‘Flesh and Stone’ by Sacchi Green, Thrones of Desire, edited by Mitzi Szereto (Cleis, 2012)
A scarlet-crested helmet shadowed the face above me. I cast my eyes downward, willing my body to the stillness of any inanimate work of art.
“What price for this one?” The voice was low, husky—and female. Hope rippled across my skin. Even shackled in the slave market, I had heard of the woman champion. The capital hummed with tales of her that could not possibly be true.
The trader stumbled over his recitation of my virtues. “A…a rare pearl, Lady, from the house of the late epicure Mendelas. Young, beautiful, trained in all the arts of pleasure, skilled enough to satisfy any…any desires, adaptable to any taste.”
I dared a quick glance and saw her amusement. His desperate attempt to avoid saying “any man’s desires” had not been lost on her.
I raised my eyes again, looking into hers deeply enough to sense some hint of her mood.
“Can you cook?”
“Only simply, Lady.”
“Can you mend cloth and leather?”
“I was taught as a child, Lady, before…” The slaver’s grip tightened. I hoped he would recall that bruises lowered my value. “Yes, Lady. I was raised in the horse tribes.”
“Then you know something of handling horses, as well.”
The trader sidled in front of me. “If your eminence wishes a mere maidservant, I have others less costly.”
“Than this ‘rare pearl’?” Impatience edged her voice. “What price for her?”
Rattled, he named a sum scarcely larger than he expected. She disdained to haggle. I let myself breathe again. This was a mistress I would follow anywhere, do anything, be anything, she desired. I did not read in her eyes the sort of interest he assumed, but in time…who could tell? The trader had not overstated my skills.
“Have you belongings?” A slave could not possess anything, but a craftsman’s tools might be assumed to be included in the bargain. My “tools” were bits of exotic clothing and jars of herbs and unguents and, tucked beneath them, a few more arcane objects rolled in a length of embroidered silk.
I hid my joy and followed my new mistress meekly. The woman champion! A princess, some said, from a mountain kingdom to the north. A sorceress who could turn men to stone. I neither believed nor cared. All that mattered was that she was strong and skilled and brave, nothing like those coarse women brought into the Emperor’s games as titillation for a jaded court.
She swung me up easily onto her horse and mounted behind me. I clutched my bag and concentrated on balancing, since my narrow skirt kept me from riding astride. I longed to lean against her bound breasts, to tune myself by touch to the resonance of her thoughts and desires, but tried instead to show that I had not lied about my ability to sit a horse.
“Have you a name, girl?” The cool voice made me tremble.
“My master called me Gazelle.”
“What did your mother call you?”
“Shebbah, Mistress.” Mistress. The word was full and sweet in my mouth.
“Well, Shebbah, I will be in disgrace when we get home. You are not quite what I had in mind, but no doubt something can be arranged.”
I did lean against her then, searching through her body toward her emotions. Did she not intend to keep me? Why then purchase me? But her mind was bound as tightly as her breasts.
She swung me down before a modest house. An aging man-at-arms limped out to take the horse; he frowned, but the lady forestalled him. “I know, Rafen. Hecanthe will give me a tongue-flogging. The sooner you stable the horse, the less of it you’ll miss.”
The room seemed dim after bright daylight. A lamp beside a low couch lit the sharp features of the woman lying there. Another presence loomed in the shadows, and I would have turned that way if her snapping black eyes had not gripped me.
“What’s this?” She knew already exactly what I was. “You go for a strong wench to cook and clean, and come back with this…this little yellow-haired ‘bird of paradise’?
It was clear enough who ruled this household. I knelt and looked full into her keen old eyes, hiding nothing of myself. “I am stronger than I look, Grandmother, and my skills are not only those of the harem.”
“Indeed.” She too could reach out with her mind, and recognized what she found. “You might do, after all.” Then, more loudly and a bit harshly, “Did you think to distract the Emperor, Domande, with this little sweetmeat?”
“If only it were that easy.” My lady’s voice was weary. “The Emperor desires my humiliation, not my flesh. Even his taste is more refined than that!” The note of buried pain spoke more than she herself knew. “Offering a more appealing bedmate would be pointless. He has ordered me to attend him tomorrow night. I will slay him if I go. Therefore, I must leave.”
She had shed the cloak and the helmet with its champion’s crest. Her tunic and clinging hose displayed the grace of a lioness; when she stretched and ran fingers through her short hair, I could not believe that anyone, of any sex, would fail to take pleasure in the touch of that smooth, taut body.
Bronze curls clung damply above amber-green eyes. Her finely sculpted face could have topped the statue of a young god or, softened by flowing hair, a seductive goddess.
“What then?” Hecanthe asked sharply. “A gift to placate that one, since you imagine you have wronged him?” Her eyes flicked toward the shadows. “If ever he returns to matters of the flesh!”
A presence seemed to advance, but there had been, could be, no movement. The man was made all of gray stone. No statue, no creation of any carver, but a naked, crouching figure of muscle and bone frozen in the moment of rising from a fall.
I looked wildly from Lady Domande to the old woman. Whose power had wrought this curse? Hecanthe smiled grimly, but her mistress forgot us both as she contemplated the stone face.
“It is the young man’s own doing,” the old woman assured me, “brought on by the Emperor’s determination to humiliate Domande. She blames herself, out of mere foolishness.”
“I could have let him win.” My lady’s gaze did not shift. “For Nyal the stake was freedom. For me the prize was only his servitude, which he might have known I would refuse. We had often talked, in the training fields, of our far-off homes; I knew how he burned for his liberty.”
“You never in your life ‘let’ someone win,” the old woman said caustically.
“He should have won! He is stronger, with skills close enough to my own; there was a moment when he had me, and loosed his grip for fear, I think, of hurting me, and I took advantage of the lapse. It was ill-done.”
“It was ill-done to let the Emperor goad you into wrestling naked!”
Lady Domande shrugged dismissively. “If I claimed right to compete with men on equal terms I could not refuse the match. Such were known in ancient times. And I expected Nyal to win, to gain the freedom the Emperor dangled before him. I was prepared to be beaten—but when it came to the point I couldn’t just let it happen!”
“Oh, gods forbid!” The old woman’s voice was brittle with irony. “Girl! You, girl!”
I struggled to attend her, my mind still pulsing with images of those two magnificent bodies coupled in naked combat.
“Is it too much to hope that you might teach our lady something of a woman’s proper weapons? And what may be won with them?”
“One may always hope,” I answered meekly. Lady Domande swung around toward us.
“Shebbah will have little chance for such lessons. I leave before daybreak, and she stays to care for you, Hecanthe.”
“No, my Lady, she goes with you. Leave Rafen to care for me until my hip mends. Surely you would not part us after all these years!” Mockery lit her eyes as the old man limped in from the stable yard. “Your delicate flower will, I think, do well enough for you. Girl!” Her hand flashed upward with a glint of steel.
I caught the spinning dagger in the air. So long ago… But the reflexes were still there. My fingers’ dexterity and strength had only increased in six years of plucking harp strings and drawing melodies of sensuality from human flesh.
“What can you do with that toy, girl?”
“I can gut fish, fowl, or man; chop meat, bring down a hare, or carve secrets slowly out of an enemy.” I fell to my knees before my lady. “I can serve and protect to the last flicker of my life, if you will accept my loyalty. Please, Mistress, take me with you!”
“Well.” She was disconcerted at such a display of obeisance. “More to the point, perhaps, is whether you and I together can lift that stubborn lump of stone. I will not leave him here for the Emperor’s mages to probe, however much he may deserve it.”
She stood surveying the rigid figure. “I would not have kept him slave!” Her voice was low and rough with pain. “What did he think I would require, that being stone seemed less terrible?”
She put her hands on his broad shoulders and gestured with her head toward his loins. “You grasp him there below. A pretty little thing like you may lure him out of his sulking!” The joke was a bitter one.
As I touched the cool, hard curve of his buttocks I felt something more than stone. He was aware. Aware, at least, of my mistress; an unmistakable current flowed between them.
He was not truly as heavy as stone. We lifted him without much difficulty, though he was broader and slightly taller than she. I noted that before he had become stone one part of him had already hardened in the flesh, and most impressively.
Wrestling in the public glare of the arena with my gloriously naked mistress—could embarrassment transform a man into stone? I was tempted to try whether skillful stroking could turn that great stone cock back to flesh, but the undercurrents in my lady’s emotions deterred me.
I sighed. My dreams of a mistress demanding the pleasures I could give, her strong body pressing mine into breathless submission, needed some adjustment. Matters promised to be more complex than that.
We departed, as she had said, before dawn, Nyal wrapped and bundled onto the packhorse. We bound other gear around him to obscure his form, an unwieldy arrangement at best.
“If there is pursuit, you must leave him behind. Shebbah, I charge you to be sure of that.” Hecanthe transferred to me her scolding authority.
“If there is pursuit, it will be your fault for not persuading the Emperor’s minions that I keep to my rooms with a fever.”
“They will assume that your ‘fever’ is fueled by dalliance with your new little love slave,” Hecanthe said wickedly. “The tale of your purchase will both infuriate and inflame the Emperor. Was that what you had in mind?”
A flush rose from my lady’s smooth, strong throat to her face as she glanced not at me but at the laden packhorse. I sighed again.
“Go on now,” the old woman said. “I know why Shebbah caught your eye. She looks very like the portrait of your mother.”
“Yes…” My lady considered, as though she had not really seen me before. “You may be right. She is the beauty I should have been.”
I stifled a moan of anguish. My fantasies retreated further. Her mother! My horse pranced nervously and I concentrated on keeping my seat.
We traveled for more than a week at a pace painful after six years of soft living. Even my mistress showed strain, more from weariness of thought than of body. She was wary of pursuit, and, after we had left the well-traveled highways, not always sure of our route.
“Have you been to this place we seek, Mistress?” She had come to treat me more as companion than slave, but her deeper emotions remained as closed to me as though she too had been stone.
“I was conceived there, if that counts.” Her smile was wry. “Perhaps it does. I have a growing sense that this is the right valley at last, and the right river. Just around the bend where the forest comes close to the water we may find our refuge.”
And so we did, though “refuge” was too grand a word. Even so long ago as my lady’s conception this hunting lodge must have been a ruin.
The main hall had scarcely enough roof to shelter the horses. Only the kitchen offered any hope of habitability. I worked to clean and sweep and unpack our meager supplies while my mistress set off with bow and quiver.
There was, at least, a store of dry wood, and the chimney was not too plugged to draw. The place had once been well furnished; I scoured a huge kettle and a copper bathing tub and had water heating when my lady returned with a brace of hares.
The room had warmed by the time our meal was done, its unaccustomed comfort as mellowing as wine. “What do you think, Shebbah, should we unbind our companion?”
The question was rhetorical. She would not be distracted.
“Will we be here long, my Lady? You spoke of a messenger.”
“It could be forever. I sent to discover whether…whether my father the King,” she gave a grim half-smile, “would grant me asylum from the Emperor.”
“Nothing is sure, except that my father the General will try to persuade the King.” Her greenish eyes glinted with bitter humor. “Besides devotion to the kingdom, they share a weakness for delicate blonde women. Like you. Like my mother. If I had grown to look like her… But she died while I was a babe, and even in his grief the King could not be blind to how little I resembled him. He did not cast me out, merely turned his back.”
“And the General?”
“He took pity, when I grew tall and awkward, and trained me as he would a son. He is proud of me, I think, but he will be angered that I did not handle the Emperor more adroitly.”
She was drooping now with weariness and painful memories. I could not bear to see that proud head bowed in sorrow.
“Come, Mistress, I will unbind your stone gladiator, and then you must let me unbind you, and bathe you, and ease you.”
“You must be as tired as I, Shebbah.”
“Please, Mistress, your ease will be my ease.” This was truer than she knew. Longings suppressed by hard travel were rising in me now. If only she had inherited her sire’s weakness for small blonde women!
I sensed tremors of longing in her, too, as I unwound Nyal’s wrappings. The heat of her gaze brushed his cold form; I marveled that he did not melt under it.
She watched him broodingly while I filled the tub, sprinkled in some herbs from my precious silk-wrapped store, inhaled the sensuous musk, and felt that even stone might be stirred by such a mist.
“Come now, Lady, let me slip off your tunic.” She raised unresisting arms. “And unbind your breasts… Ah, Mistress, how can you be cruel to such beautiful flesh?” I stroked the creases under her arms, then, very lightly, the silky curves of breasts freed at last from confinement. Her nipples tautened. So did mine.
“Legend says that women warriors once severed them, the better to wield their weapons. At least I have stopped short of that.”
“I am very glad,” I murmured, drawing her toward the bath. I would make her very glad, as well.
She pulled off her hose before the fire. I ached to do it for her.
Her body, golden in the firelight, was so beautiful I could scarcely breathe. A pulsing emanated from the stone figure in the corner; he too was aware, and aroused. How long would he hold his rigid form, or was it even under his control?
“What herbs are these?” She bent over the tub, breathing in the vapors. The lines of smoothly muscled legs flared into taut, rounded buttocks, firm as any athlete’s but just full enough to be unmistakably a woman’s.
“A blend, my Lady, with special soothing powers.” I slipped out of my own clothes.
“Soothing?” She sounded doubtful, but stepped in, and sat with bent knees as I poured more water and watched it sheet over her strong shoulders and swirl around the curves of her lovely breasts. The herbs were, in fact, more stimulant than relaxant, and I too felt their effect, but it hardly needed that to make my own breasts swell and a sweet ache build in my loins.
I closed my eyes and struggled to focus on my art and my role. To give pleasure, to seek out my mistress’s longings and fulfill them, to show her unimagined joys; to be slave to her desires, even those she scarcely knew herself.
“Let me massage your neck, Mistress, and your back, to rub away the tension.” She leaned forward compliantly. Short bronze curls wrapped about my fingers as I kneaded the stress out of nape and scalp. My hands moved over shoulders and upper back, and as my fingers dug into the firm muscles there I could feel the heavy pull of her breasts against the skin.
“Does that ease you, Mistress?”
“Mmm.” But I knew already. At last she had opened to that sensual link that was my greatest skill, and I felt within her the stirrings of her pleasure.
I reached farther down, my breasts pressed against her wet flesh, and she arched under the pressure of my hands on her lower back. Then gently, slowly, I stroked around her sides to her belly and below until my fingers tangled gently in dark honey curls.
“Do you call this easing?” Her voice vibrated through her body into mine, but there was no anger in it.
“The wilder the journey, the greater the ease at the end,” I murmured. “If I may just show you the way, Mistress…”
She tensed, then grasped my arm and drew me around to face her. “Do you think me so untouched, Shebbah?”
I met her challenging gaze and said nothing. After a moment she looked away. “I was as curious as any other, but the ‘journey’ was always brief and disappointing. I found better use for my body in feats of arms.”
“Let me show you, Mistress, how much more it can be.”
She leaned back, and now her eyes were deep amber pools reflecting the fire. “Why not? Why should I not know what it is to be a woman?” She let one glance stray toward the stone figure. I could sense its mounting tension. Soon there would come a shattering, or eruption; but not, I hoped, too soon.
“Not just any woman.” I slipped into the water and knelt astride her thighs. “A transcendently beautiful woman, indescribably desirable. Yes, it is true,” as she started to shake her head, “and you must feel your own beauty to let your pleasure flow.”
It was all I could do to keep from rubbing my throbbing ache against her wet thighs; only my training kept my focus on her sensations, not my own. I longed to kiss her full lips, but her head was tilted back; I knew she was open not to intimacy but to pure erotic stimulation. Even so, the mind is the body’s most sensuous organ.
“Such beautiful breasts.” I cupped and gently pressed them and flicked my thumbs across the nipples. “So swollen with pleasure, aching for more, and more.”
She thrust against my hands, head still back, eyes closed, breath fast and uneven. I kept my touch light, tantalizing, making her reach for it.
“Watch, Mistress, see what your body does. See how full and round, how hard and pointed, how straining toward my touch. Feel the pull, feel what you need…” I licked with featherlight tongue one nipple and then the other, again and again, as her hands clenched on the copper rim and shuddering sighs tore from her throat. At last, when it could not be borne an instant longer, she grasped my head and forced my mouth hard onto her flesh. I sucked and bit at one nipple and then the other until her pleasure verged closely on pain.
I caught her hand and slid it down her belly and below, into the water, then gently pushed her fingers aside and stroked her myself, as lightly, or as firmly, as her mounting need demanded.
“And here, lower, deeper, so very deep, pulsing.” My finger slid between her nether lips and gently into her clinging heat. I thought of raising her hips out of the water so that my tongue could probe her sweetness, but she was arching and thrusting against my hand with such hunger that I dared not withdraw it.
My mind melded into the pleasure-core of hers, touching her in the very ways and places that most filled and drove her need. I felt a flood of power greater than desire, as the strong body that could break me without effort writhed in unspoken pleading for what I could give. I pressed my thumb against her nub and slipped in another finger, and another, moving them in the slippery depths.
“So beautiful a body,” I breathed against her mouth, leaning my breasts into hers. “Strong, and sweet, and surging with pleasure.” So tuned was I now to her sensations that I too rode the wave, gripping her wet thighs with mine as she arched her hips out of the bath in her driving need to be probed ever deeper and harder. If hands were not enough there were other means in my silk-wrapped roll of “tools,” but it seemed impossible to move away and reach for them.
Then her ragged moans resolved into a full-throated cry, and my own sobs of release began to rise, and the deeper roar that swept over us seemed only a part of the ecstatic whole—until our world crashed sideways, water swirled, metal clanged on wood, and we spilled out onto the floor.
Nyal loomed over us, all fury and solid flesh. Pain twisted his face even as lust engorged his loins.
“You!” he bellowed at Domande. “You…” Words were not enough to bear his rage. He dragged her upright. She was too dazed (I dared not hope too wise) to resist.
I was not so dazed as to forget my little dagger, but what surged between these two they must resolve alone. Even when he slammed her against the wall I made no move to stop him.
Nor did she. He bound her wrists above her head with her own belt, looping it tightly over an iron game hook so that her feet barely touched the floor. Still she hung unresisting. He shoved his body roughly against hers, and I began to throb anew at the thought of his hardness pressing into her belly, but she was silent and the only cry came from his own raw throat.
“You!” He gasped for words. “The ice princess, the unmoved, the untouchable. But not so untouchable after all!”
He wrenched away and turned his back to her. His gladiator’s body shone with sweat and the swollen head of his shaft gleamed even slicker than the rest.
“Nyal!” At last she found a voice. “Now you are free! I am defeated, I do not hold you, you may do as you will!”
He should have turned to let her see in his face that he would never be free of her. But instead he lurched toward me and twisted his hand in my hair and forced me to my knees.
“Ease me, girl,” he grated. He may have thought to punish me, but he had stabbed her deeper than he knew. I could not tell him what a fool he was; a slave’s training runs too deeply. And what pressed against my face was too full and throbbing to refuse.
I took him into my mouth and teased his slippery tip with my tongue as I reached to stroke between his thighs, using all my skills at the game of stimulation and prolongation. He struck my hand away. “Just ease me, slut, quickly!”
He had been hard, after all, one way or another, for more than a fortnight. I brought him swiftly over the edge. His spending burst hot and metallic into my mouth and all the way down my throat.
The silence following his final gasp might have been seconds, or minutes, or hours. He slumped against the wall, head down. When finally I looked to my mistress she seemed at first immobile; but her long, smooth muscles were tensed, and I saw that she tested the strength of the wall-hook holding her.
I ran with my knife to cut her down, but her blazing eyes held me off. “Get away! And you,” she spat at Nyal, “take your freedom while you may!” She began to arch her body in rhythmic convulsions. The wood around the hook started to splinter.
“Why so slow to run?” she taunted, panting from her exertion. “Hiding in stone again?” And indeed he seemed frozen, watching her strong, beautiful body strain at its bonds. “For her you are all eager flesh, but for me only stone! Such a Gorgon as I must be!”
“No!” He sounded strangled. “It is a curse in the blood! My grandsire had the skill to wield it as a defense, but I had not known it was in me until…”
“Until what?” she challenged. A final lurch brought the iron hook tearing from the wall, and Nyal ducked as it shot past just over his head. I darted forward to cut the belt still bound around my lady’s wrists, but neither of them paid me any heed.
A slow smile lit Nyal’s face. Only then, I think, did the last of the stone leave his system. “Until I was tormented past bearing by a rival and comrade who seemed untouched by the fire she lit in me.”
“Did you think me so untouched?” Rage abruptly gone, she let the whisper of a smile curve her lips. “Try me.”
Her wrestling stance would have horrified Hecanthe, who had wanted me to teach her “a woman’s proper weapons,” but the two gleaming bodies testing and striving against each other understood far better than I the erotic tension of strength on strength.
They began with classic wrestling moves, scarcely stirring for long moments as flesh strained against taut flesh. Nyal’s shoulders were broader, but Domande’s lithe dexterity countered his strength so that they were evenly matched.
He was instantly, magnificently aroused, despite his recent release. This might have given my lady the advantage, but her own tasting of her body’s hungers had served only to increase them. She put her mouth to sweaty muscles straining to break her hold, brushed hard-swollen nipples against his heaving chest, then swiveled to clasp his probing shaft between tensed buttocks before a thrust of her hip sent him to his knees.
Any resemblance to formal wrestling crumbled. He grasped her hips and pressed his mouth into her belly, and she pushed his head downward toward the dark-honey curls between her thighs, and though my link to her was fading I knew by her gasps just where his tongue and hands caressed her.
When he pulled her off balance and pinned her shoulders to the floor she resisted only enough to savor the friction. His hardness stroked and probed her until she raised her hips for him to plunge in all the deeper, and gripped his thrusting buttocks with her long, strong legs.
Her moans grew rougher, more demanding. Suddenly, with a great heave, she flipped him to his back, covered his mouth with her own, then raised upright until she was riding him hard astride. His groans came between clenched teeth as he fought to hold on until at last her head went back and a cry of triumph tore from her throat.
My link was broken. The sight and sound of them made me wild with longing. I could not have told which of them I would rather hold, which I would rather be, but there was no one to ease me now. I did not know how to bear it. Slavery had never been such agony.
I retrieved my cloak and slipped out past the horses and into the night. With no clear goal I made my way along the overgrown road as quickly as moonlight would allow, mind and body in such turmoil that I nearly stumbled into a horse and rider coming toward me.
“Riette!” Eyes wide with shock stared down at me from a bearded face. I turned and ran. The deep voice rumbled again, cracking in pain, “Riette, come back!”
I burst into the lodge just ahead of him. “Mistress! Someone comes!”
Nyal leapt to his feet and grabbed my lady’s sword, but she stayed him with a gesture. The giant figure looming in the doorway fixed his eyes on me as though I were a ghost, until the firelight revealed that mine was not quite the face in his dreams. His great head bowed for a moment; then he shook off past sorrow and turned to my mistress.
“You are looking very fit, Domande.” His tone was dry as he glanced from her naked flesh to Nyal’s.
“Never better, Father.” She grinned like an urchin, and his answering smile was a mirror of hers. His hair was a darker, grizzled version of her bronze curls, and his eyes beneath heavy brows glinted with the same green-amber flame.
He moved as though to embrace her but drew back and lowered himself to his knees. “Lady Domande.” His tone was now measured and formal. “Your father the King is dead. The Council entreats you to return to lead your people.”
Her face turned pale and set. “Do you think I would renounce my father the General?”
He rose wearily to his feet, leather armor creaking over massive shoulders. “No need of that. The people are not deceived, but they judge that your blood-claim through Queen Riette is sufficient. Your strength is needed to resist the encroachment of the Empire; backed, of course, by my strength and the loyalty of my troops.”
“And mine.” Nyal laid his arm across her shoulders; when she did not shake him off it tightened into an embrace. The General cocked an inquiring brow.
“Then so it shall be.” Domande’s face was serene with assurance and fulfillment. “Shebbah.” She turned to me. I felt the General’s weary eyes on me as well. “There are no slaves in my country, and there are none here. But it would be good of you to help the General to remove his armor and bathe away the dust of travel. Will you give him ease while Nyal and I go to view the river by moonlight?”
“I will, Lady.” It was hard not to call her mistress.
As I took the older man’s calloused hand it jerked, then tightened on mine, and the link took hold. I knew, now, who would give me ease, whose great strong body would press mine into submission, who would demand all I could give and fill me with all I desired.
Or almost all. I let one lingering glance caress Domande’s smoothly muscled form as she went through the door, then turned my full heart and mind toward the master whose need was greatest.