Terror is a devastating emotion to feel for an extended period of time. It devours hope and forces death scenarios into one's head with breathtaking vividness. But the real desolation isn't so much the prospect of being killed but the possibility of losing a future with loved ones. That, for Doctor Harlan Theron, was a far worse fate than any beatings or torture her kidnappers could inflict.
Harlan estimated that she and her AEssyrian captors had been on this muddy trail for at least twenty-four hours with only a few short stops. They'd ridden through the rainy night and into the balmy day without making camp, passing nameless towns and destitute villages that reeked with the stench of poverty and decay. On and on they rode, through the narrow mountain passes and shallow rivers with only her fear to occupy the time. The abrasive rope that bound her had already rubbed her wrists raw and her legs ached from the continuous riding. The images that played through her mind were made worse by not knowing why they had taken her after slaughtering everyone else. The screams and smells of the dying echoed through her memory and twisted her heart.
Nothing could make her understand why an entire town had been destroyed.
There was no war in this area and the town had nothing of value. It was as though they had taken pleasure in the desperate pain of those they murdered. Her quiet mourning then turned to the soldiers who had accompanied her to the satellite clinic. Some of them she'd known for many years and they had lost their lives defending her, had lost a future with their own loved ones. As she felt herself slipping under a blanket of sorrow she knew it was time to focus on surviving long enough to escape or be rescued. Shifting in the saddle, her mouth tightened into a painful wince as she wrung her wrists in the ropes trying to work in a little slack.
Sulla, the criminal leader of this band of thugs, rode up alongside her and she immediately stilled her hands. He was a young male, probably around two hundred years old, but still remarkably large. Harlan guessed him at about two hundred and fifty pounds. He had three diagonal scars marring his face that looked to be trident marks. One ran along his forehead to his jaw, one past his cheekbone and along the rise of his nose, and a shorter one on his chin. His metallic green eyes looked dull from inadequate nutrition as was common in these poor rural parts of the planet.
"We need to stop so I can relieve myself," Harlan complained to him in AEssyrian.
Sulla squinted off at the trail ahead. "One more hour," he replied.
"No," she said, making sure to keep her voice firm. "I can't wait another hour. I need to go now."
Sulla barked an order to stop. The males up ahead reined up their mounts, looking back at them with vague curiosity. You'd think they'd be getting used to Harlan's breaks. Although Sulla had resisted the stops at first, Harlan concocted a story about human female physiology and the necessity of relief every few hours or the potential for illness. She was sure it was much more detailed information than he ever wanted to know and finally he relented.
Grabbing her hyperia's bridle, Sulla escorted her to a small clearing of trees and dismounted. Carefully she slid down the side of her mount and almost fell from the stiffness in her legs. Once she had regained her balance she turned holding her hands out to him. He unbound her wrists laying the short length of rope over the front of his saddle. Then he took a few steps back and watched her. Mild disgust oozed throughout her stomach making her nauseous. He is not standing here watching me go to the bathroom.
"Turn around," she said, pointing at him and twirling her finger in a circle.
A full-grown bull male would have been outraged at the way she was speaking to him, but Sulla was still young and apparently inexperienced in hostage taking. He gave a quick snort and turned his back to her. Harlan quickly tended to her business with as much privacy as she could expect. Pulling up her shorts, she buttoned them and pulled a few threads from the cargo pockets dropping them on the ground. Her lips were dry and tacky from the slight dehydration she was experiencing. Her captors were not depriving her of water, she was purposely limiting her intake. Since her bathroom breaks were somewhat infrequent she wanted her urine to be as concentrated as possible to help Gavin track her. Thankfully these criminals were too stupid to realize what she was doing. Any experienced soldier, mercenary or bounty hunter would have caught on to her little trail marking routine immediately and put a stop to it.
While Sulla's back was turned she leaned against one of the trees and wiped the sweat from her palms down the craggy bark before he turned around again. AEssyrians had an outstanding sense of smell; anyone following them would surely pick up the many scent markings she'd been leaving all along her journey. She had also dropped every item contained in her pockets along the way, including a few pens, some bandage strips, a thermometer and a small tube of antiseptic salve. All she had left to mark her trail now were bits of thread from her clothes, strands of hair from her head, and blood, sweat and urine from her body.
There was no doubt in her mind that her husband, General Gavin Theron, was coming for her. He was an obsessively territorial bull male and the kidnapping of his wife would be intolerable to him. She also knew he loved her with a desperation that bordered on madness. For a second she almost felt sorry for these criminals but when she thought about the carnage that they had left in Sanguar the feeling passed quickly.
Sulla mounted back up on his hyperia and roughly grabbed her upper arm. With little regard to how much force he was using he yanked Harlan up off her feet and dropped her into the saddle of the mottled gray hyperia that had been toting her around. Harlan cried out and viciously pulled at his fingers with her other hand until his grip was gone. The hyperia, agitated by the commotion, tried to bite him and got an angry right cross for its trouble. It shook its head a few times and hissed at the AEssyrian. Sulla ignored the beast and picked up the length of rope to tie Harlan's hands again. "Is that really necessary?" she asked. "Where am I going to go? I don't even have any idea where we are."
He seemed to consider this for a moment then left her hands free. It was a minor mercy she greatly appreciated. They rode back to the group and continued their journey. She had given up asking where they were going since, thus far, all her inquiries were met with silence. Harlan's thoughts returned to Gavin. If there was ever a man she wanted on her side, it was her ruthless husband. It gave her comfort to know that he was hunting for her. That realization was made all the more convincing since he'd rescued her from touchy situations in the past. She recalled back when Emperor Megolyth was little more than the leader of a band of wandering marauders. Gavin had risked war to persuade him to release her after she'd foolishly ridden out to their encampment and was taken prisoner.
Gavin was an interesting study in the hidden darkness of a man's soul. Born in a whorehouse to a human prostitute, he'd grown up in the back alleys of AEssyrian society. He trained himself to fight and struggled through the military ranks until he'd achieve what few men in his position could dream of: a generalship. But the very thing that made him such a successful soldier made him a despicable mate. He was a brute and a bully to the women in his life and the military always came first. He was also a notorious drunkard and an unrepentant womanizer. Because of these vices, and so many others, he floundered from one failed relationship to another.
Harlan met him while working a short medical contract on AEssyria. She smiled as she recalled how much she'd hated him. He was everything a sane woman avoided in a man: loud; arrogant; aggressive, and proud to a fault. Not to mention a little bit crazy. He pursued her for two years, forcing himself into her life to the point where he'd even physically prevented her from leaving the planet to escape him.
But then something extraordinary happened.
Through all his bad manners and annoying meddling he'd shown her the man he really was. Not the hulking evil general everyone else saw, but the man he would have been had it not been for all those demons of his past that haunted his mind. He bared his soul to her and vowed his love, and as much as she didn't want to believe him, she did. That's when he had her. And now, in the company of these ruthless murdering punks, it was clear to her that he was her best hope. Because the only thing that she knew for sure, the only thing that helped her keep her sanity, was the knowledge that her husband was coming for her. And he wouldn't stop until he had her back, dead or alive. And if these scumbags ended up killing her, Harlan knew Gavin would give new meaning to the phrase "a fate worse than death".