Ashlynne sighed. It seemed as though they had been walking forever. Her feet hurt. She was hungry again. Tired from a restless night spent on the hard ground. Every passing shadow, every sound, had brought her to full wakefulness.
She stared at Falkon's back. In spite of his protests, she had activated the shackles the night before. She knew he hated her for it, but she was afraid to trust him, afraid if she left his feet free, he would run off in the night and leave her behind. She knew she was slowing him down, knew he considered her a burden. She didn't mean to be. It wasn't her fault she wasn't used to tramping through the jungle. She couldn't help it if she was afraid of spiders and snakes, if she didn't know how to skin a rabbit, or cook the meat over a fire. Never, in her wildest dreams, had she imagined she would need to know such things.
Today, it wasn't fear for herself that worried her. It was fear for Falkon.
The wound in his arm was festering. It was swollen and red, oozing with thick yellow-green pus. He had told her not to worry, he was fine, but he wasn't walking as rapidly today, and she noticed that they rested more often.
He needed help, and soon.
She fought down a rising sense of panic. If he died, so would she. She had no way of defending herself in this horrid place. She was dependent on him for food and shelter and protection.
They came to a small water hole and he dropped to his stomach, drinking greedily. She knelt beside him, alarmed by the heat she could feel radiating from his body. Lifting a tentative hand, she placed it on his arm. He flinched away from her touch, but even that brief contact was enough to tell her he was burning with fever.
Slowly, he turned to face her. "Guess you'll soon be rid of me," he said.
"I can't go any farther." He rested his forehead on the ground. The damp earth felt cool against his heated flesh. "Keep going east. Sooner or later, you'll reach the space port."
"You can't give up."
He closed his eyes. "Sorry, princess. I wish..."
"Falkon?" She shook his uninjured shoulder. "Falkon! Wake up." She shook him again. "Don't do this to me! You can't die. I need you." She shook him again. "Please wake up!"
But it was no use. She sat back on her heels, staring at him. Numb with fear, she glanced around the jungle. It would be dark soon. The animals that slept through the heat of the day would be rousing, coming to the pool to drink. She had to find a place to hide. And to think she had once wanted to be independent, rebellious, even! Hah! She would be content to be ordered about for the rest of her life if she could just go back home and find everything as it had been before.
She rose on shaky legs, glancing frantically around, trying to decide what to do. She had never had to make any decisions before, at least none more serious than what dress to wear or how to spend her day. East. Falkon had told her to go east.
Squaring her shoulders, she took a few steps, then looked backward. She couldn't just leave him lying there, prey to wild beasts. The least she could do was drag him away from the water.
That, she soon found, was far easier said than done. Try as she might, she couldn't budge him. Tears of frustration rose in her eyes. She couldn't leave him, but she was afraid to stay near the pool. Night was falling rapidly.
Already, she could hear stirrings in the underbrush.
And then she heard voices. Male voices speaking a language she didn't understand. She glanced around, poised for flight, but before she could locate a hiding place, they were there. Six dark-skinned men clad in rough skins, their hair adorned with bits of fur and feathers and bone. She had heard of them, the wild men of the jungle, men who refused to surrender the old ways, men who still hunted with spears and clubs. Men who were rumored to be cannibals.
She stared at them and then, overcome by fear and fatigue, she slid to the ground, praying that she would be dead before they ate her.
Falkon woke to a raging thirst and the sound of drums. For a time, he lay still, eyes closed, trying to determine where he was.
He heard footsteps, muffled conversation, the crackle of flames.
Hands gripped his shoulders, holding him down. He gasped as agony splintered through his wounded arm, opened his eyes to find himself surrounded by a half-dozen painted faces. He'd heard stories of them in the mine, the cannibals of Tierde.
Damn, were they carving him up alive? He glanced at his arm, swore again as one of the men made a slit in his flesh. A trickle of dark red blood and greenish-yellow pus spurted from the cut. He groaned as pressure was applied to his arm, forcing more pus from the wound.
When only bright red blood ran from the cut, the witch doctor held Falkon's arm over a wooden cup until it was almost full, and then he slapped a hot poultice over the wound. The pain was excruciating. With a groan, Falkon pitched headlong into oblivion.
When he woke again, it was night. He glanced around, but could see nothing in the dark hut. He licked dry lips, threw off the rough blanket that covered him. He was hot, so hot. He tossed restlessly, plagued by a relentless thirst. He couldn't feel any pain in his arm and he wondered, morbidly, if they had cut it off. He had a vague memory of a painted face hovering over him, filling a wooden cup with his blood. The thought of someone drinking from that cup made him sick to his stomach. He took a deep breath, then reached across his body, relieved to find his arm still there.
Water. He had to have a drink.
He groaned as he rolled to his side, then to his hands and knees. The movement made him dizzy.
Choking back his nausea, he lifted his head and looked toward the sound
of the voice. "Ashlynne?"
He blinked into the darkness. "What's wrong?"
"They tied me up."
He grunted softly; then, gathering what little strength he possessed, he crawled slowly toward her, only to go sprawling facedown across her lap when he bumped into her thigh.
"Are you all right?" she whispered.
"Oh, yeah, fine." He lay there a moment, his head pillowed in her lap.
Sleep, he thought, it would be so nice to close his eyes and go to sleep with his head in her lap.
"Yeah, me too." He struggled to sit up, then reached behind her and fumbled with the rope binding her wrists. It seemed to take forever, but finally he managed to loosen the knots.
"Hurry, we've got to get out of here." She shook off the rope and began to massage her wrists, wincing as the blood began to circulate again.
"They're cannibals, aren't they?"
She shuddered. She had been hoping she was wrong. "They're going to eat us, aren't they?"
He didn't care what they did, so long as they gave him something cold to drink first.
"We've got to get out of here," she said urgently.
"Yeah." It was an effort to think. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep.
"Wake up! Falkon, wake up!" She shook his arm. "Come on, we've got to go."
"You go." He was tired and thirsty and hungry and right then, he didn't care if he lived or died.
"Falkon! Damn you, wake up."
In spite of everything, he felt himself smiling at her use of profanity.
"Falkon." Her voice, close to his ear. "If you don't wake up, I'm going to use the controller."
That got his attention. "What do you want from me?" he asked.
"I want you to get me out of here. Now." She cocked her head to one side. "I don't hear anything. Maybe they're all asleep." She stood up, tugging on his arm. "Let's go. Hurry."
He rose on legs that felt like warm rubber and staggered toward the door of the hut, wondering at her bravado. Not too long ago, she had been afraid of a harmless spider, now she was ready to fight off a tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals.
He opened the hide flap that covered the doorway and peered outside. All was quiet. Dark. Low clouds covered the moon and blotted out the stars. A few raindrops splattered his face, promising a downpour before the night was out. The cool air revived him a little, clearing the cobwebs from his mind. She was right. They had to get out of there.
"Stay close," he whispered, and slipped outside.
It was to their advantage that the hut they had been in was located a
short distance away from the others. Keeping to the shadows, he ghosted around the corner of the shack. The jungle rose up in front of him, dark, silent.
He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the girl was behind him, then slipped into the underbrush.
Ashlynne followed close on Falkon's heels. She hadn't thought anything could be more frightening than seeing her home destroyed, but one look at the cannibals who had captured them had changed her mind. Fear could be a powerful impetus, and she had been terrified. She had watched in horror as the medicine man had drained Falkon's blood into a cup. He had taken a swallow, nodded, and handed the cup to the man behind him, who had taken a drink and passed it to the next man. That act alone had banished any doubts she'd had about her captors, and she had known that, somehow, she had to get away.
She had fought with a ferocity she hadn't known she possessed when they tied her up, but all her struggles had been in vain. They had bound her hands, then stood around her, talking softly. One man had run his hands over her arms and legs, nodding and smiling, and though she hadn't been able to understand his words, she had known he was thinking of all the ways to cook her.
She didn't know how long she had sat there after the savages left. Before the interior of the hut had grown dark, she had glanced around, searching for something she could use to cut her hands free, but all she had seen were skulls and shrunken heads and a pile of bones. Human bones.
She had stared at Falkon, lying on the ground across from her, willing him to wake up before it was too late. She had heard the natives singing and dancing, swallowed back the bile that rose in her throat as she imagined them dragging her outside, stripping her of her clothes, tossing her into a pot of boiling water.
But no one had come for her. Gradually, the drumming had ceased and the night had grown silent.
And now she was following Falkon deeper into the jungle. All the stories she had heard when she was a child rose up to haunt her, tales not only of the cannibals, but of wild animals, of slime pits and burning sands, of a lost city that had once been inhabited by a race of giants. She had always thought such tales to be nothing but fiction, but if the cannibals were real, might there not also be bottomless pits of slime and sands that burned like fire? What if the jungle housed giants, as well? She tripped over a log, gasping as pain exploded through her knee. For a moment, she lay where she had fallen, too weary to move. What difference did it make if they escaped the cannibals? There were probably a thousand other worse ways to die waiting for them in this great green hell. Snakes and wild beasts and poisoned water. Suddenly, she didn't care. She just wanted it to be over.
"Ashlynne? Are you hurt?"
"Of course I'm hurt! And I'm hungry and tired and scared."
He looked at her a moment and then, with a low groan, he hunkered down on his heels beside her. "What happened to that spitfire who practically dragged me out of the cannibals' camp?"
"I don't know." She looked up at him, tears making wet trails through the dirt that covered her face. "We're going to die out here, aren't we?"
"Not if I can help it. Come on, you can't give up now."
"Yes, I can. I'm tired."
"I know. Come on, just a little farther."
"Come on, princess, I can't carry you." He smiled grimly. "Hell, before the night is over, you may have to carry me."
She couldn't help it - she laughed.
"That's better." He held out his hand. "Come on."
With a sigh, she put her hand in his and let him help her to her feet. "Do you know where we are?"
He jerked his chin. "All I know is that east is that way, and that's where we want to go. Ready?"
She nodded, and he turned and began walking. Far ahead, she could see a tall, slender mountain. Enjine Base Nine was at the foot of the mountain.
She was certain things couldn't get worse when it began to rain. Not a light mist. Not a spring shower. But a heavy rain that quickly soaked her to the skin.
She had never been so cold or so miserable in her whole life.
It seemed they walked for hours, but the mountain never got any closer.
At dawn, Falkon found a place for them to rest, a small, dark cave that smelled of dung and dust and something long dead.
Falkon went in ahead of her. He reappeared a short while later, a dead animal in his hands. He tossed the carcass away, then shrugged. "Your castle awaits, princess."
"I hate you," she murmured. "I really do."
"Yeah," he said, following her inside. "I know."
It was dark and cold. She stood in the middle of the cave, her arms wrapped around her body, shivering uncontrollably.
"Get out of those wet things."
"Do it," he said. She heard the scrape of cloth over skin and knew he was removing his boots and breeches. "Dammit, Ashlynne, get out of those wet clothes."
She turned her back to him and undressed, grateful for the cave's sheltering darkness. She gasped when he grasped her arm and drew her down beside him.
"Relax, I'm not going to hurt you. Just lie close to me. We'll be warmer that way."
She would have protested, but she could already feel his heat seeping into her everywhere they touched, save for one cold, damp area around his buttocks, and she realized that he was not totally naked.
They lay back-to-back on the ground. Too tired to think or feel, she closed her eyes, asleep between one breath and the next.
The shriek of laser weapons slowly died away. The air was pungent with the smell of smoke and charred flesh. Falkon stood outside the house that had once been his, watching as two men wearing the green and gold of the
Romarian Army emerged from the wreckage bearing what was left of his wife and child.
With a roar, he turned on Drade, his manacled hands reaching for his enemy's throat, but Drade slipped through his fingers like swamp fire. The manacles on his wrists turned to lynaziam shackles and he collapsed on the ground as Drade stood over him, laughing maniacally as he activated the controller, sending shards of pain splintering through every nerve and muscle of his body.
He screamed with pain and outrage, screamed his hatred, his grief, screamed until his throat was raw....
"Falkon! Falkon! Wake up. Please, wake up."
Ashlynne shook his shoulder, shook it again, as hard as she could, in an effort to wake him, to silence his cries. Finally, in desperation, she hit his wounded arm.
With a harsh cry, Falkon bolted upright, his eyes wild. His hands closed around her throat and he had her pinned to the ground between one heartbeat and the next.
"Don't!" she cried, gasping for breath. "It's me."
"What the hell?" He released his hold on her and sat back. "What happened?"
"You were having a nightmare. You cried out in your sleep. I tried to wake you, but I couldn't. I was afraid someone would hear you."
He rubbed his wounded arm, wondering why it hurt so much.
"I'm sorry," Ashlynne said. "I didn't know how else to wake you."
He stared at her a moment, puzzled, and then nodded as comprehension dawned. "You did the right thing." He would have welcomed any pain to escape the hell of that nightmare.
Pale sunlight filtered into the cave. He noticed that she was dressed and he wondered how long she had been awake. Her clothes were badly wrinkled, her hair fell in disarray over her shoulders and down her back. Her face was smudged with dirt.
"It must have been awful," she said, not quite meeting his eyes. "Your dream."
"Yeah," he said gruffly. "Awful."
He took a deep breath, blew it out in a long, slow sigh. Always the same nightmare, he thought bleakly, reminding him of what he had lost, of his hatred for the man who had once been his friend. In the bowels of the mine, shackled hand and foot, shut away from the sun, he had given up all hope of vengeance. When he had been sent to work for Ashlynne s father, a small spark of hope had begin to burn deep within him - hope of escape, hope of achieving vengeance. And now... He felt the spark within him kindle into a blaze. He was free now, and the possibility for revenge was closer than ever. He snorted softly as he fingered the collar on his neck. As free as he could be while Ashlynne held the controller, he mused, and wondered why he hadn't taken it from her the night before.
Sooner or later they would reach Enjine Base Nine. He had no doubt of his ability to steal a ship. When that was done, he would go to Romariz, in
disguise, and find Drade. He smiled as he thought of what it would be like to confront his enemy, to put his hands around Drade's throat and slowly, slowly, squeeze the life from his body. It would be far easier, and certainly much safer, to kill the maggot from a distance, but that would not do. He wanted Drade to know who it was who took his life. Drade would know why.
"Falkon, do you think we could find something to eat?"
Slowly, he turned to look at the girl. Lost in dreams of vengeance, he had completely forgotten about her.
"I'm hungry," she said plaintively.
"Yeah." He blew out a deep sigh. "Me, too." He pulled on his breeches and boots and then stood up, hands braced against his thighs while he gathered his strength. He wondered briefly if the cannibals would come looking for them, but the pain in his arm and the hunger rumbling in his belly were more urgent concerns at the moment.
Taking a deep breath, he left the cave and headed east.
Ashlynne followed him, surprised that he had the strength to walk. There were dark shadows beneath his eyes. She knew his arm pained him, knew he must be as hungry and thirsty as she, yet he never complained, only kept walking, stubbornly putting one foot in front of the other.
It grew hotter as they walked. She heard the deep-throated roar of some huge beast, tried not to think of the hundreds of slimy, creepy creatures and poisonous snakes and spiders that inhabited the jungle. Surely they were just as afraid of her as she was of them. Weren't they? She felt faint with happiness when Falkon stopped beneath a tree and plucked a large bunch of small blue bananas. He handed her half of them.
She peeled one with fingers that shook in her haste, then sighed with pleasure as she bit into the sweet blue fruit. She devoured it in two bites and quickly peeled another, and then another. Never had anything tasted so good.
Falkon picked two more bunches, and then they started walking again.
With the edge taken from her hunger, she peeled another banana. She ate slower this time, savoring the sugary sweet taste, remembering how she had loved to have them for breakfast at home... home.
Despair washed over her. She would never see her home or her parents again. Why, she wondered, why had the Hodorians attacked them? They had been at peace. She had known little of politics, been aware of little beyond the high walls of the jinan. Magny and Artemis had been her only friends.
She had been spoiled and pampered her whole life, until now. She stared at Falkon's broad, scarred back. He would not pamper her. He didn't even like her. She was nothing but a burden to him, an inconvenience.
She felt the sting of tears behind her eyes and dashed them away. No matter what happened, she wouldn't cry in front of him again. She wouldn't! A short time later, she heard a dull roaring sound, and then, as they pushed their way through a tangle of thick vines, she saw a waterfall.
She stood there, gaping in awe, as she watched the water cascade over the side of a mountain to fall hundreds of feet into an enormous lake. Several small overflow pools surrounded the lake.
Ashlynne could only stare, thinking she could drink her fill at last, that she could step into one of those shallow pools and bathe away the dirt and
perspiration that clung to her.
She started forward, only to be stayed by Falkon's hand on her arm. "Just wait," he said.
She frowned at him. "Why?"
"Hush." He stood there, motionless for a full ten minutes, all his senses attuned to his surroundings, before he stepped out of the cover of the jungle.
Ashlynne hurried after him. They stopped at the first pool, dropped to the ground, side by side. Falkon sniffed the water, took a small sip, then buried his head in the pool.
The water was cold and sweet, refreshing, intoxicating, and she drank and drank and then, feeling wonderful, she fell back on the grass and closed her eyes.
Falkon stared at her, surprised to discover that she was asleep.
Shaking his head, he walked toward one of the other pools. There were a dozen of them, a few meters apart. He had thought them all to be overflow pools from the waterfall, but the water in the nearest one had steam rising from it. A hot spring.
Filled with anticipation, he stripped off his boots, breeches, and briefs and slid into the shallow pool, sighing as the wonderfully warm water closed over him. Far in the distance he could see the tip of the mountain that housed Enjine Base Nine. He wondered just how far away it was, and how long it would take them to reach there.
But somehow, sitting in the warm embrace of the pool, his head back, his eyelids growing heavier by the minute, he no longer cared.
Ashlynne woke with a start. Sitting up, she looked around, panic rising within her when she found she was alone. She clutched the controller in her hand, wondering why he hadn't taken it from her. Leave her out here alone, would he? Well, he wouldn't get any farther! She stood up, about to activate the controller in her pocket, when she saw him reclining in a pool a few yards away.
Chin up, shoulders back, she marched toward him, determined to remind him that, no matter what had happened, he was her slave.
As she drew closer, the first thing she noticed was his clothing lying in the grass. That meant... Heat flooded her cheeks. He was naked.
And asleep. He was leaning back against the side of the pool, his arms resting on the edge, his head back. His hair gleamed like wet ebony. She stared down at him, at his dark head and broad shoulders. She had a foolish urge to run her fingers over his beard. He looked peaceful, lying there.
Steam rose from the water; even from where she stood, she could feel its inviting warmth.
Biting down on her lower lip, she watched him for a moment. He was sleeping soundly, she had no doubt of that. Did she dare? She glanced back at the other pools. She could bathe in one of them, she mused, but the water in the pool she had drunk from had been cold. She looked down at Falkon again. The warm water in this pool was much more inviting.
Before she could change her mind, she removed her dress, petticoat, and shoes, and slipped into the pool, as far away from Falkon as she could get.
She would rinse the dirt from her hair, soak for a few minutes, and get out
before he woke up.
The water felt like heaven. It was bathwater warm and effervescent, bubbling like champagne. Keeping a wary eye on Falkon, she rinsed the dirt from her hair. He continued to snore softly, so she lingered in the water, enjoying the warmth, letting it soothe her weary muscles. She had never walked so far in her whole life.
She looked up at the sky, wide and blue, and thought of how quickly her life had turned upside down. One day she was the pampered heir to a black- crystal mine, and the next she was an orphan with no home and no family, forced to rely on a slave for her very existence.
Surely the gods must be laughing.
She looked over at Falkon to make sure he was still asleep, only to find him watching her.
"You're awake!" she exclaimed, and quickly crossed her arms over her breasts.
"So are you."
She stared at him, wondering if he was trying to make a joke. He didn't look like a man who laughed often. "Turn around so I can get out."
"What if I don't want to?"
She reached behind her, delving into the pocket of her dress. "I won't ask you again."
Falkon cursed softly. One way or another, he was going to have to get that damned controller away from her. Why did he always think of it too late? He wondered if, in some perverse corner of his mind, he liked being her slave.
"You win," he muttered, and turning his back to her, he stood up.
She couldn't help staring at him. His broad back and shoulders were both scarred by the lash. She chided herself for staring at him, but couldn't seem to draw her gaze away. She had seen so few men in her life. She remembered the first time she had seen Falkon. He had been nearly naked then, too, lying facedown in a pool of his own blood. She had a sudden urge to go to him, to run her fingers over the scars on his back, to apologize for every hurt and humiliation he had endured in the mine.
"You dressed yet?"
She jerked her gaze from his back and scrambled out of the pool. She had nothing with which to dry herself. She tugged her undergarments up over her wet flesh, then pulled her dress over her head.
"All right," she said. "When I tell you to -"
But he didn't wait for her permission to get out of the water, didn't wait for her to turn her back. He stepped out of the pool, water sluicing down his body. His skin glistened like wet bronze in the sunlight.
Like a rabbit mesmerized by a snake, she could only stand there, staring.
His broad back tapered to a trim waist, firm buttocks, and long, well-muscled legs. Only when he started to turn around did sanity return. With a squeal, she hastily turned her back toward him. And then, eyes shut tight, she wished she'd had the nerve to look.
Falkon grinned as he stood there, letting the sun bake him dry. Shy little virgin, he mused. She had probably never seen a naked man in her whole life. No doubt she would faint dead away if he walked over there and took
her in his arms....
Where had that thought come from? Where, indeed, he thought ruefully.
He had wanted her ever since the first time he laid eyes on her, when she'd looked down her nose at him as if she were a queen and he some lowly maggot. And that, he thought, just about summed it up. She was royalty, and he was a mercenary, and he would be wise to remember it.
Grabbing his clothes, he stepped into his briefs and breeches, then sat down and tugged on his boots. He drew in a deep breath and then, blowing out a long weary sigh, he stood up. "Let's go, princess."
Ashlynne didn't argue. She glanced over her shoulder to make certain he was dressed, then fell into step behind him, wondering if the nightmare she found herself in would ever end.