I’ll admit I’m not usually given to such eloquent words of praise. In this case though I think it’s very applicable. That’s how I feel about what a reader just said in a review on Amazon about my Lost Girls series, in particular the final book, Black Widow. Don’t believe me? Here’s the 5 star review in full:
Here’s chapter 9 of Betrayal’s Hands, for your reading pleasure. Already a dark book it takes an even darker tone near the end. Darker than I’d intended but my editor when this was written called for a harsher treatment. I actually argued with her and ended up working out a compromise. What am I talking about? Read it and find out!
Teri was cold. Her feet were ragged, bloody and numb. Krev had run for what seemed like hours before stopping to set her down.
“You’ll run, girl. Like your life depends on it.” Krev grinned, “It does.”
She stared at him dumbly until he had reached out to push her onto the twisted trail. She’d stumbled and started to run with Krev behind her every step. They’d pushed through bush too dense for armored men on horseback, hoping to delay pursuit. To throw off the pursuer’s hounds, Krev made her run through an icy stream for what seemed like an eternity. She’d emerged dripping and shivering, only to be pushed on again by her captor.
“Please…” Teri whimpered, shaking, “I can’t run anymore.”
Looking at her, the half-ogre noticed the bluish tinge to her skin. She wouldn’t last long unless he got her warmed up. Nodding brusquely, Krev pulled her off of the path into the bush. He found a sheltered spot in the lee of a fallen tree and pointed to it.
“We’ll sleep there tonight. Take off your clothes.”
Teri stared at him, uncomprehendingly. “What?” she whispered weakly.
“Get them off!” he snapped at her, having very little patience left. “You don’t want me to have to do it.”
Tears formed in her eyes as Teri slipped the shoulder of her tattered dress off and dropped the remaining fabric to the ground, crossing her arms over her small breasts.
“You’re not my type.” Krev growled at her fear, although he could feel himself hardening at the sight of her smooth pale flesh revealed. Tossing his short cape into the log, he gestured to Teri. “Get in there. I can’t have you freezing to death.”
He watched as she scrambled onto the cloak, laying down to fit into the tight space. Sighing, he picked up the remnants of the dress, throwing them over a branch to dry. He moved to her side, watching her tense and shiver with his nearness. Opening his leather vest, he lay beside her, wrapping her in his arms against his chest, sharing his body heat with her fragile form.
The exhaustion of the day soon overpowered her discomfort with his nearness. In moments she drifted off into a black sleep.
* * * *
“The brute got away it seems,” Darleth said from his horse. Makan grunted, his mount stamping its foot impatiently in response to its owner’s mood.
They stood upon the shore of the stream, with scouts scouring up and down the length of it looking for tracks.
“Let us be off for the cave the bandit mentioned,” Makan said, turning to him. “We can make it there before they do.”
Darleth nodded, “Yes, but that bandit is unconscious and the priest said he’d be so for a day or more, and we’ve no idea where it is.”
“Wake him!” Makan snapped. “I don’t care if he lives or dies, damn you, I just want it found!”
Darleth’s eyes narrowed at Makan’s tone and words, but he kept his tongue in check. “Aye, My Lord Baron, let us see what we can do.”
They turned their horses and headed back towards the makeshift camp that had been set up. Darleth intended to make sure the bandit lived, he had uses for the ruffian. Makan’s needs were short term. Darleth had grander ambitions in mind.
* * * *
Nearly a week had elapsed and Teri was getting used to the life of an outlaw. She wore some badly sized peasant clothes that Krev had stolen for her. They were rags to her, but Krev had said that they’d once belonged to a woman who might have spent a month’s worth of wages on them. It was a lesson in humility, but she kept her head high and marched on with him in spite of it.
Her feet were beginning to heal, though they were still cracked and sore. He hadn’t acquired shoes for her, and after complaining enough to draw a slap from him to shut her up, she hadn’t mentioned it again. His slap, while slow and soft in his opinion, was powerful enough to send her stumbling. She shivered every time she remembered it and the strength he possessed.
Krev returned to their cold camp, returning from a scouting mission. He untied her from the tree he had bound her too, as he always did when he went out on his own, and sat down with a chuckle.
“They made one of my boys talk, it seems,” Krev said, digging into a pouch and pulling out some salted meat. “They’ve set up an ambush at our old hideout. Fools!”
Krev spat and used his large teeth to tear off some of the meat. He chewed on it and thought for a moment. “I’ve other holes to winter in, don’t you worry. And I’d not go to that one for a while anyhow. I thought my boys knew better than that though.”
Teri looked up at him and said, softly, “Sven.”
Krev looked at her and then chuckled. He handed her a piece of meat, which she greedily took and shoved into her mouth, drawing another chuckle from him. “He’s dead, snapped upon a tree. I heard the bones crack and break, no man can survive that.”
“So where are we going then? It’s getting really cold,” Teri said, hoping he wouldn’t slap her again.
“You’ll know when we get there. It’s in the Darkwood, that much I’ll tell you now.”
Teri’s eyes widened. The Darkwood was a dark and frightening forest. Its northern borders touched the Fens that separated the Kingdom from the savage lands to the north. The Kingdom claimed it, but they didn’t log it nor have anyone who lived within it. It was said that dark creatures lived within it, and many who entered its edges did not return, or were mad if they did.
Krev chuckled again, seeing her expression. “Look at me, pretty, where do you think I came from? Not one of your civilized towns! Ha! My mother was raped by an ogre from a raiding party from there. She nearly died giving birth to me, and hated me for what I reminded her of.”
He stared off into the distance. “The villagers took care of me when she finally died, five years later. I was strong and they needed me to tend their forge and do their work for them, but they ridiculed me and beat me. Never gave me a chance to be… Bah!”
Krev stood up, glaring at her. “Mind your own business, wench,” he spat out, forgetting that nothing she’d said had caused him to recall his youth. He tied her back to the tree and muttered something about scouting, then loped off into the darkening twilight.
As darkness fell, Teri grew more and more frightened. Krev hadn’t returned and she felt at that moment that even his ugly face would be welcome. She tugged again on the rope tying her to the tree, accomplishing little but pain in her raw wrists. An owl hooted in a nearby tree, making her cry out in terror. Tears flowed down her face unheeded.
“Lady, if you let me survive this…” she moaned.
Huddled there against the tree, she heard what sounded like footsteps approaching. “Krev?” she whispered, her voice hoarse with panic. “Please…”
The footsteps came closer, followed by a harsh chuckle.
“Glad to see me pretty?” Teri nearly fainted with relief at the big man’s voice. He reached out and untied her wrists from the tree. “So far we’ve eluded pursuit, we start in the morning for my wintering hole.”
“Don’t think I’m stupid, Pretty.” Krev warned, “You know who’s chasing us, and I will find out why you’d rather be my slave than return to them.”
Teri gasped, for he chose that moment to haul her to her feet. Her mind raced with the words he had just uttered. His slave? What did that mean for her? What would he want from her?
Krev chuckled again, “It will be a very comfortable winter for me.” He emphasized the word ‘me’.
And so it was that Krev led a weary and terrified Teri into the depths of the Darkwood. The very air seemed heavy and filled with dark and foreboding things to her. Animals larger than any she’d ever seen flitted about the forest at the edges of her vision, teasing and taunting her. Krev showed no concern for them, but instead led her a day’s walk within the wood to a rundown cabin.
Teri couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a simple cabin. A house, in a remote and frightening location, but the mundane nature of it buoyed her spirits. Krev led her to it, holding her behind him as he stalked in and looked around. Several small creatures, no taller than her thigh, squeaked at their entrance and tried to escape. Krev showed them no mercy, swinging a wooden branch as a club and crushing as many as he could. A few escaped out the door or the unshuttered windows.
“Lousy tree elves,” Krev muttered, looking at the mess of the place. “Thieves and scoundrels, the lot of them!”
“Those weren’t elves!” Teri protested. “I’ve seen elves, they’re much taller and more noble!”
Krev glared at her. “Them was tree elves, slave,” he said brusquely. “Not the high and mighty kind, true. Those were the savage cousins your elves don’t like to admit to being related to.”
Teri blanched at his tone and his labeling her a slave. Still, she held her ground as she faced him. “Who are you to vilify them for being thieves?”
Krev glared at her and then chuckled. “That’s fair. I suppose you’d like to take them clothes off so I can return them?”
Teri blushed and looked down, realizing she was as much a thief as he was. She shook her head, looking back up at last. Krev had turned and was already setting things right in the cottage. She sighed and moved to help clean things up, not knowing what else to do.
Teri spent the winter with Krev. She learned to cook and to clean and to do his laundry. It was hard work, but she learned not to protest. On rare occasions they had visitors. Some which Krev spoke with in a strange tongue she didn’t understand and at other times they were creatures that the half-ogre fought off with his great strength and amazing speed.
Teri was immersed in a world that frightened her. Over time her understanding of her captor led to a strange companionship. She could get him talking at times about topics and concepts a simple creature as cruel and as savage as he was had no right to know about. He would catch himself before too long and stop talking, behaving even more gruffly towards her for days afterwards. She began to want to know more about her complex captor.
Snow fell outside the cabin, piling up against the walls and sifting in through the cracks. Sitting next to the fire, Teri shivered. Krev had gone out this morning hunting. Teri sat quietly, mending his spare clothing. Lately she had begun to feel strange, missing him when he went out for the day, yet dreading his return. Her cheek was still tender from where he had struck her two days ago, she could hardly remember what provoked him. Setting down her sewing, she moved to the fire, stirring the stew in the cauldron. One thing she could always predict was his appetite. Soon he would return, and she hoped that his hunt had been successful. He was far more likely to be decent company after a successful hunt and a ready meal.
As she stirred the stew, the door banged open and Krev stomped through, slamming it closed behind him. The fresh blood on his jerkin answered her questions about the successfulness of his hunt. Brushing snow from his shoulders, he clumped over to the fire, sitting in the only chair.
“Where’s my meal, slave?” He growled. Teri hurried to fill his bowl and place it in his open hands. Sitting on the floor by his feet, Teri ate her own meal. When he finished, Krev tossed his bowl to Teri and sat back, relaxed for the moment. He began telling her a story about his childhood, very rare for him.
The story lasted for nearly an hour, in which Teri sat, enraptured. She relaxed, resting her head against his knee and closing her eyes. She missed the look he gave her and was nearly drowsing until his big hand touched her hair.
“I think I should teach you some things, my little slave. You’ve learned well to please me in domestic matters, but I believe you can still use a little education.” She looked up, startled by his tone. She watched in growing horror as Krev’s other hand loosened the ties on his pants. The hand on her head tightened in her hair, pulling her towards him.
When he was finished, Teri coughed and wiped the remnants rom her chin. She dashed the tears from her face with the back of her hand and hurried to their sleeping pallet, where she lay down and pulled the pelts up to her chin.
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