For most of her life, Ava had wanted to run away.
Every spring, she stood on her tiptoes and peered across the field of daisies that separated the village from the forest, gazing with longing at the thick green vegetation that stretched to the mountains. Sometimes she would gather her meager belongings in a sack and place it beneath her bed, preparing to sneak off in the middle of the night. However, she had yet to actually follow through with her plans.
The stories she’d grown up hearing about monsters and bloodthirsty creatures that lurked in the woods always frightened her into staying. Huge bears with an appetite for human flesh. Two-headed wolves that could outrun the fastest man. Massive fierce cats that could leap upon you from the trees. Giant spiders and snakes whose venomous bites could leave one paralyzed and unable to move while being slowly eaten.
Only skilled hunters had permission to venture into the forest. The Elders banned everyone else from leaving the village, and those caught walking beyond the perimeter of the community were usually put in the stocks or jailed for several days.
The rules were intended to keep the inhabitants of the village safe, but having been born a slave and subject to her master’s whims, Ava had never quite felt safe.
As scary as the forest was, it was her only chance at freedom.
One day she would finally run away. She believed this in her heart. One day she would be brave enough to run off into the dark woods and never look back.
Now that she was a young woman, she had to escape the village sooner, rather than later. At any time, her master could decide to breed her with another slave, and any children born of the union would also endure a life of slavery.
She couldn’t allow that to happen.
The afternoon sun blazed down, but after the harsh winter the village had suffered through, Ava welcomed the heat. She heaved a bucket of water to her hip and started the journey from the well to her master’s abode. Though her arms ached from the strain, she took the scenic route back, as she wanted to see the meadow of daisies again. Glimpsing her eventual path to freedom never failed to lift her spirits and fortify her bravery.
One night, in the very near future, she would conquer the unknown. She would set off through that very field and run until she was breathless, run until she was so far away the hunters wouldn’t be able to track her down and drag her back.
A curse from long ago had caused the forest to swallow up the roads and cut off all villages from one another, but she supposed if she traveled far enough, she could reach another community, where she could start her life anew. She could pretend she’d simply gotten lost in the woods and no one would realize she was a slave.
Freedom. She would be free.
Her throat burned with emotion, and she swallowed hard and approached the daisies. Still holding the bucket of water on one hip, she reached her free hand out and touched the tops of the flowers, allowing the soft petals to brush against her fingertips as she passed the field. A surge of courage swept through her, and perhaps it was only her imagination, but she suddenly felt physically stronger, as well as less frightened of the unknown that awaited her in the forest.
“Maybe tonight,” she whispered, her gaze on the distant, mist-covered mountains.
She returned to her master’s home and brought the bucket into the kitchen. She set about preparing the midday meal, vaguely wondering why her master wasn’t seated at the table already. He typically sat in the kitchen working on his wood carvings before the midday meal each day. He was a man of habit.
Run away now, a little voice in the back of her mind whispered.
Her stomach flipped. Did she dare? She peered out the window. No. She couldn’t. It was too nice a day, and the streets had been more crowded than usual. She would be spotted leaving and quickly chased down by a hunter, who would gladly return her to her master in hopes of a reward.
Then she would be punished.
Her master had never hit her, which was surprising, as most slaves weren’t treated well, but he did once place her in the stocks in the middle of the village. For two days, she’d been out in the open, where unkind villagers had tossed rotten vegetables at her and cruelly mocked her. Tears burned in her eyes at the memory. She ran a hand through her hair and sighed in frustration.
A few generations ago, there hadn’t been any slaves in her village. But then the Elders decreed criminals convicted of serious crimes would not only forfeit their own lives, but their family’s freedom as well.
Years ago, her father had killed a man during an argument, when her mother was pregnant with her. On the same day her father was hanged, her heavily pregnant mother was sold to her current master, with the money going to the victim’s family. Now, any children Ava had would be slaves, and their children as well. And so on down the line. All because of a father she’d never met. She released another sigh of frustration and set about concentrating on her tasks, needing the distraction of her chores to keep herself from wallowing in misery over a past she couldn’t change.
After placing lunch on the table, she left the kitchen to go in search of her master. Perhaps he’d gone to lie down. She ventured upstairs and down the hallway, peering through doorways. A sense of foreboding made her legs move slower and her hands shake, but she shrugged the odd feeling off and continued on. Yet the breeze that entered the open windows left her colder and colder as it blew her hair haphazardly about her shoulders. Something was wrong.
“Ava!” her master called, just as she reached the end of the hall, where her small bedroom—which had once been used as a storage closet—was located. “Ava! Get in here!”
Her stomach flipped when she came to stand in the doorway. The old man was crouched on the floor next to her bed, rooting through her runaway bag. She’d filled it with fresh food and other supplies two days ago, hoping she would finally be brave enough to have need for it soon.
Her mouth went dry and she started backing up.
Goddess, what would he do to her?
“Two of Monrock’s slaves ran away in the middle of night.” Spittle flew from his mouth. He glared up at her, his expression cold, his lips twisted in disgust. “He said I should be vigilant, in case my slave was planning the same, so I decided to reassure myself that you weren’t preparing to leave too. Imagine my surprise when I found this under your bed!” The last few words came out as a deafening roar that made Ava flinch.
He turned the bag upside down and shook out the contents. Fruit, cured meat, cheese, flatbread, a small kitchen knife, and other supplies crashed to the floor. Two apples rolled past her feet.
“Master, please,” she said, her hands already shaking. But she didn’t know what to say. When he looked at her, he saw a criminal who deserved to endure a life of slavery, despite the fact that her father had been the one to break the law.
But Ava was tired of paying a penance for a father she’d never met. She was sick of wondering if her life would be cut as short as her mother’s. She was outraged that the slave owners in this village routinely bred their slaves to ensure their own children would have plenty of slaves for their households.
“After all I’ve done for you,” he spat. “After how well I’ve treated you. You were born in this house. I am practically your father.”
She drew herself up tall and placed her hands on her hips, giving her master the boldest look she could muster. “You are not my father. I have no father. And I have no mother anymore, thanks to you. When she became ill, you held off on calling a doctor until it was too late. I owe you nothing, and I will be free one day.” Inside, she was trembling, but Ava maintained her brave front and stood her ground as her master rose to his feet.
Run, you fool, she thought. He was an old man, but he wasn’t feeble yet. He was much larger and stronger than her. If he got his hands on her, there was no telling what he might do. Slaves didn’t challenge their masters and get away with it.
She took a few steps back, preparing to bolt into the hallway and rush downstairs, but he matched her step for step. The floorboards creaked under his feet. Fear clutched her heart. If he caught her, she would endure his punishment, but then she would run away the first moment she could manage, whether she had a bag of supplies packed or had to hurry across the meadow with nothing but the clothes on her back.
Her mother used to tell her the institution of slavery had made the village a darker place than it had once been. The hearts of men had withered, and their shrinking hearts would only grow crueler with the passing of time. The merciless gleam in her master’s eyes only reinforced all her mother had told her, and a chill went down her spine.
“Come here, slave.”
Pulse pounding in her ears, Ava turned and fled into the hallway, then finally reached the steps. She heard the thumping of her master’s feet on the staircase. He was close behind her.
“Stop! I swear, you will sorely regret this disobedience!”
She might regret it, but she would always regret her hesitation and cowardice more. She should’ve left the village a long time ago, rather than playing at running away, staring across the meadow and keeping the bag under her bed stocked with fresh supplies, yet never daring to set foot on the path to freedom. All because she feared the monsters in the forest that she’d never actually seen.
She reached the entryway of the house and yanked the front door open, only to collide with a huge solid body. The man, who reeked of alcohol, growled and grasped her upper arms, his fingers digging painfully into her flesh. She struggled to escape his hold, but his grip only tightened. Peering up, she gasped to find Monrock, her master’s eldest son, had captured her.
“Please please please let me go,” she whispered quickly.
For a time, when they were both children, he had been like a playmate to her. Until one day when his father decreed they were no longer allowed to play together, and she hadn’t even been allowed to speak to him for years. The time she’d ended up in the stocks had been because his father had caught her trying to talk to Monrock, not long after her mother had passed away and she’d been so dreadfully sad and lonely that she’d risked it.
Monrock’s eyes narrowed and he squeezed her arms harder, making her gasp in pain. Her heart sank. He wouldn’t help her. If anything, he would make her suffering worse. Though he’d been kind as a child, somewhere along the way he’d turned into a darker version of his father. She had no difficulty believing his slaves had had good reason to run away, and she hoped they survived in the woods and managed to find another village to call home.
“What’s going on, Father?” he said, peering over Ava’s head.
“She was indeed planning to run away. I found a bag packed with stolen supplies underneath her bed.” The old man’s breath came in ragged gasps for a long moment, before he took some deep inhales and more calmly said, “I wonder if she was preparing to run off at the same time as your slaves, Monrock, on purpose. Perhaps she knew of their plans all along and had intended to join them soon after their escape.”
The fear churning through her amplified, her blood running cold and her insides quaking. “No, that’s not true. I had no knowledge of your slaves planning to run away, Monrock. I swear it.” She twisted in his hold, but to no avail. He wouldn’t let her go. At this point, she would be lucky to avoid the public whipping post. It was Monrock’s favorite place to punish his errant slaves. She grew even colder and trembled in his bruising grip.
“Thomas was in the market earlier, inquiring about a slave to purchase. Perhaps you should put her up on the auction block and let the rich old man bid on her. With the profits, you could buy a dozen new loyal slaves to replace this bitch.”
His words gutted her.
Thomas was an Elder who was above the law in every way. Many of his slaves had mysteriously disappeared over the years, and it was rumored he’d beaten them to death. He also employed the whipping post more than any master in the village and had a reputation for impregnating his female slaves, then selling the children—his own flesh and blood—once they were old enough to leave their mothers.
Ava couldn’t imagine a fate worse than belonging to Thomas.
All her bravery fled and she stilled in Monrock’s arms. “Please, I’ll do anything. Don’t put me on the auction block. I’ll atone for what I’ve done. I promise.” She really should have run when she’d had the chance.
Surely, the monsters in the village were worse than those in the forest.
Her master yanked on her hair, forcing her head back. He put his mouth to her ear, his foul breath nearly making her gag. “I am not in a forgiving mood today, Ava. You will be sold to the highest bidder, and Thomas will likely be your new master before the day is over.”
“You’ll get a fine price for her, Father, as she’s never been bred.” One of Monrock’s hands loosened on her arm and he traced her breast with his fingers, his gaze one of pure malice.
Not for the first time, she wondered what had made Monrock so hard and merciless, when as a young child he’d been nothing but kind to her. Was it his mother dying in childbirth, when he was but eight years old? Was it his strict upbringing? Or was it something else that had happened to him that she wasn’t aware of? Maybe she was naïve, but she liked to think all men came into the world as a pure slate, but sometimes their hearts were darkened by horrible events that left a mark on them for life. But what did it matter now? There didn’t appear to be a speck of goodness left in Monrock.
Her master released her hair and ventured back in the house, while she waited on the doorstep, still a captive of the man who’d once been her friend. Her heart ached, remembering what he’d once been. They used to stare at the field of daisies together and exchange stories about the monsters that lived within the forest. He used to sneak her sweetcakes in the middle of day, when his father was busy selling his woodcarvings and cured meat in the market. Once, he’d brought her a bouquet of daisies, the largest ones that grew further out, having snuck into the field in the dimness of the early morning to gather a bunch of her favorite flowers.
Before he hardened, and before both of their mothers died, she used to think her future wouldn’t be so horrible. She used to dream that one day he’d offer to buy her from his father, or perhaps he’d inherit her when his father passed away, and then he would take her as one of his wives. It wasn’t common for a slave to be taken as a wife, but sometimes the Elders approved such a union—as long as they were given a handsome bribe.
But now the thought of becoming one of Monrock’s wives made her stomach roil. He had two wives, and she’d glimpsed both of them sporting bruises on their faces when they ventured to the village well. He didn’t treat his wives much more kindly than he treated his slaves.
A heavy weight was suddenly placed on her neck. It took Ava a moment to realize her master had placed a slave collar on her. He tugged on a leash that was attached to the weighted metal chain, causing her head to jerk backward.
Tears burned in her eyes. All her hopes and dreams crashed at her feet. When she envisioned the field of daisies, all the flowers were blackened, as if suddenly charred with despair.
Monrock and his father led her toward the crowded market.
Jaxon peered through the trees at the human village. Raised voices and a multitude of people gathered around a platform caught his attention. Normally when he came across a village, he kept moving. He’d never interacted with a human before, but he’d heard they were weak, pathetic creatures. Deciding they posed no danger to him and curious about the increasing noise, he stepped out of the tree line and walked closer, through a meadow of daisies.
His gaze immediately locked on a young human woman who stood on the platform, her hands bound to a wooden post behind her. She wore an expression of mounting fear.
Tears shone in her pretty blue eyes, and she trembled on the platform. Yet her chin remained raised, as if she were trying to remain brave in the face of danger or injustice. Something in Jaxon’s chest tightened, and he felt an odd desire to ensure no harm came to this young woman.
A few steps forward and Jaxon heard the voices of the crowd more clearly, and his curiosity was piqued further to learn the girl was a slave who’d displeased her master. Now she was on the auction block, and the highest bidder would become her new master.
“She’s yet to be bred!” a man standing at the back of the crowd said to his companion. “Ah, a sweet virgin. If only I had enough coin to make a proper bid. She wouldn’t have to wait long to have a cock between her thighs!” The pair erupted into bawdy laughter, and Jaxon struggled to fight down an abrupt, murderous urge to punish the men for the crass way they spoke of the girl. He settled on glaring at them intently as he passed, taking pleasure in how white their faces grew when they noticed him.
After a deep breath, he turned and strode to the center of the crowd. He listened to the bidding as the odd emotion in his chest tightened further. Why did he care so much about the fate of a lone human girl? Why hadn’t he been able to keep walking past the village? These thoughts left him unsettled, but he couldn’t force himself to leave. Everything inside him demanded that he ensure no harm came to the trembling young female.
An elderly man stood at the front of the throng, holding a coin purse and yelling out what appeared to be the final bid. The young woman’s bottom lip trembled harder and a tear trickled down her cheek. Then another. A sudden breeze sent her long golden locks momentarily in front of her face, causing some of her hair to become matted to her cheeks.
“Going once, going twice…” a tall robed man standing next to the block roared.
“I double the bidding amount,” Jaxon suddenly yelled, surprising himself. For a reason he couldn’t fathom, the idea of this pretty blonde human being given to the wrinkled old man at the front of the crowd made his stomach turn. Furthermore, her tears had affected him, caused his heart to squeeze involuntarily.
He told himself it was nothing. He told himself he wasn’t attracted to this human girl, and that he would simply bring her back to the home he shared with his brother and keep her. Likely not as a slave, but instead as a paid servant.
All eyes turned to Jaxon, and the crowd rippled with gasps. He doubted any of them had ever laid eyes on a Banded man before, as his kind typically kept out of view of humans. The Banded people lived in the sprawling forests that had grown up to surround the villages long ago.
He moved through the parting crowd and came to stand before the auctioneer. “I will triple the bidding amount if need be. The girl is mine.”
More gasps rose from the horde behind him. The elderly man who’d almost won the auction clanged his coins together in a fit of rage, his face turning beet red.
“Surely you won’t accept the money of a Banded. He’s not human. He’s a violent beast and should be run out of the village!”
The auctioneer looked at another old man, who was seated on a bench next to a younger man who was clearly his son, as the pair bore a stark resemblance to one another. Both had cruel glints in their dark eyes. The father said, “I’ll take the Banded man’s offer, if he indeed triples the bidding.” Spittle flew from his mouth as he spoke.
“You’re the girl’s former master?” Jaxon asked, his gaze on the old man on the bench.
“Aye. Now, let me see your money.”
Jaxon tossed him a small but heavy pouch. It was filled with silver and gold coins, as well as a few jewels. The Banded typically traded amongst themselves, but when Jaxon traveled, he kept money in a pouch in case he had need of it. There was an old abandoned castle near his home that had been filled with coins and jewels, left behind by the human kings and queens who’d once lived there. He and his brother, Wolfe, had been given their fair share after helping Trent and Gavin, a pair of Banded brothers who’d claimed the castle for themselves, to renovate the large structure.
The old man’s eyes widened and he showed the treasures to his son.
“It’s a deal,” they both said in unison.
“No no no!” the girl screamed, twisting in her bonds.
Jaxon glanced up to see she’d gone deathly pale as she stared down at him, her lips parted and her eyes growing wider and wider. She had probably heard stories about his kind and thought his people to be barbarians for living in the dangerous woods. But at least the Banded didn’t keep their own kind as slaves.
Once he got her away from the village, he would explain her new situation to her and hopefully calm her fears. She would belong to him and his brother, but they wouldn’t abuse her or treat her cruelly. They would keep her as a servant and pay her a fair wage. Until she had become accustomed to life among the Banded men, she wouldn’t be free to leave their home—the forest was no place for a lone human girl—but she would have a fresh start away from this backward village.
Jaxon climbed the steps to the platform and held the girl’s chin in place, forcing her to meet his eyes. He gave her a compassionate look and gentled his voice. “You have nothing to fear, little human. Tell me, what is your name?”
She swallowed hard, tears glittering on her eyelashes. “A-Ava. My na-name is Ava.” She sniffled and gave him a pleading stare. “Please, don’t buy me. Please.”
“Would you rather that old man in the front take you?”
“But you’re not human,” she said with a note of disbelief. “Where did you come from?”
He stroked his thumb along her cheek and reached around her to unfasten her bonds. “I came from the forest. There’s a settlement of Banded a three-day journey from here, at the bottom of the mountains near the Eurot River.”
“What do you want with me?” She rubbed her chafed wrists once he freed her from the post.
“My brother and I could use a good, obedient servant.”
She quivered in his hold. “Surely you’ve heard the crowd talking about me. You must know I displeased my master and that’s why he’s selling me.”
Jaxon grabbed ahold of her leash and gave it a tug, though not overly hard. “Enough talking. You will follow me back to my campsite. If you put up a fuss or attempt escape, I will simply toss you over my shoulder and carry you off, and upon our arrival at my campsite, I will bare your bottom and give you a sound thrashing. Do you understand, Ava?”
Despite her continued shaking, she looked him directly in the eye and said, “Yes, Master,” with a boldness that bordered on rude. His palm twitched with the urge to teach her a lesson in manners. But oh, Goddess, hearing her call him Master made his cock twitch too.
He’d planned to allow her to call him by his given name, but now he was seriously rethinking his plans for the pretty girl. He longed to carry her back to his campsite and spank her bottom bright red, until she begged him to stop and promised to be a good girl, promised to serve him and his twin. He longed to comfort her and wipe her tears away, and then reach between her thighs and stroke her to wetness before claiming her roughly.
No. He couldn’t. His twin, Wolfe, didn’t want a human girl as a mate. For as long as he could remember, his brother had talked about finding a sweet Banded woman to claim as their own. A group of Banded was set to migrate down the mountain soon, and they’d both talked of searching for the mate they would share from amongst the new group of Banded settlers due to arrive in two moon cycles.
Jaxon guided his little human slave through the lingering crowd, anxious to leave the village. The entire place reeked of misery. Most of the houses were in poor repair, the booths in the market were not well-stocked with useable goods, especially decent-looking food, and many of the people appeared gaunt and sickly. He wondered if all human villages were as poor as this one.
He picked up his speed and tugged on the leash, leading the girl across the flower-covered meadow. With his back to the village, he breathed a sigh of relief and slowed his pace a little. When he glanced over his shoulder, he was stunned to see his new acquisition gathering up daisies as she hurried behind him. He paused and turned, gently pulling her to him by the leash.
“What are you doing?”
She held the tiny bouquet to her face and sniffed, then gave him a brief smile. “The daisies in the center of this meadow are the largest. I’ve always wanted to pick them myself, but it’s forbidden to walk this far outside the village.”
It stunned him that after having just been sold to a complete stranger from another race, she would take the time to pick flowers on her way out of the village. She clutched the daisies to her chest, as if afraid he would tear them from her hands. The afternoon sun beamed down upon her wavy golden locks. He took a moment to admire her beauty more fully, appreciating the spark of life in her bottomless blue depths, and noticing a scattering of freckles on her cheeks and nose that begged to be kissed. He imagined holding her in his arms and stroking her hair, staring into her eyes, and promising to keep her safe and take care of her always.
His throat burned suddenly, catching him off guard. He didn’t want to have tender feelings for the girl. She was a human. Banded men were typically expected to choose a mate from among their own people. She would be his servant and nothing more. He hardened his heart to her charms and gave her leash a yank.
“Hurry up, girl. If you keep slowing me down, I won’t hesitate to punish you.”
The brightness left her face, and she lowered her head and murmured, “I’m sorry, Master,” in a tone so crestfallen he immediately regretted his harshness.
But he couldn’t take it back. If he showed weakness, she would likely take advantage of him. He needed to get her back to the campsite and discover exactly why her master had sold her. He didn’t know a thing about her yet. Only her name.
When her steps slowed, he turned to see what was wrong. A pained expression crossed her face and she lifted one of her feet. Her bare feet. She wasn’t wearing shoes, and he felt like a bastard for not noticing her lack of footwear sooner.
“Come here,” he said, dropping her leash. He held out his arms.
“Please, don’t hurt me.” Those pretty blue eyes glimmered with fear. “I promise I’ll walk faster.”
“You won’t be walking through the woods on bare feet. You’ll hurt yourself. Come here, and I’ll carry you.”
She took a step back, but he lunged forward and grabbed her, scooping her protesting form up in his arms.
“Settle down,” he said. “I won’t punish you unless you give me cause to, Ava,” he said, using her name for the first time. Goddess, having her in his arms felt so fucking perfect, he didn’t ever want to put her down.
She stilled in his hold and he set off, soon entering the thickness of the forest. She cradled the daisies to her chest as if they were the sweetest treasure in the world, but once the meadow was out of view, she started trembling anew.
“Do I truly frighten you so?” he asked.
“I don’t know anything about you, not even your name. Of course I am frightened of you, but I am also afraid of the forest. It’s said there are beasts as large as houses that roam outside the safety of the villages.”
He held her tighter, reveling in her sweet, feminine scent. A surge of protectiveness for his little slave spread through his chest. “You have nothing to fear from the forest, so long as you stay with me. I will keep you safe. I give you my word.”