Innocent and unsuspecting.
Running had always quieted Sabin. He loved feeling his lungs expand and contract and the fine, familiar burning in his legs.
It would be like that today. It would be good. Strength would fill his muscles.
Oh, yes, strength.
Even as the word strength refreshed him and he studied the ground to ensure his feet wouldn’t land on anything sharp, he scanned the endless high desert for signs of life in the shadows and depressions. He didn’t dare let his concentration slip, a lesson he’d learned years ago.
Human. A female.
Innocent and unsuspecting.
It was summer with its hot days and cool nights. The constant wind pushed against his nearly naked body much as a woman’s soft fingers would. Arousal nibbled at him, forcing him to push it aside and remind himself of why he was here.
As a member of the Hunter People, he went wherever his chief ordered and obeyed any and all commands. He always had. Always would even though today’s task was one he’d never taken on.
Armed with a spear, knife, and blowgun with its paralyzing dart strapped to his loincloth’s waist, he feared nothing. Wanted nothing, except this existence.
Then why did he wish he wasn’t doing this?
Sabin frowned and looked skyward, unsettled by his latest thought. Buzzards circled high above the sagebrush to his right, reminding him that life couldn’t be taken for granted. He gazed into the distance. Today his destination was the basalt rimrock. Once he’d climbed the steep cliff and reached the nearly flat top, he’d study his surroundings for the human prey that had brought him here.
Human. A female.
Innocent and unsuspecting.
The wind and occasional birdcall was all that stood between him and silence, an unsettling silence. As a Hunter scout, he was accustomed to traveling ahead of his clan, but no matter how many times he’d come to a new area, his senses needed time to adjust. He was accustomed to owls that lived in trees, not ones that burrowed into the ground. The falcons were smaller here, their cries higher and sharper. Instead of the small, light brown deer that made the forest their homes, those that lived in the high desert were nearly twice as large, and the bucks’ racks were so wide he couldn’t reach across them.
His knowledge of the fleet tan and white antelope that thrived here was minimal. Hopefully that would change when he slipped close to whatever watering hole he found.
Thirst? What did that matter?
Only his goal, his task, his promise to his clan did. Just in time, he spotted a dark gray and yellow snake and jumped over it. As he did, the snake lifted its upper body, its fangs fortunately striking air instead of his feet. Its rattles made a dry clacking. The thought of a writhing, lonely death chilled him, but not as much as the fear that had consumed him the spring morning he’d believed he was going to die had.
Slowing, he ran his hand over his left shoulder. The still-healing scar there only occasionally ached and his muscles had returned to full strength. If only he could find a way to end the memory of an enemy knife tearing at him, stabbing deep, taking his life’s blood.
Determined not to let the nightmare overwhelm him, Sabin willed his heart to return to a steady beat. Nevertheless he remained aware that he’d come to a land where he wasn’t wanted and would be seen as the enemy. As he picked up the pace, blood flowed into his cock, causing it to come to life. Shifting his spear to his left hand, he reached under his loincloth so he could cradle and support his erection. What was it about tension that spoke to him like this?
Not just tension, he amended. His intended victim had more to do with his mood than he wanted to admit. Success depended on his ability to remain in the moment, not fantasize about the goal until it had been achieved.
Sweat ran down the small of his back and coated his upper lip. The sun would soon be overhead. He could either continue at full speed to the rimrock rising above the desert floor or better pace himself. Despite his determination to reach the rimrock as soon as possible, he slowed.
He, a valuable and dependable Hunter, had been sent to this harsh land for one thing. To capture a female member of the Antelope People. Once the swift, wild creature was under his control and command, he’d begin to break her down both by punishing any resistance and by pushing her beyond her limits. He knew how to do that. He’d learned well. He wouldn’t fail or concern himself with what being his captive would do to her.
Because he didn’t dare remain here any longer than necessary, he’d take her back to his people. By then, if the spirits were willing, she’d have turned her entire body over to him. But even if she continued to fight, he’d do what he must.
He had no choice. His clan’s survival might depend on her speed and the speed of the children she would bear.
Whether she understood how valuable she was to his people meant nothing. She was a means to an end, barely human, as his clan had always been led to believe. Just enough like him, maybe, to satisfy his cock’s needs.
Kahsha of the Antelope People planned her daily water-gathering trips to the canyon stream for afternoon, well ahead of nightfall when animals, predators included, gravitated to it. Even with the need for caution, crouching at the edge of the stream with countless hoof and paw prints carved into the dirt reinforced her belief that she was one with all animals and not just antelope.
Predators? What had made her think of them today and react by shivering and looking quickly around?
Summer was in its brief glory in the land of her birth. She should be enjoying every minute, but as she loped along with the empty water bladders over her neck and bouncing against her breasts, she acknowledged that the days felt as if they were closing in on her. Surely that was why she wished she were somewhere else, maybe someone other than who she was.
She should be looking forward to marrying Rafi, not dreading what the spirits willed. She shivered again. Not only had she known Rafi all her life and admired his skill in fashioning black rock into arrowheads, his family had already given her snow geese feathers and dried yellow paintbrush flowers as welcoming gifts. She’d woven the feathers and flowers into her braid and had worn them during the recent full moon celebration. After the drumming, dancing, and eating, she and Rafi had come together on the deer hide he’d brought with him, careful to pull apart in time so that his seed spilled onto the hide instead of in her.
Come next spring, she’d move into his cave house and hand her body to him. If Wind Spirit so willed it, her body would swell and she’d become a mother. A mother!
And spend the rest of her life spreading her legs for a man who reached release scant seconds after becoming erect.
No! Kahsha gave her head a shake. She didn’t want that—she wanted something she had no words for even as her body ached and craved… what? It didn’t matter because her life with Rafi had already been foretold. She couldn’t go against what the spirits said.
An ache in her heart caught hold of her and sent fresh strength to her legs. Lifting her head, she remembered to give thanks to Wind, giver of speed. Tonight she’d dutifully burn some of the rare white lupin and stand in its holy smoke while praying to Wind and, she hoped, in the act, find a measure of peace and acceptance. Today, however, she’d embrace Wind’s gift and run like the clan’s namesake.
Flee, however briefly, from her future.
Running with an antelope’s speed sent hot wind into the hair she’d re-braided this morning. Her short, sleeveless deer hide dress flattened against her lean body and full breasts. Heat worked its way between her legs and touched her sex. Her sensitive flesh responded. She’d experienced the overwhelming thrill that came from touching her woman’s parts and knew how to make it happen.
If only Rafi did.
Maybe she could teach him. Although her future husband’s cock hadn’t yet excited her to the point where reason fled and pleasure made her cry out, that might change once he understood what she craved.
She wrinkled her brow. Why didn’t he already know how to satisfy his future wife? Didn’t he care about her needs?
If only the present with its tension, fear, and dread were behind her!
She neared the canyon with the life-giving stream at its bottom. As soon as she’d scrambled down and opened the water bladders in preparation for filling them, hopefully she’d have enough to do that she’d no longer think about or want anything else. She’d live in the moment and be the content Antelope woman her people believed she was and expected her to be.
Suddenly alarm snaked down her spine. Kahsha slowed and then stopped. After a moment she stood on her toes and turned in a slow, seeking circle. Living as one with the antelope meant having more than the gift of speed. She’d also been blessed with the creature’s superior sight, hearing, and sense of smell.
Something was different here today, something out of place, an unwelcome presence. Her first thought was that a cougar was stalking her, but there was abundant prey, which meant the Antelope People had little to fear from predators. The same held true for the seldom seen wolves, and despite the grizzlies’ fearsome appearance, she could outrun the massive creatures.
Afternoon was a time of long, dark shadows, which meant she had difficulty making out the details of what or who might be hiding in them.
The empty bladders weighed her down, but although she was tempted to drop them and run, large water containers were hard to come by. She took another long look around. As far as she could tell, nothing or no one was watching her, stalking her, wanting her.
Absently stroking a bladder, she turned her head, hoping the breeze would carry telling sounds her way. She’d seen strangers as they passed through Antelope People land. Some came to trade, others to steal. None stayed long.
No matter how alert she remained, she didn’t hear, see, or smell anything she couldn’t identify. Perhaps her dread of her future was responsible for her unease. Maybe it was as simple as wishing she could tell Rafi she didn’t want to marry him. But then she’d also have to tell her parents and Spirit Keeper Wilu, whose study of the stars had told him that she and Rafi belonged together.
Her hand went to her throat. She stroked it, trying to take comfort from the light touch. She had to accept. There was no other—
For a heartbeat, she believed the wind had caused the sagebrush to move. Then a man stepped out from behind it. A big, deeply tanned stranger who was carrying weapons and wearing nothing but a loincloth.
“Go!” she commanded in the trade language spoken by all clans. “You have no right to this water.”
He glanced down and then back up at her. “I’m… ah… lost.”
I don’t believe you. “What are you doing here?”
He still didn’t meet her gaze. “Looking for—I hurt my foot.” After a moment, he took a few stumbling steps, using his spear as a cane. “I couldn’t keep up. They left me behind, said I could, ah, catch up once the cut healed.”
He was no longer trying to close the distance between them. If he had been, she would have fled instead of acknowledging the impact he was making on her senses. There was something, what, heated about him? And about her reaction to him.
Studying how much of his weight he placed on his left leg was easier than trying to make sense of what little he’d told her and trying to follow his hesitant speech. Where Antelope men were lean-limbed like their namesakes, the stranger’s muscles made her think of a cougar. He was all strength, hard and determined. Dangerous.
No, she amended, not dangerous. He could barely walk, let alone run. Even if he could, she’d easily leave this man with his dark flesh, wide, strong shoulders, and legs built for battle behind.
“Who are the others?” she asked.
“The Mountain People. I’m one of them.” When she frowned, he continued. “We have been traveling from clan to clan showing everyone our many bear pelts, which are perfect for blankets and winter coverings.”
Mountain People were indeed traders, but she hadn’t seen any on Antelope land for at least three summers. Besides, he didn’t look like any Mountain man she’d ever seen. Instead of the clan’s light brown hair and strange pale blue eyes, the stranger’s hair looked like midnight, and his eyes made her think of a cave. Perhaps he’d been adopted into the Mountain clan. She’d know whether she should believe him once she’d seen his injury. If there was one.
First, though, she’d have to get closer to him. Feel his body’s heat. Try not to react to his bold masculinity or let him sense his impact on her.
“You look afraid,” he said.
“Not afraid,” she shot back. “Cautious. Can you blame me?”
“No, I guess not.” He shook his head. “Look, I’d been hoping to get down to the stream. I thought, well, I thought if I could cool the fever in my foot, that would help it, but the path’s so steep.”
No, it wasn’t. The trail, cut into the ground by generations of hoof and claw animals, was a gentle slope. Wondering what it would be like not to be able to rely on her body, she studied the stranger’s weapons. Although his spear was longer and thicker than the ones her people used, there was nothing remarkable about it. Because his knife was in a sheath, she couldn’t tell anything about it. However, the short, round piece of what looked like wood next to the knife puzzled her the most. It reminded her of something she’d seen someone blow on in order to create a soothing whistling sound.
A long red scar ran from his left shoulder nearly to his elbow. Perhaps he’d been wounded in battle.
She wasn’t a healer and had only a rudimentary understanding of the herbs that healers used to treat the wounded or ill, so why was she asking herself what taking care of him would do to her nerves?
And to her woman’s place between her legs.
“You don’t trust me, do you?”
“I can’t blame you.” He rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “Maybe,” he said after a brief silence, “if I threw my water pouch to you, you’d fill it for me? I’m terribly thirsty.”
He didn’t look parched to her, no dry and cracked lips, no lifeless skin. Quite the opposite; she’d never seen a man more prepared for a life of hunting and fighting. Even with the healing scar, he was formidable. If he were an animal, he’d be a cougar or wolf.
And she was an antelope.
Prey pitted against predator.
Woman against man.
That alarm streaked down her back again, reminding her to be cautious despite her carnal reaction to his presence. “Throw it to me.” She indicated the deer hide pouch at his waist. She didn’t want to stay, didn’t want to be alone with him, but she’d been raised to see all life as sacred. Besides, his maleness was speaking to her and the woman inside heard every whisper.
The weight of his knife dragged the waistband of his loincloth low on his hip, exposing some of his belly and the curling black hairs that hinted at what was barely covered. At least he didn’t have an erection. If he were lying about being injured, wouldn’t his body have responded to the sight of a young woman?
But she knew nothing about him. Maybe a woman from a clan different from his own didn’t excite him.
Too bad she didn’t feel the same way because wanting to touch and be touched was distracting her and that could be dangerous.
“Thank you. I appreciate your offer.” His tone dropped to a whisper, the sound like the wind caressing long grasses.
About to tell him that was the least she could do, she settled for a nod. His gaze had her off balance in a way that reminded her of pounding drumbeats. He was sunlight on a winter morning, a moment of cool air in the depths of summer, a night spent—
She shook her head. What was she doing, standing here, finding favor in a strange man’s body, a man who hadn’t given her any reason that he could be believed or trusted?
Watching her, the stranger moved his free hand to his water pouch. He tried to untie it, but the knot refused to give way. She imagined walking up to him and taking over the chore. Her fingers would slide over his flesh and absorb his warmth, press past flesh to reach muscle and learn not just how strong he was, but what it took to bring his cock to life.
There. She’d done it again. Thought about this stranger in ways she never had about Rafi.
Unexpected movement jerked her out of the dangerous place her mind had slipped into. He’d released the spear in preparation for using both hands so he could untie his water pouch. However, as the pouch fell to the ground, she noted that his weight was now distributed equally on both legs.
“You lie!” she blurted.
Whirling away from the enemy, she sent energy to her legs. At the same time, she yanked the water bladders off her neck and threw them aside. One stride, two. She was nearly up to antelope speed, escaping him, soon to be—
Something sharp struck her left shoulder blade. An insect? Not slowing, she swiped at it but whatever it was remained lodged in her skin, not hurting really. Her skin there started to feel warmer than the rest of her. Within seconds, the still-growing heat spread out and slid down her spine and arms. A few seconds later her legs caught fire. Fear rocked her. She tried to pull out whatever had struck her, only to discover she could no longer lift her arms. Instead of planting one sure foot after another on the ground, she started to stumble.
Help me! Someone help me!
Whether she’d deliberately slowed so she could better control her movements or speed had been stolen from her, she couldn’t tell. Her head was becoming heavier with every beat of her heart, and she couldn’t feel her feet. Could barely think.
The flat ground became a mountain, impossibly steep. She trudged, leaning forward like an old woman who’d forgotten how her knees worked. No longer able to send a message to her hips, she stopped and looked around in confusion.
Then she pitched forward like a just-killed bird.