A glossary of the world of Aerthe can be found in Contents.
They opened the door of the carrier vehicle and set him free. Sawyer stepped out, smelled engine grease, felt the dirt shift underfoot, heard the cry of birds, and saw the drift of their wings above the arch of the trees. Free was a lie, but he could see the sky and breathe air that wasn’t soaked with the smells of a dozen other slaves; it was good.
He closed his eyes to let his minor liberty encompass him, let his nostrils expand...his chest. Beautiful clean air. Any freedom spoke of hope.
Then he opened his eyes.
Data. Lock it in.
Forest. An open road that was straight for hundreds of yards, front and back. Straight as a ruler. As always, the guards were here. Months and months of being a slave had dampened his fire but not extinguished it.
What was different? His special forces training had him scanning for info, for openings, for differences.
Three nearby guards. The steel manacles on his ankles and wrists meant doing anything was ridiculous unless he could get them off. During the past few months, he’d tried picking the locks, but they looked like nothing he’d ever seen. Not surprising. This was a different world slash universe.
She was different. The girl hurrying up the line accompanied by a hulking guard.
He knew her as Aribelle but hadn’t often seen her on the journeys between markets.
Pretty, small, and female. White hair in a neat, almost-shoulder-length cut – shorter than his, which was as messy as Conan the Barbarian’s in the movies. The transit to this world had shot his hair color into a black so deep and dark the devil would have trouble competing with it.
God. All the people who’d arrived that same day. Scattered. He couldn’t help going back in time, in memories. Fern was most likely dead by now...
Maybe she was alive...
Hope kept him going. She was his only family here, in a world where everything and everyone was potentially an enemy. If hope failed him, he was going to kick the shit out of it.
Fucking Mekkers. The grounders were callous and had the morals of street cats prowling for food in the gutter, but the Mekkers were violent maniacs.
Aribelle. He followed her path, surreptitiously. Female, and it’d been so long since he’d fucked anything – or even better spanked then fucked. A man could dream. Ironically, she barely looked like a woman most of the times he’d seen her. Today, she wore long, dark pants with a buttoned, blue shirt. Slightest possible amount of cleavage showing, though even at a distance, he’d spotted the jiggle of her breasts. Practical black boots.
As she neared him, he spotted some sort of black stain smeared across her face and shirt collar.
Far as he’d been able to determine, she was the niece of the owner of this roving business that caravanned across the land, following the landships, buying, selling.
Uncle Rowe kept them moving, chasing the Royal Swathe, selling the Factor H he’d distilled from the blood of the slaves, as well as selling fancy gourmet foods, fruits, whatever – Sawyer hadn’t been invited to their company meetings. Aribelle was some sort of poor-quality physician. Most of the other slaves would rather spit on their wounds than have her try to heal them.
“Why’ve we stopped?” He nudged Paulo, a lean Scav who’d become a friend, as much as anyone could be here.
“Don’t know.” Paulo’s eyebrow cocked high. His mouth screwed into an ugly mess of furrows and folds. “Maybe her highness wants to stretch her legs?”
“Her highness? Wouldn’t call her a princess type.” More a run past and ignore them type, because they bothered her for some reason. Or she was just oblivious.
“She’s got airs, Sawyer. She avoids touching a slave, going near us. Think we smell too ripe?”
Sawyer chuckled. “Maybe.” They did smell, oh yeah, but it couldn’t be helped. Though they were allowed to clean up once they stopped, the travel left them stinking.
Those legs were bringing her closer. The princess tag gave him ideas.
Whatever the reason for the stop, she was a possible diversion. Every guard carried a device to unlock the manacles. He needed one of those.
“Won’t be a long stop!” some guard bawled out. “Piss if you need to, unless you want to do it in your carrier. Won’t be no more stops until we get there.”
They were let out to piss? His idea had been nudged further into the light. Normally you were expected to not wave yourself around with the grounder women in sight.
As she strode past, he took out his cock and pissed on her boots.
The guard with her halted, stunned, and glanced at him then at her. So did the one who’d opened their carrier. That guard was so flustered he lost track of his duties for a few seconds. Aribelle looked at her feet. No doubt she’d be embarrassed to look when he had his dick out.
In one smooth motion, he unhooked the device off their guard’s belt and hid it at the back of his pants. His hand chains swung into his legs and made them look at him again, but he’d been fast.
Lazily, he tucked himself away.
“You grimy shitsucker!” The backhand from the guard was expected, and he let him connect, just nowhere bad. His cheek stung, but he’d moved in the direction of the force, rocking away.
No fractures, thank god. He worked his jaw, and the thick collar shifted and pulled at his skin where the blood-sucking tube went into him.
“Sorry, mistress. The slave has a bad aim. I’ll whip him for his impertinence.”
“Whip him? Only whip him?”
The urine on her shoes glistened in the sunlight shafting down through the trees.
He’d even hit the bottoms of her pants. Bonus points.
Once they were moving again, he’d free everyone in the carrier. After that, they still had to get the door open, or they could mob the guards who opened it at the next stop. Worth the risk.
He wasn’t staying a slave forever.
“He deserves worse.”
“Miss? What would you have us do? Your uncle would –”
What was she intending they do? He needed to palm the device to Paulo, fast.
Sawyer looked up to see a startling clarity in her green eyes. Wait no, the left eye was yellow, the right was green. Different colored eyes. Unusual even for here.
“He did this just to steal. He has your key on him somewhere. Search him. Strip him. Write thief on him in red and tie him to the roof of the carrier for a while.”
“Keep your arms down or Tar here will stick you with his big knife.” The carrier guard circled him, found the device and removed it. As he ripped it off Sawyer’s waistband, something metal scratched his back. “You were right. He had this.”
How did she know? She couldn’t have seen him take it. Worse, though – she meant to humiliate him? Bitch. Damn her. That had been his best chance in months. The tension in his jaw made it ache.
Keeping his head angled low, he leaned closer to her, though still a yard away, and said in his best evil-fucker voice, “You shouldn’t threaten a man twice as big as you.”
Her eyes widened, mouth tightened. Fear, he saw fear there. Good.
He didn’t get angry often. Once in a while, it cleared the system.
“Threaten?” After one hard swallow, she rattled out a reply like a train going down a track. “Strip him and then castrate him.”
“Uncle –” The guard began.
“Uncle won’t care as long as you don’t let him bleed.”
Tar looked doubtful, a frown twitching across his brow.
Though Sawyer moved to surge forward, the guard to his right slammed a punch into his back, and he went to one knee, coughing, almost faceplanting due to the restraints. He swayed there, sucking in air. “You don’t want to do that.”
This time it was she who leaned in. “Why?” Her lips were pale. “Don’t threaten a woman who has power over you, slave.”
He managed to stay steady on that one knee. Rein it in. If ever he needed his calm and his reasoning powers, it was now. He was pretty sure her uncle would be horrified if he died, if she cost him an expensive human. She was scared, fumbling to look as if she knew what she was doing; he’d make her more scared of castrating him.
Sawyer kept rigid eye contact while he spoke, and used big Mekker words because that might make him appear intelligent. She seemed the sort of woman who’d like that.
Telling her he aimed to kill her men, if they laid a hand on him, would be stupid.
“You want a dangerous man who hates you to eternity among your slaves? Alternative is I’ll apologize for my actions today. You mete out some other punishment then we go back to normal.”
Not normal, really. He still wouldn’t forget, but he wasn’t telling her that.
Her face ran through a gamut of emotions. Anger, uncertainty, worry – he could see it in her blinking, in the few times she flinched from his gaze. Milliseconds only, small tells, but it spoke volumes.
“You cut me the wrong way, I bleed to death. Which is it? Dead slave or one full of hate, or we go back to how it was?”
She took a half-step back. “I don’t take orders from –”
“Suggestion only.” He smiled thinly. Giving her an out there. Take it, girl.
Tar had drawn his knife. If they tried to cut off his balls, he’d not go down easy. That knife would be in Tar.
“Um. Like he says, Miss. Not sure about the bleeding, even if we burn the wound.”
Did not need to hear that. Still...one guard on his side.
The air rustled with threat as something whistled by.
The first shot blew off half of Tar’s head, and blood rained forth, splattering everyone including princess. He lunged and collected her legs, pulling her down as more shots boomed out. All the guards were down by the time he’d shoved her under the rear of the carrier and scooted under there with her. Paulo joined them. Others were running or hiding elsewhere – against the wheels of other vehicles or under them. Screams were few and soon cut off by single shots. Bad sound that. Bad implications.
When Aribelle rose, trying to extricate herself from between him and Paulo, a projectile whizzed past so close it kicked up her hair. He dragged her back by a handful of shirt.
“Stay fucking still! You want to die?” Then he shoved her face first into the grass and dirt. The two men ignored her muffled struggles.
“They’re executing the remaining guards.”
“Yeah. It’s a Scav warband, Sawyer. Stay close to me. They’re done shooting. Come.”
“Sure.” He let the girl raise her head. She glared at him, while spitting out grass. “Play it cool, and this guy will be nice. See, he’s a friend of whoever is out there.” He was wriggling out from under the carrier when a shot, leaking tendrils of blue, cracked across his field of view, from left to right. Then another. Paulo sagged, slumping into the open door and folding in a bleeding mess. Several holes were leaking blood onto his side and chest.
“Don’t shoot the others,” someone yelled.
“Shit. Not good.” Poor guy. He’d barely gained his knees when three men sauntered up, their long weapons either at their sides or pointing at him. Humming sounds said they were primed and ready to fire.
All along the caravan, people were being collected, herded.
Aribelle cleared her throat. Her voice shook. “There’s more than one Scav type, human. I’d say your man was the wrong type.”
“I see that.” He grimaced, glancing down at her.
A fourth Scav joined the trio – this one was taller, beefier, with blue tattoos on his face and a chest bedecked with knives and two holstered guns. He carried a blue-speckled long gun. His big hand easily held the heavy firearm, swinging it as if it were made of paper.
“Speak. What are you two? You.” He jerked his chin at Sawyer. “Must be a slave. A human? Her?”
Now to see if he could come out one better than castration. There were ways to lean on the scales of justice. He’d make this work for him. He was never meant for slavery.
“She’s one of the grounder owners – Aribelle someone. I’m a human warrior. I have great skills at fighting and was in an army of special soldiers on our world. Make me free and I will train your men to kill better than ever.”
A grin spread across the Scav’s broad face. A vikan, a purple crow-like bird, called from the trees. Sunlight gilded the man’s locks where they blew across his forehead.
“You’re brave, speaking like that to me when...this.” He swept his hand in an arc to left then right, indicating the dead guards and Paulo.
Sawyer stayed mute and maintained a stoic look.
“I’m Zarr. I lead a large warband that I aim to make larger, and yes, I mean to train them well, to fight well. But you are unproven. Words mean nothing.” He’d tripped over some of the sounds, mangling them a little. “And her?”
Aribelle cut in nervously. “My uncle, Mister Rowe, has an agreement. You don’t raid us. We pay, so you don’t. You need to find out –”
“Quiet! I have no fucking agreements with no grounders.” He jabbed toward Sawyer. “Add him to the others and her too. Put bindings on her and a collar if you find a spare.”
Sawyer had never seen a woman go so pale so fast. This was going to be interesting. As if unperturbed by all the bloodshed, he drawled, “You don’t want me to train your men?”
Zarr laughed. “I never said that. Your boast will be tested, perhaps. You might regret your words. We eat losers and liars.”
As they both gained their feet, Aribelle spoke. “Your lucky day. You get to keep your balls.”
Feisty. He eyed her. Still pale and the tic of a facial muscle said she was scared beyond reasoning. “Guess so.”
“They don’t eat the losers of fights. He was just toying with you.”
“Good.” A fight? He hadn’t said he wanted to fight. He’d said train. He hoped he hadn’t been misunderstood. That could be a problem.
“Don’t you want to know what they do?” From the squeak in her tone, he guessed she was attempting to distract herself from her fate.
“No.” The three warriors circled them, and all seemed acutely interested in Aribelle, or rather in her body – which was not surprising. “I won’t be losing.”
If they raped her, would he be sorry? This world had put calluses on his morals – he truly wasn’t sure.
Correction. After what she’d aimed to do to him? He would’ve done worse.
Something turned over in his mind, crawled into the light, and he sighed. Okay, the rape thing wasn’t his modus operandi. Wasn’t much he could do if they wanted to.
He eyed her again. A mere girl and she’d wanted to cut off his balls a few minutes ago. Talked big when she was on top but also when she was frightened.
“Stick with me if you can.”
“Why?” She frowned up at him.
“Because you can probably trust me more.”
Aribelle swallowed then he heard her murmur, “Probably.”
“No more talking.” A tall, thin Scav went around behind them. He grabbed Aribelle by the neck, lifted her a foot until she wriggled – choking and plucking at his fingers. He laughed. “You’re going to taste good. I can tell. Looks like we get pussy for dinner tonight.”
“Let me go!”
The other two joined in, smiling and laughing as he lowered her to the ground.
The man pulled her into his body, reached around and found the bottom of her shirt. Beneath the shirt, he ran his hand over her stomach then higher. From the movement of cloth and her wince, he’d grabbed a handful of her breast and was crushing it. His hand swept down again and he thrust it into her pants to take a firm hold of her between the legs.
“Nice. Getting wet for me, huh?”
No matter how she squirmed, he held her with ease while grinning at her struggles.
Sawyer stood watching, passive on the surface. Underneath, in a subterranean layer of his mind, he found his anger rising again.
Maybe he was angry because it was an appropriation of a body he wanted to fuck too. Maybe...
In that pivotal moment, he made a plan.
Two sides to the bargain he’d made with himself.
He’d get himself beyond and above slavery; he’d pry her loose from these foul idiots.
They had unfinished business. He’d saved her life after she’d threatened to have him castrated. She was his, for better or for worse. Probably for worse.
Mightn’t be much left of her, if these three had their way. They’d break her like a twig. Step up or back up.
“Hoy! You should wait for your leader to decide what to do with her.”
Wasn’t a question. Questions made you look weak.
Their laughter and insults ebbed.
One of the two men not playing with her turned his attention to Sawyer – the dark skinned, lean one in the weathered gray clothes, the man with the knife-sharp nose. The blond fuzz on his scalp looked incongruous with his dark skin. “Name’s Dayne. Keep your tongue still, slave, or we’ll feed you to something with teeth.” Then he smiled, showing his own teeth.
Sawyer stared back. Interfering hadn’t been wise, but it’d needed doing.