Eventually, my abductor shifted me behind him, stringing my thin arms around his neck and clasping my thighs about his thickly muscled waist. My body felt frozen, like the blocks of muddy ice stored in the kitchen cellars, but I could not swim so I hung on as best I could. He pushed away from the protective cover of our tree, striking toward the dark riverbank with supple and efficient strokes. When we’d almost reached it, he rose up out of the water. I clung to his back as he strode onto dry land and into the veil of trees skirting the shoreline.
“Can you walk?”
I shook my head against the blade of his shoulder, shivering again as a night breeze skimmed over my wet skin, spiking into my bones through the wet layer of clothing he’d provided me.
He marched through the trees, his steps sure. Certain. I both envied his self-assurance and feared it. Envy, because I’d never been confident of anything except my servitude. Fear, because . . . I knew not how to please my new master, and I desperately needed to please him. I could accept this change and my new lot with the hulking stranger. I could wrap my mind around it, but only if I satisfied what he required of me. He’d demanded so little and the lack of instruction balled my stomach.
He abruptly halted and stooped to a crouch, untangling my arms from his neck. My thighs sprang open. My backside settled to the hard ground. I lolled, the sparse reserves of my body depleted by the harrowing journey.
“Xerxes will not expect his own people to hide you so we travel with a band of merchants to the border.” He pivoted and yanked at my sodden clothing. “But we dare not enter camp wet.”
I could not force my leaden arms and legs to cooperate, but he made short work of stripping me until I sprawled under him shivering and naked. Gooseflesh pebbled my fair skin, which glowed in the miserly light cast by the fingernail moon. He stretched to the side and unfolded a blanket, tucking it over my nudity before his hands rose to remove his own drenched clothes.
He’d plow me.
My curious eyes watched him peel his shirt over his head and kick off his boots. I admired the bunch of muscle, his broad shoulders, the sculpted expanse of his absurdly large chest. My glance darted from him, heat creeping into my cheeks, when his fingers plucked at the laces of his breeches. Even I, practiced whore that I was, would never be so bold as to examine his prick until bidden to do so.
When his hands fell to the wool blanket covering my thin chest, I startled nonetheless, my stare returning to him. Rather than groping for me, those hands set to a brisk rub. He scoured the blanket over my chilled skin, throat to groin, then back again. The touch wasn’t unpleasant. The impersonal caress was actually rather . . . enjoyable. My wicked heart skipped a beat at the forbidden delight of his big hands warming me, but I resisted the urge to squirm.
I must forebear.
I must do as my new master willed of me.
His attention focused to the left, his fingers yet working the blanket over my flesh. “Miriam comes. She will tend to you.”
Blood roared in my ears.
I was to be given to a woman?
Shrieking anguish lanced through me, locking the air in my chest. I had never been bedded by a woman, never been touched by one. I’d seen them in the kitchen, of course, but I’d been commanded well away from them and they from me, which I’d been secretly glad of. Females perplexed me. I knew men shoved their pricks inside them, that they were plowed as I was, but I’d never wanted to do the plowing and the idea of placing my mouth to them made me shudder in revulsion.
Surely, my new master didn’t expect me to–
The stranger’s eyes softened at my quick sound of distress. He smiled and playfully tugged the fat yellow braid that slid and dripped down my shoulder. “To tend to your hair, little prince. Only that.”
Fresh worry curled in my gut.
What of my hair?
I had no rights, no privileges. None knew that better than I, but I had never been able to squash vanity over my unique coloring. Everyone else’s hair was as dark as their eyes, either brown or black, their skin tan and swarthy. Not me. I was a novelty, every hair on my body a rich yellow the same shade as honey, and my eyes shone with the sparkling luster of emeralds. I knew this to be so because my masters often told me. They unplaited my hair and fisted it in their hands as they rutted with me, fanned it over their chests and stroked it when they’d finished. They kissed my eyelids and praised my odd coloring. They enjoyed stroking my creamy skin, murmuring in wonder at the stark contrast of my small pale body against theirs.
I was a slave and the lowliest among them, but I was also prized by my masters, my physical weakness forgiven by virtue of my exceptional coloring and my compliance to the demands of their pricks.
My stomach churned.
The threatened woman eased from the surrounding trees, short like me but very round. She carried a crude basket. She stared at me and this time, I did wriggle under my blanket, though the stranger’s hand patted my bony arm, as though to soothe me.
The woman’s mouth thinned. She spoke to the man in a tongue I did not understand. My eyes narrowed as they conversed in low voices, the rolling cadence of the words familiar yet at the same time foreign. It seemed I should know this language and indeed, a niggle in the back of my mind suggested a translation for a word or two. But when the female looked at me, spoke, I could only stare at her, mystified.
“She needs you to sit up, my lord,” the stranger supplied.
I sat up.
She scurried to my rear, twitching my braid over my shoulder and when my eyes focused with alarm on my abductor, he lifted a palm to cup my cheek. “Easy, little one. It will grow back.”
Terror squeezed my belly. My hair had never been cut. But if my new master bid it then cut it would be. He could shave me bald, advertising my whore’s body to the world if he chose, and I concentrated on my gratitude that he didn’t require that much. Tears burned my eyes, though, when I felt the gentle tug on my braid and I whimpered at the lightening pressure on my scalp as the woman cleaved the thick hank of my hair through.
Wispy ends escaped the ravaged tail of my braid to brush my neck.
A single tear slid from one eye.
He threaded his fingers through the hair above my temple, helping the woman free what remained of my hair from the loosened plait. “It will grow back,” he repeated when I opened my eyes.
My gaze lowered.
The woman spoke again and the stranger translated once more. “Lean back.”
When I did, a horrible rancid scent clogged my throat and a hoarse, pained moan worked from my chest because I knew that scent, too–dye.
“Only temporary.” My abductor stroked the line of my jaw and smiled at my cringe as the female worked the foul mixture into my newly shorn hair. “After we’ve crossed the border, we’ll wash it away. I swear to you.”
“Keep him dry or the stain will run. Xerxes’ soldiers will search for the yellow-haired boy-man first, but they’ll arrest anyone small enough who’s leeching dye onto their clothes.”
I blinked in surprise, momentarily shocked from my misery.
She could speak Herran.
Oddly, that made me cry harder.
“He’ll be fine.” The man switched to the other, almost-familiar language and the two of them talked while her fingers kneaded the stain into my shorter hair, bunching it in her fists to evenly distribute the color. My abductor’s fingers stroked my tears from my face as soon as they fell, silently comforting me though his resolution as to what the woman did to me did not falter.
I let the sounds of their conversation roll over me, a soft buzz in the back of my mind as I wept. I wanted to stop. Eventually, my new master’s patience would wane and he’d tolerate my sniveling far less now that I was ugly. But the horrible pressure in my chest didn’t loosen. Every caress of the woman’s hands in my hideous hair lashed another stripe into my heart. My exhaustion married with my grief and both overwhelmed me.
The woman disappeared into the trees when she finished. The stranger retrieved dry clothes from a neat pile nearby, and he dressed me like a child’s doll, cinching me into thick robes. I wept, though the material brushed sinfully indulgent against my skin and the sleeves draped to my wrists and ankles instead of dwarfing me as my wet tunic and breeches had. I wept while my captor shrugged into his own robes, belting the sash around his waist, and I wept when he bent to scoop me into his arms, cradling me against him.
He tucked my head into the crook of his shoulder and carried me through the trees into his camp. He dropped to one knee next to a crackling fire and laid me upon a pallet of blankets beside it. He stretched out behind me, pressing his front to my back. “Now you will be warm.” I squirmed when his breath tickled the sensitive skin at my exposed nape, but the heat of the fire felt so good. His warmth to my back sandwiched me in a delicious cocoon of security.
His heavy arm settled over my hip. “Sleep.”
* * * * *
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