Chapter One

I DID not intend to take up my pen again so soon—if at all.

I am no longer a man of reflection or one of science as I once purported to be, and do not analyze my life as I once did.

In this place of towering trees and deep, cold lakes, of mountains and wild coastlines, I have no need to pretend to be what I am not. But the events of the last few weeks have shaken me, I confess. Even now, sitting at my crudely fashioned desk in our cabin, I can feel a slight tremor in my hand as I write. It will pass, as will the nightmares and the drumming in my ears, which sounds like a summons from the dead.

But I do not pretend this time that alleviation of these small woes is my chief motivation in recording the events I am about to relate.

I have another motive.

I say I am no longer a man of science, but that does not mean I have fallen so far in my beliefs to now be… irrational… and yet… what I have witnessed over the last weeks has utterly confounded me. I will set it down. Once more I will record I went here, I did that, and maybe when the path is clear upon the paper, it will become clearer in my mind and fit once more into the laws of nature I have not wholly abandoned.

For if it does not, what is the alternative?

The alternative is unthinkable.

I SUPPOSE the beginning of the tale belongs to Aleksey.

Did I think our flight from Hesse-Davia to this new world would leave us in a kind of semiparadise? Heaven here on earth? I suppose I did. If put under torture—and trust me when I say from firsthand knowledge I would not want that experience again—then I would retrieve my account of my time in Hesse-Davia and confirm I did use the word heaven—or Aleksey did. I do not think either of us gave thought to how our lives would play out here in the New World.

If we were man and wife….

Dammit. He is as difficult to write about as he is to live with.

Aleksey, Aleksey, Aleksey. Now the trees whisper his name as once the wind cracking the sails did, the seagulls mewling….

Now I think on it, perhaps they were warning me.

Aleksey. His Majesty King Christian Aleksey Frederik Mountberg. What can I say about living with Aleksey that would capture one fraction of the ecstasy and fury that are my everyday lot? I brought a king to a wilderness, the general of a victorious army to a place where, if you listen closely, you can hear trees growing. I removed a young man who had lived out his twenty-four years surrounded by court intrigue and gossip to this place where the arrival of winter and the departure of ducks is something to be noted. He had spent his life being amused by people paid to invent novel entertainments: picnics, masques, dances, tournaments, concerts. Now he has me to divert him. You may have gathered from my previous account that I am not the most enthralling companion anyone could choose. I have my moments, but they are usually when I am horizontal—or Aleksey is—and then I can be inventive and amusing enough. But we can only be horizontal (and clearly this is only an expression, as we are as happy to share our bodies standing up pressed to any convenient wall as we are lying down) so much of the day, following on from nights when we exhaust ourselves to pain with the frequency and urgency of our passion.

As I started to say earlier, if we were man and wife…. If we were, there would most likely be children now: two people becoming three and then four. Then the love and the devotion that brought two people together would spread to encompass all. I assume that is how it works. I have no firsthand experience of this, naturally. But here we are. Just the two of us. Of course, I am not wistfully picturing Aleksey as my spouse surrounded by children. I am content enough. But I just wish….

Dammit, I wish he had not visited the newest settlement on the coast, and I wish he did not now find it so necessary to his happiness.

Aleksey has gone a handful of times to a small colony on the seaboard, and I am as a lovesick, jealous girl. There. I have improved my ability to be honest with my feelings.

He infuriates me because he finds my jealousy funny. Damn him, he has entirely forgotten how our relationship is supposed to work. He is only twenty-six. I am thirty-eight.

I should never have called this new home Aleksey’s kingdom and told him he had a devoted subject entirely in his thrall. I think he took me a little too literally.

I think now, upon reflection, it was a very bad idea to allow His Majesty to read my thoughts on our time in Hesse-Davia at all—recollections he has now read a number of times—some passages extremely well thumbed. It is very hard for me to now present myself as the stern arbitrator of his folly, censorious of his ridiculous whims and enthusiasms, when he knows I am usually thinking entirely different to what I actually say.

Aleksey, I am very sad to relate, takes liberties with me I should not allow.

He thinks my body is his to do with as he wishes.

He thinks my thoughts are constantly upon him.

He thinks my heart is unable to beat without the spark his presence lends.

His folly in all this is quite unsupportable.

AS I have already said, therefore, Aleksey precipitated these strange events. He returned one day in late autumn from his latest excursion to the colony to tell me some news that was to have more of an impact upon us than I anticipated when I first heard it. As he had been away for two weeks, I was not in the best of moods. I was chopping logs, a task I had taken to with great relish that morning, waking for some reason very out of sorts and needing something extremely physical to revive my spirits. Faelan was the first to sense his return. Now gray muzzled with age, he rose with difficulty from beside the woodpile where we had been comparing our thoughts on Aleksey’s absence and padded stiffly to the edge of the tree line. Aleksey got more of a welcome from his wolf than he did from his lover. I ignored him. I was busy. Wood does not chop itself.

After regarding me for some time, perhaps waiting for a greeting, Aleksey released Boudica to her paddock and came closer, his hands behind his back. “Do you not want your present?”

“Am I a girl needing trinkets to sweeten me?” The log split with one of those perfect blows you can only reproduce once in a while. I smiled privately and lined up another.

Aleksey picked up my shirt, which was draped over the log pile, and sat down, idly running his fingers over the material. Faelan slumped down at his feet with a sigh of pleasure. “He is glad to see me. I do not see why you are not too. It is very hard to have ridden so eagerly to get home and tell you my news—and give you a present—only to be treated so rudely.”

“One day you will return and find Faelan has died while you have been gone, and then you will be sorry—he is ten, Aleksey. That is a great age for a wolf, and he pines for you when you are not here.”

“Out loud?”

“No, in his heart. He is miserable and can settle to nothing.”

He picked up a long splinter and began to clean his nails, a deep frown upon his perfect features. “Perhaps he should tell me these things sometimes. When I am here.”

I sunk the axe into the block and went over to him and straddled his thighs, then took up my shirt and wiped the sweat off my face and naked chest. He lifted his eyes from the small task he was employed upon and watched the slow movement over my muscles. I slid my hand around the back of his neck and leaned closer, my mouth mere inches from his. “He is a dumb animal, Aleksey. You need to interpret his mood better—read his body language.”

He cupped me gently, a rueful pout upon his lips. “I am trying to interpret this. It resembles the axe handle. What could it mean?”

I lowered him to the ground, pressing it against him to give him a clue. He smiled wickedly and kissed me, a long, loving meeting of mouths. “You could come with me, Niko.”

“If I came with you, I would not have the pleasure of your absence. The peace and the quiet….” I was too busy kissing and exploring to play the game for much longer. I was close to admitting just how much I had missed him and showing him this very forcibly with my body.

But he was Aleksey. He suddenly pushed me off and darted one hand back up to the woodpile. “I forgot your present!”

“Aleksey!”

“No, wait. It’s a letter from Johan. To you, or I would have opened it—if it had been to me, which I think it should have, as he is my friend, not yours.”

But I had seized the letter from him and tossed it out of reach. Johan would understand. He was a man.

Aleksey’s breeches came down very swiftly, revealing the only present I needed. I took it eagerly in my mouth, as if he had brought me some sweet offering of sugar. He tasted better to my mind, despite a day in the saddle. He groaned and stretched upon the dry earth under the hot sun, then stripped off his shirt before spreading his arms and grabbing small handfuls of dust as his pleasure mounted.

One of the great delights of our enforced exile was that the monarch of this small kingdom could lie in the bright midday sun completely naked and be sucked to completion by another man, and the only stake he faced was one of flesh and blood, which was soon to take him another way.

I turned him onto his belly in the dirt after I had swallowed all he had to offer. He deserved to be mounted thus and reminded of his place in the scheme of things. And besides, although I loved to see his face when I took him, I cherished seeing his hard buttocks just as much, to spread my fingers over them as I thrust in, parting them to their extreme, stretching as I plunged to hear his gasp of delight. I relished the moment when he would inevitably push up, rising from his slim waist, twisting around for a kiss. I kissed him willingly, ignoring the slight smirk I sensed hovering around his lips. No doubt he would see this taking very differently: having returned home he’d successfully manipulated me into forgiving him his absence and rewarding him just the way he wanted. I would have pulled out and punished him by teasing my cock over him, promising reentry but withholding that extreme pleasure, but he had been absent two weeks, and that meant many, many such entries had been lost to me. I was not a man who found it easy to deny myself this indulgence. Actually, I cannot recall one instance when I had voluntarily denied myself Aleksey’s backside. Unless when giving him mine, of course.

We finished most satisfactorily with me coming deep inside him and he frustrated, for he had risen again after the relief my lips had given him but had not now been brought again to fulfillment. I left him in this state, disheveled, naked, hard, sitting alongside me as I retrieved Johan’s letter. I didn’t let him find his own easement either and told him I’d bind his hands behind his back if he tried it. This was something new we were experimenting with—me tying him up occasionally—so he did not take this threat lightly. As a king, this new interest of mine went very much against the grain for him, and it was taking a long time to coax him into playing with me in such a way. He would come around.

I prayed Johan would forgive me opening his letter in such circumstances, but I was fully intending to rise again very soon and finish my annoying king off properly, so holding one of his hands, preventing him touching himself, laughing and fooling, I tried to read poor Johan’s news. I was hoping it was confirmation they would soon be joining us.

I had no objection at all to Aleksey having a little more company from an old warrior he thought of as a father and a young wife who adored her husband. It was only soldiers in the colony I had a problem with Aleksey seeing. But then, as I frequently reminded him, he did not have a very good record with the military. He had seduced a senior officer in his own army on the road to war!

Johan and Anastasia wanted to come and join us. I think my descriptions of the life—the freedom and the complete lack of censure from any form of authority—had seduced a young princess who had dreamt of such a life since she was old enough to realize that etiquette and manners of court were not for her. Although I do not think Johan’s and my experiences of love were similar in most respects, they were perhaps more alike than we had ever suspected they would be. We had both tethered ourselves irrevocably to beautiful whirlwinds and were hanging on for the ride.

So his letter was full of his plans for the journey to the New World, but also full of the work they were both doing as de facto guardians and counselors of a very young king. Stephen, being only twelve, needed them. It was an ideal arrangement. Johan and Anastasia ruled Hesse-Davia and raised Stephen to be a monarch worthy of the ideal. Our early reforming zeal was in very good hands. They had apparently rescinded once more the death penalty for witchcraft and sodomy.

There was even a suggestion of Aleksey and I being able to return one day, which is why, I suspect, the canny old soldier had sent the letter to me and not to Aleksey, or both of us as he usually did. He knew Aleksey’s innate good manners would forbid him opening something so directed. He probably understood my extreme reluctance to even contemplate such a return, despite how much Aleksey might see it now—from this great remove—as a good idea. He was still, technically, King of Hesse-Davia, of course. Only a small handful of people knew of his survival—and mine, come to that. So I read him parts of the letter I wanted him to hear and concealed others. I think he was too distracted by us both being naked and erect to worry much over what the letter said. I dragged out the recital a little to inflame him more.

Finally he could stand it no longer and suddenly displayed one of those annoying traits I alluded to: he demanded I turn for his convenience. I didn’t object to taking Aleksey into my body—indeed, I craved the feel of him inside me—but I didn’t appreciate being ordered by him to do anything and certainly not in the crude way he put it. Turn over, I want to fuck you was the sort of thing a soldier might say to an eager young man….

At my very mild enquiry—something along the lines of is that what the soldiers in the colony say to you?—he took umbrage with me for some reason, and the consequent manhandling was quite vicious. I always took the time to prepare him—well, a finger or two if he was lucky and I was feeling generous. His entry into me, however, was painful and sudden. If we hadn’t been laughing so much, I might have actually resented it. But we were too amused with ourselves to worry about my discomfort or his intense delight in conquering me so. He rode me with the same urgency he rode his horse, with the spirit with which he did everything, and as he worked himself deep inside me, he regaled me with tales of what he did with the soldiers, when and how, and was inventive in his wicked lies. Quite where the young prince I first met who had no words to describe most of what we did with our bodies had gone, I had no idea. This challenging man had taken his place. It was a good trade, I thought.

Aleksey’s news, therefore, did not get related until later that day as we were swimming in the lake. It was incredibly convenient, given our favorite pastime was inevitably so messy, to have this to look forward to afterward. The water was always cool, even in the high summer months, and sometimes, when the light was just right, was entirely clear to the bottom except in the very deepest parts in the middle. Now in late autumn it was very cold and quite delightful to plunge into—once the initial heart-stopping moment was over.

We were both very brown, as even his pale skin, exposed to so much sun and activity naked outside in the daylight hours, had darkened over the very hot summer we had just enjoyed. I would have been taken for one of my Powponi brothers had it not been for the intense lightening effect of the sun on my hair, which was now the color of gold dust dredged and shiny from a river. We were both very lean, too, living as we did on a diet of mostly fish and meat. And, of course, we had no home comforts other than those we provided for ourselves.

If we wanted shelter, we had to build it. If we hungered, we had to catch and kill something. If we fancied luxuries like saddles or boots we had to trap for furs, which could be traded. The activity all this necessitated had contributed to our leanness. Even during the war, neither of us had felt so well, so vitalized. Maybe it was other things making us so vigorous and alive. Relief from torture and death can do that to a man.

It had taken me many months to recover fully from the torture I had endured in Hesse-Davia. I often found it hard to watch a branding iron being heated on a fire and still could not smell boiling flesh without nausea assailing me. The sound of a bone breaking when we cleaned a carcass produced an odd stab of pain behind my eyes, as though my body were expecting a consequent follow-on of agony. My scars were ferocious upon otherwise tanned, smooth skin. I did not mind them too much. Who does not secretly like to be scarred and fearsome with evidence of a life lived as a man? Aleksey spent many hours tracing my wounds, trailing his tongue and fingers around them, roused, I suspect, by the thought of possessing and taming the violent nature they betrayed.

Other than the scar on his belly, won before I met him, Aleksey was as flawless as the water in the lake when the light struck it just right. His nature more than balanced out this apparent perfection in being so infuriatingly annoying, as evidenced in the lake that evening. Whilst I was taking the opportunity to laze and relax my muscles, as I had been exerting myself from first light with domestic chores, he decided I needed to be punished. He never needed a reason to decree this, as he claimed my whole demeanor to him was an outrage, given he was a king and I was nothing more than a deserter from his army, a fake doctor, and a sodomite. Three death sentences. I would have preferred the scaffold to the dunking and splashing and constant torment he subjected me to in the water. Fortunately, being stronger and quicker and just better than him, I was able to dunk him more than he could me and thus make his life an equal misery.

We were both shivering and exhausted from laughter and swallowing lake water when we finally emerged to check the fish we were grilling over a fire on the lakeshore. It was done to perfection, and both of us being starved, it tasted better than any meal prepared by chefs and servants in Europe. It was as he was picking flesh from around the bones that Aleksey suddenly blurted out, “Oh, guess what has happened.”

I swallowed and replied dryly, “One of the soldiers has got you with child?”

“No, surprisingly, though, for they have all tried.” He flicked me a cheeky look that told me no bad temper on my part was believed now. “They have lost contact with the colony outpost. Isn’t it odd?”

Our land extended to the north a day’s ride from the junction of two big rivers, which dominated this region of the New World. Where they joined, the waters merged and tumbled over a vast fall, then ran as a wild, rough tumult impassable to man for many, many miles. On the junction above the falls, an offshoot of the colony on the coast had been established a little over a year ago, and consequently a contingent of soldiers had been posted there as well—north of the falls was French territory.

This tiny colony facing the papists was a good week’s ride, if not more, from me, so I was unconcerned at its presence. But unfortunately we lay as the shortest route between the larger coastal colony and this outpost, and thus we occasionally saw a troop of soldiers moving between them with supplies or replacement men, and one or two families joining the enlarging falls group. Aleksey, needless to say, found all this fascinating and appeared to know schedules and duties and names and ranks—things he tried to interest me in. Once or twice, he had even mentioned illness or injury within the families, trying to spark my abeyant interest in medicine. It was very dormant, trust me—unless Aleksey had a vague ache needing warmed oils and the application of my hands to relieve…. Soldiers, abscesses, boils, and the pox did not concern me.

The fish was good, though.

“Nearly thirty people! Soldiers and officers, Niko, and the families—men, women, and children. They have all disappeared. Is that not strange?”

“How does anyone know they have? It is ridiculous, Aleksey. If I do not hear from Johan, I do not assume he has disappeared. Eat your fish before it gets cold.”

“They know because… well… everyone just does know. You should hear what has been said—that the place is entirely deserted with no sign of damage or a struggle, but that there is food still warm in bowls upon the tables; that—”

“Oh, and you join in with this gossip fit only for servants, do you?”

“Why are you in such a sulk? Is this not the most interesting thing that has happened for ages?”

I was not in a bad mood as such, but his words had sparked an unfortunate memory that I was at some pains to conceal. Aleksey was bad enough when he had no fuel for the fires of his imagination….

“I apologize that your life here with me, Your Majesty, bores you so.”

Aleksey threw down the remains of his meal and stood, then walked over to the lakeshore and began skimming some pebbles angrily. “You are so…. You ruin everything!”

I rose and went to stand behind him and slid my arms around his waist. “Everything?”

He relented, sagging back against me. “No. Nothing—of course. Except my stupidity and horrid temper. I’m sorry. But it is such a good story—so mysterious.” He sighed theatrically. “There is probably a message written in blood upon the walls….”

I chuckled; I could not help it. I tightened my hold upon his slim form. I had been outmaneuvered by my love for him—I wanted him to have his spooky story by the campfire in the dark.

He turned in my arms, eyeing me with a surprised look. “What? You know something about this, don’t you?”

I shrugged and went back to my meal—if I was going to spin a story, I wanted it to be to a very eager audience, and playing Aleksey was one of my chief amusements.

After a few moments, I laid down my platter. “My people—”

“Oh God….” He had followed me back to the fire and was sitting cross-legged across the low embers, his face illuminated as a saint’s painted in a chapel in a distant land. “They were not your people, Niko! They murdered your people!” My life with the Powponi was a constant source of friction between us since we had arrived here in the New World. Although I avoided our European neighbors as much as possible, I spent a great deal of time with the local tribe, the Mik’mac, whose hunting lands merged somewhat with ours. It seemed only pragmatic to me to live in harmonious accord with them. Aleksey’s kingdom was easily big enough for all of us. Aleksey’s resentment of the Mik’mac stemmed from his belief that I hovered too uneasily between my old life and this new one. He wanted me firmly rooted in his life. I hope that is what he was thinking, anyway. Perhaps he was just jealous of the time I spent with seminaked, beautiful warriors. Actually, I hope he was thinking that as well.

I occasionally harbored my own doubts about my desire to live my life more in accord with the peoples native to this land. After all, my introduction to their life had been sudden, savage, and terrifying. Ought I not, therefore, fear these local tribes rather than seek them out? But I knew this would be as ridiculous as meeting one group of Europeans and ever after fearing all such men. Aleksey saw only the differences between us and them. He could not see that amongst themselves the native tribes were as different as he was from an Englishman. I did not try to explain myself to Aleksey. To do so would force me to speak of my childhood. I do not know if I was protecting Aleksey or myself with this reticence. Probably a little of both.

But I was distracted now and not particularly wanting to continue a brewing argument—as much as we both enjoyed bickering. His story had indeed stirred a remembrance of the past: a memory of a place entirely abandoned, as if people could leave this earth whilst still eating or sleeping.

I plucked another fish off the grill and pulled pieces of the succulent meat from the tiny bones. Aleksey was watching me closely. Eventually, unable to contain himself, he threw a pebble at me. “And? What? Are you going to sit there all night, brooding?”

“I am not brooding. I am remembering.” In truth, I was trying to decide just how much of the story to tell him. Some, I could not. I could not think about some of it myself, let alone tell someone else, even him. Had I known what was to come for us in the following weeks, I would have done, if only to have the comfort of knowing that now two of us knew of this horror. I had shared my past like this with Aleksey before and had felt distinct relief, as if laying down a physical burden.

It was tempting to do so again, but my impatient boy threw a pebble at me—again. “And?” and thus the decision was made to tell him a version only of the story.

“The Powponi—do you want to hear this or not?” He stopped the eye roll he’d been making and produced a face like an eager schoolboy listening to a wise master. Aleksey had missed a vocation upon the stage. “We used to winter in the south by a huge lake. It was so big it had waves and a tide, and you could not see the far shore even from the—”

“I don’t believe you. How could a lake be so big?”

“Well, it was fresh water so could not have been the sea. Although I suppose there might be freshwater oceans…. I had not thought of that.”

“Whatever. You wintered there and…?”

“Another tribe, the people of the Black Crow—I do not know how to translate that better—lived permanently at the water’s edge, and we used the winter months to trade with them, but when we came to the lake one winter, they were gone. The tepees were there; the fires were still warm; the dogs and horses tethered and not yet starving or dead. But no people.”

“Oh goodness, just like the colony! Why did you not say so at first? I wish they could hear this back at the colonel’s house. They laughed at my—anyway. Go on. You do have fun stories. So, where were they? I know, they went swimming, and it was very cold, and they all drowned…?”

“I do not remember, exactly, but there were over a hundred in the Black Crow nation—women, old people, and babies too—so a jolly swimming excursion is not all that likely, is it? And we would have then found their bodies.” I pursed my lips, frowning, staring at the flames. I thought this coincidence of his story of the colony and my memory very odd, but wanted Aleksey to be the one to wonder and speculate about it, as I knew he would.

“So, where were they? What had happened to them? They must have told you where they had been.”

I think he missed the point. “They never were discovered. That is the point. The village was empty, as if they had been plucked from the earth, and no trace of them was ever found again.”

“What?” He was aghast. He had seemed to like speculating about his little mystery at the outpost, but clearly he expected to find a perfectly rational explanation. This did not please him as much. “What did everyone say—the Powponi? When they found this place? Did you release the dogs and take them with you?”

I smiled. “Yes, Aleksey, we saved the dogs and took the horses, although we did not touch the blankets and tools or anything else.” I stared morosely into the fire for a while. I was on tricky ground now and didn’t want to stray into the territory of things I did not want to speak of. “No one talked about it. It was accepted as a part of the world—real—but I think they assigned it more to the unreal world with which we communed only in dreams.” Then I conceded, “But I did not understand this way of thinking at all and wanted to know why the place was deserted, where everyone had gone. I had particularly wanted to meet up with some of the boys I had known the previous—”

“Seriously. You are going to sit there and tell me another story of how you could lie down in plain sight with boys and men and—”

“I was nine, Aleksey, or thereabouts. I wanted to go fishing with them.”

“Oh. Well, all right, then. I will allow you to have a previous life fishing. So what did you do?”

“I started to look for them.” I rubbed my nose, remembering more than I wanted to. “Anyway, I was retrieved, beaten, and then we moved on.”

“Oh. That is a bit disappointing.” He stared into the fire, poking it with a stick and then watching its tip flare to life. “But in another way it is excellent, is it not? Now you can do it properly and find the missing—”

“What are you talking about?”

“Niko! You are so dumb sometimes! I’ve told you—the outpost is deserted, so we are raising a party to go there and find everyone. We are mounting a rescue! I told you this!”

I didn’t argue with him; I began to walk back to the cabin.

There was only one thing I was planning to raise, and it wasn’t for anyone else’s relief.

I could feel the waves of his fury washing over me. I suppose, being a king, he just could not tolerate the idea that someone would blithely walk away from him when he was speaking.

The light had fallen now, and it was icy—too bitter for me to sit out in lake-damp clothes and with only a small cooking fire. I still did not like being cold.

I stoked up the fire in our small cabin, although it was already quite warm. I was still hungry, but there was nothing to eat. Aleksey came in. He would either badger me or sulk, neither of which I was looking forward to. He surprised me, therefore, by asking quite rationally, “What do you think happened to the missing tribe? You must have thought about it, even if no one would talk about it.”

I sat down in front of the flames, picking up a stick to poke it idly, just as he had been doing earlier, and he sat close, our knees touching. His shirt was as damp as mine, and I pulled a little piece of the fabric toward me, rubbing it between my fingers. “I wondered at first if they had been raided and taken for slaves—that was very common amongst the people. We had many