Reaching Out from a Mind as Dirty as All Outdoors

If you get lucky enough, I might post adult-only material from time to time, so be 18 or over, or please be elsewhere.

I'll be discussing erotica here, the writing of it and the people who write it, as well as what we've written. I find all these aspects stimulating, but if any of them bore you, feel free to skim. You never know what you might miss, though.

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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Night Witch--When Russians Were Heroes/Heroines


Charity Sunday--May 29th

Night Witch--When Russians were Heroes/Heroines.

United Help Ukraine is, tragically, my charity of choice this time again. The Russian invasion of Ukraine goes on. I’ll donate one dollar for every view of this blog post, and two dollars for every comment. 

“United Help Ukraine” provides direct assistance to those impacted by war in Ukraine, including providing medical supplies, food, and other humanitarian aid. -

I’ve read that Russians still feel that they fought the most in WWII, and should have the most credit. In some ways they may be right, It could be argued that they lost the most yet survived. The story I’m sharing here is set back then, when a woman pilot crashes and is saved by a wounded sniper. It features  one of my few heterosexual pairings.

For links to the other bloggers on this Charity Sunday, go to

So here goes. This was published in Duty and Desire, edited by Kristina Wright for Cleis Press, Nov. 13, 2012. Since I had another story as well in the book, I used my real name for this one and kept the pen name for the other.

Night Witch

By Connie Wilkins

(Sacchi Green)

Far away someone played the balaika.

Darkness, slashed by searchlights and bursts of antiaircraft fire, gripped Yelena. Over and over she glided silently, engine cut, the only warning for the German defenses the whistling of the wind through the biplane’s wing-struts—until Yevgeniya in the navigator’s cockpit released the bombs. Over and over in her mind, the silent approach, the bombs dropping, exploding, then the side-slipping her plane out of the searchlight beams and restarting the engine—but never the flight back to their base. Never escape.

Yet now there was balalaika music. A simple tune, simply played, achingly sweet. The notes tugged at her heart, her mind, and led her at last out of darkness.

At first all she saw was the fire in the hearth. Then the subtle movement of fingers plucking the balalaika’s strings caught her eye. Her gaze moved up along a muscular forearm to the shirtsleeve rolled tightly across the bicep, and onward to the dark head bowed over the instrument. He sat near the hearth on a low stool, and the firelight glinted on streaks of silver in his hair; but that hand, that arm, were not those of an old man.  

A dream, of course, but much pleasanter than the dark one. Often at an encampment when they could snatch some sleep she had dreamed of a small farm cottage, a hearth, and perhaps even a man in the background, though visions of a simple piece of rye bread and a bowl of hot barley soup had ranked higher. Some of the girls in the all-women’s regiment talked on and on about men, while others, like Yevgeniya…

“Yevgeniya!” Yelena struggled to sit in spite of a throbbing pain in her head. The balalaika music ceased abruptly. But the room, the fire, the man calmly rolling his shirtsleeves back down and lighting a lamp with a brand from the fire, were still there. Not a dream, then. 

Now she rememberd Yevgeniya calling, “Lena! Lenotchka! Can you get free?” while her hands tugged so frantically that Yelena had blacked out from the pain.

“Yevgeniya?” She fought back panic. More memories came; the blasted wing, the plane plunging and shuddering as she struggled to keep in the air long enough to safely cross into Russian-held territory. 

“Your navigator survived the crash with only a few cuts and bruises.” He took up a walking stick that had leaned against the chimney and made his way slowly toward her. An old man after all? The lamp showed a long scar across his cheek beside his left ear, disappearing under his collar. A good face, with strong bones, lined by pain and stress rather than age. Not old, but wounded, which explained why he could be here instead of in the army with every Russian male fit to fight.

He set the lamp on a wooden table and pulled a chair up beside the couch where she lay. “She saw my light on the hillside and came to me for help, with her handgun ready in case I should need persuading. Such a forceful girl! The Germans are wrong to call your bomber crews ‘Night Witches.’ That one is more like an avenging Valkyrie.”

Yelena smiled at that, but asked, “Where is she now?” She felt for the handgun that should be in her flight suit pocket, and realized suddenly that she lay all but naked under a soft woolen blanket.

 “Your weapon is beside your pillow.” 

The hint of amusement in his voice dispelled her sudden fear. She restrained herself from groping for the gun. 

“Once convinced that I would not eat you, she went to find the nearest Russian troops and then to make her way to your airfield. She will send help for you if she can. She assured me, though, that you would understand her first duty is to get back into the air and drop more bombs on the invaders.”

“So it is,” Yelena said. “And mine as well.” 

“Then mine must be to make sure you’re fit to travel and to fly. No bones broken, but your leg was badly bruised by the fuel tank that trapped you in the cockpit, and yesterday your head had a lump as big as a goose egg.” He reached out and gently lifted the russet hair away from her temple.  “Tonight I think we have only a common hen’s egg to deal with.”

Yelena’s hand went to her wound. She flinched at the soreness. There was indeed a lump, and a short gash already scabbing over. She must have bled a great deal. But…“Yesterday? How long have I been here? And how long has Yevgeniya been gone?”

“She was off within a quarter of an hour after we brought you here.” He said it very casually, but Yelena knew he understood what she was thinking. This man had not only rescued her, even wounded as he was, but had cared for her unconscious body for at least a day and a night. 

The thought of his strong hands cleaning away the blood, removing her clothing, doing for her whatever else had been necessary, did not trouble her as much as it should have. She felt a traitorous flush rise from her chest to her cheeks, but kept her voice steady. “Then I thank you for your care of me.”

“You would do the same for any fellow soldier of the Rodina.” 

It was true, though something in his eyes made Yelena hope that she was not just any fellow soldier to him. It could hardly matter, since she must indeed return to flying, and her chances of survival were less even than for foot soldiers in the Russian Army.

The army. She struggled again to sit up, and managed it with his right arm around her shoulders. “Are we still behind our own lines?”

“The German guns have been coming closer. One more day, perhaps.”

There was no need to explain the danger. If the Germans found the remains of her mangled Po-2 biplane, their search for survivors would be unrelenting. No “Night Witch” had yet been captured; they had each been given handguns to assure that none ever would. Better to die that way.

She clutched at his hand. His fingers tightened around hers. “I must get back on my feet. What should I call you?” It felt strange that she did not already know.

“Arkady is my name. But…wait while I find something for you to wear.” He rose and turned away so quickly that she guessed he was trying to spare her embarrassment. Or, she found herself hoping, trying to keep from staring as intently as he wished.

How had she forgotten her undressed state? Her fur-lined flight suit and wool uniform and ill-fitting army-issue undergarments were gone completely, and all that covered her was a man’s cotton undershirt that might have reached to the hips if her movements hadn’t bunched it higher. Just the thought of his gaze on her body made her tightened nipples show clearly through thin fabric. “What has become of my own clothing?” she called after him, more to distract herself than out of curiosity.

“Burned. And then buried. The fuel tank had leaked onto you, and there was so much blood…to keep them here was too dangerous.”

 Of course. Yelena pulled the blanket back over her lap. This was no time for… Or perhaps it was. War topples all conventions. She was no virgin, after all. How could one deny a childhood friend going off to fight and likely never to come back? All the girls in her village had done their part. It was not until a year later that she had discovered how much more she could do for her country, when the famous aviator Marina Raskova persuaded Comrade Stalin to let her form female air regiments, with women trained in the aeroclubs so popular across the country in the last decade. Surely by now, after more than 800 bombing missions, she deserved some pleasures of her own choosing. 

Arkady could be seen through an open door rummaging through a chest at the foot of a wide bed. When he returned he brought a nightrobe of fine embroidered wool. “I don’t suppose my grandmother ever actually wore this after her wedding night, only saved it with her bridal clothes and other treasures.”

“Lovely,” Yelena said sincerely. “I hope she wouldn’t mind letting me use it.”

“She would call you a heroine of the Motherland, and be honored,” he said gravely, and after that she couldn’t refuse.

When she sat decently clothed at the edge of the couch, he helped her stand erect. The bruised leg felt as though it might give way, and her head began to pound. Her first steps were unsteady, but motion strengthened her, and she walked on her own to the haven of a chair on the far side of the table.

“Good! That deserves a reward.” Arkady took two bowls from a shelf and limped without his stick toward the iron cookstove beside the chimney. Only then did Yelena realize that the aroma of barley soup had been teasing at her subconscious mind. In dreams it had always come first, but now the man—and the danger—had distracted her. Even his movements, stooping to add wood to the fire, preoccupied her, and she wondered how far down past his shirt and into his loose farmer’s trousers his scar extended. 

They shared the soup, thick with carrots and onion and bits of chicken, and slices of rye bread far enough past fresh to be ideal for dipping into the broth. Yelena was suddenly so hungry that she ate much too fast and let a bite of soup-sodden bread slide down her chin. Arkady laughed, and she grinned widely, until she saw him wince and touch the scar on his face.

“Does it hurt?” She wished she dared reach out to soothe him.

“No, just…pulls a bit if I laugh. I can’t remember the last time I did that. Does anyone laugh in these times?”

“One must laugh, to prove to fate that you are alive!” This time Yelena did reach across the table to touch his face, and, after a tiny flinch, Arkady did not pull away. “You should do it as exercise, to stretch the scar tissue. And rub it with the ointment my grandmother used to make with goose grease and herbs.” She ran a finger very lightly down his wounded cheek, and felt a tremor he could not suppress. She did not think pain was its cause. When her hand reached his throat he pulled it gently away, but did not let it go.

“My grandmother never kept geese,” he said, “but she had her own home remedies.” His tone was light, though the darkened eyes fixed on hers were saying something else entirely.  “Her chickens and sheep are still here, in my care, while she has gone to live in a safer area with my cousins.”

“I expect chicken fat would do. Or lanolin from the sheep’s wool.” Yelena too was matter-of-fact, while in her imagination she rubbed ointment all along his wounds however far beneath his clothing they extended. “Proper massaging can work wonders for stiffened scars.”

Arkady dropped her hand and stood abruptly. “You had better watch out, Lenotchka, or I will decide you make an even better nurse than pilot, and keep you here.”

“I am a very good pilot, Arkasha,” Yelena said teasingly. Did he even realize that he had used the intimate form of her name, and she had responded in kind?

“I’m sure you could also be a very good nurse.” He retreated with his walking stick to the stool by the hearth and picked up the balalaika, idly stroking its polished surface. “And if you cured me, I could go back to… to do my part for the Rodina.” All the lightness left his voice.  “In truth, I should go back now. I knew, when I managed to pry that fuel tank away, and carried you with the Valkyrie’s aid all the long way back here, that I was well enough now to do whatever must be done.”

“And what…” Yelena hesitated. “How did…” 

“A building fell around me.” Arkady stared into the fire. 

She didn’t press him, and instead asked, “Is the balalaika your own, or your grandmother’s?”

“My mother’s. The music is all I remember of her.”

So much for finding a more pleasant topic for conversation. But then he said, so quietly she could scarcely hear, “I have not played for years, but tonight I had the strangest thought that she was telling me to play the music to wake you.”

“I’m very glad she did.” Yelena struggled to find words to tell him how truly she meant that, but nothing came.   

After a time he rose and walked to the bedroom door, body taut with the effort not to lean on his stick. “You sleep in my grandmother’s bed tonight. I will keep watch out here and tend the fire.”  

Yelena made her way around the table. While Arkady stood at the bedroom door, she deliberately slipped out of the lovely robe, folded it neatly, and set it on the couch. Then, her back toward him, she wriggled out of the clinging undershirt. If words could not tell him of her feelings, she would find a different means.

“We will both sleep in your grandmother’s bed tonight.” She turned back and picked up the lamp. “She would call you a hero of the Rodina as well, and approve of some good nursing.” 

As she brushed past him he gripped the doorframe so tightly that his knuckles showed white, and not, she thought, because of his injured leg. 

The lamp went on a bedside table, and Yelena sat on the bed’s feather-stuffed coverlet. “Surely,” she said, “after so much death, we can have a brief taste of life. And of comfort.” The quaver in her voice was both genuine and deliberate.

“Your injuries…” But he moved closer with no trace of a limp and stood looking down at her. 

Yelena shrugged, knowing his gaze followed the lifting of her breasts. “And yours. Don’t worry, I will be gentle.” 

“I will try,” Arkady said, with a gleam of amusement, “but I cannot promise such a difficult thing.”

“Begin with something easier.”  She grasped his arms and pulled herself up along his body. “Let me help you take off your clothes. Fair’s fair. And I’m your nurse.”

He glanced toward the lamp; this was not so easy, and she knew it. His hidden scars, those of the body at least, must be severe enough that he feared to reveal them. The flesh, however, had already revealed by its urgent thrust against hers what she needed most to know; that part of him was intact, and so eager that her own desire intensified. She pressed in even closer.

“Please, Arkasha,” she murmured. Under her hands the buttons of his shirt gave way, one of them even flying off into the shadows. “Let me feel you. I have seen many wounds, even unto death. Yours are precious to me.”

Arkady groaned at the stroke of her fingers on his bare chest. She touched her lips to the raised, livid streak all along his left side, then kissed all along it down to the point where it descended beneath his trousers, and further yet when she had managed to unfasten those and pull his underdrawers lower. “Ointment would be best,” she said, “but we must make do with what we have,” and she applied her tongue to the task.      

Arkady, his breathing rapid and harsh, could not have found words to stop her if he’d wished to. When Yelena sat back down on the bed, pulled his garments all the way down to his boots, and licked gently along the cruel scar that tapered off just where the tender skin of his inner thigh met even more tender flesh, he thrust his fingers into her thick russet hair and tried to pull her head to where he clearly needed it most intensely.

Yelena stopped just short of his goal and pulled back, the bruise on her head aching from the pressure. “Come into the bed, Arkasha, between the covers. I’ve seen now where I must be gentlest, and where I may play at will.” Her fingers traced a promise along his quite startling length before she folded down the bed’s coverlet and lay back.

“Gentleness be damned!” he growled, but threw himself down beside her and pulled the covering over them both.

Yelena was on him at once, straddling his body while his hands moved over hers in a storm of stroking and pressing and tormenting. Their mouths clung and moved against each other, each pressure speaking more than any words, until the need for even sharper sensation made her pull free. Her aching breasts and nipples claimed the attentions of his lips and tongue and teeth, and her mouth was now free to let out sighs and moans and inarticulate pleas.  Meanwhile he explored her tender folds and swellings until she could bear the protracted pleasure no longer, and settled herself firmly onto his searching cock. By stages she raised up and slid down as he thrust from beneath until she had taken him in completely. Their movements became a dance of lust, a give and take with no room for thought, only for need, and more need, and at last a pulsing demand that burst into a blaze of fulfillment.

When their cries diminished, Yelena thought she heard the throb of a Po-2 engine, familiar as her own heartbeat, pass by overhead on a bombing mission. While sleep claimed her, held close in Arkady’s arms, she wondered muzzily which of her friends had been piloting the plane, and whether even there in the sky they had heard her cry out.       

The sun was high when Yelena woke. The bed beside her was empty, and a skirt and blouse in an old-fashioned style were laid out on a chair, along with a wool shawl and shabby boots such as a farmwoman would wear. More things Arkady’s grandmother had left behind. Her handgun lay on top of the pile. She dressed quickly in spite of stiffness, some of which was really quite pleasurable, and went out into the main room, her gun in the skirt’s capacious pocket.

Arkady stood by the window that looked out over the valley. Beside him was no walking stick, but a long rifle of antique design.

Yelena went to him and leaned as naturally into the quick pressure of his arm around her waist as if they had always been together. “You have a gun,” she commented unnecessarily.

“An old one. No wolf has come down from the mountains after our sheep for many years, but one never knows.” He manipulated the rifle, checking its parts, making adjustments, then raised and sighted along it. Merely an exercise, but even to Yelena it was clear that his skill with guns went far beyond that of an ordinary farmer, or even footsoldier.

He saw her expression. “I was on the shooting team at the Academy of Agriculture when I studied there.”

She was not deceived into taking that as the whole story. “And where were you when the building fell around you?”

There could be no more secrets between them. “In Kiev,” he said. “And now there is need of me in Stalingrad. I cannot run, but I can still shoot.”

A sharpshooter, sniper, picking off selected targets on city streets, through windows, in blasted buildings as shells landed around them, and a target himself. If only they could run away together!

But her own duty called as firmly as his. “I too have a gun,” she said. “And now they are coming.” She could see through the window where a German motorcar had emerged from a wooded area a mile away and was making its slow bumpy way along the lane.

“Shooting a man face to face is a different thing from dropping bombs. Especially in your dreams.”

“I can do it.” Yelena hoped she spoke the truth.

“You may need to, but not here. Leave right now. Our troops are directly to the east, judging by the planes overhead last night. I will persuade these invaders that you were never here.”

They both knew that there was no time for her to travel across the open fields and out of sight behind the next ridge. His plan was to kill every German in the car, sacrificing his own life if necessary, to give her a chance to get away.

“You will never persuade anyone with a nose that there was no woman in your bed last night. And why should your new bride not be with you? Can you play the simple sheepherder? If after all it comes to killing, two guns are better than one.”

By now there could be no other choice. Arkady smoothed her hair over the bruise on her temple, scarcely swollen now, kissed her deeply, then went outside. When the motorcar lurched to a stop, Arkady waited, leaning heavily on his walking stick. “You have frightened my sheep!” he called in a querulous voice as soon as the interpreter opened his door, and indeed five sheep could be seen running off on the grassy hillside.

Four uniformed Germans emerged, barking questions faster then the interpreter, an ethnic German born in Russia, could handle. At last Arkady shrugged and let them file past into the house. Yelena stood stirring a pot on the stove and looking very young and frightened.

“They search for the crew of the plane that crashed down below.” He came to stand beside her, moving with an exaggerated limp. 

“Was it their plane?” she asked the interpreter timidly. “I only returned yesterday, and he told me of it.”

“You should have obeyed me and stayed in the north with your mother,” Arkady growled at her. “I told you it was too dangerous here!” 

Yelena dared to show a flash of spirit. “You were glad enough that I was not with my mother last night!” She mustered a convincing blush as she looked around at the others. One of the younger Germans laughed and muttered to his comrade, who snickered and shook his head. Yelena knew little of the German language, but was quite sure she heard the word “Nachthexen.” Night Witches. From the way the soldiers looked her over, she was very nearly sure that that they had judged her too pretty to be a witch. Their officer watched her keenly with a different sort of assessment.

“And if I am not here,” she went on, “who will sew on your buttons? See what a state you get into without me!” Arkady wore the shirt from the night before, when she had sent a button flying in her haste to strip him. “Who will make cheese from the sheep’s milk? And rub ointment on your scars?”

It was Arkady’s turn to duck his head and look embarrassed. “Tell them to look around as they please,” he muttered to the interpreter. “Women pilots, did you say? If you find any, take them away! One woman is trouble enough.”

More laughter, followed by a thorough search of the house and outbuildings. One young soldier emerged from the bedroom carrying the embroidered wedding nightrobe, and whispered a sly comment to his friend, but at last the group went on to search elsewhere. Yelena knew by the officer’s backward glance that they would still be watched from time to time.

“Hold me,” she begged Arkady, who pulled her so close that her voice was muffled against his shoulder. “They will spy on us, I’m sure.”

“And what should they see but a man whose wife cannot bear to stay away from him?”

She swatted at his firm buttocks, then pulled away. “A virtuous farmer’s wife is what they should see at this time of day.” So she checked the henhouse for eggs, scrubbed such accumulated laundry as there was and hung it out to dry, and even took the bit of worn carpet from beside the bed outdoors to beat the dust from it. By dusk, when they had eaten soup of her making and the last of the rye bread toasted with cheese, they were so ready for the best part of this game-that-was-no-game that Arkady lost two more buttons from his shirt, and the gathered yoke of Yelena’s blouse would need considerable repair.

“Surely a new bride would be submissive to her lord and master,” Arkady teased as they fell together onto the bed.

“Of course.” Yelena rolled onto her back. “And besides, it’s your turn to be on top. So I can use my hands.” Which she did, running her fingers over every delicious part of him she could reach, probing between their bodies to find the most rewarding bits, and discovering which sorts of touch, and where, could drive his gasps and moans to the highest pitch. When finally he pounded into her with fierce intensity and she arched her hips upward to meet his thrusts, there was no up or down, top or bottom, only shared need mounting higher and higher until it soared past all thought into release.

The drone of planes overhead seemed at first an extension of their heavy breathing. When the pounding of Yelena’s heart subsided, she realized suddenly what she was hearing. “Listen!” she said against Arkady’s sweaty neck, and raised her head. “They are flying in force to raid the German lines. So many close together! Usually we go in, two or three at a time, at five minute intervals.”

He listened, and after a while rose, went into the main room, and opened the window. Yelena joined him with a blanket to wrap around them as they listened to the distant thunder of bombs. 

“So many! And look, such fire, and smoke!”

“You wish you were with them,” Arkady said. 

“Of course! Yet I am infinitely grateful that the choice is not mine to make.” 

They clung together watching until they could stand no longer, then lay entwined in the bed, unable to sleep, though the sound of motorcycles outside the door near dawn startled Yelena so sharply that she knew she must have been dozing. Arkady was out of bed with his rifle ready before she had tossed aside the blankets.

“Yelena!” Someone pounded at the door. “Yelena, come quickly!” It was Yevgeniya, with a young Russian soldier at her back. 

Arkady lowered his gun. Yelena reached him swiftly, again with a blanket to cover their nakedness, and Yevgeniya flashed a broad grin.

“The Germans are falling back!” She could scarcely get the words out fast enough. “We hit the fuel depot at Armavir, and some aircraft as well. Our troops are advancing, only twenty miles away now, and we will meet them half way.”

“Arkady comes too.” Yelena disregarded the soldier’s amazed gawking and rushed naked into the bedroom to find her clothing.

“Just as well I brought two motorbikes, then,” Yevgeniya said cheerfully.

Arkady, as soon as he was dressed, scrawled a note to leave on the table. “My neighbor down the hill brings fresh bread every week, and this is the day. She will see to the care of the sheep and hens.”

In seconds, it seemed, they were off, two to a motorcycle. Off to more bombing raids, to the ruined buildings of Stalingrad, to three more years of war; to letters written and sent, and many more days without, and weeks of no news culminating in rushed visits in hospitals. But the day did come at last when Yelena and Arkady climbed the lane to the hillside farm, crossed the threshold, and stood together at last where they belonged; and, though no one else was there, still both heard far away the achingly sweet music of a balalaika.




Saturday, February 26, 2022

Charity Sunday: A Falcon in Flight


United Help Ukraine is, tragically, my charity of choice this time. I knew I needed to find some way to support Ukraine right now, and Move On backed and promoted just what I needed. In fact I’ve donated already. I’ll donate one more dollar for every view of this blog post, and two dollars for every comment. 

United Help Ukraine” provides direct assistance to those impacted by war in Ukraine, including providing medical supplies, food, and other humanitarian aid.

The story I’m sharing has very little connection with current events, but it does take place in a long-ago historical era of war and invasion, and in an area not so far from Ukraine, Armenia. The time is the Mongol Invasion in the 12th Century of the Middle East and parts of Europe. I suspect that Putin, the current war-monger, has a trace of Mongol blood. The hero of my story, though, a Mongol General, turns out to be a good guy, for complicated reasons, and a match for the fierce hereditary Lady of Aragatsotn.  This is one of my very rare heterosexual stories, under my real name, published in an anthology edited by Delilah Devlin eight years ago, Hot Highlanders and Wild Warriors. It’s not erotica per se, but it gets wildly hot toward the end. Feel free to scroll on by to get to that part.


A Falcon in Flight

By Connie Wilkins (aka Sacchi Green)

 “Georgia will fall within the year.” Father Kristopor drew a careful line across the map before him. “The Mongol hordes spread like a rising sea, though they throw up clouds of dust instead of salt spray.”  

“They will come here, as well.” Ardzvik paced the length of the hall and back. “We will be destroyed in days, however well our few men fight.”

“We must pray for another way.” 

His pious words did not deceive her. The priest’s devious turn of mind was legend. She would gladly lead her people in battle, or barricade as many as would fit inside the ancient fortress of Anberd at risk of being starved out, but too many would be lost. If there was a better choice, she must take it.

 When word of defeat came from Georgia’s capital Father Kristopor searched Ardzvik out on the mountainside where she hunted with her falcon Zepyur. She knew, seeing him from far above, what his mission must be, and cursed fate for robbing her of the longed-for solace she reserved for such fine, cloudless days when the blue sky went on above her forever and Zepyur soared high and free with no likely prey in sight. At least the priest had not discovered her in the midst of what he would surely consider sin.

“Now is the time,” he called, and then, when he was closer, “Send at once to the Mongol general! Say that the Province of Aragatsotn in Armenia has long been a vassal of Georgia, so it is only right that its people offer fealty to the new rulers. I will bear the document myself. The Mongols are quick enough to sack churches, but I have heard that they retain some degree of respect for holy men of any faith.”

“Surrender without a battle.” The words, bitter on Ardzvik’s tongue, burned even more in her heart.

“Without blood. Surely they would rather have the wine of our vineyards and grain of our fields than the lifeblood of those who tend them. Dead men cannot be taxed.”

So it was done. Ardzvik Zakaria, Lady of Aragatsotn, signed above the seal presented to her father’s father in Tbilisi by the legendary Queen Tamar of Georgia. 

As soon as the priest rode his mule northward Ardzvik retrieved her falcon from the mews and rode again high onto the mountain. Zepyur was still as swift and graceful, the sky as blue, but now the Lady of Aragatsotn could not shed her duty, her constraints, and be pure flesh and spirit. Lying back on tufted mountain grass she envisioned, as she had so often, the airborne mating dance of the wild falcon pair who had produced her own sleek hunter, but she could not rid her mind of earth-bound turmoil. 

Her hands knew all the ways to pleasure herself, the places to twist or stroke or beat with rough force while a part of her soared aloft with the falcons, the earth dropping away, away, until they plummeted together as one through space. Falling, falling, diving faster than anything could fall, cold air ripping past, battering, the ecstasy forced deeper and deeper, keener, unbearable...and her own ecstasy bursting forth at last like the cataclysm that had torn open the mountain’s peak.

But this time, no matter how hard she rubbed or deeply she probed, she achieved only a sharp burst of sensation as much pain as pleasure. The scream forced from her throat was of rage, not triumph, and tears flowed hotter on her cheeks than the rivulets of sweet release between her thighs. Surrender without battle. Dishonor. But duty nonetheless.     

 The Mongol general returned a provisional acceptance and sent men to assess an initial amount of tribute. Within months he was appointed Governor, or Darugha in the Mongol tongue, of southern Georgia and northern Armenia.


Now, weeks later, the mighty Yul Darugha had come to view the corner of his territory dominated by Mount Aragats, the highest point in Armenia.

It was rumored that he toured the land to view more than mountains and plains and vineyards. From priest to priest, monastery to monastery, landholder to landholder, the rumor spread that Batu Khan, grandson of the great Ghengis, had withdrawn to his new city of Sarai on the lower Volga, and encouraged his troops and officials in conquered territory to ensure the Mongol heritage by mingling their blood with that of the local population. 

It was rumored as well that the Khan appointed only Governors with no family ties of importance in their homeland, the better to ensure their loyalty to him and no other, and keep them in their posts. The old nobility, what was left of them, hid their daughters or put them on display, according to their level of ambition. The young Lady of Aragatsotn would neither hide nor put herself forward, whatever her half-sister Leyli might do.      


This Mongol was less ugly than expected, Ardzvik thought. Perhaps even handsome if one became accustomed to his shaven head, bold, high cheekbones, and tilted eyes beneath eyebrows with the graceful swoop of a hawk’s wing. Muscular, as well, which would please Leyli, and a fine rider, though Leyli’s interest in riding did not always involve horses.

Ardzvik sensed the shift in Leyli’s mood. One form of tension had yielded to quite another. “So, sweet sister,” she murmured, “are you still of a mind to slay this Governor should you get the chance?” She would not permit Leyli to do any such thing, of course, bringing the fury of Batu Khan’s forces down upon them, as Leyli knew quite well.  

“Yes, I will kill him if I can! For the sake of poor Mihran! But…not, I think, right away.” Leyli allowed her milk-white mare to fidget under her, enough to draw the Mongol’s attention away from Father Kristopor’s diplomatic speech of welcome. The man had already surveyed the mare with all the admiration due her, and Leyli too, though less overtly. Now, as the girl peered flirtatiously through lowered eyelashes and fiddled in feigned nervousness with her long golden hair, it seemed that he could scarcely wrench his gaze away.

Ardzvik’s own high-bred bay mount had been assessed favorably as well, though she herself elicited a puzzled frown. Just as she had intended. Despite Father Kristopor’s disapproval, she was dressed soberly in garb so simple that she might have been mistaken for someone of much lower rank, in contrast to Leyli’s azure robes gleaming with gold brocade. All the easier to assess his reaction to her half-sister’s charms before Ardzvik had cause to care. Not that such a thing was remotely possible. 

She had not much cared that “poor Mihran,” a minor prince of Georgia sent officially to court her, had lost his heart and whatever virginity he might have had to Leyli instead. Ardzvik was sorry for his death during the fall of Georgia, but not on a personal level. Better she should never care over-much for any man.  

Father Kristopor closed his speech with an offer of the hospitality of the castle as lodging for the Darugha and his men. The interpreter did his part, and the Mongol said a few words in response. The priest signaled for Ardzvik and Leyli and their retinue to advance. They rode forward out of the shadow of the ancient stone church at a stately pace.  

This encounter had been staged in the town’s center as a diplomatic compromise. The ruling family need not go as supplicants to the Darugha’s great golden tent, nor he with his men as conquerors to the gates of their castle. The Lady of Aragatsotn was a vassal, not a slave. 

The interpreter, a handsome young man with Persian features, spoke toward the space between Ardzvik’s dark head and Leyli’s fair one. Good. Father Kristopor had obeyed her order to be deliberately vague as to which was the ruler and which was not. “His Eminence Yul Darugha thanks the Lady of Aragatsotn for her offer of the hospitality of her castle. However, it is his custom to sleep only within his personal tent.”

Ardzvik felt the gaze of Yul Darugha sweep over her, linger on her horse, then return to her face. She met his keen eyes, saw that he had not been deceived after all, lifted her chin proudly, and spoke not in Armenian but in the basic Turkic tongue most often used between tradesmen in the various countries of the lower Caucasus. “If Yul Darugha pleases, we would offer a feast in his honor tonight, to be held in the gardens of the castle.” It was well known by now that the nomadic Mongols were ill at ease confined within rigid walls.

With no pause for instructions the interpreter began to decline this invitation, too, as expected—the Governor had not been known to dine with any of such noble families as remained--but a rich, deep voice startled them all. 

“Yul Darugha will be pleased to accept.”

That voice penetrated all the way into Ardzvik’s bones. For a moment she did not comprehend the words, though they were spoken in the same tongue she had used. So the interpreter had been merely a formality! With an effort she inclined her head briefly. “We shall be honored by his presence, and that of his men.” She looked up to see a hint of amusement on the Governor’s sun-browned face. Without another word, to her disappointment—why did she wish so to hear that voice again? To feel it?—he turned his dun horse and moved away toward the camp outside the town with his two dozen soldiers following.

“Father Kristopor said the man would never accept the invitation!” Leyli trotted at her side as they turned toward the road to Aragatsotn Castle.

“Yes, he did.” The priest had looked more pleased than surprised. Ardzvik would have words with him later. “So now there is much to be done.”

“And outdoors—well, it is very warm today, and the sun sets late. But what shall I wear? Did you see how he looked at me? And that voice!”

Ardzvik urged her high-strung horse forward to let him stretch his legs after standing so long in the town, and to leave Leyli’s prattle behind.

The castle was built into a rocky outcropping on the lower slopes of Mount Aragats. From its gardens, enclosed, by low walls, the wide view swept from rolling fields and wooded valleys in the southeast to the Caucasus mountain range in the northeast, still snowcapped in midsummer. The steward set up trestle tables outdoors while Ardzvik worked with the kitchen staff to prepare a creditable meal, not elaborate but representing the best the province offered; lamb rubbed with herbs and grilled on skewers, chicken in walnut sauce, bulgur-stuffed grape leaves and eggplant, and sweet pastries topped with honeyed apricots and cherries. 

The Mongol rank-and-file soldiers, when they came, kept largely to themselves at one side, not quite at ease but taking good advantage of the repast, especially the wine from local vineyards. Yul Darugha ate and drank sparingly, needing only occasional recourse to his interpreter to converse with Father Kristopor. A Mongol priest, or shaman in their tongue, sat with them but ate little and rarely spoke. Leyli, though she understood only a few of their words, listened with rapt attention and leaned forward the better to display her bountiful charms. 

Ardzvik listened as well when she was not directing the servants, who were flustered by the exotic strangers in their midst. The rise and fall of the Governor’s deep voice had a hypnotic affect on her, so that only the occasional phrase registered. Father Kristopor, who had traveled extensively in his youth, led the conversation into talk of distant lands, never alluding to the fact that their guests had been in those places for the purpose of pillage and conquest.

“Truly? A real Sultan’s palace!” Leyli’s high voice jolted Ardzvik into attention. “Did he have a harem? What did the ladies wear? They would have finer silks than we can purchase here!” She took the occasion to stroke the bodice of her own silk gown languidly while the interpreter, stammering a bit, relayed her words.

Ardzvik was not close enough to kick her sister under the table. Leyli ignored the priest’s frown. “The Sultan’s ladies must have been much more beautiful than we here to the north,” she went on, then stopped abruptly at Yul Darugha’s fierce scowl.

“Can you know so little of war?” The deep voice that had flowed so smoothly took on the edge of a scimitar. “The women of the seraglio, taken by surprise, fled in fear of their lives, some wearing little or nothing at all. As to beauty, many had been sold into slavery for the sake of that beauty, especially those few with golden hair such as yours!” 

Leyli shrank back at the demonic cast to his face. Ardzvik saw something deeper in his eyes, like the fury of a stallion who has come through great violence and bears invisible scars. She rose and went to stand beside him, wishing she had not thought of stallions.

“Come, Governor,” she said, “while there is still light enough, let me point out the villages and places of interest to be seen from here. You must wish to be familiar with the territory under your rule.” 

“Yes,” he said, his face relaxing a degree. “Thank you, Lady Ardzvik,” and she knew his gratitude was as much for the interruption as for her suggestion.

After she had shown him the major towns, they stood together in silence where the low wall curved to the brink of an outcropping and the mountainside dropped steeply away. The sun had edged behind a shoulder of Aragats, but shone still on the distant mountains and gilded their snow-capped peaks. “Always before,” he said at last, “I judged land as to how a battle should be fought, or how many horses could be sustained. Often both. But a governor must learn to look with different eyes.” He glanced down at her, then said, as though reading her mind, “No, not merely to plan how much tax can be raised from the flocks and crops and craftsmen before they are bled dry. Your people are well fed and housed, and productive. You understand the long-term value of their well-being.”

She forbore to mention that thus far she herself had borne as much of the cost of tribute as possible so that her people would not suffer more than could be helped. Better to lighten his mood further, and her own as well. This close to him, the reverberations of his voice and his aura of power affected her so strongly that she could barely keep from quivering like a mare in heat when the stallion comes near. How could she be so foolish? “My father and his father before him were good stewards of the land. My family’s only taste for extravagance has been in our horses, though I do not keep so many in these times.” No need to say how many had been sold to pay the tribute he had levied.

“Take me to see your horses,” he said abruptly. Ardzvik heard movement at the table they had left, along with Leyli’s ever-resilient voice raised in laughter, and understood his request. She led him quickly to a gate that gave onto a path leading downhill to a cluster of stables and a fenced field. A dozen horses grazed there, while others, including those of the visiting Mongols, could be seen on a plateau slightly lower on the mountainside.

Leyli’s white mare came up to the gate at once, snuffling hopefully for treats. Yul Darugha ran a hand along her neck until she moved petulantly away since nothing edible was forthcoming. “A pretty creature,” he said, “like her mistress.” He looked to where Ardzvik’s blood bay advanced and retreated, wishing to come to his mistress, displeased by the stranger’s presence. “But yours, Lady Ardzvik, is the nobler beast by far. A touch of the Arab for grace and beauty.” She nodded assent. “I knew at once,” he went on, “that the rider of such a mount must be the true ruler here.”

Ardzvik felt her face redden at the reminder of her earlier attempt to confuse him. It seemed a good time to redirect the conversation.    

“Please forgive my half-sister for her foolishness tonight. She is not always so lacking in sense.” Defending Leyli to this man was like probing a self-inflicted wound, but it needed to be done. 

Some trick of the fading light made Yul Darugha’s eyes glint in his shadowed face. “The fault is mine. I should not have frightened her. But I have seen such things…” His voice dwindled away until she could barely hear him. “And done such things…” 

She knew he must have done terrible things, slaughtered people cruelly, destroyed cities. Such was the way of war. Her father’s grandfather had fought bloody battles to drive the Seljuk Turks out of Armenia, and her own castle had passed though many previous families by way of arrow, sword and siege since its first stone towers had been raised. The Mongols were more successful at warfare than any since, perhaps, the great Alexander, but they would not be the last. 

As for women and war…her mind leapt to a vision of naked, terrified harem girls fleeing from Mongol invaders. From one tall, deep-voiced Mongol warrior in particular. If his face could blaze with fury, how might it blaze with lust? She looked away, hoping the twilight hid the flush of arousal mixed with shame on her own face, then turned quickly back. He must not think that she was repulsed.

“If you wish to speak of this, I am not so easily frightened, nor so ignorant.” Whatever he had seen or done--she did not think it was a matter of rape alone--had scarred him. She would not add to his pain. When he remained silent she longed to touch him, for comfort, but instead gave a low whistle that brought her horse to the gate.

“You must meet Bakhshi,” she said softly, and only then lay her hand briefly on Yul Darugha’s arm to show the horse that she trusted this man. The beautiful bay head lowered to take in the newcomer’s scent, then allowed itself to be stroked and scratched by him in all the right places. Ardzvik, her shoulder brushing her companion’s, breathed in his scent as well, of horse and leather and sweat and some indefinable element that was his alone. She felt some of his tension recede. Here in the twilight, with their shared love of horses, it was as though they had always known each other.

At last he did speak, continuing to stroke the horse’s glossy neck. “It is an old memory, raised anew when I saw you and your sister side by side in the town square. I have seen others with such golden hair from time to time, but there is one I cannot forget; scarcely more than a child, in the Sultan’s harem, naked, shrinking into a corner in terror of my men, of me. Such a look on so beautiful a face!” He retreated silently into his own thoughts for a moment, then went on. “Another naked girl, fair skinned with dark hair, faced us in a passion of rage, seeking to defend the younger. She wielded the jagged shard of a great broken vase, but the threat of its sharp edges was as nothing beside her snarling face, as wild and fierce as a she-wolf’s.” He paused again. 

“There is more to tell?” Ardzvik braced to hear the worst, but would not prod him further.

He drew a deep breath and let it out. “The men behind me cheered, seeing a battle worth enjoying, its outcome certain. Their blood was up, as was mine. But a voice I scarcely heard—my own voice--ordered them back, and when some tried to rush past I turned my sword on them. On my own men! One I killed. A friend. A bastard like myself who had risen in Batu Khan’s service. A man who had fought beside me for half my life.” His hand clenched in the horse’s mane.

“And the girls?”

“They escaped us, but there were other bands of men sacking the palace.  I doubt they survived.” A pause, and then, so low she barely heard; “Yet I cannot forget. They come in my dreams.”

A full moon hovered above the distant mountain range, leaving every vale and hollow still in darkness. Torches burned in the castle gardens, and one moved along the path they had taken, coming toward them. Ardzvik yielded to impulse and put her hands on his shoulders, but Layli’s voice rang out from above them, and then the Persian interpreter’s.

“My lord, the men grow restive.” 

Leyli added with a giggle, “They have finished all the wine the steward would supply.”

“It is best that I go now.” Yul Darugha’s voice was rough. He stepped back from Ardzvik’s touch. She watched as he joined the other two and saw by the torchlight that he took Leyli’s hand from the Persian’s arm and offered his own as support along the steep path.

The next morning Ardzvik rose early after tortured dreams. Never had she needed the solace of the mountain and her falcon more. Bakhshi carried her with Zepyur tethered to her leather hawking glove along trails and then trackless reaches until his mistress was sure they could not be followed, and then she dismounted, slipped the hood from Zepyur’s head, and loosed the bird to the breeze. 

Today she had brought her bow in hope of flushing larger game than the falcon could hunt. Wild goats were often seen at this height, and even boar might come to root among the tubers of mountain flowers. She pulled off her leather glove and kept an arrow at the ready, but her mind was not focused as much on the outer world as on her inner one.

Why did she yearn so for a man who might well not want her, or, if he did, might value her title more than her body? And if he wanted golden-haired Leyli, how could Ardzik bear it? Their father had not wed Leyli’s mother, but he had acknowledged the child, and if Ardzvik bore no heir one of Leyli’s would be accepted as ruler of Aragatsotn. Illegitimacy was not such a barrier in the ancient traditions of this land. 

It was the begetting of children that obsessed Ardzvik now, not the bearing of them. She wanted this one man and no other, foreigner, destroyer, conqueror though he might be. She had known a mare who would let no stallion mount her save the one of her own choice. The horse had broken out, gone to her chosen mate in spite of her owner’s different plan, and their offspring had turned out to be the finest the herd had ever known. Perhaps bodies knew things that minds did not.   

Ardzvik’s mind might be preoccupied by her treacherous body’s needs, but her eyes caught the hitch in her falcon’s flight and her ears caught the changed sound of the bells on the bird’s ankle. Suddenly Zepyur was not hunting, but fleeing. A great white hawk more than half again her size rose over the mountain’s shoulder. 

A falcon of the north! A female Gyrfalcon! Not native here, but the royal family of Georgia had possessed one when Ardzvik was a child, and she had seen it hunt. It was clearly hunting now.

Zepyur twisted and dived, eluding her pursuer again and again, but the other gained ground each time. Ardzvik shouted and raised her bow. Something moved below on the mountainside, but she had no time to look. Zepyur dived again, opening space between herself and her pursuer, and Ardzvik’s arrow sped sure and true—until another’s arrow met it in flight, and both spun together toward the earth.

Arsdvik whistled for her bird and quickly donned the hawking glove. Another whistle, yet more piercing, came from somewhere below. Zepyur soared to her mistress and perched, quivering, on the thick leather gauntlet. The white intruder glided down past the man whose dun horse raced up the steep slope, to land on the arm of a second rider following more slowly.

Yul Darugha gave a roar in a language Ardzvik did not understand, though the words were clearly curses. She swiftly hooded Zepyur, stroked her feathers to calm her, and set her to perch on a rock in a sheltered hollow, tethered to a wiry shrub. Bakhshi grazed nearby, the sounds of his browsing familiar enough to reassure the hawk.

Ardzvik advanced toward the approaching man, another arrow at the ready. Her heart still pounded from her sudden terror for her hawk, but fear had transmuted into a glorious, intoxicating fury.

He leapt from his horse, bow in hand, and ran toward her, coming to a sudden stop as she raised her own weapon in warning.

“You…if you…when I saw that it was you…” His deep voice cracked. “If you had killed my gyrfalcon, with my falconer as witness…” He stopped for breath. “I would have had no choice! You know that!”

“I aimed between them to distract your bird,” she retorted in a cold rage. “If she did not veer off the next arrow would have found her heart. And if your arrow had killed my falcon…”

“I aimed between them as well,” he said, his voice steadier now. 

Ardzvik clung to her anger, reveled in it, allowed it to spark from ice into fire. “For the sake of my people I surrendered my province, but this is my own land! Here I will stand and fight!”

Yul Darugha’s eyes lit with a flame that was not anger. He set down his bow and shouted a command to his falconer waiting below. The old man shook his head doubtfully but moved away with the gyrfalcon on his arm and was soon out of sight.

“So there is a she-wolf in you after all! When I first saw you I thought--I hoped--but I could not be sure.”

“A she-wolf?” Ardzvik’s laugh was scornful. “Look higher. My name means “eagle” in the old tongue. I am Lady of Aragatsotn, and more. My mother’s line is said to be of those warriors from the lands beyond the Black Sea called Amazons by the Greeks.” True, only the oldest grandmothers said this, but Ardzvik still felt it to be true. “I will defend my own!”

“I see in you that warrior girl who haunts my memory.” Yul spoke now not as the Mongol Darugha but as a man who needs no title between himself and the woman he desires. “It is she I dreamed of, before last night, and then it was you. The only prize worth winning.”

The heat of Ardzvik’s anger flowed effortlessly into arousal, but she did not forsake her proud stance. “How can you be so sure of me? Was she not naked, that warrior girl?” 

He stepped forward; she stepped back. Her own hand drew the rough tunic over her head and loosed the drawstring of the men’s trousers she wore for hunting. Her strong, slim body stood bared to the summer sun, and to his burning gaze.

Just as he reached for her she stepped forward into his embrace, rejoicing in the rumble deep in his chest and the arms far stronger than her own that raised her up off her feet to crush her against him. His mouth pressed hard on hers, then moved into the hollows of her neck and over her shoulders in a frenzy of hunger for her flesh. When he lifted her yet higher to taste her firm breasts, she gasped and cried out and forced his head and mouth ever harder against them.

At last, needing more, and yet more, Ardzvik scrabbled at the jerkin of overlapping leather disks that left his muscular arms bare but kept her from rubbing against his chest. 

“Are you more shy of the sun than I?” she panted. In seconds his clothing was heaped along with hers. They rolled together atop this pile or onto nearby tufts of harsh grass, scarcely noting the difference. 

At first Ardzvik rode Yul, her long dark hair flailing across his body as she savored the exquisite joy of easing inch by inch onto his great length and breadth. Men were more like stallions than she had ever dreamed! Then he growled low, lurched atop her, and thrust deep and hard. Her hips arched upward to take him in still deeper. Her passage gripped him, yet let him slide in its wetness just enough to drive her to a peak of intensity close to madness. Sounds burst from her that were not words, and from him as well, until all she could hear was her own voice rising in a cry of triumph, her body wrenched by joy.

But Yul, she saw, when she could focus on anything outside herself, was braced above her on stiffened arms, face twisted, jaw grimly set, the cords of his neck standing out like tree roots. “I must…” he forced out the words. “I would not get a bastard on you!” He struggled to lift his great weight from her, to withdraw.

“Then you had better wed me!” Ardzvik cried. “I will have now what is mine!” Need surged in her again. She dug her hands into his clenched buttocks, gripped him close, and tightened her inner walls about his hardness until he had no words at all, only rough groans accelerating into a mighty roar. That sound, and the hot fierce flow of his seed, sent her into a second spasm of joy.

At last Yul rolled aside. She lay beside him, both breathing in the sunwarmed air as though they could never get enough. “I too will have what is mine,” he said at last. “But what of your priest?”

“Father Kristopor?” Ardzvik gave a short laugh. “I’ll wager that one will already have ordered extra candles for the ceremony in the chapel.” She lifted her head enough to rest it on his damp chest. “What of your Shaman? And the ceremonies of your people?”

A low chuckle made his chest rise and fall. “Much simpler. We pledge to each other outdoors under the Blue Eternal Sky, with respect for Mother Earth, and the Shaman chants such ancient songs and burn such herbs as he thinks proper. Each has his own ways. Then there is feasting, but that must be the same the world over.”

“Well then, we have made good progress already under the Blue Eternal Sky. But more would surely not be wasted.” 

There was time, now, for Ardzvik to lean over Yul and explore his long, strong body, tracing the contours of his wide shoulders with her fingers, pressing her mouth into the hollow of his throat and feeling the vibrations of a moan too low for ears to hear, moving her lips across his great chest and around his nipples. She licked at salty traces of sweat all the way down past his belly to where his skin became paler and more tender. By then the sounds of his pleasure were loud enough to signal renewed arousal, already clear from the rising of his shaft. Still he remained unmoving, letting Ardzvik enjoy her journey.

The temptation to take him into her mouth was great, but she moved past with only a teasing flick of her tongue at the dewy pearl on his tip. His hands tightened painfully on her arms. She kept on downward along his strong thighs, heavily muscled as only those of a man who’d spent his life on horseback could be.

“Let me…” Ardzvik twisted so that she knelt between Yul’s widespread legs, gripping those powerful thighs and bending at last to savor the taste and feel of his hard, jutting shaft. His hips rose to thrust himself deeper into her mouth. She matched his rhythm, hearing the harsh sounds tearing from his throat, feeling them vibrate into her own core as though he touched her between her legs—and suddenly she needed him there more than she needed breath.   

She lifted her head. “Ride me!” she pleaded, rolling onto her back, and at once Yul was on her, in her, his thighs gripping her flanks. They raced together, soared together, until both shouted their triumph in tones as keen as any fierce pair of mating hawks. The sun, when they came to earth, was warm on their naked skin, and even clouds would not have diminished the inner heat they shared.                 

The horse grew restive. The falcon, knowing there was meat for her in the saddlebag, began to make her hunger known. They could wait. Life would seldom be easy, peace was always fleeting, but nothing that bound together in joy the Lady of Aragatsotn and Yul Darugha would ever be a waste.

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