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The tension between Russ and Iona was subtle and hardly detectable by others. To dwell on what had occurred was advantageous to no one. Of course, there was nothing that escaped the eyes of Brenna. She saw the looks and noticed the new formality between the two. The first moment of opportunity found Brenna scolding Long Sword. “I hope that you are satisfied with your betrayal, to both Iona and to the brother you love. Must you complicate matters further?” Brenna said to him.“I need no comment from you to define my errors,” Long Sword replied, turning his back to her. “Kieren may seek your advice; I need none from you.”“Your actions prove differently and…”He had spun around as soon as the words left her lips.“Then do not concern yourself with my actions.”The look in his blue eyes was cold, but it did not hide pain.Brenna placed one hand on the man’s forearm. “Your disrespect disheartens me Russ.”Russ looked down at the old warn hand and then into the woman’s eyes.“That is and has always been a choice that is yours to make.”Brenna flinched. Within the hollows of her heart, she felt concern for this man on the cusp of greatness. His words cut deep. His knife was sharp.Iona had no knowledge of what she had said in the height of her gratification. However, guilt did lay its claim. But, the one she pined for had no use for her. She belonged to no one and owed no man her loyalty. Russ had given her something she had never known. For the first time, Iona had experienced a man whose goal was to please. His pleasure came from giving her pleasure. Her body had never felt so alive. That in itself was a gift.Russ continued to attend to her, but he was careful never to be completely alone with her or too intimate. He vowed to never let what happened between them happen again. He knew now that Iona could never truly belong to another. Her inner self, the one that laughs at both the mind and body belonged to Kieren. He had only touched her body and teased her mind, but he would never have her heart. She truly was in love with his brother.Too, Russ felt that he had done no wrong and the result of his actions hurt no one but himself. The relationship he shared with his brother could not easily be put into words. It encompassed every corner of his life. Resentment could never spread root between them. Iona’s reaction only fed his devotion to Kieren and assured Russ of what he had discerned long ago. His brother was a man unrivaled.One day Iona was left to entertain herself. There were things that often required Russ’ attention in Kieren’s absence—more so now. He never discussed them with her. Iona was more than aware that men often shared things with one another that were not suitable for the ears of women. Some things were better left unsaid and unseen.Still, on those days he was missed and Iona was left to her own boredom.She knew that a guardian for her was somewhere. Russ still refused to leave her completely alone. He simply chose his replacements well. A frustrated Iona could never pick them from the crowd.After completing her chores, she wandered around the market. Changes in the weather brought changes all around her. As her feelings of freedom expanded, she grew increasingly curious.The warmer weather brought an influx of new and interesting faces. The village was a center of trade. Everything was available. Iona liked to walk around and discover. Beautiful yards of colored cloth and glittering baubles interested her most. She loved the way they showed against her golden skin.However, her search ran deeper than just vanity. She hoped to one day find the cloth that her life was exchanged for. She would never forget the shade of it or the sheen of its surface. A promise had been made. If there was a way to purchase such cloth, she would. Iona knew that it would only be a symbol; but, she would have all of it and not just a portion. Iona would rub it across her cheek to feel its fine quality. She would smell the colorings. She would remember. Then, with great satisfaction, Iona would watch it burn. The scent of its destruction would fill her nostrils. Just like the rising smoke, Iona’s hurt would float away. She would forget. She would truly be free. She would become a master of self.At least, that is what she hoped for.Along the perimeter of the market was an unusual stand. The market was ruthless when it came to unspoken assigned territory. This stand was obviously unwelcomed. They had not completely packed up, most likely hoping to attract customers as the others closed. Russ usually paid for her purchases in the market square. Iona had never thought of obtaining her own currency or creating crafts to trade. Sometimes she accompanied Brenna. Brenna had no time for what she found unnecessary. Gunner was impossible to shop with. To him, the glistening of tempered steel was the only beauty to be found in this world.The owner of the stand was immediately happy to receive her and smiled as she fingered some items. To be given kindness from a merchant that was unfamiliar with her situation was a rarity. Generally they ankara travesti were drenched in their superstitions. Some thought her to be dishonest and without the means to purchase. Others believed her to be the sign of bad luck. But this graying old man let her look freely and turned away from his packing to show her special items.Suddenly from behind the thick cloth that acted as a backdrop for the stand, a man emerged. Iona dropped what was in her hands.This man was as tall as Kieren but not as muscular. His clothing was unusually draped across him. Kieren chose to be close shaven; this man wore no hair at all. The sun reflected off the curve of his bare head. He wore markings on his face and he was the deepest shade of darkness Iona had ever seen.The sight of him made her catch her breath and bring her hand to her chest. She had run into two or three that could possibly be of her kind. Each had been so unique that she felt no connection. Iona was pale compared to this man and found his darkness remarkable.He bent low in recognition and smiled as he rose. His teeth were blinding against the darkness of his skin. He then moved towards Iona.Wrong move.He almost stepped into the tip of Long Sword’s blade, the point of which stood at the dark one’s throat and was more than ready to fulfill its purpose. The two men stood eye to eye, with Iona safely placed behind Long Sword.Long Sword was smooth and swift with his movements; Iona had barely blinked an eye and found herself facing Long Sword’s broad back.“Careful Moor…” Long Sword said in a voice so threatening it made Iona shiver.Iona placed her hand against his back to keep her balance. Long Sword was perfectly still, his body tight and ready to spring. If his expression was anything like the sound of his voice, the man of darkness had much to fear.“Your value means nothing to me Blåmenn. To kill you would require little effort and give me great satisfaction.”“He is mine,” the shop keeper nervously intervened. “He means no harm to the girl. He is gentle of nature and merely curious.”“Must I repeat myself to you peddler?” Long Sword challenged, revealing a dagger in his other hand. “Your value means little to me as well. On this day you too could easily lose your life.”Gazing at Long Sword without fear, the man of darkness stepped back and bent slightly as an act of submission.“Please,” the shopkeeper begged, “what must I do to make amends for this offense? Maybe this most valued slave desires something that I offer? Anything is hers. She has only to point it out.”Long Sword put one of his well-aimed weapons away. The other stayed steadily aimed at the so-called Moor.Iona had always known that Long Sword hid his armaments as did his brother, but had never seen them aimed to kill—maim maybe but not kill.“There is nothing you can trade for her discomfort,” Long Sword growled. “And, she is no one’s slave. There are no slaves here and your pet is held responsible for his own actions.”Iona tried to peek around Long Sword, but the way he positioned himself made it impossible to see the dark one. But, from her position she could clearly see the shopkeeper’s fear.“Forgive both of our transgressions,” the shopkeeper pleaded.“I’ll spare you and this poorly trained companion only once. If he so much as looks upon her face, you will leave this place alone and your body marked to hold the memory. You will forever thank me for each breath you take. Is this fully understood?”“Yes, Yes,” the shopkeeper said. “I thank you for your compassion.”“There is no compassion here old man. I keep to my word.”Then to the Moor he warned, “It is her I wish not to frighten with your blood. She will not save you if there is a next time.”“Then I owe the one that is not your slave great gratitude,” the dark one spoke with a voice that rumbled.The sound of the man’s voice addressing Long Sword directly brought a new feel to Russ’ body. Iona rubbed it soothingly to let him know that she was still there.“Fuck your gratitude,” Long Sword spit out.Long Sword did not like the way the Moor returned his stare or how he dared to speak to him directly. He felt in his gut that he would eventually end this man’s life. He would do so gladly. It was true when he stated that Iona was the only reason the man lived for now. He would have pushed his sword through the man’s neck and gutted him without hesitation if it were not for her.Russ was a man of few prejudices. The color of one’s skin held no significance to him. There was good and there was bad to be found in all. However, he recognized the markings of this Moor’s people. They were well trained mercenaries, slaves to no one. Russ had fought them successfully. However, they were formidable enemies and not to be trusted. Their idea of honor was no honor at all. It was important that Iona understood that this Moor was not of her kind.Iona had not heard or felt a few of Kieren’s men gathering behind her. They were as unified on land as they were at sea. Although not positioned like Long Sword, they were equally ready and equipped to travesti ankara inflict great pain. One grabbed her to pull her closer to safety. Iona jerked her arm away from him. She would not be treated like a helpless child.“Iona,” Long Sword demanded. His voice steadied her and she move between the two men that stood closely behind Russ.The men fell in step only after Long Sword safely removed himself and Iona. He held on to Iona’s arm tightly, practically dragging her along as he moved with speed. His threatening disposition did not fade as he made his way to the Longhouse. Stragglers moved swiftly out of his way without complaint. Everyone watched. Iona briefly saw bitter jealousy cross the face of Astrid—who seemed to always pop up to witness any kind of humiliation thrown Iona’s way. In others she saw fear. She could feel the effort she had put into fitting in disappearing with every step.Once home, Long Sword swung her around so that she faced him.“What possessed you to wander off?” he asked her, his voice having changed considerably. “You wear no head covering and your shift is too thin.”“The day was warm and I finished my duties early. I only wished to look upon the dry goods,” Iona explained.Iona reached up and placed her hand on the side of Russ’ face to be sure that the man that now stood before her was indeed the man she held dear.The shift in Longsword’s mood was palpable. Once again he was the man she recognized. He placed his hand on top of hers and their eyes locked.It was Gunner’s dogged entrance that broke the trance.“She should wear Kieren’s mark so that she is easily identified,” he roared.“There is no one here that does not know that she is Kieren’s,” Russ calmly replied.“The mark is for those who dare not know.”Each one of Kieren’s men wore a raised mark on their arm, just below the curve of the shoulder. Some men wore two, one on each arm. Gunner, Russ and a few others wore three. The third was over the heart. Iona knew so because she watched the men practice their art from time to time or while shirtless and playing their violent games.Russ found her interest in such things distasteful and discouraged her voyeuristic tendencies, answering no questions when it came to the matter.“And where shall we put such a mark. She could never withstand the ceremony of a warrior,” Russ said in a sad, low voice—his eyes never left hers. “She would simply find it to be a mark of ownership.”“Then we will have something made to clearly identify her as a member of Kieren’s household. And, she must never remove it.”“She is entrusted to us,” Gunner then roared once more.“We protect what is ours,” Russ said in a softer tone.“Off with you,” Gunner told her. “Your growth on my ass grows bigger.”“The roundness of mine remains,” she added, leaving.This caused Gunner to forget his anger and laugh heartedly.Russ watched her go in the direction of her own quarters.“Why did you not kill him,” Gunner demanded.“She was too close; she would have worn his blood. I could not have that. There is innocence in her.” Long Sword returned coldly.“She has seen men die before.”“Not because of her and not while wearing their blood.”“You’ll only kill him later. I see that in you.”“I know. My senses demand it and my sword weeps for his blood.”********************As Iona lay in her night shift, Brenna began to speak to her in a hushed voice.“Long Sword would have easily shed blood for you today. All of them would. The displeasure of Kieren hangs heavily over their heads. It is their honor they protect. Never forget that these men are Kieren’s for a reason. One of them would be like ten belonging to another, especially the ones responsible for you. They are trained to endure much. They are willing to sacrifice much.”“Do not misinterpret the nature of Long Sword. Act wisely,” she continued. “Men and men like him are designed for the fight. They grow restless by the day, hungry for it.”Iona’s eyes widened.“You hold lives in your hand and your carelessness alarms me. There have been no limits placed on your curiosity. Place them yourself. You are no child, nor are you a fool. A woman must always think beyond herself.”Brenna hoped that her words were absorbed fully. If the uniqueness of the Moor drew the girl’s wonderment, lives could be lost.Iona was deep in sleep when Russ came to stand over her.“You’ve fulfilled your duty and she is fine,” Brenna whispered, standing at the door.“I just wanted to see for myself.”“What are you doing Russ?” It was more of a warning than a question. “This is not the first time you have come in the earliest part of the morning to watch over her.”“What is it to you Brenna? She is crafty. I am a man and she is under my care.”“You are first a warrior sworn in service to your brother. I think the warrior in you becomes forgetful as the man in you cares too much.”“I am one in my intentions. I think you should mind your own damn business.”“Your attitude tells me all I need to know. You have many women that welcome your special care. She is beautiful; she is more beautiful on the inside ankara travestiler than most. She also belongs to someone else. Do not let her become an issue of trepidation between you and your brother. You will lose on both accounts.”She left him at Iona’s bedside shaking her head. Brenna had seen the contentment on Russ’ face when he sat between Iona’s legs and let her place braids in his hair. She had seen the countenance of his face fall when Iona mentioned the beauty of Kieren’s hair.How can two men be of one mind at sea, Brenna thought, and two heads constantly colliding on land?Russ wanted to just lie beside Iona, to hold her as she slept. A taste of her had not been enough. But he knew now more than ever, Iona belonged to Kieren. There was no break in that.****************Russ monitored Iona more closely, as if that was possible.“Must you sneak off to witness everything,” he had said to her one day as she watched the men practicing hand combat.They were ruthless with one another. Iona could only imagine their fierceness in battle. What she knew of them was quite tame compared to what she saw now.Iona had of course not heard him come up behind her, but was not shocked at the closeness of his presence.“As a slave,” she told him, “it is advisable to watch and study closely what is seen and not seen. Life can depend on such information. I do not expect you to understand such a thing.”“Why would I not?” he asked.Iona turned to him in curiosity.“You are a free man. What would make you think of such things?”Russ filled his lungs and then exhaled. Iona felt that his next words would carry much weight.“I was given a way at an early age. I am a child claimed but amounting to nothing in the household of my father. I am the bastard child with only a portion of blood to prove my existence. I am the unwanted child with no purpose, not a servant yet not far from one. Given no choice I had to learn the art of seeing and not being seen, knowing but expected not to know.”“Were you not raised in the same house with your brother?”“Yes, I was.”“Was he not your reprieve?”“Yes my brother was, as you say, my reprieve. But, he too was young and his power limited.“There are so many things about you that I do not know.” Iona watched him and could see the curtain fall over his expression.It was obvious that she would not learn more today. She now knew that there was more depth to this man than fun, games and sex. She had seen those sides of him. She had also witnessed the warrior in him and now the boy. The warrior in him was much stronger.As they walked through the market square, Iona noticed that the peddler and his companion had disappeared. Another vender stood in its place. She dared not ask why. She had hoped that they were still alive.A few days later, Iona was relieved when she found the eyes of the Moor. They seemed to call out for her. He stood hidden at the perimeter of the market. The acknowledgement between them was barely a blink of the eye. Then he vanished. Iona made no motion. There was comfort in the knowledge that he still breathed. There was also fear. If he was seen by another, his life would be snatched away. The blood of a fellow slave would be on her hands.Russ was not able to follow her eyes but felt the brief tension in her body. It made him touch the arm that rested between his. He then welcomed the brightness of her smile.****************The next issue would be Astrid, of course. While shopping for fresh fruits, Iona was accosted for the last time.“Where is your precious guard today?” She bumped herself into Iona’s arm.Without taking her eyes off of Astrid, Iona picked up her fallen fruits and placed them back in her basket. The vendor immediately offered to replace them.Iona declined.“This blackened whore is not so special that you should care about her,” Astrid scolded the vendor. “Women of her kind are used to what drops to the ground from the table of mine. She is the kind that sweeps our floors. The Gods have blessed her, but we all know their blessings are brief for the underserving.”“Watch yourself,” Iona warned softly, walking away.“For what do I have to fear in you?” Astrid called out.Iona turned to face her. “Simply waving my hand would result in your removal. My request would guarantee the permanency of it. That is the way of my kind. You hold no upper hand here.”The look of anger that flushed Astrid’s face was priceless. Iona turned to walk away.“You forget who he comes to for true comfort you bed whore,” Astrid yelled out for everyone to hear.After calmly placing her basket on the ground, Iona turned and took the steps that separated the two women. There was no fear on her face or in her voice. She did not lower her tone. This was something all should hear as well.“Since you speak for your kind , do not forget who begs on her knees in the secret of shadows only to be fucked in the mouth without care. You will always be on your knees before him. That is where you belong. In the warmth of his bed is where you will always find me. My bosom will be where he comes to rest his head. He asks for the joy of my touch. I am his true comfort and the only one that can sooth him. I stand beside him. I have never dropped to my knees in front of him. I have never begged and I have never had the need. I am where my kind belongs. Who is the whore here?”

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