Princess Aisling was dreaming of butterflies in spring fields when many dozens of rough men bearing fearsome weapons rushed Claddaugh and assaulted the castle gate in the dead of night. No word had been sent of their coming. No scout had given warning. One moment all was peaceful, the next a band of devils had descended on her home.
She slept through the worst of the carnage, for her chamber was at the very top of the tallest tower and the thick stone walls protected her from both attackers and the sound they made. But neither could protect her forever and eventually her sweet dreams evaporated to the smell of smoke and the glow of fire. The castle and keep were burning, straw and wood billowing smoke past the window. Aisling rushed to the window and screamed, then back to the bed and screamed again. Finding that did little to remedy the situation, she ran to the door, threw it open, and screamed into the hollow beyond.
The guards were nowhere to be seen, nor her maids, nor anybody else. There was nothing but smoke and from below, screams aplenty. Throwing her hands up, Aisling ran back to the bed and hid under the blankets as she had done when she was small. She closed her eyes tight and tried to go back to sleep, hoping that somehow she might be saved by somnolence.
But there was no more sleep that night. There were more screams, heavy feet on the stairs, and then there were men in her room. She could smell them—heavy, sweaty, large. The blankets were pulled off the bed and she was exposed, her fragile feminine form hardly hidden under muslin and silk. She screamed as uncouth hands pawed at her, tearing the fine fabric and frightening her terribly.
“Leave her!” Someone bigger, stronger, meaner than the rest pushed through.
The man who had taken over from the pack smelled like rotting mutton. She kept her face hidden, hoping in her heart of hearts that it was but one of her bad dreams, but even in her worst dreams, she had never smelled fire and blood.
The man grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her up. He was a lot older than she, and a lot larger. He wore the head of a bear, the animal’s skin extending down his back. His armor was not armor at all, but thick leather. There was not a steel plate on his body and yet somehow he had managed to breach lines of guards wearing the very finest armor. Aisling was sure she did not want to know how.
“Be good,” he said gruffly. He reached his grimy hands toward her bed sheet and ripped off a thick strip. Aisling sat quite still as he wound it around her eyes. “Don’t fight, and you won’t be harmed.”
It had not come into Aisling’s head to fight. How would she begin to do so?
The bear-man picked her up and threw her, quite blind under the sheet, over his shoulder. She was grateful for the mercy as he carried her downstairs. The smells told her she would not like the sights at all.
She considered screaming again, but a curious calm had come over her. From the moment the bear-man laid hands on her, she had felt fate lay her hands on too. There was nothing she could do against the power of the man who held her, nor against his many comrades.
All Aisling’s life, she had heard tales of battle and men who fought them, castles that fell, villages routed. It was the way of the world. A princess was made to be captured and carried off, just like a rabbit was destined to find the jaws of a fox. She surrendered to the inevitable as she was tossed over a horse’s back and carried off into what remained of the night.
They rode for what seemed like hours at a high speed that left her stomach clenching and bruised. There was a brief stop to change horses, during which a cup of water was forced between her lips, then it was back over a fresh horse and off again.
Aisling was on the verge of consciousness when they finally stopped. She lost it a second later when she was bundled into an iron cage and left huddling in the remnants of her night clothes.
* * *
“Wake up, slut.”
Aisling did not make the connection between the rough words and herself until the iron door was opened and a dirty great hand reached in and dragged her out. A new night had fallen and brought with it a new devil. Shrieking, Aisling was dragged to her feet by a big bald man who carried a whip and wore studded leather. Confused and scared, she surrendered once again to the forces of fate and allowed herself to be dragged to the center of a large circle of people assembled nearby.
“Tonight we sell a princess!”
A rough laugh went up among the crowd. Thanks to a torch held by the slaver, casting a circle of light beyond which darkness fell thick, Aisling could not see beyond the first row of men, but she sensed there were many dozens of people waiting to purchase female flesh.
“The bidding starts at a hundred gold pieces, which will earn you not just the virginity of Claddaugh’s only princess, but her father’s ire—and claim to his kingdom should you sire a son.”
A nasty, carnal roar emerged from the bidders.
“She’s a pretty one, nicely submissive, not inclined to give you trouble.” The slaver turned her about, lifted what remained of her skirts and exposed her behind to the crowd. “A pretty rump to boot,” he said, slapping her as if she were a filly at market. Aisling squeaked and the crowd rumbled with predatory glee like a pack of wolves waiting for her tender flesh.
“A hundred gold pieces!” A rough voice called out.
“Two hundred!” Another male voice sounded in the darkness.
The bidding was fast and furious, but it came to an abrupt end when a voice that had not spoken before rang out with a clear baritone.
The crowd fell silent. Aisling saw the slaver’s eyes glitter with greed.
“Sold!” he cried out. “Sold to Chief Rikiar Ravenblack!”
Grumbling with jealousy, the crowd parted to allow a strange party of men through. They were all tall and broad with long dark braided hair and flashing eyes, save for one whose hair was red. Each of their faces was daubed blue and gold and they wore animal hides and furs instead of cloth, which to Aisling’s tired, hysterical gaze made them seem more like beasts than men.
Aisling shrank away from them in fear, but the slaver cut his lash against her thigh and drove her forward into the arms of the tall redheaded man. He was holding a blanket, which he draped about her cowering form. It was the first kindness Aisling had been shown since waking up in this strange, dark hell.
She looked up into the man’s face, trying to see what sort of person lurked behind the paint. “Are you Rikiar?”
“I am not. Now hush.”
He picked her up with one arm behind her thighs and hoisted her up over his shoulder. Borne aloft over the crowd, Aisling shut her eyes tightly and prayed for safety.
She was taken and loaded onto a cart, positioned on the floor between the boots of the barbarians. She noticed that each of them was heavily armed with surprisingly ornate weapons bearing arcane sigils and signs on their silver blades. The driver urged the horses forward and soon they were rolling away from the slaver’s camp.
Oddly, Aisling felt protected more than kidnapped. Her captors were obviously deeply invested in her safety, no doubt because she had just proved to be worth three thousand pieces of gold. That was a lot of gold.
Huddling in her blanket, she looked out between the shoulders of her captors. The scenery was unfamiliar. The view from her window had been beautiful, rolling fields tilled by capable peasants who grew roots and vegetables and tended the occasional flock of sheep on the inclines not suitable for farming. The terrain she was now traveling through was misty, dark skeletons of trees looming from every corner, specters and shades of death illuminated by the moon.
The path wound upward through increasingly heavy forest. Here and there a silver glow broke through, but only for a moment and then the shadows consumed the party yet again. It was cold. Aisling wrapped the blanket tight around her body and occasionally hid under it when the shadows grew too tall and dark for her nerves to stand.
Soon they were traveling along a mountain ridge. They breached the tree line, the air grew colder still, and the view became breathtaking. Silver-tipped trees stretched as far as Aisling could see. Up front, two strong horses with flowing black manes and hocks stamped at the ground and carried the group forward without any apparent strain. The beauty of the night charmed Aisling out of her fear and made her curious. She stood up to get a better view and a hand closed around her arm. She braced herself to be pushed back down, but the barbarian simply steadied her, allowing her to feast her eyes.
Her whole entire life, the view had been the same. She didn’t even know that there were other views, certainly not views as strange and different as the mist-veiled forest hills. She stood and she stared until they hit a rough patch of terrain. The cart rocked and jolted and would have sent her sprawling, but for the guard’s grip.
“Easy,” he drawled, using but a fraction of his strength to keep her on her feet.
“Thank you,” she said, crouching to sit back on the floor of the cart. The view was nice, but she had no desire to go tumbling down into the rocky depths.
Aisling nodded and the barbarian handed her a bundle of cloth. She unwrapped it to find some preserved meat, a hunk of bread, and some cheese. None of it was as fine as the food she got at home, but all of it tasted good. Rich. Full of flavor. Aisling’s maidservants kept her on a relatively bland diet designed to encourage purity. Fish once a week, vegetables the rest of the time. Red meat, never. She savored every bite of the flesh, nibbling away with something like contentment.
When she finished her food and became tired, one of the barbarians offered her a sack to rest her head on. She fell asleep by their boots just as well as she had in silken sheets.
* * *
Rough rumbling of wheels hitting new terrain woke Aisling. Dawn was breaking over the mountain range they had left behind overnight. She discovered that the rocking motion was due to the river stones beneath the cart. A broad swath of blue water rushed nearby, turning to white foam over some of the larger rocks.
Aisling poked her head over an empty bit of the cart and looked out at the scenery with wide eyes. Beauty upon beauty was laid out before her, sunlight playing off ripples of water, glancing off the wings of boldly covered dragonflies that danced above the liquid fray.
“You need to make water?” A guard asked the question.
She did need to relieve herself. When she nodded shyly, the driver drew the cart to a halt and ordered everyone off.
“Get yourselves in order and report back here,” the redhead ordered. “Keep good watch on the princess.”
Aisling peed behind a bush while two brawny guards looked on. They were kind enough to avoid making direct eye contact, but they remained staunchly in place until Aisling had fully voided her bladder. She was glad for the torrent of water nearby, which disguised the sound of her elimination. Though she was used to performing her ablutions before maidservants, none of her maidservants was a brawny man with legs like tree trunks and a chest broad enough to make an ox jealous.
When she returned from relieving herself, the horses were soaking their hooves in the stream and eating from feedbags tied to their heads. The redhead was watching over them with benign paternal interest. He turned and gave Aisling a curious look as she climbed back into the cart.
“Did she try to escape?”
The barbarians assured him she had not. He gave her another look. “Are you a simpleton, girl?”
“No,” Aisling replied politely. “At least, I have not been told so.”
“Give her something to eat,” the redhead guffawed. He seemed to find her most ridiculous. Aisling was not at all sure why, but she was glad to be fed. Again the food was rich and filling. This time it was accompanied by a rich brew of leaves that soothed and settled her stomach.
As she ate, Aisling was quite content to sit in the sunshine of a fresh day, feel the warmth of the sun on her face and shoulders, and sip the tea. It left the barbarians with little to do in the way of guarding, which they seemed to appreciate.
“You’re a model prisoner,” one commented to her as he refilled her cup.
“Thank you,” Aisling smiled. If one was to be a prisoner, one may as well try to be the best prisoner one could be.
“She won’t be a prisoner for long,” another barbarian commented. Aisling didn’t know what he meant, and he didn’t elaborate. Instead of worrying about it, she watched fish swimming through the crystal clear waters of the river. They looked happy enough, not worrying if they were to be caught or not, just enjoying their fishy time as best they were able. Aisling thought that very wise.
When she was finished eating, she got down from the cart and soaked her bare feet in the stream, like the horses were doing. It tickled with cold, but soon felt very refreshing. She was quite dirty from her recent exploits and would have welcomed a bath. Instead she had to content herself with washing her face, her hands, and her feet.
“Don’t wander too far,” somebody said. “The current is very fast in the deeper spots.”
Aisling didn’t know what they meant, until she stepped into a nice-looking flowing pool and immediately had her feet swept out from under her. She squealed with fright as she hit the water and went under. The water that had been ticklish cold was now an icy bath, sucking the air right out of her lungs and drawing her downstream at an impossibly fast rate.
She broke the surface of the water once, shouted for help and took in a mouthful of water. Then she was under again. Down with the fishes and the rocks. Her lungs burned for air, but there was no air to be had. There was only the blue sky and towering trees that rippled above the surface of the water, which she could not reach for all her trying.
She was done for. The waters had her in their cold grasp and they were not going to let her go. She was saying her prayers when strong arms caught her, wrapped around her waist, and pulled her up to the surface. With one great heaving motion she was birthed into the morning, gasping for air as the redheaded barbarian carried her back into the shallows and thence onto dry land.
“Are you alright?” He turned her about in his arms and looked into her face with a worried expression.
“Yes,” Aisling said wetly.
He propped his leg up on a boulder and for reasons best known to himself, put Aisling across his thigh. She thought he was perhaps going to make sure her lungs were free of water. As it turned out he was, in a way. He placed one hand on her lower back to keep her from going anywhere, and used the other to slap her round wet bottom hard.
Her plaintive cry echoed across the riverbed as the guard spanked her soundly, his broad hand connecting with the sodden material that did not so much cover her bottom as cling to it, revealing every curve she had and her womanhood beyond.
The rough hand landed two dozen times in quick succession, by which time Aisling was exercising her lungs at full capacity in the form of great sobbing cries. She was not at all sure why she was being beaten; all she knew was that it hurt very, very much.
“When you’re told not to do something, don’t immediately do it,” he lectured, standing her on her feet.
Aisling cried plaintively, sobbing apologies while the barbarians stood about becoming increasingly awkward. They did not seem to know what to do with her reaction. Finally, however, the one who had spanked her picked her up again, carried her to the cart, and wrapped the blanket back around her. Thanks to the fineness of her clothing and the heat of the sun she was mostly dry, but it was still comforting to be swaddled and comforted.
“Dry your tears, princess,” the great bearded man said. “It was just a little spanking so you would mind us in future.”
“It didn’t feel little,” Aisling sniffed. Her bottom was very hot and there was a queer tingling sensation running all through her skin and flesh. It wasn’t pain, precisely, but it did lend itself to an uncomfortable tenderness.
“I guess they don’t discipline princesses where you’re from.”
“I never did anything to be disciplined for.”
He snorted. “This is a big wide world, princess. There are a lot of dangers out here, and you don’t seem to know about any of them. So you listen well, or a sore bottom will be the least of your worries, understand?”
Aisling nodded meekly.
“You better hope Rikiar doesn’t have your head for touching his bride, Berner,” one of the other barbarians said.
“I think Rikiar would rather his bride was alive,” Berner replied. “Get on the cart.”
Aisling resumed her position at the bottom of the cart and avoided everybody’s gazes as they resumed their journey. It was deeply embarrassing to be publicly punished, but nobody made any further mention of the incident and soon Aisling was too entranced by the passing landscape to worry about it anymore.