A hard-bitten mercenary who's had a gutful of mud and blood and death, Fortitude McLaren joins the Ten Nations Fair as a roustabout.
Book 3 in the Phoenix Rising series
Ellora's Cave, 2008
Print: Ellora's Cave | Australian Bookstores
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The Ten Nations Fair:
The oldest and largest of the traveling fairs, operated by a population of several hundred Travelers. (See Travelers-Society and Religion) The Fair offers a diverse range of entertainments, prominent among which are a circus, a tavern and various sideshows. Despite a dubious reputation, there is much to enjoy for the visitor with his wits about him.
Excerpt from the Great Encyclopedia, compiled by Miriliel the Burnished.
"We goin' now?" asked Bruise.
Fortitude McLaren paused, sledgehammer in fist. "Going where?"
Half a dozen roustabouts regarded him with varying degrees of interest and anxiety. Ignoring them, Fort loosened his shoulders and swung, using all his considerable weight. The ringing blow rammed the heavy iron tent peg another six inches into the packed earth and the force of it sang up his arm and down his spine. Gods, it felt good.
He straightened, the hammer dangling from one big-knuckled hand, and noted out of the corner of his eye that a couple of the men took a half pace backwards. Then he fixed a calm, inquiring gaze on Bruise and prepared to wait. The chief roustabout wasn't a quick thinker.
Eventually, Bruise said, "The Big Top."
"The tumblers." His heavy features creased in a leer. "Girls." Then he rubbed his bristly jaw. "Twister, not just girls. Katahaya."
The dam broke and suddenly, they were all gabbling.
"-so tight you can see-"
"-wrap her ankles around her ears-"
"-wring a man dry, you know. Gods, what I wouldn't give-"
"Quiet," growled Fort. Lufra save him, they were as bad as a bunch of giggling girls! He made a production out of hefting the huge hammer over his shoulder and the talk dried up and blew away.
In the ensuing silence, one of the fellwolves gave a deep, coughing bark. The sound carried all the way from the menagerie tent, surprisingly sharp in the soft summer air. An unsecured piece of canvas flapped in a light breeze. After a beat, Bruise said it again. "So, are we goin'?"
"I'm not a captain anymore," Fort said for what seemed like the hundredth time. "Let alone your captain. Do what you like."
"Thanks!" The man grinned, gave a ponderous wink and lumbered off at a rapid jog-trot. The others followed, hurrying to catch up. A buzz of excitement eddied in their wake as they disappeared onto the Fair's concourse.
Fort leaned on the handle of the hammer and frowned, watching them go. He'd taken his back pay, his prize share and his twenty-year bonus, stowed them with his medals in a strong box and left the lot with a merchant he trusted in Valaressa. Hell, he'd been dealing with the old scoundrel for years.
There shouldn't be anything left about him to show what he'd been - just a man, quieter and bigger than most. He kept to himself in the approved fashion of the Fair, where pasts were often checkered, but for some reason the men wouldn't leave him alone. Almost from the moment he'd signed on, they'd appealed to him to settle disputes, sought his approval, his advice. Hell, they even got him to hold the bets. And circus roustabouts would bet on two bitemes swimming in an ale jug.
The gods only knew how they'd found out he'd been a mercenary, a commander. But though he'd only been at the Ten Nations Fair a week, he'd developed a healthy respect for the Travelers' rumor mill.
He supposed it was fortunate Bruise wasn't disturbed by the threat to his authority. Fort didn't doubt he could take the big man down if he had to. Bruise wasn't a killer, whereas he--
He cut the thought off with the ease of long practice. That way lay the cold dark.
Scratching his beard, he let his mind wander. Ankles behind her ears? A little ripple of interest tingled through his belly, licked over his balls. Lufra, it had been a while.
And he was hungry. A man his size took a power of feeding.
Fort stowed the hammer in the communal toolbox and strolled off in the general direction of the Fair's food stalls.
* * * * *
Griff was standing on Cizmar's shoulders when a broad silhouette darkened the entrance to the Big Top. The man - Twister, he was a big one! - paused a moment, a single swift glance taking in the scene - the three girls, standing with their hands on their hips, the knot of roustabouts seated on the benches, watching the practice session with their mouths hanging open.
Sh*t, he almost fumbled it! In the nick of time, Griff tensed his abdominal muscles as the twins launched themselves at Cizmar, bouncing from the anchor man's knees to his shoulders to grab Griff's forearms and brace their bare feet against his thighs. Twister knew which was which, but they were certainly nicely counter-balanced, one on each side of him. A man could do worse. He grinned inwardly, muscles singing.
"Ready?" called Katahaya, tying back her wild gypsy hair with a loop of leather. Her firm little ass flexed delightfully under the practice tights and Griff thought he heard a collective inhalation. Dirty buggers.
Katahaya ran lightly to the springboard and bounced, just hard enough and no harder. Gods, she was good! A perfect flip, her toes pushing off Cizmar's chest, and she grasped the free hand of each twin, soaring high above the human pyramid and into the shadowed heights of the tent where Ansel the trapeze artist waited, hanging by his knees. Smoothly, he swooped, grasping Katahaya's ankles as she flew past. As they slowed, swinging to and fro like a pendulum, she let out a whoop, her tail of hair hanging down behind, marking time.
"Well, that works," rumbled Cizmar as he bent his knees, allowing the twins to jump lightly to the sawdust floor. Griff followed them down, still watching the new roustabout out of the corner of his eye. He was seated a little apart from the others, leaning back in the shadows, placidly consuming a pasty. If he was impressed, it didn't show.
"Again," said Cizmar. The strongman designed the routines and Griff had to admit he had real flair. A shame Cizmar was so crazy in love with Katahaya. Just like Ansel. Poor, sorry bastards, the pair of them. Mentally, Griff shrugged. He'd had her once, before she'd finally Bonded with the trapeze artist, and he couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Gods yes, she was lovely, but he'd never had a lover so self-absorbed. He might as well have been alone in the bed.
He pushed his arms above his head and bent his torso sideways in a luxurious, rib-twisting stretch, grunting with pleasure, feeling muscle, bone and tendon mesh in perfect harmony. From under his lashes, he glanced at the new roustabout, only to encounter a level, considering gaze. Griff straightened, lifting an inquiring brow, but the big man was not at all discomposed. A dark brow arched in a similar fashion.
An exchange of salutes.
He welcomed the burn in his blood, the challenge. Twister take him, it was good to be young and strong, good to be alive!
Stories about the man had flown around the Fair within an hour of his arrival. He'd been an assassin - no, a mercenary - no, a captain of the King's Guard. Griff stole another glance. He looked formidable enough to have been any or all of them, his face guarded, full of secrets. Such deep reserve.
What would it take to shatter that careful control?
"C'mon, Griff," said Cizmar, and they were off again.
From his seat on a rear bench, Fort assessed the muscle in the tumbler's body with the practiced eye of a commander. Aye, the man would make an excellent advance scout, lithe and quick and compact. When he leaped, his buttocks tensed beneath the skin-tight leggings, his thigh flexing in a long lovely line of power. Such a beautiful male animal. The girls must be mad for him.
Speaking of which... So much firm, healthy, female flesh. And all of it on display. Fort glanced at the women and his balls buzzed pleasantly. Feeling like a pervert, he sat back and reminded himself to relax. The troupe wore form-fitting outfits that left nothing to the imagination. The little tart with the dark curls and the superlative ass must be the famous Katahaya, while the other two were obviously twins and pretty enough, with small pointed faces and sweet bodies. On the other hand, the anchor man bulged with so much muscle he looked almost obscene, though his heavy-browed face was pleasant enough.
Fort returned to the first man, the one who'd tried to stare him down. Now that hadn't happened in a while. He scanned the tumbler from head to toe, lingering over the task. Aye, he was well-made, an athlete at the peak of his powers. All supple, sinewy strength and perfect proportions. It was a treat to watch him. And he was brave too. Some of the things he did defied gravity. Lufra, he took some risks! They all did.
"Hey, Griff! You gonna do the knife act?" shouted a gangly roustabout with thin, gingery hair.
The tumbler grinned, his dark eyes dancing with such wicked mischief Fort was too intrigued to look away. Griff put his hands on trim hips. "You volunteering?" he called.
"Don't be such a baby, Leo." Katahaya came forward with a box of dark polished wood. "I'll do it." She handed the box to Griff and then spun around, favoring the strongman with a dazzling smile. "Cizmar, be a dear and get the spinner, will you?"
Grumbling, Cizmar wheeled out what looked like a huge wooden wheel mounted upright on a small platform. Katahaya sauntered over with a swish of the hips. Carefully, she slipped her hands and feet into cuffs so she was spread-eagled across it like a pagan sacrifice.
Fort's heart began to beat uncomfortably fast. Above, in the shadows, the trapeze man swung gently, his face expressionless.
Griff opened the box with steady hands, revealing half a dozen throwing knives nestled in dark velvet, their narrow blades gleaming balefully in the filtered light.
"Go!" he called and Cizmar set the wheel spinning.
Without ceremony, Griff picked up the first knife and threw it, seemingly without taking aim. Thunk! It quivered next to the girl's ear.
The breath clogged in Fort's lungs.
Griff's hands blurred. Thunk, thunk, thunk! Between her spread fingers, next to her hip, her other ear.
Ruler God, surely he'd stop now? Fort dropped his hands to the edge of the bench and gripped.
Thunk! Under her arm.
Where had that one gone? He couldn't see any blood.
The wheel slowed. Cizmar put out a huge hand and stopped it.
Fort choked. The tumbler had put the last blade right between her legs, a fraction of an inch from that sweet cleft.
Gods, the man had balls! Come to think of it, so did Katahaya. He returned his attention to the woman with surprised respect. Whatever her morals, and he had to admit they were none of his business, she'd just displayed a cold-blooded courage the likes of which he'd seldom seen.
Well, he'd had enough of mud and blood and stinking death, hadn't he? He'd wanted a different life and by all the gods, he'd got one! With a rueful shake of his head, Fort rose, brushing crumbs from his shirt.
His head jerked around. The tumbler stood a few feet away, toweling the sweat from his face and neck with a rough cloth. The deep, scooped neck of his sleeveless vest exposed an expanse of muscled golden skin dusted with light brown hair. His dark, thoughtful gaze was very direct, the sloe eyes as sharp and pointed as his knives.
"That's right," said Fort.
Behind the towel, Griff shivered, sweat chilling on his skin. The man's voice matched the size of him, a subterranean rumble.
This close, his eyes were a clear, limpid gray, with a darker ring around the iris and creases at the corners as though he'd watched a lot of lonely dawns. Griff had no doubt his stare could turn icy enough to flay flesh from bones. He tilted his chin and grinned his cockiest grin, the one that combined charm with arrogance, just for the hell of it. He stepped forward, offering his hand. "Griffid Ringman."
"Fort McLaren." The roustabout moved in, brushing Griff's hand aside, clamping their forearms together the soldier's way. Warm callused fingers gripped Griff's flesh near the elbow while under his own palm, he felt the heat and solidity of iron-hard muscle.
"What, your mother named you for a fortress?" Ostentatiously, he let his glance rove over the other man's body. Broad and tall and muscled, with a fine proud carriage. The big man moved his head sharply and the light picked up a dusting of silver at his temples, a sprinkling of gray in his close-cropped beard. So he was older. Quite a lot older. But he didn't move like a middle-aged man and he kept himself nice. Very nice.
"No." The grip fell away. "It's Fortitude. Fortitude McLaren."
Oh f**k. Only the Brethren had names like that. Straight-laced, sanctimonious pricks.
Griff resisted the urge to step back. "You're Straight Church?"
The cool gaze didn't shift from his. "Not for a long time."
"Griff?" Cizmar loomed at his shoulder, several inches shorter than McLaren, but a touch wider.
Griff waited a couple of beats before he turned his head and broke the connection. "What?" His pulse drummed in his ears.
"One more time. C'mon, the girls are waiting."
"All right." He gave the big man what he hoped was a dignified nod. "Good to meet you, McLaren."
"Likewise." Something flickered in those calm gray eyes, but it was gone so quickly Griff couldn't tell what it was - amusement, heat, disapproval. All three? Without another word, McLaren turned and strode out of the Big Top, into the welcoming sunlight. He didn't look back.
"Griff." Cizmar's sharp elbow in the tight coil of his gut recalled him to the matter at hand.
* * * * *
But the next day, Fort McLaren was back again, this time with a ripe gaeta fruit that he peeled and quartered with a long knife. He ate tidily, but rapidly, the way a soldier would, the dark juice staining his lips with a ruddy sheen. Watching him lick one finger after the other like a temple cat, Griff almost lost his grip on Katahaya and she swore, clutching at his shoulders with desperate fingers. McLaren's eyes flickered and his lips twitched, but the expression passed so quickly, Griff wondered whether he'd imagined it.
After that, he came off and on, always at the lunch hour. Griff got into the way of looking for his bulky shape in the shadows, that thoughtful, considering gaze. When their eyes met, McLaren would nod an acknowledgement, unsmiling, and Griff's belly would clench with dark excitement.
Sh*t, it was stupid! Not like him at all. It was women he preferred, all honey and soft gasps, wet satin gripping your c*ck. His male lovers had been in the nature of experiments - lusty, deliciously brutal, but soon over. There hadn't been many of them.
But McLaren was like an itch under his skin, something he couldn't scratch. Griff found he was hanging on the Fair gossip, fascinated every time the man was mentioned. It seemed he had neither friends nor lovers, though the roustabouts afforded him wary respect, even Bruise. The women of the Fair, on the other hand, preened and smiled and speculated.
A couple of times, he'd even dreamed of McLaren, though he couldn't quite remember the substance of his dreams. He'd woken twisted in the sheets, his cock in his fist, strange, erotic fragments racketing around inside his skull.
Twister, it was driving him crazy and the gods knew patience had never been his long suit. Don't die not knowing. Griff's motto.
Now he watched Fort McLaren take a seat on the aisle so he could stretch his long legs. Hell, what did he have to lose? His lips twisted. Fort might kill him, but at least he'd know. Griff rolled his shoulders, his blood bubbling. Sh*t, the big bastard was welcome to try! Because as the days passed and the tension increased imperceptibly, he'd grown more certain there was something building between them. The gods only knew exactly what. But it was ripe with potential, swollen like the summer gaeta fruit Fort devoured every day, primed to explode with their own dark juices.
And he was insane. If he was wrong... He gave a mental shrug.
The moment Cizmar let the troupe go, Griff reached for his towel and drifted toward the first row of benches, his guts fluttering with anticipation and apprehension. McLaren rose and stretched. He gave Griff his usual nod as he walked past, a half-consumed pasty still in his hand.
"McLaren." Griff reached out, then let his hand fall to his side. "Wait."
The big man stopped, so close Griff could see the pulse beating in the strong brown column of his neck. "Ringman?" A brow arched in query.
"Most people call me Griff."
"Ah." A pause. "Fort."
"Right." Feeling even more off-balance, Griff cleared his throat and said the first thing that came into his head. "Where'd you get that pasty?"
The clean-cut mouth twitched amidst the whiskers and Griff wondered what a smile would look like. "From a stall, the one with the red shutters."
"Sh*t, that's Magrit's!"
A dark brow quirked, and for the first time Griff noticed the white scar that bisected it. "Is that a problem?"
Griff slung his towel over one shoulder. "Well, it's rumored she washes her hands once a year, but I think that's an exaggeration myself."
Fort shrugged. "She was the only one selling trintri pasties. I don't eat meat."
"Really?" A motto for every occasion. If you don't reach, you don't get.
Griff sucked in a deep breath. His heart hammering, he raised his eyes to Fort's. And held the stare. "I'm...ah...omnivorous," he said. "If what's on the table is willing."
The silence lasted an eon. Fort's face shuttered. "Well I'm not," he said evenly. "On both counts." Something swam behind those beautiful eyes, making them darken like smoke. He inclined his head. "Goodbye, Griff."
Fort stopped and looked over his shoulder, still all flinty and grim.
"Where are you staying?"
That f**king brow went up again. "What's it to you?"
"It's just that - bunking in with the others is pretty shitty, I know - and Fledge is selling her wagon and -" F**k, he was babbling. And he never babbled. Griff started over. "The bunkhouse isn't the best, is it?"
Again that flash of an almost-smile. "No," agreed Fort. "I don't know what's worse, the snoring or the bed bitemes."
"Fledge is leaving the Fair, so she's selling her wagon. She won't ask much."
Now Griff had the other man's full attention. "Which is it?"
"The little one nearest the menagerie."
"I know it." Fort thought for a moment. "Hmm. It needs repairs, but I could do that. I'm good with my hands."
I bet you are. All the hair rose on the back of Griff's neck. He had to force the smile. "I'll introduce you if you like."
"Tomorrow afternoon. She'll be here then."
Another pause. "All right." A final curt nod and Fort turned away, his broad bulk blocking the flood of buttery sunlight streaming in across the floor of the Big Top.
Sh*t! He'd gone and Griff hadn't pinned him down. He sprinted out onto the concourse. "Fort!" he called. The other man stopped and looked back, but he didn't speak.
"I won't know what time exactly until I contact her, so I'll find you. All right?"
Another nod and that was all.
Griff watched him stride away. Fort didn't lumber like Bruise. His gait was long and smooth, soft with power constrained. Spectral fingers skittered over the flesh of Griff's belly.
I'll find you.
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