Authors: Em Petrova
Tags: #Steampunk/Medieval Fantasy
Copyright © March 2011 by Em Petrova
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Editor: Sandra Rychel
Cover Artist: Christine M. Griffin
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What the hell had she been thinking to run toward the loch? The cold mist seared Isolde’s lungs, and a bloody cry welled on her tongue, prepared to lick outward at the first sound of the demon creature on her heels. Her silk slippers dug into the soft earth with a squelching noise not unlike the beat of hooves. She strained to hear its movements in the wild tangle of underbrush. It circled her, herding her almost.
Nay. Best not to think of such things. Isolde had the upper hand. She could outthink any man in the castle. Certainly she could outwit this pig. Except the pig wasn’t wearing ten pounds of fabric.
Still, the voice in the back of her head told her it was lunacy to run toward the loch. What would happen when she reached the water’s edge? She couldn’t swim a stroke, and in this damned confining brocade gown, she’d sink like a stone.
Behind her she heard the drum of hooves in the thick foliage. Adrenaline shot through her veins, propelling her legs faster. Branches lashed at her face and plucked at her gown. Her fingers cramped from holding up her heavy skirts, and the high grasses stung her bare calves. The pines gave way to leafier trees, and soon she would break through the deep woods and onto the shores of the loch.
The beast closed in on her, grunting and gasping in a way that made her think of the men sawing logs for the castle’s new android horse paddock. These mechanical horses needed good, strong fencing that could keep their heavy metal bodies from escaping during a stampede, which frequently happened when they were frightened.
A flash of bristly black hair flickered in the corner of her eye, and she veered sharply left, away from it. The scream was poised on her lips now, ready to be released into the empty woods. Even her strongest bloodcurdling scream would bring no one. She was too far from the castle for even the field workers to hear.
And that beast had tusks like spears on it. She’d be killed for sure, even if she didn’t drown first trying to escape. Could pigs swim?
Back and forth she zigzagged through the woods, thigh muscles burning and forearms tense from holding the weight of her skirts. She fought to remain upright as she forged a path through the web of tree roots. Her throat was clogged with fear.
With a shriek that raised the hair on her neck, the wild boar rushed her. Its meaty body struck the backs of her legs. She pitched forward, releasing her skirts to instinctively catch herself and nearly breaking her neck as she tripped over the mass of spun-gold fabric.
Righting herself, she continued to bolt toward the loch, knowing no other course now, but hoping someone had left a mist boat moored there. The mist on the loch was thick enough to power a lightweight boat halfway around the perimeter of the country. If she could only reach a boat, she’d fire up the engine and race to the middle of the loch, far from the beast pursuing her.
The thunder of hooves bore down upon her. She lunged through a wall of vines, tripping and wheeling, blinded by greenery, branches scratching her face, heels over head, only to fall at the feet of a naked man. As she reeled past, she glimpsed his long, hard shaft boldly dancing between his thighs.
Isolde struck the muddy turf with a grunt, hair falling over her face. Her fingers sank into the dense soil, as did the side of her face. The warm, gritty sand cupped her forehead, nose, the crest of one cheek, and her jaw. She blinked up through the mess of hair drooping over her free eye in time to see the war dance of a man with a battle-ax.
He swung it with ease, though it weighed as much as a small tree. It swooped overhead with a whistling noise and slashed downward, sinking deep into the neck of the pig. A high, keening scream tore from its lungs. The man stepped gracefully forward and, with an almost casual flick of the ax, severed the pig’s head from its body. A thick rope of noxious blood spurted from its neck as its heart continued to pump.
Isolde’s heart knocked her ribs painfully. She lifted her head from the shore with a sucking sound and watched as the man proceeded to do a complex series of whirls and spins with the battle-ax, slicing the air so quickly, the silver blade burned a trace in her vision.
His tanned limbs shone with sweat. The bulging arms brought the weapon down again and again, hacking at the wild boar at his feet. Blood spattered his muscular thighs. His bare feet were black with muck.
She flicked her eyes upward once more, and she found her breath trapped in her throat at the sight of his stunning face. Long blond hair fell loose about his broad shoulders and sculpted chest. The nipples were set into the rounded pectoral muscles like two pale jewels. She saw with a start that they were actually pierced. Two pointed silver bars were fitted through each hard nipple.
Isolde’s own nipples puckered against the hot fabric of her gown. Before he took notice of her scrutiny, she allowed herself a quick peek at the sharply muscled abdomen and lower at the golden brown nest of hair cushioning the longest cock she’d ever seen.
She’d like to say it was the only cock she’d ever seen, but she had grown up with two brothers. Even her father, the king himself, had bathed before her when she was a child, stripping unselfconsciously and stepping into the metal tub.
The warrior’s flesh stood at hard attention, revealing a hefty set of balls beneath its taut skin.
The blade ceased to scream through the air, and Isolde looked up into the striking green eyes of the man. He stood stock-still, watching her, chest heaving from exertion, and small beads of sweat standing on the curly hair of his chest.
She daren’t drop her eyes to the cock but knew it was dancing.
“I always get hard, lass, whenever I wield this weapon. Ever hear of battle hardness?” he asked conversationally, as if he wasn’t standing there without a stitch on and she a maid.
She shook her head, dazed by the full, kissable mouth that was speaking to her.
“Whenever a man goes into battle, he comes out with a hard-on more often than not. My little friend here has seen so much battle in its time that it hardens like a rock at the first swing of the blade.” His eyes traveled over her hotly, and Isolde wondered how she might look after being chased by a wild boar two miles through the woods. Her hair waved into one eye, and she scraped it away.
“How did ye come to torment this beast?” he asked, cocking his head in a way that implied it had been her fault.
She shoved a hand into the ground, struggling to disentangle her legs from her dress enough to gain her feet and hopefully a little dignity.
“Do ye not know to whom ye speak?” she asked, swaying on her slippers. One was crooked, and she twisted her foot in the sand to right it. The side of her face felt tight with the drying dirt, and her lashes were caked with it.
But when his beautiful, full lips quirked into a crooked smile, she lost the sharp edge of her anger.
“Why, I’m looking at a princess, surely. The golden cloth ye wear is too fine for a common woman’s, and no milkmaid would wear rings upon every finger. The jeweled comb in yer hair is worth more than my life, I’d wager. And believe me; my life is worth quite a precious sum.”
Isolde lifted her chin at the slight disgust that had seeped into his tone when describing her finery. “What sum could that be for a man who owns no clothes?”
He dropped the ax into the sand and took two menacing steps toward her. He halted within inches, so near that his incredible heat washed over her. It kissed her breasts through the tight brocade and trickled down to squeeze the most intimate spot between her legs. Again that smile flashed, creating a deep line about the corner. “Why, Princess, I’m certain ye’ve heard of me. Posters with my picture line the streets from here to Edinburgh. And yer father, the king, is responsible for my fame, as he is the one to set the price on my head. Alive, I’m worth two thousand pounds. Dead, I’m worth more. Myself, I’d like to remain alive, if only to set eyes on yer striking face again.”
His foot inched forward, his toes bumping her silk slipper and releasing a surge of wetness in her sex. Isolde’s mind screamed to step back, to distance herself from this man, obviously a wanted criminal. If it was discovered that they were alone together, she’d be ruined.
The scent of clean sweat and warm musk penetrated her senses, sending her into a tailspin. The boar had been a warm-up in the face of this terrifying sport.
“Who are ye?” she managed to whisper through the deafening roar of blood in her ears.
He lifted his hands slowly to clamp upon her upper arms, right above the elbow. Heat burned through the fabric sleeves and scalded the flesh beneath. Her heart hammered, and she grew faint.
“Why, Princess, surely must recognize the most famous criminal alive? I am the man who nearly succeeded in killing yer father on the moors some years ago. And believe me; I intend to do it right this time.”