Silently, the boots shifted in the underbrush, fitted boots of soft sueded leather dyed blue-green, the signature of the Jenri Clan. Layla crouched, eyes on the tall iron gate several hundred yards before her, her senses fully alert.
Here, at the eastern gate, she was downwind, good for surveillance, but they would guard this gate the most heavily for exactly that reason. They knew she was Jenri. The blood of hunters and huntresses ran in her veins.
She knelt soundlessly to wait for dark, the hem of her soft leather tunic just touching the ground. Her belt scabbard and trappings were all of the same Jenri color as her boots. Her silver headband was studded with aquamarines and disappeared into her thick brown hair with its Jenri streak of red. More aquamarines hung at her throat, now as always, the sign of her Clan. But her tunic was dyed the darkest of royal purples, her husband's color. It was for him that she came.
She breathed in deeply. She detected horses inside. There were dogs as well. The dogs would be no problem, she thought, smiling, fingering the rounded gems at her neck.
As the shadows lengthened, she became a shadow herself, another purple shape in the underbrush. In the shade of a tower, she scaled the smooth wall of the castle unnoticed, unheard. As she reached the top, she mouthed words soundlessly. Her necklace glowed as if in moonlight though she sat in shadow.
Unhurriedly, she unslung her bow and laid half a dozen arrows on the wall-top next to her. Only a moment later, she heard the consternation of the guards as they tried to waken watchdogs that had fallen suddenly asleep. Using only the noise they made to guide her, she shot unerringly, silently, each arrow leaving the bow before the previous had struck. Four arrows found their marks and then there was silence. There were archers among her ancestors after all.
As quietly as she had scaled the outside, she climbed down the inner wall and slipped into the castle, senses fully alert to all around her. As she descended toward the dungeons, she heard the snores of the prison guard long before she was close enough to silence him with her crystal-tipped knife. The body slid noiselessly to the ground and there was no blood on the floor around it, no blood on her. Some of her ancestors had been assassins.
She found him at the end of a prison hall, bathed in the red glow of a smoke-blackened fireplace. There was no need for a cell. Thick chains attached to manacles on his lower and upper arms, his thighs and ankles, to the thick collar around his neck and a wide band around his waist. They had taken no chances. He was the mate of a Jenri warrior. It was well known that only a man who could best such a woman in unarmed combat could be her mate. That made him dangerous. That made him valuable.
"Tander . . . " The whispered word was almost a sob. Only the soft clinking of his chains indicated he'd heard her. He did not lift his head.
She moved forward, studying the defeated figure once proud, invincible. His long black locks hung, unwashed and greasy, over his face. Blood seeped in thin rivulets to show where he had struggled against his chains, but he was not struggling now. They had stripped him of all but his loincloth, and she could see the lash marks on his back and shoulders.
"Tander . . . " she whispered again, reaching a hand to sweep back his hair and caress his cheek. "Oh, my proud warrior, what have they done to you?"
"Layla__" The word was a prayer from his cracked lips. "Get out! It's a trap."
She smiled. "Of course it is, and the bait is irresistible. Do not ask a Jenri to abandon her mate. I have come for you__I will leave with you, my husband."
He raised his head at last, his startling blue eyes anguished in his brown face. "I do not deserve to be your husband. Go, before they take more from me than they already have." He stretched out a hand to touch her cheek but could not reach. "Go."
She stood on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his while his hands strained against the chains to reach her, though whether to hold her or push her away was unclear, but his lips were as hungry as hers.
"It would take more than a trap to make me leave you, Tander, and quite a trap to catch a Jenri__" She ran a finger along a lash mark and her voice hardened, "__an angry Jenri." She could see the relief in his eyes at her touch, the turquoise glow of her necklace reflected on his sweaty skin as the pain abated. There were healers in her line.
A voice behind her startled her. "Yet, I have designed just such a trap."
She spun around, her crystal-tipped dagger instantly in her hand, hearing the clank of chains behind her as Tander strained again against his bonds. She had been very careless, letting their reunion put her off-guard while they were both so vulnerable.
The man before her was only a few inches shorter than Tander, but just as broad. The silver band in his red-gold hair proclaimed his nobility. The tattoo on the bridge of his nose revealed his sorcerer status.
"You! You did this to him!" Layla's sword hummed as she pulled it from her scabbard. "Feel Jenri vengeance!"
"Hold!" the man commanded, lifting a hand that glowed red with ready magic. "Before you can kill me, I will destroy him. Perhaps you should hear me out."
Layla lowered her sword. She could cast no spell to protect Tander in time and swords were no defence against sorcery. "Speak," she spat, "but know the instant he dies, my knife will find a home in your heart."
"I don't doubt you," he said, smiling. "I wish him no harm. I only want you as my mate."
"I am taken."
"I need a Jenri to father my children."
"There are unmarried Jenri who might welcome your sorcerer blood."
"You are the strongest. Thirty men died in combat to win you . . . "
"Twenty-seven died trying to take my body," she corrected. "Only two were vanquished in marriage combat."
"No one could match you, Jenri, until Tander. That is the mother for my children."
Layla shrugged. "I am taken."
"He has beaten you in unarmed combat. I have beaten him. I claim the right to unarmed combat to win you as mate."
Layla turned her head enough to look in Tander's eyes before he bowed his head again. "Is this true, my husband?"
"I was defeated," was his toneless reply.
Layla closed her eyes to consult her truthsense, her necklace glowing dimly. "He defeated you with magic."
Tander lifted his head again to look into her eyes. "I was defeated." No excuses for defeat. Such were the laws of the Jenri.
Layla turned again to the sorcerer. "Why must you have Jenri daughters?"
The man began to laugh. "Daughters? Of what use would be daughters? I want the son of a Jenri."
"A Jenri can only bear daughters. So it has been for one hundred twelve generations. So was the spell Martoni and Lavina cast. So it is. I am of no use to you."
"Spell? 'Twas the curse of Martoni on your ancestor Lavina and all her line, and she killed him for it. But I have the spellbook of Martoni, hidden in this castle for centuries until a magician of sufficient power and skill should find it. I am that magician."
"That curse is in his book of spells__now I can counter it." He moved closer. "Just think, Jenri, you can be the first of your kind to bear sons in more than two millennia."
"I am not interested."
The magician became angry. "Hear me, woman. I have the right to combat. I, Raylee, challenge you to life with me or death for me. You cannot refuse."
She held his wild green eyes with her calm brown ones. "Such is the law. I cannot refuse."
Tander said nothing but strained violently against the manacles, drawing fresh blood, but only for a moment. Then, he bowed his head again as far as the band around his neck would allow. A single tear fell and was lost in the unkempt mane of his hair. He had failed her. He was powerless.
Without further comment, Layla stripped off her trappings. In moments, an arsenal sat piled on the floor before her: a bow and arrows, a longsword, a dagger belt with its foot-long knife and seven slender throwing daggers, a handaxe and a garotte. Only her headband, necklace and boots remained to proclaim her Jenri heritage and her purple tunic to proclaim her loyalties.
Raylee eyed her purple tunic distastefully. "Those colors do not belong to you any more."
Layla's eyebrow rose fractionally. "These colors are mine until I have reason to abandon them."
"So be it." Raylee clapped his hands, muttering. They began to glow a dull red. Layla's eyes flashed. Her lips moved silently until her necklace shone. She quickly braided her long hair. As she finished, she sprang.
But he was ready. He used her own momentum to fling her against the far wall. She twisted in mid-air and bounced off the wall feet first, flipped and landed on her feet prepared for his attack. She blocked a roundhouse kick and struck him expertly in the kidney.
Raylee retreated and eyed her warily. She returned his look with one of complete unconcern. Already, he knew he could not win this way, and she could see it angered him to be beaten in combat by a woman, even a Jenri. The glow in his hands began to throb with power. With a gesture and a murmur, she was suddenly surrounded by a cone of red.
"Now, little Jenri, see if you recognize that. It is the very spell Martoni used to defeat Lavina, the magic boundary that, when crossed, destroys what you Jenri treasure most, your womanly organs."
"Have you no spells of your own? Are you a great magician or simply a good thief?" Layla demanded scathingly.
As if she had not spoken, he said, "Now you have a choice, Jenri. You can be the first of your kind to bear a son of the first Jenri to be barren." He leered at her through the red haze. "They may even strike you from their clan, Jenri."
Layla closed her eyes and set her palms against the red field, her necklace glowing almost white with magic, then lowered her hands. There were sorcerers and sorceresses in her ancestry, but she had chosen to be a warrior. She had not the skill to counter this spell__a spell that had defeated the Jenri once before. "I yield." The words hung, dead, in the air. Another silent tear fell unnoticed into Tander's long hair.
The red cone sank to nothing. Raylee approached her, smiling. "Now you are mine, Jenri."
"I must accept you as mate. Yes."
Raylee moved against her, one arm behind her back, the other roughly forcing her face up to face his. "Mine," he whispered, raking his hand through her loosened braid.
"You have me as mate, not concubine, Raylee. The Jenri are not property. Do not take without asking." Layla's soft voice was calm, fearless . . . ominous.
Raylee yanked back Layla's hair. "Don't talk that way to me, bitch! Jenri or not, you are mine now."
"Not as slave," she replied through clenched teeth.
He slapped her. "Whatever you call yourself, Jenri, I am your master now." His hand grasped the back of her neck and then slipped to the back of her leather tunic. "These colors are not yours any more." He jerked painfully on the neck of the tunic, but the leather did not tear. He pulled the string at her back and wrenched the tunic off her shoulder. He kissed her shoulder.
"No!" She hit him on the ear, which caused him to wince, but not let go. She pushed against him but the loosened bodice hindered her.
"Layla!" Tander cried and the chains clinked again as he threw himself against them, trying to reach the struggling pair. "Layla . . . "
"Like it or not, Jenri, you belong to me," snarled Raylee. "I have already beaten you."
"Like it or not, Raylee, I am not a domestic animal to be used for breeding or entertainment. And I will lay with no man who can not address me by name!" She slammed her knee into his crotch and, as he recoiled, she put a foot against him and thrust him away.
Raylee bellowed and leapt for her, but was stopped short as he felt the tip of a slim blade beneath his chin. He swallowed but sneered, "I thought the Jenri had honor. No weapons, woman, that is the law."
"You speak to me of honor. I drew no weapon during our combat as required by law. But you earned only the right to ask for my body. It still belongs to me. And I can defend what is mine, make no mistake." A drop of blood slid down the blade.
Layla smiled unpleasantly. "Do you really think Martoni was killed because of the curse? Men are fools__uh-uh, I wouldn't try that spell you're thinking of now. I have the perfect silencer for your tongue." Another drop slid down the knife.
Her smile widened. "Why should Lavina care for the curse? His curse is the same blessing her mother gave her at birth, the one every Jenri bestows on her daughters. You didn't know that, did you?" Layla chuckled and twisted the blade slightly, bringing down another drop of blood. "Martoni was killed because he forgot the law of those who would mate free women."
Layla leaned almost into Raylee's face. "Do you, learned sorcerer, know the law of those who would mate free women?"
"No," he whispered, eyes wide with terror.
She smiled at him. "No matter how strong you are, no matter how powerful, no matter how learned, it always applies. Sometimes, you can succeed in stealing the freedom of a free woman for a moment, but . . . " Layla's eyes grew cold. "You have to sleep sometime." The blade slid upwards and entered his brain, killing him instantly.
Calmly, she wiped her hand on Raylee's tunic and then tied her bodice. She pulled another slim blade from her boot and pulled the dagger belt around her waist.
"Layla," Tander whispered, awed. "You were armed."
Layla glanced at her discarded weaponry as she picked the lock on his manacle with her knife. "Not hardly. You know I would not have drawn a weapon in marriage combat, not even to save my life. I am an honorable Jenri, Tander. But I knew, if I lost that combat, he would break the law between husband and wife__and I would kill him." Her slender blade opened the manacle and a wrist was free. Thieves, too, shared her ancestry.
"Why did you not take him to you? He was powerful and strong." His arm was free and it went to cradle her face.
"He had no respect for women, for me. I was not even a person to him, not even a name. I was a Jenri vessel to carry sons for him, a toy to be played with at whim."
Tander smiled gently. "Why have you never told me the law of those who would mate free women?"
"The Jenri rarely need to speak of it, Tander. Only a man who can respect women will mate a woman who can bear no sons. A man like that needs no incentive to treat his mate with love, no threats, no warnings." As she removed the neck band, he bent to kiss her lips__softly, reverently.
She began to work on the last two chains on his left arm. "I'm hoping you're partial to daughters, my husband." She patted her slender abdomen significantly and was rewarded with the possessive clutching of the hand on her shoulder. "'Tis why I took no chances during my fight with Raylee."
"No chances?" he asked skeptically and, now free, reached for her, but she spun out of hid grasp, her hand on her dagger belt. An instant later, a guard slid to the floor, the hilt of a throwing dagger protruding from his throat.
"We must be swift," Layla admonished, her necklace glowing as she searched for Martoni's book of spells. "Ah!"
Following her eyes, Tander saw the trunk she meant. He thrust his own piled trappings fromthe lid and wrenched it off its hinges. He took up the heavy book and threw it in the wide fireplace. As the book touched the flames, it disintegrated in a blast that threw Tander backwards.
She knelt beside him, necklace shining with healing power, but he opened his eyes immediately. Dreamily, he said, "However selfish my reasons, I'm glad I won that once. Glad I won you." His hand caressed her face.
Reaching, she found his headband of silver and amethyst and placed it on his head. She picked up his tunic of Jenri aqua and caressed it. He had taken her colors as she had taken his, out of respect. She helped him into it, half-healing lash marks with her touch. Then, she hugged her to him fiercely. "I could never have chosen anyone over you, my husband. Never." She stepped back and began to take up her weapons, smiling at him. "How else do you think you defeated me, Tander? My reasons were selfish, too."
Tander laughed as she handed him his boots, knowing she spoke only the truth.