Ned Boone

by Doc Sawzall

Part 1

Authors note: Please read La Tombola before reading this for the beginning of this story.


Each year there was no hiding the deeply held, intense feelings, as the date for what was once named La Tombola, now called The Lottery, drew near. It was a tradition that had been conducted for more than a thousand years. Time and time again had proved its necessity, that their welfare literally was dependent on this yearly event. The records kept in the town, showed the results of the crop failures, the sickness, and diseases that plagued the community when the day was ignored for more than a year. In the case of Ned Boone, the most painful of memories were refreshed, a love lost at his own hands.

Conducting the lottery was a double-edged sword Ned thought to himself. In doing so, the town of New Boston thrived and prospered, unlike the many towns and failed settlements who thought better, and now were but a dusty note in the book of records. No, he thought, Mithras ensured that there would always be balance between the Gnos and themselves. Despite the effort taken, himself included, the population of New Boston never exceeded four-hundred souls, give, or take a few dozen either way. It was as if there was some form of birth control, in the substances that they partook of. It was the same in the other remote towns they maintained contact with.

Their ancestors left a world torn asunder by wars of greed, fueled by religious intolerance, and ecological ignorance. According to the history books brought by the first settlers, there wasn't much to admire or emulate. After much thought on the subject over the decades of his long life, this situation had been humanity's best chance of survival. In as much as there was an inherent form of birth control, and despite years upon years of trying to advance their technology, it all came to naught. The technology his ancestors brought with them failed within the first few years, became unrepairable and finally broken down to their smallest components to be reused in their labor-intensive agrarian pursuits. What couldn't be used was left to decay and return to the ground.

To be fair, it was most likely for the best he thought. The air was clean, the water as well. More importantly, if they followed long held custom, their bellies would remain full. The one remaining obligation to the day, was ensuring the yearly gift to the Gnos followed the conclusion of the lottery up on the cliff face. It was payment for a debt that never could be repaid, one that literally saved their ancestors from extinction. When success or failure was in the balance, it was the Gnos that saved them.

What did it say he thought, of the selfless gift of compassion that was made in their name, for them, more than once ? A gift that truly could never be repaid, a sacrifice that ensured their survival. An acknowledgement that this world was nothing like the one their ancestors left, that while there may be similar life spread across the stars, it wasn't always the same.

As he did each year, as the date drew nigh, he went back to the records of the earliest days and his journal to refresh his memory and affirm the sanctity of their peculiar traditions, no matter how much it would pain him.

Chapter 1

Theu and the elders of his clan, spent much time in discussion. They all knew it was within their power to correct the imbalance, the creatures who fell from the sky created. Mithras did not favor them or share herself with them, they knew not of her ways.

From the beginning of time Mithras favored the clans, they were her children. They had learned her lessons well. There was no want or need, sickness or hunger. They lived harmoniously with their surroundings and neighboring clans. They knew when they crossed the great river, at the end of their days, they would live in her valleys and gardens and be at one with everything. They were her offspring and she provided, but as with the ways of this world, she required sustenance as well. Every cycle of the sun comprised of days of many lengths. It was when the days grew longest that the time arrived to honor Mithras.

It had been decided that Theu would approach the sky creatures. To see if the clans could help. After two cycles the wasting sickness was taking too many of them, denying them a chance to live with Mithras. The time for gifting was would be upon them in four, silver suns of the night, and the clans were in a quandary. The days would start to grow longer, if they were to help the sky creatures, time was running out. It would take much effort to understand one another. They would gift for them until they understood.

Captain Reynolds never expected the search for the man and others like him, to have ended with him walking into their settlement. At first, he was startled at the appearance, that they were humanoid wasn't in doubt. That they were one with their surroundings was very apparent. Most of all, he knew with absolute clarity, that he was harmless and meant no ill will. He was bearing gifts of wild grown food and was trailed by what appeared to be his family, all bearing similar baskets of food.

The first thing he noticed in their appearance was a similarity to how elves would have been described in the old stories of earth. Tall and angular, lean bodies with taught musculature. Faces set off with almond shaped eyes, hair, like theirs, of many different hues. They walked with an easy grace wearing minimal coverings, not for show but for need. If the nakedness of the youngest was surprising, it confirmed that they were similarly constructed as to the sexes. Everything about their posture was non-confrontational.

It was apparent they had been watching them, the stranger in front of him knew he was in charge. With gestures and sounds he indicated his name was Theu. Copying the gestures, he identified himself as Reynolds. More surprising than not, was the felicity in which they conducted themselves.

Once everyone had a chance to state their names, Theu indicated that within the baskets were the makings of an impromptu meal. The invitation was accepted and for the ease and comfort of all, they moved to the dining hall. Their meal for that night was to be a pasta dish with tomato sauce. The decision was made to combine the two. The most astounding event of the evening was the native's discovery of oregano, it was unlike anything they had ever seen. When they left for the evening, it was with a large container full.

It had taken much time to be able to converse with Theu and by the third year on the planet they were able hold lengthy discussions. What Captain Reynolds was learning, was eye opening to say the least and challenged the very foundations of his principles. He spent time with them in their villages, walked the woods and fields with Theu and began to truly understand the clans and their ways. Two young boys of Theu's clan at the cusp of adulthood, lived with the settlers for a full cycle of days, to learn more of their ways and language. Brax and Thet had no problem assimilating into the daily life of the settlers. Both boys were mischievous, full of joy and delighted in the new, extraordinary surroundings around them. They quickly picked up the new language and conversely, the young boys and girls of the settlement were soon able to converse in their language. Their laughter was infectious, bringing life back to a community deep in sorrow over the recent losses. What took longer to understand and accede to, were the reasons for the changes that affected their settlement. Less than a year ago, they were down to half their number and little hope for the future. Since meeting the Gnos, something had changed, they were no longer constantly ill, sick, or dying.

Thet, Brax, James Bishop, and Captain Reynolds accompanied Theu and his clan along with four others of the settlers, to the ledges that denoted the boundary between their two peoples. It was the height of the summer season, the longest days of the year. That this was an important day was not in doubt. The members of the clan who led them, conducted themselves with the utmost seriousness. If the clans were to define it as such, it was the highest holy day of their year.

Captain Reynolds knew in an abstract way of what Theu explained, of the gifts of Mithras to the clans, and the necessity to give back to her for the sustenance and good health she provided. It was an obligation he exclaimed, that could not be overlooked if the clans were to prosper. Further clarifying in a manner that brooked no argument, explained this was something they would have to do, from the next season on if they wished to survive.

Off in the distance the summer sky was wrathful, portending relentless storms. It was unlike anything that he or any other of the settlers had seen to date. He noticed the Gnos were extremely focused as they went about setting up for their ritual. Wood for a small fire was produced and soon a pot with water was heating. Added to the pot were a mixture of herbs and what appeared to be dried mushrooms.

As the concoction was brewing, the sun had once again broken through the impending storm clouds as if the sunlight was holding the storms away. Captain Reynolds watched as everyone, including the boys, all partook of the heated beverage. When the ladle was passed to him, Theu smiled and told him that he and the others would soon bask in Mithras' light.

The nervous anticipation that he had been feeling had quietly ebbed and then disappeared. He felt an overwhelming sense of calm, a serenity that had long been absent. There wasn't any rationalization of how he felt other than he felt a deep sense of connection to those around him. Hinting at the furthest recesses of his conscious, was a sense of relief. There was a path forward out of the miseries they had been enduring. He watched as Brax and James Bishop shared what made each of them unique, the intensity of their shared copulation nearly overpowering, so strong was the connection. No sooner had they finished than Thet and another young boy Sheu, began their dance of connection and it was no less intense, producing visibly strong reactions from the Gnos and the settlers.

Their brief interlude from the impending storm was signaled by a bright flash of lightning producing an equally loud clap of thunder. The electrical storm was moving closer. The darkened, leaden sky was releasing a torrent of wind driven rain, virtually obscuring the view across the valley. That it would be upon them soon was of little doubt. Looking over at Theu and his clan, they all appeared to be unconcerned as they went about their duties. Leading Sheu over to a rock table, the pail with the water was passed all around as everyone present partook of another ladleful. The concern of the impending storm fading as the drink took effect.

Captain Reynolds and his fellow settlers would later state, that they could hear a multitude of voices blending into a single of encouraging vocal sound, coalescing song of comfort. Like a feather wisping on the wind, they could partake of the emotive thoughts of others as they stood there in harmonious trance.

Laying on the table, a naked Shue was caressed with a multitude of hands. Thet stood by his head, holding Shue's hand, a knife of what appeared to be obsidian, in his other hand. Stunned at what he guessed was about to happen, Captain Reynolds swore he heard Shue call out to Mithras, that he was ready, leaning his head back, before meeting the sharp edge of the blade.

When it was over, his body was gently placed in a wrapping and brought to the cliff face and let over the edge.

Theu returned to Captain Reynolds side bringing Brax with him. As best as he could explain, Brax was one of settler's clan now, and they needed to appease Mithras. Calling forward James Bishop, he took Brax's hand, telling Captain Reynolds that Mithras had spoken to him, that James was to perform the ritual.

As with Shue, everyone stood along his side as James held his hand, clearly, he heard Mithras accept this gift in the name of the settler's clan, Shaking Captain Reynolds to his very core he watched as the knife did its work. Mithras then spoke to each of the settlers. She was pleased with the gift and so, were now one with her family. That they should remember the selfless gifts given in their name, and always honor this day accordingly.

Brax's body was redressed in the clothing of the settlers and brought to the ledge face. Reverently he was let over. The drop was at least two-hundred feet. As he watched the body fall, he was stunned to note that there wasn't any sign of Sheu on the rocky outcrop below, turning his focus back to Brax, he saw the body vanish into thin air in a flash of bright light.

The electrical storm raged all around them, never once getting them wet. Lightning struck the sides of the ledges, the concussive effect of the thunder rendered Captain Reynolds and the rest of the settler's nearly unconscious, where they all shared the same vision, as they described it later. Bax and Shue sat that Mithras' side happy and content. Mithras had one other message about James Bishop, which he shared with Captain Reynolds, that he would be the offering next year. Every year after that, they would have to select a young boy on the cusp of adulthood as their gift to Mithras if they wished to prosper and remain healthy.

Chapter 2

Ned Boone always felt a sense of comfort rereading the tales of the earliest days. Reminded of so many memories over the years, some good some fantastic, and the one memory that dredged up the costs paid for a long and successful life. He shared an oddity with Captain Reynold. They were kindred spirits, for he too had been given a message directly from Mithras. Ned was a rarity in New Boston. Closing in on his seventh decade, he had seen much, still worked a full day on his farm and was as vigorous as a farmer half his age. He was the keeper of the records and the guardian of traditions.

What had prompted his trip back to the records, was that he had the dream of Peter again. It had been decades since the last one, otherwise they were nearly always the same, that some were losing faith, forgetting the way, and the need to remind the villagers of their duties, of how the cycle of life here on this remote ecosphere worked. Thinking back, he was sure he knew exactly when Mithras made herself known to him. Ever since that fateful day of La Tombola so many years ago, when Peter Miller of all the candidates, was chosen.

He had hoped and prayed it wouldn't be Peter or himself. Everyone knew whoever was chosen would leave their tiny village, never to return. He also fervently wished that he would not be one of the three boys who would accompany whoever was to be gifted to the Gnos. There was always something a bit off with them once they returned to the village, it was if they had forgotten how to laugh or smile for the longest time. It was plain to see that they were different boys from when they left.

It was the night before that fateful day, like all his agemates, he was nervous, very scared, and terrified. Part of him speculated what it would be like to be the one selected. What went on up at the cliffs was a closely guarded secret that the adults and those involved never spoke of. All they really knew was that, if chosen, you left to be with the Gnos…never to return.

It was the night before he had the dream, that he would stand up on the cliffs, for La Tombola's conclusion, and it had left him shaken. Mithras appeared to him as he was sleeping, calling him to her. She had plans for Ned Boone for the love he carried in his heart. It left him feeling frightened.

No, Ned thought to himself remembering those days, the dream he had last night was of Peter Miller telling him to be patient, Mithras still had need for him and when his time came, to know they would be together again. That dream brought back so many memories of the days of La Tombola. The nervous anticipation, the relief…learning the true reasons for La Tombola, and of what his role would be in the days ahead. That he would be part of the community and part of its deeply held secrets. A member of a select group, never to discuss the events outside of your companions who accompanied you.

How shocked he was, along with Tom Harrison and Billy Dunbar, when they spent that afternoon with Josiah Trimble. Despite the dream the night previous, not everything had been imparted to him, When Josiah Trimble brought them into the room with the records, explained the reason, showed them the blade that would be used, the need for this day, Ned's was of mixed emotions, knowing he would play such a vital part in the protection of his…no, all their homes, ensuring their welfare and security. When the time came for Josiah to place their names in the box to draw the one who would stand by Peter, he quailed that he would not be ready if his name was called. They had shared much. He desperately hoped it wasn't him to wield the knife. Rather he hoped it would be either Tom Harrison or Billy Dunbar. Ned was forlorn, for all the choices it could have been it was…Peter Miller. When it was his name pulled from the box and he was handed the dark black obsidian knife, a large part of his world fell apart.

And then the memories of how Peter Miller changed his life was all he could think of.

He was one of the first to know that Peter was that way…not that there was anything wrong, what puzzled him was that Peter had sussed the same inclinations out. Somehow, Peter knew he was the same before he had admitted to himself. He simply wasn't comfortable with his body, while there wasn't any doubt that he was a boy deep in the cusp of adulthood, he was different from his peers in the equipment department. When he was younger, other children would stare of make fun of him for it, not understanding he wasn't any different, just longer. Teasing him, they would call him a Gruntling. Comparing that part of him, to the trunk of the ponderous, shaggy beast that roamed the grassy plains. The largest of all the mammalian creatures to roam the grasslands, the males were solitary until it was their breeding season. They wielded enormous tusks that they would use to intimidate other males, to win the right to mate.

As he grew older there was a grudging respect from his agemates, if not envy, but the scars had lingered. However, when it came to the games boys would play, all the boys would laugh and point out the size of his difference, make fun of it…and him. The only boy that didn't was Peter Miller.

It was Peter who initiated him in the games that boys would play, what fun two boys could have with their hands and mouths. Many an afternoon when chores were finished or they were done with their lessons, they would find themselves on long walks, discovering more about the area they lived in and themselves.

"Come on you slowpokes," Billy Dunbar called out, excited to be a part of the day. "We gotta get a move on if we're gonna make the campsite this afternoon." Impatiently reminding everyone. Billy had been on edge ever since he came from the room with all those dusty records.

Billy noticed Peter was calm, even keeled since he had drunk the tea this morning. Even so, he and the other two knew that there was things Peter wasn't aware of, wouldn't be aware of until…The son of one of the local farmers, Billy had participated in every aspect of life on the farm. He had assisted in mucking out the stalls, collecting the eggs, harvesting the grains for the cattle, and in the butchery.

"Billy, I know you're raring to go, but don't you think you should go back and get your backpack from the breakfast table before you set off?" Tom Harrison called out.

Both Ned and Peter let out a snort, with Peter's face showing a lively expression at Billy's impatience. Ned was watching Peter carefully, looking for any hints that Peter knew or felt something was off. Ned had a complicated relationship with Peter, even before he was chosen. Now, more than ever he was conflicted

With a bit more noise than necessary, hard closing of the doors, and the noise of feet pounding down the ancient steps, Billy had signaled he was back and ready to go. Shaking hands with a somber Josiah Trimble and Horace Smith the boys were ready to set off.

A momentary reflection flashed across Peter's face, that he wouldn't be coming back. He had made his farewells to his family earlier this morning. That thought was quickly banished as the excitement the other boys were generating, washed over him. Doubled by the excitement of sharing a tent with Ned later that night.

There was a light rain earlier that morning while the boys slept, the result, keeping the dust down while they walked out of the town square and village proper. They needed to follow the old cart road that led to the site of the original settlement. The old road had long fell into disuse once they passed the edges of the Begins farm. Their first day's destination had been abandoned sometime in the distant past. The road leading to it had morphed into a path that rarely saw use. On the other side of the derelict site was the path that took them to the edges of the settler's land, and the territory belonging to the Gnos, another half day's walk.

The four boys were silent as they walked along, their chatter beginning as they left the village behind, passing uphill through a dense copse of trees before emerging at the edges of the old fields that defined the old settlement proper,

"My father says we will come across some remnants of the ancients' things before they failed them." Tom Harrison exclaimed.

"You mean things like what we saw in the history books at school?" Billy excitedly asked rubbing his hands together. "Just think, we can take some time exploring them, just think of what we could find!" His voice rising in pitch.

"I don't think so dumbass, my dad says they are just rusted, grown over piles of useless trash." Tom jokily interjected. "I don't mean to burst your bubble," continuing, "Lots of folks have been out this way over the years, with nothing to show for it. Leastways, I do agree it might be fun to give the stuff a look over, what's left of it anyways."

"I don't care one way or another," Peter interrupted, "Just so we leave enough time to set up camp for tonight and check out the old irrigation pond. As hot as it's been today, I'd love to do some swimming once things are set up and eat afterwards, maybe do some diving off the old dock if it's still there."

Sounds like a plan to me," Ned suggested to the murmured assent of the other three.

As the fields opened in front of them, for the first time they could see clear across the valley to the high hills on the other side. Dark rain clouds were sitting over the peaks, obscuring the green, forested hills in rain. Occasionally a rumble of thunder could be heard after a bolt of lightning struck some invisible bull's eye. The boys stood there mesmerized as low, grey scudding clouds, cast shadows racing across the distant valley, chasing disappearing targets. Every now and then the wind would shift direction, sending more than hints of cooler breezes, wafting their way.

The sudden change in temperature broke the boy's reverie and they quickly found themselves back on the trail. It soon took a turn that led them towards the old settlement proper. On either side of them, they could see the remnants of the old farms and their outbuildings, and as they drew closer, the actual landing site and the original settlement proper. For all intents and purposes, the ravages of time had reclaimed most everything they were looking at.

In the old village proper, the old central square had not been overgrown, dotted around its edges were cellar holes and indications of what once may have been. In their own way, each of them thinking of what life must have been like back then, the struggle it was to survive when the machines and the ancient's technology failed.

Ned noticed it was well past mid-day, if they were going to eat and set up, they had best get moving. Thinking back to the day before, when he had had a chance to read from Captain Reynold's diary, he knew the storm they had seen would eventually come their way, and he didn't want to be caught out in it if it came later tonight.

The only surviving structure in the village proper, was the old grain storage, a good-sized building. Built of stone with a slate like roof, it would suffice as an overnight encampment. Walking over with the others, it soon became apparent it needed a thorough cleaning. While the walls and roof looked to be in decent condition, the floor was another matter.

Each of them went out and found some lengthy sticks and used them to rake the accumulated detritus out and away. Once they had the floor back down near its original condition, they each started grabbing armfuls of the straw-like, tall growing grass to cover the stone floor to a depth, where sitting or lying on it, was moderately comfortable. It would do for the night. The next order of business was the fire ring and wood for the night's fire. It didn't take long, the pile collected would last some time. The last order of business was setting up a substantial log over the corner of an old outhouse pit. It was high enough for what the boys needed, when it came time for the necessary.

Lunch, as would their supper be, was cold sandwiches along with assorted fruits, nuts, and berries. The boys were quiet while they ate their lunch, each left to their own thoughts. Each in their own way concerned about what would happen tomorrow up on the ledge face, now that the reality was closer. Peter was wondering how he was to explain to Ned the antsy feeling he had, it was getting stronger, fueling an urgent desire to lay with him. Something Ned was always reluctant to do, frequently reminding Peter of his size when the subject was broached.

Tom and Billy were both trying to banish the self-doubts about tomorrow. Reminding themselves of the reasons they were there for, how so many others were depending on them, convincing themselves they would find the resolve, that others who went before them had.

Ned was concerned, not for what he had to do, he fully understood the role he had to play. It was a responsibility unlike any other, requiring strength of character. He knew he was called on by forces larger than he could fully understand, he could not fail in his duty to his community. What was bothering him was the need, the inexplicable urge he was having, a burgeoning desire to lay with Peter. The time was drawing short and he was in a quandary. Not so much unsettled as he was shy when it came to sex. He had grown up in a community where sex, or who someone slept with, wasn't what defined a person. His reticence was not wanting to hurt Peter, if he were lay with him, in the manner he now needed to.

A quick nap after their mid-day meal left them feeling refreshed and eager to do a bit of exploring on the way to the pond. Tom, handing Peter's 'water' bottle to him, made sure everyone had a healthy drink of their own before setting off to explore. While the three boys knew, Peter was unaware that his water in his bottles, had been steeped in a mix of finely ground herbs and mushrooms. They also knew it was critical that he regularly drink from it. The effect on the water on Peter wasn't dope him up, but to ensure he remained calm and tranquil, his mind off anything but the immediate present, relaxing his inhibitions and preventing worry about the future.

They poked around the old cellar holes and decaying foundations looking for any sort of antiquity without much luck. They did stumble across the remains of what had to have been an old earth tractor. Covered partially by vines and weeds, only the heaviest, substantial parts of it left. Had they known better, they were looking at the remains of the old engine block.

The late afternoon sun was still high in the sky, the day just as hot as several hours ago. The four boys, dirty and grimy from their labor to uncover the old bits and remnants of the tractor were sweaty and feeling grubby. Drinking once again from their water bottles, they headed off to go swimming.

Much to their surprise, the old dock was still standing. Remembering their history, they knew it was made from something called cement. Billy was the first to shuck his clothes and went out to the end of the dock, Tom was right behind him, naked as the day he was born as well. Billy slipped in the water to see if it would be safe for diving and was happy to see it was. Climbing back up on to the dock he ran back to where Ned and Peter were standing, telling them the water was fine and ran back down and lept off the edge. Tom took a flying leap as well and by the time both boys were back on the dock, Ned and Peter were running down to do the same. The remainder of the afternoon was spent playing water games and seeing who could make the biggest splash diving.

Tuckered out from all the activity the boys spread their towels on the soft sand besides the dock, letting the warm summer air dry them. They had grown up together, seen each other naked many times previously and weren't uncomfortable knowing Peter preferred boys. Tom and Billy had suspicions about Ned but they weren't convincing thoughts. Truth be told, both Tom and Billy liked that Peter was inclined that way, both thinking of the fun that could be had.

Peter wasn't shy about checking either of them out, not forgetting Ned. Subtle looks soon became a bit more obvious as the boys' appendages reacted. The warmth of the afternoon sun along with the relaxed atmosphere soon saw both Tom and Billy responding to Peter's ministrations, lost in a fog of euphoria. Ned was struggling with himself, there wasn't any doubt as to letting Peter between his legs, and if Peter was willing to lay underneath him later that night, he'd have to have a quiet word with Tom and Billy. They both knew it was his last night before he was gifted to Mithras.

His thoughts broken when he felt a hand placed on his inner thigh, softly stroking his leg, in a series of small upward movements. Groaning from the sheer pleasure, he descended further back on his elbows, his legs involuntary parting granting the further access Peter was seeking. He loved the gentle touches, that could light such a fire while darting around his maleness now fully extended. Quivering at the slight touch that ran down the length, he was delighted when he felt two fingers slowly retract his skin, the cool sensation erased, when he felt the wetness as Peter took him in his mouth. Encumbered with the vastly intense sensations that rent him insensible. Too soon he collapsed as he expended himself, much to Peter's delight.

Leaning back, Peter was comforted by Tom and Billy as they gently massaged his body. Ned watched as he recovered, knowing it was his responsibility, duty really, to see that Peter enjoyed getting what he so willingly gave each of them. At that moment, nothing mattered, knowing that twenty-four hours from this moment, the Peter they knew would no longer be with them. He wouldn't be the one to break that confidence and knew neither Tom or Billy would as well. Gloomily he knew when the time was right, Mithras would let Peter would know what his future would be. But for now, he was determined to return Peter's favor.

As he moved between Peter's legs, Ned could smell that which made Peter…Peter, an aroma he'd never had enough of. Taking his firmness into his hands, moving the lose skin back elicited a soft moan from Peter as his head fell backward. Ned lowered himself and returned Peter's good deed. He could feel Peter tense as the moment drew near and suddenly the best part of Peter was safely ensconced in him.

Letting Peter slip from his mouth, he began to lightly kiss and lick his way up the blemish free midsection, only stopping when he reached Peter's mouth. Looking deeply into his eyes as if seeking permission, he began a series of deepening kisses. His reemergent firmness resting aside Peter's tumescent member only stopping when he heard Peter's stomach grumble from hunger, shortly followed by either Tom or Billy, possibly the two of them. It set the boys to laughing, knowing it was past time for their dinner. Helping Peter to his feet, the boys soon had picked up the towels and looking for their scattered clothes.

Dinner was a bit livelier than their lunch was. While they avoided talking about the events of the morrow, they managed to find enough things to discuss amongst themselves. A small fire had been built by Billy and a pot of water heated. Tom had slipped in a packet of the herbs and mushrooms to make a tea for them to enjoy with their meal. They sat afterwards and watched the light fade from the evening sky as their naked bodies were caressed by a warm summers breeze.

Holding Peter close, Ned was conflicted, admitting to himself, of his deep feelings for Peter. Turning his head slightly he caught a glance of the innocent face of the boy he was holding. Loving the way Peter leaned into him. He could see he was lost in thought and he dared not disturb what he was thinking. The heat of his body was aphrodisiacal. Peter's hand rubbing his thigh wasn't helping the desire, that was growing in his heart and elsewhere.

Looking past Peter, he could see that Tom and Billy were sharing a tender private moment, their need clearly on display. Watching them for a few moments, he felt a twang of jealously. While he was positive that neither shared his inclinations, they at least would have each other until they each found their life's mate. Who would he have, he thought with a trace of bitterness, as he pondered the future after tomorrow? His maudlin reverie was broken when he noticed that Tom and Billy were no longer beside them, they had gone back inside. As he turned back to look at Peter, he met his lips.

He wasn't sure of the time as they broke from their embrace, he could hear soft snoring coming from their sleeping quarters. Peter, taking his hand stood up and led him to their beds in the soft straw. Placing his hands on the sides of Ned's face, Peter asked him to lay in him. Pulling Ned towards him as he reclined, he opened himself up to him, there was no mistaking his intentions. It wasn't so much fumbling as understanding the learning curve, so to speak. But after a bit of trial and error, and some discomfort, Ned found himself fully seated and began to make love to the boy underneath him. Ned let Peter's responses to his movements guide their pace, never going past or causing discomfort.

They were truly joined, Ned knowing he'd never in this life share the totality of this first experience with anyone else, lost himself in the sensations. He gave as good as he got, Peter's vocalizations showing him the path he needed to take. As they got closer to the end, the steps were more urgent, a stridency guiding them towards the summit. Peter reached the mountain top first, his reactions sending Ned right behind him.

Ned awoke with a start in the late hours of the night, dawn was a ways off and the night was silent. Wrapping his sleeping blanket tighter to him, he slowly got up, wondering how he was going to ease his troubled mind, the doubts that had crept in. The pain of what was expected of him, what he had to do , was tearing at the very fabric of his soul. While he had feelings for Peter before all of this, he never expected for them to metastasize so quickly. He had been an island among his peers, at first ridiculed for his obvious appearance, then only enviously and grudgingly accepted, as he and his agemates progressed towards adulthood. He had long learned to live a solitary life, never expecting that someone could break through the thick walls he called Fortress Ned. And that someone would be Peter, helping him past the taunts of the other boys, learning to play boy's games together.

As he sat watching the fading embers of the fire, occasionally poking one and watching it flare up, as if to illuminate the decisions he was wrestling with, he was no closer to sorting out the melancholia that had come to visit. Of all the thoughts tearing Ned asunder, one kept creeping to the fore. What did Peter deserve to know about tomorrow? Would he go willingly if he knew he would lay dying at his hand , to appease an age-old tradition… an age-old necessity?

What would happen he wondered if they simply disappeared deep into the land of the Gnos, never to be seen again, would it even be possible? To find what may lay on the other side of the valley, to climb those peaks and start anew. What of the anger they would incur, first from their own and then the Gnos, then setting out to find them, and just how did they expect to hide forever from a wrathful goddess? All he could see as he wrestled with the various permutations, was that there was no where they could go, no where they could hide from their fates. As he sat there in the light of the diminishing fire, he was thankful that no one could see the silent tears coursing, cascading over his cheeks.

Just when he thought he was at his lowest, a comforting hand landed on his shoulder. Looking up he saw the smiling face of the boy he had deeply come to love. With a finger to his lips, Peter bade him to stand and follow him.

As they were walking down towards the pond Peter said, "I just had the most amazing dream," Wrapping an arm around Ned's waist, pulling him closer to him, reveling in the shared body heat. "The funny thing about dreams is that you can never remember the specifics, and if you are lucky, maybe bits and pieces."

He continued, "Most of the time you get a sense of feeling that the dream leaves you with, as if the emotions of the dream are still present." He explained, "I've never been one to remember any dream until this one, while I am unsure of the specifics, this one left an image as clear as a bright summers day."

"You see," he said…turning Ned's face towards him as there was barely separation between them, "What this dream told me was that despite this separation between us tomorrow," eagerly stating in all earnestness, "That somehow you and I will be together again!"

Ned started to protest, pulling back a bit, looking at Peter as if he was losing his mind. Peter, holding his hand up to forestall any comment persisted, "Believe me Ned when I tell you I'm not joking, or just saying this, the dream was too real not to be true. I heard a voice, I couldn't see who was speaking, but it comforted and promised me that we would be together again, to have faith and trust in tomorrow!"

He found himself sitting on the ground with Peter in his lap, furiously planting kisses anywhere he could reach as Ned surrendered to the onslaught, and for a moment he wondered if Mithras saw his agony, and was sending this message to him.

Peter took charge as Ned quickly found himself on his back, with Peter getting busy between his legs, paying loving attention to what made Ned unique. Very quickly Ned realized what Peter's goal was, as his legs were lifted and apart, coming to rest on the Peter's shoulders. Ned could see in the silvery twilight of a fading moon, that those eyes were full of life, delight, and twinkling. Taking but a moment to look at his body, there wasn't any doubt that Peter was rampant or what his intentions were.

Their congress this time was a bit smoother, they had learned well, the lessons of the previous copulation. Peter's face was an enchantment of expressive emotions as he plumbed Ned's depths, bringing him past the initial pain towards the satisfactory, mutual conclusion of their love.

Tenderly washing each other, before walking back up to sleep for the remainder of the night, they comforted each other with tender touches. Ned marveled at how the wet strands of hair were plastered around Peter's face, the tiny droplets of water on his skin, sparkling in the moonlight as he tried to kiss him dry. Cooing contentedly, Peter submitted in Ned's ministrations, lost in the sensuality of Ned's love. Finally done, wrapping them both in their sleeping blankets, it was time to sleep. Before slumber finally took them away, Peter whispered to Ned, "No matter where I go tomorrow, I will wait for you, knowing you will come for me. I will love you forever."

Morning found both intertwined as Tom and Billy woke up and made to roust them. They had slept a deep and dreamless sleep

Chapter 3

As they were lost in their thoughts, no one was hungry for their own reasons. Halfheartedly partaking of a meager breakfast and what was left of the tea, what little talk there was, lingered inconsequentially in the chill of the early morning. The dew and low-lying mist were just becoming visible as the day was beginning to break. As if to announce the finality of the day that was upon them, song birds began to discuss their plans among themselves. There was no going back Ned sighed. Shortly it would be time to begin the walk up to the cliff face.

Billy had brewed another pot of the tea they were supposed to drink, Tom was of collecting some smaller bits of firewood for that last fire up on the cliffs. Peter was off to the necessary and the pond for a quick wash. If Billy had to put a word to how he was feeling, forlorn would be as good as any. Bringing a cup of the freshly brewed liquid to share with Ned, he asked if he was holding up, "Drink this Ned, it'll help to settle your nerves and dispel your doubts. I was speaking to Tom earlier; we want you to know we'll be standing beside you all the way."

Pulling out a small cloth, holding it up for Ned to see, "There ain't any way to put this pleasantly Ned, I've seen what happens when a knife is used in that way, it takes a few seconds for the heart to stop pumping blood. Do us all a favor, when you draw the knife, let me put this cloth over the cut."

Nodding his head grimly, averting his weeping eyes from the cloth Billy was holding, looking up he only saw the depths of compassion in Billy's eyes. Ned could see the enormity of the day was weighing just as heavily on Billy as he. Reaching out, Billy welcomed Ned's arms as they both grasped on to one another, comforting each other with tender touches. Billy, not quite fully able to guard his feelings, pulled his head back and placed his hands on either side of Ned's face, "If you ever find yourself alone and hurting, find me, if you need someone to lay with, ask me. We're brothers now, not by relation but by shared obligation. All I am and have are yours, I know we aren't alike in that way and one day I'll have children…a family, but I will always… I will always…be there for you ." The words Billy found so hard to say resonated deeply in Ned, he could see that truth plainly, what stunned him was the loving ferocity of Billy's kiss.

The moment broken by the sound of Tom entering the sleeping area, "Ned, know that Billy speaks for the both of us," Tom choked out, a tenuous hold on his emotions, his eyes red, barely able to hold back the tears, the sorrow for what Ned and for that matter, what they were all feeling. Looking every bit as lost as Ned had been feeling, he soon found himself amid a bone crushing three-way hug. "I don't need to tell you Ned, the truth of what Billy told you, we have an unbreakable bond now, if one of us is hurting, we all will be hurting.''

As earnestly as he could state it, "Like Billy told you, we're brothers of duty now, we've been charged to look after one another, while no one had told us this, it's plain to see. Know we are both here, however you need us, when you need us."

Once more they hugged tightly, words no longer necessary. Breaking apart, their moods had been partially lifted. While they would be stopping back down here later that afternoon, there was a need to clean and somewhat organize as they most likely, would be drained, both emotionally and physically from their afternoon on the cliffs. By the time Peter was back from the pond, all was ready for the next stage of their journey. The rest of the tea was passed around with Peter finishing most of it. Ensuring the fire was out, the boys shouldering their packs set off for the cliffs.

The morning was warming up, it was still a tad cool with light breezes as they found the trail. This last portion of the hike, a half day's walk up a series of switchbacks moderating the steep elevation gain. For most of the remaining hike, they would be in an ancient forest. The trees rumored to be among some of the oldest living things on the planet. There was an eerie stillness as they walked among the forest giants, almost a soothing quiet, conversation between them as they hiked upwards, was more whispered than not. The more they hiked, the easier it seemed. The tension the three boys were feeling had dissipated, in large part due to the herbs and mushrooms, in the tea and water they caried, reenforcing their responsibilities. There would be one last pot made when they arrived up at the cliffs and ledge face.

Eventually the woods began to thin out, the wind and sun they had been sheltered from, began to appear through the growing breaks between the trees. They were able to, on occasion, glimpse the other side of the valley. Not much further on the trees were giving way to rocky outcrops, they were getting close. What little grew there was squat and compact, hugging what soil their roots were growing in. Farther on most of what they were walking on, were enormous horizontal plates of solid rock. It looked like a jumbled multitude of scrambled rocks till finally they had reached the top. Interspersed among the large rock table tops were grassy mounds and remnants of old, sheltered firepits.

"Hey guys," Peter called out, "I can see the Gnos, they look like tiny bugs from up here. It's gonna be a while before they get here." He said looking over the cliff face. "Anyone want to have some more fun while we wait?" he said, wiggling his hips suggestively.

Standing behind Peter, Ned called out, "Just a moment…I'm in…let me have your pack." Talking the pack off Peter's outstretched arms and tossing it aside, "Wow, they really do look like bugs, don't they!" As he placed a hand on the small of Peter's back and pushed him to the side, momentarily startling Peter, "Come on now, we've got to set up for the ceremony."

Across the valley, the storm clouds that had gathered, obscuring the high peaks once again. There was a storm of prodigious intensity brewing. Lightning traversed the length of those peaks followed by the loud rumbles of thunder. Rain fell in sheets as the storm moved across the wide valley towards them. The light breezes were becoming strident, blowing the warmer air of the rain-soaked valley across the ledges they were gathered on. Tom and Billy with a great deal of effort were able to get a fire started and a small pot of water boiling while they waited for the Gnos. Ned took a moment to look the area over, he found a spot where they could keep their clothing out of the weather, making sure everyone knew where it was as he stripped off, quickly followed by the others.

Walking over to the age-old rock table, where the ceremony would take place, Ned couldn't help but stare at it in incredulity. The surface had been worn smooth over the many years of use. Running the length of the table was a person-sized depression and a bowl like indentation, where a person's head would lay. Separating the two was a small ridge in the rock, ensuring the neck would be fully exposed when the head rested in the bowl for the ceremony.

Ned wondered how many people were gifted here, over a thousand of the citizens of New Boston, and a countless number of Gnos. Looking closer to the surface he noticed that the feet would be elevated, higher than the rest of the body lying there. The bowl where the head would lay, had a small channel carved that allowed the blood to drain down the side of the table, where it would disappear into the rocky ground.

Off in the distance the color of the sky grew more and more ominous. There was an intensity unique to the boy's previous life experiences. They stood fascinated as the electrical storm raged, coming ever so slowly coming closer, its fury unabated. So fierce was the storm they failed to notice the arrival of the Gnos, until Bahet walked up to them. Looking back the boys noticed that the rest of the Gnos were focused as they set up for their portion of the ritual. Standing with Bahet were Manat and Dosan, two boys of similar age to Ned and his companions. Introductions were made all around as Dosan would stand for Manet and Ned would stand for Peter.

Bahet took over making the ceremonial concoction adding the herbs and mushrooms. With the arrival of the Gnos the storm looked to have abated a bit and the boys watched as dappled sunlight played across the rock formations. Ned watched as the tea was passed around and finally passed to him. As he was partaking of the beverage, Bahet told all of them that they would all be immersed in Mithras' light.

Ned soon felt relaxed, his nerves had settled, he felt a calm serenity, a certainty of purpose and a deeper connection to those around him. He was no longer alone with his feelings nor were his companions. He hadn't any explanation for the way he felt, he was clearheaded, not drowsy or acting slow. Everything in his field of vision was clear and he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

It was if there was a path forward out of the gloom he had been feeling. Watching as Manat and Dosan shared their bodies with each other, the métier of their connection drove him to seek Peter out. Quickly, Ned found himself in Peters embrace on one of the grassy mounds, sharing their uniqueness. The intensity of the boy's connections was only rivaled by the approaching storm, for no sooner had they finished, a bright flash of lightning went off followed by an equally loud clap of thunder. The sky around them further darkened, releasing a cloudburst of wind and rain. So close was the storm, it wasn't possible see past the edges of the ledge face they were standing on. Ned had no doubt that the storm would soon be over them and as he looked back over to the Gnos, they appeared not to be worried as they completed their arrangements. Everyone had another drink from the pot of tea that was passed around, before leading Manat over to the age worn rock table.

As Captain Reynolds noted in his journals, Ned could hear a host of voices that all appeared to be singing, before becoming one single song of loving comfort. After being prepared, Manat was affectionately laid upon the table. Ned could hear the interconnections of gratitude for the gift Manat so willingly give.

A multitude of hands fondly caressed a naked Manat, as Dosan holding one of Manat's hands and obsidian knife in the other, stood by his head. They all heard Manat's silent cry to Mithras, that he was ready, tilting his head backwards, before meeting the sharp edge of the blade.

Once it was over, his lifeless body was gently placed in wrapping and brought over to the cliff face and let over the edge.

Moving over to the boys, Bahet asked Ned to prepare Peter so he could be brought to the table. Ned knew that by now, Peter had to understand what was about to happen, when he simply declined the offer to clean the surface Manat had just laid on.

Ned was worried, Peter had watched without reaction, to Manat being made ready, then as he was led to the rock table, and tenderly laid upon it. Looking for a response from Peter, he saw none, he was holding him close as the cut, swift, sure, and deep, was made.

But now, Ned could hear the multitude of voices once again; they were calling to him. Drawing them closer to the table, they blended into one harmonious melodic voice, softly calling to him as he guided Peter up and on to the table. Tom, Billy, and Ned laid their hands on him kneading his flesh, seeking to show their love, reenforcing they were there for him, a reminder they were by his side.

Ned heard Mithras accept this gift of Peter, her voice shaking him to his core, the abstract was now a reality. Peter, bending his head back, silently crying out his readiness to join her, as he awaited the edge of the obsidian blade that would slice across his neck. Tom steadied his head as Billy readied the cloth he had been carrying. Ned reluctantly pressed the keen edge to Peter's neck. Time seemed to move slowly as Ned reluctantly, ready to draw the blade across the exposed bare flesh.

Peter, placing his hand on Ned's, astonishing him, helping to hold the blade against his neck. A thin line of blood appearing where the edge broke the skin. Taking a deep breath, his chest expanding, he whispered the words of thanks and friendship to Tom and Billy. Looking to Ned, their eyes connecting, a wan smile appearing on his face, he increased pressure on Ned's hand, pressing it firmly down.

The pain of the cut was fleeting, the blade sliced deep as if on its own accord. The cloth then quickly covering the fatal wound, as Peter's life was tendered for his community. Ned continued to holding Peter's hand, feeling the life ebbing away as the grip slackened. Tom noted the slowing of Peter's beating heart as the blood spilled under the cloth, until it did no longer, the chest no longer rising in breath. Billy confirmed for Ned that it was over; the benefaction had been made.

Closing Peter's lifeless eyes, Ned tenderly kissed him on the lips with tears he could not stop.

They gently wrapped Peter in his sleeping blanket and carried him to the cliff face, where the three teary eyed companions watching the body fall towards the ground, saw a flash of light and the Peter they knew was no more.

It was done.

Peter was gone.

Ned felt the void, the blackness overtaking him.

He was empty inside.

A silent wail of anguish to the sky above, his arms raised in supplication.

The enormity, hitting him like a herd of gruntlings, his torment unleashed.

Tom and Billy gathered by his side, holding him, bringing him back from the edge as Mithras spoke to the three of them. Allowing them to see both Manat and Peter happily sitting by her side. She was pleased with the gift in the name of the settler's clan and the clans of the Gnos. To remember they were her family and they would all prosper. To think of the selfness of Peter and to honor this day, now and in the future.

A warm gentle, soaking rain began to fall, drenching them as the storms around them dissipated, cleansing not only themselves but the rock table as well, Mithras would have all her due.

The rain showers soon ended; a brilliant clear blue sky emerged from the retreating storm clouds. The three boys gathered their belongings and walked over to Bahet with their gifts of the oregano, clasping hands they bade each other well.

Bahet, an ancient…wizened Gno, asked for a private moment with Ned, a rare honor from the titular head of the Gnos clans, to approach…a mere boy. "It is a terrible price to pay for one in love such as you, the cry of your heart was strong, I heard it powerfully but remember this, each day Mithras gives us what we need to survive, it is she who feeds and clothes us with her bounty…that she allows us to harvest. All she needs in turn for what we take from her…what she needs from us, is this small gift of thanks and sustenance, one day out of our cycle of days. It ensures that we both prosper."

Continuing, holding Ned close, his hands on his shoulders, "She gives us a home when we cross the great river at the end of our days, her valleys and gardens await us. Know this young Ned, she heard your cry…she knows of your love…feels and understands the pain of your loss…of the great gift you have bestowed upon her, for it is the rarest there is…you will be favored in her house…and your love returned when it is your time to cross the great river."

As they parted Bahet, his eyes rheumy with age and wisdom, had one last comment, "She has great plans for you young Ned, and in time you will understand. Go with my blessings, go not in sorrow, for your love is not lost…he awaits you. I hope that one day we meet again on this side of the great river, and that I can walk beside the fine man you will become. Until we meet again my son."

It was time to head home, back to their lives and the beginning of another cycle. While Ned was in a deep conversation with Bahet, having retrieved their clothing, Billy carefully placed the cloth in one of the cups they had used for drinking and secreted it in Ned's backpack. He'd let Ned know before they returned to the village.

When Ned's conversation was over, he found himself back at the ancient, age worn rock table. Of what had happened there was no trace, the rain had cleansed what evidence of the day remained. Placing the flat of his palms on the table as difficult as it was, he let his grief go. Peter wasn't gone, just away for now. He couldn't dwell in the past, no matter the pain, his future was ahead of him, there were challenges he would need to face, and many steps to be taken before he could hold Peter in his arms again.

It was quiet as the boys re-dressed themselves. The Gnos, grateful for the gift of the oregano had quietly slipped away, they could hear them softly chanting their song of thanks as they wound their way back down to return to their clans.

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