"Who will give me fifty coins for the girl?" bellowed the Steldyk auctioneer, prodding my legs sharply with a metal rod. I fell to my knees and listened to the detested sound of the heavy shackles around my wrist clinking. To the great hilarity of the crowd, sobs and tears racked my thin frame, made worse by the fact that I was unable to wrap my arms around my waist and comfort myself. "Come on, folks, she may be scrawny for a seventeen year old, but she's strong, healthy!" He cocked a suggestive eyebrow. "She's a good worker, and for those who don't mind it, she could serve you well as a Lifemate." A bout of coarse laughter erupted.

"I will give you fifty!" called a gruff voice from the howling crowd that had gathered in the village square for the morning auction. An accompanying hand shot up somewhere near the center.

"One hundred!" shouted another.

"Two hundred!"


"Four hundred!"

The price was climbing higher and higher; not good. It meant that only the cruel Masters were bidding on me now.

"Eight hundred!"

"One thousand!" cried a third voice.

A collective gasp went up from the crowd – a mere female Strsrilt, not even an adult yet, going for one thousand gold coins? That was enough money to buy food for a family for ten years…and yet this male was willing to throw it away so he could own my body.

"One thousand going once, one thousand going twice, sold!" shrieked the annoying auctioneer, hauling me painfully to my feet. "Sold to Master Quir!"

A male Steldyk pounded his way through the crowd to the stage, vaulting from the ground onto the four-foot platform easily. "Thank you, dear brother," he said courteously, giving me a once-over and licking his lips when he saw that I was well-built for a female, even if I was somewhat small and thin. I still had well-defined female curves that were almost painfully obvious under the thrall garb my captors had placed me in. "I think I will be well-satisfied with this one," he murmured, stroking a lock of hair away from my tear-filled eyes. "Yes, quite pleased."

"She will serve you well," the auctioneer promised.

"Don't cry, darling," Master Quir whispered teasingly, his lips nibbling on my ear. "I won't hurt you too much tonight. I promise."

I sobbed even harder at his words. What had I done to deserve this? I didn't know. But I did know that my own foolish action, even if it was as trivial as walking deep within the forest unattended, was what had brought me here…

"Bye!" That was the last word out of my lips as I jogged out of sight of my family's hut – as I would soon find out, it would be the last word to my family for a long time.

I had been working hard all day alongside my Ma and Pa in the field, cutting, stacking, and hauling hay to one of our twelve barns. Haun, my older brother, had taken his turn babysitting the twins – two dimple-cheeked little boys named Choll and Chell – and had called in my parents and me for dinner, but I hadn't wanted to eat. I wanted to go for a walk in the forest instead. I had asked my parents, expecting the usual swift 'no,' but that's not what I got. Ma and Da had readily granted their permission, and now I was jaunting through the forest along one of many beast-made trails, thinking about my good fortune.

Born Destique Drae (yes, I am Thustundra Drae's ancestor by nearly ten millennium) on one of the many slopes in the outskirts of Rain Range, long before the time of Thunder Mountain and Queans, I had a simple life as a child. I never had time to fool with any sort of schooling; for me, it was work, work, work, outside, inside, all day long from the day I turned three. I didn't mind, though – if anything, I enjoyed the hard labor. It taught me to be somebody, and I began increasingly stronger. Nothing unusual ever happened, no bandits or robbers that were alarmingly frequent in these parts of the world, only a few freak storms and one flash flood. When I was sixteen, my Ma gave birth to twin boys, but we knew that a whole week in advance, so that was no surprise. The only surprising thing in all my seventeen years was…me.

I was not like the normal Strsrilt child. Sure, I was stronger than a Styuldy, and sometimes just as stubborn, but I had a keen intellect for one who was unlearnt. And I was 'pretty.' I'm not saying that normal Strsrilt aren't pretty, I'm just saying that normal Strsrilt have brown and tan fur, whereas mine is solid black. That was rare, but not unheard of – and I would find out ten thousand years down the road that Thustundra Drae had similar markings – but my dark blue eyes, so unlike my family's emerald ones, were. Oh, well. I was different, but I had to accept it.

My past, other than the surprise of me being 'pretty,' was quite boring, but I didn't mind – it was all I had ever known. It kept me from longing from anything different.

Too bad someone didn't tell the rest of the world that.

"Scream and I kill your pretty little family," threatened a deep voice behind me, one hand clutching at my waist. "Obey and everyone will live to see tomorrow."

"Please, Sir, don't harm them," I pleaded, trembling as I felt a sharp knife blade dance across my throat. "I'll do anything you ask of me."

Sir laughed cruelly. "I know you will, my pretty." Again with the pretty! "Just keep calm and follow my lead. I promise not to misguide you if you promise not to anger me." I was confused, but a black cloth was slipped over my eyes and my hands were bound tightly with a coarse rope before me. "Just go in the direction of the tug," Sir instructed, "and you will be on a clear path."

"Yes, Sir," I whispered.

"And shut up."

I clamped my teeth tightly together and stumbled along after my captor, who remained true to his word and led me on a clean, if twisty, trail to his wagon. He tossed me in and another male tied me down, but not before removing the blindfold. There was no more need for it. Both Steldyk, from what I could see of them in the dusky light, were rough and battle-scarred. Their yellow eyes glinted cruelly at me.

"I'm Jaugh, this is Thol," said the one who tied me down. His eyes belied his evidently calm nature. "Don't fight us, and you will live. Struggle, and there's no guarantee of anything."

"What do you want with me?" I asked in a quivering voice.

"You are to be sold at a thrall market in the morn," called Thol, who had started the Styuldy. I could feel every jounce of the wagon beneath me, as I was strapped down flat with ropes tied to rings on the wagon bed. "And you are not to speak unless spoken to."

"She can talk to me if she wants," Jaugh informed him. Then to me under his breath, "That way you don't get in trouble for talking."

I nodded gratefully to him, even though I was thoroughly confused (fear hadn't had time to set in, I guess) and he returned the gesture.

"No, you need to knock her out until we get to camp," instructed Thol. "Now."

"Fine," Jaugh huffed. He gave me a rueful look, but slid a cloth under my nose. "Three…two…one."

I was out faster than you can blink.

"AAUUGHHH!" I screamed, water cutting off the end of my screech. My head was underwater, then in the air, then under again. I couldn't seem to find a footing on the slick river bottom and I didn't know how to swim – on a farm in the mountains, there was never any need for it. Jaugh came out to rescue me, and when he did I clung to him like a frightened babe, sobbing for all I was worth. My sobs were cut off by hiccups and chattering teeth. "Cold-d-d," I stuttered tearfully.

"Thol, that was carrying it a bit too far," Jaugh accused, carrying me to shore and prying my hands off his neck. I adopted the fetal position in the sand and continued sobbing. "She wasn't even awake, you nitwit, and I don't think she can swim."

Thol shrugged carelessly. "Not my problem."

"You have no heart," Jaugh spat, crouching down next to me. "Shush, it's all right, you'll be fine," he soothed. I thought it odd for my captor to be kind, but allowed him to calm me down without a fight. "That's better."

"Thank you," I whispered. "You're right; I can't swim."

"You're welcome, little thrall. Back in the water you go." Jaugh picked me up and waded out again, ignoring my pleas for him to let me stay on dry land where I was safe. "Relax, you can touch. We're just going to give you a quick bath."

I shuddered at Jaugh's words, and trembled even more furiously when he stripped me down to nothing and tossed my clothes onshore, but he allowed me to stay where only my neck and head peeped above the slightly murky water. Thol didn't seem to approve, but he said nothing. A few seconds later he was gone from the bank. Jaugh produced a bar of soap and a reed brush and left me to clean myself in the gentle current, which I did vigorously after collecting sand on my wet backside. I scrubbed harshly for nearly ten minutes, then brushed my fur underwater with the reeds until I could feel no more dirt pulling out.

"Clothes, please," I yelled to Jaugh, who had been watching me from the riverbank to make sure I didn't try to escape. Jaugh shook his head.

"Your clothes have just dried," he called to me. "You've got to dress on dry land."

"But I'm…"

"Yes, I know you're stripped, but there's nothing else for it. I'm not giving you your clothes while you're in the water."

"Jerk," I muttered under my breath. With a disgusted shudder, I crossed my arms over my chest and waded through the water until it came to just above my waist. "Toss me my shirt at least."

Instead of my shirt, I got smacked in the face with a rough cloth about the same length as my wingspan and just a little wider – a towel. Jaugh nodded at me, and I took that as a sign that the cloth was my key to getting my clothes back. I placed the towel about me, careful to keep the bottom hem from reaching the water, and walked out of the river, letting the cloth fall with every step I took. The towel reached from my shoulders to my knees easily and I had no problem scrambling up onto the bank now, even if I didn't have my shirt and trousers.

"Much better," Jaugh approved. "Dry off and you may have these back." He held up a handful of cloth.

I growled at him under my breath, but he merely smiled a jagged smile and waggled a finger at me. I stuck my tongue out. Why wasn't I afraid? I didn't know, but I did know that fear needed to set in soon.

"I'm not drying off and dressing while you're around, so you can just forget it," I said calmly.

"Hmm, well, you can dress in front of Thol then," Jaugh mused. "Or more accurately, he will dress you and probably kiss you and…other things. Or you can dress in front of me, and I promise not to be rough or cruel or explore you with my eyes. Do we have an accord?"

"Yes," I agreed reluctantly, realizing that I would quickly lose that battle – and anyways, the prospect of being dressed by Thol wasn't one that I wanted to entertain. "You can stay…if I may turn around."

"Go for it. I don't care, just as long as you don't try to bolt."

"I won't."

Knowing that Jaugh was watching me, I rubbed the cloth briskly over my slender form, dragging out the water as best I could. When I was drier than a bone, Jaugh came up behind me and handed me my clothes, which I put on as quickly as I could without ripping them apart. I felt much safer afterwards.

"There, now, that wasn't so bad," Jaugh said, stroking down my spine with a sharp claw. I shuddered and pulled away. "There's nothing to be afraid of with me."

"I'm confused," I whispered as Jaugh gave me a quick glance over to make sure I hadn't hidden a rock in my outfit, Seasons forbid that should ever happen. "Why are you being so nice to me?"

"There's no point in being a cruel Master if you know that thrall will obey you," Jaugh answered simply.

"Thank you."

Jaugh smiled and mussed my hair playfully. "You're welcome, little thrall. I think you're one of the best and most obedient creatures we've ever caught."

"Thank you…I think."

There was a nervous silence for a time, but there was one question that I had to ask before the situation dawned on me fully and I lost all nerve. I had to know the answer.

"Will I ever see my family again?" I ventured timidly.

There. I had asked the Forbidden Question.

Jaugh's expression grew softer, and I knew the answer before he said it. "I'm sorry, child," he murmured. "You likely won't."

I gave a strangled sob and turned away from him, shaking with cold and frustration at the river's edge. "Why did you have to do this?" I demanded tearfully. "Why did you have to destroy my life and my family? What could you possibly hope to gain?"

"I think you can guess why," Jaugh said uncomfortably, looking down at his ragged clothes meaningfully.

"Money?" I screeched. "You're tearing apart my family with worry because you want a few piddly gold coins? You're nothing but a beast!"

Jaugh covered my mouth with his hand quickly. "Shush!" he ordered sternly. "I don't want to hurt you, but I will, and we both know that Thol would love an excuse to use the whip. Let's not give him one, shall we?" I looked down in blatant submission, and Jaugh removed his hand gently. "Good girl. And, just for the record, a female like you wouldn't just bring in a few gold coins. One as young and as pretty and as supple as you are is likely to bring in at least five hundred coins, if not eight hundred."

"You're still a beast," I whimpered to myself.

Jaugh heard me over the sound of rippling tides and splashing fish and his eyes grew considerably colder. Golden pools of flint that swelled around a black hole eager to draw in and destroy all morality were what stood in place of cleverness and friendly wit. "And you're a thrall with no respect for those above you," he replied coolly, staring me down. I couldn't stand my ground for long. "Thol and I are your Masters. If we decide to treat you fairly, you will accept it, and if we decide to beat you over nothing, you will accept it. That is the way of the thrall. If I were you, I would see about conforming to those rules. It's just a helpful thought."