Slave warrior queen, p.4
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.4

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  “I must leave for a while,” he said.

  She felt as if she couldn’t take a breath.

  “Leave?”

  He turned and looked her in the eyes.

  “As you know, the winter and spring were particularly hard this year. The past few years of drought have been difficult. We haven’t made enough money to get through the next winter, and if I don’t go, our family will starve to death. I have been commissioned by another king to be his head bladesmith. It will be good money.”

  “You will take me with you, right?” Ceres said, a frantic tone in her voice.

  He shook his head grimly.

  “You must stay here and help your mother and brothers.”

  The thought sent a wave of horror through her.

  “You can’t leave me here with Mother,” she said. “You wouldn’t.”

  “I have spoken to her, and she will take care of you. She will be kind.”

  Ceres stomped her foot in the earth, the dust rising.

  “No!”

  Tears burst from her eyes and tumbled down her cheeks.

  He took a small step toward her.

  “Listen to me very carefully, Ceres. The palace still needs swords delivered from time to time. I have put in a good word for you, and if you make swords the way I have taught you, you could make a little money of your own.”

  Making her own money might possibly allow her more freedom. She had found her small, dainty hands had come in handy when carving intricate designs and inscriptions on the blades and hilts. Her father’s hands were broad, his fingers thick and stubby, and few others had the skill she had.

  Even so, she shook her head.

  “I don’t want to be a smith,” she said.

  “It runs in your blood, Ceres. And you have a gift for it.”

  She shook her head, adamant.

  “I want to wield weapons,” she said, “not make them.”

  As soon as the words had left her mouth, she regretted speaking them.

  Her father furrowed his brow.

  “You wish to be a warrior? A combatlord?”

  He shook his head.

  “One day it may be allowed for women to fight,” she said. “You know I have practiced.”

  His eyebrows crinkled in worry.

  “No,” he commanded, firmly. “That is not your path.”

  Her heart sank. She felt as if her hopes and dreams of becoming a warrior were dissipating with his words. She knew he wasn’t trying to be cruel—he was never cruel. It was just reality. And for them to stay alive, she would have to sacrifice her part, too.

  She looked into the distance as the sky lit with a jolt of lightning. Three seconds later, thunder rumbled through the heavens.

  Had she not realized how dire their circumstances were? She always assumed they would pull through together as a family, but this changed everything. Now she wouldn’t have Father to hold onto, and there would be no person to stand as a shield between her and Mother.

  One tear after another dropped onto the desolate earth as she remained immovable where she stood. Should she give up her dreams and follow her father’s advice?

  He pulled something out from behind his back, and her eyes widened to see a sword in his hand. He stepped closer, and she could see the details of the weapon.

  It was awe-inspiring. The hilt was of pure gold, engraved with a serpent. The blade was two-edged and looked to be of the finest steel. Though the workmanship was foreign to Ceres, she could immediately tell it was of the finest quality. On the blade itself there was an inscription.

  When heart and sword meet, there shall be the victory.

  She gasped, staring at it in awe.

  “Did you forge that?” she asked, her eyes glued to the sword.

  He nodded.

  “After the manner of the northerners,” he replied. “I have labored on it for three years. Indeed, this blade alone could feed our family for an entire year.”

  She looked at him.

  “Then why not sell it?”

  He shook his head firmly.

  “It wasn’t made for that purpose.”

  He stepped closer, and to her surprise, he held it out before him.

  “It was made for you.”

  Ceres raised a hand to her mouth and let out a moan.

  “Me?” she asked, stunned.

  He smiled wide.

  “Did you really think I forgot your eighteenth birthday?” he replied.

  She felt tears flood her eyes. She had never been more touched.

  But then she thought about what he had said earlier, about not wanting her to fight, and she felt confused.

  “And yet,” she replied, “you said I must not train.”

  “I don’t want you to die,” he explained. “But I see where your heart is. And that, I cannot control.”

  He reached a hand underneath her chin and lifted her head until their eyes met.

  “I am proud of you for it.”

  He handed her the sword, and when she felt the cool metal against her palm, she became one with it. The weight was perfect for her, and the hilt felt like it had been molded to her hand.

  All the hope that had died earlier now reawakened in her chest.

  “Don’t tell your mother,” he warned. “Hide it where she cannot find it, or she will sell it.”

  Ceres nodded.

  “How long will you be gone?”

  “I will try to be back for a visit before the first snowfall.”

  “That’s months away!” she said, taking a step back.

  “It is what I must do to—”

  “No. Sell the sword. Stay!”

  He placed a hand on her cheek.

  “Selling this sword might help us for this season. And perhaps next. But then what?” He shook his head. “No. We need a long-term solution.”

  Long term? Suddenly, she realized his new job wasn’t just going to be for a few months. It might be years.

  Her despondency deepened.

  He stepped forward, as if sensing it, and hugged her.

  She felt herself begin to cry in his arms.

  “I will miss you, Ceres,” he said, over her shoulder. “You are different than all the others. Every day I will look up into the heavens and know you are beneath the same stars. Will you do the same?”

  At first she wanted to yell at him, to say: how dare you leave me here alone.

  But she felt it in her heart that he couldn’t stay, and she didn’t want to make it harder on him than it already was.

  A tear rolled down her face. She sniffled and nodded her head.

  “I will stand beneath our tree every night,” she said.

  He kissed her on the forehead and wrapped tender arms around her. The wounds on her back felt like knives, but she gritted her teeth and remained silent.

  “I love you, Ceres.”

  She wanted to respond, and yet she couldn’t get herself to say anything—her words were stuck in her throat.

  He fetched his horse from the stable, and Ceres helped him load it with food, tools, and supplies. He embraced her one last time, and she thought her chest might burst from sadness. Yet still, she couldn’t utter a single word.

  He mounted the horse, and nodded before signaling to the animal to move.

  Ceres waved as he rode away, and she watched with unwavering attention until he vanished behind the distant hill. The only true love she had ever known came from that man. And now he was gone.

  Rain started to descend from the heavens, and it prickled against her face.

  “Father!” she screamed as loudly as she could. “Father, I love you!”

  She fell to her knees and buried her hands in her face, sobbing.

  Life, she knew, would never be the same again.

  CHAPTER THREE

  With aching feet and burning lungs, Ceres climbed the steep hill as swiftly as she could without spilling a drop of water from either bucket by her sides. Normally she would pause for a break, but her mo
ther had threatened no breakfast unless she was back by sunrise—and no breakfast meant she wouldn’t eat until dinner. She didn’t mind the pain, anyway—it, at least, allowed her to take her mind off her father, and the miserable new state of things since he had left.

  The sun was just now cresting the Alva Mountains in the distance, painting the scattered clouds above golden-pink, and soft wind sighed through the tall, yellow grass on either side of the road. Ceres drew the fresh morning air in through her nose and willed herself faster. Her mother wouldn’t find it an acceptable excuse that their regular well had dried up, or that there was a long line at the other one a half a mile away. Indeed, she did not stop until she reached the top of the hill—and once she did, she stopped in her tracks, stunned at the sight before her.

  There, in the distance, was her house—and before it sat a bronze wagon. Her mother stood before it, conversing with a man who was so overweight, Ceres thought she had never seen anyone even half his size. He wore a burgundy linen tunic and a red silk hat, and his long beard was bushy and gray. She squinted, trying to understand. Was he a merchant?

  Her mother was wearing her best dress, a green linen floor-length gown she had purchased years ago with money that was supposed to be used to buy Ceres new shoes. None of this made any sense.

  Hesitantly, Ceres started down the hill. She kept her eyes trained on them, and when she saw the old man hand her mother a heavy leather pouch, saw her mother’s emaciated face light up, she grew even more curious. Had their misfortune turned? Would Father be able to return home? The thoughts made her chest lighten a little, although she wouldn’t allow herself to feel any excitement until she learned the details.

  When Ceres neared their house, her mother turned and smiled at her warmly—and immediately Ceres felt a knot of worry in her stomach. The last time her mother had smiled at her like that—teeth gleaming, eyes bright—Ceres had received a flogging.

  “Darling daughter,” her mother said in an overly sweet tone, opening her arms toward her with a grin that made Ceres’s blood curdle.

  “This is the girl?” the old man said with an eager smile, his dark, beady eyes widening when he looked at Ceres.

  Now up close, Ceres could see every wrinkle on the obese man’s skin. His broad flat nose seemed to overtake his entire face, and when he took off his hat, his sweaty bald head glowed in the sunlight.

  Her mother waltzed over to Ceres, took the buckets from her, and set them on the singed grass. That gesture alone confirmed to Ceres that something was severely wrong. She began to feel a panicky sensation rise in her chest.

  “Meet my pride and joy, my only daughter, Ceres,” her mother said, pretending to wipe a tear away from her eye when there was none. “Ceres, this is Lord Blaku. Please show your respects to your new master.”

  A jolt of fear stabbed Ceres through the chest. She sucked in a sudden breath. Ceres looked at her mother, and with her back to Lord Blaku, her mother gave her a smile that was as evil as she had ever seen.

  “Master?” Ceres asked.

  “To save our family from financial ruin and public embarrassment, the benevolent Lord Blaku offered your father and me a generous deal: a sack of gold in exchange for you.”

  “What?” Ceres gasped, feeling herself sinking into the earth.

  “Now, be the good girl I know you are and show your respects,” her mother said, shooting Ceres a warning glance.

  “I will not,” Ceres said, taking a step back as she puffed her chest up, feeling silly for not having immediately realized the man was a slaver, and that the transaction was for her life.

  “Father would never sell me,” she added through clenched teeth, her horror and indignation rising.

  Her mother scowled and grabbed her by the arm, her fingernails digging into Ceres’s skin.

  “If you behave, this man might take you as his wife, and for you, that is a very lucky thing,” she muttered.

  Lord Blaku licked his thin crusty lips as his puffy eyes greedily wandered up and down Ceres’s body. How could her mother do this to her? She knew her mother didn’t love her as much as her brothers—but this?

  “Marita,” he said in a nasally voice. “You told me your daughter was fair, but you neglected to tell me what an utterly magnificent creature she is. Dare I say, I have yet to see a woman with lips as succulent as hers, and with eyes as passionate, and with a body as firm and exquisite.”

  Ceres’s mother placed a hand over her heart with a sigh, and Ceres felt like she might just vomit right here. She clenched her hands into fists as she snapped her arm away from her mother’s grasp.

  “Perhaps I should have asked for more, if she pleases you so much,” Ceres’s mother said, her eyes lowering in despondency. “She is, after all, our only beloved girl.”

  “I am willing to pay good money for such a beauty. Will another five gold pieces suffice?” he asked.

  “How generous of you,” her mother replied.

  Lord Blaku ambled over to his wagon to fetch more gold.

  “Father will never agree to this,” Ceres sneered.

  Ceres’s mother took a threatening step toward her.

  “Oh, but it was your father’s idea,” her mother snapped, with her eyebrows raised halfway up her forehead. Ceres knew she was lying now—whenever she did that, she was lying.

  “Do you actually think your father loves you more than he loves me?” her mother asked.

  Ceres blinked, wondering what that would have to do with anything.

  “I could never love someone who thinks she is better than me,” she added.

  “You never loved me?” Ceres asked, her anger morphing into hopelessness.

  With the gold in hand, Lord Blaku waddled over to Ceres’s mother and handed it to her.

  “Your daughter is worth every piece,” he said. “She will be a good wife and bear me many sons.”

  Ceres bit the inside of her lips and shook her head over and over again.

  “Lord Blaku will come for you in the morning, so go inside and pack your belongings,” Ceres’s mother said.

  “I won’t!” Ceres screamed.

  “That was always your problem, girl. You only ever think of yourself. This gold,” her mother said, jingling the purse in front of Ceres’s face, “will keep your brothers alive. It will keep our family intact, allowing us to remain in our home and make repairs. Did you fail to think about that?”

  For a split second, Ceres thought maybe she was being selfish, but then she realized her mother was playing mind games again, using Ceres’s love for her brothers against her.

  “Do not worry,” Ceres’s mother said, turning toward Lord Blaku. “Ceres will comply. All you need to do is be firm with her, and she becomes as meek as a lamb.”

  Never. Never would she be that man’s wife or anyone’s property. And never would she let her mother or anyone exchange her life for fifty-five pieces of gold.

  “I will never go with this slaver,” Ceres snapped, shooting him a look of disgust.

  “Ungrateful child!” Ceres’s mother yelled. “If you do not do as I say, I will beat you so severely you will never walk again. Now get inside!”

  The thought of being beaten by her mother brought back awful, visceral memories; she was taken back to that dreadful moment at five years old when her mother had beaten her until everything had gone black. The wounds from that beating and many others healed—yet the wounds in Ceres’s heart had never stopped bleeding. And now that she knew for sure that her mother didn’t love her, and never had, her heart split wide open for good.

  Before she could respond, Ceres’s mother stepped forward and slapped her across the face so hard her ear began ringing.

  At first, Ceres was stunned by the sudden assault, and she almost backed down. But then something snapped inside her. She would not allow herself to cower as she always did.

  Ceres smacked her mother back, across the cheek, so hard that she tumbled to the ground, gasping in horror.

  Red-fa
ced, her mother climbed to her feet, grabbed Ceres by the shoulder and hair, and kneed Ceres in the stomach. When Ceres stooped forward in agony, her mother jabbed her knee into Ceres’s face, causing her to fall to the ground.

  The slaver stood and watched, his eyes wide, chuckling, clearly taking delight in the fight.

  Still coughing and gasping for air from the assault, Ceres staggered to her feet. Screaming, she flung herself toward her mother, driving her to the ground.

  This ends today, was all Ceres could think. All the years of never being loved, of being treated with disdain, fueled her rage. Ceres smashed closed fists into her mother’s face again and again as tears of fury rolled down her cheeks, sobs uncontrollably spilling out of her lips.

  Finally, her mother went limp.

  Ceres’s shoulders shook with each cry, her insides wrung inside out. Blurred by tears, she looked up at the slaver with an even more intense hatred.

  “You will make a good one,” Lord Blaku said with a guileful grin, as he picked up the bag of gold from the ground and attached it to his leather belt.

  Before she could react, suddenly his hands were upon her. He grabbed Ceres and climbed into the carriage, tossing her into the back in one quick motion, as if she were a bag of potatoes. His massive bulk and strength was too much for her to resist. Holding her wrist with one arm and taking hold of a chain with the other, he said, “I’m not stupid enough to think you would still be here in morning.”

  She glanced at the house that had been her home for eighteen years, and her eyes filled with tears as she thought of her brothers and her father. But she had to make a choice if she was to save herself, before the chain was around her ankle.

  So in one quick motion, she mustered all of her strength and snatched her arm out of the slaver’s grip, lifted her leg, and kicked him in the face as hard as she could. He fell backwards, out of the carriage, and tumbled onto the ground.

  She jumped from the wagon and ran as fast as she could down the dirt road, away from the woman she vowed to never call mother again, away from everything she had ever known and loved.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  Surrounded by the royal family, Thanos tried hard to keep a pleasant expression on his face as he gripped the gold wine goblet—yet he could not. He hated being here. He hated these people, his family. And he hated attending royal gatherings—especially the ones following the Killings. He knew how the people lived, how poor they were, and he felt how senseless and unjust all this pomp and haughtiness really was. He would give anything to be far away from here.

 
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