Candlelight flickered against the inside of Lord Aaron’s pavilion and the gold of his dented helm as he twisted it in his hands. The wing of the eagle crest had been smashed in, the feathered tip broken off. It was old, surviving countless battles. He had inherited it both from his father and grandfather. He would have to get it reworked when he got back to Fairmont. It had been damaged plenty before but not by an enemy quite like this.
Another notch. Another memory. Some history for his future son to bear, once he had one.
He laid it on the table and picked up the bone knife. A curious construction. It wasn’t the first time he had encountered the natives’ weapons, but they still fascinated him. After all this time, they still couldn’t work steel.
And yet, it did the job. Almost unbreakable and razor-sharp. Too sharp. He fingered the blade, recalling the way the girl’s throat opened up, at first so thin it was almost as though she had drawn a red line across it—until the blood came. There were carvings on the handle but he couldn’t look at them yet. He placed the knife beside his helm and stared at them.
He hadn’t seen her again, though he’d been thinking about her frequently for the past two days. He rubbed his hands together. It was not a good idea. The men would talk. Particularly his brother. And he had never taken a slave as a consort before. He promised himself he never would. He would not be like those other men. It’s not as though he cared about the natives. But he had always considered himself above all that. A clean man. Honourable. The savages were barely more than animals. Not to be taken into a Toth’s bed. Particularly a lord’s.
But her skin. Her hair. He released a breath. He thought of her lying there in the pastor’s tent. Vulnerable. Unprotected. He knew what priests could do.
He stood. ‘Lucas.’
Lucas stepped through the entrance. ‘Yes, my lord?’ A boy of fourteen, he was the son of one of the lesser lords. Short cropped hair, squinty face. Small and skinny. Still yet to grow into his strength. But he was smart and loyal, and most importantly of all, could keep his mouth shut.
‘Go to the pastor’s tent and inform him that I’m interested in one of his stock. Tell him—tell him he knows which one.’
Father Peter was ready for him by the time he arrived, bobbing his head as Aaron stepped through the entrance. ‘Lord Aaron.’ He wore his usual brown robe but with slippers this time. His cross flashed against the candlelight.
‘You can leave, Lucas.’ He told his squire, who bowed out.
The pastor’s pavilion was almost as extravagant as his. Thick, soft rugs on the floor. Large bed with satin sheets. A big wooden cross hung from the wall behind. Religious tapestries. There was even a tub. Two male assistants dressed in brown robes huddled together in the far corner of the room as they worked on some kind of weave. He glanced towards the annexe where he had last seen the girl but the bed was empty.
‘I was surprised to hear of your interest,’ the old pastor said. Aaron thought he saw a smug curl to his lip but that could have just been a trick of the flickering light.
Either way, Aaron knew the priest wasn’t surprised at all.
‘How is she? Has she recovered?’
The old pastor turned, folding his hands through his sleeves. Aaron followed his gaze and his heart gave a little tug. She was sitting slumped against the corner of the tent, chin to her chest, hair draped in front of her face. It looked as though she had been freshly bathed. She was dressed in the white slave tunic, and it was thin enough that he could see the points of her dark nipples. Her skin looked soft; her hair gleamed in the light.
She was chained. Manacles or her wrists and ankles. She seemed so small and fragile, a far cry from the savage in the woods who had almost speared him through.
‘Recovering,’ the pastor nodded. ‘She’s still dazed with tonic but she can stand and move and obey. I will provide you with more to keep her docile.’ He went to a cabinet beside the bed.
Father Peter turned back. ‘I would advise against it, my lord. She is unbroken. More beast than man. She could cause problems.’
Lord Aaron raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m a lord and a knight, Father Peter. I’m sure I can handle a chained, injured girl.’
Father Peter bobbed his head. ‘As you wish, my lord.’
After Aaron haggled a price, she was carried on a stretcher. Strong enough to stand she might be, but she couldn’t make the distance to his tent. Her eyes were dull. Her head lolled on her neck.
Not knowing where else to put her, Aaron had them lay her out on his bed. Lucas stared. Her tunic had been hoisted high up her thighs during the transfer, revealing her long strong legs and a tantalising darkness higher up.
‘Lucas.’ The boy looked up. His eyes were burning. ‘You can leave now.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
He left and Aaron pulled close the pavilion flap. He paced the room, running his hand through his hair, through the thick stubble of his neck. What was he doing? What was he going to do with her? Five hundred silver pieces! It was a fortune. All because of that useless piece of skin between her legs.
‘Girl.’ She didn’t stir. ‘Girl,’ he said more loudly.
He stopped his pacing. If he paid for her, he might as well get some use out of her. Her nipples were so dark against the whiteness of the tunic—and soft, and no matter how hard he tried to look away, his eyes were always drawn back.
His hand trembled as it hovered over her chest. He clenched his fist. Foolishness. It was far from his first woman. And she wasn’t even a true woman at that—only a savage. His to own. His by right.
And yet why did it feel so wrong?
Slowly, he eased down her tunic, brushing his hands against her soft skin as he did. He stared. The candlelight flickered against her golden skin. His eyes flicked to her face—no response. Her lips were soft and pressed into a faint smile. Her dark lashes—so long—fanned over her cheeks. She was lightly blushed from the heat.
He looked down again, his hands hovering. Then he lowered them. He arched his neck with a groan. It had been too long since he had touched a woman. How could something be so soft? How could something so simple send such waves of pleasure through his body?
His pavilion became unbearably hot, his britches painfully tight. He pulled the key to her manacles from his pocket. They opened with a click. He smoothed his hands down her wrists, along her ankles. They were surprisingly thin for one so strong. Scratched up and badly bruised from the heavy iron. He didn’t like that. If she cooperated, he wouldn’t need them again.
Brushing her fringe from her face, he lowered his lips.
Floating. Falling. Then floating again.
A small throb of pain in her throat, her arms. Then more in her back and ribs and legs. Everywhere. Until it weighed on her. Until it burned in her. Until it made the tears stream from her eyes.
It never lasted. They never allowed it to last. Those shadows. Those calm voices. Their hard, aggressive hands. Fingers pressed in the joints of her jaw. Mouth open. Sweetness on her tongue.
The pain faded.
The darkness swarmed.
She thought she moved sometimes. But always blind, always in the darkness. Her feet against soft ground, then hard ground. Coolness, then heat against her skin. Pressure on her shoulders as warm hands pushed her this way and that. Pushed her down so she squatted. A command. Warmth trickled down her thighs as she released her bladder.
Pushed upwards. Coolness again. Something cold and wet wiping her down.
Time passed. How much, she couldn’t tell. Hours, days, seasons.
She sat. More fingers at her jaw. Mouth open. Thick, fluffy moistness that made her cough. Voices. Then more of that sweetness on her tongue.
The darkness swarmed again.
Softness at her back. A fluttering against her lips. Warm and wet. More warmth against her cheek, against her breast. Mumbled words. Tickling down her side, her hip, her thigh. Warm and wet down her throat, across her shoulders. Pressure on her hips, wetness on her breasts. A hot tingling between her legs. More mumbled words.
She was feeling more. Hearing more. Pain ebbed at the edge of her senses.
The pressure on her left hip moved. A soft tickle against her inner thigh. Then a touch between her legs. Hard pressure. More wetness on her breast. Inside her, inside her, inside her!
Floating. Falling. Crashing.
Pain exploded. Light exploded. The darkness shattered. A terrible scream filled her lungs and mouth and ears. Fire across her throat, in her arms, down her back. Power surged. She moved. She saw. Her eyes rolled in her head against the blur. A man’s voice. Hands on her arms. Warm breath in her face.
Two blue glittering eyes.
She struck out, but pain burst in her shoulder and he caught her fist easily. She could see him now: short russet hair, thick stubble, that same sharp, slim nose all the Paleskins seemed to have. And his lips, thin and all twisted up as he pinned her down.
‘Let go!’ she screamed.
Straddling her, he tried to hush her up, speaking quiet words she couldn’t be bothered to understand. Not that she needed to. She could imagine what he was saying, sitting on her the way he was, his left hand slippery with her juices. Her breasts out, her thighs wide. He still had his leggings on, at least. But it did little to soothe her.
‘Beast. Pig!’ She squirmed uselessly beneath him. His face was red but blank. Her insults useless. English words burst from her mouth. ‘Rapist! Fucking rapist!’
That did it. Something like horror passed over his face. He released her. Only one chance. Pulling back her good knee, she kicked hard. His eyes seemed to pop from his head, the colour drained from his face. A long girlish peel escaped his lips.
Zin scrambled from the bed, found her feet, fell. She clawed back to her knees, tried to stand only to collapse again. Crawl then. She would crawl her way out. She gripped at the strange woollen pelts that covered the ground but didn’t get far. A shadow spilled over her. Boots. A second voice. She looked up and almost laughed. It was just a boy. A real ugly one too. She had never seen a face so pinched. She grabbed his ankle but he kicked out, slamming the toe of his boot against her cheekbone.
White hot pain. Then darkness.
‘Lord Aaron!’ Lucas cried, rushing over.
‘I’m all right,’ Aaron wheezed as he clutched at his throbbing balls. He nodded at the girl.
Lucas did and Aaron rolled onto his stomach, pressing his head into the mattress with a moan.
‘My lord, do you need assistance?’ came a deep voice.
Gritting his teeth, Aaron waved them away.
When the pain finally ebbed to a bearable level, he carefully and slowly eased himself into a sitting position. His squire stood at the entrance respectfully, hands clasped in front of him. The girl stirred feebly, face pressed into the carpet, dark hair flowing over her shoulders. Her top had slipped down and her golden back glimmered against the light.
Everything about her seemed to glimmer: her hair, her gown. Or maybe that was just the pain still pounding at the back of his eyes.
‘Help me with her,’ he told Lucas.
Her eyes opened as they shifted her but all she could do was squirm feebly and glare. Soon they had her chained to the leg of his bed. They looked at each other: she glared, he gazed. He had tried to straighten her tunic but it had fallen down her shoulders, revealing the tops of her breasts. He winced at the nasty throb in his balls.
‘You speak English?’
He went over to the bench, pouring himself a drink. He downed a few mouthfuls. Watching, the girl licked her chapped lips. ‘Thirsty?’
Again, no response.
‘If you want it you’re going to have to ask for it.’ Her eyes were pinned to his cup as he drank the rest. He put it down.
‘Water,’ she croaked.
Aaron and Lucas glanced at each other. Aaron poured another drink and approached. Her hands were securely bound, her legs cuffed, but she could still kick out. And it looked like she might. That hatred in her eyes.
‘Try anything and you’ll go thirsty. Understood?’
She glared up at him.
Pursing her lips, she gave the smallest nod.
Crouching next to her, he pressed the cup to her lips. She gulped it down like she was dying, water trickling through her hair and down her neck. Coughing and spluttering. He brought a second cup, a third. By the end her gown and hair and the bandage around her neck were wet. Droplets beaded the tops of her breasts.
‘Didn’t Father Peter give you anything to drink?’ Aaron said. She licked her lips. He raised his eyebrows. ‘Hungry?’
Her eyes widened a little.
‘Lucas, go to the cook’s tent and fetch another meal.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It’s mutton tonight,’ Aaron told her. ‘How does that sound?’
She gave him a blank look.
‘You don’t know mutton? Sheep?’
She just stared at him. He sighed. ‘What’s your name?’ No answer. ‘How do you know English?’
Tightening her lips, she looked away. He could see her pulse pounding high in her throat.
Anger flared across Aaron’s chest. ‘Have it your way. If you’re not going to talk, you can starve.’
Throwing the cup away, he collapsed into a chair. Five hundred silver pieces and a pair of throbbing balls.
Zin’s heart hammered in her chest. It hadn’t stopped hammering since the moment she had woken up and found him on top of her.
Her joints creaked as she stretched out her fingers. The steaming plate of food sat on the same bench as the water. Its smell filled her nose, her lungs, her brain, her very heart. Leaning into her bound hands she wiped at her mouth.
The Paleskin was just sitting there on his cushioned seat, no doubt enjoying her pain, staring at a strange linen scrap with squiggly lines. Writing. It must be writing. Her mother had told her about it. Had shown her using a stick in the earth. His bright eyes focused on it intensely, but Zin knew better. He was watching her, waiting. She could sense it like a prickling against her skin. They were alone. The boy had left soon after leaving the food.
She tried to keep her eyes away from the dishes but they kept travelling back against her will. The food was like nothing she had ever seen before. Sheep, he had called it. Whatever that was. Her stomach gnawed. She would not give in. Water was one thing, food was something else. She could go days without eating. She had done it before on difficult hunts.
Her eyes flicked back to the rapist. They wore strange things, these Paleskins. Was it because they were so white they covered up so much? His leggings were long and thick. His top was thinner, but it, too, was long, cinching at the wrists and billowing out around the chest. He had it tucked into the waist of his leggings, which looked far from comfortable. Heavy boots on his feet. Gold on his fingers.
And his hair. She couldn’t stop sneaking peaks at it. At first she had thought it brown. But it was much closer to the bright dancing gleam of the flames. She had never thought such a thing could exist. Her lips parted, then shut, as he suddenly rolled up the writing and put it away. His boots thudded lightly across the soft ground.
He took another drink. Not water this time. Something else. It was yellow and she could smell its fumes all the way from her spot across the tent. For some reason, it reminded her of chokra, though it smelt entirely different. An almost dizzying tang.
Smacking his lips, he put it down and gazed at her. And all she saw were those blue eyes and that gleaming eagle casing on the battlefield, now sitting dented on the bench on the other side of his bed.
Zin stared back, smiling at the sight of his bruising. Nasty. All greens and yellows. It looked worse against the flickering light. It must hurt.
He smiled back. ‘You’re happy. Why?’
She jabbed a finger at his head and laughed. He looked confused a moment, then touched the bruising with a frown, which turned to a sneer, as she continued to laugh. Louder and louder. Crazier and crazier.
It was mad to do so. He could have hit her, murdered her, did anything he wanted. But it was enough to see his face burn with humiliation. As it was, he did nothing, merely taking another drink before remarking, ‘Enjoy your hunger,’ and exiting the tent.
Alone now, she tried to keep up the pretence but her laughter soon petered off. And all she was left with were shaking hands and a pounding heart. She knew about her father’s suffering during his time as a slave. Not the details—he didn’t like to speak about it—but enough to know the depths of the Paleskins’ cruelty.
The flame-haired rapist had done nothing to punish her. He had shown control. That made him dangerous.
She couldn’t know what to expect.