There were no plush furnishings in Maljandra’s apartment. Flora was left unguarded and unchained and she wondered why they hadn’t made her more secure. The moment they left, she walked cautiously to the terrace. As she drew close, her vision faded. She shook her head and stepped back. The moment she retreated, her vision returned. How strange, she thought. She turned and made a dash for the door. She put her hand on it and her sight left her completely. She turned too quickly, and lost her balance. Fear engulfed her and her heart pounded in her ears. She spread her hands out blindly and sought a solid surface to latch onto. A gasp escaped her when she brushed against the silken tunic of a man.
“There’s no use to trying to escape,” said a cold, clear voice. “My apartments are enchanted.”
“I cannot see,” Flora cried. “Give me back my eyes or I shall go mad.”
“The enchantment will lift when I tell it to and not a moment before. Clearly you tried to do something you should not.”
She flinched as Maljandra’s hand touched her shoulder. The wizard let it linger there, and then turned her body toward him. She recoiled at his touch but he only sighed pleasantly. With one quick maneuver he pushed the tattered silk garment off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. “Such a pity,” he said. “You’re quite a beauty. Still, you’re to be marked for Hades, so I cannot touch you now.”
“I heard you were a great wizard, prove your goodness and set me free.”
Maljandra laughed a low, hollow laugh. “If you’ve heard anything at all, I’ll wager you’ve heard of my indifference to the pleas of desperate women.”
He took her hand and jerked her arm. “Follow me.” She stumbled, but quickly got her feet under her for fear he would drag her across the floor. She reached out to keep herself from running into anything and her hand connected with a doorway as they passed through into another chamber. The sound of trickling water reached her ears. “You must be prepared for the ritual. Wait here.”
Perhaps he left for only a few seconds, but to Flora, blind and naked in a strange place, it felt like an eternity. She stood vulnerable and trembling, and felt more fear than she’d ever known before. Her empty stomach roared for attention, and if she did not eat soon, she would faint. She had need of Dero’s courage, and she turned the ring still on her finger. A warm sensation crept through her tired limbs and her hunger faded at once, but not even Dero’s magic was enough to erase her fear of pain. What will he do to me? What form will the sacrifice take? How much will I suffer?
She did not have to wonder long for the mage soon returned.
“Come,” Maljandra said. He took her hand and led her forward. Slowly, they walked down a couple of steps and then water rose over her foot. As they descended the steps, the water rose up her legs and she realized they were in a pool.This must be his bathing chamber. The water was warm and soothed her blood-stained skin. Nevertheless she advanced cautiously, and her legs locked, afraid she might slip and fall. As he brushed by her, Flora felt the wizard’s bare skin and knew he’d undressed to bathe her.
The slightly rough surface of a sponge rubbed across her body as the mage wiped away the stench of stale blood and the dungeon. He washed her slowly and carefully, and left no part of her body untouched. She trembled with every stroke, and she sensed her fear pleased him. As his hands washed her hair, he was close up against her, and Flora felt both his desire and frustration.
“Do you always do as you’re told?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Ragnold is your master, is he not? You are in his service and do his dirty work.” She put her hand on his bare chest. “Set me free and I could reward you. Return my sight to me and help me escape.”
Maljandra’s hand cupped her right breast and he caressed it gently. “You want me to set you free?” he whispered in her ear.
“Yes, I beg you, let me go.”
He squeezed, but the pain she felt in her breast was nothing to the pain she felt throughout her body. It twisted within her, eating into every part of her, leaving nothing unscathed by its sharp teeth. A scream tore from her, leaving her throat raw, followed by another. She screamed more than she’d ever done before.
“And who would free me from the wrath of Hades?” he asked. His breath was hot against her ear. “You think me as weak as any mortal man? Do you think the temptation of a little dryad would easily turn me? Know this, foolish woman. You’ll remain blind till I take you to the temple. I’ll restore your sight long enough for you to see Ragnold’s gauntlet rip out your heart.”
In spite of the pain wrenching through her, Flora spat, praying she spat in the mage’s face, but he didn’t strike or hurt her again. The pain stopped as instantaneously as it began and Maljandra put his hand on Melinoe’s necklace. His hand hesitated against the dark circle, as if he sensed some power within it. A low growl emanated from him and she winced as he wrenched it from her neck.
Once her body was prepared, he led her from the pool and left her alone. From the other chamber the sound of fabric on skin reached her and she guessed he was drying his body and dressing. He soon returned.
“Kneel,” Maljandra commanded. The urge to run gripped her, but some invisible force pushed her to her knees. She couldn’t sense where in the room they were, but she smelled smoke and heard the crackling of a fire. “You were supposed to be branded this morning as a concubine, but now the brand will be the mark of Hades.”
Again, the urge to run overwhelmed her, but Maljandra’s magic was tighter than any bond. A hiss filled the room, followed by the roar of flames. Flora recognized the sound from the slave market in Bartom. It was the sound of a branding iron being turned in the fire. She closed her eyes tightly and her throat clicked when she tried to swallow.Gods, my throat is so dry!
“They say to be branded is one of the most intense pains known to man.”
Flora began to shake violently. She wanted to turn Dero’s ring again but she couldn’t move her arms. The heat of the iron warmed her skin as it passed by her face. Maljandra was teasing her, letting her feel its heat before the dreadful moment.
Her heart seemed frozen in her chest and tears of anguish fell down her face.
“Very good,” said Maljandra. “You are tamed at last. But that will not save you now.”
When the branding iron was pressed into her skin, a searing pain such as she’d never known before washed over her. The smell of scorched flesh filled the air and her scream echoed off the walls. Her anguish died in her throat, as she fell, mercifully, unconscious to the floor.
Iris Woodbury is an English author born in London, England who was later thrust into the bosom of the United States. She lives very happily in the beautiful state of Maryland where she hopes to stay forever. Follow her on FB at https://www.facebook.com/iris.woodbury or tweet away to your heart’s content to @IrisWoodbury. Feed her chocolate. She likes that.