‘Join us.’ The flame-haired Paleskin gestured for her to sit down.
Zin ignored him, looking around her warily. It was a huge hut. One of many she had seen along the endless dirt road they had been following throughout the morning. She had only ever known one wooden hut amongst the clan. The Quarthi preferred to use their deer-hide tents. They were cooler in the heat, warmer in the cold and were easy to transport when on the move.
She wondered how the Paleskins could possibly transport this. The posts were so thick, the roof so high. She had never seen so much wood. Zin’s eyes fell upon the long wooden bench the flame-haired Paleskin and three of his men sat around. The whole room was filled with them. Then she dropped her eyes to the floor. Her bare feet crackled against a thin layer of wet, dirty straw. She grimaced. She didn’t like the smell of the place. Of sweat and of that strange tangy liquid the Paleskins liked to drink.
A tall thin woman wearing too many clothes bustled over with a tray of cups filled with more of that said liquid. She gave Zin a swift disgusted look before setting down a cup in front of the flame-haired Paleskin with a respectful bob. Zin watched as the woman left. Her kinta was so thick and long it was a wonder she didn’t trip over it. How could she hunt or even move in such a thing? Her shoes crunched loudly against the straw.
‘Girl, I won’t ask again. Sit, or I’ll make you sit.’ The Paleskin gestured at the end of the bench. Zin sat. A cup had been set down for her. She glanced at it, then pushed it away. The four men kept their distance, speaking quietly to each other. Around the room other men passed them curious glances.
Then the food came and her caution slipped away. She didn’t know what the meal was and was too hungry to care. A slab of red meat and some kind of soft yellow root, both of which were covered in a thick grey sauce. The mere smell of it filled her eyes with tears. Her stomach roared.
She snatched the dish out of the woman’s hands. The woman reeled back. ‘Filthy urchin!’
Then there was nothing in the world but her wet lips and tongue and ravenous hunger. Warm, watery blood trickled down her wrists as she tore at the meat with her teeth. She licked the grey sauce off her fingers. Scooped the soft, sticky root into her hands.
Only when the worst of her hunger was sated did she take a breath and look up. The Paleskins were watching her. One was shaking his head. The two others were expressionless. The flame-haired Paleskin was watching her keenly and seemed almost satisfied. She vaguely noticed they were using knives to spear their food.
Ignoring her own, she licked the dish clean. She even had some of the drink to wash it all down with. By the end, her face and hands were sticky with blood and sauce, and her swollen jaw wouldn’t stop throbbing. She had never felt so full of life.
When they were done eating, they left the hut behind and fetched their horses. The Paleskin ‘lord’ as the others called him, waited for her to climb onto their mount before climbing up behind her. Zin tried to pull away but the thick fist of leather at the front of the ‘saddle’ pressed into her groin and she was forced to sit fast against him. She felt it sometimes—his groin. Much of the time it felt like nothing at all. But sometimes it twitched. Other times it hardened. So much so, it felt like a heel pushing into her back. Like now. After everything that had happened, it made her skin crawl.
She turned with a sneer. The lord pressed his lips together, a pink hue to his cheeks that hadn’t been there before. Then they were off and Zin turned back just in time to balance herself as they jerked ahead. How Zin hated horses. How her father had withstood it, she would never understand. Her arse ached. Her legs ached. And at every bump it knocked her bruises and tore at her cuts. They had barely rested at all since her escape from that disgusting camp. Fleeing, it seemed, from the man who attacked her.
Zin bit her lip. That dark-haired man with the cruel eyes. His filthy cock as he tried to ram it into her, beating her and scratching her like a cornered animal. His harsh voice: I’m glad they didn’t break you. That’s my job. Zin clawed her broken nails into the front of the saddle. The feel of his stubbled jaw, his wet lips, his hot breath. The bruises around her wrists where he had pinned her burned. Against her will she released a choking sob. The Mother help me. Strong and brave. Strong and brave. Regathering herself, she pushed the terrible night behind her and gazed ahead.
The Paleskins had ruined the land, just as her father said. Rolling fields dotted with their strange heavily-titted beasts they liked to suck from. The rows and rows of colourless flowers they liked to eat, standing tall and waving in the breeze. Wooden horses that trundled noisily against the road. Ugly little villages in the muck and mud. Here and there were clumps of trees. Pathetic and depressing. The air had lost its sweetness, tasting dank, almost sandy in her mouth.
Why would anyone prefer this to the ancient enormity of the forests confounded her. Wild and untamed. Living, breathing, always changing and growing. The corners of her eyes pricked with tears. Her land. Her people’s land. She remembered the dream. Those fields of slime and dust. Not so far-fetched. Maybe not a dream, after all, but a vision. She dismissed it. She had no power. She was no shamri, having taken their tests as a child—and failed.
But what about that eagle dream of the approaching Paleskin forces? Or more so, her father’s almost death? The eagle helm. The Paleskin’s great sword. How it speared straight through her father’s flesh. She shivered at the memory, and suddenly the warm press of the Paleskin who had almost murdered him was like the prickling of thorns against her back.
She instinctively reached for her belt of knives, to find nothing but the bulky Paleskin leggings that chafed at her thighs. She glanced around at the men around her. Over twenty of them. All mounted. All armed. Three of them wore the same clothes. Bright colours. Red stripes down the forearms. Most wore boiled leather. A few wore the metal. The pinch-faced boy—apparently the lord’s attendant—was the only one out of place. Young and uncertain. Though he, too, rode a large horse and had a sword belted at his hip. He met her gaze and she abruptly turned away.
Their journey continued as the sun arced through the sky. Sweat beaded her upper lip. The glare beat down upon her head. The gentle breeze whispered through her overlarge top. She tried rolling up its ridiculous sleeves but they kept slipping down. Soon, the throb and ache of her wounds faded away.
Her eyes closed.
Aaron felt the girl sag against him. He shifted, so that he took her full weight against his chest and very carefully eased one of his arms around her waist so she wouldn’t slip and fall. The hairs on his arm pricked at the contact. Jeffrey had had her bathed, and he could smell the lilac in her hair.
So far, it was a rare thing. When awake, she did all she could to pull away, though it was clear it caused her pain. Only twice before had he been able to hold her so close: when he had carried her back from Jeffrey’s tent and soon after they had fled the camp. It was then, as they had made their thunderous escape in the darkness, she had lain against him, just as she did now. For hours he had let her sleep, his arms aching with the strain of holding her up.
He hadn’t forgotten how she had wept and quivered on the bed. How limp she had felt in his arms as he carried her away. It was hard to reconcile that woman with the sneering, obstinate woman he held now.
Except for their quick meal at the inn, they had only dared stop to water the horses. The threat of his brother’s revenge was too close for comfort. He needed to put as much distance as he could between them. He had sent a soldier out to scout behind them but the road was clear. As far as they could tell, Jeffrey wasn’t following.
Aaron was no fool. That didn’t mean they were in the clear. Far from it. There was still his uncle up ahead, who would no doubt soon receive word of his younger nephew’s betrayal. And Jeffrey’s vengeance was unlikely to improve with time.
Aaron stretched out his fingers. Pain lanced down his fist and into his wrist. His knuckles were bloodied and grazed and he suspected a few of them were broken. He ached and throbbed all over from where his brother kicked and punched and slammed into him. Even in places he had never suspected he suffered any kind of injury: the inside of his thigh, deep in his left armpit. Even still, Aaron remembered the attack fondly. The way Jeffrey’s nose crunched. The sound of him crashing through the dresser. The look in his eyes, so full of surprise and dismay. He would do it all over again and be glad of it.
Love him, Aaron still did. But he would no longer be the patient, passive little brother. Something had changed. Not only within their relationship but inside Aaron himself.
They rode as far as they could for the rest of the day. His men were tired but strong, if not wary and uncertain. They were loyal but quick to voice their concerns.
‘I mean no disrespect, Lord Aaron, but what in God’s name are you doing?’ Sir Cletus had said as they sat awaiting their meals at the village inn earlier that morning. Aaron’s closest knight and twice Aaron’s age, Sir Cletus had been loyal to Aaron’s father before he had died—now to him. His stubble was grey but he was just as strong and lethal in a fight as he had ever been. His grey eyes peered at Lord Aaron doubtfully.
‘I am being my own man, Sir Cletus.’
The old knight looked at the girl, shaking his head. ‘You need to be more than a man, Aaron, you need to be a lord.’
Aaron scowled. ‘And what would you have me do? Go back to my brother and beg for forgiveness?’
‘No.’ His grey eyes were hard. The old knight knew Jeffrey better than even Aaron did. Having watched him grow up, having seen his cunning, his tendency towards violence.
‘That would not be a good idea.’
‘What is done is done and I all I can do is deal with the consequences.’
‘Some of the soldiers are grumbling,’ Sir Ream said.
‘Let them grumble. They have that right. Let them leave if they will. But let them know that if they do they will no longer be under my protection.’
‘They’ll defect to your brother or to the king,’ Sir Brandon added, tightening his grip on his cup. The black bristly hair of his knuckles stood out.
‘Defect?’ Aaron raised his eyes. ‘What defect? We’re all the one kingdom, are we not?’
The three knights looked at each other.
Tightening his jaw, Lord Aaron studied the girl. They all did. Her head was lowered, but he didn’t doubt she was looking and listening intently, mouth twisted, eyes narrowed. Her cup of wine remained untouched. He could imagine her hands fisted in her lap. He felt a surge of regret. What crazy urge had thrust him on such a spiralling descent?
The girl grumbled in her sleep and Aaron’s mind turned back to the present. She had curved into his chest, her head propped under his chin and turned to the left so he could feel the hot wet heat of her breath against his throat. He tightened his arm around her waist.
Those scratches on her face. Her tears. Those black eyes as she slit her own throat. The soft fanning of her eyelashes as she lay unconscious on his bed. The curve of her shoulder. The gleam of her hair. That ferocity on her face as she made that impossible throw. Her strong slender fingers and their chipped, bloodied nails. The first time she spoke. Only one word, barely a croak: water. But it had struck something within him. And it hadn’t stopped since. Like a bell that wouldn’t stop ringing. So much about her was imprinted on his brain.
And somehow, while she lay soft and warm against him, with his difficult future still weeks ahead, his unpredictable past pulling further and further behind, all his doubts, fears and worries faded into the distance.
Just on sunset they reached the town of Blackbon. It was a nothing town. Small. Calm and out of the way. Few fortifications, no castle, only a manor house that stood high on a hill. The Treaton family traded heavily in wool, the surrounding fields dotted with sheep. The air was filled with the echoing sounds of their bleating.
Lord Milton Treaton was wide-eyed as he invited Lord Aaron and his knights into his house. The rest of Aaron’s men would be held up in an inn in town
‘If you had warned me of your coming, I would have made preparations,’ Lord Milton spluttered through his moustache.
Aaron’s feet thudded heavily against the stone-tiled floor. The Treaton house was small, clean and conservatively adorned. Here and there he spotted Lady Treaton’s decorative additions: vases of flowers, diaphanous drapes, soft bright rugs that Aaron did his best to avoid so he wouldn’t drag mud all over them.
‘My apologies,’ Aaron said, ‘but we were in a rush and I had no time to send an envoy ahead. We only need stay the night.’
‘Ann, the Lady of the House, and my two daughters will meet us for dinner.’
‘No need, Lord Milton. I only wish to eat a simple meal in my chambers and then be off early morning. Do not expend yourselves. Though it would please me if you could provide a tub of warm water and some clean bandages. I have wounds that need tending to.’
Lord Milton raised his eyebrows as he cast a quick glance over Aaron. Then his eyes stole to the girl hobbling behind: bare-footed, bedraggled, bruised and battered. The girl saw him looking and snarled at him.
Lord Milton hastily turned away, clearing his throat.
The room was spacious enough, cool, with a large window that overlooked the town. Sirs Brandon and Cletus shared a room down the hall. Sir Ream was currently guarding his door. Lord and Lady Treaton weren’t far away. Lord Aaron could only hope the girl would behave herself.
Aaron shut the door behind them. The girl’s eyes narrowed as she backed into a corner. The maid had already filled a tub of water. A basket of dressings sat on the table. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Aaron unstrapped his leather breastplate and unbuckled his belt with a sigh.
‘You need to stop fearing me, girl. I saved your life. What else can I do to make you trust me?’
‘Let me go.’
‘I’m not having this discussion again. I’ve told you already. You go back and you die. My brother will find you and destroy you, along with the rest of your people.’
She lifted her chin. ‘So be it.’
Rolling his eyes, he nodded at the basket of bandages. ‘They are for you. Clean your wounds and cover them or they’ll fester.’
She didn’t move.
‘God, you are infuriating! Do it or I’ll have my knights hold you down and I’ll do it for you.’
She complied with a sneer. Taking up the basket, she knelt beside the tub. Before he had time to leave, she had already slipped off her tunic and her golden-brown breasts gleamed against the lantern light. Lord Aaron stared, shocked, burning, confused, before remembering that it was perfectly ordinary for these savage women to expose their breasts in the company of men. Water trickled down her cleavage as she began washing herself. More beaded her dark nipples.
Releasing a breath, Lord Aaron looked away before turning back again, his eyes trailing over the rest of her. And suddenly the burn in his groin shifted to somewhere deep in his stomach. He stared at what appeared to be a bite around her left nipple. His heart began to hammer.
‘My brother,’ he spat,’ is a devil.’ She looked up at him, then back down as she bathed a deep scratch under her ribs. She didn’t wince, didn’t complain, though it obviously hurt. ‘My only consolation is that he has suffered for what he did. My only regret is that I didn’t make him suffer more. If I were any man, I would have killed him.’
A bloodied welt under her left breast. Black and red bruising down her left side, more across her abdomen. Innumerable scratches. He couldn’t be entirely certain what was caused by his brother and what were old injuries from the battle. It didn’t matter. The bruising on her face was showing now, her right eye swelling rapidly. Come morning she would be peering through a slit. The right side of her jaw was puffy. There was blood around her left ear.
Lord Aaron stood. Startled, the girl leapt into a defensive crouch, teeth bared.
‘Finish alone. I need some air.’ The door snapped shut behind him.
Zin gazed at the door the Paleskin had left through, then raced to the window. She hadn’t yet had a chance to take a look at the most obvious escape route. The breeze was warm against her face as she peered outside, the moon dull behind a thick swathe of clouds. Her sudden excitement abruptly dampened: the ground was far below and there was nothing to climb. The wall was slippery with moss and unnaturally smooth. Nowhere to grip. Nowhere to place her toes. She rotated her sore shoulder. It had been aching since that day she had thrown her spear to save her father. It was improving but it would never hold her weight. Not yet.
Her heart dropped as she gazed into the distance. The forest, her home, was long gone. At least she could still see the mountains. Small comfort. She glanced down at the enormous Paleskin settlement. All huts, no tents and so many people. Music played. People shouted. It was so strange, so disconcerting. It left a sour taste in her mouth.
She turned back to the room. It was the first time he had left her alone and unchained, but there was an armed guard at the door. She briefly looked around for some kind of weapon, only to give up. What was the point? She was no fool. If she killed the flame-haired lord, what then? She would either be skewered or handed back to the slavers. Zin shivered at the memory of those pale, translucent eyes, of those cold, brutal hands.
Better off killing herself.
She looked out through the window again, at the ground far below. If she fell right she would break her neck. She gripped her throat with a grimace. She had already tried once—and failed. Besides, if she were smart, if she were patient, there might be a chance for escape in the future.
The Mother willing.
I am my father’s daughter. Strong and brave. To kill herself now was anything but.
Dropping back beside the tub, she continued tending her wounds.
She was sitting in the corner of the room, finished with the tub, dressed and scratching at the stitches in her neck, when she heard noise at the door. She straightened, then slowly rose to her feet as the door opened.
A young girl holding a tray of food stood in the entrance staring at Zin. She was probably a little younger than Xala, pale-faced, with golden hair that coiled down her shoulders. Much like Zin’s mother. She wore a strange covering over her head.
‘Hurry,’ the guard at the door growled.
The girl baulked, then hastened inside, her long kinta swaying around her feet as she laid the tray on the table. Sparing Zin a second fearful glance, she swept from the room. The guard gave Zin a hard look before shutting the door.
Zin didn’t hesitate, rushing over. White meat—probably some kind of bird. Greens. A steaming soup that filled the room with mouth-watering smells. And a strange wobbly something that gave off no scent and which she poked at half-heartedly. And, of course, a cup of that yellow drink.
She ate everything except the wobbly something which she pushed out of the way. She even finished the cup. Her hand hovered over the unused knife before she fisted it at her side. No. He’d notice. She’d made that mistake before.
She turned at the sound of male voices, quickly retreating to her corner. The door opened. The Paleskin lord stepped inside, glancing around the room, eyes fastening onto her before dropping to the tub of water and pile of soiled dressings. He looked unusually pale, the freckles standing out on his neck. It appeared as though he had bathed, looking clean, newly dressed, his hair damp. The smell of sweat was replaced with something almost sweet.
He nodded. ‘Good.’ He went over to the table. ‘And you’ve eaten. And drunk! But what about the pudding? You don’t like sweets?’
Zin didn’t answer.
He squinted at her. ‘You didn’t redress your throat.’ His boots thudded softly against the floor as he approached. She raised her hands, prepared to fight him off. But he merely took her chin and lifted it.
‘It’s red but there’s no ooze. Good. Healing.’ He raised his eyes to hers. ‘You’ve been scratching at it.’
Again, she didn’t answer. His blue eyes gleamed in the flickering light. His hair flamed.
‘Stop it, or you’ll infect it. And eat the pudding.’ He gestured at the table. ‘It’s yours. You’ll like it, I promise you.’
He sat down into a cushioned seat with a sigh. After a moment, Zin returned to the table. She glanced at the knife, then at the ‘pudding’. She scooped her hands through it. It was soft and sticky.
‘You should use a spoon,’ he said.
Ignoring him, she pressed it into her mouth. Her eyes widened, she gasped, then turned to face him, hand at her mouth.
His face cracked into a grin. ‘Told you you’d like it. Haven’t had anything like that before, have you?’
That was an understatement. The sweetest thing she had eaten were strawberries. But they were nothing compared with this. She couldn’t describe it. It almost seemed to explode in her mouth. Never had she thought there could be such sweetness. It seemed to go straight to her head like chokra, like the yellow drink, but in a way that sent all her senses reeling. She took another bite. It seemed to fizz in her mouth, tingle against her tongue. Her mouth and eyes watered. She took another mouthful, and when that was gone, licked at her hands like a dog.
The lord laughed. White teeth. Glittering eyes—they had never seemed so blue. Then something happened Zin couldn’t believe. She was laughing too.
Soon the laughter died, and Zin returned to the tub to wash her hands, the lord’s grin fading to a contented smile as he watched her. ‘I’ll get more for you, better, anything you want. There is so much out there you are yet to experience than just a simple custard tart.’
She touched her tongue. ‘Sweet.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Yes.’ He continued to gaze. Zin continued to wash her hands, though the stickiness was long gone. She kept her eyes to the floor, not knowing where to look, the feel of his gaze sending a tingle down her spine. ‘I like your smile. You should do it more often.’
She didn’t respond.
Yawning, he climbed to his feet. ‘It’s late and we must rise early tomorrow. You can take the bed if it pleases you.’
Zin shook her head. Never. She would never sleep on that thing.
He didn’t cuff her and the knife rested on the table. She heard the guard shuffling on his feet outside the door. Through the window came voices and laughter and howling dogs.
He blew out the light. The moonlight glowed against him. He had taken off his boots, his top and was lying on his side facing away from her. The blanket and pillow he had given her lay in an unused pile on the floor as she sat and stared. He was breathing gently. His back was slightly curved and she could see the individual bones sticking out down the middle.
She hadn’t realised until then how broad he really was, the hard muscles in his shoulders, the svelte curve of his waist. A dark mole kissed his right hip. Without his clothes on he seemed bigger, more interesting—more male. Even the pallor of his skin didn’t repel her. In fact, it seemed almost beautiful against the moonlight.
She shifted awkwardly, heat in her cheeks. She had never had a man before, never been wanted before. For so long she had pushed away her urges. It was too painful. None of the Quarthi men had been interested, and she was forced to protect her feelings. But now all those old urges suddenly came rushing back. It left her flushed and panting, her palms slippery with sweat.
Quickly, she turned away, curling herself up in her blanket as she tried to push the sensations back. She couldn’t feel like this. He was the enemy. She tried to focus on her family, the battle, the slaves, to build back the rage and sadness. It worked a little, but the sound of his breathing seemed to echo in her ears. Long and deep. Warm and strong. She imagined the beat of his heart.
She buried her face into the pillow.