Lira grabbed up her saddlebags and strode for the front door. Sala followed in her wake, struggling to keep up with her sister’s longer strides, not easy at any time—but especially not now, as she was but a few weeks away from the birth of her second child.
“Not all men are alike,” Sala said with conviction, as she watched Lira settle her bags across the back of her tall, rangy mount. Woman and horse were well-matched, both tall, long-limbed, and sleekly muscled.
“I suppose I’ll have to concede that point,” Lira admitted as she adjusted her gear. She bent to examine her horse’s hooves. “It was Father, after all, who gave me my training.”
“Our father is a very exceptional man, he has to be, Mother wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Lira snorted a laugh. “Mother says she exercised the same judgment in choosing Father as she does when choosing a horse. It’s an agreed upon fact that Mother has the best ‘horse sense’ of anyone in the clan.”
Sala giggled. “I heard Mother tell Aunt Celeria that she’d picked the best stud in the Senn Var herd.”
Lira straightened, dusting her hands on the soft brown suede of her fitted leggings. “That sounds like Mother, straightforward and to the point. Well, little sister, I’m ready to go. Any specific messages for Galatin?”
“Tell him I said congratulations on becoming an uncle. We’re expecting him to take time away from his Guardian’s duties to visit his nephew, or we’ll come drag him away.”
“I shall pass on your threat,” Lira promised solemnly, then grinned. She reached out and placed a hand on her sister’s swollen abdomen. “I’ll be back in plenty of time for the birth of this little one.”
“Promise me,” Sala ordered. “Promise me you won’t go roaming off on your own for weeks as you’re wont to do when the notion takes you. I want you here, Lira.”
Lira gave a long-suffering sigh and rolled her eyes. “I promise. Satisfied?”
Sala smiled at her sister’s antics. “Yes. Now go on with you. You’re all but vibrating with the need to be on your way.”
Lira gave her a quick hug and took up her horse’s reins, throwing herself smoothly into the saddle. Booted feet automatically found the stirrups as she settled herself into the saddle’s familiar contours. She adjusted the arrow-filled quiver that rested across her back.
Gazing down at her sister, anticipation and elation filling her, her mind was already turning toward the open road. With a jaunty salute she turned her mount, heading him towards their destination.
As Lira’s mount took its first steps away from her, Sala called out, “Remember what I said about all men not being alike. Give greeting to High Chief Talrion for me.”
Lira’s laughter rang out as she put her heels to her mount, “Never give up little sister, never give up!” she called back. She waved as her horse broke into a gallop, and then they disappeared around a curve in the road.
* * * *
During her journey, Lira had plenty of time to ponder her sister’s words. She had not lied when she told Sala that she loved her life, yet an unwelcome and bewildering loneliness had begun to insinuate itself into her heart.
She’d once considered the possibility of marriage and discarded it almost as quickly. Husbands and children were the province of women who enjoyed the indoors, cooking, cleaning, and all the other activities required of them. They were not meant for a woman who would rather wield a bow than a broom.
Lira took stock of her surroundings, deciding to stop early to indulge in a hunt for fresh meat. Pressing on through the trees, she emerged into a clearing that was dominated by the Katal River Falls.
Sheets of frothing water rushed over the rocky cliffs to explode in an arching spray as they hit the foot of the falls. The water rushed and gurgled over boulders that littered the riverbed. Farther along, those same boulders created a protective half-circle in which the water calmed, forming a pool at the river’s edge.
Dismounting, she led her horse to the edge of the clearing. Unthinking routine saw him cared for and her camp set, complete with fire pit and a stock of dry wood to see her through the night. She took up her bow and headed into the forest.
With each step she became more attuned to the wood. The quiet serenity of the place flowed into her veins. Her movements were smooth as she glided with silent grace through the trees. Sleek and deadly, she found the track she sought. So began the hunt…
* * * *
Tal rose up in the saddle, stretching his legs. The sun would be setting soon and he was ready to make camp. He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, a satisfied smile tugging at his finely sculpted lips. Lady, it was good to get away!
Since he had given in to the inevitable and performed the ritual of seeking, he’d felt like first prize in some bizarre contest. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined the number of eligible females who’d flock to the Hall of the Mother, each seeking to be chosen by the Orb to be his tezza.
It was ludicrous, it was ridiculous, it was…it was—by the Mother!—it was, in a small way, flattering. And yet not really, as he realized quickly that many of the women sought him out only for the prestige of his position.
He would have been somewhat mollified had he known just how many of the women sought the Orb’s approval because of the man in question. There were more than a few who hoped that being chosen by the Orb would bring a happy match with a man who was handsome, virile, intelligent, and compassionate. A man who had proven himself worthy of everyone’s high opinion and unwavering support.
Tal grimaced, determined to push all melancholy thoughts away. His destination, the Katal River Falls, was almost in sight—he could hear the muffled crash of the water as it spilled over the rocks.
He entered the clearing and pulled his horse up short. Another traveler was there before him. Dismounting, he eyed the gear that was neatly laid out, and the magnificent horse that grazed placidly nearby. Feeling it would be impolite to intrude without invitation, Tal freed his mount from the bit to allow it to graze before he went in search of the missing traveler.
Drawing on tracking skills he’d learned from the Finn Mal clan’s finest hunters, he followed the trail, ghosting soundlessly through the wood. In moments he realized he followed a very experienced woodsman. The trail was so faint as to be nearly nonexistent. Much of the time it was only the slightly compressed grasses that let him know he was still on the trail.
Tal extended all his senses to the limit. Moments later, he froze. Something or someone was near. From his vantage point, hidden in the deep shadow of several closely spaced trees, he saw the slight rustle of disturbed undergrowth. Barely breathing, he watched as a pair of male kinti broke through the brush. Tal wished he’d brought his bow. Wild kinti were plentiful and made an excellent meal. As though conjured by his thought, the woodsman made his appearance.
Tal was transfixed by the vision that materialized before him—surely a daughter of the Goddess herself. Not fifteen feet in front of him, the woman simply appeared, as though born from the shadows. She was tall and supple, her body finely honed and firmly muscled. With a move so swift and smooth it defied the eye to follow, she fitted an arrow to her bow and let it fly, taking one of the kinti so quickly it never knew what hit it. With a squealing snort, the second kinti raced into the brush. Tal watched its retreat before turning his eyes back to the woman, and found himself the target of the business end of an arrow.
“Was there something you wanted, Warrior?”
The rich contralto tone of her voice flowed over his senses, winding deep into his gut, leaving tingling warmth in its wake. Tal felt himself grow semi-hard at the sound. He stared into deep blue eyes that held his with a steady regard.
“I did not mean to intrude, Huntress,” he apologized, recognizing her vocation by her attire. “I but sought the traveler who makes camp in the clearing by the falls.”
Lowering her bow, Lira returned her arrow to the quiver that rested against her back. “No harm was done; your skills are on a par with most hunters.” Turning from him, she moved to the kinti and began the process of dressing her kill. “The traveler you seek is me—was there something you needed?”
Tal felt an insane desire to tell her just what the sight of her lithe, graceful figure made him need. Never had he felt such instant desire for a woman such as this one. Not that there was an abundance of such women. Tal was used to soft, fragile females, not athletically formed Amazons. Even the sight of her expertly wielding the knife as she gutted the hapless kinti could not stop the rising need that centered in his groin.
“I wanted to inquire if I might share the clearing. I had intended to make camp there, but do not wish to disturb you.” His voice had gone slightly husky with the desire than ran in his veins.
“You are most welcome to share my camp this evening.” Lira gave him a quick, speculative glance. “And if you will give me a hand here and bury the offal, I would be pleased to share the kinti with you.”
Tal grinned and approached. “A most generous offer, Huntress. I accept with pleasure.” He set quickly to the task Lira had given him.
From the moment she’d first set eyes on him, Lira had felt a tingle of awareness invade her body. There was something about this warrior that made her heart beat faster. The man was exquisite. Tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, wrapped in firm, flexing muscle that showed with every fluid movement. And his face—no man should have such beauty. If indeed it could be called such. For this stranger was pure, undiluted male.
When he knelt beside her, using his own knife to dig a hole for the remains of the kinti, she inhaled deeply. His scent assaulted her, nearly drawing a growl from her tightened throat. The warm slightly musky odor of the man shot straight to her pussy. She felt her cunt tighten, then release as rich moisture lubricated her, sending the message that it was prepared to indulge in carnal pleasures. As if the thought hadn’t already run through her head.