Authors: Frankie Robertson
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #fullybook
Without preamble, he asked, “What are you doing here, my lady, alone in the drylands, without escort?”
again. How courtly
. If only his tone didn’t make his words sound like a threat. Cele felt herself at a disadvantage, sitting on the ground while he glowered over her, so she struggled awkwardly to her feet. She was even more tired than she’d thought. Dahleven reached out and grasped her hand, helping her to stand. She lifted her brows in surprise.
Chivalry isn’t dead, even among kidnappers
He dropped her hand, looking annoyed. “Answer my question.”
She tried to make her voice strong and calm. “As I told you before, I was hiking.” She wasn’t going to tell him about the petroglyphs. “I fell and couldn’t find the trail again.”
Heck, I couldn’t even find Tucson again
. “If you hadn’t come along when you did, I don’t know what I would have done. I was out of water. You probably saved my life. Thank you.”
A little flattery never hurts, and it’s no more than the truth. Never mind being dragged through the desert after being half strangled and threatened with a knife
“Forgive me for being so unclear in my query.
are you in the drylands? And how did you come to be here
? And dressed so…unusually?” His gaze lingered on her scratched and scabbed legs.
Cele didn’t like the way his gaze made her feel like she was standing there in her underwear, and she wished again that she’d worn jeans instead of shorts. “I
you. I was hiking!”
Dahleven snarled at her with a curl in his perfectly formed lips. “You’ve told me nothing!”
“Look, one minute I was climbing, and the next I was falling into the Twilight Zone. I don’t
what I’m doing here. This isn’t where I’m supposed to be! Just show me the way back to Tucson and I’ll get out of your hair!”
Cele had started out calm, but by the time she finished, she was screeching at him. She never lost control this way. She was practiced at staying calm under stressful circumstances. She hated him for causing it, and hated herself for giving into it.
Cele braced herself for a blast of returning anger. She didn’t give a fat rat’s ass whether he was happy or not. She’d had enough of his bullying.
But Dahleven didn’t snap her in two. He didn’t even shout. He just looked at her hiking boots, then at the pack in his hand, rubbing his thumb over the nylon strap. He pursed his lips and nodded slowly as though he understood something. Then he stunned her by returning the pack. “I’m glad I didn’t have to cut this from you. I would be sorry to have destroyed its usefulness. This buckle is most remarkable. Of what material is it made?”
Cele was only dimly aware of the men around her relaxing again. She was too busy trying to cope with Dahleven’s sudden change of direction, her mind fogged by hunger and thirst and fatigue. He hadn’t been threatening to stab her earlier? He’d only meant to cut the strap?
Maybe he’s not a potential murderer, but he’s still an arrogant, lecherous, overbearing bastard
. She stared into the shadows that hid his eyes and wondered what was behind his change of attitude. “Plastic, of course.” Her voice was still sharp with irritation.
Dahleven gave her answer a blank look, then pulled her map, folded inside a plastic bag, from inside his vest. “This is a fine map. Remarkably detailed. Where is it of?”
She’d forgotten the map. Cele reached out and Dahleven handed it to her. “This will prove it! It’s a map of the foothills north of Tucson.” She pulled the plastic zipper apart and unfolded the map.
“Ah.” Dahleven retrieved the bag and examined it more closely. He pressed the edges together, then pulled them apart again as she had. “Wonderful.” Then he returned the full force of his attention to Cele.
Hasn’t he ever seen a sandwich bag before
? The intensity of his gaze drew her back to the map.
The light from the nearly full moon revealed the markings clearly enough. Cele followed the curved line of a road with her finger. “This is about where I fell, I think. And over here is–” Cele stopped, confused. She recognized various trail icons, and the topographical lines that indicated changes in elevation, but the words were incomprehensible. She knew the little marks said “Tucson” and “Coronado National Forest,” but she couldn’t read them. She blinked hard, then brought the paper closer to her face. The letters were clear. Lack of light or blurred vision wasn’t the problem. The words simply made no sense.
“My lady?” Sorn asked.
“I can’t read it.” Cele said softly. “I should be able to read this,” she said louder. She couldn’t have a brain injury bad enough to keep her from reading without having other serious problems. “What’s going on here?” Panic edged her voice and she looked wildly from Dahleven to Sorn and back again. “What’s happening to me?” The world had twisted strangely about her yesterday, changing its shape, and now she was changing, too.
Dahleven kept his eyes on her while he spoke in an even tone to Sorn. “You were about to offer Lady Celia something to eat, were you not?” Then he knelt, picked up a rock, and scratched something in the sand.
It was the words, “Are you hungry?”
She could read it!
Cele’s laugh had a ragged edge, but some of the tightness in her chest relaxed. “Yes! Yes, I am.” Her panic receded, but her confusion remained. Why couldn’t she read her map when she could read what Dahleven had written?
Dahleven redirected her thoughts. “I regret we can offer only a cold supper. A fire could be too easily seen at a distance.” He offered her his hand and led her to the low rock he’d sat on earlier, then seated himself on another a little distance from her.
He watched her while she ate. She half expected him to keep badgering her with questions she’d already answered, but he didn’t say anything; he just watched her. His steady gaze made her nervous. She tried to ignore him, but he made that impossible by apologizing for retaining her Swiss Army knife.
“You are clearly no enemy known to us, but even a small blade can draw blood,” he said, as though the knife were more a danger than she was.
She found his courtesy as puzzling as his arrogance was annoying, but she said nothing and kept chewing the spicy dried meat Sorn offered. It was salty and delicious. Unfortunately, Dahleven stopped her from eating anywhere near enough.
The day’s heat fled and the night turned chilly. With the edge taken off her hunger and no longer warmed by her anger, Cele began to shiver.
Dahleven offered her a warm hand to help her rise. “You’ll sleep with me and Sorn tonight. We–”
Alarm and anger flared through her. Cele snatched her hand back. “Not in this lifetime!”
She should have seen this coming. His motives were clear now. He hadn’t been protecting her from that younger man’s attentions, he’d been saving her for himself. That’s why he’d softened his approach–to make her more compliant. And if she didn’t cooperate? Cele’s fears crystallized with sharp cutting edges. She might have been mistaken before about his intentions with the knife, but it was clear Dahleven wasn’t the kind who accepted no for an answer. Still, “no” was all he was going to get.
Dahleven blinked with surprise at the woman in front of him. The moonlight had turned Lady Celia’s fair hair to silver, but her face was tight again with stubborn anger.
“I’m not sleeping with you, any of you, now or ever!”
The camp fell silent.
She cut him off again. “You think you can pass me around? Buy me with a little food and water?” Rage vibrated in the air around her. “I’ll fight if I have to. I won’t be your toy, and I won’t let you rape me.”
Dahleven gaped. How could she think such a thing? He’d offered no insult.
“Rape! My lady, no!” Sorn burst out. Lady Celia turned to him with a quickness born of fury, making Dahleven glad she was unarmed. Sorn rushed on before she could speak. “The night is cold, and we travel lightly. We all share our blankets to keep warm, and we have none to spare for you to use alone.”
Lady Celia searched Sorn’s face. Her expression slowly softened as the truth of his words penetrated. How did Sorn inspire such trust in women? It was almost as if he had a second Talent. Dahleven watched the anger run out of her like water from a broken jar, leaving her soft and small and vulnerable. His men relaxed as the tension dissipated.
Lady Celia dropped her gaze and ran a hand through her hair. Then she brought her gaze back up to his and straightened her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I misunderstood.”
Dahleven acknowledged the apology with a nod and kicked himself for being a fool. The woman had endured two days alone in the desert and a rough rescue by a troop of strange men. He shouldn’t be surprised by the conclusion she’d jumped to. A woman with any breeding and modesty at all would balk at sleeping between two dirt-encrusted men. He made a second mental correction. Had he thought her soft and vulnerable? The woman had the pride and honor of a Jarl, apologizing directly, without excuse. Her character was as worthy of admiration as her fine body.
At the thought of her body, Dahleven’s gaze traveled down her exposed legs, and up past shapely hips to her breasts. They would fill a man’s hand perfectly, with a bit left over for kissing.
Dahleven cleared his throat and looked away, embarrassed to find his thoughts running uncomfortably close to Lady Celia’s fears. Then he looked back at her scratched and bruised legs. They needed attention. A
attention. “Ghav! Come attend to the lady’s injuries.”
“I’m fine. I’m just tired.”
Is the woman always contrary
? “I’m sure you are, but I’d like our Healer to attend you, as you’re my responsibility, now.”
Her brows rose, sparks flashing in her eyes again.
Her mouth opened to continue, but Sorn put his hand lightly on her arm. “Ghav is a skilled Healer, and he can take the ache and sting from your bruises. You’ll feel better for letting him tend to you.”
Lady Celia looked at Sorn. She pressed her lips tightly shut, glared briefly at Dahleven, then nodded to Sorn. “All right.”
Ghav had come up quietly during the last skirmish. He gestured with a small flourish at the rock Lady Celia had just been sitting on. “My lady?”
Dahleven watched as Lady Celia seated herself. A strange combination of expressions flashed across her face in response to Ghav’s gesture. Suspicion, and…surprise? Unease? Was she not accustomed to courtesy? Perhaps he should revise his opinion of her social standing. Yet her bearing declared her to be at least a high-standing freeman, and perhaps the daughter of a lord. The woman was a puzzle, and one he’d have to solve. Such puzzles could be dangerous.
Dahleven shook his head, then pulled Sorn aside so they could talk privately. Sorn’s eyes always saw clearly, especially where women were involved. “What is your estimate of her? Is she what she claims to be?”
Sorn rubbed his bearded chin between thumb and forefinger before he spoke. “She feels fair to me.”
If it had been anyone but Sorn, Dahleven might have questioned whether the lady’s looks had turned his head, but his friend saw deeper than that. His intuition read women almost as well as Ragni’s Talent of Empathy.
“Granted, she’s no Tewa, but we saw Outcast Nuvinlanders mingling with the Renegade Tewakwe in that camp two days ago. She could be one of them, play-acting to save her skin.”
Sorn snorted. “You don’t believe that any more than I do. No Nuvinland woman, Outcast or not, would go about dressed—or undressed—as she is.”
An image of Lady Celia’s bare legs, scratched and bruised, surfaced and lingered for a moment in Dahleven’s mind. He glanced over to where Ghav tended the lady. Were he a healer, he could be the one smoothing salve on those long legs. But that was not his Talent. Dahleven forced his thoughts back to the subject at hand. “True. And no Nuvinlander or Tewakwe ever had gear such as she carries. Did you see that buckle? And the map!”
“And the Lady was truly distressed when she couldn’t read it,” Sorn added.
“But she read what I wrote in the sand.”
“Could she be Fey-marked?” Sorn asked softly.
An involuntary shiver made Dahleven twitch. “Perhaps. But she doesn’t quite have the feel of it. I once met a man who’d been taken by the Fey. He saw things that weren’t there.”
“Then perhaps it is as she says. She is not of Alfheim.”
They were silent again, mulling over the implications.
If she wasn’t of Alfheim, then she must be from Midgard.
That realm must have changed greatly since Freyr led our ancestors from it
Somehow, Lady Celia had traveled the Bifrost, just as their Vinland ancestors had some eight hundred years ago. But why was she here alone? Surely only a god could open the way for her. “Why would Freyr bring a solitary, half dressed woman to Alfheim?”
Sorn shrugged. “Who know why the gods act as they do? Perhaps a Tewakwe Shaman invoked
gods and brought her across.”
“But why, then, is she wandering alone in the drylands rather than safe in the Confederation? And why
woman, who is clearly not of their people?
“Could someone with a Great Talent have pulled her unwilling over the rainbow bridge?” Sorn’s voice dropped, as if he didn’t want to speak the thought aloud
The hair on the back of Dahleven’s neck rose. Was it possible? Would Baldur and Freyr allow it? No one had used a Great Talent in Nuvinland for a hundred and fifty years. But who then had brought her here? And how?
Which brought him back to Lady Celia and the puzzle she presented.
“She may well be an innocent,” Dahleven said, “but we know nothing about her. I put her in your charge, Sorn. Watch her, and help her keep pace tomorrow.” They’d have to move fast to get their news about the Outcast and Renegade alliance back to Nuvinland in time for the Althing.