The night closed in and so did the forest, dark green and glistening with the dew that had not dried from that morning. Telendra's travelling robes clung to her, weighing her down.
It felt like she had not stopped since fleeing through the southern gate of Brazen Keep. Through the fortress town's northern gate had flooded the army of the Penitents, chanting the praises of the gods of death. Telendra's last sight of the city had been of the Cerulean Spire burning and soldiers fighting with madmen on the battlements. How many others had made it into the Sorrowsong Forest? The sprawling woods could have swallowed the whole population of Brazen Keep a hundred times over. She could not rely on meeting a fellow refugee down there beneath the dark boughs. She was alone.
The trees were covered in thorny vines. Everywhere, there were thorns. They were underfoot, slowly shredding the sandals better suited to padding across the Temple of Neios. They left nowhere to sit or lie, nowhere for Telendra to rest and set down the bundle of relics wrapped in a tapestry torn from the temple wall.
Telendra heard a river's waters rushing, deep and gurgling. She heard birds whooping and shrieking at the fall of night. Wind rustled. Sometimes, Telendra thought she saw eyes glinting in the deepest shadows.
Light gleamed ahead of her, beads of moonlight on the wet leaves. She pushed onwards and the branches parted in front of her.
Telendra had come upon a clearing in the wood, with grass underfoot instead of roots and tangled vines. A full moon shone down on the standing stones that loomed over the clearing. They were black and ancient, forming a circle. A couple of pairs of menhirs still had their lintels to form archways. Other blocks, like altars, lay on their sides where they had fallen, half-sunk into the earth.
At last, a place to rest. She sat down and put the relic bundle beside her, leaning against one of the stones. Her legs ached and her arms were heavy. She closed her eyes, and night fell inside.
It was not dawn's light that woke her, or the morning sun's warmth. It was some instinct, buried deep, that wailed inside her when confronted with the unknown.
Telendra's eyes snapped open. She blinked in the morning light that glittered off the time-smoothed stones and the edges of the leaves overhead.
The silhouette in front of her was not of a standing stone, or one of the ancient trees that grew here in the heart of the Sorrowsong. It was a centaur.
Telendra had heard tales of them and seen them in fanciful tapestries and illustrations. She had thought they were crude and simple things, beasts given the veneer of a man. She had been wrong. The creature standing before her was, from the waist up, a cord-muscled man with shaggy red-brown hair down to his shoulders, skin the colour of beaten bronze, and the eyes of a predator. Black tattoos spiralled around his chest and arms, swirling designs without reason. Braids hung in his hair and in one hand he held a spear tipped with a leaf-shaped shard of stone. He had a solid jaw, proud nose and a mouth curled into a sneer that made Telendra feel like the intruder into his lands that she undoubtedly was.
From the waist down he was a magnificent stallion, jet black, with white streaks of warpaint across his glossy black hide. His tail, like his hair, hung with braids.
Telendra couldn't speak. The sight of him struck her dumb. She had never seen anything so powerful, so savage, all coiled up in a half-human shape.
'I am Kirkos of the Thornwinder Hunt,' said the centaur in a voice as deep as thunder. 'Who violates this sacred place?'
Telendra fought to find the words. 'I am a priestess,' she stammered. 'Of the Temple of Neios.'
'Neios?' demanded Kirkos.
'The God of Kings,' said Telendra. 'The Winged One. The Sceptre and the Crown...'
'There are no gods in these forests save the lords of the hunt!' retorted Kirkos. He advanced on her, spear in hand. Telendra pressed herself against the stone behind her.
He smelled of damp leaves and freshly-turned earth, a smell of nature and primal power. The strength seemed to roll off him in waves, the powerful build of his chest and arms, the glossy black flanks of his equine form. Those hind legs could kick through a wall, and the front hooves could crush a man into the earth. Telendra shivered at the sight of him standing over her.
'Please,' she said. 'I have fled from Brazen Keep. I am lost and alone. Have mercy.'
Kirkos stabbed the butt of his spear into the ground. 'No four-limbed wretch has seen these stones in a century,' he said. He glowered still, but the fatal anger had died down from his voice. 'And the last to look upon them was spitted at the forest's edge.'
'I had nowhere else to go. I had to rest.'
'And now? Will you be gone from this place? No, you will see what darkness lies in this forest's heart and return here, to shelter among that which is holy to another. Outsiders would bleed us dry if the Wild Hunt did not ride them down and hang their heads from the trees! Why should treat you any different?'
'I mean you no harm! Look, I am a priestess. See?' Telendra opened up the relic bag. Holy objects spilled out onto the grass. The Book of Thangrel, bound in golden shards from the armour of Neios' own champion. The hands of Saint Urtelen, perfectly preserved by the Crown God's grace. Implements of Neios' rituals, gilded and studded with emeralds. 'Is not a holy woman protected even here? The gods decreed that their messengers shall be inviolate.'
'Ha! Your gods! No winged lord ever handed us a kingdom.'
'But the higher laws are the higher laws.'
Kirkos knelt down, getting a better look at Telendra. She shrank away from him instinctively, as if he was a predator baring fangs. 'You are a long way from the temples where your laws hold sway.'
'But you will not hurt me?'
'That remains,' said Kirkos, 'to be seen.' Now he was closer Telendra could see old scars on his arms, hands worn tight and taut by warfare. For a moment she imagined the stories written across his skin, in the deep grey of his eyes.
'Your gods,' she said. 'Tell me of them.'
'The wild hunt?' Kirkos smiled. 'Warriors and killers! Skinners of prey! The autumn and the winter hunt side by side, the Red Mare and Lord Frost! Then the spring, King Dawn, and his lady Queen Thornfire, blaze through the forests their hoofprints aflame!' Kirkos's gaze had drifted away as he spoke. He looked at Telendra now, peering at her as if he had never seen a human before. Perhaps, thought Telendra, he hadn't.
'What of your god?' he said.
'Neios is the crowner of kings. The powerful pray to him. He builds the walls that keep our cities safe from the wilds. He shields us from evil.'
'Who rides with him?'
'No one. Neios is alone.'
Kirkos laughed. 'No god worthy of the name goes alone! How can holy fire blaze without a goddess on his arm? If your god knows no woman, how can he know anything?'
Telendra blushed and looked at the ground. The idea of the chaste Neios, the winged sentinel, cavorting with a flame-haired forest goddess was heretical. She might be flogged in the stocks for suggesting such a thing in the temple. Except the temple, of course, no longer existed. The invaders at Brazen Keep had burned it to the ground.
'That is not the way... our gods work,' said Telendra.
Telendra looked up again. Kirkos was regarding her with less hostility now, more as a child might look at a strange insect. He stood up to his full height and for a moment Telendra saw the dark shape between his powerful rear thighs, that velvety length that dwarfed any man's. She let out a tiny gasp in spite of herself. Kirkos wheeled around and it was with disappointment that she saw his mighty flanks hiding that his maleness from her.
She tried to push it from her mind. It was not right for her to think of such a thing. Imagine how the church's confessors would scold her for such thoughts!
But the confessors were dead or fleeing. And the thought forced its way into her mind, much as she tried to bar the doors to it.
What would it feel like inside her?
'This place is forbidden to you,' Kirkos was saying. 'You must leave.'
'I will die out there,' said Telendra.
'Then you will die.'
'There must be some... some way.'
'Why?' said Kirkos, raising an eyebrow.
Telendra fought for words. Her mind was a muddle, and she had to push the sight of Kirkos' equine member to the back of her mind. 'Because, well, because all gods are brothers. Yours and mine, they are part of the same divine realm. And... that makes us, well, fellow souls.'
'I do not understand. And my spear has not tasted blood in a long while.'
Telendra felt panic rising. 'No, no, you see, if your autumn and winter can become... become lovers, then cannot anyone?'
Telendra cursed herself for using the word. Why not brethren? Why not kindred spirits, soulmates? But part of her had selected it very deliberately.
Kirkos turned back around, pawing at the ground. He looked Telendra up and down. Did he see what lay beneath her robes, that young pale body, full hips and breasts? Did he imagine that, as many men must have imagined before, their gaze deflected by Telendra's aura of holiness?
She lay back against the standing stone, commanding her body to relax. One knee fell to the side, giving the suggestion of the cleft between her thighs under the heavy fabric of her robes. 'There must be a way.'
She saw, with a sinful thrill, the organ hanging between his thighs. It was unfolding, lengthening, to something approaching its full magnificent size. She knew she was staring, but she had to catch another glimpse of him. The knowledge that she was making it happen, that it was the promise of her body that aroused him, sent a wave of trembling heat running through her stomach.
'If our gods can come together,' Telendra said, barely conscious of her own words, 'then how can my presence here by unholy?'
Kirkos took two steps towards her, his member swinging like the ram of some fleshy siege engine. With sudden strength he grabbed her shoulders and hauled her to her feet. The muscles of his chest flexed as he took handfuls of her robes and tore it apart. The thick material, embroidered with the silver wings of Neios, split down the middle and the morning air touched Telendra's naked shoulders and arms. Her undershirt was thinner and through it her nipples stood proud. Kirkos looked at them like an eagle looks at its prey, with hunger and determination in his eyes. Then he tore her undershirt away, too.
Telendra's breasts were naked to the sun which had so rarely touched them. Her skin was milky, her nipples dark like her hair and eyes. Telendra gasped at the roughness of Kirkos' palm as he cupped one of them and she was suddenly more afraid of him than ever. What could he do to her? What would this savage, this animal, leave of her when he was done?
But she wanted him. The fear was a part of that. With her church fallen and her god far away, there was nothing more in all the kingdoms of the world than to have this brutal centaur touching the places she had always kept hidden.
Kirkos grabbed her by the waist and picked her off the ground, effortlessly. He held her close, his face to her breasts. She clasped the back of his head and her breathing quickened as she felt the warm wetness of his tongue on her skin. He was kissing her breasts, tasting them, burying himself in her softness and warmth as she wanted to bury herself in him.
Kirkos lowered Telendra, and she kissed him. His lips were rough and wet, his breath hot. Her toes barely touched the ground -- he held her so close she could barely draw breath. Kirkos knelt and tore away what remained of Telendra's robe, casting it onto the grass. The torn remnants of her underclothes hung in tatters around her waist. Kirkos tore them away, too, and the morning air touched her naked thighs and the dark thatch of hair between them.
Telendra had never been so vulnerable as in that moment, naked in front of this savage. She could almost feel his gaze moving over her, skin prickling as he looked over her belly and thighs, her sex, the curve of her rump. Even kneeling down on his front legs Kirkos was as tall as she was, and for a moment she met his eyes.
The vulnerability thrilled her. She could be torn apart, left in this clearing as a sacrifice to the gods of the hunt. Kirkos planted a hand on her flank and pushed her back down to the ground. He took a step forward and knelt over her, his human torso over hers, the glossy blackness and muscle of his equine half straddling her. Kirkos kissed her lips, her throat, the cleft between her breasts. His lips touched her stomach and she quivered. He kissed the top of her thigh and, without willing it, her thighs parted slightly and she felt the dew of the grass on her most secret place. Kirkos spread her legs further, his strong hands irresistible. He lowered himself down until his lips could touch the delicate petals of her sex, and she gasped as the felt his tongue on her.
Kirkos had lain on his side to reach Telendra's sex. Telendra could see his organ, fully swollen now, a magnificent velvet black rod lolling between his rear legs. Her attention was torn away by the warmth fluttering in her sex. Her body was yearning for Kirkos' tongue, her thighs rising and falling in time with his probing. He lapped at the lips of her sex, pushing between them to where her own wetness mingled with his. Then his tongue travelled upwards, flickering at the tiny sensitive nub that she had sometimes stroked when, in the night, her wants had overcome her decorum. It felt so different to have another there, every subtle movement unexpected. The waves of tight warmth washed through her body to a rhythm that was not her own.
She moaned, not realising her mouth was open and her throat singing. She felt the tide growing in her that would crash over into a delirious wave of pleasure. She feared what it would do to her, the power it would bring. She pushed up onto her elbows and pulled herself away from Kirkos' attentions. Then, as if someone else was moving her limbs for her, she crawled around to the fount of Kirkos' maleness and her hand was wrapped around his velvet shaft. The loose sheath of skin around it slid back under her touch, revealing the glistening organ underneath.
He smelled of salt and spice, of the warpaint and the wild hunt itself. A barbaric, passionate scent that only amplified her fascination with the hot, almost scalding length in her hands. Telendra slid the skin up and down, echoing with a thrill of her own pleasure the way Kirkos' flanks shuddered as she worked him. Another instinct pulled at her, this time forcing her head down. She wanted him in her mouth.
Telendra's lips closed around the head of his organ. She heard him sigh as the warmth of her mouth enclosed him. She tasted salt on her tongue, and wondered if it was the same deep, passionate taste that he had found in her sex. The wantonness of it, the shocking sight that anyone entering that clearing must have seen, stoked her fires further. She kept working him, both hands around his shaft, her heart fluttering every time those mighty lungs heaved and he gasped.
Telendra felt Kirkos' body tense. He was close to release. He pulled her head back and he slipped out of her mouth, wet and hard.
'On your knees,' he breathed.
Telendra got onto her hands and knees. Kirkos pushed down in the small of her back and she lowered her chest down to the ground so the dewy grass brushed her nipples. Her rump was in the air, thighs and buttocks spread. She felt Kirkos' shadow passing over her and a hoof planted itself each side of her head. Kirkos kneeled and leaned forwards, a hand tangling its fingers in her hair.
Telendra felt the tip of Kirkos' organ touch her sex. It was hot, and she recoiled from it slightly, suddenly afraid of what it might do. No -- she was not afraid of him. She was afraid of herself, of what she might do, what she might become, if he pushed her past that edge of pleasure she could feel close by. But she couldn't have stopped it if she had wanted to. She was drunk on Kirkos' presence now, her head a thick whirl of sensation through which logical thoughts could not break.
Kirkos entered her, pushing deeper. Her eased her open and slid inside, the walls of Telendra's sex tightening around him. He filled her up so completely she couldn't imagine him entering any further, but then he forced himself in deeper and Telendra's breath came in short dizzying gasps as her body let him in like a traitor opening the gates.
Kirkos slid out again, until Telendra's body was sucking at his tip. Then he thrust, in and out, relentless. The hand in her hair tightened. Telendra was moving with him now, bucking her hips up to meet him and then swinging down almost prone on the grass to let the full length of him push into her. Kirkos sped up and Telendra's breathing matched his own, groans escaping from him as he, too, passed the point where he had any control left.
That precipice was approaching. Telendra was still afraid. It yawned beneath her, drawing her in, and just as a voice inside her told her to turn back she was falling.
The clearing rushed past her. The standing stones tumbled end over end. Telendra threw her head back and moaned like an animal, but she was aware of none of that. There was only the hot pleasure rushing through her, torrents of it flooding out from her sex through her belly and suffusing her whole body. It seemed an age that she fell there, the world whirling, her body breaking free of her control and blossoming with pleasure as if she had broken into a million fragments all bursting into flower.
The waves subsided and the world shuddered back into focus, suddenly sharper and drenched in colour. Strands of Telendra's hair clung to her face, wet with sweat, and her mouth was dry for she had been moaning out loud without realising it.
Kirkos sped up again suddenly, a dozen final thrusts as he pulled her head back and arched her back like a cat. He growled and Telendra felt his seed flooding her. He was bucking like an animal, threatening to gallop away with the force of it. He overflowed her, his hot thick tribute spilling down her thighs as the last of his passion pulsed away.
Kirkos withdrew from her and lay down beside her. Telendra was suddenly weak without Kirkos straddling her, as if he had been supporting her and without him there was nothing to keep her on her hands and knees. Telendra flopped to the grass beside Kirkos, and her put his arms around her. He held her close, his sweat mingling with hers. She kissed him again and it felt as if they were not two creatures but one. The heaving of his equine body as he breathed was like the sighing of an ocean.
For a long time they lay there as the sun climbed higher over them and the dew dried, leaving the clearing warm and soporific.
Telendra fell asleep for a while. She awoke, surrounded by scattered relics of the Winged God and the muscular form of Kirkos wrapped around her. She felt gladness flushing her as she realised that she had not been dreaming.
Kirkos kissed her behind the ear.
'You may stay,' he whispered.