Please note: alterations have been made to chapter 18 as of 03/09/2019
Zin stared after her father, long after he had disappeared from sight. Now that she was all alone, she suddenly felt cold. It became hard to breathe. Her hands shook.
Her stomach knotted more tightly. She couldn’t look at him, couldn’t listen to him. Just … couldn’t.
It was daylight now. The sun beat against her face. It lit up the small copse of trees, the dead bodies, the blood. But that was not what made her heart clench in her chest. It was the fields rolling into the distance, the weaving road, the crosspatch farms. The villages that dotted the horizon. This was not her land: the great forests, the deep rivers, the warks and magic. There was no magic here.
‘Zin.’ A hand slid into hers. Zin closed her eyes. Gently, he turned her around. Aaron. Lord Aaron. A Paleskin. A faqwa. Her eyes were still closed as he pulled her against him. He was warm and hard. She felt his heart beating. She pressed her nose into his skin. Her breathing slowed, the knot in her stomach loosened.
He brushed his fingers through her hair, then lifted her chin. Zin opened her eyes and gazed into the blue. Eyes the colour of the sky. He was smiling, then he was kissing her. Softly, gently. He pressed his forehead to hers.
‘Come. Sit with me. Talk with me.’
He led her back to the tree, hobbling.
‘Your leg,’ she said.
She shook her head. ‘We’ll need to fix it if we’re going to get to your king in good time.’
He paused, then sat with a sigh. ‘All right.’ He nodded towards his horse. ‘There are supplies in my bag.’
She brought the bag over. The supplies were strange: more of that soft linen rolled into balls, strange ointment. Padding. Metal clips.
He nodded at the ointment. ‘It protects the wound from rot. Much like your people’s bark, I suppose.’
The cut was more than just a cut. It was deep. She felt a pang of guilt.
She wiped the surrounding skin down, then smeared on the ointment. ‘Thank you for saving my father.’
‘He’s a good man … in spite of everything.’
She looked up at him. He was gazing at his dead men. His jaw was clenched. Lines creased his forehead. Then his eyes fell to hers. She quickly looked down as she began bandaging him up.
‘Do you … do you really think the king will help my people?’
Aaron was silent. ‘I don’t think so, Zin. He wants your land for a number of reasons. Needs your land. I doubt compassion will sway his hand. Even if he were to see you. Even if he were to see that you’re a real person. Beautiful and vital and full of life.’
Zin paused, her heart pounding.
He took her chin. ‘Zin.’ She stared back into his blue eyes. The morning sun blazed against his hair. ‘Listen to me. We cannot go to the king. If we do, I cannot guarantee your life. He might kill you. He’ll likely enslave you.’
Zin pulled away as she sat back on her knees, staring at him. ‘You said there was a chance.’
‘I said the chance was slim.’
Zin glared at his bandaged leg.
‘My original plan was to take you back to my home,’ he said. ‘But it would be a foolish thing. I will have to pay for what I’ve done. My uncle would never let me keep you.’ The bandage was already starting to bleed through. ‘There is another option. We can … we can leave all this. Hide away in some farm in the most distant corner of the land where no one will find us. We could live out our days together. Your people are doomed, Zin. But you don’t have to be.’
Zin licked her lips. They were cracked and bleeding. He was watching her, hopeful, pleading. She nodded at his leg. ‘You’ll need to get that stitched.’
‘Zin, your father wouldn’t want this. Your family wouldn’t want this.’
‘How do you know what my family would or wouldn’t want?’ He shut his mouth. Zin took a breath. It hurt. The air seemed to burn in her lungs. It was a wonderful dream. She could almost see it. Pressed up against him on a cold winter’s night, warm and content in his arms. Seeing his face every day. Those blue eyes gazing into hers as they took each other in their Paleskin bed. Or better yet—out beneath the trees in a pile of leaves and soft grasses. But how could she live knowing what happened? That she hadn’t done all that she could? Even if it was as unlikely as he said. It would haunt her for the rest of her life. That tiny chance.
Her family dead while she lived and loved. It could never be.
‘The morning is getting late and my people are dying.’ She stood and turned towards the horse but not before she saw his face fall.
A wonderful dream but just a dream.
They rode in silence. Aaron had the reins, and she found she couldn’t stop staring at his hands. How big they were. His warm breath brushed through her hair. He hadn’t said much since they had mounted, sad and thoughtful.
It would take fourteen days to get to Fairmont, he had told her—his people’s pearly white capital. The thought of entering a place so terrifying, a place that had brutalised her father and uncle so mercilessly, made her tingle in fear.
He might kill you. He’ll likely enslave you.
They rode at a brisk pace. They would head for the next town where he would fix his leg and they could rest for the night. Rest for the night. She gnawed at her lip. She knew there would be no resting. At least not until later. It filled her with guilt. She should be focused on the task ahead. But she knew herself. She wanted it. She needed it. She would open herself up to him. Fourteen days. How very long it was. How very short it was. How she ached to get to Fairmont as soon as she could and how she ached to take as long as possible.
Zin touched his hand. To any passing Paleskin, Zin doubted they looked anything like lovers, so stiff and awkward. Or maybe they did. Maybe it was obvious. They didn’t speak, barely moved, but the air seemed to crackle around them. Her skin prickled. Her face burned. Every time she shifted in the saddle, he would shift too, and a sudden boiling heat surged through her veins. It pooled in her hips, seared through her groin. All simply because of the feel of him, the smell of him, the warmth of his breath against the back of her neck. Such small things. Sensations she had never known before. To think so much was happening when nothing was happening at all.
The town they stopped at was only small, at least compared with some of the others. Though it was giant compared with the clan. He bought a room and Zin waited while he went to the town ‘physician’ and got himself fixed up.
He soon returned.
Four walls. A bed. A tub with now soiled water. Their filthy clothes had been taken to be washed. Aaron had purchased new clothes for the both of them, but they were lying on the floor, still bundled up. Ready to wear after …
Zin stared at him as he sat on the edge of the bed. His manhood was flushed and rock hard and pointing at her. His chest was white and clean. The muscles in his sides rolled under his skin as he breathed. His eyes glittered. He seemed comfortable within himself, so different from Zin.
Zin’s hands fidgeted at her sides. She wanted so badly to shield her bare groin, to fold her arms across her breasts. To turn away. She was supposed to be strong and fierce. She had fought bravely, stared death in the face. And yet, here she was, trembling like a little girl. How could she be filled with so much yearning and yet so much dread? Her fears made his cock seem overlarge. They made Aaron himself seem overlarge. As though he could crush her. He was gripping his knees, and she hadn’t realised until then how big his hands really were.
‘Not here,’ she croaked.
‘Not here.’ Her eyes flicked about the room, at the bed, the pillows, the high window, the four walls, the hard wooden floor. She could hear townspeople talking outside, the mooing cows. It was all so stale and dead and uncomfortable. Dark and hot. Like a prison. It stirred feelings in her guts she didn’t like.
Out in the trees. What little there was, at least. Enough to make things a little more familiar, to make her feel comfortable and safe. It blocked out the town and noise; the main road with its shouting people and rattling wagons. Moonlight beamed through the canopy in delicate halos. She could almost make herself believe she was back home in the deep, ancient forest. She could almost imagine that just through the trees was her parent’s tent, the clan, her sisters and brothers.
He was sitting. Zin was kneeling, her hand pressed against his bare chest.
‘Better?’ he said.
She nodded. Smiling, he brushed the hair away from her neck. She was wearing the ‘dress’ he bought her. Plain but functional, he had told her. Whatever that meant. He had already dressed down to his new britches, his once clean tunic tossed into the leaves. He pushed her dress high up her legs, exposing her thighs. He touched them as he kissed her, brushing his fingers higher and higher until she tingled, then burned.
He pulled her to the ground, the leaves crunching beneath her back. He kissed her lips, the corner of her jaw, the side of her neck, then paused to gazed down on her. His eyes were soft. A gentle smile deepened the dimple in his chin. Zin touched his cheek, running her fingers through the soft stubble. Her hand no longer trembled.
‘You ready?’ he said.
He kissed her again. His big hands were rough against her skin, covered in callouses, but gentle. Not as gentle, nor as pleasurable as his lips, though. Nor his tongue. She grabbed onto his head, trying not to laugh as he kissed her inner thighs. He pushed her dress to her hips while slipping down her ‘underdrawers’ as he called them. Then his lips were against her, his tongue inside her. She gasped and jerked.
Then he was dragging up her dress, his lips following, kissing wetly against her skin: her hips, her navel, her ribs, her nipples. Zin sat up and he slipped the dress off. He stared at her, panting. The dim light gleamed against his skin. Shadows collected in the muscles of his navel, in the notch at his throat, in the dips of his collarbones. He stood to remove his britches. Zin gazed up at him, fighting the urge to close her legs. The air was cool against her wetness. Against the wetness he left behind. Disbelief. Fear. Exhilaration. It all washed over her in a great tide. He dropped his britches, and she looked away, turning towards the canopy.
He lowered himself. His breath puffed against her face. His weight pushed her down. Gently, he took her chin. She was panting along with him now. He was on top of her, straddling her. His cock rested hard and engorged against her belly, already slick with seed. She had seen plenty of cocks before. Kintas weren’t particularly concealing. But this was different. This was hers. In a moment it would be inside her, a part of her. After so many years of rejection, she still couldn’t believe it. For so long she had thought she would die a lonely old woman.
Aaron frowned. ‘There is nothing to fear.’
‘I’m not afraid.’ But her voice shook.
His frown deepened. He went to say something, then stopped himself.
Lips against hers. Chest hard upon her breasts. He grabbed her hands, kissing harder as he entered her. Zin winced. She sucked in a breath. But she had suffered worse. Much worse. The wound on her throat was proof enough.
It wasn’t the pain she was so fearful of. It was the closeness. The invasion of her body. She gasped as he thrust. His lips pressed down harder. Thrust. Thrust. A deep slide in, a rough slide out. She could feel him swell. Feel the heat of him. It made things worse. Her soft insides stretched around him until she thought she must tear. It stung. It made her hips ache. The world turned red. She turned away from his lips, grimacing.
A grunt, a shudder, and he was done. The pain eased. Her body relaxed. She could still feel him inside her but it no longer hurt. She turned back.
His eyes had dulled. ‘It’s never nice the first time. Rarely romantic.’ He kissed her cheek, the corner of her mouth. ‘But I’ll try my best.’
Sliding off her, he sat on the ground next to her. Zin’s heart went cold; his cock was pink with blood. Aaron saw her looking and glanced down at himself.
The skin creased between his eyes. ‘It’s normal, Zin. There’s no easy way.’
She nodded, went to sit up but he pressed her back down. ‘No. Stay.’ His eyes glittered.
‘Open your legs. I’m not done yet. You’re not done yet.’
He ducked down between her legs, and Zin arched her back with a gasp. Her fingers clawed into the earth, her heart pounded against her ribs, as a burning sensation crackled through her body. She had touched herself plenty before but it had never been anything like this. That softness. That wetness. Her opening burned. Her body was on fire. It almost hurt. He kept nibbling. His tongue lashed. Suck. Lick. Then his mouth was fully against her.
Her legs jerked in his hands as she cried out.
She lay flat, suddenly exhausted, gasping for breath. Above, the canopy rustled gently in the breeze. Through the branches she could see a white fluffy cloud pass over the moon. She looked over at the sound of laughter. He was sitting by her hips, wiping his mouth, a satisfied grin on his face. Something bubbled up inside her, and suddenly she was giggling, then chuckling, then laughing too.
His grin turned wild and playful and he pounced. She screamed. Laughing. Shrieking. As they rolled together, tumbling through the leaves. His arms around her, his legs entangled in hers. His skin was hot and slick with sweat. His red hair was in her face. Then they were still and he was holding her tightly, his chin on her head, her face pressed into his throat. He was stroking her back.
‘I like it when you laugh.’ He kissed her lightly on the ear.
Zin smiled into his neck. ‘I like it when you like me laughing.’
He chuckled and the sound of it rumbled through his chest. Zin gripped onto him, her fingers pressed lightly between his ribs. They stayed that way for a long time, listening to each other’s heartbeats, enjoying the tingling burn of each other’s skin. Zin pressed her lips to his throat. Aaron tightened his arms.
‘I think I love you,’ he said, his voice muffled in her hair.
Zin froze, letting it sink in as she listened to his breaths, as she felt the pulse beating in his throat.
‘I think I do too.’
She felt him smile against her. Heat filled Zin’s cheeks, her throat, burned behind her eyes. It surprised her.
She hadn’t even known.
Aaron’s whole body was pulsing. He’d had plenty of women before, mostly whores or maids or lowly farmgirls. But he’d never had anything like this. And she nothing but a slave. No. Not nothing. He needed to stop thinking like that.
He peered up into the trees, unmoving, just enjoying the feel of her. He could hear a sheep bleating in the distance. A bird tweeted somewhere in the branches. They couldn’t have picked a better place. Much better than that dank, dark room in town. The sky, the sun, the freedom. As he gazed around him, feeling the cool earth against his back, the gentle breeze through his hair, the warmth of Zin’s breath against his chest, he began to understand, if only just a little, why her people were the way they were. Why she was the way she was. Why they had always chosen to resist. Why they had never progressed.
Why would they?
It was a startling realisation, and one which made his heart beat hard.
‘Aaron?’ He looked down at her. His name still sounded so strange on her lips. But he liked it. He liked it a lot.
She looked up at him, tears on her cheeks. ‘Hold me closer.’
They didn’t return to their room that night, sleeping in each other’s arms beneath the canopy of the little woods.
But they woke early, Zin eager to get going. Aaron took his time all he could, asking her to redress his leg, touching her hands, her face, her hair, as she did. Kissing her. But they were gone by sunup. He glanced one last time at the little woods.
Another brisk pace. They were pushing Lance hard. Too hard. Aaron would have to replace him soon. His destrier. A royal horse. An expensive horse. They would be able to afford several more at his price. The thought made his chest feel heavy. He’d had Lance since he was a foal.
Aaron spoke as he rode. With so little time, he wanted to get to know her. He wanted her to get to know him. He pointed out the sunflowers and ash trees, the dandelions and hedgerows, all the crops and plants brought over from Euroba.
‘It’s my homeland. A big continent from far across the ocean.’
‘Is it bigger than here?’
He smiled. ‘Much, much bigger. With lots of different cultures and people. Toth is like a thumbnail against the wide broad back that is Euroba.’
She gazed at the acres of crops. At the cows and sheep. He had noted she had been particularly fascinated with the pigs throughout their journey. None of them were native to Toth.
‘Then why come here if there’s so much of it?’
‘There’s never enough land. We always want more.’
‘More,’ she murmured under her breath.
‘You wouldn’t understand. You don’t understand. You and your people. And pray you never do.’
She fell silent, pondering, then lay against him. He tightened his arm around her waist. A farmer riding a donkey pulling a cart of hay nodded as he passed, utterly oblivious to who Aaron was. Probably thought him a wealthy merchant. It was a strange feeling. A liberating feeling. He hadn’t experienced such anonymity since he was a child, when he used to play on the streets covered in dirt and filth with the stableboys and squires.
His men were gone. No knights or trumpets or standards to herald his coming. His destrier attracted raised eyebrows. An expensive horse for a lone wanderer, but nobody cared enough to wonder. And his clothes were plain. He had made sure of it. His supplies were limited. He had plenty of gold, of course, but he kept it safely tucked away in the folds of his britches. His polished sword and dented helm were hidden beneath the supplies strapped to Lance’s back. His long dagger would do for any brigands who passed their way.
It had been a long time since he had felt so free. So at peace. And whenever thoughts of what lay ahead besieged his mind—fourteen days— he would simply press his nose into Zin’s hair or kiss her neck.
Zin shivered as he did so now.
‘I would ask you to stop doing that but I like it too much,’ she said.
Only a few hours since their lovemaking and she had opened right up. Joking and smiling. She hadn’t said so much in the whole three weeks they had known each other. Her cheeks were always pink now. She liked to touch him, particularly his hands. He hadn’t expected such a huge turnaround. But he wasn’t complaining. He couldn’t wait to get to know her.
Brushing the hair away from her neck, he kissed her again.
The fluffy white clouds that had shrouded the sun so lightly in the morning turned thick, then grey, then black by mid-afternoon. Rain was pouring by the time they reached a muddied inn called the Traveller’s Way. Lord Aaron knew the inn, as well as the town—Freighton’s Gate. Aaron and his men were supposed to stop here on their way back. He stiffened as he scanned the dining room but there was no sign of Sir Brandon or Sir Ream.
‘Come.’ He took Zin’s hand, keeping her close to his side as he arranged a room with the innkeeper’s wife.
The room was bare but spacious. Aaron stomped off the mud from his boots as he entered, and Zin shook out of her wet cloak. He had purchased it for her at the first village they had passed through. It kept her safe. With her hood up, nobody knew she was a woman or a slave or of childbearing age. A trifecta of danger in a region filled with too many lonely men.
There was a small uncertain crook to her mouth as she slipped into bed beside him but nothing more. That uncertain crook became a frail smile as she gazed up at him lying on top of her.
‘Don’t be afraid, Zin. It’ll be good this time, I promise you.’
He kissed her, she kissed back. There was blood on her underdrawers when he removed them but it was only a brown, dried streak—old.
It was an easy slide in. Wet and smooth. Her eyes widened in surprise, then half-shuttered in relief, then closed in pleasure. She arched her neck and he sucked at the bottom of her jaw, her mouth open in rapture. The bed was rickety, squeaking at every rock. The headboard was too close to the wall and banged against the timber. She gasped as he plunged deeper, much deeper than before. No longer so careful. She gripped at his arms, nails digging in. Grabbing her head, he kissed her long and deep as the pressure in his balls built and built. He grimaced against her lips at the release, gasped. He slowed his thrusting, enjoying how her insides clung tightly around him, milking him dry. She was orgasming hard.
They stopped, panting. The light of their single candle made the sweat sparkle like little diamonds across her broad shoulders. Now, as she looked up at him, her eyes were gleaming.
He grinned. Kissed her on the cheek, on the jaw. ‘Told you.’
He ran his hand along her upthrust thigh, down through her thatch of sticky dark hair, then along her hip. He smoothed his hand over the hard muscles of her stomach. Her hips were sharp points. He could see her ribs sliding under her skin. He remembered her being much fuller that first night when he purchased her. She once had fat around her hips. There was nothing there now.
He traced his finger over the pack of muscles in her abdomen. ‘You said you were a hunter.’
‘I am a hunter.’ Her voice strengthened. ‘And a warrior.’
‘I don’t doubt that.’ He kissed her belly button, then raised his eyes ‘That spear. That throw. It was remarkable.’
‘That was nothing.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘You almost killed me.’
She grinned. ‘I know. But what could I do? You were the enemy and you were going to kill my father. I would do it again.’
‘And I would suffer the pain of it all over again.’
He nuzzled her neck as she laughed. Then she quietened, looking away, her eyes bright with tears.
‘Your father is a good man.’
‘We will get to Fairmont and we’ll do all we can.’
She nodded, turning her face away.
‘Zin. Look at me.’
She did. He sighed at the sight of her tears. He kissed them away, then gazed hard into her eyes. ‘There is no time to be sad. You’re doing all you can. Live in the moment. With me. We have so little time.’
Her chin wobbled. She looked away again.
Pushing his face into her neck, he sucked lightly. She turned back to him, meeting his lips.
He would make her happy. He would make her forget.
He pulled her beneath him.