The massively built man squatted squarely over his own feet and scrubbed his hands and arms in handfuls of sand, rubbing the loose grains roughly up and over his bared arms until the blood and gore was scrubbed from them, eyes already sizing up the mid-ground and flesh prickling with the heightened awareness of his lifetime spent as a warrior. Nothing that could be seen from here threatened their stolen moment of respite in the blistering heat of his homeland.
Lifetimes. He corrected himself. It is now lifetimes as a warrior. There was no peaceful ever after, no grace, no realm of lovely ladies and powerful men or beasts to best myself against. Only this return to the call day after day until I’m dead again or have won this new Great War for my people.
His laugh was rich and without the hint of bitterness that his thoughts would have premeditated. Amethos rose to his full considerable height and slipped his wet bracers up his arms with a grimace. Tonight he would sleep at Fortune’s Shore and have his gear cleaned and repaired he promised himself and turned to scan the farther horizon again.
“Rift.” He said and nodded as his companions turned, one at a time towards the focus of his glance.
“Water.” Tempestaari growled and gathered her bags together tightly, rising to her own considerable height with a creaking of chainmail armor and exhausted joints. “I’m so tired of being soaked to my bones.” Her smile and lovely husky voice didn’t sound tired or worn thin and her beaming grin over the back of her giant tartagon mount warmed Amethos’ own weariness back to readiness.
“Free showers for all.” Eden shouted with a laugh and leapt onto the back of his horse, leaning to secure his staff as though by habit more than thought and turned his wildly marked face on their leader. “Maybe some fish for the cat to eat, right Anija?”
“Sasha prefers his meat from Life rifts. I think he must remember how much he hated it there.” The feral-faced blue skinned woman leaned to caress the head of her companion and nodded when the cat growled up at her. “Ready, beauty?” Again the cat growled and this time he leaned into his mistress’ thigh and raised his head against her belly, eyes on her own. “We’ll rest in Fortune’s Shore tonight, love. I promise.” Her slender hands held the cat’s face as she nuzzled his face against her cheek and then released him, rolling her neck and shoulders and sliding her weapons into the holster on her back. “Ready, Amethos?”
They were called Machine Born Giants by the nomadic tribes here in the white sands of Shimmersand and Amethos enjoyed the comparison. All very tall by design, even Asha Katari had been surprised at the group’s composition upon meeting them the first time. Amethos stood more than two meters tall, as tall as an average Bahmi. The women and men in the group that had gathered and become like family were all tall examples of their races, giants among regular men, even by Ascended standards.
Someone in Meridian had coined the taunt that they might be giants and when referred to as a group they were so called. Legends of his friends would be told as if the band of resurrected warriors were They Might Be Giants. It was another comparison he enjoyed.
Amethos breathed deeply and patted the head of his own horse, securing his blades at his hips before stepping into the stirrup and lifting himself up over the back of the fiercest horse he’d ever met.
For the Ascended there were no costs too high and no breeds strong enough on the Defiant peoples supporting them. The Ascended heros were the only hope of the future and the weight of this in addition to their never ending quest to seal rifts torn between their home world and the ones surrounding and threatening to destroy it was born squarely on every Ascended’s powerful shoulders as burden and honor in one.
“To Akilos’ torments then.” He shouted and their party of eight sped off at once, as though they’d all been waiting simply to hear the call.
“He’s so handsome. I have to make him choose me, Milandra. I just have to.” Amethos overheard the girl’s excited whisper from the balcony above and smiled to himself. The warmth of the slim hipped little lovely with her soft eyes and wildly purple and pink hair seemed to call him with an ache so deep and longing that he actually growled with it, startling his massive horse so that he had to steady him with a hand on his neck.
“It is not for you that I growl, my friend.” He led his exhausted mount around the corner into the stables with instructions that he should be properly groomed and fed, paid the fees and then turned his attention to having his armor repaired.
Return of the hometown boy turned hero, Amethos thought with an almost bitter smile. Too bad none of them knows more than my name.
He had nothing to show for a lifetime lived in service to his leaders before he’d been brought back. This Amethos knew and felt with a driving sense of despair. He’d been a hero, the leader of so many great fights that his name was mentioned often and his name a legend told to small boys as mentor or idol. Amethos was the best riftstalker since Anan Mkhai himself, if the stories were to be believed.
And now I too have been torn and rent painfully by a machine made by man to best nature and even time. Again Amethos’ laugh held a scornful bitter edge that felt brittle even to his own ears. He needed a woman, he decided. That vivid purple haired girl with slim hips and a sensuous full mouth leapt to mind and he felt the warmth spreading through him. She would be money well spent, he decided, provided her beds were as soft as her skin appeared and her kisses were as sweet as those lush lips promised.
The light outside was just beginning to blossom in the skies around Fortune’s Shore so that the early morning sky seemed to glow, the moment before the first rays of light would turn the color lighter and shed pink into the sunrise.
Amethos brushed locks of wild purple hair away from the tiny woman’s face and smiled down at her. Well spent indeed, and undersold. He left a pile of coins in the warm place on her mattress where he’d been and gathered his clothes as he donned them so that he strode dressed and starving from the brothel only moments later. He met Eden on the cobbles with a bold grin and raised eyebrow at the shy way the mage turned away from where he’d been gazing almost longingly upward at a balcony.
“A man has needs, Amethos, as surely you know.” The magus blushed and turned quickly away.
“Eden.” Amethos took two mighty steps and threw and arm across the Kelari man’s narrower shoulders heavily so that he had to stop. “We’ve just exited the same establishment, my friend. In combat you follow my commands. Outside of it you belong to your own self only and any who might judge have me to answer to.”
The slim man nodded and Amethos noted that the lines around his mouth had not released. Some instinct brought his head around as the lovely robust bodied lady leapt from sight on the balcony above. She had not been quick enough to hide from his sharp eyes that she had been crying.
He watched his friends’ eyes search the balcony a few moments later and knew then what fearful softness lurked in the mage. The rogue knew just what to do and was gone in an instant, a mischievous smile lighting his face for the first time that he could recall.
A quick visit to the sweets vendor and another to a general goods stall before bribing a lovely Bahmi girl with a sweet in trade for a flower and the rogue was off to the brothel with a mad request to search the rooms adjacent to the balcony he’d seen.
The exquisite lady was luscious curves and soft skinned, and smelled faintly of the spices and flowers of the desert in a way the Kelari woman he’d chosen last night could never do. “Lady,” Amethos whispered close to her neck and marveled that she didn’t shudder or simper the way others might have done, “I believe that yourself and my friend Eden have a secret you’re keeping from us.”
At her carefully veiled gaze he knew he was right and smiled, kissing the woman’s full cheek with sincere warmth. “Welcome to the family, madam. Take these gifts and go to Eden in the Inn across the road. I have business to attend to with your mistress.”
“You don’t even know my name.”
“Did you know mine before today?” He raised an eyebrow and laughed too loudly when her perplexed look answered for her. “Do you know it now, poor lady?”
“I’m afraid I do not.”
“I am Amethos, the nomads around this place call us the Machine Born Giants.”
Awe stole over the woman’s gentle features and her sea colored eyes almost glowed. “Amethos, Eden’s most trusted friend. I am honored and shamed by your gift and what it means.”
In that moment the lovely lady was endeared to the hard leader in a way that he couldn’t describe.
Not “Amethos the great Riftstalker” or “Amethos the Ascended.” He was “Amethos, Eden’s friend.”
“A man’s mate should be his greatest treasure and not his gravest secret, lady. And you should not have to live this way in order to be with him. There is some safety to be had traveling with us, and if you’re some good with foodstuffs then we’re already well ahead of our current needs.”
“Why would you do this?”
“Because I am Eden’s most trusted friend, madam. And because I have no woman of my own to shower with love and kisses the way any man besotted with a beauty such as yourself would be wont to do.” He helped her on with her coat as if by memory only, his eyes already darting between the murmuring faces for the one he sought. “Are you indentured or voluntary, lady?”
“Voluntary.” She whispered. “And it’s Marci.”
“Pleased to meet you, Marci. Excuse me a moment, please.” Amethos was off, down the hall after the face he knew too well.
Eight massive and mighty warriors who might be giants and a lovely soft woman so loved by them all that she was better protected than the King’s jewels traveled the sands of Shimmersand closing rifts and combating foes determined to take over their world. While the soldiers fought and bested each new challenge, Marci the Magnificent cooked for them, cleaned for them and waited impatiently and beautifully for her mate to return, proud now to be known as his chosen by those he loved and trusted with his life as well as her own.
They journeyed far and wide over the lands, often weeks outside of townships when they survived on what they could kill or gather for themselves and always just the eight plus one that mattered so much in the hearts of them all as hope of a future that would not be spent at war. They might have been giants, Amethos thought with a laugh. Their names were already whispered in town and stories were already being told about the group that conquered any tears and rifts they encountered.
Bared except for his thin cotton britches, Amethos bathed in the warm bubbling spring with an oddly contented feeling inside himself that he hadn’t imagined would ever make itself omnipresent in his life. He sank to the soft sandy floor of the pool and allowed the water to lift his weight, relaxing in the heat under the glorious sun for a moment and somehow did not hear the disturbance at the edge of the water as a croc mistook him for prey.
Startled and unable even to shift to another location, Amethos shouted in surprise and fear when the jaws of the beast closed around his middle and the whole world was suddenly a vivid and confused struggle to live.
Agony, deeper than he was used to, tore through his body in the same instant that it rivaled with fierce anger. With a mighty blow of his fist to the beast’s heavy skull the man was freed and he blinked to the other side of the water, up on the edge where he quickly donned his blades and leapt back, vanishing and reappearing yards away from where he’d jumped in, landing on the croc that would have made an early dinner of him.
Amethos was even more startled by the warmth of healing magic that seemed to surround him and the shimmering appearance of the croc that seemed to strengthen him with every massive furious blow of the blades in his hands. Around and around until the beast was dead and had been skinned and cleaned for food.
He panted and looked down at the gaping wounds in his ribs, already closing and healing. Amethos turned frantically, first one direction and then another, seeking the healer who would remain unnamed. He donned his clothes after a quick rinse in the spring before scouting into the foliage in search of signs of whomever had lent him much needed assistance.
He found only a pair of childlike footprints in the soft soil under a tall palm. Everywhere else seemed undisturbed. If not for Tempestaari’s voice in his mind Amethos the Great might never have thought to look up.
When I was a girl I would follow the men from our tribe up into the hills and hide, helping them any way I could without being seen. Once I even had to climb a tree to hide from my brother. Funny, men never think to look up.
And so Amethos glanced up and gave a startled yelp when the little girl’s body dropped to his with intent. Her weight and sudden flight stunning him and giving her the time to take off over the hill before he could recover.
“What?” He blinked and caught the girl around the waist, closing his hands around what became a hellcat shrieking and flinging wild magic’s around them both until she’d broken free again and was off up the hill and into a cave.
He gave an unsteady laugh and was startled again by a voice, this time at his shoulder. “I think the lady might prefer her own company, sir.”
Amethos glared at Eden and shook his head. “That girl just healed me through a croc attack. I’d like an opportunity to thank her, not molest her.”
Worry creased the Elf’s brow and he turned his gaze to his commander’s unmarked armor and then up to meet Amethos’ blue black eyes. “Must have been some healing, Amethos. There’s not a mark on you.”
The mage closed his eyes and lifted his hand towards the cave, obviously focusing himself. At the mouth of the cave a rocky elemental took shape and stood ready for further command. “Do you really think it’s a child? Maybe separated from the rest of the nomads? You know they distrust us. She might be afraid.”
“She wasn’t too damned afraid to heal me and attack that thing.” Amethos scowled up at the cave mouth. Or to watch me bathing.
“Let me go up.” A shimmering aura swirled around the mage as he climbed nimbly up the rocky face of the mountain and joined his elemental companion. “Miss? Are you hurt?” First in Bomani, spoken occasionally by the nomads as a way to speak privately. “Excuse me, are you injured? Did the rogue scare you? He wants to thank you.” Second attempt in the language of the nomads.
“I’m an Eth, you can just speak aloud and I’ll understand you.” The most amazingly husky woman’s voice came from the darkness of the cave and Amethos blinked and raced up to the cave mouth in an instant, startled eyes on those of the questioning mage. “And I’m not a child.” She stepped into the half-light just inside the entrance and behind her skimpy skirts hid a Bahmi child of perhaps five or six years old. Behind the pair another child simpered, furs and cloth blankets pulled up around itself. This one was much younger and Ethian.
“Do you live out here?”
“Right now, yes. Cultists murdered these children’s parents and I’ve been trying to follow them and still take care of the kids until I can go back to find their families.” She turned her back on the men, lifting the small child as if she weighed nothing, even though she was more than half the woman’s height, and then together they were into the near darkness at the back of the cave where the frightened child could be comforted.
Eden was into the cave in a moment, kneeling beside the littlest child and crooning the high pitched comforting words of a man accustomed and comfortable with children.
The woman’s eyes met Amethos’ across the low light and she smiled, reading the fear on the man’s face as if he’d spoken it. “They don’t bite much, and they only pee if you squeeze them too tightly.” Her gentle chiding brought the big man into the cave and he knelt beside the Bahmi girl child.
“I wanted to thank you, mayam, for saving me.” He said, checking the young girl’s face and arms for any obvious injury.
“You’d have done it for me, I’m sure. I knew you on sight, Amethos.”
“You have to come down to our camp and have real food, lady.” Eden gathered the littlest child into his arms and smiled down at her bright-eyed face. “The sweets I have on me are hardly a proper meal.”
The tiny woman rose and extended her hand to Amethos and as he would have risen and forgotten himself her other hand darted out and dragged him brutally forward and off balance so that he caught himself on her shoulder, close enough to smell the spice and sand of a true child of the sands. “You can’t stand up in here.”
He chuckled and warmth he was unaccustomed to spread over his face and into his neck like a tingling fire that unnerved him.
Amethos took her tiny hand in his and felt those quiet eyes on him again, watched as the smile that seemed to see right into him lit across her almost fairy perfect face and felt a smile growing over his own face.
“I was going to say it’s nice to meet you, Amethos the Machine Born Giant. I’m Kabechet. The girls call me Chet and I’m happy with it. I’m also Machine Born, though by far less famous or remarkably memorable.”
“You’re famous to me.” The Bahmi girl corrected and turned wide gray eyes on the pair of strangers who had invaded her temporary home. “Chet killed them all and took me from fires. She brought Morgana back to life. She really killed them all and all by herself.”
“She wasn’t dead, Blythe. Not yet.” She turned to the child. “I can’t make people undead, only heal them back up if they’re almost dead.”
“So you say.” Blythe, the lavender skinned and vivid blonde haired Bahmi girl said in such a sensible tone that Amethos had to study her again and see if she was also older than her size would suggest.
“My pleasure to make your acquaintance, Chet.” Amethos smiled and extended a hand to the girl beside her. “Would you like me to carry you, Blythe?” He stepped from the mouth of the impossibly small cave and lifted the girl easily onto his hip with a deep breath of the warm breeze.
He watched as Eden gathered baby Morgana into his capable arms and again brushed her wild red hair back and away from her chubby cheeks. That man was going to have a great number of children, Amethos thought with a strange prickling sensation through his own body at the idea. It wasn’t fear, and it wasn’t warm. He wasn’t sure what about the idea of his friend being a father made him feel strange, it just did.
Kabechet gathered the trio’s meager belongings and packed them onto her slender shoulders like an accomplished nomad. When she stepped into the vivid sunlight Amethos felt a startled sense of wonder that her hair was so dark and still seemed to shine green in the light, as though it were not black and was instead an impossibly dark shade of green. He glanced quickly away when she turned emerald green eyes on him that seemed to smile even when she was not.
And so they were twelve. A dozen new nomads journeying over the constantly shifting sands of Shimmersand. Nine combatants, a loving and doting wife who was now also more than happy to be surrogate nanny to the two lovely girls rescued by a healing mage.
Amethos crouched on a rock, looking out over the horizon and gazing down on the busy camp below and felt that strange prickly tingle through is belly and chest again. He shivered and roughed his hands up and down his arms as though chilled.
“You shiver like it scares you.” That husky warm voice that made him shiver for entirely known and lascivious reasons brought him to his feet in an instant.
“The look on your face says peace and then you shudder and your mask comes back up.” She had to tilt her head all the way back to make eye contact with him, he noticed and backed away to find a grouping of rocks to sit on, taking the lower one so that when she sat they might be nearly eye level.
“It doesn’t feel peaceful. Whatever it is that you think looks that way on my face.” He watched as she sat cross-legged on the rock, crossing her booted feet at the ankles so that she could lean elbows on knees.
“Maybe you’re just afraid of what peaceful might mean.” She observed and shrugged. “Thank you again for bringing us along and taking up our fight, Amethos. I just couldn’t leave them there.” She sounded almost apologetic about saving the girls and Amethos’ brows rose in question.
“Oh, I think lots of people could and would have.” Chet blew her loose bangs from her eyes and smiled at him in the way she’d done since the first morning in her little cave, as though she knew something about him that she wasn’t sharing. “Thank you for not being one of them.”
“I couldn’t have left them, and you know that Eden would never have even considered it. He’s so enamored of Morgana that when we find her relatives he’s going to go into mourning.”
Chet laughed. “IF we find them, Amethos. I’m much less hopeful now that we’ve tried for weeks and had no results. I suggested to Marci that they should apply to adopt her.”
“Well, Blythe seems enormously happy to spend her time with Tempestaari and share what she learns with you. It’s luck that we all speak at least some of the Bahmi’s ancient Shalastiri language. Tempestaari wont let her speak anything else until she knows it.”
“As is the custom.” Ioan offered as he approached. “We all speak our native tongue before we learn the many languages of business and trade.” He squatted over his feet in the same posture that Amethos often did and smiled up at their newest companion. “It is actually the demanding Miss Blythe that has sent me here to request your presence at dinner before it gets cold. She worked so hard to select the right roots to be prepared that it seems she’s worried it will be spoiled if you’re late.”
Amethos laughed and shook his head. “How did we come to be a roving family, Ioan?”
“Were we ever anything else?” The burly blue Bahmi Ranger winked at his friend and extended a massive hand to the lady Chet. “Please, allow me to help you.”
Chet rose right where she’d been sitting so that for one brief second she was taller than her new friend and leaned, wrapping her arms around his neck so that she could hug him. “Thank you for welcoming us into your family.” She said, kissing his smiling face on first one cheek and then the other as Bahmi tradition dictated.
Amethos’ mind wandered to the unobstructed view of her round full bottom and then up her lovely side to the curve of breast just visible through the arm holes in the vest she wore as a shirt. Always with Chet there was a silent gentle strength that opened him up and allowed him to say and think things that he normally wouldn’t.
“While we’re giving thanks, lovely little lady, thank you, Kabechet for saving them and for teaching them and not simply making them little orphans.” Ioan’s icy blue eyes filled with tears and he shook them off in frustration with a sniff. “It matters a lot that those girls be strong and healthy and not believe that they are only lost little things.”
“It matters to us all.” It was Chet’s turn to be overcome by uncomfortable emotion and she hugged the giant man once more, tighter this time so that his responding squeeze lifted her from her toes and into the air, suspended in his fierce hug. She braved a kiss on his bearded cheek and knew he could feel the warmth of her tears as they transferred from cheek to cheek.
“Well.” Ioan said after a moment and set Chet to her feet. “That was some emotion.”
The trio laughed and Chet raced ahead down the hill, calling out to Blythe that she was coming and that she was sorry to keep her waiting their lovely supper.
“What’s happening to us, Ioan?”
“Not sure about you, Amethos. For myself this is the second chance I never was going to get to do it the right way and I’m not screwing it up. I never had kids, or a family or anything of any value in my past life. I was just a killer. Just the hero my people needed with a single purpose and a single focus. I’m not overly thoughtful on it, and I’m still going to make the most of this second chance.”
That same tingly prickling sensation climbed through Amethos as they made their way back into camp and this time he tried to let it happen and see where it went. He found that his heart ached and immediately distracted himself with thoughts of the hard trek back to Fortune’s Shore and then the journey to Meridian by porticulum.
He’d grown so accustomed to the quiet way that she was just always nearby during combat that Amethos didn’t realize that Chet had become just as present in their quieter moments until one evening when they were all having equipment repaired in Fortune’s Shore and the ladies at his favorite brothel were all calling down from the balconies with enticing promises. A light hand on his elbow startled him so that he spun, blades already drawn and face fierce with preparedness for whatever may come.
Two thoughts filled his mind at once and they rivaled for immediate attention until he couldn’t think past them. Why hadn’t he expected her to be right where he wanted her? And what might have happened if he hadn’t realized who it was that touched him here in the shadows of the tallest building in Fortune’s Shore before his well-versed blades could sing the songs they knew so well?
“You didn’t even flinch.” He said when he could finally control his mind. An airy laugh taking some of the frustration from his voice. “You didn’t even blink.”
Kabechet breathed deeply and with it expelled the magic that would have held him captive in the form of a squirrel long enough for her to get away. “I wouldn’t have had the time to.” She answered at last.
Amethos watched in fascination as the shimmering energy dispelled and a proper laugh burst from him suddenly. “No, I see that now.” He sheathed his blades and guided her around the building and away from the catcalls coming from almost every balcony.
“I was just coming to ask if you thought we might be better in Stillmore. There’s a call to Zareph’s Return and I’m thinking that the armies there could really use a well coordinated team like yours.” Chet blew her bangs up and out of her eyes out of habit and tucked something into one of her pouches, drawing his curious gaze down to her slim waist.
“I heard the appeal this morning.” He agreed, watching as she withdrew the item from her bag again. “We haven’t had a chance to discuss it as a group yet.” Amethos took the item from her when she reached out again, this time shyly for the first time since he’d known her.
“It’s a gift I made for you.” She swallowed with difficulty and worried her lower lip with her teeth. “That last warder, in the massive tear last night. He was carrying a stone that opened rifts from his side. I’ve turned it into an amulet for you. It will focus and redirect attacks like that one to any tear we encounter. You can call them to you and not wait for them to surprise you or someone less capable.” Her eyes met his at last and he could see in her for the first time the admiration that must have warmed his skin with the sunlight and bubbling spring water the day so many months before when her magic had protected and repaired him.
He turned the swirling golden stone over and over in his palm, the finely crafted chain and mount were the finest he’d ever held. The power of her gift took his power over words away for the second time in as many minutes and he could only sigh and look at her in awed silence, head tilting to the side slightly as if trying to understand.
“You could certainly benefit from such a powerful amulet. Why do you gift it to me?”
“Because I’m not Amethos of Fortune’s Shore, Machine Born Giant and returning Hero and Protector of Telara. I am only Kabechet, and that’s not even my previous name, I still don’t remember that woman at all. Kabechet is a name I chose for myself from the many stories I read at the library when I was brought to Meridian. I made it for you and so I’m giving it to you.” Chet stepped back then, out of arm’s reach. “There is no one else I have known since I Ascended that I would trust with a focus that can force horrible fights out of regular tears.”
“How have I not really seen you before this moment, Chet?”
“I didn’t want you to.” She smiled and reached out to cover his fingertips as he closed them around the amulet. “Those women want you to come and visit again and I just decided that tonight I would rather that you didn’t. Not tonight.”
Amethos blinked once slowly, absorbing the meaning of her words. “Do you know what you’d prefer instead, Chet?”
She lowered her gaze again and when it met his again he felt that familiar tingling discomforting sensation ache through his belly and chest this time combining with desire so deep that it ached and brought a low groan from his throat.
“What if I said I don’t? Know, I mean. Not really. I…” She caught his hand before he could lay it on her cheek and held his arm by the wrist so that she effectively kept both of his hands in hers. “Don’t. Not yet. Amethos, I’m not innocent. Not even close to it. I’ve stayed back… I…”
“Chet, come with me.”
She followed silently through the dark streets, somehow matching his long strides all the way to the stables where he called for his horse and was mounted, offering her a hand up without another word. She closed her hands on his hips and felt the handles of his knives resting against her wrists as he swayed on his mount, guiding the beautiful stallion up and out of the city and onto the sandy hills above the city.
From where he stopped she could see the whole valley on both sides and the view gave her a moment to decide which of the many things she’d thought on the way up to actually give a voice to.
“Here, now. You cannot be heard by any but myself and a horse who wouldn’t share your secrets even if he knew how. Speak freely, lovely lady.” Amethos took a seat on a rock and gestured for her to follow. Chet took a place in front of him instead and gathered his hands in hers again, hands closing around his fingertips as if to still fidgeting he wasn’t doing.
She blushed and gathered her wits in the distractingly open gaze of the man she wanted above all others in two lifetimes. “I’m only so effective at healing because I am more effective at killing. As effective as you have been. I see faces in my mind, fights before this lifetime and from this lifetime. Blythe wasn’t exaggerating. I took that entire camp of cultists and didn’t stop until there were none left. Then I burned the whole place to the ground and watched it until everything was ash blowing in the breeze.”
Amethos had gathered as much and had never asked because the woman never offered. He’d watched her just as efficiently devastate their enemies and still focus her healing on the people closest to her.
“There are none among us who cannot say the same in one fight or another about both of their lifetimes, Chet.”
“I’m no giant, Amethos. I’m so small you thought I was a teenager when you met me.”
“I’ve learned otherwise, fair lady.” He teased and winked up at her, thinking how tender her control was that she held only his fingertips in her small hands and he was untempted to pull them free.
Chet laughed and felt some of her discomfort leaving her. “I’m not good at things with meanings that are tender. Saving the girls is probably the first kind thing I’ve done in two lifetimes.”
“I would find that hard to believe.”
“I don’t.” She shook her head when he would have spoken and he stilled his words. “I don’t believe I ever took the time to bother with it. I have no memory of another time, no memory of another place that was not me, adult and fighting. Killing with spells, killing with staves, killing with fire and never seeing faces. The only thing I’ve known in this life besides books and killing is brutal work and sex. The weakness in me isn’t something I understand. Not with the girls and not with you.”
“You’ve taken my words and stilled my mind so many times today that I’m unsure what to say.” Amethos laughed and breathed heavily once in a sound almost like a steadying sigh. “You do not have to feel weakness with me, Chet. You do not have to say or promise me anything.”
“I feel I do.” She worried her lower lip in her teeth again and for the first time Amethos realized that it was less shyness than calculating what to say that brought her brows together and creased the lines around her lips, almost as if it pained her to speak so openly at all. “Tonight I cannot bear the thought of another ale drunk seaman fumbling in a fishy hammock or a pampered fancier on soft brushed sheets who knows too much about women in general and nothing of me. Tonight for some reason I cannot rest knowing that you’re wrapped in some craftily sensual embrace paid for and never genuinely gotten.” Kabechet stepped forward, tightening her fingers on his so that he could feel the pressure of hands stronger than he’d expected. “Today you bled in my arms and then lifted me when I was too tired to walk and covered me in the blood of our enemies and in your own blood...”
“I didn’t mean…”
“Let me finish. This is hard for me. I don’t want an apology, I wanted you to blink us away out of sight so that I could tear you apart for making me want you so much that being covered in your blood and my blood and the blood of our enemies was just an appetizer.”
“I see.” Desire, dark and more dangerous than any he’d ever felt was growing between them and inside of him until he understood why she held his hands in hers and her grip was tightening. She was controlling her own hands this way.
“Since that first day when you came up out of the water and attacked that croc with nothing but your wits and knives I knew I wanted you. I’ve never wanted anyone more. When you’re killing, when you’re quietly watching over us, when you’re covered in blood and I have to heal you and clear away the blood to tell which is yours and which is not. I’ve never been afraid of anything and this thing I feel for you frightens me.”
Amethos leaned slightly forward so that the breath tickling over his cheeks was hot on his parted lips. “Do you recall when you told me I was afraid to feel peaceful?”
“I was speaking from experience, I think you can understand that now.” She closed her eyes and brought her cheek to his with a slight tilt of her head so that he could feel her breath over his ear and he could feel her chest against his own.
“I am terrified by this sensation here, now.” His words shuddered over her neck and he moaned when her hands closed around his back, hard and dragging as she climbed up over him and closed her legs around his waist, lips grazing his neck and shoulder. “And I’m more afraid of what happens if it stops.”
“Now you know why I hesitated in the street.” She whispered, back arching as his hands found her breasts so that he could feel her hands hard on his shoulders to prevent overbalancing. “Why I considered that anonymous drunkard again for the hundredth time.”
Amethos’ hands faltered with the laces at the sides of her vest until she laughed breathlessly and dragged them back down between their bodies and lifted the shirt off and over her own head without unlacing it. Her full round breasts were bare underneath and he captured them in his hands while her arms were still raised to remove the shirt.
Chet moaned as his mouth claimed first one risen nipple and then the next and growled like an animal when his teeth roughly bruised first one and then the other breast. His answering growl against her ribs brought her up and off of the rock.
“This will never do.” She panted, scanning all around them in search of another place to go.
He stared, mind drunk on wanton desire so that he was aware only of how sexually appealing she was standing there in only her high boots, nipples dark from his abuses and her own desire, pubic mound a midnight black patch between her pale thighs even in the low light of the moon and stars. He realized then with a crooked smile that he didn’t recall unlacing her underwear either.
“Come.” She dragged her vest back over her body and stepped into her half laced underwear, tying them on. “I know where to go.”
Still almost delirious with his want for her, Amethos groaned and rose into the saddle, extending her a hand and watching as she climbed quickly.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere safe for us.”
She paid their fare and they were away so quickly that he didn’t listen to her instructions until they were shivering in the freezing cold of the Iron Pine Peaks, in a little town that he recognized to be dwarven. “I have friends here so I maintain an apartment.”
So deftly that it added to his bewildered cooling desire Kabechet led the way through the narrow streets and then up a narrow staircase and through a door that barely afforded him head clearance. Inside he watched as she quickly lit the fire and stripped off completely, turning with feral eyes on his clothed body.
“Oh.” Amethos laughed and shrugged out of his shirt while she unlaced and unbuckled his boots and then his trousers with experienced fingers.
This time there was no hesitation in her part and he gasped her name when her lips closed around his sex before he’d even stepped from his cotton briefs. Her lips and cheeks were still cool against his very sensitve flesh, her lips and tongue so blessedly hot and he was a man consumed.
He was so quickly done with that he cried out with it in surprise and dragged her standing and then with him to the small stuffed lounge in the tiny sitting room. He turned and knelt between her legs as he pressed her back onto the smooth coverlet and opened her to his view by firelight, almost bewitched by the sight of the ruby red of her sex clearly framed in ebony curls that were damp to the touch when he teased his fingertips over her.
She came up and over, hips bucking against expert fingers buried deep inside and a mouth determined to know her every texture, mindless of anything but the maddening pleasure and growing need for more and more of him. She dragged him up and kissed him for the first time, completely and so hungrily that he made a strangled groaning sound against her lips and shook his head.
Chet closed her thighs around him so that her heat pressed so provocatively against his that he nearly came over again. “The bed is on the other side of the fireplace.”
And a bed it really was. Easily as large as any bed in any brothel he’d ever visited, Kabechet’s bed was exquisitely dressed in soft cotton sheets and smelled of that same spicy sandy scent that her skin always possessed.
“Would you believe me if I told you that you’re the first man ever to share this bed?”
“Yes.” He moaned and supported her bare ass in one hand as he threw back the covers with the other and then lowered them both to the bed, shivering in the heat of her mouth all over his neck and shoulders. “I don’t bring sex to my bed, always theirs. Now I wish I had an apartment to bring you home to.”
Her laughter clenched her body to his and he groaned in frustration, slipping into her heat with a long shuddering moan that was lost in the sound of her own.
“Do you own a gown? Something with a neck line?” Amethos traced the outline of his teeth on the back of her shoulder and winced when she flinched at the touch.
“I don’t require one.” She laughed and turned. “Only you and I know who marked me last night, Ame. In our little family only the children would be scandalized by the signs of a woman well possessed, and they’re happily tucked away with Eden and Marci for a few weeks.”
“And I can explain this?” He turned and she gasped at the sight of the long nail marks on one side of his back.
“Blame Sasha?” She whispered a few words in the arcane language of mages and he felt her gentle touch as she stroked the scratches and the warmth of healing magic started to erase the marks.
“I think no.” He laughed and shook his head. “I see now why you wanted us to come here.”
“I didn’t expect it would be all fluffy sweet between us, no.” Chet rose with a low groan and showed him the darkening bruises on her hips. “May I be overly sharing just once more before we return to our calling?”
“Forever you may be oversharing with me, Kabechet. Though answer for me please what is this if not a calling?”
“This is my life.” She said with such emotion that it seemed to startle them both. “The one I never took the time for and have no intention of giving to anyone else ever again.”
Amethos dragged her roughly back to him and kissed her so passionately that she opened and closed around him before he’d realized that she’d done it.
Magnificently capable and so tied to him that she watched his pupils open and felt him rise back to fully hard inside of her before she found the rhythm that would bring them both over hard and fierce and shuddering. He’d been ridden by whores and lovely ladies he’d met along the way so many times he had no idea what the count might be even at a guess, and until that moment he’d never been taken.
Tonight for some reason I cannot rest knowing that you’re wrapped in some craftily sensual embrace paid for and never genuinely gotten. Her words echoed in his mind and he clasped her face in his palms, pulling her back until he could see her clearly.