16.

Something had changed. It wasn’t big, but enough for Aaron to notice. She was looking at him more, really looking. She pretended that she wasn’t but sometimes he glimpsed her dark eyes when he suddenly turned or looked up, catching her by surprise and she would abruptly look away. And the way she sat Lance was different. No longer strained. No longer so uncomfortable. It didn’t seem to bother her so much when Aaron accidentally touched her or breathed against her neck.

Once, she even asked to take the reins, forcing him to grab at her smooth, slender hands to help guide her.

She didn’t laugh or smile, however, and she rarely spoke. And the expression she wore—though no longer sneering, which was a huge improvement—was one of worry and confusion. At times she almost seemed frightened.

They travelled non-stop for several days. Sometimes, they would camp out in the open. Much of the time they were fortunate enough to stop at a village or town so they could change their horses if needed and bathe. There he would feed her more sweets. Her eyes would glitter, but she didn’t laugh again.

With the danger pulling further and further behind, they slowed. Aaron used the opportunity at the next town to buy her some more fitting clothes.

‘It’s time to dress you properly. You can’t go on looking like that. You look like a little boy. Someone Lucas might make friends with.’

It wasn’t unusual for a wealthy owner to have his favourite ‘bed’ slave dress in decent clothes. So when Lord Aaron asked for the local seamstress, the woman wasn’t entirely surprised.

‘Tall,’ the woman breathed, gazing up the girl.

‘You have anything that might fit?’ Aaron asked.

‘I have a couple meant for large ladies I can take in.’

‘I’ll need it by today.’

The seamstress pursed her lips. ‘Today?’

‘And nothing too nice. Something conservative. She’s got days of riding left, and if you know of anyone who could provide more appropriate shoes …’

They both looked down at her boots. Men’s boots. Overlarge and heavy. They slipped up and down and blistered her feet. He had quickly snatched them up at a previous village days before.

‘I know of someone.’

‘Be quick.’

After finalising her measurements, the seamstress left, returning with several dresses and bags of shoes.

Aaron left them to it.

He returned hours later. ‘How has she been?’ he asked Sir Cletus at the door.

‘Not good.’

Aaron sighed. ‘What happened?’

‘The seamstress left an hour ago. She demands payment back at her shop. She said she won’t go near ‘that filthy savage again’.’

Shaking his head, Aaron opened the door.

He would have laughed if he wasn’t so tired. Clothes and shoes were thrown all over the room, and the girl was sitting on the bed with what remained of the dress she was wearing, half-shredded in her hands. It was clear she was trying to remake her native clothes. She glared at him, still gripping the ripped end of her now very short skirt. The rest of the dress lay upon the floor. She had torn up the top half too: the sleeves had been ripped free, revealing her muscular shoulders. At least her breasts were still covered.

It seemed the only thing that she was happy with was the boots she was wearing.

‘Well. At least we’re getting somewhere,’ Aaron said.

She left the town in the same clothes she had entered with: his tunic and britches. There was no way he was going to let her ride Lance with a skirt as short as that.

*

Zin sat alone as the men gathered in a group, the flame-haired lord included. They were camping out in the open tonight. She preferred it that way. Tilting her face, she gazed up at the stars and took a deep breath. The air might have been filled with the stench of manure and pollution but it was better than the stuffy heat of the four enclosed walls the Paleskins loved so much.

The Paleskin men were loud, and Zin listened intently. Sometimes it was hard to understand what they were saying—gibberish half the time—but she understood enough.

They weren’t happy. And she was at the centre of it.

‘I won’t lie, Lord Aaron,’ one man with a thick beard said. ‘I don’t like this. We’ve put ourselves in peril, and all for a slave.’

‘What will we do when Lord Jeffrey invades?’

‘He won’t invade. I am a Toth, as well as he, and we are brothers,’ the lord said. ‘We love each other.’

A snort. ‘And brothers never fight. Never rage war. Never fight over women. Three in one.’ The man spat. ‘The odds ain’t good.’

‘What will the king do, do you think?’

‘He will side with me,’ Aaron said. ‘I was always his favoured one. He’s always detested Jeffrey.’ He tried to sound certain but not even Zin was fooled.

‘You’ve given us very little reason for loyalty.’

‘What will my family do when we’re pushed off our land?’

‘You’ve created division. Even war.’

‘All for a harlot.’

They turned to look at her. Zin lowered her face to her feet, picking at her toenails.

Soon, the meeting was done, the night was old and Zin lay down to sleep. The Paleskin lord joined her at an arm’s distance. He was staring at the sky, hands on his chest, deep in thought. And for the first time, Zin felt pity and hope and guilt—all for a Paleskin.

She gazed at him a long time, steeling herself, arguing with herself, before the word finally tumbled from her lips. ‘Zin.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Zin. My name is Zin.’

He looked at her and was tactful enough to keep the surprise from his voice. ‘A good name. It sounds strong.’

‘It means the light that never fades.’

He glanced up. ‘Like the moon.’

‘Like the sun.’

‘Did your parents call you that?’

‘Who else?’

‘I only mean—’ He licked his lips— ‘You’re unusual, that’s all.’

‘You mean because I’m half and half?’ She couldn’t believe she was talking with him. She needed to stop but her mouth kept moving against her will. His question hung in the air.

‘My mother is one of you. My father is Quarthi.’

‘He took her.’

‘No,’ she snapped. ‘They’re in love. She willingly joined my people. We are not beasts to enslave women like your people do.’

Silence filled the night, broken only by the snoring of the men and the gentle whickering of a dreaming horse.

‘Tell me about your people,’ he said.

And she did.

*

By sunup she had bunched close to his side, head against his shoulder, breathing gently into his neck. He dared not move lest he wake her and lose the only good thing about that morning. Half his men had deserted him. And doubtless the rest were teetering. Things were unravelling. God only knew what awaited his future.

He thought about all he had told her last night. About her family, her people. He had stayed up for hours despite his exhaustion, as she talked and talked, her eyes glittering, her voice high. The moonlight gleamed against her hair and the moisture on her lips. His men must have heard her. She probably annoyed them with all her noise, but he hadn’t cared. And that accent. A couple of times he caught himself merely listening to her voice more than what she was actually saying.

And what she actually said was astonishing. Who would have thought the savages could be so much like … well … the Toths? Smart and skilled. Highly creative. They might not have steel or technology or books but they had homes and clothes that kept them warm during even the coldest of nights without the need for fire. Despite their simple living conditions, they seemed to live longer, healthier lives than his own people. Few died from disease. None died from hunger. They had special herbs and bark that could withstand the rot. They could heal breaks, cure fever, all by using what the forest provided. They even had a root that held off pregnancy. What the whores could do with that!

So many things, small and large, that widened his eyes. And all the while he watched her, unable to drag his eyes away. She had spoken of magic too, of a people called the shamri, of a God called ‘the Mother’ and warks and chokra and ceremonies of power—all that he discounted, of course. Still, the ‘Quarthi’, as they were called, could be forgiven their little quirks after all they had accomplished. They made good fighters too. He had had personal experience of that.

He kept very still, fighting the urge to brush the hair away from her face. It was over a week since the assault and almost all the swelling had gone down. Though there was still a small black smudge in the corner of her eye, along with a fading yellow bruise that ran the length of her jawline.

She truly was a beautiful creature. Sleep softened her features. She appeared almost like a child, her lips plump and pink, her dark eyelashes long and full, her elegant neck stretched out and vulnerable. There were streaks of gold in her hair he hadn’t noticed before, and they shone against the rising sun.

A jewel. A living, golden jewel. His hand looked so pale against her shoulder, big with blunt fingers. An ugly blip against her perfection.

He gazed down on her, trying to keep his breathing shallow, trying to keep quiet. Let this moment last as long as possible.

‘Lord Aaron.’ His name boomed across the clearing.

Aaron winced.

The girl woke with a start, eyes widening as she peered up at Aaron. They widened more at the sight of his arm around her shoulders, at her breasts pressed up against his chest. She was so close their lips almost touched. As fast as a whip she pulled away, scuttling several feet, breathing fast, her cheeks filled with pink.

Aaron sat up with a sigh. ‘What is it, Sir Brandon?’

 

All day she barely said a word, except to ask for water. And again she had returned to holding herself away from him as they rode Lance, stiff and uncomfortable. It made Aaron boil—with rage, with lust. His cock was so hard it bent painfully against the crotch of his britches. If she didn’t give herself to him in some way soon …

The next day’s sunrise was cloudy. Mid-morning was drizzly. By the afternoon it was raining hard and they were forced to take cover for the evening.

They stopped at a dreary and soggy little village called Drod. Barely more than fifty inhabitants. The pitted main road caked in donkey shit and rot. Chapel. Well. Watermill. Several huts. The people were dirty and stared shamelessly as Lord Aaron and his knights followed the grovelling priest to the chapel. The village was so small it had no inn or anywhere fitting enough for a lord.

‘Forgive the austerity, but we don’t get many visitors, particularly one as distinguished as yourself.’

‘It’ll do just fine, Father Paul.’ Aaron glanced at the dented bronze edging of the altar, the collapsing pews, the dusty corners. Water dripped onto the hard stone floor. Mud dragged inside. There were two private rooms at the back where the priest and his student slept and studied. Lord Aaron and his knights would take the rooms. The boy and the priest would sleep out in the nave along with Aaron’s soldiers.

When the priest realised Aaron would take the slave in with him, he protested, ‘I’m afraid I can’t allow any unchaste deeds in the house of the Lord, my lord.’

Aaron stared the pastor down until he quailed and stuttered. ‘You can’t allow? You can’t allow? I am the nephew of the king. I am beyond God’s rules.’

The priest licked his lips. ‘Forgive me, my lord.’

Aaron seized the girl’s wrist and pulled her after him.

The room was like a cupboard: cot, desk, lamp, a small high window that ushered in the moonlight. It was dank, the air heavy. But at least it was private. Aaron lit the lantern while the priest brought in clean sheets and towels. As usual, the girl stood in the corner, holding herself, her wet hair sticking to her face. His tunic, splattered with mud, clung to her breasts.

The priest left with a frown between the eyes. Aaron threw Zin a towel.

‘You can take a seat at the desk when you’re done, Zin.’ She jerked at the sound of her name. ‘Since you detest beds so much. Though I wouldn’t call this much of a bed.’

The damn thing was so sunken the middle almost sagged to the floor.

He hoped she would have removed her tunic again to dry off but she seemed to have learnt since the last time. That didn’t stop Lord Aaron from doing so. As he slipped it off, she shifted awkwardly in her seat and lowered her eyes.

‘Here.’ She looked up with a start, then yanked back as he seized her chin. ‘Stop acting like a child. Your stitches, the skin is flaming up around them. They need to be removed.’

He retrieved a blade from his belt. She stared in surprise at her little bird knife.

‘A remarkable little tool,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t just throw it away. Do you trust me?’ She continued to stare at the knife, not answering. ‘You don’t really have a choice, Zin. It’s either I cut them out or you take on the rot and die.’

She looked up at him, a slight scowl to her mouth, but tilted back her head. It was difficult. They should have been removed days before and her skin was already growing over them. A droplet of blood trickled down her throat.

‘Sorry.’ He had to get close, so close he could feel her warm breath against his cheek. Her dark eyes were wide and round as she looked up at him. Her skin was soft beneath his fingertips. Another droplet of blood welled and trickled, but this time he caught it with his fingertip and slowly dragged it back up, wiping the bloody trail away. She was panting now but not out of fear. When their eyes met, she didn’t look away.

As he removed the final stitch, he brushed his lips against hers. He heard the breath catch in her throat. He couldn’t remember a kiss so awkward. Maybe, long ago, when he was still a boy, untried and unskilled. Then he remembered that she was barely more than a girl, herself.

Five hundred silver pieces.

He kept it soft. He kept it light. Merely the slightest brush of tongue, and then only to part her lips. He hovered stiffly over her, afraid to make any jarring movements, though his back began to ache, then throb. She was like a doe. Too easy to startle. He would deal with the pain.

And maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t sleep alone tonight.

*

She should pull away. She should pull away! But her body wouldn’t obey, and it was burning. Burning in a way she had never known before.

Her lips tingled against his. The breath of him, the smell of him, seemed to envelop and embrace her, until she could barely sit straight, until she could barely think straight.

Pull away. Pull away. Hit him. Kick him. Take the knife.

But her lips kept moving. Her heart kept pounding. The blood rushed through her veins until her face and neck and ears burned. His stubble scratched her upper lip. His nose pressed against her cheek. His tongue dragged against her teeth. The bird blade clattered loudly against the desk

She felt pressure under her arms as he lifted her, and somehow she found herself on her feet, in the middle of the room, in his arms, pressed up so hard against him she could feel his heartbeat. The skin of his bare back was hot against her fingertips. He kissed her harder. And she was kissing back! The Mother take her! How long had she dreamed about kissing a man like this?

But not a Paleskin. A Quarthi. Not the enemy.

The enemy. Bulla. Crest. Abba.

No.

She tried to pull away but he tightened his arms until there was no space between them.

‘No!’

She yanked away. She wiped at her mouth. He stood back, lips flushed and swollen, his chest rising and falling, eyes glittering. He half held out his hands, as though willing her to come back to him.

But she would not do it. She could not do it. She sagged back into the chair. ‘Leave me alone.’

He tried to keep his face impassive but the red rising up his neck was hard to hide. ‘How long are you going to keep fighting this?’ He kicked off his boots, then unbuckled his leggings.

She stood with a start, hand searching for her knife on the table at her back.

‘Have no fear,’ he said. ‘I have no desire to take you. If I had, I would have done so already, many times over.’ His leggings dropped to the floor, and Zin turned away, but not before she saw everything: the mass of coarse hair, the low wrinkled sag of his balls, the long stretch of his cock, red and swollen. The mere thought of it seemed to fill the whole room. Zin released a shaky breath, clutching the bird blade tightly in her fist.

‘Keep it,’ he told her. ‘You won’t do anything. I know your thoughts and feelings.’ His voice deepened with frustration. ‘Your people are gone. There’s no way to go back. And I see the way you’ve been looking at me. In the eyes of God, you’re already mine. And I don’t mean as my slave.’

She raised her eyes, then looked away again. He continued to stand shamelessly in the middle of the room, as though expecting her to do something. As though expecting her to fall. He was strong. Much stronger than she thought. He might even be as strong as her father. The flickering lantern light brought out the ripples of muscle in his stomach, the hard ligaments in his thighs, the glint in his eyes. The muscles bulged in his shoulders. He trained. He fought.

A lot.

Zin licked her lips. She had underestimated him. Even with all her skills, even at her fullest strength, she would be no match against him. She was his to possess, to take, if he wanted.

But he didn’t want it.

It confused her. It was against everything she had come to believe about the Paleskins.

Their remorselessness. Their mercilessness.

His bare feet scuffed against the floor as he picked up his towel and wrapped it around his waist. ‘I’m taking the bed, and I suggest you join me. These chapels can get cold, even in the heat, particularly if you’re lying in wet clothes on the hard, stone floor. I promise I won’t touch you. Like I said, if I wanted to, I would have done so already. You need to start trusting me. You need to start …’

He shrugged, sighed, then slipped between the sheets of the little cot. The room went dark as he blew out the lantern. He was turned away from her again, smooth pale back facing her, just like the last time.

Zin sat, unmoving, for a long time. She was comfortable at first. Then she began to shiver as the cool evening air breezed through the window. Eyes trained on his back, she scuttled over to the corner where her towel lay and quickly changed out of her wet clothes, wrapping the towel around herself. She paused, waiting, but he didn’t move. His breathing was slow and regular but she could tell he wasn’t asleep. He was listening and waiting.

She would make him wait all night. She had slept in worse places than this.

She tried. The Mother help her, she tried. But the hard, stone floor wasn’t the problem. It was the sound of his breathing. The thought of him being so close. His heat seemed to radiate across the room. She rolled on her side, pressing her forehead against the wall, then rolled back again. Then she rolled on her stomach before turning back to face him again.

Soft lips, broad gentle hands, warm arms. She touched her mouth where he had kissed her. His shoulders rose and fell as he breathed. Rose and fell.

Zin sat up, hands fisted in her lap, as she stared and stared and stared. I can’t. I shouldn’t. I’m a warrior. A hunter. I’m stronger than this.

The room seemed to wobble as she stood. The sound of her footsteps seemed to thunder in her ears. Her pulse thumped in her neck. Then she was at the bed. The cot squeaked as he rolled over. He lifted the blanket before she could change her mind.

The cot was only meant for one. Short and narrow. It should have been uncomfortable, but she didn’t notice.

She didn’t notice much at all, except him.

 

17.

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