ExcerptAtty heard him coming up behind her. She could tell it was him without having to turn around because of the way he walked. He would have made a good hunter, given the right training and upbringing, she mused. He already knew how to tread so quietly that crispy fall leaves underfoot wouldn’t crunch under his boots, and small limbs wouldn’t snap under his weight.
"You’re gonna have to do a lot better than that if you don’t want me knowing you’re trying to sneak up on me," she commented with a grin.
There was a small snort of amusement. "What if I wasn’t trying to sneak up on you?" he asked. "What if I just wanted to stand here and watch you?"
"Watch me what?" She glanced at him over her shoulder. "Wash the blood off my hands? Gee, doesn’t take much to keep you entertained, does it?"
Yulen chuckled. "Actually, I came over to ask you out to dinner." Now it was Atty’s turn to chuckle. He continued. "The first couple of portions are about ready. Did you have anything to eat today?"
"I had enough at breakfast this morning to sustain me," she said.
"You eat like a horse, Atty, just to sustain your metabolism. I know you must be starving by now."
She straightened as she got to her feet. After kneeling and bending over for nearly an hour as she and Fortune skinned and quartered the hog, and Bertrand delivered portions throughout the encampment, her back and shoulders were beginning to protest.
"That’s the problem with marrying someone. They get to know you too well. You can’t keep anything secret anymore." She followed up her gripe with a warm smile as she wiped her damp hands and arms on the hem of her tunic. "Okay, wise guy. You’re right. I’m hungry. What do you mean, ask me out to dinner?" She glanced around at the surrounding wood. "Aren’t we ‘out’ already?"
Her husband got a funny look on his face, as if he was relishing a private joke he had no plans on sharing with her. "That’s another problem with marrying someone. She tends to rub off on you. I cooked tonight, and I need your expert opinion on whether the final result is palatable or not."
Atty raised both eyebrows his way. "Oh, this ought to be good. You cooked?" Gesturing down at the gore and the remains of the hog at her feet, she asked, "Do I have enough time to get this buried?"
He held out an arm to her. "I’ll get one of the men to dispose of it. Come."
Grabbing her water bag, Atty walked over to where he took her hand and began to lead her toward the far end of the encampment, near the head of the line where she knew he liked to bed down for the night. Unlike many Battle Lords who preferred for safety’s sake to bunk in the midst of the soldiers in case of attack, Yulen preferred to be on the fringe, prepared to help provide the first line of defense. It was one of the many idiosyncracies she’d come to learn about him, and one of a hundred reasons why she loved him.
After listening in night after night as Yulen’s men gathered in the main hall and talked as they ate, she’d come to learn much about the man she’d fallen in love with—his preferences, his habits, when it was time run for cover when a particular look of anger came over his face, and when it was okay to ease off a bit because he was in an unusually good mood. From what she could tell, he was having a lot more of those good mood days than he’d ever had in the past few years. Naturally, the soldiers all attributed the new warmth and brightness at Alta Novis to her, although she normally shrugged it off with a wicked smile and said it was more likely due to the fact that a satisfied spouse was very much a docile spouse, a remark which gained her a hearty laugh and acceptance into their confidences.
Glancing upward, Atty noticed the unusual brightness in the stars, despite the number of small campfires all around. Campfires whose lights normally dimmed the night sky. She suddenly shivered, and Yulen whispered, "Cold?"
"Nights are getting chillier," she admitted.
"Don’t worry. You’ll stay warm enough tonight," he promised.
Atty cut him a look while biting her lower lip. This was going to harder than she thought.
A few soldiers bid them good evening as they passed by. Yulen signaled to one of the newer recruits and ordered him to bury the pig’s remains to prevent other scavengers from approaching the encampment. The young man nodded, repeated the order as required, and hurried off.
"Did you enjoy yourself today?" Yulen casually asked her.
She smiled. "Yeah. I did," she admitted, realizing she hadn’t been aware of how much she missed going on the hunt. "It’s been a while since I worked in team. Anything happen while I was gone?"
"No. Liam and I had a nice long talk, though."
She looked at him. "About?"
"He’s wanting to hang up his saddle."
Atty stopped, pulling on his hand so that he stopped and turned to look at her. "He doesn’t want to go out anymore?"
Yulen gave her a sad shake of his head. "He’s deserved the time to stay at the compound and take care of the people. Alta Novis is growing, Atty, in case you haven’t noticed."
"Yeah, I’ve noticed." They resumed their walk. "I saw those pictures you’ve been studying of late."
"Diagrams. They’re diagrams and blueprints."
He sighed loudly. "We’re going to be expanding the forest wall another five hundred yards. That’ll give us enough room for more homes and shops. We’ve grown by another hundred and twenty people in the past few months, quite a few of them from Bearinger. I’d also like to build another lodge adjacent to the first one."
"Another lodge? What for?"
He looked at her. "For us."
Atty stopped in her tracks again. "What do you mean, for us?"
"Exactly what I meant. I don’t like having our quarters directly over the main hall. My great, great grandfather founded Alta Novis, and back then it may have been the safe thing to do. Then again, the compound only held a total of a hundred people, including soldiers and public. Today we have over four hundred soldiers, not counting another four hundred plus additional population. I want to get you out of the lodge and into a place with a bit more privacy."
"What would you do with the upper rooms?"
"Use them as guest quarters. What do you think, Atty? Ready to move into slightly larger accommodations?"
"When do you plan to start construction?" she asked.
He gave her a bemused smile. "It already has," he told her. Seeing her mouth open in surprise, he admitted, "I ordered the carpenters and engineers to begin marking off the new compound wall and the floor plans to the new lodge while we were away. Hopefully, by the time we return, they should be finished laying the foundations. With decent weather, we might be able to move in by December."
"What about the back wall of the compound?"
"I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m really just guessing at this point, but we should be completely re-fortified by March or April, at the latest." He smiled to himself. "Our first anniversary. Atty, do you remember the date we married?"
"I’m sorry. I . . . don’t remember much about that day. Forgive me," she confessed in a small voice. She felt him squeeze her hand.
"It’s okay. Someday we’ll be able to talk more about it. It takes time to heal. But, for the record, it was the twelfth." He squeezed her hand again. "Keep that date in mind."
"Why? Planning on doing something special on that day?" she half-teased.
"Yeah. I plan on giving you a decent wedding. One with all the pomp and pageantry you could ever imagine. And one where you’re awake," he laughed.
They passed several more campsites, nearing a small stream where Atty hoped to get a drink. She suddenly felt dry.
Rounding the grove, she was so intent on spotting the stream she was half-aware of Yulen slowing down. She glanced up, and her eye caught something fluttering from beneath the forest canopy. Turning her head, her jaw dropped open in total shock.
"It’s a bit late, Atrilan, but I promised you a wedding present," his voice drifted over to her.
She was vaguely aware of him dropping her hand as she stepped toward the tent nestled amid the trees. At first her mind argued with her that it wasn’t what she thought. Glancing back at her husband, he also seemed to read her thoughts.
"It’s yours, my love."
Of course, it had to be hers, she told herself. For one thing, it was blue. All shades of blue, from pale and icy to almost midnight black. It was also bigger than Madigan’s but not by much. Instead of one middle tent stake, there were two, and above the roof of the rectangular structure, twin pennants of half-blue and half-red, the symbol of Alta Novis, flew from the poles. Where Madigan’s purple swatches were interspersed with gold, the blues were shot with white. No . . . silver.
She reached out with a tentative hand to touch the wall of the tent, just to reassure herself that it really existed. "This . . . is mine?"
"Well, actually, I was hoping you’d let me share it," he teased her lovingly. "Wallford, the man who designed and made Madigan’s, also designed and made this one. He made quite a few changes in the structure, so the men were able to get it pitched in half the time it took to raise Mother’s. That’s a nice convenience. Ready to go inside and look around?"
"It’s bigger, isn’t it?"
Yulen had walked over to the far end of the tent to show her where the entrance flap was. "Putting the doorway here gives you the whole of the tent to withdraw into. With Madigan’s, the door flap in the middle wasn’t practical." He held open the doorway, and Atty ducked to enter.
Because of the location of the door, the interior appeared bigger and deeper—enough to require two center poles to hold up the higher roof. Directly in front of them a brazier glowed from its pit in the ground. Behind it a low table was set for two. Atty looked to her husband for an explanation.
"The floor can be pulled back to allow for a small brace of coals when it gets too cold." He gestured to the back of the tent. "The bedding area is to the rear." His voice dropped to a more sensual tone. "Want to go look?" He smiled tenderly as he reached for her. "I’ve been waiting a long time to spring this on you, Atrilan. I hope you’re happy with it."
She went into his arms willingly, lifting her face for his kisses. "This is . . . more than I ever expected," she admitted almost shyly.
"I promised you I would do everything in my power to make up for what you’ve had to endure," he murmured into her mouth. "I hope I’ve kept my promise, and that every night has been a gift of love to you."
She couldn’t refuse his love nor the persuasive power of his mouth. Despite his strength, he held her tenderly, one hand brushing the loose hair away from her face before threading his fingers through the strands gathered behind her neck. He was mesmerized by her rich, blue locks, and often at night or whenever they were alone she would feel him playing with it, braiding it, or combing it for her to get out the odd tangle or knot. As much as he enjoyed tending to her, there was no denying the comforting sensations she got from his ministrations, especially after a long, hard day.
Atty subconsciously pressed herself against his body, and immediately she was aware of his growing manhood stiffening along her belly. Sighing loudly she moved back slightly to give him an apologetic smile.
"You were right. I’m famished," she admitted, hoping to direct his attention back to their supper. Yulen would have none of it. Lifting her off her feet, he claimed her lips again, and Atty felt herself succumbing to the intensity of his passion. Weakly she beat on his shoulders and tried to wriggle free of his overpowering sexual energy. It was a battle she knew she would quickly lose if he didn’t heed her request.
"Yulen . . ."
Surprisingly, he released her and placed her back on her feet. Atty could feel her head swimming. Her own body was betraying her, leaving her weak in the knees and with a hot moistness between her thighs. Looking up at him, she begged him with her eyes. She watched as he stared at her with a mixture of sadness and unleashed desire, and she shuddered in his embrace.
"Atrilan?" It was a question filled with disappointment.
"Can’t we just . . . just eat? For now?"
"Are you all right? Are you sure that sow didn’t hurt you? Or you didn’t get injured on the hunt?"
"I’m okay," she tried to assure him, when it was not okay. When all she wanted to do at that moment was to bury her face against his neck and let him make love to her amid the sky-colored pillows and blankets until every bone in her body was as soft as butter.
She placed a hand on his lips. "It’s . . ." she began, then stopped and tried again. "There’s so much going on right now. Please, my beloved. Give me a little time. I promise, it won’t be much longer."
"Should I get Liam?" he persisted. Their bodies remained touching, and she found herself becoming erotically intoxicated by him, as he always had been able to do to her. As he would always be able to do. It took every ounce of willpower for her to break contact with him and step back. Yulen reacted as if she’d slapped him.
Sensing he was about to leave the tent and fetch the physician, she grabbed him by the arm to stop him. "No, Yul. I’m fine. Really! There’s no need to get Liam when he won’t find anything wrong with me."
Yulen stared at her for another long moment before he said in a low voice, "You’ve never turned me away before."
"I know," she nodded. Damn, but she couldn’t stop the tears from filling her eyes, or the heated flush that was spreading over her face and skin. "I’m sorry. Please . . . forgive me. But I promise you, it won’t be a long wait."
"A long wait?" he echoed. "What’s going on, Atrilan? Don’t you desire me anymore?"
She nodded, cursing the tears now sliding down her cheeks. "I do desire you, my love. Please. It’s just that there’s been so much happening in such a short time. I need time to think. I need time to . . . to accept what’s happening. Remember what I told you the Council said? That I wouldn’t be welcome back? That I would be considered the enemy if I returned to you? My own people, Yul. They turned me away, and now we’re going back. Don’t you think I’m feeling scared and . . . and apprehensive? Don’t you think I’m wondering if we’re doing the right thing?"
Her explanation touched a chord inside him, and Yulen raised her hands to his lips.
"You’re right. I’ve been inconsiderate. I’m sorry, Atrilan." He took a deep breath and let it out shakily. "Let’s go ahead and eat, and we can talk some more about it. Perhaps that will help."
He led her over to the small table, and Atty sat down on one of the crushed velvet pillows. She wiped her face with her shirt sleeve and removed her boots, tossing them to one side, and allowed herself the luxury of being barefoot as her husband brought over their dinner from where it sat on the brazier. To her amazement the food was good, and she complimented him. Dinner conversation then turned back to the compound and its expansion.
"Atrilan, there’s something you need to be aware of when we go back to Wallis."
"What’s that?" She took a deep draught of water from her cup after noticing its sweetness. She’d never be able to drink water again without testing its taste beforehand.
"I’m going to be claiming it under the banner of Alta Novis." He watched for her reaction to his news. To his surprise, she seemed nonchalant about it.
"I suspected you do would something like that."
"You don’t mind?"
"Why would I mind? I know what kind of Battle Lord you are. By putting Wallis under your sovereignty, you’re guaranteeing the compound’s safety and the well-being of all its inhabitants."
"But do you think the Council will see it that way?"
"What? You think the Council is going to object to you coming in-"
"To us coming in," he quickly corrected her, smiling.
"Six of one, half-dozen of another, Yul. But I do think you’re right about the Council. They’ve sustained their own little demi-god status for generations. And although I think Piron George means well, they were so unfair to do what they did to us." Her eyes misted over at the memory.
"I’m still leaving them in charge after we’re gone. They’ll just have to answer to me now."
"But that means you’re going to have to re-negotiate the treaty." Atty snorted and made a face. "Some treaty. Why don’t people just call them for what they are? Veiled threats."
"Despite that, I’ve upheld my part of the treaty. I returned you. In fact, I’m doing so twice. I have not attacked another Mutah compound, and I had my men withdraw from Wallis as they initially requested. Of course, now with the threat of Bloods, they’re going to have to get used to having my men around because I’m not leaving them unprotected."
"You know many will see the soldiers as an overt act of hostility," she said.
"That’s their problem, not mine," Yulen commented, unperturbed. "They asked for help, and they’ll get it, but on my terms." He nodded at her empty plate. "Get enough to eat?"
"Yes. Thank you." She watched as he rose to lay the dishes on a mat just outside the door. "That reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to ask you."
"Who does the dishes?"
She heard him chuckling. "We have some of the soldiers-in-training do them. It’s a humbling experience, having to care for the horses and do the more menial chores around the camp, but it’s excellent training." He gave her a crooked grin. In the glow of the four lanterns hanging from the roof, their only sources of light, she could see how the healed scar on the side of his face sometimes kept his lips from drawing all the way up. Suddenly she got the impulsive wish to kiss it.
"What are you thinking, Atrilan?"
His unexpected question took her by surprise. She lowered her face, wondering how to answer him. "Will you still stay here tonight with me?"
His reply was long in coming. "Do you want me to?" he asked softly. An underlying sadness tinged his words.
"Please don’t make me face a night without knowing you’re near. I don’t care if you’re on the other side of the tent. Just knowing you’ll be there if I have another one of those dreams . . . ."
This time he knelt before her and took her hands in his. "Why haven’t you told me you were still having nightmares, my love?"
"Not as often. Most of the time they wake me up before I cry out and wake you, like they used to. But all I have to do is hear you breathing. Or feel your warmth. Then I can go right back to sleep." She gave a small shrug of her shoulders, keeping her face averted from his. If she looked into his blue-gray eyes, she knew she would lose herself in them. And then it would only be a matter of moments before she would lose herself in his body. Thankfully, Yulen gave her hands a squeeze.
"Very well. I’ll stay in here tonight. So if you need me for anything . . . ." He left the invitation open. Suggestive. She knew exactly what he meant. There was no way she could help the way her heart leaped at the thought, or the way her skin tingled in anticipation. Gritting her teeth, she tried to beat down those feelings.
"Thank you." Raising her face, she waited for him to kiss her. But when he got to his feet and left the tent instead, a sudden tightness in her chest threatened to cut off her air.
It would be two more days before they reached Wallis. Two more days, followed by two more nights. Two torturous nights.
She prayed she would be able to hold out. Even moreso, she prayed Yulen would understand and forgive her.