The chains on a captive Prince and his Guardian cannot keep them apart.
When Prince Liander and his Guardian, Hollis, are captured during a raid they find themselves chained in pairs to other captive villagers, prisoners of their country's enemy. It's vital that Liander's identity is kept secret.
The new slaves are horrified to learn they're to be trained in the use of weapons and unarmed combat so they can entertain their captors. Hollis worries about Liander, but there's nothing he can do as they are kept in different training halls. He must trust his prince to look after himself.
Hollis wishes to get Liander away to safety but as they are both kept chained to other slaves it begins to look impossible. It doesn't help when it becomes obvious the day may come when they're forced to fight each other for their survival. Hollis would rather die than harm the man who means the world to him. He is getting desperate, time is running out. Then comes a final betrayal.
This work has been previously published.
I held up the clothes I was expected to wear for the upcoming feast. How had I ever allowed myself to be talked into this? I heard a slight sound behind me and squashed the sigh that wanted out. I knew damn well how it happened. Liander had but to raise his eyes to me, and I was putty in his hands. Liander's hands on my body...if only it was more than simple words. Or my hands on his body. I would like nothing better than to put my hands on his body, and I didn't mean when I taught him how to protect himself or how to keep his body in good order. Determined to put such thoughts out of my head, I glanced again at the outfit provided by Antell.
The village patriarch was fascinated by Liander's interest in the history of the coastal people, and now it was time for Liander to end his visit, Antell had come up with a special way to say goodbye. In celebration of Liander's leave-taking, Antell suggested a traditional Calmast feast, something which had not been seen for almost five hundred years. Not surprisingly, Liander had been delighted at the suggestion, including the idea of dressing up in clothes similar to what the coastal folk had worn back then. Liander agreed in my name, too. I'd growled at him in mock anger, but he knew me well enough to appreciate my bark was worse than my bite. Not that he had any need to consult me anyhow; his word was mine to obey.
The clothing consisted of short length pants, which fit very snugly, reaching to just above the knee, leaving the lower leg bare. On our feet we were to wear sandals with crisscross strapping up to mid calf. The top half of the outfit was a long, sleeveless tunic in the same snug-fitting material. There was no way anything could be worn underneath the outfit. The women had been working non-stop for a week to produce outfits in a variety of natural colors and shades--green, brown, grey, blue and a vibrant orange.
The outfit was considerably more restrictive than the loose clothing we normally wore, and I was somewhat dubious about wearing it, mostly because the clingy material delineated every line and curve of the body. While I wasn't too bad in that department, some of the villagers were quite definitely an eyeful. Which was when it had dawned on me I'd also get to see some of Liander's curves similarly displayed, and I'd readily grabbed the outfit I was given.
Liander's voice drifted from behind the screen where he was changing. "I wonder whose idea it was my costume should be blue?"
"I don't know," I replied, looking at mine in a mixture of dark and light grey, which seemed rather bland in comparison. With Andim still fussing over the fit of my tunic, Liander stepped out then, and I found it hard to take my eyes off him.
"Enough, Andim," I said, brushing the man's hands away.
"But, My Lord," Andim protested, his hands reaching for me again, though at a sharp look from Liander he backed off.
Liander noted my perusal and, glancing down at himself, he asked, "Do I look acceptable?"
Acceptable? He looked positively edible. The clothing clung to him like a second skin showing every muscle, plane, hollow and curve of his body. What it didn't cover was showed off to perfection, particularly the muscular arms normally hidden by our usual clothing.
Unfortunately, the long tunic, cut in such a way that it flared more loosely from the waist, hid the curves of his ass, which I had particularly hoped to ogle. Spoilsports, was my first thought 'til I considered that, if the ass was so clearly displayed, so would be the family jewels and, while I had no compunction at all at having a look at Liander's, I had no wish for him to see mine. Might reveal too much. No, it was better this way, unfortunately!
"Hollis?" Liander frowned, glancing down at himself again.
"Yes, you look fine," I said.
"Excellent," he said, smiling. "You look good, too," he added.
I almost dismissed the comment as no more than a polite response until I noticed the appreciative gleam in his eyes as he studied me, which made me feel better at having to wear the outfit.
"If you'd just allow me to straighten the shoulder seam, My Lord?" Andim edged closer again.
Liander sighed. "How many times must I ask you to stop calling me that?"
"Would you prefer I addressed you as Your Highness?" Andim asked with a perfectly straight face.
"Hollis, remind me never to bring him again."
"Rest assured, I will."
Andim grumbled under his breath, but his words could still be heard. "No other man worthy of the title prince would behave so." If it wasn't for the gleam in his eye, and that I knew Andim doted on his prince, I'd have taken Andim outside and thrashed the man.
Prince Liander had wanted to visit this small backwater on the south coast so he could check some of his historical research, but he hadn't wanted to be bothered with all the trappings of being a member of the ruling house on the trip; he'd merely wanted to be a scholar. He'd enjoyed himself immensely among the coastal folk, and I'd had fun watching him be happy.
To the simple villagers, Prince Liander was a most revered guest, not just because he was a member of the ruling family, but because he was a learned scholar aware of things beyond their understanding, who was willing to explain anything to any villager who wished to enquire. Liander had spent almost two months with them and his generous nature had gained immense favor in their eyes, and they were sorry to see him leave.
Me? I was glad to be able to take him home where I knew he would be safe. They were the thoughts of Prince Liander's Guardian; he was a big part of my personality, but he's not all that I am. The other part, the personal part, wanted to keep Liander safe because he was important to me.
The women of the village had prepared the feast, but, as per the traditions of the time we were recreating, they were not allowed to attend. The village meeting hall had been strewn with banners in the colors of the royal court, decorated at intervals with garlands of the national flower. In the fashion of the olden times, the feast was laid out on vibrantly colored rush mats surrounding the huge fire pit in the center of the hall, and the guests were to sit on cushions rather than chairs. I decided it would either be lots of fun or decidedly uncomfortable.
So, as dusk approached, other than the few scattered guards and the very old or the sick, every man of the village was in attendance sitting or reclining as he ate, drank and definitely made merry in honor of their favored guest and his small retinue. I knew it was really Liander they were honoring, but that was as it should be. Liander had been given the place of honor at the right hand side of the village headman, and I had been seated opposite him on the other side of the fire pit. I had considered demanding a change of place, but Liander had given me one of his studied gazes and, without words, I understood he wished his Guardian not to cause problems when the kind and generous Antell meant only to honor his guest.
Squirming as I tried to get comfortable whilst squatting on the rather lumpy cushions, I caught my prince's eye for a moment, and Liander grinned at me. I shrugged back at him and lifted my eyebrow before dropping my eyes to the plate in front of me. After a moment, I risked another glance in his direction to see Liander once again deep in conversation with Antell. The old man had been fascinated with Liander from the moment we'd first arrived here.
Can't say I blame him. I'd been fascinated with my charge for far too long and I didn't even have the excuse of an in-depth discussion of the history and culture of these people as compared to their city-swelling counterparts of the interior. My fascination with Liander was of a much more personal nature and not something I was able to discuss with him or anyone else.
I'd been struggling with this for some time now, running from the depth of my feelings, even feeling anger at him for being the object of a love I never knew I was capable of. Could I ever have been a greater fool? Now I had come to accept my feelings, to embrace them, but I didn't know what to do about them. I wanted to tell him--he deserved to know what he meant to me--yet how could I ever tell him? He was my prince and I... I was nothing more than a soldier.
Watching him, beautiful, compassionate, so full of life, I had never felt more alone. As if he knew he was being watched, Liander suddenly turned and looked at me, a brilliant smile flashing across his features and lighting him up from within. I almost gasped at the vision; instead, I quickly smiled back at him. For a moment, his smile faltered, and I wondered if he'd seen more than I meant him to when, suddenly, he smiled again. I wanted that smile to be just for me because I made him feel that good. Oh, how I wished I could tell him how I felt about him, how he made me feel... But I had his friendship and that was almost as special.
The celebration was getting more boisterous now. The locals brewed a pretty potent beer and they kept everyone's mug full. On purpose, I had only drunk a little of it. I needed all my attention on Liander, not because I had any reason to believe he was in any danger among these people, but because I wanted to get him home as soon as I could. I really wanted to begin our journey back to the capital first thing in the morning. I noticed Liander hadn't drunk much of the stuff either. He'd eaten a little of each fish dish, some of the fruit and some of the sweet bread which was a staple food of these people, but he'd not drunk much at all. Perhaps he just wanted to get home, too.
I noticed quite a lot of movement up and down the table as the atmosphere became more relaxed. One rather large, well-built young man, Fortil, pushed in between Liander and Antell and plopped down, almost falling over onto Liander's lap until Liander pushed him upright again. I had good reason to remember Fortil from the first day of our arrival because he'd seemed intent on proving he was a match for the prince's Guardian. Of course, I had soon disabused him of that error. I kept my eyes on Liander, ready to take any necessary action.
Antell was now involved in a heated discussion with the man on the other side of him, and Fortil leaned in toward Liander and began speaking very close to his ear. Liander had gone out of his way when he first arrived to insist the villagers didn't treat him differently than any other visitor, indeed that they should forget he was a prince. Most people had taken that in the spirit it was intended, but, of course, there was always one who would take advantage of such an offer.
If Fortil tried to get any closer he'd be sitting in Liander's lap, and I felt my temper rising, mostly because of the uncomfortable expression on Liander's face. It wasn't because I was feeling jealous, truly. It was justifiable ire on my friend's behalf. Liander would go out of his way to avoid a disagreement, but before too long, he was sending out signals of annoyance.
Liander could have stood on his true status and demanded Fortil abase himself, but he forbore to do so as he had invited the villagers to treat him as an equal. Besides which, Liander was naturally a self-effacing character who found it difficult to behave in such a lofty manner at the best of times. Under no such restraint myself, I was about to get to my feet and inform Fortil, politely or otherwise, to get out of Liander's personal space, when it happened.
Armed men abruptly filled the village meeting hall with speed and efficiency, seeming to come from nowhere. Not even my experience had allowed me to hear a thing. I leapt to my feet, intending to make for the weapons I had stored by the main entrance, only to stand as still as a statue when a lienda was thrust directly in my face even as Liander's yell of warning echoed in my ears.
I kept perfectly still, except for allowing my eyes to meet Liander's across the thick colorfully woven mats surrounding the huge fire pit in the centre of the hall.