Mine to Mark Contest
Title: Shadows of the Soul
Word Count: 11,000
Summary: Fueled by desperation, a queen turns to a king known by the world as an uncivilized barbarian. Will he be able to save her from a fate that seems unavoidable by taking her as his own or will he turn his back on her like everyone else?
Disclaimer: Do not own Twilight. contains lemon
"They will be here soon."
The softly spoken words sounded ominous as the thick and stifling tension hovering in the air increased. My head handmaiden, Agnes, had been the one to murmur those words nervously, ill at ease with the situation I would soon be facing. I ignored them, refusing to allow the panic that had receded to build up once again inside of me.
I held my arms out, waiting patiently for my two handmaidens as they rushed forward, carefully slipping my thin silk tunic from my shoulders so that it pooled around my feet. I stepped forward, naked, and watched the steam swirl in the air, the humidity in the bathhouse clinging to my skin like a covering.
I closed my eyes briefly as I felt steady hands extract the ivory pins from my hair, the long tresses of my dark, silken hair tumbling down my back, my once curled waves falling limply around my waist.
The unrest around me was palpable as my bare feet moved silently across the marble floor, each step matching the pulse of my heart. Even the guards standing by the doors, their gazes averted from my body, shifted, their body language restless.
I could see the reflection of the water as it lapped gently against the sides of the pool. I stopped at the edge, pausing momentarily as I stole a deep breath from the humid air before walking down the steps.
I sighed as I immersed myself in the hot, lavender-scented water, feeling the grime of the past days wash away as I slipped fully beneath it. My muscles slowly unwound from their rigid position, the stress of my position floating away with the gentle waves. I lingered beneath the water, reveling in the brief respite from the noise that constantly surrounded me and the reality of what I faced in a few short hours.
War fueled by greed had ravaged my country, forcing my father, King Charles, to end his reign of peace and fight for the freedom of our people.
It had taken years to drive back the Bassintines, depleting our resources and costing my father his life. We were left weak and exposed, a famine destroying our crops and weakening our livestock.
It was only a matter of time before they returned, the rumors of the army they were rebuilding reaching the ears of my spies. Without my father to lead, and the necessary troops available to fight, I knew that there was only one way it would end, and I refused to allow things to come to that. I had lost a month's of sleep, turning over my meager options in my mind, trying to come up with a solution. With very little to offer in the way of monetary reward in return for help, our allies had turned away, unwilling to risk their own armies in a fool's errand.
It was only when I stumbled upon the peace treaty that my father had signed between our people and the Barbarian warrior, King Eiduard, leader of the Baravians, that I found some hope.
The Baravian's land met the edge of my own, and though they were separate from the rest of the known, civilized world, they were the fiercest warriors of all the realms and kingdoms. They thrived on battle, never having lost or turned from a single fight, if the stories were to be believed. They had conquered the east where there once resided five kingdoms and taken over the mountains and forests from the edge of the Tiberian sea to the Gyptian Ridge that lined my kingdom.
Unlike the other kingdoms I had sought help from, money and finery held no interest to them. They lived by a bartering system, exchanging things of the same worth instead of using currency.
I had been surprised when, instead of a messenger announcing the king's decision, I had been told the Baravian king himself was coming with a small party.
All I had to offer him was my hand and with that came my lands. I only hoped that when he arrived, it would be enough. My father, King Charles, had once been the most powerful king in the Seven Shires, and therefore had seized and conquered a lot of land in his youth, even if they were somewhat spoiled now.
I gulped down a long breath of air, my lungs releasing as I emerged from beneath the water, droplets cascading down my body as I tipped my head back. My fingers raked through my hair, pushing it out of my face as I tried to calm my racing heart.
Once done with my bath, I stepped out of the water, my handmaidens coming to my aid with soft cloths to dry my dripping body.
Wrapped in a tunic much like the one I had entered the bathhouse in, I allowed myself to be led deep into my palace where my rooms resided. I settled on a plush chaise, my feet tucked elegantly beneath me as a goblet of sweet wine found its way into my hand. I watched my handmaidens scuttle around the room, pulling out different gowns and seeking my approval for each one until I found one that pleased me.
I stood, removing my current tunic and stepping forward to be dressed. A flurry of hands descended on me, arranging and adjusting my chosen gown as they dressed me. I twirled gracefully once they were done, batting away any lingering hands as I admired my reflection in the mirror.
I had chosen a pale blue and gold layered silk gown that complemented my ivory skin. The material was soft and wispy, draping over my curves while leaving my skin free to breathe in the summer heat. It dipped down in the valley of my full, plump breasts before a delicate, corseted, gold, spiderweb-like belt cinched in at my waist, my supple hips flaring out from beneath it. The gown reached down to the floor, dragging behind me somewhat, the slits running up each side reaching up mid-thigh, making my movements easy. Gilded sandals cushioned my feet, their bindings wrapping around my ankles and calves. Gold clasps at my shoulders held the gown together and held a second fold of material that draped down my back like a cloak. I had decided to leave the majority of my hair free, curling in waves down my back with two thick braids on either side of my head pulling it back out of my face.
Small, colorful beads entwined into it, glimmering in the light, and my delicate gold crown sat upon my head.
"How do I look?" I asked my handmaidens, smiling at the woman that stared back at me in the mirror looking every bit the noble queen my title stood for. My pale, delicate features had been brightened by paints, gold designs speckling my cheeks and forehead, accentuating my bone structure. My eyelids had been powdered with blue and my cheeks pinked so that they stood out against my skin.
"Enchanting, your Highness. He won't be able to resist you," one replied with a blush.
"We can only hope," I murmured to myself as a knock came at the door. I motioned impatiently for one of the maids to answer it, her sandaled feet slapping against the ground as she scuttled to do so.
The head of the royal guard stood on the other side, dressed in full armor of white and gold with the royal emblem engraved into the breastplate, clutching his helmet under his arm, his back straight. "My Queen, the Baravian King has entered the city," he announced.
"Thank you, Lord Black," I answered softly, feeling my stomach twist as I was once again reminded of the severity of the situation. Baravians were known to be volatile and had no trouble making it known when they were displeased, usually in a violent manner.
"Will you escort me to the throne room?" I requested, wanting to spend a few moments with the man that had once been a close childhood friend.
"Of course, My Queen," he said, his tone almost reverent as he bowed low in deference. I offered him my arm, which he took wordlessly, and he guided me through the halls of the palace.
"It is not too late to change your mind," he commented once the silence became too much.
I smiled softly, glancing up his tall frame to his face affectionately. "I know, but I must do what is best for my people. I will not let my kingdom fall into ruin. My father fought to keep what was rightfully his, and I shall do the same," I said as confidently as I was able.
"Always so selfless," he replied. "You realize that if you had accepted my proposal you wouldn't be in this position."
His words had their desired effect, and I laughed softly, feeling lighter than I had in weeks. "Jacob, I was seven, and you were the boy that was constantly pulling my hair. Of course, I declined, though it seems you still haven't forgiven me for it."
"It was a blow to my pride and heart," he mused, and for a moment when our eyes met I thought that he might have been serious. The flicker of sadness that passed through his eyes was gone as quickly as it appeared, but it lingered within me. Jacob was a handsome man with a strong build and long, raven black hair that was pulled back in ponytail.
Maybe, before the war, I would have considered him as a candidate for my hand, but as a queen in my position, it wasn't something that I could even consider. I knew my father would have approved our match, but the tides had changed against our favor since then.
"Oh, Jacob, you'll find someone who will make you happier than I ever could have."
"So, there's no chance that you'll run away with me?" he half-jested.
"A queen never leaves her kingdom. She fights for it, and—if it comes to that—falls with it," I whispered, the words an echo of my father's last. "I can't allow my people to suffer any more than they already have when there is something I can do to alleviate their pain."
He nodded, but the tightness of his jaw told me that he did not agree.
"You realize he's twice your age," he said tersely.
I sighed. "He's but three and thirty summers, Jacob. It isn't as though it is unusual for a girl of my youth to bind herself to a man of his age. Now, let us talk no more of this. I'd hate to finish this conversation with an argument," I told him as we neared our destination.
"As you wish, My Queen," he agreed softly, though it was with great reluctance.
The silence that followed was disturbed by a low rumbling that got louder. It took me a moment to recognize the steady beat of drums, and I drifted over to the arched window that looked down on the courtyard.
Tents and large wooden structures were already being erected, scattered about in a strategic formation as male slaves beat out a loud rhythm with drums, and female slaves danced, their half-naked bodies twisting and jerking as they kicked up the dust around their feet.
All the slaves' hair was shorn close to their scalps, and large gold collars were placed around their necks. They were wild and free, and I felt as though I was being introduced to an entirely different civilization. The women held no shame for their exposed chests, the thick gold paint decorating them in swirls and patterns were a work of art which held little room for modesty. They put on a show, hips undulating as they pulled up their skirts teasingly, their movements fluid as they encouraged the workers, sensually displaying what was available upon the completion of the camp.
"How can you stand this?" Jacob asked, a sneer of disgust marring his features. "I can barely look at these barbarians, yet you wish to marry one. You realize that as soon as he has given his consent for marriage he will claim you as his own? He will ruin you for any other man to seal your engagement and mark you as his own. It is their way, and no protest from you will stop him mounting you like a stallion and stealing your innocence."
His words were harsh, and I felt a burning anger rise up inside me. His tone had held condescension, as though he was talking to a child, not his Queen, and he had no right to treat me as such.
"How can something be stolen if it is freely given?"
My words were like a slap—forceful and with the intent to hurt—leaving him reeling in shock and pain. He struggled to gather himself after such a blow, his gaze refusing to meet mine as his jaw clenched tightly.
My question had been rhetorical, and he made no move to answer it as he stiffly turned and strode toward the throne room, me still attached to his arm. No words were shared or spoken as we reached our destination, both of us too stubborn to be repent for our treatment of the other.
The guards hastily opened the heavy wooden doors as I glided past, barely sparing them a glance. Every eye was on me as the doors opened, groaning from the weight, but my gaze was fixed on the gilded chairs seated on the platform. Even months after my father's passing, the knowledge that his throne would never hold him again always made me pause. Jacob didn't speak as my steps faltered, his gaze staying firmly ahead as I gathered myself, sucking in a shaky breath before squaring my shoulders.
Jacob led me to what had once been my father's throne, not letting go until I was safely seated, the cushioned seat still unfamiliar beneath me. I let my gaze drift around the room, taking in the guards stationed sporadically and the few council members and people of court that had dared come, with a stoicism that belied the way my heart hammered in my chest.
The heavy silence that had hovered over the room was broken long minutes later, and my eyes widened and my lips parted in disbelief as the unmistakable sounds of hooves connecting with marble echoed throughout the halls. It seemed that instead of dismounting and entering, the barbarian king had just ridden up the front steps and into the palace. A low murmur rose up among the court as they came to the same conclusion I had, the whispers and subtle glances in my direction making a spike of irritation flare up in me.
The council had made it no secret that they thought me inept and too naive to rule the kingdom. They reasoned that it should be a man—capable and strong—that should rule, but since my father had died and left the crown to me, his only child, there was nothing they could do short of committing treason. They had tried to force me to marry, but that plan had backfired since my options were now limited to the man that would soon enter these very doors.
Before I could address them and put them in their place, the doors burst open and seven men mounted on stallions rode in. None of the horses were saddled, only thick leather and patterned blankets separating them from their masters as they huffed and snorted, shaking their heads as barbarian's men pulled against the reins. They were painted with white chalk, the shape of their bones stained against their dark hair.
I swallowed tightly, my knuckles turning white as my grip tightened, almost to the point of pain, on the arms of the chair . My posture remained steady, and my gaze did not falter as my eyes ran over the men before finally settling on the man I knew to be King Eiduard.
I had never seen him in person before, but the way he sat, as though he was seated upon a throne rather than a stallion, his broad shoulders set as his horse stood more forward than the rest, told me all that I needed to know.
He was tanned with thick ropes of muscles bulging from his arms and shoulders. Leather cuffs covered his forearms, and thick, padded cloths bound his palms and knuckles, preventing blisters and sores forming from the slip of the reins. A dark cloak fell over one shoulder, covering his right side and part of his arm. Beneath it, his chest was bare, new and old scars trailing over what was exposed.
Multiple leather belts crisscrossed at his waist, holding a gold-hilted sword to his side, and an engraved gold medallion hung low from his neck, its shiny luster a large contrast to the rest of his attire.
A loose leather skirt hung low on his wide hips, strips of it sliced cleanly away to reveal the worn dark cloth beneath that started at his waist and reached down to his knees.
Thick leather and fur coverings wrapped around his calves and feet to make boots, the bindings tight and secure.
I was sure that if he was smiling instead of looking so grim, he would actually be rather handsome, even with the scar that sliced through his eyebrow and nicked the edge of his eye before descending down his cheek.
Everything about him was foreign in a way that I could not begin to understand. I knew nothing of war or what life was like beyond the walls of my city. My father had sheltered me from the horrors of what lay in the known world, but I now found that my naivety hindered me more than helped me in my efforts to build up my kingdom.
The horses huffed, stamping their feet and shaking their manes nervously, drawing me out from my observations. My cheeks heated slightly, and I felt goose bumps rise on my arms as the silence continued between us.
Though I was seated on a platform, he towered over me, his eyes level with mine, showing that he would not bow or show any kind of lenience. His very presence seemed to fill the room, dominant and imposing. His eyes narrowed into slits, his piercing gaze never leaving my own as it challenged me, daring me to speak up about his clear show of disrespect. The corner of his mouth twitched like that of an angry dog defending a piece of meat, a flash of teeth emerging in warning as a sound rumbled through his chest, low and threatening.
My tongue felt thick and heavy in my mouth, and I swallowed tightly, my throat dry. I broke his gaze, glancing around us to see all the people waiting with bated breath for what was about to happen like I was part of some kind of theatrical show. The nervous tension lingering in the air held an acrid hint that was perilously close to fear, and I knew he could smell it, feel it, hanging like a dark cloud.
"Everybody out," I demanded, keeping the shrill edge almost inaudible.
Shock colored the faces of the spectators, but any rebuttal they could have voiced was interrupted by Jacob's presence. They were all herded out, and I refused to look at King Eiduard as I took a deep, cleansing breath and continued.
"Jacob, you and your men are dismissed," I said confidently.
"My Queen," he started, but one look into my steely gaze had him reluctantly backing down. "As you wish."
King Eiduard's expression never changed as he saw the retreat of my soldiers from the room. He turned his head to look at his men and spoke firmly in his native tongue, his voice a low rumble, thickened by his accent.
His men tugged on the reins of their horses, neither hesitating nor questioning their King as they turned around until only one rider lingered with his King.
"He wishes for me to stay and translate," the man said, his voice clear. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that he was paler, maybe a shade or two lighter than the rest of King Eiduard's men. His hair was a mass of curls that reached down past his shoulders, and his bone structure was as sharp and defined as his King's, the similarities leading me to believe that they shared some sort of blood.
Of all the kingdoms in the known world, Baravia was the only one that did not speak the common language. They had their own customs and ways separate from the civilized ones I had grown up in.
I nodded my consent to his words, though I was certain my consent mattered little to either of them. It was strange, after having lived a life where people bowed and scraped, kissing the ground my feet walked on, to be treated with complete indifference. It was strangely liberating to know that my opinion mattered little, and that it was my turn to bow and scrape.
I stood, my hands moving to the crown resting on my head. I removed it, the weight lifting not just from my head but from my weary shoulders also.
King Eiduard watched me with a wariness born from many years of combat as I descended the steps of the platform, stopping a few feet away, before dipping my body into a low curtsy, my head bowed forward in submission. I accepted his apparent dominance and my place beneath him. Had it not been I who had beseeched him to rescue my people because I was unable to fulfill that task myself?
He growled out a few words in his native tongue, and his man quickly translated for him. "He wishes for you to rise," he stated.
I rose slowly from my place on the ground, straightening up to my full height as I strained to meet King Eiduard's eyes.
I doubted that he could understand me, but I'd be damned if the words I had rehearsed would be directed toward his translator. Not only would that seem like a complete disregard of respect to him, but it wouldn't sit well with me either.
"Welcome, King Eiduard, to my kingdom," I said confidently. "I hope your travels were swift and your health strong."
He responded with a sharp nod, requiring no translation, but answered in his own tongue. He seemed able to understand the common language, but refused to speak it.
"He thanks you for the invitation, and pays tribute to your father. He prays that King Charles has made it safely to the Otherworld."
A long breath escaped me at the mention of my father, and I felt gratitude well up inside of me. Many had given their condolences in the wake of my father's death, yet their words had seemed hollow and rehearsed, expected in the situation.
King Eiduard owed me nothing—he had made sure to establish that upon his arrival—so his words were not an empty attempt at sympathy, but a sincere statement.
"Thank you," I murmured, allowing a smile to curve up on my lips.
Again he gave a sharp nod, this one of acknowledgement, his face cool and void of any true emotion. His voice came out in a rolling rumble, the words feeling as though they were vibrating through my body. Though I could not understand a word of it, the way his lips wrapped around each word transfixed me. My gaze met his once again, and I felt lost in his eyes as though some kind of force was dragging me forward.
It was only the voice of his translator that pulled me from the depths of his eyes, causing me to blink rapidly as I tried to focus and remember where I was and what position I held.
"He says that he knows why you sought out his presence. That you wish for him to fight for you against the Bassintines, but he wonders what he will be gifted with in return for his victory in your name."
I swallowed, my chest tightening as I licked my suddenly dry lips. "I'm sure you realize that my kingdom has fallen from the glory it once held, and the only thing of worth I have left to offer is my hand and with it my lands."
His steely gaze held my own, his eyes blinking slowly as he digested the information. The muscles in his arms twitched, flexing and constricting as he shifted his weight; gracefully sliding one leg over the horse and balancing his weight for a moment on his stirrup before fully dismounting.
Up close, I could see that there was a hint of green in his dark, almond-shaped eyes, hidden in the darkness that swirled in his irises. Around his eyes were painted black, as though to make him look even more fierce and frightening than he already was. I understood now why my father chose to have him as an ally, because the very thought of having this man as an enemy sent shivers down my spine in fright. The notion that this man—if he accepted my proposition—would become my husband and, subsequently, my lover made me shiver in a completely different way.
He advanced slowly, his gait purposeful, yet seemingly relaxed, his eyes never leaving me.
I licked my suddenly dry lips, and he watched me without inhibition, his eyes circling me like a hungry predator. He stalked toward me slowly, muscles coiled and ready to spring as he approached. His nostrils flared and the muscle in his jaw twitched as his upper lip curled back slightly to reveal another glimpse of straight white teeth. He stopped when he was right in front of me, his chest level with my face as I craned my neck to look up at him, my heart lodged firmly in my throat.
I had heard that he towered over even the tallest of warriors when standing shoulder to shoulder, and some believed that he had been fathered by one of the giants that were rumored to still live in the Whistler Pass, close to the Trident's Fork that led toward Sandworn, Lindhurst, and Stonehold, three of the Baravian's many cities. A part of me suggested that I should be frightened by his size since he could easily overpower me, but my self-preservation was absent in that moment, and I felt only a strange craving for him settle in my gut.
His thick scent, a mix of sweet, spiced herbs combined with the musk of sweat and man, filtered through my senses, overwhelming and intoxicating me. My eyelids felt heavy and my breathing quickened as a pink flush warmed my skin. I didn't understand what was happening to me, but I trembled in his presence, my throat dry and my lips parched.
His eyes flittered over my body, the heat of his eyes leaving a fiery trail in their wake. I saw a hint of appreciation for my form in his eyes, my full curves soft and round, yet toned from riding and other strenuous activities that I enjoyed. A shudder passed through me as his large, calloused fingers dug into my flesh as he grasped me, the throbbing deep within me intensified and wetness collected between my thighs. My breaths were choppy as I felt his hands roam over my body in a way no man had ever had the privilege of doing, and whilst a part of me screamed to stop him, my mouth refused to work.
King Eiduard wasn't a man that asked for permission; instead he demanded compliance, taking whatever he wished when he wished for it without fear of the consequences. How could I challenge or refuse a man that had led his first army to battle just shy of his nineteenth summer? A man worthy of his title by the sweat of his brow rather than by the death of her father.
In the Baravian culture, no man was entitled to a position of status by blood or by name. It was only through the show of worth that a person could be gifted with a title.
The last king had placed Eiduard as reigning prince after his success in conquering the five kingdoms of the East. It was custom for others in candidacy for the crown to fight each other until only one man was left standing to take the king's place after his death. Eiduard had slaughtered each one before the king had even fallen sick, not only removing the threat to his place next in line but winning the hearts of his people through his strength and strategy.
"I accept your proposal," Eiduard murmured, his accent thick making the words slur together, and his voice rumbling like that of a storm rolling overheard.
I barely managed to digest his words, my mind reeling from the implications of his statement when he grasped me, slamming me flush against his body. He was solid; his body was hard and defined against the soft, pliable curves of my own as he roughly cupped one of the ripe cheeks of my behind while the other drove through the thick tresses of my glossy hair. I whimpered as he dragged his teeth up the length of my jaw.
I tentatively trailed my hands up his arms, feeling the ropes of tanned muscles flex, bulging with raw strength and power. His scent swirled heavily around me, so potent that I could taste him on my tongue, the pleasure bursting in my mouth.
I barely recognized myself as I melted against him, for the first time in what felt like forever I felt safe and protected in the cage of his arms. His grip was firm and unyielding, rough, yet somehow it felt as though he was handling me with a precise amount of care. If my self-preservation instincts hadn't kicked in, I shuddered to think what I would have willingly let him do to me. Thankfully, I came back to my senses, suddenly acutely aware of the sheath wrapped tightly around my thighs, holding my two, curved blades, a gift from Lord Black on my last Name Day.
I caught him off guard, surprise flickering across his face as I jammed my knee up between his legs and unsheathed one blade, pressing it firmly against his side. His grip neither loosened nor did he falter as he stared deep into my eyes. His gaze was dark and unwavering, searing through my flesh right to my soul. I stood, stuck in the limbo of his gaze, for what seemed like hours, my breath trapped in my body.
I knew that my move could easily backfire on me, but I wasn't naive enough to allow him to take his liberties with just the declaration of his acceptance. There were no witnesses apart from his translator, and who was to say that when questioned he wouldn't lie for his King? No, my innocence would remain intact until a contract and a public announcement were made. If there was anything that every king had in common, it was that they never simply "asked" for anything. They were unaccustomed to being denied and hence felt no need to ask when they thought they knew the answer.
"I think it would be wise for you to unhand me," I stated, my voice shaking slightly and betraying the calm persona I was attempting to project. "Until I have a token or an announcement of our engagement, no liberties will be taken with me."
The corner of his mouth twitched up in what seemed to be the ghost of a smile, breaking his stoic demeanor. It was gone as quick as it came as he moved with the swiftness of a gazelle, easily knocking my legs from beneath my body as he deftly unarmed me. He didn't flinch as the blade nicked him, calm and indifferent to it as he dropped the blade to the ground.
His arms caught me before I hit the ground, one hand at my waist, the other cradling the back of my head.
A scream got trapped in my throat as he viciously clamped his teeth on the flesh between the juncture of my shoulder and neck. I arched helplessly, breathless and flushed, as he sucked and nipped at my flesh until he was satisfied with the mark he had left behind. He lowered me carefully to the stairs leading up to my throne before releasing me and stepping back. In that moment, he looked more like a wild animal than a king.
"This is my promise. You are mine and mine alone. No other will touch you unless they want to meet the steel of my blade." His voice came out in a growl as he spoke, his tone threatening as he glared at me, eyes narrowed, nostrils flared and top lip pulled back in a snarl. I had heard snippets of the gossiping in the kitchen of the ability for a man to devour you with his gaze, yet with Eiduard it felt like so much more. It was terrifying and electrifying the way he looked at me, as though he wanted to rip the meat from my bones and consume the very essence of my soul.
My fingers feathered over the mark he had left on me. It was tender to the touch and throbbed slightly under my hand, yet the significance it held was worth the pain that it caused me.
"Mine," he spat possessively, his gaze seeking confirmation.
"Yours," I croaked, practically panting. My body quivered and my thighs were slick as the ache pulsed in time with my galloping heartbeat. His skin stretching across the muscles of his back flexed enticingly as he strode back to his horse, . He moved with a fluidity a man his size should have been incapable of achieving.
He swung himself nimbly onto his horse, one hand grasping the reins, the other resting on his thigh. He looked dangerous and regal all at once, a confusing and stimulating combination. He cast me one last glance and jerked the reins, urging his stallion to turn around. He paused to murmur a few words to his translator before pressing his heels into the horse's flank and riding out of the room at a canter.
My stomach twisted, and I lifted myself to my feet as my eyes darted to his translator, waiting with bated breath for the words that would seal my fate.
"He says that your engagement will be announced when the sun begins to descend into the earth and the second rises to take its place," he told me. The Baravians thought of the moon as a second sun as it shed light in the midst of the darkness of night. "I hope you realize what you're doing. Eiduard is not an easy man to get along with at the best of times."
I was surprised by his candor but answered him anyway. "I'll do whatever it takes to keep my people safe," I said.
He nodded in understanding and readied himself to leave before hesitating slightly. "I feel as though I should warn you that until he brings you to the Oracle in Lindhurst and she gives consent to your union, any other binding or tradition, whether it's his or yours, will be seen as void. Without that consent, you are simply his mistress and hold no weight with his people. A word of advice: challenge him as you already have, and he will make you his. Keep him happy, and he will see that you become his Queen. Good luck."
With that, he turned, the loud clip-clopping of the horses hooves resounding through the halls as he disappeared.
As soon as he had gone, Jacob burst into the room looking flustered, his eyes flitting around the room as he grasped the hilt of his long sword defensively.
"My Queen," he breathed in relief, giving me a respectful low bow. I turned away from him, climbing the stairs to my throne before I leaned back in the chair, a sigh falling from between my lips. I fingered my delicate crown in my hands, its intricate style belying the weight of the gold, but then, most days I felt as though most of its weight was in its significance rather than its tangible presence.
I waved my hand impatiently at him. "Stand up. As you can see, I'm completely unharmed." I couldn't keep the dryness out of my tone as I addressed him, my frazzled emotions shining through. I was being pulled in many directions inside. One part of me, a large part, was elated, but the other was still reeling from the events that had just taken place.
"Your Majesty," he started, straightening up, but he abruptly cut off without finishing his sentence. A fire kindled in his eyes as they fell upon into my neck. I raised my hand self-consciously, my fingers skimming over the mark, so obvious and blatant against my pale skin. I felt weirdly exposed with Jacob looking at me like he was.
"What did he do to you?" he demanded as his eyes narrowed and his lips thinned until they almost disappeared. I remained silent, knowing that answering would only make him more volatile, and unlike Eiduard, I only felt aggravation toward his blatant disrespect.
"He marked you," he stated in a flat tone.
I rose, propelling myself to my feet in an ungainly fashion that would make Mistress Hairworth—the woman who had spent countless hours shaping me into a graceful and elegant woman—cringe. The events of the day were starting to catch up with me, and I felt drained. I was unwilling to start another argument with him, not when we both knew that I would not change my mind.
"As a token of his acceptance to my proposal, he made a tangible mark on me to show that I had been claimed. I'm sure he'll replace it with something more permanent after we've made the official announcement."
"And just when might that be?" he asked tersely.
"Tonight at dusk," I answered coolly, meeting his gaze with a hard one of my own, warning him to hold his tongue. He wisely listened to my unspoken demand, whirling around and storming out of the throne room.
I swept out of the room, holding no patience to deal with anyone else who might wander by to chastise me or otherwise lecture me.
My maids startled as I threw open the doors to my chambers, my legs almost buckling as the events of the day finally caught up with me, draining the energy from my body. They rushed to my aid as I stumbled inside, guiding me steadily toward my sitting area and lowering me onto large plush pillows.
"My Queen?" Agnes queried, worry laced into her tone.
"I feel faint," I answered softly, lounging back and letting my eyes fall closed. I squeezed them shut tightly, wanting to push the events of the day away, just for a little while. I wasn't truly sure if I was ready for the commitment I had selected for myself—giving myself in any sort of union was a daunting prospect—yet I knew that I had to be strong in the face of my future. There was no other path I could choose and still save my kingdom and its people, and I sent a prayer over to the Otherworld, seeking wisdom and strength for what was to come.
"Have a drink and cool cloths brought immediately, and fan her," Agnes instructed, sending my handmaidens into a flurry of movement.
"When will this heat end?" I lamented, rubbing my sore temples as the breeze made by the waving palms fluttered over my heated skin.
"It's been nigh two months since it began, My Queen, and it shall continue for a few more," Agnes said.
"If you don't mind me asking, My Queen," Agnes added after a few moments of silence. "Did the Baravian King accept your proposal?"
I peeled back one eyelid to see all my maids waiting for what could be damning words, still unable to understand the feelings fluttering in the pit of my stomach. I licked my lips in a nervous gesture and let my hand skim over the mark at the juncture of my neck, almost as though I was afraid it had disappeared in the time I had last felt it. It was a tangible reminder of his ownership of me that filled me with a deep sense of satisfaction.
"Yes. He informed me that we would announce our engagement at dusk."
Excited yet nervous chatter arose at my statement, relief mixed with a hint of uncertainty seeping into their tones. I understood their reservations about me taking a husband who was different from myself or where I had grown up in another kingdom, but I also understood that it was the only way for my people and kingdom to rise once again from the dust.
Eventually the noise died down as they refocused on their tasks, the silence broken only by the shuffling of feet and the opening of doors. It wasn't long until cool cloths were laid over my exposed skin and a drink placed at my lips.
"We need to prepare a feast," I declared. "Our guests have traveled far to get here, and they deserve a proper Svandovian welcome. How much food do we have stored at the palace?"
Agnes's gaze flickered away nervously before once again meeting my own. "My Queen, our stores are depleted. The famine has destroyed our crops and weakened our livestock," she answered lowly.
I frowned, having known that we were in somewhat of a dire state, but not quite having heard the severity of it.
"Then, we must gather what we have left," I said, calmly, but firmly. "It would not be wise to anger our guests by not receiving them appropriately. Don't you agree?"
"Of course, My Queen, but...there is little meat left," she responded.
"Then we must hunt in the Svandovian Royal Forest," I said decisively. I knew exactly what it meant to break the law that no man should hunt and kill a beast from that forest. It was a law that had been enforced for centuries, and my father had been especially severe about it being kept. The forest was guarded and scouted regularly for anyone trying to poach any animals. The forest was also the home of our royal emblem: the white stag. It was a rare and beautiful creature that was sure-footed and agile but also worth a lot of money. For me to give my consent to break this law was not only scandalous but unheard of.
"But your father—"
"My father is gone. He rests with his ancestors in the Otherworld. I am Queen, and I want a royal decree drawn up with my seal giving pardon to those that hunt in the royal forest for me on this day, but...no white stag may be taken. I want the royal guard to oversee that no man is caught with one. The penalty will be death without trial. That is all."
I dismissed her, wishing to speak no more of it. It may have been cruel for me to send her as a messenger to the council to relay my words, but I didn't have the energy to deal with them, especially after I had dismissed them from the throne room earlier. I was sure that they were harboring bruised egos, and I, for one, did not wish to place myself within their firing range.
I turned my attention to the rest of my handmaidens. "I want our choicest fruits and wines laid out, our grains and vegetables prepared so that we may have a feast fit for a king. I want music and entertainment. Our best silver and our finest gold shall be presented in a show of honor and gratitude. Make our guests feel welcome."
My speech seemed to have its desired effect because after a brief moment of quiet, everyone jumped into action.
A knock on the door made me pause as I stood up, and I turned just as they were opened to reveal Eiduard's translator. He gave a half bow, sweeping his hand as his eyes glinted with mirth, his actions almost mocking.
"My King has requested that I present you with this gift," he announced. He sauntered into the room, not bothering to ask permission for his entrance as he looked around with mild interest. In his hands, he held a wide, square wooden box. It was nondescript and generally plain, but once one of my lingering handmaidens took it from him and offered it to me, I saw that there were patterns on the lid. I opened it slowly, dragging the folds of burgundy fabric from the box.
"What is the meaning of this?"
"He wishes for you to wear it at the feast tonight," he explained, though I was sure it was less of a request and more of a command.
"Of course," I murmured, fingering the material. I had never felt such softness before, and while it was thicker than what I usually wore in this season and styled differently, I couldn't deny its beauty. "Tell King Eiduard that I shall wear it."
"Very good, Your Highness, I will have slaves sent to help you dress. I dare say that this dress is a little more complicated than your usual attire."
I nodded in agreement. "Thank you..."
"Javier, Your Highness."
"Javier," I murmured, letting his name roll over my tongue. "What is your official position under the King?"
"I serve him in whatever way he needs. I sit by his side, and I whisper my council into his ear. I perform the duties he has no time for, and I ride by his side into the battle."
I hummed thoughtfully. "And he is your kin, no?"
"He is the blood of my blood, Your Highness, but I earned my place like every other man."
"Of course. Do you think that he will be able to defeat the Bassintines?"
"There is no doubt in my mind. You must understand that we do not see war the same way as the rest of the known world does. Our loyalty to our King is not because it is where it must lie. It is because we respect him. It is an honor and a joy to fight alongside him, and the greatest humiliation a man can receive is to outlive his king in battle. We go to war to protect and to conquer. Defeat is not a word that exists in our language, and weakness is something that is stamped out when young. To die on the battlefield is the greatest honor a man can receive, and if our adversary is worthy, our souls will find peace in Beulah, to reign with our dead and our God.
"I know that you who claim to be civilized find us barbaric in our simple ways and our simple thoughts, but our wild, free nature is what we take pride in. We are savages—fierce, aggressive and brutal—but we are not heartless and cruel as many think us to be. You must remember this because you will see the side of him that civilized men hide." He finished his words with a sweeping bow and took leave from my chamber somewhat abruptly.
The rest of the daylight hours moved steadily, the whole palace bustling. Despite who our guests were, I could feel the hum of excitement rise amongst the servants, and I didn't fault them for their high spirits.
The evening breeze had just begun to cool the starved lands when Eiduard's slaves came to my rooms. It was clear by their coffee-colored skin and their large blue eyes framed by thick lashes that they were Dooranians. Even with shorn hair, they were beautiful, their lips plump, and their features perfectly proportioned. If anything, the thick gold collars around their necks added to their beauty, enhancing it as they poured into my rooms, chattering and giggling amongst themselves in the Baravian language.
They stripped me naked before two took a jar of spiced perfumes and proceeded to cover every inch of my body with it. I should have felt violated by the way one touched me so intimately, having no qualms in rubbing the perfumes between my legs and over my breasts, but I didn't.
They plucked, pruned, trimmed and buffed my body, removing all the hair beneath my neck. Having blades so close to my body should have scared me, but they handled them with such finesse, as though it was almost an extension of their arms, that it was hypnotizing to watch.
They dressed me, wrapping the folds of material around my body. The top half twisted around my neck and crossed over my breasts before disappearing behind my back, leaving most of my stomach, sides and back exposed. The skirt of the dress fell to the floor, but the slits rose almost to my hips. That would have made it indecent if not for the silver clasps pinned to the material at my thighs.
They draped ancient grey coins strung on delicate boughs of silver around my neck and adorned me with rings and bracelets that shone like the moon.
My hair spilled down over my left shoulder, reaching down to my waist, the dark color almost seeming to shimmer like the sea reflecting the night from the jasmine oil rubbed into it. The mark Eiduard had given me stood out on my right side, and I wore it with pride.
Nerves churned in my gut as the sun sank further and farther down until it was time to meet my fate. I could already hear the beginnings of the feast echo throughout the courtyard, the biggest of the tents in the courtyard being used as a great hall.
Javier intercepted me before I could enter, startling me when he touched my elbow. My fingers twitched to grasp the curved blades strapped to my thighs, but I repressed my instincts when I saw whom it was, relaxing minimally.
"Your Highness," he greeted with a dip of his head, smirking knowingly. He offered his arm with a quirk of his brow and guided me forward past the two guards wearing thick leathers and holding spears standing on either side of the entrance. I ducked inside, the temperature of the tent was cool despite the warm night.
If I wasn't used to being the center of people's attention, the way the eyes of every man and woman bored into me may have been daunting, but years of practice meant that I didn't shy away from them, showing no fear. My own people stood out, their pale skin a harsh contrast to the golden brown of Eiduard's as they observed what was happening.
Silence resounded, and my eyes flickered over to King Eiduard. He lounged comfortably on a wide, wooden throne covered in furs. He looked vastly different from our first meeting without the grime and dirt from his travels, cleaner, and, if it were possible, more imposing. His glossy, well oiled mane of hair—the colors a mix of rich auburn and chestnut brown—fell over his shoulder in a braid, a gold band twisted in about every 5 inches or so to divide it as it fell past his waist, the ends laying across his lap.
I felt a pang of pride knowing what the length of his hair meant. In the Baravian culture, hair was very important. It portrayed honor and respect, and showed how high in the community you were. If a man lost a fight and survived, his hair would be shorn off in a show of humiliation, bringing him to the level of a slave. With no currency and no need of money, the Baravians showed their worth through the length and quality of hair. To have hair as long and as fine as King Eiduard's meant that he had never lost a fight in his life.
His bare chest was covered in tattoes of black tribal patterns, and he'd switched his skirt for brown leather breeches that hugged his thick, muscled thighs. His beard was drawn together at his chin, the straight, long hairs braided and bound.
His eyes drifted around, almost as though he was disinterested, and he raised a polished, gold horn to his lips. He tipped his head back and swallowed in a few gulps, his Adam's apple bobbing. He remained oblivious—or at least that was what the emotion he was projecting—to everything around him as Javier led me through the throng of people lounging on mats and stools.
Everyone seemed to be waiting for something as I was led to the low platform the throne sat on. Now that I was past the crowd, I noticed a man on his knees before the King, two men on either side, holding him down. Eiduard barely spared the kneeling man a glance, engrossed in his drink.
I stopped, confused yet intrigued as the man struggled against his captors. King Eiduard finished his second drink, wiping a hand across his mouth as he practically threw the horn at the waiting servant girl. The whole room appeared to be acutely aware of their King as he stood up and stepped down off the platform. His gait was slow and unhurried, as though he had all the time in the world to complete his task.
There was a palpable hum of tension hanging in the air as Eiduard grasped the kneeling man's long, flowing braid and yanked it up above his head. Eiduard's eyes lifted to meet mine for a moment before he roughly pulled his sword free of its sheath. A murmur rippled through the crowd as Eiduard wound the braid around one hand, and in one swift movement cut the braid clean off from the scalp.
I barely held back a flinch at the anguished cry of the man as he fell forward, cowering in humiliation; the pain in his voice was almost as strong as it would have been if Eiduard had thrust the sword into his chest.
Eiduard cradled the coil of raven black, glossy hair in his hands as though it was the most precious gem. No one noticed the sobbing man being dragged from the tent, their eyes fixed on Eiduard as he strolled over to me, the braid held up in offering to me.
My fingers trembled as I stepped forward, my hand outstretched. The braid felt like silk when my fingers skimmed over it, and I peeked up at Eiduard, somehow, inherently knowing that this was his proposal. To be given hair of such length and luster was worth more than the most precious gems to him. My fingers curled around the offering, taking it from him carefully. I was startled by the reaction my acceptance caused, an uproar of cheers and shouts filling the air as I realized that this was what he meant when he said that we would announce our engagement.
He let out a loud war cry, tipping his head back as he hollered loud and clear. A chant sounded as he announced something in his language, a loud drum beat echoing. He moved quickly, gracefully manhandling my body. I let out a squeak of surprise as my world upended, and I found myself up over Eiduard's shoulder like a sack. He held one arm wrapped around my waist as he strode from the tent, slapping my behind with the other.
He didn't put me down until we had reached his tent, dumping me on the platform covered in furs that I presumed was his bed. His scent clung to the furs, concentrated and potent; my heart hammered furiously.
"Wha-what about the feast?" I stuttered nervously as he stared down at me, hunger in his gaze. My eyes dipped down to his waist, suddenly transfixed on the way his hands moved deftly over his breeches, loosening the ties and pulling the leather down his legs to reveal his naked form to me.
My breath caught in my throat as I took him in, tanned muscles bulging with raw strength and power. They flexed and contracted as he dropped to his knees on the edge of the furs. His need was evident and prominent, thick and swollen with lust as he ran his palm over it, pearly fluid beading at the tip.
I didn't understand my reactions, but I surrendered to them. I wanted him to mark me and make me writhe under his forceful touch, to leave crescent marks in my hips and bruises on my thighs, and take me so hard that I would ache for days.
He let out a purr that was more a snarl than anything as he dropped to his hands and crawled up the length of the furs to where I was reclined. I completely forgot about my earlier query as he manhandled my body, flipping me over onto my stomach. I attempted to raise myself up onto my hands and knees, but he didn't like that one bit. I stifled a scream as he cinched my hair into his hand, yanking my head back almost to the point of pain. His breath washed over my neck as he growled furiously in my ear. It was a dark, threatening sound, and I shivered, not in fear, but in arousal and anticipation when he pressed his knee into the center of my back, holding me down.
He tore my dress from me, his nails scraping my skin as strips of fabric were ripped clean off my body. I trembled as heat shot through me at the dull pain he left in his wake, my body reacting instinctively as the ache between my legs spread. He stripped me completely of my clothes, leaving me naked and helpless beneath him.
He didn't ask permission as he forced my legs apart roughly. Instead, he demanded my compliance as he slid his knees between my thighs. My flushed skin pebbled, and a shiver wracked through me as he groped my skin with the skill of an experienced lover.
I may have been a maiden, untouched by a man, but I could tell that his efforts were not clumsy. No, they were practiced and full of the type of need only my body could sate. He wrapped an arm around my hips, causing a grunt to escape me as he yanked my lower half up to rest on my knees. He drove a hand through my hair, forcing my shoulders to lift off the furs as I arched. His free hand rooted beneath me, palming my breasts and tugging roughly yet expertly at my constricted nipples as he pressed his need against my behind.
He rutted against me, sliding his swollen flesh up and down the crack of my behind, causing my arousal to spear higher and higher. He skimmed his hand down my stomach, searching the apex of my thighs to see if I was ready for his intrusion. The vibration of his growl rumbled through him as he cursed lowly. "Olyan nedves."
Every one of my senses was heightened, the electricity of his touch zipping through me. The sound of sucking reached my ear, and my eyes widened at the thought that he could be tasting my essence, his tongue wrapping around his calloused, slick fingers.
"Isteni az ízed," he grunted.
The sound of him speaking his native language did things to me that I was incapable of explaining, but I didn't need to because all conscious thoughts screeched to a halt as he shifted, guiding himself between my legs, dragging the bulbous tip of his need between my folds. I was practically delirious with what I knew to be desire as he teased me to the edge of madness.
"Please," I begged, the plea springing from my lips unchecked.
He flexed his hips forward slightly, the walls of my sex giving way as he drove his length firmly into me, hard but not cruelly so. I cried out in perfect, exquisite agony as he filled me completely, pushing to the point of pain as I stifled a scream.
My walls throbbed as they stretched to accommodate him, and all I could do was claw at the furs below me, quivering and panting. He paused, brushing his hands over the skin of my ass as he waited for me to adjust. I had expected more pain to come from the tearing of my maidenhead. I had heard the servants' gossip about such things, and they had alluded to the fact that there was a fair amount of pain to be had in losing one's innocence, but the pleasure encompassing every inch of my body seemed to numb it.
Intercourse was something that I found one could not adequately prepare for. The perfect fullness of him drove into me over and over, demanding a reaction from me until my body was able to catch up with his and tentatively push back against his thrusts. He used his grip on my hips as leverage to pull my hips back strongly, forcing more of him into me, the slap of our skin loud as the musky scent of sex infiltrated my senses.
He shifted, yanking me further down beneath him and spreading my thighs further apart as my knees slid back. I sank down, my muscles protesting slightly as he pulled my hands behind me, wrapping his fingers around my wrists and holding them to the small of my back. The change in position forced my cheek into the furs, the soft hairs tickling my cheek as he guided my movements with the hand still clutching my hip.
Each thrust was long and deep, the rocking and swiveling of his hips pushing me deeper into the bed as his body caged me. Each twinge of pain was accompanied by a rush of pleasure, until I was unsure as to where one part of it started and the other ended.
It was barbarous, the way he took me, claiming me as his own the only way he knew how. The contrast between the soft bedding beneath me and the rough handling of his body was breathtaking, making me writhe with unrestrained lust that mounted higher and higher until it reached the point of pain.
My moans and cries turned into sobs of exquisite, agonizing pleasure, his pace furious as he tried to sate his lust. He grunted, the lunge of his hips unrestrained and harsh, neither faltering nor pausing as he claimed and possessed my body completely.
There was no mercy as he took me, never slowing down or softening the blow of his thrusts as he hit my cervix.
I took every inch of him into my body as he staked his claim over me, bruising my sex, making it unfit for anyone else but him to have. I knew that once he was done, I would be able to feel it for days. The rawness of his movements solidifying that his intention was to make me his and his alone.
He fisted my hair, yanking my head and making my scalp burn. "Mine!" he growled, practically spitting the words. I moaned and whimpered, pushing back against him. The fire rolling and churning in my stomach shot downward, the flames licking at my sex as I burned for him, my body slick with sweat as my essence trickled down my thighs.
The roar that tore out of him as he swelled and spilled his seed deep inside of me was animalistic. An answering cry ripped out of me at being denied, the ache turning brutal as my sex clenched around him. I still needed him, his hands, his teeth, his need, but when I squirmed and attempted to rise up on my hands, seeking more, he slammed me back down, his teeth latching onto my neck at the base of my hairline in warning. Bursts of lust ran through me at the pain, my body quivering with pure need, but I submitted to him, relaxing back into the furs.
I had expected him to pull out and leave now that he gotten what he wanted, but instead he lowered his body on top of mine, keeping the majority of his weight off me. The feel of his weight and body flush against me was comforting, a solid reminder of the fact that I was not alone. He stayed seated inside me, caging me in his arms as he licked the mark on my neck with the rough velvet of his tongue, soothing away some of the pain.
Though I knew that not much time had passed since I had met him, it was like a switch had been flipped inside me. Everything—my thoughts, feelings, and even expressions —seemed to have moved their focus onto him. Every pore in my body longed to please him in any way I was capable. I wanted him to be happy and satisfied with choosing me.
A purr of contentment passed through my lips, tipping my head to the side as he nipped at my flesh then he laved the marks with attention. The ache in my core subsided to a dull throb as exhaustion started to take over. A sense of peace washed over me as a smile curled up on my lips and my eyes fell closed, finally able to let go of my problems, knowing that I had someone to share them now.