A Dirth’s Bride (Port Meno Series 2)

A Dirth’s Bride (Port Meno Series 2)

Chapter One

Rain was such a constant event that Caye forgot how many days the dark grey clouds let lose it’s contents. The weather swayed from heavy to a light, tink-tink-tink continually soaking the ground and created a background noise the lulled her asleep every night. Caye didn’t know why something was off until she realized it was no longer raining.

From the couch she craned her neck to the window, seeing the light shine through. Her lips curled back in a smile. Sitting up she grabbed her nearby shoes and slipped them on. There was no point in wasting a single minute of a sunny day.

On Port Meno, the planet had three seasons: heavy warm rain that constantly fell- morning, noon, and night; light cool rain which was the most bearable season; and lastly the ice rain that was beautiful but also deadly.

Port Meno was mostly water with two massive continents: Hatulacha or Amatukish.

Caye lived on the west side tail of Hatulaca. Her family had grown into a sizeable group and one of the Federation conservation officers declared them a town. It took six more months of fighting before the town name was selected, but that’s a different story. Needless to say, she grew up in what is known as Tea Valley.

In Tea Valley, the whole of the family lived off their own merits, as they cropped their own food, plucked their own fruit trees, used animals for meat, used animals for their clothes, grew herbs and teas for medicines. They even had their own teachers.
There were four hundred and eighty-five people who lived in Tea Valley. By the end of the day, there could be three more if her cousins ended up giving birth during the latest rainstorm.

Leaving her one-bedroom cottage, she pulled on a long sleeve shirt, grabbed the knife she left stabbed on the porch ledge and took a deep breath. Stepping into the soggy ground, she was thankful that her grass kept the mud from sucking her feet deep down. Jumping to the walking stones, she crossed her front lawn and headed out into the lane in her colorful pink and purple rain boots.

Taking the long road away from town, she faced the sun, smiling at the sun as it warmed her skin. The air was crisp and fresh. Her stomach growled about five minutes into her walk, and Caye decided instead of just exploring, she’d make her way to her Aunt Kali’s Lazy Nodds Bed and Breakfast. Her aunt was one of the few who did business with those outside of the family.

It was also the best place to meet new people…people her age…and single.

Almost forty minutes into her walk, she noticed a female laying on the ground wearing a white dress. Caye slowed, trying to understand why someone was in a bridal dress. She didn’t remember hearing about anyone getting married. In a small family town, no one got married without everyone knowing about it.

As she inched closer, she noticed the female huffing as if she was still crying.

The closest transportation pick-up was another mile and a half up the path, near her aunt’s business. If this person took this path, they were clearly lost. Taking the whole scene into consideration, Caye immediately felt bad for the bride -whoever she was.

Caye winced as she reached out, without touching the stranger and said, “Hey, are you okay?”

Quick as a flash the downed bride kicked her foot out and caught Caye in the leg, making her drop back in the mud.
What the hell?

The crazed bride tried to grab her neck and pull at the collar of her long sleeve. Caye, twisted in the mud, letting the shirt rip as needed so that she could escape. Scrambling up to her feet, Caye took off into the trees that lined the road.

The bride, whoever she was, wouldn’t know the area well enough to follow.

Or at least Caye thought. Behind her, she heard the crack of twigs breaking and the slosh of footsteps in the muddy ground.
Caye ran faster than she ever had. There was no telling what the female would do to her, and at this point, it looked like the bride wanted to kill her. Adrenaline surging in her blood, Caye’s heart pounded, giving her a narrow vision, pushing her forward.
The chase went on too long and Caye could feel tears rolling down her cheeks.

Why was the female still chasing her?

What did she do?

One false step was all it took for Caye to catch a hidden divot in the grass and fall forward.

The woman behind her, jumped on her back, smashing Caye’s face into the wet plants and leaves. The female’s nails dug into her neck, sparking fear of death down Caye’s spine. The crazed bride leaned down and whispered between harsh breaths, “I’m sorry, but I can’t be his bride.”

Chapter Two

Caye opened her eyes seeing the typical grey sky, and a pair of birds fly overhead. Blinking a few times she realized she was outside, on the ground.

The hell?

Sitting up she noticed the tall red trees that were several feet from where she was sitting. The ground was stony and uncomfortable. Her feet were bare and the air smelled different. Coldness seeped into her skin.

Turning to the sloshing sound she noticed she was next to a massive body of water. It wasn’t an ocean because it lacked the large waves, but the lake was moving in that rhythmic way that made all water feel alive.

Caye didn’t live near a lake.

The closest one was blocked off because it was supposed to be dangerous. The signs around the forest that surrounded the lake said, Deadly Predators.

If this was said lake, she was in trouble.

Scanning to make sure there was nothing hunting her or moving, Caye, slowly pushed to her feet. Brushing off the black soil off her hands, she noticed she wasn’t wearing her clothes. Holding out the heavy white fabric with mud stains all over, she realized she was in a bridal dress.

The same dress with cream color buttons that the other female was wearing.

Oh, no.

What did she say again? Something about being a bride?
More fear and confusion rushed to her heart. Caye saw several footsteps. One that walked along the bank of the water. Another set that veered from her the right, into the grass that probably led towards the smoke coming out of the trees. It could be a trap for whoever lived out here illegally, or maybe the people who were burning the fire were the dangerous predators.

Regardless, she needed to get home. The biggest problem was, she was a long way and it would be way past dark before she got there.

Peering up at the heavy clouds she prayed that they didn’t empty their contents anytime soon. But just as she was about to head forward, she heard a bird cry out, then something that sounded like a beast screamed from the trees to her left.

It was time to run.



Chapter Three

Horz flipped his wet hair back after walking up the stairs to the underwater city. He saw his oldest brother standing there with a harpoon in hand. The scowl on his face looked like it had been there for a while.

“Terby,” Horz said not stopping until he was all the way up the stairs. Standing a head taller than his oldest brother, and he waited for the talk that was coming, but he made sure to show he wasn’t happy about the directive.

“You were supposed to be getting your bride.”

A bride.

Not a mate, but a damn bride. He wasn’t a land-walking wobbler that was supposed to marry someone he never met before. He was a Dirth, he was supposed to find a female of his choice to accept three gifts under the same sun. That solidified his and her interest in each other.

A true mating.

But this…swimming to the surface, grabbing a bride on the shore, and bringing her back down to his home was an abomination to their culture.

Horz looked into the Dirth city, seeing a group of men cleaning their morning catch. He noticed their downcast eyes and their shoulders hunched over as if they were actively trying not to be noticed. Each one of those husbands was miserable. Most did both the males work of hunting and the females work of cleaning the food. All because of the insane idea to breed with land walkers.

The land walkers were ruining everything.

If his brother Terby wasn’t around, the men would have greeted him normally, with smiles and playful words.

But the other Dirths knew to keep their silence when his brother was around. His brother was more like his father, Beme, the exiled Dirth who used to rule over the Trough Islands. Both were easily offended and quick to lash out.

Beme died fourteen years ago.

After Beme died, Horz took over as leader. As leader he took on the role to meet with the other kings from the other Dirth cities so that we could mate and breed. Horz didn’t know what exactly happened during those talks, but needless to say, mating with other Dirths wasn’t an option. Terby instead decided to make a deal with families that lived around their lake. The deal was one breedable female would be given as a bride every seven years and Terby would allow the land walkers to hunt the waters for two months out of the year.

His eldest brother, Terby had taken the first female and it ended in her giving birth and then drowning shortly after.

Terby never took another breeder, which made Hortz assume that it was indeed an accident.

“I don’t want a wobbler for a bride,” Horz said hoping his brother would pass this year’s bride to someone else – anyone else.

“There are no Dirths for you to marry. You have to take one of the land walkers.”

“I’d rather die alone than take one of them into my home,” Horz said honestly.

The tip of the harpoon dipped until it was just under his chin. His brother’s voice vibrating. “If I have to tell you to go get her again, I’ll cut your face and show everyone your disgrace. I will not allow you to disrespect my law.”

Horz saw and heard the emotion.

Begrudgingly, Horz lifted his chin and stepped back. “I will follow your law and take the wobbler, but I will not m marry her. She will give me a child and then I will return to her world. I have no intention of living the rest of my life with a crying clam.”

Terby pointed the harpoon to the water. “Go now. Find her, breed her, and I’ll allow you to release her.”

Horz turned back to the steps and took them slowly, dreading what nasty female the wobbling land walkers planned for him.
“Horz,” Terby called. Pausing, Horz turned to hear whatever his brother was going to tell him now. There was no doubt that he was going to dislike it.

Terby continued, “If the woman isn’t there, go to the hut that burns a fire all day and night long. They had a storm recently, so she may have taken safety in the cooking shack.”

Horz nodded wondering what a cooking shack was, and why it sounded interesting instead of detesting. Moving back down the stairs, he tried not to think about his future breeder. But he couldn’t shake the worry that his bride would be a wild-hair-gnashing-teeth-eel. Just thinking of having to breed someone ugly and bitter made his manhood want to hide too.

***

Horz pushed off the lake floor and broke the surface of the lake in a few seconds. He followed his instinct and swam slow, watching the water for predators, and the shore for land predators. His bone knives were inside his shirt, tucked away, ready for anything.

Reaching shore a few minutes later, he saw several footprints. One that followed the bank, one that led to the hut, and one that followed a dirt path towards the red trees – those, of course, were bare, the other was boots.

A bride would know to be barefoot considering she was going in the water. The fact that she left the bank for the trees said she was either scared or she thought he wasn’t coming.

His people came every seven years without a miss, if she thought she lucked out of this travesty, she was wrong. They both were about to suffer – and he was sure he was taking the brunt end.

Shaking his head, he followed the smaller footprints in the mud. It wasn’t until he was halfway that he heard a high-pitched female scream. His stomach dropped, and he ran. The stupid female didn’t realize that the planet was covered in predators?

Chapter Four

Caye was on top of a rock looking down at a reptile thing with several blue tongues that were shooting in her direction. The green and brown patched beast has chased her to where she was and wasn’t leaving her alone.

A second ago it jumped up and almost got her ankle.

She could see it preparing to jump again and she didn’t have room to hop to one side or the next. Terrified, she cursed as the slimy faced thing flung its blue tongues at her again. Using her dress, she swatted the things that too close to her legs.

Caye glanced to her right, hoping that she could see something that would help her, but everything was too far away and the trees were too round to climb up.

Without warning, the thing’s tongue grabbed her dress and pull. She dropped to her knees and held on for dear life. She screamed again as she kicked out, hoping to hit the nasty thing in the face.

Her foot hit something, and it shrieked.

She kicked it again and then someone big and soaking wet jumped out of nowhere. He was a blur at first. Caye’s eyes followed him until he was beside the beast. It screamed again just before he stabbed it right in the middle of its head.

It wailed in pain.

The stranger pulled out the white knife, reached under its fat neck and slit it open, exposing nasty smelling blue goo. The pressure around her ankle released, and she scrambled back up the rock, watching as the male continued to cut at the body.

Wincing, she watched until he looked up. At first he looked disappointed, but then he just stared as if he just realized she was a stranger.

Assuming he was from the forbidden forest, she quickly apologized. “I know you don’t know me, and I shouldn’t be here, but I’m so thankful for what you did. As repayment, I don’t have any keleps because my family do use monitory coins , but I’m an excellent cook, and I grow medicinal herbs and I can give you anything you want – whenever you want.”

His head tilted to the side as if he had never talked to a person like her. Maybe living in the forest was a solitary life. Maybe he didn’t need food or herbs.

Trying again she said, “Um, I also make colorful blankets and scarves and stuff. I can make you a one.”

He was standing up, legs apart and arms crossed as if he was listening, but also waiting to tell her that she was trespassing.

Sliding herself off the rock, she landed unevenly and had to catch herself before face planting. When she stood up the male was watching him curiously.

He was probably wondering why she was in a bridal gown.

Wiping the black wet soil off on her already muddy dress, she said, “I’m not the kind of crazy that walks around in wedding dresses, I swear. And I didn’t have a wedding or anything where the groom left me. This is all just one big mess.”

He looked at her as if he was laughing at her.

Damn, he didn’t believe her. Or at least it didn’t look like he did. Groaning, she said, “I promise, I’m not crazy. I was headed to see my aunt when I saw a female laying in the mud and crying. She was in this white dress.”

At that, the male stilled as if he was believed her.

Pleased she talked faster, “I asked her if she was okay, but when I got too close, she attacked me. I ran into the woods and she followed me – knocked me out and I woke up in this dress near the lake.”

Cringing from hearing those words in her own ears, she winced. “I swear I’m not crazy.” Placing her hand on her chest she repeated, “I swear.”

The male scanned the surrounding area before he responded in a tone that said he wasn’t happy. “What happened to the one who knocked you out?”

“I don’t know, but I plan to let the authorities know about her. She’s crazy and needs to in an institution or something because attacking random people is bad news.”

Something rattled by the bush, and she jumped to the side.

The male didn’t seem at all afraid. He looked over at the bush and said, “It’s not going to hurt you.”

She tried to hold her tongue, but she ended up mumbling, “Said the hunter who lives alone in the woods.”

He snorted at her.

She smiled but didn’t look at him. She hoped that the snort was a half laugh and not a condescending response.

The light from the sun was fading, and she hoped that she wasn’t making a big mistake when she said, “It might be a good idea to get out of here. Nightime is not a good time to be lost in the woods, plus, it’s cold and it might start raining again for days.”

“I’m not lost,” he said, cleaning off the ooze against his pants.

“I- I get that, but I am. I mean, once I get out of these woods I can find my way back home. Um, do you think you can show me the way out?”

His eyes found hers and there was something in his expression she couldn’t read. But they were heavy, and she felt even more uneasy so she blurted, “I mean, can you take me home. I have food cooking, and herbs I can give you. Dried fruits and bread…I can give you that blanket I promised.”

He hesitated before saying, “Alright.”

“Thank you.”

He nodded at her then looked to his right and stepped over the dead animal and said, “This way.”

Caye knew her legs were not long enough to step over the carcass, so she walked around the dead thing, careful not to step in its blood…or the organs slipping out.

It was a silent walk until the light dissipated. The male in front of her was barely a moving mass, and she could barely make him out. Thankfully, the ground was covered in enough leaves and twigs that she could follow the sound.

But once they escaped the trees for the open road, she lost him. Scanning back and forth she held out her arms. “Hey….um, are you still out there?”

Crickets continued to chirp all around. It was too dark to know where she was, and she didn’t even know if she was on a road or in a field.

“I’m right here,” said the male right next to her.

Jumping, she accidently hit him and screamed. His arms came around her as she fell. Feeling so bad about hitting him…wherever she hit him she repeated nervously, “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not hurt.”

“I hit you.”

“Yeah, you slapped my chest, and I barely felt it.”

Standing a little steadier, she cleared her throat. “Really?”

“Yes,” he said with a slight sound of exasperation.

“Okay. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, you said that.”

Okay… “Thank you for catching me.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Good. Thank you,” she said again, wondering what the hell was wrong with her. She sounded like a two-celled idiot.

“You said that too.”

Yeah, she knew that. She said it. Trying to politely moved from his hold she said, “Um I don’t know where we are. I don’t know how to get home.”

He made a noise and then said, “Well, then this will take longer than I planned.”

“Are you upset about that?” she asked.

“I’m feeling less and less interested in my plans, so no.”

Oh really? “What were your plans?”

He made that sound again. “Find the female who hurt you and dressed you in that stained dressed.”

He was going to do what?

That was not she was expecting. Half of her was kind of flattered. “Oh, well, I’m sure she’s gone so you don’t have to do that…for me.”

“I still need to track her down.”

“Why though, I mean it’s over, I’m safe, you’re good. Everything is fine.”

“Everything is not fine,” he said, but when she went to ask what that meant he grabbed her arm and pulled her forward.

“Where are we going?”

“To your cabin.”

“You know where I live?” she screeched.

He stopped and turned her to face him…she assumed. “No, but I’m sure that someone in one of these homes knows where you live.”

“What homes?”

“Can’t you smell the fires?”

“No.” What fires? What was he talking about?

He cleared his throat and began pulling her again. “How often do you travel at night?”

“Never.”

“That makes sense.”

Was he criticizing her? Rude. “I’m not a wood hunter like you. I grow herbs.”

“I’m not a wood hunter.”

“I didn’t mean you hunt wood,” she said with a little heat. “I just meant you’re a hunter and I’m a grower.” Just then she smelled bread and garlic and stove fire.

That’s what he was smelling.

That’s why he knew there were homes nearby. “I can smell the fire now.”

He made that sound again.

It grew silent again, but with his arm wrapped around her arm, she felt less uneasy. Which was kind of odd considering he was kind of a jerk.

The scent increased just as she saw a light glow in the distance. As they got closer her heart speed up, pleased because there was a good chance it was one of her family members. Her town was a good three miles from the lake, but the next town was at least fifty miles away from her town, so she had to be home.

Seeing the window clearly she got giddy. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I can’t wait to be home.”

“Is that your home?”

“No,” she said still smiling. “But it’s one of my family members.”

“How do you know?”

“Because we’re the only town that live that close to the forbidden lake.”

“You’re people….fish the lake?” he said in a tone that sounded odd.

“Fish that lake? Never. There are signs all over the forest saying to keep out, and that it’s full of predators. My family and I live on meat, not fish.”

He made his sound again, and this time she rolled her eyes.

Just as they were about to walk up to the door he asked, “Do you live alone?”

She paused, not knocking yet. “Yes, I have my own one bedroom cabin. I moved out of my parents home when I took over the herb gardens. My family owns this town, pretty much only family lives here.” She noticed in the light from the window his head tilt some as if he had never heard of something so strange. “It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Living around a big-big family has it’s benefits.”

He nodded at that. “That’s how I live.”

Her heart thudded in her chest. “Really?”

His head dipped down once.

So if he lived with family, there was no way he was a lone hunter in the forest. How lucky was she to have a random guy from another town find her and save her? Thinking fast she tried to remember the nearest family town. “Do you live in Satre? I hear they have uh…a big male family.”

“No.”

“Oh.”

Before she could ask where he was from, the door opened and her uncle Dell standing in a house slippers, red flannel underwear, a tan jacket holding a hatchet.

He ripped her from the front door and pulled her behind his back. As she stumbled from the quick transition, she called out, “Put on some pants uncle Dell, it’s me Caye.”

“Caye? What are you doing out this late?” he growled then added, “Don’t know who you are, but you best let my niece by cuz she’s the only thing keeping you alive.”

The male didn’t budge.

The male also wasn’t wearing a shirt, and she had her hands flat on his hot skin.

“Where’s her cabin?” he commanded to her uncle.

Not the right thing to ask.

“I’m not telling you anything. You let my niece go or I’ll cut you up and feed you to my pigs Stranger.”

Exhaling into the males back she mumbled, “I’m never going to live this down.” Louder she said, “Uncle Dell, this guy saved me from being eaten in the forest. He’s walking me home to make sure I get there safe. Now that I know where I am, I can get home. Go back to bed. Tell Aunt Elma I love her.”

Tapping the naked back she told the hunter, “Come on, I know my way from here.”

The hunter backed up, turned her around and made her walk off the porch first.

“Caye, you better get your butt back here and explain yourself.”

She slowed, and her shoulder sagged. The hunter took her arm, not letting her stop. “You don’t owe him nothing.”

She pulled back, “He’s gonna follow us if I don’t tell him. He’s probably going to follow us anyway, might as well tell him that you saved me.”

He tried to pull her harder, but she dug her feet in. “He’s my family. Please stop.”

Immediately he did.

“Thank you.” When she turned to go back, she noticed he wasn’t following. “Are you coming?”

“No.”

Oh.

He probably had to get back home. She wasn’t ready to see him leave, but she understood. Biting her lip, she wondered if there was anything she could give him. Her hand instinctually went to her left wrist to the weaved bracelet she was gifted for her first harvest. Thankfully, it was still there.

Holding up her wrist she used her mouth to untie the knot. When she finished unraveling it she held it out. “Thank you for what you did. I understand you have to go, but please take this. It’s a corded bracelet. You can use it to tie things up or carry them. It’s strong and unfrayed. I think someone like you would find it useful.”

The hunter didn’t move fast, but he grabbed the bracelet.

“Caye, I said, get back here,” her uncle yelled out from the door. Fighting the desire to stay with him longer she thanked him again and left.

As soon as she was on the porch uncle Dell opened wide the door and used the knife to point inside. The cabin was several degrees warmer and she almost smiled at being inside.

Almost.

But she couldn’t smile when she thought about her hunter being outside…heading to who knows where.

Using the knife he pointed at the couch. “You best explain yourself, girl. Because I know for a fact that you know better than to go into the forest.”

His tone said he was serious, but it was also her uncle Dell and he didn’t have it in him to hurt her. He just had it in him to tell every living soul in the town. Sulking further into the couch, she explained what happened from the time she left her cabin.



Chapter Five

Horz held the bracelet in his hand unsure of what he was doing. He should have left to find his arranged bride, but he couldn’t motivate himself to move. Caye…the female he rescued wasn’t his bride, but he’d be a liar if he didn’t wish she was.

Her hair was wild and her dress was a disaster, but her shapely form, full lips and powder blue eyes drew him in the moment he saw her. When he found out she was not his intended he wasn’t happy, but then she asked him to help and he forgot himself – his responsibilities.

His brother would expect him back by now.

Horz expected he had until morning before his brother sent people out to find him. So little time meant he should head back to the forest – to the cooking shed that Terby told him about.

And yet, he didn’t move.

Rubbing his thumb over the corded bracelet, he could feel the sureness of it. It was a good bracelet. It was similar to his net string. Hard yet bendable. He would find a good use for it.

A while later the darkness was filled with light when the cabin door opened. Her uncle was there, holding out an object. Caye took it and said, “Thanks Uncle Dell.”

Horz immediately shoved the bracelet in his pocket, not happy that the older male gave Caye a gift. It was irrational because Caye was not his, but the emotions stung the same.

“I’ll return it in the morning. Thanks again,” she said turning on the object so a beam of light cut through the dark.

“You do that,” said the older male, and Horz almost smiled.

So she wasn’t taking his gift.

Good.

Very good.

Finally moving, he crept further into the shadow. He watched as the uncle watched her leave the porch and head in his general direction. She only turned back once to shake the device and then continue forward.

Once the door was shut and her foolish uncle thought she was safe, he moved towards Caye, feeling a rush of something he couldn’t name.

Once he was next to her, he expected that she would notice.

She didn’t.

Shaking his head, his wobbler wasn’t a very good hunter. Her sensory awareness was non-existent. Keeping step beside her he figured eventually she’d notice.

….They were at her porch before she accidently bumped into him and yelped.

He reached out and grabbed her, to keep her from falling. “I’m starting to think it’s best that you never ventured out at night by yourself.”

“Hunter?” she said and the sound of happiness in her voice did something to him. It made him smile.

“I am that, but my name is Horz.”

“Horse? You’re named after an animal?”

“No, its Horz,” he corrected, wondering why this insane conversation was making him smile wider.

“Whores?”

He paused to keep himself from asking why the hell he would be named whores. “H. O. R. Z.”

“Oh. Got it. Sorry.”

He thought to ask her to say it again, but he figured it was better to get inside so he could see her face in the light again. Ensuring she was standing on her feet, he let go. He watched as she reached down picked up the light object and moved to her door, turned the knob and pushed it open.

At the door, she peered back and asked, “Can I offer you some food before you go?”

Considering he was going to follow her in regardless, he was pleased that he didn’t have to make an excuse. But the second before he said, “Yes,” he realized that this was the second gift she had offered him.

She wasn’t a Dirth, and she didn’t know anything about his people’s mating habits, but there was something uncomfortably familiar with Caye offering him gifts that he accepted. If she offered one more, it would be the third gift under the same night sky.

Again, that didn’t mean he was mated, but…. there was a strong symmetry to it.





Chapter Six

Caye’s heart was erratic with surprise, nerves and lust as she watched Horz the hunter walk into her humble home. If he was wearing more than just a pair of pants and his odd looking shoes, she would have offered to dry his clothes by the fire place.

The fire place that was not putting off any heat at the moment. Once Horz was inside she closed the door and put her attention into building a fire. She crushed up the kindling and added a handful of twigs before situating two logs inside the large cast-iron stove and furnace.

When she was confident, the fire would take, she turned to see Horz scanning the room. She waited patiently, trying to analyze every flick of his eyes and every tilt of his head, wondering if he approved or disapproved of her humble home.

When he was done he didn’t comment on any of it.

Okay then. Pointing her thumb towards the kitchen she said, “I’m going to get the food, and a pot for the soup.” When he didn’t say or do anything to that, she left feeling like an idiot. Or maybe that was just her nerves because she never had a male in her home. A male, who was easily a head taller.

With his long black hair, dark eyes and naked chest, he was out of place in her cabin. The browns, greens, yellows and rustic reds were inviting and warm. Everything about Horz was mysterious.

Leaving him in the entry way slash living room she let out a relieving breath between her cheeks. Grabbing the stock pot she placed it on the counter, then set down a cutting board and began gathering and cutting the vegetables for a quick and filling winter stew.

To her surprise, Horz moved to the doorway of the kitchen and watched her. Figuring he was bored by himself she tried to think of something light to talk about. Instead, she heard herself ask, “Where are you from?”

“Under the lake.”

Confused, she pulled her brows together.

“I’m a Dirth.”

Oh.

OH.

She heard about them. They were the strange people who lived under the water. She always wondered how they were able to live under the water. “I’ve heard about Dirths.”

He leaned back and folded his arms over his chest. “Have you?”

The way he said it made he blush for some reason. Embarassed, she took another parsnip and began to cut. “You’re the natural race of this planet.”

“We are.”

“And you live underwater…somehow.” She looked up to see if he would elaborate on how.

“We do,” he said with a sparkle in his eye that let her know he was purposely not explaining.

Not letting it go, she asked, “How?”

He shrugged.

“Is it a secret?”

“No.”

“Then you don’t know how?” she challenged.

At that he grinned. “I know how. But why do you want to know?”

She shrugged. “Because it sounds interesting.” Grabbing the cut vegetables, she added them to the pot. Taking a handful of potatoes, she continued to cut.

“Even if I explained it, you wouldn’t understand.”

“That’s true, but I’d still like to know something.”

She finished cutting the potatoes before he asked, “What if I offered to show you?”

Everything in her hand dropped as she turned. “Are you serious?”

Horz looked back into the living room from the door and said, “If you came, I wouldn’t be able to bring you back immediately.”

“That’s okay,” she said, feeling her heart lighten. “I am sure I could find my way back. You wouldn’t have to do anything.”

He turned his head lazily back to her with a frown. “I wouldn’t let you return on your own. You were attacked twice today, remember.”

Dropping her eyes, she groaned.

Yeah, she remembered.

Taking the fallen potatoes from the counter, she put them inside the pot, brought it to the faucet and filled it up halfway. Carefully, she walked it past him and into the living room. She could feel him following her.

She set the pot on the stove and checked the fire that was burning nice and hot. Taking another log she put it inside and closed the trap and sealed it off, except for the vent. With nothing left to do but wait, she shrugged and said, “It’s going to be an hour. Do you want to take a seat?”

Instead of answering, he just sat down. When she didn’t follow he gave her a pointed look.

Circling a finger around herself, she said, “I need to wash up and get changed.”

At that he nodded so she left him there and entered her room. But the second she was about to close the door she spotted her latest throw blanket she made for herself. It was warm and big enough for her to sleep on the couch.

Grabbing said blanket she walked back out and held it out to Horz, “It’s still warming up so you can use this. And then you can take it with you later so you don’t have to be cold when you walk back to the Lake.”

Horz held her eyes with a curl of his right lip. With an arrogant tone he said, “I’m not cold.”

Pressing her lips together, to keep back her disappointment, she set it on the couch.

Horz reached over and picked it up and rubbed his thumb in a circle as if he was inspecting it. “This is good work.”

“It is,” she said positively, because she made it.

His eyes smiled when he peered back at her. “You make it?”

“I did.”

He nodded. “Then I accept it. I’ll use it when we leave.”

She almost bounced on her feet when he accepted. She liked the idea of him having her things to remember her by. But it wasn’t until she was in her room, naked and cleaning herself with a bucket of cold water, that she realized he said when we leave.

Did he mean to leave with her tonight?

Chapter Seven

Horz was used to eating meat. As in the fish from the water, or the predators that got too close to the lake. The bowl in front of him had no meat in it, and it smelled like too many things. He waited to try it until Caye filled a bowl for herself.

He scooped up the contents and watched as Caye broke a lump of something light brown. She gave him half and took the other and dipped it into the soup.

He eyed the lump and disregarded it. Then brought the food to his mouth, expecting the worst. It wasn’t as bad as rotten meat, but the soft textures were odd. The flavor wasn’t bad, even though he still would have preferred meat.

“The bread is great when dipped in the soup.”

The bread?

When he didn’t say or move, she pointed to the lump. Caye then pulled another chunk from her lump and dipped it in the soup. It didn’t look appetizing at all, but he took the bread and broke a small piece off and dipped it in the liquid and set it on his tongue.

It was….soggy.

“You don’t seem to like it?” she said with a wince.

He shrugged. “I don’t eat land food other than the horned animals that get too close to the lake.”

“Oh, hold on, I have some dried spotted dear. As far as I know they are the only horned animal in this area.” She left him for only a moment before coming back and laying an odd looking meat-leaf.

“This doesn’t look like the meat I cook.”

“It’s dried,” she said, as if that was a common thing.

“Why would you dry it?”

“Because it lasts longer?” she said in a way that sounded like she wasn’t sure about.

He understood that wobblers from land stored their food. Dirths in his city ate what they caught the day. There were no leftovers. And if ever caught a horned deer, he would clean it and hand it to those who needed it.

“It has a sweet and spicy tang to it,” she added, as if that made it any better.

He looked down at the meat leaf and wondered why anyone would flavor meat. It tasted fine the way it was.

“You should try it at least once before your frown becomes permanent.”

His frown wouldn’t become permanent – that was a ridiculous thing to say.

Caye reached over, and tore the meat leaf apart and held out a thin mouthful. He plucked it up and tossed it in his mouth. At first he arrogantly thought it would be just as bad as the soft squishy white and orange cubes in the water.

But the sweetness in his mouth was hiding a heat that he didn’t expect, and he didn’t disagree with. Chewing slowly to savor the flavors, he was impressed with the texture and the complimentary flavors.

Taking the dried meat, he said, “This is better. Much better.”

She smiled widely as she reached over and took the lumpy bread. He watched in awe as she pulled apart the food and dunked it in her soup, in a way that looked as if she didn’t care that he didn’t like all her food.

If the situation was reversed, he knew he would have wanted her to eat all the food he made her, but in this moment he saw the wisdom she exuded by not wasting her food, but also ensure he was fed.

Horz took another bit watching Caye pleased that she seemed smarter than the other female wobblers in his city.

A strange thought teased his mind, that maybe Caye could be more than a breeder. Maybe she would want to be his bride.

If his brother were here, he imagined Terby leaving Caye to search for the fake bride and fulfilled his duty.

Hortz wasn’t as proper as his brother, and far less an idiot.

Caye finished eating and waited until he had finished eating the leaf. She pointed to the bowl, “Are you done?”

“Yes.”

She cleared the table in one round. Instead of returning, he heard the water running. When he went to watch he saw that she was cleaning up the dishes, the pot and then wiped everything down.

A clean and tidy female.

He liked that, too.

When she finished she leaned up against the counter and asked, “Have you ever swam too far and got lost? I know the lake is long and funnels into a river.”

“No,” he said not hiding his arrogance.

“Why do you live in a lake and not the ocean? I thought all Dirth’s live in the ocean?”

He did not want to explain his father’s exile, but considering she was going with him to the underground city, she would need to know. “My father used to rule the Dirth city in the Trough Islands, but he was challenged and lost. The challenger was a harpin – that’s a Dirth that leaves the water to live on land – and cheated my father. But she and her mate were able to exile him under Dirth law. It was always a sensitive subject to my father.”

“Was? Did he die?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

He wasn’t. So instead he nodded.

“How many families live in the water now?”

“Its an underwater city and just under eighty.”

“Oh. And they all live in one bubble?” she bit her lip adding, “I’m not picturing this well in my head.”

That was an understatement. Instead of explaining what it was like, because he didn’t want to slack her interest, he said, “You don’t have to, you’re going to see it for yourself.”

She bit her lip, looking unsure. “When?”

“Before the sun rises,” he said, hoping she didn’t withdrawal and make him do something drastic.



Chapter Eight

Caye scratched the back of her head. “But we just got here.”

He moved forward until he was within an arms reach. “This is your home. And it’s always going to be here. You don’t need an invitation or a guide to get here – aside from tonight,” he said with a sly smirk. “But in my city, you can go unless I take you. My offer ends before the sun rises.”

She cast her eyes away, unsure if going back into the scary woods – at night – was a good idea.

“Why don’t you rest for a few hours, then pack a few things, and I’ll be waiting on the couch.”

That…that was something she could do because in a few hours the sky wouldn’t be as dark. It would transition to morning, and the walk back through the woods wouldn’t be so scary. Not that that was the only thing to worry about, but the biggest concern at the moment.

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay?” he asked softly.

Peering up at him she saw noticed that all his fierceness was at bay. Leaning closer she saw something in him that spoke volumes. It said he wanted her to go and was shocked she was even going.

It made her blood warm to see that little bit of softness.

“Do you mind if I pack first then lay down.”

His softness was pulling back, replaced by the confident Horz. “If you sleep to long, I’ll wake you.”

He’d waker her? Was it weird to imagine him kissing her…or crawling into her small bed to snuggle with her? “Sounds good to me.”

In her room, she grabbed a few clothes; she sealed them in a shoulder pack. She eyed her porcelain infuser and debated if it was too intrusive to bring him a gift for his home. It was a family tradition to have one. It sanitized the air and filled the room with which ever scents the person liked most. Caye had cinnamon, allspice and cardamon in hers.

If Hortz was going to be nice enough to bring her to his home, giving him a gift was expected – hopefully.

She turned off the infuser, whipped it down, folded it up in a bathroom towel and stuffed it in her pack. Then dropped in several cartridges of cinnamon and cardamom into her bag too. Sealing them up, she set it on her dresser, ready to lay down.

The only problem was, she was too excited to sleep.

When she peeked out into the living room, Hortz was reclined in a chair, arms folded over his chest, eyes closed. If he was resting, then she needed to do the same. Go back into her room, she pulled back the blanket and snuggled in.

Chapter Nine

“You ready?”

Caye snapped awake, looking up at Horz and his long hair draping over his face. She rolled up, grabbed her pack and then looked back at her bed and debated if she should make it. How long until she returned?

Turning on her heels, she went back, folded up the blanket, fluffed the pillow and tucked in the sides.

Horz was waiting for her with impatience. He was even more upset when she put out the fire and did one last walk through to make sure she wasn’t leaving anything that would spoil or burn down her home.

“Caye,” he said in a tone that she understood without ever hearing it before.

“Coming,” she said as she trotted out the door. As soon as she was out, the sky was already light, Horz was growling and she was smiling because….she was about to see the underwater city.

Horz lead the way, but this time it was easier to keep up. She had no idea how he knew where he was going, but she didn’t question him. Once they got to the forest the sun was up, but barely.

In the forest, she flipped between falling too far behind, and running into Horz’s back. She had a hard time focusing when her stomach was in knots. There were birds, cries and other things she didn’t know – and all the time she kept thinking about what was going to try to eat her.

The last time she ran into his back he turned, growled and snatched her wrist. “Stop worrying. I will not let anything get you.”

“What if it jumps out at us, and you don’t see it until it’s too late? I mean, I’m good with healing herbs, but even I have my limits. What if it rips out your throat? You’ll bleed out before I can even get you to a safe place.”

Horz slowed to a stop and just stared. After a minute of awkward silence, he said, “You spend too much time in your head.”

Rude. “What if you don’t spend enough time in your head?”

He chuffed. “That’s not an issue.”

She didn’t hide her disagreement on her face. Horz smirked at her as if her offense was funny.

Pulling her forward, they continued their trip through the forest. At the speed she was half walking half jogging she didn’t have time to stop and look at every moving thing, or every sound. If he meant to do that, it was brilliant. But she didn’t think he was that clever.

The lake was wide and vast and now that she was at the banks, she figured she should confess, “I don’t actually know how to swim.”

At first she figured he would growl again, but then he said, “You know, I’m not surprised.”

“Is that an insult?”

He shrugged, “It would be, if you were a Dirth, but you’re a not.”

Narrowing her eyes, she said, “That still sounds like an insult.”

She watched him fight a smile. When he had it under control he said, “Dirths have the ability to give you air. So as we travel in the water, everything will be smooth if you don’t freak out when I leave for the top to get more air for you.”

What did he just say? Get her air?

Wait.

No.

Pointing to the lake, she said, “The lake can’t be that deep. And why can’t I just float across the lake until we have to dive down?”

“Do you know how to float?”

“I have a feeling that just happens. I mean, don’t I just lay there?”

His jaw flexed and she wasn’t sure if he was fighting a smile or something else. “My way will be faster?”

“Are you in a hurry?”

“I am, yes.”

“Oh,” she said reevaluating what that meant. “Are you late for something?”

“You could say that.”

Crossing her arms over her chest she didn’t like the idea that the second they got to the underground city, he was going to have to go do something. She wanted a grand tour. “Are you sure this is a good time to even go down with you?”

He looked up at the sky as if he wasn’t sure how to answer. That alone freaked her out. When he looked back at her he said, “This is the only time you will be able to come. So it’s now, or never.”

“You make it sound like you can’t come to the surface after this?” After she asked that question, she worried they were true. “You can come back, right? To bring me back home?”

He nodded, “I promise, I won’t keep you forever.”

That hurt more than it should have.

Why did she not like hearing those words?

Confused and silent, she allowed Horz to walk her in the water. It was cold, and she worried it was just going to get colder, but she forced herself to stay quiet because she wasn’t going to be wet forever.

“You’re shivering,” he said when she was waist deep.

“It’s cold.”

His dark brown eyes hit hers and she saw something that looked like worry or doubt. “Maybe you should go back.”

“Is it colder in the underwater city?”

“No,” he said, holding both her hands and rubbing his thumb over her skin. “But most wobblers have a hard time adjusting.”

“Wobblers?” she repeated slowly.

“Land people,” he clarified.

“You call us wobblers?” She didn’t hide her offense at all, because seriously? Who thought of such a degrading name?

“Your kind wobbles on water.”

As if that was an excuse! “And how does someone wobble on water? No one walks on water? Not even Dirths.”

“We sit on planks of wood when watching for land food. We have excellent balance.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not impressive. If I grew up on a lake, I’m sure I’d have the same balance,” she snapped back.

He grinned and that sparkle in his face made her stomach drop.

Damn he was attractive.

The sparkle was in his eye as he said, “But you can’t give your breath to another person like us. That kind of makes me impressive.”

“Does it? I mean, your breath could just be carbon dioxide and you could be killing me faster,” She said just to be contrary.

He chuckled and she loved the sound immediately. Pulling her closer he moved deeper, holding her hands the entire time. He also kept his eyes on her, making her self-conscious and fluttery at the same time.

Once she had to hop to stay above water Horz dropped her hands and reached under her arms to hold her up. Like a jerk, he was smug as hell when he said, “Take a deep breath, it should get us a quarter of the way there.”

She inhaled and closed her eyes. When he pulled her underwater, she immediately hated it and tried to rush back up to the surface. But Horz had a hold on her and kept pulling her down. Freaking out she, screamed out all her air as she punched and kicked at him. Sadly, Hortz was built like a stone and it probably hurt her, more than him.

Horz squeezed the back of her head and lined their mouths up. His mouth covered hers right before warm air filtered in her lungs.

Clutching his arm she held on, needing the air. Once she had enough, she felt as they began to rise up to the surface. She exhaled and inhaled repeatedly. She still couldn’t touch the bottom, but at the way Horz was holding her she assumed he could.

Mocking a frown, she said, “Why didn’t you let me up earlier?”

“For the practice.” There was another smile in his eye and she loved it and hated it.

The practice?

Ugh.

Could stop being so smug?

“How much longer do we have to practice?” she asked.

“Considering it’s going to take ten times as long to get there, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it, eventually.”

She grunted…loudly. When she finished she said, “Okay, take me under…lets do this.”

“Take you under?” he said shaking his head. “I want to say this is going to be harder on me than you, but, I have to say, I’m looking forward to it.”

Oh was he?

Did that mean….? What did that mean?

“Take a breath, Caye.”

She did. She also really liked hearing her name coming out of his mouth in that tone. As if they had known each other for forever. As if he had said it a million times, and they were more than just strangers to one another.



Chapter Ten

The trip took longer than it ever had, but Hortz didn’t care. He was just happy that she was taking his air calmly. Her eyes shut the second they entered the water. Considering there wasn’t much to see he was thankful.

At the entrance stairs in his city, he saw his brother waiting. Before he broke the water, he steeled himself against everything and anything that was going to happen. Because there was bound to be bad blood considering Caye was not his intended, but she was his chosen breeder. She would be a much better companion for the months it took to breed and birth a child than a crazy bride who ambushed other people just to get out of her duty.

Hortz and Caye broke the waterline at the same time. But instead of sucking in breath, pleased to be in fresh air, she crumbled on the stairs coughing up something. When there was a break, she mumbled, “That was the absolute worst.”

Ignoring his brother’s narrowing gaze, he got down on her level and whispered, “But did anyone get their throats ripped out?” he asked remembering she had a penchant for ridiculous scenarios.

“It kind of feels that way. I had to cough for a while and it was burning,” she said before coughing again. It was so bad he wondered if she was going to throw up right there on the steps.

Shaking his head, he reached down and pulled her into his arm. His wobbler would settle in….once he explained things. But that was for another day. All he wanted to do was bring her back to his pod, clean her, warm her and then see how compatible they were.

Passing his brother without a glance, Terby called his name. It was deceptively soft and Horz knew that Terby was angry. Probably wanted an explanation, but he wasn’t going to get it. Not yet. Glancing in Terby’s direction, he said, “We’ll talk later.”

“Today.”

“Tomorrow.”

“I’m allowing you to get situated, but that’s all.”

Horz didn’t care what his brother the King said. He wasn’t going to leave Caye in his home until he had learned every part of her body. He wasn’t used to anyone playing with him. He was the Kings brother – a price – and all the females took him seriously. The males were a little more open, but that was because they were Dirths.

Wobblers seemed to have issues with him – and up until Caye, he liked that about them. He liked that they kept a distance.

Caye was just different, and he liked it. He couldn’t explain it, and he couldn’t explain his draw to her. Sure there was a want to have her and feel what it was like to be inside, but he was also drawn to her frowns, her smiles and her insane comments that were wildly inappropriate for a wobbler to say to a Dirth prince.

But, he didn’t stop her.

Horz main path, he saw the look of the males cleaning their catch. He saw the look of curiosity, looks of pity and yet one, the closest to his own home, peered at him with a small smile and a nod. As if they were happy for Hortz.

Hortz bent down and entered his home, taking her directly to the washing room where a tub of warm water that was constantly filtered and bubbled with cleaning solution. Moments after he set her in the water, she unfurled like a flower, making a moaning noise.

In the water he saw Caye’s shoulder bag floating in the water. He reached in and set it on the ground.

“Now this,” she said with a rueful grin, “is impressive.”

Chapter Eleven

“You might want to remove your clothes, or the bath will be pointless,” Horz said.

With her eyes closed, she mumbled, “I’m not ready to move yet.” She expected a snarky remark, but when none came she peeked open an eye.

His smirk said that whatever he was thinking, was not a good thing.

“I can always do it for you.”

That made her sit up and take a moment to take in her situation. Carefully she responded, “Actually, I should probably keep my clothes on.”

He shook his head. “I didn’t think I would have to explain the purpose of a bath, but wobblers are strange people.” He pointed to her and then the water, “You get in the bath to wash off the lake water that has bacteria in it.”

“It has what?” she said as she stood and pulled off her shirt. Bra still on, she knew she was covered, but the look in Horz’s eyes said he liked what he saw. Covering her chest she used her chin to point to the door. “Can I bathe in private?”

Without an ounce of shame, he said, “no.”

“No?”

“Correct.”

Was he serious? “I can’t wash alone?”

His head tilted to the side, “Why do you need to wash alone?”

“Because it’s proper?”

“To a wobbler maybe.”

“To civilized people,” she corrected.

Holding out his hands he smiled. “Define civilized.”

She opened her mouth to say that civilized people would let her bathe alone, but there was something that made her hold back. Horz was clever. He was trying to trick her somehow. So, she lowered her eyes to think.

“I thought you were the all-knowing when it came to civilized people.”

She wasn’t the all-knowing anything, she was barely a mid-level healer. Wait, that reminded her of something her grandmother taught her about why families stayed together. Why families relied on one another.

Lifting her head, she answered, “Civilized people help one another when one is sick. They protect one another so the weak and the innocent aren’t gobbled up by the predators of men or others. Civilized people live to a standard of goodness.”

Horz lowered his arms, his expression growing serious. “Do you live by your words?”

“I try to yes.”

He rubbed his mouth and the room settled into a quiet with only the sound of running water from her bath. She wondered what part of what she said bothered him…or if he was impressed.

Considering how he acted as if her race was lowly, she hoped that maybe she could show him that her race was good. Not that all of them were good, but that most were – at least she believed her family was.

“What do civilized people do to those who wrong them?”

That felt like a loaded question. She didn’t want to answer because the majority of her family would get violent. Caye wanted to lie and tell him that they would be careful to understand the whole situation before acting, but those words didn’t move from the pit of her stomach.

Instead, she asked back, “What do you do when you’re wronged?”

“I’d probably kill them.”

The way he moved, the words he used, she believed it. “I wouldn’t.” She expected him to maybe laugh or lighten back up the mood. But he didn’t.

The wretched male raised his brows at her and said, “That’s because you’re not a skilled hunter.”

Lowering her arms because she needed them free at her side, just in case she needed to act quickly. There was something in the air that frightened her and she didn’t know why Horz was saying what he was saying. But she didn’t want him to think she was weak.

“I don’t need a knife or strength to kill.”

He snorted. “That’s the only way.”

“So you say.”

At that, he frowned. “How would you kill someone without stabbing them or breaking their neck?”

She wasn’t going to admit anything – especially if he planned on hurting her. “If you try to hurt me – you’ll find out.”

To that, his eye gleamed. “If I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn’t have saved you and then brought you into my home.”

“Then why are you freaking me out by talking about killing people.”

He shrugged like it wasn’t a big thing, but she saw right through the false carelessness. There was something to that, and she would eventually figure it out.

Horz looked her over one more time then said, “Take your bath in private, but don’t get used to it.”

When he left she stood there wondering why he would say something like that. It wasn’t like she was staying there? After her tour, she was going home.

***

When she saw Horz again, she was in her dry clothes and wondering what to do about her wet shoes. She didn’t bring extras.

Horz was in new clothes. The pants were tight around the ankles, the fabric wasn’t anything she had seen before, his shirt was cut at the sleeves and he looked comfortable in a sexy way.

He stood there for a moment and sniffed the air looking confused. It took him a second to find her gift. Feeling a little silly she said, “It’s a gift.”

“It smells like your home.”

Feeling the heat in her cheeks she said, “Something to remember me by.”

Horz looked as if he wanted to say something else but instead said, “Let me show you the rest of the house.”

“I’d love that.” She was looking forward to seeing everything. But one thing she noticed was missing was ocean-esk stuff. Yes, they lived in a lake, but still, shouldn’t there have been a series of shells somewhere?

Following him to the next room she saw his large bed with no decoration on the wall. In the corner, next to the bed was a round basket with clothes rolled up in it – the same color as what he was wearing now.

In the kitchen, she saw an electric stove. He pointed to the object. “Here we cook our food.”

She wanted to roll her eyes. She cooked their stew, but apparently, he was still hung up over the jerky.

After the kitchen, there was an empty room that probably should have been a family room of some kind. Next was the entry door with a dark grey leathery rug.

It lacked everything her house had such as warmth, rich scents, decorations, and peace. His house felt more like a hunting shed. Empty but for the bare essentials.

“So that’s the house.”

She let go of a long breath. “Very bachelor-esk.”

“What do you mean?”

“The house is very…” she wanted to say painfully bland but decided to go with, “It’s very male.”

Horz held her eyes as if he didn’t believe her.

Ignoring his penetrating gaze, she asked, “Can you show me around the city?”

“Not yet.”

That was the very reason she was here. “Why not?”

“Because I have to go see my brother first.”

His brother?

“Okay. Then we can go when you get back.”

He didn’t sound convincing when he said, “Sure.” Running a hand through his hair. “I need to get something from my room. When I get back from my brothers, we can eat, talk about what to expect then I’ll walk you around.”

Why did it sound like he was giving her a play-by-play of a funeral or something like that? He sounded uninterested in showing her around. Why bring her if he was going to get all weird about it?



Chapter Twelve

Horz was sitting on the bed, bent over on his elbows. He should have told Caye that she wasn’t going home any time soon. He should have told her before she had come to the city, but he didn’t tell her because he didn’t want to.

“Horz,” Caye called out.

“What?” he called back.

“There’s an angry-looking man with a harpoon at the door. I assume he’s looking to talk to you.”

Damn it. Terby was an impatient bastard.

Rubbing his eyes he stood up and exited his room. With each step, he solidified himself for whatever punishment his brother was going to assign him. His brother the king always enjoyed unusual punishments.

When Horz saw the entryway he noticed that his brother was already inside. It was against customs to enter into the home of a newly wedded male. The fact that his brother violated that law displeased him.

Terby tilted the harpoon to Caye. “She is a disrespectful breeder.”

Horz saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and noticed that Caye was standing in the empty room intended to care for his children. The fact that she was standing there meant that she heard Terby and his opportunity to talk about the situation with care – had passed.

“Considering you were late, I assume she wasn’t at the banks and you had to go find her.”

Horz heard a small what, whispered by Caye. Without looking at her he told Terby, “The bride who was promised to me knocked Caye out, redressed her, and left her by the lake. When I found Caye running from a land animal I had no idea she wasn’t the right one.”

Terby looked over at Caye with a scowl. Horz knew he cared for Caye but seeing the threatening look made him protective. “Don’t look at her for answers. She is innocent.”

Terby snapped his eyes back to him. “Why didn’t you go find your true bride? Why bring this one back? The wobblers owe us, and they have to deliver or they lose their fishing privileges.”

Horz heard Caye mumbled “Fishing privileges?”

“Why is she here? Why were you late?” Terby asked again.

Horz didn’t have to think hard to answer. “Because I want to breed Caye, not a coward who would attack an innocent female to take her place.”

“What?” Caye hissed and Horz was sure she was getting closer.

Terby turned the harpoon in his hand. It was a tell that he was thinking and Horz was behind caring about what his brother thought. He had enough to deal with inside his home the second Terby left.

“I thought about our deal for you to take a breeder, fill her belly, and then return her after she birthed you a child. I asked some of the other men if they would prefer that too, but most admitted they already accidentally mated their wives. Be careful not to do that.”

Horz hated himself before he spoke, but his duty came first. His duty to his people. “That won’t be a problem.”

Terby nodded as if he approved. Then he said, “I assume you will begin your breeding today. When you’re done, you have a hunt to lead so hurry.”

Horz heard Caye curse and he was starting to imagine throwing his brother out of his house by his face. If Caye was his breeder, he would still take the time to get to know her body, to find pleasure in each other.

The fact that his brother didn’t realize that made Horz wonder if that was why Terby’s first wife had escaped and inadvertently drowned. Did Terby lack the understanding of breeding? They had never talked about it, but there were some things that didn’t need to be said.

Horz shook his head. “I will return to the hunt tomorrow.”

Terby scanned the home, but Horz didn’t think his brother was actually looking at the house. “When families lose their strength, and new families lack unity, the city breaks down one by one.”

“You’ve told me this before.”

Terby twisted the harpoon again but it lowered slightly down towards him. “Starting with you brother, I will expect you to produce five young before you let go of your breeder. We need more Dirths born so we don’t have to breed with any more land scum.”

Horz was so thrown by the four extra kids he was going to have he didn’t realize Caye moved so close to his side. “Did you just call me scum?”

Oh damn. Reaching out to silence her she sidestepped him and spit out, “Who the hell do you think you are, you wanna-be-mermaid bastard?”

What did she just say?

It took a great deal of effort not to look pleased by that comment.

Horz saw his brother’s temper flared and Terby moved swiftly to score her face with his harpoon. Horz jumped in front, slapped the pole, and waited for his brother to come back to his senses. When did Terby start attacking females?

“Move,” Terby commanded.

“Stab me that’s fine, I’ve weathered your anger before. But you’re not touching her.”

Terby kicked out trying to knock him over, but Horz was faster. Still standing between them as protector he said, “I didn’t tell her who you were, or anything about being my breeder. You can’t punish her.”

“I’m her king. I can punish whoever I want.”

Horz didn’t point out that Caye and him weren’t married or mated, mostly because it would only piss Terby off more. His brother struck out and got him in the side, the pain was instant, the shocking agony of the nerves slowed him enough that Terby got by him.

There was a loud metal clang then a thunk followed by a male yell. Horz held his side as he turned, expecting the worst. To his surprise his brother was on the flat of his back, holding his knee rocking from side to side. The harpoon was kicked away and Caye stood there with the black pan he kept for cooking food.

Her chest rose and fell, but her weapon of choice was still pointed at Terby. “I don’t know what kind of messed up thing goes on down here, but I will not be a designated breeder or be stabbed with a bloody harpoon.”

Horz could hear the fear and anxiety in Caye’s voice. When he held up his hands he spoke calmly. “No one is going to hurt you.”

“Said the liar who planned to breed me.”

He didn’t stop he just diverted from walking directly to her, to around his brother. “I should have told you about the bride and the arrangement I made with my brother the King. I should have let you know my plan.”

“Oh, there is no more plan. Because I’m not a breeder – especially yours,” she spat back and moved so that she was in a better position to flee.

Inwardly he was proud of her defending herself and knowing how to keep a predator like him at bay. There was nowhere in his home that he wouldn’t find her. And when he did…he was going to kiss the fight out of her.

“I said, stay.”

At that, he grinned, letting her see the real predator in him.

“Once you get her, bring her to me,” Terby said from the ground and that stopped all the good feelings Horz had. Reaching down he grabbed his brother and pulled him up. Handing him the harpoon he turned his brother around and opened the door.

As serious as he felt, he warned, “You had no right coming into my home knowing I had a breeder. That’s law brother. You had no right to demand more from our deal and you sure as hell had no right to demand blood from my female in MY home.” Opening the door, Horz set Terby out, “You are unwelcome here, and until I draw my last breath, you will not step foot inside.”

Slamming the door, Horz felt his insides burning, knowing his brother wasn’t going to let Caye’s insult die. Which meant he was going to have to watch out for her even more. Meaning he wasn’t going to be able to leave her home alone.

Ever.

Turning, he saw her leaning near the hall, black pan in hand, ready if need be.

Before she could say a word or demand an explanation he said, “Time for your first swimming lesson, let’s go.”

Holding up the pan in his direction she said, “No, time for you to return me to the banks of the lake, or I will break bones until you do.”

What an adorable ferocious fish.

And she said she wasn’t violent. It was nice to feel that small victory. “I thought you said you wouldn’t kill.”

“I lied.”

Chapter Thirteen

Caye’s heart boomed in her chest. The level of screwed up combined with the level of trouble she was in, terrified her. She was underwater, far from shore and there was a good chance that if she escaped, she would still drown because she couldn’t swim. If she didn’t escape…she didn’t want to think about that.

Horz took another step forward and she hissed, “Don’t. Or I will hurt you.”

The psychopath grinned.

“I mean it.”

“I believe you think so.”

Caye narrowed her eyes knowing Horz was going to test her. So when he faked an attack, she lunged at him, not away. At the same time, she pulled back the pan and meant to wing him but it never hit the mark. He had his hand wrapped around her wrist and knocked the pan loose.

The heavy cast iron hit the floor and the side of her foot. She hissed and yanked back her hand. Bending down she didn’t even care what he planned, her foot hurt and it was bleeding a little.

Kneeling down next to her, he said, “Let me see it.”

Covering her wound with her hand she said, “I’m fine.”

“I saw the blood. Move your hand, Caye.”

Cutting her eyes at him, still in pain, she said the meanest thing she could think of. “You live in a bacteria-infested lake. You probably have untreated diseases, not to mention your mental pathology; so no…you may not try to help me. I don’t trust you.”

He shook his head, as if she was overreacting, grabbed her hand, and lifted it off the wound. “You trust me.”

“No, I don’t. You lied to me.” She recovered her wound with her other hand.

He took both hands in one of his, held them off to the side, and got a better look. “It’s gonna bruise and hurt when you walk. But you should be good to swim.”

“Swim,” she said hopefully. “You’re taking me back?”

“I told you I was,” he said in a completely normal tone. As if the whole brother – king thing was a farce. She was so pleased she smiled.

“Really? Oh, thank goodness. You lied to your brother.” Relaxing, she stopped resisting his hold. He promptly let go.

Horz stood up and held out his hand. Taking it she stood feeling the tingling on her sore foot.

“Sting?” he asked.

“Kinda, but it’s not bad.”

“I figure it will be about three days before the cuts heal enough to get back in the water.”

Wait. What? “Three days before I go home? No. No, I want to go home right now.”

He led her into the kitchen next to a butcher table with only one seat. He got a glass of water and put it in front of her, and pointed at the seat.

She sat but didn’t bother drinking the water – heaven only knew what was in it.

Horz leaned against the table and crossed his arms. “I said I’d take you home, but I’m not taking you home anytime soon.”

Oh, Seth.

No, no, nonononono.

Sitting back in her chair she looked away knowing that somehow she was going to have to take her chances after escaping – and swim to the surface and hope she could float to shore. Horz seemed like a normal person when she first met him. She even thought he was cute, but she wasn’t sticking around to be raped and used as a baby maker.

“This isn’t right. No race should be okay with kidnapping and raping someone.”

“Are you being held down and forced to open your legs?”

She didn’t want to say no and give him an advantage in the conversation.

“You’re going to stay here with me until it’s safe to take you home. If I try and leave with you now, my brother will send people after us. It’s not safe right now.”

“What’s the difference between now and later?” Because if he wasn’t going to breed her – which he wasn’t showing like he was – then his brother would figure that out in a few months.

He huffed before answering. “The difference is, you’ll be able to swim later. You can’t swim now.”

She opened her mouth a few times but couldn’t get the words out. She was not sure if she was asking a question or voicing a statement. “You’re going to teach me to swim?”

He just looked at her as if to say, of course, but she didn’t know why it was a foregone conclusion.

“You’re looking at me as if I should know better. As if learning to swim is expected, but I don’t know why you think it is? Are you going to teach me so I can escape on my own?”

His face snapped to something else in an instant. “No. And you’re never escaping. When you leave, it will be when I take you. And not a second before. Do you understand?”

“No. Not at all. Why do I have to wait if I can swim?”

“I just told you why.”

“Tell me again because you’re not making any sense.”

“No, you’re just not listening.”

Holding up her hand she said, “I don’t care if you insult me, but I want to know why I have to learn how to swim if you’re going to be the one to take me back home anyways? Why is waiting the answer when the end is the same.”

He took the glass and drank half the contents. Standing up he walked to the doorway and turned around. “Swimming is an essential skill that you should have because if anything happens you need to be safe.”

She needed to be safe? As if he cared about her well-being – okay he probably cared about her safety.

“And why wait?”

He was in the other room when he answered. “Because I like you here.”

She yelled out, “I’m not birthing your children.”

She heard the moment he stormed back to the kitchen. Slamming his hand on the table, he leaned in. Energy sizzling in the air. His voice was low and rumbled her lady parts when he said, “Don’t pick a fight with me, Caye. We come from two different worlds. We have different priorities. Mine is to keep my people from extinction. Yours is eating mushy plants. As the King’s brother, I have enough responsibilities for ten men. One of my responsibilities is keeping Terby from doing something stupid – like hitting a female who disrespected him and attacked him. Terby has my father’s heart. He’s cold and he will kill you. I stood between you then and I will continue to until I know you’re safe. Back on the land, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, I can’t change that. You made my decision easy when I had to decide to go looking for the coward or bring you home with me. I won’t apologize for my decision.”

He said a lot she didn’t like but she addressed the first concern she had. “Did your bride know that she was going to be a breeder? Did she agree to it in advance?”

He shoved the table and growled. “She is not my bride. I’m a Dirth, I will never have a bride. And I will only have a breeder for the necessary young.”

She was disappointed to hear that.

“So you prefer to raise your children on your own? You think raising a child without his or her mother is a good thing? It’s not. I’ve seen what kids turn into when they don’t have a mother.” Caye noticed a threat in Horz eyes but that didn’t stop her from adding, “They act a lot like you.”

Horz stood still. His face was drained of all emotions and she was sure that she just broke anything good they might have had. Not that they had much, but it was gone. He was gone – checked out.

Without another word, he turned, and she heard him walk out of the house, slamming the door as he did.

Leaning over she let her head fall into her hands. If she thought she was going home, she wasn’t now. She saw what her words did. They were true, but they shouldn’t have been said. It was a slap to his soul, to his ego, and uncalled for.

She wasn’t heartless. She knew better.

Sorrow and guilt churned in her chest, sucking her into a pit of her own making.



Chapter Fourteen

Horz had stayed just outside his home. He wasn’t mad enough to put Caye in danger, but he couldn’t be in the same space as her. Not after she talked about growing up without a mother. He hated his father for what he did. He didn’t see if his father had killed his mom, but he knew without a doubt that that was what happened.

Horz didn’t want a bride that would corrupt his young. That’s why he only wanted a breeder – but Caye smashed that idea when she talked about raising the children himself. He could but he knew that having a mother would be better. Especially a good one – one that was like Caye.

But that was not an option.

Not now. Not after she knew he lied. If it was reversed, he would never have forgiven her. Never. But Caye never would have lied.

Walking back into his home, he found Caye on the couch rolled up into a ball. Her eyes were shut, her breathing soft and slow. He thought about picking her up and taking her to his bed, but if she woke up, she might think he was trying to breed her.

So he grabbed an extra blanket and placed it over her.

Instead of going to his room he turned and sat on the floor, his back to the couch. He had nowhere else to go and he didn’t want to leave. It made no sense, but that was the truth. He just wanted to be next to her.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He didn’t turn to look at her. He wished she would have stayed asleep. “Go back to sleep.”

“I’m sorry for what I said. That was wrong and mean. And I hate being mean.”

He believed that. But, “It’s not a good idea to talk about it. Just let it go.”

The stubborn female moved until she was sitting up. She touched his shoulder. “There’s enough room for both of us.”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m not. It’s your house and you shouldn’t be on the floor. Please come up here.”

Huffing loudly to make sure she knew how stupid it was to move, he sat on the couch on the other side. She was curled up in his blanket, still looking sleepy with several pieces of hair hanging in front of her face, looking adorable.

Blood raced between his legs and he felt his desire. Damn her for being so attractive.

“I know that this whole situation is messed up, but I promise to be nicer.”

She didn’t need to be nicer. She was worried about the wrong thing. Caye should be worried about him wanting to keep her forever. To have her not just as a breeder, but as a mate.

But that thought drew him into a place of despair. If he mated her, she would be subject to his brother’s law. His brother could get away with punishing her. The others would help him enforce it. Horz wasn’t ever going to let that happen.

“Aside from learning to swim, is there anything else you want me to do? Cook? Clean?”

Those would be nice, but he would really like her to want him the way he wanted her.

Horz shook his head.

She leaned her head against the cushion and her eyes dropped several times. He figured she would drift back into sleep but she sat back up and took in a deep breath. “How long do you usually stay mad?”

“I’m not mad at you.”

“Yes, you are. I can feel it and I’m not even a Hetten.”

He had no idea what a Hetten was but he didn’t care. “I’m not going to talk about my past or my family.”

“Okay. But can we still talk?”

He leaned back on the couch, crossed his legs, and interlaced his fingers over his chest. Now that he was inside, next to her, he was relaxed. But he also didn’t really want to talk so he closed his eyes and said, “Sure,” hoping she figured out he was lying.

“Thank you. My first question is…” he stopped listening or she stopped talking. All he knew was that he was comfortable and he warm.



Chapter Fifteen

Caye could barely keep her eyes open. Horz was playing a trick on her. He had to be. No one fell asleep that fast. He closed his eyes and then a minute later he leaned all the way over until he was flat on his side, his feet still on the ground.

When she brushed the blanket over his face he only jerked a little but didn’t wake up.

“If you don’t want to talk, just say so, stop pretending,” she said standing up.

He still didn’t move.

“Alight well, there’s no time like the present. I’m leaving.” She walked to the door and he still didn’t move. Caye didn’t open the door, she just stood there waiting for him to say or do something.

Was he really asleep?

Walking back to the couch she thought about giving him the blanket but she liked it. It was soft and it smelled like him. Getting back in her corner, she sat there until sleep pulled at her too. Extending her legs, she tried to scoot on the side of him.

When that didn’t work she urged him to move up on the couch, which he didn’t do and so she had to figure out a better place for her feet. Getting off the couch she noticed a button on the side and she smiled. It was a recliner. Hitting said button it descended the back and lifted the front unit the whole thing turned into a bed. Getting back on she moved to her side and smiled, feeling much better now that she was warm and safe – now that Horz was sleeping.

***

Hours later she woke up with an arm around her stomach and a wall of male at her back. She knew it was him because it smelled like him. A part of her worried that this was going to start something she didn’t want, but she ignored that thought.

She snuggled back and fell right back into sleep because she liked just where she was.



Chapter Sixteen

Horz woke up to a banging at his door. Sitting up, he felt Caye get knocked to her back. Looking at the scene he realized that she had turned his couch into a bed and had slept on his chest. She must not detest him as much as he thought.

She rubbed her eyes and rolled over. “Whoever that is, is going to get a pan in their face if they don’t stop.”

Horz grinned. He should kiss her for that. “I’ll go tell him, his life is in danger.”

“You do that,” she growled and pulled the blanket over her head.

His grin turned into a chuckle and he scooted off the couch and walked to the door. Whoever it was started pounding again and Horz opened it enough to talk, but the foot on the other side kept anyone from entering.

“What do you want?” he said to Silu an older fish hunter.

“There are boats on the water. The king wants them gone. He says the wobblers broke their agreement and we no longer will allow them to fish.”

Terby would do something like that. But leaving Caye was a bad idea, and it could be a trap.

“My wobbler will join us. I will get her ready and meet you at the stairs.” The stairs that lead to the mouth of the water. The underwater city was pressured where the water covered the first two steps.

“There’s no time.”

“I’m not leaving her,” Horz said before slamming the door. Turning he saw Caye sitting up – listening to the whole conversation. “Time for those swimming lessons.”

Dramatically, she fell to her back, letting her arms out wide. “I don’t know what time it is, but it’s too early for this.”

“The water will be freezing, so I will find you a suit to wear.”

She groaned. “You’re punishing me for yesterday. I just know it.”

Horz moved to the couch and crawled until he had both hands on either side of her face. He saw something flash through her mind before her cheeks blushed. He liked that. He liked that being this way made her feel like that.

Taking advantage, he leaned down to her ear, to the point his lips brushed her lobe. Whispering he said, “Punishment is seeing what you want, feeling it against your skin all night and breathing in her scent and knowing she’s not yours. That is punishment.”

Her cheeks darkened and instead of finding out if she would be interested in a morning blitz, he kissed the far side of her cheek.

As he walked to his room to get the suits, he was hard and throbbing and he hated that there was nothing to be done about it. This wasn’t the first time he was woken up with a job, but this was the first time he was tempted to tell his brother to go do it himself.

Chapter Sixteen

Horz and Caye broke the surface at the same time the other five did. Horz scanned the lake and saw a single boat with a single person fishing. The hunters looked at him as if waiting for a green light to go and drown the human.

There was a time he would have done so, but there was more to this situation than a breach of contract. His brother would get his vengeance on these people, but not before he talked to them.

Unzipping his pockets he pulled out a blow-up floaty his people used for children. She watched with furrowed brows until he slid the long tube under her arms. “Stay here. I’ll be watching so don’t bother trying to swim to the shore. I’m a faster swimmer than you are.”

He expected her to snap back, but she didn’t do that. Instead, she softened her voice, probably thinking the others couldn’t hear her whispering. “What are you going to do?”

Even if she was a proper Dirth she wasn’t allowed to ask that to him. He was the leading hunter and her duty was to take his direction. If he explained one of the other five would have told his brother. At some point and his authority would have been taken into concern.

He knew she would not take that well, but he didn’t think he was going to see a cut off of emotions. As if she just pulled so far back into herself that she wasn’t truly there.

A part of him wanted to call her back out, but he had a job to do – and too many witnesses.

With a hand signal, he and the others swam underwater until they were under the boat. All of them popped up at the same time surrounding the boat. Horz pulled himself up and sat down on the other side. The older male that was in the boat didn’t look as worried as he should be.

Horz assumed a threatening voice, “Your people didn’t provide a bride. You’re fishing rights are hereby revoked forever.”

The wobbler began reeling in his line. “My niece ran away with her boyfriend. Found out after my kin saw the wrong bride by the lake. But since we didn’t have anyone else, we left her. But I also saw that you took the bride offered.”

So the old male thought he was in the right? The bastard had no idea that he was minutes away from death.

“The deal was broken. Get off this lake or I’ll leave your dead body on the shore for your kin to find.”

The male finished reeling in his line and then recast like an arrogant prick.

“The contract was that one of your males would get a bride. You got one. The deal is still in place. Plus, you kidnapped a local. They’re going to come looking at some point. It would be a shame if someone pointed them to the lake. I bet when they go looking for your stolen bride they will outnumber your kind – and you can be sure my family and friends will join them.”

So this was a war? Horz knew his city’s population, and they couldn’t take on Caye’s family. The number of houses he saw when they left were too many to see. Her family was vast.

A war would be bad regarding numbers, but no one but his kind was swimmers, so if the wobblers tried to get to them, they would all drown. So he wasn’t worried. “Old man, I don’t care who comes looking for her. Even if your traitors’ hearts point them in our direction, they can’t get to us. Not in the water. And then if they ever learn how to swim, my female will already be full with my young.”

Horz was supposed to be threatening the old male, but the second he not only claimed Caye as his female – not bride or breeder – and then mentioned her being full with his young made him imagine just that and he liked it.

“Look, young man, I know how it works, I’ve been threatened by your kind before. I’ve also been drowned before by your father just to prove that he controls who lives and dies on this lake. I also was there was the current king negotiated for our daughters. But now our daughters have all run off and you’re to blame. My family had fished this lake for hundreds of years. My brother was wrong to take that deal, and he’s dead now – so the days of taking our daughters are over. You can find your own or move.” The old male reeled in his line. “If you want to know my preference, it would be to move because I’m done with you thinking you own this lake. It wasn’t yours, to begin with, and it’s not yours now.”

The line was reeled in and the male put the pole in his boat and leveled his eyes at Horz as if he was running this whole thing. He was too damn confident and Horz should have killed him many times over.

The old male opened a container and pulled out a drink, broke the seal, and drank the contents. When he finished in that one gulp he said, “You know what else I know?”

“I don’t care,” Horz said, pulling out his knife that was going to disembowel the male.

Shaking the empty package of something he said, “I know you’re the prince and your kind would be lost without you.”

That stopped Horz from gutting him. The old male shouldn’t have known that.

The bastard grinned. “I also know that he has your bride. Right. Now.”

Horz cut back to Caye.

Standing up his stomach dropped.

She was right there.

She was supposed to be right there.

Horz jumped from the boat. In midair, he felt like someone stabbed him with a needle. He landed in the water, just as a series of pops went off in the air. His males yelled but he was only concerned about his female.

Horz knocked off the tab in his arm and kept going. As he kicked and swam, his vision blurred.

Ignoring everything he kept going. “CAYE”

No answer.

Dipping his head underwater he tried to see if he could see her but it was not light enough and he was losing feeling in his legs. Someone grabbed his neck and pulled him above water. His eyes had gone slack and he felt like he was drowning but within himself.

“Caye,” he said her name, hoping that his mind would be able to master this…whatever was wrong with him.

“Get him on the boat and tie him down. Tell Orrel that we have the daughter and we expect that money,” was the last thing Horz heard.

Chapter Seventeen

Caye was being pulled up to shore, far from where the boat was. She heard Horz yell her name. Her concerns split between Horz and being free.

The mask was taken off her face and the older male standing over her with a long beard said, “You’re Caye right?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Your family put out a reward if we found you.” He grabbed a duffle bag unzipped it and pulled out a red and black crocheted blanket and handed it to her. On the inside corner, she saw her family crest. These were the blankets that her aunt made to sell in her bed-and-breakfast. It wasn’t one that her grandmother made for each person in the family. Which made her wonder, “Who’s paying the reward?”

“Orrel,” he said.

There was no one in her family by that name. “How did he contact you?”

“Found him in the forest hollering your name.”

She hadn’t been gone that long. No one would have even known to look for her in the forest. It didn’t make any sense.

“What are you doing with the Dirths?” she asked as the boat chugged to shore and there were a group of males unloading the tied-up Dirths. It looked bad. She wondered if the forest people were going to ransom back their people, or if they would do something else. Something she couldn’t live with – like slaughtering them.

“Don’t worry about those thieves. We’re going to take care of them and then take care of the rest once we flush em’ out.”

So they were going to slaughter them. But if so why tie them up first? What were they going to do?

Horz was still unconscious and she could still hear him calling her name. She didn’t owe him a thing, but she wouldn’t be able to look at herself in the mirror if she didn’t do something. “The Dirth that took me, I’d like to…keep him.”

The male shook his head.

Doubling down, she added, “He took me under false pretenses. I should be allowed to take him.”

“If you think you’re going to domesticate that Prince, you’re not as smart as you look. He won’t ever bend. He’s a killer. He’s killed my brother, who told him he couldn’t hunt in our forest. Those bastards think they own everything. They’re gonna learn that the powers have changed.”

This was a feud that was fueled generations deep. She could see that and knew that nothing she said would make him see reason, but she tried anyway. “He saved my life. I can’t let you kill him.”

The male puffed up his chest and hooked his hands on his hips. “Girl, go on home. Worry about yourself. He dug his grave a long time ago. It’s time for him to pay.” The older male whistled and called over someone else. She didn’t look back to see who it was, she was still trying to understand what she could do to save Horz.

“Take her to bed-and-breakfast. Make sure you get that money before letting her go.”

“Will do uncle.” The male pointed to the forest and when she didn’t move he pulled out his belt. “You can walk, or I can drag you. You choose.”

She started walking as instructed but she didn’t understand why she was headed to her aunt’s bed-and-breakfast to see a person who wasn’t in her family. Unless the person was new and she had yet to meet them.

The male grabbed the back of her blanket and veered her to the right violently, “Wrong way. Don’t you know the way to your own aunt’s place?”

She fell to her knees and hit hard on her hands.

“Get up,” the male demanded.

She did not understand why he was so pissed at her. Like any of this was her fault. Or maybe this jerk was the kind that likes hurting females.

He waited until she was up to push her forward again like she was a disobedient child. Once she hit the ground again, she had her answer. But while down on the ground she saw a round grey stone. She purposely tripped on her own blanket to fall again and pick up the stone.

“Idiot,” the male said as he turned and led the way.

There was something wrong about hitting someone from behind, but hopefully, Seth of Stars forgave her. She reached back just as he turned.

She hesitated before throwing it, and he dodged it and lunged to hit her. She fell back, scrambled to run but was yanked back and slapped across the face. He did it again so hard she rolled, grabbed another stone, turned, and smashed it against his temple as hard as she could.

The male grabbed his head and leaned back, but he was not down or dead.

Crap.

She kicked him in the face, turned, and started running again. This time switching back between the trees. Hoping and praying that he didn’t catch her. She broke free of the trees and ran straight into the water splashing into the icy cold water.

Caye heard splashing behind her then was grabbed by her hair and pushed face first down in the water.

She was going to die.

Screaming and scratching the male’s hands, she fought as much as she could. Then she was dropped, the pressure to stay underwater was gone. Pushing up to her feet, she turned to see what happened.

A harpoon happened.

It was bloody and sticking out of the male’s chest. The male’s eyes were wide, and he was still gasping for breath. Terby kicked the male in the back and withdrew the harpoon. Fear and dread soaked every part of her. Was he going to turn that black fury on her?

He pointed the harpoon at her and spoke with venom. “Get out of my lake and go home. You’re not welcome here.”

Okay.

She swallowed and pointed to where Horz was last. “They took him.”

“I know. They also took all the other wobbler lovers.”

Wait.

This was…Holy hell did he set this up?

Stepping towards the bank she said, “They said they were going to get rid of them and flush the underground city.”

“My people can breathe underwater.”

“You still need air. There are kids down there.”

He thrust the harpoon to her face, fast and swift. It nicked her cheek. “I will worry about my people. You will run home like all the other wives cry about doing.”

Touching her cheek she saw the red blood. She could feel drips flowing down her face. It stung, but it wasn’t as bad as being stabbed. It was a perfect outward action of an inward black heart.

A black soul.

There was no getting through to him or to the other bastard.

Fine.

She tried to help. If he got his people killed, that was on him. But even as she thought that she wished that Horz was here. She didn’t know if Horz would be on her side, but she pretended for that moment he would be.

She kept her eyes forward in case Terby attacked her just because. But when he didn’t she looked back after she passed the first set of trees. She didn’t know what to say. Was he going after his brother, or was he just going after the land walkers?

“You’re making me regret not killing you.”

“Are you going after your brother?” she asked.

“No.”

Wow.

Ass.

“Then I am,” she said and gave him her back. She stepped in front of a series of trees in case he thought about throwing the harpoon. But when she heard a dark laugh, she paused.

“The breeder who wished she was a mate, how pathetic.”

“Said the selfish king who didn’t protect his people,” she mumbled to herself. Turning to the right, she strained to hear anything. She needed to find Horz and rescue him. She told herself it was to even the life debts. As she thought that she knew it wasn’t 100% true, but it was good enough.



Chapter Eighteen

Horz was chained to the floor. The room was black as if burnt, and the smell of cooked meat hung heavy in the air. The air was warming up and the wood under him was just as hot. It was obvious the wobblers were planning on killing them by cooking them to death. Soon the metal would be burning his skin and he had no way to get them off unless he chewed his hands off. But then what did he do with his feet.

They were chained too.

The others kept stoic faces but he couldn’t imagine what they were thinking. They all had wives and children. He only had…a breeder. One he cared about, but he stupidly thought that breeding her and returning her was a good idea.

What was he thinking?

He should have claimed her. Hell, he should have done a lot of things.

“Do you think anyone will come looking for us?”

Horz looked up at his fellow hunter and thought about it. “We should have been back by now, so hopefully.”

“Do you think they will find us? Should we start yelling?” another one asked.

“Couldn’t hurt,” he said thoughtfully. Though the more he thought about it, the more things weren’t adding up. He grew up under the lake. Never have they ever fished in packs like that. And even if they were ready to end the contract, why not say so? Why capture him and put him in a cottage near the lake where they could be found.

If anyone from his city heard their cries, they would come directly.

Or…maybe it was a trap.

The wobblers weren’t as savage as he thought. They apparently had planned the attack perfectly. So perfectly they knew about this breeder – and where to return her.

How did they know that?

Just then a pair of males began shouting. It was too loud to think, but that was the point. The cries turned harsher as the metal on his skin began to burn. His fellow hunters were feeling the same thing as him. He forced himself not to look, but the burning was making sitting in one spot very hard.

All five shouted, bellowed, and screamed. Horz sat silent, amazed no one had come yet. There was no way his brother didn’t notice their lack of return.

It was a bad sign.

Then he heard the bang from a gun. Then another and another. His fellow hunters looked at him. Their faces were a perfect representation of his own fear. The land walkers were at war. There were two too many shots for it to be a hunt.

This was even worse than he thought.



Chapter Nineteen

Caye’s stomach was in knots. The bellows were getting worse and behind her were crazy people yelling and shooting at the people coming up from the lake. Tears misted in her eyes. This was not okay.

She heard the screams of males and females.

Caye was not okay.

At the door, there was a lock on it, an old verbal one. Thank Seth she spent years recoding her own verbal lock every time she forgot the code.

Finally, the shopkeeper just gave her the master password, and she never had a problem again.

“Master code 05 57 59.”

The thing popped open, and she quickly unhooked it and pulled open the door. The heat from the outside was nothing to what it was inside. The fire was so hot she felt the sting on her face and she hadn’t even been touched by it. The surrounding walls were black – fire-resistant paint.

If she went in she would probably die from the heat, but then if that was true, how were the males still alive. Good Seth help her.

She felt her eyes pull to the right and there was an emergency shut off. Slamming her hand on the button it burned her flesh but the heavy white smoke filling the air was extinguishing the fire. She took off her shirt, ripped it in two, and wrapped it around her feet, and ran in. The heat was so bad, but she didn’t stop as she opened the window vents and let out the heat. She jumped from foot to foot because her shirt wasn’t any match for the hot wood.

She pushed down her pants and used them too. Standing in just a bra and panties she hoped that she found Horz soon. Moving from smoke room to smoke room she had no idea where they were. Then she found the stairs and ran up. The shouts had stopped, and she feared the worst.

Pushing open the door, she saw Horz and five males all chained to the floor. Their wrists were bleeding and the smell of burnt flesh smelled too much like cooked meat.

Horz’s mouth pulled down in a fierce frown. She rushed to him saw the burns, and blisters, and blood. Her fingers were shaking at how much pain he was in and yet he wasn’t saying a word. Following the chains to the ground, she saw it was a simple turn release cap, but no one in the room could have reached it.

Using the pants on her feet she unwrapped them and turned the cap released the chains. She unraveled the chain and removed them one by one since they were chained to the hooks in the floor too.

When she was finished she reached for Horz but he pointed to the others. He didn’t say a word as she helped the worst ones first. Horz limped as he tried to pull and push another Dirth to the outside.

She and he went back and forth until they were all out and on the ground.

“These are really bad burns. I have healing salves at my home.”

He didn’t look at her when he said, “It’s too dangerous for you to go there by yourself.”

“I was thinking more like we could all go together.”

He shook his head, “Our people are fighting. I need to be with my people.”

Right. Like he was in any state to fight.

She was so mad that she ripped off the half-melted half burnt clothes from her feet. “Fine. Stay with your people. I’ll be back. If you’re still alive I’ll treat your wounds.”

When she turned to leave, he grabbed her arm. When he didn’t say anything she imagined the worse. She imagined him telling her that she wasn’t going to find it because she didn’t know the way. Or that she was practically naked and she would get eaten by any number of prey.

So she cut him off before he spoke. “Let go of me before you say something that changes my mind.”

He leaned down and kissed her temple and whispered, “Thank you.”

She nodded pleased at the softness in his tone and touch. Shocked too.

He let go and pointed, “Your home is that way. Your heart will always know the way home. Follow it.”

She nodded again and headed that way, turned back, and saw him tending to his men. Turning back around she ran as fast as she could on her bare feet. At least he was alive.

For now.

Chapter Twenty

Horz’s burns were still stinging, and yet it was a paltry wound compared to the icy stone grinding in his gut. Caye saved him. HIM.

How….?

Why….?

It felt like someone reached into his chest and wrapped their hand around his heart and squeezed it until it burst. Never had he felt so unworthy of someone’s goodness. When he watched Caye hiss as she shook her hands after each touch of the burning chains, he wanted to scream for her stop – but she couldn’t; she was the only one able to free them.

Horz had lived a very hard childhood, and a frustrating adulthood, but never had he felt unworthy. But he did now.

“Your mate as the heart of a Dirth, Horz.”

His mate?

Shaking his head, he wondered if his heart would truly stop beating from all the self-hatred and missed opportunities? He didn’t deserve to have her as a mate. She deserved a braver male. One that didn’t lie to her, or plan to use her body. One that recognized her inner strength, her kindness, and respected that encompassing beauty. One that had the guts to offer her three gifts under the same sun and hoping that she’s be the light in his life for the rest of his life.

“Horz,” Silu one of his older hunters called from the ground. Peering down, Silu confessed, “If you help me to the water, I’ll fight with our brothers.”

The fight.

Horz had a war to fight, he needed to remember that.

“Wait for the next battle. You’re not going to fight in this one,” Horz said, eyeing the younger male, Bray who was pushing himself up.

Horz saw he was not full strength, but he was moving good on his feet. “You good, Bray.”

“I’m ready to fight.”

“That’s good, but you’re going to fight here.” At first Bray’s brows pulled together in confusion, but Horz added, “The land walkers will be back to see our bodies so our hunters can’t stay here.”

Bray didn’t question him, he just nodded, then reached down and picked up Silu. Horz turned, knowing his hunters would be okay. But when he was a short way off, Bray called his name.

Horz turned his head, not his body.

“Which way to your mate’s house? Silu has wounds all down his legs.”

Pointing the direction he knew by heart he held out his arm. “Follow the moon path, and when you see the dirt follow it right. She will find you, before you find her.” And he knew that in his soul because she wouldn’t wait to grab her things and leave just like last time. She had too much heart.

“I will keep her safe for you, Horz, ensure our families are safe too.”

Horz felt like the biggest fake when he nodded. Caye wasn’t his mate, and yet he didn’t correct anyone. He also didn’t know if he had the strength – the back of his legs were numb, but now there was a furious burn.

Without a word he turned and followed the tree lines so that he could catch the land walkers unaware. As he walked he noticed shots were coming from further in the forest. It took another ten minutes before he realized there were land walkers killing other land walkers.

He was even more confused when he heard children crying and women yelling.

Horz had to move slowly, because of the pain, and climbing trees wasn’t as easy as it looked. By the time he got high enough to see over the large boulders, he saw his people. The women and children – but only the wobblers – not the Dirth women and children.

At the small entrance was one of the land walkers with a gun. Horz was looking at the quickest path to kill the guard when he saw his brother, the King, walk up to the guard and point the people in side then shake his head. Horz didn’t know what that meant, but he knew that his brother was not there to help them.

Moving down the tree, he slipped just as the gun went off and a child screamed as if she was calling death to her. Horz’s rolled up and ran with a hobble. When he rounded the corner, the land walker was pointing the gun in to the group of people. When the male saw Horz he must have seen the death because the male looked terrified.

Before the bastard could aim the barrel at him, Horz knocked the long gun to the side and hit the male in the temple. When the male fell, Horz used the heel of his foot and crushed his windpipe.

Glazed dead eyes looked back at him and the death had no satisfaction. Looking in the group he saw the dead female and the child crying at her side. Silu’s wife and mate.

Grabbing the gun he held it out, “We’re leaving. Who knows how to use this?”

Corrian the mate of one of his wounded hunters stood up with red eyes and tears stains on her cheeks. He handed it to her and she quickly took it, and rounded it back at him, aiming at his face. “Your brother ordered us killed. I hate you and every single one of you freak swimmers. Get out of my way.”

He moved but asked his question loud enough when she passed, “What should I tell Matapo when he asks me about you?”

Her lips were tight as she responded, “He left me and my son to die. If you see that heartless bastard, you tell him to go to hell.”

How she came to that conclusion he didn’t know, but he assumed it might have been his brother. Either way he told her, “Matapo, and the rest of us were a ambushed minutes after reaching the surface. We were thrown into a cooking house.” He showed her his wrists and then turned to let her see the way his pants had melted to his skin in parts. “He and the others are on their way to my mate’s home. She has healing things. Come with me and see his wounds yourself.”

He looked at everyone else and called them to the same. “Come with me. Let my mate help you.”

No one looked overly convinced, but they moved anyway. He pointed the direction he came so they could stay hiding behind the rocks. The last one who hadn’t moved was Silu’s daughter.

With a heavy heart he moved into the alcove and wrapped his arms around her and picked her up. The young one kicked and screamed, as he retreated. He wasn’t all the way out before he was knocked in the head with something hard.

He fell forward, curling to the side to ensure that Silu’s daughter wasn’t hurt.

“I should have just killed you myself,” his brother hissed.

Horz turned not sure what he was going to say, but hatred coated his thoughts. But then his brother’s face disappeared. Blood and chunks were everywhere and Silu’s daughter stared to scream again.

The king’s body slumped to the ground and Horz had seconds of dumbfounded shock to process before he picked back up Silu’s daughter, still in his haze, and moved. Out in the forest he saw Corrian’s face and knew she had taken out her wrath on the one who deserved it most.

It wasn’t easy to hold Silu’s daughter. After almost falling from the pain and weight a young boy reached over, took the daughter’s hand and asked if he could walk with her.

The daughter didn’t say a word, but she walked side by side.

The boy was Bray’s son.

***

To his surprise, he caught up to the hunters. They were just outside the tree line when they found them. The reunion was bittersweet, especially for Silu who cried openly. Something Dirth didn’t do. It was something to keep in your heart until you were alone in the water.

But as he cried for his mate, the others did too. It hurt to watch, and it hurt to know that his brother did this. It hurt to think of the others, the purebloods. What were they thinking? Did they agree with Terby?

He didn’t know, but he was going to have to find out.

“Horz?” Bray called. Turning to his hunting brother, he saw the question in his eyes before he asked it. “Is it true the king was going to kill them?”

He nodded once.

The same anguish Horz felt, he saw in Bray’s face. The look of utter betrayal. It was another emotion Horz had never felt before.

“Horz?” came a soft call. He knew that voice and turned. Caye was there with a bag on her shoulders. She had found her way home just like he knew she would. But her confusion and concern were clear as she walked up and scanned all the people.

She was dressed in new clothes and had a white bandage on her hand, but her face still had smudges and her hair was still wild. It made him fall for her even more.

She wasn’t his mate, she didn’t owe him anything, but he was responsible for his people so he had lean on her generosity. He didn’t have a chance to utter a word.

“Okay, everyone needs to come with me. My house is not far.” She didn’t look at him, she just grabbed Gargailis and helped him up. Then reached for Silu because he was hurt the worst and let him use her shoulder all the way back to her home.

Inside he recognized her scent and the smell of food. When he looked at the pot on the fire oven, it was three times bigger than the one she had before. From the kitchen two older females walked out, one that looked like an older version of Caye and the other covered in more dangly necklaces, but she too had a resemblance.

“Help me,” was all Caye said and the one with the dangly necklaces went straight for the children and asked if they wanted to see her bunny farm. The older one brought out bowls and several things of bread. The wives knew what it was and took them gratefully. The males only tried it and said they would eat the rest later.

When he had finally gotten close enough to Caye he asked, “What can I do to help?”

Her voice was curt, “You could take a seat so I can look at your wounds after I help this one.”

Silu was the one she was helping. Silu also smiled at her when she said those words. “Your mate cares about you,” he said.

Horz’s stomach burned, expecting Caye to correct him, but she just snorted.

“I prefer to help,” he said again, not able to sit down because he believed if he did that, he wouldn’t get back up.

“Fine, get the jerky since none of you like any bread.”

Ah yes. His hunters would like that. “Where can I find the meat leaf?”

“The what?” Silu asked, sincerely concerned.

Her eyes cut back to him, and he was pleased to have her attention. Even if it was anger. “It’s in the back by the kitchen, my mother will show you.”

“Thank you,” he told her, not because she gave him directions, but for all of it.

When he got back, he handed out the food and watched as his hunters had the same reaction to the dried food as he did. But no one said anything, they just took it and ate it and thanked Caye when they finished.

Caye didn’t respond, she just went back to cleaning Silu’s wound, covering his wounds with something that numbed everything then removing the melted parts. She cleaned it again and then packed it with something and covered it with a white bandage.

Then she helped Gargailis, then Matapo, then Bray and then the others. By the time it was his turn Caye was tired.

“This can wait,” he said wishing he could ask one of his hunters to knock him out because the pain was getting so bad he wanted to cry.

Caye pointed to her room. “Sure, let’s talk first.”

There was no way he was going to be able to talk. Not now. But she had to have known that because the moment after she shut the door, she held out a cup. “Drink this.”

He took the small cup and tossed the contents in his mouth. It was foul. He had to look away and tilt his head back to just get it down. When he finished it she pointed to the bed, “Lay down, face down.”

“You’re going to do this here?”

“You’re don’t want to be seen weak by your males, I’m trying to be as accommodating as I can. But my patience is thin, and I’m not sure I will be able to be as gentle with you.” Her eyes were red and she was switching from foot to foot as if she was just trying to stay moving.

He was about to tell her that they could do this back in the living area, but she growled, “Lay down. Now. Before you fall.”

That was ridiculous, he wasn’t going to….

She grabbed his arm and yanked as he fell. He landed half on the bed and she dragged him the rest of the way. His mind was so foggy he didn’t know if he knocked out right then or later. Either way, he didn’t remember anything after that.

Chapter Twenty-One

Caye was awake, but she was still too tired to get up. She had finished cleaning and bandaging Horz’s wounds and instead of leaving to see what else needed to be done, she laid down on her bed, next to the stubborn-boned-headed-idiot and knocked out.

He was still asleep, or at least she assumed he was because he was still next to her, and he wasn’t leaving. She was so upset with him and also so thankful that he and the rest got out alive. She didn’t know what happened, but hopefully she earned his trust and he would tell her.

The door opened, and she leaned up on her elbow and slapped the air. “He’s still sleeping,” she whispered.

Her mother rolled her eyes, “Does he sleep with his eyes open?”

What?

Rolling over he was looking right at her. A little freaked out she sat up, “How long have you been awake?”

“A while,” he said mildly, then asked, “When do you think I’ll get feeling back to my legs?”

Oh crap.

She looked over at her mother, who was already shutting the door. Biting her lip she said, “I may have over done it with the dremewood oil.”

“So, does that mean it’s going to be a few more minutes or hours?”

Uh…. “A week, maybe?” How many dang drops did she put in that tea? Dang it.

He cleared his throat and said, “Well there is no way for me to go a week without using the bathroom.”

She didn’t know if he was as embarrassed about needing her help or if it was just her. But also, “I have waterproof sheets. You can’t ruin the bedding. Don’t worry.”

“I am not going to poop on your bed.”

“Do you have to poop or pee?” she asked as she looked towards her bathroom to see how well she and he could fit in there.

“Both, I don’t know. I can’t feel anything.”

“Oh,” she said as she moved from the bed to see if he had already peed in it.

“I didn’t go, I held it.”

She couldn’t see any wetness but she felt his bandages and all around his legs, waist and in between. “What if you went when you were snoring like a beast with a cold.”

“Please just help me up so I don’t ruin the bed?”

“Fine,” she said lightheartedly. She walked around the bed to pick him up when her mother walked in and handed her a syringe with yellow fluid.

“What is that?” Horz asked as her mother walked out.

“This is going to help,” she said as she moved to his rear-end and pushed it into the fatty skin. When she finished she caped the needle and set it on her desk. Her family gift was missing and she bit her lip remembering where she left it.

She was so stupid to believe Horz was going to show her around. She should have asked more questions when he offered to take her. She should have been leery when the deal to go was only for that day, that time.

“I can feel everything, and I don’t think I wanted to,” he said as he slowly sat up.

She turned and half sat, half leaned against the dresser. “Did you still need my help?”

“I’ll make it.” He hobbled as he made his way, touching all the surfaces as he walked. As if he didn’t trust his own feet. Before shutting the door, he didn’t look at her when he asked, “I think we still need to talk. So please don’t leave yet.”

“I won’t,” she said, thinking that was exactly what she wanted to do. She didn’t know what he wanted to talk about, but she was sure it was something to do with them. She couldn’t go back to his home, not after her mother and aunt freaked out when she was gone last time. And her aunt had told her about a group of guys that came into her Bed-and-Breakfast with guns, taking over and making everyone leave.

So there was no way she could look her mother in the face and say she had to honor her promise.

When the door opened she had worked herself up into a nervous frenzy. He made it worse by waiting until he was sitting on the bed, looking right at her. “Can my people stay here?”

In her home? Forever? What?

“I need to return and find out who survived and what happened to the underwater city. My brother the king is dead and I am the next in line. I have to go.”

He had to go? Alone?

“Okay,” she said, figuring that this was all just temporary. He would leave, his people would stay for a while and then they all would be gone.

“Thank you,” he said as he dropped his eyes. “I really can’t express how thankful I am for what you did for me and for everyone.”

She was pleased she could respond more confidently to his new topic. “I’m a healer, it’s what I do. Think nothing of it.”

Horz’s lids opened until his dark eyes held hers. “I’ll always think of it.”

She shrugged and looked away, uncomfortable with how she was feet away from him but he seemed to be doing something to the air. Making it feel as if he owned every inch of it. It touched him and through it, he was touching her.

“My people thing you’re my mate and I didn’t correct them.”

“I didn’t either,” she said remembering that moment and waiting for Horz to correct them. When he didn’t she wondered why.

“When I get back, I will have a place for my people and I will clarify my error.”

Oh.

Well, that was kind of good but also heartbreaking.

“You deserve a better male than me. A matehood can’t begin with lies.”

That was true. But she was done with this conversation. She could feel a tear falling down so she quickly wiped it away and tried to smile when she said, “Well if you take too long my aunt will adopt all the young ones. She loves kids.”

Horz stood up, brushed her most recent tear from her face. “Happy tears that your home and the nightmare I gave you is over?”

She tried again to not cry by making a joke, “I’m way to pretty to be a simple breeder.”

“That’s very true.” Horz touched the dresser and then the wall and made his way to the door. She didn’t look back, she just held her breath until it was closed again. She could feel the need to throw herself back in bed and cry.

The tears inside her wanted out, but the more she held still, the more they turned stale and hard.

She had people to take care of, there wasn’t time to cry about her wounded heart.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Horz wasn’t back to his full strength, but he had to return to his people. Whoever remained would want to see a leader. A royal. They’d want direction, safety, and assurance. At least, that was what he told himself as he entered the forest and scanned for anything moving.

The further he moved inside he saw more and more bodies. When he saw his own, he counted them to know if there was even anyone left. When he got to the shore of the lake, he didn’t see anyone so he waded in the ice-cold water and swam to the underground city. The stairs were covered in water and the inside was dark.

He had to swim to the surface, take in a few breaths before diving again. This time he went inside enough to see it was empty and full of water. There was a large hole at the top of the half dome and he used it to swim out of. This time when he broke the water he saw one person standing on the shore. He was too far away to know if the person was a friend or foe. Instead of swimming towards the person he ducked down and swam to the far side to give him time to defend himself if necessary.

But once he was on shore, the person was walking to him, limping as he went. He recognized Jaramander and rushed to his side. Jaramander was a year older and was once a skilled hunter but had got sick two years ago and his breath never came back. Terby said he wasn’t worthy of a bride and overlooked him.

The wife that Jaramander was supposed to have was the same wife that attacked Caye and redressed her. A small petty part of Horz was glad that he was the one who found Caye and not Jaramander.

But seeing the male limp and a pair of bloody knuckles, he was sure that his brother would have been proud of him. Proud that he didn’t die.

Horz held an arm out to him, but Jaramander shook his head. “I thought I was the only one left.”

“I haven’t seen anyone else. Not Dirth or land walker.”

Jaramander cut angry eyes at Horz. “Which land walkers? The ones that you and your brother paid to kill half our people and the surrounding wobblers?”

“Did you see my brother give them money?”

“No, but I was there when he told me about it,” he hissed. “I was there when he had every wobbler family taken out like prisoners and told them you and the rest had run like scared fish when you leaned we were separating. The wobblers from the Dirths. That we were going back to the sea and we couldn’t take the filth with us.”

That sounded a lot like Terby.

“Me and the others were chained in a cooking room.” Horz removed the bandages and showed them off. The blisters were gone, but the wound was still glistening and unhealed. “I found the families and was too late to save Silu’s mate, but I got the rest out.”

Jaramander lowered his head as if he was showing respect. There was no respect in the horrors of the other day.

“My brother tried to stop us, he was shot in the face.”

The Dirth looked up, amazed. “He’s dead?”

“Yes.”

Confused, the male said, “The land wobblers with the guns said he was already on his way to the ocean.”

“Did the land walker offer to take you too?”

Jaramander’s jaw flexed. “No. But I thought that was because the land walker knew there was no one else left. Everyone else is dead. I found all their bodies.”

All the bodies? Males, females? Why did his brother allow that?

Horz had to take a minute to absorb that. His entire city was gone, but the ones he saved. The ones who his brother had wanted to be killed. What was his brother thinking? How could he just send his people to be slaughtered?

Horz had no idea what his brother was thinking, all he knew was that Terby reminded him too much of his father. Too focused on pure blood. Too focused on who was worthy and who wasn’t. Too much need for power over everyone and everything.

“You said you saved the wobbler families.”

Horz came out of his thoughts to answer the question. “I did.”

“Where are they?”

It was in his mind to say his mate’s house. But she wasn’t, and he had left her with a clear understanding he wasn’t claiming her. That he would find his people a home. And now, with everyone dead, he technically had a wide-open space of lake and forest to build homes. To start over.

“Am I not allowed to join?”

Horz rubbed his face, pissed he made this warrior doubt himself. “They are at Caye’s home.”

“Who’s that?”

“The female I brought back to my home.”

“Your bride?”

He rubbed his face again. “No. She is not a bride. The one who was promised to me knocked Caye out, redressed her, and left her by the lake. When I found Caye she was fighting off a creature. She had no idea about the agreement or who I was. I lured her back to the lake under a false pretense that I was going to show her the underwater city.”

Jaramander frowned. “Why didn’t you go looking for the one who was promised?”

“I liked Caye better.”

That surprised Jaramander then the male said, “The king said that wobblers break families apart. They are resentful of being with us – with Dirths.”

“I can’t speak for the others, but I think that if I had treated Caye like a Dirth, offered her a chance to accept me, that she would have, and there would have been no resentment.” As he spoke those words be believed them and he felt the self-hate that he didn’t trust her to accept him.

With that thought, he added, “I think that wobblers should have been given a choice. The arrangement my brother made was wrong. I don’t know what will happen now that the families are not trapped underwater. I don’t know if they will stay together or not.”

Jaramander looked at the lake, “I’m glad they aren’t trapped down there anymore.” A few heartbeats went by before he asked, “What are we going to do now?”

Horz had no idea.

None.

As leader, he should have given the warrior something. But he couldn’t. Because it conflicted with his loyalties. His heart knew where his home was and that wasn’t back to the water. His people were used to the lake, the food, and the way of that life. But then again, that way might not have been the right way.

“The underwater dome is broken. I assume you saw. I don’t think it will be easy to fix.”

Hearing that it was easy for Horz to made his decision. “I don’t think anyone in the remaining families wants to go back to the water.”

Jaramander looked like he was going to laugh but a microsecond into it he grabbed his side and winced. “I bet you’re right.”

“Do you want to go back?”

Jaramander dropped his eyes to the side for a moment as if he was thinking. His shoulder was slumped, and he looked in pain but was keeping that to himself.

“No. Not really. I enjoyed being a hunter because I was able to go to the surface. I liked the trees and the smell. I liked the warmth in the summer. I’ve missed walking the tree lines and exploring. Being stuck in the dome was hard for me. I can’t imagine how the wives did it for so long.”

Horz agreed with that. He just needed to figure out where they would live now. In the forest was one choice, but again, was it where they belonged? The dead bodies were reminding everyone what they lost. Because the wives were family to those killed.

Bringing them back here wouldn’t be a good idea.

But where then?

His heart wanted to make his home with Caye, but her home was too small for all his people.

Seeing Jaramander wince again, he decided that he wouldn’t stop thinking about it, and start getting answers. But also, he wanted to do the right thing. To his warrior, he said, “Can you wait for me to grab something from my home? Then we will go to my ma- Caye’s home.”

Jaramander nodded.

***

Horz saw Caye picking flowers in her field. She didn’t see him until he was much closer. Her sense of surroundings was still gone. He liked that he knew that. When she saw him she walked quickly over.

She looked at Jamander as if he was supposed to say something, but then she must have known something was wrong because she offered her hand, “Come with me. I’ll get you fixed up.”

The warrior reached out to grab her hand and Horz just couldn’t allow it. Clearing his throat, Jamander quickly pulled back and said, “I’ll follow you if you show me the way.”

Caye nodded and led the way but when they were entering the house she stepped in front of him, called out to her mother to come help, then shut the door behind her, making him step back.

“What did you find? What did you decide to do? Where are you going to live? Are you leaving right away? I need to know.” Her tone was sharp, but her eyes were a bit watery and he assumed that she was feeling more than she was letting on.

He didn’t expect to be questioned first thing. And if old him were in his shoes, he might not have answered, but that person was long gone. The first thing he did was hand back her family gift. “The underwater city was flooded. I don’t know if this is beyond repair, but I thought you’d want to have it.”

She looked at it with an expression he didn’t recognize. She pointed at the woodpile by the door. “It’s gone. Might as well burn it. You can toss it there.”

Not what he was hoping for, but okay. He did as she asked, but instead of tossing it, he placed it carefully on top.

“The warrior who was with me is the only survivor of my people. I’ve decided we won’t go back to fix the city and we won’t live in the forest because of the bodies and bad memories.”

Folding her arms, she looked as if she was putting a shield around herself. Her eyes darted to the side as if she wanted to be anywhere but in front of him. That hit him in the gut and he wavered with telling her about the three gifts he brought her.

“Where will you go?”

“I don’t know.” When that answer made her look even more emotional he wasn’t sure if he was her issue. If he was, he was going to find out real quick. He pulled out the fishbone bracelet he had made a long time ago when he was thinking of his mother. He thought that if he had a mate, he would make sure she knew how much he cared about her by making her nice things to wear. He was young, but no matter how old he got, he never got rid of the bracelet as if he always hoped he would find a mate.

Holding it out he said, “When a Dirth sees a female he wants he will try and get her to accept three gifts under the same sun.”

Caye’s glossy eyes came back and stared at the bracelet in his hand.

“I made this for you long before I met you.”

She looked at it then him. “What? How could you have made it before you knew….oh.”

He pulled out his special bone knife he only used for special cooking occasions. “I also want you to have this bone knife. I think you will find it useful when cutting thin slices of meat for the leaf meat.”

Caye covered her mouth, her eyes watering down her cheek.

He hoped that was a good thing. Placing the knife next to the bracelet on his hand, he pulled out the third gift. “This was a flat stone from the ocean. I went there once took this and then ground it down to look like an anchor –”

“-It looks like an ocean wave,” she said, picking it up. Wiping off her tears with her free hand, she sniffed. “It looks pretty malformed though.”

He didn’t care if she made fun of it. She still took it. That was one, and he had all day to get her to take the other two.

She put it in her pocket and patted the under part of her eyes. “You made it clear you didn’t want to be with me when you left.”

Holding up the knife, he wanted to see if she’d take it. She snorted, took it, and said, “I don’t think I’ll need a bone knife. I have a slicer.”

But she took it.

Stepping closer to her, he made a gesture for her to hold out her wrist.

She did, and his heartbeat harder and faster. She was saying yes – and she knew what that meant. He slipped on the bracelet and liked how simple it looked and how perfect it looked on her slim wrist.

Without dropping her hand, he pulled her closer. “You said yes.”

“You said you didn’t want to be with me? What changed?”

“I did.”

“Horz,” she said as if urging him to explain, but he couldn’t. All he could think about was that he was mated. Officially and nothing could change that. He was home. His heart knew the way back and now that he was there he knew he would never leave.

“Will your family have an issue if my people stay with me?”

Her eyes widened, “I don’t have a big enough house for everyone to live in it.”

“If they made their own homes, do you think they could stay? Or should I look for another place to build?”

She laughed and wiped more tears from her eyes. “My aunt is ready to kidnap all your children she loves them so much. My mom and my grandma have already come and taken several families to a place to stay while they get better. My uncle is griping about making new cabins for them because he wants his wife’s attention back. I think your people are already part of the family.”

He leaned down to kiss her but just as her eyes closed he whispered, “Thank you for saving my people, helping us, and giving us a home.” And for healing his cold heart.

She wrapped a hand around his neck and pulled him down, “Kiss now, talk later.”

Taking her mouth, he felt whole. His blood raced, and his body was honed into every touch, taste, and breath. He wanted to take her and make her his in every way. He wrapped an arm around her back and pulled her in further, needing her body against his. He needed her everything.

In the middle of the kiss, her front door opened. They broke apart and Caye groaned. At the door her mother stood there with her arms crossed, “He better have done the right thing, or am I going to have to talk to him like I talked to your father?”

“No ma’ he did the right thing. He’s marrying me.”

Her mother pointed her finger at him, “That’s right you are. My daughter loves you and you will love her back.”

“Mother,” Caye said, reached back and squeezing his hand.

“What? I’m just saying – he better.”

Horz liked her mother, he wondered if his would have been anything like her. When her mother was done telling Caye about Jaramander and his internal bleeding, they both went to him and cared for him until he was better.

After that, there were houses to build, kisses to steal, and families to help out. Even at night, her mother kept her busy with readying a crop that needed to be collected. Something always had to be done until he found out it was all by design. His mother-in-law was making it impossible for him to be with his mate until after the wedding.

A month later he mated her the wobbler way and then took her back to their home to be alone. By then, he was starving for her body, her kisses, and to start their family. And to his surprise a strange tattoo showed up on both their hands with a moon on top and an ocean underneath.

Mating marks.

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