Footfalls sounded on the stone steps, and a knock at the door turned him around. “Come,” he said in a deep, commanding voice.
The soldier opened the iron bound wooden door and stepped inside. He braced to attention and clapped his fist over his chest in salute. “Forgive the intrusion, Sire, but we have brought the prisoner per your orders.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. Bring her in.”
The sergeant nodded and turned toward the door. “Bring her.”
“Take your damned hands off me!” A pair of burly guards stepped through the doorway, flanking a young woman. She was clad only in a shredded loincloth, sandals, and hood placed over her head, covering her eyes. Iron manacles bound her wrists and ankles, and the chains rattled as she fought her captors.
“Enough!” her host barked, and she fell silent. “Bring her here before me.”
The pair of soldiers marched her to the man, and stood there with her.
“Has she been harmed?”
“No, Sire,” the sergeant answered. “She refused fresh clothing, and we bound her when she fought us. But, no one has touched her, as you had commanded.”
The man nodded. “That will be all. Sergeant, have one of your men stand by outside the door with her key.”
“As you command, Sire.” The three soldiers filed out through the door and pulled it shut behind her.
The man returned his attention to the woman. Standing straight, he could just see over her head. Her dusky skin lay over a well-toned and muscular frame, and was streaked with dirt and grime from her ordeal. The shredded loincloth did little to hide the tuft of dark hair on her pubis, and it matched the wisps of hair that had escaped from under her hood. Her breasts stood proudly on her chest, capped with large, dark nipples.
“I am glad to see that you were not harmed.” He lifted his eyes from her chest to focus on her mouth, since it was the only part of her face not covered by the hood. Her lips were dark and full, and her white teeth gleamed behind them.
Now, those lips twisted into a snarl. “Why would you care, son of a murderer!”
The man sighed and nodded. “Yes, that is true about my father. He was a murderer, and a tyrant. Before you say it, my mother was his equal, if not worse. I care, because I have no wish to subject my people to more of the same.”
“Then why are your butchering dogs still in the field against my people?”
“May I remind you, that you and everyone else in this kingdom are my people,” he said mildly. “As for my soldiers, I believe more of them have been put to death for crimes against my decrees than your band had managed to slay in the past turning.”
“So you had some of them killed. I am glad to hear that, but it changes nothing.”
“Were you abused when my men captured you?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“What do you think would have happened to you if my father were still alive?”
“The same thing that happened to my sister and mother,” she snapped. Her voice rose. “They were sold as whores. I was told they were killed when they became sick!”
“They were, I am sorry to say. That was when you began raiding our outposts, and sparked the rebellion.”
“I am proud of what I did.” She inhaled sharply. “I only wish that I could have found the warrior’s death I desire.”
“I didn’t bring you here to kill you. I brought you here to help me bring peace to the kingdom.”
“You drag me here in chains, blindfold me, and then ask me to talk with you about peace?”
“That is your own doing; you refused to give your parole. My men were under strict instructions to not harm you, and this was their only means of ensuring that.”
She stood silently for a moment. “How do I know I can trust you?”
He shrugged. “I cannot offer you anything beyond my word.”
“We all have seen what that is worth,” she growled.
“Have we, now?” He leaned down closer to her. “Pray tell, where has my word failed in the moons since my father left the throne to me?”
Her head jerked up as she felt him close to her, although she did not step back. She clamped her lips together.
He straightened with a sigh. “You have nothing to say, because you know that I have ruled honorably and justly. My men fought yours, and mine won.”
“My people want their freedom.”
“They are my people, and they are better off under my protection. On their own, they have little chance against our neighbors. We also have need of their skills and their timber.”
“This is about money, then?”
“Yes, but that isn’t truly important. They are a part of my kingdom, which brings us back to you. I want you to help me gain their trust.”
He took a breath. “I want you to be my consort.”
“What!?” She sputtered in outrage. “Are you mad?”
He smiled. “Probably. I can offer that I have never lain with a woman, if that matters. I have no interest in having slaves or concubines, and lying with a lady implies promises I did not wish to make.”
“How noble of you,” she snapped. “I don’t understand why you ask. You could just have me dragged to your bed.”
“To win their hearts, I must first win yours.”
She tugged at her bonds. “Do all of the men in your kingdom have their prospective brides brought to them in chains?”
“No, but my having done so may start a new tradition,” he said lightly.
She snorted in derision, but the corners of her mouth curled upward.
He gazed at her for a moment. “Will you give me your parole?”
She nodded and spoke quietly. “Yes.”
“Guard, attend me,” he called toward the door.
The man opened the door and braced to attention. “Yes, Sire?”
“Remove her bindings.”
The guard knelt to remove her ankle chains, and then he stood to remove the chains at her wrists. Finally, he unlaced the hood at the back and lifted it off her head. Her dark hair flowed down to her shoulders, and she gazed up at her captor with eyes the color of the midday sky.
“Leave us, and return to your sergeant.” He turned his attention back to her as the guard closed the door behind him.
She brought her arms around in front of her and began to massage her wrists, while she looked up at him, and her mouth opened slightly as she really looked upon him for the first time. “You’re... taller... than I expected.”
He smiled. “The reports of your beauty were badly understated.”
Her lips quirked in a smile, and she dropped her hands to her side. “That is a poor attempt at seduction.”
He chuckled and turned toward the stone bench beside them. “Come, sit and talk with me.” He stepped over to the bench and sat down.
She did his bidding and sat beside him, not bothering to cover herself against his gaze. “Do you bathe here?”
“Yes.” He looked out over the pool. “This garden and pool was built during my grandmother’s reign. You are in her former house.”
“Not to be forward, but I have not washed in days.”
“Please,” he waved his hand. “I will sit here while you bathe.” He reached out to a stone shelf and gathered soap and a washing sponge. “Take these.”
She rose and stripped off the remains of her loincloth, and untied her sandals. She made her way down the stone steps into the pool, and began to wash herself. “It feels strange to do this in front of a man.”
“You have nothing to fear from me,” he said. “I confess that I cannot help but to look at you, though.”
“As your consort, what would be my duties?” She ran the sponge across her belly, sighing in pleasure as the grime was washed away.
“You would be expected to stand by my side whenever I appear to my subjects. You would be expected to host other rulers’ consorts during their official visits. You would also oversee my house servants.”
“Would I also be expected to provide you with an heir?”
He shook his head. “Whether you warm my bed or not is your choice, and your womb is your own.”
She nodded, glanced up at him, and then half turned as she reached down to clean her groin. “And what of the men who fought with me, and those in the rebellion?”
“I hope to talk with them, with you by my side. I wish to simply have them go back to their homes, there to resume their normal lives. I will need to establish a garrison along the frontier, but that will be to protect them from invaders and brigands.”
She waded over to the steps, and lifted one leg to wash it. Leaning forward, she ran the soap and sponge over her thigh and down her shin. “How can I refuse you?”
He shrugged. “Just say no. I will have to confine you until the rebellion is put down, of course.”
“What will happen to my... the people?”
“Some of them will die. Their harvests have been poor this growing season, and the snows will bring hard times upon them. We have tried to offer them food, but their leaders have refused safe passage for my wagons.”
She stopped washing and stood up straight to study him more closely. “Do you listen more to your head, or to your heart?”
He considered her question. “An equal measure of both, I think.”
“And when you are angry?”
“Now, emotions, they can be trouble. Those who rule from rage or fear soon enslave their people.” He leaned forward to brace his elbows on his knees. “I have learned to conceal my emotions, since they can provoke others to reach the wrong conclusions.”
She nodded. “Because you have no peers, everyone around is your subject.”
“You are my peer,” he said. “Or, you will be if you agree to be my consort. After all, you haven’t said ‘Sire’ to me once.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Does my lack of proper etiquette anger you?”
He shook his head with a grin. “My ego is not so fragile that I must demand subservience.”
“That doesn’t sound very regal.”
“What should I do, then? Throw everyone who doesn’t say ‘Sire’ this, and ‘Your Majesty’ that, into prison?”
“There are kings who certainly would.”
“Yes, and one of them is our neighbor.” He sat up, stretching his back. “If I had done as you suggested, my prisons would have been full within a tenday after I took the throne.”
“You had people who disrespected you, after what your father was like?”
He nodded. “Oh, yes. I had many supporters among the great nobles, but there were some who refused to address me as their liege. Two of them demanded that I marry their daughters to gain their fealty.”
“Maybe you should have, instead of dragging me in here,” she snipped.
“They were certainly more agreeable,” he chuckled. He lifted his hands in mock supplication as she glared at him. “You are certainly more beautiful, of that I am certain.”
“You have missed your calling; perhaps you could sell miracle remedies, or become a barrister.”
“As you say, my lady. Now, let’s speak of you, shall we?”
“What about me?” She turned to face him, dripping sponge in hand. Her nipples were erect, and he dragged his eyes back to her face.
“You asked me earlier how you could take me at my word, so I return the question to you. Are you a defeated foe who has given me her parole? Or, are you a spy, aware of my orders concerning you, who has decided to fight me another way?”
Her mouth dropped open, and she stared at him. “Are you implying that I would give you my body just to assassinate you in your sleep?”
He watched her carefully. “That is the plot I would expect, yes.”
She opened her mouth to snap at him, and then she straightened and pursed her lips in thought. “Yes, you would suspect that, and rightly so.” She sighed. “I cannot produce proof that I am not a spy, or that I did not plot against you as you have said.”
“You are a virtuous woman, from all reports.”
“I cannot prove that, either. My maidenhead is long gone from riding horses, but I have never lain with a man, or a woman, for that matter.”
“That wasn’t the virtue I had in mind,” he laughed softly as her cheeks colored and she averted her eyes. “You have proven your virtue by not pillaging the homes of people who did not support you, and by not slaughtering your enemies out of hand. Even against my father, your men offered succor to our wounded when my father’s officers killed your wounded.”
“I enlisted many of those survivors into my ranks,” she said, lifting her eyes to his. Any trace of softness had fled, and her eyes glinted like blue ice. “Death frightened them less than serving in your father’s army. Some of them lost their families to the work camps, but they fought with me, anyway.”
“Yes, I released those people as soon as I could, but some of them were too sick to survive.” He looked down. “It was too late for all too many of them.”
“Tell me,” she said after he had fallen silent, “can we repair the rift in our kingdom?”
He lifted his eyes to hers. “Do you want to repair it, or do you want to blame me for it?”
The hardness faded from her eyes, and she crossed her arms over her breasts. “I want to blame you. You are the king, and your men fought mine at your orders. They captured me, bound me, and brought me here.”
“You have experienced war in a way that I have not,” he said quietly. “I am the king, but I have generals to lead my army. I am the king, but I was never a soldier.”
“You wear armor and carry a sword,” she pointed to the rack standing near the pool.
“I am trained to use them, too, and I have even faced enemies in single combat. For what it’s worth, I have even led my guard into battle against a group of turncoats. That was one battle, though, a skirmish, really.” He shrugged. “It’s not the same.”
“No, it isn’t,” she sighed. “The bards sing of the glory of war. There is damned little glory in what I saw. We were always hungry, we were cold, and we were wet. Everywhere we went there was mud; in our clothes, in our hair, and even in our food.” She looked into his eyes. “I can still hear the sounds of battle, men screaming as they died, and the cries of the wounded. I don’t want to hear them anymore. If becoming your concubine can prevent that from happening to others, then gladly will I do it.”
“Consort,” he corrected her quietly, “not concubine. Although the latter is not without honor, the former is the best I have to offer. If I pass, you would rule until our first child was old enough to take the throne.”
“Is this your idea, or did one of your advisors suggest it?” She swished the sponge in the water as she listened.
“Oh, no, they would have objected if I had brought it up to them,” he smiled ruefully. “I have the most unfortunate quality of being able to think for myself.”
She giggled, covering her mouth with her free hand. “I once said much the same thing to my father. His answer was there is a great gulf between knowledge and wisdom.”
“He was a wise man. I am sorry that he is lost to you.”
She nodded. “That is not your fault, either,” she looked up at him, “Your Majesty.” She turned her back to him. “Would you wash my back, please?”
He unbuckled his sandals, and then stood to strip off his tunic. Two steps and he was in the water behind her. She held up the soap and sponge over her shoulder, and he took them in turn. He scrubbed the soap with the sponge, and then applied it to her back.
“That feels nice,” she said as she gathered her hair off her neck.
He was careful to not touch her except with the sponge, running it from her neck to her waist in long swirling strokes.
“Keep going, please.”
At her word, he passed the sponge over her ass, and she sighed as he pressed on the muscles there.
He set the soap and sponge on the edge of the pool, and cupped his hands to bring water up to her neck. He placed his hands on her to clean off the soap, and then he stopped as he felt his erection press into her ass.
“Keep going, please,” she repeated.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a low voice. “It has a mind of its own.”
She moved forward a bit, and turned to face him. Looking down, she took in his naked form, her eyes moving from his face to his crotch and back up to meet his gaze. “So, I agree to become your consort, so that we may stop the rebellion and heal our land.”
“I trust that we will at least become friends,” he looked at her with an awkward smile.
She smiled. “You said that you sometimes rule with your heart. What is it saying to you now?”
“It’s saying that I should take you as my consort, and that you will be good to our people.”
“Is that all?”
“No.” He was silent for a moment. “When I heard of your exploits, I had some of your men brought to me. I spoke with them at length, and, to a man, they loved you. I might well have expected you to be a goddess.”
“I am just a woman.” She lowered her eyes. “I only did what I had to do.”
“No,” he repeated. “You are a talisman, a symbol, and a leader to your people.”
“And what am I to you?”
“I am deeply and hopelessly smitten with you,” he admitted. “I give you my heart if you will have me.”
She looked into his eyes, and finally, she nodded. “I also have spoken to your soldiers, and even an officer that we captured. He didn’t tell me any secrets, of course, but he and the common soldiers also held you in high esteem. The word ‘love’ wasn’t mentioned, though.” She smiled slightly. “Having met you, though, I find you to be a good and honorable man, whom I wish to know much better.”