Trembling in terror and hugging her knees to her chest, Ailith dropped her head and sobbed. In a cage in the back of a wagon rolling down a trail, she lifted her eyes to peer back at her tiny settlement, only to find a second wagon behind hers blocked the view.
Just a short time before, she’d been happily heading into the forest to see if the berries had ripened, when out of nowhere a group of warriors invaded her village.
“Run, everyone, run!” the elders of the village shouted as chaos broke out.
Blessed with long legs and a natural athleticism, she was swift across the ground, and could climb just about anything. She’d probably escape the marauders if she bolted, but loath to leave those who had looked out for her, she’d hesitated… and a moment later she caught sight of a villainous barbarian charging toward her.
Never had she seen such a powerfully built man, or one with such striking features. His muscled arms and torso suggested fierce strength. Thick, light brown hair fell to his broad shoulders, yet his beard was dark.
She turned to sprint away, but he’d swept her off the ground and hurled her over his shoulder. Though she’d screamed and kicked and pounded his back with her fists, she’d been no match for the powerful brute as he’d carried her away.
“Where are you taking me?” she wailed. “Take me back, please, please, take me back.”
“You are mine now,” he growled, reaching the wagon and bustling her into a crate. “I am the ruler. You should be honored.”
Panic-stricken and watching in horror as he’d marched back toward her village, she’d tried in vain to break the wooden bars. Now she was being carted away, and though copious tears continued to spill down her cheeks, she knew if she was to escape she would have to force back her terror and set her mind free.
Summoning her courage, she rose up on her knees and gripped the wooden cage. Looking ahead, she could see the pack of the warriors leading the way, but behind her there was only a lone man driving the other wagon, and his head was bowed.
Gripping one of the bars, she tugged with all her might. It refused to budge, but she continued, shifting around on her knees methodically testing each of them. Having no success, she lifted her eyes and studied the cover over her head. To her surprise, she discovered it had been laced onto the frame.
Running her nimble fingers over the knots, she quickly understood how they were tied. Undoing one, she moved to the next. It was the same. Hope surging through her heart, the tears dried up as she focused on her task.
Use your wits. They will be your salvation in this life, her father had often said when she was young. That mind of yours will see you through the difficult times.
The coughing illness had taken both her parents, but now she wondered if their passing so long ago might have been a blessing. They weren’t alive to witness the destruction of their home, and suffer through her monstrous abduction.
Finishing with the last knot and pushing up the lid, she found it lighter than she expected. Leaving it in place, she looked through the cage and studied her surroundings. The hint of a smile curled her lips. They were traveling through a forest in which she’d spent many happy days. As the perfect hiding place flashed through her head, the small slope they were climbing told her exactly where they were, and where the warriors were heading.
Fear pricked her skin.
The narrow trail led to a rocky beach.
“You have ships waiting,” she muttered under her breath, “but I will join my mother and father before I allow you to take me.”
A short distance ahead, a canopy of trees would block the moon’s light, providing cover for her escape. Crouching back down and glancing around the wagon, she spied several animal skins. Shooting a quick look at the man driving the horse seated in front of her, then the lone figure in the wagon following, she reached through the bars. Grabbing one of the pelts, she slid it slowly through the bars and propped it up. Once she’d made her escape, if luck was on her side, the man driving the wagon behind her would assume the shape in the crate was her.
Studying him, she noticed his shoulders were drooped, and his head had fallen even lower. The horses languidly ambling across the ground needed no guidance or encouragement. Praying fervently he was dozing, she turned around and looked ahead.
Her heart skipped.
The canopy loomed.
Her escape was at hand.
Taking a breath and forcing herself to stay calm, she cautiously pushed up the cover of her cage with one hand, and reached out to take hold of its edge with the other. Holding her breath, she carefully lowered it to rest on the floor of the wagon, then spun around.
The man behind her hadn’t moved.
Her pulse racing and her stomach churning, she rose to her feet and darted her eyes over the shoulders of her driver. The warriors traveled in pairs, marching in front of the horse pulling her small wagon. Only two sat on horses of their own.
Lifting her gaze, her heart sank.
She wouldn’t be under the cover of darkness long enough to climb out of the cage, put the lid back on, and jump to the side of the road.
Her leap from the wagon was the riskiest part of her escape.
Getting out of the cage and replacing the lid would have to be done under the full light of the moon.
Her heart thundering, she managed to climb over the top of the crate and put the lid back in place. Not wanting it to fall off and make a noise if the wagon were to roll over a deep hole, she hastily tied it to the frame on either side.
The canopy neared.
Crouching down, she waited breathlessly, her eyes peeled on the man driving the wagon behind hers. If anyone saw her, it would be him.
They rolled under the thick, tall branches.
Plunged into darkness, she climbed over the side of the wagon and dropped to the soft ground, but she didn’t dash into the woods. Curling herself into a ball, she stayed motionless. If anyone glanced back, she’d resemble a large rock.
The caravan continued forward.
No alarm was raised.
Slowly lifting her head, she watched it reach the crest of the slope and start down the other side. Only then did she scurry into the safety of the forest, but her pulse still raced, and fear continued to pop goosebumps across her skin.
Without pausing to catch her breath, she moved swiftly through the trees, hurrying to get away from the road and reach her safe haven. The hooting of the owls didn’t scare her, nor did the sounds of the wildlife. The warriors held far more danger than the animals in their woodsy kingdom. It was only when her chest began to hurt that she paused her step and leaned against a tree.
But only for a moment.
Her hideaway wasn’t far.
Pushing herself forward, she climbed up the slight bank, then down toward the river. In winter, it was perilous. The water would rise and turn into a raging death trap, but during summer the gentle stream was a joyous place.
Looking ahead and slightly off to the right, she almost cried with relief.
Bushes and small boulders concealed the small opening of a cave.
Stumbling down the slope, she steadied herself on the rocks as she moved around them, then slipped inside and sank to the ground.
She didn’t believe the warriors would care enough to look for her, and even if they did, they’d never find her. Gratefully stretching out her tired limbs, she closed her eyes and let herself rest.
A touch against her forearm stirred her from sleep. She knew to remain still. Certain tiny creatures could be deadly if frightened, but as she opened her eyes Ailith didn’t see a spider or a bug.
Large hands were looping a rope around her wrists.
She wanted to scream, but she was too frozen in fright and disbelief to utter even a sound.
“Now you will be punished.”
The deep voice broke the spell.
“No!” she wailed, daring to stare up at the warrior towering over her, looking more fearsome than he had when he snatched her. “No!” she repeated, but this time the denial was shock that she’d been found.
“You will never say no to me,” he growled, grabbing her bound wrists and glaring down at her. “How dare you run off. You’re mine.”
Ailith was rarely at a loss for words, but the brute’s presence took her breath away. She’d been mesmerized by his brawny body and startling appearance when she’d first seen him, but now it was his eyes she found astonishing.
Deep green set beneath thick, dark eyebrows, they seemed to shimmer as he spoke. She’d heard rumors about the handsome, vain barbarians. She’d thought the stories ridiculous, but now one stood over her.
“Do you understand?” he scolded, jerking her to his feet. “You belong to me now. Don’t you dare to run away, you foolish girl.”
Dragging her from the cave and settling on a fallen tree trunk, he yanked her over his lap.
“Let me go, let me go,” she howled, squirming furiously on his wide, hard thighs, but his massive leg clamped over the back of hers, and his huge hand clasped her waist. “Please, please,” she begged. “Why do you want me? I’m—”
A sharp, stinging slap cut her off. It was followed by another, then another, and as the hard hand rained its discipline, her yelps became one long, anguished cry.
Gasping for breath as the harsh spanking progressed, it was as if the thin dress covering her body offered no protection at all, but when he pushed it up to her waist and exposed her naked backside, the deep embarrassment sweeping through her was far greater than her skin’s hot sting. Whimpering piteously, she covered her face with her hands as his massive palm fondled her flesh.
“Such a plump, round behind,” he grunted, delivering a solid swat. “It will give me great pleasure. You might protest now, but one day you will yearn for my smacking hand and big cock.”
“Never!” she screamed. “Never, ever, ever! You’re a monster! I will always hate you! Always!”
“Hah. You will eat those words.”
To her great horror, he slid his hand into her womanhood.
“Your body betrays you. You’re slick. Already you want me.”
“I don’t, I don’t. I never will.”
“You’ve already been taken,” he exclaimed, thrusting his finger into her channel.
“I have not, and I won’t be. I’ll die before you—”
“Don’t lie to me,” he barked, landing a sudden volley of hot slaps. “Who was he? Speak! Who was he?”
Without warning, her father’s sage advice echoed through her head.
Use your wits.
Screaming and protesting was getting her nowhere.
She took a breath. “Henry.”
“Henry? Who is Henry?” the brute demanded. “A village boy?”
“Was. He was,” she managed, though her voice trembled. “We were to marry, but a plague came through our village. He died, along with my parents and many others.”
“You will soon forget Henry,” the warrior grunted, moving his long, thick finger in and out of her passage, “but I’m glad you’ve been used. It will make breaking you easier.”
She wanted to rail back at the monstrous warrior and tell him her sweet, gentle Henry would stay alive in her heart and mind forever, but she knew to hold her tongue. Determined to play along until she had another chance to escape, she let her body fall limp.
“Ah, yes, already you submit,” the savage muttered, increasing the speed of his stroking finger, “but your passage is narrow and tight. I will enjoy stretching you out to take my manhood.”
Trying to cope with her fear and humiliation as the brawny barbarian continued his lewd play, she squeezed her eyes shut and sent her mind back to the many happy hours she’d spent playing near the river as a child.
But he unexpectedly rubbed the tiny nub nestled between her pussy lips.
In spite of her instinctive revulsion, an unfamiliar, pleasant feeling began permeating her sex—and as the moments passed, the feeling grew.
“You’re about to learn the power of your warrior,” he growled, abruptly sending his finger back to thrust in and out of her channel.
An unstoppable ballooning sensation suddenly rose up through her being, and there was no way she could avoid the imminent eruption.
“Submit,” the warrior demanded. “Obey me. Submit.”
As the muscles across her body suddenly tightened, the euphoric explosion surged through her body. Exquisite tingles radiated down her limbs as wave after wave swept her away, then shuddering through the last spasm, she sank into his lap, engulfed in a strange, blissful serenity.
As he moved her off his thighs and onto the ground, she was unable to offer any resistance. Not only was she weak, she had an overwhelming need to rest.
It is a wonderful thing. Henry will learn how to give it to you.
Her mother’s words echoed through her head.
Henry had never taken her to the apex of pleasure she’d heard about, yet the barbaric warrior just had.
The brute’s grunting and groaning broke into her thoughts, but not wanting to look at him she kept her eyes closed. A moment later she heard his footfalls disappearing, then drifted away to the comforting sounds of the forest. When she finally stirred, she found her ankles had also been bound, and saw the warrior walking toward her leading a magnificent black horse.
“Why did you tie me like this?”
He frowned down at her.
“That’s a question only a typical, foolish girl would ask. You are neither typical nor foolish.”
“Please let me go,” she softly pleaded. “You must have many women. Why do you want me?”
His frown deepened.
“There must be a reason,” she bleated. “Please…”
“Enough!” he barked, gripping her arm and jerking her to her feet.
“I’m of no use to you,” she whimpered, struggling in his grip. “Let me be, I beg of you.”
“I said, enough. Be quiet. I don’t want to hear you.”
She was irritating him.
Wondering if that might be her way out, she continued.
“If I must go with you, what do I call you? At least tell me your name.”
He let out a heavy breath.
She hoped it was a sigh of annoyance.
“I am Ulrick. I am the ruler. You’ll be known as Hilde.”
“No!” she retorted. “My name is Ailith.”
“Ailith,” he repeated, nodding his head as his lips curled in a wicked grin.
Her heart sank.
He’d outwitted her.
Now he knew her name.
Suddenly bristling with anger, she glared up at him.
“You may be a ruler, but you will never rule me,” she hissed. “Yes, I fear you, and you may have conquered my body, but you will never have my heart or my mind. I will continue to think my own thoughts and feel my own feelings. You are nothing but a monstrous savage, and that’s how I will always see you.”
Snatching a small dagger from a holder around his waist, Ulrick leaned over his captive, his brow scowling in anger. But the fury rippling through him was with himself just as much as it was with Ailith. He shouldn’t care what the girl thought of him, but he did.
“Go on, kill me,” she shrieked, her wide eyes blazing up at him. “I’d rather be in the heavens than suffer at the hands of you and your evil warriors.”
Clutching his knife with a white-knuckled grip, he whisked it down, slashing the rope tying her ankles. His astonishing speed and precision evoked a high-pitched squeal.
“I was going to place you on your stomach,” he growled, scooping her up and holding her at his side like a sack of cabbages, “but now you will sit astride on your sore bottom.”
“No, no, please put me down,” she begged, her defiant voice suddenly a pitiful whimper.
Guessing the sight of his knife had crushed her reckless bravado, he carried her to his horse, lifting her with him as he mounted. Plonking her in front of him, he heard a gasp, but she didn’t speak. Satisfied he had put an end to her protests, he moved his horse forward, but as his snorting steed wound its way around the trees to the path Ulrick found himself confounded.
You will never have me.
But he already did.
She belonged to him.
She was his property.
He had punished her naked backside, thrust his fingers inside her passage, and very soon his cock would consume her womanhood.
You will never have me.
He shook his head as the words continued echoing through his mind.
“How did you find me?” she suddenly blurted out. “I have to know. Tell me how.”
Though her voice held a tremble, she had dared to insist on a reply. Lifting his hand, he brought it down on her thigh with a hard slap.
“Ooh, ow, why did you do that?” she exclaimed. “It was just a question.”
“No, it was a demand,” he retorted, landing another, eliciting another loud cry. “You’ll learn to speak with respect. When you don’t, you’ll be reminded of your place. Not another word until I give you permission!”
Grunting in exasperation, he tried to think of a discipline that would bring her into line before they returned to his settlement. He was the ruler. He couldn’t have a disobedient and disruptive woman, no matter her beauty. For a moment he considered throwing her off his horse and leaving her behind, but he’d been searching for a female to bear his offspring.
Several days before, he and several of his men had covertly scouted the small village for that very purpose. When he’d caught sight of her, he was instantly captivated. Her image had lingered in his mind through the daylight hours, and ambled through his dreams as he’d slept.
Her golden hair shone in the sun, her voluptuous breasts and wide hips suggested she was ripe for childbearing, and her long legs carried her across the ground like a sleek animal. She’d epitomized the woman for whom he’d been searching. Now he had her, and he was loath to let her go.
But there was another reason he needed to keep her.
Gander, his archrival, had been in the scouting party. On the journey back he’d declared his intentions to capture the flaxen-haired girl for himself.
“No, Gander!” Ulrick had exclaimed. “I stake my claim. When we return that female will belong to me. You do not touch her. Put her out of your mind.”
Though Gander had held his tongue, Ulrick had seen the smoldering fury in his enemy’s eyes. Asserting ownership of the appealing female had thrown another log on the fire of Gander’s wrath.
With a burning ambition to be the ruler of the clan, he’d often challenged Ulrick’s decisions. More than once, Ulrick had been forced to defend his leadership with his fists. Though the battles had been ferocious, Ulrick’s superior fighting skills had decisively trounced his opponent.
Now—unexpectedly—the female had become a prize.
If Ulrick tossed her aside, Gander would hunt her down, then return and claim she’d been too elusive for Ulrick to capture. Worse, Gander was a cruel master. Ulrick ruled his clan with an iron fist, but he was fair, and while he expected subservience from his women, he wasn’t vicious when they dared to defy him. Sometimes he even sensed they did so merely to gain his attention and feel the heat of his hand on their backsides. He found Gander’s sadistic treatment of females disturbing, and he couldn’t abide the thought of the willowy village girl at Gander’s mercy.
He had reached the path that would take them to the rocky beach. Anxious to rejoin his men, he pushed his horse into a canter. Their journey home across the open ocean would last over two nights and a day. They had planned to leave at sunrise, but hunting down the runaway had delayed them. Now they wouldn’t arrive at the settlement until dusk, assuming there was nothing more to impede their progress. The seasons were turning. The weather could be unpredictable. A sudden storm would not be surprising.
The horse’s gait was smooth and his stride long. To Ulrick’s relief the girl gave him no more trouble. As the silent miles sailed past she leaned against him, then curled into his chest. Moving an arm around her to ensure she wouldn’t fall, he increased his horse’s pace, finally reaching the slope above the foreshore. Lifting his arm from around her waist, he waved at his men. One of them shouted and waved back. Lulled into sleep by the hypnotizing cadence of the horse’s gallop, Ailith stirred, stared down at the beach, then up at her captor.
“Can I speak now?” she asked, as they began moving down the bank.
“That depends on what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it,” Ulrick replied gruffly.
“Uh, please, will you tell me how you knew I was in the cave?”
A smile crossed his lips. The girl would be challenging, but she was trainable. Retrieving his knife, he sliced through the rope around her wrists.
“I’m pleased,” he replied, softening his voice. “You asked with respect. Now you will call me Master.”
“Master?” she repeated.
“I own you. I’m your master,” he said, holstering his knife.
“I can’t call you Ulrick?”
“Perhaps one day.”
“That honor only comes with obedience and proven loyalty,” he said solemnly.
Glancing down and meeting her large, crystal blue eyes, he found they no longer blazed with challenge.
His large hand instinctively clasped her breast.
She caught her breath.
“Such fullness,” he grunted, moving his grasp from one full mound to the other, kneading the plump flesh with his long, thick fingers. “Soon I will suck on your pink tips and make you beg for my manhood.”
A deep red flush crossed her cheeks, and letting out a strange mewling sound, she dropped her eyes, but he believed he’d glimpsed a flicker of lust. The thought of their inevitable coupling stirred his cock. It would be powerful and passionate—and soon.
“Please, Master,” she murmured, though keeping her eyes lowered, “how did you find me?”
He grinned, then dropped his hand.
“You weren’t the only female taken. Three of my men found females as well.”
“You mean—one of them told you about the cave by the river? How could they do such a thing? That’s terrible. I can’t believe it.”
“You expect them to suffer for you? Perhaps even die?” he exclaimed. “Would you do the same for them?”
“Loyalty is only as strong as the bond people share,” he declared. “Don’t bear them a grudge.”
They’d reached the bottom of the low bank, and feeling the rocks beneath its feet, the horse slowed as it walked toward the waiting warriors.
Ulrick felt Ailith tense.
“They won’t hurt you,” he assured her, “but when we climb off, I’ll grab you and kiss you. Place your arms around my neck and press your body against me. This will tell them you are mine and they won’t bother you.”
Though what he’d said was true, the obvious declaration of his ownership was for Gander’s benefit.
“Whatever you do, don’t resist,” he added firmly. “When I release you, don’t look at them. Keep your eyes down and apologize.”
“Apologize? For what?” she asked, turning her eyes back to him.
“For escaping,” he retorted tersely. “Because of you, we won’t reach home until almost dark. You will gaze at the ground and tell them you’re sorry for the trouble you’ve caused. Then I will turn you around, show them your red—”
“How dare you interrupt! How dare you refuse me!” he scolded, though her impulsive reaction was understandable. “You’ll be punished for that.”
“But I don’t want them to see me,” she mewled. “Please, Master.”
“Your humiliation is deserved,” he said brusquely, “and now you have dared to question me a second time! You just added to your discipline. You will learn to accept and obey.”
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered. “Please, have mercy? I have been ripped from everything I hold dear. I’m in pain and grief, yet I’m trying. Surely that counts for something. Your ways are strange to me. How can you expect me to be perfect?”
He stared down at her, an odd feeling moving through him. Her softly spoken appeal had somehow slipped beneath his skin and touched his guarded heart. Taken aback, and not sure how to respond, he took a moment.
“You spoke well. I will consider your words, but I must continue with your instructions,” he said, lowering his voice as he approached the men. “After I have shown them your reddened backside, you will stay at my side or behind me. Don’t look at anyone, or speak or ask questions. Do you understand?”
Pulling his horse to a stop and sliding off, he helped her down, then immediately grabbed her around the waist and lowered his lips to hers. As her arms circled his neck, she pressed up against him, and the fervor with which she returned his kiss sent a rush of energy through his loins. He wanted to throw her to the ground, rip off her flimsy dress, devour her breasts, and thrust his cock inside her. Reluctantly pulling back with his manhood stiffening, he clutched her hair and jerked her to his side.
“This is Ailith,” he declared, addressing his warriors. “She wishes to speak.”
“I’m sorry I ran off, and—”
“Louder,” Ulrick said sternly.
“I’m sorry I ran off,” she repeated, raising her voice. “I know I’ve made you late. I won’t do it again.”
“She has been punished,” Ulrick exclaimed, swiftly turning her around and lifting her dress. “Her bottom is still red and sore. She has much to learn, but learn she will. When we reach the settlement her place will be with me. Prepare to leave.”
As the men nodded their understanding, Ulrick caught sight of Gander standing near the water’s edge. His arms were crossed, his legs spread, his gaze unwavering.
Ulrick read his body language.
Gander wanted Ailith.
Another battle was at hand.