The girl was used to abuse, that much was evident by the black blossom beneath her left eye, yet the man riding the Great Horse sensed defiance as well. He could see it in the swing of her mallet as she pounded against the rocks. Anger as well. Emotions not often seen, if ever, at this place where fear walked palpably between guards and victims
She brought the mallet down again. It bounced off and barely missed her toe.
His name was Tu’el and some claimed he was the Dark God himself.
The Tu’el reined in his huge destrier, Demon. The other riders pulled up abruptly as well. The guards on the ground stopped walking. Today he was clad from head to toe in silver armor, and with the face shield down, he seemed more imposing than ever.
His name was Tu’el and some whispered that he was the Dark God himself. If he knew of these rumors, he’d done nothing to stop them.
Last night, he’d allowed his men to raid a village called Grassly. This morning the Tu’el had ridden to the Hungry Rocks to see what they’d brought back. Women and cattle. The few cattle he’d seen would be given to the kennel master. He wanted to see the women himself.
As always, he’d first allowed his soldiers their way. The women came with two restrictions. None were to be maimed or killed. Also, no marks that couldn’t healed. If anyone was salvaged from the Hungry Rocks, it would be a woman. Women were valuable commodities in the Nevers — if not for pleasure, then for servants and cooks. Of course, some were unusable — the ancient and those not right in the head– and these would be left at the rocks where they would take care of their own deaths.
It was easy to spot the survivors on the barren stretch. There was no place to hide and the rocks certainly offered no shelter. The women had been dumped there after their arrival and handed an ax or a mallet and stood shivering, starving, and for the most part naked until the trill of a whistle had put them to work.
There was no need for guards or whips here. No vicious dogs to keep them from escape. The concept of Hungry Rocks had been one of the Dark God’s more insidious inventions. A sharp trill from a silver whistle was given and the women ( sometimes children ) were compelled by a force outside themselves to batter stone, never stopping. In turn, the rocks would grind their souls until the tiny pieces went whimpering off to the void. There was no escape. No ignorance, either. Each knew their fate, yet they couldn’t stop hammering.
The fear here was so great there that even the Tu’el could feel it in a corner of his mind. A corner only, for his death was a great way off and might never happen, especially if this coming war turned the world as the Dark One predicted. Then he would taste the nectar from the flower, and death would not be a problem. He would never die.
But now, the guards were uneasy and the horses nervous, and he couldn’t remember the reason he’d journeyed forth except perhaps to relieve boredom.
He was getting more bored by the second and when he was bored, he liked to kill. He had been wondering if one of his new spears, needle thin, could possibly go through a man’s ears without leaving a mess when he saw her.
She was fighting the spell even as she pounded, her face a series of outraged grimaces as she battered her own death. Such defiance amazed him.
She was beautiful, but beauty was not what drew him. Beauty could be ruined. He’d ruined enough beautiful faces to know the truth of that.
“Woman,” he called, “Come here!”
The figures kept pounding. The guard on the right quickly blew the silver whistle and the figures stilled. All but the bruised, beautiful woman. She kept pounding.
“Woman, come here!” he called again.
She stopped at this and turned, but didn’t step toward him. She only lifted her eyes.
A wind rose, blowing chips of rocks and causing clothes to flutter, and the Tuel inhaled. Her defiance cut through the smell of fear. He laughed and the guard on the left, who mistook his laughter for an order, threw his spear. The spear was snapped, as was the guard’s neck. The Tu’el nodded, and two of the footmen quickly rid the yard of the body. He turned his attention back to the woman. She hadn’t taken a step, but she was smiling.
Now another scent came to him. Arousal. Arousal here?
He’d actually shifted in his saddle to study her as she watched the men haul the body. She was aroused by a kill. Perhaps he should kill again. He toyed with the idea, then decided against it. There was a purpose for this woman, and such a gift might make her proud.
He rode his destrier forward until it was was nearly upon her.
“What is your name?”
She told him. He knew she told him the truth.
“You are with child, Rose,” he’d told her. He knew that, too.
He was pleased to see that she was startled. So, she hadn’t known. He liked that he’d surprised her. Power lay in surprises.
Finally, she shrugged. “It is possible.”