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Tanners and the Brute

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The boy had no real name. He was the tanner’s get, below even the whore’s runts, responsible for soaking the hides in urine. The tanner called the child “Boy,” long after the boy had left childhood behind. The town was large enough that most forgot to which tannery the young man belonged; everyone called him “the tanner’s boy” for so long that it became his moniker.

Tanners, get out of my shop. Tanners, you stink of piss. Tanners, you good-for-nothing, get a move on.

Tanners wasn’t particularly disliked in town. Easily pleased, curious without being clever, unwittingly honest, Tanners had never spent enough time around mannerly people to behave like one. In another town he might have been endearingly simple; only his low birth caused others to shun him. That and his demon eye. Such a bright blue was true sign of result of possession, the townspeople said. A devil was in him, building up that muscle and those looks to snatch some unsuspecting maiden and propagate its spawn.

Tanners’ only companion was the young goatherd whose family kept to itself on the hill. She was unconcerned by his devil, but then she already had a child of good seed. It seemed that only virgins need fear.

The brute squad rolled through town one late spring day. Tanners watched them from the hillside with his friend. The procession was all brown—dusty leather clothes and studded clubs, tanned faces and dirty hair. Even their horses were brown.

“Town finally has more to fear than a latent demon,” the goatherd chuckled.

Tanners bounced her baby in his arms, ignoring the tiny fingers digging into his lower lip. “The brute squad will clean out the town more than it will clean it up,” he commented.

The goatherd knocked him on the head with her crook. “Have a thought of your own, Tanners. An army would bring more trouble than these men will.”

Rubbing the injured spot, Tanners grinned. “I’ve never seen a brute squad before.” Would the men all be monstrously huge? Would they give him coins to fetch deliver their messages and fetch their meals? Or would they be like those minstrels and make horrible songs about his devil’s eye, melodies that got him beaten for weeks after they had left?

The goatherd snorted as she took her little boy from the young man. “There won’t be much to see, I imagine. They’re dealing with those nomads; they’ll spend their days in the forests and only sleep in town.”

Tanners nodded. He had heard talk of houses putting up the men in spare rooms and tents. “How many up here?” he asked his companion, casting an arm towards the small field.

She didn’t lift her dark affectionate gaze from the baby. “One. Whoever doesn’t mind being away from the town, I imagine.”

Tanners barely resisted clapping his hands together. “I’ll bring him meals,” he promised.

The goatherd raised an eyebrow at him. “Only if he doesn’t beat you, Tanners. Stay away from—”

“The left hand that rises whilst the right receives,” Tanners finished for her. Chucking the baby under the chin, he put a hand on the goatherd’s shoulder. “I’ll be careful.”


The town was anxious. Though the brute squad was no more than fifty strong it carried the power and authority of the province chief. The townsfolk were expected to provide food and shelter in return for the protection that the touring squad provided. Whether or not the men were kind to their hosts was another matter altogether.

“Concentrate, lazybones!” the tanner yelled, boxing Tanners’ ears.

Tanners hadn’t been cuffed so many times since he was a boy. He was tired of scraping hides and cleaning. He wanted to go into town to the taverns and see what the brute squad looked like up close. What if he arrived too late and the men were all in their beds, resting up for a day of patrolling? He scraped faster, watching the candle burn down in his peripheral vision.

Finally it was dusk, the candle melted to the fourteenth notch and the hides were put away. His father would take his evening meal with the cobbler’s widow as always.

“I’m going to the tavern,” Tanners called. The old man’s only response was to send a few coins sailing at Tanners’ chest, enough to buy a meal and a tankard of ale. The bronze pieces clinked cheerfully in the young man’s pocket as he trotted through neighborhoods and alleys to the town centre.

The Fatted Calf was packed full bodies by the time the tanner’s boy arrived. Nearly every round table was taken by locals who had come to gawk at the real live brute squad. Every step put Tanners dangerously close to upsetting a cup of beer or tureen of the tavern’s thick stew. Through crush of bodies the young man made his slow way to the back to the one available seat remaining.

That the men surrounding him were unfamiliar was no surprise; the town had its fair share of inhabitants. Tanners signaled for ale and stew before he surveyed his immediate surroundings. Brown faces, brown beards, sweat stink, and clubs at their hips. Tanners grinned hugely.

“What’s this?” one of his table mates asked in disgust. “You think to join us?”

Tanners nodded vigorously. “There was no other seat, sir.” He was seated with the brute squad! They were so large and rough-looking, not like the soft townsmen or the hardy farmers. These men had scars and missing teeth. Their shoulders bulged and their hair was cropped short.

“Quit staring, boy,” one of them snapped.

Tanners flushed. “I’m sorry, sir.” His stomach knotted. Had he offended them by sitting at their table? Most looked to be nearly finished with their meal. Tanners wished for the goatherd; she could tell him what to do.

One brute with twin mustache plaits belched loudly. “Off to the whorehouse, men,” he said as he clapped his companions on the back. He pointed his spoon at Tanners. “Oi, simpleton. Where’s the nearest brothel?”

Tanners crossed his arms. “I’m not a simpleton.”

“Sure, sure.” The plaits man waved a dismissive hand. “Where is it?”

“Across the square and down an alley on the left.” Tanners pointed, nearly poking his neighbor’s face in the process.

Without saying thanks or bidding him goodbye the men stood and tossed their coin on the table. Gone so soon? Tanners watch their backs disappear through the crowd with a feeling of great disappointment. He hadn’t been sure what to expect from the famous brute squad, but he certainly hadn’t expected to be ignored.

Had he done something wrong? Tanners was accustomed to being corrected for his mistakes.

“Tanners, move along!” a barmaid shouted over the din. “We’ve other guests, you oaf!”

“But I haven’t eaten!” the young man protested.

Rather than argue the barmaid reached over and grabbed Tanners by the ear. Before he registered anything more than the immediate pain Tanners was on the street and the door was shut in his face. He rubbed his ear, disgruntled and hungry.

“I’ll take my coin elsewhere,” he muttered to himself, startling a passerby. The other taverns in the square were sure to be full, so Tanners meandered down an alleyway to one of the smaller pubs. Halbeard’s tavern was far enough from the brothels and inns to receive only local clientele. There would be neither gawkers nor road-weary warriors here, but at least Tanners would be able to find and keep a seat.

Halbeard’s was smoky and poorly lit, but the air was filled with the scent of hearty roast pork and bread. Tanners was surprised to see that the small space was nearly full; perhaps these were more poor citizens who had been turned away from The Fatted Calf. He raised a hand at the taverns’ portly namesake.

“Only one seat,” Halbeard said as he dumped a serving onto a tin plate. “The corner.”

Tanners replied, “Thank you, sir,” and accepted the proffered plate. It wasn’t until he had made his way through the maze of benches and tables that he realized why the coveted corner table was clear. Tanners slid onto the bench with butterflies in his stomach, nodding wordlessly at the man on the other side of the table. The man flicked his pale gaze upward to scan the new arrival then returned to his meal. In spite of his excitement Tanners forced himself to eat a few bites of his pork and bread. Surely his devil was gone today, for Lady Fortune had blessed him with such an honorable dinner partner. The goatherd would be shocked to hear about this tomorrow.

“Strain your eyes any further and they’ll fall from your head,” the man said suddenly.

Tanners blushed and looked down to his plate. “My apologies, sir.”

“What is it that you want?” The man sat back, shaking dark hair from his eyes. “I won’t beat you for a question.”

What luck! Stay away, devil, for a little while longer. “Are you part of the brute squad?” Tanners asked excitedly.

The man raised a sweeping eyebrow. “What makes you think I am?”

“No one will speak to you, nobody looks at you even though you’re very handsome, you’ve several scars, and you wield a peasant’s club like a knight does a sword,” Tanners explained, repeating what he had heard in the town.

“Little pitchers have big ears,” the brute said. “I’ve no club on me.”

Tanners scowled. “I’m no little pitcher. I’m a big pitcher with regular-sized ears.”

A passing barmaid slapped the back of his dark head. “You’ll call him ‘sir,’ tanner’s boy.” She curtsied deeply enough to allow the brute a peek at her ample bosom, and moved on.

Tanners grinned at the brute and leaned forward. “She likes the look of you, sir,” he whispered conspiratorially. “She’ll let you lie with her if you’re lonely. No need for coin.”

The brute snorted into his ale. “I take it you’ve had her, then?”

“Oh, not I, sir.” Tanners vigorously shook his head as he shoveled food into his mouth. “She said she won’t tempt the devil. No one will.”

“What’s with your eyes, boy?” the brute asked.

“That’s what she meant, sir. I have a devil in me,” Tanners answered, pointing seriously at his one turquoise eye.

The brute grunted into his tankard; it might have been a laugh. “Devils make eyes blue? One would think it would seek discretion.”

Tanners cocked his head. “Everyone says that if I were all good, I’d have two eyes all the same color.”

“You believe everything you hear?”

Shrugging, the young man answered, “I haven’t met a good person with one brown and one blue eye, sir.”

The brute appeared to consider this as he watched the younger man. “Chew your food, boy. You’re no dog.”

Tanners grinned through a mouthful of meat. “The barmaid at the Fatted Calf threw me out before anyone had attended my order. Perhaps she meant to make room for more squad men, though most had just left for the brothel. I’m just very hungry.”

The brute gave no reply.

“You’ll find our town well-suited to your needs, sir,” Tanners continued, pausing only to chew as he had been instructed. “We’ve many taverns, one market, and two whorehouses, and there are two bathhouses as well.”

The barmaid slapped his head again in passing. “Silence that simple tongue,” she snapped. “The good sir came to fill his belly, not listen to your prattle.”

Tanners glared at her back as she moved on. “Needn’t have hit me twice,” he muttered to himself. Were the barmaid but a barman, Tanners would fight him. He wished he could, but striking a woman would bring the devil back; perhaps it had returned already.

The brute watched Tanners glower at the barmaid maneuvering through the room. “Convenient,” he said casually.

“Pardon, sir?” Tanners immediately forgot his grudge at the prospect of conversation.

“The bathhouses stand next to the brothels, do they not?”

Tanners nodded, and then understanding dawned clearly on his face. “They can go to bed as clean men, can they not?”

The brute lifted his tankard in acknowledgement.

“Where do you stay tonight, sir?” Tanners asked. Let it be on the hill!

With a shrug the brute answered, “Somewhere in the square. I’ve need of a bath and a bed without fleas.”

The young man’s shoulders slumped with disappointment. So he would not have any chance to see this nice brute, only the mean ones who called him simpleton. Then again, Tanners realized, the brute squad would be in the town for more than a fortnight, possibly until the harvest.

“Shall I accompany you to your inn?” Tanners asked.

Pale eyes assessed him so intently that Tanners squirmed in his seat. Most people avoided looking at him for too long; Tanners wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or frightened by such direct attention.

“You mean to say that you’ll guide me back to the square,” the brute said slowly.

“Yes, sir! I have lived my life in this town and so know it well. Should you need anything during your stay I can help,” Tanners replied earnestly. “I can fetch things, make deliveries, order meals, anything. I can do it.”

One corner of the brute’s mouth lifted. “So you’re an errands boy and a tanner. Busy man.”

The young man nodded seriously. “Call for Tanners anywhere, and I’ll provide whatever you need.”

“Hah. Well, I shall hold you to your word.”


Tanners knocked excitedly on the inn’s door.


Tanners pushed the door open with a grin. “Good evening, sir!” He pushed a pack of knives to the side to set the dinner tray on the table, and then perched on its edge.

“Thanks.” The brute looked up from lacing his breeches to ruffle the younger man’s hair. Tanners’ smile grew even larger at the touch. “Do you have no friends, boy, to be always on beck and call?”

“I’m no boy. I’ve seen eighteen summers at least, maybe even twenty,” Tanners informed him, watching the stretch of scar tissue and smooth skin across the man’s torso in fascination. There were places on the brute’s chest where hair no longer grew, replaced by a line of dented flesh or a keloid pucker. Fresh markings crisscrossed the man’s arms, and a bruise showed purple through the stubble on his chin.

The brute snorted. “You’ll be a man when you can remember as many. Hand me that shirt on the chair there.”

“Keilan.” A voice sounded from the doorway, and Tanners was so startled that he dropped the brute’s garment on the straw-covered floor. The plaits mustache brute from The Fatted Calf stared at the younger man for a moment, then his eyes widened and he made the sign against evil. Tanners dropped his gaze in shame.

“Don’t do that,” the brute admonished the newcomer. “It’s but an odd eye, no worse than a cat’s.”

The plaits brute crossed the room to speak to his friend in low tones. “You know that he carries a devil, do you not? The brighter the color, the stronger the evil inside him.”

“Wives’ tales,” the brute scoffed, dropping onto the bed to yank his boots on. “Should it be true, a little honest labor will keep the beast in check.”

The plaits brute looked skeptical. “Aye, but even a small demon in a man his size…You invite danger.”

“A man his size, you say? He would need to eat a bull at every meal to match your girth,” the brute laughed, reaching over to hit the other man in the stomach. “Say your piece, Brando. Surely the devil in the tanner’s boy will stay its talons for that.”

“You’re a horse’s ass, Keilan,” the plaits man grumbled, but smiled begrudgingly. “I’ve only come to say that we are to change inns again in a few days. I’ll be off.”

“Message received,” said the brute. “On the morrow.”

“On the morrow,” the plaits man replied, and left.

Tanners hoped the brute’s move would finally be to the goatherd’s hill. Then there would be no plaited mustache men to interrupt or speak ill of Tanners. He watched the firelight play shadows across the muscle in the man’s shoulders and arms. It was almost disappointing to see them covered by the shirt.

“What is so hypnotizing, boy?” the man asked, snapping his fingers to get Tanners’ attention.

Blinking, Tanners raised his eyes to the brute’s bemused smile. “Do any of those still hurt?”

“No, when it snows my left shoulder is stiff, but it’s nothing to do with all these ugly surface wounds,” he responded with nonchalance, shrugging a vest over his shirt.

“I don’t think they’re ugly, sir,” Tanners said honestly. “They make you look like a real warrior. You have a powerful look about you.”

The brute lifted a wry brow. “Any fool can get cut, Tanners. Think no more of me because I survived.”

Handing the man his belt, Tanners pointed out, “But sir, you have all of your teeth and none are blackened or yellow. Even a scholar often cannot protect his mouth. Does this not mean you have some great skill?”

The brute flashed the dentition in question. “Keep your own face in its current state, and you’ll find young ladies willing to forget their parents’ warnings.”

Though Tanners’ cheeks grew rosy at the praise he didn’t believe it. “Melody’s the only woman who talks to me, but she has a man.”

“Is Melody your little goatherd?” the brute asked.

Tanners chuckled. “You call her my goatherd. She calls you my brute.”

The man paused. “Is that so?”

Tanners nodded absentmindedly as he fiddled with the weapons on the table. “She’s glad that I have another friend, but she told me that she worries what will happen when the brute squad moves on.”

“Did she.”

“Yes, sir. You had best eat before your dinner turns cold.” Tanners seated himself across from his friend and watched him for a moment. There was a sensation in Tanners’ stomach that made him oddly nervous around the man. It wasn’t a new emotion, but it was so much more powerful today than ever before. Maybe his devil was indeed growing stronger.

The brute glanced at the fidgety young man. “Have you eaten?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then why—”

“Have you ever met another devil, inside a man or woman?” Tanners asked suddenly.

“Only you, if the townsfolk are to be believed,” the man replied after a moment of thought. “All others have shown themselves to be hedge witches too long at their craft. Why do you ask?”

Tanners frowned. “Lately I feel it more often, and I’m not sure if I grow weak or it grows more powerful.”

The brute shrugged. “Does it not depend on what the devil wants? You feel no temptation to eat babes and litters of kittens, for example.”

“The temptation is not to violence,” the young man assured him. “I only mention the beast because…you…often…perhaps it does not like that I am around a warrior such as yourself.” Tanners looked at his hands, which gave the brute ample opportunity to surmise that the boy’s ears were pink.

When the brute said nothing Tanners lifted his head. Have I offended him? he worried. “I do not mean to say that you are the cause, sir,” Tanners clarified hurriedly. “Perhaps I am not attentive to its bonds when I am in your presence.”

The brute narrowed his pale eyes. “How do you know it is the demon?”

“Well,” Tanners said as he struggled to put the emotion into words, “I feel restless when performing ordinary tasks. Sometimes my garments become too tight. Or I feel flushed, but have no fever. My heart pounds madly without any fright or exertion.”

“Signs of a devil attempting escape?”

Tanners nodded. He held back on divulging the other signs—loss of appetite, inability to keep his mind on naught but the man across the table, and those shameful nocturnal emissions.

The brute seemed unconcerned with Tanners’ possession, for his reply was, “Are you sure that you do not suffer a fever?” and to reach across to feel the younger man’s throat.

At the touch of the brute’s callused fingertips Tanners demon spread its red wings. His chest constricted and his breeches constrained him to the point of torture. It must not harm the brute! Tanners thought frantically, and stood with such haste that his chair fell backwards.

“The demon—my apologies, sir!” Tanners ran from the room and its puzzled occupant without a backwards look.

There was safety in his pile of hay and blanket in the loft. Tanners dashed home and threw himself down with a loud huff. Why could he not take his mind off the brute’s hands, his eyes the color of new leaves, the span of his chest and the powerful arms? Barely cognizant of his actions, Tanners fumbled to untie his breeches and free his straining manhood. He grasped it in desperation; anything to release this internal tempest. He imagined the feel of the rough hands on his neck, his body, his thighs and between. How the bare chest would feel pressed against Tanners’ own.

His throat and stomach tingled, his toes clenched. With the image of the half-naked brute fixed on his brain Tanners caressed his smooth chest with one hand and stroked his cock with the other. The demon inside raged and roared through his veins, stealing logic and rational thought to leave frenzied lust in its wake. Tanners and his devil battled until they fell entangled over the edge of a cliff, crying out in a wash of ultimate euphoria. The youth opened his eyes to see the tannery rafters overhead. Tanners lay in the warm evening, feeling his seed cool on his belly with a mixture of shame and relief. Whether the demon’s silence was due to victory or defeat was unclear.


“And then we went to the cobbler and repaired his boot, and then we walked around until we spotted a tavern with open spaces, not Halbeard’s or The Trough this time, though, and then we went to the in where he has stayed this fortnight because the minstrel troupe visited, and we watched the performance in the hall, and they were riotously funny, Melody, and then—”

“I need no more details,” the goatherd interrupted as she bent to pull a clod of dirt from her inquisitive son’s grasp. “I well understand that you spent the evening with your brute, as you have for the summer’s entirety.”

Tanners folded his arms. “You needn’t be so cross.”

The goatherd made a face at him. “I asked you how you’ve fared, because I haven’t seen you here in a moon’s time.”

“My father is already drunk today, so very well, thank you. The demon has become hard to control, though.” Tanners sighed heavily. “I’ve a solution, but some days I am hard pressed to find time alone. Then I have to clean up the mess…”

Melody’s black eyebrows rose. “Does your brute know about this?” she asked, trying not to laugh.

The young man nodded. “I haven’t told him the procedure, but he is well aware that the beast tests its chains whenever he comes near.”

“Ah. Well, lock the chains tight, for when the goats are shut in the pasture he will pitch his tent here.”

Tanners grinned brightly. “Truly? When?”

“After midday, I imagine,” the goatherd answered, “though I’ll be shearing and will not meet him until tomorrow.”

Bouncing with excitement, Tanners assured her he would fill her role. Melody had only time to bid him goodbye before he had run down the hill.

Luckily the brute squad was less occupied with the troublesome nomads; Tanners knew that the half day patrol would have finished its duties by the time he reached the town.

“Have you learned where you stay tonight, sir?” Tanners asked as he trotted up to the group.

“Ah, Keilan, it’s your faithful odd-eyed dog,” commented the plaits mustache member, earning a laugh from the other men. The brute socked his arm good-naturedly as he stepped past to greet the young man.

Tanners’ brows drew together. “I’m no dog.”

“You follow him around, eating his scraps and sniffing at his ass—I’d say that’s pretty dog-like,” the another man added.

The one with plaits turned to his companion. “Isn’t it the curs and mongrels that are born with one blue eye?”

“An excellent point, good sir. Dogs sleep in their own urine, do they not?”

“You’re thinking of a weasel. Dogs eat their shit.”

“So it must be the demon that smells of piss.

Tanners bristled.

“Stop right there, boy,” the brute warned, grabbing Tanners by the upper arm. “They’ll beat your teeth from your head.”

Glaring at the party, Tanners responded through clenched teeth. “I’m not a dog. The one with plaits called me a dog. I’m not.”

The brute shook his head. “He knows that, he was teasing you.”

“I’m not a dog. Everyone says I’m stupid like a dog, but I’m not.”

“Then perhaps you should cease growling,” the older man suggested gently.

Had Tanners not so enjoyed the feel of the brute’s hand on his arm, he would have shook him off. “They think I’ll behave like an animal if they don’t cuff me, but I won’t. I’ll be fine without my ears boxed. I will.”

“I know.” The brute addressed his comrades. “You lot go ahead. I’ve enough of your company for one day.”

The men laughed. “The widow maker has become the pup’s guardian!” “His kennel keeper.” “Nay, the bitch hound that suckles him!”

The brute gave them a rude gesture. “Off with you; I’m glad to be rid of your stench for even a few hours.”

“So long, bitch hound!” a few of the brute squad called as they headed to the town.

Tanners let himself be pulled to the side. “They mock me. Everyone does, but your comrades are vicious. I don’t wish to smell of piss. No one gives me soap, but I can’t steal it because that’s what animals do. Steal. I’m a man, and men buy or trade for their needs and things. But I’ve no money because my father keeps it. I only want a real bath and to wash my clothes.”

The brute sighed. “If that’s all you desire then come with me.”

Tanners followed him through the town, keeping his eye on the broad back as the two men wove through the market crowds. More than once he grabbed onto the brute’s wrist to prevent being separated. Was it his demon that ran Tanners thumb over the twist of muscle above the brute’s leather cuff? The man didn’t give any indication that he noticed.

Once they had cleared the center of town Tanners gauged their path. “You know then, that you are to pitch a tent on Melody’s hill?”

The brute laughed aloud. “Thank the gods you speak plainly and without underlying meaning.”

Pleased to be the source of such mirth, Tanners grinned. “There’s a clear stream there, and some shade when the day is hot.”

Clapping his young companion on the shoulder, the brute added, “And I have lye soap in my pack.”

Despite his disappointment that the brute no longer gripped his arm, Tanners beamed at the prospect of spending an uninterrupted afternoon with his favorite companion. The brute was in high spirits. He raced Tanners up the steep path and roughhoused with him in the clearing. Once the brute ascertained that Tanners could swim he threw the younger man into the stream before diving in fully clothed.

Tanners mimicked his older companion and scrubbed his clothes with the strong lye soap, beating them against the rocks to remove the dirt. The men then turned their attention to the grime on their bodies, lathering their hair and washing the dirt away. Tanners happily sluiced the grayish suds away in the chilly stream and turned his arms to see the tan lines.

“Aren’t I a sight?” he asked with a chuckle.

The brute snorted as he climbed up the bank. “It’s as though someone took your head and arms and placed them on another man’s body.”

Tanners watched in fascination as the man shook himself like a dog and patted himself dry with the rag. The cock between his legs was thick and pendulous; it swung like a lazy serpent when the man bent to gather his clothes.

“Why are you brown from head to waist?” Tanners inquired. “I see you in fully dressed in town.”

The brute looked down his body as though considering it for the first time. “I do not train in shirtsleeves, and then we spend most of our days in the dark forest,” he answered.

Clambering after the man, Tanners complained, “If but I could tan hides in naught but breeches, perhaps I’d look more of a man.”

“Could you not? Your clothes would need fewer washings, for sure,” the brute joked. His arms flexed as he wrung his garments dry; Tanners was hard pressed to keep his gaze on the landscape.

“After the butcher’s daughter began following me when she should have been doing her chores…” Tanners shrugged. “The demon likes virgins, everyone says.”

The brute snorted. “Virgins like muscular young men with handsome faces.”

“Then why did she not follow the banker’s boy, the mean one?” Tanners rejoined with a knowing look.

“There are at least four bankers in this town and I’ve heard that all have sons,” the man replied easily. “I doubt any look like you.”

Tanners nodded his agreement. “None have a devil’s eye, that’s true.”

The brute shook his head, a smile curving one side of his mouth upward. “I doubt that was her only motivation.”

What other reason could she have had? Tanners wondered. No other woman had approached him in such a manner. He never told another soul that she once kissed him, but the girl had made him promise to keep it a secret.

“Wring your clothes out and lay them out in the grass,” the brute instructed, “but make sure you gather them all before sunrise or the goats will chew them through.”

“Shall I help you pitch the tent, sir?”

The brute nodded. “Aye, another set of hands will shorten the task. Fetch the spikes from my pack there.”

Tanners obeyed, watching the man as surreptitiously as he could manage. The afternoon breeze raised gooseflesh on his wet skin even as the sun baked it. Grass tickled his calves as he and the brute hammered the spikes into the soft ground and strung up the light summer canvas.

“Will you go into town tonight, sir?” Tanners inquired while he tied the last rope into place.

“Thank you for the aid,” the brute said and gave Tanners a hand up. “No, I’ve bread, jerky, and cheese. This day I gladly shall do no more than rest.”

That sounded too much akin to a dismissal for Tanners’ liking. The sunshine was beginning to burn his chest shoulders. His clothes were wet. The brute was here and home held only work and the stench of hides. “May I share the tent while my clothes dry?”

The brute lifted the flap to peer inside. “I imagine that there is room for another body inside.”

Tanners’ devil twitched in its slumber. Sleep, he begged it as he crawled into the shelter. Let me tarry a while longer. The brute gave a contented sigh as he stretched out on his back and closed his eyes. Tanners lay down beside the man, careful rest on his stomach in case the beast awoke. He couldn’t recall a moment more complete. The air was warm and the canvas softened the sun’s glare. The brute’s chest rose and fell slowly, drawing Tanners’ gaze to the cut of muscle there, how it flowed to the rippling abdomen and the patch of dark curls and thick manhood nestled within. The demon stirred.

“You’ve so many scars, sir,” Tanners commented. “Do you remember how you came by them?”

“Mm. The big ones, yes.”

Tanners brushed a raised patch on the man’s shoulder. “This one?”

Without opening his eyes, the brute replied, “An arrow with a notched head. My commander dug it out.”

Trailing over a large ragged pucker on the brute’s chest, Tucker asked, “And this?”

“A boar, when I was about your age and very stupid.”

Tanners couldn’t imagine the brute being stupid. “How long ago was that?”

“Four years, perhaps five,” the man murmured sleepily. “I cannot recall.”

An eye on his target, Tanners stroked a fingertip down a thin white mark on the man’s stomach, fresher than the others. “When did you get this?”

“Sometime at our last long station,” the brute answered with a yawn. “There were a couple of minor lords fighting each other—stop, that tickles—and we were to bring the conflict to a close. It was a rather bloody affair.”

“Hm.” The demon was awake and hungry. It reached Tanners’ hand downward far sooner than he had planned.

“Stop it, boy,” said the brute, knocking Tanners’ hand away. “It’s hot and I haven’t had a woman in moons.”

“I’m only looking, sir,” Tanners insisted.

“You aren’t looking. You’re touching.” Opening one eye, the brute added, “You’ve your own to tinker with.”

See what you have done, Tanners chided his demon. The beast was unabashed. It prowled in search of other ways to repeat the experience with a more favorable outcome. It raised the hair on Tanners’ arms and scraped at his belly. Touch him and I’ll do the rest, it promised. I can give you what you desire most.

Tanners reached out again to trace a scar on the brute’s thigh.

“Behave, tanner’s boy,” the brute said in a warning tone.

For the first time in his life Tanners allowed the demon use of his speech. “Take your nap, old man,” it retorted lightly. “I am but examining these ugly surface wounds.”

Seemingly reassured, the brute put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. “Call me old man again and I’ll cast you from this tent head first.”

The devil in Tanners laughed to distract from how touch became to caress, how it shuffled down the blanket for better access to its prey. Now, it urged its host. Tanners kept an eye on the brute’s face. The man’s tense expression belied his resting posture. Wait, Tanners thought. He did as he had claimed and kept his fingers to marred skin alone. When the brute’s strong brow relaxed Tanners gave the beast some lead. There, on the inside of his knee, it directed him. The mark by his navel. Lower now.

Tanners felt his heart beat faster, the same way it always did when the demon was ready to break its bonds. The brute showed no sign of alarm this time when Tanners retraced the newer scar from stomach to pubis; the devil grinned and placed Tanners’ palm high on the man’s roped thigh, brushing his thumb over the crease between leg and groin.

They waited together, Tanners and his demon, until they were certain that the gentle touch had lulled the brute to a light slumber. Eat him up, the beast prodded, while you still can. For once Tanners had no argument. It felt as though he would die with anticipation as he slowly, carefully, slid his right hand to cup the hanging sack. Courage firmly fixed, he bent his head and wrapped his lips around the brute’s cock.

The brute started in disbelief, and then sat up swiftly to rap the head in his lap. “Shit, boy! That’s tasting!”

Tanners jumped back guiltily, but kept hold of the larger man’s balls. “It’s the devil in me, sir.”

“I don’t know if devils like cock.”

“Maybe not all, but I think some do.”

“Your devil likes cock?”

The beast laughed in Tanners’ head. “I believe so, sir.”

The brute narrowed his eyes at the younger man. “Don’t gaze at me with those lust-bright eyes. You’ve no idea what I could do to you.”

Tanners’ stomach clenched, though not in fear. “I—” he swallowed nervously, “I’ll fetch your supper, sir. Or I can clean your leathers for you; I know the task well.”

Surprise shot the man’s brows nearly to his hairline, and then he laughed incredulously. Tanners scowled.

“I don’t mock your sincerity,” the brute assured him, “but you must know that sort of thing is why most men go to whores.”

Tanners folded his arms. “I mustn’t know anything of the sort,” he protested. “My devil can’t enter a brothel. It brings bad luck.”

Grasping the young man’s wrist, the brute gingerly removed the hand from his scrotum. “Devil or no, you’re well on your way to making another kind of beast, this with two backs.”

Tanners brows furrowed. “I don’t comprehend—”

“You’re asking to suck my cock,” the brute clarified in a stern voice. “In acts of sexual nature that ranks second only to copulation.”

The expression on the boy’s face made it clear he had not considered as much. “Sir, I only—”

“I have been a monstrous ass to let it come this far. You’re barely adult.”

“I’m man enough,” Tanners argued.

“Go now, Tanners,” the brute ordered him. He grabbed Tanners by the arm and hauled the younger man upwards.

Tanners threw his weight backwards, for once grateful to have some demonic assistance. He couldn’t leave now, not when he was so close. Please, no. The brute, however, was more than a match for the young man’s muscle and even on his knees was able to propel Tanners halfway out of the tent.

“Wait” The sudden depth to Tanners’ command surprised them both. “Please. Please. I beseech you, sir, please.”

The brute had never appeared so troubled. “I…” He blew out a puff of air and sat back on his heels. “Have you any inkling of what you ask?”

Neither Tanners nor the devil knew that answer, but the rawness of their need was enough to leave the young man’s throat dry. He crawled towards the brute and mirrored his posture, so close that their knees touched.

“Sir, tell me what you do not want,” he demanded.

The brute looked to the side, clenching his jaw in consternation. “I do not wish to—the brute squad quits this town in half a moon’s time.”

The devil smiled. How sweet. “Give me until then,” it whispered, entwining Tanners’ arms about the brute’s neck. “I beg you, sir, not to push me away just yet.”

The brute clasped his hands on Tanners’ forearms and for a moment it seemed that he intended do exactly that. Frown fixed on his brow, his sage green eyes stared into Tanners mismatched set, searching for something the young man hoped he would not find. Without any encouragement from his beast Tanners nudged the brute’s nose with his own, and then kissed him.

Ah, Tanners sighed inside. So this was that mystery, why he had been kept from butcher’s daughters and virgins. A simple meeting of mouths could spark a flame inside his breast so fierce as to burn him through. Tanners curled his fingers into the brute’s thick hair and pulled the man harder into him, eager to feel the muscled body flush against his own. The brute’s moment of capitulation was clear—tension left his shoulders, his hands drifted from Tanner’s arms to encircle his back, and better still his lips parted to claim the young man’s more completely.

“I’ll have you know,” he said when Tanners’ lips drifted down his neck, “that never before have I so much as desired another man. That devil of yours must be a powerful creature.”

The demon chuckled. Suddenly Tanners pushed the brute backwards, tumbling with him to the ground. The demon would have its reward.

“I should have known,” the brute laughed breathlessly when Tanners grasped his manhood. “‘Only looking,’ you said. Such falsehoods from such a sweet mouth.”

Tanners didn’t know whether to preen or blush. Instead his busied himself with nibbling his way down the man’s torso, putting lips and tongue where his fingers had been already. The shaft in his hand grew heavier, thicker, just like his own when the devil was hard on his conscience. So like his own, but so different. A bluish vein here, another there, foreskin a darker shade and what looked to be a curve where Tanner’s was straight.

Tanners held it in one hand and petted it to hardness with the other. The demon beat at the pit of his belly. In your mouth. Take it in your mouth. Tanners bent his head and the brute let out a soft groan.

The cap was soft and spongy under his tongue. Their bath in the stream had removed scents and tastes, but Tanners found that when he dug his tongue into the slit he could both make the brute shake and suss out a small bit of the tang his devil craved. He trailed his free hand over the crisp curls that covered the man’s groin. Remembering what felt good to his own balls Tanners tugged gently has his hand traveled upwards on the brute’s thick shaft.

“A moment,” the brute said. He pulled Tanners around so that the boy’s straining shaft was above his mouth, pulled the foreskin back, and took the head in his mouth.

Tanners shut his eyes when he felt the warm wetness on his cockhead. Surely there could be no greater pleasure than this. Sucking gently, the brute slid his lips up and down Tanners’ shaft, eliciting soft gasps when he swirled his tongue over the head. Only the twitching of the cock in his hand pulled him out of his own pleasure to return in kind. He kissed down the sides of the shaft to lap at the man’s balls; they were so heavy, so full of virility. That will be mine, the devil swore. It drew Tanners back to the tumescent flesh, slurping and licking and nipping to coax the seed into rising. Tanners struggled to focus with wet lips surrounding his shaft.

“Sir,” he gasped, “I think, ah, I think—”

The brute responded with a knowing squeeze of Tanners’ buttocks, and took as much of the younger man’s manhood into his mouth as would fit.

“Oh!” Tanners breathed, squeezing hard on the shaft in his hands. The demon threw back its head and crowed. “Oh!” He came, shooting his seed down the brute’s welcoming throat, trembling as his muscles clenched uncontrollably. The brute swallowed, pulling the last of the young man’s seed from his body.

Still awash with the glow of his orgasm Tanners sucked hard on the cock in his mouth, eager to provide the same pleasure he had been granted. The brute’s legs tensed as he neared his release and he dug his fingers into Tanners’ thighs. Harder, the demon urged, eager for the taste of seed. Bobbing his head vigorously, Tanners stroked his hand down the part his lips could not reach and stroked the furry balls.

“Tanners,” the brute groaned in warning, and then he came, ejaculating fiercely into Tanners’ mouth. The devil swallowed eagerly, savoring the sharp flavor and seeking every remaining drop. Tanners squeezed the shaft to force all the semen that remained from its hiding place. The sticky seed coated his teeth and tongue; each taste made him ravenous for more.

Finally the brute pushed Tanners’ head away. “Enough,” he said weakly. “I can take no more.”

After bestowing one last kiss on the man’s penis Tanners turned to settle on top of the him, nestling their soft cocks together and resting his forearms aside the man’s head. So beautiful, Tanners thought as he watched the brute’s breathing slow. The demon agreed, drinking in the sight of the strong brow, short dark lashes, and high cheekbones. He leant down to press his lips to the larger man’s, who responded unhurriedly, leisurely, curving an arm around Tanner’s shoulders to hold him close.

“Mm, thank you, sir,” Tanners said.

The brute chuckled against Tanners’ lips. “You thank me? You practically gave me release by force. I am in your debt.”

The devil liked that idea. “Have you known other men like me?” Tanners asked as he slid down to lie next to the brute.

“None are quite like you Tanners,” the brute responded with a slight smile. “Men who favor other men, or who prefer men to women? I’ve only known a few.”

Tanners stroked the brute’s chest. “What were they like?”

The brute made a thoughtful face. “Well,” he replied slowly, “some carried themselves like women, some you would not know from Adam’s off ox.”

“So how did you know that they favored men?”

The brute turned to grin at the younger man. “They like big ugly brutes.”

“You’re not ugly at all,” Tanners told him. “Did they want to kiss you, like I did?”

“Nothing so sincere,” the brute said as he pulled Tanners closer. “Most wanted to be bent over and fucked without preamble; satisfying themselves until the next brute squad or army rolled through the town, I imagine. I let some other road-weary man fulfill that desire.”

Bent over and fucked. The idea was titillating. Tanners and his demon mulled it over. Would it look like Melody’s goats? Though the sight of animals had never struck Tanners as anything but awkward and amusing, the idea of the brute on top of him like a billy on a nanny goat evoked a dull tingle in Tanners’ stomach. He reached down to stroke the man’s cock once more.

The brute chuckled as he grabbed Tanners’ hand. “You’re incorrigible. Leave it be until we’ve nourished our bodies.”

Tanners pulled his hand away reluctantly. He was peckish, the demon was at rest for the moment, and the brute hadn’t forbidden him from touching him altogether. While Tanners ate and listened to the brute’s stories of life on the road his devil turned over the idea of men lying with each other. Men had no vagina, how was the penis to enter another man’s body but through his mouth? We’ll find out, the demon promised.

Once the bread, meat and cheese were finished and washed down with wine, Tanners wasted no time in sitting his companion down to recommence his earlier attentions. Renewed by the sustenance and giddy from drink, Tanners bit at the brute until the man laughingly begged him to stop, and then occupied himself with coaxing the brute’s manhood to hardness.

Bent over and fucked. The brute’s words reverberated in Tanners’ head. How was it even possible? He examined the thickening shaft. Perhaps to lie with a man was simply to make the motions of copulation, earning release by rubbing the penis against the other man’s body.

“You’re a pensive soul,” the brute commented as he ran a rough hand over Tanners’ thigh. “What occupies your thoughts?”

Tanners looked at him. “Sir, when men mate, where does the penis go?”

The brute stifled his mirth. “‘Mate?’ Call it fucking—you’ll feel better.”

“Where does it go?” the young man repeated.

The brute looked down at his lap and cocked his dark head. “Well, in the mouth, or between the legs.”

“Like this, sir?” Tanners sat over the man’s engorged shaft and held it between his thighs.

The brute laughed, “No, inside the ass, fool.”

Tanners could imagine such an act, though the demon pondered it. “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“I wouldn’t know,” the man replied honestly. “I imagine so.”

“You said that some men enjoy it, though.”

The brute’s expression was dubious. “I’ve heard that there is some pleasure in the penetration. I’ve also heard that it can make a man hobble as though he has been thrown from a horse.”

Do it, Tanners’ devil urged excitedly. How better to consume him than to take as much of him into your body? You’ll have his cock. You’ll have his seed. Eat him up, take him alive. Do it.

Chucking the younger man under his chin, the brute shook his head. “Tanners, I’m not sure we can do that.”

“I can handle it,” Tanners’ sanguine devil assured him.

“I know nothing of the technique, the method; Tanners, I have only lain with women.” The brute leaned over to kiss the youth’s cheek. “Will you not be content with what we’ve done?”

The demon narrowed its eyes. “Coward,” it said jokingly. Tanners straddled the man’s lap so that their erections were trapped between their bellies. “Must I persuade you into this as well?”

Green eyes bright with amusement, the brute replied, “Persuade me? Between the two of us, I have greater knowledge of what lies ahead and therefore am more cautious.”

Tanners rested his forehead in the crook of the brute’s neck, momentarily content with the feel of hard flesh against hard flesh. The brute stroked the young man’s broad back with a gentle touch.

“I’m not afraid,” Tanners said quietly, “of anything but wasting time.”

The brute tugged Tanner’s head up by the hair. “There is no time wasted with you,” he said, and pressed a kiss to the young man’s lips. At the contact Tanners’ demon sprang into action, commandeering its host’s hands to draw the brute closer. It sank to the blanket and pulled the older man down with Tanners. The beast met the brute to trade the man’s sweetness for desire, tenderness for need, and consideration for lust. As the kiss became more passionate Tanners’ legs came up to embrace the older man’s waist. The brute responded by sinking more fully onto him, rubbing their stiff cocks together.

Tanners and his devil guided one of the man’s hands underneath his body, pressing the rough fingertips against Tanners’ wanting entrance. “Please,” Tanners breathed, hardly aware of his actions. He must have a fever, for every time the brute brushed his fingers over the hole Tanners’ body trembled. He said again, “Please.”

The brute leaned over to dig in his pack for a moment. He withdrew and opened a bottle, dipping two fingers inside. Tanners could see that the man’s fingers shined in the fading sunlight. Oil? he thought in confusion. The devil could guess the brute’s purpose and wriggled in anticipation.

Reclaiming Tanners’ lips, the brute brought his oil-slick fingers first to pump the young man’s shaft, then trailed downward. Tanners gasped at the initial penetration. Delicious, the demon said. Tanners arched his back, eager to feel more of the digit inside him. The brute added another finger, pressing against the muscle and rubbing over a knot that made Tanners’ cock jump.

“More,” the devil begged aloud.

The brute pulled Tanners’ legs over his shoulders, positioned himself, and pushed.

Tanners’ eyes bugged. It was so painful; so, so painful. His insides were collapsing and exploding all at once. I want this, Tanners’ devil whispered. Quit grimacing or he’ll stop. The young man breathed heavily through his nose, gasping when the mighty head snapped past his sphincter, but he held back the cries of pain. Though he had never experienced such unique torture, he silenced the protests that welled in his throat.

The brute waited until the young man’s expression smoothed out. “Are you all right?”

The beast had to find Tanners’ voice for him. “Please.”

The first withdrawal was accompanied by a twinge. Tanner’s gasped sharply before the devil got hold of his tongue. The brute paused, concern showing strongly behind the lust in his expression, so Tanners grasped the man’s forearms to pull him back again. In, the pain duller now, and out again.

Wrap your legs around him, the demon suggested, remembering that knot the brute’s fingers had found. Tanners obeyed, and though the pain only lessened little by little it was suddenly accompanied by an inexplicable wash of pleasure with every thrust. In again, out; soon the initial pain was a faint memory, replaced by a thick shaft and skin on skin.

“Sir.” The word fell softly from the Tanners’ lips as the man moved inside him. “Sir.”

The brute paused and raised himself on his arms. “You would call me sir even now?”

Tanners opened his mismatched eyes. “But you’ve never given me leave to call you by name.”

“You have it, then,” the brute said, a smile caught in the corner of his mouth.

Tanners cocked his head in impatience. “You’ve never told me what it is.”

With a laugh, the brute tapped the side of the boy’s head. “You’ve heard the others call me Keilan.”

“All right, then,” Tanners replied, tugging him back down. “Keilan.”

His name must have held some powerful magic, for Tanners’ whispers in his ears spurred the brute to greater speed and more powerful thrusts, driving his hips to a fixed purpose. Tanners clung to him as to driftwood in a shipwreck, calling his name and sinking fingernails into his back.

The demon cavorted through Tanners’ body, turning his skin galvanic, a conduit for desire and ecstasy. Every trickle of sweat over muscle, every taste of tongue, every touch of skin on skin set his nerves sparking and shivering afresh. Tanners gripped his manhood tightly, pumping it in time to the one inside him. He was losing control; at any moment his limbs would fly apart and take his consciousness with it. Chest heaving, heart pounding, breath rasping through clenched teeth, Tanners came.

“Keilan!” Tanners’ cried, the sound punctuated by the slap of flesh on flesh. The beast within sprang. With black jaws wide it roared in triumph, spreading wide feathered wings to launch free of its host, consuming Tanners, consuming the brute, shaking their bones and sending them both tumbling over the edge of ecstasy into a blinding white light.

Keilan’s breath whooshed into Tanners’ ear as he collapsed on top of the younger man. The pressure of the man’s hard abdomen and the tickle of hair were almost too much for Tanners’ sensitive cock, but the lingering shudders of his orgasm kept him from changing positions. He lifted a shaky hand to pet the brute’s dark head while they caught their breath. Finding strength enough to support himself on one arm, Keilan leaned to meet Tanners’ lips.

“That was wonderful,” Tanners murmured.

When he lifted his head Keilan’s green eyes were gentle. He smiled down at the young man. “You are without doubt the most oddly seductive person I’ve met.”

Was it because Tanners had convinced the brute to make love to him? “The devil in me is a powerful force,” he replied seriously.

“Demon eye,” Keilan said softly as he ran his fingers over Tanners’ cheekbone. “Such lies to keep you in place.”

“You must have driven it out,” Tanners told him contentedly, “because I don’t feel it anymore.”

“No?” What do you feel?”

“I still feel you inside me. And I feel very happy.”

The brute grinned and pulled Tanners close. “As do I.”

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