Last week's episode ended with alpha gladiator Regan finding a clue as to how Max and Addy escaped. Now the hunt begins. Meanwhile, our fearless couple spends time in the Tuniit village. Max is on a mission to protect Addy. But is leaving her behind the best option for keeping her safe?
An abducted cop and a
gladiator prisoner must learn to trust each other with their lives…and their
hearts…to escape their alien captors.
With every step Addy and Max took inside the village, the scent of black licorice grew stronger. Though no one had bothered them so far, almost every Hyborean outside had glanced their way as they passed. Addy’s heart rate increased. Her hands itched to reach out and take hold of Max’s arm. She refused to do it though. She would not let him know she was scared.
Especially since he radiated confidence.
Energy and vitality emanated from him. He hadn’t drawn his sword or adjusted his baldric like he often did. He simply strutted by the houses, chest puffed and arms slightly away from his sides like a gunfighter in what must have been his relaxed ready-to-fight stance.
She prayed she didn’t have to see his battle stance.
The Hyboreans had left them alone to enter the center of the village where people, dressed hood to boot in fur, gathered in a crowd around them, speaking a strange language.
Addy plastered on a smile and nodded. “Hello.”
One young woman stepped forward. The glossy animal hair fringing her hooded parka blew in the wind. “Why High People come to Tuniit village?” she asked, not unfriendly.
“I’m looking for Kaskae,” Max said.
She smirked, eyeing him up and down. “Nukka,” she called. A girl of about eight came to her side, and the young woman spoke to her in the native language. The little girl nodded before pushing her way out through the crowd.
“Suinnak...?” Addy whispered to Max, trying to pronounce the unfamiliar words.
“Tiglikte. It’s what their leader calls me.”
“What does it mean?”
His grin beamed proudly. “‘Good-for-nothing thief.’”
“Glad to know you made an impression last time.”
While they waited, more Tuniit people gathered around them, speaking in low whispers. Children pointed at their tight, spandex-like thermal suits and giggled. Addy shifted on her feet and forced herself to keep smiling.
It seemed like forever before the crowd parted, permitting a man Addy assumed was their chief into their surrounding circle.
“Max.” He extended his gloved hand. “Why you come to peaceful village?”
Max shook the chief’s hand. “Refuge.”
“Yes, but this time I’m in better company.” Max wrapped his arm around Addy’s shoulders and pushed her forward. “She needs food. She’s—”
“Ahnah. Feed this woman.”
Obediently, the young woman who first spoke to them stepped into the circle. “What your name?”
“Come, Addy. Eat.” Ahnah led her away from Max and the crowd, and they ducked into a domed icehouse. The temperature change was instant and dramatic. Who knew a house made of ice and snow could be this toasty? Compared to the little ice shelters they’d slept in over the past five nights, Ahnah’s home was a cozy five-star resort.
Light from a crescent-shaped, stone oil lamp burning in the center of the room set the smooth, crystalline walls to shimmer. Suspended above the oil lamp was a steaming pot. Ahnah stirred its contents with a spoon made from some kind of bone.
The home was bigger than it appeared from the outside. “Is that another room?” Addy pointed to the open doorway off to the left. Animal pelts rested on an ice shelf inside.
“Yes. Sleep there.” Ahnah pulled out a hunk of animal meat, squeezed the broth from it, and handed it and a knife to Addy.
“Thank you.” Grateful for a hot meal no matter what the animal might be, she moved to the small wooden table to eat. Ahnah brought her cold chunks of blubber and some kind of thick soup.
“Again, thank you.” Addy dug in, too hungry to taste it and too hungry to care that she burned her tongue.
“Your first baby?” Ahnah pointed to Addy’s stomach.
“Goddess Akna will visit you soon.” Her warm and friendly smile set her blue eyes sparkling. She patted her own swollen belly. “Me same. First baby.”
“Are you scared?”
“Was scared. Today husband return from Southland. I no scared no more.”
Good for her. When the baby came, she’d not only have the support of her village, but most importantly, she’d have a husband by her side.
Mom never had that. Her baby’s father had left her. Addy would never have that, either. The father of her baby took zero interest. Max never once asked about the pregnancy or Superbaby. But what had she expected? He barely spoke of anything that didn’t have to do with survival.
It was nice to talk to someone about her pregnancy, especially when that someone was another young mom going through the same thing. It was an instant connection. But as much as she would have liked to continue the baby talk, she needed to focus on the more pressing issue right now: getting information about the refuge.
“Is Southland at the equator where the refuge is?”
“This I don’t know. You can ask Yakone. Boats take men to Southland. They hunt and bring home much food.”
“I see.” The men must have traveled to the warmer environment to hunt. It made sense. The Tuniit band probably lived on reserved land and couldn’t find enough food here. Relief spread from her thoughts to her cracked lips. Ahnah had confirmed that land lay past an ocean and people could travel there. It wouldn’t be long before she and Max stepped foot on Southland. They were one stride closer to freedom.
Ahnah sat across from her. “Where you from?”
“I escaped from a place called HuBReC, but I was originally taken from Earth.”
Surprise lit her eyes. “I heard of this village. Kam say he from Earth. You know Kam?”
“Sorry. I don’t know anyone by that name.” Addy handed her the empty bowl. “Thank you for the meal. It was delicious.” She yawned. Now that she was warm and her hunger was satisfied, fatigue took front and center. Until now, she hadn’t realized how tired she was.
“You like to sleep now?” Ahnah asked.
It might have been the pregnancy bond thing, or knowing Max wasn’t far away, or the allure of sleep, but she didn’t feel the need to be wary of the Tuniit woman or her people. “Maybe a little nap.”
Ahnah led her into the adjoining room and helped her climb into the bed under the soft animal pelts. “Thank you, Ahnah,” Addy said, snuggled in a blanket of warmth. “For your kindness and hospitality.”
Ahnah smiled warmly and nodded before slipping out of the room. As soon as her eyes closed, Addy fell asleep.
* * *
Max licked the oil from the seal blubber he had just eaten off his gloved fingers. He followed Kaskae to the edge of the village where men unhitched teams of wolves while others unloaded thirty-foot umiak sleighs made of wood frames with walrus skin coverings. “I want one of those boats.”
Kaskae gave him a penetrating look.
“I mean to trade for it this time.” He unsheathed his gladimort and handed it hilt first to the chief. “With this.”
Kaskae accepted the sword, weighed it in his hand, and then shook his head no. He offered it back. Max didn’t take it. Instead, he pulled out the flesh-eater and handed it over as well.
“Weapons good.” Kaskae turned the blades in his hands. Sunlight reflected off the gladimort’s blade. “But no even trade.” He gave them back to Max.
“This is Hyborean steel.” Max held the gladimort out to Kaskae. “It won’t break or chip.”
“Have no need Hyborean steel. Hunt bow and spears like ancestor. Need umiaks.” He tapped a boat. “Travel to Southland. Bring food to Tuniit people. No even trade.”
Max dumped out his backpack, gaining the attention of two men unloading wood from their umiak. “Is there anything here you are willing to trade for?”
As Kaskae knelt and rummaged through his belongings, the men peered over his shoulder. After a minute they went back to work and Kaskae stood and shook his head. “Naga.”
Max shoved his things into the pack, trying to hide his frustration. He was sure Kaskae would have wanted the sword. That was what Kedric said he had bartered with last time. He must have given them something in addition to his weapon. But what? Max zipped up his bag.
Dammit. He had to get one of those boats. What else did he have worth trading? The woman’s backpack didn’t hold anything of value, either. “Is there anything I have that you want?”
Since departing the incinerator plant, he’d planned on leaving the woman with the Tuniit. She couldn’t travel much farther in her condition. She was struggling as it was. The village was the safest place for both her and the child. Seeing that she was already staying, he might as well find out if she were trade worthy. Lucky had seemed to think so. Max took a breath. “How about the woman?”
“Woman have something to trade?”
“I’ll give you the woman for the boat.”
“Woman stay. You come back with umiak. Take woman.”
It took him a moment to understand Kaskae thought Max wanted to borrow the boat and leave the woman as collateral until his return. He shifted his stance and cleared the lump that suddenly formed in his throat. “I’m not returning.”
“What you mean?”
The surprise in Kaskae’s voice gnawed at Max’s conscience. Could he feel any more like dirt? “She can’t journey any farther. She’s having a baby soon. She needs to stay here in the village where it’s safe.”
“You stay. Build her shelter. Hunt for food. That is Tuniit way.”
She wouldn’t want him to stay. No one here would. The Tuniit were a peaceful people. Having a beast in their village would cause trouble. “I’m not Tuniit. Can’t she stay with someone else?”
Kaskae looked at him incredulously. “No Tuniit man take what not his. She belong to you.”
“She doesn’t belong to me. She belongs to herself. We just happen to be traveling together.”
“She not your woman?”
“What child she carry?”
“Well, mine, but—”
“Naga.” He waved his hand in Max’s face. “High People different from Tuniit. This I know. But you make life inside her. No Tuniit man keep her. She is yours.”
How many times did he have to tell Kaskae that she wasn’t his? The woman could barely stand him. The only reason she was with him was because he knew how to escape HuBReC. So what that the child growing inside her was his? He didn’t even get to enjoy conceiving it. Damn woman fought him off when he’d tried. If she didn’t want him around to make the kid, she sure as hell wouldn’t want him around when the kid arrived. Max scratched his beard in an attempt to calm down. “What happens to a Tuniit woman if her man dies?”
“Family make another match. Your woman no Tuniit family.”
“I told you, she isn’t my woman. Look, I’m leaving tomorrow night without her. You can tell everyone I died and let her choose a husband. She’s beautiful. She’s smart. She’s spirited. Man, is she ever spirited. She’ll have ten guys vying for her attention in three sunsets. All I want to know is that she’ll be safe. That no one will hurt her or cast her out of the village.”
Kaskae’s eyes twinkled with merriment. He nodded in understanding. “Ahh.”
“Woman no belong to you. You belong to woman.” He slapped Max’s shoulder and walked away.