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Defiance rising, p.8
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       Defiance Rising, p.8

           Amy Miles
 
SEVEN

  I sense the blade at my throat before I actually feel the pressure of it against my flesh. “Halt!”

  A smile crosses my face a split second before I shove my elbow back into the hard abdomen of the guy behind me. He grunts and drops his blade. “Holy crap, Illyria. What’d you do that for?”

  I spin and shove Eamon back onto the ground, laughing as he clutches his bruised stomach. “You started it.”

  He rolls onto his side, his threadbare jacket soaking up the thin layer of snow that fell on the mountain overnight. “You knew it was me?”

  “Of course I did.” Offering my hand to help him up, I wince as he pulls against my arm. I feel fresh blood spread along my side and work to keep the pain from my face. If Eamon discovers that I’m injured, he will tear down the entire City looking for the guy who hurt me.

  Eamon brushes himself off before stepping back, his frown already deeply set in place. I drop my gaze. “I’d ask where you went but I’d be a fool not to know.”

  I peek up at him through locks of grimy hair. I stumbled a few times on my way up the mountain, adding a couple clumps of mud and decaying leaves to the gnarled mess. Normally I can hold my own against our leader, Toren, on the steep slopes, and that’s saying a lot considering he’s the fastest runner I know, but I’m bone weary today. “I was right.”

  Eamon’s lips settle into a deep frown. “What do you mean?”

  “I mean those tremors were being caused by the Caldonians. I found the source.”

  He jerks his head toward the City in the distance, nestled in the valley about a three hour hike below. “I assume by the looks of you that you had something to do with that light show last night.”

  I wince as his gaze falls over the shredded remains of my shirt. I can only imagine what he must be thinking right now. “Maybe.”

  A growl rises from his throat as he snatches my arm and pulls me against his chest in a bone-crushing hug. “Do you have any idea how worried I was? Toren ordered me to be restrained so I didn’t go after you.”

  I’m used to Eamon’s admonishments. He’s always felt like he had to protect me, from other guys, from predators in the woods and from myself. “I had to know if I was right.”

  His breathing is heavy, weighted with an anger that amplifies his unique eyes. Eamon’s eyes have always fascinated me. Although everyone considers his eye color to be hazel, it looks like splashes of gold to me. Sometimes, on a warm summer’s night, I almost think I can see light reflected in them, but today I can’t bear to see the hurt I know lies within.

  “You should have told me. I would’ve gone with you, protected you.”

  “I didn’t want to put you in danger,” I whisper, struggling to look at him. Of course Eamon would’ve wanted to go with me but I don’t regret my decision. One person sneaking into the City was hard enough. Two would have been dangerous.

  His strong hands grip around my arms. “You know I would have been there for you.”

  He pulls my face to his chest, cradling me as if I were a child. I close my eyes and cling to him, indebted to him for his sacrificial love. It is a constant, something I can rely on, even when it’s infuriatingly restrictive.

  His lips press against the crown of my head. “I can’t lose you.”

  “You won’t.” I step back out of his grasp. With the noonday light streaming down through his thick mop of curls, he almost looks like an angel, minus the allergen inducing feathered wings and golden halo.

  A rebellious smirk tugs at my lips. “I’ve got something for you.”

  He holds his frown for a second longer before he succumbs to my charm. “Fine, change the subject, but I’m not letting this slide, missy.”

  “Yes, sir!” I offer a mock salute that dissolves his anger entirely. I crouch down and rifle through the sack Bastien left for me.

  Upon earlier examination, I was confused by the various shaped boxes and canisters within the sack, but I quickly realized that Bastien shared his supplies with me. Inside are various medicines and bandages that we desperately need, two boxes of ammo that I’m sure will fit one of the sniper rifles Toren has hidden away, and food. Lots of food. Most of the food I can’t pronounce but I can tell by the pictures that it’s edible.

  “What’s that you have?” Eamon’s brow rises with interest as I hold out a dull red can with a flip top.

  “Just pull that tab and take a swig.” I grin and lean back against a tree as Eamon fumbles with the tab.

  “Oh bugger,” he grumbles as the thin metal snaps off completely and brown foam spills over his hand. His eyes narrow at me as he searches for any obvious signs of mischief on my part, which are, of course written plainly on my face.

  “Just drink it.”

  He shakes off the foam and downs a big gulp. He comes up spluttering, red in the face, as he gags on the bubbles. I laugh until my sides ache and I’m forced to taper off into a chuckle.

  “Urgh,” he groans, tossing the can out into the woods. “What is that stuff?”

  “It’s called soda. I’ve been told it’s very good.”

  Eamon’s gaze sharpens. “Who says?”

  I wince and clamp down on my tongue.

  “Illyria?” He steps toward me, his voice low and dangerous. I know this voice. It’s the one he uses every time we’re on a hunt and I get too close to a mountain lion or wolf. “What aren’t you telling me?”

  I sidestep him and gather the bag over my shoulder, but Eamon motions for me to hand it over. I agree although normally I would protest, insisting that I’m just as strong as he is. His eyes narrow as I easily consent to his help, but he remains silent.

  “I’ll explain everything when we speak with Toren. Is he here?”

  “Yeah. He’s waiting for you.” Every muscle in his body tenses as he stares out toward the City. It looks so innocent from this distance, a lifeless husk buried within a mass of broken glass and twisted metal, but I now know how deceiving this view can be. I know what lies within the depths of that place now. “Were you followed?”

  “No,” I shake my head, knowing I did everything I could to keep my exit from the city a secret. I doubled back three times just to make sure no one was on my trail, but I never sensed anyone, or heard evidence that I was followed. I was alone when I left. “But the Caldonians are coming. Soon.”

  I skim my fingers along the familiar damp stone of the cave entrance as I duck under Eamon’s arm. Once I’m inside, he replaces the blackberry bush over the tunnel. Shafts of daylight filter through its numerous tangled branches, lighting the narrow space. During the summer, it offers better protective cover from peering eyes but, for now, it’s the best we can manage with winter knocking at our back door.

  There are miles of tunnels within this mountain. Most of them have been left to darkness due to lack of use or supplies for torches. We only light the tunnels that we use daily. The others we must learn by feel; this tunnel is one of those.

  Although I know this trail well, Eamon leads the way. It weaves through the earth, carving a path past countless off shoots and dead ends. One wrong turn and we would be lost for hours, but Eamon and I push ahead with complete confidence.

  Our destination is the Temple. Aminah thought it a fitting title because of the odd altar-like stone in the center of the cavernous room we use for daily activities. Although she was only four when she named the space, the term has stuck ever since. I think the adults relented to the change to allow us to make the cave our own. As odd as it sounds, I’m glad they let the title stand.

  The Temple is our gathering place for meals, songs and lessons. Once you hit your teen years, you get the pleasure of joining into the courting session. I find them to be both awkward and unbearable, especially when done around so many nosy kids.

  My friends, Aminah and Toren, were always so natural at courting, probably because they never had eyes for anyone else. I envy them for it
. They never had to bumble through first kiss attempts that ended with a black eye for the guy and me sent to my bed without dinner.

  But the Temple holds fond memories as well. It is where I learned to wield a knife and think like a predator. To be honest, I’m surprised any guy had the nerve to try to touch my backside after seeing me train from hours on end with my daggers.

  The domed space has four exits, located pretty much even with the cardinal points on a map. Each leads to a series of smaller rooms──cave closets, as Zahra likes to call them. For a girl whose only goal in life is to capture the heart of a future mate, I can see why this would be her first thought. Although we maintain a small stock of clothing, somehow Zahra manages to look stunning even in the rattiest of clothes.

  Another wing I avoid is the children’s area. I have no desire to attend to small children, whose noses always run and stomachs are always empty. I don’t have the patience for whining.

  My mother was probably right when she said I will be a terrible mom someday.

  I refuse to enter one other place──the compost collector. Some people may prefer to do everything within the safety of the cave, but there are some things I prefer leaving behind in the woods.

  Makeshift torches are propped against the wall, leading us the final fifty feet into the Temple. My legs are weary and my side wounds sting. All I want is to veer off toward the Cascades for a refreshing bath and then head straight to bed, but Eamon reaches back for my hand and tugs me forward.

  How does he always know when I want to run away? I grumble silently.

  “We’re home!” Eamon shouts as he steps into the well-lit room. I groan at his attempt to make the little kids smile but can’t help love him even more for it. Although I have a serious aversion to small children, Eamon dotes on each of them as if they were his own. Someday he will be a wonderful father…if he lives that long.

  Toren looks up from the map he’s studying atop the altar-like table and waves us over. I can tell by the look on his face that my absence caused quite a stir last night. I hang my head low and follow Eamon’s lead, knowing a stern reprimand is waiting for me.

  Eamon’s hand is tugged out of mine as a flash of golden blonde slips in between us and wiggles close to his side. Zahra grabs my sack from his shoulder and tosses it carelessly to the ground. “I’m so glad you’re back, Eamon.”

  I roll my eyes and dip low to retrieve my supplies, grateful not to have to watch Zahra fawn over Eamon. She does it every night we return from a hunt. Most nights I can hardly stomach watching her paw over him.

  When Eamon looks back down at me, I turn to the side and gag on my finger. He laughs as Zahra shoots an icy glare at me before turning her simpering smile back to him. “Think you can help me in the kitchen? I’m making your favorite-Roasted rabbit.”

  I nearly applaud at his hesitation. “I’ll be there in a few minutes. I think Illyria brought back some supplies with her. Why don’t you take those to the pantry for us?”

  Her scowl would bother me if I had the slightest inclination to care, which I don’t. I didn’t lay claim on Eamon. It was the other way around.

  Aminah waves at me from the far side of the room. Although I can tell she’s happy to see me alive, I know by the droop in her slender shoulders that my absence hurt her. Her auburn curls hang over her face, but I can see the puffiness under her eyes, evidence of a long night spent crying.

  I wince and turn my back on her, sure that I’m about to hear all about it from Toren.

  “Have fun?” He asks, rounding the stone table. He crosses his arms over his chest, and although I know it’s his most intimidating pose, he struggles to carry it off like Eamon does.

  “I wouldn’t call it fun,” I grimace, cupping the dried blood on my right side. Toren’s gaze flits down and hardens at the sight of my wounds, barely hidden behind the scraps of my shirt.

  He sighs and runs his fingers through his wavy chestnut hair. He keeps it short so his curls don’t take over, but it’s been a while since he had a decent trim. “Are you hurt?”

  “Not really.” I absently rub my chest, trying not to think of how differently last night could have gone for me.

  “Hey! What’s that?”

  I turn to find Eamon peering down at my chest. I bristle and realize just how low my torn collar really goes. “Well if you have to ask-”

  He snorts and pulls the tattered collar of my shirt to the side, exposing a larger amount of my chest than I would like. His finger brushes over my flesh and I struggle to hide my shiver. No one has ever touched me like that before. Even though it’s hardly risqué, I’ve always kept a pretty strict no touch policy with all of the guys in the commune.

  “Where did you get this?” He whispers, tracing the raw flesh with his thumb.

  I tuck my chin and try to see what he’s looking at. Whatever it is, I can see his concern mirrored in Toren’s eyes. They exchange a glance as I shove Eamon’s hand away. “It’s nothing. Just a burn I got last night.”

  “That’s no burn,” Zahra says, sounding thoroughly bored with the topic as she appears next to Eamon.

  Toren ignores Zahra, staring hard at me. I flinch under his gaze. He normally doesn’t try to lord his authority over me but I can tell he’s about to question me. “Where did you get that mark?”

  “What the heck are you talking about?” I cry.

  Aminah’s feet whisper across the Temple floor as she ushers a small group of children out of the room. Several of them pause at the doorway, peering curiously back at me. I bite my lower lip, scolding myself for my outburst. There’s no sense upsetting them with trivial things like a burn.

  When Aminah returns she pushes past Toren to stand before me. “You can’t see it, can you?”

  “See what?” I try to hide my frustration, but it’s hard. I’m too tired to be polite right now.

  She reaches out and peels back my shirt, her eyes narrowing with concern. Eamon peeks over her shoulder and I’m struck yet again with self-consciousness. He chuckles as Zahra smacks his arm. “What? I’m just concerned is all.”

  My cheeks burn with embarrassment as Toren leans in for closer inspection. “Really? Am I a sideshow act or something? This is a bit personal, ya know,” I snap.

  Toren blinks and looks to Aminah, who smiles kindly. “Sorry, he doesn’t always think about girls like that.”

  “Well, he should,” I reply, turning away from Eamon and Toren. Zahra rolls her eyes and steps between us as a shield. I have no doubt this gesture isn’t done for my benefit.

  Her bright green eyes lock onto mine. “I’ll tell you what it is so everyone can stop gawking at your…chest.”

  Zahra sports a haughty smirk as she forces out the final word. I roll my eyes. I’m way past caring about her petty jokes. Yes, I’m aware of the fact that I didn’t develop quite as much as she did, but at least I can fit my hips through the narrow passage leading to the waterfall without having to turn sideways.

  “It looks like a throne bush, rooted right over your heart and vining out. Sort of like that tattoo Bran used to have.”

  I remember Bran. He died when I was about seven years old. Mom said his tattoos were from before the Assault, when people imbedded ink into their flesh…on purpose. I never could understand the desire to do that. I only saw Bran shirtless a couple times but I distinctly remember a vining, scroll-like tattoo that decorated his shoulder and ran down the center of his back. He had other markings but none so fierce or memorable. In its own way, I found the tattoo to be beautiful.

  “How is that possible?” I ask, pulling my shirt down so far I’m sure if Zahra hadn’t been standing there I would have given the guys a real eyeful.

  Aminah watches me, her doe eyes far too insightful for my liking. “You have no idea how this happened?”

  I can tell by the edge to her voice that she’s suspicious. I know if I try to speak that she
will see through my poorly veiled lie so I opt for a shrug. It pulls the wounded flesh taut but I refuse the urge to grimace.

  Zahra steps back as I cover myself and tucks into Eamon’s side, completing our dysfunctional circle.

  “I think it’s time to tell us what happened last night.” All eyes are on me as Toren waits for my response to his request, but mine are firmly planted on the floor. I clear my throat, my thoughts scattered as I rush to create a highly edited version of events.

 
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