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Authors: Rie Warren

Under His Guard (7 page)

BOOK: Under His Guard
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A
fter carefully exploring the wreckage of the Sector's neighborhoods, we finally picked up a signal on Linc's D-P. I took the lead, sneaking a look around the corner and into an area that might've once been a small courtyard for the four remaining structures surrounding it. A man with a full beard and long, rust-colored hair leaned against a building smoking a hand-rolled cig. The sweet scent of tobacco wafted to me.

“I'll make contact. The rest of you stay here.” I exited the alley, keeping one pistol lowered at my side.

The tall man stubbed out his cigarette when I approached, his eyes glinting curiously. He didn't give me a greeting, but he didn't pull a weapon either.

“I'm looking for Raine,” I said, less than a meter away.

Peering up at the cloudless sky and down at hard-packed earth, he smiled wryly. “Aren't we all?”

Bingo.
That was the code Denver had given us.

“I see black skies ahead.” I held out my hand and he grasped it firmly. “I'm Darke.”

“You sure are.” Raine made a quick scan up and down my body. “Denver sent you.”

“And who's Denver to you?” I still didn't have enough reasons to trust Denver, especially not with Leon's life on the line.

“Someone to trust when most others can't be.” Raine gave an easygoing wink. “You can tell your friends to come out now. We gotta hustle to get to Karesh Commune before nightfall. Don't wanna be stuck in the middle of the desert at night.”

At my whistle, the others appeared. Once we'd taken care of the how-dos, Raine jerked his head to the building behind him, indicating we should enter.

Inside, he smirked in the low, cool light. “Get rid of the rags. You look like something straight out of a Company promo. You're liable to get yourselves shot within three klicks of Karesh.” He kicked several bundles of clothes toward us.

What the hell?
This was the second time we'd been asked to change in less than an hour, for exactly the same reason: fitting in. Farrow was probably in her element. Sure enough, she'd reinvented herself into a colorfully skirted Freelander in record time. When Leon began to disrobe, I fought between turning my back and watching every article of clothing leave his body. In the end, I faced away from him, and stood in front of everyone else in an effort to provide a shield from all other eyes.

By the time I dressed in long pants and a loose tunic, Leon was ready. He wore flowing gypsy pants that gathered so low on his hips the teasing tip of his tattoo showed. There was no shirt on his torso, just an expanse of bare skin I wanted to run my hands all over.

Raine beckoned us out the back of the building. I was blinded by the harsh sunlight, and it took a moment for my sight to adjust to the open expanse of terrain where Omega Territory left off.

“Welcome to your transport.” Raine waved toward a group of tall, gangly animals roped up to a ramshackle shelter.

I stared at the two-humped beasts. And I'd thought the Predator was bad.

“Camels.” Raine led us over.

The giant animal closest to Cannon hissed at him. The former Alpha commander looked like he might piss himself—or pull his Glock.

“Careful. They bite,” Raine warned with a chuckle.

I cautiously sidled up to a camel, gathering the reins.

“Two of you will have to double up,” Raine said. He mounted his ride as it took the opportunity to spit and bare big square teeth.

Sebastian seemed to be getting into his element after proving his worth in the Predator. He slapped me on the back. “Just like riding a horse, big guy.”

I wished to hell Leon would start calling me
cher
again. No one else would dare call me that for fear of reprisal. Ambling over, Leon let me hoist him onto the blanket-saddle.

Holding his hand down to me, he grinned. “C'mon,
beb
.”

I seated myself behind Leon and ran one arm around his waist. I touched my heels gingerly to the camel's flanks and we took off at an awkward gait.

“Giddyap!” Leon whooped.

There was no cover in sight as we galloped away across dusty plain. Or maybe not galloped, but more like bucked. The animal's coarse hair scratched through the thin fabric of my pants, and I leaned forward to touch my lips to the back of Leon's neck.

Half an hour later, he grumbled, “My ass is gettin' chafed.”

“Don't worry. I'll massage it for you later.” I lifted him onto my thighs, cushioning the ride.

*  *  *

We rode hard for nearly an hour before an outcropping of squat structures dotted the horizon. The sun had begun to set, sending streaks of orange across the sky and over the sand that shifted like waves on water. Leon had relaxed into my embrace, his hand curled across mine over his stomach. I thought he'd had fallen asleep, but leaning over, I saw his eyes blink heavily.

“We're here, baby.”

“Aye yi yi yi yi!”
Yips went up from inside the village, and Raine returned the call.

Streams of men, women, and children raced from between the round rustic buildings. Clusters formed around us, people in bright colors, their hair covered from the ever-present sand. Beaded necklaces dripped from their necks, bangles adorning the lengths of their arms. They gestured wildly and welcomed us with grins, taking the reins from our hands. I dismounted first and then helped Leon off, keeping an arm around his waist.

“Come, come. They've prepared a feast for our prestigious visitors.” Raine unwrapped the cloth from his hair, shaking his red waves loose.

Karesh Commune wasn't protected by boundary walls, fences, or even trees or mountains. Nothing stood between the village and its surrounds. The situation was unsettling. I was more determined than ever to keep a close watch over Leon.

Domed huts crowded close together in the settlement that stretched as far as the eye could see. There were no roads but winding paths, one of which we followed to a central gathering point. A large tent-like structure opened over a huge fire pit in the middle, roasting meat sizzling from a spit. Rough blankets covered the seared, stubby grass. Cushions were thrown about for comfort, and camels, horses, cattle, and goats roamed in the distance on the plain.

Raine drew us under the tent. He began introducing us to the villagers awaiting their first look at their cousins from across the Pan-Atlantic Ocean. The Freelander way of life had begun long before the Purge had drastically reduced the world's population, a two-decade environmental annihilation that ended in the year 2020.

The back-to-earth movement started with our ancestors seeking a simpler existence not subordinate to the government, which had increased its focus on making war in far lands and money hand over fist. They adhered to the principles of careful balance between tending the earth and everyone's right to their own ideals.

The first Freelanders harvested not just the land but also the sprightly minds of their generations, espousing ingenuity in the arts and technology. Each of our communes was linked as one family by a shared hope for a life that wasn't meted out by strict rules. Our ultimate commonality was hope for a future not suppressed by CO dictates.

Linc and Liz fell in with a group of warriors, no doubt gathering what intel they could. Cannon and Nathaniel lingered by the fire, Cannon nearly salivating at the succulent scent of roasted meat. I watched Sebastian entertain a group of children as he juggled four large pebbles while his sister Farrow indulgently looked on. Each time he dropped a rock, he handed out a piece of hard candy he'd brought from his time in Beta. Bas was fast becoming an instant favorite, smart man.

Leon grasped my hand in his, settling us on a blanket.

“Are you tired?”

“Not a bit.” He stifled a yawn.

“Here, lean on me.” I smiled as he worked closer to me. After days of getting the cold shoulder from him, I was soothed by his reciprocating touches.

I was almost ready to drop off myself when he bolted upright. “I think there's someone we're supposed to meet.”

Directly in front of us stood an impressive man. The long darts of his kilt were fashioned from animal pelts. His chest was bare, and he bore the marking of a black mamba moko across his left pectoral. Head shaved except for a round patch on his pate, from which a long black braid fell to his waist where several weapons rested, including what looked like a gleaming silver cleaver. His earlobes stretched with large-bore metal plugs. His lips were set in a grim line.

I shot to my feet, bringing Leon with me.

The man nodded to Raine at his side.

“This is Chief Shehu,” Raine said.

“Thank you, Chief, for welcoming us to your commune.” I clasped his hand. “This is Leon, my…”

“Partner?” He dipped his chin down, inspecting Leon.

“Friend,” Leon quipped. His face flushed, and he took a step away from me.

I pinned him with my gaze.

“I'm gonna go check on the others.” Leon swaggered away.

I kept him in my sights until Shehu cleared his throat. When I turned back to him, Raine had also disappeared.

“Not your lover?”

“Not yet.” My jaw pulsed.

“But you want him to be.”

“Yes.”

“He is of fine making, firm and young. And a high spirit, one that can't be broken and shouldn't be tamed.” Shehu was not doing me any favors, pointing out Leon's best qualities.

“I am fully aware of his attributes, Chief.”

He laughed then, relaxing his stance. “Call me Shehu.” He pulled me toward the fire and compared our coloring. “But you are not from Aafricans?”

“No. The former colonies of North America are where I was born and raised.”

“Your ancestors, though, they hail from this continent.” Shehu nodded to a slight boy who wore an eager-to-please grin. With the echoing sound of a large gong, Shehu ordered the feast to start.

As drums began to beat, dancers streaked in and out of the tent and a crowd surged toward the food.

I answered Shehu, “Many centuries ago.”

“This Leon, he who is not your lover, he's the one infected? The reason for your journey?”

“Yes, but I don't want it known. It's too dangerous.” I studied the fierce-faced chief. “How did you figure it out?”

“You hunger for him as that one hungers after meat.” He gestured to Cannon, who was loading his plate, and I chuckled. “You look at him as one parched for love like our land thirsts for rain. Pain covers you, pain from the past and fear of what the future brings. It all centers on Leon.”

I was taken aback. “You can read me so easily?”

“Only because I know the hardships of the heart.”

Leon joined Sebastian. They attracted an ever-growing circle of youngsters with their two-man juggling act. I listened to his laughter, so low and deep, as he fumbled for one of the airborne rocks. Sebastian tossed out another piece of candy when Leon landed on the ground, having missed his catch.

“And the boy, Leon, he is under your skin, like a disease?”

“Not a disease.” I rubbed my chest. “He's the sun, warming my cold soul.”

“Ah, I understand.” Shehu passed me a bowl and we sat together. “You are like me. You sense the emotions of others.”

“I try not to. It was a treasure my mother honed and used well.” I took a bite, savoring the taste. “When she died, I learned to close off that part of myself. I'm more suited to war.”

He chewed thoughtfully. “If your prowess in battle is as strong as your powerful emotions, I would believe it. Do you feel something from all of them?” He motioned toward my companions.

“When there's a convergence of the same feeling, yes. Most often it's with only one or two people. I lost the ability completely before Leon came along.”

“His bond is the strongest.”

“If we have one at all.” I watched as the others joined the gravy train, filling up on the hearty smoked meat and the warm flat bread accompanying it. Mint tea was passed around, the hot drink somehow refreshing in this sun-drenched climate.

Gesturing to our contact, red-haired Raine, Shehu said, “He is one of our shamans. He's searching for the cure.”

I wouldn't have pictured Raine as a medicine man, more of a hustler. “Is he close to finding it?”

“We think so.”

“Are there any people infected here?” I asked.

Placing his empty bowl on the ground, Shehu wiped his mouth. His vision became distant, his posture regal. “We had one. A female. She was found yesterday, her throat slit.”

My body went rigid. “She was murdered because of the Plague?”

“I believe so, yes.”

“Now you understand why Leon's status needs to remain under wraps.” I cast a worried look at Leon, who talked animatedly between taking huge mouthfuls of food across the tent.

“We will keep it so.”

A woman worked her way over to us. Her skin was the color of cocoa, and she wore a large, glittering jewel around her neck. Her unlikely silver eyes shined like the ruby set against her throat.

Rising to his feet, Shehu took her hand. “And this is my woman, Pyra.”

She slapped the formidable man's arm. “His wife. Although considering he all but dragged me to this godforsaken Outpost from the Amphitheater, where we met fifteen years ago, I might just as well be his concubine.” Pyra was almost as tall as her husband and just as imperial, even while she handed out a lighthearted tongue-lashing.

I bowed over her proffered hand. “Darke of Chitamauga militia, ma'am.”

She tapped my head. “No
ma'am
here—just me and the chief.”

Pyra was obviously from a different life, yet she seemed well suited to the role of chieftess.

“And here is our offspring.” She grabbed a girl by the arm and wrangled her back. “Lilith.”

“It's a pleasure, Lilith.”

BOOK: Under His Guard
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