A gritty, yet seductive novel with a unique visualization of the plight of women in society. Fast paced, well written characters, and great storyline make this a MUST read! Loved it!
“Well written, author Klein knows that words are her tools, and she wields her tools well.”
In the darkest of times, love still shines through…
On a harsh future Earth where corruption rules and women are few, cold realist Hudson Land must purchase a wife to comply with the Elders’ laws and save his farm. Instead of an auction, he witnesses the start of an execution. With his first look at a beautiful woman in years, Hudson knows he has to have her–no matter the cost.
Lake, a chemist and a rebel fighter, is resigned to her death, but when some back-hill farmer rescues her from the chopping block she has no intention of simply becoming his wife. She’s pledged her life to the Rebellion and being bought for some stranger’s bed doesn’t change a thing, even if his soft caresses are damn distracting.
As lies and secrets build between them, can they trust each other enough to stand against the two warring factions in a world where only the strong survive?
Hudson couldn’t decide which was worse, the stench of the rotting heads on the wooden spikes or the flies that buzzed around his face and tickled his nose. He made a swipe at the filthy insects—the flies then. A hot breeze blew in from the east, kicking up the red dust and carrying the stink of decomposing flesh his way. He breathed through his mouth. Nope, had to be the scent.
An old man, bent over and with one shoulder higher than the other, shuffled into him. With a reflex sharpened from years of base-born survival, Hudson had his ax off his back and blade connecting to the protruding bone on the man’s wrist.
“Release the pouch, old man, or the hand comes with it.”
The man’s twisted digits unfurled. Hudson pushed him away, but was careful not to knock him down. In a crowd this size, a man that age might not get back up. Hudson strung the pouch around his neck and tucked his life savings under his shirt. An execution always drew an audience, and an audience always had its share of thieves looking for an easy mark. Things must be desperate if the pick pockets thought him easy.
Hudson stretched to his full height and peered over to where the crowd was the thickest. An execution block had been set up in the middle of Portal City, severed heads decorated the tall, spear-like poles along the back. Other than a few dirty children, there were only men for as far as he could see. And all were here for the same purpose he was—to buy a wife. Twice a year the prisons were emptied, and any person with enough gold could buy a wife or a laborer. Except he’d been late, his horse had thrown a shoe, and the auctions of the female prisoners were over. The only thing left now, was the execution.
Today the crowd was more rabid than usual. Hudson had heard the whispers that floated on the stench of unwashed bodies and excrement. Woman…Beautiful woman…Beheading.
If there were truth in those words, then this would be the first female execution since he’d been a child—thirty some odd years ago. Women could get away with murder—most had. With only the rich able to afford a wife and the stillborn rate of female babies on the rise, women were a commodity and everybody wanted one.
Hudson hated Portal City. It was no coincidence that the stronghold of the Elders’ power was in the worst cesspool of humanity. Wanted and starving men alike lurked behind every shanty hut waiting to escape to the one place Elder law didn’t reach—Dark Planet. But Hudson wasn’t wanted or starving, and since Elder law stated only married men could hold land, this cesspool of humanity was Hudson’s best chance of getting a wife.
Another body, layered with equal parts dirt and whiskey, jostled him. Hudson jostled him back, glad to be head and shoulders above most of the men. A murmur rustled through the crowd, and the black crows that feasted off the rotting heads flapped their wings in response. A solemn Elder in a long black robe appeared on the platform, an official document in hand—the Judge. The Executioner came next, his face lost in the deep hollow of his hood, a powerful ax in both hands.
The prisoner was last. The whispers of woman were true, but those of beautiful were not. Two steely men secured her by each arm. Her hands were bound at her back, face wild in a mass of tangled hair. A hush settled over the men as the Elder in black stepped up and addressed the crowd.
“By the power invested in me by the Global Community and The Way, I sentence this prisoner to death by beheading. She’s been heard and found guilty by the judicial Elders for the crime of murdering her newborn infant.”
An anguished “no” sounded in the silence. Her husband? At least someone would weep at her passing. Hudson guessed a crazed wife was better than a dead one. The Path knew he would take a little crazy to get a woman fat with his child. He maneuvered himself closer to the platform to determine if the woman was worth saving. Her hair was marked with wide bands of white. Her eyes were dark and sunken deep into a papery face. Grooves emphasized the hard line of her mouth. Not many good breeding years left, if any at all. With the cost of survival high, there was no room for charity. Everyone had to pull their own weight. It was a shame when a woman grew past childbearing age that she ceased to be useful. But he didn’t make the rules, he just survived them. To Hudson, it was better to have a quick death then a slow one of starvation.
Apparently the convicted didn’t agree. “Mercy! Mercy! I didn’t kill my baby girl. I swear it.”
Ahh. A female infant than, even worse.
“Mercy!” she pleaded as she struggled with the two brown robed guards.
The men for once stood silent. No one wanted to make a noise and accidentally be saddled with the “blood price.” It was customary for the convicted to beseech the crowd for mercy. Anyone could grant it—if they could afford the hefty fee.
Not a sound. Even the anguished protester from before couldn’t afford to run his mouth off. Having enough of her pleas, one guard struck her leg, which quickly brought her to her knees. The crowd grew excited, and Hudson found himself pushed against the side of the stage. He was so close that he could see the woman’s lips quiver as she mouthed… a prayer? A confession? Her soul was someone else’s problem, not his.
The other robed figure stepped up, knife in hand. With a strong fist he secured her hair and pulled her face flush with the large oak stump aka chopping block. A quick slice with the blade and a red line rose bright against the grimy skin on the back of her neck.
She’d been marked then. A target for the Executioner, so his aim could be true.
The woman’s murmurs pitched to high wails. Hudson briefly looked away when the hooded man stepped up and raised his ax for the death blow. There was a slight whistling as the blade rent the air with its downward strike. A dull sound as the ax found its purchase in the oak underneath. The heavy thud as the head dropped to the ground.
A scrawny boy with oily hair quickly snatched up the body part and, with a few sly maneuvers, was lost in the crowd. Hudson knew a peek at today’s souvenir was a good trade for a shiny penny or a hard crust of bread.
Only a half-hearted applause burst forth from the crowd, who under normal conditions were a blood thirsty lot. Today, though a beheading was always entertaining, the theatrics of the Elders left much to be desired. Should’ve dragged it out more. Given them a better show.
Hudson turned to go, his blood lust nowhere near that of the men around him. He had seen enough death to last him a lifetime during the Global War. Though he’d been too young to fight, he hadn’t been too young to bury the dead. He’d come to purchase a wife and save his farm. Not witness a beheading.
It wasn’t the audible gasp of the crowd that had Hudson turning to get a look at the next prisoner brought for execution. No, the crowd was made up of hard men, lonely and desperate for drama of any kind. It was the slacked mouth, wide eyed expression on a skinny youth, too jaded and abused to be awed easily, that had Hudson stopping in his tracks and craning his head.
Then he saw her. The rational part of Hudson’s mind knew the woman who stood between the two guards was a convicted criminal. But she looked more like a fallen angel than a dangerous prisoner.
Unlike the previous woman, this one held her petite frame to its full height. Long hair, so pale it looked white in the sun, tangled about her head. She seemed unaffected as the fine strands danced around her face and caught on her lips. If her hair skimmed across his skin, he wouldn’t have been nearly as immune. Her eyes were the dark blue of the ocean, but with none of its depth—dead and flat they reminded him of the broad side of a neglected sword or the dullness of a skipping stone.
This one hadn’t needed to be dragged to her fate. She had walked up herself—chin high, expression accepting, as if already dead. There would be no begging for life or shouts of innocence. But that didn’t matter; the crowd had already decided. Words of “mercy” rippled through the throng, soft at first, then with more heat. The men were of one mind. They would beg for her. Every man, young and old, had one thought—save her, take her. A beauty like this was a rarity, and shouldn’t be wasted on an ax and a stump.
A face that could launch a thousand ships—or incite a hundred men.
They were all seduced, Hudson included, by the thin dingy gown that billowed and flattened against her body showing the rounded globes beneath, then a teasing peek of a darkened shadow at the juncture of her legs.
Hudson had no plan. No idea of what he meant to do, but doing nothing wasn’t an option. He was not alone in his thinking. The men turned mob screamed “mercy” as they rushed the stage. The few guards placed to control the crowd suddenly had their hands full. The two guards securing the prisoner looked at each other, then to the Judge, apprehension in their eyes. The black robed figure shook his head in answer to their unspoken question. The protocol would hold. Only the prisoner could beseech the crowd.
To Hudson the world narrowed to shades of black and white, with bursts of color: The ripple of the dingy gown as the woman was brought to her knees. The wave of pale white hair as it fell across the oak, bloodied and red.
“By the power invested in me…”
Hudson elbowed a man in the face as he tried to hold his position. The man next to him tried to use the guard’s shoulder to launch himself up on the platform. He got a sword through his middle.
“She has been heard and found guilty…”
The slash of a knife. A slow spread of red on the back of the woman’s neck. The thin crimson line, loud in the subdued world of darks and whites.
A guard stepped in front of Hudson and raised his sword.
Hudson slashed with his ax and relieved the man of his weapon…and his arm. Both fell to the ground.
“Convicted of the crime of owning and using a personal computer.”
Hudson paused. Computer? A civilian owning electronic equipment broke the anti-tech laws. This could only mean one thing—Revolutionist. She was involved with the Rebellion and the Rebellion was trouble. She could cost him his farm. He looked down at the dead solider in front of him—maybe already had. He stepped away from the body and let the mob do what it does best—consume the evidence.
Not worth it. Hudson stepped back, lowered his ax. He’d find another wife. Maybe not one as pretty, but a person couldn’t survive on pretty. A person could survive on a farm—his farm.
The Executioner’s ax raised high and paused mid-air.
“Halt! It is unlawful to execute a pregnant woman. This prisoner carries my child!”
The ax fell…but slower and to his side.
Hudson took a breath. There was a slight easing in his chest at the knowledge that the woman wouldn’t die. Pregnancy was an automatic acquittal. He glanced around the crowd, looking for the poor bastard who would be saddled with more trouble than any one person could handle. Except, all the men were staring back at him. And the tightening in his chest returned, along with the drowning realization that he was the poor bastard.