Page 9

 C.J. Redwine

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“Let go of me.” I drive my left elbow into his stomach before I remember that I’m supposed to be acting weak and nonthreatening.
It would be a lot easier to be nonthreatening if the boy who killed Sylph and burned down my city wasn’t holding on to me as if he’d like to break me in half.
“You think you’re stronger than me? Think your precious daddy taught you every technique you need to survive an encounter with a Rowansmark tracker?” Ian’s laugh is ugly.
“You think your precious leader taught you everything you need to know to survive me?” I speak quietly, aware that Samuel is sitting a mere twenty yards away. Twisting and squirming in Ian’s arms, I pretend I’m trying to break free. The second he adjusts his grip, I slam my head backward and hear a satisfying crunch as my skull connects with his face. Pain spreads along the base of my skull in sharp throbs. I hope the pain in his face is fifty times worse.
Ian swears viciously.
“Ian?” Samuel calls from his perch on the log. “Everything okay?”
I swallow the words I want to say and let the harsh rasp of my smoke-scarred lungs as they struggle for air speak for me. Ian will never believe I’m too injured to fight, but Samuel might.
Something dark and wet drips off of Ian’s cheek and lands on my hand. I shudder and wipe my skin against my cloak before his blood can linger.
“Ian?” Samuel sounds like he’s coming closer.
Ian shakes me, his fingers biting into my arms. Dizziness joins the pain in my head, and I bite down on the urge to slam my boot into his instep. Not when Samuel is near enough to see us clearly. Instead, I let out a little whimper. When no one reacts, I whimper a little louder and add a breathy sob to the end of it. It isn’t hard. My body hurts in ways I never imagined possible.
“Stop that.” Ian shakes me again. I go limp, letting my legs give out as if I’m about to faint. Ian drops me onto the forest floor. My knees hit first, and I roll to the left so that my good arm takes the brunt of the fall. Ian shoves me with his boot. “What are you doing? Get up and fight back.”
“Enough,” Samuel says. “We need her in one piece.”
Ian kicks me in the hip, and I gasp even though what I really want to do is grab the knife from my boot and turn Ian into a eunuch. Samuel steps closer to Ian and puts a hand on his shoulder. Maybe I should cry. Most men can’t stand the sight of a girl crying.
Or maybe that would oversell the damsel-in-distress image. Especially considering the fact that Samuel already witnessed me antagonizing Ian earlier in the afternoon.
“This is between me and Rachel.” Ian sounds like he’s speaking through clenched teeth.
“No, this is between James Rowan and Logan McEntire.” Samuel’s voice is calm. “If you injure her—”
“She deserves it.”
My throat burns as I swallow the flood of bitter words I’d like to throw in Ian’s face. I deserve a lot of things. I deserve to answer for killing Melkin. I deserve to share the responsibility for failing to stop the Commander while we had the chance. I deserve to ache with guilt because if I hadn’t defied my leader, Oliver would still be alive.
But Ian deserves to die. And everything in me wants to be the one who kills him.
Samuel continues as if Ian had never interrupted him. “If you injure her too badly, her pain atonement will be considered paid in full.” His voice becomes cold. “And if she dies under our watch, and we fail to return both Logan and the controller, we won’t survive our punishments. I’m not willing to die because you hate this girl.”
No wonder Samuel cares what happens to me. He wants to save his own skin. I can appreciate that.
Ian takes a single step away from me, though his eyes glitter in the starlight as if a silver-white flame burns within them.
“Get some sleep,” Samuel says. “Both of you. We have a long day of travel tomorrow.”
“Fine.” Ian turns toward the wagon. “But I’m sleeping in here with her so she can’t try to escape.”
Oh yes, please. Please let Ian sleep in the wagon with me. The second he drifts off, I’ll slice his throat the way he sliced Donny’s while the boy stood guard over our camp in the Wasteland. My pulse pounds against my skin, and I press my lips together to keep from baring my teeth.
Samuel is quiet for a moment, and then he says, “She’ll keep watch with me or sleep beside Heidi.” The tracker looks at me. “Get up and either join me or lie by the fire. And if you even think about trying to escape under my watch, I’ll tie you to the wagon bench for the duration of the trip.” Without waiting for a response from either of us, he turns and strides across the campsite toward his log.
Slowly, I climb to my feet. My head spins, and my arm throbs in never-ending spikes of pain. I want to lie down and let darkness claim me, but that’s not an option.
“He’s not protecting you,” Ian says. For the first time since he revealed himself as the monster behind the death and destruction that followed the Baalboden survivors through the Wasteland, he sounds weary. “He’s only protecting himself. That’s all he’s good at. He’ll turn on you the second keeping you safe doesn’t guarantee his own life.” Bitterness seeps into his voice. “He won’t even protect his closest friends. Not if it means he might miss his next promotion.”
“He wouldn’t have to protect me at all if you weren’t trying so hard to hurt me.”