It had been over a hundred days since I’d seen a deer.
They were skittish creatures regardless, but with the Kavari tramping to and from our village and the Skepna making camps in forest meadows, I thought they’d all been run off.
But here one stood, ears perked up and twitching, nose lifted in the air. Probably sniffing me out, which meant I had to hurry.
There was part of me that wanted to let it run free, but I thought of the scraps today at the market stalls. Bruised vegetables and fruit, slightly moldy bread. The Elders shrugged about it, claiming there was no more food to be had.
The women in my village needed this deer more than the forest did.
I drew the string on my handmade bow back, listening to the flimsy branch creak under the strain of being bent. Don’t break now. I held my breath as I aimed. Throat would be the best spot. It wouldn’t run far if I hit it there. Frayne’s cabin was about a half mile back, and I didn’t want to drag it any farther than I had to.
The arrow whipped through the air, and I closed my eyes like it would block out the animal’s screams. The deer toppled over, meaning I’d hit the mark, but it kept bleating, which was only going to draw attention. The sun was coming up, and I had to get back to the village before anyone knew I was gone. Getting caught wasn’t the only threat. There were things out here that could easily kill me, or worse.
And right now, the soft grunts of one of those things were growing closer.
I peered out from the bush I’d hidden myself in, narrowing my eyes when the Skepna stalked to the deer. The creature’s grayish-green skin looked sickly in the dim light, dark beady eyes scanning the kill it hadn’t earned. I watched it pull out a knife and end the deer’s misery, taking one task out of my hands.
Then it hoisted the animal up and I raised my bow, firing another shot then tossing the bow aside to pull out the dagger on my hip. The Skepna bellowed, tugging at the arrow in its neck, distracted enough that I was able to jump on its back and finish the job with a quick slash before the monster knew what had happened. The beast dropped, its eyes rolling upward as thick black blood began to mix with the brown earth at my feet. I stepped around the growing puddle and grabbed the deer by the legs, dragging it away from the Skepna’s lifeless body.
Not many knew that their blood was poisonous. Within hours, the plants that cradled its corpse would be dead, choked out by whatever evil the gods created the monsters with.
I risked injury despite this, carefully collecting the weapons off the beast’s body. I’d rinse them in the stream, then stash them by the fence. The bows I made often broke. Knives and daggers I managed to find dulled. I always carried at least one with me, trying not to think about the reasons why. Why instead of sleeping, I was out on a hunt. Why instead of family to come back to I was alone, taking care of everyone else. Why I never wanted to be unarmed like my sister was when they took her.
I swallowed, shoving the daggers into the bag around my shoulder and grabbing the deer by the legs again, dragging it behind me as I headed for Frayne’s. It was heavy, but I’d make it before dawn if I just kept walking. Just keep walking.
I repeated that mantra in my head, over and over, only relaxing when his hut appeared on the horizon. I moved into the shadow of the small building as though it might hide me from dawn’s light and any trouble I’d come up against when I arrived back to the village. Frayne stepped out onto the porch when he heard me struggling with the deer, his eyes wide as he helped heft the animal onto a table for examination.
“It’s been at least four moons since I’ve seen a deer.”
Frayne looked at the creature like it held magical properties. I looked at it and saw survival. Fur for clothing, hide for leather, food for the children and their mothers since the Elders gave us only crumbs and the Kavari were too busy fighting with each other to notice. No one cared for us now. We were all on our own.
I was all on my own.
“How long will it take to clean it?” I asked, rinsing my hands in the basin Frayne kept outside his hut. For so long I’d thought he was a myth, until that first night I snuck out of the fence, hungry and cold and weeping because my sister Esme had been taken and I was terrified about what would happen to her. The thought still terrified me if I let it. I didn’t want to picture her like she probably was now. Imprisoned. Ravished mercilessly over and over. Held captive by those brutes who claimed to be saviors when they only came to take.
“Give me three days, then I should have it ready for you. For now, you can take this back. I made trades with some merchants while I was away and set aside a basket for you.”
He slid the basket across the table, and my eyes widened. Inside were long stems of grain ready to be ground up and baked or cooked as they were, fresh fruits and vegetables, packages of salted meat. I grasped the heavy basket, hefting the straps onto my back. “Frayne, thank you. Please keep whatever you need from the deer for—”
“I don’t need anything from it. I hunt on my own.” He examined me, hooded eyes narrowed, a slightly disapproving smile on his thin lips. Wisps of graying black hair hung over his forehead, the rest pulled back in a short ponytail at the nape of his neck.
Frayne had lived out in these woods since the Elders banished him and all the other men from our village. It was their attempt at controlling the population. Some men who left were rumored to have traveled to cities along the coast, while others were taken by the Skepna. Others still were killed and left for their daughters to find. Like my father and my mother.
But Frayne stayed. Hunting and growing crops in secret. At least until I came along. Now he shared his supplies, and I shared my skills. When he would let me.
“You best get going, girl. I know what happened the last time they caught you.”
I hid my wince, feeling the muscles in my back tense in response to his cautioning statement. Last time I’d gotten caught sneaking out, Elder Micah put me in the stocks for a whole day, leaving me out even when a thunderstorm rolled through and rain soaked me clear to the bone. He’d taken over punishments for a few months after giving his own daughter away like chattel, and as much as I hated the Kavari, I was glad when they took control back a few moons ago. They used their hands, a belt, or a paddle to deliver punishments, and each time they’d dragged me to the square for a spanking it only incensed the other women. I was their protector. I was their provider. And those bastards hadn’t done themselves any favors by punishing me in public.
But I didn’t give a damn about them, and if I could make their life more difficult by sowing hatred among the women they wanted to claim, I’d take every spanking they had to dole out. They took my sister from me. When harvest time came, they’d hold another procurement. I knew they planned to claim me during that ceremony. Give me to some pack of soldiers to ride whenever they needed release.
They were in for a surprise if they thought I could be mastered so easily.
The fence surrounding our village was made of tall, withering logs we put up decades ago to keep the Skepna out. They used to come in droves, but now, their numbers had withered to a few dozen. I supposed I should thank the Kavari for that since they did keep them away from the village. But their good deeds were wiped out by their multitude of other sins. Women stolen away like livestock and taken to their city for God only knew what.
If I was honest, the gods didn’t have to tell me what they did because I knew. I knew because the barracks I slept in were right next to the quarters that housed Kavari soldiers, and nearly every night I had to stuff cotton in my ears to drown out the grunts, moans, and slapping of skin that drifted into my window. I’d been moved to this house when I turned nineteen last fall as it was the place where maidens were ‘readied’ to be examined and eventually claimed by a Kavari squadron. ‘Readied’ meaning I was forced to listen to their obscene exploits in hopes it would stir something inside me.
All it stirred up was a desire for vengeance, and the knowledge that the Kavari were just as simple as human men. A peek of ass or a flash of my breasts was often enough to distract the guards and get me out of trouble sometimes.
Sometimes. But not today. There was no one at the fence to greet me, so I changed and got right in line for my morning rations.
But no sooner had I taken my spot in the queue when a heavy, wrinkled hand grabbed my arm and dragged me toward the center of the square, reminding me the Kavari weren’t the only threat I had to deal with here.
I glowered up at Elder Hoval, his round, dark eyes narrowed and fixed on the stocks as he stalked with me in tow. He was making a fuss on purpose. The dramatics always drew attention and gave him a chance to vilify me.
“What did I do this time?” My voice was light, but Hoval snarled like a beast as he shoved me toward Elder Micah.
“What you need to be asking is why we shouldn’t drag you to the sept and show you what happens to girls who willfully defy our laws!” Hoval’s gruff voice was laced with lust and anger. The two mixed together into a grating sound that made my skin crawl. Disgusting as the noises from the Kavari barracks were, I’d take days in their bunker over a minute in that sept with this man.
“I haven’t willfully defied anything,” I snapped, ripping my arms out of Micah’s hold and pausing to glare at him. To think, at one point, I’d thought this man might offer some solace after Esme left. He was Daya’s father, and Daya had been Esme’s friend. But I soon learned he was as cruel as the others. He’d all but sold his own daughter to the Kavari for a bite of power when Elder Hoval wouldn’t ever give him more than a lick.
“You ventured outside our walls,” Hoval barked. “I saw you with a basket of supplies and—”
“Are we not allowed by the gate anymore? That basket was a gift from passing merchants. Am I forbidden from accepting gifts now?”
Both Elders stilled, eyes narrowing, very aware every person in the village was listening. The gate, even though it was under heavy Kavari guard, was free for us to wander through. No one aside from me dared venture more than a few feet beyond it for fear of the Skepna, but it was a space where we could bask in the fresh air of the forest. The Kavari ensured it stayed safe. A place they could converse with women who were in a good mood because they felt at ease.
Taking that away would cause trouble. Trouble the Elders couldn’t afford. Trouble that would make the Kavari look merciful because they’d want to keep it open.
Painting them in any sort of bright light wasn’t on my agenda, but I’d say whatever I needed to keep myself out of that sept.
“Unless you can find a reason to punish me, I’ll be off to get my rations.”
I went to stalk past Hoval, but he grabbed my arm and whirled me around. His face came so close to mine I could smell his sour breath. “I know you’ve been out in the forest. Sneaking around, bringing in food you don’t share with the rest of us. You are a selfish, spoiled girl who thinks she’s some sort of savior—”
“It’s easy to be a savior when you’re a convenient villain,” I hissed. “You deny food to your most vulnerable people. You use it to control children and their mothers so you can keep some semblance of power!”
I shoved Hoval’s arm off my shoulder, sneering at him before I turned to the other Elders watching. “Now, unless you have some charge to levy against me, I’d like to get my rations and return—”
“You won’t be returning to your barracks just yet, Aria. Your insolence must be punished.”
Hoval jerked his head, and Micah grabbed me, hauling me away from the square toward Hoval’s house and the sept behind it. I dug my feet into the ground, twisting violently, wishing I’d kept the dagger on my hip. Elder Toral was watching from beside a market stall, and he came forward, eyebrows rising and a cruel smile curling his lips as he grabbed hold of my flailing legs. I was saved from being dragged much farther when a sharp voice echoed from the front of the gate, causing the men to release me.
“Elder Micah, Elder Toral, you know disciplinary measures must be run by one of us before acted upon. What is her crime?”
I righted myself and stalked away from the Elder, and away from my supposed savior. Toral ducked his head in acknowledgement, but Micah remained defiant. As did Hoval, who approached like he wasn’t going up against a man two and half feet taller and roughly thirty years younger. He glared up at the brute, who narrowed his dark amber eyes before turning to me, recognition making my whole body tense when he curled his lips.
“Ah. Aria. What has she done this time?”
His voice was like leather. Deep and smooth, with a slightly rough edge to it. He spoke like this—my behavior—was expected. Like he’d anticipated I’d need to be punished at some point and had simply been waiting for the opportunity. I sneered in his direction when he smirked at me, then turned my back to avoid his lustful gaze.
Kaiden was the leader of the Kavari squadron currently occupying our village. He carried himself with an arrogance that made me fantasize about setting up a trap for him to stumble into. Perhaps an injury or a scar to his beautiful face would humble him, but I doubted it.
He had reason for his arrogance if I was honest. The man was so beautiful, many of the women here wondered if he’d been kissed by the gods directly. Long, honey-colored hair with thick braids laced into strands. Smooth gold skin darkened by hours in the sun. Bright amber eyes, broad cheekbones. A square jaw covered in soft stubble and full lips always set in a pout. I understood why several of the girls in my barracks stared at him, and at the two men always at his side. Zander and Umber, the former full of dark menace and unhinged strength, the latter light, airy, and softer somehow. Umber had the height and build of his Kavari brothers, but his eyes were different. Darker. Molten copper instead of bright gold.
“She’s snuck out again.” Hoval narrowed his accusing eyes at me. “One of the matrons saw her carrying a basket of fruit and bread into the barracks, and no merchants have been by she could have taken it from.”
“There were merchants by late last night.”
I lifted my eyes and watched Kaiden’s lip curl. It was a lie. He was covering for me because he had his own discipline in mind.
“She’s disobedient and rude. Even your tribe agrees that women should not talk back. It was the chief complaint your king made when he sent his soldiers down here last month,” Micah said. “The women from this village are insolent and Aria is no different. She must be punished and the sept—”
“The sept is not where maidens are taken to be punished,” Kaiden said, his voice lowering. “To that end, it’s not where any of the women should be taken. Not the ones who are up for procurement come harvest time.”
“Then what would you suggest we do with her, Master Kaiden?” Hoval hissed the title as though each letter was poison in his mouth.
Kaiden smiled, and I tensed as I watched him tug his leather gloves off, exposing his long, thick fingers and heavy callused hands. He tucked the gloves away, then reached for the belt latched around his waist.
Zander was steps away, acting as though he wasn’t listening to the conversation. But when his name was called, he stood upright and walked straight to me. He did not smile, or flinch when I put my hands against his chest and pushed. Instead, he seized my bicep in one large hand and yanked me in front of his body, then wrapped an arm around my waist to lift me off my feet.
“Pin her to the rack,” Kaiden announced, and I heard a few gasps from the crowd, some whimpers from other women I knew from the barracks. “I’ll be there in a moment.”
Zander grunted in reply, and before I had a chance to fight him, I was pinned to the large X-shaped rack in the town square with nothing but his weight. He yanked my arms up, fastening them in place while a second pair of hands took each of my legs, spreading them and binding them to the bottom of the X-shaped frame.
“You can’t help it, can you.”
I ground my teeth together when Zander whispered in my ear, thrashing as he slid his hands down my arms and over my ribs, his fingers skirting close to the sides of my breasts before circling around and settling over my lower belly. He held me tight, grinding his hips against my ass, groaning softly in my ear.
“I think you’re the one who needs help,” I hissed.
“Oh, no, Princess. I’m just fine. I’ll be even better once I watch Kaiden whip this pretty little ass of yours again.” He grunted as he rubbed himself against me. Beside us, Umber leaned against the cross, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.
“Such a bad, bad girl, aren’t you, Aria.” Umber smiled, trailing a finger down my cheek. I jerked away, but he took my chin in his hand and turned my face to his, clicking his tongue. “What did she do the other day, Zander? Remind me.”
“She flashed her tits at one of the guards to get extra bread.”
“Extra bread for…”
“For the women you’re letting starve under your watch,” I snarled. “You can’t even assure them safety here and you expect them to want—”
Umber squeezed my cheeks, shaking his head and dropping his voice to a whisper. “We’re on the same side, Princess. You’re not the only one sneaking in rations, but we have to be cautious about it. There are complexities happening that you don’t—”
“If you think I care about the squabbles you’re having with the new soldiers, I don’t,” I sneered. Umber released my jaw, tracing a thumb over my lips then grinning when I jerked away. “I only care about my people, and if this is what keeps them fed and safe, then I’ll take a thousand lashes.”
I said the last bit for Kaiden’s benefit, and his eyes narrowed as he approached, looping the leather belt in his hand. Zander pushed his hips one more time against my ass, and Umber trailed his fingers down my arm before they both stepped away, leaving me at Kaiden’s mercy. He stayed close to my body as he tucked up the skirt of my dress, pinning it out of his way with a knife before he pulled my panties down in one swift movement. He clasped a hand over my ass, squeezing softly before leaning in and putting his mouth against my cheek.
“Careful what you wish for, Princess. I might give you a thousand strokes from my cock when I’m done.”