We’ll find another way.”
“There is no other way, Terix,” I said, keeping my voice down although there was little chance of anyone either overhearing or caring, in the noise of the dockside tavern. Balmort was the only one besides Terix who would object to my plan, but he and his massive dog, Bone Cruncher, were out restocking Balmort’s peddler’s pack.
Balmort had no right to interfere, anyway; we’d only started traveling with the old man half a moon ago, in hopes that a threesome with a protective dog would be a safer, less conspicuous way to travel than Terix and I on our own. We’d heard that Sygarius was offering rewards for the return of his escaped slaves: one gold soldus for the freckled, curly-haired boy, Terix—and that single soldus would feed a family for two months; and ten gold soldi for the black-haired, copper-eyed girl with spiral tattoos over breasts and loins, Nimia—me.
Balmort knew about the reward, but he had no love for Romans, and he valued so highly his own freedom to move from town to town at his whim, and to sleep where he pleased, that he would do as he could to preserve such freedom for us. Plus, he liked us. His soft eyes petted me though his hands never tried, and around our nightly campfire Terix told ribald stories that made him laugh until tears streaked down his grizzled cheeks.
I suppose it also helped that Bone Cruncher, a crossbreed of mastiff and—judging by his size—ox, had fallen in love with me, and me with him. Balmort trusted the dog’s opinion above all others.
“He can’t be trusted,” Terix said, casting a worried gaze across the room to Jax, the long-haired, sun-browned, thigh-dampeningly sexy captain of a swift trading vessel. Jax watched our conversation while pretending not to, his calm eyes scanning the rowdy crowd, but always returning to rest briefly upon us. Upon me. “He’s more likely a pirate than a trader.”
“Who better to brave the raiding ships of the Saxons, and bring us across the water to Britannia?” Lust was making my tongue glib. Was it also making me see logic where there was none? I wanted to touch Jax, and the deal we’d struck would let me do that, while pretending that it was a price I paid for his help. “We already know that no fisherman will dare it. They huddle as close to shore as their nets will let them.”
“We could go west instead, to the peninsula. Armorica. It’s free of Sygarius’s rule.”
“What is there for us? We know nothing of the Bretani tribe.”
“The same Bretani are in Britannia, so what’s the difference?”
“Maerlin’s not in Armorica. The Phanne are not in Armorica. That’s the difference.”
Terix heaved a put-upon sigh. We’d had this same argument a hundred times over the past month and a half as we fled from Sygarius and toward . . . toward . . . Well, that was the issue. Toward what? The only answer that had any meaning—to me, at least—was to find my lost people, the Phanne. And the only clue I had to finding them was the story that a tattooed man named Maerlin had once met my onetime lover (and only one time, gods rot his betraying heart), the Frankish prince Clovis, on the shore of the channel. Maerlin had told Clovis that he was of the Phanne and going to Britannia, and that Clovis must remember this fact, for someday it would give him what he sought.
An annoyingly mysterious statement, that.
“He’ll want more from you once we’re on his boat. You’ll have to give it to him, too,” Terix tried.
I hoped so.
Hades, what had come over me? This was not the Nimia I was familiar with, for most of her life untouchable and untouched, the consecrated sexual-toy-to-be of Sygarius.
Or maybe I was the same Nimia: I had spent those untouched years lusting for the feel of another’s hand on my skin. Perhaps it should be no surprise to anyone, least of all myself, that once my virginity was gone I would seek to gorge myself on that which I had so long been denied.
Jax was the first attractive opportunity to do so. How convenient for me that we needed his help.
“Better a cock rubber . . .” I said, reviving an old joke between us.
“Than a pot scrubber,” Terix answered, but then made a face. “That was only funny when we were slaves with no choice.”
“There’s never a choice for the likes of us. Not here in Gaul, anyway, with Sygarius hunting us. We have to get beyond his reach.”
Terix threw up his hands. He knew I wasn’t going to be dissuaded. “It’s your cunny.”
“My cunny isn’t part of the deal, you know that.” At least, not yet it wasn’t. One look at my tattoos, and no matter how horny Jax was for me, he’d be a lot hornier for the ten-soldi reward. “It’s the only way, Terix.”
Terix turned his shoulder to me, and made grumbling comments to his cup of mead that I chose not to decipher.
I slid my gaze to Jax, and sent him my answer in a small smile and a nod.
Jax rose at once, leaving his friends to their dice and drink. He wove through the crowd, coming toward me with an easy, natural confidence, his arms relaxed, his narrow hips and sinewy frame moving without hurry, but with purpose. A sudden certainty came to me that a man who moved through a crowd like that, with no sign of either arrogance or caution, was a man who didn’t blink at killing anyone who got in his way.
A shiver ran down my spine and landed in my loins. I was a fool if I thought I was in control of this situation.
My cunny pulsed in response to the thought.
“All is agreed?” Jax asked when he reached me. His Latin had an accent I couldn’t place; I guessed that he’d not grown up amid Romans. How old he might be, I couldn’t say: deep crow’s-feet spread from his eyes, and grooves ran from the edge of his nose to the corners of his mouth, but a life on the water would do that to even a young man. His hair hung thick and dark brown, and his teeth flashed white in his tanned skin.
He took my elbow in a gentle grip and guided me from the tavern into the scorching heat of the day. The sun felt like flames on my skin. My stomach fluttered as I realized this was happening; I was going alone with Jax to the stables. I had agreed to suck his cock in exchange for his agreeing to take us on as paying passengers, and he was not a man who would let me change my mind.
A nervous panic swept over me, and I faltered.
His grip on my elbow tightened. “Shh,” he soothed, without looking at me. As if I were any wench he’d bartered for in a tavern.
My heart beat faster. When would I learn to listen to Terix? He was so much better at reading people—including me—than I was. Terix had said that Jax was not to be trusted . . . And yet here I was, alone with him, and having given my enthusiastic offer of services worthy of only the lower sort of prostitute.
A quality prostitute would have managed better than to render services in a stable.
“Don’t pretend it’s your first time with this,” Jax said, taking me from the burning summer sun into the instant twilight of the stable. My eyes, blinded by the brief walk in glaring brightness, could see nothing but shadows. I smelled dust and hay, leather and horse, urine and dung. It was cooler in the stable, but the air was still and suffocating.
“Not my first time with a man, no,” I said. “But I . . .”
He pulled me into an empty stall and with both hands on my shoulders, shoved me downward. I collapsed onto my knees, the sharp ends of the straw stabbing at my skin. I still wore the rough tunic in which I’d escaped from Sygarius’s villa, my lower legs bare, my feet shod in filthy sandals. “You what?” he said. “You’ve never sucked a cock? You’ve never sold yourself?” He unfastened his belt and tossed it aside.
My face was level with his groin. My eyes could not move from his hands, lifting his tunic to reveal worn wool breeches, fastened with a cord. His callused hands went to work on the knot. “I’m not . . . skilled. At, er . . . the sucking.” I dared a look up at him. The light hit him from the side, leaving half his face in shadow. From my low position, he looked twice as tall, twice as dangerous, as he had in the tavern. There seemed no human emotion on his face.
The knot came free, and he shoved down the front of his breeches. His mentula sprang forth, erect, hard. It was thick at the base and tapered to a smaller head, poking forth from the foreskin that his arousal had forced back. His cock curved upward, and I had a sudden wonder at what it would feel like inside me, curved like that and with that thigh-spreading thickness at its root. My cunny clenched, wanting to find out.
But I couldn’t let Jax see my tattoos, so my hungry cunny would have to hide under my tunic and bide its time. Maybe when we reached the shores of Britannia, I could indulge it.
Jax dug his fingers into the hair on either side of my skull, and tilted my face up. “The moment I saw you, I wanted this. I’ve never seen anyone like you.” His eyes scanned my face, as if trying to decipher for himself what it was that drew him. “You’re not beautiful like a normal woman . . . but there’s something. Something that makes a man want to sink himself inside your mouth. Your cunt. Your ass. Everywhere he can. I want to come inside you until you overflow with it.”
Crude as they were, his words worked on me, charging my body even as my mind drew back, cringing from the image of him sliding into my ass, spending his seed there, then withdrawing to watch the milky whiteness seep from the puckered opening between my cheeks.
“Open your mouth,” he said.
He forced my face to his cock, the velvet head pressed against my lips. I breathed deep of his scent, a combination of sweat and male funk. The head pressed harder, parting my lips and hitting up against my teeth.
I looked up at him again, and saw the whites of his eyes glittering in the half-light. My gaze locked with his, and I opened my mouth.
“There’s a good girl,” he said, and slid inside, stretching my jaw wide, pressing until I felt him on the roof of my mouth. Instinctively I covered my teeth with my lips, and sucked—as much to keep from drooling as to give him pleasure.
“There you go,” he said, with more kindness than I’d heard from him. “Now put your hand here.” He guided my hand to the base of his mentula, and had me wrap thumb and forefinger around it. “Squeeze and slide. There you go . . .”
I matched hand to lips, and bobbed my head over him, taking him as deep as I could, and then out again to the very end of what my lips could hold. It made my jaws ache, to be open so wide, but I liked the feel of him against my tongue. I liked the shape of that small head, and its crumpled collar. I dug the tip of my tongue against it, exploring, playing, tasting the drop of salt, and Jax groaned, his hands in my hair tightening. He gripped my hair in two fistfuls and pulled my mouth over him, forcing me to the rhythm he chose, his cock thrusting deep. I felt the end of it in my throat, and I released my grip on his base, putting both my hands on his hips and trying to pull myself away.
He was stronger than me, and his need had taken him over. I could only groan my protest as he thrust into my mouth. When I looked up, his eyes were waiting for me, and the contact of our gazes seemed to send him into a deeper frenzy. His eyes glittered, his mouth a tight hard line as he pulled me to him again and again, harder, faster.
I gave up all hope of control, all struggle. And as I did, my body began to feel his cock in my mouth as an echo of what it would be in my cunny. Thrusting. Powerful. Giving no mercy. Not caring who I was or what I felt.
I closed my eyes as warmth spread through my loins. I felt my folds swelling, my stamen tingling. And then, as if from a great distance, I heard a humming like a thousand bees. Images flashed behind my lids, too quick to grasp, except for one fraction of a moment I saw a red-haired man with a knife in his hand, coming up behind Jax.
Then all at once Jax pulled free.
I knelt openmouthed, my jaw locked, spittle smeared across my lips and down my chin. His hands went to my shoulders and then I was on my back in the straw, my legs spread wide as he knelt between them.
“You never meant this to stop at your mouth,” Jax said, and shoved my tunic upward.
“No, don’t!” I grabbed at my hem, pulling it down. My tattoos; I couldn’t let him see them. They started mid-thigh.
“Don’t pretend not to want it. I see it in your eyes . . . By Wotan, what happened to your eyes?” he asked, his own going wide. “They’re glowing copper.”
I drew my knees up and kicked madly at him, trying to roll away and scramble to the side. I almost made it, but then his stupor broke and he grabbed my ankles and flipped me on my belly, my face buried in the dirty straw. He jerked my legs apart.
“Those eyes can’t hurt me if they can’t see me,” he said. “I’ve never fucked whatever gods-forsaken sort of wench you are before, but I won’t pass up the chance to try.”
Minerva help me, I wanted him to do it. My gates pulsed in welcome, even as I got my hands under me and tried to lift up. I could not let him see those tattoos.
“Oh no you don’t.” He knocked my arms out from under me and took both wrists in one hand, pinning them in the small of my back while he wedged his thighs between mine. I struggled and cried out, but it was for naught; I was a small woman, and gave him all the trouble of a bird caught by a cat.
“Now let’s see what we have here,” Jax said, and raised the hem of my tunic. “What in Hades—?” he had time to say, before chaos leapt upon us, growling and snapping, shouting and swinging a shovel.
Jax reacted instantly, with the deadly reflexes of the pirate he was. As I rolled over I heard the thud of a fist on flesh, and turned my head in time to see Balmort fall sideways, his head hitting the edge of an upturned wooden pail as he landed, crumpled and silent, on the stable floor.
Bone Cruncher launched himself at Jax, who was drawing a blade from his boot. “No!” I screamed.
Bone knocked Jax down, and I threw myself on the dog, pushing him out of the way of the blade. “Bone, no! No!”
The dog lunged and snarled, but obeyed my arms around his neck. Jax’s eyes went from the dog’s jaws to me, and then to Balmort. I turned to look, too, and a sob rose in my throat.
Jax, one eye still on Bone, one hand holding the blade raised in warning, moved to Balmort and held his hand in front of Balmort’s nose. After several long moments—I didn’t see the old man’s chest moving—Jax felt his throat, pressing his fingertips along it, seeking a pulse that I already knew was not there.
“Shit,” Jax said, sitting back on his heels, his face slack with surprise.
Bone sensed the shift in the tension, and his snarls lowered to growls, and then when he looked at his motionless master, he fell silent. His dark eyes looked from Balmort back up to me, and when he moved toward the fallen man I let him go. He sniffed at the peddler, and then licked his face. He put a paw on Balmort’s chest and whimpered.
“It was an accident,” Jax said. “You know that, right?”
I nodded, but then lowered my brows. “Why do you care what I think?”
“I’m guilty of plenty, but I won’t have murdering harmless old men who try to protect women added to my slate.” His eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t exactly your virtue he was trying to protect, was it? Those tattoos. Your eyes. You’re the slave I’d get ten soldi for turning in, aren’t you?”
“Bone,” I commanded in a low voice.
The dog raised his head, ears perking.
Bone obeyed at once, leaving Balmort and coming to lean his immense frame against my hip.
Jax looked at the dog as if considering how hard it would be to get through him, then shook his head and sheathed his blade. He stood and retrieved his belt, buckling it around his waist as I inched backward, wondering how fast Terix and I could run, and whether it was even possible to escape.
“I won’t take you to Britannia.”
“I guessed as much.”
“You could have let that dog kill me.”
“I was protecting Bone, not you.”
“Yet still, here I am, alive. And your friend is dead. I find myself . . . not as happy as I should be. I am a liar, a thief, a pirate. A cheat and a murderer. And yet . . .”
I stared at him, my hand on Bone’s scruff.
“And yet . . . I have my own sense of justice. I’ll give you until dawn to get far away. But no longer. I don’t think my sense of justice will hold me from ten soldi longer than that. In truth, you’ll be lucky if you make it to today’s sunset.”
I turned to go, not needing to be told twice.
And then I stopped.
Oh, crazy me. This man, I owed him less than nothing. But I couldn’t go without telling him. Something inside me said that I must tell him, or else I’d live to regret it. I turned again and met his eyes, his brow quirking up in surprise that I had not scampered from the stables like a hare with a fox after it.
“A man with red hair,” I said. “Don’t trust him. He will try to stab you in the back.”
Jax’s chin pulled back. “What?”
I fluttered one hand in the air. “I see things. I know things. Watch your back when the red-haired man is near.”
And then I did flee, Bone at my side.
Reunited with Clovis, now king of his barbarian tribe, Nimia and he “celebrate” sexually. Frequently. But sometimes he takes it too far, subjecting her to erotic activities that make her wonder if she’d be better off with her former master, Sygarius. She’s in love with Clovis, though, and he says he loves her, too… But there’s a coldness in his eyes that makes her wonder if he really does—or if he’s just using her prophetic gift for his own gain.
King Sygarius, meanwhile, wants Nimia back. When he captures her and sexually enslaves her again, she discovers a crystal chalice inscribed with a design that echoes those tattooed on her body. And when Clovis rescues her from Sygarius, she steals the chalice to take with her.
A Christian priest suspects it’s the Holy Grail, but Nimia has a strong feeling it’s a remnant of her lost tribe, the Phanne. But even the chalice cannot tell her if the child she carries belongs to Clovis… or to his greatest enemy: Sygarius.
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