They ambushed him at dusk, just beyond the high boundary walls of the township. His people could do nothing to save him. Would do nothing to save him, for it was acknowledged that anyone foolish enough to travel alone and in daylight beyond the walls deserved their fate. They trembled though. At the furious sound of his defiance as he fought for his freedom. And at the terrified screams of his assailants as he bested them, one by one.
Virgin snow turned crimson and blood stained the pristine landscape, mirroring the blood-red sun hanging low in the sky. The villagers watched the warrior battle and snarl, their hearts growing heavy when he tired and fell to his knees. They turned away from the even more terrible sounds of his defeat, knowing that he would neither have expected nor accepted their intervention. His limp body, tossed into a metal cage, had the appearance of one dead, and his fellow tribesmen wished it were so. Death would be infinitely more preferable to the fate that awaited him.
* * * *
The woman, they took under the cloak of darkness. Naked, her golden skin beaded with droplets of water that glistened in the white light of the twin moons. Her dark hair a sleek sheath falling to her waist. Rising from the lake, her only protest was a soft cry of despair when she lunged for the Crystal nestling amongst her discarded clothing, already knowing the gesture to be futile. Hard, fingers groped at her soft flesh with careless disregard, touching, intimate. Raucous laughter accompanied her struggles as they tested her purity. Satisfied, they threw her into the cage, their leader making plain what would happen if anyone despoiled her before they reached their destination. Hot tears made haphazard tracks down her cheeks when she realised that she might never see her homeland again.
The pain was profound when they crushed her Crystal underfoot, destroying her connection to the Temple. It sliced through her heart, making her cry out with the agonising intensity of the loss, startling the other occupants of the cage, who had all recoiled, some in fear, others in disgust, when they’d seen what she was.
All save one. The pale-haired man lay, still as one in the grave, his ashen face coloured only by the red gash of open flesh that split his forehead. Chest barely rising and falling with his shallow breath. She gave a silent prayer of thanks for his unconscious state and backed into the corner of the prison, falling to the straw-littered floor when it jolted into motion. A collective cry rose from her fellow captives. The cart lumbered away and her skin prickled with fear. Accusing faces turned to her and she drew even farther back, clenching her fists to hide the sacred symbols, knowing that the holy marks would only anger them more.
“A Moon-Child.” They spoke as if uttering her very name would curse them.
Drawing up her knees to hide her shame and make herself small, the Moon-Child shrank into the corner of the cage, anxious to appease the angry mob, who glared at her with such malevolence. Again she glanced towards the still body of the sleeping warrior, shrouded in shadow now. Like the other captors, he took the name of the Eagle; she knew this by his hair colouring and by the tattooed swirls adorning the muscles of his upper arms.
And she also knew without question that were he awake, she might already be dead.
She could feel him as the cage rattled through the darkness. Every laboured breath. Every heavy beat of his heart. Mortally injured, his spirit already striding purposefully towards the other-world. To the realms of the dead from which there would be no return. And even though he symbolised everything she should hate, there was, in the corner of her heart, a surprising spark of compassion for the once-proud man who now lay broken and dying on the straw. It flared through her, making her palms tingle and a shiver run over her skin while she sat silently marking his last journey.
A wrinkled hand latched on to her arm. Sharp nails bit into her flesh. “You can save me. Save us all.”
The Moon-Child pushed the old man away shaking her head. “I can’t. My Crystal, they broke it. Without it, I have little power. I’m just a soul-reader and that is of no use to anyone here.”
“You lie. They would never destroy something of such value.”
“One of the slavers stepped on it. He–”
“Not the Crystal.” Another, younger man, shuffled forward on his knees. “You have Magic-in-Hand, all Moon-Children do. Use it to save us from the Overlords.”
They closed in, silencing her protests and grabbing at her hands. One pushed her against the bars and tilted her palms to the moonlight. “Use the symbols and call on the Goddess to release us,” he commanded. “Do it!”
“I spoke the truth, I can’t.” She kept very still. What good fighting them would do?
“Why not?” The man pressed her hard against the bars. “Do it or die, right here, at my hand.”
“I don’t have it any more.” She stared at her palm. “My Wish-in- Hand…it’s…it’s already been given.”
“I wish I did,” she said. “See – see for yourself. The symbols are gone.”
The man yanked at her arm so hard she nearly fell. He moved her hand close to his face and let out a roar of frustration when he saw soft, smooth flesh which before had been adorned with the sacred marks. “Who?” He shook her again. “Who did the symbols choose?”
“Him.” She nodded towards the warrior’s body, her own voice laced with disbelief. “They chose…I gave it to him, for his life.”
For a moment the man squeezed her so tightly she thought he meant to carry out his threat to send her to the next world. Instead he gave a short, hysterical laugh and threw her down.
“Then I’ll let him kill you. Do you know who he is? When he sees what you’ve done, you’re dead.”
The Moon-Child rubbed her aching arm and dragged in a shaky breath, trying to still the frantic fluttering of her heart. This moment of weakness had cost her dear and lost her a chance out of this nightmare. Why had she given so precious a gift to the last person who would accept it? To someone who would hate her for the rest of her life for this, and for what she must do next?
The Eagle warrior stirred and the captive audience held their breath. He gave a low groan and snapped open his eyes, staring for a moment at the roof of the cage. Rolling his head to the side he let his gaze fall on each of them in turn, while they crouched, pinned to the spot. His eyes widened at the Moon-Child’s nakedness. Or was it because he knew what she’d done?
She felt the moment of recognition. The sharp stab of rage that knifed through him when he saw his hands; hands now adorned with her symbols. Met him half-way, anticipating his move when he rolled and lunged for her. The other prisoners fell back. She twisted, so that when he closed his large hand, all he found was her hair, not the slender neck he’d been aiming for.
“Witch,” he growled yanking her against his hard body. “Look your last on the world, Moon-Child scum.”
“No.” From somewhere the Moon-Child found a voice, and along with it the strength to still his other hand, now circling her neck with such cool precision. Without her magic she was no match for him, but without his protection she might as well die here. At the first opportunity he would make a bid for freedom and she needed to convince him to take her too. A Moon-Child. His mortal enemy. A union so alien it could only be achieved by magic.
His mouth twisted into a humourless smile and he leaned close, so that his warm breath fanned her face when he spoke. In low, seductive tones he asked, “Are you ready to die?”
“Only if you are too.” She met his gaze, fear lending her courage. Trying to ignore the rough hand curving itself over her bare buttocks and shoving her against the hard evidence of his desire. And he did desire her. More than simply the thought of the kill was making his nostrils flare and his breathing harsh and heavy. Oh, he was angry with her, but despite the posturing and blustering he was also fighting a losing battle with his rigid cock which was screaming that he take her there and then with everyone watching and damn the consequences. He didn’t need words to tell her what was on his mind.
“What do you mean by that?” he said, deliberately bringing a hand to her cheek and stroking its softness with an agonisingly feather-light touch – as if trying to prove to himself that he was still master of his control.
“This,” she said snatching at the hand and squeezing hard. The flash of light and searing heat made them both cry out. Agony and ecstasy spun so tightly together they couldn’t be untangled and the Moon-Child felt her cheeks growing hot when she realised that they’d both climaxed in that moment of joining and that even as his hips convulsed against her as he rode out the pleasurable aftershocks he looked furious with her.
Slowly she loosened her grip and tried to breathe around the sparks radiating across her belly and the throbbing of sensitive nerve-endings crying out for more. The steel in his expression was tempered now, clouded with confusion and the hand holding her neck slowly relaxed its death grip. But when he spoke, she had no doubt that this was merely a temporary respite.
“What – did – you – do?” He inspected his right hand, brows furrowed, turning it over, searching for the symbol that was no longer there. Grabbing hers he looked relieved when he found that it was once again burned into her flesh. “What did you do?” he said, more quietly this time, inspecting his left hand which still bore the mark.
“I made a Bond.” She sat back on her heels, the rustling of the straw and the jolting of the cart making her aware once more that they were in a prison cage travelling towards a life of slavery and possibly pain, too. When he’d held her, the world about them had blurred. All awareness centred around the touch of his trembling hand on her skin as she’d awaited her fate. Her destiny reflected in the rock-solid granite of his smoke-grey eyes. Eyes that still glittered with malevolent intent in the patchy moonlight, although tempered now with a blatant hunger he couldn’t hide. Something he’d feel for the rest of his life.
“A Bond which only death will release.”
He leaned towards her, pausing to glare at the other occupants of the cart, warning them away from interfering. They’d inched forward as the drama unfolded, but now they scrabbled back into the corner of the cage gathering into an uneasy huddle, waiting for his next move.
The warrior laughed. “Easy then.” He leaned close again, overwhelming her with a heady mix of leather and sweat. Of wine-spiced breath and the musky aroma of his release. “Puts us back where we started, does it not?”
“There is no going back. Killing me means death to us both,” she told him, suddenly very aware of her nakedness. Never had a man looked at her in the way he was staring at her now. Rage softened by need. Repulsion warring with desire. She almost felt sorry for having done this to him, to them both, for regardless of the hate that had kept their two tribes apart for centuries, from now on they would crave each other as a starving man craved food. They’d need each other like the very air they breathed and if one of them died, then so would the other. Not of physical wounds, but of a heart broken, shattered by the loss of its other half. Folding her arms over her breasts, she dipped her head, covering herself as best she could with her hair. An unreadable expression crossed the warrior’s features. Silently he stripped off his blood-stained tunic and handed it to her.
“Cover yourself,” he said, and then nodded towards their silent audience, hard fingers closing about her chin. He tilted her face to his, holding her in place. “From them, but never from me. Do you understand?”
“All too well.” She fingered the soft linen. Someone had lovingly embroidered it in gold thread with a blazing sun in all its splendour. “But do you understand?” If she put on the tunic she’d smell of him; already she could feel the connection that would make her want him more than her own life. Already her heart screamed with the fear that when they reached their destination they might be parted and she’d have to spend the rest of her life wondering where he was.
She slipped on the tunic, relieved that it fell to her knees, and glanced with trepidation towards the distant lights of the City of Gold.
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