After half a dozen buildings, we dropped to the ground via an outdoor staircase Heidar had discovered. We spent long, tense minutes slipping through dark alleys, watching lanterns flicker in and out of the shadows above us. The Fey seemed to think we were still on the rooftops, at least for now.
Heidar had stuffed the horse behind a cart piled high with barrels. It blocked the only exit to a small alley, creating a makeshift pen. He moved the cart slightly to the side to let the horse out, while I stared at it dubiously. My feet were killing me, but a fact was a fact. "I don't ride, you know."
"What do you mean, you don't ride?"
"I mean, I don't ride. As in, never been on a horse in my life." The very large animal snorted loudly. It didn't seem to appreciate getting rained on any more than I did, or maybe it was me it didn't like. It rolled its eyes and whinnied unhappily every time I came near.
Heidar was looking at me like I'd told him I didn't know how to walk. "Everyone can ride."
"Can you drive a car?"
I shrugged. "Different worlds."
He grasped me around the waist and tossed me onto the horse's back. "Yes, but we're stuck in this one, at least for now. Hold on." He vaulted up in front of me and I clutched the soggy fabric of his tunic in a death grip. Then we were off.
The horse didn't come equipped with a saddle, and its back was wet and slippery. It took most of my concentration not to slide off one side or the other as we went pelting down a maze of tiny streets, splashing through puddles and constantly changing direction. The sound of hooves striking cobblestones echoed off the surrounding buildings, seeming to come back at us from every direction at once. I could hear shouts and see wildly swinging lanterns, both above us and flickering in and out of dark alleyways. As the minutes passed, more and more of them were on our level. The Fey had figured out that we were no longer on the rooftops, but couldn't quite catch up to Heidar's crazy horsemanship.
Those above us kept shouting to the ones in the street, giving them directions, I suppose, about which way we were headed. One somehow reached a wooden structure that formed a bridge over the street just before we did. When we passed underneath, he pushed a large barrel down almost on top of our heads. It missed, splintering into pieces on the cobblestones right beside us, but the gush of water it threw out hit me like a fist. The force of it knocked me sprawling, but Heidar somehow caught me before I hit the ground, grabbing the waistband of my soggy gown just before I slammed face-first into the hard road.
The wet chiffon stretched across my chest, leaving what felt like welts behind, but amazingly, it didn't rip. Heidar managed to control the rearing horse, which had been reigned in too abruptly for its liking, and maneuvered it back under the bridge for cover. He pulled me up in front of him as the guard overhead started shooting at us.
"Are you all right?" he asked, sounding almost as breathless as I was. I nodded in response, not having enough air left in my lungs to speak. "We have to risk it," he said simply.
I pushed wet hair out of my eyes and saw what he meant. The guard on the bridge had a bad angle, and none of his arrows were connecting, but his shouts had been answered from several points behind us. Half a dozen lanterns swung into the street as I watched, some of the fuzzy shapes running flat out for us, others dropping to their knees to nock arrows. Staying where we were definitely wasn't an option.
I spit out a mouthful of dirty water and nodded. Heidar got a better grip on me, maneuvered the horse to one side of the street, then dug his heels into the animal's flanks. We shot out from under the bridge, racing down the covered arcade to one side of the road. The arcade's roof kept the guard's arrows from hitting us, but enough baskets, covered carts and barrels blocked the way to serve as an obstacle course. I almost got beheaded by an empty clothesline, but Heidar pushed my face down into the horse's mane just in time. And, less than a block later, we left the town behind, bursting out into what looked like endless acres of pastureland.
I foolishly thought we were home free, but although the Fey didn't follow us, the storm certainly did. It actually seemed to be getting worse as we left town. The trees whipped wildly back and forth on either side of the road, and the horse began bucking every time a flash lit the sky. Heidar finally had to get down to lead it into the face of the driving wind, slowing our pace to a crawl.
After what felt like a couple of miles, we stopped in front of a black shape that rose suddenly out of the dark. "It's a barn," Heidar yelled. I thought that was a very optimistic assessment, but any shelter sounded good at the moment. He broke open the door and I dragged my sodden self inside. It was very cramped, made even more so by the horse that was trying to push in after me.
"Leave the animal outside!" I yelled.
Heidar stubbornly led it the rest of the way in, then closed the door behind us. "It would tell anyone who passes where we are."
I didn't think too many people were likely to be passing on a night like this, but said nothing. With the door shut, it was pitch-black, without even the brief lightning bursts to give a clue where anything was. I stood motionless, not wanting to bash my head, while he searched around and somehow made a fire.
The small, flickering flames highlighted the fact that we were definitely not in a barn. It would be a stretch to call it a toolshed, although that seemed to be its main purpose. A pile of gardening equipment was stacked near one wall, which was all of ten feet away. On the other was a drying rack for herbs, a small table, a chair and a bucket. That was it.
The storm was right overhead; sounding like a great battle was taking place outside. It made the structure creak and groan alarmingly, but it had to be sturdier than it looked, because it didn't spring a leak. I stopped contemplating the high-beamed ceiling when the horse nuzzled against me, trying to make up for almost tossing me in a puddle earlier. I wrinkled my nose at it, both because of the smell and the fact that it had grabbed the best position by the fire. I sat down at the table and resigned myself to a long night.
My thoughts were interrupted by a gigantic sneeze. "That doesn't sound good," Heidar commented. "Get out of those wet things and sit by the fire before you become ill."
"How am I supposed to 'sit by the fire' with that animal's backside in the way?"
The Fey sighed and pushed the horse into a corner of the little shed. It neighed in protest, but went. "Now, come to the heat and stop sulking," he told me.
I was about to make a sharp comment when an expression of pain crossed his face. It probably had something to do with the wicked-looking arrow point sticking out below his collarbone. It looked like the guard had been a better shot than I thought.
Old instincts took over. "Let me look at that." Heidar shied away, but I pursued him until his back hit the wall. "Don't be a baby. I'm not going to hurt you." I couldn't believe I was having to say that to someone who had a foot in height and about seventy pounds on me.
"What are you planning to do?"
"To help you, you stupid elf! I'm a nurse." I pulled on his good arm until he settled down at the tiny table.
"We are not called elves," he informed me. I used his knife to cut the tunic fabric away from the problem area, baring a long pale back to view. The dampness had kept the blood from drying around the wound, and the fabric came away easier than I'd expected for soaked cloth. It was the only good thing about the situation, though. "That is a human term. It's considered pejorative in Faerie."
"I'll keep that in mind. I'd hate to offend any Svarestri I meet." He smiled slightly, but the next minute his face drained of color when I snapped off the arrow point in a sudden movement. "Sorry."
He nodded, sweat blooming on his forehead. I tried to pull the shaft out of his back, to get the worst over with, but it wouldn't budge. It took me a minute to realize why. I stared at the ugly wound in disbelief. In the dim lantern-light, it looked black against his pale flesh, but it was about to look a whole lot worse. "This isn't good."
"I know. Do it quick."
"That's what I'm trying to tell you – I can't. I don't understand it, but... you've already started to heal. Around the arrow."
"Of course." He said it like every wound closes in less than an hour. "Pull it out before it gets any worse!"
I swallowed. This was not going to be fun. "You, uh, might want to hold onto something," I told him. Then I grasped hold of the feathered end of the shaft and gave a heave.
Heidar made a muffled grunt, and bit his bottom lip white, but overall he took it better than I did. To my relief, the arrow tore free easily, with minimal ripping. The blood that followed the shaft was also less than I'd thought it would be. So why did I suddenly have to sit down on the floor?
"You're a nurse?" He took the bloody shaft from my hand, sounding surprised. I suppose I wasn't acting much like a seasoned professional. Of course, I'd usually worked in the office side of the family business, and paperwork, however messed up, doesn't bleed.
"I'm a Lachesis," I said, blinking away a sudden rush of dizziness. He looked blank. "My family. It's House Lachesis," I clarified. Still blank. That was so bizarre that I actually forgot to be sick. "That means nothing to you?"
"The Disposer. In your mythology, she was one of the three Moirae, the Fates. She measured the spread of human life and determined its length." He looked slightly amused. "I hope you are not politely trying to tell me that my time is up."
"No." My vision cleared slightly. "The rumor is that an ancestor fled Venice after being involved in a poisoning affair that got a little too public. She settled in France, but that was the 1660s and a big poison scare was going on there, too. So she didn't think it smart to use her real name. Considering her profession, I guess Lachesis sort of made sense."
"I'm in the hands of an expert poisoner?" Heidar's smile began to fade around the edges.
"We've been known for centuries as the people to see if you're serious about magical healing."
"Or the reverse?"
He was more perceptive than a lot of our clients. I'd helped to draw up the contracts for curse removal, until I had an attack of conscience on seeing how many of them were for the same people, over and over again. Our cures would work, but in the process place another curse on the sufferer. Not for nothing was Lachesis known as miracle workers in the healing arts: half the curses we removed were our own.
"I'm retired," I said briefly, getting up to finish the job. "And I'm not likely to poison my only guide in this crazy place."
His tunic tore the rest of the way off with a little help from the knife, leaving me staring at a surprisingly well-muscled torso. All the Fey I'd previously encountered had looked like those tonight – tall, but with a slender, almost willowy build. It probably explained why they moved like gazelles, with a quick, springy grace and perfect balance. This one didn't move like that, and now I understood why. His arms, shoulders and chest were well-defined, and the hard muscles coiled beneath that smooth skin gave him more weight to carry.
He said something, but I didn't hear it. Streams of rainwater had found their way inside the V-neck of his tunic and ran down his chest, gathering in the dark hollow of his navel. Water droplets still gleamed here and there, and a damp strand of hair had curled in a sinuous curve across his chest.
Brilliant lapis eyes, their color darkened by the low light, met mine. I realized that my hand had been stroking his arm idly, over a sprinkling of sun freckles near his shoulder. More ran over his nose and across his cheekbones. They were light, almost unnoticeable, but I'd never seen a Fey with freckles before.
"I'll get something for the wound," I told him, tossing the remains of the tunic over the side of the table and moving as far away as I could get in the little room.
"I usually heal well enough on my own," he offered, but I ignored him. I needed something to do, and just because he healed fast didn't mean he couldn't get an infection.
I found lavender and pretty yellow calendula flowers on the drying rack, along with some other stuff I didn't recognize. The idea of having new, completely unknown herbs to experiment on was almost enough to distract me from the task at hand. The family had traded with the Fey for ingredients – I'd seen the records of payments made in the office – but I'd never been allowed to handle any of the materials myself. They went to the boys in the lab along with all the other esoteric goodies. I promised myself to do some serious gathering before I went home. Assuming I ever did.
I needed a clean cloth and something to use to make tea. The cloth was nowhere to be found, but the bucket was metal and didn't have any holes, so I figured it would do for a makeshift teapot. I pushed open the door and got slapped in the face by more rain. It was still pouring down, enough to quickly fill the bucket partway, but also to turn the area around the door into a muddy mess.
I gratefully turned back to the dryer part of the shed, only to stop dead. The Fey was getting undressed. He'd already spread the cape on the floor on the far side of the table and hung the shredded tunic on a nail I'd overlooked. Now his hand dropped to the lacings of his leggings. The dark blue fabric hugged his body tightly and only came away slowly, baring first creamy buttocks, then silky thighs and finally well-muscled calves to view. He sat back on the chair, his body on careless display, before noticing me.
"What's wrong?" He was regarding me quizzically, his head tilted slightly to the side. In the soft glow from the fire, his hair took on the sheen of antique gold, like ancient treasure. I swallowed, fighting the urge to touch those shining strands.
I sat my bucket with the herbs inside over the fire and settled down on its far side – practically the only free space left. That put me next to the now steaming horse, but it beat the hell out of the alternative. I'd heard that the Fey had fewer problems with modesty than humans, but could really have done without a demonstration. I occupied myself trying to find something neutral to look at without turning my back on him completely.
I concentrated on the fire, watching the bits of wood and ash thrown up by the flames, but my eyes kept trying to wander to the well-muscled leg and part of one strong thigh visible just beyond it. They were highlighted with minute golden strands that tantalizingly caught the light. Beads of moisture were starting to dry all over his skin, leaving it warm and rosy. I felt a little dizzy.
"What did you put in there?" he asked, peering into the pot.
I swallowed. "Lavender for an antiseptic and calendula to stem blood flow and reduce scarring. It isn't optimal, but it's the best I can do with the stuff at hand." He nodded, but looked at the pot dubiously. I probably shouldn't have mentioned the poison thing.
"I answered your questions; I would appreciate you answering one of mine," he said after a pause. "Who was the mage you called Sebastian? What did he want with you?"
I watched steam start to rise from the pot and wondered how to reply to that. Summing up my past in a few words was a challenge. I decided on the Reader's Digest version.
"My father decided to sell me to the Light Fey. Only a great-uncle found out about it before the deal went through and helped me escape. When Father couldn't produce me as promised, the Fey decided he'd welshed on the deal, so..."
"I can guess."
"Sebastian has been looking for me ever since. And tonight he caught up with me. The family blames me for what happened to Father."
"And your cousin wants revenge."
"Something like that." Actually, the whole family had had a vote, and they'd preferred Seb's bribes to my assurances. Normally, the memory was enough to bring me to angry tears, but at the moment, I seemed unable to get worked up about it. Maybe because I was already worked up about something else.
I couldn't seem to stop staring at Heidar's hair. The top layer had started to dry and, unusual for the Fey, it had a slight ripple to it. The underside was still damp and golden tendrils curled intriguingly against his neck. I suddenly had an almost overwhelming urge to run my hands through that heavy mane, to slide them over that beautiful chest, to kiss him until he cried out and couldn't breathe... he was giving me that puzzled look again.
"Can you describe these Fey?"
I blinked. "What?"
"The ones who tried to buy you."
"Oh. They, uh, they looked like you. Well, sort of." I forced my mind onto the question. "More like the guards back in the village, actually. Same silver hair, same malicious expressions."
Heidar seemed surprised. "The Svarestri don't buy humans. The Alorestri have always been the biggest participants in the slave trade. They lose more warriors holding the border than we do, and need a higher birthrate to compensate. The Svarestri consider humans... unacceptable... as mates."
"Well, they were trying to buy me."
Heidar suddenly looked grim. "The Svarestri do not buy humans," he repeated. "If they were trying to buy you, the only explanation I can think of..."
"What?" I was starting to get worried.
"There is a good chance they were trying to insure that your power was not transmitted to a rival clan's bloodline."
"So?" Slavery was slavery as far as I could see. What difference did the motivation make?
"In their minds, the best way to make sure you did not marry an enemy would not be to marry you themselves." Heidar looked at me gently. "It would be to kill you."
I swallowed. "So, if I'm caught..."
Heidar leaned forward, his face intense. "If we're captured, don't tell them your name. Make something up, tell them I bought you from the Alorestri for a mistress, or that I caught you after you ran away from your master. Tell them anything, but not that you're a null."
"There's a good chance they already know." The attacks in the village hadn't exactly been subtle.
"In this village, yes. But possibly not in the next or in the one after that. I'll do what I can to get us to the border, but if we are captured – "
"I'll remember." Not that it would probably matter. So far, it looked like the Svarestri welcomed guests by shooting them full of holes. No matter who they were.
I stirred the tea, decided it was as good as it was going to get, and took it off the fire. The tunic was still wet, but I tore off long strips and held them close to the flames. I felt the Fey's eyes on me, but I didn't meet them. I was going to have to touch him to dress the wound – there was no alternative since he couldn't reach that high on his back by himself – and I wanted as little stimulus as possible before that.
When the cloth was dry, I gathered everything up and approached him nervously. The tunic strips were soaked in the tea, then wrapped around his shoulder and tied off. It wasn't the prettiest job of dressing a wound I've ever seen, but at least it was done. And with luck, that amazing metabolism would do the rest.
"There. Good as new."
I started to step back, but he caught my hand. "Thank you."
It was a light touch, but it instantly brought all the feelings I'd been trying to suppress roaring back. I stiffened and drew in a ragged breath, my skin suddenly fever hot. His grip tightened, concern coming into those clear blue eyes, and that made everything infinitely worse. It wasn't normal for me to feel this much this quickly, not for anyone. Yet I stood there, swaying slightly, almost able to taste the intoxicating flavor of his skin. I knew something was wrong, that there was more going on here than just attraction, but my need had become almost a tangible thing and I just didn't care.