The War of the Sands is over. My king... is dead.
I knelt alone in the castle's master chambers. The enemy had bound my ankles and tied my hands behind my back, and hempen rope chafed my wrists as I tested it, twisting one way and then the other, looking for give. Dull, seething frustration made me sick to my stomach as the knots held tight.
The king is dead. So why do I feel nothing?
I'd watched Master's head cleaved from his body. It fell to the sands right in front of me, and the whole while he wore a look of laughter on his pallid white face. Cackling like a crazy man, even in death. And my only thought?
"I loved you, Alaric," I hissed in the hot, murky darkness. "In a broken and twisted way. And I hated you just as much."
Outside, the roar of the enemy's victory rose into the night. Hundreds feasting and dancing on Master's grave. Lord Khan: the tyrant king of Vashtaren. The serpent sorcerer. At last, his power lay broken, his clan in chains.
His woman, their prisoner.
How could you let yourself be captured, Sadira?
I shifted, grumbling as the cotton smock clung to my sweat-dampened skin. My captors had stripped me of my armor along with my weapons and left me naked on Alaric's opulent bed, except for the one pitiful scrap of cloth.
And my collar. No one had removed my collar.
But that's nothing new. I hung my head, straight black hair falling like a hood around my face. I've lived my whole life in this collar. Why should tonight be any different?
A fresh chorus of cheers rose from the courtyard. The voices of the barbarian invaders from across the northern sea, and with them, the cries of freed slaves. Children of the oppressed. Mercenary warlords from the desert clans Alaric betrayed.
Alaric's death didn't upset me. It didn't even surprise me. He'd had no shortage of enemies. More than once, I'd wished I could sink a blade into his heart.
I tugged again at the knots binding my hands. Still no give.
The bedchamber's cloying incense of cinnamon and bergamot made my head pound. The chalky white body paint covering my skin now ran in sticky tracks and rivulets, smeared by sweat and tears. The soldiers who'd brought me here left me only one torch, and it flickered by the door, just enough to see my reflection in the mirror over the hearth and know how laughable I'd become.
How? How could you let them take you alive? The lord of leash and whip is gone, and you could have run. Yet here you are, trussed up as a prize for a new tyrant to claim.
The captain of the enemy horde. Bannon Sha'kurukh, Red Bear of the Highlands.
In the Ruined Sands, people lived like lion prides. As a new male staked his claim by murdering the cubs and taking the mates of his rivals, so Bannon must take his inheritance by claiming everything that had once been Alaric's. He would occupy the castle Alaric had ruled; he would kill the soldiers who fought Alaric's war.
He would bed the woman Alaric left behind.
I tugged harder, still to no avail. Scrapes and bruises from the battle stung with sweat. My spine ached.
And the enemy's raucous victory carried on below.
The hour grew late, and at last, the celebrations died down. The Red Bear had not come.
Maybe he's forgotten me. I shifted, groaning. The soldiers who tied me knew nothing about proper rope technique. Thank the sacred serpent I can still feel my fingers and toes.
But what if no one came for me until morning?
Just then, footsteps approached outside the great iron doors. I winced as I straightened, putting my shoulders back and holding my head high.
The doors swung open. It was the great Red Bear at last—but shadows shielded him from view.
There he lingered, a waiting silhouette. Though his eyes were hidden, the gravity of his gaze weighed on me.
Why hesitate? The tingle of gooseflesh swept down my arms as I tried to match his glare. He couldn't be afraid of a helpless, fallen soldier. Could he?
No. It's not that.
I knew what I looked like. Smeared makeup and scarlet tattoos circled and spiraled over my body, augmented by brands and scars. Rings and studs of desert gold pierced my ears, nose, and lower lip. What would this foreign invader see? A living fetish. A wild freak. Bannon's clan didn't mark themselves this way. Neither did most tribes of the Ruined Sands. Not even the slaves.
I was special.
After a long, pregnant silence, Bannon Sha'kurukh stepped into the room.
Up close, he stood much taller than I'd expected. Bannon resembled the gladiators of old colosseums: men who wrestled boars and tigers and toppled great fortresses. A diadem of braided leather held his long, brick-red hair away from his face, and he bore a tattoo of his own—an ursine pawprint—on the left side of his bare chest. Blue warpaint made a band across his eyes and three short lines down his left cheek. His skin shone, the color of dust at sunset.
He considered me a long time, wearing a grim frown, before removing his sword belt and hanging it over the single wooden chair by the hearth.
Two guards followed him in. One retrieved the torch from its bracket and lit a blaze in the fireplace, while the other placed a clay pitcher and two rough cups on the round table before Bannon's chair. Then they disappeared, pulling the doors shut behind them.
The Red Bear crossed his arms over his chest.
"Infamous Sadira." He stroked his neat, short beard. "Lord Khan's personal concubine. They said you never left his side. Yet I saw you on the field these last days, fighting alongside his infantry. You're more than just his kept woman, aren't you?"
When I offered no reply, he relaxed, spreading his hands before him.
"You were magnificent in battle. I wish we could have met under different circumstances."
Picking up the pitcher and one of the cups, he poured a measure of water. He crossed to the bed and offered it to me.
"Are you thirsty?"
I lunged forward and struck him with my shoulder, sending the cup splashing to the floor.
"We both know what you're here for," I snapped. "You've allied yourself with the warlords of Vashtaren. You've killed the king and taken his castle, but now they demand a true act of proving. You have to claim me to seal your victory."
A dark frown creased his face. "The practice has been explained to me. I have no desire to take you by force."
"Ha!" I fell into a slump and blew a stray lock of dank hair from my face. "Welcome to the Ruined Sands. I am your reward. Your property. But I am also a fighter, and Lord Khan taught me to kill even as he forced me to kneel. Untie me, and I will do to you what I wish I had done to him."
Scrubbing a hand over his mouth, Bannon seemed to reconsider. He circled the great bed to the other side, laying one hand on the bedstand and lifting the implements on it one by one. Chains, whips, black candles—tools of dominance and discipline. Alaric's toys.
"The mercenaries warned me Lord Khan's woman lusted for pain."
He gripped both ends of a leather strop in his hands, then gave it a hard, sharp snap. The crack of the leather brought me instantly to attention, and I sat straight up. I couldn't help the enticing image it conjured: the Red Bear, my foe, bending me over to whip that strop across my behind.
The firelight gleamed red-gold in his hair. Darker crimson curls dusted his broad chest and descended in a trail from his navel down his abdomen, disappearing under his leather breeches.
How curious, that fine track of curls. Here in the Ruined Sands, the worshippers of the seven-headed serpent had grown pale as alabaster and bleached as bones, and all kept their body hair stripped clean. Alaric's people were like living sculpture: elfin-featured and all with the same straight, shockingly white hair. More than once, I'd wondered if they were also cold-blooded, like their serpent god.
Other Vashtarens were nearly the opposite, ranging from a deep mahogany to a rich, smooth olive complexion, with dark hair coiled in braids and locks or thick, cloudy curls. But I'd never seen a people like Bannon's before. Tawny and glowing, with hair in colors of burnt crimson like rich river clay, or shocking lengths of gold, or feathery brown like sparrow wings. On the battlefield they stood out like a stampede of painted stallions.
And here in the dark... gilded by firelight...
The barbarian rested a knee on the bed and bent toward me, tucking a lank sheaf of my dark tresses behind my ear. I caught a whiff of him: no pretty perfumes or scented soaps. He smelled of rough exercise, of smoke and steel and oiled leather. He'd bathed off the blood and dirt of battle, but the scent of war lingered on him still.
Would it be so bad to yield, Sadira? What is there to fight for? Alaric's honor?
Bannon took my chin in his hand.
"I would have you willingly, Sadira. The ways of these men are not my ways. I concede only because I must, to end this war for good. I can't avoid the act of claiming you... but I can make it peaceable. Will you submit?"
He is magnificent. A great bear indeed. Why stand between him and his victory?
I searched his face. The man who murdered my king. He held me bound—but hadn't he also set me free?
No. I will not be given to this man, just trussed up and handed over. If he wants me, let him earn me.
I spat in his face.
"Not your ways," I mocked him. "But they are my ways. Do you think because you call me concubine, I'll fuck whatever prick presents itself? I won't yield to a man who isn't strong enough to make me. Alaric would have me on my back already and gagged against this useless chatter. Do as he would, Red Bear, or go back to your people in disgrace. Half a man, who can murder an insane oppressor but cannot pacify his woman."
Bannon straightened, wiping the saliva from his cheek.
"What did he do to you?" he marveled.
"Ropes were not the worst of it." I shot him a scathing look of challenge. "Come, barbarian. Here is your desert treasure. Take it."
His eyes flashed. His spine stiffened, and a muscle ticked in his jaw.
"If that's the way you want it."
Then he planted his hand on my chest and shoved me onto my back.
I twisted to one side, but Bannon climbed onto the bed and seized me by the heels. White body powder smeared his fingers, and I kicked at him with both feet, catching him under the ribs. His gave out a harsh, startled huff of air, face twisted with shock and fury, and rebounded, pouncing on me.
"They warned me you would be vicious!" His skin pressed hot against mine; my heart kicked into a gallop. "Will you really make me sink to the level of your ruthless king?"
"We have our parts to play," I choked out. "If you can't take me... you can't have me."
He thrust me down face-first into the thick animal pelts covering the bed, and his voice came out a low growl. "You should have yielded."
I threw all my force against his hold, wrestling him like a cornered feline, hissing and spitting until he brought one callused palm down with bright, stinging hurt on the vulnerable flesh of my behind.
Another salacious image sprang to mind: Bannon lashing me, punishing my hot, pinkened flesh with sweet strokes of his leather belt. The first tears sprang to my lashes—tears of sudden, wicked exhilaration.
"You had the choice," he reminded me. "I could have untied you, laid you back on these pillows, brought you such delicious pleasure. You wanted brute force."
So different from Alaric! So forceful and hungry, so strong. I don't wish to harm you, he'd said, and so he hadn't... but he'd woken the beast in me, all the same.
He pressed me down into the furs. The heat of his touch stoked a tingling pleasure over my skin. Smears of ivory body paint marked his flesh like scars of war, and Bannon rolled me onto my back, closing one big hand over my throat.
His fierce, dark gaze sent a shock straight to my core.
He really is a warlord. He is the great Red Bear!
No more cinnamon and bergamot. Now I reveled in the scents of sweat and iron, of slick skin and bitter pheromones as Bannon leaned in close.
"I fought on the battlefield against hundreds today. I killed scores of your warriors. I beheaded your king. Do you think I can't handle his whore?"
A shiver slid down the back of my neck. I licked my lips, frozen in the hard, brutal darkness in his eyes.
"Untie me and see," I dared him.
"I thought you liked being bound."
His voice rumbled like desert thunder; his coarse beard rasped the sensitive skin of my neck. I sucked in a ragged breath.
Bannon seized the neck of my shift and ripped it away, uncovering my breasts.
The exposure—the raw pleasure rushing to my skin, bare to his scrutiny—brought a breathless cry to my lips. I thrashed back and forth as he ran callused knuckles over the hard, gold barbells piercing each pink nipple.
"Look at this." He gave one a tentative tweak, sending a sweet shock through my chest. "Pretty decorations for a fighter, Sadira. Is this the fashion among your armies? Or your brothels?"
"Get off me!" I strained, writhing away from his touch.
He removed his hand from my throat, letting me breathe in deep, awash in bittersweet euphoria and beautiful outrage. Tears ran down my face; fury and yearning had become a heated ache at my core.
Bannon grabbed the warm globes of my breasts in greedy hands and rolled his thumbs over the cold metal studs. I arched my back and gave out a startled gasp: naked helplessness flared at his touch like bright light across my skin. Without warning, he lowered his face, nuzzling, squeezing, tasting.
I screamed and kicked my bound feet—a helpless tantrum. Too soon, though, it devolved into a straining, needful writhing.
When Alaric bound me, when he loomed over me and whipped me, he'd painted his pleasure in pain, yes—but also in ugly terror. I feared him when he did these things, feared his vicious torture even as I loved it, lust and heat and need welling up from the poisoned heart inside me.
Now, at Bannon's hands, each harsh grip, each smart slap, brought only indignant, petulant desire.
"Sadira. One last time. Will you submit to me in peace?"
My skin prickled under the heat of his breath. Violent streaks of white and red marked my breasts: welts, makeup, and my own natural, rose-honey complexion, flush with desire. It made a bright contrast pressed to his warm, beautiful, dusky body.
I swallowed the thick lump in my throat. What is he doing to me?
After everything—after the end of the war, the death of my king and tormentor—could I really be finding selfish pleasure in this?
"I am a soldier and a slave of a conquered nation," I panted. "And I am not yet ready to yield."
I lifted my head, staring down at him between my breasts. "So prove you are strong enough to master this monster."