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Authors: Rayne Forrest

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“I would
not consider it murder, outsider. I would consider it my duty.”

Ryder met
Tyree’s gaze without flinching. It was time he ended this farce of a
conversation. He knew, beyond doubt, that if Tyree came after him it would be
over Saba, and only Saba. He knew—man to man—and he could see that Tyree knew
he saw it.

He picked
up his pack and stood, preparing to leave Tyree’s hospitality.

“I’m
harder to kill than you would think. And if you kill me, Saba will call it
murder. She will be lost to you forever. Remember that, headman.”

Chapter 16

 

Ryder
slipped though the village gate and cautiously made his way into the woods. He
should have gotten the boots before he pissed off Tyree. He stopped just far
enough inside the trees so as not to be too visible to anyone the headman might
have sent to watch him. Finding a suitable rock, he sat down and opened his
pack and removed his stunner and the larger, more lethal Eliminator. Both could
kill, but the Eliminator vaporized whatever it hit. He’d never used it outside
of target practice or competition events.

Somehow
having a ninety-two percent competitive hit ranking didn’t feel important any
longer.

He
checked the safety on each weapon and laid them in a patch of sun. They both
carried about half-power. Solar charged, it wouldn’t take long for them to get
to maximum load. He leaned over, propped his elbows on his knees, and dropped
his head into his hands.

Deliberate
killing was so far outside of who he was that just the idea made his guts
churn. There had to be a way to reason with the
errol
,
and it didn’t sound like the Ramalho
had tried to discover it. But what did he know about reason? Hell, he couldn’t
even reason with one stubborn, pigheaded woman.

He’d
better find a way to reason with her, and fast. He’d seen the look on her face
this morning. Hurt.

That’s
what honesty did for him—it hurt the ones he cared about—but it was still the
best plan around. Saba was quite intelligent. She’d think about what he’d said
and come to understand it, or so he hoped.

A
movement on the edge of his vision snapped him to attention. He slowly wrapped
his fingers around the stunner. A slender blond-haired woman was walking toward
him. She saw him and stopped, her hand rising to cover her heart. She started,
recognizing him, then continued coming up the path. He took his hand off the
weapon.

She
halted in front of him and smiled. “You are not the
errol
.

“Neither
are you.” Ryder smiled up at her. He knew the voice. She’d been there when Saba
had tended him. “I thank you for your part in saving my life.”

She
looked surprised. “You remember me?”

“Yes. I
don’t know your name, though.”

“Jennica
Pendain, Saba’s aunt.”

He held
out his hand to her. She looked at it, confused. “I’m Ryder Vaughan, but I
suspect you know that.” He turned his hand palm up. “It’s called a handshake
and it’s just something we do where I come from. Don’t worry about it.”

Jennica
sat on the rock beside him. “Saba fears you won’t help us.”

“Saba
misunderstands. I tried to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen. I will help your
people if I can, but I’ve yet to see this creature. No one can tell me if the
Ramalho tried to communicate with it.” He gusted out a deep breath. “I’ve got a
lot of unanswered questions and all Saba, and Tyree for that matter, can say is
‘kill it’. For a peaceful people, that makes little sense to me.”

“We did
try to communicate with it. I’m sure I know why Saba didn’t tell you about our
attempts.”

Ryder
looked at her. She was a pretty woman with her flaxen hair and huge green eyes,
and yet she didn’t stir him the way Saba did. Those green eyes watched him with
uncertainty. She knew one of Saba’s secrets—she didn’t know if she should tell
him. He had to know and would pry it out of her by any means necessary.

“Jennica,
anything you can tell me, anything at all, would be appreciated. I’ve got to
learn all I can or I won’t be able to help you.”

“I know.
Don’t be angry with Saba for not telling you. Promise me?”

Now
wasn’t the time to tell lies to these people, but he would if forced to it.
“That’s not fair.”

“No, it’s
not. But it’s my price for telling you.”

He was
boxed in. What choice did he have but to agree? “Okay. I won’t be angry with
her. Tell me.”

Jennica
took a deep breath and looked away. “I don’t know where to start. Forgive me if
I don’t seem to make sense.” She looked around as if checking to make sure they
were alone, and then started her story.

“When the
errol
came, we were not sure what to do. We have legends of wanderers
coming from the heavens in fantastic vessels that fly. My mother’s father was
said to be such a man. We saw the fireball and we went looking. We were sure
nothing could have survived in the wreckage we found.”

“But
something did.”

She
nodded. “We didn’t know that at first, for we found no one. Then we started to
notice that every few weeks livestock would go missing. We never found remains
so we were confused. The larger predators would have left a carcass, but our
animals rarely wander, so what should we think?” She paused and took another
deep breath.

“Then one
day a group of the women were out gathering. Saba’s mother wandered farther
than the others. When it was time to go back to the village, Saba went looking
for Kalsie. We heard the screaming and ran to them as fast as we could. It was
too late. The creature had already killed my sister and would have killed Saba
as well had we not appeared. The men immediately attacked it and left it for
dead. Only it didn’t die. It lived and we’d made it angry. It has been attacking
us ever since.” Jennica paused, a faraway expression on her face.

“So you
see, it’s real. It’s a threat to us. What would you have Saba tell you? I am
not sure she remembers that day clearly, so please do not bring it back to her.
Do not make her relive it. I beg you.” She laid her hand over his. “Please
believe me when I tell you there is no other choice but for the creature to
die.”

Ryder
stared into the woods for several moments then looked back at Jennica.

“Tell me
the rest of it. Tell me what Tyree doesn’t want me to know.”

She
nodded and began.

* * * *

Ryder
watched Jennica walk away, numb from what she’d told him. Saba had given him no
indication she’d been that close to the creature. She’d never given him any
reason to believe she herself had seen it kill. Gods. To see it kill her own
mother and say nothing?
Why?

Was Jennica
correct that Saba’s memories of that day were unreliable? He could certainly
understand how that could be. His own memories of crashing here were sketchy at
best.

But not
tell him? She’d shared her bed and her body with him. Why not give him what she
did remember? He pushed down a burst of anger. Was not confiding in him some
sort of test? Tyree certainly could have told him.

Or was it
just that he was still a stranger among them? Saba’s pain could even now be so
great she couldn’t tell him, not yet. If he wanted a life with her, and gods
help him he did, he had to be careful of pushing her.

It all
boiled down to the fact he still had more questions than answers. And the
questions were growing exponentially.

One thing
was clear. The creature was sentient. It knew who had hurt it and it sought
revenge. Its brain was capable of reason.

But
Saba’s mother? He still felt the loss of his own mother’s passing more than
fifteen years ago. Her passing had been peaceful, not brutal. He couldn’t even
imagine how Saba had been affected.

Well, he
wasn’t accomplishing what he’d set out to do. He picked up the stunner and
checked the setting. He looked about for a small animal of some sort and
spotted a little furry…something. It vaguely looked like a rabbit. With the stunner
on the lowest setting, he pointed and pulled the trigger. The rabbit didn’t
even flinch.

Ryder
upped the setting and shot again. Still nothing.

The
rabbit was about to become dinner. He set the stunner as high as it would go,
set the notch, and fired. His supper hopped over to a new shoot and nibbled at
it instead of falling over.
Damn.

He
rechecked the weapon, but all the diagnostics said it was working properly. He
picked up the Eliminator, flipped off the safety, and fired.

He’d have
to find something else to roast for dinner because the rabbit had vaporized.

The
results of his little test were not what he wanted. He wanted more options than
just the two he had—kill the
errol
with the Eliminator, or let the
errol
continue to terrorize the village. Stunning the bastard, and trying to reason
with it, was out of play now.

Maybe.
Hopefully, he’d have an opportunity to try the stunner on the
errol
before having to resort to vaporizing it.

Perhaps
Tyree would volunteer to be stunned.

More
likely not.

Ryder
secured both weapons in his pack. It was time to get back to the village and
face Saba. She would be curious about his meeting with Tyree, if the headman
hadn’t already reported it to her.

The
afternoon was warm, tranquil. He rather hated giving up the solitude of the
woods, so very much like those of his ancestral home. Earth was a long way off,
and no one would come looking for him on Adena. He’d be buried here, some day,
but there was no point in dwelling on it.

He rose
and stretched, feeling rested, the effects of the toxin gone. He hoped they
stayed that way. He didn’t need something like malaria that could flare up
without notice.

The
village was quiet when he passed through the gate. He noted the presence of
guards in the towers, no doubt watching for the
errol’s
return. Maybe
even his return, too.

Saba’s
door was open as he approached her hut, her voice soft as she spoke to an
unseen visitor.

“There.
You’ll be fine. Next time, check the flowers for insects before you pick them.”

A child
answered. “Yes, Saba. Thank you.”

“I need a
hug for payment.”

There was
a moment of silence then a little girl Ryder guessed to be no more than five
years old scampered past him and ran across the village yard. He turned back to
the hut. Saba was standing in the doorway watching him. He motioned after her
patient.

“Cute
kid.”

“Yes.
Where did you go? What did you and Tyree quarrel over?”

“Who said
we quarreled, angel?”

She
pointed at something sitting in the corner in shadow. “Tyree brought you a pair
of boots. He is not pleased with you.”

Ryder
leaned toward her. She bent over backwards away from him. “I’m not happy with
Tyree. And I’m the one with the weapons.”

Her eyes
widened. “You threatened him!”

“It was
mutual.” He straightened. His back was still too stiff to bend like that for
long. “Let me try on the boots.”

“No! Tell
me what was said and then you can have the boots.”

“This
village operates on blackmail, did you know that?”

“What’s
‘blackmail’?”

She
really didn’t know. He grinned at her. “Never mind. How about I kiss you and
you give me the boots?”

“I don’t
want to kiss you right now, Ryder. Can’t you just tell me?”

“Can’t
you just give me the fucking boots?”

They
stood staring at each other. She finally blinked at him. He backed her inside
and kicked the door closed. Let Tyree see that and stew.

She
yelped in protest when he lifted her off her feet and dropped her on the bed.
She tried to roll away but he caught her and sprawled over her.

“Now kiss
me, angel.” He lowered his lips to the soft skin of her throat. Her arms came
up around his neck. He trailed kisses upward until he reached her mouth. Her
lips parted under his, first in acceptance, then more willingly, and finally
she returned the kiss fully. He pulled away.

“Now let
me have the boots.”

“You are
impossible.”

“Most
likely.”

She
buried her fingers in his hair and pulled his mouth back down to hers. Her
tongue teased his lips with a bold stroke. He opened to her and let her lead.
To hell with the boots if she wanted sex. He cupped her breast. She moaned into
his mouth. He started to swell.

“Saba. We
should stop this. This is going to lead to us taking our clothes off.”

She
wrapped the leg he didn’t have pinned down around his waist. “I do hope so.”

He
started pulling her tunic up. She pushed at him and he rolled off the bed and
slipped out of his pants. He was fully erect. Her eyes were riveted to him
while she hurriedly stripped. He yanked the blankets down and pointed.

“On your
knees.”

Her eyes
flicked up to his for the briefest moment then went right back down to what
really interested her.

“I don’t
understand what you want.” She licked her lips. He stroked himself for her
edification. She knelt on the bed and reached for him. He joined her on the
bed, overbalancing them. They hit the mattress in a jumble of arms and legs.

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