Redd crashed through the forest as fast at the trees would let him. The space between their trunks appeared to be shrinking. Were they closing in on him? He put on a burst of speed. Branches stretched toward him, grasping at his clothing with jagged wooden fingers. Twigs and dead leaves cracked and crunched beneath his feet, and his crimson cloak billowed out behind him, flapping in the breeze and brushing over the foliage.
Then one of the trees got lucky. Its slender limb caught on the hem of Redd’s cape and sent him tumbling to the ground. The shock of the fall was enough to snap him out of his panic, and he lay there until his short, sharp breaths steadied to slow and deep inhalations. Once calm, he pushed up onto his elbows and assessed his surroundings.
The woods encircled him, dense and dark. He knew it was still daytime because here and there the sun’s rays penetrated the thick foliage, creating glistening puddles of light that made the reddening leaves shimmer. However, there was a faint bluish tinge to the illumination that told Redd dusk was not far off. The thought of being forced to spend the night in the forest sent a new shudder of fear through him and he scrambled to his feet.
Why had he done it? His whole life he’d been warned about straying from the path and he’d never been tempted to disobey before now. But then he’d never had any incentive until today. His grandmother was sick. Dying. No one had said the word aloud, but Redd had seen it in their faces when they spoke of her illness. Getting weaker, they muttered. Growing frail. Others spoke of the long years she’d enjoyed as if that somehow made up for the inevitable loss. For Redd, there could be no positive to numb the pain.
His grandmother was the one who’d raised him. His father had travelled often when Redd was a child, peddling his wares. The meagre income he’d garnered from this work had not been sufficient to support the growing family, so his mother had spent long hours plying her needle to put food on the table. With neither parent free to care for young Redd, his grandmother had stepped in.
He had spent many hours at her side. She’d taught him his letters and shared with him tales from her youth. Those days of childhood at her house were the happiest Redd had known. But as he had grown, so too had his responsibilities. By the time he was twelve, he had been expected to help at home, and his hours with his grandmother had dwindled. By fifteen he saw her only twice a week, and now, at eighteen, his visits were sporadic, made only when he could steal time away from his work on their neighbour's farm.
Today was one of those occasions. The harvest was in and everyone was taking a well-deserved two days of rest. While others slept or drank off their exertions, Redd had decided to pay his grandmother a long-overdue visit. That morning he’d packed a basket with bread, cheese, and a small bottle of wine and set off toward her home.
The house he’d grown up in sat deep in the forest, far from the main village where he now resided with his parents. To his knowledge, his grandmother was the only one to live in that inhospitable place. He’d asked her once why she didn’t move closer to the others now she was getting older, but she’d offered an enigmatic smile and told him some folk just needed solitude.
The journey to her cottage was one Redd had made so many times he could have followed the path blindfolded. The woods surrounding the worn, narrow path had never interested him. As a child the place had been forbidden, and as an adult he’d never felt the slightest desire to challenge that edict. What was there in the forest for him? Nothing but trees and squirrels.
Today, though, thoughts of his grandmother’s illness had been forefront in his mind. The bread and cheese would give her strength, true enough, but he had heard tell that when age caught up with a person they lost the desire to live. What could he give to his grandmother to spark the delight of life in her once more?
It was then he’d seen the flowers. At first, they’d been no more than a speck of colour glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. But that had been enough to make him pause and turn from the path.
The dog-violets formed a purple blanket in an open space between the trees, and Redd had crept closer, lured by the colourful display. As he quit the path and wandered into the small clearing, he also noticed honeysuckle winding its way around a nearby tree. He’d always thought of the forest as nothing but trees, yet here were all these beautiful flowers. What could please his grandmother more than a bouquet of fresh blooms to set in a vase upon her windowsill? Surely she would want to live when she saw such lovely colours.
He’d pulled out his knife and set about harvesting the flowers. He’d cut each with care, wanting to preserve them in as perfect a state as possible. From there he’d clipped off some honeysuckle, and then he’d gathered the blooms into a bunch, tying them together with a piece of vine.
At that point, he’d almost returned to the path. He should have returned to the path. But the thought had struck him that if these flowers were here there could be others deeper in the forest. He wanted his gift to be splendid, and a small delay wouldn’t hurt. And so he’d pressed on, scanning for the telltale glimpse of colour.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d walked before realizing he was lost. It had not been a sudden revelation but rather a gradual comprehension that he no longer knew which way the path lay. To begin with he’d been unconcerned, certain he would soon find his way again. But as he’d tried one direction after another, seeing nothing but trees, his panic had grown. That dread had seen him break into a run, which had in turn led to the tumble.
Redd brushed the dirt from his trousers and examined his cloak. The tree had been kind in one respect—the cloak was undamaged. His grandmother had presented him with the cape on his last birthday and it was his most prized possession. He had no idea where she’d acquired the rich wool, but it was dyed the most vivid shade of crimson Redd had ever seen. She’d told him someone with a name like his needed a cloak to match.
He glanced around the wood, then bent to retrieve his basket. Several of the flowers were crushed, so he eased those out of bunch and tossed them away. Luckily, the bottle of wine was still intact and he saw no damage to the food. He could still salvage the day, he decided. Now he was calm once more, he would find his way back to the path and continue on to the cottage. He would not make it home before dark, but he could spend the night with his grandmother and return to the village at dawn.
With a plan in mind, Redd glanced about him, chose the direction in which the trees looked least dense, and set off in search of the path.
As the dark closed in, Redd’s pace quickened. His restored serenity was near breaking point. The trees all looked the same no matter which direction he took. There was no marker to direct him back to the path, and it was getting harder and harder to pick out any route in the fading light. I cannot stay here. I cannot stay here. He’d been repeating the words over and over in his mind for a while, and yet it was fast becoming apparent he would have no choice but to spend the night in the woods.
Redd slowed to a halt and looked about him. Here was probably as good as anywhere. He had his cloak for warmth and he could pile the fallen leaves to cushion him from the hard forest floor. It would not be comfortable but it was only for a few hours. Tomorrow, following rest and the return of the sun, he would doubtless find the path with ease. If he didn’t, the village would soon send someone to search for him. He’d face mockery for having lost his way, but it would be forgotten in time.
It was then that he heard it.
The howl echoed through the trees, the plaintive cry long and lingering. Redd froze, unable to move until the sound died away. Then it came again. This time he spun, scanning the tree line, but with the way the call reverberated through the branches, it was impossible to ascertain its point of origin. The voice in his head had been right all along: he couldn’t stay here.
Redd scooped up his basket and slung it over his arm. He dashed looks from left to right, trying to decide which way to go. But a third howl saw him throw planning to the wind.
He surged forward, pushing through the branches. The trees seemed closer than ever and it was a fight to work his way between them. Wider limbs battered him and twigs snapped against his face and arms, but he ignored the pain. His only focus was to get away. Far away. He knew wolves inhabited the depths of the forest, but none had ever ventured close to the village. How far had he wandered after he left the path?
He kept moving until exhaustion brought him to his knees. He had heard the wolf cry again, but only twice and not for a while now, so he felt at liberty to pause and catch his breath. The snap of a twig brought his head up and he peered into the gloom. At first he believed himself mistaken, but then there was a flash of movement and a moment later the wolf stalked toward him.
It was a huge creature—much larger than he’d imagined—with eyes that shone a ghoulish green-gold through the darkness. Those eyes held his attention and he stilled in his hunched position, looking into them as they stared back at him. Then the wolf growled, and Redd’s focus shifted to the row of sharp, glistening teeth.
Instinct kicked in and Redd stumbled back, groping for something, anything, to use as a weapon. He lighted upon a fallen branch. It was not a substantial one by any means, but it would suffice—he hoped. The wolf still hadn’t moved, so Redd got to his feet and began to back away. Perhaps the animal was merely angry at the invasion of its territory and would leave Redd alone if he retreated. It was an optimistic theory, but one that was quickly disproven as the wolf leaped toward him.
Redd couldn’t suppress a cry as the wolf lunged. He raised the branch in front of him, using it as a barrier between his body and those gnashing teeth. It seemed to work at first, but then a firm bite from that powerful jaw broke the makeshift weapon in twain.
During the scuffle, Redd had been pressed against a tree trunk. The force of the snapping stick sent the wolf backward, but Redd was now weaponless with nowhere to run. He realized this was it. One foolhardy decision to stray from the path was to see him devoured by this wolf. His family would probably never discover what had happened to him. The shock of his sudden loss might spell the end for his grandmother. It was that more than his own imminent demise that wrought the sob from the back of his throat, and Redd gave in to the tears as he waited for the end.
As if sensing its victory, the wolf took its time slinking forward once more. But forward it came. When it was but a few paces from Redd, it snarled and prepared to attack. Seeing the creature tense to spring, Redd closed his eyes. But the expected strike never came.
A twang rang out, followed a moment later by a whimper. Then something heavy came down on Redd’s shoulder.
Redd jumped and his eyes shot open. The scream that had been hurtling forth died when he found the thing gripping his arm was a human hand. He moved his gaze up the attached arm until he reached his rescuer’s face. That it was a man was clear, but a scarf covered the lower part of his face. All Redd could see were two blue-grey eyes and a thick head of hair that stuck out in all directions.
“Are you hurt?”
Redd’s frantic heartbeat still echoed in his ears and it took a moment for the question to register. When it did, words wouldn’t come, so Redd simply shook his head.
“What’s a boy like you doing out here at this time of night?” It appeared the man didn’t expect an answer as he immediately continued, “Whatever the cause, I s’pose you’d better come with me.”
Redd accepted the proffered hand and the man tugged him to his feet with ease. Once upright, he glanced down at the wolf. The creature had collapsed with an arrow protruding from its side. Blood—black and viscous in the gloom—dripped down its fur. Redd felt a slight pang. But then he remembered the animal had been about to eat him and that tempered his guilt.
His savior bent over the beast and ripped out the arrow, which he wiped on his trouser leg and returned to the quiver at his back. Then he grasped the carcass by its hind legs and slung it over his shoulder.
“Come on then.” He gestured with a jerk of his head and set off through the forest.
It felt as if they had been walking for hours before at last the trees thinned and they stepped into a small clearing, in the middle of which stood a ramshackle cottage. The man strode forward and Redd scampered after him. When they reached the door, the man dropped the carcass and went inside. He gave no command to the contrary, so Redd assumed he was to follow.
The cottage was made up of a single room, though a fur had been hung to create an alcove. Redd guessed this area housed the man’s bed since there was no evidence of one elsewhere in the chamber. His theory was confirmed when the man lit a lamp, giving Redd a clearer view of his surroundings.
Sparser even than Redd’s own home, the place held only the bed, a tiny table with a single chair, a partially rotted chest of drawers, and a roughly-hewn fireplace that began smoking as soon as the man set a flame to the wood. Through the haze, the man gestured for Redd to sit and then turned his back on him to stoke the fire.
Redd settled on the edge of the seat. The fire was not yet strong enough to produce much heat and he pulled his cloak tight about him, keeping his frozen hands tucked within its folds.
“I s’pose you have a name?”
Redd looked up to find the man watching him from across the room. He’d removed his scarf, revealing a chiselled chin covered in stubble and thin, tight lips. He was older than Redd had first thought—probably past his thirtieth year. Something in the manner of the man’s gaze reminded Redd of the way the wolf had look at him when it first emerged from the darkness. He shuddered.
“Yes. Redd. My name’s Redd.”
“Was the cloak to match your name or the name to match your cloak?”
Redd thought he caught the hint of a smile, but then the man turned back to the fire. “To match my name.” Now the terror of earlier had passed and he was beginning to thaw, Redd remembered his manners. “Would you be so kind as to tell me your name, sir? I should like to know to whom I owe my life.”
“Aye, you do at that.” The man lifted an iron pot and hung it above the flames. “Fine young flesh like yours would have made a tasty meal for Old Grey. Speaking of, I’d best go deal with him, else we’ll not be eating tonight. You wait here. It won’t take long. Unless you’ve a stomach to help?”
With a shake of his hand, Redd shrank back into the chair.
The man gave a short, sharp laugh. “I thought not.” He opened the door, then paused. “The name’s Ulric.”
Redd relaxed once Ulric closed the door behind him. Left alone, his curiosity awakened and he itched to explore what little there was in the room and learn more of his mysterious rescuer. Yet something held him back. Ulric inspired in him a feeling that was part dread and part...something else. He shook his head. What was he thinking? He had no reason to fear the man. Had he wanted to hurt Redd, he could have done so after slaying the wolf, or simply stood back and let the beast make its kill.
The door opened and Ulric strode back in. He carried a skinned thigh, which he eased into the pot over the fire. Then he crouched by a bucket in the corner and rinsed the blood from his hands.
“Ironic, isn’t it,” he said as he stood. “The prey now gets to eat the predator.” He stalked forward and looked down at Redd. “So, while we wait for our dinner, I s’pose we should discuss payment.”
“Payment?” Redd squirmed under Ulric’s scrutiny, unable to meet his eye. Something about the huntsman drew him in, yet scared him at the same time.
“Aye. I saved your life, did I not? And now I’m offering you a warm meal and a place to sleep for the night. I should think some kind of reward is in order.”
Redd nodded. He’d only intended to do so once, but he found himself unable to stop, as if an external force were using him as a puppet. “Of course. I have no money on me, and my family are far from wealthy, but I’m sure if you guide me back to the village tomorrow, my parents will spare all they can afford.”
Ulric laughed. “Money? Who said a thing about money? What use would I have for your coins? I live alone in the forest. I eat what food I can catch and whatever the soil and trees bestow. I make my clothing from the skins of the animals I hunt. That wolf outside will soon provide me with a fine new cloak. No, my little red-caped boy, I care not for your gold. I have something else in mind.”
He gripped Redd’s arm and pulled him upright. The movement was so fast Redd stumbled forward into his chest. Then Ulric’s arms were around him, pinning him in place. Redd looked up in surprise, but before he could speak, Ulric’s lips were pressed against his.
The kiss was hungry but not violent, and once the initial shock had passed, Redd melted into it. When Ulric ran his tongue along Redd’s lips, Redd opened his mouth to grant him entry. Ulric’s tongue was warm and soft against his own, and Redd gave a muffled groan as pleasure pooled in his groin. For years he’d frolicked with two of the other village lads in haylofts and behind barns. They had found their release through their own touch or at each other’s hands, and Redd had always preferred their bodies, the bodies of other men, to those of the simpering farmers’ daughters. But none of those experiences had ever felt as good as this. Those encounters had been clumsy, hesitant, and rushed; Ulric was master, certain, and slow. His arms around Redd were strong, their clasp unbreakable. His stubble scratched and tickled Redd’s skin. And he tasted of the forest—sunlight and warm soil.
When they broke apart, Redd was panting. He stared up at Ulric. He wanted to beg the hunter to kiss him again, never to stop, but speech eluded him. Was his expression enough? Could Ulric read his desires in a look?
“Do you consent?”
Redd frowned and tried to process the question, but his kiss-addled brain refused to make sense of the words.
Ulric took a step back and grasped Redd’s shoulder, looking deep into his eyes. “I won’t force you, boy, if this isn’t something you want. You can still stay here tonight. I’d not throw you out in the cold if you refused me.”
“No, no, I-I do. I want you to kiss me again.”
“It’s more than kissing I’m after.” Ulric trailed his fingers along Redd’s jaw. The roughness of his weather-hardened skin made Redd shiver. “When I saw you in the forest, I thought at first you were a sprit. Your skin was so pale against that red cloak. I watched the wolf close in and my only thought was that it had to die. Old Grey and I have had an understanding of sorts these past few years. He goes his way, I go mine. But I couldn’t let him have you. Not when I wanted to devour you myself.” He moved his hand and ran his fingers through Redd’s hair. “I want to touch you, Redd. I want you to touch me. I need to possess you completely. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Redd did. His heart was hammering and he feared it would burst through his chest if Ulric didn’t hurry up and kiss him again. “Yes.”
“Yes, you understand?”
“No, I mean, yes, I consent.”
The growl that rose up from Ulric’s throat was so primal Redd took an involuntary step back, even as his body thrilled at the sound. He didn’t have chance to move far in any case, because a moment later Ulric pushed him into the chair and dropped to his knees beside him. He sank his hand into Redd’s hair again and trailed kisses across Redd’s jaw and neck. He untied Redd’s cloak, slipping it off his shoulders, then pawed at the fabric of Redd’s shirt. Between them, they worked the garment over Redd’s head and cast it aside.
Ulric turned his attention to Redd’s chest, tracking a path of kisses downward as he massaged Redd’s thighs. The kisses turned to licks and then light bites. When Ulric’s teeth grazed his nipple, Redd shuddered and moaned. But that was nothing compared to what he felt when Ulric shifted his hand to cup Redd’s rigid member. He grasped Ulric’s shoulder, his breaths hot and heavy, as Ulric worked at the fastenings on his trousers. Then Ulric wrapped a hand around him and began to tease his flesh with languid strokes.
Redd thought he’d reached the height of pleasure. Ulric’s grip was firmer than those of the other boys from his village. He didn’t believe anything could surpass that tight, calloused clasp and steady motion. He soon discovered he was wrong.
Ulric shifted position to lean over Redd’s lap. He looked up and shot Redd a wicked smile. Then he swirled his tongue around the head of Redd’s member.
Redd yelped. He would have shot out of the chair had Ulric not pinned him in place with a strong arm across his thigh. Ulric kept hold of Redd, but he moved his hand lower. Then he took Redd fully into his mouth.
Redd was reduced to a whimpering wreck as Ulric sucked and licked and nipped. For one terrifying instant, Redd wondered if Ulric had been serious about devouring him. Was he planning to eat him alive, one piece at a time? But then all thoughts were brushed aside as the pleasure overtook him. He sank his fingers into Ulric’s thick hair and gripped the soft strands. Every suck, every stroke brought him closer to the precipice, until he could hold back no longer and came with a cry, releasing his seed into Ulric’s mouth.
Ulric consumed every drop. Then he let Redd’s member slip from between his lips.
Redd was aware of movement beside him, and then Ulric grasped his arms. He eased Redd down to the floor and stretched out next to him. Redd saw a sea of crimson all around and realized they were lying upon his cloak. He tried to roll over to face Ulric, but his limbs refused to obey his commands.
“I can’t feel my legs. Am I dead?”
Ulric chuckled. “I certainly hope not.” He flashed Redd a smile that was all teeth, and in one sinuous move, draped himself over him, keeping barely an inch between their bodies. “There are still many things I want us to do before this night is through.”
“There’s more?” At the thought of another encounter like the one he’d just experienced, feeling returned to Redd’s body and, though he wouldn’t have believed it possible, his member began to stiffen again.
“Much more.” There was a glint in Ulric’s eye as he moved to crouch over Redd. “I s’pose I’d better teach you, little cub.” He reached for Redd’s hand. “To begin with, why don’t you rub here?”
In the dead of night, the village was awoken by a mighty howl. It echoed through their houses, sparking terror and panic. But nothing came of it. No wolf appeared. And eventually the men returned their pikes and scythes to their barns and crawled back into bed.
The next morning, bleary-eyed, a few of the older generation met to discuss the strange incident. One or two joked the sound had been less ferocious than jubilant, and, winking at one another, they wondered whether some wolf hadn’t had a lucky encounter.
When Redd arrived home mid-morning, tired and without his fine cloak, his parents were dismayed. They spoke of their worry and how they’d feared him eaten by the wolf they’d heard during the night.
Redd smiled and assured them all was well. He told them he’d been with his grandmother and that he’d left the cloak with her. She was mending a small tear in the hem for him and later in the day he would return to her house to fetch it. Perhaps he would even stay the night again. So they shouldn’t worry if he didn’t make it home before sunrise. As for the wolf—he was certain the creature posed no threat.
No wolf was going to devour him. That was a promise.
Fire Up My Heart (MM Sci-Fi Novella)
London bartender Fane thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he finds a rare and expensive service Bot discarded in a dumpster, and he takes it home to get it working again. The Jo-E brings some much-needed companionship to Fane’s lonely life, but there’s something different about this Bot, as indicated by its odd behavior. Fane’s developing feelings toward Jo-E trouble him, and things go from bad to worse when a robotics engineer arrives on Fane’s doorstep, demanding the return of his property. Fane is forced to choose between a hefty reward and following his heart. Giving in to his forbidden desires might get him killed—or change his life forever.
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01F9A00QY
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01F9A00QY
Wish You Were Here (MM Contemporary/Paranormal Novella)
The death of Oakley’s sister has left his family broken and buried beneath their grief. In an attempt to get out from underneath their pain, they rent an isolated cottage in the Cotswolds. For Oakley, it’s an exercise in futility. He doesn’t see much hope for things to get back to the way they used to be, and he’s bored and restless as he waits out the time until he can return to the city and university. All of that changes when he meets local boy Bobby, and the connection between them is instant. Within a few days, Oakley is ready to walk away from everything to stay with Bobby. However, Bobby has problems of his own, and they might be more than the budding romance can survive. But they might also give Oakley a new perspective on his own situation.
Nicki J. Markus (aka Asta Idonea) was born in England but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has loved both reading and writing from a young age and is also a keen linguist, having studied several foreign languages.
Nicki launched her writing career in 2011 and divides her efforts not only between mainstream and MM works but also between traditional and indie publishing. Her books span the genres, from paranormal to historical and from contemporary to fantasy. It just depends what story and which characters spring into her mind!
As a day job, Nicki works as a freelance editor and proofreader, and in her spare time she enjoys music, theater, cinema, photography, crochet and cross stitch, and sketching. She also loves history, folklore and mythology, pen-palling, and travel, all of which have provided plenty of inspiration for her writing. She is never found too far from her much-loved library/music room.
Visit Nicki's Linktree for links to her blog and all her other social media pages.