The Autumnal Hunt of Alderaan
Rey’s breath steamed in the cold as she panted, fighting to rein in her fear. She forced her breathing to halt, striving to hear over the wild race of her heart. The only sounds were the peaceful chirring of crickets and the rustle of wind through dry grass. Detecting no followers, she exhaled, lungs burning from her fear-driven flight. Her eyes were luminous as she scanned the lucent field stretching before her, its undulating horizon fading off into the night.
The plains were featureless but for the occasional old oak, left to stand amongst the crop fields to offer workers midday shade. Pressed up against one such tree, she thanked the Maker for the priceless respite it offered. She swallowed, using the motion to try and slow her breathing. The silvery plumes that unfurled from her lips were a dead giveaway. The full moon didn’t help either, illuminating details in stark relief, washing color away and turning all a pale, ghostly blue.
Rey knew she didn’t have to make this so hard on herself, knew that many maidens had foregone the added terror of running, simply giving themselves over. Once released for the Hunt and Claiming, a maiden had free agency over her conduct entirely and could submit or resist as she chose. Complete passivity just wasn’t a part of her makeup—it was better to resist and fail than to never have resisted at all.
Gritting her teeth, she shivered, rebelling from the thought as oil flees a droplet of water. A chill gust of wind stirred the yellowed grass, lifting the hem of her gown. Her mahogany hair was unbound, and it too floated about her body, loose strands tickling the back of her arms. She could smell the perfumed oil the clerics had rubbed into her skin, preparing her according to ritual.
The scent of rose geranium should have been soothing and pure, an indulgence of the senses. But the circumstances to which it was attached had transformed the lovely fragrance into something damning, and she condemned it for what it was: just another flag for the hunter who stalked her somewhere in the night. She squeezed her eyes shut, cursing her luck for the hundredth time as a wave of desperation flattened her to the rough trunk of the tree.
The autumnal Hunt of Alderaan was not something she’d ever worried about, being born with entirely the wrong coloring. The maidens used in the rite were always pale-eyed and fair-haired, the lighter, the better. It had been this way since time immemorial, as had the stipulation that only high-born lords participate in the Chase and Claiming that coincided with the blood harvest moon, and only those who were yet unwedded at that.
There had been calls over the centuries for the practice to end on the premise of sanctioned barbarism, but the Autumnal Hunt endured. It was a carry-over of timeless hedonism, deeply steeped in the lore of the region, and old traditions died hard. Even with the occasional rumblings of disquietude, the questionable ancient practice of the Claiming continued unabated every fall.
Rey shivered miserably, recalling the disastrous moment that had sealed her fate.
It had happened three weeks ago on an outing to the Briarwood. She’d been gathering late-season berries along the edge of the forest with a small entourage of women from the village. Absorbed in the pleasant task, she had lost track of distance, wandering from the safety of the group. She’d looked up at the sound of hoofbeats, heart beginning to pound as she saw a lone rider astride a magnificent stallion. Her throat had further constricted as he’d neared, the trappings of a high lord becoming visible as he’d raced toward her along the brambled edge of the forest.
Too late, Rey had realized she was alone. Tucking her basket to her hip, she’d stood aside, bowing her head in fear and hoping he’d just blow past her on an errand of some importance. The second stroke of ill omen had been the horse reining up before her as a deep, masculine voice demanded she raise her head. She’d obeyed, reluctantly looking up at the young lord astride his impatient stallion.
Their eyes had met, and the haughty look on his face had shifted to one of surprise. He’d sat back in his saddle, drinking in the sight of her with wide, dark eyes, lingering well past what was decent. Her unease had grown as he’d continued to stare, doubling when she saw the way his gloved hands tightened on the reins of his mount. When he spoke again, his words had been clipped, as if he waged some internal battle.
He’d asked her name and that of her village in an uneven voice. Rey had fought the urge to flee, trying desperately to project a courage she didn’t feel, giving the requested information as a stone sank in her heart. The lord had given her a final look, his gaze raking her body in blatant appreciation as he inclined his head, departing with a small, ominous smirk. The look in his narrowed eyes had been enough, just enough to let her know that trouble was a storm headed her way.
Gazing down at the sacrificial gown they’d dressed her in, Rey felt the scream choke in her throat. She cursed herself for wandering away from the townswomen, adding a choice curse on him as well for having the impertinence to shirk eons of tradition. She froze at the crack of a nearby twig, her tumultuous emotions forgotten. There, faintly but closing in, was the rhythmic stride of a man. Adrenaline electrified her limbs.
The steady sound of footsteps moving over dying grass drew nearer. She tensed, looking down at the white dress glowing in the moonlight, knowing the tree she hid behind offered little cover, knowing also that should she bolt, there was nowhere else to take shelter.
Her mind shrieked its need to escape, translating to a buzzing of energy in each muscle, begging to be burned. She stopped thinking and galvanized, exploding forth in a sprint, skirt hiked about her thighs, racing for all she was worth over the yellowed fields. Even with the cumbersome burden of the dress, she was swift as an arrow, granted extra speed by her desperate will to escape, to remain free and thwart her fate as long as possible.
The pounding gait of her pursuer continued to increase as he gained on her, getting louder until she could feel the impact of his heavy footfalls on the ground. She didn’t dare to look back, focusing solely on running without tripping up, her bare feet flying nimbly over the barren ground. Feeling his fingertips at her waist, she let out a cry, arching in the air, a last desperate act of escape before she was captured by rough hands.
She keened as he took her down, landing atop her and while sparing her the majority of their impact with his forearms. A strangled scream escaped her gritted teeth as she struggled to turn over, unable to resist while facing away from her attacker.
It wasn’t a fight designed for fairness.
His strength was far superior and his well-muscled body dwarfed hers, keeping her pinned to the ground. Rey cried out, ceasing to struggle when a large hand fisted in her long, dark hair, pulling it back. He deftly slipped a large hand beneath her, sliding up her ribcage to rub with purpose over her breast before closing about her throat.
She whimpered, fearing his violence, her breath yielding panicked silver jets to the chill night air. Keeping a firm hold on her neck, he raised himself, turning her over to face him. The coward in her wanted to die at the sight of him. He wore only a loincloth and a golden helm that concealed all but the hard glitter of his eyes. The majestic antlers of a stag crowned his helmet, their pointed edges branching up to pierce the heavens.
He was utterly terrifying, and a broken sob escaped her lips as she watched him produce a length of rope.
Defeat was a paralytic flooding her veins as her struggles were so easily overcome, her wordless cries ignored as he bound her wrists and feet. His movements were unhesitating, and she could sense the dark enjoyment he took in securing her. A shudder rippled through her, and she looked away.
Neither of them spoke; there was no need. She knew he wouldn’t stop, and he knew that false comforts were additional cruelty.
When she was fully bound, he stood, a giant looming over her. Her lips were parted, her face a pale mask of distress as she lay helplessly, her dark hair fanned about the ground in tousled disarray. The hem of her silken gown pooled about the junction of her thighs, exposing the length of her firm, shapely legs.
He watched her in an agony of eternity before speaking at last. “Rey,” he murmured, his masculine voice gravelly with emotion, “never have I seen anything so surreal, so hauntingly beautiful as the sight you make, lying bound in the moonlight.”
Her eyes slipped closed as dread constricted about her chest, a wave of weakness rolling through her limbs. She would have recognized that low, resonant voice anywhere, even if he hadn’t given himself away by saying her name.
Her lips parted, trembling. “You--you are the lord I met along the Briarwood,” she stammered weakly, unable to keep from asking her next question. “W-why me, sir? I am not the right s-sort of girl...” she cut off, unable to finish as a violent shiver sabotaged her ability to speak.
“I’ll have none but you,” he replied simply.
Her eyes squeezed shut in distress, a single tear tracking into her hairline as she tried to brace herself. Bending low, he gathered her up as he would a child, slinging her easily over one broad shoulder.
His intent to move the evening along awoke a panicked resistance, and she cried wordlessly, pounding at his broad back with tethered fists. Straightening her torso, she arched backward, splaying her hands against the solid muscles of his chest, struggling for all she was worth.
He continued to walk, seemingly unperturbed, switching the arm that wrapped about the back of her legs, keeping her pinned to his chest. She jumped as she felt his free hand engulf the back of her thigh. His palm began to slide ominously up, triggering a steady drip of cold dread within her veins. Her skin prickled as it moved intimately over the globe of her buttock, lifting her gown and coming to rest on the small of her back. Pressing her firmly to his shoulder, he freed up his other hand, the one with a superior range of motion.
Understanding dawned, and she fought even more desperately, feeling horribly exposed…he was going to--“No! Please --!”
The first sharp smack of his palm on bare skin shocked her into silence, but it was the next consecutive five that stole the fight. The impact of each spank reverberated up her body, accelerating her whimpers to full-throated cries. With each landing of his palm, he imprinted the concept of helplessness upon her tender, untried flesh.
On the sixth round, she let out a final broken sob, going limp against him, rendered passive by the shock of being spanked and the newfound understanding of his response to insubordination. He hummed low in his throat, a sound of approval. His palm stroked light circles over her flushed skin, soothing away the pain and transforming it into a warm, strangely relaxing heat. The vise of his grip relaxed and he held her gently, as though he could feel how docile she had become.
They’d been walking for an indiscriminate amount of time, her vision limited to the upside-down sway of moonlit land. She could smell the ceremonial oils he’d been anointed with, vetiver and cedar from the mountainous regions to the North. Unable to do much else, she inhaled the masculine scents, offhandedly registering that they weren’t unpleasant. Amidst the numb complacency that had taken hold of her, her mind still sought for any sort of positive thing to cling to, adrift as she was on a flat sea of despair.
The soft nicker of a horse broke the silence, and he murmured soothingly to it in greeting. Her mind spun with indecision as she was set on her feet. He seemed to read her, keeping one hand about her bound wrists as the other tipped her chin up to meet his eyes. “If you fight me or attempt to flee, you’ll find your earlier schooling but a warm-up. I enjoyed it far too much to deny myself, should you be unwise enough to tempt me,” he warned, his voice grim.
Her hazel eyes sparkled with defiance, and she wrenched her face away from him, regulating her insubordination to a simple refusal to look at him.
He allowed it, swinging up into his saddle and reaching an arm to capture her waist, hoisting her easily into place. Rey closed her eyes, her head falling bonelessly against his chest as she exhaled a half sob of defeat. The corded muscles of his arm flexed, tightening around her protectively as they wheeled about. With a sharp word, he spurred his horse into a gallop, stealing off with his prize through the cold, pale night.