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Jess dived at him, knife leading the way, and it was the man’s spring forward on the floating log that propelled Sedric’s sudden sideways lurch. The knife, hand, and man went past him, not meeting the expected resistance. It was the impulse of a moment to put his hand on Jess’s back and shove as the hunter plunged past him. The hunter stepped off the log, onto the floating mat of driftwood. For a moment the tangled morass of weeds and wood held him up and then he dropped down through it with a furious shout. He flung his arms wide and splayed them out on the floating branches, twigs, and moss clumps. Somehow he stayed above water, cursing at Sedric, unable to clamber out.

In two steps, Sedric was in the boat. He’d thought it would feel solid under him. Instead, as he jumped into it, it lurched and bucked. He fell, knees down, onto the thwarts, catching his ribs painfully. Safe. Safe in the boat. Where was the hatchet? And where was Relpda? “Dragon, where are you?” he shouted. He stood up on his knees, looking all around. To his horror, he could not feel her. And Jess had vanished, too. Was he drowning under the mat? It was hard to feel sorry for him.

Suddenly, like a vengeful water spirit, Jess shot up and out of the water right next to the small boat. He caught hold of the side. As he dragged himself up, the boat heeled over and Sedric cried out in terror that he’d be spilled into the stinging water again. Instead, the big wet man levered himself into the boat. Sedric immediately tried to abandon the small ship, but Jess tackled him around the legs. He fell hard, slamming his ribs and belly against the edge of the boat and the driftwood log it was tied to. The hunter grabbed him by the back of his shirt and his hair, jerked him back into the boat, and hit him, hard, in the face.

Other than some boyish scuffles, Sedric had never been in a real fight. Sometimes Hest was rough with him, when he was in a mood to take their engagement in a harsher direction and enforce his dominance. In their early days together, Sedric had been aroused by such rough play. But in the last year or so, Hest had seemed to reserve it for times when Sedric had displeased him in some other arena. There had been a few times when the thrill of feeling Hest’s aggression had changed into the dread that his lover would do real damage to him in the throes of his tigerish play. Worse, Hest seemed to relish waking that fear in Sedric. Once, Hest had throttled him nearly unconscious yet had not paused in his own pursuit of pleasure. It was only when he had rolled away from him that Sedric had been able to shift to where he could get a clear breath. With black spots dancing before his eyes, he’d gasped out, “Why?”

“To see what it would be like, of course. Stop whining. You’re not hurt; you’ve just had your feelings ruffled.”

Hest had risen and left him there. And Sedric had accepted Hest’s judgment that he wasn’t truly hurt. The recollection flashed through his mind and with it, the resolution he’d buried shortly afterward. Never again. Fight back.

But Jess’s attack was beyond anything Hest had ever done to him. To be struck so hard in the face shocked him as much as stunned him. He hung in the hunter’s grip, trying to find the strength to lift his hands, let alone make fists of them. Then the man laughed aloud, and the sound filled Sedric with a panicky strength. He shot his fist forward as hard as he could into the center of the Jess’s body, just below his breastbone. Jess let out a sudden whuff of air and sat down hard in the boat.

For half a breath Sedric was on top of the hunter, raining blows on him, but he was dazed and could not put any strength behind them. Jess lunged up and wrapped his arms around Sedric. Then, as effortlessly as if Sedric were a child, he rolled with him, trapping him beneath his weight. Then the hunter’s heavy hands settled around his throat. Sedric’s own hands rose to catch at the man’s thick wrists. They were wet and cold and slickly scaled; he could not get a grip on them. The man forced him down and back across the seat in the middle of the boat, pushing him into the rancid bilgewater as the seat bit into his back. He kicked wildly, but his feet connected with nothing. He clawed at the man’s face, but the hunter’s skin seemed impervious to pain or penetration.

Sedric gave up trying to attack Jess or even to defend himself. All he wanted to do was escape. His flailing hands groped for the side of the boat. One hand gripped it, and he tried to pull himself out from under and away from Jess. But the man’s hands were locked on his throat and his weight pressed him down.

Sedric had never felt so powerless.

Not since the last time Hest had held him down and laughingly told him, “I’ll decide how it’s going to be. You’ll like it. You always do.”

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