It was still a mercenary camp; there was a fundamental order to the place that the bivouacs of larger units lacked. And with several bands in the same space, far from succumbing to the disorder of those larger units, the divisions were only strengthened. Stepping from one band’s section of the camp to another’s brought a distinction as plain as that between night and day, even more so than that between the inside of the camp and the world beyond its border.

Gone, though, was the expectant tension. The work they’d been mustered for was done, and done well, by gods and ancestors and whatever else the disparate fighters held dear. None of these bands would never truly relax their discipline, not while they were still mustered – that discipline was part of what had made them the best, the most-esteemed, the most-sought-for warriors in the land. Sentries still watched the camp, looking outward, keeping an eye on the interior, even minding the skies. Officers and small cadres of armed fighters still roamed the camp and kept the peace.

But the mood in the camp was one of celebration. Freed captives, brought in for assessment and treatment by the mercenaries’ healers, now rested with their rescuers, and those who had not greatly suffered for their ordeal celebrated with them. Bands that had been wary and distrustful of one another had worked together and come to respect each other, and now, though each band had its district, the mercenaries all roamed freely between those districts, whether as residents or welcome guests.

The burly warriors of the Hammer of Krenth were certainly in high demand tonight, and if it might be because of their fighting prowess, it certainly wasn’t for it. They’d hung up their articulated steel plate, and, indeed, many of them weren’t wearing very much at all.

One among them, Farah noted, was conspicuously absent. Oh, the one getting the bulk of the attention could have passed for him in the vaguest of terms – a broad-shouldered, battle-scarred ram, loud of voice and proud of manner, who after being tended by the healers for a number of slashes had accepted as his just due the adoration – and intimate attention – he’d been receiving since.

But this ram was brown, not charcoal-black. His horns curved farther around, but weren’t quite as thick at the base. This was not Kellim Stonehoof, but the sole one of his lieutenants that happened to be the same race – Jeran Akensson, who’d led the squad that had smashed the reavers’ stockade, and who had personally struck down the reaver captain who’d had a mind to punish the assaulting mercenaries by killing captives.

If he was proud and vain, well, he’d earned it. But given how thoroughly he was being rewarded for the day’s efforts, it was just as well that he wasn’t the one she sought.

That one was not the sort who’d simply disappear – so long as his unit was mustered, he would be somewhere they could reach him, if something urgent transpired. So if he wasn’t out in the camp…

His tent was under guard. It could have been just to ensure that nothing came of his possessions without two different guards being privy to it, but when Farah asked to see their commander, the guards showed no surprise or doubt; the one on the right, a dark-skinned human, tilted his head in acknowledgement, while the other, the lion, ducked in through the flap.

Moments later, the lion emerged, stepping back to his place but holding up the flap behind him. “Commander Kellim will see you, Commander.” Farah nodded and ducked through, and the flap fell behind her.

This was definitely a commander’s tent. Much of the space was taken up by equipment – the steel plate and heavy sword and shield favoured by the Hammer of Krenth, a few extra shields, a spare sword, and some boxes of replacement sections of plate; it took up rather more room than would the simple armour stand that sufficed for Farah’s own leathers, and the one rack that held her spears, bow staves, and quivers alike. As much was set aside to strategy, in the form of a broad map table, smaller cousin to the one the commanders had used in joint council.

The rest, though, made plain that this was a mercenary commander, not that of an officer in a conscripted army. All the furniture could be broken down into pieces, moved, and reassembled elsewhere, and none of it was unduly massive as a result, but everything was of the finest quality – and one entire section was given over to tokens of Kellim’s previous campaigns.

The ram himself was seated at the camp desk, recently-groomed and wearing a fresh vest and trousers, and apparently had just finished writing something; even as Farah took in her surroundings, he set the quill aside and stoppered the inkwell, waving a sheet in the air to dry the ink upon it. “It sounds like a rowdy gathering out there,” he observed, sitting up a bit straighter; then, turning, he added, “My men aren’t getting too boisterous, I hope?”

“No indeed,” Farah assured him. “They’re not lacking for willing partners in whatever entertainment they seek, and even in the most personal sorts, the women all seem content afterward.” Mostly women, but as that one pair that was otherwise had gone through the effort of concealing themselves from all but a Ranger’s sharp eyes and they were doing no harm, she saw no reason to bring that up. “What keeps you here, rather than seeing it – and enjoying it – for yourself?”

The big ram sighed, slumping in his seat and lifting the page he still held. “Two widows and a widower, today. I always make sure those arrangements are made before I get to the party.” Wearily, he waved her towards the stool at the map table.

In that moment, Kellim looked far more vulnerable than he ever had in the battlefield or on the campaign trail. Glancing over at the mementos, Farah saw now that about a third of the shelf space was devoted to Hammer insignia; those which would be pinned to uniforms or surcoats, not the iron pendant on a bronze chain that they carried with them always – those had presumably gone to the families of the fallen.

Before she could get drawn into a quick count of insignia, Farah’s mind caught up with what she’d heard. “Widower?” she queried. “I didn’t think you had any women in your ranks.”

“I didn’t, I don’t, I probably never will.” Kellim dismissed with a shrug the fact that one of his mercs had been in a relationship that some might call unconventional, instead saying, “I haven’t met any that’d survive how we fight; if a lass came up to me with real fire in her eyes, I’d send her your way, or Peregrine’s, or to another such company.”

“So it’s not that you have a problem with fighting alongside women,” Farah concluded with a smile. She’d thought Kellim a man who cared most about results – about winning – unlike some she’d run into over the years, and it seemed that was correct.

She wasn’t expecting the strength of response that drew, though; battle-weary fatigued vanished amid sudden anger. “Of course not. And if any of my men has been spreading that sort of rot…”

“Not at all,” Farah insisted. “I’ve met some who did, and it’s been my distinct pleasure to show them just what ‘mere women’ are capable of, but yours haven’t been any more doubtful than I’d expect them to be of any fighters they haven’t fought with yet.”

“Good,” Kellim growled, settling back. “Because if your archers hadn’t been covering our charge and your spear-fighters minding our flanks, I’d have had a lot more than three uncomfortable letters to write.” The anger drained away from him, washed away by good humour and even – maybe – a bit of admiration. “And taking a crack archer’s fingers and mashing them against a sword-hilt all day would be a damnable waste.

A few moments of silence made fairly plain that neither had more to say on the subject; so Farah broke the silence with, “Now the unpleasant business is tended to, what next? Your man Jeran is getting so much attention, one might think he planned all of this himself.”

“He had some useful words on the matter, at least.” Kellim shrugged. “And he carried himself well today. Let him get the glory this time. Someday, someone else will need to take on the Commander’s role – Jeran might as well get a taste of what’s due for work well done.”

“I might have expected you to worry about competition,” the jaguar confessed.

A snort. “Jeran may have the wine, women, and song tonight, but everyone still knows it’s my hand that holds the Hammer. And I will, until someone better comes along and takes it from me.”

Pride and self-assurance he had aplenty – here was a man who’d proven himself to the world, and he knew it; he had no need to make a great show of his pride. Farah smiled, leaning forward a little. “Well, even if most people just saw the fighting Jeran got up to today – I saw who directed him to be there, and who made sure there were archers covering him.”

“So?” Kellim sat up a bit straighter again, a grin spreading over his muzzle. “Thinking to bring a little of the celebration to me, if I won’t go to it?”

Proud and cocksure he might be, but he was no fool.

They met in unspoken accord at a spot between his stool, hers, and the cot. There was still a bit of dampness on his close-shorn wool from bathing – in the river, by the smell of him, clean, unadorned, and pleasantly masculine. His hands were strong on her shoulder and back, as was only to be expected in a fighter of his sort, but he was no clumsy lout to grab her strong enough to leave a bruise.

At least not yet. Right now, the strength in his arms was a promise – it might yet become a reality, when the time was right.

His breath was warm, heavy, quite delightfully eager; his light linen trousers were hardly an impediment to the warmth that swelled against Farah’s stomach as their mouths worked together.

His hands slid down her back, out to her sides, and had just started to move up from there when he eased back, a warm breath stirring her whiskers. “I should probably make sure we won’t be interrupted, hmmm?”

“As sound a decision as any,” she granted, letting go of his vest, unlaced but still hanging upon him, with only a momentary twinge of reluctance.

He didn’t bother re-tying laces as he strode to the tent flap, and he didn’t waste time on subtlety. “I’ll be busy with Commander Farah for some time,” he informed the guards. “If we’re disturbed, it had better be because my actual tent is on fire. Clear?” Farah couldn’t hear the response, but couldn’t imagine it being anything but a prompt affirmative – especially when Kellim nodded briskly and let the flap drop again.

And yet, even if he wasn’t spending time on subtlety, that was not to say he wasn’t using any subtlety at all. Every word he’d said was true, and yet it said roughly nothing of what they had planned for the near future.

He did shrug out of his vest as he stomped back across the canvas, setting it aside for later attention; he could have loosened his belt in the time those few strides took, eased up on what must surely be uncomfortable pressure on the peak in his trousers, but, grinning at Farah, he did not. “I wasn’t sure how much you might or might not want the whole camp to know,” he murmured, “but I’ll say this – having worked with you today, I’d have no problem at all with us being gossiped about, so long as they don’t make some nonsense about either of us going soft.”

“I should hope you’re not going soft yet, anyway,” Farah laughed, gliding her fingers along that straining fabric, squeezing through it.

He groaned and pushed up into her touch, eyes half-lidding. He had a good feel to him – one might assume his bravado to be either the result of thinking himself a god for the endowments he possessed, or compensating for what he didn’t, but no, he seemed to be of a good, serviceable size. That, she confirmed in short order, loosening his belt and tugging his trousers out of the way; a healthy six inches, pleasingly- and not excessively-plump.

And he was delightfully responsive to her touch as she acquainted herself with his manhood.

“What point in keeping secrets about something so straightforward?” she purred, fingertips trailing down his length, caressing the snug pouch beneath. “No need to send runners about the camp, but if someone happens to overhear, well…”

He answered with a deep groan, muffled against the side of Farah’s neck as he planted a firm kiss there. His hands slipped under her backside, pulling her close, hips rolling and shifting his length against her fingers. The raw desire in him was thrilling – and infectious.

If his weren’t the nimblest hands she’d ever had undoing her tunic, they were much farther from the clumsiest. In a gratifyingly short time, there was nothing between them but close-cropped black wool and her own black-dappled amber fur.

And then his hands really went to work.

He had to be aware of his own rigid arousal – she certainly was, and she wasn’t the one carrying it; she was stroking it, squeezing it, acquainting herself with it in every way her hands could manage. But his hands upon her were steady and unhurried, stroking over her pelt, caressing face and ears, gently kneading her breasts… his hands were far more than big enough to cover them, but he certainly wasn’t disappointed. Every breath she took was filled with her need; every breath he let out washed over her, hot with desire. She was already panting and eager by the time he slid a hand down and between her thighs.

It was her turn to muffle a cry, in her case against his shoulder. She gave up on trying to stroke him – more and more with each breath, it wasn’t her hands with which she wanted to feel that heat, and his strong fingers were doing their best to make her unsteady on her feet; better to just reach around him and press in close, that heat a firm presence against her stomach.

He rubbed over her mound, caressed her folds, slid a finger lightly between them, then two fingers. He worked them a little way into her, just a knuckle or two, then drew them out. His thumb brushed over her button and sent sparks racing through her. And then, just as she felt she was about to burst from all the sensation, he drew his hand back.

She swallowed a whimper, tightening her grip on his shoulders. “You’d better just be moving that out of the way for something else,” she hissed.

“Claws like those?” A chuckle. “They could make it so even if I wasn’t.” He gave her a gentle nudge toward the cot; catching his meaning, she eased herself back onto it, swung up into place, and then he was straddling it and her with it, gripping the base of his shaft with one hand while the other leaned on the cot by her shoulder.

There was no undue delay; they were both very ready by now, and he knew it. He set the head of his manhood against her, and she barely had enough to time to tense and draw in a gasping breath before his hips were right down against hers.

But only briefly.

His thrusts started shallow, a churning of his hips that kept his manhood stirring delightfully inside her, his body sliding against hers, muscle shifting and tensing under her roving fingers. He nuzzled at her breasts, turned his head to nurse at one, teeth grazing a nipple, and let out a rumble of delight when she gasped and clutched at his horns.

Sweet gods, the man could read her body perfectly. He launched into vigourous thrusts that set her body lurching and made the cot creak under her, but before any part of her could protest the rough treatment, he settled back into the gentler strokes, nuzzling, kissing, licking, and sometimes nibbling about her upper body. And when he started moving faster and her hands tensed against him, he answered to the touch of her claws like a steed to the spurs.

By the time she could see his control starting to fray, she’d already gone through two delightful peaks and was well on her way to a third, but this wasn’t quite how she wanted it to happen. Kellim could plainly tell that something was in the works when she gripped his shoulders, not clutching at the back of them just to hold on, but with real purpose; he slowed, lifting his head a little and looking down at her, eyes coming into focus with some difficulty; and that was when she twisted.

It was a narrow cot, but she was used to grappling in tight spaces – if usually for less pleasant reasons than this. And Kellim did get the message. He twisted with her, shoulders striking the cot to the accompaniment of a splintering crack that might otherwise have been ominous, but in the moment neither of them cared. She spread her hands against his heaving chest and pushed herself upwards, gazing down at him, taking in his panting breaths, parted jaws, wide eyes, and the anxious bucking of his length where it rested inside her to the hilt.

And then she started to ride him.

He was close, now, deliciously so; tense and uncoordinated, his hooves scuffing over the canvas without finding much leverage, each breath carrying a moan a bit higher, a bit louder, than the one before. His thrashing under her was just enough to keep his manhood unpredictably shifting, just enough to make plain that while she might be in a superior position now, she didn’t have total control over him even now.

And then, with her whole body afire from ears to tail-tip screaming for release, he surged up under her, letting out a mighty and unambiguously climactic bellow. His manhood bucked in her sex, his warmth pulsing into her – and that was enough; four spurts in, another surge of pleasure raced through her, and she slumped over him, gasping against his shoulder.

Some blissful time followed, filled by slowing breaths, calming hearts, and hands gently shifting against each other’s bodies.

“Well.” Kellim managed a chuckle, brushing his fingers along her jaw. “I think I’ll need to replace this cot before I dare sleep in it again.”

“Not really meant to hold two, was it?” Farah laughed.

“No, indeed.” He let his fingers fall and nuzzled at her brows, breath washing over her ears as he went on, “Should we have another round – which, let me say right now, I’d quite enjoy – maybe I should just hold you up against me, instead. I’m sturdier than some old camp cot.”

“Of that I’ve no doubt,” she assured him, lifting her head. His smile, as her fingers ran along his horns, was quite pleasing.

No less so was the eagerness with which he returned her soft kiss.