Authors: Jane Fletcher
The lake itself was small, no more than an eighth of a mile across. A boulder-strewn beach lined the opposite shore. Swimming to the island would be quite feasible, as long as the swimmers were not encumbered by metal or clad in heavy leather, and that was the problem. The Iron Wolves were outnumbered as it was. Arriving on the island without weapons or armor was not going to work in their favor.
The sun was setting and the pine-clad hills overlooking the lake were fading into the dusk. Deryn chewed her lip. Creeping across when it was dark looked to be the best bet, and the outlaws had apparently reached the same conclusion. While she had been watching, they had collected a sizeable woodpile, sufficient to keep a bonfire going through the darkest hours of the night.
The picture of the burning tree again slipped into Deryn’s head, taunting her. How many sunrays had the demon wand been able to trap that afternoon? Could it hold them prisoner until morning, and how much damage could they do when unleashed? How much would being struck by a fireball hurt?
A branch snapped uphill, some way behind her, accompanied by the rustle of leaves. Someone was approaching, although they were still a good thirty feet away, too far to stand any chance of spotting her, hidden in the bushes. Then a hand landed on her shoulder. Deryn’s heart leapt, even as she recognized the touch. But who else could have gotten so close without her noticing?
Brise crouched beside her. “How’s it going?”
“Okay.” Deryn hoped her voice did not give away how startled she had been.
“Any sign of them getting ready for an attack on the mine?”
“No. They’ve had supper and settled down for the night, except the two on watch.”
“Two.” Brise repeated the number as if it was significant and the corners of her mouth twitched down in a fleeting grimace.
“What is it? Does it affect our plans?”
“No. We couldn’t have risked me going alone anyway.”
“Wha…” Deryn swallowed the question. Brise had already slipped away. Not that it mattered. As an apprentice scout, Deryn would be told what she needed to know, when she needed to know it. Brise would decide on the when and what without being asked.
A few seconds later, Deryn again heard the sound of someone approaching—someone who was very definitely not any sort of scout. Judging by the noise, a couple of oxen might be heading her way.
Brise ducked back under the bush, with one of the miners at her side. “Paz is going to take over here.” She turned to the miner. “You’re sure you know what to do?”
Paz looked nervous but determined. “If I spot the outlaws moving, I run like fuck until I’m near enough for you to hear when I blow this whistle.”
“That’ll do.” Brise patted his shoulder and then nodded at Deryn. “You come with me.”
A crease formed the shape of a V between Brise’s eyebrows and her lower lip protruded slightly. Both were signs that she was not happy. Deryn kept her own mouth tightly sealed. Disguising her own excitement would be impossible if she said anything, and it was never wise to antagonize her foster mother.
The situation was not hard to read. Deryn knew the senior Iron Wolves had been working out their strategy. She also knew Brise would have wanted to keep her well away from any danger. This was surely the main reason why she had been dumped on lookout duty, with the original instructions that she would be there until midnight. The change in plan implied that the desperate situation had not allowed Brise the option of shielding Deryn from an active part in the battle.
The day was fading fast. The forest was in its evening transition as the daytime animals sought their nests and burrows while the nocturnal ones stirred. Scents and sounds changed along with the light. Deryn tried to copy Brise’s silent movements, keeping all her senses alert to her surroundings. It would be stupid to worry so much about the outlaws that they walked slap into a bear.
The entrance to the mine was in sight before Brise spoke. “We’re going to hit the outlaws as soon as it’s light enough to see where we’re sticking our swords. Hopefully it will mean we can catch them by surprise, while they’re still asleep.” She glanced Deryn’s way. “You and me are going to swim across the lake after the moon has set and take out their sentries. Once it’s clear, the others will join us.”
“We’ll leave the mine while the moon can still light our way. So I’ll have plenty of time to give you more details when we’re at the lakeside.”
Deryn nodded, battling to keep her expression suitably solemn.
A fire was burning at the mine entrance. Warm light flickered through the logs of the surrounding barricade, casting dancing shadows across the clearing where the miners’ camp had been. Brise hailed the lookout to identify herself before crossing the open space and climbing over the wall. On the other side, a mixed group of mercenaries and miners were sprawled in the warmth of the campfire, passing around a bottle.
Brise nodded at them and then turned to Deryn. “We’ve got a few hours before we have to leave. Try to get some sleep. I need to talk to Faren.”
Deryn said a quick good night to everyone gathered around the fire and wandered a short distance into the mine, looking for somewhere safely out of the way to lie down. She did not want to be trampled in the dark.
“I hear you’ll be taking part in the action.” Shea’s voice made her jump. The young warrior detached herself from a patch of darker shadow and stepped forward. Light from the fire glinted in her eyes and cast a red glow over the loose shirt she was wearing.
Shea gestured at the group by the mine entrance. “Aren’t you going to join them? Have a drink?”
“Brise told me to get some sleep, but I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to. I’m feeling rather…”
“No.” Deryn denied the suggestion vehemently. “Excited.”
“Is it the first time you’ve been in a real fight?”
“Not quite. But the other time was…” Deryn shrugged. The topic was not one she liked talking about.
Fortunately, Shea did not pursue it. She tilted her head to one side. “So what do you want to do?”
Suddenly, knowledge of exactly what she wanted to do leapt into Deryn’s head, and something in Shea’s tone gave her the idea she was not alone in wanting it. But what if she was wrong? Deryn wasted no more than a moment over the doubts. She did not have the time to play around. In a few hours both she and Shea would be fighting for their lives, and if things went wrong, there would be no second chances.
Deryn moved in closer and rested her hand on Shea’s hip. The last awkward jitters in her gut vanished when Shea did not move, except for the grin on her face getting wider.
“There’s no saying what’ll happen in the battle tomorrow. And if it all goes to hell—” Deryn licked her lips and took a deep breath. “I really don’t want to die a virgin.”
“That’s one possibility we can easily rule out.”
Shea’s arms slid around Deryn, locking their bodies together. Shea’s mouth brushed Deryn’s chin before fixing on their goal. She claimed Deryn in a long, deep kiss.
Shea’s lips were so good, firm and soft in perfect measure. Deryn felt her knees turning to water. She broke away from the kiss, breathig hard. The ground was wobbling under her feet. She had to sit before she fell.
Maybe Shea realized the effect she was having, but rather than easing off, she pressed Deryn back against the wall of the mine, pinning her in place. The hard contact between their bodies drove all rational thought from Deryn’s mind, but at least she could no longer fall. She was seized by a raw need, a passion that escalated with each beat of the pulse between her legs. When Shea’s mouth left hers and traveled down her neck Deryn could hear her own breath, sounding like the tortured gasps of a runner.
“Wait here.” Shea’s breath was warm on Deryn’s ear.
Even if she could have depended on her knees to hold firm, Deryn was not about to go anywhere. Shea returned with a small terracotta oil lamp. The single flame danced and quivered, amplifying the tremor in Shea’s arm. Deryn was pleased that she was not alone in feeling clumsy.
Shea reached down and snagged a blanket from her pile of belongings as she passed. “Come on.”
Deryn paused only to grab a second blanket and a sheepskin mat.
A short way along, an exploratory side tunnel branched off from the main shaft, going no more than a dozen feet into the rock. Although it had not been dug with a view to providing a lovers’ den, it would fit the requirements perfectly. Shea even found a bump on the wall, wide and flat enough to set the lamp on. She kicked a few larger rocks aside and lay the sheepskin out. Deryn dropped onto it with relief. The shaking in her legs was showing no sign of going away. Shea stretched out on her back and pulled Deryn down into another embrace. Their bodies moved together with increasing ardor.
Deryn felt Shea’s hand, burrowing under her clothes. A surge of desire rushed through her. Until that moment, she had not realized quite how desperately she wanted the contact. Deryn had kissed and fumbled around with other children before, but she had experienced nothing like this. She tugged her shirt free of her waistband to allow Shea easier access.
“You’ll get cold.”
“How can I? I’m on fire for you.”
“Me too.” Shea laughed. “Even so.” She sat up and reached for the blankets.
While Shea’s arms were not around her, Deryn took advantage of the temporary freedom of movement to strip off her shirt and jerkin completely. Shea’s eyebrows rose at the sight, but then she smiled and copied the action. When Deryn started to unbuckle her belt, this time Shea caught hold of her hand, stopping her.
“Hey, slow down. We have time.”
“But I want—”
“Believe me, slow is better.”
Shea cupped Deryn’s breast, rolling her nipple between thumb and finger. Deryn gasped. It was as if a cord ran from her nipple to her clit, and Shea was playing the role of harper. When Shea repeated the action, using her mouth and tongue, it was more than Deryn could bear.
“Please. I need you to…”
Shea sighed. “So impatient.” But she relented and loosened the buckle of Deryn’s belt.
The touch of Shea’s hand between her legs was the most overpowering sensation Deryn had ever felt. It struck through the core of her being. Deryn gripped Shea’s shoulders tightly, wanting an anchor to hold her body in place. The movement of Shea’s hand spread a slick coating over her inner thighs, cool where the faint breeze played over it.
Shea’s touch was taking control of her, igniting every nerve with pleasure. The tension built inside her, taking her ever higher and higher, more aroused than she had thought possible. Even so, her climax caught Deryn by surprise. She had not realized how close she had been.
“Well. That was easy.” Shea sounded pleased.
Deryn lay, absorbing the waves of release that faded into a warm peace. She opened her eyes. The roof of the tunnel was indistinct, barely touched by the gentle lamp glow. A burst of laughter from the group at the door was muffled by the stone. Had they heard her? How much noise had she made? Abruptly, Deryn was seized by giggles. She tried to stifle them, burrowing her face into Shea’s neck. Then she pulled back. The soft light washed over Shea’s wonderful face, a scant inch from her own.
“How about you?”
“With you in my arms?” Shea smiled. “I think I should be pretty easy as well.”
And she was.
Afterward, Deryn snuggled in close, resting her head on Shea’s shoulder while tracing lazy patterns over the tight muscles of Shea’s stomach. She tried to find the words she wanted, to express how she felt, but could dredge up nothing except juvenile clichés.
Shea rolled onto her side, facing Deryn. “Let’s sleep.”
Deryn gave up her hunt for words and also turned over, so that they lay together, spooned. Shea’s lips brushed against her shoulder. With each breath, Shea’s stomach and breasts pressed slightly into Deryn’s back. The rhythmical movement was mesmerizing.
“Promise me that you won’t forget…”
Shea’s voice faded into a mumble and Deryn missed the end of it. She was about to turn her head and ask Shea to repeat it, but instead she fell asleep.
A gentle tap from a boot woke Deryn. She opened her eyes. The oil lamp had burnt out, but light from the glowing branch that Brise held was just sufficient to make out the surroundings. Deryn tried to sit, but found herself pinned down by Shea’s right arm and leg draped across her, and she got no farther than an elbow.
“Time to go?”
“When you’re ready. I’ll meet you at the front.” It was too dark to read the expression on Brise’s face, but Deryn was sure she picked out an amused undercurrent in her foster mother’s voice.
As carefully as possible, Deryn tried to peel the arm off her. Shea resisted, squirming free from Deryn’s hand, but it was the uncoordinated action of a woman still half asleep.
“Shea. I have to go.”
Shea’s arm tightened in a hug and then released. She rolled away, freeing Deryn’s legs. “Ugh.” Shea shook her head, her movements getting sharper as she became more fully awake. She half sat up. “See you at the lake. I’ll be the one standing by the pile of dead outlaws. Take care.”