Authors: Caitlin Ricci
Tags: #F/F romance, fantasy
On a trip to visit an acquaintance, Mariah discovers he is keeping a Strytas in chains. Innocent, beautiful, and said to bring good luck and fortune to those capable of holding them, she never thought to encounter one being subjected to such cruelty.
Determined to free the enslaved woman, Mariah persuades her acquaintance to sell her. But once free, the Strytas reveals that she has no home, no family, nowhere at all to go. The more time passes, the more reluctant Mariah is to ever see her go...
Falling for Forever
By Caitlin Ricci
Published by Less Than Three Press LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher, except for the purpose of reviews.
Edited by Keith Kaczmarek
Cover designed by Aisha Akeju
This book is a work of fiction and all names, characters, places, and incidents are fictional or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.
First Edition May 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Caitlin Ricci
Printed in the United States of America
Magic still exists in the world, if you look hard enough for it. May you find it in the least expected places and treasure it always.
Of all the places in the world, Mariah disliked her destination most of all. The long green grass brushed against her boots as she walked through the fields of Berkenshire. After hours of walking, she was finally standing atop a small bluff overlooking the manor. The stone walls were crumbling, and the weeds had long since overgrown the once beautiful gardens. Everything about the dwelling seemed crude and obscene. She walked down the hill and passed the first set of guards. They barely looked at her. She was obviously a noblewoman, so there was no need to. The second set that stood against the large oak doors were a bit more difficult.
"Yes?" the larger one grunted. His breath was a putrid mix of rotting meat and cheap wine.
Mariah resisted the urge to vomit.
"Mariah Sawyer to see Franklin Ilvan," she informed the man. He nodded and opened the door for Mariah. She stepped inside and squinted as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. A small girl of barely thirteen in a tattered brown dress was at her side in an instant. Her dark hair was tied back into a messy braid that hung far down her back.
"May I take your cape, ma'am?" she asked with filthy, outstretched hands while keeping her eyes averted. She shook her head, and she disappeared into another room. Heavy footsteps resounded through the halls as Franklin entered the room. The years had not been kind to him. Mariah remembered a young zealous nobleman with wealth and women to spare. Now he was a grizzled, overweight man in torn clothing with a slight limp in his left leg.
"Mariah, how very nice of you to pay me a visit." It was obvious to anyone with even half a brain that the smile had been forced, and the words were empty.
"It is good to see you again, Franklin. It has been too long." Mariah's own voice felt cheap and imitated. They had not parted well, but there was business to discuss, so Mariah forced herself to be far more polite than normal circumstances would have elicited. Franklin led the way into a small library, if it could even be called that. What books there were lay covered in a thick film of dirt and dust. The smell of mold and cigar smoke threatened to overcome Mariah. The sparse furniture was worn and most was either broken or hardly usable. A small fireplace smoldered as they sat across from each other in outdated chairs. Although the chairs were uncomfortable, Mariah did not fidget.
Franklin smiled, a horrid vision of rotting teeth and dead gums. "Wine?"
Before Mariah could protest, Franklin snapped his fingers and a young girl entered the room with a bottle of wine and two empty crystal glasses on a silver tray. Mariah's heart broke as she realized what the girl really was. Her feathers had been cut to short, brittle stumps to keep her from flying, but she was unmistakably a Strytas. Mariah had long since known about the winged people thought to be made of innocence and beauty beyond anything in the mortal realm. She'd heard the stories as well, of how they brought good luck and even better fortune to any that would be able to contain them. Mariah had just never thought to see one here in this hideous place of filth and decay.
Her blonde hair lay in a tangled mess about her shoulders. The piece of dingy material that served as a dress barely touched her thighs. What tormented her inside, what would continue to torment her, were the chains that bound her ankles, wrists and neck.
She placed the tray down on the table between them and poured Franklin's glass first. Her hand was perfectly still, and she poured the red liquid slowly so as not to slosh it. She held the mouth of the bottle over Mariah's glass. "No thank you," she said politely.
She met Mariah's eyes for only an instant and nodded. She replaced the cork in the bottle and walked toward the closest wall as fast as the chains would let her. She leaned against the wall and stared down at her dirty feet. Mariah watched her sadly, and then turned her attention back to Franklin. "Is she your servant?" Mariah asked, trying desperately to mask her anger.
Franklin laughed and shook his head. "She is my slave and whore. I have no servants." He smiled cruelly at the girl and she looked away. She shifted her weight, appearing nervous under his gaze.
Even though it was against all the rules, Bryn found herself looking at Mariah with a childlike fascination. Compared to Franklin, she was almost a god in her eyes. She started with her white leather boots, but as she became bolder, her eyes traveled over Mariah golden ankle bracers and up her well-muscled thighs. Her pants were white, as was her tunic. An impressive long sword hung at her side, held in place by a golden belt. She shivered at the thought of what a weapon like that was capable of. Over her hands and arms lay white leather gauntlets covered by golden bracers. Mariah cape, one as black as night, seemed out of place to Bryn amidst all the white and gold. Her broad shoulders lay in sharp contrast to Franklin's own flab. Around Mariah's neck hung a silver chain. Bryn found herself looking higher over her pale skin and blonde hair to Mariah's eyes. They were the color of the sky on the clearest summer day.
"Avert your gaze, girl! You have forgotten your place!" Franklin screamed at her. She quickly looked away from Mariah's face, but the damage had already been done. "Come here," he commanded sternly. She obeyed and stood at his shoulder. "You are never, and I repeat never, to look into the eyes of a nobleman or woman. Do I make myself clear?" He grabbed her chin roughly, and she trembled in his grasp. She nodded, but as she did, her eyes met his accidentally. He released her chin and raised his hand to strike her.
"You will not do that," Mariah said, seemingly out of both annoyance and disgust.
Franklin nodded and forced the young Strytas to her knees with a strong hand on her shoulder. She resisted the urge to cry out despite the pressure. As her knees hit the wooden floor, Franklin released his grasp and brought his hand to her hair. She trembled as his callused fingers traveled over her cheek and neck.
"A creature that beautiful should not be kept in chains. I would like to buy her," Mariah said as she watched Bryn with what appeared to be a mix of pity and grief.
Franklin looked up at the peeling ceiling and traced the lines of her shoulder blades. "She is very rare and an exquisite representation of her species. And she is the only one in captivity. I doubt even you could afford her price."
Mariah looked at the older man and produced a small leather pouch. She untied it and poured the contents onto the table loudly. "This should be enough. Now release her," she said as the pile of gold coins reflected brilliantly off the dim light in the room. Franklin nodded and his mouth twisted into a hideous grin as he fingered one of the many coins. "She is easier to control if you keep her chained," Franklin said without taking his eyes off the gold.
"I have no intention of controlling her," Mariah replied. "Now release her." Her hand went to the hilt of her sword in warning.
Franklin nodded and clutched the iron ring that hung tightly around Bryn's neck. She shuddered as his fingers grazed her skin. "You are so beautiful," he softly said to her.
"Now, Franklin," Mariah commanded darkly.
Franklin rolled his eyes and quickly unlocked her chains. She rubbed her raw wrists and moved her neck from side to side for the first time in months. Mariah stood and moved to her shoulder. "Follow me, please," she said. Bryn nodded and swiftly moved to her feet.
Mariah looked over her wrists and started walking to the door. Franklin's hand rested on the arm of the chair next to Bryn's thigh, and he reached out to touch her soft skin one last time. She shut her eyes tightly and shook her head. He sneered at her and moved his hand under her skirt to her inner thigh. She whimpered and continued to shake her head, but he ignored her futile protests.
Mariah turned to face Bryn. Her eyes widened at the scene before her, and she roughly yanked Franklin's hand away from her body. She moved between Bryn and Franklin and led her out of the room with one last cold glare at the man that had held her captive. Mariah's hand rested firmly on Bryn's back as he led her past Franklin's other slaves. They waved to her, but she barely acknowledged them. The guards snickered as she passed them, and she increased her step. She pulled her ill-plumaged wings around her body as the bitter cold wind swept against her. She stole glances at Mariah as often as possible. She was human, and as a human Bryn should have feared her. But Mariah didn't treat her like the others had, and she had actually stopped Franklin from touching her.
They walked through fields of yellow flowers and between hills of green. The wind became a steady battering as the black storm clouds invaded the afternoon sky. Bryn's bare feet began to burn from the blisters that had been forming. Finally, Mariah paused at the crest of a hill. A large forest lay ahead of them. As Mariah turned, Bryn watched the trees intently, not wishing to meet Mariah's gaze. "You are free now. Go back to your family."
Bryn continued to avoid her gaze. "But ma'am, I have none," she softly said.
She shook her head and Mariah paused, probably thinking of what to do with her. "I have a small cabin in the middle of the forest ahead of us. You are welcome to stay there with me for as long as you wish. Would you like that?" Bryn nodded. "All right. Come on," Mariah said as she started walking again.
Bryn followed closely behind her. At the crest of a large hill overlooking the forest, her breath caught in her throat.
An immense archway of white marble stood before them. It was delicately carved with twisting ivy. On either side of the archway, fierce lions stood guarding the entrance. The gate was far larger than she had thought possible. Each leaf of the intricately carved ivy was as big as her palm, and it looked like it had taken master carvers years to complete.
Bryn walked to one of the lions and rested her hand on its finely carved stone shoulder. She barely came up to his chin as she stood on her toes to trace the fine lines of his mouth and massive mane with her fingertips. Upon the carefully polished gate was a legendary phoenix bearing forth its great wings of golden flames.
Mariah stepped up to the phoenix and placed a gentle hand on its chest. It glowed brightly under her palm, and the ruby eyes suddenly lit up like fire. Bryn was mesmerized and stared up at the bird.
The stone lions suddenly morphed into flesh, and she yelped and hid behind Mariah as they watched her. The lions spoke in unison. "Welcome home, Mistress Mariah. We have guarded it well for you."
The massive gate swung open, and Bryn followed Mariah into the garden. The gate closed and the lions returned to stone behind them.
As they entered the forest, Bryn hung close to her side. Strange creatures were all around them, and she felt someone watching her. She searched the trees and shadows like a hunted animal but could not find the source of her panic. Every hair on her body stood on end, and her pulse quickened. The forest gave way to an emerald green field. Her racing heart slowed and she allowed herself to relax as a cabin came into view. Though it was smaller than the manor, it felt more like a home than anything she had ever seen before. It still reminded her of a cage, but not quite as much, if any of that made sense. Mariah opened the door and led the way into the living room. Bryn smiled softly at the flickering torches that hung around the room.