“We’re being pursued,” Fallon observed.
It had started shortly after their flight from the village. The strange woman’s team had made an effort to delay their trackers by releasing the horses—a sound, if ultimately ineffective, plan. It appeared the villagers had wasted little time rounding up the mounts and forming a posse intent on their blood.
What to do?
They couldn’t outrun them. Not in this rickety wagon which was already threatening to shake apart under them.
With two useless waste of spaces and three with unknown abilities and allegiances, there was little chance of outfighting them either.
Quite the predicament Fallon had landed himself in.
The woman who’d rescued him from the platform crouched at his side. She was silent as she calculated the odds and arrived at the same conclusion Fallon had. There was no chance of escape. Not unless they took drastic action.
Fallon hovered on the cusp of taking charge, the only thing stopping him curiosity. How would she handle this latest wrinkle?
Let’s see what you’ve got up your sleeve this time, he thought at her.
The woman glanced in the direction of the Highlands and the cliff called Bearon’s Fault that ran its length.
Now, why would she think safety lay in that direction?
Unless—that’s where she and the other two had come from.
More than ever Fallon found himself interested in the puzzle these three presented. The sniveler and the injured man he dismissed as unimportant. But these three—he had a feeling they might change everything.
“How far to the cliffs?” the sniveler asked.
Looked like Fallon had been right. That was where they’d come from.
Highlanders—who would have ever thought he’d meet some so soon in his conquest.
The woman shook her head slightly, coming to a decision. “Too far.”
She was right about that. Even if she could lose the lowlanders chasing them on the cliffs, they still had nearly a day’s ride by fast horse, and an injured man who would never be able to make the climb.
There was no chance of the wagon making it that distance before they were caught either.
The woman twisted in her seat, studying the opposite direction. That way lay the Badlands
Surprising—and unexpected. Most wouldn’t even consider that as an option.
The woman looked like she’d tasted something sour and wanted to spit it back out but couldn’t. Resignation moved through her expression, quickly followed by a determination Fallon understood. It was the look of a survivor, someone who would do anything to keep going—even if it meant heading for a place that terrified them.
Because that’s the other thing Fallon saw when she looked at the Badlands. Terror.
“Dane, how much ammo do you still have?” she asked.
The man sitting next to the driver looked thoughtful. “Not much. Why?”
Fallon sensed where she was going with this. Smart. Very smart indeed.
“James, trade places with Dane. I need him back here.”
The sniveler didn’t argue as he patted the wounded man’s shoulder and moved slowly to the front as Dane made his way carefully toward them.
“I need you to pick off as many of them as you can.” The woman’s gaze was steady as she laid out her plan.
Dane looked skeptical. “I can try, but my aim’s not going to be very good while we’re bouncing around like this.”
No, it wouldn’t, but Fallon didn’t think she actually intended for the man to hit anything.
Fallon flicked his fingers at Wilhelm, summoning him from where he’d been tending the injured man.
“Keep an eye on him,” Fallon ordered in a low voice as the woman finished explaining her plan and headed for the driver.
“Understood.” Wilhelm paused, grimacing. His near physical pain at not being able to address Fallon by his title would have been funny in other circumstances, but right now it was necessary for their deception.
Seconds later, the wagon veered right, heading for the Badlands—and the rendezvous point with Fallon’s men.
“That’s convenient,” Wilhelm muttered.
Fallon grunted. It was.
Not for the first time he found himself considering whether the woman and the men were plants, meant to lead him into a trap. If so, it was a piss poor one.
“What do you want to do?” Wilhelm asked.
Fallon considered. There was really only one answer. “We watch. We wait—and when our opportunity comes, we strike.”
Wilhelm dipped his chin in acknowledgement.
Fallon started toward the front of the wagon, leaving his Anateri—one of his most trusted—behind to make sure Dane did what was needed.
Fallon saw an opportunity and couldn’t help himself, leaning close to speak into the woman’s ear. “The Badlands? Sounds ominous.”
He found himself fascinated as he watched her control her startlement, noting the sidelong look from the driver. That one wasn’t anyone’s fool.
He knew there was more to Fallon than met the eye, but he was going to keep the peace for now. Fallon suspected when their immediate danger had passed, that would change.
Fallon would have to deal with him later, for now he was caught spell bound as calm, hazel eyes focused on him, their depths hiding mysteries he itched to unlock.
Fallon had always liked puzzles.
“I take it you’re not from around here,” she said at last.
He shrugged. He thought that was obvious.
Her disgruntled frown nearly teased a small smile from him. She was like an adorable hedgehog—grumpy, defensive, convinced she was a bigger predator than she was.
Not that he minded. Sometimes it was fun watching the little dog chew on the big dog’s feet. It was a liberty he didn’t allow many—strange that he would for her.
He sat back to wait, knowing she would find his silence suspicious.
She struck him as a woman that liked anticipating the actions of the people around her. She was used to being the best and brightest in any given group.
She’d find him difficult, he knew. Already he was looking forward to her aggravation when he upset her expectations.
The sniveler, James, as Fallon had heard him called, was the first to speak. “The Badlands? I thought it was overrun with beasts. My father told me stories of men who tried to settle that territory. They never lasted long.”
Fallon’s people had their own stories about that place, ones that went all the way back to their origins. Though, they’d never been so stupid as to send settlers into its boundaries. That way lay madness and loss.
“Have you ever been there?” James asked.
The woman’s gaze turned distant as she fell silent.
“Shea?” the sniveler prodded.
Ah, so that was her name. Fallon liked it. Feminine, but not overly so. Subtle but memorable. A whisper of sound he found himself already repeating to himself.
“Once.” That word held a wealth of sadness and loss. Whatever had happened there haunted her still.
Fallon found himself wondering at the tragedies he could see weighing on her. He didn’t ask, already knowing she wouldn’t answer. He’d find out eventually—he wasn’t the type of man to give up—but for now, he’d sit and wait. Learn. Observe. There’d be time enough later to learn what events had formed her.
The wagon surged forward, picking up speed. As the terrain got rougher, so did the ride. More than once Fallon thought they’d either tip or break an axle. Somehow the wagon held together, the Badlands looming large in the distance.
Grass and vegetation grew scarce, to be replaced with dirt and stone. The steep bumps of the foothills that marked the edges of the Badlands weren’t what you’d call pretty, but they were distinctive.
There, Fallon knew, beasts hunted. Many of which had a taste for human flesh. They were aggressive. Territorial. Far more than normal animals.
Without his weapons, they’d be a difficult foe.
The wagon raced parallel to the forbidden terrain, a long section of cliffs greeting them. They were smaller than the Fault that separated the Highlands from the Lowlands but still a significant hurdle.
“There.” Shea pointed to a small passageway between the two sheer rock faces, evidence of an old slot canyon. “Get as close as you can before stopping.”
Fallon nearly grunted in approval. Smart. The narrow passageway meant their pursuers would have to abandon their horses. The close quarters would also give them a fighting chance if the villagers decided to follow.
The driver’s nod and another flick of the reins was the only indication he’d heard. Behind them the mob surged forward as they sensed they were about to lose their prey.
Minutes later, the driver hauled up on the reins, and the horses slid to a dramatic stop.
Fallon helped Shea lower the injured man to the ground as Dane dropped from the wagon, picking off several of their pursuers as the rest of them raced toward the gap that promised safety.
Fallon chanced one look behind them and smiled. He almost hoped the villagers were dumb enough to follow. He’d have fun toying with them—if the beasts didn’t get them first.