Beautiful cover art by Kuen
We moved to Penley when I was just five years old. Situated on the very edges of Hydornia, the estate had once belonged to my grandparents, who had died six months earlier. The house was a large, rambling wooden construction with a round turret on the north corner accessed via a spiral staircase. I decided our new home was a special type of castle made by the forest sprites and loved it instantly.
Several fields were set aside for grape vines to the north of the property, on a slope that led to the forest edge. I wasn't allowed to enter the forest and was told that monsters lived there.
My father planned to expand the smallholding into a business once he retired. He was a soldier, away more often than he was home, stationed to the far north of Hydornia where he fought the orc hordes, known as the Blighten, pushing them back lest they rampage our lands. His work seemed impossibly brave, and I held my father in awe. Although I hated that he would leave again soon, I dreamed of that elusive time when the war would end, and he would live in our home with Mama and me.
I loved the house, playing in the turret, and pretending to be a princess. I loved to run across the sweeping fields at the back of our home where a small stream dissected the land, tumbling over rocks as it emerged from the forest, having come from the highest slopes of the mountains to the west.
It was a half-day carriage drive to the nearby city, where we owned a small but stately townhouse, and our time was divided between the two residences.
I loved Penley and the adventures that could be found in the princess tower—as it became known—and the many outbuildings, most of which were not in use and provided ample opportunity for an imaginative child to play out her daydreams. My mother, seeing me flourish, elected to spend our summers there and return to the city come the fall. We had servants, stablemen, and laborers who worked the land and vines, and there was always something going on to interest me.
I was nearing my seventh birthday when, encouraged that I had yet to see a single monster, I ventured into the forest.
Spring, and the bounty of bluebells, lure me into the forest. My arms are laden, but the promise of more of the pretty blooms which I can spend the afternoon carefully pressing in my book keeps me moving deeper inside the shade of the great trees.
Convinced that my mother made up stories about monsters to keep the younger version of me safe, for I was a baby the last time we visited and now, at nearly seven, am virtually grown up, I pay no mind to the distance I travel until I see them.
“Aye, that’s a fancy dress,” the young boy says. He holds a small spear in his right hand. One end is braced against the ground, and the pointed tip is level with the top of his head. His eyes are hazel, his cheeks and nose are covered in freckles, and his hair has golden curls and is too long for a boy. That, however, is a minor break of decorum given that he wears only rough hide pants, sturdy boots, and nothing else.
His state of undress scandalizes me.
His companion, a young girl of similar height to me, wears a hide dress that leaves much of her tanned legs and arms exposed. She has the same hazel eyes, curly golden hair, and a smattering of freckles across her nose as the boy. They are undoubtedly related.
They are also barbarians.
A flush creeps up my cheeks when they make no move to leave. Civilized people should not be in this state of nakedness unless they are about to have a bath, which is private business. My eyes settle on the leather cord around the boy’s neck from which an amber stone hangs.
“I’m Dara,” the girl says boldly. “We hail from the Baxter clan. Aston says you have moved into Mrs Bramleigh’s old home.”
I’m shaken that they appear to know my grandmother, whom I had only met a few times. “I’m Freya. Mrs Bramleigh was my grandma, and she died last fall.”
“I told you,” the boy says, nudging the girl’s arm.
They are barbarians, yet they know my grandparents and speak the common language, which settles the flutters in my belly.
“This is Aston, my brother,” the girl says. “We saw you on your own and thought you might like to come and play with us.”
I glance back over my shoulder, realizing how far into the woods I have ventured. “I’m not supposed to be in the woods,” I admit. “Mama said there were monsters in here.”
I feel foolish for admitting this, more so when Aston chuckles. “She’s one of those fancy lasses as always do as they’re told. She won’t be any fun to play with.”
Dara thumps her brother’s arm. “You are such a meanie. I don’t even know why you wanted to come with me. If you taunt the lass, she won’t be my friend.” Turning to me, she says, “There are no monsters here. Our clan has a few shifters, and their scent keeps other beasts away.”
“I didn’t think that shifters were real.” I’m convinced they are teasing me… or maybe their shifters are the monsters my mother talked about.
“Of course shifters are real,” Aston scoffs like he is an authority on such things; as though I’m stupid for not knowing this… although if they really do have shifters living among them, I concede that he knows more than me.
Dara thumps her brother again. He smirks like he is pleased to have riled her.
“Would you like to come and have tea?” Dara asks.
“Tea?” Do barbarians drink tea?
“And pie,” she says, smiling. “My mama makes the best apple pie ever.”
“It is a long fucking way to the clan,” Aston says, shocking me when he uses the cursing word, which is forbidden for children. “She has tiny legs.” He points at my legs, which he cannot even see hidden beneath my dress.
“I’m nearly seven,” I say like this is evidence in my favor.
The lad raises his brows.
Dara grins, takes my hand, and gives a gentle tug. “Come on. Please. This will be fun!”
My mother will be cross if I go and visit their clan. She will not be happy that I have come into the woods at all, nor that I have spoken to barbarians. But, on the other hand, I have missed having a friend. I already like Dara. Her annoying brother, not so much. I look back, but I cannot see my home anymore.
“Her legs are too short,” Aston says. “She is a weak Hydornian lass. You know they are scared of their own shadows. She probably thinks that shifters eat lasses.”
I tip my chin. “I am six and a half, which is almost seven. I can walk a very long way.”
“Fine then. Let’s go,” Aston says. “Unless you need to run home first and ask your mama, like a little girl might.”
“I do not need to check with my mama,” I say, which is a lie. I definitely do.
“Stop taunting the lass,” Dara says crossly. “Or she will never be your friend.”
“I don’t even want to make friends with a little girl,” he says, scowling now.
“Oh, why don’t you run along then?” Dara says. “Go and pretend that you can hunt.”
“I caught a rabbit yesterday,” Aston says, puffing up his chest.
“Pft! You did not catch a rabbit,” Dara says. “You found one that was already dead.”
The lad flushes. My eyes dart between them.
Dara rolls her eyes at me. A small giggle bubbles up from my chest.
“Don’t mind Aston,” she says, as the lad stalks off in a huff. Her voice drops to a conspiring whisper. “He said you looked like a princess, and he would marry you one day.”
She slips her arm through mine while I’m caught gaping, and we follow after Aston.
“Which is nonsense,” she continues. “Because Papa says he will be an alpha, and everyone knows alphas don’t marry.”
“What do alphas do?” I ask, feeling myself soften toward Aston, who thinks I look like a princess.
“They take a lass or two as their mate.”
* * *
The walk takes longer than I expected. I’m soon tired, although I don’t like to admit this, lest Aston further taunt me. He stays attentively close, either scouting ahead or looping behind.
It’s gone well past midday by the time the village comes into view, and then my tiredness lifts, for it is beautiful. Steep slopes lined by pine trees stretch up from the valley, where the many homes are clustered to either side of a river. The lower slopes are given over to farming or livestock with sheep, goats, and horses. The cottages are pretty: a few made from stone, but mostly wood, and in good repair, with wildflowers and briar rambling up the front porches. It is the prettiest place that I have ever seen.
The clan people call out greetings as we walk past their homes. “Hail, Dara! Hail, lass!”
“Good day,” I reply.
Aston chuckles. “Hydornians have funny ways of speaking.”
“It is you who has funny ways of speaking,” I say, a little chagrined that I’m not doing this right.
“I think the way you talk is cute.” Dara smiles and tucks her arm through mine again. “My mother will adore you and want to keep you for sure.”
Her mother turns out to be a beta woman with a long plait of golden hair down her back and a plump baby at her hip. “Dara, where on earth did you find this lass?!”
“Freya is Mrs Bramleigh’s granddaughter.”
“Goodness!” Her mother says, bouncing the pink-cheeked baby, who has begun to fuss and drool. “Did you walk all the way over here on your own? Aston, were you a part of this?”
Aston goes to slink off, only to come to a stop as a huge barbarian emerges from the barn beside the house. He wears the same hide pants, with a broad chest and long wild hair. I’m convinced he is the monster my mother spoke of, for his expression is thunderous.
“Inside, girls,” their mother says, ushering us into the neat wooden home. “Let’s get you something to eat and drink. The poor wee lass must be exhausted walking all that way in such a heavy dress.”
Feeling shy, I sit at the table, where I’m given a glass of milk and a thick slice of apple pie. My eyes bulge, and my tummy rumbles noisily. I tuck in with relish.
Through the open cottage door, I can see the gruff barbarian scolding Dara’s brother. “What were you thinking of, lad, fetching her back here?”
“It was naught to do with me,” Aston says all surly.
The big barbarian is red of face and radiates menace.
“Don’t mind it,” Dara says quietly to me. “Aston’s always getting in trouble. They think that because he’s older, he must be wiser. He’s not wiser. I am far cleverer than he is.”
I want to point out that my mother will be cross, and neither of them is clever. Only if they are not clever, then I am not clever either. I have a terrible feeling I will get in trouble… a lot of trouble… and might not be allowed to play outside for a week.
The gruff barbarian enters the home, sharing a look with his wife before turning to us. “Drink up your milk, lasses, and I’ll take your friend back.”
“Oh, can’t Freya stay here a bit?”
“No, Dara. It is already well past noon. Her parents will be worried. What nonsense were you thinking of taking such a tiny lass so far from her home? What were you and Aston doing all the way over there?”
“She has no one to play with,” Dara says. “But she’d like to have a friend.”
“Well, that is very thoughtful of you,” her father says. “But best we speak to her mother afore we go any further with that, hmm?”
“Yes, Papa,” she says.
We finish off our milk and hop down from the chairs. I’m very tired and not looking forward to this walk, although the nervousness in my tummy tells me my mother will be worried, and I want to go home now.
A horse is tethered outside the cottage, and Aston is lugging a saddle over to it.
His father takes the saddle from Aston and sets it into place on the horse.
“Come on, young lass,” he says. “Let’s get you up in the saddle.” Clasping me around the waist, he picks me up and drops me in the saddle. I’ve never ridden on a horse before, for we use a carriage when we travel, and I feel a little nervous until Dara is lifted to sit behind me.
“Hold the pommel, lass,” he says to me. “Old Barley is sure-footed, and you will not fall.”
He takes me home, leading the horse the whole way through the forest until my home with the princess tower comes into view.
My mother is shaking with worry. Everyone has been scouring the lands, fearing the worst.
I feel very bad as she holds me close and thanks Dara’s papa for returning me home safely. She even smiles a little when she hears of how Dara’s mother gave me a glass of milk and a slice of apple pie to tide me over for the journey back.
Then she surprises me and agrees that Dara and I may be friends.
* * *
It is late by the time my father returns from taking Freya home, and I am waiting for him by the barn so I can help him with the horse.
Dara is full of excitement that Freya’s mother agreed the girls could be friends. I don’t want the fancy brat around for I have gotten in enough trouble today due to her. My sister skips inside to tell our mother that Freya will visit again as I help my father put the saddle and tack away.
“You will need to keep an eye on them while they are playing,” my father says.
“Huh?” I nearly drop the saddle I am lugging over to stow. “Why do I need to keep an eye on them?”
My father’s eyes narrow as I more carefully set the saddle in place. “You are the oldest. Your mother has the babe to watch, and I need to work. A man should protect those younger than him and not make reckless decisions that might endanger them.”
So we are going there again. My questioning of his decision has opened the door to a further dressing down.
I am eight years old. Danger and reckless decisions are not always apparent to me in the heat of the moment. Also, I admit that sometimes I am persuaded to do reckless things lest I risk losing face.
“What do you think might have happened if she were hurt on the way over?” he asks.
“There would have been consequences, not only for you as the oldest among them but for the whole clan.”
I may be only eight, but everybody says I will become an alpha. I have a good sense of danger. “I had my spear with me.”
“It is a small spear suited to your size and catching small game,” my father points out bluntly. “You should not have been taking your sister so far, never mind bringing lasses from another country and people, who might bring the full wrath of their king on our clan, for all we know.”
My ears heat. “I will do better.”
He nods approvingly. “One day, you will be an alpha. You must learn to carry yourself as such. An alpha defends his family and clan, and even strange lasses as visit us from other places. Many people beyond the clans have poor views of us and our ways. We are the closest clan to the border. We, above other clans, must show them, through our actions, that they are wrong.”
His words are complex, and I grapple to take them in. It upsets me that others might have a poor view of us because we dress differently and have different ways, but I also must do my part and be the kind of alpha who would make him proud.
I am still stinging from the talk when we sit at the table for supper. But I’m also hungry and so I focus on dunking a piece of fresh bread into the vegetable stew.
“Aston says he’s going to marry Freya when she grows up,” Dara blurts, grinning smugly at me.
I pause, the dunked bread halfway to my mouth.
My father’s poorly smothered chuckle does not help. Worse, my mother’s face softens in a way that tells me she also thinks I am foolish.
“I never said that,” I deny stridently, glaring at Dara.
“You did, too,” Dara sing-songs back. “He said she looked like a princess.”
“She had a fancy dress, is all,” I say. “Like one of them lasses in your storybooks.”
I know I have fucked up as the words leave my mouth. I hate my sister. Now I am lumbered with watching her and her new friend.
After my father’s talk about alphas and how one should behave, I feel bad about taunting Freya about her short legs, which is not even her fault when she is only a little girl. “She has little legs and a heavy dress,” I say gruffly, “and still walked here without complaint.”
“The lass is very brave,” my father agrees. “But, son, you know you will become an alpha and not marry. The lass and her family would be shocked at our ways, especially by those alphas who take more than one mate.”
“Why would that be odd?” I ask, confused. “What if an alpha loves two lasses, and they both love him?”
“Well, it is just not done in Hydornia,” my mother says.
“That sounds stupid if you ask me,” I say.
“Do you have another lass you were considering as a mate, son?”
I think my father is teasing me, but I’m not sure.
“No,” I say. “I don’t even want this one. I only said she looked like a princess.”
“He said he was gonna marry her,” Dara pipes up. “But now he will need to mate her. Then she can be my best friend forever, and have babies and be my neighbor. I want to have at least five or six babies. Freya should have five or six, too.”
“That’s a lot of babies, love,” my mother says, smiling. “You were not so keen on them last eve when your baby sister was screaming.”
“Fine then, I will have four.”
That is thankfully the end of the discussion for the evening but, the next day, a fancy carriage arrives with Freya, and my fun is over.
Excerpt Bound for Their Pleasure Copyright © 2023 L.V. Lane
Coming 29th September!