Mac tested the weight of the pack he’d been given by one of his companions. He still wasn’t comfortable using the word, bodyguard, but the men around him seemed competent, efficient and well armed. His gaze fastened on one of the males who had a bow and arrow strapped to his back. The man’s hair was a fine silver color and was tied at the nape of his neck. His skin was…
The male turned toward him and inclined his head an inch. He wasn’t as tall as Mac but was broader in the shoulders.
“Is something wrong with your pack?”
“No, it’s fine, I was just…” Mac swallowed. “I noticed you had a bow and arrow rather than a more modern weapon.”
The archer came toward him and unhooked his bow in one easy motion. “It is the preferred weapon of my people.”
“You’re not Pavlovan?”
The man’s eyes were silver grey and crinkled at the corners when he smiled. Mac reckoned they were about the same age.
“We’re a local tribe called the Hakron. We’ve provided the Oracle and her family with bodyguards for as long as the temple has been here.” He handed Mac the bow to examine. “It is an honor to serve the First Daughter’s First Male Ian Mac.”
“Thank you.” Mac lowered his gaze to the beautifully carved shaft of the bow. Something about the male’s telepathic aura made him feel like he was swimming in a warm sea, lulled by the pull of a gentle tide… he forced himself to concentrate. “May I know your name?”
Mac tried to get his tongue around that and failed miserably. “Yoliow?”
“Not quite.” His companion repeated it more slowly.
Mac frowned. “The nearest I can get to it in my language is Willow.”
“I do not know that word.”
Mac met the man’s interested gaze. “It’s a tree we have on planet Earth. It tends to thrive best by the riverside because it needs lots of water to survive. Despite its fragile appearance, it is incredibly strong because, unlike most trees on Earth, it has the ability to bend and not break in a storm.”
“I like that,” Willow mused. “The ability to be strong yet to bend. It is something we all should strive to achieve, is it not?”
Mac found himself nodding in agreement. “The leaves and bark are pale green and the branches hang down to the ground like a curtain.”
“Green like my skin? Willow stroked a broad hand over his arm. “Then it is a fitting name, and one I will be proud to bear.” He retrieved his bow from Mac’s unresisting grasp. “Are you ready to leave now, Ian Mac? We have much we wish to share with you.”
He’d already said goodbye to Neeve and left her with about a dozen of her siblings. She looked resigned to her fate rather than annoyed, which had made him feel a lot better about leaving her. Shouldering his pack, he took one last look at the temple complex and followed Willow out through a narrow gate and onto the mountain beyond.
It truly was a beautiful country, as unlike his native Scotland as any place in the universe could be. He paused at the top of a cliff to watch a waterfall pour over into the valley below. Heated steam rose from the pool at the bottom and the roaring of the water was loud enough to prevent him hearing the words Willow mouthed at him. He pointed at his ear and shook his head.
“This is a sacred spot.”
Mac almost jumped as Willow’s soft voice entered his thoughts telepathically instead.
“It is certainly beautiful.”
“The first Oracle came to bathe in the pool below, and the first shrine was built down there to worship her.”
“How long ago was that?”
“I am not sure. But my forefathers claim at least fifteen generations of our people have guarded this secret valley and the sacred places within.”
“That’s a long time.” Mac shifted his backpack onto his other arm.
Willow touched his shoulder. “We will be making camp for the night on the other side of this valley.”
“Good.” He winced and stretched his spine. “I’m out of condition.”
“I am told that it is the altitude that causes fatigue. You will grow used to it in time.”
“I hope so.”
Mac followed Willow over the narrow bridge that connected the two sides of the gorge, one hand firmly grasping the guide rope. His biometric enhancements would react to the change in his environment eventually, but the long space journey plus the lack of physical activity had definitely slowed him down. His body was racing to catch up with too many changes at once. Despite his initial misgivings, he was damn grateful to be surrounded by men who knew the terrain so well.
He looked up from his contemplation of the slippery slate floor to see Willow and Ungar another Hakron warrior waving at him. Two of the men had already started gathering wood for a fire, and another was unpacking tents and unrolling sleeping pads.
Mac dumped his bag with the others and turned back to Willow. “What can I do to help?”
“You do not need to do anything, Ian Mac. You are our guest.”
“I’m not going to sit around on my arse while you’re all working. What can I do?”
“Your arse?” Willow asked.
Mac tapped his backside. “This. Now show me how to put up this tent.”
Several hours later after sharing stories and Pavlovan beer around the campfire and eating some kind of meat that he hadn’t inquired too deeply about, Mac fought the urge to belch. Each of the tents catered for two men and he was lying alongside Willow in a companionable silence. They’d left the flap of the tent open so that Mac could see the purple and pink night sky.
“The food was good, aye?” Willow murmured.
“It was excellent. Where are we headed tomorrow?” Aware of the others sleeping in their tents alongside theirs, Mac tried to keep his voice down.
“We will follow an ancient path through the jungle to a larger lake and hot springs which many claim to have healing properties.”
He always forgot that everyone on Pavlovan was telepathic… Sometimes it was damn useful.
“Where exactly are you from, Ian Mac?”
Willow shifted up on one elbow to look down at Mac, his silver hair now falling over his shoulder onto his naked chest. “It is like Pavlovan?”
“I’ve hardly seen enough of Pavlovan to judge. We obviously have some common ancestors and there are other similarities, but overall this place seems warmer and the colors are…” He hesitated trying to think of the correct words and then realized he didn’t have to. Opening his mind to Willow, he simply showed him his own memories of Scotland, of his family and where he’d grown up.
“It is a beautiful, stark place.” Willow sighed. “I am surprised you could bring yourself to leave it.”
“It wasn’t that hard. Telepaths are rare and were initially only valued by the military and used for their own purposes.”
“Used? What do you mean?”
“The government took soldiers like me who showed evidence of basic telepathic talent, and used various methods to enhance us both physically and biologically to produce their version of super soldiers.”
Willow squeezed Mac’s shoulder hard. “That is an abomination. I don’t even think the Etruscans do that to their telepaths.”
“They just exterminate them, correct?”
“Yes, but to force you to serve their purpose is wrong. I’m no longer surprised you wanted to leave.”
“There was another reason.” Mac smiled like the besotted idiot he was. “I met Neeve. If I hadn’t been part of that government program I would never have been able to help her.”
“And that would’ve been a tragedy for our nation.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it that, but I don’t regret following her here.”
“I think you underestimate your importance, First Male.” Willow leaned over Mac and dropped a kiss on his forehead. “Good night. We have an early start in the morning.”
He rolled over onto his side and went quiet leaving Mac staring at the roof of the tent. Was it usual for males to kiss other male’s goodnight up here? It had happened so quickly that he hadn’t had time to react. He shifted his hand down to cup his balls. Dammit of course he had, he was a fucking super soldier who hadn’t felt threatened by Willow’s kiss at all.
That was weird.
Mac moved onto his side until he was facing away from Willow and promptly fell asleep.
The Pavlovan equivalent of the sun shining into the tent woke Mac from a deep sleep. There was no sign of Willow, but the scent of coffee and something fried wafted in, along with the warmth of the day, and encouraged him to get up. When he stepped outside, he saw two of the men sitting beside the fire. One of them was stirring a pot while the other tended to what looked strips of bacon over the flames.
Mac wandered over and exchanged greetings.
“What’s that?” He pointed at the thin slices of meat.
“Kivin.” Ungar said. “We caught one in a trap last night and we’re drying out its flesh to carry with us deeper into the forest where there won’t be so much to hunt.”
“Makes sense.” Mac leaned in to smell the ribbons of meat. “It’s like jerky.”
“Jer Kee?” Ungar looked puzzled.
“Yes, meat smoked over a fire until it’s dry and chewy.”
“That sounds like the same thing.” Ungar gave Mac a cup of coffee. “Ulluiao said you would appreciate this.”
Mac gulped at least two thirds of the brew down in one. “He was right. Where is he by the way?”
“He and Bran are down by the river.” Ungar checked the contents of the pot. “You could go and tell them breakfast is ready.”
Mac finished off the coffee and refilled his cup. “I’ll do that.”
It was a beautiful morning, not yet subject to the oppressive humidity and heat that seemed to build up during the day. As he walked along the well-trodden path to the river, he heard the sound of the waterfall and the fainter sound of laughter.
He pushed aside some high grass and came out onto the bank of the river directly above where Willow and Bran had been washing out utensils and other camping stuff and had spread it on the rocks to dry. Now both men were swimming in the crystal clear water and messing around. Mac grinned as Bran suddenly disappeared under the surface only to splutter back up thumping Willow who’d come up underneath him and pulled him down.
In the sunlight, the greenish tinge of Willow’s skin seemed to get darker as he smacked the water hard and swam away, Bran in hot pursuit. Reluctant to disturb the men, Mac sat on the bank and waited as they slowly swam back toward him. As they came toward the shore the water level reduced displaying more of Willow’s muscular chest, the flare of his hips and the…
“Holy God,” Mac whispered. “He’s hung like a horse.”
Bran ran up behind Willow and wrapped an arm around his waist, his hand slipping down to caress the other male’s cock. Willow stopped moving and allowed the touch, his hand coming up to caress Bran’s dark hair. After a moment, he gently disengaged Bran’s fingers from the rising swell of his cock and shook his head.
Mac realized he’d been holding his breath as Bran laughed and moved away to pick up his clothes and attend to the packing up of the items on the rocks.
Willow angled his head to one side and stared straight up at Mac, who couldn’t move. He needed to look away, to break the silence, to…
“Do the males on your planet not kiss each other Ian Mac?”
“Some of them do.”
“Does it offend you?”
“Not at all.” Mac swallowed hard as Willow came up the bank toward him, his movements graceful and sure. Water gleamed on his green skin making him look like some kind of Gaelic nymph from Mac’s mother’s stories of the Fae. It was hard to keep his gaze on Willow’s face when his enormous cock was more at his eye level. Mac scrambled to his feet.
“Do you kiss men, Ian Mac?”
“Personally? No, I’ve never felt the need.”
Willow’s smile was slow. “That is a pity, I think.” He glanced back at Bran. “I must help Bran gather the supplies. Did you want something in particular?”
“To tell you that breakfast is ready.”
“Then tell Ungar that we shall be right there.”
Mac gestured awkwardly at the rocks. “Do you need any help?”
“No, we can manage.” Willow pushed a strand of escaping silver hair behind his ear. “Go back and make sure you eat plenty of food. You will need your energy today.”
By the time the Pavlovan sun was overhead, Mac was sweating like a pig and had a headache from the increasingly high altitude. Ungar shouted something and they all came to a halt in the shade of some large trees. Mac sank down to his knees and stayed there until someone thrust a water bottle under his nose.
“Drink this.” Willow squatted down beside him, his silver gaze concerned. “You should rest for a while.”
“I’m okay. It’s just taking my biotech a while to catch up with this new environment.”
A bedroll appeared behind him and Willow urged him to sit on it and used both their packs as a back and headrest. For once in his life, Mac didn’t argue as he struggled to breathe and adapt.
“Do you need a healer?” Willow asked.
“No, if I rest for a while, I’ll be good. Let me contact Kaiden and see if he has any way of monitoring what’s going on inside me.”
“Kaiden is a telepath?”
“Yes and my commanding officer.”
“Your mate, too?”
“No.” An image of him and Kaiden in bed with Neeve flooded his senses. Willow’s breath hissed out and he rose to his feet.
“I’ll speak to the others.”
Mac closed his eyes and gathered his energy, aware that he’d been too tired to shield properly and that Willow had probably got an eyeful, or worse, a mindful of Mac’s recent sex life that he probably didn’t need. But then Willow was a Pavlovan so it was unlikely that he’d be shocked.
“Mac. Where are you? You’re very faint.”
“My biotech is acting up. Can you do a diagnostic from there?”
“Yes, if you give me the necessary access.”
“Go ahead.” Mac focused down again, dropped his shields and opened his mind to Kaiden completely. Around the peripheral of his consciousness, he felt Neeve’s start of surprise and the quickly blocked reactions of his bodyguards.
“I need more from you.” Kaiden said. “Can you amp it up?”
Mac jumped as someone touched his shoulder and he opened his eyes to find Willow kneeling beside him again.
“Let me help you. Give me your hand.”
He didn’t even think about saying no, but accepted Willow’s strong-fingered grip and the rush of his telepathic power streaming outward to join with Mac’s and project onward to Kaiden.
Damn…it was like a blast of adrenaline, or the finest shot of malt whisky he’d ever tasted.
“Got it. Who’s that with you? It’s not Neeve. Did you find your third after all?” Kaiden sounded amused.
He felt Willow’s mind separate a little from his and engage with Kaiden’s more deeply.
“A pleasure to meet you, Kaiden. Do not worry about your male. I will keep him safe.”
Kaiden chuckled. “Not my male, Willow. Talk to Neeve about that one.” He paused for a second. “Mac, your readings are off. You need to allow the biotech time to regenerate properly.”
“That’s what I thought. There’s no other damage, though?”
“None that I can see. You’re just pushing too hard. Sleep in for a day or two and you should be fine. Your levels are already rising and adapting.”
“Good to know, thanks for checking.”
“You’re welcome. Give my best to Neeve. Over and out.”
Mac let out his breath and realized he was still holding Willow’s hand. “Thanks for your help.”
“You are welcome, Ian Mac. I have spoken to my companions. They will move ahead as planned and set up camp at the hot springs further into the valley. You and I will rest here for a while, and then take an easier route to meet up with them this evening.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Mac’s eyes were already closing and he didn’t hear Willow stand up or all the others leave.