1.     Wedding Day

 

The day the Pack celebrated the wedding of Lord Renaldo, the Angel of Death, with his heart, Prince Castolus of Ummana, dawned in splendid glory. The sun’s rays cut through the chilly air like swords ripping an enemy’s body apart, and they transformed the snow into a sparkling carpet of diamonds.

Excited anticipation ruled over the huts, the stables, and the main building. Even the slaves were affected by the nervous energy permeating the morning.

In Frankus’s chambers, Casto stood in front of a huge, almost man-sized mirror and studied his body that, in only a few hours, would be scarred in the most barbaric way imaginable. Behind him, Frankus was busy arranging all kinds of oils and ointments on a table. While doing this, he kept rambling on in hushed tones.

“I explicitly told you to drink some wine so you could have a good night’s rest. But why listen to somebody who’s had as much experience with weddings as me? You had to brood the entire evening, as if today wasn’t the happiest in your life. You probably wanted to put my skills to the test, didn’t you?”

Completely unfazed by the scolding, Casto kept staring at himself in the mirror. Since he had fled from Ummana, his body had changed dramatically. During his year on the run, he’d still resembled a child, with the long, slender limbs of a newborn foal, though showing signs of his later build. After the Barbarian had taken him prisoner, the awkward adolescent body had transformed into a muscular, elegant weapon already forged in battle.

His skin was still as flawless and soft as back then, the studs in his flesh the only difference. Of course Frankus was right; he had seen better days, ones without those dark circles beneath his eyes that told of a night spent in useless musings. Then again, how often did one marry a god? If anything, those circles were well-earned.

Frankus pushed him away from the mirror, prying him from his useless pondering. “To the bath! You’ve got half an hour to clean yourself. Then we’ll see what I can make of this disaster.”

Without a word of protest, Casto obeyed Frankus, knowing that the man was probably even more nervous than Casto himself. The wedding was important in more than one respect, and Frankus was aware of all the implications that came with it.

The warm water managed to soothe Casto a little, and his thoughts went back to the day he fled from Ummana.

Most of his memories about that night were blurred because he had been so emotionally high-strung, not knowing what would become of him when he left the only home he’d ever known. The one thing he could remember clearly was the agitating mixture of wild triumph and utter fear swamping his senses as Lys galloped through the storm he had summoned.

At that time, Casto had been used to the feeling of being powerless. His father and Voltara, the torturer, had seen to that. While the gusts tugged at his cloak as if they wanted to tear him apart, Casto had experienced what it was like to control such powers through his connection with Lys. The ambiguity of those emotions left a deep impression on him, one that had influenced his actions more than he wanted to admit.

Now, too, he felt as if he were riding a storm, but this time he was alone, without Lysistratos to calm and protect him. And it wasn’t an escape either, or at least, not a proverbial one. It was a step—no, a leap—into a whole new life that would permanently sever him from his past. Perhaps it would even banish the demons still haunting him—or so Casto hoped.

At the end of that day, he would be the mate of a barbarian god from the North. This fact would shape and change everything Casto had ever been, his entire personality. His whole identity was going to be created anew, not by him, but by the people around him. By the way they looked at him. It hadn’t been easy becoming who he was, and Casto wondered whether he could make that change a second time. He was deeply afraid of losing himself to the Barbarian, of drowning in a different kind of helplessness.

Renaldo was just too much of everything, too intense—which was also the reason Casto loved him.

When he was honest with himself, all these thoughts were idle, an endless repetition of fears that he hoped to escape today. Becoming the mate of a man as overbearing and dominant as Renaldo would help him slay those demons from his past. Determined, Casto left the bath to let Frankus take care of him.

An hour later, Kalad and Aegid arrived to escort Casto to the main hall. The desert warriors were wearing identical clothes dyed in a vibrant dark green, their personal color. The seams of their shirts, as well as the jerkins, were embroidered with golden threads; their heavy coats and black boots were lined with otter fur. Both men had superb ceremonial swords tied to their hips and golden vambraces decorated with emeralds strapped to their arms. They bowed to Casto, and he was almost sure they meant it. With those two, one could never tell.

“You’re stunning, Casto.” Kalad’s voice was full of unrestrained admiration.

Casto wore dark blue silk trousers that caressed his body like a lover’s touch. His black boots, dyed blue at the seams, were made from mountain deer leather lined with rabbit fur. The cream-colored shirt and dark blue jerkin with golden embroidery told Renaldo’s story in the runes of the Ancients, and were also made of silk. Casto’s eyes, highlighted by kohl, looked almost innocent in this getup. His wheat-blond hair was tamed by a broad leather strap, and the ends dipped in gold dust made the light explode every time he moved.

The contrast between Casto’s stunning appearance and his contradictory character posed a deception Aegid deemed fitting on this important day. It emphasized how perfectly suited the young man was to become Renaldo’s mate.

“Just now I’m regretting we weren’t able to defeat Renaldo five years ago.” There was a hint of longing in Aegid’s voice.

“My words, brother.” Kalad grinned.

“Perhaps you want to rethink your decision, Casto? We would take good care of you.”

Only a few weeks ago, that saucy comment would have made Casto furious for two reasons: that he was regarded as a trophy, and the implication that back then he had chosen slavery freely. Luckily for Kalad, Casto had learned to see the words for what they were, a compliment wrapped in good-humored banter.

He bowed to them in mockery. “It would be my pleasure. But it would be your task to explain to a notoriously short-tempered and jealous god why the object of his desire has chosen to elope with two male hookers.”

The desert brothers made indignant faces.

“Uh, that hurt. Hookers? I’d call us sexually open-minded.” Kalad grinned when he said this, fully aware of his and Aegid’s reputation.

Casto snorted. Kalad’s and Aegid’s promiscuity was legendary within the Pack. “Please, when we first met, you were changing your bed partners so fast you didn’t even bother learning their names. You were worse than the Barbarian!”

“That’s not true—not entirely.” Kalad managed to let his voice sound hurt, although the twinkling in his eyes betrayed his amusement. “And since we’ve met Daran, we’re fidelity incarnated.”

“It’s the truth!” Aegid came to his brother’s aid. “The little thief is special in many ways. Ever since we got him, I haven’t longed for diversion.”

Casto rolled his eyes. He would never admit how much he enjoyed their relaxed bickering. Among all the warriors of the Pack, Kalad and Aegid came closest to what Casto would have wished for as brothers. “All right, I understand. You’re the embodiment of sexual fidelity and devotion. Nevertheless, I have to decline your generous offer. I’m fully occupied with one self-righteous Barbarian and have no intention of trading that for double trouble. It’s my pleasure to leave that honor to Daran.”

Kalad and Aegid started laughing out loud. Their amusement was like a breath of fresh air to Casto’s tense mood.

“Then we better get you to your barbarian while you’re still determined. I’ve no intention to chase you through the snow should you get cold feet.” Aegid sounded a little too serious for comfort.

“Those I already have. Why does it have to be so cold today?”

Casto hadn’t planned to start lamenting, but he still resented the cruel irony that made the days with the most radiant sunshine those where the cold was especially biting. It almost seemed as if nature itself was having a good laugh at his expense.

Aegid and Kalad nodded in silent agreement. Aegid grabbed Casto’s wrist. “Let’s go. The sooner we start moving, the sooner you’re in the main hall, and if nothing else, it’s warm there.”

Beaten by this valid argument, Casto followed them out into the cold.

 

 

The main hall was almost bursting at its seams. Every warrior in the Valley, as well as many of the slaves, were present to witness their god taking his mate.

When Aegid opened the gigantic doors, the excited murmuring from hundreds of voices was like a wall forcing Casto back a few steps. Then all noise died. The silence was so heavy, it made him wonder whether his heartbeat could be heard.

Aegid and Kalad left his side to take their seats next to the other Emeris at the far end of the hall.

Casto stood alone in the aisle. The stares from all the people almost hurt. All the expectations tied to his person threatened to weigh him down. He felt as trapped and chained as he had been in Ummana, confronted with a burden he was not ready to take on. If he started to run now, he could probably make it to the stables and Lys before anybody realized what he was doing. He could leave it all behind—

No. He had already tried that. There was no turning away from Renaldo, not anymore. Casto straightened up. He had come this far; backing out now would be even worse than staying. After all, this was no different from the official appearances he’d made in Ummana. He would neither shame himself nor the Barbarian.

At the end of the aisle, Renaldo and Canubis were waiting. They had gotten up from their wooden seats as a gesture of respect and were watching him expectantly.

Casto glimpsed the hunger in the features of his future husband, and everything besides Renaldo vanished from his sight. The Barbarian was breathtaking. His eerie perfection was enhanced by his dark blue ceremonial clothes.

Renaldo’s shirt was made of the finest silk, highlighting the outline of his muscular arms, broad shoulders, and chiseled abdominal muscles without being vulgar. The leather trousers hugged his slim hips, and the black boots enhanced his long legs. Renaldo’s only jewelry was a headband made from pure gold, formed like two wings holding a blue diamond between them. His eyes were smoldering, a mirror of the lethal fire blazing inside the demigod.

Casto was the only one who did not fear that fire. On the contrary, he loved it since it was so incredibly similar to his own.

Gravely he proceeded along the lines of warriors toward the two demigods, every inch a royal prince. When he reached them, he bowed. Only when Canubis and Renaldo had returned the formal gesture did Casto bend his knee to swear his fealty as a free warrior of the Pack.

“I plead my loyalty to you, Lord Canubis, and to you, Lord Renaldo, as my leaders and commanders. I swear to follow your orders and fight by your side until Ana-Isara claims me for the Green Lands.”

In return, Canubis and Renaldo promised to protect and help him whenever he needed their aid.

“We accept your pledge, Casto. We offer you the protection of the Pack and swear to look after you until your time has come to return to the Mothers.”

Once the words were spoken, the other warriors in the hall celebrated the pact they all had made with the Wolf of War and the Angel of Death with deafening applause. It was the pledge that bound them all as brothers and sisters under the sword.

After the cheering died away, Canubis approached Casto with a blade in his hands, the symbol for the alliance they had just made. The forbidding Wolf of War girded the sword around Casto’s hips. His voice was loud and clear. “Welcome to the Pack, Prince Castolus of Ummana. You are most welcome.”

The agitated hush following these words was proof that the brothers had kept Casto’s identity a secret until today. It was one of the oldest, most effective tricks in politics. Always stay one step ahead of friend and foe alike, and surprise them when they are least expecting it to demonstrate your superiority. Casto nodded at Canubis in silent recognition that was met by a conspiratorial wink. Then Canubis stepped aside to make room for his brother, who took his place next to Casto.

As a greeting, Renaldo pressed a kiss on Casto’s temple while he took his hands in his own. “You’re doing really well, my own.”

“I told you so. I’m used to presenting myself.”

Smiling, Renaldo rolled his eyes before he turned his attention to his brother. Canubis regarded the two men standing in front of him with affection. It was an emotion that seemed alien to the usually unrelenting man and showed how much he loved his younger brother.

When the Wolf of War started to speak, the people in the hall fell silent again. “Some hundred years ago, it was me standing in front of Renaldo, harboring the same love and probably the same fears in my heart. Yet it was the happiest day in my life, and I can still recall it as if it happened yesterday.”

He paused to give everyone a chance to recognize the importance of the moment. “I wish you, my brother, and you, Castolus, the same. That in a hundred or two hundred years’ time, even for the rest of your life, you will think of this day and it will be as crystal clear in front of your inner eye as if it had happened only yesterday. You are about to take your vows of fidelity and love, with phrases given to us by the Mothers themselves. May these vows see the end of time, unsullied by treason or hatred.”

Canubis took a silken cloth, dark blue and embroidered with golden runes, and wove it around Renaldo’s and Casto’s intertwined hands. Casto looked at Renaldo with a mixture of love and defiance when he started to recite the ancient vow.

“Ne, ana blod brester stratatos, renosor an treano net aremao te memoso net elendio, ana Renaldo muaro. Ne rono unemaso la na re anoso tare. No risuo, ne ledeto. Ne ratodio an no.”

I, the kindred of the wind, swear my undying love and fealty to my mate and god, Lord Renaldo, the Angel of Death. I will be your heart from now on until time itself will end. Your will shall be my command. I belong to you.

Casto was not too happy about the wording of the vows, but seeing the love igniting in Renaldo’s eyes made him bear them a little more easily.

“Ne, ana elendio muoro no Ana-Isara te Ana-Aruna, elendio da nort, paretao no adeso. Ne torinos memoso te aremao net uromeo da adoso an anas net permaso da unemaso. An anoso tere, no heloso da ne.”

I, Angel of Death to the Mothers, God of the North, accept your vow. I welcome you as my mate, and I swear to love and protect you as asked by the Mothers and as is befitting for my heart. Till the end of all time, you are mine to cherish.

Renaldo’s voice was clear and steady. He had waited all his life for this moment.

Canubis placed his hands on the ribbon between his brother and Casto.

“Ne, ana elendio remaro no Ana-Isara te Ana-Aruna, elendio da nort, tureano elene te irao asuendo. Ne torinos brester unemaso da riano.”

I, Wolf of War to the Mothers, God of the North, bless this union and recognize it as eternal. I welcome my brother’s heart to the family.

Heralded by the thunderous applause from their fellow warriors, Canubis took the ribbon away and hugged first Renaldo and then Casto before he turned back to the audience.

Renaldo raised a hand to get everybody’s attention and start the next part of the ceremony, the presenting of the gifts.

Casto took a deep breath and touched his mate’s arm. “May I have a word, my lord?”

Renaldo furrowed his brow in surprise, then nodded almost imperceptibly and retreated a few steps. The interruption wasn’t planned, but he doubted that even his capricious prince would ruin a moment like that.

For a few heartbeats, Casto contemplated the sea of faces in front of him before he turned to Renaldo, because what he had to say was mainly for him to hear. “As you all know, we didn’t have an easy start.”

Laughter erupted in the hall, accompanied by whistles and howling. Renaldo smiled lovingly at Casto, who went on.

“Neither of us is what you might call easygoing—” More comments from the crowd interrupted Casto, only this time he ignored them and kept on talking. “—which is why I’m still surprised that I’m standing here today. Truth be told, I’ve gotten used to our arguments, and no price in the world can tempt me into living even one day without your love. You gave me a home when I was without an anchor, you showed me consistency when all I knew was insecurity and doubt, and you loved me before I even knew I was able to feel so strongly myself. My life truly began when I met you, and I will always be grateful for that. To show my appreciation, I have prepared a gift for you.”

That was Kalad’s cue to hand Casto the box. Casto gave it to Renaldo, who regarded him with love and a hint of suspicion in his gray eyes. Even though the occasion did call for some pathos and a certain amount of subservience, Casto’s unusually tame statement had alerted Renaldo. Casto’s following words did nothing to ease his doubts.

“I do hope you are pleased with my gift, my lord.”

“I’m sure your gift will please me plenty.” Renaldo’s voice was soft, with a barely audible strain in it. He opened the lid.

His eyes widened. Silently he stared at the content of the box, his jaw muscles clenched visibly. When he looked up, the perfect, impenetrable mask he normally wore was gone. “You shame me, my mate.”

Casto smiled, satisfied. He enjoyed making the Barbarian uncomfortable in front of all his followers. It was a small revenge for all the things he’d made Casto endure since they met. “It is my gift for you, my lord.”

Behind Casto, Aegid and Daran brought the brazier. Kalad approached Casto to help him get out of his jerkin and shirt. Renaldo took the iron from the box and buried it under the glowing coals with a rushed gesture. His face betrayed nothing of his feelings.

When the assembled warriors realized what kind of gift Casto had chosen, they started applauding again. After what seemed like a small eternity to Casto, Canubis made a gesture and absolute silence ensued. Only the sizzling of the iron and the soft crackling of the coals were still audible.

With his chest naked, Casto knelt in front of his mate with his back to him and swiped his hair over one shoulder. Aegid and Kalad grabbed his upper arms. Renaldo took the iron out and exchanged a glance with the desert warriors, who tightened their grip around Casto’s arms so brutally he thought his bones would break any moment. In the audience, the mercenaries started hammering a dark, steadily increasing rhythm on their shields with the hilts of their swords.

Renaldo hesitated for one more moment, then pressed the glowing red iron between Casto’s shoulder blades. Casto tensed in agony. His body jerked forward, and a muffled whimper escaped his lips but was swallowed completely by the noise in the hall. Casto had known he was facing serious pain when he decided to make this move, but he hadn’t anticipated how bad it would be—worse than being whipped in public, a lot worse. Even the broken arm he’d had to endure at his father’s court could not come close to the white-hot agony flashing through his body, assaulting his nerve endings, and swamping all his senses with the burning desire to scream and somehow escape the pain. If it hadn’t been for the audience and his own unbreakable pride, Casto would have given in. But he would not scream, not in front of so many witnesses, not after he had forced Renaldo’s hand to get his way. And so he gritted his teeth until he thought they would crack and imagined how good his triumph would feel once the pain subsided.

Mere agonizing moments that felt like a lifetime later, Renaldo tossed the iron aside and helped Casto to his feet and refastened his garments, surreptitiously wiping away the involuntary tears. The warriors started cheering again as Renaldo kissed him.

His voice was raw, only audible to the young man who was still shivering from the pain he had just endured. “We’re going to talk this out later, O husband mine.”

Casto’s answer was equally challenging. “I’m counting on it, my lord.”

Renaldo turned to the mercenaries. “Since my precious mate has gifted me so generously, I can only hope my presents for him are equally suitable.”

He waved his hand imperiously, at which the great doors swung open and row after row of slaves started carrying heavy wooden trunks into the hall, the lids open so everybody could see the contents. First came twenty chests with clothes: silk and linen, velvet and exquisite leather, everything of the finest quality, all dyed in the dark blue color that was Renaldo’s own. After the clothes had been carried outside again, twenty more chests were brought in, filled with gold and gems; expensive, intricately crafted wine cups; cloak pins, rings, sumptuous necklaces, and other jewelry. Another twenty trunks followed, and those were filled with books, each bound in leather with golden lettering on the cover. Then the slaves brought a complete set of war equipment: several swords, daggers in various lengths, bows and arbalests, an array of spears, chain mail, leather jerkins, and solid leather boots.

These unbelievable riches were followed by forty slaves and twenty of the best horses Renaldo owned, each with its own saddle, bridle, and several blankets.

Lysistratos was the last to enter the hall. His majestic appearance was highlighted by the gifts Renaldo had bestowed on him. The stallion wore a saddle made of dark blue chamois leather, one of the rarest and finest in the world. His bridle was of the same material; the headband was pure gold studded with three blue diamonds. The saddle fittings were gold too, and the stirrups were ornamented with lapis lazuli.

Speechless, Casto took in all the riches spread in front of him. The Barbarian had just made him one of the wealthiest men in the Pack, announcing his status with the highest impact possible. The assembled warriors felt it as well, for the looks they gave Casto were no longer just admiring. Now they carried a kind of awe that would soon turn into the respect Casto deserved as the mate of their god.

For once truly overwhelmed by Renaldo’s generosity, Casto knelt in front of him, the gesture less graceful than usual due to the pain in his back. “You’re the one shaming me, my lord. You’re spoiling me.”

Renaldo helped him up, genuinely pleased with this honest reaction. “I’m only giving you what is rightfully yours, my own.” He smiled radiantly.

“I think it’s time to declare the feast officially opened.” With his arms stretched wide, he turned to his brothers-in-arms. “Let’s celebrate!”