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By VONNA HARPER
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Vonna Harper
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDawn crouched on the horizon as if gathering strength for the day. The birds, animals, rodents, and insects who came to life with the sun's touch had begun to stir while night creatures settled into countless hiding places.
Ignoring the waning summer's heat that would soon melt the cold from high desert rock, the small group of Ekewoko warriors walked single file along an ancient path laid down by deer or antelope. As befitting their status as those their lord trusted the most, they'd painted their chests with red and black symbols representing the hills and valleys of their birth. Although none of the five, nor those who'd remained at their encampment near the great lake, had seen their homeland since spring, their hearts remained in Ekew.
In contrast, they considered this rough and raw sweep of boulders, hearty bushes, and sharp peaks as both inferior and overwhelming. How, they pondered, could any living thing choose to call a place where the wind never ceased blowing "home"? Granted, the lake and creeks and streams that fed it provided sufficient fish and drew deer, antelope, and other game to it. In addition, the creeks and streams nourished what vegetation grew along its banks, but some of that vegetation was unknown to them, perhaps poisonous.
There was another question, one that each man kept to himself. How much longer would they have to remain here? Hopefully not until winter storms threatened to suck the life from everything, them maybe most of all. But there'd be no leaving until they'd captured what both Shaman Tau and Lord Sakima said they must if they were ever going to chase the hated Outsiders from Ekew.
Nakos walked at the front as was his right and responsibility, his eyes in constant movement. Grateful for his hide leggings and thick leather footwear, he gave little thought to his weapons, which included paralyzing darts and capture ropes. If the need arose, he'd snatch an arrow from the quiver at his back and place it in his bow; either that or rely on his spear. One thing about having embraced the ways of a warrior since boyhood: his body was ready.
Fortunately, the terrain no longer dominated his thoughts, and he'd long since stopped marveling at Shaman Tau's confidence in his own ability to interpret sacred dreams about fierce predatory birds and the primitive, subhuman Wildings who lived here. This morning, Nakos's mind stalked this way and that, as restless as the wind his companions cursed. They hated the constant low moan and swirling energy, but it made him feel alive.
Hungry for sex.
Damnation but the need to fuck had become powerful! He craved the potent sense of self and power that went with having a woman's soft body under his. Bending to his will. Obeying his every command. Living to please him. Silencing his restlessness.
Shaking his head to rid himself of memories that tightened his cock, he drew on his eyes, ears, and nostrils to tell him what he needed to know. Unfortunately, so far the expedition into this land they'd named Screaming Wind had been unsuccessful. Granted, they'd spotted a number of the illusive Wildings at a distance and had brought down enough game to fill everyone's bellies, but they weren't here simply to kill and eat. Their goal was much more compelling, rooted in what the Ekewoko had always believed about their gods and spirits.
"Damn spiritless land," his friend Ohanko muttered, distracting Nakos from his thoughts. "We've been here much longer than I thought we would be, but I still cannot understand why anyone would choose to live in this forsaken place."
Nakos glanced behind him at the man whose physique so resembled his that they could have been brothers. The two were tall for an Ekewoko, with exceptionally broad shoulders and long, muscular arms and legs. Unlike most Ekewoko men, they didn't carry extra padding over their bellies. Their hair was so dark it was nearly black and their eyes blue black instead of the usual gray.
"It has to be the great lake," Nakos offered because his earlier praise of the wind's song had failed to change Ohanko's mind. "Without that, there'd be no-"
"I know. There's no need to remind me of the lake's blessings. Maybe it's that thing." Looking disgusted, Ohanko pointed at the massive, desolate-looking peak to the south.
For a moment, Nakos simply studied the distant peak. Although it was more than a day's walk from here, it challenged him in ways he didn't comprehend. Maybe it was the way it extended into the sky as if trying to reach the heavens. If his lord commanded him to go there, he would, but his heart would fight to escape his chest the entire time.
"From what Shaman Tau's dreams told him, the Wildings consider it sacred," he pointed out. "Maybe they've stationed guards there."
"Guards?" Ohanko asked. "Do you really think those creatures know enough to protect themselves, let alone a mass of rock?"
"I'm not sure. And maybe Tau doesn't know yet. Sometimes his revelations come slowly."
"I wonder why that is. He certainly has no doubt that the spirits are commanding us to capture a Wilding."
"But he hasn't said why." Nakos looked around to assure himself that the others weren't within earshot before continuing. "Do you think he knows what use a captive must be put to, what he needs to learn from one?"
Although he knew his friend was joking, Nakos had to work at a smile. "No one questions a shaman, about anything. Only a fool doubts that the spirits speak only to those they've entrusted with their wisdom."
"And you aren't a fool, are you, Nakos? Otherwise, you wouldn't have become our finest hunter."
"Finest?" Nakos teased, grateful because at least for this moment he didn't feel as if the land was trying to steal his mind. "I thought you would never admit that."
"You're right, I shouldn't have. Now you're going to become even more insufferable than you are." Ohanko was silent for a moment as he studied their surroundings. "It isn't fair. Your ability to bring down game shouldn't be that much better than mine. I'm going to tell you something. What bothers me the most about our lord's opinion of your skill is how he always made sure you were properly rewarded. That's what isn't fair."
"You're talking about our lives before the Outsiders invaded Ekew. That no longer-"
"I know, I know! Just the same, Lord Sakima would still like nothing better than to reward you as he used to."
"Of course I am. Just once I'd love to have a captive female delivered to my bed. Is it true, by the time you were done with them, they all came crawling to you begging you to fuck them?"
"Who told you that?" Nakos demanded even though he took pride in his ability to turn a helpless woman's hatred and fear into heat. At least, he'd been able to before the Ekewoko had been turned into fugitives.
"Warriors talk." Ohanko winked. "Was it true?"
"Ask one of the females."
"I would if we hadn't turned them all free. I curse them for slowing us down and taking food and resources we need for ourselves. Ach! Everything here is the same color. How are we supposed to distinguish one thing from another? No wonder the Wildings are so illusive."
Glad for the change in subject, Nakos joined his friend in gazing at their surroundings. Within moments, he lost himself in a ritual that had served him well ever since he'd been welcomed into the warrior society. Sometimes when on a mission such as the one they were on today, he likened himself to a predator, a cougar or wolf perhaps. A predator was both simple and complex, a hunting and killing beast that did only one thing but did it well.
If he were a wolf, would this spiritless land accept him? Instead of challenging him to explore the countless valleys and stark peaks, it would stretch out before him as smooth and clean and welcoming as the lake. There'd be no need for caution, no reason to ask himself whether the simple creatures they were seeking were indeed harmless. The seemingly endless sweep of earth and rocks would reveal its hiding places and open his eyes to the nuances of color. His legs would walk sure and strong. His nostrils would understand every smell, and his ears would send clear messages to his mind. And because he comprehended his surroundings, he'd no longer ask himself why its draw was both powerful and unsettling.
Maybe most of all, his body would stop reminding him of how long it had been since he'd had sex.
"Do you know what I prayed for last night?" Ohanko said, speaking low. "For Lord Sakima to tell us that we can leave this place-and return home."
Nakos, too, had hoped that both their lord and shaman would either get over their obsession with the Wildings or explain why capturing one of the illusive creatures was so important; he just hadn't reached the point of praying.
"I've never seen either Sakima or Tau like this," he admitted. "The two of them obviously share something they don't want to tell us about. It's as if they're afraid they'll reveal too much. I can't help but wonder if something-the lake or that peak-has cast a spell over them." As maybe it has with me.
"What? You don't agree?"
"When it comes to this place, I'm not sure of anything. All I know is, I don't belong here. None of us do."
Instead of trying to respond, Nakos concentrated on taking in as much air as his lungs could hold. With each moment, the day was becoming brighter and the colors more distinct. Strange. At night he agreed with his companions that this area was inferior because it was so different from the rich, rain-fed land where he'd been born and grown up, but daylight always softened his opinion. Even though he'd never been where the wind was constant before, the pressure on his body made him feel alive. Granted, it wasn't the same as fucking, but at least a sharp breeze quieted his restlessness a bit.
Winter was coming. The days were becoming shorter, the nights crisper. Sometimes when the wind blew from the north he could taste snow. Surely Lord Sakima wouldn't order them to spend the winter in such an inhospitable place. Surely he'd tell them they should return to Ekew and fight for what had always been theirs. Either that or he'd say it was time to join the Ekewoko women, children, and elders near the sea where they'd fled after the Outsiders invaded.
But if he commanded them to remain here ...
Even as he divided his attention between where his feet were going and the distance where danger might lurk, Nakos found himself not dreading but embracing snow and ice. No longer would he and the others concern themselves with trying to capture a maybe worthless Wilding to satisfy their shaman's and lord's demands. Instead, everything would be about survival. He would pit his skills against the elements. Maybe Wilding spirits and gods were determined to destroy those who, like him, didn't belong.
Who was still stalked by nightmares he refused to acknowledge.
He was pondering the wisdom of asking Ohanko if his friend ever had the same thoughts when movement overhead caught his attention. He'd seen eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey, of course, but this creature was different from them. Swifter.
When he first noticed it, the bird had been to his right and so high above that it seemed part of the heavens. A heartbeat later it became a brown and white blur diving toward another, larger bird. By the time Nakos's heart beat again, the smaller bird had struck the larger one in midair, causing countless feathers to fly about. An agonized shriek cut through him. He blinked. The larger bird was plummeting toward the ground. An instant later, the killer caught it and slowed its descent. The two reached the ground, then disappeared.
"Did you see that?" Nakos asked. "Nothing, not even an arrow, travels that swiftly."
Ohanko didn't respond, prompting Nakos to glance behind him. The man he considered his brother was staring in the direction the shriek had come from. Color had drained from Ohanko's face, and his fingers were clenched.
Nakos's own nails bit into his palms. Had they just seen a Wilding spirit?
Chapter TwoHer muscles, tendons, and heart working as one, Jola raced over rocks sharp enough to shred skin. Her lungs repeatedly collected and expelled air, but even when she couldn't pull in enough oxygen to fuel her system, she couldn't convince herself to slow down. Cool wind abraded her cheeks, arms, breasts, and belly, and for these moments, she wanted nothing else.
Movement. Flying-when she could. Running otherwise.
Her world was awash with colors that resonated in her soul. She loved the wind and the endless browns, greens, grays, whites, even hints of black. Most of all she loved the vast horizon with her birthplace, Raptor's Craig, in the distance. She longed to return to it and surround herself with memories, but she'd spent last night there and hadn't found the peace she longed for.
Her body and heart wanted one thing: movement. That's why she was here today, that and the need to study the newcomers as she'd done back before she'd chosen her mate and then again two days ago. While in mourning, she hadn't concerned herself with the newcomers, but when hunger had pulled her away from grief and sent her in search of prey, she'd spotted them.
Hatred had consumed her then. It still did.
As soon as she stopped running, the sweat coating her flesh would start to chill, and she'd be forced to go in search of the sleeveless hide dress she'd thrown off when too-familiar energy first lent strength to her legs. It was better to keep running, to move instead of think. To fight tears.
After pushing her long, black hair off her neck, she turned and set her sights on the great lake. Fortunately, the intruders had set up their camp on the bank opposite from Raptor's Craig. Otherwise, she would have been forced to acknowledge Raci's killers when grief had been all consuming.
A handful of the invaders was out hunting this morning. Keeping her eye on five men was easier than trying to keep track of the twenty-some who'd laid claim to the far lakeshore.
Or was it? Her Falcon senses had always worked in the past, but she was no longer sure of anything.
Angry at herself because she'd vowed to let go of what she couldn't change, she stopped and rose onto her toes. Her hands went to her breasts and she tightly cupped them as their jiggling quieted. Full breasts while in human form were as much a curse as a gift. Raci had been fascinated by them. Embracing them, her mate would whisper that they belonged to him as much as they did to her. And she'd believed him. Would still believe-if Raci hadn't been murdered.
Swamped by tears, she lowered her head and closed her eyes, sucking in oxygen. But even as she concentrated on cooling her lungs, she knew only one thing would blunt the pain: running. And when she'd returned to Raptor's Craig, which was the only place the change from human to raptor and back took place, flying.
"I miss you so much," she muttered as if Raci were beside her. "Yes, I must come to grips with your death and walk into my future. You wouldn't want me to drown in sorrow. But you should be alive. Those newcomers-killers-had no right. If I knew whose arrow pierced your heart, I'd tear him apart!"
She should release herself, but touching her breasts felt so good. Better than loneliness. Not as exciting as Raci's hands had been and yet-
"Death stole you before the final bonding," she muttered, careful to keep her voice low. "That's what hurts so much: knowing I'm not carrying your offspring! That and knowing these creatures are responsible."
Barely able to stifle a cry, she pinched and then massaged her nipples into hard nubs, but no matter how much she tried, she couldn't make herself believe that Raci was holding her. Afraid that memories of finding Raci's cold Falcon body with an arrow through his heart would overwhelm her once more, she started running again. Her lungs, long accustomed to her need for extreme exertion, immediately expanded. Her heart pumped strong and steady.
Yes! This was life. Freedom. Leaving behind thoughts of revenge.
Her young, naked body made love to the air and she imagined the precious land of her birth watching her legs churn. Finding a well-worn path to run on, she fantasized that a deer was running beside her. They'd share the same heat and speed, the same confidence in their bodies. But unlike the doe or buck, she didn't have to rely on her legs to stay alive. Instead of fleeing danger, she became a predator and attacked.
That's what she wanted: images of beak and talons ripping into flesh, the newcomers screaming in pain and fear while she cried out her vengeance.
Hatred rolled through her only to be replaced by yet another emotion. No matter how long or hard she ran, she wouldn't be able to expel this sensation, and after a moment, she slipped deep into her mind and spun out what her imagination and need had spawned.
Excerpted from FALCON'S CAPTIVE by VONNA HARPER Copyright © 2010 by Vonna Harper. Excerpted by permission.
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