Breaking one of the new rules he’d imposed as headmaster of the Order of Ka’alar, M’lan slipped out of his monk’s cell well before dawn and made for the edge of the temple grounds alone. Black shadows striped the moonlit path. Though trying to be quiet, he tripped often over gnarled roots and loose stones.
He knew perfectly well it was no longer safe to stray far from the protective eye of Ka’alar, and that was why he’d imposed the rule that no monk should wander in the forest without a companion. The rebellion that had started in the south of Rakkan now encroached on the local provinces, and instability eroded the control of the authorities. But M’lan’s calling to heal was stronger than his concern for his safety. When messages reached him pleading for medicine, he couldn’t say no.
If the king’s men discovered that the monks of Ka’alar Temple smuggled herbs and elixirs to the peasants, they might shut the temple down. The army was convinced the neighboring villages were in league with the rebels and had forbidden the monks to offer assistance to anyone not vetted by representatives of the king. This gnawed at the very core of M’lan’s being. The god Salar and his servant Ka’alar were the only ones with the authority to say who should be healed and who should not. Try telling that to a king
. Despite the danger, M’lan personally smuggled the potions into the woods where he met with the village healer, Amara.
He mentally reviewed Amara’s latest clandestine message. To add to the current miseries, an outbreak of a potentially fatal coughing disease now swept her village. Though illness wasn’t M’lan’s specialty, he’d consulted with the temple herbalist, Sheylin, and hoped the potion he carried in the pocket of his tunic would be sufficient to cure those already afflicted.
He wore the simple gray cotton clothing of the laymen, a slim-fitting shirt, and loose pants. Wearing pants instead of the long robe proper for his station made him only a bit less clumsy. After stubbing his toe on an exposed root, he stopped to clear his mind and focus on his surroundings.
The sun had yet to clear the mountains scraping the sky all around the small valley where the temple slumbered, but a faint aurora of pale blue threatened to dim the moon’s brilliance. Only the small viro
birds had begun to titter in the thick branches of the weep trees.
He held his breath as he pushed off the overgrown path onto the open grounds of the ruins situated high above the temple. The ancient remains of toppled buildings provided a convenient meeting place. He found it difficult not to let his mind wander to the times he and his lover, Jamil, had met here to make love on the grassy patches inside the crumbling stones.
His breath quickened at the thought, but he firmly suppressed it. Now was not the time to get distracted by lust-filled memories. The one thing more embarrassing than getting caught breaking his own decree would be getting caught with his cock in his hand, relieving the intense pressure brought on by the mere thought of his absent lover. It didn’t help that Jamil had been kept busy by the king for months now and had only visited the temple once in that time.
M’lan chewed his lower lip and scanned the undulating shadows for Amara. She was tiny, fleet of foot, and usually appeared swaddled in brown rags. She was much more accomplished at being a sneak than M’lan would ever be.
She proved this again by tapping lightly on his shoulder a moment before the familiar tang of her sweat reached him. He jumped and nearly gasped, but instead bit down hard on the inside of his cheek and tasted blood.
“Brother M’lan,” she whispered, ever wary of the guards who sometimes patrolled the paths. She dropped to her knees, touching her forehead to the path.
He still wasn’t used to the respect paid to him as the head of the Order of Ka’alar. He grabbed her arms and pulled her to her feet. She was muscular and healthy, and the healing energy of Salar coursed through her, simple and pure. Touching her sent tingles into his palms and along his arms. M’lan was healthy, so the sensation swept over him like a warm summer breeze and departed like a sigh. She too was connected to the god, and Salar favored her. M’lan returned her energy with a blessing, and she blushed, sensing what he’d done.
“I don’t deserve your attention, Brother,” she said.
“You risk your life for your people. You deserve more than I, a simple monk, can ever give you.”
She looked up at him with clear, pale eyes, and he noticed her lips trembled. She saw his concern and admitted, “The rebel troops draw near. I fear what will happen.”
He wished he could tell her all would be well, but he didn’t believe in lying. Still, he wanted to comfort her. “They won’t harm a healer. Try to use your influence and powers to cleanse their hearts of hatred.”
Her eyes widened. “Is that possible?”
He hesitated, thinking of his struggle to save Jamil’s soul from the heavy spiritual wounds inflicted by a life of killing and vengeance. M’lan believed he’d been successful, yet Major Jamil Jarka continued to work for the king as an assassin. There was much work yet to be done.
M’lan nodded slowly. “It is possible, given time. All you can really hope to do is stem the tide of madness war drags in its wake.” He removed the clay jar containing the potion from his pocket and handed it to her. “Sheylin made it very strong, so it will last. You’ll need to dilute it with wine, one part to ten.”
“May Salar bless you,” she said. She bowed again and fled into the woods. She had a long way to go if she hoped to reach the village before dawn. He sighed and wished he could go with her, to help her treat the people, but his first responsibility was to the temple and the monks. Already, with this simple act, he’d put everyone at risk.
He shivered and began a slower walk back. He hadn’t heard Amara come and go, and he heard nothing now. The nothing was so loud it arrested his footsteps. The small birds had fallen silent. Most likely, Amara’s passing had spooked them. He stood for a moment with a creeping sensation on the back of his neck, but it faded and he continued on.
The rebellion had uprooted many souls, and it wasn’t unusual for vagrants to seek refuge in the sacred grounds of the temple. Not all were faithful or benign. He wiped sweat from his palms onto his shirt and, with his attention riveted on the jumble of shadows around him, tripped over a weep tree branch fallen across the path.
Chastising himself for his clumsiness, he picked himself up, cursing under his breath. He asked Salar to ease his fear. A young woman like Amara took far greater risks, traveled farther, and braved rebel troops as well as royal soldiers. The least M’lan could do was venture to the edge of his little world without panicking.
He reached the first of the thermal pools fed by streams flowing out of the mountain and stood on its rocky edge. He breathed in the faintly sulfurous scent of the water while listening to the birds begin their preparations for the day. All seemed normal. The healing waters would erase the scrapes and bruises he’d collected this night and also soothe the more serious worries he harbored for Amara and her people.
Dawn broke slowly in the deep mountain valley. He determined he had time before anyone missed him, and quickly removed his clothes. The pool was small, so he walked in, feet slipping on the smooth stones, until the water reached his hips. He dived in, and three strokes took him to the other side.
Tension eased out of him as he floated in waters blessed by Ka’alar, the serpent god of death and renewal. The pools were the reason the temple had been founded so high in this remote mountain valley, centuries ago. Then the wheel of time turned, the god Salar ascended, and his light came to dominate the healing energies of the temple. Worship of Ka’alar faded from the land and was seen as something dark and cultish, but the monks of his one remaining temple never forgot to whom they owed their existence.
M’lan’s powers to heal came from Salar. As headmaster of the Order of Ka’alar, his relationship with the serpent god was murky at best. He spent many hours meditating upon the conflicting nature of the gods he served and prayed for guidance in understanding Ka’alar’s need for death and suffering.
Alone in Ka’alar’s element of water, M’lan sensed the serpent energy creeping along his skin, seeping into his core, invigorating him in a way entirely different from Salar’s soothing light. This transfer of energy felt exquisitely selfish. His thoughts of Jamil returned, and his hands traveled unbidden down his belly. His breathing became shallow.
Although the feel of his hand on his cock released a tremor of excitement, he stopped shy of pleasuring himself. Immersing himself completely in Ka’alar’s embrace seemed risky. The serpent god’s powers came with a price, or so he’d been warned. The last sliver of moon had dipped behind the jagged horizon. Shadows and light melded into a dim gray. A bell chimed in the temple. Time to go.
He emerged dripping and retrieved his clothes from the burn bush he’d draped them over. When he pressed the cloth to his face to wipe the water from his eyes, all the fine hair on his bare skin stood on end. He sensed a presence, and it was not Amara.
He took a step forward to flee via the pool, but iron fingers gripped both his arms and pulled him back.
“Your senses are improving,” Jamil whispered in his ear. “You actually detected me before I touched you.”
M’lan shuddered as relief and anger rolled through him in alternating waves. He gritted his teeth against an onslaught of curses that leaped to his tongue. When his heartbeat softened, he said as calmly as possible, “You…startled me.”
“Good. Maybe you’ll act more sensibly.” Jamil enfolded M’lan in his arms, and his warm, rich voice tickled M’lan’s ear. “Lolling about nude, alone, while rebel troops swarm around the mountain in droves. My god, M’lan, even someone more honorable and upright than myself would be tempted by the sight of you.” Jamil continued to crush him against his broad chest, and M’lan struggled halfheartedly to escape, still angry at being taken by surprise. He knew he was angrier with himself than Jamil.
“You’re exaggerating about the troops,” he said, finally allowing himself to relax into the embrace. The heat and tantalizing scent of Jamil enveloped him.
“I’m not. That’s why I’m here. To take you away.”
“Really?” The last of M’lan’s resistance faded at the thought of beginning his life with Jamil, even as his responsibilities whispered to him he could not. He leaned back, and Jamil kissed his neck and shoulder. The man’s strong, calloused hands slid down and jerked the shirt out of M’lan’s grasp, flinging it aside. Jamil rested his palm on M’lan’s belly, fingertips teasingly close to M’lan’s cock, taking over where M’lan had left off only moments before.
Conversation stopped as Jamil held and stroked him. M’lan arched, immediately hard and breathless. Soon he’d lose all control and follow Jamil anywhere. He grabbed Jamil’s wrist, stopping the motion, and took a deep breath.
“Let me go.”
“You pop out of the shadows after months away and say it’s time for me to leave Ka’alar? This warrants discussion.”