10.

That damn savage. She wouldn’t listen. She wouldn’t obey. He should just take what he wanted and be done with it. But he couldn’t. Goddamn it, he couldn’t. Even when she glared up at him with those dark eyes or scowled at his attempts at conversation, he couldn’t do a Goddamn thing.

He had never been so powerless.

Ironic. To be controlled by a slave.

He had considered the tonic, going so far as acquiring some from Father Peter and preparing a drink, only to lose heart at the last moment. He didn’t want a brainless twit for a lover. She couldn’t see how fortunate she was. Any other master and she would have already been abused and raped, if not murdered. But she refused to see it.

Every morning she woke on the carpet by his bed, her wrists still cuffed tight, her face twisted with hate. When his guards took her out to piss, he would check the damage. The grooves her fingernails had made against the leg of his bed had been getting deeper and deeper by the day. What exactly was she trying to do? Trying to cut her way through the wood? Desperate and pointless. And now her nails were worn down to the quick, her fingers clawed and bleeding.

Every day he left her alone in the tent, a dish of water at her side. Every evening he would lay down another tray of food in an attempt to make her talk: mutton, beef, chicken.

Nothing, her lips pinched tight. Forever glaring.

He even tried showing her jewellery: the rings on his fingers, the fake necklaces he borrowed from the whores accompanying the camp. She was a woman, after all, and they all liked beautiful things. But she was a savage. All she did was spit at him.

Unbendable, unreasonable, foolish. And Lord Aaron’s patience was wearing thin.

 

‘I don’t understand what the problem is, brother,’ Jeffrey said, as they walked the edge of the rapidly shrinking forest. ‘Just be done with her. She’s only a slave.’

‘A slave who cost me a lot of money.’

The day was bright and hot, the sky crowded with white fluffy clouds, the air filled with dust. They stood in a field of stumps and holes, woodchips crunching underfoot. Ahead reared the rest of the forest. It didn’t seem so forbidding now. All those rumours of dark magic and mystical beasts—they amounted to nothing. It was no different to any other forest. The cutters tore it down just as easily. Their steel jaws. Tree by tree. Some at the roots. Others through the trunk. Only a matter of months and it would be gone.

‘Then send her back to Father Peter.’ Jeffrey said. ‘Did you fuck her?’

‘No.’

‘Then you should get your money back.’ He turned to face him, eyes glittering beneath his dark eyebrows. Despite his tanned complexion, his face was pink from the sun. ‘Or you could sell her to me. I’m curious about the savage who has so ensnared my brother.’

Aaron scowled. ‘She hasn’t ensnared me.’

Jeffrey slapped his shoulder. ‘Whatever you say, brother. Whatever you say.’

 

His brother was right, of course. What else could he do? There was no other choice and the only person she had to blame was herself.

But there was one more thing left to try.

He gripped her tightly around the upper arm as he dragged her out the tent. She was strong enough to make the journey now, despite the lack of food, though she still stumbled and lurched in his grasp.

‘If you still can’t believe how good you have it, then let me show you the truth.’ It was a burning hot day. The sweat gushed under his arms and trickled around the back of his neck. The girl felt the heat too, her hair sticking to the sides of her face, gasping at the thick air. Her tunic stuck between her breasts.

Reaching the pen, he shoved her to her knees, then yanked her hair back. ‘Look!’

They were all stretched out on the ground, as much as their chains would allow, mouths wide, lips cracked, as they sucked at the heat. Despite their dark skin, they were all burnt and blistered. Panting. Sweating. Starving. Big men and small women alike. Though the smallest woman was hardly small at all.

Some had been clearly abused. By the soldiers, builders and farmers who could afford a night’s payment. Mostly the women: blood on their tunics, horror in their faces. But he could tell some of the men hadn’t escaped interest either. He could see it in their eyes. During the cooler nights, Lord Aaron could hear them screaming.

The girl must have heard them too.

If she felt anything, she showed nothing. Aaron waited. For a long time she stared. Then, finally, she looked up at him. ‘I’ll tell you my name if you let them go.’

He tried not to show his surprise; it was the most she had ever spoken. ‘Tell me your name and you won’t join them.’

She looked back, fingers nagging at her cuffs. He watched as she came to a decision. Her chin lifted. Her eyes hardened. Slowly, she rose to her feet and faced him.

‘I return to my people.’

Lord Aaron stiffened. ‘You can’t be serious.’

‘I’d rather die with them, than lie in bed with you.’

He gazed at her in disbelief. She glared steadily back.

‘Have it your way.’ Seizing her arm, he dragged her towards the pastor’s pavilion.

Father Peter was not pleased.

‘You can’t give her back! She’s used merchandise now!’

The two assistants looked up from whatever task they were performing at the rear of the tent.

‘I assure you, Father Peter, she is not used.’

Folding his long thin arms into the sleeves of his robe, the old pastor huffed. ‘This is not how I do business.’

‘I am your lord, Father, and fourth in line to the throne. You will do as I command. Four hundred silver pieces I ask in return. That’s still a tidy profit for no loss on your part.’

The pastor huffed again but half-heartedly this time. His pale eyes gleamed as he gazed down at the slave kneeling at his feet. She was staring at the floor, smooth bare back shining against the light pouring through the doorway. ‘So be it, Lord Aaron. I’ll take her back. But if I find that she has been used, I will contact the Bishop who will inform the King of your deception.’

‘I have not used her, Father,’ Lord Aaron repeated darkly.

The pastor bowed his head. ‘As you say, my lord.’

*

Zin glared at the floor as the two men spoke. More and more their English was making sense. She could almost understand them completely now, except for a word here and there that she struggled to decipher.

After so long, it was amazing how much she remembered. As a child, she and her mother used to converse all the time in English, until Zin grew up and decided she wanted nothing to do with her Paleskin heritage. She had always scorned her mother for her attempt at teaching her, accusing her of betraying the Quarthi.

Tears burned behind her eyes. How she wished she could take it all back. All the anger and frustration and harsh words. How little it all mattered now.

The two men stopped talking. Silence fell. She could feel the rapist’s gaze prickling against the back of her neck. ‘One more chance, girl. Tell me your name, and I promise you a life you could only dream about.’

Zin raised her eyes. The old man with the pale eyes was looking down on her, a cruel tilt to his mouth. She could see his teeth, and they were small and white and perfect. She didn’t think.

The old man reeled back with a yell. The rapist shouted and yanked at her hair, snapping her head back. There were gasps from the two men at the back of the room. Then all she saw was a big white palm. Pain exploded in her cheek as the old man slapped her. More pain exploded in the other cheek as he slapped her again. Again and again, he hit her until she crumpled to the ground. Her burning face pressed against the woollen floor. The air wheezed through her bloody nose. But at least the old man wasn’t smiling any more, red-faced and furious, as the two men tried to clean the web of gleaming spit off his clothes.

‘Enough!’ he roared. He pointed a long, knobbly finger at her. ‘This is why we break them, Lord Aaron. This is why you should have used the tonic. Filthy creatures. They cannot be trusted. Take her to the pen!’

The two attending Paleskins seized her roughly by the arms and hauled her to her feet. They, too, were dressed like the old man. Long dark robes with those glinting crosses hung on thick chains around their necks. But these two men were young and strong. She didn’t struggle. There was no point. She just didn’t have the strength.

The flame-haired rapist was as expressionless as white marble as she stepped outside. The sun beat down on her head and back. Already she felt a surge of regret, but she quickly shoved it away. She was no coward. She was a Quarthi and would suffer like a Quarthi.

Her people looked up at her red-eyed and mute as the two dragged her over and shoved her to the ground. The ground was little more than dirt, shit and blood baked into a hard crust beneath the hot sun. Her knees burned. All her old injuries ached. The cut around her neck itched furiously beneath its bandage.

There was a rattle as the taller of the two dusted off a metal collar chained to an iron stake. The chain was rusted. The collar bloodied. The stake already imprisoned two others: a man and a woman, both of whom barely stirred as they snapped the collar around her neck. Zin gave a little gasp; the metal was hot, and it burned against her skin. It was with little relief when they removed the cuffs from her bruised wrists and ankles.

Then they walked away, side-stepping the muck, the hems of their robes sweeping through the dust.

Zin stared and stared until they vanished into their tent. The flame-haired rapist was nowhere to be seen. The rest of the camp was so far away. She had to squint to see anything at all. Then again, that could have been from the haze of dust gusting its way in from the forest.

A strange sensation coiled in her stomach. Her heart began to pound so hard she felt pain in her jaw. The day was hot and yet goose bumps broke out all over her arms. What was going on? She desperately needed air but no matter how hard she sucked it down, only a little filled her lungs. Then came a sudden surge in her throat.

She lunged away from the others. The collar wrenched hard, making her cough and gag as she retched. Nothing but a trickle of water. She spat and sat on her knees. She looked above into the glaring blue sky, then down at the sick and weak Quarthi surrounding her. Her heart wouldn’t stop hammering. She began to shiver.

What had she done?

 

Zin’s mother once spoke of heaven and hell. Silly thing to believe: a great white god that lived in the sky and a big red devil that lived in the ground. It sounded like something from a child’s tale. And yet her mother had once foolishly believed it, before Zin’s father had changed her mind.

Heaven and hell. Pffff. Hell wasn’t in the ground and there was no mystical Devil. Hell was here and the Paleskins ruled it.

She grabbed at her collar with a wince. Every time she moved, the heavy metal rubbed against her throat and pinched against her shoulders. She wondered what it was doing to the cut underneath. No longer itchy, it burned.

She yanked at her chain, then began pulling at the stake, but gave up quickly. Her hands were already rubbed raw and her shoulders and back ached from trying all day. Her injured shoulder throbbed. It was pointless. No amount of strength would get the stake loose. It was hammered in much too deep. The chain was unbreakable too. The collar was worse. She tugged at it again. Why did it have to be so thick and heavy?

It was mid-afternoon and the sun’s glare was worse than ever, blazing against the side of her face. She shuffled in further under the awning but got little relief. Her skin was blistered and her eyes ached against the brightness. She never knew it could get so hot. It was much cooler in the forest.

Trees. The forest. Home. It made her heart sore to think about it.

She rubbed at her cheek where the old man had hit her, thinking dark thoughts.

The woman beside her stirred.

‘Thirsty?’ Zin said. Crawling over to one of the three dishes of water, Zin filled the serving cup and returned.

The woman half sat up and Zin helped her drink. ‘Thank you.’ She only drank half, so Zin went over to the man and gave him the rest. Crest and Bulla. She knew them now. Both warriors. Both injured and captured in battle. Now enslaved. It was hard to recognise them at first, bruised and bloodied and beaten as they were. They were older Quarthi, closer to her father’s age than to hers, so she hadn’t had much to do with them back home.

She returned to Crest. The woman was sitting up properly now. Slouched over. Green and yellow bruising on her face. Numerous bandages on her arms and legs—gashes from the battle. The clothes the Paleskins had given her were shit, blood and sweat stained.

She had been a great warrior once. A formidable huntress. Built of hard muscle and incredible stamina. It was hard to look at her now, so weak and vulnerable.

Zin tried to keep her thoughts from her face but Crest wasn’t a fool.

The Quarthi warrior grabbed her wrist. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘For what?’

Her eyes shone. ‘For my ugly thoughts about you and yours.’

Zin lowered her eyes. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘Yes, it does.’ Zin looked up. Deep grooves etched the woman’s brow. Crest shook her head, then lifted her face towards the sky. ‘So many things I regret. You’re no Paleskin. You’re nothing like them. And neither is your mother, nor your brothers and sisters. And Mock is no traitor for loving you all. I can see that now.’

Zin nodded, and the woman released her grip, lying back down. Zin sat for a moment, gazing into the distance. Nobody had ever said anything like that to her before. All those years feeling like an outsider, rejected and despised. It was as though a heavy weight lifted from her shoulders. Something tight loosened in her chest. Suddenly, her aches and pains didn’t hurt so much.

Returning to the dish of water, she filled the serving cup and went to help the others.

*

Lord Aaron focused on his duties. Focused so hard, he left his tent early in the morning and returned late at night. Surveying the destruction of the forest. Hearing the complaints of the farmers and builders. Speaking with the soldiers. Assessing the livestock and grains. Mediating disagreements. Sometimes he would speak to Father Peter. But he would never ask about the girl. And he would never, never get close enough to the pen to see the slaves’ faces.

He ran his fingers through his hair, then folded his arms as he watched the machines hard at work. Woodchips crunched beneath his feet. Almost God-like technology—if he could be so blasphemous. Machines that tore and chopped at such speed and fury. They would have the forest utterly decimated within the year. No more saws and mere human strength. It was the way of the future. He gazed above as the clouds of stink billowed into the air.

‘A beautiful thing, isn’t it?’ Jeffrey said.

‘What?’

‘Progress.’

Aaron grunted.

‘To think—more land and wealth for our people. Look at the expressions on these men’s faces.’ Lord Jeffrey gestured at the builders as they worked the machines or hauled away the waste. ‘Strained with work but bright with hope. Thinking of their children and their children’s children. They will do all they can to not have them suffer. And we will help them do that.’

Lord Aaron grunted again.

Jeffrey dropped his arm, looking annoyed, his dark eyebrows sitting low over his eyes. He folded his arms alongside Aaron. ‘Keep focused on what’s important, little brother.’

Aaron glared into the distance. ‘I always do, older brother.’

Jeffrey snorted. ‘Do yourself and me a favour, forget the slave and get yourself a whore.’

Aaron gritted his teeth but didn’t respond as his brother marched away.

He stood for a while, studying the destruction, the fields of holes and stumps, the dust and smoke mushrooming into the sky. The noise was incredible. Day and night, the machines thundered and whirred and screeched. No let up. No sleep. Only two weeks and already so much had been destroyed.

He studied a stump just ahead. It was so wide he must take a running leap to jump over it. And its roots—fittingly enormous, coiling and thrusting through the earth. The men were yet to remove it completely. Stubborn and deep. He passed his hand over one of its roots, following it to its source. He pressed his hand to the centre of the stump, only to pull back in surprise. He stared at his hand. So warm. He smoothed his fingers together, thinking a moment, then mounted his horse and returned to camp.

He trotted amid the pavilions and waving banners. Most soldiers had left but those loyal to him and his brother remained behind. Most nodded, some stood respectfully. Others he spoke with privately. As though of their own will, his eyes fell upon the pastor’s tent and the slave pen in the distance. Twisting his mouth, he returned to his quarters.

‘Lucas.’

‘Yes, my lord.’ The boy lowered the shield he was polishing. ‘I need you to do something for me.’

 

Lord Aaron paced his pavilion.

What was wrong with him? This was a bad idea. Lifting his chin, he dragged his fingers through the stubble down his neck. What was taking the boy so long? He only needed to look.

He turned at the sound of footsteps. Lucas’s gangly body bowed through the entrance.

‘Well?’

‘She’s alive, my lord.’

‘Did she see you?’

He shook his dark head. ‘She was just lying there. Somnolent like. Not really looking at anything. Not really moving.’

‘Did she look injured?’ Aaron paused. He began dragging his fingers through his hair before thinking better of it. Rounding his shoulders, he almost glared at the boy. He couldn’t look weak, particularly in front of another lord’s son. Particularly for something like this. ‘Did she appear … used?’

‘It was hard to tell, my lord. I kept my distance, just as you ordered.’

Lord Aaron nodded. He stared at the bedpost where he had held her captive, at the scratches from her fingernails, the ring where the wood had been worn away from the cuffs. He had given her a pillow and linen to sleep on but she had never used them. He remembered the way her long, tangled hair had draped over her face, concealing her dark, angry eyes.

‘I want you back tonight. And every night following,’ Aaron told him. ‘Keep out of sight and let me know what happens to her.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

The boy left, and Lord Aaron sat on his bed, cradling his head in his hands as he gazed at the dented helm on his bedside table. He listened out for the guards defending his door. He would be amazed if they hadn’t heard everything. Didn’t know everything. He was weak. She was a slave. Only a slave. Unimportant. Dispensable.

Then why couldn’t he stop thinking about her?

 

Every day, his squire would check on the girl. The same questions. The same responses.

‘She’s the same, my lord. Sleeping, mostly.’

And Aaron would always ask. ‘How does she look?’

‘Worse.’

And Lord Aaron would nod and think and worry.

Each night was much the same as the day.

‘Still unchosen, my lord. No one will have her.’

Too expensive. Only a lord could afford her. Or a bunch of eager men putting their earnings together. The thought made him wince.

‘Thank you, Lucas.’

Then he would toss and turn all night until morning came.

Do yourself and me a favour and get yourself a whore. His brother’s tactless words rang in his ears. Maybe Jeffrey wasn’t far from right. Perhaps he should follow his brother’s advice. Maybe it would be enough to clear his head. Help him forget about her. Help to quell the stiffness in his balls every time he thought of her strong, golden limbs stretched out on his pavilion floor.

‘Lucas,’ he called to his squire.

The boy knew his taste and brought him the usual that night. Golden haired. Short and busty. Demure and wet-lipped, with bright eyes that looked up at him adoringly. Her dress sat so low her left breast had popped out and the top of her big pink nipple peeked up at him.

‘My lord,’ she curtsied, with a swift lick of her lips as her eyes swept around the pavilion.

Her hair was a tangle of curls. Her lips painted a luscious red. Fake jewellery glinted on her fingers and around her slim neck. Her dress hung in layers, floating over her wide hips and round arse. A red sash drew the eyes to her slim waist. Obviously corseted. Pulled and stretched beyond the natural until she resembled every man’s fantasy.

What was once every man’s fantasy.

She was beautiful, there was no doubt, and when he closed the pavilion flap and took her in his arms, he was filled with hope. She had sweetened her lips with honey. Her hair was scented with lavender. And she felt so soft and warm in his embrace. His cock engorged. The muscles in his stomach tightened. And for a few moments there, he forgot all about the tall, strong savage lying injured and sick out in the elements.

Almost.

He pulled away from her lips.

‘Something wrong, my lord?’ She looked up at him almost beggingly, the light from his candles flickering in her eyes. It turned her blue eyes dark, her pale skin golden. Even threw a shadow across that pink nipple.

It almost made him believe.

Almost.

He kissed her again. More forcefully this time. Desperately. He pushed her onto the bed. She arched her back beneath him, stretching out her neck, pushing up her breasts. Her arms encircled his neck. But they weren’t long and they weren’t strong. Then it was as though he saw the rest of her with different eyes. Her breasts were too big, her hair too bright. He grabbed at her hip but all he felt was the corset. Her skin was too soft. And her eyes—there was no fire in them. They sparkled but didn’t burn.

Something inside him sagged. He pulled back again, straddling her, staring at the dented helm.

She touched his face. ‘Try not to think, my lord. Just feel.’

He looked down at her again. Her mouth was stretched into a garish smile. Her lips were much too bright, and the gleam of saliva tied a sickening knot in his stomach. Her short, frail arms tightened around his neck.

Aaron reeled back. ‘No.’ He climbed off. ‘I want you to leave.’

Her mouth tightened into an ugly knot. Her eyes glinted. She sat up, shoving her tit back into her dress with a scowl. ‘What about my money?’

He stood, went over to his cabinet and withdrew five silver pieces from his money box.

‘Here.’ He almost threw them at her.

The whore clutched them to her chest. The ugly scowl smoothed out. She bobbed her head. ‘It’s been a pleasure, my lord.’

She left.

 

11.

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