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Immortal Favors

IMMORTAL FAVORS BY LANETTE CURINGTON

The story of Megatima and Axion.

A damsel in distress… A woodsman in obscurity…
Love awakens with the granting of…
Immortal Favors

Megatima escapes from the men who kidnapped her. Now stranded far from home, Meg runs into a handsome, solitary man who seems reluctant to help.

In the past, Axion has assisted others with disastrous results. His desire to aid the young woman lost in the woods battles with the knowledge of what can happen when he interferes with fate.

Coming in 2012 from Silver Heart Books.

EXCERPT

Chapter I

Megatima ran through the woods, away from the faint rustling she’d heard while cowering in a clump of brush. Whip-thin branches scratched her skin and tore her clothes, and a stitch drove a sharp pain into her side with every pounding step. She didn’t stop until a split root caught her sandal and and sent her hurtling toward a tree. She managed to break her fall against it without cracking her head.

Before she could take her next gasp of air, an arrow slammed into the trunk less than a hand span from her shoulder and caught the long, brown strands of her hair that had tangled in the gnarled bark. Meg would have screamed if she’d had the breath to do so.

“Who goes there?” a man’s voice called from the other side of a thorny thicket.

Panic flooded her senses. They’ve found me! No! No! I won’t go back, I won’t! Meg pushed away, but the arrowhead held her hair fast, causing pain to ripple through her scalp. Dry sobs hitching her chest, she snatched at the strands until they broke free and left a hank of hair ends pinned to the tree.

When she whirled around with the intention of retrieving her sandal before racing away, she ran into something else as hard and solid as the tree, the collision jarring her from head to toe. Hands took hold of her shoulders in a firm but unhurtful grip. Still seized by hysterical fear, she struggled against him.

Let me go I won’t go back let me go!” The words came out in one long, unintelligible shriek as she pummeled his chest with her fists.

The man loosened his hold on her abruptly and stepped back.

Unprepared for the shift in balance, Meg fell hard, landing on her backside and jolting every ache and pain she’d suffered since her ordeal began. Tears welled up, burning the backs of her eyes, but she was determined not to cry. She pressed her lips together to keep them from trembling and glared up at her captor.

Blinking to clear her vision of unshed tears, she looked him over twice. She didn’t recognize this man with long black hair and sharp gray eyes. He wore tight leggings over long legs and short, heavy boots. A sleeveless chamois tunic, laced with matching string, accentuated the hard muscles in his arms. A quiver strap ran diagonally over his broad chest one way with a bow strap crossing it in the other. A water skin, knife scabbard, and small bag hung from the leathern girt at his waist. She licked her lips because she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since early morn.

“I was tracking a stag,” he said and stepped around her. Yanking his arrow from the tree, he seemed to watch her hair float to the ground, but said nothing about it. He slid the shaft into the quiver on his back and turned to her again. “When you came crashing through, he darted off in another direction. I missed him, but nearly hit you.”

She probably should apologize for interrupting his hunt, but then he hadn’t said he was sorry for almost shooting her. She decided they were even on that score. Besides, she didn’t know if she’d stumbled from the pot into the pyre, trading one unsafe situation for another. This man didn’t act too friendly. Her captors hadn’t ravished her, but she had no idea what this man would or would not do.

Suddenly, he squatted beside her, his long thighs creating a deep cleft she could have easily fit into. “Are you hurt?”

Nothing felt broken or sprained, but everything felt scratched or bruised. She shook her head and pulled the skirt of her dirty, tattered chiton down over her knees.

He unhooked the water skin from his side, pulled the cork free, and handed it to her.

Smiling her thanks, she took it and drank greedily.

A frown caused his brow to furrow. “Can you speak?”

When she finished drinking, she wiped her mouth. “Yes. Thank you.”

His forehead smoothed as he stoppered the skin and hung it at his side again. Rising, he held out his hand as an offer to help her to stand.

No longer stricken by blind panic, she sensed his great power and strength the instant she touched him this time. Her hand slid across the calluses on his long fingers and large, square palm. This man worked hard at manual labor, whatever he did. It surprised her how gentle his grasp as he pulled her to her feet.

Without another word, he walked past her.

Meg turned to see where he was going and what he meant to do, but he didn’t stop. He continued walking in the same direction in which she’d been running until he disappeared amidst the trees. He never slowed and never looked back.

Fear of her captors now finding her wracked her nerves again. Her heart hammered and her breathing quickened. She couldn’t believe the man would leave her here alone, disheveled, obviously lost, and scared of someone.

“Wait!” she called out. She ran back the way she’d come until she found her sandal. Snatching it up, she hastened after him. “Wait for me!”

She searched for movement or a flash of color and listened for the rustle of a branch or snap of a twig—anything to give away his location. After a long time, she hadn’t seen or heard a thing and thought she might be going in circles.

Throwing pride aside and stomping it, she screamed as loud as she could, “Please help me! I’m lost and they’re after me!

He suddenly appeared from behind a tree, just a few paces in front of her, but it was almost as if he’d materialized out of thin air. Meg gasped and took a step back, thinking for the smallest part of one moment he might be one of her captors. He scowled, but almost immediately his brow relaxed as if he realized he’d startled her. Then he merely turned on his heel and followed the clearest way amongst the maze of trees.

When he didn’t disappear again, Meg went after him, keeping him in sight until she caught up with him. She had to walk quickly to match his long-strided gait. After a time, she noticed she didn’t have to walk as fast. The man had slowed enough so she didn’t have to almost-run to remain at his side. While they walked, she looked over her sandal, but it was almost useless. The sharp edges of the root had nearly ripped it apart. Several loops that held the lacing were torn so that there was no way to keep it on her foot. The lacing itself was broken.

“Oh, it’s ruined,” she mumbled out loud while trying to tie the ends of the lacing together, but she didn’t have enough hands.

Just as she decided to wedge the sandal under her arm to hold it and leave her hands free, the man stopped walking and took it from her. She stopped, too, and started knotting the lace ends together.

The man took the knife from its scabbard and cut off a length of lacing from his vest. With a long, thick thorn he plucked from a nearby bush, he pushed the lace through the holes and tied it off in loops. He handed the repaired sandal to her and continued walking, but he didn’t go fast and didn’t disappear.

The work was crude but well done enough to hold for awhile. She quickly relaced it and sat on the ground to put it on. Then she ran after him and caught up to him easily.

“That’s much better. Thank you. And my sore foot thanks you,” she added, hoping to elicit a smile from him but failing. “I am grateful for all your help. And I should tell you—”

“No need for thanks,” he interrupted gruffly. “Where are you going?”

“I live near Chelone.”

He looked at her, his gray eyes narrowed. “In Laconia? You’re a long way from home. Chelone is at least two days’ walk from here.”

“I know. I—” She broke off when she saw the berry bush and ran to it. The first plump, juicy berry she popped into her mouth was the most delicious thing she’d ever tasted. She stuffed in several more and chewed delightfully. She picked as many as she could carry, but ate more than she ended up with in her hand.

“I’m sorry, but I haven’t eaten since last night,” she explained then tossed a few more into her mouth.

“My house isn’t far,” he said. He pulled the small bag from his girt and they filled it with fruit. “We’ll have these with our evening meal, too.”

Hunger pains eased for the moment, Meg nibbled on her handful as they continued their journey.

“My name is Megatima, but I’ve always been called Meg. What’s your name?”

“Axion.”

“Axion,” she repeated and frowned in contemplation. “The name sounds familiar. Perhaps I knew someone called Axion once.”

“Perhaps,” he said with a grunt. “It’s not an uncommon name.”

“I’m sure it will come to me. Chelone is a small village and not many strangers pass through. It’s on the tip of my tongue, but—”

“How did you come to be so far from home?” he asked, breaking into her thoughts.

“Oh, I should have told you sooner because they’ll be after me. I said not many strangers come through where I live, but they occasionally do. A wealthy merchant made a wrong turn and then the wheel on his wagon broke near our house. I was out picking berries and he saw me. We talked while his men repaired the wheel, and then I went home. A few hours later, he showed up and asked me to marry him!”

“Sounds like a good match with a wealthy man,” Axion commented.

“I suppose, but I barely knew him. And he was old enough to be my father. At the time, he seemed nice enough, but there was something about him I didn’t trust.”

“I take it he’s the cause of your plight.”

Meg nodded. “When I couldn’t be swayed and my mother stood firm with my answer, he left in a huff. Several days later, I’d completely forgotten about him. I was on my way to pick more berries so we’d have enough to dry and last us all winter. His men captured me and tied me up. They were taking me to his home somewhere in Achaea. The men got drunk on wine last night, and while they slept, I managed to loosen my bonds enough to escape. I’ve been running or hiding all day. I was hidden in a bush when I heard a sound and thought it was them. But it was you and your stag.”

“If they haven’t found you by now by the noise you make, they likely won’t,” he observed.

She looked at him sharply, but there was no disparagement in the remark or in the expression on his face. Only the bare truth, she thought dryly. He didn’t seem to be one for teasing and laughter.

“Well, it doesn’t take silent stealth to hunt down berries and herbs,” she said with a laugh. “My mother and I bake bread and pies to trade in the village for the things we need such as meat and leather. My father died while out hunting when I was too young to remember him. He had fallen in a ravine, and it was days later when he was found.”

They came to the bank of a small stream just then and stopped.

“I live on the other side,” Axion told her.

“Oh, yes, I see a well-worn path over there. Does it lead to your house?”

He nodded.

“Then I think I should go downstream a ways and wash up. I know I must look awful. I haven’t even been able to comb my hair in three days.” She bit her lip, hesitating. She didn’t want him to think she was unnecessarily fearful, but she didn’t want to take any chances either. “Do you really think they’ve given up looking for me?”

“There’s no way to know for sure, but I can stay nearby if you like,” he offered sincerely.

Conscious of her berry-stained lips, she smiled at him anyway. “Thank you, Axion. I’d feel much better if you did. I won’t be long.”

Bone-tired, sore all over, and still hungry, Meg hastened along the bank of the stream until it curved a bit and she could no longer see Axion. She undressed, but from the first step into the cold, clear water, her teeth chattered. The water wasn’t deep enough to dive in, so she found a sandy spot on the bottom and sat down, dunking her head. When she came up, she clamped her lips shut to suppress a scream because she knew it would make Axion come running. She didn’t want to irritate him further after he’d been so helpful.

Or maybe she didn’t want him to see her like this, looking like a drenched dog with straggled and matted fur. Jaws clenched, she dipped her head again and used her fingers to loosen the snarls and tangles in her long hair. Reaching for the bank, she grabbed handsful of dried grass and moss and scrubbed herself clean. She finally could stand the cold no longer and stood, making her way to a sun-warmed rock. Leaning against it, she used more grass and moss to dry off. She squeezed as much water from her hair as she could then braided it into one long rope over her shoulder.

Making a face, she picked up her soiled and torn chiton and hated the thought of putting it on again. With a heavy sigh, she dressed again. Her only other choice was to return to Axion wearing nothing but her sandals and a smile. She giggled at th thought, but decided Axion woul dremain as nonplussed over the sight as anything else he’d encountered that afternoon.

After fastening her sandals, she went back the way she’d come but much slower this time. Relatively clean and full of berries, she stifled a yawn, ready for a long nap in the sun.

“I hope I didn’t keep you too long,” she said and rubbed her arms to warm them. “The water was nice but cold.”

Before she could say another word, he’d swept her up into his arms as easily as scooping up a puppy.

“Oh!” The sound escaped her in surprise, and her arms automatically went around his neck.

“I’ll carry you across so you won’t get wet and cold again,” he murmured thickly, a different timber in his voice from the somewhat gruff tone he’d used since she met him.

She laced her fingers together on top of his broad shoulder and held close to him though she had no fear he’d drop her.

He splashed in the water only a little bit as he went from one stepping stone to another. The stream wasn’t very deep here either, but it was wide. The trip across seemed to take forever.

Meg rested her head in the crook of his neck, and her heavy eyelids closed. He smelled like sunshine and fresh grass, she thought efore she slipped into darkness.

The next thing she knew, she was being laid on a somewhat lumpy mattress. She opened her eyes to find axion kneeling beside the bed where she lay.

“I tried not to wake you,” he said apologetically.

The urge to touch him again came upon her suddenly, and she reached up to run her fingertips over his stubbled cheek. The whisker ends tickled the tips of her fingers before he abruptly pulled away and stood.

Meg sat up. “It’s all right. As sleepy as I am, I’m hungrier.”

“There won’t be fresh venison for our meal,” Axion said, still with no trace of resentment. “I don’t think you’d last long enough for it to cook anyway. I have a good store of dried meat and fish and half a loaf of bread that hasn’t gone stale yet.”

While he pulled out the foodstuff from crude shelves along the wall to her right, Meg surveyed the room. The bed she was set against the back wall, opposite the front door. In the center of the left wall was a small stone fireplace, and over it, resting on hooks embedded between stones, hung a large sword. A table and several stools stood in the middle of the room. A chest, probably holding his clothes, sat at the foot of the bed. The floor was smooth, hard-packed earth. Everything was clean and tidy.

Meg moved from the bed to the table as he set two wooden cups next to two wooden bowls and poured water from a pitcher. They ate in silence. She could barely keep her eyes open, but the dried fare and more fresh berries was good and filling. Axion finished before her and laid a small fire in the fireplace, carefully feeding it wood from a stack against the wall in the near corner.

By the time she’d eaten her last berry, it was all she could do to stay awake.

“I should help you clean up,” she said through a yawn, “but I’d probably drop everything.”

“There’s not much to do.” Axion moved to the foot of the bed and opened the chest. “Here’s a clean tunic and pair of leggings for you to wear. I’ll leave them here on the bed. I’m going out for a while, and I’ll clean up when I return.”

“Thank you,” she tried to say, but he’d already gone out the door and shut it behind him.

Meg yawned again and removed her sandals. She was glad to take off the chiton and let it drop to the floor. She tunic was much too large, it’s uneven tail nearly reaching her knees and the sleeves covering her hands. She didn’t bother rolling them up, just dropped into the bed, dragged a woven coverlet over her, and fell asleep almost instantly.

Coming in 2011 from Silver Heart Books.

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