Authors: Rayne Forrest
She scrambled to her feet and
backed away. She turned to run, then froze as his tortured voice reached her.
“Don’t let me die.”
He was dying and it hurt like hell,
far worse than he’d ever imagined. He’d never believed all the stories about
sleeping peacefully away and floating into a nice, white, dreamy, cloudy place.
Of course, he’d never believed all the stories about burning in hell, either,
but that’s where he was. Burning from the inside out.
He was going to die, and die alone.
The angel who had visited him had turned out to be a demon in disguise. Her
touch sent lightning searing along his nerves, burning him. Then the demon had
left him alone to face the flames.
He desperately wanted to believe
the angel. She said she wanted to help, that she would come back for him.
He didn’t want the demon to come
back. Not now. Not when she could touch him and cause such pain. He didn’t want
to die, but once he did, the pain would be gone. Or so at least he hoped.
The heat suddenly left him. He
wasn’t cold, exactly. Or was he? His legs were gone. He couldn’t feel them. He
listened intently at the pulse beating in his ears. That meant his heart was
still pumping. His blood was still flowing. He sucked in a deep breath that
miraculously didn’t hurt until the cold air made him cough. His mouth filled
with a metallic taste.
Yep. Ryder Vaughan had reached the
end of the line. He closed his eyes and prayed for death to come swiftly as the
black void sucked him down again.
* * * *
There were voices in the void, both
male and female. He recognized the voice of the demon. She spoke so softly, so
soothingly, that he wanted to believe her.
“I’m here to help. Do you remember
my name? My name is Saba. This is my friend Tyree. We need to put you on the travois
so we can carry you back to our village. I’m sorry, I know this will hurt, but
we’ve got to do it.”
He couldn’t live through the fire
The demon grew excited, babbling at
her minions. They laid hands on him, rolling him onto his side. Agony screamed
up his spine. He was floating above himself looking down with the very
philosophical opinion that if he could feel that pain all the way up and down
his back, he should be able to feel his legs. He couldn’t and that confused
They were lifting him. The
angel-demon was beside him, holding his hand, and speaking to him.
“We’re taking you back to the
village, to my hut. You’re going to be all right. Try to sleep until we get
Sleep? He was about to die and the
angel-demon wanted him to sleep? She was a sly creature. He had a thing or two to
say to her about that.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
Her hand squeezed his. Miraculously
his hand merely tingled at her touch instead of bursting into flame.
“You’re not ready to die.”
So she wanted to talk, did she?
Everything he said, she would use against him. That’s the way an angel-demon
worked. That’s the way all women worked. He tried to clear the phlegm from his
throat and choked.
“Shh. Be still. We can talk after
“No sleep.” Was that croak his
“All right,” she said softly, patting
his hand. He flinched, fearing the fire would strike again.
“We’ll talk while I tend your
The angel-demon surely had plans
other than tending his wounds. If she wanted him alive, it was for her pleasure
and his pain.
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t
“No. No, I’m not. I will do my best
to heal you.”
Some things were better left
unasked. The words wouldn’t stay unformed. He opened his eyes and struggled to
focus on her. She blurred in his vision, a shadow, a ghostly angel-demon with
the full moon as her silvery halo.
“For what purpose?”
“We shall see, once you live.”
He closed his eyes.
Ryder, that was reassuring, wasn’t it?
* * * *
He must’ve passed out again because
he didn’t remember arriving at the village. He was just suddenly there, inside
a stockade. There were excited voices and the sense of many bodies milling
around. The angel-demon seemed to have a lot of friends.
They stopped in front of a round
hut, where several men gingerly lifted him from the litter and carried him
inside. He bit the inside of his mouth bloody to keep from screaming. Every movement
was agony. Couldn’t they just leave him alone to die in peace?
He started praying for the
blackness to take him again. The angel-demon was speaking to another woman.
There was a flurry of activity above his head. He seemed to be lying on some
sort of raised table or platform. The smoke from the fireplace had a fruity
fragrance, like the apple wood his grandfather had burned long ago and far
away. He didn’t want those memories right now. The angel-demon loomed over him.
“I will tend your wounds. This is
Jennica. She will help me.” Hands began pulling at the rags that used to be
very expensive clothing.
“You don’t know me well enough to…”
He was seized by a fit of coughing. “See me naked,” he finished, wheezing.
The angel-demon’s servant laughed
softly and assured him that they wouldn’t look.
He didn’t trust them for a moment.
“Jennica. He hardly needs such
banter. Perhaps where he comes from, it isn’t proper for you to see him.”
Ryder couldn’t see the man
speaking. The man stood somewhere above Ryder’s head, between him and the fire.
“Then perhaps, Tyree, you will
undress him.” The angel-demon pressed a warm, scented cloth to his forehead.
“Perhaps it would spare all of us if you did.”
She was awfully willing to just
turn him over to her minions. And why not? She had to prepare her next torture.
“I’ll keep my clothes on,” he
mumbled. He didn’t really mean it. His clothes stank, and he feared, so did he.
More painful proof he remained among the living.
The angel-demon refolded the cloth
and wiped his cheeks. The cloth had been dipped in something astringent. Small
cuts on his face burned as it passed over them.
“Your clothing is in rags, ones too
fouled to even try to wash. They will be burned. We’ll provide new for you.”
She turned away and he heard the faint sound of water tinkling in the basin as
she rinsed out the cloth. The man, the one who must be Tyree, leaned over him.
Ryder blinked him into focus.
The man was tall, broad and looked
like a fighter.
Great. Just great.
Even on a good day he looked like
someone Ryder would have trouble taking in a fight, and this was definitely not
a good day. At least he was sane and awake enough to realize that fact. Actually,
the fog seemed to be lifting from his brain.
The man gave him a stern look and
then gently lifted him, pulling the remains of his shirt away. He shivered, suddenly
bare. The angel-demon noticed.
“Put a few more logs on the fire,
Jennica.” Her order was given quietly and Ryder sensed more movement behind him
as the other woman moved to do her bidding.
The angel-demon wiped his neck, and
he grabbed her wrist with all the strength he could muster. She froze. Her
minion let out a frightened squeak.
The man Tyree grabbed his wrist with
enough power that Ryder felt the bones shift. It was a small pain compared to
the hot pokers jabbing his back and legs. He ignored Tyree in favor of drowning
in the angel-demon’s dark eyes.
“Where am I?”
“You are in my hut, and worse, you
are preventing me from helping you.”
She was smart, his angel-demon.
“What planet is this?”
“What world?” He coughed, tasting
blood. She wiped at his mouth.
“You must be still. I will answer
all your questions tomorrow.”
“I won’t live until tomorrow. Don’t
let me die not even knowing where I am.”
That scared her. Her eyes widened,
growing even blacker. She licked her lips, and glanced at the man. “Tyree,
release him. He won’t hurt me.”
The iron band of fingers around his
wrist tightened painfully in warning. He nodded to Tyree without taking his
eyes off the woman. Tyree released him.
The woman took a deep breath and
began passing out more orders. The other woman and Tyree moved quickly in
response. She leaned over him, her nose almost touching his.
“You’re not going to die. I won’t
Before he could reply, before he
could argue, they finished stripping him and were none too gentle about it,
either. He closed his eyes and tried not to scream too loudly.
That’s what he got for not behaving
himself. He should’ve just lain on the table and played at being dead. But like
always, he’d had to open his mouth and be a smartass. At least Tyree was kind
enough to drape a towel over his hips. He wasn’t at his best there either.
Exactly what transpired next in
what order, he knew he’d never truly remember. Between the three of them he was
bathed, shampooed, trimmed and shaved in places he’d never been trimmed and
shaved before, stitched, bandaged, and finally left alone lying on a pallet in
front of the fire. He was blessedly clean but none of it had been enjoyable.
Especially the fact the boss lady
had been the one to wash and clip his private bits. He’d probably imagined her
interest had been more than hygienic. Yep. It was all in his head that she was
Her interest had to have been
purely hygienic and his penis knew it.
She’d fondled him pretty good and
the old boy hadn’t even twitched.
If his penis was dead, then he
might as well join it. Life was over.
His three torturers huddled by the
door talking strategy. As long as he didn’t do more than breathe, there wasn’t
any pain, but his reprieve was short-lived. The women slipped out the door.
Tyree hunkered down beside him. He spoke gruffly, but not unkindly.
“You need the privy?”
Ryder tried to get in touch with
parts of himself he couldn’t actually feel. There was nothing. If he had the energy,
he’d panic. As it was, panicking was just too much like work.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t
seem to have the right feelings there to know for sure.”
Tyree nodded. Ryder thought he saw
pity in the man’s eyes. He choked down a burst of anger. The man was trying to
“I’ve sent the women to wash. Why
don’t we see if you need to before they come back? Then you can sleep.”
“Can’t I just promise to yell if I
need to? I’m really sore.”
Tyree’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t
care about your promises. I care that Saba doesn’t have to clean you up again.”
That had a definite ring of truth
to it. Ryder caved in. It was the greater valor.
The sooner he agreed to endure
another round of handling, the quicker he could pass out. He gathered his courage
and told Tyree he’d give it try.
Fifteen minutes later he was tucked
back in, sipping a crock of the most noxious brew he’d ever had the misfortune
to have pass by his lips. His hand shook so badly, Tyree had to help him hold
it. The day just kept getting worse. He choked on a swallow of it.
“That’s enough, I suppose.” Tyree
took the drink away, tossing the dregs out a window. “We won’t tell Saba you
didn’t finish it.”
Ryder wanted to be polite. Hell, he
wanted to at least sound grateful but his eyes were closing.
“You drugged me.”
“No. There was no drug for sleeping
in it. I prepared it myself.”
Tyree laughed softly. “Go to sleep,
my friend. We’ll talk when you wake. Trust this.”
Ryder was sure they would talk. The
jumbled memories of the last few hours flashed behind his closed eyelids. He’d
gotten in the life pod as his ship had crashed, and he still didn’t know what
planet he was on, or what toxin had made its way into his bloodstream.
His heart lurched in his chest. He
washed cold. What if that horrible tea he’d just ingested interacted with the
snake venom? It was too late to worry about that. Much too late.
The gold coin.
It had been in his pocket. He needed a closer look at that
There were soft voices nearby, a
man and a woman. The man wasn’t staying. The angel-demon was sending him away.
He was too hot, too close to the fire. A cool hand touched his cheek.
“You’re fevered. Try not to worry.
bark. It cleanses the blood.”
His voice sounded far away,
slurred. “Tell me now where I am.”
“You are with the Ramalho. You are
as safe as any of us.”
Ramalho? Had he heard that
somewhere? There was a familiarity about it. Something, something, but what?
“What planet is this?”
“You are on Adena.”
It all crashed together inside his skull. He remembered all of it.
It was hopeless. He was well and
truly dead. No one lived on Adena. The atmosphere was toxic. All the exploratory
probes had brought back air samples laden with carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide,
methane and a strange flesh-eating bacterium. No one could survive after
breathing in that mixture. It ate a person from the lungs out.
It seemed the probes were
incorrect. Someone did live on Adena, after all.
He let the blessed blackness take
Saba watched the stranger sleep.
bark was doing its job. He slept like the dead, the fever
washing what toxins it could from his body in rivers of sweat. She’d have to bathe
him again tomorrow. Her cheeks warmed as she remembered touching him.
He was tall, at least as tall as
Tyree. His legs were long and muscular, straight and well formed. She hadn’t
seen any wounds that gave any indication of what had happened to his legs, but
something had. The nerves in his back had received some sort of damage, which
had affected his manhood as well. There had been no response there as she’d
She’d not been surprised. His
condition had certainly indicated that he had lost feeling from his waist down.
But it wasn’t total, and that was perplexing. He’d screamed in agony, when
they’d moved his legs. Whatever had happened would take a lot of healing, if it
could heal at all.
Saba reached out and took his hand
again. There was a shallow, jagged abrasion on the outside of his palm that
oozed nasty-looking yellowish-green pus. Never had she ever seen infection look
like that. She gently laid his hand on his stomach and went to her meager
apothecary and selected an assortment of dried herbs and began working them
into a thick paste with a small amount of purified tallow. Once she was
finished, she carried the small bowl over to him.
Whether or not the paste would
help, she didn’t know. In some regards it didn’t matter, but she had to do
something for that infection. At the very least, it would not make the cut any
worse. She wrapped a long length of clean cloth around his hand not bothering
to tie it off. If he woke and was curious to see what she’d done, she wanted
him to be able to remove the cloth without ripping it. Cloth was precious, and
she would boil it and use it again, although not on an open wound.
She wiped his face again and then
started to work the tangles out of his hair. She’d never seen hair quite like
his before, dark underneath with streaks of golden brown on top and long enough
to fall past his shoulders in unruly waves. Its softness surprised her as she
combed her fingers through the fine, silky threads.
The stranger moved restlessly at
her touch. She didn’t even know his name to speak to him and reassure him that
he was safe. Sometimes the sick couldn’t hear if she didn’t say their name.
“You’re safe. Rest. Things will be
better in the morning.”
They might not be, but she couldn’t
confess that to him. In the morning, Tyree would push him for answers. In the
morning, his condition could be worse. In the morning, the
He seemed to settle into a deeper
sleep. She should sleep as well, but her mind was just too active for sleep,
her body almost too tired. They had moved Hallaf to another hut, and sent Delnor
with him. She had her bed to herself and could rest without worry about waking
anyone. However, there was another reason she couldn’t sleep.
The stranger’s pack lay in the
corner, almost hidden in shadow.
Whether or not Tyree had
purposefully left it for the morning, she didn’t know, but her hands itched to
open it tonight. Tyree might not show her everything the pack held, thinking it
his right to withhold any part and parcel of information he deemed fit. He
would also trust her not to open it without him.
Just this once she would betray
Tyree’s trust. She moved quietly and retrieved the pack. Incredibly heavy for
such a small bag, Saba gingerly opened the flap and looked inside. An assortment
of very cold, very smooth, strangely shaped items lay jumbled together. They
were not made of metal, but of a material she’d never known before.
The strange objects have to be weapons.
Her heart pounded against her ribs.
Hands shaking, she hastily closed
the bag and returned it to the corner. This changed everything. She curled up
in the center of her bed, pulling the edge of her blanket over her.
Either the room was too cool or she
was chilled. If it were the room, she couldn’t allow it to chill further, which
it would as the night went on. She hopped off the bed and stoked the fire, carefully
placing three of her dwindling pile of logs to optimize their burn. It wasn’t
long before the room warmed.
Saba checked on the stranger again.
Unaware of her presence, he slept deeply. She sat on the edge of her bed,
wrapped in the blanket, and lost in her musings.
Tyree certainly suspected the pack
held weapons. If he’d left here with the pack, the men of the village would
have seen and known it contained something of value. That was why he’d left it
with her instead of taking it to his hut in front of curious eyes. That and the
knowledge the stranger would never be able to reach it and turn a weapon on
her. She pulled her blanket closer, cold despite the heat of the room. She
watched the stranger, and waited.
It was dawn, the sun just peeking
over the mountain, when her patient finally stirred. She went to his side, laying
her hand on his cheek. The
bark had done its job, and his fever
He was also very pale. His dark
eyelashes and brows contrasted sharply against his white skin. His lips were
bloodless. It wasn’t lost on her that he was a handsome man, or at least he
would be when his color came back.
“Can you hear me? Are you awake?”
Clear blue eyes popped open,
surprising her with their lucidity. Recognition flickered in them. When he
spoke, his voice was low and raspy but he didn’t struggle to draw breath. It
was a good sign.
“Ah, my angel.”
His angel? What dream had he lived
as she’d tended him?
“I’m not an angel. My name is Saba.
Do you remember how you came to be here?”
His eyes closed. He swallowed with
some difficulty. “No.”
She forced herself not to react. He
was lying, but she understood why. She might, too, in his position.
“You don’t need to keep information
from me. I wish you no harm.” She lifted his wrapped hand and began removing
the binding cloth. He watched closely as she probed the cut. It seemed to be
healing. “What is your name, or should we simply call you the stranger?”
He took a ragged breath then looked
at her again. She’d never seen eyes so blue.
“Vaughan. Ryder Vaughan.”
“That is an usual name, Vaughan
Ryder Vaughan. Does it hold a special meaning among your people?”
He started to shake. She grabbed
his shoulders, alarmed. A seizure could do more damage to his root nerves and
she wasn’t strong enough to hold him down. Only he wasn’t having a seizure—he
was laughing at her.
“I do not see the humor in my
He smiled, transforming his face.
Little lines crinkled at the corners of his eyes. The lines of pain eased. Saba
suspected she was getting a glimpse of the real man, one full of cheerful humor
with a good dose of boyishness remaining in his heart.
“Just call me Ryder. It’s easier.”
His smile faded. The deeply etched lines of pain returned. His eyes closed
again. “I think it means ‘horseman’ or something like that. I never paid much
She sensed his withdrawal. Perhaps
he was searching for some place where he could fight the pain and win. She
hoped he could find it and rest, but first she had to keep him with her just a
“Ryder, are you thirsty?”
Saba stepped outside and looked in
her water pail. The boys hadn’t yet drawn the day’s fresh water for her. She
went to the well herself even though it meant leaving Ryder alone for a few
minutes. When she returned, Ryder was struggling to sit up.
“Do not!” She all but dropped her
pail and rushed to his side.
“Lady, I’ve got to piss and I mean
now.” He pointed at the privy bucket. “Give me that and get out.”
“You cannot stand! If you fall, you
may injure yourself more.”
“Give it here! Now!”
She was so surprised at the
strength in his voice, she snatched it up and handed it to him.
Saba retreated to the door,
refusing to go further. She did turn her back to him, though. He mumbled something
that sounded like he called her stubborn. Well, he didn’t yet know the half of
it, did he?
A few moments later he breathed out
a long sigh of relief. She sneaked a glance at him. He had pulled the blanket
around his hips. It probably wasn’t the time to remind him she’d seen all of
him the night before, and in very poor condition. The tightly closed look on
his face told her that he was well aware she’d had a good look at him. Like
most males, he was probably embarrassed she had tended him so intimately when
he was not at his best. They were strange that way.
She held out her hand and took the
bucket from him. The contents were an ugly rusty color. Those blue eyes watched
“We won’t worry about this too much
today. If there is still blood tomorrow morning, I will give you something.”
“You’re a healer who lets the body
“Of course. Is that not the best
way?” She set the bucket on the ledge outside her rear window. Jennica or
Delnor would tend to it shortly, or she would after she’d had something to eat.
She looked at Ryder. He was still sitting up.
“You should lie down and try to
“You’re a bossy little thing, but
you’re very pretty with it. Excuse my bad manners before. I thank you for
saving my life.”
Pretty? He thought she was pretty?
Surely she’d misunderstood that.
“It’s not within my power to save
lives. That rests with the gods. They use me for their own purposes.”
He snorted. “Are you going to give
me a dipper of that water?” He glanced at the glowing embers in the hearth then
his gaze met hers once more. “I’ll go to sleep if you give me a drink.”
She suspected he’d pass out whether
he got his drink of water or not. She dipped her best mug into the cool water
and handed it to him. His hands shook as he lifted it to his lips, swallowing
the liquid in great, fast gulps. She reached to wrap her hands around his and
steady him but he paused and shook his head.
To give her hands something else to
do, she dipped a washcloth into the basin then wrung it out. Stirring the water
brought a light herbal scent into the air.
“Here. Press this to your forehead
for a moment. Perhaps it will help relax you.”
He followed her instructions
“It smells good,” he said softly.
He wiped his face and neck with the cloth and she noted he was even paler than
before. The bruised look beneath his eyes had darkened.
“You need to sleep.” She took the
cloth from him. He tried to lie back on the bed but couldn’t lift his legs.
Saba slipped her arm beneath his knees to aid him, wincing as he cried out sharply,
a spasm racking his body.
She eased his legs down, extending
them. His calf muscles trembled under her hands. She gently massaged feeling
the strength in him. “Does this pain you?”
He replied through clenched teeth,
“Yes, but if you’re going to give me a rubdown, I’ll survive it.”
“We’ll wait another day.” She
settled the blanket over him, tucking it in around his feet. She moved to pull
it over his very broad, very bruised chest. His hands snaked out, grabbing her
wrists and pulling her to him with a surprising amount of strength for a man in
Her heart pounded against her ribs
as his grip tightened. She couldn’t break free. He was simply too strong. His
gaze bored into hers.
“Listen to me, Saba. I want you to
go over there and get in my pack and bring me the little blue box. It’s not a
weapon. I swear.”
“Should I believe you when you hurt
“Not at all. But I’m telling you
the truth. It’s a med kit. It has drugs in it that may help me.”
“I looked in your pack and did not
see anything blue.”
He blinked rapidly, several times.
“It has to be there,” he muttered distractedly. His eyes met hers again as he released
her wrists. “Please, Saba. Just bring me the pack.”
Whether he told the truth or not,
she didn’t know. The quiet desperation in his voice made her believe that
whatever he wanted was vital to his survival. She darted to the corner and retrieved
the pack. His hands closed convulsively over it.
He reached inside, fumbling with something.
She snatched the pack from him. It had an inside compartment she’d missed. Her
fingers closed around a small, flat box.
She blushed. “I should not have
grabbed it away from you. I am sorry.”
He snorted again then sighed
tiredly. “Just put that med kit someplace safe. Don’t tell anyone you have it.
It’s very valuable. Do you understand?”
“You’ll explain this to me after
“Sure. If you kiss me.”