They were moving too slowly.
The villagers would catch them again. It was only a matter of time. When they did, their mercy would be nonexistent.
Fallon crossed his arms as he sized up the reason for the delay. It might be better for them all if he were to eliminate the injured man here and now.
Wilhelm would support his decision. The rest, not so much—especially the sniveler and Shea.
The sniveler wasn’t much of an impediment. A broken neck and he could follow his friend into death.
But Shea—she was the sticking point. Fallon suspected she wouldn’t take the proposed death of one of her people lightly. She’d fight him if given the chance.
If he decided on that course, he’d have to make sure she never got the opportunity.
For the moment, she’d disappeared again, scouting their path ahead.
He was tempted to take care of the problem before her return. It’d be so easy. Allow the injured man to lag behind, then Fallon or Wilhelm could end him before anyone was the wiser.
Although with the way Dane and Witt were keeping careful watch of Fallon and his companion, that might be more difficult than it seemed.
Shea’s men didn’t trust them. Smart, considering who they were.
Shea appeared at the far side of the canyon and jerked her head at them to get moving. She was already disappearing the way she’d come as Dane and Witt herded the injured man and his friend forward.
“Something needs to be done about that one,” Wilhelm said from beside Fallon.
The injured man wasn’t going to get better. His skin was pale, his face pinched with pain. Every step he took was a battle he wasn’t sure he wanted to win.
They couldn’t carry him either. Not over terrain as rough as this.
The merciful thing to do would be to end the man’s life rather than leave him to their pursuers. Fallon had seen it before. Denied easy prey, the villagers would likely be blood thirsty and sadistic if they got their hands on any of them again. They’d make them beg for death before the end.
Fallon had no intention of letting himself or Wilhelm die here. Not when escape was so close at hand.
Fallon and Wilhelm trailed the others as Shea took the lead again, setting a pace that wasn’t slow but was also nowhere near as fast as they needed to go.
Fallon settled in to wait and watch. At least for now.
“Your boy’s not going to make it.” Fallon nodded at the wounded man. He thought it was best to be blunt.
Shea had to know the truth of his statement—even if she wasn’t ready to admit it.
Grim resignation settled on her face, matched only by her stubbornness.
She wasn’t going to do what was necessary, Fallon knew.
It was honorable to try to save the injured man—and foolish. This land wasn’t so gentle that it allowed you such luxuries.
“You’d be better off stashing him and leading the others away.” When she did, Fallon or Wilhelm would slip away and finish him so he didn’t fall to the enemy.
It was the best solution, allowing her to keep her morals and conscience clean while Fallon did what was necessary for the safety of them all.
Shea grunted in agreement.
She’d already considered what he was suggesting, Fallon realized. Probably had been for a while.
What was she waiting for, then?
The longer she delayed, the closer their enemies drew.
Testing her, Fallon suggested, “We shouldn’t rest too much longer. Our pursuers will be getting close.”
Shea didn’t disagree. “I’ll tell the others. Thanks.”
She gave him a nod before walking away without another word.
Wilhelm took her place, watching as she approached her people. “She doesn’t trust us.”
“Would you in her place?”
Wilhelm snorted. “Probably not.”
Neither he nor Fallon were given to trust. They were too used to the failures and weaknesses of others. The only people they placed their faith in were the Anateri. Each man and woman in Fallon’s service had proven themselves worthy of the honor a thousand times.
“You think she’ll do what is needed?”
Fallon certainly hoped so. Otherwise he’d have to take matters into his own hands—and he didn’t want to do that yet.
“If not, we’ll have to do it for her.” Fallon had no intention of this being his end—or hers.
Leaving Wilhelm behind, Fallon moved toward Shea, catching the tail end of her conversation.
“We just stopped. Everyone needs more time,” James was protesting.
Disgust at the other man’s idiocy moved through Fallon. James was welcome to sit on his ass until the villagers caught up to him and did him the service of slitting his throat.
Maybe then he’d see wisdom.
Fallon growled, “You can rest when you’re dead. If we take any more time, the villagers will catch up.”
He held James’s stare, daring him to argue. It would give Fallon cause to eliminate him then and there.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shea studying him with something akin to surprise. Not that he’d interfered, but that he’d spoken up on her behalf.
What kind of people did she protect that they didn’t recognize something as simple as this?
The kind who didn’t deserve her, he decided a second later.
Instead of the confrontation Fallon itched for, James climbed to his feet and helped his friend up. He shot Fallon a disgruntled glare as the two hobbled away.
“Thanks,” Shea muttered as she passed him.
Fallon lingered for only a moment before stalking away, quickly taking the lead. Wilhelm settled into step beside him.
They walked in silence for a time, each of them alone with their thoughts.
Gradually, Fallon and Wilhelm pulled ahead. More than once they were forced to stop and wait for the rest to catch up.
It was during one of those breaks that Wilhelm said, “I think they suspect who we are.”
Wilhelm’s gaze was steady as he studied Shea and the two nuisances she was conversing with.
Judging by the suspicious looks being cast in their direction, Fallon and Wilhelm were the current topic of conversation.
“They’d be fools not to suspect something.”
Shea didn’t strike him as a fool. Nor did the two men who’d helped her with the rescue.
Fallon wasn’t too worried if they did guess their identities. There was little they could do at this point.
Movement on the path ahead drew Fallon’s attention. A man, dressed to blend with his surroundings, held still as he met Fallon’s gaze. He opened one of his hands, showing Fallon his palm.
Fallon shook his head, waving the man off with a subtle gesture. He’d known Darius was close. It was just like his general to have scouts out looking for them.
The scout dipped his chin in acknowledgement, fading back.
He’d report to Darius and the general would get his men into position for when they were needed.
Fallon’s smile was merciless. He was looking forward to this. The villagers wouldn’t know what hit them.
Wilhelm fixed Fallon with a thoughtful look after watching the scout disappear. “I take it you’re hoping to learn something more from our companions?”
“They hold secrets. Best to learn everything we can before we spring the trap.”
“You know best.” Wilhelm was resigned as he glanced at the rest. “Though I’m not sure you’ll get much out of this lot with the exception of the girl.”
Now, that he knew his men was out there, he could let this play out. Maybe he would even let himself enjoy the walk. It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself such simple pleasures.
A little over an hour later Fallon found out why Shea had delayed in leaving Cam behind.
The hiding spot she’d found was perfect. Hidden. Easily defensible.
Large boulders, evidence of a past land slide, hid a small gap next to the canyon wall. The villagers would walk right past it, never knowing it was there.
He had to admit to being a little impressed.
Of course, it would only work if someone led the rest of the pack away.
Even as he thought it, Shea jumped off the ledge to the floor of the canyon, already bending to wipe away the evidence of their foot prints.
“Wait here until I come back. I’ll try to draw them off.” She pointed at Fallon and Wilhelm. “You’re coming with me.”
Fallon arched a bemused eyebrow. He was, was he?
Wilhelm didn’t hide his amusement. This was a new experience for Fallon—being ordered around like he was an untrained youth.
Fallon’s lips twitched as he murmured his agreement.
He and Wilhelm jumped down to help Shea. With the three of them, it went quickly.
They’d just finished and started to set a new trail to follow when the sounds of their pursuers grew.
Right on time.
Fallon’s smile was deadly.
Shea took off, Wilhelm and Fallon racing after her.
Again, she surprised him. The woman, he found, was full of the unexpected. The pace this time was nothing like it had been earlier.
It was fast and furious, as if she was making up for the frustrating slowness of before.
The canyon twisted to the left, Shea following its curving path. She abruptly stopped and was already whirling to retreat when Fallon nearly ran her over. He caught her before she could fall, steadying her with a firm grip.
A group on horseback watched them with remote stares. Warriors, all of them, some of the deadliest he’d ever seen.
About damn time.
“Behind us,” Fallon barked.
The warriors kicked their horses into a gallop, surging past them. Only one man remained.
The man watched them for a moment before nudging his horse forward, the clop of its hooves the only sounds as they reverberated off the canyon walls.
Fallon ignored Shea’s confusion as Darius stopped in front of them. His general pondered the woman Fallon still held, one eyebrow raising in silent question.
Yeah, she was a surprise to Fallon too.
“You took your sweet time, Fallon,” Darius finally said, unlatching a sword from his saddle and tossing it to Fallon.
Instantly the tight feeling in Fallon’s stomach loosened. The weight of the sword in his hand was familiar and welcome. It spoke of home and duty, as familiar and vital to him as his own arm.
“One of our party was injured. It slowed us down,” Fallon said.
“We’d almost given you for dead,” Darius said lightly. “I could practically hear the clan heads fighting over your successor.”
On any other man, those words could have been taken as a subtle threat. Not Darius. His general was cunning and devious, but he had no desire for Fallon’s position. The few times he’d had to lead in Fallon’s absence had more than soured him on the responsibilities and backstabbing that came with the mantle of Warlord.
Shea extracted herself from Fallon’s arms, taking a cautious step back. Her gaze moved between the two of them, no doubt putting things together and coming up with the correct answer.
“They’ll have to wait a little longer,” Fallon responded, half of him still focused on Shea. “I’m sure they have many plans for my demise. It’d be a shame if they never got to put any of them into action.”.
Shea edged back another careful step.
Fallon thought that was just about far enough. He didn’t need her injuring herself trying to run, not when she would just end up caught again in the end.
He considered her. She froze in place, going as still as a bunny who’d spotted a predator.
What should he do with his rescuer?
He could think of many things. Most were of a personal and intimate nature.
“I see you didn’t escape empty handed,” Darius observed, watching Shea with careful calculation. “She’s pretty.”
“And cunning,” Wilhelm added. “She rescued us and two idiots from execution. Stole us right out from under the villagers’ noses.”
Fallon ignored them, content to watch the fascinating play of emotion on Shea’s face. She was cautious. Wary. But not truly afraid.
Brave of her.
They were three large men. Warriors versed in pain and death.
Yet, she faced them as if she was their equal.
There was something admirable in that.
Shea tried for a smile and failed. “I should be going. My people probably need help. Glad you were able to find your people.”
She nodded at him and he had to stop himself from smiling. Adorable. She actually thought this was the end.
Darius snorted. “Are you planning on keeping her?”
Fallon was, actually. He never thought he’d find someone who instantly attracted him like this woman did.
He’d grown up on stories of how his father met his Lowland mother when she threatened his life. He’d stolen her away that very day.
Afterward, it took months to gain her affection and access to her bed, but in the end, Fallon had never known two people who shared a deeper bond.
“You’re not going to let me go, are you?” she guessed.
Fallon shook his head. “No.”
Better she accepted that now. Resistance would only prove futile in the end.
“I saved you and your man.”
She had. That was her mistake. Now she had to deal with the consequences.
“There are too many of us for you to fight, and your men are still in hiding,” Fallon warned, hoping it would convince her to put aside the schemes he could already see brewing.
Shea’s lips flattened in stubbornness.
She wasn’t going to make this easy after all. Perhaps some reassurance was called for.
“No harm will come to you from our hands, lady,” Fallon tried.
She likely wouldn’t believe him yet, but she would in time.
The warriors pounded around the corner amid shouts of victory. It caused a split second of distraction.
It was enough.
Shea darted toward the vertical wall of the canyon. For a moment, Fallon remained still, surprise holding him in place.
Where exactly did she think she was going?
“She’s pretty fast.” Darius sounded impressed
Fallon sighed. He’d really hoped to avoid this type of drama.
He gestured for Darius’s horse, waiting as his friend dismounted before leaping into the saddle.
Fallon touched his heels to the horse’s sides, cantering after her. No need to rush. He didn’t want to scare her anymore than she already was.
Only, she wasn’t as trapped as he’d thought.
She reached the wall, climbing up it as if she’d done it a thousand times.
Fallon urged his horse faster, pulling up beside the wall to grab her ankle. She wiggled free before he could get a good grip on her. Afraid he’d cause her to fall, he let her go.
She climbed several more feet to safety before pausing to look down.
Fallon glared up at her.
Her smile was slow to come, but when it did it lit up her face. The laugh that rang out was bright and happy, exultant at her escape.
Fallon’s lips twitched, unable to resist the sound. She deserved that moment for having beat him. He’d underestimated her. Even knowing everything he did about what she was capable of, he’d thought he’d won.
Instead, it had been her who had emerged victorious today.
It was a humbling lesson that not even warlords were immune to failure.
Her glance was teasing. “Guess you won’t be keeping me after all.”
The statement sent a bolt of warmth through Fallon. He relaxed. He was smart enough to know when the game was over—at least for now.
Defeat was a new experience for him. He’d have to make sure he didn’t get used to it when it came to her.
She didn’t know it, but her actions made her all the more fascinating.
“Guess not,” he said with a wry smile. “The world’s not that big. Next time you might not be so lucky.”
He intended to make sure of it.
She didn’t seem concerned. “You’ll have to catch me first, and I can pretty much guarantee I know these hills better than any of you.”
Challenge met and accepted, he promised silently. This wasn’t the last he’d see of her.
“A challenge,” Darius said, echoing his thoughts as he came up to stand beside Fallon. “Careful, lady. You’ve thrown the gauntlet down and Fallon has never backed down from a challenge.”
No, he hadn’t. Some might even say he thrived on them.
The twang of an arrow as it embedded in the wall next to her hand caused her to slip. His heart lurched as she dangled from one hand.
“Hold your fire,” Fallon roared. “Do not fire again.”
Darius was already moving toward his men. “Who fired that?”
Fallon ignored them, mentally urging Shea to catch her balance again. He watched as she slowly collected herself, hugging the wall as she fought for composure.
You’ve got this, he thought at her. Just a little more.
He took a deep breath as she started climbing again, her movements more tentative than before. He guided the horse under her as he watched her ascend.
It was only when she crested the top that he felt the tightness in his chest loosen again. When she looked back at him, he tipped his head in the respectful nod of one warrior to another.
Her battle might have been different and less bloody than the ones he was used to, but that made it no less admirable.
They’d see each other again. There was never anything he’d wanted more—and what he wanted, he tended to get.