Markus came to with a throbbing headache and an instant sense that something was wrong.

The last he’d known, he’d been hiking along a quite ordinary forest path. Or so it had seemed. The fact that he was now struggling to regain consciousness that he couldn’t even remember being about to lose in the first place rather suggested that something out of the ordinary had happened.

He was lying on bare wood – smooth, seamless wood, not sawn planks; his questing fingers found no edges, no nails, though there wasn’t light enough to see by, just a tiny square of it off to one side that did more to emphasize the darkness than to alleviate it. He still had on his trousers and tunic, but his cloak, boots, pack, and his belt knife were all absent.

Some kind of prison, obviously. But whose? And what in the world had he done to land himself here?

With a sudden creaking noise, that little square of light grew into a tall crack, then spread wider, and light flooded the tiny space. After a few moments of blinking, his eyes adjusted somewhat, and he had an answer of sorts to the first question.

Somewhat on the short side, very much on the slender side, with smooth nut-brown skin, angular features, green eyes, and ears that came up to a point – that last one was the one thing all the old songs agreed on. Nobody had seen elves in living memory, but what else could this be that he saw in front of him? This one wore a kilt and tunic of green fabric, with irregular darker and lighter blotches like fallen leaves and dappled sunlight. So far as Markus could tell, the figure was masculine – broader at the shoulders, tapering slightly down toward the waist, the hips more prominent than he was used to in men but not as much so as a woman’s. Mahogany hair was worked into many braids, woven with polished wooden beads, that fell nearly to the figure’s waist, and bright silver rings adorned those pointed ears.

He also held a long knife, with a curve that reminded Markus rather unsettlingly of a cook’s carving knife. The way he was running his fingers along the flat of the blade, almost caressing it, didn’t help.

“So. The intruder wakes.”

That wasn’t what Markus’s ears had heard – they reported a much more fluid, almost lilting tongue. But that was the meaning he understood, somehow. In circumstances that weren’t already stressful, the dichotomy would’ve been unsettling. As it was… it didn’t help. Unsure of what was expected of him, Markus stood where he was.

The elf looked along his blade, as though entranced by the play of light over it. “Did you imagine that one such as you could roam our lands at will? What were you possibly hoping to accomplish here?”

“I didn’t know these were anyone’s lands,” Markus protested, the words bubbling out of him before he could stop himself. Probably unwise, that. He forced himself to take a deep breath, and to continue with more composure, “I’m sorry. I was just following what I thought was a game trail through the woods. Just let me know where it is I shouldn’t go – if there’s some signs I should watch for – and I’ll never trespass here again.”

The knife-tip whipped outward, pointing straight at Markus’s chest. “You’ll find it hard to trespass if you feed the trees, beast. What were you doing here?”

Markus bit his lip. Somehow, he didn’t think he’d help his situation by saying that he was going across the land for a tryst with another man, even if there were elements of truth to it. “I didn’t know there was anything ‘here’ but the trees,” he insisted. “I was only passing through, nothing more.”

From somewhere beyond the gap came another voice – these words didn’t get the translation that the first elf’s did, but they sounded like the same language, and if tone was at all similar to what Markus’s people would use, that second voice sounded… bemused, actually. The one standing in the gap turned his head and snapped something; this too didn’t get translated, but the venom was palpable.

“In one way or another, we’ll get the truth out of you,” Markus’s interrogator growled, comprehensible again. He stepped back into the light, and his blade made a quick gesture. “Out.”

Markus bit back a retort – he’d been telling the truth all along, if only the damnable elf would listen to it. But it didn’t take a special wit to realize that saying so out loud would be a terrible idea. He shuffled out.

He found himself in a grove of sorts – his prison, apparently, had been inside the trunk of a living tree, with others of similar stature in a ring around him. To either side of the gap that had opened in the trunk was another elf – a matched pair; a bit paler skin than the one who’d been interrogating him, each one wearing leather scale whose individual plates looked like elm leaves – saw toothed edges that tapered to a point. Their spears had yellow-white hafts – bone or horn, shaped somehow into straight shafts – and while Markus had seen spears described as “leaf-bladed,” these took it one step further; that same elm-leaf shape with the saw-toothed edge, the flat of the blade engraved with a vein pattern. All the metalwork was bronze, and all of it was scrupulously neat; Markus had seen palace guards less well-presented.

One guard’s mouth quirked in what, if not for the hostility of the situation, Markus would have thought an aborted smile, and gestured with his spear. In the centre of the grove was the huge stump of a tree that must have once been a towering ancient, smoothed flat into a natural dais. There was such an understated majesty to it that Markus thought it would be where an official would stand to preside over his fate, while he knelt before it or somesuch; but when he paused, the knife-wielding interrogator gave him a sharp command to step up onto it.

“We know what you are,” that first elf growled. “We have experience with your kind. And you expect us to believe you come here with benign purpose?”

Markus managed to catch himself before he rolled his eyes. Barely. “What I am is a wanderer,” he insisted, struggling to keep his tongue from acquiring an edge; these beings had already subdued him gods-knew-how, and he was utterly in their power. Appearing uppity would help nothing. “Anything else is as I was born.” And that went for both what was obvious and what was not. Maybe the elf meant he knew Markus was a werewolf, but if he just meant Markus was human, Markus wasn’t going to give his hatred more fodder. He and his people got enough of that from unchanging humans.

The one with the knife looked aside, speaking sharply to someone Markus couldn’t see. Soft words in reply drifted back from the surrounding trees; the interrogator’s head tilted down slightly, and then he paced back and forth in front of Markus, looking over him, still turning that knife about as he did. For several tense moments, silence reigned on the ground. Overhead, leaves rustled in the wind, while birds and other small tree-dwelling creatures called to one another as though nothing was out of the ordinary.

Then heads turned, and another figure entered, this one swathed from head to toe in a hooded, veiled green robe that left only the eyes bare. The figure looked feminine, but the robe was too loose to be sure; what was plain was that the other elves deferred to this one – the alert guards stood up a bit straighter, and even Markus’s knife-wielding interrogator bowed his head in palpable respect. He uttered some more of that fluid elven speech – almost poetic, with more rhythm and cadence than the snippets of it Markus had heard untranslated up to then.

The newcomer started to reply – and her voice was definitely, deliciously feminine, so much so that Markus’s throat suddenly felt dry – then turned to look straight at Markus for a few moments. A delicate hand, adorned with shining rings, the wrist strewn with bangles and beads, emerged from the trailing sleeve and performed a series of sweeping gestures, while she spoke words in some strict and complicated meter; the interrogator stiffened, one of the guards lifted his brows; and for a few moments, there was a sense of great weight in the air.

The moment faded, and the robed woman regarded Markus for a few moments more before turning her gaze to the one with the knife. “It is most ungracious of you, Tarviel, to grant the accused understanding of so little.”

“Our secrets should not be his to know, Priestess.” There was a peculiar brittleness to his voice now.

“Then discuss none of them in his presence, hunter. Even the most heinous defiler deserves the dignity of knowing the weight of his crimes, and of hearing his sentence take shape.” Her hand lifted up for a moment and beckoned, then tucked back into the opposite sleeve of her robe. Two more elves in plain brown robes – retainers, it looked like, or servants – hurried into the clearing, bearing tall posts. One of these had its base sunk into the earth, and the other drawn away from it, spreading something between them – something that turned out to be a hammock of sorts, in which she sat, crosswise.

The one with the knife – Tarviel? – turned to Markus again, with, perhaps, a flicker of exasperation. “Now, intruder, speak the truth, in detail, and know that any lies will be known and punished. Why have you come here?”

Markus bit his lip against a sharp retort. His tongue had landed him in trouble in his youth; he had no desire to have it do so now. This damnable elf had been told the truth already, if only he’d listen to it!

Detail, though? He could do detail.

“I only came here following the trail.” Markus insisted. “I didn’t know anyone lived here but the beasts of the woods. I’m bound for Red Rock Harbour, at the mouth of the Callisdrin, another three days’ walk – I think.” Provided he hadn’t been moved too far from the last place he’d known himself to be, anyway.

Tarviel, with a scornful look on his face, turned to the reclining priestess, but her fir-green eyes revealed nothing at all to Markus, and apparently nothing pleasing to Tarviel – perhaps because they warned of no lies. The hunter’s scowl needed no interpretation. Whirling to face Markus again, he demanded, “Why should we trust that you’ll bring no harm upon us now that you do know where we are? We are well-experienced with your people.”

By “your people,” the elf might as well have been referring to some slimy, crawling thing that had just been found eating through a basket of fruit. Keeping a civil tone was a task Markus was finding ever more difficult, now, but so far, he managed. Mostly. “I don’t know where you are,” he said. “I’m no great woodsman. I’ve enough of a head for direction to avoid going in circles, but until I can see some manner of landmark, I’ll not know quite where I am. And my people have tried to leave in peace for generations.”

“Ah, ‘tried,’ such a convenient word,” Tarviel sneered. “But blood will tell, will it not? Especially yours.”

Markus froze.

“Now,” the elf purred, “I think it is time and past time for you to stop hiding behind a benign facade.” And he fixed Markus with a stern glare.

There were no gestures, no words – just raw will, bearing down on his own with crushing force. It was a command that could not be ignored or resisted; it was the way of the world. Markus’s skin crawled, threatening to split open – with a yelp, he abandoned dignity and fumbled at his belt. Pride was all very well, but going through a change while still dressed was agony.

He managed to get his trousers loose and down slightly before his tail sprouted, and down to his ankles before his legs reshaped themselves. His tunic wasn’t normally so bad – it was cut looser and his upper body, head notwithstanding, didn’t change quite so much – but this time it tightened very uncomfortably around him, and he very probably burst a few seams scrambling out of it. And there he was, crouching on all fours, naked but for a coat of charcoal fur that, for the first time in his life, didn’t feel nearly thick enough.

He’d occasionally felt an urge to change – all of his blood did – but it was normally satisfied by something less drastic. Now, even if he hadn’t been embarrassed by being so thoroughly on display, he wasn’t sure he could walk properly on two legs; he had too much of the wolf about him now, his legs too much an animal’s.

And he didn’t even have a wall to put his back against as he so suddenly felt an urge to do. He hunkered down, ears pinning back and hackles rising.

“Just a wanderer,” Tarviel sneered again – it was starting to seem like he cultivated a sneer, rehearsed it. And apparently sarcasm was the same in many languages. “Did you think we would not know?”

“I thought it wasn’t relevant,” Markus replied, trying to keep a whine out of his voice. “Anything else is as I was born. As I said.”

“And do you think us unaware of the damage your kind wreaks in the grip of blood hunger?” the elf snarled, holding his knife at the ready in a way that made its resemblance to a carving or skinning knife all the more disturbing.

Especially since Markus now possessed a fur coat.

“So can any berserker!” he protested. That was all he’d meant to say, but the words kept spilling out. “The werewolves just can’t be disarmed! But I’m not a berserker! I’m not a fighter, not even a hunter beyond being able to catch a hare for my dinner on the road! I’ve learned to be a jeweller, because I need to support myself somehow while I’m travelling, and that’s it! I’ve never done knowing harm to anything larger than a fox, and after all these years hunting as I travel I still get squeamish at the sight of blood! All I wanted was to get to town, find a man I know, taste him intimately, and feel him trembling in my arms for a time, and maybe find a new lover the next day! I…”

“You may stop,” the priestess cut in, and whatever force it was that had kept the words pouring forth in spite of Markus’s growing horror now cut off, and he could finally shut his mouth. Too damned late by far.

For a few moments, there was only birdsong and the rustle of leaves.

“That was a merchant?” said one of the guards behind him, softly, perhaps talking to the other. “Easier on the eyes than the fat gold-polishers who used to ride their wagons through here.” There was a very obvious sort of speculation in his voice that made Markus blush; on the one hand, his fur hid that particular cue, but on the other, his ears flattened back and his tail tucked in.

The other guard stirred. “He counts a man among his lovers. Tarviel, you and yours have insisted for years that humans are all backwards, barbaric savages who have all the social variety of bulls in rut.” His voice, too, was curious and contemplative.

“Know your place, Arvanion,” Tarviel snapped, but he was looking and sounding flustered, off-balance.

“Arvanion’s criticism is sound, and I will echo it,” the priestess cut in. “Your hunters, Tarviel, have long been trusted to be our eyes on those who live in the lands around us. Now it seems that much of what we have learned from you is suspect. Obsolete at best, or… I wonder, would you submit to a truthtelling? How much of what you have told us, those things that have informed the Elders in choosing to hold ourselves apart from outsiders, is known to you as truth, and how much is supposition?”

Tarviel had completely lost his momentum and was standing slack-jawed. For the first time since his unexpected awakening, Markus dared to feel hopeful.

The priestess rose to her feet, and there was a presence to her, a fire that went far beyond the slight narrowing of her eyes. “And what of the werewolves, Tarviel? On your advice and that of your peers we have kept our people free of that condition. You have told us that to be a werewolf is to be a beast, uncontrollably violent, and that is too high a price to bear for the gifts that are on record. We know that the changing blood has potent advantages for those who seek a close tie to the land, but we have spurned it as too hazardous. Have you, in fact, been casting blame on that blood for what is in fact due to a warrior tradition?”

“But – but it is known…”

“We have relied on your hunters to tell us what is, not what is known,” the priestess said, sweeping a hand out, palm-down. “No. Your charge of this prisoner is at an end, Tarviel. You are dismissed.”

For a moment the hunter seemed about to protest; then he just bowed, turned, and left.

The priestess paced back and forth in front of the stump, looking him over, before turning her attention to the guards. “Arvanion, speak. What is your mother’s likely reaction to these truths?”

“She has long maintained that in shutting ourselves away from the world we are stifling our own flame,” the one said, his tone hesitant. Reluctant?

“And your own thoughts?”

Arvanion drew a deep breath. When he answered, it was with mild reproach. “Lady, I swore to the Leaf Guard to avoid politics.”

“Answer me as a man, not as an Elder’s son.”

“As a man?” There was a long pause, in the midst of which a leather-gloved hand touched Markus’s shoulder – he stiffened – and ran along his side. “As a man, Priestess… his is a form that inspires the blood to quicken. Powerful. Exotic.”

“Daramis…”

The other guard, apparently expecting the query, didn’t even wait for it to be fully expressed. “Salavin will be smug. He craves a return to the old ways. So will Nystarra. She will want to graft it into her bloodline personally. She… would find a human man to her taste, I think.”

“And yourself?”

That guard leaned in, spear butt grounding itself by Markus’s right forepaw, and presently a warm sigh wafted over Markus’s ears. “With this example before me? I have already confessed that it appeals.” His hand reached right in to spread over Markus’s chest. “I am unsure of the rightness of her aims. But the opportunity to be closer to this one…” That hand slid down, over Markus’s stomach, stopping just short of an intimate touch before the elven man abruptly pulled away, standing upright.

“I crave it, Lady. I would gladly lend my seed to the cutting on which that graft is formed. But to proceed like this… whatever our views on their culture, or lack of it, the humans are not beasts subject to our command.” His tone was complex. Wistful yearning was there aplenty; coupled with the lyrical tongue in which he was actually speaking it made Markus tremble with answering need, lamenting, not that the stranger’s touch had come so close to his manhood, but that it had stopped short. But toward the end of that recitation there was just a hint of steel. Steel shrouded in softest velvet, but steel nonetheless.

“Your point is well-taken.” The priestess finally stopped pacing, turning to face Markus on the wooden dais. “Very well. Tarviel convened these proceedings to pass judgement on an offender. In this matter, I find his claim to be void. This human has trespassed on our territory, but our signs were subtle, and by his own true-spoken word he did not see them. We have no right to condemn him to harm because we hid too well.”

Relief almost made Markus’s legs buckle under him.

“That trespass, thus appealed, is something I cannot wholly ignore. He must stay in our charge for three nights, after which he will be turned loose at the eastern edge of the woods, his possessions returned to him… and I think it would be fitting to add some gems for his craft, by way of apology for our initial ill treatment. Daramis, I entrust his care over that time to your honour. You may house him with all the comforts of a guest, rather than a prisoner, in threefold repayment of the indignities already suffered here in our name. Should you and your lady convince him, as a guest, to assist in her agenda… well.” One hand emerged in a dismissive gesture, bangles rattling. “That is your affair.”

“It shall be so, Priestess.” Was there a trace of hope, of excitement, in the elven man’s voice? Not that Markus could blame him – for that voice alone, there was much he’d be willing to go through…

“Arvanion, you shall assist him in this matter. Both of you are released from your other duties to attend to our unexpected guest.” She clapped her hands once; her robed retainers rushed forward to pull the poles of her hammock from the ground and roll it up. “Daramis. One of these has not been offered in over a hundred springtimes, but the time now seems appropriate for such courtesy.”

What changed hands, Markus couldn’t see; but the one called Daramis bowed. “Yes, Priestess. As a gift, or…?”

“Give it or lend it, I leave that to your discretion.”

“Then I will weigh the merits of that decision over the next three days.”

“Good. I will bring these truths before the Elders on the morrow, but I place no burden of secrecy on either of you over the night ahead.” Again she clapped her hands, twice this time. “We are adjourned.” And then she swept out of the grove, her retainers bearing their burden behind.

Apparently she’d taken that gift of understanding with her; when Daramis came around to crouch in front of Markus and spoke to him, the elf’s voice was a wonder to hear, his words lyrical and pleasing, but there was no meaning in those words. Apology in his tone, yes, and kindness; but the words themselves were just nice sounds. What he held forward, though, was obvious enough: a loop of horn, closed by a metal fastening, crisscrossed with dark thread and with a feather dangling below it. At first glance the feather was black, but as it turned in the light it shone with violet and blue.

An earring? Markus blinked, ears flicking back in confusion. He didn’t have any place to wear such – but there it was, resting on the elf’s palm, offered toward him. Markus sat back, reaching up with a forepaw – at the moment it made a clumsy hand at best – and running a finger along the length of his ear, trying to draw attention to the fact that he had nowhere to put it.

Daramis said something in a reassuring tone, taking the little bauble in his fingers and reaching up to the ear Markus had touched with the other hand. His grip was firm, keeping that ear from flicking back when it tried to do so, but not cruel; and thus prepared, he brought the earring into place.

It pierced through of its own accord.

It wasn’t a matter of being forced through – the elf didn’t have nearly a strong enough touch for that. Too, Markus, well-accustomed to the feel of his own body shifting, could sense some effort on his body’s part to accommodate the metal post. It stung, still, but he’d done worse to himself in the course of his labours. Or just by getting a stone in his boot.

“That should give you understanding enough,” the elf said, standing.

Markus blinked. “So it does,” he said on reflex. That was an impressive bit of jewellery.

“For three nights you are to be the guest of my bloodline. As you have set foot on ground we consider sacred, you may not refuse this hospitality save to return to the tree’s heart, but in the boughs of our ancestral tree you will be given all that courtesy and comfort which is ours to offer. This I swear, as consort of Lady Nystarra of the Raven Locks, in her name and her lord father’s who is Elder in our high places.” He gave a slight bow, and waited.

Oh, hells, what was he supposed to say? Formal words always made him feel awkward, and the elvish words had practically been a poem. It didn’t help that words were hard to shape with a lupine muzzle. “I don’t know what words I should be using here,” he admitted, “but your offer is welcome. Of course I accept.” It had to be better than being shoved back into a tree trunk.

There was the matter of getting there. His host suggested that he might want to keep four feet available to him, and that was not a bad notion; just as well, because even once he’d draped his clothing over his shoulders and loosely tied it in place, he found himself unable to even shift the rest of the way to a lupine form. Some lingering effect of whatever compulsion Tarviel had laid on him, likely. Hopefully it’d fade in short order.

Such logistics were the easy part of getting there. He was led on a weaving path between trees larger and older than he’d ever seen, up to the gnarled roots of one particular giant; and there, where the roots jutted above the ground, so too did the branches come down close to it, forming a steep stairway of sorts. One with no rail, great gaps between the steps, and, very shortly, a long way down.

Normally, Markus would’ve kept his eyes firmly on where he was putting his forepaws. In this case, even that all too often gave him a fine view of the increasingly-distant ground. Ears flat, he tried to swallow a whine and kept reaching forward. Maybe it was just as well he hadn’t been able to change; this way, his feet weren’t as awkward as crawling in human shape would be, but he still did have some use of his hands to cling to their holds as he went.

At length, he found himself on a broad, firm platform that the tree seemed to have just grown into. The flat, unbroken surface was such a relief that he abandoned dignity and threw himself onto it, waiting for the trembling to fade. Gods. High places had never been a strength of his, and even less so in this shape – who ever heard of a wolf climbing trees?

Daramis clicked his tongue. “Most guests are housed in the highest nests with the grandest sights. Perhaps it would be better in your case to bring some comforts to one of the labourer’s dens, near here.”

“Thank you,” Markus gasped.

The labourer’s dens turned out to be a half-dozen cavities in the tree trunk, on the first platform and one level above it; with only two of them occupied, Markus had his choice, and allowed himself to be convinced that the higher platform not only offered more comforts closer by, it would actually be harder to see the ground from there – the platform was broader, with more leaf cover around its edges. The den itself was all smooth edges, as though the tree had just chosen not to grow through that space, and there its resemblance to his erstwhile prison ended. It was a larger space; it had a natural partition that blocked sight between the outside and the den proper; and at either end of that little vestibule was, not a solid wooden wall, but a beautiful curtain of carved beads. Another, smaller alcove served as a privy, and the vines that grew in that space bore luminous flowers that both provided light and masked any unpleasant odours. Light was given in the main room by a trio of what might have been fireflies, if fireflies were bright as candles and never stopped glowing, in a small wicker cage on a shelf; the bed was a hammock woven of many colours, and a rug with similarly bright, abstract patterns softened the wood floor. Markus had paid good silver for inn-rooms that made this look like a palace.

Daramis bowed himself out to make arrangements of some kind, leaving Arvanion as a deputee host of sorts. The elf pressed him with questions – what the change felt like; to what extent his shape moulded his thoughts – Markus had to admit to being unsure about that. Was he thinking more like a wolf, or was he just adopting different mannerisms because of the altered limits and abilities of his own body? Either way, there was certainly some shift in his thinking – even what sort of jewellery he made. Ever more questions, but at least this time his answers were being listened to and the questions were always at least somewhat different.

Daramis returned, a brown-robed servitor trailing behind him and setting a lacquered basket of fruit on a lip of wood that apparently served as a table. Daramis too had questions, once that servitor had departed, though they went in a new direction: “How much do you know of how the changing blood is passed on?”

“I haven’t really thought about it,” Daramis admitted. Outside of his home village – itself a commune of werewolves, living remotely to stay away from the prejudice common in larger towns – all his lovers had been male, and even at home he’d not been out to be a father. “I know it breeds true.”

“That blood vanished from our people many summers ago, but some knowledge of it is still ours. You are… nearly correct.” A small smile touched the elf’s features. “It does not ‘breed true’ as such. But any woman who is a werewolf will have werewolf children, and it is also passed from a man’s seed into a child in the womb – even if that child is not his own. Even if that child could not be his own.”

Even if his initial headache had long since faded, the distinction was fine enough to give Markus some trouble. Puzzling it out took a few moments.

And then some of what had been said around his peculiar trial sank in. The notion seemed so bizarre – but what else could it mean? “You want me to… to lie with one of your womenfolk? To make her child a werewolf?”

“Very close, human,” said Daramis, and his voice had much in common with a cat’s purr, his smile gaining a touch of mischief. “My raven-haired Lady has long maintained that letting the wolf blood die out among us was an error, and one that she wishes to correct. Now she will be permitted to do so. But she is not with child… yet. Bringing this to pass would need one man to sire her child,” his finger touched his own scale-armored breast, “and another, outside of our kind, to give to that child the changing blood.” His hand turned, finger pointing… not quite at Markus, but in his general vicinity.

Good gods above. “At… the same time?” Hells, it was getting hard not to wonder what he – what both of them – looked like under that armor… Markus shivered.

The pair exchanged glances. “Perhaps we could help you get acquainted with the notion, hm?” Arvenion smiled – a small smile, but a significant one. “After all, if the hospitality normally given to guests is not to your liking, it behooves your hosts to find some alternative.”

“Nystarra will be joining us presently,” said Daramis. “But she will not interrupt if she is not invited. Still, you’ve been given much to contemplate in a short time. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to leave you in peace for a time, and return later for a polite introduction.”

Markus whined. Normally, he’d have been mortified at the thought of someone happening upon him while he was with a lover – much less one of that lover’s other lovers. But every word either of these two uttered was music, every motion a picture of grace. The thought of both of them departing made him ache – no, it didn’t make him ache; it made his balls ache. “Please,” he whimpered, and then could barely manage a whisper as he added, “Don’t go…”

Very deliberately, Arvenion leaned his spear against one corner, then stood before Markus with a cryptic smile. “You desire us, do you? You desire me?”

“I do.” His words, especially croaked as they were, sounded so coarse and crude next to the elvish strains, and he bit his lip; but those words were all he had.

“I am here,” said the elven man, hands out to either side. Unspoken, but dripping from every syllable, was something deeper, more urgent, more primal. Take me.

Markus sat up on his haunches, then pushed on up to his feet. Standing wasn’t the easiest thing, not when his shape was so far gone toward a four-footed animal’s – but even with a bit of a stoop that he couldn’t quite overcome, he’d gained a bit of height. Not much; Arvenion now rose to just under his collarbone instead of just over his shoulder. But enough to marvel all the more at how much presence the elf had, in spite of not being physically all that large.

Not large, no, but he was still imposing in a way. It wasn’t just the gleam of light over leather scale, although that didn’t hurt. It wasn’t just the set of his prominent jaw or the deep green of his eyes. It wasn’t the way his fingers, slender yet strong, slid along Markus’s arm. No, it wasn’t any one of those things – but they all most certainly helped. So did the keenness of Markus’s nose, capturing so clearly the essentially male scent of the man – full of unfamiliar notes, yes, but under those there was plenty that he could recognize.

And getting more so, at that.

His fingers slid over the leather plates, fumbling for a grip. Arvenion shifted just so – such that Markus’s roving fingers could push the scale coat upward, could hook under it, one hand at the hem and one at the collar, and draw it upward. Underneath was a simple cotton vest; under that… under that, the best fit to the word “wiry” that Markus had ever seen in a man. Other words came to mind, too – lithe, sleek, trim. He was far from the heavyset, muscular image of human masculinity; he had little or none of that bulk, but still had the qualities which were most pleasing in a man.

Right down to the rising swell in his fine woolen kilt.

His wood-brown skin was warmer than Markus was accustomed to, and almost unbelievably smooth, the hairs sparser – and much, much finer – than any man he’d ever met before. A sigh wafted over Markus’s ears as the werewolf pushed that vest out of the way, back onto its owners arms; Arvenion let it fall to the floor, them brought his hands in, one on Markus’s shoulder, the other rubbing behind his ears.

Good gods, had he guessed, or had he known? He not only found just the right spot to touch, just behind those ears, he used just the right amount of force to do so. It made Markus want to just melt under the contact, except that neglecting the body before him would be a sin before a dozen different gods.

He muffled a groan against the elf’s neck, and then he sank back onto his haunches, shuffling forward that he might stay in close. He lapped a few times at Arvenion’s collarbone, then lower, his ears perking at the catch in the elf’s breath when he found a nipple. A grazing touch with his incisors coaxed free a shiver and a throaty moan, and Arvenion clutched at his skull.

Then, finally, Markus’s questing forepaws found where the elf’s kilt was tucked in, and unwound it.

His balls were smooth, with no more than the light dusting of hair that covered the rest of him, but too plump not to be an adult’s; they weighed quite nicely on Markus’s stroking tongue, the taste and scent of them undeniably masculine, but in a subtler manner than a human man’s. The flesh that rose above them suited the elf well; not too long, but neither was the rest of his body. Five inches or so from its base to the peak of its crown, deliciously familiar in shape, but the slickness that met his tongue on that crown was almost sweet.

He drew that flesh into his muzzle, cradling it on his tongue. There was no need, no time, for lyrical, poetic words. Now there was only the tension in Arvenion’s hands as he clutched at Markus’s skull, the huff of the elf’s quickening breaths, his rising moans, and then the sharp cry as he surged forward, his essence sweeter than the finest wine and twice as intoxicating, spilling over the werewolf’s tongue and down, hot and thick, into his stomach.

At length the elf chuckled, stroking the edge of Markus’s left ear with trembling fingers. “It has been,” he breathed, “entirely too long. You are an utter delight to body, mind, and soul, wolf-man.”

“And yet there is something about him that promises delights yet unseen,” said a new voice.

Markus shuddered. How could he have forgotten? However musical the men’s voices could be, that was as nothing to what he’d just heard.

Embarrassed, but not mortified, he let Arvenion’s flesh slip from his muzzle and ducked his head. Past the elven man’s hip he could see that Daramis, without his armour but still otherwise clad, now was accompanied by a woman of his kind – a woman almost his own height, with black hair that fell in straight tresses to her waist and shone in the shifting light from the fluttering bugs in their cage. She wore a long, flowing garment, but not like the all-concealing robes the priestess and the various servitors had worn; this draped over her form, but lay just close enough against her, showed just enough walnut skin, to hint at the delights it did cover.

“Have I spoken anything but the truth to you?” Daramis asked, touching her arm.

“My consort is as true to me as always,” said the one who could only be Nystarra, stroking the man’s fingers and looking Markus over. “I understand, wanderer, that you have been made aware of what has been my goal for the last score of years?”

Markus bit his lip. She didn’t look like she could be past her twenties, and yet… well. His tongue, despite repeated attempts, did not wish to obey him, but he managed a nod.

“And do you have objections?”

His head jerked violently from one side to the other before he’d quite made sense of the question.

“Then I will not trouble you with delays and ceremony.” The woman smiled and spread her hands, bangles rattling, in a gesture of welcome. “My consort has been kept apart from me a long time by his duties, with only his voice on the wind, telling me of what he does with his dear companion – the same one whose taste, I fancy, yet lingers on your tongue – to accompany me. Now I would ask that he bides his time a moment more – for you, stranger, intrigue me for more than your changing blood.”

She stepped out of her gown as smoothly as though it had never been there, leaving Daramis to fold it a few times while she made her swaying way to the rug. Her fingers reached down to stroke along Markus’s jwaw – for a few moments he was intensely aware of how, yes, Arvenion’s seed did linger on his tongue.

But then she was kneeling opposite him, beckoning, and he had no more time to devote to the pleasures he had already experienced, however exquisite; new ones awaited him.

He sniffed, he caressed, he stroked with his broad tongue, he nursed at her modest but undeniable breast; she stirred, she arched toward him, she caressed him in turn. How long they slid against each other thus, he couldn’t rightly say – not long, but certainly long enough.

And then her fingers wrapped around his flesh, jutting out from its sheath, and felt along it, tracing the very lupine shape of his member – the swell at its base, the smooth shaft, the tapered tip. He bit his lip against a whine, but she was not setting out to delay his pleasure; she guided his length down, between her thighs, and in.

From nudging the tip of his shaft between her folds, to pressing his bulb against them, he sank in one stroke. She released him on the way, hands roaming his body, urging him to move against her; and so he sank the toes of all four feet into the rug and did just that. From the first stroke she writhed under him, her hot, snug tunnel clutching at his shaft; all the more so as he pistoned into her. Compared to the elven men, his brute strength must be a crude, simple thing – but sometimes, apparently, that was exactly what was needed, even for this elven beauty.

By the time she halted him with a touch on his arm, directed him to move, he was so lost in his lust that he’d have bounded over coals, so long as he could only carry on. What awaited him was much more pleasant; Daramis had shed his clothing and reclined beside them, waiting, and Nystarra turned over, putting her own palms against the fine rug and straddling him.

When Markus thought to wait, to let the pair slide together, he was surprised to find himself beckoned forward first. Surprised, but not reluctant; he slid into her again, muffling a deep groan against her neck, and pressed down against her back. She rocked against him; he churned against her in turn. It was only when they had settled into a gentle rhythm that Markus felt another firm warmth pressing against his own.

Daramis had a longer manhood than Arvenion – by another inch or so – but it was wonderfully slender. Enough so that it slid into Nystarra’s heat, alongside Markus’s own spire, quite readily indeed.

They were all of them beyond words; words, however cleverly translated, would only interfere. All they knew now was need – need for one another, a need that included Markus just as fiercely as it did any of the elves. And when he felt a hand on his haunch, Arvenion’s firm heat, slick now with oil the elven man had procured from only the gods knew where, nudging under his tail, he suddenly realized just how much more need he hadn’t been indulging yet.

The man plunged into him as though he’d always belonged there, stretching out over Markus’s back, breath hot and quick on his shoulder; and the werewolf shuddered, his rod bucking alongside the other elven man’s, in the woman’s wonderfully welcoming sex.

With so many bodies so close together, they couldn’t do much but wriggle. They didn’t need to. Each motion sent pleasure surging through him from all sides. He couldn’t hope to keep it at bay for long; and once Arvenion was thrusting into him, filling him, he gave up even trying. Still, he wasn’t the first to reach his peak – not even the first man, for he’d long since lost count of Nystarra’s cresting waves of pleasure. No, first to surrender was Daramis, crying out in a manner so very much like his counterpart as he drove upward, his shaft jerking alongside Markus’s; the werewolf couldn’t feel the man’s seed as such, but he most definitely felt it being pumped out.

On the heels of that sensation came an epiphany of sorts. He was not only allowed to be present in the moment a man conceived his child – not even merely sharing in the experience. In a way, he was going to be another father to that same child. From being a hated prisoner, he’d come in a matter of hours to the highest honour he could ever imagine.

And that thought was enough to unleash the wave of bliss that had been building in him, not just with the excitement of the past few hours, but giving release to all the loneliness and anticipation that had accumulated over weeks on the road. Orgasm swept over him with crushing weight.

It was only just starting to fade, to let some sense of the world return, when Arvanion gasped atop him, shoving forward, filling him with warm elven seed.

There would be time later to sample the luscious fruits that had been delivered before; time enough for banquets, for dances of stunning grace. He would, in time, even bring himself to climb to the highest branches, to see the forest spread out to the horizon all around him, to hear the birds calling out, not far above him, but all around

But it was that first night, when all of them shared their pleasure together, that he would remember most clearly. And when the two men guided him to a trail and pointed him on his way, promising to welcome him as a proper guest should he ever return to that spot, it was those moments that he yearned to repeat, that surging bliss that he knew would bring him back.

He almost expected the experience to leave him numb, impossible for other lovers to satisfy. But all he had to do was think of how Arvanion had cried out, filling him, and vigour surged into his limbs such as he’d never known before – not even then.

Perhaps, he reflected as a burly miner dozed against his chest, he owed the so-suspicious Tarviel some thanks.

Imagining the hunter’s likely reaction, he grinned into the darkness, and finally let sleep claim him. Everything in his life was right.