21.

Time seemed to slow. And it was like nothing Aaron had ever experienced, at least not since he was a young boy. Life seemed to move around them, like water rushing around a rock in a flooded river. His worries and woes had become smaller, as though they were waiting for him far away. Another day. Another lifetime. As distant as the horizon.

Eleven days.

Eleven days until Fairmont. But today was full and theirs for the taking. He would not think of it.

He finally gave in and sold Lance off. They had ridden him hard and he wasn’t the youngest horse in the world. It was heartbreaking, but if by some miracle Aaron returned to this part of the land, he would seek him out and buy him back.

Filled with hope, filled with dread, he patted the beast on the nose. ‘See you soon.’

Selling Lance gave him more than enough money to purchase two horses. Two palfreys. Aaron rode the tall male, while he gave Zin the mare. She was older and sturdier and possessed a good temperament. He missed the feel of Zin’s warm, soft body pressed up against him but found he enjoyed her excitement more. She could ride well enough now and revelled in her new skill, her chin held high. She continued to wear the cloak to hide her weapons but kept the hood off despite his warnings.

She received surprised looks from villagers. Suspicion, concern, sometimes hunger from dark-faced strangers. All of which she ignored. A savage who wasn’t a slave. They could see it in her face. The strength. The pride. There was a nobility about her that he never expected from the dirty blood-streaked savage from the forest, much less from the weeping, lost little slave huddled in the corner of Jeffrey’s pavilion.

Still, she wasn’t a noble and she certainly wasn’t a lady.

Whenever they could, they sped along, the horses grunting between their thighs. But whenever they stopped to rest, to eat or to tend their aches and pains, they would pull off into the fields so they could hold each other, touch each other, to make tender or furious love, with the ground at their backs and the sky blazing above. Her smooth, hot skin beneath his hands. Her eyes glittering with pleasure. The wide ‘O’ of her mouth as she came. He loved it all. Her laughter and cries. Her smiles and sweet kisses.

One time, as they made their way to somewhere private, she caught his face between her hands and kissed him all over. Then all over, ripping off his clothes as she did. They hadn’t made it far enough away from the road and a passing villager riding a donkey spotted them. His mouth dropped. His eyes widened. Bare-arsed and flush with pleasure, his britches at his ankles, all Aaron could do was grin and grunt and wave. Zin was on her knees and had her back to the road, so hadn’t seen. When he told her soon after she laughed.

No. Definitely not a lady.

*

Nine days.

A big town. A spacious room. A wide bed. The lantern flickered at their gasping breaths. Rain pattered against the sashes. Zin groaned. Aaron chuckled.

He pulled away, lying beside her, chin in hand as he brushed his fingers through her dark thatch of pubic hair. Zin sighed, her body burning and throbbing, particularly between the legs where it was rubbed raw. His hot seed trickled down her thigh and not for the first time she wondered if some of it had imbedded inside her. Though she kept her eyes open and searched as best she could without Aaron knowing—early morning, late at night, when she went to relieve herself—she hadn’t discovered any moonweed. It thrived in the cool and the shade and this was the height of spring and the Paleskins’ rolling fields meant few trees and fewer dark places to come by. A stronger woman would have abstained. But she liked it too much. His warm skin. His hot breaths. The feel of him inside her. The Mother take her!

Even now, she couldn’t believe the things she had done to him and the things he had done to her. Long gone was that lonely young girl, cold and depressed. She was a woman now. Every time she looked at him, she burned. Every time he touched her, she ached. Even still, she couldn’t help but feel a little sick. Amidst all the happiness was the regret, the grief, that terrible homesickness. Had she made the right decision? Should she have gone back to defend her family? She rubbed at her chest.

‘You’re thinking about them,’ he said.

She didn’t answer.

‘Tell me about them.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I want to know. I want to know all about you. Who you are. Where you come from.’ Your father is an interesting man.’ He paused. ‘You look like him.’

She gave a dark chuckle. ‘Not possible.’

‘He does. The same strength. The same eyes.’

‘Impossible. He’s not really my father.’

He raised his eyebrows. ‘No?’

‘The man who conceived me is long dead, murdered after trying to kill my father and raping my mother.’

He looked puzzled a moment, then put it together. ‘Oh.’

‘Repulsive, isn’t it?’

He didn’t take the bait. ‘It is and it isn’t. It is a horrible thing, but you came out of it. And you’re a wonderful thing.’

Her throat swelled as he kissed her lips. A tear leaked out, which he thankfully didn’t notice. ‘It means nothing,’ he said. ‘My father and his first wife had loved each other and got married and look at Jeffrey.’

That’s right. They were half-brothers. ‘What happened to her?’

‘She died from an infection soon after his birth.’ He shook his head. ‘Even as a baby he was already killing.’

Zin frowned. ‘Babies don’t kill.’

He brushed his finger along her lower lip with a sigh. ‘No, no they don’t.’

‘And your mother?’

‘Lady Josephine. Father married her four years later. She was about your age and he was much, much older. More than twice her age. But they loved each other. She had me, then Georgia, my sister.’

‘But he would have been as old as her father!’

He chuckled. ‘It’s not uncommon with my people.’

Zin twisted her mouth, then grimaced as she thought of her own father.

He laughed again. ‘See, there you go. Horrible, isn’t it? But look how I turned out.’

She curled her lip. ‘Yes, look how you turned out.’

He raised an eyebrow. ‘Are you making fun of me?’

She grinned, then squealed as he rolled on top of her and pinned her wrists to the bed. She squealed again, laughing and snorting as he licked and lapped and sucked at her neck.

‘Stop it!’ she cried out, thrashing in his grip. Wrapping her legs around his waist, she squeezed until he released her with a gasp. Then he fell on top of her, laughing.

Zin wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his throat. Though the cold rain continued to hammer, the room was warm and a bead of sweat trickled down his sternum. She kissed his nipple, then ran her fingers through the hairs on his chest. He had a surprising amount of hair. Even more than her uncle.

He curled around her, holding her close, one hand gently clasping her head, the other resting against her arse. A mother and a sister. The thought made her stomach knot. He had a family who loved him. She remembered the conversation he’d had with his men out in the field, the uncertainty in his voice.

What will the king do, do you think?

He will side with me. I was always his favoured one. He’s always detested Jeffrey.

‘When we get to Fairmont, what will happen to you?’ she said. It made her feel sick. She hadn’t been thinking of his fate at all.

He sighed. ‘I don’t know. Any number of things. I might be whipped. I might be stripped of my lordship. I might be—’

‘Killed?’ The word caught in her throat.

‘Unlikely. More like banished or jailed.’

‘And … and us?’

It was dark but she could see the shine in his eyes. ‘It’s not good, Zin. My uncle is a decent man but he’s still a king. A leader to his people. He must do his best by them, and you’re asking him to move heaven and earth.’

He fell silent. There was a shout from outside.

‘What will happen?’

‘It’s just as I said. You’ll likely be enslaved and I will probably be banished. We’ll never see each other again. You will suffer and I will know that you’re suffering and won’t be able to do a thing about it.’

The rain hammered. Somebody laughed in the bar downstairs. Somewhere, a door slammed shut. Zin took a breath, exhaling slowly as she blinked rapidly. She laid her hand on his hip. He laid his hand on her shoulder before smoothing it over her back.

Zin closed her eyes. ‘But there’s still hope.’ He continued to smooth his hand down her back without answering. She opened her eyes. ‘Isn’t there?’

He paused. The shutters creaked at a lash of rain. ‘There’s always hope, Zin. There’s always hope.’

*

It took all Aaron’s will not to lie. No, Zin. There’s not a shred of hope.

But he couldn’t. He couldn’t do that to her. Despite the odds, there was always a chance.

Zin seemed to have taken his words to heart. The next day she asked that they slow the pace, complaining of a backache and muscle pain. Aches and pains that weren’t enough to stop her from stretching between their horses and kissing him. Or pulling him into the nearby trees and making desperate and furious love to him.

Aaron had never realised how painful lovemaking could be when on the road. Lathered in seed and mucus, his cock kept sticking to his balls, his balls kept sticking to his thighs and his pubic hair stuck to everything. It was mighty uncomfortable on the horse. He rocked and twisted and whenever eyes weren’t watching he would try and adjust himself.

But Zin saw—and laughed. ‘Need some help there?’

And he would smile and grunt and wince.

It lasted two days. Two glorious days of non-stop touching. Of kissing her. Of feeling her fingers digging into his shoulders.

Then day seven arrived. A week to go. By the following Wednesday, things could be a whole lot better or a whole lot worse.

Aaron felt it. Zin felt it. The end seemed much too close.

The roads were getting busier now. More villages. More farms. The towns were closer together. And Zin grew nervous. After receiving some disgusted stares that made Aaron want to chop his sword through their skulls, she returned her hood and kept close to his side, hunched over and quiet.

It was cooler too. Particularly in the afternoons. Already, he could feel the sting of the crisp ocean air. No longer did they sleep out in the open but curled up together in blanket-laden beds. Skin to skin. Legs entangled. Arms tight around each other. Each night Lord Aaron would suck at her nipples, kiss her womanhood, breathe in the scent of her hair. Often they would entwine their hands in the darkness only to wake up with them still entwined in the morning’s glow.

‘I love you,’ he would tell her, and she would speak it back.

On day four it rained. Their breath came out in little mists. His hands were cold around the reins. Zin sniffled and sneezed inside her hood. The crowds were less. Their pace was slow in the mud. It was almost as though the world felt their pain.

Aaron pulled up at a crossroads. He looked at Zin. ‘Left goes to Fairmont. Right goes to Greakin Landing, my home.’ He swallowed. His hands tensed around the reins. ‘And there’s always behind. It’s not too late, Zin. We can always turn back.’

She didn’t respond, staring ahead. Which road interested her, he couldn’t see, her face hidden behind her hood. Her hands were white around the reins. She sat stiffly. She didn’t say a word, simply flicked the reins and trotted down the left lane.

Aaron briefly closed his eyes before trotting in her wake.

That night they made love slowly, gently, deeply. Zin was gazing at the ceiling, her neck arched to full extension. Aaron had left the lantern lit so he could see her face. See the sweat on her skin. The pink in her cheeks. Thrust. She groaned. Thrust. She gasped. Wrapping her legs around his waist, she arched her back and pulled him in deeper. A tear rolled down her cheek as she came. Her eyes shone. Aaron kissed the corner of her mouth.

He was still hard inside her, his balls aching, as he rolled onto his side and pulled her in tight against him. He could feel her warm, wet spasming as her orgasm tugged at his cock. He braced himself against it, unwilling to release. He kissed her again. On the cheek, on the nose, just below her ear. It was wet there where her tears had pooled.

He ached to say something but no words would come.

All he could do was hold her, feel her, know her. For as long as their time would allow.

 

22.

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