Parched dry from the relentless desert sun, Fabian Lucimanticus pushed himself up on trembling arms and opened eyes encrusted with grit and sand to take in the first glimpse of his new home.
A single tree wavering in a haze of heat. A heap of stones and broken fences. Far away, the jagged profile of mountains reaching to an empty sky.
Nothing like his own home, now so far away. A place he might never see again.
Memories of his former life slowly returned to him.
In his mind he saw two great warriors, shorn of their luxurious hair. Bound, yet standing ever proud in defeat. Death or exile? Together they’d waited, already knowing that death would be too swift, too merciful.
As high lord, once king of all, he’d been first to step up to the ledge. First to peer into the chasm they called The Dark Fall that would remove him from his world and deposit him only the gods knew where. His captors pressed forward, eager to witness his ultimate humiliation.
Sages said the Fall was as deep as your sins. If so, then Fabian knew that his would be a long and terrifying journey into the blackest recesses of hell for what had he known in his life but sin? The strongest and the best of them, they said that from the day of his first step, the sword never left his hand. Without it, he felt only half a man.
The drop might last for the blink of an eye, or for all of eternity. His Fall was long enough to examine every moment of his lost life with remorse and regret. On that journey to his just reward, he felt every stab inflicted by his sword, every cut of his knife. The screams of women and children were torn from his own throat.
And tears. In the thousand-year drop, he cried every single one of their tears. Screamed out countless names of the dead.
And now he was in his own personal hell, where he belonged.
The earth shuddered and shook, as if pounded by the determined march of an army across the plains. Blue lightning sliced through the air, picking out the tree with neat precision. Branches exploded in a burst of white-hot flames. Above him, the heavens darkened and thundered out their displeasure.
A fitting welcome for a fallen warrior.
Fabian’s rusty laugh mingled with the cacophony of the storm.
Another streak of lightning, this time so close it singed the hairs on his bare arms. Instinctively, he covered his head with his hands and waited for the earth to stop shaking. A glance at the bleak landscape confirmed his first, grim impression. No gaudy tents filled with ale-sellers and wanton women. No chests overflowing with plunder and tribute. His enemies had stripped him of his armour, his bracelets. His power. Sent him, naked as a newborn, to this strange world, which seemed to consist of nothing but a forbidding barrier of snow-topped mountains and a few crumbling ruins.
A conqueror with nothing to conquer. A warrior with no one to impress. What use was he now?
The shock of the Fall receded, replaced by the throb of flesh that had slammed into sand at dizzying speed. Every muscle, every bone pulsed with pain. No battle injuries had ever felt like this. He flopped back, weak as a babe in arms and raised a weary hand to shade his eyes from the storm feeling a thirst such as he had never known. So dry, that his skin cracked and split as he flexed his arm. His lips flaked when he wet them with a sandy tongue.
Rain. Concentrating what little was left of his senses, he visualised fat clouds dropping a deluge of cool, summer rain. Uselessly, he flapped an arm, remembering, again, that his power-bracelets, which might have commanded the storm, now adorned the deceptively slender wrists of the Imarna queen.
He growled and slammed down his arm, relishing the pain. A woman wearing the bracelets of immortality? The universe itself had groaned at this overturning of the ancient laws.
He forced himself to sit, despite the creak of bones snapping back into place and discovered a new fear. Death. The Harvester of lives who would now take him at will.
Perhaps in the next heated flash of lightning. Or from hunger or thirst.
Not this day, he thought with grim determination. Where had his brother landed? The rifts in the Dark Fall shifted and churned endlessly through millions of dimensions, undoubtedly scattering the pride of Anxur throughout time and space. He too would have been stripped of his immortality.
“Balafir be with you. Wherever you are,” he muttered, invoking the god of war. A god who had little use for a broken warrior.
That wasn’t the sound of thunder. It was the sound of the heavens laughing at a pathetic excuse for a man, now inhabiting this fragile human body.
He groaned in despair. How would this poor flesh last long enough for him to find a way home and reclaim his honour?
It would not. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. Swallowed the dry knot of fear closing his throat. A rider, cloaks billowing, rose from the horizon to flow towards him with malevolent grace. The Cariath. Death’s handmaiden, come to throw him over her saddle horn and bear him away like a hunted carcass. Fabian’s fingers twitched, aching for his sword that he might at least die with pride.
He braced for a last fight. Waited for agonising moments as the figure grew larger and nearer. His sensitive nostrils caught the stench of the approaching beast, the lighter scent of the rider, whose hair, not a cloak, streamed behind her like a battle standard caught in the wind.
Flesh. As she approached, he saw flesh, not the skeletal face of the Cariath.
Oh thank the gods. Nothing more than a woman; small by the look of her, sitting atop a heavy-looking horse. He shook off the cloak of hopelessness and sharpened his mind. If she carried food, it might last long enough to get him over the mountains. Where there were people, there would be settlements. All he needed was the strength to move.
The rider pulled the beast up sharply, spattering his face with sand and grit. Backlit by the storm, her features were obscured. Pale hair whipped at her cheeks and, tucked into the crook of her elbow, she held what he imagined to be a weapon. She carried a long sword, sheathed in her saddle pack. Another, shorter sword bumped at her hip. The creature snorted, puffing a thin cloud of steam from its nostrils. Fabian kept very still as the shod hooves trod far too close.
“So what’s this? Naked storm-bathing?”
The voice was pleasant enough. Well modulated, as a woman’s should be, but with a hint of iron that warned him not to underestimate his would-be rescuer. The words were clear and intelligible. So he hadn’t lost the gift of tongues. He mouthed a silent prayer for that.
“Robbed.” He said, groping for a plausible explanation. The weapon in her hands, he saw clearly now, was a crossbow of sorts. The saddle, rudimentary. The beast unrefined. A primitive people, then. Unless she commanded magic. Without his power-bracelets, he had no way of telling.
“You expect me to believe that?” The woman appeared to understand him, even though the words had sounded strange on his tongue. The beast danced closer, moved away.
“Why didn’t they pin you out for the Frey?”
“Water?” he said, swallowing down the burning in his throat. It was as much a question as request, and far too humble a plea for the high lord of Anxur. Whoever said beggars couldn’t choose their destinies, spoke the truth. Too many aching bones to even think of getting on that beast, let alone overpowering this determined woman and taking it from her. Helplessness was not a feeling he relished.
“You think,” the woman said, hovering above him, “I’d give scum like you, water?” More than iron in her voice now; it dripped with such venom he flinched lest the very words should poison him. “After what happened to the Gerrely kin?” She levelled the crossbow. “I should put you out of your misery, like the dog you are.”
“I swear,” he said, catching the scent of the water in the leather bottle strapped to the saddle. “Not my doing. Water. Have mercy.”
“Oh, nice one!” The woman threw back her head and howled into the storm. An unexpected sound tangling with the growling thunder. “I’m surprised you even know the word. What did you do? Get caught with your hand in the money belt? Lose a leadership challenge?”
“Robbed,” he said defiantly. Twice in one lifetime, he lay naked and broken at the feet of a woman. Was this his eternal punishment? The thought percolated his senses along with a growing horror. To endure an endless loop of this humiliation? Anger, white and hot, filled his belly. He would find a way to return home. Justice would be his.
The woman leaned over the saddle, giving him a clear view of wide eyes and mockingly curved lips in a pale, thin face. Her hair fell in a long tail over one shoulder. She wore the dark non-descript clothing of one too poor to afford fine fabrics and precious dyes. Ill-fitting pants tucked into sturdy boots. A shabby coat. No jewellery, but the weapons looked clean and well tended. They might buy him the services of one versed in magic – if such a creature existed in this gods-forsaken place. To locate his brother would be a first step to reclaiming what they’d lost. He prayed Marcellus had landed more softly.
“Don’t see a purse. No cash, no water.”
Again, he said words so unfamiliar they had never figured in his vocabulary, until now.
He caught the hesitation. The hint of a blush colouring the woman’s cheeks as she took in his nakedness and the tattoos adorning his body.
“Hold up your arm,” she ordered.
He did so with difficulty, deliberately raising the arm he knew to be broken. Playing on his weaknesses? A strategy he’d rarely employed. No warrior would show the enemy their weaker side. But gut instinct told him this woman, despite her macho posturing, wasn’t the enemy. Life, not training, had made her hard. Warriors smelled of determination and detachment. This woman reeked of fear and desperation. Of a desire for revenge, so strong she would watch him die of thirst just to slake that need.
“Turn it this way.” She rotated a finger in the air.
He complied and twisted to present a clear view of one of the initiation marks given to him at the turn of his twelfth year.
She frowned and leaned so close her long straw-coloured hair whispered past his face.
“What is that? Where’s the mark of Crolos?”
Damn, but he could have had her off the beast, if his brain hadn’t been addled by the Fall. Too late, the thought came and went. The woman sat upright, once again, atop her ride, peering down at him like some queen contemplating a dirt-beetle that had the nerve to wander into her sight.
“I don’t have a mark of Crolos, whoever that is. This is Anxur-Jopra. My family demi-god.”
“There is only one true god. See.” She peeled back her sleeve to reveal her own mark. Two fish wrapped around a staff. “The Jura wear the mark of Crolos in defiance of the teachings. Bastard scumbags are laying waste to this entire land.”
“It’s a family mark.” He swallowed, with difficulty, swollen tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth. “Anxur-Jopra. Our protector.”
“Huh! Some protector. A mercenary, then?” She spat out the words. “Almost as bad. What’s your name, warrior?”
“You would dare ask my name?”
The woman arched her brows, lips twitching in a hint of a smile. “I’m the one holding the crossbow, so yes, I dare. No name, no water.”
It was said that, in times of crisis, mortal men could move mountains. Pouring everything into one desperate lunge, he sprang at the woman and wrapped a fist around the tail of her coat, using his weight to tip her from the saddle. She landed on him in a tumbling, cursing heap, narrowly missing the rearing beast’s flailing hooves. The crossbow flew from her hand to skitter across the sand. The sickening crack of ribs giving under pressure hardly gave him pause. Later, he would indulge the pain. Right now, he needed transport, something to trade and some serious magic.
“Son of a rabid dog!” The woman’s bunched fist slammed into his nose. She cried out in pain and went for his eyes. Her own were wide and furious. Dark as the storm raging all around them. A startling contrast to the paleness of the hair wrapped and tangled about her face.
He deflected the second blow, pushing her easily into the ground. Even in his injured state, she barely challenged him. In his peripheral vision, he spotted the crossbow bolt protruding from the muscle in his forearm, a trickle of blood pouring from the wound, and he remembered the many times he’d been in this position. A woman beneath him, pinned by his full weight. With or without her consent, he would invariably slake his lust and then walk away without a backward glance.
She might have given me water in return for nothing but my name.
An unfamiliar twinge of conscience made him ease his bulk from the woman’s wildly thrashing body so she could breathe. She took in a long gasp of air and then renewed her attempts to escape him by kneeing him in the balls. Her feeble struggles only excited him more. In a well-practiced manoeuvre, he arched away from her, hard as an iron rod now. This close, he caught the stench of the beast she’d been riding, overlaid with a scent he recognised as fundamentally hers. Light and ethereal, like the first blushing flowers of spring.
He wanted to press his face into her neck and taste her skin. She wanted to kill him, judging by the murderous look in her eyes. Prudently, he slid the short sword from its scabbard and tossed it across the sands.
“I’ll pay,” she ground out between panting breaths. “Don’t take my virtue. Please don’t take my virtue.”
“I don’t want your virtue,” he lied. “I need your beast and your weapons. And directions to the nearest settlement. I must have the services of a mage, urgently.”
“Not Cafino, please. He’s all I have.”
“That is of no concern to me. Tell me, do mages exist on this wretched world?” He pressed down to lever himself from her, momentarily, grinding her knuckles into the gritty sand. Making her cry out.
“Yes, but you can’t go naked. They’ll shoot you on sight.”
Grimly, he pulled the crossbow bolt from his flesh. A gush of bright blood splashed onto his thigh. “Then I need clothing. Where do you live?”
“Farm. Half a day’s ride from here.”
“How will you ride? You’re injured.”
She had no need to remind him of that. He unfolded abused muscles to stand at his full height and breathed in the energy of the storm as deeply as his cracked ribs would allow. A small flicker of residual magic lingered in the imprints of the bracelets he’d worn since his childhood initiation. When he returned to Anxur, the Imarna would die a thousand painful deaths for the insult they had heaped upon him and his family.
The familiar tingle of age-old magic worked its way into every cell, every muscle and bone. Not enough to heal him completely, but sufficient to get him on the beast and perhaps to a settlement. Or this woman’s farm, where he could steal some clothing. Nakedness was obviously an issue on this world.
The woman rolled, suddenly, stretching out a desperate arm towards the crossbow. Casually, he kicked it out of her reach and wondered what he could use to bind her. Another flash of lightning hit the ground, dangerously close. The woman lay at his feet, gazing up at him with anguished eyes. Waiting for him to kill her? He already knew she wouldn’t relinquish her life without a fight.
“Bastard,” she said on a half sob. “Kill me then, you cowardly excuse for a man. Without Cafino I’ll starve. At least spare me that.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” he said, surprised at the sincerity in his tone. Deftly, he pulled away the blanket from beneath the saddle and wrapped it around his hips in a rudimentary loincloth, a small hiss of pain his only concession to the break in his arm. Years of discipline had taught him that pain dwelled primarily in the mind. It could be controlled, even eliminated when he was at full strength.
“If you leave me here, you’ll kill me just the same. How long do you think I’ll last without weapons, water and food? I can show you the way. Find you clothes…”
Desperation made odd bedfellows of people. He’d noticed that more than once in his colourful life. An Anxur warrior, who no longer felt the urge to kill? No woman had been safe from his charm or his strength, yet this enigmatic creature lay at his feet, his for the taking, and still his baser urges remained firmly within his control.
If he left her here, unprotected, her virtue would not last the day. The purgatory of the Dark Fall had forced him to examine things he would have rather left buried. An immortal had no use for a conscience, but now he’d seen hell and it terrified him. Being mortal was altogether too sobering an experience.
“Is your word worth the price of your soul?”
“My word is my bond,” she replied. He did not miss the glimmer of hope shining in her eyes. “How sound is yours?”
“As constant as the mountains yonder. I mean you no harm. I am no Jura. Neither am I a mercenary. Simply someone who wants to return to his own world. Remain where you are while I retrieve the weapons, then you will take me home with you, clothe and feed me and I will be on my way. Do you agree?”
He side-stepped carefully towards the discarded weapons, already feeling the energy draining from him. The woman watched him with the keen eyes of a hunter, not the gaze of one who trusts. She judged the moment perfectly, rolling and pushing to her feet as he turned to pick up the short sword. By the time he’d reacted, she had one foot in the stirrup and was mounting the circling beast. Driven by anger now, he threw himself at her and managed to dislodge her foot. She kicked out, catching him on the chin before sliding with a yell from the saddle.
Energy shot through his veins as his body remembered what it was made for. Easily he caught her hair and wound it around his fist, jerking her close to his face. Mutinously, she glared back at him, full in the eye, without blinking. Few had done that and lived to relate the tale. The short sword pressed into the tender skin of her throat, harder than she deserved, for he saluted her bravery and understood her desperation.
“So, this is what your word is worth?”
“I don’t make deals with scum like you. How long would you have let me live, once you’d got what you wanted?”
“Unlike yours, my word is worth the breath,” he said close to her ear. She flinched and leaned away, as if his touch would burn her. He snaked out his tongue and ran it along the line of her jaw, amused rather than angered, by her outraged shriek. Mortals were so easy to read. Even as she strained away from him, the woman in her was softening and preparing. He was hard against her back, and she was melting into him. He pressed himself sinuously into the dip of her waist.
“Don’t kid yourself, mister. Takes more than a barbarian in a loincloth to get me hot. I prefer my men a little more civilised.”
“Barbarian?” The sword twitched, causing her to back farther into him to avoid the keen blade. “Do you know who I am?”
“I don’t care who you are. Just take the ride and let me go.”
“I am Fabian Lucimanticus Persidio of Alurides. King and most high lord of the seven plateaus. And scourge of women,” he added when she let out a disbelieving snort.
“Didn’t I just know you’d have a pretentious name? Well, Fabio, you don’t impress me.”
In another life, he’d have relished the challenge. This tiny creature, who fitted so neatly into the crook of his elbow, would have been one for the harem. There, he would have shown her exactly how an Anxur king impressed the female sex. “It’s Fa-bi-an,” he said. “Do me the honour of yours.”
“Your name, you stupid woman. Don’t anger me. I’ve cut people’s throats for less.”
“Tig. My name is Tig.”
“Tig? That is all? It is a stupid name.”
“Only marginally less stupid than yours.” She gave a token struggle to let him know she hadn’t given up the fight. “Do I look as if I need a bigger name?”
“You do not. I’ll grant you that.” He pushed her away and grasped the beast’s bridle instead. “Take off your shirt.”
Fear flashed across her face. “You said you didn’t want my virtue.”
“I think your virtue is long-gone, Tig. I need it to bind your hands with.”
She turned and ran.
“Or I will kill Cafino.”
She kept on running, then slowed and turned to face him. “To me. Cafino, to me!” she cried, following the command with a shrill, two-fingered whistle. Cafino bucked in an effort to free himself from Fabian’s determined hold. Fabian’s attempt to throw himself across the saddle ended with a kick to the shin that made him roar out his frustrations to the heavens. When he looked up, Tig was laughing at him, her expression gentling when she saw his distress.
“He’s a kicker,” she said, pointing to the beast. She raised her hands, palms facing him in a gesture he understood well. “Look, this is getting us nowhere. If you were going to kill me, you would have by now. You look about to collapse. Let’s call a truce. I’ll take you to the farm and see to those injuries. Then, when you’re healed, we’ll take the wagon into the township and see about getting you home. What do you say to that?”
Yes, his body screamed. Food, clothes, shelter. Salve for the cuts, a splint for his arm. Tig’s offer was too tempting for a mortal body that had reached its limits. No, his pride countered. It was all that remained. He would not yield it easily.
“I say that like all women, you talk too much. Take off the shirt,” he said evenly. “Or I kill the beast.”
“Fine,” Tig nodded, more as an acknowledgement of the stance he was forced to take, than a capitulation to his superiority. “We’ll do it your way.”
Rain. As her coat dropped to the ground, the heavens opened, soaking them in a heartbeat with driving relentless rain. Fabian opened his mouth and tipped back his face, letting it cool his parched skin. He tilted his head so he could drink and watch Tig reluctantly disrobe. Through the sheeting rain, he caught vague glimpses of white flesh, the darker tips of her nipples, outlined by the rain against her flimsy undergarment. This half-dressed rain-drenched waif of a girl, who, under the bulky coat was even slighter than he’d imagined, had no idea what an erotic spectacle she presented.
For a moment, he was completely in her thrall, and glad of the distance between them, although she did not watch him with other than fleeting glances as she fumbled back into the coat. His control was a gossamer thread, about to snap. A thousand years without a woman would do that to a man, he supposed.
“There.” She pushed back her dripping hair and offered the shirt. Shouting now above the noise of the deluge, she commanded Cafino to stay so he could release his death-hold of the beast.
He did so with great relief, flexing his unbroken arm to release the tension. Tig’s trust in him was unnerving, a feeling he’d rarely indulged. Only in the bedroom, had a woman offered her wrists to him with such compliance. But Tig was not being bound for his pleasure. She was master here, not he; he recognised that in the way she clamped her wrists together so he could easily tie the knot while still holding the sword. The patience in her eyes when his shaking fingers fumbled and would not obey. He left the knot loose, so loose she could escape at any time. She acknowledged the concession with a half smile and inclined her head towards the saddle-packs.
“Drink,” she said. “And then, let’s get out of this rain.”
He was shaking now, in earnest. But not from the cool chill of rain on bare skin. To give a thirsty man water was no small kindness. To place your life into the hands of an unknown in order that they might salvage their pride? In all of the heaped tributes of gold and silver, palaces and land he’d received, never before had anyone offered him so precious a gift.
Now that he’d tied her hands, he realised she could not easily mount the beast. And he had little in the way of strength left to help her.
“What happened to you?” she asked with genuine concern in her voice.
Tipping the water-bottle to his mouth, he watched her slow appraisal of his hacked off hair and the bruises that should have been battle honours but only signified defeat, adorning his skin. Soft fingers drew a line over the break in his arm. “Where is your home, warrior?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, willing her to touch him again. Spontaneous affection. Is this how it felt? Compared to Tig’s simple and touching concern, the bowing and scraping of those who’d frequented his court, the women who’d extolled his prowess, seemed so hollow. Wealth and power made a man easy to love. Now who would even look at him twice? Stripped of all he was, penniless and wearing a blanket he’d stolen from a beast.
“Come on, Fabio.” Tig nimbly manoeuvred herself into the saddle, despite her bound wrists. “Climb up behind me before anyone else sees you.”
She did not ask if he required help, for which he was grateful. And she was still smiling, as she did whenever she mispronounced his name. While he struggled to mount, she might have kicked the beast into action and left him lying on the wet sand for predators to pick clean. He was pathetically grateful when he’d finally mounted and wrapped his arms around her to reach for the reins.
At last, after a thousand years of uncertainty, something positive. She was small and foolhardy and far too insolent. But she was a lifesaver and worth her weight, in the finest gold. No, he thought, resting his broken arm on the softness of her breasts. She was worth far more. This was a gift he would never be able to repay.
* * * *
The male of the species never ceased to amaze her. And not in a good way. By the time they reached the farm, she was wearing Fabian like a second coat. Barely conscious, he refused to relinquish the reins, lolling over her and becoming heavier with every passing moment. Tig steered Cafino with her thighs and knees, although the beast would have probably been able to find its way home blindfold.
She pulled the animal up, well clear of the picket fence marking the edge of her property and surveyed her domain with a practiced eye. The house, outbuildings, the fields beyond. The main road looked clear of traffic. Squatters were the biggest problem. If they got in, she could kiss goodbye to the farm. And in these lean times, if she lost this, she had few assets left to earn her living.
Fabian tensed around her, pulling her in almost protectively, until she gave the all-clear.
“Just checking I haven’t picked up any unwanted guests in my absence. I pay my protection money, but you never know.”
“You pay for protection?”
She laughed and shook her head. “How do you think I manage to live out here and survive intact?”
Fabian murmured his understanding. “It looks peaceful enough.”
“It is.” She urged Cafino forward, taking care to navigate the boulders her father had placed to stop wheeled vehicles approaching from the blind side. “My ex wouldn’t let anything happen to me.”
“What’s an ex?”
“Ex husband,” she said, distracted by the sight of her home. In a world as bleak as this, there was no place like it. She ought to embroider a plaque and place it over the hearth saying just that.
“You have a husband?”
The incredulous tone took her aback. In the split second between her words and his reaction to them, he’d tightened his hold on her, almost as if he expected said husband to appear and challenge him to an ownership battle. Or perhaps he meant to use her as a shield?
He had no idea how vulnerable his position really was.
“Had a husband. Married the local warlord. Thought it would offer my family the chance of a normal life. Didn’t work out. But he’s not a bad guy, given his past.” She hooked her leg over Cafino’s neck and slid from his back. “Gives me a good discount on the protection tribute, otherwise I’d never be able to afford it.” She grinned up at Fabian, who still looked stunned at the news. “And he makes sure my pottery gets top price at the best markets. I make dishes, mugs, jars. If you can eat or drink from it, I’ll make it. Got a small workshop and kiln out back.”
“Well, I’ve got to scrape a living somehow. Can we dispense with this?” She held up her bound wrists. “Strikes me as a little redundant in the circumstances.”
Fabian opened his mouth to reply. He narrowed his eyes, as if trying to remember why she was wearing a shirt on her wrists, swayed twice and then slithered wordlessly from Cafino to land in an unconscious heap at her feet.
“Well, I guess that answers the question.” Tig regarded him with the pity he’d begged for earlier, shaking her wrists to free them. She kneeled beside Fabian and placed a hand on his chest. Breathing deep and even – a good sign. The blanket had loosened, exposing the kind of hard, flat stomach men acquired from years of training. His massive biceps and well-muscled thighs told the same story. He groaned and opened his eyes. Tig ran her fingers over what was left of his thick, dark hair, still wet from the storm, and gave him a reassuring smile. The first man she’d seen with such short hair. Stolen, most likely, along with his clothing and pack.
A striking face, although she was not so good a judge of men’s beauty, having married a one-eyed desert-pirate with a wooden hand. And for his money, too. Beauty never came into it. This man, she imagined, had only to crook the smallest finger to have women fighting over him.
“Fabian? When did you last eat?”
“A thousand years ago.”
“Feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Can you stand? I make a mean pot-luck stew.”
His hand convulsed around her ankle. She took it, gently and enfolded it in hers. On his deeply-tanned skin, she noticed two whiter patches, about his wrists, as if he’d worn something habitually. Wrist-guards, most likely. Further up his arms, just above the elbow, were similar white circles. Sticky blood clotted around the hole caused by the crossbow bolt.
“You must try to stand. No way can I carry you. Or even drag you. Wouldn’t you like to sleep in a real bed?”
“Sleep here,” he mumbled. His eyes closed, slowly and he lay so still she thought briefly, he’d died on her. Then his chest expanded in a shuddering breath. Fell again. Tig released the breath she’d been holding and sat back, onto her heels.
“You can’t be seen. If anyone finds you here… Fabian, I need to bed down Cafino. Then I’ll be back for you. You just have a little rest. I’ll return in a short while.”
He gave no indication of hearing or that he cared whether he was lying all-but naked on a stony path being watched by a strange woman and an ugly horse. Cafino turned to nibble at his blanket, dislodging it and exposing the part of Fabian she’d been studiously trying to ignore. How could he be so casually naked around a woman? He’d shown not one jot of embarrassment or discomfort at any time. History books showed warriors fighting naked, but that was from eras long gone. No one was stupid enough to do that now. And Fabian certainly didn’t look stupid.
“Come on, Cafino.” Tig rose, stretching out her cramped legs. Two sharp clicks of the tongue had the beast trotting obediently after her. When they passed the hay-meadow, she grasped his bridle and dragged him past the tempting grasses to the stables.
“Sorry boy. Got too much to worry about tonight. I’ll turn you out tomorrow. Promise.”
Cafino answered in that strange way he had of talking to her. Tig liked to think the beast understood. Better than talking to herself. Something she also indulged in far too much during the long, lonely nights. Normally, she would have whiled away the time brushing and feeding him. Turning his bedding. Tonight, she had an injured and very naked man asleep on the path with no idea how to get him into the house. A man who would bring a small fortune in the slave markets, if the wrong people got to him first.
Or a new roof. Four tin buckets littered the stable floor, steadily filling drop by drop with rain-water dripping through broken tiles.
By sunrise tomorrow, Fabian might have changed hands three times before he landed in the slave market at Morido. Slavery was an abomination, yes, but morals were costly. The desire to live a worthy life warred constantly with the need to survive. A well-negotiated cut would buy her out of here and into one of the townships where she could earn her licence and join the craftsmen guild. Make something of herself.
Get thee behind me, she muttered to the devil of temptation sitting on her shoulder. Fleetingly, she wondered if Fabian’s family might pay a reward for his safe return. Everything about him screamed nobleman, or chieftain. Perhaps even prince. She gave a short, dry laugh. She might as well wish Cafino would sprout wings and suddenly learn to fly.
No. As she contemplated the gently snoring figure lying so peacefully on the path, she had the ominous feeling she’d been handed a cart-load of trouble. First task – get him hidden before someone came visiting. Second, heal and clothe him and send him on his way before anyone realised he was here. Simple.
She kneeled beside him on the stony path and shook him gently. When had her life ever been that simple?
In his sleep, he went home. Relived his past glories and drank with his brother. For a brief moment, on awakening, he lay blissfully suspended in that wonderful place where dreams become reality. An immense feeling of relief washed over him like the high tides of Palio-Oceana. His terrible defeat, the Fall – all a dream. Oh, thank the gods.
But his bed was full of stones. Cold air lifted the hairs on his arms and legs. His head was strangely light, while at the same time feeling as if he’d indulged in an entire flagon of wine without stopping to draw breath. Someone was beating his arm and his chest with a hammer. Slicing at his flesh with the point of a knife.
Unpleasant sensations filtered through, one by one, until he remembered. And then he fell, all over again, screaming out his repentance, into the black void of nothingness.
When he awoke the second time, the pain had dulled to a tolerable, background ache and beside him was a wraith, albeit a rather scruffy-looking one, gazing down at him with eyes full of concern. He wanted to reach out and touch her to see if she was real, but his arms were too heavy, and they refused to obey.
“I cannot die,” he told her. “The bracelets of immortality are mine by right of conquest. Why are you here?”
Soft fingers drifted over his brow, moving to trace the line of his cheek.
“You’re raving. But no fever, thank god. Fabian, can you stand? You need to come indoors. You’ll be safer there.”
He should know her. A familiar voice, as was the scent. Spring-time. She smelled of spring-time. And she had a stupid name.
“That’s me. Come on, Fabio. Give me something to work with here.”
“My name is Fabian Luc…”
Her mouth twitched at the corner. “I know,” she said wrapping him in her arms. “Just teasing. Lean on me and stand.”
“You brought me here?”
“Yes,” she said patiently. “Updates later. Now the priority is to get you down the path and into that house. Can you see it?”
The narrow path wound away to a dip. In the dusky evening light he made out the faded roof tiles and whitewashed walls of a rustic dwelling. The kind of building that housed peasants and swine back in his world. Right now it looked like a palace.
“Yes, I see it,” he said shaking away the last threads of confusion. “I need the services of a mage. Urgently.”
Tig shook her head. “You can’t afford a mage. Few can these days.”
“This is a strange world.” He refused her offer of an arm to lean on. The rebirth into this new life had been painful, but the pain meant he could feel, and if he could feel, he must be alive. He wanted to feel it.
Tig picked up the blanket and walked close, letting him lead the way, while carefully shepherding him along the path. She seemed to have an extraordinary ability to navigate the tender sensibilities of the male ego. Still acting the vanquished, even though she was anything but. Back in his world, she would have made a formidable diplomat.
The windows were shuttered from the inside. The door locked in five places. Tig fished into the inside pocket of her coat and dangled a bunch of iron keys from one finger.
“Want to do the honours? Or shall I?” The tone remained neutral. As if she were asking a long-time acquaintance rather than her captor. Perhaps he caught a hint of sarcasm. Key-keepers opened doors for him. He did not bother himself with such trivial matters.
“Proceed and unlock, that I may enter,” he said, and immediately felt foolish. Men of equal stature had cowered before him. Only his true-brother would dare to address him directly without prior leave. But standing here, at the door of this humble abode, with the unlikeliest of saviours, the formal words of his old life seemed so pompous and inappropriate. He, who had commanded vast armies of men, commanded only laughter now.
Tig gave him a half-bow and with a flourish, inserted the key into the first lock. She was grinning widely by the time she’d opened them all and bade him enter in a gruff voice that sounded distinctly like a mimic of his own.
To salvage his pride, he waited several heartbeats before moving, forcing her to look at him in all his glorious nakedness. He noticed the spring of heat to her cheeks every time her gaze fell to his genitals. Whether it was admiration or just fascination, he couldn’t tell. A married woman was no innocent, but she blushed like a virgin now as his body responded to her scrutiny.
“You need clothes,” she said wryly, and disappeared into the dark interior. He followed, dipping his head to avoid the low beam. The door opened directly into a room that was part kitchen, part reception chamber. Tig looked even more other-worldly in the glow of the single lamp she’d lit and placed on the wooden table. He took in the iron stove, the stone sink with pump for water. A tall clock stood against the far wall and well-worn armchairs huddled around a fireplace.
The house appeared bigger on the inside than it did from without. The kind of dwelling and furnishings afforded by an artisan or a farmer. Tig pointed to one of the armchairs.
“Sit. I’m going upstairs to find you some clothes. Then I’ll make us a meal. Bartered for a goat-leg last week. It should still be good to go. Do you like goat?”
“I could eat Cafino raw right now.”
Tig’s laughter was slightly hysterical but quite spontaneous. He felt rather pleased to have elicited such a response and wracked his brains for another witty remark. Nothing came, so he contented himself with watching her wipe away the tears and then start laughing again as she remembered what he’d said.
“Don’t mind the laughter,” she said at length. “It’s been a very strange day.”
“I find your laughter quite pleasant,” he replied, and then wanted to kick himself for sounding so condescending. He couldn’t remember the last time someone laughed because he was funny, rather than because he was the high lord and people always gave him the response they thought he wanted.
Tig tilted her head and regarded him thoughtfully. “When you say jump, people jump – right? I guess that makes it hard to know what’s real, and what isn’t?”
His gaze dropped to his dirty feet. Being read like a book was an uncomfortable feeling and this woman saw far too much. “Clothes,” he said. “And food.” He wanted to add, and you, but he didn’t think he would live up to his nickname on this night.
“Will you allow me to splint your arm?”
“There is nothing wrong with my arm.”
Tig shrugged, as if she didn’t care a jot. But her eyes lied. He saw the concern and the way she pursed her lips.
“Suit yourself. But if you don’t let me set that bone, it will mend crooked. And then what use will it be?”
“Stop questioning me!” He growled out the words, louder than he’d intended. Tig took a step back, hands raised in resignation.
“I know. Not my concern.” She turned for the stairs, hesitated then turned back to him. “I’ve known men like you. Men who stand on their principles, even if it means death to themselves and those around them. My father was the same, and so were my brothers. It got them nothing but pain and a shortened life. The warlord before Carson sent a war band and my father refused to compromise. All they asked was public tribute and fifty percent of the farm revenue. If he’d given them that, they would all be alive today.”
Fabian listened, unsurprised by her words. He had honoured men who refused to compromise their honour and submit to him. Honoured, then executed them.
“And you are what? The reed that bends in the wind?”
“Damned right I am,” Tig ground out. “I did what they wouldn’t to save the rest of my family. When Carson made a successful challenge, I offered myself, and luckily he took me as his tenth wife. I gave myself to him and did everything he desired because it was the only way to survive.”
“You gave in. In my world we would call that a weakness.”
“I gave what was mine to give. Big difference. I…”
Fabian smelled the salt of her tears but already knew she was far too proud to let them fall. She had no-one to wipe them away for her so she would sniff them back, straighten her spine and continue to move forward and live her life.
“In my world, it is customary to give a gift when entering the house of a friend,” he said by way of distraction. “May I assume friendship with you?”
He heard Tig sniff. Again, she gave an indifferent shrug. “You can assume what you like.”
“Good. Then I wish to offer you a gift.”
Fabian caught the glint of hope in her voice. The way she leaned forward in anticipation. Had he been home, he would have showered her with gold for saving his life. Now, all he had to offer was this.
“I will admit that my arm pains me. You may set it and splint it for me, at your leisure.”
Again, another bark of disbelieving laughter. Wisely, Tig clamped a hand over her mouth to stop the sound. She took a deep breath and composed herself before speaking.
“Thank you, my lord. You do me a great honour.”
He inclined his head in acknowledgement, hearing the mockery, but showing that he too could bend with the wind. Adapting to this temporary new home would be difficult, but he would do whatever it took to get him back to Anxur. If that meant letting this woman know he felt pain, then so be it.
The old leather chair embraced him. He was drifting when Tig placed a mug of something hot and savoury into his hand. A blanket, softer than Cafino’s, settled over his legs.
“Don’t spill it,” she whispered. “Or drink too quickly.” Her hand wrapped around his to steady the cup and help lift it carefully to his mouth. “Something ate the goat. Desert wolf probably. Storm blew the store-room door wide open. This will dull the pain and help you sleep. I’ll set your arm while you’re out.”
Drugged? The room tipped and started a slow spin. Fabian struggled against the effect of the sleeping draught, to no avail. Time, the room, Tig, slid away to be replaced by the sensation of waves lapping gently at the shore. Feeling safer than he had in a thousand years, he spread himself out and let them take him.
* * * *
With him here, neither of them was safe.
Send for a runner, her better judgement nagged. Have him collected and pocket the fee. What good will come of this?
A find like Fabian belonged to the local warlord.
Damn them. Damn them all. She found him. His fate was hers to decide.
“You’re going home,” she told the sleeping figure. “Wherever that is. And if it involves a big reward for me, then so much the better.”
Fabian tolerated the setting and splinting with barely a whimper. Stoical, even in sleep. “Where else are you hurting?” she murmured. A man this proud would rather die than admit a weakness. If he had internal injuries, she could only wait for him to die and then bury him deep, where no wild beast or man could find him. She didn’t want him to die.
She found a pot of antiseptic salve to rub into the cuts littering his skin. Too many scars, old and new, for him to be anything but a warrior or a member of one of the war-gangs. Carefully, Tig eased down the blanket to smooth the soothing lotion into the diagonal cut that ran from his waist to his belly-button and then she bound the hole made by the crossbow bolt. She worked diligently, trying in vain to detach from the memory of the crisp dark hair circling his magnificent cock. Her husband had been well-endowed, but Fabian, oh my. She worked in the salve, determined not to stare at the bulge tenting the blanket. A perfectly natural thing. Nothing to get so hot and bothered about. Sex was vastly overrated, anyway.
Oh Tig, she scolded herself. He’ll be gone as soon as he’s healed. Don’t get involved. Don’t get attached.
She measured his beautiful shoulders with her hands, curving her fingers around the smooth, hard muscle, sweeping down to the planes of his chest. His short hair was dark, like his eyes and in repose he’d lost the frown marks marring his forehead. She traced the line of his nose, feeling the slight bump that might have been an old break. Touched the scar where a blade had sliced his cheek. He needed a shave, and a bath. She sniffed, surreptitiously, finding the stench of sweat and man strangely arousing. Fabian muttered and shifted to his side. The blanket slipped. Tig quickly replaced it.
Man, was Anxur-Jopra ugly. She laid her forearm against Fabian’s comparing the marks. At least it wasn’t Crolos. Then she would have had to shoot him on sight. You couldn’t afford to be sentimental about these things. Not if you wanted to live.
Let him sleep. Something told her he’d earned a few hours of peace. He was like a fish tossed from the sea by a rogue wave. Completely at odds with his environment. A man uttering a silent scream only she could hear.
She left Fabian the lamp, using up precious supplies because no one should wake up in the dark in a strange place. Outside, she heard the long, lonely howl of a desert wolf. No answer tonight. Probably an outcast like her. She’d cried too long into the night for someone special to help shoulder the burdens of this life. She pitied the animal and then she envied it. For the wolf, hope was a well that never ran dry.
Sleep was impossible. She fought the urge to keep checking on the very unexpected man asleep in her armchair. As a distraction, she climbed to the attic and brought down the rifle. Cleaning it gave her something to do with her hands. Something not nearly as interesting as touching Fabian, but the gentle back and forth of the oily rag, and the memory of her father and brothers doing the same calmed her a little and gave her space to think and plan.
The craziest of thoughts took root as she worked.
When he leaves, go with him. Start that new life you’ve always dreamed of.
Then she caught sight of herself in the folding mirror on her dresser. Candlelight threw shadows into the gaunt hollows of her cheeks. Tangled hair, pale and listless, curtained her face. Her brother’s old work-shirt hung from bony shoulders. Cuffs pulled back over wrists too thin to be hers – surely? A man like Fabian would not want to be seen with this sad-looking creature.
Methodically, she reassembled the gun. Sighted down the barrel. Fabian had a life to live, and so did she. And hers didn’t involve waiting for a man to show her the way.
* * * *
He felt the loss of the bracelets like a ghost limb after amputation. Tight bands tugged at his upper arms, and yet, when he looked, Fabian saw only the pale marks where the sun had not bronzed him.
How great was the fall of the mighty. Instead of silks and leather, he had only his own skin. No war-horse of the purest breed. Crude pottery instead of silver and gold. A smelly lamp with its mean light, instead of candles that blazed with the light of a thousand suns. The wagons carrying plunder had stretched as far as the eye could see.
“You’re alive, Fabian.” Tig stopped battering the lump of dough into submission and wiped floury hands on her pants. “You should be singing, not frowning.”
Fabian unfolded himself from the chair, tugging the blanket around him to spare Tig’s delicate sensibilities. How could a poor little creature like her, be so wise? And so familiar, too. Did she not know who he was? He shook his head. Of course she didn’t.
“I have nothing to sing about. When can you organise a mage for me?”
“Look around, Fabian. Do I look as if I can afford the services of a mage?”
Unfortunately, she spoke the truth. His first glance had warned him she was not a woman of means.
“You must have something you can sell.”
“Whoa. Hold it just there. Give me one good reason why I should put myself out for you?”
“More riches than you could ever imagine,” he replied, gazing absently out of the window at the flag-stoned yard and meadows beyond. “Help me return to my own world, and you will be well rewarded.”
“Well,” she said, dropping the dough into a warmed bowl. “Now you’re talking. What’s all this about your world? You’re from the Bartain province in the north, right? I’ve heard they keep their hair short, like yours. Or was it stolen?”
What should he tell her? It sounded fantastic even to his own ears. I fell for a thousand years down a pit that cycled through dimensions and time. This is where I landed.
“Not exactly. But I do need to return home. Where will I find a mage?”
“They’re all operating underground now or controlled by one gang or another. How’s the arm?”
“It will mend.” The words almost came out as a question. Past battle wounds had healed with him barely noticing. How mortals healed, he had no idea.
“Only a mage can get me home.”
“Are you going to tell me why?”
“A primitive such as you would not comprehend.”
“Hey!” A splat of soft dough hit him on the cheek.
“Primitive is a relative thing. Just because I don’t have much, it doesn’t mean I’m lacking in the brain-cells’ department.”
“I never said you lacked intelligence. Merely that you lived like a primitive. I need clothing. I do not think a horse blanket is proper attire for the…” he stopped himself. What would he do if the leader of a powerful clan suddenly turned up at his doorstep, bewildered and injured and declaring his identity to all? “I do not think a horse blanket is proper attire. Show me what you have. I need to make my way to the nearest settlement.”
“Okay. Okay. Hold the horses.”
“Do I look like the kind of man who would bother himself holding horses?” As with most females, Tig talked mostly gibberish. Fabian turned back to the window to regroup. This was a game they must play on her terms, for now. He murmured a short prayer of thanks that this woman had found him, rather than the marauding war-bands of which she had spoken.
“Who are you, Fabian? Where did you come from?” He felt her hand, gentle on his shoulder. Her warm breath against his back. Her boldness, the way she approached and addressed him, without prior leave, was oddly exciting. But it also made him feel vulnerable.
“A war-lord,” he said at length. Best couch it in terms she would understand. Not too far from the truth. “Taken as hostage. After a long and noble struggle,” he added.
“Of course,” Tig murmured in words that lacked her usual sarcasm. Her hand was warm on his flesh. He tensed to stop himself leaning into its comforting embrace.
“Naturally, I escaped. Killing most of my captors. And then you found me. They put a forgetfulness spell on me. I need a mage to help me remember where home is.”
Soft lips touched his shoulder blade. Or did he imagine that?
“You don’t have to pretend with me,” Tig said. “The strongest of men will find themselves wrong-footed at some time in their lives. I can’t promise you a mage. But I will do all I can to help you to return home.”
“That pleases me.” He turned to her and fingered a lock of fair, greasy hair. “You would be quite passable if you took more care of yourself. Beautiful, even. Do you not wish to be attractive to men?”
“A compliment?” Tig arched her brows and deftly flicked the hair from his fingers. “Where I come from, attractive women are raped and taken as plunder. Or raped and held for ransom. Do you understand?”
“Only too well. But I should like to see you cleaned up.”
“Why should I want to attract attention to myself? Didn’t you hear what I just said? If you want clothes, they’re upstairs. My father was a big man. His clothes should fit you.”
He waved a hand. “Bring them to me.”
“Fetch them yourself.” Resolutely, Tig picked up the bowl of dough and crossed to the range. With a sharp crack, she placed it on the metal stove and then busied herself organising tins and boxes on the adjoining shelves. After a short wait, he decided to dress himself. At the door leading to the steep, winding staircase, he hesitated.
“I should like to wash first. Where is the bathing-room?”
“Stone building next to the house,” Tig said without stopping her furious rearranging. “If you want hot water, there’s a copper boiler. When the water’s hot enough, open the valve to fill the tub. Bucket’s under the sink if you want to fill it faster.”
All spoken without turning around. Fabian wondered what he’d said to upset her.
“I will give you the honour of bathing me,” he offered. “I have obviously offended you in some way. Women have fought to the death for such an honour in the past.”
Her shoulders were shaking. Laughter, or tears? He couldn’t tell. Fabian only knew that he’d touched some open wound and caused pain. An uncomfortable feeling, given Tig’s kindness.
“I will do you the even greater honour of bathing you,” he said, offering the most he had to give at that moment.
“Don’t humble yourself,” Tig snapped back. “Wash if you want to. I have bread to make.”
In the give and take of this odd new life, it was his turn to offer comfort. When he thought of all he’d left behind him, he almost wanted to weep, too. Instead of this peasant clad in rags, he could have adorned her like a queen. Had her ride in the finest of carriages. In his world she would have been a reflection of himself. In her world, he thought ruefully, he was a reflection of her. A poor one, too.
“You may be dirty and lack means, but you have generosity and grace. Where I come from, that is a very precious commodity. Tig. If I offended you, I beg your pardon.”
She’d been crying, although she would never admit it. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m a mess. But Fabian. What do I have to get dressed up for, huh?”
“For me. Do it for me. Power is all in the presentation. I would know who you are. Had I my gold sword and my silver armour, you would know who I was.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” Tig sounded weary, as if she’d had this conversation before. “The finery is just a front. I’m seeing the real you, and you’re seeing the real me. That’s a bigger privilege than you’ll ever understand.”
“May I touch you?”
Tig’s insolent gaze slid from his face to his feet. Too much of a challenge for his body to ignore.
“Had you been my captive, I would have had you, three, maybe four times by now.”
Tig’s eyes flashed alarm. “You’re going to rape me?”
“No. I will not take you by force. You have my word.”
“But you have?”
Fabian drew in a deep, steadying breath. The accusation in her eyes made him feel like something that had crawled from the depths of the slimiest pond.
“In another life sin had no meaning for me.”
She held him in her gaze for too long. “So what? You’ve suddenly grown a conscience?”
“Don’t mock me. There is nothing sudden about it.”
Slender fingers reached out for his. Broken nails crusty with dough. Her touch held more than the need to reconcile. His cock stirred to life and he wondered at his desperation. Far from cladding her in finery, the old Fabian would have thrown a woman like her to the foot-troops to provide a night or two of entertainment, if she lasted that long. That he would consider bedding her, showed how much he had changed.
Her eyes were the dark blue of the sea just before dawn. They held more understanding than he deserved.
“We’ve all done things we regret. The important thing is to know it, right? Go upstairs and find yourself some clothes. I’ll fill the copper. Wait here for me, until I give you the all-clear.”
“A wash would be most welcome. I have sand everywhere.” It wasn’t desperation, he realised. Not just the desire to lose himself in the pleasures of the flesh. He wanted to lie with this woman for mutual comfort. To give her pleasure, as well as receive it. He turned for the stairs aching with a need he’d never known. But then, he’d never had to practice restraint before.
At the top of the stairs, he pushed open the first door. A room furnished with two crude, wooden cots. An iron chest filled with women’s clothes. Dresses in a style he’d never seen, aprons and undergarments. He let the lid drop and moved on. The next room was a mirror image, with the addition of a pair of stacked beds against the far wall. How many siblings had Tig mentioned? From the window, he caught sight of Tig making her way across the court-yard, a bucket swinging from each hand. Green fields circled the farm buildings, ending abruptly where they adjoined the desert. An oasis, then.
The third room smelled of Tig and of something he did not immediately recognise. He took in the embroidered quilt dangling from the edge of the bed. The few jars, the silver comb sitting on a small, mirrored side-table. A dirty rag reeked of weapon-oil. A wardrobe held her clothes. He sifted through the contents. A single gown hung amongst worn pants and shirts. Why would she want more?
Thankfully, Tig had not lied about her father’s size. In the fourth bedroom, Fabian found himself shirt, pants and boots of a non-descript colour that would help him blend into this world. He waited for his erection to subside before joining Tig. With the acquisition of this cursed conscience, the fear he’d caused her shamed him. He would not add her to the list of those he’d taken in lust.
Mortality. How bitter the taste. Broken bones. Feelings he did not understand. And with each breath, the terrible uncertainty that it might be his last.
Shards of early morning sunlight streaked across the wooden boards at his feet. He’d slept the night away. Time he would never have back, unless he found a way to return home. He listened to the frantic thump of his heart, beating out the moments far too fast.
How did mortals live this way without going insane?
Was she finally going crazy? Fabian had offered to bathe her, and god in heaven, she wanted him to. The bath-house filled with steam, and her head with wicked thoughts of Fabian, sitting behind her in the tub, both of them naked and wet.
Tig tipped another bucket of water into the metal tub and decided she should go dunk her head in the horse trough to cool the heat addling her brain. Fabian sauntered into the bath-house at her signal, still insolently naked. In his arms, he carried a selection of clothes, thank the heavens. He dropped them onto a wooden stool and dipped a hand into the swirling water.
“Hot,” he said. “Exactly how I like it.”
Tig busied herself with the last bucketful. “Hop in then,” she said without turning around. “And try to keep the splint and the bandage dry, if you can.”
Fabian groaned with pleasure when he sank into the water. He lay without moving, eyes closed, head tipped back onto the edge of the tub. Broken arm dangling over the side. A picture of complete abandon.
And trust, Tig thought following the exposed line of his neck with her gaze. Quietly, she tip-toed to the door and threw the bolt. Too late, she realised she’d locked herself in with him.
Better to stay. Because of his injuries, not because he was something to behold with the water sluicing from his shoulders and wetting the tips of his hair. It was somehow more erotic glimpsing the line of coarser hair running down his belly and thickening at his groin, through the rippling water.
“You have soap?”
His deep, sleepy voice made her jump and quickly avert her eyes. “Yes,” she said scrambling for the soap dish. “Not what you’re used to, I’m sure. I make it myself.” She dropped the small cube into his outstretched palm. His fingers curled around hers as he took it from her. Their hands slid apart.
“I also have shampoo,” she said gesturing towards a pottery jar on the shelf. “I…you can…”
Fabian sat up. A tide of water sloshed over the edge of the bath.
Like one of the old sea-gods rising from the waves. The scandalously blasphemous thought came and went, followed by a quick prayer asking for forgiveness. None of that existed any more. The old ways had been wiped from the history books, and rightly so.
Fabian stared at the soap for a moment, dunked it in the water and then applied it, in slow circles to his tight stomach. She watched it slide over slick skin, dipping and rising over the contours of his chest and shoulder. The hand disappeared below the surface and continued to move, sending small rhythmic waves over the edge of the bath to splash onto the stone floor.
“You will wash my back?”
“If you want.”
Again, his fingers lingered too long when he handed her the soap. Fabian caught her gaze and held it, when she would have looked away. Ignoring him wasn’t easy, but she was no simpering youngling overawed by her first glimpse of a naked man.
It’s just a back. A landscape of skin, muscle and bone. Of swirling patterns inked into his skin. She applied the soap with gusto, narrowing her eyes to see better in the shady darkness. And a lifetime of scars, she realised. The myriad of criss-crossing lines, paler and older than the new cuts and scrapes told his history better than words ever could. She slowed her vigorous scrubbing and traced the longest of the scars with a soapy finger. This man had known suffering.
“The battle of Norinar,” he said in reply to her unspoken question. “Third son of a noble. I cut off his head for his trouble.”
“Oh.” Tig swallowed down the lurch of nausea. Fabian must be what? In his mid thirties? No-one lived that long without killing at least one person.
“And this one?” She touched a circular scar on his left shoulder blade.
Fabian let out a short dry laugh. “The Lady Dina’s idea of foreplay.”
“Was she your wife?”
“One of them.”
Tig placed the soap in the dish and toed off her shoes. She reached for the shampoo. “How many times have you been married?”
“You’re asking how many wives I have?”
Tig scooped out a dollop of shampoo, working it into a lather between her palms. “You certainly got around.”
“My father had thirty-two.”
“I was one of twelve.”
“Why did your husband let you go?”
Tig smoothed the shampoo over Fabian’s scalp and what remained of his hair, remembering the many times she’d performed the same task for her brothers. He moved into her touch, pressing back against her massaging fingers. Now home, she needed to bathe, too. Perhaps a strip-down wash while waiting for the dough to rise.
“Short attention span. He likes women but always has his eye on the next prize. A fair man, though. Gave me a legal separation and the perks of an ex-wife. I was very glad to return home.”
“Ahh,” Fabian said. “I understand your shame. You were rejected. That is why you hide here in this remote place.”
Without warning, she tipped the waiting bucket of rinsing-water over his head. Fabian bore it without complaint, which peeved her slightly since she’d hoped for a reaction. Why she tried to provoke this dangerous-looking man, she had no idea. He intrigued and irritated her in equal measure.
“Pity about the hair,” she said, smiling at the way he’d spluttered under the deluge. “It’ll mark you as an outsider. Feeling cleaner now?”
Fabian palmed water from his face and shook his head to clear his ears. “Pass me the drying-cloth,” he said impassively.
She was still grinning when she handed him the thick, linen towel. Grinning and then suddenly pressed hard against the side of the tub, the towel looped around her hands.
“Thank you,” he said deliberately.
She didn’t struggle. So, he wanted to make a point? Let him. They both knew he was physically stronger. By lying limp, under his constraint, she retained a semblance of control without provoking him further.
Fabian loosened his hold. “You do not fear my anger?”
“I see it,” she said. “But something worse than me put those shadows on your face. You gave me your word you wouldn’t hurt me. Does that still hold true?”
“As we’ve already discovered. My word is worth more than yours.”
“Oh, come on. You’re not still sulking over that, are you? What would you have done in my situation?”
Fabian stood. Tig stepped away to avoid the tide of water and the way he resorted to the most blatant of sexual metaphors whenever she teased him. Hands on hips, she met his challenge. Handed him the towel. He wanted her to look? She was happy to oblige.
“Honour is everything. Without it, there are no rules. And without rules, there is only chaos. Dry my back.”
“Yes, your majesty.” She took the towel and considered slapping him with it. Wisely, she did not. “Your honour is a fake, Fabian, do you know that? People like you make the rules, draw the lines then change them to suit yourself.” She threw down the towel. Paced across the room. “I must be mad to have let you come back here with me. Whoever did this to you, if you draw their fire, I’ll lose the farm. Tell me, wasn’t your first thought to kill me? To steal my beast and leave me to die in the desert?”
Fabian stepped into the pants, jerking closed the drawstring tie. “You know it was, so why do you ask?”
“Because I want to know where I stand.”
“I’ve told you I will not cause you harm. I have never yet broken my word.”
“Well, you can’t blame me for being wary.”
“Caution is prudent,” he said, reaching for the shirt. “But, like all women, you have flutter-birds for brains. They fly this way and that, never knowing which direction to take. You wish to analyse every word I utter, when I have spoken loudly and clearly in words even you cannot fail to understand.”
“They pinned my father and brothers out for the Frey. Do you know how long it took them to die? How many men have you condemned to a slow, tortuous death?”
“Too many to count.”
She made no move to help him as he struggled into the shirt. His ribs needed binding, but, at that moment, she wanted him to suffer. The size and arrogance of him were everything she should despise.
The clothes transformed him, making him look somehow more human. Unable to fasten the shirt, he left it hanging open. Or perhaps he wanted her to step forward and button it for him? She heaved in a shaky breath.
“And that is the life you wish to return to?”
“I wish to return home, yes.”
“That’s not what I asked.” She saw it now. The angel of vengeance, sitting at his right hand. “When you return home, you will want revenge? There will be death? Am I saving you for that?”
A cloud rolled over the sun, casting the room in darker shadow. His words cut through the gloom. No metaphors. Just the clear, unambiguous truth.
“When I return, the rivers will run red with the blood of my enemies. I will rise from the abyss and reclaim what was mine. I will have revenge, and it will be terrible. Is that clear enough for you?”
Tig staggered under the weight of his words. The consequences of saving this man were more terrible than she could ever imagine.
“I won’t be a party to that.”
Fabian stilled like an animal sensing danger. His gaze flickered to the door-bolt. Back to her. “Meaning?”
“Meaning, I refuse to save you so you can start a war.” Disappointment, not anger choked her voice. She wasn’t so naïve, but she had seen a man worth saving. Now she knew she was far too small and insignificant to stand in the way of such venomous determination.
But when had that ever stopped her trying?
“You’re a lucky man, Fabian.”
“You’ve been given a second chance. A new start. Back inside, when you talked of the women you’ve had. I saw the weight of it. Is all that death and pain worth the price of your soul?”
“If I return home, I will no longer be burdened with a soul.”
“Now you’re scaring me. What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
He bent for the boots, grimacing, but refusing to give his pain a voice. She watched him squeeze a foot into each. Snap closed the buckles with one hand. Straighten.
“Enough,” he said. “From now on, there will be nothing but the truth between us.” He tipped his head towards the door. “Are they coming for me?”
His shoulders sagged. “It did not cross your mind that I was a valuable commodity?”
“Yes. It crossed my mind. Crossed it, and walked right on out the other side.”
Fabian stepped closer and paused to roll back the shirt-sleeve over the splint.
“Have you truly changed your mind, now you know what is on mine?”
Cringing in his shadow, she could well imagine the terror of those he’d conquered. He respected courage, but he wouldn’t let it stand in the way of his goals.
“Yes,” she said, with no idea what she was about to unleash. “I want to save you pain. But if all you want to do is go back to your old life, count me out. Go. I won’t stop you. I won’t help you, either.”
He lifted a strand of her hair and rubbed it between his fingers. “You have courage, little one. Few would dare to talk to me as you do.”
“Have you any idea what a cliché that sounds?” Stop it, she thought. His hand moved to her face, one finger tracing the line of her nose. He rubbed her lips with his thumb. Cupped her chin. Moved down to place a flat palm over her heart.
“Tyrants always talk in cliché. It’s expected.” He listened for a moment to the beating of her heart. “You fear me, and yet you stand your ground.”
“And you’re in pain, but you won’t admit it.”
His hand slid to her breast, a sure, possessive move. Tig fought for a single, rational thought and found her mind curiously blank. There was only the sensation of his fingers tightening and releasing. The softening and melting of her spine. A slight wobble in her knees.
And a ravenous hunger deep inside.
Not real, she thought, frantically latching onto something, at last. Loneliness, nothing more. That’s why I’m standing here like some moonstruck idiot caught in the flare of a burning torch.
“Stop distracting me.” Even as she said it, she pushed against his searching fingers.
In response, Fabian leaned close enough for her to taste his breath. To feel his soft, wet lips tracing the shell of her ear.
“Wash,” he whispered. “I like my women clean.”
Before she could reply, he turned, slid back the bolt and strode from the room.
Tig stared after him, brain scrambling to catch up. The imprint of his large hand lingering on her breast.
“I was going to wash anyway,” she shouted after him. “I’m not doing it for you.”
Then why was she searching frantically through the wooden supplies-cabinet for the rose-scented soap? Wishing she hadn’t used up the last of the chamomile rinse that made her hair shine like the summer sun on gold leaf?
She unbuttoned her shirt and threw it aside. Pulled the plug from the bath to let the water gush out into the drain.
What kind of message would she give when she walked into that kitchen, scrubbed and clean?
With a deep breath, she gathered her scattered senses. Arrogant bastard. Nothing more than bribery. One night of passion and she’d do exactly what he asked? He didn’t really expect her to comply?
No, he doesn’t. He’s expecting me to barrel through that kitchen door all righteous indignation and guns blazing.
She squinted into the copper boiler and then drew the last bucketful of hot water. Stripped down to stand naked in the tub.
Toe-curling sex and grisly death. Two things you could count on with men like Fabian. She paused and then continued soaping her arm. She wouldn’t contribute to the latter, but she’d be a fool to refuse the first part. In this world, you took your comforts where you could. She lingered over her breast, retracing the path of his hand.
Horny? What did she expect? She’d been staring at a naked man for the best part of the last twenty-four hours. Fabian’s body would tempt Saint Jalana herself.
Sniffing at the shampoo, she wondered if he liked roses.
* * * *
The dough had risen and still no Tig. He, who had only to incline his head to cause a riot of women fighting for his bed.
Fabian lowered himself carefully into the armchair. Putting up a front of indifference to the pain used energy he should be channelling into healing this poor mortal body. Did it matter if Tig saw him hurting?
He tipped back his head. The shirt smelled musty, the cotton soft with age against his skin. A thousand years of sleep to catch up on. All those missed dreams.
The seers had warned him, but he would not listen. His arrogant disregard had brought down a whole dynasty. Fabian frowned. In his mind, his brother’s pride as he’d stepped up to the ledge, turned to scorn.
No. Marcellus at least was true to the end. Victory had been so close. He gripped the arm of the chair with his good hand and smelled roses.
“You were dreaming.”
Petals against his skin. He watched the gossamer strands drift across his face. Not petals, spun gold. Showering his arms and chest. Enveloping him. A hand pulled the strands aside. Tig’s face appeared, anxious and hovering close. Fabian glanced around, remembering.
“Oh,” he said, unable to keep the disappointment out of his voice. “It’s you.”
“Yes. Fabian. Only me. You were talking in your sleep. Dreaming. You called for Marcellus.”
“My true-brother,” he said distracted by the vision standing before him. “I had many half-brothers, but Marcellus and I shared the same mother.” He blinked. “It is you. You clean up well.”
Tig winked at him. “Come breakfast with me. Can you eat new bread?”
“I have no problem with it.” The big problem was getting out of the chair. In his sleep, his joints had stiffened and locked in place. Tig gave him a sympathetic smile as he hobbled to take his place at the wooden table. She slapped down a mug of something hot and steaming and pushed a wooden board containing the new bread towards him.
“There’s honey in the crock. Help yourself.”
Being clean certainly seemed to have improved Tig’s spirits. Bare-foot and dressed in a green fitted gown that reached to her knees, her hair loose, like a golden cloak, she was certainly very easy on the eye. Alluring, even.
“Stiff?” She slid the honey-crock to him. “Can get like that the day after.”
“A little.” Still groggy and half-aroused from sleep, he wasn’t quite sure to what she was referring. He watched her spread honey on the bread. Sip from her mug. Wipe crumbs from her lip with her thumb. Beautiful women measured each and every move. They knew their worth, and invariably extracted it, with interest. Women like Tig were a rare find. More honest and generous. He remembered the conversation they’d had in the bath-house.
“So you refuse to help me return home?”
She looked a little crest-fallen. As if she’d been expecting one conversation, but was getting another.
“The gown becomes you,” he said back-tracking dutifully. “Tig, I need your help to navigate this world. I must return to my own.”
“Really. You really like it?”
“I do,” he said, noticing the way her eyes sparkled with mischief. She wasn’t so different from other women. They all played one game or another. “It shows off what few curves you have, admirably. Now, back to helping me leave here.”
Tig chewed her bread, looking extraordinarily pleased with herself. “I told you, already. If you’re going back to create murder and mayhem, then you do it alone. Where do you come from, really? What’s all this my world, business?”
She had the brains of a court jester. A shrewd mind hidden behind a façade of flippancy and deceptively simple words. He’d promised her the truth.
“I’m from another dimension. A world far from this one in time and in space.” He braced himself for laughter, or a witty come-back. Incredulity, even. Tig simply scrutinised him with half-closed eyes while she sipped her tea.
“When I lived in my husband’s camp, I often talked with his mage. He told me many strange stories. Not sure how much was truth and how much exaggeration. Most mages are frauds, anyway. All talk and mumbo jumbo that’s meant to impress but doesn’t do squat but make you poorer. Fabian, I think you maybe hit your head harder than you realised.”
“There was a treacherous betrayal. I was made to take the Dark Fall.”
“The Dark Fall?”
“An abyss that cycles through time and dimensions. A kind of purgatory where men confront their sins. For my sins, I ended up here.”
“Then you must have been bad.”
Tig continued eating and then, after a moment of thought, she extended a hand and covered his, offering the pity he’d begged for so desperately, back in the desert.
“I was. Very bad, as you so eloquently put it. A thousand of our years bad.”
“So, you just fell out of the sky after a thousand years in purgatory, and now you want to go home so you can slaughter everyone who did you wrong? Have I missed anything?”
“That sums it up, yes.”
She turned his hand over to study the lines of his palm. Her gaze lifted to his face. Reaching out, she stroked his stubbled chin. “You’ve a day, maybe two day’s growth of beard. Unless your attackers shaved you before leaving you to die, you weren’t out there long.”
“During the Fall, I felt only pain and fear. Other things became irrelevant.” He caught her gaze, daring her to mock his words
“Fabian. You said you would speak only the truth from now on.”
“My word is sacred.”
“I know.” Tig returned to her tea. “That’s what’s scaring me. Eat more. You need the strength.”
“I need to go home. With or without your help. Lend me a weapon and tell me where the nearest township is. The Frey, are they creature, or man?”
“They’re carrion birds that only feast on dead flesh, which you will be within two days of leaving here. That, or in the slave market, although, with that tattoo, it will probably be a public execution. It’s as good as the mark of Crolos to some people. And even if you did get to the township alive, you wouldn’t find a mage clever enough to magic you back through your black hole.” Tig pushed back her chair and rose to her feet. She tapped the side of her head. “Is this getting through to you? If you want to be dead by tomorrow, then walk out that door right now. I won’t stop you.”
No mage clever enough to get him back? His insides plunged into his boots. He did not doubt his ability to survive this world, but the rest could only be achieved by magic. Unless she lied to keep him here.
“No,” she said, catching his accusing look. “I know I promised to help you, but that was before all this. It’s beyond me. I couldn’t if I wanted to.”
A growing panic propelled him from his own chair. He lurched at the sword, propped by the stairs. Every moment away made a victorious return less likely. Never mind that he had last stepped foot on Anxur a thousand years ago.
“Will anyone even remember you if you get back?”
“Time will have moved more slowly for those left behind, but I will have become the stuff of legends. They will remember me.”
“If you fell for a thousand years, surely a few more days will make little difference? Stay awhile, heal. Then decide what to do.”
Tig’s voice, soothing and calming, cut through the panic and urgency. Wise words he could not ignore. Still, she was a woman and he could not allow her to dictate his destiny. He stared at the keen edge of the sword. The desire to lash out and vent his frustration made him tremble. How many people had he killed in a lifetime of battle and conquest? During the Fall, he’d met every one of them. Tig continued to wait, hardly breathing, silently watching his shaking hand. He caught the scent of her fear. The tightening as she tensed for flight.
After a suitable interval, he shook his head to clear away the demons and said, “I have decided to stay until my arm heals.”
“A wise decision.” Tig breathed again and nodded her approval. “Now, tell me my hair looks nice.”
“It is surprisingly beautiful. You washed it for me?”
She removed the sword, peeling back his rigid fingers from the hilt one by one. Carefully, she replaced it in its resting place. His gaze followed her hand when she swept the hair away from her face and her fingers when she smoothed the gown over her thighs. Choose life. Is that what she was trying to tell him? In the bathing room, he’d given her a clear enough indication of what he wanted from her. His heart beat heavy in his chest. He had not expected this. Not so soon.
“I hurt,” he said, the admission a gift more precious than gold. “This mortal body hurts. And this eternal soul – it burns me. Every breath I take burns me. I cannot live this life.”
“Yes you can.” Tig was beside him, her body pressed to the line of his, anchoring him in place when he would have run foolishly to his doom. “I can give you something for the pain. And whatever you did, it’s in the past. This is your chance to start again. To make amends. Not many get a chance like this. Take it.”
“It’s not that easy. There are wrongs to right. Histories to reset.”
“Sometimes it is.” Her fingers on his shirt buttons. A shaky laugh. Tig fastened the shirt and reached up to turn down the collar. “Pain-killers are in the cupboard over the sink. Small jar. White pills. Take two. They’ll make you feel a whole lot better. You gave me quite a fright just now. Glad I’m not one of your enemies.”
“I’m sorry for that. You are not my enemy.”
Tig stood back to admire her work. “I might be able to pass you off as a bondsman, if you could act a little more humble. Bit of a long shot, though. I’d have to make an awful lot of pots to afford a man like you.”
He understood the moment for intimacy had passed. And that he was still largely dependent on this woman for his welfare. With no knowledge of this society, he was like a babe taking its first tottering steps.
“You took a great risk bringing me here?”
“You would be considered treasure-trove. I should have handed you over to my ex and taken the cut. He would have passed you on, either for the slave markets, or for ransom. That’s how it works.” She glanced at the sword. “Do me a favour and don’t go charging around the farm wielding that sword like it’s been in your hand since birth.”
“I thought your ex looked on you favourably?”
“Not that favourably.”
She laughed softly to herself and Fabian wondered at her ability to make light of her circumstances. A survival tactic, no doubt, to stop the weight of this miserable existence crushing her flat.
“I understand. But if you will not teach me the rules of your world, then my death will be on your hands. I will leave, regardless of what you say. I do not think you want that.”
“I do believe it is,” he said, strangely uncomfortable at the reproach in her eyes and voice.
“I won’t save one man so he can kill thousands.”
Fabian almost smiled, too. Sparring with this woman stimulated him. They were like two eddying currents fighting for dominance of the seas. No, he thought. More subtle than that. He was a mountain, hard and unmoveable. Tig was the gentle wave lapping at its base. While he remained implacable and seemingly unchanging, she flowed around him, searching for cracks, constantly adjusting her approach. Silently eroding. She had learned the art of compromise. He was only now learning to fashion the word on his tongue.
Her stance was a front. A woman like her would not see a man walk to his death without trying to help him.
“Feel this,” he said and lifted one of her hands to his heart. He covered it with his own and held it there while she gazed at it, puzzled, but listening, with him, to the steady beat.
“I was an immortal. Like my brother. Do you know what that means?”
Tig swallowed. Frowned. “You live forever?”
“That’s just the beginning. It means freedom such as you could never imagine. I have never known the fear of riding into battle, wondering if it will be my last. Never had to worry about the consequences of my actions. Now I am forced to count each breath I take. To listen to the beating of this heart and wonder when it will finally stop. Have you any idea what I have lost?”
Tig seemed to have gone beyond surprise. “Have you any idea what you’ve gained?” she countered. “Everyone lives as though they’re immortal. Until that one day when life comes up and slaps you in the face and screams you most certainly aren’t. That’s the moment we actually start living. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Fabian, and start living the life you have left.”
Her hand circled slowly over his heart, soothing even as she berated him. “I don’t know how,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
“I’ll teach you. It’s not easy. I’m no saint that I’m not jealous of those who have more than me, but this is what I’ve been dealt and I make the best of it. And if that sounds defeatist, then I’m sorry.” Tig shook off his hand and stepped away. “Have you any idea what I’ve lost? They’re all out there. My mother, what remained of my father and brothers.” No anger in her tone, only a weary patience. “I miss them with a pain you couldn’t begin to imagine, but if I spent my life reliving that pain, I’d stop right here and never move again. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”
His mind clouded with confusion. She spoke truths he didn’t want to hear.
“Existence,” he said. “What you describe is existence, not life.”
“Existence with hope that it might someday get better, is life. I think I’ve said enough. You’ll make your own way, regardless. Men like you always do. Just remember to stop and smell the roses along the way. And yes,” she said in response to his raised eyebrows. “That was intended as a pun. Look, I need to change. Animals to feed. Pots to fire. Keep your head down, get some rest and I’ll see you later.”
The onslaught of her logic left him helpless, floundering. His purgatory was by no means over, he realised. “I should repay your hospitality,” he said. “What would you have me do?”
Tig patted his shoulder as she passed him for the stairs. “Try not to get either of us killed. That’s what I’d like you to do.”
She left him with the scent of roses.
The dogs. The rumble of cart-wheels, excited barking. Oh hell, she’d forgotten about the dogs. Tig pushed back the curtain and caught sight of her two hounds going berserk in the courtyard while a tall, bearded man, who’d seen better days, climbed down from the cart. He glanced around the courtyard and then turned to stare directly at the bedroom window. Tig dropped the curtain and flattened herself against the wall, heart pounding.
The bedroom door flew open.
“You have a visitor.”
She didn’t miss the accusation in Fabian’s tone.
“My nearest neighbour,” she said moving swiftly to the door, fastening her shirt as she did so. “Hal’s wife looks after my dogs when I’m away. I’d forgotten they’d be bringing them back today. Get yourself into the attic. Lie down on the rafters and keep very still. Hal has seer’s blood in him. Reads auras and atmospheres. He’ll know something is different.” She stopped to scrutinise herself in the mirror. “Damn, his wife Sunas usually brings the dogs back.”
Fabian was at the window, scrutinising the visitor. “Invite him into the house,” he said without emotion. “I will kill him for you.”
Tig flew across the room and yanked back the curtain. “You do exactly as I say, or we’re both dead. His wife, we can trust. But Hal? See the brand new wagon, the pure-bred horse. The doeskin boots. You don’t buy those on what their farm makes. He finds out you’re here, he’ll want his cut.”
Fabian appeared unmoved. He shot another, disdainful glance at the figure now standing in the centre of the courtyard, hands on hips, head cocked as if listening.
“I refuse to hide like a coward.”
“Go to the attic. And that’s not a request. We’ve got to do something to confuse his senses.” She pointed to her chin. “Hit me. I’ll tell him I fell. That should throw him off.”
She’d asked, but the blow still took her by surprise. Fabian’s fist bounced off her chin, so fast she didn’t have time to cry out. Blood trickled, unhindered, from her split lip to splash onto her shirt. Already, her cheek was swelling. Fabian studied her, his face inscrutable. A drop of her blood stained his knuckles and Tig blessed his decisiveness.
“Thank you,” she said with more than a hint of irony in her voice. “Now hide.”
He went without protest, for which she was thankful, but the mutinous glint in his eyes told her there would be an inquest, later.
In the kitchen, she grabbed a drying cloth to dab at her thickening lip, while in the yard Hal called the dogs to heel. She’d stalled him for long enough. He knew better than to come into her house uninvited, but he wouldn’t leave until he’d seen her. Hal liked to keep a finger on everyone’s pulse.
“Hal,” she said, extending her arms wide to exchange a mutual hug. She pulled out of his too-familiar embrace and bent to acknowledge the over-excited dogs, now threatening to knock her flat with their enthusiasm.
“Tig.” Hal stepped back, studying her closely, as always. Her spine crawled. “I knew there was something wrong. Minute I drove into the yard. What happened?”
“Tripped over my own feet. Fell against the dresser in the bedroom. Where’s Sunas?”
“Leg trouble. She asked me to bring the dogs back on my way to the Settlement.”
“New wagon?” Tig placed herself between Hal and the open kitchen doorway. Any moment now, he would make his usual request for a drink to see him on his way. She would have no option but to comply. Humouring Hal was a delicate but necessary business. A man on the make was more of a danger than a man on the run.
“Oh, this old thing?” Hal waved a dismissive hand. “Lucky buy at a farm sale.”
“Give Sunas my love.” Keeping her mind neutral was impossible, given what she had hidden in the attic. Tig smiled widely, deliberately splitting her lip further. Immediately her thoughts re-focused on the pain. Hal frowned with concern.
“You took a nasty knock. Come with me to the Settlement. Get it stitched up.”
“It’s really not that bad. Do you have my flour and oil?”
“Oh, yes.” Hal turned for the wagon. “Price has gone up again,” he said with mock regret. “Ten kadoums a bag, would you believe?”
Thief. But still, buying from Hal was safer than taking her own wagon into town and attempting to haul the goods home without being robbed on the way.
“Ten plates, ten mugs and a vase. Best quality.” She waited for his counter-offer. Hal took his time hauling down the oil-jar and two small flour sacks. He stacked them pointedly at the closed kitchen door, brushing close as he passed her. She felt the jolt of his aura probing hers and had she imagined him glancing up towards the attic window?
Hal returned to his wagon and made a show of tightening the straps. “Price of everything is increasing. You know how it is?”
“Twenty plates,” she countered. No time for bargaining today. If she went straight in with the best offer, Hal would be on his way before Fabian took it into his head to soothe his bruised ego with a confrontation.
“Ten plates will be sufficient.” Hal’s right eye twitched. “I know you don’t have much, Tig. Happy, as always, to take payment in kind.”
“Not today.” Tig pointed vaguely to her split lip. A taste of sour disgust in her throat at the memory of the last time. To her dismay, Hal was already throwing off his jacket.
“When are you going to let me in?” he said walking deliberately towards her. “Give a little, and you’ll find me most generous. Been meaning to take another wife since Alie died.” He leered down at her, drenching her with the smell of perfume and sweat.
“Sunas is my friend.” Tig backed farther into the doorway, noticing this close, the neatly trimmed beard, the braided hair-ribbon, the Sunday best clothes. “It wouldn’t feel right.”
Hal pulled off his gloves and threw them down. They’d been playing this game for a while now. He pushed, she tolerated, longing to slap the arrogant smile from his face. She gave a lop-sided smile instead and removed the hand he’d placed so casually on her breast.
“I’ll think about your offer. Right now, I’m in pain and I need to work. The pottery’s stacked in the workshop. I’ll fetch it for you.”
Hal held up his hands in a gesture of peace, stepping away to allow her to wriggle past him. She made a mental note to talk to Carson, her ex, about Hal’s little business side-lines. Gain a little leverage to get his slimy ass off her back. Hal sauntered after her, leaning on the door-frame as she stacked a week’s worth of hard work into a wooden crate.
“Talking of Carson. You knew he’d been killed?”
Tig almost dropped the mug she’d been wrapping. A pang of genuine regret gripped her, both for the man and for what he represented to her life. “No. I hadn’t heard. How?”
“A leadership challenge, what else? Everyone knew he was going soft. Can’t say I was surprised to hear the news myself. Tig, something’s troubling you. You know I can feel it. I’m in with the new leader, a man of influence now and if you make it worth my while, I can cut you a deal on the protection.”
“Your payment. Hal, my head is bursting. If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” Tig pushed the crate at him. Hal took it, his expression resigned, for now. Not yet a man of so much influence that he could impose further on her. But he would be one day, she could see that.
“Come on.” Hal remained, blocking the doorway. “Don’t you want to know who’ll be collecting the tribute from now on?”
“Warrington,” she said wearily. “Who else but Warrington? I bet he didn’t even issue a formal challenge.”
“And didn’t I tell you?” For a moment Hal sounded angry. He checked himself quickly and nodded her to walk ahead of him. “Didn’t need to be a seer to know it was on the cards. I’ve been his man since last winter. He’s already given me permission for the marriage.”
“Ours, Tig.” He threw the crate onto the cart. The sharp crack of pottery breaking told her that payment was irrelevant. He only wanted one thing.
“I told you I’d think about it.”
“You’re a bad liar. Your tribute’s doubling this summer. And again come winter. And no more inside deals on the markets now Carson’s gone. How will you survive?” Briefly, Hal looked genuinely concerned. “Tig, I was proud to call your father friend, fool though he was. He asked me to watch out for you, and that’s what I’m doing.” He touched a finger to her cut lip. Gazed at the blood spotting his finger. “We all have to survive this world in the best way we can. You’re not a stupid woman and believe it or not, it’s more than lust. I’ve always cared for you.”
Survival. That’s what everything came down to in the end. How could she judge Hal for drawing his moral lines in a slightly different place to her own? Refusing his marriage offer would buy her time, for now.
“I don’t deserve your kindness, Hal. Let me think about this.” She raised her face to his. “You know I’ll do the right thing. Just give me time.”
Hal stooped for his gloves. Donned them with careful deliberation. “One month,” he said and reached out to touch her hair. Another jolt of awareness. Tig frantically filled her mind with images of a prize pig her father had once walked all the way to the market at Arminet. Hal let out a burst of laughter.
“And after all that effort, it was stolen from under his nose.” Hal shook his head and hauled himself up onto the wagon. “Don’t be the fool your father was,” he said by way of a parting shot. “We’re survivors, me and you. That’s why we’re still alive. And why we’ll still be alive when the others are dead. In a month, then.” He touched two fingers to his head in salute. An astute man who knew when to push, when to withdraw and regroup.
Tig watched the cart trundle across the yard and out onto the dirt road. The dogs nudged her impatiently for attention, and food. In the sky, clouds darkened, ready to unleash another spring deluge onto the winter-hard earth. A week’s worth of work for a jar of oil and two bags of flour? Existence didn’t even begin to cover it.
“Shit!” she muttered. “Shit, shit, shit.” What the hell to do now?
One of the dogs had her shirt-tail firmly gripped in its jaws, tugging her towards the shed where the dog-biscuits were stored. “Sorry,” she said, pushing it away. “Got to make them last. Go hunt!” she ordered, followed by two clicks of her tongue. “Go catch yourselves something.”
They left, reluctantly, stopping and looking back occasionally to see if she would follow. She waved them on. No time for play today.
She entered the house distracted by the desire to act but with no idea how to solve her immediate problems. She found Fabian lurking behind the door.
“Oh god in the heavens! How long have you been there?” Quickly, she stepped away biting her tongue to stop herself venting her anger and frustration on this man who claimed to have fallen out of nowhere, just, it seemed, to further complicate her already complicated life. “I told you to stay in the attic,” she said, quieter now she noticed the concern on Fabian’s face. “Hal knew I was hiding something. We mustn’t give him any more reason to come snooping.”
Fabian’s expression turned dark at the mention of Hal’s name. “I did not like the way he spoke to you. You will not marry that man.”
“No.” That much they agreed on. “I won’t marry him anytime soon. But it may come to that.”
“He spoke of a leadership challenge. I have good hearing,” Fabian added at her look of surprise.
“Then you know my ex is dead?”
“Yes. This Warrington, the new leader. What kind of man is he?”
No words of sympathy for her swollen lip? She moved to the sink and pumped water into a bowl. Took a cloth and cleaned her lip while she talked. “He’s like all new leaders, I should think.”
“Then he will want to make his mark early on. Reward his supporters and flush out his enemies. Some will rise, some fall. Fortunes will be made, heads will roll.”
“You know your tyranny. I’m impressed.” She handed Fabian a pot of salve, unable to resist fishing for a little sympathy. “Dab a little on the cut. Hard to see what I’m doing without a mirror.”
Still, he didn’t comment. Fabian’s only reaction to her pain was a softening around the eyes when she sucked in a breath, rather too theatrically. She might have imagined the slight gentling of his finger as he dabbed on the salve, but she straightened her spine and endured it. Fabian wasn’t wallowing in self-pity and neither would she.
The lost, confused air he’d arrived with was fast being replaced by a formidable focus. Like a man who was slowly remembering his strength. A man already ruthlessly assessing where he might fit into this world.
“It’s a time of opportunity. The new leader will be at his most vulnerable now. It is a good time to strike.” Fabian regarded her for a moment, lingering on her lip with perhaps a little regret. “How strong is he?”
“Pretty strong, I guess. What is this? Plan B? In case you can’t get home?”
Warlord material, if ever she saw it. More in Fabian’s bearing and attitude than in the size and the shape of him. A man who went into battle assuming, not hoping, he would win the day.
“I will more easily return home from a position of power than weakness. This Warrington will no doubt attract the best of the mages?”
“Flawless logic,” she replied, oddly disappointed that Fabian already had his future neatly planned. One that didn’t seem to involve her. But then, why should it? She set about clearing the table of breakfast. Fabian made no effort to help, still obviously wrapped in his plans for world domination.
“There are two flour sacks to bring inside. I’d appreciate some help.”
Fabian raised his eyebrows, pulled from his musing by her sharp tone. “You’re angry with me because I struck you?”
“Not at all,” she said, wiping crumbs from the table. “I asked you to do it.” She barged past him to snatch up the sweeping brush.
“Then you are angry because I have not had you yet?”
A brave man, to say that to her while she was holding the corn-broom. He stepped nimbly out of her way as she advanced, sweeping crumbs before her. “Believe it or not, my every waking thought doesn’t revolve around you and your manly physique, Fabio. I have much more important things to worry about, like staying alive. And avoiding a life of servitude with creepy Hal. If you have any suggestions as to how I get out of that one, they’ll be gratefully received.”
Fabian disappeared and then reappeared with the flour sacks, one under his arm, the other clutched with his good hand. He dropped them onto the table.
“When a woman does not want to marry a man, she generally marries another.”
“Oh, I’ve read this book.” Tig leaned on the broom. “This is the part where you very nobly offer to marry me to save me from the marriage from hell.”
“You would be a fool to refuse if I did.” Fabian disappeared again. Came in with the oil-bottle.
“And what happens to me when you’re killed challenging Warrington? Hal won’t want me. I’ll be spoils of war and given to the troops for amusement. I’ll lose everything.”
“I will not be beaten.”
“You were before. Why is this different?”
Fabian placed the oil bottle onto the table. “Because this time, for the first time, I will be fighting for my life.”
* * * *
And yours. He should have added that sentiment but couldn’t do so now without sounding insincere. Tig was at the door, briskly sweeping the crumbs into the yard. Disappointed in him, no doubt. One moment direct as an arrow, the next wanting him to play the troubadour. Over the years and many conquests, he’d learned to read a woman’s moods and knew he would bear the brunt of Tig’s built-up frustrations and anger simply by being there. He also knew that the best way to be rid of this all too-human angst was to build it up and then release it in one glorious, explosive blaze. Whether on the battlefield, or in bed, the end-result was the same.
“We should lie together. The need is hanging too heavy between us. Clouding the issue when we require clear heads to think of the next move. It will help.”
Tig made a choking sound, somewhere between laughter and disbelief. “What makes you think I want to lie with you?” she said without turning around.
“Your body talking to mine.” He moved closer, enough to invade her personal space. Tig shivered visibly. Fabian lowered his voice to a deep bedroom rumble. “You wore the gown so I would notice you. To arouse me? Is that not true?”
Tig absorbed the blow, shook off the embarrassment. Turned to face him; he already knew she wasn’t a coward. Brush in one hand, the other hand on her hip, she said, “Did it work?”
He moved closer. Not touching. Yet. Pointedly, he glanced at his crotch. “It worked. It’s working.”
Tig kept her gaze studiously above his waist. “Which is what I should be doing. Working. Hal took most of my current stock. Need to replace it.”
“It can wait.” Coaxing would succeed, to a point. Tig, he suspected, was stubborn enough to refuse simply to retain the independence she’d fostered so fiercely. “I’m injured, and I haven’t had a woman in a thousand years, which probably means I’ll last barely an hour.”
“An hour?” Tig mouthed the word, more to herself than to him. A shrug of indifference followed the brief look of awe she’d been unable to hide.
“Hardly adequate. But I think you will find that even my worst is more than you’ve ever had.”
Tig leaned the broom against the wall. “When did you get to be so modest?”
“I don’t believe in modesty,” he said, taking her words as a cue to further the dance. “There’s no shame in two people finding relief when they need it. Even now your body is preparing itself for me.” He leaned close, his lips barely brushing her ear. “I can smell it on you. It’s making me hard as an iron post.”
He withdrew. Her turn to move and by moving, give her consent. He tried to match her indifference, but the heavy throb of his loins was impossible to ignore. Mind and body were slipping smoothly towards a single thought and goal. Release.
“So, you make me horny? Look at you, Fabian. What woman wouldn’t want to jump your bones? Just because I want to, doesn’t mean I should.”
Bravado with a deep blush. A beguiling combination. “It’s here for the taking. You need only step over that imaginary line you draw for yourself. Have you ever attended an orgy? Immersed yourself so deeply in decadence, that you lose all sense of who you are?”
Her reply surprised him, pleased him. His cock strained painfully against the confines of the pants. “Then you know what bliss there is in forgetting and simply being.”
Tig’s gaze slid below his belt. “I do. I also know that it makes the remembering all the more painful. At some point you have to come back, pick up the threads and keep going.”
Fabian crooked his fingers, the slightest beckoning motion. Tig hesitated and then nodded, giving herself permission to move. She touched the splint holding his arm. “You have only one arm and I have a split lip. How is this going to work?”
“Like this.” He pressed a light kiss to the unblemished corner of her mouth. Took her hand and guided it to his erection. “Be gentle with me, as I will be with you. I think that’s what we both need right now.”
Tig’s fingers twitched. Fabian pushed into her hand. “You’re a silver-tongued rogue,” she said and began a slow stroking that sent his temperature soaring.
“I know,” he gasped. “And you’re an enigma I mean to unravel, very slowly.”
Tig’s eyes clouded. “Don’t promise things like that. This doesn’t mean anything. It’s just stranger sex, nothing more.”
He understood and felt an odd pang of regret that he would not know this woman as he wanted to. When he returned home, she could not follow. He almost stepped away, then. Once they did this, he would be forever left wondering how much more there could have been between them. But who would step away from such clever little hands?
Tig looked as stricken as he felt. Already too far down the road to turn back but wondering anxiously where it would lead. “Are we foolish to do this?” she asked.
“Utterly. If I can’t kiss your lips, I will have to find other places. Tell me, where do you like to be kissed?”
“Here.” Tig angled her neck without breaking stride, her voice more breath than word. “Men don’t normally bother to ask.”
“On this occasion, I wish to give as well as take pleasure. Make me come,” he whispered against the fragrant skin of her neck. “It will slow me down.”
“Only if you say please.”
“You wish me to beg?” He slipped open one of her shirt buttons, swept back her hair, the better to access the sensitive skin where neck curved into shoulder. Tig squirmed under his seeking lips. He latched on and sucked, harder than was comfortable. Easing off when she protested and tried to push him away. He held her, easily, his good arm curved firmly about her waist.
“Don’t mark me. I’ll never be able to explain it.”
A pink circle glowed against Tig’s tanned skin. Fabian reined back the primitive urge to mark her where everyone would see. Sex usually involved politics of one kind or another, but they were here for comfort, not to stake personal claims, no matter how much he wanted to.
“Just a kiss then,” he conceded and slipped open another button, then another. Beneath the silky fabric of her undergarment, her breasts were loose, outlined by the thin cloth, the hardened peaks of her nipples clearly visible. The sight of them, her hand working its insistent magic on him, made it difficult to breathe. He sucked in a shaky breath and bent his head to wet the fabric with his tongue. Tig made a small, whimpering sound and yanked at the fastenings of his pants.
“Let me lock the door,” she whispered. “And then come upstairs with me.”
Reluctantly, he let her go, still feeling the imprint of her hand on him.
“I wish I had use of both arms. I would have swept you from your feet and carried you to bed.”
Tig smiled, slowly, seductively. “It would have been a first.” She threw the bolt and then crossed the room to the stairs. “Let’s do this before I come to my senses and realise what a fool I am.”
She waited for him, needing the reassurance only he could give. Halfway up the stairs, she leaned back, pressing herself against him, urging him without words to wrap her in his arms and touch her through the frustrating barrier of her clothes.
“I’m afraid I’m doing this just to spite Hal.”
“It’s a possibility.” Fabian kept up his relentless torture, dipping a hand between her legs, stroking, coaxing.
“Do you want me just because he does? Is that why you offered this?”
“You talk too much. Let me take you to bed.”
Tig sighed deeply. A sound of pleasure and resignation. “Come.”
In the bedroom, they faced each other, Tig suddenly a little shy as he threw off his shirt and flexed his powerful shoulders. He knew his worth, on the battlefield and in the bedroom. Still had his prowess, if not his immortality. Tig would get the best he could give.
“Undress for me.”
“If you will.”
“Of course,” he said, pulling slowly at the lacings fastening his pants. Tig picked up his rhythm, flowing with him in the slow reveal. She’d seen him, but he’d only seen promises of her. An unfamiliar pang squeezed his heart when he glanced up and saw her naked for the first time. Her expression held more than the usual woman’s anxieties about her body. Tig looked almost ashamed.
“I’m not much to look at. You must be used to better than this.”
He stepped from the pants, his erection full and ready. “You need a little more flesh on your bones, that is true. But you are nicely made and have an attraction that goes beyond the physical. I can see full-well why Hal is obsessed with you. I will praise your beauty, if you wish. It is part of the ritual.”
“No.” Tig’s skin bloomed with a rising blush. “I wasn’t fishing for compliments. I just don’t feel…”
He was across the room, stopping the words with a kiss that gave no concession to her split lip. Tig moaned and pulled him closer, remembering what he’d asked for in the kitchen. A jolt of pleasure hit him like a lightning strike. Blissful release, the taste of her blood on his mouth. Generosity, such as he had never known. A tumble of sensation that left him clinging to her as if she were his anchor in this new world.
“Shhh,” she said. “Gentle, remember? Let me find some protection.”
Desperation made the release all the sweeter. Made him clumsy as he pushed Tig towards the bed. They fell together, he beneath her because he owed her that privilege. And because his trembling arms and legs wouldn’t hold him. Tig settled astride his stomach, knees spread wide. She dipped gracefully and swept his chest with the tips of her hair, ran a tongue over his nipples. Reached behind to stroke him.
Each touch, each movement, increased his need until he was almost begging her to take him inside. He hardly noticed her rolling on the protection that would stop him getting her with child. When she rose up and sank down on him, he growled out his relief and arched into her welcoming warmth. He wanted to come again, hard and fast, but Tig rode him like a courtesan skilled in keeping a man on the edge until he was in danger of exploding. Each time he reached his peak, she slowed her rhythm, almost as if she didn’t want it to end. Or perhaps she had believed his hype about lasting an hour? He was so aroused, he didn’t think another minute would be possible.
“Tig,” he said, part plea, part question. She gave a soft cry when he touched her intimately and met her gentle undulations with deeper thrusts of his own. His mortal flesh was too weak to hold back the wave threatening to engulf them both.
“Fabian.” Tig let go of her control, his name on her lips, and he followed her, helpless to do otherwise.
His hips stopped moving as the last spasms died down. For a long moment they simply breathed and rode out the last pleasurable aftershocks.
“Are you all right, Fabian?” Tig’s voice filtered through the sensual fog surrounding him, bringing him back to her room, her world.
“Yes.” He heaved in a breath and remembered. “More than all right. But you?”
Tig flopped down beside him. He felt the glow of heat from her skin. She flung an arm behind her head and let out a long breath.
“It was good. Very good.”
“No, I gave a poor performance.”
Tig patted his thigh. “You were wonderful. Please don’t think otherwise.”
She sounded so pathetically grateful, he covered her hand with his own, stroking the work-roughened skin with his thumb. So different from the milk-and-honey complexions of his pampered wives.
“We will do this again, without the barrier of this sheath. Then I will show you what I am capable of.”
“I can’t risk a pregnancy, Fabian. Not now.”
“I’ve never had to worry about such things.”
“Then you have children?”
“Many, over the years.” He stared at a dirty patch on the ceiling and tried to remember their names, their faces. “An immortal cannot get too attached.”
Tig rolled onto her side, hair falling over her breasts, trailing over his chest. She leaned on an elbow and gazed down at him. “You mean you have to watch them grow old and die?”
“Essentially, yes. What use is an heir, to someone who will never die?”
“How were you immortal and not them?”
Fabian twisted and indicated the white bands on his arm. “The bracelets of An-Mur. My father was the greatest warrior ever to take human form. He killed the demon, Hadri, Scourge of the Night, and took from it the bracelets of An-Mur. The bracelets of immortality. He gifted them to the most loved of his sons. My mother was his favourite wife.”
“He didn’t want them for himself?”
“He was past the age of the ritual. I was one of two chosen for the honour.”
“Generous dad. How old are you?”
“Two thousand and eighty of our years. I do not know how that translates into yours.”
Her slow appraising glance swept the length of him. He felt himself stirring to life, his body desperate to make up for lost time.
“Looking good for such an old man.”
“You don’t believe me? You think I’m spinning tales?”
“Forgive me.” Tig held up a placating palm. “I’m having a bit of a struggle with the concept. You can’t blame me for that.” She shook her head. “Would you believe it’s not actually the strangest thing I’ve heard from a man? I would have pegged you at thirty, thirty-five. What? Do you just get to a certain age, then stop growing?”
“The ageing process slows and then stops altogether. That is the gift of the bracelets. Without them, I am just like you.”
Tig gave a small laugh, wincing as she stretched her cut lip. “Then I can see why you’re so angry.”
“I’m angry because I humiliated myself. In over two thousand years, I have never failed to pleasure a woman.”
Tig sat up, arms hugging her bent knees. “You’re regretting this already?”
Fabian traced the line of her spine with his smallest finger. Her shiver went right through him. “See how we respond to each other? It is not always so.”
“Tell me about it. Answer my question.”
“Yes. I am regretting this, but only because I want to do it again. I wish to know you. To hear you moan beneath me. But I think with you that would take more time than we have.”
“It was just sex, Fabian. Don’t over-think it.”
“Yes. You are right. Merely sexual gratification. It means nothing.” He watched her leave the bed. Find her clothes. So many women had walked in and out of his life over the ages. Some with tears, others without looking back. He’d learned early on to show them his indifferent face. To let his wives know he bestowed the privilege only for reasons of state and diplomacy. Love and attachment brought only heartbreak.
Tig touched his hand briefly, understanding more than she let on. She left the room without looking back, leaving Fabian wondering whether he’d satisfied her, or she’d merely been polite. Why did it matter? She’d more than taken care of him. What more did he need?
He did not know why he cared. Only that he did.
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