Echoes of the Gods


CHAPTER TWO

THEY WALKED IN SILENCE TO the armory.

The arena was located in the center—a roofless, rectangular enclosure with loose sand covering the hard floor. Training weapons were arrayed against the wood-paneled walls. Cups and pitchers of water were placed on a long table against one wall.

A dozen soldiers-in-training, most of them younger than Yngvi, were engaged in different forms of friendly combat. They didn’t look up when Yngvi and Shara entered.

Yngvi strode to the center of the arena and stopped. “Everyone! Leave!” he instructed in a strident tone that bounced off the wooden walls and carried over the clamor of the training weapons, commanding immediate obedience.

The bemused youths lowered their weapons, looked at one another and then at Yngvi. Recognition bloomed on their flushed faces.

“Out!” said Yngvi, inclining his head at the door.

In deference to Yngvi’s rank in the army, the youths dropped their weapons by the narrow door and filed out.

“Afraid of an audience?” Shara asked.

“I’m doing it for you,” said Yngvi.

“It’s unnecessary,” said Shara. “I’m going to put you on your back, unless you want to reconsider.”

Yngvi stepped close to Shara and winked. “I’m never on my back.”

Shara pushed him away.

Yngvi stumbled backward from the thrill of Shara’s hand on his chest. “What do you want with the gods?”

“I’m looking for one,” Shara said.

“Just one? Is he special?”

“Very,” said Shara, without emotion.

“Must be Thor,” Yngvi presumed, optimistically naming the god who was closest in appearance to himself.

Shara shrugged. “Must be, if he intends to rout Valhalla.”

“So you’re looking for Loki,” said Yngvi, naming Odin’s stepson and thorn in the collective Asgardian side. Loki’s attacks on Valhalla had been frequent until three years ago, when Odin had quelled him decisively. “In that case, what are you doing here with me?” Then he flashed Shara a teasing smile. “Am I that irresistible?”

“Not at all,” said Shara. “I’m waiting for that god—”

“—Loki.”

“I’m waiting for that god to reveal himself.”

Intrigued, Yngvi said, “Who is this god?”

“I have to be on my way, and I know this won’t take long. Shall we begin?”

Somewhat deflated by the easy rebuff, Yngvi said, “You’re wasting your time going to Valhalla. The gods don’t fight anymore.”

“Even better. Let’s get on with this.” Shara went on to state the rules. “Three matches: one bout with sword and shield, one match of archery and one last round with bare hands. Victor needs two wins.”

“Very well.”

Yngvi picked up a pair of training swords and tossed one to Shara. Next, he threw Shara a round wooden shield and picked up another for himself.

Seeing Shara’s fingers squeeze the grip of the sword sent Yngvi’s thoughts careening off on a very different course. Eyes fixed on Yngvi, Shara hefted the weapon and cut the air between them with calm, swift strokes. Yngvi mirrored his moves, grinning. Shara scowled.

He said, “First contact with the neck, ribs or midriff counts as a win.”

They stepped into the center of the arena. Shara pushed down on the ground with the soles of his boots to gain a foothold in the loose sand. Yngvi knocked his shield twice with his sword, signaling the start of combat. Shara knocked his own shield twice. They were ready.

Hunched and wary, they circled each other. Yngvi looked for faults in Shara’s footwork and posture to predict missteps. But Shara was frustratingly limber and delightfully sullen, a walking contradiction. In his twenty-five years, Yngvi hadn’t met a more aggravating or alluring man. Best put him on his back without delay, then.

Yngvi’s arm was tucked against his side, his torso protected by the large shield. He attacked first, thrusting his sword, but Shara calmly sprang aside. His shield swung up, caught the edge of Yngvi’s blade and knocked it off its trajectory. Yngvi staggered. Shara laughed.

A second later, Yngvi felt the flat surface of Shara’s blade lightly slap his unprotected thigh and saw Shara grin. Wily bastard, he cursed, crashing the rim of his shield with calculated force on Shara’s forearm, to deter but not injure.

Shara swore; his fingers flew open in reflex and his sword fell to the ground, spinning over the dusty surface before coming to rest a fair distance from them. But an effortless somersault on one shoulder landed Shara by his sword; a spry jump and he was on his feet again, sword in hand.

Yngvi charged, blade lowered, body bowed, attacking Shara’s legs with a flurry of strikes. But Shara’s footwork was consummate. Skirting Yngvi’s assaults with the grace of a dancer, Shara led him around the full area of the arena, staying just out of striking range and thwarting Yngvi’s frustrated hits with glancing twists of his wrist.

“You fight like a lion,” said Shara.

From anyone else, that would have been flattering, but Shara’s apathetic inflection made it a ringing insult. “And you fight like a fox,” Yngvi countered rashly, then realized it had come out as praise.

They were as dissimilar in technique as they were in physique. Yngvi’s expansive maneuvers were proving ineffective against the disdainful economy of Shara’s defense, which entailed strokes administered as indifferent afterthoughts, as though Yngvi didn’t warrant the effort.

Yngvi pressed forward with cold intent. Blade caught blade and the loud, dull scrape of wood echoed in the hollow enclosure. Their eyes met over the crossed swords, muscles bunched, senses on high alert, Yngvi’s mighty, downward pressure quivering to overpower Shara’s untroubled, upward counterpoise.

Putting his entire weight behind his blade, Yngvi forced Shara to the ground, but Shara surprised again. He pulled back subtly, dragging his blade along the length of Yngvi’s, and rolled out of range just in time to avoid Yngvi falling on him.

An instant later, Yngvi was upright again, but his dignity was askew and sand caked one side of his face. He looked over his shoulder and saw Shara watching him, the tips of his mouth lifted. Yngvi’s lips twisted; he wanted to wipe the smugness off Shara’s face even more than he wanted to wipe the sand from his own.

Spinning around without warning, he raced toward his mad opponent. They collided around a clash of wood, and Yngvi employed every stratagem, drawing on every last reserve of strength and guile, every skill, some innate and some improvised.

He was infuriated, because Shara was invigorated. In his view, this physical game had transformed into a voluptuous contest for dominance in something else. When they stepped apart, Yngvi was still cursing, Shara still unperturbed.

Yngvi charged, kicking up dust as he advanced, his shield held close to his chest while his sword swung up to his right. Shara’s own shield came up to deflect the impending blow, but it was a feint; Yngvi’s arm made a smooth, wide arc down to Shara’s left and abruptly veered to the right, wrist twisted outward. He caught Shara’s unprotected right rib in an expertly controlled, ascending strike.

It was over. Yngvi had the first win. He moved closer, panting. “Yield.”

Shara’s sword and shield clattered to the ground; he kicked them away.

“I win,” said Yngvi, breathless, exhilarated. And parched. He licked his lower lip and pressed the dull edge of his blade into Shara’s ribs to reinforce his victory.

Shara went very still. He dropped his head and his sweaty locks fell forward, shrouding his face.

Yngvi allowed himself to gloat. But when Shara lifted his head, there was a new darkness in his eyes and Yngvi felt lost in it, unable to look away.

Shara asked, “What’s so fascinating?”

Yngvi flicked his gaze over Shara’s face, the sheen on his skin, his flushed lips. “Don’t be obtuse,” he muttered.

Shara’s own breathing was strained. He glared back at Yngvi, and the gray eyes seemed to reach inside him. The moment had become dangerously intimate, but Shara averted his eyes first and put some distance between them.

From behind him, Yngvi picked up the sound of tentative applause and a suppressed whistle. Looking over his shoulder, he spotted the curious trainees. They had quietly returned to watch the contest. Yngvi, who had never minded an audience, turned, flashed them a smile and winked at the fighter whose body he had enjoyed the previous week.

Following Yngvi’s gaze, the other youths aimed loaded stares at the young soldier. Those closest to him jauntily thumped him on the back while the others issued lewd but appreciative comments. The fighter flushed hard and clapped harder.

Yngvi laughed and looked at Shara, whose eyes were following the bead of sweat Yngvi felt inching down his neck from behind his ear to his collarbone. The heat from Shara’s gaze became unbearable and Yngvi’s throat went dry.

He lobbed his sword and shield at the arena wall with a victorious flourish, swaggered up to the table and picked up a jug of water. But the long drink did nothing to quench his thirst. His tunic stuck to his skin in long, damp patches. He pulled it off and dropped it on his shield.

Shara stood rooted in the middle of the arena, wide-eyed, taking in Yngvi’s sweat-sheened form.

Yngvi liked that Shara was watching him. He knew he was attractive and wanted Shara to know it, too. The gentle breeze swept over his hot, damp skin like the touch of cool lips. He pushed his sweat-darkened hair off his face.

Then he made the mistake of holding Shara’s surly glare a moment too long. The chill of the air evaporated and a shudder ran down Yngvi’s body.

“There’s water. If you’re thirsty,” he offered, with considerably less aplomb than he had possessed a moment ago.

He felt the brush of Shara’s eyes over his body. The craving hit again. He hooked a casual thumb in the waistband of his trousers, as if to scratch his skin with his nail. When he retracted his hand, his waistband had been pushed down enough to reveal a sharp hip bone. The coincident uneven movement of Shara’s chest under his tunic gave Yngvi a private moment of triumph.

Shara snatched his weapons off the ground and flung them at the wall with explicit force. He took a long drink of water, staring over the jug at Yngvi’s body. Yngvi let him, wearing nothing above his waist but a thin smile of complacency.

But then Shara reached behind his neck and pulled off his own tunic. Before the garment could float down and drape itself over the table, all the air had been forced out of Yngvi’s lungs.

Shara straightened. His pearl-white skin was flushed and glossy with sweat. Yngvi knew Shara was basking in his hungry gaze, and as Yngvi’s vanity crumbled, Shara’s composure came roaring back.

His body was long and pleasingly broad with taut flesh, his lithe musculature indicative of regular martial training.

Yngvi wanted to touch Shara. He wanted to do much more than touch Shara. In that instant, Yngvi’s decisive win in the first bout was reduced to a marginal advantage.

Shara let out a breath of amusement; it was a derisive sound, and his abdomen clenched in producing it.

Yngvi coughed. He had to tear his eyes away. Fuck, he thought.

There was a strange silence before Shara spoke. Frowning, he said, “What is…fuck?” His enunciation was precise, as if the word was new to him.

Yngvi jerked his head, startled. He did not realize he had spoken that out loud. Then he registered Shara’s question. It seemed genuine, but Yngvi couldn’t believe Shara was that uninformed. The bastard was being his annoying self. Yngvi’s anger escalated.

“Oh, I’d be glad to show you,” he said. The words were ground out because he knew how true they were.

Carelessly, Shara said, “I’d like that.” Then, “Ever used a bow?”

“Have you?” Yngvi returned.

“Once or twice.”

“Good. Then you’ll put up a fight this time,” Yngvi said. “It should be easy enough, even for you, to shoot at a target.”

“It should be,” Shara agreed.

“Or…we could make it more interesting.”

“How?”

“A moving target. From twenty paces away.”

Shara said, “Show me.”

Shara followed Yngvi across the arena to the opposite wall where a large wooden wheel was fitted on a well-oiled peg. Longbows and quivers with arrows lay nearby. Yngvi picked up two bows and tossed one to Shara.

He pointed to a chip in the wheel’s rim. “That’s the target.” He pushed down hard on a spoke. The wheel began to spin on its pivot. “Shoot it to win.”

Shara said, “You won the first round. You should go first.”

Yngvi drew an arrow. “Stop the wheel. Let me get ready. Then spin it however fast you want.”

He aligned himself with the right rim of the wheel, then walked twenty paces back and stopped. He pointed the bow down and nocked the arrow. Squaring his shoulders, he spread his legs in an open stance and in one fluid motion, raised his bow and drew the bowstring back. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Now,” he called out.

When he opened his eyes, the wheel was spinning. Shara stood off to the side. Yngvi followed the chip in the wood for a few revolutions, memorizing its location. Shara faded from his vision and in the periphery, he could see the chip moving on its entrancing circular route.

The target approached; seconds before it reached the point of his focus, he released a breath and with it, the arrow. The bowstring snapped back; the arrow shot through the air and unerringly found its target.

He took a breath, looked at Shara. In the background, the wheel slowed. Together they walked to the target, where Yngvi’s arrow was firmly wedged in the chip.

“Your turn,” said Yngvi, moving to pull the arrow out.

Shara held up a hand. “Don’t.”

After a pause, Yngvi said, “You’re not serious.”

Shara affirmed his intention with a slight lift of his chin, adding, “From forty paces.”

Yngvi couldn’t hide his disbelief. “You’ll lose.”

“Then you should let me.”

Shara winked. Yngvi’s tongue suddenly felt thick.

Shara didn’t wait for a response. Nocking his arrow as he walked, he stopped forty paces from the wheel, in line with its rim on the left. He dropped his head back, rolled it around slowly and groaned, and Yngvi vicariously enjoyed the stretch in Shara’s neck. As Shara loosened his shoulders, the muscles of his back slinked under his smooth skin.

Desire coiled, dark and slippery, in Yngvi’s belly. He had a sudden need to taste Shara’s skin.

Shara lifted the bow and aimed dead ahead at the left rim. “Now,” he said and closed his eyes.

Yngvi got the wheel spinning and stepped aside.

Shara opened his eyes, following the movement of Yngvi’s arrow stuck in the rim. It was at the bottom of the wheel when he unleashed his arrow. Yngvi watched his own shaft pass up on the left, then split in two down its length, a clean divide from nock to arrowhead sending the two halves flying off in opposite directions. That was when Shara lowered his bow.

Shara’s arrow was proudly lodged in the chip while Yngvi’s own arrow lay in two insulted strips on the ground.

Yngvi looked from the arrows to Shara. He said, “Once or twice?” hearing the admiration in his own voice, noting that the applause from the sidelines was more muted now. He saw an equal measure of surprise in the youths’ expressions.

Shara smirked with lazy confidence. “A few more times than that.” He pulled his upper lip in and blew air up his face. The movement accentuated Shara’s jawline, and the desire in Yngvi’s belly slithered down to his thickening cock.

“Hand-to-hand combat,” said Shara. “First person to connect fist with jaw, rib or chest wins.”

Yngvi braced for the last challenge. Shara was far too skilled with the bow, but Yngvi was certain he could still win this. Shara was slimmer than he was and a little shorter than his six and a half feet.

He approached Shara slowly, paused before him and raised his hands, palms facing outward. Shara lifted an eyebrow. Yngvi placed his hands on Shara’s shoulders. Before he could register the charged feel of Shara’s bare skin, Yngvi shoved. Hard.

Shara tottered backward and fell. His head hit the dirt surface. He attempted to sit up but was knocked down again by Yngvi straddling him. Yngvi fought to pin Shara’s flailing arms down on each side and locked his thighs around Shara’s thrashing legs. But he had underestimated Shara’s strength, because Shara jerked his knees up, lifting Yngvi’s hips and throwing him off. Yngvi somersaulted in the dust and was back on his feet.

But Shara was as quick. A nimble flip upward and he had righted himself.

Sand stuck to their damp skin. Bodies braced, they circled each other.

Shara attacked first this time. He dove at Yngvi’s legs but Yngvi feinted, sending Shara sprawling face down. Shara’s palms were flat on the ground to lift himself up when Yngvi leaped at him and landed on his back, slamming his chest into the sandy floor, knocking the breath out of him. Shara’s startled inhale must have pulled in more dust than air, because his torso jerked with his coughs. He turned his head to the side.

Yngvi splayed his hand over the exposed side of Shara’s face, pressing his head into the ground. There was an interval of quivering tension. Then Shara began to buck his body in a furious attempt to unseat Yngvi. Shara’s hips rolled, his legs flailed, but Yngvi took full advantage of his size.

Shara stopped resisting and Yngvi made a mistake: he slid his thighs lower, dragging his hips over the swell of Shara’s backside. Through the rough fabric of their trousers, his cock trailed along the divide in Shara’s flesh.

Yngvi froze. He knew, from the sudden stiffening under him, that Shara had also felt it. But it was a ploy. Shara exploited this fleeting lapse; a rough shove and a quick flip turned everything upside down.

Yngvi was on his back, looking up at the flushed, milky arc of Shara’s body looming over him. Shara’s dark hair fell forward, shadowing his features and hiding their locked gazes from their onlookers. Yngvi’s heartbeat thundered in his ears. Their silent gazes clashed in an inert battle more violent than their physical struggle. Gradually, Yngvi’s body went limp.

Shara sat on Yngvi’s hips, grabbed his wrists and pinned them above Yngvi’s head in the grip of one hand. He slid his body down, their cocks brushed, and the surprised, upward sweep of Shara’s lashes obliterated Yngvi’s last wall of resistance.

He thought, with a sinking sensation in his stomach, This is how it feels to lose. His only recourse now was to lie still until Shara released him. He hoped Shara would make it quick, because there was heat wherever their flesh touched through the barriers of cloth. But, as with everything in this contest, luck was against him.

Shara made an unhurried fist with his right hand and pressed it to Yngvi’s left rib, his chest and his left jaw. His eyes darkened when he caught Yngvi gaping at him. Frowning faintly, Shara skimmed his knuckles along Yngvi’s neck; his warm fingers brushed Yngvi’s eyebrow, his cheekbone, the seam of his lips.

Yngvi sighed. Shara blinked and his eyes flew up to Yngvi’s. It was an eternity of rolling tension before Shara moved. Then he dipped his head.

Yngvi heard a long, deep intake of breath and knew Shara was breathing in the tang of the sand mixed with the musk of Yngvi’s sweat. Shara’s hair brushed across his face and Yngvi’s senses tumbled, awash with Shara’s spicy, heady scent. Shara’s nose touched Yngvi’s cheekbone, sending a shudder down his body.

Then Shara spoke and Yngvi’s fantasy splintered.

“You’re on your back,” Shara murmured, his face so close to Yngvi’s neck that his sweaty skin tingled under the warm puff of breath. “Two out of three.” Shara lifted his head. “You lose.”

A nascent smile quivered on his lips, the contempt made more vicious by the lack of breath and sound.

The degradation only worsened when the silence was shattered by raucous laughter and wolf whistles from their young spectators.

Yngvi suffered the insult like a blow to his stomach. “Fuck you,” he muttered to Shara.

He wrenched his hands free, pushing Shara off to the side. He sprang to his feet, snatched his tunic from his shield and pulled it on. Then, without a parting word to Shara, he stormed past the jeering youths, threw the arena door open and stomped off.

The distance between the armory and his home seemed overly long. He was vaguely aware of rebuffing sociable acquaintances and telling the more insistent of them, who wished to stop and chat, to fuck themselves. One of them might have been the elderly seamstress. He had a lot of apologizing to do, but later.

When he arrived home, he slammed the door shut behind him and stood with his back to the wall. The room was quiet, but his mind was a tangle of repressed reactions, stifled curses and simmering emotions. He thrust his hands into his hair and tugged on it, hoping that the sharp pain would drown out the clamor, but it was no use. A short while later, there was a loud and insistent thumping on his door.

“Yngvi!”

It was the one man he did not want to see. It was the only man he wanted to see. “You won, Shara,” he called from inside. “I’m leaving you alone. Go away.”

“Open the door, Yngvi!” Shara beat on the door. “Let me in!”

“Why?”

The pounding stopped. Yngvi waited, heart thundering in his chest, but it was silent on the other side. He was certain Shara had left.

Then, he heard a soft confession. “I don’t know.”

“Fuck you, Shara,” Yngvi cursed again. But he slid the bolt open.
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Published on October 22, 2017 09:33 • 76 views • Tags: sneak-peek

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