Kaila's heart raced, and her knees trembled as she approached the barbarians' camp. Cook fires flickered amidst the deer hide tents. Men sat around them, roaring with laughter, eating bloody haunches of roast meat and slopping ale from tankards.
The sliver of moon overhead shed only scarce light on the grassy plains. None of the men had spotted her yet. She had the sudden urge to turn and bolt... but she suppressed it and willed her shaking limbs to be steady. She'd made up her mind. She could not allow her people to suffer any longer. If her father would not give Chief Garou what he demanded, then Kaila would take matters into her own hands.
She took another step closer, and a twig popped under her foot.
The men fell silent and turned to look at her. They were huge and muscular, wearing the skins of wolves or bobcats, and most had thick, bushy beards. Hunger glinted in their eyes as they realized what they were seeing. She felt like a rabbit waltzing into a convention of foxes, and in spite of her efforts to stay calm, she quivered beneath her heavy, fur lined cloak.
These men were brutes. For the past few months, they had been attacking the city, carrying off plunder. They lived like scavengers, striking, thieving, and vanishing into the night. "Where is your chief?" she called, with as much authority as she could muster. "I demand that you take me to him at once. I will speak to no one else."
One man wiped grease from his beard with the back of one hand, then stood, grinning. "Bold little thing, aren't you?"
He started forward, but was stopped by a sharp, "Don't touch her!" from the largest tent.
The man froze as the chief pushed the tent flap aside and stepped out. He was tall, and surprisingly young. He was also one of the few men in camp without a beard. Three scars, like claw marks, marred each cheek. He wore a dark wolf hide, the wolf's head perched over his own, and black leather gloves and boots. At his belt was a glittering sword, no doubt stolen, like all their weapons. He drew the blade from its gem encrusted scabbard and pressed the tip to the man's stomach. The man gulped, his eyes widening. "No one is to touch her, save me," said the chief. "If anyone lays a hand on her, I'll cut off his sac and hang it out to dry in the sun."
Kaila stood frozen, heart knocking against her ribs, as the chief approached. He moved like the wolf for which he was named, his strides smooth and graceful. Well defined muscles shifted beneath the bronze skin in his arms and legs. With a gloved hand, he gripped her chin and turned her face from side to side, studying her. She noticed, with a shock, that his eyes were yellow gold, like a wolf's. "Strange, that you come here alone, without a carriage or guards," he remarked. His gloved thumb traced her chin, and then ran lightly over her full lips. "One would think your father would send that much, at least, to see off his beloved daughter. I wonder... did your father send you at all, or did you come of your own free will?"
She swallowed, keeping her eyes downcast. "My father sent me." Garou might not consider it a gift if he knew she'd come on her own. "He is willing to make the sacrifice for his people."
"Very wise of him." He smiled, showing a glint of white teeth. With the tip of his sword, he pulled her cloak open to reveal the soft, pink silk dress beneath. He studied the pearly buttons, then slid his sword tip beneath one and popped it off, so delicately that he didn't even graze the skin beneath. A few of his men hooted, but he paid no attention. His eyes were fixed on her heaving chest. He popped off another button, then another, exposing her white, lacy chemise.
Kaila gritted her teeth, cheeks burning. Would he have her out in the open, in front of all these leering pigs? She straightened her back and schooled her face into a neutral expression. No matter what happened, she was determined to endure it stoically. It was the only honor left to her.
The cold tip of the sword touched her breast, almost gently, and her breath caught in her throat. She watched, stone still, as it circled her nipple, which quickly hardened at the coldness of the steel. He did the same to the other nipple, then returned to the first, until both jutted, achingly hard and tight, straining against the thin silk of her chemise. Then, with the tip of his sword, he lifted her dress. One hand reached beneath it.
Kaila swatted his hand away. The men all gasped in shock and stared at their leader, wondering what he would do.
He raised one eyebrow. "I'd advise you to remember where you are and who your new master is. Your life is in my hands."
She glared at him, cheeks flushed. It occurred to her, even through her anger and embarrassment, that he didn't speak like a barbarian. He had a city dweller's accent. Highborn, no less. It puzzled her, but at the moment, it was the least of her concerns.
"Come with me to my tent," he said. His men began hooting again, and Kaila shook with anger. Pigs, all of them. She would rather die than be this barbarian's whore, but there was more than her own life at stake.
Head held high, eyes staring straight ahead, she followed Garou into the tent. It was huge, easily three times as large as any of the other tents in the barbarian campsite. Garou pushed the tent flap aside and said with a smirk, "After you, my lady."
She entered, trying to appear cool and regal, though her pulse wouldn't stop racing and her knees were weak with fear.
Inside the tent, the ground was covered with hides from wolves, snow foxes, and rabbits. In the center, a small fire burned. Smoke rose through a hole in the tent's ceiling, and a pot of soup hung over the fire, bubbling. Garou ladled some into a small bowl and handed it to her. She stared in surprise.
"Eat," he said. "You're hungry, aren't you?"
Kaila hesitated. She was hungry; she'd ridden a long way to get here. But she wasn't sure she wanted to accept anything from him. That soup was probably made from animals he'd poached from her land, her people. The rich, meaty smell tickled her nostrils, and her stomach rumbled. Giving in, she took the bowl from him, sniffed the dark broth, and took a tiny sip.
"I haven't drugged it, if that's what you're afraid of. I prefer my women awake and aware, able to enjoy the experience."
Kaila's jaw clenched. She knew it would be wiser to stay silent--provoking him would do no good--but she couldn't hold her tongue. "Do you really believe I'll enjoy this? This is my duty, nothing more."
Garou chuckled. "You think so? Perhaps I can change your mind." He crouched, watching her intently. His golden eyes shone in the firelight, seeming almost to glow. "You're very beautiful."
She took another sip of her soup, not looking at him. "You needn't flatter me."
"I don't flatter. I only state facts." He leaned closer. "Tell me the truth. Did your father send you here, or did you come on your own?"
"What does it matter? I'm here. Our part of the bargain has been fulfilled. Now you must honor your promise to leave our people in peace."
"Look at me when you speak to me, Kaila."
When she didn't look up, he gripped her chin and tilted her face upward. She swallowed as his yellow gaze met hers, and suddenly she couldn't look away. His stare penetrated her, held her. "You have beautiful eyes. Blue green, like water pierced by sunlight."
She shivered lightly. She might have enjoyed those words, coming from another man, but she knew that this man's heart held no tenderness. He was simply admiring her as he would any object of value. To him, she was just another piece of loot.
"I can see why you keep them downcast most of the time, though," he said, running his thumb slowly over her lips. "They hide nothing. It's like looking straight into your heart." His thumb continued to run back and forth across her lips, very lightly. "Tell me, now. What makes you think that your coming here will change anything? Who's to say I won't just keep attacking your people?"
"You gave your word."
"And what good is the word of a barbarian?"
"They say you are a man of your word. Despite everything you've done, you always honor your promises."
"They speak true. Starting tomorrow morning, I will lead my men away from your city."
She sighed softly as the tension eased out of her shoulders.
"You care for your country a great deal."
"Obviously. I'm here, aren't I? But it has nothing to do with my own feelings. I'm doing what I have to. If I stood by and allowed my people to suffer, my conscience wouldn't be able to bear it." She narrowed her eyes. "Not that a man like you would understand that."
He smiled, a mirthless expression, thin and hard as a sword's edge. "Drink your soup. It's beginning to cool."
"I've lost my appetite."
He took the bowl from her. "Suit yourself. But sooner or later you'll have to eat. Practicality always outweighs pride, in the long run." He drained the bowl in a single gulp, then set it aside. "In the meantime, take off your dress. I want to look at you."
She nodded stiffly and unbuttoned her dress. She kept her eyes fixed on the tent wall, kept her face impassive. She would not give him the pleasure of showing her fear, but she could not control the tremor in her hands as she undid the last button and let the silk dress slip to the floor. The cool air washed over her naked skin, and goose bumps rose on her arms and belly as she stood before him in only her chemise and leggings.
He stood, arms crossed over his chest, waiting.
Biting her lower lip, she undid the drawstring of her chemise. It slipped to the ground, exposing the smooth, white mounds of her breasts. Her areolas puckered in the cold. She straightened her back and stood, chin lifted, face composed in an expressionless mask, as his gaze moved over her. She felt it like hands gliding over her skin. That possessive gaze lingered on the juncture between her thighs, and warmth rose into her cheeks.
He stepped closer, looming over her, then reached down and tapped one long, thick finger against the drawstring of her leggings. "These, too."
"Very well." She lifted her chin a little higher, teeth clenched, face burning. She supposed she should have expected no better from a man like this, but his insolence still galled her. She took a deep breath, undid the drawstring and stepped out of her leggings.
Kaila heard his breath catch in his throat. In spite of herself, she looked up and saw the desire burning in his eyes, hot and intense, as he stared at her exposed mound.
"Lie down on your back," he said.
She stretched out on the wolf skin mat, praying he would be quick about it, praying it wouldn't hurt too much. She'd heard that it always hurt the first time, for women. She closed her eyes.
There was no sense in feeling regret, Kaila supposed. She had always known there would be no love for her. She was a princess, expected to marry a man of her father's choosing. Of course, a prince would have at least treated her with respect and chivalry, but a loveless union was still a loveless union. It was the inescapable fate for all women of royal blood.
She braced herself for the pain of his hard sex tearing through her virginity, but it didn't come. Uncertain, she opened her eyes.
He was looking down at her breasts, slowly sliding off one glove. His breathing had grown slightly, almost imperceptibly heavier. "Exquisite," he murmured. He crouched and touched her breast. His thumb rubbed in a slow circle around one nipple, and Kaila was shocked to feel it responding, hardening to an aching point. He stroked the rosy bud with a fingertip. "Your breasts are very sensitive. And beautifully formed, I might add."
She felt another moment's disorientation at his strange speech. He sounded like a noble from her father's court. The accent was unmistakable. "Who are you?" she whispered.
"I am Garou, Chief of the Wolf Clan. Who else would I be?" He molded her other nipple into a sensitive peak; it tingled under his touch, as if a mild electric current had passed between them. Then he lowered his head and traced her areola with his tongue. She gasped, startled. When his hot, wet mouth engulfed her nipple, she moaned in spite of herself. His mouth felt shockingly good on her breast. His stubble rubbed and scratched her skin as he sucked her nipple like a piece of candy. He reached over and fondled her other breast, the heat of his fingers burning into her skin. A wave of liquid warmth rolled through Kaila. Every nerve ending tingled with life. She found herself sharply aware of every sensation in her body: the tickle of the wolf skin rug against her back, the heat of the fire, the pressure of Garou's fingers as they pinched and tugged her nipple, and the wetness of his tongue. Her sex plumped and moistened. She had a momentary urge to touch herself and swiftly squelched it.
What was wrong with her? He was a monster. She should be repulsed at his touch. She closed her eyes and felt those warm fingers brush her stomach.
"So soft," he whispered. "It's been so long since I've touched skin like this." There was desire in that voice, but something else, as well--something wistful, almost gentle. She was growing more confused by the moment. She had come here expecting to be brutally raped, but this... this was somehow worse. Brutality, she could endure, but she had no defense against this sweet, skilled touch.