The noise of the marketplace rose like the shrill whine of wildfire. The press of bodies around her became oppressive, sucking the air out of her lungs. Cassadara shifted her armor, automatically standing taller, straighter, as if her imperious stance could somehow remove her from the filth and squalor. Her nose wrinkled in distaste, but she refused to acknowledge the underling who groveled before her. The Dwarf was not worthy of her attention.
The trader's voice droned on, extolling the virtues of yet another chunk of Human waste. The slaves all looked the same. The Dwarf dragged them out of their pen in a string, chained together like so many goats on a tether. Warriors, indeed. None of them would even raise their eyes to look at her. She terrified them. To a man, they would rather die here than travel with her.
Something inside her turned cold as the arctic spring. These Humans were nothing. Spineless bundles of flesh huddled together, trying to hang on to their miserable existence. They meant nothing to her. Let them stay here and earn their freedom in the pit if they could.
Cassadara crushed the courier's message and tossed the paper into the fire. Unfortunately, she couldn't rest until she had fulfilled Lady Evalayna's directive. Irritated, perhaps unreasonably so, she thumped the small bag of gold coins against her leg. Even with the words burned to a crisp, Cassadara could hear Mother's voice as if the Lady had just spoken aloud.
"Although I am pleased to ken ye survived the Orcs' assault on thy escort, I fear for thy safety. I wouldna' have ye travel alone. Go ye to the Dwarf called Argolyn in the City of Stone. This vile creature claims to have one of our own amongst his slaves. Such a thing canna' be allowed. In freeing this Warrior, ye shall also secure a second sword arm to stand at thy back. May the gods be with ye."
A second sword arm. A slave. Cassadara felt her frustration mount as she surveyed the expanse of Human degradation. She would find no Warriors here. She had sent to Mother asking for a company of Northland Soldiers--her own men, who would gladly follow her into battle if need be rather than cower in fear of her while the enemy hacked them to pieces. Instead Mother sent the Mage Shammall and a small bag of gold. Cassadara would rather have traveled alone than take on the added burden of another responsibility. But there was no defying Mother.
At least the errand boy had spirited himself away after delivering Mother's instructions. She'd rather deal with the Dwarf than that damnable Mage.
"This one is a true Warrior, Lady. He is strong and well-endowed."
Cassadara looked down, trying to focus on the matter at hand. Argolyn was attempting to call her attention to yet another of the objects huddled in the mud. His sales pitch, delivered in Dwarven, sounded like he was trying to clear phlegm from his throat.
"Stand up!" the flesh-monger hissed. The slave made no move to obey. The trader kicked the battered body at his feet. The Dwarf received as his reward a glare of defiance from deep green eyes glinting like ivy-etched steel. Her attention secured, Cassadara watched the scene unfold like a play. The trader yanked ferociously on the chain by which his property was bound, cutting off the slave's air supply. Cassadara wondered why blood didn't spurt from the Human's neck.
The Dwarf kicked the slave yet again, ignoring the choking wheeze of the Human's strangled breath. The lack of oxygen had the desired effect. Almost insolently, the man at Argolyn's feet rose. Grabbing hold of the chain threaded through the torc around his neck, he hauled himself up hand over hand, using the sturdy Dwarf as anchorage. Up and up and up the Human rose, until he towered over the Dwarf, who reached barely to his crotch.
Undaunted, the trader fisted his hand in the fabric of the man's tunic, yanking the thin covering from the battered body with one swift jerk. A grubby paw poked at the slave's testicles, as if to make sure Cassadara had an unobstructed view. "You see, Mistress, there is enough here to satisfy even a member of the Wolf Clan!"
To his credit, the Human barely flinched as the Dwarf displayed him.
Cassadara's focus lingered for a moment on a cock that hinted, even flaccid, at enough size and girth to be worth a second look, before she let her gaze wander back to the slave's face. His attention still centered on the Dwarf, his eyes blazed with cold, bare defiance. This one could not have been a slave for long. Although his body had been damaged, his spirit had yet to be broken. Still, he had obviously learned better than to actually attempt to attack the Dwarf. One move of the slave's hands, chained though they were, and the guards would beat the man to a bloody pulp.
What did his spirit matter? She wasn't here to secure a personal slave for the night's usage. She didn't want a man who would fight her, and the Human would never travel willingly at her side. Besides, without the guards around, the Human might be hard to control. He was not the Clansman Mother had sent her to free. Cassadara didn't bother to look back at Argolyn. She answered in the common tongue of merchants, refusing to expend the energy necessary to spit out the words in the Dwarf's own language. "Thy merchandise is unacceptable." She turned away, as if to move on.
"You need not fear me, Mistress. You would be safe with me." The words were spoken in High Elven, a language that managed to capture the essence of poetry in its most common vocabulary. The voice caressed her, sliding over her skin like silk in the darkness, little more than a low rumble that might have come from Earth herself.
Cassadara raised an eyebrow in surprise as she turned back, surveying the man again. The Human had dared to address her--and in a language almost unknown in these parts. He had taken great risk to speak to her privately. Why? 'Twas a foolish risk that might well earn him yet another beating.
Cassadara's curiosity trapped her. Did he not know who she was? Did he not know what she was?
Deep green eyes clashed with hers, anything but subservient. Surprisingly, she saw no trace of fear. Instead she saw wariness mixed with desperation. The Human knew his fate. Unless she purchased his contract, the man would undoubtedly die here.
So. This slave was willing to cross the lines of race and class to save his own life. Yet somewhere within his battered body the man retained enough pride to keep him from begging.
She stepped closer--close enough to smell the foul odor coming from the pen where the men were kept. By the gods, this one was tall. He was almost as tall as her brother Tyrell--the slave was certainly the tallest Human she had ever seen. Taller by far than her own six-foot-four. At this distance she would actually have to tilt her head to meet the man's eyes, so she didn't. Instead she trailed her gaze over his body, surveying every inch of him, looking beneath the filth to see the long, lean muscles on a powerful frame, capable of grueling days of marching and hard hours of fighting.
The Human was too large and well built to have escaped the arena. The spectators would love to see this one fight. She let her gaze wander the length of him again, frankly curious about those other attributes the Dwarf had mentioned. This time his cock responded, jumping to life as if she had stroked him with her fingers instead of her eyes.
He was indeed well endowed--far better equipped than she would have expected for a Human. As she watched, his cock grew harder, bobbing its deep crimson head as if straining to reach her.
She hadn't even touched him yet and he was already hard for her?
Despite the chill of the arctic spring, a fine sheen of sweat stood out on the Human's body now, trickling down his smooth, naked chest. She found herself imagining licking the sweat from his bronzed skin. Her nipples hardened at the thought of what he might be able to do with that equipment.
Did he want her? Or merely the freedom her money could purchase for him?
She'd heard tales of Human lovers. The Humans might not be good for aught else, but they were said to make incredible mates. She followed the line of sweat back up, gradually returning her attention to the man's face. He let her look her fill without comment, though his cock jumped again as if she'd caressed him rather than merely admired from a few feet away. A single drop of moisture leaked from its tip. She wondered briefly what he might taste like. Just how different were Humans?
Cassadara hid her smile. She was fairly certain he was not what Mother had had in mind.
She answered in the common tongue, wanting to be sure the Dwarf understood every word she said. "Why should I trust ye, Human? I know what thy people think of my kind. Ye call my race Barbarians. Yet ye condone this."
The sweep of her hand indicated not just the squalid pens huddled at the base of the cliffs, but the amphitheatre-like arena at the far edge of the camp, and indeed the whole system by which men were bought and sold like sled dogs.
"Why would I pay this Dwarf for thy services? As soon as we are away from this place, ye shall try to kill me. Then ye shall die, and I shall be out a great deal of gold. I have no time to worry over the likes of ye."
"Then do not hold me as a slave," he answered, once again in Elven. "Let the price of my freedom be my indenture. I will pledge myself to your service. Allow me to earn my freedom and I will prove my loyalty beyond the boundaries of race and class."
The Dwarf looked perturbed by the banter, but if he did not understand, Cassadara surely would not translate. This time she answered the Human in Elven as well. "Ye would never live to see thy freedom, Human. No' where I go."
The man didn't deny the truth of her words. Instead he stared back at her, holding her attention with the intensity of his gaze, his eyes asking for her faith. "I know where you are bound, M'Lady. I will gladly die beside you if that is the will of the gods." He swayed unsteadily on his feet, righting himself before he toppled back into the mud. "Better to die in battle at your side than here in the pits for the entertainment of the Lords and Ladies. Death in the arena robs a Warrior of his honor."
Cassadara examined the Human again, using her gift this time. A long half-healed gash ran the length of his shield arm from shoulder to elbow. Heat radiated from the wound, a sure sign the cut was infected. She looked deeper. Beneath the bruises his ribs were cracked, and his knuckles were swollen and bloody. He had undoubtedly survived several rounds in the arena already. His face, half-hidden under untrimmed fur, looked hollow and gaunt.
He'd take a great deal of healing to be of any use. If she bought this one she would be spending days in this hellhole of a town before the man was ready to travel. Worse yet, healing him would leave her exhausted and vulnerable--and at his mercy.
Cassadara let her gaze drift down to that thick, weeping cock again. "If I buy thy indenture, what will ye do for me?"
"Whatever you wish, M'Lady." Deep green eyes warmed slightly, lending character to the face where she'd seen only anger and despair. "In my homeland, I am known as a man of my word. I pledge to serve you loyally."
Cassadara touched the tip of her tongue to suddenly dry lips. At her frank perusal, the Human's cock bobbed stiffly against his belly, looking painfully hard. Dampness stained the inside of her thighs. Yes. If he knew how to properly entertain a woman, he might be worth the time and trouble he would undoubtedly cause.
When her gaze traveled back up the length of him, his eyes met hers with a trace of something that might have been a grin. "I can cook."