"Bind and brand them."
The words sent a chill racing through Thalassa, and a murmur of despair through the long line of war captives. Thalassa's gaze traveled over those around her. A sorry lot they were, though not all were her countrymen. The dark-haired Diraenians and Asurians stood out amongst her people, the pale-skinned, blond-haired Zals. Most of the captives were under-nourished, many were injured. All showed signs of their long weeks on the road. Resignation lay heavy on their battered and bruised faces, deep within pitiful eyes that held no hope. Their existence had come to a shattering conclusion. To the victor go the spoils, Thalassa thought bitterly. We have all become nothing more. Nothing more than slaves, indentured to those who had maimed and scarred the countryside, claiming it as their own. At twenty years of age, that wasn't much of a future. If she had a future at all. She shuddered and returned her gaze to the heavily muscled man at the front of the line.
He yanked the first person forward, a young boy of no more than eighteen, with the dark hair and eyes of a Diraenian. The lad's face was white, his terror obvious. Thalassa watched as the guard wrapped the boy's arms about a thick post sunk deep into the muddy ground. The burly man seemed to take great pleasure in making the ties as tight as possible, as if he expected the lean youth to suddenly fight back. Thalassa grimaced in anger. For a moment, the lad's gaze met hers, then he closed his eyes and hung his head.
The captive's back was bared, exposing a thin torso. Thalassa could see his ribs with every gasping breath he took. Quickly, she reached out to him with her magic to shield him from pain, as another man approached with a red-hot metal brand. He pressed the brand against the boy's left shoulder, held for a moment, then released. Though the lad stiffened, he did not cry out in pain. Still, as cold water was poured across the brand, he sagged against the wood. The brander frowned in confusion, no doubt used to hearing screams of agony at his touch. He leaned forward to peer into the boy's face, then grunted, shrugged and tramped back to the fire pit to reheat the iron. It was only then that Thalassa eased the youth into unconsciousness, a small sigh of fatigue escaping her.
The guard untied the boy, letting him collapse in the mud. Another guard dragged him away, while the next person was secured in his place. With each one, Thalassa took on their pain, drew it away from them, then allowed them to fall into a deep, healing sleep. She was aware of the thick silence that had descended, of the strained and confused looks on the guards' faces. They were exhibiting their own fear now, no doubt puzzled at this strange turn of events. Thalassa controlled her smile of satisfaction, quietly continuing to move to the back of the line, one by one. She would be the last.
Finally, it was her turn. She faced the post with head high, though her heart hammered. She wasn't sure if she had the strength left to control her own pain. As her arms were secured, she closed her eyes, and reached deep within herself for what small magic she yet held. Cold air rushed over her back as her tunic was pulled away. Footfalls behind her warned her of the brander's approach, and she stiffened, waiting. Though she felt the press of the metal against her skin, she managed to ward off the pain of the burn, then sighed with relief as the pressure eased.
She was about to allow herself to sleep, when sudden, severe pain ripped through her face. For a moment, her mind whirled with confusion, then her eyes snapped open, and a gasp escaped her. The brander stepped back, holding a smaller iron, a leering smile on his face. Thalassa stared at the iron in wide-eyed disbelief--a pentagram. The mark of magic; it was forever seared onto her left cheek, for the world to see. Agony brought tears to her eyes, and, try as she might, she could not summon the magic to ease her pain.
Another man took the brander's place. He was a sturdily-built man, with muscles that rippled beneath his white, linen shirt. He tipped her head back, using one long, elegant finger. His dark eyes held hers as he extended his other hand toward some unseen person. A second later, he gently rubbed a cooling salve into the brand on her cheek.
"You have a strong gift to be able to shield all of these people," he said quietly. "Mind how you use that gift, sea-woman."
Thalassa trembled under his touch, realizing he had been watching her. Still, she would not give in to the command he seemed to demand. "My name is Thalassa," she said, her voice cold and aloof, "not sea-woman."
The man's eyebrows raised in surprise, and a small smile quirked his full lips. "Magic and spirit," he said. "That combination could get you killed."
"What care I? My soul died when my countrymen did," Thalassa told him. "There is only this shell left."
His gaze traveled to her swollen belly. "And the child. Has the child's soul also died?"
Thalassa trembled, momentarily overwhelmed with emotion. The child. This child created from an act of rape, not love, though the father had been her own husband. At first, she had hated the child as much as she had hated her husband, but over the last eight months she had come to accept it. Love was not yet in the offering.
"The child is not mine," she said.
The man again was surprised, and he studied her for a long moment. His gaze traveled down her neck, lingered a moment on the white skin of her breasts, and finally moved to her wrist. He touched lightly at the red streak that lay halfway between wrist and elbow.
"You have the Sickness," he said quietly.
"Aye," Thalassa whispered smugly. "So your brand will do no good. I will be dead before I can serve you and your house."
The man studied her a long moment, his finger continuing to gently stroke her arm. It sent chills racing through her, and she could not suppress her tremble. A small smile touched at his lips, though there was no warmth in it. "Cut her loose," he instructed the guards, "and take her to Ilsa." He looked back at Thalassa. "I will send for you later."
Thalassa watched him stride away, noticing the confident way he walked, head held high, as long, dark tresses drifted in the breeze. There was no doubt who was in control of this camp. The thought sent a rage bubbling through her. He had been the one to order the branding; it was his voice, cool and unemotional, that had promised pain to men, women, and children alike. And a life of servitude.
Her bonds were untied and she was pulled away from the post. Her tunic, torn at the shoulders, fell about her waist, exposing her breasts. Though both guards leered, neither touched her. Obviously, they weren't going to incur the wrath of their lord. She now belonged to him.
Elfin Crown Prince Terran drew a long, slow breath and clutched his hands behind his back. He regarded the man before him with heavy determination in his dark eyes. "No, father," he said firmly, "I will not wed simply to produce an heir."
King Liam took a long pull on his wine, before looking up at his eldest son. "Elise has been gone for almost one year now. It is time you stopped mourning her death."
"It has only been eight months, father," Terran replied, his voice tight. "Still, I do not chase after ghosts. However, I see no point in placing another woman in jeopardy simply for the sake of producing an heir to the throne."
"No point?" The king rose, his blue and silver robes swirling about his muscular frame. "Terran, if you do not produce an heir by your thirtieth birthday, the crown will forfeit to your brother. You know that!"
Terran turned away, unwilling to let his father see the anger that filled his soul, a consuming anger that was evident in the tightened jaw line and the scowl. "What good will it do me to wed and produce a child, father? Unwin will only kill the woman, and the child, as well."
"Stop it!" Liam sputtered. "You have no proof that Unwin had anything to do with Elise's death. Why would he do such a thing? He's your brother!"
"You said it yourself, father. Today is my twenty-ninth birthday. If I don't produce an heir by year's end, the crown forfeits to Unwin. I see precious little that I can do to stop it. I would have to meet, marry, and mate in the next two months. I do not believe that is palatable, or even possible." He frowned and strode to the open, mullioned window, his attention diverted. "What is that infernal drumming?"
"Drumming?" Liam joined his son at the window. After a moment, he shook his grayed head. "I hear nothing, but, then, that's to be expected at my age."
Terran listened a moment longer, then looked back at his father with a small, grim smile. "And don't try to ply me with that getting-old routine. You're as fit as they come."
The king smiled. "Will you at least consider meeting with Princess Sylvia?"
"When will she be arriving?" Terran asked, resignation evident in his voice.
Liam looked hurt. "Would I invite her for a visit without your consent?"
"When?" Terran pressed.
"In a fortnight," the king answered with a soft chuckle. He reached out to squeeze Terran's shoulder affectionately. "Her father insisted, and she is a good prospect, Terran. She's quite beautiful from what I've heard."
"Beauty does not equate love, father," Terran replied, then cocked his head again at the sound of the drums beating in the distance. "I'll meet with the princess, then. Just be quite sure to post extra guards around her quarters. We certainly don't need strained relations with Asuria."
The King stiffened at the word. "Our relations with Asuria are always in question, Terran. Perhaps this marriage will put some ease into it."
Terran grimaced at his father's words. "Marriage?" he muttered, then strode toward the door of his father's study. "I'm going riding. I shall return later."
"How much later?"
Terran tossed his father a smile. "In time for the princess, father, don't worry." He slipped out the door and hurried down the hallway, the drums pounding in rhythm with his heart.