Gift of the Goddess
The Law of the love goddess Lufra states that no man may take his pleasure inside any part of a woman's body, unless she has climaxed first. Each time, every time.
Book 1 in the Phoenix Rising series
Ellora's Cave, 2006
ISBN: 1419906291 and 9781419906299
Hssrda (sing. Hssrdan):
Hybrid race, saurian-human. Most authorities believe the Hssrda were created as slave-soldiers by the Firsters, using the magical craft referred to in the ancient texts as "gene-splicing". (See Firsters - Magic) However, popular legend recalls a single individual, the so-called "Mad Mage". (See Ballads, Traditional).
Excerpt from the Great Encyclopedia, compiled by Miriliel the Burnished.
There was a beautiful man below, bathing in the pool. Anje settled herself against the warm rock at her back and stared down into the sheltered valley. Mother be praised, there was nothing wrong with her eyes!
He'd sauntered out of a fancy tent, naked as the day he was born, and paused on a sun-baked rock for a luxurious, rib-twisting stretch. The action lifted his ribcage in an elegant sculpture that flowed from chest to flat belly to slim, strong thigh. With his fists held high over his head, she could even make out the soft patches of auburn hair tufting his armpits.
Then he'd plunged into the tawny mirror of the pool, creating ripples that lapped gently against the shallow banks.
When his head finally broke the water, his red-gold hair was wet copper, plastered to the strong shape of his skull. He huffed out a laugh, sporting like an acrobatic fish, and Anje's lips curved with pleasure. Just a little longer, a very private indulgence. Then she'd do her duty and warn the idiot he was Hssrda-bait.
She studied the tethered vranee cropping contentedly at the underbrush, their feathered necks gleaming in the afternoon sun. Two sturdy pack beasts and two stallions, one black, the other that turquoise under smoke color so prized throughout the Ten Nations. Either animal was worth more gold marks than she'd see in her lifetime.
The man stroking across the pool was a fool. She'd crossed the spoor of a Hssrda hunting party three days ago. Give the cold-blooded monsters one glimpse of such careless wealth and beauty and he'd be on an auction block before he could blink - shaved, bound and helpless.
Despite herself, she shivered. Hssrda.
Millennia ago, a dark mage had desired a race of slave-soldiers, so he'd tampered with the very stuff of life, twisting and forcing it to his own fell purpose. The mage was successful beyond his wildest dreams-or nightmares. As they climbed from the vat, his reptilian creations devoured him with relish, piece by screaming piece.
And now, thousands of years later, the Hssrda still feasted on human flesh and misery, so alien, so other, as to be beyond understanding.
Anje scanned a full circle, seeking with her scout's senses. It was still, save for the jingle of harness and an occasional splash.
Such sheer exuberance was engaging. It had been a long time since she'd seen joy unabashed.
Three years to be precise.
Deklan used to laugh like that when she rode him hard, raking his skin with her nails, loving him, loving the brutal climaxes she wrung from him. She'd not met another man who pleased her so.
But Deklan was long gone, his throat a fountain of blood in the clawed fist of a Hssrdan. Swallowing hard, she put the hideous memory aside, replacing it with the delicious sight of taut, muscled buttocks, gleaming like ivory as the swimmer turned and dived. He emerged shaking the drops from his hair in a great plume of spray.
Anje leaned forward, her mouth watering, and the hard twist of old grief receded, like a scar settling soft and deep in her flesh. The breath drummed in her chest, ruching her nipples to needy points.
On the order of the Matriarchs, she'd been scouting three long months in the Empty Lands. Mother, how she longed for home! Her lips twisted. Not long now. She'd reached the final leg of her circuit, having learned more about the Hssrda than she'd ever wanted to know.
She had no time for dalliance, no matter how enticing the object.
But for now. Sweet Mother, just a glimpse, a taste of real man, of warm, hard c*ck to take with her to her solitary bedroll beside the campfire.
When he paused, treading water, and glanced back over his shoulder, her gaze followed his. A second man emerged from the tent. The breath left her in a gusty rush.
Mother have mercy!
Where the first man was lithe and compact, this one was a giant, as dark as his companion was fair, with black hair that fell to his shoulders, soft and straight as rain. He wore black leather trousers that clung to his body like a second skin. Even at this distance, Anje could see the snug way they molded his powerful thighs and the bulge of his groin.
His chest was massive, furred with dark curls, his shoulders the width of a temple door. As he strode to the water's edge, Anje glued her eyes to the high, firm shape of his ass, the muscles shifting fluidly as he walked.
He stood on the projecting rock and reached down a hand as Red stroked to the edge to meet him. With no discernable effort, he grasped the other man's forearm, hauling him out of the water and hard into his arms, the fair skin a piquant contrast to his bronzed chest.
Anje stifled a whimper.
But the dark warrior merely steadied Red and said something she was too far away to hear. He swatted him on the rump and strolled back to the tent.
Red stood on his rock, a grin splitting his face. Still enjoying his private joke, he stretched out on his back and closed his eyes, turning his face up to the Sun and its Shadow. The light glinted gold on the fine hair on his chest. His c*ck lay quiescent, curving sweetly, nestled in coppery-brown curls.
Anje smoothed a hand over her aching breasts and pressed her thighs together. Goddess, he was as lovely as a pleasure slave! Now if he'd only lie still long enough for her to fix his image in her mind. What a wonderful plaything this memory would be until she returned to Mother's Hearth!
Then, oh then.
One hand snaked beneath her loose, mud-stained trousers. She'd hire the prettiest male in the Pleasure Quarter and demand he dye his hair red-gold.
All of it.
Red's fingers strayed across his chest, over the ridged muscles of his stomach and down to his groin. Idly, he took hold of his c*ck in one hand and caressed it. Anje couldn't drag her eyes away. Almost as though he felt the weight of her gaze, he rolled his hip toward her so her view was unobstructed. His fingers smoothed up and down and his c*ck stirred, swelling slowly, beautifully.
Red circled his palm over the broad head and it jerked against his belly. He pressed two fingers under the glans and worked the foreskin up and over. His eyes fluttered open and Anje thought his chest rose and fell in a sigh. The muscles in his throat corded. Languidly, he ran his palm down the full length and back up again.
She could see a shiver run over his skin. The sculpted muscles of his chest expanded as he dragged in a breath. Panting, she leaned forward.
Red grasped his c*ck firmly in one fist and began to pump in earnest. Goddess, she wouldn't be so rough with such a pretty toy. His head fell back and his eyes slid shut. A flush climbed from the level of his nipples up to his throat and cheeks. His brows drew together in concentration and his free hand clenched and opened, clenched and opened.
Beneath her grubby clothing, Anje smoothed trembling fingers over her belly and furrowed through her pubic hair till she found slick, hot flesh. She was so wet her thighs were smeared with her own juices. Swallowing a moan, she circled her fingertips over the swollen bead of her clit, pressing hard. Red was gasping now, his hips arching, buttocks hollowed with tension. His hand was a moving blur.
Anje bit her lip, concentrating. Almost, almost. Together. Beads of sweat sprang up on her forehead, she didn't need to look down to know her breasts would be flushed, the nipples stiff and distended.
What was that?
Something had moved on the periphery of her concentration. She froze, listening, extending all her senses. Yes, there.
Anje drifted back into the brush, abandoning her pleasure with no little regret. It was a sad truth that careless scouts led short lives of great excitement.
When the attack came, it was from behind. She barely saw him coming, he moved so fast. She spun 'round, but before she could take another step, the bruising impact of a big body jolted the breath out of her.
A steel band circled her ribs, clamping her arm to her stomach and a hard hand clapped over her mouth. She was lifted clean her off her feet. The man grunted with satisfaction, his breath warm against her ear, and strode off down the slope as if she weighed less than nothing.
The shock of it held her immobile for an instant.
Mother strike her for her stupid lust!
More furious with herself than with her captor, she twisted her long, lithe body with the agility of a trained warrior, reaching for the knife strapped to her forearm. But the man merely grunted and jammed a brawny arm across her throat. Cursing, she dug her elbow into his midriff, but she might as well have assaulted a wall.
By the time they reached the clearing around the pool, Anje realized how truly stupid she'd been. Red came out of the tent, wearing trews and lacing his shirt, still grinning his damn head off. She growled, deep in her throat, almost beside herself with rage and self-disgust. Oh, but they'd fooled her finely! Fear ran chilly fingers down her spine, but she set her jaw and ignored it. Panic would profit her nothing.
"What did you catch?" Red stepped forward. Amusement shone clear in his face and it seemed to her it was an expression he wore often. His features were made for laughter, from the absurd splash of freckles across his nose and cheekbones, to the quirky tilt of his red-gold brows.
Only a knotted scar on the side of his jaw and a seriously carnal lower lip belied the first impression. That, and the hard perfection of the warrior's body she'd studied in all its masculine glory.
The dark one dropped her in the dust at his companion's feet. She still hadn't got a clear look at his face. "See for yourself," he grunted.
"A boy?" Red's brow creased as he stared at her. "But what would a boy be doing alone in the Empty Lands?"
"Nothing." The giant wrapped a big hand round her upper arm and hoisted her to her feet. "Because this is not a boy."
He grabbed one end of the rag she'd wound round her head and pulled. The rough coil of her hair sagged and came slowly free, unraveling till it fell almost to her waist.
Anje was too preoccupied to register Red's expression. She palmed her knife and slashed at the hand on her arm, but the dark warrior shifted his grip to her wrist and the blade clattered to the ground. Before she could set herself again, he'd pinioned her arms, pulling her back against his chest. She was accounted tall among her peers, but the top of her head reached only to the middle of his massive chest. Mother, he was huge!
She caught a whiff of man-sweat. For one who had won the palm two years running at the Games of the Mother, such a casual display of strength was galling to her pride. She bit her lip. A warrior she was, as well as a scout, but it wasn't physically possible for her to fight like a man.
Let alone think like one, Mother be praised!
Her center of gravity was different, her strengths and skills all her own. She knew how to wait. It was a question of having the nerve to bide her time and then... She smothered the snarl in her throat.
"And you say the gods ignore your prayers." The giant's deep voice purred from behind her. She couldn't place the accent, a soft burr. There was a laugh in it, though he did sound a trifle short of breath.
"Ay," breathed Red, his eyes shining. He wasn't much taller than she was. "Hold her steady, Brin." He picked up the knife.
Anje writhed, her guts heaving, and the big man's grip tightened. "Don't panic, lass. We won't hurt you. Gods, what a stink! Do it, Trey."
Red gripped her shirt at the neck and in one motion, sliced it straight down the middle. Then he cut the drawstring holding up her baggy pants. She wore nothing beneath but a breastband, loincloth and soft boots.
A cold wave of terror followed the point of the knife, something so primitive and quintessentially female, she wasn't able to will it away. A moan spilled out of her. "No...don't."
Brin growled. "And the rest." Anje felt the reverberations where her shoulder blades were pressed to the hard, furred wall of his chest. His flesh was furnace hot against hers.
Trey took her breastband between forefinger and thumb and slit the lacings, careful not to touch her skin. For a hideous moment, spots danced before her eyes. When she fought the fear, clenching her fists, her fingers were icy cold against her own palms.
Her breasts bobbed free, nipples crimping in the open air. The body at her back went completely still. Before her, Trey was as rigid as a temple carving.
Brin imprisoned both her wrists behind her in one big hand and she cursed, flinging her head back, trying to bite him. He simply swayed out of her reach and tugged at the knot of her loincloth with his free hand. It slithered down to pool with the pants at her feet.
Trey stepped back. "Sweet Lufra!" The freckles stood out clearly against the fair skin of his cheek.
A warrior of the Mother could not be cowed. Anje gripped her fear by the throat, though the effort had her panting like a runner. With sheer force of will, she straightened her spine and glared. "What's the matter, sonny? Not seen a real woman before?"
Brin was so tall that his grip had her on tiptoe. The posture made her breasts jut out hard.
"Oh yes." Trey ran a hand over his damp hair. Beginning to dry, the rebellious locks coiled playfully at his temples. His gaze traveled up the length of her legs and locked on the dark curls between her thighs. "But not one that's the image of Lufra." His voice was a near whisper.
"Who the hell's Lufra?"
Brin rumbled, "Wait." She heard the rasp of his belt as he drew it through the loops of his trews and felt the leather tighten around her wrists. When he moved away from her, she staggered without the support of his body. "Let me see."
"I am not some animal at market!" Anger gave her strength. Her voice hardly shook. "Will you check my teeth?"
Anje glared as Brin moved fully into her line of sight for the first time. She had to tilt her head back to do it and that should have pissed her off - except she couldn't think.
Her brain gibbered.
She'd thought Trey eclipsed most first grade pleasure slaves, but Brin stopped the very breath in her lungs.
He wasn't pretty, not even close. Nor handsome.
He was pure power, primal domination. The sheer size of him was impressive enough, the strong column of his throat, the muscled slabs of his pectorals, the long, brawny thighs. His physical presence alone was intimidating, but his eyes--!
They were long-lidded, fathomless. Midnight eyes, framed by inky lashes. The tiny part of her mind still functioning noted slashing cheekbones, a high-bridged nose and a firm, beautiful mouth. But she couldn't drag her stare away from his, from the cool intelligence shining there, the adamantine will.
If Trey was warm, sweet fire, this man was night. Deepest, darkest, midnight and velvet. Beautiful.
And infinitely dangerous.
Her soul stirred, recognizing his strength. Even Deklan would have accorded him wary respect. Something feral within her reared up and growled a challenge.
A dark brow winged up in response. "No," said Brin softly. "We wouldn't sell you."
He stepped forward and put a gentle hand on her hip, pushing her around. She felt his warm breath on the nape of her neck. "But there are others who would do that and worse. A woman wandering alone in the Empty Lands becomes the spoils of war."
"That makes you a saint, does it?" A hand caressed the curve of her buttock, fleetingly. She thought it trembled. "Who's Lufra?"
Brin murmured, "Turn around."
Slowly, Anje shuffled back to face him. His onyx eyes were fixed on hers, hard and incalculable. "Lufra is the goddess of the Feolin people. You haven't heard of Her?"
Feolin. She knew little of them, though they were counted among the Ten Nations. She shook her head. "The world is full of minor deities."
"True." Brin inclined his head, not at all disturbed. "But Lufra is known through all the lands of men. She is the Lust Dragon, the desire at the core of flame. There's not a man alive who doesn't dream of Her, long to worship between Her thighs. For we of the Feolin, she is mother, lover and protector among the pantheon of gods. Our patron."
Anje shrugged, using the movement to test her bonds. Damn him, he knew what he was about. "So?"
Graceful as a dancer, Trey moved forward. He cocked his head to one side, his attention focused on her left breast. Infinitely slowly, he raised one finger and stroked the pad across her nipple, feather-light. Anje gasped and her nipple budded.
Had he come, out there on the rock?
Oh, this was insane!
She took a step back, but Trey followed. He glanced at his impassive companion. "What do you think, Brin?"
"I think we've found her." The dark warrior grasped her chin in hard fingers and lifted it. He stared into her face, his gaze traveling from her eyes to her mouth. There was a flush on his high cheekbones, a curve of satisfaction to his lips. "Now I can sleep in peace."
"I've dreamed of you, your face, your body." He touched her lower lip with his broad thumb, very gently, and she shivered. "Every night for a month. The Goddess has led us to you. You're Lufra's Gift, the salvation of our people."
A cold, gray void blossomed beneath her breastbone. She could barely breathe. "You've lost your mind! I'm no one's gift!"
Without releasing her from his stare, he growled, "You're the poet, Trey. Tell her about the goddess." His eyes were enigmatic, compelling, sucking at her soul, her self-possession. Despising herself, she squared her shoulders and fought to keep her nerve.
"Silver flames burn white-hot in Lufra's violet eyes," said Trey. The way he spoke weighted the words with the cadence of poetry. Or a hymn. "The man who feels Her perfect mouth on his c*ck may die, but he gives up his soul with joy. There have been poems written solely for the clouds of Her hair, spun of the night."
Brin sifted long fingers through the dusty tangle of Anje's braids. When she jerked her head aside, his lips twitched.
Trey pressed his warmth against her side. He smelled clean and masculine. "Her neck is like the stem of a flower and Her breasts..." His knuckles glided over Anje's collarbones and for a moment, words seemed to desert him.
She clenched the whimper behind her teeth. It must be some kind of magic. The richness of his cool, sweet voice was like a sensual spell.
Holding her gaze, Trey drifted a fingertip to her areola and circled. Anje flinched. "She has broad dark nipples, like yours. And when She is brought to arousal, they stand long and proud and they beg." He glanced down again and one corner of his luscious mouth kicked up. "Like yours."
"I'm frightened, you fool. What did you expect?"
"That's as may be." Brin's deep voice was dry. "But I wonder how much is fear and how much fury?"
Anje's eyes flew to his and for a second, she let her rage slip the leash and burn, clear to see. Brin looked pleased.
"Mmm." Trey made a noise of appreciation deep in his throat. Slowly, he ran both hands over her ribs and her hips and a tingling wave of sensation followed his touch. "The curve between Her waist and Her ass is like music."
He moved behind her and cupped her buttocks in his hands. When his thumbs ran down the soft cleft, she jerked away, only to collide with the warm wall of Brin's body in front of her. His eyes gleamed, almost as if there were flames hidden in the black depths. "Nothing is forbidden to Lufra," he rumbled in his dark baritone. "Nothing."
Anje dragged in a breath. Her heart thundered. "So what?" she said. "You can buy a Lufra any night in the Pleasure Quarter of Mother's Hearth."
Brin stared at her in silence. Then he bowed his head in an oddly respectful gesture. "I'm sure you're right, Child of the Mother."
Goddess, she hadn't meant to give so much away! Anje clamped her lips together. She'd never been a diplomat. Action was more her forte - direct, violent action.
Trey broke in. "But there's more. You have..." The words dried up and he pointed, hazel eyes wide and unblinking.
Brin said, "Lufra carries the mark of the dragon on Her body, the shining wings." He laid both broad palms over the notches where her thighs met her pelvis. His touch burned.
"Don't be ridiculous. They're birthmarks."
He stroked and tremors ran up and down her thighs as nerves fluttered beneath the skin. "Unusual to have a matching set, don't you think?"
"No! Yes!" Her nerve broke. "Stop it!"
"Here, let's get rid of these." Brin tossed her ruined trews aside and threw a heavy arm across her shoulders. "You smell revolting," he said amiably. He turned her toward the pool and gave her a gentle shove. "What is it? Swamp mud for the bitemes?"
"Yes." Anje shut her mouth hard.
"You're a scout, aren't you?" They'd reached a patch of sand, washed by golden-brown water.
It was true. A scout was what she was, through and through. The very best among the Children, the Matriarchs had told her. She was content with her own company, a superlative tracker, a hunter cunning as a ghost.
Tucked safely away at the bottom of her pack in a hide cylinder was the map she'd risked her life to make. It was marked with the whereabouts and movements of every Hssrda raiding party she could track.
When the Hssrda launched their summer raids, her people, the Children of the Mother, would need that information for their very survival. The knowledge that the hunter was now the prey was bitter indeed. Her carelessness had been unforgivable.
Anje folded her lips into a thin line. "What are you going to do?"
Brin's dark brows rose. "Nothing very terrible. You're Lufra's Gift. First, we're going to get the mud off. Then we're going to f**k you."
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