THE sound of thundering hooves outside the door of their one-room hut caused the wooden table to shake and the lamplight to flicker. Surprised, Taren met Borstan’s wide, fearful eyes over the top of the book he’d been reading.
Borstan jumped up from the bench. “Hide, boy! Quickly, now!” he hissed as he shooed Taren up and away from the table.
“Go! Now! And not a word from you!” Borstan shoved Taren hard, and he scrambled behind the stores of rope and flour.
The heavy thud of a battle-axe nearly shook their wooden door from its ancient hinges. “Rigger Borstan Laxley! By order of Lord Grell, we seek recompense for your gambling debts!”
Taren peered around a flour sack. Borstan stood next to the door, his back flat to the wall, his eyes squeezed shut.
“Who are they?” Taren whispered loudly.
Borstan put a finger to his lips to silence Taren just as the men broke through the door. Only Borstan’s body kept it from banging against the wall. Borstan yelped as four ironclad giants stormed the room.
“Borstan Laxley!” the leader shouted as he dragged a terrified Borstan from behind the door. Another man pulled the bench, their only bench, from the table and aligned it in front of the fireplace. “Tie him!” the leader commanded.
“No, please. No! I told his lordship I’d have the money to pay in a fortnight,” Borstan shouted as they lashed him, face up, to the bench with his own finely crafted cordage.
Taren started when the first blow landed. He huddled in the corner, trembling like a newborn leaf, and buried his head beneath his arms. He couldn’t bear to hear Borstan’s mewling cries with each successive blow. On his cheeks quavered hot tears for the only master he’d ever known.
“Use the tar!” the leader shouted.
Taren snapped his head up. No. The cauldron over the fire held the boiling tar they used to coat the rigging they made. Borstan began to scream in earnest, and Taren, no longer able to contain himself, shot to his feet with a shriek, his voice cracking with emotion and youth. “No!”
The four soldiers turned to Taren in unison, one holding the dripping tar swab in his hand.
“Y-y-you… you cannot do that to him!” Taren forced out in terrified effort, fists balled at his sides.
The leader advanced on Taren, a wicked grin of rotted teeth filling his rat’s nest of a beard. “What have we here?”
Taren backed up quickly. His heels met a flour sack and he fell on his ass, the sack bursting and caking him in fine white powder.
The brutes roared in laughter as the leader claimed the front of Taren’s cotton shirt in one beefy hand and hauled him into the air with a single powerful arm. The man’s odor was an acrid stench in Taren’s nostrils as his feet left the floor. “Who are ye?” Taren’s shirt pinched his throat as the man shook him violently.
Taren desperately batted at the man’s mighty forearm in an effort to loosen the grip on his shirt. “Taren.” The single word was a strangled breath on the air.
The leader leered at him. “Yer a right pretty one, boy.”
“Leave ’im be! He’s mine!” Borstan mewled.
“Yer what?” he demanded with another suffocating shake to Taren. Spots of gray filled Taren’s vision. His tongue felt thick from the lack of oxygen. The soldier who had held him put Taren back on his feet. Taren struggled to stay standing.
“He’s my apprentice! Leave ’im be. Leave ’im be.” Borstan struggled against his bonds. Taren saw the red marks where the soldiers had beaten the old man begin to blossom into purple.
The soldier who’d held him now looked Taren over head to toe. “He’s yer pretty little slave, ye mean to say!” All four soldiers roared in laughter.
“He’s mine.” Borstan’s voice was less forceful this time. His gaze darted between Taren and the men, as if he were considering something.
“He’s a bit spare, but he’d be an extra pair of hands for Lord Grell,” said one of the other men. “No doubt he’ll grow.” In two big strides, Taren found himself thrown over one of the men’s shoulders like the sack of flour he resembled. Blood rushed to his face as he gulped air into his lungs.
“Aye,” Borstan agreed. Taren looked at his master with a dawning sense of horror. Surely Borstan wouldn’t let them take him away?
The leader strode back over to Borstan. “Yer debt is ten silver coins, Laxley. Ye willing to trade ’im?”
“He’s worth more than ten,” Borstan replied.
“Master?” Taren looked to Borstan, but the old man would not meet his eyes.
“Fair recompense, I’d say. Will ye sell the lad or not?” The leader made a fist and covered it with his other hand. “Or perhaps we should talk some more.”
Borstan’s eyes widened and he nodded quickly. He did not look at Taren. “Aye. Fair recompense.”
Cold terror clawed at Taren’s gut, and he fought the powerful arms that held him fast. “No! No! You can’t sell me! I’ve worked hard for you. I’ve done all you’ve asked of me. Please, Borstan, no!”
The leader nodded to one of the other men, who untied the bloodied and beaten Borstan. A moment later, the soldiers walked out the doorway with Taren, who continued to fight to free himself. “Borstan, no! No! No! Borstan, please! I beg you! Don’t do this! Please, I beg you!”
Two years later
TAREN huddled beneath a tattered blanket as an icy wind blew through the cracks of the ramshackle dormitory. The mortar between the bricks had crumbled and the fire was a good twenty feet away, providing him little warmth. He didn’t dare move closer—he had been beaten more times than he cared to remember by the other, bigger men with whom he shared the drafty sleeping quarters of Lord Grell’s Inn.
He’d lost track of time since he had come to this place. The living quarters at the inn were far less comfortable than Borstan’s hut on the edge of the docks, but the work wasn’t nearly as strenuous. Still, Taren longed for the freedom of climbing the ropes of incoming vessels and standing atop their masts with the wind in his face. More than a warm place to sleep, he wished to work at the harbor once more, where he could pretend he was a sailor or, better, that he captained one of the great ships.
More than anything, Taren dreamed of the ocean. He closed his eyes and imagined the spray against his face, the rocking of the vessel beneath his bare feet. He imagined crouching on the masthead, looking out through the telescope, trying to spot approaching boats. He imagined hoisting the sails, watching them billow and fill, and feeling the vibrations of the deck beneath his feet as the ship caught the wind.
Sometimes he dreamed his parents’ home had been one of the far-flung islands, or that he’d been born at sea aboard a great vessel. Sometimes he dreamed he was a creature who lived under the waves, chasing schools of fish and watching the waves overhead as he lay in the sand at the bottom. Sometimes he dreamed he was an admiral in the king’s navy, ordering his men to fire their guns at an enemy vessel as he defended the Kingdom of Derryth. But whatever Taren dreamed, he always dreamed of the ocean.
Dreams were all they were, for Taren had never been to sea.
“You, boy,” a sturdy woman called from the doorway. “What’s your name?”
“Taren, ma’am.” He got to his feet and repressed a shiver. It would do him no good to irritate Madame Marcus at such an ungodly hour—she would see his weakness as a complaint, and he didn’t want another whipping.
“Cook’s needing you in the dining room. A new ship’s put into port. He wants an extra pair of hands.”
“Of course, ma’am,” Taren said, dropping the threadbare blanket by the wall.
Dining room duty was better than some chores. Cook might even let him scrape the dregs from the pots as they cleaned up. Taren’s empty belly growled at the prospect and he followed the woman across the open courtyard, past an angry rooster who pecked at him when he strayed too close, and into the warmth of the kitchens.
“Cook, sir,” he said to the large man standing at the ovens, his face dirtied with soot from the fires. “What do you need?”
“Grab the soup from off the counter, boy, and ask the gentlemen if they would like more.”
Taren nodded and pulled a potholder from a hook beside the smallest of the ovens. The fabric of the potholder was, as with everything else, worn thin, and he felt the heat from the iron handle as he reached for the pot. A few months before, he’d have struggled to lift it, but his arms had grown stronger and he lifted it with ease. He ignored the pain as the metal burned his palm and scurried out into the dining room, retrieving a large ladle hanging near the doorway along the way.
THE light in the dining hall was far more subdued than in the kitchen. The candles burned a warm yellow and made the faded red fabric wall coverings appear less tawdry than in the daylight. Men crowded around the long wooden tables that ran the length of the room laughed and shouted, some singing off-key, most with large tankards of ale in their hands. The warm smell of sawdust and the sour tang of sweat mingled with the scent of the stew. At first, Taren had found the odors overwhelming. Now they comforted him.
Taren met Verita’s gaze. She was one of the other servants and old enough to be his mother, but her inclinations were hardly maternal. Still, she had always been kind to him—as kind as could be expected in a place such as this. She nodded and got back to filling tankards, leaning over as she poured the men’s drinks so they could easily see her full breasts and cackling when the men fondled her ample bottom. Later, he guessed, she would offer her services in their rooms, as many of his fellow servants did for the paltry coins they might receive in return. The master never complained about such activities, but Taren knew he expected half of what Verita and the others earned with their bodies. Taren had never been tempted to follow a guest to his or her bedroom, although he had been presented with the opportunity on many an occasion.
He felt a rough hand on his forearm and nearly lost his grip on the pot. “You’re a pretty one,” the owner of the hand said in a low voice. “Ain’t he, Captain?”
Pirates, thought Taren, judging by their looks and their rough manner.
“Please,” Taren said in a trembling voice. “I must serve the soup.” Another hand grabbed his buttocks and squeezed. He couldn’t pull away or he’d spill the hot soup on himself and possibly the man seated to the left of his antagonist.
The man seated at the head of the table—the “captain”—pursed his lips in appreciation. He raked his gaze over the open collar of Taren’s shirt and the tight fit of his too-small britches; Taren felt hotter than he had under the blanket only minutes before.
In the past year, Taren had begun to grow from a boy to a man. He now stood taller than Verita and the other women at the inn, and although most of the male servants were larger than he, Taren guessed it was only a matter of time before he reached and perhaps surpassed their stature. This transformation had come as an enormous relief. He had no idea how old he was—eighteen or nineteen, perhaps?—and he didn’t know his parents. For as long as he could remember, he had been the smallest of all the boys at the inn, and he had been given no reason to expect that it would ever be otherwise.
One of the men at the other end of the table laughed as he squeezed Verita’s bottom. “Nice ’n’ meaty,” one of the men said as Verita cackled and wiggled her hips. “Nice tail on ye’, woman.”
“I want me a mermaid,” another man interjected. “Now that would be a nice tail. Hear you have a few ’round these parts.”
“Only a fool believes those stories,” the first man said. “Don’t you think we’d’ve seen ’em if there were any?”
The captain, whose eyes hadn’t strayed from Taren, shook his head. “Something so beautiful wouldn’t go near the likes of you, Charlie.”
“They’d’ve swum away from you!” shouted another man.
Taren had long heard the stories of mermaids here in Raice Harbor. One of the other boys at the inn swore there had been a woman with a tail like a fish found near the water’s edge. Taren spent enough time down at the docks to know that if the merfolk existed, they would hardly be whiling away their days in the filthy water of the harbor. Still, he often imagined what it might be like to swim beneath the water without having to surface.
“I heard tell of a mermaid who led a pirate ship full o’ gold to wreck upon a reef,” Charlie said as he emptied his tankard of ale. “They say the pirate Odhrán keeps merfolk as pets. Like dogs. Uses ’em to lure ships.”
“Come here, boy!” the captain shouted, interrupting the men.
Taren did as he was told, trying to ignore the lecherous gaze of several of the men seated nearby. “What can I get for you, sir?” he asked as he’d been taught.
The captain, middle-aged with a coarse beard peppered with gray, was a broad-chested bear of a man whose relaxed manner and intense gaze spoke of confidence and power. Taren had to admit he was attractive. His skin was weathered from the sun and the wind; his eyes were a piercing blue. The weight of that gaze and the raw desire in his eyes frightened Taren and made him dizzy. The master won’t abide a servant taken without consent.
Taren began to ladle the fragrant soup into the captain’s bowl. He would endure the wanton looks and the fondling in silence, as he had done in the past. Then he would retreat to his duties in the kitchen, safe once more behind the wall that separated servant and guest.
“What’s your name, boy?” The captain’s voice was a deep rumble that seemed to work its way through Taren’s ears and into his body.
“Taren, sir,” he answered as he did his best to control the trembling of his hand. “Taren Laxley.”
“Charlie’s right. You are a pretty one.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The captain rubbed Taren’s ass before Taren realized what was happening. He couldn’t move away or he’d spill the soup, and he couldn’t put the pot down on the table and risk Cook’s wrath either. The captain pulled Taren’s shirt from the waistband of his trousers before he could protest, and moved his hand from Taren’s ass to Taren’s hardening cock.
“Now there’s a tempting treat,” the captain rumbled appreciatively.
Taren’s legs shook at the contact. The touch of the captain’s hand was practiced, sensual. Taren tried to repress the moan that escaped from his lips. Taren was surprised that the captain’s musky scent aroused him even more.
“You like that, don’t you, Taren Laxley?” The pirate let him go and Taren sighed in disappointment. “Don’t worry,” the captain added, “I just wanted to make this a bit easier for you.” He took the pot from Taren’s hands and set it on the table, then pulled Taren closer to him by his shirt.
Taren looked around the room. No one seemed to notice that he now stood in front of the pirate with his back against the table, or that his cheeks were surely now as bright red as the feathers of the rooster in the courtyard. Whereas before he’d have tried to escape the touch if given the chance, his own growing desire to experience the captain’s touch once more had him frozen in place. He swallowed hard and trembled not out of fear but with desire.
What is wrong with me?
“I won’t hurt you,” the captain said, his voice low, his expression unfathomable.
“I know,” Taren whispered. He shuddered in anticipation as the captain reached around him and slid his large hand under Taren’s trousers and over his buttocks. This time, however, his hand was slippery. Taren caught the faint whiff of butter from the table and saw the smile on the pirate’s face.
“Better like that, isn’t it?”
Taren nodded, too overcome to speak.
The captain found the soft flesh of Taren’s sac with his free hand and rolled it around. Taren gasped as he pushed back the foreskin with his large finger and swept over the crown. Taren nearly fell forward, but the captain held him upright with his muscular thighs.
He had never known such pleasure. The captain’s scent was powerful, adding to the intensity of the sensations that ran through Taren’s body like fire. The man’s eyes held him captive as much as his hand. Taren fought the urge to reach out and touch the captain’s rough jaw, to feel it beneath his fingertips.
The captain continued to play with Taren’s balls, caressing the sensitive skin behind them and straying close to the hidden opening between his ass cheeks. Taren moaned and shuddered with each slippery tug on his cock. The captain pulled and stroked until Taren bit his tongue to keep from crying out. Taren no longer saw the room or the other men as the captain rubbed his hand up over Taren’s tip and probed the slit.
“Ahhh,” Taren groaned. He didn’t care if anyone else heard. He couldn’t hold back anymore. The captain found the tight ring of muscle with a buttery finger, not breaching it but stroking it tenderly.
“Lovely,” the pirate captain said. “You please me well, boy.”
Taren relaxed at the man’s appreciative smile and reassuring words. He closed his eyes and gave in to the heady sensations, spellbound by the touch. He wouldn’t have moved if he could have stayed there; he didn’t want this pleasure to end. And when the pirate pressed his finger so that it barely breached Taren’s opening, Taren came hard, his body shuddering with his release, his head reeling from the intensity of it.
“Thank you, sir,” he managed to croak as he came back to his senses.
The captain chuckled and licked his hand as if it were covered in honey. “No need to thank me, boy,” he said. “The pleasure was all mine.”
Taren tucked himself back into his trousers, escaped from between the captain and the table, and picked up the soup. Thank goodness his long shirt hid the evidence of his release! He walked back toward the kitchen with a heated flush still on his cheeks, and he stood at the entrance, trying to calm his racing heart as his breath came in stuttered gasps.
Oh gods! Had Verita witnessed the entire sordid act? And what of himself? Had he enjoyed it?
No. Anyone would respond to such a touch. The thought didn’t comfort him. And yet the warmth he had felt, having been satisfied by a hand other than his own—a man’s hand, no less—still lingered.
He set the soup down on the fire to keep it warm and glanced over at Cook, who was happily tasting an aromatic stew in large spoonfuls, oblivious to Taren’s return.
“I’ve finished, sir.” Taren set about washing the dishes while he awaited further instruction. Perhaps he might be able to explain away the embarrassing stain as water from the sink.
He needn’t have been concerned. Verita returned a short while later with a stack of bowls for washing, then left with the stew on her arm. She didn’t say a word; she didn’t even attempt to catch his eye.
MORE than an hour later, the dishes dried and replaced on the shelves, Cook gave Taren leave to return to the sleeping area. Taren had avoided any further contact with the pirates, and Verita had vanished after the tables were cleared, most likely to spend what remained of the night with a guest.
The faint color of dawn lit the horizon as Taren stepped into the courtyard. The rooster who had scolded him before crowed from atop a stone wall. Taren yawned deeply and strode with purpose across the dirt, taking care to steer clear of the other birds that were already pecking the ground in anticipation of breakfast.
He was nearly to the doorway of the building when he heard footsteps from behind him. He turned in surprise, confused as to why any other servants were up before the morning call. But it was not a servant he saw—it was one of the men from before.
“What can I get for—” he began to say, but a hand clamped tightly over his mouth from behind, cutting short his words. His heart pounded with fear as the hand pressed a piece of cloth against his mouth and nose and he inhaled a pungent odor. The world seemed to dim, and he remembered nothing more.