The sound of busy splashing drew me down to the water’s edge.
A storm had passed through ahead of me; soft leather boots on soft ground kept me as quiet as I wished, while heavy spring foliage gave all the cover I needed. Lurking is a craft, a skill that I have practiced, but sometimes the scenery makes it easy.
He never would have heard me anyway, over the rush of the river and the noise he made himself. Young men are seldom quiet by nature. That too is a skill, and this particular young man had found no cause to learn it. He yelped aloud as he ducked below the fast, bitter stream; he came up gasping, and hurled water in all directions as he flailed his arms in the sunlight, as though he could hug all that warmth to himself. And pushed his long sodden hair back with both hands, and yelped again as an icy trickle ran down his spine and between his butt cheeks. And laughed at himself even while the chill of it had him hopping from foot to foot on the stony riverbed, and scrubbed energetically at his smooth golden skin, and ducked again as if it was a dare, as if he was twelve again...
He hadn’t been twelve for a while. He looked nineteen, maybe twenty; certainly no older. Fully grown, not yet grown fully into his strength. He had the lean supple muscles of youth, laid over long clean bones. Coupled with that shimmering skin and the striking mane of black hair--well... I crouched deep into shadow, and settled down to watch.
I like to think I’m ready for anything, but beauty can always take me by surprise.
He was a scrupulous boy, intent on his washing despite the savage cold of these mountain waters. He scrubbed himself with river sand; he rinsed his hair and worked out tangles with his fingers before rinsing it again. He sat on the grassy bank and used a rough stone against hard skin on his heels: a fastidious boy, still with a lot to learn about running barefoot in the hills. He’d have grown glad of those calluses, if he’d only had the time.
I watched with a kind of pent delight, that pleasure that experience can take in innocence. At last, after he’d worked a finger vigorously in each ear to dispel any lingering water, as he rubbed himself down with the coarse length of linen he’d abandoned over a bush before he took his bath, I reached out a hand deliberately to snap a twig off the shrub that sheltered me.
He heard that, no mistake. For a moment he was still as a fawn, alert and afraid. Only his eyes moved, scanning all the river bank to try to spot the danger. He was too hurried, too anxious, too young; he didn’t know how to seek stillness in the shifting shadows. His gaze moved over me without a moment’s pause.
He saw nothing that his boy’s mind could understand as a threat. Nevertheless, he was wise enough to hold on to his alarm. Hastily pushing his head through a slit in the linen to make the simplest possible tunic out of it, snatching up the rope that would knot it into a kind of decency, he was ten paces up the path before he remembered. And came back for another thicker length of rope that he reluctantly wrapped twice around his throat and tied off tight.
Then he was gone, swift as a stag in flight, all long legs and a flash of rump below the flapping tunic. I grinned mercilessly, thinking how a collar only set off his beauty more. And how another better collar would do a better job, one that he couldn’t remove at will; and how a wise boy, this boy, any boy would claim such a collar any day, sooner than the fate that lay ahead, if only he could see it.
* * * *
Not half an hour later, I rode through the ford and along a winding path to the charcoal-burner’s clearing. I had scouted this already in the dark; I knew the way. And I didn’t want the youngster’s alarm to pass to the old man. Better to be there and so confirm the boy’s fears in the ready flesh, than to arrive too late and find them both gone.
Besides, I wanted a closer look at him, and there could be no time better than now.
My horse can be as quiet as myself, when there is need. This day, though, I rode with a loose rein, like a man with nothing to hide. I let her make all the noise she cared to, as she squeezed her broad body along the narrow path.
He must have heard us, long before we came out of the trees’ shadow. The clearing held a simple cabin, two charcoal clamps, one boy. One of the clamps was turfed over and smoking sullenly, despite the earlier rain; the other was half built, logs stacked vertically, leaning together in a neat and intricate pattern. The boy stood halfway between that and the wood’s margin, with a fresh-trimmed log on his shoulder. He was tense, uncertain, glancing back at the supposed shelter of the trees, half inclined to run again. Loyalty or training held him fast, though, if only just. I thought a breath of relief escaped him, in that moment where he saw I was alone.
What, did he think one solitary man no risk to him or his? I hid another grin. And let my eyes wander obviously up and down the long length of him, where he stood poised in the sunlight, robbed of motion under a free man’s gaze.
The faded, threadbare, oft-washed linen clung to his still-damp skin, showing me all the lines of his body, as clear almost as when he was buck naked in the stream. Now I had no need to hide my enjoyment; nor my impatience, as still he only stood there staring up at me.
“You, boy--take my horse!”
His tangled curls still shone wet and dark as he mumbled something that might have been “Yes, Master”--though it might frankly have been anything--as he dropped the log and came running to Bel’s head. I slid from her back, with my long leather riding switch in hand. Another boy would have known what was coming and been ready, if that has ever made any difference. This one was too new. He had too much to learn, perhaps, and no one taking the time to train him. Some part of me lamented the loss of that, of what he might have become. What I might have made of him.
Still: here and now, I was happy to do what I could. The first slash across his rump startled a cry out of him, outrage as much as pain. He bit it back too late, glowering at me. I saw him remember the collar on his throat and choose to be a good boy, to stand quiet under discipline.
It shouldn’t be a choice. I wished again that I might have the training of him, with all the various pleasures that would promise.
Not so, alas. Not after today, at least. Right now I was free and he was slave, and we had time for one brief lesson. Another stinging slash won his attention, if not his heart. I said, “Wake up, boy. And don’t glare at free folk, and don’t mumble. Where will I find your master?”
The boy swallowed his indignation, and jerked his head towards the hut; when I lifted my switch one more time, he said, “Please, he’s in the workshop. Master.”
That last word came too slow and too burdened with resentment. I really should have stung him again, but it was far too late to teach him his manners now. I had won at least an appearance of respect, however reluctant and superficial it was; I could be content with that, so long as it came hand in hand with a minimum obedience. We wouldn’t be together long, after all. I had no time and no reason to make a bright and eager slave boy out of him.
It just seemed a pity, so much beauty and potential gone to waste.
Still. I had my path to follow; he had his. He stood before me, his eyes downcast in a parody of submission while his chin was high and stubborn, while all his body else was straight and proud. The sun struck shadows from the fine sculpted bones of his face. His shoulders were broad, his hips were lean, his skin glowed supple gold with the shimmer of sweat and youth. The muscles in his bare legs trembled, so tight they were; he must have been expecting to feel my switch again. He knew that he had earned it.
Instead, I reached my hand beneath the brief, ragged hem of his tunic and took his cock in a firm grip.
The boy startled, and gasped aloud. If both hands hadn’t been busy with the bridle of my mettlesome Bel, I thought he would have pushed me away--or tried to--simply as a matter of instinct.