A tinkling sound yanked Veela from dreams of sun and water. At first she wasn't sure if she'd really heard it, then a small splash nearby confirmed that she wasn't alone. She fought the urge to run and kept her eyes closed until her right hand found her stiletto, then she leapt to a defensive crouch and looked around.
The sun had slipped behind the canopy of swaying sartis trees while she napped, marking the passage of perhaps an hour. She hadn't meant to fall asleep, but the flat mossy rock felt like velvet against her long abused skin and the muttering waterfall had coaxed her eyes closed. She'd been running so long and the swim had been so refreshing.
Ripples in the pool lapped at her ledge, having been recently disturbed, and on the edge of the rock, where her feet had been a second before, lay a glittering necklace.
After one more look around, she lifted the string with the tip of her knife and brought it close. Hundreds of tiny shells, the palest of pink and barely the size of a rice grain were linked together by a silver cord no thicker than a hair. Knots had been made inside each shell in a way that held them without the need of holes. It was the finest piece of craftsmanship she had ever seen and must be very valuable.
She looked around at the bushes and trees, then glanced at the clothes piled next to her. Would they pounce the second she tried to dress?
"Who's there? Come out or I'll destroy this necklace."
A man's smiling face rose from the water next to her rock. A pale hand pushed hair from his eyes.
"You won't destroy it. Even fearsome warriors such as you have some appreciation for beauty."
Veela shivered and laid the necklace on the moss. "You were watching me."
"Of course I was. I too appreciate beauty wherever I find it."
Without letting her eyes or knife waver from the man, she snagged her shift and held in front of her.
"Well, no decent man would sneak up on a lone, sleeping woman."
"Most of the decent men I know would have taken their pleasure upon a naked runaway slave girl without hesitation. So, you might count yourself lucky that I'm not such a decent man," he said and offered a broad grin.
"How...I mean why do you think..."
"Think that you were a slave?"
She nodded, feeling less sure of herself.
"Because for just an instant, when you first woke, I saw in your eyes a willingness to die before being taken. Only an ex-slave or a very ill-used wife would have such determination."
"What do you want?"
"A trade. Do you like the necklace?"
She picked it up again and examined it more closely. Never had she seen anything as beautiful or as delicate. She swallowed. "I have no use for something so fine. And I have nothing of value to trade for such a treasure."
"Yes...you...do," he said and lifted himself partway out of the water. He was not a large man, but his shoulders and arms were corded and tight. And his eyes, the color of a summer sky, came alive when he smiled. "I will trade for a kiss."
"Just a kiss?"
"Come into the water and kiss me."
She started to get up and run, not from fear that he would attack her, for he could have easily done that while she slept, but a part of her worried that he was some enchanted creature of the forest pool, trying to lure her into his lair.
"I...where did you get it?" she said, trying to stall long enough to think.
"I made it. I live nearby and have collected these shells for years, slowly adding them to the string. I knew that someday...I would find someone worthy of it."
Veela swallowed and felt her heart pounding in her chest. It was so beautiful...he was so beautiful...it had to be a trick. "No...I...have to go."
"Where? Where are you going that you can't take the time to trade kisses for shells?"
How could he know that she so was tired of running? What did she have to lose? She should ignore him, get dressed and leave, but she really didn't have anywhere else to go. She lay her shift aside and tightened her grip on the knife, then stepped into the water. His arms slipped around her and pulled her close. She was more than relieved when she felt legs and not a fish's tail against her and when he pressed closer, she knew he had all the other man parts as well.
He smiled and slipped the necklace over her head. The water was cool and his arms were warm. She leaned forward to kiss him, but he stopped her a finger's width from his lips. "A kiss...for each shell."
She backed up and looked down at the shells that seemed to glow in the sun dappled water. "But there are hundreds of them."
"You don't have that many kisses?"
With quivering hands she dropped the dagger, took his face and kissed him. "One."
She felt a tingle pass through her whole body and kissed him again. "Two," she whispered. With each kiss she fell more under his spell, less able to leave. Was it magic? Was she trading one kind of slavery for another? Maybe.
He kissed her, longer and deeper. She felt the past fading. "Three."