Kidnapping of Princess Briana

by Darren Bloomquist and Michael Raleigh

Archive-name: Kidnapping.of.Princess.Brianna
From: (Paul Stacy)  Newsgroups:,,

vmPath:!emory!wuarchive!zaphod.mps.ohio-!!umriscc!!asparrow From: (Angelia Sparrow) Newsgroups: Subject: The Kidnapping of Princess Brianna Keywords: Ellassa, Brianna, Jessica Harveld, interspecies sex Message-ID: <> Date: 25 Jun 91 18:49:16 GMT Sender: Organization: University of Missouri - Rolla Originator:

For those of you who have recently finished the novel portion I have written, and for those who enjoy reading my stuff, (this one is for you Rose) another fragment. Be warned, it is LONG!! 30 pages of single-spaced type.


The travel from Lupa was quiet. Jess had planned on it. The fall sales were three months away, and would be held in Toren this year. She hoped to have some of the Dark Lord's girls to put on the block. Oh, to get that sharp-tongued bitch Alyne in her coffle. She hated the Dark Lord's younger sister with a surprising passion. She clicked the reins on the cart, chafing that it moved so slowly. The tired horses moved a little faster for a few paces and then returned to their somber shuffle.

Janesse rode beside her on the seat of the cart, and Jessica glanced at her daughter with pride. Janesse was fifty now, and Jess was ninety. They both looked as though they were in their late thirties. Janesse was a daughter to be proud of. She had learned the trade from her father, Malak, after he and Jess had parted ways. She had taken over when he retired and had made contact with her mother; with their combined skills, their operations had been more successful than ever. Jess was proud of her daughter's abilities in procurement and bargaining, and she was pleased that the girl was so pretty. The first bloom of her youth was fading, but she was lovely, and her face held a sort of wisdom that only those of elven blood could attain so young.

The city of Tavect was growing larger in the distance. They would make it by sundown. Jess had often visited the city with Malak during the Time of Darkness and knew that the royal palace was much the same as ever. More ornamentation had been added over the years, sometimes unwisely, but still much the same. She planned to arrived after supper and leave, with the princess, before midnight, so that Brianna would not be missed until the next morning. By then she would be in Lupa, the Dark Lord's plans to the contrary.

She still did not trust the lad. He was a hope. Perhaps he would bring back the old days. She had done commissions for him, and she knew she stood high in his favor, because of the unlimited travel pass, but she still could not bring herself to trust him. She had stayed alive by not trusting anyone too far, and was too set in her ways to change now. Part of it was his sisters, she supposed. Alyne was a saucy little brat, but of no real influence. Zara, on the other hand, made the slaver's blood run cold. There was an ice maiden with no question, and she was his favorite into the bargain. The way the witch-bitch had looked when her husband was poisoned sent a chill up Jess's spine. Magic made her nervous anyway. A sword was a better defense any day in her mind. But she had not discouraged Janesse's dabbling in the art. She had considered warning the Dark Lord to be careful, but realized he probably already knew. She was his twin sister, after all, and if some of the rumors one heard in Guhrya were true, she loved him better than life itself. Jess put the thought from her mind.

She thought about the coming fall sales. A few of the Dark Lord's slaves would keep her in luxury all winter and she would not have to take to the roads until late spring. The price he had agreed on for Brianna was not exorbitant, but it was high. She had kept her travel expenses to a minimum, sleeping on the roads, and only taking to the inns when the weather was uncooper- ative. Most of the hundred gold he had given her for expenses had remained untouched. The weather had been oddly warm and terribly dry all year, and was doing nothing to motivate the horses to move any faster than they had to. Crops in unirrigated regions outside the empire were likely to be poor, and grass and brush fires would soon be dangerously common everywhere. Behind the cart, she could see the dust kicked up by the wheels.

Tavect drew ever nearer and finally, before sunset, they entered the city. The palace was in the heart of town, about equal distance from the four walls. Tavect was a peaceful city and had not even heard rumors of war since the Time of Darkness. The palace had no gates, and was covered with ornamental stone work. Jessica scoffed silently. Dark Hold, although impressive, was not quite impregnable. This palace, on the other hand, seemed to be built to aid the entry of thieves.

They pulled into the courtyard and brought the wagon to a stop. A guard stepped out of the gatehouse, buckling his sword around his waist as he exited. Inside, Jess noted two more leaning nonchalantly against a wall, with no weapons visible anywhere near them, regarding her with only casual interest. Years of peace had made Tavect's soldiery soft and complacent, it seemed, while the size of the military remained the most impressive in the region.

As the lone guard approached, Jess suddenly focused her full attention on him; she recognized him from somewhere. The reference was obscure and distant and she could not place him, but she never forgot a face. She knew him, just as the tingling down her spine warned her that he was out of place here and something was subtly wrong. She eyed him suspiciously, then quickly averted her gaze to avoid staring and drawing attention to herself. There was the chance he would recognize her first, and do a better job of placing a name and occupation with the face. For once, she was glad she had left her trademark belt of coins back at the Inn of the Hippogriff's Egg in Lupa. The proprietor had been paid well to guard it. Should the guard manage to identify her, she and Janesse would be leaving Tavect sooner than expected.

"Name and business, please," he requested, stopping before the cart and scrutinizing it and the occupants, letting his glance linger longer than necessary on Janesse's attractive features.

"My name, sahr, is Virna Minkoil and this is my sister, Virsha. We have traveled far to see if any of our meager wares might interest your glorious princess," Janesse whined ingratiatingly in a northern accent, while taking quick notice of her mother's stealthy hand signal for danger out of the corner of her eye. The people north of Tavect on the river were trappers and hunters. They spoke through their noses and Jess found the accent grating.

The guardsman looked into the wagon at the furs. "They just might. Take a couple of bundles in, and talk to the chamberlain."

"Thank you, sahr." Janesse did a pantomime of picking up the furs. "My sister, she is deaf and dumb. But she is strong and a help." Jess heard her cue and moved to the back of the wagon to shoulder a bundle of furs, making sure the white fox was in it. Janess climbed down from her seat, ignoring the offered hand of the guard, Janesse followed her into the castle. "We pulled that off. Deaf and dumb, all right?"

"Fine," Jess hissed back, "but watch our backs. I know I've seen that man before. When I remember who he is, I'll tell you, but mark him as an enemy." Jess knew her low, gravelly voice was not the voice of a fur trapper and trader from the far north, where the women, although more barbaric than the civilized south, were very soft spoken. It was a voice used to yelling commands over the crack of a whip and screams of despairing captives. The guard sent one of his people to escort them and he led them to the throne room. Jess was glad to see that the security was not entirely lax.

King Fionn and his court were nearly ready to leave for supper. "We weren't expecting anyone else," he said, half apologizing as he removed his robe and sat back down.

"No, go eat. We wait. You bargain better when not hungry," Janesse said in a barbaric accent. Jess smiled at her daughter when the court had left, leaving only a small complement of palace guards to watch the strangers. Janesse's many voices would cover their identities and keep the search parties going in circles for days, if they were lucky.

They waited patiently for the king's return. The white fox pelts had been horribly expensive, but they were rare. Jess had had them made into a sheath dress and a cloak, again more expense, but necessary. They conferred quietly over the plan, Jess maintaining her act by reacting only in sign language and nods, while they were under observation of the bored guards.

Soon enough, the court returned. Brianna walked near her father. Jess had pinpointed her from the Dark Lord's description. Not a bad looking wench, but stubborn, she thought. She might be worth the five hundred.

"Yes, now what do you ladies have to offer us?" King Fionn asked, seating himself.

"Virna Minkoil," Janesse gestured to herself. "Sister, Virsha. Many pelts, some clothes. Interest?"

"Barbarians, Poppa. We can practically take the furs," whispered Brianna, too loudly. "Everyone knows how stupid barbarians are."

"Hush, child. Be polite," Fionn whispered back. "Show us what you have," he instructed Janesse.

Jessica and her daughter displayed the furs for nearly an hour. Then came the white fox. Brianna looked at it hungrily. She had been interested in the other furs, but the white caught her attention, and immediate favor.

"Poppa, I want that set. The white one," she whispered.

"Very well. I was wanting some of the ermine for a new robe. I'll ask." Turning back to the merchants, he smiled, with the face of a merchant instead of a monarch. "How much for all of the ermine pelts and the white fur?"

"Ermine, five gold a pelt," Janesse said, naming a price that was not unreasonable. "Princess try on white fox before she buy. Be sure fits."

Jess pulled out the ten ermine pelts and the white fox. Accepting the fifty gold, she handed the white fox to Janesse.

"Try it on in your room, Precious," the king doted, "and if it fits come back. Agnes, accompany her."

"Sire, not her fur yet. Still mine. I go," Janesse put in.

"Very well. Go with them." King Fionn gestured them out and looked at Jessica. The one-eyed woman made him uneasy but he wasn't sure why.

"Virsha, take money and pelts. Wait in wagon," Janesse said, sticking her head back in. She went through a complicated series of gestures. Jess watched and then nodded. Making a bow to King Fionn, who looked puzzled at Janesse's pantomime, she covered her ears and then her mouth with her hands, explaining she was deaf and dumb. She picked up the furs and the money and left with only a single guard following her in escort. The security here was nothing compared to Dark Hold; these people were far too trusting.

The princess' chambers were at the top of the eastern tower, and Janesse followed Brianna and Agnes up the stairs. She prepare the components of the spell in her belt pouch and rehearsed the words once more. Agnes opened the door on a lovely pink and gold room, daintily decorated in a manner befitting a princess. Janesse followed, feigning amazement.

"Where's the dress and cloak, Barbarian? I haven't got all night." As she handed the white furs over, Janesse mumbled something under her breath and powdered the spell components between her fingers and touched them on Agnes' exposed arm as if by accident.

"I am your most trusted friend," Janesse quietly informed the princess' lady in waiting. "You trust me completely and will do whatever I ask."

Agnes turned to regard Janesse with star-struck eyes as the spell took control of her will. "I will do whatever you ask," she repeated dreamily. "You are my most trusted friend."

Janesse nodded and gestured to the princess. "Your lady requires assistance. Go to her before she must call you." Agnes turned back to the princess as if nothing had happened. Smiling smugly, Janesse prepared the components for the same spell again.

As Brianna struggled with the white fox dress, which Jessica had subtly altered with needle and thread the night before to make it especially difficult to get into, Janesse moved forward as if to help.

"What is the matter with this Celestra-forsaken dress!" Brianna whined, in frustration. "I cannot get into it. Agnes! My arm is stuck! Help me with this!" She turned to Janesse with scorn. "Can you barbarians not even make a simple lady's garment correctly?"

"Garment fine," Janesse grumbled. "Princess just get into it wrong. Here, I show. Princess hold still." Brianna ceased her struggling and permitted Janesse to touch her. The slaver powdered the spell components, mumbled the words to the spell, and brushed the princess' cheek with her fingers. "Brianna, would you like to have an adventure?" she asked in her normal voice.

"Yes, that sounds like fun," Brianna said, again renewing her feeble attempts to wriggle into the fur. Her voice had lost its whine, and she decided she liked this woman.

"Here's the plan. I'll sneak you, and Agnes too, of course, out of the castle, and show you an adventure; perfectly safe, but exciting too. You have brothers. They must surely talk about the wonderful inns and taverns. Would you like to see them?"

"Yes, I'd like that very much. How will you get me out of the castle? I don't think this fits," she added, giving up the fight with the dress and handing it back to Janesse.

"Drink this and hold Agnes's hand. I'll leave by the front gate and Agnes can show me out. We'll hide you in our wagon." Janesse slid a crystal vial from an inner pocket of her shirt. The azure liquid within bubbled and sparkled. As the light in the room struck it, it became transparent.

"What is this?" Brianna asked, sniffing it with interest and then turning her nose up at its pungent odor.

"A potion of invisibility. It won't taste very good, but think of all the fun you can have while you're invisible, after we get you out of the castle. Drink. It's perfectly safe. Trust me, but you must be quiet."

Brianna quaffed the potion, and began to fade with a child-like giggle of amusement and surprise as she reached for Agnes's hand. Beckoning to Agnes, Janesse led them down the stairs and back to the throne room. She had no idea just how long Brianna would stay charmed, but she wanted to take no chances and get out as soon as possible--her mother's earlier warning still haunted her mind. As they entered the throne room, they drew the attention of the assembled court, but Janesse quickly answered for her return before any questions could be asked.

"Sire, no fit. Princess in room pouting, sleeping," she told King Fionn.

"I'll show her to the gate, Your Majesty," Agnes said, moving to lead Janesse out. She could still feel Brianna's hand in hers as they walked to the waiting wagon.

"The night can be chill. Snuggle into the furs," Janesse told them as they climbed aboard and Jess started the wagon moving. The guards at the gate motioned them through without even bothering to stop them, and Jess again caught sight of the one guard she knew from somewhere else. He grinned and waved at her and Janesse as they departed, in a manner that was friendly enough but not to her liking.

They left the palace and drove through Tavect. The town was quieting as the taverns began to open. Brianna stayed quiet and hidden. Agnes was beginning to become puzzled as they drove out of the city. She left Brianna and moved to the front.

"Where are you taking us?" she asked.

Seeing no reason to lie, Jess answered, "Dark Hold. You're both to be sold to the Dark Lord. It shouldn't be too bad for you, since you're not pretty. Brianna abuses you, doesn't she?"

"Well, she's not always kind," Agnes admitted.

"Now's your chance to get revenge. The Dark Lord may put you over her while she's there. Even if he doesn't, what have you lost?"

"Go back to the princess, Agnes," Janesse broke in with a sidelong wink at her mother. "Don't worry yourself. We're friends and I won't let anything ill befall you."
Agnes thought for a moment and then returned to Brianna. The Princess was starting to reappear. She had fallen asleep upon leaving the city. Jess drove south-west through the night, paralleling the Handel River.

Reaching a point along the river, the slaver stopped the wagon. She and Janesse got down and began uncovering a punt, hidden in the underbrush. Waking Brianna and Agnes, they got their charges aboard and loaded the furs. The horses were skittish about stepping on to the flat-bottomed boat, but some tugging and swearing got them aboard.

As the cart was emptied, several holes were revealed lining the bottom. They about the size of a man's fist and not large enough to let anything slip through them. Tying a rope to the wagon hitch, Jess and Janesse pushed the punt off from the shore, with the rope tied to the wagon tied securely to an oar- lock. As the punt slipped out into the river, the wagon followed it.

Poling hard for deeper water, fighting the weight of the water that had begun filling the holes in the cart, the two slavers worked furiously for a moment and then cut the floundering cart adrift. In less than a minute, it sank from sight and was gone. It was unlikely to be found, covering their tracks well.

Stealthily poling their way across the river, Jess pointed the punt upriver toward the city of Lupa, some thirty-seven miles away. The Dark Lord's bounty on the Princess Brianna was as good as won and with minimal effort. Jess was extremely satisfied, especially since the little whiner was still charmed by Janesse's spell and was blissfully oblivious to anything but the lovely midnight boat ride. Even with the current against them and the weight of the horses, Jess calculated they should be safely in Lupa by sunrise at the latest. She would strip and chain the princess there on the docks, where every soldier and merchant marine could watch...but no, that was a bad idea, given the princess' notoriety in the area. It would be better to wait until they had safely crossed into Xatr and were on Imperial soil. The princess' modesty and self-esteem would have to be spared until then, but Jess figured it would be worth the wait, if only Janesse's spell held out and spared them her insufferable whining.

As the lights of Lupa drew closer, large, dark shapes began to take form on the waters. Ships, Jessica noted, and quite an impressive convoy to boot. All headed downriver from the look of things. As the ships moved closer, she realized that the numbers were inordinately large, and she motioned to Janesse to help her pole the punt out of the way.

Not a single one of the ships was sailing with lights, not only unusual but dangerous for smaller craft. Only river pirates made a habit of sailing without lights, and Jess would ordinarily avoid the ships for that reason alone, but the great number of this convoy -- which looked more and more like a fleet with each passing moment -- put that concern from her mind. No river pirate band was large enough to put together the impressive flotilla materializing before her.

Straining to move her craft to one side, to permit the flotilla bearing down on her easy passage, she strained with her elven night eyes to catch sight of some manner of flag or banner to identify the fleet's origin. Finally a banner fluttered into view from one of the lead ships, a small merchant vessel by the cut of its jib. The fleet belonged to the Dark Empire! More and more banners came into view; they were all imperial ships.

Jess pricked up her sharp ears and heard the cry of "Small vessel to starboard!" She relaxed and Janesse pulled her pole from the water to rest. They had been sighted by a lookout, and, although the flotilla was running without lights, at least the helmsman would know they were there and not ram them. The danger was past.
Suddenly, a large object dropped on to the punt, punching a hole in the bottom. Cursing several gods for the mishap, Jess dropped her pole and reached for the princess. It was doubtful she knew how to swim.

"Hey!" she yelled. A rope was dropped down the side of the ship that drew alongside her stricken punt as the water lapped at her knees. She saw that the horses were swimming for the other shore. Janesse and Agnes were also swimming, following the horses. Brianna clutched at Jessica frantically and began screaming, confirming Jess's suspicions that she could not swim, as Jess caught hold of the rope with her free hand, watching her punt and furs sink to the river bottom.

"Surrender and come aboard," the same voice yelled. "You are prisoners of the Dark Empire. If you continue to swim, you will be shot. We have orcish archers and they can see you."

Janesse, stopped, treading water as she weighed her options and reversed her course to swim back to the ship. Agnes did the same. Unable to climb with Brianna clambering all over her, Jess held tight to the knotted rope and shouted for another line, loudly informing the crew standing at the rails of her charge's plight and what she thought of them in no uncertain or polite terms.

Another line was dropped, this one with a large loop and slip knot in the end, which Jess managed to work and pull around the frantic Brianna with great difficulty. She swallowed more river water than she cared to as Brianna's floundering dunked her more than once. Secured, Brianna was pulled from the water, and a near exhausted and greatly miffed Jessica Harveld began climb- ing out of the Handel River herself, with Janesse and Agnes following her. The princess fussed the whole way. The charm spell had worn off.

Strong hands helped Jess aboard, handing her a towel and wrapping her in a blanket. A few seemed interested in groping for more, and while she was distracted fending them off, others deftly removed the belt that held her sword and daggers. She did not notice they were missing for almost half a minute.

Looking about herself with disgust and barely subdued rage, Jess noticed that the deck was crowded, and not just with sailors. An incredible number of fully armed imperial soldiers in full battle dress stood with them. To the bow of the ship, a light catapult on a pivoting base stood ready, with a supply of stones beside it, identical to the one that had sunk her punt. The catapult's three man crew looked pleased with themselves as they leaned proudly against it; sinking such a small target with one shot and no lights was an impressive feat. Jess fumed si- lently as she briskly dried her hair.

When they were all aboard, the sailor looked at them and said, "Welcome aboard the Imperial ship, The Gryphon. You are all prisoners of the Dark Empire. As prisoners of war, you will remain with us until we can transfer you to a slave transport."

"War? What war?" demanded Jess. "I am Jessica Harveld. I am on Imperial Business as a member of the Imperial Merchant's Guild, Slaver's Division. By delaying me, you are committing a grave error. I travel on the authority of the Emperor himself. I have a pass."

Taken aback, the sailor stepped aside to permit another man, dressed as a ship's officer, to move closer to the prison- ers. Bowing, the officer drew himself up formally. "I am the first mate of this ship, and I speak for my captain," he an- nounced firmly. "Show me your pass, and mayhap apologies will be in order afterward."

"You will owe me more than apologies," Jess grumbled as she fumbled for the pass she kept tucked well down in her high boots and slapped it into the waiting hand of the first mate. As he opened the pass and looked at it, Jess pressed him with her earlier question as Agnes tried to quiet the princess. "What war were we to have been made prisoners of?"

The first mate did not answer her, but concentrated on perusing the pass. At length, he looked back at the small woman standing before him. "Well," he stated, "we certainly don't see many of these floating about: an unlimited imperial travel pass and legitimate into the bargain." Jess held out her hand for it expectantly. "No, it is not going to work like that," the mate stated, shaking his head as he rolled the pass into a tube. "This pass gives you no right to be in this area at--"

"Ship to starboard!" called a voice from the front. "Tavect warship!" Instantly the crew and soldiers scrambled and the mate tucked Jess's pass into his shirt.
"Take your positions!" he bellowed. "Man the catapult! Mind the sails! Soldiers aft! Let's move it!" As the men moved to obey, and other officers began giving orders of their own, the mate turned to the men who had remained around Jess and her party. "Strip them and take them below. Secure them in the brig until this is over, then report to your positions."

"Over my dead body!" Jess declared, reaching instinctively for the sword and dagger she no longer possessed.

"My Lady," the mate said as he turned to leave, "the Empire has declared war on Tavect and we are about to sail into battle in the name of our Emperor. We haven't the time to search you now; as you are an imperial slaver, you will understand this and cooperate. The captain will likely release you when we come out of this and I show him your credentials, but for now you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. We will give you clothes to wear while you are here, but we cannot take chances with you now. Understand?" He turned and was gone before Jess could answer and the sailors behind her pushed her in the direction of an open hatch.

Resistance was useless, and she moved to the hatch; she'd cooperate until someone tried to take her clothing, soaked though it was.

As her party was herded down into the lower decks, the thought of exchanging her cold, wet clothes for warm, dry ones began to appeal and by the time they were directed to the brig and ordered to strip by the men who had followed them down, Jess and Janesse did just that, ignoring their presence. Jess had bivouacked with hired guards many times and a long succession of lovers had made Janesse impervious to male scrutiny. Brianna protested loudly, especially when she saw the dirty commoner's clothes that were to replace her regal garb, but gruff hands and voices coerced her into a waiting cell and cooperation. Agnes, although modest, reluctantly stripped without a word. All belongings were placed in an empty chest, which was promised to be returned after the captain had approved. After a quick once over by one of the crew, during which Brianna screamed and threw a tantrum as one of the men entered her cell to collect her things, the promised change of clothing was handed over and the party was locked into their cells.

Four armed guards were posted at the doors, while the others hurried up to rejoin the battle. Jess flopped angrily onto the floor and examined the shackle that secured her left ankle to the wall. Brianna wore one too, and as fate would have it, in the chaos of situating the prisoners, Jess had drawn the princess as her cell mate, while Janesse got the more agreeable and considerably quieter Agnes. Drawing the stiletto from where she had concealed it between her hand and forearm when the sol- dier had looked her over before giving her the dry clothes, she tucked it behind her so that Brianna would not see it and alert a guard.

Settling in for what promised to be a rough ride, and pondering the curious coincidence surrounding the Dark Empire going to war with Tavect on the eve of her abduction of the princess, Jessica permitted Brianna some time to wear out her voice as she grumbled about everything from being manhandled and almost drowned to the terrible accommodations and quality of clothing the ship had afforded her -- with all of it being ulti- mately Jessica's fault. It was then that she began to swear at Jess sending the slaver over the edge of her short temper.

"Shut your mouth, bitch," Jess snarled. "Or by the Destroyer, I'll shut it for you. And you won't like what I put in before the gag. It's your fault I'm in this mess, and I'm not happy. Do not push me. Go to sleep. Things will be different in the morning."

"Ugly witch!" Brianna returned. "You and your partner ensorcelled me. When Royal Poppa finds me, I'll have your other eye gouged out, and your hands cut off and your tongue cut out and...and then I'll have you boiled in oil!" She sneered triumphantly at the slaver at the thought of such action. Jess shrugged.

"Bloodthirsty child. I've had more powerful rulers than your `royal poppa' wanting my head; far more powerful. I escaped the wrath of the Tiensor of Ontra. He had resources, scouts and a cruel turn of mind." She raised her hands to touch her missing eye and the scars on her face. "Your father doesn't even have a court torturer. He is probably far too squeamish to even own a boiling kettle. Now go to sleep, slave girl."

"I am not a slave. I am Princess Brianna of Tavect. I--"

"Give it a rest. The Dark Lord says you are to be a slave girl, and he paid me to make you one. Besides, I wouldn't be throwing my identity around so casually if I were you. We will be traveling through territory hostile to Tavect. Some folks would like nothing better than to get their hands on the missing princess, hold her for ransom and deliver a raped, muti- lated corpse to the drop. Tomorrow we'll be off of this ship and you'll be on your way to an iron collar. That big bitch in charge of the harem will like you a lot. Too much for your own good maybe."

"What do you mean?" Brianna asked, a little nervous. Jess's words had summoned up the image of the Dark Lord's harem. She couldn't remember which one had been in charge. Only two of the girls had seemed very large: the one with the stripes on her back and the aloof one.

"She likes them young and soft," Jess leered, trying to frighten Brianna into silence, "or so I hear tell from the girls I have sold from the castle. After the Dark Lord takes you, it's her turn." Leaving Brianna to digest this new information, Jess turned onto her side and got as comfortable as her chains would allow.

It was not long before the clash of battle from above filtered down to the brig. Brianna listened fearfully to the unfamiliar sound of great numbers of weapons clashing and men screaming in terror and triumph. Jessica noted the princess' posture and smiled solemnly up at the clamor. Brianna shuddered as she saw the edges of the scars on her captor's face spread open. "Ah..." Jess mused, deliberately trying to frighten the princess further, "the sound of imperial forces at play..." The princess stared wide-eyed at her cellmate, then shut her eyes tightly and covered her ears.

Brianna, far from home and frightened by the events of the day, as well as the new information she had received from this strange and hateful woman, curled up in a ball. She was determined not to let the slaver see her cry.

The next morning came and the prisoners could hear the troops on the deck above. Brianna got more and more fractious as the day wore on. Boredom was not a thing she was familiar with. The first half hour had been a change of pace, but now she was well and truly bored and was roundly cursing the slaver, the ship, the captain, her guards, Agnes, the gods and her fate. She kept her voice low, knowing that Jess would not appreciate being awakened. She was afraid of the woman, but was not letting it show. The slaver had awakened, and eaten the porridge that had been given to the prisoners. She had thrown the empty iron bowl at Brianna when the princess declared herself unable to eat it without honey. After that she had lain back down and gone to sleep. Now Brianna was bored, hungry and had to be quiet about her irritation for her own safety.

In truth, Jess was not asleep. She was in the half-dream phase where her mind made its most fruitful connections. She could hear Brianna cursing, but it came from a long way off. The escape plan was not forming. She was confident that her papers would be discovered and they would be on their way by that night. She only hoped Janesse was being sensible enough to sleep in preparation for travel.

At some point during the night, the ship had off-loaded its cargo of soldiers on the shore of Tavect and had put back out onto the river, where it had clashed in an number of engagements with other vessels. Jess had heard the sound of bodies hitting the deck above and not getting up again more than a few times, and had listened with the princess as the dying screamed their last. Twice, the Gryphon had been rudely jostled and thumped on its starboard side, and had listed unevenly for some time after each bump, indicating that the ship had grappled and boarded two other ships during the night. Since no one came below decks to look in on them or free them, the Gryphon had apparently not changed hands during the fighting. More than once Brianna had wished that the scarred woman across the cell was Agnes. She felt trapped and alone in this nightmare and a warm body to cling to would have been most comforting during the worst of the fighting above.

The ship's mate had said they were at war with Tavect. Who were the brave young men dying on the decks above? She wondered if any of her suitors had fallen.
But, of course! The answer was there all along. The slavers had fooled no one, and her royal poppa had sent the men to find her! She tried to shout that she was here, here in the brig, but a sharp glare from her cellmate silenced her, as she remembered that the imperial forces might still be winning above decks.

The day passed and night came again. Jess, having slept a good deal, was unable to sleep that night. It was a quiet night. Brianna was exhausted from the sheer boredom and hunger. Jess wondered why the captain was taking so long to approve her papers. Detaining imperial agents on official business was punished harshly in the Empire, and no one should know it better than an imperial officer. Jess found the delay intolerable; even moreso at the thought of having to spend another day with Brianna.

The next morning brought a blinding light into the dark cell, as the door was opened and keys were turned in the locks of their shackles by large, rough hands. "Out you come, ladies," a voice said. They were taken above-decks. Blinking against the sun, Jess saw that another vessel had pulled up alongside of the war-ravaged Gryphon. This one called itself the Iron Chain. She heard the clink of money being exchanged and the third mate authorized the transfer of prisoners.

"Wait!" she snapped. "I am Jessica Harveld, a registered member of the Slavers' Division of the Merchants' Guild. Under imperial law, I cannot be sold."

Determined to have her say, Brianna added, "And I am Princess Brianna Anastasia Theresa Fiona, only daughter of King Fionn V, the Just, of Tavect, My father will reward you well for returning me, and capturing my abductors."

"And I'm Nicholas Elfbane," the captain of the slave ship sneered. "Do you have papers to prove who you are?" he asked Jess.

"They were taken from me the night my boat was sunk. I had a pass, as well as identification. You're not Nicholas Elfbae; I worked with his brother. Sold the little runt once, too."

"She did have papers," the third mate of the Gryphon put in, "but they were on the person of our first mate, and we lost him overboard in the fighting last night. I was below decks when we captured these four and never got a chance to see them; most of the crew is dead or missing and the captain lies wounded at Death's door in his cabin and cannot be disturbed while he makes peace with the Black-robed One. The one-eyed bitch talks a good line, but you know how women are."

"Aye, not a one of 'em but'll lie if pushed, and there exist no passes to a battle-field; her papers were probably faked. Let's go." He collared the four women and attached small numbered metal tags to the collars. Jess fought and balked all the way aboard the ship. It took four of the slaver's crew to hold her while her clothes were removed. Brianna looked superior at the sight of Jess's almost curveless body and tiny breasts. Upon seeing the scars that covered her body, the captain looked disgusted.

"You'll not sell high with all those marks on you. Let's see what that eyepatch hides." He lifted the black patch and looked. The scar that ran up her cheek also slit her eyelid. The eyesocket was empty. "Aye, you'll keep that. You're no beauty, but the gladiator school doesn't much care as long as you can fight." Noting the hairlessness of her body, he took a closer look at her ears. "Elven breed, are you?"

Jess spat in his face. The captain struck her. "Listen, slave," he snarled, "I own you now and I don't take that treatment from anyone, free or slave. You be good and I'll sell you to the gladiator school. You give me trouble, I'll cut you up alive for fish bait." He made a motion to a nearby sailor, who disappeared. "Take her over to the mast." Jess fought every step of the way, losing the stiletto she had managed to conceal tied in her hair.

"Sneaking weapons aboard my ship now, are you?" the captain noted casually, as he stooped to pick up her fallen blade. Examining the quality of the knife, he slipped it into his belt as he stood. "Looks as if I'll have to teach you more of a lesson than I thought."

The sailor who had disappeared, returned with a bag. "This is a reminder, slave," the captain told her as he brought the whip down on her back. Jess flinched and clenched her teeth, holding in her scream. Two sailors pressed her to the mast by her arms. "Brave and strong, too," the captain noted, drawing back for another stroke. "Good, but a few more scars aren't going to affect your price. Let's see just what it takes to pull a scream from your stinking half-blood throat." Five strokes and Jess was taken below decks. She had given in easily and permitted herself to cry out after the fifth blow. She knew that if she had taken all of the lashes needed to truly break her, she would be lucky to be alive and in no condition to make an escape. The captain's mocking laughter at how soon she had yelled stung her more than her back.

The hold of the slave ship was a dismal affair and she sniffed. Her own ship, back in the days when she and Malak had this run had been a lean, trim craft, and the hold far better organized. Brackets were set in the hull, and a chain attached to the collar of the slave passed through it and on to the next. The men locked the chain to her collar and fastened her wrists to the collar. She was seated in front of a bracket. By craning her neck, she caught a glimpse of the number. Thirteen, of course. With the luck on this run, she would be put in the troublemaker's spot.

Janesse had drawn approval from the sailors. She had voluntarily stripped, knowing it would be easier, and her slender form was now under perusal. "Are you a virgin?" the captain asked.

"Not since I was twenty," she replied.

"A late bloomer," one of the crew whispered, with a chuckle.

Having caught his remark, she answered, "No sir, merely an elven quarter-blood. Unlike my mother, I am not ashamed of my heritage." The captain drew back her unbound hair. The ears were pointed.

"Aye, a good price for this pretty. She's on the older side, but there are those who like experienced women." The implication was clear.

"Yes, sir," Janesse replied, seeing a possible way to avoid his attentions, "and I'm one."

The captain looked at her for a moment and laughed. "We'll cure you of that, love. Take her down." Janesse was locked to bracket fourteen, a good place on the line-up. Number fourteen was what was called the influence spot. This was one of the better behaved slaves who had been put next to the trouble- maker in hopes of having a good influence.

Brianna had fought being stripped and when her clothing was off, the captain saw why. The lass was on the heavy side, and not as well-formed as he had thought. Her clothing had been tailored to deceive, and she wore an iron and cloth contraption to hold in the bulges, which the sailor who had inspected her in the cell before giving her the new clothes had decided to let her keep to expedite getting the prisoners secured. Brianna wept and wailed bitterly as her precious secret about her flawless body was revealed. Holding her down, a pair of laughing slavers sliced the leather fastening straps with their knives instead of working with all the buckles and hasps, and peeled it off of her. They ceremoniously chucked it over the side into the river amid a sarcastic hailing salute and much jeering from the other slavers and sailors. "She says she's Princess Brianna. Put her with the other two `Princess Briannas'; at least those two have bodies becoming of royalty and will have some chance of selling at a royal profit. Spot Twenty."

Agnes, being nondescript, was questioned about her part in this. Being wiser than her mistress, Agnes gave a brief summary of her life and meeting Jess and Janesse, but left out all the details that might reveal any true identities. Upon learning she was a servant, she was put in the fifties, with several other servants whose masters or mistresses had been unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of slavers. Breaking with the Gryphon, which headed upriver to Lupa and much-needed repairs, the Iron Chain headed downriver for the northern ports of the Dark Empire and the Kish-Kar Mountains.

The travel downriver lasted several days. Jess and Janesse plotted together, until the officer in charge of the slave hold heard them. Angered upon being informed, the captain ordered Jessica hauled out of the hold and chained to the mast.

Giving only token resistance, Jess was chained to the mast so that the chains on her shackles ran behind the smooth spar of wood. She could not kick, even if she had been foolish enough to try it, and her arms were caught back so that she could not even touch her own body. A bucket was placed on a stool between her legs to catch her wastes and the captain personally fitted her with a feeder gag. The device buckled over and behind her head, wrenching her jaws open with the insertion of a metal funnel that depressed her tongue. The gag permitted feeding and watering of the slave who wore it, but made speech impossible and life in general miserable. Swallowing was difficult and the taste of metal was foul on her tongue.

The captain stepped back after affixing the gag and, hands on his hips, laughed uproariously. "Sold the great Nicholas Elfbane once, indeed!" he sneered. "You'll keep that gag now, slave girl, until you are sold. I hope you don't have an aversion to sunburns, because you're staying right here where we can keep an eye on you. Cause me any more trouble and I'll make good my promise to cut you up for fish bait. Are there any questions?" The captain laughed again and left her to the sun and elements.

Infuriated, humiliated and miserable, Jessica Harveld stood at the mast in the blazing late summer sun and fumed. She was thankful that her summer's tan was moderately deep but wished it covered more than her face, arms and hands. The days were cloudy, for the most part, and on a few, the sun never burned through the fog. She wondered often what would have happened had she followed the Dark Lord's plan for her escape. Certainly his plan would not have led her and her partner to this unseemly fate. At night, the stool and bucket were removed so that she could kneel on the deck to sleep, but each morning, she was ordered back to her feet and they were replaced. The occasional sun only added to her discomfort as it heated the metal chains, and the food was no better. Once a day, the slaver's apprentice assigned to tending her forced a tasteless paste of oats and water down the funnel, usually in choking globs, and washed them through with a deluge of water. Jess swore she would remember this ship and its captain when she regained her freedom, and to repay them for their kindness in turn.

On the seventh day, the ship put into the first port to conduct business. Slavers were let on board, one at a time, to select their purchases -- ten to a customer -- and paid before leaving. Jess had been cleaned up some for this first port, and the stool and bucket had been removed so as not to repulse prospective buyers, but no one gave her a second look. The ship moved on. At least she had the comfort of knowing that all of her people were still aboard; none had left in another slaver's coffle, but that would not last.

The second port admitted an even larger number of slavers aboard ship, several of whom Jess recognized. None recognized her, try as she did to get their attention.

The ever-watchful captain disregarded her efforts as a slave's pathetic attempts to sell herself with no auctioneer. A number of slavers looked at her from a distance with no recognition. Her hair had been cut short in anticipation of her sale to a gladiatorial arena, and without her hair, clothing, belt and ever-present weaponry, few gave her a second look, even if they could recognize her through the metal and leather on her face. None bothered to approach for a better look at the scarred and unattractive female chained to the mast. None, that is, save one.

Varge One-Ear, a muscle-bound mound of quarter-blood ogre -- if reports on his ancestry were accurate -- came over for a better look. His attitude and reputation matched his appearance and he was a long-time rival of Jess's who bore her no love whatsoever. He constantly trod the fine line that would result in his being barred from the Slaver's Division, and Jess, a member in excellent standing, had tried to begin procedures to do just that on a number of occasions.

He swaggered up to her, chewing on an apple and sneered, his ugly mouth oozing with food. He looked her up and down appraisingly, the sneer never leaving his face, and spat an apple seed into her hair as he came full circle around the mast after a quick survey of her back side. Jess clenched her fists and met his sneer with a blood-chilling gaze as she shook off the apple seed.

"Well, well, well..." Varge finally managed as he swal- lowed the lump of pulped fruit. "What cat drag in here? Living scar..." Jess maintained her grim countenance and made no sound. Varge ran a rough hand up her arm to her shoulder and flicked her ear with his finger. "Been getting some sun, hmmm? Elf breed." Jess stood immobile, refusing to be goaded by his insults and give him the satisfaction of responding. Ordinarily, the ogre-breed would never be so bold, knowing what she could do to him if she regained her freedom. She reasoned he must have been drinking before coming aboard; rum gave him courage and worsened his already foul disposition.

Varge pressed himself close against her. "Maybe I buy you, eh?" he breathed at her in as sensual a tone as he could manage. "Take you in my bed and make a real woman out of you..." The rum on his breath sickened her almost as much as the thought, although she knew as well as he did that if he tried it -- though it might cost her life -- he would never again force his loathsome bulk on another slave. Varge pushed himself away and flicked at her left nipple with his index finger until it stiffened against her will, and chuckled gruffly.

"No," he stated, "I no buy you today. Got no need for ugly slave girl like you when there be other pretties to play with. I wonder..." Varge looked back at the open hatch into the hold, where other slavers were emerging with their prizes. "Maybe you no travel alone when they catch you. Maybe you get caught with other long-ears." Varge looked back at Jess and grinned. "Maybe I go down and see, eh?" Giving her nipple a final painful flick, followed by a hard pinching twist, he drew a long, notched dagger from his belt and held it menacingly before her. "But first, maybe I settle old score with you, eh? Make you pay for what you do to Varge One-Ear...make you pay good!"

"Not unless you buy her first, friend," the ship's captain stated from behind him, his hand resting firmly on the pommel of his sword. "Make me an offer, and maybe you can have her to do with as you please, but it had best match what the arena scouts downriver will pay, or you needn't bother. She's not much to look at, I'll grant you, but she can fight."

Varge turned to face the captain, noted the captain's sword and a few crewmen standing behind him, ready to back him up, and returned his dagger to his belt.
"No buy ugly elf breeds," Varge announced. "Too much trouble, but maybe you let me take a whip to her and see how she fare up, then you name your price, eh?" Jess cringed a bit at the idea and bit at the metal in her mouth until new pain shot through her aching jaws.

Varge, you are as good as dead if I ever find you again on more favorable terms. Being barred from the Guild will be the least of your worries and I'm going to do you real slow, Jess swore.

The captain regarded Jess for a moment and considered Varge's offer, then answered. "No deal, my big friend. Make a flat offer, check the merchandise in the hold or leave my ship." Varge growled, sneered once more at Jess after spitting another seed at her, then sauntered down into the hold.

Sometime later, he emerged, leading a coffle of slave girls behind him. Jess's heart sank when she saw that Janesse and Brianna were among them. He tossed the apple core overboard and led his purchases down the gangplank with one last triumphant look over his shoulder at his rival. He was the last to leave the ship, and after taking on supplies and water, the Iron Chain weighed anchor and proceeded downriver.

The next port came and more were sold. Again, Jess was passed over. A fourth port, and yet more familiar faces. Jess knelt gloomily staring at the deck. She thought of the times she had made purchases from imperial ships like this. How many times had she passed up a female with scars for a soft, untrained kitten who would bring an easier profit? Feeling melancholy, she sternly reminded herself that her job had been making a profit, not making people happy. Then the last of the slavers came through.

"I want her," he said suddenly, pointing to Jess.

"Sir," the captain protested, "she has battle scars."

"I said I want her. I don't care about the scars."

"Sir, she has only one eye, and she is in the trouble-maker spot."

"I would expect nothing less of her. Now are you willing to sell her or not?"

"Yes, of course. I was planning on selling her to a gladiator school, but...I'd say sixty gold would put her in your coffle. If you're sure you want her, that is."

"Oh, yes, I want her. Sixty, huh? A bargain for Jessica Harveld." The young man looked down and winked at her. "Unchain her for me."

Jess was unlocked and the young man put a lead on her and led her down with him into the hold. "Jess, any you want me to get? You had to have been on a run, else you wouldn't be here."

"That one," she said softly, pointing to Agnes, then continuing to rub her aching wrists and jaw. The hated gag had been removed with the chains, but she could scarcely speak for the pain and it hurt to close her mouth, but she was determined not to look like the village idiot with her mouth hanging open. "She's part of my commission. Varge One-Ear has the rest."

The young slaver purchased Agnes and several others. After paying his bill, he took them to the inn where he was staying, allowing Jess to massage her jaw on the way, while the others kept their hands at their sides. The rubbing felt good, and was easing away the soreness. By the time they reached the inn, her mouth was only comfortably numb. The overcast skies in combination with being on the water had greatly contributed to the flaring sunburn that covered most of her body, but there was noting to be done about that. Chaining the new purchases in the stable with the rest of his coffle -- making a nice round number of thirty slaves, most female -- and tossing the men he had hired as guards a sack of silver pieces to add to their dice pot, he took Jess with him into the inn.

Stretching out in a chair, he watched her wash from the basin. "You owe me for this, Harveld." He had ordered up wine and a bowl of vinegar and made her stand still while he swabbed down her sunburn. It was slightly humiliating, but Jess admitted that the sting did go out of it when he was finished.

"No, boy, you still owe me," she managed, her voice not fully returned and her mouth still numb. "I saved your life twice, remember, and that cute ass of yours at least once. You've paid back the latter."

"Jessica, Saroncha, I owe you many things." His light eyes smiled as he called her by the lycanthropic word for teacher. He ran a hand through his flaming red hair.

"Red Jared, I thank you," she began formally. "You recognized a fellow Guild member in distress and came to my aid. I am grateful for your purchase of me, and my patron will repay your loss."

"Who is your patron, Jess? Please, drop the formality. Besides," he grinned mischievously, "look at your throat, slave."

"I see an iron collar that my Guild-brother has yet to remove. If he would be so kind?"

Red Jared laughed. "I always wondered what you would be like as a slave. Now I know. You are as arrogant as when you were free. Every slaver should have the experience of being sold once, don't you think?"

"Remember who bought you over Lord Rothstein on the block in Pergamum. Remember who freed you, and taught you what you know now. Think about that and then unlock the collar."

Red Jared pondered her words. They did have merit. She had outbid Lord Rothstein for him. He had known what Lord Roth- stein wanted, and, yes, literally speaking, Jess had saved his posterior, keeping it both unreamed and attached to his body. She had bought the young lycanthrope as a pet and possible apprentice. She felt she wanted company on the road after she had broke with Malak Raintree. His lynx form appealed to her, and she had trained him. He had admired the half-elf. She was everything he wanted to be: strong, efficient, decisive and ruthless. He had hoped he might prove a worthy student to all her teaching.
Reluctantly, discarding the dreams he had treasured, he unlocked her collar. Jess rubbed the chafed spot on her neck and turned around to face him.

"I know what you are thinking, lad. It would never work," she said softly. "I am less than proficient in all of the womanly arts, especially that one. But if you want that as the price of my freedom, I'll pay it. You asked who my patron is. I'm working for the emperor himself. I was sent out to grab Princess Brianna of Tavect."

"Tavect is under attack by imperial troops! What were you doing there?"

"I was in the attack, rather unintentionally. It seems our young friend out by Letzthoffnung used me as a diversion for his invasion. If I had followed his escape plans, illogical as they were, I might not have gotten into this mess. He wanted me to run east."

"That makes no sense with Lupa just across the river. Who was the wench I bought for you?"

"Agnes, the Princess's lady-in-waiting. Varge One-Ear bought Brianna and Janesse."

"Janesse?" Red Jared asked.

"My daughter. My partner. She joined me after you left. Have you learned to control the Change yet?" she asked, casually.

"Other than the full moon, yes. None of us Control on the full. It is the will of Viurre that all of her people should display their form and give her homage on that night. But you know the religion of my people."

"Well do I know it, having seen you live it for nigh on three years. I need to find Varge. There's five hundred plus expenses riding on it."

"Do you have a pass?"

"No. An incompetent first mate separated me from it and my other papers. He apparently didn't realize the power they gave me, and then he got himself killed before he could show them to the captain. Not that it would have done any good, since the captain was cut up pretty bad and dying before I was brought above decks again. That is the only reason I was sold. Can you help me?"

"Jess, I will buy your partner and pretty back, and take you to Dark Hold on my pass. I owe you that much. After that we can part as friends."

"Janesse is good enough to solo, if you want a job as my partner," she offered. "I made more money with you than her."

"Ah, my old teacher. `Ever did the clank of gold the delicate sound of heartstrings drown.' I'd like that. I don't make as much solo as I did with you." He held out his hand. She took it and they shook on the bargain. Now about the price of your freedom..."

"I understand," she said, moving into his open arms. "If you really find this battered body desirable, I guess I shouldn't complain. I think you'd find one of those lovely toys in your coffle more enjoyable though. Do be careful."

"It is not the body I find desirable. It is the woman who inhabits it. Those toys are not a tenth of the woman you are, my Saroncha. I will be careful. They used you badly, love. Your hair, your earring, everything is gone, but you they couldn't break." He quietly blew out the lamp and pulled her closer in the dark. Careful to let her dictate all the motion, so as not to hurt her sunburn, he rolled onto his back, pulling her on top.

Jess had not underestimated her skill, Red Jared noticed after a frustrating effort to arouse her. She was not very satisfying, and seemed less than interested in the whole event. He held her to him afterward.

"Now you understand why you are only the second in a century. I apologize."

"No, I apologize. I should not have required it of you. You are not a toy. But will you share my bed this night, since I have made no other accommodation arrangements?"

"Since you ask, I take it I am free. I will share your bed this night, and any other you would like, for expenses sake. But do not require the use of my body; use your toys. Tomorrow, we begin our travels?"

"Yes. In the morning, partner."

"You know that the ogre is going to rob us. He hates me."

"Yes, I know. I have had a good year. I can afford quite a bit. Why does he hate you, Jess?"

"Who do you think gave him the name One-Ear? The other one, I sold for a gold Tiensor back in Ontra around A.L. 47. Back when Tazreth the Proud Tiensor that year. His face looked better on the coin than it did atop a pole six months later." Red Jared laughed quietly beside her, and kissed her scarred cheek.

The travel was difficult, as Jess quickly learned that not only Tavect, but every civilized province to the east and west of it, clear north to the Kish-Kars, had been conquered. Imperial occupational forces were everywhere, and martial law was being enforced. News from Tavect across the Handel was hard to come by, but as they traveled, Jess pieced together what had happened during her confinement on the Iron Chain.

The west had fallen quickly and the Dark Lord was besieg- ing Fe'En and Ontra as well as Tavect. He was running into resistance there. Although difficult, news about Tavect was still easier to come by than about the other kingdoms, although all of it was old, and it seemed Tavect had fallen after less than a week. The main forces had been sent out and caught on the open plains in the east, leaving the city sparsely defended, while imperial forces struck from the river.

It seemed that an alarm had been spread at the palace, late in the evening before the ships arrived. The Princess Brianna had been seen leaving the palace in the hands of two barbarians, who had slain two of the guards in the west gatehouse and left the third for dead. The same had happened at the eastern gate of the city, as the barbarians fled the city with their prisoner, the fair princess, and headed for the open country in the east. Jess finally remembered where she had seen the guards- man at the palace before. He was one of the Dark Lord's elite from hi hand-picked First Legion. She had encountered him some years ago at one of the lavish parties at Dark Hold. As well as field tactics and arms, the elite were also trained as infiltra- tors, similar to the Shadowmen of Tod, save that they specialized in joining militaries and advancing up through the enemy ranks, until they were needed to create havoc and betrayal.

Since the princess had been invisible, and Jess had left the city going south instead of east and then turned west, she now knew for certain she had been set up by her patron. It had all been planned, and she could guess what had happened when she had left. The First Legionnaire in the gatehouse would have speedily dispatched his comrades and then given himself some manner of convincing self-inflicted wound and set up the alarm after giving her and her partner an ample head start. A similar scene had undoubtedly played itself out at the eastern city gate.

Misled, the king of Tavect had dispatched his forces, most of them by the sound of it, to rescue his darling daughter, sending them thundering into the lances of the advancing imperial troops. Retreating and unable to find the princess, King Fionn's troops returned home to discover it was under siege by troops from the river at their backs. Tavect's navy was caught unawares and destroyed or captured in the harbor. The few ships on the river itself had been mercilessly hunted down by the imperial flotilla after the soldiers had been dropped on land.

Ill-prepared to repel a siege, Tavect's city defenses rallied slowly, losing nearly half of the city before they made a stand. The Tavectan soldiers that had been sent after the missing princess, trapped between enemy forces, were cut to ribbons or scattered into the surrounding countryside. As the capitol held out against the imperial invaders, other imperial troops swept through the countryside, eliminating citizen militias and garrisons in towns. They isolated Tavect's borders and sealed off the towns, eradicating any organized resistance.

Unwilling to wait King Fionn out, and seemingly in a hurry, as if Tavect's conquest and those of its neighbors were mere preliminaries to something greater, the commander of the Dark Forces announced that Princess Brianna was in their Emperor's hands and if King Fionn ever wished to see her alive and whole again, he was to surrender his remaining holdings immediately and capitulate. Tavect surrendered within three hours of the announcement, and the king was reported to be a prisoner in his own palace, and the location of the princess was still unknown. With Tavect captured, Fe'En and Ontra were the last holdouts against imperial conquest in the east; everyone else was under imperial rule, making the northern Handel River territories the Dark Lord's largest and quickest land gain ever.

There was speculation that Tavect and the other regions were not the main goal. The Dark Lord had sent four full legions with complete auxiliary support against them, and rumor had it that there were two more in the area of Pin just north of Lake Vadnais. Jess, having traveled the area many times, noted that if all the stories were true, the Dark Lord had now surrounded the elven kingdom. If he wanted a bunch of long-eared tree-surgeons and poets, to her mind, that was his business.
Jess's heart sank a bit at the news of Tavect's fall. It was quite possible that Varge One-Ear had recognized Princess Brianna for who she was, or that the little fool had blurted it out to someone, and been sold to the occupying imperial forces. It galled her to think that some imperial soldier might be cheat- ing her out of her fee, to say nothing of the reparations she felt entitled to after the ordeals on the ships. It was unlikely, but she still had to find Varge and learn whether the Dark Lord's men actually had the princess or had merely pulled off a convincing bluff. Besides, she still owed the quarter-ogre and there was the matter of getting Janesse back.
Patrols checked Red Jared's pass at every town and usually at several points between. No word of Varge One-Ear was heard, although they listened and inquired in the taverns and markets. After two weeks all of the coffle had been sold and others bought. Agnes had been taken off the coffle and appointed as Jess's personal servant. Finally rumors were heard of his whereabouts.

Following this lead, the pair tracked him to Toren two months before fall sales. Noting her timetable, Jess knew that if the princess had fallen to the Dark Lord's men, there was no way of catching up with her before some Fates-favored soldier was rewarded for her efforts and pain. Jess and Red Jared left word in the Inn of the Freckled Wench, a place which Varge One-Ear frequented when in the area. Jess loathed it. The food was abysmal, the barmaids surly, the drinks watered and everything was overpriced. Varge made contact two days later. A meeting was arranged at an establishment called The Petrified Medusa, an expensive eatery on the rich side of town.

The two showed up before the hour appointed to check the place. Choosing a back booth, they sat quietly and waited for One-Ear. The ogre breed wandered in several minutes later. They saw five retainers drift in and seat themselves nearby, but not so close as to arouse suspicion.

"You have something that belongs to me, Varge. I am willing to purchase it back," Jess said coming to business, after their meals had arrived. "You bought at least two wenches from the imperial slave ship on the Handel River. One was number sixteen, the other number twenty. Sixteen had --"

"I know who you want, Long-ears. How much you willing to pay?"

"We will give you a fair price for the two. How much do you want?" Red Jared asked.

"Four hundred for the elf. Two hundred seventy-five for the fat wench."

"We'll give you two hundred for each, plus two girls from my coffle," he offered. The ogre shook his head.

"No. When you chase me from the Handel to Toren, you want them bad. You pay three hundred each."

"One-fifty each, and four from my coffle."

"Who are they? Why do you want a part-elf and a fat whiner? Elf's not even good in bed. She fights."

Jess spoke up. "The elf is my partner. The whiner is my commission. Two hundred each."

"Too late, half-blood. The elf got sold down Diebe way. She bound for The Satyr's Delight. Chase down Black Shadow and buy elf from her. I got fat whiner; she not sell yet, but is still fun to slap and make dance at end of whip. Until she get thin, it not matter if she marked."

"Two-fifty for the whiner. You won't get a better price on the block."

"Maybe," Varge belched, and plucked some food from Jess's plate with dirty fingers. "But as said: when you chase me from the Handel to Toren, you want her bad. You pay!"

He leaned back, sneered and crammed the food he had stolen from Jess's plate into his mouth. He knew he had the advantage and was enjoying it immensely. It was not often that he got the upper hand on a rival like the Harveld, and now it had been handed to him twice in less than two months. He reminded himself to make the appropriate sacrifice to Ganash, the god of his ogrish grandfather. This promised to be a good year indeed! Not only had he antagonized the helpless half-elf aboard the Iron Chain, but he had sold her partner far east, and Jess would have to go far out of her way if she wanted her back in any fair physical condition. That would exclude her from the Fall Market in Toren this year, and now he held her commission in his coffle and would not have to sell her if the price was not to his liking.

Revenge was sweet, and being on top felt good for a change.

Jess felt her blood beginning to boil, but the cool hand on her arm gave her an anchor for her composure. The princess was not in imperial hands, and the Dark Lord would have to deal with her to purchase the brat. Her revenge on One-Ear could wait. As a half-elf, she had years on her side, while the ogre was getting old and slow. She knew he would be looking over his shoulder for some time after this rotten deal was concluded. One day she would be there; she always paid her debts, and he knew it.

"How much?" Red Jared stated flatly, growing weary of this game.

"Three fifty," Varge stated, leaning so far forward that the lycanthrope could smell his breath. "And three from your coffle. Money up front now, or no deal."

"Done," said Red Jared stiffly. He motioned out a nearby window to one of his retainers, posted outside the eatery. The man left his post and returned a minute later with two others carrying a wooden chest. They moved to Red Jared's side, unlocking the chest and moving aside the old clothes they had laid over the coins. Red Jared counted out Varge's money quietly. Feigning forgetfulness, and feeling spiteful, Varge made Jessica count the coins over again, just to make sure no mistakes had been made. Finally satisfied, Varge waved one of his own men forward with a box, and swept the neat stacks of coins into it before sending him back to his seat.

"You can choose from my coffle in the morning. We're at the Harvest Inn. Second hour," Red Jared informed him.

"Tomorrow, second hour, Harvest Inn. You pay for dinner." Varge One-Ear left the eatery with his retainers in his wake.

"Dammit, he knew who they were. He recognized Janesse, and I'm sure that fool princess blurted that she knew her. He deliberately sold Janesse to keep me out of the Fall Market. My daughter can wait. The Satyr's Delight is not a good brothel, but she will either work off her indenture, or we will go get her after sales. I will make the Fall Market, Chassos take the ogre."

"Jess, stay calm. We'll get Brianna back and then go to Dark Hold. You said your expenses were paid. Have you kept a record?"

Jess pulled a sheaf of parchment out of the top of her new boots. "Yes, and the personal suffering just went up a hundred gold." Making the notation, she tucked the parchment back into her boot-top. "Let's get things organized, and alert some of your men to keep an eye out for Varge on the roads out of the city; he may decide to take what he has and run. He's not above that, you know."

"I know Varge One-Ear. Well, we almost have Brianna back. Is your patron going to be willing to pay for everything, do you think?"

"I don't know, but I'll take what I can get, and see to it that you get your cut." They rose and went to pay the bill. "Let's just hope Varge doesn't decide to leave in the night."

The next morning, at the second hour, Varge One-Ear met them at the inn. Princess Brianna looked angry and pouting, but subdued. A large red mark showed on her face, as well as a number of welts on her back and lower legs. "Your fat whiner?" he asked.

Jess nodded. "Is she still a virgin?" she asked, a bit concerned. She had promised the Dark Lord that, if Brianna was a virgin, she would be delivered in that condition.

"I know market value, Long-ears. She bring little enough as virgin, why lower it?" Seeing the dangerous look forming on Jess's face he answered, "Yes, she still virgin. She whine so loud none of my men put up with her long enough."

Brianna looked offended at being talked about as though she were merchandise. She opened her mouth to say something, but a slight raising of the ogre's hand silenced her. She had large hand-prints all over her body, and was now truly frightened of the ogre. Jess was a different matter, though, and perhaps the handsome young man who was unlocking her collar could be worked to her advantage.

Red Jared unlocked Brianna's collar and locked her into his coffle. He used a wrist and neck coffle, involving a line of collars attached to each other by about two feet of chain and wrist cuffs similarly attached. He removed the yellow slave tunic she wore, handing it back to Varge One-Ear.

"I'll put one of my own on her, thanks. Jess, would you find something appropriate?" As Harveld left to find another tunic for the slave, he looked at the girl. "I don't know, Varge. Jess wants her because a certain powerful someone wants her. I'm not sure why. Now which of mine do you want?"

With a slaver's unerring eye for value, Varge looked over the coffle. Two of the girls were at least partially trained, since they stood straight under inspection. The pretty blonde next to Brianna refused to look at the ogre; he turned her face to him and looked at her closely. Apparently, she did not meet his approval, since he moved on quickly. A few minutes later, Jess returned with the red scrap. Varge decided on the half- trained red-head, a dusky-skinned girl with startling blue eyes, and a dwarven gladiator who bore the decorative scarring of an outcast adventurer.

"A good choice. Any one of them's worth more than the whiner," Red Jared commented as he opened the coffle and removed them.

"I won't wear that! No nice lady wears that color. And it's disgraceful, too low cut, too high cut. I won't wear it. Find me something better!" Brianna's shrill voice broke into their bargaining. It seemed her time with Varge had not broken her spirit, or subdued her haughtiness as much as Jess would have liked.

Jess had reached for the small belt whip that was standard when traveling with a coffle. Jared left the ogre and went to her. "Jess, let me handle this. Her price goes down if we mark her more than she already is. She needs time to heal."

He motioned Jess away and took the clothing. Brianna smiled fetchingly at this new and unexpected ally. The smile faded at his words. "Listen to me, and hear me well, slave. This piece of clothing is for your own protection. If you refuse to wear it, you will wear nothing. For a slave, to be marched naked in coffle is discipline. Anyone who asks is allowed to use her at no charge. This means the most repulsive, diseased beggar on the street can use her, or a patrol captain can give her to his men for a time. Since it is bright red, it shows you are a virgin, belonging to me, Red Jared. Were it a duller red, you would be marked as nonvirgin, and I could rent you out as I wished. Now, wear it or nothing. And, rest assured, that if you choose the latter option, I will use you first and then perhaps loan you to your former master. As we leave Toren, you will be marched at the head of the coffle, and there will be many re- quests for you, overweight as you are. I will accept all of them. They may do anything short of disfiguring or killing you."

Anything else he might have said was cut short by Brianna snatching the scrap of cloth and trying to figure out how to put it on. With slim, deft hands, Red Jared put it on her, showing her how it fit. It was revealing, but Brianna found she felt better with something on again. He handed her a pair of light sandals.

"Actually, you belong to my partner, Jessica Harveld. I won't intervene again. You had best cooperate, since she isn't known for her patience. She's in a foul mood today, and wouldn't mind taking some of it out on you." He left her to think about what he had said.

A snap of Jess's lash on the ground brought the coffle to attention. "We are traveling south and east. As we move, you will be sold. Anyone who doesn't keep pace gets a taste of leather. Let's go."

The coffle traveled slowly along the roads. The war in Tavect was the news. Brianna listened miserably as the slavers received the latest updates from the passing patrols or at way posts. Her father had surrendered, and agreed to stay as a puppet ruler. She was still missing, although most people assumed she had been kidnaped by the Dark Lord to insure King Fionn's cooperation. Her heart sank into her sandals with each step she took closer to Dark Hold, but when she tried holding back, Jessica or Jared would snap the lash across her back. No marks were ever left, she checked each night, but it stung terribly. At least she had Agnes.

Agnes had been returned to the coffle after Brianna's purchase, only to find the princess furious with her. Brianna lashed Agnes with her tongue so severely that they were separated after two hours. Agnes had been put in the middle of the coffle, between a pair of pretty blondes. She knew she was plain, with her broad face and scrawny figure. But next to these creatures of gold and ivory, she felt like a mudbug from the river. They ignored her for the most part and she was glad of that.

Brianna had been put between a pair of glorious redheads. She felt superior to them since she was not really a slave, only a political prisoner, and she said as much.

"Do you really believe that?" asked Ava, who walked in front of her. "If you do, then you're more stupid than your maid. You are a slave, I watched our master buy you from the ogrish one."

"It was a ransom," Brianna protested, "and Agnes is not my maid, she's one of my ladies-in-waiting."

Lessa, behind her, said, "You were sold, slave girl. Time to adjust to a new life. I don't envy you, where you're going. I was in a harem with a girl who used to be one of his girls. She was terrified of everything, and knelt strangely every time our master entered. The rest of us merely knelt, she always had her knees spread, her hands behind her back and her head down. She said she was one of the lucky ones who actually got to leave...alive."

"What do you mean, leave alive? Doesn't he sell the ones he gets bored with?"

"She said he rarely sells a boring girl. Boring slaves are given to his troops or his ogre, or fed to his dogs, she said. She was interesting enough, but had just lost his interest since new girls had come in. He gave her to my old master as a gift."

"I am still a political prisoner. He won't dare put me in his harem. I'll be kept in the dungeon until Poppa relents and gives him what he wants. This is all Agnes's fault. The stupid cow didn't raise an alarm when the witch ensorcelled me." She was off on another tirade against Agnes, Jess, Janesse and her fate. Ava and Lessa shrugged and kept walking. She would learn soon enough.

The trip to Letzthoffnung had been profitable. Most of the slaves had been sold. Jess had persuaded Jared to buy a trio of a singer, and her musicians. The singer was a blonde and her accompanists were a redhead and a brunette. Jess knew they would appeal to the Dark Lord. Ava and Lessa were sold and Brianna found herself with no one to talk to, until Gregor was purchased. He was a slender young man who was amazingly dexterous. He would pick up stones as they walked and juggle them for hours while walking. He had aspired to being a bard, one of the wandering priests of Maira, he told her. He worshiped Maira as the goddess of harps and open locks.

Brianna was fascinated with the young man and his stories and tricks. Jared noticed this and warned him that if he even attempted to seduce Brianna, he would never be able to use a woman again. Jess, noticing, moved Brianna in the coffle. She sulked for two days, making life miserable for Prisca and Phanessa, the singer's flutist and the crwth player. The only respite they had was the required practice sessions after the halt had been called for the day. They were permitted to play for the slavers, leaving the main portion of the coffle secured between two trees.

Jared was interested in the crwth, a stringed instrument rather like a cross between a harp and a lyre. Phanessa was adept with it and made even the slightly wailing tone of the strings appealing. It rather reminded him of the mating call of a female of his kind. Prisca's flute, on the other hand, annoyed his sensitive ears with its shrill pitch.

They reached Letzthoffnung in the third week. Arriving in the late afternoon, Jared opted not to spend the night in Bracken Wood, having heard stories of it. Jess, having spent a night or two in it, agreed heartily. They hired a room and stable space at the Inn of the Slaughtered Lamb, and stayed the night.

Early the next morning, before dawn, they left the fortress-city that guarded the only road to Dark Hold. They hired a pair of wagons and horses to move the slaves quickly, not wanting to be nightbound more than one night in the forest, or locked out of the castle when they did reach it. At dusk they reached a clearing that Jess recognized. It was about two thirds of the way to the castle, and a reasonably safe spot. They camped there undisturbed. Far away, they could hear a lone wolf baying at the moon, which was getting on to the full. Jess wanted to finish their business quickly and then get Jared somewhere where he could Change in peace and not worry about the bigger predators.

Jared was on edge anyway from being close to Changing, and the wolf made him nervous. He paced the edge of their camp, checked his weapons, and double-checked the slaves. He snapped at Jess, and could smell the fear-smell on his body. This was the worst time, being so close to animal senses, but too far from animal form. He knew he was being difficult, and sat down next to Jess to apologize.

"No need," she told him. "I remember a time when you were like this all the time because you couldn't control it. Just remain calm and keep your wits about you. That wolf is miles away by the sound of him. If it is the wolf I think it is, then he is not interested in us."

She was right, and the night was peaceful. The next day, they started traveling again. An hour after noon, they reached the edge of the forest. Jared, not having seen Dark Hold before, was impressed. They crossed the expansive clearing between the forest and the moat with no difficulty, and arrived at the guard post.

The guards checked Red Jared's pass, and identification papers. The coffle of slaves received only cursory attention, at first. Jess and Red Jared were disarmed and searched. Jess's expense ledgers were checked for obvious magic spells by a young man that Jess did not recognize. He did not seem very far into his teens as humans measured age. The slaves were searched also, much to Brianna's indignation. The drawbridge was lowered and they were granted entrance.

"That little brunette was a spitfire, wasn't she?" com- mented the junior officer.

"Yes, she was. Our lord won't be bothered with buying that little hellcat. She's not even that pretty, and on the chubby side into the bargain," agreed the sergeant.
A half-orc lieutenant put in, "I don't know. I thought she was cute. She could be fun to tame. That one between the two pale-hairs was really pretty. Just the right complexion, but a little on the skinny side. If I'm here when they leave, and she isn't bought by the boss, I may splurge with that pay I've saved. I always wanted a slave girl."

"Don't we all?" the sergeant noted.

Passing into the castle's inner courtyard, Brianna covered her face in shame as the coffle was herded past a detail of imperial guards. She could not bear being seen by men she had looked down upon less than two months before in all her royal finery. Jessica was instantly at her side and slapping her hands back to her sides.

"Not the proud princess any longer, slave girl," Jess snarled at the blushing Brianna in an informative tone, "and while I care nothing for how your new master will have you behave, while you belong to me and march in my coffle, you will behave. I have let you slide on discipline, but one more error, and I will flay you alive here and now."

Brianna glared at her captor with unimaginable hate, and Jess drew back her arm slightly. Apparently not all of Varge's teachings had been lost, and Brianna dropped her eyes and continued walking, trying to cripple the girl ahead of her with her stare, and blaming the world for her troubles.

Jessica cracked her knuckles in frustration as she resumed her place at the rear of the coffle. Throughout the entire journey to Dark Hold, Brianna had not tasted leather for her attitude, and the other girls had come to resent her for the special treatment. They completely ignored her -- ordinarily a devastating disciplinary action itself -- but that had only succeeded in making her even harder to deal with, since it reinforced her attitude of superiority. Jess's patience was depleted, and she contemplated making the price of the princess so outrageous that the Dark Lord wouldn't want her. Looking at the slave, Jess sighed. That was already in doubt, even though the journey had taken a good ten pounds off of her. If he wouldn't have her, Jess would have the satisfaction of beating the royal brat within an inch of her life, and dragging her out east and selling her to one of the secret societies of Tod. She could insure that the princess would be used as a laboratory demonstration in one of the schools where torture and other methods of creative persuasion were taught to the Empire's future Shadowmen. But no, she would be rid of Brianna today, even if she had to keep the price reasonable. She could not bear the thought of another day with the girl, beaten and gagged or otherwise.

In the inner courtyard, the slavers were greeted by a novel sight, and an example of the Dark Lord's near heartless disciplinary tactics. Two wooden poles, usually erected only for orcish ceremonies, were sunk into the holes which were covered by round flagstones most of the time. Chained by the wrists to these poles as a slave girl, whom Jess recognized after a moment as Chandra, the former ShetaRra. Raising her head briefly from the heat-ravaged slump, she regarded the coffle dully. By the look of her, she had been chained out for some time, and the mid-autumn sun had been merciless for the past few days. Her own almost healed sunburn twinged in sympathy. Chandra was definitely burned, and it was not a good sign against her normally dark skin. Doubtless, she was on the verge of delirium, if not worse, and Jess wondered what she had done to deserve such punishment. They passed into the castle itself, leaving Chandra hanging limply in her chains.

The four knocks came on the doors to the throne room. Jared had been looking uneasily at the skulls, thinking about how one would crunch under his paws and teeth, and reprimanding himself the lapse. Even to think about eating the decorations, indeed! he snapped at himself. Where are your manners? Jess, oblivious to her partner's unease, was mentally noting the new skulls and wondering whose they had been. Red Jared scratched nervously at the new growth of hair on his arms. His drooping mustache and long sideburns had crept down his face and become a full red beard.

The doors opened and the slavers were admitted to the throne room. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust, but they followed the feel of the carpet under their soft-soled boots. The slaves were having more difficulty, not having elven sight or Jared's lycanthropic cat eyes.

Stopping in the center of the room, Jess sketched a short bow, and nudged Jared, who was looking around himself, checking for exits and high places. He bowed quickly and deeply to the dais. This throne room could close in and become a trap far too easily for his liking.

"Great Lord," Jess began. "After much difficulty, I have completed the task you set for me. In this coffle stand both Princess Brianna of Tavect, and her lady-in-waiting, Agnes. I also have acquired a few trifles that might interest you." Red Jared unlocked the trio, and moved them out into the light. "First, Prisca, Phanessa, and Phaedra. Phaedra sings and dances, the others accompany her. We ask nine hundred for the set. Then, Gregor, a jester. He juggles, tells stories, does slight of hand, and can sing, and might do better with training. For this multi-talented lad, we are asking only four hundred. The Princess, I must negotiate with you in private."

Zara moved out from behind the shadows of the throne and looked at the visitors strangely. The Dark Lord looked at her for a moment, and then turned back to the slavers. He was not at all pleased with the princess' body; he had been anticipating a more savory figure -- the one he remembered from the last time he had seen her. Slaves were not fed well enough to get fat, so she must have hidden it all beneath her clothing somehow. At least she did not appear marked from the journey, which half surprised him, given Jess's temper and the girl's annoying personality.

Jess read the Dark Lord's irritated look as he gazed at the princess. At least the marks Varge One-Ear had left on her had healed. She wondered if he would purchase Agnes as well, or if he'd have coin to waste after the princess. The price would be definitely higher than he was expecting.

"I see no reason for secrets concerning the purchase of a single mere woman," the Dark Lord said presently. "Especially one as fat and dumpy as that!" The princess, who had been standing with her head down and keeping quiet with the others, suddenly snapped her head fully erect at the insult. Noticing, the Dark Lord gestured to her and scoffed with a chuckle, "Are you certain you abducted the right princess?! I think you got the night-pot girl."

Jessica did not bother to honor his ridiculous comment with a response; he knew her far too well to even think she would make such a mistake, and she was almost insulted -- whether her patron was serious or not. The princess, on the other hand, was not about to let such a slight go unanswered. She was, after all, an important political prisoner and princess of a mighty nation.

"I am the Princess Brianna Anastasia Theresa Fiona!" she declared loudly and with indignation as she stepped out of line. The other girls kept their silence and fought to maintain their positions. They knew what must come next, by every unspoken law of slavery; the laws Brianna had never learned or had chosen to disregard.

Although Jess had sorely wished to teach the sharp-tongued royal bitch her new place, she had permitted the princess to behave as she would have no other slave in her coffle. She had assumed, and rightly, that the Dark Lord would want the pleasure of breaking her himself.

"I am the only daughter of King Fionn V, the Just of Tavect!" she continued. "I demand that --"

"Silence!" the Dark Lord thundered from across the room. "Henceforth you will demand noth--"

"I will not be silent!" the princess shot back, interrupting him with her shrill voice and beginning to shake her finger at him. "I am not a slave! I am a political prisoner of war, and you know it very well. This is an outrage and --"

"Enough!" Jess bellowed, in a voice with as much frustration and anger as volume. Tearing the small belt whip she wore from its place at her hip, she advanced on Brianna with murder in her eye. "Nobody embarrasses me in front of nobility -- or anyone else -- and especially not a rich bitch slave girl who does not yet know her place! I will tolerate you no longer, slave girl!"

Red Jared stood quietly, knowing better than to interfere with his partner's rages. He bore the scars of the one time he had been foolish enough to try. The princess retreated as far as her chains, and the other slave girls would permit. The others strained to hold their position as their master's partner approached, clutching her whip so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. As far as the slaver and the rest of the coffle was concerned, Brianna was about to get the reward she had laying up for herself over the whole trip, with interest. Some of the girls even dared to tilt their heads to watch the spectacle from the corners of their eyes.

As Jess raised her whip to strike the first of many eagerly anticipated blows, she was halted by a single word from the dais behind her. "No," the Dark Lord said, his voice calm and malicious. As she fought a brief battle between immediate gratification and professionalism, Jess cracked her whip hard on the floor. She turned to the dais with a long, exhausted sigh, suddenly looking very tired. "She's mine," the Dark Lord stated. "Name your price."

Her anger subdued by the proximity of profit, and the unspoken reassurance that Brianna's outburst had not lost her any standing with the Dark Lord, Jess returned her whip to her belt, and motioned for her partner to toss her the keys. This done, she unlocked the princess from her place in the coffle and brought her forward to the dais. Brianna modestly covered her nakedness with her hands and arms, secure in the knowledge that some fraction of her regal status had been regained by her words.

A slave girl indeed! she scoffed. I knew it had to be a mistake all along. This stupid slaver will pay for what she has done.

Regarding his long-awaited prize with disappointment as she looked arrogantly down her nose at him, not an easy feat considering the elevation at which he sat, the Dark Lord returned his attention to Jessica. The attractive trio standing with Red Jared were forgotten, much to the temporary relief of Lucy. Lounging near her master's feet, she carefully reached out to gently stroke his lower left leg, hoping to make him forget them entirely. Since Liana's transition from the harem to the Hall of Skulls, life in the harem had been very good to Lucy and she did not want any competition.

"Name your price," the Dark Lord repeated, as he settled back into the shadows and pretended not to notice the soft hand caressing his leg. Not bothering to take out her expense record, Jess sketched another bow to the throne and began her recital from memory.

"Great Lord," she began, "this little package you sent me for has cost me much; you promised to reimburse me for expenses, and I have had many since her abduction. Two horses: one hundred gold each. One collection of fine furs, one of them rare snow fox, the others sable trimmings: three hundred and seventy-five. Miscellaneous personal items stolen by your troops: thirty gold. Travel expenses west of the Handel River, to include imperial toll roads -- roads that were free last time I remembered: thirty-seven gold. The initial agreed upon price for the princess: five hundred. Mercenary expenses for speedy travel through the Bracken Wood: eight gold. Personal suffering and inconvenience, including loss of my punt, abuse at the hands of imperial slavers, the princess and Agnes' prices from said slavers, travel to Toren to recover the princess, recompense to my guild brother for his inconvenience, and various herbal sun-burn remedies: three hundred fifty. And one unlimited imperial travel pass, also stolen and lost by your imperial forces: priceless. The Princess Brianna of Tavect is yours, Great Lord, for fifteen hundred and a renewed travel pass."

Resenting being spoken about once again as property, like back in Toren, Brianna was about to protest, but then reminded herself that her captor was not really selling her, but asking for ransom money -- although she believed she was worth more. Jess's price met with only stony silence and Red Jared shifted nervously from foot to foot.

"Preposterous," Zara answered for her brother. "Fifteen hundred is far too much for an untrained slave with little in looks below her neck."

"I am not a slave!" Brianna shrieked at the top of her lungs. How often must these fools be told that? Why isn't the Dark Lord defending me and having clothes fetched and throwing this ill-mannered boor of a slaver into his dungeon. I would have thought his witch would be in on the plot. And where is that attractive wizard?

A sudden tense wave and a few soft syllables from the woman beside the throne, and Brianna felt her entire body go cold and rigid. Horrified at being under the effects of an evil spell, she tried to scream, but nothing came out. Trying to speak met with equal results, and so too did crying. Unable to move a muscle or make any noise, Brianna stood statue-like in front of the dais, refreshingly quiet. Jess resisted the urge to smile, and ignored both the sorceress and the princess to concentrate on her buyer. She wondered if he too was resisting the urge to smile, or if he was letting the shadows cover it.

"No imperial forces reported meeting you in the east, where I told you to take the princess once you had her," the Dark Lord answered. "Why?"

"I make my own travel plans, Great Lord," Jess answered quickly.

"Pity," came the stern response. "When I give instructions, I expect them to be followed without question, since I give them for good reason; which is all you or any other hireling needs to know. Since you chose to `make your own travel plans,' I do not hold myself accountable for any losses or suffering you may have experienced in the west. You went there without my authority, and the responsibility is your's alone. Your decision, your loss. I will, however, pay for mercenary and toll-road expenses, as you would have encountered those anyway, and the initial fee of five hundred which makes for..."

"Five hundred and forty-five gold," Zara put in, sparing her brother the trivial trouble of mathematical calculations, which he disliked.

"Five hundred fifty," the Dark Lord stated, adding an extra five. "A nice round number, for a nice round slave girl." Held in the icy grip of the spell, Brianna despaired silently. The Dark Lord had called her `slave girl!' Her visions of being a political prisoner began to fade and the reality she had been denying for so long sank in, along with her memories of the harem and Jess's snide remarks and promises about the girl in charge.

No...she thought miserably. This can't be happening to me! I'm a princess!

"Twelve hundred," Jess answered the Dark Lord's offer, weighing the possible folly of pushing her favor and reputation against so dangerous and powerful a man. Let's see just how much he values my services. He sometimes like to haggle, I just hope this is one of those times.

"Six," came the immediate reply.

Good, he's in the mood. Let's see how much. "Eleven hundred," Jess demanded, not wanting to go below a thousand.


Jess tapped her fingers on her hip, biting her lower lip thoughtfully. "Ten-fifty," she held out, feeling herself losing slack.

Brianna despaired even more as she saw the last of her dignity, the price she could fetch, going steadily down. She strained with all her might to close her eyelids and hide herself in the darkness behind them, but the paralysis spell held firm. The Dark Lord was not bargaining any longer and she found the silence painful.

"Eight hundred," the Dark Lord stated, "and a new travel pass."

"One thousand," Jess answered, not ready to give up, but not liking the fact he was now figuring in her licence to ply her trade into the bargain.

"Eight hundred," came the reply, "and a new pass."

"Nine hundred," Jess shot back, looking for a compromise that would cover all the expenses, without pushing the Dark Lord too far.

"No," he answered coldly, "eight hundred is my final offer. When you ride in my employ, you will follow instructions like everyone else. Be grateful I am willing to remember past services well rendered and pay you three hundred more than the agreed-upon price, and renew your travel pass without the six month wait. One year is the norm for an unlimited pass, which is what I presume you are after, and you know I have never issued one twice to anyone, until today."

Having pushed her luck far enough, and knowing how much better she and her new partner would be able to do with an unlim- ited imperial pass instead of his seasonal western region pass, Jess nodded. "All right," she growled, "eight hundred and a new pass before I leave." She did not like it, but at least she was rid of the whining princess and she could recoup some of her loss with other sales before she left.

With a slow sweeping motion of her hand, Zara lifted the statue-like body of Princess Brianna a few inches from the floor and glided her over to the left of the dais by the wall before settling her gently back to the floor. The spells of silence and paralysis would hold until she removed them, and now that she was his, Zara was certain her brother would deal harshly with the princess if she dared to act out again. It was something she knew he had been looking forward to ever since the princess had left Dark Hold.

Copyright 1991 to Darren Bloomquist and Michael Raleigh. Permission granted for personal use. Not for distribution.

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