by AJ Adams
Ware Fletcher returns to find his home destroyed. Determined to avenge his family, he buys Lind, a thrall whose skills will secure his revenge. However, Ware quickly discovers that Lind is extremely difficult. Worse, she’s determined to run away - and if it’s over his dead body, that’s fine with her!
Fletcher is set in Prydain, an imaginary place that combines Anglo-Saxon England with Medieval England, the Teutonic Kingdom and the Viking Age. This story contains slavery, dubious consent and graphic violence, however, it is a love story rather than a dark romance. It is a standalone novel; no cliff-hangers.
I am the world’s worst thrall. I never do what I’m told, I don’t call anyone sir, and you need to beat the hell out of me just to get my attention. Every master I’ve ever had has given up on me. Jarvis started off caning me, but even he gave up trying to get me to toe the line. He abused and sold my body, but he couldn’t stop me raging at him.
Of course, he had all the power and I had none. With the city-based masters I was okay because I could eat and rest between fighting and being punished, but Jarvis bought me in Haven, and then he got a job as guard on a convoy to Tanweld and then another on to Caern, so we were on the road.
It’s a hard life, following a convoy. You walk all day, and at night you want to sit down and die. Being a thrall, I had to cook and do laundry whenever we stopped. And being Jarvis’ thrall, I had to work a guard or two after that, as well. After five months of that, I was burned out and exhausted. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
By the time we arrived in Caern, I was desperate. Jarvis was broke, and as he didn’t have a home of his own, I knew I’d be on my back in return for a discount at a cheap lodging.
Jarvis had a worse plan. “I’m going to visit my cousin, the Guild steward. He’ll find me a job.”
“Like he’d want a pig like you,” I muttered. Of course I got slapped for that, but it was worth it.
“I’m leasing you to a brothel,” Jarvis snarled. “They’ll pay me a copper a week for your services.”
You know, I almost died then. Brothel girls service twenty men a day. Even if they’re fed, they don’t last long. They age and die in months. It’s a slow, lingering death.
That’s when I spotted the seneschal dressed in red velvet, escorting two little girls dressed in silk and lace, and I saw opportunity. In short, I did a back-flip, walked on my hands and then juggled six apples from a nearby fruit stand.
The kids laughed, and that’s when the duke’s seneschal came over and bought me. “A most unusual show,” the fat-gut said. “Excellent. Very charming.”
“She’s well-trained.” Jarvis was instantly talking me up. “She tumbled for the Duke of Haven!”
I saw my way out and dipped into a curtsy, something I hadn’t done since I’d been with the blacksmith. “It would be an honour to entertain you, noble sir!”
The seneschal smiled, and then he and Jarvis haggled over my price. I’ve no idea what was paid because I was too relieved to even think. I thought I’d been bought to entertain the kids, and I was so thankful to be away from that horror Jarvis that I wept.
Once in the duke’s keep, I was told to bathe, and afterwards I was given a clean shift, a pretty one made of linen, a green tunic, black skirts cut full and flowing, and pretty matching slippers.
I should have known it was too good to be true. The seneschal inspected me and smiled. “Very fetching,” he remarked. “The duke will be charmed.”
“Damn right!” I remembered my manners. “I mean, yes sir,” I said hastily. “Does my lord like tightrope walking? I can juggle with lit flares, too!”
“The duke has professional entertainers,” the seneschal said indifferently. “Perhaps he will ask you to perform if you please him.”
“The duke returns soon. You will await his pleasure, girl.”
Then I was locked up in a small room off the duke’s sleeping chamber.
That’s when I snapped. The Duke of Caern is sixty years old. He’s had four wives, and he’s famous for remarking, “I ride my women hard; they wear out fast.” From the shackles by the bed, I knew what the old bastard’s pleasures would be like.
So I went out the window.
You know what happened next. I’ve seen floggings, and I thought I was dead, so I had nothing to lose.
“Your arse is the playground of every mercenary between Brighthelme and Rashelm!” I screamed it loud enough to be heard all over the city. “The duke’s a perverted fat-gut old enough to be my grandfather!”
When they stripped me and tied me to the whipping post I fought, bit and kicked, and I didn’t cry. Not one tear. I swore I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. But between you and me, I was terrified. I knew they’d make an example of me, and dying was going to be slow and agonising.
Then he appeared, bowing like a thrall in front of the fat-gut seneschal. “Ware Fletcher,” he said, adding some smooth talk about wanting to pay his respects. I knew his game, right from the start. He just glanced my way, but that swift look went right through me. I knew he was after me.
While he smarmed, oiling all over the seneschal, I looked the fletcher over. He was richly dressed and hailed as a craftsman, but his bow and leather arm guard marked him as an archer. Then the constable said he’d worked in the duke’s army. I couldn’t see a device or badge, but from his bearing, he was a soldier still.
Unlike the hulking giants employed by most cities, this man was slender. He had blond hair, cut at jaw length, and large, wide-set light grey eyes fringed with absurdly long lashes. The effect gave an illusion of almost feminine frailty, but I spotted the long, ropey muscles flexing as he moved, and the eyes were hard as flint.
“The Duke of Caern’s reputation is his life.”
His accent marked him as a Llanfaes man. It all added up to mercenary. This man was a killer, another Jarvis. Unlike that whoreson’s rough tones, though, this one spoke softly, flattering the seneschal shamelessly. I hated him on sight. I was also confused. The master fletcher was obviously intent on buying me, but it made no sense. Why in Tyr’s name did he want me?
“I have need of a girl to serve me on my travels.”
Right, because he’d want a cheap runaway slut rather than a humble girl or youthful apprentice eager to please. But the pages were picking up the clothes I’d been given and walking away. As I didn’t want to die under the whip, I kept my thoughts to myself and dared to hope.
The fletcher bowed and scraped some more, so much so that the seneschal went off quite happy, and the constable was all friendly as well. “Come and see me tomorrow, Ware. I want to hear all the news.”
“It would be an honour,” the smooth-speaking bugger smiled.
“Bring your latest work. Let’s see what next year’s bowmen will use.”
“I’m flattered, sir.”
The duke’s constable went off, and Fletcher walked over to me, treading lightly. “What is your name, girl?” He was untying my wrists. He smelled good, of wood and cloves. Maybe it was the longbow. It was finest yew, polished and glossy from mindful care.
“A pretty Tanweld name. You were a tumbler once?”
“A long time ago.”
“But you’ve not lost your skills.” The slate eyes were examining me. For a moment I sensed black rage coming from him. Then he smiled and the feeling vanished. “Lind. That means tender beauty, doesn’t it? How appropriate.”
He was a joker. Terrific.
He took off his cloak and put it around my shoulders, covering my nakedness. “Let’s go, Lind.”
The people who’d gathered to watch my execution disappeared at that point, disappointed by the abrupt halt of their entertainment, by the looks on their faces.
Only one, a smith wearing a leather apron, was hovering. When Fletcher set off, he was with us, grinning like a bastard and rubbing his hands. “Well now, who would’ve thought it? This is a story indeed!”
“An impulse,” the fletcher said quietly. “Be careful, Master Smith, the duke won’t take kindly to gossip. After today, nobody will speak of this. It never happened.”
“Oh, I won’t say a word!” The bugger was lying, he’d talk for weeks. “I’m well known for keeping secrets.” More like blabbing them, I was sure of it.
I pulled the cloak around me, enjoying the softness of the velvet lining, and followed, wondering what this strange man had in mind.
We went straight to the smithy, where a big black horse with white socks was waiting. Remarkably, it was just hanging around, not hitched or hobbled in any way. When he saw us, he neighed and stepped out into the street. I swear he looked me over, just as a human might.
“We add Lind to our company,” Fletcher was talking to the horse, and for the first time he really smiled. The iron eyes went soft and the hard mouth softened. When it came to his horse, Ware Fletcher was quite human. “Wolf, meet Lind.”
Wolf, a strange name for a horse, right? But he neighed again, just as if he understood.
“A bright and knowing steed,” the smith had caught the oily bug, too. Then he looked at me, and I know he was thinking I didn’t look half as good.
The horse snorted and butted the fletcher, who smiled. “Wolf is hungry, and so am I.”
He handed a coin to the smith and we exited, smiling and pleasant but without any of the crawling humility he’d shown earlier. “Come, Wolf, there are oats and hay waiting for you.”
It was weird, walking down the cobbled street with the horse following like a dog. He just strolled into the stable, too, settling into his box as if he owned it, checking over the feeding bag of oats, nudging the boy who came running with a fork of hay as a thank-you and then neighing again as if saying goodnight.
“Sleep well, Wolf.”
The strangely named horse was spoiled, and it turned out we were, too. Ware Fletcher was staying in the Merry Troubadour, Caern’s most expensive tavern, and the owner was there, grovelling beautifully. “Master Fletcher, your supper is waiting!”
“We need an extra cover.”
The man looked me over. “There’s room in the scullery for your thrall.”
“She eats with me.”
The innkeeper looked affronted but said politely, “Sir?”
“Mutton, I believe you said. With apple pie to follow.”
Again, he spoke softly and he was smiling, but the eyes were hard again. Also, there was a sudden, subtle air of violence. That didn’t surprise me because Llanfaes men are famous for being nutcases. They’re mercenaries because they think tearing a place to pieces and killing everyone is fun.
“Sir! I meant no disrespect!” Instantly the owner was bowing and scraping, no doubt worried his place would be taken apart if he pissed the fletcher off.
Despite the crawling, the innkeeper’s eyes were filled with horror at the thought of a thrall eating with her master. Especially one who was starkers under a cloak.
Me, I was salivating. I hadn’t had mutton in years, not since I was given scraps after tumbling for castle lords. As for apple pie, I was dizzy at the mere thought.
“Come, Lind, we’ll find you a tunic.”
He had a room all to himself. There was a fireplace, a four-poster bed as fine as a duke’s, a massive copper wash basin and a flagon of wine. But my eyes were drawn to the big box of tools with a small hammer and pincers lying just on top. At the sight of those, I could feel the collar around my neck bump and burn.
I stood there, suddenly paralysed by the need for freedom. My bid for decent work, entertaining the little nobles, had been a last effort. It had been building for months, years maybe, but at that point I knew I wasn’t doing it anymore.
I would not live another day as a thrall. No more scutwork, no more crawling and never, ever would I call a man my master. Never.
Getting rid of the collar was key. If I could use those pincers to get it off, I could run. I’d not get far with it, certainly not past the guards on the gate who’d not let a thrall pass without her owner, but without it, I might make it. Then I’d be free forever.
“You have grey eyes, tender beauty. You’ll look lovely in blue.”
I was ignoring him, making my plans instead. Thralls who try to run away are punished with a flogging if they’re lucky, or by having a foot cut off if they’re not, so I cast down my eyes and hid my thoughts.
I needn’t have bothered because my new owner wasn’t paying attention. He was looking in a small chest, moving aside a small bow made of ash and a crossbow made of yew, both of superb craftsmanship, worth a fortune.
The tools of his trade were everywhere. A large bag held more gear: hemp strings, tallow and wax for polishing, and quivers of arrows made from ash, poplar, beech and hazel, tipped with different sized arrowheads and fletched with feathers dyed red, blue and green.
“This will fit.” It was a tunic of blue linen, embroidered with yellow stitching. It was beautiful, the material soft, thick and cut generously. When I put it on, it fell to my knees. Ware Fletcher was rich, and he enjoyed his luxury.
He was taking my hands. “Let me see your wrists.” His fingers were long, the nails shaped neatly, and while his left hand was soft, the right was rough, the skin hardened with calluses along the palm, thumb and middle three fingers. You only get that from firing thousands of arrows. He was a bowman, too, not just a craftsman.
That was odd. A fletcher might follow the drum so that his lord’s archers would always have a good supply of arrows, but none stoop to work as professional bowmen. And master craftsmen are extremely proud. Far too proud to go a-wandering. They set up shop, employ apprentices to do all the hard work, and sit back while clients seek them out.
This man didn’t have a tonne of servants running after him. What was even weirder was that he carried a longbow and had a crossbow in his luggage, both fine weapons and well used. Mercenaries are expert in one or the other, not both! It argued he was a superb archer as well as a master craftsman. I’d never heard of such a thing.
“Your wrists are raw.” He was turning my hands over. “But they’ll heal quickly.”
Aside from rope burn there were black marks on my arms and legs. The pages had enjoyed pinching and punching. Suddenly I was exhausted. I was shaking, too, an after-effect of all the fear and anger.
His gaze softened and he put an arm around me. “Come. A little wine and some food will set you right.”
It was weirder and weirder. Thralls don’t get wine. Some of the mercenaries Jarvis had lent me to had shared their gin and beer, and on one heavenly occasion I’d had rum, but they’d never ever worried about whether I was hungry or not.
“Follow me, tender beauty. Our supper awaits.”
We went downstairs, and I fell into a dreaming state. Even now it seems unreal. We ate steaming bowls of mutton with white beans and leeks, followed by an apple pie rich with spice and covered in custard.
There were people all around us, but I can’t say I noticed them. I was sunk in my chair, a deep scoop made of cane and filled with plump cushions, floating in my own slice of heaven. I had never been that well-fed or that comfortable.
Ware was sipping honeyed wine from a goblet, deep in his own thoughts. He’d not said a word. It’s not like anyone’s ever talked to me much, but even Jarvis had wanted to know if I could cook and wash. All Ware knew was that I could swear and kick. It didn’t seem like good qualifications for anything. Still, the silence was nice, so I closed my eyes and drifted.
“Lind.” He was touching my shoulder, the grey eyes dark. “Come to bed.”
At that, my peace shattered. My stomach churned. I wanted to slap him. Or maybe to scream. My collar burned and choked me.
“Up you get.” He was lifting me out of the chair, plucking me from paradise.
In desperation I tried to talk my way out of it. “I’ll go to the scullery.”
The eyes were dark and inscrutable. “You sleep with me.”
There was no escape, none. I could feel sweat running down my back. I wanted to belt him and run. I didn’t because it wouldn’t help me. Thralls belong to their masters. That’s the law.
In Master Baker’s house it had been his apprentice who’d taken me. It had been brutal and fast. One moment I’d been cleaning pots, and the next he’d thrown me on my back, lifted my tunic, and then there was a searing pain.
I’d been too shocked to cry and too ashamed to tell anyone. When the baker found out, he’d slapped me. “It was your only value and you lost it, you little slut!”
The baker hadn’t wanted me after that, but his son did. He enjoyed hurting, and when he went too far, I hit back. My defiance earned me a beating, and then I was sold on.
My story isn’t unusual; all masters use their thralls. Over the years I’d learned to control them so it didn’t hurt when they had me, and I’d figured out how to make them finish fast, too. But in all that time, when I was sick, sore or exhausted, not one of them had ever heeded my pleas to let me be.
So I didn’t beg because I knew there was no point. I said nothing as Ware took me upstairs, and I didn’t struggle as he took the seam of the blue tunic and pulled it over my head. “Into bed, Lind.”
I could hit him on the head with the hammer, cut through the collar with the pincers and run. Except that he didn’t turn his back, and the toolbox was on the far side of the room. He tugged off his boots, his hose and then his tunic, folding them neatly and placing them on a stool.
I’d been right. Stripped of the rich embroidered linen, all I could see was rippling muscle. Even his stomach was brawny. Amazingly, he didn’t have a single scar. Every soldier I’ve ever seen has a souvenir from a lance, dagger, sword or arrow. Ware Fletcher had smooth, white skin, pearly as a girl’s. Well, not mine because I’m sallow where I’m not tanned, but princesses would prize Ware’s bright hide.
Men might have envied his cock. It was standing straight up in the air, as jaunty as the duke’s tower and pretty near as big. The girly man was built like a damn mule.
He slid into bed, leaving the candles lit. His skin was soft, his body hard. He smelled of wood, just like his bows and arrows. “Let me look at you, tender beauty.”
He was mocking me, but the hands were careful. He ran a hand over my waist, my hip and then my thigh. His touch was firm, his skin warm. I thought he might pinch, they often do, but he just rubbed and looked. Then it hit me: he was inspecting me, checking me over as if I were a horse bought from a stranger at the market. Humiliation swept through me.
He ran a finger over my hip. “These little white marks, are they from a cane?”
“Yes.” A permanent reminder from the jongleur to tumble faster.
He turned me over a little, his hand moving over my shoulders. “These too?”
“Riding crop.” When I’d fainted from hunger, the tanner had thought whipping was cheaper than feeding me.
His hand was on my bottom. “And this?”
“Like I’d remember! Probably all of them!”
The eyes were like steel, and for a moment I regretted snapping at him. Ware Fletcher had fed me, but he was a Llanfaes man and therefore dangerous. He didn’t hit me, which was a relief, but if I wanted to run, he had to be lulled. I had to stop my rage getting the better of my sense. But my fury wouldn’t let me bow my head or smile.
He pulled me closer. “It would seem I need to buy a crop or cane.”
I thought it was a threat, but there was no anger. Actually, he was smiling a little. Great. He was laughing at me again. How nice that me being thrashed amused him.
His hands were in my hair, his erection pushing against me. “But I think Wolf would disapprove.”
What in Tyr’s name did his damn horse have to do with it?
“You see,” the voice was soft, “we don’t believe in whips.”
For a moment I didn’t get it. Then I realised he’d not been mocking or threatening. Ware was telling me that he wouldn’t beat me.
“Lind.” He was holding me close to him, arms around me.
Maybe if he’d talked to me, it would’ve been different. Maybe. But he decided it was conversation over. The master had told the thrall she’d not be thrashed, and in exchange I was supposed to fall into his arms and weep with gratitude and relief. As if he was hanging around the neck of the smith, the constable and everyone else for not whipping me at will! As if it was the world’s right to hurt me!
At that point my rage boiled over. But instead of fire, I was filled with icy calm. I lifted my eyes and spoke sweetly, “Would Wolf approve of this?” Then I flexed against him, dropping my hand on his hot flesh, rubbing the tip of his straining cock gently with my fingertips.
“Yes,” he sighed. “Oh yes!”
He was quivering with need, arching slowly against me in lascivious delight. I pushed his hardness between my legs, readying myself for what was to come. The body obeys the mind, and I had learned to control mine. As I thrust against him, feeling myself dampen, I gave him an encouraging moan.
“Tender beauty!” His breath was ragged in my ear, his fingers tracing my shoulders and moving down to cup my arse. If I’d left him to it, he would have taken his time. As I wanted it over fast, I rolled onto my back, pulled him over me and spread my legs. He was sliding into me before he could stop himself.
He was big, and for a moment I thought it would hurt, but he slowed, giving me time to adjust. When I was certain I’d be all right, I moaned again, arched my hips and ran my fingers down his back. He groaned and another bump of my hips had him moving hard against me, thrusting deep.
He slid his hands underneath me, holding me close. His touch was gentle, his movements slow and careful. The massive cock stroked and thrust as he ground against my clit. It was a sweet feeling, and he smelled good.
I closed my eyes and felt myself relax. He held me tenderly, and the bed was soft. His scent reminded me of the forest, clean and close, filled with peace. As we moved together in soft silence, I became soaking wet. The spiced wine washed back, too, adding a pleasant haze. I found myself clinging to him, swept into a world of sweet sensation.
As his body heated, the scent of wood enveloped me. The hardness driving into me tightened my body while his hands, gentling me, held me fast. He was fierce yet gentle, his body hard and yet soft against mine. I was drowning in a world of contrast.
I hung there, forgetting to push him to a quick finish. Our bodies danced together, subtle and firm, limber and gentle, that fragrance as sweet as a kiss.
I held onto him, feeling the muscles flex and writhe under my hands. I felt breathless, as if teetering on the edge of a secret place. Now my moans were real, pulled from me by fierce thrusts. Gasping for air, my body arched into his, heating inexplicably, and then we were pulsing together.
My body flamed, my cold control vanquished. My breath was stuck in my throat, my thighs were quivering, and a sudden heat was building deep inside me.
I curled into him, my hands raking over his back, lost in time. My body floated, feeling the soft skin and hard body brush and skim against mine. My senses were swamping me, ramping up to some hidden climax. I was arching, my body burning when he was exploding into me.
“Apollo’s laurel wreath and bow!” Trust a fletcher to come up with that, right? “Sweet Lind! Tender beauty.” Yes, I was in favour. So why did I feel a searing disappointment? As if I’d lost the opportunity for something?
I forced myself to face facts. It didn’t matter. Freedom was my goal. His hands were in my hair, his lips on my shoulder. I wanted to push him away, to go curl up by the fire, but sense told me to be patient. He’d send me off soon to the stables, or maybe I’d rate the rug by the fire, and then he’d fall asleep.
But Ware had other ideas. We dipped into the copper, cleaned up and then he slid me back into bed. He blew out the candle, curled me onto my side and wrapped an arm around me.
Getting to sleep in bed was a first. I lay there, totally taken aback. “Tomorrow we buy you a shift,” he murmured. “You need boots, too.”
That knocked the breath out of me! I’d worn boots when I was with the jongleur—it’s vital to look prosperous when entertaining nobles—but I’d not had footwear since. Boots would mean an end to bruised and cut feet as well as thorns and thistles, poop and other nameless horrors. It was a small slice of paradise.
“Sweet dreams, Lind.”
And just like that, he was asleep. I lay there, suddenly plagued by doubt. Oh, not about running for my freedom. That was the one certainty. A world of boots couldn’t buy my obedience. No, what worried me was how to get away clean.
If the guards at the gate stopped me, I had no tale to tell. The collar leaves a mark; the iron wears the skin, and that meant I’d have to steal a scarf as well as a tunic. It would look odd, a girl going out alone, though. And I didn’t have a skirt, either.
Then it hit me: with Ware’s wardrobe at my disposal, I’d dress as a boy. With my hair, it might work. If I left just at sunrise, when the shadows were long, I could swagger out. Yes, a young man out about his business was immune from curious guards. Probably.
For a moment I hesitated. The whipping post was fresh in my mind. Then I gave myself a boot up the bum. It was time. Any more delay and I’d lose courage, worrying about the difficulties.
I snuck out from under Ware’s arm and crept to the toolbox. The hammer lay on top. It looked fearsome.
I sat back and reconsidered. He hadn’t hurt me, had in fact fed me better than I’d ever been. Also, he’d been gentle in bed. I put down the hammer and picked up a wooden staff. He’d have a sore head, but it wouldn’t kill him.
I moved back to the bed, standing over him. I hesitated, struck again by doubts. Then, suddenly taking courage, I brought the staff up and swung.
About AJ Adams
I live in Malaysia with Tom, my best friend for 25 years and married for almost as long. Aside from writing fiction, I write columns and features for newspapers and magazines. You're welcome to follow or stalk but be warned - I love cats so my feed is full of pussy...