She woke to sniffling. Not hers. Someone else’s. Someone else was in the chamber. A panic gripped her as she bolted up and peered over the covers. The hearth extinguished, the only light came from the crack between closed shutters at the window. “Who goes there?” she whispered, her body trembling.
“It is I, Lady Leola. Datharia,” came the quiet reply.
Her pulse slowed as she breathed deep. Datharia was good. Datharia was safe. Strange that she would choose this time of night to visit. But hardly dangerous. “What brings you at this time of night?” Leola asked.
Datharia clutched at her dress and shuffled toward the bed.
Leola braved the cold air in the chamber to look at her more closely. She was crying. Or had been. “What troubles you?” Leola asked, her concern genuine.
Datharia pressed a finger to her trembling lips and shook her head. “My lady,” she whispered.
“Speak, Datharia. Tell me. Have you been hurt?”
“No, m’lady,” she replied. She turned and stared at the closed shutters. “The men are marching up the valley.”
Leola’s eyes went wide, the cloud of sleep lifting from her mind. “They are back?”
Datharia gave a single nod in reply.
“But that is good news, isn’t it?” She couldn’t imagine why the army’s return would make the chambermaid weep.
Datharia pursed her lips and swallowed back more tears. “They are… routed, m’lady,” she said.
An unfamiliar discomfort formed in the pit of Leola’s stomach at the admission. “Routed?” she echoed, her voice soft and full of disbelief.
“Routed and…” Datharia’s voice caught in her throat. She pressed a fist against her mouth, speaking from behind her flesh as though she wished to keep the words inside. “They come to us in chains. Barbarian hordes drive them forward with whips like cattle.”
Leola sat staring at the cold stone wall ahead of her. Routed? Routed? Surely it was impossible. But why would Datharia make up such a thing? “How… how can you be sure of this?” she asked.
Datharia walked to the window and pressed a shutter open. The frigid night air rolled in. “See for yourself, m’lady,” she said, voice shaking.
Leola poked a toe out from the pile of furs. Drawing the heaviest one around herself she stepped gingerly to the window, narrowed her eyes, and peered through the black night into the distance.
There, lit by a line of unfamiliar torches, marched a string of men. Heads bowed, stripped of armor and weapons, they trudged toward the castle walls. Every so often a whip would crack above them, urging them to keep a steady pace.
Leola’s jaw fell at the sight. This was… impossible. Or so it had seemed until she saw it. Ryken, for all his failings, did not lead his army to defeat. Ryken the Conqueror knew only victory in battle. Seeing him at the front of the line marching, instead of seated proudly on his horse, made her stomach turn with sickness. She turned to Datharia, forming a question she already knew the answer to. “They are marching them here?” she asked.
Datharia’s shoulders rose, and then slumped with a shrug of resignation. “It is as much a mystery to me as it is to you, m’lady.” She stepped closer to the window and peered out next to Leola. “It is a miracle they are alive at all.”
“Who is this horde you speak of?”
Datharia shook her head. “The messenger only brought news of their approach. He conveyed nothing about who they were, nor where they were from.”
As the line of prisoners moved closer, Leola gasped. Her eyes fixed on the sight of the man who seemed to be their leader. Sitting astride a lumbering, furry four-legged creature as tall as two horses, his menacing gaze sent a shiver racing down her back.
The two women watched in silence as the convoy weaved its way through the defensive boulders on the other side of the moat. A glance at the sentries standing on the walls revealed they seemed as panicked as Leola felt.
She turned to Datharia. “What do we do?” she whispered.
Datharia’s eyes darted to the floor. She shook her head. “You remember Lord Ryken’s words before his departure?” she asked softly.
Leola’s stomach hollowed even more. She did her best to stay out of Ryken’s way when he was there. His departure had been one of the few occasions she had been forced to listen to his droning speech about the glory of battle and the spoils of victory that lay waiting for his men.
It was the end of that speech that caused her blood to run cold just then.
And in my absence the Lady Leola will be the castle’s keeper.
He had spoken it in jest; knowing there would be no situation which his second, Trydar, couldn’t handle, the comment had been a tease. A way to underline her inadequacy in all matters related to the kingdom.
The memory of her own humiliation at hearing the soldiers’ laughter when he said it was still fresh.
“Send for Trydar,” she said, courage rising in her at the comfort of knowing he would know what to do.
“I have, m’lady,” Datharia whispered.
“He is nowhere to be seen. We have searched the courtyards and his chambers and the stables. It’s as if he… disappeared.”
Leola could think of only one reason that would be the case. Trydar had fled, perhaps because he possessed knowledge she did not: the provenance of and danger posed by the approaching horde. “The coward,” Leola muttered, in spite of her own fear.
“Perhaps,” Datharia agreed. “And yet with him gone that leaves…”
She didn’t have to say it. It was at once clear that this would be Leola’s duty. To greet whoever these tormentors were and discover why they hadn’t slaughtered Ryken or his men. Why had they marched them back to the keep?
She froze as the procession halted in front of the drawbridge. The brutish fur-clad warrior sitting atop his beast opened his mouth and bellowed up the wall at the sentries. “Bring the keeper!”
Two sentries huddled together and whispered. They shook their heads. One of them shouted a reply. “He is gone! Missing!”
The warrior furrowed his brow.
Leola, fear coursing through her veins, couldn’t bring herself to look away from the leader. He stood at least two heads taller than the largest man she’d ever seen; this was plain even though he rode atop the enormous beast that was larger than any horse. Beneath his bearskin pelt his chest and stomach were bare. Her eyes wandered along the ridges of muscle the tunic covered. He is a beast, not a man, she thought, and fear snaked through her, cold and liquid.
“Then who commands these walls in his absence?” the warrior shouted.
Leola sought out Ryken. Even in the flickering torchlight, she was able to see his face clearly, and his posture. He looked broken. His face was pale and his eyes glassy, focused on some point far away. While he was standing, and clearly alive, he radiated a lifelessness akin to a dying man.
Datharia gripped Leola’s hand.
When Leola looked to her, she was staring out at the sentries on the wall. Leola turned her head slowly. A new fear, like a cold iron fist, gripped her. The sentries were staring at the window. At her and Datharia standing there.
“Sedrak doesn’t wait!” the warrior shouted. Swinging a tree trunk of a leg over the neck of his beastly animal, he dismounted and unsheathed his blade. Two steps backward brought him standing next to Ryken’s sunken figure.
Leola sucked in a sharp breath as she watched the blade’s edge touch her uncle’s neck.
“One hundred times I say my name,” the brutish Sedrak growled. “Then the earth will taste his blood.”
The scream left Leola’s lips before she could think. Her hands shot up to cover her mouth.
There had never been any love lost between her and Ryken. But he had raised and kept her these nineteen years, as he’d promised his brother he would. She did not love him, or claim to even like him, but watching him die would haunt her for the rest of her days.
The warrior Sedrak turned to look at the window. “You scream for him?” he shouted.
“Please, don’t!” Leola said, holding out a trembling hand helplessly, palm forward, as if she could stop the warrior with such a futile gesture.
Sedrak turned to face Ryken. “On your knees,” he ordered.
Blood drained from Leola’s face as she watched her uncle sink to his knees without so much as a moment of hesitation. Not an ounce of resistance seemed to remain within him. Or so it seemed from his expression, his eyes so still they lent him the appearance of a corpse.
Sedrak took the sword by the hilt and drove it into the earth in front of him with both hands. It entered the nearly frozen ground as though he had sliced into a vat of butter “One hundred times I say my name,” he repeated, his eyes, intense and burning, staring up at Leola.
Her skin crawled from his menacing stare.
“One hundred times I say my name and if you are not standing here before me his head shall sail through that window there.” He lifted a thick, muscled arm to point at her with hands that seemed to be cut of granite.
The threat cracked through the icy fear that froze her in place. Ryken’s life was in her hands, the way hers had been in his, so many moons ago. She owed him… something. Without knowing what she would do, without thinking through her actions, she spun on her heel and broke into a run, toward the chamber door and the stairs beyond.
“My lady, no!” Datharia called out but Leola was already halfway down the round staircase. Only at the bottom did she remember that beneath the fur she’d wrapped around herself she wore only her sleeping shirt. The impropriety of it fluttered through her thoughts, but disappeared quickly with each rapid pulse of her heart. Getting dressed would have to wait.
Or maybe soon there’d be no need? Maybe she, Ryken, and all the others within the castle walls would come to their end at the foot of the drawbridge.
This thought flew from her mind before it was even completed. Running out into the courtyard she screamed at the sentries in the tower. “Lower the bridge! Lower the bridge!”
The sentries exchanged worried glances, and Leola stopped, the cool air swirling around her bare, freezing feet. Her face must have conveyed her resolution, or perhaps the sentries had resigned themselves to their fate. A moment passed as Leola’s thin sleeping gown snaked about her calves in the stinging cold air that she could not even feel. The sentries, as if of a single mind, turned without looking at each other and began spinning the massive wheels. Chains clanked as they walked around the center of the wheel. and the massive oak planks of the drawbridge tipped toward the water in the moat.
“My lady!” Datharia called out, running after her. “What if this is just a trap? If they are Northern raiders they will kill everyone in these walls! Please! I beg you to reconsider!”
Leola stared at the yawning gap between the drawbridge and the great timber that formed the gate of the castle without answering. Her breath was a rapid staccato, her heart an animal in her chest. A trap it might very well be. But everyone within these walls owed Ryken a debt. For his protection. For his leadership. For their lives he’d saved.
If death had come for them that night, Ryken would not walk into that great darkness alone.
“Arm whatever archers we have and station them along the walls,” she hissed at the sentries as she passed them. She strode out onto the bridge, her bare feet slipping on the nearly frozen dampness of the once protective bridge. With each step, she slowed.
Sedrak, the immense warrior beast, stood with his arms folded across his massive chest. Eyes closed, he muttered the same thing over and over and over, “Sedrak. Sedrak. Sedrak.” Like some perverse chant that would end in a fountain of blood if she wasn’t in front of him before he finished.
She came to a stop ten paces from him. He seemed twice as large, now that he towered above her, as what she had ascertained from the window. A great mane of black hair framed his bearded face, and his muscled arms seemed coiled with an unfathomable strength. Fear gripped her again, and her feet would move her no further.
Summoning as much courage as remained within her, she forced herself to speak. “I am here,” she said. Her voice shook as she spoke and she realized how weak it had sounded. The warrior continued to repeat his name, evidently unable to hear her raspy squeak above his deep, bestial chanting. Clearing her throat, she tried again. “I am here!”
The warrior opened his eyes. His hands fell to his sides. His gaze locked with her eyes for a moment, and she forced herself to meet the dark orbs that flickered with the torchlight and a feral, predatory glint. They eyes wandered down her small frame with leisure, pausing at parts that caused her to blush. They stopped at her feet, and she thought the man’s lips moved beneath his rough beard to form an amused smile.
She shuddered as his eyes flicked up with a reptilian quickness to meet hers again. She had to tamp down hard on the urge to divert her gaze, anywhere, to anything, as if she could wish the monster away by refusing to look at him. “I am here,” she repeated, and the words left her mouth as barely a whisper, frozen to brittle rasps by the chill the beastly man sent through her.
She glanced at Ryken. He was slumped, lifeless, and she found an emptiness far more profound than she had imagined in the pale blue of his eyes. He did not return her gaze, or appear to even know that she was there.
The great man rumbled, “And who are you?”
Leola, who had been unconsciously sinking beneath the weight of the man’s stare, straightened. With the coward Trydar missing, she was the castle’s keeper. The fate of everyone within was in her hands, and she would not crumple like Ryken. Not yet. Summoning all of the nerve that remained within her, she managed to speak clearly, if not loudly. “Leola Grace.” When the man looked at her silently, she added, “A lady of these walls and of this realm.”
“Your father?” Sedrak grunted, pointing a thumb toward Ryken. His tongue was thick with an accent. Leola was hearing it now for the first time. She could not place it.
“My uncle,” Leola said, her eyes falling briefly to Ryken’s slumped form.
She swallowed and resisted the urge to stumble back as Sedrak closed the distance between them in three steps. As he loomed over her she was forced to look nearly straight up to meet his gaze, but not before she took in a long look at his forearms, nearly the size of her own thighs.
“Your uncle tried to steal from me,” the warrior growled.
She had to tip her head slightly to look at Ryken.
The warrior bowed his head lower still, so that his breath could be felt on her forehead, and her view of Ryken was blocked by his fur-clad mass. He smelled of animal fur, leather, musk, and the smoke of wood fires. For a moment the scent intoxicated her, surprising her with its pleasantness.
She forced herself to look back up at Sedrak, cursed herself as she felt her eyes grow wet. “I… I don’t…” she stammered. She cursed herself again for not paying attention at court, when Ryken made her sit and listen to his endless meetings. The formalities and speeches had been so boring. But how she wished that she had listened, learned the words used in diplomacy and negotiation.
For a terrible moment she felt as if all the words of the language had flown from her mind, leaving her mute. Her mouth made attempts at forming some, but then opened, a bit like a fish flung to the shore and gasping for water. “I’m… I’m sorry,” she heard herself whisper.
Sedrak raised an eyebrow. A wicked smile formed on his lips. He turned back toward his men, arms outstretched. “The girl is sorry!” he roared.
The crowd, which Leola had all but forgotten, burst into uproarious laughter. The sound stabbed knives of fear into her chest.
Heat crept across her cheeks, the sting of humiliation mixing with fear. In her chest a hard lump of anger was born of this combination: her temper, so beyond her control, had been awakened. Her cheeks were burned red with rage when Sedrak turned to stare at her again.
“Your apology is not accepted,” he said. The antagonizing smile waned slowly.
Leola didn’t dare utter another word. The beast of her temper was all she could control for the moment, and she was almost as afraid of it as she was of the giant before her. Say nothing, she warned herself. Say nothing or you shall be sorry.
“What was wronged must be made right,” Sedrak growled, when she stood there, silent.
Another moment passed, as Leola’s thoughts scattered like fowl flushed from the marshes in different directions, chaotic, frightened into nonsense. The warrior seemed to lose patience and was moving, but Leola watched as though from a distance, outside of herself, desperately trying to cling to a single thought.
Sedrak grabbed his blade and yanked it from the dirt. A single, scattered thought crystallized and rose to the forefront of her mind as the metal glinted above her uncle’s neck, moving through the air. Act. Act, you must do something!
Falling to her knees she held her hands out clasped together in supplication. “No! Please!” she cried. The ground was cold on her knees, her breath floating before her face. It was the coldest moment of the night.
The sword, a mighty, thick blade that seemed better suited for crushing victims than slicing them, paused in the air as the great beast held it suspended in mid-swing.
Leola’s breath clung to her eyelashes, freezing, as she panted in the moments of stillness while the beastly man appeared to consider her. His unblinking eyes stared down at her, and he appeared as a terrible statue, unmoving, still enough that for a moment Leola wondered if he had been turned to stone.
A sound, something like a chuckle, emanated from the enormous chest. With an almost playful air, he sheathed the weapon, looking at her with a bemused interest that she found almost more terrifying than his violent bellowing.
Her head started to spin. The cold was creeping through her body now, biting her skin. On her knees, with her hands clasped together, she was no more than an insect before the enormous man, who stared at her with eyebrows raised, a cruel smile on his lips.
A wave of quiet laughter rolled through the horde behind him. It was not the laughter of humor, but of pitiless cruelty. She hardly heard it, though, because her own thoughts pulsed between her ears: What now? What do I say now?
For the great warrior towering above her expected… something.
“What will make it right?” she whispered. The words caught in her throat. She had asked the same of Ryken when he had so disparaged and humiliated her in a drunken rage many moons past… what could she do, to make right the wrongs she herself had not brought about?
The warrior eyed her with a changed expression. Now he looked wary.
He looked up at the castle walls, then back at the line of prisoners. “The first of my demands, lady,” this was accompanied by another wave of cruel chuckling diffusing through the horde, “is a promise that this crowd of filthy barbarians won’t cross the Northern hills again.”
Leola blinked, for a moment confounded. Several beats passed as she came to understand that the ‘filthy barbarians’ Sedrak referred to were Ryken and his men, not the barbaric horde behind him.
So Datharia had been right. They were Northern raiders.
The beast Sedrak had ridden stamped and snorted behind him. In an incongruous moment, the warrior turned slightly to put a hand, almost tenderly, on the muzzle of the terrifying animal, and it calmed at his touch.
“Of… of… of course,” Leola croaked, eyes falling to the ground in submission. “A solemn promise. A vow. You will never see them again.” She stole a glance between the legs of the warrior at Ryken.
He was still staring at the ground ahead of him. Would he live down this humiliation? Knowing that his people were seeing him bow before an enemy? Would he break the promise she’d just made in a quest for vengeance?
It mattered not: those were questions for another time. She shivered and kept her eyes fixed on the ground.
“Those are merely words,” Sedrak said. “And you are barbarians without honor. I prefer a more solid agreement.”
Leola glanced up at him. “Mmmm… my…” She did not know what to call him, and her mind grasped at the first thing that came to her. Surely he was some kind of ‘lord’? “My lord, I am… unaccustomed to the… nature of… agreements, I am not… but I shall…” She looked at Ryken again. Closed her eyes.
“Anything,” she said. “Just let him live.”
She opened her eyes. The way Sedrak looked at her made the skin on her neck crawl.
“Anything?” he growled. The cruel smile formed beneath his beard again.
Her chest felt as though a hole had been clawed through it, and the cold wind was now ripping her apart. “Any… anything,” she repeated. She gathered her wits as she spoke, suddenly finding her voice. “We have coin, and, and… and meat. And mead. Furs, grain… the… artisans have many… lovely things…”
She was babbling. She had offered too much, she knew Ryken would cuff her for this terrible negotiation if it were under any other circumstances. But if it saved his life, what did it matter?
The warrior was staring at her with an expression she could not read.
“I’ll have it sent out as soon as I return to the—”
“I don’t need food and coin I have aplenty,” the warrior interrupted.
His eyes were still on her, roaming along her hunched frame.
For a blissful moment, she did not recognize what was in his eyes, and she believed that he was about to innumerate the other things he might wish to take.
But a cold fear poured over her when, suddenly, she recognized the glint in the warrior’s eyes. In them burned a hunger she’d seen in other men, when they watched her surreptitiously, after she came of age.
“I have other needs,” the warrior said, bending over her, crouching with his forearm resting on his knees. He tipped her chin up with a thick finger.
Leola had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from fainting. Her imagination was already spinning, thinking of what other needs he had in mind. It was forbidden to speak of such things before marriage, Datharia had explained. And there was no one but Datharia to whisper the secrets of marriage to her, as the milkmaids and court attendants had.
But she was not a fool. She could guess at what those forbidden things might be, what part of her body, what part of a man’s might be involved in such a thing.
She would never be able to live with herself if this brute took Ryken’s life. There was only one way forward and it chilled her to her core. Somehow she found the courage to look up into the warrior’s eyes. “What is it that you seek for my uncle’s life?” she asked softly, already certain of the answer.
“You’re a pretty thing,” Sedrak said. He caressed her cheek with a rough and weathered hand. “You would pay any price for your uncle’s freedom?” he asked. He kept her looking up at him.
“I… I would do so, yes,” she said quietly.
“You would give your life for his?”
She gasped. Her mouth fell open. Surely he couldn’t mean…
He leaned forward so his face was just two hands from hers. His eyes narrowed. “I don’t mean to kill you, Leola Grace. I am not a barbarian, as your uncle seems to think.”
She exhaled and her knees went weak. But if he did not mean to kill her, there remained little else he intended to do with her, other than the unthinkable. As the thought struck her, what color remained left her cheeks, leaving her face pale as a ghost. The bottom fell out of her stomach. What was being asked of her was… unthinkable. She knew that this barbarian was not asking for her hand in marriage, after all.
She would be an unmarried woman, sinful and unsuitable for any proper life. In effect, it was her life for her uncle’s, for she would never lead the same life again.
In the same instant she thought of the alternative, and knew there wasn’t really any choice to make.
Sedrak grew impatient with her silence. “I mean,” he huffed, “do you give yourself to me freely? In exchange I shall let your uncle live.”
Her eyes fell to the ground. The decision had already been made, her fate was sealed. Now all that was required of her was to say the words that would end her life as she knew it. She struggled to breathe, let alone to form her assent.
She steeled herself and parted her lips. “Yes,” she whispered. The single word left her mouth and it felt as if it carried with it her soul. She was suddenly empty, adrift, like a boat torn loose from its anchor in a storm.
Sedrak took a step back, appraising her as if he did not believe her assent. A cruel-looking smile was on his lips. He wore much the same expression as though she had challenged him to a bare-fisted fight.
“Stand, then, Leola Grace,” he commanded, almost laughing. “Let us see how serious you are about this.”
With fear swelling in her belly again, Leola dragged herself to her feet and did her best to stand straight and proud in front of him.
“Strip,” he ordered.
Her mouth fell open. “What?” she whispered.
“Strip that… garment… from yourself.”
Her head began to shake. He could not mean that she strip, there in front of so many men? She took a step back. Her mind was screaming run, but her body would not obey. Sedrak grabbed the hilt of his sword and started pulling it from its scabbard, chuckling.
“I thought not,” he said cruelly. He tilted his chin and yelled to his men without turning around, in the rough Northern dialect that Leola could not understand. But when one of the guards shoved Ryken, gesturing for him to arise while hollering guttural sounds at him, she understood the intent.
Her life for his, and she had not been serious enough.
Leola squeezed her eyes closed, acting on instinct, as though she no longer had a will or a mind of her own. She shrugged off the large fur. It fell to the ground at her feet, leaving her standing in only her nightshirt.
The scuffle near her uncle stopped after a sharp bark from Sedrak. A wave of low chuckling passed through the men. Even with her eyes closed, Leona could feel the heat of all their gazes. Not just the army of bandits standing behind Sedrak but Ryken’s men and the archers that had gathered on the walls. She had never felt so exposed or so utterly ashamed.
She inhaled deeply and opened her eyes. It was of no consequence now. She must do what she had to do.
Sedrak was staring at her, a new expression on his face. Surprise mingled with his amusement. “Off with that,” he grunted, pointing his sword at the shirt.
A wave of humiliation swept through Leona as she felt her nipples harden, though she could not say whether it was the command or the cold. Sedrak’s gaze burned through her, and an unfamiliar heat coiled and uncoiled in her abdomen.
From somewhere in the darkness someone shouted “Seems she likes it!” and a wave of laughter rolled through the men.
“Silence!” Sedrak roared, holding up a hand.
The quiet that followed was immediate and deafening. Leona shivered. Sedrak’s power over such a legion of men was terrifying, and yet inside her, the snaking heat flared.
Still, she couldn’t bring herself to raise her arms and pull the last vestige of her dignity over her head.
Sedrak eyed her for what felt like an eternity. When he took a step forward she stumbled back. He caught her by the wrist and leaned in so his nose was three finger lengths from hers. “Stand,” he growled.
She stood stock still.
It happened in an instant. His hand curled into a fist with a clump of shirt inside it. He yanked. The fabric tore.
She felt cold air against her skin. Skin that never saw the light of day unless she was with Datharia or by herself. She glanced down to confirm what she felt. Her breasts were bare. On full display for the leering stares of Sedrak’s men. Her womanhood, too, could be seen by all of them.
She wished the earth would open and swallow her whole.
Stepping around her, Sedrak pulled what remained of the shirt off her shoulders, exposing her completely.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw him appraising her. His eyes pausing at the soft curve of her hips, her breasts, then wandering back toward her behind. Through it all her face grew hotter until she thought a fire would start on her cheeks. She could feel tears threatening to brim her eyes, and she wished them away.
“You will make a handsome prize,” Sedrak said. “I ask you again: you wish to atone for your uncle’s bad behavior?”
She swallowed again and somehow managed to force herself to nod. “Yes,” she whimpered.
His voice was low, close to her ear, as if he wished that only she heard what he said next. “Then you must be humiliated, and punished, so that my men may have the satisfaction of seeing your uncle bear witness to the fruits of his foolishness. There is no greater humiliation for a real man than to see his women pay for his misdeeds.”
Leola stared at Sedrak, cold fear snaking through her body.
“He does not cry out for you,” Sedrak told her, his voice still low. “And yet you still wish to give of yourself, in exchange for this coward?”
Leola blinked slowly. As Sedrak spoke to her, his fierce eyes burning into her own, it was as if the entire army had disappeared. She was cold, but she felt that cold as though from far away. The same twisting knife of heat turned over and over in her stomach, and further down.
What was he telling her? To let Ryken die?
Her lips trembled. They stared at each other for an eternity, and she jutted her chin defiantly, hoping that she would not be required to speak again. She had already given herself for Ryken. She could not go back upon it.
Sedrak grunted, and stepped back from her. “So be it. Bend over.”
There was little that could come from such a command than a whipping. She had seen the servants and soldiers whipped for their misdeeds. And when she did, a similar heat had burned inside of her, but she had pushed it from her mind as quickly as possible, for it was improper.
That same heat, curiously, burned inside of her now. But it was she who would be whipped. Her own flesh that would feel the burn on the other end of the cracking noise that would not leave her ears for days when she heard it.
She had no choice, she thought, almost numbly. Whatever her feelings about it, there was no escape from Sedrak, no escape from whatever wicked things he might choose to do with her now. She would be whipped like a servant, there before all of his men, and she had no choice but to comply.
She bent forward, conscious of the way her breasts hung beneath her chest and of all the eyes on them. She could feel, in the cold, that between her legs a slickness had gathered, an aching tickle wandering somewhere between the bottom of her belly and her pelvis. The more she thought of her humiliation the more persistent it became.
Her thoughts were devoured, immediately, by the sound of skin upon skin. It pierced the night air, sharp and distinct. Hot pain, in the shape of his hand, nipped her immediately afterward. She inhaled sharply, and stumbled forward a little.
But the second spank landed before she could steady herself completely, and she gasped as the bright, hot pain stung her from her bottom to her eyes. A third crack pierced the air, then a fourth, and with them came waves of intense heat, spreading out throughout her entire lower body. She cried out when he spanked her again, and balled her hands to fists. She had taken a few steps forward, impelled by Sedrak’s strength.
Sedrak paused his punishment. He was standing behind her but she could feel his hard stare on her bright red cheeks. “If you give yourself in exchange for mercy for such a coward, you shall endure the harshest punishment. You will learn to obey me, Leola Grace, first lady of these walls and this realm,” he growled. “Tell me that you understand your proper place now.”
A tightness formed between her legs at the way he said her name. “I understand,” she whispered, her voice shattered by the heat rolling over her skin. She began to rise, hoping her punishment had ended.
He smacked her behind again, barking a sharp “No!” He kept his hand upon her burning flesh, as if he were petting his favorite pet. “You will do what I command, and nothing that I do not,” he growled. “Remain bent over.”
He spanked her again, and tears dripped from her eyes, but she managed to hold her position and refrain from crying out. He massaged her burning skin again, a pleased grunting sound leaving his throat.
Her face flushed as hot as her bottom beneath his hand. Never in her life had she known such shame.
Ryken would have cut off a man’s hand for laying it on her the way Sedrak had. He would have had his tongue removed if anyone had ever spoken to her that way.
And yet he said nothing to defend her.
Sedrak’s hand was still massaging her bottom, and she shivered as the cold began to gnaw at her bare limbs. Taunting and rumbles of laughter began to break out among the men.
Sedrak slipped a finger between her legs, swiping at her most private place. The place he touched made her whole body jerk, almost against her will. Tears flowed freely from her eyes as Sedrak’s rough finger slipped through the wetness between her legs, and he grunted again.
“Come, Leola Grace!” a voice cried from the throng of soldiers. “Show us your tight cunny!”
She turned her head sharply, looking up at Sedrak, begging with her eyes for guidance or protection. She was not even sure what that word, ‘cunny,’ meant, but she had a sneaking suspicion it was the forbidden place between her legs.
Sedrak looked down at her impassively, his hand still hot against her tender skin. The cries from the throng became insistent.
Sedrak grunted again. “When I take a woman, to humiliate a man, I make her turn around and show my men what I will get from this negotiation,” he said. His voice was low and calm. Leola was panting lightly, cold, tears rolling down her cheeks, spilling into her hair, freezing in the night air. She waited, her stomach dropping, fearing his next command.
Her bottom was facing away from the crowd now, and her humiliation knew no greater depths. But if he made her turn… she sobbed lightly.
“Stand up,” Sedrak said unexpectedly.
She hesitated, but then, shaking and wobbly at the knees, she did as he commanded. A boo circulated through the crowd. Leola hugged herself.
“The night grows cold and my bounty shall get damaged!” Sedrak said loudly at the men. “Take my word for it, I am getting what I paid for!” He pointed his sword at Ryken’s shriveled figure. Ryken could not return his gaze, nor look at Leola. “I am getting far more than the value of this coward, I assure you.”
The men laughed, but Leola could hear some disgruntlement in their feral laughter. Another call for Sedrak to show them her cunny bellowed from the throng.
“Who commands this army?” Sedrak shot back, his voice suddenly sharp and full of menace. The crowd fell silent instantly. Sedrak stared into the men, who shifted a group in discomfort and then became still, as if the glare from Sedrak’s eyes gripped each of them with as much fear as Leola herself felt.
“A frozen cunny is no good to me, comrades, maybe some of you who lay with livestock do not know!” Sedrak bellowed, just as suddenly, and the crowd whooped in relieved laughter.
He had already turned to face Leola. “Pick up your garment, and your fur.”
Shaking, she obeyed him, struggling to figure out how she might put the shredded material over her body so that it resembled clothing. She could not, and she could hear men laughing as they watched her.
Sedrak called something to the men nearest the gates, and they acted quickly, bringing something made of leather in their hands, exchanging comments and laughter. For a moment Leola felt sure she would be whipped again, and she hugged herself tightly against the cold outside and within her.
That vanished quickly when Sedrak took the item in his hands and she could see what it was: a collar. She had to steel herself from jumping backward when he stepped toward her, placing the collar around her neck. The leather was thick and heavy, cold to her already chilled skin, and the sensation of it being clasped around her delivered the same foreign, sinful thrill that his firm hand had delivered upon spanking her. The weight of the leather and its implications traveled over the front of her body as an electric pulse, all the way to between her legs. He attached a leash to the collar, and the sound of it clasping traveled as a chill down her spine.
Without warning, he turned and gave the leash a light tug.
She had to grab it and stumble after him to keep her balance. Her fur fell from her arms, and her shredded shift slipped from her shoulders. She was painfully aware of the eyes of all of Sedrak’s men upon her, watching her, seeing her dragged forward like a dog on a leash.
They reached a covered carriage, two of the large beasts harnessed to it. He tossed a flap of heavy leather as easily as though he had turned the page of a book. Leola strained to see what was inside in the dim light.
It was a cage.
“In,” Sedrak said.
A cage. Leola gave a quick glance in the direction of Sedrak’s eyes, perhaps because she wanted confirmation of his request, for surely he couldn’t mean that she should be treated as an animal to this degree. But when she met his eyes, his look was elsewhere, and cold as stone. She averted her gaze quickly. Sedrak tugged harshly, though not viciously at the leash, and it was all the reminder she needed: she had sold herself to this fate.
She stepped up onto the platform, and cringed in humiliation as she had to get on her hands and knees to crawl inside. The grate clanged shut behind her. She huddled in the corner. At the very least, it was warm beneath the heavy leather that covered the cage. She shifted in her nightdress, trying to make the material cover her, but it did not.
When she looked up, Sedrak was watching her through the bars. “Get her fur,” he said to no one in particular. She heard the shuffle of footsteps as men immediately obeyed his command, but did not dare meet his eyes, lest she see in them his dark desires, or whatever cruel intentions resided in his thoughts.
Her fur appeared a moment later, along with two more, and Sedrak tossed them into the cage. At least she wouldn’t freeze to death.
Sedrak was still watching her, and she met his eyes after piling the furs on her body.
“Soon you will learn your place,” he said. “I’ve been wanting of a plaything lately.”
He threw the flap over the cage and she was shrouded in darkness again.