Author’s Note: In Icelandic folklore, there are many tales of huldufolk—the hidden people. One tells of ljuflingur, huldumen known to seduce and impregnate human women (‘ljuflingur’ means ‘beloved’ in Icelandic).
Many thanks to mac ropis for the thoughtful comments, spelling/grammar check, and insightful questions! Volunteer Editors are the best idea since oral sex.
The knife in Eirik’s right boot chafed painfully against his shin, but he did not dare pause to shift it. He could barely keep up with his sister, and he knew Alfdis would not wait if he slowed. His little sister was fleet-footed and confident on the slippery mix of mud and snow that covered the ground. She knew the path better than he, if it even was a path that she followed so quickly in the night. The girl could see in the damn dark.
Alfdis reached the waterfall’s rocky entrance and began to climb. If she slowed at all, Eirik could not tell. He swallowed a sudden wave of forbidding and jogged up after her. His sister might have clever feet, but he knew desperation when he saw it. The rocks were too slippery in the sheeting mist, the night too dark under the clouds. Her pace was madness.
The distance between them lengthened. Eirik cursed and dropped closer to the ground, using both hands to crawl spider-like across the treacherous rocks. By the time he slid down to the path that led behind the falls, Alfdis had vanished.
He rolled to his feet and raced after her. Calling for her to wait would only have wasted his breath. The basalt stacks that formed the vast cliff wall stretched into deep shadow to his right; to his left beat the plunging falls. Sheets of colorless mist wafted across his path, and he tugged the fur of his hood forward to keep the water from his eyes.
As he emerged on the other side of the waterfall, he caught sight of Alfdis again. She had left the path, which curved gently to the left, to clamber up the steep rocks that adjoined the cliff face.
Eirik roared. “Alfdis!”
The girl twisted and her boot skid, sending down a shower of small pebbles. She gasped and, finding purchase with a grasping hand, regained her balance. “Go back,” she cried.
Eirik ignored that, leaping up to confront her. She scrambled back out of his reach, hissing.
“Are you mad?” he exclaimed. Did the mad ever know their own madness? Alfdis looked wildly fey, holding on to the mountainside with one hand, the other tangled in her muddy skirts, and one golden plait escaping its weave. Her slender face was set, her blue gaze sharp.
Sharp, but sane.
Eirik growled. It didn’t matter if the girl thought she knew herself. She was fifteen and only half huldu, and her sense of the hidden paths was stunted. He reined in his temper with some effort. Directing battle crazed warriors could not be easier than handling his little sister.
“Alfdis,” he repeated firmly, but without accusation. “You have to calm yourself. You’ll get where you’re going no faster if you slip on the ice and fall to your death.” He kept his words measured and his tone reassuring. “I want to help. Please, tell me where you are headed, what you must do.”
Pale brows quirked. “You would help me, priest’s son?” The mockery was fond and bitter at once.
Eirik captured her gaze with his own. He stared hard at her for a long moment, then spoke without relinquishing her eyes. “I would, little sister.” He kept his words level and calm. “If you let me help, I promise not to stop you.” That was right; make it a deal. Children and huldufolk loved bargains, and Alfdis was half of both. Eirik bit his tongue to keep it from telling her he feared for her safety. Alfdis’s pride was a giant shield of thorns.
Still, she hesitated. “It’s more dangerous for you than me,” she began, but the words trailed off as Eirik slowly pulled himself up towards her, and when he extended a strong hand, she took it.
Eirik gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Where are we going?” It started to rain, water and ice.
Alfdis shot him a guilty frown. “I’m not sure.”
Eirik knew better than to erupt at that. He swallowed his anger at her recklessness and waited her out.
“I am… called,” she murmured finally. “To the paths. I can sense the need, and something in me wants to help. A birth, maybe. Or a death. I… I think if I’d been taught, I could feel it clearer.” Frustration burned in her soft words, but it was not aimed at Eirik. It was not aimed at their mother, nor at her vanished father and his clandestine huldufolk brethren, who would in theory have done the teaching. No, all blame went to the priest, as Alfdis had referred to him since she had started talking in full sentences at eleven months old.
Eirik winced as a sudden blast of wind blew ice flakes into his face. Unwilling to give up his grip on Alfdis, he rubbed his eyes clear with the hand that should be securing him to the frozen rock face. He cut straight to the heart of the matter. “And you feel that the way lies at the top of the falls?”
Alfdis nodded with certainty. “I thought I was headed to the waterfall, at first,” she said. “But then the pull brought me behind it, and up this way.”
Without warning, she bent over sharply, gasping and tightening her grip on Eirik into a painful vise.
“Alfdis?” Eirik asked in alarm, but the spasm was over as quickly as it started. His sister straightened, her face pale.
“The call,” she breathed.
“I felt nothing,” Eirik ventured, but fell silent under the weight of his younger sister’s scornful gaze. The beginnings of fury with the huldufolk who had spawned and then abandoned a beautiful child, only to subject her to unquenchable thirsts, stirred deep in his gut. “How,” he tried again, “can they give you a summons, but no directions?”
Alfdis shrugged angrily. “It’s not their fault I’m too stupid to understand.”
“You are not stupid,” Eirik shot back automatically.
“Not as stupid as he is,” said a voice from above them.
Eirik surged forward to place himself between Alfdis and the unseen source of the voice. Bodiless laughter filled the night.
“Ugly,” Alfdis exclaimed in relief. Eirik spared her a puzzled frown, but stayed at full alert, one ax falling from his belt into his hand as he scanned the rocks above them.
“Oh yes, you’re much smarter than he is,” the voice gloated. It sounded more solid, suddenly, deeper and with a hint of gravel. Eirik squinted into the darkness, expecting a figure to coalesce directly before them.
“Eirik,” Alfdis said in a strange voice. “Can’t you see it?”
“It?” the voice echoed in outrage.
“Obviously not,” Eirik grated back the clipped words. “Where is it?”
A rock toppled off the cliff face to glance off his right shoulder before spinning off into the darkness below.
“Ugly!” Alfdis exclaimed, clambering nimbly around him. “You stop that right now!”
“Not an it,” the voice grumbled. It sounded petulant, now, like a small boy’s. “I am a man.” Only the last, emphasized word fell to a pitch that might actually be produced by a grown man.
“Show yourself, then, if you would claim manhood,” Eirik growled.
Alfdis tossed her head in exasperation. “It’s not his fault you can’t see him, priest’s son. Come on, Ugly will show us the way.” Her spirits seemed to lift along with her confidence. “I’ve done this before.”
Eirik had to struggle again to keep up with her swift ascent. Steps seemed to have formed abruptly, where before there were none. The climb was far from easy, though; it was still steep, wet, and dark. The icy rain was soon overwhelmed by the spray of the falls drumming to their right. “He’s mad I can’t see him, but you get to call him ugly?” He glanced behind himself, and swallowed hard. There was no sign of the path leading down the way they’d come. The rocks swallowed it back up on his heels.
Eirik understood, then, that the voice came from the mountainside itself, and that he walked across the features of a hill troll.
“Yes,” Alfdis threw over her shoulder, sounding almost happy. “Hill trolls can’t abide blind flattery, which is mostly what they get from those come to spy out the hidden ways.”
“We’re on a hidden path?” Eirik forced himself to ask.
Alfdis paused long enough to shoot him a puzzled glance.
“I told you he was stupid,” the rocks said smugly.
“But nothing changed,” Eirik protested. “We’re still where we were. The falls, the night—everything is the same.” As they ascended, the waterfall sounded less like thunder and more like rushing wind, but this, too, was familiar.
“He keeps thinking like that, and he’ll be dead before dawn.”
Eirik growled. “Tell your ugly friend I can hear him.”
Alfdis grunted, and leapt for the top of the cliff. The rocks beneath her feet seemed to rise and push her over. She disappeared for half a second, and then her head peaked out over the edge. She panted lightly. “Ignore him,” she advised. “And be thankful he let you follow.”
It vexed Eirik to be indebted to one who scorned him so openly, but he reminded himself that he considered pride an unattractive trait. “Thank you, path maker,” he said, somewhat stiffly, and vaulted himself up unaided, to join Alfdis at the summit of the rocky trail.
The voice trailed after him, no more than a whisper. “You are welcome, stupid.”
Eirik grimaced. “At least he spoke to me.” That felt like a triumph.
Alfdis rolled her eyes. “Men! Come on.” She turned and hoisted her cloak and skirts above the mud of the bank to slosh upriver. The waters were deceptively calm, though the falls roared in warning just a leap away.
“How much further?” Eirik dared ask.
“I don’t know,” came the expected answer.
They were running, again. The rain had passed, and with it the heaviest of the clouds. Low on the western horizon, the moon struggled to shine through layers of filmy haze, touching the land with the barest hint of silvery light. The ground hardened into lumpy rock, slippery moss, and thick veins of black ash. This unforgiving mix stretch away from the river as far as Eirik could see, broken only by scattered patches of never-melting snow. Out of habit, he scanned the limits of the darkness as they ran.
Twice, Alfdis stopped to crouch and hug her knees as the summons pulsed through her. When she rose the second time, she tightened her grip on Eirik’s arms as he tried to pull away, expecting her to run on. Panic flitted across her features.
“Not that way,” she gasped.
Eirik frowned. “Are you sure?”
Alfdis spun in a full circle, as if disoriented. “Yes,” she said finally. “Yes, I’m sure.” She pointed across the frozen wasteland. “The pull comes from there.”
Eirik stared. “There’s nothing there. You can see yourself. It’s empty moss and ash and snow, for miles.”
He was unsurprised when Alfdis plunged towards empty moss and ash and snow. With a curse, he followed.
His eyes picked out the marker stones before Alfdis’s; her sight might be better, but he was looking. “There!” he cried. “Cairn ahead!” Alfdis angled towards it, her hood falling back to let her long golden waves swing free in her wake.
The pyramid stood only as high as Eirik’s knee, nearly swallowed up by the fractured landscape. It was composed entirely of carefully stacked black stones. His sister stuttered to a halt before it.
Eirik joined her, most of his body drenched in sweat, though his exposed nose and cheeks burned in the bitter cold. He opened his mouth to tell Alfdis to replace her hood.
“Take my hand,” she said before the words could leave his tongue. She stuck a slim white hand out of her furs.
Eirik obeyed warily. “Do the stones mark a hidden way?”
“Yes and no,” Alfdis answered. “On the hidden paths, where we now walk, they mark a meeting of the ways. A gate.” She raised wide blue eyes to meet his. “A gate with more than one entrance and exit.”
Eirik swallowed and tightened his grip on her hand. “Do they talk?”
The corners of Alfdis’s mouth twitched upwards. “No, a cairn is not a troll.”
Thank the night for small blessings. “How to we know where to go?”
In answer, Alfdis let her eyes fall gently closed, stilling her face. Eirik kept one eye on her and on the other trained on the surrounding night.
The world repainted itself around them. There was no lurch, no dizzying flight, no sensation of movement, at all. The shape of the darkness around them—black dust, bloated lumps of moss-covered lava rocks, shadowed splotches of snow—was wiped away, like colors doused in water, to reveal a new world. The only constants were Eirik and Alfdis, the pile of rocks, and the cold night.
Alfdis opened her eyes in wonder. “I did it,” she whispered.
They were on a black stone beach. Eirik took a step and slipped as his boot encountered slick pebbles instead of hard earth. He stumbled and caught himself, cursing. The ocean rose in a familiar, ominous form.
“Wave!” Eirik yelled, and grabbed Alfdis, crushing her to his chest as he anchored himself to the ground, tightened every muscle in his body, and held his breath.
The icy water crashed over them. Alfdis shrieked, but they withstood both the impact and the swift, relentless pull back out to sea. As the waters retreated, Eirik shook his dripping head roughly and yanked Alfdis away from the shoreline. “Come on,” he urged, “the next one’s building already.” Salt prickled on his lips and burned his eyes.
Alfdis stumbled after him and the next wave fell harmlessly in their wake; foam surged around their boots. Eirik paused just beyond the water’s reach to catch his breath.
“I’m soaked!” Alfdis wailed. “Who on earth thought this would be a good place to put a gate?”
“Who goes blindly through the hidden gates?” a stern voice demanded from behind them.
Eirik whirled. A tall, slender form was silhouetted in a gap between the surrounding rocks. In the darkness, he could not make out the man’s features, but his voice had an authoritative ring.
Alfdis gulped at his side. “It,” she stuttered, “it is I, Alfdis Halkellsdottir. I come as called.”
There was a long silence. Eirik unobtrusively shifted his stance and let both hands hover around his ax hilts.
“Do you also,” the tall man asked finally, “answer to Alfdis Sigridursdottir?”
“I do,” Alfdis confirmed without hesitation, her voice ringing proudly.
There was another, shorter hesitation, and then the man tendered a slight bow. “My deepest apologies… Halkellsdottir. I did not intend… you to hear the summons. Nor did I suppose you would have learned to follow the gates. I fault the strength of the pull. Your forgiveness.”
“She might have drowned,” Eirik exclaimed angrily, ignoring the horrified glare his sister fixed on him.
The man walked forward slowly, emerging into the moonlight as platinum haired and fine featured. Wrinkles touched the corners of his eyes, but the eyes themselves looked ageless, luminescent, dark silver. His otherworldly beauty was marred by the arrogant twist of his lips. “Who is your manservant, Alfdis?”
“He’s not my servant,” Alfdis told the stranger nervously. “He’s my brother. My—my half brother.” She shot Eirik a scalding look, as if this were his fault.
One elegant white brow lifted. “So,” the man said. He turned to consider Eirik with his piercing silver gaze. “You are the priest’s son?”
Eirik straightened to his full height, which matched that of the older hulduman—for he could be nothing else. “I am Eirik Audunsson,” he said boldly. “My father is a Christian priest of the Ice Island, and my uncle is Thorgeir Thorkelsson Ljosvetningagothi, Lawspeaker of the Island.”
“A fearsome lineage, young Eirik,” the hulduman told him gravely. “But not one that will aid you now. Our world is forbidden to men. I risk much, allowing little Alfdis passage, but it seems to me now that she has come too far on her own for certain lessons to be safely neglected. Once, perhaps…”
“Why the summons?” Alfdis interrupted. “Is it a birth?”
The man turned his solemn gaze on the girl. “No, Alfdis. It will be an execution. First a trial, of course, but there’s little doubt, now. Even with the Prince missing. It is the opening gamble of a long war, we fear, and so the families call their own to them.”
“I’m not leaving her alone in a war,” Eirik said firmly.
Silver eyes blinked slowly, and then the world was wiped away.
Eirik drew his axes before their new surroundings had solidified. He leapt deftly around the tall hulduman and balanced one blade against his collarbone. “Alfdis,” he said tightly. “Where is she?”
The man stiffened, then released a low chuckle. “So you have your mother’s ferocity, Eirik, as well as her sunny looks.” He held up a hand. “Peace! I would not hurt you, boy.”
“I’m holding the ax to your throat,” Eirik reminded him.
“Spoken like a priest’s son,” the man murmured. “Alfdis is safely where we left her, on the beach. I will return to her immediately.”
“I’m going with you.”
“No,” was the cool reply. “You are not. The hidden paths are no place for human blood, and I cannot guarantee your safety.”
“I can take care of myself.” Eirik would have released his death hold, but he feared the man would vanish as soon as he did. “If it’s not safe for me, it’s certainly not safe for Alfdis.”
“The world is not safe for little Alfdis,” the man countered calmly. “Humans and huldufolk alike will fear and envy her ability to pass between and draw on the strengths of two worlds.” He sighed heavily in Eirik’s embrace. “Two worlds, equally cruel.”
“I can protect her.” Eirik forced more certainty into the words than he truly felt. “Let her return with me.”
The man shook his head slowly, tugging fine platinum hair from Eirik’s hold. “The dangers of our world, she must learn to navigate from the huldufolk. I promise you, no harm will come to her tonight. It will be a long war, as I said, and the night’s only death has already been decided.”
Eirik withdrew his axes and stepped around to face the slender hulduman. “Before the trial.”
“Even so. The families gather to watch a killing.”
“I don’t like it,” he said bluntly. “You’re right. Alfdis’s knowledge of the paths already far outstrips my own. But I do not trust you.”
An expression reminiscent of pain flickered across the older man’s face. “A Christian priest’s wisdom, my boy. I will not try and persuade you otherwise. I can only promise to do my best to deliver Alfdis back to you before the day is through, and that I will protect her life with my own.”
The damn elf sounded sincere. Eirik held his gaze for a long moment, then asked, “Who are you?”
The man’s smile was brittle, cold, and beautiful.
“I am called Halkell.”
Then he was gone.
Eirik cursed and slammed his axes back into his belt. He looked around. The eastern sky was just beginning to lighten. With a dull shock, he realized he knew where he was. In the next second, he wondered what he would have done if he hadn’t recognized his surroundings, and in the next, it occurred to him that he had no idea whether he had been dumped all the way back into his world, or if he still trod a hidden path. That the trek home would take well over an hour only made his mood viler.
Alfdis had better survive the day, because he was going to strangle her himself.
It was in this black temper that Eirik tripped over the boy. Literally. One instant he was slogging towards the distant, jagged rise of glacier striped mountain, the only life for miles in every direction, and in the next instant the ground moved. With a yell, Eirik jumped to the side to avoid stepping on the body. He landed in ankle deep mud, slipped, and just barely managed to throw his weight forward to avoid falling onto his back. He spun and stared.
Had he imagined the movement? The prone body was still as death, half hidden under the light dusting of recent snow. Eirik approached warily and prodded one shoulder with his boot. There was no response.
He crouched down beside the boy and reevaluated his age estimate upwards. The young man was slender, and unconsciousness lent his ethereal features a childlike innocence. His skin was almost of a color with the snow, whether by birth or by death, Eirik couldn’t say. His head lolled as Eirik carefully brushed aside fine strands of long black hair to press two fingers under his chin, feeling for a pulse.
The voice was a hiss. Eirik whirled as he leapt to his feet, axes falling into his hands. His pent up anger from the night’s misadventures made him crave a good fight, and the dead boy didn’t seem like he’d make a satisfying opponent. Eirik transferred his rage to whomever had dared sneak up on him.
It was a little girl.
Eirik gaped, his axes sagging. No older than eight or nine, she stood brazenly before him with a hand on either hip, bringing to mind a black candle with her cloud of silver blonde curls above long, velvety black robes.
“I said away!” she repeated imperiously.
“I told you someone would see him.” This came from behind Eirik, who spun and found himself staring at a little boy, of an age with the girl and in the same draping black velvet, though his dark hair was twisted up into a warrior’s knot. Eirik planted his feet by the young man’s head so that he could keep an eye on both children.
“Is this a hidden path?” he demanded.
The boy shook his head disgustedly. “See, even he knows you’ve no power over him here, in his world.”
Eirik took that as a ‘no’, but the girl didn’t seem to agree. She scowled and shoved curling wisps of silver from her eyes. “I have power everywhere,” she said shrilly. She stuck out a skinny arm, palm open and facing up, and crowed as an ugly looking dagger materialized in her hand. She shot the boy a triumphant look. “It’s like we were told. We kill him here, in their world, and his people will feel it too late to save him.”
“Kill whom?” Eirik interjected.
“We’ve no quarrel with you, mansspawn,” the boy said calmly. “Just move away from the pretty lad.”
“You can watch us kill him, if you like,” the girl offered generously.
It was the wrong thing to say. Eirik felt his lips curl into an unpleasant smile. “I don’t think I will.” Children might not have been his top choice for fighting opponents, but these two were making it very easy for him not to think of them as children, at all. They were fey, through and through, from their velvet to their magic to their careless cruelty. “Move, that is. I think I won’t let you kill him.” He said it like he would say, ‘I think I’ll have the cod instead of the capelin.’
Twin sets of ebony eyes fixed themselves on him. Eirik almost took a step back. Almost. Instead, he deftly unclasped and shook the weight of his cloak off his shoulders. He crouched low, axes held out and steady.
A feral smile crept across the girl’s face. “You want to play!” she exclaimed merrily.
The boy frowned. “This is unwise,” he warned. “The lad is more than half dead, already. Will you throw away your life for nothing?”
Eirik matched the girl’s smile. “I said nothing about throwing away my life. The girl has the right of it. I want to play.” A small part of his brain knew it was foolishness. He had no idea what the two child-beings were capable of, and he somehow doubted their confidence was mere baseless swagger. But in that instant, all he knew were the heat of his own anger and the fact that if he left them with the fallen young man, they would kill him where he lay, unconscious and helpless.
With that fear in mind, Eirik decided to establish himself as a serious threat sooner rather than later, so that he could maybe draw them away from the body. He locked eyes with the girl and took a step towards her. Before his boot hit the ground, he had sent one ax slicing through the air towards the boy.
He drew his sheath knife before registering whether the boy had managed to dodge. Even as he heard his ax clatter harmlessly against some rocks, the little girl flew at him, her long dagger raised high. Eirik blocked her thrust with his remaining ax and stabbed at the same time towards her face. She twisted away at the last second, though, and pranced back with a wild giggle. Eirik spun just in time to jump over the wide, swinging blow the boy aimed at his shins. The boy’s dagger was longer and thinner than the girl’s, but with the same jagged claws cut into the blade.
The little demons were fast. They fought with a frenzied wildness, hollering battle cries as they flitted around Eirik’s guard, twin swooping swathes of black with deadly flashing blades.
Eirik let his rage unfurl to mirror theirs. He needed to be faster, as there was only one of him. If they were quick, though, the children did not seem unusually strong, and they did not fight as a team. Again and again, Eirik beat back their onslaughts unblooded.
The boy, he determined, was the better fighter. The girl had unnatural speed and a maniacal energy, but there was an erratic overconfidence to the way she hacked at Eirik with her evil weapon. The next time Eirik drove the boy back, he cut his follow through abruptly short and lunged at the girl before she was expecting his attack. She skipped backwards, raising her dagger.
Eirik used his ax to catch the dagger mid swing and force its momentum to continue until the girl was forced to abandon her weapon or overbalance. She shrieked and gripped the blade with both hands, letting her entire weight drag. Eirik lifted her easily, swinging her forward and onto his knife. The blade impaled her through the heart. Eirik drove it in to the hilt, then wrenched both knife and ax free. The small body tumbled down, vanishing before it hit the ground.
With a grunt, Eirik turned to finish the boy—and found him racing back towards the snow covered body of the young man. The child lifted his long blade as he ran.
“No!” Eirik cried out.
The boy was too fast. There was no way Eirik could reach him before he made it to the unconscious man. A desperate growl started deep in Eirik’s belly, swelling up through his chest and ripping from his throat as a thunderous if rather puerile, “Mine!” He centered himself and took aim.
The darting boy fell just before he reached his target, a knife embedded in his back and an ax in his skull. By the time Eirik dashed to the spot, his body had disappeared. The jagged dagger remained, glinting ominously in the dawn. Eirik kicked it to the side and knelt by the motionless young man.
“Are you dead?” he muttered. In the space of a heartbeat, the clean fury of battle gave way to a much less pleasant frustration. He jabbed two fingers against the young man’s neck, harder than necessary, and was only mildly relieved to detect a fluttering pulse. He was too cold.
More gently, Eirik brushed the snow from the man’s head and shoulders. He started to gather him into his arms, then paused and stood to go back for his cloak, axes, and the weapons abandoned by the dead children, or whatever they had been. Eirik shoved both daggers into his belt with his axes, and then used the cloak to wrap around the young man. He lifted him easily, cradling him like a baby.
Then he hesitated, unsure of where to go. The closest village was an hour away, even if he ran as much of the way as possible, which wouldn’t be significant with the dead weight he carried. The man needed warmth, and sooner than that.
He made his decision. Hefting the body, he turned and walked southeast, away from the villages and towards the glimmering gold horizon. There was a small thermal pool very close by. It was no more than a hole filled with water, but the rocks were hot, there, and they heated the water to pleasantly scalding no matter what the weather. Blankets and a fire could do no better.
Eirik knew these lands well, and strode purposefully through the desolate winter dawn. He took the most direct route, even when this meant trudging along lanes of mud or up and down knolls and hummocks. He avoided snow, which would slow him if it proved deeper than it looked. The stepping stones across the low stream gave him pause, but he slipped only once, and did not drop his burden. Light spread slowly, but the clouds had rolled in again, and he could no longer make out the sun.
The man stirred in his arms as they approached the pool. “N—no,” he whimpered.
Eirik jostled him lightly. “Stay still,” he warned. “You’re safe.” He did not stop, and they made it to the stacked rocks that fenced off one rounding corner of the hot pool. The waters steamed, giving off the faint scent of sulfur and other minerals. He circled the rocks and propped the man in his cloak up against them. Exertion had covered Eirik in a sheen of sweat, and he shivered as the cold air blew across his cheeks, neck, and too thin shirt.
The young man slit his eyes open. They were a crystalline silver, so pale as to look almost white, but bright with the life that the rest of him seemed to have forsaken. Eirik’s heart thudded uncomfortably. Those dazzling eyes were not natural.
A fit of coughing shut both eyes tight again, and Eirik recalled that unnatural or not, the boy was on the brink of freezing to death. He turned on his most persuasive calm, and spoke quickly. “I found you in the snow. You’re more frozen than not, and we need to get you into the hot water. Okay?”
It was a gamble, asking for cooperation, but Eirik figured he could always overpower the fool if he thought to resist his rescue. But the man managed to jerk his head in assent, and he moved stiffly to allow Eirik to unwrap his own cloak. His hands moved towards the ties of his shirt, but Eirik pushed them gently out of the way and undid the knots himself. The material was a dark blue, roughly splotched like granite; it opened to reveal a soft white undergarment which Eirik lifted carefully over the man’s head. His boots, soft deerskin, slipped off easily. Eirik helped him to stand, concerned that he didn’t shiver; bare-chested, with ice still clinging to the hair that fell to his waist, the young man stood motionless. Last came trousers of the same blue cloth as the shirt, and a final, looser white under-layer.
Through it all, the boy remained mute. From the fineness of his clothes and his apparent lack of discomfort at being undressed by someone else, Eirik guessed he might be wealthy, and accustomed to servants.
Eirik knelt by the pool and helped the young man into the steaming water. The first steps always burned slightly, and sudden warmth could deeply pain flesh numb with cold, but the boy still made no sound. He slipped into the pool as if in a daze, settling against the hot rocks. His eyes drooped shut. The water came up to his armpits, and his long hair floated in a fan around him.
Eirik stood shivering in the frigid air for only half a moment before he stripped down and joined the naked stranger. The water was hot and wonderful.
“Wet your head,” he instructed, splashing water onto his own head. “It will keep your body’s heat from escaping.”
The boy sank obediently underwater. When he rose, sparkling beads of water gathered above his lips and clung to his dark lashes. Eirik watched him through the mist of his own breath. Standing, the water came only to his slender waist. His long black hair stuck to the length of his back. His eyes, as he opened them, were silver, soft and brilliant.
“You’re beautiful,” Eirik breathed. He’d had his suspicions, but they hardened, now. “Ljuflingur,” he accused throatily. Beloved, in the hidden tongue. Among his people, it was a curse hurled at lovers with false motives. It meant mischief, seduction, betrayal.
The boy did not deny it. He sank back, letting the water cover his shoulders. He stared back at Eirik with lidded eyes.
“You stay away from my sisters,” Eirik demanded huskily, drawing himself up to his full height, into the frozen air. “Evja’s happily married with a daughter of her own, and Alfdis is just a child, you hear?”
The light in the young man’s eyes dimmed, but he did not shy away from Eirik’s sudden hostility. He gazed at him expressionlessly, and then finally said, “I do not know your sisters, and have no intention of touching them.”
Eirik flushed. He made himself sit back, but was suddenly too warm. Shame crept over him. What had he been thinking, yelling at the boy?
He’d been thinking of Alfdis, of course. Of Alfdis, and of Halkell.
“I’m sorry,” he offered awkwardly. “My mother—”
“It’s fine,” the young man interrupted, equally stiffly. “Thank you for saving my life.”
Eirik grinned at him. “So now the hardest things to say are said. I’m Eirik.”
The boy hesitated, then gave him a tentative smile. “You can call me Kaer.”
“I can call you?” Eirik repeated wryly. “I’d rather have your real name.”
The boy’s smile turned bitter. “I have many, most of which would have killed me today, if it hadn’t been for you.” He cocked one elegant ebony brow. “You could just call me Ljuflingur. I think I’d like to hear you say ‘beloved’ again.”
Arrogant little shit. “Okay, Kaer,” Eirik gave in with a shrug. “If you won’t tell me your real name, will you at least tell me why you were doing your best to freeze to death before a couple of child demons hacked you to pieces?”
Kaer jerked to his feet. “Child demons?” he asked in alarm.
“Relax.” Eirik chuckled. “They disappeared when I killed them.”
Kaer sat back down, astonishment blanking his features and revealing the same unguarded beauty that oblivion had. “You killed them? By yourself?”
Eirik wasn’t sure if he should be flattered or insulted. “My axes helped. Why did they want to kill you?”
Kaer traced idle circles on the surface of the water. “They’re not really children.”
“I figured that out.”
“They imitate the forms of beings from your world. Subjects seldom survive the imitation, and some resist. A child’s resistance is dealt with most easily.”
Eirik blanched. “So they were once children?” He thought of his ax wedged deeply into the boy’s skull, and felt sick.
Kaer shook his head. “They are monsters. What you killed were imitations, not corpses.” He sighed. “They are flighty and ruthless, but they have a mile-wide cruel streak that makes them natural killers. They would have been hired to risk the trip to your world and make sure the job was finished.”
“By…” Eirik prompted.
Kaer shrugged. “One of the families. A war is coming, and my death would be a blow to my own. It could have been any one of them.”
Eirik scowled. “A war is coming! You elves take no responsibility. In my world, we say ‘this clan is stealing our livestock, and we will go to war to stop them’, or ‘the Law Speaker ruled against me, so I must go to war to defend my honor’.” Men go to war, Kaer. I don’t understand this talk of war coming on its own, like an uninvited guest.”
Kaer considered it gravely. “I don’t know what you consider wars,” he said finally. “But in my world, they make men act like something other than men. Perhaps it is because of the monsters whose aid we clamor after during such times. War brings atrocities, massacres, and evil. These are not things of men in times of peace.”
Eirik looked away from the boy’s shining pale gaze. “If it’s so awful, why do you talk like it’s unavoidable?”
“Because it is.” Kaer’s words were cool. “You should warn your family.”
Eirik reached across the small pool and grabbed the hulduman, digging his fingers into the smooth flesh of his arm. “My family,” he grated, his voice deadly quiet, “is not to be involved.”
Kaer met his eyes and Eirik felt a sharp jolt as the tension between them sprang suddenly higher. “That was not a threat,” Kaer said softly. “I only meant for you to be prepared, if the fighting spills over beyond the hidden paths. It usually does.”
Eirik was breathing heavily. “It won’t,” he insisted, angry at the disbelief shining in Kaer’s eyes. He felt foolish towering over the boy and twisting his arm, but the thought of imitation children running through the villages with their ugly daggers made his stomach turn and his blood boil.
“I will try to keep you out of it,” Kaer went on. “The little monsters will have run back to their master with tales of the great human warrior who stole their prize. Their descriptions are unlikely to have any truth in them, though, to save their own pride.” His lip twitched. “You will be nine feet tall, in their retelling, with four arms and as many axes. You’ll have come on them unawares, attacking from behind and using your dirty human magic to shield my body from their weapons.”
Eirik grunted. “Don’t make me regret saving you, Ljuflingur.” He released the boy’s arm, and felt a grudging guilt when Kaer drew it quickly back and massaged it, wincing. “Will they try again?” A protective determination hovered unspoken around the question.
Kaer shrugged. “I could try changing my name,” he said ruefully. A wicked smile touched his lips. “I could disappear from the hidden paths, into your world.”
Eirik snorted. “And leave behind a trail of weeping mothers and their half-huldu babies? I won’t let you.”
Kaer looked genuinely stung, and Eirik instantly regretted the words. “I didn’t mean it,” he said quickly. “You can stay with me and my family for as long as you need.”
The hurt on Kaer’s face changed to surprise. “Thank you, Eirik,” he said slowly, in a tone that implied he understood how much that should mean to him. “But I’m afraid that would endanger your family.” He shook his dark head. “I could never do that, even if it means going without my monster slayer.”
Eirik splashed a face full of water at him. “Don’t tease,” he said sternly. “I won’t let them hurt you.”
Kaer wiped the water from his eyes and smiled. “Monster slayer, you are serious enough for the both of us.” He splashed Eirik right back, with enough force to send a good amount of water up and over the edge of the pool. It sizzled where it touched snow. Eirik squeezed his eyes shut, held up his arms, and shouted his surrender until the onslaught stopped. Coughing, he wiped his face and warily cracked his eyes.
Kaer’s face was directly before his, close enough so that the clouds of their breath mingled.
Eirik blinked, and then Kaer’s lips were pressed gently against his own. The young man was standing in the middle of the pool and leaning forward, so that their bodies were not in contact except for their lips. Their kiss.
Eirik parted his lips, whether in protest or welcome, he could never say, and suddenly Kaer’s tongue was darting into his mouth, exploring eagerly.
Still stunned, Eirik used his own tongue to trap Kaer’s and force it back into his own mouth. But then he followed it in, and was suddenly kissing Kaer back with some force. He reached up and grasped Kaer’s jaw with both hands, holding it in place while he licked and felt and sucked at his mouth. His cock jumped.
Kaer moaned and leaned in closer, seeking to entangle their limbs, and Eirik broke the kiss off abruptly. “What?” he gasped.
Kaer drew back to stand before him. He was, Eirik thought again, so beautiful. He had noted it earlier, but without desire. Desire rose in him now, hotter than the heat of the spring. He fought to clear his head.
“What are you doing?”
Kaer wet his lips. “I want you.” The words were bald, honest, and threaded with visible lust. Eirik swallowed, hard. Kaer had a youth’s body, sinewy and flat-stomached. His nipples stood out on his chest, small and hard. Glossy black hair was slicked against his cheeks, shoulders, back. The sculpted, harmonic angles of his face were dominated by glittering pale eyes that peered down at Eirik with all the intensity of a building storm. “I want you to take me.”
Eirik tore his eyes away. He looked out at the frozen, deserted landscape. The glacier streaked mountains glowed gold where the sun spread down their tips. “How old are you?” he rasped.
Kaer chuckled. “Older than you.”
Eirik closed his eyes, not wanting to face the answer to his next question. “Are you enticing me a purpose, Ljuflingur?” In the stories, all the huldufolk were capable of seductive wiles and fiendish lures. Ljuflingur, though, could capture hearts, and Eirik had never heard of one denied the object of his or her fancy.
Silence. When at last Eirik opened his eyes, he saw that Kaer had retreated to his side of the pool, where he stood with his back to Eirik.
“Kaer?” Eirik ventured softly. “Kaer, I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
“Forget it,” Kaer said sharply. He shook his head angrily, then raked a hand through his silky mane, gathering the black mass over one shoulder. He sank down into the water, as if to conceal the exposed stretch of his perfect back.
Guilt washed over Eirik. He stood and moved towards Kaer, acutely aware—and horrified—that his erect phallus broke the surface of the water as he did so. He kept a safe distance and bent his knees to hide it, but put one hand on Kaer’s bared shoulder. “Kaer, I’m sorry.”
Kaer turned, bitterness etched into his beautiful face. “Don’t be,” he whispered. “It’s my fault. I didn’t mean to—to force you.” He gazed up at Eirik, looking desperately unhappy. “I can’t help it.”
“It’s not your fault,” Eirik told him sharply. “It was a stupid thing to say.”
“Why?” Kaer wanted to know.
“Because,” Eirik said firmly, “I knew the answer. I thought I cared, but I realize now that I don’t.” He wiped the hair from Kaer’s upturned face. “You are striking, and tempting, and surprisingly playful and generous. If your allure has anything to do with a ljuflingur’s charm, I believe it is not ill-meant. I’m a grown man, Kaer, and claim my own desires. No-one’s forcing anyone.”
Disbelief shaded Kaer’s silver eyes. “Don’t you see, Eirik, why I can never trust that?”
Eirik took Kaer’s hand and guided it down to his rock hard cock, which twitched and jerked on contact. “If you don’t believe this,” he said, almost losing his feet as Kaer’s hand wrapped adeptly around his length, “believe this.” He pushed the young man gently back and captured his mouth again. Laboring to be both gentle and passionate, he put all his trust and need into the kiss. He didn’t pull back to look at Kaer until he stopped struggling.
Eirik’s heart contracted within his chest when he saw that the boy was smiling up at him with joy and lust and no trace of doubt. “I want to take you,” Eirik told him roughly.
“Prove it,” Kaer whispered, and Eirik knew he believed him.
He lifted the smaller man up out of the water to change places with him. Kaer shivered as the cold air caressed his skin, but he wrapped his legs around Eirik and pulled in to his embrace. Eirik felt Kaer’s erection jab momentarily against his stomach, before he settled back down onto the hot rocks with Kaer straddling his lap. Kaer placed a hand to either side of Eirik’s head on the pool edge, and leaned in for another kiss. As their lips met, Kaer began to gyrate his hips, rubbing his cock against Eirik’s.
Eirik moaned and sucked on Kaer’s tongue. He was sure his cock had never been this hard before in his life. He reached under the water and grasped Kaer’s hips, pulling the boy in as he thrust against him. Kaer’s hands wrapped themselves in Eirik’s cropped hair, grabbing fistfuls as his kisses traced the corner of Eirik’s mouth, then his chin, then his neck and shoulders. Eirik gasped and threw his head back when Kaer pinched his nipples. Kaer ran his hands over Eirik’s chest and shoulders, scooping hot water over every exposed spot. Eirik groaned loudly, too hot and too cold, shivering and sweating at once.
Kaer’s warm mouth closed over a nipple. Still grinding wantonly on Eirik’s lap, he licked and sucked with abandon. He switched back and forth between nipples, building gradually from suckling to tugging at the sensitive nubs with his teeth. Without warning, he bit down hard. Eirik yelped and dashed water into the boy’s face.
“That hurt,” he grated, but a laughing Kaer just silenced his complaints by covering Eirik’s mouth with his own.
Then the young man slipped back and off of Eirik’s lap, sinking down into the clear water and letting his hands fall to Eirik’s bare thighs. He grazed their lengths to the knee. Kaer traced his way back up more slowly, looking into Eirik’s eyes the entire time, shifting tantalizingly to the inside of Eirik’s thighs. Eirik’s breath caught as dexterous fingers found his balls. Kaer fondled them playfully as he rose up again and nestled his face against Eirik’s. His breath was hot on Eirik’s ear as he whispered, “Huldufolk can’t breathe underwater.”
Eirik didn’t need another hint. He pushed himself up so that his naked buttocks sat on the rock rim of the little pool, his cock reaching for the clouded sky above. It strained and pulsed, unbelievable tight, as if it might fly away like a bird if only it pulled hard enough. The stone itself was warm, heated by its contact with the hotter rocks beneath the earth’s surface, but the air was bitingly cold. Eirik registered this, then forgot it. “No teeth,” he warned, and was rewarded by Kaer’s smirk as he positioned himself, balancing his weight with his hands just above Eirik’s knees. It made his heart ache to see Kaer so happy.
In the next second, all thoughts fled his mind as Kaer bent forward gracefully to place a lingering kiss on the point where Eirik’s cock met his balls. He felt the warm wetness of Kaer’s tongue massage the tender area before traveling up the length of his cock, following the slightly protruding ridge along the underside from base to tip. The trail of wetness tingled in the winter air. Kaer swirled his tongue around the tip, and then licked his way back to Eirik’s balls, which he also licked thoroughly. One by one, Kaer pulled his balls into his mouth and suckled gently. He was free with his saliva, leaving Eirik’s balls dripping as Kaer returned his attention to the length of his cock. His tongue kissed and caressed every inch of it while Eirik watched, captivated by the sight of his cock stretched against the length of Kaer’s pale, carved features. Only when it was thoroughly moistened with his spit did Kaer close his mouth around the tip and slide down around the whole of Eirik’s erection with an astonishing swiftness. With a loud gasp, Eirik released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
He could feel the tip of his cock pressed hard against the back of Kaer’s throat. He tried to breathe, but the savage whines that tore from his own throat scared him. Kaer’s lips, swollen and bruised from Eirik’s rough kisses, remained clamped around Eirik’s stiffness as they slid back up to the tip, and then sank all the way back down to the base.
Slowly—agonizingly slowly—Kaer rocked his face back and forward. Eirik trembled with the effort of remaining still. He did not want to hurt the boy. The sun emerged from behind the clouds, suddenly, brushing Eirik’s bare chest with a hint of warmth, and striking the waters of the little pool with a blinding sparkle.
Silhouetted against the breathtaking island landscape, Kaer added a hand and then more speed, until he was sucking Eirik’s cock for all he was worth. His fierce enthusiasm swept away the last of Eirik’s control. Bracing himself with his widespread feet against some underwater rocks, he leaned forward and tangled both hands in Kaer’s long hair, pulling the young man’s head in closer and forcing it to match the rhythm of his restrained thrusts.
Kaer moaned into his cock as if it were a harmonica, producing spine-tingling vibrations. His hands slipped from Eirik’s thighs to his stomach, and he pressed hard against the muscles of Eirik’s abs, seeking to control the pace and depth.
Eirik viewed this as acceptance of whatever pace and depth he could get away with, and tested that limit. Always mindful to back off whenever Kaer’s hands shoved into his stomach, he held the boy’s head still and pumped with a rousing alacrity into his face, forcing the entire length of his cock in and out, over and over. Kaer fought back, seeking to maintain enough control so as to ply his skilled tongue against the invader in his mouth.
It was a detectable battle.
Finally, Kaer jerked his head free, turning to take great gulps of the cool air. He looked disheveled and feral and lovely. Eirik watched him with concern, his erect cock swaying between them.
“Kaer?” he asked, quiet but urgent. “Are you all right?”
The boy nodded, surprising Eirik with a shy smile. Shyness was the last thing he expected from the intoxicating ljuflingur who had just done his best to swallow Eirik’s entire cock. “I’m fine,” Kaer said tentatively. “Just—just, that was… a lot.”
Eirik’s concern swelled into a familiar, tender protectiveness, punctuated by stabbing pricks of desire. “Come here,” he commanded, and gathered Kaer into his arms, ignoring the discomfort as his swollen cock was pressed between his stomach and Kaer’s side. He hugged the young man close, relishing the feel of his hard body in the sunlight, and sought Kaer’s mouth with his own. The boy tasted of fruiting rowan and pristine glacial rivers, and Eirik’s own salted sweetness.
Kaer twisted in his lap and ground their erections together. They rolled around the pool, taking turns being teasing and demanding, retreating and attacking. Their kissing bouts seemed to fortify Kaer’s vigor, and his fingers soon danced under the water to stroke Eirik’s aching cock. He pulled back, catching Eirik’s gaze with his dazzling eyes, and licked his lips suggestively.
Eirik had other ideas, though. “It’s my turn,” he told Kaer gruffly. He felt a stab of satisfaction as the silver eyes widened ever so slightly. Apparently the young man thought he was the only one with nerve and an imagination. “Arrogant little shit,” he said fondly, earning a puzzled crinkle in the boy’s kiss-bruised lips. He ignored it. “Are you warm enough to leave the pool?”
Kaer threw his entire weight onto Eirik, dunking them both underwater. Eirik emerged, spluttering, to see Kaer’s shapely white buttocks clambering from the pool. The boy stood and turned, gazing triumphantly at Eirik. “Now we both are,” he declared. He put a hand on either hip and waited expectantly as Eirik climbed out after him. Sunlight struck the water dripping from his lean body, gleaming along every contour. His hair dangled in wet locks down to his waist, and his cock angled up towards his flat stomach.
Eirik grabbed his discarded cloak and spread it out beside the pool. It wasn’t quite thick enough to disguise the hard, lumpy ground underneath, but it did shield them from the cold as they tumbled down onto it. For a moment, they clung to one another and traded furious kisses, half wrestling, half worshipping. Then Eirik flipped Kaer onto his back and pinned him down with ease. He straddled him and captured his wrists above his head with one hand, wrapping the other in Kaer’s damp hair.
“Stay,” he said huskily.
Kaer obeyed, lying still as Eirik slowly released his grips, his breath shallow in anticipation.
Eirik started at his lips and traced a trail of probing, open mouthed kisses down Kaer’s neck and chest. He kissed each nipple lightly, grinning when a soft cry emerged from Kaer. Then he continued, dropping light, teasing kisses down to Kaer’s navel. He dove his tongue playfully into that indent, holding tight to Kaer’s narrow hips as the boy tried to buck with laughter. The tip of Kaer’s cock brushed against Eirik’s chin as he continued downwards, but he stopped when he reached the thatch of startling black hair on Kaer’s pubic bone. Kaer murmured in protest as Eirik drew back, but subsided as Eirik pushed his legs open wide.
Eirik grasped one leg and lifted it, pressing his lips into the sole of Kaer’s foot. That earned him another rakish giggle, and he aimed a swat at Kaer’s groin, which only made the boy laugh harder.
“Serious enough for both of us,” Kaer taunted, pale eyes glittering. Eirik elected to ignore that, and focused on pressing his lips into Kaer’s ankle, then his calf, the inside of his knee, the back of his thigh. Kaer lost his mockery and took slow, shuddering breaths. Eirik swallowed, fighting with the urge to hook the leg over his shoulder and plunge into the tight pucker waiting exposed beneath Kaer’s balls.
Instead, he eased the leg down and out, so that Kaer lay spread eagle before him. So slender and pale, the boy looked suddenly very vulnerable to Eirik. Except for his cock, which stood, strong and tall, on full display.
Eirik had never sucked another man before, but he reckoned he knew well enough what would please his ljuflingur. He nestled himself into a comfortable kneeling position and placed his hands on Kaer’s pelvis, to either side of his straining cock. Then he leaned forward and opened his mouth wide, letting his hot breath tease Kaer’s erection.
Kaer surprised him by lifting his hips off the cloaked ground and thrusting his cock into Eirik’s waiting mouth. Eirik fit his mouth instinctively around the hard pole, and forced Kaer’s hips back down with his hands. He held the boy’s trembling body down and proceeded to fuck his cock with his mouth, absurdly elated at the frantic moans this elicited from Kaer.
He wasn’t sure how to make the whole length fit inside, and when the secret didn’t become immediately obvious after a few tries, he compensated by using one hand to pump at the base, while his mouth stroked the upper portion. What he lacked in depth, he made up for in tempo and enthusiasm. He bobbed fervently, as if it were a race. Kaer wrapped his legs around the back of Eirik’s head and whimpered. He tasted of sex and copper and something indescribably warm and tender, like the scent of a baby’s head. When Eirik cupped his balls with his free hand, massaging them in time with his sucking and pumping, the whimpers became cries. Released from the weight of Eirik’s restraining hands, Kaer began to pump again, plunging over and over into Eirik’s mouth even as he kept Eirik’s head trapped between his legs.
Eirik felt himself lose all control of the situation. He released Kaer’s balls and base to prop himself up on his hands as Kaer’s legs tightened, forcing Eirik’s head in closer to his thrusting groin. Eirik just focused on breathing. He found he could do this through his nose, and his nostrils flooded with the smell of musk and rowan trees. In the next instant he realized that Kaer had pressed his cock in deep enough that it now tickled the back of his throat. Every nerve in Eirik’s body pulsed, shooting that realization straight into his ballsac with a jubilant throb. Struggling to maintain his balance against the onslaught of Kaer’s cock, Eirik groped for his own cock and began to tug urgently at it.
Kaer moaned his name. He unclamped his legs from their death grip on Eirik’s head and pulled Eirik roughly off his cock by the hair. The sudden pain read as pleasure, and Eirik shivered as he met Kaer’s violent, lust-filled eyes. The boy kept his fist clenched in Eirik’s hair as he raised himself off his back, then dragged Eirik up so that they sat facing each other. Kaer brought their foreheads together and released Eirik’s hair to gently cup the back of his head. Eirik mirrored the gesture.
Closing his eyes, he relished the feel of Kaer’s sweaty forehead against his own, the silkiness of the hair beneath his palm, the stuttering exhalations blowing across his face.
“Please,” Kaer murmured.
Eirik pressed their heads closer together. “Anything,” he rasped.
“I need—” Kaer’s voice broke. “I want you inside of me.”
Eirik felt lightheaded. The raw need emanating from both their bodies was overwhelming, but his desire was shaded by concern for the boy. “You’re still weak,” he said, putting all his effort into keeping his tone neutral. “Fuck, Kaer, an hour ago you were more dead than alive.” He exhaled hard. “I don’t think,” he added doubtfully, feeling blood creep into his cheeks, “I don’t think I can be gentle.”
Kaer tilted his head and planted a grazing, tender kiss on Eirik’s lower lip. “Gentle,” whispered Kaer, “would kill me.”
Eirik let those words stretch between them. He didn’t move for a long moment, though his racing heart slowed not at all. Finally, he cracked his eyes open.
“Well.” His voice sounded strangely deep to his own ears. “On your stomach.”
Kaer pressed a final chaste kiss against Eirik’s lips and then stretched out on the cloak, naked as the day—well, likely as the day he sprang from a peat bog, or however it was that huldufolk were born. The image of those sinuous legs, the slight swell of buttocks, that straight, pale back brushed by tendrils of charcoal hair, was so beautiful that Eirik almost didn’t want to disturb it.
Now that might have been the stupidest thought he’d ever had. In one fluid motion, Eirik pulled Kaer’s hips up, spread his cheeks, and spat on the crack between them.
Burying his face in Kaer’s ass, he plied the boy’s anus with his tongue. Kaer whined softly as Eirik dug into the ring of tight muscle. Kneading the supple flesh under his hands, Eirik licked the slipperiness of his saliva all around Kaer’s opening. For a moment, he savored Kaer’s moans, but his own cock was a heavy distraction. He wanted to wrap it in the heat and pleasure of Kaer’s body, and he wanted to now.
He rose up onto his knees and nudged Kaer’s legs wider apart. Grasping his warm erection with one hand, he swept the head up and down Kaer’s moistened crack, from his balls to his tailbone. He spat onto his hand and coated his cock with two quick strokes. Then he positioned it before the waiting, tightly clenched hole. He could feel his heartbeat in the blood throbbing through his cock, which was hard as diamond. Pre-ejaculate glistened at the tip.
Kaer began to beg. “Please,” he whimpered. “Eirik, please.”
Very slowly, Eirik pushed himself inside of Kaer. Kaer gasped loudly as the head breached his sphincter, and Eirik grunted with the strain of pausing. He braced himself with a hand on Kaer’s lower back and forced himself in halfway before managing to pause again. He drew back just a bit and then finally, with painstaking care, buried his cock to the hilt. A low cry burst from Kaer, mingling with Eirik’s loud moan.
Eirik bent forward and wrapped himself around Kaer. Their flush bodies fit together perfectly. Eirik rested his chin on Kaer’s shoulder and turned the boy’s head towards his. Kaer’s face would have been breathtaking on a lifeless statue, but it was made for celebrating sensation. Locked together, they shared newly intimate kisses, while Eirik rocked his hips just enough to stay hard.
An echo from the early morning brawl with the demon children drifted into Eirik’s mind; mine, he had roared as he slaughtered the little boy. That was what he felt, now, with his arms wrapped tight around Kaer’s limber body, his tongue down his throat, and his cock buried up his ass. Mine.
It was Kaer who broke the kiss, but it was Eirik who spoke. “I’m going to fuck you,” he said matter-of-factly. “Hard.”
Kaer nodded wordlessly, his pale eyes wide.
Eirik unwrapped himself and straightened, taking firm hold of Kaer’s waist. He slid in and out a few times at a leisurely pace, then began to thrust deliberatively. He penetrated Kaer with quick, sharp drives. The boy arched his spine and lowered his torso to the ground, giving himself wholly over into Eirik’s control. Eirik dug his fingers into Kaer’s waist and shoved roughly into him, seeking to force himself deeper with each powerful stroke. His own growls were quickly drowned out by Kaer’s panting yelps.
Deep within his loins, he felt the beginnings of an eruption coil. He steadied the pace of his brutal thrusts, not wanting to end it too soon. He sliced along the edge of his frenzy, pleasurable waves pulsing through his balls in time with the furious strokes of his cock. Prolonging pleasure was like a navigating a cliff on horseback. If you knew the path and your own limitations well enough, you could thunder along at a breakneck gallop without plunging over the edge. It was the same exhilarating thrill as in battle, where one false step meant death.
Kaer was crying his name now, though, which made it damn hard not to think he could fly. Eirik reached forward and grabbed a fistful of silky black hair, jerking Kaer’s head back. With his free hand, he delivered a series of resounding thwacks against each of the tender white cheeks hugging his cock. His slaps left red-tinged handprints, but Kaer was wantonly gasping for more. Eirik threw control to the winds and galloped off the cliff, letting his hips buck as fast as they could. The fall was ecstasy.
Kaer twisted, suddenly, reaching back to place a shaking hand on Eirik’s chest. “Wait,” he commanded. “I want to see your face.”
Eirik nodded shortly. He pulled out, flipped Kaer onto his back and eased his bent, spread legs back towards his chest. He slid his cock back into Kaer’s gripping warmth, holding Kaer in place by his upper shins. Kaer’s cock swayed in the air above his tight scrotum. Trapped, folded, and penetrated, Kaer gazed up at him with bleary silver eyes, ebony hair sticking to the sweat on his forehead. His lips curved into the sweetest smile Eirik had ever seen.
The ground rushed up. Eirik leaned closer over Kaer and pumped desperately, feverishly, snarling with the effort. The coiled tension spread to his lower stomach and heat shot to the soles of his feet. Kaer dug his nails into Eirik’s shoulders. In the same instant, something splattered across Eirik’s stomach and the muscles enfolding his cock clinched.
Eirik dove in as deep as he could as the spasms of Kaer’s orgasm milked his cock. Exploding in rapid thrusts, he erupted far inside Kaer’s bowels. Kaer gaped up at him, his face frozen in a helpless blend of exertion, bewilderment, and rapture. More wetness sprayed against Eirik’s belly. He tried to keep his eyes locked with Kaer’s, but the intensity of his climax took over and he felt his face contort involuntarily; his eyes squeezed shut of their own accord, and his lips drew back from his teeth in a gaping, twisted rictus.
The release was pure, complete clarity. He fed Kaer his soul, at once claiming and yielding more than he ever had. When the last jet of semen had spurted from his cock, he managed to open his eyes, and found that Kaer had tears on his cheeks.
He kissed each tear softly, tasting their clear saltiness. Then he pulled out of Kaer, drew him close, and tugged the cloak over them so that they lay enfolded in its heaviness, their limbs tangled together.
“Oh my fucking God.” The blasphemy tumbled from Eirik’s lips, indicating his brain had not quite caught up yet.
Kaer leaned back in his arms, a puzzled frown creasing his brow. “Are we glowing?” he asked dazedly.
Eirik gave him a tired grin. “Only you, my ljuflingur. For a moment there, I thought I was blinded.” Something occurred to him. “What did you see in my face?”
Kaer kissed the underside of his chin. “Me,” he whispered.
As Eirik hugged him, the familiar, satiated weariness of repletion gathered quickly, and darkness clouded over his consciousness.
He awoke sometime later to find Kaer curled in his embrace and sleeping peacefully. The sun was not yet overhead; it shone through cracks in the clouds above the eastern horizon, spreading broad beams of light. Steam wafted lazily up from the hot spring, pierced by drifting crystals. It had started to snow.
Eirik shook Kaer gently awake. The pale eyes were still a shock, lovely and fey. The boy scowled dreamily up at him.
“It’s snowing again,” Eirik murmured. “We should clean off and dress before our clothes soak through. The air is mild yet.”
Kaer stiffened. “And then?” he asked warily.
“Then I chain you with my dirty human magic to the pool, to stay here as my slave for all eternity.”
The boy grimaced, but Eirik didn’t miss the sudden brightness that glimmered deep in his eyes. He chuckled, then realized that Kaer’s stiffness hadn’t entirely vanished.
“Don’t worry,” he said solemnly. “Then I will take you to my home. I’ll protect you, Kaer. You’re mine.”
“I told you,” Kaer said unhappily, “that isn’t safe. It will only bring the monsters to your hearth.”
Eirik thought of his uncle’s dreams for him, of his father’s pious devotions, of the men he lead and fought beside. He thought of his mother and his sisters and little Brunhildi, his fair-haired toddler of a niece.
He thought of Kaer’s wide-eyed look of amazement as he came all over Eirik’s stomach.
“Then,” he said calmly, “we will only stop briefly at home to—to make plans. To set my affairs in order, so that we can leave together.”
Kaer looked doubtful, but the tension drained from his limbs. “Where would we go?”
“Wherever you like,” Eirik told him blithely. “We can discuss it while we walk.”
“What will you tell your family?”
“We’ll figure that out on the walk, too.” He tossed the cloak open, exposing their bodies to the light snow. Kaer shivered. “Go on,” Eirik directed. “Into the pool.”
Kaer crept into the hot water without another protest. Eirik hurriedly folded his cloak and piled it and the rest of their clothes against the low rock wall, to shield them from the worst of the snow. Then he slipped into the pool and gave his body a good quick scouring.
Finally, he drew Kaer onto his lap. Snow had collected on his ebony hair like a crown, matching his eyes in sparkling radiance. Around them, the snowflakes fell in silence.
“Are you all right?” Eirik asked quietly. He suddenly dreaded the answer, but his concern for Kaer was too strong to put off the question. He didn’t just mean soreness. In the last day, the boy had very nearly been murdered and frozen to death. He had awakened from that nightmare to find himself with a stranger, who had first undressed him and then—pleasured him? Brutally violated him? Unease blossomed in Eirik’s gut, and guilt swelled his throat closed.
Kaer slanted a shy smile up at him. “All the important parts still seem to work.” His cheeks pinkened delightfully.
Eirik snorted as relief washed through him. “Glad I could test them out for you,” he muttered, and pushed the boy up against the pool wall, leaning in to kiss him hard on the mouth, ignoring the icy pinpricks scattering across his exposed back. Kaer returned the kiss earnestly, swirling his tongue around Eirik’s and scraping clawed fingers through his hair.
That was how Alfdis found them.
“Eirik?” Her clear, shrill exclamation cut through the moment. “Are you—is that a man?”
Eirik jerked his head up to find his little sister standing a few spans from the edge of the pool, cloaked and hooded, disbelief making rings of her eyes and mouth.
He gaped back at her over Kaer’s head, until the impudent girl erupted into gales of laughter.
Blood rushed to his cheeks. “Don’t stare,” he growled at her, fighting a foolish grin. “I’m glad to see Halkell kept his word, and you are okay.”
Alfdis grinned back at him. “Oh, I’m okay. Not nearly as good as you, from the sight of it.” She came closer. When she saw whom he had been kissing, her smile faded.
“Eirik,” she said in a strangled voice. “Why do you have the Prince?”
Eirik started as her words sank in. He gawked wordlessly at her, then swallowed and pulled away to stare at Kaer.
Kaer gazed back at him, his features still and guarded.
“What,” Eirik finally broke the silence, “did you say your real name was?”
Still, no trace of an expression touched the young man’s face. “Kaer is short for Egilikaer, my mother’s name.” Kaer’s tone was dispassionate. He paused, then recited faintly, “my full name is Prince Iorund Aesbiornsson and Egilikaersson of the Styrsson Line, Champion of Vatnajökull and—and Heir to the Hidden Throne.”
“I did not think,” Alfdis breathed, “someone could look so much like a painting.”
“And who are you?” Kaer asked, his voice chilly and distant.
Alfdis drew herself up. “I am Alfdis Halkellsdottir and Sigridursdottir, half hidden and loyal to the Vebjornsson Line.” Her slender face trembled with outrage as she sank to her knees in the snow. “Your Highness,” she spat, “unhand my brother.”
“That’s enough, Alfdis,” Eirik warned. He staked his territory without a second thought. “The prince is mine.”
Alfdis drew back in surprise. Eirik had never cowed her the way he could cow his men, but she seemed to hear something different in his tone this time. Her brow drew together. “Eirik,” she said, her voice suddenly much smaller, “I don’t understand.”
Eirik’s heart flipped to see her confused and vulnerable, still kneeling on the ground before them. He was far more concerned, though, about Kaer’s icy lack of emotion since Alfdis had named him prince. He turned to the boy, willing him to feel the strength of his support and affection.
“Rise, Halkellsdottir,” Kaer said softly. He glanced sideways at Eirik, but addressed Alfdis. “I mean your brother no harm.”
Alfdis scrambled to her feet and looked down at him uncertainly. “Where have you been?” she whispered finally. “They killed your sister.”
Kaer turned his head, but not before Eirik saw the grief that cut his face open. “The verdict was written,” the boy said hoarsely. “She was a traitor. There was nothing I could do. She—” his voice broke. “She should have been Queen.”
Eirik took two short steps and dragged Kaer into his arms. He pulled him close, pressing his lips into his wet hair and ignoring Alfdis’s shocked expression. Kaer buried his face in Eirik’s chest and shook.
Alfdis’s voice was just barely audible. “War comes.”
Eirik shook his head. “The war is here. They tried to kill him, too,” he told Alfdis. “I found him right after I left you, lying unconscious in the snow. I fought a pair of child beasties for him, and carried him here to warm him.” He paused, cheeks burning, and went on. “Then you found us.”
Alfdis’s golden brow rose, but she didn’t comment on the obvious gap in his timeline. “You defeated a pair of shape wreakers by yourself?” she asked instead.
Eirik scowled at her and she raised her hands in defensive apology. She eyed Kaer with a resigned laugh. “You always did have a weakness for the things you had to save.” She tapped a finger against her chin. “And for beauty,” she added innocently. “So what now?”
Eirik squeezed Kaer and released him. “Now, we go home,” he said firmly. He caught Kaer’s gaze to confirm this was still agreed. The young man’s eyes were full of sorrow, but he nodded slightly.
With some reluctance, the boys left their steaming sanctuary and moved swiftly to pull on their clothing. “Later,” Eirik continued as they dressed, “we can worry about kings and wars and why Alfdis the Half Hidden will be staying far away from both.” He glared meaningfully at his sister.
“Save your decrees, priest’s son, for when you are Lawspeaker,” Alfdis shot back. “Or did you want to talk about kings and wars, and which one of those is okay to bed with?” She dodged his lobbed handful of snow adroitly.
“This is not over,” she informed him solemnly, crossing her arms across her chest. “You keep your king, but I will not run away from the loyalty owed to my huldufolk kin. They might be hidden, but they’re as much my family as you are, Eirik.” Her gazed flicked to Kaer. “Your Highness understands,” she prompted.
Kaer looked at her sadly. “Better than you, Alfdis Halkellsdottir.” He spoke for the first time since hearing confirmation of his sister’s death. “Tell me, did you understand my sister’s crime?”
“She—she betrayed your family,” Alfdis faltered. “She plotted with your enemies to defeat your own father’s plans.”
“She was used, and cleverly, by those enemies,” Kaer corrected her grimly. “She was raised as heir to the Hidden Throne, and taught to think of what was best for all huldufolk.”
Alfdis hesitated. “Halkell says that as your father aged, he used the throne more and more to the advantage of your family, at the expense of others.”
Kaer nodded. “My older sister was idealistic, and impulsive, and too fearless by half. She trusted wrongly, and was betrayed.”
Comprehension darkened Alfdis’s face. “It was a brilliant blow against your family, wasn’t it? Her betrayers brought proof.”
Kaer nodded again. “Proof,” he said mildly, “that the heir had broken the highest law.”
“Loyalty to the family.”
Kaer’s expression was bleak. “Our father could either deny the truth of their claims, an impossible flouting of our oldest laws that would certainly have turned most families against him, or he could follow our ways and execute his heir.”
“You think he chose wrongly.” It wasn’t quite a question.
“That would be treason, wouldn’t it?” Kaer’s smile was sharp and self-mocking. “You think you understand, but consider this—it was the law of family loyalty that gave our father the right to kill his daughter. You are young, Alfdis.”
Alfdis reddened, not in a graceful blush but with her characteristic temper. Eirik, tugging on his boots, almost lost his balance when she didn’t snap a sharp retort at the huldu prince. Somehow, the boy’s ability to silence Alfdis was far more intimidating than his royalty.
Kaer considered her as he tucked his billowy white undershirt into his trousers. “I can understand why you would think avoiding this war would mean running away from my family.”
Eirik’s heart soared, even as Alfdis’s jaw unhinged in astonishment. “You’re not going back?” She sucked in her breath. “But you—you’re the heir now.”
Kaer flinched. He fumbled with the laces of his overshirt. “I can ignore the call, with some effort,” he said tersely. He didn’t look at Eirik. “But not forever. Eventually, like any huldufolk, only my death would keep me from the paths.”
Alfdis shifted uncomfortably. “The families are naming you dead, or turned traitor yourself.”
“They would know if I were dead, and there will be no treachery.” Kaer shook his head. “I won’t make my father kill me, too.” Anger and anguish warred briefly on his face; anger won. “But I have no wish to fight anyone’s war. Least of all that of a King who would sacrifice his own daughter and the huldufolk’s best hope for a future ruler, all for the empty promise of a few more years peace.”
Eirik wanted to take Kaer into his arms again, but while grief could be lessened by such remedies, bitterness could not. Instead, he bowed his head and fell to one knee, shoving his axes out of the way.
“Prince,” he tested the new appellation. “I am your man.” He tilted his head back and caught Kaer’s searching silver gaze. “In this world or the other, in peace or at war, I am with you, always.”
The silence stretched. Eirik couldn’t interpret the look on Kaer’s handsome face. Was that fear flickering in his eyes? Was it of him, or for him?
Finally, Kaer shrugged despairingly. “Always,” he promised. “Only please call me Kaer?”
A smile tugged at Eirik’s lips. “As you like, Ljuflingur.” Beloved. He rose and took Kaer’s hands into his own.
“That was very romantic,” Alfdis cut in. “But please don’t start kissing again.”
Eirik just squeezed Kaer’s hands.
“No bedding each other with your eyes, either,” Alfdis said sharply. “I’m freezing.”
Eirik chuckled despite himself. “We’re short a cloak,” he realized in dismay. The snow was still light, but the weather of the Ice Island was liable to change drastically between one breath and the next.
Kaer smiled, and there was a cherished hint of his private brightness in it. “Then we’d better hurry. My garments are warmer than they look. Wear your cloak, Eirik, and if a storm catches us, we can share.”
“Not likely,” Eirik growled. “Take the cloak, or I’ll carry you the whole way.”
“He’s serious,” Alfdis advised. “I used to forget my boots a purpose, so that he’d carry me when I pretended to realize my feet were ice cold.”
Eirik frowned at her in surprised indignation, but didn’t press it when Kaer let him drape the heavy, too-long folds around his slender frame. Alfdis smirked at him and took off towards the mountains.
Eirik planted a quick kiss on Kaer’s lips and turned to follow Alfdis. The distant peaks were nothing more than dimly defined shadows in the cloud cover, but Eirik knew the way.
“Coming?” he asked, taking Kaer’s hand.
“Did you miss it?” Kaer teased softly.
Eirik coughed, but recovered quickly. “I meant again,” he suggested. “Later.” He laughed when he saw the hungry gleam lighting the other man’s eyes. “Soon.”
“I can walk as quickly as you can,” Kaer observed.
Together, they followed Alfdis into the swirling snow.