Ashlynne shivered as a blast of cold air seemed to slap her in the face.
Huddling deeper into her jacket, she followed Falkon down the ladder.
A gray mist seemed to hover in the air, its cold fingers slipping inside her collar, crawling up her legs. She shivered again and moved closer to Falkon.
Why hadn't she stayed inside? At least it was warm there. And safe.
"What now?" she asked.
"We go exploring."
Ashlynne watched as he pulled the gun from his coat pocket and thrust it into the waistband of his trousers.
"Easier to get to, just in case," he explained.
His words did nothing to ease her nerves.
She nodded. "I guess so, though I still think this is a mistake."
"Won't be the first one I've made," he muttered.
"Well, that's comforting," she retorted. "Let's hope it's not your last."
With a grin, Falkon started walking.
Ashlynne took a deep breath, her gaze darting right and left as she followed him. What kind of place was this? Even the ground felt strange, sort of soft and springy, as if it was going to give way beneath her at any moment. Tall trees rose up everywhere, branches heavy with gray-green moss. There was an abundance of plant life with spiked leaves and sharp thorns.
There seemed to be no wildlife other than the snake she had seen from the window. Remembering that, she glanced quickly behind her, wondering where the thing had gone. She hurried after Falkon, moving cautiously.
Where there was one snake, there was bound to be more. And the snakes had to eat something... "What are we looking for?" she asked.
Falkon shrugged. "Just looking."
"What if we get lost?"
"I never get lost."
"We're lost now," she muttered.
"We're not lost. I just don't know where we are."
They walked for what seemed like miles and miles, and the scenery never changed. Tall slender trees dripping moss, spiky plants and ferns; ferns, spiky plants and tall slender trees dripping moss.
She was about to suggest that they turn back when she heard a dull roaring sound. "What's that?"
Falkon shook his head. "I don't know. Sounds like a waterfall."
Curious, she quickened her steps as she followed him through the thick underbrush.
It was, indeed, a waterfall, but unlike any she had ever seen. It tumbled down the face of an enormous mountain, a foaming cascade of rainbow-hued
water splashing into a churning pool, which gradually quieted and became a wide river.
It was beautiful, breathtaking, like something out of a fairy tale of old.
She started to speak, but Falkon lifted a finger to his lips to silence her and then pointed across the river.
At first she didn't see anything, and then, slowly, the creature took shape.
She stared in disbelief. It couldn't be. But it was. A blue unicorn, a creature of myth and legend. It stood at the river's edge, delicate ears flicking back and forth, silver horn shining in the sun, its gray muzzle testing the wind before it stepped out of the dappled shadow of the trees and lowered its head to drink.
Ashlynne gasped as a small cream-colored foal moved up beside the unicorn and began to nurse.
The mare's head went up. With a flash of its tail, it disappeared into the underbrush, the foal close at its heels.
"Oh!" Ashlynne exclaimed in disappointment. "Weren't they beautiful?"
"Yeah, beautiful." His hand caressed the butt of the gun in his waistband.
"Wonder if they're good eating."
Ashlynne stared at him in horror. "You're not serious!"
"If we stay here long enough, we'll be needing fresh meat. The supplies in the ship won't last more than two or three days."
"I don't care. You can't kill the unicorn. It's beautiful. Why, people spend their whole lives hoping to see such a creature."
Falkon grunted thoughtfully. "Maybe you're right. Maybe it would be worth more alive."
"What do you mean?"
He shrugged. "I imagine I could find someone willing to buy a unicorn if I could catch it."
"Only a mercenary would think of that."
"Right now I'm thinking about you and me." He stared across the river, his expression gloomy. "I'm on the run. I've got no credits. We need to find a safe port... I need to get back to Daccar." He regarded Ashlynne through narrowed eyes. "You said you were engaged to a wealthy man."
Alarmed by the speculative look in his eyes, she took a step back, her hand delving into her pocket to clasp the controller. "Yes."
"He'd probably pay a pretty hefty sum to get you back."
"What are you saying?"
"You're a lot easier to transport than a unicorn. And probably worth a lot more."
"What do you mean?" she asked suspiciously.
Falkon shrugged. "I mean, when we get to Arkata, it might be worth my while to call your fiance and see how much he's willing to pay for your safe return."
"What do you mean, my safe return?"
"I'll tell him that you've been kidnapped, but I know where you are, and that for the right price, I'll deliver you safe and sound."
"You sound surprised."
She stared at him, wondering, hoping, that he was just joking.
"What's the matter, princess?"
"Nothing. And stop calling me that!" She turned away, the beauty of the scene lost on her now. How could she have been such a fool, to think he actually cared what happened to her? He was nothing but a scoundrel. "I'm going back to the ship."
"Can you find your way?"
"Of course." She started off briskly, eager to get away from him. Sell her, would he! Well, she'd see about that. He'd wish himself back in the mine when she got through with him. She'd... she'd... what would she do? Her fingers stroked the controller. She could cause him pain, but what would that accomplish? He was her only hope of getting to Trellis. The thought of Falkon using her as a means to an end stung her pride. Even though Niklaus could well afford to pay any amount Falkon might demand, she refused to be a part of it. She would just leave him once they reached Trellis, she decided, because there was no way she was going to let him use her to make a profit.
The cad! And to think she had actually started to care for him, to feel that he would protect her. He had probably been planning to hold her for ransom all along.
Once they landed on Trellis, she would activate the shackles on his hands and feet and leave him in the ship. With his feet bound, he wouldn't be able to follow her. Once they were on Trellis, she would have no trouble finding transport to Arkata.
She was so busy imagining what it would be like to get the best of Falkon, she forgot to pay attention to where she was going. She cried out as she tripped over a gnarled root and went sprawling facedown in the dirt.
"Oh, blast that man!" she exclaimed as she sat up and examined the cut on her leg. "This is all his fault."
She wiped the blood from her knee with the hem of her skirt. Grimacing, she stood up and continued on her way, somewhat surprised when she actually found the ship.
Climbing up the ladder, she went into the galley and poked around until she figured out how to get something to eat out of the servidor. She was sitting at the table, sipping a cup of hot tea, when Falkon entered the ship a short time later. As soon as she heard the hatch close behind him, she drew the controller out of her pocket and activated the manacles.
The sudden closing of the shackles on his feet caused him to fall. She grinned as she heard him curse.
Rising, she left the galley.
Falkon was sitting up, his back against the bulwark, his face dark with anger. He lifted his arms. "Turn me loose."
"No." She took a step backward.
Falkon glared at her. "Turn... me... loose."
She shook her head. "No. I don't trust you."
"Why the hell not? Dammit, I haven't done anything to you." His eyes narrowed. "Oh, I get it. You're mad, aren't you? Mad because I said I was gonna ransom you to your rich boyfriend."
She didn't deny it.
"It's the only way you'll get to him," he said, his voice suddenly calm.
"I'm going to bed." She had checked the cabins earlier, noting that the
larger one had a good strong lock on the door.
"Wait a minute, dammit!"
"What do you want?"
"My freedom," he said.
"How about getting me something to eat, then?"
She hesitated, then went into the galley and punched the control panel, wishing it was his face.
Falkon stared at the tray she placed on the floor beside him. Karu-atar steak, crisp potatoes, blue corn, a cup of black coffee. He looked up at her.
"How do you expect me to eat with my hands like this?"
"That's your problem," she replied airily. "I'm going to bed."
She stepped past him, shrieked as his hands closed around her ankles. He gave a sharp tug and she fell facedown, her arms trapped beneath her body, the air whooshing from her lungs.
She yelped as her cheek struck the floor. "Get off me!" She bucked beneath him, but it was like trying to move a mountain. He weighed far more than she did.
"Turn me loose." His voice was an angry whisper in her ear.
"No," she gasped. "Get off of me! I can't breathe."
"And I can't eat with my hands shackled."
"You can eat on your hands and knees like the cur you are!"
He swore a violent oath, the words singeing her ears.
Falkon turned her over. As soon as her arms were free, she swung at him. He swore again as her nails raked his cheek, tearing the skin. She wriggled out from beneath him and scooted away on her hands and knees, shrieking as his hands closed on one of her ankles yet again. She kicked backward with her free leg, heard him grunt as her heel struck him in the face. She didn't wait to see how badly he was hurt. Lunging to her feet, she ran down the companionway, flew into the room she had chosen and closed and locked the door.
Breathless, she stood in the middle of the floor, one hand pressed to her heart. When her breathing returned to normal, she put her hand in her pocket, needing the reassurance of the controller.
With a sinking feeling, she realized it was gone.
Falkon sat up, his head tilted back in an effort to stop the blood oozing from his nose. He lifted his bound hands to his cheek, wincing as his fingers came away wet with blood. Damn her! Yet even as he cursed her, he had to admire her spunk. His princess had claws and wasn't afraid to use them.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his nostrils filling with the aroma of steak and potatoes, no doubt cold by now.
Opening his eyes, he regarded the tray on the floor. He had eaten without utensils before; he could do it again. He was reaching for the tray when he saw the controller.
A slow smile curved his lips as he reached for it. A moment later, he was free, truly free, for the first time in months.