Authors: Michelle M. Pillow
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Paranormal, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Demons & Devils, #Science Fiction
The path suddenly ended in a steep incline. Alek leaned forward. Kendall held on tightly as the animal began to climb. It quickly zigzagged up the small cliff. The ground leveled but she didn’t loosen her hold until Alek tapped her gripping fingers. Aeron’s animal followed closely behind them.
A long building stood back from the edge of the cliff nestled into dense underbrush with a dirt path leading around the side. Unlike the forest by the ceremonial grounds, the trees here were skinny with thick, willowy tops. Behind her, the view stretched for miles. It only proved how out of her element she was. This world was nothing but open spaces and wilderness dotted with tiny signs of civilization.
The building was constructed from blocks of precisely cut grey stone and topped with a flat roof. A single plank of wood made the oversized door, the grain spiraling from the middle. Most likely, the wood came from the forest near the palace. There didn’t seem to be any trees that thick in the mountains.
Alek swung off the mount and held his hand to Kendall to help her down. The ceffyl stretched out on the ground, resting lazily as he licked at the thin slivers of grey-blue grass. The beast twirled his tongue around the stalks before pulling the blades into his mouth. A low hissing noise sounded as he chewed.
Kendall turned to follow the others but kept her eyes on the beast. Her inattention caused her to trip on a bag Aeron had dropped on the ground. Alek automatically grabbed her arm, steadying her. She shivered a little at his touch, but he didn’t seem to notice as he looked over the clearing.
“I’ll see if he returned while I was gone.” Aeron said from the cabin door.
Alek lifted his head and inhaled deeply. He let go of Kendall’s arm. “No. He’s not here.” His eyes shifted to gold. “I detect his scent in the forest, but it is faint, hours old.”
“You can tell that just by smelling?” Kendall asked, surprised.
Alek nodded absently. He gazed down the path they’d traveled, focusing intently. “Go inside. Stay here together. Do not leave the house. I go to look for my brother.”
“Alek?” Kendall shook her head in protest. He couldn’t just leave her in the middle of the wilderness. She might know who Aeron was, but she didn’t really
the woman. It’s not like she’d talked to the other women on the spaceship. The fact Alek seemed worried about something happening to his brother did nothing to ease her fears. There was no telling what lurked out there in the wilds of Qurilixen.
“It will be fine,” he said. For the briefest of moments, his eyes softened. “The cabin is safe. I will come back.”
“How can you know that?” she tried to ask, but the words barely slipped past her tightening throat. Then it was too late to say anything. Alek shifted, his body hardening as he turned his attention to the mountain forest. The form of the dragon came over him, from the talons on his fingertips to the hard ridge along his forehead. He surged forward and disappeared into a blur within the trees.
Aeron made a weak noise and Kendall turned her attention to the cabin. She couldn’t decide what to do, unsure what to make of her situation. She should have been relishing in her freedom from captivity, but this place hardly seemed free. Sure, there were wide open spaces, but where in the world was she supposed to run to? In many ways on world was more of a prison than those tiny crates they’d stuffed her in.
“Don’t be scared,” Kendall said, trying to push through her own fear. “The Galaxy Brides’ downloads were somewhat incomplete. These men are shifters.”
Aeron nodded. “I know. Bron showed me.” She quickly turned toward the door and reached above her head. She placed her hand against the middle stone. Seconds later, the door unlatched. She hooked the side with her finger and pulled it open. “If I looked worried it was because I couldn’t help wondering what we would do if Alek does not come back.”
Kendall gazed to where Alek had disappeared into the forest. Her heart beat hard in her chest. Why did Aeron have to say the words out loud? Fear curled inside her. Fear for her safety. Fear for Alek. She might not plan on staying married to the man, but he had saved her from the men trying to reclaim her as property. Plus, he had given her the tracking device instead of keeping it for himself.
“It was just a worry. I’m sure he will return. He seems very taken with you.” Aeron smiled, but the look was forced. “I’m just glad someone else is here to look for him. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know anything about these forests, let alone tracking. I’m not even sure how to get back to the palace. I was guessing.”
When Aeron moved to go inside, Kendall had little choice but to follow. She looked up as she passed under the hand scanner, but the unit wasn’t noticeable. Sunlight streamed inside the narrow window. It reflected off a rectangular mirror mounted on a tall column and then onto other strategically placed mirrors higher on the walls to bathe the cabin’s interior with light. The entryway led to one large room with three arched doorways. The walls and floor were stone, built from the same kind of precisely cut blocks as the exterior. There wasn’t much by the way of décor beyond the fine craftsmanship of the structure. A large, dormant fire pit stood barren in the middle of the room. A domed hood was placed high above it, leading up a long column to the ceiling to filter out the smoke.
Cushioned furniture surrounded the fire pit. The bases were a combination of stone and wood. A long polished stone table stood at the far side of the room, large enough to seat a dozen people. Bench seating curved around its oval shape.
Kendall automatically followed as Aeron led the way to a food-preparation area. She watched curiously as the other woman busied herself cooking. Of course Kendall knew some planets still prepared food by hand, but she’d never actually seen the process done. Most of her meals came from her personal food simulator in her office or the small diner in the fueling dock.
Aeron gave her a curious look but said nothing. The silence between them began to feel oppressive. If anything, life on the fueling dock had taught her the art of quick conversations. “You said you’re not really married? If you don’t plan on being married, why did you get on the ship?”
“It’s a long story,” Aeron answered. “And you? You seemed pretty comfortable with your husband, yet he appeared to be unconvinced of your plans to be his wife.”
“It’s a long story,” Kendall said. It wasn’t something she wanted to discuss. She thought of her sister. She had to get back home before her father gambled away the girl. Margot wouldn’t be able to defend herself. She was a pretty child. Some men paid big money for pretty children. The universe was a very large and ugly place. Kendall counted herself lucky to have been dropped off on a respectable planet. These men wanted women for marriage and treated them well enough—or at least that was the case from what she’d witnessed so far.
Aeron gave a wry laugh and mumbled, “Fair answer.”
“Alek has his appeal,” Kendall explained in an effort to be friendlier, “and he did me a great favor, which makes me indebted to him, but I have a family matter that requires I leave.”
Aeron paused in what she was doing. “And if you could stay, would you?”
Kendall gestured helplessly before picking up a piece of hard, round vegetable. She studied it instead of meeting the other woman’s gaze. “I don’t know.”
How could she answer that? Staying would be insane, wouldn’t it? She’d just met Alek. This wasn’t her home world. These weren’t her people. Sure, the idea of seeing the mining process up close and personal held some appeal, but was that academic interest enough to justify a life with one man? Why was she even considering it? There wasn’t a choice. She had to find her sister. It wouldn’t do her any good to ponder things that couldn’t be realized.
“Bron has his appeal, as well,” Aeron said, “when he’s not speaking to me as if I am to be ordered about like a servant.”
“Must be a family trait,” Kendall mumbled, thinking of how Alek had ordered her onto the ceffyl. She smiled and made her way into the kitchen. She liked Aeron, despite the standoffish demeanor the woman sometimes presented. “Can I help with something?”
Aeron handed her a knife. “Can you use this?”
Kendall looked at the weapon, lifted her arm and aimed at a far post in the living room. The blade wobbled between her fingers. “I was shown once, but…”
Aeron chuckled and pulled at Kendall’s wrist to keep her from throwing it. “For cutting the meat.” The woman showed her how to use the blade to make incisions in the meat. The raw food was cold to the touch and had a very strange texture. She tried not to think about what she was touching as she cut it into thin strips.
Aeron put water into a pot and put it over an open flame. “I don’t know what I was expecting when I first heard about this planet, but these men were not it. I expected, well, I think I expected a bunch of primordial grunting and using aggressive signs to communicate.”
Kendall burst into laughter, unable to help it.
“Horrible of me, right?”
“No,” Kendall shook her head. “Those Galaxy Brides uploads left a lot to be desired. Half of the information seems antiquated and the other half is just wrong. They didn’t mention anything about this being a planet of shifters. I nearly messed myself when I saw Alek coming for me in the dark forest. I thought I was about to get eaten alive.”
“Oh, that ship.” Aeron shook her head. “Some of those women!”
At the same time, both women said, “Gina.”
“I’ve never seen a woman so proud over her oversized, unnatural…” Kendall gestured her hands in front of her chest.
“Torpedo missiles?” Aeron supplied.
“They’re probably just as deadly.”
Aeron snorted. “More so, I’d wager, and hard as rocks.”
“I grew up on a fueling dock.” Kendall finished cutting one piece of meat and began on the next one. She thought it best to turn the subject away from wagers and bets. She didn’t know how much Aeron was like her sister, Riona the gambler. “I’m used to a variety of aliens, just not the wide open spaces.”
“I worked in a small metal room,” Aeron said. The water had started to boil and the woman dropped vegetables into it. A pale piece caused steam to hiss from the pot. Aeron snapped her hand back with a small gasp of surprise. Shaking the limb a couple times, she resumed the process with more care. “I’m not used to interacting with aliens or wide open spaces. In fact, I’m not used to conversations that don’t include a communicator.”
“So, why were you on the Galaxy Brides’ ship?”
“It really is a long story. I needed to secure a meeting on this planet and my sister…” Aeron paused in thought before finishing. “My sister was in charge of the travel arrangements. She’s a little unconventional when it comes to such things. To tell the truth, she’s unconventional when it comes to most things.”
Kendall followed Aeron’s gaze to where she stared at the front door. “I would tell you that he’s fine, but I have no way of knowing if that is true.”
Aeron cleared her throat and went back to work with a renewed force. She took the meat strips and laid them out over the cooking fire. “Thank you for the thought. I honestly don’t know why I’m worried. This is their homeland. He probably just lost track of time, or was distracted by something important.”
“I’m sure that’s it,” Kendall said, though she wasn’t convinced. The strange smell coming from the sizzling pan caught her attention and she stepped back, wrinkling her nose. “Is meat supposed to smell like that?”
“Only when it doesn’t come from a simulator,” Aeron answered.
Kendall tried not to breathe. Her stomach churned.
“You look a little pale. Why don’t you wait in the other room? I’ll finish up. Explore the cabin if you like. I don’t think anyone will care.”
Grateful for an excuse to leave the suddenly potent smell in the kitchen, she wandered around the cabin. She peeked out of the windows, trying to see Alek in the narrow views. He wasn’t there. A bathing room was close to the front door. It contained a water bath instead of a laser decontaminator. The fact wasn’t surprising. A doorway at the far end of the cabin led to a series of sleeping rooms. Each one had a bed and some sort of wardrobe or trunk. There were twelve in total. Only the one at the very end of the hall looked as if it had been slept in recently. It was the largest and by far the most comfortable looking.
With so many vacant rooms, the cabin felt particularly empty. She tried not to think of the forest beyond the cabin, the miles upon miles of landscape. Instead, she thought of the stars, the inky black of the high skies as seen through her fueling dock window. Was Margot in her room even now, going through Kendall’s things, looking for a clue, worried? Would their father even tell the child what had happened or would he be too ashamed? Her father was a weak man. There was no way he would admit to it. What if Margot thought Kendall abandoned her?
“Ah, my poor sister. Don’t believe it. Please don’t believe it. I would never abandon you. You have to know that.” Kendall tried to push down her anxiety. The whispered words did little to comfort her. How long had it been? Weeks? No, it was most likely months. It was hard to tell when they’d drugged her and transported her like merchandise.
“Kendall?” Aeron’s voice called. “The food is ready if you are hungry.”
“What do I do?” she whispered.
“Kendall?” Aeron yelled louder.
“Coming!” Kendall followed the sound of Aeron’s voice. There were no answers anyone could give her, not on this planet.
Alek used every sense he had to detect Bron in the forest. It was nearly impossible. His brother’s scent was faint and he lost it several times.
Bron would not leave his bride, so something had to be wrong. Honor and family meant everything to his brother. There was really only one explanation—the House of Var. King Attor and his cat-shifting nation of savages made for worthy enemies. They were powerful, ruling over the southern half of the small planet. Alek expected the old king to start a war soon. The Var always seemed to be on the brink of it, as if there had not been enough death already. Wars were terrible affairs for their kind, sometimes lasting for fifty to a hundred years with many deaths and seldom any clear progress or victory, just an uneasy truce while each side replenished their warriors and concentrated on rebuilding the population.