“Calm down!” he barked furiously, pointing his index finger toward her.
She didn’t listen. She couldn’t calm down; she was at the edge of her sanity, and slipping off the edge. “Treating me like a—a—!” She picked up the whole wooden plate and threw it, seeing it clip him in the shoulder and spill the extra food everywhere. “—child! I won’t have it!”
She continued throwing anything in arms’ reach at him, and then when she ran out, she turned to grab more things. She didn’t know why, but every time something cracked against him, the better she felt. It didn’t strike her that she was in any danger until he marched behind her, grabbed her elbow, and spun her around. He gave her a hard shake. “Stop this. Calm yourself, Susanna.”
She slapped him and enjoyed the resounding sound that echoed through the room. It didn’t quite seem enough to repay him for taking everything precious in her life away from her, but it was a start.
She didn’t regret it until she noticed that his face had become a glowering mask of rage. His lips were pursed, his jaw tight. “I have only one way I deal with tantrums, my lady,” he threatened, his voice a low rumble, but then he dropped his hand from her shoulders and began to remove his belt.
She blanched white and stepped back, her anger dissolving like mist and only fear remaining. She took a giant step backwards. “Don’t even think about it!” she growled.
“I’m done thinking about it,” he assured her, advancing just as quickly as she was retreating. “If you think this will give me joy, then…” he paused. “Actually, it will. Nothing is better than putting a spoiled child in her place, no matter how high she’s born.”
Her cheeks burned. “I am not a child.”
“The food wasted on the floor indicates otherwise,” he retorted, and then reached out to grab her arm.
Susanna was very used to be being treated like glass, so this was an awful lot to be taking in so suddenly. Her mother made sure her nursemaid or a servant held her hand whenever she went up and down the stairs in fear of her falling. Her food was sampled by a trusted taster before it ever reached her mouth in fear of sickness or poisoning, and not even her father had ever raised a hand to her. That’s what her whipping girl had been for—and she thought it worked because she had been good friends with the whipping girl until she was married outside of the kingdom. She studied and obeyed as well as she could back then to make sure that her friend wouldn’t get whipped.
That being the truth of things, Susanna had never felt so physically threatened in her life.
“Let go of me!” she cried, trying to jerk his grip off her arm. She began to fight him with all the strength she had in her. Eventually he had to come behind her and pin her arms up against her chest as he brought her over to the desk and sat down upon it.
“The more you struggle, the more I’ll enjoy this,” he told her warningly, trying to wrestle her down across his knees.
She used all of the strength she had to wrench her body to the right and stumbled onto the ground. He made a second reach for her and she made a squealing noise she usually reserved for when she was surprised by very large rodents and very hairy spiders, and darted away from him, waving her arms in the air. Even she was surprised when she actually made it to the flap of the pavilion and into the cold winter air around them.
“My lady, not one more step!” she heard Gerhard’s voice boom from behind her. She spun in place and realized with surprise that he wasn’t as close as he had sounded. He was at the entrance of his pavilion, looking at her like she was a child standing at the edge of a cliff with a mixture of horror and anger on his face.
Chills ran down her arms, and not because of the cold air. His anger was unbearable, mostly because she was very unused to dealing with anger from anyone but her uncle. No one else had ever dared to be angry with her, and the fact that he still had his belt in hand didn’t make her want to return to him.
She turned back around and, running as fast as she could through the sea of men, whores, swords, tents, and fires, she made for the tree line. She was already worried that she had no plan for when she got there. She couldn’t escape, she had no idea how to keep from getting hunted back down, she knew, but at the same time she couldn’t very well just submit to a punishment like she was some disobedient child.
Not used to running, she tired easily, and her toes quickly felt numb in the thin layer of snow under the soles of her slippers. She kept clipping the sides of tents and people, and eventually she tripped over a branch that jutted out from the ground and her body very ungracefully tumbled down next to a fire with two rabbits spitted atop it.
“Well, well! What do we have here?” a voice said above her. She was already beginning to acquire flashbacks from Rennio’s fight earlier that day. Two of the largest boots she’d ever seen stood in front of her face.
She put her hands out in front of her and slowly raised her upper body so that she could crane her head up toward the largest and hairiest man she’d ever encountered in her life. How her fortress had been taken had suddenly become oh-so-clear. They hadn’t needed to ram the door down. They’d just needed this man to come and smash it in himself. “It looks like you’re far from home, little girl.”
His dialect was that of eastern Bohemia, and she had the hardest time deciphering his tone, so she had to assume that he planned to eat her next—either that or something equally horrifying. Now, she was too frightened to move. “I thought they had all the maidens up in the keep?”
“Maybe they did, but some have been married off already,” another man said with a shrug. With immense relief, she was beginning to realize that they hadn’t recognized her as the princess. “Maybe she got away from her husband? Or hell, Arlo, she might be running away from the keep itself!”
“Well, she certainly got quite a ways!” Arlo hummed, but then bent down and grabbed her arm to yank her into standing. As soon as she was on her feet again, however, she felt the desire to crumple herself into the fetal position. Somehow, that position seemed safer.
She looked him in the eye, which was habit since the princess looked down to no one, but she quickly regretted it. Firstly, it strained her neck, and secondly, the eye-contact seemed to confuse the beast.
“Why, hello there, beautiful…” he finally said, grinning widely and exposing the fact that he was missing two of his front teeth. He sat down on a nearby log and pulled her along with him. “Don’t you fancy a seat on my knee, love? No need to go out into the dark. You’ll get eaten by a bear!”
She felt like she was going to eaten by a bear, anyway. Even when she jerked with all her strength she couldn’t seem to move even a single inch away from him. “Let me go!” she demanded sharply through her gritted teeth.
He laughed as if she was playing some sort of cute game, and then said, “Be nice, now. That’s no way to treat your future husband, my dear.”
“Future husband?” she echoed, narrowing her eyes at the furry brute. “You’ve got to be out of your mind! Unhand me now!”
“Future husband, aye! I’m not married, and I could see myself plowing some striking lads into this lovely belly of yours!” He reached his hands around her waist and put them up toward her breasts. “Got some tits on you, too!”
She gasped as his meaty hands grasped her breasts through her bodice, squeezing her flesh painfully. She tried to push his hands down and off of her, but he and all the other men around the fire only laughed and hooted merrily. She had a horrible feeling that everyone except her found her horror and disgust amusing.
“Let go of me this instant or I’ll scream!” she warned.
“You’ll be screaming anyway, lovely—I’m a big man!” the laughter around her was renewed. She scanned the darkness outside of the circle for Gerhard or Rennio, but she could barely make anything out of the shadows moving around. It was far too dark, far too noisy. Gerhard was never going to find her.
She grabbed the man’s thick, beefy arm and gripped downward with one hand and up with the other, as if trying to rip his skin in half.
“Oy!” he said, annoyed, gripping his arms around her even tighter. “Keep doing that, love, and I’m going to think you’re too impatient to wait for the priest in the morning! Come here and give us a kiss, now!” he leaned forward and she did the only thing she could think of: she spit on him.
Her mother—a woman who surely didn’t even know how to spit—was probably rolling around in her grave right this very moment, but in no worlds would Susanna let her first kiss be given by two lips that looked like two pink slugs. Although she hoped he would be stunned enough to let go of her, all that spitting did was stop his kissing advances. A low, worrisome ‘oooh!’ moaned through the circle as the big man held her by one arm and reached up and wiped the spit out of his eye with the other. He looked at his fingers even as she cried, “Let go of me, you boar!”
“Well, aren’t you the feisty one?” he said, his tone now low and holding no laughter. “I think I need to teach you a lesson in manners, don’t I?”
Her eyes widened. The men around them once again began to hoot and holler with robust laughter, and she was already tired from trying to get off his lap. When he grabbed her with both hands and shoved her down across his large thighs, she had no chance of fighting him off, and she knew it.
The only thing she could do was pray and scream for help that would never come. There wasn’t anyone on her side. Her army had been vanquished and her kin had been conquered and were probably being married off against their will at that very moment.
“Help me! Someone help me!” she cried anyway. It was difficult to tell herself to just accept this immense amount of humiliation and let him spank her, that it couldn’t be that bad, and that she would most definitely have worse done to her sooner than she’d like.
“Shut up, woman! You’re splitting my ears!” he told her, and she felt one of her hands, which she was trying to pinch his skin with, pinned behind the small of her back. He began to pull up her skirts.
“Dooon’t!” she quavered, thrashing her legs, trying to find the ground, or his leg, or anything at all to touch or kick. All she found was air. Air that was very cold on her calves.
No man had ever seen her bare bottom, and she had hoped to keep it that way. She had only two layers on, which wasn’t enough to keep her particularly warm even when she was fully dressed, and as he bunched her linens up over her back, she didn’t know if she was going to burn with shame or die from the cold on parts that had no business being exposed to the elements.
“Rahh!” she growled, sounding like a wild lioness in her own ears and biting the man right on the knee. He yelped, picked her up, and moved her further to the side across his knee so that her head was now hanging by the ground and her ass was very high in the cold night air. Then he proceeded to do exactly what she had been trying to escape in the first place: he spanked her.
At least she imagined that he would have called it a spanking. She probably looked like a chastened toddler to the eyes of all the men surrounding them. She, however, knew better. Children couldn’t bear this sort of pain. She felt like she was getting beaten with a wooden oar, and all she could think about was how completely unfathomable this sort of pain had been just moments ago.
Dots were appearing in her vision, either because her heart was going to beat clear out of her chest, or because she was practically hanging upside down, and all of her screaming—which she couldn’t control, she was certain—was making it very hard to breathe.
Certain that she was going to asphyxiate, she began to cry out for Gerhard.
“Gerhard! Please!” she cried out between the loud, rhythmic ‘slaps’ of the oaf’s immeasurably large hand as he heated her backside with one sharp, resounding blow after another. She could barely believe she was crying out for her own jailer, especially one who had also tried to spank her only mere minutes ago. Even if he’d heard her, he would have been unlikely to rescue her, but there was simply no other person to cry for.
“I’ve never seen a grown woman cry like a little spoiled brat!” one of the oaf’s companions said as her voice began to crack and The Oaf adjusted her once more over his knee since all of her otherwise futile wiggling was finally making her fall off of his lap. “Look at her! Like she’s never been laid a hand on in all her life! Smack her good!”
The Oaf did, renewing his smacks although she could feel him shudder with laughter under her body. She did something then that she hadn’t done for years—something she didn’t even think she could do anymore. She cried. Tears began to stream down her face, unbidden and uncontrolled, and she began to hiccup violently as her screams of pain and agony turned to helpless sobs.
Her audience snickered, and it only made her cry harder until the spanking stopped all of the sudden with the shout of a familiar voice.
“Put her down this instant, soldier, or I swear I will run you through!”
She was literally shoved off of the giant’s lap in a single instant. She hit the ground and rolled in the dirt until she found herself looking up at a shadow that only looked familiar when the firelight flickered on his visage. It was Gerhard, standing tall with a sword in his hand. He glanced in her direction for only a moment before regaining eye contact with Arlo.
“What were you thinking?”
“Well, you said we could have the women around here if we take them to wife! I’m taking her to wife! Looks like the lass was trying to escape from the castle!” Arlo said, standing up. Although he was over a head taller than Gerhard, his tone was obviously defensive.
Gerhard narrowed his eyes even as he slowly crouched down to her level. He grabbed her hand with surprising gentleness and helped her to her feet. “You’re not taking this one to wife. She’s not available,” he told him, although his words were hard to hear as she continued to hiccup.
She adjusted her dress and then wrapped her arms around herself.
“She looks available to me! Though she’s a brat, for sure! Spit right in my face, she did! Like some sort of alley cat!” Arlo waved a hand toward her with anger, but Gerhard put an arm around her waist and pulled her toward his hard body.
“I’ve become aware of that, Arlo,” Gerhard sighed, and she realized that he was on first-name terms with this ruffian. His arm seemed warm around her as he put his sword back into his scabbard and began to turn her away from the crowd around the fire. “Now carry on.”
They trudged back in the direction Susanna had run from before, and Gerhard held his body closer to hers than any guard. She still couldn’t seem to calm down—it was as if some sort of floodgates had opened and now she was going to have to let the world drown in her dramatic onslaught of tears.
He moved his lips close to her ear. “Are you alright, princess?”
She took a deep breath, but when she opened her mouth to say, ‘Yes, of course I am, you fool!’ a sob rolled off her tongue instead, which she then swallowed down with a gulp before nodding.
“They didn’t recognize you,” he assured her, as if that was supposed to make her feel better. “They were just drunk, playing around.”
“It—it didn’t feel like playing around to me!” she sputtered, suddenly flashing hot with anger. Instead of arguing with her like she expected, he pulled her even closer and gave her upper arm a consoling squeeze.
Suddenly Rennio stumbled in front of them. She could barely make him out in the light, but his silhouette in the moonlight was indistinguishable because of his wild hair and his robes. “Good!” Rennio panted, putting his hands on his sides as he tried to catch his breath and speak at the same time. “You found her safe! Now I hope you can beat her to death! What were you thinking? You are the worst prisoner imaginable! We told you not to leave the pavilion. At least I did. I told you over and over and over. Not because we don’t want to chase you down in the forest, either. You could have been assaulted by any one of these men, you nitwit!”
“Rennio, enough,” Gerhard immediately chided, walking right past the priest and seeming to continue to ignore him even though he trailed behind.
“She saw earlier what sort of men are out there! They’re not as loveable as I am!” Rennio ranted on, beginning to trudge along at her other side, only not nearly as close as Gerhard was. “Idiot females,” he grumbled underneath his breath, none too quietly.
She heard Gerhard snort derisively. Then he said very quietly in her ear, so that she wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly, “I’m sorry I didn’t get to you sooner. I couldn’t see where you’d run off to. I had gone in completely the wrong direction. I am most sorry.” His apologies made her insides twist, mostly with confusion. She wasn’t sure why he was giving them to her, especially since he was probably going to beat her himself, like he had planned to earlier. Another part of her, however, felt glad that he seemed to feel as though he had let her down in some way, as if he actually had some concern over her safety.
She normally could judge people and their intentions very well, but she couldn’t judge Gerhard. She had no idea what his intentions were, and why he would even rescue her at all. His actions couldn’t be more puzzling since he was apparently a man who was paid to deliver her to her executioner. She couldn’t decide whether to fear him, hate him, or trust him.
All she was sure of was how warm his body felt and how much she enjoyed having his arm around her. Enemy or not, she didn’t want him to let her go.
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