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Her world was darkness, dizzy falling through nothingness, and blood. It burned the air and clogged her lungs and dissolved her flesh from her bones. The blood ate through walls, thicker than hatred, which tried to imprison and paralyze her. The walls shattered and vanished into air, even as her grasping, desperate fingers strove for a purchase to stop the eternal falling.
It could have been days or years or even decades before the falling stopped and ground appeared, leaping up, hidden in the darkness, to smash her flat against it. Even through the pain and the spinning of her mind and soul, she gratefully dug her fingers into the hard, unforgiving ground. This time, the blood was only in her mouth, not the air she breathed.
She lay for a time uncountable, stunned at the marvel of lying still, the glory of feeling pebbles and grit digging into her bruised flesh, the ragged pulse of blood in her veins, the scorched rush of air in her lungs.
When her senses reached beyond her own flesh, she tasted the scorched mineral tang of stone and sand in the air, felt the sun-baked heat in the hard ground under her. She smiled, feeling her skin bake and perspire in the growing heat, and even with her eyes closed she knew the sun climbed the arch of the sky and hung over her. Behind her closed eyelids, images spun in dizzy blurs. She whimpered and held still and prayed the images would pass her by.
No one heard her prayers. The images grew closer, larger, brighter, and the blurring left them. A woman in white, priestly robes knelt before an altar. Her hair was as white as her robes but she was young, with eyes like blue flames. She smiled asa sword split the air around her and slashed down, again and again until blood soaked and stained her robes. She smiled and held out her hands, dripping blood.
The dreamer gasped and jerked upward to her feet and staggered away. Even with her eyes open to the bright desert light, the sight and smell and slick, sticky warmth of the blood clung to her. She tried to cry out, in terror and confusion, but no sound escaped her mouth. Stumbling backward, she turned, almost falling off her feet. The sun bit fiercely into her flesh, and the terror of the vision faded under the more pressing need for shade and water.
Only a few steps took her into shade, blessedly cool contrast to the heat of the light, and she stumbled up against a hard wall of stone layered in multi-colored ribbons. She leaned against the wall and let it guide her as she stumbled away.
She found water, hidden in a dark spot of shadow, nearly falling into it. Her startled, silent scream caught in her throat and choked her before she realized what clung to her dusty flesh. Trembling, she went to her knees and scooped up the sweet, cool liquid in both hands. She drank until her stomach felt heavy, then crawled away an arm's length deeper into the shade before exhaustion crushed all thoughts and pressed her hard into the ground. She sighed as sleep pulled her into dizzy darkness. Just for a moment, she glimpsed a vision of a little girl with red hair, weeping, hiding in her mother's clothes chest. She ached to reach out and gather the child close and comfort her, but dreamless sleep swept her away.
* * *
"There you are, sweetheart." The man's voice rippled with laughter and warmth as a hand caught her by her shoulders and sat her upright.
Her body shriveled with pain. Every muscle and bone was bruised, desiccated. Her eyes refused to focus. His hands felt heavy and bruising, and she would have screamed with the certainty that her shoulders would shatter into dust in his grip–but she still had no voice.
"Look at you, my pretty one," he rumbled, and even softened, his voice threatened to shatter her. "At last you're free of your prison, and look what freedom has done to you."
She managed to focus, just for a moment, before everything blurred again. He was handsome, with black hair and gray-green eyes and skin the color of honey. The smoke of incense and sacrificial fires came to her on his breath.
A sliver of memory sliced open the comforting, thick blackness that muzzled all thought. She knew that smell, those eyes, that voice, and the sense of recognition made all the pains of her body fade. He carried her away. She wasn't sure how long, only that it was sweet luxury to be carried and feel a heart beating against her ear. He spoke sweet words that nourished her soul, even as she slept.
Days slipped by in tiny glimpses and tastes of awareness. Warm, strong hands washed away the blood and grit and fed her warm bread and sweet wine. Warm, strong arms held her when she woke to starlit darkness and drove away the cold and terror. She wasn't alone. That was all that mattered.
In time, she managed to stay awake for longer than a few breaths at a time. He smiled and laughed when she focused on his face, and something inside her twisted in hungry, aching need to keep him forever before her eyes. She hated being alone.
"Here we are. Home at last." He turned, so she could raise her head from his shoulder and look around. She saw they stood on a high plateau, looking out over lush valleys, streaked with rivers and dotted with forests. He turned again, and she saw a magnificent house, nearly a palace, all of gold stone, with crimson, white and purple curtains shadowing the windows. "My love, my dove, my sweet, innocent child," he murmured as he carried her through the doorway. His breath brushed hot and thick with smoke across her face. "Do you know how long I have searched for you? Do you know how terrified I was that you had been killed?"
She tried to answer, as she had so many other times when her nameless rescuer spoke to her on their long journey. Again, her voice failed her.
"We are together now. You are my treasure, my delight, my one true love. Give yourself to me, as you promised once, so long ago," he whispered, as his lips brushed hot, with a sensation like wind-driven sand, against her mouth.
No. She never promised. She had been tempted–that stomach-wrenching certainty rose up inside her, confirming that she had considered a proposal and had been tempted. She didn't know the details, didn't know what he offered or what was required of her, but she knew she had refused.
She twisted her head aside, listening to the certainty in her soul rather than his sweet words. She broke free of his kiss, and that was all that mattered.
Choose, a voice she recognized, and yet couldn't put a name to, a woman, whispered deep in her soul. All you need to do is to choose, and to ask.
Copyright © 2007 by Michelle L. Levigne.