He was expecting the manacles. They'd chained him before when he'd been taken from his cell, so he made no move to resist as the warriors pulled his arms behind his back and clipped the heavy iron bracelets around his wrists.
One of the warriors swept aside his hair to buckle a wide leather collar tightly around his neck. Secured to it was a long chain. It was just another vain attempt to humiliate him. Such crude efforts would not work. In the past, he'd survived far, far worse.
Grabbing hold of his arms again, the two ill-favored female warriors led him out of his cell, along a narrow corridor, through a heavily barred door and into the bailey. After the dimness of his cell, the bright sunlight blinded him for a brief moment. Yet in those split seconds his other senses told him much. He could feel the cool cobblestones beneath his bare feet and hear the familiar sounds of a heavily occupied military fortress: the clatter of horses' hooves and the clash of weapons in the distance from the training ground, the clucking sound from penned birds somewhere close by and the idle chatter of the castle occupants as they went about their daily business. The place smelt surprisingly sweet, with no lingering unpleasant odors from the uncleared midden, the livestock or the castle stables.
The massive stone keep within the crenellated walls was a fortress in itself. The breeze caught his hair, lifting it away from his face as Jaden scrutinized the outer walls. They were high, almost unscalable, and most probably constantly guarded by regular patrols, but somewhere there would be at least one postern gate. He'd never known a castle without one. That might well prove to be his easiest way out.
A group of young warriors, clad in their sexually provocative uniforms which consisted of skimpy brown leather tops and matching short leather skirts, walked past him. He couldn't resist flashing them a cheeky grin. Judging by their surprised expressions, they'd never experienced a man acting anything less than submissively toward them before. He wished that he and his soldiers could have had the opportunity to show them how real men behaved. This land was an abomination. Men were designed to be in charge, not women. He turned his head away and ignored them as he was led across the bailey and up the steps into the keep.
The great hall was large, but rather plain and unimpressive compared to the magnificent and luxurious palaces in his land. Determined to find a way to escape, he kept his mind focused, mentally mapping out the layout of the building as he was taken through the hall. They walked along a wide passageway and turned left into a large chamber with an ornately carved ceiling and a polished wood floor. His eyes were immediately drawn to the striking woman sitting on a high-backed chair at the far end of the room. So this was Queen Danara.
They dragged him forward until he stood directly in front of her.
"Kneel," Murana ordered, slashing her cane across the backs of his knees. Ignoring her, Jaden stared at the woman who ruled this strange land. She must be a good decade or so older than him, maybe more. Her dark auburn hair was streaked with grey, but her face was relatively unlined, and she was still very attractive. "Obey, slave." Murana whacked him hard across the buttocks.
Damn her. Damn them all.
One of the guards yanked back the chain attached to the collar around his neck with such ferocity that the leather dug deep into his throat, constricting his breathing. Many hands grabbed hold of Jaden and forced him to his knees. After a moment or so, they released the pressure on the collar, and Jaden gave a strangled cough of discomfort.
"He has no concept of obedience, Majesty," the slave mistress apologized.
"You may leave, Murana, but the guards will stay." Danara's voice was husky and melodious. Her violet gown was made of a filmy fabric that barely concealed the lines of her slim body. Jaden forced his attention away from her womanly curves. He'd not expected her to be this attractive, and he'd thought she would be wearing amour, or at least masculine clothing, certainly not these alluring feminine garments. Yet he'd discovered that in life things rarely turned out to be what one expected. When he'd set out on his mission, he'd certainly never expected to find himself a prisoner of Queen Danara in Freygard.
Danara leaned forward and grabbed hold of his chin. He stared into her green eyes, revealing not a flicker of concern. In her hand, Danara held a small, silver dagger which had an ornate hilt set with rubies and diamonds. Lord Sarin had given it to him before he left on his mission.
"A pretty trinket for a mere captain." She pressed the flat of the blade against his cheek.
"What led you to believe I was a captain?"
"When you were captured, you were in charge of a contingent of Lord Sarin's troops, were you not?"
"Indeed I was."
"The sword you carried is extraordinary. I've never seen the like," Danara commented as she stared thoughtfully at him. "It must be worth a great deal, must it not?"
The silver pommel of the sword was carved in the shape of a dragon's head. It had a gold inlaid hilt, and the blade was finely crafted and stronger than any weapon he'd ever come across. "I've no idea of its worth. Such matters are irrelevant."
"Did you steal it?" The point of the dagger now rested only a finger's breadth from the outside corner of his right eye.
"No, I did not steal it."
"Then it's yours?" She dug the point into his skin until bright beads of blood appeared. Jaden could have shaken off the warriors still holding him down and pulled away, but it wouldn't do him any good. There were a number of armed guards by the entrance to the room, and he wasn't prepared to lose an eye, let alone perish in a useless gesture of resistance.
"It's mine," he confirmed as the warm blood trickled down the side of his face.
"What is your name? Judging by your weapons and clothing, you must be of noble blood."
"My name is Jaden."
"Only Jaden, nothing more?" She removed the blade and tucked it into the embroidered girdle wrapped around her slim waist.
"What other name does a slave need?" he asked with a cynical twist of his lips.
"When you were captured, you were wearing a ring of black onyx, with a crest carved in the stone."
"Not onyx--obsidian." His former love, Eridea, had given it to him many years ago. She'd said the stone reminded her of his eyes.
"And the crest is yours, no doubt?" She leaned forward a little more and ran her fingers across his wide shoulders. He felt the coolness of her skin as they brushed against the top of the leather collar fastened around his throat. "So, Jaden, what would a nobleman want in my kingdom?"
"Freygard does not interest me, and the true cause of my mission is none of your concern, Queen Danara," he replied. Why hadn't Nerya told Danara what little he'd told her? He would have preferred not to have told Nerya anything at all, but he'd wanted her to unchain him, and information was the only thing he could think of to tempt her to do so.
"I don't care if it concerns me or not," she snapped. "You are my prisoner, and you will tell me all I wish to know."
"I think not." It would be wiser to keep silent. He could always tell her what he'd told Nerya, but Danara would never be happy with just that, and he wasn't at liberty to reveal more. "I did not enter your lands, Queen Danara. We were captured in Percheron, and you've no right to hold me here. Nevertheless, I'm prepared to remain in Freygard as your hostage while you negotiate with Lord Sarin, but in exchange you will release at least some of my men and allow them to return home to Percheron."
She gave a cold laugh. "You have the temerity to try to bargain with me, slave, when you have nothing to bargain with."