Last week's episode ended with everyone's least favorite alpha gladiator, Regan, learning that Max escaped with Regan's "broodmare" Addy. Find out what Regan does next. But first, Max and Addy spend a little time in their ice shelter.
Because chapters 25 & 26 are short, I included both for your enjoyment.
An abducted cop and a gladiator prisoner must learn to trust each other with their lives…and their hearts…to escape their alien captors.
The woman yawned and stretched as she shifted off his arm, robbing him of her warmth. “What smells so good?”
She leaned forward to peer inside the small pot. “Is that the guinea pig you caught last night?”
“Lemming.” Before taking over his watch, he’d caught the lemming, skinned and cleaned it, and threw all the edible parts, plus the bones, into a pot of snow. He tossed in the furnace and set everything to simmer overnight, adding more snow as the water level evaporated.
“Is it done?”
Her small belly bump drew his attention from the tiny morsel on his knife tip. There wasn’t enough bone broth and lemming meat to feed the three of them. He scraped the meat back into the pot. He had gone days without eating before; he could do it again. “It is.”
He scooped the furnace out of the pot and returned it to the snuffer container to prolong it’s hundred-hour shelf-life. The cube was compact, easy to carry, and safer to use than a seal-oil lamp, but it wouldn’t last all the way to the refuge.
By the time she returned from her morning bathroom break, the pot had cooled to a temperature they could handle without getting burned. He pretended to take a big gulp of broth before handing it over. She drank and gave it back. Taking care not to eat the lemming, he sipped from the pot at each turn, until nothing remained but stringy meat and bones. “Finish it.”
“No. Let’s share.”
“You need it.”
“You’re much bigger than me, Max. You need it.”
Recognizing her stubbornness, he switched tactics. “I ate.”
“I caught two lemmings yesterday,” he lied. “I ate one before you woke up.”
Her eyes narrowed and then darkened. Her jaw set. Her anger didn’t bother him. Better she was full and mad than malnourished and lose the kid.
Seething in silence, she picked the scraps of meat out of the pot. After sucking every tiny bone dry, she shook the pot, examining the leftovers. Realization dawned on her face.
She wasn’t stupid. She knew he lied. If he had eaten a second lemming, he would’ve added the bones to the pot. Bone broth was a good source of nutrition. Only an idiot would’ve wasted them.
Her expression softened. “Thank you for the meal. But from now on, let’s share everything fifty-fifty. Okay?”
Although he’d starve before allowing her to go hungry, he agreed.
It wouldn’t matter much longer, anyway. In a few more days, he wouldn’t need to feed her anymore.
* * *
For five more days, she and Max trekked through the snow. When they couldn’t jog anymore, they walked. When they couldn’t walk, they rested. At night, they dug their shelters, huddled inside with the heating cube, and took turns keeping watch.
So far, no living creature had come close enough to threaten them. Neither had a living creature come close enough for them to threaten, except for the lemmings Max seemed to have a knack for finding in their shallow burrows.
It was amazing what a starving pregnant woman could eat.
Survival of the fittest, she kept reminding herself, but as they trudged through each long, cold day and dug out snow each freezing night, she didn’t feel fit at all.
As soon as their makeshift shelters were finished, she’d curl up next to Max’s warm body and fall asleep, sometimes before she shrugged out of her backpack. Then when Max woke her for her watch, he’d be out before his head hit the snow.
Constantly drained, they barely spoke, which was probably a good thing—because if she opened her mouth, it would be to bitch. She was hungry, freezing, and exhausted. Every fiber in her body ached. She had blisters in impossible places.
There was no point complaining about it. Max felt the same fatigue. What he didn’t feel, though, was pressure in his pelvis and back, a soccer ball on his bladder, and sore boobs.
Her saving grace was the Ice Mountains. Every day the majestic mountain range grew higher and higher until the peak touched the sky thousands of feet up. Hiking through its foothills these past two days energized her with new hope. They were almost to the base of their second goal.
Rays of sunlight on this clear morning caught the ice, and it sparkled like brilliant diamond walls. A gentle arctic wind danced about her, blew dusty ice kisses on her cheeks, and carried to her the faint scent of black licorice.
“Get down.” She grabbed Max’s arm, pulling him with her to the ground.
“What is it?”
“I smell Hyboreans.” She searched the foothills for signs of the aliens.
The muscles in Max’s arm relaxed beneath her gloved hand. “It’s the Tuniit village.”
She gave him a hard stare. “Who are the Tuniit?”
“They’re a nation of spiritual Hyboreans. They still live like their ancestors did hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago.”
She studied Max’s face under the week’s growth of dark, stubbly beard. He was hiding something as usual. “You said we were heading for the ice caves. You never mentioned a village.”
“Because you can’t see the village from the incinerator plant.”
“Bullshit.” She flipped a clump of snow into his lying eyes; too bad he wore goggles. “You didn’t tell me about Xanthrag’s house or the garbage chute until we were there. You didn’t tell me about the incinerator plant or Lucky until we were practically there. And you didn’t tell me about this village until now. Why do you insist on keeping everything a secret?”
He wiped the snow from his goggles before he stood and extended his hand to help her up. “I like having an advantage.”
She slapped his hand out of her way and stood on her own volition. “What advantage could you possibly gain by keeping me in the dark? It’s not like I’m going to leave you behind or anything.”
His gaze dropped to the snow before bouncing back to her.
Good, let him feel uncomfortable. “Maybe if I knew what our next move was, I could help you with it.”
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “This isn’t a democracy. There’s one leader. Me. You wanna know why?”
“Is it because you’re a self-centered, egotistical control freak?” She flashed him a plastic smile.
“It’s because I understand the rules on this planet. Your entire frame of reference doesn’t exist here. To save me from having to argue with you and your Earth-generated ideals, I’ll just let you know the plan when we get there.”
“You’re an ass.” She hiked uphill past him.
“Tell me, woman.” He fell into stride beside her. “What would be your next step? Enter the village? Go around it? Sneak in at night to steal food and maybe some sort of transportation? You know nothing of these aliens.”
Her fingers clenched as she imagined wrapping them around his neck and choking the smugness out of his voice. “First, I’d get a look at them. See who they are and what they’re up to so I could make an informed decision.” She crouched down, crawled to the snowy crest, and peered over.
Tiny clusters of icehouses sprawled through the valley below from the base of their foothill to the base of the ice caverns and continued east and west as far as she could see. Hyboreans, humans, and other beasts freely roamed between the icehouses. Two Hyboreans were cutting up a body of meat the size of a walrus. Another was leaving the village on the equivalent of a giant dogsled.
It reminded her of an Eskimo village. Or at least what she imagined an Eskimo village from the past might have looked like.
“Well?” Max asked. “What’s your plan?”
“We waltz into town in broad daylight, announce we’re here, ask for food, and trade for transportation.”
He regarded her with bright, green eyes. “Are you serious?”
“What makes you think these Hyboreans won’t capture you?”
“The smoke holes. The smaller igloos have them. The big ones don’t.”
“That if humans were pets in the Tuniit’s homes, the big houses would have to have smoke holes, too.”
“Maybe the Tuniit don’t believe human animals belong inside their homes.”
“Maybe. But you told me these aliens were spiritual, which makes me believe they live in peace with man. You also said they live like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Since they live in snow houses, cut up their meat outside, and drive dogsleds, it stands to reason they don’t have any other technology like shock collars to keep people from leaving. Am I right?”
Max took his time before nodding his head. He didn’t seem happy she had figured it out. He even had the nerve to look disappointed. Should she tell him she had known they were safe the moment his muscles had relaxed under her hand when he announced this was the Tuniit village?
Nah. Max’s easy-reader body language was her advantage.
“Well done,” he finally said. He stood, brushed snow off him, and adjusted his baldric before starting down the hill toward the village.
Xanthrag sublimated the door, and Regan followed his master inside the tack room. He hadn’t been in here since the day he’d left for the Survival Race Regional Championship. He hadn’t seen the new hologram images playing on the wall. The final battle against Max caught his eye.
His heartbeat increased while watching the beaten and bloodied images fighting to the death. Damn, he looked powerful. His skills and techniques were quite impressive, if he did say so himself. Though he hated to admit it, Max had been a formidable opponent.
He couldn’t wait for the next survival race so he could kill the bastard again.
When the fatal blow entered Max’s holographic gut, adrenaline surged through Regan as if he were right back in the action. He jumped and pumped a fist in the air. “Yeah! Take that, you bastard.”
His hologram pulled the sword—now covered in blood and tissue—from Max’s body. The life slowly drained from the loser’s ugly green eyes. He’d forgotten that he stomped his crampon-engaged boot on Max’s chest and giggled remembering how hard he had to jerk his leg to get it out of the damn corpse.
Xanthrag’s heavy paw tousled Regan’s hair. The Hyborean’s pride and satisfaction smacked him and then vanished, as though his master had given him a mental high five before moving on to some other thought.
The new thought seemed agitated.
The mood swing seemed sudden, even for Xanthrag. Regan followed his master to the thermal suits hanging on the wall pegs. No wonder the Hyborean was agitated—some suits were missing their matching tops or bottoms. Someone would be getting his ass kicked for that.
As Xanthrag matched the garments, hanging them on the correct pegs, an icy chill sliced through Regan’s soul. The feeling came from his perception of Xanthrag’s anger.
One peg was bare.
Shit. Xanthrag’s gladiators knew better than to misplace their gear. Mistakes were never tolerated. Their master was neither lenient nor forgiving.
If Regan got punished again because of another gladiator’s stupidity, that would be the last mistake that gladiator ever made. He’d mangle their body past the point of reawakening.
Regan rummaged through the equipment boxes looking for the suit, but it wasn’t there. Neither was all the equipment. He counted fourteen pairs of boots and goggles. There should have been sixteen.
This was no mistake. This was theft.
Only one person had the balls to steal from his master. How the hell did that loser get in and out of the room?
Though Xanthrag made no physical sound, Regan sensed his angry growl. A servant rushed into the room. Xanthrag “snarled” and “growled” like an angry smilodon tearing into its prey, and the servant ran cowering to the garments hanging on the wall. He’d never find the missing thermal suits. They were on Max and Addy.
Duncan had been right five days ago. Somehow the pair had escaped.
On hands and knees Regan scoured the floor. If Max had been in this room, he’d find the evidence. It didn’t take long before he spotted a long strand of strawberry-blonde hair beneath the garbage chute. It wasn’t Max’s. “Hey. Over here. I found human hair.”
Xanthrag strode across the room to take the proffered strand. He held it up, examining it.
“It’s my broodmare’s,” Regan said, though he knew they didn’t understand a word. “She escaped with Max.” He dropped to his knees again. Max must have left some evidence behind. There’s no way his little pet got in and out of this room on her own.
How they did it and where they were now, he didn’t know. But he sure as hell would figure it out.
That damn loser would not cause him to be tortured again.
Uh oh! Regan is ready for the hunt. Will he find Max and Addy and bring them back to the Human Breeding and Research Center? Also, remember a few chapters ago when Max planned on leaving Addy at the Ice Caverns? Find out what transpired with that in next week's episode Chapter 27 or read the full story now at your favorite retailers.
Romance with a rebel heart