After another long day, Lord Aaron collapsed back into his chair. He ripped open his shirt. His chest was red. He felt a trickle of sweat roll down his back. He had gone to see the physician because his head wouldn’t stop throbbing and he was having terrible difficulty sleeping. Lord Aaron knew why but he wasn’t about the tell the physician that. ‘Just give me a tonic,’ he had demanded. Something that can get her out of my head.
He twisted the little vial in his hand. Somehow, he could still smell the scent of lavender from the whore the other night. As he so often did, he glanced at his dented helm. Twisting his mouth, he popped the cork and was just about to down it all in one gulp when the tent flap lifted and Lucas stepped inside.
‘You forget yourself, boy,’ Aaron snapped. ‘I didn’t ask you inside.’
‘But you told to me to inform you straight away if there were any changes.’
Lord Aaron turned sharply. The vial slipped from his grasp. ‘What’s happened?’
‘My lord, she’s been sold.’
Jeffrey. His own brother. Aaron should have known.
The cup shook in his hand as he downed the rest of his wine. He poured a fifth. A sixth. It was an hour since Lucas had told him about the girl and all he could do was ponder and drink. Wiping his mouth, he sat on the edge of his bed, then got up again, pacing his room. He needed to get over it. She was just a slave. But the dented helm and the bone knife kept drawing his eyes.
My brother. Aaron knew what Jeffrey was doing. It was far from the first time he had acted like an arse, lording his dominance over him. The first-born son. Third in line to the throne behind their cousins: Prince Jacob and Prince Robert. Their father’s favourite. The better fighter, the better leader. And his appetite for women was legendary. Always, Aaron had stood in his older brother’s shadow.
And yet, Aaron loved him. And that, more than anything else, kept him pacing helplessly in his tent. He downed another cup of wine. Imagine it—confronting his brother for such a thing. He shook his head. He could see the look on his brother’s face. That crooked half-smile of disdain. I’m curious about the savage who has so ensnared my brother. A challenge. A test. A game. What would his little brother do?
If Aaron asked, would Jeffrey release her? Possibly. But what if he didn’t? Would Aaron then back down? Like a coward. Like a fool. Or would Aaron actually try to fight him? All for a slave? Either way was failure. The embarrassment would follow him for the rest of his days. Jeffrey would never let him forget it.
And nor would Aaron.
Aaron’s eyes latched onto the helm. He touched his head. The bruising had all but vanished. If only the pain had. He released a breath and went back to his wine. He poured another cup, lifted it to his mouth but stopped before it touched his lips.
God help me.
He set it down. ‘Sir Ream, Sir Cletus.’ His two guards stepped inside. Lord Aaron picked up his sword. ‘Escort me. I’m going to meet with my brother.’
His smile was worse than his eyes.
‘It’s duck stew. My personal favourite. Thought you might like it.’ He cocked his head as his eyes raked over her. ‘You look better. Feel better?’
Zin didn’t answer, gripping the bowl tightly in her fists.
He went over to a table holding more of that pale liquid the flame-haired Paleskin was so fond of. ‘I am your master now,’ he said as he poured out two cups, ‘and you will answer when I ask you a question.’ He turned back. The smile hadn’t left his face. ‘Now, do you feel better?’
She gave a small nod.
His eyes raked over her again as he took a drink. Licking his lips, he set the cup down. Then he held out the second cup. ‘Come. Give it a try.’ She didn’t move. ‘I order you to take a drink. It’ll relax you. It’ll make the night easier—for us both.’
She went over, her feet padding softly against the ‘carpet’, as the slave had called the woollen flooring. Never had something so soft prickled so much. His eyes followed. Still, that smile. If she could call it that. More like that curl to his lips. She stopped as far away as she could whilst still within reach. He held out the cup. She reached for it. But before she could take it, he seized her wrist and yanked her close. The pale liquid splashed. The curl to his lips lifted. She was still holding the bowl and was considering smashing it over his head, when his face softened. Lowering his eyes, he gently turned her hand over. He brushed his thumb across her palm.
‘You are not like the others,’ he said. ‘So different. So intriguing. Little wonder my brother has his eyes on you.’
He must have seen her confusion because he explained, ‘My little brother, Lord Aaron, who kept you by his bedside for so long.’ She raised her eyebrows in surprise. ‘I know, I know. We look nothing alike, right? The same father, different mothers. Half-brothers.’ He continued to stroke her palm. ‘Apparently, he didn’t even touch you. All that time. How he managed I will never understand. You’re a beautiful creature, even for a slave. If I didn’t know he had a cock, I would question whether he truly was a man.’
He snatched the bowl from her grasp and put it on the table, then lifted the cup to her lips. She took a sip and winced. The Paleskin laughed. He pressed the cup into her hands.
‘I suggest you drink the rest of it. I’m not gentle at the best of times, and if you truly are a virgin as Pastor Peter says, then it’s going to hurt a whole lot more.’
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he patted the seat beside him. Zin’s eyes flicked to the pillow. Still holding onto the cup, she sat.
He touched her knee. ‘If you please me you can have all the duck stew and wine you want. A soft bed. Shelter. Protection. I can give you everything. You’ll live much better than you did in the stinking forest. And far better than those sorry souls out in the pen.’ He squeezed her knee a little too hard. ‘Understand?’
‘What did you think of Sugar? The slave who bathed you,’ he finished at her blank look. ‘You would do well to follow in her footsteps. She’s one of the few slaves to survive intact. And one of the fewer still to survive me. She is much like you. Half and half.’ He brushed his fingers through her fringe. His voice softened to a whisper. ‘Not nearly as beautiful though. Nor so full of secrets.’
He looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘What should I call you? I might have bought you but you’re not truly mine until I’ve named you.’ He dragged his finger down her right arm. ‘Something sweet. Like sugar. But sweeter still. Smoother.’ He cocked his head. His eyes flashed. ‘Honey. Let’s call you Honey. What do you think?’
‘To answer me properly, you need to speak. Say, “Yes, my master”.’
‘Yes, my master.’
‘Good. We shall be great friends, Honey, I’m sure.’ He leant his face in close, smiled when she didn’t react, then kissed her.
It took all Zin’s strength not to pull away. Patience. Courage. I am my father’s daughter and I am strong and brave.
It was a strange sensation. His breath stank of the drink and his thick stubble grazed her chin. But it wasn’t altogether terrible. His lips were soft and wet and he parted her lips slowly. Nor did he shove his tongue down her throat like some of the Quarthi girls complained about.
He pulled back. His lids were lowered. His eyes dark. ‘How do you like that?’ She nodded. ‘Take another drink.’ Zin did, the Paleskin gently tilting the base so that she drank it all. Then he took the cup off her and placed it on the table beside the bed.
He didn’t wait. He didn’t warn her. It was so quick. Suddenly he was on top of her, Zin flat against the bed, his heavy weight pushing her down. His mouth was all over her. And it was no longer so nice. She grimaced as he stuck his wet tongue in her ear. Winced as he squeezed her left breast much too hard. His hands—they were so big and even worse than his mouth. Grabbing, groping, pinching, squeezing. He had managed to slide her clothes halfway down, exposing her breasts, and his mouth was soft and wet against them. His tongue lapped. His saliva stank all over her. He stank. And those white grasping hands made her stomach roil.
But she kept her cool. He was in position, his head down. His arse was up, his hands busy. Like the rest of these Paleskin men, his hair was short and she could see the back of his neck clearly. That pulsing artery wouldn’t be far away.
She arched her back as she slid her hand under the pillow. The blade glinted in the candlelight as she withdrew it. Her heart pounded in her throat. The back of his neck seemed to gleam an almost unearthly white. She tightened her grip on the handle.
Everything happened so fast. She slashed out. Dark eyebrows. Dark eyes. A long, strong arm whipped out, catching her wrist in a crushing grip so that she dropped the blade. Then he had her pinned, both hands above her head, straddling her. Panting, Zin stared up at him wide-eyed.
He didn’t look flustered at all. He didn’t even look angry. His lips were curled up again in that sinister half-smile. And she suddenly realised that he wasn’t dumb at all. He had left the knife out intentionally.
Master hates games, unless he’s in control.
His smile broadened. ‘I always like a good fight.’ He lowered his face close to hers so she felt the heat of his breath. ‘I was hoping they hadn’t broken you. That’s my job.’
Zin spat in his face. He didn’t react, merely grinned more, then spat back. From there it was hard to know anything at all except the sound of her own screaming and the ferocity of his attack.
Lord Aaron jogged through the camp, his knights close behind. Lucas followed too but Aaron had warned him to keep his distance. Most of the men were asleep. Those who were awake watched him in surprise.
He couldn’t blame them. It would be a strange sight. Few torches burned but the moon sat high above the dust, and the sky was empty of clouds. He could hear machines, ever sleepless, whirring in the distance. Then something else—screaming.
His heart clenched. It was a woman’s scream. It could be a whore or another slave, he tried to convince himself. But Aaron knew better. There was a particular scream to the women his brother abused.
He hastened into a sprint.
The banner of his brother’s pavilion hung limp in the still air. Jeffrey’s two guards stood outside the entrance, unmoved by the terrible cries coming from within. Sir Murren and Sir Kint.
‘Stand aside, I must see my brother,’ Lord Aaron commanded.
‘Lord Jeffrey ordered that nobody enter tonight. Not even you, my lord,’ Sir Kint said.
The screaming heightened to a terrifying pitch. His stomach coiled into a tight knot. Hot. He felt unbearably hot. Aaron glared at the two guards, his eyes feeling as though they were burning in his head.
Let come what may.
‘Sir Ream. Sir Cletus,’ Aaron said. Steel rang as they unsheathed their swords.
Aaron raised his own. And for the first time in his life he was eager for the fight. He had never felt so reckless, so fearless. Sir Murren and Sir Kint looked at each other. Their hands were on their hilts but they didn’t have a chance to withdraw, his knights’ steel already at their throats.
Lord Aaron didn’t delay.
‘Brother!’ he roared as he stepped inside.
No response. Either Jeffrey didn’t hear him amid the screaming or didn’t deign to care. It didn’t matter to Aaron. All he saw was red. They were in the bed. He was on top of her. White arse up, balls dangling between his legs as he tried to penetrate the squirming golden body beneath him. Her long legs were flung wide. Aaron could see her thatch of hair, the soft wrinkled skin of her opening. His brother was almost there. All thought fled, and suddenly all Aaron knew was his bare hands.
Dropping the sword, Aaron seized his brother around the waist and hauled him off her, throwing him to the floor. A small table shattered as his black head smashed into it. Then he was on top of him, and Aaron knew nothing but the satisfying crunch of his fists against flesh. His brother was gone, the pavilion, the girl, his guards. His fists were the world—along with his brother’s mangled face.
Jeffrey threw a flailing punch with a desperate yell. Pain exploded behind Aaron’s left eye. He slumped off his brother. Jeffrey reached into his boot but Aaron seized his wrist before he could whip out the concealed knife. Aaron threw a fist again, felt a crack. Blood spattered down Jeffrey’s face.
His brother shouted again. ‘What the fuck is wrong with you!’ He kicked out and sent Aaron sprawling. His older brother managed to stagger to his feet, stumbling into a nearby cabinet as blood gushed down his chin and chest from his broken nose. More blood matted his hair from a gash across his forehead. But all Aaron really saw was his cock, still half-rigid. His pubic hair was bloody but Aaron couldn’t be sure it was from the girl or from his own injuries.
Aaron’s hands curled into fists. Vaguely, he felt the pain blast through his knuckles. It was nothing. He would break every finger if it meant he could sink them further into his brother’s rotten face. He lunged. His brother yelled, the world turned, then he was falling. The dresser buckled, splintered, then smashed as they collapsed into it. His brother suffered worse, Aaron was pleased to find, lying beneath him in a moaning, bleeding heap.
Finally, Lord Aaron pulled away. Staggering dizzily to his feet, he leant a hand against the wall of the pavilion. He was panting. The room was a blur. His shirt was all torn up. What might have been sweat or maybe blood trickled down behind his ear. No pain, though he knew that would come later. For now, all he did was burn.
Burn with rage, hate. He had never felt so powerful.
His brother lay there in his broken cabinet, panting and covered in blood as he glared up at his brother. He was in shock, Aaron could see. Aaron was surprised too but triumphant as well. He felt it surge through his veins. No longer in his brother’s shadow.
And never again.
Lord Aaron lifted his chin. ‘No more, brother. You can take charge of the camp from now on. I’m going home, and I’m taking what’s mine.’
Aaron strode towards the bed. The girl was lying on her side, curled in a ball, weeping quietly. His eyes followed the small bones of her spine. When he touched her shoulder, she shook violently.
‘It’s all right,’ he said gently as he wrapped her in the topmost sheet. ‘I’m getting you out of here.’
He pulled her into his arms and he was surprised to find she wasn’t as heavy as he thought.
‘Lucas!’ he shouted. His squire appeared through the flap, ashen-faced and wide-eyed. He glanced around the tent, saw Jeffrey, and paled until his lips turned blue. ‘Pack everything up. Round up the men. We’re leaving.’
Aaron vaguely registered the surprise on the knights’ faces as he stepped outside.
‘Sir Murren, Sir Kint, tend to Lord Jeffrey. He needs you.’
Aaron’s own knights stepped away, releasing them. The camp was dark and still as he made his way back. It was strange. It didn’t feel like he was walking at all—rather it seemed as though he was gliding. Everything seemed so surreal. He heard the thud of his knights’ footsteps. The distant murmuring of men. People watched him. Torches flickered. Banners rustled in the breeze. There was little doubt a large portion of the camp had heard the commotion. And nobody could unsee the truth: a slave in a lord’s arms.
They would be speaking of it for years to come. What would his uncle think? Lord Aaron pursed his lips. What was his brother thinking? Aaron’s life would never be the same again. His uncle might be brutal enough to strip him of his titles. If Aaron were lucky, he might escape a whipping. He looked down at the girl in his arms. Somehow, the thought didn’t fill him with dread. She hadn’t moved and continued to tremble but not so violently. Her warm breaths puffed against his arm. She kept her head tucked away, her dark hair draped over her face.
He pulled her more tightly into his chest.
The pavilion was empty and it was strange to see just how normal it looked when everything else felt so different. He laid the girl on the bed, then went about packing some essentials. His knights waited outside. Soon, Lucas returned.
‘The men getting ready?’ Aaron said.
‘Some, my lord. The rest just laughed.’
‘I’ll talk to them. I want to be gone as soon as possible. Leave the tent. Pack up only what we need.’
‘But—’ The boy gazed around the tent. All the luxury and expense.
‘It matters not if we’re dead, Lucas. There’s no trusting what my brother might do.’ He stepped outside. ‘Sir Ream, Sir Cletus, protect the girl. I’ll return shortly.’
After speaking to his men, Aaron returned to the pavilion. Lucas had finished packing and was loading a horse. A second horse stood saddled and ready—Lance. Lord Aaron’s Destrier.
The two knights bobbed their heads as he entered the pavilion. He paused. The girl was no longer on the bed. For a moment he wondered if she had escaped. Then he saw her: sitting on the floor in the corner of the tent, her knees to her chest, her head on her knees, the sheet wrapped around her.
He went to say something before remembering he didn’t know her name. He crouched in front of her. ‘Can you stand? We must go.’
She didn’t respond.
He reached out to touch her knee only to pull back when she whipped out a clawed hand. She hissed something in her mother tongue. He felt a flash of anger, quickly subdued when he noticed how she shuddered.
Then he saw something that turned his heart cold. He seized her chin before she could stop him. She scrabbled at his arms. Skin peeled away. But he hardly felt a thing except his pounding heart and the icy rage rushing up his spine. He brushed her hair aside.
Long, bleeding scratches down her face and neck. Blood stained her lips and chin, more clotted around her nostrils. She was holding her mouth strangely as though it pained her. No bruises or swelling yet. But he knew he had hit her hard. Only God knew what lay hidden beneath her sheet.
He looked into her dark eyes and she looked back. She stopped clawing at his arms, holding them weakly as she fought against her tears, but they wouldn’t stop rolling down her cheeks.
Lord Aaron released her and stood. Pacing the room, he dragged his fingers through the thick stubble of his neck, gazing in the direction of his brother’s pavilion. Aaron had left his sword behind, but he could borrow one from one of his knights. He was about to step outside when Lucas appeared.
‘Everything’s ready to go, my lord.’
Something of Aaron’s fury must have shown on his face because the boy stepped back. Aaron released a breath. ‘Good. Wait by my horse.’
The boy nodded and left.
He turned back to the girl, who was back to clutching at her legs. He grabbed up the clothes he had picked out for her earlier: one of his own tunics and a clean pair of britches.
‘Girl.’ Slowly, she looked up, her eyes shining behind her curtain of hair. He held up the clothes. ‘Put these on. We’re leaving.’
She remained still for several moments, then nodded. Lord Aaron stepped outside, giving her a few minutes of privacy before returning. She was standing in the middle of the room. She was almost eye to eye with him and broad for a woman and yet his clothes still hung off her. Her feet were bare but he doubted any of his boots would fit.
‘Come.’ He held out his hand. She looked at it but didn’t take it. He pulled it back, fisting it at his side. ‘Our ride is waiting.’
Outside, she stood at a cautious distance, eyeing the horses warily. Lucas mounted his. Sir Cletus and Sir Ream did the same. Lord Aaron stood next to Lance, waiting.
‘Come,’ he repeated. She glanced at him, then turned towards the forest. The light of the moon illuminated the haze of dust but barely more than that.
‘You can’t go back.’ Aaron said. ‘My brother will destroy it. And if he were to find you, he’ll destroy you along with it. Think of tonight and imagine it ten times worse.’
She continued to gaze at what was once her home, apparently ignoring him.
‘And I won’t let you,’ he continued more forcefully. ‘I’ve risked too much only to have you killed.’
She glanced at him, then looked towards the pen of slaves, then finally at Jeffrey’s pavilion. It was quiet. The flap closed tight. The two knights were gone. Aaron could almost believe he was asleep for the night.
She looked at the horse uncertainly.
‘You’ve never ridden before?’ He gestured at the stirrup. ‘Here. Foot in here.’
She clambered on, gripping fearfully onto the pommel as she tried to adjust to such an unfamiliar position. Lord Aaron climbed up behind her. She released a hiss of breath and stiffened but nothing more as he pressed up close against her and circled his arms around her to grip the reins.
Lord Aaron turned to look behind. His small retinue of mounted men was ready. One last glance at his brother’s pavilion and he nudged Lance into a trot.