Mistress of the Sword
Chapter 14: Outlaws
Shailaja rode as far as she could that night before exhaustion and the state of her injuries forced her to halt. She had little doubt that Bekor would send men in pursuit. The escape of so notorious a captive from the heart of his domain would shame him too badly and she would not be safe until she was well clear of his borders. But her injuries and exhaustion finally caught up with her; so much so that she was almost falling off her horse. She needed to find a place to hide, and find it quickly.
None of the small farms she passed offered her a safe refuge. The two horses she had would be too easy to track, but she could not afford to abandon them. Fortunately, Selene was high in the night sky and her bright light allowed Shailaja to see a rocky outcrop bordered by trees. Although it was not the way she would have chosen she had little choice if she was to find a place to rest and at the same time have any chance of throwing off pursuit.
She moved toward it, fighting off exhaustion with every step of the horse. She was finding that riding a horse was not the way to recover from being harshly used by men. Each movement of the horse was brutally agonizing, but she was in no condition to walk, and that motion would cause its own special pain.
She finally gained the shelter she sought and dismounted. She was well in among the trees and had ridden over rocky ground. It would not present much difficulty to a decent tracker, and dogs would certainly have no trouble finding her, but she was too beaten to go any farther. Heaving herself off the horse, she made a quick camp, fell into her bedroll and was almost instantly asleep.
Somewhere toward morning Shailaja awoke to find herself in the middle of a steady rain. She might have cursed her luck, but instead she blessed Marana for delivering her from her enemies. All trace of her passage would be washed away and her scent as well. For the moment she was soaked but safe. Nevertheless, she spent the remainder of the night huddled in her soggy blanket, fighting off the cold.
At first light she found to her displeasure that just a few yards away from where she had chosen to stop was a rocky overhang where she could have remained dry and comfortable. It was partly screened by a jumble of large boulders and so she had missed it, but she wasted no time in moving herself and her gear to its shelter.
Once there she found that there was enough dry wood and dead leaves to start a good fire, however, she waited in case the smell of smoke might give her away to a search party. Instead she stripped off her wet garments and hung them about her camp to dry. Then she burrowed down in the thick bed of leaves to keep warm.
She fell asleep and slept the sleep of utter physical and mental exhaustion. It did nothing to remove the crushing tragedy of Dens death, but it did help her to feel better in body, and she awoke hungry. In her rush to escape she had not dared to bring any food with her. All she had was a sack of oats she had brought for the horses and for the moment both animals were well taken care of, the area around her refuge having a plentiful supply of grass and succulent leaves. However, she had brought a crossbow with her that she had taken from one of the dead guards. With it she could get food provided any presented itself.
Her first movement sent a wave of pain through her that left no doubt that she was far from being healed, but she had to eat and so she forced herself to move, gritting her teeth against the pain. In spite of the cold the effort left her bathed in sweat and panting for air. But there was nothing for it, but to keep moving.
Pushing the pain from her mind she rose from her bed of leaves and dressed in her wet clothes. They had dried but little, however, she had no wish to attempt a hunt in the nude. Taking the crossbow she stalked from the camp, moving silently through the trees. Since it was now raining harder than ever the chance of finding an animal moving about was diminished, but even in the rain, animals must eat and she was lucky enough to come across a yearling buck. Carefully pulling the crossbow from the oiled leather that had kept its string dry she released a single quarrel and was rewarded with a kill. Then she knelt before the animal and gave the ritual prayer asking its spirit to forgive the taking off its life and thanked Teloc, god of the hunt, sprinkling a little of the bucks blood on the ground to satisfy the gods thirst.
She skinned and gutted the buck, leaving the entrails where they were for the scavengers and then hauled the carcass back to her camp. She staggered under the weight of the meat, a sure sign that she was close to collapse, but now that she had food she could rebuild her strength. Hoping that the rain had indeed thrown off any pursuit she chanced a fire, finding a plentiful supply of dry wood beneath the overhang. While she waited for the meat to cook she ate the liver raw, cutting it into bite-sized pieces with her dagger. Then she ate the cooked venison, washing it all down with water, which thanks to the rain, was all around her.
She kept the fire up even after the meat was cooked, using it to dry her clothing. It was a bit of a risk, but she needed dry clothing if she was to continue. While her clothes dried she sat close to the fire and worked on the deerskin. She had saved what fat she could, and rubbed it into the skin, trying to make it as waterproof as possible, keeping it in mind that she might have to ride in the rain whether she liked it or not and the treated deerskin would serve to shed the water much better than the woollen jerkin and leather trousers she had scavenged from the man she had killed. Then, exhausted again, she let the fire die and slept in the bed of leaves once more.
Shailaja spent two days in this way trying to rebuild her strength. The rest no doubt helped her, but she felt hot and realized that she was running a fever. She was not used to being sick and was still sore from the ordeal she had endured. As the rain continued she stayed where she was and spent much of her time trying to sleep away the fever. On the third day the rain ended, and in spite of the fact that she was still not healed and the fever had not left her she decided that it might be best to move on. Every day she waited Gorvag and vengeance was moving farther away from her. She ate as much of the remaining venison as she could and then packed up the rest. Gathering her horses she set out once more.
She knew where she wanted to go, but moved slowly, keeping away from farms and towns as much as possible. Whenever she rode in the open she kept a sharp eye out for pursuit and often moved off the road when she spotted anyone coming from the other direction. Had she not been suffering from the affects of her ordeal, she would have avoided such craven tactics, but she was in no condition to fight anyone. She could only account for her escape from Bekor as Maranas blessing, for almost certainly she should not have had the strength to overcome the four guards she had killed.
Whatever the reason she was determined not to be captured again, and rode slowly, keeping away from contact with anyone as much as possible and sleeping in isolated forested areas that hid her from view. Unfortunately, careful as she was, she found that there were some dangers that could not be avoided.
It was on the fifth day of her escape and the sixth since the death of Den that Shailaja led her horses into a small glade set in thick forest some two hundred yards from the road. It had grass and a small stream trickling across it and made as good a place as any to spend the night. It would shelter her from the eyes of anyone passing on the road and if she kept her fire small and brief she would probably not be detected.
She swung the saddle from the horse she had been riding, hobbled the two of them and let them go to graze. Then she began to set up her small camp. It was then that the snap of a twig startled her to alertness.
She was on her feet in an instant, her swords in her hands and was just in time to see three men emerge from the trees. They were not a pleasant-looking bunch, dressed in clothing that had seen much better days, but they all wore swords and daggers and looked the sort that may have had some practice with them.
Well, look here. See what we got, said the largest of them. He stood a half head shorter than Shailaja and spoke through crooked and broken teeth.
A red-haired girl with a pair of swords, the second of the men answered for him. Think she might be the one the prince is looking for? This man was of medium height, with dirty blonde hair.
The very one Id say, observed the first man. Put away your swords girl. Youll save yourself some pain.
It is not I who will receive pain, Shailaja answered. Come no farther into my camp or you will never leave this glade.
Even as she answered her eyes were searching the trees behind them and she was listening for the faintest sound of movement. It seemed likely that there were more than just these three. From their rough appearance they had the look of outlaws and were not the sort she wanted anywhere near her.
She holds those blades like she knows how to use them, the third man said. He was the smallest of the three, a weaselly little man with brown hair and blue eyes.
None of them looked to be any real danger to her, even in her weakened condition, but she was disturbed by their confident manner. Everything about them told her that they intended her nothing but harm, yet not one of then had drawn a blade.
I said put away your sword, girl, the tallest man repeated. Were going to have a little fun with you. Cooperate and we might let you live. Make us mad and your death wont be easy.
Leave here, Shailaja ordered. Leave here or youll regret you ever saw me. She took a step toward them, gauging their reaction.
Maybe we better show her, the medium height man said. Jobb, Mallum, come out.
There was a movement in the trees behind them and two more men stepped into view. They both held loaded crossbows and they were pointed directly toward her.
There are still three more men hidden in the trees, the tall man stated. They all have crossbows. Put down the swords or well put a few bolts in you and then make use of you if youre still alive.
Had Shailaja been in full fighting trim she would have cast caution to the winds and gone right at them, but she knew that with her injured leg and her other injuries she lacked the speed to reach them before she would be taken down. She considered her chances and then carefully set her swords on the ground in front of her.
Thats better, girl, the tall man chuckled. Now the dagger. As he spoke the other three men materialized. As he had said they were armed with crossbows, but thinking her defeated and helpless without her swords two of them were not even pointing the weapons at her.
Shailaja tossed the dagger onto the ground. What are you going to do? she asked, putting a quaver in her voice. She hated the cowardly deception, but she hated being raped even more. She still had two more daggers, one in each of her boots, but she needed to lure the men closer before she could use them.
Back away, ordered the tall man, and as she complied he continued.
The prince seems to want you. His messengers have proclaimed your description all over Cebar. You must have really done something to attract so much interest. We will take you to him and collect the reward; after we have had a little fun with you.
Shailaja backed away another step, as if in fear, and as she had hoped her action drew the men toward her. Thinking her helpless, the five men with the crossbows lowered their weapons. But as the original three moved to within two yards of her they stopped. Youre bigger than I thought, the smallest of them said. Not such a little girl any more.
Shailaja could wait no longer. Bending her knees, her fingers found the daggers in her boots and pulled them free and then before the men could react she charged into them.
The dagger in her right hand plunged into the heart of the tall man in the first instant of her attack and the left found the small man half a heartbeat later. But it was the crossbowmen she was after and she plunged past the men she had killed even as they were falling. Realizing their mistake the five crossbowmen raised their weapons, but the first was too late, Shailaja was upon him, her dagger plunging into his guts. He fell with a scream as the other four attempted to bring their weapons to bear.
One of the crossbowmen found his target and his finger tightened on the trigger. Shailaja was too far away to stop him and did the only thing she could, dropping to the ground just as he released the quarrel. The act not only saved her life, but his shot struck another of the crossbowmen across from him.
She was right at the feet of another of the crossbowmen, too close for him to bring his cumbersome weapon to bear, but he did the next best thing, swinging it like a club onto her head. Had Shailaja been fully fit she would probably have avoided the blow, but she was a fraction too slow and she was knocked half senseless. It gave the remaining four men their chance. The man who had hit her swung again, making even better contact and she went out, her vision clouding and then darkness winning out.
Shailaja awoke to the all-too-familiar splitting headache. And something else that was all-too-familiar, the touch of ropes on her wrists.
The bitch is awake, a voice said. Shailaja recognized it as that of the blond-haired man.
Grimacing in pain she forced her eyes open and saw a circle of men around her. There were eight of them although she knew only four. There were the three remaining crossbowmen and the blond man. One of the four new arrivals stepped forward. He was a huge man, slightly shorter than she was, but probably weighing half as much again.
This girl killed four of you? he said in disbelief. No wonder the prince wants her.
She moves like a panther, said one of the crossbowmen. I never saw the like.
What are you girl? the big man said. He bent forward and seized her by the front of her jerkin. The movement as he pulled her toward him sent incredible waves of pain through her head and other parts of her body. She felt as if she had been bruised everywhere and realized that as she lay unconscious the four survivors of her attack must have taken some measure of revenge.
Red hair, he observed. Dressed like a man, handles daggers like an assassin, and taller than any man. Who are you and what does the prince want with you?
Shailaja said nothing, seeing as little could be gained. Instead she turned her head away from his fetid breath.
Looks like shes not interested in talking Lorg, chimed up the little man.
I think shell be more than willing to talk before were through with her. Lets get started.
Lorg lifted her by the front of her jerkin. As both her hands and feet were tied Shailaja had no choice but to go with him and she was too weak to resist in any case. She was dragged across the clearing to a large fallen tree and arched backward across the trunk.
Hold her wrists, Lorg ordered and one of the men came forward and pulled her arms over her head so that she lay hard against the tree trunk, its rough bark in the small of her back. Then Lorg straddled her and bending forward ripped open the front of her jerkin. By all the gods, he exclaimed, shes got tits like a goddess. I think I see why the prince wants her.
His hands closed on her breasts. Still bruised from their previous mauling at the hands of the Cebarians Shailaja winced in pain, but held her piece knowing that any strong reaction would only encourage even more painful acts. Tits like a goddess indeed, Lorg repeated. Firm as a cows udder before milking. I think shes going to offer up some real sport.
The men around her laughed and offered their own comments on the beauty of her breasts and what should be done with them, but by that time Lorg was well on his way to removing her trousers.
He first had two of the men hold her legs after he had untied her ankles. It was not really a necessary action. Rarely had Shailaja felt so weak. The fight and the blow to the head plus the additional punishment she had suffered while unconscious had taken all of the fight out of her. She could hardly have raised a hand to stop the least of them, and could only lie helplessly while Lorg stripped her and then pushed his way between her legs.
He slid his maleness against her, sliding his member back and forth between her petals, but he did little to excite her before taking his enjoyment. She grunted in pain as he thrust into her, helpless to do more than vow vengeance upon the men who now used her; provided she lived.
He took her deep and hard, using his considerable weight and size to make sure that he fully enjoyed her and she was thoroughly used before he finished with her. And then the next man took his turn and the next.
None were as hard on her as Lorg had been, but all too soon it seemed that every man had taken her and Lorg was there again. By this time Shailaja was slick from the efforts of eight men, and he took her easily although the pain of his rutting was not much less. And so it went with each man using her thoroughly until all had taken her twice.
Through it all Shailaja endured in a sort of daze, halfway between wakefulness and a complete lack of awareness of what was happening to her. She had retreated from the world, her mind and body finally succumbing to the continuous assaults that had been made against her in the last quarter moon. So unaware was she that she did not even hear the shrieks of her assailants as death suddenly came at them from out of the forest. Nor was she aware of strong arms lifting her and then placing her across her horse and leading her off into the depths of the forest.
Shailaja revived somewhat as the horse moved off but her world was one of a series of indistinct images. There was a journey through a forest and the sight of the ground changing as the horse moved, as she was hung head down one side of the horse and her legs down on the other. She crossed streams and travelled down poorly marked forest trails and then came to a clearing and her view of the world changed.
She was lifted from the horse by the same strong arms that had placed her upon it and was aware of a strong male scent, the smell of leather, the creak of hinges, and then she was in a dark room. She must have babbled something as a distant voice spoke to her.
Fear not my redheaded barbarian you are safe in the house of Sturm. She was aware of being set down on a soft surface and then the world faded once again.
Shailaja remembered little of significance after that. There was light and dark; movement, and sound; the touch of hands; and the taste of food, but none of it made the least bit of sense. It came at her in bits and pieces and sometimes not at all as she drifted in and out of consciousness. And then one day she awoke.
She was lying in total darkness, but she sensed that she was in a dwelling of some sort, simply due to the fact that the surface she was lying upon was obviously a bed. She could smell wood smoke, leather, wool, and cooked food. The latter made her mouth water and she must have made some sort of sound as a few heartbeats later there was movement in the darkness. It was quickly followed by the glow of coals as someone blew upon them and a fire flickered to light. By the few small flames that were generated she saw the shape of a man feeding more wood into the fire and then he stood looming over her.
I see that you are awake, a deep voice said. Will you stay awake this time or lapse back into dreams?
Shailaja opened her mouth to answer but could do little more than manage a pitiful croak. The shadow hanging over her moved away and then returned. She was lifted slightly and then something was held to her lips. She had a vague memory of this happening before and therefore drank willingly. It was nothing but water, but it helped to clear her throat. She was somewhat shamed at her complete helplessness, but there was little she could do about it except promise herself to try and get her strength back as soon as possible in order not to be so helpless.
I am awake, Shailaja finally managed to answer, although her voice was weak.
Good, the voice said. Perhaps this will help you more. The cup was taken away and refilled with something else. Her nose told her it was some sort of strong drink and she sipped cautiously as it was presented to her.
It was well that she was careful as that which passed down her throat was something that made spahr seem like watered beer by comparison, but it cleared her head and throat and she was able to speak normally once she had regained her breath.
Are you hungry? the man asked. I have some stew that can quickly be heated.
The fire burned brighter now and she could see by its dancing light that he who tended her was a man of very large size. Almost certainly he was taller than she was. She judged that he was of middle years. He wore his hair long and held in place by a leather braid. His beard reached to his chest and was divided in the middle so that it was in two forks.
She nodded and then realized that back in the shadows he probably could not see her so she spoke up. I would. And may Mirana thank you. But would you please tell me who tends me?
My name is Sturm, he rumbled. And who might you be, my warrior maiden?
I am Shailaja of the Kaltara, she answered, giving away no further details of her past.
I suspected as much from your height and colouring, Sturm said. I note that you do not give her your clan name and rank, but I will not press you on that. I suspect you have your reasons for not telling me.
Shailaja found it interesting that Sturm knew of her peoples customs, but she revealed no more about herself. It was now almost three years since she had fled her homeland, and she doubted that anyone would still be seeking her, but she took no chances.
She reached out to take the bowl of stew he offered to her and realized as the blanket fell away that she was wearing nothing beneath it. Strangely, she felt not the slightest sense of apprehension. She remembered that the outlaws who had waylaid her had made a pretty good job of stripping her. No doubt Sturm had simply finished the job; after all he had probably been in his cabin for at least a day or so.
How came you to be in a place where Lorg and his villains could fall upon you? Sturm asked. It is a place most people would shun.
She hesitated to tell Sturm more. She was still somewhere in Cebar and did not know how well the presence of a mercenary who had fought against its prince would be received. Also, Lorg had mentioned a reward, and might not Sturm be just as interested in turning her in to Bekor if he knew of it?
Fear nought of Bekor, Sturm stated, as if reading her thoughts. If I wished his reward you would not be here.
Still Shailaja hesitated. It came to her that a mercenary was not the most honourable of professions. It was a thought that up until now had troubled her little as she had fought her way across central Vedra, but now she wondered how it might be received.
Perhaps you are too tired to speak now, Sturm said. Sleep now. There will be time enough in the next few days to tell your tale.
He was right. The brief conversation had taxed her and it was not difficult to close her eyes once again. She was somewhat vexed at this weakness. It seemed that her body was finally rebelling at its harsh treatment and was insisting on proper rest before allowing her to move once again. But there was something she had to know before she slept again. How long have I been here? she asked.
Five days, Sturm answered. You slept most of the time. And now should sleep again.
Shailaja took little persuading to close her eyes once more. She slept so soundly that it was almost night again before she awoke. She was sore and hungry and desperate to attend to matters of a personal nature, but her weakened body would not allow that. Instead Sturm lifted her from the bed and carried her to a wooden bucket that she might relieve herself. It was discomforting for a warrior to have to be treated like a child, but there was little choice.
She was returned to the bed and then brought more food. Her physical weakness had not diminished her curiosity. And she wondered exactly who Sturm was and his relationship to the outlaws who had waylaid her. Since he was curious about her it seemed only fair that he answer questions about himself.
I am the Warden of the Woodlands, he answered. Although I am sure Bekor does not recognize my claim. No doubt he thinks them his, but I rule the Heartwood. I have been here much longer than Bekor has been alive and no doubt I will still be here when he dies. During my life I have been many things; soldier, trader, mercenary, thief, and still others. For awhile I even ruled one of the many cities of Arkana, but I found little satisfaction in any of these occupations. Living in the Heartwood suits me well. It sees to all my needs, and allows me to institute certain standards of behaviour on those who enter it.
Standards? Shailaja asked.
I require that all who enter her realm enter do no serious harm to others. Those who violate my rules pay with their lives.
Like Lorg? she asked.
Like Lorg and the others of his band. I do not hold it against you to fight to protect yourself.
I thank you for that, Shailaja said.
You are proud, warrior, Sturm observed. Pride in a warrior is natural, but do not allow it to draw you into situations you will later regret. Now, I would like to know how you came to be in my domain, and in such dire peril.
So Shailajas fragmented memories of her rescue proved accurate. Lorg and his men were no more. That suited her. But there were others with whom she had a score to settle. But Sturm was waiting for her story and so she told it.
It took her longer than she thought it would as she left very little out, and found that she tired easily. She gave no details of her clan or rank within it, but told everything else plainly enough. Several times Sturm brewed tea while he listened. He asked few questions, stopping her only now and then for a point of clarification. When she finished he thought on what she had told him for a few heartbeats and then spoke. It seems from your tale that you have a long list of grievances to avenge.
His words were framed in the form of a question and so she nodded her agreement. It is so. There are many who must pay for what was done to me.
Do you seek retribution against even those you would have wronged?
His words took her by surprise. I have wronged? I have wronged no one.
You have led the life of a mercenary, fighting for pay without regard to what was right or wrong. Can you say truthfully that you wronged no one? Did no one stand in your way who might have lived a peaceful life had he been left alone? Were no innocent lives taken in your presence?
These were things Shailaja had not thought on. Den had made all of the decisions for the Ravens and she had followed him without questioning his leadership. Sometimes they fought on one side and sometimes on the other; and that had not bothered her as that was the life of a mercenary.
Think on your answer, warrior. You may find you have more to answer for than you thought, Sturm said. And now I think you should sleep more and try to regain your strength.
Shailaja did sleep, and due to her weakness she also did considerable thinking. Sturms words had stirred in her something that in her youth and inexperience she had never before considered; that she was not the only one who had been wronged and that she had wronged many herself. It was a concept foreign to the ways of most Kaltarans.
Kaltara was a land poor in resources and the tradition of its warriors serving foreign armies was a long one. It had not occurred to her that there might be any right or wrong in this. It was simply a matter of serving those who paid best. Morality was not an issue. But now Sturm had presented her with the uncomfortable notion that engaging in indiscriminate rape and plunder might not see favour in the eyes of Marana. She pondered long and hard on this as Sturm tended to her and her body mended, and discussed it further with Sturm during those times when he was present.
He was gone for much of the day and Shailaja supposed he was out tending to his domain. During those times she mostly slept, having very little energy, but gradually she became stronger until the time came when she was able to tend to herself. At that time she busied herself about the cabin, keeping it clean and preparing meals for when Sturm should return.
There was nothing in any way domestic about this activity. Sturm had adopted her into his household, and as was Kaltaran custom she simply made herself useful. Among Kaltarans there was no husband and wife relationship as it was known in the central lands or the semi-slave status of women in the far south. Kaltarans become bondmates and as such were equal in all things save those few things that only a woman could do such as carry a child and suckle an infant. Other than that each member of a household was equal as was evident when Kaltarans went to war. There were no restrictions on who might serve; both males and females participating equally in the profession of arms. This was well shown by the fact that the Kaltarans honoured Mirana, goddess of war and not some male deity as it was the custom in other lands.
Eventually Shailaja was able to do more than simply keep house and moved outdoors to cut and stack wood. Using the glade in front of Sturms cabin as a training ground, she also resumed her training, feeling dire need of it after having been inactive so long. With and without weapons she practiced, going through the various patterns she had been taught over and over again. She especially tried to practice the two handed technique she had learned from Den and when she did so her demeanour became one of deadly intent as she pictured what she would do when she caught up with Gorvag.
As was usual among Kaltaran warriors Shailaja usually stripped down to the bare essentials when engaged in such training. Other than her weapons she wore little more than her breast band and a scrap of cloth that covered her loins. Not too surprisingly Sturm found such training exercises particularly interesting and he would watch her for some time when he was not about his other business.
On one particularly hot day when Sturm had departed on one of his mysterious errands Shailaja stripped down entirely and loosened her long braid, letting the forest air play about her body. She felt freer and healthier than she had in quite some time and decided that she was indeed healed, but she did not relax her routine but rather intensified it, whirling the two blades as she practiced what Den had shown her.
She had been at this exercise for half the turn of the glass and had worked herself into a complete sweat, so much so that her unbound hair was clinging to her body when Sturm appeared. Unashamed of her nudity, particularly now that the marks of her captivity and violation had healed, she continued with her practice, moving fluidly through the moves in the manner she had been taught.
Sturm said nothing but simply moved to a tree stump where he sat himself and watched her progress. Shailaja refused to let the intensity of his gaze distract her, focusing on the movement of her body and acting as if he was not there. Let him watch, she thought. He will see the true intensity of a Kaltaran warrior.
But Sturms focused gaze was not as she thought. When she finally finished, panting from exertion, and with her body bathed in sweat he got to his feet and moved toward her. An impressive routine, he observed, but there is one slight flaw in your defensive posture.
Shailaja stared at him in surprise. So far he had shown not the least interest in her training, and now he was correcting her on it. She supposed from what he had told her about himself that he must have some military training, but she felt that he presumed somewhat to dare to correct her. However, as the man who had almost certainly saved her life she allowed the comment to stand, but not entirely.
Show me, she demanded reversing her blades so that he could hold them.
I will, he smiled. But retain your swords I will use mine. He stepped into the cabin and after a short interval returned carrying a long wooden box. Shailaja had never noticed the box before, but then she had never bothered to search the cabin. He set the box down on a large stump and opened it, revealing twin blades. Shailaja knew weapons and she knew that she had never seen a finer pair. She also reflected that she had never before seen Sturm draw steel, but the way he held the swords revealed that he was more than familiar with a blade.
Now, he said, show me that last move again, but this time use me as your opponent.
She did, flashing steel at him in a series of lightning moves that would have penetrated the defence of almost any opponent. To her complete surprise he completely blocked her attack and came back with a series of moves that had her instantly on the defensive.
She fought back, catching his blades and then driving him back across the glade, before he managed to halt her attack and launch one of his own, and then suddenly his sword snaked out and rapped her strongly on the wrist. He struck so hard that her hand went numb and she dropped the sword from her right hand. Fortunately, Sturms control was such that he had struck her with the flat of his blade, leaving her embarrassed and bruised, but otherwise untouched.
There, you see, he said, ceasing his attack. You are vulnerable when you attempt that defensive posture.
With her hand and forearm tingling with pain, and her sword lying on the ground Shailaja had to admit that he had proved his point. I thank you for that, she bowed. Let me rest for a few heartbeats and then show me again.
As you would have it, he agreed, but first allow me to match you in comfort. With that he stripped off his woollen shirt, revealing his massive arms and shoulders.
Shailaja could not help staring at his deep chest, wondering what it would be like to have that pressed against her. So big, she thought. She imagined those massive arms holding her and the heat of his body as she lay against him.
Shailajas reaction may have seemed somewhat shallow given that she was supposedly still mourning the death of her lover only a few weeks before, but Sturms physical presence was more than impressive, especially with the sweat beading on his skin and his dark hair damp from exertion. He was a very well made man and she found herself wondering what the rest of him looked like.
Then her rest period was over and they continued their mock duel. For a man Shailaja had never seen lift a sword in practice, Sturm was amazingly adept, defeating all of her attacks and putting her on the defensive repeatedly. She had to admit that had they been engaged in more than mock combat she would have been in serious difficulty. Back and forth across the glade they went, the ringing of their blades frightening all of the wildlife within a half a league of where they strove. Finally, her chest heaving, and no longer able to keep up her guard Sturm touched her gain. This time not as hard, but enough to know that he had won.
Shailaja lowered her blades and then raised them crossed before her in salute. Few warriors had ever bested her in combat, practice or otherwise, and she recognized him for the master that he was. Sturm, however, shrugged off her acknowledgment almost in embarrassment. You fought well, he said, placing his swords back in the wooden box. And now I think I will cool off with a swim.
He looked toward Shailaja and she nodded acceptance of his invitation. Lowering her blades she followed him across the clearing and down a forest path toward a place where a small stream tumbled over some boulders into a deep pool. She had bathed there before and after the intense exercise she had just engaged in she was quite happy to follow his suggestion.
The pool was not large; about seven yards across and double that in length, but it was deep enough in the middle to reach her neck and had a smooth sandy bottom. She set down her weapons, never going anywhere without them, even in what Sturm regard as his domain, and slipped into the water.
It was colder than she would have expected from the temperature of the air, but she had bathed in it before and so was not surprised, and it was considerably warmer than the streams of her homeland. She ducked her body fully within it, swimming to the bottom and then coming up in the middle where she trod water. She felt the slight surge as Sturm plunged in and stroked toward her.
He grinned as he stopped before her. Is the water to your liking? he asked.
Very much so, Shailaja replied. Suddenly she was strangely tongue-tied and could think of little more to say.
Sometimes the simplest pleasures are the best, Sturm observed, moving onto his back to scull away from her.
She could not help it as her gaze went to the area below his middle as that part of his body was briefly exposed, and once again she wondered what it would be like to be pressed against that great wall of a chest. Sturm seemed unaware of her observations, swimming to the end of the pool and then back again, before relaxing in the shallows, his body half out of the water and his face turned toward the sky.
Shailaja swept her hair back, wishing that she had thought to bring a comb, and continued to covertly study Sturm. It was difficult to guess his years. His dark hair and beard were streaked with grey, yet his body was as firm and muscular as that of a man in his twenties.
By now the water had cooled her more than sufficiently and she splashed toward the edge. Reaching the shallows she stood up and strode toward a large rock that caught the sunlight with the idea of basking for awhile on its warm surface. She could feel Sturms eyes upon her as she moved and was suddenly aware of the affect of the cold water upon her nipples. Unconsciously she arched her back slightly and swung her hips as she climbed out of the pool. She glanced once more toward him and saw that the water had affected a certain very interesting part of his anatomy in the opposite manner to her nipples.
This time he caught the direction of her gaze and held her eyes. Would you like to see it properly restored? he asked grinning more widely than before.
Shailaja blushed, her pale body reflecting the heat of her blood all too well. She was suddenly struck with a strong sense of guilt. Dens death was still very close, but she could not deny the sudden powerful attraction she felt toward Sturm. Had it really only been three weeks since the murder of her lover? Was she really so weak-willed and animalistic as to be attracted to the first strong male that she chanced across?
Confused by her reaction she stammered some nonsensical reply and attempted to step past him toward the boulder, but he reached out and gently gripped her ankle.
Few men would have dared such an action, but in Sturm the deed seemed quite natural. Instead of protesting she bent and splashed water into his eyes.
Quick as the strike of a falcon he had both ankles and without the least effort he tipped her back into the pool, lifting her ankles and forcing her under. She splashed to the surface, fighting to keep her head above water while he fought to duck it under. Shailaja should have been outraged; nothing like this had been done to her since she was a child who had not yet had her first moon. But instead she giggled childishly and fought to escape, finally wrenching herself free just before Sturm heaved himself into the pool on top of her.
His weight carried her to the bottom and she kicked and punched in mock combat as she struggled to break free of his grasp, but he held her easily. Never had she experienced such strength, and in spite of the cold of the water she felt a certain part of her body growing warm as she fought to escape. However, Sturms grip was unbreakable until she reached for a certain part of his anatomy.
As she had observed it was badly shrunken due to the cold of the water but as her fingers closed gently upon it she felt a definite tremor as it responded immediately to her touch.
So that is the way you wish to play is it? Sturm laughed. Without the least bit of effort he picked her up and carried her kicking and squealing toward the large boulder where she had sought to sun herself. Her fists hammered at his massive chest, but she may as well have been punching a wall.
Laughing he placed her upon the rock and then loomed over her, water dripping from his body onto hers. His hands were on either side of her shoulders holding him just two spans above her heaving breasts. This close she could feel the heat of his body and sense the swelling of his member.
Then slowly he lowered his head and touched his lips to hers. She arched into him, her lips pressed hard to his and found his tongue with hers. Her arms slipped beneath his armpits, her fingers moving to his back as she pulled him to her and pressed her breasts against his chest. Of their own accord her legs parted allowing access to the swollen petals of her throbbing flower.
There was no need for Sturm to see if her body was ready for him. The flush of her breasts, the tautness of her nipples, and the heat of her loins told him all that and more. He thrust into her, slowly at first, giving her time for her body to adjust, and then deeper and more quickly until he was deep within her and her body was bucking wildly beneath his.
Shailaja had never been taken like this. Den had been an experienced lover, but the size and power of Sturm did something to her that was beyond her ability to describe.
She moaned at the first penetration and cried out as he thrust his spear deep within her. Sturms moans mingled with hers as he plunged ever deeper into her, quickening his speed as he sought satisfaction. Writhing in his powerful arms she presented her breasts to him and squealed in animal passion as he took his lips, tongue, and teeth to her throbbing nipples.
They made love urgently as if fearing the moment would somehow be lost, and then lay quietly for awhile, panting in one anothers arms, and allowing the sun to soak into their bodies before making love again, this time more slowly and thoroughly.
As before Sturm groaned as he expressed his passion, and Shailajas moans mingled with his as he took her even higher than the first time. His size and his strength, and the pleasure and pain of his large manhood excited her in ways that Den had not. And Den had been a most skilful lover.
There was something, however, about being taken by a man of such great strength. She felt helpless in Sturms arms, unable to stop him even if she wished to. It was something that she had never felt before, a feeling of being utterly dominated that she had not felt even when being used by Gorvag and the other men who had taken her against her will. Sturm took her again and again until she was so sore that it was almost something of a relief as he poured his seed into her for the last time.
Shailaja had no fear of being with child. The life of a warrior precluded an undesirable pregnancy and she avoided it by chewing the bitter leaves of the senna bush, a plant that almost conversely grew in the distant deserts of Thar, the same place that Tharian Dust originated. The demand for these two drugs had made Thar a place of great wealth and power. It was a kingdom she had long wondered about, but never expected to see.
If Sturm was aware of her use of senna he gave no indication, and he really had no way of knowing. The drug was a powerful one and the chewing of a single leaf infused the body to such an extent that it was necessary to chew the leaves only once every few weeks. Shailaja had made regular use of the leaf as was common in mercenary camps among the few women soldiers and the effect promised her safety weeks after she had taken it.
She would have had to find more if she continued with Sturm, but that was not to be. As pleasant as had been their lovemaking her desire for his touch was outweighed by her desire for vengeance. Gorvag had stolen her honour and murdered her lover. That could not be allowed to stand unavenged. And so, now that she was restored to health, she took her leave of Sturm and turned her attention to righting the wrongs done to her.
It was a reluctant parting. Shailaja had never had a lover to match Sturm. Not even Narahan had managed to dominate her so completely and she would probably have quite enjoyed Sturms forest life had she not committed herself to finding Gorvag. As it was, the idea that every day Gorvag was getting farther away from her grated upon her like an itch that could not be scratched. She had to go and Sturm fully realized this even before she left.
You are welcome to stay with me for as long as you wish, the giant woodsman said. But I see that you will not be satisfied until your world has been set right. Go and seek your enemies. When and if you succeed you will know where to find me.
And so she rode away from Sturms domain with the same two horses she had ridden into the woodlands. Her heart was heavy as she turned for one last look at Sturms cabin, but her mind was made up. Determined to seek vengeance she swung the horse back toward the edge of the forest and rode in search of Gorvag.