Seventy years ago, in 2018, a series of catastrophic events, including a gigantic meteor and a series of solar flares, wiped out almost the entire population of Earth and caused widespread damage, leaving virtually all buildings and homes piles of rubble.
The few survivors in what was previously North America found one another and formed small villages, societies built on the need to stay alive in the harsh new landscape created by what had become known as The End. While most people lived within villages, some preferred to—or were banished to—The Outside, the area beyond the walls of the villages.
As time passed, some of these towns began to flourish. But they also began to find conflict with one another, and war between villages was not uncommon. In many of the villages, all able-bodied men were fighters, and would often go into battle leaving the women and children behind with some guards to protect their walled-in town. Women were not allowed to be soldiers.
Lara opened her eyes and tried to sit up, but every movement was difficult, like moving through water. She fell back down onto the bed, a soft pillow underneath her head, a scratchy blanket covering her body.
Where was she?
Her last memory was of the Jan tribe closing in, pressing nearer and nearer. She’d been creeping up on the Jan and had hidden behind a boulder. Eyes wide in horror, she had watched, almost in slow motion, as a Jan soldier had aimed his arrow at Commander Rex.
The soldier’s face had been in shadow, but as he shifted slightly Lara’s heart had pounded even harder. It was the red-bearded man, the one who’d killed her family only several months before. And he’d been holding a bow, its wood smooth and polished, practically pulsing with energy, enough to kill Commander Rex.
She couldn’t let that happen. Without enough time to shoot him before he released his arrow, she’d done the only thing she could. Leaping from behind the rock, she’d snarled as her body made contact with her much larger opponent with enough force to knock him down. A growl had emanated from his throat, and when his hands clasped around her neck, her throat closed. She was suffocating, the world going gray, then black, and then she was out.
Now, she looked at the neatly arranged jars of herbs and concoctions on wooden planks along the walls. There, above the door, was the gingko leaf shape that indicated this was a medical facility, which meant…
No. Oh, no. With panic swirling in the pit of her stomach, she lifted the coarse blanket and looked down at her body to discover she’d been changed into a simple white nightgown. The binder that, for the past few days, had been hiding her breasts was gone. Now, her chest curved the way it was intended underneath the fragile nightgown.
Her hand weakly fluttered up to her head and found her hair cleaned and soft, spread out on the pillow around her, rather than tied back in a bun as some of the long-haired men wore it. She’d left it greasy and dirty in an effort to detract from her femininity, but now it fell in soft curls all around her on the bed.
There was no way to see what her face looked like, but undoubtedly it had been cleaned of the beet juice and dirt she’d used on it to make herself look more rugged. More manly. So she could pass as a small and effeminate man, but one who could shoot better than the rest of them.
The second the commanders had seen that, she’d been in, and if anyone had had doubts about her masculinity, they’d vanished in the second she hit a series of twenty moving targets without missing a single one.
She sighed heavily and let her eyes close.
They knew. The charade was over. And the consequences would, no doubt, be stiff.
The door creaked open and a female healer marched in, wearing the standard forest green clothing that all community workers wore. A gingko leaf had been stitched on her shirt, indicating she was a medical practitioner. She gave Lara a harsh look, then spun around and ran her fingers over the jars on a shelf before pulling one out. It contained a thick brown liquid, and she poured a few drops into a glass of water, which she handed unceremoniously to Lara.
“What is it?” Lara asked, her voice feeling and sounding rusty.
“Drink it. Don’t ask questions.”
“It’s to help you sleep. And for the pain.”
“I’m not in any pain.” Lara realized, as she said it, that it was true. Other than some vague soreness around her neck, nothing actually hurt.
“Not yet, at least,” the healer muttered under her breath.
“What?” Lara was fairly certain she’d heard correctly, but she wanted to know for sure.
“Oh, nothing.” But there was a definite gleam in the healer’s eyes. As if she were enjoying Lara’s discomfort.
Lara knew better than to press the issue. She was undoubtedly already in trouble—and probably quite a bit of it—for pretending to be a man. She didn’t need to add any fuel to the fire.
She gulped down the well water, cold and metallic with a faint bitter taste, the result of whatever the healer had added to it. “Thanks,” she muttered as the healer took the water glass away and headed to the door.
The door creaked open, and just before she exited, the healer turned back to Lara, her mouth twisted into a sinister smile. “Your two commanding officers will be in this afternoon to speak to you.” Then she shut the door and was gone.
Lara fought to stay awake because she wanted to concoct a plan, or at least a speech to make her seem worthy of forgiveness. But she was being pulled down by fatigue, her eyelids leaden and refusing to remain open. As Lara floated away into sleep, she tried to imagine that the officers were coming to congratulate her. To tell her how grateful they were. Let her know that even though she’d lied about being a man, her bravery and commitment to the community of Gardena overshadowed her dishonesty.
But deep down inside, she knew she was in trouble. The worst trouble of her life.
Even before Lara opened her eyes, she knew she wasn’t alone. She smelled the subtle but fresh pine scent that she’d come to associate with Commander Rex, and then the low murmur of a man, followed by the equally quiet response of another. They were here.
She wanted to pretend she was still asleep, wanted them to leave so she could have a few more moments before she had to face the consequences of her actions. But eventually she’d have to own up to what she’d done, and she decided it was better to get it over with now.
When she opened her eyes, she saw them—Commanders Rex and Tye—sitting on a wooden bench at the foot of her bed. They were leaning together, speaking in whispers she couldn’t hear well enough to discern, and they hadn’t noticed her yet.
Despite the trouble she was in, she couldn’t help the uptick in her breathing, the quick but definite tightening in her chest at the sight of both of them together. The truth was, she’d thought of each of them previously. Thought of what it would feel like to be with them, though she’d never experienced sex before. Still, there was an undeniable tingling between her legs when they spoke, a surge of wetness when they looked directly at her, just like when they’d commanded her during training or on missions.
Rex was tall and broad, with bulging muscles that couldn’t be disguised under any form of clothing. His hair was jet black and messy, his jaw strong and wide and coarse with dark stubble. A long-healed scar ran from beneath his right ear down the side of his face. And the fact that he never smiled—or at least Lara had never seen him do so—made him look even scarier. Despite that, he made Lara’s heart race, his dominance and obvious knowledge—of all sorts of things—compelling to her.
Tye was just as big as Rex, and as good a fighter, yet there was something more gentle about him. Or at least that’s what Lara wanted to imagine, so that, perhaps, her fate at the hands of these two men would be slightly less horrible because of Tye’s kinder nature. His hair was light brown, wavy and thick, curling down on his forehead and around his ears. His eyes were a piercing blue and looked all the more fierce set against the deep tan of his skin.
Both men’s faces were relaxed, almost happy, until they noticed she was awake. Anger blazed in the two sets of eyes before her, and she quickly sat upright, pulling the scratchy blanket tight around her. She tried to smile, but her face wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, she focused on taking deep breaths and holding back the tears that threatened to fall. They’d known her to be tough. A fighter. Now wasn’t the time to let them see how scared she was.
“Ah. Finally awake.” Commander Rex stood, his tall body appearing even larger because Lara was sitting huddled up on the bed. “The healer tells us you have no injuries, except some minor bruising on your neck. How are you feeling?”
“Fine.” Lara cleared her throat since the word came out too quietly. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
“I’m happy to hear that. It seems, though, that Commander Tye and I are at a disadvantage, however.” His lips turned up into a smile, but it was, Lara was quite certain, not a genuine smile.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” she whispered, immediately angry that her voice wouldn’t cooperate with her, wouldn’t come out strong or commanding as she wanted it to.
“Well. You know both our names, correct? And we don’t know yours. Or your real name, at least.” Still he smiled, but it looked pasted on, and Lara knew it was there only for show, only to make this conversation as uncomfortable for her as possible.
She looked down, examining the coarse brown blanket as though it was the most interesting thing in the world, wishing she was anywhere else than right here, right now.
Apparently she took too long to answer, and Commander Rex spoke again, his voice harsh this time. “Well?”
She looked up, meeting his fierce dark brown eyes.
“An explanation is what we’re after. What we’re owed. So, please, tell us who you are.” His voice was pleasant, but his eyes were flickering in anger.
Somehow it would have been better if he were yelling. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes then opening them again. “I’m Lara,” she said. “I’m from The Outside.”
“How long have you been on The Outside?” Commander Tye spoke up from the bench where he was still sitting, and maybe it was only her imagination, but Lara swore she saw genuine curiosity—and compassion—in his face.
“My whole life.”
“Alone?” Commander Tye blinked as he assessed Lara.
“No. With my mother and brother. Until they were killed. That’s why…”
“Enough.” Commander Rex cut her off. “You’ll answer only the questions we ask.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Yes, what?” His dark eyes narrowed as he stared into hers.
“Yes, Commander,” she replied, using the form of address she’d used when she was under his command in the army.
“No. You’re no longer part of our army. You’ll address me as sir, and Commander Tye as well.”
“Yes. Sir,” she whispered, fighting back a shiver of fear. But the loss she felt at his severe tone was worse than the fear. He’d once looked at her with appreciation. With gratitude. With respect. That was when he’d thought she was a man, though. When she’d been one of his strongest fighters. Now? She was nothing but a useless liar, and the penalty for dishonesty of this magnitude would certainly be banishment.
“Good.” Commander Rex paced back and forth next to the bed as if in thought. “How long,” he finally asked, “were you living inside Gardena before you enlisted?”
“A few days.” She swallowed and spoke up. “Just a few days. I came in solely for the purpose of enlisting.”
“And why would you go through so much trouble, pretending to be a man and going through our village’s extensive interview process, just to put yourself in danger fighting the Jan tribe?”
Lara waited a few moments before replying. It wasn’t a difficult question, but it was the first time she’d spoken about it, the first time she’d told anyone what had happened. She took a deep breath. “Revenge,” she finally replied.
“What were you avenging?” Commander Tye looked at her, distractedly brushing a lock of light brown hair from his forehead.
“The death of my mother and brother. They were killed by the Jan. And I couldn’t fight them alone.”
He nodded, whether in understanding or assessment she wasn’t sure. But she was positive there was compassion—a hint, at least—in his eyes when he spoke. “But you know what the punishment for a lie of this magnitude is, correct?”
“Correct,” she mumbled. “Banishment. I know. I deserve it. And I’ve lived on The Outside my whole life, so I know how to survive…”
“Enough!” Commander Rex put up a hand, his motion and stern tone stopping her cold.
Lara looked down once more, tracing a nonexistent line along the brown blanket with her index finger. She could take it. She’d known being banished was a probability, that she couldn’t hide her identity as a woman for long. Surviving on The Outside was difficult, impossible for most people, but it was all she’d known until a few weeks ago. So she would be fine. Or, if not fine, she would at least stay alive, even though with her family dead, there wasn’t much to live for.
“Commander Tye and I have been discussing your fate.” Commander Rex glanced at the other man, and the two shared a long look before Commander Tye’s lighter eyes focused on Lara.
When he spoke, his voice was low, and Lara sensed at least a smidgen of concern in it, unlike Commander Rex’s no-nonsense tone. “With the wars as brutal and relentless as they’ve been over the past few weeks, we feel that banishing you, alone, would be not much better than sentencing you to death. Worse, perhaps, if you were to be captured rather than merely killed. Not to mention the fact that you did save Commander Rex’s life in battle.”
Commander Rex nodded briefly, a sign of acknowledgment.
Tye continued. “So we have come up with an alternate plan of penalty.”
Lara’s whole body was suddenly alert. What was he going to say? As far as she knew, the rules in most of the tribes were hard and fast, and in Gardena, the price you paid for egregious dishonesty was almost always banishment. Though she’d been raised on The Outside, her mother was familiar with Gardena and its rules and had taught Lara and her brother about them, and they stayed close to the community where her mother had grown up, though they lived outside its tightly secured and guarded gates.
Tye was still sitting on the bench at the foot of her bed, and Rex had moved so he was standing behind him, arms crossed over his chest, eyes glinting as he stared hard at Lara. With both men staring at her she felt pinned to the bed, as though she wouldn’t be able to move even if she tried.
“We both agree you need to be punished for lying,” continued Tye, “yet banishment seems too cruel. So we’re prepared to punish you ourselves, if you agree to our terms. If not, The Outside is where you’ll be sent tomorrow morning.”
“What are your terms?” Lara whispered.
Tye cleared his throat, then glanced at Rex. When he turned back to Lara, a small grin graced his lush lips. “Well,” he said. “Commander Rex has a rather interesting proclivity.”
“And you don’t enjoy it as well, brother?” There was a hint of joviality in Rex’s tone, the first hint of anything less than harsh Lara had heard from him.
“You’re right. I do.” Tye laughed. “You’ll soon see, Lara, how much we both enjoy punishing naughty girls who have misbehaved.”
“What do you mean by punishing?” Lara’s voice quivered.
Tye exchanged another look with Rex, then turned his blue eyes back to Lara. “Girls who have broken the rules must, in our opinion, be spanked.”
“Spanked?” she said, surprised. A few times as a small child she’d been swatted on the bottom by her mother, who’d warned her about getting a real spanking if she continued to misbehave. She’d never actually gotten a real spanking, and surely that couldn’t be what he meant. Could it?
Rex stepped forward so he was even with Tye. “Yes, spanked,” he said in a frustrated tone. “During which we will use our hands and other implements on your bottom. Hard. Till you cry. And any other punishments we feel are warranted. Whenever we please.”
Lara’s cheeks burned at his words, and she looked away, unable to meet the heated gazes of either man.
“Don’t look away, Lara.” Tye’s voice brought her attention back to them, though his tone wasn’t completely mean.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured.
“There’s one more thing you must agree to,” continued Tye.
“What is it?”
“You will be ours in any way we desire while you are staying with us for your punishment period of three months.”
“You mean…?” She couldn’t say it. There was no way she could utter the words. She knew what sex was. Her mother had been quite matter-of-fact with her as she’d grown up, explaining where babies came from and how they were made. She’d told Lara also about how in many villages it was customary for some women to have two husbands, because in vicious times when wars claimed the lives of many fighters, nobody wanted to leave the women and children unprotected.
But Lara had never actually had sex. Growing up on The Outside, their lives had been a constant struggle for survival, and her small family unit had stayed mostly solitary, sometimes making temporary or transient alliances with other small families. But never for long.
An ache began between her legs, and she shifted slightly to try to alleviate it. Rex’s jaw tensed. Did he know what she was feeling? Had he associated her small squirm with the desire she felt filling her belly at the thought of these two men taking her? Making her theirs?
“Yes,” replied Tye in a low voice, answering the question she hadn’t been able to finish asking. “You will be ours in all ways. Do you know what we mean by that?”
She nodded, then spoke, the words difficult to say. “I’ve, um, never been with a man.”
Tye nodded. “We didn’t think you had. The healer examined you while you were asleep and determined that to be the case.”
Oh, no. When she’d been knocked out, either from the fight or the sleeping concoction, the healer had examined her? There? Her cheeks blazed once more.
“For that reason,” continued Tye, “I will be the one to, shall we say, initiate you. Rex has trouble being…” His voice trailed off as he looked at the other commander, then turned back to Lara. “He has trouble being anything but intense.”
One corner of Rex’s mouth turned up in a grin—or rather, a smirk—and Lara looked away, embarrassed and fearful. But a bigger part of her felt excited, hot at the thought of these men touching her. Being inside her. Spreading open her legs to look and taste and touch. Even the thought of them making her bend over, pulling up her nightgown to spank her bottom, was like a match lighting a fire inside her.
She was about to answer, to say that yes, she’d take their punishment over banishment, when Tye spoke once more. “Don’t answer now, Lara. You have the night to think it over. In the morning, if you choose banishment from Gardena, there will be a bag packed with basic supplies for you to take with you, and we’ve instructed the guards at the gate to allow you to exit. But never return. If you choose to stay, you are agreeing to abide by all the rules that Commander Rex and I decide are necessary. Do you understand?”
“I understand.” Her words were quiet, but Rex’s eyes met hers, searing, and she knew she’d been heard.
“And after the three months with us, you’ll become a citizen of Gardena, allowed to live within the safety of our walls,” he continued.
Lara nodded in understanding.
Both men turned to leave, but Rex stopped, looking back at her again.
“Lara,” he said. “I advise you to think long and hard about this decision. Banishment is a terrible thing. But we can be terrible men, our desires limitless. We will own every part of you. You’re an innocent, but not for long if you choose to stay.”
She nodded mutely, then watched as both men exited, the door closing behind them. Only then did she let out the breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding.