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Edge of Control
By Megan Crane
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Megan Crane
All rights reserved.
The night sky rained fire all around her, chunks of what had once been a temple turning the forest trees into kindling as it all burned its way down from above. The explosion that had torn it apart was still going, one pop after the next, ripping the late August night wide open.
It was haul ass or die, and Eiryn had no intention of dying.
And certainly not like this, outrunning some impromptu demolition bullshit on a forgotten hillside in the Catskills.
She was one of the very few women who had ever fought her way into the raider clan's elite warrior brotherhood. More than that, Eiryn had long been the king's personal bodyguard and widely hailed as the fastest blade in the clan. She did a very tough and very brave man's job in a ruined, piece of shit world that prized might over all else, and she did it so well that warriors who outweighed her by a good two hundred pounds averted their eyes when she walked by. Out of respect and sometimes fear as well. She was one of the toughest, meanest, most dangerous and badass raiders on the whole of the waterlogged planet, no matter how pissed off she happened to be tonight and how sick she was of ... everything.
But like hell was she going out on the side of an abandoned hill in the shitty, half-assed Catskill Mountains a half-hour's walk from the brooding Atlantic coast, an unwilling sacrifice to a cause she didn't even believe in.
Eiryn hurdled a fallen tree trunk, landed hard, and kept running anyway. She forced her own path through the thick undergrowth. There were no trails here, no signs that anyone had been on this hillside in years. The raiders had found a settlement half a day's sail down the coast while doing their reconnaissance, but nothing any closer. The church might have claimed the temple here after the Storms had washed away most of the world, the way they liked to do with anything that promoted the technology the priests blamed for the end of all those previous civilizations, but Eiryn didn't think they'd been back since. Until tonight, apparently.
Her ears were still ringing from the explosion, but not enough to entirely block out the sounds of the rest of her warrior brothers moving around on the same hillside as they all scrambled out of range of the falling fire and concrete chunks of temple wall. She could hear shouts and the sounds of metal striking metal, meaning that there were both raider survivors and their enemies littered about the woods, and she needed to stay on her guard.
But she couldn't quite bring herself to care about that, either.
Or maybe it was that some part of her wanted whoever had blown up the temple to come at her out here, in the warm August night, where she could lose herself in a fight. No thinking, no worrying, no going over the summer's shitty revelations one by one and getting angrier each time. There was no room for that in combat. There was nothing but her blade and her swing.
The battles she really wanted to throw herself into she couldn't fight. Not outwardly. And it was eating her alive.
Meanwhile, if the stinging sensation on her thigh meant her favorite pair of trousers were singed from the blast, Eiryn knew exactly who she was going to blame, and she didn't plan to keep any part of it locked up inside. In fact, she was tempted to use a backup punch to the face to make her feelings on the subject perfectly clear. Tyr, the raider clan's war chief and one of Eiryn's least favorite people, had taken a mainland woman captive in a raid this summer and had then gone even further. He'd made her his mate. Formally claimed her in front of the brotherhood and everything, which made no sense. Members of the raider brotherhood very rarely took formal mates — why bother, when their lives were pledged to the clan, brave and violent and often short, and they had the comfort pussy of the clan's dedicated camp girls on tap?
But the war chief had always been an asshole, Eiryn reflected as she kept running. As far as she could tell it was one of his defining traits.
Tyr's new mate, Helena, was helpless and soft and essentially pointless like all the drearily compliant mainland women always were, of course. But, naturally, the war chief thought his mainland piece of ass was extra special because she came with a stupid little quest that she'd somehow convinced the raider king and his council to take up as their own. Well. Most of the raider king's council. Eiryn's vote had been to ignore Helena and her maps of ancient power stations made over into temples and her big plans to change a world that couldn't be changed. If it could be something other than the cesspool it was, it wouldn't be so shitty in the first place, would it? But Eiryn had been outvoted. And Helena's foolhardy belief that she could bring light back to the people like some brand-new god was the reason the best and toughest of the raider brotherhood were all out here playing hide and seek with fucking lunatics in the late summer night.
Lunatics with explosives, no less.
That and the fact that when Wulf — the king of the raiders and Eiryn's own half-brother, not that her blood relationship to him had ever mattered — issued an order, he was obeyed. That was the law. So here Eiryn was in the buttfuck Catskills during the height of summer when there was raiding to be done for the coming winter, getting very nearly blown to hell and back, despite her misgivings and completely against her wishes.
What Wulf wanted, Wulf got.
Fuck you, Wulf.
When she was out of the reach of the fires and the raining debris, Eiryn slowed from her flat-out run to a walk, automatically checking her weapons and her own limbs for any injuries she was too amped up on adrenaline to feel. Her face felt chapped and hot from exposure to the fire, but not burned. She was afraid to check her eyebrows in case they'd turned to ash, but did it anyway, relieved to discover they were still there. Dirty, but still there. Something had scraped her thigh, tearing her trousers and drawing blood, as she'd suspected, but the wound was shallow enough. She ignored it, allowing herself a small fantasy about a quick, hard battle with Tyr's Helena that would never come to pass, because Helena couldn't fight back. Eiryn could hit her with the grip of her blade and Helena would crumple to the ground. The end. Where was the satisfaction in that?
Eiryn reached up to tie her warrior's braids — only slightly singed and smelling of smoke — into a knot on the back of her head and stood there a moment, listening to what was left of the woods all around her as her breath evened out. She could hear the slap and crackle of the flames here and there throughout the forest, much louder and more ominous than any logs in a fire pit. There was the clash of blades in the distance that indicated someone out there was having more fun than she was. But she didn't go investigate. She stood still, all alone in the dark woods, enjoying the fact that for once no one knew where she was. She hadn't laid eyes on another brother since she'd sprinted to save her own ass in the confusion of the first explosion. She'd abandoned her usual bodyguard post without a backward glance — or really any conscious thought — and she'd bolted down the hillside to get as far away from the temple going up in flames as possible.
And maybe from everyone else, now that she stopped to consider it.
If she'd died in the blast as had seemed highly likely in those first moments, no one would ever expect to find what was left of her. They'd look, of course, but fire was a mean, consuming bitch. If they didn't find much, they'd assume it was because the explosion had taken her down and eaten what remained. They would treat the hillside as her funeral pyre and brand their own bodies to celebrate another fallen member of the brotherhood, as was their custom.
They would think she was dead. That meant that instead, she could be free.
And it was a mark of what a long, fucked-up summer it had been that Eiryn considered it. More than simply considered it. It would be so easy. She could just ... walk away. Her other half-brother Gunnar's woman had done it. Maud had wandered off from her life in the bullshit church that held the mainland in its bland and dreary fist and kept right on going. And not that Eiryn was particularly close to her mad genius half-brother or his latest mate — because Gunnar was nothing if not a one man stereotype breaker, with two formally claimed mates to his name so far despite the fact he, too, was a member of the brotherhood — but the unnerving former nun certainly seemed happy enough with the choice.
Or anyway, not openly hostile. Which, when it came to raiders and the women they liberated from mainland compounds with or without permission, was sometimes the same thing.
Eiryn could smell the sea on the breeze from where it lapped at the base of these hills in the Catskills, salt mixed with smoke and the scent of roasted trees, stout evergreens and sugar maples, scarred white birches and fragrant cedars alike. It would be easy enough to go. To let her blood relatives think she was dead and her warrior brothers mourn her like any one of the fallen. They'd never know the difference. All she'd have to do was walk. Head away from the sullen, gray Atlantic Ocean, up into the hills, and keep going until she hit that sweet spot on the west coast of the eastern mainland where the Mississippi Sea met the Great Lakes Sea. Somewhere to the north and west of here, and far away from everything and everyone she knew.
She would never know how long she stood there, hidden in the dark, smoky woods with no eyes on her, daring herself to put one foot in front of the other and leave behind the life she'd worked so hard to build.
But one heartbeat melted into the next, then the next, and still she didn't move.
Because you're a coward, girl, a small, vicious voice deep inside of her whispered.
It sounded a whole lot like her father, Amos, the disgraced and diminished former war chief of the clan and her primary tormenter. That he had also been her trainer, turning her from just another raider girl into a deadly warrior worthy of the brotherhood only made the whole thing — her life, that was — more complicated.
And deeply shitty, she admitted to herself, and then pretended she didn't feel that same old surge of rawness that usually accompanied any thoughts of Amos and his version of high-impact, low-care parenting.
There was another loud boom from what was left of the temple. Eiryn felt the heat of it lick at her face, but she still didn't move. Instead, she lifted a hand to her chest and rubbed at the spot just above her tightly bound breasts where the sigil that marked her as a member of the brotherhood was tattooed dark and black and indelible, deep into her skin. Sometimes she was sure she could feel it itch all these years after she'd earned it, reminding her of the vows she'd made and the promises she couldn't break without revealing herself as something far worse than a mere coward.
Amos called her names like that because he knew he could get away with it. He knew she would never respond to such insults from him the way she would if they came from almost anyone else, as much because he no longer had the use of his legs as because he was her father. And she had two blood half-brothers who she'd managed not to behead just yet despite their various cruelties over the years. Gunnar, who hadn't had the slightest hesitation in ripping her world apart a month ago, but was under the king's protection because of his inarguable tech genius. And Wulf, who had lied to her about how their father had come to be crippled — for years — because it had suited him. He'd lied by omission, perhaps, but it was still a lie that would have earned any other man a date with the sharp edge of her blade.
Why the hell was she sticking around with these bastards without reminding them all how very dangerous she was? She didn't owe them anything. She'd made herself who she was despite them. Her half-brothers had written her off for doing her duty and her father had punished her for it. Yet here she stood anyway, her entire life a gesture of stubborn defiance in one way or another.
For all the good it had ever done her.
Her hand flexed automatically against the hilt of her favorite blade. That right there was the truth of who she was. Who she would always be. All the rest of it was family drama, petty politics, and raider nonsense. But her blade in her hand, the dance of a fight she knew she would win — that was real. That was the only thing that mattered.
Everything else was lies and bullshit and self-serving stories men told around the fires to while away the long, dark winters. None of it signified. None of it was the blade in her hand or the truth of its swing.
Eiryn checked her position against the bright, burning temple once again. Then she finally moved, drawing her blade as she did and holding it light and easy in her hand. Ready for whatever came at her, as ever. She started picking her way across the hillside, circling her way back around to find the rest of her warrior brothers out here on this shitty, burned-out night while what was left of their mission lay in charred heaps of concrete and steel all around them. She shifted back into her usual focused awareness within a step or two, alert and ready for any enemies that might cross her path.
But because she had nothing but shit luck these days, she ran into Riordan.
Who was both a warrior brother and something significantly more complicated than simply her enemy. And often the bane of her existence, while he was at it.
He stood in a small clearing in the dark, smoky woods, that curved blade he liked so much pressed against the throat of the man at his feet. Eiryn could tell at a glance that the real fight was over and Riordan was only playing now. The fire in the distance lit up the night, dancing over all of Riordan's sleek, hard muscles and bathing his brown skin in gold. He wore a harness over his bare chest, all of his secondary blades in their place, and his trousers slung low as if he was deliberately showing off the ridged perfection of his torso. Riordan's braids hung free about his face, his tightly curled black beard was cut close to his bold jaw, and his tattoos and brands seemed alive against the night. They shouted out his status as one of the brotherhood's best and most lethal, proclaiming his might in case the curved blade and the obvious, straining strength in his arms didn't make that clear. He was ruthless intensity and sheer male power packed into a harsh and starkly beautiful form, tall and wide and solid — and Eiryn hated the fact that even now, even after all these years, she still felt that tiny catch deep down in her belly when she saw him.
Every time she saw him.
Then another, stronger pull when his dark eyes shifted from his prey to hers for no more than a quick, searing instant.
It punched through her, raw and greedy, reminding her of that one summer. Vivid and visceral, as if his gaze was a touch, or the deep thrust of his perfect cock hard and deep inside her —
It was one more betrayal, the way it always was. From the nipples that hardened beneath her bindings, stinging when she breathed, to that traitorous melting between her legs. It didn't matter how much Eiryn beat herself up for it, her reaction to this man was always the same.
There were so many men. There were so many raiders. There were warrior brothers to go around, should she get a hankering to shit where she ate. But there was only one Riordan.
And she didn't know, half the time, which one of them she hated more. Him, for trespasses that went all the way back into her childhood, the prick, when she'd thought of him as little more than a friend to her older half-brother. Or herself, for remaining constitutionally unable to rid herself of this affliction that only he ever brought out in her, no matter how many winters stood between that one, stupid summer and now.
She comforted herself with the bittersweet knowledge that at least he didn't know it.
Eiryn should have sheathed her blade the moment she'd ascertained there was no threat in this clearing, only too many irritating memories. She didn't. She told herself it was in case of further attack.
Riordan didn't look at her again, but Eiryn didn't make the mistake of imagining he wasn't fully aware of every damned breath she took, the way he always had been.
Excerpted from Edge of Control by Megan Crane. Copyright © 2016 Megan Crane. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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