The door slammed shut behind her and she heard the slide of metal as she was locked in. She hadn’t thought it possible for her pulse to race any faster, but now feared she might pass out as blood rushed in her ears and black spots blurred her vision. Katya swayed on her feet, blinking, trying to focus in the dim light. She peered around for the hulking brute she knew waited within the shadows.
The room was tiny and spare, but clean. There was an iron cot, neatly made up, a washstand, a few clothes hung on hooks along one wall, and sitting on a chair in the corner, filling it with his massive frame was the Warrior, her intended groom. He’d been filing the edge of a long knife, but as the door shut, his hands stilled and his gaze lifted to regard Katya. He stared at her with dark eyes that glittered in the light of the oil lamp on the wall. His eyebrows drew together in a frown, shadowing his gaze further.
The sheen of black hair flowing past his shoulders was relieved by strands of coppery highlights. He had prominent cheekbones, an angular jaw and chin, and a sharp blade of a nose. His full-lipped mouth softened and balanced the hard masculinity of his face. His lips parted slightly as he continued to watch her with his deep, searching eyes.
The Warrior rose from the chair, the knife he’d been sharpening dangling at his side. He was a giant, His overwhelming presence filled the tiny room.
This was like being caged with a wild beast. Could he even understand her if she spoke? She offered a weak smile and said slowly and clearly, “My name is Katya.”
He stared at her so blankly her doubts about his ability to comprehend increased. The sleeveless tunic he wore stretched across broad shoulders and revealed massive biceps. His chest strained against the gray cotton of the loose-fitting shirt. He wore a pair of black pants and his feet were bare.
“I am to be your bride.” At the word “bride,” a memory of her friend’s wedding the previous fall flashed in Katya’s mind. She remembered the joy and music and flowers that had marked Greta’s wedding day and contrasted it with this horrible, twisted union. “What is your name?”
He gazed at her for long, hushed moments before speaking, his voice hoarse and halting as though rarely used. “I am Turan.” He fell silent again, studying her from head to toe.
Countless seconds passed. Katya thought she would go mad from suspense. If he was going to assault her, then let it begin. She was ready to fight him. Her blood raced, and her fists clenched by her sides.
“What do you want me to do?” she finally burst out in exasperation. She couldn’t stand her fear of the unknown another moment.
He shook his head, his brows knit in a frown.
“Should I stand here or sit on the bed? What?” Katya’s fear was overshadowed by anger. She had been afraid all day and was tired of it.
He took a step toward her, then stopped. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” she snapped, raising her eyebrows. The hard-muscled, rock of a man approaching her made her want to run for the door and pound on it until her fists bled, but she held her chin up and faced him. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know what I am to do with you. They didn’t tell me.” His voice was quiet, but vibrated in the stillness of the room, as rumbling and warm as a cat’s purr — a very, very large cat.
Katya stared into his obsidian eyes under anxiously knit brows and realized he wasn’t about to attack her and throw her down. “You don’t know what a man and woman do together?”
Turan shook his head.
Katya looked down at his crotch. She saw from the bulge beneath his pants that his body knew what to do even if he claimed not to. She bit her lip and thought quickly. It was possible to buy some time and maybe even escape the situation if she was lucky.
“Men and women talk,” she told him. “You sit in the chair. I’ll sit over here on the bed, and we can talk for awhile.”
The frown smoothed from his forehead. Turan sat down and watched her expectantly. With his eyes wide and curious, he looked much younger and less frightening, an innocent giant.
Katya perched on the edge of his bed, her hands twisting nervously in the skirt of her gown. “So … what do you do here all day?”
Katya pictured the engagements she’d seen in the exercise yard. “All day?”
“I eat.” He paused, then added, “And exercise.”
“When you’re alone in your room, how do you fill your time?”
He showed her the knife he’d been sharpening when she arrived.
“You care for your weapons. That’s all? Do you have no other chores? No entertainments like storytelling, music, or card games to pass the time?”
He shook his head and from his air of puzzlement, she guessed he wasn’t even sure what all those words meant.
She smoothed a wrinkle out of the bedcover with her hand. “Do you talk with the other warriors?”
“No, we fight,” he repeated patiently, as though explaining something obvious to a child.
The rumor was true, then. These men had no stimulation for their minds, only exercises and mock battles. They were perfect killing machines, brought up to understand nothing except orders and to channel all their energies into fighting. Katya’s heart clenched at the thought of their sad, empty lives. She wondered how they kept from killing themselves from loneliness or boredom.
“Do you remember your parents or the village you came from?”
He shook his head.
“You must have been very young when they took you.” She didn’t know what else to say. It was clear he had nothing to contribute to the conversation. Katya was staggered by the implications of a whole life lived without family or interaction with other people, a life with no display of love or affection. It was a wonder he was sane. Perhaps he wasn’t.
“My parents live in the nearest village,” she said. “My father is the miller. That means he grinds wheat into flour. I have no brothers or sisters, but my best friend is like a sister to me. Her name is Greta. We used to swim in the river or play in the woods when our chores were finished, but now she’s married, so we don’t play as we did when we were girls. I like to sew. Not plain stitching and hems but fancy embroidery with colored floss. And I like to sing. I have a dog named Cee. He’s brown and white and stands about this tall.” She demonstrated, leaning over to hold her hand a couple of feet off the floor. “His tail curls up over his back, and it’s very feathery. I’ve taught him some tricks, but he won’t do them most of the time.”
Turan watched her intently, but offered no comment on her nervous babble.
Katya looked around the room, searching for anything to spark conversation. She glimpsed a pale mark scratched into the darker gray of the wall, far down and almost hidden by the head of the bed. She leaned toward it, pushing the flat pillow aside to reveal markings, a primitive picture etched into the stone.
She looked at Turan. “You did this?”
He rose from his chair, appearing alarmed at her discovery.
“It’s very nice.” She traced her finger over the circle and the wavy shapes, trying to decipher their meaning. “What is it a picture of?”
“The sky.” The husky rasp of his voice sent a pleasant shiver through her, like fingers dancing up her spine.
Immediately, Katya saw that the round disc was the sun and the wavy shapes were flying birds. “Beautiful. Did you use your knife to scratch the lines?”
He walked over and replaced the pillow against the wall, hiding the etching. Before he did, Katya saw that the picture extended below the level of the bed. He must pull the bed away from the wall when he wanted to work on his drawing.
Her stomach tightened at the heart-wrenching image of a lonely man attempting to create beauty in his miserable life. She craned her neck to look up at Turan, towering over her, and felt a tension in her stomach that was something other than fear. He was so big and overwhelming. Heat radiated off his body, sending waves of warmth through her.
Katya’s cheeks burned from his heat as she patted the bed beside her. “Sit down.”
She couldn’t believe she was making the offer. She should be trying to distance him, not encourage closeness. Turan might become aroused, let his body take over and follow the primal impulse to tumble her back on the bed and have his way with her. Surely he must gratify himself with his own hand in the long, lonely hours in this chamber. He must have some idea of what to do with the appendage between his legs.
Turan smoothed his hand over the pillow and sat down beside her on the bed. His weight settling on the mattress shifted Katya toward him. There was no man in her village so large and she would have found his presence intimidating if he were not so endearingly innocent.
“You’ve never been touched before? Never kissed anyone or been held in someone’s arms?” She marveled at her audacity in asking, but she couldn’t believe that, lacking female companionship, the Warriors didn’t make do with pleasuring one another. The brickmaker’s son, Bray had once told her some men did such things.
Turan didn’t respond. Maybe he didn’t know what a kiss was.
Katya might be a virgin, but she’d seen enough animals mating and couples groping in the dark behind the barn during harvest dances to have an idea of what went on during sex. She’d also had a special friendship with Bray and had done her share of kissing and touching. She knew how people gave one another comfort. Pitying Turan, she wanted to offer him some respite from his bleak existence. She reached out and stroked the side of his face. It was rough with stubble and scratched her palm. The scratching sent another of those exciting shivers down her back. Her nipples beaded tightly beneath her loose shift.
“You have no beard,” she pointed out. “Do they permit you to shave then?”
He gazed at her but didn’t answer.
With her finger, Katya traced a puckered, white ridge of scar tissue that ran from his temple down to his jaw. Turan exhaled audibly. His eyes closed at her touch and his jaw tightened. He swallowed hard, the tendons of his neck undulating in fascinating ways.
She glided her hand over his jaw to the muscles of his neck and shoulder, as tense and powerful as a horse’s haunch. His pulse beat beneath her hand, and when she finally brought her palm to rest on his chest, his heart pounded so it felt like it might explode through his rib cage. Her own heart raced to match it. An unfocused yearning bloomed inside her.
The Warrior made a low, choked sound in his throat. The desperation in it made the hair rise on the nape of her neck. Katya took his hand and pressed it against her cheek. His fingers were rough and callused on her skin, but gently explored her face, wandering over the contours of her forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks and lips like a blind man’s.
“Feel me?” she whispered.
Turan nodded. He gazed at her with a mixture of awe and a powerful, frightening hunger. “So soft.”
Again, she felt a stab of yearning at the sound of his voice. Between her legs, a stretching, opening sensation blossomed. Touched by the prisoner’s sweetness and drawn by his need, she ignored the inner voice warning her to stop. Katya leaned in and placed her mouth over his, kissing him with a gentle pressure. The contrast between the full softness of his lips and the rest of Turan’s hard angles was a marvel. At first his mouth remained still beneath hers, but as she kissed him again, he responded, his lips opening and moving against hers.