In the Shadow of Mountains: The Lost Girls by David George Richards by David George Richards - Read Online

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Summary

Anne Jenkins is a PE teacher with a girl’s hockey team in her charge. How she ends up in a forest on the planet of Ellerkan pursued by Knights in armour with nets and swords she cannot imagine. Knocked out, the next time she wakes up she finds herself in a castle dungeon with the Crown Prince of Halafalon and only half of her girls.

Prince Carl was as arrogant as he was charming. But he had a particular habit that many said would kill him one day, and this might just be the day. Prince Harold had planned a pleasant afternoon on a picnic, now he was despatched by his father, the King, to search for his missing elder brother. It would be another futile venture, ending with Carl being discovered in a tavern, or in the arms of some wench.

Lord William L’Roth should have been King. He knew it, and everyone else knew it. Now, when the artifact was complete, he would make it so. Sir Henry L’Crief shared Lord L’Roth’s cause, and at one time he would have feared the consequences of his treason against the King. But with his wife at his side and the artifact to call upon, he now feared nothing, not even L’Roth himself.

Sir Henry’s wife was not his real wife, but she was an unusual lover. Concubine, mistress, some even called her his pet. It was an apt description. She was large, malevolent and ever hungry. She was called Gil-Yan, and she was a dragon.

Five years before, Rolf L’Epine had been on a hunt with the Crown Prince. What he saw that day so horrified him that it changed his life forever. Since then, his life had been peaceful. Now that was set to change.

Ancient technology, a war that spanned the galaxy and the consequences of a barbaric tradition returned to haunt them all, and even threatened to eat them...

The Lost Girls is a dark Science-Fiction Fantasy with feuding medieval Knights, lost ancient technology, equally lost contemporary teenagers, and yes, a dragon of the fiercest kind.

Published: David George Richards on
ISBN: 9781465964601
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In the Shadow of Mountains - David George Richards

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Prologue

Sowing the Seed

The Twelve Great Ships had once ruled the heavens.

Amidst the greatest battles they triumphed. Mighty fleets fell to their power and whole worlds were turned to ash. Together, there was no force to equal them, but even when apart, the sight of one of them approaching, or the mere knowledge that one of them came, was enough to cause instant terror.

Civilisations fell in turmoil and panic as populations rioted and fought for ships, killing each other before the fire descended from the skies. Planetary defences were left unmanned as soldiers deserted to join the rest in pursuit of escape. But for those that did escape, space brought little safety. The Great Ships picked off mercilessly any vessels that fled the doomed worlds they visited. And they visited many.

But this was not how it had always been.

Built by the Navak in their vengeance, the Twelve Great Ships were at first the vessels that brought freedom to conquered and enslaved populations. But those who had held sway before them did not give up their control without effort. At the Battle of the Black Cross Nebula, the Androktones, the Clones of the Tun-Sho-Lok, amassed the greatest space fleet ever seen. From far and wide the ships of the Androktones came, but at the moment of their victory each then saw a genetic flaw in the other, and disaster struck. The carnage that took place during the battle was indescribable, and once again it was the Great Ships that held sway and the Androktones were defeated.

But although defeated, the Androktones were not vanquished.

Amongst the confusion and the immense loss of life, three of the Great Ships were boarded. The fighting inside the ships was vicious and horrific, with no quarter given or expected. On two of the Great Ships the Androktones were victorious, fleeing the lost battle with their prizes. On the third, all perished in blood and fire, the Great Ship ripped apart in successive and violent explosions.

In the years that followed, the two stolen Great Ships were a scourge to all in the galaxy. They went separate ways, visiting world after world, bringing death to all they visited and fear to those who waited. But it was to the Navak homeworld that they went to first.

Vengeance and hatred was all that now fed those who survived. The remaining Great Ships still in the control of the Navak hunted those now in the possession of the enemy. And when hunter and prey met, the engagements were colossal. One of the stolen ships was finally caught and destroyed in this way. But one Great Ship always stayed ahead of the chasing pack. One always reached another world and brought death and disaster before help could arrive. One always triumphed in battle no matter what the odds. One had a charmed life that defied logic.

Soon the odds became even and only two Great Ships survived. The Navak had named their ships after celestial events or legendary beasts. These were names that befitted such military might. The two that now survived were the Dragonfire and the Tail of the Comet. The Androktones cared nothing for such names, they cared only that they stayed ahead of those who pursued them and that they could continue to rain fire and death on the incorrect; those who did not match the genetic code stored in their brains. That meant everyone. But the many battles and skirmishes had taken their toll, and the once Great Ship in their possession was now cracked and bleeding. The hound was on their heels, equally wounded, but eager as ever; and the fox needed a bolt hole.

The men had been cruel, vicious, and evil. They had pursued her for days. She had killed some of them, but it didn’t seem to matter. The arrow had been the end. She had fallen from her horse, and they had pounced on her before she could recover, stabbing her, and throwing her on her back.

But it wasn’t her life they had wanted, not yet anyway.

She had closed herself off against the pain and the barbarism of their assault, as first one took her and then the next, and the next...

The blood had run freely from her wounds and she had become weaker and weaker as the weight of their bodies thrusting down on her drove the air from her lungs. It seemed to take forever, and yet it was over so soon.

When she opened her eyes it was dark. Blood quickly got in her eyes and made her blink. She could hardly see, she could hardly move. Her vision blurred and finally focused, and she looked up to see a man with a sword in his hand. He held it over his head, and as she watched, he chopped down at her.

Everything went black, but the lights stayed on. She should have been dead, but instead she lived.

They had left her soon after. Abandoning her broken and bleeding body, leaving her in pain, not yet dead, but not really living. They must have thought she was dead. She was dead. Dead, but still alive. She lay there, alone now, waiting, thinking.

For a while she had enjoyed the chase. She wanted them to catch her; she wanted the chance to kill them. She had fought well and they were stupid enough to come close. And once she had turned the tables on them and hunted them in the night, killing two as they slept by their fire. It was like a game, and she had revelled in it.

And why not? It was her life, her Purpose, and if they should offer themselves to her, why should she not kill them? And what had they gained? If she should die now, she had still killed many while they had only killed her. And she had lived a long life while their lives were short. They were the losers.

But she was not content to die now.

The numbers killed didn’t matter. It was the man with the sword and those with him that angered her. They still lived, they had escaped, and deep down inside her she still wanted to kill them. There was still a Purpose within her.

You are dying! They will escape you!

There has to be a way to pursue them!

There is a way!

When she had fallen from her horse they had torn her sword from her grasp and thrown it aside. She could still feel it nearby. Not with her hand, but with her mind. And as she began to fade, and the cognisant side of her mind finally slept and became still, the dark side of her mind came awake and took form...

Chapter One

The Hunt

The horses thundered through the trees. Like their riders they were richly decorated with feathered plumes and embroidered coats. The coats and feathered plumes were blue, like the royal crest on the riders’ chests and on their shields. A rampant blue lion below a blue chevron against a white background.

A rampant lion.

Prince Carl L’Hage led his Knights at the gallop. Their quarry was in sight. But it was no enemy with his army, no dangerous foe who must be vanquished.

She ran in panic now, bounding through the trees, her long red hair trailing behind her. She held a long sword in her right hand. She was tired, exhausted. Her own horse had been shot from beneath her, and now the Hunt was nearly over. The horses soon over took her, and she turned to fight. The riders jumped from the saddle. She struck at the first Knight, running him through the body even before he had let go of the reins of his horse.

She wasn’t to be taken easily.

The Prince and his men surrounded her, and swords clashed in the early evening darkness of the forest. But two of the men had held back. One watched, holding the reins of the horses as they stamped and snorted, while the other fitted an arrow to his long bow and watched and waited for the right moment.

The man who held the horses watched in wonder. The woman was holding them off. One woman against five men. She fought bravely, valiantly. She was the hero; she was the one who should have the songs written about her deeds in battle. She was wonderful, she was glorious, and she was beautiful.

The arrow hit her in the chest above her right breast and she staggered back. Almost instantly one of the Knights stabbed her in the same side with his sword. She collapsed down on one knee and the men rushed her. Her sword was torn from her grasp and tossed away among the trees. She was thrown on to her back, the men tearing at her tunic and leggings.

She made no sound. No screams, no shouts for mercy. Instead she still fought, kicking, scratching, and biting. In reply the noblemen from the court of King Edmund L’Hage beat her viciously. They punched her in the head and body, again and again. And when her resistance ebbed, they tore off her tattered and bloodstained clothes. Then they held her down, pinning her wrists against the grass while their Prince took the first turn...

Rolf L’Epine was horrified. He stood by the horses and watched as if in a trance. He knew all the men who were here, knew them all to be good and honourable. And yet, what they were doing was barbaric.

How could this be?

Rolf had always known about the Hunts. They had gone on for years, for generations in fact. Ever since the Destroyers had been finally defeated at the Battle of the Black Cross, the hunting down of the survivors had become a tradition. But this was the first time he had taken part. This was his first Hunt. And as a novice he would have to watch and hold the horses. Not for him would come the taste of Destroyer flesh. Not this time. But he still had a task to perform.

When the last of them had finished, and they all stood laughing and talking, Rolf knew his moment had come.

The Prince wiped the blood from his breastplate with a silken handkerchief as he and his men came forward.

How is Sir Edwin? he asked.

Slain, sire, the man with the long bow replied. She ran him through even before his foot had left the stirrup!

‘Tis a fitting end for a man on his thirteenth Hunt! the Prince replied. Then he turned to the other Knights and said in a raised voice, Well, my fine friends! The chase is over, and the spoils have been equally divided!

One of the other Knights shouted, Aye, my Liege! But some were more energetically received than others!

The rest of the Knights all laughed.

Prince Carl smiled and quickly gestured to them all to be silent. Quiet, you heathens! There is still work to be done! Young Rolf here has yet to be bloodied! Sir Anthony! Give him the knife!

There was a cheer, and the reins were snatched from Rolf’s hands and he was pushed forward. Sir Anthony held out the long dagger in its jewel-encrusted scabbard. Rolf stared at it. He hesitated and glanced at Prince Carl.

Take it, man! the Prince said. Pay the price! And next time you will take a share in the spoils!

Rolf slowly drew the curved blade from the scabbard and walked slowly towards the woman. The Prince and his Knights watched him, shouting encouragement from afar.

If you feel charitable, do it swiftly! one of them shouted.

No! Do it slow and make her cry out! another called.

Then the Prince said, Destroyers never cry out. They just die.

All became silent as Rolf stood over the woman. He could hear her rasping breath. She was practically naked, and the sight of her exposed skin should have stirred him. But instead all he could see was the broken arrow still in her chest, and the blood from this wound and from the one in her side that was smeared over her body, mixing in with the dirt and the sweat. He knelt down next to her.

Her beautiful face was all battered and bruised and her red hair was all tangled with the grass and the dead leaves from the forest floor. He leaned over her with the knife. Her eyes were open. They were green and wondrous. She could see him, but she made no effort to fight him off. She just lay there on her back, her arms flung out at her sides.

Rolf moved closer and closer. He held the knife at her throat, but at the last moment he hesitated. He called over his shoulder, My Liege! May I steal a kiss before her life?

Aye! I think we can grant you that! the Prince called back. Kill her with love, L’Epine! Then maybe her soul will forgive you and grant you luck!

As the Knights laughed once more, Rolf moved his head closer to the woman. His lips brushed her face, but instead of kissing her, he quickly whispered into her ear, When the knife bites into the grass, relax and don’t move. Be very quiet and still. I will return and help you later. If you fail me in this, they will kill us both.

He could see the look in her eyes. She had heard him and had understood his meaning, but she hadn’t understood why. She looked up at him in confusion even as he thrust the dagger into the grass by her throat in an exaggerated motion. For a moment, Rolf thought she wasn’t going to react, but then she closed her eyes and lay still, and her rasping breath ceased.

Rolf quickly smeared the blade in blood from the wound at her side before standing up and returning to the Prince. He held out the knife. Everyone cheered when they saw the blood.

Prince Carl L’Hage smiled as he looked at Rolf’s bloodstained tunic and the bloody knife. Was she not a worthy quarry, Rolf?

Aye, my Prince. She was magnificent.

And you took her life! Now you are truly a Huntsman! The Prince slapped Rolf on the back and quickly turned and shouted to his men. Pick up Sir Edwin! Throw him over his horse! Tonight we drink to his memory and celebrate young Rolf’s first Hunt!

Chapter Two

A Promise Kept

She was too old.

Her body was as strong as when she was born, her muscles hard, her heart and respiratory system at full capacity. And the Purpose still had the desire to kill.

But she was so tired.

Energy levels were high, she had eaten and drank, and even after three days she was still more than capable of further conflict.

She was wounded, both wounds deep.

Her blood vessels shrank around the wounds, preventing excessive blood loss. Nerve endings were desensitised allowing free movement despite the arrow still in her chest. She could get up at anytime, she could still fight.

She just wanted to lay there and die.

Your thoughts are incorrect! You are flawed! Mutated!

I am tired.

You still live! Get up! Fight! Kill them!

Have I not killed enough?

Never! This one is alone! He only has a knife! Take it from him! Plunge it in his chest! Kill him! Stand up and fight! Kill them all! Kill as many as you can before they kill you!

I don’t want to! I don’t care! I want to die! I am tired! I am tired of all of it! I am tired of the Purpose!

Then die! You are flawed! Your integrity smashed! You deserve to die! You are of no use to the Purpose! Incorrect! Mutated! Disgusting! Die! Die! Die!

The familiar intense pain sprang up in her head. It was as if her skull was shrinking in size and crushing her brain. It was actually very close to what was happening. The turmoil in her mind caused enzymes to be released that made the membrane that lined her skull become taut, causing it to contract. It was a pain like no other. It was a pain that broke the mind and left the victim a catatonic wreck, easy victim for man or beast. It was a pain she could not outlast. It always won. Then the man had spoken and the pain eased. But the confusion and anger remained.

He cannot initiate a bond! He attacked you!

He did not. He was the only one who has remained passive.

He holds a weapon!

It is not for me.

He faces no risk!

He said they would kill us both.

If he leaves he will not return!

You do not believe that or you would still be hurting me.

The pain went completely. The blade bit the grass and her eyes closed and her body finally relaxed from the conflict in her mind. She was so tired she even slept.

Rolf L’Epine didn’t celebrate for long. From the moment they had ridden away from the forest, he had made up his mind what he was going to do, and he had already begun to plan.

These people were not who he thought they were. The Hunt was not a tradition to be celebrated; it was an abomination, an excuse to commit evil on those who could not reply. Yes, the woman was armed; she had fought back, and had even killed Sir Edwin. But she had not sought the conflict. She had been the one who had been searched for, and chased.

The Hunt had lasted three days. During that time they had chased her from her den in the mountains, across the valleys and fields of Halafalon, to the darkness of the forest. Only when her horse had fallen to an arrow was she finally overtaken. She had done her best to flee, to escape. No, there was no honour in the Hunt, only bestiality, rape and murder. The murder of women. Rolf wanted no part of it, and he wanted no part of a society that condoned it.

As soon as he could get away, Rolf returned to his quarters in the Royal Palace in Ellerkan and packed all his belongings. He took only the things that were most important. Then he went to the kitchens and took food and wine. After that he went to the surgeon’s quarters and stole bandages and ointments. He took his horse and left in the middle of the night, the sound of the cheering and carousing from the Great Hall still ringing in his ears as he left through the great gates.

All the way back to the forest he was filled with foreboding. What if she had already died? What if he couldn’t even find the place where he had left her? Then another thought had occurred to him. What if she attacked him? She could be forgiven for doing so.

As it was, he found the place easily enough. The first thing he came across was her fallen horse. From there on it was easy. But when he finally got to the place where she lay, it was to find her gone. He got off his horse and led it to the spot where the grass was all trampled down. He knelt down and felt the dried blood and picked up a piece of torn clothing. He looked around at the trees and the shadows. Even in the early evening it had been dark, but now he could see no further than the next tree.

Where had she gone? Had wolves dragged her off? He looked down at the grass again. No, wolves would have left more of a mess. She had left on her own, and she had taken what was left of her clothes. Then he noticed more blood. Yes, there was some more further on, a trail on the grass. Rolf followed it, pulling on the reins of his horse, which obediently followed after him.

He followed the trail of blood through the trees. He was just passing another tree when he suddenly saw her. In fact it was his horse that saw her first. It snorted and raised its head. Rolf looked up, and there she was. She was sat with her back to a tree. She had replaced her torn leggings and had recovered her sword. Now she held it pointing towards him in obvious defence. She held it in her left hand, her right hand clutched at her side. The tattered remains of her tunic were draped over her shoulders. There was hardly anything left of it. She was stained in blood, dirt and sweat. But the point of her sword never wavered.

Rolf held out his hands in supplication. It’s alright. I told you I would come back for you. But I haven’t come here to hurt you.

She was uncompromising and fearless. Come any closer and I will kill you! she whispered hoarsely, spitting blood.

There was an accent to her voice, but it was one he couldn’t place. Rolf was equally stubborn. Then kill me, he said.

He stood up, took the water bottle from his well-packed saddle, and walked towards her. She raised her sword to strike at him. He ignored it and knelt down right in front of her. The blow never came, and instead she placed the edge of the sword to the side of his throat; he could feel it as he held the water bottle up to her lips. She didn’t drink, and they stayed like that, as if frozen in time, until she finally lowered her sword and drank from the bottle. She coughed and spluttered, and then she drank some more.

She finally put down her sword next to her and took the bottle in her hand and stared at him. You are either very foolish, or you want more from me than those others took.

Rolf was immediately angered. I’m not like them! he said in a raised voice. I would never do anything like that to you, or to anyone! I told you, I came here to help you! He stood up and went back to his horse, and began to pull things from his saddlebags. Look! he said. I’ve brought bandages, ointments, food, and clothing! I want to help you, not hurt you!

I believe you, she said weakly. But while you speak of help, I bleed.

Rolf’s indignation evaporated. He took the bandages and ointment and quickly knelt down beside her again. He washed the wound in her right side with water from the bottle and put on some of the ointment. Then he wrapped a bandage over the wound and around her midriff, pulling it tight. She kept silent while he worked, her breath coming in laboured rasps as she held her torn tunic out of the way.

Next came the arrow. Rolf slipped the tunic off her shoulder to reveal the broken arrow still embedded in her skin under her collar bone. It was strange how he was already almost used to seeing her exposed body. But there was no time to think of anything other than her injuries. With the arrow still in, the wound hadn’t bled as much as the one in her side, but the arrow was in deep, and the barbed head was too well lodged in her chest. She closed her eyes and made no sound as Rolf tried to pull it out, but it was no use.

I’m sorry, he said. I can’t move it.

Then you must complete its passage, she wheezed.

Rolf knew what she meant. The only way the arrow was going to come out was if he pushed it all the way through her and pulled it out of her back. He picked up a flat stone that lay on the grass nearby. He pointed upwards at the branches of the tree.

Look up there.

She raised her head and looked without hesitation, and Rolf slammed the flat stone against the end of the arrow. The arrowhead burst from her back in a red splatter, and she cried out for the first time. Rolf pulled her close, so that she was leaning into him, and then he pulled the broken arrow the rest of the way out. She held on to him as he went on to bathe the wounds in her chest and back, put on the ointment, and then carefully wrapped another bandage around her chest and shoulder.

When he was done, Rolf washed her face and neck with the water. Then he wrapped her with his own cloak.

Now you must stand, he told her. I will put you on my horse and take you to my uncle’s house on the edge of the forest. It is long abandoned, but its roof is sound and there is plenty of wood for a fire. You will be safe there.

She looked up at him with tired eyes. You said you had food?

Rolf nodded, and hurried back to retrieve some cheese and bread from his saddlebags and a bottle of wine. I have meat, he said as he came back to sit next to her. But it would be better if it were roasted over a fire. Here, eat this for now. He slowly fed her the cheese and bread, and held up the bottle for her to drink again. She ate slowly, but drank quickly. Rolf could tell that she was getting weaker. When she had finished eating he packed everything back in his saddlebags and began to lift her up, anxious to get her on his horse. His urgency brought the first protests from her and she refused to get up.

I hurt! she moaned as he pulled at her. My chest, my insides, they all burn with fire. And I hurt between my legs, and inside. Let me lie here.

No. It’s cold here. And it will get colder as the hours pass. You need a fire. You need to be warm. Get up. You can rest on the horse as we travel.

He managed to get her on her feet. She was very shaky, and if he hadn’t been holding her up, she would have fallen down. But just as he got her to the side of his horse, she began to struggle.

My sword! she cried out. Bring me my sword! I need my sword!

Rolf glanced at the sword that still lay by the tree. You can get another, he said.

No! I am an Androktone! A Destroyer! The sword is part of me! I need it!

She began to struggle harder. Rolf quickly gave up. Alright! I’ll get it for you. Hold on to the saddle.

He left her leaning against his horse as he went to retrieve her sword. She looked on anxiously until he returned and held it out to her.

Satisfied?

She nodded and took the sword from him eagerly. She raised it above her head, placed the point of the sword at the nape of her neck, and pushed it in. For a moment the sword was above her head like a silver cross, and then it sank into her back. Rolf watched in awe as the sword seemed to flow down her spine, until the handle melted into the back of her head and neck, and it disappeared.

Sorcery! he exclaimed.

No. Genetic mutation and molecular manipulation, she replied. She saw his puzzled expression and added, The sword is mine. It is as much a part of me as I am a part of it. Apart we are nothing, together we are everything. I would rather leave behind an arm than my sword.

She stared into his eyes, searching for some indication of revulsion or distaste, anything. Instead all she saw was a continued lack of comprehension. She shook her head sadly. You hunt and kill us, and yet you have forgotten why.

I’m sorry, was all Rolf could think of to say.

If you had not forgotten your own history, you would not be so sorry. Now, help me on this horse before my strength leaves me.

He did as she asked, hardly conscious of the subtle change in their relationship. He climbed on his horse behind her. She sat side-saddle in front of him, it was the only way she could sit on the horse. She wrapped her left arm around his waist, and rested her head on his shoulder. He kept his right arm around her as he held on to the reins of his horse, urging it on at a trot.

They rode through the forest in silence. Rolf’s head was filled with ideas and emotions. He had rescued her as he had planned to do, but she was neither grateful, nor angry. Instead she seemed sad. But not for herself. Somehow he felt that she was sad for him, and for the Prince and his Knights who had attacked her. Why was that? And what part of their history had they forgotten? He glanced down at her. She seemed to be sleeping; he could hear her wheezing as she breathed. Did she remember more than him? And how had she done that trick with her sword?

Rolf carefully moved aside her long red hair and gently touched the back of her neck. There was no sign of the sword. He sighed and rearranged her hair. This was all a mystery to him. What had they forgotten? She was a Destroyer, but who or what were the Destroyers? Did he truly know? She had called herself an Androktone. It was a name that was unfamiliar. And whatever they were called, why did they live alone in the mountains and the hills? And why was killing them thought to be acceptable to people who were otherwise good?

All these thoughts ran wild in Rolf’s head. But he could find no answers, and soon, his head began to ache.

Fool!

He did what was required.

He knows nothing! His intentions are false!

His intentions are true and genuine.

He knows nothing! Strike him down! Steal his horse!

I am tired!

You feign weakness!

And your denial of the initiation of the bond is a sign of a flawed integrity!

Silence. She pressed on.

I am tired! Tired of killing! Tired of death! Tired of life! I will have this bond!

When he knows he may not want you!

Panic. Fear. Then final realisation.

He will want me.

Chapter Three

Introductions

She woke to the smell of roasting meat and coffee. She recognised the smell of the meat, but the coffee intrigued her. She opened her eyes. In front of her was a stone built fireplace and chimney. The fire was lit, and she was bathed in its heat and its glow. Over the fire was a spit with a large piece of meat skewered on it. The meat spat and sizzled. Also over the fire was a large black coffee pot. It steamed. There was wood by the fire.

She stretched out her neck and sniffed. She sniffed at the coffee pot several times, stretching her neck out further. She started to move closer when she suddenly realised that she was lying on her left side on something soft. She looked down and felt it carefully. It was a stuffed mattress of some kind, and she was covered with a blanket.

She propped herself up on her left arm and looked around. She was inside a small house or cottage. It was made of wood, and above her the roof was thatched. There were rough looking wooden tables and chairs against one wall. On shelves above the table were many provisions all stacked up. Some more were still on the table. Two saddlebags were slung over one of the chairs. Behind her there was a door. It was closed. There were two windows in the walls on either side of the door. The shutters on one were closed, but the other was open, and light streamed in.

She sat up. Her face immediately creased in pain and she quickly clutched at her side. Moving her right arm so quickly gave her more pain, and she reached up more slowly to her chest. She was surprised at the unfamiliar feel of the material of what she wore. She pulled the blanket away and found herself dressed in a long white shirt. It was slightly too big for her. She felt the material again. It was richly embroidered and very soft.

It’s silk.

She was startled by the voice and reached instinctively for the back of her neck. But then she saw that it was Rolf, peering at her through the open window, and she relaxed again. He smiled wryly.

I didn’t mean to scare you. He disappeared for a moment, and then the door opened and he came inside. He was carrying a large bucket of water, which he put down on the table. He sat down on one of the chairs and smiled at her. It was a proper smile this time. I’m glad to see you awake at last. You slept for one whole day and night. And now it is almost midday.

She lifted the blanket slightly, reaching down to feel the skin on her body and on her legs. She pulled the end of the shirt up as she did so. You have washed me and dressed me, she said, finally pulling the shirt down and tucking the blanket back around her again. When did you do this?

You were fast asleep the night we arrived here. So I carried you in, sorted the place out a bit, then I washed you, and dressed you. I also used needle and thread to close your wounds, like I once saw the surgeon do for a wounded man at the Palace. Then I put some more ointment on your wounds, and re-bandaged them. I also put some ointment on the cuts and gashes on your legs, back, and stomach. After that I put you to bed in front of the fire.

She felt her side and chest with her left hand, as if feeling the wounds under the bandages. You have done well, she said. I lose no more blood and I feel less weak.

You look better, he replied with a smile. There is more colour in your skin. And even after so short a time, I am sure the bruises begin to diminish.

It was true. Her skin had a healthy tan from her life in the forest and in the open air, but it was marred by the bruises and cuts. Many had faded, and they were all less angry now.

I will heal quickly. She looked down at the mattress and the blanket. They were both far wider than was necessary for just one person. And there was no other bedding visible in the small house.

Did you sleep here? she asked.

He nodded.

And you did nothing with me?

I held you, that’s all. I wanted to keep you warm, and I wanted to hear and feel you breathing. He remembered each night as he spoke, remembering how her body had felt as he hugged her so close. He remembered how comfortable he had felt with her next to him, and how he had yearned for her. You’re not angry, are you?

She looked at him as if unsure of her answer. Then she shook her head. No, I am not angered by your actions. But I am confused as to why you did not pursue copulation.

Rolf was immediately embarrassed. I didn’t want to hurt you. And that’s not why I came back for you. Anyway, you were hurt, and asleep. I wouldn’t do anything like that to you. It wouldn’t be right. I wouldn’t feel right.

You are not sexually attracted to me?

Yes, of course I am– I mean, I mean– Oh, I don’t know what I mean. You say the strangest of things. Rolf was going bright red.

He is a fool!

No, he is an innocent. His answers are genuine.

He knows nothing! His answers are irrelevant!

Then I must tell him and then his answers will have meaning.

She tilted her head to one side and stared at him curiously. You also say strange things. But you must answer my questions truthfully. I must know your intent. Tell me why you did not kill me in the forest. Tell me why you came back for me, tended to my wounds, and fed me. Tell me what it is in the pot that smells so exciting.

Rolf opened his mouth to answer then closed it again. Her last question had confused him, and then he blurted out, Oh! The coffee!

He quickly got up, retrieved a cup from a shelf, and went to the fire. He took a cloth and poured some coffee from the steaming pot, and then he knelt down beside her on the mattress and held the cup towards her. Be careful, he told her. It’s hot.

Before taking the cup, she moved closer, sniffing repeatedly. Her nose was over the liquid, her eyes closed as she smelt the hot coffee. Opening her eyes again, she took the cup in both hands and sipped from it. Her eyes grew wide as she held the coffee in her mouth before she swallowed.

Rolf chuckled. Have you never tasted coffee before?

She shook her head and took another sip.

How does it taste?

Rich and nutty. I have eaten nuts and beans from trees before, but never like this. It warms me inside. It is soothing, and yet stimulating.

She drew her legs up under the blanket and rested her hands on her knees as she drank some more. Her green eyes reflected the glow from the fire, causing them to sparkle. Rolf stared at her.

Her face was oval, with high cheekbones and well proportioned features. Her bright green eyes were slightly slanted, with well-defined eyebrows that were a rich luminous red like her hair. She was quite striking. Rolf couldn’t resist. He reached out and stroked her hair.

You’re so beautiful, he muttered. What’s your name?

My name is Soo-Kai.

Soo-Kai, he repeated with a smile. That’s nice, I like that. My name is Rolf. Rolf L’Epine.

She watched him over the rim of her cup. He was a young male, fit and healthy, with fair hair and blue eyes. Although his features were pleasing to the eye, they gave away his ancestry. But if his intentions were true, then she would be content. She swallowed the last of the coffee and held out the empty cup for more. As he refilled it, she