Who was he?
A memory of fire and pain flared in her mind. The high heat running through her veins muffled her thinking. Dread. She had survived the torture and the flames. Despair. Was it about to start all over again?
She scrambled out of the pallet like a rat dashing out of a trap.
“Don’t!” the man said, grabbing for her leg but letting go as soon as his fingers came in contact with her bandages.
She scooted backwards on her hands and elbows. A solid wall of rock slammed against her back. Pain shot through her body like a rain of arrows. Out. She had to get away from this man. Fast. She looked around in desperation. Was that a sword lying on the ground?
Mustering whatever little strength she could, she dove for it. Her fingers wrapped around the sword’s hilt as she forced her voice past her bruised throat.
“Easy now,” the man said, standing up slowly, displaying his empty palms, motioning for her to calm down. “You’re going to reopen your wounds.”
No more pain. No more torture. She was done with King Riva and his random courts of so-called justice. She was done with the magistrate, Orell, and Aponte. She wasn’t going to let it happen again.
She scoured the place for an exit, swallowing great gulps of smoke-scented air. Her feet throbbed. Her legs ached. Her arms quivered under the heavy sword’s strain. It was an odd weapon, curved instead of straight, unwieldy to her untrained hands, foreign and wild. She clung to it with all the grit she could muster.
He took a step towards her.
“If you come any closer,” she said, “I’ll have to kill you.”
“That’s a mighty big boast,” he said. “Do you really think you can hurt me with my sword?”
Shaking as hard as she was, she could barely keep the heavy sword aimed at him, let alone manage a thrust. If she hadn’t been so weak, maybe she could have edged her way out of the cave. As it was, he looked very strong and daunting standing between her and the way out.
“Listen, Lusielle,” he said. “That’s your name, right? Lusielle?”
She nodded reluctantly.
“Lusielle,” he repeated, almost kindly. “You’ve been through a lot. I understand that you’re scared, but you’re safe at the moment, and you’re not doing your wounds any favors. For your own good, do you think you could lower the sword and try to settle down?”
Her mind was spinning in too many directions. The pain wasn’t helping either. But Lusielle forced herself to think.
Where was she? In a cave of some sort, not in a place she recognized. How had she gotten here? She’d have to come back to that. Was this man friend or foe?
Lusielle willed her frantic heartbeat to slow down. Her arms quaked with the effort of holding the sword. She recognized that she was ill and not just physically. She was also sick with fear. She had been hurt and could have died, but someone had been taking care of her.
She could barely get the words through her parched throat. “Did you—did you tend to my wounds?”
He gave a curt nod.
“A-Are you one of Orell’s guardsmen?”
“I’m not with Orell or the magistrate,” he said. “We’re no longer near your town.”
“Then why are you wearing the king’s colors?”
“Oh, this.” He tugged at his sleeve with a measure of embarrassment. “It’ll be off as soon as we’re out of the kingdom. It was a ploy. To get to you. Without getting killed?”
“Oh.” She wasn’t sure she could believe him—or anyone else—ever again, but she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt because she wasn’t feeling well or thinking straight and he had kept her alive, at least until now.
She fought a bout of dizziness. “W-Where are we?”
“We are in hiding, in a cave, away from those men. I got you from the fire. Remember?”
She had a memory of his black eyes, holding her stare; of his curiously scarred face lit by the fire’s hot flames. She recalled the crowd’s snarling faces, flames flaring all around her, a commotion beyond the pyre, and something else, right at about the time she lost her senses… a horse, galloping through the flames?
The world blurred. He got there just in time to catch the sword as it slipped out of her grasp. Resting the back of her head on the wall, she laughed. There was no amusement to her chuckles, only bitter surrender.
“Don’t you go mad on me,” he said, enfolding her in a warm blanket. “Hang on to your wits, girl.”
Easy for him to say. His life hadn’t been destroyed in three terrible days.
He picked her up from the ground and lay her down gently on the pallet. His words came through muted and distant, but the masculine murmur was pleasant to the ear and calming to her nerves. His lean face occupied the full space of her vision. His mouth was firm, like the expression on his face. His nose was also stern, matching the grimness in his black eyes.
Shame about the scar, which was so deep that it had burned through skin and muscle. It was a dark blotch on the cusp of his chiseled cheekbone, an oddly round patch, intricately roped around the edges where the mangled skin rose above the rest. The seared flesh pulled on the man’s lower eyelid, warping his right eye into a fearsome expression. Her sight was still blurred, but when she squinted, she thought she spotted a tear-shaped outline within the blackened edges.
She shook with fever. Flashes of cold and heat traveled through her bones like caravans of rattling wagons. Her lips were as dry as cracked leather. She knew what she needed; liquids, lots of it, preferably infused with some of her healing herbs. But her arid mouth couldn’t quite make out the words.
The man must have sensed that she was thirsty, or else he had tended to the wounded before, because he braced her carefully against his chest and leaned the rim of a pewter cup against her lips. Lusielle swallowed the lukewarm tea eagerly. It restored moisture to her throat and revived her senses.
The man’s essential scent enveloped her, a fusion of heated metal, worn leather and fresh rain. It also wafted from the blanket and scented the air she breathed. It was strange, but despite the darkness she spied in his eyes, she wasn’t afraid of the scar or the man anymore. She reached out to touch him.
He flinched, but that didn’t stop her.
She ran her fingertips through the dark bristle of his closely cropped hair, allowing her hand to slide down to his clean-shaven cheek, caressing his chin and crossing over to the other side of his face, until her fingers tripped over the scar’s leathery edges.
Had it been a dream? “Did you … kiss me?”
“No,” he said harshly, but then the light changed in his eyes. “Aye, I did.”
By the gods, he had kissed her, with tenderness, she remembered, with passion. “Why?”
He frowned. “I—I don’t know.”
What a strange man he was. Perhaps she was hallucinating and he wasn’t real. Perhaps he was her mind’s odd creation. At least he had admitted to kissing her, which was her most recent memory. Or maybe she was making that up too.
She traced the scar on his face. “Were you kissed by the God of fire?”
Surprise flashed in his eyes. “I guess you could say that.”
“But you survived?”
He offered a reluctant nod.
“And yet you dared the fire again? After you knew how bad it burned? To get me out?”
He gave her a curious look, but said nothing.
The world spun violently within those black eyes, but she managed to keep her senses. “What’s your name?”
“Brennus.” She mulled over the word. “He who comes with the darkness. In the old tongue. Why did you fetch me from the fire?”
“We’ll talk about that later.”
“Was it an act of kindness?”
A sneer twisted his face. “Hardly.”
“A feat of courage?”
“I was pissing in my saddle.”
“A charitable deed?”
He scoffed. “I gave up on charity a long time ago.”
It was odd. It must be the fever. She was having trouble distinguishing between humor and sarcasm, bitterness and rage. There was nothing soft about his face, no trace of joy or friendliness. Still, she wasn’t afraid of him. She thought perhaps she should be.
“Why did you act as you did, Brennus?”
“Would my reasons make any difference to you?”
The question hung in the air like a promise about to break. She tried to read his eyes and found nothing but blackness in his stare. Her mind was flickering like a sputtering candle. Her thoughts were fading. But she could have sworn he was about to say something when a tall, gaunt man rushed into the cave.
“They’re onto us,” he said. “We’ve got to move.”
Award-Winning Finalist in the fantasy category of The 2013 USA Best Book Awards, sponsored by USA Book News
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Genre – Fantasy/Dark Fantasy
Rating – PG-18