Chapter One ~ Morrigan
Her skin smarted under the relentless sun. Morrigan glanced down at her body. Her clothes were gone. Clad only in a hip wrap that afforded her a shred of modesty, she writhed against the thick wooden pole that held her captive. Ropes chafed, a reminder of her failed escape. The rough texture of the bindings dragged her thoughts back to the past, a stormy sea of memories that tumbled over recent events.
She could still recall the whispers of silk and the somber faces at the binding ceremony. Alice would give her to Lorcan, her betrothed. Morrigan had heard the whispers and stories about him. She would never allow herself to be given to a wolf known for his brutality. Desperation had driven her to beg Bran for water before the ceremony. It was a ruse, a distraction that allowed her to initiate a spell to transport her away from danger.
The spell had failed her. Its magic had whisked her away, only to deliver her into the waiting hands of something far worse. A powerful force struck her head as she reeled from the sudden relocation. A wagon. A guard. Hands that had touched and appraised her like a piece of meat, ready for purchase. The recollections stung more than the sweat that trickled down her scalp, leaving an itch she couldn't reach. Her wrists were bound too high, and her attempts to find relief were futile. The discomfort paled in the shadow of her fear.
Her eyes scanned the dirt street, filled with unfamiliar faces and bustling energy that spoke of a place far from Riverbend. Regret gnawed at her as she pondered her choice to run from a destiny she now realized was more merciful than this unknown servitude.
Beside her, other captives—silent and resigned—awaited their fate. They hadn't spoken, and she felt a pang of isolation that deepened her dread. A tear escaped, a plea to the gods for mercy that she knew wouldn't come. The jingling of the slaver's coin purse was a cruel reminder of her reality.
Her training as an alpha in the Riverbend Pack had never prepared her for this, and a cruel understanding settled within her. She could never be alpha. She could never take Alice's place. Broken and unshifting, she was doomed to a fate worse than the one she'd fled. Her lips trembled, her soul aching for the life and pack she'd left behind.
Morrigan regretted running away, hoping and praying with every fiber of her being that this was a silly nightmare. The reality was harsh, and it wasn't a nightmare from which she could awaken. It was her new truth, her new world, where hope was as barren as the merciless sun that scorched her pale, exposed flesh.
Her struggles against her abductor had been in vain, his fist a sudden storm of pain that hurled her into darkness. When consciousness returned, she had found herself shackled in a wagon, her abductor vanished, and her angry demands stifled by a gag jammed between her dry, cracked lips.
This was no rescue, no return to the familiarity of the Riverbend Pack or her betrothed. It was a transaction. She'd been sold. A chill of realization gripped her as she pondered the tales she'd heard of Serpent's Weir, a place whispered of since her childhood. Was that where she was now?
The slaver's approach was heralded by his lecherous smile, drawn to her exposed form, grimy from the struggle with her abductor. She shivered under his gaze, grateful that his interest was mercenary, not lustful.
His booming announcement, "Flesh market! High noon!" resonated like a death knell.
Flesh market. The words seared her mind, and her eyes closed to shut out the prying stares. The main attraction in a forbidden spectacle, she could only await her fate beneath the relentless sun, drifting in and out of a tortured half-sleep.
"Is that one even alive? She looks like a dried-up corpse."
The voice jolted her, and her sore, swollen eyes opened to lock with those of a stranger. Older, strong, adorned in leather marked with a familiar sigil she couldn't decipher in her haze, he scanned her with an unsettling intensity. His gaze lingered on her breasts, his smirk igniting a flush that wasn't from the sun's heat.
"I'll be at the auction," he declared, presumably to the slaver, before leaning closer, his voice a rough whisper for her ears alone, "You're going to be mine."
She scarcely had time to react before his hand kneaded her breast and pinched her nipple. A cry strangled in her throat, muffled and feeble, as she lashed out in futile defiance. His laughter was a bitter melody as he removed the gag, leaving her with the acrid taste of fear and the certainty that she was caught in a web far darker than she had ever imagined.
"Save your strength," he warned his voice a velvet whisper in the hot air. "You're going to need it for tonight."
And with that, he was gone, leaving Morrigan to quiver at his words, her lips sticky with dread yet grateful for the moisture.
Her eyes, brimming with tears, sought refuge in the street. Expectations lay shattered in the face of this cruel reality. Innocence, untested and untouched, trembled within her. Even Alice's preparation for the binding ceremony had not braced her for this.
Amidst the crowd, a man stood still as stone, his gaze fixed on her—not the spectacle of her nakedness but her essence. Weathered, she thought. And yes, handsome in a rugged way. A soldier's bearing, perhaps a hired gun, his sandy hair cropped short, his shoulders an imposing landscape above the crowd. Dressed in black against the day's swelter, his boots worn and dusty, he was an enigma, neither Riverbend kin nor a merchant.
The slaver's sudden appearance jolted her, a bucket of icy water thrown without warning, a shock to her sunburned skin. Her scream was raw in her throat as he scrubbed her down, treating her like an animal.
She twisted and struck, earning the sharp sting of a whip, its lashes biting into her buttocks, drawing cries and pleas from her. "Please, please, I beg of you, sir! Please stop!"
"Silence, slave," he commanded, a dark glint in his eye as he regarded her eloquence. His voice was edged with a cruel satisfaction. "They'll be clamoring for a prize like you."
She ceased to resist, enduring his touch, the deliberate caress of her breasts. A bucket of water doused her once more, her bound hands numb, her mouth silenced again by the gag.
Cut free, she fell to her knees, weak and disoriented, guided to the platform in the town square by one of the younger slaves. Roughly tossed upon the gritty surface, she was hauled up by her dark hair and presented to the crowd like a trophy.
"This slave comes to me from a ruling house. She's a hard worker. Who will give me fifty?"
The slaver's lies were met with skepticism. His smooth retorts a dark dance. A whip lashed again, her groan muffled, tears threatening but held back. The crowd's faces mirrored a spectrum of emotion, from disbelief to revulsion.
"I'll give you fifty for her," came the bored voice of the man in the leather tunic. The wealthy one who told her to save her strength, the one who desired not a house slave but something more intimate.
"Fifty-five," another voice yelled from the crowd.
The bidding continued, but her thoughts were trapped with him, the realization sinking into her bones.
"Sixty." Leather tunic.
The sum was called, and the world seemed to tilt, leaving Morrigan to face the harsh truth of her fate. Her life had been auctioned, and what awaited her was a journey into the unknown, guided by a man whose eyes promised brutality.
The voices were distant and dispassionate, a lackluster chorus that fell short of the slaver's expectations. Morrigan's head was bowed, her mind swirling with desperate prayers, a feverish plea to the gods that this would not be her fate.
She realized the bidding had stalled at sixty, a sum that hung in the air like a judgment. The slaver's grip on her wet hair tightened, sending a prickling sensation across her scalp, a sharp pain as he yanked her head back. Her body was exposed, presented like a prize. His realization of the lost opportunity mirrored in his actions.
His hand inched toward the cloth at her hips, and horror sparked within her. He intended to completely bare her in front of the crowd. No longer a house slave in his eyes but something more, something intimate. She twisted away with a cry, feeling his grip loosen, only to be pulled back with a laugh. A dark promise lingered in that sound, a threat of the whip's lash if she remained under his control.
"Look at her fire! This one's a spirited creature, worth no less than seventy!"
A hush fell, a collective intake of breath as the crowd froze. The slaver's eyes gleamed, victory in his sight. The question was asked, and the answer given was firm and unyielding.
Morrigan's relief was tangible, a fluttering sigh escaping the gag. It was not the voice of the man in the tunic but the hired gun. The one from the street. Fear danced anew in her, a shadowy question of his intentions.
She dared a glance at the man who'd been outbid, reading a fury beneath his facade, a rage contained but not concealed. Satisfaction was a stranger to him now.
The sandy blond man approached—her new master.
But the slaver, his gaze gleaming with malevolent intent, stayed the transaction with a cruel and knowing squeeze to Morrigan's arm.
"Can you pay for her?" he hissed, his voice dripping with dark promises and veiled threats.
Morrigan's gaze sought her purchaser, a battle within her to keep the fear at bay.
The sandy blond man's gaze hardened, the corners of his mouth tightening. "Yes."
"Fine." The slaver's voice oozed venom, his eyes narrowed with the calculation of one plotting revenge. "Come to my tent at sundown, and she's yours."
The hired gun tossed a bag of coins onto the dais, the metallic clink echoing ominously. "I'll take her now."
Her shoulders trembled, relief a heady wine, but pride held her erect, defiant.
The slaver's sneer was brief, his body bending to retrieve the purse, his teeth gnawing at the drawstring. His smile was a cold arc of triumph. "So be it, then. She's all yours."
The push sent her reeling, a scream torn from her lips, but arms embraced her before the ground could claim her. She knew without looking; it was him—her new master. Her fate had been sealed, yet within her chest, a spark of something more flickered to life.
She did look up, and time seemed to pause. Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes met his. An unspoken understanding lingered there, a connection that transcended words. His gaze dropped suddenly, and she became aware of her exposed state, cradled in his arms. She squirmed in discomfort, and he set her down, his face a mask of stoicism. Papers were exchanged, a transaction completed with a mere pocketing of the bill of sale, his indifference evident.
He turned and began to walk away, the remnants of the crowd parting as if in deference to his long strides. Confused and still feeling the lingering eyes of the man in the tunic, she hastened after her new master, arms crossed protectively over her breasts.
As they approached a stable, the scent of hay and horses filled the air. A large horse, tethered and waiting, seemed to anticipate its master's approach. His eyes finally met hers as he held a length of rope, a moment charged with uncertainty and expectation.
The rope looped around her wrists, a binding that was firm but gentle, an unspoken promise in its restraint. Tied to the saddle, she watched him as he hesitated, his hand revealing a knife. Panic flashed briefly, but it was replaced with relief as the gag fell away, her lips cracked and parched, grateful for his mercy.
He mounted in silence, the horse's steady gait pulling her along with an unexpected tug. At first, she stumbled, her skin afire with raw urgency, the discomfort of her captivity clashing with the necessity to keep pace. The thought of being dragged was unthinkable, so she forced herself to walk.
The forest darkened as they traveled, the horse and rider unyielding. Her bare feet met the earth, step by step, a rhythm that became her world. On and on they went until her body betrayed her.
A stone, an obstacle, and she stumbled. Her knees buckled, and a fearful thought seized her, the possibility of being dragged behind like a worthless trophy.
"Please, stop," she said, her voice cracking in a way that betrayed her, a vulnerability she despised. "I beg you."
The horse halted, and as he approached, she attempted to rise, only to fall back with a cry, her legs refusing to obey.
"I've reached my limit," she gasped, desperation in her voice, her eyes filled with a silent plea as they locked with his. "Grant me a moment's rest, please."
His surprise was palpable as if her fatigue was an unexpected inconvenience. The look in his eyes was devoid of compassion, and terror gripped her anew. But then, a sigh escaped him, a reluctant acquiescence.
"Very well. We'll make camp." His eyes scanned the path ahead, assessing and deciding. "But not on the road."
Morrigan's cry was a startled yelp as he lifted her effortlessly, depositing her on the back of the waiting horse.
His eyes narrowed. "This horse is a guide from the Shadowlands, bound to me and me alone. He obeys none but his master. Attempting to command him would be your funeral."
Shadowlands. His mysterious and unexplained words lingered, but she didn't dare ask him what they meant. Her acknowledgment was a slight nod, hands bound and gripping the saddle for stability as they entered the forest.
The scent of damp earth, the distant trickle of water, and the looming presence of trees—old, thick, and wrapped in myth surrounded her. A shiver escaped her, followed by a mental rebuke. She had heard tales of Serpent's Weir, but these were only trees. Nothing to fear unless the stories of grotesque creatures lurking in the darkness were true.
They arrived at a clearing, the shallow stream a welcome sight, its sound promising refreshment. Her owner's hand was heavy but not unkind as he pushed her onto the mossy ground. He busied himself with his horse, his back to her a momentary freedom.
Her thoughts teetered between escape and thirst. The cool, clear water won, and she crawled to the bank of the stream, satisfying a primal need and quenching her arid lips.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and approached the clearing hesitantly. His attention was on lighting a fire in the clearing, a dance of flames that soon turned into a small blaze. Drawn to its warmth, she found herself unable to avoid his gaze. They watched each other. She drew her knees up to protect her modesty. Her vulnerability rankled, a sense of helplessness that she refused to embrace.
"What's your name?" His voice was calm, detached.
"Morrigan. What's yours?" Her response was swift, defiant.
His lips betrayed a fleeting emotion, a twitch that might have been amusement. "I reckon you can call me Master."
Her sneer was unintentional, a reflex she couldn't control. His eyebrow arched, his eyes narrowing. The shivering returned, a physical response to his scrutiny.
"How long did he have you staked out in the sun?" His question was almost gentle.
"All morning until the auction," she whispered.
A silence stretched between them, expectant and heavy.
"Master." The word was bitter, forced from her lips.
He snorted. "My name is Soren."
A small jar was tossed her way, an object she barely caught, her fingers clumsy and uncertain. His instructions were curt, concern masked by indifference.
"Your skin is burnt. Use the salve and drink more water, or you'll get sun poisoning."
"Why do you even care?" Her laugh was hollow, the bravado surprising even her.
His response was simple, almost cold. "You were expensive, lass."
His approach was looming, his presence overwhelming as he towered over her. She refused to be cowed. Her neck craned, her eyes defiant. A flinch, a momentary fear, was quickly replaced with confusion as he inspected her marks, his touch absent of malice.
"Use the salve on those lashes, too." His voice was a murmur; his touch as he untied her wrists was careful.
As he retreated into the undergrowth, disappearing into the twilight, she was left with uncertainty, a mingling of fear, intrigue, and a reluctant trust. The world was changed, and she was adrift in it, tethered to a man who was both captor and enigma.
Morrigan's eyes lingered on the treeline where he'd vanished, the silent darkness whispering secrets she couldn't decipher. Was this a trick, a test? The jar of salve in her hand was a tactile reassurance. She began to apply it to her burnt skin, feeling the smooth balm cool the hot, angry welts on her body. The sensation was soothing, her body's gratitude manifesting in a relaxation of tense muscles. Her feet were neglected, and their protest was sharp and insistent, an oversight she would regret.
She returned to the stream—its gentle gurgling a counterpoint to her racing thoughts. The darkness beyond the fire's reach seemed to beckon—a path to freedom, yet fraught with dangers. Doubt gnawed at her. Would she even find her way back to Riverbend? The wounded soles of her feet would betray her, the road would be treacherous, and her naked vulnerability would attract the wrong kind of attention.
Noises from the forest teased her senses. Were the stories of grotesque creatures that lay beyond Serpent's Weir folklore or ominous truths? Her fear was a living thing, a wild beast lurking in shadows she did not wish to face.
She made her way back to the clearing and stoked the fire with the wood Soren had collected. The warmth on her skin was a small comfort before surrendering to the soft moss and the embrace of exhaustion. Sleep overtook her, offering a brief escape from the stark reality of slavery and the unnerving presence of a man who had purchased her for reasons yet unknown.
Morning found her groggy and disoriented, a blanket draped over her, a small act of kindness that seemed incongruous. Soren's voice was a sharp command, a thick piece of bread a meager offering, but hunger transformed it into a feast. She devoured it, the dry texture a welcome sensation, her body greedy for sustenance.
Morrigan attended to her morning needs while he tended to his horse. She found solace in the refreshing coolness of the stream. The salve had worked wonders, her skin less angry, the welts subdued. Only her feet remained a painful reminder of her captivity, a physical testament to her ordeal. She clung to the blanket as a barrier, a symbol of modesty and protection.
"Where are we going?" Her voice was small, almost lost in the vastness of the wilderness.
"To the fortress," Soren's reply was succinct, his actions brusque as he snatched the blanket away, his indifference a mask she could not penetrate.
With practiced efficiency, he rolled the blanket and secured it, his eyes lingering on her just a moment too long. Deliberately, he retied her hands, echoing the binding of the day before, a ritual that was becoming all too familiar. She was tethered to the horse. Around them, the landscape shifted, surrendering to bleakness, reflecting perhaps the cold precision of her captor.
The road was merciless, its jagged stones assaulting her unprotected feet. Each step was a new lesson in suffering, each victorious breath a defiant rebellion. Ahead, Soren's back loomed, both distant and omnipresent, as they traveled in silence.
She found solace in a knot, a familiar challenge, her fingers working with practiced skill. The rope yielded, a silent accomplice in her desperate gamble. When it fell, her heart stopped, a moment of terror that passed unnoticed by her captor.
Freedom beckoned her, and she answered its call. The searing pain in her feet dulled to a distant ache, overtaken by the adrenaline of escape. She plunged into the undergrowth, a creature reborn and no longer tethered to her master.
Okay, y'all, I just got done writing this chapter. What do you think? Where do you think will happen next? Tell me in the comments and I'll be sure to reply. Note: this is a preview of Craved by the Alpha, which is only available to Fearless Hearts. You can learn more about it here!