Chapter 1 - Betrayal
The sounds were just as terrifying as the pain. More significant than even her fear was the total disbelief, despair, and anger at a betrayal so deep that it defied description. It also challenged Catherine’s belief, understanding, and hope.
The whine of the leather thong cut through the air, and its wielder increased his pace.
The skin-splitting-sting of the silver-studded whip made itself known to Catherine in the fraction of a heartbeat before the explosive slap reached her sensitive ears.
Eduardo’s cold eyes stared down at her with an absolute lack of expression that crushed her.
Pride forced Catherine to control herself before him... since his opinion mattered to her above all others even though his betrayal broke her heart and destroyed her spirit.
Blood splatter from the wound and trickled down her back as the scent of her pain, barely controlled fear, and blood tainted the air.
Catherine dared not show weakness or expose her vulnerability before the gaze that mirrored her own.
She could not accept his change in attitude.
Catherine adored her father all of her life. Eduardo was the master for whom she killed and would gladly die. The sire who allowed her to be more than a mere woman. The king who enabled her to be more than a chattel, or broodmare to some underling of his choice. Yet he was the judge that condemned Catherine without mercy, remorse, or doubt.
He taught her about honor, dignity, and pride. His blood flowed through her veins, branding her with all of his strengths and weaknesses.
Her father raised her to be the woman she was. He knew everything about her, and in the end, it meant nothing to him.
Eduardo could no longer bear to look at her, and he did not acknowledge her.
He had disowned his sole heir and disavowed his only child.
Eduardo had dishonored his teachings in favor of the love of a fickle woman--a charlatan that blinded him to the truth and led him to trust in a man who was not what he pretended to be.
His tainted lover turned him into a stranger that not even his friends recognized, and his lust for a woman--who was no more than an expensive whore--replaced his loyalties, honor, pride, and wisdom.
Eduardo stopped being the hero that Catherine idolized.
She barely recognized the father she remembered in the cold, unrelenting, distant, and unreachable stranger before her.
At the Harlot’s urging, Eduardo believed Hellenic, instead of Catherine.
He accepted the word of his prodigal and second in command over that of his flesh and blood. The man Catherine thought was closer to her than a brother, who was a compatriot, mentor, and even a friend, but turned out to be none of those things.
Hellenic turned out to be the poisoned apple that would cost her, Catherine Drake, all her dreams, her place in their world, and her life. The loss that hurt the most was the love and respect of her father.
The rising sun spread its golden yellow rays across the inner courtyard at an alarming rate. Just another foot, and it would touch her unprotected skin.
As reality sank in, her fear became greater than the pain still being inflicted on her back.
If this were not the day of her punishment and execution, Catherine would have admired the sheer beauty of the sunrise. If she still had protection against its deadly heat, she would have basked in its familiar warmth.
This was not the start of an ordinary day.
It was her last few moments on this earth.
The darkness fled before the light. The shadows dissipated, and her illusions disappeared with them.
Eduardo Drake would not grant either leniency or mercy.
The fire in her back raged harder.
More blood trickled from the myriad of open wounds on her naked skin, but the whipping didn’t cease.
The leather thong slapped against her exposed skin with rhythmic monotony.
The whip Eduardo wielded, with such relentless expertise, reminded Catherine of the metronome that taught her to play the pianoforte.
He just allowed a brief pause between lashes, to let the previous wound begin healing, before inflicting the next.
She could taste the overwhelming odor of her blood on the chill morning breeze, and it left her torn between feral hunger and wanting to gag.
Drops of red blood chilled and congealed on the frigid cobblestones, changing color from vibrant red to a duller reddish-brown.
Catherine witnessed the same punishment being dealt to quite a few of her father’s men and never suspected that one day, she would feel the sting of his whip before meeting her end.
On those days, she saw what the staring crowd saw. It allowed her to see her punishment from their perspective. She knew both their thoughts and feelings.
During her father’s long reign, this fate befell only a few of his soldiers, each occasion marked by some unfortunate incident that precipitated their end.
The emotionless faces of these men and women were a facade past which she could sense the lust for blood that grew in them.
She detected the excitement in the air and saw in their eyes the satisfaction of witnessing her fall from grace.
Their eyes betrayed the way they savored every moment, secretly salivating at the mere thought of her death.
In the hidden depth of their souls, they were almost frantic at the idea of watching her scream, plead, and die.
Catherine ruthlessly cut off the last thought, unable to bear it inside her mind.
As a spectator, Catherine never allowed herself to feel any of those things, and she had found no difficulty in it.
The suffering of others never exited her. The dealing of punishment was a tool to retain order, not a sport for the gratification of others. Men rarely saw it that way; to them, it was both.
Humiliation burned through her like acid, side by side with a volatile hatred she could not... nay, would not control.
She had always been a motherless child, but in her final hour, she became a fatherless daughter, the blameless guilty, and a sacrifice that ensured the victory of another. The stabbing pain of loss intensified her emotions a hundredfold.
The unfamiliar prick of tears stung her eyes, but Catherine fought their weakness like a hated enemy.
She would not afford these beasts the victory of seeing her cry or allow her father the triumph of proving that she was just like any other woman; weak, fragile, and incapable of facing her fate.
Most of all, she would not break before Hellenic. If it were within her power, Catherine would deny Hellenic the satisfaction of her final defeat, no matter the cost to herself.
No longer a young girl, Catherine did not allow herself the emotions of youth. Even as a woman, long since grown, she remained a child in the eyes of her people.
She would show them that her childhood had passed by dying with the last shreds of her dignity intact.
These people often called her too young to know her mind and too immature to make her own decisions. Their words came from the perception of those who watched the rise and fall of the human mass, while they remained ageless, unchanged.
Their estimation was no real reflection of her worth or growth as a person.
None of them really knew Catherine or what she was capable of, and now they never would.
Hellenic robbed her of the opportunity to step out of her father’s shadow and prove herself.
Catherine’s fear settled outward, intensifying as she finally accepted that there would be no intervention, no miracle, and no waking from this nightmare.
Her acceptance ripped away Catherine’s last remaining shard of hope as Eduardo allowed the sunlight to touch her knee.
The searing, white-hot conflagration shriveled every previous pain to nothing, a sensation so terrible that words failed to describe it.
Catherine couldn’t think past her agony.
She bit the inside of her mouth until she tasted blood, in a valiant effort not to scream and plead for either mercy or death... but it didn’t work.
The unearthly sound wrenched from her soul by unadulterated agony resembled nothing a person could bring forth.
It was the howl of a trapped animal that suffered pain; it didn’t deserve or understand—the shriek of a tormented spirit. The cry of a banshee, but in its depths, also hid an undertone of raw and boundless anger.
The humans flinched away from its intensity. They shivered at the horror of what they witnessed, even as blood spilled from her mouth to flow down her chin and drip on her chest.
Catherine violently shifted backward, but the tight bonds that secured her to that icy block of stone brought her to heel, but alas, the sun and her flaming body would soon heat it.
Silver shackles and iron chains kept her seated--as if waiting for a beheading--with her unclothed, bloodied, burning body, exposed for all to see.
The sharp movement tightened her bonds, and her involuntary reaction prolonged her suffering while it exposed her inner weakness to prying eyes.
Catherine couldn’t curb her instinct to survive; the animal inside was far too dominant and close to the surface.