The blood ran down her cheeks like tears.
Paenther scented violets even before the witch stepped into the room. She returned without her animals, her hair wet as if she'd just showered, her eyes hollow. Without a word, without meeting his gaze, she crawled up beside him, between his body and the wall, and lay down, curling against his hip. He could feel her trembling.
As much as he hated her, he'd always had finely honed protective instincts toward women and children, and they rose now. Something had hurt her. He reminded himself he didn't care. But as he felt her slowly calm, her breathing evening out in sleep, the tension eased from his own body.
He wasn't sure when he'd drifted off, but he woke to the sound of water dripping from the stalactites into the puddles scattered across the room and the feel of the witch's silken head on his chest. She had one arm wrapped around his waist, the other hand tucked against her neck. That second arm was nearly within reach of his mouth. But he'd lost the desire to hurt her. Her gentle touch and her acceptance of his fury had taken the edge off his need for revenge.
He blinked, feeling...strange. Almost...relaxed.
With disbelief he realized what was wrong. Or what was right. The rage, the ever-present rage he struggled to contain day and night, the rage burned into his soul by Ancreta nearly three hundred years ago, had inexplicably left him.
How? Was this simply more magic?
Did he care?
Chained atop this cold stone, deep in the bowels of a second Mage captivity, he felt more at peace than he had in years. Eased. Whole in a way he hadn't felt in centuries.
Had she somehow, miraculously healed him? Or was her nearness affecting him in a way he'd never imagined anyone could?
The implications rocked him. He almost hoped it was just enchantment. Just a lie. Because if it wasn't, if this easing of the torment he'd lived with for centuries was somehow coming from her...
Heaven help him. The last thing he wanted was to need her. More than he did already.
Paenther woke to the sound of footsteps moments before the steel door crashed in against the rock. The witch startled awake, rearing up, filling him with the scent of sleep-warmed violets and the acrid tang of fear.
In the doorway stood a man with the slim build of a Mage and hair a dozen shades paler than his skin. His face was long, his lips thin, and his copper-ringed eyes blazed with a cold fury.
Paenther's muscles tensed for a battle he wouldn't be able to fight, fury of his own raging through his body as he strained against his shackles until they bit into his flesh. The strange peace he'd felt when he woke during the night had vanished with the woman's fear.
"Birik," the witch breathed, her eyes wide, her voice tight with dread.
"I warned you," the Mage said coldly, and started toward them.
The Mage latched onto her upper arm and yanked her off the rock. As the witch stumbled, he pulled her to the wall, grabbed her shoulders, and slammed her back until her skull collided with stone with a sharp crack.
Paenther's body went taut with outrage, but the bastard wasn't through. He grabbed her face, holding on until the witch's eyes widened with pain and the smells of burning flesh and blood assailed his sensitive nose.
Finally, the Mage released her. As the fragile woman sunk to the ground, he leveled several hard kicks to her ribs and one to the side of her head, then strode out of the room without a backward glance.
Paenther stared at the woman lying on the damp, rocky floor like a broken doll, blood running down her cheek from where the bastard must have cracked her skull. For long moments, the only sound in the room was the drip, drip, drip from the rock daggers and the faint, thready beat of her heart.
"Witch?" he called softly. But she gave no indication she heard him.
Minute by minute, her heartbeat strengthened as her immortal body healed the ravages of the assault until, finally, she stirred. Slowly, painfully, she curled into a ball as if to protect herself from further attack. But like the attack itself, she took the pain without a groan, without a cry. Her suffering was somehow all the more difficult to bear for its terrible silence.
His gut contracted as he remembered tearing at her arm. And how she'd suffered that time, too, without a sound.
He wasn't sure what to make of her. She'd hidden what she was, enthralled him, and captured him. She was everything he hated. Yet now he was forced to wonder if she'd had any choice in the matter.
Had he misjudged her? Was there really such a thing as a gentle witch? One thing was certain, this one was nothing like Ancreta.
His muscles bunched as she pushed herself onto her elbows, as if he could somehow lend her strength. She struggled to sit up, then collapsed back against the wall with a grimace that told him what the move had cost her. He looked at her smudged and bloodied face and wanted to beat the hell out of the man who'd done this to her. Birik.
"Why did he beat you, little witch?" He didn't know her name.
She opened her eyes slowly, the blue depths dark with pain. "I don't know." Her expression tightened. "I do know. I just don't know why he'd punish me for it now." She met his gaze. "He wants me to mount you."
Paenther jerked, his hands fisting. "No," he snarled.
Like hell she'd mount him. His body quaked with the remembered fury and bitter helplessness of all those times beneath Ancreta.
The dark-haired witch, so unlike Ancreta, sighed and tipped her head back, her gaze reaching the ceiling. Perhaps beyond. "I wanted to give you time to accept me, warrior. He's not going to allow it." Her voice broke as she met his gaze, suffering in her eyes. "I'm sorry."
She pushed herself to her feet, then stumbled back against the wall with a grimace before lurching forward, slowly, painfully. Blood matted her hair and streaked her face.
"Don't." No way in hell was he accepting this. His fingertips began to tingle with the imminent eruption of his claws.
But when she reached him, all she did was curl her arm around his waist and lay her head on his chest, her face turned away.
He stared down at the top of her head, confounded. She never did what he expected. He felt her body trembling and felt the drip of hot tears onto his abdomen. If his hands had been free, he'd have been hard-pressed not to stroke her back. She was about to take him against his will, yet his overwhelming need was to offer her some small measure of comfort.
Sniffling, she stood and wiped her eyes, then moved down to the end of the stone and climbed up between his legs without meeting his gaze. Her misery was so sharp, it cut him.
She wasn't Ancreta. The fury at what she was planning to do to him...what she'd been ordered to do to him...began to lose its grip on his mind and slip away.
His body was flaccid. He'd found her pain anything but arousing. If she was going to use him, she was going to have to get him up first. But as she began to dip that ripe mouth toward his shaft, his body froze.
She looked up, defeat in every line of her body. "I have to."
"Use your hand."
Her brows pulled together as she watched him as if she wasn't certain she'd heard him right. Then she reached for him, closing her cool fingers softly around him. His breath hissed into his mouth at the incredible feel of her touch.
Slowly, she began to stroke him. With her free hand, she cupped his stones, squeezing gently and rolling them, rubbing them against one another. Blood surged between his legs. Within moments, he was erect and ready for her.
She wasted no time in lifting her dress to her waist and straddling him.
His mind balked, still fully mired in all those other times with Ancreta. But his body burned to feel this woman's body swallow his length as it had once before.
Taking firm but careful hold of him, she positioned him at her entrance and slowly tried to force him inside. But her body was tight and dry, and her jaw clenched against the obvious discomfort.
"You're not ready."
"It doesn't matter." Her voice was strained as she pushed him farther in.
His body longed to help her, to thrust up and inside, but he'd only hurt her more. "It matters. If you remember the way it was between us in the woods, you can't truly believe it doesn't make a difference if you're ready."
"You wanted me then."
Paenther groaned. "You're holding the evidence of my desire in your hand, witch." He met her gaze. "I hate what he did to you. I don't want to watch it happen again. Besides, I assure you, I want to be inside you."
Her eyes slowly began to darken. "Your words are helping."
"Good." He could tell. She was softening slightly, but his way was still far from clear. Goddess, but his body wanted to move. "What's your name, little witch?"
"Skye with the sky blue eyes. Touch yourself, Skye."
She looked at him uncertainly.
"Between your legs." His eyes narrowed. "Have you never pleasured yourself?"
She shook her head with a jerk.
"Touch yourself between your legs as you ride me, right at the front of your slit. Find the place it feels best, then stroke the flesh there. It should ready you."
Her gaze was enigmatic, as it was so often, but she did as he said, reaching down, her fingernail softly scraping his shaft as she found the place she sought. She gasped, and he knew she'd found it. Within seconds, her body opened like a slick, damp flower, easing his way.
What kind of a fool was he for helping his captor take him against his will? Yet, it was hardly against his will, was it? Goddess, she felt sweet.
Paenther threw his head back, lifting his hips to press more deeply inside her, then opened them to watch her hips rising and falling as if she were indeed riding him. Like in the woods, he felt an utter sense of rightness when he was buried inside her.
Skye watched him, her eyes growing heavy-lidded with rising passion, her full lips parting on soft, tiny gasps.
Power rose in the room, running not unpleasantly over his flesh. As the power thickened, her rhythm increased, her movements growing more rapid. She pumped him hard and fast, in and out until he was nearly out of his mind with lust and need and debilitating pleasure.
With a guttural cry, she threw her head back, coming, her inner muscles squeezing him in hard spasms until he was following her over, his body pumping his release deep inside her.
Skye looked up, and he followed her gaze to the dark orbs shooting with sparks of color as if they could barely contain the power inside. Her gaze lowered to his, her mouth softening.
"We did it," she said.
"We did." And what exactly had they done? To what dark purpose would the Mage put that power? Had he, in helping a sad-eyed witch, compromised his own mission? His own men?
Locked inside this cavern, he wasn't sure he'd ever know.
She rode him for a minute more, slowly, milking her pleasure, then finally pulled off him to sit at his side, pulling her dress down as she pressed back against the wall. With an unsteady hand, her chest still heaving, she ran her fingers through her hair, slowly meeting his gaze.
"Thank you." A soft, fleeting smile warmed her eyes, sending warmth cascading through his chest.
He felt the oddest, most inappropriate urge to smile in return. Goddess, but she affected him.
Her foot pressed against his hip, a light touch, but contact all the same, as if she needed to touch him.
He felt the same disquieting need.
"Free me, Skye. Let's both leave this place before that bastard hurts you again."
"I can't. He'll never let me go."
"I'll protect you."
Her mouth lifted ruefully at one corner. "You've promised several times to kill me, warrior. I know a ploy for escape when I hear it." She shrugged and tilted her head against the wall behind her. "Even if I could trust you, no one can protect me."
"Why are you so important to him?"
"I have a way with animals."
He didn't understand at first. But then he remembered a story he'd once heard of rare Mage with deep ties to various aspects of nature.
"You're a Mage enchantress."
"Yes." She met his gaze again. "Which is why you're drawn to me. It's why we raise the power we do. Because of the animal inside you."
"Is that the only reason?" Did she really have no sense of her own allure? Hadn't she noticed he got hard every time she walked into the room? He was damned sure it had nothing to do with his animal. He and his animal didn't communicate. They never had.
She leaned forward and stroked his chest. "I don't know if it's the only reason I'm drawn to you, but it's the only reason that matters. I draw my power through the animals."
With that, she crawled off the stone, unbuttoning the front of her bloodstained dress as she walked past his head to the far end of the room. He tilted his head back and watched as she tossed the dress aside, revealing a too-slender form of such delicacy it made him ache.
Reaching up, she turned on a crude water spigot and stood under the harsh rush of water. She picked up a bar of soap from the floor and washed the blood from her face, hair, and body, then turned off the water.
"The water doesn't flood the room?" he asked.
She grabbed a threadbare towel from a small pile on a rock in the corner and dried herself with it. "The floor's not even, and there are small gullies in the rock that run beneath the walls."
"How long have the Mage lived in this place?"
"Since the last war with the Ferals."
The war that came to a head with the Mage's capture of three newly marked Ferals - 1738. After Lyon captured nearly a dozen Mage sorcerers and sentinels, and killed their high leader, the Elemental, he'd demanded peace. And gotten it. For 270-plus years, the two races had lived in strained harmony, basically ignoring one another. A cold war that was cold no longer.