The Redcaps had taken the inn. Bruised and bloodied women and slight young men I knew to be beautiful were stripped bare and were three or four to a Redcap in most situations. The room was full of sobs, screams, and pitiful cries. The young girl was clothed, though with the knife the elf before her brandished, I knew that wouldn’t be the case for much longer. Her face was tearstained, and she was crying as that blond elf started to cut away her bodice while laughing. Through the buzz of the room I heard him say, “You’re going to love big fat elf cock, Dy’ne.” The hundreds of times Yorwrath had whispered something so similar into my ear as he took me filtered through my head, and I snapped.
Somehow I was able to loose Hywel’s bow, nock an arrow, and shoot it at the elf holding the girl before I even realized what I had done. It was only as the arrow pierced the elf’s heart and his dead body fell backward that I was aware of my actions. The quiet that filled the room after and the weight of all those eyes on me made my heart beat hard.
That silence lasted an instant before I was set on by a mob. I clawed at them until my fingers were sticky with blood and bit them until my mouth was full of the taste of copper. But in all of it, I couldn’t reach the sword or dagger. Someone punched me in the face while others held my wrists fast. They tore at my shirt, the sensation of air on my skin making me struggle harder. I was met with a hard slap across my face that made my ears ring. It didn’t stop me. It was the knee to my stomach that did it. I crumpled to the ground as all the air was knocked from my lungs. While in shock, someone cut slices off my bodice, determined to strip me one scrap of fabric at a time. There was more laughter and unfamiliar dark words. I was more focused on my breathing or lack thereof rather than what was going on around me after that.
My wrists were bound together. Someone grabbed my hair and started dragging me by it and my wrists across the floor. When I regained my breath, I spat at them and growled as I kicked at anyone who got close enough. They forced me down on the floor in front of a chair, and then someone crossed the room, and I knew who it was before I even saw those boots I bought him. I glowered up at Yorwrath with all the hatred I could muster in my small body. His face was grim as he stared down at me, but then again he always wore such an expression. That Adam’s apple of his bobbed as he swallowed, drew his dagger, and stabbed the elf who held me by the hair in the stomach. He yelled in the elven tongue and twisted the dagger before he withdrew it and kicked the elf over. Again the room fell into silence as Yorwrath took his cloak off and draped it over me. He walked to the girl tied to the barrel and cut her free with that bloody blade.
“Go,” he said, pointing to the door with the dagger. The girl ran naked and sobbing out into the snow without a second thought. Grumbling to himself, he made his way back to me. His gaze lingered on my form as he started yelling at the Redcaps. I might not have understood the words, but his tone was clearly threatening. He gestured a lot with his dagger to the elf who was slowly bleeding to death and the dead one near the barrel. By the end of his tirade, the elves were scrambling to set the townspeople free. A handful of captives stayed willingly with the Redcaps, but most clamored for the doors so fast they tripped over one another. Grwn walked up and patted Yorwrath on the back, and the lithe elf shot the mountain of meat a deadly glare before continuing softly in the elven tongue.
Another elf came up behind Grwn, one who was rather badly beaten. His bandanna was in his hand, and he walked with a pronounced limp, wincing with every step. The elf had a freshly split lip and a black eye, his hair was blond and straight, and his irises green like spring leaves. He was the same height as Grwn but thin like Yorwrath and most elves. Had his face not been a bloody ruin, I was betting he was handsome in the same way most elves were.
“You’re much prettier up clos—” Yorwrath silenced the maimed elf with a hard backhand.
“Grwn, go see if your family’s okay,” Yorwrath ordered.
“You sure you don’t need me?” Grwn asked, eyeing the maimed elf suspiciously.
“I’m fine. Gwyn here is going to be on his best fucking behavior now. Aren’t you, Gwyn?”
“Of course! But make your dy’ne open that cloak. I didn’t get a good look earlier.” The maimed elf, who I assumed was Gwyn, leered at me.
Yorwrath inspected his dirty nails for a moment. I opened my mouth to speak, but he beat me to it. “Do you want me to castrate you? Because that’s all I’ve heard since you started opening your mouth today.” Gwyn paled. It was probably Yorwrath’s tone, that flat affect with just a dash of ennui that let everyone know he was serious about his threats. He sniffed. “I think I’ll geld you and keep you around as something to force down and fuck when I’m angry.”
“You are certainly Aeon’s son.”
“Yes, he certainly did run his mouth right up until I put my sword through his heart.”
“You’re a better leader than he was,” Grwn grunted.
“And twice as scary,” Gwyn said, wiping the blood from his bottom lip.
“I’m taking Valentina home,” Yorwrath stated plainly without even a glance toward me.
“I’ll keep things in order here. You’re right, and I shouldn’t have challenged you.”
“No, you shouldn’t have. Were I in a worse mood, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself. Then you’d be dead instead of maimed, and I’d have to find someone else to be my lieutenant. And I hate most of these dy’ne-loving goatfuckers.” Yorwrath stretched, gazing out at the merriment that had again commenced. “But I meant what I said. You’re paying the baker’s wife for what you made me do and the brewer’s daughter. It shouldn’t be much; the brewer was just getting two sheep for her.”
“Fuckin’ dy’ne. One of these days I’m just going to offer a man two gold coins for their daughter just to see if they’ll give her to me. Two goats, fuck me, slaves sell for nine times that. And when I sent that shepherd to buy my sister back she was six hundred; that’s… I don’t think they even have that many sheep in all of Ersland.”
Yorwrath bent down and tossed me over his shoulder. I struggled with him, but he held me tight, rendering my physical protest moot.
“I’m done playing nice. If I hear of one of these people being touched against their will, I’m going to start putting heads on spikes. Take the town till the thaw, make them give you food. Take their crops and goods, but leave these people the fuck alone,” he groused on his way to the door. His footsteps were heavy and angry. Were I not livid, I would have attempted to soothe him, but as it stood I just wanted to go home and sleep…alone.
When we reached my shop, the bodies of the knights had gone, but their effects remained. Their armor and swords sat off to the side in a small pile. Other than that it was exceptionally quiet; the hearth and candles had all gone out. Yorwrath closed the door behind us and locked it before continuing upstairs with me dangling from his shoulder. He carried me up to the bedroom and laid me down on the bed, then closed the door. I lay there limply as he stripped down to a linen shirt and trousers. He set his weapons in the same corner as he always did and threw his bandanna in the chest at the foot of the bed.
The room was heavy with silence and unspoken words as my face throbbed from my prior beating. I felt broken lying there, watching Yorwrath peel off his layers. I was like some mechanical toy with the parts misaligned, so that it could still move, but when it did it moved wrong. He went through his normal nightly routine like nothing had happened. It was like he hadn’t just narrowly prevented me from being ravaged by some of his men. He opened a drawer and took out my shift and the heavy robe I wore in the winter.
“I can’t catch a chill; you can. Here,” he said, gesturing with the clothes. I didn’t react. I merely watched him. “Say something. Yell at me. Hit me. Scratch me. Slap me. Bite me. Anything, Valentina. Don’t just stare at me like that.” I took the shift from him and pulled it on, letting his heavy cloak fall to the bed as I followed the thin linen with the thick, dark, embroidered wool robe. His brows furrowed as I tugged off my trousers and belt. “You’re bleeding, Dy’ne.” That word. That fucking word.
I grabbed my belt and leaped at him, using the leather to pin his neck to the mattress as I straddled him.
“Don’t you call me that ever the fuck again,” I snarled at him. “And I don’t want you sleeping in my fucking bed again. Understood?” He gave me a moment of victory before he took the belt from me and whipped it across the room.
“I’ll sleep where I please, D—” He stopped himself but kept me pinned in the soft down. My chest was heaving, and my face was hot. “You should see to your wound.” He released me and stood, pausing as he rubbed along his jaw. “It could have been worse. I stopped them from torching the town.” As he spoke, I lifted the shift and checked where the blood was coming from. It wasn’t anything serious, just a thin ribbon of red trailing from a scratch that ran from under my breasts to my navel. The knife they used to cut away my bodice had nicked me. Letting the soiled linen fall back into place, I sighed.
“I want you out,” I murmured.
“If you want me out, you’re going to have to make me leave.” He spread his hands wide as though to say “try it,” and I did. I lunged at him, and he grappled with me expertly. There was none of the pretense of me winning from before. He shut me down hard and fast, and my mind couldn’t help wandering to where he had acquired such skills. Holding me flush against his hard body, again he immobilized me.
“Funny how you tell your men not to force anyone, and then you go and do it yourself.”
“I’m just holding you. If you want me to force you, that can be arranged. You’re not as strong as you think.” He growled in my ear as he started inching us toward the bed. “Though I had thought you learned that lesson already today. What you did was stupid. Why didn’t you listen?”
“She was a girl barely flowered. I couldn’t let them do that to her.”
“She is older than you were when your parents sold—I’m sorry, married—you to the lord of Heves. Are you telling me your wedding night was consensual? That you wanted that fat, ugly dy’ne fool to put his cock in you?” He fell back onto the bed, taking me with him. “Do you think she wants to be married off to that shepherd—some wrinkled dy’ne four times her age? He’ll take her rougher than Gethen would have. Probably hit her more as I saw no marks on the girl and that’s how most dy’ne keep their wives. What is it? Ah yes, the rule of thumb. You may beat your wife with a cane no wider than your thumb. Gethen might have been honest with her and paid her dowry in the morning. I didn’t particularly like him, but he was that sort. Young too, a child by our standards, nearer to her age than yours even.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“Did you cry when your fat dy’ne forced you to the bed and shoved himself inside of you? How long did it take for you to not cringe from his touch? I’ve a vested curiosity in this because I refuse to let you leave me on these terms.” He covered us with the fur blanket. “Or did you never? You told me you’ve never had a child, and usually dy’ne rut with their slaves—I’m sorry, wives—until they’ve had a boy.”
“Shut up,” I whispered.
“Oh, did I hit a nerve? Did your fat dy’ne beat you when you refused to lay with him? Do you think that when he went off to war, he didn’t take whores or occasionally rape some poor women his company found on the side of the road unprotected?”
I struggled in his arms. “Let me go!”
“No.” He didn’t yell the word; he practically breathed it as he held me tighter. “You’ve been living here for far too long. I’ll try my hardest to protect it because you like it so much, but everyone here has forgotten what it’s like beyond the bounds. In this world, that isn’t healthy. Maybe living under our rule for a time will help them remember.”
“Yes, we took the town. Or did you not notice that’s the ealdorman’s head in the square? This’ll be the first city under the protection of the Redcaps. I have the feeling that by the time the thaw comes I’ll have killed my fair share of my men.” He trapped me with his arm across my upper body and his leg over mine. Using his free hand, he trailed his fingers through my hair, dragging his nails slightly on my scalp like he knew I liked when I was overwhelmed.
“Don’t even try to say you’re doing this for me. You’re doing this for yourself.”
“I’m doing it for both of us. You told me you loved me. You knew what I had done, and you still said it.”
“You said I was going to hate you by the end of the night.”
“Mhm. I could ask you not to hate me for being what I am because it’s like hating the plague for killing a few thousand dy’ne. But it’s you, so it’s plowing pointless.”
“So you’re going to hold me against my will?”
“Until you love me again.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Yorwrath.”
“You’re not struggling anymore.” He was right; just listening to him talk had calmed me some, and I also noticed he had stopped calling me Dy’ne. I twisted my neck around to face him.
“I fucking hate that you’re right.”
“About everything, Yorwrath. I cried my entire wedding night.”
“Most dy’ne do. My wife did with her first husband. She flinched like I had hit her the first time I called her wife. She told me about her first wedding night, about how he forced her down and took her as she screamed. Kind and gentle are few and far between. My brother was. That night in the bath was the first time I was jealous of him. I’m still jealous. I can’t make you make those same faces.” I wriggled around so my whole body was facing his, and his brows furrowed as those eyes of molten gold swept over my face. I was sure it was the bruise on my cheek and the dried blood on the corner of my mouth that caused his lips to turn.
“It’s your hardness that I love. Maybe it was stupid of me to try and ignore what you’ve done.”
“It was,” he grumbled, righting the blanket around us.
“Thanks,” I growled at him, and he smiled.
“Anytime, Dy— Don’t mention it.”