Start at the Beginning
When Sadira woke, she lay alone in Set's opulent bed, wrapped in the embroidered coverlet. This, more than anything, confirmed she hadn't imagined the events of the day before after all... or the night. Set never allowed her into the bed. She slept on a large cushion at the foot of it, like a dog, according to his rules.
Except now, he was dead.
No. I did not dream it. She pulled the blanket close around her, brandishing it like a shield. The invasion. The battles. The...
"Barbarian," she breathed.
Her fingers brushed her lips. The memories of his hard grip, rough hands...they echoed through her everywhere. If she lifted the blanket away, she'd find bruises, maybe even scars.
Oh. Sadira shut her eyes and gave a silent sigh. He made it so... good.
She relaxed, sinking back into the rich pillows, and took stock of her pains. Welts on arms, legs, and ass; nipples smarting from his tweaking and hard sucking. Thighs, deliciously sore. Between them...
She uttered a soft groan and writhed under the blankets. Her fingers slipped down to her aching pussy. Aching because of the wild barbarian...and aching for him, to her surprise.
"Bannon?" she asked the empty room, eyes fluttering open again. When had he left?
She climbed from the bed, arranging the blanket around herself. The doors to the chambers stood closed, but when she opened them two of the highland soldiers met her.
"Where is the captain?" she asked. They scrutinized her, taking in the sight of the sheet, and their expressions grew venomously cold. She didn't understand at first, until she remembered: she remained their captain's prisoner, and she supposed a prisoner and an enemy should not look so obviously well-ravished on the morning after her master's defeat.
Perhaps she ought to feign guilt? Chagrin? All at once, her doubt became fury and she sneered.
"I want to speak with him," she demanded. "Go and get him."
"And just who do you think you are?" asked the younger man. He had dark black hair in a shaggy mane. "You're not queen of this castle anymore, and the Red Bear isn't keeping you here as a guest." His cold hazel eyes crept over her in disgust. "Get back into your pretty rooms before we find you a more fitting place in the cells below, witch."
She gave a start. She might have expected they wouldn't be friendly...but queen? Witch? Did Bannon's men honestly believe she'd been either of those things?
She bit her tongue and tried again in a softer tone. "I... would like to speak to my captor."
"Back in your rooms," the guard repeated. "He'll see you when it suits him."
Sadira ground her teeth. "Will you at least tell him I have asked for him?"
"Sure, sure, whatever you like, highness." He moved towards her, brandishing his sword like a shepherd's crook to scoot her along.
"Don't call me that!" she snapped.
"Fine," the man replied. "Whatever you like, whore."
He pushed her the last few feet and she stumbled, tripping over the blanket to land hard on her ass. The soldier snorted in amusement when she cried out, but by the time she looked up he'd disappeared into the hall again, door scraping shut behind him.
Bannon did not come. She waited for him, pacing from bed, to window casement, to the dog pillow where she'd been accustomed to sleeping. All the time she fretted and wondered. Once, she glanced towards the inner rooms, where a narrow stone basin served for her to wash. The God-king kept great steam baths and heated pools further within, but Sadira rarely set foot in there unless Set ordered it. He'd ruled over every miniscule aspect of her life, commanding everything from the time she would be given her meals to the times she could relieve herself. Bathing had been no different, and for her regular washings, she used the basin.
She could bathe now. No one would stop her. The water would probably be ice-cold, and she'd have to light a fire in in the hearth to dry herself by. She found no matches among Set's old possessions—of course not, because when a sorcerer needed fire, he conjured it.
By this time, the chill winds of the desert night groaned. She'd waited all day, and the barbarian had not come.
She caught sight of herself in a polished glass, and for the first time considered what Bannon must see. Set had made her resemble his own people. He colored her hair black and commanded her to keep it combed to nigh-geometric straightness. She must darken her eyes with kohl and powder her skin to an ivory glimmer. It once puzzled her how the denizens of the Ruined Sands remained so fair in their sunbaked climate. Eventually she decided they were not so much fair as bleached, like the bones of long-dead animals on the dunes, like the sands themselves. Even Set, white as a fish's belly.
She thought of Bannon again, his rich, tawny skin on hers, ruddy, dusky, pressed to creamy beige. Warm, searching, wild, and flush with ardor.
Sadira touched her face. The woman in the mirror did the same. Her gaze roamed over her own body, really scrutinizing the work of the Cult for the first time. Her tattoos—like dark blood—wound in changing patterns. Tight knots of thick designs in some places, light, flowing calligraphy in others. Over left eye, ringing hips and limbs in patterns and whorls dictated by madmen. A flaming sun-spiral circled one studded nipple.
Each mark, by its very existence, proclaimed her the property of the God-king and his cult. The piercings advertised her various initiations: his taking of her virgin blood; punishments she'd endured to demonstrate her training; tokens of the rites and rituals performed over her.
A map of her sexual identity, written on her skin. Not so strange for a desert pet, but what would a northern barbarian make of it?
She cared little for the greasy dye in her hair and the arching kohl, but the rest was not so bad. She'd learned the futility of shame or embarrassment for the sake of false modesty. Whatever else Set did to her, he'd taught her primal pleasure, surrender to corporeal desire and ecstasy. The monster she'd promised Bannon. These things spoke to her, sang to her down to her blood and bones, to a part of her Set maybe didn't create at all, but merely unleashed.
She hated the sorcerer, yes. She didn't hate the passions he'd awakened in her.
"Still..." she murmured to her reflection. "I am not the person he's painted."
Some hours later, Sadira knelt on the bed brushing out long hair, now the fair golden color she'd been born with. The dark ink Set used to hide her natural tone held stubborn against washing out. Repeated rough scrubbings with soaps and oils, even the application of lemon juices, wouldn't rinse the stubborn dark grease from her hair. When her scalp began to sting she'd been forced to alternate her attempts between working out the dye and smoothing back her lank tresses with creams to soothe any damage. In between rinses, she scrubbed the powders and kohl from her body and face, leaving the water of the basin like a pool of swirling oil, dark and shimmering, bouncing reedy coruscations of color. She emptied the basin twice and refilled it from one of the lesser aqueduct pipes, and as she expected, only cold water flowed. The boilers—kept off the kitchen, heated by the work of the ovens—must have gone all day unattended, but it didn't surprise her. Finally her stubbornness paid off: the darkened strands came gold, again and the last of the makeup washed away.
Shivering, naked, and pinkened from the excessive washing, she checked herself in the mirror again, and for the first time met the woman Set kept hidden.
Sadira gazed for a long time, trying to decide how she felt about her reflection. She'd never had the right proportions for a desert girl, but now she wore the look of another people. She couldn't say which people, or of what lands, but she finally appeared to fit her own frame. Of course, she would always bear the marks of Set's mastery, but she did not mind. He'd long ago rendered her hairless as well, over every part of her besides her head. Rituals and unguents were common in the Sands for such beautification. She imagined, though, the fashion might not translate to whatever nation she'd come from.
Or perhaps the barbarian's...
All in all, though, she approved of the change. She might not have a people of her own but at least she no longer resembled his. She made herself comfortable on the bed to brush her hair out, working free tangles to render it smooth and soft again.
She still lingered on this task when Bannon finally returned. She'd given up expecting him hours ago, and the moon hung well past midnight. He startled her and she blinked at him, having almost forgotten she waited at all.
Bannon cocked his head at her.
"My soldiers tell me you've been suspiciously quiet." His gaze roamed over her, and again she wondered what he must think of what he saw. "They thought you might have taken your own life, but were afraid to check on you."
"Afraid?" she asked. "Of me?"
"This place is full of old, ugly, evil magic. Who can guess when or where Set's witch may lie in wait to weave a spell?"
Sadira snorted. "Oh, yes. Witch. Your men are suspicious fools."
"Are you saying you wouldn't plan treachery against your enemies with dark arts?"
"I couldn't if I wanted to." She spread her hands out before her. "I have no magic."
She expected some sign of spite or disdain. A bitter bark of a laugh. Instead he peered at her, as if trying to make up his mind about something. When he spoke again, his voice dropped an octave.
"You are not of his people."
She ran a hand through her blonde hair. "Didn't you know?"
She nodded. "Yes, barbarian. Even Set's witch is one of the slaves you came to free."
His eyes narrowed and he took a step toward her, then hesitated. One hand came up to his brow and he kneaded his temple. "You. One of the slaves? But then why fight me, when you know I came to free you? Why demand...why partake in his twisted rituals? Why ask me to...claim you?"
"Because I am of his world, even as I am not," she replied. "Because of all slaves, I am the one most possessed, and with least promise outside what he has made me. Set is all I have known, from my earliest recollection. Whatever homeland bore me, I am part of this hard, wild desert now."
"All you have known?" He grimaced. "You mean he took you as a child?"
"As a servant to this temple, yes, but not as you are thinking. Whatever else Set was, he was not that."
"A small comfort," Bannon said. He turned away from her and began to pace.
"It changes nothing, you know," she offered.
"Of course it does," he snapped. "I should have refused. I should have tried harder to talk you out of their savage ritual."
"If I'd cared to surrender, I would have."
He stopped his pacing and stared at her again. "Perhaps you believe you are like him, and deserve pain," he said. "But I am not. I did not...I took no pleasure in—"
"Didn't you?" she asked.
"Of course I didn't!"
"I think there is too much fighter inside you, too much of the bear, for you not to have felt some satisfaction in dominating," she said. "And there's no sin in it. Not to me. You didn't rape me, Bannon. You didn't hurt me."
"Didn't hurt you? I can see the marks!"
"What are a few marks, when primal creatures indulge their desires?"
She stood and crossed the floor to him. He took a step back at first, as though he expected a strike. When she saw it, she hesitated.
"What will you do with me now?" she asked. Bannon frowned and glanced away, running a hand over his mouth.
"I haven't decided. If you're really one of the slaves, and not his follower, it changes things."
"What I was to him was a plaything," she explained. "A pet. Quite literally. In a way, he had my loyalty, but really, he just held my leash."
"A...pet," he repeated.
"It's the proper term for a slave in my particular position," she replied. "The personal consorts and...submissives...belonging to the cult."
He made a gruff, disapproving sound. Sadira sighed inwardly. Hadn't she already known he'd disdain her?
"Will you make me a prisoner?" she asked.
"I don't know."
Her voice dropped to barely a whisper. "Will you execute me with the other cultists?"
"I..." He sighed. "I don't intend to. But there are some who believe you'll curse me and my people, if I don't."
"I've told you I have no magic."
"Which is exactly what I'd expect you to say even if you did," he pointed out.
"Do you think me so insincere?" she asked. "Don't you remember what I told you last night? How I hated him? And when you proved your strength over me, didn't I yield? Didn't I give you what you needed, for your victory?" After a pause, she added, "Wasn't there something you saw in me, that led you to reach out for me?"
He glowered. The mention of it obviously discomfited him.
"What we shared last night was a battle for power. Yes, you yielded...and, yes. I...I thought I saw...something. Again, though, by the light of day, it's nothing more than I would expect from the God-king's whore."
Sadira flinched. A sharp jolt of real hurt rendered her speechless, mouth open in a wordless moue of pained surprised. She'd been called a whore thousands of times in her life, in the throes of sex and in bitter disdain. Even Bannon had used it last night as he took her. When he said it now, however... the tone in his voice... for the first time ever, it stung.
From the way his expression changed, perhaps he realized it too. Instantly he turned sheepish.
In the awkward silence, Sadira fingered the leather collar around her neck. She tried to understand. To him, she wore the mantle of the enemy, and of refugee. Both, and neither. He'd vanquished her as her conqueror, but by his own nature he didn't seem to want to hurt her. They had lain together, but merely by matter of necessity. A necessity he might forever resent.
Now, deed done, he must have no idea what to do with the creature he'd inherited.
Sadira could have balked at the prospect of sharing a bed with him, but she didn't. His presence brought her an odd measure of comfort. All her life she'd served a violent, lunatic sorcerer, and she'd realized early on no-one would protect her from his madness. Bannon, her wild enemy, put an end to it finally when he took the bastard's head. He'd taken the sword from her throat. He'd been the hand to help her up.
In that singular moment, when the barbarian helped her to her feet in her dead master's bedchambers, when he placed warm, gentle hands on her flushed and well-bruised body, Sadira had experienced something no other human had given her since before she could remember.
Reassurance. Shelter. Care.
"Will you sleep in here tonight?" she asked. "It is your right, as victor. Or will you simply use it as my prison until you decide my fate?"
"Sleep here?" he repeated. "With you?" He sounded as though she'd proposed the unthinkable.
"When Set ruled this chamber, I slept on the floor." She nodded towards the dog pillow. "I can do so again, if you don't want his whore in your bed."
The corners of his mouth twitched. Maybe he regretted what he'd said. "No, not necessary. You'll remain here until I decide if you're prisoner or..."
"Or prize?" she offered. Bannon made an ugly sound.
"Is it so hard for you to believe I might like to be your prize?" she asked him. "Believe the twisted ritual we played out last night might have been pleasurable for me? Perhaps you don't appreciate what it is to a woman decades enslaved to a man she hates, to finally enjoy the man she beds."
When he said nothing, she dared to move a little closer. She lifted hesitant fingers towards him, and when he didn't back off, she touched his rough forearm. "I don't believe it was the act of claiming me that bothers you, so much as how I demanded you do it."
He remained still, so she slid her hand up to his bicep and gently pressed herself against his back.
"You have a soft heart," she whispered, "which tells you to be meek, and merciful, and tame. But you have a hard cock, oh great Red Bear, which tells you this female is in heat, and her body is yours to take."
Pressing closer, she gave a quiet, lustful sound. Beneath her touch he grew tense, but she pressed her lips to his shoulder blade and exhaled deeply against him.
"I," she continued, breathless, "am an avid worshipper of carnal nature. Pain, and passion. You can't imagine how deeply I want them. How deeply I could want you, great beast. I think we can find a solution to this, and I think it might end up being quite pleasurable for us both."
He shook her off. "Is your loyalty so easy to claim? You follow the man with the biggest cock?"
"There have been plenty of well-endowed men in this temple and even in this room who would never have the strength to overpower me." Sadira tossed her head, haughty.
"So you serve only those who will abuse you?"
"Master me," she corrected. "There is a difference."
Silence settled between them and stretched out for long, heavy moments. Finally crossing arms over her chest, Sadira scoffed.
"You are better when you are a beast," she hissed. "Not this shrinking boy. You were better when you took me, forced me to yield to you. When you made me suck your cock. When you made me beg."
"Would you not talk like that?" he snapped.
"Do barbarian women never talk like this?" she taunted him.
"No," he said. "They do not."
She slipped to his side, and before he could stop her, she ran her hand down the front of his trousers, seeking and finding the hot, rigid shape of his cock.
"But you wish they would, don't you?" she whispered.
With a rough snarl he thrust her away, and Sadira cackled, cackled like the witch he took her for, as he stormed out the doors and slammed them shut behind him.
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