickered, anxious.

No, not the smell of death. The spirits. Spirits dwelt in this place.

The sun spilled down, white-gold, haloing the hill, the one shaped like a saddle.

There, on the summit. White, gleaming points of light.

Bone, alive like fire.

I blinked. The sun burned my eyes. I turned away, tears boiling in them. I wiped them away with my sleeve. I dug my thighs against my mare's side. Thankful, she broke into a canter.

I did not look back.

I followed the river home. The gentle flow of the Ijil calmed the hot spurting of my blood. My sight dropped down into its pleasant blue-black depths. All emotion was drowned there.

The air grew warmer. The river bent here and the meadows remained green even now with the cold fingers of winter digging the earth. I saw a figure, standing beside the river. He was dressed in blue, a scarf of gold fluttering about his face, a face aglow with light.

No, it was no scarf. It was his hair. Golden hair, lifted loose in the wind.

The boy, Nikola.

My heart skipped a beat. Was he trying to escape? But no. Behind him I saw another, dressed in green, his sash yellow. Cheren. The head of a goat sprang up beside him, then another.

They had brought the goats here to graze. But this was far from the camp.

I rode up. The boy Nikola looked up at me. Those blue eyes. I had not seen them for so long!

His face grew pink. The wind? No, embarrassment. I had been staring at him like one thirsty.

"The flock led you this far from camp?" I asked.

Cheren shook his head. "Nikola wished to come this way. We have come to bring you home."

To bring me home. We would often come part way to meet one who had gone far afield for some labour or journey.

My son and husband, waiting for me. Green fields and blue sky. The sky had been so blue, so eternally blue in those days. Or perhaps I only remembered it so. Days of such joy.

My lips felt strange. A smile had come unbidden to them.

I looked for his blue eyes again, caught them glancing at me. A flash of blue. And yet still no smile.

The boys led me home, the goats as well. The sky grew blue as we walked. I felt the sun warm on my back and shoulders. A trickle of sweat slipped along my neck like a caress and I started at the intensity of the sensation.

Ahead the horse-hair pennants flicked at the blue sky. Home.

Cheren saw to the goats. Nikola came with me. I dismounted my mare, took my precious saddle and bridle from her and handed them to him.

He blinked in surprise, but took them and carried them carefully. Pleased at his attentiveness, I opened the flap of the ger for him.

"We're home," I said.

-----------------------------------

Ice thaws slowly. No longer did he avoid my eyes so much, but still he worked in silence. Days passed and I began teaching him our language again. Soon he was speaking in scattered sentences to me. The boy was smart, as I had surmised.

Soon the tea he brought me was just as I liked it.

The Rus had fallen back, no longer willing to engage us in direct combat, and so we enjoyed the use of this length of the Ijil without molestation. We grew overconfident, allowing our horses and flocks to wander further from camp to crop the still-green grasses next to the river.

One day it fell to me to check upon on the herd. I found them grazing in that bend of the river where Nikola and Cheren had met me those weeks before with the goats. I counted the horses. Three were missing.

I followed the river. Here scattered woodlands grew. I remembered the woods where I had grown up as a child. Our tribe were of the Western Plainspeople, used to the woods and fields on the edge of the steppes.

There, the missing horses. The three had come here to crop the taller grasses.

I was riding down to the bank of the river when Rus warriors slipped from between the trees. The first I knew of them was the hissing of their arrows. My hat flew from my head, transfixed by an arrow, and I threw myself down on the back of my mare and kicked her sides with my heels. She burst out in a gallop. The hissing died away and, fool that I was, I glanced back. At once my shoulder exploded into searing pain and my left arm fell useless by my side, the reins falling slack from my hand. Biting back the waves of agony assaulting me, I rode with my right hand clutching the pommel. My mare knew what to do.

As soon as I was out of range I took my bow. I strung it one-handed and then, grippng the string in my teeth, I fired an arrow high into the air. It did not need to travel far. Its fletching caught the wind and shrieked with the high cry of a bird of prey. The others would understand the signal. I slumped forward, the pressure on the arrowhead deep in the muscle sending jolts of agony through my neck and shoulder.

My mare carried me as pain continued to wrack my body. I heard shouts and raised my eyes. Houlun and the others were there. They galloped past me and Ordu peeled off to check on me and lead me home.

I was gently drawn from my mare's back and carried into my ger. I looked up.

Nikola was there. His blue eyes were wide with fear.

Why was he afraid? Afraid that he would be punished for the wound caused by one of his people?

No, the pain was clouding my thoughts. He was concerned for me, that was all.

His blue eyes glistened as he knelt by my side. Ordu with his help took my armour from me. Hot water was brought and Ordu tended to my wound, the boy handing him cloth.

Those slender fingers held the cloth to my wound as Ordu washed it. The boy's skin felt cool on the burning heat of my flesh. So he knew something of medicine, too. His touch calmed me.

Ordu sucked in his breath. "The head of the arrow has pierced through the silk. We will have to use the knife."

He turned and muttered something to the boy. I felt Nikola's hand, timid, seek mine out. I grabbed hold of it. Ordu's knife cut my flesh and I bit my lip, refusing to cry out. I squeezed the hand in mine, that slender, smooth hand, squeezed it as the arrow's head was drawn from my shoulder. Then his hand slipped from mine and he was pushing cloth against the wound, now freely spilling blood.

Stupid. I had fallen into their trap so easily. I focussed on the pain. This pain would teach me the error of my foolishness.

I looked up at Nikola. His eyes did not leave mine.

"You'll be fine," said Ordu. "The arrow did not sever any muscle. You're lucky as always, Falcon."

Lucky as always.

He turned to Nikola and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Do you understand? Your mistress will be fine." Then he left.

Nikola turned back to me. His face looked different, somehow.

Oh, of course. His lips and eyes. He was smiling.

I had never seen him smile before. His teeth were white, straight, a young god's teeth.

I placed my right hand over his and smiled back at him. His touch calmed me and I wanted more of it. I left my hand there, let the palm of my own caress the back of his. Nikola's face grew flushed, but he said nothing.

Ordu returned with a herb poultice. The flow of my blood slowed at last and the two bandaged me. Then I was placed on my blankets and Ordu left Nikola to tend to me.

Nikola brought his face close to mine. "Mistress," he said, softly. "You are alright?"

"Yes," I said. His breath was hot against my skin, milk-sweet. "I'm alright."

----------------------------

The Rus were long gone by the time Houlun and the others arrived. I cursed my stupidity, blaming myself for the lost horses, but Houlun refused to listen to me.

"It's punishment for my arrogance," she said. "We're just lucky we did not lose you as well. But no matter. The Rus dogs will be punished soon or late."

The wound took longer to heal than I expected. I had grown old, perhaps, lost the strength of my youth. Such a wound would not have long kept me in bed before.

Perhaps I lingered there, in my ger, happy to have Nikola tend to me. He helped to clean my wound. His fingers were gentle, sure.

I remarked on it.

"When young," he said. "I mean, when I was younger, I learned... what is the word?" He showed me the poultice he had prepared. "With plants?"

"Medicine," I said.

"Yes, all Rus priests learn medicine."

"That man," I said. I remembered the other priest who had been there, the older man who had fallen. "He was your master?"

Nikola nodded.

"You loved him?"

Nikola shook his head. He said no more. He washed my wound and reapplied the poultice.

I had asked a stupid question. I had known for a long time that he had not been Nikola's real father. And yet the matter had weighed on my mind. Stupid. But I was glad he did not seem to hate me for the death of that man.

Nikola did not leave my side all those long days. I grew restless, though not bored. Nikola had learned more of our language and now we could speak of many things. He told me that his mother had been a slave, taken by the Rus when with child, himself. His father he never knew. His mother's master had been eager to be rid of him and apprenticed him to the Church. There he had shown himself intelligent and learned many things. He could write and sew and knew the secrets of herbs. Cheren would bring him plants he asked for, plants that the Plainspeople did not use in their medicine, and he would have me eat them or make a bitter tea. I grew stronger quickly. After a few days I left the ger despite Nikola's protests and joined the others. Houlun refused to let me work.

"I will not lose one of my best warriors to stubbornness," she said. "You are a Falcon, not a wild ass, Chamuka. Even the falcon rests in its eyrie at times. Let your boy spoil you." She grinned.

My boy. The words touched me.

My ger when I returned to it was warm, the scent of cooking mutton filling it. Nikola cooked well. I knew the priests of the Rus liked to eat. They did not forsake all pleasure.

I lay down to rest. My shoulder ached. Nikola came and checked my wound.

"Please, mistress," he said. "Not so much... moving, please."

I smiled at his imperfect words. His accent was charming, making him seem childish still even as he took on so many responsibilities. Had he grown taller? A little, perhaps. The meat and butter and labour had strengthened his limbs, the sun gilding the paleness of his face.

He brought me my food and I sat up to eat. My leg pained me, that old wound, and I grimaced.

Nikola went to my shoulder but I shook my head.

"An old wound," I said. "My leg. You see me limping?" He blinked at the word and I explained it.

"How did it happen?" he asked, his eyes wide.

I told him the story. I had not spoken of it for a long time. No one ever asked me, for everyone knew.

I drew up my trousers, revealing the long, smooth scar that extended from my calf to behind my knee. Nikola glanced at me, unsure.

I smiled. He was shy. I took his hand and placed it on my leg, followed the scar with his fingertips.

"If you had been there it would have healed better," I said.

"You hate the Rus?" he said.

I shrugged. "They are the enemy. The man who gave me this wound is dead."

"No," he said. "Your husband."

I shrugged. "He died honourably, killing those who gave him his wound. His spirit lies happy in the earth."

Was that true, I wondered? The animals had stripped his body, revealed his bones quickly. The shamans had not needed to intercede on his spirit's behalf, as sometimes happened.

His bones, white and glowing, beside those of my son on that faraway hill.

Nikola ran his fingertips up along the scar until he reached the back of my knee. Feeling remained there and his fingers were soft against my skin. I shivered at his touch and he drew his hand away as though he had touched red-hot iron.

"Cold," I lied, drawing my trousers back down. He brought me a blanket.

"You should sleep, mistress."

"Yes," I said. Talking of my wound had tired me, stupid old woman that I was.

I closed my eyes and listened to him move around the ger, tidying up. The sound lulled me to sleep.

--------------------

In my dream it was cold. I reached out for him. He was never far away from me. I found the warmth of his body, drew him closer to me, brought his chest against mine. I listened to his breathing, soft, rhythmic, like the hoof-falls of a horse. Deeper sleep drew me back, that dark place where no dreams are.

I opened my eyes. The ger was alight. The moon? It was a full moon, tonight, I remembered, and it had risen after midnight. It was still late. That cold light spilled down from the crown of the ger, silvering everything inside.

I was not cold. He was lying beside me, nestled against me.

No, not him. The boy, my captive. Nikola. His face beneath mine, pale, nestled in a halo of gold like the icons of his people.

I looked upon him for a long while. He slept, so he would not know I was looking at him. His skin would not turn that shameful pink. His lashes were dark, his nose small but sharp. Lips red like ochre lay against moon-pale skin.

He breathed deep. I tasted his breath on the air. I pulled myself away and he murmured, drawing himself closer. His arm curved over my waist. I felt a surge of excitement and my own breath grew hot. I dared to move closer to him, lowered my face against his hair. His scent, warm, familiar, maddening. I opened my lips as though to draw in more of that scent through my mouth. The softness of his hair tingled against my lips and nose.

I kissed his hair. He muttered something in his sleep. I drew him closer and he did not resist. His body was so slender! I imagined I could lift him bodily above my head. When my wound was fully healed I would try to. The thought brought a smile to my lips.

I dared to run my hand along his arm. Slender, and soft, too. He drew closer. Was that a smile on his lips? He brought a knee over my leg.

No, he was not soft everywhere. There, against my thigh, a hot hardness.

My heart beat faster. It had been a long time since I had felt that delightful hardness of a man. My blood quickened with my heart. I could feel a flush spreading over my face and neck, down to my breasts, hardening the nipples. Beneath my waist I melted. Was that how it felt? I had forgotten.

That quickening of the blood, carrying me away. Temul, we call it, the wild abandon of a horse left to gallop as it will, joy and abandonment and headlong passion driving it forward, deaf to the cries of its rider. I could not stop my hand. Temul gripped me and I could not stop. My hand reached down between his legs, cupped the hardness there.

The boy's lips parted and he gasped.

Yes, he liked that. He had never felt another's hand there I guessed. I traced the shape of him. He was not modest in length.

My mouth flooded and I swallowed. The boy muttered.

No.

Temul. As quickly as it had come, it slipped from me.

I drew my hand away. I held his hip, rolled him over. He complained but did not wake. I rolled over, too, made a space between us.

The night was cold and I drew the blankets close around my neck.

----------------

Nikola's smiles came freely now. He fixed my tea and tidied the ger. I felt stronger. My blood grew hot and I ignored his protests as I took up the saddle and bridle which had been my husband's. I let my fingers fall along its familiar shape.
"But you are still sick," said Nikola, a bowl of mutton fat and flour in his hands.

"I have to ride," I said. "I cannot stay in here. I must look upon the open sky."

He sighed and nodded. "Yes, mistress."

I pushed aside the flap. His hand fell on my sleeve. "Be careful, mistress. Do not ride far."

I nodded and went outside, smiling. His concern had charmed me.

Yesuntei was there. Her sons were busy adding dung to the fire outside the ger. She raised her hand.

"May your ride be safe," she said. Then she grinned. "The Falcon smiles to herself, I see."

"And may your day bring you happiness," I replied. "Have you seen my mare?"

Yesuntei laughed. "My eldest son has returned from the steppes. He brought a handsome young stallion with him. No doubt your mare is somewhere close by, desirous of his company."

I snorted. "She is too old for such things."

Yesuntei raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Can one truly ever grow too old for such things?"

I found my mare. Yesuntei's words had not merely been in jest. My mare was watching the new black stallion crop the grass. She stepped lightly upon her hooves, whipping her tail and waving her nose in the air, snorting. I laughed. So eager was she for his attention that she was dancing!

I took her and mounted her. Happy to see and smell me and feel my familiar weight, she made no protest. We left the camp. The day was bright, the air clear like ice. My mare shared my desire and quickly fell into a gallop. I clung to her. I felt her muscles seethe beneath her skin, my own blood surging with hers. The two of us were eager to race.

I did as Nikola said. I did not go far, but where we went we galloped fast. My mare slowed, shivering, her flanks wet with sweat. I was sweating too, the coolness dripping from my temple along the side of my face. Yet the rest of me was hot. The winter air did not have the strength to cool the heat rolling over me.

We returned to the camp. I left the mare with her new love and hurried to the ger. I pushed aside the flap.

"Nohio horio," I said.

Nikola was lying on the floor. He sprang to his feet, pulling down his clothes, and turned his back to me.

I took hold of his shoulder and spun him about. "What's the matter?"

Even with the hem of his deel pulled back down there was no mistaking the situation. His excitement poked out from his body.

"Ah," I said.

Nikola looked up at me from under his dark lashes. Shame filled his eyes. But he could not meet my eyes for long and he looked away.

I was not angry. I drew my fingertips down along his side and across his stomach until they reached that hardness. I cupped it and gently squeezed.

The boy gasped. He placed his hand on mine as though to push it away, but he did no pushing. Perhaps he thought it presumptuous. Perhaps he did not wish me to remove my hand.

Temul. I knew I could not stop what I did next. I was still riding, the wind in my face, the sun across my back, my blood swirling through me. I stroked him and felt heat and stickiness between my thighs. My breath blew hot, just as my mare's had, snorted up as mist into the cold air.

I let my hand drop. The boy looked at me, relief on his face, but also disappointment. There was no need for him to look so. I knelt before him, his eyes not leaving mine as I took hold of the hem of his deel and lifted it, slowly, revealing the paleness of his legs. The skin of his arms and neck, exposed to the elements, had turned gold, but here his flesh had kept its milky whiteness. The sight inflamed me and I pulled the hem up past his thighs, bunching it around his stomach and letting his hardness spring forth. The scent of him was clean but rich, the scent of an excited male. He took a step back but I held him firm, keeping the hem bunched up against his waist as I drew the fingers of my free hand down the smoothness of his belly, across his sparse pubic hair and along his firm length.

I revealed the silken head of his excitement and dove upon it. My hungry mouth engulfed him fully and he cried out, his knees threatening to collapse beneath him, but my hands on his waist held him fast. I curled my hands around his hips, rested them on his buttocks as I murmured at the deliciousness of him in my mouth. I pulled him back over my tongue then drew him deeper, my nose flush against the softness of his pubic hair. His hand fell upon my head, his fingertips timidly stroking the hair at my temple. The intimacy of the act made my heart skip. He did not know that no one touches the head of another among us except for a lover.

I drew him part way out of my mouth and swirled my tongue around the tip of his member. He gave an excited gasp and I felt heat and tasted salt.

My body ached with desire. I wanted him inside me, the weight of him upon my body, but his cries delighted me. I wished to spoil him. He was a good boy, a faithful and attentive servant, and he deserved to be rewarded. I pulled him from mouth and ran my tongue and lips along his length then drew my teeth gently against the smooth-firm flesh of the head.

He jerked up against my lips with a sharp cry and a boiling hotness splashed across my cheek and ear. Desperate, I pulled him back inside my mouth so that no more of his essence would be wasted. He groaned, his body shivering, as he spurted over and over until the inside of my mouth was sticky with him. I murmured, pleased, and sucked him deeper. His juices were copious and I wanted none to spill.

At last his spurts grew weak and he shuddered. I did not release him and continued to lick at the tip of his softening member. Such attentions grew too intense for him and he tried to pull away, but I felt cruel, playful, and clung to him.

At last I let him pull free. He stumbled back, panting, the hem of his deel still bunched around his belly, his member glistening with my saliva. The lewdness of the sight made me shiver in need.

"See," I murmured. "It's better with someone else. You should not waste your energy alone. Such selfishness angers the tngri."

He did not understand. His face was flushed, his lips parting with the swiftness of his breath as the dregs of his pleasure drained through him. I took his hand and drew him down onto the floor on top of me.

I stroked the back of his head, delighting in the softness of his hair as he rested his chin on my shoulder. His cheek rubbed against my own.

"Good boy," I murmured.

I ran my hands up beneath the hem of his deel, along his smooth thighs and buttocks, and gave one firm promontory a squeeze. He gasped. I felt him grow warmer, harder where his member lay against my belly with only the fabric between us.

I grinned. Good. I would not have to stay hungry, then.

"Take that off," I said, lifting the hem of his deel higher. He sat back on his haunches and stared at me, but my hunger made me ungentle and my angry hands quickly found the clasps of his deel. He began to struggle and I pulled at his clothes upwards as though undressing a recalcitrant child.

His resistance proved feeble and I soon tore the deel off him and tossed it aside. He was naked now, and I fell upon him, ran my hands across the delightful soft whiteness of his skin, up along his ribs and under his arms and across his chest and back. Where my hands touched my lips soon followed and I drank deeply of his scent as I kissed his chest and neck.

His arms slipped around me. I drew a hand low, between his legs, and encountered a hardness like the one I'd enjoyed just moments earlier. Ah, I knew then the joys of having a young man as your lover! I felt some of what Houlun must feel, when she plays with her favourites.

I pushed thoughts of her from my mind, eager not to spoil my pleasure. Temul filled me. There would be no stopping until the boy was deep inside me, filling me to overflowing with his seed.

I pulled away. Nikola, his lips slack, his eyes drunk with pleasure, gasped his disappointment.

I grinned back. "Oh, there is more to come. Do not worry." I undid my sash and placed it neatly on the nearest stool -- to treat your sash poorly is to invite bad luck, and even wracked with desire I was mindful of the taboo. I fumbled at the latches of my deel and eagerly slipped it from my shoulders, left it lying beside me. No such taboo is attached to the deel and I quickly forgot all else but my desire.

Nikola stared at me, kneeling before him in my nakedness, his eyes drawn to my breasts. I grew coquettish under his gaze and I covered them with my hands. They were still full and firm, though they had lost some of their youthful pride. My nipples pushed hard against the palm of my hands and I shivered at how sensitive they were.

The girlish game of teasing soon bored me. I took his hands and left them cupping my breasts as I took his hardness and stroked it.

"Good," I murmured. "You're nice and hard for me again. Do you know what to do with this, I wonder?"

Nikola said nothing. Perhaps he did not understand me, or had not heard me, engrossed with caressing my breasts as he was. His touch was unsure, inexperienced, but gentle and eager, and I melted with need under his stroking. The air was rich with my scent. I knew he could smell me.

I pulled away and lay back, pulling him down on top of me again, my hand not leaving his weapon. I knew he would need guidance. With one hand on his buttocks I pushed him close and parted my thighs. That delicious feeling of openness inflamed me and without delay I placed the head of his member against my slick heat. I rubbed him against me and he gasped, his breath hot against my skin.

"So you like that," I murmured. "But that is nothing." I pulled him forward and drew him into me.

His excited cry was echoed by my own. So long, so long since I had felt myself pierced in such a way! He was not small and as I parted for him I slipped my feet about his thighs, hating the thought of him slipping out of me in his inexperience and eagerness.

Soon he needed no guidance. Just as when a virginal stallion covers his first mare, instinct took hold of him. He began to move his hips in time, thrusting himself into me, eager, his face a mixture of ecstasy and disbelief. His innocence slew me. I peppered his chin and neck with kisses and bit at his skin as his thrusts grew faster. He would not last long and I did not want him to. Already I felt the summit of my pleasure approaching.

His eyes took on a faraway look and I knew he was close. I pulled his face to mine, slid my tongue into his mouth, needing to feel myself penetrated above as I was below. His kiss was naive, fumbling, his tongue fleeing from mine. But I would not be denied. I hunted his tongue down, dipped my own deep inside his mouth, rejoicing in the perfumed heat and saltiness as I drank down his eager breath and saliva. And then he was crying out, his lips trembling against mine and I felt him grow harder still, that last moment of iron strength a man experiences as he comes to completion. I caught his tongue between my teeth and arched my back, clawing at the blankets as boiling heat, my own and the boy's, flooded me, bringing with it an overflow of pleasure that left me trembling.

His thrusts did not slow and nor did the flow of that exquisite heat. Then finally he slumped, panting, on top of me. He tried to pull away but I would not permit it. My legs, locked around his waist, glued him to me. He ceased to struggle and lay there, my body his bed, as I drew my hands across his sweat-slick back and the curve of his shivering buttocks.

"You did well, my Nikola," I murmured against the moist gold of his hair. "Very well, my darling."

He grew soft inside me, popped out and I gasped. I dipped my fingers down between us, found the slick confluence of our lovemaking. The scent of the two of us was strong.

At last, I rolled myself from under him with a sigh. I left him lying there on the blankets, an enemy slain, and cleansed myself. Then I fell back upon him, kissing his salty back and buttocks as he gasped in surprise.

I did not demand any more of him. Twice was enough. Perhaps with time he would be able to perform further feats, but I needed no more right now. My belly was filled with him and I felt heavy, hot and sore between my thighs. I slid down beside him, drew him close to me, and held him as sleep overtook him.

For a long time sleep did not come for me. The joy which temul had brought would not permit it.

----------------------------

I must have slept at last, for his waking woke me in turn. I saw the tousled nest of his golden hair, his blue eyes, wet like river-stones, and inflamed I threw myself upon him. My mouth sought every spot of his neck and face, tasting the leftover salt of the night's exertions. He gasped and fought me, but like one who did not want to win.

"Mistress!" he gasped. "Mistress."

"Sssh," I said. "You are being noisy." Yet I wanted to hear more. He had been so quiet last night, his voice bereft of the clumsy beauty of his words. "I wish to make love again. Do you know those words? Make love?"

"Make love?" he repeated.

"Yes," I said. Hearing those words carried by his voice heated my blood. "We will make love. Like last night. Like men and women do."

He had slept through the night. The warmth of the blankets had been enough and he had not put his clothes back on. He lay naked under the blankets and I tore them from him, laughing. I kept my own blankets wrapped about me and fell upon him, touching all I wished with my hands and tongue and mouth as he struggled against me. He struggled, and yet he was hard between his legs. My fingers and lips sought him out and I delighted at the rich taste of him.

I was no Houlun, eager to take what I wished without giving anything back. I slipped the blanket from my body, drew him to me. This time he needed little guidance. I moderated his thrusts, pushed him away before he filled me too soon with his eagerness. But the look of delighted agony on his face maddened me and soon I gave him free reign, letting him push himself wild upon me.

Temul. The wild horse let go.

Our cries filled the ger as his heat filled me to overflowing. I did not care who heard us. My joy would have its voice.

After, we lay together and drank airag. I desired tea but I would not let him leave the blankets. His naked side was smooth and cool against my own. More cups of airag and I wanted more than that. I teased him, my mouth against his mouth, my fingers teaching him new ways of delight which soon had him gasping his pleasure against my lips. He grew hard again and I wasted no time. I rolled myself astride him, piercing his hardness up into me. The joy of it blunted the pain that flew up my leg and turned it to keen pleasure. My hands grasping his, I rode him with the desperate zeal of a rutting mare. He could not long endure it. He burst inside me and I cried out, reeling with the sharpness of the delight that speared along my spine. I collapsed upon him, my hair awash with sweat, and this time I could not rise.

When I woke Nikola was before the hearth. He was dressed and I sighed with disappointment at the sight.

"You are clothed," I murmured.

He brought me tea. I slipped my fingers along his arm, then stopped.

"No," I said. "No, you must rest. I do not want to break you."

He busied himself at his work. He tidied up well. I finished the tea, then shamed at last by my laziness I sprang up naked. I pulled on my clothes and took out my armour.

Nikola helped me into it. With my armour upon me, my hand lingered against his.

"Work hard, my Nikola," I said. Then I snatched up my saddle and bridle, pushed aside the flap of the ger and strode out into the piercing cold.

The white month was not far away, but the cold had come back, stronger. Here it was not so cold as the steppes, but my old bones still smarted with it. At this time of year, up on the steppes beneath the blue sky, the air would be full of ice.

Yesuntei stood outside her ger with her eldest son. He nodded to me.

"May you be well, Falcon."

"And you as well," I said.

Yesuntei came to me and took my hands in hers.

"May your ride today be a joyful one, sister," she said. Her eyes flickered across my face and a knowing smile appeared on her lips. "And yet, you have the pink skin of one who has ridden far already today."

I laughed at her jest. "There are no horses to ride in gers. You are mistaken, Yesuntei."

"No horses, perhaps," she said. "But lions dwell there, young lions with manes of gold."

I drew my hands from hers and left her. Houlun I found standing with others alongside the horses, rubbing her hands against the cold and breathing mist into the air.

"Ho!" she cried. "Here's the Falcon, out to flex her wings no doubt."

"I wish to ride," I said. "The cold threatens to freeze my limbs stiff."

"Your company is most welcome," she said. "But I think it is not the stiffening of her limbs which keeps Alangua in her ger."

The others laughed.

Alangua, the mother of the Plainspeople. All knew her story. She had been asleep in her ger when a man had climbed down the smoke hole, a man with golden hair, half-lion, half-man, they said, who begat upon her eager and unresisting body three sons who would become khans.

But Alangua had been a widow. Perhaps Houlun had forgotten that part of the tale. I grinned, but there was pain, too.

We mounted our horses and flew out into the valley. My bow beside me, my arrows at my back, the pain soon faded. I felt whole. The river gleamed like the golden scarf of a shaman.

A day of riding beckoned to us.

-------------------------------------

The wound in my shoulder was soon but a memory. It had healed well and there was no ache to remind me of it. Nikola's herbs had worked their magic.

As the valley warmed, so did the blood of our foes. Skirmishes grew common and my arrows left many of their warriors lying upon the earth. My blood still racing from combat, I would return home and push my way into my ger to find Nikola there, ready with my tea, a whistling arrow having told all in our camp that we had been victorious. But more often than not the tea would be drained at once with no time to savour it, as I quickly fell upon the boy and relished instead the delights of his slender body.

Nikola would always struggle, but so too would he try and fail to hide a smile of delight. He struggled just to please me. I did not tell him I knew.

I taught him all I knew of how a man and woman make love. His stamina grew, and soon he learned to bring me to completion many times. The sight of his pleasure, those sky-coloured eyes hooded, his lips wet, his hair across his face-- just the sight of him was often enough to bring the flood of my delight upon me. And afterwards I would hold him, cradled against my chest, as I breathed the scent of him from his hair and his still-panting mouth.

He grew skilled in everything that he did, and his friendship with Cheren deepened. He proved popular amongst the camp. Many were the jests at my expense, but in my joy I paid them no heed. The nickname Alangua I wore without resentment.

My golden-haired boy. I often dreamed of him descending through the smoke-hole of my ger to cover me and take his pleasure. When I awoke, I would make true the dream in reverse, and he was always eager to submit to my hungry hands and lips.

Yet I knew no strapping sons would be forthcoming. In that way the legend was no prophecy.

One day after a ride I returned to hear music, the high, sharp sweet tones of the tsuur, the flute of the Plainspeople, wafting through the camp. The song was not known to me and I wondered who was playing. Whoever they were, they were skilled, the thin tones deep with sadness and joy.

He had played the tsuur. My son. His fingers had been slender, agile, finding the holes of the instrument without fail, and the music that arose had been no simple piping of a child. I had often wondered if my son would ever make a warrior. He had been so slender, like a sapling, even before the illness had come. Yet his skills had delighted me. Others in the camp would have him play the tsuur for them as they sang and I would look on, my heart swollen with pride. Music pleases the Plainspeople as much as battle and I knew one day his name would be known far across our lands, even as far as the new-laid walls of Xanadu in the east.
As I drew closer to my ger the fluting grew louder. Strange that the air would carry the sound in such a way. But perhaps it was Yasuntei's eldest. Yes. I had not heard such wondrous playing in the camp since that day, long ago.

I pushed aside the flap. The sound of the flute was for an instant sharp and clear, but straight away it ceased. A boy, his back to me, sat cross-legged beside my storage chest. I stumbled, my heart sharp with ice. My son?

But no, of course no. Nikola turned to me, beaming, a tsuur in his hands. He placed it on the chest and came to me. I stared at him, unsmiling.

He had taken the flute from the chest, my son's flute. Those high, beautiful notes. They had come from his mouth.

Nikola hesitated, the smile slipping from his lips. The look on my face must have been terrible to behold. I stepped forward, raised my hand. His eyes went wide and he cowered.

I did not bring my hand down across his face as my rage had intended. The terror of those blue eyes, the shock and confusion within them stayed my blow. I lowered my hand, covered it with my other lest it strike at him of its own accord. Shame filled me and a regret so dreadful my stomach rebelled.

Nikola stood there. The light was dimming in his eyes. I remembered when last I had seen those eyes still as glass and distant and I was filled with terror.

I cried out and swept him into my arms. He struggled then, truly struggled, no doubt fearing I was attacking him. But I held him tight and crushed his shorter, slender body against mine as I wept.

"No, Nikola! I am sorry." I cried softly into his hair. "Do not pull away. I am no longer angry. You did not know."

He ceased struggling, his body growing limp. Timid, he brought his arms around my chest, embracing me back.

"Mistress, I am sorry. I did not ask your permission." I felt his face against neck grow wet. Tears had come.

"Shh," I murmured. "I am sorry too, Nikola. You did not mean any harm."

"I just wanted to please you," he murmured, his voice thick.

"You do please me, Nikola."

I broke the embrace and sat him down on the floor. I joined him.

The tsuur lay there beside me, on the blankets. But how? It must slipped off the box. Panic gripped me and I snatched the tsuur up and held it in my lap.

"It was your husband's flute," Nikola said, his voice soft with shame.

Flute? Oh yes, the Rus name for the tsuur.

I shook my head. "No, my son's. You... you did not know."

I cradled the tsuur, rested the fingers of one hand upon its length. The end of it was still wet where Nikola's mouth had held it.

I heard the boy shift. He was watching me, nervous. I turned my gaze from the tsuur and smiled at him.

"I was wrong to be angry," I told him. "I... my son's death still lies hard on my heart." My eyes grew moist and I closed them, angered by the weakness of my tears.

"When did he die, mistress?"

"When?" Last week, yesterday, a moment ago? For a long time I pondered his question. "Five summers past," I said at last.

Nikola said nothing. His eyes slipped guilty to the tsuur. I shared his silence.

Five summers. My words had shocked me. Had it really been so long? Five years had I lain here, alone in this empty ger? Yes. Others who had sought my heart had ceased to try for it long ago.

So cold. It had been so cold here, cold for so long.

I looked about the ger. The air inside was warm, full of the rich scent of burning dung. Blankets were neatly piled to one side. Water was boiling on the fire. Nikola had opened the window-flap. Through the mesh the blue sky of Tengri stared in at us.

The sky was so blue.

I took up the tsuur. I hesitated, then offered it to Nikola. He stared at it dumbly.

"Please," I said. "Please play for me again, Nikola."

He reached forward. His fingers trembled as he took the tsuur, still fearful after my anger. I smiled at him.

"Please play for me. You play so beautifully, my Nikola."

At last he nodded and brought the tsuur to his lips. A single, sad-sweet note, and then his fingers danced across the length of the instrument and a melody flew up into the air, a song, a different one this time, but the sound as bitter-sweet as before. He played for me and I lay down and placed my head in his lap. I closed my eyes and let that glorious music echo inside my heart.

-------------------------

The white month came, the first tentative touches of spring lighting upon the earth. Flowers bloomed along the banks of the Ijil. I often visited the meadows on my mare, eager to be close to Nikola. He had settled into the job of herdsman and the goats now acknowledged him as much as they did Cheren, their master of many years. The grasses of the river-meadows were dear to the goats, who cropped them eagerly. I would return from my scouting always by that path, hungry for the sight of that boy in the purple deel, his golden hair like a ray of the purest sunlight against the blue of the sky, the green of the earth, the dark curve of the river. We would return home together and share our eager embraces even before we ate.

Was he my servant, or I his? I did not care whichever way it was. The sound of the tsuur brought me such delight, easing the pain of my body after a long day of riding. He sat alongside me when I joined Houlun and the others around the fire as we drank and ate and sang in celebration of the day's victories. He served my airag and played the tsuur at the eager request of the others. All knew now of the beauty of his playing and if he ever came to the fire without the tsuur there would be no peace until he was sent to retrieve it. I often caught Houlun watching him as he played, watching me as I gazed upon him, a secretive smile on her lips. Her mockery, if that's what it was, could not reach my heart, so wreathed was it by happiness.

A morning came when I woke long before dawn. I was cold and slick with sweat, but not my own. I felt Nikola beside me, under the blankets. His smooth body shivered against my touch and he coughed.

I rose and roused the fire. I made tea and brought it to him. In the light of the lantern his face was pale, his hair matted against his high forehead. He sipped at the tea as I wrapped him with more blankets.

I fetched Ordu. He came quickly. Nikola submitted to his prodding and examination with murmured complaints. Once he was done, Ordu sat back.

"A chill," he said. "Often they come with the change in the seasons. Make him drink and eat often and stay warm. It will soon pass."

It did not pass. The illness grew graver, and all at once. Ordu brought herbs taken from far afield, but Nikola was almost too weak to eat them. I mashed them into a paste and gave them to him as you would food to a baby. He was able to swallow some, but they did little.

One morning after a night of coughing that left Nikola's body awash with sweat, Ordu examined the boy. He ran his hands over his heaving chest, muttering to himself.

Pale. So pale. That whiteness of milk had turned sickly, pale like the belly of a fish.

"Mistress," Nikola whispered, his throat raw from the coughing.

I took his hand, whispered to him. "Nikola, do not speak. You must rest."

The boy nodded, but then his body was wracked with further coughing. Ordu withdrew his hand. He bit his bottom lip between his teeth and stood.

I looked up at him, my eyes desperate. He placed his hand upon my shoulder.

"I will get the shaman," he said and left.

His words pierced my heart. Frost crawled over my skin and I began to tremble. Nikola felt it through my hand. He turned his head.

"Mistress, are you alright?"

I nodded. "Shh. Do not speak. The shaman is coming. He will tell us what needs to be done."

Nikola grew calmer. Sleep hooded his tired eyes. His breathing, still rough, deepened.

My eyes caught something on the other side of the ger, lying on the blankets. The tsuur. In my haste to find more cloth in the chest to wet and cool Nikola forehead with, I must have thrown it aside.

I moved to rise and retrieve it, but all at once my face was filled with smoke from the fire. A gust of cold air, cold as the steppes, had poured down through the smoke hole and stirred up ash and embers. Coughing and wiping at my eyes, I heard a sharp clatter and I blinked through stinging tears. My banner lay on the floor, torn from where it had hung from the crown of the ger.

As quickly as the wind had come, it was gone, and yet I shivered. Nikola murmured in his sleep. I pulled away from him, held my hand to my breast as the trembling of my body grew stronger.

The tsuur lay there beside the fallen banner, hate-filled, venomous.

I hopped to my feet and snatched the instrument up. I went to replace it in the still-open chest, but something stopped me.

A voice from outside. "Nohio horio." The flap of the ger opened and the shaman stepped in. His yellow cap and the drum underneath his arm identified him at once. He was Bukidai, a young man, a new shaman I did not know well. He had been with us for only two years, still fresh from his studies among the holy men of the high monasteries of Nepal. I had often seen him kneeling on the ground, drawing his mandalas with the precious coloured sand that he kept as he murmured the names of gods I did not know. He smiled at me. I offered him airag and sweets but he shook his head and crouched beside Nikola.

As he examined the boy I took the opportunity to slip the tsuur into the pocket of my deel. It lay there, icy-cold against my breast. I knelt alongside him.

Bukidai took from his own pocket a small censer and wallet of cloth, which he unwrapped to reveal a small bundle of juniper twigs. He reverently fished embers from the fire and placed them in the censer, muttering prayers to the gods, both our own and the long-named gods of the Tibetans. Then he placed the twigs upon the embers. Fire spat and sparkled and my ger was filled with rich, pungent smoke.

He took his dagger from his side, placed his hand upon the horse's head carved on the hilt. Then he retrieved his drum and began to beat it.

The air grew thick, but not merely with the smoke. I knew the spirits were present, brought close by the scent of the juniper and Bukidai's drumming. Against my chest the tsuur lay like a shard of ice and I clutched my hand to it, biting back a gasp of pain.

Bukidai muttered, communing with the spirits for a long time before at last he opened his eyes. The distant, sleepy look in them melted away and he blinked, focusing on me. He placed his hand on Nikola's forehead and closed his eyes again. This time he muttered something to himself in our language I could not make out.

After a long while he opened his eyes and turned to me. "Falcon, there is nothing to be done."

I swallowed back the cry of despair that pushed at my throat. "He will die?"

The shaman's eyes went wide and he raised a hand. "No, that is not my meaning. Forgive me. My words were poorly chosen. There are no spirits at work on the boy." He replaced the wool wrapper in this pocket. "His illness is physical, and so there is nothing ritual can do. Our food and way of life have weakened him. It is sometimes so with captives."

I frowned and shook my head. "But I felt... I felt a gust of cold air, before. It tore the banner down. And there is this..." I took the tsuur from my pocket and placed it on the blankets before the shaman.

He looked at it, then raised his eyes to me, questioning.

"The tsuur my husband gave my son," I said. "Nikola has been playing it."

Bukidai frowned. I glimpsed compassion on his face, but for the space of a heartbeat only, like a shadow across the sun.

He touched the tsuur with the tip of a finger and closed his eyes. His brow furrowed. He whispered, replying to the voices of the unseen spirits. His eyes flashed open. He asked me for water, which he used to damp the fire in the censer. The thick smell of the burning wood melted away. He turned to me and shook his head.

"The tsuur holds no curse," he said. "It is clean."

"But that is impossible," I protested, my voice growing shrill even to my own ears. "His illness... it is the same one which took my son. The banner, the cold air! Surely they are angry, angry at me!"

Bukidai took my hand. "Falcon, I was not here when your husband and son were taken out and given to the sky, but others have told me. Their bones were freed swiftly, by the blessings of the tngri. Their spirits do no linger here. They are at rest, Falcon."

"You lie!" My voice was a shout, cracking with anger and despair. I thrust Bukidai aside and snatched up the tsuur. The shaman's voice rang in my ears as I pushed my way out of the ger, but I heeded him not.

My mare. Where was she? I ran through the camp as though in a dream. The people around me were shadows.

"Falcon? Chamuka? What's wrong?"

A shadow with Yesuntei's shape. I ignored it. I found my mare, threw myself upon her back. It had been many a years since I had ridden her without saddle or bridle, but she remembered how. I clung to her back, squeezed her sides with my thighs and clung to her mane as she broke straight away into a gallop.

She knew my heart. Another female, she felt the heaviness in my chest, knew where I wished to go. I saw little as we galloped. All I felt was that sliver of ice digging into my breast.

Blue sky, green grass, spring flowers a thousand rainbow stars dotting the earth. My eyes looked beyond them all. All I saw were those hills, dark today, as though night had settled over them, but it was just the shadow of a cloud. The hills grew until they blocked off the sky. My mare slowed to a walk. I slipped from her back and broke into a stumbling run. My leg ached, but it was nothing to the feeling of cold against my chest.

I scrambled up the hill. Flowers dotted it, yellow drifts of chamomile. Nestled among them were bones, the white, bleached lengths like slivers of alder wood.

There, a round white stone. No, no stone. No stone wears such a grin and stares out with such unblinking eyes.

I fell to my knees, fell forward onto the palms of my hands. The dirt and grass and the smooth hardness of bone chafed against my skin.

I called out to them, called out their names, half plea, half cry of despair. I had not said their names for so long. Tears poured down my cheeks and I clawed at the earth.

"Forgive me," I said, weeping. "Forgive me! Do not take your anger out on the boy. The sin is mine. I will not touch him again. I swear I will not!"

I took the tsuur from my pocket and placed it before the white stone. My fingers rested upon it. Was there warmth there now, beneath the previous ice?

I raised my tear-stung eyes to the sky. Grey, everywhere. Despair gripped me.

No, not everywhere. There, a sliver of blue. A tiny sliver, so thin I thought at first I was imagining it.

It parted, like a tear in cloth, and sunlight sprang from it. It speared out over the earth, out across the valley, a single slanting wedge of brightness.

A strange cry burst from me. I fled, then, stumbling down the slope of the hill to my mare who was cropping the grass with the tranquil attentiveness of a beast. As soon as I was on her back she turned for home, without urgency this time, as though she knew that all that had been done had been done and that whatever happened was in the hands of the tngri.

-----------------------

I returned to my ger and pulled aside the flap with a trembling hand. Bukidai was still there. He moved to rise but I fell to my knees before him and grasped his hand.

"Shaman, forgive my rudeness," I said. "Despair ruled my heart and my words were false, ungentle."

Bukidai shook his head. "There is nothing to forgive, Falcon." He helped me to my feet. "The boy still sleeps. He will fare better under the hands of one who loves him." Then he left.

One who loves him. I moved closer to Nikola, brought my fingers to his forehead but did not touch it.

He slept. His breathing was still rough, like the wheezing of a labouring horse. I longed to touch that pale skin, give it some of my warmth, cradle him against my breast.

But my words on the hill. My promise. I would keep it. I would not touch him again.

I did not need to. His breathing grew stronger, his coughing ceased. His skin, though pale, was no longer awash with sweat. His sleep was gentle and he no longer tossed himself about, desperate for air. I slept as near him as I dared, held my hands together as he did so often, pushed them against my mouth as my eyes burned.

But my prayers were not to his god.

I woke. I had slept. I had forgotten what it had meant to sleep. His movement had woken me. I reached out for him, forgetful.

He turned. His golden hair, plastered against his forehead. His blue eyes, strong like the sky now, no longer pale and dim.

His lips parted in a smile. Those teeth, like ivory, those teeth which so often had bruised my neck in the throes of our lovemaking.

"Mistress," he murmured. His hand sought me out, but I pulled away from him. His eyes flickered with confusion.

"I am glad you are well, my-" My voice stuck in my throat, "Nikola."

I fixed him tea. He sat up and sipped at it while I went to Yesuntei's to speak with her. Yesuntei rejoiced at the news of Nikola's recovery, but she frowned when she hear my request. She did not ask me why I made it, but merely agreed to it. She was a good friend, after all.

Yesuntei's daughter returned with me to my ger.

"This is Maral," I said to Nikola. "She will stay with us until you are well."

The girl looked up at him, her black eyes shy behind their dark lashes.

Nikola nodded, but there was a question in his eyes. The boy knew me well. He knew that much had been left unspoken.

Maral's plump hands were soft and gentle. I watched as she tended to him before the sight became too much to bear. I had delighted so much in the touch of that body, but every caress had led him closer to death. But the spirits had shown mercy to him, to me. I would not risk the return of that terrible illness. I would keep my word, no matter how great the pain in my heart.

Nikola was soon his old self. He was hungry and ate all that was given to him, even meat. It had been a long time, I realised, since I had last seen him pray to his god. It had not been his god who had saved him. But I never spoke of it.

After a few days Maral returned to her own ger, heavy with presents. I was unhappy to see her leave us. With her in my ger, things had not been so awkward.

Nikola lay on the blankets, his eyes watching me as I pushed past the flap of the ger. The blue was alight with a look I knew well. His lips parted and he stretched the length of his body out. He knew how much I delighted in the slenderness of his body. He displayed himself as a girl might, shifted on the blankets, his every movement an invitation.

I ignored him. I busied myself with my weapons and armour, checking and oiling them. But soon my zeal became empty and ridiculous.

I set the axe in my hands aside aside approached him. His desire was eager behind the flash of his smile. I sat down on the blankets a distance from him and he frowned. But his lips quickly curled into a grin and he came towards me on all fours. I watched him. He thought all this was a game, one we had often played, where I would act distant and uninterested until his desire forced him to forget his natural shyness and make the first move. The game had been a pleasant change from his usual submission to my ardent embraces and my blood quickened, now, seeing the playful hunger in his eyes.

I scrambled back, shook my head. "No, Nikola. No more."

He stopped, sat back on his haunches. The grin had slipped from his lips. "Mistress?"

My voice breaking, I told him, then, that he must not touch me, that we could never again embrace each other.
Tears filled his eyes. "Mistress, I... I have done something wrong?"

I shook my head. I wanted then more than anything to throw my arms around his narrow shoulders, to kiss away those hot tears from his eyes and cheeks.

"No, Nikola. I... I am the one who has done something wrong."

He turned from me, his face in his hands. I snatched up my saddle and bridle and fled, his sobbing echoed In the throbbing in my heart. I stumbled as I pushed open the flap to the ger, almost tread on the threshold with my feet. The omen terrified me and I fled, sick with dread.

My heart. The pity and desire I had felt. A warning.

I saddled my mare and rode her out into the wilderness. The sweetness of the air and the clear liquid gold of the light could not touch me. All I could feel was that icy pain in my stomach, the ache in my old wound like the shuddering of my agonised heart.

-----------------

The world grew warm. My heart stayed cold. I could not bear to spend more than a short while within the ger. He would be there, that golden-haired boy with skin like curdled milk. At first I still ached for his touch, but the memory of his illness, of his body wracked with agony, soon turned that desire to nauseous fear. I slept far from him among the blankets, ever watchful at night in case he should come close to me.

After that first night he did not try again.

I dreamed of him. That first glimpse of him in the meadow, his hair a golden halo about his face like a young god. His hair across his face, across my face, rich with his scent, soft to the touch like silk.

I woke, sick with fear. I felt it too whenever I returned to my ger in the evening, after a day of a dozen pointless errands, a dozen empty excuses to keep myself away. He would be there, waiting for me, as always. But now his face no longer wore the smile which had brought me such joy. He feared my coming, too.

Black talons of despair tore at my heart.

One evening I did not return to my ger and instead I sought out Houlun. I had spent more and more time with her and the others, late into the night, fearing what awaited me in my home. She had noticed, but she did not say anything.

No, she no longer even teased me. I found no pleasure in the fact.

"Nohio horio," I said, pushing the flap of her ger aside.

Houlun sat before her fire. Her current favourite, a Khazar boy, sat braiding her hair. She had only one servant at the moment, having tired of the others as they had grown taller and older and sent them away to the steppes. She stood up, grinning, and after embracing me offered me food.

I declined, but she hurried the wide-eyed boy to bring me airag. I took the cup and tasted it with her.

I had never enjoyed the company of Houlun, but here in her ger, far from my own, I felt a rare moment of peace. We spoke of many small matters until at last I grew in courage to say what was on my mind.

"Your gift, Houlun. I wish to return it to you."

"My gift?" Houlun arched her brows.

"Nikola," I said.

She frowned. "He no longer pleases you?"

"I-" I shook my head. "I do not deserve him."

Houlun said nothing. She took a long draught of the airag and pushed the empty cup at the boy, who refilled it.

"A pity," she said at last. "I had hoped he would please you."

"Forgive me, Houlun," I said, my eyes lowered with shame.

Houlun waved her hand in the air. "No. It is I who am at fault, Falcon." She took another sip. "I will take him back, of course." She placed a hand on the hip of the boy beside her. "Does this one please you, perhaps?"

I shook my head. "My ger is too small to share with another." The words were false even to my own ears.

Houlun nodded. "I see." She finished her drink and after taking my own empty cup she handed both to the boy. "Send him to me whenever you wish. I will have a place ready for him." She nodded to the boy who straight away busied himself taking blankets from a chest.

I watched him place the blankets on the floor. The sight did not please me and I murmured an excuse and made my goodbyes.

As I moved to the flap, Houlun took my hand.

"Chamuka, please remember. You are always welcome here. Please do not be a stranger."

I nodded, but said nothing.

I walked through the darkness to my own ger. Light flickered from the window flap. The scent of burning wood. Nikola preferred the wood to horse dung and I had grown use to it.

I pushed open the flap. He was inside tending the fire. The sight of him brought pain, sharp and immediate, to my chest.

I did not tarry. I steeled my heart and took hold of his sleeve, careful to remain out of reach of his touch.

"Nikola, gather your things."

"Mistress?" The hope in his eyes when I had grabbed his garment faded. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach.

"I will take you to the ger of Houlun. You are hers now."

He blinked, not understanding -- no, understanding, and wishing he did not. His eyes lost their glow and his expression took on that distant look, the glassy look of the slave, the look of the boy I had lifted from the battlefield, his mouth bloody from my hand, the look of the boy I had embraced that other time when my anger had become shame. Then, too, had his mouth been bloody from my cruelty.

Better. Yes, better he had never met me.

He bowed his head. I could no longer see his eyes. So there was some mercy in the world.

"I understand, mistress."

I pushed aside the flap and he followed behind me. He walked slowly, stiffly, his eyes to the ground. He did not try to escape. Perhaps I wished him to. I would not have pursued him.

Houlun's ger came into sight. I stopped. I could not take him all the way. I expected him to hesitate, to linger at my side, and I wondered if I would have the strength to push him away. But he did not stop. He walked past me into the darkness, towards the light of the fire outside her ger. I watched him go. He did not turn back. I wanted him too, feared that he would.

He reached Houlun's ger and I thought I heard his voice. Houlun came out, her tall form silhouetted against the red of the open flap. Nikola said something to her. She turned her head, looking for me, and I fled back home, not wishing to see any more.

With a sob I threw myself down on the floor, onto the blankets he had slept on, breathed in his scent, needing him, hating him, hating myself, weeping and sobbing out words empty of all meaning except pain, into the cold of the night earth.

-------------------

At last I slept. Or was this sleep? I walked along the bank of a river. The Ijil. But the water was not the dark flow I knew so well. Once, long ago, I had travelled north to the edge of the sacred inland sea and seen the lotus flowers floating upon the surface of the river's source. They had been in full bloom, a constellation of stars upon the night sky of the water. Just so was the surface of this river now, as I walked alongside it.

The water did not flow. Flowers spotted the green pads, glistening like pearls. I looked up. The sky was blue, eternal blue. I felt a lightness, one I knew I did not deserve. I had been sad, felt the talons of despair digging into my heart. But now, here, under this sky, I felt peace.

Why?

I followed the river. It curved. Low hills appeared on the horizon, hills I knew well. A dip, like a saddle viewed from the side, or the yoke of an ox such as the Rus use.

I knew I should fear those hills, the pain which lived there, and yet I felt no fear.

There, on the other bank, across the river. A figure.

Dark, wearing a sky-blue deel, its white scarf lifted by the wind. Long dark hair flowed from beneath the red fox-fur hat on its head. Its face was obscure, heavy with shadow. And yet I knew who it was.

With a cry I ran to the edge of the water. The figure turned its head to watch me, but did not move from its place. A second appeared, half as tall, from behind the first. He wore purple and he, too, had a white scarf. His face was also in shadow.

Tears burned my eyes. I stepped into the river, no, onto it. The water was shallow? The green pads with their pink-white blooms extended even here to the water's edge. I stepped forward. No, not shallow. The water between the pads rippled. The river had accepted my weight.

I took another step and another. Even where the dark water peeped up from between the lotus pads I did not sink.

The two stood there, watching me. The shorter had taken the taller's hand.

"Wait!" I cried, reaching out my own. "Wait!"

I took another step, and another. Soon I was halfway across the river. The taller figure raised his free hand, the palm turned towards me.

"No," I whispered. "No, I cannot stop. Not now."

I stepped forward. Water splashed. The tip of my boot grew wet. Another step and my foot sank deeper this time. And yet the water still held me.

I bit my lip. I would try. I placed one foot before the other. With each step I sank deeper into the water. I sobbed with despair. No!

The water reached up to my shins. The river was wide. I would not reach the other side. The waters would suck me up, draw me down.

Was that such a bad thing? The water was dark, warm against my skin.

I looked across at the other bank. The shorter figure broke away from the taller, ran to the edge of the river.

I cried out, stumbled forward. The water sucked at me.

The smaller figure stopped. He placed both hands up, palms forward. He shook his head. I halted at once. That tiny figure had such power over me.

It came forward to the far bank and stepped upon the river. Just as I had, it did not sink. Its steps were quick, confident, and it was quickly beside me. I feared the darkness beneath its cap and kept my eyes on my feet, now half-submerged in the waters.

A hand, small, warm, covered my own. The touch slew me and at once hot tears flowed from my stinging eyes. Its other hand slipped into mine, something in its palm.

I looked up. The sun was blinding. I could not see his face, but I smelled his scent, knew and loved the touch of that gentle hand.

My son.

With a cry I went to embrace him, but his hands slid from mine. I stumbled forward, but the water drew up to my knees. The little figure walked away, across the river. I did not cry out to him. I understood. To cry out made no sense.

I watched him until he reached the far bank. His father was waiting for him there. I brought my hand over my eyes, but the light still blinded me. For a while I saw nothing more than their silhouettes. The sun seemed so close to the earth, as though it burned just this side of those beckoning hills. The sun dimmed, then, in answer to the prayer upon my heart, a cloud passing across it. I blinked away tears and saw at last the face of my son. His small upturned nose, the small dark eyes, the childlike mould of his father's face, that face I saw now too in the figure that stood hand in hand with him. My husband's long black hair, ever wild, his high cheekbones, eyes sharp like a hawk's. And the smile, the smile on both their faces! My heart rose up in joy and my spirit with it, high up into the eternal blue of the sky. Tears would not come.

Tengri. Here, in this bright, sunlit place beyond death.

My husband raised his hand. No longer a greeting. A farewell. My body grew heavy.

I knew I must leave. The dark of the river no longer seemed so warm, so inviting. I was not to linger here. This was a place for the dead, a place they lived on eternally. One day I would be here. One day I would cross this river and it would bear my weight, bear it since I would be made of spirit alone, having shed away my heavy flesh and the pain and weariness of a long life.

But not today.

I stepped backwards, my eyes lingering on the far bank. With each step the river grew more solid, lifting me up, and with very step the figures of my husband and son grew less distinct, like people viewed through a veil of smoke.

Soon the far bank was in darkness. Dry ground crunched beneath my boots. I turned my head, and there was shadow all around me. Where had the light gone all of a sudden?

The air about me was soft, warm, almost cloying. I struggled to move through it. No, not air. A blanket.

The scent of smoke. My own scent. His scent. My son....

No, not my son. My husband.

No, not him either. Their scent was a memory, a dream, a vision. The scent I smelled was another's.

I opened my eyes. Darkness replaced with the grey of the false dawn. I sat up.

My own ger. All a dream, or a vision. I pushed at the blankets wrapping me close. Something fell from my hand, rolled onto the blanket. I blinked at it.

A tsuur.

I brought my trembling fingers to it, touched the length. There, where the wood it had been carved from had held a knot. My son's tsuur, which had been my husband's. It could be no one else's.

I brought it to my breast, closed my stinging eyes as sobs wracked my body.

And then, clothed only in my underwear, I burst out through the flap and sprinted across the grey, frost-coated morning, the air as cold as the inside of a gem of ice, past the muttering goats, past the silent gers, to Houlun's.

I forgot myself. I said nothing as I pushed aside the flap and stepped inside.

Houlun rose, bare-breasted, her hair a great wild nest of black against the opulence of her blankets. She blinked at me, and then seeing me she smiled.

"Nikola?" My eyes fell to the shape beside Houlun, still covered. The shape stirred, raised its head. My heart stopped.

Dark hair half-veiled his face. The Khazar, Houlun's favourite.

I stared, dared not to hope. Houlun's smile became a grin and she lifted a hand. There, in the guest's half of the ger, another pile of blankets stirred. This time the face that appeared was pale, white like curdled milk, the lips red, the bleary eyes that opened blue, blue like the eternally beautiful sky of the steppes.

Nikola's lips parted and he had but uttered the first syllable of my name when I fell upon him, crushed him to me, kissed his face over and over while Houlun roared with laughter and the Khazar boy sat and stared and wondered at the madness that had gripped us all.

-------------------

I crouched beside the fire outside my ger, grimacing as another wave of nausea rolled over me. I stared at the ground, ready for the final rebellion of my stomach to heave its contents onto the ground, if in fact anything remained in there.

Nikola came, dragging Ordu with him. The healer lay his great, scarred hand on my shoulder.

"Nikola tells me you're feeling sick."

I nodded. I rose gingerly to my feet. By the blessing of Tengri the nausea did not return.

"Shall we go inside?" asked Ordu.

I shook my head. "The smell sickens me," I said. "The smell of meat."

"I will go get rid of the smell," said Nikola.

"Throw some dung on the fire as well," said Ordu. "It will clear the air."

Nikola disappeared through the flap and soon the upper windows of the ger opened up, one by one. Ordu examined me.

"Bad food," I muttered. "I have felt unwell the last few days, but it passed. This morning it has been terrible."

Ordu muttered. Nikola returned, took my hand and led me inside. The ger no longer smelled of meat and I lay down on the blankets while Ordu's cold hands examined my stomach.

"I am afraid I cannot help you," he said at last, sitting back. "This illness is beyond my skills as a healer."

I frowned. "A spirit?"

Ordu nodded. "Yes. There is a spirit inside you, perhaps more than one. That is the source of your illness."

I turned to Nikola hovering beside me, his face a mask of concern. "Nikola, go get Bukidai. Quick!"

Ordu took hold of the boy's arm. "Bukidai cannot help."

Nikola looked up at him. "So nothing can be done?" he whispered.

Ordu sighed and shook his head. "We must wait this illness out. You will need to patient, though, Falcon. But you should be free of it in around eight months. Then the spirit will leave your body. There will be some pain, but such is a mother's lot."

"A mother?" I repeated.

Slowly the truth of his words grew clear and I placed my hands on my stomach. Of course, how had I not realised?

"But I am too old, surely?"

Ordu laughed. "When a field is desirous to be planted, not even Tengri himself may stop it. You have missed your cycle, no doubt."

I blushed. "I thought... I thought the time of their ceasing had come."

Nikola looked from me to Ordu. "So the mistress will be well? After eight months, you said?"

Ordu laughed. He clapped the boy on the back with a resounding slap. "Ha! You may be as slender as a stand of bamboo and just as green, but boy, you have done well. There is a lion's soul in that narrow chest of yours, and that gold hair of yours is a mane."

Nikola blinked in confusion. "What have I done?"

"You are going to be a father," I said, throwing my arms around him and wetting his neck with kisses and tears. "And I am to be a mother again!"

The End

falcon's   under   the   wing  

Aug 12, 2018 in femdom

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