The High Priestess surveyed him; tall, dark, a soldier’s bearing standing stiffly to attention. “So, Goran, why did you enter this contest?”
“My King requested it.”
“It is not my place to ask.” A stone would be more forthcoming.
“And what are the duties of the consort?”
“To serve King and Goddess.”
“However is required.”
She waited, but he felt no need to rush into speech. He’d stood guard many lonely hours, he could stand here now without showing impatience.
And she must decide Aliera’s future. And the future of the whole country; the High Priestess led the Temple, the Temple had a vital role in the life of the people. She had to choose the right Consort, Aliera would need strength, support and guidance. She began to doubt her wisdom in pressing the king to hold the Offering so early, Tiarna herself had been rising twenty when she made her Offering. But she’d seen the girl with young Lord Kevan, she doubted they’d wait two more years.
Tiarna’s own contest had been different, she’d had no preference among the candidates, just boundless nervousness. Watching the tests and knowing her time would come soon, she’d barely noticed the winner, it mattered little to her who was chosen. Over and over she saw the images of the slavegirls being punished, being taken. Soon it would be her turn. The fear grew. Her aunt and great-aunt, First and Second High Priestesses, made the decision.
His name was Tellen, a noble lord; he was tall, well-muscled, golden blonde, much like Kevan.
All too soon it was her time. Tellen watched the attendant priestesses bring Tiarna to the stage constructed in front of the temple. She was trembling, she still barely noticed him, just the sea of watching faces. She was moving in a fog, this was unreal. She felt such fear of the ordeal to come, afraid she’d shame herself and fail the goddess. Tellen took her hand, held it until she looked into his eyes at last, then he leaned down and kissed her gently on the lips.
It was the last thing she expected. She could smell the man-sweat on him, feel the warmth of his skin. He was suddenly real to her. Then he gently pulled the ties of her gown loose and it fell around her feet, she stood naked before the crowd but she saw only him. He smiled, whispered, “You are beautiful.” And then she was over his knees, his flesh warm under her skin. It was beginning.
The spanking took her breath away, she was soon gasping then giving soft cries. Her face was wet with tears by the end of ten long minutes, her feet kicking at each slap. And then – he stood her up, stroked her back as he bent her over. He waited, gently touching her back, soothing her sore spanked cheeks until she relaxed. When Tiarna felt him enter her she gasped, but it was so much easier than she expected. She felt him inside her, she started to move with his thrusts. Strange feelings rose, she started to shake, she felt as if she was falling away and only his strong hands were holding her up. When he stopped she felt something close to disappointment.
They placed her on a litter, face down over a pile of cushions, and carried her through the crowd for everyone to see and approve the first stage. She kept her eyes closed, not able to look at the eyes, the faces, as they saw her displayed.
And then it was over, and she was being attended to by the servants, offered cooling drinks and cloths dipped in perfume to rub over her skin.
Tellen came to her, took her hand, led her to the bench. He waved the servants away, gently fastening the restraints himself, whispering to her as he worked, telling her she was brave, beautiful, that he was proud of her. The paddling was fierce, it pushed her beyond her limits, she cried out loudly at each blow, but she didn’t beg him to stop, at the hundredth stroke she felt a kind of victory. Afterwards he released her, held her until the sobs quieted, then eased her to her knees. She took him in her mouth gladly, she was fascinated now by the way this man’s body worked, by the smell, taste, feel of him.
Again she was taken on display, she clenched her fists and kept her eyes tightly shut, she’d never be able to look at these people again.
The next was the one she dreaded, to be restrained on her back, her feet drawn up to her shoulders, totally exposed. Slave or free woman might be bent over a bench for punishment, but only slaves were positioned like this. He stroked her thigh for a moment, told her she was brave, waited for her to nod acceptance.
There were so many disadvantages to this position; the flesh was stretched taut, nothing was concealed or protected, but the worst was that she could see each stroke of the strap coming, knew when and where it was going but could do nothing, not even clench her cheeks. She cried loudly, the pain and humiliation almost breaking her.
Then, as she lay under the strap, she seemed to float away for a moment, she felt the touch of the goddess. This was not humiliation, but humility. She was indeed a slave, a slave of the goddess, and she was showing her acceptance of that in her offering now. She was offering her submission, her humility. She would be one of the highest in the land, in giving up pride and dignity this way she found greater assurance, greater honour. By the hundredth stroke she was still sobbing, but felt a calm acceptance. She felt him touch the puckered rosebud between her cheeks, then the stretching, the invasion. She had expected it to be horrible, but although she gasped and cried out, hot and cold all over, strange feelings again began to rise.
This time they carried her through the crowd still strapped to the bench. She kept her eyes open, looking at the watchers with a calm serenity.
Next she went over the rail for the cane. Twenty-five bitter strokes. The pain tore her apart, she screamed at each stroke, but again no begging came from her lips. Then they began to carry her to the crowd and she called out for Tellen, she hadn’t felt his touch after the caning. He stroked her back and nodded reassuringly, she was paraded for the last time as the crowd gasped at her reddened, welted cheeks and thighs.
Soon she was back on the stage, he was untying her and leading her to a low couch, lying her down gently. She wanted his touch, to have him inside her, to let those feelings rise again. But he kissed her softly, stroked her skin, nibbled at her breasts, licked around her navel. She moaned as his mouth moved lower, he blew cool air across her hot pussy lips, licked and tickled until she was desperate for him to take her. At last he lay against her and entered her slowly, moving her in rhythm with him until the fires rose again. Now she screamed with pleasure, holding tightly to him as the waves of sensation washed over her.
And she held him every night for forty years, three children and eleven grandchildren, as she went from Third High Priestess to Second, then First. Performing her duties alone when no girl was born to the next king, no new Priestess for a generation. And for ten years now she lay in a lonely bed each night and reached for him every morning, finding nothing. She could still remember the smell of him, the feel of his velvet skin under her fingers.
Now she had to decide who her great-niece would hold each night, who would give her the strength and courage to make her Offering with the serenity of a true priestess. Brenn the miner was older, probably too old, but wise in the ways of the world. Jek-Tar the blacksmith, strong and vigorous, but little in common with Aliera. Kevan – looking so like Tellen, he had his weaknesses but he was noble, and he’d take care to show only his good side to Aliera. And she loved him. And Goran, standing silent and self-contained, how could Aliera draw any support from him? Yet the King ch0se him and sent him to the contest.
She looked at him again, the calm composure. She needed to find the person behind that calm.
“You have the look of a Northerner. Where is your home?”
“My home is wherever my King commands me to be.”
She made an impatient noise, “I can play this game longer than you boy! Where are you from? Where were you raised? What is your family?”
He paused, not used to such a frontal attack, forced into speech, “I am peasant-born. My parents had a small farm in the Northern mountains.” She gestured for him to go on. “When I was thirteen the invaders came from the West. I followed my brothers, we joined the King’s forces to defend our country. Our farm was not near the fighting, we left my parents and sisters safe there. Then the front moved back and forth, the fighting went on, it was two years before we pushed them back and I came home. My brothers were twelve months dead. When I reached our valley the retreating army had passed through months before. They left nothing alive. The village, all the farms were burned. No animals, no tools, no crops. My family, everyone, was dead or taken, there was no-one to tell me which. I went back to the army, came down to this city.”
Ten years ago he’d been so alone, the King’s forces became his family and his home. He devoted himself to the arts of war. He’d been taken into the Palace guard, the king’s elite forces. And one day as he stood guard outside the King’s chamber a small child, all pale hair and green eyes, stood before him.
“I’m going to be a priestess.”
He didn’t answer.
“I’m chosen. One day I will serve the Goddess.” The unnerving green gaze surveyed him. “My doll’s broken.” She held the toy up. He reached for it automatically, he’d often mended his sisters’ toys. Soon he was sitting on the floor beside her, the arm fixed back in place. He handed the toy back to the child and looked up, King Borlan was standing in front of him surveying the scene. Goran scrambled to his feet in disarray, aware that failure in his duty could be punished by enslavement or death. The king watched him for a moment longer, then smiled, “Aliera commands us all. Thank you for your kindness to her, I never can get those fiddly little arms back in place.”
Over the years he rose through the ranks, soon he was commanding his own unit, then leading the king’s own elite troops in battle. Always the Western invaders nibbled at their borders, always they were pushed back. Goran was implacable, halting every incursion. He was respected by the men, he was a brilliant tactician and a formidable warrior. And whenever he returned from a campaign the child Aliera would be there, her solemn green eyes would smile and he’d give her some small toy or pretty thing he’d found.
He became the confidante of the King, he trained the young princes in the arts of war and took them on their first campaigns. Goran the peasant rose high, he was respected for his wise counsel. It was enough.
Then came the decision to finish the problem on their borders once and for all. Two years ago he headed an ambitious campaign. This time they didn’t just push the invaders out, Goran led his forces to the invader’s capital city. He destroyed their armies, breached their defences and took the city.
King Borlan made Goran a lord, a title he rarely used. He was given extensive estates, he was now a wealthy man. And after a year away he returned to the Palace in triumph, and there was no green-eyed child to greet him.
He didn’t realise he was looking for her until he caught a glimpse of pale hair, turned quickly. And the world changed.
He saw a girl just entering womanhood; beautiful and joyous. A man working outside doesn’t know he’s cold until he enters the house and stands by the fire. Goran felt the fire now; suddenly he knew how cold he’d been until then.
And she was the daughter of a king, and he was the son of a peasant.
And then she smiled at Lord Kevan. Goran had killed many men in battle, but he’d never felt murder in his heart until that moment.
Goran moved through the Palace, trained his men, attended meetings with the king, planned new campaigns. And he tried to kill the feelings that moved in him whenever Aliera was near. Over the months he became more silent, more grim. His men said he’d hoped to find his family among the slaves in the Western capital, he’d freed many of their people but of his own family there was no sign. King Borlan watched, saw his silent tension whenever Aliera entered the room.
Aliera didn’t come to talk to him any more, she found him too cold, and knew he disapproved of her love for Kevan.
And then the High Priestess called for Aliera to make her Offering. Goran made his own plans, he would lead another campaign to mop up the final resistance in the West, maybe stay away for a year or more. He wouldn’t, couldn’t watch as Lord Kevan took Aliera so publicly. Until the king came to him and asked him to enter the contest. He had a hundred questions, asked none. “As my lord commands.”
He’d rot in hell before he told anyone about his feelings for Aliera, how one look from those green eyes could pull the soul from his body.
Goran realised Tiarna was watching him, wondered what he’d said. His head felt foggy from the smoke. He tried to stare her down, she smiled, “Thank you my Lord Goran. My attendants will bring you some refreshments.”
So he loved her. But Aliera wanted Kevan. It changed everything and nothing.