Darfs dwelling was dark when they arrived, and Falkon knew, deep in his gut, that the house was empty.
Darf paused and sniffed the air. "Someone's been here."
"Yeah," Falkon muttered, and knew that the men in the bar hadn't been sent to spy on them or to kill them, but to delay them. "Drade."
Darf turned to face him, his pale yellow eyes glowing in the dark.
Falkon nodded. "They've taken the women."
With an oath, Darf turned and ran toward the house. Flinging open the door, he darted inside. "Chaney? Chancy!"
A cold dark anger settled over Falkon as he followed Darf into the house.
He stood inside the door, waiting, listening to Darfs footsteps as he went from room to room calling his wife's name.
"They're gone." Darfs voice. Flat. Empty. "What do we do now?"
"We go to Trellis."
Darf didn't ask why. Going to a small closet, he withdrew a pair of weapons and tossed one to Falkon. "Let's go."
Ashlynne sat close to Chaney, taking comfort from the other woman's nearness. She lifted a hand to her neck, her fingers exploring the thick lynaziam collar. How had Falkon endured it for so long? She felt as if she was choking. Every time she moved her head, she felt the edge cutting into her skin. The shackles on her hands and feet were equally heavy and uncomfortable.
She kept her gaze lowered, refusing to look at the man sitting across from her. She recognized him all right. Drade.
She lifted a hand to the collar again, remembering all too well the sight of Falkon writhing on the ground, his body twitching uncontrollably as waves of pain speared through him.
"You'll get used to it."
Ashlynne looked up to find Drade grinning at her.
"So, you're Falkon's new woman," Drade mused. "He always did have good taste."
Ashlynne glared at him. She was scared clear through. She and Chaney had been watching a movie when four men had burst into the house. In less than five minutes, she and Chaney had been fitted with collars and shackles and hustled into a shuttle. A short time later they were in a cruiser headed for Arkata.
Her fingers traced the edge of the collar. "Why are you doing this?"
"Just following orders."
"Whose do you think?"
She shook her head, wincing as the collar scraped her skin. "He wouldn't."
Drade grunted softly. "You should have signed the papers when he asked you to. All he wanted was the mine. He would have let you go. Now..."
Drade shook his head, and with that single, simple gesture, Ashlynne knew that her worst fears were about to become reality. Niklaus was going to get rid of her. He might not kill her, but he was going to put her out of his life. After she gave him the mine. She touched the collar at her throat again, and knew that she would do whatever he wanted.
A bubble of hysterical laughter rose in her throat. Maybe they would send her back to Tierde to take Falkon's place in the mine. "Falkon..." His name rose to her lips.
A victorious smile spread over Drade's face. "Falkon. We'll have him, too."
"You hate him, don't you? Why?"
"Why?" Drade's eyes glittered with loathing. "Ask him. Ask him about the woman he stole from me, about the battle honors that should have been mine."
"You were in love with his wife?" Ashlynne asked, stunned.
"She should have been my wife," Drade said, his voice cold and bitter.
"He knew I was in love with her, knew I wanted to marry her. Did he care? No! He was always jealous of me. She should have been my wife," he said again. "And now she's dead because of him."
"But you had her killed. Falkon said - "
"Are you mad?" Drade stared at her. "I loved her."
"But..." Ashlynne shook her head. "He blames you."
"I would never have done anything to hurt Maiya. I was on my way to Daccar when I heard of the attack. I had hoped to get there in time to get her away, but I was too late."
Drade stood up. "So am I," he said coldly, and left the cabin.
"His hatred is eating him alive," Chaney remarked.
Ashlynne nodded. It was eating at Falkon, too, she thought, and wondered what he would think when he learned he had been hating Drade for something he hadn't done.
They reached Arkata the following day. Still encumbered by the lynaziam collar and shackles, Ashlynne stood in front of Niklaus, humiliation burning in her cheeks. Again, she thought of Falkon, of the days and nights he had lived in bondage, his every waking moment controlled by the heavy collar at his neck.
She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, hoping Niklaus couldn't see how very frightened she was. "Where's Chaney? What have you done with her?"
Niklaus looked up from the papers spread before him. "Your furry friend is being looked after."
"The way you looked after Falkon?"
Niklaus looked faintly amused as he replied, "Indeed, I believe she's in the same cell."
"You can't leave her in that dungeon!" Ashlynne exclaimed. "She's going to have a baby."
Niklaus shrugged. "That's what females do. I should think you would be
more concerned about your own future." He tapped his finger on a stack of papers. "There are a few things I need to have you sign."
"I think you know."
"You want the mine."
"Yes." He sat back in his chair. "You've caused me a great deal of unnecessary trouble."
Ashlynne glared at him. If he was waiting for an apology, it would be a long time coming.
Hassrick stood up, his hands resting on the top of the desk. "Don't make this more difficult than it has to be," he said. "I don't want to hurt you, or your friend, but there's a great deal at stake here."
She stared at the man who was her husband, and knew he would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. His next words confirmed it.
"Drade has found me a woman who looks much like you. If necessary, we'll bring her here and have her take your place. In that case, we'll have no further use for you."
"You wouldn't," she gasped. But he would. And she knew it. She folded her arms over her belly. If she died, her baby would die with her. Die before it ever had a chance to live.
"It's up to you."
"And if I do as you ask, what then?"
"Why, I'll let you and your friend go, of course."
He was lying. She could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. "How do I know you'll let us go?"
"I guess you'll just have to trust me, won't you?" He reached into the top drawer of his desk and withdrew a controller, which he placed on the desk. "I grow weary of this, Ashlynne." He picked up a pen and offered it to her.
"Sign the papers."
He reached for the controller. Before she could tell him she had changed her mind, pain exploded through her, stealing the strength from her legs, the breath from her lungs. She gasped as she hit the floor, her body twisting, turning in a vain effort to escape the agony that engulfed her.
When would it end? Would it ever end? It was frightening, to have no control over her body's movements, humiliating to lie there, twitching uncontrollably while Niklaus stared at her in mild amusement.
Gradually, the spasms lessened, leaving her lying there, gasping for breath.
"Are you ready to sign now?" Niklaus asked.
Taking hold of a corner of the desk, she pulled herself to her feet. "Yes."
"I knew I could count on you to be sensible."
She lifted her arms. "You'll have to free my hands."
"Of course." Picking up the controller, he released the shackles on her hands, then offered her the pen again. "I'll need your signature here," he said, pointing at the bottom of one of the papers. "And here."
She signed where he indicated. When she was finished, she dropped the pen on the desk.
Niklaus nodded. "Thank you, my dear," he said, and activated the shackles on her hands.
"There's something you should know," Ashlynne said.
She nodded. "I sent a letter to my uncle on Cannus Twelve the night before you left for Hodore."
Niklaus laughed softly. "Did you?" He picked up the papers, folded them in half, and put them in the top drawer of his desk. "Thinking of running away and taking holy vows, were you?"
"No. I told him I was afraid you were going to force me to sign the mine over to you, and that if he heard that I had done so, it would only be because I was in fear for my life. I told him I suspected you were going to kill me. As you know, documents signed under duress are invalid. I told him if he didn't hear from me as usual, it would mean I was dead."
It was part truth and part lie. She stood there, her hands clenched, hoping Niklaus would believe her.
Niklaus stared at her, his eyes narrowed, his expression ominous. "It seems I underestimated you." Rounding the desk, he went to the door and opened it. "Drade, my wife would like to go visit her friend."
"Well, there's the house," Darf said. "Now what? We don't even know if they're in there."
"I know." They were hunkered down near the front gate of the Hassrick estate. It was after midnight, and there were no lights showing in the house.
"Well, do you know how we're going to get them out?"
Falkon shook his head. "No, but it shouldn't be too hard for us to get in."
"I was afraid you'd say something like that," Darf muttered sourly.
"There's just one thing wrong with that plan. Once we get in, we might not be able to get out."
"I'm open to suggestions."
"I suggest you raise your hands, very slowly."
"Up," Brill said. "Now."
Slowly, Falkon stood up. He was about to turn around when pain splintered through his skull, and the world went dark.
He heard voices. Opening his eyes, he blinked against the light.
"So," a familiar voice said, "all the players are here."
Falkon sat up, one hand reaching for the back of his head, only to find that his hands were bound. He stared at the shackles on his wrists. He didn't have to touch the collar at his throat to know it was there.
He stared up at his old enemy. "Where's Ashlynne?"
"In the dungeon, I believe, with your Cherlin friends."
"Is she all right?"
Drade nodded. "For now."
"I want to see her."
Drade chuckled. It was a dry, mirthless sound. "I'm afraid it doesn't matter what you want. She's being sent to the mine in a few days, along
with the other two."
The mine! Falkon shook his head in disbelief. "You can't mean that."
"It was her husband's decision." He stressed the word husband. "Not mine."
"Chaney," Falkon said. "What of Chaney?"
"She's in labor."
"Is Hassrick sending the baby to the mine, too?"
Falkon glanced around, recognizing the hut where he had been imprisoned before.
Drade stood near the door, a controller in one hand. "Don't you want to know what he's going to do with you?"
Falkon grunted softly. "From the look on your face, I'd say you can't wait to tell me."
Drade smiled. "You're being sent to Cenia. Can you guess why?"
Falkon stared at Drade. It took every bit of self-control he possessed to keep the horror growing within him from showing on his face. It was late summer on Cenia, the time when the Cenians sacrificed an enemy warrior and a young virgin to their blood-thirsty gods as an offering to insure success in battle and fertility in their women.
"Exactly so," Drade said. "Hassrick has offered you to Brezor. He thought it quite fitting that you be sacrificed with a virgin, since you had stolen one from him."
"Don't let him send Ashlynne to the mine."
"It's out of my hands."
"She'll die there."
A shadow that might have been regret passed through Drade s eyes. "I believe that is his intent."
"Dammit, Drade, don't do this to her. She's got nothing to do with what's between the two of us."
"I told you, it was her husband's idea. He was not happy to find his bride pregnant by another man."
"Then change his mind. You've manipulated enough people in your life. It should be easy for you."
"It seems a fair trade to me. The death of the woman you love for the death of the one I loved."
Falkon sprang to his feet. He lunged forward, his bound hands reaching for Drade's throat, his only thought to choke the life from the bastard who had killed his wife and daughter.
Too late, he remembered the collar at his throat, the controller in Drade's hand. With a strangled cry, he dropped to the floor of the hut as shards of pain lanced through him.
He lay there, gasping and covered with perspiration when it was over.
"You always were the impetuous one," Drade remarked.
"You killed her," Falkon said when he could speak. "Why?"
Drade stared down at him. "What are you talking about?"
"You ordered the attack on my home. Why? You knew I was gone."
Drade shook his head. "You damn fool. I tried to talk General Ralf out of it, I told him you hadn't returned to Daccar, but he knew we'd been friends and he didn't believe me. I got to your place as soon as I could, but I was too late. An hour too late," he murmured, his voice laced with bitter regret.
"Just one hour too late."
Falkon sat up, his back braced against the wall. Lifting his hands, he wiped the sweat from his face. "I don't believe you."
"Believe what you like," Drade snapped. "But if you had stayed home, where you belonged, she would be alive today."
The truth of Drade's words penetrated every fiber of his being, more agonizing that the excruciating effects of the collar.
"I got there too late," Drade said heavily. "And so did you." He stared past Falkon, his thoughts turned inward. "I loved her," he said quietly. "She should have been mine. They both should have been mine."
Falkon stared at Drade, feeling Drade's pain as if it were his own. "Don't take your hatred for me out on Ashlynne. I'm begging you. Let her go."
"She's Hassrick's wife, and he wants to be rid of her. There's nothing I can do."
"Push, Chancy," Ashlynne said. "Push hard." Chaney writhed on the narrow cot, her hands grasping the bars behind her head, as she sought to expel the child from her womb.
"Relax, my love," Darf said. "Do not fight the pain." He stood in the cell across the way, his hands clenched around the bars, his face a mask of concern. Chaney had been in labor for the last seven hours, an unusually long period of time for a Cherlin female.
"Chaney, listen to Darf," Ashlynne said. She wiped the perspiration from Chaney's face. "Try to relax between contractions."
Chaney nodded. She turned her head to the side and focused on her husband's face.
"I love you," Darf said. "Try not to think about the pain. Think about our child. Think of how much I love you."
She nodded, gasping as another pain splintered through her.
"I see the head," Ashlynne exclaimed. "Push!"
Chaney screamed, pushed, and the head and shoulders emerged.
A moment later, Ashlynne cradled a tiny furry body in her hands. She looked over at Darf, smiled at Chaney.
"It's a girl." She spoke through a mist of tears. Never, she thought, never had she seen anything as miraculous as the infant mewling softly in her arms.
"Is she all right?"
Ashlynne pulled the blanket from her cot and wrapped it around the baby, then laid the child in Chaney's arms. "See for yourself. She's perfect."
In the way of mothers everywhere, Chaney counted each finger and toe, ran her hand over the tiny furred head and body.
Ashlynne pressed one hand over her womb as she watched her friend. In a few months, she, too, would be giving birth. Where would she be when the time came? Where would Falkon be? Would they ever be together again?