Myriel looked wearily around her. So this is how I’m going to die
. She stood on green grass next to a small, clear spring. At the edge of her little oasis, where green gave way to gray and verdant growth yielded to drought, circled the dogs. The Abyssal hounds
. She had thought them a legend told to frighten children into good behavior, but they were all too obviously real, unless her recent use of magic had drained her to the point where she was hallucinating. She wished she could believe she was.
The dogs had come from the dry, scrub-infested hills around her, sent by Kerrah, no doubt. They were larger than wolves, with fur the color of dark wine, and the drool that dripped from their jaws hissed when it struck the ground like water tossed onto a heated iron pan. They advanced slowly, warily, as if she were dangerous to them rather than the other way around.
But she had no magic that would do them or anyone else harm. Best not to know spells she would never use, and the karmic backlash from harmful magic was too great a cost to pay. Somehow, she thought the universe would turn a blind eye to anything she did to defend herself against the hounds, but it didn’t matter. She had nothing.
She looked around, trying to see something that would enable her to at least draw some blood before she died. Her athame
, the ritual knife, lay on the tree stump that had been her makeshift altar. It had never drawn blood, nor was it ever meant to. She picked it up. Dead, she’d be of no use in this once fertile land. With her athame defiled by the blood of the hounds, she’d be equally useless. She looked around for a better solution, and all she saw at first were the hounds drawing closer, now so close she could smell the sulfur of their breath and feel the heat radiating off them.
Then she spotted the man. He stood on top of a hill, a hundred meters away. Kerrah? Doubtful. She would have run toward him, ready to hurl her knife, if she thought it was him. It was not the thought of a proper witch: to solve things by destroying an enemy. But Kerrah was responsible for all the blight around her, and she was going to die at the claw and jaw of the hounds anyway. Karmic payback would be accounted for, and it would be worth it.
But Kerrah was supposed to be old, older than any man had a right to be. This fellow, from what she could see, was young, fit. Broad-shouldered. Bare-chested. He ran, not away from the hounds but toward her, his sword glinting in the afternoon sunlight. Perhaps he was one of Kerrah’s minions. Perhaps he was not. She couldn’t save her own life, but she could save his. “Run away!” she yelled. “Run for your life.”
He kept coming. The hounds were barely a body length away now. Soon their jaws would rend her flesh from her bones. She yelled again, but if he even noticed, she couldn’t tell. Perhaps he was deaf. He was certainly fast.
A hound jumped at her. The man swung the huge sword as if it were light as a feather, and almost before she could register the sight of burning blood, he had grabbed her wrist and pulled. She went sprawling, twisting to see as she fell. The two other hounds leaped through the area where she had stood and landed on either side of the man with the sword.
Up close, he was even more impressive than he had been from a distance. His bare chest rippled with muscle; his arms were like corded steel. He slashed to the right, and the dog there fell back. He sidestepped into the place where it had been, standing between it and Myriel, even as the other hound circled around behind him.
“Stay down.” His voice was obviously that of one used to being obeyed, and he spoke too perfectly for her earlier guess that he was deaf. She didn’t want to obey, but the words at least made her hesitate before scrambling to her feet. The dogs leaped forward at some unspoken signal, acting together as they had when they had moved to strike her. “Behi--” she started to say, and he slashed backward without looking, the sword whirring over her head to slice into the hound behind him. He kicked the other one in the nose as it jumped, but it nipped at his feet. His boot disintegrated in the acid of the hound's spittle, and she suspected the foot beneath wasn’t in very good shape either. But if he felt pain, he didn’t show it. The hound his sword had struck lay still, the blow a fatal one. She almost felt sorry for it and had to remind herself that these were no creatures of nature.
Any natural pack-hunting animal would flee, but the one remaining hound stared at the warrior. For several long seconds, neither moved. Myriel set her athame on the ground and got to her feet. There still wasn’t much she could do, but she’d be damned if she was going to lie simpering on the ground while this muscular stranger protected her. In any case, he seemed to have matters well in hand.
Then suddenly he crumpled to the ground. Steam came from his left foot. The wound was worse than she thought. The two corpses had caught fire, reminding her that they were not merely bigger versions of ordinary wolves. The remaining hound was still deadly. It was now her rescuer, not herself, who was unprotected. She could pick up her knife, try to get his sword from him, or fight with her bare hands. Or try to heal him, knowing she’d be vulnerable while she did. The hound had already turned its gaze to her as the greater threat. None of the other options seemed likely to save either of them, and healing him would at least let him fight for himself.
She knelt, touched his steaming foot, and uttered the invocation to Kalana, the goddess of healing and growth. She ignored the stinging sensation in her hand. At least she didn’t have to prepare a sacred space. The small oasis of green that surrounded them had been created through her magic and was already dedicated to Kalana.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the demon dog leap for her. It was all she could do to finish her spell rather than commend her soul to Kalana’s mercies. But at least this man would survive. She had done what she could for the wounded land. Kerrah’s hellish minions were simply too strong.
As she said the last word, the sword shot up, impaling the monster in the neck. For a moment, flaming blood ran down the blade to the pommel as the demon was frozen in midair and time itself seemed to stop. Then the man cast sword and dog aside with one mighty heave.
“Overconfident little buggers, aren’t they? I’ve never seen their like, and I hope to never see it again.” His accent was thick, a northern dialect, she thought. The man spit on his arm where a drop of blood had scalded the skin, and then wiped it on his woolen pants. He propped himself up to take a look at his foot and raised his eyebrows. “I thought it was a lot worse.”
“It was,” said Myriel. “Thank you for your assistance, stranger. I am Myriel, and without your aid I would have surely perished.”
“Johan.” The man knitted his brows in puzzlement for a moment, still looking at his foot. He kicked off what was left of the ruined boot, and then took off the intact one on his other foot as well. Before their eyes, acid-burned flesh became smooth again, leaving a stretch of soft skin that looked almost delicate compared to the tanned and toughened skin around it.
He doesn’t often wear shoes. Sandals, maybe. But he goes barefoot much of the time, or his feet wouldn’t look like that.
“Those hounds’ magic must fade as their corpses burn,” Johan said at last. “But why did they come here? I wouldn’t think such hellspawn would seek water or eat plants, so this oasis would have little for them.”
“They came to attack me,” Myriel said, still kneeling beside him. She was trying to look at his arm without being too obvious, but it was hidden by his body.
He smiled at that. “I wouldn’t think they’d be attracted to pretty wenches either, but I have to admire their taste. Speaking of taste.” He put his arm around her waist, pulled her to his lap, and kissed her deeply. Surprised, she felt her lips responding, kissing back. Her breasts tingled at the unexpected pleasure.
He didn’t even ask first.
In Valon, from where she had come, one always asked and always made sure consent was given and received with every step of courtship. But she was far from Valon, and if this man wanted her by force, she would not be able to resist. She wasn’t sure she’d even want to.
“You taste fine.” He let her go.
Myriel was quite pleased at the compliment. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted him to continue his unasked-for kiss, or if she was relieved he had broken it off. Either way, his strong right arm was still wrapped around her waist, and she couldn’t move far. But she had to correct him on one thing, so that proper credit could be given to Kalana. “The magic of the Abyssal hounds did not wane, but I invoked Kalana to heal your foot. Without her tender mercies, I fear it would have become gangrenous and be lost to you entirely.”
He stood up, spilling her to the ground. “Invoked? Sorcery!” He took a step back. “Isn’t this land bleak enough without practicing sorcery in this one pure refuge?” Another step back, and without looking, he grabbed his sword and pulled it from the third corpse, which caught fire where the blade left a hole. “I should have let you die in the maws of the dogs you’d summoned.”
“I am no summoner of beasts from the Abyss.” Myriel angrily rose to her feet. “I’m a witch, and those demons came to kill me.”
“Sorceress, witch. Hell turns on its own, as is well known.”
She could see his arm now. There was a whole string of small burns on his right forearm. It was not nearly as bad as his foot had been, but it still needed treatment. “I have come here to renew this place from the damage done by he who lives in the Green Castle.”
“Ha. You and what army?”
“Just me.” I was foolish to think I could do it. Amber knew exactly what she was doing when she sent me--getting rid of someone who had become an annoyance.
“You must be a foul sorcerer indeed, if you have the power to fight Kerrah.”
Not to fight, but to resist. There was a difference. “I’m a witch.”
“Words alone. You invoke the powers. If you are not corrupt now, I should kill you, for heaven might yet take you. If you already are...” His muscled legs tightened, ready to spring.
“Let me take a look at your arm. I can heal you.” Even as she said it, she felt a weariness come over her. Was he going to kill her? She couldn’t do anything about it if he was. She was tired from doing magic, and healing his foot hadn’t helped that. He was stronger and faster. She’d try to run, but she doubted it would matter.
“Stay back.” He didn’t jump her. Didn’t do anything, in fact.
He’s coiled for defense. He thinks
I am going to attack
him. If she’d had a little more energy, she would laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Instead, she simply sat down, crossing her legs one over the other. She straightened the skirt of her green dress so it covered her knees. “So what are you doing in this accursed place, Johan, if you are not here to heal it? You don’t come here to kill Kerrah, judging from the fact that you think I’d
need an army. And there’s no one else but Kerrah to sell your sword to.”
“I would never sell my sword to a sorcerer. I’m here on honorable business.”
“What sort of honest business would that be?” She tried to keep her voice neutral, nonjudgmental as a witch should be. But she couldn’t help the doubt that crept in.
“I’m here to steal a gem he owns.”
“You’re a jewel thief? And you call that honorable business?”
“I am oath sworn to it.” He sounded irritated, but he lowered his sword a fraction.
“Have you been in the burglary business long?”
“I’ve pulled a few heists.” He spoke with the air of a man reluctant to boast, rather than of one cornered into admitting his trespasses.
rescued her. And he was certainly easy on the eyes. His long black hair would have looked good on a woman, but framing his rugged face and square jaw, it was gorgeous. The Grand Circle would never approve of him, a violent man, a thief. But no man the circle had approved of had ever intrigued her.
He was looking at her. No, he was looking over her body, his gaze lingering on her curves. She was no great beauty, she knew. She was not one of those who tempted men to risk their freedom to spy on the circle’s sky-clad rituals. She was too short and a bit too heavy for that. But he seemed to appreciate what he saw. She didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or pleased by that, but she didn’t try to hide.
He covered the distance between them in two quick strides, dropping his sword as he did, then seizing her wrists. In an instant he had them gathered up and held in just one hand, behind her back. The breath whooshed out of her lungs. She had little enough defense against him even in perfect conditions. Perhaps he thought that holding her hands would stop her from casting a spell. It did make it more difficult. But if she could speak long enough perhaps--no. His face was just a few inches from hers. She could feel his hot breath.
“I’ve never taken a woman against her will,” he said. “And I’m not going to start now. You have a soft, luscious body, and witch or no witch, I want you. Say the word, though, and I’ll tie you up, head back over yonder hill to get my pack, fill my skins at this little oasis, and when I’m done with my business, I’ll untie you, and you’ll never see me again.”
“Otherwise I’ll still tie you up--but only after
your clothes are off. And then I’ll show you what it’s like to be made love to.”
“I’ve made love before.” It was true. She’d had sex a few, somewhat satisfying times, but her protestation sounded flat even to her.
“Not really.” One corner of his lips turned up. Goddess, he was arrogant. Smug, even. If only she could resist finding out if what he said was true. No one tied their lover up in Valon. That sort of thing was found only in stories told about people in the East, who reportedly tied, whipped, and used all manner of strange devices in their lovemaking. Of course, the storyteller would always say those people didn’t know true love at all. But Myriel had always been fascinated by the stories and had felt disappointment each time they ended in a homily or a moral. The lust in them felt more real, more powerful than those about the gentle lovemaking of civilized peoples. It was like tasting candy only to be told it was poisonous to actually eat.
“A hero is entitled to his reward, I suppose.” That thought came from other stories she’d been told, she realized. In Valon, no act could ever entitle someone to couple. There was a good deal of virtue in that. But she wasn’t in Valon now. Still, formal consent was always required. “Yes. I will make love to you.”
To her surprise, he let go of her wrists. “Undress for me.” Lust showed in his eyes.
She hesitated. She had no problems with nudity in a ritual, but this was something else entirely, and it made heat rise in her cheeks. “Don’t you fear my magic?”
“I can stop you in time.” Again, that smug smile. And he’d thought the hounds were overconfident. But she supposed he was probably right. Magic wasn’t an instant process, although it could seem quite fast if the preparations were all done in advance.
She felt the heat of his lecherous gaze as she untied the stays on her bodice. She was a little afraid he’d lose interest upon finding that her heavy breasts weren’t so perky without artificial support. Despite her comment about her experience, she’d only slept with three men, and she remembered how one of them had frowned at the sight of her topless. Johan was looking at her eagerly, but she wasn’t sure he’d like what he was about to see if she continued.
When she had the bodice loose, he pulled her to him once more. He lifted her dress and pulled it over her head. Bare skin against bare skin. His was warm and wet with sweat. At the feel of him, her nipples tightened. He laughed. “You’re aroused already.”
“It’s cold,” she claimed, but she knew how false it sounded. The sun was still beating down on the barren land, and while she’d been able to grow some grass and purify the spring, it would be a long time until trees grew again to give some shade. A couple of hundred years ago much of the land here had been forest, or so the historians said, but all that was long gone.
“I don’t think so.” He captured her wrists and tied them together behind her back with the sleeves of her dress. She couldn’t help but thrust her breasts up against him when he pulled her hands back, even though the gesture seemed wanton. Ladies of Valon didn’t willingly give themselves to barbarians, not without civilizing them first. He wasn’t at all civilized.
He smiled, letting her hands go now that they were secure, and grabbed each breast with a big, calloused hand. “These are very responsive, I see. Do they like being touched?” He rubbed his thumbs against each peak, and they started to ache in response.
“No,” she lied.
“You say one thing, but your body says another. I bet if I felt your pussy, I’d find you wet and ready for my cock.”
She blushed. At his words, a tingle went straight to her core. Having control was supposed to make sex better. Safer. But not having control turned her on. He would find me wet and ready. But he wouldn’t simply--
She didn’t have time to finish the thought. He thrust his hand between her legs. “Oh yes, witch, your body does indeed tell the truth that your mouth won’t speak. Tell me, are all witches liars?”
“No.” How dare he suggest that
! Every witch knew that lies were harmful. But he wouldn’t ask consent for each step he took; she’d said yes to making love, and now he’d do what he wanted. Which was making her far more excited than any lovemaking she’d done in Valon, where people were always so careful to make sure every touch was acceptable.
“Better not lie to me again.” His finger stroked the center of her pleasure, enough to make her gasp, and then his hand withdrew.
“Or?” She knew her voice had a whimper to it, which she hated. She couldn’t hide her need. And she had no intention of lying to him again. It was more than just her honor at stake; it was his whole opinion about her, the circle, and even magic itself. But how could she be expected to speak so frankly of such things?
“Or I’ll spank you. Or deny you what you most desire.”
“And what is that? You?”
He laughed. “I’m not so full of myself as that. No. But I can bring you to the edge of ecstasy--and pull back or push you over. And your hands will be in no position to do anything about your desire.”
As if I’d frig myself in front of him, just because he inflamed me. I’d rather die than suffer such embarrassment, no matter how turned on I might be
. “I’ll tell the truth. I’ll show you that witches are not liars.”
“I’m not sure you even know how to tell the truth to yourself.”
Sindra van Yssel