I couldn’t tell how long I had been in that filthy dungeon. I had drifted in and out of sleep a few times, but every time I woke up I was greeted with the same dismal, damp surroundings. My ragged floor-length dress didn’t keep me warm and the iron manacles at my wrists and ankles were making my skin sore.
I was the only prisoner in that cell, and the loneliness added to my despair. I was locked deep underneath the Queen’s castle, with no food or water. I was cold, hungry and hopeless and every so often I heard a blood-curdling scream that made me tremble.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps in the corridor outside and I froze. There was the sound of a key turning in the lock. Instinctively, I huddled back into my corner of the dungeon. The heavy stone door opened slowly. Two of the Queen’s accursed guards came in and stood either side of the doorway. They were followed by a haughty-looking woman in a long red robe. She wore elaborate make-up and her hair was tied up tight atop her head.
”Is this the peasant girl?”
She looked at me and sniffed.
“Scrawny little thing isn’t she. Still, the Queen’s appetite is insatiable these days. Take her upstairs. My servants will prepare her.”
As the guards drew close to me, I hunched up and tried to back away further into my corner. When would my nightmare end?
* * * *
My name is Alina. I was born to a simple family in a small village on the edge of our nation. The village is a long way from the capital and close to the border with Slizea. A long time ago, the Slizeans had a great empire, built through kidnapping and enslaving people from the neighboring territories, including our village.
My parents taught me that the Slizeans were cruel, immoral people, who cared nothing for right and wrong, and only understood violence and desire. They told me terrible stories of what happened to young girls from our village when the Slizeans attacked. Many of our girls were taken, captured, dragged back to the castles and palaces of the Slizeans and never seen or heard from again. My parents taught me that if the alarm sounded to signal a Slizean attack, I was to drop everything, not to look back and to run into the forest outside the village, there to hide until the danger was past.
Yet none of these raids had happened in my lifetime. Our village was kept safe by patrols sent by our king to guard the borderlands. Those of us who had never seen a Slizean raid began to doubt that they had ever happened, or at least, suspected that the elders were exaggerating about how terrible they were.
But in my twentieth year, things changed. A new ruler came to the throne in Slizea, a Queen known only as the Dark One. She was reputed to be the most terrible, evil and insatiable ruler that Slizea had ever known. Her armies soon began to attack our lands, and gradually, the patrols that protected our village became less and less frequent.
I still wasn’t worried. It all seemed so far away, the war and the Dark One. My parents and their neighbors sat around the fire at night frightening one another with stories of the Slizeans, but I ignored it. I thought they were being foolish. I was young, free and happy.
One day, I was carrying a pail of milk from the village milking shed to our hut when I heard a distant horn sounding. At first I wasn’t sure what it was, but then I heard screaming and saw villagers starting to run. One of them shouted that the Slizeans were coming.
Dropping my pail, I turned and started to run. But I wasn’t quick enough. I had barely reached the open grassland behind our village, when I heard the thunder of hooves. Over my shoulder I caught a glimpse of black riders and huge horses. As I tried to run, I felt something wrap around my legs and tighten, causing me to sprawl onto the ground.
I struggled desperately, shaking my whole body, but I couldn’t escape. Two black-armourer soldiers had dismounted and were turning me over, tying rough, tight rope around my wrists, pulling on the rope so hard that I screamed out. I tried to shout for help, but they laughed at me, and dragged me along the ground. Eventually, I was lifted up and thrown onto the back of a horse. Lashed to the saddle, they galloped back through the village. I saw houses and people and other soldiers as we sped by, but it was so disorientating that I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, we had stopped. Two more soldiers lifted me off the horse and dragged me to a wooden cage on the back of a cart. I was lifted up and thrown inside, along with three other girls from my village. They were all too frightened to speak, but we all hugged one another, with tears in our eyes as the cart began to roll away, rumbling out of our village and across the border, heading into the black heart of Slizea.
* * * *
I was grateful to be free of the manacles but I was weak and stumbled more than once as I was led up a flight of stone steps to the upper levels of the castle. A door was opened onto a room with straw on the floor and a roaring fire. On the fire was a black cauldron full of something boiling and in the centre of the room was a giant bowl made of polished white stone. Two servant girls, with long blonde hair and delicate white gowns were busy with the cauldron, but stopped what they were doing to stare at me.
“What is that?” I muttered, pointing at the bath in fear.
The courtier shook her head.
“You peasants are disgusting. That is a bath.”
She clapped her hands and the servants hurried over.
“See to it that she is clean and presentable for her majesty. You have one hour.”
With that, the courtier turned on her heels and left me alone with the servant girls. They both smiled at me. They were tall and clean-skinned and seemed to be well-practiced in dealing with village girls. The first servant led me to the white bowl and told me to climb into it, which I did, with some help. I watched the other girl take water from the cauldron and mix it with water from a pail into a second bucket.
Distracted, I didn’t notice what the second servant girl was doing, until I felt a tugging at the waist of my dress. Before I could react, she had unfastened it and the dress was slipping off my shoulders. I tried to hold it on, but it was too late. The dress fell away, and she pulled it clear of me. I was standing naked in the room, feeling the combination of cold air and the heat from the fire bathing my skin. I tried to cover my nakedness, but the servant girls didn’t seem to notice it. The first one brought the bucket of water over and then they both began to bathe me, tipping one bucket of water after another over me. Between each dousing, they rubbed fine-smelling oils and potions against my body. At first I recoiled in shame at their touch, but they continued with their work and I got used to it. It reminded me of how my mother used to bathe me, in the bucket we shared with our neighbors.
When they had finished with the bathing, I climbed out of the bath and they gave me a soft cloth to dry myself. Then they handed me my new clothes, which was nothing more than a single black leather tunic. As the first servant girl pulled the cord at the front of it tight, pressing my breasts together, I breathed in sharply. The tunic was so short, it barely reached halfway down my thigh. Worse still, there were no other garments. I was completely naked underneath it. It was awful! It was immoral! I couldn’t wear something like that!
“I can’t wear this!” I protested.
“It is her majesty’s preference,” said the first servant girl, smiling.
“What…what will she do to me?”
The second servant girl giggled.
“You will find out.”
“Beware her kiss,” said the other girl.
I did not have time to ask what she meant, because just then the door opened and the courtier reappeared. She looked me up and down, then nodded.
“Good. Follow me,” she said.
I was escorted out of the room, feeling the cold air against my legs, against my half-exposed breasts, and between my thighs. I felt so ashamed. That strangers were able to gawp and gaze at my body was a great disgrace.
But I didn’t have time to dwell on it. I was led up another flight of stairs to a high wooden door, watched over by two more black-armored soldiers.
“We have brought her Majesty’s prize,” said the courtier. One of the guards leered at me and opened the door. The courtier nodded at me to enter. I took a few, cautious steps forward and then heard the heavy wooden door slam closed behind me.
The room was huge and warmed by an enormous roaring fire set in one wall. The floor was covered in deep, luxurious rugs. Off to one side was a table piled with plates of food, upon which my gaze lingered, longingly. And dominating the centre of the room was a large, imposing bed, covered in red silk sheets, upon which reclined the Queen of Slizea.
She said nothing for a moment or two, looking at me with her head tilted to one side, until finally, she spoke, her voice ringing loudly in that room.
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