Its outer solar system encircled by millions of asteroids, the tiny Earth colony hasn’t had contact with other humans for many hundreds of years, then one day, an Earth ship falls from the sky. But the pilot isn’t human.
After the strange, frightening creature saves her father from a fang wolf, Lady Corinne Barclay is forced to become the monster’s life prize. Expecting rape or worse, she meets the creature and begins to understand the true definition of “monster.” Meanwhile, a human enemy plots to destroy them both.
THE MAIDEN AND THE MONSTER
The stones were like cold grave markers beneath Corinne's bare feet as she walked down the endless, bleak halls of her father's castle. The torches carried by the men behind her flickered in the darkness and cast malevolent shadows of ill-shapened monsters that danced and gibbered around her.
Not too fast, not too slow, she reminded herself. No one would say that she had been afraid or eager for what awaited her. If she could just concentrate on moving forward, she would not have to think about what was ahead. Would not be tempted to turn and throw herself into Garth's kindly arms and weep out her terror.
Corinne pulled the hood of the gray, engulfing woolen cloak more securely around her face so that no one could see the frightened feelings she could not school. If Lord Randolph Taskin stood in one of the alcoves or smaller passages to enjoy her fear as he had enjoyed her sister Jessie's fear.... But no, this night shamed him as much as it did her. He would not gloat the loss of her for his bed nor the chance at her father's holdings that her dower would offer her future son.
Children! That she had not thought of. Ill-shapened and twisted babies....
She choked back a sob and concentrated on walking and remembering a tale that oft brought her comfort and peace--"The Prince from the Sky." She had wished herself the young princess saved from marriage with the cruel king when the handsome prince had come from the sky to wed her. Whenever she heard the story, she prayed for such a rescue from a forced marriage with Lord Taskin who already had been the death of Jessie. Her prayers had been answered, but her savior was a monster.
"Corrie." Garth's voice jolted her back to the cold, dark hall, and she stopped, turning. The two men at escort stood at rest near a large oaken door, and Garth studied her with pity in his eyes. "This be his quarters."
Shivering, she trudged back to Garth who ordered the soldiers to retreat a distance and turn their backs.
Corinne put down her satchel of clothing by the door and smiled gratefully up at the old man who had been such a friend all her life. It had been Garth who had taught her to ride and secretly to wield a knife and bow as the boys did. With his usual concern, he had even chosen an escort who would not snicker at her shame nor bandy crude remarks. Both men were older and kindly to her and her distress.
"Child," Garth murmured for her ears alone. "Did your father relent and let your mother see you?"
"No. He feared Mother would turn him from this. She was locked in her quarters from us."
"Then you have never had the talk about what passes between a woman and man." Garth's weather-beaten, homely face darkened to mahogany against his gray hair. "It is not seemly that a roughshod Sergeant at Arms should...."
Her heart twisting at his distress, Corinne rested her hand on his arm. "What I face a soldier understands, a mother does not. But Jessie told me."
Garth glanced cautiously at the escort's backs. "Good. If the mon... yond creature hurts you more than is necessary, or...." He pulled out his dagger from the sheathe at his hip and gave it to her. "Use this."
Taking it, Corinne nodded then threw herself into his arms. "I'm afraid."
"Be brave, little heart. I'll stand here all night. Scream, and I'll break in and kill him. We'll flee your father's wrath together." Garth brushed her cheek with calloused hand. "But perhaps he'll have mercy. I've talked to the men in your father's hunting party. He handles himself as a brave warrior with the dignity of a high prince. His ways are different, but he is a brave warrior."
Garth's attempted comfort in complimenting the monster's fighting did not ease her fear. A man might respect such skills, but a woman who needed tenderness and mercy found little to favor in such praise. Monsters had no mercy in their soulless bodies, only bestial appetites.
Brushing the tears away , she straightened, untied the cloak at her throat, and handed it to Garth who took one look at the fancy, thin nightdress she had been ordered to wear then stared at a spot on the wall above her. "I am ready."
Garth pushed open the oaken door, and she walked through without looking back. The huge, undecorated bedchamber was dark except for an almost gutted candle by the canopied bed which flickered in shadows on the gray stone walls. The bed and its inhabitant were in changing darkness.
"M-m-my lord." Her voice trembled despite her best efforts.
He must have been sleeping on his stomach because the monster spun around with his energy weapon pointed at her. In the shifting half darkness, she caught a frightening glimpse of glowing animal eyes and difference. She backed instinctively into the closed door seeking escape. His voice was harsh and preternaturally deep. "What do you want?"
"I am your life prize, my lord."
"Come out of the darkness, slowly." He sat upright and motioned with his weapon.
Corinne tottered to the edge of the candle's light and stopped. Afraid to meet his eyes, she blushed and stared down unseeing at the floor. She felt his gaze touch her face, the long golden hair which cascaded down her shoulders, and her body which was visible through her mother's diaphanous gown. One day, she would have her beautiful mother's full breasts and slender figure, but now she was all gawk and legs, and those legs shook with terror at what was to come.
"The room is chilled. My cloak is at the end of the bed. Cover yourself."
Unable to recognize the tone of the order, Corinne hastily picked up the black woolen cloak and wrapped it around herself. It hung beyond her feet on the floor and smelled of wood smoke, horse, and some other animal. Himself, she guessed. She glanced surreptitiously toward the bed. Her hidden hand tightened on the dagger Garth had given her.
The monster was as frightening as she had been told. The candle's wavering flame lit shifting angles of its face and body. It was man and not man, bird and not bird. Somehow, its human likeness made it more ugly because it mocked humanity with its cruel, glowing eyes and sharp features. White feathers cascaded down its back like a long mane and feathers covered a chest which was wider than any man's. The rest of his body, thankfully, was covered with bedding.
The gun wavered in a hand which looked human, and he lay it down within easy reach beside his thigh. "Who are you, and what do you want?"
"I am your life prize, my lord. I am Corinne Barclay."
"Lord Barclay's daughter?”
“I do not know your customs. Explain this to me."
"You, a noble stranger, saved my father from the fang wolf at great risk. In return, he must give you his eldest, unwed daughter and a portion of land. Not to do so is a lack of honor on his noble lineage. I am yours for honorable marriage or for... sport as you wish me."
"And what do you say of this?"
"Say, my lord?"
"I see. How old are you?"
"Sixteen, my lord."
"And if I send you back now to your mother and father?"
Corinne's eyes widened at the unexpected question. "It is not done. It would be an insult to my father and family. Wars have been fought for less. I'm yours; they will not accept me back."
The monster sighed and rubbed his left shoulder as if it pained him. "There is nothing to be done then until tomorrow." He waved her forward. "Corinne."
Her name sounded different from his lips; it did not seem to belong to her. Struggling with her desire to turn and run before he touched her, she stumbled toward him until she bumped into the side of the bed.
"I am called Hawk in your language. I will not harm you." He pulled one of the bolster pillows from behind his shoulders and put it on the bed near her then picked up his gun and eased to the other side of the wide bed. "There is but one bed so we must share it. Get in."
Clutching the cloak around her, her eyes never leaving him, she eased under the covers and lay stiffly on her side.
His eyes were hooded, and his alien, demonic face was impossible to decipher as he returned her stare. "I will not harm you, or use you for 'sport.' You have nothing to fear. Go to sleep, and I will speak to your father in the morning."
Not believing him, Corinne did not relax or ease her grip on the secreted dagger which she hugged to her breast. After several moments, the monster spoke a strange word angrily as if cursing. She cringed.
"Do not be afraid,” he said. “I am angry at humans in general, not you in particular. Humans! The more I learn of your race, the less I understand it."
Her nerves stretching tighter and tighter as the minutes passed, Corinne clutched the dagger and waited for him to attack.
Early morning sun peeping through the slit window in the castle bedroom woke Hawk. Sitting up, he gazed down at Corinne's huddled, sleeping form. With her fair face curtained by sunlight-colored hair, she looked even younger this morning than she did last night. She was just blossoming into womanhood and not yet ready for a mate and little ones.
How could the humans be so casual with their children's fates? But the humans were a growing, thriving race, not a dying one as his had been. They could afford to be casual over females and children because there were always many more to come. The humans as a race knew beginnings; they had not learned the hard lessons of endings that his had.
Corinne's eyes were swollen and red from crying most of the night. Each time he had unintentionally rolled near her in his sleep, she had gasped in fear and cringed. The poor girl. He wished that she would believe he meant no harm.
He slipped from bed and collected his clothes, then retreated into the small empty room adjoining his bedroom and closed the dark woolen curtain between the rooms. As he pulled his pants on, he winced with each movement.
His borrowed ship's crash onto this dismal world had been painful if lucky. He had been charting a path through the maze of asteroids around their solar system so the Searcher could contact the human colony on this planet. His reflexes and flying skills had been equal to the task, but the ship’s slow responses were not, and he had cursed his own ship’s mechanical problems.
After an asteroid hit the human fighter, he expected death, but he had managed a controlled crash in the wilderness.
The ship had been unrepairable, and the communication’s system had been destroyed, but he'd walked away with only bruises and a concussion.
He thought he’d be stuck in the wilderness for weeks until the asteroids once again created an open path for the Searcher’s fighters, but Lord Barclay and his hunting party had seen him crash and come to his rescue.
If they had not seen the Earth insignia on his ship, they would have killed him as a monster. One of the hunters had even called him a demon!
This world with its asteroid belt had seen few visitors in many hundreds of years, and the colonists were now little more than primitives in technology and philosophy with customs similar to the Earth Middle Ages.
He walked to the small window in the anteroom and gazed down at the fall landscape of coloring trees, farm houses, browning meadows, and new winter grains below the castle.
Being so high up in the castle and so far away from the many inhabitants in this stone city was pleasing, but he knew he was not roomed so for courtesy. Instead, he was as much guarded against as protected from the frightened humans in this isolated location. The two almost empty, hastily cleaned rooms appeared to be long unused and were not decorated. Perhaps his hostess was not certain he was house-trained and thought he might soil and tatter the usual guest quarters.
Hawk grinned then scowled as he remembered Corinne. These people thought less of their innocent daughter than of their possessions.
As he sat down on the little wooden stool to pull on his boots, he winced. Saddle soreness, too. He could not understand the human fondness for horses and riding. His ride to this castle hadn’t favorably impressed him. That and his distrust of these frightened humans had allowed him little rest or peace.
The claw and fang marks of the fang wolf stung his neck and back. The huge creature had been formidable and almost unstoppable. He had been fortunate to survive as well as save his host's life from the creature. If he had known the man's daughter was to be his reward, he might have let the wolf have the man. To give your unwilling, innocent daughter to a stranger and a demon at that!
He should have taken Corinne back to her father last night and convinced him that he had no use for a human female or for human customs. Even if he had insulted the man, he could have gotten the poor girl back to her momma's arms and spared her a sleepless, frightened night expecting rape or worse.
But he had been so drugged from the painkillers in his emergency kit and the first deep sleep he had allowed himself in a week that he had not thought clearly, nor had he had the energy to get up and dress.
Well, now he must convince Barclay that Corinne was untouched and ready to be returned, no offense intended.
Trying to avoid the worst wounds on his back and shoulders, Hawk bit his lip and contorted himself into his shirt. The wolf's marks seemed to burn hotter and deeper into his system each day. He hoped his shipmates would find his fighter and its recorded message of his whereabouts and take him back to the Searcher and its sickbay before it was too late.
In the elegant and cavernous hall of her family's castle, Corinne stared from the bird monster in black to her parents standing before him and back. As was her place now, she stood to her new lord's left. If he took her in honorable marriage, she would take his right side as her mother stood by his father.
Her mother's blue eyes and fair face were as ravaged by sleeplessness and tears as hers was. Seeing Corinne whole and alive after being sent to the monster's lair, she had almost fainted. Even now she leaned in her husband's embrace and pleaded silently for the safety of their only living child. But her blonde handsomeness and winsome, loving manner would not change her lord's decision now as it sometimes did in small matters.
Shaking his silver blond mane in lordly refusal, her father was as stone cold in this decision as the gray in his eyes. He played well the part of the greatest and richest lord in many holdings with his regal, embroidered blue tunic and ermine cloak, but inside the part was wrong today.
Corinne had never known fear in her tall, majestic father before, but now he stank of it as he stood before Hawk and refused to take her back. The great stone hall rang with silence after his no. She could almost hear the tears falling from her mother's eyes as she stared up at her husband's betrayal.
Why was her father so afraid? The monster had not threatened him. Instead, the creature had given honorable speech about his gratitude for the gift of Corinne, but that he could not accept her. He was not human; and therefore, the custom was not binding.
Hawk continued, "I have a wife, and my people mate but once. It is not in our makeup to be promiscuous."
Lord Barclay's face tightened in disbelief. Her father was as full-blooded as all the other men and could believe no less of a monster.
"Do your cattle mate with your horses? I am not human. What need have I for a human female? And such a mating would be childless. I am not so cruel as to deny a woman or myself children."
"Corinne is yours. I must follow custom." Barclay bent his handsome head with finality.
"If this must be, I accept her gratefully. The Creator whom we call Make-Make believes children to be a sacred gift. I will guard her as such a gift. By your custom and mine, I shall adopt her as my daughter."
Corinne gasped and gawked at the birdman.
Her father appeared equally surprised.
"When my shipmates come, she will go with me to the stars. There I shall see that she is educated, and she will live as a daughter to my wife and myself until she takes the mate of her choice."
"Do with her as you will." As if completely confused by the alien's attitude, her father nodded brusquely and retreated out of the room.
The monster gave a half bow to her mother. "Lady Barclay, would you please furnish the room adjoining my bed quarters with a bed and other needfuls for your daughter?"
"My lord," her mother mumbled, sniffling, and daubed her eyes with a handkerchief.
"I assure you that I shall treat your daughter with the utmost courtesy and the honor befitting a daughter of your race or my own." He bowed again more deeply in final farewell. "Corinne, stay with your mother as long as you please. I shall return to my quarters." With a whirl of white feathers and black cape, the monster pivoted and strode out of the hall.
After a confused time of hugging and murmured reassurances, Corinne and her mother talked. It was past the noon prayers and meal when she returned to the monster's quarters. Fully dressed, his cape a blanket over him, he lay facing the door on the unmade bed. He opened his fiery eyes at her entrance then closed them after seeing her.
Corinne noticed the untended condition of the room, and she realized that the monster had not even been fed this day in the excitement. Her sense of a woman's duty to her lord, even though he was but a monster, stabbed her. "M-m-my lord. Forgive me for tarrying so long. I have not tended you properly."
He mumbled something and slept again. Corinne hurried from the room to get him a meal. She had heard that he would eat much as humans did, but she was beginning to wonder about his sleeping habits. Could he be nocturnal as the owl? But, no, last night he had slept. He must be an animal like the dog, always sleeping and lazy except in hunting.
Rousing himself when she returned with the food, he sat down at the small stone table in the corner of the room where she spread out cheese, bread, fruit, and mead for him. She stood by the table awaiting his orders. He lifted and sniffed the goblet then sat it back down. "Does it contain alcohol?"
"It is sweetened wine, my lord."
"My people do not drink wines or ales. I like fruit juice, milk, and boiled and cooled water." With a smile, he began to nibble his way delicately through a whole green tanyan fruit.
Seeing a monster smile, Corinne blinked in surprise then again at his using table manners. "I will remember, my lord. It is your religion?"
"Metabolism... the way my people's bodies work. Our hearts beat much faster than a human's. Alcohol makes us ill. Have you not seen a bird drunken on over-ripened berries?"
She giggled in memory. "Yes, my lord."
"And a hangover beyond belief." He motioned that she be seated beside him so she eased nervously down across from him, then he offered her food.
"I have eaten." It would be impossible to share food with him. Being this close made her nauseous with fear. His face was so strange -- human one moment then animal the next. She would almost relax seeing his human features, then he would arch his head or study her over his nose as if she was a rabbit and he a tyg-falcon, and she would go cold inside. What penetrating, odd-colored eyes he had. Their brown gold depths made her shiver. "After you have finished your meal, if I may, I shall summon servants, and we shall set up my bed and clean the room."
With a nod, Hawk lay the fruit core down. "The rest of your belongings have arrived. Garth and I placed them in your room. An interesting human, Garth."
"I shall miss him." Corinne blinked back tears.
"I ask of you several kindnesses, Corinne."
"You are my lord. Command me."
"Is it possible to get a hot bath on this world?"
One laugh escaped her before she could stifle it. "I shall have a tub brought and filled for you after the bed is placed."
"Good. I also need someone skilled in wounds and bandages. I cannot reach those on my back, and they have not been changed."
"I will. I apprentice with the traveling physician when he is in our holdings."
With another monster smile, he started on the chunk of bread.
Rebraiding her long golden hair, Corinne perched nervously on her bed as she awaited the monster's call. She had heard nothing from him except a few sounds which were either pain or bliss since the bath had been drawn almost an hour ago and she had fled into her room while he bathed. She had no desire to see the rest of the monster uncovered, nor did she wish to tempt him into wanting her. Despite his protests to her father, she did not feel safe with the creature. He was male after all and bestial. She would keep Garth's dagger near at all times.
She tied her braid with a blue ribbon and collected her woven basket of salves and bandages with a shaking hand then crept into his bedroom. The great iron bath was empty. The bed was not. With his head pillowed on his arms, the naked monster lay on his stomach in it with the sheets up to his waist. His unfeathered back was a crisscross of animal claw marks, bruises, and clay bandages.
She eased up onto the bed and knelt beside him. He smelled of wet feathers and the distilled herbs in the bath water.
His voice was muffled by the pillow. "How do you remove those mud bandages? I have tried everything."
The question took away some of her horror, and she felt more like a healer and less a victim. "It is a mixture of clays and herbs we prepare. We have another mixture that loosens it." Careful not to touch his alien skin which would be cold and slimy, she applied the unguent to the bandages.
She noticed a small box made of an odd material with a big red cross on it at his farther shoulder. "What is that box, my lord?"
"A medical first-aid kit. I took an anti-infection and pain injection before you came in... my last."
His words made no sense. "My lord?"
"Medicine, Corinne, to stop the pain. A human doctor made that medical kit especially for me."
"I have such here too, my lord."
While she waited for the bandages over the worst wounds to soften, she studied the less severe wounds. Most were long claw rips in rows of three, and all appeared infected. They would need salve; and therefore, she must touch the creature.
She poured salve into her palm and, fighting her tendency to flinch, forced her hand down. At the first blazing contact, she yanked her hand away. "My lord, you are fevered!"
The monster's right hand rested briefly against his shoulder. "No. Only a slight fever. My body is naturally warmer than yours. That heartbeat I spoke of."
"Animals are warmer than people."
When she realized she had spoken aloud, she bit her tongue , cursing her unfeminine curiosity, then forced her hand back down to his shoulder blade. The skin was warm and of similar texture to a human's. That fear gone, she began to apply the ointment.
Since he was not offended by her earlier statement, she spoke of her findings, "Your shoulder muscles spread differently to your arms and back, and they are thicker and wider than a person's."
"Many, many centuries ago, my people had wings and living flight. We lost our wings and now walk as men do." A trace of something akin to grief touched in his voice.
"I am removing your bandages now, my lord. It will be painful." When she cautiously nudged the largest bandage at his neck off, he cried out and his hands clinched. Expecting him to hit her and swear at her clumsiness as her father did, she darted away, but he just lay with his head buried in the pillow and fought the pain. She came back and removed the other bandages.
The neck wound had the unmistakable markings of the fang wolf's teeth. Around the wound it was festered and red, and the wound stank oddly. Her heart plunging, she bent sniffing. "Who ministered to you after your injury?"
"Lord Randolph Taskin. He sprinkled some yellow powder on it and applied the mud bandage."
Corinne pondered the question. Should she tell the monster that her enemy Lord Taskin had willfully murdered him by not applying the antidote to fang poison? The antidote would only work soon after the poison left the fang, and never afterwards. How would Hawk react to the news of his coming slow and tortured death?
Not knowing the answer or the words to tell him, she remained silent.
Divorced from his body and pain as if another being inhabited the body slumped on the bed, Hawk floated in twilight. Corinne had given him some herbal drink which he had taken trustingly enough. The female might fight and kill like a she-wolf to protect herself, but he did not think she would calculatingly poison him. Perhaps he had been wrong.
He remembered Garth pinning his twisting, agonized body to the bed while Corinne had scraped the rotting flesh from his neck wound, then she had poured liquid flame into the resulting crater. The pain had been beyond what he could bear, and he had vanished, flying into nothingness.
Other memories scattered like clouds before him -- gentle Corinne, white and solemn from how she had hurt him, wandering around the room at the womanly tasks of decorating the room with her possessions, cleaning, and setting it to rights. He remembered her shocked face when she had picked up his only shirt and discovered the unrepaired claw rips down its back and the dried blood that had not been washed out.
Then Garth had been sitting in a nearby chair guarding him while Corinne was gone. Hawk followed these cloud memories until he slept once more where he dreamed of Koori, her arms open and waiting for him.
The last effects of the sleep potion gone, Hawk awoke clearheaded. The pain in his shoulders and neck throbbed. Corinne knelt beside him on the bed and applied salve and fresh bandages to his back with cool hands. The sweet meadow flower essence she wore floated around him. Not moving, he let her believe him still asleep.
Finished with her healer's tasks, she remained beside him. He could feel her eyes boring into his face. A hand touched his head feathers then retreated. It returned and stroked from crown to shoulders, exploring texture and softness. He fought his smile and did not wiggle. Humans were fascinated by his feathers, and most desired to touch them or hunt for his ears. Only an occasional female or child dared the liberty.
He stirred as if waking, and the hand jerked away, and he gazed up at Corinne. She wore a simple yet pretty, long hand-woven gown colored like her sky blue eyes, and her golden hair was plaited down her back as he'd seen Wilma wear hers.
She smiled down at him, “You will be fine now,” but the pity, compassion, and grief in her eyes told him he was dying.