MARKED BY FIRE (Sons of Britain #1)
Novel (50,000 wds) · Historical ⋅ LGBTQ
Eighteen-year-old Arthur burns for two things: a warrior’s ink, and Bedwyr, his older brother’s friend and shieldmate. Though the warlord’s son is beyond his reach, a Saxon incursion finally brings Arthur’s chance at the tattoo that will brand him a fighter. But when he abandons his training in the heat of battle, his reckless ambition costs Bedwyr his sword hand.
Once, Bedwyr trusted in two things: he was a warrior, and the presumed heir of Uthyr ap Emrys. Now, reeling from injury and banished by his father, he’s lost everything. The last person he can face is the cub who ignited his disastrous instinct to protect, especially when he arrives with Bedwyr’s armor and a dangerously hopeful scheme to restore him to his rightful place.
Originally published as a novella, Marked by Fire has been significantly expanded for republication.
Excerpt: Chapter 1
Northern Cymru, 515 CE
Arthur stared at the man across the fire and wondered what would happen if the uninked son of a healer and a blacksmith pulled a warlord’s heir into a dark corner and told him he wanted to fuck.
He’d get his jaw cracked, if he was lucky. Dragged back into the firelight and shamed, if less fortunate.
Arthur rubbed his jaw. There would be no confessing, in the dark or the light. Besides, Bedwyr was his older brother’s closest friend and shieldmate. If Cai found out…
He spotted his brother not far away, arms crossed smugly, sleeves rolled up as always to show off his ink. Others sometimes remarked how much Cai resembled their father, but beyond his hair and height Arthur didn’t see it. Where their father was humble, Cai boasted. Where Matthias chose his words with care and consideration, Cai acted on his first instinct. Fine for the battlefield, Arthur supposed, but he’d felt the brunt of it enough times to know the instinct usually only served Cai and his pride.
No. Arthur had contented himself with watching for years—every one of his eighteen, it seemed sometimes. That would have to be enough, and just now, at the coldest, snowiest part of the year in Cymru, he had little else to do.
The village was gathered in the meeting hall for the evening story fire. While Tiro, their resident storyteller, got ready to continue the tale he’d begun a few nights before, people milled about, laughing and jesting and generally trying to hold off the gloom of midwinter. Light from the central pit flickered over their faces, turning smiles into grimaces and back again. Children ran about, shrieking, chased by a couple of shaggy hounds.
Arthur shifted on his bench and studied Bedwyr over the rim of his mug. He sat next to his father, as usual. Lord Uthyr’s raised chair boasted a high back covered in furs. He lounged in it, a horn of drink in one hand. Bedwyr shared Uthyr’s black hair, his bull-like frame, and, by all accounts, his single-minded fierceness in battle—Cai had told Arthur stories that had raised the small hairs on his arms. If he were honest, half the reason he wanted to fight among the other warriors was to see Bedwyr in his element. Just imagining it had, on countless nights, sent him off to sleep tangled in sticky blankets.
It was widely expected that Bedwyr would succeed Uthyr when the lord could no longer lead men. Such a scenario seemed unlikely anytime soon, and no one said such a thing aloud, let alone where Uthyr might hear them. Any compliment paid to Bedwyr was immediately credited to Uthyr’s stock and training of him.
As ferocious as he might be in a skirmish, Bedwyr always sat just so in the evenings: quietly as his neighbors bustled about. When Arthur was a boy at his lessons, Master Philip had told him that their world and others in the night sky circled the sun, as if each were a stone in a great sling. The old man was wise, but Arthur doubted that particular bit of lore—a product, maybe, of Philip’s longtime partnership with Tiro, master of tall tales. The sun clearly arced over the earth, east to west, as did the moon and stars.
In that way Bedwyr was like the earth: solid and reliable, unperturbed by everything and everyone around him. Just now his dark eyes were trained on the fire. He had thick lashes, thicker even than his sister Gwen’s. His boots were planted wide before him, forearms resting on knees, big hands loose and relaxed. His shirt hid his ink, which Arthur only saw on occasions when the training men cooled off with a swim in a pond, or when Bedwyr sat for new ink following a skirmish. He bore dragons, the sign of his father’s house, one on each arm. The rest of his tattoos were confined to his chest and belly, almost invisible under the thick hair there. Arthur’s fingers itched with wanting to trace their shapes.
He curled his hands into fists, lest Bedwyr sense them. But Bedwyr only watched the fire calmly, his face betraying nothing of his thoughts.
Then another face was there—Eira, Uthyr’s latest companion. After a few whispered words, she drew back, smiling as Bedwyr rose to join her. They disappeared through the rug hanging at the rear of the hall.
Arthur looked away, the futility of his want threatening to crush him. He would never have Bedwyr, let alone get to touch him outside of pounding on each other with sword and shield. And if this fucking winter didn’t end, he’d never fight either.
Restless, he stood and paced about the hall. He nodded to his parents, who, as usual, sat against the wall, listening to Tiro. Master Philip sat next to them, a fond smile on his lined face as he watched his partner entertain the village. Arthur almost tripped on the foot set in his path by his twelve-year-old sister, Mora, avoiding it only because he’d turned away from the contentment on Philip’s face.
He needed air.
The dark chill outside welcomed him, cooling his burning cheeks. He took in a great breath, blowing it out in a long, steamy cloud. Stars glittered overhead as he turned down the side of the building. Shuffling through the snow, he made for the back corner and the shed built there to store the building’s firewood. It would be quiet. He could think—better yet, not think. Just sit amid the comforting spice of cut wood and breathe. He had rounded the edge of the lean-to before he heard the unmistakable sounds of sex.
Or, well, half the sounds. In the dim light provided by a crescent moon, he made out Bedwyr sitting on a low stack of firewood. His trousers lay puddled around his boots. Eira knelt between his splayed knees, her head bobbing, her hand jerking hard. The noises that rose in the quiet space came from her, appreciative hums and the slurping sounds of her labors.
Bedwyr was silent.
Arthur watched him, fascinated. He didn’t want a woman, but he knew himself well enough to know that if one had pinned him down and swallowed his cock, he would have made some noise.
But Bedwyr only sat on the woodpile, his hands gripping the sawn edges of the logs. He seemed to be staring at something on the ground past Eira’s shoulder.
Then his eyes flashed up and caught Arthur spying.
He felt like a young buck, trapped between a bear and a boulder, no antlers yet to defend himself. He should step away. Now. He should go. Now.
Bedwyr’s lips parted as if he would speak, and Arthur blurted, “Had to piss.”
Eira lifted her head with a slick pop and turned to gape at him. After a few seconds, she began to laugh.
Back in the hall, he tried to lose himself in Tiro’s tale, but he mostly heard the erratic thump of his own heartbeat. He shouldn’t have come inside. He should have gone back to his family’s house on the edge of the village. Eira would finish her work, and then he’d have to see that satisfaction on Bedwyr. Most people probably couldn’t, but he’d spent so many years studying Bedwyr’s face, his posture, his every fucking move, that he would see it. Had seen it. This wasn’t the first time one of Uthyr’s women had led his son from the hall.
He grabbed a cup of ale and tipped it high.
~ ~ ~
Bedwyr stared at the empty space where the cub had stood. Moonlight slashed into the woodshed now as if no one had thrown a shadow only moments before. The snow in the doorway was scuffed, and he recalled how the quick turn of Arthur’s boots had sent a small spray of it glittering. The long queue of his hair had been the last thing to disappear from sight.
Eira purred in his lap, drawing his attention back to her moments before her small, bony hand took hold again, choking his cock. He shifted, trying to ignore the rising sense of panic he nearly always felt in this situation.
But everyone expected this of him. From the time he’d been a boy, whether training him or disciplining him, or even just sharing a joke, his father had only ever handled him roughly. And his father’s women…from the first one Uthyr had insisted he enjoy, their hands had moved on him as if he were made of stone, or fired clay. He was the warlord’s son. How else should he be handled? How else could he possibly want it done? They had asked him, of course—he was Uthyr’s son and could have had them any way he pleased.
He’d never been able to admit what he truly wanted. He’d had only to imagine the resulting cast to their expressions: pity that he couldn’t take it rough, or contempt that he craved a softer caress. Let alone that he’d wished them all to be men.
The only thing for it, he’d found, was to make himself grow as blood-hard as possible, and so he did now what he always did. Closed his eyes and imagined the man. Tall and broad-shouldered. Long hair the color of winter grass, tied neatly behind him, his beard a shade darker and beginning to show silver. Eyes whose color would be muted in this dark, and downcast besides. A mouth that smiled often when he wasn’t speaking soft, inquiring words. Large hands that had only ever touched Bedwyr gently, in life and in these fantasies he’d never admit to.
When the shadow had crept into his line of sight moments before, it had been long enough that Bedwyr’s belly had iced over, thinking the man himself had caught him at one of these furtive, useless interludes. But as tall as Arthur was, he hadn’t quite reached his father’s height, or the calm stillness Matthias seemed to exhibit at any given moment.
Bedwyr was a fool. He knew this. Matthias was content in his marriage, thoroughly suited to his wife. He was their healer. The health of every person in the village was Matthias’s domain and vocation. He’d never given Bedwyr any reason to believe his kindness held an interest beyond looking after his well-being. Bedwyr was probably the only one to have twisted the man’s voice and touch to his own private use. He imagined them now, settling over him like a lamb’s-wool blanket, imagined blood pulsing into his cock, making it heavy and rendering him as hard as everyone thought him to be.
It didn’t work. No amount of will seemed to muffle Eira’s squeals or equal the clutching grip of her hand. He grabbed her wrist to still it.
She looked up. “Harder?”
Gods’ blood. “No.” He removed her hand from him.
“You want to fuck me? You can, you know. Your father doesn’t mind—”
“No.” He mashed himself back into his breeches and jerked at the laces. “Not tonight.”
Not ever, if he could help it.
Eira rose with a sour expression. “Idiot boy.”
He looked at her, surprised. None of them had ever gone that far, even when he’d deserved it. But she was glaring at the empty doorway. She was talking about Arthur.
“Who skulks about on a winter night?” she grumbled.
“I don’t skulk. I serve my lord.” She swatted at her skirts. “If Cai’s brother had a woman of his own, he wouldn’t have to spy on you.”
“He wasn’t spying,” Bedwyr said, feeling testy. “And he’s no idiot.”
“Could have fooled me.”
He opened the rear door of the hall and gestured her to go ahead of him. Once she had, shoulders straightened and chin high, he found he didn’t want to follow her inside. Closing the door behind her, he left the lean-to the same way Arthur had gone.
Stars shone overhead, the dragon to the north, the great bear to its right. He should have just come outside to watch them when he’d grown bored. As he walked the length of the outer wall, he wondered if Arthur had stepped out to do the same. Winters were long and wearisome, with little to do but train for the following spring. Judging by the number of babes born in late summer and early autumn, his neighbors spent a fair number of these dark hours warming their beds. His own bed was no refuge from boredom, except by his own hand, and it was likely to remain so.
Quick footfalls drew his attention to the road. A few seconds later Gwilym, one of their scouts, ran past. Bedwyr hurried after. By the time he entered the hall, it was in an uproar, men shouting and women bustling about. He walked toward his father’s chair, intent on hearing it plain. Halfway there, a man stepped into his path, colliding with him.
Arthur took a hasty step back. Color rode high on his cheeks, and he stared at Bedwyr, his mouth open but saying nothing. This close, Bedwyr had to look up to meet his eyes.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
Arthur swallowed. “Saxons.”
Hail the gods.
The lookouts had spotted them by the trail of smoke they’d left in their path. A small band, but far enough into Cymru to be a threat. Winter or no, there would be a fight.
“We’ll put them down handily,” Uthyr said. “They don’t know these mountains as we Cymry do, and the snow won’t make it any easier for them.” He gave them his wolfish grin. “You’ll be back in your own beds, fucking your fine women, within the week.”
The fighting men cheered at that. Bedwyr made himself shout with them, then moved closer to his father for orders. He received a nod, but then Uthyr called to Arthur. The lad approached, looking as if he was bracing himself. When Arthur stood before him, Uthyr gripped the back of his neck and drew him close.
“Find a cunt and fill it,” Uthyr said. “Takes the edge off.”
Arthur looked back intently. “I’m to fight?”
Bedwyr’s father chuckled. “You’re to fight.”
The cub seemed coiled to spring into the rafters. He gave a curt nod. “Thank you, my lord.”
Cai appeared behind Arthur and gave his shoulders a rough shake. “Maybe you’ll finally get a woman, little brother.”
A familiar look of annoyance crossed Arthur’s face as he pulled away from Cai. “Leave off.”
By all accounts—and several circulated about the village—Arthur was a virgin. Though he’d been served by several, Bedwyr had never fucked a woman, either. He wondered what the cub’s excuse was. A single-minded focus on earning his first tattoo, if he had to guess.
As if reading his mind, Cai said, “At least Dafydd will finally ink over that thing on your arm.”
Arthur’s gaze flicked to Bedwyr but too quickly to read. Then he pushed past Cai, jostling him. “Fuck you.”
“Thanks, no,” Cai called after his brother. “I have other options.” He grinned at Bedwyr.
Cai was his shieldmate and closest friend. Didn’t mean he wasn’t also a goat’s arsehole. He’d long ago worked his way through the willing women in their village. “Your right hand, you mean.”
Cai waved him off, unoffended. “I’d give it for a good fight.”
“Tempt the gods, why don’t you?”
“I’ll thank them for Saxon stupidity.” Cai hunched his shoulders, then gave Bedwyr’s a punch. “Midwinter treat, eh?”
On that he agreed. Winter in the lowlands of Britain must be unbearable to make the dogs think Cymru’s mountains would be more hospitable.
He would send them fleeing, tails docked as a warning to the rest.