Every warrior knew death could come in an instant, a split second where the odds turned against you and ended your time on this world. It was the one thing that bound all clans living in this fucked up land. It was an inescapable fact of life—eventually the cold embrace of death came for them all.
Some let it define them. They lived so carefully, never daring to step outside their narrow boundaries for fear it might consume them. Others ran to embrace it, dancing along its knife edge with wild abandon in the hopes it would make the time they had left taste all the sweeter.
Fallon had never particularly ascribed to either mind set. He treated death like the respected and canny adversary it was. One day it would defeat him, but until then he would fight with everything that was in him to resist its call.
He just hadn’t thought it would come for him so soon—especially not when he was on the cusp of achieving all he’d worked for. But that was death for you. It made a mockery of your plans even as you desperately tried to rally.
“Move it,” the guard said, jabbing Fallon hard in the back.
“Watch it,” Wilhelm hissed. Fallon’s friend and Anateri looked two seconds from throwing himself at their guards and exacting bloody retribution for the past few days.
Fallon was tempted to let him.
Their guards were the typical sort you found in a village like this. Brave when in a group; cowards when on their own or in the face of a predator greater than themselves.
A tall man, the guard was no stranger to hard work. A farmer, most likely, given the callouses on his hands. A man who probably spent his entire life toiling in the dirt, trying to tear enough from it to feed his family.
He must have been thrilled for the chance to play at war. He’d been one of several tasked with guarding Wilhelm and Fallon during their involuntary week long stay.
Fallon’s hands were scarred and calloused too, but his came from a life spent with blade in hand. They were formed over countless days spent training and during numerous battles where victory was decided by the thinnest of margins.
He didn’t play at death. For him, it was an old companion that was constantly at his side.
Fallon gritted his teeth and tamped down on his desire to rend and maim as the guard shoved him again. It went against the grain not to retaliate, but every good hunter knew that sometimes patience was the only way to achieve your end goal.
He shook his head at Wilhelm. Much as nothing would please him more than popping this man’s head like a zit, it wasn’t time yet. Wilhelm might succeed in taking down the two idiots before them, but there were five more standing just outside this hovel, ready and waiting for an excuse to beat them.
Fallon didn’t want any avoidable injuries to hinder them when it came time for escape.
“What are you going to do? Huh?” The man’s lip curled as he glanced at his friend to make sure he was watching.
Fallon snorted, letting him see the derision in his face as he looked the man over. He sure talked big now that he had his friends backing him up. He hadn’t been so confident during their last confrontation. Then he’d looked like a scared little boy about to piss his pants.
The guard correctly interpreted that look for what it was, his eyes widening and rage turning his face bright red. He balled his hand into a fist and struck.
He was slow and telegraphed his move. It would have been easy to dodge. It was so very tempting to do just that, then show him the right way to punch, preferably in such a way that he’d be wearing the lesson into the next world.
Instead, Fallon remained still, letting the blow glance off him. It was just as weak as he suspected.
The man panted. “You’d better watch yourself, boy.”
Fallon wiped the speck of blood from his split lip. He examined the small amount and laughed. It really was too pitiful to even be considered a proper punch.
The man puffed up and stepped toward him. His friend brought him up short. “Enough of that now. We can’t go roughing them up right before the big event. The elders think their deaths will keep other outsiders away.”
The words seemed to get through and the first man relaxed, giving Fallon and Wilhelm a nasty smile. “Good point. I’ll be sure I’m the one holding the blade when it comes time to end your miserable lives. I’m told they didn’t bother sharpening it. I wonder how many whacks it’ll take before we succeed in separating your head from your shoulder.”
Fallon didn’t react to the threat, just stared at the man with a remote expression.
Not getting the reaction he’d hoped for, the guard spit at the ground and stalked out, his friend right behind him.
“Have to say, never thought something like this would be my end,” Wilhelm said tiredly as he leaned his head back against the wall of their cell.
It wasn’t really a cell, just a dirt room in one of the building off the village’s main square.
Fallon ignored the slight sense of claustrophobia he felt being in the small space. He didn’t understand how these people could spend their entire lives behind four walls. No windows or anything to let in the light. They were too afraid of what was outside their flimsy walls. They might as well have dug a hole in the ground and then closed it up behind them. It was nothing like the airy tents of his people.
“We’re not dead yet,” Fallon said.
Though if they didn’t act soon, that would become a very real possibility.
Who would have thought the great warlord, the man who’d united the Trateri clans under one banner, would be brought low by two youths of no more than fifteen? A boy visiting a girl he liked while she looked over the herds. Fallon and Wilhelm had attempted to buy a few mounts after their own had been killed during an encounter with one of the many beasts inhabiting this land. They’d barely escaped with their lives.
Perhaps that was why neither man had been suspicious when the girl had offered them a cup of warm otho to seal the deal for the mounts. Not until they woke up in this dirt room. Then it had become quite clear the otho had had something else in it, something designed to incapacitate them while the boy ran for help.
They should have just stolen the horses. Darius and Caden were never going to let him live this down if they caught wind of it.
“Time to go,” a man said from the doorway.
Fallon and Wilhelm didn’t bother arguing, filing out of the room one after another as the villagers closed ranks around them. The crowd outside jeered, already whipped into a fury. They were out for blood.
How many others had they sent to this same fate? Fallon and Wilhelm were obviously not the first. Not given the excitement in each man’s eyes.
Fallon didn’t react to the fervor, his face a blank mask. Not when they tied his hands. Not even when two other men were brought out. One had been seriously beaten, his face swollen and his eyes already turning purple as he sagged in his captor’s hold. The other man argued the entire way, pleading and begging before he tried to throw himself back into the room he’d just exited.
His captors were having none of it, dragging him outside with merciless grins. The villagers got off on the man’s panic and terror, excitement showing in their expressions.
“Have some dignity, man,” Wilhelm muttered.
Fallon agreed. Watching the other man was painful.
The other man struggled, whimpering pitifully as he fought every step of the way.
“Get up or we’ll kill you here,” one of their captors snapped. “Makes no difference to us.”
When even that didn’t work, another man squatted beside the captive and grabbed his hair, using it to force the man’s face up. “Ever seen what happens when someone’s stabbed in the belly. It takes hours for the person to die.”
The man on the ground might not have, but both Fallon and Wilhelm had. It was an agonizing way to go.
The words seemed to get through and the man climbed to his feet, tears on his face.
“Good choice,” the guard said, shoving the man out the door.
The other captive followed behind. Then it was Wilhelm and Fallon’s turn.
“Remember, our ancestors will judge how well we met death,” Fallon told Wilhelm. It was meant as both a warning and a reassurance.
They might not be able to defeat death today, but the grace with which they faced it down would matter in both this world and the next.
Wilhelm nodded. There was a grimness on his face that was familiar, one Fallon knew was reflected in his own expression. It was the look a man got when he knew his end was near.
“Watch for your moment,” Fallon said softly. The odds might be stacked against them, but you never knew when that might change.
“It’s been an honor, Warlord,” Wilhelm said.
He didn’t get to say anything else as his guard shoved him through the door. Fallon was next, walking to his execution with a straight back and his head held high as the crowd jeered and booed at their appearance.
The sounds faded as his focus locked on the four posts the villagers planned to tie them to. All the while, he watched. He waited and cataloged every detail around him. The number of people, the possible escape routes, even the condition of his fellow captives and how they might be of use.
Then he was on the platform, his hands being tied to the post.
His guard shoved his face next to Fallon’s. “Not so cocky now, are you?”
Fallon didn’t speak, simply stared at the man with an expression so cold and remote that it was like the lords of the underworld had risen up to peer out of his eyes.
The man flinched, fear momentarily flashing across his face before he recovered. He shoved Fallon’s head before walking away muttering.
Wilhelm jerked at his own bindings and snarled.
“Easy,” Fallon said. “We will have our revenge for every slight in the end.”
He meant that. There was a cold feeling in the depth of his stomach, a rage that ate away at his humanity as he watched the gathering. Men, women and children, gossiping and playing as they cheered for his blood.
He’d see every single one of them dead or enslaved before he left this world.
Fallon ignored them as he turned his body so his hands were protected from view from the rest of the square. He stepped forward and lifted the sharpened piece of rock out of his pants.
Wilhelm saw what he was doing and smiled, turning to keep watch as Fallon began to saw at the rope.
The discord in the crowd started small, almost unnoticeable at first. Fallon might have overlooked it if his senses weren’t so heightened.
A small figure threaded through the crowd. Not suspicious in and of itself, except for the fact that their hood was up.
Now, why would a villager be hiding their face while among their own people?
For a moment, Fallon thought Darius might have sent someone to check out the area when Fallon turned up late for their rendezvous. Just as quickly he discarded that notion. None of Darius’s men were that slight and the person didn’t move like a warrior. It lacked the confidence and awareness of someone who had spent his life learning to kill.
Fallon continued sawing at the rope even as he watched the figure advance on the platform. He found himself wishing the person to look up, just for a moment. He needed to see.
As if hearing his wish, the figure ducked their head lower and pulled the hood more firmly into place.
A man reached over, grabbing the hood and yanking it back, revealing a woman.
Her head lifted as a cry rose. “Outsider! She’s with them! There’s another outsider.”
She froze in place, staring around her as if startled at being unmasked. Stupid. She should run. These people were crazy. They’d kill her.
She did move then, but not away as Fallon had expected. She darted forward, her destination the platform. Fallon cursed as he sawed at his bonds. The fool woman was going to get herself killed.
Her head lifted, her eyes coming up to meet his. Fallon’s breath caught as her fierce gaze met his, a pair of hazel eyes wide in a determined face. Her mouth had a stubborn line to it.
Someone grabbed her, spinning her around. A man raised a fist at her.
Fallon jerked at his ropes. They gave, just a bit. Not enough.
A crack pierced the air. The ground shook as cries of “stampede” rose.
The square turned into a sea of chaos as the villagers sought cover.
The woman bounded up the steps, her expression fierce as she raced across the platform, her cloak billowing as a halo of untamed curls circled her face. She looked like an avenging goddess from one of the old myths his grandmother used to tell him, come down to lay waste on her enemies.
The executioner approached her, an ax in his hand. Another crack pierced the air and red blossomed in his chest.
Fallon looked up at the buildings around them, spotting a man lying on one, a strange weapon in his hands as he aimed at the other villagers on the platform. Every sharp sound brought down anyone who approached the woman as she raced to the sniveler’s side.
“Shea!” the sniveler screamed as he struggled against his bonds.
She pulled a knife from her waist and started working on his bindings as her friend apologized over and over again.
Fallon looked over at Wilhelm, who shrugged and shook his head in confusion. He didn’t know what was going on anymore than Fallon did. The unexpected arrival of the woman and her friend had thrown both of them for a loop.
Shea finished with her friend’s bindings and pulled him free, shoving a knife in his hand and pushing him toward the wounded man. “Get Cam loose.”
Fallon expected that to be the end, for her to walk away and leave the two of them here. Only a fool would help a pair of strangers.
To his surprise, she pulled another knife and started sawing at his ropes. She was distracted, keeping an eye on their surroundings. She never noticed that the job was more than half done.
Fallon watched her through half lidded eyes, studying her carefully. This could be a trap designed to get her into his good graces. Something the clan leaders cooked up as an attempt to manipulate and control him. It was something they’d attempted before.
What better way to gain his trust than to save him from an impossible situation.
“Powerful weapon, that,” he said, testing her.
She grunted but didn’t respond otherwise as she finished freeing him and moved on to Wilhelm.
Fallon followed, not wanting to let her out of his sight. At least not until he understood what she wanted. Wilhelm looked over her head and lifted his eyebrows as if asking for orders. Fallon shook his head. For now, they’d play along. Things had just gotten interesting and he wanted to see where this led.
“Shea, come on. We have to go,” the sniveler shouted.
Shea cast a glance around even as she worked frantically to free Wilhelm, an expression on her face that Fallon read easily. He was surprised at how closely her thoughts mirrored his.
Where exactly did the sniveler think they would go? The horses still stampeded around them. If they tried leaving the platform now, they’d likely be stomped to death.
Fallon kept his amusement to himself as consternation crossed her face. She had obviously not gotten to that part of the plan. He was curious to see what she’d do now.
“Thanks,” Wilhelm said, rubbing his wrists. “We’re in your debt.”
“Don’t thank me yet. We still have to escape this gods be damned, shit hole of a village.”
She looked around, clearly searching for a way out. Fallon held quiet as he studied her. If she was someone the clan leaders had placed in his path in hopes he’d be caught in her web, they’d chosen well. She wasn’t beautiful. The lines of her face were too strong for that, but there was something about her that demanded attention. An undefinable attribute that drew the beholder’s eye. A confidence that said she was perfectly at home in her own skin and didn’t care for the thoughts or opinions of others.
Some of the most beautiful women in these lands had graced his bed and failed to hold his attention the way this woman now did.
Fallon was fascinated in spite of himself. He didn’t have time for a woman and all the distraction she might bring. He was preparing to conquer these lands, a woman would just get in the way of that.
Still, he found himself unable to look away as every thought the woman had ran across her face. Frustration, unease, sarcasm. He had to wonder what thought spawned that last emotion.
Wilhelm nudged him then nodded at something in the distance.
Fallon couldn’t help his snort. This was the most slapped together plan he’d ever seen, but damned if it wasn’t working.
He leaned forward and tapped the woman on the shoulder, pointing. “Is he with you?”
She squinted at where he pointed.
Relief shone from her face. She grinned and clapped Fallon on the shoulder, not seeing the flash of humor on Wilhelm’s face at seeing his warlord treated as one of her men, or the startled consternation on Fallon’s.
“Prepare to jump,” she called, moving to the edge of the platform.
“In there?” the sniveler asked, wild eyed. “While it’s still moving?”
“It’s not like they can stop and wait until we get comfortable,” she said sarcastically.
Fallon grunted with amusement as Wilhelm’s eyes danced. It seemed she didn’t care for the sniveler any more than they did.
“They’ll slow down, right?” the sniveler asked hopefully.
She ignored him and gestured for the rest of them to join her.
“Jump right before the wagon reaches you,” Fallon said, taking over as was his natural inclination. He tugged the injured man’s arm from the sniveler as Wilhelm took the other arm.
Fallon had a feeling Shea wouldn’t leave the hurt man behind even if it would be easier and safer. To forestall an argument, he decided to take charge of the situation for her. One way or another, Wilhelm, Fallon and Shea were getting on that wagon. He didn’t really care about the other two, except as it might affecta the outcome he wanted.
She didn’t argue, correctly assuming he and Wilhelm had the better odds of making the jump safely.
The wagon barreled down on them. Fallon and Wilhelm jumped together, taking the injured man with them.
Seconds later, Shea followed, nearly careening off the other side as she landed awkwardly. Fallon grabbed her by the back of the shirt and hauled her back in, grunting when she collided with his body. He got a second to feet her soft curves before he dumped her in the bottom next to the others.
“Thanks,” she said, patting him on the arm. “Guess I owe you one now.”
Fallon’s smile was slow. That’s right. She did, and he intended to collect. “Just returning the favor.”
She gave him an uneasy smile and moved off. He let her as Wilhelm moved up beside him.
“Well, this is unexpected,” Wilhelm said, looking around at their rescuers.
Fallon grunted. In life, all the best things were.
“How do you want to handle this?” Wilhelm murmured.
Fallon was quiet as he thought. They could take control now, but they might have to kill a few of the men since they were outnumbered. He wouldn’t mind the deaths of the other two captives—neither man had impressed him—but their rescuers were a different story.
At the core of things, he was interested. Something he hadn’t been in a long time. He wanted to see how this played out. “Stay close to the man with the weapon. Find out what you can about where they came from.”
“You don’t think they’re from that village?”
Fallon shook his head. “No, and I’d be interested in what kind of place creates people like these.”
Wilhelm nodded and moved off, taking a seat beside the man with the odd weapon and giving him a charming smile. Fallon stared at the woman as she talked to her friend.
He didn’t know her story, but he would soon. And if the clan leaders had sent her his way, he’d just have to break their hold over her and make it so she was loyal to no one but him.