THE Apocalypse didn’t come from every religion’s version of Heaven and Hell. The world didn’t end in a rain of fire and blood. It was, however, drastically changed in a rain of fire and sulfur and ash.
Late in the twenty-first century, the super-volcano powering the geysers in Yellowstone, Wyoming, erupted, annihilating most life within a six-hundred-mile radius and altering modern civilization forever.
The world did not end and life did not end. The Devil was nowhere to be seen.
Enough dirt and ash was propelled into the atmosphere to throw the entire planet into an ice age that would last centuries. There was no more Internet, no more cell phones; communications between parts of the world ended. Countries closed off their borders and divided into smaller, secluded protectorates.
People knew things had to change. Oil was no longer a source of power. If it couldn’t run on steam or horsepower, it didn’t run.
Three hundred years later, a city, New Colorado, sprouted on the edges of the caldera that was left after the eruption. It became the governing city for a north-south swatch of North America. Society was altered drastically into a class system.
Any woman who was of childbearing age and not a slave was free to enter her name into the selection process and produce one child, who would later be bound as a slave to the highest bidder. Not only were these women compensated financially, they had the prestige that came with passing stringent mental and physical tests. These babies were sent to other villages to be raised. They were tested for aptitude and trained, but not loved. Sale of these children, some with unique or coveted abilities, ensured income and protection from New Colorado. Once the union between master and slave was complete, it was permanent. The sharing of one’s slave with friends, as one might share a bottle of whisky or wine, or to pay off a debt, was common. To ensure the human population didn’t outgrow the resources of the protectorate, same-sex unions were not only accepted but encouraged, and birth control was made free to every couple.
Sentries, who referred to themselves as hunters, lived along the edges of New Colorado society. These were rough men and women considered a necessary evil by the citizens. They guarded the city and the entire protectorate from outside threats, a great many of which were supernatural. In return, they were supported by the protectorate for their services. Most treated their slaves, if they took one, as nothing more than one more weapon in their never-ending battle.
Occasionally, one sentry stood out from the rest….
NICK tucked the last of his possessions into a leather bag. After setting it carefully beside the other two bags on top of a heavy wooden trunk, he straightened and stared out the window.
This small room had been his home for as long as he could remember.
It wasn’t so much that he’d miss this room or this village; it was that he was leaving everything he knew.
Nick was being remanded into the hands of a family in the only city for nearly a thousand miles. This village, his village, was a protectorate, similar to the serfdoms of the past. He’d be leaving the mild, temperate area in the southern part of the protectorate and moving farther north and west, nearer the mountains. This was what he’d been trained and educated for since he was five. To be given into servitude to strangers. All because he was special.
Nick didn’t want to be special.
There had been words spoken in hushed tones so many years ago Nick didn’t even remember how old he was when he’d heard them—four, five maybe? Two of the tutors huddled with the village elders. Nick only recalled bits and pieces, but it’d been enough to set the course of his life and label him distinct among the other slave children.
“The boy can describe in detail people who died here twenty years ago,” one tutor had said.
“He knew those merchants who came through last week were actually thieves by just looking at them. There are people who seek out slave children like him,” another tutor had pointed out.
Nick sighed. As he’d grown, he’d learned to keep observations like that to himself. People didn’t like it, particularly his tutors.
In a few hours, what his tutors liked or didn’t like wouldn’t matter anymore. He’d be leaving this village. Nick hoped it would be forever.
He took out the ornately carved wooden box, opened it, and fingered the soft leather contained within. The final gift he’d received a few short months ago from the man he’d been betrothed—given—to years ago.
The man he’d call master.
The man he’d seen a few times a year from a distance but never met or spoken to. The man who’d dictated he’d be trained to fight and use weapons, who’d sent him books to study. Sometimes Nick received food or an ornate knife or other small gift. Everything came with a note. Every four or five months there were longer letters. It was all he knew of the man and the family he’d been promised to. He’d always written back, but never knew for sure if his letters had been received or if the man even cared about his words.
Sometimes in the letters he’d been addressed as Nicky. He’d never heard his name spoken aloud in any way other than Nick, and then it was mostly with harshness, never with care. He wondered what it would sound like, hearing Nicky.
The letters were kind and almost affectionate, or at least Nick wanted to think so. He’d grown up here. Even his training and tutoring had taken place here. But there was no affection shown to Nick by anyone here—he was property, pure and simple. Maybe he read too much into the letters, but they were bright spots in Nick’s lonely life. He had dared to hope maybe the boy who became the man sending the letters might, someday, have feelings for him.
Wondering about why he’d been trained in the way he had, Nick sighed. “Hope to hell I haven’t been sold to a family of assassins.” He couldn’t see any other reason why he’d have to learn to use so many weapons. The books he’d been given to read by the village tutors ranged from history and religion to what had to have been flights of bizarre fantasy, and offered him no more clues. The choice of books and Nick’s education was dictated by the needs of his future master.
When the small train of wagons pulled into the village center, two of the elders bustled out to greet them. Nick recognized his master, who was riding a horse. An older man, who years ago Nick had learned was his new master’s father, climbed down from the lead wagon and strode forward to greet the elders. He was a gruff-looking man, and Nick had always been slightly afraid of him, though he’d never had any interaction with him.
He watched his master, Todd Ruger, as he’d done so many times over the years when Todd and his father passed through Nick’s village. He’d never once seen any gesture of kindness or affection between Todd and his father. Nick wondered if this was what his life was destined to be like. Life with a man who was cold, uncaring, and perhaps didn’t even like him?
Then Nick remembered the many letters he’d received over the years. There was nothing cold or uncaring about those letters, and for the first time Nick felt a thread of excitement coil around in his belly. He was curious about his master. What was he really like? Would they be friends? More?
His insides fluttered when one of the aides serving the elders came for him. Nick shouldered his bags, but there were others to carry the trunk. The box containing his leather collar was gripped in both hands. He obediently followed the aides to the wagons. It would take two or three days, depending on the weather, to reach New Colorado. There were trains, but they didn’t run anywhere near Nick’s small village.
“This him?” The elder Ruger stepped closer to Nick and peered at him. “What’s your name, boy?”
Nick’s eyes darted to the man’s face. He finally pulled a name out of his head. John Ruger. The look of sheer anger crossing John’s features when Nick’s eyes met his for that second made Nick’s insides tremble. He dropped his eyes to the ground at once, horrified with himself for committing such a crime. “N-Nick, sir.”
“Huh. You got anything in that head?” John snapped at him.
Nick had no idea how to even begin to respond to that without getting his head removed from his shoulders, so he stood quietly, staring at the swimming ground. He wanted to crawl away and die.
Barely paying attention to Todd swinging off his horse and tying its lead to the front wagon, Nick heard Todd’s long strides coming at him. A warm, gentle hand rested on Nick’s shoulder and pushed him back a step as Todd eased between Nick and John.
“You’re being an ass, Dad. Cut it out. He’s just a kid. We’ve had this discussion. You wanted me to do this. I’m doing it. But I’m doing it my way. Let’s not forget Nick belongs to me, not you.” Todd glanced around, not taking his hand from Nick’s shoulder. “Can we just get things finalized and get on our way?”
John nodded and took a thin leather-bound book from the only female aide. He motioned to the young woman to get on with it.
“I’m sorry,” Nick whispered when the others stepped away from him and Todd and moved closer to the first wagon. His knuckles went white around the wooden box.
Todd turned and looked him up and down. He smiled, making his intense green eyes soften and crinkle at the edges. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Nick felt some of the tension drift out of him. He raised his head slightly and offered Todd a shy smile. The fingers on his shoulder pressed down more, filling Nick with an unexpected warmth and reassurance.
“C’mon,” Todd said in a hushed, gentle tone. “Let’s get this done. Then you and I can be left alone in our wagon.”
Nick nodded and followed Todd to the small group gathered around a table set up for the final step to complete their bonding—transfer of ownership. Somehow, being alone with Todd in their wagon didn’t sound so scary. He stood quietly behind Todd, taking in every detail. The elders, then John Ruger and another older man signed the papers in the book. Finally, they were handed to Todd, who signed without hesitation. A seal was applied on the final page before the book was closed and formally presented to Todd by the village elders.
That was what Nick’s life amounted to. Some papers were signed, and his ownership transferred from this small village, where he was simply Nick, to Todd Ruger. Though he’d have none of the rights, it did give him a surname. He was now Nick Ruger.
After following Todd to their wagon, Nick waited patiently while Todd removed his horse’s saddle and tucked it into a side compartment in the back of the covered wagon. He stuck his head inside and pulled it back out a second later. “Is that all your stuff? You get to bring everything you own, or didn’t anyone bother to tell you that?”
Nick nodded, a bit awestruck. No one had ever cared about him or his possessions in his entire twenty-two years. “Yes, sir… master.”
Todd sighed and stepped completely behind the wagon, tugging on Nick’s sleeve for him to follow. When they were out of sight of everyone else, Todd’s hand rested on the side of Nick’s neck. “My name is Todd. You call me Todd, unless we’re somewhere the law says you have to call me otherwise. That’s rule number one. Rule two is you stay away from my father and his pack of asshole hunting buddies. You don’t go anywhere without me, ever.”
“Yes, sir… Todd.” Hunters. These men were hunters. That couldn’t be so bad. It gave Nick visions of spending warm summer nights under the stars, in the wilderness, tracking buffalo or deer or moose or whatever one hunted on warm summer nights.
Todd’s finger hooked under Nick’s chin, lifting until Nick was looking him in the eye. “And you look at me when you talk to me, Nicky.”
Nick’s face split into a smile. He couldn’t help it. For some reason, when Todd said Nicky for the first time in Nick’s young life, it seemed like home. Todd grinned right back at him, and Nick’s heart fluttered; Todd was an amazingly handsome man.
“I could stand to see that smile a few times a day too.” Todd’s hand was back on his neck again, giving it a squeeze.
When John barked that it was time to leave, Todd rolled his eyes and tipped his head to the front of the wagon. He took the box from Nick’s hands and stored that in the back of the wagon too. After dropping the canvas cover over the opening, he headed to the front of the wagon and stepped to one side while Nick climbed into the seat. Settled beside Nick, Todd took up the team’s reins and guided them from the village and onto the open road.
Nick spent the first hour trying to get a good look at Todd and cataloging everything about him. A few inches shorter than Nick, Todd’s shoulders were broader. He was powerfully built, with the same sort of grace as a cat. Every move he made seemed smooth, flowing, and effortless. Todd caught him looking a few times but did nothing more than smile, making his eyes twinkle. The beefy part of his shoulder bulged under his shirt, which stretched over a torso that came to a V at his slim waist. With every movement of Todd’s legs, Nick was very aware of the long, hard muscles beneath his jeans.
“You hungry?” Todd broke the silence when the sun was at its zenith. “We won’t stop until late tonight, but I’ve got—” He reached under the bench seat and pulled out a small cooler. “—some provisions.” Dumping the cooler on Nick’s lap, Todd’s chin tipped at it. “Open that up for me, will you?”
Nick did so immediately, holding it at a good angle for Todd to rummage around in it with one hand. He pulled out a small bag of colorful, sugarcoated candies and held it out to Nick. Eyes widening, Nick took the package. Words came out of Todd’s mouth in a rush. “You used to write me, asking me to send you more of these, when you were little.”
When Nick sat motionless, staring at the small bag, Todd’s eyes slid toward him, his shoulders slumping slightly. “You do still like those, right? ’Cause, dude, I brought them just for you.”
“Really?” Nick couldn’t help the smile creeping over his face.
“Yeah, really. Now crack that open and share.” Todd’s elbow nudged Nick’s arm.
As they traveled, Todd pointed out landmarks, and seemed impressed Nick knew the names of a good bit of the area’s trees and plants. When the sun fell, he and Todd entertained themselves by pointing out stars and constellations. The more Nick talked, the happier Todd seemed to be with him.
It was close to midnight when they finally stopped to make camp. There were four wagons in all, the other three carrying two or three occupants each, and two men riding on horseback. Nick’s mind drifted back to childhood, watching Todd ride through his village a few times a year, watching him grow from a skinny boy of twelve to the powerful man he was now.
A fire was built in the center of the wagon circle, and a meal was prepared. The night air was chilled and damp, and Nick’s clothes, more suited for the southern climate, weren’t keeping him very warm. Nick wouldn’t have minded sitting near the fire to eat, even if he had to listen to John Ruger and his friends tell whatever stories they told one another. Todd, however, took his food and headed back to their wagon, so Nick followed.
He tried hard not to shiver through dinner. Everyone else had thicker coats and heavier clothes, much more prepared for the climate they were heading into than Nick. Glancing wistfully at the fire and its warmth, Nick huddled over his plate. He’d never dare ask for another coat. He was a slave. Who cared if he was cold? Slaves didn’t count in this world.
“You have any heavier clothes?”
Shaking his head, Nick murmured, “No, Todd.”
Todd set his plate down hard on the ground and stood abruptly. Nick flinched and looked up. Todd reached into the wagon and pulled out a heavy dark-green pullover shirt. In his other hand he carried a few bottles and two glasses.
“Here, put this on. It’ll keep you warm enough for now. When we get home, you’re getting the right clothes. I’m not spending the rest of my life watching you shiver.” He set the bottles and glasses down and resettled onto the ground beside Nick. Dark amber liquid was poured from one of the bottles. “You ever had whisky before?” He started to hold the small glass out to Nick, but when Nick shook his head no, Todd chuckled. “Okay, then. Not having this right now.” Grinning, Todd downed the liquid himself. Crossing his eyes, he shook his head as he swallowed. “Here, try this instead. We’ll start you off slow and work you up to the really rotgut stuff later.”
Nick laughed and took the small bottle Todd offered. He took a whiff; it didn’t smell bad. Nick took a short sip of the bottle’s contents. He pulled the bottle away and looked at it. “What is this?”
Todd had been watching him the entire time, looking almost boyish and hopeful. “Eh, you didn’t spit it back at me, so that’s good. Beer. You never had beer before?”
“No. Just water.”
“You like it?”
“Yeah, I do. It’s different. Sorta bitter at first.” He’d pulled the heavier shirt over his head; it was thick and made of a woven material that was warm and soft. Breathing in deeply, he was at once surrounded by the combined smells of gun oil, leather, and something he recognized from sitting beside Todd all day that was uniquely Todd. The beer made his throat warm, but it was the scent of Todd all around him that made warmth spread in delicate tendrils from his belly to his chest.
“Good, ’cause I don’t do bread and water. We do what we do and keep the good folks in the towns and villages safe at night, but they’re damn well feeding us good.”
Nick had no idea what it was Todd referred to. He’d thought since Todd and his father, and now Nick, were hunters, they’d simply track down and catch their own food if they needed to. Nick nodded, drank his beer, and finished his food. It was stew—tasty, hot, and filled with chunks of meat and vegetables in a heavy broth.
After mopping the remains of the stew from his plate with bread, Todd leaned back and grinned. “I want more. You want more?”
Looking up, surprised and knowing his face showed it, Nick blurted out, “I am allowed more?”
Todd snorted. “Yes, Nick, you are.” He held out a hand for Nick to pull up on. Once righted, Todd released his hand, moved his hand to Nick’s neck, and patted gently a few times before he turned and went back to the fire.
The men there snidely asked why Nick was still wearing clothes and why they were wasting time eating. Todd ignored them. As he turned around to head back to their wagon, Todd’s eyes caught Nick’s. He smirked and shook his head.
They resettled behind the wagon, out of sight of the others, and finished eating in silence. Then, leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees, Todd rubbed at the back of his neck for a few minutes.
“So, uh, you ever been with a woman?”
Nick stared at a point between his feet and shook his head no.
Todd shifted a bit. Nick thought he sounded nervous. “A man?”
“No.” His voice came out barely above a whisper.
“Got any preference?”
Nick drew in a deep breath and looked up at Todd, who wore that boyish, hopeful expression again. “I like watching girls sometimes, but they’re sort of skinny, no muscle. I think I look at men more.”
Todd nodded and seemed satisfied with those answers. It wasn’t as if Nick had a choice. He’d been bound to another male since he was five years old. Whether he preferred men or women as sexual partners was never a consideration. Maybe he’d always been that way, or maybe he’d just trained himself to like men more. He didn’t know. It didn’t really matter.
When Todd reached out and curled warm, strong fingers around his neck, Nick leaned into the touch. He decided it was something Todd liked to do, touch him that way, and it appeared to Nick the gesture pleased Todd and made him relax. Nick had decided back in the village, the first time Todd had touched him that way, that he liked it. Not even twenty-four hours later and Nick was craving those tiny touches and counting the minutes between them, hoping for another one.
This time Todd leaned closer and pulled Nick toward him. As Todd’s lips brushed across Nick’s temple, he moaned soft and low. After pushing his nose through Nick’s hair for a few seconds, Todd pulled him in even tighter, nuzzling his cheek against Nick’s, breathing in deep. “You smell good.” Todd’s hand moved from his neck up into Nick’s hair, turning his head toward Todd.
Todd pressed his lips to Nick’s, gently licking his tongue along Nick’s lower lip. It startled him at first when Todd’s tongue slipped between his lips and into his mouth. Todd’s other arm wound around Nick’s waist and gently, slowly pulled Nick completely against him. Todd’s tongue glided around his own and coaxed Nick’s tongue into his mouth. Todd sucked lightly on Nick’s tongue for a few seconds before pulling away. He looked at Nick, seemed to be memorizing every bit of Nick’s face before pulling him back in for another kiss. This time Nick mimicked Todd’s actions and sucked Todd’s tongue.
When Todd pulled away for the second time, they were both panting, and Nick was whimpering softly. Fingers raked tenderly through his hair, and Todd kissed his nose and then his cheek and murmured in his ear, “You taste so good. I’ve been waiting forever to do that.”
Nick felt a flush creep over him. When Todd’s arm tightened even more around his middle, Nick leaned his head down so his face was pressed to the crook of Todd’s neck. “I don’t… I’ve never….” This was so embarrassing.
“It’s okay, Nicky. You’ll learn. You’ll be just fine. Just us now.” Todd rested his chin on the top of Nick’s head and held him tightly. Nick had never in his life been held—not like this. He’d been held down and beaten a few times, but never had anyone simply held him. When he pressed closer and relaxed more against Todd, the other man drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Nick liked this, and he sensed Todd did too.
Laughter from the direction of the fire made them both start and pull back from each other. Chuckling nervously, Todd ruffled Nick’s hair. “We’ll save the rest for when we can be alone.” He stood, stretched, and threw the cover back on the wagon’s opening. “Just us now,” he repeated. Nick nodded, because he had the feeling he was supposed to respond somehow. “C’mon, Nicky. Get some sleep.”
Todd waited for him to get himself arranged in the back of the wagon. The bedding was soft and incredibly warm. Nick burrowed right in. Todd sat on the wagon step, gazing up at the stars. When there was another round of laughter, and this time gunshots from the vicinity of the fire, Todd reached inside the wagon and laid one hand on Nick’s ankle, his thumb moving in small circles for a few seconds. “Don’t worry. You’re safe. I’m going to sit up for a bit more, make sure they don’t shoot each other. You go to sleep.”
When Nick awoke in the morning, Todd was pressed close beside him, warm and solid. The beefy shoulder Nick had spent so much time admiring the day before made an excellent pillow, Nick discovered. Todd was half rolled on his side, one arm slung across Nick’s shoulders, his fingers tangled in Nick’s hair.
That was the very first day in Nick’s life he woke up feeling safe, not alone, not lonely.
PERHAPS one of the most difficult things in Todd Ruger’s life was waking up that morning and not pinning Nick down and showing the boy just how much he wanted him. After spending years watching Nick grow from afar, the only thing he’d been able to think of these past months was what having Nick would be like. He’d waited for what seemed like forever to receive Nick. He reminded himself again that to do this right would be worth it. While the kid was shy and unsure, he did seem to want to please Todd. More importantly, he seemed to like Todd.
Todd lay quietly, watching Nick as he woke up. Long limbs that carried a decent amount of muscle moved slowly. Sometime during the night he’d pressed his cheek to Todd’s shoulder, which brought out a surge of protectiveness and possessiveness Todd hadn’t known he was capable of. He stretched, and Todd watched how muscle slid under smooth skin. Nick yawned, opened his eyes a crack, and smiled, making Todd’s breath catch in his chest. Nick’s hair hung in wisps over his face. His almond-shaped eyes were deep pools of hazel Todd could easily get lost in. Todd was relieved; a good bit of the fear he’d initially seen in Nick’s face and eyes had dropped away. Now he simply watched Todd patiently.
He wasn’t sure what he liked more—Nick’s soft, gentle eyes or his sweet smile and dimples.
Brushing some of the rebellious strands from Nick’s face, Todd asked, “Sleep okay?” Wrapping his head around the thought that this marvelous creature beside him was his, would share his life and—hopefully—bed made him dizzy. He could force Nick, of course. He owned Nick, and Nick was obligated by law to do whatever Todd wished. But that wasn’t how Todd wanted this to go. He didn’t want to instill fear in Nick, as he’d seen in others’ slaves. He didn’t even want a slave. Todd wanted a partner, someone to count on and who’d count on him. Earning Nick’s trust was far more important to Todd than beating him into submission.
Nick had responded so well to Todd’s experimental touches and words yesterday, and seeing him smile like he had made Todd’s heart beat wildly. He’d been so surprised by Todd’s small gestures of care, it made Todd realize how much his own life was lacking in the affection they were both so obviously starving for.
“Yeah, I did. Did you?”
“Oh yeah.” Todd stretched and sat up. He needed to move away from Nick or crawl inside him. He poked his head outside, turned, and grinned. “They’re still out cold. We can get cleaned up in peace.”
Nick scooted across and out of the wagon and followed Todd to a small stream.
“I’ve been here lots before.” He pointed to a small bend in the stream and an outcrop of rocks. “We’ll have more privacy over there.”
With Nick in tow, Todd picked his way over some rocks and along the stream bank until they were out of sight and hearing of the others. Nick followed amiably. Todd watched how his eyes darted everywhere, taking in every detail of their surroundings. His life might have forced him to melt into the shadows and be unseen by society, but Todd realized this boy didn’t miss a thing.
From the day he turned twelve and Nick’s binding to him was initiated, Todd grew up knowing he’d have this person in his care, be responsible for him. Discovering that Nick wasn’t a mindless dolt brought Todd a definite sense of relief. If push came to shove, in any situation, he was sure Nick could hold his own. That eased Todd’s fears about what would happen if he and Nick were ever accidentally separated in a dicey situation. Todd knew Nick had been raised to be Todd’s property, but what Nick probably didn’t know or realize was that already he was becoming Todd’s most prized possession. Todd was more and more looking forward to tomorrow. They’d be home and alone to get to know each other.
After relieving himself and keeping a keen ear out for Nick, who’d disappeared behind a tree, no doubt to do the same thing, Todd peeled his coat and shirts off, leaving just his jeans and boots on. Nick followed suit and stripped to the waist. They were both shivering, and their teeth were chattering when they’d washed, though Todd seriously enjoyed the view of Nick’s muscled body glistening with water droplets.
Just as he yanked his T-shirt over his head, Todd heard movement through the bushes. He lifted one hand to his lips, telling Nick to keep quiet. Nick nodded; he understood. Moving slowly, Nick pulled his own clothes on and glanced around. Todd eased his pistol from the shoulder holster that was gripped in his hand. He only marginally relaxed his stance when a man stepped through the trees and brush.
“What are you doing here, Ruben?” Todd lowered his gun but didn’t put it away. He shot a quick look at Nick, who’d finished dressing and stood motionless, watching Todd and the other man.
“Just came to check on you boys.”
“We’re fine. Go back to the wagons.”
Ruben gave Todd a look that made him wonder if his pants were zipped. He had to concentrate on not squirming under the other man’s intense gaze. Stepping around Todd, Ruben moved closer to Nick.
“Thought maybe you’d be sharing some of this fine stock you’ve gotten yourself.”
When Nick didn’t move away, just stood there staring at Ruben, Todd felt a swell of pride. This boy—his boy—was definitely no pushover. If Ruben intimidated him, he certainly wasn’t showing it. Todd was doubly pleased when he realized Nick already trusted in Todd enough to follow whatever choice Todd made for them.
Just as Ruben reached out to run a hand down Nick’s face, Todd closed the distance between them and smacked Ruben’s hand away. Todd’s eyes met Nick’s, and he saw a flash of relief, and something else, in the younger man’s eyes. “I don’t share well,” Todd ground out.
He kept Nick well away from the others until they broke camp. He didn’t trust them; he wasn’t even sure he trusted his father. As they continued on their trip, a cold wind whipped up. For the first part of the day, Nick quietly watched the scenery go by. He looked thoughtful, worried. Todd didn’t know what to say to him, or if he should say anything. He simply let the incident blow by.
Finally, Nick spoke.
“Thank you,” he said very quietly.
When Todd glanced sideways at him, Nick huddled down into the heavy shirt.
“What you did this morning.”
Todd patted Nick’s knee, drew in a breath, and sighed it out long and slow. “Nicky, like I told you yesterday, it’s just you and me. I’m not handing you off to anyone. I don’t believe in that shit. They’re a bunch of assholes, and honestly, my father, even though he’s a great hunter, he’s not much better. You stay away from them. And if they or anyone else ever lays a hand on you, I want you to tell me.”
“What is it you can do?” Todd asked. “I was never clear on that.”
“I can see when someone has evil inside.”
“What’s it look like?”
Nick shrugged. “Mostly black. Sometimes a person’s face looks funny, distorted, frightening. Once when I was really little, I saw the evil leave a girl and she died. My village thought I’d done something. If you… your father hadn’t put in a bid for you and me to….”
When Nick swallowed hard and his voice trailed off, Todd nodded. He understood. Nick would have likely been killed. Todd shifted the reins to one hand and put his arm around Nick’s shoulders, tugging him closer. “It’s cold,” he muttered, pleased when Nick nudged into his side and relaxed against him. “Have you practiced using your ability to see evil?”
Nick shook his head, and Todd felt how his hair rustled softly against his coat. “I was told it would be important to your family; that was why they let me live.”
“Okay, we’ll work on it and figure it out. I grew up being told I’d have you and there was an ability you had I could use and that without the right master you might not survive.”
Todd felt Nick shift so he could look up at him, but said nothing. Their ride was quiet but comfortable to Todd, with Nick leaning against him as if they’d known one another forever.
Their camp was tense that night, and Todd was happy they’d be back in the city by midmorning the next day. He told Nick to stay with their wagon while Todd got their food for the night. He’d seen how the other men, his own father included, watched Nick, watched him. Waiting until his father was closer to his own wagon and alone, Todd confronted him.
“I want to do this my way. You said—”
“I said”—John turned to face Todd fully, hands gripping a branding iron already turning red—“that I’d see what I could do. This has to be done. You know that, and Nick does too. We have to follow what the city elders want, and they want it done before he’s in the city.”
“Fine, but not like this. He’s just starting to trust me. The only thing he probably knows is he has to wear my mark. Not—” Todd pointed to the large iron. “—not that.”
John’s jaw clenched. “You’re talking like he’s someone. He’s property, nothing more than horses or cattle.”
“He is someone. Hell, I’ve seen the work those two do!” Todd shouted. His arm shot out, pointing at two other men sitting with Ruben. Branders. “It’s cruel, not necessary, and he could die.”
“Then he’ll die. I’m sorry, son.”
Todd’s only warning was John’s eyes dropping. Grabbed from behind, Todd was thrown off guard. He kicked out, hitting nothing but air. There was one of him and eight of them. “Nick! Run!”
“Todd, stop it!” John snarled at him. “You’re making it worse.”
Nick looked up, bewildered. His eyes widened for a few seconds. He didn’t run. In fact, he stood up and clenched his hands to fists. “What are you—”
“Nicky, run! I mean it. Run now!” Todd glared at his father and then at the other men. “There’re better ways.” He bucked and kicked wildly, trying for freedom. “Hurt him and I’ll—”
“Shut up.” One of the other men, someone Todd had known since childhood, shouted and hit him hard enough in the side of the head to make his vision explode in a starburst of color for a few seconds.
Todd was tied and shoved against one of the wagons, and then tied to it. A rag was wadded up and forced into his mouth, but that didn’t stop him from shouting obscenities at them. Nick had just begun to trust him, and now they were doing this. What Todd had built between them was going to be wrenched away in a few brutal minutes.
With Todd out of the way and Nick having no idea what was coming, Nick was easy prey. Four men descended upon him. While Nick tried to rip his arms from their grip, he didn’t hit any of them. Striking anyone was a death sentence to slaves. His shouting turned to pleading when he was dragged to a spot near the center of the wagons and forced to his knees.
One of them grabbed him by the face and forced a bottle of whisky into his mouth. “Believe me, boy. You’ll thank me for this.”
Todd shouted threats and pleas. If Nick vomited, he’d drown.
Stripped to the waist, Nick was tied spread-eagle on the ground. Ruben yanked his belt off and strung it around Nick’s neck. When the first brand was pressed to Nick’s left wrist and he howled in pain, shouting for Todd, Ruben pulled the belt tight, cutting off his air. A second, matching brand was put to Nick’s right wrist. Todd saw how Nick’s eyes went wide with terror and pain when one of the men took the larger brand John held.
Putting one foot on Nick’s chest, the man held up the iron and turned it, inspecting it closely. His face split into a grin as he pressed his foot against Nick. In the next instant, the brand was driven down and held against Nick’s chest. His entire body bowed up as far as the restraints allowed, and his scream shattered the night air.