Falkon sat up, his body tense, his ears ringing with the sound of a woman's scream. Maiya... It took him a moment to realize the scream had come from Ashlynne.
"What the hell's wrong with you?" he asked gruffly.
"A... a spider."
"There was a spider on my arm. It... it scared me. I hate spiders."
Falkon grunted softly, then turned away. A spider. "How about releasing me?"
She hesitated a moment, then activated the release mechanism.
Falkon stood up. After stretching his arms and legs, he walked to the tunnel's opening and peered through the bushes. Dawn was breaking over the distant mountains. The rising sun splashed the sky with brilliant streaks of ocher and fiery shades of crimson. He heard the trilling of birds, the rustle of the leaves on the trees outside the tunnel, the shriek of some wild animal.
He glanced over his shoulder at the girl. Her hair fell in a tangled mass of silver-blond curls down her back; her face was smudged with dirt. Her dress was ripped along the neckline, revealing one softly rounded shoulder and a tantalizing glimpse of smooth creamy flesh. She didn't look so high and mighty now, he mused. "Let's go, princess."
"Is it safe?"
Falkon shrugged. If there were men prowling the jungle, the birds wouldn't be singing. Indeed, the moment he stepped out of the tunnel, the jungle grew silent, almost as if it were holding its breath.
Ashlynne stepped warily to the mouth of the tunnel, the hand in her pocket fisted around the controller. She saw Number Four standing a few feet away, his head cocked, as though he were listening to something only he could hear, and then he began walking east.
She felt a peculiar lurch in her stomach as she looked at him. He wore only a pair of tight-fitting breeches and a pair of black boots. The early morning sunlight cast blue highlights in his long black hair. She stared at his back, pity rising within her when she saw the ugly marks left by the lash. His arms and legs were long and well-muscled.
The thought of those arms, the strength of them, made her tighten her hold on the controller. She would have to be on her guard every minute, she thought, lest he overpower her and wrest the controller from her grasp. She would be helpless then, completely at his mercy.
Falkon looked over his shoulder, frowning when he saw the girl staring at him. "I'm leaving," he said, "with or without you."
"I don't think so."
"I know so."
Slowly, Ashlynne drew her hand out of her pocket, the controller pointed at his back. "You will wait for me."
Falkon glanced at the controller, then back at the girl. He had no doubt she would use the thing. She had done so before. "Right."
Arms crossed over his chest, he watched her step out of the tunnel. The hand holding the controller was trembling. A muscle twitched in his jaw. One slip of her thumb and he would be writhing on the ground at her feet.
He choked back the anger that rose in his throat like bile. It was maddening, humiliating, degrading, to be at the mercy of another and even more so to be at the mercy of a mere girl. There was a good chance he could jump her and wrest the controller from her grasp, but not now. He would bide his time for just the right moment.
"You've been injured!" She gestured at his arm with the controller, felt the nausea rise in her throat as she stared at the ugly black burn across his right biceps.
"Yeah." He glanced at the wound. The skin of his upper arm was raw and red, black around the edges.
"Does it - does it hurt very much?"
"Damn right." He took a deep, calming breath. "Are you ready to go now?" He forced the words through clenched teeth.
"Shouldn't we - your arm. Shouldn't we tend it first?"
"I don't know how, unless you've got a medi-kit hidden in your pocket."
Ashlynne shook her head.
"Let's go, then."
"I'll follow you. Mind you, go slowly. I won't hesitate to use this if I have to."
"I have no doubt of that," he muttered. Pivoting on his heel, he started walking, slowly.
Gradually, his anger melted. It was the first time in months that he had been outside the mine compound or the jinan. The sun felt warm, soothing, on his back. A deep breath filled his nostrils with myriad scents - earth and trees, the perfume of wildflowers, the stink of a rotting carcass, the heavy smell of damp tree moss.
Falkon walked steadily toward the rising sun. If he remembered correctly, there was a star base located on the eastern strip of Tierde. He could leave the girl there. With any luck, he would be able to steal a cruiser and get the hell off this rock. Free, he thought. Soon, he'd be free again. He lifted a hand to his throat. With any luck, he'd soon be free of the heavy collar and the shackles, too.
The laser burn on his arm seemed to throb in time with his footsteps, increasing as the day went on until it was a constant pulsing pain.
At noon, they stumbled onto a deep green pool surrounded by gigantic blue ferns and a profusion of flowering vines.
Falkon paused at the edge of the pool, his mouth watering as his gaze swept over the surrounding area.
Ashlynne licked her lips. "Do you think it's safe to drink?"
Falkon nodded. "Probably." Judging from the variety of animal tracks, the pool appeared to be a watering hole.
She started to take a step forward, but he held her back. "Hold on."
Years of training as a sky pilot had taught him never to rush into unknown territory, but to wait, to study the lay of the land.
Ashlynne looked at him, annoyed. A flash of movement caught her eye and she glanced at the pool to see a small reddish-brown spring-cat approach the edge. The animal scented the air, then lowered its head and began to drink.
Falkon let out a sigh of relief when the cat disappeared into the forest.
He'd been pretty certain the water was safe; the cat confirmed it. Hurrying forward, he dropped down on his belly and buried his face in the pool, then drank deeply. The water was cool and sweet. He was aware of the girl kneeling beside him, taking delicate sips of water from her cupped hands.
When he had quenched his thirst, he lowered his wounded arm into the pool, closing his eyes as the cool water eased the burning ache.
When she finished drinking, Ashlynne scooted away from Number Four.
His nearness made her nervous. He looked dark and dangerous sitting there beside the pool. Water glistened on his bare arms and chest, his jaw was shadowed with the beginnings of a beard, his trousers hugged his long, muscular legs like a second skin. She wondered what it would be like to explore the hard muscles of his arms, to run her fingertips over his flat muscular stomach... She shook her head, horrified by the direction of her thoughts. He was a mercenary, a killer. She would do well to remember that.
Glancing up, she saw him watching her, a bemused expression on his face. Mortified, she realized she had been staring at his chest. A rush of heat flooded her cheeks. Her first instinct was to look away. Instead, she lifted her chin and met his gaze.
"You want to see the rest?" he drawled. "I could strip down for you."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean!" The lie tasted sour in her mouth.
Impossible as it seemed, she felt her cheeks grow even hotter.
"You own me," he said, his voice tinged with bitterness. "Are you sure you don't want to see it all?"
She had never been so humiliated in her life. She wanted to die, to disappear, to never see him again.
"Ready to go, princess?"
"Yes," she replied curtly, "as soon as I wash this stuff from my hands."
"What is it?"
"I don't know." Frowning, she scrubbed at the flaky greenish substance under her fingernails. It looked like paint, but it couldn't be. "And stop calling me princess."
He rose fluidly to his feet and held out his hand, his dark eyes dancing with amusement.
He was laughing at her! Ashlynne glared up at him. Refusing his offer, she stood up and wiped her hands dry on her skirt.
"Afraid of me?" he asked.
"Of course not."
"I'm hungry," she said imperiously.
"Well, I'm sure that's a first. Come on, let's go."
It was true - she had never been hungry before. The gnawing ache in her belly helped keep her mind off the humiliation she had endured at the pool. It was bad enough to realize she had been staring at him, wondering what his bare skin would feel like beneath her fingertips. It was positively mortifying
to know that he had been aware of her thoughts.
It seemed as though they had been walking for days when he finally found a place to rest. Ashlynne's legs felt like rubber as she sank to the ground. Her hand ached from holding the controller, yet she dared not put it down. It was the only protection she had.
She felt her cheeks grow warm as her stomach growled loudly. She was hungry and thirsty and tired. She wanted something to eat, a glass of sweet wine, a warm bath, a soft bed to sleep in. She wanted her parents.... Hot tears burned her eyes. They were dead, and she would never see them, or her home, again.
Sunk in the depths of her own misery, she began to cry. Unconsciously, her hand tightened on the controller.
A sharp cry of pain penetrated her grief.
Looking up, she saw Number Four writhing on the ground, his body straining, every muscle taut.
Instantly, she released her grip on the controller. "I'm sorry," she cried. "I didn't mean it. It was an accident!"
She watched helplessly as he continued to writhe in agony, her own anguish forgotten. His body twitched uncontrollably as hundreds of tiny electrical shocks pulsed through him.
Gradually, the spasms stopped. Eyes closed, he lay on the ground, his body bathed in sweat, his breathing harsh and uneven.
"I'm so sorry," she murmured contritely. "So sorry."
"Why?" Just a single word, filled with condemnation.
"It was an accident. I didn't mean to."
He opened his eyes to stare up at her. She flinched at the pain and contempt she read in his expression.
"I'm sorry," she said again.
"No need to be. I'm just a slave. You could kill me and no one would care." With an effort, he sat up. He wiped his sweaty brow on his forearm, then sat there, staring at her, until his body stopped trembling and his breathing returned to normal. "I don't suppose you'd consider giving me that thing? Or throwing it away?"
"I didn't think so." He stood up slowly and took a deep breath. When he looked at her, his eyes were cold. "If you ever use that damn thing on me again, I'll break your neck."
Ashlynne scrambled to her feet and backed away from him. "I said it was an accident."
"Yeah. Let's go."
"But I'm hungry. And tired."
"So am I, princess." Without another word, he turned his back to her and started walking.
There was nothing for her to do but follow him.
At dusk, he found a shallow stream. The bank was crisscrossed with animal tracks. Ashlynne sat on a stump, the controller in her lap, watching Number Four fashion a snare from a sturdy brown vine. "Do you think that will work?"
"You'd better hope so."
He put the finishing touches on the snare, covering it with a thin layer of leaves. "Come on." Without waiting to see if she followed him or not, he moved away from the stream, taking cover behind a stand of timber.
"How long will we have to wait?"
"I don't know." He sat down with his back against a tree, his legs drawn up, his arms resting on his bent knees. He had never been so tired. The wound in his arm throbbed monotonously. "As long as it takes, I guess."
After a moment, Ashlynne sat down across from him. Silence stretched between them. It made her uncomfortable. "Do you have a name?"
"You mean besides Number Four?"
She flinched at the bitterness in his voice. How degrading it must be, she thought, to be called by a number instead of your name. What if she had been imprisoned? What if no one called her Ashlynne anymore? Using a number instead of a name was so cold, so impersonal, almost as if that person was no longer human. For the first time, it occurred to her that stripping a man of his name was like stripping him of his identity, his dignity.
Why hadn't she realized that before? "I'd like to know it," she said.
Falkon. She repeated it in her mind. It was a strong name, one that suited him perfectly.
"And yours is Ashlynne." His voice, deep and rich, caressed her name like a prayer.
"I'm sorry about your parents."
Silence dropped between them again.
Ashlynne stared into the distance, fighting the urge to cry. Everything she had ever loved was gone. Her parents, her home, her best friend, her pretty little chestnut mare, the security she had taken for granted all her life. They were all gone, wiped out in a blast of laser fire, and she was alone and afraid, more afraid than she had ever been in her life.
She slid a surreptitious glance at Falkon. Dark bristles shadowed his jaw.
She saw him touch his arm and wince. What if the wound became infected? Even though she didn't trust him, even though she was afraid of him, she didn't want him to die, didn't want to be out here alone, at the mercy of the jungle and its inhabitants.
"Why were you sent to the mines?"
He turned to look at her. His blue-gray eyes seemed to be weighing her, judging the reason for her interest. "I went to Riga Twelve to fight the Romarians."
"Why would you do that? It wasn't your fight."
"Wasn't it? I had friends on Riga Twelve."
She heard his emphasis on the word had and knew his friends were dead.
"Riga Twelve isn't the first planet they've conquered," he said bitterly, "nor will it be the last."
"The Romarians are trying to bring peace to the galaxy."
"Who told you that?"
"I heard my father talking about it."
"The Romarians are determined to conquer the galaxy, to force everyone to believe as they do, or be destroyed," he declared, his voice bitter.
"And what of Daccar?" Ashlynne exclaimed. "There is no more warlike people in the galaxy."
"That's true," Falkon allowed, with a small measure of pride. His people were the bravest and fiercest fighters in the galaxy. "But we've never tried to force our beliefs on other worlds. We may fight among ourselves, but we don't take our wars to other planets."
"You were a mercenary," she said scathingly. "If the price was right, you'd probably fight your own people, too."
Anger blazed in his eyes. "You don't know a damn thing about me," he said, his voice brittle. And then the anger faded from his eyes, replaced by a deep inconsolable sadness.
He blew out a deep breath. "I've no doubt the Romarians are the ones behind the Hodorian attack on the mines. Romariz will come in now and clean up the mess, and then they'll claim Tierde, and the mine, for their own." And when that was done, they would be in control of the last free black baneite crystal mine in the galaxy.
"But we're at peace with Romariz," she said. "And Hodore, too."
"But my father signed a treaty."
"Did he? Hell of a lot of good it did him." But even as he spoke the words, he knew none of it made sense. Romariz was already getting its share of crystals from the mine; Hodore, too. The girl was right. There was no reason, no logic, behind the attack.
She looked up at him, her eyes like bruises in her pale face. Then her gaze slid away from his, and he wished he had kept his mouth shut. He hadn't meant to hurt her, or to remind her of what she had lost.
"I'm going to check the trap," he said quietly, and, rising to his feet, he left her there.
Ashlynne licked the grease from her fingers, then wiped her hands on the hem of her skirt. Falkon's snare had caught a fat black rabbit. No matter what else he might be, he knew his way around in the woods, knew how to survive. He had managed to light a fire, spit the beast, and roast it to perfection. Even Meggie, the cook, couldn't have done it better. Thinking of Meggie brought thoughts of home to mind again. She wondered if her parents had suffered before they died.
She looked up at him.
"Go ahead and cry."
Not wanting him to think her weak, she started to tell him she didn't need to cry, that she was fine. But she wasn't fine. Her heart was heavy, her throat thick, and suddenly tears were running down her cheeks and she was sobbing, crying as she hadn't cried since she was a child.
Falkon watched her a moment and then, unable to help himself, he drew her into his arms. He knew how she felt, knew the guilt of surviving, the pain of losing those one loved. She burrowed against him, seeking his warmth, needing the comfort and reassurance of a human touch.
He tried not to think of how small she was, how right she felt in his arms.
It was only because he hadn't had a woman in a very long time that made holding her feel so good. He tried not to notice how soft her hair felt against his cheek, or how warm her breasts felt pressed against his chest. He tried not to notice the way she fit into his arms, as if she had been made especially for him.
He swore under his breath, wondering at the foolish notions creeping into his thoughts. She was no different from any other woman, no softer, no sweeter, no more desirable... ah, but she felt so very good nestled in his arms.
Shoulders shaking, she wept until she had no tears left. And still he held her, until her breathing returned to normal and she sat quiet in his embrace, her face still buried in the hollow of his shoulder.
"Feel better now?" he asked kindly.
Feeling embarrassed, Ashlynne nodded. "Thank you." She drew back, wiping her eyes with the hem of her skirt.
"We should be moving on."
She nodded again, not trusting herself to speak.
She watched as he smothered the fire and buried the rabbit's bones.
"Ready?" he asked.
With a curt nod, he took her hand and pulled her to her feet, then turned and started walking eastward, cursing himself for his weakness. He never should have taken her in his arms. She was the enemy. He cursed softly. He had been so caught up in comforting her, so busy thinking about how good it felt to hold her in his arms, he had missed the perfect chance to lift the controller from her pocket.
"Falkon?" She spoke his name aloud for the first time, liking the sound of it.
"Where are we going?"
"Enjine Base Nine."
"The star base? Why?"
Ashlynne considered that for a moment. "You're going to try to steal a cruiser or something stupid like that, aren't you?"
"Right the first time." He didn't know if the base had been attacked, didn't know which army might be in control, but it didn't matter. One way or another, he was getting the hell out of there.
"You'll never get away with it."
She was probably right. The base would be heavily guarded. After the recent attack, security would be tighter than usual. But it was his only chance. "I've got to try."
"What about... what about me?"
"I'll leave you there. You can get a transport to wherever you want to go."
"Oh." With a shock, she realized she didn't want to be parted from Falkon.
She felt safe with him in a way she had never felt with anyone else. And that was strange, she thought, because she didn't trust him at all.