“Alright, Moriarty, you son of a bitch. I’m here.” Ashcroft was talking to a little clearing that included only his own horse, a shallow river, and a line of trees. He had told Moriarty to meet him there, and he wasn’t there yet. It was irritating to have gotten there first; it meant that he could have spent more time with that unsettling little witchling!
Ashcroft found that he was angry at Moriarty for letting the children get lost or kidnapped or whatever happened to them in the first place! Wasn’t it a parent’s job to know where their children were? How could he have failed at this? He’d seen muskrats do a better job of watching their young, for lord’s sake!
He kicked the dirt in front of his shoe. He was still damp from being rained on during the journey the day before. His ass was killing him, his chest and his head hurt, and he began to wonder when he’d last ridden so hard for so long.
It had been decades.
He grumbled and unbuttoned his cloak. He hadn’t been called anywhere with any urgency in years, yet the moment he was nearly cock-deep in a beautiful young witch was the time he was called away. A young witch who had been depending on him, damn it all.
“Dear lord,” he nearly dropped his cloak on the ground with that thought, “that would have been a mistake!” he said aloud to himself in a bark of disbelief. Was he actually angry at Moriarty for pulling him away from the girl? Because if Ashcroft had any sense left, he should kiss the man’s boots when he saw him!
She was a ward of a damn demigod, and the wife of a warlord. In short, she was the last place his penis should ever be. That being said, when he was kissing her… she didn’t taste like a girl who was still nervous from her wedding night. In fact, the girl tasted like coming home. He could have melted into her, and he’d tried. He hadn’t been thinking; he was moving as a man possessed.
He shucked off the rest of his clothing and then walked with them into the river, scrubbing some of the mud off with his knuckles and nails before walking out and hanging his clothes on a nearby tree. After that, he soaked in the cool water. The cool water that helped him think about what he’d almost done.
Maybe, if the warlord collected her before he had the chance to get back toward Hoel’s palace, he could visit the warlord directly. Not under the guise of actually checking to see if he was a wizard, but showing up as a passerby, just to see how the girl was getting on. Maybe she’d be far happier once she was the lady of her own palace in her own environment.
For parting from Anwen and Hoel might make the girl more relaxed. The home that she came from was one that treated her more like a child than a like the woman she was… Oh, yes. She was a woman, alright.
Alright, so apparently his raging erection wasn’t going to go away from the cold water. He grumbled, and then closed his eyes and began to stroke himself.
He tried not to think of Maili at all. He told himself that he didn’t want her firm, apple-sized breasts, her ample hips, her soft skin… Yet thinking about them did seem to make this little chore more enjoyable.
Suddenly, his horse reared. He whipped his head toward the animal, but it was jumping back from the tree Ashcroft had tied it to, looking up at the sky like a predator was going to attack.
He looked up as well.
At first, he thought he was looking at an oversized bird perched on the tree above him. Instead, he saw a black-garbed little witch in a rain cloak, quietly trying to wrap away a frayed little umbrella. They exchanged expressions—hers looked quite sheepish. Ashcroft was certain he was having a stroke and imagining the whole thing.
“Hello,” the girl finally said. The voice carried through the air as if verifying the existence of its owner. Dirty water dripped off of the girl’s clothes—she was soaked. She pushed her hood back, revealing a white, lace-trimmed cap that seemed to create an innocent halo around her extremely dirty complexion. Maili’s enchanting blue eyes focused on him, eventually staring down at the water… toward his groin. “You’re quite nude,” she informed him simply.
“What—!” He gritted his teeth. He wasn’t going to sit in the middle of a cold river and yell at a witch in a tree… That seemed even more ridiculous than her appearance. “I’m putting on pants,” he said with great effort at collecting himself so that his head didn’t explode into a million pieces. “When I come back, we’ll discuss what you’re doing up there, why you followed me, and how soon I can get you back home.”
In the middle of that, he had realized that the girl might have watched him pleasure himself. God even knew for how long; from up there, she might have seen nearly the entire performance before it was cut short.
He swore loudly to himself. He was too old to be this embarrassed! He marched out, happy that he had to turn away from her, grabbed for his trousers, and stuck his leg through the wet material.
The wind was really beginning to pick up before he’d tugged his pants on. He stomped back toward the girl, who still sat on her tree branch that looked too frail to carry even her weight.
She was busy using the wind, it seemed, to air out her cloak. “Are you making this?” he demanded, gesturing all around him.
She looked at him. “What? The wind?” she inquired, blinking at him innocently.
“Yes,” he snipped.
She looked at her dirty nails and shrugged. “Maybe.”
So she had her powers back. Well, that would explain how she traveled. She probably rode on the wind like a regular little Mary Poppins, umbrella and all. God knows how dangerous that had been, since she was probably doing this in the middle of a storm.
Maybe she was insane. “I told you no.”
“I know, and I told you yes. But let’s face it—papa wasn’t going to let me come along, anyway. You can’t get rid of me that easily. You caught me, remember?” Her look became almost cocky, even playful.
He was not feeling playful. He had no idea what to do—he certainly didn’t have time to bring her all the way back to her home. It was nearly a two days’ hard journey by horse! So he was going to have to bring her with him, which was also a deplorable notion; he had no idea what he was leading the girl into!
“Yes,” he finally replied, seething. “I did catch you and I turned your disobedient ass right around back to your home. The home where you belong.”
“Do you really believe that or are you viewing me as more of just an inconvenience toward your future plans?” she asked conversationally, shifting on the very thin and very dead tree branch that was already shuddering under her small amount of weight. “Because I’m excellent company, I’m good in a scrap, and I’m wonderfully brilliant. You might find use for me on this little quest for your servant’s missing children.”
He clenched his fists together. “Get down from there before you fall on your head.”
“Don’t you feel I’m helping you pass the time while we wait for your friend?” She crossed her legs.
“Oops!” she cried just as the branch she’d been perched snapped on its hinge, and she came tumbling down. He reached up and caught her, although none too gracefully. For a moment it looked like she was about to practice swimming on air, but in the next, she spun around in his arms and looked dazedly at him. “Oh!” she said, finally voicing her surprise from being caught.
“Oh, indeed,” he gritted, thankful that he had caught her successfully and that she didn’t bang her head against one of the rocks jutting out from the water nearby. He stepped onto one of these stones and found himself throwing her over his knee in the same movement.
“Ashcroft, what are you doing?” she screeched, flailing her arms and legs.
He didn’t even know what he was doing. The brat kept on doing extremely dangerous things without thinking, and this was the only thing he could think of to do about it! “I told you I would tan your hide if you followed me,” he gritted, holding her wrists to the small of her back and heaving her forward. He pulled up her layers of skirts, and found that under her cloak she wasn’t all so dirty.
He was probably spanking her with his hand for three minutes before he realized that he had actually pulled her panties down to deliver the spanks upon bare flesh. He was so startled that, for a second, he stopped spanking her.
What was he doing? Hoel would turn him inside out for going this far, seeing this much… doing this much.
And then he saw the sweet, silky cunny between those kicking legs and he became mesmerized. The scent, it brought him back to—
“Ouch!” There was a sharp pain at his knee. She bit him? Of all the…! “I’ll teach you to bite me, you nasty little cannibal!” he snapped, his fury once again invigorated.
“This hurts!” she screamed at him angrily, her body shaking from the force of her words.
“If Hoel finds you with me, he’s gonna hurt me a lot more! Do you have any idea what he’ll probably think?” Hoel would probably think that Ashcroft had caused her to become infatuated with him or something equally damning enough to cause the demigod to kill him fifty times over!
Yep, pink wasn’t going to do—this bottom over his knee deserved to be red!
“Ashcroft! He won’t think what you think he’ll think!” she gasped between two spanks, which was a more complicated sentence than he was expecting from a girl he was spanking.
Of course he would, and Hoel would be right. Ashcroft did want this damn little vixen in his bed! It was unduly difficult to ignore that he wanted her, even though she was a silly, suicidal brat.
She really started to jump when he focused on her sit spot and her upper thighs. It was finally beginning to get a little bit on the red side. “Please—Ashcroft, stop it! Stop!” Maili choked out. “Please, Ash… Ash!”
The last person who’d called him Ash had been Charlotte. And this girl sounded exactly like her. God help him—he was in a nightmare. He stopped spanking and loosened his grip, but she took the moment to roll right off of his lap and splash down into the water below.
Immediately he grabbed her arm and helped her to her feet. She was red-faced and furious, her blue eyes blazing. She found her breath, and when she did, she immediately raised her hand to slap him. He saw it coming and grabbed her at her wrist. “Don’t,” he warned. “Don’t ever strike me. You will not like what I’ll do.”
She puckered her lips, but jerked her wrist out of his grasp and put her hand down by her hip. “You struck me!”
“I didn’t strike you, I spanked you. The reason people in your life spank you, Maili, is because you act like a spoiled, petulant, wayward child. You should not have come.” With that, he marched back to where his clothes were hanging to put his shirt back on.
He was surprised to see a dark-haired man holding his horse right where his clothes were hanging. Damn, it had been too long since he last saw Moriarty, and time had not done him well at all. He looked like he had aged—and aged a lot. He looked exhausted.
As usual, it was damned hard staying angry with Moriarty.
“You’re here,” Ashcroft said, continuing to walk up to him. He felt awkward. They were never the sort of friends who would embrace one another, but then they had spent more time apart now than they had in the rest of their 700-year acquaintance.
“I am,” Moriarty said, and seemed to force himself to smile. “And you look like you’re not alone.” His eyes looked over Ashcroft’s shoulder, and Ashcroft followed his gaze; Maili was looking at Moriarty like he was an alien from outer space. Ashcroft assumed that she was merely ashamed to have someone see the end of her punishment, or to see her adjust herself, as Moriarty more than likely had, and so Ashcroft turned his attention back to his old friend.
He put out his hand toward Moriarty. Moriarty looked down, then shook it. After shaking hands for a while, Ashcroft realized that an embrace, at least a one-armed one, was due. Moriarty seemed to come to that realization at the same time, adding a slap on Ashcroft’s back and holding the hand on his shoulder. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“Whatever I can do to help,” Ashcroft replied, then stepped away. He looked back at Maili, who still had that outlandish expression on her face. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She followed me here from Westeryn and I’ll be making sure to put her on the first cart we see heading back in that direction.”
“Hey!” There was a lot of splashing and Maili was suddenly by Ashcroft’s side. “I’m here to help, all the way.” She swallowed. “So, you’re Moriarty, huh?”
Moriarty looked at her, frowned, and then looked right back toward Ashcroft. “First cart, you say?”
“Yes,” Ashcroft said with a small smile. “Now, tell me what you’ve found out.”
Moriarty sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Hardly anything. The boys disappeared about six days ago now in the mid-afternoon. Alice and I were on the Earthside at the time; Naomi called and said that the boys hadn’t come home before sunset. We went home right away; I tracked them into the woods. Two days ago I lost the tracks, lost the scent, lost every trace of them.”
“Do you think they ran away?”
Moriarty snorted. “No. I would have caught them if they had. Besides, Cole’s old enough to go off on his own if he’d like to withstand an unhappy mother, but Sam’s too young to have done it on his own, and Cole wouldn’t have taken him with him if he’d been leaving. Samuel doesn’t even travel well. Whatever it was, there was a spell to it.”
“So.” Ashcroft walked to the tree and got down his shirt. It was still mostly wet, but not heavy. He put his arms through the sleeves, continuing, “They’ve been taken by something that you couldn’t smell and left no tracks or trace.”
Moriarty clapped his hands together in frustration. “Unfortunately there is no such creature. Not one that can travel faster than I can.”
“Damn it, my sack is all wet, Ashcroft!” Maili complained, trudging back into the river and gathering up a small bag that had breached itself on the shore. “Gross. I had all my food in there. I’m starving, too,” she grunted grumpily, adding casually, “Elves.”
Ashcroft gave her a firm look, hoping that would keep her craziness in. Unfortunately, Moriarty just encouraged her by saying, “What?”
She reached into her sack and pulled out a soggy napkin that had probably been full of edible bread at one point. She frowned miserably at it, then distractedly replied, “Elves kidnapped your children.” She said it breezily, as if she was complaining about dirt under her fingernails. Ashcroft tried to ignore her, but he found that harder with every passing moment.
Moriarty shook his head firmly. “Elves would have left tracks, and I would have scented them.”
Ashcroft turned to her just in time to see her shrug without concern. “You wouldn’t have scented a wind elf. They’d smell like anything else, and they can move fast when they want to, especially when there’s been a bunch of storm fronts moving in. The wind gives them power.”
Moriarty turned to Ashcroft to refute this. It was ridiculous—elves wouldn’t have kidnapped Moriarty’s children! They were a gentle race.
“That’d be a little out of character,” Ashcroft replied firmly. “It has to be something else.” He turned to Maili and snapped, “Stop speculating like you know what you’re talking about!”
She planted her fists on her hips. “I do know what I’m talking about. I know a few wind elves. They’ll stop and stay at the palace in the autumn when they’re taking out their young to teach them to hunt. Now, I don’t know if it was them for certain, but it’s not like these little mysteries all don’t have a common denominator.”
There was silence, and they all looked at each other. Moriarty kept on looking at Ashcroft, looking for any sort of reason to hope his children were still alive.
Ashcroft was quickly feeling exasperated and tugged on his cloak. “Alright,” he puffed, “just for the sake of argument, let’s waste some time on the wind elf scenario. Explain to me why they would kidnap innocent children.”
She shrugged and made a mutter that sounded like, “I don’t know.”
Ashcroft rolled his eyes and then looked over at Moriarty. “There has to be a viable explanation to where your children went to. We’ll find them.”
Moriarty swallowed and nodded. Eventually he just pinched his nose with his forefinger, his face twisted with stress, frustration, and grief. Ashcroft couldn’t bear seeing him this way—he much preferred the foppish gentlemen soldier that was trying to singlehandedly sleep with all the single mortal women in the region.
“Urrgh,” Maili muttered sickly as she came by his side. “I’m so hungry.”
Ashcroft took a deep, calming breath. It begins. “Come here,” he said, and grabbed her by the upper arm. Her lips parted and her eyes went wide, a cry forming in her throat, but he cut it off before she could make a sound. “You might be here, but I have no time to look after you. Follow me if you want, but I’m going to pretend you don’t exist, because I need to get my brain into this. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you. There are children on the line.”
“Argh!” she sobbed, trying to yank her arm back away. She was trying to pry his grip off her upper arm with her other hand.
He dropped his grip and she crumbled to the ground, nursing her arm.
He didn’t think he had gripped her so hard it’d hurt her like that. He dropped quickly down to his knee. “Maili?”
She hissed with pain at her arm and leaned away from Ashcroft when he came near to her.
He reached out for her arm very carefully and slowly, as if she was a wild animal. “Maili, let me see your arm. Come on, now.”
She nursed her arm through her dress fabric, raising her shoulder in his direction to block his reach. “Leave it alone.”
He sighed and looked toward Moriarty. “Give me a moment?”
Moriarty nodded. “I need to water the horse, anyway.”
Ashcroft watched him step away, and then he focused his attention on Maili, who was still nursing her arm. He was beginning to suspect that the cuff was cutting into her somehow, that it was defunct in some way. Surely it was, because then she couldn’t have possibly followed him. “Maili, I apologize,” he told her as gently as he could, but as soon as she moved her hand, he could see that her palm was stained red. “Just let me—you’re bleeding!”
She sighed sadly and looked down. “Damn it…” She looked up at him with those turquoise eyes that were so uncannily like Charlotte’s. Her eyelashes were moist with tears. “I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath and shook her head. “I know that you don’t like me, but I’m just so desperate. I hate that I am. I hate that I need you…” She swallowed and then promised, “But after you identify Damen as what he is… then you can go. I’ll never tell anyone what we did in the garden the other night.”
Damn it all if her desperation wasn’t heartbreaking. Damn Hoel to the depths of hell for arranging that marriage! Surely he should have known what a poor idea it was, how much she despised the warlord. Her marriage was never going to be happy for her; she was never going to give it that chance. “Show me your arm, girl,” he told her again.
She took in a raggedy breath and then slowly began to processes of baring her upper arm, removing her dirty coat and then lowering her dress away from her neckline, trying to pull the arm from the cloth’s confines.
When he saw the arm he couldn’t believe his eyes. Even through the bloody bandage he could see that the arm had been mangled. Had he squeezed that? No wonder it had her on her knees in an instant! It looked as though someone, perhaps even she, had literally dug around the cuff and ripped it completely off as soon as it was no longer touching flesh.
Now he realized how she could be doing magic. She hadn’t figured out a spell to disable it; he wasn’t exactly sure himself without referring to a tome or two. But he didn’t know if cutting it out was wisdom or insanity.
“For the love of all that’s holy, Maili! Why would you do this to yourself?” he demanded, distantly wondering how this little surgery didn’t bleed her to death. It looked like it had been trying to heal, because some of the skin was dark, yet healing, pink. The other parts were red and angry. It wasn’t bleeding overmuch; only one part of the wound had been reopened by his ham-handedness.
“Because of Damen. Everything I do anymore is because of Damen,” she replied, her voice exasperated as he diligently began to pull off the soiled bandage.
And then it struck him like a bat—there was no way that Maili was lying about the whole thing. There wasn’t even the slightest possibility that she was in any doubt of what she said she’d seen. She knew what Damen had told her, and she was now at a point of desperation that was unimaginable for a witch. She was more like a fox with his foot caught in a trap, one who would bite off its own foot in its effort to escape.
Guilt was finally devouring him. He hadn’t believed her for a moment the entire time he knew her! He thought she was a liar, or insane, had an overactive imagination, or even was a manipulative brat set to get her own way. He had treated her like a child half the time and like an impossible woman the other half. Why has she even followed me? he asked himself silently, completely dazed by her injury. She can’t possibly believe I’m her ally. I’ve done everything possible to be a villain to her!
“Dear lord! What happened to her?” Moriarty was standing right behind Ashcroft, and Ashcroft didn’t have to turn his head to know that. Eventually Moriarty got closer. “It looked like someone hacked on you or tried to have only a small bite at a time!”
“It’ll heal,” she replied with a sigh, but Ashcroft noticed that she hadn’t looked at her wound even once. “Sooner or later. It doesn’t even hurt now unless someone grabs at it.” She glanced at Ashcroft accusatorily.
Ashcroft swore under his breath. “Moriarty—grab some fresh bandages from my horse’s saddle bags, would you? Then we’ll get underway.”
As soon as Moriarty was out of earshot, he continued, “Maili… forgive me.”
She looked surprised with the way her eyebrows shot up, but then one lowered and she turned her head to look at him skeptically. “For what?”
“Not believing you. I thought… that…” He shook his head. Of course he had been stupid. He wasn’t born yesterday. He should have realized that she had been actually afraid of going home to Hoel, and not just because she feared getting punished. “I shouldn’t have been so closed-minded to the idea that you might have been right about Damen.”
Her shoulders sagged, as if the weight of the world had finally rolled off her shoulders. “You believe me!” she sighed with relief. A tear fell out of the side of her eye when he looked into those blue pools, looking for forgiveness. She merely added, “Thank you.”
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