Flinging the heavy door curtain aside, Merc burst into the upper tower room and marched over the uneven flagstones to the map on the far wall near the hearth. "Are all my ships ready for an assault on the Grand Bazaar, when I need them?" he demanded in his usual brusque tone. With an impatient gesture, he thrust down the hood of his cloak, which sporadically dripped rainwater into a small puddle around his boots.
...... "As they always are," Igthorus calmly answered, putting down his pen. He sighed quietly and scooted his leather-slung chair back from the worktable.
...... "I may get word in the next few days of the general area where the Bazaar's at," Merc stated, tapping his forefinger on the map. "I want a ship to act as a scout, ready to leave tomorrow, provisioned for a week. Also, I want you to recruit a Scribe. He is to go in the scout ship and be put down on the ground. He can hike the area, locate the Bazaar, and then send the exact location to the ships when he sees the Squadron arrive somewhere in the area."
...... "It won't be easy to convince a Scribe to do that." He reached forward for a scrap of paper and made several notes. "Scribes always have better things to do."
...... "Any fee!" Merc instructed, waving the objection away, as he continued to study the map. "Any fee at all."
...... "I will speak to a few people to see what can be done." He quietly sighed again and moved the paper away.
...... "Samstrx has ships in my area," Merc announced. He turned from the map to pace to the curtained window, gesturing rapidly. "I won't allow that. Tell those people down there to stay in their own district!" Sweeping the curtain aside, he looked out for a minute. A cold draft blew in from the opening. "Send them a letter telling them that. And a copy to the Advisor!"
...... "As you request." He retrieved the paper and made more notations.
...... Releasing the curtain, Merc strode across the room to stand with his back to the fireplace, his arms folded across his chest. "Also, that damn pirate still keeps slipping away from my ships. Circulate a memo to all the Captains. I want that man stopped, and I'm tired of hearing all these excuses about him doing the impossible. Anything that man can do, they can do likewise." He gestured outward. "Tell them that, in terms they can understand and appreciate!"
...... Turning the paper over, he continued to write notes. "Likewise, I'll see to it."
...... "About Misty Tallpinin. There's still no news." Merc pulled his cloak off, shook it hard, then tossed it onto the floor beside the hearth. "She can't have vanished off of the surface of the world. She has to be somewhere! And someone must know about it. Increase the reward to one full bar of silver." He turned to face the small fire, warming his hands. His pant legs steamed with the heat on the soaked fabric.
...... "Forty gold pieces is a sizable amount," Igthorus pointed out, still writing. "There have been numerous bits of information about her, none of which have been true. This increase will triple the number of false reports."
...... Merc waved that away with an abrupt gesture, before picking up his soggy cloak. "Then again, maybe someone will finally do something to earn it." Stomping across the room to the door, he motioned with one hand. "That's all."
...... Igthorus merely nodded, as Merc shoved through the door curtain.
"Easy on those lines," Willi called from the bow of his small ship. He hung halfway over the rail, one hand on the bowsprit, watching the vegetation below. "Gently now."
...... The ship slowly moved along the bank of the big river, following a natural ramp of stunted trees and low bushes. Close to the shoreline, the bushes gave way to a huge bed of ferns. Moving very slowly forward, the ship's keel dropped to within a yard of the ground.
...... "Everybody hang on!" Willi loudly commanded, while wrapping one arm around a backstay. He took a last quick look around, then added: "Helmsman, hard to port!"
...... The woman, who was stationed on the quarterdeck, rapidly checked the set of the sails, then spun the wheel.
...... The ship veered sharply. As it left the fern bed and swung out over the water, it dipped bow-first into the river, splashing a yard-deep wave over the deck -- then bobbed several times before settling down to an easy drift with the current.
...... "Get the paddles out," Willi yelled, still holding tightly with both hands to a backstay.
...... After furling all of the sails, the crew raced to the sides and put out six long oars, violently pulling at them to bring the ship under control. Within moments, the vessel began to answer to the rudder. Slowly, under oar-power, the ship maneuvered across the broad, slowly moving river.
...... "I bet we could sail for fifty miles, down this river like this," Willi called the length of the ship, letting go of the rigging and leaning back comfortably against the bow railing.
...... "I'll settle for just sailing to the opposite shore," Xyly shouted back, pacing along the stern rail behind the helmsman. "Watch what you're doing up there, and just don't sink us in midstream!" She scowled at the open gray sky overhead, which continued to dribble a slow, steady rain.
...... By the time the ship had drifted two miles down the river, the oars successfully had driven it to the opposite shore. Ahead, a protected pool provided shallows for a mass of water lilies and other water plants. The ship nosed into the plantbed and slowly lifted a few feet above it. Quickly, the crewmembers dragged in the oars and reset the sails.
...... From waterplants, to another bed of ferns, to a mass of thick grasses, to low shrubs growing into bushes, to small stunted trees growing into thick forest. Progressively, the ship rose, until under full sail, it was tacking up the hillside toward the next ridge crest.
...... "Crossing accomplished!" Willi yelled, as he hurried down the deck. "Who needs a ships' bridge anyway?" He motioned to the quarterdeck. "Take her along as before."
...... Xyly gestured acknowledgement, as Willi disappeared down the hatchway, below.
The trail dipped through several rock-bounded switchbacks into a wide, forested valley which encompassed a slow moving, substantial river -- a river wide enough to have two, narrow, tree-covered islands in its center. Carrying a broken-off hunk of bread in one hand, Justin stopped at the top of the two meter high embankment, which overhung the clear, swirling water.
...... "Perhaps we should stay here long enough to catch some fish for dinner," he suggested, watching the eddies along the overhanging bank. A patch of waterweeds swayed beneath the shelter of a low hanging tree branch.
...... "Fish?" she replied dubiously -- past a mouthful of the hard, coarse, dark bread. She ambled through short ferns down the slope from the path. "Are those things really edible?" Pulling off another bit of bread, she tossed it into her mouth and slowly chewed.
...... He peered at her for a long moment, then tore a section off of his own portion of travelers' meal. "On second thought, maybe I won't." Looking out at the two islands, he added: "There's no word for swim in your language. So I suppose you don't go out into the water farther than the shallows."
...... "Of course not! You'd drown, if you did." She backed up two yards from the edge to stand silently munching. "That's always a hazard, when the ships settle into a lake. If someone falls overboard, that's it for them." A gust of wind blew cool humidity up from the surface of the river.
...... "Generally, the water around here is very cold," he conceded with a wave of his meal. "That won't bode well for water sports of any kind." Pausing, he turned to look upstream. "And floating out on a few planks probably doesn't look very safe to people. Which would make those islands out there a very safe refuge."
...... "If someone was crazy enough, to do what you just described." She brushed her hands together to knock off the bread crumbs, before turning to climb back up the slope.
...... "Or desperate enough," he corrected, following her through the mud of the fern bed to the trail. "My people call them rafts." He gulped the last of his one-item meal.
...... "I didn't think your people had enough water to wade in, up north," she tossed back over her shoulder.
...... "We don't, usually," he agreed. "But we know about rafts. As a mode of travel, where there's enough water, it's faster than walking. And a lot easier on the feet!"
...... Stopping beside the packhorse, she favored him with an odd look before picking up the leather lead. "I think I'll pass on that sort of enriching experience. If you don't mind."
...... He chuckled, as he started off along the trail at a fast walk. Pulling gently on the tether, she started off after him, followed by the packhorse.
...... The trail of mud and sharp stones wound up another hillside, not much different than all of the others. It reached an almost identical rocky crest, where the trees thinned enough to see glimpses of the ever gray sky. The thicker gray of a rain squall was building in the distance. Then the path sloped downward again, and unexpectedly, opened out into street-like dimensions -- the site of a village.
...... Justin halted at the edge of the undergrowth to view the eleven crude dwellings, which were built as usual among the tree trunks. "I don't think anyone is home," he remarked, while loosening one of his swords in the sheathes strapped to his back.
...... Beyond a shallow, bubbling brook, the village was silent -- seemingly empty. Door curtains swayed in idle scraps of wind, and the odor of mud clung to the ground. On the boot-churned, brown soil, a few homemade household articles were scattered among the battered grass stems. A flat tree stump was adorned with a tattered coat and a small pile of split kindling.
...... No animals were visible, among the houses or in the corral. Behind it, a blacksmith's workshop stood, its tools strewn across the undergrowth. A thin wisp of smoke swirled from the furnace.
...... "We'd better move on quickly," Misty said from behind him. "It must have been another of their perennial raids on each other. You'd think, as little as they have, they could leave each other alone and get on with their lives." She pulled on the leather lead and sidled past him.
...... "It's not the cash value. It's the joy of doing another person down." He hurried forward through the deserted clearing.
...... Beyond the village, the trees closed in on the irregular trail. He tried to watch the surrounding forest and his own footing on the loose earth and stones at the same time.
...... "I haven't heard a question lately," she chided, idly swinging the weighted end of the leather lead.
...... "I was wondering what kind of a place, someone like you lives in," he responded, as he skirted a soft mud bed.
...... "We . . . my family has a large timber house." She paused to negotiate the slippery section. "Actually, the foundation and first floor are stone, and the second and third floors are timber. The stone came from what was dug out of the fields, and the timber from forest cleared for farmland. The roof is of fitted planks, practically rainproof." She sneezed, then rubbed her nose. "The house sits at the top of a low hill on the outskirts of the village. It's several hundred years old. At least, the oldest part of it. My family's always been there."
...... "Sounds nice. You know, I think we've actually gone an entire night and a day without rain," he mused, looking up at the thin gaps in the leaves above. "What was life like at home?"
...... "It'll break in a few more hours," she advised. "I had my own room there. A fairly large room, with space for a dressing table, and a divan right in the room. It was up at the roof peak and had a tiny balcony. I really liked it there."
...... She stopped to scrape a glop of mud from one boot before continuing. "From the balcony, I could just see the lake and the ships, over the cleared farmland. In the summer, the breeze would blow in to cool the room, and during winter, the roof had enough of an overhang over the balcony that the rains wouldn't come in. I could sit out there year around and watch what went on. We lived by the main road, so I could see the carts and the people on their way to town and the wharf. On clear days, I could watch the ships climb up the ridge going south."
...... She paused, while she eased the packhorse through the narrows between two trees. "What are your people like? Any brothers or sisters? Or wives?" she laughed.
...... "None of any of the above," he allowed, waiting for her to catch up. "No relatives at all." Still on guard, he surveyed the forest.
...... "So where do you live?" she inquired, starting off along the trail. She detoured around a large spider web.
...... "Wherever I pitch my tent . . . or its equivalent. Did you have many friends around? Back home," he quickly inquired.
...... She shook her head, making her braid swing. "There was farmland all around the house, but the neighbors' farmhouses were a good long walk away. Our house isn't just an isolated house, either. There's outbuildings, workshops and like that, since the place is home to about forty people." She gestured with an open hand. "Some work the farmland, and some do handicrafts. Each farm is its own small village, a separate world, with everything anyone needs grown or made or done right there."
...... He slowed to adjust the set of his two swords, pushing them tightly into the sheaths, then hurried forward again. Slipping on a loose stone, he grabbed at a tree branch, and it broke under his weight. He regained his balance and tossed the broken branch into the undergrowth.
...... "Are there no servants in your home?" he asked, slapping his hands together to shake off the bark fragments.
...... "Why? Are you applying for a job?" she teased, then shook her head again. "My parents don't believe in personal servants, not even for themselves. I did chores from the first I can remember. I weeded the kitchen garden and collected the eggs from the henhouse." She quietly laughed. "When I was older, I ran the brewery! That's harder than you might think it is. Other than that, I studied. I don't suppose you'd call tutors servants."
...... "That's what I miss at the moment," he said, rubbing at a small cut from the tree branch. "A good drink."
...... "These Outlaws don't seem to have anything like that. Even the cider I found was just apple juice." She waved that away. "My mother and father also had their own work to do every day. The only servants, if you could call them that, was a woman who helped my mother with the cleaning and the weaving, and a man who did all the cooking for everyone who lived there. There's a big kitchen at the back of the house."
...... "It sounds rather self-sufficient," he remarked, carefully pushing a loose stone off of the path with his boot toe.
...... She thought for a long moment, then shrugged. "We weren't particularly self-sufficient. All of the farms around us are run much the same way. The people, two farms over, have a grain mill, and the family behind us has an apple-press. My mother does very good weaving and often trades that with the others." She paused for a tiny sigh. "Now it seems like ancient history."
...... He slowed, glancing over his shoulder. "I hope I didn't make you homesick," he apologized.
...... She shrugged again. "Not really. I've been away from home quite a lot, these past few years. Like you, wherever I am that's my home."
...... The trail twisted over the crest, opened out into a rocky clearing at the top, then meandered into thick forest and back down again. Muddy stretches alternated with partly dry soil, bounded by small tinkling creeks. Some of the gaps in the stone outcrop leaked trickles of water, which fed thick beds of soft green moss. The tree branches waved soundlessly in the infrequent gusts of wind.
...... Suddenly, there was a crash of breaking limbs among the closely spaced trees. Dimly seen in the leaf-filtered light, the silhouette of a person vanished into the thickest part of the undergrowth.
...... Justin snatched out one sword and bounded to the path's edge, to climb quickly up on a large boulder. He watched the area, listening for other sounds of movement. The forest was again silent.
...... "I think that was merely someone else, more frightened of us than we are of them," Misty called. She had moved, her back to a tree trunk, to wait with her knife out at the ready. "It might have been someone from the deserted village way back there."
...... "It's possible," he conceded in a dubious tone. He shoved his sword back in its sheath and jumped down from his perch.
...... "That's why this's considered Outlaw land. It's everyone for themselves." She put away her own knife. "Under the circumstances, I can't blame them for being skiddish."
...... They sat on a boulder to rest, while the packhorse grazed among the dark, fragrant ferns. Filling the idle time, she continued to talk about her home -- describing the town and the terrain, what people did and what they thought, what Center was like to live in and work in.
...... Finally, they shuffled to their feet once more. He caught the end of the tether and started down the trail again. She ducked past him to led the way, her hand resting on the hilt of her knife.
...... They followed the twisting pathway to the next tiny stream, skirted its small, weed-edged pond until the stream left it, forded the trickle of water at that place, and continued on up the narrow path to the top of the next ridge. The crest was rocky and completely bare. They started across the unstable jumble of irregular stones to the downslope forest on the other side.
...... Midway, Justin halted to motion across the valley. "Over there. Look."
...... On the opposite slope, two ships were traveling above the forest -- both with full sail set, both racing downhill toward the narrow valley. The ship behind was slightly faster and gaining on the ship ahead.
...... "A chase of some kind." She pointed, waving one hand. "That ship there, the one behind, is a stranger. It may be a pirate from the south, coming north." She stepped up on a low mound of loose stones. "It's not a very good idea for them. They won't know the land around here. And that's dangerous for a ship."
...... "So you've explained." He adjusted his footing on the loose rocks. "Those ships shouldn't be traveling that fast with just this amount of wind."
...... "They always do." She opened both hands and shrugged. "They always have."
...... He glanced at her, before turning to watch the ships again. "What sort of weapons do they have?"
...... "The usual. Spears, swords, and bare hands." She shifted position on her unstable perch, watching the scene. "That second ship will have to catch the first ship and board it. If it can! If that first Captain knows this area, as he should, it won't be able to do it."
...... The two ships swerved to the valley bottom and started up the slope toward them.
...... "And I'd like to be farther back among the trees right now." He tugged on the leather lead. "Personally, I feel a little exposed right here."
...... "I think I can appreciate that thought," she agreed, jumping down. The stones shifted, and she slid the final yard, holding her arms out for balance. "Oh, damn!" she sighed, as she inspected a new rip in a sleeve seam.
...... Glancing down the slope, she suddenly squeaked and put her hand against her mouth.
...... The first ship was midway up the slope; the second in full-sail pursuit. But the wind had wavered, and the second ship had wavered with it. Blown to one side, it went down on a rock outcropping.
...... With a dull crunch which echoed throughout the valley, its hull slammed onto the rocks. Its masts crumpled forward, snapping all of the standing rigging. From somewhere inside of the ruined vessel, a bright lash of flame reached out for the surrounding undergrowth -- and caught. In moments, the fire had grown into a lopsided circle. Pushed by the wind, it moved toward the crest at an astonishing speed. The gray sky reflected the red and yellow highlights of the fast-moving flames.
...... She looked around frantically, her boots skidding on the loose stones. "There's no way we can outrun it. It'll go over the crest here and on down the other side. There isn't any shelter anywhere! There isn't any time to do anything!" Her voice rose. "We don't have a chance!"
...... "Back down the trail!" Justin commanded, yanking on the tether to turn the packhorse. His boots sent small stones flying everywhere.
...... "But that's toward the fire!" she objected, scrambling after him.
...... "The water pool," he tossed over his shoulder, as he urged the packhorse forward. "It's our one hope."
...... "I hope you know what you're talking about," she complained, catching up.
...... Sliding, slipping, and running along the trail, they retraced their way downward. The air began to smell of burning wood, and the distant crackling sounds merged into a steady roar. The few, thin ribbons of smoke gleamed with the red light of hidden flames. The wind was building, driven by the heat.
...... Stumbling along the broken ground, he pulled continuously on the leather lead, forcing the packhorse into a fast walk on the treacherous footing. Misty hurried on ahead, yanking and ripping at the remaining fragments of undergrowth which barred their way. In a few minutes, more smoke began to curl in the gaps between the tree branches.
...... Shoving into the tiny clearing which held the shallow pool, they trampled the waterweeds along the edge and splashed into the middle of the pond. At its deepest point, Justin forced the packhorse to lie down on the muddy bottom, twisting its head to hold its nose above water. Misty stood waist deep, silently watching the overhead leaves brighten with the reflected light of the fire. The breeze brought the odor of burning destruction.
...... With his free hand, he dragged scraps of cloth from a bundle in the pack. "Wet it, and hold it over your nose and mouth," he ordered. "When the heat becomes too much, duck under water, and stay down as long as you can." He stopped to cough.
...... Eyes frightened, her braid coming unraveled, she reluctantly nodded and dunked the cloth in the water. A gust of dry, heated wind sprinkled them with fine gray ash.
...... "Remember to breathe through the wet cloth, when you come back up," he warned, against the rising sound of the approaching flames.
...... Within moments, the air temperature rose, along with the noise of the fire. The leaves above them began to wither visibly. At the last possible moment, he nudged her shoulder, shoved the horse's nose down, and ducked beneath the water's surface -- which seemed to hiss and crackle above him.
...... Minutes which seemed hours later, the horse forced its head back to the surface, dragging Justin upward. He held the drenched cloth against his face, but the air was breathable -- hot and smoky, foul smelling, but breathable. Allowing himself only shallow breaths, he outwaited the last of the heat, as fresh air was pulled in behind the flame front. The waterweeds were only white ash lining the pond's edge, and blackened fragments of wood floated on the surface of the pool.
...... A moment later, she bobbed to the surface, tried the air, and lowered the dripping cloth. After only a few seconds of indecision, she splashed out of the pool. "I've got to do something!" she declared over the rumble of the distant flames. "Someone's got to stop it. And I'm the only one here!"
...... She halted just beyond the waterline to look around at the devastation.
...... The ground was covered with a fine, white ash, which turned into a soggy brown mush under her wet boots. Dark gray ash swirled in the tiny gusts of warm breeze. Blackened tree trunks -- totally devoid of all limbs -- poked forlornly up at the gray sky. The air smelled acrid and harsh, laced with tiny droplets of wetness. Beyond the next ridge, the darker thickening of the thunderstorm obscured the succession of ridges beyond.
...... Urging the packhorse to its feet, Justin trudged out of the pool, his clothes dripping in a constant stream. He stopped next to her to stare around at the ruins of the forest. Soot-painted outcrops of rock encircled the area, and what once was the trail, was hidden completely beneath the cinders.
...... "Over there," she quickly decided, turning back. "Thank Good Fortune, a natural rainstorm's already growing." Digging around in the soaked pack of tradegoods, she brought out the wax candle which she had used before. Running forward to a flat rock, she wedged the candle in a crevice, knelt on the blackened ground before it, and cupped her hands around the wick, concentrating.
...... "I can't do it!" she suddenly wailed, lowering her head and hiding her face in her soot-streaked hands.
...... Dropping the packhorse's tether, he ran to kneel right behind her. "You can! I know that you can," he soothed, firmly gripping her shoulders. "I saw you do it before. You're just shaken up a bit. You need to relax a moment. Five minutes isn't going to make any difference," he droned on. "There's no hurry. We're safe here, so give yourself a few minutes to compose yourself. Just relax. There's no hurry, no hurry at all. It'll come back to you."
...... She leaned against him, softly sobbing. In a minute, she quieted.
...... Giving his hand a quick squeeze, she pulled forward, took a deep breath, and cupped the candle once again. Her hands shook slightly, and a few last tears trickled from the corners of her eyes to form streaks in the soot.
...... In a minute, she took her hands away to show the tiny flame.
...... "I knew you could do it," he offered, still tightly holding her shoulders. "It's just a matter of settling down enough."
...... "That's only the first step," she warned in a quiet voice. With her hands braced on her knees, she closed her eyes in concentration -- her body unmoving, perfectly still.
...... The candle flame began to flicker, as the gusts of wind changed direction, nearly reversing. The new wind brought clouds of dense smoke and a stronger odor of burning. Overhead, the gray daylight faded, as the thunderstorm rushed in at an impossible speed. The black and gray landscape slowly turned to sickly green in the storm's filtered light.
...... Justin continued to hold her against him, unwilling to move -- unwilling to do anything which might break her concentration. The packhorse hunkered down, as though ready to run at any provocation. In the far distance, the first of the thunder echoed from the hills, and the rising breeze carried in small raindrops, dark-colored from the smoke and ash.
...... The wind picked up speed, whistling around the wrecked tree trunks. Closer and faster, the lightning threw stark shadows across the ruined forest. Then, the rainstorm arrived, as a drenching downpour which seemed to fall sideways in the heaving wind -- breaking into masses of fine spray, wherever it smashed against the exposed boulders.
...... Quick-moving trickles of water found new beds among the ashes on the ground, black and filthy with the soot they carried. All of the soil turned into brown, thick soup. The wind rose to gale strength; the rain to deluge proportions. Many of the damaged tree trunks creaked in the swirling gusts of cold wind. Somewhere, something cracked, toppled, and rolled to a crunching stop.
...... Slowly, the ferocity of the rain decreased, as the storm drifted over the top of the ridge, while pounding the ground with enormous raindrops. The sky lost its green tint, returning to its normal dull gray. The rain tapered off to a heavy sprinkle, which washed clean each of the small, new brooks which meandered around the stained boulders and ruined tree trunks. The abnormal candle flame flickered out.
...... She slumped against him, pulling his arms tightly around her. The rain lessened to a thin drizzle, bringing with it the clean smell of the upper storm. The thunder diminished, as its sound was blocked by the ridges. The sky brightened to dull gray midday.
...... "It's done," she whispered, her voice lined with exhaustion. "The fire's out! And the storm's dying down now." Trying to stand, she stumbled and grabbed hold of him for support, her body shivering in the cooling breeze.
...... He scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the flat space on the rock outcrop, a few yards above the pool. Leaving her to sit leaning against the warm stone, he quickly unloaded the packhorse, strung ropes between the wreckage of trees, assembled the tent, and laid out the bedrolls.
...... After she was dried off and tucked into thick, warm blankets, he built a tiny fire with the last of the kindling from the tradegoods pack, set out some food to heat, and filled a bucket with relatively clean water from a tiny, new brook which now flowed into the pool.
...... After a few spoonfuls of warm stew, she fell asleep. He finished his own meal, washed their garments as well as he could in the ash-laden pool, hung them on ropes to dry, and settled down tiredly in his own blankets. The tiny fire died out from lack of fuel. Faint light from the night sky turned the scene to dim shadows. The destroyed forest was totally silent. An hour later, he awoke startled, as a warm body slid under the blanket beside him -- half on top of him. Her long, unbraided hair tumbled down across his face.
...... "After all that before, I'm in the mood to make love," she stated, putting her arms around his neck and staring at him from inches away.
...... "Misty!" He shifted, so he could see her in the vague light from the dark sky. The campfire was cold embers. "I know you think . . . ."
...... "And, since you're the only good man for two hundred miles around," she continued over his protests, "you are hereby appointed to take care of me." She climbed on top of him, her weight pressing him hard against the thin blankets.
...... "Michelle! Look. You think you owe something, because I was willing to help . . . ," he tried again.
...... Brushing her hair out of her way, she calmly raised her voice over his. "And, if you want to claim that you don't know how, then you'd better be one hell of a fast learner!" Twisting slightly, she kicked the blanket out of her way.
...... "Misty! It's only a reaction you feel from that narrow escape from the fire," he argued, trying to push loose strands of her hair away from his face. You don't really want . . . ."
...... Settling herself comfortably on top of him, she caught his head in her hands and pressed her lips hard against his, cutting off the protest. In a moment, he relaxed, wrapped his arms around her to stroke her skin, and returned her kisses just as hungrily.
...... Much later in the night, exhausted and spent, she stirred again, raising her head from where it rested on his chest. She lightly pushed against his tightly enfolding arms and arched her back, so she could look into his eyes.
...... "I hope you won't regret this," he softly spoke. "You really are . . . quite something."
...... "Sometime yesterday, in all that mad dash, I lost the beautiful hair clasp you gave me." She quietly laughed. "That is all I will ever regret!" After a long pause, she added: "Justin? I'm afraid we have a very large problem."
...... "Which of the dozen or so major disasters are you referring to?" Gently stroking her back, he felt the coolness of her skin, managed to locate the corner of the blanket, and pulled it partly up over her.
...... "Tonight, and before. All this means more to you than just some convenient wench found along the pathside." She caught the other corner of the blanket and pulled it over both of them. "You are in love with me."
...... "I thought somehow you had some fresh news. I had, in fact, become very uncomfortably aware of that fact some time ago." He returned to stroking her back. "Quite some time ago, in fact."
...... "And as for me, this is not just a reaction to the past danger of the fire, or anything else." She folded her arms across his chest and rested her chin on them. "Much to my regret, I seem to have fallen rather badly in love with you."
...... "That also has come to my attention of late." He paused to tuck the blanket around her bare shoulders. "Rather forcefully, I might add."
...... "This is impossible!" She attempted to gesture under the blanket. "We can't love each other. We don't dare. We come from two different places, two different cultures. We each have our own duties, and we each must return to them. Nothing good can possibly come from what we feel for each other."
...... He tightened his arms around her, hugging her closely to him. "I must allow that you have that unique ability to discern the utterly obvious! What other totally apparent conclusions have you come to?"
...... Laughing happily, she tossed back: "I think that's enough for one night." She turned to lay her head sideways on her arms, limp and relaxed.
...... After another long silence, she continued in a serious tone: "I can't live in your world, and you can't live in mine. But I love you, and you obviously love me. I delight in your existence, and I want to stay with you always . . . which is impossible!" She sighed deeply for emphasis. "What are we going to do?"
...... He nuzzled the top of her head, kissing her lightly. "I wish I knew, Little One. I really truly wish I knew."
|chapter six||CHAPTER SEVEN||chapter eight|
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)