Laying his drefanna in a neat pile of harness by his bedroll, Asleda dropped to his side next to the fire, close enough to feel the warmth of the ash-frosted coals. Chieru was the only other one there, and it hadn’t cooled off enough to build up the flame, only occasionally toss on a handful of grass to smoke the little dusk-biters away. It was easy to call fire here; there was always something to burn.
The slow ache of a full day’s training under the blistering grassland sun sank heavily into his bones. It was easy to call fire— and the sun could punish, as well as give life. When he had first walked into the barbarian grasslands, Asleda’s skin had burned and darkened and peeled away, burned and darkened and peeled.
Chieru sat with his legs crossed, hands resting on his knees, slender back perfectly aligned and eyes closed, his litany silent. Rolling onto his back Asleda scanned the dark patches between the scattering of fires, searching for anyone approaching to relieve his restlessness. The dying light cut the figures of fighters returning to their camps, but no one approached and he gave a short sigh.
Chieru came out of his trance, unfocused eyes on the pile of ash and embers, but Asleda let him be until he stretched.
“Where are the birthers?” he finally groaned, half in complaint.
“I heard one of their sisters had her flood four days ago, and Kensat still hasn’t seized her. She’s fevered, so the healers told them to take her to Kensat’s shrine to pray.”
Asleda felt his discontent melt away. “Ah.” Sitting up, he touched his cock through his breeches, a quick prayer.
Olaled came into camp, ruffling Asleda’s hair as he passed before heading toward his bedroll and stripping out of his gear. Olaled’s hair was falling out, and he shook it loose, twisting it back up and shoving the stick through the leather barrette.
The dusk-biters had found him, nipping at his arms and face, and Asleda began adding grassy rubble to the coals, gently blowing them into life. As he started feeding dried dung to the little flames, Dechon stepped into his line of vision, the hilt of his drefanna still sticking up behind one shoulder.
“What took you so long?” Chieru asked.
“Fighter’s-blood spat,” Dechon said, grinning, his sunlight hair glinting from the growing fire. “No one got hurt.”
“I made my mine lap around camp as many times as they’re pierced,” said Chieru. “Of course,” he continued consideringly, “that meant I had to run more than anyone else.”
With a lazy smile, Asleda said, “I let the sun do my work for me.” Olaled chuffed, running a stone in quick, light strokes down the edge of his drefanna. Asleda stared up at the stars emerging from the twilit sky. “If the birthers don’t show up by dark I will ravish a fighter,” he announced.
“As long as it’s not me,” Dechon said, shedding weapons and armor.
“Oh, just watch me.”
“I’ll slit your throat, Asla.”
Slim, strong arms wrapped around him from behind, one hand covering his eyes, another running down his chest.
She breathed in his ear, “Fighter, fighter, how could you let me sneak up on you?”
Grinning, Asleda rolled, pulling her on top of him, grabbing into the softness of her hips and pulling her tight against his thickening cock.
“There you are.”
“Have we been neglecting you?” she asked, her round face serious except for one rebellious corner of her mouth. She wasn’t one of the sisters of the fevered birther. If he had ever seen her before, he didn’t remember. He heard a birther’s laugh, and another pair of bare legs walked by him, and then there was a pleased sound from Olaled. The night suddenly filled with twice as many bodies.
“I’ve been waiting since dusk,” he said. “And our fighters are all in a mood because the forsaken barbarians won’t pick a fight.”
“We can help them if they’re restless,” said the birther, smiling down at him, rocking her cunt against him. She had god-eyes, the color of leaves just sprung fading to brown as it reached the whites of her eyes.
“I’d rather you helped me.”
Asleda heard Dechon groan, and the birther in his lap untied his breeches, baring him just enough to pull him inside her. She was already slippery, ready for him, and he gasped as she sank around him. His hips twitched upward, and his pleasure muffled itself in her mouth as she moved up and down against him, rubbing between her legs in tiny circles.
When she had taken the baby from him, she slipped his knife out of its sheath and stood. Someone had spitted a hind leg of one of the thronging runners over the fire, and the fire lapped at it, popping and hissing from the dripping juices. Asleda watched the birther saw off a crusty hunk of meat, and came back to cuddle against his side. She took a bite and fed it to him, and laughed when he bit her tongue.
A birther’s voice said, “Trade me,” and he looked up to see her hop up from a ravaged-looking Olaled. The god-eyed birther bit his ear playfully, and fed him another bite of meat, pushing his knife back into the sheath.
“After that,” Olaled said as she walked over and straddled him, still looking dazed, “I need to be on top.”
The new birther strolled up to Asleda, a slow, predatory smile spreading across her face. She was tiny, with a head of loose, curly hair all around her face.
“Ready?” she asked. Asleda glanced consideringly down at his naked groin, finding himself sticky and half-hard.
“Soon,” he said. Pushing his hips up he shimmied out of his breeches, tossing them on his bedroll so that he was wearing only skin, like her. Her mark was between her breasts, marking her as Domiolan’s.
“Play with me,” she said, folding herself beside him. Asleda pushed his face between her heavy breasts, kissing the faintly raised ridge of the entwined strands of her mark, faded blue with age. He suckled at the tattoo, slipping his hands up her ribs and under the sag of her breasts, kissing down to the white threads lining her belly.
“How many have you birthed?” he asked, looking up at her as she pulled his hand between her legs to stroke her vulva, hair and lips soaking and slick.
“Three,” she told him, teasing a nipple with her fingers. Then, with a smile, “Give me another.”
After that she was all teeth and clawing fingers, leaving him breathless and hard and then she was on him, moving fiercely.
“Enthusiastic, isn’t she?” Dechon called.
Need, and pleasure, and his fighter’s blood all swam through the physical overwhelm, and Asleda used his strength to flip them over so she was beneath him. She grunted each time he thrust hard into her, shoving herself against him until he forced her hips down in frustration so he could focus on nothing but spilling his life inside her.
Scooting out from under him, the birther kissed his forehead and bounced up to go devour someone else, leaving him dumbfounded.
When he could find his voice, Asleda declared, “I’m done for the night.”
“Asla, I don’t think you’ve done your duty,” Olaled said around a wad of half-chewed meat.
“You’ll have to make up for me,” he told him, rolling into a stretch, and then onto his feet.
Olaled ripped off another mouthful. “I’m fortifying myself.”
Glancing around the fire, Asleda picked out the body shapes of fighters among the birthers.
“He’s at the shrine. Gamali’s riders ran down one of the beasts, and they brought it back to sacrifice to Ambion.”
That was good. Deh’s healers and fighters would be avenged. Asleda stepped around Chieru pushing himself rhythmically into a moaning birther from behind, and into the dimness beyond the firelight to piss on the grass trampled into the dusty ground.
He was attacking a strip of hot meat when someone halted just at the edge of the firelight. The healer had a birther’s body, but tysyl hair was pulled back at the nape of the neck. Tysyl held out cupped hands, displaying Cimu’s mark on one palm. Everyone stilled, even Chieru and his birther, joined in wet heat.
“Our fighters have met the Death in the grasslands toward the sun,” tysyl said.
A wake of silence seemed to filter through the camps after the healer’s message, and in that quiet, across the camp at Ambion’s shrine, the beast started screaming. The air drank up the shrieking, carrying it to Ambion, and when the skins of all the mountain beasts and their barbarians piled at Deh’s feet, tysyl would be sated. The thick potency of gayentya dropped on them like the pressure of a thunderstorm, a sign.
Dechon smiled, slowly, broadly, and said it, the only thing that could be said.
“We are beloved of the gods. None can stand against us.“