AToD has my favorite first chapter to date. I really love the action and the character interaction. 🙂
Freckled skin gave beneath my spade as I angled its honed point at the hollow of some poor female’s throat. Milky eyes bored into mine when I braced my foot on the spade’s tread, shifting my weight, bearing down until the blade sliced through her slender neck, tearing flesh and crunching bone. Her lips parted on a gasp, or perhaps I imagined that flicker of awareness before I snuffed her final remnants. Gods knew I hoped it was only guilt picking at scabs on my weary conscious.
The death of even one innocent would break me, if any scrap of the old Kaidi remained.
Tossing the spade aside, I wiped sweat from my brow and bent to check her pockets, finding them as empty as my own. No coin meant going another day without food. Not that I had much of an appetite after this, but I couldn’t live on stale water for much longer. Soon I would need a hot meal and a safe place to rest, if one still existed.
Gaze skimming the grassy field littered with the corpses of plague victims, I had my doubts.
Exhaustion bore me to my knees. I was too tired to wince when one knee cracked on a loose stone. My chin hit my chest, and my eyes shut. The pulse of pain, of hunger, of regret, lulled me.
One minute lapsed, then two. Any moment I would rise. Any time now…
The press of cold metal against my throat shocked me awake.
“I’ll have your name, female.” The booming masculine voice made my head throb.
“I hope not.” I ignored the blade and rubbed my eyes clear. “It would sound silly on a male.”
More pressure made breathing without cutting my neck difficult. “Tell me your name.”
I rolled around a few choices before saying, “Imani.”
His grunt called me on my lie. Interesting. Usually they couldn’t tell.
He nudged me with his boot. “What’s your purpose here?”
I shrugged. “The same as my purpose elsewhere, I imagine.”
Grasping my upper arm, he hauled me onto my feet and spun me to face him. I stifled a gasp when I met the pitch-black eyes informing me that I had run afoul of a Mimetidae warrior. I had tracked the plague to Cathis, the Mimetidae’s clan home, but had I been in my right mind, a state I barely recalled these days, I would have avoided their borders and continued on to the next city.
Contrary to my actions these past few months, I did not have a death wish.
Thinly leashed anger radiated through his tightened fingers. “You play a dangerous game.”
“You have no idea,” I murmured, while measuring the distance from here to the forest.
His gaze trailed after mine. “You won’t make it.”
“So you say.” I struggled until he released me, then I hit the ground like a sack of stones.
“If you can’t stand, then you can’t run.” He sheathed his weapon, turning to appraise my long night’s work by the dawn’s soft glow. “Care to explain this?” He gestured toward the headless corpse. “Or those?”
I forced myself to count victims—sixteen females and one male for good measure.
My laugh was rusty. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
His brow creased. “Try me.”
I fisted a palm’s worth of loose dirt. “Well, it’s like this…”
When he folded his arms over his chest, away from that lovely sword of his, and inclined his head, waiting, I exhaled hard and prayed the gods gave my feet wings. His frown cut deeper, lips parting on his next demand, when I gathered my nerve and flung the contents of my hand at him.
“What in the gods’ names—” He staggered back, blinking in surprise.
Shoving to my feet, I bolted past him, snagged my spade and ran for the safety of the trees. His bellow of rage made my heart race and chest tighten. Those were not the sounds of a happy male. No, they were the sounds of a male preparing to rend a female in two, if he could catch her.
Scenery blurred as I ran harder, faster, until my foot rung a hole and I tumbled onto all fours. I was halfway to standing when the male burst into the small clearing, head lifted, nostrils flared.
“Move,” he warned, “and we’ll see if your head comes off as easy as theirs did.”
Turning my head slowly, I noticed his arms were out, but his sword remained tethered at his hip as if he didn’t want to harm me. Pity. Once I might have appreciated his misguided chivalry. Now I saw it for the weakness it was. I was female, but I was not soft. Not my heart, and not my arms. They were lean and muscled from digging up graves, as firm and cold as the ground where I had buried my mother, my sisters and cousins, all the members of my family but one, my uncle.
I did this for them, as practice for the day we met again and I added their names to my tally.
Can’t kill what’s already dead, I reminded myself.
While my thoughts churned over each other, the male took a step, and I tightened my grip on the spade. Before he got near enough to lay his hands on me, I twisted on my side and swung my weapon. The flat side cracked against his jaw, popping his neck as his head twisted. In a daze, he faced me, eyes whirling. Staggering back, he smeared the blood welling from his smashed cheek.
Scrambling out of his reach, I clawed my way upright, and a heartbeat later I was running. I barely dared to hope I might escape him unscathed when an impact knocked me against a tree. Ears ringing, I clamped my head between my hands and focused on not vomiting as the world lurched beneath me. A second hit from behind sent me tumbling onto the ground and burst my lip.
I wheezed when my attacker collapsed across my back, crushing the air from my lungs.
“I can’t…breathe.” My sight tunneled, turning hazy around the edges.
His low growl rumbled against my spine. “That makes two of us.”
Strong hands grasped my shoulders and flipped me onto my back. Before I brought my knee up to greet his tender parts, the male straddled my legs and sat on my shins, pinning me in place. His fingers dug into my collarbones, and the twist of his lips told me that if he had another set of hands, my wrists would be shackled too. Luckily for me, he didn’t, and I knew what I had to do.
I brought the spade up, but seconds from contact, he noticed. Wrenching the handle from my grasp, he flung it so far I lost sight of it. He lowered his head until his blood dripped on my chin. His breath was hot and hissed between his teeth. His expression sent fear shivering up my spine.
I swallowed hard. “Please—”
His palm sealed the plea in my mouth. “Save your lies for those who might believe them.”
Trapped beneath a snarling male who stood a head taller than me, three times wider than me, I had no choice but to obey. He was battered, his judgment clouded, and I knew I would outlast him.
“Those eyes—that hair—” His gaze narrowed on my left ear. “You’re Segestriidae.”
A name I could falsify. The golden hair and lavender eyes common to my clansmen, those I had no way to alter. Failing those telling signs, there was the clear quartz crystal suspended from my earlobe by a golden strand of Araneidae silk. The expense of that silk confirmed my identity. If their nigh-unbreakable silk made the Araneidae the wealthiest clan in the Araneae Nation, then the craftsmanship of mine made us almost equals in worth. Our skill with crystals was unrivaled.
To possess the appearance of the Segestriidae and indicators of my status was foolhardy.
Vanity kept me clinging to one while desperation made me reliant on the other. At least I had the good sense to travel with the matching necklace concealed. Bad enough to be a lone female on the road. That earned me unwanted attention. But if my fellow rogues had coveted the earring, they would have gutted me for the pendant.
Behind my captor’s eyes, I imagined his mind at work puzzling out my identity. My clothes were heavy and meant for travel, dyed soot black because I hunted my prey after the sun had set.
Briefly, I wished for his midnight hair and eyes. How well he must complement the night.
After a moment’s hesitation, he wiped the blood from my mouth with a cloth pulled from his pocket. When he finished, he inhaled my scent, and dread tightened my stomach. The Mimetidae were trackers, the lot of them. What I had given him was a means of locating me should I escape.
While tucking away his prize, his gaze never left mine. “Why are you on Mimetidae land?”
I mumbled against his hand, and he removed it. “Let me go.”
His eyes crossed. “I asked you a question.”
“Why bother answering when we both know I won’t tell you the truth?”
“I suspected as much, but as you’re female, I thought to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“Well,” I countered, “as you’re male, I thought honesty and small words were prudent.”
A tic started beneath his right eye. “You’re insulting me.”
The seriousness of his expression made me laugh. “You’re a quick one, you are. Did you enjoy the chase?” I winked at him. “Set me on my feet and we can have another go.”
“I prefer you just as you are…” he shifted his hips, “…flat on your back.”
His words dried the spit from my mouth. All the ways this encounter could end poorly—for me—spun wild through my head. Though the guard’s heavy thighs pinned mine together, he was not aroused. That realization somewhat eased my mind. Now if he would only stay uninterested.
When he slid his hands down my body, then up my waist and over my breasts, I launched my fist at his bloodied jaw, but he swatted aside my arm.
“Calm yourself.” He went still, his face earnest. “I would never harm a female in that way. I must search you for more weapons. Understand?”
I nodded as if I believed that was all he was after.
“What’s this?” His patting had located my necklace. When he fished it from my shirt, his eyes widened. “I’ve never seen such a large crystal. The setting…” he turned it over in his hand, “…it’s solid gold.” He wasn’t asking. He didn’t have to. What would be the point of using such a remarkable stone but denying it an equally elegant setting? He breathed, “This must be worth a small fortune.”
His tone implied I must have stolen it. In fact, it had been a gift from my betrothed, a bauble as beautiful as it was lethal.
Qualities Hishima had once ascribed to me.
“It was a gift from my uncle.” I wasn’t stretching the truth too far. The earring had truly been a gift from Ghubari, a match to the impressive novelty my betrothed had given me. “Please let me keep it. Better yet, let me go.”
“If I did, where would you go?” He glanced up, then back at me. “What would you do? Find another field of bodies to desecrate? Loot more poor souls bound for the Above?” His expression mirrored his repulsed tone as he shoved the pendant back into my shirt. “Have you not a decent bone in your body that you violate the dead?”
“You don’t know me.” My morals had been abandoned for the sake of survival.
“I know enough.” He pushed to his feet and took me with him. “Come on. Let’s go. You can keep the necklace until my paladin says otherwise.”
My palms turned sweaty. “Where are you taking me?”
“Has it slipped your recollection that you’ve mutilated our dead? That offense is punishable by five years imprisonment, and assaulting one of the city’s guards has earned you another five.”
“They were dead.” At least they were as far as he knew. “What does it matter to them?”
“They have family that will come to pay their respects and find their loved ones hacked into pieces and the silver tokens placed upon their eyes pocketed by the female who did the cutting.”
Shame prickled my skin, but I held my head high while he dragged me toward the city. Near the bodies stood a second male, whose short blond hair was so filthy it almost matched his mud-brown eyes. His frame was heavy with muscle, his shoulders as wide as the ursus northlanders rode.
He paused in his deliberation and jerked his chin my way. “Did that little thing do all this?”
My captor rubbed his discolored jawline. “All that and more.”
The blond smirked. “You taking her to Vaughn?”
“No.” His grip on me tightened. “The paladin has weightier matters on his mind.”
Paladin Vaughn? No, that couldn’t be right. The maven here was his mother, Isolde. She had ruled the Mimetidae since the death of her husband, since before I was born. Unless the plague…
“That’s the truth of it.” The blond male scrubbed a meaty hand over his head.
“Finish up, then check the perimeter.” He tugged me closer. “Her kind rarely travels alone.”
He was right about that. Most future paladins, especially Hishima, refused to let their future wives leave their clan home unguarded. What would this male say if I presented my necklace as a token from my once-beloved as proof of what my kind was? How would he react once he realized that I was the future maven of the Segestriidae? His scowl made me believe that neither the scrap of parchment bearing Father’s crest nor Hishima’s letters tucked into my pocket would sway his determination to see me punished, so I studied my captor and our surroundings as the males wagged their tongues.
“Get on with you, then.” The blond knelt and resumed whatever task we had interrupted.
A hard tug on my arm sent me stumbling. “Are you trying to yank my arm from its socket?”
The brute loosened his grip a fraction. “Stop dragging your feet.”
Out of spite, I was tempted to dig in my heels and make him haul me every step into Cathis. But I wanted freedom more, so I hurried along while slipping a hand into my shirt to grasp the pendant. With a firm jerk, I broke the silken chain’s metal clasp then shoved my hand into my pocket. My fingernail slid along the topmost edge, where the stone met its metal setting. A push of my thumb broke the seal and left me holding the crystal sheath while the petite dagger it had concealed dropped into my pocket. Careful of the blade’s razor edges, I grasped the short hilt in my palm.
“What will you do with me?” Sad to say, I had some idea. “Will it involve seasoning salts?”
He glanced back, his eye twitching again. “We do not partake of the flesh of our prisoners.”
Hit a tender spot, had I? Perhaps I ought to jab harder to prod a reaction from him.
“Ah. Well, that’s a comfort. I had heard Mimetidae consumed the flesh of their enemies. I’m relieved you said even my kind is exempt from your kind’s indelicate predilections for eating—”
He whirled around so fast, I yelped in surprise. Grasping my shirt, he reeled me hard against him. “What else have you heard? That we find the screams of helpless females intoxicating? Or a favorite of mine—how we peel the skin from our victims, dry the meat in strips to savor it later?”
I blanched when our chests bumped and his head lowered. I had what I wanted—his reaction was whip-sharp and furious. Riling him proved he was as far removed from Segestriidae males I had known as the moon was from the sun. He was no gentle craftsman. He was fierce, a warrior.
My knees quaked, but I stood my ground. “I don’t believe everything I hear.”
“In this case…” his eyes glittered, eager for truth to burn my ears, “…perhaps you should.”
By the time a scornful retort had readied itself, he had given me his back. I let my gaze slide over him while I deliberated, the broad expanse of his muscled shoulders coaxing my eyes lower.
No time to be squeamish. While he was distracted, I had to strike. I had to break free of him.
Tightening my fist around the dagger’s hilt, I slipped it from my pocket. Its tip wavered as if it were a divining rod, angling toward his weak spots. I had never sunk a blade in a living person.
But since he had no intention of granting me freedom, I would seize it for myself.
Death awaited me in Cathis. If not in the teeth of his clansmen, then at the hands of mine.
Steeling my nerves, I brought my arm across my body. My wrist rested on my shoulder for a moment before I used all my strength to bury the blade deep in the tender meat above his left hip.
My captor howled, and I struggled to break his grip on one arm while twisting the knife with the other. When pain brought him to his knee, I shoved him, retrieving my dagger and toppling him to the dirt on his back.
Guilt and relief made me lightheaded as I pocketed the blade and sprinted for the forest. The fallen male’s furious shouts would set his friend on my trail for certain. I had to hurry. I had to—
Bones popped in my shoulder when a wall of muscle slammed me against a tree. Thick arms banded about my waist and cut off my air. Gasping, I squirmed and kicked, but the blond giant held tight. He lifted me, tucking me under his arm as if I were a bedroll. With my arms pinned, I threw my leg to trip him. He caught that too and swung me high on his hip as he would a child.
Blood heated my cheeks when he smirked at me. “Nice try, but I’m one tree you won’t fell.” To prove his point, he trapped both my ankles at his hip with one hand while the other supported me by crushing me so tight against his side his lungs might have been supplying the air for mine.
“Shouldn’t you see to your friend?” I twisted my head, the only part of me I could move, but I saw no sign of the male I had stabbed. The field was littered with bodies, but none of them his.
“Murdoch?” The behemoth grinned. “He’s not my friend.” He chuckled at something behind me, and I dreaded what lurked past my shoulder. “Female, I don’t think he’s your friend, either.”
“I’ll take her from here, Lleu,” a familiar voice grated near my ear.
“You sure?” The giant squeezed until I gasped. “Shouldn’t you get sewn up first?”
“I’m sure.” Murdoch wrenched my arms behind my back. “Do you have your hawser?”
A tense pause stretched between them. “Always.”
Murdoch held out his hand. “May I use it to secure the prisoner?”
“Use this instead.” The blond tossed him a length of black thread that made Murdoch frown.
He ran the thick, knobby silk rope through his fingers. “You’re a male of many talents.”
His friend waggled his eyebrows at me. “So the females tell me.”
After binding my wrists, Murdoch smoothed his thumb over the stump of my missing ring finger. I cringed when he touched it. The first two joints were missing, and his caress of what remained felt too intimate somehow. I was grateful he showed me the small mercy of not asking about it, but resumed his task. He pried my legs from Lleu’s grip and crossed my ankles to hobble me before he knotted the rope. Lleu was all that held me upright while Murdoch searched me. This time his efforts produced the bloody dagger and its crystal sheath, which he kept.
Assured I was unarmed, he slung me over his shoulder. My face hit a wet spot on his lower back, and I recoiled from the blood turning his worn shirt brown. The wound splashed crimson over his tan skin, and the stain kept growing.
He must be in terrible pain. I wasn’t being wholly facetious when I offered, “I can walk.”
“Very fast,” he said, “and in the opposite direction of where I want you to go.”
Huffing hair from my eyes, I glared at his arse, figuring it was the same as arguing to his face. “Release me.” When he grunted, I promised, “I’m more trouble than I’m worth, Murdoch.”
His shoulders tensed at my use of his name, but he continued on without comment.
“You will regret this.” We both would if Hishima got word. “Put me down, please.”
“There.” He winced when he set me on my feet. “You’re down.” He reached into his pocket and produced the cloth he’d wiped my face with earlier. “Open your mouth.” He waited. “Now.”
My eyes rounded. “You can’t be—”
He crammed the cloth into my mouth too fast for me to even bite him. After hefting me over his shoulder again, this effort costing him a muttered oath, Murdoch lumbered on toward Cathis.
Chortling sounds made me lift my head. Lleu sauntered past me, a grin splitting his face. He tipped his head when our eyes met. I narrowed mine, which appeared to amuse him all the more.
Let him smile.
If Hishima found me at long last, his retribution would be no laughing matter.
Copyright © 2013 Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication