She panted for breath, chest heaving, then flinched when a rough hand pinched her bare nipple, twisting it cruelly between two fingers. She’d learned by now not to cry out or resist in any way. It would only make things far worse.
“This one would make a particularly fine addition to any collection.” The voice seemed to come from far away. “High-spirited, still a little wild, ready for the right master to tame to fit his own—shall we say—unique needs and desires.”
She shuddered as the hand swept her hair off her shoulders while prodding her with a stiff knuckle in the middle of her back, reminding her to thrust her breasts forward as she’d been taught to do when being presented.
She shivered on the platform, naked save for an elaborate golden belt around her waist. It had been specially made for her, with a wide strap made of supple leather hanging from it that fit snugly between her legs, then narrowed and ran up between her bottom cheeks, fastening to the belt in back. She’d endured several highly invasive and humiliating fittings for it over the last few days, performed by both her male and female trainers. Although at this point that seemed mild in comparison with the other torments she’d been subjected to.
“Note the golden mantle,” the voice went on. “It has been eons since we featured one of these at an auction. A sign that this female has not been used. Ever. Her trainers have examined her and guarantee it.”
Her eyes swept over the crowded hall, widening in horror. She’d never seen creatures such as these. Some had insect-like heads sticking up out of segmented bodies covered in an armor-like shell. Other beings shrouded themselves entirely, leaving only their eyes exposed—their eyes and their penises, jutting arrogantly forward out of openings in their shrouds, like snakes. Writhing and twisting when they saw her, their ardor aroused.
She lowered her gaze, afraid if she saw any more, she’d collapse on the floor, screaming.
“Turn around.” Though whispered, the command was still harsh.
She turned slowly, her back to the room, and heard a roar of approval from the spectators. She flushed as she realized they were reacting to the red stripes still visible on her bottom from the whipping she’d received earlier. Her trainer held up the long strap made from a mastodon penis. It whistled through the air, landing on her bottom with a satisfying crack. The crowd cheered.
Star Portals have existed since the beginning of time. Doorways between worlds in this galaxy—and others. They are found on Earth at the convergence of ley lines, those invisible electromagnetic paths crisscrossing our globe. Our ancestors discovered them thousands of years ago and used them to travel to the farthest reaches of the Universe.
Flourishing ancient civilizations didn’t die out. The people of Atlantis, the Vikings, the Mayans—when tragedy struck their homelands, they simply migrated through the Portals to places where fresh water flowed, crops grew abundantly, and the climate was nearly perfect.
Human beings descended from our common ancestors are alive today on a trio of planets thousands of light years away. Islands of stability in the universe where vast quantities of natural resources and rare minerals abound.
Neodyma. Iridia. And the icy world farthest from the warmth of the twin suns Phalyx and Zalyx—Gadolinium.
Gadolinium, 2723 A.D.
Chaos. Everywhere. Throngs of people running through the streets. Screams and shouts mingling with the harsh clang of sword against sword.
Talia shrank behind the stone column marking the entrance to the Portal. A few feet away, Nelson’s lifeless body lay in a crumpled heap. There was no sign of the others.
She’d been last to enter the Portal for transport to Gadolinium. Her entourage had gone ahead so they could formally present her to the king’s representatives when she arrived. But no welcoming statesmen awaited her when she stepped through on the other side. The Portal stood unguarded, the room empty save for Nelson’s body. The worn stone pavers at her feet bore ominous red stains. She feared the worst for the other members of her party.
Talia crept forward, staying out of sight. She’d been fitted with the usual Tellex chip before leaving Earth, allowing her to both understand and speak in any language after only a short time of exposure to it. But even with that device, she couldn’t understand more than a few shouted words in the din outside.
Invasion. Surrender. Lord something. Balam? She mentally reviewed all the information she’d studied for months preparing for this diplomatic posting. There’d been no hint of trouble looming. King Sigrun was widely regarded as a just and fair ruler on Gadolinium. His subjects were an ancient tribe of humans, descended from Viking warriors who discovered the Star Portal to Gadolinium during their voyages nearly two thousand years ago.
They had stayed true to the old ways, even after being introduced to the concept of modern technology. The team of scientific researchers originally sent from Earth through the newly rediscovered Portal had told them about the marvels that had been invented to make life easier. Of course, since modern machines and equipment couldn’t survive the journey intact, the technological advances Earthers described were treated as entertaining myths by the locals. Horse-drawn carts and sailing ships took them anywhere they wanted to go. And from what she’d learned, a roaring fire in the Great Hall, a fresh mug of ale, and a buxom wench bouncing on a lap were the only comforts the Gadolinean rulers cared about.
Talia knew that compared to the civilization she’d left behind, these people were no better than savages. They solved minor disputes with hand-to-hand combat, slaughtered and ate the flesh of animals and then wore their skins to keep warm. They still engaged in the ancient practice of sexual intercourse for purposes of procreation, even indulging in person-to-person contact merely for physical gratification, rather than using far more efficient cyborgs or mechanical devices. She’d been warned that she’d be exposed to numerous types of bodily contact, that it was part of the culture here. But the directors assured her that as Gadolinean ambassador from Earth, she would never have to endure any unwanted invasion of her personal space.
Talia watched a hulk of a warrior wearing nothing but a loincloth and a fur cloak tossed over his shoulders catch a screaming woman as she fled down the lane alone. He put a dagger to her throat and dragged her into a dark alley between two stone buildings on the other side of the wide street. He grabbed a fistful of her hair and shoved her to her knees. Talia dashed toward the doorway, ready to spring to the woman’s rescue, then stopped dead in her tracks. Without a weapon, she was powerless. The man would slit the throat of his captive first, then turn his knife on her—probably after forcing her to perform the same disgusting act.
Talia choked down a hysterical cry as the thought popped into her head. She’d have to hunt down a pen and paper and send a stern letter through the Portal to the directors, informing them that this uprising had just rendered all their assurances worthless.
She looked down at her traveling garb—flowing purple silk robe with a gold sash around the waist, chosen to instantly telegraph her status as an important figure to this primitive culture. Now it would make her stand out as a wealthy potential hostage to whoever was behind this revolt. She knelt and murmured an apology to her dead assistant. Then, gritting her teeth, she pulled Nelson’s body into a shadowy corner of the building and stripped the dark gray traveling cloak from him. Thick wool, with a hood to cover her long hair, it would protect her from the harsh climate of Gadolinium as well as hiding her female form under its shapeless folds.
She hiked the purple robe up above her knees, tucking it into the sash to hold it in place. Cringing, she drew the cloak over her head, trying to ignore the clammy feel of the damp spot where Nelson’s blood had soaked through. Thankfully, he’d been a few inches taller than her six foot height, so the cloak covered her generous curves from head to toe. Her body, although average in height for a female, didn’t fit the current Earth standards of physical perfection. Genetically, she was an anomaly among the slender, willowy forms back home. A throwback to her ancestors, full-bodied females with lush breasts meant to nurse hungry babies and wide hips on which to perch the chubby toddlers they’d soon become.
Nursing babies? Chubby toddlers? She didn’t know where those odd thoughts kept coming from. She’d had them often since being informed of her posting to Gadolinium. Odd thoughts popping into her head from the strange dreams. Dreams that made her wake with her pulse pounding, leaving her tossing and turning, sleepless for the rest of the night. Images of a faceless stranger who undressed her slowly, his tangled dark hair brushing against the skin of her naked breasts as he bent his head to kiss them. And then he’d sink to his knees and…
Enough. Talia shook her head, annoyed. She needed to keep her wits about her. She had no time to dwell on dreams, no matter how strangely arousing they were. She glanced back at the Portal, torn for a moment. It would be so easy to step back through. Despite the danger another transport in such a short time might pose to her body, she’d be safely at home, where any damage could be easily repaired.
But her sense of duty prevailed. Years of sacrifice, of training, of service to the InterStellar Federation outweighed any concern for her personal well-being. She had a mission to accomplish. She’d been sent to Gadolinium as the first diplomatic envoy from Earth and she’d never be able to hold her head up back home if she turned tail and ran at the first sign of trouble. At the very least she needed to stay long enough to find out what was happening and then go back to the directors with a full report.
She hid in the shadows of the Portal chamber, out of sight, for what seemed like hours until the commotion in the street died away. Talia tucked a few wayward strands of golden brown hair behind her ears and drew the hood of the cloak further over her head to hide her face as much as possible. Then, heart pounding, she took a few hesitant steps forward, away from the shelter of the Portal chamber and into the street.
There was no one in sight. Moving as silently as possible, she hurried to the end of the street and turned a corner.
Her stomach recoiled. Two more dead bodies lay up ahead, rivers of blood running from their bodies to pool in cracks between the paving stones. A severed arm lay next to one of them, the lifeless hand still clutching a dagger. Talia had never been exposed to raw violence before. Of course, she’d studied history’s most famous battles, recreated holographically as part of her training at the academy. And, truth be told, watching Cyborg Wars was her one secret vice. But cyborgs didn’t shed blood and any damage they sustained could be swiftly repaired. The sight of this carnage was almost enough to send her scurrying back down the block toward the entrance to the Portal chamber.
Too late. A glance around the corner told her that avenue of escape was gone. Three more half-naked savages headed up the street patrolling the area, probably on the lookout for anyone they missed on the first sweep. They disappeared through the doorway that led into the chamber. She drew the dark cloak tighter around her and tried to blend into the shadows, turning her head away and hugging the sides of the buildings as she hurried past the fallen bodies.
She forced herself to stay calm as she tried to recall the virtual city she’d walked through so many times to prepare for this posting. Three blocks ahead, the road she traveled intersected a wide avenue leading to King Sigrun’s palace. Surely the king’s guards would have protected him and his home. If she could make it there, she’d be safe and she could find out what had happened to throw the city into turmoil.
She hunched over, trying to look small and unthreatening. Twice, she had to duck into buildings to avoid being spotted by roving teams of invaders in the distance. Of the local citizens, there was no sign. Only empty houses. In one, an overturned table, the broken remnants of crockery still bearing a half-eaten meal scattered on the floor. Her heart sank. Trondheim was the capital city, home to thousands of Gadolineans. Yet all she’d seen so far of the residents were two dead bodies—and that hapless female who might be dead by now as well for all she knew.
The attackers didn’t look anything like the descriptions she’d been given of the local population. The men she’d seen so far were short and squat, with deep-set eyes, flat noses, and coarse black hair. Nothing like fair-haired Nordic stock that had settled this world. Where had the intruders come from? And what had they done with all the townspeople?
She picked up her pace. Darkness came early here. Though she welcomed the cover it afforded, Talia drew the cloak tighter around her neck, shivering violently as the temperature plunged even further.
Back on Earth, she lived in New Delphi, a sprawling modern city protected by an invisible dome that covered hundreds of square miles of the North American continent. The temperature varied a mere ten degrees between day and night, year round. Artificial wind machines kicked on at irregular intervals, creating mild breezes and keeping the atmosphere from becoming monotonous. The occasional gentle shower, always preprogrammed, became cause for celebration. Children would often pour out of their homes to frolic in the soft rain.
Beyond the dome, storms still raged on Earth. As a schoolgirl, she’d visited the observation tower on the 341st floor of the Science Center. She and her classmates took turns looking through a high-powered scope to view the crumbling ruins of cities outside, destroyed by hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes or wiped away by the rising seas, centuries before the domes had been erected.
This city had no dome. It was fully exposed to the whims of nature. Talia cursed the streak of vanity that led her to refuse a cylerian—the head-to-toe synthetic suit that fit like a second skin and protected the wearer from all extremes of weather. She’d reasoned that her time in the harsh climate upon arrival would be minimal. A few short steps between the doorway to the Portal chamber and the horse-drawn carriage awaiting her, then a few more steps outdoors at the entrance of the palace, which would surely be well-heated. She didn’t want to lose face right off the bat wearing what amounted to a set of long underwear in front of the hearty Gadolineans.
But as the third planet in this solar system, farthest from its twin suns Phalyx and Zalyx, the climate here was brutal. She couldn’t understand how its people bore the bone-chilling cold for the majority of the time it took for the planet to complete its orbit. Apparently they had a respite for a few short months when Gadolinium drew near enough to heat its surface to a temperature suitable to grow crops and shed heavy outer garments. But that season was still months away. She’d only been on this wretched planet for a few hours and already she was regretting her impulsive gesture in volunteering for a two-year posting.
Of course, she might be heading home to Earth tomorrow, depending on what she found out when she arrived at the palace and had an opportunity to speak to someone—anyone—about the situation.
Lights blazed in the distance. She picked up her pace, almost running as she imagined soaking in a hot bath and sipping an even hotter cup of tea in the quarters awaiting her.
That’s when it happened. A rough pair of arms seized her from behind, yanking her into a dark alley. Two hands circled her chest, pinning her arms at her sides. Talia fought wildly, writhing and twisting. She heard a muffled oath as the man’s fingers sank into the full breasts hidden under her cloak.
A low voice muttered in her ear, stopping her cold. She’d studied the language long enough that even without the Tellex chip she’d have understood the words.
“What in the name of Odin’s beard are you doing out here?”
She struggled to break free, but the arms tightened around her like a vise. She hadn’t been this close to another human being since she was a babe in arms. Trapped. Unable to move. Panic set in.
Talia didn’t stop to think. She drew in a breath and screamed at the top of her lungs. One of the hands immediately let go of her breast and clapped over her mouth.
The low voice cursed again. “You little fool. Shut up. I’m not one of them.” He dragged her deeper into the shadowy alcove. “Be quiet or you’ll draw them here.”
He spun her around, pinned her against the stone wall with his body and yanked off her hood. The golden brown tresses she’d tucked away spilled out around her face.
Talia stared into a pair of deep blue eyes that looked as startled as she was, set in a face with a firm square jaw and cheekbones that could have been chiseled from stone. He too wore a hooded traveling cloak, this one a dull gray, that hid the rest of his head and body. He stared at her for a moment, as though trying to decide what to do with her.
“I swear I’m not going to hurt you. Will you be silent?”
Slowly, he took his hand away from her mouth. “I thought we’d gotten all of you safely into the fortress. How did you manage to get left behind?”
He stood a full head taller than her. Dark circles around his eyes and a rough dark stubble on his jawline said he hadn’t taken the time for grooming or even sleep in several days. Whoever he was, he dressed and spoke like one of the locals. Adrenaline pouring through her veins flipped fear into blazing anger.
“I wasn’t left behind. I just got here,” she snapped. “And whoever you are, you didn’t get ‘all of us.’ I saw a woman a few streets back held at knifepoint, being forced to do unspeakable things. I’m heading for the palace and I have no need of your help. Why don’t you let go of me and rescue her instead—if she hasn’t already had her throat slit.”
She saw a flash of pain in his eyes and knew the image her words invoked had hit him hard. Talia finished her tirade by shoving the man backward with all her might. It was like trying to dislodge a tree trunk still anchored in the ground. He never even rocked back on his heels. The oaf had the audacity to respond by deliberately pressing his muscular body even closer to hers. He leaned forward, his lips almost brushing her ear as he spoke.
“I wish I could. Unfortunately I dare not take that risk. Besides, you’ve just demonstrated how able you are to fend off an attacker all by yourself. Maybe you’d be willing to take over leading one of our teams?”
He had a point. For all her bravado, she’d be unable to defend herself if every adversary she met was as large and strong as this man. Stung by the truth in his sarcastic remark, Talia lifted her chin and glared at him. “Making a jest in the face of adversity? I’m sure you fancy yourself as quite the witty conversationalist,” she replied, her tone as frosty as the night air. One part of her mind registered the fact that she’d finally stopped shivering. Despite her anger, she found herself grateful for the warmth of his hard body against hers.
“‘Tis true, I’ve been told I have a way with words.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “It’s but one of my many talents.”
He shifted slightly and Talia froze as she became aware of the bulge in his trousers pressing between her legs. How could any civilized person respond sexually in the midst of this carnage? The man was a savage, no different than those who had attacked his city. She thought about the assault she’d witnessed earlier, that rigid penis jutting out of the attacker’s loincloth. It was the first one she’d ever seen, shockingly large.
The stranger’s dark eyes bore into hers. The heat emanating from the bulge between his legs seemed to grow even hotter. She wondered if his member was as long, as thick as the one she’d seen. From the feel of it pressing against her, she imagined it must be even bigger. She’d never touched a real penis, never before felt the heat of one. Suddenly, a bolt of raw lust shot through her, so powerful that she closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, the stranger’s face held the ghost of an arrogant grin. For a moment she felt as though he’d read her mind.
He backed away. “Much as I’m enjoying this little interlude, I fear I must call an end to it for now.” His hand reached up. She though he was about to caress her cheek and closed her eyes again, anticipating how it might feel to have this man’s palm stroking her skin. But instead, he drew the hood of her cloak back over her head. Her eyes flew open and she swallowed a sharp pang of disappointment.
There it was again, that faint tone of arrogance. Apparently whoever this man was, he was accustomed to people doing his bidding without question.
“Exactly where are you going? And why should I go with you?”
He bit off another muffled oath. “I don’t have time to submit to an interrogation right now. It’s not safe for either of us out here. It’s only by the favor of the gods that we haven’t been discovered. Come along. I’ll answer all your questions later.”
Talia glared at him. “How do I know I’m any better off with you than taking my chances out there?” She waved a hand at the empty street.
“Well, for one thing, I haven’t ravaged you.” He gave her an insolent head-to-toe inspection, as though he could see right through the shapeless cloak. “Yet.”
She shivered again, but this time it wasn’t from the cold. In a few short minutes, this stranger had aroused feelings in her she’d never before experienced—wild thoughts, images of long-forbidden erotic acts between a man and a woman. She’d been warned before coming here to avoid close physical contact with the Gadolineans. Told that intimate exposure to this ancient race of humans could reawaken long-dormant, crude sexual cravings.
For centuries, Earth dwellers had been controlling their base animalistic urges from puberty on with regularly spaced, minimal doses of synthetic hormones that suppressed the production of natural ones. Life was calm and rational, not disturbed by the uncontrolled surges of estrogen and testosterone that caused humans to behave shamefully in the past. Modern marriages were based not on sexual attraction but on companionship, mutual respect, and shared goals. It was unthinkable for a husband or wife to intrude on their spouse’s private gratification sessions.
But the opening of the Portal to Neodyma a few years ago had reintroduced the concept of physical love between humans to Earth. Recently, the federation had been cracking down on rebellious young people who kissed and hugged publicly in defiance of the law. Talia had seen several couples locked in embraces while fully clothed. But she’d never experienced such contact until now. And though she’d heard of the ancient practice of fellatio, she’d certainly never seen a man requiring a woman to perform it before today, not even in the most explicit gratification holograms.
Her head reeled from the sudden exposure to raw violence and sexual stimulation. She needed to get to a place where she could be alone, to regain calm and rationality. This man claimed she’d be safe with him. But being around him frightened her on a much more primal level. Talia decided she’d go along with the stranger for now. Then she’d seize the first opportunity to get away from him and make her way alone to the palace as she originally planned.
He watched her impatiently as she processed all those thoughts at lightning speed. “Let’s go,” he finally snapped, not waiting for her assent.
Talia bit off a retort. Let him think she was acquiescing. He’d be less likely to watch her every move and she might have a better chance of sneaking away.
He motioned for her to fall in behind him, creeping down the dark passage between two tall stone buildings. At the intersection of the next street, he paused, watching and listening intently for any sign of the invaders before taking her hand.
His fingers wrapped around her cold ones. Warm. Firm. Uncomfortable with yet another physical contact, she tried to pull her hand away. But he tightened his grip. Not a crushing hold. But enough to let her know he was in control, that she could just as easily be pinned up against another wall if she didn’t cooperate.
She didn’t have time to object any further to being touched. He met her eyes, nodded toward the street, and dashed across the open expanse to take cover in another narrow passageway with her in tow. Once there, he kept going, his long legs covering the ground in an easy lope.
She lengthened her stride, keeping up with him. He shot her a grin and picked up the pace. Talia silently thanked her trainer Nico for the grueling six-month regimen he’d put her through in preparation for deployment to a planet lacking any sort of modern conveniences. She’d been told that she would find the primitive lifestyle here hard on her body. So she’d suffered through the intensive workouts without complaint. Well, not too much complaint, she admitted to herself.
She felt heat rising in her as they ran. Whether from the exertion of the run or the warmth of his body flowing through his hand into hers, she couldn’t say. Or might it have been from the warmth of his eyes—and that smile?
They were traveling away from the palace, toward the foothills of the mountains that lay to the north of the city. They’d made it about half a mile when it happened. Three brutish, stocky intruders appeared out of the darkness, grabbing both of them.
The tallest reached barely to her chin but their bodies were powerful. She struggled with the one holding her, watching in awe as her companion effortlessly shook off the other two, tossing them against the stone wall of the nearest building.
He sprang forward and wrapped an arm around the neck of the man holding her. The man loosed his grip for a moment, long enough for her to break free.
“Run!” her rescuer shouted.
Talia hesitated for a moment. She couldn’t just leave him here, one man alone against three. He called out again, sternly.
“Damn you, woman! Do as you’re told or first chance I get I’ll yank off Orion’s belt and warm your stubborn ass with it!” As he spoke, he threw the man who’d been holding her onto the ground.
Talia needed no more assurances. The arrogant stranger seemed perfectly capable of defending himself. Without a backward glance, she picked up the hem of her cloak and turned to run.
His hand shot out, grabbing her wrist again. “I’ll take my reward for rescuing you first.” He pulled her in close, dipped his head, and captured her mouth in a fiery kiss before propelling her forward with a firm smack of his palm on her bottom.
Mind and body both reeling from her first kiss coupled with the sting of his palm on her bottom, she took off at a dead run. Her hood fell back, exposing the flowing locks that reached halfway to her waist. The man on the ground shouted something in a guttural language. She’d never heard anything like it before and would need several hours of exposure to it for the Tellex chip to begin its flawless translation in her brain.
But his meaning became clear when a horde of other savages appeared from a nearby building and took up the chase, all yelling in that harsh tone. There was no time to think about the stranger—or the taste of his mouth on hers. She darted down endless narrow alleyways, zigzagging through the city until she was hopelessly lost. Panting heavily, she risked a look behind.
Her pursuers were gaining on her. No sign of the stranger. She spied a dark opening to her right and turned into it.
She tried to run faster, but transport through the Portal had taken a toll on her body. Even so, she might have evaded them, if not for a new squad that appeared ahead of her, blocking the exit to the narrow passageway. Apparently the calls her pursuers uttered had summoned reinforcements. Talia stopped dead. There were at least twenty of them now, surrounding her front and rear. She could never fight her way through them all.
She drew herself to her full height, squared her shoulders, and called upon her training at the academy. Show no fear. Do not let them see even a glimpse of weakness.
A member of the new squad stepped forward. He wore some sort of elaborate stone symbol on a leather thong around his neck. She decided it must be a sign of leadership. His deep-set eyes narrowed under thick brows as he looked her over, a slow head-to-toe appraisal that made her want to cringe. Reaching up, he stroked her hair, calling out something over his shoulder that was received with catcalls and lewd grins.
Talia didn’t need a Tellex chip to figure out he’d made some sort of crude sexual remark. She glared at him and slapped his hand away. The man’s eyes darkened. He smiled, a cold smile. Then his hand shot out, striking her across the face.
Her head snapped sideways and she gasped. The blow had been so swift, so unexpected, she’d not had time to block it in any way. Shock gave way to a wave of pain she vowed not to show. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her chin and stared back. She towered over him, so he was forced to look up at her. She caught the flicker of uncertainty in his eyes when he came face to face with the fury burning in hers.
He growled a command and three more men stepped forward. They tied her wrists together with a length of rope and tied two more ropes around her waist. One of the men took the opportunity to grope her through the cloak, squeezing her breast with a vise-like grip. Unable to stop him, she tried her best to ignore it. He seemed disappointed not to have gotten a reaction out of her.
Another harsh command had them on the move, with her in the middle of the group. One man marched ahead of her, leading her with the rope that bound her wrists. Two others walked on either side, keeping the ropes around her waist taut. The others brought up the rear. There was no way she could escape, no chance to run. Captive, helpless, Talia had no choice but to let them lead her through the dark streets.
A flicker of hope arose when she recognized a few landmarks and realized they were nearing King Sigrun’s palace. She’d be among allies there. Even if the king’s guards were prisoners as well, there was strength in numbers.
But that hope died when they passed through the gates. By the light of torches, a team of invaders dragged bodies from the interior of the palace into the courtyard. She watched in horror as they placed one on a makeshift altar built of huge flat stones. A figure stepped forward, shrouded in what looked like the skin of a tiger, its head over his head, the mouth gaping open with its huge fangs exposed. He shouted a triumphant cry, slit open the body with a huge stone knife, and cut out the heart. She thought she saw the bloody mass still beating as he held it aloft in his hand.
He laid the heart to one side on the stone table. Two other men grabbed the corpse after he finished, tossing it onto a fire blazing nearby. Talia gagged as she inhaled the odor of burning flesh.
A rising wave of panic poured over her as her captors marched her toward the entrance to the Great Hall, past the line of men hauling bodies of the fallen toward the sacrificial altar. Frantically she tried to pull herself together, relying on decades of scholarly training to restore her calm, rational nature. She forced herself to ignore the horrors around her and turned to the puzzle of who these invaders might be. They didn’t resemble any of the civilized beings from other planets that she’d met in the InterStellar Federation. Their language was like none she’d ever encountered in her studies.
She’d had a little education in prehistoric cultures, only the basics. But she’d studied her captors carefully as they led her through the city and had come up with a theory as to who the invaders might be. Descendants of yet another Earthly tribe whose members mysteriously vanished long ago. A handful of scholars, looked upon as crackpots for their theories, thought these people too might have traveled to another world thousands of years ago through one of the Star Portals.
Talia was sure of it now. The powerful squat bodies, the ape-like faces with deep-set eyes below prominent brow ridges. These men before her were descendants of Neanderthals, one branch on the tree of human evolution long ago thought to have died out or been slaughtered by the more advanced Homo sapiens. Yet here before her were undeniable examples of the race. Far from extinct, brutal warriors still practicing their ancient rituals. Celebrating their victory as they’d no doubt done for thousands upon thousands of years, by cutting the still-beating hearts from the bodies of their vanquished foes. Perhaps the ancient Aztecs had adopted the hideous practice from myths passed down through the ages about these primitive beings.
The warriors escorting her didn’t stop. They led her through the courtyard and into the Great Hall of King Sigrun’s palace. Inside, there was no sign of the king or any of his entourage. Instead, another short, squat man with a flat wide nose sat on Sigrun’s throne.
An imposing structure, the front of the carved wooden throne was overlaid with gold. A pair of enormous curved antlers served as the armrests. Talia couldn’t even begin to imagine how massive the beast must have been that had been slain to build it.
Fires burned in iron biers on either side of the throne. The heat they gave off did little to dispel the chill in the rest of the room. Her teeth chattered and Talia wondered how the men around her could stand the cold. Dressed in low boots, loincloths, and short capes of animal fur, their arms and legs and chests were bare. But their predecessors had roamed the earth during the ice age, so perhaps their metabolism had evolved to withstand frigid temperatures.
The men dragged her forward, stopping to bow low before the throne. They released their hold on her and stepped back, but left the ropes in place around her wrists and waist. Talia strained to make out the words as the leader stepped in front of her to face the throne.
He rattled off a few sentences in that guttural language and she thought she heard a word that translated as female. But it could just as easily have been slave. She guessed that their culture, like many ancient ones, hadn’t bothered to make much of a distinction between the two terms. He finished with something that sounded like “…Lord Balam.” Then he bowed low again while backing away, leaving her standing there alone.
Lord Balam made an imposing figure. His body was thick, powerful muscles bulging in his bare chest and arms. He had a full head of hair that hung in a tangled mass down to his shoulders, jet black shot with a few strands of gray at the temples. A wicked triple scar ran all across one side of his chest, as though it had been swiped by a massive paw. Around his neck he wore a string of what looked like claws on a gold chain. Talia wondered which of them belonged to the beast that had left its mark on him.
Like the others, he had eyes black as midnight set deep in his face below a prominent brow line. Wild bushy eyebrows made it stand out even more. Those eyes locked on hers. Talia swallowed, trying not to let her nerves get the best of her. She felt like a helpless doe caught in the sights of a ruthless hunter.
The man on the throne stared at her for a few moments. Then he stood and descended the three steps from the throne. He stopped so close that she smelled the acrid odor of dried sweat on his body. Her nose wrinkled involuntarily.
He saw it. His evil grin told Talia she would pay for the insult.
He barked an order. The leader who delivered her came forward again. Lord Balam waved a hand at her and the man untied the ropes around her waist. Balam slowly opened the cloak.
His eyes widened when he saw the purple robe underneath, hitched up above her knees by the gold sash. He growled a single word, stretched out a hand, and the man beside him slapped a stone dagger into his palm. Balam’s eyes never left hers as he grabbed the neckline of her robe, then slashed it from top to bottom, baring her completely. Only when he saw the flush of embarrassment rise in her cheeks did he turn his gaze to her naked body.
It was all Talia could do to remain unmoving while the savage’s eyes raked her over from head to toe. She’d never been naked in front of anyone—not since she was a toddler. Even then, her caregivers had trained her to cover herself as quickly and completely as possible after being bathed. Being on display for this crude being’s enjoyment was a cruel and embarrassing consequence for her momentary lapse of self-control. When she got home and made a full report, her superiors, all of them instructors in the arts of diplomacy, would no doubt use the story of her degradation to illustrate the dangers of allowing that control to slip for even an instant, no matter how fleeting.
But her humiliation had just begun. Balam glanced up at her face again. He didn’t seem intimidated by the fact that she stood a foot taller than he was. Maybe that was one reason why he’d chosen to expose her body. It was hard to maintain her dignity when the cold breeze flowing through the palace made her nipples harden—puckering even as he ogled them, right at his eye level.
He stretched out the hand holding the dagger, flicking the tight little bud of one of them with its tip. Talia flinched, then cursed herself for making another slip when he grinned again. He said something else to the man who’d brought her here and they both chuckled.
He met her eyes and spoke, a few halting phrases in the Gadolinean language.
“You prisoner. I sell—for slave. Jamrons, Valans… like Gadolinean whore.”
As he spoke, his other hand gripped his crotch. He stroked the growing bulge in his loincloth, laughing harder. Then he grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around to show her the Great Hall now filled with Neanderthal warriors. Standing behind her, he took hold of the both the cloak and the tattered remnants of her robe and yanked them off her body, leaving her completely exposed, naked and shivering. The roar of the crowd echoed off the rafters above.