Chapter One

She threw herself over the mare, and he watched in undisguised fascination as the flash-drive swung between the enchanting globes of her chest. The green and black plaid of her shirt complimented the rich amber hue of her skin, too much of which seemed visible for his liking. He shook the overprotective thought away as she steadied the young horse with whispered words and a firm grasp of her reins. The USB now lay over her chest, a beetle shaped object nestled close to her bosom.

If he didn't think she would try to slice him open, he would ride up and snap the delicate chain that held that beetle to her body. But he had watched her fight Garamond's strongest swordsman yesterday and her speed, her skill was unmatched; without even breaking a sweat, she had disarmed a man who struck terror in his enemies back home. Although, Falx considered himself definitively advanced past Macron of Garamond, he had no imaginations that Tiernan of Java would be an easy target. She had calmed the beast between her legs sufficiently – riding without a saddle, incredibly – and now paused to tie back her charcoal and ivy curls.

His mother had told him the people of Java sometimes had green hues to their hair – a mark of the tree folk who had granted them their power – but he had never imagined what that would look like. Streaks of deep forest green tangled in midnight black in curls that tumbled every which way from a smooth, deeply tanned forehead. He watched her lace a strip of leather around those curls and trap them in a masterful knot. His loins tightened as he imagined a different purpose for that strip of leather.

"Lady Tiernan?" He called to distract both of them, himself from his thoughts and her from whatever had brought that brooding expression to her forehead.

"I am no lady," she snapped, eyeing him with suspicion.

"I confess, I am surprised to hear that," he murmured as he drew his destrier closer. His gaze lingered over where the flash-drive lay. He was at first unsure if she had heard him, but the malevolent look that crossed her eyes told him she had keen hearing.

"Who are you? How did you get on this land?"

"Falx of Beowulf, an invited guest," he added the last gently, not wanting to seem as though he was throwing his status in her face.

She sniffed, an altogether too feminine expression of irritation. He saw the flash of recognition to his name. Had she refused to look at pictures of him? Unusual.

"Good evening, Prince Falx," she muttered with obvious irritation.

"Falx is okay, we are of similar age to speak freely with one another."

"You are my elder by eight years, Prince Falx; it would be rude of me to ignore."

She made the Prince sound like an epithet. He considered that he probably, certainly had his work cut out for him. Could she not think of this association in any positive light? He wondered this with a slight frown.

"Are you testing the mare? She seemed a bit green just now."

"She is probably sensing an overconfident male," the lady said, coolly. Whether she referred to the horse or his rider was not clear, but Falx allowed the first tendril of irritation to alight in his eyes.

"Lady Tiernan," he commented, drawing his beast closer to her, his eyes narrowed, "you mentioned just now that I am your senior and a Prince, let's endeavour to keep that in mind."

She looked up sharply at this reprimand and might have said something else, but she bit the retort back. Good girl, he thought, approvingly.

"Are you looking for something, someone…Prince Falx?" She asked after a moment.

"I was looking for you," he said in a low voice, now abreast of her and letting his gaze drift over her in an inspection that made her shiver.

"What for?" She blamed her nerves for her curt tone and avoided his eyes.

"To build some amicability in a union that is not of our making, you outrageous brat." Her eyes shot up at him, to find that his cold assessment had turned into a colder fury. "And don't shoot daggers at me, I'm impervious to displays of that kind. Your desire to show hackle without even the least provocation only inspires in me a desire to beat you soundly, so I urge you to rethink your strategy."

"If my company is so repugnant, I will take myself off," she said after a few more moments of glaring. She tried to clear her features, but it was impossible. She was about to tighten the reins on her horse and leave him but, in a movement too quick for her to anticipate, he seized their length and drew her mare's head closer. In any other moment, Tiernan would have coldly asked anyone who dared touch her reins to release them immediately. In this moment, she only saw red.

"How dare you?!" Her crop wielding hand followed the sentence and it was only by a hair that she avoided striking the Prince. He moved his hand at the last moment and attended to his horse who she also narrowly missed because he drew the beast's head out of the way.

"You little devil," he cursed, with narrowed eyes.

In the haze of her anger, she still recognized that his was greater and drew her knees forcefully into her mare's flank, sinking low unto her back as the creature stretched into a slow gallop that Tiernan encouraged. Ugh, her cursed temper! Her mother had warned her it would be her downfall. Maybe the Prince would kill them all in his fury. At least that would put her out of her misery with this horrible marriage business. It would not happen that way however, she was of the Java and theirs was one of the best families in the Core Royal.

"It has always been the way in the best families."

Her mother's words came to her, even as she hoped she was putting as much distance between her and the northern prince. The best families. The ones who had restructured the world after the plague. The ones who had found the core that gave certain people powers and had changed the way the world was run. She fingered the beetle at her throat and squeezed its warmth against her chest. The files, the ones that documented the location of the core, were hidden in its depths. Most people thought it was a simple flash-drive that could be plugged into any computer. It was a bit more complicated, but also her great-grandfather had been a purist with magic and had injected as much old world magic into it when he'd saved those files. It was enough to kill anyone who tried opening it the wrong way.

As her father explained at almost every meeting of the World Core Court, only a leader of Java could open it and the Old Ones had given the caring of the files to those of Java. It was written in the Old Books, for all to see. It was why so many had sought to join with the Java, and why this northern prince was to be her husband. Only one who had no need of the files could wed her, her father had declared and had refused many an offer for her hand. Why he thought the Beowulf Prince did not also covet the files was beyond Tiernan, and she had voiced this question many times to her parents over the last month. "It isn't that he doesn't want it, it's that he does not need it." What did that mean? Her thoughts were interrupted by a sound behind her. She turned sharply and saw that far from being abandoned, the prince was now closing the distance between them.

Her mare, while a powerful beast, was too green – as he had said – to have built the stamina to compete for long against his stallion. A war horse surely, the steed seemed as eager to capture her as its master. She knew the precise moment the game was lost and she tried to turn away from their path, but was almost thrown off her horse when he reached for and took her reins. They both came to an abrupt walk and Tiernan attempted to pull the reins away from him, but couldn't manage it.

She chanced a look at him, and then let her eyes fall from the mask of cold rage he wore.

"I will not run, you can leave go my reins," she said, quietly.

"Shut up." Nothing else. She held her tongue. At a copse of firs, he drew them to a stop. He dismounted and lashed the two horses to a sturdy trunk. "Get down."

She would rather have remained on her mare. She wondered if she could untie the reins without dismounting, and then if she could quickly dismount, untie her horse, mount again and… No it was impossible.

"Get off that damned horse. Now."

She jumped and her mare whinnied. She rubbed her head and said something she hoped was soothing, before slowly dismounting. She stood close to the mare and wondered if she could still manage untying her, if they talked from this distance. He had taken a seat at the foot of a giant evergreen, one knee bent and his arm resting across it.

"Come here, Tiernan."

She didn't miss that he had dropped the honorific, likely having decided, as she had told him, that she was no lady.

"I can hear you quite well from here, thank you." She had tried to sound bold, but there was a squeak in her voice that she couldn't completely suppress. She stole a glance at the knot to her left where her mare was attached to his.

"If you run, I will catch you, tie you to one of these trees and give you the thrashing you have been in need of for too many years. Now, come here."

She had felt her hands grow clammy at the the threat and swallowed her growing panic. She was not afraid, he was simply bluffing. He probably wanted to speak to her from a comfortable distance. She lifted her head and made a slow, dignified walk towards him. Looking down her nose at him, she could not help admiring his own self-control. Not even her measured father could have talked calmly to her after she'd tried to hit him with a riding crop. Well she had missed, she supposed, so he was probably going to give her a lecture on propriety or some such thing.

"Are you even the least bit sorry?" He seemed actually surprised at her lack of penitence. A curl of his auburn hair fell over one raised brow, his grey eyes alight with frustration.

"I am only sorry that you caught me, but my mare is green, as you know." She replied honestly, with a slight shrug. She supposed they could call things even after this talk, however long it would be. Or perhaps he would decide she was too much trouble and he would back out of the marriage all together. The thought brought a small smile to her lips. She bit it back when she saw his raised eyebrow inch further up.

He held out a hand and she took it unthinkingly, considering that he wanted them to sit while they talked. She was unprepared to find herself pulled ungently over his thighs.

"What are you doing?! How dare you!?"

"Something that should have been done a long time ago. I will stop when you apologize."

"Stop?" She asked, struggling to lift herself up but finding the weight of his arm over her back to be overwhelming.

"When you apologize," he said one moment before he struck. She heard the whistle of something right before a line of blazing fire was drawn across her bottom. She let out a scream at the unexpected and terrible pain.

"What are you doing?!" She asked again, trying even harder to escape. Again, what must surely have been his riding crop sliced through the air and cut at her cheeks. The pain was unbearable and her legs flailed in desperation. He waited and moments later she realized he was waiting for her apology. Never. Never ever, even if he made her bleed. She bit down on her bottom lip, trying to force down her cries. Again the crop fell, a third, fourth, fifth time and she tasted coppery liquid where her teeth had worried at her lips. She felt hot tears force their way out of her eyes and though she still writhed in his hold she refused to say a word. He continued, each strike unrelenting, a blistering new line that made her bottom feel twice its size. At the tenth strike she couldn't hold her cries in and reached back to stall him. She would not beg, she couldn't. But gods, she couldn't continue. He captured her hands and held them against her back and struck again.

"Little fool," he muttered, giving her the break she craved. She was sobbing against him, wondering if she had won, if he would understand that she could not be broken. "I see this lesson would be better served on the bare." It took a few moments for his meaning to become clear and the realisation was only sped up by the movements of his fingers on the side buckles of her breeches.

"No! Please no, don't, please don't take them off!"

"You know how to end this," he said, mildly as if he were not now pulling down her briefs and exposing her bottom to the crisp evening air.

"No! Please!"

She got no response, aside from the whistle and strike of the crop against her quivering bottom. She let out a scream of pure agony.

"No! Please, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, please not again."

"What are you sorry for?"

"Everything! Please, please no more." But he did deliver one more, as if to drive his point home.

"You must be specific, otherwise the lesson is quickly forgotten."

She doubted very much that she would ever forget this.

"Okay, yes, I'm sorry I tried to hit you and for running away!"

"And? Before that?" He prompted, tapping the crop on her still exposed cheeks.

"I'm sorry for being rude!"

"I do hope you are, Tiernan, because if you treat me to that temper of yours ever again, I will put you over my knee and spank you until you can't sit for a week. Is that clear?"

She sniffed and hiccuped but said something in the affirmative. He moved his forearm from her back and helped her to her knees beside him. He considered ending things there but decided that if he was going to master her, he might as well be complete about it.

"Go, kneel by that tree, shut your eyes and raise your arms. Do not touch your bottom."

Her pout would have undone a younger Falx, who aside from being an adorer of all women, had once been easily swayed by tears. Falx now, was unmoved and watched her with frosty eyes while she made her way to the nearby tree to kneel. He rose after ensuring himself that she would at least stay in one place for the time being. He checked the horses and took a flask from his saddle, taking a sip and turning back to look at his chastised future bride.

His eyes swept down to her still exposed bottom, criss-crossed with faint wheals where the crop had struck. He had not gone easily on her, although he had recognized that he was holding back slightly on those last strikes. He heard her sniff and couldn't resist an eye roll. One of his mistresses had been a brat, one who enjoyed pushing him until he punished her. She would always complain afterward that he had been too strict and then she would whine and pout for at least three days. He shook off the thought; that particular woman had grown boring. And in any case, he would have had to end the association as he had been leaving the north to meet his bride. Another brat. She sniffed again and rubbed her face against her raised sleeve. Good, she wasn't putting her hands down even for a moment. He looked again at her bottom. Ample, soft, perfect for spanking. He allowed himself a smile before going back to his seat by the tree.

"Come here, Tiernan. You may put your trousers back on." She did that first before turning to him. He chuckled quietly; he was well aware of the embarrassment of keeping her that way after her punishment.

She got up and walked over to him, just a little less haughty than she'd been the first time.

"Sit."

He could tell she didn't want to and that she wanted to tell him this, but she restrained herself and he rewarded the effort with a smile. She tentatively sat on crossed legs wincing only slightly.

"I'm sorry to have had such a rocky start, Tiernan, but I do hope we understand each other a bit more now."

"I hate you," she murmured looking into her lap. She was crying again and he sighed.

"Would you like another ride over my knees?" He gentled his voice for the question, knowing from experience that she was likely feeling very fragile and if he wouldn't hug her, he might as well show some kindness.

He watched her shake her head, glancing up and offering a look of pure terror at the thought before turning her eyes downward again.

"Then cease these dramatic declarations of your distaste for me. If you wished to demonstrate how much of a brat you are to me, congratulations, you have succeeded. Understand that I have the means and the will to curb those brattish tendencies if they grow tiresome. Now, I don't intend to be an unkind husband, I only expect your respect, honesty and obedience."

"Is that all?" She scoffed and then he watched her bite down on her lip and squeeze her eyes shut as though she hadn't meant the words to slip out. He rubbed his eyebrow considering simply punishing her again, but he saw now that it was a matter of self control; that would need to be taught.

"Are you incapable of polite discourse?" He asked after a moment. "Stop and think before you answer that, Tiernan."

He watched the frown mar her brow before she slowly looked up and met his gaze with clear, grey eyes.

"I am, capable that is." Her eyes dropped from his after meeting his gaze for a long moment. He sighed and decided on a course.

"I think you will have to prove that to me. You are undisciplined and unprincipled – do not interrupt me, young lady – and I will change that while I am here. I will be in Java for the next fourteen or so days. You and I will have the opportunity to spend time together, and you will be able to demonstrate this capability to me. There will be consequences however if I find that you are losing yourself to hoydenish impulses. Every night you will account for your day with me: if you have been good, you will only receive a spanking, if you have been bad, you will get the crop. Is that clear to you?"

"But…why…so you would beat me everyday, regardless of whether I am good or bad?" Although she had opened her mouth to interrupt him at a different point in his speech, this was now her main concern.

"I'm glad to see you understand."

"That's not fair! You just said you don't intend to be an unkind husband!"

"And this will make it infinitely easier for that to happen, when I am, in fact, your husband."