20.

Please note: alterations have been made to chapters 18 + 19 as of 03/09/2019.

 

They made love twice more that night. By morning the sheets were crusted with sweat and seed. Feeling joyful and generous, Aaron flicked the innkeeper an extra copper piece for the trouble.

The rain stopped. The sky opened up. The roads were busy and their pace slowed. The clop of Lance’s hooves punched through the racket of the passing wagons and screaming children.

‘What town is that?’ Zin said, looking up at the tall, defensive wall rearing ahead.

‘Belmont.

She must have heard something in his voice because she looked back at him. ‘You like it?’

‘Very much. Aside from Fairmont it’s the most interesting and beautiful town in Toth.’

She turned back with a grunt. ‘One town is much like another.’ She sounded tired.

He smiled against her head. He knew she wanted to ride the fields, to escape the people and roads, but Belmont wasn’t to be missed. Huge and sprawling. Full of merchants and traders. Wealthy and elite. Lord Clipton had always had an eye for business … and for beauty. Outside of Fairmont, it was not only the wealthiest but arguably the prettiest city in Toth. It was nothing like she had yet encountered, and he was eager to prove to her that his people were much more than a chain of grubby little villages and overcrowded, dull dark towns.

He shifted against her. ‘Zin. I know you want to get to Fairmont as soon as possible but it would be good to rest and it’ll be good to feed and water Lance and have him checked over. There are many days yet. And at our pace …’

And let me spend some time with you—before the end.

She turned back to him, frowning.

‘Please.’

She opened her mouth, about to argue, then shut it. She looked into his eyes and he gazed back. Pressing her lips together, she turned away and nodded.

It wasn’t long before they arrived, Zin watching nervously as the walls loomed overhead.

After stabling Lance, they entered the main street. It didn’t disappoint. The markets were in full swing, the road crowded with people and carts and livestock. Arrays of stalls on either side. Glittering jewellery, colourful clothing, cotton, silk and velvet weaves, teetering barrels of wine and ale, mountains of spice direct from the land of the Sand People, perfumes, Euroban fruit and vegetables, live animals, furs, skins and leather, books and parchments, and musical instruments and artwork propped up in their big bronze frames. Anything and everything was sold at Belmont.

Even the people themselves were a sight. There was plenty of poor, of course, but in between the dirty masses were elegant carriages, litters held aloft by strong clean men, proud destriers, men in velvet capes and women in sweeping dresses, the hems held up out of the muck by their servants or handmaidens.

Zin’s hood sat low over her face so he was unable see her expression, but he knew her excitement. She looked right and left, up ahead, over her shoulder. She twisted and turned. So much to see. She was like a little girl, and like a little girl she kept close to his side as they walked together, her hand in his. There were probably more people in this one block than there were in her entire clan, and more activity than she had experienced in her lifetime.

He pulled her over to a jeweller. A fat man with a handlebar moustache looked at them both curiously, then doubtfully, unimpressed by their plain clothes. Lord Aaron had removed all his rings and had tucked them away to avoid revelation.

The jeweller folded his arms and watched them suspiciously. ‘No handling. You see, you buy.’

Rings, necklaces, bangles and tiaras. Mostly fake. Costume jewellery, glass beads, base metals, plated neckchains, gemstones and crystals. But here and there he caught the gleam of real silver and gold; the glitter of diamonds. Hidden amongst the junk.

No handling. You see, you buy. Clever. Only the trained eye could haggle the right price. But the jeweller hadn’t counted on Lord Aaron, fourth in line to the throne. Luxury was his business too.

Zin’s eyes lingered over a ring covered in glittering rhinestones.

‘You like that one?’ Aaron said.

She looked up at him, frowning inside her hood. ‘What does it do?’

‘Do? It does nothing. You wear it on your finger.’

She blinked.

‘Come now. Your people must like pretty things. What about that design in the hilt of that little knife of yours?’

She touched her hip where he knew she kept it, then looked back at the ring. Even through the cloak, he could tell she wasn’t impressed. Her hands tightened into fists.

‘Here, let me choose something for you,’ he said. The jeweller’s expression turned smug. Aaron studied the stall as though he hadn’t already chosen, then nodded. ‘That necklace. No, not that one. The silver one at the back. The one with the ruby heart.’

The jeweller’s face creased as he carefully drew it into his palm. The most expensive thing in the store … and the most beautiful.

Aaron and the jeweller haggled for a while, the jewellery’s fat face creasing more and more as the price dropped. He looked like a prune by the end of it, purple and wrinkled. Aaron slipped out a bag of coins from his britches and handed over his payment. A fortune for a regular person, and more than a third of what he had paid for Zin. The thought soured him a little.

Zin looked at it doubtfully.

‘Here.’ She jerked in surprise as he pulled back her hood and reached around her neck, clasping the two ends together. ‘My gift to you.’ He straightened it so the ruby sat in the middle of her chest, bright against her honeyed skin. ‘A symbol of my love. You have my heart, now and forever.’

Zin smoothed her fingers over it, a crease between her eyes. She seemed about to say something, then bit her lip.

‘Come,’ he pulled her hood back into place and took her hand, ‘let’s not linger. Standing so long in one place can attract trouble.’

His leg was starting to ache as they continued through the maze of stalls. He ignored it, enjoying himself too much. Watching her, studying her. He tried not to smile. She wasn’t so interested in the stalls now, looking between the jewel and Aaron. She seemed almost puzzled.

‘Look,’ he stopped and nodded, ‘that might be something more to your liking.’

She tightened her grip around his hand. Weaponry: knives, swords, shields and bows. Leather and steel breastplates. Helms and gauntlets. A young man manned the store. Going by his strong, scarred hands and massive shoulders—a blacksmith’s apprentice.

Aaron grinned as she dragged him over.

Her hood fell back in her hurry and the sun caught the golden streaks in her hair. Her eyes were wide as she studied the store. ‘Metal knives,’ she breathed.

‘Would you like one? Or two or three?’

‘Really?’

‘Of course. A hunter and a warrior shouldn’t be without her weapons. Have whatever you want.’

The apprentice watched, fascinated, as she made her choices: a short bow and a quiver of arrows with dovetail fletching, a long dagger, an ankle blade and a dirk. Then she pointed out a short arming sword. The apprentice met Aaron’s gaze before handing it over.

The steel whispered against the leather sheathe as she pulled it free. She held it aloft, staring, as it gleamed in the sun.

‘All of it,’ Aaron told the blacksmith, ‘along with that belt over there.’

Afterwards, Aaron was glad for her cloak. With everything attached, she looked like a warrior woman prepped for battle. But the weapons were nothing to that look in her face. It set it all off. That fierceness was back. That surety. She stalked along like a man, straight-backed and powerful-looking. The crowds didn’t seem to faze her so much now. And why should they?

He couldn’t deny it, his balls were burning something fierce.

*

Zin walked by Aaron’s side, feeling much more like her old self. No. Someone better. Someone more. She left her hood off, lifted her chin, though she attracted strange looks. She stared them down, her hands at the loaded belt hidden beneath her cloak. Her bow was slung over her shoulder, her quiver strapped to her back. It felt comfortable. It felt right.

She gazed up at the looming buildings, no longer intimidated. Built of wood and stone. Lifeless. They could not hurt her. No locked door could stop her. No Paleskin bed could make her fear. The face of that dark-haired lord flashed in her mind. Hand on her dagger, she imagined the hot gush of his blood down her wrists as she slit his throat. He had no hold over her now.

Then she remembered the scarlet jewel. Such a useless thing, and yet …

Though it had almost no weight at all, it seemed to press against her chest. A symbol of my love. You have my heart, now and forever. The jewel was cool, yet warm against her skin. She glanced at Aaron as she touched it. It tingled against her fingers. Was it some kind of prayer? Some kind of magic? Looking at him, she realised he had the same coloured hair as his gift.

They left the bustling centre behind and entered wider roads. The buildings were small and drew the eye with their smooth stone posts, decorative wood and sculptures. There were fewer people. The stalls were gone. She looked around her in surprise.

‘Yes,’ Aaron said. ‘It might seem strange but we know the beauty of nature too.’

Trees. Unnatural, with their trimmed branches and the way they were spaced so evenly throughout the foreseeable distance. But trees, nonetheless. She didn’t recognise them.

‘They’re Maple Trees. Native to Euroba. You should see them in the autumn when their leaves turn the colour of the sunset and carpet the streets knee deep.’

She touched one of their trunks. Felt nothing. Just like always. But it was beautiful. She took Aaron’s hand and they continued on. The ‘town’ no longer seemed so strange. And she began to see why people might prefer to live within its walls. No predators, comfortable. To keep all one’s things in one place and never move made things simple. But it wasn’t for her. Give her the forests and the mountains and the rivers any day. And it stank here, of shit and smoke and sweat. Everywhere. People weren’t meant to live cramped up so tightly in one place.

Just ahead she saw one of those carts that were carried by people. A ‘litter’ Aaron called it, where the rich dwelt, to be carried wherever they chose. It made Zin feel uneasy. Couldn’t they walk? Were they useless?

She stopped.

‘Zin.’ Aaron squeezed her hand. ‘Be careful. Don’t cause trouble. And it would be best to pull up your hood.’

She ignored him on all accounts. The litter came closer, close enough that she could be certain of what she saw. Slaves. Not servants. Her people. Half and halfs. Like the slave girl back at that terrible camp (she refused to think her as Sugar). They had that look about them. That resignation. They wore no chains. They didn’t need to.

I’m glad they didn’t break you, that’s my job.

A shiver rushed down her spine. Her hands began to shake. They didn’t look at her. Didn’t see her. Their eyes trained to the way ahead. The Paleskin within was concealed behind soft, pink curtains. Zin grabbed the hilt of her dagger but did nothing except stare, her heart pounding, as they trudged away. If she were braver … If she were stronger … More foolish …

‘Zin.’

They disappeared around the corner, and she released a breath she didn’t know she was holding.

‘Zin. I’m sorry you had to see that.’

She turned and glared at him. He looked guilty, worried. She clenched her jaw. ‘Get me out of here.’

She was still shaking by the time the town disappeared behind the hills. Aaron hadn’t said a word to her since they left, sitting stiff and awkward behind her. Zin gripped the reins so hard, her nails cut deep into her skin.

‘Pull off here.’

Zin glared ahead, blood pounding in her ears.

‘Zin. Pull off here.’

He tried to take the reins but she jerked them away, baring her teeth.

‘Zin,’ he said quietly. ‘Please, we have to talk.’

The ruby jewel seemed to burn against her chest. A strangling warmth surged through her throat, making her choke. Heat swelled behind her eyes. Then the tears came.

She kicked the horse hard, it reared and they charged from the path. Fields, trees and rivers flashed by in blur. She felt so hot. Burning. Her heart hammered madly. Tears blew from her cheeks.

Zin didn’t know how far they fled before Aaron took the reins and pulled them to a stop. Lance shifted as Aaron dismounted. Zin sat for a while, stuck, gasping for breath, her hands clawed into the horse’s mane. When she finally did dismount, it was as though somebody else was moving her joints. Why was she suddenly feeling this way? She had been a slave herself, suffered along with them. She was a slave herself. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.

She looked at Aaron. That stupid hair. That freckled, ugly skin. How many slaves had he whipped and brutalised and treated like dogs over the years? Just because he loved her didn’t change his evils. His people’s evils.

Swiping away her tears, she dropped her hand to her new sword. His eyes followed but he otherwise didn’t move, didn’t react. Not even when she unsheathed it and held it against his throat. Her grip was steady but as she looked back into his blue eyes, it shook, then shuddered. The sword slipped from her grasp.

She dropped her head, her hair falling around her face. The grass crunched softly under his boots. His hands were warm. She didn’t pull away as he wrapped his arms around her.

And she wept.

*

Aaron kissed the back of her hand, then turned it over to kiss her palm before smoothing his fingers between hers and gripping her hand tight. Such small hands. And yet so strong and calloused and scarred, like a man’s. Her nails were all chipped.

It was evening, and he was sitting with his back against a tree, Zin between his legs. Her back was warm against his chest. His neck was aching. His arse was aching. They had ridden furiously after their short visit to Belmont. Lance was grazing between the trees. The stay at the stable had done him good. The stablemen had found a cracked shoe. The saddle had rubbed sores against his spine. With everything going on and being so focused on Zin, he had lapsed in his care for his loyal friend.

After what had happened earlier that day, Aaron had opted to sleep out in the open where she would be more comfortable. Hidden away behind thick bracken and bushes, away from the roads, far away from the people and their troubles. She had calmed since the incident with the sword. And they were talking. About nothing. About everything.

‘So your father’s dead?’

‘Last year,’ Aaron said. ‘But it was a relief. He was sick a long time.’

‘With what?’

‘The physician called it ‘a blackness of the lungs’.’ He shrugged. ‘For the past few years he had been coughing up spit. First it was nothing. Just a couple of coughs in the morning. Then steadily it got worse until he was coughing all day. In his final year his spit turned brown, then black. Then it was blood. On that final day, he was drowning. It almost killed my mother.’

She turned in his arms to look at him. ‘But couldn’t your ‘physician’ heal him?’

‘He tried but there was nothing he could do.’

She frowned.

‘It is the way of things. God decided his time was up.’

‘God.’ Her mouth twisted. ‘No. The Mother. If he had known the Mother he might have survived.’

Aaron felt a rush of anger. As if it were that easy. He kept his voice steady. ‘You’re talking about your wizards.’

‘The shamri, yes. My people rarely die except from terrible injuries. Most can be healed. Particularly sicknesses. We could probably live forever if the shamri allowed it, but by a certain age, when we’re more sick than well, we are left to the embrace of the Mother. The oldest of us is over one hundred years old.’

Aaron laughed.

She pursed her lips. ‘You don’t believe me but it’s true. He is one of the shamri. The most powerful man in all the land.’

‘I don’t doubt he’s old. But one hundred? He’d be dust.’

Her face darkened. ‘I am no fool. My people are no fools. It is the power of the Mother. Just because you’re blind and deaf.’

‘I’m far from either. I’m being realistic.’

Shaking her head, she turned away, resting back against him. ‘If we had some chokra I could show you. You would be able to feel her, know her. Although … if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel nothing.’

There was sadness in her voice. An old ache. ‘You can’t hear her?’

She shook her head. ‘I’m the only one in all the clan. Perhaps even in the history of the clan. Even my mother can sense her and she’s pure faqwa. We Quarthi go through tests when we are young to find if there are any shamri hidden among us. I’m the only one who failed them all. I heard nothing. I saw nothing. I felt nothing. It seems the Mother doesn’t want to know me.’

He squeezed her arm. ‘Maybe it’s not what you think, Zin. Maybe you’re the only one who sees the truth. That there is no Mother.’

‘Only God?’ She turned to look at him with a scowl. ‘My mother spoke about him once. A bearded faqwa in the sky.’ She chuckled. ‘Have you seen him? Felt him? Do you know him at all or only blindly listen to what your priests say?’

‘I haven’t seen him but I’ve felt him. In here.’ He tapped at his heart.

Her eyes narrowed. ‘So even you’ve felt something. Even with your fake God.’ She pulled out of his arms and stood. She gazed up at the tree. A dark flush crept up her neck. ‘Maybe I should turn to your God. It’s not as though she’d care.’

She dropped her eyes to her belt of weapons lying on the ground. She unsheathed her sword, watching along the blade as the moonlight gleamed against the steel. ‘If there really is a Mother, then why are my people dying? Why are your people blessed with so much power? Why isn’t she protecting us?’ She stabbed it into the ground.

She was quiet as she gazed into the branches, as though waiting for a response. A bird warbled. The leaves rustled. But nothing more—of course.

‘You shouldn’t do that,’ Aaron said, rising to his feet. ‘You’ll blunt it.’ He yanked out the sword and handed it back to her. ‘Your people might be dying but you still have incredible strength. Your fighters. Your father. You.’ He grinned suddenly. ‘Why don’t you show me what you’re capable of?’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘You want to fight me?’

‘Why not? Frightened?’

She grinned back. ‘Blades or fists?’

‘Definitely fists. I don’t want to hurt you.’

She laughed. ‘I’ll warn you, I’ve trained with both my father and my uncle. Two of the greatest warriors in all my clan.’ She sheathed her sword.

He began to circle her. ‘I’ve been training my whole life. And I’m bigger and stronger than you are.’ His eyes raked over her as she stood watching him. He began to heat up. His cock pressed against the front of his britches. This was going to be fun.

She clenched her hands into fists, then flexed them. Her eyes were cool and hard. Focused. This was not sexual for her. This was serious. It would make her defeat all the sweeter. She stepped her left foot forward, bracing herself.

He lunged, only to grab at air. He heard her laugh and had to spin around to find her. So fast! His grin broadened. Another lunge. A second miss.

‘Slow, aren’t you?’ she said.

She was to his right now, and now it was her circling him. ‘Father says that you faqwa always underestimate your enemy. I can see now that he was right.’

She pounced. Not with her hands but with her feet. His eyes widened as his legs were swept out from under him. He hit the ground hard with an oomph! that knocked the air out of his lungs. She bore down on him but he rolled away before her foot could make contact. It thudded into the earth. He was still gasping as he leapt to his feet. A bead of sweat trickled down his spine.

Meanwhile, she didn’t look puffed at all. She was smiling. ‘The kids like to think that my uncle is half giant. He is so strong he can pull a tree out from the roots. And yet I’ve defeated him several times. Me. No more than a woman. You faqwa.’ She spat on the ground. ‘You need to treat your women with more respect. We are more than what we appear. Fast, wily, skilled. Strength isn’t everything.’

Aaron watched her more closely. Focused this time. His leg was burning and he wondered if the wound had opened up. He ignored it. He had to defeat her. Nobody was watching, at least, but he would never live down the embarrassment if he didn’t. It was his job to protect her, not the other way around.

He lunged for the third time. She tried to whirl away, but he was beginning to predict her movements now. She almost escaped him but his reach was long and he managed to seize her wrist. She gasped, tried to yank away but he pulled her against him, wrapping his arms tightly around her so she could hardly move.

She thrashed against him, growling like an animal. Like a savage. ‘You’re right. You are fast and wily and skilled.’ He clutched her more tightly. ‘And I shouldn’t underestimate you. But sometimes strength is everything.’

He tried to kiss her but she wouldn’t have it. He released her and she stumbled back.

‘Why’d you do that? I would have freed myself!’

‘What are you trying to prove, Zin? I know you can fight. I’ve seen it. You have nothing to prove to me.’

She was glaring at him, then her cheeks filled with pink. Her shoulders slumped and she began to chuckle, shaking her head. And this time when he pulled her into his arms, she let him kiss her.

He took her there on the spot, behind the bushes and bracken. Or at least tried to. Something of the fight had imbedded itself in her heart and she pinned him to the ground. He let her. She wanted to take control and he would let her—this time. She struggled with his britches, the buttons slipping between her fingers. They popped off as he helped to yank them down. She pulled down her underclothes and they were still wrapped around her left ankle as she attempted to take him inside her. But she couldn’t position herself right and the dress kept getting in the way.

‘Here.’ He gripped onto his cock, holding it straight. Her pubic hair glimmered wetly. The tight muscles of her stomach bunched up. He gasped, she gasped as she slid over him. She pressed her hands against his shoulders as she rocked. She almost glared, though her eyes seemed like they were elsewhere. They rolled in her head. Then she arched her neck, gazing up at the sky.

She still hadn’t removed her dress. Sitting up, he fumbled with her skirt as he dragged his arms up beneath. Soft breasts. Smooth skin. Sweat and heat. He tried to yank it off. She helped. And then he saw her. All of her. His cock swelled inside her. She felt it with a gasp. Those breasts. Those hips. Those shoulders. Hard and soft. Smooth and rough. Muscles and curves. This was how a woman was supposed to look like, feel like, smell like.

He sucked in a breath as he erupted. She followed soon after. Sweat trickled into the notch at her throat. Her eyes blazed. Her hair tumbled messily around her face, dark strands gusting in front of her as she panted.

She stared at him. He stared at her. A sudden warmth flooded his chest and he sat up and swung his arms around her waist, pulling her to him. He rolled over, pressing her hard to his chest, lips against her throat. She gasped, then giggled, grabbing at his arse as she arched her neck. Lowering his head, he enveloped her left breast with his mouth and sucked hard. Sweat, sweetness, softness. He tongued her nipple. She was laughing now, grabbing at his head, raking her fingers through his hair. It only made him suck harder. The heat in his chest became a blaze.

Finally he stopped. His face felt like it was on fire. His balls were aching. The blood thundered in his ears. And when he looked at her his vision swam and all he saw were those eyes, those lips, the high curve of her cheekbones. The ground was gone. Toth was gone. The world seemed to vanish.

Zin looked concerned. ‘Something wrong?’

It took a moment for her voice to register. It took longer to answer. ‘No.’

Yes.

God help me.

 

21.

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