Another ten feet into the deepest part of the forest . . . then twenty feet, and Yulen stepped into a tiny clearing almost oblong in shape. He started, and straightened up to face the warrior girl who stood at the opposite end of the clearing. She was aiming an arrow directly at him.

Tiny drops of water found their way into the clearing from the rain dripping off the leaves overhead. Yulen heard them hitting the dry leaves on the ground with soft plicking sounds as he watched and waited, wondering who would be first to speak. Wondering if she was okay.

She looked okay. At first. Until he noticed she was standing holding her bead on him with her other hand. When she had drawn on the beast, the longbow had been in her right hand, her left hand pulling back. He would swear it on his life. But now the bow was in her left hand, the arrow in her right.

Was he supposed to notice the switch? Did it mean anything that she’d changed her stance?

He stared intently at the new arrow. It was a bit crooked, obviously made in haste and without the proper tools. Regardless, it looked as if it could do considerable damage if shot into the right place.

“I keep extra barbs in a compartment in the bottom of my quiver,” she said in a tight voice.

A shiver ran up Yulen’s spine. She sounded despondent and resigned. Why?

“Why did you leave the caravan?” he asked aloud. Her aim never wavered, never showed any sign she was under any undue stress, despite the fact that the tension on the bow was enormous.

“Thank Liam for me that you got my message,” she said instead of answering his question.

He raised a hand toward her. “Is this why you led me here? To put an arrow through me? You could have easily done that at any other time.”

“I brought you here to let you know I was heading west, toward the great gulf.”

He took a step toward her. In response her back stiffened but the arrow never moved. Given the distance, Yulen knew it would be an easy chest shot.

“Why did you need tell me that? Why not just go?”

“Because I knew you would think I would head back to Wallis, and I was afraid your men would hurt more of my people, trying to pry my whereabouts from them. Well, I’m not.”

He took another step, and this time she also stepped back an equal distance. “Don’t come any closer,” she warned.

“Atrilan . . .”

The sound of her full name caused the tip of the arrow to move slightly.  Yulen took hope in it and advanced another step. Suddenly she shifted her aim, moving off of his chest and centering on his legs. She didn’t want to kill him, just wound him enough to keep him from coming after her.

“Go back now. Now. Before you force me to fire.”

“Not without you,” he told her firmly.

“No.” She shook her head, lifting her face off the target. “Don’t come after me. Don’t do anything except go on to Alta Novis. Go on to your precious . . . whore.”

“I’m not leaving without you. If I have to, I’ll send the troops on ahead, but I’ll be back to find you,” he promised.

“Why? Is having me as your secret weapon that damn important to you” Her voice wavered, then cracked.  Yulen heard her draw a raspy breath. “You would never find me unless I wish it.”

He nodded. “You’re right. Your skill as a hunter far exceeds mine. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try. And keep trying. And never give up until I find you. I don’t care if you go to the great gulf or east to the ruined cities.”

She held her stance for a few seconds, then unexpectedly bolted, turning and running for the wall of foliage behind her. Yulen raced after her, trying to head her off, even though she was faster and closer than he was.

Suddenly, without warning, Atty grounded to a halt, whirled around, raised her weapon, aimed, and fired—all in one incredibly swift motion. Yulen let out a gasp of surprise as the arrow embedded itself in the leather lacings of his scabbard and pinned his weapon to a small shattered stump next to him. He looked up to see her staring at him. The expression on her face was a mixture of expectation—expectation . . . fear . . . and hope.

She had never aimed for his legs. She had hit what she’d set as her target.

Calmly but quickly Yulen unbuckled his belt, dropping the weapon where he stood. Raising his hands, he continued to advance toward her. He hesitated for a split-second when she lifted her bow, another arrow notched and drawn quicker than he could have blinked.

She'd killed the beast with her left hand. She took out the sword with her right. The realization rocked him to the core. Her skills were equally lethal with both hands.

Any warrior who could fight and wield a sword with equal dexterity was a rare find. Men spent years trying to achieve such agility. The longbow was a very specialized weapon, and to find an expert marksman with one hand was a gift. Atty’s skills were, in a word, impossible.

“You’re coming with me to Alta Novis,” he told her quietly.


“I’m not leaving without you. I don’t care if you shoot me in the leg or the stomach or the arm. I’ll come back for you.”

“I don’t believe you,” her voice trembled although her shot sat rock steady.

“Come with me to my compound. To Alta Novis,” he begged softly.

The tip of the arrow wavered again, but this time he was close enough to see the tears glistening on her cheeks. Without the bandages, the fading bruises on her face were visible, but they didn’t diminish the strength and beauty of her features.

“Why should I?” Her shoulders shook. Her head dipped for a second before lifting and focusing back down the arrow.

“Because I want you to be with me,” he told her honestly, praying she would believe him.

“Liar. I asked to be with you and you turned me away. You even . . . you even asked me to stay beside you . . . and you went back on that!”

“That’s true. But that was before you left.” He paused, and noticed she was waiting for him to continue. “You’ve taught me a hard lesson, Atrilan.”

“Don’t . . . don’t call me that.”

“I will call you that, and I’ll do it whenever we’re alone. Together. In the privacy of our room, or wherever you are with me. Otherwise I’ll call you Atty when we’re with others.” He took a small step toward her, relieved to see her keep her ground. “You’re coming back, tonight, with me, to Foster City. You’re staying with me. Tonight.”

“As your prisoner,” she whispered with bitterness.

“No. Not any more. Never again. I want to take you to Alta Novis. I want you to meet my people. My mother. Afterwards, if you want to go back to Wallis, I’ll have Mastin escort you there and bring back my representatives on his return trip.” He took another step, then a second, and now he was less than a dozen yards away from her. Yet her aim remained solid.

“Atrilan . . . .”

“What are you thinking?” she asked in a voice he could barely hear.|

“I’m thinking of how you felt in my arms after you killed the beast. I’m thinking about how you tasted. The softness of your lips. About how I want to take you in my arms again, and take you into my bed, and I want keep you with me for as long as you’re willing to stay with me, because I’ll take whatever you’ll give me, Atrilan. For however long you’re willing to remain.”

“I can’t go there and be just another one of your mistresses,” she told him with a little shake of her head. “I’m not. I can’t.”

“No. You’re not. I will never do that to you.”

The arrow dipped a fraction of an inch, no longer pointed at his stomach. In fact, Yulen knew it pointed nowhere.

“What happens if I lose my skill?” she whispered.

What if she lost that which had made him want her in the first place? What if she lost her abilities along with her virginity, as she’d been led to believe all these years? Yulen knew she no longer cared. She was willing to give herself to him. Her ultimate sacrifice. Bedding with the enemy. For what reason? Why take the risk? Why even consider it?

“Atrilan, will you love me?”

She lowered her head, lowered her weapon, and lowered her defenses. Yulen walked steadily over to her, pushing aside the longbow as he pulled her against him and claimed her mouth with his. Atty cried softly as she dropped the weapon and wrapped her arms around his neck.

He held her tightly, dimly aware of her quivering beneath her cold, wet clothing. Her mouth burned as she clung to him, wanting to melt into him. Defiant. Angry. Hungry for his warmth and his strength and his kisses. Despite her inexperience, Yulen responded to her naked need as he pressed her against himself with one hand, his other hand at her back crushing her to his chest.

Dimly in the back of his mind he reminded himself he needed to be careful with her face. She wasn’t mended from her attack, and wouldn’t be for a few more weeks. Gently he released her, cupping her head and capturing her eyes with his. They both were breathing hard, and as the air around them grew colder with the coming night, they could see little puffs of steam with their words.

“Come,” he leaned in and breathed against her fresh, wet lips. She gave a slight movement of her head, then broke away from his hands to reach down and retrieve her things. Yulen took her free hand, lacing his fingers through hers, and guided her away from the clearing, grabbing his discarded sword and belt along the way.