Falkon stepped out of the shuttle he had picked up at Enjine Base Nine. On the far side of the bridge, he could see the mine compound - the huts, the overseer's residence, the mine's yawning maw. It was late afternoon.
Ashlynne would be down there, sweating side by side with the other slaves.
Did she hate him yet? Muttering an oath, he started across the bridge. Every minute he wasted was another minute she spent in that hell.
He walked past the huts, remembering all the nights he had spent locked up. If it had been bad for him, how much worse had it been for Ashlynne? She had been raised in a life of luxury, pampered and spoiled all her life. She had never known want or hunger or fear, until he'd come into her life.
Somehow, he would make it up to her. Somehow.
He was about to duck inside the mine when two guards materialized out of the darkness, weapons drawn. Falkon backed up, and the guards emerged from the mine, followed by Niklaus Hassrick.
"Damn," Falkon muttered. "I should have killed you when I had the chance."
One of the guards stepped forward and relieved him of his weapon.
"Welcome home," Hassrick said. He held out his hand. "Does this look familiar?"
Falkon shook his head as he stared at the collar in Hassrick's hand. "No. Never again."
Rage. It welled up within him, simmering, boiling, exploding in a primal cry of defiance. He would never wear that collar again. Never! He had spent enough time sweating in a dark hole, breathing in his own stink. And now they had Ashlynne down there. It sickened him, enraged him, to think of her in that hellhole.
He pivoted sharply, his anger feeding on itself as he drove his fist into the face of the guard on his left. It caught the guard on the point of his chin, and he dropped to the ground, out cold.
The guard on his right raised his weapon, but before he could fire, Falkon kicked it out of his hand, then drove his knee into the man's face. Blood spurted from the guards nose, spraying Falkon's shirt and face.
He backed away, looked up to find Hassrick pointing a weapon at him.
Hassrick tossed the collar at Falkon's feet. "Put it on."
"She's wearing one, too, you know." The threat was all too clear. Falkon clenched his hands at his sides. "You wouldn't."
"I would, and I did."
Falkon sucked in a deep breath. He seemed to see the world through a red haze, a world that was empty of everything but the man standing before him, a man who had caused Ashlynne pain.
With a wordless cry, Falkon lunged forward. He felt a burning pain across his left shoulder and knew Hassrick had fired at him, but it didn't matter.
Nothing mattered but killing the man in front of him before he could hurt Ashlynne again.
He reeled backward as Hassrick fired again, his hand going to his side, feeling the heat of the blast on his skin. He dropped to his knees, breathing hard.
Hassrick was grinning as he took a step forward. "I'm going to enjoy this," he said, and lifted the weapon once again.
Summoning all his energy, Falkon rolled to the left and grabbed the gun lying beside one of the fallen guards. He quickly rolled to the left again and felt the heat of the blast explode past his head as Hassrick fired.
"Missed me," he muttered and squeezed the trigger. From the corner of his eye, he saw the two guards reaching for their guns and he fired again.
Falkon took a deep breath; then, using the weapon for a crutch, he stood up. He spared hardly a glance for the three dead men as he turned and walked toward the entrance to the mine.
Ashlynne kept her mind carefully blank as she hefted the pulse axe. It was easier to think of nothing than to dwell on memories of the past. Only a few days in the mine, yet it seemed as though she had been there for years. It was hard to remember her other life, hard to recall a time when her skin had been clean, when she'd had a soft bed to sleep on, nice clothes to wear, good food to eat. It seemed she had always lived in the dark, burrowing into the ground like a sightless mole.
Yes, it was better to keep her memories at bay, but sometimes, late at night, when her body craved sleep and sleep wouldn't come, she opened the door to her memories and thought about Falkon, remembering the first time she had seen him on the landing dock, fighting for his freedom. His presence in the jinan had turned her whole world upside down. He had teased and tormented her at every turn, sparked her anger, fascinated her with his defiance. She had lost so much. It wasn't fair that she should lose him, too.
She lifted her hand to wipe the sweat from her face and her fingers brushed against the collar at her throat. She knew now why Falkon had hated it so. It wasn't just that it was heavy and uncomfortable and capable of inflicting the worst pain she had ever known; it was what it stood for.
She looked down the line to where Chaney and Darf were toiling side by side. She knew they were even more miserable than she was, and yet she envied them because they were together, and she would never see Falkon again. Falkon. Her heart ached for him, yearned for him. If not for the child she carried beneath her heart, she would have given up, but she had to go on, had to be strong, for the baby, even though it would be taken from her.
She felt the sting of tears in her eyes and dashed them away. If she let herself cry now, she would never stop. She'd cry and cry, until she flooded the tunnel with her tears.
She paused in mid-swing at the sound of a commotion near the entrance to the mine. There was the dull whoosh of a laser blast, the sound of a man's scream. She bit down on her lip, certain one of the slaves had been killed trying to escape. And then she heard something she'd never thought to hear
again - Falkon's voice, calling her name. "Here," she cried. "Down here."
A guard stepped out of the darkness. "Shut up, slave, and get back to work."
"Ashlynne!" He moved past the guard. Wrapping one arm around her, he pulled her up against him.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" the guard demanded.
"I'm taking my woman out of here." Falkon leveled his weapon at the guard's chest. "I'm taking everybody out of here."
"You can't do that."
The guard looked back at the entrance to the mine, his expression uncertain.
"They're dead," Falkon said quietly. "You can join them or not, it's up to you." He glanced at Ashlynne. "Are you all right?"
"I am now."
Falkon looked at the guard. "There's been a mistake. This is Lady Ashlynne Myrafloures. This mine belongs to her."
The guard looked at Ashlynne and at the gun in Falkon's hand, and shrugged. "Whatever you say."
"Falkon, is that you?"
"Damn right, Darf," Falkon called as he took the guard's weapon. "Get your furry butt up here. Tell the others to come out, too."
Taking Ashlynne by the hand, he led her up out of the mine.
One by one, the slaves emerged from the mine and gathered around Falkon. The guard brought up the rear.
"What's going on?" Darf asked.
"We're taking over." Falkon's gaze ran over Darf. His friend had lost a good deal of weight since he'd been in the mine. He stood with his arms around Chaney. "Come on," he said, "let's get out of here."
Ashlynne blinked in the sun's bright light, gasped when she saw Hassrick sprawled in the dirt.
She looked up at Falkon, only then noticing the laser burns on his shoulder and side. "You're been hurt!"
"I'm all right." His hand stroked her hair, and she looked away.
"Hey," he said, "it'll grow back." She wrapped her arms around him. "I was afraid I'd never see you again," she whispered, and buried her face against his chest, not wanting him to see her tears.
He held her close while she cried, his lips brushing the top of her head.
Falkon looked up to see Darf and Chaney standing beside him.
The other prisoners stood behind them in a loose semicircle. The guard stood a little apart, looking uneasy.
"Darf, get the release mechanism," Falkon said, unwilling to leave Ashlynne's side for even a few moments. He looked at the slaves. "You're all free to go."
A hum of excitement rose in the air as the prisoners realized they were truly free.
Darf took the release mechanism from the guard and after removing the
restraints from Chaney and Ashlynne, he freed the other prisoners, and then himself.
Ashlynne breathed a sigh of relief as Darf removed the collar from her neck, unlocked the shackles on her hands and feet.
She thanked him, then smiled at Falkon as she massaged her neck. "I feel like I could fly."
He nodded, knowing just how she felt.
"Come on, let's get out of here. Darf, Chaney, I've got good news for you.
I know where your baby is. And she's fine."
"Where is she?" Chaney asked anxiously.
"She's with one of Hassrick's servants on Trellis. Once we get things squared away here, we'll send for her."
Chaney collapsed against her husband, weeping softly.
Falkon looked at the slaves milling around the compound. "There's an ASTC across the bridge. You're welcome to it. You can clean up in the overseers house. Help yourself to whatever you need and go."
"Go," one of men said. "Go where?"
"Go to Cherlin Four," Darf said. "You'll be welcome there."
Amid a flurry of thank yous, the freed men headed for the overseer's house at the far end of the compound.
Ashlynne tugged on Falkon's hand. "What about them?" she asked, pointing at the bodies.
"We'll send someone from the house down to bury the guards. Hassrick's parents will probably want his body. Come on, let's get out of here."
Though she had been a prisoner only a short time, it felt strange to be free again. Ashlynne held tight to Falkon's hand as they walked up the path that led to the jinan. Darf and Chaney followed behind them.
Hana was reclining on one of the sofas in the living room when they entered. She stood up, her surprise clear in her eyes when she saw Ashlynne.
"Is this how you spend your days, Hana?" Ashlynne asked.
The housekeeper shook her head, her gaze moving from Ashlynne to the others and back again. "Shall I ask Kerolena to draw you a bath?"
"Yes. We'll all be wanting one. I'm putting Darf and his wife in the corner room on the second floor. And we'll be wanting something to eat after we've bathed."
"And where will the other -" Hana glanced at Falkon, who stood with his arm around Ashlynne's shoulders. "Where will the other gentleman be staying?"
"In my room."
Hana's mouth dropped open. She closed it quickly, her hands fluttering like lost birds. "And will Lord Hassrick be joining you and your... your guests?"
An image of Hassrick, lying sprawled in the dirt, flashed before Ashlynne's eyes. "No. That will be all, Hana."
With a nod, the housekeeper hurried out of the room.
"Nice place," Falkon muttered, looking around.
"Very," Darf said.
Ashlynne tugged on Falkon's hand. "Let's go upstairs. Your wounds need tending."
He didn't argue.
Ashlynne showed Darf and Chaney to their room. "If you need anything, just ask."
"Our thanks, Lady Ashlynne," Darf said.
Chaney clasped Ashlynne's hand in hers. "How can we ever repay you?"
"I didn't do anything."
"You've taken us into your home."
"You made me welcome in yours." Ashlynne smiled up at Falkon. "Here's the one who deserves our thanks."
"They can thank me later," Falkon muttered. "Which room is yours?"
"We'll meet you downstairs in about an hour, then," Ashlynne said.
Darf looked at Falkon and grinned. "Better make it two," he said, and drawing Chaney into the room, he closed the door.
Falkon reclined in a tub made of blue marble, his eyes closed, while Ashlynne bathed him. He could have done it himself, but it was far more pleasant to lie there and feel her hands moving over him, her breath warm upon his face.
When she finished, she sat back, expecting him to get out. Instead, he reached for her and lifted her into the tub with him, clothes and all.
"Falkon! What are you doing?"
He settled her on his lap, facing him, and began to undress her, tossing her wet clothes on the floor.
He lifted her hands, anger and regret stirring inside him when he saw the blisters on her palms. Gently, he kissed first one hand and then the other.
And then he placed his hand on her belly, his fingers spread wide. "I should be taking care of you."
She put her hand over his. "I'm fine." She smiled. "We're fine."
He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, his face pressed in the warm valley between her breasts. She smelled of sweat and crystal dust, of woman. Of home. He clung to her, thinking how close he had come to losing her forever, thinking of the long hours she had spent in the mine, laboring as no woman should be made to do, especially one with child. He thought of her toiling from dawn till dark, then locked in a stone cell, sleeping on a hard cot, eating food not fit for a warf hog. He thought of all she had endured, the loss of her home and her parents, and regretted that he could kill Hassrick only once.
He washed her gently from head to foot, his hands lingering on her hair. It was so short now, yet soft and silky beneath his fingertips.
When he finished, he stepped out of the tub and wrapped a towel around his waist, then turned and lifted Ashlynne from the water. He held her close for a moment, his breath catching in his throat as he felt her body pressed against his, the slight swell of her belly, the warmth of her breasts. He wrapped her in a thick towel, then carried her into the bedroom and sat her on the bed. "I'll make it all up to you somehow," he promised.
She placed her hand over his mouth. "Hush. None of it was your fault.
Come, sit down now and let me look after your wounds."
"They're only superficial," Falkon said. He sat down on the edge of the
bed, touched by her concern.
"They still need looking after," Ashlynne declared, and thanked the gods that Niklaus's aim had not been true, and that Falkon's injuries were no worse than they were.
She summoned Kerolena and sent her for a medikit. Kerolena offered to tend his wounds, but Ashlynne insisted on doing it herself, even though it made her stomach queasy. There were tears in her eyes when she finished.
With a sigh, Falkon gathered her into his arms and held her close. "There's no need to cry, sweetheart. It's all over."
She snuggled against him, her hands restless as they moved over his back and shoulders. She was free and he was here, and nothing else mattered.
He knew what she wanted, as he had always known. The towel he'd wrapped around her fell away, baring her to his gaze, to his touch, as he lowered her to the bed, then stretched out beside her.
It had all been worth it, he mused, every humiliation, every hour spent in the mine, every stroke of the lash. And when he felt her arms around him, felt her breath against his cheek as she covered his face with kisses, he knew he would willingly endure it all again.
He smiled down at her, feeling the sting of tears in his eyes. "I love you, princess."
"We'll never be parted again," she whispered, and cupping his face in her hands, she kissed him with her whole heart and soul. And then she looked at him, her eyes twinkling merrily. "And I love you, my prince."