Planet Valhalla 2410
Harlan Stormhammer looked out over the beautiful purple desert of Valhalla and watched both the suns start to set. Even though the dancing rainbow of colors was familiar to him, he still enjoyed it. To the north, the mountains of Freya took on a darker, more ominous glow as the first of the suns slipped below the highest peak. As usual, he found his gaze drawn to the mountains and the mysteries they concealed.
When he dreamed, he often found himself there, climbing the treacherous peaks, his body aching, his hands and feet bleeding as he scrabbled to gain a secure hold. And there, always ahead of him, was the female, her long blonde hair tumbling down her back, her face concealed as she ran from him. The closer the royal party had gotten to the mountain region, the more frequent his dreams had become. He awoke most nights now, his hand wrapped around his swollen shaft as he shuddered to a climax.
“Harlan? Are you still out there?”
He looked around to see his fellow Royal server, Bron, framed in the doorway, his short fair hair illuminated like a crown by the light from the room behind him. Like Harlan, Bron wore nothing but a white silk loincloth and thick gold rings on his biceps.
“I’m here, Bron.”
“Still sighing over those mountains, my friend?”
The second sun disappeared behind the craggy peaks, plunging the desert valley below into blackness, and Harlan turned to smile at Bron.
“Am I late?”
Bron shrugged. “Not really. Seeing as King Marcus is here with the queen, I doubt our services will be required, but we should at least be present in case we are wanted.”
Harlan followed Bron back into the spacious bedroom they shared. “That’s true. Sometimes the king still likes us to make the queen ready for him.” He picked up a brush and carefully braided three narrow plaits into the front of his long black hair. “I’m ready if you are.”
Bron laughed. “Now you sound like the queen. It’s amazing how we’ve all picked up her Earth phrases. I particularly enjoy the ones she calls the king.”
“I’m sure he quite enjoys them too, as it gives him an excuse to ‘punish’ her afterward.”
Harlan followed Bron down the wide staircase toward the banqueting hall. Since their return to Valhalla, a year ago, many Earth females had chosen to emigrate to their planet, so it was not unusual to see a female in the more southern parts of Valhalla now. Here, up in the north, at the king’s summer palace, it was still quite rare. Harlan doubted they would see any women apart from the queen and Thea Magnusson, the head of security for the royal family. As both women were already mated, any Valhallan male who tried to get close to them would have to go through the king and his bodyguards.
Bron opened the door into the banqueting hall and a wave of noise came out to greet them. Harlan walked toward the high table at the end of the huge room and bowed to the king and queen.
King Marcus nodded and indicated a vacant space on his right.
“Bron, Harlan, come and join us. Harlan, I’m hoping you might entertain the queen and I later with your harp in our private quarters.”
“Certainly, sire.” Harlan bowed again to the queen, who blew him a kiss, and took his place on the other side of the king. Bron sat beside Sven Magnusson and his mate, Thea. For some reason, Harlan’s appetite had deserted him. All his thoughts seemed turned inward to the magical and illusive woman in his dreams.
“Are you not hungry, Harlan?”
“I’m sorry, sire.” Harlan tried to smile. “I’m a little distracted tonight.”
“Thinking about the hunt tomorrow, aye?”
Harlan nodded. He didn’t think the king would really be interested in his dreams and the upcoming hunt was definitely a safe topic of conversation.
“What exactly are we hunting up here, sire?”
The king laughed. “Hildisvin. Battle swine. Apparently they have overrun the area and the local people are eager for us to hunt them down and contain the population. They are also good to eat.”
“Like a wild boar or a pig?”
Marcus slapped him on the shoulder. “Exactly.”
“Is the queen accompanying us?”
“She isn’t. And not because I told her to stay home, but because she doesn’t agree with hunting anything.”
“Then mayhap I should stay here with her instead.”
“Bron has already offered and I want you with me. You have an uncanny sense for danger that has served me and mine well in the past.”
“Then of course I will go with you.” Harlan bowed his head and took a mouthful of the succulent roasted meat on his plate. After he finished chewing, he smiled at the king. “I have to agree with you, sire. This hildisvin is definitely good enough to warrant a hunt.”
* * * * *
Harlan strapped on his dagger and wrapped soft leather strips around his upper arms and thighs to protect his more vulnerable spots. It was barely light and the hunting party was gathered in the courtyard of the summer palace, readying itself for the long trek into the wooded foothills of the mountain range. He checked his wulfran’s saddle and added a bow and arrow and two throwing spears to his list of weaponry. Apparently, the hildisvin had long, sharp tusks and no compunction in charging a grown man and goring him to death.
For some reason, Harlan was already anxious about the hunting expedition, but he wasn’t worried about the king’s safety. The sensation was far more personal. He’d woken with the strangest sense that his life was in danger. But in the quiet of his bed, he’d also decided that if that were his fate, he wouldn’t try to avoid it. His death might mean the king lived, and that was the most important thing of all.
He turned to find the queen at his side, her expression strained. She carried her sleeping son, his small body relaxed against her shoulder. His eyes were closed and he looked positively angelic, which was a miracle considering his adventurous personality.
She lowered her voice. “You will take care of the king, won’t you?”
“Of course, my queen. After ensuring your well-being, it is my primary duty.”
She sighed. “I didn’t sleep well last night. I felt as if something terrible was going to happen.”
Silently Harlan agreed with her, but he didn’t speak his fears out loud. There was no need to unsettle his queen. “I swear I will do everything in my power to keep him safe for you, my lady.”
She touched his shoulder. “And please take care of yourself as well, Harlan. I’d like to see all my menfolk return safely.”
He bowed and she walked over to where the king was talking to Bron. Harlan tightened the straps on his wulfran yet again and considered the royal couple. They were so obviously in love that sometimes it made his heart ache. He’d always believed there was a special woman out there for him somewhere, but so far he’d only seen her in his dreams. Perhaps it was time to ask the queen to release him from his bonds of service to her pleasure so that he could go out and search the planet for a female of his own. Not a small task in a world where men still outnumbered women at least one hundred to one.
The king mounted his steed and everyone followed suit. They made a fine sight in the awakening dawn and Harlan found himself smiling despite himself. The queen stood with Bron and Thea and watched from the steps of the palace as they streamed through the main gates. Harlan looked back for as long as he could, with the strangest sense that he would never see this place or these people again. He shook off his concerns and concentrated on following Sven and the king.
Much later that night, he found himself pitching a tent with Sven in a large clearing in the forest. The warm air smelled heavily of some perfumed bloom and the foliage was lush and crept close to the edge of the lake. Despite the tranquility of the scene and the roaring fire at the center of the space, Harlan felt on edge.
“Sven, do you sense that we are being watched?” Harlan asked his oldest friend.
Sven raised his head and covertly searched the dense foliage. “Aye, I do, but I have no idea where the threat is coming from, or whether it is human or animal.” He tightened one of the ropes. “We’ll just have to make sure our king is secure.”
“We can do that. Do you want me to take out a scouting party and secure the area?”
“It’s too late now. We don’t know the terrain and we have to assume that whatever is out there does. We’d just be setting ourselves up for an ambush.”
“True,” Harlan sighed. “Yet, I hate sitting here like this. Have you spoken to the guides?”
“Aye,” Sven scowled at him. “They muttered some nonsense about spirits of the mountain and refused to come out of their tent until it is light.”
Harlan let his gaze drift around the clearing again. “Mayhap I should mention it to the king.”
“I would. He hates not to be informed. Perhaps he’ll abandon this hunt and we can get back to the palace.”
“You are missing your mate that much?”
“Aye.” Sven hesitated. “She might be breeding.”
Harlan clapped him on the back.” But that is wonderful news.”
Sven looked glum. “Terrifying, you mean. My first mate died in childbed. I do not want to lose Thea. She is my heart. “
Despite his ferocious size and frightening expression, Harlan knew that Sven spoke the truth. Thea was Sven’s soul mate in every way. No wonder his friend had seemed so distracted lately.
“Don’t worry, Sven. We should be home in a few days. I’m sure Thea will survive your loss.”
“Thea is fine. She thinks my concern for her is amusing.”
“Then let’s go and tell the king of our suspicion, and maybe you’ll be going home faster than you think.”
The woman shaded her eyes against the glare of the firelight and pointed at the largest of the tents.
“Did you see that male, Astrid? He was built like a rugged cliff wall and his hair was as fiery red as burning cinders! He must be the one we seek.”
“No, the goddess spoke to our priestess of a male with long black hair, not russet.”
“That is a shame.”
Astrid smiled. “Mayhap we will capture more than one of the beasts and you will have a choice?”
Her companion sighed. “Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful?” She shifted slightly on her high perch and peered down through the branches again. “The male helping the red head has long black hair, it is tied in a braid down his back.”
“Then the goddess be praised, it seems that we have found the one we seek.”
Harlan woke from another dream of the blonde-haired woman to find Sven staring down at him, his pointed gaze on Harland’s erect cock.
“You need a female, my friend. You kept me awake last night with your groaning.”
Harlan wrapped a hand around his unruly shaft. “I can only apologize.”
Sven’s smile was slow in coming, but surprisingly wicked. “No need for that, just be warned that if you do it again tonight, you might wake up to find I’ve tied the thing in a knot.”
Harlan laughed until Sven bowed and left him to get up by himself. During the night, he’d slept badly and sensed movement outside the tent, soft voices and even softer shadows, but every time he’d roused himself completely, the shadows were gone. With a groan, he splashed cold water on his face and allowed it to trickle down his body. It was time to join the king on his hunt and face whatever dangers lay in the secret forest below the mountains.
He saddled his wulfran and checked his weapons for the fiftieth time. Ahead of him, Sven was talking to King Marcus about the plans for the hunt. All Harlan knew was that he would stay close to the king and leave Sven to worry about everything else.
The sky was clearing and one of the two Valhallan suns was already peeping over the mountain ridge, bathing everything in a pink glow. The hunting horn sounded and Harlan kicked his wulfran into a faster pace, using his knees to stay balanced against the creature’s awkward gait. They were soon swallowed up by the forest, which resembled the jungles he had seen on his visit to the planet Earth. Huge tree trunks were covered in lush foliage and thick vines and the ground was uneven and likely to trip the unwary.
The local guides conferred and then sent the hunting party off to the right, closer to the mountains. Sheer rock now loomed up on Harlan’s right side, increasing his sense of being drawn into an ambush. Beside him, the king looked happy, his gaze focused on the path ahead, one hand easily guiding his mount. He turned to grin at Harlan.
“Stop looking so worried, my friend. Soon we’ll have our fill of delicious wild pig.”
The words were hardly out of the king’s mouth before a spear whistled past his head, making him duck and his wulfran veer violently to one side. Harlan turned and followed the king’s erratic path through the undergrowth. At least he knew the king was alive because he could still hear him cursing at his wulfran. Harlan kicked his own mount and came up alongside the king, reaching across an impossible distance to grasp the broken reins. Just as his fingers finally made contact with the leather traces, his word exploded as a body dropped on top of him, knocking him out of the saddle and down onto the mossy ground. As he rolled, he was aware of his head banging hard against something and then pain engulfed him and he knew no more.