Updated: May 24, 2020
She woke sluggish and light-headed, then jerked to alarmed alertness when she realized her hands and feet were bound. Her pulse jolted into a harried rabbit pace, but she forced herself to breathe and think.
The full moon was visible through the treetops and in its shimmery white light she was able to make out her surroundings.
She’d been left on the ground in a small clearing in the midst of a thick copse of pines. The only sounds were the rustling of the breeze through the tree boughs and the faint chirps of late-season insects persisting against the cold. Her restraints were obviously the oiled cloths once used to blindfold and gag the Ulic prisoners. Her throat ached from where she’d been throttled, but she was able to curl herself up to sitting without little trouble. And then she saw him.
“You will not free yourself,” Atal said, his diction perfect in her language despite his thick accent. “I tie excellent knots.”
Glowering at her, she twisted her wrists against the bonds, willing her hands to shrink. She reached for the dagger inside her coat.
He held it up. The blade shone in the moonlight. She lapsed into rigid silence, mulling her options and pretending that she didn’t feel his glittering eyes upon her. He twirled the dagger casually.
“What will you do?” he asked after a time.
“Whatever it is,” she said through her teeth, “I won’t be telling you beforehand.” It was then that she realized that she was still masked. This surprised and, thus, distracted her. And the prickling heat of his gaze wasn’t helping.
She needed to focus, to figure a way out of her bindings and back to—
She stiffened, glancing around. “Where’s Flegel?”
The dagger stopped dancing. “The horse?”
She scowled in response.
“He’s tied,” Atal said. “Not far.”
“He shouldn’t be tied by the reigns,” she said, unable to stop herself. Talking to him was dangerous. His words were like wine. They muddled her mind, weakened her better judgment.
The dagger began twirling again.
She started working on the knot around her ankles. He’d taken her boots, why not take her mask?
She tugged at the cloth, tried tearing it, but only made her fingers burn. All the while, he sat there, watching her.
Why didn’t he try to stop her or kill her or at least knock her unconscious?
This was ridiculous, why didn’t she just scream? She sat up straight and opened her mouth.
“It’s no good,” he cut in. “There’s no one to hear.”
She glared at him and then found that too unsettling and had to show her distain to the mossy ground instead.
Time seemed interminable, but she refused to speak. She refused to acknowledge the aching that his proximity inspired.
How could she even think of such things? It wasn’t his words that confused her, it was his mere presence.
She needed to escape.
She needed to kill him.
He was Ulic.
He was Arthor’s son.
He was her enemy.
She cursed herself. This was why they didn’t let women fight. Her body was betraying her. It should’ve been repulsed, it should’ve wanted to flee, it should’ve felt anything but what it was feeling. She never hated her sex more than she did at that moment.
After a time, she even lost focus on her self-hatred. All her awareness shifted to Atal, and keeping her gaze off of him.
She struggled not to shiver. How could she be so warm and so cold at the same time?
As she sat there, she heard Flegel bluster and pound his front hooves. Atal hadn’t lied, the brat wasn’t far. Perhaps only ten feet. She hoped he wouldn’t tug too hard on his reigns and injure himself. Past the few owl hoots and the scrabbling of a passing nocturnal animal, there was persistent, rhythmic susurration. She closed her eyes and focused on it. It only took her a moment to understand what it was.
“You know the sea,” Atal said.
She tensed. Damn him. How did he know her every thought?
She opened her eyes, but still, refused to look at him.
“Why do you do it?” he asked. “Why do you fight?”
“Why do you kill and pillage?” she growled.
“Take off your mask and I will tell you.”
“Why don’t you take it off?”
“I want you to do it.”
She kept her face turned away, not moving.
“I think you want to know why my father came to this land so many years ago,” he said.
“Why he attacks your country, though he has no more need of wealth or grain or women.”
Her fingers twitched.
“Your people, they call him a king,” Atal went on. “But he is not a king. Once, he might have been, but then, if he were, he would not have come here in the first place.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, clenching from toes to fingers. The only means of escape was death.
“Why don’t you kill me?” she spat, at last giving in and glowering at him directly.
He held her gaze for a long, long time. Until heat had flooded into every part of her.
“You know why,” he said finally.
Why didn’t he just slit her throat?
Every moment, she was losing ground. He was a strong current towing her out to open water and her struggle to swim back to shore was only making her weaker and hastening the inevitable drowning.
“If I take off the mask, you will tell me everything,” she said. “The truth.”
His answer was only a slight lifting of his brows.
She unfastened the buckles and the mask fell into her hands. She stared at its crumpled shape in her palms.
“You are right to wear the mask,” he said in a deceptively casual tone. She was only slightly bolstered by the fact that she could see through him almost as well as he could see through her. “Your beauty would give you away.” A soft sound escaped from deep in from his chest. “You do not look like the people of this region. You must be from the south.”
This drew her full attention.
His mouth twined up on one side.
“I’ve killed men who look like you,” he said in answer to the question she hadn’t asked.
“Tireachan’s mercenaries. Knights, but their armor does not protect them from our metal.”
He lifted the axe that was tucked in the pile of dead needles behind him.
“How did you know?” she asked, despite her every intention not to speak. Weaker and weaker.
His grin curled away and the air became dense and electric, as though a storm was moving in, but the sky was clear. She dropped her head. Her hands crushed the mask.
Suddenly he was next to her, his breath warm on her cheek, though she kept her face down. He turned her face to him and said,
“I’ve never wanted to do to a man, what I want to do to you.”
He kissed her. And she couldn’t even pretend, she kissed him back.
He cut the bindings from her hands and her feet.
Her hands, that could’ve killed—that should have—him, didn’t try to take the dagger from him or throttle him. They pulled at his clothes and caught in his hair.
And her legs that should’ve carried her away tightened around him and held him to her.
And what he did to her . . . she wanted him to do again and again.
She felt weaker than she’d ever felt in her life.