Mieli tried not to despair, but she was out of ideas. She was out of food, and without traveling farther on foot, she wouldn’t be able to provide more. That wasn’t such a hardship, but she would have to leave the man alone overnight, and she had no way to tell him she would be back.
Crouched low beside him, she touched his shoulder. He was already awake, and she’d known that. He still hadn’t begun to open his eyes; although the swelling was mostly gone, the bruising still discolored and distorted his face.
“I know you don’t understand, but I must go.” She hesitantly stroked his shoulder. “I will be back, I promise.”
Before she could worry anymore, she rose and stepped out of the shelter. She had a lot of walking to do. Outside in the clear light of morning, she headed east, toward the river. At first she walked in the path cleared by the crash, but at last she entered the forest proper and began the more difficult hiking.
Familiar with this walk since she’d started it many times only to turn back at midday, she was confident in her direction. Her certain steps allowed her mind to wander. Truly, her thoughts turned more and more to the soldier.
He had never yet spoken a word to her. Aside from some mumbling in his sleep, he made no sounds at all. Added to the fact that he’d yet to open his eyes, she had begun to wonder if her efforts were in vain. While his body was clearly healing, unseen damage might have ended his life more effectively than death.
Brain injuries were hard to understand in her people; she had no hope of diagnosing one in this stranger. Even if by some miracle the ships came back for him now, weeks later, she was sure they would find little to recommend in her healing skills. The worst of it was, she really did want him to be well. Mieli had to admit that after the days she'd spent caring for him, she could not wish otherwise. Honesty forced her to also confess how much of that desire stemmed from concern for her own well-being.
If she healed him, and he woke, he might still lead her out of the forest and into a new life. If he never woke, was never healed, that wouldn’t happen. It was a sobering thought, and one that was on her mind more often than not. Kyre and his bunch were long gone, and she wouldn’t seek them out regardless. She absolutely had to have someone on her side who had some power in this new order. How many more opportunities were going to fall out of the sky?
JAI DIDN'T WAIT long after the healer left. He might not know her language, but the meaning had been clear. She was leaving. From the tone of her voice, and the way she’d stroked his shoulder, it had been difficult for her. Whatever the reason, she would not be back today. Maybe not ever.
He had carefully exercised his returning strength every day in his moments of privacy. His wounds had knitted, although reluctantly, and he’d been able to lift and flex his arms and legs regularly and even stand. Today, certain in his solitude, he cautiously ventured outside the remains of his ship.
For the first time, he got a good look at the destruction he’d left in the wake of the crash. The fire had been brief and intense, a flash, really. He had reason to be thankful that it was such a wet forest, for the fire had not been able to spread and burn him alive while he lay injured and helpless in the wreckage. His little native would have been lucky to salvage anything of him aside from his indestructible bones.
At the thought of her, Jai flexed his hands. During the last week, he had been hard pressed to maintain the facade of his infirmity. He had been dangerously close to taking control of the situation several times but refrained. Until he could be sure his strength had returned, and he was unwilling to tip his hand.
Now, in the light of morning, with his legs beneath him and his body aching but responding to his commands, he thought that time might have arrived There was not a moment to be wasted if he meant to discover the person behind his crash.
He looked down his body and surveyed the long, jagged scars that would remind him of this forever. The woman had done a good job, and though his body had healed rapidly after its slow start, his wounds were still a gruesome sight. He’d never had any particular vanity about his looks, but it made him wonder how badly his face had fared.
Even as the thought crossed his mind, Jai scowled. There was no reason to be concerned with his appearance, and that he was could only be attributed to one thing.
She was on his mind too much. He’d resigned himself to being attracted to her because she was undeniably more beautiful than any woman he would ever know. Plans for revenge had taken a backseat lately to lurid images of him and the little healer. Her soft hands and tender touches had led him into fantasies about having her attention on other parts of his anatomy. She had slept next to him every night; it was impossible not to think about pinning her down and having her.
The only difficulty for Jai was that he couldn’t picture it clearly. Somehow, the idea of them locked together in combat-challenge would not form. Each time he tried to envision theircoupling, it was always her on top. That wasn’t something he had ever done before, with any woman.
In the War Tribe, the sort of female Jai had been with before were of the warrior class. Women who were hard and fought like men. Sexual gratification came one of two ways: combat-challenge another warrior or take what you wanted on the field of battle. Sex was only to debase the other person and satisfy your body’s needs.
He’d heard it was different for the nonmilitary classes and especially among the upper class. This was the first time in his life he had ever wondered what that difference might be. Maybe he would find out. If she came back, he would likely have to kill her, but he might satisfy his curiosity first. A beauty like her would never be at his mercy again.
MIELI SLEPT IN the shelter of a great bayn
tree that night and woke at dawn with a hopeful heart. She had set her traps in the early evening, and in the bright early-morning glow, she was anxious to see what they had caught.
Two hours later she was ready to return to the shelter. She had enough fresh meat to feed the two of them for three days. If by then he was still unresponsive, she would have to make the decision to either make another overnight journey or leave him behind.
As much as she wanted him to heal, she was gaining nothing by stubbornly staying at his side while he made no improvement. The longer she waited, the less likely that she would be able to catch up to Kyre and the others. While she didn’t particularly miss them, she also didn’t want to spend the rest of her life in this forest alone.
On the long hike back to the crash site, Mieli mentally prepared herself to make the decision. By nightfall she had reached the edge of camp. She was also no closer to knowing what she would do. She dropped her pack and the fresh, prepared game at the fire circle.
She shrugged out of her woven jacket and started to climb into the tented ship only to draw up short at the edge. He was gone.
Mieli turned quickly and tried to look around the camp, but she couldn’t see beyond the clearing. Concern warred with despair. Someone could have taken him against his will, but she doubted that. He had left and taken with him her chance at getting a new life. Either his people had finally come for him, or he had left on his own. It didn’t matter. She was alone again, with no plan and no course of action.
With a heavy heart, much changed from how she’d woken that morning, Mieli started the fire. The game from her hunt would have to be cooked and cured, but she had no appetite. She realized it was unlikely anyone had come for him after so much time. Clearly, he’d been well enough to get up and walk, so he must have been recovered for some time. He’d just been waiting for his chance to get away.
There was a painful place in her chest where the sobs seemed lodged. Was it stupid to feel abandoned by someone she didn’t even know? She had cared for him and nursed him, and he’d deliberately hidden his recovery from her. Mieli resisted the urge to throw herself to the ground in another crying fit, but silent tears coursed her cheeks as she worked.
FROM THE EDGE of camp, Jai watched her sleep. He’d been observing her since she’d returned. Her reason for leaving was clear to him now. There was no game in the immediate vicinity, and from the amount of fresh meat she returned with, he could only guess it was because of the crash. His stomach ached from hunger. She had left food for him inside the ship, but it had not been enough to last all day.
The time she spent away had been a blessing for him. In her absence, he had an opportunity to explore the wreckage thoroughly. A rare moment of good luck came when Jai had found the small stimulator from the medical box in the debris. There had been a full charge on it, and it had only taken half that amount to fully heal his wounds. Except for the scarring that had already occurred, he was completely restored.
He approached her sleeping form quietly. Luckily she’d saved his boots, and he’d donned the uniform clothes she had washed and mended. They were a sorry sight but all he had. When he was standing over her, he knelt down beside her pallet.
The change in perspective was striking. The delicacy of her body was a stark contrast to his brutish size. For the first time, he reached out to her and placed his open palm against the curve of her hip. As lightly as possible, he ran the broad plane of his hand over her rib cage, the swell of her breast, and then up her neck to cup her cheek.
His palm spanned from her jaw to the crown of her head. Jai was a little awed at the feelings stirred inside of him. Feelings so unfamiliar he wasn’t altogether certain of their meaning. He was certain he wanted her, but the urge to dominate and subdue was missing. His desire was tinged by tenderness, and the need to have her touch him as if she wanted him too. First things first, though. Hunger was more pressing right now that his lust for the healer.
After eating a portion of the cooked meat, Jai returned to the sleeping woman. With one hard hand he brushed the hair from her face.
“Wake up, little healer. Wake up.”