Occasionally, sound trickled into her muffled world from a distant place. The wind rustled through the trees. The horses’ hooves pounded on dirt, gravel, and mud. Men spoke, snorted, muttered and snored. A low, measured voice—his voice—echoed very near, urging her to drink, eat or sleep, accompanied by the pervasive masculine scent that was her constant companion.
There were times when she came to just enough to realize that she existed in the world in-between, where gods and mortals met in dreams, where dreams and reality were one and the same. In those moments, she realized that she survived only because of someone else’s will, that if she wanted a future, she had to wake up and seize it. She kept trying, even though it required great effort, like swimming against a colossal tide.
“This way,” the voice said.
She felt listless as a corpse, but she grabbed on to that voice and followed it to a semblance of consciousness. Fighting her heavy eyelids, she managed to glimpse the man’s stern face, outlined against a background of pewter clouds.
She rode with him on his horse, wrapped in an oiled mantle, mostly protected from the rain. His strong arms kept her from slipping off the massive beast. His armored chest offered a hard but steady pillow. The beat of his heart echoed through the copper plates, strong, vibrant, and enthralling.
He must have realized that she was awake, because his stare swooped down on her like a hawk on the prowl, even though his voice was gentle. “Hush,” he said. “We won’t be too much longer on the road today.”
His eyes were lined with worry and exhaustion. So were the faces of the other men who rode with him. All of them were wet, tired and miserable, picking their way up a steep mountain track as the relentless rain continued to pelt them. That same rain was dripping from Brennus’s face, drenching his hair and trickling down his neck.
“The rain,” she whispered. “It’s making you wet.” She reached out to dry the water from his face, but the wound on her back protested with a pang of pain.
He caught her hand and tucked it back into the blanket. “It’s no use,” he said. “You can’t keep me dry.”
“One can try,” she said.
And he actually smiled.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“South of nowhere and north of wherever,” he said. “Far from the usual routes. We’re seven days out.”
Seven days was an awful long time to be senseless among strangers.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Riva’s not going to find us.”
She winced when the horse missed a step.
“Hato!” Brennus called.
Why was he barking like that?
There was splashing, the sound of hooves clattering and then, “My lord?”
“We’ve got to stop. The fever’s back and she’s hurting again.”
“No place to stop around here, my lord,” the other man said.
“Send Severo and Cirillo ahead,” he said. “Tell them to find a decent camp and get a fire going. She’s got to rest.”
“My lord,” he said, “we have pressing business. We can’t slow down to accommodate her comfort—”
“Do you want her alive or not?”
The other man sighed. “As you wish, my lord.” He rode away.
She tried to tell him that she was fine, but ended up whimpering instead.
“Shush,” he whispered in her ear. “You need to sleep.”
And by the Thousand Gods, off she went, at his command, into the darkness again, following his heart’s steady rhythm as it sang a lullaby to her heart.
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